Quirinus cut a merciless swath through the enemy hordes. Spear in one hand and ready to call down lightning with the other, his ice-blue eyes burned with the fury of battle. Yet each brutal, death-dealing move held all the inherent grace of a dancer. Each pirouette, every lunge, and pivot, nearly choreographed in their efficient beauty. In the cleanliness of every kill.
Not that Quirinus was against violence or killing. He had seen far too much. And doled out death where it was due. But unlike the enemies of the Mother, he despised needless suffering. He honed his skills until he could give instant death to an opponent while blindfolded. Quirinus vowed long before time had any meaning never to prolong a victim’s suffering. The Mother simply smiled at him. It had been a sad sort of smile but one full of love. Then she gave him a gift. A flowering plant he called “myrtle.”
Like all the Mother’s children, Quirinus never once felt a lack of love, despite his numerous siblings. As one of the eldest, he expected to feel a depletion of that love with each subsequent child she birthed. But it never happened. The Mother, it seemed, always had room in her heart for one more. What amazed him was how she even seemed to have an endless capacity to love her children’s progeny and the creatures they created in their fickle whims. It was why so many now fought to the death to protect her.
What shocked him, to his very core, was how many others fought to destroy her. Not just the inferior creations but the Mother’s own children. How could his siblings take up arms against her after feeling just how all-encompassing and lifegiving her love for them was? Yet, they wanted to destroy her. All for the energy her death would release. Quirinus had a feeling that the release of so much energy would destroy the universe and all life in it rather than give his siblings an endless supply of it as they hoped.
That energy, now released in small quantities with each new death on the battlefield, thickened the air until it was near groaning as much as the injured and dying. The Mother’s children – on both sides – sucked it in like mother’s milk, replenishing strength and endurance that should have long since waned.
As a demon of some sort – they all blurred together now – leapt toward his face, gaping jaws dripping acid, Quirinus shoved his thoughts aside and spun his spear once before impaling the creature. He allowed the demon’s own momentum to send the weapon straight through the withered kernel that passed as its heart before pivoting. Swinging his spear around, he flung the corpse into a cluster of goblins looking to overwhelm a centaur. The goblins collapsed beneath the demon’s weight.
Quirinus returned the centaur’s nod of thanks before spinning again to send lightning toward the creature swooping down at him from the skies. The thing plummeted in a smoking, blackened mess. He moved on to his next opponent, dispatching the nightmare creature with the same brutal efficiency. Swirling again, he ducked beneath a blow meant to decapitate him, then sent the Amazon careening into Athena’s sword with a powerful kick to her torso.
Then, from the corner of his eye, he saw it. The line of defenders around Cahira and her small family faltered. His youngest sister was about to be overwhelmed. Quirinus refused to allow that to happen. He sprinted toward the front line of the battle.
Cahira, her daughter, and the daughter’s consort had been the first to recognize the threat to their Mother. The trio stood in the Mother’s defense alone while many of their siblings – Quirinus included – were still in denial that some of their family had become so corrupt with greed for power. And Cahira was the reason the battle’s outcome was still undecided. Had it not been for that trio, the Mother would have been murdered by her own children long before any other came to her defense.
So, for all that and because she was the baby of the family, Quirinus rushed to her defense. He leapt the injured, dead, and dying. Cut through the center of duels. Wielded lightning with all the ruthlessness of some of his storm-driven brethren. All to reach his sister’s side.
With one final impossible leap, Quirinus dove in front of his sister, taking a blast of dark power meant for her. He landed, shoulder and arm smoking as veins of poison sought to spread. Standing, he shook off the pain and ignored the insidious creeping sprawl of that darkness as he fought by Cahira’s side.
Time once more lost meaning. Like the days before mortals began marking it when Quirinus and his siblings played as children beneath the Mother’s love. It could have been minutes, hours, days, or even years. Quirinus could only mark its passage by the height of the pile of bodies the enemy crawled over to reach them. He twice saved Cahira’s daughter from death. And once the daughter’s consort. Both were mortal; there would be no bringing them back should they fall. While Quirinus felt little familial ties to the two, he did respect them for standing beside their mother. And he loved Cahira enough to want to spare her the grief of losing them.
Then the Mother appeared. At first, Quirinus wanted to beg her to flee. To retire to safety lest she be murdered by her own children. But then she spoke, her voice seemingly quiet yet heard clearly over the raucous chaos of battle. And with her voice, the violence stopped.
Quirinus felt a tiny spurt of fury that she could have ended the war before so many perished but shoved it aside. The Mother had her reasons. He was a good son and would not question her actions. So, he watched, as in awe as his siblings, nearly as much as their mortal progeny, as the Mother created portals to other worlds. Worlds, she said, that she created for each of her children. Using some of that glut of free energy, the Mother banished those of her children who became corrupt. She used more of that energy to seal the locks on each portal so the evil gods and their closest followers could not escape. Then she invited Quirinus and the rest of his siblings to move to their own worlds, leaving their current realm to mortals alone.
Before joining the rest of their siblings in the exodus, Cahira insisted on healing Quirinus’s injury. He had all but forgotten about it, but after looking into his sister’s worried eyes, acquiesced to her fussing. Quirinus felt the gentle heat of his sister’s healing arts and admitted that he felt rejuvenated by it.
But then he felt her worry spike and looked down into her emerald eyes. She met and held his gaze.
“Brother, one of the lines of poison has reached your heart. I have contained it, so it will not kill you…”
“But?” Quirinus prompted gently when she fell quiet.
“But, that seed of darkness poses a different danger. As small as it is, a drop only, it can corrupt. And as it has reached your heart, I cannot destroy it without destroying you.”
Quirinus brushed back her blue-black hair and smiled. “I will guard against it, baby sister. Do not fear for me.”
“You ask the impossible,” Cahira told him, offering a small smile of her own. “Because I love you, brother. Fear for another often accompanies love. Should you ever need me, call, and I will come to your aid.”
Nodding, Quirinus stepped away from her. He bowed to their Mother, basking again in the light of her love, then stepped through the portal to his personal realm.
2017 Portland, Oregon – Desaevio Tower, Storm Syndicate Headquarters
Anticipation – tightly reined – infused the silence of the thirteenth-floor meeting room. This would be the only time anyone not a member of the Shadow Council would be allowed inside, but the trio waiting for their guest’s arrival wanted to mark the occasion. Though only recently acknowledging the passage of time, they knew that in human years millennia had passed. But now, at long last, it was time. Their plans could finally advance.
This meeting, and its outcome, would determine their course going forward. And it was the Arnaud family who would be tested first. The two figures, hooded and cloaked in deep Prussian blue and sitting at the Council table, wondered if the family would prove worthy of the trust the Storm Syndicate gave them. Twins, Sebastian and Sabine’s thoughts often mirrored each other’s. They had the ability to communicate telepathically, but knowing each other as well as they did, neither truly felt the need often.
The third - currently calling himself Corin Desaevio - stood alone, his ice-blue gaze trained on the incomparable view of the Hawthorne Bridge as he thought about how much the world had changed since he had last been there. Sweeping natural vistas, the wild beauty of nature, had morphed into city skylines and dazzling lights. Man-made constructs, perhaps beautiful in their own way, were far different from his childhood memories. The voice, born of that seed of darkness planted during a long-ago battle and grown into his constant companion for so long now he barely recalled a time without it inside his mind, hissed a scathing denouncement of the progress of man.
Better progress than stagnancy, Corin replied, silencing the hissing voice momentarily. It was a truth the voice could not fight against because they would not be where they now stood without progressing themselves.
Before the voice could find something more to say, Corin sensed his secretary’s approach. Seconds later, a peremptory knock sounded before the secretary – a young lamia named Nadine – entered.
“Mr. Arnaud has arrived, Mr. Desaevio.”
We could corrupt her, the voice hissed with anticipatory glee. She would enjoy that very much.
“Send him in, Nadine,” Sebastian instructed from his seat at the table.
Too much. Corin ignored what was happening in the room behind him in favor of responding to that voice. His derision came through loud and clear in his thoughts. Lamia are sex witches. They need it to wield magic and even to maintain their health, so they hold little challenge.
A throat cleared nervously as the confident footsteps entering the room faltered and halted. The newcomer was unsure of where to go, toward the table or the man standing at the windows. Thus far, Corin’s first impression was not entirely favorable. He might exude ultimate authority. Even those with no ability to see or sense auras could not fail to sense his power. But that same air which told the newcomer Corin was the one in charge should also tell the man that, like a predator, he should never be approached. Especially without explicit permission.
Luckily, his children could be counted upon to set the newcomer straight. And did so now. Sebastian and Sabine had never let Corin down.
“Mr. Arnaud,” Sebastian began, face still hidden by the deep hood, “twenty-four years ago, you joined the Storm Syndicate. We supported your various businesses, aided you in dealing with your competition, and helped you continue operating under the radar of federal law enforcement.”
After a pregnant pause, Armand Arnaud swallowed and nodded. “The Syndicate has done a great deal for my family. We are all appreciative.”
Corin could almost hear the smirk in Sabine’s voice.
“While your appreciation is duly noted, we did not bring you here because we want to hear your toadying. When you joined the Syndicate, you gave your oath that you and your family would obey any commands the Shadow Council might give you. It seems your day of reckoning has arrived. We have orders we expect you and your family to carry out. Failure will bring consequences your family will not like.”
Corin heard a dossier slide down the length of the table. Moments later came the rustle of pages being flipped. Then Sebastian spoke again.
“We believe your two eldest children will be the best choices to act in this matter.”
A small package shushed across the table as Sebastian continued.
“Give the necklace inside this package to your daughter. She will need it to succeed in the main part of her mission.”
Arnaud spoke then. “There seems to be more than one objective for Amber to achieve.”
“One main objective, with another, secondary objective,” Sabine corrected. “The secondary objective, while we would like to obtain the Goddess Grimoire from the McKenzie Witch, is not as important as successfully completing the first part of the mission.”
Corin could hear the man choking on the word. Ah, so Arnaud had few dealings with species of Otherkind outside his own. If he wished to advance within the Syndicate, the man would need to get over his prejudice and fear. Arnaud’s next words had Corin stiffening.
“Should my daughter just kill this witch?”
“Only if she gets in the way,” Sebastian replied.
“If it becomes necessary to kill the McKenzie Witch, your daughter will do so swiftly and painlessly, without causing her any suffering.”
Though soft, Corin’s voice seemed to echo through the room, carrying his full authority behind the order. He heard Arnaud’s feet shuffle as the man turned toward him, but Corin continued staring out the window.
“If this grimoire is important to the witch, there’s a good chance it’ll be hidden. I doubt she’ll give up its location easily. We might need to resort to torture.”
Corin’s hands curled into fists so tight his knuckles turned white. His jaw clenched so hard the crack could be heard throughout the large room. Outside, lightning flashed, slicing from the slightly overcast sky down toward one of the city buildings.
“If you have the temerity to speak directly to the Father, at least do so with respect,” Sebastian snapped as thunder punctuated his words.
“I…” Arnaud swallowed. “Forgive me, Father. I was simply looking for clarity on how my daughter is to proceed in her mission.”
Corin did not acknowledge Arnaud’s apology. He was too busy trying to contain the rage coursing through his veins. Thankfully, Sabine spoke instead.
“If your daughter cannot easily or safely locate the grimoire, she is to abort that part of the mission. The primary objective is far more important. Now, I believe you have a flight back to New York to catch, Mr. Arnaud.”
“Yes. Thank you for your trust in my family,” Arnaud groveled as he backed toward the door, bowing his head. “I promise we won’t disappoint you.”
The door snicked shut, leaving silence to descend upon the room once again. But unlike the anticipatory air of earlier, this quickly became oppressive. Ominous. Eventually, Sebastian sighed.
“Father, the man does not know the McKenzie Witch is one of Cahira’s descendants. Few have that knowledge. You cannot kill Arnaud. He might be little more than a blunt instrument, but we need those sorts to do what we refuse to do.”
Corin snorted at his son’s assessment of Arnaud. A blunt, mindless brute, he certainly was.
“He did not even acknowledge the role his son was to play. And the son’s objectives are arguably even more important than what his daughter is meant to accomplish. Certainly, more important for the Shadow Council’s progression. The foolish man will no doubt leave his son to walk into the lion’s den unprepared. Arnaud has already failed his first test.”
He could feel both his children’s worry, so sought to alleviate it.
“You’re right, Sebastian. We need Arnaud alive right now. I won’t kill him.”
As his ice-blue eyes found Arnaud’s rental car as it pulled out of the parking garage, Corin heard Sebastian and Sabine’s sighs of relief. Yet Corin’s icy gaze followed the car as it drove toward the airport.