Nightwatch: The Sin Watcher
By jaimie l. elliott
Nightwatch created by Jeff Williams
Developed by Jeff Williams and Robert Moriyama
“Allow what is done for you to be done for you. Do for yourself that which you have to do for yourself.”
- Ibrahim Khawwas (The Palm Weaver)
“New organs of perception come into being as a result of necessity.
Therefore, O man, increase your necessity, so that you may increase your perception.”
- Jalaludin Rumi
Part 1 - The Dust of
The dust of
Another downward mist materialized even as shafts of sunlight taunted through ragged holes torn within the clouds. His fiery blood chilled. He desired to escape the diesel smell of passing lorries and the clamor of autos, to avoid the crowded, pale faces that eyed him suspiciously. Around him he saw a different type of grime than the dust of Afghanistan. Not worse, not better, but different, and it unnerved him even though he had spent most of his long existence staring down the barrels of muskets and rifles. He stopped suddenly in the middle of the sidewalk, fellow pedestrians eyeing him curiously as they proceeded around him. “I think that Zahoor can wait a bit longer,” he muttered to himself and ducked into a nearby tavern.
The smell of cigarette smoke washed over him, soothing him. He inhaled deeply the beautiful scent as he scanned the dark establishment, not much more than a single, claustrophobic room. A few men sat around at the bar, huddled in their own obscurity. A football game played silently on a small telly hanging from the ceiling in the corner.
He ambled up to the bar and settled down upon a worn stool. The bartender, a squat fellow with thick, dark brows perched over watery eyes, walked over to him. “What can I get you, old fella?” he asked gruffly.
A Jinn and Sin?, Massoud thought wryly. “Scotch,” he said aloud. “Uhm, as you say, straight up?”
The man nodded. “Right.” He poured the viscous liquor into a tumbler on a napkin in front of him. “Cheers,” he said cheerlessly.
Massoud sipped his single malt scotch, savoring its smoky flavor. It kindled the warmth in his gullet. He grimaced at all the dusty, cold days roaming the rugged mountains of Afghanistan, denied the simple comfort of alcohol. “Foolish Muslims,” he mumbled in Urdu. “Foolish humanity.”
“Want another one?” asked the bartender.
Massoud looked up from his glass. He smiled appreciatively, gesturing his right hand in a flowery manner. “Please,” he said pleasantly.
“No ice, right?”
“That is correct.”
The bartender pointed at him to acknowledge his order. Massoud immediately quelled the anger rising within him at the impolite gesture, realizing he now roamed the land of Westerners. Still, it remained difficult to reconcile the cultural differences. He chided himself for even caring about these human customs, so contradictory.
“Where’re you from, mate?” asked the bartender as he placed another glass in front of Massoud. He wiped his thick fingers on his stained, white polo shirt.
Afghanistani picked through the endless countries from his past. “
“Right. Didn’t think you’re from ‘round here. Most of the Muslims keep to Manningham.”
Massoud grinned. “Yes, I plan on heading over there myself.” A pang of guilt soured the scotch in his stomach.
“Brilliant,” said the bartender, faking interest. “Well, welcome to merry old England.”
Massoud nodded and made another showy gesture. He glumly stared at his drink, his finger gliding around the rim. He felt so tired. He expected to feel elation at finally unearthing the lost artifact. It had been so long, searching for the Key of Solomon, passing from one generation to the next, easing in and out of his latest identity. He had long lost count of all the dead. The Persians. The Taliban. The British and the Russians. The weight of all their blood, both foe and friend, hung heavily on his soul. After all that, he had entrusted Simon and Nightwatch to place the Key beyond humanity’s reach.
Only to watch as the world unraveled around him, the Key abused by those same ignorant hands he had trusted. He shook his head at his stupidity.
“Oy, who let the old Paki in?”
Massoud glanced up to see a heavyset man in a blue workman shirt glaring at him from down the bar.
“For fuck’s sake, Charlie, leave him alone,” warned the bartender.
“Oh, get off it, Pete,” slurred the big man. “What’s that shite doing here? Why isn’t he mingling with his own kind o’er in Hanover Square? Or do they think they can breed us out of the rest of Bradford?”
Massoud studied the man intensely and hissed at what he discerned. Please don’t talk to me, he thought with distaste, cringing noticeably. He debated leaving and saw his drink untouched, the brown liquid inviting. The dogs bark but the caravan moves on.
As Massoud reached for money in his jacket, the man spoke loudly, “Fucking get lost, you Paki trash.” His fellow patrons chuckled darkly.
The Afghanistani gritted his teeth. He knew he should indeed ‘get lost’ and leave this piece of camel dung to his miserable existence. He felt his malevolence rising. Calmly, he removed his hand from his jacket and instead took out a pack of cigarettes from his back pocket. He tapped one out gingerly. He placed the cigarette to his lips and puffed deeply, exhaling out a great plume of smoke. Smiling coldly, he asked the stranger, “Have you visited your nephew of late? The one you call Robbie?”
The man named Charlie nearly fell from his stool, the steadying hand of a companion keeping him from tipping over. “Oy, how’d you know of him?” he demanded. “Who in the bloody hell are you?” He rose from his seat unsteadily, his face apoplectic. His clenched fists shook angrily.
“Who am I?” replied Massoud, arching his eyebrow. “That is a good question. I know what I am not. I am not a man that molests children.”
Charlie’s crimson face turned suddenly pallid. “Bollocks,” he stammered, glancing around nervously. “You’re a bloody fucking liar, you are!”
“Tell me,” continued the Afghanistani. “How do you sleep knowing that little boy cries for the deliverance of God, shivering in the darkness he now so greatly fears?”
A strangled gurgle escaped from the Englishman as he gripped tight the edge of the bar. Massoud walked up to him, the pinpoints of fire dancing in his pupils. He blew smoke into the man’s round, pudgy face. Charlie’s companions, who had laughed with him just moments before, edged away. “If I could bless you the way we did to our Russians captives, my dear friend, it would only be the beginning of the hell reserved for your kind.”
“Right, then!” shouted the bartender, pointing at Massoud. “Out you go!”
Massoud glared and threw some bills down upon the beaten countertop. “I beg your forgiveness. I was about to make my leave anyway.” He took the cigarette from his mouth and carefully laid it atop the bar. Smiling tightly, he touched his head in farewell. On his way out, he noticed the disgusted bartender pick up the discarded butt only to find it whole and unlit.
“Bloody hell!” exclaimed the astonished bartender, momentarily oblivious to the weeping Charlie slumped over with his plump hands clutching his chest.
Massoud staggered out into the drizzle, his smile twisting into a grimace. He bent over, hands on knees, the sick taste lingering in his mouth. It is only what I deserve. After a brief moment, he straightened and adjusted his jacket. Face determined, he continued onward to Manningham, to another world, a piece of Muslim Asia wedged within the fabric of the great British tapestry. “On to Little Islamabad,” he mused to himself.
Something flickered at the corner of his eye. He glanced sharply down an alleyway and glimpsed a shadow lurking momentarily in the darkness. He sneered, his rage taking hold once more. “Simon Litchfield, what have you done?”
Part 2 - Back to the Land of the Living
“Simon Litchfield, what you have done this time?” asked Stephanie exasperated.
“That’s Dr. Simon Litchfield,” he replied smoothly, his attention focused on the Arts & Living section of the Washington Post. “And I have no idea what I’ve done this time.” He sipped his coffee without peering up.
Stephanie fumed impotently. “Aargh. You’re so damn obstinate.”
“Obstinate: Sticking with an opinion or position despite reason or logic to the contrary.”
This time he looked up. He carefully folded the paper and placed it on the table. “Sorry,” he said. “What’s wrong, Mizz Keel?”
She closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. She sensed the migraine coming on, the slow but inevitable thunderhead. Her eyes still closed, she replied in measured tones, “You know I don’t like being addressed as ‘Mizz’.”
“Right,” he nodded curtly. “Won’t happen again.” He reached down for his paper.
“That’s not the crux of the issue, mister.”
His hand paused a couple inches from the article he so keenly wanted to read. Sighing, he withdrew his hand. “Okay, I’m sorry. What exactly is the issue then?”
“You need to stop angering Callow,” she said simply.
Simon rolled his eyes. “I need to stop angering Callow?” he said indignantly. “He’s the evil one! Spawn of Satan? Son of Demogorgon? Have you forgotten that?”
“I agree,” she mollified, motioning for calm. “But it’s gotten out of hand recently. It’s almost like you two are at war. You can’t start a fight with him over every single thing that crops up.”
“We don’t disagree on everything,” he grumbled. “For example, we both acknowledge that the world is round.” He waggled his finger, “Although I would bet good money he thinks it more oval-shaped.”
Stephanie laughed despite herself. “Just pick your battles to fight, okay? You have to work with this guy. I have to work with this guy. We have to work with this guy. See the theme here?”
“Alright, alright, I get it,” he said. “Kumbaya and all that.” He bestowed upon her his puppy dog look. “Now can I please finish reading the paper?”
She dismissed him with a wave of the hand. “You have my permission,” she deadpanned, rising from her seat.
He harrumphed a reply.
Stephanie exited the lounge and headed to her desk, navigating the narrow, fluorescent-guided hallways of building F of the Nightwatch Institute. She missed Tom. He seemed to be the one to nudge them back on track, his gentleness and patience a balm to Simon’s curmudgeonly nature and her introspective shell. Lately, she and Simon argued a lot, the good-natured quips edging toward unpleasantness. A bit guiltily, she realized that deep inside, she still carried some resentment going back to the Cardenio incident. “Come back soon, Tom,” she said quietly, glancing through the tiles into the imagined depths of outer space. “And safely,” she added.
She arrived at her office and plopped down heavily in her chair. Simon vexed her lately. He seemed to bristle at the mere mentioning of Callow’s name. It started to affect his work. Unfortunately for them all, the progeny of demons loomed as an unwanted step in many of their activities. He could not be dismissed as an inconvenience.
“Heya Steph,” said a familiar voice.
She looked up from her reverie to see Kevin’s infectious grin in the doorway.
She smiled back. “Hey!” The tide of her migraine abated for the moment. “What’s up?”
“Just wanted to see if you’re still up for that movie tonight.”
“Sure,” she said, hesitating.
“Great,” he purred. “I’ll stop by your place at seven?”
“Uhm, no, I might be working late. I’ll meet you there.”
“Okay,” he said affably. He winked. “See you then.”
“Okay,” she smiled back. She giggled as Kevin bumped into a filing cabinet. He shrugged sheepishly.
Stephanie leaned back into her chair and exhaled nervously. She liked Kevin. He understood her need to take things slowly, the wounds of the past still too fresh. Regardless, she was a long way off from having a significant other. “Back to the land of the living,” she murmured. She glanced up toward Tom. Well, at least I’m trying, she argued in vain to the ceiling.
A sudden pang of the inevitable migraine caused her to wince. She had experienced the headaches since last year, around the time they had discovered the Dragon’s Egg. They seemed to have gotten worse recently.
Through the throbbing, she noticed Alice, the current administrative assistant, cautiously hovering near the doorway, nervously fingering the lapel of her stylish pale blue business suit. “Hi Ms. Keel,” said Alice in a thin, wavering voice.
“Yes?” asked Stephanie irritably and immediately regretted her harshness. For some reason, she intimidated the poor woman, today being no exception.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” stammered Alice, taking a step back.
Oh for God’s sakes. “No, no, that’s okay.” Stephanie rubbed her temples. “I’m sorry, I just have a headache is all. How can I help you?”
“I’m looking for Dr. Litchfield. He has an urgent message from England.”
A looming apprehension took hold. “He’s in the lounge,” Stephanie said slowly. “I would be careful though. He’ll tear your head off if you disturb him while he’s reading his paper.”
The administrative assistant blanched noticeably.
Stephanie sighed. “I’m joking, Alice.”
The skittish woman nodded abruptly, hurrying off to secure Simon.
“Our next secretary definitely needs to have a sense of humor,” she groused to herself and then flinched as another stab of pain jolted her brain. She looked over at the poster of the world map tacked up on the wall, her eyes locating the island nation of England. She had never been there before, much to her surprise. Then again, she was not as worldly as Simon. Few people were. Involuntarily, she glanced down the hallway, expecting him to appear at any moment.
As if on cue, he appeared from around a corner, face troubled yet again, his gray hair neatly combed, his khaki clothes slightly frumpy as always. Dear lord, I’m starting to guess his every move. She glumly glanced over at the phone, wondering if she should call Kevin now to let him know she would be unavailable tonight.
Part 3 - The Wrong Side is the Right Side
Crossing a road in England proved to be a harrowing experience, her eyes glancing left instead of right, as she barely avoided a miniature version of a car whining past, the horn eee-eee’ing feebly. Stephanie ignored Simon’s smirk as they made their way through the noisy bustle of airport dissonance, their rental car awaiting them outside Leeds Bradford’s International terminal. She left her life in Simon’s capable hands as he navigated the unfamiliar streets, trusting in him to understand that the wrong side is the right side over here.
“How did you get that to work without the Nightbird’s communication array?” asked Simon, referring to her PDA / mobile phone. They entered a roundabout, taking the first exit to Victoria Avenue.
Stephanie frowned as she scrolled through her email on the device. “I’m Wile E. Coyote, super-genius.” She glanced up from the display and smiled endearingly. “You’re thinking of the satellite phone, silly. This is the cell phone model.”
“Isn’t that a tad unsecured?”
“It’s still encrypted,” she assured him.
“Huh, looks just like the one I used over in Afghanistan.”
“Well,” she said slowly as she turned her attention back to the PDA, “they don’t have much of an infrastructure over there to support a mobile network. Hence you used the model with the satellite phone.”
“I should know better than argue with a cartoon character,” he quipped. He clenched his fingers repeatedly, the arthritis acting up in the damp weather. “Did Kevin manage to find anything on Zahoor?”
“Sifting through his emails now,” she replied. “He didn’t find much. Just a reference to him in Trends magazine, some British Muslim publication He’s a Sufi according to the article. Government files indicate he emigrated from Pakistan but he hasn’t caused any trouble. He’s not on any watch lists.”
“I wonder what his relationship is with Massoud,” mused Simon. “What could he want with an Islamic mystic?”
“Hopefully not to spread further intolerance and ignorance in the world,” she said darkly.
Simon eyed her sideways. “I didn’t know you had a problem with religion.”
Stephanie looked up from her PDA / mobile phone and stared outside at the old buildings whirling by, everything seeming more compact, the cars smaller, the houses narrower. “I’m not a big proponent of organized religion,” she admitted. “But I have real issues with Islam. They seem to have a certain disregard when it comes to women.”
“Well, Christianity has some real sexist overtones,” argued Simon. “I wouldn’t say it’s only Islam. The whole blaming Eve thing, for example.”
“You won’t hear an argument from me. But at least in the modern age, the majority believes in equal rights. That’s not true with a lot of Muslims.”
“Maybe they just need more time.”
“They need something,” mumbled Stephanie. She gave Simon a discerning glance. “So why did you bring me along on this trip?” Their decision to take a public jet had left them scant time to discuss the situation.
Simon exhaled. In the morning light, his hair seemed more white than gray, the lines in his tanned face more defined. “Massoud knows we have the Egg. I don’t understand how he could, but he does. He was very... curt... over the phone. He outright stated that we were destroying the world although he didn’t elaborate on how exactly we were managing Armageddon.”
“You believe him?”
He shrugged. “I’ve but glimpsed its power, and with that furtive peek, I’ve seen its potential. I have no doubt in my mind that it could tear reality a new one.” A chunky bug splattered on the windshield, startling Stephanie. Simon turned on the wiper spray, the effort doing little except smear the insect’s guts across the glass. “It almost seems like he knows more than he’s letting on. But if he did, then why did he let us take the Egg in the first place?”
Stephanie watched him piece the puzzle together in his mind. For all his talents, his ability to make intuitive leaps in logic impressed her the most. “So he invited you over,” she said.
“Demanded, more like it. Massoud is a tough sonofabitch. Even the most devout of the Taliban feared him. They say he had special powers.” He grinned boyishly at her. “That’s why I brought you along, to act as backup.”
“Great, I’m a bodyguard,” she grumbled and then paused. “Did you know I had a date with Kevin last night?” she asked.
“No, I didn’t,” he replied, his face a mask. Another pause. “Do you think you’re ready--,” he began as he turned toward her.
She glared at him with narrowing eyes.
“--to meet this Sufi?” he finished seamlessly. “I mean, he is a holy man. We need to act respectful.”
“I’ll be better with him than you are with Callow.”
Simon winced. “Touché, darling. Touché.”
“Where are we going?” she asked, her voice crackling with impatience, her fingers massaging her temples.
“Manningham,” replied Simon, his eyes switching between the crumpled directions sitting on his lap and the road before them. “It’s part of Bradford. If I recall correctly, it has a large Muslim population. It’s also rundown with a lot of crime.”
“So that’s why Kevin sent this info. Apparently, it was the site of some riots back in the nineties.”
“It’s not easy being a stranger in another country, Steph. It’s especially difficult for Muslims. The Koran isn’t told from the perspective of a minority. How does one reconcile that?” His eyes lingered on her for a second. “You experiencing those headaches again?”
Stephanie nodded. “They got progressively worse during the flight. Once we landed, they became really bad.” She rooted around in her bag to find the medication that did not seem to help much.
“It’s only fifteen minutes to Manningham. We’ll make this as quick as possible and then head to the hotel so you can get some rest.”
Her lips grim, she replied, “I’ll be fine, Simon. I’m a tough girl.”
“That you are,” he chuckled.
Part 4 - The Music of the Spheres
are,” said Simon, gazing up at the dilapidated, redbrick building that teetered
above them. “The
Stephanie glanced around, feeling awkward in the midst of bearded men dressed in their salwar kameez suits and kufi skullcaps. She had expected some influence of Southeast Asian Islamic culture, but nothing of this magnitude, with many of the building signs written in a language she did not recognize. Even though she saw a few women and even some younger people wearing Western clothes, all eyes seemed to focus on her. “Are you going to stand out here admiring the architecture?” she grumbled.
“Well, I am an engineer,” he replied. Not seeing a doorbell, he rapped his knuckles on the peeling paint of the frame.
The door complained noisily as someone tugged it open. A young bearded man garbed in local Muslim clothes greeted them with a cautious smile. He wore a light tan salwar and a red head covering. He bowed his head slightly, addressing them in an unfamiliar language.
“I think he’s speaking Punjabi,” said Simon. Clearing his throat, he asked, “Do you speak English?”
The man frowned. “No English,” he muttered.
“Massoud Khalili?” asked Simon. “Zahoor Phadkar?” He pointed to his own chest. “Simon Litchfield.”
The stranger’s eyes lit up. He nodded his head eagerly. “Yes, yes,” he replied, motioning them inside.
They entered a simple, clean room, with low-sitting padded chairs and equally low benches. Windows to their right provided dim, haphazard light from the mercurial England sun. Oriental rugs covered the worn wood floor, the scent of strange spices lingering in the air. Their smiling host graciously offered them a seat. As soon as they made themselves comfortable on a bench, he departed through a curtained doorway.
Stephanie grimaced, her head pounding. She began to cross her legs when Simon grabbed her ankle. “Not trying to be fresh,” he said, “but it’s considered extremely rude to show the soles of your feet to a Muslim.”
She sighed. “I knew that.” She leaned back on the low seat, her shoes planted firmly on the floor. She sat in stillness, her migraine consuming her attention. Their host came back a few minutes later with a tray of hot tea that he placed on the table in front of them. He stood to the side quietly. Stephanie picked up one of the steaming cups and gazed at the milky, pink liquid with pieces of nuts and cinnamon floating on top. She sipped carefully and for a moment forgot all her discomfort, the deliciously spicy, salty Kashmiri chai overwhelming her tongue.
Another Pakistani entered the room, shorter and much older, wearing an off-white salwar kameez with matching kufi. His beard seemed like snow. “Assalam alaikum,” greeted the old man, grinning affably. “Welcome to my home.”
Simon rose to his feet, his knees popping loudly. “And peace be with you,” he replied back. “You must be Mr. Zahoor Phadkar.” He motioned to Stephanie still seated. “This is my associate, Ms. Stephanie Keel.”
She reluctantly placed her unfinished tea on the tray and also stood. She forced a smile.
Zahoor nodded warmly at her. Addressing them both, he said, “I am glad you came so quickly upon Massoud’s request.”
“Where is Massoud?” asked Simon. “If you don’t mind me asking?”
“I am here, Simon,” rumbled a voice from the doorway.
Stephanie turned her head and experienced an unexpected stab of fear. She had seen pictures of the ancient, grizzled Afghanistani before, but nothing in those photos conveyed his eyes, glowing pupils that pierced her soul, leaving her very essence naked and exposed. The sensation rekindled a buried memory of William Gryphus standing over her abused, battered body as it lay tied to a musty bed. She placed a hand on Simon’s shoulder to keep her from collapsing back onto the bench.
Simon glanced at her, concern etched in his features.
“Aren’t you going to say hello, Simon?” she said through gritted teeth. Her head swam and thumped painfully, her heart roaring in her ears. She pushed back against the nausea bubbling inside her.
Simon tore his eyes away from her to gaze upon his old comrade-in-arms. The pall of silence burdened the room. Even in her pain-laden haze, Stephanie sensed the tension between the two men.
“How’s it going, old man?” asked Simon hopefully. “It’s a bit far from the dusty mountains of Afghanistan.”
“Yes, quite a distance,” replied Massoud slowly. “A necessary trip, unfortunately. A trip necessitated by your irresponsible ways.”
“Hold on--,” protested Simon.
“No, you hold on,” interrupted the Afghanistani, his voice increasing in volume. “The time for childish games is over. You must return the artifact to me immediately. You’ve done great harm to the world.” His voice lowered to an urgent whisper. “You may already have destroyed it.”
His face reddening, Simon made ready to retort but then composed himself. “Massoud, if there’s something you knew about the Egg, you should have told me. If I’ve done something wrong, it is out of ignorance. What is it that you’re not telling me? What exactly have I done wrong?”
“What you have done wrong?” snarled Massoud venomously, his disconcerting number of teeth flashing predatory. “You said you would not use it, that you would keep it safe from the ambitious talons of your fellow men. That you would throw into the depths of a volcano, never to be seen again. Do you not remember when you used the ultrasound upon the Key? How the very fabric of time tore asunder? And now I find that the world is not safe, for the one I trusted the most has tempted fate again. Deny it! Deny that you have not set your greedy fingers to tamper upon it!”
watched her friend curiously. Simon had
not told her of anything involving the Egg other than what happened in
Simon sighed. “Yes, but it was not my doing. There are others with more... influence... than myself. I had thought the Egg sunk into the depths of molten lava. I did not find out the truth until afterwards.”
Callow’s doing, thought Stephanie. This is going to get ugly. Her eyes quickly scanned the room. They had not brought any weapons and the only thing near at hand that seemed adequate was a brass candleholder on the window sill. She casually inched toward it.
“I’m sorry, old friend,” continued Simon, stiffening. “I can’t return the Egg, especially if I don’t know what it’s capable of.” Massoud snarled, his fists clenching.
Stephanie readied herself, her battle reflexes taking over, the thumping in her head muted in the background. Okay, take out the other two as quickly as possible while Simon engages Massoud. If that bear is half as tough as he says, he’ll need all the help he can get. She felt a strange calm, the world slowing before her. She had always awed her fighting instructors in the past with her skill and instincts. It was as if she took all the hate and hurt and self-loathing inside her and forged it, a keen blade both fast and surgical.
“Perhaps a forthcoming approach may be more welcome,” said Zahoor calmly, snapping Stephanie out of her frame of mind. The thick anxiety clouding the air abated for the moment. “They cannot see because of the veil before their eyes. We must pull it back so they can view the situation more clearly.”
“What are you saying, you old fool?” snapped Massoud. “You and your veils! Your outdated tasawwuf will not provide us wisdom here.”
“What has your shrouded ways accomplished, except bring discord among us?” countered the Sufi. “We are all children of Adam. The danger is real to each and every one. They are right to want to understand.”
“We are not going to tell them anything,” said grizzled Afghanistani flatly.
“I must respectfully state that the decision is not yours to make,” said Zahoor. Yet despite that edict, he waited expectantly.
Massoud snorted, waving his hand dismissively. “So be it. Speak, then, old man! If you are so wise.”
Zahoor bowed to him and then turned to Simon and Stephanie. “The object you call the Dragon’s Egg has another name, an ancient one. It is the Key of Solomon. With it, kings of times past have unlocked the doors to other worlds. Solomon himself, in conjunction with his Ring, bound the jinn into his service by use of these powerful items.”
Stephanie stifled a laugh at such a preposterous statement. She looked sideways at Simon and expected him to be smirking as well. Instead, she saw a face serious and concerned.
“How do you know this?” asked Simon.
“I am part of an ancient order,” replied the Sufi, “the Sulaiman Silsila, or the ‘Order of Solomon’. Our sole duty is to safeguard the Key and prevent its use for evil ends. Solomon, in his great wisdom, knew the object too powerful for normal men, so he hid it. We have remained vigilant for the last three thousand years in the event of its return.”
“When it was unearthed in Afghanistan last year,” said Stephanie.
“Please do not interrupt,” barked Massoud, the disdain evident in his expression.
Stephanie glared at him, the earlier fear she felt dissipating with her rising anger. “I’ll interrupt if I damn well feel like it.” She turned back toward Zahoor. “So when it was found, why did you entrust it to Nightwatch?”
The Sufi smiled. “To answer that question, I shall ask one. How does a person safeguard an indestructible object of tremendous power?”
“It can’t be destroyed,” observed Simon. “It’s too large to hide easily. Its existence is known to every major nation of the world. So you need to put it out of reach, which is why we decided to put it in the volcano.”
Massoud rumbled his displeasure.
“We probably should have sent it up with Tom,” said Stephanie. “Toss it into the sun.”
Simon bestowed her with a sardonic look. “You know, it’s so easy to make judgments in hindsight. Besides,” he continued irritably, “I wouldn’t put that thing near the Tesla generators powering those ships. It would probably open up a wormhole or a singularity or--,” he suddenly paused, deep in thought. “Hmm...” he said aloud before realizing he had gone off on a tangent. “Anyway, you mentioned jinn and other worlds.”
“Therein lies the threat,” said Massoud. He wandered to the window, his fiery eyes fixed on people passing by. Stephanie backed away and stood closer to Simon.
“There are still too many questions,” said Simon frowning. “For one thing, Solomon existed a long time before the birth of Islam. How did Sufis get involved? Secondly, how did the ancients control or even create the Key?”
“The delineation amongst the various religions of God, may He be exalted, was not as marked back then as it is now,” explained Zahoor. “When Sufism was young, it often incorporated Christian and Jewish elements. It is told that the burden came to us at behest of a dying Kabalah sect. As for the Key...” The Sufi shrugged. “It had existed long before Adam, perhaps forged by the jinn. Not even Solomon knew. The exact manner of its control has also been lost. We do know a few things. The most important was that the Key responded to the ’sama.”
“The music of the spheres,” said Massoud quietly, his eyes still fixated outside.
“Yes,” agreed Zahoor. “The harmonic sound that existed in the primordial that brought about the creation of the universe. That is the key to the Key.”
“And the ancients knew the ’sama?” asked Simon.
“To a degree. It is not so much knowing it as hearing it, a gift that precious few have.” He motioned to the Pakistani who had answered the door and stood silent throughout the conversation. “Daud has that gift. He can hear the ’sama. It is our hope that he can bring back the harmony and close the doors that are now ajar.”
“Ultrasound definitely seems to be the trigger,” stated Simon. “I doubt the ancients had access to that. The Key expected gasoline and we used rocket fuel.’”
“I think you are right,” said Zahoor. “From what little we know, the harmonic sound was produced by a group of men chanting together. Through their precise skill, they could open and shut specific doors. Using ultrasound may have caused the Key of Solomon to behave in manners unexpected... and dangerous.”
Massoud angrily beat his fist against the wall. The whole house seemed to shake. He turned to them. “The art of the mystics has long been lost! Besides, even their skills might not have mended the damage done by this ultrasound.” He glared accusatorily at Simon.
“Ah, my old friend,” said Zahoor smiling, “the trick is not to open doors, but to close them. And when they are all closed, the ’sama is in complete harmony.” He bowed slightly to Simon. “We will need to use the ultrasound on the Key. Daud will listen to the ’sama and guide it until harmony is again achieved.”
“So we’ll all head back to Washington,” said Simon. “I can arrange with our scientists--”
Massoud laughed bitterly. “You think it that easy?”
“It’s never that easy,” said Stephanie gloomily.
The Afghanistani grinned wickedly. “Zahoor, tell him the second part.”
grimaced. Almost apologetically, he
said, “Daud can only hear the ’sama well enough at certain places in the world, places
where a Ring has been constructed. There
is no known Ring in
“The Ring of Solomon,” said Stephanie. “According to mythology, wasn’t that some sort of magical item that he wore to control the jinn?”
“Myth,” grumbled Massoud disapprovingly. Stephanie ignored him.
“Time and legend has made the Ring a piece of jewelry,” said Zahoor. “In actuality, it was a circle of power where the ancients could stand and chant and bring forth the doors to other worlds.”
interrupted Simon, “are you suggesting we need to head to the Middle East? To the
Zahoor shook his head. “Alas, that Ring has long been lost. There were other Rings, however, all which predated Solomon’s, which was the last. Stonehenge is one such Ring and the most famous. However, it is far to the south and closely watched by all. What we need is one a bit more discrete.”
“How many other Rings are in England?” asked Simon.
“This land is full of ancient stone circles,” replied Massoud, “constructed long before the Druids, who in turn incorporated the Rings into their rituals.” He motioned his hand to his right. “The one we seek is to the northwest.”
“Castlerigg,” added Zahoor. “Near Keswick.”
“Well then,” said Stephanie, eager to escape Massoud’s angry gaze. “Let’s go examine this particular collection of rocks, shall we?”
Part 5 - Castlerigg
Stephanie exhaled wearily. “It’s a four hour drive to Keswick,” she said glumly. Her thundering headache caused her to wince at every bump in the road.
“It’s more like three,” said Simon, his attention fixed on Massoud’s car in front of them. “I can drop you off at the hotel so you can get some rest. Let me signal that bitter sonofabitch--”
“No, it’s alright,” she said. “I can doze during the drive.” She pulled out her PDA / mobile phone and began typing an email to Kevin. She needed more information on Solomon, Sufism, stone circles, and, in particular, anything that concerned the ’sama As she hit the send button, she belatedly realized that the email was terse and formal. He’s probably expecting me to send a ‘Hello, handsome’ or ‘How are you?’ and here I as demanding as a drill sergeant.
“Something bothering you?” asked Simon.
Stephanie closed her eyes and leaned her head against the window, listening to the rhythm of the road. “Just thinking about the conversation with Zahoor.”
“Me too,” he said, chewing his lip. “If this situation with Castlerigg turns out to be true, the logistics concerning the Egg will be problematic. And I’m not naïve enough to believe that Callow will just let us go and borrow the thing.”
“I was actually thinking about something else,” she said softly.
Stephanie paused. Opening her eyes, she swiveled her head toward Simon. “If there’s one thing that both you and I possess is a healthy dose of skepticism. Hell, we make the gang from Scooby Doo look gullible in comparison--”
“Well, Shaggy and the dog are fairly gullible,” he mumbled.
“--which is why I can’t figure out why you accepted Zahoor’s story about other dimensions and magical genies and the fate of world based on something called Solomon’s Key.” She studied him.
“Huh,” replied Simon after a moment and then remained silent.
“You want more time to formulate an answer?” she asked.
He scratched his jaw and shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Stephanie could almost see the various explanations filtering through his mind. “Let me get it started for you,” she continued. “‘I used the Key of Solomon and...’”
The statement made him scowl. He glanced at her and finally sagged in defeat. “And I traveled back in time. To 1939, to be precise. Callow coerced me into going.” Through clenched teeth, “We came to blows over it.”
“You never told me,” said Stephanie.
“Listen Steph, it’s not something I’m proud of. He convinced me that the world was in danger. In reality, it was us that caused the problem. And in the end, I had to do something... terrible.”
“What did you do?” she asked.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he responded bluntly.
“I see,” she said icily, her arms crossed. “So you get to know all about my darkest experiences. The things that still cause me nightmares. Things that still wake me up in a cold sweat at night. But God forbid if I should know anything concerning you.”
“Steph, it’s not the same.”
“You’re right,” she said morosely. “It’s not.” She tilted back her seat until she lay almost prone.
“But--,” began Simon.
Stephanie, her eyes closed, placed a finger to her lips. War drums assailed her temples. Disappointment festered in her chest. Sunlight flickered through the unkempt clouds and teased her eyelids with veiled brilliance. Yet despite all that, her head lolled to the side and sleep settled fast upon her.
* * * * *
“Steph. Steph, wake up.”
Stephanie’s eyes fluttered open. She groaned as she worked out the kink in her neck. Not surprisingly, the thundering in her head had not abated. In fact, it seemed worse than ever. “Where are we?” she asked groggily.
“I’m pulling into the lay-by right now.”
“What’s a ‘lay-by’?”
“It’s the British equivalent of a parking lot,” Simon replied as he eased the car into a cramped parking space.
“I keep forgetting you were born here.” She yawned mightily as she straightened her seat. “You don’t sound British.”
He eyed her ruefully. “Well, when you’re twelve years old, it’s gets bloody tiresome hearing the same jokes over and over again. I finally gave up my accent altogether when I turned to the girl next to me and asked, in the most innocent of childlike naivety, for a rubber, not realizing the correct term is ‘eraser’.”
Stephanie snickered. “I wouldn’t have had the same issue. I only write in pen.”
“Let’s forgo my childhood trauma and focus on the task at hand, shall we?” he said as he opened the door. Massoud, Zahoor, and Daud waited for them by their car.
Stephanie debated whether to go back to sleep. Resignedly, she pulled on the door handle and slid out of her seat, her sneakers crunching pebbles on the gray asphalt. The clouds had eased back during her nap, leaving the world in a surreal glow. It slowly dawned upon her that a beautiful vista that surrounded them, a cascade of multi-layered hills and rolling fields. “Wow,” she stammered.
“The view is even better at the stones,” said Zahoor smiling. “Come, come. Let us see!” He beckoned to a grassy knoll that led up to the worn stones above.
“Hope you’re not offended if I don’t skip and prance,” muttered Simon.
Stephanie made ready for a smartass reply when a stab of pain twisted her brain, like her heartbeat but much louder, a pulsing jolt, Ka-Khoom Ka-Khoom Ka-Khoom. She grunted, the splendid view wavering as she focused on retaining her sanity. A wave of dizziness washed over her.
“You okay, Steph?” asked Simon.
“Yeah, just got a cramp,” she hissed. “Must have slept awkwardly.”
She knew that he knew that she lied, but neither said anything. She placed one foot in front of the other, her eyes trained on the ground. She feared to glance upward and lose what little balance remained. So intent her eyes upon the ground, she almost bumped into a grazing sheep. At least by looking down I probably won’t step on a turd.
They finally reached the top, a short walk for the others but an eternity for her. She found a smaller rock and immediately sat down upon it. Guiltily, she wondered if she broke any laws by doing this and saw others loitering on other stones. A couple kids jumped from one craggy rock to another. The analytical part of her thought this a terrible way to treat humankind’s ancient heritage. The screaming, tortured part gave exactly two shits on the matter. She wiped the cold sweat off her brow.
Ka-Khoom Ka-Khoom Ka-Khoom
“I must admit, this is an incredible view,” said Simon. “We’re in the Lake District, right?”
“You are correct,” replied Zahoor enthusiastically. “There is art in the placement of the rocks. See how they fit within the landscape? Look to the north at Blencathra and west towards Skiddaw. Notice how the stones harmonize with the fells? The view changes with the weather, the sun highlighting different aspects.” He motioned to the set of stones forming a rough rectangle within the circle on the eastern side. “It is said that these rocks here align with the equatorial sun.”
“Strange,” observed Simon, “but it’s not a true circle. It’s more egg-shaped, flattened on the northeast.”
The Sufi made ready to reply when Massoud interjected. “Let us discuss why we’re here,” he growled in a low voice. The other visitors had shifted away from them, leaving them a sort of privacy. One couple quickly left, doing their best not to stare. Stephanie hazarded that some of that came from racist distrust of the Muslims. Mostly, however, it probably centered on the animosity that seemed to swirl around the irritable Massoud.
“Well,” said Simon, surveying the area, “it’s fairly spacious, I’d say about one hundred feet across with plenty of gaps between the clusters of stones. There should be little effort involved placing the Key up here. Do we need to position it in any special arrangement?”
“I must confess my ignorance,” said Zahoor demurely. “The rite has not been performed for thousands of years. The details have long been lost. I suspect, however, that as long as Daud can manipulate the Key while in the vicinity of the stones, then that shall suffice.”
Simon frowned. “We probably don’t want curious onlookers interfering. Who owns this site?”
“The land is owned by the National Trust and managed by English Heritage.”
“Do they supply the sheep as well?” grumbled Massoud. “What does this matter?”
“Listen here, you miserable...” replied Simon, his patience finally exhausted.
Their spiteful exchange faded into a muted roar, the thundering beat hammering the inside of Stephanie’s skull as an overwhelming din.
KA-KHOOM KA-KHOOM KA-KHOOM
She leaned over, vaguely aware she moaned in agony. She glanced up as the others watched her. In slow motion, she saw a curious mixture of concern and amazement on their faces. Simon turned to his right and she followed his gaze. It rested upon Daud, also doubled over, also in pain, also wincing at every Ka-Khoom.
Stephanie whimpered once and blacked out.
* * * * *
Massoud watched the others fret over the fallen form of Stephanie. He had seen her collapse and immediately understood that a most improbable event had just occurred. The odds seemed so unlikely that for a brief moment Massoud actually believed in the existence of God.
“We must get her away from the Ring,” said Zahoor urgently, ignoring the few startled visitors who watched the scene with uncertainty.
Simon carried her limp form down to the cars, placing her gently in her seat. Massoud discerned the pain in the engineer’s step, the harbinger of old age. “Follow me,” Simon commanded as he ducked into his car. He roared the engine to life and, without waiting for the others, departed the area in a squeal of tires.
“Come, come, Massoud!” shouted the Sufi, beckoning him from their vehicle. Daud had already climbed in back, his own expression a mask hiding the torment inside. Even the grizzled Afghanistani marveled at the discipline of the chosen one. Growling and cursing, Massoud slid quickly into the driver seat.
“Daud, my friend, let us know when the ’sama becomes tolerable,” said Zahoor in Urdu.
“I shall,” replied Daud through tight lips. He breathed deeply and evenly, his psyche turned inwards.
“Will we have to drive to the other side of this forsaken country?” asked Massoud.
“Allah willing, I think not,” replied Zahoor cautiously. “I suspect being so near where the veil has been torn is what caused them such pain. The disharmony of the ’sama must be very loud to them.”
“Simon’s woman has become a liability.”
“A liability?” exclaimed the Sufi incredulously. “You think her weak? Do you realize how strong she must be to have tolerated hearing the ’sama without any training?” He shook his head in amazement. “Most men would have gone mad.” He paused. “And most jinn.”
“I care not if she could carry the world on her shoulders,” said Massoud coldly. “She is American and the dog of Litchfield and Callow. She is a liability. Don’t let your foolish tasawwuf blind you, old man, nor taunt me of jinn.”
“You are far older than I,” said Zahoor, his voice laden with sadness, “and yet despite all those years you still cannot understand. How can you, of all Allah’s creatures, not see?”
“To you your religion and to me my religion,” said Massoud, quoting an old Islamic saying.
“What is your religion, ancient one?”
Massoud chose not to reply. He concentrated on the road ahead. Simon drove determinedly, weaving expertly in and out, and it took all Massoud’s skill and daring to gain ground.
“We are far enough,” said Daud from the back.
Massoud flashed his lights until Simon pulled into a deserted parking lot. He followed the small car around to the side of an old, ramshackle brick store, most likely abandoned. Simon parked beneath a sorrowful oak, out of easy sight of passing motorists. Massoud knew that the man from Nightwatch acted out of habit, acting covertly when possible.
“What is it?” asked Simon brusquely as he stepped out of his car, a dangerous gleam in his eyes. At that moment, his cheerful exterior cracked to show the stone warrior beneath. “Why did you have me pull over? It better be important.”
Massoud’s lips curled in a snarl but Zahoor cut him off. “Easy, my friend. Ms. Keel is safe now. We are far enough from Castlerigg.”
Simon glanced over to Daud. His face grim, he strode around to the passenger side and opened Stephanie’s door. He spent a moment examining her and reluctantly announced, “She seems better. Her breathing is normal and her heart is no longer racing. However, I think we should take her to a hospital.”
“You may, if you wish,” replied Zahoor, “but no medicine will avail her. You know what caused her discomfort.”
Simon straightened and gazed fiercely upon the Sufi. “The ’sama,” he said bluntly. “No offense, but for all I know, Steph could be suffering from a stroke or a hemorrhage. It could even be a brain tumor. I can’t take that chance.”
Massoud hissed. “We do not have time for this!” He shook an angry fist at Simon. “While you are wasting time running tests on your woman, the door to the other worlds will crumble further.”
“The worlds can go to Hell for all I care. I won’t sacrifice Steph for any reason.”
Massoud’s pupils burned brightly. “You have made sacrifices before,” he goaded in soft, dangerous voice. “The kindness of strangers is never forgotten.”
“Enough!” shouted Zahoor, his elderly voice loud but shaky.
Massoud ignored the old man, his gaze locked with Simon’s. “What if I can show you a glimpse of Hell? Would that suffice for you, comrade?”
“I find the proposition extremely doubtful,” replied Simon evenly.
Massoud snorted and spat on the ground. Walking to the back of his vehicle, he reached down and pulled the latch. The boot opened noisily. He beckoned for all of them to see.
He felt a great satisfaction seeing Simon’s eyes open wide in horror. “What is that thing?” asked the engineer. “Is it... human?”
Massoud shook his head, his nose stinging from the chlorine-like odor that billowed out. The claws four inches long. The putrid, leathery skin. The dark, soulless eyes. The sharp, wicked canines tainted yellow-orange. “Whatever it is, it is not human. Not unless he’s a dwarf with four arms and three legs and a tail longer than his body.” His voice turned grave. “This is a creature from another realm. And as nasty as this beast appears, it is but a gnat compared to the true horrors that wait behind those doors. Faeries and angels, spirits and demons. Creatures, both legendary and nameless, that once roamed the world among men until Solomon shut the door for eternity.”
“Where did you find it?” whispered Simon. Already his scientific curiosity had him inspecting the monstrosity with a pen.
“In an alleyway in Birmingham,” replied Massoud. “I found it lurking in the shadows, waiting to ambush someone. It appeared hungry.”
“You killed it?” asked Simon in amazement.
“Yes,” Massoud said simply. He frowned, “Who knows what else has slipped through? We may already be too late. Every moment now is valuable. We must hurry.”
“I agree,” said Stephanie from behind them.
Massoud spun around, his fiery heart thumping. Only a few occasions in his long existence had anyone managed to sneak up on him. He forced himself not to physically lash out at her.
“You seem better,” said Simon, the concern still heavy on his face.
“I still have a headache, but it’s not as bad as it was at the circle.”
“What caused you pain--,” began Zahoor.
“--was the ’sama,” finished Stephanie. “Yes, I realized that after seeing in Daud in a similar plight.”
“Not so similar,” said Massoud, having recovered from his shock. “He did not pass out.”
“It must be his Muslim training,” she said dryly.
“You are right in that regard,” said Zahoor earnestly. “That training can be taught to you as well. You need not suffer as you are now.”
Both Simon and Massoud turned on the Sufi with their reproachful looks. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” objected Simon while Massoud simply exclaimed, “Preposterous!”
“Actually, it’s not a bad idea,” said Stephanie slowly. “Listen, we need to get the Key. We also need to secure the site. Simon can return to Washington while I talk to this English Heritage.” She crossed her arms and faced them all. “It’s more efficient.”
Massoud watched Simon’s mouth twist, ready for a response, when Stephanie’s glare caused the engineer to wilt, his protest dying on his lips. Even though the grizzled man from Afghanistan also thought her idea a bad one, he had to laugh seeing Simon cowed so readily.
“Neither Massoud nor myself should speak to the Heritage,” added Zahoor. “Their representative, a Sir Michael, is a staunch Christian. It is rumored he detests worshippers of Islam.”
“Perhaps I should speak to him,” grumbled Massoud as he slammed the trunk shut with extreme force, startling a couple of nearby pigeons into warbling flight.
Part 6 - The Veils
The veils are everything. They are ignorance. They are desire. They are your mind. They are all the objects in this world. They are what keep you, the seeker, from obtaining what you seek. As you lift these veils, one by one, the true image of God slowly takes shape.
Stephanie pondered the words of Zahoor during the two and a half-hour train ride from Leeds to London. He had agreed to teach her how to cope with the ’sama, but she grew impatient as he pontificated on theology. She possessed little tolerance for mysticism, her rational mind the bedrock of her personality. She just wanted to block out the thundering noise that caused her crippling pain.
To block out the ’sama? Ah, but therein lies the paradox. For most people, the ’sama is covered in many veils. It is mute to them. You have enough of the veils lifted to glean the music of the spheres, yet the way is still not clear. It is these final veils-- your inability to hear properly-- that cause your torment. You must listen instead of blocking. Here is the first exercise. Pay attention to your heartbeat. It will be difficult, but over time--
And immediately she had heard her heart, its beating, a different rhythm than the ’sama As she focused her attention elsewhere, the music of the spheres had suddenly taken on a different aspect. It no longer sounded like a war drum. Although it still thundered, she had felt the sound coming from all around her, not just inside her head. She had felt her mind relax. She had then shuddered, her heart synching with the pulse of the great primordial beat, her migraine vanishing like a strong wind upon a shroud of fog.
Zahoor had gaped at her. Daud had taken years to reach that level of mastery. For her it was but a moment.
Her headache gone, the mission that she had accepted in her haze of pain suddenly snapped into disconcerting focus. She had immediately contacted Nightwatch and requested them to arrange a meeting on short notice with Sir Michael. Nabil Safian, the chair of the European/North African Affairs Committee in the Upper Echelon, promised to pull a few strings. She had quickly formulated a cover story of wanting to measure the magnetic background at Castlerigg while Mars, Venus, and Saturn formed a compact, planetary gathering. It sounded loony and scientific enough for bringing weird instruments to a stone circle. Simon had tersely agreed with her it was an adequate cover story.
Simon. They spoke few words since her insistence on remaining behind. She had sensed a myriad of emotions bubbling within him. Irritation at being disobeyed. Worry with her condition. The inability to protect her. He could have pulled rank and forced her home. He probably would have been justified.
Instead, he left her with Zahoor without even saying goodbye.
She sighed, the ’sama pulsating in the background, oddly matching the tracks rolling underneath. The cabin smelled dank, the legacy of countless souls passing through, and she wondered what small piece of her would remain behind.
The train finally arrived at its destination. The hectic bustle of London contrasted with the plodding pace of English countryside. Although Bradford and Leeds were a cities in their own right, they seemed quaint compared to the great international metropolis of England. Stephanie exited the railcar into King Cross station, her laptop bag and rolling suitcase lagging behind her, and quickly found herself swallowed up by the teeming masses. She managed to jostle her way to a subway guide pinned on a wall, the brazen fluorescent lights bearing down upon the display. Even with her mathematical prowess, it took a while to figure out the confusing Zones and Travelcard options and which line led where. She finally settled on an All Zones, 3-Day Consecutive Travelcard. She jumped on the Piccadilly Line to Earl’s Court station, eager to settle into the hotel.
She finally located the place after patrolling the sidewalks for an hour, the building hidden behind a massive skyscraper. She likened herself as the most clueless tourist in England at that moment, having passed the hotel unknowingly three times, her rolling suitcase eager to flip over at the merest hint of an obstacle and once even tripping a frumpy businessman in a black suit. The hotel clerk seemed slow and unenthused, adding further to her impatience. She restrained herself from performing a nasty knife-hand to the rude man’s cranium. She snatched the keycard from his hand and tromped off to the elevators.
The room. Finally. She eagerly thought of the nice, hot bath awaiting her as she slid her keycard into the card reader. She bolted into the dark sanctuary and threw the suitcase onto the second bed. Her laptop she more gingerly laid upon the desk. The heavy scent of cigarette smoke clung in the air and she wrinkled her nose distastefully. As she tugged her shirt off, she heard her PDA / mobile phone ring irritably.
Her head covered by a partially disrobed shirt, she managed a muffled, “Dammit” before untangling herself completely. She simultaneously scrounged for a light switch and grabbed the PDA / mobile phone from a flap in the laptop bag. “A video call,” she muttered, glancing down at the display. Must be someone from Nightwatch.
She held the PDA / mobile phone in front of her, lining up the camera, and hit the answer button.
The disapproving face of a striking yet aloof Native American woman glared at her, the video image incredibly sharp.
“Dr. Mankiller,” greeted Stephanie in surprise.
Paula Mankiller arched an eyebrow. “Are you in the throes of heat exhaustion, Ms. Keel?”
“Er, no. Don’t think so. Why are you asking?”
“I’m just curious as to why you’re half-dressed.”
Stephanie turned a shade of scarlet. “I was just about to enter the shower,” she replied as she covered her bra with her free arm.
“Well, it’s a good thing I did not call a few seconds later,” said Dr. Mankiller dryly. “And unless you’re trying to electrify me with your Parkinson’s impression, I kindly insist that you stop jerking your mobile around. You’re giving me motion sickness.”
“What do you want?” snapped Stephanie and then cringed. Paula worked in the Upper Echelon as the chair for American affairs. She was one woman with the ability to make her life unbearable. “I’m sorry, I meant, how can I help you, Dr. Mankiller?”
“I’m actually calling you on behalf of Mr. Safian. You see, he just left for vacation. I’m covering for him in his absence.” She said in a lower tone, “He has a bad habit of doing that.”
“Oh. Great,” said Stephanie as enthusiastically as the clerk downstairs.
“I need to verify a couple items,” continued Paula. “First, your reason for meeting with Michael Akinsanya. I’m not aware that Nightwatch’s expertise covered astrology or, for that matter, any of the so-called pseudo-sciences.”
Stephanie coughed. “Yes. Well, see--,”
“Also, I’m not sure what mission you’re engaged in.” Paula frowned. “Are you participating in another questionable endeavor for that insufferable Callow?” She said his name with such distaste that Stephanie flinched. It never occurred to her that others disliked the man as much as she and Simon.
“No, not directly.
Simon and I are following up on a mission from last year. The one from
Paula glared at her with a hard, discerning expression. “Litchfield,” she hissed in tone that made Callow seem pleasant by comparison. “I see. Of course, one or the other would be involved.” She shook her head irritably. “Regardless, as to your story, I assume it is total fabrication for some unethical yet unavoidable reason?”
“I wouldn’t say it’s unethical...”
“A better story,” interrupted Paula, “would have been to test a new method of carbon dating. Something that would have seemed plausible and within the realms of Nightwatch. But since Mr. Safian was overly eager to wrap things up before heading out on holiday, and since both you and Simon must be suffering from serious head trauma to have jointly concocted such poorly thought-out plan, your original story will be the one that you will discuss with Sir Michael at precisely tomorrow morning. Not a minute later. Please keep in mind that he is knighted and not someone to be treated... casually.”
“Eleven! Thank you,” stammered Stephanie. She’s right, she thought. What was I thinking? And why didn’t Simon say anything?
Probably because he was distracted, like you were.
Ms. Keel. I’ll have
Stephanie sat on the bed, the promising bath forgotten. She debated calling Kevin. Instead, she pulled out her laptop and connected the Ethernet cable to the hotel network, one of the few saving graces of the place.
She had a lot of research to do on short notice. First on her mind was not Michael Akinsanya. Rather, the odd comment from Zahoor about Merlin while they briefly discussed Massoud’s ill temper.
Merlin? Did I say that? That old wizard? I’m sorry Ms. Keel. I meant to say ‘Massoud’. Hard to confuse the two, don’t you think? For one thing, Merlin saw men’s dreams, their potential for greatness.
Massoud... all he sees are their nightmares.
* * * * *
“You warned her about me,” accused Massoud darkly.
“Praise Allah, I did not speak to her of who you are,” replied Zahoor as he sipped his tea. They sat next to each other on the low furniture. Young men chanted outside, voicing their displeasure with the world, unsure of their place in it. It was a dangerous confusion that seemed to leech into everything Muslims did in Bradford, much to the dismay of the older generation.
Smoke twirled in the dim light of the room. Massoud breathed deeply the heavy aroma. He felt the texture of hot ash whirling in his chest. “You said something. I can see your guilt,” he rumbled, a cloud of gray billowing out of his nostrils. “It hangs about you like a sickness.”
Zahoor placed the half-finished tea upon the saucer on the table. “You see men’s faults to such a degree that you’ve forgotten one thing.”
“That sinning is the best part of repentance.”
Massoud rose to his feet, his eyes ablaze. “You dare joke to me, you old fool?”
Zahoor remained tranquil. He returned Zahoor’s fiery gaze with one of calmness.
The Afghanistani seethed for a moment as he towered over the elderly Sufi. He extended a thick finger in stern warning. “Listen to me, dervish. I will do what’s necessary to complete the mission. Involve these Kafirs at their own peril.”
“Only a Muslim can call someone else a Kafir.”
Massoud raised his arm as if to strike the Sufi. His fist quivered, held aloft. Zahoor did not flinch. Almost spasmodically Massoud unclenched his fingers. He lowered his arm. “You are right. But that does not change the fact that you are endangering them.” He turned and stormed out the room, eddies of smoke whirling behind him. He paused at the door and glanced backward. “And you might want to think of your safety as well, old man.”
Sitting alone, Zahoor calmly reached for his tea. He brought it to his lips, the cup trembling slightly in his timeworn hands.
Part 7 - The Knight of Stone Circles
Subject: Michael Akinsanya
Aliases: The Knight of Stone Circles; Mr. Grey
Marital Status: Single Nationality: UK nationalized (orig. Nigeria)
Age: 47 (est., d.o.b. uknown) Place of birth: Nigeria
Parents: Deceased Siblings: None
University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Nigeria, PhD in Humanities
University of Exeter, Exeter, UK, PhD in Ancient History & Theology
Orphaned at the age of five(?),
parents dying in
Extraverted iNtuitive Thinking Judging (ENTJ) characteristics. Devout Christian. Documented bias towards Muslims. Genius intelligence. Charismatic. Driven. No known phobias. No known...
“‘Knight of Stone Circles’.
‘Mr. Grey’. Some interesting
monikers,” mumbled Stephanie as she continued to peruse the dossier on her PDA
/ mobile phone. Sir Michael’s life
unfolded like a fairy tale, an immigrant from the streets of
“Sorry miss?” asked the taxi driver, glancing at her in the rearview mirror.
“Just talking to myself,” she replied, not bothering to peer up.
“Right then. Sorry ‘bout that.”
Stephanie ignored the apparent gaffe, her mind hell-bent on absorbing as much information about Akinsanya as possible. She chided herself at conducting a cram session for such an important assignment. She wondered how she had allowed herself to spend hours Googling Merlin and other bizarre topics until she realized in a panic that, at in the morning, she had done nothing to prepare for today’s meeting.
“Here we are, miss.”
Stephanie sighed in defeat and rubbed her tired eyes. She felt awkward wearing a tight skirt, dressy blouse, and heels, the quintessential businesswoman. She paid the taxi driver in an amount she hoped sufficient. What’s the difference between a pound and a quid? she wondered to herself.
She almost tripped as she stepped out of the vehicle. Before her stood an old, stone-faced building, four stories tall. Statues of majestic eagles, their powerful wings spread wide and glowing with the high sun above, perched on either side of the stairs. A delightful scent hung in the air, almost hinting at the ocean, possessing a temptingly saffron quality. For the first time that day, Stephanie smiled. She climbed the marble steps to a pair of ornate oaken double doors with brass, dolphin handles.
Inside the foyer, the cool air washed over her, the scent stronger. Elegance overwhelmed her eyes, a cascade of deep reds and rich mahoganies, subtle lights and tall mirrors. A delicate staircase spiraled upwards. A pretty woman sitting behind a broad desk glanced up from her computer screen and ascertained Stephanie in one fell swoop. “Can I help you?” she asked in a distinctly British voice, the faintest trace of a sneer pulling ever-so-slightly at the corner of her mouth.
“Yes. I’m Stephanie Keel. I have an appointment with Mr. Michael Akinsanya at eleven.”
“Sir Michael will be with your shortly.” The secretary’s eyes shifted back to her work. “Please be seated.”
an eyebrow but sat down without comment.
Her gaze wandered over the pieces of art carefully placed around the
foyer. The theme seemed Biblical, full
of crosses and cherubs. She noticed one
item in particular; a large painting over the fireplace showing Adam and Eve
Ten minutes passed and Stephanie grew restless. She nearly decided to prod the woman when the unmistakable chime of an instant message beeped from the computer. “Sir Michael is ready to see you now,” the woman announced as she stood, her hands smoothing out her skirt. “Please follow me.” Without waiting, the secretary proceeded up the spiral staircase. Stephanie reluctantly followed her ambivalent hostess.
Desks neatly arranged in a grid covered the second floor. Silence suffocated the entire area, the quiet eyes of a dozen women smoldered resentfully at Stephanie as she continued climbing upwards. Stephanie did not know what unnerved her more, the fact that complete strangers viewed her with such hostility or that each one was female and extremely attractive.
The third floor
gave the impression of a gloomy museum, full of archeological pieces on stands
and maps covering the walls. A miniature
“I never caught your name,” said Stephanie as she followed the woman. No reply, just the click of the secretary’s stiletto heels upon the hardwood floor.
They bypassed door after door, the burgundy walls rich and lit with intermittent sconces, until they reached the end of the hallway. They stood in front of a dark stained oaken door covered with elaborate carvings. The woman reached up and grasped the plain brass knocker, almost simplistic compared to everything around it. Thump thump. The sound echoed.
“Enter,” bellowed a baritone voice from inside.
The secretary turned the knob and the door swung open. “Ms. Keel of the Nightwatch Institute to see you, sir.”
Stephanie found herself holding her breath. Time solidified. Even the ’sama went unheard, reality now a dream.
She beheld with her unbelieving eyes the most handsome, perfect man she had ever met.
His photo did not-- could not-- convey his features. His skin glowed with a rich, brown redness. His smile beamed brightly, his mouth full of immaculate teeth. His dark hair perfectly framed his finely chiseled face, his lips full, his nose and cheekbones ideal. He emanated agelessness, being anywhere from thirty to fifty in appearance.
captured her attention the most was the eyes.
Beautiful, gray eyes, like clouds upon the
He rose and towered over them, his build powerful, athletic. “Ah, Ms. Keel, it is a pleasure to meet you. I am terribly sorry for have kept you waiting. Come in, come in!” He glanced at her escort. “That will be all, Traci. Thank you.”
The secretary bowed her head, her grin sheepish. She glanced once more at Stephanie, a quick, dark, foreboding look, before she shut the door.
Stephanie continued to gawk. With great effort, she shut her gaping mouth.
“Please, sit down,” he said in his deep voice, motioning to the soft, leather chair before her.
She almost collapsed into the seat, her knees feeling weak. In sudden irritation, she berated herself. What’s wrong with me? I’m behaving like a lovesick teenager. I’ve never felt this way for anyone. Except maybe--
The face of William Gryphus flashed before her. A chill caused her to shiver, the ’sama briefly out of synch with her heart, a quick, painful stab pulsing in the side of her head.
“Are you alright, Ms. Keel?” he asked as he sat down.
“Yes,” she replied, grimacing. “I’m fine. Just jetlag, I imagine.” She coughed. “I’m so glad you were able to meet me on such short notice, Sir Michael.”
He laughed aloud, a booming sound. “Just Michael, please!” He smiled endearingly. “It’s no trouble, no trouble at all. Nightwatch is a highly reputable organization, their scientific endeavors quite renown within the archeological field.” He placed his index finger to his lips and frowned slightly, “Although, I must admit, you request regarding planetary alignments seems rather unorthodox.”
Stephanie blushed. “I think there was a misunderstanding,” she stammered. “You see, there are a myriad of projects in the works. I’m afraid my liaison has confused a couple of our efforts in communicating our request to you.”
“Ah, understandable, quite understandable” replied Michael sagely. “Is that not often the case? The messenger delivers the imperfect message? Like the game telephone the children play. What exactly is your request, then, if it does not involve the cosmic energies of our solar system?”
I think he’s laughing at me. “Well, it involves using ultrasound technologies,” she said slowly. “Rather complicated.” She paused, drumming her fingers, buying time. “However, you are a man of incredible intelligence, so it may seem fairly straightforward to a person like you.”
“And what exactly does this technology entail, Ms. Keel?”
He’s definitely laughing at me. “I’m glad you asked.” She cleared her throat. “Very glad you asked. It’s sort of like carbon dating, only using ultrasound.” She sighed. “It’s all very…”
She nodded glumly. “I’m sorry, Mr. Akinsanya--"
“--Michael, but I’m a bit unsure of the details myself. I’m more of the public relations side of things. However,” she added quickly, “I can assure you that the technology is quite unobtrusive. We will not mar the rocks in any fashion.” She leaned back into her chair. “Planetary alignments! Ha! Just the thought of something so silly… Well, you can imagine!”
He nodded. “Why are requesting to use the site at night?”
“Well, you see,” said Stephanie while she made intricate patterns in the air with her hand, “the instruments are quite… sensitive. Yes, very sensitive. Also, we don’t want to intrude on other people’s enjoyment of such a historic site. We figured that it would be the least impact for everyone.”
“I see,” he replied, leaning back himself. “Hmm. Well, I’m afraid I can’t allow you to set up at Castlerigg.”
That’s it, I blew it. The fate of the world in my hands, and I--
Michael leaned forward, his muscular arms resting on his desk. A disarming smile spread across his handsome face, “Not without taking you to dinner first, Stephanie.”
Stephanie swallowed. “Uh.”
He spread his hands outward, acting casual. “To discuss the details of your request. Purely professional, I assure you.” He smiled easily. She felt his gray, piercing eyes upon her. “If that’s fine with you, Stephanie Keel?”
She smiled wryly. “How could I refuse?”
* * * * *
The White Stag required formal attire.
Even so, Stephanie did not expect the beautiful, glimmering dress delivered to her room, care of Sir Michael. She threw it on the floor, disgusted with the situation. “What in the world was I thinking accepting that dinner invitation? That’s not like me.” She sat heavily on her bed, her fists clenched. “It goes against everything I believe in.”
She pondered canceling the date. The thought of failing to secure the site, however, kept her from dialing Michael’s office. Too much was at stake. Simon depended upon her. “Alright,” she reasoned, “I’ll go in, obtain Sir Smoothie’s permission to use Castlerigg for a night, then head right out. He did say it was purely professional.” She snarled, “Worst case, I end up castrating him.”
While the business attire made her feel awkward, the dress made her feel like an alien, the purse draped over her arm acting like an anchor. She kept imagining parts of her body coming exposed, and she constantly tugged here and there to cover herself. She paused in front of the mirror and reluctantly admitted, “Those trips to the gym have done some good after all. If I just didn’t have this bullet wound scar on my shoulder…” She hung her head down, her palm slapping against her forehead. “I must be losing my mind.”
When the limo came to pick her up, she nearly bolted back into the lobby. Wobbling on stilts some called shoes, she forced herself into the vehicle. To her surprise, no one waited for her in the back. “I’m sorry, miss,” said the driver. “Sir Michael wished me to relay that he would be meeting you at the White Stag. He regrets not being able to accompany you. He’s been detained. However, he said not to fear, he would be there on time.”
“That’s fine,” she mumbled. To her shock, she realized that she almost felt disappointed.
After an uneventful ride, she arrived at the White Stag, one of those restaurants catering to the elite, so exclusive that it remained a myth to most people, much like its namesake. A man in a dark, tuxedo uniform appeared from nowhere to open the car door for her. She found herself escorted to a rather plain entrance with no numbers or signs betraying its existence. In the sudden darkness, she felt blind, her eyes slowly adjusting. The scent of a dozen delectable odors overwhelmed her. She heard classical music stirring softly in the air.
“Good evening, Ms. Keel,” said the maitre d’ politely. “You look most lovely tonight. Please follow me to your table.”
“Sure,” she said, her vision still hampered. She nearly stumbled down an unexpected slope in the floor.
“Please watch your step, Ms. Keel.”
“Thanks for the warning,” she said through clenched teeth.
He sat her at the table nearest the fireplace, close enough to be awash in the flickering light but far enough not to feel the roasting flames. Michael had not shown up yet. “Reginald will be serving you tonight,” announced the maitre d’, the waiter standing patiently to the side. “I hope you enjoy your dinner.”
Stephanie smiled tightly.
The waiter prepared to hand her the wine list. “We have a wonderful assortment of--”
“Just water, please,” she interrupted, refusing the menu.
“Very well,” he replied, managing to sound only slightly offended.
While she waited for Michael, Stephanie took some time to view her surroundings.
The room appeared fairly large with the tables spaced far apart, as if they expected only a select few to dine at any given time. In fact, she saw only two other couples, all talking in hushed tones. A band of classical musicians played in the center, the cello mournful yet beautiful. The vaulted ceilings added further to the elegance as high fans slowly rotated above. She counted at least four stuffed albino deer placed strategically about the room, proud, noble, and sad, and not anywhere near as rustic as she imagined they would be.
The door to the outside opened, bringing in sudden light. A draft of wind entered and the fire roared slightly. A tall figure stood in the center of that light. Although Stephanie could not discern the person’s features, she knew it immediately to be Michael. Her heart fluttered briefly, her head feeling another sting.
Smiling, he approached the table, not bothering to wait for the maitre d’ to escort him. He seemed ethereal as he glided over the floor, his long, easy strides covering the distance quickly. Stephanie made ready to stand. “Please, don’t rise for me,” he said, his deep voice twinkling with laughter. “I hope I haven’t kept you waiting long.”
“A very long time,” she replied, trying to be on the offensive.
“Well then, dinner is on me,” he said jovially, easily deflecting her attack. “By the way, the Japanese lobster here is wonderful! I hope you’re not a vegetarian.”
Although Stephanie tried valiantly to keep the discussion focused on business, she found herself easily outmatched by Michael. He effortlessly steered the conversation, drawing her out, little by little. His humor surprised her and she laughed despite herself. To her horror, she actually enjoyed his company. It dawned on her that here was a man that could rule the world, if he wished.
“Can I ask you a question?” she queried almost tentatively, putting down the glass of wine she swore she would not drink.
“Absolutely,” he replied, smiling broadly.
“Why are you involved with the Stone Circles? A man of your talents…I can see you doing other things. Your potential is… unlimited.”
“Why Ms. Keel, are you trying to seduce me?” He laughed deeply as she blushed. He titled his head forward, almost conspiratorially, “I don’t share your view of my unlimited potential, although I’m extremely honored-- nay, awed! -- that someone of your caliber would think so highly of one such as me.” He sighed wistfully. “Truth be known, I’ve always held a fascination with the stone circles.”
“Hence your nickname,” she blurted out. “The Knight of Stone Circles.”
For the first time, she saw his smile harden. “It’s actually a derisive title given to me by some colleagues who viewed my knighthood in a negative light.”
“I apologize,” she said quickly.
“Oh, no, I’m actually honored. And they are probably right. I do view myself as a champion for the stones. You know, it is said the stones have great power. They are doors to other worlds.”
“Really. Never heard that,” lied Stephanie.
“Indeed.” He paused. “Now can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” she replied cautiously.
He glanced down at his steepled hands, seemingly embarrassed. “I hate to ask this, as I don’t wish to unduly frighten you, but have you been approached by individuals of the Muslim faith?”
The throbbing in her head returned with a vengeance. “That’s an odd question.”
know. You see, there have been rumors--
unsubstantiated, mind you-- of men of that particular faith taking an interest
in the stone circles of
“How so?” she asked, the hairs on the back of her neck standing on end.
“I think they believe in the power of the stones. I think that they mean to harness that power for evil ends.” He sat back and smiled worriedly. “Yes, I know, what use a fable? Not that I believe that even if such a power exists that anyone could tap into it, especially an ignorant savage. Yet, I’m concerned to what lengths they may go in their futile quest.”
“Well, if I’m approached by any Muslims, I’ll certainly tell you,” she managed to stumble out. Stephanie felt ill, the deceit weighing her down.
“Good, good” he said, grinning. He perked up his ears, the tempo of the music picking up, a waltz of some sort. “Ah, what a wonderful sound! Let us dance!”
“But I haven’t finished my lobs--,” she protested as he yanked her to her feet.
The world blurred as around and around they twirled, a pair of hawks cutting to and fro through the sky. Stephanie felt exhilaration, her dark hair whipping about, her feet magically matching the strides of her partner, the music carrying them forth. Dimly, she realized the beat matched the ’sama. The heads of the albino deer turned toward her, watching her, as she felt another pair of arms wrap around her back. Distantly, she gazed into the four eyes of Michael and she giggled almost hysterically, amused at her double vision. Michael talked, but she did not hear him. Her lips moved in response, but her voice remained silent to her. The deer began to chant her name.
The world faded. The music faded. All she heard was the ’sama and the words:
* * * * *
“Stephanie,” said Michael, his baritone voice cutting through the fugue that enveloped her. She realized she sat in her chair at their table.
Her head pounded terribly. She listened to the ’sama, compared it with her heartbeat.
“Steph--,” began Michael.
“Just a sec,” she said hurriedly. Slowly, her heart matched the rhythm of the universal sound. Her migraine disappeared. “There, that’s better.”
“Are you alright, Stephanie?” He doted over her, his concern evident. “We seemed to be dancing magnificently, and then suddenly, it was if you went off into your own world.”
“Yes, I’m fine,” she said. Although slightly dizzy, everything seemed back to normal. “Sorry. I shouldn’t be neither drinking nor dancing when I have jet lag.”
“I think we should call it a night,” he chuckled softly. “Come with me,” he said, offering his hand. His gray eyes held her and Stephanie could almost feel the arms around her once more. Unbidden, she raised her hand to grasp his.
The irritating ring of her PDA / mobile phone blared loudly from her purse. She snapped out of her trance. Ignoring Michael for a moment, she grabbed the device and looked at the number. It was another video call from Nightwatch. “I need to take this,” she stated as she left the table in haste, leaving Michael standing there with his arm falling limply to his side.
She ran to the women’s restroom to find privacy. She answered the call just as she barged through the door.
Kevin’s smiling face greeted her.
“Eep!” she exclaimed. “Kevin! What are you doing?” She ran her hand through her hair. “How are you?”
“I’m doing great!” he said cheerfully. “How are--, er, can ya stop shaking that thing? Your face is bouncing all over the screen.”
“Sorry,” she mumbled, trying to keep the cam steady. “It’s great to see you. Sorry I haven’t kept in touch.”
“That’s okay, you’ve been busy. Simon gave me the skinny. Hey, guess what?”
“Hey, what’s that?” she asked.
Stephanie stood stunned for a moment. “Tha-- that’s wonderful!”
“Yeah. Simon’s idea. Said you could use another hand.”
“Really,” she answered coolly. “So Simon decided this.”
“Well, he asked. How could I refuse?”
Okay, don’t take this out on Kevin. Not his fault. I’ll deal with Simon later. “So did you boys manage to convince Callow to lend us the Egg?”
Kevin shook his head. “No ma’am. He said absolutely, positively, no bones about it, that we shan’t have that Egg.”
“So what are we going to do?”
“Well, why don’t you see for yourself?” asked Kevin. He panned the camera and the world spun. Stephanie experienced déjà vu.
She saw Simon rolling the Key of Solomon into a crate. She clasped her hand over her mouth to keep from laughing out loud.
The camera settled on Kevin’s face once more.
“How did you manage that?” she asked incredulous.
“I’ll give you the low-down via email. We’re going to have to do a lot of set-up. I’m also sending you the schematics and instructions for the ultrasound device we plan on using. Have you set up a date yet with Akinsanya?”
Stephanie turned scarlet at the word ‘date’. “Depends. When will you guys be able to deliver the Key to Castlerigg?”
“We can be set up within a couple days.”
“I’ll ask him and get back to you.”
Kevin nodded. “I’ll let Simon know. By the way, are you all dressed up?”
“Pfft,” said Stephanie. “This old thing? Must be this shoddy cam. Anyway goodbye see you soon tellSimonIsaidhello.”
“Goodb--,” he said as Stephanie hit disconnect immediately.
She returned to the table. Michael waited expectantly. “Is everything alright?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m sorry. It’s work,” she said as she tried to avoid eye contact. “I apologize, but I need to leave immediately. Can I ask one more thing before I go? Would it be possible to set up in Castlerigg two nights from now? We only have a short time with the instruments. Others want to use them for other tests. I hope that doesn’t sound too demanding.”
Michael smiled. “Of course not. I’ll send over some people to assist.”
“That won’t be necessary.”
“But I insist.”
Stephanie nodded. They would have to figure out how to handle that later. “Thank you, Michael,” she said. “I had a marvelous time tonight. I shall remember it fondly.” She turned to leave when he gently grabbed her arm. It took all her will not to instinctively apply a wristlock on him.
“And please let me know if people of dubious character approach you or your people,” he said softly yet assertively.
Stephanie nodded again. “I will.”
His fingers slipped off her arm. As she exited into the sunlit world, the fire roared once more.
Part 8 - The Way of Iblis
stepped off the train at the station in
“Easy there, mister,” said Stephanie with a sly grin as she approached them. “You’ll dislocate your shoulder.”
“How was your trip?” asked Kevin, his boyish face shining.
Stephanie sighed dramatically. “I miss driving. I need to learn how to do so on the left side so I can say farewell to public transportation.”
“Funny,” said Simon, “but when I’m a passenger in your vehicle, you’re on the left side most of the time anyway passing the law-abiding drivers.”
Stephanie stuck her tongue out. “So we have everything in place?” she asked.
“Yes ma’am,” replied Kevin. “The Egg is secure at RAF Spadeadam.”
“Let’s starting calling it the Key henceforth,” said Simon, his hands on his hips. “We’ll need to coordinate with Massoud and his crew, ergo we should use the same terminology. Steph, how was your meeting with Michael Akinsanya? Any issues? Concerns?”
“Not with the site itself,” she said after a hesitation. “However, I do need to speak of the item I sent you via email.”
“I never read email.”
“Well, you’re not answering your phone, either,” she said, her arms crossed.
“Well, that’s what voice mail is for,” he argued.
“Well, that’s also what email’s for,” she retorted.
“I use both,” volunteered Kevin.
“Anyway, let’s discuss your concern,” said Simon, glancing sideways at Kevin.
“Sure,” said Stephanie briskly. “Speaking with Michael, he mentioned that there have been rumors of Muslims plotting to do something with the stone circle sites.”
“You’re on a first-name basis with this guy?” asked Kevin.
“Will you please stay on subject?” requested Stephanie irritably.
“I’m just asking,” said Kevin, sounding a bit hurt.
“Enough,” said Simon. “We’ve all had a long day. Let’s be civil, shall we? Alright. So Akinsanya fears terrorists, but so do many others responsible for public venues. In addition, he has a reputation for disliking Islam.”
“Agreed,” said Stephanie. “But he mentioned something else that I could not dismiss offhand. He spoke of the stone circles of being doors to other worlds. He also thought the Muslims might be trying to harness the circles for that very purpose.”
“Did you mention anything of our mission?” asked Simon.
Stephanie paused in recollection. “No, not that I can recall, but…”
“Nothing,” said Stephanie, unable to place a finger on what bothered her. “No, I didn’t say anything.”
“I guess I should read my email,” said Simon. “What’s your take on it?”
“I-- I don’t know, Simon,” confessed Stephanie. “It seems unlikely that this is mere coincidence.”
“We’ll have to take a two-pronged approach,” said Simon. “Zahoor and Daud are staying at a motel near the base. You and Kevin can keep an eye on them. The pilots and I will watch over Massoud and the Egg-- er, Key.”
“Pilots?” asked Stephanie.
“Ed and Allison. They were kind enough to fly the plane over. They have some combat training. The three of us should be able to handle Massoud, especially in the secure confines of Spadeadam.”
“I’m surprised he’s allowed to set foot on a military base, given his history.”
“He insisted,” said Simon matter-of-factly. “You know the expression. Keep your friends close--”
“--and your enemies closeted,” finished Kevin.
Simon rolled his eyes at the exceptionally bad pun. “Well, let’s get a move on. It will be dark soon and we have still need to rendezvous with Massoud and Zahoor.”
Stephanie laid a restraining hand on Simon’s shoulder as he turned. “It’s good to see you again,” she said, her voice gentle but firm.
Simon paused. “How are your headaches?”
“They’ve gone the way of the dodo, at least for the moment. Zahoor’s little shaman trick is working well.”
“Good,” he said. He tilted his head slightly. “Steph, I just want you to know. You did the right thing staying behind. It was the correct decision.”
Stephanie nodded. “Although, to be honest, I didn’t know it at the time. And that leaves one last question.” She held out her hand hopefully. “Can I drive?”
“Were you kidding about her aggressive driving traits?” asked Kevin.
“The answer is no,” replied Simon, “to both questions.”
* * * * *
“You seem in better health,” said Zahoor, his enthusiasm belying his old age, his smile displaying a toothy if gap-ridden smile.
Stephanie tapped the side of her head. “The circuitry is running much better, thank you for asking.” She motioned to Kevin. “This is Dr. Kevin Brady, an acquaintance of mine from Nightwatch. He formerly worked for NASA until we convinced him to pursue an alternative career.”
“They have better scenery at Nightwatch,” he said with a wink, comically leering at Stephanie.
“It is a pleasure to meet you,” said Zahoor. He motioned to a worn sofa in the modest motel room. “Please, make yourself comfortable.” As they sat, Zahoor addressed Stephanie, “I am glad you have returned. I would like to continue your training.”
Stephanie smiled condescendingly while she grabbed Kevin’s foot to keep him from crossing his legs and thereby showing the sole of his shoe. The musty smell of the room made her nose itch. “Zahoor,” said Stephanie, a hint of testiness in her voice, “I had said no. I don’t have the patience for…” She left her sentence unfinished.
“You do not have the patience for Islam,” said Zahoor.
“Listen, I have issues with all religions. I’m far too practical and scientific for such beliefs.”
“No, that is not quite true. You feel particular dislike towards Islam.”
Stephanie cleared her throat. “It’s how Islam treats women. I don’t agree with it.”
sagely. “Before the time of the Prophet,
women were considered a burden. They
were nothing more than vessels for a man’s satisfaction. When Mohammed delivered the message of Allah,
all the old ways changed. No longer was
being a female a curse, but Allah’s greatest blessing. He spoke words of equality. It was not Eve that brought about their
interrupted Stephanie, “there were women in
“It is all how
you perceive equality, Ms. Keel. Your
“Well, I’m glad you live in Shangri-La,” said Stephanie acerbically. “How’s the weather up there? Get a lot of tourists this time of year. I’m sorry but you’re not going to convince me that Islam treats women fairly.”
“I shall not try to do that,” agreed Zahoor. “And no one would argue that men are flawed. What I shall do instead is convince you that I am treating you fairly. That I look upon you as my equal. That I am willing to teach everything that I know and to learn from you everything you have to offer.”
Kevin looked over to Stephanie. “That sounds like a good offer,” he said sardonically.
“That is a good offer,” agreed Stephanie without sarcasm. “And I am grateful. I mean that.”
Zahoor’s frail form slumped into the chair. “It is your decision. I shall respect it.” He wrung his hands. “Now I must speak of another matter.”
“What is it?” asked Kevin.
The old man hesitated. “There may be more than just stars hidden to us.” He bowed his head ashamed. “I refer to my ancient friend.”
A chill ran through her spine. “Massoud. Is he a terrorist?”
The Sufi glanced up the ceiling, as if he fought a battle with himself. “No. He would not stoop to something so crass. Tell me, what did you learn of Merlin?”
“How did you know I was researching Merlin?” asked Stephanie suspiciously.
“I have taught students a long, long time, Ms. Keel. I did not mention his name without reason. You have the fire to pursue knowledge. I just provided the spark.”
Why you manipulative old sonofa… “You want the full or abridged version?”
“Tell me of his origin.”
Stephanie sat back, her arms crossed. “According to de Boron, he was half-man, half-demon, saved from an existence of serving Satan by the intervention of a baptism.”
Zahoor once again bowed his head, this time closing his eyes. “Astaghfirullah,” he muttered. “Not half-demon,” he said louder, “but half-jinn.” His eyes snapped open, glaring at Stephanie with an intensity that frightened her. “Massoud is such a being, and I can only trust in Allah that he has not chosen the way of Iblis. Does he truly seek to close the door? Or will he abide his darker half?”
Stephanie jumped to her feet, pulling out her PDA / mobile phone. “I need to alert Simon. You should have told me earlier.”
“I swore an oath,” said Zahoor miserably. “One that I have just broken. If Massoud’s intentions are true, then I have just committed a great and terrible sin. I have just betrayed the loyalties of a brother.”
KA-KHOOM KA-KHOOM KA-KHOOM
The wave hit her without warning, the ’sama more powerful than at Castlerigg. This time she rode the pulse while it pressed her from all sides, as if God flipped the high-gravity switch on and off repeatedly. She staggered around the room, each beat a physical slap. Kevin tried to assist her, his frantic words muted out by the music of the spheres. Daud tottered out from the bathroom. He locked eyes with her, his mouth agape.
KA-KHOOM KA-KHOOM KA-KHOOM
Daud fell to his knees, his hands placed on the sides of his head. He wailed in anguish. Zahoor rushed to his side.
Stephanie tried to find her heartbeat. Too loud. Too potent. Too much noise. She felt a trickle of blood flow from her nose.
And then, the ’sama eased. Her heart thundered loudly in her ears. She locked onto it, a lifesaver in the frantic seas of insanity.
“Steph! Steph, are you alright!” shouted Kevin, his hands trying place a tissue to her nose.
“I’m fine,” she replied hoarsely. She grabbed the tissue and motioned to Daud collapsed upon the floor. “Help him.” She sat heavily on the chair and forgot its lowness, the descent nearly knocking out what little breath remained. “We’re running out of time. The door is almost open.” She realized that clutched tightly her PDA / mobile phone. She thrust a shaking hand to Kevin as he sat next to her. “Call Simon,” she croaked. “Tell him he’s in terrible danger.”
Part 9 - The Sin Watcher
Zahoor paced the floor of the gloomy warehouse, ignoring the distrustful looks of the three British soldiers standing guard. The minutes slipped by, the window of opportunity shrinking with every passing moment. “Come, come, Simon! We must hurry!”
“Hold your horses, you old--,” began Ed, but Simon grabbed the man’s arm and shook his head in warning.
“We’re nearly ready,” assured Simon. “It’s only eight-thirty. The plan is to gather the others from the motel around nine. It’s only an hour’s drive to Castlerigg. A couple hours to set things up, and upon the witching hour, we should be able to engage the ultrasonic device.”
“Two hours?” asked Massoud. “Why so long?”
“Attaching the ultrasound device is relatively straightforward. Synching up with the Nightwatch computers to monitor things will take the majority of time.”
“I never agreed to have your masters involved.” The old Afghanistani’s eyes narrowed.
“Where did you dig up this joker?” asked Ed, shaking his head.
“Ed, I will not warn you again,” barked Simon. Attempting a more conciliatory approach, he turned to Massoud, “Listen, old friend, it’s essential that our scientists monitor the event. They already have data on its behavior. They can warn us if they see something amiss.” He pointed to the crate holding the Key of Solomon. “I swear upon my very soul that they will not have any influence on it, either directly or indirectly.”
“Simon, I must protest!” Massoud took a step forward when the engineer’s cell phone rang.
Simon glanced at the number. “Just a moment. Hello, Stephanie?” A pause. “Kevin? Where’s Steph?” He turned slightly away. “Hold on. Kevin, I said hold on.” He glanced at Massoud. “Be right back,” he mumbled, heading toward a row of shelves on the other side of the warehouse.
“Let’s finish packing the Egg,” suggested Allison. “Somewhere, there’s a chicken that’s still suffering from hemorrhoids because of this thing.”
“Fine by me,” grumbled Ed as he followed her to the truck.
The British soldiers loitered near the entrance, smoking cigarettes and joking.
Massoud waited a few seconds longer, and then tailed Simon. He let himself meld into the shadows, a skill practiced over countless campaigns. The inadequate fluorescent lighting provided ample cover. He slunk around a stand of crates and heard Simon’s hushed voice.
“--sure? That seems awfully farfetched.” Simon looked over his shoulder suspiciously, not seeing Massoud. “No, if you’re right, then we need to think worst case. I’ll keep him here. I’m not sure how they’ll keep him under wraps. I’m not buying that old fable about bottles and lamps--”
Massoud sped toward the door. He felt the volcanic fury rise within him. Almost in slow motion, the soldiers turned toward him, their eyes opened wide in surprise.
With a powerful right cross, he knocked the first soldier unconscious across the floor. The second soldier he snap-kicked in the chest, catching him full with his heavy boot, causing the man to rebound off the wall into a crumpled heap. The third soldier brought his rifle around, but Massoud grabbed it with his right hand and, with free left hand, hefted the man easily over his head.
“Let me go!” screamed the soldier.
“As you command,” replied Massoud before slamming him with extreme force upon the concrete floor, the sickening slap echoing loudly.
He turned with inhuman speed and blocked a wild swing from Ed. He pushed the man and forced him to stumble backwards. Massoud snatched Allison by her neck as she ran by, her fingers outstretched for one of the guns lying a foot away. He savagely drove his right heel into the side of her knee. She shrieked, falling to the floor, her hands clutching her leg. He then stomped on the rifle. Pieces of metal exploded in dozens of directions.
“Allison!” roared Ed as he attempted a rugby tackle.
The pilot crashed into the immovable Massoud, a feeble wave upon the dike. The grizzled Afghanistani easily broke free of the hold and countered with a choke hold. Ed’s face turned crimson, spittle flying from his sputtering mouth, his fingers futilely trying to pry the iron arm locked around his windpipe.
“Massoud!” bellowed Simon, his gun trained on the ancient half-jinn.
Smoke seeped out of Massoud’s skin. Fire flared from his nostrils. His eyes blazed like embers. In an unearthly voice, he responded, “Drop your weapon or I will snap his neck.”
“Not going to happen,” said Simon coolly.
“He will be dead in ten seconds.”
“Fine,” said Simon, tossing the pistol to the side. “Let’s settle this.”
Massoud relaxed his arms as Ed dropped limp to the floor. Allison, her lips drawn tightly in pain, crawled over to her fallen companion.
The two aged warriors faced each other. “It was foolish of Zahoor to betray me,” spoke Massoud. “It need not come to this, that old fool.”
“Enough of the dramatic pretenses,” said Simon, his stance shifting slightly, his feet a bit wider apart. “You’ll never get off this base, so let’s call an end to it, shall we?”
“How do you say? ‘Not going to happen’?” Massoud chuckled darkly.
“You seem to think I’m not capable of taking you down.”
“Physically, you are certainly incapable,” agreed Massoud. “Yet if it were but your heart to settle the matter, then my demise would be imminent. Perhaps you could come and behead me, just like you did to that Janjaweed soldier?”
Simon paused. “Studying up on me, old man?”
“Study! You are a book to me, young Simon! Perhaps you’d rather discuss with Max? Or would, if you hadn’t gotten him killed? What about Eddie? Oh, wait, he you actually killed in cold blood, at the very moment he croaked out his thanks to you.”
A jolt seemed to run through the engineer. “How the hell--”
Massoud grabbed the stunned Simon by the lapels of his khaki shirt and applied a knee wheel judo technique. Simon’s body went horizontal before collapsing heavily to the ground.
Instead of advancing, Massoud allowed his opponent to stagger to his feet.
“Nice maneuver,” grimaced Simon.
Smoke billowed from Massoud, his skin taking on a brassy hue. “Or perhaps you’d rather me be Stephanie? What stirred in your heart when you saw her on that bed? Was it lust?”
“Shut up!” roared Simon, charging into Massoud. They grappled, their arms intertwined, their eyes locked with mutual hatred, as a cloud of gray began to form overhead. “Don’t you ever, ever, mention her name again!”
“She is quite fetching, is she not? Is that why you interfere in her romance with Kevin?”
Simon spun, attempting a hip wheel. Any normal man would have flown across the warehouse. Massoud’s feet held firm to the floor, his booming laugh shooting sparks into the air. “Nice maneuver,” taunted the half-jinn. He head butted into the back of an exposed skull. Simon slumped forward, falling to one knee. Massoud grabbed him with one hand on his neck and the other on the small of his back. With superhuman ability, he hoisted him overhead.
Simon’s fingers raked down, catching his adversary’s eyes. Massoud flinched and let go. Simon dropped awkwardly to the concrete and scrambled away.
Massoud grabbed Simon’s ankle with one hand and tossed him like a child’s doll. Simon tumbled across the cold floor into a crate.
“You’ve never had much luck with women, eh Simon?” No pupils remained, just blazing crimson. Waves of heat pulsed from his hulking form.
Simon groaned as he tried to stand to his feet.
“You can’t protect Stephanie, just like you couldn’t protect Maria.”
“Maria,” choked Simon, his eyes glazed. A strand of blood fell from his mouth. “Maria.”
Massoud crouched next to him. “Sleep, dear Simon. Dream of Stephanie. Dream of Maria. Dream of stories yet to come.” Massoud blew a cloud of smoke into Simon’s dazed face. The engineer’s eyes fluttered, his head slumping to the cold floor.
Massoud paused over his fallen foe, his rage slowly waning. An overwhelming regret filled him. He turned away, tears streaming down his face. Shame and sickness overwhelmed his very soul. He glanced up and saw Allison, trying to search for a weapon on one of the unconscious soldiers. Massoud shook his head. Steeling himself, his clothes smoldering, he lumbered over to her.
“No!” she screamed in rage and terror.
* * * * *
Massoud tore off the rearview mirror, not bothering to gaze upon motionless soldiers sprawled on the ground next to the gatehouse. The truck rumbled forth into the dark night, spewing black, odorous exhaust into the sky, the Key of Solomon and the ultrasound equipment safely stowed in the back. He wiped his eyes with the back of his sleeve. He never felt so tired and dejected in his long life.
After a brief drive, he arrived at the unlit motel parking lot. He paused to settle himself, his hands gripped tightly upon the steering wheel. Slowly, he relaxed his fingers. “It has not ended yet,” he chided himself.
Massoud did not bother to knock upon the door. He pushed it open with one hand, the lock breaking easily.
They all stood and stared at him. “Where’s Simon?” demanded Stephanie, her PDA / mobile phone held to her ear.
Massoud ignored her. Pointing at Daud and Zahoor, he beckoned authoritatively. “You two, come with me.”
“Now hold on,” said Kevin, only to receive a powerful backhand from the grizzled warrior.
Kevin tumbled across the room, knocking the television set off its stand. Stephanie rushed forth and stopped instantly when Massoud pulled a handgun. “Ms. Keel, I’ve heard Simon boast of your skills in krav maga. Although I’m tempted to show you its ineffectiveness against someone skilled in hand-to-hand combat, I’m afraid I must decline this go around.” He motioned with the gun and spoke in Urdu, “Zahoor, Daud, we must go. Now!”
“I will not be coerced by you,” replied Zahoor in English. “You may kill me if you wish.”
“I will not kill you, old man.” He glanced toward Stephanie. “Instead, I will have her begging for death.”
Zahoor paled. “Massoud, do not bring shame upon yourself,” he said, his body quivering.
“If you think you’re going to lay a hand on me--,” she sneered.
“Lay a hand on you? I would not touch you after what Gryphus did to you!”
Stephanie flinched but held her ground. Massoud continued, “And yet you begged for his attentions, long before your stay in his chamber. He taught you the ways of a jezebel. How you crowed with false power! How you preened with perverted womanhood!”
“Go to hell,” whispered Stephanie. Tears began to flow from the corner of her eyes. Her trembling hand grasped the table next to her, her knuckles white.
“And at first, you thought it a game. You enjoyed it! But even when the pleasure turned to torment, even then, a small part of you discovered ecstasy.”
“That’s not true!” she screamed, her fingers pulling her hair, her eyes shut, as she sat crouched on the floor.
“You deny what your body felt?” he mocked.
“Massoud!” protested Zahoor in vain.
“Leave her alone,” commanded Kevin, wincing as he rose to his feet. “You evil bastard.”
“What is evil?” asked Massoud evenly. “Shall you tell me?”
Kevin snorted in disgust. “You torment a woman while holding a gun to her. What a brave man.”
“Ah,” hissed Massoud, “but the girl that lay in your bed unconscious. Was she not as helpless as Stephanie is now?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” stammered Kevin.
“Annie? Was that her name? In the morning she looked up at you with distrusting eyes, and yet you stood over her gloating your innocence. At least Gryphus took credit for his actions.”
“Oh my God,” uttered Stephanie in horror.
Kevin turned toward her. “I was young and in college!” he pleaded. “Stephanie, I wasn’t trying to hurt anyone. I was just drunk and stupid.” He stepped toward her, but she scampered away, her eyes filled with betrayal, her fist jammed into her mouth.
He swiveled toward Massoud. “Who are you to judge me? Who the fuck do you think you are?”
“I am the Sin Watcher,” said the half-jinn sadly. “And with this curse I judge you.”
Kevin bent over, his face buried in his hands. “Why? Why did you do this?”
“Because I had to look deep inside for this to even register as a sin to you.”
Shaking with fury, Kevin shot him a look of absolute malevolence. “You’ve ruined me over some stupid mistake I made a long time ago,” he seethed. “Ruined!” With surprising speed, he bolted out the door. Massoud let him pass unhindered.
“Kevin,” whispered Stephanie, her tear-stricken face watching his departure.
“Have we had enough, Zahoor? Shall I continue?” Massoud sighed tiredly.
“No,” replied Zahoor, his voice shaken, his head bowed in defeat. “Daud and I shall go now.”
Massoud guided them to the truck. He paused near the driver side door, out of sight, his body wracked with silent sobs. He wanted to scream into the night, to vomit into the void the self-loathing that he carried as long as he remembered. Forcing himself to remain composed, he finally entered the vehicle, the end to a journey of centuries finally in sight.
Part 10 - Return to Castlerigg
Massoud engaged the parking brake and cut the engine. Something shifted in the back and he cursed. “Those incompetent Americans did not secure the cargo properly. I shall gut them like a Russian if the instruments have been damaged.” He opened the door when Daud started trembling. “What is the matter?” he asked in Urdu.
Zahoor, sitting in the middle, replied, “It is the ’sama. The barrier is weakening, its disharmony causing him great distress. Our time is running short.”
“Hold on but a bit longer, friend Daud,” said Massoud softly. “I will carry you, if you legs should fail you.”
“I-- I will walk myself,” stammered Daud.
He would rather die than for me to touch him, thought the half-jinn. Can I truly blame him?
the vehicle and hurried around back. He
noticed the slide bolt holding the door nearly free of its keeper. He shook his head at his carelessness Inspecting the packages, he observed no
apparent damage. He easily hefted the
crate holding the Key of Solomon, a normally difficult task for two men, and
carried it to the gate. Zahoor guided
Daud by the arm, the disciple from
“Open the gate, Zahoor,” commanded Massoud.
“It is locked,” replied the Sufi. “There is a note here addressed to Nightwatch.”
“Read it, you old fool.”
“It says to call a representative from English Heritage and he will arrive to unlock the gate. There is a number listed here.”
“I have no time for this foolishness,” grumbled Massoud. Placing the crate down upon the ground, he stepped forward and kicked the gate. It shuddered, its hinges clamoring in protest. A couple more mighty blows and the gate buckled inward.
“Praise Allah, do you even know how to set up the instruments?” asked Zahoor as they tromped over the disfigured iron remains.
“A Sufi without faith?” mocked Massoud.
“Believe in Allah, but tie your camel,” replied Zahoor. “How shall you accomplish your goal? Will you not need the ‘incompetent’ Americans?”
“I shall find a way,” said Massoud evenly
* * * * *
“Have you found your way yet?” asked Zahoor, his fingers tugging on his white beard.
Massoud glanced at the Sufi and snarled. He threw down the cables in disgust. “You stay silent! Perhaps we should come back another day.” He examined the ultrasound transducer mounted on the tripod. He assumed that he needed to point the device at the Key, but failed to determine where the cable connected or how to set up its power source. He had not bothered with the laptop or the satellite dish.
He felt his rage building. So near, only to be stymied by ignorance. “Perhaps we should head back to the motel and find Simon’s wench.” He raised his foot to stomp upon the computer equipment.
“I’m already here,” said a voice right behind him. He spun, his snarl morphing to shock.
Stars exploded in his eyes, a well-placed strike smashing the bridge of his nose.
* * * * *
Stephanie crouched in the back of the truck. Unable to close the door from the inside, she held onto it during the entire trip, her fingers cramping by the time they pulled into Castlerigg. The ’sama continued to pulse randomly and her body felt physically beaten. She could almost see the cracks forming, the dimensions collapsing into each other.
As the truck jerked to a stop, the ’sama spiked and she stumbled to her knees. Dazed, she somehow managed to tumble out the back. She tried to close the door, but the music of the spheres buffeted her mercilessly. She pushed the slide bolt in only partially. She crawled beneath the truck, the gravel stinging her knees, relying on the darkness to shield her.
She caught her breath as Massoud unpacked the gear and carried it up to the stone circle. When they left out of earshot, she pulled out her PDA / mobile phone and tried to reach Simon. No answer. Hesitantly, she then tried Kevin with the same results. Finally, she phoned Nightwatch.
answered Dr. Eckert in his
“Dr. Eckert, this is Stephanie.”
“Ah, we were wondering when you would call! Is everything set?”
“No, not really,” she slurred, trying to talk and ride the ’sama at the same time. “Listen, remain on standby. Obey all security protocol.”
“Of course we’ll obey--”
“Doctor, our computers have been compromised. I don’t have time to explain. If you hear from Simon, tell him I’m at Castlerigg acting in a covert mode.”
“I’m going on silent. If you don’t hear from me in, say, four hours, then assume the worse.”
Dr. Eckert paused. “I understand. I think. Good luck, Ms. Keel.”
She turned off her PDA / mobile phone and navigated up the north side of the knoll. Sheep bleated in the distance. The scent of grass filled her nostrils. The last time she visited, she never had the chance to appreciate the view, the ’sama overwhelming her senses. In the moonlight, the surrounding fells appeared as shadowy giants. The thirty-eight irregular stones of Castlerigg gave her the distinct impression of frozen druids in various poses. Overhead, stars sparkled brightly, a few strands of clouds touched by fragile luminance. She crouched behind a stand of three stones, the largest five feet in height. Massoud seemed focused on the equipment while Daud and Zahoor sat upon the smaller rocks comprising the inner rectangle within the circle.
Stephanie contemplated her next move. She doubted Massoud possessed the skill to set up the equipment, and even if he did, it seemed unlikely he could bypass the security measures she had the scientists put in place. Ideally, she would wait him out and return with backup.
Unfortunately, the door between worlds was disintegrating with extreme alacrity. The ’sama drummed almost randomly, signaling its inevitable collapse. Her head ached terribly. Daud seemed even worse, his face pained, his body quaking. She doubted they would have another night for a second attempt.
Forcing herself to be patient, she skulked to the next stone, desiring to get as near as possible. A gap of fifteen feet separated this stone and the next. Holding her breath, she crept forward, feeling vulnerable in the moonlight. Halfway, Zahoor spotted her. She stopped.
The old Sufi nodded imperceptibly. Just then, Massoud turned unexpectedly.
“Have you found your way yet?” said Zahoor loudly, distracting the half-jinn.
Massoud eyed him and snarled. “You stay silent! Perhaps we should come back another day.” He seemed frustrated, wires and cables strewn about.
Stephanie hurried forward, kneeling behind the stone. She felt the calm before the storm. The pain became distant, her mind sharp, the world focused. She stepped into the circle into the flat expanse of the hilltop, approaching Massoud determinedly from behind.
“Perhaps we should head back to the motel and find Simon’s wench,” grumbled Massoud.
“I’m already here,” she exclaimed. As Massoud twirled around, she delivered a palm strike to the bridge of his nose.
* * * * *
With every blow and every step back, Massoud realized with growing certainty that this wisp of a girl, this dog of Simon, was doing the impossible. He wanted to grab her, to tear her apart with his incredible strength, but all he saw was a blur, keeping him on the defensive. Unlike the more skilled Simon, she avoided grappling, negating Massoud’s advantage. She deflected his clutching fingers and delivered a forearm to his jaw. She sidestepped a wild swing and applied a strike to his neck that caused him to choke. A kick to the groin. A flurry of punches to his face. A blow to his temple. She moved like smoke and struck like a hammer. And she did not pause, not once.
Massoud found himself backed into one of the stones. In desperation, he dove at her legs. The impact of her knee under his jaw caused his head to snap back. A series of strikes rained down upon him.
He rolled away. Staggering to his feet, he reached for his pistol by his side.
“Looking for this?” asked Stephanie, his weapon in her hand. She seemed an apparition in the moonlight.
“How quickly you forget Celinde Gryphus,” he panted. His body ached terribly and blood streamed down his face. In his long existence, no one had beaten him so thoroughly. He wanted the fire to burn inside him, but his spirit remained cold. “So eager to break that oath you swore, even as you condemned Simon for taking lives?”
“You can quit with the Sin Watcher crap,” she replied coolly. “You’re not human, so you don’t count anyway.”
That statement stung worse than all her blows. “What would you know, little girl?” he said bitterly.
“I guess I’m ignorant. Then again, all humans are ignorant, are they not? So pathetic, in fact, that you want to release the jinn back into the world.”
“No,” rasped Massoud as he fell to his knees. “You don’t understand. I seek to close the door.”
“Right, that’s why you took the Key for yourself.” She steadied the gun. “Now tell me what happened to Simon.”
“Simon lives,” he said softly. “I did not wish to kill him. I just want to close the door.” He pounded the ground with his fist. “You were the ones to betray me. I have been seeking closure for centuries and you sought to deny me.”
“Why do you think yourself so much better? Do you forget your human half? Our collective sins too unclean for someone as great and mighty as Massoud, the powerful and wise?”
“No,” he denied, shaking his head. The self-loathing simmered within him. He tried to redirect it into incomparable fury, but instead it festered, eating away from within.
“Are you angry you cannot hear the ’sama and close the door yourself? Forced to rely on a monkey to do the job?”
“It’s not like that!” he roared, finally unleashing his torment, his voice echoing in the hills. The fire kindled inside him. “Do you not realize that I see my sins in the mirror? Sins that span lifetimes?” He sobbed. “I am far less worthy than you or Simon. I’m so tired, Ms. Keel.” His voice ached with all the centuries of his life. “I just want it to end.”
Stephanie lowered her gun. “We have to close the door tonight. The only way we can do that is for you to trust me.”
Massoud staggered to his feet. He bowed to her. “In my anger, I nearly destroyed the world I sought to save.” Zahoor walked over to him to provide a shoulder to lean upon.
“It’s not saved yet, not by any means.” She tucked the gun in her waistband. “Now let’s get the computer equipment set-up. Let’s put the dish on the southern side of the hill.”
“Do you really need to do that?” grumbled Massoud. She bestowed upon him such a wilting glare that he quickly acquiesced. “My apologies. I shall not question you again.”
“Damn straight,” she replied emphatically.
Despite the bruises, he managed a smile, his vast number of teeth glittering in the night.
Part 11 - Forgiveness
“O Lord, who is worthy to hear this subtle secret?
She’s witnessed everywhere, but she’s never shown her face.”
“Alright, this is what you need to do,” said Stephanie, handing a control pad to Daud. Zahoor kindly translated for her. “This dial will allow you to vary the frequency. Twist it left or right. It’s linked remotely to the transducer so you can actually manipulate it from afar. It’s straight-forward, but then again, there’s something to be said of simplicity. I’ll carry the backup with me in case something goes wrong. Any questions?”
Daud shook his head, wobbling on his feet. The man appeared dazed and more than a little frightened.
“Will he be alright, Zahoor?” she asked.
“Allah willing,” replied the Sufi.
“You seem tense, Massoud,” she said with a smile, glancing at the Afghanistani.
Massoud sat on a stone, nursing his wounds. “I am fine, Ms. Keel. I am weary from battle and from sin.”
“Well, fortunately you never met Ian Callow. He would have burned out your sin battery,” she quipped.
“I have met him. I talked to him on a-- what do you call them? Ah yes, a video phone.” He grimaced. “Men like Callow, they do not see what they are doing as evil. It is their freedom from sin that frees them from the chains of morality. Reading them is like staring into cold, dead water.”
“Have you ever considered that having sin is perhaps not a bad thing?” She shrugged. “Sounds like you’re being too hard on yourself.”
Massoud had no reply.
Stephanie typed some commands on the laptop. “Okay, gentlemen, we’re all set. The dish is aligned, the Key is in place within the rectangular set of stones, and the transducer is powered. We’re ready.” She made ready to hit Enter on the keyboard when a beautiful, familiar scent suddenly wafted in the air. Her fingers paused. She shook with an electric tinge. “He’s here,” she murmured.
“Who is here?” asked Massoud.
“Who indeed,” said a baritone voice to the west
Stephanie glanced quickly to the newcomer. “Michael.”
The Nigerian crested the summit, Grisedale Pike glowing softly in the distance behind him. A group of five voluptuous women accompanied him. In the dimness of the night, she discerned that, except for Akinsanya, each carried a firearm.
“Beautiful Stephanie, you did not call me,” grinned Michael, crossing the flat hilltop. “Naturally, I’m quite disappointed. I offered my services.”
“Zahoor, Ms. Keel,” hissed Massoud, “please get behind me.”
“Is he half-jinn like you?” she asked as she reluctantly moved toward Massoud. Zahoor and Daud hid behind the stones behind the rectangle. She pulled the pistol from her waist, but a part of her wanted to run to meet Michael.
“No, he’s not half-jinn. He’s far worse.” Massoud’s eyes flamed anew, a pair of reddish beacons. “He’s a nephilim!”
* * * * *
“Ah, I finally get to meet the legendary half-demon!” bellowed Michael.
“I’m no more a demon than you are a creature of light,” grumbled Massoud.
The nephilim smiled arrogantly. “Dear Massoud, we should not be fighting. Our aims should be the same. We can release our ancestors from their prison. We can make this a divine world once more, a realm fit for angels and jinn!”
“I am closing the door,” said Massoud. “You are a fool to think the angels would accept a half-breed such as yourself.”
“I see,” said Michael in a silky voice. “You are afraid. The jinn lost their war with the angels and you don’t wish to lose again. History does not have to repeat itself. As long as jinn acknowledge their inferiority, I am sure the angels would suffer them as willing subjects.”
“How did you know what we’re doing here?” asked Stephanie.
“Why, you told me, my love.”
“What do you mean?” she asked uncertainly.
“Do you not recall our graceful dance, our bodies intertwined?” He grinned broadly. “You made me resort to extraordinary measures. No one’s resisted my charms as you have. Even in our dance you said as little as possible.”
“I think I’ve had just about enough with all this foolishness,” said Stephanie angrily.
“Ah, what a creature you are! I will make you queen of my consorts when this is all over.”
One of his female companions hissed. “Oh, don’t be that way, Traci,” cooed Michael. “You will still remain a favorite of mine.” He turned back to Massoud. “Give me the Key of Solomon and I shall let you all live.”
Massoud pooled the smoke behind him, a whirling mass just beyond sight down the hill. “As a good friend once told me, not going to happen.” The billowing cloud rushed forth, rumbling over the top of the hill, quickly engulfing everything. He unleashed the fire inside him, consuming him from within, his skin turning to crimson and brass. Black talons erupted from his fingertips. Giant bat-like wings grew from his back. Never before had he let the transformation complete. He screamed with the pain and exhilaration of it all. All around him, he heard people coughing, the smoke a choking pall.
A blinding light cut through the gray mass, dispersing it instantly. Across the hill stood the nephilim bathed in luminosity. Electric currents sparkled across his body. Instead of two arms, he now possessed four. The number of eyes had doubled as well. He unfolded great, eagle-like wings the color of frost.
Massoud and Michael charged forth, crashing into each other, the shock shaking the entire hill.
They tore at each other, caught up in an ancient and terrible war.
* * * * *
Stephanie’s eyes watered from the acrid smoke. Coughing, she tried to understand the chaos erupting around her. She saw Massoud and Michael locked in a titanic struggle, a tower of light entangled with a tower of flame. Daud and Zahoor crouched next to her, the Key a few feet away. Michael’s females began to edge toward them. Five to one, she thought grimly. Not good odds.
The ’sama groaned, a rushing sound of surf. The world distorted. She saw Massoud and Michael flicker in and out of reality, their bodies tumbling across the hilltop, their otherworldly natures ensnared by the Ring. The door to other worlds dangerously swayed to and fro, threatening to shut the angel and jinn hybrids within. Her mind felt itself being torn apart, like a knife driving through her skull. She glanced at other realms, visions of Tarterus and Elysium, places of shadow and void. Creatures both diabolical and beatific escaped into the countryside. The world turned mute and in the flickering images, past the silhouettes of fleeing nightmares, a form walked toward her. She felt her heartbeat but did not hear it. Her eyes opened in horror as the leering face of William Gryphus slowly came into view.
“Hello Stephanie,” he said with an evil grin, his voice cutting through the silence.
Distantly, she heard a wailing sound. In grew in volume, taking on a banshee screech. Dimly, she realized that the awful sound was the raw scream coming from her very own throat.
* * * * *
Massoud drove Michael into the ground. Straddling the nephilim, his talons barely missed his adversary’s face, Michael turning his head at the last moment. Michael pushed upward with all four arms. Massoud flew backward through the air and crashed into a stone.
The half-jinn picked up the Neolithic structure he landed upon and hurled it. Michael covered as the rock shattered across his arms. As he staggered backwards, Massoud tackled him. They rolled across the hilltop away from the Key, crashing into a group of four stones, shattering one into a myriad of splinters.
Massoud felt his strength ebbing. Stephanie’s beating had taken its toll. Michael pinned him with his lower arms. Using his upper pair, he hammered down.
The half-jinn tore free and slashed upward. Blood and electricity arched in the air. The nephilim retaliated with a thundering blow, leaving a trail of smoke and sparks. They grappled with one another, their faces inches apart.
“You are weakening,” jeered Michael, his gashes flowing free with dark ichors.
“You will not have the Key,” responded Massoud through gritted teeth, his own blood flowing his mouth and nose. He felt his legs starting to buckle.
“Tell me, demon, have you seen yourself lately?” The nephilim’s four gray eyes turned silver and Massoud saw in his reflection a creature of horrific visage. Past the surface of hideousness, he saw something even worse.
All his sins crashed into him, a tidal wave of guilt, of dark deeds. Massoud’s remaining strength left him. He moaned in despair.
Michael beat down upon Massoud, again and again. He lifted the half-jinn’s body high, roaring in triumph. With a tremendous toss he sent Massoud flying far over the hill.
“Allah, forgive me, for I have failed,” whispered Massoud before he impacted into the earth.
* * * * *
Stephanie tried to hold back her scream. She tasted her lip bleeding from biting down.
“He’s dead!” she shouted. “There’s no way he can be alive!”
Gryphus continued to approach, his hand reaching out for her.
The veils are everything. They are ignorance. They are desire. They are your mind.
“My mind,” she gasped. “It not only opens portals to other worlds, but portals to your mind!”
Gryphus suddenly vanished.
Steadying herself, she examined her current situation.
Dark, alien shapes ran amok, sneaking in through the cracks of the door. By some miracle, the Key and the satellite dish remained untouched. Michael’s females screamed in terror as the ghastly creatures engulfed them. Stephanie looked away, unable to stomach the grisly sight.
Massoud and Michael continued to brawl. She saw that Massoud fought valiantly against the overpowering nephilim. “He won’t last much longer,” she said to herself. “Need to find Daud and get this door closed.”
Traci stepped out behind the stone, a maniacal grin etched on the blood-strewn half of her face not torn off, a pistol held in her hand.
A body flew in front of her. A loud crack. A screech of a woman.
Daud lay on the ground motionless. A hideous, cthulhu-like creature with one great clawed hand pulled Traci by her hair, her feet and arms flailing. It shuffled off on short, bulbous legs. It burbled almost pleasantly through a corpse-gray, wrinkled mass representing its face. Behind a stone, Stephanie heard the terrible rending, Traci’s voice cut abruptly.
Stephanie gently touched Daud’s face, his eyes open and empty. “Oh no,” she whispered in despair.
Zahoor stumbled over next to her. “He saved my life,” said Stephanie in shock. The Sufi, with eyes closed, bowed his head in mourning.
Stephanie pulled out her control pad. She placed a comforting hand on the Sufi’s shoulder. “It’s up to me now. Let’s see how I do without the training.” Sighing deeply, she gently turned the dial.
The ’sama responded. Stephanie lost herself in the mystical sound. She saw from the corner of her eyes the otherworldly creatures flickering in and out of existence. Her fingers worked by their own accord, as if she conducted a conversation with the music from time memorial. Gently, she guided it back to a state of harmony. The door began to close.
A powerful hand grasped her by the front of her shirt. She felt herself lifted high, soaring into the air. She landed hard, her breath knocked out of her.
Michael, still in his angelic form, walked over to the transducer. “It ends now,” he said in an unearthly voice.
“No!” shouted Zahoor, falling to his knees.
Michael crushed it with his four hands. The dark creatures scattered into the night, frightened by the power of the nephilim.
Stephanie saw her pistol lying nearby. Her fingers grasped the handle and she rose to her feet.
“Stephanie, it is over,” said Michael, his face bloodied. “The ultrasound equipment is destroyed. The Key of Solomon now belongs to me. Accept your fate.”
“I bet you’re not immune to bullets,” she said with a grim smile.
“Will you shoot me?” he said in his deep, hypnotic voice. “I think not. Would that not make you worse than Massoud?” He held one of his four hands. “Give me the gun, my love. You said I have limitless potential. All I want is a new world. I will gladly share it with you.”
Stephanie wavered for a moment, her pistol lowering. When Michael took a step forward, she raised it again. He paused.
“Let me show you something,” she said, pointing the barrel at the Key.
A large fragment of the Key flew into the air.
“What?” said Michael in disbelieve. “It’s indestructible!”
“Do you think we’d bring the real Key here? Where you or a crazy half-jinn could get it? We’ve made a copy before. It wasn’t that hard to get another one.” She pulled out the controller. “This is actually not tied to the transducer-- which, by the way, was just some gizmo Simon picked up at the mall-- but rather, to the real Key back in Nightwatch.” She turned the dial a fraction of the centimeter. “You should have crushed the satellite dish instead. Oh well.”
Michael looked down at his body as it began to quaver. His expression of shock turned to one of rage. He charged toward her, his voice no longer angelic. He crossed the grassy hilltop with great rapidity. Stephanie did not flinch. Instead, she stood there and waved farewell.
Hands outstretched, six inches from her face, the nephilim winked out existence for good, his howl haunting the hills a few seconds longer.
She heard Zahoor’s soft sobbing in the distance. Overhead, the unmistakable sound of helicopter grew louder. She listened for the ’sama and blessedly only heard her heartbeat. Pulling out her PDA / mobile phone, she turned it back on. It rang instantly.
“Hello Simon. It’s about time you showed up.”
* * * * *
Peace settled upon Massoud.
For the first time in his long existence, rage no longer possessed him. A creature of fire without fire is a creature of smoke. He let himself become incorporeal. He floated above the ground.
He saw the lights of the helicopter as it circled in for a landing. He glided beneath it and waited expectantly.
Opening his arms, he began to chuckle. When the helicopter started to lower, his chuckle became a laugh, a joyous, booming sound. As the winds from the whirling blade tore him apart, he remembered all his sins, all his evil.
In that final moment, he finally he forgave himself.