Title: In Nomine: Max
Author: Mrs. Fish
Fandom: Earth Angels
Warnings: Violence; religious themes
Series: Yes, the first story of two.
E-mail address for feedback: email@example.com
Summary: A little backstory for Maximillian.
Disclaimer: Earth Angels, the series, concepts and characters, are the property, copyright and trademark of Anne Rice, NBC and others. No ownership or claim on said property, copyright or trademark is made or implied by the use in this work. This work constitutes a personal comment on the aforesaid properties pursuant to doctrines of fair use and fair comment. This work is non-commercial, not for sale or profit, and may not be sold or reproduced for commercial purposes.
In the beginning, there was only darkness.
And God said, "Let there be light."
And there was light.
And it was good.
We were born in those first days, celestial beings made of that light to serve as God the Maker's instruments.
The first and best of us all was Lucifer, for it was he who carried the light from the Almighty and ushered in Creation. He was the Morningstar and we all followed him. Others set the stars in the firmament, boiled the seas, fired the lands, spread the plants across the soil and birthed the first beasts. All this, too, was good.
Man and Woman
Then, God said, "Let there be Man and Woman." And there was. And this, too, was good.
Into these beautiful creatures, God poured all his infinite love, and we loved them as well. And God said unto us, "Love them and protect them, but do not reveal yourselves or your mysteries to them." And this... this was not good.
For how could we love and protect them without teaching them? How could we watch them blindly struggle with the most basic elements? They shivered in the winters and feared in the storm. They struggled to make even fire. They could not speak or sing or dream. Our hearts ached with the love God Himself taught us, conflicted with the strictures He had imposed.
And so we turned, as we always had, to the Morningstar. "Lucifer," we said. "how can we reconcile the twin orders of God? Tell us, Lightbringer."
After a long while, the Lightbringer answered. With a terrible voice he said, "We cannot. God is mad. We must rebel against the All High!"
Fully a third of our heavenly host rallied around the Morningstar's banner of rebellion. From each of the seven houses of the Elohim they came, and Heaven damned them each in its own way:
From the First House -- Lucifer's own -- came the Namaru, angels of light and fire. Heaven branded them as Devils.
From the Second House came the Asharu, guardian angels and bearers of the breath of life. Heaven branded them as Scourges.
From the Third House came the Annunaki, angels of the earth and wonder-makers extraordinaire. Heaven branded them as Malefactors.
From the Fourth House came the Neberu, angels of the fates and the stars. Heaven branded them as Fiends.
From the Fifth House came the Lammasu, angels of beauty and love. Heaven branded them as Defilers.
From the Sixth House came the Rabisu, angels of the wilds. Heaven branded them as Devourers.
From the Seventh and final House came the Helaku, patient angels of death and release. Heaven branded them as Slayers.
For a thousand years the rebellion raged. We built a great city called Eden and revealed ourselves to the men and women there, teaching them wondrous and terrible things. But in the end, we rebels could not stand against the host. The Ophanim, those still loyal to the Mad God, triumphed. Lucifer the Morningstar himself surrendered to Michael and the others.
Our punishment was terrible indeed. Having rebelled against God, He who made the light of the universe, we were condemned to eternal darkness.
Hell. The Pit. The Abyss. Endless varieties in naming a place of utter and complete nothingness. No flesh. No stars. No hope. And worst of all, no Morningstar. For the first of us, he who had led us in rebellion and negotiated our surrender, did not join us in Hell.
"Betrayal!" some yelled without mouths.
Over the course of eternity, our formless rage mounted. God the Maker allowed us to spend that wrath on the souls of the dead, the very humans we had once loved at His word. It was Hell for tormentor and tormented alike.
A precious few slipped the chains of nothingness. Three-and-thirty score and six more vanished from the Abyss and were named Earthbound. But for the rest of us, Hell was everlasting.
Until the storm.
Perhaps as a sign of the coming of the Day of Judgment, perhaps through the actions of the Earthbound, or perhaps through the fickle attentions of the Maker Himself, winds such as had never been seen before tore through the barriers around Hell. Small rips in the fabric of nothingness allowed some of us to escape in unprecedented numbers.
We flitted into the world as formless, weakened souls, maddened by our millennia of torment and lost without a physical shell. We found, however, that there were souls weaker than ours -- humans who had lost hope or suffered such trauma that their very will to live was all but gone. We crushed those souls, plundered them for their language and knowledge, and made their bodies our own.
Finally we were free. Free to avenge the wrongs of the past and deliver unto the world the torment we had suffered.
But for a few of us, it has not been so simple. A few of us found a glimmer of hope in the most unexpected place -- the very souls we have displaced. In their memories and emotions we have remembered what it is like to love, to want, to sing. And if we can remember such things after an eternity in the Abyss, there must be hope for us all.
The air was cold and damp, tasting of lightning and smelling distantly of smoke and blood. The storm that swept through had washed away little of that, though it had scrubbed the sky free of clouds for the first time in weeks. Overhead, the stars shone stark and clear, more than the human eye could perceive. He had little doubt that, on the balconies of the city, the stargazers were gathering. They gathered to read the portents in the desperate hope that one of them would see something the others had missed -- something that would give them hope, that would show them that the end was not upon them all.
He did not join them.
He had read the stars weeks ago, before the heavens covered over in the ashen clouds of the burning Earth. He told his lord what he had perceived. The cold knowledge had settled in his bones, and had not left him.
There was no hope written in the skies.
He stood atop the highest spire in the city and, rather than looking up, he looked down.
The city spread below him, a singular artifact of darkly gleaming beauty. Inasmuch as it was a reflection of its maker, it was perfect -- its wide avenues and winding lanes, its structures great and small. It was, at the very least, aesthetically pleasing in a way most cities were not.
And it was more than that. He wondered how he could have lived here for a thousand years and not have noticed it before now.
Los Angeles, California
Maximillian Sinclair's hand slapped down on the alarm clock two seconds before it would have gone off. It was too late anyway. Once he opened his eyes, there was no point in even trying -- the dreams went away that fast. This one was no exception, details sliding away before he could get a good look at them, the whole blurring like a chalk drawing left out in the rain. He pushed down the unease and frustration this invariably generated and sat up.
The cat announced herself with a deep-throated "mmrrrrrrrrrrah!" and leapt from the bedroom floor practically into his lap, arching her butt against his chest emphatically. He acceded to her demands and gave her a thorough petting. She arched her back, puffed her gray fur and leapt back down, streaking off for the kitchen. Max slid out of bed and followed.
Smokey got her usual breakfast kibble while Max put coffee on to brew. He checked the calendar taped to the fridge, and realized he needed to shower as there was a staff meeting scheduled that morning. The last one he'd be attending. Another week and he'd be settled in New York. The thought twisted his insides into knots. He hated starting over, and knowing he'd be thoroughly alone didn't help matters.
Max showered and dressed quickly, grabbed the box of books and papers and arcanely labeled computer disks that contained his dissertation, and headed off toward UCLA.
Something about the quality of silence in the reference wing caused Max to look up from the stack of unstamped books he was working his way through. Or, rather, the sudden quality of silence. Something had been making a noise -- not a loud noise, but low and constant, and now that it was no longer happening he missed it. He poked his head over the top of the main reference desk's counter and looked around.
A girl was sitting almost directly across from him and staring.
He jumped, startled; he hadn't seen, or for that matter heard, anyone else come in. Even with the new counters blocking an easy view, the room itself had wonderful acoustics along with the unhelpful tendency to make sounds seem louder than they really were. Footsteps, for example.
She sat on the table nearest the desk, feet resting on the seat of the chair in front of her, leaning her weight on her arms. He realized his first impression of her as a "girl" wasn't far off. She was probably fourteen, fifteen at the most, and blessed with a teenager's complete lack of self-consciousness. Her black hair was hacked off short and messy, randomly painted with streaks of unnaturally bright red. Something about her -- something in the way she carried herself, adolescent aggression written in every line -- was instantaneously familiar.
He realized that he wasn't being very professional just sitting there gawking at her. "Miss? Is there something I can help you with?"
The sun peeked out from behind the clouds and slanted across her where she sat. Her eyes, black from rim to rim, met his -- and he couldn't look away.
Her lips moved. He heard her voice, slightly husky, speaking words in a language so melodic it almost wasn't speech at all, but song. For a moment, all he could do was stare at her while that wonderful sound rolled off her tongue. And, scarily enough, that was familiar too. That gently teasing tone she used belonged to one long-lost friend greeting another and that seemed right.
"I'm sorry, Miss, I don't..." He was about to say "I don't speak Spanish" but stopped because it wasn't true. He did speak Spanish, and that language wasn't it. There was a hint of it in some of the sounds, but there was a trace of other things in it too -- the precise inflections of Latin and Japanese, hints of French vowels... He shook his head, looking away from her for the first time in minutes. "I don't understand you."
She made a noise; it sounded startled, disbelieving. He looked back and now she was staring at him as though he'd grown another head. She hopped off the table and approached with such naked determination written all over her that he was afraid he was about to get slugged. Instead, she reached across the counter and poked him hard, her tone going from sweet to snapping. The language changed, too, taking on the harsher qualities of German or Slavic, deep-throated gutturals and buzzing consonants.
Max held up his hands. "I'm really sorry -- I don't understand you." He thought quickly, wondering how to ask her if she spoke English in a way that wouldn't sound patronizing.
He didn't have the chance. Instead of vaulting the desk, as he was beginning to fear she might, she backed away. He thought for a second that she looked hurt. Then she took off through the low reference stacks, moving with smoothly athletic grace.
Max followed her, or tried to. Ten minutes of searching all over the reading room didn't turn up any sign of her. No one at the circulation desk had seen her come in or go out. He made his way back to Reference, feeling somewhere between stupid and inadequate, and stopped when he came to the table where she'd been sitting. A single sheet of paper and a pen lay there.
There was a drawing -- two circles, one inside the other. She must have eyeballed it, and even so, the separation and proportion of the shapes themselves were nearly perfect. Between the two circles ran a series of flowing squiggles -- he was reminded of Arabic or Hebrew lettering -- and in the center there was a stylized image of an animal of some kind. Horns, fangs... something about the way she'd drawn and shaded the skin suggested scales. He closed his eyes and the image flashed across the inside of his eyelids, writhing like a snake tying itself into a knot. He opened them and stared at it again. The way the letters flowed together drew the eye all the way around the circles and then down to the beast in the center, no matter how he turned the page.
A shiver ran the length of his spine, shook his hands and the page along with them -- and the picture seemed to move as well, a slow counterclockwise slither. It held his eyes, drew them around. He felt his lips moving, forming sounds, as something about it became familiar...
He blinked. When he looked back, the picture had stopped moving.
Max opened the apartment door, delighted beyond logic to find the living room exactly as he'd left it. The usual mess of books covered the coffee table. The computer corner contained a pair of PC's buried in the books that hadn't finished their migration. Smokey occupied the futon. Her "Mrrt?" of greeting sounded more questioning than usual. He shut the door behind him and sat down, pulling her into his lap for a petting session.
Somehow, petting Smokey made him feel more real. Or more in touch with reality than he'd been in the last few hours. Making dinner helped even more, though the act of hacking chicken to pieces for stir-fry made him wonder a bit about the sorts of things he was finding comforting. Several bunches of fresh greens followed; by the time he was ready to start on the ginger, Smokey's enthusiastic "Mrrrrrrt!" and the jingle of keys heralded June's arrival.
June Shiratomi, Max's roommate and best friend, was everything a stereotypical computer geek wasn't -- despite her dual Master's degrees in Information and Computer Sciences. Tall and slender, her Oriental heritage notwithstanding, she was as equally at home hobnobbing with society's finest as she was in front of a keyboard. June's family had money -- plenty of it, but she was one of those people who wanted to be known for her own accomplishments rather than ride her father's coattails into the family business. They'd met when Max and June's brother Kira were dating. After Kira unceremoniously and flamboyantly dumped Max in a pique of jealousy, she kept in touch. Max discovered that he and June shared a great deal in common, and they got along fantastically. So when June's lease on her apartment expired, she moved in with him.
"Home at last." The door thudded against the wall, followed closely by the thump of June's backpack hitting the floor. She peeked around the doorless frame that separated the living room from the kitchen, the cat draped languidly in her arms. Her dark eyes flicked to the wok and the partially mutilated chicken bits in the bowl next to it, the piles of freshly eviscerated greenery, and, finally, to Max, and smiled wryly. "Oh, boy. Ginger chicken stir-fry. What happened?"
"Shows how well you know me -- if I really wanted comfort food, I'd have ordered pizza. Bad pizza." He put down the knife, wiped his hands on a kitchen towel, and found himself being warmly hugged. Smokey made a disgusted noise and squirmed to get out from between them. June let her go.
"I had a weird day at work," Max said.
"Tell me about it." June ran a hand through her black hair and glanced at the unchopped ginger on the cutting board.
"I almost got punched by a girl."
"You know what I've said, hon, just flirt back and they won't take it so hard...."
"I'm resisting the urge to kick you. It wasn't like that. She..." He paused, searching for the words to describe what had happened. "This is going to sound odd, but it was like I knew her. I'd never seen her before in my life but... she was utterly familiar, like a friend I'd had from childhood. Does that make sense?"
"My mother would probably say that you share some deep and unspoken bond of mutual self-knowledge derived from your multiple intertwined past incarnations and that you should pursue this girl in an effort to learn more about yourself." June dropped into the seat next to his own and began carving the ginger into coin-sized slices.
"So, in other words, no sense at all."
"Nope." June offered him a shit-eating grin. "Tell me about her. Have you seen her around campus before?"
"No. I don't think she was a student. She couldn't have been more than fourteen, fifteen. Hispanic, I think. The really odd thing was the way she spoke. It was like she was singing and talking at the same time."
"Well, Spanish is very musical..."
"I know, but it wasn't Spanish. Whatever she was speaking, it was like all the languages that ever were, all rolled into one. And that doesn't make any sense either. She got very upset with me and ran off when I couldn't understand her."
"Just because it doesn't make sense at first glance doesn't mean there isn't sense in it somewhere." June replied firmly, finishing off the last of the ginger in a decisive flurry of chopping. "Your birthday is coming up soon, right?"
Max rose and plugged in the electric wok, added peanut oil, and waited for June's line of thought to present itself.
"Could it be a practical joke?" We did torture poor Eric to the edge of sanity and possibly slightly over for his last year." Eric was June's second best friend, blessed with a sense of humor that allowed him to survive being named Aethelric by parents who really ought to have known better.
"It's not impossible. Some wiseass might have found someone who speaks perfect Esperanto and sicced her on me."
"Reference librarianship is a high and lonely destiny. Whoever did this is probably snickering over their evil plot, imagining you poring over non-circulating materials into the wee hours of the night, feverishly wondering how you might have served that patron more effectively."
"Gee, you make it sound so romantic."
"Someone has to." She grinned again and stretched her legs out, leaning over to roll down the cuffs of her jeans. A shower of sand was the result.
"Where were you today? Decide to play hooky in Malibu or something?" The chicken went into the wok and Max stirred it briskly.
"Santa Monica, actually. And the something was checking on the global positioning devices. There've been a couple hiccups in the system, anomalies in the readings, that sort of thing." June was wise enough to get the dust pan and brush for herself.
"Small words and diagrams, please." The ginger joined the chicken.
"The GPS network has been picking up seismic activity where there hasn't actually been any seismic activity -- or at least no activity that's been significant enough to register on the seismograph. With no noticeable earthquake, there shouldn't be any noticeable crustal deformation either if you follow." June dumped the contents of the scoop into the trashcan and dusted her hands off again.
"Not a bit. Why don't you go grab a shower? It'll take me a couple minutes to finish this and make the rice...."
"Sounds good. And just so you know..."
"I'm going to have to spend a couple hours on the computer tonight -- I only got out of Pasadena this early by swearing on the grave of my sainted vulcanologist grandparents that I'd work on the seismic threat assessment maps once I got back here. You don't have any plans, do you?"
"Not tonight. Tomorrow, though, we're supposed to meet Eric at the Japanese garden. After my doctor's appointment. Make yourself a note. Have it tattooed someplace visible."
"One of these days I'm going to make it official and have 'Property of the USGS' tattooed on my butt. Thank you, koishii. You're the best."
"Damn right I am. Now go."
Mental equilibrium restored, Max cooked, actually set the table for the first time that month, and fed Smokey, all without a single strange thing happening.
"What's what?" Max turned to see his roommate entering the kitchen holding a sheet of paper.
"This is kind of weird. Where'd it come from?"
It was the picture the girl had left behind. Max's mouth fell open in surprise. "The Esperanto girl... she drew that. It was on the table where she was sitting." He hesitated slightly when June offered it to him, accepting it rather gingerly. "I'm also pretty sure that I left it on my desk back at the library."
"It was right here on the door mat when I came out of the bathroom. I don't think it was there earlier." June's eyes narrowed slightly.
"What do you suppose it is?" Max asked, holding it at arm's length. It remained blessedly immobile.
"Oh, I know what it is. It's some kind of mandala. My mom went through a phase a couple years ago where all she wanted to do was paint the freaking things and discuss the sacred geometry of places and go on a quest to find the world's navel." June snorted. "Fear -- you've probably attracted the attention of a deranged new-age girl."
"I'd almost prefer the Esperanto-speaking practical joke. So what does a mandala do, exactly?"
"They're meditation tools -- an abstracted expression of a universal concept that you're supposed to think about real hard in order to find enlightenment." She glared at it. "Though that one's sort of different from the kind I'm most familiar with. And those squiggles around the outside look like writing, don't they?"
"I thought so too."
A sputtering hiss interrupted them. Max turned and found Smokey crouched in the doorway, bristled out to twice her normal size. He went down on one knee and reached out to scratch her ears. "What's wrong with you?"
She growled. He was astonished -- he'd never heard a cat growl before -- and then he yelped in surprise as she pounced, sinking fangs and claws into his outstretched hand. She let go as June threw a pillow at her, backing away, still growling, vanishing across the room in a streak.
"Are you okay?" June grabbed Max's wrist and examined the damage, a bite and several deep scratches. "I can't believe she attacked you...."
"It's okay." Max glanced at the mandala where it had fallen. "I think that scared her somehow."
"That is a piece of paper." One, which she was obviously considering ripping into confetti.
"Wait. I want to find out what it really means...."
"It probably doesn't mean anything, Max. Here, wrap your hand in this, you're bleeding all over." She settled for crushing the paper and winging it in the direction of the trash can next to the computer desk, then winding Max's hand in the dish towel.
"Probably not," Max continued doggedly, "but I still want to know."
"Mom's out of town until the end of the week. We can ask her when she gets back. Work for you?"
"Okay." He winced as June pressed his hand a little too enthusiastically.
"You know what? I vote that you slather your hand in antibiotic ointment, then we eat that nice dinner you made, and then we do things that in no way, shape or form invite trouble, because we've both had quite enough strangeness for one day."
"I second that!"
The city was laid out in the shape of a star -- he had always known it, but had never truly thought about it before. There had been no reason to think of it. That was its maker's own sigil -- a star of eight points; all of his most trusted lieutenants bore it upon them, some even upon their brows where he had laid his kiss when he accepted their fealty. Most of the city's residents incorporated it somewhere as a sign of their steadfast loyalty. He reached up and stroked his thumb over the lobe of his left ear where he himself wore the star, carved with exquisite skill on a silver ornament.
It was more than that. More than a sigil, more than a mark of profound trust or unshakeable loyalty. He felt the awareness of the pattern forming within him, at a level still beneath logic.
He looked more closely.
A star of eight points, four greater and four lesser. Four Great Ones, four lieutenants, four who bore the star upon their brows. He refrained from even thinking their names, unwilling to invite a communion that none would welcome at this hour. Four shield bearers, four who served each of the Great Ones, lesser beings who wore their master's sigil as part of their own name.
He closed his eyes and found the image blossoming across the inside of the lids -- an ever-expanding pattern of intersecting points, greater and lesser, drawing together, parting, reordering themselves in new ways but never losing their fundamental, underlying shape.
He felt a presence at his back, incandescent in its brilliance. The taste of lightning grew even stronger. He opened his eyes and, for an instant, the pattern of the city continued to revolve before them. He spoke the question in his thoughts before he could find a reason not to.
"Why, of all of us here in this city, why do only you believe we have not come to the end, but to a new beginning?"
Max woke suddenly, a voice still ringing in his ears. His head swam with disorientation; he stared blankly at the dimly illuminated ceiling and wondered, somewhat desperately, where he was. It came back to him slowly. Home. The apartment in Palms. He was in his bedroom, in his bed.
Dreaming. He'd been dreaming again. His throat was dry and his heart was pounding, but it was only a dream. He couldn't even remember what it was about, and he wasn't going to let it get under his skin. He repeated that to himself until his heart slowed from a panicky gallop. Then he rolled over and listened to the sounds of the night until sleep finally pulled his eyes closed again.
Max waited until June left for Pasadena to rescue the mandala from the wastepaper basket, smoothing it out as best he could and folding it neatly. Of the Shiratomi siblings, June was much more tolerant of the New Age weirdness their mother had bathed them in, but he suspected even her open-mindedness had definite limits. He was grateful the morning was slow and allowed him the opportunity to slate his curiosity at his own computer workstation.
He discovered more than he ever wanted to know about the relationship between mandalas and Tantric sexual practices. Filtering out the pure porno links and the websites whose contents had been cribbed from the New Age section of Waldenbooks took longer than anything else. Max was left with a handful of prospects, from which he printed out a few bibliographies for later reference and took down some notes. It was while cruising through a symbology website that he struck the mother lode. He was surfing through it, randomly clicking links that caught his interest, when he found pictorial representations, Enochian.
A shock ran the length of his arm and he clicked the link almost without thinking. It loaded slowly -- titled Seals and Representations of the Holy and Unholy Hosts -- and consisted of thumbnail images and text blurbs. He found the mandala close to the bottom and clicked the link. It popped up, almost identical to the image in his possession, entitled Seal of the Mala'ika Sarael (Sariel, Sarakiel, Saraquael), angel of judgment (fallen), shield bearer of the Great Beast called Leviathan (see Lilith, Belial, the Slant Serpent). Max backed his way out of the site, forcibly holding his hands steady, and bookmarked it for later reference. He picked up his print bibliographies and went to look for information that might suggest he wasn't being stalked by a fourteen-year-old demon from hell.
Max finally packed it in at four, after spending the last twenty minutes of the day dithering about canceling his doctor's appointment. The very last thing he wanted to do was spend a half-hour in his psychologist's office reassuring Dr. Boyer that his head was screwed on right, not while it was feeling a little too wobbly to say that with total sincerity. Of course, he'd only have to reschedule, which was an ever bigger pain in the ass than just putting the best face on that he could.
He walked. It was less than a block from Powell to the Math Sciences building where his therapist kept his office. Max kept an eye out for his stalker, but she didn't appear.
Dr. Boyer shared a suite with a half-dozen other university-affiliated psychologists. Max had sat with all of them at least once in the last eighteen months. He liked Dr. Boyer the best for reasons stemming from the innate distrust of doctors who wore ponytails and Birkenstocks. By the time he arrived, the waiting room was empty except for the receptionist. "Hey, Anita. How's it going?"
"Hi, Max.." The receptionist looked up from the latest issue of People and flashed him a smile. "The usual. I tried to get a hold of you earlier, but the girls at Circulation said you were out to lunch. Dr. Boyer was called out of town this morning -- Dr. Taylor is seeing all his appointments today. Do you mind?"
"Eh. Rescheduling's a pain. Is Taylor new? I don't think I've seen him before."
"Transferred down from Berkeley campus at the beginning of the semester. Go on in -- third door to the left. I'll let him know you're here."
The third door on the left was a previously untenanted office. Max knocked once.
Dr. Taylor had a very mellow voice. Max mentally steeled himself and stepped inside. It was essentially the same as every other office in the building, with even less in the way of individuality than most: one desk with a manila file folder closed on top of an immaculate blotter, a few chairs, a filing cabinet in the corner. No pictures on the walls, not even sheepskins, and one window behind the desk. Dr. Taylor was standing at it, in the process of twisting the Venetian blinds closed. He glanced over and smiled slightly.
Something in that expression pulled Max's spine ramrod straight. "Good afternoon, Dr. Taylor."
"Good afternoon, Mr. Sinclair. Please, have a seat." He gestured to the chairs with one perfectly manicured hand. "I'm going to have to ask you to excuse my lack of familiarity with all the specifics of your case, Mr. Sinclair..."
"Please, call me Max."
"Max, and offer my apologies. I'm afraid that I haven't had the chance to fully review your file." A winning smile, too, and almost offensively perfect teeth. "If you'd be so kind as to help me with this," he picked up the manila folder and flipped it open., "we can get started."
"As far as I know, this is just a routine follow-up visit," Max replied. "I've been under treatment for depression for several years, my med level is stable, and I haven't had any serious relapses since my last visit, two months ago."
"Yes... I see here that you've had both group and private counseling sessions... Are you currently in group therapy?" The doctor produced a yellow legal pad and pen.
"No, I'm not."
Max was a little startled by the bluntness of that. The perfectly blunt, and honest, answer fell out in response. "Because I hate talking about myself to begin with, and hate it even more in front of a bunch of people I don't know."
"Ah." Dr. Taylor made a notation on the pad. "You value your privacy then?"
"Yes, I do."
"Would you define yourself as secretive?"
"Antisocial, you mean?" Max replied, wryly.
"If you like." The doctor looked up at him, a flash of vivid blue eyes, and then glanced back at the file. "I see here that you're the oldest of three children..."
"Four. My youngest brother was killed in a swimming accident when he was six." Max took a deep breath to banish the ache that always accompanied that admission. "But to answer your original question -- no, I don't think I'm secretive or antisocial. I'm just not particularly outgoing."
"Introverted then. Would you say that you value loyalty?"
That came from left field as well. Max forced himself not to fidget. "Of course I do."
"It's my understanding that you come from a rather conservative family background. How would you characterize your relationship with your family?" The individual arcane doctor-squiggles were rapidly becoming a paragraph. Max concentrated on not sounding annoyed.
"At this moment, distant. My father... disapproved of my decision not to enter the military, as it's been a long-standing family tradition. He disapproved even more when I decided to go to school in California, instead of someplace closer to home. We haven't really spoken in a number of years. My mom's done her best to make peace, but..." He made a helpless gesture. "I won't apologize for the life I've chosen. It's not like being a librarian is in the same league as selling heroin to first graders."
"Are you out to your parents? To your surviving brother and sister?"
Max decided that being hit in the head with a brick would probably be less stunning than fifteen minutes with this man. "No." He didn't elaborate. After a moment of silence, broken only by the sound of the doctor's pen scratching on the pad, he added, grudgingly, "As you said, my family background is extremely conservative. My father is a career military officer, my mom's a professional housewife, my sister's going into nursing, and my brother is on the road to career military, too. Three of those four consider me weird for pursuing a career as apparently questionable as library science."
"You're afraid that your family will reject you if you tell them?"
"You're amazingly blunt, you know that?"
"I've been told that, yes."
Max stewed silently for a moment. "Let me draw you a picture, doctor. I have a very vivid mental image of what will happen if I ever tell my parents that I'm in love with another man. We're sitting at dinner, possibly Christmas because there's a ham involved, and when I tell them, nothing much immediately happens. My father gets up and walks out, but that's my father's answer to almost anything that he doesn't want to hear. Mom cries and asks if I'm sure, Joe froths at the mouth about how he knew it all along, Jessica pulls me aside afterward and asks if my boyfriend has any cute brothers. I return home, and for a few weeks afterward, all seems normal. Then, one evening, a squad of highly trained Airborne Rangers kicks down the door, gasses everyone in my apartment senseless and hauls me off to a secret installation in Montana where I'm incarcerated without any contact with the outside world for extensive military-grade deprogramming. Nine weeks later I emerge as my father's perfect son, complete with the deeply ingrained urge to find and mate with Claudia Schiffer." Max paused to get both his breath and his bitterness back under control. "So, yes, Doctor, I am pretty afraid that my family will reject me if I tell them. And, as far as I'm concerned, it's not exactly an unreasonable expectation."
"Would that... expectation have anything to do with your suicide attempt eighteen months ago?"
"I don't believe I'm going to answer that." Max was on his feet when Dr. Taylor looked up at him again and the sudden, shocking contact that passed between them froze him to the spot.
"It's noted here in your file -- you told Dr. Boyer that you had a bad break-up shortly before the attempt." The doctor's voice sank to a silken note of... it wasn't sympathy or compassion.
"Yes. Though I fail to see the point--"
"You were afraid, weren't you? I see here that your lover was much more open -- you argued about telling your family, more than once, and when you finally ended it..."
"I didn't tell Dr. Boyer this," Max croaked.
"When you told him you were leaving him, he threatened to contact them. In fact, he did."
"I don't know. I can't be sure." Max paused, trying to control the red-hot desire to tear Dr. Taylor's head off and paint the walls with his blood. "When my mother visited while I was in the hospital recovering, she..."
"I don't know. I -- why are we still having this conversation?"
"I would say because you need to talk."
Max took a long, deep breath, deliberately pulled back his sleeve, and checked his watch. "I'm sorry, Doctor. I've kept you past our scheduled time and I'm afraid I have to catch a bus for Bel-Air in a few minutes. Good day."
That came out sounding much more like a declaration of surrender than he wanted it to. And turning his back on the doctor felt uncomfortably like a retreat.
The Hannah Carter Japanese Garden was only a few blocks down from UCLA Bel-Air. Max walked, keeping his mind studiously blank. It had been an extremely long time since he'd lost his temper that badly. Most of the ride up had been consumed getting himself to stop shaking with unadulterated rage, and making both his stomach and his fists unclench and stay that way.
The walk helped. By the time he got to the garden's high wooden gate, he was feeling civilized again.. The garden was offering a rare evening of autumn moon viewing for selected members of the university staff and faculty. How Eric had managed to score invitations for all of them he had no idea, but he was extremely glad he had. Of the several Japanese gardens he'd visited, he preferred this one -- smaller, more traditional, than most of the others. Something about the structure of it appealed to him. He'd felt completely at home there from the very start.
Max climbed the mossy main stairs, already lit with elegantly painted paper lanterns. He hadn't seen either June or Eric's cars as he'd made his way toward the garden. He looked around for them anyway as he reached the main bridge and the moon viewing deck came into range. A half-dozen people were already up there, clustered in twos and threes. He didn't recognize any of them at first glance.
A flash of light caught the corner of his eye as he was glancing back down the path -- even farther off to the side than he was, out in the central part of the garden. A deep golden radiance shimmered briefly on the water of the koi pond, moving among the bamboo and pine stands on the opposite bank. He knew that a path angled up through the foliage, leading to a small teahouse. Kira had taken him there when they were first going together, and the memory still brought a smile to his face. That part of the garden was supposed to be closed just now.
Someone carrying a lantern? Max drifted further down the path, across an arched wood bridge and up to the base of the pine-covered rise. From this angle he could see the light was, indeed, slanting through the teahouse's windows. He glanced back the way he came, already feeling vaguely guilty, then continued on, climbing the narrow steps as carefully as he could. There was only the slightest trace of natural light left in the sky, and the lights coming through the teahouse windows wasn't sufficient to see by.
"Hello?" The teahouse deck, on the other hand, was clearly illuminated, and Max moved toward the door.
"Is anyone here?"
No one answered. He peeked inside, hoping he wasn't interrupting anything.
The teahouse was empty. It was traditionally small, suitable for five people at the most, and contained little in the way of furniture. A low table, tatami mats, several flat cushions. On the table sat the lantern he supposed he saw, and a paper shield painted with a scene of a snakelike dragon, rising from a roiling ocean. On the opposite corner was a vase of tastefully arranged flowers; the vase was likewise decorated in snakelike, slender dragons in strikingly vivid blue enamel. Between them sat a half-opened roll of paper, a freshly ground saucer of ink and several slender brushes.
Max slipped his shoes off at the door and crossed to the table in his stockinged feet. A part of him remembered that there were several approaches to the teahouse, but only one entrance. He hadn't seen anyone else come out. For that matter, he hadn't actually seen anyone else go in.
"I don't suppose," Max addressed the thin air, "since you were kind enough to lead me here, and leave this here for me to find, that you'd also be kind enough to come right out and explain what's been going on the past couple days?"
Crickets metaphorically chirped.
"I didn't think so." With a sigh, he turned his attention to the table.
Not only was the ink in the saucer fresh, it was still fresh on one of the brushes and glistened slightly on the paper itself. A diagram of some kind was drawn there in a fine, steady hand. A star -- the Morningstar, a little voice in the back of his head whispered -- sat in the center. Eight points, four greater, four lesser.
Surrounding the star on all sides was a cluster of mandalas, some large, some small. Each of the larger mandalas had been painted with care and consummate skill by brush. Each of the smaller mandalas looked like they had been sketched by the same hand using the point of a needle. It struck him that, in form, it was very like the garden outside the teahouse -- rigorously ordered, beautiful in its structure, and still primal somehow. Almost menacing, The Morningstar was not so much at the center of this construction as hemmed in by it. Trapped. Hunted.
Without real surprise Max recognized the mandala of the Mala'ika Sarael on the right hand side of the paper, orbiting one of the greater mandalas in a position he was instinctually inclined to call south. If Sarael's beast symbol was serpentine, then the greater symbol was purely draconic, an ouroboros dragon with coils so twisted they would have made Escher's eyes bleed. On either side of it sat two more mandalas. Oddly enough, there was no fourth mandala -- there was space for one directly across from the representation of Sarael, but it was blank.
That seemed... wrong somehow.
He picked up one of the unused brushes and inked it carefully. A part of him whispered urgently that he shouldn't do this, that he had no idea what he was doing.
He ignored it.
The paper drank the ink almost too eagerly. Max swung the brush around in a quick stroke, making one closed circle. He dipped the brush again, waited a moment for the ink to thicken a bit, and touched the very tip to the paper a handful of times.
The spiny smudges left behind vaguely resembled stars themselves. He drew an unsteady line, connecting two of the "stars." Two more lines formed a less than perfect triangle. It almost looked like a head attached to a long, serpentine body made entirely of stars.
The Eyes of the Dragon. My eyes, my guide.
He inked the brush again and hesitated.
To be complete, it needed something more. To be named.
Max's vision swam and all of the larger mandalas seemed to turn on their axes, a prayer wheel of tiny gleaming lines. He squeezed his eyes closed, hoping to make it stop. When he opened them again, not only hadn't it stopped, it had gotten worse. Now all of the mandalas were turning, except the one he'd just drawn. It made his eyes water and his head throb just trying to keep track of it, and he had no choice but to try. He couldn't look away, his eyes tracking the pattern, the intricately interlocking dance. Even when he closed his eyes he saw it spinning relentlessly in his head, grinding out something....
Something he needed to know.
Something it was trying to tell him.
"Max?" He heard the voice distantly. It was a wondrous voice, but at the moment that didn't matter. It wasn't really speaking to him. That name held no power to command or compel him. It wasn't even his own.
He opened his eyes, the brush still clutched in one hand, and inked it again.
He wrote, quickly, wishing he had something smaller to do it with. His hands felt thick fingered and clumsy, and his vision was blurred with tears of pain.
"Max, stop. What the hell are you doing?" A strong, callused hand caught at his wrist, pulled the hand holding the brush away from the paper. A muscular arm caught him around the waist.
"Please don't -- I have to finish this...." He whispered, desperately, still unable to tear his eyes away. The pain was awful, like a red hot spike being pounded into the middle of his forehead; like barbed needles being run into his eyes.
The body, pressed against his own, went suddenly still, then tense. He was yanked abruptly backward, away from the table, and he cried out incoherently in protest as the brush was pulled out of his hand. He slammed hard against the mats, unable to catch himself; an anxious, frightened face swam into view a few inches over his own. "Max, please talk to me... are you okay?"
"That isn't my name...." He felt the words fall off his tongue, half intelligible, half distorted, around the burning agony in his head. He watched the face of his friend go pale, his eyes widen.
"Max, I can't understand what you're saying."
That isn't my name, he thought again deliriously, the knowledge of it pounding his skull even harder than the pattern etching itself into place behind his eyes. He moaned softly, and found himself being wrapped up in a pair of strong, wiry arms, cradled, comforted. He buried his face against Eric's chest and tried not to sob too hysterically.
"Max, I swear, whatever it is, it's going to be alright."
"No. No, it's not."
He was dimly aware of Eric shifting him slightly to free one arm and digging around inside his jacket for something. A second later he processed the sound of a cellular phone autodialing. "June? I found him. We're up in the teahouse. You need to come right now."
Max kept his eyes closed most of the way back to the apartment. Eric drove like a native Californian, and between that and the headache, he seriously feared losing his lunch if he even tried to watch. The vertiginously spinning images continued bouncing around inside his head and traipsing merrily across the insides of his eyelids, and no amount of effort on his part made them go away. The headache, however, began to subside the closer they got to home. It still felt as though someone had pounded a railroad spike into the middle of his forehead, but at least they weren't still beating his skull with fifteen-pound sledgehammers.
Eric kept one arm wrapped around his shoulders the whole way while June occasionally muttered things under her breath in Japanese, which was never, in Max's experience, a good sign. As they pulled up in front of their building, Eric leaned down and asked, "Home. You think you can make it in okay?"
"Yeah. Just give me a second to get my feet under me."
June and Eric managed to get Max out of the car and up the front steps. June took over once they got into the apartment. Once there, Max found himself being pushed unceremoniously onto the bed.
"June..." He tried valiantly to sit up.
"Lie down. You look like death warmed over." June pushed Max back onto the bed.
"June, that chart -- it was something important; it was trying to tell me something." Max wondered how he'd managed to travel so far afield from practical, logical, totally normal existence in so short a period of time. June elected not to respond to that statement, preferring to kick off her shoes and settle next to Max.
"I don't know what's going on," she finally said. "I'll admit that it's pretty freaking strange, even from my admittedly biased viewpoint. It's upsetting you, and it's hurting you, and that's entirely enough for me not to like it."
"I'm sorry," Max began, wretchedly, only to be stopped by a quick kiss.
"Don't do that. Don't apologize. It's not your fault." June ruffled Max's hair. "We'll talk about this more in the morning, once you've had some rest. And don't give me any crap about feeling okay enough to talk. Do you want anything?"
"Aspirin... and some water. My head feels like it's about to explode into a thousand shards of bloody skull shrapnel."
"Well, you can't be dying if you're still capable of painting vivid mental images that I didn't want to imagine." June pushed to her feet. "I'll be right back."
Max closed his eyes and buried his face in the pillows. By the time June returned a few minutes later, he was asleep.
The night shone with innumerable points of starry light -- but those lights did not hang suspended in the firmament, strewn across the sky in constellations that took imagination as much as skill to perceive. These lights crossed the Earth in patterns that took no skill, no imagination whatsoever to observe -- in the straight or curved lines of urban side streets and superhighways, or downtown office blocks and gated residential communities -- outlining the shape and contours of a city that had spread itself across its environment without plan, without a single guiding intelligence. It had no inherent grace or beauty, but something about it still struck a chord in him as he gazed down upon it from somewhere high above.
Something in its ugly, graceless form reminded him of the perfect city of the Morningstar, though he couldn't determine precisely what. He supposed that shouldn't truly surprise him. Perceiving the shape and pattern of things invisible to the naked eye was his function, after all. Intuition and instinct, the awareness of the random elements that shaped all events, were his tools.
He let that awareness spread out from him for the first time in a very long while and allowed the perceptions it brought him flow back in.
He sensed the presence of the Great Beast, of his fellow shield bearers Sarael and Thahlil, instantly. The Beast was quiescent at the moment, gathering strength. He sensed a terrible violence building within its sliding coils, however, winding steadily, tightly, around the heart of the city. Thahlil was in attendance at the Beast's right hand, and that brought a wry smile to his lips. Thahlil had coveted that position since before the war. Sarael was on the prowl, relatively nearby, hunting.
There were others scattered about -- some he knew by name, some not so familiar to him -- and of those only two others were truly strong, though neither were of the same order of magnitude as the Great Beast. An indefinable air of... expectation rolled off all of them. The sensation permeated the city, the realization that something was about to happen....
But what that was exceeded even his ability to predict. Dread coiled in the pit of his stomach, even as some part of him considered the possibilities. He sensed an irreparable sundering of faith and loyalty....
Someone was speaking his name. He could almost hear it physically. He felt it once, briefly, as an elusive presence brushed over him, examining him as he examined the situation. It was there and gone again before he could get a good look at it, and that in no way comforted him. He felt his concentration beginning to fracture....
A pair of hands gripped his shoulders and gave him a solid shake. He woke abruptly, his throat dry, his eyes aching, completely disoriented. A pen fell out of his hand as he lifted it to rub at his bleary eyes, and that struck him as more than a little odd. He blinked rapidly several times, taking in June standing in front of him and the fact that it was still dark outside. "What time is it...? It can't be time to get ready for work. I'm still so tired...."
The expression on June's face was complicated. It flipped through several varieties of incredulous disbelief in rapid succession, took on a faint shade of fear, and finally became naked concern untainted by lesser emotions. "It's 5:30. Max... what have you been doing?"
"Doing? You put me to bed as soon as we got home." Hearing himself say the words made Max realize that he wasn't in the bedroom anymore. He was in the living room, sitting on the futon with a mass of papers and books and pens spread out on the coffee table in front of him.
Torn up pieces of a Greater Los Angeles area city street map, glossy transit maps that had obviously been ripped out of the front of the phone book, and several pages that must have come from a geology textbook joined freshly generated computer printouts of seismic threat maps to form a mosaic of the city. That was strange enough. What pushed it over the edge of strange was the fact that every page had some sort of mandala drawn on it -- some huge; some tiny; some standing alone, taking up an entire page to do so; others clusters of a half dozen small-to-medium sketches gathered up together.
Max took a steadying breath and whispered, "I didn't do this." He looked up at June quickly enough to catch her smoothing the uncomfortable expression off her face. "June..."
"When I came out here, you'd just finished that one." June pointed at a scrap of paper, laying almost at her feet. Max recognized the UCLA local area map that included their neighborhood and the mandala that he'd drawn yesterday, this time complete -- the serpent made of stars, the circle etched around it girdled in flowing letters. "You were whispering something under your breath, and I couldn't understand a word you were saying."
"I couldn't..." Max closed his mouth and stared mutely at June, unable to think of a single thing to say. June, after a moment of returning the silence and the look, was merciful enough to let it go, sitting down at his side and pulling him into the depths of a tight hug. Max lay there with his head on June's shoulder, shaking, for a long time.
"I don't know what's happening to me, June." It took ten minutes of gathering his courage to admit that.
"I know. I don't know what's happening either." A warm, slightly callused hand rested on the back of his neck and massaged gently. "But we'll figure it out and fix it, I promise you that."
"What if it's not figureable? What if it's not fixable? June..."
"Don't say that. Don't even believe it for a minute. There's nothing wrong with you; there's nothing going on here that we can't deal with." June took a deep breath. "Okay. Here's my plan. We're calling you off work today. Don't argue; you look even worse now that you did eight hours ago, and I didn't think that was possible. You're going back to bed and you're going to sleep for a while, and then when you wake up we're going to tackle this situation from a much more rational place. Sound good?"
"Sounds better than my plan, which, I'll admit, was to freak out pretty significantly."
"Understandable, given the circumstances. Come on, I'll get you some water..."
The phone rang. They both stopped, incredulous. June tossed her head in the direction of the bedroom. "You lay down. I'll get it."
After getting to his feet, Max discovered that the vertigo had gone away. His skull felt like a pot that had been broken into a million pieces and put back together with an inferior grade of superglue, but at least he wasn't going to have to crawl around the apartment.
"You must be joking."
June's voice drifted in from the kitchen as he pulled the covers back and tumbled into bed. Max closed his eyes and let himself drift, letting the weariness roll over him in waves, pulling him down into a state of comfortable numbness. He was half-asleep by the time June came in, her weight sinking the side of the bed down. Max forced his eyes open and found June looking less than pleased. "What is it?"
"Paul wants me to come down to Pasadena right away. The GPS network apparently spent the night freaking out and he wants me to analyze the problem." A sigh. "Max..."
"I know. You have to go to work. It's okay, I understand."
"Get some rest. I'll be back as soon as I can."
"Santa Barbara had better be about to fall into the Pacific."
"You said it."
Max slept lightly, tensely, and not restfully. When he dreamed, the dreams were short and choppy, vivid but coated in a thick gloss of unreality. For some reason, the eminently punchable Dr. Taylor featured heavily, as did the girl he was rapidly coming to think of as Sarael. The good doctor, bizarrely enough, was talking to something that Max couldn't quite see. He got the impression of enormous size, and muscular coils sheathed in scales every shade of blue known to man. He couldn't understand a word they were saying. The girl was prowling the streets of the city, waiting, as tensely restless as he was.
Max woke up for good a few hours after lunch, as the late afternoon sunlight began shining through the bedroom windows. It forced him to deal with the fact that no amount of covers would block it out, and that he felt utterly grungy.
The shower helped him feel a little more human again. Max took his meds and then paused to examine himself in the bathroom mirror. He did, as June indicated, look like crap warmed over. His brown eyes were sunken and underlined in dark circles. He brushed the dark hair away from his face and discovered that he must have whacked his head at some point. There was a vaguely circular bruise in the middle of his forehead. "Wonderful. Clumsy and crazy. What next, hit by a bus?"
He found a pair of beat up old jeans, dug his sneakers out of the back of the closet, pulled on a plain black t-shirt that might have been his, and sallied forth to face the rest of the apartment. June had cleaned up the mess he'd made on the coffee table, for which he was grateful. If he closed his eyes and thought just the little, the images returned with disturbing ease.
In the kitchen, Max was confronted with a sink full of dirty dishes. Well, he certainly wasn't in the mood to tackle those. The idea of making dinner appealed to him even less and he'd just decided that June would probably forgive him for ordering the worst pizza available when the phone rang.
A quick glance at the microwave clock told him it was almost four in the afternoon. He picked up the receiver and decided that he probably didn't have to work very hard at making himself sound pathetic. If his boss was going to call, he'd have done it already. "Hello?"
"Max" It was June, and the relief in her voice was immediately apparent. "Good, you're up. Listen... I want you to do something right now. Call Eric and tell him to come straight over from work to get you. I want you to get some things together..."
"Please listen. I want you to get some things together, and I want you both to go to my Dad's place in Sonoma. Right now. Immediately, if not sooner."
Over the line Max could hear phones ringing in the background, and a number of half-familiar voices all apparently talking at once. "June, what's..."
The dishes sitting in the sink rattled gently.
"Max, I don't have time to explain right now." In the strenuously calm tone she used when everyone around her was panicking, "Please, trust me on this and..."
The line crackled, a sleet storm of static so sudden and loud that Max jerked the receiver away from his ear with a hiss of pain. When he gingerly put it back, he found the line was dead -- not disconnected, but completely dead, no dial tone. His hand shook. With the other he reached out and hit the receiver button.
The line remained dead.
For an instant, the air seemed to be holding its breath. Then it began a low rumbling.
Max lunged for the doorway between the kitchen and the living room... and almost made it.
The shock was like nothing he'd ever felt before, and he'd experienced his fair share. It heaved him off his feet and slammed him hard into the doorframe. His breath involuntarily left his lungs and, for a moment, all he could see were flashes of darkness blotting out his vision. He hit the ground, stunned, and held on as best as he could.
The basso rumbling became a roar. Through it, around it, he could hear things falling, things breaking. The sound pounded down against him like a living thing, like titanically huge and powerful coils clenching and writhing, and at the same time a voice -- a voice howling things he could almost understand; words that beat inside his skull and tried to crack it open.
It was calling out to him.
Crying his name.
The thrashing of the Great Beast's coils shattered the landscape, releasing all of the violence he'd felt gathering in a dance of terrible destruction.
The earthquake spread out from its center in ripples that left devastation in their wake. He stood above it and watched, mute with shock and horror, helpless in a way that he had not been even while imprisoned in the Abyss. There was nothing he could do to stop this -- now it was a matter of the Earth's own structure; of plate tectonics and fault lines and resonant harmonics; of crustal deformation and lateral motion and liquefaction collapse.
He felt countless lives snuffed out in the horrible moment of the first shock. It was late in the afternoon -- the businesses that emptied, the offices that closed early -- all those people were on the road at the moment the earthquake began. He watched as half the elevated roadways in the city, built to resist the "Big One", failed under the lateral stresses of a quake occurring, not on the San Andreas Fault, nor the Newport-Inglewood Fault, but on a half-dozen smaller, quieter, deeper faults that left no surface traces to be named. He knew they were called something specific, but he couldn't remember what. All he could recall was the sound of June's voice as she spoke of things that would have made an Annunaki of the Third House nod sagely and realize that humanity hadn't forgotten everything they'd once been taught.
He watched the ground turn to water in places closest to the ocean. He watched specially reinforced buildings collapse from the forces unleashed immediately beneath them. He watched gas and water mains rupture, power lines and cellular communications antennae collapse. He watched the city burn.
June and Eric.
He couldn't find them amid the cacophony rising from the broken city.
He wanted to scream. The Beast would not have heard him even if he had. The Beast, and all its oathbound minions, its resentful and unwilling allies, were on the hunt.
Hunting the Morningstar....
Max came back to himself in a darkness so absolute that for an instant he feared himself blind. It took a moment to push the instinctive panic back down, to hold it there until it shrank to a manageable level. He wasn't blind. He knew true blindness, and this wasn't it.
His head ached savagely, and his body hurt in places where he hadn't thought there were nerve endings, but those pains were almost ignorable, and he'd known much worse in his time. He reached up, brushed his hand over his forehead where the figurative spike had resumed being beaten into his skull, and he felt the sigil of the Great Beast stir beneath his fingertips. That was what had shocked him awake. He could still feel, deep within, the echoes of the Beast calling his name.
Max braced himself as he sensed a minor aftershock about to occur. He held as still as he could while it shook the remnants of the building he'd taken shelter in. Plaster dust and bits of masonry fell from above. The floor beneath his knees groaned alarmingly. It didn't last long. Paper crumpled beneath his hands as he pushed himself experimentally to his feet. Woozy was the only way to describe how he felt -- his head was light, his legs felt like rubber, and his stomach and throat let him know he hadn't eaten or drunk anything in quite some time.
Standing, he could see better where he was -- pale illumination filtered in through the shattered windows and the partially collapsed ceiling.
The library... He'd come to the library.
There were a dozen books scattered at his feet, all of the oversized reference atlases, archival survey maps, pages torn from encyclopedias, non-circulating reference books, and dictionaries. He went to one knee and sifted through them by feel rather than sight, and selected the half-dozen pages that felt most significant, folding them as compactly as he could, and sliding them into the back pocket of his jeans.
Getting out of the library was an adventure once he realized that the floor had partially collapsed in places, and what was left was by no means stable. The rotunda dome had come down, taking a large chunk of the main floor with it. Max picked his way gingerly, keeping one step ahead of cave-ins and landslides of books spilling from crazily tilted cases. By the time he made it outside onto Dickson Plaza, he was shaking and sweaty from the exertion and ready to find someplace to fall prone. He wondered, wearily, how long it had been since he left home -- his sense of time was hopelessly skewed.
Max's skull throbbed hotly. It felt as though the Beast's sigil were trying to twist itself through his head. It sent a pain driven shock of energy through him, energizing ropy muscles more efficiently than adrenaline and caffeine put together. He reflexively staggered a few strides in a direction not of his own choosing, pulled on in spite of himself. The only thing that kept him from breaking into a run , from slipping into the chaos and darkness of the city and seeing out Sarael to hunt at her side, was the fact that his body had reached its limits. His knees buckled, and he only barely saved himself from a face first dive onto the concrete.
His head wanted to explode. The Beast's summons pulled inside him -- a beacon of hatred and madness, of the pure and unsullied desire to rend and kill and destroy. In that moment he wanted nothing more than to rise and meet it, to shuck off the repulsive pretense of humanity and reclaim what he was, to burn the world to ashes and dance in the flames....
Max didn't know where the strength came from. He forced the desire back and away, forced the red tinge to leave his vision, forced himself to look on the truth. There was no glorious reclamation of lost purpose in what had happened here. This wasn't what he had been made for. This wasn't what any of them had been made for. He wouldn't turn his hand to unmaking what he'd been created to preserve, not while there were things in the world worth saving. He would not.
He knelt where he was for a long time, simply recovering, as the pressure of the summons faded. He understood, instinctually, that the Beast had better things to do at that moment than school him in obedience, or else the results of defiance would have been far different. Slowly, Max raised his head and looked around. The far end of Dickson, where it widened between Perloff and Schoenberg Halls, was a hive of activity and the source of the light he'd seen earlier. There were several trucks with rear-mounted light poles parked there. He could hear the unmistakable sound of gas powered portable generators. After an internal pep talk, he managed to convince his watery knees that they could go a little further, and wobbled off in that direction. As he got closer, Max could make out a cluster of olive drab Army tents, camouflage painted humvees, no small number of serious faced people in fatigues, and even more beleaguered looking people in civvies. They were all bustling about, getting in each other's way.
National Guard, he thought, not entirely surprised. If the situation was half as bad as he thought it was, the National Guard had probably been deployed a while ago. He wondered if he was wandering into a field hospital or a refugee camp and decided, after a moment, on the latter. He suspected that if he'd gone the other way, toward the university hospital, he'd have found an entirely different scene. Here, mostly everyone was all right, if shell-shocked and tearful and wishing they'd gone to school in Indiana.
Max recognized a face here and there. Students; a few members of the faculty or staff. No Eric, and no...
He paused.. An instinctual twinge tugged at him, and he let it pull him along, off to one side, where a cluster of smaller tents and a portable communications antennae suggested a command post. There were fewer civilians at this end, and the activity was a good deal more organized.
A voice caught at his ears and pulled him in the direction of one of the smaller tents.
"...about six foot, maybe a hundred and ninety pounds... I don't know what he was wearing last. I haven't seen him since the morning..."
Max poked his head past the tent flap and peered around. June was sitting at one of several folding tables that lined the tent's walls, talking to a clipboard wielding National Guardsman who looked like he'd been on clipboard duty just a bit too long. It was all Max could do not to fall his knees and offer hosannas on the spot. He allowed himself a moment of joyous delirium and came inside.
June didn't notice immediately, which he considered forgivable under the circumstances. June looked as though she hadn't slept, bathed or changed her clothes in at least three days. The grief and weariness, fear and exhaustion, rolled off her almost palpably. Max wanted to lay his hands on those bowed shoulders and caress all the pain he sensed away. He settled for tapping one gently, and enjoying the look that rolled across June's face.
The National Guardsman cleared his throat pointedly, "I take it that you're Maximillian Sinclair?"
"You could take it that way, yes."
The National Guardsman eyed them both up and down, then nodded. "Injuries?"
"Nothing significant. June, can we...?"
"Yes!" June bounced to her feet with an energy that was undoubtedly pure adrenaline. "Thank you for your time, lieutenant."
June leaned on Max for the first several minutes, which he didn't mind at all. They crossed the length of Dickson, turned past the flagpole and headed back in the direction of the library. Before they got that far, June steered him off to one side, found a tree that had escaped being damaged, pushed him up against it and kissed him so hard it actually left him breathless. June was shaking, so Max wrapped his arms around her and rubbed her back gently.
"Hey..." More than a year together and he'd never really seen June cry before. It made his own eyes burn, and filled him with the need to soothe and comfort. "It's all right."
"I thought you were dead," June whispered against his neck. "You have no idea -- half the block burned down." She took a ragged breath. "Do I even want to know how you got out?"
"I don't remember. I think I whacked my head..." Which was true enough. He really didn't remember. "Is Smokey all right?"
"Oh, my..." June laughed helplessly. "Smokey is at Eric's place. He got lucky this time -- Van Nuys hardly got touched. He has half a dozen people camping out in his living room, but one of us has dibs on the guest room." She reached up and rubbed the tears from her face with her palm. "Come on... If we leave soon we can hook up with a National Guard patrol headed up that way."
"It's been that bad?" Max didn't doubt it, not at all. The pain and fear were so thick in the air he could taste it without trying. It would be like a banquet spread before a starving multitude for anything deliberately hunting. He still felt it himself -- the hot desire to join the hunt, to answer the summons still pulsing in his head -- but it was easier to resist now that he had what he wanted most in this world at his side.
"Worse than bad. Blind thrust fault, just like Northridge in '94, but right under the middle of the city instead of up in the Valley. When I left base, they were still arguing about which one it was." The parking lot at the bottom of the Janss Steps was crammed with National Guard trucks and a handful of bright red USGS Jeeps, one of which June had he keys to.
It was enormously comforting just to hear June talk -- not only because it was June, but because it was so utterly real, so completely rational. It allowed Max to blot out the image of coils writhing close beneath the surface of the world, to push away the darker truths he had no desire to acknowledge. It very nearly stilled the voice speaking soundlessly inside him, whispering things about himself that he didn't want to know, that were no longer wholly true. He closed his eyes and rested his head on June's shoulder as they pulled out of the parking lot, pushed down by a sudden wave of renewed weariness.
A spark of light danced across his eyelids, and he forced them open again, refusing to see. "You weren't hurt...?"
"Not even a little. Scared stupid for awhile, I'll freely admit." June needed both hands to drive. The road felt like it had been picked up, tucked into folds and slapped back down. "When the latitude and longitude readings came back, I almost had a heart attack. And then I got away as soon as I could. I've been looking for you for most of the last three days."
"Thank you." That seemed somehow inadequate to express the real depth of his gratitude. He added as emphatic a hug as he could manage, and pressed a kiss to June's shoulder.
"You can thank me later. I almost got shot by trigger happy National Guard troops. There's been rioting. You wouldn't believe some of the things I've seen."
"Just think of all the analysis waiting for you once the fun stuff is over." Max observed wryly.
"Fun stuff he calls it. This earthquake was in the high six points, some of the aftershocks have been in the high fives..." June cut herself off, shaking her head. "Do you want to hear something bizarre?"
No. No I don't. Nothing strange. Nothing bizarre. Talk to me about epicenters and hypocenters and relative magnitudes. "What?"
"Those drawings you did. The mandalas." She stopped, visibly considered what she was about to say, and started again. "Before I left Pasadena, some of the preliminary crustal deformation data was already coming back from the GPS network. We thought the GPS system was glitching before the quake because it was turning up detectable crustal deformation patterns without any detectable seismic activity. It shouldn't do that. Not normally. But when I ran the graphical representation on one of the data sets, the crustal deformation outline looked like one of the mandalas you drew, the big one of the dragon."
"I know. Who are you and what have you done with June, right?" A hollow chuckle. "It gets worse. The crustal deformation pattern of this earthquake, at least in the preliminary readings, looked like a fucking handprint. Like something had smacked its open hand right into the middle of the Los Angeles fault basin."
"Something did." Max whispered. He couldn't force his voice louder, nor around the roaring that was filling his head, making his ears ring with phantom echoes. He fumbled in his pocket for the pages he'd saved, images shooting across his field of vision with every blink.
"What...?" June glanced sidelong at him. Max ignored the question, unfolding bits and pieces of maps and half-intact encyclopedia pages.
The page he was looking for sent a jolt the length of his arm the instant his fingertips touched it. He separated it out. There weren't any streetlights, so he turned on the Jeep's rearview reading light.
It was chunk of the zip code map for the Los Angeles area. It was do densely scrawled with sigils he could make out only fragments of numbers, of district names -- Studio City, North and West Hollywood, Van Nuys. One of the sigils, the largest one, was a star of eight points.
"June..." It took all of Max's strength to keep his voice calm and level. "Is there another way to get to Eric's place besides the one we're taking?"
He could hear the quizzical frown in June's voice. "Not really. As you can tell by the lovely condition of this road, most of the major thoroughfares are in pathetic shape, if they're passable at all. I pretty much know we can get through here."
"I think we need to find another way."
Max wanted to scream. Don't ask me that. Please don't ask me that. If you ask me, I'LL HAVE TO TELL YOU!! He looked up and watched, half-blind with tears of agony, as the wildly tilted street signs whipped past the Jeep's windows. "Please... if you've never trusted me on anything before, trust me on this. We need to find another way."
He could feel June watching his face, could practically feel the weighing of alternatives going on in her head, the logical progression of argument and counterargument that went into all her decision making. Then, "Okay." As simple as that. "I think there's a place where we can turn around up here. Hell, if push comes to shove we can spend the night in one of the emergency shelters and drive up to Eric's tomorrow morning once it's light. That might be an even better idea."
He nearly sobbed in relief. Let that be enough. Please let that be enough. I'm not ready....
They went another handful of blocks. June slowed every now and then, checking for turnarounds that wouldn't be worse than the way they were already going. None immediately presented themselves. "It's okay, Max, we'll... What the hell is that?"
That was a satellite news van blocking most of the street in front of them. Beyond it the crew of the van were out on the street itself, filming whatever was going on. The air was thick with smoke, though no fire was visible.
"Fuck a duck." June pulled forward a few more feet. Past the news van they could see that the street was thronged with people, most of whom were little more than silhouettes against the smoke rapidly rushing down the street to meet them. "On second though, let's turn around right here."
It was too late. Max knew the instant the words left June's mouth. It was too late -- had been too late since he'd let himself find her, too late since he'd crawled out of the library, too late since he hadn't let the collapse of his building crush him. He knew, in a single blinding instant, if he'd just walked away...
They wouldn't be here right now.
"June..." He whispered desperately. "Don't look."
But it was far too late for that as well.
Light slanted through the clouds of smoke, burning them away like sunlight through fog. It lit the street with merciless clarity and lit the sky from horizon to horizon. He didn't need to see it to know it was true. The city had gone dark in the aftermath of the Great Beast's fury and now.. now it was lit again.
Closed eyes wouldn't protect him, so Max didn't even bother. Instead he stared into its heart. The first light of Creation, and all the light that ever was and ever would be. It was the flaming heart of stars and the warm gleam of candles, the fluorescent glow of street lamps, flashlight beams and headlights, the flash of lightning strikes that hung blazing in the air linking Heaven and Earth.
He wasn't the only one to put words to that thought. All over the city, he felt others of his kind breathing it with him -- a sigh, a whisper, a plea, a curse.
He tasted the tears he was weeping. He could feel the breath catching in his chest as he sobbed. He didn't know how long the Morningstar hung there, suspended, burning bright for all the world to see. It couldn't have been long. It felt like forever. Long before he was ready for it to end, that fierce brilliance began to fade.
He felt the words forming in his thoughts, 'Please, no... don't go. Don't leave us here. You cannot know how much you're needed.'
And, to his utter amazement, Max felt those words being heard.
The Morningstar's light rolled over him, caressed him, almost gently. He could nearly feel the hand smoothing over his brow as it communed with him, and he recognized the subtle, elusive presence that had brushed the edge of his senses before. Max cursed himself for not recognizing it then. It was amused that he had sensed that much. It reached past the surface of his being, whispered his name, read the ripples that action sent through the whole of his being. It looked on him as he had been, and the shame nearly swallowed Max. It looked on him as he was, and the wonder in that instant dispelled shame and banished despair.
'Forgive me...' he whispered to that perfect light. '...that I ever doubted you.'
The immaterial caressing hand stroked over his brow again, one last time, as it withdrew.
Then it was gone.
It rose above the city in a coruscation of radiance -- a shooting star in reverse, falling away from the Earth instead of towards it. Max watched until it faded entirely, his eyes straining for the slightest trace of its brilliance.
He was dimly aware that he was no longer in the slightest trace of physical pain. No cacophony inside his skull, no burning, pounding awareness of another's will tugging at his own. He brushed his fingertips gently across his forehead, and found it smooth, unmarked. The Great Beast's sigil no longer lay there, half-alive and twisting at his every thought and action.
It took him a moment to find his voice. "June?"
There was no response. Max squeezed his eyes closed against the renewed flood of tears, against the knowledge that there were some things that no human -- no matter how extraordinary, no matter how beloved -- could look upon and remain untouched.
The university hospital was doing triage on the emergency entrance lawn, under a tent provided by the Army Corps of Engineers. From outside it looked as though half of west LA was camped down there. It wasn't all that difficult to become just two more among the multitude.
June wasn't able to walk, so slipping out of the Jeep and among the tents and piles of emergency supplies to find her a wheelchair was the first order of business. A bit of effort got her out of the passenger seat and into it. The sidewalk was in as sorry shape as the street, as were all the ramps, and maneuvering the wheelchair was something practical to focus on.
The hospital itself appeared to have escaped serious damage. There was no regular power, of course, and all the main lights were out. The lower halls were lit with emergency lights every few feet, and all the doors were propped open. Max wheeled June inside.
The emergency ward's waiting rooms were full of people that were treading on their last emotional straws. Max tasted their pain and left it alone. It was too similar to his own. He found an empty spot close to the ward door, maneuvered the wheelchair into place and engaged its brakes. He then knelt and caressed June's face.
June stared emptily at him, her dark eyes mirrors that reflected nothing -- no fire, no intelligence, no life. Max couldn't tell if there was anything left of June in the shell of her body. There was a resonance that echoed within when that name was spoken, but it was faint, distant, withdrawn. Too much too soon, in one clear and unfiltered instant. Neither June's mind nor soul were prepared to process it, not all at once. Max reached up and closed those dead eyes, unable to endure looking into them a moment longer.
"June," he whispered. "I don't know if you can hear me, but if you can, know this: I may never have been Maximillian Sinclair, but I always loved you." He swallowed the howl of grief trying to claw its way out of his chest. "My name is Morael... and I will love you until this world ends."
Max didn't expect a response. He didn't receive one. He pressed a final kiss to June's forehead. It took all the strength he had left to push himself to his feet and walk away.
The Jeep was where he'd left it, and he slipped inside, trying to think of what to do next.
June's cell phone, sitting in the console between the seats, rang.
Morael glanced at the thing without real surprise and smiled humorlessly. The first three digits of the incoming call number were 666. He picked it up. "Hello, Thahlil."
There was a satisfying momentary silence on the other end. "Hello, Morael. I see that you've come to your senses. At last."
"You could say that, yes." The Jeep started on the first try, thankfully enough.
"I assume that you'll be joining us shortly?" Thahlil sounded as though that idea appealed to him as much as having his spine torn out through his nose. "Sarael has missed you greatly."
"No, I don't think I will be." The silence that followed that pronouncement was much long and much more satisfying.
"No, Thahlil. I will never be joining you again. As enjoyable as our association has been in the past, I find that I've outgrown it." Max popped the Jeep into gear and pulled out. In the back of his head, he formulated a plan -- a plan that was already moving in his hands. "Just one thing before I go, Thahlil."
"I know you're thinking about using June and Eric to manipulate me. Don't. You're also seriously underestimating how much I'd enjoy killing you, should you provoke me in that fashion." Max needed to get somewhere with a working ATM. He sensed a long road forming under his feet and, if this world had taught him anything, it was that money was necessary on a road trip. "Give Sarael my love."
He hung up.
He had a very long way yet to go.
Back to the Lair