|Crossing V: Sword of Flame
Author: Guede Mazaka
A moment after Ahmed shoved past G, Fred and Dean stumbled out of the study, their disheveled condition leaving no doubts as to what had happened. Even if she hadn't smelled it on Ahmed.
"Wait. I thought you and…" Peter looked from her to Fred, whose cheeks went scarlet even as he dropped into a chair. Then he winced, still looking no less depressed.
"She lied. We're not," he told his friend. "I'm…"
"…fucking me and that bastard that just pranced out." Dean carefully sat down next to Fred and hid his cracking voice in his hands. "What the hell is wrong with him?"
Apparently Ahmed was playing stubborn imbecile again, and-oh, damn. The book. G yanked the lousy bundle of pages out of her purse and poked it at Dean. He moved his hands to expose one eye, then laughed sourly as he took it. "The third one. Christ, I hate this."
"Godley, what are you doing here?" Then Fred's gaze flicked to G, its intensity ratcheting up a hundredfold. He started to rise, fists clenched. "Oh, no. Do you two think this is some game? Only with people for chess pieces? Does this amuse you, goddamn it? Does it?"
"No!" She tossed her purse in a corner and stalked away, then whirled around and slammed her hand into the top of the sofa. The pain shocked a little practicality back into her, and she leaned against the sofa, collecting her thoughts. All right. Yelling and accusing wasn't going to snap Ahmed out of whatever dark spell she might have pushed him into.
All she'd wanted to do was give him a few good nights to remember, and if something more had developed out of it…well, he could use that. So many nights talking with him, working with him. Listening to stories about his Northmen friends and Arab family, and watching the way mourning colored his eyes, day and night.
"You know, this was not what I was expecting." G stared at the silver pentacle on the front of the book, wishing she could carve it out and kill it like a living enemy. "Be careful with that. Liana Taillefer gave it to me."
"Gave it?" Dean slanted a suspicious look up at her; she shrugged and studied her nails as vague images passed over their polished surfaces.
"Gave it. I don't know what she's up to, but I suppose that that one has to be fake." He laughed again, like a man on the scaffold, and tapped the black covers. G frowned, crossing her arms over her chest. "What?"
"They're all fakes. And all real. The important parts are the engravings, right? Because they're copied directly from Lucifer's hand?" Dean flipped through the pages, then slapped the book shut and glowered at it. "Well, some of them are fakes, and some aren't; the real ones have 'LCF' for the engraving initials, and are different from the false ones. They're scattered among the three books…but I'm not done figuring out which are which yet."
Still by the door, Peter uncomfortably stirred. "I should-"
Fred laid an arm around Dean's neck and pulled him in for a brief, deep kiss, then stood up. "Figure out which. I'm going after him."
And it seemed that G had misjudged nearly everyone, because she certainly hadn't been expecting that. The Inspector regarding her now, calm and determined, was a far cry from the resigned, acidic, self-consuming one she'd met in the warehouse, only a few days ago. He was moving purposefully around the rooms, getting his coat and scarf. And gun, which was even more interesting.
"Sir? What are you doing, exactly?" Peter asked, warily eying the shiny metal as it disappeared into a coat pocket.
"I'll tell you on the way." Fred took G by the arm and walked her outside, a few paces ahead of Godley. "Where is he?"
"Going after Liana. You know that gun won't kill her permanently?" she whispered back.
"Yes. It's for whoever else that shows up. Unless you've killed all the Masons?" He absently rubbed at his neck, then reddened and tugged his scarf a little higher.
G breathed a bit easier then, and quickly led them to the coach she and Ahmed kept. "I was afraid you'd say that it was for you, if you couldn't reason with Ahmed."
"There's still Dean," Fred said, short and clipped, and it was obvious that if there weren't, G would be dealing with yet another dead body. Damnation.
If Ahmed didn't come to his senses, she was going to shoot him. And she knew how to make that stick.
* * *
Dean lugged the table away from the front of the couch, then arranged his notes, pens, and the three copies on the floor. He brushed back his hair, adjusted his glasses, and took a deep breath.
Phantom fingers, still inside and teasing, scratching. Painting their watermarks all over his insides. He didn't need to be possessed by the devil, or any such frippery. He was haunting one, for God's sake, and it was as ironic as hell itself that that particular demon didn't seem to want him.
"Well, I know what to do about you," he said to the books. "Now, let's see what you can tell me."
Information was one thing he knew interested Ahmed. And, murmured a nasty little voice, it might be enough to bribe the man back. Hope was the cruelest emotion in the world.
On the other hand, he could probably say with some certainty that he had Fred. Which was a good deal more than he had had before, even if the newly-discovered gaping holes in him screamed for more.
Now greed was something with which Dean was very familiar, and yet it managed to catch him off-guard every single time. "Fuck off. I don't need this right now," he muttered, getting to work.
* * *
Winter night creeping into the afternoon sky of late summer. At least, from what Ahmed could tell through the smog and soot. He put more trust in the clock ticking along each nerve, telling him days and seasons and years. The anniversary of this death, that of that death. Remembering the feel of blood drying on his palms, and ashes in his mouth.
He was a coward. He wouldn't lie to himself. A coward for running from life because he couldn't bear to see the death seed hidden within all living things.
No. Even worse than that-he was so accustomed to death now that, when offered a chance to avert it, he panicked and fled because he…what? Was frightened of not being alone?
::Of course not. I'm frightened that I'll become used to company, and then have it taken away again. Have my wits gone completely soft?:: No, but they certainly weren't agreeing with each other. Ahmed angrily shoved them all aside, concentrating on tracking the faint glows that marked Liana's passing. He rounded the corner and halted on the edge of an vacant lot behind an abandoned tenement.
At the other end, a flame sparked into life and floated towards the wall, cresting at the tip of a cigarette. A man slouched against the side of the building, only his red eyes and scarred lip visible. "Well? Are you taking the offer?"
"I have no idea what you might be referring to." Ahmed stripped off his gloves and scarf, put them to the side, then drew his sword out of the cane-sheath. "And if I did, I seriously doubt that I would agree to it."
"She said you'd take that way." Butt a falling star as it dropped from the man's fingers, a tiny explosion of light under his heel. He rolled his shoulders as he stepped forward, arms spreading and seeming to extend as two long daggers slid from his sleeves. "You can call me Rochefort, by the way."
Ahmed raised his eyebrow as he started to circle around the edge of the space. "Rochefort. I've been meaning to read that novel."
Flash of white teeth. "You should. It's an excellent story of lust and betrayal."
Then they were racing toward each other, shoes clicking in and out of unison against the hard-packed dirt. At the last minute, Ahmed spun away to the left so Rochefort's daggers only cut air. His own backhand would've taken off the top of the other man's head, except Rochefort dove low and only lost a piece of his cloak. Daggers flicked at Ahmed's belly, and he sprang back again, parrying with his sword. On the second block, he let the blade screech down the length of the other man's and swept the tip across the back of Rochefort's hand.
"Bastard!" Rochefort whipped out of range, one dagger falling behind him. Ahmed advanced and kicked it into a pile of refuse, then put both hands on the sword handle and swung it like a broadsword. Humming followed the horizontal slice.
As did red droplets. Now bleeding from his hand and chest, Rochefort was much more wary. He stepped around and around, always a little beyond the reach of a first lunge. "I'm curious," he crooned, yellow sheening over his red irises. Then his eyes blinked to common brown. "Which are you protecting? The books or the men?"
"I fail to see how that's relevant to the situation. Neither of them belong in Liana's hands." Ahmed stretched his senses and nibbled away at Rochefort's, all the while watching every twitch, every faltering in the other man's movements. He saw the stumble before the foot even hit the stone and tossed his sword to his other hand, lightning-fast, to come up on Rochefort's open side.
Cut down and back up the right diagonal, but Rochefort still managed to twist enough to avoid a fatal wound. The other man threw himself desperately backwards, splattering his blood across the ground. His daggerhand was still steady, but he kept his other arm tightly folded over the deep tear across his ribs.
"What is she trying to do?" Ahmed demanded, advancing on the other man. He harried and harassed Rochefort until they were between two high stacks of wreckage, with a fence at Rochefort's back. Cornered. "What would she want with Lucifer?"
"What we all want. To return to our own kind-oh, excuse me. I forgot you're the one who started out as mortal. Suppose you wouldn't understand what it's like, to be out in the cold and the wastes, alone and wandering." Rochefort's eyes flared scarlet once more, furiously grieving, and for a moment, Ahmed almost pitied him. "No one but a few half-familiar faces, too shamed to meet your eyes."
"Really." Ahmed slowly raised his sword till it was vertical with his face. He held it there, then lowered it back into attacking position. "Then I wonder why G hasn't chosen the same."
Contemptuous, the other man rolled his eyes. "Oh, her. She was young and stupid even then, not really knowing why we were fighting. One of the few that always liked mortals, anyway."
He suddenly rushed Ahmed, speed far more than Ahmed had expected from such a wounded man, and so the dagger point did lay a shallow cut through Ahmed's sleeve and in his flesh. But Rochefort overextended, leaving his ankles and back vulnerable. Ahmed took a step sideways, then brought down his sword.
Rochefort fell quietly, curling in on himself as he laughed through the bloody spittle. "You both think you can protect everyone. That's why you're friends. Why you'll fail. When it comes down to the end, it's only what they can do to protect themselves. Everyone's alone when they die."
And the sound of running feet. Ahmed's breath staggered, Rochefort's eyes flicked up, and then the other man was bolting into Ahmed's knees. They both went down, Ahmed throwing up the cane to block any attempts at stabbing.
Except Rochefort wasn't even trying. He threw the dagger, and then next thing Ahmed heard was G's soft gasp. "Christ, Fred-"
Ahmed kicked himself free and howled out the deathspell as he swung his sword high above his head. Then he sliced down with every bit of strength he had; Rochefort's head burst from his body and rolled away into a shadow, while Ahmed stayed as he was, half-bent. Forcing breath out past the great dark walls that were crumbling around him.
* * *
Dean put down his pen and rubbed at the back of his neck, trying to massage out the cramps that had gathered there. Done with the analysis part, if that was any consolation. He probably was the world greatest expert on The Book of the Nine Doors of the Kingdom of Shadows right now. Time was, he would've been secretly pleased with that, because it meant more clients, more money, and more prestige than any competitor.
"Goddamn it, Fred, what's taking you so long?" He let his head fall back on the sofa cushions behind him, staring dully at the papers and books strewn about the floor. "I hate this."
"May I come in?" Statuesque lady provocatively poised in the doorway. Well, many apologies to the females of the world, but Dean wasn't interested in that anymore. Christ, he had been spoiled for everything else, hadn't-wait.
He scrambled backwards and onto his feet, keeping the length of the couch between him and the stranger. "That door was locked."
"I know." She smiled and daintily crossed the threshold, tapping the door with her fan as she did. "Dean Corso. You're much younger than I thought."
"Who are you?" Very, very carefully, he began to edge over to the fireplace and its pokers. Whereupon something thin and black flung through the air at him. Dean threw himself sideways, but whatever it was wrapped securely around his arm. The woman jerked hard on the other end, and then he was across the room, colliding with her legs. Which didn't budge.
Before he could unwind the whip from his arm, she'd looped the slack around his throat and yanked it tight so he choked. Grabbed at the rough leather that was cutting so painfully into his flesh, and consequently had his other wrist encircled, so his hands were bound up against the front of his neck.
One tug forced him onto his knees, and a second tug made him face her smug, merciless smile. "Now then. What have you found out about the three books?"
"Ahmed-" The coils tightened and Dean's vision blacked out, then snapped back as she loosened her grip just enough for rasping breath.
Her hand came down and gently resettled his glasses on his nose, cupped his cheek. "He'll be along directly, never you worry."
* * *
It was one of the most excruciating visions Fred had ever had, and a damned good reminder of why he tried not to have them when sober. Lightning exploded in his head, then showered torrents of pain down his nerves so he doubled over.
A minor stripe of hurt seared over the side of his arm, then bloomed so it shocked reality back into gut-wrenching presence. He stared, seeing G and Godley's lips form concerned words. Then his gaze wandered past them to the hunched figure in the middle of the vacant lot, and Fred knew where he was. He shoved past and limped out to Ahmed, lifting a hand to touch the other man's back.
As soon as he did, Ahmed whipped around, sword edge an inch from Fred's cheekbone. Then the other man's eyes suddenly emptied, rage vanishing like fire in a rain, and the blade went down. He mechanically wiped it off and resheathed it. "You're all right?"
"I suppose. I've been better." The air between them had crystallized, so when he shuffled forward, Fred felt as if he were pushing through layers of glass. His palms and face slivered with the breaking shards, but he kept going. "How are you?"
Inane conversation. But that was to be expected, considering how worthless words were at this point. They were nearly touching now, sharing the same air, and Fred wanted to say a thousand different things, but couldn't find his voice. Instead, he brought up one hand, watched it tremble, then rested it on Ahmed's shoulder. Did the same with the other hand, and then laid his head against Ahmed's chest.
Very slowly, so slowly Fred thought he was dreaming, fingers drifted over his hair, down the back of his neck. They finally stopped at the space between his shoulderblades and flattened against him, their warmth reaching through all the layers of clothing to make him shiver. "I had a vision, just now. Whitechapel covered in blood."
"You have to stay here. For another three months, at least. After that…I don't know if you'll still want to come with me." Ahmed whispered the words against Fred's forehead, almost kissing it as he did. Vague nighttime memory rising, moon over the water. "But I'll come back, and ask."
There was another cut on Ahmed's shoulder. Fred gingerly touched its edges, frowning. "You're already healing."
"So I am." Reluctant smile in Ahmed's voice. "I heal faster than you think. Than I think, it seems."
It was a moment as perfect as the first snowflake of winter. But nothing hangs in the air forever, and by the next second, they were startling apart, pivoting to face the same way. "Liana," Ahmed snarled.
"Oh, shit." G waved at the coach. "Go on! Peter, help me take care of this body."
"Do as she says," Fred added. He started after Ahmed, who was already running for the coach, but a hand on his elbow stopped him. "Godley, please. I know this is illegal as-"
"Just wanted to wish you good luck," his friend interrupted, shoving him forward. "She explained a few things to me. And I'm still confused, but if it works for you…then I suppose it works."
Fred had to smile, even if he couldn't afford to lose the time. "Thank you," he called back, then turned around and made for the coach as fast as he could.
* * *
Liana Taillefer-by now Dean couldn't mistake her for anyone else-ripped out the last engraving. She snorted at his wince, and kicked him a little further into the sofa cushions. "Books are meant to be used, not locked up."
"You just ruined three priceless works of art," he rasped, willing himself not to pass out from the agony in his ribs. If none of them had been cracked before, then some had to be by now. He curled more tightly into the corner of the couch and yanked futilely at the whip strangling him.
"Shut up." Having cleared off the floor, she proceeded to lay out the engravings in order in a rough square, three rows and columns. Then she came over and knocked his mind all the way into the black.
According to the clock on the mantel, he clawed out of unconsciousness fifteen minutes later. Nothing had changed in the room, which was apparently upsetting Liana to no end. "Why isn't it working?"
She stomped from one end to the other, then whirled about and glared at him. Stalked back and dragged Dean to his feet, almost breaking his neck with the way she pulled at his leather bonds. "You lied."
"Oh, yes. Which is why those engravings have two different sets of initials. Because I somehow managed to fake them, even though I've had those books for less than a week. I told you what I know! I told you what I thought, and-" Dean tried to swallow, but the tightened coils around his throat wouldn't permit that. Instead, he coughed and feebly struggled to get loose, to get air. God-couldn't-
The door banged open, and Liana let go, then slapped him to the floor. Dean rolled over, gasping while fresh air gusted into his starved lungs, and saw two familiar pairs of shoes. His gaze instantly shot up, confirming that it was Fred and Ahmed.
"Liana…" the latter man said, warning grate like tree branches rattling before a storm wind.
"Ahmed. I take it you've killed my poor Rochefort." Nevertheless, she didn't seem too dismayed by his nod. Liana watched his approach, fluttering her fan in a mocking gesture. Then she dropped down and shoved the edge of it beneath Dean's chin, metal pricking into the skin there. "I wonder, would you be able to take his loss as sanguinely as I'm taking mine?"
Ahmed froze where he was, while Fred halted just inside the doorway, eyes locked to Dean's.
"I'd be very surprised if you felt the slightest thing for your toy," Ahmed murmured. "Cost of playing the game, I assume."
"He was like me. We've known each other since the beginning of time, and if he chose to believe in me, then that was his decision. I never changed." She tilted her head, smile viciously nostalgic. "You did, but then again, you were just a human who had a very, very large stroke of luck. Your fault for still acting like one."
He slowly squatted, making no sudden moves, and fingered his cane. Then Ahmed looked at Dean, completely unreadable, and hope withered. "Well, you're right," the other man said. "I love him. What do you want?"
It took a long moment for the words to sink in, and even then, Dean didn't believe what he had heard. "You what?"
"Stop looking offended. I'm the one with the right to be angry." There was a trace of smile about Ahmed's mouth, but when his eyes moved back to Liana's face, they were diamond-hard and hell-black. Literally. Darkness smudged over the whites, clouding the entire surface of the eye. "I love him, and the other. Like I never, ever did you."
"You…" Her back arched like an angry cobra, preparing to strike, and the hand holding the fan began to jerk.
Then a shot ripped through the air, and Liana slammed backwards. The razors skated up Dean's chin, but a hand was knocking them away and pulling him free of her.
"Shallow cuts. You're fine," Ahmed snapped, ducking to peer at Dean's throat, then shoving him towards Fred almost in the same motion. The other man stopped Dean's slide and dropped down to unknot the whip, the revolver in his hand still smoking.
"You goddamned bastard!" Liana screeched, lunging back up. One of her eyes had become a pit of gory flesh fragments, but that didn't seem to hamper her in the least as she went for Ahmed. He fended her off with the cane, but couldn't turn fast enough in the crowded space. She clamped onto his arm and they tumbled down, wrestling for each other's throats as Ahmed's cane went flying off to the side.
"What happened?" Fred unwrapped the last coil of leather from Dean's throat and tossed the whip aside, then helped Dean up. "Never mind. How do we get rid of her?"
They both turned to look at the fighting pair on the floor, and at that same instant, Liana somehow got free. She leaped up and turned towards them-
--then screamed as Ahmed rammed into her waist and put them both through a window. Dean's heart, newly revived, decided to seize up in his chest. Though that didn't stop him from skidding across the room for the window.
A hand yanked him away when he was just inches from it. "Watch the glass!" Fred barked. But his eyes were feverish, and his fingers remained clenched around Dean's arm. Together, they took that last step and leaned over the sill, dread a thick clot in their throats.
"I lied to her," Dean whispered, groping for Fred's hand. He bowed his head and spat out the rest, leaning into the other man as if he could disappear from life that way. "I told her there were nine with differences. There's only eight. The last one has the right initials, but the engraving has no changes."
"Dean…I can't see them." Fred swallowed, licked his lips, and repeated himself, still looking outside. "I can't see them."