Sunday 14 March
When he came to, the silence was stunning: there were no conversations two rooms away, no rustling feet in a nearby hall. He couldn’t even hear his own heart beating. Straining, all he could hear was his own breath, wheezing in and out — faster and faster and faster.
Fear fell upon him like he hadn’t felt in years. His heart hammered in his chest and he couldn’t seem to get any air no matter what his lungs thought they were doing. His vision blurred. The world started spinning, and it was all he could do to hold on to the bed he was on.
The last thing he remembered, he had been a mile down in a cave that had turned out to be a literal physical access to the Brass Gates of Tartaros.
That conundrum gave him something to focus on, and he brought his breath back into line by main force. In, hold, out, hold. In, two, three, hold, out, two three, hold. With his breathing under control, his heart rate began to drift slowly back to something reasonable. Eventually, his chest stopped hurting and he could actually think.
A panic attack.
He hadn’t had a fucking panic attack since junior high.
Knowing it wasn’t really over, yet, he kept focusing on his breathing, letting his awareness of his body spread slowly out from his heart and lungs. No new injuries: just the scrapes and bruises he’d earned on the climb. His hands were actually in better shape than he remembered. Something was off, though. There was a … a lack. A lightness where there had been a weight.
He sat bolt upright in bed when it came to him
The Mark was gone.
The power that had fueled him, had defined him, for almost three years, now, was gone.
Sitting up, his body seemed heavy and sluggish. Swinging his legs over and sliding off the bed, he found impact with the ground to be strangely jarring. The weight of his dirt-caked clothes was greater than he ever could have imagined, and when a voice came from the other side of the room he literally jumped two feet into the air.
“Good. You are awake at last.”
His body might be slower and weaker than it had been in years, but his mind was still what it should be: Alex turned, mid-air, to face the direction the voice had come from and landed in a fight-or-flight stance.
A woman in a steel-grey pants-suit lounged in the chair on the far side of the room, a paperback novel in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Her skin was the color of red clay and her hair was the color of midnight in the desert and her eyes — even from across the room — were like slices of the Void he had seen at the edges of Tartaros.
“You should bathe,” she said. “There are clothes for you in the closet. I am to see you fed, then take you to our handler.”
“The two make sense,” he said, relying on the humor that had gotten him into as much trouble as it had gotten out of, “but … clothes? Handler?”
“What you wear now is filthy, and unsuited to your coming tasks. Your measurements were taken while you slept. And I will leave it to Mr. Wormwood to explain his role. I am … a poor communicator.”
Alex nodded slowly.
“Noted,” he said, and moved to the shower.
He felt clumsy just walking across the room, and nearly fell on his face attempting to undress. The water was simultaneously too hot and too cold.
It was in the bathroom that it started to dawn on Alex just how swank the hotel was: two sinks, mirrors that somehow didn’t fog in the steam. Fine porcelain tiles. Towels that probably each cost more than most entire outfits he wore. He might have been in a hotel this nice once before in his life.
Dressing, in turn, was made even more awkward by the way the woman stared at him as he struggled with his cuff links and tried to remember how to tie a half- windsor. Why were rich people’s clothes so much more complicated than His father had tried to teach him all this, of course, but he hadn’t understood the importance at the time.
“If you’re going to eye-fuck me like that, you could at least tell me your name,” he said.
“You may call me Naekar.”
“Thanks. I’m Alex.”
“Alexander Dixon. I know.” Then, for the first time in their conversation, her voice took on an inflection of genuine interest: “Your reputation precedes you.”
“Thank you,” he said. “I think.”
“Let us break our fast. You will find the hotel restaurant to be more than adequate: I have certainly found it so.”
The restaurant in the lobby was probably four stars; the signs advertising the rooftop diner advertised itself as five. On his new patron’s dime, Alex took full advantage: steak and eggs benedict, a mimosa, and a triple shot of espresso. The creature calling itself Naekar had taken on a more convincing semblance of humanity, though the particular charcoal shade of her suit was subtly less flattering against the dark coppery-brown skin of the Navajo woman she now appeared to be than the literal red-clay-color she had worn before. Her own breakfast was simpler, but no more modest: a crepe that literally cost as much as his steak, and a coffee drink he could not even follow, let alone repeat the name of. When she spoke to the waiter, her eyes were pretty, sparkling brown, but as soon as the eyes of the uninitiated had turned away, they were once more windows into a void.
When they were done eating, she paid the tab in crisp twenty dollar bills, and she successfully hailed them a cab within moments of walking out the door. The ride was short, but scenic: taking them along the southwest (judging by the position of the sun) shore of some vast body of water to a generic office building with a brown marble lobby and took a wood-paneled elevator to the thirteenth floor. Their destination was a door, relatively plain by comparison to some of the others, marked simply “Wormwood”. Naekar did not knock or produce a key, she simply pushed the door open and gestured for Alex to proceed her.
The office would have been as generic as the building, had it not been so spare: a mahogany desk, one chair behind and two before. Bookshelves along the wall to either side, a vast window instead of the east wall, looking out over the city, and dozens of portraits in various sizes covering the walls to either side of the door through which they’d come. The books and the portraits were easily the most interesting things in the room: they had a mismatched quality that spoke of things the mysterious Mr. Wormwood — who was nowhere to be seen — actually used, rather than the perfectly matched legal and literary volumes his father’s associates had in their own offices and which only came off the shelves in order to be dusted.
“Sit,” said Naekar, directing Alex to one of the guest chaisr while she, herself, took the other.
A moment later, a tall Back man– skin as dark as his desk, but in slightly warmer tones — came in, wearing a gold-and-chocolate houndstooth suit. His bald head gleamed under the florescent lights, and a thick gold ring glinted in each ear.
“Your timing, Naekar,” he said, his light tone hinting at both annoyance and amusement, “never ceases to amaze.”
He moved toward them with long strides and languid grace.
“Mr. Dixon,” he said extending his hand from just far enough away that Alex had to rise to shake it. “ I am Wormwood.”
Such formalities attended to, Wormwood circled around to his side of the desk, where he descended into the chair with the same grace with which he moved across the room. He was certainly a dancer, Alex decided, but he could not tell if the man was a fighter, as well. Or human, for that matter: without the Mark he could no longer sense presences as clearly, though the perfect stillness with which he sat said that the man was very likely either a magician or a monster. ‘Of course,’ Alex thought, ‘that might be as affected as the walk: he clearly has a flair for the dramatic.’
“Allow me to get a few of the most obvious issues out of the way,” Wormwood continued. “I do not know how much you know about the master we all serve, and while asking questions is both inevitable and understandable, you must understand that there are limits to the answers we are permitted to provide. This goes double given the provisional nature of your contract. You will be given the tools we believe that you will need to accomplish your tasks — while we cannot eliminate all risks from the work, it serves no purpose to create unnecessary ones — and you will receive payment in full when your contract is completed.”
Alex sat very still for a long moment, mulling that over. Somehow he had expected this to have more of a “deal with the Devil” sort of vibe, but at this particular moment it felt more like dealing with the Mob.
“I’m not certain I really understand. The bargain I struck … I thought I’d done my part, gotten my payment. And the payment … well, it was all rather … ephemeral.”
“Yes. You struck two bargains, in fact. The terms of the first were that you were to stand by, though you did have the power to stop him, while our master released the Titanes and Gigantes–” his pronunciation of those words was so authentically Greek that Alex almost didn’t recognize them, “–from their prison in exchange for your life and the removal of the Mark of the Wolf from your soul. The second was to perform a favor — to serve our master briefly — in exchange for which you would receive new power, slightly less than that which the Mark gave you, but which comes without the limits of the Mark: the volatility, the lunar curse, and the inability– unique to your Mark, I understand — to perform magic.”
Was that what he’d agreed to? It had all been very heat -of -the -moment.
“Uh … yeah.”
“If you would like to reconsider the second bargain, it’s not too late. We understand that your judgement was clouded by the Mark, itself. We will even provide you a train ticket back home, given the degree to which our master appreciates that moment of non-interference.”
“That’s … very generous. What’s the favor?”
“What I can tell you before you sign the dotted line is this: a monster has violated the terms of his agreement with our master, and now poses a threat to mortal kind. Your task is to help Naekar banish him back to the hell whence he came.”
Just listening to the man speak gave Alex the shivers, but a little bit of uncomfortable introspection revealed that that reaction was not any of the things he had first assumed it was. In fact, he could probably listen to Wormwood talk all day and all night, given the opportunity. Neither he nor Naekar was hard on the eyes. At it wasn’t like he could really go back home: he’d offended the biggest monster in Kansas City, actively facilitated the “apocalypse” he and his friends had been trying to stop, and done it all to be rid of the power that had attracted his lover in the first place.
“Can I keep the suit?”
“Excellent,” Wormwood said, pulling a gold necklace and a rune-encrusted firearm from one of his desk drawers and laying them on the table before Alex. “When you don this chain, the contract shall be sealed and the first fragments of power shall be yours. I recommend you do so in private, as the experience can be startling. Can you shoot?”
“I’ll take that for a no. But you are a fighter– you were before the Mark, as I understand it.”
“Yes. Hands-on. Trained but not practiced in the use of the sword.”
“Naekar will do as much as possible to correct both those deficiencies in the six weeks or so it should take to accomplish your tasks. My number is in this cell phone: do not contact me frivolously, as my time is valuable, but neither wait for things to become dire. Please use it only for business. Your hotel room has a telephone, as well, should you have any family you need to contact.”
“You are the judge of your own risks, Mr. Dixon. Should we ever contract you for work that requires such secrecy, we will inform you from the outset, but this is not such an operation.”
“There is one final thing: your tenacity and spirit have quite impressed our master’s foremost servant.” So saying, Wormwood pulled a thick silver chain bracelet from his desk drawer. Suspended between two links and large enough to be seen even from some feet away was a perfect black pearl. “As a gift, he offers you a fragment of his own power, to shield you from the consequences of the risks you are so fond of taking.”
The master’s chief servant? Wormwood couldn’t mean the Monster, could he? That creature Alex had seen only twice, the one that moved faster than he could even think, let alone see, and had almost killed him at the Gates of Tartaros? Alex took the gift with a trembling hand.
It was beautiful. And definitely his style.
‘In for a penny, in for a pound.’
“Naekar will take you back to your hotel, now. Her number is in the cellphone as well. Contact her this afternoon when you are ready to begin your training, and she will put you to work in the morning.” Wormwood stood again and reached his hand out across the desk to Alex. “Welcome to the team, Alex.”
Sunday 14 March