Mira slowly backed away from the werewolf, positioning herself between the snarling beast and the ancient tome encased in glass on its wooden stand.
Sabrewulf let forth a feral howl, but the look in his eyes—darting from Mira to the relic and back again—was clearly human. He knew why she had broken into his secret subterranean library. And he was not pleased.
He attacked without warning, lunging low and grasping for her legs. But Mira leapt aside at the last second, scrambling up one of the chamber’s massive fifteen-foot-tall bookcase stacks as if she was scaling a ladder. Sabrewulf hurled himself into the lower shelves, smashing the oak planks and sending books flying. Mira leapt to the top of the next stack where she sat hunched like an angry cat.
All of a sudden the chamber’s ceiling shook, and grit rained down from above, dusting her head and shoulders. The lights flickered off and on. Something was walking around in the ballroom above. Something incredibly heavy. Mira knew it was the war-golem Aganos. He and his companion, the warrior Thunder, would find the hidden entrance to this library soon enough…and then Mira would be trapped down here.
“I don’t have enough elixir to fight all three,” she thought, clenching her fists inside their gauntlets.
She wished she hadn’t thrown away her communication device so rashly. She could have called Porfiry and asked for help. A small army of wendigoes would do nicely right now. The skeletal flesh-eating beasts—when controlled by the Coven—were effective and terrifying predators.
With a frustrated bark Sabrewulf attacked the lower part of the bookcase she was on, threatening to tip the whole thing over. Mira jumped to the top of the next stack, skidding across its dusty surface and knocking over some moldy boxes that had been stored there.
She quickly took in her surroundings. From up here she could see the entire chamber with its dozens of towering book stacks. Porfiry had told her that this room had been built in the Dark Ages, and it had originally been used as a crypt. At the back of the library stood a stone altar, and hanging above it was a life-size gilded crucifix. Staring at the cross pained her eyes and she looked away.
“You and I are not so different,” she called to Sabrewulf who was pacing around beneath her perch, whining like a confused dog who had treed a squirrel. “We are both pariahs.”
Glancing down at the top of the stack, she noticed that one of the boxes she had knocked over had spilled its contents: old bones, shards of pottery and something sharp—a claw the size and shape of a meat hook. She picked it up carefully and hid it behind her back, then peered down at Sabrewulf who was glaring up at her with a rapacious gleam in his eyes. “The Coven can use fighters like you,” she continued. “We respect and honor those who have…” She paused and chose her next word carefully, “…changed. Look at me, Konrad. I was once a human being, just like you. Now I am something more. Something better!”
Sabrewulf ignored her. He grabbed the stack and started rocking it, back and forth. The massive oak casement swayed under his powerful efforts. He gave one final heave and the stack fell like an enormous domino, knocking over several other stacks; but Mira was already dropping to the floor, the claw held out in front of her. Plunging it deep into Sabrewulf’s neck, she rolled away, scrabbling across the stones, putting some distance between her and the wounded lycanthrope.
Dust filled the air from the wreckage of the stacks. Mira crouched low and smiled, revealing her long fangs, for Sabrewulf’s neck was spurting blood like a fountain, and his body was convulsing spasmodically. He slumped to his knees and his tongue lolled from his mouth. Then he fell over in a pool of his own gore and was silent.
“That was easy,” Mira said. She got up and sauntered over to the relic. Somehow the glass case had managed to remain unscathed amidst the destruction wrought by Sabrewulf. The book of Khepri—with its golden scarab-faced figure mounted to the cover—glowed beneath the glass. The tome was fairly small…no bigger than a modern hardcover novel. But it exuded a powerful pull. A palpable evil.
Mira hesitated. She was suddenly loath to touch it.
The scarab beetle, she knew, rolled its ball of dung across the desert sands of northern Africa. And the Egyptians—in the days of the Pharaohs—believed that the god Khepri pushed the sun across the heavens like a giant dung beetle with a golden prize, thus it was associated with death and rebirth.
But who or what, she wondered, did the Tsar wish to bring back to life?
Her grandfather, an expert on Egyptian lore, had explained to her during her education at the Night Guard headquarters, that Khepri rode in a boat held aloft by Nu—the representation of the primordial watery abyss. The world was encapsulated inside of Nu. So Khepri had the ability to traverse between the two worlds…essentially a dimensional traveler. Perhaps this book had something to do with making portals between dimensions.
Mira reached tentatively for the glass case, but was stopped short by a hideous scream ripping through the catacomb.
She whirled. Eyes wide. Gauntlets raised.
Sabrewulf had gotten to his feet and stood there swaying. He grabbed at the claw sticking from his neck, yanked it out with a chunk of fur still attached, then tossed the bloody mess onto the floor. His eyes had changed…they were glowing green now. And his body seemed to be increasing in mass—his muscles expanding rapidly inside his fur-covered hide. He splayed out his fingers as his claws grew to the length of daggers.
“Merda,” said Mira under her breath. She realized what she had done: she’d skewered him with the same werewolf claw that had caused his original metamorphosis. And now she had somehow amplified his transformative powers.
Sabrewulf bore into her with his crazed eyes. His black lips curled back, displaying his maw of sharp white teeth. Then he spread his arms and thrust out his chest like an enraged silverback gorilla, and let out an earsplitting howl. Swinging his arms back and forth, he shredded one of the oak bookshelves as if it were made of nothing more than straw.
The deranged werewolf paused for a moment, breathing hard, eyes bulging from their sockets…then he sprang at Mira.
But she twisted in the air, eluding Sabrewulf’s attack, and he landed on the glass case, shattering it. The book of Khepri sailed across the room and skidded on the flagstones. She dove for the book, grabbing it and clutching it to her breast. Before Sabrewulf could attack again she plunged into the wreckage of the toppled bookshelves, squirming her way between the broken stacks.
Sabrewulf bellowed and started tearing the rest of the library apart, spinning around and smashing everything in sight. He was out of his mind now—nothing more than a berserk killing machine bent on murder.
Mira crawled as fast as she could through the narrow space between two fallen stacks, making her way to the back of the chamber. But Sabrewulf was right behind her, churning through the bookshelves like a combine blade harvesting a field of wheat.
She scrambled from the debris, emerging at the altar. Jumping on top of the flat stone, she reached up and clutched the base of the gilded cross—the touch of it sent a burning shockwave through her hand and arm and she cried out in agony. But the crucifix moved, and the wall behind it slid open to reveal a dark passage. Porfiry, the imp, had done his homework. He’d told her about this secret door in her mission briefing.
Mira shot into the black entrance as the door slammed shut automatically behind her; and her eyes adjusted instantly to the darkness as she rushed down a long corridor. After fifty paces the shaft ended, and she saw a flight of steps leading up. Clamping the book under one arm, she sprinted up this twisting stairwell, eventually emerging inside a hidden niche behind the furnace in Sabrewulf’s ballroom- turned-alchemical-lab.
She was now opposite the secret bookshelf entrance leading to the underground library. Aganos was there with his back to her, standing near her wrecked Ferrari. The gigantic masked war-golem—a collection of boulders knit together with vines—was trying to forge an opening with his stone club big enough for him to enter the catacombs below.
Mira realized she could easily make her escape from this room up the main stairway leading to the balcony. But the instant she took a step forward something kicked her hard in the side, and she tumbled forward, landing face first on the smooth marble floor, her metal palm guards scraping noisily as she slid to a stop.
She cursed under her breath. The book of Khepri had flown from her grasp.
Springing to her feet she spun around to face her attacker. It was Thunder—the Native American warrior, his muscles rippling as though he were carved from mountain stone. He scraped his axes together, sharpening them for the kill, and squinted at her menacingly. Then he called to Aganos: “This one brings bad medicine, piswéeqiiwn. Her blood is tainted. She is Coven-born.” He started walking toward her, kicking the book of Khepri aside as he came.
“Letuchiye myshi!” Mira cried in Russian, and a stream of silver bats shot from her hands, blasting Thunder in the face. But he forged ahead, swinging his axes at the bats like scythes, forcing Mira to back up toward the wall where Aganos waited with his giant club.
The stench of death hit Mira’s nostrils the second before she heard the unearthly cries—a crazed yapping that sounded like a hyena crossed with a lunatic. A horde of wendigoes appeared at the arched windows, crawling over the low wall and into the laboratory like spiders, red eyes glowing in their skeletal heads. They resembled decaying elk with the teeth of wolves, and the sight of them made Thunder stop and stare with hatred.
“I do not fear these cannibals!” he cried.
“Tuman vampira!” Mira cried in the language of the Coven, and a silvery mist sprayed from her hands, shrouding her in a cloak of vapor. She sprinted forward, bending down to snatch up the book of Khepri, and darted from the hall as a pack of wendigoes swarmed on top of Aganos. Another group surrounded Thunder.
Mira bounded toward the stairs leading to the balcony; but as she passed the niche by the furnace, Sabrewulf leapt out from where he’d been hiding and gave chase. Rushing out onto the terrace, Mira staggered back as she was hit by a powerful blast of wind. A black military helicopter swooped down, hovering near the second story platform, blinding her with its spotlight.
Mira heard Sabrewulf snarling right behind her. Moving without thinking, she put the book’s front cover in her mouth and bit down hard, and then sprang onto the balcony’s narrow railing before leaping at the helicopter. For an instant she was suspended in mid-air, and then her hands found the landing skids and she grasped them. But Sabrewulf had caught her by one foot. He tried to drag her back to the terrace, fighting against the pull of the helicopter, with Mira stretched out like torture victim on a Medieval rack. She felt her hands slipping from the skids.
The sound of automatic gunfire blasted from the helicopter. Sabrewulf barked and released Mira from his clutches. Then she was flying away from the mansion, dangling from the helicopter precariously. She twisted her head around and looked back at the balcony—saw the werewolf swarmed by wendigoes. But then the helicopter’s spotlight swiveled, and the castle was lost in darkness.
“Welcome aboard,” yelled a voice as Mira swung herself up and through the open gun door.
She lay sprawled on the floor of helicopter for a moment, catching her breath. Porfiry was grinning at her from his seat behind a heavy machine gun attached to a swivel mount. She pulled the book from her mouth. Her fangs had made puncture holes in the thick leather cover, but other than that the precious thing was intact.
She sat down on the seat across from Porfiry, and put on a headset so that they could hear each other over the noise of the rushing wind and rotors.
“I’ve been following you the whole time you’ve been in Germany,” Porfiry said through the headset. “To make certain that you didn’t fail.”
“I’m glad you did,” she replied calmly into her microphone. Her hand still burned and throbbed from touching the crucifix, but she clenched her teeth and refused to reveal that she was in pain.
“Truly?” he asked, smiling widely and showing his stubby little fangs.
“I could have gotten out of there on my own,” she said with a shrug. “But I had some car trouble. At least now I don’t have to walk back to Russia.”
Tusk raced across the dark snowy field in pursuit of the fire-breathing monster. He knew that the animal was not a true dragon—he had seen those in the flesh, ages ago. No, this thing must have been bred by the machine-woman from the long-dead cells of an ancient dinosaur.
This modern age has its own brand of necromancers…
The storm was raging so hard now that huge snowflakes flew straight at him like miniature shooting stars, blazing in the light of the snöskoter’s twin headlamps.
He was gaining on his quarry even though the thing was fast! But it had nowhere to hide in the flat snowfields stretching for miles in all directions. Eventually he would wear it down. But what would he do when he caught it? The monster could not speak, so it couldn’t tell him why its metal master had come looking for him.
Then why am I pursuing this thing into the unknown?
Perhaps it was simply for the thrill of the chase. And Tusk did not like letting any enemy getting away from him. Maybe he would slay it and roast it on a spit. He’d eaten lizard before. He reckoned this one tasted like chicken too.
His prey turned and ran toward a large dark hill. A flash of light shot from the formation, momentarily blinding Tusk. He slowed down and covered his eyes with his hand. Then the light went out, and when he looked up again the monster had vanished inside the hill.
The closer he got he realized that the dark shape was some sort of man-made thing. He could see a ramp leading up the back end—that’s where his prey had fled. There was a huge U emblazoned on the side.
It’s a transport vessel!
Soon he could discern the outline of a flying ship with movable rocket thrusters and landing feet. It was sleek and beetle-like but big enough to contain an entire force of the war-golems and fire-breathers. Gunning the engine, he cursed in a flurry of dead languages. He must not let this thing get away!
The snow machine zoomed through the night, the wind and snow blasting against Tusk’s face. Images flashed in his mind’s eye, one after another: the hideous visage of the horned gargoyle speaking in its ancient and foul tongue; the pretty shopkeeper from the village and her questioning gaze; the lifeless mask of the machine-woman; and the face of the young Asian woman he’d seen in Warg-gram fighting with the blue-skinned demon…
Flames erupted from the ship’s engines as Tusk approached it. He twisted the throttle and slid straight up the ramp and into the ship’s cargo hold, leaping off the snöskoter and letting it crash into a stack of storage boxes held fast by netting. Tumbling onto the hard grated surface, he slipped Warg-gram from its sheath and sprung up into a battle stance, looking around for the ship’s crew.
But all that he saw was the fire-breather. Chest heaving, the animal was huddled in the corner in the last stages of exhaustion. It dropped the automaton’s head that it had carried all the way back to the ship in its mouth, and the heavy thing clattered against the floor.
Tusk sprang at the dinosaur, swinging his sword out in front of him. The beast jumped back and slammed into the wall like a cornered rat. It had nowhere to run.
Tusk raised his weapon for the death blow, and the blade’s runes glowed to life.
“Play time is over,” he said.
But the floor gave out beneath Tusk before he could deliver the killing stroke, and he was flipped violently upside down, pulled toward the ceiling where he lay hanging like a piece of meat in a butcher’s shop. Warg-gram slipped from his grasp and clanged against the floor. He struggled wildly but he was trapped inside the net—a fly in a spider’s web; but this web was made of some sort of incredibly strong material.
“Relax big fella.”
Tusk twisted his head around toward the sound of the voice. Standing in the doorway to the cargo bay was a fiery shape. Tusk squinted. He was looking at a human form shaped from living lava.
“Don’t struggle,” continued the stranger, speaking through an ugly slit of a mouth set in a featureless face. “You’re not goin’ anywhere. That’s Ultratine you’re wrapped up in—proprietary tech, of course. Each cord is a hundred times stronger than the cables that hold up the Golden Gate Bridge. I’m called Cinder, by the way. And you are?”
Tusk ignored Cinder’s question and watched as the dinosaur shuffled forward cautiously like a wary cat until it stood directly underneath him.
“Oh, I get it,” said Cinder. “Big quiet type. Suits you.”
The dinosaur glanced up at the bound swordsman, then peered down at his weapon, snuffling at it. Reaching out its neck hesitantly, it picked up Warg-gram with its mouth. The handle instantly turned molten hot and the dinosaur—despite being a fire breather—howled in agony as several of its teeth melted. It flung aside the sword and ran down the ramp to plunge its mouth in the cooling snow.
“Stupid little dragon,” Tusk said. “Nothing alive can touch Warg-gram except me.”
Cinder laughed. “Riptor’s an idiot, right?” he said as he strolled over and stood beneath Tusk. “And those little creepy arms…pitiful. But the boss makes me work with her and Mr. Robot,” he continued, indicating the cyborg head lying on the floor. “It’s not like we don’t have an army of these things anyway, but this one—special. We will rebuild him,” he added in a mock serious voice, then gazed outside the ship at the dinosaur who was frantically biting at the snow in an effort to sooth her burned mouth. “Thanks for bringing back Fulgore’s head, Rip!” he said sarcastically. “Good fetch, doggie.”
Tusk strained against the metal cords, but they would not move. In fact, they only constricted more. He was indeed immortal, but he was not all-powerful. He stopped struggling. “Your boss, as you call her, is the metal-woman?” he said. “I destroyed her.”
Cinder chuckled. “You destroyed one of the ‘metal-woman’s’ bodies, Conan the Annoy-Her. She’s ubiquitous. She’s everywhere. Ones and zeroes, man. Ones and zeroes. Right now her consciousness is uploading into another frame back at the Pinnacle—the Ultratech HQ. And that’s where we’ll be going—at supersonic speed. As soon as Jurassic Dork out there stops cooling her mouth with yellow snow. Anyway, ARIA will enjoy dissecting you and your toy sword here. She likes to collect mysterious objects. It’s part of her programming.”
“And who created you, little campfire?” asked Tusk.
Cinder chuckled. “Oh hey, campfire! That’s a new burn… or… a really old one, judging by what we know of you. I bet in ‘ye olden tymes’ that insult would get someone’s dander up, eh? You’d draw rusty blades and all—knife fighting or whatnot—the breaking of mead benches on a sawdust floor…Sorry, caught up in the imagery there.”
“What are you?” asked Tusk. He had never seen anything like this man and he was curious.
“Oh, I’m another one of ARIA’s experiments. I was turned into this fiery cataclysm that you see before you by using alien DNA.” Cinder paused and put his hands on his hips. “Man, I don’t know why I’m telling you all of my secrets. I guess I just feel like we can be bros or something. I’ll come and visit you in your cage at HQ and we’ll play some Punch Fighter on the UltraBox and—hey look what you dropped!”
Bending down nonchalantly, Cinder grabbed Warg-gram. And to Tusk’s astonishment and horror the molten man held fast to the blade—the sword that no entity other than Tusk had ever handled since the time of its making.
Tusk swore profanely in a long dead barbarian tongue.
“That did not sound nice,” laughed Cinder. “Good thing I don’t speak Neanderthal. I suppose my ears would turn red. Oh, wait. I don’t have any ears! But I like this pig-sticker,” he continued with mock admiration, examining the weapon. His burning face was reflected back in the mirror-like blade. “Think I’ll keep it.”
The ramp started to close, and the dinosaur scrambled back up it and into the cargo hold just before the metal hinges locked into place, creating an airtight seal. Tusk felt his stomach lurch as the ship rose rapidly skyward.
“Cut me free,” ordered Tusk.
“Not gonna happen, Atilla the Dumb,” replied Cinder.
Tusk laughed without mirth.
“I’m glad that you appreciate my humor,” said Cinder.
“I’m not laughing at your blather,” said Tusk. “I’m laughing because you are filled with hubris.”
“Big word for a guy named after a walrus tooth,” said Cinder.
“Cut me free,” said Tusk again. And he closed his eyes in concentration.
“I told you, it ain’t gonna happen.”
“I wasn’t talking to you.”
The runes on Warg-gram blazed to life and Cinder’s arm lunged forward suddenly.
“What the blazing hell!” cried Cinder. He tried to let go of the handle but he couldn’t. The blade pulled him against his will all around the cargo hold, hacking at everything in sight, throwing up sparks, and wreaking havoc. Riptor scurried up the stairs leading to the second level, and vanished from sight.
Cinder staggered forward like a puppet and swung Warg-gram at Tusk, but the blade merely sliced through the Ultratine netting as though it were nothing more than string, leaving Tusk unscathed. The barbarian dropped to the floor. Slowly, he stood up to his full height. “Now make a door,” he commanded.
Cinder cried out as Warg-gram, still held in his hand, plunged into the steel floor up to the hilt, then dragged him around in a circle, cutting through the metal sheeting. The instant Cinder completed the circle, the sword flew from his hand and Tusk caught it in mid-air by the handle.
Lurching backwards, Cinder came to a stop against the cargo bay wall. Bursts of flame erupted from him, igniting the air around his body, causing a rippling distortion that wreathed him like a halo. “Nice tricks!” he said. “Forget that campfire nonsense…that thing you just did there with the remote controlled sword? THAT’s how you get someone… fired up!”
Bringing his hands together palm upwards, Cinder sent forth a plume of fire in Tusk’s direction, but the barbarian jumped out of the way before it struck him, landing on the cutout section of the floor. It held for a split second before giving way with the screech of scraping steel. The next moment Tusk was falling through the cold night sky away from the ship—a ship that was now rocked with explosions because of Cinder’s errant attack.
Tusk went into a dive position, holding Warg-gram out in front of him, the wind blasting his face as he reached terminal velocity. He reckoned he had a minute or so before he hit the ground. He thought about the young Asian woman he’d seen in Warg-gram. He thought about the blue-skinned warrior. He thought of the Ichoriens and their making song…
He struck the ice with the sound of a bomb going off. And in that instant he remembered the name of the ugly horned monster he’d seen in the vision of the campfire…the one who spoke of flaying his soul.
Gargos—the Shadow Lord.
Kim Wu fell back under the blue-skinned demon’s relentless assault, thinking that maybe her “I’ve got a friggin’ dragon” quip hadn’t been the best idea in light of how this fight was playing out.
Nunchaku whirling furiously, she blocked the vicious attacks from his serrated blade; but Shadow Jago disappeared before her eyes in a cloud of black mist, only to reappear behind her with a painful kick to her lower back that sent her flying.
“I don’t know what to do, Yeo!” she said to the golden dragon circling around her like a glowing hologram. “Help me!”
She’d fought many practice bouts before against worthy opponents; and once she’d even taken down a shady guy who’d stalked her from the bus stop. But she’d never come face to face with anyone who was actually trying to murder her. Especially not a demonic freak with magical powers. For the first time in her life she felt a sense of panic. Her heart was beating too fast. Her blood was pounding in her ears. She regretted being so cocky. Regretted taunting this thing. She stared at the demon as he assumed the Horse Stance—legs spread wide apart and bent, arms bent with palms upturned…
And blue electricity was now sparking from his upturned hands!
“What the—” Kim trailed off, mesmerized by this bizarre sight.
“I feel your fear,” Yeo said, his calm voice resonating inside her head. “Give your fear to me.”
Before Kim could reply the demon attacked again—this time rushing forward and leaping into a whirlwind of energized fire—corkscrewing into the air with his spinning blade. Kim jumped back and danced away, putting distance between her and the grim fighter. She crouched next to her uncle’s bike, under the flickering neon lights of the Auspicious Paint Company. Suddenly the lights went out, casting her in darkness.
“You cannot run, girl.” The demon’s hateful mocking voice emanated from behind the skull mask that hid the lower half of his face. His lifeless zombie’s eyes glowed a sickly pale blue. “There is nowhere to hide. Give up the dragon…and I’ll make your death swift.”
Kim gasped for air as she wiped blood and sweat from her forehead. All that she wanted to do was to run from this enemy. Run and never look back. How did she go from listening to old Beatles records to battling for her life? It was insane. The fight had started out well enough, and she’d felt like she’d been holding her own. But then she’d realized, with a sickening lurch in her stomach, that the demon had just been playing with her.
“This is nuts!” she said.
“You cannot run from fate,” said the dragon, apparently reading her terrified thoughts as he circled around her in the air. He split into three versions of himself, as if to bolster her strength with numbers. “Give me your fear!”
“How?” she asked.
Shadow Jago took a step forward and pointed his blade at her. “Release the spirit!” Then he lunged swiftly and Kim blocked his attack with a desperation move. But the demon stopped short and gave a cruel laugh. “You are nothing,” he goaded. “Savior of the world? You can’t even save yourself. Gargos thought too highly of your powers. He should have sent one of his little minions to deal with the likes of you.”
Kim hated the sound of the warrior’s sneering voice. She felt like a little girl being teased on the playground.
“After I’m done with you I’ll slaughter the rest of your family in there,” spat the demon, pointing at her uncle’s building. “But before I do it, I’ll tell them how you failed to save them.” Then he laughed.
And Kim saw red.
A tingle ran up her spine as the flesh on her arms and neck broke into gooseflesh. And then she saw something remarkable: her fear made manifest, floating in front of her like an ugly blob of fetid tissue—a rotting thing that need to be discarded…or burned. The three dragons merged into one beautiful and glowing golden creature.
“Take the fear, Yeo,” said Kim, her voice low and furious. “Fry it.”
The words had no sooner left her mouth when the dragon exhaled a stream off glittering fire, burning the “fear” to a haze of particles that descended upon the dirty concrete alleyway like grey ash. Kim’s heart soared and her thoughts cleared. All that she saw standing before her was an opponent. Someone to fight. Someone to beat. She was no longer afraid. In fact, she longed for the fray. It was her heritage…it was what she had been born to do.
Defeating this hateful demon was all that mattered now.
Spinning her nunchaku, she dashed straight at Shadow Jago, scaling his body like a climber scampering up a rock face. Kicking him in the face at the top of her ascent, she performed a 360 aerial flip, and brained him with her nunchaku as she whipped around.
Landing spryly on the concrete she instantly swept out with her feet, taking the demon’s legs out from under him. Reacting instinctively, she stomped on the ground with all her might, causing a blue explosion that sent her enemy skyward on a plume of concussive energy.
As he dropped back down she kicked him with the flat of her foot, and he ragdolled across the alley. She felt a surge of power boiling up inside her, as if every molecule of her being was connected to Yeo’s wellspring of strength. The dragon erupted from her like a missile, flying straight at Shadow Jago, exploding against his chest. He staggered backwards as if in slow motion…
Kim’s ears popped. The air around the demon shimmered as if surrounded by a heat wave.
The sound was like the snapping of a whip in slow motion, and Kim clapped her hands over her ears in pain. The space above the prone warrior was ripped apart—torn as if the air were made of matter as solid as the pavement below—revealing a black void on the other side.
A young woman appeared from this portal. She was the same teenager Kim had thought she’d seen out of the corner of her eye before she’d opened the box: a girl with black hair, a deathly white face, and tattered silk robes. Her face was distinctly Japanese, and she carried a naginata fighting pole with a long curved blade on one end.
The lifeless body of Shadow Jago rose up, and he was pulled into the portal. His body disappeared as if it had been taken through a doorway into a lightless room. And then the rift closed, leaving no trace of the fighter behind. The Japanese girl remained for a split second. She glanced at Kim, smiled hideously—revealing sets of impossibly non-human teeth—then vanished, leaving a shred of red silk cloth behind.
The dragon floated around the alley a few times as if doing a victory lap, then returned to Kim like a boomerang.
“Mut-ji-gun!” Kim exclaimed in Korean, putting her hands on her knees and catching her breath. “That was cool!” She couldn’t believe what she had just happened. She’d created an explosion with her foot! She’d fired a dragon rocket! She’d seen a Japanese phantom suck a demon through a friggin’ portal! “Who were they?” she asked.
“The demon was a minion of the Shadow Lord,” replied Yeo. “Gargos is growing stronger. Soon he’ll be able to pass through to our world himself, though he needs a much bigger rift to move himself and his shadow energy between the Astral plane and this world.”
“And the Japanese girl?” asked Kim as she reached down and picked up the piece of red cloth the apparition had left behind. “Where did she come from?”
“She is a Guardian,” said Yeo. “She came from the Astral Plane. She is an enemy of Gargos.”
“I like her style,” said Kim. “Very goth.”
“She has been dead for many centuries.”
“You and I have a lot to talk about, don’t we, Yeo?”
“Indeed,” replied Yeo, his eyes coruscating with golden light. “You have made the first footfall on a great stairway paved with a thousand steps.”
“Am I moving up or down this stairway?” asked Kim.
“That remains to be seen,” replied the dragon.
“So what do we do now?”
“We train. And wait.”
Yeo smiled. “The original.”
“The original what?” asked Kim, confused.
“The original Jago.”
To be continued…
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