“Let’s talk about the recent attacks,” the interviewer shuffles her papers. “What caused the reanimations in the first place?”
I exhale slowly, staring down at the table.
“Alex? Do you need a moment? Are the headaches—”
“No, I’m okay, thanks though. It’s just…well…I’m a little worried,” I admit. “If everyone found out the whole truth…I just wonder…”
“Don’t worry about that yet,” the interviewer says. “Just tell me.”
“And everyone else listening in the other room across the glass?”
“True,” the interviewer smiles. “Just tell us, then. Please start at the beginning.”
“How do I look?” I swallowed nervously as two small monkey-shaped Ruhin fitted the white tunic over my scale armor. I didn’t like being fussed over like this, but the Ruhin put me in too many layers to handle it all myself. Under the white tunic were metal armored plates sewn into a knee-length leather jacket, and the tunic would catch on the metal. Then under the leather shirt I wore a long sleeve black cotton undershirt and thick cotton leggings to keep the leather from chafing me.
All of this getup was heavy and hot. I was sweating like crazy, and the dull headache that had been getting worse for months wasn’t helping either. Like it or not, I had to wear it since I was representing my noble House, and the white tunic needed to look perfect. It was emblazoned with the symbol of the House of Keroz: my father’s head, a sort of red human-ox head with huge horns that looked like a classic “demon” from Western European folklore.
“You look amazing!” Rachel grinned. “Like a real knight! You look like you’re ready to lead an army of your demon minions!”
I couldn’t help but smile, imagining myself commanding an army of Mazzikim. Nine months ago I thought of myself as nothing but a cursed, orphaned freak. I had no idea about my Sedu family or what I was capable of. After months of training, and a few high profile rescues and battles, here I was. And as uncomfortable as this was, it was pretty amazing, too.
“Thanks, girlie, but I still feel stiff and awkward and sore.”
“Now, now,” Zogo, my trusty three-foot tall, shellless turtle-like Ruhin said. He handed Rachel my belt with two newly added gorgeous jeweled scabbards. One was sword-length, curved, and empty; the other contained a dagger. Rachel girded it around my waist while Zogo walked around me, watching the work of the two Ruhin that were still tugging and tucking. Zogo smiled with approval, which clearly made the Ruhin happy.
I kept my Sedu Blade near me by willing it into an ornate fountain pen which I stuck behind my ear. Once Rachel finished tightening my sword belt, I pulled the pen out of my short brown bob, willed it back into a curved, full-length sword, and sheathed it in the empty scabbard at my left side.
“You need to look mighty and dignified in front of first meeting of the Sedu council,” Zogo said. “You helped create it, and you need them to trust you; most are used to only competing with each other.”
“I know,” I exhaled. Zogo was right, the Sedim were selfish beings. They made alliances based on convenience and mutual goals, but it was every Sedu for himself.
They’d also nearly killed each other off with their constant warring. The Sedim knew they had to change, but they didn’t trust each other enough to try. They reluctantly trusted Zedek, the Greater Sedu who looked like a purple, winged dragon, and they’d heard that I am the the half-human, half-Sedu “Seduman” of legend. Of course, the “legend” really just said that a Seduman daughter of an honest Sedu would become Zedek’s friend, but still, that was enough to start mumblings that I might be able help change Sediin for the better. So they were curious about me—and they’d be judging me, sizing me up for weakness. With so many eyes on me, I needed to look the part of the noble warrior. No pressure, right?
“Rachel’s looking pretty mighty too, don’t you think?” I said.
“Absolutely!” Zogo agreed.
Rachel rolled her eyes and shook her head, but she also turned to admire herself in the mirror.
Rachel was an odd looking girl, short for her age, bug-eyed, with shoulder length straight brown hair, but cute in that kind of unusual way. She was also dressed as a warrior, wearing a leather armored jacket that nearly came to her knees under the House tunic, with her handheld crossbow at her back, a quiver full of bolts on one side of her belt, and a Sedu blade dagger on the other.
Rachel was younger than me—I was nearly nineteen, she was thirteen—but we were practically inseparable, and she’d become more than just my right-hand girl: she was my soul sister. Her mom died when she was six, and Rabbi Norman Hirsch took her in as his foster daughter. He took me in, too, after my mom died last year, which was when Rachel and I became so close. I revealed to them that I was “half-demon”—I didn’t yet understand about Sedu or Sediin and it was a source of misery and shame for me—and they accepted me without judgment. When it turned out that, like me, she was a Seduman, and her Sedu father, Vetis, was adopted by my dad, making him my step-brother and Rachel my step-niece, it just made sense to us.
“I wish Jake were around to see us like this,” I sighed. Rachel nodded sympathetically. She knew he would have loved to be here. She also knew how worried I was about Klara, who had been staying with us since we rescued her from Dirk Raum a couple of months prior. We all agreed Jake should stay with her at Western Medical Center just in case she refused treatment or things got worse. I knew that I needed to focus on the council meeting, but I just couldn’t stop thinking about her.
“We’ll have to bring all this back to your condo and put on a show for him!” Rachel beamed.
“Think we should wear this for your Bat Mitzvah?” I quipped.
“Oh my God that would be the coolest Bat Mitzvah ever!” Rachel laughed.
I loved her laugh. And I loved that she could laugh about her Bat Mitzvah. Rachel had already started studying for her Bat Mitzvah when Rabbi Norm took me in. After he was murdered by Dirk Raum, she stopped training. Only recently had she decided to start it up again. I tried to help her view her Bat Mitzvah as something fun and special but I knew that the pain of her murdered foster dad was still fresh.
“You’ll both be able to take your outfits with you back to Earth, if you’d like,” Zogo said. “But for now, we Ruhin need to make sure you look regal or Keroz will absolutely kill us! Well, maybe not kill us…I hope not, anyway…”
I suppressed an amused grin and nodded to Zogo. “I’m sorry for complaining, Zogo. I know how risky this council meeting is.”
“It is risky,” Zogo agreed. “And not just for me if I can’t get you two dressed properly. There is danger to so many Sedim leaving their Houses; there’s nothing to stop another Sedu who does not attend from taking the opportunity to raid an enemy House.”
“Zedek is far more powerful than any Sedu or group of Sedim, and his promise to keep all Houses of attendees safe carries weight,” I said.
“Zedek will be here with us,” Zogo reminded me.
“But even with Zedek here, he can sense where all other Sedim are, so he’d know if any Sedu was trying to cause mischief.”
“But the Sedu still fear each other,” Zogo said. “From what I hear, even with the word of Keroz and Zedek, it is you, the Seduman daughter of a Nistar, that draws them.”
It was true, my mom, Stacy Gold, wasn’t just a beautiful, kind, intelligent poet who died of uterine cancer. Her spirit was pure, one of the thirty-six Nistarim—or “lahmed-vavnicks” as Rabbi Norm called them—human spirits that exemplified all that was compassionate, righteous, and good. That gave me special clout with the Sedu.
“Well, with the help of Zedek and my father, I’m going to take this legend by the horns and ride it as far as I can.”
“And ride it we shall, little firebird,” my father said as he entered the chamber with my brother, Garz, and step-brother, Vetis. Dad was over eight-feet-tall, red, and hugely muscular. He put his gigantic hand on my shoulder. “Nearly every existing Sedu is here for the council meeting, so I am especially grateful for your willingness to wear the tunic of our House.”
Wow—nearly everyone came? That was a better turnout that we expected! I knew my dad was feared, and that his invitation would carry weight. I also knew that my father’s reputation as being a rare honest Sedu had weight too. But this was incredible!
“So how many is that?”
“Nearly eighty,” my brother Garz answered. He wasn’t as tall as our father, being only around seven feet tall, and only nubs for horns, but he looked like a reptilian body builder. Garz was quite the intimidating demon in his own right. The other Sedu were as afraid of him as they were of our father.
“Houses with multiple Sedim have sent only a single representative, so their Houses still have a Sedu lord inside,” Garz continued. “Our Ruhin at the door have been giving me running lists of who arrives, and I think I’ve counted at least someone from every Sedu House.”
“So this could really work!” Rachel said.
“We’ll see,” I shrugged, not-so-secretly hoping Rachel was right. “But at least there’s a chance.”
“There is more than just a chance, Alex,” Vetis said. He smiled as much as his tiny, toothless human-like mouth would let him. Rachel may have looked a little odd, but she sure came by it honestly. Whereas my dad and Garz looked more or less like demons from classic folklore, Vetis looked like a gray-green bug-man with huge, red glowing orbs for eyes. He was only as tall as I was, about five foot nine, with four praying mantis-like arms that ended in three fingered claws—except for his lower left claw, which had been permanently severed, and was replaced with a silver prosthetic claw.
“With many of the Sedim coming to see who this ‘Seduman of legend’ really is, it means they’ll be listening to you. You can make a difference in a way few of us ever have.”
“Thanks, Vetis. No pressure. I’m going to throw up now.”
As if on cue, Zogo walked up to me with a huge bucket.
“I was joking, Zogo,” I smiled. “But thank you.”
“You look the part,” Garz comforted me. “Your nobility is in your eyes, your heart, your soul. Just speak your message, and don’t worry about fumbling your words. Sedim are not orators either.”
It always meant the world to me when my dad or Garz offered me affection. I knew the Sedu viewed open displays of affection as weakness, and were afraid that any weakness would be exploited. Through my own open and outward affection and compassion toward my family, I’d been trying to change that. I knew it didn’t come naturally to them, which made it all the more meaningful.
“You’re gonna be amazing, girlie. I love you and I’m super proud of you!” Rachel said.
I put my arm around her and kissed the top of her head.
Dad turned to me and Rachel. “Enter as Sedumen.”
We both understood: we needed to show our Sedu-ness, not just our human-ness. I concentrated for a moment, calling forth my Sedu traits. I went “full-Sedu,” my eyes and hair ignited with spirit fire, my porcelain skin became grayer and tough as concrete, and my canine teeth extended to fangs.
Rachel had only recently become old enough to survive in Sediin, and her training to access her Sedu-self had just begun. So when she got upset or stressed, it would come out if she wanted it to or not. It also meant that it wasn’t as easy for her to call it up when she wanted to as it was for me. She closed her eyes and strained for a while, but after a moment her cream-colored skin darkened and became harder—like an insect’s shell—and her eyes turned into glowing red ovals.
We turned to each other, took a deep breath, and walked out of the staging room. As soon as we entered the great hall, I spotted my faithful companion Zaebos waiting for me. Zaebos had the size and paws of a small bear, the head general shape of a large dog, two rows of shark-like teeth, and stood with a noble bearing. Much of his gorgeous, rust-colored fur was hidden underneath a tunic of the House of Keroz, but nothing hid the beauty of his eyes—most Mazzikim had solid red eyes, but Zaebos’s eyes had pupils and red irises instead.
Next to him were the three Mazzikim that comprised my honor guard. Each Mazzik looked like hairless, solid-red-eyed versions of Zaebos. Also standing with them was Pelegor, my faithful steed, with the head of an eagle with silver feathers, the body of a horse, and the legs and feet of a cheetah, all covered in a gorgeous silver coat.
“You look stunning, my lady,” Zaebos said. “As ever, I could not be more proud of you.”
“It would be my honor to carry you, my lady,” Pelegor said. “You would appear taller, and it would make an impression.”
“Ooh, do it!” Rachel whispered with a bounce.
Pelegor didn’t have a saddle or anything to make it easy for me to get up on his back, but before I could ask Pelegor if he’d mind lying down so I could climb on, Dad put his huge hands on my waist.
“Please allow me to help,” he said, and effortlessly hoisted me into the air and lifted me over Pelegor. I adjusted my legs until they were around his back and my father gently lowered me down onto him. Then my father, Garz, and Pelegor all walked into the council chamber side by side, with Vetis, Rachel, Zaebos, and my honor guard close behind.