The true awareness of the plight of the world to me was like new, the mundane trappings of my mortal affairs fading away in the light of the ancient concerns of my supernatural companions; after more than a hundred years and three generations the Red Death had finally come... that which spawned the plague of the Black Death which decimated half of Europe in the early mid-fourteenth century, the killer of prostitutes on the streets of London, and the premiere nemesis of the powerful matrilineage of Volund magi, was finally here to fulfill it's destiny with programmed efficiency; the destruction of Akira Volund-Grafton—now known as Akihiro Asano—and his savior Freyja, here, in North America. Why? I and my associates at the Covenant, who's task it is to watch and record, but not interfere with these events, strongly believe that the Red Death intends to ensure it's own physically manifested survival with the corrupted flesh of innocents, a survival which the Vann family has dedicated themselves to resisting.
I am troubled at the ease with which the Death had nearly claimed the lives of Akihiro and Amara, the last survivors of the Volund line, by attempting to cause their plane to crash yesterday. It was most assuredly the Red Death, striking at them for the first time since I brought Freyja to the North American continent from Egypt; how else can one explain a sudden heart attack in a pilot with no prior history of health problems?
The Red Death had come to the land of the free, and none of us at the Covenant knew from behind which face it would hide this time...
From the journal of Israel Vanderbilt
January 13, 2014
Holly Hutchison's sleek luxury automobile airframe roared through the main gate, streaked across the tarmac to the museum hangers just underneath the obsolete Second World War-era control tower and settled amidst the parked emergency vehicles on a cushion of air beyond the gathered throngs of museum-goers. Law enforcement personnel held them in check in an attempt to curtail the tourist's eagerness to be the personal witnesses to an imminent tragedy. As the airframe's powerful hoverfans cycled down to idle mode, two of the officers made their way to the airframe's landing site, looks of indignation evident on their faces. She turned the airframe's computer over to the control of the TrafficNet, debelted herself and exited underneath the rising canopy of the driver's side door.
The officers approached, hands on their riot-control sticks, as she pulled The Badge from underneath the jacket of her severe business suit. Both leather-clad cops looked half her age, the solid streak of gray that adorned the bangs of Holly's otherwise raven black hair notwithstanding. "Lady, what in the hell do you think you're doing parking your aerocar here? We're about to have an emergency--"
The Badge flashed into existence from her hand. "Doctor Holly Hutchison, kid—National Security Agency. What the hell is going on?"
As the first officer inspected The Badge with his gloved hand while it was still clutched in Hutchison's unyielding grip, the second officer replied, "Couple of museum guests went up in a working mock-up of an old World War II B-17 bomber with the museum curator and lost contact over Alcatraz, and now TrafficNet's got the plane on a crash course with the Island. It's coming in hot at about 300 miles per hour, which places the crash at about ninety seconds from now." He inclined his head at her quizzically. "But there hasn't been time to inform the Federal authorities yet..."
Hutchison fixed her gaze on him from behind her mirrorshades. "Intuition, kid. You'll learn it if you ever make detective." She snatched The Badge from the paws of the inspecting officer and turned to move past them through the throngs of voyeuristic tourists toward the ancient control tower.
The first officer took his hand off his riot stick slowly. "This is a conventional emergency, miss. There really is no need for Federal assistance at this juncture. May I ask--why are you even here?"
Hutchison put the Badge away. "My agency received an emergency call from that plane while I was working in the Federal building. One of the guests aboard that plane is one of my agents."
"Akihiro to Tower; either the pilot is dead or my watch has stopped."
Hiro drove a disbelieving stare into the dead man's face as the tower babbled vaguely calming words into his radio headset. The museum curator/pilot had clutched his chest moments before and rattled off his last breath while flying the antiquated bomber back into an approach position toward the island, leaving the heavy craft effectively in an unpiloted dive towards San Francisco bay. Major Akihiro Asano, (Retired) currently a consultant for the National Security Agency, quickly snatched a glimpse outside the cockpit window with mixed emotions; it was upsetting to see thin, permeating fog in lieu of being above the clouds, but viewing the onrushing site of water through it's wispy tendrils was just downright frustrating.
"Hiro!" cried a voice from below the cockpit; it was seven year-old Amara, in the forward disarmed machine-gun bubble canopy, dressed as Hiro was in a vintage World War II bomber jacket, sitting in the trigger seat, and despite her transcendental ki abilities, possibly scared witless. "Hiro! I could be wrong, but I think the plane is going down!"
"You think so, kid?" Hiro yelled back as he settled into the copilot's seat and stared blankly at the antiquated control panel, vainly attempting to consolidate it with his own Marine Corps fighter pilot training. They must have built this crate in the stone age. Grasping the controls and bringing the plane back onto a heading with the Island, he turned toward the dead man in the pilot's seat and said, "How the hell did you guys ever manage to fly these deathtraps, anyway?" He started in alarm as the outboard engines on each wing ceased their characteristic roar and sputtered to a stop one by one outside the canopy window. "What the hell--"
"Hiro! Hiro, there's gas spilling out all over the place!"
Within seconds Hiro engaged the antiquated autopilot and hopped down from the cockpit to Amara's forward gun station and looked over her shoulder to the wing beyond the expansive gunner's bubble canopy. "That's sure not water..." He unbuckled the kid and hauled her back up to the cockpit, just in time to hear the tower's anxious inquiries. They're not gonna like the answer... "Tower, it appears we have just leaked all fuel."
A woman's voice, the voice of Amara's mother, Harper von Dorn, filtered through his radio headset. "Hiro, for God's sake grab the parachutes and jump! You know how to use them!"
"We're too low." Settling again into the copilots's seat, he sat Amara into his lap and buckled them both in. Taking the control yoke in his hands, he said, "But don't worry, Harps; I can land this thing with no gas." The island began to loom perilously close outside the forward windows.
The woman's voice did not sound assured. "You haven't flown in years! What if you're wrong?"
Hiro smiled as he leveled out his approach pattern. "I have my faults, but being wrong isn't one of them."
He rotated the flaps for the final approach.
Amara tugged at the straps holding him secure in Hiro's lap. "This supposed to keep us alive when we crash?"
"Don't sass me, kid." His eyes widened in mild surprise as he accidentally overshot the landing strip by a wide margin and inadvertently arrowed the unpowered bulk of the plane toward a thick grove of pine trees on the island's east side. Wrapping Amara in his arms, he said, "This is for my benefit, not yours."
Hutchison dashed along the 500 yard debris-ridden trough cut through the pine grove by the B-17's descent along the east side of the island. She saw that the biggest part of the wreckage held the current center of attention. Near the rescue vehicles emergency workers tended to a tall, athletic man with dark hair in a military style haircut. And emerging from amongst a throng of people spilling out of the control tower, she could see a handsomely rugged woman with streaming platinum hair and matching necklaces, amulets and earrings run to the remains of the plane's fuselage, and sweep up a child from the comforting hands of ambulance personnel in an attempt to shield her from the out thrust devices of the media.
She had just begun to wonder at the complete implausibility of their survival, for although the cockpit of the plane was completely disintegrated, both man and child were completely unscathed.
"Just relax...you'll be fine." Harper settled into her seat beside Jessica Ney in the darkened, carpeted amphitheater and smiled at the apprehensiveness of her partner as she passed her one of the cups of coffee from the lobby.
Jessica took the hot cup gladly. "Not in front of the Regional Director. I just want to get this over with." She gave a frustrated look at her watch. "How long is this special agent going to speak, anyway? We could grow old listening to this guy."
Harper smiled from behind her cup and fondled the amulets that hung by several chains in front of her red business suit. "Speak for yourself."
She looked up abruptly as Hiro and his FBI liaison stumbled through the rows and seated themselves on Harper's right. At Jessica's leaning, inquisitive glance toward Hiro, Harper cleared her throat and whispered quickly. "I thought only women went to the bathroom together."
"Yeah, well, I needed help." Hiro leaned over her to shake Jessica's hand. "Akihiro Asano, Miss. This is an old buddy of mine, Special Agent Alphonse --"
"-- Calderone; yes, we've met." Jessica nodded toward Calderone and gave a long, appraising stare at Hiro. "I don't recall seeing you here before."
Before he could answer, Harper interjected, "Hiro is a special consultant for the National Security Agency, helping me babysit while I work on the Underwood case."
Noting her partner's tone, Jessica assumed a more professional demeanor. "I'm sorry...I didn't realize you two were--"
"We're not," Hiro reached across Harper's lap, grasped Jessica's hand, and actually sensuously kissed her palm. "She's a... friend of my family's. Can I call you Jess?"
"Please." She smiled shyly as she nodded in assent; Harper noticed that Jessica was beginning to feeling more than a little uncomfortable talking across her lap to Hiro as she said, "I heard about the crash. Pretty remarkable."
"Yeah, well... the kid was my good luck charm." Hiro flashed his trademark roguish half- grin; Harper suppressed an urge to gag.
It didn't last long, however; suddenly, Hiro lost his flirtatious air and attempted to sink into nothingness in his seat. "Aw, shit," he muttered. "What the hell is she doing here?"
Harper followed his gaze to a woman making her way to the seats in the row directly behind them; she was severely dressed in black and gray and headed toward them seemingly with a purpose.
Jessica leaned into her partner's ear. "Who is she?"
"Holly Hutchison. Interagency enforcement for the NSA."
Harper elaborated quickly as Hutchison took a seat directly behind Hiro and fixed a predatory gaze on his sunken, smiling form. "Sort of like internal affairs for the National Security Agency; she's assigned herself to Hiro ever since that plane crash back in January."
Jessica glanced first at Hiro, then gave a peculiar glance to Harper. "You two certainly lead interesting lives."
"You don't know the half of it, lady," Calderone muttered to her over Hiro's sunken form.
Hiro didn't miss a beat as soon as Hutchison was seated. "Hello, Hutch! Fancy seeing you here! What in blazes are you doing in the Bay Area?"
"I might ask you the same concerning your presence at an FBI seminar on criminal occultism, Major Asano." Hutchison gave Harper an obviously disapproving glance, noting her gold and blue striped earrings, matching Egyptian ankhs and amulets, and prominent Thor's Hammer that hung about her neck. "Trying the ethnically ornamental look today, Miss Dorn?"
Harper just barely caught herself from uttering the words of power that would focus the power of one of the amulets and reduce Hutchison to a slack-jawed vegetative state. Instead she said, "It's von Dorn, Doctor."
But Hutchison was already talking to Hiro again, her tone one of relaxed joking sarcasm. "Planning on putting voodoo dolls in your jet? Or maybe that oversized helicopter blade you call an heirloom?" Harper noticed that Hutchison's eyes sparkled almost... affectionately at Hiro when she spoke to him.
"Only if they look like you, Hutch. And that big word your mind is laboring for is 'katana'" Hiro was whispering in a more serious tone now. "It just so happens that I'm a good long time friend of Special Agent von Dorn here, and the occult happens to be her specialty; Ney is her partner." Hiro peered at Hutchison as if seeing something in her eyes for the first time. "You don't have any friends, do you Hutch?"
"Don't call me that."
Harper raised a bemused eyebrow at the drama taking place before her; Calderone actually appeared to be cowed by Hutchison's tone, and Hutchison herself seemed genuinely stunned by Hiro's last remark, as if it had betrayed something privately meaningful between her and Hiro.
The speaker at the podium finished to polite but lackluster applause. Harper gently placed her hand on Ney's shoulder. "You're up."
"Break a leg, Jess," Hiro whispered with a traditional fighter-jock thumbs-up gesture. "Don't forget to give me Hutch's pincushion voodoo doll when you're through."
"Can you believe that wench?" Hiro grabbed his coat off the one of the two chairs in Calderon's small office. "They should keep her locked up in the Fort Meade Complex. Never let her out."
"Yeah... she does tend to give one the creeps." Calderone sat down behind his undersized desk and stiffened in obvious anxiety as he caught a glimpse of Holly Hutchison pass by the open door of his small office, like a deer in the path of onrushing headlights.
Not knowing if Calderone was viscerally impressed by Hutchison's austere good looks or if something about her simply scared him witless, Hiro gathered himself and moved toward the exit. "Snap out of it, Al! People will think you just saw death pass by your chamber door."
Calderone simply nodded at him with a glazed expression and breathed through his mouth. Hiro shook his head and left.
Before Hiro had crossed the lobby to the elevator, his cellular rang. Hiro glanced at the ID display; empty. Moving to an empty stairwell, he activated the phone and put it to his ear. "Major Asano."
"Fleetwood, this is Big Brother. Are we secure?"
Hiro whispered a few specific, carefully enunciated words under his breath, and sound suddenly failed to recognize the square meter of area he occupied as a medium through which it could travel. He continued to speak, but his words would be heard only in a comparable space dozens of miles away, over the waters of the western Pacific. "Secure, sir. Go."
"You know, this is technically illegal, since Major Asano is no longer an active duty Marine and technically a private citizen."
Hutchison regarded the video image of the NSA systems analyst at the NSA HQ with some consternation as she settled herself into the office chair of the claustrophobically small, equipment-laden Federal building's basement communications room. "That's good," she said into the audio pickup of the dimly lit cubicle's satellite communications hardware. "Because this is technically off the record. Now, hit the classified files on NSA operatives and give me everything you have on Akihiro Asano."
At his hesitation, she added, "On my authority, Spence. No demographic stuff; get straight to the confidentials. And make it quick; with his schedule, we'll only have a few hours."
Calderone looked up from the mountain of paperwork on his small desk to focus on the long- haired redheaded woman in his doorway. "What is it, Jessica?"
Jessica Ney poked her head and shoulders just beyond his open door. "Sir, which car does Mr. Asano drive?"
"Hiro doesn't drive a car. Never has."
Jessica lifted a manila envelope as she stepped into the spartan office. "He forgot to pick up his stuff out of the security desk when he left."
Calderone rubbed his eyes and rose, stepping out from behind his desk to inspect the contents of the envelope, which contained what appeared to be a gold necklace with a large pendant. It was very nice, but Calderone could understand why Hiro didn't want to be seen wearing Harper's protective gifts in public. "Well, he just left not five minutes ago. He should be heading for his office in the Federal building."
"Should we catch him before he grabs a cab downtown?"
"Yeah, we'd better." He grabbed his coat from his chair. "He won't want to leave this behind."
Both agents arrived shortly at the sprawling ground-level Embarcadero Mall complex, pausing to breathlessly scan the crowd of executives and shoppers at the AutoTaxi station underneath the towering steelscape horizon of San Francisco's glittering financial district. They saw many varieties of the city's exotic urban denizens as they separately probed the restless multitude, but of Akihiro Asano, there was no sign.
Jessica pushed her way through the shifting mob back to Calderone's position, shaking her head as she did so. "It's unbelievable. Asano doesn't need a car if he can move that fast -- he must be greased lightning or something."
Calderone stared south, in the direction of the Federal building. "Or something."
Harper had barely cleared the ornate archway that separated the house's entrance from the polished hardwood floor of the spacious living room before flinging her purse and business satchel onto nearby Victorian furniture and making herself available to the small wet bar adjacent to the autokitchen. Grandfatherly Israel Vanderbilt waited with a glass of her usual. He slid it across the bar's polished surface toward her as she straddled one of the stools opposite him.
"I'm home, Israel. Where's Amara?"
"Already fed and asleep upstairs. Eventful day, Miss von Dorn?"
Harper drained her glass in a single draught and stared at the empty cup briefly. Pretty eventful, all right. "I think I almost killed Hutchison today. Any messages?"
"Just one. Rather ambiguous; I think perhaps you should review it immediately."
Hutchison was jarred from an uncomfortable nap by the quiet beeping of the mainframe console. Straightening upright in her chair, she activated the visual link with Spence in Fort Meade, who proceeded to eye her quizzically. "Sorry to wake you. Should I call back?"
"Give me what you've got," she said hoarsely.
"That's a considerable amount. Where should we start?"
"Start with Akihiro's interest in the occult."
Spence hacked on his keyboard on the other side her video display. "Coincides with the appearance of a one Harper von Dorn, in Egypt, 1996; she was brought back to the U.S. by an archaeologist named Israel Vanderbilt."
"Where did this Harper woman come from?"
Again, Spence gave her a quizzical look, but kept his professional distance. "Unknown, but a woman named Freyja Volund did disappear when she showed up."
"Hmmn...the plot thickens." Hutchison reluctantly sipped cold coffee from the occult seminar earlier in the TransAmerica field office. "Look up filename: Volund."
Hiro slipped his keycard out of the security lock on one of the Federal building's restricted data rooms and walked inside, closing the door behind him. The stark white room's rows of data monitors, mainframe cases, and office chairs sat quietly in the unlit silence; monitors dark, computers humming idly, chairs empty.
"We have a problem," whispered a shadowy figure reclining by a monitor. Hiro couldn't make out the individual's features. "Paranormal activity has been reported in Tokyo, Japan. You are to report and sterilize. Information Control Officers are already standing by to eradicate all civilian memories of upcoming events." He pulled a compact, sealed briefing file from underneath his jacket and tossed it onto the monitor nearest Hiro. "Your plane is being prepped with electronic UFO Simulation Gear. You are to advise your wingman of a possible continuum rift in the area and compensate for him; he will provide Celestial support. How soon can you be there?"
Hiro picked up the mini-file. "You know what it is I do, sir. Distance is no object." He paused a moment before going on. "But I've got to go home, first."
The man's expression was, of course, unreadable. "Some girl I don't know about?"
Hiro half-grinned at the man. "Don't I wish, sir," he said with flyboy levity, hoping fervently that he sounded convincing.
The man gave no indication either way. "Don't waste all day with a Normal; you've got to act before the Federal media gets involved. The operation will begin the moment you arrive."
"Got it, Doctor Hutchison. The Volund password is a documented occult file, originating from the notes of a religious order called the Covenant of Argus—of which Vanderbilt is a confirmed member -- that dealt with the passive observation of the Volunds, a family of scholars with a supposedly supernatural background, since the beginning of the order in the early 1800s."
Hutchison repositioned an unruly lock of her short hair out of her face with a wave of her hand. "Cross index with Freyja Volund."
Spence's quizzical look returned, though this time he followed up on his curiosity. "Why, Doctor? I thought we were looking for info on Asano."
"You're not cleared for that. Just dig up the data."
"Sure." Spence's video image shrugged matter-of-factly. "But you must be really carrying the torch for this guy to be scoping women who might have been connected to him a hundred years before he was born."
Hutchison narrowed her eyes dangerously. "What's that supposed to mean, Spence?"
He performed the cross index and waited for the data. "If I had a nickel for every operative that wanted me to dig up dirt on a potential date, I'd have your job."
Before she could issue a stinging reprimand, Spence said, "I got it. Freyja was a sorceress in a family of them in the late 1800s, but she was a weird one; she constantly obsessed over a menace she called the Red Death, convinced that it was out to kill the family down to the last relative to ensure it's own survival."
Hutchison furrowed her brow, still fuming at Spence's insubordination. "What year was that, specifically?" she asked tersely.
"Text date of the Covenant notes here is 1888."
"The year of the Jack the Ripper murders." She thrust a hand through the prematurely graying forelocks of her hair. "Did the family reside in England, by any chance?"
"Upper London, to be exact. In any case, her idea only gained credibility when several Volund women were murdered by particularly grisly and mysterious means. To deter an investigation which might reveal their witchcraft ways and precipitate a repeat of the Salem witch trials, the family disguised the remains of the bodies --"
"-- as prostitutes." Hutchison leaned back. "Makes sense. Except for one thing; you said that Freyja Volund disappeared in 1998."
"So what the hell was she doing in 1888?"
"I'm getting to that. Apparently fearing that the Red Death might use Freyja's power and knowledge of family weaknesses against her own family, Freyja's surviving relatives stripped her of her anima magica humana in an elaborate ritual, which apparently is a sort of gifted aspect of the soul that powers the magical abilities. They proved to be wrong, however, and all but two of her family members died fighting a physically manifested version of the menace at Stonehenge. One went on to rebuild the line; apparently you can pass on your anima. The other, Freyja, went to Egypt, and disappeared."
"But she came back—in 1998." Hutchison's brain strived to find the connection. "With the archaeologist Vanderbilt. What's his status now?"
A brief pause. "Living in San Francisco with Harper von Dorn, age thirty-seven, and Amara von Dorn, age seven."
"A kid." Hutchison's memory flashed briefly back to the plane crash, and the unscathed child with Akihiro and Harper. "Is Vanderbilt the father?"
"Unknown. Wow. Amazingly, no records exist, but I assume so. Why?"
"Think, Spence; Vanderbilt is 76 years old. I know this is the twenty-first century, but I hardly think Harper would choose a 64 year-old man to father her child."
Spence inclined his head. "So you think it's Asano."
Her eyes narrowed. "The kid's got a slight Oriental phenotype. I know it's Asano."
"Arizona?" Hiro cried. "What the hell for?"
Harper was curled up in a set of gray San Francisco State University sweats in one of the plush Victorian divans on the upper level of the living room, fletching small human-shaped figurines out of blocks of wood and throwing them in a travel bag at her feet. She was looking at Hiro, who occupied the modern sofa on the lower level in front of the wall-screen AutoEntertainment center with Amara fast asleep in his lap. "I got a message before you came home. It sounded urgent."
"Who was it from?"
"He didn't leave a name."
Harper swung her feet off of the divan and sat upright, raising her eyebrow at Hiro as she did so. "Is there a problem?"
"Uhh... no, no. I was just... concerned for your safety and all. For Amara's sake." He nodded toward the sleeping child in his lap. "So... did this guy sound familiar?"
Harper twinkled her eyes mysteriously. "Sort of."
Hiro subvocalized a command to the wallscreen which caused it to deactivate, casting the spacious living room into shadow and silence. "So you're just gonna suddenly take off and leave me with the kid? When you know how unpredictable my schedule is, like it has been today? To go see some 'sort of' stranger in... Arizona?" His face folded up in distaste. "Pretty lackluster commitment from someone who claims to be my protector. Not to mention it's not very good parenting."
"Since when did you consider motherhood skills a virtue?"
Hiro's eyes narrowed. "What's that supposed to mean, Harps?"
Harper dismissed the issue with a gesture. "What's going on with your schedule? Do you have to go somewhere right away?"
Hiro chewed his lower lip as he paused. "It's always difficult to say. Do you?"
Harper walked to the wet bar and grasped an open amulet that sat atop it's counter, and began to fill it with wood shavings from the figurines she had just carved. "You know, Hiro," she said as she worked, "I will always cherish the initial misconceptions I had about you."
Spence was shaking his head in a confused manner on the video display. "The data's right here, Doc; Harper lives there in San Francisco with Vanderbilt; Hiro keeps a residence in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo with a butler. Why, with the entire Pacific separating them, would he even be interested?"
Hutchison typed furiously on her own keyboard and sent Spence some data of her own via the secure satlink. "Akihiro Asano wouldn't be. But Akira Volund-Grafton II would."
Spence scanned the downloaded data. "A name change. So he's descended from those London mages."
She nodded. "And not just him; I think that Harper woman used to be Freyja Volund."
Spence shook his head at that. "No way, Doc. Now you're grasping at straws. That would make her over a hundred years old! Effectively immortal!"
"And completely possible. Look at your files. What did Freyja do for a living in 1888?"
"She was a scholar; had a doctorate in theology, but she also liked to dabble in alchemy... and the occult."
"Right. Now look at Harper's vitals--found in 1996 in Egypt by an archaeologist, occult specialist for the FBI... isn't the NSA watching some cult faction in Egypt?"
"You're creeping me out, Doc, but yes. The Sons of Khonseru profess to be able to cast spells out of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, mostly centering around—well, I'll be damned..."
Hutchison smiled in spite of herself. "... Mummification."
"Israel will help if Amara gets to be too much for you." She closed up the amulet, placed it around her neck and slung the travel bag over one shoulder.
"Izzy won't be available. The Convention called today; they need me in Tokyo, and he'll want to tag along to take notes for his Argus buddies. You sure this can't wait?"
"It could be a personal threat; it might be Red Death. I have to check it out," she said while gently touching her daughter's cheek and looking meaningfully into Hiro's eyes, the fact that the effort would be wasted on him notwithstanding. "To make sure you and Amara are safe."
You'll need me to back you up --"
"One of us stays with Amara at all times, remember? Besides, I've been taking care of myself for one hundred and twenty-six years; even without the anima, I think I can handle it."
"With those weak-assed Egyptian cantrips and amulets? I'll believe it when I see it."
Seized by a sudden rash of impulsiveness, she gave the surprised Hiro a tender kiss, gentle but quite electric, full on the lips. When they parted, she smiled at him, her eyes still half-closed, and stroked his cheek with a nervously damp hand. Glancing briefly at Amara, she took a shuddering breath and whispered, "There is more between us than just the simple continuation of history, Volund." She turned to go.
"Hey!" Hiro called to her as she stood in the doorway. "Hurry back, okay, Harps? The... kid gets uptight when you stay out late."
Harper half-grinned to him over her shoulder. "Ditto, kiddo."
Hutchison gathered up her things and attempted to correct her disheveled appearance; she'd been in a hi-tech basement room the size of a walk-in closet for over five hours, and she looked like it.
"New Argus files on Asano and the kid."
Shrugging into the now wrinkled jacket to her suit, she said, "Make it quick. I've got units heading to 918 Lombard right now."
"Check. Akihiro Asano is a samurai member of the magical order of the Gothamite Convention; they supposedly clean up paranormal dirty work for the NSA. All personal records erased, probably by him, but we do know he's a Volund. Selected by the Convention for 'applicable theurgical abilities concerning distance.'"
"Hmm. Reshapes the continuum? Folds time and space, maybe?"
Spence nodded. "Better be careful, Doc; the guy's a walking Philadelphia Experiment. The kid is listed as possessing 'entropic control of probability fields via Ki manipulation.' What the hell's that mean?"
"That she's... lucky. That explains the plane crash, at least." She began to power down the communications room; after five hours, the sudden absence of humming machinery caused her ears to ring slightly in the resulting sharp-edged silence. "Make a copy for me, Spence. And destroy all video and computer records of this connection." Glancing at the newly compiled dossiers on Akihiro, Harper and Amara, Hutchison whispered to herself under her breath. "I've gotta put together an old fashioned witch-hunt."
Harper turned the motel key and slowly opened the door. Inside, the small room gave a false impression of size with undersized and sparse furniture. The window facing the barren highway seemed to fill the airy space with billowing, gossamer violet curtains. The double bed, by far the most dominating feature of the room, supported it's single occupant, which stared idly in the direction of the window. Dressed in the latest retro 1920's fashion popular in the U.S. recently, the figure rose, causing the shadows to melt away and revealing the features of a swarthy, gaunt man with receding white hair. His face reminded her of a wedding cake left out in the rain.
Harper stepped back, hand going unconsciously to the amulet around her neck.
The man spoke in a gentle, but gravelly voice, his smile a rictus of approaching death. "My sweet rose, you have changed so since I saw you last."
Harper's eyes narrowed; she tightened her grip on the amulet and struggled to remember the ancient words.
The man inclined his head curiously. "Has your memory lost a place for me already?"
Loosening her grip slightly, Harper ceased the defensive posture into which she forced her mind and let her memory run its own course. Within moments, it yielded not the words of power she sought, but a time, a place... and a name.
Egypt, 1888... the necropolis where I died, to be reborn...
"Surely you have not forgotten the man who brewed the potion for you that stilled your heart..."
... with his assistance, so that I might continue the fight against Death ...
"... and preserved your body ..."
... for our descendants in another time, this time ...
"... and granted you immortality?"
Harper breathed the name of her memory with awe. "Khonseru..."
Alphonse Calderone got the shock of his life to find a decidedly unexpected figure in his apartment as he came home, facing away from him, relaxing on his overused couch and watching his battered television set. He immediately drew his service revolver and pointed it at the back of the intruder's dark head, who was still facing the pale blue illumination of his ancient 19 inch TV. "Federal agent, I'm armed—hands in the air where I can see 'em! That's it... now turn around slowly and identify yourself."
A woman turned slowly to face him, opening a wallet-like device in her left hand as she did so; Calderone's shock became creeping dread as she flashed The Badge and recognition dawned on him. He listlessly lowered his gun as she spoke. "Holly Hutchison, Mr. Calderone—National Security Agency."
"I know who you are, Agent Hutchison," he grunted. "What are you doing here?"
"I understand that you are such a good friend of the people in the Vanderbilt house that you even have a key to the place."
She rose and circled around the couch. He saw then why he was so slow in identifying her at once; her severe business suit was slightly unkempt and her hair was somewhat tousled. What had she been doing on that couch?
"I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you for a copy," she said as previously hidden agents appeared from hiding all around him and confiscated his weapon. "... in the interests of national security."
"So you're here to do a favor to a spirit that helped you to awaken from your mummification slumber?" Harper crossed her arms in front of her ample bosom and furrowed her brow as she stood facing the seated Khonseru at the foot of the bed.
Khonseru nodded sagely. "It was a woman's spirit, who had the same agenda that you did in 1888, in fact. She seemed convinced that the Red Death had manifested in the western U.S. and asked only that I oppose it wherever I saw it."
"That was probably one of the ghosts of my ancestors," Harper muttered thoughtfully.
"Indeed." Khonseru averted his gaze briefly, almost effiminately. "That would make sense, wouldn't it?"
Squinting at Khonseru, she asked, "But you still have the same problem I have had for the past thirty years; how do you know when it's manifested?"
Khonseru licked his lips as he looked at her and answered. "The spirit said that it would assume the role of the enemy within, and have the power of authority over men, persistent and unhampered in pursuit of its goal."
"Authority over men..." Harper's brain struggled with the symbolism. "The enemy within...oh, God." Her eyes widened suddenly, she scrambled for her travel bag and grabbed Khonseru's frail form by the arm. "Come on; we've got to get out of here now!"
Now it was Khonseru's turn to be puzzled. "Going where? For what?"
"It's Holly Hutchison, Khonseru; the Red Death is one of Hiro's colleagues!" She quickly removed her amulet and placed it around Khonseru's neck, speaking the words that would allow them both to rise to the clouds on his power and from there walk their path to home.
"You can't keep me here, Hutch," Hiro stated from amidst a phalanx of dark-suited NSA operatives. Amara had been taken from him and Vanderbilt had been roused from her night's sleep to be held at gunpoint in the household living room. Amara writhed in Hutchison's one-handed grip as the NSA agent faced Hiro with a victorious smile. "And I don't just mean legally; I'm supposed to be somewhere, and if I don't show up, there will be hell to pay."
"Save it for the bonfires, Akihiro." She inclined her head slightly, raising three documents with her free hand. "I know all about the Gothamite Convention, Argus covenant, and your spatial distortion ability, including Harper's hundred year history. If you even think about trying to reality- warp your way out of here, the archaeologist that dug up the mother of your child," she nodded towards Vanderbilt, "... will take a very long trip."
"How the hell did you even manage to sneak you and your goon squad in here?"
"I had the key." She motioned towards Calderone, who sheepishly slipped out from underneath the cover of the front door archway.
Hiro shook his head resignedly. "Et tu, Al?"
Hutchison transferred the struggling Amara to Calderone's care, then parted the ring of agents around Hiro and stepped close enough for his body to respond, against his will, to her presence. With a single abrupt gesture from her, all the operatives, including Calderone, Amara and Vanderbilt, exited the house, leaving the two of them alone in the spacious living room.
Hiro looked the woman in the eyes, which didn't seem as hard up close as Hutchison no doubt wanted them to be. "What do you want from me?"
"What do you think? I've seen the history, Akihiro; I know you're a Volund on the run from some intangible menace, and that the Harper woman adopted you both as her ward and as a way to pass her anima on for successive generations, to keep the Volund name alive to supposedly protect the human race. But I'm here, now; you don't need her to protect you any longer."
There was a muffled ruckus outside, beyond the still-opened door. Hiro frowned and mentally extended his perception outside, and saw the NSA agents under siege by animated carved figurines; Harper and an older, fashionably dressed man descended from the sky and approached the house.
Hiro snapped his senses back to normal and looked apprehensively at Hutchison, but she appeared not to have noticed, busy as she was running her hands over his chest underneath his sportsjacket. "I know for a fact that you don't love her, Akihiro, that the child between you was just to honor a Volund obligation to carry on the line. Come back with me to Maryland, and I can guarantee your future...and the child's."
On the edges of his peripheral vision, Hiro saw Harper's stealthy form crouched in the archway, her lips forming words of power. She'll need time to finish the spell...
Thinking quickly, Hiro refocused on Hutchison's angular features before him. "You're right, Holly. I just needed to hear you say it." Desperately hoping that Harper would keep enough of her wits about her to finish her chant despite what he was about to do next, he took Hutchison's head in his hands and passionately kissed her on the mouth.
She responded fervently at first, then actually panicked as she glimpsed Hiro's eyes, which were not closed in ecstasy, but instead focused on a point somewhere over her shoulder. Breaking away abruptly, Hutchison drew her gun and whirled on Harper, tears of betrayal on her feral expression. But the chant was finished, and the power of ancient Egypt enscorceled her, robbing Holly Hutchison of her vison, her will, and finally, as she collapsed, her consciousness.
Hiro looked askance at Harper as she stood triumphant over Hutchison's fallen form. "I swear--if it weren't for the last minute, nothing would get done around here."
Harper made an impatient gesture. "Get her out of here, Hiro--she's been possessed by the Red Death."
"You sure it's not the other way around?" he asked as he mentally transposed the spatial coordinates of Hutchison's boneless form with those in another city; shortly afterwards, she slipped quietly out of the reality of the Vanderbilt living room.
"Where'd you send her?"
"My next assignment for the Convention...Tokyo, Japan. She'll be fine; the Information Control Officers there will wipe her memory of any paranormal experiences when she shows up as part of procedure, and that includes knowledge of what's in these." He picked up the fallen dossiers.
Harper was shaking her head, looking at the floor. "I'm sorry, Hiro...I should have known it was her before I ever went to Arizona."
Hiro embraced her tenderly. "I've got a lot of enemies, Harps; you can't suspect everybody in the city. San Francisco's like granola; even if you eliminate the fruits and the nuts, you're still gonna have the flakes."
Smiling through tears of relief, she said, "Thanks...for backing me up."
Hiro gently lifted her chin to his lips. "Ditto, kiddo."
In a long, overdue ceremony, Hiro finally married Harper, officially making her Mrs. Asano, and unofficially (except in Covenant records, of course) the GrandDame of the next Volund generation of spellcasters, all finally made possible by the defeat of the Red Death and the destruction of Doctor Hutchison's incriminating files on the family.
Doctor Hutchison reportedly returned to Maryland following an episode of delirium (undoubtedly the work of Gothamite Information Control Officers). When Hiro satlinked her office there to ascertain if she had any requests to summon him for an inquiry (the original reason she came to San Francisco), she professed to have neither need nor knowledge of Hiro. If the Death had indeed possessed her, it has now certainly moved on; as to where, no one can say, but historically it has remained inactive for years after being exorcised from its hosts.
The Egyptian Khonseru has availed himself of our hospitality until his return to Egypt, which he is eager to do. All is well again, and yet I feel... uneasy, as if Death were knocking, knocking at my chamber door...
From the journal of Israel Vanderbilt
March 15, 2026
Khonseru looked up from the calligraphic manuscript of Vanderbilt's journal. The archaeologist's slumbering form rested on his own four-posted bed, oblivious to the intruder which now sat at his desk, perusing the chronicle in the flickering glow of a single candle that Khonseru had lit so as not to awaken him.
Khonseru leaned back in the desk chair and reflected briefly on the final passage of the journal.
"And so shall your chamber door become your tomb, mortal."
Khonseru's once-human eyes glinted redly as he closed the leather-bound journal and adjusted the mask of flayed skin and turned a predatory gaze to Vanderbilt's dozing shape. "...'some tomb from out whose sounding door shall never force an echo more'.. .and, like Khonseru, your carcass shall become my latest mask in this timeless masquerade. This body is used up, but who will suspect you, my scholarly prey? And whom do I have to thank for this prodigious opportunity but Freyja Volund, without whose incorrect analysis of my true mask I would never have gotten this close."
Rising from the desk to loom over the bed, he gripped his upper lip and began to pull it across his face, rending flesh from bone; although Khonseru had been male, decidedly feminine laughter now issued from the ruined face.
"Ah Freyja, ah, Volund! Our game is almost at an end. I thrill to think, you poor children of sin," it said as it pulled away the rest of decayed flesh of Khonseru's face, revealing red, glistening viscera underneath, "... it is you who will be dead, and shall soon groan within."
The gory visage licked its lipless face and approached its unwary victim.
"But, first things first..."
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