“Thirteen-point-six million dollars?” Rachel’s already large eyes bulge out even further.
Martha Cullingsworth, our real estate agent, nods with exaggerated sympathy. “And that’s not even in the upper ranges of prices for a five-plus bedroom house with seclusion and an ocean view here in Corona Del Mar.”
Rachel shoots me an are-you-sure-about-this wide-eyed glance, then exhales dramatically. Wearing a slight grin, Steve Kelley, her foster father, puts his arm gently on her shoulder.
“This house is really beautiful,” I begin, glancing around the modern looking, two story stucco-and-glass structure. “The view is amazing, as is the private gate down to the ocean.”
“And don’t forget the three car garage!” Ms. Cullingsworth says. “That’s a real find around here.”
“But my sister is right,” I continue, pretending to not notice she interrupted me. “This is over our budget.”
Ms. Cullingsworth looks at Mr. Kelley.
“I’m the one buying,” I tell her politely, but pointedly.
“Oh,” our agent says, her well-rehearsed smile not quite hiding her surprise that a just-turned nineteen year old girl is in the market for a multi-million dollar beach house. “Please forgive me, Steve didn’t mention he was calling for a…relative?”
Steve and I aren’t related—but Rachel and I are, in a way. Her Sedu father is the brother of my Sedu brother, making both of us Sedumen of the House of Keroz, and Rachel my thirteen-year-old niece through our Sedu parentage. We usually just tell people we’re sisters.
“Uncle Steve knows I like to keep a low profile,” I answer.
And I do. I cover my short, dark-brown hair with a black baseball cap, and I hide my blue eyes behind black wraparound sunglasses, in case someone might recognize me.
“I see,” Ms. Cullingsworth says. “Are you…famous?”
I don’t want to reveal myself just yet. So I tell her the truth, while avoiding her question. “I’m from old money.”
“Oh, of course,” Ms. Cullingsworth agrees. I can’t tell if she believes me, but clearly she wants to remain on my good side.
“It’s still early, and this house is only the first you’ve looked at,” she says, her smile returning. “I have some others picked out to show you as well, most of which are under ten million, but I’m afraid the view isn’t as spectacular.”
“This one looks pretty amazing,” Jake holds out his phone to me. “It’s right off Little Corona beach, just past the corner of Poppy Avenue and Ocean Boulevard, so no seclusion, unfortunately. Google Street View shows there’s lots of foot traffic going by. That might be a deal killer. But this house has a private gate right next to the beach, and even though it’s really close to other houses, it’s separated by a tall shrub-covered wall, for even more privacy. And check it out—it’s selling for six-point-seven million, less than half the cost of the place we’re in now.”
“Ooh, that’s nice,” I say, taking Jake’s phone and scrolling through the pictures.
Rachel and Jake’s fourteen-year-old brother, Josh, huddle next to me so that they can also see the photos on Jake’s phone.
“I love the architecture,” Rachel says. “Not just pretty, but the stonework makes it look like it could be a real extension of our House.”
Our real estate agent looks puzzled, but I know exactly what Rachel means. Our noble House in the spirit world of Sediin resembles an ancient stone castle. Buying one here that resembled a medieval manor did have a nice symmetry to it.
“It’s supposed to have six bedrooms,” Jake adds. “And a two car garage accessible from a shared alleyway in back.”
From the ten pictures in the online gallery it’s clear that the property has more space than any other house located on the same block as the beach. But I can’t help notice there aren’t any photos of the inside.
“Is this house on your list?” I ask Ms. Cullingsworth.
“That’s not a public listing…I’m not sure how you…I hadn’t…” she stammers.
“Trust me, if information is available anywhere online, Jake can access it,” I say with a wry and proud smile toward Jake.
“Hey, it says ‘CCCS seventeen-ten-point-two’ in the realtor’s notes. What’s that?” Jake asks, pointing out the note to all of us on his phone.
“Those notes are specifically for realtor eyes only,” Mrs.Cullingsworth says, more than a little testily.
“Does that mean you won’t tell us what the note means?” Rachel demands.
Mrs. Cullingsworth sighs very heavily. “It refers to California Civil Code Section seventeen-ten-point-two.”
“Which states…?” Jake prods.
“When someone places an offer to purchase or rent the home in question, the real estate agent must disclose that someone died on the property within the last three years.”
“Do you know what happened?” I ask.
Our realtor takes a moment to compose herself.
“The homeowner went insane and murdered his baby son and wife,” she swallows, not making eye contact with any of us. “After that, only a few people have ever looked at the house before the bank took down the public listing and marked it as private, to be shown by appointment only.”
“How terrible,” I say. “Is that why you didn’t want to show us the house?”
“Well…with so many nice properties here in Orange County…”
“There’s another reason?”
“I…they say…I’ve never been in the house myself…so I can’t really…” Ms. Cullingsworth twitters uncomfortably.
“What do they say, Ms. Cullingsworth?”
“That the house is haunted.”
“Ooh!” Rachel’s big blue eyes light up. “How would that even work?”
“Well,” Ms. Cullingsworth begins. “Rumors are people have heard sounds, bizarre drawings just appear on the walls…there some conjecture that a ghost drove the previous homeowner insane.”
I can’t help but grin a little. Ms. Cullingsworth probably thought Rachel was asking a general question about haunting. That’s not what Rachel was asking—she was asking me how a being from the parallel spirit universe could “haunt” a house. We were told that spirits can’t enter the physical universe. Did one find a way?
By the look on Rachel’s face, the mystery excited her.
“I…I’m not saying I believe in that sort of thing—but I think being cautious is prudent. I mean, after the dead coming back to life and all that ‘firebird’ stuff, who knows what’s real and what isn’t anymore…”
Rachel, Jake, Josh, and I look at each other. Is now the time to tell her everything? I don’t mind telling her the truth—I already revealed my identity at a televised press conference in the Los Angeles Federal Building two months ago. But it’s not like I’m some movie heroine or singer that everyone loves. I fought and killed things for real. Even those who accept that I’m not their enemy, understand that I’m dangerous.
And maybe it’s better that way. I didn’t quite think through the repercussions when I went public. Life on Earth was being threatened; I needed people to understand I was on their side. But I’m also shy. I don’t want to do ten million interviews a day to talk about the parallel universe of Sediin or explain why the beings there look like demons right out of mythology or the Bible or something. I’m cool with the Department of Homeland Security having my number if there’s a national or global threat, and I’m ready and willing to help—I’d just like to be left alone while I’m not in hero mode. So I don’t want people to fear me, but if I make them nervous enough to want to give me some distance, that doesn’t seem so bad.
Anyway, as soon as Martha Cullingsworth learns who I really am she’s going to treat me differently. I won’t lie to her—the motto of my House is “there are no lies in the House of Keroz”—but I’m definitely gonna dance around my identity as long as I can.
Steven Kelley approaches our relator. “You can show us that house, if we ask?”
“Oh, of course. I’d need to call my office first, but it shouldn’t be a problem. Are…are you sure?”
A wide grin dawns across Rachel’s face. She’s sure as sure can be.
I turn to Jake and Josh Harman. They’re not Sedumen like us. I look for any signs of fear or anxiety on their faces. If the idea bothers them, I’ll ask them to leave it to us.
“I dunno,” Jake says, a wry grin forming. “I kinda think all that ‘firebird stuff’ will keep us safe.”
Josh looks a little more nervous. But he sees Rachel’s enthusiasm, and his brother’s total confidence in me, and relaxes. “Yeah, sounds good.”
“Alright, I’ll just be a moment,” Ms. Cullingsworth sighs, and she walks out of the house ahead of us, pulling out her phone and holding it to her ear. “Hello, Delores?” she speaks into her handset.
When the real estate agent is no longer listening to us, Josh turns to me. “So if you and Rachel tell people you’re sisters, Rachel is the Kelley’s foster daughter, but you call them uncle and aunt, how does that work?” Josh teases.
“It works because we want it to work, so don’t be a dork,” Rachel answers.
“Oh, I’m the dork? Nerd,” Josh returns.
“I think I’m a little old to be adopted by the Kelleys,” I smile, and turn to Steve. “But in a sense, you guys practically have adopted me. I’ve been living with you on and off for nearly a year, and you’re the closest I have to parents. Do you mind if I call you Uncle Steve and Aunt Linda?”
“We’d love that,” Steve smiles.
“Okay, we’re all set,” Ms. Cullingsworth pokes her head back into the house. “Let’s go. We’ll have to find street parking, as I don’t think garage is unlocked, and we can’t block the back alley.”
“Great, thanks,” I say. Ms. Cullingsworth heads to her car, Jake and I get in his Subaru BRZ, and Josh and Rachel ride with Steve.
Finding parking near the beach is never easy, but we manage to find space around Poinsettia and Ocean just a short distance away from our destination. I don’t mind the walk; it’s a beautiful, sunny Monday—hot, but the ocean breeze cools us down. The late morning sun glistens off the Pacific as small waves gently glide onto the sand of Corona Del Mar State Beach. The last few morning surfers climb out of the water, while a few families begin to spread out on towels and enjoy an early lunch in the Southern California sun.
We arrive at the one-person iron gate to the property.
“Well, here we are,” Martha Cullingsworth informs us, the twitching at the corners of her mouth the only outward indication of her nerves. She reaches for the plastic realtor lock, twists her universal key, and pushes open the gate. “Let’s give it a look, shall we?”
The gate opens to a paved, curving, walkway, with high walls on both sides insuring that prying eyes along the sidewalk can’t see the grounds or property. I like that. Past the walkway, an impressively lawn stretches from the building to the outer shrub-covered walls. It’s not a huge space—no beach property has a huge space—but it’s enough for dogs to stretch their legs, or for an outdoor barbecue.
We congregate before the large front door, and Ms. Cullingsworth inhales deeply. “Here goes,” she smiles nervously, unlocks the door, and with a creak pushes the door inward.
A simultaneous loud screech and growl echo throughout the house and somewhere within we hear a door slams shut.
Martha Cullingsworth jumps nearly a foot in the air. She grabs the doorknob to pull the door shut, but I thrust out my arm to hold it open.
“I’ll go first,” I tell her.
“Are you sure? I’ve got some really wonderful—”
“We’re sure,” Rachel tightens her lips to suppress a grin.
I turn to Rachel with a quick, tight-lipped smile, then back to our realtor. “Ms. Cullingsworth, please stay outside if you’re not comfortable. Rachel and I are going to look around.”
“Well, technically you’re not allowed in here without an agent present,” she protests meekly.
I step into the house, Rachel by my side.
“I think we’re beyond ‘technically,‘” Jake offers one of his disarming ear-to-ear grins that lights up his entire face as he walks by her. “You’ve been great to us, really. So if you’d rather hang here, Please do.”
Jake’s charm puts her a little more at ease. “Well, I’m sure it was just the wind creaking through the house…” she says. “Okay, let’s all go.”
The empty, two-story high front room features four gigantic windows. Sunbeams illuminate thick layers of dust, heightening the contrast with the darker crevices shrouded in shadows. Cobwebs fill every crack and corner.
“Do you think we could leave the front door open?” Steve asks, echoing what we we’re all thinking as we gag on the stale air.
“That’s a great idea,” our realtor nods. “Well, I don’t know this property myself, so please feel free to look around,” our realtor says as she steps further inside. She tries to keep her voice steady but it’s obvious she’s unnerved. She and “Uncle Steve” chat near the door, her hand never leaving the knob.
Jake, Josh, Rachel, and I slowly pace throughout the open front area, noting how the two story wall next to the stairwell is perfect for a huge mirror that would serve as our portal to Sediin. I love the open space; I’ll bet when it’s not so musty it’s breezy and cool, one of the advantages to living right on the beach. We walk through the dark, dusty dining area into the narrow but long kitchen. Rachel goes off on the dusty and old kitchen appliances, and pretty soon we’re comparing them to the modern appliances in the Kelley’s kitchen. Jake takes the opportunity to excuse himself—he’s the tech god of “Team Firebird,” and he wants to check out the wiring outside.
Josh gently taps Rachel’s arm. She nods, and he returns to the front room as we keep discussing what little we know about kitchen renovation, joking about how neither of us can really cook, but Linda Kelly is a great cook, and we just know she’d love teaching both of us. Pretty soon, we’re laughing about what we’d like to make first in our new kitchen, tracing patterns in the dust on the oven and counters with our fingers.
Eventually the two of us head back to the front room, passing Steve and Martha on our way to an unlit hallway next to the stairwell. The short hallway has one door on the right, then ends in another door. The first door reveals a small bathroom. We cautiously open the second door and find a small dusty room with another door leading to a closet.
“Jesus!” Josh shrieks from upstairs.
Damnit! Why did I let anyone wander off alone? Stupid!
I turn to Rachel; before I can open my mouth, Rachel’s eyes begin to glow and she bounds out of the room faster than I’ve ever seen her move—I’m fast, but not that fast. I race after her. As I turn the corner she grabs the railing of the stairs. She vaults herself up the entire staircase in one bound. I climb the stairs quickly, two steps at a time, but there’s no way I can do that.
At the end of the hallway I see an open door, Josh breathing hard and standing in the doorway, Rachel—her eyes huge, glowing red orbs in her little head, her skin darker than her long brown hair and hard like an insect shell—stands in front of him, one of her arms reaching backwards, her hand protectively palming his chest. She holds her Sedu blade dagger in her other hand.
Josh sees me as I dash toward them and moves out of my way. Enough sunlight penetrates the room that we’re sure nothing lurks in the dark corners. The beams also illuminate what freaked Josh out: bizarre, creepy drawings overlap and cover every inch of the room.
Scrawled using uneven strokes in single colors, a few of the images appear drawn by a black, chalk-like substance; others a red substance that looks more like blood than paint; and more than half the drawings seem scratched in what looks like blue goo.
The individual paintings don’t seem related. There are depictions of sunsets and sunrises; impressionistic sketches of people, animals, and what look like dinosaurs; drawings of spider webs, spirals, weird veiny things; and some shapes and creatures I couldn’t identify if my life depended on it.
“Everyone okay,” Jake pants as he arrives behind us. “Holy crap,” he adds as he looks around the room.
“Yeah,” I nod. “Crazy, huh?”
Jake points to a drawing of a strange, veiny looking building. “Doesn’t that look familiar?”
Rachel turns to him with a puzzled expression. “Not to me. Is it from a game?”
Jake slowly shakes his head, thinking hard.
“Yeah, I don’t…” and then it comes back to me.
“The Firstlands,” I tell Rachel.
She shoots me a quizzical look. “They drew like that on the walls?”
“No, but the beings there, the Rishonim, looked like some of those weird alien things on the wall, and their buildings looked like those drawings, there,” I point toward some of the etchings of bizarre creatures. “The Rishonim formed The Firstlands long before we existed, and they copied the shapes of elder beings from a more ancient part of our universe.”
Rachel nods, her eyes and skin back to normal. “You mentioned facing that crazy Rishon monster, but not the buildings.”
“The Rishon and Greater Mazzikim bled blue goo, like that,” Jake points at one of the paintings.
“Guys,” Josh whispers urgently.
We turn around and see he’s pointing at the door to the closet. A dim, greenish-blue glow escapes from underneath the closed door.
Rachel turns to me. Her eyes begin to glow again.
I shake my head. Not now. Not here. Not yet.
Rachel understands. She closes her eyes and regulates her breathing, reining in her Sedu self. By the time Steve and Ms. Cullingsworth creep their way to the room, Rachel looks normal again.
“Oh my…” Ms. Cullingsworth swallows, practically shaking. “I’m so sorry you had to see this. Come, let’s get going. I’ve got a whole list of—”
“We still have five doors to check out,” Rachel says.
Ms. Cullingsworth turns to me, trying to maintain her composure but clearly rattled to her core.
“We’ll just quickly check out the rest of the upstairs,” I assure her. “We’ll meet you outside.”
Our realtor doesn’t answer, but when she sees the rest of us shuffle toward the other rooms, she resignedly follows us. I open every door myself, with Rachel right next to me, just in case we find more eerie drawings, glowing closets—or worse.
Thankfully, there’s no more surprises. The bathroom is small and dusty. Three other bedrooms are small and dusty. The master bedroom is larger and has an attached bathroom—both dusty. I thank Mrs. Cullingsworth and we walk down the stairs and outside. She closes the door cautiously, and breathes a sigh of relief as she re-locks the door.
“That was quite the adventure, wasn’t it?” Ms. Cullingsworth exhales. “Now then, not too far from here I’ve chosen a beautiful little—”
“I love it,” Rachel says, completely ignoring our realtor. “I’ll bet that Daeba will love it too. We can handle whatever is in there.”
Ms. Cullingsworth’s eyes beg me to disagree with Rachel. But Rachel’s right. I’m not just buying a cute little home for myself, I’m looking for a place that could be the headquarters for an entire team of “heroes” from both Earth’s physical universe and Sediin’s spirit universe. I could pick a far cheaper headquarters farther from the water, but Zaebos, my dearest Mazzik warrior friend and captain of my Mazzikim honor guard, and his mate Daeba, love sunsets over the ocean. As beach houses go, these grounds are pretty much as separated and private as I can reasonably get here in Orange County. Add the “haunted house discount” and this place seems pretty hard to beat.
“I’ll take it,” I say.
“I’ll take it,” I repeat. “This is the house for us.”
“Can I at least show you—”
“No,” I cut her off. “This is everything we need, right here. I can pay cash. Well, not cash, exactly. I mean, I have it in the bank, I don’t need a loan. Or does cash really mean ‘cash’ and people who buy houses like this need to hand over a briefcase full of bills?”
Martha Cullingsworth smiled faintly at that, but it wasn’t enough to lighten her mood. “Please, dear. Steve and I have known each other for years, and he knows I’m not a jumpy person, but this house…I mean, if you were that ‘Firebird’ person that would be one thing, but I couldn’t live with myself if I sold you this house and something happened…”
I remove my cap and sunglasses.
She peers deeply into my face, clearly recognizing me but not quite able to place where. So I give her another clue: I reach inside my Sedu self, and my blue eyes begin to flame.
She gasps and takes a step back, beginning to tremble again. “You are that Firebird girl!”
“Lady Firebird, in the flesh,” I rein in my flames. “Please, just call me Alex.”
“And I’m her mistress, Stinger!” Rachel adds proudly, her own eyes glowing red.
I watch the combination of excitement, dread, and wonder play on our realtor’s features in equal measure. This is what I was worried about. I try to stand still and seem as friendly and gentle as I can.
“You knew?” Martha Cullingsworth turns to Steve.
“I found out when the world found out,” he admits.
“Is it—are they—are you—?”
“We’re all just human,” Steve smiles. “And yeah, we were pretty freaked out at first. But Alex and Rachel are the same kind, caring young women they were before we found out, and we love them.”
After a moment, her trembling stops. I can see something click in her expression. She exhales slowly with a thin but genuine smile.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you two,” Ms. Cullingsworth says. “So you’re from here? From Orange County? Does that hurt your eyes? Can you see when they’re all…like that?”
“I can see,” I say. “It doesn’t hurt, although it can be exhausting. I’m from here originally, Rachel is from Chicago. Please keep that private, though. Realtor-buyer privilege, if there is such a thing.”
“Of course. And I understand now that you can handle this house—but why would you want to? There’s so many other properties out there that aren’t potentially housing nasty surprises.”
“I think this will make a great ‘Firebird Manor,‘” I answer, hoping my naming the house makes it less intimidating. “Besides, think of it this way: if there really is something horrible in there, and we take care of it, not only do I get an amazing house, but I potentially save the lives of others. That appeals to me.”
Martha Cullingsworth sighs. “Okay. This house it is.”
“Since this house has been on the market, quietly, for nearly three years, how about placing an initial bid of maybe five-point-seven million?” Steve suggests. “The worst the bank will do is refuse the bid. Considering you’re tendering a cash offer on a property with a negative reputation, I’ll bet they’re willing to deal.”
“Okay, yeah,” I nod. “Oh, wait—Ms. Cullingsworth, does that screw you over?”
“Please, don’t worry about me,” she says, this time with a genuine smile. “I’m getting the entire commission, not splitting it with another realtor, so I’ll do well. Thank you for asking.”
“You’re welcome. How long does it take to bid on a house? I’d like to have it right now, if possible. Can you just—”
“Slow down, Alex,” Steve Kelley jumps in. “Outside of bidding, even paying in cash you should at least do a title search, to find out what kind of back taxes are owed on this property. That will take a few days. If any are owed, ordering a payoff will take another few days. I can’t imagine the process taking less than a week, and that’s crazy fast. You can keep staying with us as long as it takes, don’t worry.”
“Thanks, it’s just that…” I turn to Ms. Cullingsworth. “I don’t suppose you could leave the key for me?”
“I’m sorry, but even for you, I could get in trouble if I did that,” she says.
“We don’t need the key,” Rachel whispers.
Of course she’s right. I can be a grade A idiot sometimes.
“That’s fine, I understand. Okay, I’ll place the bid now, and start the process.”
“Wonderful!” Ms. Cullingsworth says, although I’m not sure how realistic her enthusiasm is. “We don’t even need to go to my office, I have all the paperwork in my car.”
“That’s great, do you mind getting it and bringing it here? I’d like to talk to my friends and family for a moment.”
“Sure thing, I’ll be back in just a moment.”
“I’ll go with you,” Steve says, and the two of them leave the property together.
“Okay, so Rachel—did you know you could jump a whole staircase like that?” I ask as soon as Ms. Cullingsworth is outside the grounds.
Rachel shakes her head. “I just grabbed the rail and tried to skip as many stairs as I could. I didn’t stop to think about it, I just ran to the room.”
“You jumped the whole staircase?” Josh marvels.
“To save…because I screamed?”
Rachel looks at her feet bashfully. “You might have been in trouble,” she shuffles.
“Thanks,” Josh says, his eyes saying far more than his words.
She gazes up at him with a warm smile.
“Can Vetis leap like that?” I ask.
“I never asked, and Dad never said,” Rachel answers, snapping out of her moment with Josh. “But his Sedu form is a bug after all—sort of a mix of bugs. Maybe he’s part grasshopper.”
I snort out a laugh. Like the demons of human folklore and nightmares, every Sedu, Mazzik, and Ruhin forms a body that resembles an amalgam of different Earth animals. Vetis, Rachel’s greenish-gray Sedu father, has the head of a dragonfly, four praying mantis-like arms, and the legs on his five-foot-nine frame were a cross between insect and human.
“Well, it’s awesome, and I think you need to tell Garz so he can help you work up a fighting style that incorporates it.”
“Yeah! That would be cool!” Rachel bounces.
My brother looks like a classic reptilian humanoid demon—eight feet tall, huge horns, incredibly muscular. No hooves or tail, though. For months of Earth time, but years in Sediin time, Garz has been training us to fight and to use our Sedu powers. He may not be able to leap like Rachel himself, but I had no doubt he could incorporate leaping into the fighting styles he’s teaching her.
“Rachel, you totally rock,” Jake says. “Back to this place for a second. Alex, do you really think that the guy is innocent, and that some kind of Rishon or Greater Mazzik from The Firstlands killed his family?”
“I don’t know,” I shrug. “But if one of them escaped to this universe, I could imagine that it would drive someone crazy, that’s for sure.”
“Crazy enough to kill his own family?” Josh asks.
“Maybe,” I shrug.
“But the Firstlands crumbled before humans even existed, right?” Rachel says.
“Right,” I confirm. “Maybe it came to Earth after The Firstlands started falling apart.”
“How could it stay that long, though?” Rachel asks.
“Well, we use the gemstones of Azziz, which contain the spirit of a Sedu, to let humans survive in Sediin. Maybe they have something similar.”
“Could the greenish-blue glow I saw under the closet door have something to do with that?” Josh asks.
“It might. Maybe the guy saw the glow, opened the closet, he went crazy and that thing murdered his family? Jake, can we visit this guy? He’s got to be in a jail or institution or something, right?”
“Yeah,” Jake nods, pulling out his phone again. “He might have been moved upstate though.”
“You’re checking now, aren’t you?” I grin.
He smiles back.
“Hey, would Kesed know if a Rishon or Greater Mazzikim escaped to Earth? He used to be the Greater Rishon, right?” Rachel asks.
“Good call. He was melded to his throne for millions of years, maybe more. But with his mystic vision, I think he watched over every being in The Firstlands. We definitely need to find out more about what we’re dealing with before we take it on.”
“So you’re gonna open that closet?” Josh swallows nervously.
“Not yet,” I assure him. “A Rishon is more powerful than even a Sedu. And if it’s a Greater Mazzik, it’s still probably more than a match for us. I want to get a sense of what it might be from the guy who lived here, and then talk to Kesed.”
“Nathan Reynolds,” Jake lifts his head. “I checked the archives of the Orange County Register. He was arrested for murdering his family about two years and eight months ago. The article says he was a stark raving lunatic, drawing pictures on the walls and screaming all the time. When they doped him up enough to stop raving, he tried to kill himself.”
“Sounds like our man,” I kick back an awful taste in my mouth, imagining what might have happened. A terror from the parallel universe murders his family, drives him crazy…I wonder if he feels that his family got the better deal.
“Yeah…says here, they found a shotgun on him, and his wife and baby son were both shot up. That doesn’t really sound like a Rishon, does it?” Jake notes.
“But they’re smart like a Sedu or a Mazzik, right?” Rachel says.
“Yeah, it could have set up the crime scene to look like a human murder,” I agree.
“He’s being held in Metropolitan State Hospital—that’s the closest Department of State Hospitals facility. It’s in Norwalk, about an hour away. I’m looking it up now…” Jake buries himself in his phone again. “Okay, visiting hours for penal code inmates for this morning are basically over, but begin again at one in the afternoon. That’s enough time for to call ahead and make sure we can see him. We can say we’re his second cousins or something.”
“All four of us?” Rachel asks.
“Yeah, that might not work,” Jake frowns.
“Hey…um…” Josh interjects.
“This is kinda off topic, but maybe not. Have you thought about…” Josh pauses, clearly trying to choose his words carefully. “I know you’re not, like, ‘Super Jew’ or anything, but you’re gonna put a Mezuzah on your door…right?”
I couldn’t help but smile.
“I’ve not thought about getting a Mezuzah,” I say. “But I’m happy to. I don’t know the proper Hebrew prayer for putting one up, though.”
“That’s cool, I do. And you might want to get more than one. But here’s why I bring it up: do you think that would have any, like, power over whatever is in there? I mean, to keep it inside or ward it away? You know, like a cross to a vampire or something?”
Rachel shakes her head, smiling.
“It’s a nice thought, Josh, but I’m afraid no Jewish or Christian religious symbol will have any power over a being from The Firstlands or Sediin. Our religious relics are just for our sake.”
“You know, you don’t need to go with Alex and I to talk to Mr. Reynolds,” Jake tells his brother. “I’m not sure what the rules are regarding minors visiting the criminally insane, you might need parents or something anyway. Besides, we’re the two of us who have been to The Firstlands. Why don’t you and Rachel go Mezuzah shopping, and we’ll meet back at the Kelleys before we talk to Kesed.”
Josh turns to Rachel.
“Yeah, okay,” she nods. “I should probably look for Bat Mitzvah invitations and stuff too, I should send those out soon anyway.”
“Okay, that’s cool,” Josh says.
“When Ms. Cullingsworth comes back and I sign those papers, I’ll ask Mr. Kelley if he’ll take you to the Golden Dreidel. It’s close to the Kelley’s house in Irvine, I’m sure he won’t mind,” I say.
Right on cue, I hear the gate being unlocked as our realtor and Mr. Kelley return.
Jake suggests we alert Detective Sergeant Hector Godinez what we’re doing. To us, Detective Godinez isn’t simply the “known associate of Lady Firebird” in the Irvine Police Department. He’s a friend. Besides, he might also have some useful information. Jake dials the number on his iPhone, and we hear it ring through his Subaru’s audio system.
“Jake,” Detective Godinez says as the call connects.
“And Alex. Hi Detective,” I say.
“How’s house hunting?”
“Great—and now we’re off to Metropolitan State Hospital to interview a mental patient there.”
“Nothing can be straightforward with you, can it?” he chuckles. “Please tell me you’re not about to do something dangerous.”
I can’t help but smile. I know how much he cares about me, being nearly an uncle to me and godfather to Rachel. “I’ll do my best,” I promise.
I tell the detective about the house, our experience with the strange noises, drawings, and glow, and what we’ve learned about Nathan Reynolds.
“You sure you don’t want to put an offer on a nice little duplex somewhere else?” Godinez sighs. “Be prepared that you may not get too much out of Mr. Reynolds. I’ve just looked him up and my database lists him as a thirteen-seventy—that’s the penal code for incompetent to stand trial.”
“I know we might be wasting our time, but if there is something in that house that drove this guy insane and killed his family, it could be a danger to the entire area. I want to take care of it fast, and the more we know about it the better.”
“Things have been quiet around that house for years, Alex. Are you sure you’re not pursuing this simply because you’re intrigued?”
“I’ll admit it, I am. We are. But what if we woke something horrible up? What if it smelled two Sedumen walking into the house, and that drives it outdoors? I think my concern is justified. And seriously, Detective—it’s an amazing house!”
“I’m sure it is,” he says. “Okay, let me see….the hospital administrator’s name is Lawrence French. If you have any issues, he’s the person in charge. And please be nice to them, they have a tough job.”
“We will, thanks Detective,” I say.
“Let me know how it goes. And please stay safe. Take care,” he says, then disconnects the call.
We get to the large, red brick Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk just after one in the afternoon. Jake parks and I put on my sunglasses and cap. We walk inside, giving our names to the administration desk. Since Jake called ahead, we were on their list of guests. We each fill out a pretty basic information sheet, then affix a name tag to our shirt. We stand around the desk until an intern comes to get us. He guides us through the hospital silently until we get to a locked white door with a small, bared window.
He unlocks the door and ushers us into a plain white room with a number of round tables and plastic chairs and a door at the opposite end. Most of the tables are empty. A completely spaced out guy sits next to a medical professional of some sort at a table near the opposite door. Across from him is what I’m guessing are two family members. As we walk in, I notice that there is a guard standing by each door.
The intern pulls out a chair for me at a table just to the right of the door we just entered. He tells us Mr. Reynolds should be brought in shortly. We thank him and he leaves. I turn to Jake. I’m a little nervous—I’m always nervous when I have to talk to people I’ve never met before—but I can tell that he’s excited to be helping out. His enthusiasm raises my mood.
My mood drops as soon as the door opposite us opens. A gray-haired psychiatrist in a brown suit a few shades lighter than his skin escorts a pale, skinny guy in a white hospital outfit who is so glazed over that he’s practically drooling. And that’s who the psychiatrist sits down across from us. Great. I try not to let my disappointment show, and to smile at Mr. Reynolds.
“Thank you for coming,” his psychiatrist begins. “The rules are a little different regarding patients in Penal Code Program Three, so I’ll be sitting in with you during your visit.”
Not the start I was hoping for. I didn’t think about the fact that they might have someone sitting with him. I guess I just assumed that for people in the criminal justice system they’d have one of those visiting rooms you see on TV, where you’re across the glass from the person and you speak through a telephone. That way, we could just tell Nathan who we were privately. Now what?
“No problem,” Jake says. “Thanks for allowing us here on such short notice.”
“Cousins?” Nathan Reynolds slowly draws out, his expression blank.
“Yes,” the psychiatrist says. “These are your second cousins, up from Orange County.”
Reynolds slowly cranes his neck toward the psychologist. “No cousins,” he says, his expression just as empty as before.
“Why don’t you want to see your cousins?” the psychiatrist asks. “You get so few guests. How are we supposed to greet our guests, Nathan?”
I’m conflicted. Part of me wants to tell the psychiatrist that he misunderstood, and Reynolds was explaining we’re not really related. But would that get us kicked out? Should I let the psychiatrist think what he wants, and run with it? It wouldn’t be truthful, but it’s not like I’d be telling a lie…
No. There are no lies in the House of Keroz. That means I shouldn’t let a lie stand. I’ll just ask my question, come clean, and go.
“Nathan, tell me about the monster.”
Boy, that gets his attention. Reynolds’s far away stare focuses like a laser right on me. His mouth tightens. He starts trembling.
“In the house. In Corona Del Mar.”
His expression turns more than cold. More than angry. Twisted. Brutal.
“Monster?” he asks, raising his voice.
“Okay,” the psychiatrist pushes out his chair. “This line of questioning is clearly escalating Mr. Reynolds, and I’m calling an end to the visit.”
He motions to the guard nearest us, and he comes over to help Nathan out of his seat.
“Monster!” he yells. “Monster!“
“Okay, Nathan, let’s go,” the psychologist stands, holding Mr. Reynolds’s arm and shooting daggers at me with his eyes.
“A little help?” he says to the guard.
Jake and I stand up too. Nathan Reynolds seems to know what I’m talking about, and I want some kind of answer.
“Yes, the monster. What did it look like? Can you describe it to me?”
“That’s quite enough!” the psychologist shouts.
“Two mouths!” Nathan Reynolds shouts, his expression wild. “Four arms!”
The security guard at the other side of the room quickly grabs the patient at the other table and whisks him through the far door, while the doctor escorts his visitors out the door to our left. As the guard behind us sprints to our table he glares at us like we’re lepers.
“Okay, Nathan, just calm down. Let’s go back to your room,” the psychiatrist grabs one arm, the security guard the other, as Nathan struggles to lunge toward us. Jake steps back nervously.
“Eyes!” Reynolds widens his own eyes for emphasis. “So many eyes!” he screams, trying to move his restrained arms up to his head, and then motioning them outward, like his head is exploding, or rays of light emanating from his head—or something else.
“Eyestalks? Its eyes were on eyestalks?”
“Eyes!” he keeps screaming. “Eyes!”
“Would you shut up!” the psychiatrist demands.
Four more security guards run in. One of them replaces the psychiatrist on Nathan Reynolds’s arm. The other stands in front of Mr. Reynolds, and draws his baton. I didn’t want to get Nathan beaten!
“Is that necessary?” I point at the baton.
“It wouldn’t have been if you didn’t activate his psychotic delusions!” the psychiatrist spits. “Just what do you think you’re playing at?”
I see that the two security guards have a strong hold on Reynolds and have lifted him off the ground. The guard in front of Reynolds puts a hand on his chest, but doesn’t hit him, to my relief. The three security guards carry him through the far door, Nathan screaming the whole way.
“Sorry,” Jake says. “We’ll be leaving.”
The two other security guards move between us and the door.
“Not so fast,” the psychologist says. “Who are you two? Why did you instigate him? How do you know what his delusions are?”
A voice in my head tells me that the right thing to do is to calmly sit back down and answer his questions. But my indignation at seeing two security guards blocking the door, the psychologist yelling at me, and seeing Jake nervous, drowns that voice out.
“Sorry,” I say curtly. “We didn’t know we’d cause this mess. We’ll go.”
“I want some answers, young lady!”
Jake pulls out his phone and starts typing furiously. A security guard grabs his arm, startling Jake. The other one steps toward me.
I go ballistic.
I grab the wrist of the guard restraining Jake, willing my hand to heat up. After a second, he cries out and lets go, holding his red wrist and staring at me in shock. He reaches for his baton. He’s a tall, heavy guy but I reach into my Sedu spirit, pulling out my Sedu strength. I grab his arm and knee him in the gut. He grabs his stomach with both hands and I shove him into the other security guard like he was a child. both of them tumble to the floor.
I shake my head so that my cap and sunglasses fall off, and I will my hair and eyes to both ignite, and my skin to thicken and darken. Finally, just because I’m pissed off, I extend my canine teeth into fangs.
“Back off!” I growl.
“What the hell?” the psychologist backs up. “You’re that firegirl—what are you doing in my hospital, messing with my patients?”
“I didn’t mean to mess with your patient! I just needed to ask a few questions.”
The door swings open and a tall, older white man in a blue suit enters the room. He takes a brief moment to appraise the situation, sighs, and addresses the psychologist.
“Paul, apparently a detective in Orange County is reopening Mr. Reynolds’s case. There’s circumstantial evidence the murders he was accused of committing may have been committed by a being from Lady Firebird’s universe.”
I look at the man’s hand, and see that he’s carrying a phone with him. I know exactly who Jake had texted.
“Are you Mr. French?” I ask, reining in my Sedu self and retuning my hair, eyes, skin and teeth to normal. “I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you directly, and that I came here before Detective Godinez had a chance to confer with you.”
I turn to the psychologist. “The creature he described exists, and may be running free.”
The psychologist takes a deep breath and slowly shakes his head. “Okay. I get it. And if you can get Mr. Reynolds’s status changed from a four-zero-one, acute penal code, to a four-one-zero, acute adult, that could be a big deal. But, look, it took us a long time—years—just to get him this stabilized. Now we’re back to square one, and it may take us years to get back to where he was this morning. That’s a big deal too. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” I respond.
“If you need anything else from Mr. Reynolds, or this hospital, please submit a formal request to me first,” Mr. French says. “The detective you’re working with can email me all the paperwork I require. We will then determine how best to accommodate your request. I don’t care where your from, or what things are like there, I will not have you lying your way into my hospital again. Am I clear?”
When he says it like that, I feel like I blew it big time.
“Yes, sir. I just wanted to keep my presence here secret. You know how much attention I attract. I didn’t mean to do any harm or cause any problems.”
Mr. French nods, not unsympathetically, but sternly. “I understand. You have my word, we’ll keep your presence quiet here today. But I’m also going to ask you to please leave, and to make formal requests from now on.”
I pick up my cap and glasses, put them on, gently take Jake’s hand, and exit the hospital.
On the return drive, we call Detective Godinez and discuss everything that happened. In his kind way, he explains everything we did wrong, trying not to sound like he’s lecturing. Still, we feel chastened, and promise to plan things better next time.
We reunite with Rachel and Josh at the Kelley’s house. Rachel proudly displays her purchases. She chose a very nice set of Bat Mitzvah invitations, and Josh picked out two Mezuzot for us: a colorful stained glass Mezuzah for the front door of our house, and a more formal, silver medieval-looking one to place next to the portal mirror we’d install in the house. We compliment them on their selections, then the subject turns to Metropolis State Hospital. We tell them everything that happened.
“So does that creature sound like anything you saw in The Firstlands?” Rachel asks.
“Everything we saw looked different,” I say. “But various beings did have parts like that.”
“They didn’t drive Jake crazy, though,” Josh notes.
“Or did they?” Jake widens his eyes as a wry smile creeps across his mouth.
“Sometimes, I really wonder about you. Nerd,” Josh quips.
We snicker. Jake shakes his brother affectionately.
“Remember, I already knew about the spirit universe and all of its crazy beings. When your girlfriend can burst into flame, you learn to accept the incredible.”
I smile and caress Jake’s arm.
“The Rishonim and Greater Mazzikim freaked me the hell out, but seeing them didn’t challenge my concept of reality or anything.”
“Yeah,” Josh says. “So now what?”
“Now Rachel and I cross the portal and talk to Kesed,” I say.
Jake raises his eyebrows at me.
“And Jake, apparently,” I grin.
Josh nods, fidgeting next to Rachel. “So…um…”
“I know that you’ve seen Mazzikim already, and we’ve told you about the rest of the beings, but still, seeing them for the first time is pretty scary, even if they’re friendly…are you sure?” Rachel asks.
“Yeah, it’s cool,” Josh nods.
Rachel looks at me.
“If we have an extra gemstone of Azziz, it’s fine with me,” I say.
Of course, I know we do. Rachel didn’t want to urge Josh to accompany her to Sediin, because it is scary if it’s not your universe, but she’s been keeping an extra gemstone on a bracelet in her pocket for months, just in case he asked.
Rachel nods, and pulls the bracelet out of his pocket. “Hold out your wrist,” she says.
“Does it matter which one?” Josh asks.
He holds out his left arm and Rachel slides the bracelet over his hand onto his wrist. It fits snuggly, but not too tight.
“Don’t take that off under any conditions,” Rachel admonishes Josh. “As long as it’s on your wrist, you’re totally fine. Remove it, and you’ll disintegrate instantly.”
“Seriously?” Josh swallows.
“Dead seriously,” Rachel confirms.
Josh nods, a bit of fear behind his eyes. I wonder if he’s regretting his decision.
“Are we ready?” I ask.
Everyone says they are. I reach into my front pocket and pull out my sedu blade, currently shaped as a fountain pen. I will it to the shape of a curved dagger, and then reach out and slice the empty air from above my head to the floor. A black tear opens where my blade cuts.
“After me,” Rachel says, and she steps into the tear, with Josh, Jake, and then me following behind.
Crossing a portal is gut wrenching—literally. Rachel and I force our way through like we’re wading across a mud-filled swimming pool. Once across, our insides twist, our muscles spasm, and we fall to the ground writhing. And since Sediin is composed completely of spirit, there’s no air to breathe. Rachel and I can handle it, but it means that for a few minutes we’re in agony, our lungs feel like they’re collapsing in on themselves, and we gasp and grimace with the pain of our lungs getting used to pumping without anything flowing through them.
For Jake and Josh, the gemstone of Azziz smoothes their way into Sediin. Stepping through the portal into the House of Keroz is just like you’d expect from a Disney movie; they pass through easily, and arrive on the other side feeling the same as they did beforehand. If we didn’t love them so much, we’d hate them about now.
Garz assigns two Ruhin to the portal room at all times to greet us, just in case we decide to come through. As soon as the two small monkey-headed, raccoon-bodied Ruhin see us, they immediately leap up and start bouncing.
“Lady Firebird and her party have arrived!” they shout, running from the portal room into the main hall.
“Anything I can do?” Josh asks, visibly distressed at how wasted we are from crossing.
“Just give us a minute,” Rachel pants.
“My lady! My mistress! Here you are!” Zogo, our three-foot-tall, shellless-turtle-shaped Ruhin servant, runs into the portal room. He twists open the plastic caps and then and hands us one of the small bottles of water we keep on a shelf in the portal room. The water helps us catch our breath and center ourselves. “Did you come for the Happening?”
“There’s one now?” I wheeze.
“Oh yes! Kesed and Zedek—you must see for yourselves!”
“Um…what’s a Happening?” Josh asks.
“It’s like a talent contest, open mike night, festival type of thing,” I explain.
That’s when I hear the pounding and plucking. I’d attended other Happenings before, and I’d cringed at the un-harmonic tones coming out of what passed for musical instruments here. This time, I hear the manic, unbridled laughter of Kesed over the top of it.
Zogo’s huge red eyes quiver, like they might flood at any moment. “As soon as your ready, My lady…”
“Of course,” I nod. Rachel and I stand up as soon as we’re able, and we all exit the portal room.
The Mazzikim and Ruhin of the House line the sides of the great hall, leaving the center of the room open. Across from the portal room, five Ruhin play the bizarre musical instrument familiar to me from previous Happenings—sorta like a steel drum with the sides strung with untuned metal strings. The five of them bang away with out any pretense of keeping a beat, and plucking strings seemingly at random, with no sense of coherence or melody.
In the middle of the room, Kesed, the twenty-foot-tall, purple-skinned and androgynous Greater Rishon, holds Zedek, the twenty-foot-tall, purple-scaled, bearded-dragon Greater Sedu. Zedek stands upright, his front legs and talons around Kesed, his lower legs stepping and spinning with his partner, his huge wings tucked tightly against his back. Kesed and Zedek gaze into each other’s eyes like doe-eyed teenagers, and dance as elegantly as if the cacophony was a classic waltz.
Kesed laughs with unbridled joy, tears streaming from all three of his green eyes down his purple face.
Josh’s expression of wonder reminds me what all this must look like if you’re not used to it.
“Alex! Rachel!” he shouts while twirling with Zedek. “I haven’t danced since the days before time! And never with my love!”
I smile and wave.
“Join us!” Kesed throws back his head and lets forth another bout of manic laugher. “Dance! Dance with us!”
I’m trying to think of how to respond when Jake steps forward and holds out his hand. “May I have this dance, Lady Firebird?”
“I warn you,” I place my hand in Jake’s, “I can’t dance.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” Jake smiles as he guides my arms to his back, and places his arms around mine.
Jake leads us toward the center of the room, first stepping with his right foot, then his left, then pushing toward me and turning a bit. I follow his steps, looking down so as not to stomp on his feet. What we’re doing could hardly be considered ballroom dancing but somehow Jake latches onto something in the chaos of noise, and moves us to its timing.
It seems to be working. So far I’m not crushing his feet. I look up, smiling. It dawns on me that even though we’ve been together for almost a year, we’ve never danced together. His smile tell me he’s thinking it, too. His eyes tell me everything I’ve ever wanted him to say to me.
“Come on,” I hear behind us. We both turn to watch Josh attempting to coax Rachel onto the floor. I’m glad to see he’s come to terms with the weirdness enough to want to participate.
She shakes her head stiffly, staring straight ahead, bashfulness mixing with a slightly nauseous expression.
“It’s okay, I can dance,” Josh offers a slight, self-satisfied grin.
Rachel doesn’t budge.
“I’ll lead. Trust me,” Josh says.
I try to catch Rachel’s eye and give her some encouragement.
She slowly offers Josh her hand, and Jake and I turn back to each other as they make their way toward us.
“Yes!” Kesed laughs even louder. “Dance! Dance! Dance!”
“Jake, look to your left!” I whisper as we sway.
To our left, we spy my brother extending a hand to Pyza, the seven-foot-tall, red, fanged Sedu with the distinction of being the only female Sedu left after millennia of blood feuding. She has existed far longer than Garz, but she looks no older than he. With a formal smile she joins him.
Some of the Ruhin join in, either singly or in pairs. I wouldn’t call it dancing so much as spastically moving in circles, but they’re clearly enjoying themselves. Some of them have two legs and bounce, others have four legs and prance, and those with wings kind of flutter back and forth. The Mazzikim and Ruhin who don’t “dance” clap along—if they have hands, that is. The clapping is as cacophonous as the sounds coming from the instruments, and it renders the entire wall of sound impenetrable. But nothing can diminish Kesed’s joy. And it’s contagious—as absurd as the scene is, I’m loving it. And although she makes a valiant attempt to pretend otherwise, I can tell that Rachel is too. Even Garz smiles with Pyza.
After what feels like a long time, but not nearly long enough, the Ruhin finish banging their instruments, the clapping ends, and we stop. Kesed finally stops laughing, caressing Zedek’s scaly muzzle with his cheek. I take the opportunity to plant a tender, passionate kiss on Jake. He embraces me tightly, running his fingers through my hair.
“Kissing is kinda different when you don’t breathe, isn’t it?” Jake smiles when we pull away from each other.
I smile and pat his chest.
I didn’t see if Rachel or Josh kissed, but when I turn to them she seems flushed, and Josh looks very pleased with himself.
“Wonderful!” Kesed claps, a huge smile on his dark purple lips. “Thank you—all of you!”
Kesed turns to us, his eyes wide as if he’d just seen me for the first time in a thousand years. “Alex!”
He releases Zedek, who drops back to all four legs. Kesed quickly strides over to us; the spastic nature of his stepping startles Josh to the point his knees almost give way. Rachel holds him up and smiles, reassuring him.
Kesed stops directly in front of me and squats down so his head is closer to our height. “Oh, my sweet, sweet dear one!” he says, nearly sobbing. “I’m so glad you all could make it!”
Kesed reaches out and tenderly cups the back of my head and cheek in his large hand. His giant fingers feel soft against my head.
“And Rachel!” Kesed exclaims.
“Hi Kesed!” Rachel bounces slightly with a toothy grin.
“Come here, my sweet,” Kesed says, tears of joy still glistening on his purple face. Rachel steps forward and Kesed pats her head. “I’m glad that you and Josh decided to dance with us!”
“Aw, it was fun,” she shrugs, turning to give Josh a quick half-smile.
Kesed turns with her. “And you—you’re going to ask me how I know who you are.”
“Well…yeah,” Josh raises his eyebrows. “The thought crossed my mind.”
“It’s because I see things, little human. For I am Mercy, and mercy is everywhere.”
“Okay…” Josh figets, clearly having no idea what to say.
“Do I sound crazy to you?” Kesed widens his eyes dramatically. “Do I? Do I?” He giggles like a schoolgirl.
“Um…” Josh swallows nervously.
“Well I am!” Kesed cackles.
Josh turns to me, not quite scared, but pretty uncomfortable.
Kesed stops laughing, clears his throat, and puts on a serious, although still jovial, expression. “Not nearly so much as before, though. Zedek has been helping me find my thoughts again. I think I’ll always be a little touched…but I like it that way.”
“So do I, Kesed,” I smile.
“So is my dad around? I should tell him that I have a new Sedu power!” Rachel says.
Garz turns to Rachel. “They’ll be back any moment. What is this new power?”
“I discovered that I can jump super high and far. Can Dad do that?”
“Interesting—and congratulations, young Stinger,” my brother says. “I shall have to ponder how best to train you to use this offensively and defensively. And yes, I’ve seen Vetis jump like that.”
“Cool!” Rachel says. “So where is my dad right now?”
“Vetis chose to walk Jesse around the grounds with Daeba and Zaebos. The sound of the Happening reverberated throughout the House, and with Daeba’s day approaching, such sounds are too much for her,” Pyza explains. “And your dog, Jesse, was becoming agitated.”
“Less than a year! I’m so excited!” Kesed claps.
“A year? That’s not soon!” Josh says.
“Time is much faster in Sediin, remember?” Rachel says to Josh. “A month here is a day on Earth.”
“Oh, yeah—so she’s due in…less than two weeks. I get it,” Josh nods.
“And we’ll have a killer house for her when she returns to Earth!” Rachel beams.
“You came to speak of this house,” Zedek says. “I can sense it in you, Alex.”
Zedek, the Greater Sedu of Righteousness, and I, are friends—but in some ways, even closer. He can tell whenever I need him.
“Yeah. We found a perfect house, right by the beach…but we think it’s inhabited by a Rishon or Greater Mazzik from The Firstlands that might be killing people and driving others insane.”
“What?” Kesed rises, all the mirth drained from his expression. “Why do you think this?”
I relate to Kesed what we found in the house, and what Nathan Reynolds told us in Metropolis State Hospital.
“The glow you saw under the door was blue-green? Like this?” Kesed concentrates, and his third eye atop his other two eyes stops glowing solid green, and begins to glow aquamarine.
“Yeah,” Josh says. “Exactly like that.”
“It sounds like a Greater Mazzik from my palace,” Kesed sighs, his eye returning to its normal, solid green glow. “But I can’t understand how. My dwelling lasted longer than most, but it would have been hundreds of millions of Earth years ago that it collapsed to ruin. I had let my attention wander, but I was certain all my Greater Mazzikim either crumbled to dust, destroyed each other, or lost their minds—they went even madder than I, for I still held on to mercy—and love.” Kesed twists his head to give Zedek a smile.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” I say. “But is there, like, a gemstone of Azziz for Greater Mazzikim or something that could sustain it?”
Kesed shakes his head. “No gemstone like those could sustain a Greater Mazzik. I don’t know of—” Kesed’s eyes widen. He gasps and starts a frenzied conversation with himself. “The runes in the spirit chamber! One of those—maybe? Yes! How? I don’t know! But they were unstable—crumbling—maybe he found a way—Impossible? Incredible! I—I—I—”
“Um…Zedek?” I gently interrupt.
Zedek places a wing tenderly around Kesed. Kesed wraps himself in it and buries his head.
“Calmly, my love. What might have happened?”
Kesed closes his bottom two eyes to center himself, then opens them and raises his head. “As the palace of the Greater Rishon decayed, my power runes—runes similar to the ones in your spirit chamber, here in the House of Keroz—became unstable. So unstable I fused to my throne for untold millennia. Perhaps, a Greater Mazzik might have harnessed that spirit energy, and without a house to sustain, survived in your material realm.”
“And what would you have them do?” Zedek prods.
“Do?” Kesed asks Zedek, like he has no idea what he’s talking about. “Do!” he turns to us and shouts. “You must do! You must do…something!”
“Do you want us to destroy it?” I ask.
Kesed becomes very serious and stern. “That isn’t very merciful, is it Lady Firebird? If it was one of mine, it was a kind, merciful spirit—at least, originally.”
“But it’s killed humans—women and children.”
“Are you certain?”
“Well, no,” I admit. “ I know it’s driven at least one human insane. How merciful is that?”
“It isn’t,” Kesed agrees. “I wish to discover the truth and punish it myself. After all, I am still the Greater Rishon, while at least some of the spirits of The Firstlands exist.”
“So let me get this straight—we’re talking about a crazy beast that’s bigger and stronger than even a Sedu, and you want us bring it back to Sediin?” Rachel asks incredulously. “Will it just come running if we say your name?”
“The child is correct, my love. It might be too dangerous for them to confront the spirit,” Zedek suggests.
Kesed stretches himself as tall as his twenty-foot frame can stretch, takes a few steps backwards, and draws his ten-foot-long sword. “I shall accompany you, and I shall capture it!”
“That’s a great idea, Kesed, but I don’t think you’ll fit in the second floor of the house,” I apologize.
Kesed re-sheaths his sword and huffs grumpily.
“Why is Kesed’s sword drawn?” Zaebos asks. He and Daeba enter the great hall first. Zaebos appears noble as ever, the rust colored fur on his bear-sized but dog-shaped body matching his red, glowing irises perfectly. Daeba, however, appears haggard and ready to pop. Like Zaebos, she’s a large, bear-dog shaped Mazzik with two rows of razor sharp teeth, but her white fur is disheveled, her belly quite big, and her six nipples nearly descend all the way to the floor. Her blue eyes, however, signal that as uncomfortable as she seems, she’s happy.
Behind her, Vetis enters with Jesse our Rottweiler on a long leash. Jesse sees us and wants to run over to say hello. Vetis drops the leash and Jesse runs across the main hall and bounces between Jake, Rachel, and me, leaning hard against our legs and darting out her tongue at us. After we’ve had our joyous greeting, a tired Jesse turns to Daeba. She bows to us, takes Jesse’s leash in her teeth, and returns to her chambers.
“I will go,” Garz says. “I shall bring the Greater Mazzik back.”
I smile. “Garz, I can handle this. You’ve trained me well. I’ve survived fighting with Greater Mazzikim before.”
“But those were fights for survival. Attempting to apprehend without killing—or dying—is more difficult. Let us both go, then.”
“This is going to be my house, Garz. I know you want to help, and when we get back with the creature, you will. But I’d like to oversee the capture myself. And I won’t be alone. If I get injured, our Mazzikim will drag me back here, and our House will heal me.”
Garz sighs heavily, then slowly nods. “If our Mazzikim go with you, I shall feel better. I can create a net, as fine as silk but stronger than steel, that can hold the Greater Mazzikim.”
“You can count on me,” Zaebos bows his dog-like muzzle low to both Garz and me. “But it would help to know exactly of what you speak.”
“I’ll come too,” Vetis says. “Garz speaks of a net. No one here can throw as accurately as I can. Although Rachel comes closer all the time,” Vetis winks.
“Fess up, Dad; you just want to watch out for me,” Rachel teases.
“Not only, but yes,” Vetis admits.
“That’s cool, we can always use your help. Oh, and you know what, Dad? I can jump!” Rachel grins.
In the portal room, Zaebos assembles the three huge ape-shaped Mazzikim that currently comprise my honor guard, along with Pelegor, my eagle-headed, horse-bodied, silver feathered and furred steed. Considering I don’t expect to leave the second floor of this house, I told Pelegor I don’t need a mount and he could skip this one, but he insisted if there was a chance we’d be in danger, he had to come.
“I’ll go first, with Pelegor,” Zaebos says. “We recover faster from portal crossing.”
“You know I’m not the type to lead from behind,” I counter. “The portal mirror is wide enough that the three of us can cross together. So we’ll go together, then my guard, and Vetis and Rachel behind us.”
Rachel frowns. “Alex, I—”
“She’s not simply trying to shelter you, this is a logical formation,” Vetis jumps in. “Our task is to capture. The larger, stronger Mazzikim engage first to subdue, and we, with our missile weapons and net, trap it.”
“You’ll be by my side next time, Stinger,” I say.
Rachel huffs melodramatically, but I can see the corners of her mouth rise and she offers a slight nod.
I reach into my Sedu self to ignite my hair and eyes, thicken my skin, and extended my fangs. Rachel does the same, and her large eyes glow red, and her skin darkens and hardens like an insect exoskeleton.
“Cool,” Josh says from the side of the portal room, staring at Rachel.
She flashes him a quick smile.
“Go get ‘em, Lady Firebird,” Jake says. “Stay safe. We’ll be here waiting.”
I nod, and check on the rest of my team. Everyone is ready to go. I turn to the large, ornate mirror that takes up an entire wall of the portal room. I concentrate, and the image in the mirror changes from our reflection to the second floor of beach house. We left the doors to the rooms open, but it’s already evening in Southern California so little light reaches the hallway.
“Together,” I say to Zaebos and Pelegor. We shove our way through the portal, appearing by the stairwell at the far end of the upstairs hallway. I stop myself from falling to my knees, instead lurching right and leaning against the wall, doubling over as the sharp sensation of air rushing into my lungs punches my chest, and all my muscles spasm.
I raise my head. Across the hallway through the darkness I see eight aquamarine eyes glowing angrily at me.
I hardly have a moment to think before two mouths open right beneath those eight eyes. The insides of the mouths glow the exact same color as the eyes, dimly illuminating the rest of the long, thin face. Its head seems to crease down the middle with four eyestalks on each side, no nose, the two mouths in the center, and a very sharp chin. One mouth growls with a low rumble that shakes the walls. The other emits a piercing, high pitched squeal that forces me to cover my ears with my hands. The rubbery-skinned dark-gray creature runs full bore across the hallway toward us, its outer four eyestalks scanning the hallway independently while its inner four remained fixed on me.
Pelegor gallops in front of me and rears up, but the Greater Mazzik pushes him away with its two right arms. The growling morphs into a battle cry as it continues barreling toward me. When it reaches me, there’s no way I’ll be ready to take it on—I normally need at least a few minutes to recover, and that’s without a deafening screech adding to my pain.
It’s only a couple paces away from me when Zaebos pounces, grabbing onto its two lower arms with his back legs and its head with his front legs, attempting to drag it to the floor. It grabs Zaebos with its four arms, and digs all of its claws into him. With each arm ending in a four-clawed hand, that’s a lot of claws. Zaebos grunts and grimaces but he doesn’t let go. The being slams Zaebos into the side wall. The impact weakens Zaebos’s hold enough for it to use all four arms to lift Zaebos and heave him down the hallway. He lands on top of Pelegor, who had just begun to rise.
Panting, spasming, and covering my ears, I have to move. I force myself into a defensive stance. It swipes at me with its lower left claw but before it can connect, a small crossbow bolt pierces through its palm and pins the hand to the wall.
“Take that!” Rachel croaks, still recovering from crossing the portal herself.
Half of its eyestalks twist toward her.
I take the opportunity, and forcing myself to ignore my pain I grab onto its upper left arm and use it to support my jump-kick right between its legs. Its squeal pitches even higher as its upper left claw grabs my head. My flaming hair doesn’t even slow it down as it shoves me into the floor.
I’m vulnerable. Its got a claw around my head, which thanks to my tough Seduman skin isn’t crushing my skull but is making me bleed, clouding my vision and keeping me from rising. But Garz didn’t spend months training me for nothing. I grab the arm holding my flaming scalp and spring feet first into its stomach, doubling it over. I detect a slight loosening of its fingers around my head so I grab its lower arm and twist for all I’m worth, wrenching my head away and hopefully snapping its wrist.
It rakes the claws of its lower right hand across me, three slashes digging into my cheeks. I grunt away the sting, lock my hands together and punch upwards into its chin. I knock it backwards a step. As it shakes off the disorientation from my blow I breathe a jet of my spirit fire up at its face to disorient it. The Greater Mazzik waves its two upper arms in front of its face and takes another step backwards.
As I consider my next move, a thick net sails over my head and lands squarely on top of the beast before me. It quickly realizes what is going on and tries to shove its arms through the net, but Vetis pulls it tight with his four arms. Vetis may be a full Sedu, and he never misses with any kind of missile weapon—but he’s no stronger than I am. The creature grabs at the rope and yanks Vetis off his feet, but one of our huge Mazzikim grabs onto Vetis and holds him steady, while the other two leap on top of the monster, beating it to the ground with huge, heavy fists.
“Are you hurt?” Rachel reloads her crossbow.
“I’ll be okay. Great shooting, girlie!”
“Thanks. I need to get a better crossbow. This one doesn’t have enough power,” Rachel frowns at her shopping-mall purchased single-handed crossbow.
“It did the job though,” I assure her.
“Now let’s finish the job,” Zaebos says, walking slowly as he bleeds from a dozen claw gouges. “We’ve got it.”
The Greater Mazzik thrashes, punches, and kicks at my two Mazzikim, but they have him firmly in hand. Vetis hands the rope to the Mazzik who had his back.
“You first,” I tell them, and the rest of us stand aside to give them more room. The three Mazzikim holding the net cross through the portal.
“Please, my lord and ladies,” Zaebos holds out a paw toward the portal.
“Thanks Zaebos,” I say, and Vetis, Rachel, and I enter the portal.
We shove our way through and arrive back in the portal room in the House of Keroz. As I drop to my knees I see our three Mazzikim lying on the floor in front of me, the net empty. A pair of Ruhin shriek as the Greater Mazzik approaches them, Josh, and Jake as they cower together in the corner.
Rachel and I try to gets its attention by roaring with the loudest battle cries we can, which isn’t all that loud, since we can barely do more than gasp. Rachel painfully raises her head, aims, and spits an acid stinger into the back of one of its calves. Thank God, that’s enough to make it turn around.
With my legs shaking so violently they risk giving out completely, I struggle to a standing position. I take the Sedu blade out of my pocket, and will it to change its shape from a fountain pen to a full-length, curved long sword which ignites with blue flame. I know that Kesed wants us to take this thing alive but I won’t let it tear into Jake or Josh.
The flaming sword must have convinced the beast that I was a more formidable target, because its four central eyestalks focus on me again, and it cautiously steps toward me, spreading out and flexing its four arms in a defensive posture, taunting me with claws as sharp as daggers. I smile defiantly. We’re in my House now, and it has the power to heal my wounds—I just need to keep it busy until help arrives.
One of its mouthes screeches again while the second shouts words in a language I don’t understand. It slowly creeps toward me, careful not to give me a clear opening. This is perfect. I painfully crouch into a offensive stance, and try to keep my expression neutral. I gather that this being didn’t weaken much crossing the portal, which must be how it overpowered my Mazzikim. Hopefully I can fool it into thinking that I’m not weakened either.
While we circle each other and it screeches and shouts at me, Vetis has recovered enough to remove three knives from his bandoliers and throw each one into a different shoulder of the Greater Mazzik. Vetis has four arms, but only three claws due to one claw having been severed, and his prosthetic claw can’t throw a knife. The creature howls, and with its one undamaged arm begins to remove the knives, backing away from me as it does. Little does it know I’m afraid to step toward it for fear I’ll fall over.
Before it finishes removing the third knife, the House rumbles with a yell so loud it shakes the walls. I smile, knowing what’s coming. The monster’s eyestalks turn toward the entryway of the portal room just in time to see Garz charging right at it, horns first.
I assumed that was it, Garz was going to skewer that thing, and game over. Instead, Garz angles his horns so they flank its head, and he drives the Greater Mazzik into the wall, trapping it with his horns and body. Garz then gut punches it repeatedly with both of his arms, each fist slamming into its belly like a freight train.
“Enough!” A deep, booming voice commands from the great hall.
Garz removes his horns from the wall, and the Greater Mazzik crumples to the floor. As he turns around, I see that the creature didn’t go down without a fight; Garz’s chest and abdomen are criss crossed with deep gashes. The House will heal them, but I can feel his emotions in my chest—he’s in a lot of pain.
“You asked us not to destroy it; I have done what you asked, Kesed. But it threatened my family.”
“Fair play, Garz,” Kesed answers as he enters the portal room. “But you needn’t pound it more than necessary, hmm?”
Saying nothing, Garz steps away from the Greater Mazzik, toward me. By the time he reaches me, I can already see his wounds closing. He puts his hand on my cheek, and instantly my own pain recedes, the slashes across my face diminishing from his healing touch. I sigh gratefully and lean my head against my brother’s chest.
Kesed picks up the Greater Mazzik, lifting it off the ground until the two beings are eye to eyestalk. Kesed’s third eye glows red, and slowly, each of the beings eight eyes begin to glow with the same red. It shakes its head, coming to its senses.
“Galdyr!” Kesed bellows.
“Kesed!” Galdyr’s upper mouth says.
“You were fused to your throne! Screaming, unable to move! Where are we? What has happened?” his lower mouth says.
“There is time for that later,” Kesed replies, none of his playful madness in his tone. “Now is a time for judgement.”
“Yes, my lord,” Galdyr’s upper mouth says. “Long past time.”
“I’m grateful my death will come at your hands,” his lower mouth says.
“I shall determine the punishment,” Kesed says. “I compel you: what is your crime?”
“I have killed,” Galdyr’s upper mouth says. “A child. An innocent.”
“There is no forgiveness…” Galdyr’s lower mouth begins to tremble. “No repentance. I have lived this crime for thousands of Earth years, too cowardly to end my own life.”
Wait, what? Thousands of years? I know that time is wacky between the material and spirit universes but he’s even crazier than I thought if he thinks that three years is thousands.
Kesed’s two green eyes narrow, while his glowing red third eye remains fixed, holding Galdyr enthralled. “Tell me of your leaving and surviving.”
Galdyr nods. His lower lips trembling too much to speak, his upper mouth does all the talking. “After you fused to your throne and the walls crumbled around you, as the others in your palace fell or ran screaming, I took refuge in the spirit chamber. I pressed my body against one of your runes, ‘emet,’ and begged it to save me. I felt your spirit all through me, burning me, changing me, and when I removed myself from the rune, my entire body glowed with your spirit, and the rune had become part of me.”
I look at Galdyr’s torso, and for the first time I notice what look like faded aquamarine burn scars across his chest.
“Why Earth?” Kesed prods.
“When I ran to your portal, it was already cracked. I lay on my belly, and tried to find an empty material world, one in which I could hide, until I could return to our realm. Only, the portal shattered, our realm crumbled, and I could never return. Where are we now?”
“Later,” Kesed says. “You killed a child?”
“Yes,” Galdyr continues. “For millions of Earth years, I was alone. I wandered the planet as it shifted beneath my feet, finally settling in a beautiful, temperate region. Oh Kesed, it is so—”
“The child,” Kesed interrupted.
“Yes,” Galdyr nods. “When humankind evolved, I saw that they had art, drawings, language. I thought that perhaps if I befriended them, I might not be so alone. At first, I started adding my drawings in the sand to their drawings in the sand, as a way of greeting. I would draw, and see how the humans would respond. They never responded well—usually taking their tribe and leaving, fearing they had angered a neighboring tribe, or a god. That’s when I decided to communicate with a child. Perhaps a youngling would be more open to me. One day, when the males were gathering, and the females were minding the children, one child wandered off, and I greeted him…”
Galdyr’s thin head falls to his chest, and all of his eyestalks droop.
“You scared the child to death,” Kesed prods.
“I did not hold him, or scratch him, or do anything that I thought would harm him—I only approached and spoke to him. He screamed and ran, his chest pounding. Before he reached his tribe, he fell and was dead.”
“Wait—” I interrupt, walking toward him. “How many thousands of years ago was this?”
“Answer her,” Kesed ordered.
Galdyr eyestalks can’t twist toward me, but I can tell he’s talking to me even though he’s still staring at Kesed. “I have not counted the years exactly…but perhaps over ten thousand Earth years. It was not far from the dwelling in which you found me,” Galdyr’s upper mouth says.
“You would call the tribe ‘Native American,‘” Galdyr’s lower mouth adds. “But I do not remember what they called themselves.”
“And you haven’t killed anyone else since then?”
“I have avoided humans since. It wasn’t difficult, since I don’t need to eat, and I can see in the dark. I lived between the rocks, by the shore. When the humans built on the area, I hid inside the dwelling.”
“But you would still draw,” Jake slides up to me and asks.
Galdyr nods. “When the dwelling was empty, or when I believed one of the humans might be open to me…I would. But I never approached them. I would only draw in the open when nobody was dwelling there.”
“A few years ago,” I begin. “A man lost his mind. He described you.”
“Reynolds, he was called,” Galdyr’s lower mouth sneers. “He had a female and a youngling. Reynolds and the female fought constantly. One night, I heard a huge blast. I knew it was a weapon. Their youngling was crying. I wanted—I knew there was no forgiveness for what I had done, but I thought, if I could save this youngling…”
Galdyr’s eyestalks lower again.
“You were too late,” Jake speaks for him.
“I reached the youngling just as the man fired his weapon. I picked up what was left of the boy in my lower arms and carried him to Reynolds. With my upper arms I grabbed Reynolds. I screamed my anguish with one mouth, and demanded he tell me how he could do this with my other mouth. Reynolds dropped his weapon, started screaming and shaking—and never stopped, even as the other humans dragged him out of the dwelling the following day.”
I stare at Galdyr, my mouth open. Damn. I’d thought he was a monster, frightening and slaughtering any who entered his haunted domain. Turns out he’s more tortured than torturer. I feel pretty stupid.
“Thank you, Galdyr,” I say.
“Can you be sure he’s telling the truth?” Josh asks.
“I can,” Kesed says.
Josh nods, and takes his place behind his brother.
“Now I feel kinda bad we were gonna kill him,” Rachel admits.
“Me too,” I agree.
“Because you thought I murdered Reynolds’s child,” Galdyr says.
“Yes,” I confirm. “When we were informed the fate of Reynolds, we assumed you had committed his crimes. You have my apology. You aren’t a murderer of women and children.”
“I am, of a child,” Galdyr says. “I still deserve to die.”
“That was an accident,” Rachel shakes her head. “You didn’t mean for the child to die. We were upset with you because we thought you meant to kill the Reynolds family. There’s a big difference.”
Kesed’s face takes on a serene expression. “I am ready to place judgement.”
“Thank you,” Galdyr says.
Kesed turns to me. “Are you feeling merciful, dear one?”
I smile. I think I know what he has in mind. “Of course, Kesed.”
Kesed fixes all three eyes on Galdyr. “Your transgression was on Earth; so your repentance must be on Earth. You sent a living spirit to Merkaba, the realm of blessed spirits, before its time. So to balance the scales, you must now keep living spirits from being taken before their time. For five hundred years, you shall protect all those who live in the house in which you dwell.”
Galdyr seems genuinely surprised.
“But the humans…they cannot stand the sight of me,” his upper mouth says.
“They would never allow themselves to be so protected,” his lower mouth adds.
“We’re the ones moving in,” I say. “We are a combination of Sedumen and humans. We can stand the sight of you. And as we are known protectors Earth, our house will need protection. We would welcome such a fearsome guard in our home as you, Galdyr.”
“You would forgive me for attacking you?” his upper mouth asks.
“What are ‘Sedumen’?” his lower mouth asks.
“Before you return to Earth, I shall explain what has happened to our realm since you left,” Kesed says. “And trust me, Lady Firebird and Stinger, along with all of her companions, are beings of compassion and mercy. If they say that they can forgive you, they can.”
Kesed’s third eye stops glowing red, and returns to its normal green. Galdyr spins a few of his eyestalks toward us and they nod at us. “As ever, you are merciful above all else, Kesed. But I believe executing me is more just.”
“No, Galdyr,” Zedek says, stepping up from behind Kesed. “I am Zedek, the Greater Sedu of Righteousness. If executing you was the more righteous act, I would say it. I am satisfied that this is fair.”
“I, too, agree with your sentence,” Garz says. “But I will add a warning: as soon as Lady Firebird moves into that house, it becomes the Earthly extension of the House of Keroz. If you ever attempt to harm any members of my household or family in any way, I promise you my vengeance will be terrible—and eternal.”
Oh, Garz. I’ve been working to make him a more compassionate, merciful Sedu. But sometimes, millennia of being one of the most brutal of the Sedu comes poking through. Still, I know he is threatening Galdyr out of love for me, and affection for all of us, so I’m not too mad. I sigh anyway though, loud enough to Garz to hear me, just to make my point.
“You have my word, I shall only serve, not harm,” Galdyr promises.
“You can have the room that we first found you in,” I say. “And we’ll get you some easels and paper and stuff so when you want, you can draw on something besides the walls.”
“You would do this…for me?”
“Of course she would!” Kesed rolls his eyes. “Trust me, Galdyr, you will be doing a favor for two universes, and you will be happy. Come, let us speak together, and I shall tell you of Sediin and Merkaba, of Sedu and Kaayot, and of the Lady Firebird.”
He puts Galdyr down. Kesed takes Galdyr’s upper right hand, and the two stride out of the portal room. Before they go very far, Galdyr turns around. “I am truly sorry that I attacked you,” he says. “I was angry and afraid.”
“It’s okay,” I shrug. “We weren’t very friendly either.”
The pair, with Zedek in tow, leave the portal room.
“So…that thing—Galdyr—is going to be your house guard?” Josh asks, his disbelief somewhat obvious.
“Yup,” I say. “Pretty fierce guard, wouldn’t you say?”
“I think you should make him the doorman!” Rachel chuckles.
“We certainly wouldn’t have to worry about salespeople harassing us, that’s for sure!” Jake cracks.
“Yeah, but what about normal people who you just want to invite in?” Josh counters. “How are you going to explain him?”
“We’ll just say he came with the house,” I grin.