The Thinning Veil, part twenty-one

Welcome! Thank you for taking the time to read the latest installment in our new book. If you’re just joining us, you may prefer to start at the beginning. The Introduction, which is beneficial to understanding the story, can be found here. If you would rather jump straight into the story, click here for Chapter 1.

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Chapter 61 | Chapter 62 | Chapter 63 | Chapter 64

Chapter 61

chapter 61

After three days on the landmass, Alice and her team retrieved 57 Mer bodies, each one tagged, given a number, and placed in cold storage. The sailors from the Neptune and Winslow had finally gotten power restored so that the refrigeration units were working and a field lab set up. As her team made preliminary studies of the bodies, they were amazed by the efficiency of the skin and muscle structure as well as the advanced sonar, similar to that of ocean mammals but further reaching and several magnitudes of scale more sensitive.

Ellen’s discovery that the Mer had larynx and vocal cord construction almost identical to that of humans raised a full volume of additional questions. Did the Mer speak in what the scientists would recognize as a formal language? If they did, was the sound audible and understandable underwater? Could it be picked up and recognized by marine equipment? How would theirs differentiate from the sounds of other marine mammals? These were all questions that would fuel years of study and research unless they could find a live specimen.

Finding anything live had been impossible, though. Dr. Stoneman continued to be surprised by the lack of aquatic life on or around the landmass. Given how the odd mix of rubbish and sand had appeared suddenly in the middle of the ocean, logic dictated that some lingering signs of ocean life, either animal or vegetation or at least bacterial, should be measurable in the many samples Tori collected.  Not only had she found nothing on land, but there was also no marine life anyone could find in the surrounding water. The ocean seemed to be void of anything other than vegetation. Nothing Tori found could explain the sudden blankness in an area of the ocean that should be teeming with aquatic life. Repeatedly, she recalibrated her equipment and asked other scientists to double-check and verify her methods. No one found any errors.

Similarly, Dr. Fanshaw had committed herself to identify the mysterious element she found in the soil. Under the strong microscope they had with them, a 1000x digital setup with a 32-megapixel camera taking pictures of the slides, there was still a molecule that no one on the team recognized and it accounted for approximately thirty percent of the landmass construction. Lilly was uncharacteristically frustrated with the lack of any progress and was pushing Alice to get back to the US mainland so that she could take advantage of stronger equipment.

Alice assured her that they wouldn’t be staying on the landmass much longer. While the initial satellite images identified several more Mer bodies, they were decaying rapidly in the sun and as they did the air became more toxic. By Alice’s estimation, the gas masks would be useless within three days unless it rained. If it rained, the state of the bodies would likely diminish further, making them worthless for study. For better or worse, there were no signs of rain anywhere close, another anomaly for this time of year when warm temperatures should have fueled numerous storms and almost daily thundershowers. No matter what they were studying, nothing they had found qualified as normal. Even the ocean water was abnormal.

“We need to head back to Bethesda within the next couple of days,” Alice told Sergeant Tillerson, who she was now treating almost like a grandson had she bothered to stop long enough to have children of her own in the first place. “We’ve collected all the samples we can hold and what we’re finding is going to take a higher level of equipment and cooperation than what we have available out here. I’ve never seen anything stump all of us before, but this has done it. There are too many questions and not enough answers. We need a lot more help.”

“There’s a carrier group on its way now,” Tillerson said. “We can escort you back as soon as they get here. Shouldn’t be more than three or four days.”

“Do we really have to wait on them?” Alice asked, already impatient and frustrated with the lack of answers they were getting. “Every day we wait risks decay to some of the more fragile samples. Four more days here plus a week getting back to Bethesda could mean the loss of vital information.”

“Those are our orders, ma’am, and I’m not inclined to ask either captain to break them,” the Marine replied. “Besides, we’re going to have company tomorrow. Both Russian and French vessels should be here midday. British, German, and Spanish ships get here the day after that. We can’t leave without jeopardizing our claim to the landmass.”

Alice sighed heavily. “Look, Matt, I don’t want to get in the middle of some squabble between you kids. We’ve sailed this ocean longer than most of you have been alive. We can get back to Bethesda on our own. We’ll be fine. There’s nothing dangerous in these waters. That’s one of the problems—there’s nothing at all in these waters. There aren’t even any weather patterns causing trouble, and there should be. This the strangest situation I’ve found in any ocean and I’d just as soon get my ship and my crew out of here before something more bizarre happens or you guys start shooting at each other over what is literally a floating piece of sand and trash.”

Sergeant Tillerson folded his arms, taking a defiant posture. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean any disrespect, I think you know that. But these are orders we don’t get to question. We’re not to let you leave without us and we can’t weigh anchor until those ships get here. Please, don’t make me put ya’ll under arrest to make sure you obey those orders.”

“We’re civilians, Matt, and scientists. Not only are we not subject to military orders, even if we were we wouldn’t listen. The integrity of the science is our primary responsibility. We can’t let you or anyone else get in the way of that.”

Matt looked around to see if anyone was paying attention to their conversation, then motioned for Alice to follow him into an otherwise unoccupied supply tent. Closing the tent flap behind them, he said, “Listen, this isn’t supposed to be public knowledge, but the Winslow is tracking a group of small boats headed toward the Southeast side of the landmass. Now, we can’t send anyone around there to go check, but we’re pretty sure they’re Somali pirates looking to grab whatever they can and run. Sending a group to verify would leave us exposed here. The Germans are best equipped to deal with their nonsense but they’re almost as far out as our own group. Our best hope for the moment is that the French group spreads out enough to scare them off. If they won’t or if they don’t get here in time and the Somalis or whoever they are land first, we have no choice but to quarantine your entire team on the Neptune. We can’t risk anyone being out and getting kidnapped. The pirates would love that. They’d extort a high bounty from the US Government for an American scientist or two and I think you know Washington’s position on that situation.”

Alice nodded her head. “Yeah, we’ve been there before. The US does not negotiate with terrorists, they blow them up.” She put her hands on her hips and walked in a small circle. “Okay, so we stay away from the Southeast side of the landmass. I get that. I’ll tell the team the toxicity level on that side is too high. It’s a small enough lie I don’t expect anyone to question it. But Bethesda’s to the northwest, the opposite direction. I still don’t see why we can’t go ahead and start. We’re not that fast. You would catch up quickly and it gets us out of harm’s way.”

Sergeant Tillerson looked at the ground and sighed heavily. “Ma’am, you know I can’t divulge classified information but going northwest may be even more dangerous. I can’t tell you why, it just is.”

Alice stepped close and looked into Matt’s eyes for a moment. “I bet you got into a lot of trouble as a kid. You can’t keep secrets worth a shit. It’s something with the Russians, isn’t it? I’m guessing nuclear subs because they’re sneaky enough to try something like that.”

Sergeant Tillerson looked down sheepishly, “I can neither confirm nor deny, ma’am.”

“Right,” Alice said as she sighed yet again. “Look, Matt, we’re going to pack up and get everything ready to leave the moment your buddies arrive. The last thing we want is to get caught in the middle of some pissing match as to who gets to ‘own’ this piece of trash. It’s dangerous enough here without all this testosterone-fueled nonsense. The effectiveness of our masks is beginning to diminish. Organic matter of unknown origin is decaying. That makes staying here a health risk. I like you, Matt, but we didn’t want the military here in the first place. We need to go and we need to go quickly. Pass that message up your chain of command or whatever you’re obligated to do, but the instant I see another US ship on our horizon, we’re out of here.”

“Yes, ma’am, I understand,” Sergeant Tillerson said. “I’ll do what I can to remove as many obstacles as possible.”

Alice left the tent and walked aggressively over the jagged ground, jumped over flagged danger spots, back to the Starfish. Calling all the members of her team and crew together, Alice let them know how the conversation had gone. “Get everything packed and secure. Whatever you do, don’t wander off. We’re leaving in two days, escort or not.”

Baldnr listened carefully to every word between the humans and sent a message through the Sylphids passing nearby that they were going to need help. A few minutes later, a cool wind blew across the landmass as Bockwimen arrived with a relatively small contingent of warriors.

“Word is you’re expecting some trouble,” Bockwimen said as the two leaders met atop the tallest rise on the landmass. “Any sign of Dasheng Sen or Merric?”

“No,” Baldnr said. “All has been quiet, which on its own is bothersome. But the human scientists are preparing to leave. They have ample evidence of the Mer to take back with them. The queen’s plan has worked in that regard. What bothers me is that more humans are about to arrive in their battleships. Even if the water queen continues to keep her distance, and I doubt she will, we have seen too many times how humans fight over worthless and insignificant pieces of land. We are not enough to stop them on our own.”

“That presumes we’re going to stop them at all,” Bockwimen said. “There’s a reasonable argument to be made for letting the humans fight it out. Perhaps they might keep Dasheng Sen distracted. Let her deal with their ships and their armies.”

“Queen Apa’ii would abandon the new land, just like that? What is it we’ve been protecting?” Baldnr asked, barely holding back a growl.

Bockwimen put a hand on Baldnr’s shoulder and said, “My friend, you’ve been protecting a strategy. We do not need to land to stay in its current form forever. It is purposefully uninhabitable, which shows how foolish humans are to fight over it. It was a trap to lure Dashegn Sen away from our communities for a while and it has served that purpose. The land also allowed the humans to discover that there are magical creatures in the water. It will take them a while to accept that, even with the samples and evidence they’ve collected. They are amazingly slow to recognize anything that challenges what they see as their superiority. They will, though, take to the waters in an attempt to dominate the Mer and everyone else. Dasheng Sen then has no choice but to fight back, keeping both our human and magical enemies busy with each other while keeping the land and air communities safe.” 

“Then, what are we to do once the scientists leave?” Baldnr asked. “I have heard that there are human threats below the water that could keep them from reaching their destination.”

Bockwimen paused, looking out over the garish landmass. Doing anything to protect a ship on the water was difficult. That had always been the exclusive territory of the Hantu Air. While there were clans of Nawa’ Diyo that were friendly with water, never had they done anything that would interfere with what happens on the seas. After an uncomfortably long moment, Bockwimen said, “We will have to put magicians on the boats. That’s the only way.”

“No, it’s not,” a voice said behind him. He turned to find Amoo Amala, the council representative for the ancient Peri. “We are magicians and for many seasons, too many perhaps, we have limited our magic around humans so that they would not know we exist. I see no reason to maintain that charade now. If we want to protect what the humans have found, is not the best way to pick them up and transport them ourselves?”

Bockwimen and Baldnr looked first at each other and then back at Amoo. Her long, black hair was waving behind her in a breeze that had not been present before her arrival. Behind her stood a thousand more Peri, well-armed and ready to do whatever she asked. This was not the primary purpose for her presence, but hearing the conversation she was frustrated that the two were overlooking the most obvious solution.

“What she says makes sense,” Baldnr said. “Though, knowing this particular set of humans, I suggest a rapid transport. Start visibly floating things and some of these idiots are going to get scared and jump ship.”

“Perhaps we can do it while they sleep,” suggested Bockwimen. “They wake up somewhere different and remain unaware of how they got there.”

“That is possible with the scientists but not the military ship,” Baldnr said, “and it carried the bulk of the Mer evidence. We dare not leave them behind.”

Amoo put a hand on each of their shoulders. “How in the name of the gods have your clans managed to survive for millions of seasons,” she scolded them. “You neither one are thinking like magicians. We apparate the scientists quickly and easily then when the military ships start looking for them we push the ships through a quantum tunnel just like we did with sailors thousands of seasons ago before we decided to hide. Apa’ii has made it clear that the only reason to hold back is where it serves to preserve our own safety. Here, holding back puts the scientists and us in more danger. We do better to use aggressive magic and move quickly before Dasheng Sen has a chance to interfere, and I can promise that is about to happen.”

Bockwimen’s expression turned dark and serious. “What do you mean?” he asked, “What have you heard?”

“There was a message sent out across all Hantu Air,” Amoo said. “I’m sure Apa’ii knows and I’m surprised she didn’t tell you. Dasheng Sen has taken away all restrictions on their magic, permitting them to kill anyone, human or magic, at any time. They don’t need a reason or provocation. The water is a deadly place and the longer we are near it the more danger we are in.”

“Apa’ii didn’t send you?” Bockwimen asked.

“No, she sent me,” another voice said as Tronkit, the leader of the Faestir clan suddenly became visible. “I apologize for being slow. Apa’ii got the message seconds after you left the home tree. She says to rescue the scientists and their findings through any magical means necessary and then yourselves over land, to a place of safety. She is waiting for Dasheng Sen to make her move and will deal with the landmass herself.”

Bockwimen looked back at Amoo. “Then why are you here?” he asked. “Not that I object, but did you say you had another purpose?”

“Yes,” Amoo said, ‘though it may be secondary to our more immediate needs. There is unusual magic at work in the Arabian desert. One we’ve not seen in thousands of seasons. I was going to ask if she had dismissed Inofar or any of his clan. The magic is coming from the caves they once inhabited, though we’ve yet to actually see them.”

“They were busy around the home tree when I left,” Bockwimen said. “I saw them myself. They are having trouble adjusting to their new environment. None of them have been released to travel any distance, though. Do they have the power to project their magic?”

“They have many powers,” Amoo said, “including the ability to enslave other magicians. What you see with your own eyes is not always true with them. The queen needs to be warned.”

Bockwimen turned to Tronkit. “Return immediately to Apa’ii with this warning. She can see through the dark magic and will know what to do.” Turning back to Amoo and Baldnr, he said, “We will do as Amoo suggests and remove the scientists as soon as they are packed. Make sure we include all their materials. We can then move the military ships around when they weigh their anchors.” Looking at Baldnr, he added, “You have served the realm and the queen well. Once the scientists are gone, you are free to return to a place of safety. Extend to all Fenrir the queen’s deepest appreciation.”

Baldnr nodded then turned and howled a long, eerie how, calling the other Fenrir to him. As they assembled, he said, “Guard the scientists lightly and stay alert. Tonight, they leave and we return home.”

Baldner’s howl echoed across the landmass, reaching the coast where Alice and her team were busily packing. The sudden sound caused them all to stop what they were doing and looked up. As the sound faded away, Ellen said, “Well that was one of the most unsettling sounds I’ve ever heard.”

“I’ve been waiting for something like this,” Alice said. “From the moment we arrived I’ve known we were not alone here. We need to get everything packed and ready to leave tonight if possible. I don’t think that sound came from anything friendly.”

Baldnr was again standing next to the scientists and laughed to himself, knowing she was clueless to their purpose. He was glad to see their urgency. They would make transport easier.

Chapter 62

chapter 62

Kuhr sat alongside the lake that had most recently been her home, dangling her feet in the water. Once the battle with the troubled ones had ended, the dams were opened, allowing their water to return to their natural glacial beds. Precautions had been taken, of course, to make sure none of the water leaked down into the caverns the troubled ones had created. Despite all the precautions, none of the lakes were more than three-quarters full, making them crowded, the struggle to find natural food making the fish and other aquatic life aggressive to each other and hateful toward the Ondine, who they saw as largely to blame for the troubled ones attacking in the first place.

The peacefulness that had once surrounded these lakes was gone. Not since the advance of the white walkers had so many trees been taken down. This would be a problem when it rained, Kohr knew. Without the trees and brush, dirt and silt would begin to fill the lakes, choking out the vegetation, making the waters dark and muddy. Existing here would continue to be a struggle.

As Kuhr sat next to the water, Murj walked over and sat nearby, though not too close. She knew that Kuhr was still grieving the number of Ondine killed in the battle and angered by the fact that none of the other Hantu Air spirits had come to help. Dasheng Sen had completely ignored them. Murj sat quietly for several minutes with neither spirit speaking. At long last, as a wayward piece of driftwood floated past them, slightly disturbing the waters, Murj said, “I suppose you heard the queen’s edict.”

Kuhr nodded. Softly, she said, “Would be rather difficult to miss the way that bitch was screaming—as though we owe her something. It would have been better for us had the forbidden magic killed her.”

“Shhh,” Murj whispered. “She can still hear us.”

“And she continues to not care,” Kuhr said. “If she was paying a damn bit of attention we wouldn’t be in this situation, would we? I’ll say what I please and not be surprised when the queen fails to respond. Her edict is meaningless. There are so few humans here it is not worth hunting or breeding with them and even more wasteful to bother killing them. The only Nawa’ Diyo left are the groundlings and they are grieving as we are. They lost thousands where we lost hundreds. They have long been our friends and allies. I, for one, will not betray them now.”

“Will that be the recommendation you make to the Ondine council?” Murj asked. “They are all looking to you now for advice.”

Kuhr shook her head. “Their faith in me is misplaced. I am not one for great military planning. If I had been, so many of us would not have died.”

“Because of you, some of us survived,” said Murj. “We are not a warlike clan. Our battles have always been one-to-one with the humans and their desecration of the water. Going to war has never been a consideration before now. You are the eldest survivor and have the respect of the clan. I’ve talked with others. We will all do what you suggest.”

“What I suggest is that each one does what they must in order to survive,” Kuhr replied. “Perhaps some would do better to move southward, closer to the white settlements. The red ones up here do not make good prey or mating partners. They are smart enough to remember their tribal warning. Further South, the white walkers venture to the lake to escape the chaos of their pitiful lives. They are easy to take. We could begin replenishing our number.”

“And Dasheng Sen’s edict?” Murj asked. 

“Fuck Dasheng Sen,” Kuhr said. “I’m not transitioning to saltwater. Our water here has always been among the purest and now she wants to pollute it with salt. She is as horrid as the humans. I will not cooperate.”

“But will you fight?” Murj asked. “That is the question our sisters are asking. Do we hide or do we fight the queen?”

“I vote for fighting, or at least doing our best to defy her orders,” said Limmaedes as she strolled up and sat between the two Ondines. “I’m sorry if I’m interrupting something private. I saw you sitting here. All my sisters have left.”

“You’re fine,” Murj said. “Where did they all go?”

“South,” Limmeades said. “With the lakes far from full and the vegetation sparse, there wasn’t enough left for all of us to survive. I stayed because we made promises to some of the migratory birds. I’m questioning if they’ll return after that huge shift. 

“I think we have to stand up against Dasheng Sen. I’m tired of freshwater spirits being treated like bottom-of-the-boat lower-class citizens. She expects us to fight for her but she damn sure isn’t going to do anything to help us. She’s proven that. I’m sure my sisters agree. They were not happy leaving. We had our mourning ritual and tempers were high enough to start a riot. This ridiculous edict of hers is too much. I dare say we could get the entire continent to revolt against her if we try.”

“You’re not afraid of her hearing us and blasting us out of the water?” Murj asked.

Lemmeades shook her head. “Just because she can hear everything doesn’t mean she pays any attention to us. She stopped listening to freshwater spirits hundreds if not thousands of seasons ago. She assumes that because she is the only primordial queen that we’re all going to follow her with blind allegiance. She couldn’t be more wrong. We are all different-minded magicians. Unlike the ocean spirits, we rely on humans to breed. We rely on the Nawa’ Diyo to help keep us safe. She puts both of those out of our reach and what hope do we have? She forgets that we were all human first. We are as tied to the land as we are the water.”

“Which raises an interesting question for us,” Kuhr said. “Do we simply defy her order and try to dodge her inevitable wrath when it comes, or do we petition queen Apa’ii and change our allegiance in support of the Nawa’ Diyo?”

Murj looked over at Kuhr cautiously. “You realize just saying that out loud is treasonous.”

“Yes, I am well aware,” Kuhr said. “Report me if you think I’m wrong to raise the question. There’s no one left to accept the report.”

“I think Queen Apa’ii would be open to accepting us,” Lemmeades said, “but I worry that we would be trading the bottom of one ship for the hull of another. Would we be any better off? The Nawa’ Diyo is huge and Queen Apa’ii is not omnipotent. Her magic has its limits.”

“Apa’ii is carefully allied,” Kuhr said. “You saw who she brought to the battle. Be sure that Dasheng Sen would never ask the Aesir for any help. And then the Valkyries on top of that! What a sight that was!”

Murj leaned over and kicked at the water. “It all sounds good. Revolution always sounds good until souls start to die. Apa’ii can only protect us so much. Dasheng Sen will come after us and her vengeance knows no mercy. Do you think there are enough of us on this continent to stand up to her and survive?”

Both Kuhr and Lemmeades shook their heads. “There wasn’t enough of us to fight off the troubled ones. If it hadn’t been for the Nawa’ Diyo, we wouldn’t be sitting here,” Kuhr said.

“There never were enough of us to fight off the troubled ones,” Lemmeades said. “Dasheng Sen knew that when she picked the fight. She deliberately put us in harm’s way without any regard. If she would do that, she has no right to claim any authority over us.”

The trio sat quietly at the side of the lake, each one pondering in their minds the gravity of what they were considering. Never in the history of the world had there been such a rebellion within the magic realms. They had watched as such treachery tore apart the gods and the humans. Their concepts of loyalty were strong. There had never been anyone who dared to question Dasheng Sen’s right to rule. From a practical perspective, the thought of going against her seemed suicidal, a concept unknown in magical realms. At the same time, following her was certain to lead to the same outcome.

“There will be those who choose to remain loyal,” Murj said quietly. “The Potameides…”

“The Potameides number fewer than 300 now,” Lemmeades said. “They are in hiding and are likely to stay that way until the war is over, no matter if that takes a thousand seasons.”

“And I think we can count on the Hydriands and the Pegaeae,” Kuhr added. “We would have lost more than we did had the Hydriands not used their invisibility shield to protect us as we fled.”

“And those to the South?” Murj asked. “Our resilience comes from suffering, having had death come to our doors and steal souls away. Will those who have not known our suffering still stand by us?”

“Ours were not the only waters attacked,” Kuhr said. “There are millions of souls still trapped underground and every water spirit on this continent feels their fear and pain. Dasheng Sen has ignored all of us. Many have felt neglected. Now is the time for us to right this wrong and separate ourselves.”

“We can ask the groundlings to contact Queen Apa’ii on our behalf,” Lemmeades said.

“And we can contact other clan leaders,” Murj added. “There is no reason for us to remain where the water cannot give us life.”

“Then it is settled,” Kuhr said. “We are no longer loyal to the Hantu Air. We are free spirits and we will not abide by Dasheng Sen’s edict nor give her any assistance within our borders.”

Murj and Lemmeades nodded their agreement. As small as it might be, the rebellion had begun.

Thank You For Reading

Every morning, seven days a week, Charles is up writing. He loves it almost as much as he loves being behind a camera. The challenge is that bills aren’t being paid, there’s no income resulting from this effort. Sure, maybe someday he’ll get around to submitting the books to publishers, but editing’s a bitch and there are plenty of distractions. He could use your help. If you can, give. If you can’t, please consider sharing this book so that perhaps someone else will enjoy it and give. Thank you.

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Chapter 63

chapter 63

Valerie Cliburn arrived at the National Security Administration’s headquarters surrounded by a phalange of special agents carefully watching for the faintest hint of danger. With global communications still spotty at best, the assumption was that this was the perfect time for fringe terror groups to attack. There wasn’t a cabinet secretary or high-level director in Washington that didn’t have a large and highly visible security team assigned to them.

Director Cliburn moved quickly from her armored SUV through the maze of hallways designed specifically to confuse anyone who wasn’t supposed to be there. That the layout frequently confused those who were there every day was a side effect worth tolerating in the name of security. Valerie had anticipated Secretary Wentworth’s call and was prepared with the full analysis of every test her teams had run on both Dr. Wasserman and her strange samples. 

Valerie was not one given to fairytales. Having grown up in Harlem, the middle of five children of a single mother, often overlooked and ignored, she learned early that she had to fight for attention, and wasting that effort on foolishness and pedantic conversations were counterproductive. Her drive had taken her to Columbia University where she had majored in criminal justice reform. She had worked as an associate district attorney while applying for the FBI. Three times they rejected her application and each time she was more certain of the reason.

After the third attempt, a well-dressed woman arrived in her office with an offer from the CIA. What was a problem for the FBI was a potential asset to the spy organization struggling to infiltrate a world with changing norms and moralities. Valerie could blend in with certain groups where other agents had failed. She proved herself to be resilient and resourceful, rising as quickly as one could through an agency where political maneuverability was as important a skill as any other. 

When the president had appointed her as head of the agency three years ago, however, little was mentioned of her sparkling track record or unparalleled skill set. Instead, the media and everyone in Washington had chosen the one thing that had caused the FBI to reject her application: she was gay. Not only was she a gay black woman, but she was also married to a gay white woman in the foreign services division of the State Department. As a result, she had to work harder than had any of her predecessors. Her decisions were constantly challenged and her judgment was continually questioned. She often complained that the whole agency would be more efficient if she wasn’t constantly summoned to Capitol Hill to testify before various committees on matters of irrelevance—testimony compelled because they didn’t trust a gay black woman to lead.

Ahmend Hennig was about as opposite a personality to Valerie Cliburn as one was likely to find in Washington. The conservative law-and-order top cop was well known as being a hard-nosed, by-the-book individual who didn’t hold his tongue when it came to what he considered liberal judges and lenient sentencing. From his bow tie to his close-cropped hair cut, Director Hennig gave one the sense that he did not merely hate change but that he would hunt it down and shoot it if given the chance.

Director Hennig came from an upper-middle-class family in Montgomery, Alabama. A Yale graduate, he had worked first for the Montgomery police where he developed a disdain for protests of any kind. He had joined the FBI to combat what he saw as federal overreach in its application of racial equity laws. His methods were tough and often criticized by civil rights groups. Nonetheless, he had taken great strides in eliminating corruption within the federal government and was a strong force against corporate kickback deals having targeted and prosecuted several state legislators.

As the FBI director, Hennig had implemented strict procedural guidelines and fired agents quickly when those rules were not followed. As a result, arrests and prosecutions were up but morale at the agency was low as everyone felt the need to constantly look over their shoulder and second-guess their decisions.

Ahmend hated being called to the NSA. He disliked Secretary Wentworth on a personal basis and was always angered by any request to share information the FBI had obtained. He especially disliked Director Cliburn, though he had the decency to not say anything about his bias out loud. He arrived at the largely non-descript federal building ten minutes after Director Cliburn despite his commute being shorter. He enjoyed the sense of power that he took from making the Secretary wait for him. The FBI director was surprised to walk into Al’s office and see that this time the meeting had started without him. 

“We took a good look at the artifacts,” Valerie was saying. “None of them were what we expected. Those rock fragments? They’re from Northern Utah. There’s absolutely no reason they should be found in a remote area of Northeastern Canada. We can’t identify the materials used to construct the arrow because we couldn’t take a sample. As I’m sure Dr. Wasserman is aware, that feather does not belong to any aviary species known to science, not even an extinct one. And those bones” She paused and motioned for Director Hennig to join them at the table. “You’re going to love this Ahmend, what looks like chicken bone is unlike any skeletal remains anyone has on record. Bones have marrow. This is a solid construct, all the way through, of alabaster, calcium sulfate, sodium, and, are you ready for this? Cinnamon.” She turned to Ahmend and added, “Yes, the same stuff that was on those three sweet rolls you had this morning.”

Director Hennig scoffed. “That’s preposterous. Whoever came up with that analysis must have slept through high school chemistry. A combination like that isn’t even possible and definitely isn’t naturally occurring.”

Valerie reached into her attaché and removed a set of papers, handing them to Ahmend. “I thought you might have that reaction. That’s why I had the results confirmed by your own lab.”

Ahmend snatched the papers out of Valerie’s hand, muttering under his breath about how she had gone behind his back to use his facilities. He flipped through the pages for a while before saying, “Fine, you have discovered something we didn’t know existed before.” He looked over at Kay and snarled, “I suppose she’s the one who discovered this mess?”

“Dr. Kay Wasserman,” Al said, making the late introduction. “She tried bringing the matter to your folks yesterday, but once again, you guys botched it and sent her to Langley. Fortunately, they’re a touch more open-minded over there and took a close look at the situation. I don’t mind telling you both, this makes me uncomfortable.”

“Getting dressed makes you uncomfortable, Al,” Hennig said derisively. “At best these are museum pieces most likely headed for a box in the basement. I hardly see anything here that is worth any time and attention. Seems to me our system of processes did exactly what it’s supposed to do.”

“Yeah, watch this,” Al said as he nodded toward Kay. “You both might want to take a couple of steps back.”

Nervously, Kay removed the arrow from its protective case. The instant she picked it up she could feel it beginning to vibrate at a level too low to be visible. As she set the arrow on top of the box containing the remains of the troubled one, its vibrations became more intense. The lights in the room began to flicker and the four humans could feel the hair on their bodies rise as static electricity filled the room. A low-frequency hum seemed to be coming from all around them.

Without warning, the power in the entire building went down, leaving the office in darkness. Kay couldn’t keep herself from screaming, unable to hold in the fear she was feeling. After several seconds, the lights returned. The boxes containing the feather and crushed skeleton were on the floor. The arrow had shattered the box containing the rubble and pierced the hardwood table.

All four of them gazed wide-eyed at the spectacle in front of them, their minds struggling to explain what had just happened. Al was the first to regain a sense of composure. “This verifies that someone has created a weapon capable of disrupting an entire environment without being as messy or as trackable as a nuclear device. This was not on anyone’s radar. It was developed totally in secret and you both understand the degree to which that should be impossible. We have to find who made this, confiscate their inventory, and destroyed their facilities. And we have to do it without anyone knowing, not even the president.”

Chapter 64

chapter 64

Apa’ii struggled to contain her emotion as a second wave of forbidden magic circled the globe. This one was longer and stronger than the first had been. “We have got to get that arrow back from the humans before the magic gets out of control,” she told Ulaf. She waved her hand and unfroze Fleau, Lania, and Tonukasi, who blinked in bewilderment that they were not invisible and everyone else was frozen. Without giving them a chance to speak, Apa’ii explained. “You and these arrows are in grave danger. You must go immediately and destroy all the arrows.”

“And the sword,” said Fleau as she held the silver box.

“No, leave the box here,” Apa’ii said. “You were frozen because Frederick escaped and stole the sword. Humans have one of the arrows somehow and have activated its magic twice in the past several minutes. The last wave was strong enough to get the attention of every foul-minded soul on the planet and they’re all going to want a piece of the magic.”

Turning to Ulaf, she said, “I need the Erlkönig to protect them. Make sure these arrows get to the Aesir fire and that every one of them is destroyed.”

“And what of Frederick and the sword?” Ulaf asked. “Does it not present a greater danger than all the arrows combined?”

Apa’ii nodded. “Yes, but not everyone knows the sword is lost. There’s not a soul on the planet that didn’t feel that last wave. They’re going to be looking. Keep these arrows safe until they are destroyed.” She waved her hand and a strong pulse of magic propelled them on their way before they could say another word.

The queen flew around to the backside of the home tree where Bogmenak and what was left of his militia were still frozen. She removed their weapons from them and sent them back to Heyehse along with their dead. In doing so, she erased their memory of the brief battle with the Erlkönig, leaving the death of their members to whatever fiction they might choose to create.

Ulaf had summoned the remaining Erlkönig soon after the group had left, leaving no one around the home tree that wasn’t frozen. Apa’ii stepped back inside the home tree shutting the door behind her before releasing the spell that had stopped everyone in mid-motion. She called for Pockwatch and Pausnuk to join her in the throne room. They would have to act quickly to stop the humans from using the forbidden magic.

Having been stilled when the waves of forbidden magic had hit, neither counselor was aware of what happened. They flew to the throne room fully panicked.

“Your majesty! Are we under attack?” Pockwatch asked as he flew through the jeweled door.

“Not yet,” Apa’ii answered, “but that’s a possibility if we don’t get matters under control quickly. Somehow, one of the arrows made its way into human hands. They don’t know what they’ve got but it won’t take them long to realize it’s a source of power and they’ll try to weaponize it. I don’t care what we have to do, who we reveal, we not only have to stop them, we have to get that magic to the Aesir fire and we have to make sure there are no other arrows where they might be picked up and misused.”

“Where do we look?” Pausnuck asked, “and did anyone at least use an invisibility spell after the battle?”

“I’m not sure administrative spells were on anyone’s mind after the blast from your sword,” Pockwatch said sternly. “We would do well to have a team of magicians sweep through the lakes region. The battle covered a wide section of land. Even if someone did toss a protective spell as they left, it’s possible that the elven arrows were not affected. One of the side effects of using elven weapons is their ability to repel non-elven magic. Frederick’s arrows were as elven as they were forbidden. Humans are always hunting for artifacts of their ancestors. They’ll find anything left behind and the damage could be… significant.”

“We don’t let anything slip through the cracks,” Apa’ii said. Her countenance was now glowing deep violet. Outside, souls went about their routines quietly but quickly, knowing the queen was considering an urgent matter. After a moment’s thought, she said, “Pausnuk, you’re in charge of the cleanup crew. Recruit a team with strong magic so that it doesn’t take low-level inspection to find those arrows and any other weapons that might still being lying around. As you do, look for any signs of humans being near or on the battlefield. As remote as most of the battle was, humans have a habit of showing up in the strangest of places, usually at the most inconvenient time. If someone was camping out there, that might explain how they got hold of the forbidden magic. Talk to the grounded clans, and maybe the Ondines if they’re not threatening. Perhaps they some something that might prove helpful.”

“Yes, your majesty,” Pausnuk replied. ‘I know exactly who to take. We should be back before nightfall.”

Apa’ii spread her arms and produced another sword, its hilt magnificently jeweled and its blade gleaming with royal magic. “Take this with you,” she told him. “Not everyone knows that you are not carrying the sword of forbidden magic. You are a target to those who see in you an opportunity for themselves. Use it wisely with my blessing.”

Pausnuck took the sword and bowed deeply before vanishing in a surprisingly small puff of smoke.

Apa’ii turned to Pockwatch and said, “We need spies. What I fear is that through means only the gods could compose one of Frederick’s arrows has made its way to the human government. Not only do we have to find and eliminate the arrow, but we also have to eliminate human memory or knowledge of the weapons. We are safer for them to be distracted by us than to be curious about forbidden magic. If there is one thing humans consistently prove it’s that they cannot be trusted with power of any kind. Do whatever needs to be done. If some humans must die to preserve our lives, you have my blessing in taking that action. I trust you to act according to your conscience.”

“Start at their capital,” the queen instructed. “They don’t keep secrets well. Whoever has the arrow is going to let others know. Put spies among all the places that deal with their military and security apparatus. I would prefer we not take human form unless it is necessary to save magic lives. Use magic. Leave them baffled, wondering what happened. They will believe in their mental failings before they believe we exist. Use that to your advantage. Make sure Puckwudjinee is among those you take. His experience with humans is beneficial at this moment.”

“Do you sincerely worry that the task is that dangerous?” Pockwatch asked. “Finding the arrows and making them invisible should be rather routine. I dare say Pukwudjinee can likely handle the task without my guidance.”

Apa’ii shook her head. “Do not be fooled by the apparent simplicity of any task. Remember, we are not the only ones who felt that blast of magic. Others are already looking and will not hesitate to harm you and any humans that stand between them and the magic. Dasheng Sen felt that pulse as strongly as we did. The human’s capitol is almost on the water and well within her reach. If she finds the arrow first, the entire planet is in danger. You will not remove and destroy that arrow without dealing with power-driven malcontents.”

“Such as the Deaevas,” Pockwatch said, almost under his breath.

“They are minding their place,” Apa’ii said. “If you have concerns, stop by their community and observe. Adapting is not coming easily. Many are frustrated. Their mood is not pleasant. Yet, they know this is better than exile.”

“Inofar will never have my trust,” Pockwatch said. “There is no honor to his word, no bond he would not break. He lied to the gods, your majesty, and with all due respect, he will lie to you.”

“Your caution is appropriate,” Apa’ii said. “But do not let your bias cloud your judgment. No soul is without hope no matter how devious and conniving their plans may seem.”

“I fear you are too trusting, my queen,” Pockwatch said. “Your ability to see potential sometimes outweighs your view of current reality.”

“The potential I see, dear Pockwatch, is one that provides us the opportunity to end this war with a stronger position against both humans and the Hantu Air. Dasheng Sen has never forgiven the primordial gods for putting land on this planet and inviting us to be its guardian. We tried working with her and she has betrayed us. I see the potential for constraining her powers and reducing some of the unnecessary chaos she has brought for millions of seasons. I see the potential for bringing humans in line with nature as was the original intent.”

Apa’ii walked over and put her arm around Pockwatch’s shoulder. “What I need you to see is that having an idyllic vision of the future does not make one ignorant of the mess and trouble involved in getting there. Obstacles must be removed and there are times when the method of removal is not neat or socially pleasant. This is one of those times. That arrow in the hands of humans is an obstacle. The nature of its magic prevents us from merely apparating it away into nothing. We know the corruptive power the forbidden magic offers. There is no method to drastic in preventing its use on any scale. Now is not the time for pleasantries. I need you to take with you a viscousness that dominates the disagreeable parties and brings everyone into line.”

“I will do my best,” Pockwatch said, not feeling as confident as he knew Apa’ii expected of him. 

“You have my blessing and with that the power of my magic,” the queen said. “I believe in your potential as we guide this realm to a better place.”

Pockwatch took a couple of steps away from the queen and bowed. “It is always my honor to serve you, your majesty.”

“It is great pleasure and comfort to have you,” Apa’ii responded. “Go, lead the change. Send a message.”

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