A Thorn On His Side
The SUV idled, still waiting at the end of its skid-marks. The smell of rubber and exhaust weren't helping Ben with his queasy stomach. Worst of all, Nathan was dragging him towards that pile of twitching corpseflesh.
"Pick your feet up, will you?" Nathan urged him.
"But what if it's a trap?" Ben pleaded. The closer he got to the seeping wreck, the less he wanted to be there.
Nathan made a frustrated sound in the back of his throat. He looked back towards Ben, his blue eyes narrowed. "Then would you rather be trapped in the car, or under it?"
Ben couldn't argue with that. He just kept his eyes closed, doing his best not to think about what he was slipping in, until they reached the SUV. Nathan opened the back seat, and practically tossed Ben in.
Ben peered at the driver through the sides of his eyes, trying not to stare directly. He knew the man. He didn't have his curly hair anymore, and he was so much thinner, but Ben knew him. He'd seen what happened to the guy's family. Ben sunk into the seat cushions, wishing he could disappear beneath them.
"You the tracker?" Nathan asked, pulling the door closed behind him as he settled into the passenger's seat.
"You the angel?" The tracker asked, letting the question be his answer.
"Works for me," Nathan nodded sharply.
"Can I get a little superhuman help here?" The man jabbed a finger at the windshield. A big spiderweb of cracks ran from the point of impact out to the edges of the glass. "Can't drive if I can't see."
"Shouldn't be too much of a problem," Nathan put his palm out, and closed his eyes. His fingers felt out the cracks in the glass. "You get one party trick, I guess."
A low hum picked up in the back of Nathan's throat, and resonated in his chest. Ben could feel it running through the car's frame, under his feet, above his head. The windshield began to bow away from the sound. Its laminated surface stretched out, little pieces of glass peeling away from Nathan's fingers. Nathan's hum got louder, more insistent. The glass shuddered, once, twice, and then began to shiver in place.
Nathan flicked his fingers wide. The windshield exploded, sending little balls of glass in all directions. A few sharp pieces went zinging away from the cracks themselves, but for the most part the windshield had been reduced to little marbles on the hood and dash.
"Sweet," the man commented, revving the engine. "But the last guy could mend 'em." He shrugged, throwing the SUV into reverse. "This works too. So I'll be makin' for the backroads, then?" The SUV lifted under Ben, then dropped hard. It rolled forwards, then back again, each time with that same rise and drop. Ben bit his lip. Suddenly he realized-- they were backing over the raggedy man.
"Secluded and empty's what all y'all ask me for when time come for a rumble," the guy's voice was so casual, like they were just going out for an afternoon drive.
"No." Nathan sounded as serious as Ben felt the situation deserved. "The sensible place to attack us was at Esa's. We would have been together, with our guard down."
The SUV began to climb, heading for the freeway access ramp. Ben had been up and down this garage at least a hundred times, but never like this. Never with bits of a dead guy flapping in a back tire.
"'Engrossed in the past, how can we accept the present?'" Nathan said, like he was quoting something. "Ways to get the jump on me are rare, and that one's well known." Nathan drifted into thought for a moment. "Our foes are not creative," he said distantly. "If they're willing to give up the easy advantage, there must be something at Esa's they're afraid we can use."
Nathan leaned forward in his seat. He'd made up his mind. "We go there."
The SUV emerged from the garage, and the wind really started whipping around inside the car. Ben had never driven without a windshield before, and it wasn't much fun. Nathan didn't seem to care-- he leaned into the wind, crossing his arms on the dash. The noise inside the car was pretty loud. Both men had to raise their voices to be heard.
"Umm, no offense intended, but-- they seemed to get the drop on ya pretty easily back there." Ben tried to remember the man's name. He'd heard Juno say it on the phone. White, wasn't it? Mr. Kenneth White.
"My fault," Nathan told Mr. White, "To be honest, I was expecting something more like what I met when going to meet a human tracker. I let myself mull over the past few days when I should have been assessing him. But I wouldn't call that a likelihood worthy of basing a plan on, would you?"
"Can't say that I would," Mr. White shrugged, pulling off the freeway ramp and speeding up to catch a free spot in the next lane. "Don't get me wrong, brother--" he said, trying to make his voice sound easy despite the fact that he was practically yelling. "I ain't protesting. Just-- if anything's wrong, you level with me, hear?" A sportscar cut across the lane, and White had to pull the wheel, hard. The SUV's tires screeched a little, but he guided it safely out of harm's way. "You're no good to me with broken wings."
"Oh, that reminds me--" White leaned across the dash, keeping one eye on his mirrors. "I've got something here that should make this easier." He fished around in the glove compartment. Nathan's eyes were closed, and he made no move to help. Ben rolled his eyes. Sure, because the driver has nothing better to do than get you things, he thought. Just get us all killed so you can meditate or something. Jerk.
White got hold of whatever he was looking for. The car swerved a bit, its driver struggling to close the glove box. "Here ya go," he said, dropping something into Nathan's lap. He turned his attention back to the wheel, just as they were about to drift into the next lane. White flicked on his turn signal, and began angling for the exit up ahead.
Nathan opened his eyes at last. He picked something small, thin, and black up off his lap. It had a hinge-- he opened it, and it turned out to be a big purple and white fan. There were golden letters that seemed embossed right into the material. Under those, there was a little symbol that made Ben think of a guy drawing a bow and arrow, like Cupid or Robin Hood. Ben couldn't read what it said. But Nathan could, and he read it aloud.
"Assumption which blinds, the greatest of human afflictions." Nathan snapped the fan closed. His eyes narrowed, and he turned them on White. "So it's contagious," he snapped. "Your point?"
"You serious? That's pretty funny!" White grinned, his dark lips peeling back from teeth that were still as brilliant as they had been in Ben's vision, even after all this time. His brown eyes twinkled with undisguised mirth. Ben watched him in the rear view mirror, and found himself smiling too. "Naw, man, I never knew what it said. Just open it, use it!"
Nathan found a catch on the end of one of the fan's supports. The metal part of the fan was hollow, and there was something small hidden inside it. It was so light, Ben worried it might blow away. But when it hit Nathan's palm, it was like it clung there. Little beads curled around his palm, as though embracing a long-lost friend.
"An artifact..." Ben could barely hear Nathan's murmur beneath the roaring wind. "It's Lef's..."
A quick stab of panic shot up Ben's spine. The artifact had a little eye, which rested in Nathan's palm. It was half-lidded, and to Ben, it looked malevolent. The iris was a murky violet, interrupted on one side by a silvery spike. It was set into some kind of deep blue metal. Nathan slipped its beads around his hand, clasping them with a small, stylized golden hook at the end that reminded Ben of something he'd seen when he was a little boy.
As soon as that golden hook rested against the back of Nathan's hand, something terrible seemed to happen to the angel. He winced, pulling his eyes tightly shut. His lips pulled back in a twisted grimace. His teeth ground so loud it sounded like he was chewing on gravel. He let out a soft grunt, and collapsed back against the car seat. He kept gripping the eye tighter and tighter in his palm.
"What is that thing!" Ben demanded. He grabbed the seat in front of him, "What is it doing to Nathan? Make it stop!"
"Calm down," Mr. White said impassively. "It's not doing anything to him. It's just not easy to use." Mr. White's voice took on an authoritative timbre, one Ben only heard from other peoples' parents-- the kind of scolding attitude his parents didn't believe in. "Sit back, boy. Shut up and let him concentrate."
Ben sat back obediently, keeping his eyes on the rear-view mirror. Mr. White's eyes sought him out in the reflection, and the man nodded. "They call that an atzoawi," he explained patiently. "It's kind of a focus object... a way for them to channel power from their realm to ours." He paused, and Ben nodded back, swallowing hard.
"Friend left it behind," White continued. "This one's supposed to 'pierce the veil between form and illusion'. Not sure what that means-- but we best be finding out shortly, by the look of things."
His eyes weren't on Ben anymore. Ben turned in his seat, trying to see what Mr. White saw. It was a strangely beautiful day in the city, with only a slight haze across the blue, blue sky. The grass looked vivid and green where it braced the access road they were on. They were heading towards the big overpass that crossed the west side freeway, the leading edge of suburbia outside town. Esa must have been rich. Only rich people could afford to live out there.
There was a big hill right before the overpass. They had to dip down before climbing up the ramp. White put on the brakes, and the wind whipping at Ben's face briefly let up. That's when he heard it-- the buzz-buzz he hated so much from late Friday nights in his neighbourhood. It gave him nightmares, the way they revved their engines like that. Ben twisted all the way around in his seat, trying to catch a glimpse.
Two bikes shot into the air behind the SUV, taking the hill way too fast to stay on the ground. Two more bikes came rumbling over the grass, with a Jeep off-roading it right behind them. A pickup truck seemed to be following them. Yeah, there was somebody standing in the truck's bed, pointing at them over its rusty red cab.
White jammed hard on the brakes just as they were about to reach the overpass. He grabbed the handbrake, and pumped it hard. The car skidded, and White pulled the wheel to encourage the skid. They slid off the overpass ramp, and onto the shoulder of the west side freeway. The SUV's cars briefly dug into the sand, spinning just short of blacktop-- then White got traction, and they shot across three lanes. He turned the SUV against the flow of traffic.
Brakes screeched all around them, so loud and piercing Ben thought his eardrums were going to break. Horns blared, and a truck's big steam-horn drowned them all out with its furious roar. The SUV rocked on its smoking tires, buffetted by the wind coming off the semi; it swept by, having barely missed its chance to turn them all into a lump of modern sculpture on its massive grille. The SUV fishtailed, drifting back and forth as White darted between oncoming cars. All Ben could do was watch in the mirrors, his fingers digging into the seats in front of him. White's eyes were so intent, so focused, that Ben almost didn't notice when Nathan finally opened his.
Those eyes! They were totally empty. It was like everything that had been Nathan was scooped out of his skull, leaving nothing but blue-white fire inside. They filled up with that light Ben had caught glimmers of during the battle in the canals. Now it filled his eyes entirely. It was like there was nothing left that Ben could recognize. Nothing even vaguely human.
Nathan's hand unclenched, and he stretched it forward experimentally. The jewelled eye rested in his open palm, picking up the light pouring from his eyes. The gem cast glints of it back, edged with a dim violet glow. He opened his mouth slowly, as though feeling it for the first time.
Even reflected in the SUV's mirrors, looking at that light was doing something funny to Ben. He felt like he couldn't catch his breath. Some kind of pressure was rising up within him, swallowing everything up and plunging it into the black.
It's happening again... he thought, as his eyes started drooping. His mouth fell slack, and he sagged back against the seat cushions. ... that feeling...
Ben tried to hang on. It felt so important that he just hang on. He didn't know what he could hang on to. He just had to keep from slipping back into the dark. He had to stay with Nathan this time. He couldn't let this happen again.
Like that night on the street... like... Ben tried to swallow, but he couldn't even close his mouth. Everything was getting numb, and faraway. ... like before...
Ben's head was swimming. He wanted to call out for help, to get Nathan's attention. But his eyelids just kept getting heavier. Why can't I make it stop... he thought plaintively, Why can't I remember when it started...
But the dark just kept getting deeper, until the only light left was that glimmer coming out of Nathan's palm. Only it wasn't in his palm anymore. It was hovering right in front of Ben, staring straight into his soul.
Something heaved in the dark, and Ben swayed. Two words shook up his spine, vibrating through his bones. The words exploded into ribbons of soft, silky whispers that threaded together, forming a knot in the back of his mind. There they remained, and there was nothing Ben could do but bear witness to them. Two simple words that consumed everything he was, and left nothing but their echoes.
The Thorn of Illusion. Ben's thoughts thrummed a sluggish response. Why do I know that's its name? The SUV turned sharply, flinging Ben against the far door. He fetched up against the window glass, but he made no effort to pick himself up. It was... he fought for the thought, It was...
Slowly, the pupil of that brilliant purple eye began to widen. It was a polished jewel, but for some reason, it seemed perfectly natural to Ben that it should move. It was made of grief and guilt. Ben knew it, with every fibre of his being. To protect the victims of a mistake.
Two more words came bubbling up from the dark. They possessed Ben, they consumed him. He reached for them this time, trying to catch those silken ribbons of thought before they knotted. They unfolded, winding in and around his own thoughts.
Lamayel... The name felt right, somehow. As he said it, the thought unwound, and burst into a shower of red and white ribbons. The ribbons wove themselves together, until a redheaded archer stood there before Ben's eyes, braced by pure white wings. His face was so beautiful, but so unspeakably cold. And Ben knew him. Twelfth brother of the twenty-two, the virtue of romantic love. Everything was coming to him more quickly now, like his brain was finally getting up to speed.
Lamayel. The one brother of the Spoken who aligned with no one. The Archer of Love. His strike was uncompromising, and irresistible. He had the power to shatter anything, and the temper to do it, too. Selfish, tempestuous, and destructive. Ben felt the words pour through him, and all the memories, all the terror, all the pain inflicted by this creature felt like his own.
He harnessed a pain so sharp, it pierces the illusion of Awas. Ben felt so cold, and he kept getting colder. He couldn't feel his heart beating at all. Nothing in him felt like it was moving, like he was just slipping further and further into ice and nothing. The illusion that matter is too solid to conform to will. What did that even mean? Ben knew. Oh, with all his heart, he knew.
It allows the wearer to make solid shapes of mental forms. Ben wanted to breathe, to cry, anything to find air and life again. That means...
Another quake through his bones. They were getting stronger each time. This one spurred his body. Ben found his limbs again, but they were moving on their own. They were moving to the silvery music of a voice that slid into them, like a hand into an empty glove.
Get it, child...
Ben was leaned almost entirely over the divider between the rear and forward seats. He could see his hand reaching out in front of him.
His hand just kept stretching out. Ben tried to concentrate, tried to force it to come back to him. The hand he was looking at was his. It had to obey him!
Take it from him...
His whole body strained forward, vibrating at the end of that phrase. It was like being in a cramped space, with your whole body screaming at you just to stretch. It made Ben understand what it meant when people said they ached for things. He didn't just WANT the Thorn. He needed it, and the need hurt. He needed it with a desperation so powerful it might rip him apart if he resisted.
... making visions real!
Nathan's hand was turned away from him now, and all he could see was the glinting hook on the back of the Thorn. But it wasn't just a hook. It was a design worked into a hook, and Ben was sure he'd seen it before. Something Grampa Joe had shown him. Grampa Joe had explained it, his voice swelling with pride, but Ben couldn't remember what he said. It was something important. Something true. Something real.
Get it... Ben's thoughts echoed.
Ben's body lurched forward, and his hand snatched at nothing. Nathan's hand had drifted forward, and his eyes were closed again. There were swirls of energy collecting around the Thorn, and that made the impulses driving Ben get stronger, more insistent.
Get it... Get it...
Why... Ben tried again. The SUV swerved violently, tossing Ben back against the seat. The jolt shook his thoughts loose, and he stared down at his twitching hands. Wait... no...
Ben was ready this time. He fought the shaking in his bones, and retreated from the words erupting in the back of his mind. He was going to fight. He was going to stop listening. He was going to.. going to... His body lurched forward again, jerking like a marionette on breaking strings.
I... Ben hung on to the thought, the only thing he had left that was still his own. ... I don't want to get it for you! He had to believe in himself. Those angry words, they weren't coming from him. He had to hang on to what was still his. Who are you?
His hand snatched at the Thorn again, nearly catching hold. His fingertips drifted across a string of delicate hematite beads. They were warm to the touch, and something about feeling them was encouraging. He leaned in harder, waiting for Nathan's hand to stray back into reach again.
Why am I doing this?
The rear window exploded. Ben felt bits of glass sink into his back and shoulders before he heard the shot. Shots. There were bullets whizzing past his ears, taking bits out of the seat in front of him. The chunk of stuffing an inch from his eyes could so easily have been a piece of his brain, teased out of its casing and flapping in the air.
Panic shook loose the last grip Ben had on anything. His mind surrendered, and he spun down into the black.