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Near the Piazza di San Marco Venice, Italy C.E. March, 2011
It was a nightmare beyond imagining.
Edmondo Vincherra ran through the back streets of Venice, the narrow, winding strada that spider-webbed throughout the waterborne city. His heart thudded in his chest, his head spun with the horror he had witnessed. It was true! The Japanese scientist had spoken the truth!
Edmondo had thought the man drunk with grief over what had happened to his country, maybe even a little crazy. Who wouldn't be? He had come to attend some kind of conference being held in Venice to speak of his experience. Japan had just suffered a terrible earthquake and its accompanying tsunami. A horrible disaster! Thousands had been killed, including the scientist's brother. A nuclear power plant had been put in jeopardy.
But what Edmondo had seen for himself, what he had photographed, had been something beyond understanding. Lenora had convinced him the man might be telling the truth, convinced Edmondo to go and get proof of the scientist's claims of what he had seen. And now ... and now ...
Gasping for breath, he stopped just at the edge of the Piazzo di San Marco. A noise sounded behind him, slithering and wet. One or more of the things, the mostros he had observed with his own eyes, were hunting him!
He darted out onto the piazza, empty at this early morning hour. Even the ubiquitous pigeons, as much a part of the square's ambiance as its history and architecture, were asleep. A half-moon's glimmering light pierced the cloud cover to illuminate the Basilica di San Marco, the Doge's Palace and the Campanile. In the checkered light, the three monumental structures loomed like silent, shadowy sentinels. The bars, restaurants and shops lining the sides of the plaza were dark.
Once again, Edmondo tried to call his employer on his cell phone and again there was no answer. Damn you, Lenora! he thought frantically. Where the hell are you? He stopped at the base of the Campanile, looking around wildly. Calm down, calm down.I've got to get the pictures to a safe place. In the light of the half-moon, he began to email the photos he had taken with his phone to his work account on his office PC.
Just as he was finishing, a whispering of air, like the drawing of lace curtains, rustled overhead. He looked up to see a dark, winged shape blotting out the moonlight and plummeting straight down.
"No!" he cried as he stumbled backward. "My God!"
Something powerful slammed into him. Edmondo fell to the plaza floor, his head striking its hard surface. His vision blurred and he felt blood trickling down the side of his head. An iron grip encircled his arms and jerked him upright. Edmondo screamed as the sickeningly sweet breath of his attacker overwhelmed him. Huge, leathery wings enfolded him in a tight cocoon as he was pulled close to a sleek inhuman body.
A snake-like hissing echoed in his ears; a sandpaper-rough tongue licked his neck. As the wings abruptly unfurled from around him, Edmondo was shoved viciously against the hard brick of the Campanile. A taloned hand grasped his throat to keep him from falling at the base of the bell tower. He could feel the claws prick his neck.
He was barely conscious. In such a condition, was he simply imagining things? Was he hallucinating all of this? No, his pain was real. The mostros were real — the nightmarish figure stood in front of him, its demon-face only inches from his.
Holy Mother of God. It was one of the creatures he had seen at the abandoned building! Tall and naked, with a lean, human female-like body and a mouth full of sharp fangs, the creature sported wings and a tail and glittering red eyes. It looked like a demon from Hell! Fool, fool! Why had he come tonight by himself? Why hadn't he called the polizia immediately when he found the gathering of mostros the Japanese scientist had described?
Damn Lenora and her ideas! And damn me for giving in so easily! He couldn't help it. He would do anything for her. His feelings for her had grown to more than friendship, hopelessly so.
The creature released its hold on Edmondo, allowing him to crumple to the tiled surface. Gasping, his head spinning, he tried to crawl, to get to his feet.
He stopped and looked around. The space surrounding the Campanile had changed. A shimmering of the very air itself formed a border, a periphery, some kind of boundary between where he lay and the outside world. Dark magia had been wrought here.
That was when he saw the others.
Some of the mostros walked like men. Others came crawling, shambling, scuttling or slithering out of the shadows surrounding this special ... 'place.' Things with multiple eyes and limbs, bloated heads, pale skin and translucent bodies moved purposefully toward him, eerily quiet.
A surge of fear and disbelief overwhelmed Edmondo. He began to weep, rolling himself into a fetal position, praying to a God he didn't even believe in. From one half-open eye, he saw the creature that had caught him take a step closer on taloned feet.
"Hold, Marceeka," a soft male voice intoned. "You have done well, but this one must not be harmed."
A person! A human being! Surely now, he would be rescued from this horror! Edmondo looked up to glimpse his savior. A hooded figure stood above him, hands clasped within the folds of its billowing sleeves. "Edmondo Vincherra," the man said in a voice deep and tremulous. "I'm afraid you're going to have to come with me."
"Come ... with ... you?"
"Indeed." The hooded man spread his hands outward now, light glinting off abnormally long fingernails. "You must be presented to the High Circle of the Primi Signori. Those of the Maghi must make their judgment on your actions."
The Primi Signori. The First Lords of the Maghi. It was a nightmare after all! "No, please ..." At that moment, another figure appeared behind the hooded one — the Japanese scientist Edmondo had talked with! The man smiled vacuously at Edmondo, his eyes blank and staring. Now wearing a simple button-down shirt rather than the turtleneck sweater he had before. A mark, a wound of some kind scarring the man's neck, was plainly visible.
A trap! Edmondo had been tricked!
As the winged creature named Marceeka reached down to pull him to his feet, Edmondo Vincherra opened his mouth to scream.CHAPTER 2
Pittsburgh International Airport Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania C.E. April, 2011
"Your plane's right on time," Kim Yoshima said, looking up at the Arrival/Departure board. "And the weather's supposed to be nice in Venice."
"I don't care if it snows there," Jenny Sibulovich said, spreading her arms wide. "Just being in Venice, Italy in the first place will be enough!"
Kim smiled at her friend. Both women stood in the Pittsburgh Airport's Landside Terminal in front of the security lines. Kim had accompanied Jenny and her husband, Lazo, to see them off on their first European trip. Jenny was participating in the third annual International Popular Physics Conference as a presenter and could barely control her excitement. "You know I'm jealous, yes?" Kim teased.
"Oh, please," Jenny replied, rolling her eyes. "You've been to medieval Japan and back. This trip is nothing compared to that!"
"Yes," Kim replied. "And it was free too!" Both women laughed as Jenny's husband, Lazo, walked out of the City of Bridges Café with a coffee cup in each meaty hand. "Laughin' at my expense again, I see," the big man said with a heavy sigh. "Oh, the humanity."
"You know, honey," Jenny said in a mock serious voice as she took one of the coffees, "not everything's about you."
"What?" Lazo exclaimed incredulously, handing the other cup over to Kim. "Since when?"
"Since you went underground and became a bookworm," Kim cracked. "Not very glamorous now, is it?"
"I'm outnumbered and surrounded," Lazo said, rolling his eyes. "I surrender."
Kim grinned over her steaming mocha as she studied her two very different looking friends. Tall, broad Lazo with the unkempt, longish gray hair, wore jeans and a T-shirt that looked like he'd slept in them. Also tall, but slim, red-haired Jenny dressed in a silk short-sleeve shirt, jeans and sneakers. The early spring weather in Pittsburgh had been surprisingly mild, allowing for everyone to dress down a little.
The Sibulovichs had been through the best and worst with Kim during their twenty-year friendship. Especially in the last few months since Kim had had her "impossible adventure" through time. The low-dose anti-anxiety medication she had finally agreed to take had indeed helped as her Shuugouteki counselor, Mara Gellini, had hoped. Kim always felt good with Lazo and Jenny regardless; her dark moods and uncertainty faded away in their company.
Especially now — the consequences of the horrible events in Japan that had happened last month were being felt world-wide. The aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami and the danger to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station still made the news twenty-four/seven. From what her grandmother had told her before she died, Kim had no family in Iwate prefecture. Nevertheless, the disaster weighed heavily on her mind.
As a result, she was going to miss Lazo and Jenny for the next two weeks. A lot.
"Thanks again for mannin' the store while we're gone, Kim," Lazo said, interrupting her reverie. "There's no one else I trust more to keep things runnin'."
Kim ran her hand through her black hair, which now fell below the neck of the light sweater she wore. It had felt good to grow it out after having cut it short for so long. Absently touching the small purse slung over one shoulder, she smiled at Lazo. "No problem. What else does another retired cop have to do? Besides, your library's too valuable a resource to leave closed for very long. I'm heading there to meet Shioko and open up right after this."
"You could have come with us," Jenny said. "For you to speak to the conference about your experiences would cause quite a stir in the scientific community. Quantum physics would never be the same. You might even get to guest star on The Big Bang Theory!"
"If I could prove I was telling the truth," Kim replied with just a trace of irritation. She and Jenny had gone over this before. No one besides the Shuugouteki and a handful of select others knew the full extent of what had happened last year. "You know I'd just look like a fool no matter how much you'd back me up. Plus, staying here and working at the Book Haven will give Shioko and me something to do besides arguing."
"I understand. But Shioko will come around, Kim," Jenny said. "I know it's been rough, and it's easy for me to say, but she just needs a little more time."
Time, Kim thought with more than a little irony. That's part of the problem. It's been ten months! At least my PTSD is a little more manageable.
"Have the Shuugouteki been any help?" Lazo asked.
Kim shrugged. "Some, but Shioko has pushed them away too. It's been a while since she's attended one of their so-called debriefing sessions."
The first two or three months living with Shioko had been fine, fantastic actually, despite Kim's own problems, but lately things had begun to sour. Until Lazo had hired Shioko to help Kim work in his "Old Books and Research Haven" while Lazo and Jenny were in Italy, her young friend hadn't been able to hold a job (if she even wanted to). It seemed she really hadn't made any friends and, after the first couple of times she had met with Jackson and other members of the Shuugouteki, she had withdrawn, avoiding further contact.
Jenny stepped up and hugged Kim. "We'll get together when we get back. Laz and me, you and Wayne and Shioko. We'll figure something out."
"That would be great," Kim replied tentatively. Her relationship with Wayne Brewster had hit a rough patch recently as well. Wayne hadn't been the most receptive to social outings in the first place. She needed to talk to him first — about a lot of things.
Hnading his coffee to Jenny, Lazo engulfed Kim in a big embrace. "Hang in there, Kim," he said. "Remember — you helped bring down the warlord Omori and saved the world. Everything else is just small stuff!"
"Thanks, guys," Kim said, forcing a smile, remembering the nightmares, the panic attacks, the mood swings. "Hey, the security lines are pretty long. You two should get going in case you get held up. Don't want to miss that flight!"
(Someone is watching me.)
A strange sensation came over Kim, startling in its intensity. She turned to look up at the second level concourse where the ticket and baggage check-in stations were located. Odd, she thought and then turned back to see that Lazo and Jenny had gotten in line at the security checkpoint.
"Be safe!" Kim called out and then sighed, her thoughts returning to Shioko. Sometimes she thought battling mythological monsters and fanatical warlords was a lot easier than trying to help a young, disillusioned girl displaced in time. Especially when there were no experts to consult! Who had that type of experience? True, the Shuugouteki were trying, but with little success.
Kim turned to exit the terminal and go back to the airport parking lot when her smart phone vibrated in its belt-clip on her jean-clad hip. Someone had sent her a text message. She sighed as she saw it was from her nephew, Bobby. He wasn't supposed to be contacting her. Hi, Aunt Kim, the message read. Soccer on Satday. Can U come?
I'll try, kiddo, she texted back, knowing she wasn't supposed to reciprocate either. I'll talk 2 ur parents.
Almost instantly, Bobby's answer came back. Plz dont tell them. U know what theyll say. Just come. Plz.
Kim looked down. Damn this whole situation! Her brother Ken and his cold-as-ice wife were forbidding their eleven-year-old son, Bobby, to visit with his favorite aunt. Kim was "irresponsible" and had "put Bobby in danger," Ken had said, referring to the attack on Lazo's Book Haven last year (A break-in by gang members had been the cover story). Yes, it had been a frightening situation, but Kim and Bobby were close and she was anguished by his forced absence. She wondered how her nephew was getting away with texting her, knowing Ken would probably be checking his son's phone records.
Okay, honey. I'll see what I can do.
Her bad mood returning, she re-clipped her phone to her belt and continued walking. Kim was almost at the airport's enclosed, moving walkway when that strange feeling came over her again.
(I'm being followed.)
Placing her fingers against her temples, she shook her head. If I didn't know better, she thought. I'd swear I'm getting a — what did Lazo call it once upon a time? A pre- emergent hunch. Like with the shadow-tracker in the warehouse.
But how could that be? Her psychic powers had been wiped out, destroyed when Kim manipulated the timelines to send Shioko back to medieval Odawara. Had her powers truly dissipated or just been suppressed?
There was a time, not so long ago, when she had prayed to regain those powers, that she was addicted to them and needed them in order to be whole again. But now that she was better, was reclaiming those powers still what she wanted?
Without thinking, she turned and walked back into the Landside Terminal and got on the escalator to the second level concourse. She was experiencing a feeling, an intuition that she just couldn't ignore, no matter what it was.
As she stepped onto the second level, that feeling got stronger and more recognizable. She had been a cop for twenty years and recognized it — only it was much more intense — she was being watched, possibly followed.
She walked briskly, looking around at the crowds in line to check their baggage or get their boarding passes at the various airline counters and kiosks. The electronic display boards hanging above glittered like the Vegas strip. The announcements for arrivals and departures blared overhead. A buzz of conversation surrounded her.
Still, she could follow this ... mental scent as though a trail of breadcrumbs were laid out before her. Just like before when her latent esper abilities had exploded within her.
A sudden tingling sensation danced across the back of her head. Kim gasped at the familiarity of it, of how it reminded her of when she possessed her 'gift of the mind.' She turned to see a tall, long-haired man wearing a baseball cap and ill-fitting clothes getting on the down escalator.
He was the one! Kim threw her half-empty coffee cup in the nearest trash can and sprinted back the way she had come. Running for the escalator, she sidestepped an elderly man using a walker alongside his companion. Where? There! Baseball-Cap was already at floor level and exiting the terminal. He had obviously run down the escalator, which Kim did also, hurriedly excusing herself to those people ahead of her.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Warriors of the Light"
Copyright © 2011 Larry Ivkovich.
Excerpted by permission of IFWG Publishing International.
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