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Authors: Seth Skorkowsky

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BOOK: Ibenus (Valducan series)
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Metal inlaid symbols glinted from the square mahogany floor tiles, their shapes reminiscent of the armor they had passed. Some of the glyphs adorned the middles, while others the edges or corners, each one unique. Looking up, Gerhard scanned the portraits lining the walls, men and women of different eras and races, all holding a weapon before them. Was this some religious group?

"In 1148 they were excommunicated from the Church for refusing to destroy Khirzoor, a Muslim scimitar." Alex opened a door, its silver knob decorated with polished stones. "Since then, the Valducans have lived in secrecy, sworn to protect the sacred weapons of the hidden war."

Gerhard followed him into a long dining room. More portraits and antiques decorated the oriental red walls. A dark, polished table ran nearly the length of the room. Another bouquet crowned its center, filling the room with a strange aroma. Before it, laid out on a folded velvet cloth, rested Umatri, his gilded blade hidden within his polished scabbard.

Gerhard's mouth suddenly felt dry. He stepped closer, his hands trembling as he crossed a thick rug and reached for the keris. His fingers found the smooth wood and clutched it. He closed his eyes, pulling it close to his chest. The relief of their reunion washed through him in a euphoric wave. For an instant he imagined he felt the grip ripple beneath his touch as it had in the dreams, as if muscles moved beneath wooden skin. It was his. Or…was he Umatri's? It didn't matter. They were together and he'd never let him out of his care again.

"Would you care for a drink?" Alex asked after nearly a minute of silence.

Gerhard blinked.

The old man was pouring an amber drink from a crystal decanter. He turned, offering a stemmed glass.

"No," Gerhard said, finding his voice. "No thank you."

Alex nodded and stoppered the bottle. "The bond is such a beautiful thing." He pulled a chair out beside Gerhard and eased himself down. "If I could live a thousand years it would never grow old to see."

"The bond?"

"The bond with a holy weapon." Alex gestured to an empty seat. "Please."

Glancing back, Gerhard realized Taras had left the room, if he'd even entered it. Gerhard hadn't noticed.

"Taras is preparing food for us. It will give us some time to talk."

Gerhard pulled the chair out and sat, still gripping Umatri as if the old man might somehow try to wrestle it from him. "What do you mean, bond with a holy weapon?"

"Do you mean to tell me that you don't feel it?" Alex asked. "That feeling that your life has been somehow incomplete without Umatri? Perhaps you've even questioned your sanity because of an obsessive need to be with it, an un-living object has won your love, a love it could never return."

A spike of anger shot up Gerhard's spine. He stiffened. How dare this man think Umatri couldn't—

"Ah." Alex raised a finger, a triumphant smile across his face. "So you
do
know. Umatri does love you because despite all reason, you know him to be alive. Don't you?"

Gerhard pursed his lips, eyes averting from the old man's knowing stare.

"You felt its call at the museum. You returned day after day just to be near it. In your dreams you felt him, felt him calling, begging you to return. Then finally you touched him, felt him and that love. And then your dreams changed."

"How did you know that?" Gerhard lifted his gaze to meet Alex's matter-of-fact smile.

The old man sipped his drink. "Because within that blade lives an angel, Gerhard. And out of everyone alive he has seen your soul and has chosen
you
to be his protector, his champion to aid him on his quest. I know this because every Valducan knight has bonded to a living weapon, and Umatri has bonded with
you
."

"His quest?"

"To destroy demons."

A sharp laugh escaped Gerhard's lips. "You're serious?"

"I am." He swirled his drink, gazing at it like chemist studying a solution, then met his eyes. "Holy weapons have existed for thousands of years, magical weapons that slew monsters. Those myths are based on
real people
and
real weapons
. If you know Umatri to be alive, capable of returning your love, is it so impossible to believe that there are other things out there, beings that only Umatri could kill?"

Gerhard gave a nervous chuckle. He'd never believed in a god but didn't wish to offend or debate the old man. Alex's obvious response would simply be that Gerhard had just more or less admitted that he believed…no,
knew
, Umatri to be alive. He decided on a different route, instead. "If Umatri wished for a warrior, then why me?"

"There is a military base in Stuttgart." Alex swirled the drink again, then sipped it. "That was part of why I selected that museum. Do you have any idea how many soldiers and their families walked past Umatri's display?"

Gerhard shook his head.

"Your mother passed away some years ago. Were you close?"

"Yes."

"As much as her loss grieved you, did you not feel that maybe it should have upset you more, as if you were somehow broken because you were able to move past it so quickly?"

Gerhard's fingers tightened again on Umatri, that remembered guilt pressing the back of his brain. He'd never told anyone that and, now hearing it from the old man's lips, a renewed anger barbed and twisted within him, anger at himself for not mourning her as deeply as he should have, anger at this man for reminding him of that failure.

Alex set the snifter down onto the table. "I know more than that about you. You lack most prejudices. You've always been in fine physical condition, especially hand-eye coordination. You've never once considered suicide, and you've never had, nor will you ever, suffer from post-traumatic stress."

"How could you know that?" Gerhard asked.

"Because a holy weapon has bonded with you. Being a great warrior is more than training. It requires a very specific type of person. Out of everyone who saw him, Umatri selected you. So say whatever you wish about what faults or shortcomings you might believe you have, but Umatri has seen your soul, Gerhard, and has judged you the worthiest."

A knock sounded from the door. Gerhard turned as Taras peeked inside.

"Ah," Alex said. "Come in."

Taras pushed open the door and carried in a pitcher with some glasses. A tall, auburn-haired woman followed with two plates of sandwiches. Gerhard's stomach tightened and rumbled at seeing the food.

"Sam," Alex said to the young woman, "I want you to meet Gerhard Entz, Umatri's new protector. Gerhard, this is Samantha Coxall."

She set the food down and offered her hand. Her large, bright eyes deceptively gave her the appearance of a teenager. "It's a pleasure to meet you," she said in German, a bare hint of some strange accent to it.

"And you," Gerhard said, accepting it.

"I look forward to working with you," she said. "I've never seen Umatri in action."

Gerhard smiled, unsure how to respond.

"Sam is Taras' squire, or student, if you prefer," Alex said. "She's also a language enthusiast. Fluent in four and always working on more."

"Five," she corrected with a little smile. "My Swedish just needs a little tuning."

"Don't brag," Taras said, filling the glasses. "Not until you can beat Master Sonu."

Her full lips curled into a pout.

Taras turned to the two men. "Is there anything else we can get for you?"

"This is fine," Alex said. "Thank you."

Sam gave Gerhard a final smile, then followed Taras out, closing the door behind her.

Not ready to let Umatri go, Gerhard laid the keris across his lap and picked up the sandwich. He ate in silence, thankful for the interruption. Alex's conviction troubled him. This whole affair was so strange, so unbelievable. Demons. Modern knights living in a mansion. Angels inhabiting weapons. Yes, Umatri was special, that he was sure, but the rest… This was a cult.

The old man nibbled at his food as he watched Gerhard. "I know this is all a bit overwhelming for you."

Gerhard nodded. He sipped his water. "It is…a lot to process."

"I understand. That is why I requested a week for you to consider our offer."

"And what is that?"

"To join us, of course. There is safety in numbers and your particular skills would be very useful in our other businesses."

"Other businesses?"

"All of
this
," Alex gestured around them, "requires money. The Order has several businesses, real estate, and a rapidly-growing energy endeavor that finances us, but we have been without a proper accountant for some time."

"So this
is
a job offer?"

"Of course it is." Alex leaned closer. "Your life has changed now, Gerhard. Now that you have bonded with Umatri it will never be the same. I'm offering you safe haven, training, and the ability to work as a team. Independent hunters have lived long and prosperous lives, but those are rare. Police and media are a bigger threat than ever, and they become more sophisticated every day. If we are to win this war, we must align ourselves."

Gerhard shook his head, his fingers finding Umatri for comfort. "I'm…I'm not joining any war. I don't know what this is about but I don't have any intention to
kill devils
, or whatever it is you mean. I came for Umatri. Nothing more."

Drawing a contemplative breath, Alex leaned back. "I see." He reached for his cane and pushed himself up. "Come with me, please. Let us take you to your room so you can make yourself more comfortable. But first, there's someone that I would like you to meet."

 

Chapter Eight

 

Allan tipped his coffee cup, waiting for the last drop to roll out. The excitement from the night had waned since they got home. The exhaustion was coming, looming imminent on the horizon now. No amount of caffeine could hold it back. He just needed a little bit longer.

"It's just so weird." Victoria shook her head and tapped the keyboard. Rain pattered the carport outside, growing louder.

"What is?" Allan rubbed his eyes and peered down to the frozen image of Chaya standing above the dead tengu, captured in the night vision's green monochrome. He saw himself there, partially out of frame, looking like some kind of ninja with his mask and black attire.

She pursed her lips, eyes as intent on the crumpled beast as they'd been when she first watched the video three viewings ago. "It was just living there like anyone else. No one even knew."

"Someone knew. Or at least someone finally saw it for what it was."

Her hazel eyes met his. "How long had it lived there?"

Allan ran his fingers along his rough cheek. He needed a shower and shave, then clean sheets, darkness, and the sound of the rain. "At least seventy years, I'd guess, with some of the things we found." He looked up at Chaya sitting in the chair opposite them, its burgundy leather seeming to match the mottled purple of her black eye. "You went deeper inside. Any guess how long it has been there?"

She tapped a finger on the sheathed scimitar across her lap. Sitting with a sword was always problematic. "At least seventy," she said, finally. "No relics from the first World War, so sometime between that and the Second."

"And no one noticed the same person living there all that time?" Victoria asked.

Allan caught a whiff of his own soured sweat and wondered how bad he must smell to Victoria. Then again, they probably all reeked. "Mimickers are pretty good about rotating bodies every few years."

"Mimickers?" Victoria scrunched her brow. "Ones that mimic people?"

"That's right," he said with an impressed nod. "Aside from their big noses, Tengu look completely normal when they wish. But they're nesters. Won't abandon a place unless they have to. So they just mark a new victim, have them purchase the property, then eat the old body once it's finished. Nice and neat."

Victoria's mouth tightened as if about to say more, but turned toward the open doorway as footsteps approached from the hall.

Allan straightened as Master Turgen stepped into the room. The lean-faced German recruit followed closely behind him, Umatri clutched in his hands.

"I want to introduce you to Gerhard Entz, Umatri's newest protector." Turgen gestured as Chaya rose from her seat. "This is Chaya Dahan, protector of Khirzoor."

She offered a hand. "Pleasure to meet you."

Turgen motioned in Allan's direction as he stood. "This is Allan Havlock, protector of Ibenus."

"Good to meet you," Allan said, shaking Gerhard's soft hand.

"And you," the German said with a slight bow.

"And this," Turgen said, stepping closer, "must be Victoria Martin, Allan's new student." He extended his slender hand. "I am Alexander Turgen. Welcome to our home."

"Thank you," she said.

"I sincerely apologize that I was not here on your arrival. I assume Allan has offered you some refreshment?"

"He has."

He smiled in that warm grandfatherly way of his, but Allan noticed the fine, wary edge hiding in the old man's eyes. "Very good." Turgen stepped aside, allowing Gerhard access. "This is Gerhard, another guest, only just introduced to our fold." He waited until they had shaken hands before offering Gerhard a chair. "Allan, I was wondering if you could share the story of how you first became a hunter."

"Of course." Allan ran a hand along Ibenus' smooth grip until Turgen had lowered himself into one of the leather wingbacks, then he drew the khopesh from her sheath. If the old man was asking for this story now, it meant that the new recruit wasn't sold on joining the Order, yet. He sat down cradling Ibenus across his lap. "My great-great-grandfather, Gordon Havlock, was a treasure hunter. Fancied himself an Egyptologist, but…" He shook his head. "Bit of a scoundrel, really.

"While on expedition in Thebes he discovered a small temple. Couple mummies, gold, artifacts. There, at the edges of their torchlight, resting on a pedestal before a statue of a hawk-headed god, was Ibenus." Allan patted the bronze blade. "So his team divided the treasure up, carried it all back to England, and made a fortune selling it to collectors and museums. He held on to some choice pieces for himself, Ibenus among them.

BOOK: Ibenus (Valducan series)
11.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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