Iron Angels – Snippet 21
The black woman Alan had snatched from a deserted street in Gary squirmed in the back of the borrowed Chevy Astro, whining and crying, despite her ample bonding. But the khâu ignored her, just as he’d ignored Rao’s caution to stay away from vans. Even though the police would likely be more sensitive to another stolen van after yesterday’s failed sacrifice to the nâga, the vehicle had been easy for him to snatch. The non-descript navy blue Astro had been sitting for quite some time behind the house of his elderly grandmother’s sister, Hazel. Auntie Hazel was in the hospital, so she wouldn’t be missing the vehicle. He’d headed over to Gary, and specifically a section of Gary more resembling nineteen-eighties Beirut than a modern American city.
But thoughts such as those were frowned upon in the Câ Tsang. Creativity had no place among the sticks of the group. The simple act of carrying out the Tip of the Horn’s orders would convey upon the sycophantic khâu a greater chance of attaining the rank of khäp, an adept.
Night snatched East Chicago as swift and certain as he’d taken the woman. Streetlights raced overhead as traffic lights turned green before him: Destiny was choosing him to reach the meeting place with alacrity.
“Praise the nâga,” he whispered.
Beneath the scents from the streets lingered the scent of a woman’s perfume — his great-aunt’s. The khâu pinched shut his nose, but the thought of sucking in the heavy musky stench through his mouth only urged on his queasy stomach. Damn the old woman for wearing such heavy perfume. The black woman he’d taken off the street reeked of fast food and sweat, which turned to the sweet smell of fear. He’d drugged her, of course, but the paralysis concoction given him by Rao had worn off quickly, and now she struggled.
The abandoned hotel was near. The police had departed hours ago, seemingly giving up their vigil. The master was livid over the incompetence of the two acolytes who’d botched the sacrifice and the unfettered glory of the nâga — who out of necessity had feasted upon the unpurified wretch of a man near the animal control facility up the road from the hotel.
This khâu volunteered to erase the failures of the other sticks, but doubt crept into his mind despite the ever-nearing hotel. What if the cops lay in wait for him? What if a trap waited for the Câ Tsang, the Iron Thorn?
But Rao would not purposely send him into the hands of the cops or worse, the FBI, would he? No. What would be the point? Glory was needed. Glory and redemption and power. The nâga expected compliance and steady Sha ‘Lu once the gate opened.
Lights peeked in and out of the Astro’s side mirrors. He checked the trailing vehicle’s silhouette, fearing the bumps riding atop the roof, but saw none. The khâu sighed in relief, but the cold fear returned, sending a shiver down his back. An unmarked police vehicle? Or an FBI vehicle, all of which were unmarked and not always a make or model easily recognized? He wouldn’t know until he reached the hotel, and what would he do if the vehicle behind him was the police? Would he keep driving or would he park and have to perform something drastic?
He released the vise grip he’d cinched down on his nose and instead white-knuckled the steering wheel. Being caught was not an option. He had no distinguishing features, no identification, and no fingerprints. The police would have no record of him either. The FBI though, what would they have on him? Anything? No.
The sound of his own rapid breaths filled the air and he tapped the button on the armrest, sending the driver’s side window down. The gushing air rushed by him, filling his nose with the scents of a town running on burnt chemicals.
He thought of the two khâu immolating themselves as an offering to the Iron Thorn, but in vain, as the nâga tore through only to find no sacrifice, no Sha ‘Lu, waiting for him. The nâga rampaged through the night in search of meat to extract bjang from.
Impure kill. Impure bjang.
The khâu failed in barring these thoughts from his mind despite the repeated attempts at tamping down any free thought. The meditations failed him and the mantra fled his mind.
The light ahead at the intersection of Euclid Avenue and East Chicago Avenue signaled the end of this stage of the journey. But the light was red where all the others ushered his rush to glory and flicked green before the speeding mini-van. He glanced in his rearview mirror. The car following him turned off — his fears unfounded after all.
Good. He’d continue on, and did not slow down for the red light before him. Two hundred feet perhaps. The light would change for a khâu of the Câ Tsang.
His foot pressed the accelerator into the floorboards and the speed shot up another five miles an hour. The red light refused to yield at fifty feet but a second later he sailed under the light — a flash of yellow appeared on the cross road, Euclid Avenue. Excellent.
The hotel loomed on the corner. He grinned wide, feeling the creases at the corner of his eyes deepen.
He was passing through the intersection.
Lights blared into his open window. The grin disappeared. He squinted and turned his head.
His body flew across the mini-van and his vision blackened under the impact of something giving way stubbornly to his head, now coated in warmth. A ripping noise. Now a scraping noise filled his ears.
Something was dragging him along the blacktop. The mini-van appeared undamaged from this vantage point. What had happened? Where was the black woman? Still inside, but alive? Life was necessary for the ritual and more importantly, for the nâga to achieve their true power and form. The master would be sure to end him.
Grogginess and pain filled him and he ceased moving. Whatever dragged him released his broken body.
He yelped and grabbed for his head as he rolled over.
Nothing. He got to one knee and cried out in pain once more.
The hotel. So close. The mini-van.
He stumbled for the vehicle, but sirens pierced the thick air. So heavy was the air. He sniffed and blood tickled the back of his throat. A warm trickle dripped upon his cheek.
Accident. A vehicle had crashed into the van.
A chill overtook him and he stopped stumbling for the van. Get away from the van. Yes.
The tank farm was nearby. He could go there, or perhaps hide among the rows of houses not far from the hotel.
The khâu glanced down at his hands. Coated in a glistening substance, they shook. Blood, but in this light black rather than red, reminding him of chocolate syrup tinged with the scent of copper.
Screeching brakes and sirens filled the air and he stumbled into a run, more like a staggering drunk swaying side-to-side than an Olympic sprinter.
He dizzied, and darkness washed over his vision. His foot hit something solid and he tumbled. Cool moisture smacked his face. Blades of grass poked his head. He clenched shut his eyes.
Whoops and yelps were followed by the long agonizing wails of an ambulance. This khâu could not be caught, but movement hurt. Movement pained him.
He rolled on to his back and fought to open his eyes against the wooziness and pain forcing them shut.
Voices in the distance.
A long, slow hiss, like that of air releasing from a tire’s valve hit him from above. A metallic scent worked its way up his nose and into his chest — so different from the acrid and burning chemical-like reek normally permeating the air.
His eyes shot open and he lurched, gasping for air, but none came. He sat within a cloud, flying as if upon a magic carpet and touched the other side. He’d crossed over as a mere khâu, tasting gä, true power. Yes! He was so alive now and powerful.
The khâu’s face twisted —
— pain —
His jaw clenched.
— agonizing —
Eyes sealed shut.
— a faint puff of breath and the universe winked into black eternity.