The Feather of Arke

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Feather of Arke“Are you all right?” the voice asked.  “Can you tell me your name?”

It was a man.  She heard him.  She couldn’t see him.  All she saw was the bright golden light.

“Do you think you can get up?” he asked.

She didn’t realize that she was down.  

“Zel.”

“What was that, miss?”

The bright golden light dimmed quite suddenly.  And she realized that her eyes were closed.  She opened them and blinked.

“My name,” she said.  “Zel.”  Her name was Itzel, but everyone save her mother called her “Zel.”  She wanted to say all of that, and give her last name, and ask the strangers who they were, but she was still trying to catch her breath.

She began to get the feeling back in her limbs and realized that she was lying on the ground.  The man who’d spoken was leaning over her.  He had a hand on her shoulder.  His hair was golden, but not like the light.  Beside him was a woman with a stethoscope in her ears.

“Stay calm, okay?” the man said.  “We’re here to help you.”  He smiled and gave her a firm nod.

That’s when Zel began to feel scared, not of him, or the other people she now saw moving around in her backyard, where she was lying.  She felt scared, because she had no idea what had just happened.  She couldn’t remember what she was doing out in the backyard, and how all those people had gotten into her apartment.  And she couldn’t answer the first question that she’d heard the man ask her, because she had no idea if she was all right.

***

Zel’s family waved to her from the viewing theater above the isolation room.  They were so far away, she could hardly make out their faces.  She had let the people who were in her apartment take her out and away.  She’d been too disoriented to realize that none of them were wearing uniforms.  She had ended up lying on a gurney in the back of a white van marked “Ambulance” with lights and a siren, with two of the business-suited people who’d been in her place.  When she asked who they were, they produced badges marked with the letters of some agency.  They gave her their names, though she forgot right away.  She couldn’t focus her thoughts, so she closed her eyes and lay back.

When they arrived at the hospital, it looked unfamiliar to her.  But she’d never been to her local hospital’s emergency room before.  They put her in a wheelchair and rushed her through a side entrance and straight onto an elevator that seemed to be going down not up.

She started feeling better bit by bit, though they did nothing to treat her.  They just rolled her into an examination room by herself.  When the people covered head to toe in hazard suits and sporting their own oxygen tanks showed up in her room, Zel was clear-headed enough to realize that she might have been exposed to something.  She put together a scenario.  She must have been exposed while she was out in the backyard.  She couldn’t remember yet why she was out there.  She’d been meaning to clean up a bit back there and maybe that’s what she was doing.  She must have collapsed and then…

How did they know I was in trouble? she wondered.  How did they find me?

She lived alone.  Her family had keys to her place, but none of them had been there.  She hadn’t noticed any of her neighbors being carted off though she saw a few out and about when the agents took her.  One of them saw her surrounded by all the dark suits and looked away.

Her room looked like the typical hospital suite save that the door remained locked and sealed.  She was told that she had to remain in the room until they ran some tests.  She was told that she might have been exposed to radiation.  She asked what type radiation and if anyone else was exposed.  But she received only apologies by those who were dealing with her directly.  They told her they were not authorized to let her know what was going on.  She was assured that she would have whatever she needed until the tests were complete, and then she would have all her questions answered, that her family had been contacted and were being escorted to the hospital to see her under controlled conditions, for their protection.

Zel spent a few days in quarantine.  Her condition didn’t change.  They brought in a potted plant and a Petri dish with some worms in it and asked her to wave her hands over the dish and touch the plant at certain intervals during the day.  Then they asked her if she was afraid of mice and if she’d mind having a couple in the room with her.  Zel cooperated and agreed to the requests.

The more she was able to get her bearings, the calmer she was able to make herself.  She realized what the plants and animals were all about.  They wanted to see if she was toxic.  But all the living things in her room, including herself, seemed no worse for wear save for being cooped up.  She didn’t start shouting questions out into the ether.  She waited until she could make a formal request to see someone in charge.  She was okay with people running tests on her to assure that she was safe and everyone around her was safe, but she had to know whether the people running those tests were trustworthy.  And she didn’t know anything at that point.  At least no one had come to interrogate her.

***

“My name is Mars Dietrich,” the agent said.  He was the one who had tried to bring her to her senses back at her apartment.

He sat across from her at a table bare of anything save a glass of water on her side and a folio with a blank notebook and pen before him.  Beside Agent Dietrich, was his boss, a formidable-looking lady whose name was Galingale.

“Thank you for letting me see my family.  And letting them see me.”  Zel wanted to stay on their good side.

Galingale smiled.  “We’re hoping you’ll do more than wave at them from behind glass after we speak here.”

“Ms. Hermida, we’d like to ask you some questions about what happened at your apartment,” Agent Dietrich said.  “Then we’ll tell you what we know and answer your questions as best we can.  I’m sure you’ll first want to know why we ran all those tests.  Some of them were to make sure you weren’t injured or hurt.  And some were to make sure you were safe to be around.

We thought you had been exposed to a rare and exotic form of radiation that has fairly recently been discovered and showed up in a few of our cases.  It’s pretty nasty stuff and the special detectors we have to find it went off when we got to your place.”  He held out his hand.  “You have not been exposed to that.”

Zel released the breath she’d been holding.  “But?”

He gave a nod.  “Yes, there’s a ‘but.’  Something made our sensors go off.  That’s why we’ve been subjecting you to all this testing.”

“You’re in here without any protection.  That’s good news, I hope.  But then, you’ve already been exposed to me, so…”

“No, you’re right.  We don’t need protection.  I don’t think anyone does, but we’re just being overly cautious by not exposing any new people to you yet, except for the director here.”  He tipped his head to his boss, who gave Zel a polite and professional smile.

“Until you’ve done more tests?” Zel asked.

“We’ve done the bulk of the tests.  Enough to have a high level of confidence that you’re not a threat to public health.  But as I said, something made our sensors go off.   Something that you share in common with the brick.”

“Brick?”

“What do you remember?”

“Nothing…before you came.”

“What’s the last thing you do remember?”

“Waking up with all of you walking around my place.  Before that…I woke up at around seven-thirty.  I got ready, had breakfast—cereal.”  Zel tried to think.

“What time was breakfast?”

“Before nine.  Maybe eight-thirty?”

“We found you at ten-twenty-three.”

“I’ve been trying to remember.”

“We know,” Agent Dietrich said.  “We know you’re sincere in cooperating.  And my next question to you is a request.  We need your help.  But we don’t know what will happen.  You might get knocked out again.”

“How?  Do you know how it happened?  Was anyone else affected?  My neighbors?”

“No, just you.  And the brick.”  Agent Dietrich pulled some photos out of his folio and slid them across the table.  “You were holding one half of it when we found you.”

Zel looked at the pictures and felt a twinge of recognition at the picture of her unconscious hand gripping the brick.

“Were all those bricks there when you moved in?” he asked.

“No, I bought them to line the perimeter of the fence.  The neighbor’s cats were squeezing in from underneath and using my backyard as their personal bathroom.  I was just trying to keep them out, and skunks and opossums.  I’ve touched every single one of those bricks a bunch of times.  Nothing like this has ever happened before.”

“There’s a reason for that,” Galingale said.

“We weren’t just running tests on you,” Agent Dietrich said.  “We tested every brick in your yard.  The rest are just bricks, but the one you were holding has a special property.  It’s the reason our detectors went off.  They’re picking something up.  That brick is vibrating with some kind of energy.  We can detect it, but we can’t identify it.  And then there’s the inscription and the fossil inside.  We’ll get to that, but first things first.”

Galingale locked gazes with Zel.  “Ms. Hermida,” she started.

“Zel, please.”

“In that case,” Agent Dietrich said, “call me Mars, or Dietrich.”

Galingale glanced between Zel and Dietrich.  “You can both continue addressing me as ‘Director.’”

Zel was already nervous about her situation getting the attention of the director.  The forced levity made Zel even more nervous about what bad news Galingale was going to break, and but also grateful that the person who seemed to be in charge had some people skills.

Director Galingale continued.  “Ms. Hermida, you too are vibrating with that same energy.  You have been since we found you.  From what we can surmise, it doesn’t seem to be hurting you, or anyone else.  And it doesn’t seem to be spreading to anyone you’ve come into contact with.  Now that’s short-term.  What this ’energy’ does and what affect it may have in the long term, we don’t know.”

“I feel okay,” Zel said.  Aside from the nausea in the pit of my stomach.

“The brick didn’t break by falling to the ground,” Dietrich said.  “You were holding half of it.  We think it cracked when you touched it.  And it split clean in half.  Inside the half you were holding was that.”  He pointed to the photograph that Zel was looking at, a scan that displayed an impression of something inside the brick half.  The impression of a feather.

“We did tests on it.  It’s not any modern bird.  So we thought, maybe it’s an ancient bird, or even a dinosaur feather.  But it didn’t match anything that’s in the known literature, or even any of the creatures that the general public doesn’t know about.”

Zel looked up at him and frowned.  “Like what?”

“Rare species,” Dietrich said, but his face flushed a bit.  “They’re kept from public knowledge for their own protection.  People have superstitions and try to hunt down some of these creatures for magical rites and supposedly magical body parts.”

The explanation sounded reasonable, but Zel concluded he was at least partly fibbing, and she wondered what that meant.

“We’re still looking into it.  And in the meantime, there’s the inscription.”  Dietrich pointed to a second photograph.  “When the brick cracked, the half that fell out of your hand broke into pieces.  That half had the inscription on it.  We managed to reconstruct it and clean up the smaller bits so we could see the characters clearly.”

Zel nodded and she read the inscription.  “’Find my sister and restore me to the whole.’”

She looked up and found both agents staring at her.

“You…just read the inscription,” the director said.  Her tone suggested that she wanted her words to be a question but was resistant for some reason.

Agent Dietrich too seemed to be frowning in confusion.  “It somewhat resembles the Greek alphabet, but our linguists couldn’t figure it out.  When they tried to assign modern Greek letters to the characters, the message it translated to was just gibberish.  So then we thought that that gibberish might be some kind of code.  The cryptologists are working on it.  But…you can read that?”

Zel glanced down at the photograph, at the familiar characters that looked nothing like Greek to her.  She glanced back up at the agents to gauge whether they were testing her.  “It’s in English.”

Agent Dietrich’s eyes widened and Zel could swear they glinted.  “It must be a spell,” he said.  “The words only reveal themselves to a specific person in that person’s native language.”

“Sounds like a complicated spell,” Galingale said.  “I’ve never heard of the like.”

“It’s the kind of thing usually attributed to larger than life types, like infamous wizards,” Dietrich said.

Zel looked between the two agents, certain now that they were playing some kind of mind game with her.  “Spell?”  She glared at them.  “What the hell is going on here?”

Dietrich looked at his boss, who nodded slightly as she held Zel’s gaze.

Dietrich cleared his throat.  “Our agency, like most government agencies, has its secrets.  Unlike most agencies, ours would be hard not to laugh at if they ever got out.  We investigate uncommon cases— the mystical, magical, supernatural, and ultra-scientifical.  There are things out there that we don’t know how to explain yet and some things that we may never make sense of.  And those things affect our lives every day, sometimes in good ways, sometimes bad.  We utilize all methods to investigate.  We keep an open mind.  Science, religion, magic, myth, fables, old wives tales.  There is truth in all those sources of information, if we can sift it out.  They are puzzle pieces.  Some of them might not fit anymore because they’ve been corrupted.  We’re telling you all this because your ability to read that writing means we won’t be able to figure this case out without you.  You’ve already given me a lead.  And the fact that you can read this writing means that there is a link between you and that brick.  And it’s quite probable that link will not break on its own.  We’ll have to figure this puzzle out.”

Zel looked down at the pictures, though she didn’t really look at the pictures.  Her eyes were glazed over as if she were in a trance.  She didn’t believe him.  She did believe him.  A brick in her backyard was some kind of supernatural thing.  She couldn’t think of what she would be doing at that moment if she hadn’t touched that brick.  Or what she would know and not know if she hadn’t touched that brick.

“How?” she said at last.  “How did it get there?”

***

“Thanks for agreeing to this,” Agent Dietrich said.

Zel absently nodded as she stared at the brick.  The half that was imprinted with the feather was in one glass case.  The feather was not visible with the naked eye.  The laboratory technicians had only found it when they scanned the brick.  The pictures they took were enhanced and colored to resemble what they thought it would look like if they were to further crack open the brick to access the fossil imprint.  They hadn’t yet done that.  The other half of the brick was broken into several large pieces and dozens of smaller bits.  It had been reassembled and glued together.  Zel read the inscription on the brick face.

Find my sister and restore me to the whole.  In plain English.  But when Zel asked, Dietrich claimed he didn’t see English.

It was the morning after the revelation from Agent Dietrich that much of the stuff that most reasonable people thought was make-believe was in fact real.  He seemed to be guiding her through some expected stages that people went through when they were initiated into agency knowledge.  He first asked her what she thought of what he’d said.  He had her sign some forms compelling her to secrecy about what he was about to show her, which confused Zel.  She wasn’t sure how the Agency could take her to court for revealing their secrets without admitting those secrets were true.  At best, they could call her a nuisance and a slanderer.

Dietrich met her doubt with some bit of proof, but he expected the proof to be unconvincing.  All he had was case files and videos that looked less impressive than a modern fictional movie.  He didn’t have authorization to show her more than that.  He told her that until she had first-hand experience of something beyond the realm of her comprehension, she probably wouldn’t believe.

Zel had wanted to.  Like many young people, she’d wanted all of it to be true, aliens, vampires, doorways to fairy lands, even ghosts.  But as she grew up, she realized there were enough challenges in the world without competition from some preternatural being with inhuman powers.  And enough inexplicable horrors and wonders without the need for vampires and unicorns.  And wanting something to be real did not make it so.  In time, she became glad for it.  Such creatures and phenomena belonged in stories, to help people escape the woes and mundanity of their lives, or help them cope or learn through the metaphors that the fantastical represented.

Something had happened to her in her backyard that day.  She wanted to know what.  She was more than willing to perform the experiment and repeat the experience.  And she had to admit to herself that Agent Dietrich’s company was pleasant enough to offset the constant unease she otherwise felt.  She supposed his agency was no less legitimate than the one that monitored the stars for signs of extraterrestrial life.  And she wanted to believe that the Agency was privately funded and only regulated by the government as Dietrich had claimed.  She would have been livid to learn that she was paying taxes so someone could go chasing after goblins.

“I started looking at the myths,” Dietrich said.  “There is much that is vague in myths.  It’s still unclear if they are to be taken literally or figuratively or a bit of both, or if what really happened is even more fantastical than what was passed down to us.  So, it’s usually the last source I look at.  We don’t, of course, have samples of the feathers of mythical birds or beings to compare, but we have some fairly good descriptions.  It could be a phoenix feather, or the feather of a quetzlcoatl, or garuda.”

Zel didn’t know what any of those were, but she couldn’t help being swept up in Dietrich’s excitement.

“It could be a feather from a winged horse or some other hybrid creature.  Then there are human-like beings.  Angels are often depicted with wings, and they’re not my area of expertise, but I don’t think they have actual wings.  I could be wrong.  I’d be surprised if that was an angel feather though.  There are messenger deities that have or may have wings or feathers.  It’s worth looking at Mercury, Hermes, and the like.  Actually, since the letters look Greek, we should start with the Greek myths.”

A technician in a white lab coat came and unlocked the glass case containing the brick half with feather inside.

“Maybe you should sit down,” Dietrich said, pulling a chair forward.

“Good idea.”  Zel sat down.  She felt a surge of nervousness and excitement at the prospect of touching the brick.  She hoped she didn’t pass out again.  But she also hoped that something would happen.

Zel reached into the glass case.  She took a long breath in and a long breath out.  Then she grasped the brick.

***

When the snap of force struck her hand, Zel was prepared for it this time.  It was like being shocked by a huge surge of static electricity.  Zel had never been shocked by anything stronger, but she imagined the feeling might be similar.  Still, she couldn’t help but to cry out.  She frowned in annoyance.  Then she gasped.

Dietrich held his hand out, ready to grab the brick away.  “What is it?  Are you okay?”

“Wait…I remember something.”  It came back to her.

She did go to clean up her backyard after breakfast.  The bricks were in disarray from a recent fence remodel.  The leaves needed raking.  Weeds needed pulling.  It was the first time in several months that she had touched the bricks.  When she touched one in particular, she felt something like a spark so sudden that she jerked her hand back.  The brick split open cleanly in the center.  She cautiously picked both halves up, one in each hand.   On one, there was some lettering.  But before she could read it a bright golden light appeared above her.  Brighter than the morning sun and brighter than a blazing fire.  She squinted and looked.  She heard a sound, like singing, but she couldn’t make out the words.  She suddenly felt dizzy and dropped to her knees.  She didn’t remember dropping one of the brick halves, but that must have been when it happened.  She remembered propping herself up with one hand.  And feeling so nauseated that she wanted to lie down right then and there.

“The next thing I remember is coming to and hearing your voice,” Zel said.

She only then noticed that there were three technicians surrounding her with instruments, taking readings.  She considered the brick in her hand.  She thought she felt the feather inside it.  Or she felt that something was inside it.  It couldn’t be.  The inside of the brick held only the impression of what was once there.  And even that was a mystery.  Zel put the brick back into the glass case.

“They’re going to want me to lie down in some machine or other, aren’t they?” Zel asked.

“If you’re up for it.  But if you need to rest—”

“I’ll rest after.   Everything we do just seems to uncover more questions.”

Dietrich put a hand on her shoulder.  “Don’t speak too soon.  You gave us a bunch of puzzle pieces.  Give me some time to try and put the pieces together if I can.”

***

“I’m still vibrating,” Zel said, having nothing much else to report.  It was the following day.  She, Dietrich, and Director Galingale were once again gathered in the room where they had first questioned Zel.  She had thought of it as an interrogation room then, but now she noticed that the table was a nice wooden table, and a side table still held a flat pink box with a few donuts inside from a morning meeting.  Zel took one before taking a seat.  She knew the scientists and technicians would have submitted their reports from the previous day, but she gave a brief assessment in her own words.  She was still in good health.  There didn’t seem to be any unusual activity while she’d been holding the brick, other than some slight cracking, because she was vibrating at the same frequency as the brick.  Zel had noticed this and had decided to put the brick down before she got in trouble for breaking it.

Dietrich, on the other hand, had indeed put some of the puzzle pieces together.

He told them about the messenger deities from the ancient world, particularly ancient Greece.  They didn’t just carry messages, but they seemed able to traverse many realms, even dreams, and the afterlife.  And they were often the swiftest beings known in all creation.  There was Mercury, who had winged sandals and a winged helmet, Iris, who was the goddess of the rainbow, and they both sounded familiar to Zel.  But there was one she had never heard of, and neither had the director.  Dietrich seemed to expect that and relished telling them.

“Her name was Arke,” he said.  “She was the lesser known twin sister of Iris.  And it’s no surprise that she was lesser known.  Before the gods, there were titans who ruled the earth.  When war broke out between the two races, Arke turned against the gods and joined the titans to be their messenger. When the gods won, she was punished, stripped of her wings, and cast down into the underworld.

“That’s all common knowledge.  According to Agency records, there are three prophecies concerning the banished messenger god that contain details beyond the ones that are commonly known.  Two of the prophecies are from the ancient world and one is rather recent.  They all say the same thing.  That Arke saved a feather from each wing and hid them before the gods came to punish her, so that her powers would not be completely stolen by the gods.

“Her wings were given as a wedding gift to a couple who would later sire one of the greatest heroes known in myth.  The couple in turn gave the wings to this son of theirs.  It’s not know what happened to them after that.”

“What makes you sure that the fossil impression in the brick was from a feather that belonged to this goddess?” Galingale asked.

“The riddle.  ‘Find my sister and restore me to the whole.’  The term sister suggests the feather belongs to a female being.  And the double-meaning is that we should look for the feather’s sister.  I think if we crack open that brick, it won’t be a fossilized impression we’ll find.  It’ll be the feather.  And I think this feather itself is a piece of a puzzle, and that puzzle is the wings of Arke.”

“You think if we find them both, we can find the wings?” the director asked.

“But that doesn’t make sense,” Zel said.  “The wings weren’t lost back then.  So the feathers must have served some other purpose.  Maybe Arke did just mean to hide them forever so that whoever owned the wings wouldn’t have full use of her powers.  Maybe they weren’t meant to be found.  Think about it.  If someone found the feathers, wouldn’t the gods have seen it?  Wouldn’t they have just taken the feathers?”  She couldn’t believe she was talking about the ancient gods and their schemes as if they were real historical figures.  But at the same time, she couldn’t help being caught up in the story.  And Dietrich’s conclusion about the feather’s identity seemed sound.  If this goddess Arke existed, then the feather in the brick was surely hers.

“That may be have been true back then,” Dietrich said.  “But I’m pretty sure that someone wants that feather found now.  That brick ended up in your backyard somehow.  Maybe you were chosen.  Or maybe anyone who touched the brick would have become…imprinted by it.  I think what’s happened is that by touching the brick, you inherited a quest.”

“To find the second feather, and the wings, which in our time are lost,” Galingale said.

“If that’s all true, then the question becomes, who wants the feathers and the wings to be found, and why?”

Galingale exhaled.  “Please don’t tell me there’s another war brewing in the heavens.”

“What about that bright light?” Dietrich said.  “That sounded like it could be some kind of visitation by a celestial being.”

Zel thought she felt her blood pressure climb.  “Please don’t say that.”

“Sometimes people report feeling the being’s intentions.  You didn’t report anything, but thinking back, did you feel any malevolence from the light, or benevolence?”

“No, but it knocked me out.  Doesn’t that mean it’s a bad thing?”  Zel felt the hairs on her neck rise.

“Not necessarily.  In many of the tales of celestial beings, the beings had to cover their magnificence somehow before appearing before mortals.  If they don’t do that, we’re unable to handle it.  Our eyes might literally burn from witnessing the visage.  Or our ears might burst from hearing the sound of the being’s voice.  If you only got some nausea and not even a nosebleed, I’d say the being was holding back.  It might not have realized until you passed out that your senses were overwhelmed.  And then it backed off.”

“Still, if we can detect the energy vibrating off you and off that brick,” Galingale said, “then other parties, some of them dangerous, may be able to do the same.  We’ll have to keep you safe.”

“But if we find the other feather and the wings, I can hand them over to you, and I’ll be done, right?  I’ll stop…vibrating?  I won’t be a target?”

“We can’t know for sure.”

“Well I’m all for trying.  I don’t want to live like this for the rest of my life.  I want to see my family and friends.  I even want to get back to work.”

***

“Zel!”

The fierce whisper followed the shaking.  Someone was shaking her.  Zel sat up in bed.  She reached for the lamp and turned it on to find Dietrich kneeling beside her bed.

He was wide-eyed and wearing uncharacteristically casual t-shirt and sweat pants.  “Come on, we’ve got to go.  Now!”

“What’s happening?”

“Something is attacking the complex.  We got a distress call from the east wing.  Galingale ordered me to get you out of here.”

Her heart racing, she stopped only to grab her coat and shoes.  Dietrich wouldn’t let her pack any belongings.  He told her they would return once the situation was contained.

In the hallway, there were people moving quickly but quietly toward the emergency exits.  There was no alarm.  Zel didn’t know how they knew to evacuate.  A couple of agents who were going in the opposite direction, obviously having been called in to engage whatever was happening, slowed when they saw Dietrich and asked him what was going on and if something had gotten out.  He said he didn’t know.

Dietrich and Zel took the stairs and at the landing to the next level, they were met by a familiar-looking technician.  He handed Dietrich a cloth lunch bag and with only a nod, he joined the stream of evacuees.  Dietrich passed the bag to Zel.

“The bricks,” he said.  And they continued on.

The halls were brightly lit.  All of a sudden, they began to brighten even more.  Zel stopped suddenly.  She clutched Dietrich’s arm.

A bright golden glow filled the hallway.  People began to gasp in surprise and as the glow became unbearable, they threw their arms up before their eyes and dropped to the ground.

Dietrich pulled a weapon from somewhere behind himself and aimed it at the light.  He fired and rather than bullets, pulses of light or energy burst forward toward the light.  As if in answer, a pulse of energy burst from the golden light in all directions and knocked down everyone who wasn’t already on the floor.  Zel was one of them.  She was thrown against the corridor wall.  People began to cry out and scream then.  They began to crawl and stumble away.

The bag in Zel’s hands had fallen to the ground and the bricks spilled out.  Both halves were now broken into several pieces.  Zel instinctively reached for a piece and as she grasped it, the wave of nausea that she’d begun to feel broke, and she felt at once clear-headed and balanced.  She lifted up the brick piece and rose.  Dietrich was on the other side of the corridor, lying on his back, with his eyes closed, and both hands on his weapon.  He was shouting something, but Zel couldn’t hear.  He wasn’t firing, and when she saw how many other people in the hallway were stumbling to and fro, she understood.  Dietrich couldn’t see.  He couldn’t risk hitting an innocent bystander.

Zel could see clearly.  The light was still bright and golden, but she could bear it.  She had no weapon.  All she had was a piece of brick in her hand.  She threw it at the light and as soon as she did, the nausea returned.  She gathered up some more pieces of brick and began to throw them. As long as she was touching them, she could bear the golden light.  It didn’t seem hurt by the bricks, but it started moving toward Zel.

Zel backed away.  She curled her fingers around a large chunk of brick.   She squeezed and it suddenly burst and she felt something different in her hand.  She uncurled her fingers and saw, covered in dust, but gleaming in many colors, a bright and beautiful feather.

She looked up at the glowing light, and with the feather in her hand, she saw and she heard.

***

“You did it,” Dietrich said as Zel knelt down before him.  He opened his eyes and watched the golden light departing.  “You got the thing.”

Zel shook her head.  “No, you were right.  That light wasn’t trying to hurt me, or anyone else here.  It came—she came to warn us.”

“She?”

“Are you hurt?  Can you fight?”

“No.  Yes.”

Zel started walking back the way they’d come and toward the east wing.  Dietrich followed.

“The people in this hallway should be okay.  The people in the east wing won’t be if we don’t get there fast enough.  Do you have any weapons with silver?”

“Of course.”

They had to sprint to the east wing.  There was no time for Zel to explain what she wanted to explain to Agent Dietrich.  She only gave him the basics.  The creature that was savaging the east wing was looking for her, for Zel, the bearer of the feather.  It drank the light and left only pitch dark in which it could not be see, not by any kind of device or spell.  But it wasn’t just the light of candles and bulbs that it extinguished.  It also extinguished the light of life.  Like many vile and unclean creatures, it could be harmed by silver.  But the creature could only be killed by one thing alone.  The very thing it sought.  If it had reached Zel before she had found the feather, before she had cracked it open and claimed it, it might have extinguished her life.

She later remembered seeing the fallen agents and praying that all of them were only wounded.  Through the darkness, she saw the thing.  It had no true shape and yet it was all sharp corners.  It had no features and yet she felt as if its eyes were on her.

Dietrich couldn’t see in the dark, but she would make light for him.  Just long enough for him to strike and weaken it.  They gathered a few other agents along the way and gave them each the emergency light sticks.  The creature was in one of the labs.  They halted just outside the door.  And when Zel signaled to Dietrich, he signaled to the agents.  They all lit up their sticks and tossed them inside.

The creature devoured the sticks in a blink.  Zel almost didn’t have time.  If she had hesitated for a breath, she would missed her chance.  But while the thing was occupied, for just that blink of an eye, she stepped inside and raised the feather up.  It wrapped itself around her middle finger like a ring.  She felt a sudden heaviness behind her right shoulder that made her tip to her right.  First it was just her hand that was surrounded by light, then her, then the light pushed outward and filled the laboratory.  There was one working security camera.  She would later see that she was sporting a single wing on her right side, and how beautiful that wing was.  It glowed like milky moonlight, but the wing itself and the feathers that comprised it were iridescent.

Zel could feel it at once, the thing, drinking up the light.  It was draining the very life out of her.  She thought it would look like a shadow, but in the light, it appeared to be pale, and gaunt.  It almost vanished against the gray-white walls of the lab.  It had no eyes, ears, mouth.  It only had gaping pores along its pale many-limbed body, which rose up to the ceiling like some nightmarish tree.  And all the light that Zel was making was being sucked into those pores.

Dietrich didn’t hesitate either.  As soon as he saw the thing, he began to fire silver bullets at it.  And Zel felt some relief.  She felt the light-eating creature weaken.  She walked forward, her heart racing.  The creature’s limbs curled toward her with those gaping pores, like hundreds of hungry mouths.

Zel reached out with her right hand, the hand with the feather ring wrapped around her finger.  She pressed it against the creature.  Her hand was struck by a shocking cold and then a sudden burning.  She felt tears dripping from the corners of her eyes.  The creature began to recoil.  But she stepped forward and pressed harder.  The weight behind her right shoulder shifted up adding weight to her as she leaned into the creature.  She felt stronger.  It wasn’t drinking her light anymore.  She did not relent.  She could not.

The thing began to wither.  Its flesh dried and crackled.  The tips of its limbs turned to dust and drifted to the ground.  From tip to root, the thing shriveled.  Zel did not remove her hand until the trunk disintegrated and all that was left was gray dust.

***

“None dead so far, but there are still a few not accounted for,” Dietrich said, handing Zel a bottle of water.  They were in an evacuation area on the lawn outside the east wing.  There were already tents set up.

Zel was relieved that no dead had been found, but stricken that some had been maimed and four, including the director, were at the hospital.  The thing that had attacked them killed by drinking the light.  Dietrich, Zel, and the agents that helped them saved all those lives by killing the creature.  After the thorough decontamination procedure that Zel and other people in the east wing underwent, she actually felt cleansed.

“She didn’t say who she was,” Zel said, pulling the blanket closer.

Dietrich took a sip of his coffee.  “Who?  The golden light?”

Zel nodded.  “But I think I know.  I think it was her sister.  I think it was Iris.”

Dietrich shook his head.  “We’ve had some pretty major dignitaries visit this field office, but never a god.”

“She came to warn us that an enemy would attack.  But she didn’t say who that was.  She only said, ‘An old enemy risen as a new enemy.’  She told me how to defeat the creature.”

“My recent cases have suggested some raised stakes in our struggle with evil.  Still, I’ve dealt with a lot of creatures of darkness, but never anything like that.”

“It came straight from the underworld,” Zel said.  “’From a deep pit into which only the worst of the worst souls are thrown.  It doesn’t belong here any more than a mortal belongs in the heavens.’”

“She said that?”

Zel nodded.

“Then she may not be a friendly after all.”

“I can’t handle this,” Zel said.  She turned to him.  “But I have to.  I have to find out who the hell left that brick in my place and why.  Who sent that creature and why.  And we have to find that second feather.”

“Did she tell you what will happen when we do?”

“No, but I think we got a taste of what will happen if we don’t.”

Dietrich took a breath and wrapped his hand around Zel’s hand.  “I don’t know why this burden came to you, Zel, but you won’t carry it alone.  Not so long as the Agency’s around.  And not so long as I’m around.”

Zel felt a small spark in the center of her hand.  It was the feather reacting to Dietrich.  The spark traveled up her arm and into her chest and she felt a feeling she had not felt in long while.

It was hope.

 

Copyright © 2015 Nila L. Patel

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