equinox – the last scion (part 7)
We, I mean me and the Hat, walked for what seemed like days. The desert gave way to a road. It was paved but no cars ever seemed to travel along it. We walked for three days and didn’t see anything. I knew I should be getting hungry or thirsty, but the Hat kept telling me not to worry about it. I felt this burning in my chest from time to time, but it wasn’t like hunger or thirst.
Not exactly. I kept having the feeling that I was in need of something but having never had it, I couldn’t tell you what I was lacking or how to fix it. Whatever it was, it was wrong. The sense of wrongness you get when you drink a bitter liquid and are told you can’t spit. The longer we walked the more that sense of wrongness grew. My skin felt too tight like a balloon blown up to the point of breaking.
Walking all day and all night, time gained a surreal quality and my senses became fuzzy, as if I was not seeing the world as I knew it. The road eventually became a dirt path and the Hat said our destination was ahead. We passed a sign that said “Welcome to Providence, population 1,024.” The paint on the sign was old and the number had been replaced recently updating the four.
There was a sense of foreboding as we continued down the road. The air grew thick and the wind picked up. The early morning sky darkened and the smell of ozone filled the air. A storm was coming. The pain in my chest grew stronger, as if a weight was being placed on my chest. My breathing became ragged.
“Sit down for a second.”
You are awful bossy for a hat. ”What is that feeling?”
“There are two things going on here. The first is your power trying to compensate for your lack of food and water. But in doing so, it has begun to make others aware of it. That feeling is the presence of a Power you are sensing.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means we need to get you a meal and soon. The longer you go without food, the more likely the Power will overtake you and consume your life essence.”
“Uh, say again? Consume my life essence? That does not sound particularly healthy.”
“It means your consciousness would cease to exist and you would for all intents and purpose be dead. This would be undesirable as your Power would be roaming the world uncontrolled. You still have some time before that is something to be seriously concerned about.”
“What exactly is a Power? Is it like the use of magic or technology?”
“You have not been told what a Power is?”
“Not the way you say it. You make it sound like a capital P when you say it. I take it that is different than when I say power-plant or power-steering.”
I could feel the Hat shaking its figurative head.”What happened when you met the Great Ones, Kali and Shango? Did you feel anything?” Other than scared out of my boots? Or the feeling of complete insignificance in the presence of legendary beings? “No. Wait. I did feel something. But it felt as if they were making an effort to keep something from me.”
“They shielded their Power from you. They were trying to protect you. If you could feel their true power, you…”
“What? What are they protecting me from?”
“It is not for me to say.”
“Are you serious? Everyone has spent the last week telling me they cannot tell me about whatever it is that people are trying to kill me over. I thought you were on my side.”
“So we understand each other: There is no one on anyone’s side. Powers will lie, cheat and steal whatever they can from you, and take whatever they cannot bargain for. This is a dog eat dog Universe. Season dog well, so when its your turn to eat, he won’t taste so bad. The best you can hope for is an alliance of convenience.”
“So you are not on my side?”
“I did not say that. I said the idea of sides is a relative concept and thinking that people will be fair to you or work on your behalf is one that may get you killed. I sense something of honor about you. Probably from your father. But understand this, we did not come to Providence so you could get yourself killed over your honor.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I am trying to keep it that way. A Power is seeking you out. They know you are coming here. Let’s keep moving. They will be here soon.”
“Who?” The question went unanswered.
As we walked, Providence solidified around me, and it looked like any small town from any 1950′s B movie I had ever seen. The streets were cobbled, nicely, and the rock was solid under my boots. The town while small, was well constructed and from I could see through the dusty air, seemed to be relatively nice.
I noted immediately the one thing that seemed out of place. No people. Not on the road, not in the windows, not in the storefronts. But as I moved further into town, I could hear the sounds of voices. A dull roar off in the distance. I kept walking toward the sound. As it grew louder, I saw the first signs of habitation. Vehicles. But they were all old, nothing modern. Yes, they were cars, but if I were guessing, nothing from later than the ’50s.
Then I saw the stadium, or what would be a large football field with stands on both sides of the field and people filled the boxes on all four sides of the field. The place was packed. I could see the two teams playing on the field and the ball was moving down field and the stands went wild. The roar was the old fashioned cheering of the home team. That creepy feeling I had been having seemed to ease up for just a second. This was just a small town playing a weekend football game. Nothing unusual here.
Looking up at the old-fashioned scoreboard, I could see the score, 10-24 in favor of the home team. Turning away, I looked back into the town when I saw him approaching me. He was wearing a long coat and wore a star on his lapel. He was a large man, whose size became more evident as he grew closer. Under his long black coat he wore a khaki police uniform but he did not carry a gun, I could see. My father’s voice came to me unbidden. “Mark a man, not just by what you can see, but what you can’t.”
I looked again, this time with the mind of a man whose life might depend on what he saw next. He walked with a slight limp. Off balanced, his right arm swung a little wide. He is wearing a shoulder rig. His gun rides high, likely for a cross draw. He is left handed, his left hand swings, his right, much less. He is wearing good solid boots and a wide hat, to keep the sun out of his eyes. He is coming toward me with the sun in my eyes. Taking any advantage he can get. There was something else about him. He was magically sealed. Some kind of warding, I could not tell what it protected him from but it was strong.
“Howdy, stranger. Enjoying the game? Our local boys are whipping ‘em something fierce today.”
“Yes, sir. Your team is doing a fine job.”
“I was sent to escort you into town to meet the mayor.”
“How did you know to expect me?”
“The name of the town is called Providence for a reason, son. Everyone who shows up here, needs to be here. I am the Sheriff of Providence, I am always where I need to be. This way, please.”
“Can I ask the mayor’s name?”
“Certainly, he said you would ask. Mayor Black said to extend you every courtesy. He said its not every day you get to meet the Last Scion in person.”
“That is the second time someone has called me that. What does it mean? If you can tell me…”
“It means you are the last living member of your house. You are the last of the House of Dragon, the bearer of the Equinox.”
When he said that, the fire in my chest suddenly seared with a physical heat, as if having someone name it brought it to incandescent life. A pulse of force radiated from me in a circle, and as it passed the stadium, the crowd became silent.
“Now, now. We don’t want any of that. We don’t want or need any trouble. You keep that under control or I will do it for you.”
“A smart man waits until he knows the lay of the land before showing his hand.” I could feel my father standing over my shoulder in that moment. I would wait. I could feel the Dragon curling back up and going to sleep. That seemed to be the right word for it; dragon, I could feel it, a great power coiled within me. Why did it cause me to be even more afraid? If it was so powerful, why didn’t it protect my father? Something is still wrong. But the answers feel closer than ever.
I took a deep breath. I turned to look at the sheriff, who appeared to be poised to take some sort of action. His eyes had narrowed and I could feel the tingle of an anti-magic aura being gathered. I smiled and remained perfectly still. To even raise my hand might be mistaken as me gathering energy or about to use magic. “Take me to your leader.”
* * *
As the Sheriff escorted me into the center of town, I could sense the game behind me returning to its previous exuberance. The townsfolk seem to take their football seriously and whatever they sensed earlier didn’t seem to warrant further investigation once they saw the Sheriff was on the job. That made me nervous.
The pain in my chest returned with a renew vigor and I stumbled and dropped to one knee.
“You okay, son?”
“To be perfectly honest, Sheriff, I could do with a bite to eat.”
“Well, under the circumstances, it would be bad manners if I had you meet the mayor on an empty stomach. I am certain he would not want our town’s reputation for hospitality to be ruined on my account.”
“On my way into town, I noticed everything’s closed. What do you have in mind?” Too many afternoons of bad B movies had me thinking he was going to invite me to his home and chop me up in his basement.
“One of the benefits of being the Sheriff is a key to the diner. I am certain we can rustle up something from the fridge. Now tell me something, how old are you? ‘Cause to look at you, I’d think you were sixteen and a bit young to be out here in Providence, no disrespect.”
“Ah. Existential angst might be enough to get you here, then.”
When we reached the diner, the Sheriff let us in and locked the door behind us. He moved behind the counter in what appeared to be a diner straight out of Happy Days. Big counter, wide spinning seats, a jukebox, diner booths with bright red padded chairs. All we were missing was a laugh track and a guy in a leather jacket. I spun around on one of the stools a couple of times, but stopped right before the Sheriff came back into the room.
“Made you a BLT, hope you eat bacon.” He smiled and carried the two plates and cups like a pro. Noting my smile, he added, “Did my time as a waiter when I first came to Providence twenty years ago. Some skills never go away.”
That seemed like a strange thought to me. This was a guy that seemed to have been a Sheriff forever. I can’t imagine him having ever been anything else. That was another thing about this place, the very nature of everything here seemed overt, powerful, strong as if each thing were the perfect representation of the thing I was seeing. Ms. Hart tried to teach me something about that once, but I couldn’t recall what she called it.
Talking around the most delicious BLT I had ever eaten I had to ask the question that had been nagging me since I got here. “Sheriff, where is Providence? I mean on a map.”
“Now see, we were doing so well. Why did you have to go and spoil it with a philosophical conversation. Let’s finish our meal with less weighty questions and then the mayor can answer such deep and meaningful questions.” I didn’t see him eat his sandwich but when I looked at his plate, his food was gone.
He was sipping on a cup of strong, black coffee. I could smell it and the scent of it reminded me of my father. He drank his black. I remember taking a sip and finding it the most bitter thing I had ever had. He laughed as I choked it down. When I asked him why he drank it that way, he said he wanted the essence of the coffee. Sugar and milk watered down the true nature of the oil that coffee was made from. It was important to him to engage the coffee in a struggle of its nature versus his. I didn’t quite understand it then. But now its making more sense. The real struggles of the world were not always cataclysmic. They were the tiny conflicts we fight every day, those were the battles that needed to be won in order to win the war. He started his day off with a battle he could win.
“Sheriff, if you can’t tell me where Providence is, can you tell me what it is? My teacher taught me about the realm of Logos, where the perfect representation of everything can be found. When I am looking around here, everything seems simply too good, if I can use the word, iconic, even. I mean, look at this jukebox, its perfect, lights all work, each label for the records is perfectly written, no scratches, no flaws. It’s almost as if it had never been used.”
Leaning back onto the counter, he had leaned his hat forward and while sipping his coffee, shadow seemed to fall on his face and for a moment, all I could see was the glittering of his eyes. Across the room, I could feel a chill in the air and his words seemed darker, colder and just a touch menacing. “Providence ain’t like any town you have ever seen, boy. Providence is every town you have ever seen. Everything seems perfect here because it is. Everyone who lives here is someone who had despaired of finding a place that could hold them, make them feel human, people out on the edges of the world, a world that has forgotten that everyone isn’t beautiful, or wealthy or loved. Providence is where those forgotten people get to come and be normal.”
There was a mirror on the wall across from the jukebox over the dinner booths. I hadn’t noticed it earlier but when my eye fell across it, I could see the Sheriff on the stool but what I saw wasn’t even remotely human. Misshapen, with a long arm draping onto the floor, the other surrounding the tiny coffee cup. The glint of a long tusk, touched what did appear to be the Sheriff’s cap. Legs, thick and frightening, covered in a scale ended in large clawed toes. When he spoke next, his smooth and methodical voice was replaced with a harsh, scratchy sound like gravel being ground together to approximate human speech. “Are you ready, not a good thing to keep the mayor waiting too long?”
I snapped my head back into the room and I saw the Sheriff return to his beautiful, glamoured appearance. When I looked back into the mirror, he still looked the same now. Whatever I saw was gone. I wanted desperately ask the Hat what was going on, but since we entered the town proper, it hasn’t made so much as a sound, so I wanted to keep it a secret, for as long as possible. “Yes, sir. That sandwich hit the spot. My complements to the chef.”
The walk to the main building at the center of town was short. As we walked, I saw the sky darkening slightly, and the wind picked up just a bit. I could taste the slightest moisture in the air and the distant flash of lightning in the hills surrounding Providence foretold rain in a couple of hours.
“Company’s coming. Let’s get a move on.” The Sheriff picked up his pace and the sound of his boots echoed off the walls of the nearby shops and down the alleys. I was underwhelmed by the very ordinary outside of the building. It looked like an old bell tower or a building that might have been a church in the past.
But once past the doors, its inner appearance was simply majestic. It had a high inner ceiling and stained glass windows. Where I would have expected pews the floor was open and clear with a very ornate sigil that I did not recognize, on the floor made from a mosaic of tiny tiles. It was beautiful even to my underdeveloped sense of artistic mastery. I had never seen anything quite like it. “Mind your hat.” The Sheriff took his hat off as he entered the building. I followed suit. My Hat was hot in my hands, like a living thing. It vibrated with a hum like a cat purring.
“Stay on the White. Do not touch the black tiles.” The Sheriff took a circuitous route to the stairwell, carefully avoided any of the tiles which were completely black. Paying close attention I did the same. The longer I walked the longer the walk seemed to take. I realized something was happening when I noticed the angle of the sun. A significant amount of time was required to navigate the room and when I realized I had reached the stairs, at least thirty minutes had passed. The angle of the sun was completely different. But during the movement, I was unaware of the passage of time until I reached the stairs.
Did I really ask that many questions? When we reached the second floor, the building was made of the darkest wood I had ever seen. It seemed to absorb the very light from the room. All the windows were stained glass and no direct sunlight came into the room. But I think sunlight would refuse to enter here, even if it could. The air was heavy and still. Thick with age, like a closet that has not been opened for a long time.
The Sheriff pointed down the hall to a large set of doors. “The Mayor will see you in that room. When you get there, knock and wait until told to enter. I will see to our other guests. Good luck, son.”
“You’re not coming?” Suddenly being here didn’t seem to be the good idea I thought it was when I was first convinced of it.
“This is as far as I need to go. Goodbye, Last Scion. I think we shall never meet again. I am sorry.”
I turned down the hall and the Hat in my hand thrummed and nearly sang with anticipation. I could feel it’s familiarity with this place as if it were coming home. Walking down the hall, it grew darker, a subtle thing but by the time I reached the end of the hall, I could barely see anything. The doors were a cold stone, matte black, absorbing all light, reflecting nothing.
I knocked. The doors absorbed the sound muffling my pitiful attempt to be heard. I waited. I knocked harder with greater vigor, wanting to be heard. It didn’t matter.
“Enter, Adam, Last Scion of the Clan Equinox.” The voice was startlingly clear. And then I realized why. It was coming from the Hat in my hand. I pushed the door open and entered into a room that was completely without light.
I walked in and the Power in my chest flared to fiery life. I could feel it trying to illuminate the darkness. It failed. I bumped into a chair, something leather, plush and padded.
“Sit down. Place the Hat on the chair across from you and we shall begin our negotiations.”
“Hello Heberon. It’s been a while.”
Whose Heberon? I can smell a perfume, smoky, dusky, a sandalwood and a voice that sounded like the Hat, with a decidingly more female sound.
“Hello, my Dark Master. It has been a century or two. I hope we haven’t kept you waiting.”
“Not at all, my dear. Did you explain to your young charge about his unconditional surrender?
“We hadn’t gotten around to that part, yet my Master.”
Equinox © Thaddeus Howze 2011. All Rights Reserved [@ebonstorm]