Paradigms Lost — Chapter 45
Chapter 45: That Future is Past
Morgan opened the door, startled as I pushed past him without so much as a “hello.” “Master Jason… ?”
I looked around, shrugged, jogged into the living room and climbed up on a chair. Verne was in that room, staring at me curiously out of hollow eyes set in a leathery, lined face and framed by pure white hair. “J… Jason,” he said slowly, as I mumbled a curse to myself and dragged the chair over a bit, “what… are you doing?”
“Maybe making a fool of myself.”
I reached up and unscrewed one of the bulbs from the fixture and pulled the fixture itself towards me. Everything looked normal …
The other lights on the fixture went out. Morgan stood near the switch. “Perhaps, if you are intending on tinkering with the lighting, you may wish the electricity off, sir.”
“Thanks, Morgan.” I said absently. Pulling out a small screwdriver, I unfastened the interior baseplate of the fixture.
There. Underneath the base. I didn’t know what it was… but in essence, I did. “Morgan, you said it. Kill the electricity — all the electricity in the house! Now!”
“Sir… ?” Morgan only hesitated for a moment, then hurried off towards the basement and the main breakers. I switched on the flashlight; a moment later the house was plunged into darkness.
“What… what is going on, Jason?” Verne asked.
“I was right all along, Verne,” I said. Morgan entered; he had a much larger portable light. “You might even want to shut off that light, Morgan. Go with candles, unless you bought that light in the last few days.” I turned back to Verne. “It wasn’t magic. It was technology that was killing you. Every one of your lights, and maybe even some other devices, is fitted with a gadget that turns ordinary light into the kind of light that hurts you; my guess is it’s managing to get filaments to spike high enough temperatures to radiate UV somehow, along with everything else; cuts their lifetime down a lot, but they only need this to work for a few months. In the short term, it can’t damage you, but with enough exposure …”
“… yes.” Verne said slowly. “It… it becomes like a slow cancer, eating away at me. But even in the day, when I sleep in darkness?”
“Probably a device in those rooms does the same thing. If, as I suspect, it’s not just one wavelength of light but a combination of them, it probably can’t do enough in darkness to continue hurting you during the day, but it could slow your recovery so that you’d always be getting damaged more than you were healing during your rest. Especially if the really critical wavelengths are combinations of ultraviolet and infrared.”
“How did you know?”
“There were a lot of clues, but the biggest one — that didn’t register until almost too late — was that the few times you were outside of your house you actually started to look a tiny bit better. But when you and Sylvie couldn’t find anything, I was stumped… until I remembered that coincidence is damn unlikely.”
We both thought for a moment. “I must confess, Jason, that I don’t quite understand.” Verne said finally. His voice was slightly steadier already, testament to the tremendous recuperative powers that were his, and I started to relax slightly. It looked like I might be right. No, I knew I was.
“Take both your stories. Let’s say that they’re both true. Well, to kill you, someone would have to know what you are, exactly. Maybe one of your old enemies, right? Who else would know precisely how you could be killed subtly, without alerting everyone for miles around? But this happened just as Kafan showed up, so that’s not coincidence either.
“So what if the lab Raiakafan escaped from was being run by the same people who were your enemies, Verne?”
“Impossible,” Verne breathed. “After all this time …”
“But it would explain everything. And there’s evidence for it. Raiakafan himself — if your enemies didn’t have a hand in this, how else? You survived all these years, they certainly could have. And another thing, one that’s bothered us both for quite a while: Klein. Where the hell did he come from? Only another vampire — of the kind made by one of your enemies, note — could create him. And what did he do? He set you up, that’s what — tried to get you killed off! Somebody knew where you were, and what you were! Somebody who knew that converting Klein would give them a weapon to entrap you, and they damn near succeeded. If Virigar hadn’t shown up, I suspect there would have been another attack on your life.” I took another breath, continued, “And look at the timing. Klein showed up sporting a new set of fangs, if my calendar’s right, a few weeks after Kafan whacked the good doctor. They knew who Kafan really was, and they knew where he was coming.”
“Very good, Mr. Wood.”
I knew that voice. “And Ed Sommer’s business started about the same time. Funny thing, that, Ed. Digging into your background produced some fascinating blanks.”
Ed was holding a large-caliber gun — .44, I guessed — pointed at us. While ordinary bullets wouldn’t hurt Verne and probably not Morgan, either, none of us expected that he would be using ordinary bullets. For me, of course, the point was moot; if you fired a wad of gum at the speed of a bullet it’d still probably kill me. “I’ve gotta hand it to you, Jason. If we hadn’t been watching the house constantly the past couple of days, you might have blown the whole thing. We wanted him,” he nodded at Verne, “to go unconscious before we actually moved.”
“How very convenient for you that I happened to decide on remodeling at just the right time.” Verne tried to deliver the lines in his usual measured and iron-sure way, but his weakening had gone far past the point that a mere effort of will would banish it.
“Convenient, but hardly necessary. Morgan, down on the floor. Once we’d tested to make sure that our precautions rendered us invisible to your casual inspection, the installation could have been made at any time. More dangerous and risky, but no major enterprise is without risk. And after we began remodeling, the whole house was wired in more than one way. It would have been a lot easier if our… subcontract that sent Klein over had worked out, but hey, measure once, cut twice, right?” He smiled. “We learned a great deal recently. It does bother me about Kafan’s new identity. Why anyone would take that much interest in this case is a matter for concern. But not for you.” Ed shifted his aim directly to Morgan and, to my horror, began to squeeze the trigger.
Weakened and sick Verne might have been, but when it came to the life of his friend and oldest retainer all his supernal speed must have come back. There was movement, a blur that fogged the darkened air between Ed and Morgan for a split second; then Ed Sommer was hurled backwards into the front stairwell with an impact that shook the house. The gun vanished somewhere in the darkness.
Then the lights came on. There must have been more of Ed’s people in the house. Caught in the light again, I could see Verne sag slightly.
From the ruined wood there came a curse, but that wasn’t the voice of a human being. A monstrous figure tore its way out of the wreckage, a hideous cross between man, lizard, and insect. Humanoid in form, scaled and clawed and with patches of spiked, glistening armor from which hung the tattered remains of Ed’s clothing. “A good final effort, Sh’ekatha,” the Ed-thing hissed. “But foredoomed to failure.”
While it was focused on Verne, I had time to draw my own gun. Its gaze shifted towards me just as I got a bead on it.
BlamBlamBlamBlamBlamBlamBlamBlamBlamBlam! I emptied a full ten rounds into the monstrosity. The impacts staggered it, battering at critical areas until it toppled backwards. “Run!” I shouted. Verne and Morgan were already moving, and I ejected the magazine and slammed in a fresh one as I sprinted after them. A single glance had sufficed to show me that the bullets hadn’t done any notable damage. “Just once I’d like to find something I can shoot and kill, like any normal person!”
Verne staggered down the basement steps, to be caught by something indescribable that tried to rip him apart; Morgan intervened, shoving the interloper through a nearby wall with unexpected strength. “Keep going, sir!” he said over his shoulder as he kept his attention on his adversary. Distantly we could hear other things smashing; the rest of the household must be under attack now as well!
“Damn you, Jason!” I heard a distant voice roar as we pried open the door to the Heart. “This was supposed to be a subtle operation!” Massive feet thundered down the stairs behind us.
The door swung open; I shoved Verne through and stepped through myself, pulling the door shut as a huge shadow rushed towards me. Just before it reached us, though, the door swung shut and I twisted the lock. The impact on the other side shook rock dust from the tunnel ceiling.
“It will not stop him for long, Jason,” Verne forced out.
“A little time’s better than none.”
I’d seen the Heart only once before, as a sort of postscript to Verne’s story; here, as before, things seemed quieter; like a summer forest in midafternoon, lazy, sleepy, silent. In the center of the large cavern, a perfectly circular pool of pure water shimmered in the light, blue as the vault of heaven. At the far side, a squat obelisk of black obsidian. The Mirror of the Sky and the Heartstone. Hanging on that far wall was some kind of sheath or casing.
I became aware I was gasping for breath, realizing only then that Verne hadn’t really been running; that I’d been dragging him along instead. Even here, in the place most sacred to him, he had no strength any more. Technology was winning the battle.
A rending, shattering sound echoed down the corridor as I dragged Verne to the pool’s far side and dropped him to rest against the obelisk. Slow, measured footfalls clicked down the tunnel. The snake-headed monster that had called itself “Ed Sommer” entered the room, smiling at me. “Too bad about you, Jason. You just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
I didn’t say anything; I couldn’t afford to waste my breath.
“Tired?” it asked cheerfully as it continued towards me. “Well, it will be over soon enough.”
As long as he was moving slowly, with full control, I didn’t have a chance. “At least I know you’re not going to survive me by much, Ed or whatever your name is.”
The slit-pupilled eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that I found the location of your laboratory tonight. My TERA-5 got lucky and matched patterns. And if I don’t send the ‘no-go’ code within a couple of weeks, the system I stored the info in will dump the location and all the info I have on the lab’s operations into every intelligence agency and scientific forum on the planet. It’ll be a lot easier to pry the kid and the mother away from a bunch of squabbling agencies than from one group of demonic crossbreeds with a unified purpose.”
The lie worked; it fit perfectly with what they knew of my capabilities, and if I had found the location, was precisely what I would’ve done if I had no other choices. The giant figure charged forward. “I’ll have that code out of you if I have to rip it out of your heart!”
Jesus he was fast! Fast as Klein! But with him charging, everything changed. I jumped up onto the Heartstone and lunged to meet the Ed-thing just as he leapt towards us across the Mirror of the Sky.
The impact stunned me, and I felt at least three armored spikes go deep into my arms, but I held on. My momentum had mostly canceled his, and the two of us plummeted directly into the deceptively deep pool below.
A detonation of leaf-green light nearly blinded me as the entire pool lit up like an emerald spotlight; surges of energy whipped through me and I came close to blacking out. Boiling water fountained up and I was flung outward to strike with numbing force on the altar, shocked, parboiled, and aching. Electrical arcs danced around the edge of the water, then spat outwards, shattering the lightbulbs across half the room. A roar of agony echoed from the depths of the Mirror of the Sky. Then the boiling subsided, the eerie green light faded away. Blinking away spots, I looked down. A few pieces of spiky armor, bubbling and dissolving away like Easter Egg dye pellets, were all that remained.
“One more guess confirmed.” My voice, not surprisingly, shook. I reached down and retrieved my gun from where I’d dropped it near the Heartstone.
Verne gave a very weak chuckle. “If they were my enemies, they would be the very antithesis of the power I wielded. Yes?”
“I hoped so.”
Another voice spoke from the entranceway. “And you were quite correct.”
I felt my jaw go slack as I looked across. “Oh… oh damn. You’re dead.”
In the bright lights that remained, the Colonel, resplendent in his uniform, walked towards us. “As is oft-quoted, reports of my death were greatly exaggerated. Kafan, poor boy, didn’t realize precisely what I was, so he only damaged my body. As you learned,” and suddenly, without any visible pause, he was there, taking the gun from my hand with irresistable force, “ordinary weapons are rather useless against us. Tearing out my throat was an inconvenience, easily remedied. But it seemed more convenient to appear to die and hope he’d lead us to the other two children, rather than just keep fighting him.” Despite all my struggles, he picked me up and tied me up with rope he had slung over his shoulder. A casual kick from him sent Verne sprawling. “Now we can fix things. Pity about Ed, though. Rather promising in some ways, but a trifle dense. If only I’d been a moment sooner… good bluff, boy. But your mind is a bit transparent.” He set me down on the Heartstone and groped under his uniform. “Now where… ah, there it is.” His hand came back into view, holding a long, sharp, crystalline knife. He smiled.
I couldn’t maintain my usual facade of confidence here. I swallowed, tried to speak, found that my throat had gone completely dry.
“Don’t bother trying to speak. You see, a ritual sacrifice on this stone will negate its very nature, ending the power of this shrine, which is quite painful to me, and in his weakened condition it should also destroy the priest. So you, by virtue of your very bad fortune, shall be the one through which we cleanse the world of the last trace of Eonae and her nauseating priests.”
“So why are you bothering to tell me?” I managed to get out. “Just a melodramatic villain with a long-winded streak?”
He laughed at that, a cheerful sound all the more macabre because it was so unforced and honest. “Why, not at all; a purely practical reason, I assure you. You see, fear, despair, and the anticipation of death are part of what strengthens the ritual. They are antidotes to life and endurance and all the other things that this shrine represents. The more I allow you to muse upon your end, the more you see your friends weakened and destroyed, the stronger my final sacrifice will be. If it were just a matter of killing you, I’d have had you shot from behind weeks ago.” The blade rested on my Adam’s apple, pricking my skin coldly. He drew a line down my throat. I felt a warm trickle of blood start. “And your little seer friend, the girl… she, also, has a part to play in this.”
“She’ll see you for what you are, and get away.”
“I think not. We had her caught earlier this evening, actually. I was anticipating the priest’s incapacitation this morning.” He raised the knife, brought it towards my right wrist.
A blurred motion swept past me, taking the Colonel away in that instant. A confused set of motions later, the Colonel and the blur separated and stopped.
The Colonel regarded Kafan with tight-lipped amusement. “I must confess I didn’t expect you quite yet.”
Kafan answered in Vietnamese; the two squared off. “What do you hope to accomplish, boy?” the Colonel asked. “You failed the last time. What is the point of fighting me again?”
I began wiggling my hand towards my Swiss Army knife. If I could just get it out…
“This time you’re not coming back,” Kafan growled. He and the Colonel exchanged a blinding flurry of blows and blocks, neither of them touching the other.
“Really?” the Colonel said. He swept Kafan’s feet out from under him and hammered the smaller man’s face with his elbow. Kafan barely evaded the next strike and rolled up, throwing a punch at the Colonel that left a dent in the wall. They circled each other, Kafan spitting out a mouthful of blood as the Colonel’s grin widened, the teeth sharpening. “And why is that?”
“Because now I know what I am.”
The Colonel hesitated fractionally. Not quite as much as Kafan obviously hoped for, but even so Kafan’s instantaneous lunge nearly decapitated him. As it was, the Colonel’s preternatural speed pulled his head aside barely in time, Kafan’s claws scoring his cheek with five parallel scratches. “Feh! Kr’lm akh! What difference is that, boy? So you were meant to be a Guardian! Without the Goddess behind your power, what are you but a simple thug, one whose blows are nothing more than stinging sand?” I’d hoped his words were boasting, but seeing how those five cuts were already closing up, even as he spoke, I realized that the Colonel was only speaking the truth.
Kafan returned the Colonel’s grin, with interest, his form fully changed into a tailed, fanged humanoid. He straightened slightly and brought his arms into a strange, formal stance. “I don’t need the Goddess behind my power. All I need are two words, given to me by the Master who taught me.”
The Colonel tensed.
At that word, the Colonel stepped back.
Not fast enough. Two slashing movements of Kafan’s hands, too fast to follow, ripped aside blocking arms as though the Colonel hadn’t even tried, and a third strike against the uniformed chest sent him flying into the wall with a combined sound of shattering stone and breaking bone.
While the Colonel slowly rose, bones forcing themselves back to their proper positions and healing in moments, Raiakafan sprinted to the section of the wall nearest me. “And Shevazherana,” he said. He pulled the sheath from the wall and drew the immense, squat-bladed sword from it.
The Colonel’s eyes widened. His form began to shift and he leapt away, towards the exit.
Raiakafan stood there, impossibly having crossed the room in the blink of an eye. “No escape for you, monster. For my father — this!”
The first slash took off the changing form’s right arm. It screeched and tried to stumble backwards. It ran into something, spun around to find itself facing… Raiakafan again. “For my children — this!”
The other arm flew off in a fountain of red-black blood. Screeching in terror, not a trace of humanity left on its bony, angular form, the thing flapped feeble wings and flew upwards, away from the implacable hunter. A hunter who disappeared from view while both the monster and I stared at him
And once more the creature that had been the Colonel rebounded from something that had appeared in its path. Falling along with the stunned demon, Raiakafan shoved it downwards so it landed prone on the grassy floor of the cavern. “And for my wife.”
The great sword came down once more. In a flash of black light, a flicker of shadow that momentarily erased all illumination, the thing dispersed.
A pile of noisome dust sifted away from Kafan’s sword, dust that slowly evaporated and turned into a smell of death and decay… and faded away to nothing.
“Get up, Father,” Kafan said, helping Verne up. “It’s over now.”
I staggered wearily to my feet, feeling the warm trickle of blood down my arms. “No. Not yet. They’ve got Sylvie!”
Kafan cursed in that ancient tongue. “But where?”
“Only one guess. If she isn’t being held in a van or car nearby, she’s got to be at Ed’s place. At least, I hope so. Because without the Colonel to tell us, it’ll be a long hard search if that’s not where she is.” And I couldn’t afford to think about that.
“Is it not… possible that he was bluffing?” Verne said weakly.
“Do you think he was?”
Verne didn’t answer; his expression was enough.
“Neither did I. He wouldn’t bluff that way. He was smart enough to set things up ahead of time.”
Kafan looked at me. “You’re not in any condition to fight.”
“Don’t even think about keeping me out of this. Who else are we going to call?”
Somehow we got to the top of the stairs. Morgan, with his usual imperturbable expression denying the very existence of his torn clothing and bloodied form, smiled slightly as we emerged. “I’m glad to see you’re all still alive.”
“Can you drive, Morgan?”
Morgan raised an eyebrow. “Certainly, Master Jason. I presume there is some urgency?”
“If any of these monsters are left, they’ve got Syl.”
Morgan snatched the keys from my hand and half-dragged me along. Verne was moving somewhat easier, but it was plain that neither of us was up to a fight with a half-dead Chihuahua, let alone a group of demonic assassins. The fact that neither Morgan or Kafan said anything told us that they knew that we’d never allow ourselves to be left behind.
The drive across town was excruciatingly slow. It seemed that every block was ten times longer than it had ever been when I drove along it before. We entered Morgantown’s main district, crossed through, and continued. Though only fifteen minutes had passed, I felt as though precious days were passing. Syl. How could we have left her unguarded?!
Ed Sommer’s house was lit up like a full-blown party was going on inside. The fence around it looked normal, but I could tell it was stronger than it appeared… and electrified, too. A contractor like Ed wouldn’t have had trouble installing all sorts of bad news for intruders.
“Hang on, gentlemen,” Morgan said.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Going through the gate, of course,” he said calmly, as the engine on Verne’s limousine roared and we were pressed back by acceleration. “Without being in suitable combat condition, our best chance is …”
With a rending crash, the limo shuddered but tore through the gateway.
“… total surprise and uncompromising speed. Prepare to attack.”
We dove out of the limo, expecting a counterattack momentarily. The front door of the house popped open. Arms screaming in pain, I still managed to bring the gun up, sighted on the target —
— and dropped the gun immediately. “Don’t shoot! It’s SYL!”
Sylvia emerged fully from the doorway, stepping gingerly over the limp body of a demonoid as she did so. As I raced up the steps and embraced her, she smiled and said, “I see you missed me.”
The events caught up with me, and I nearly fainted. Syl caught me and supported me, helped me towards the car.
“We should hurry, Master Jason,” Morgan said. “There may be others pursuing her.”
“There aren’t,” Syl said with calm certainty.