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PART FIVE: THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT

CHAPTER 17

The explosion ripped through the lab. Dom was thrown against the back wall of the cell, and chunks of rock and metal pelted the bars. A cloud of greasy grey smoke swarmed toward him, and Dom turned his face toward the floor. His ears were ringing, and when he touched his face, his fingers came away with blood. His stomach churned as a stench of burned plastic, hair, and flesh rolled over him.

He had been in the trenches during the First World War. There were nights when the Germans shelled the line relentlessly. After the first few weeks, you got used to the constant crump! of shells being hurled from more than a kilometer away. Followed by the bone-rattling roar of the shell exploding along the ridge. A shower of dirt and mud and occasionally bits of someone you might have known. You didn't panic. You didn't scream or flinch or shit yourself. Those days were behind you. You tucked your chin and hugged the wall of the trench. This was your spot. The Germans weren't going to move you, no matter how many shells they threw.

Sometimes you fell asleep. And why not? You weren't going over the line tonight. Not with all that ordinance falling. Hold fast. Stay in your spot. You wouldn't see the shell that killed you anyway. No point in worrying about it. No point in worrying about anything at all.

Dom wormed around on his belly until his back was against the wall. The floor of his cell was streaked with parallel lines of dust. The air was still choked with dust and smoke, but he could make out a huddled shape against the bars. There was a fire burning somewhere, and its flames lent a reddish tinge to the dust-laden air.

He gradually became aware of a shrieking noise, and he realized it was an alarm. It's undulating wail was punctuated by staccato bursts of gunfire. Shapes darted through the haze, and his hearing recovered enough that he could distinguish shouts and screams in the cacophony.

Using his elbows and knees, he crawled to the bars. The body outside his cell was one of the technicians who had approached Elze's cell, and Dom felt a pang of panic in his gut. Was she all right? There's only one way to find out, he thought grimly as he riffled the corpse. His determination faltered briefly when he found nothing useful in the man's pockets, but then he spotted the slender tube the man had been carrying. It had rolled against the base of the frame of the cell.

One end of the tube was covered with glass, and it appeared to have a confusion of mirrors and reflective surfaces inside it. Pointing it away from him, Dom pressed one of the two buttons. Nothing happened, and being the methodical sort, he pushed the other button. He was rewarded with a buzzing noise from the lock on his cell, and with a shivering rattle, the door of his cell started to move.

As soon as the gap was wide enough, Dom squeezed through. The smoke was thicker outside his cell, and he coughed savagely as he inhaled a lungful of the foul smoke. As he was trying to clear his chest, something exploded nearby, and he instinctively ducked as metal shrapnel whizzed around him.

In the sudden illumination of the blast, he caught sight of several figures. They were dressed in uniforms that were a mix of browns and greys, and like the beetle-men, they wore helmets that covered their entire heads. Unlike the beetle-men though, these helmets had long snouts that curled down to packs strapped to each figure's chest. Their goggles were lit from within, glowing with a lurid luminescence.

And speaking of the beetle-men, Dom spotted some of them as well. A beetle-man spotted Dom, and he raised his PDR menacingly. There was a burst of gunfire, and Dom flinched, but the beetle-man was the target. The soldier side-stepped like he was trying to remember a dance step, and then he fell down. Dom only had eyes for the man's weapon, which he quickly scooped up, and when another beetle-man materialized out of the haze, he fired a quick burst at the approaching soldier.

When the beetle-man fell, Dom ducked into Elze's open cell. There was a single body, and it wasn't Elze's. Dom quickly scanned the floor, and didn't spot the technician's baton, and he concluded that the struggle he had heard shortly before the assault by the snouted ones hadn't gone well for the technician. He returned to the door of her cell, his thoughts in a jumble. Where was she?

The lab was a mess. Many of the machines along the wall were clearly damaged. One was spinning a reel of fiery tape, like a demonic pinwheel. One of the desks had been shattered by the blast, and the other had been knocked out of the wall. The explosion had made a large hole in the wall, and smoke was drifted into it. Dom marked it as a potential escape route, but first he had to find Elze. There were bodies strewn about the room: techs, beetle-men, and a few of the snouted assault troops. The only figures still upright were two men, locked in hand-to-hand combat near the circular platform.

As Dom approached the pair, the beetle-man knocked the snout-soldier down. He loomed over the squirming snouter, a black-bladed knife in his hands. Dom, assuming the old truism about friends and enemies still applied, shot the beetle-man before he could perforate the snouter. The snouter, momentarily unaware of what Dom had done, figured the beetle-man had stumbled, and he scrambled for the dropped knife. He stabbed the beetle-man more than necessary, but Dom wasn't going to interfere. Even with a gun, you interrupted a knife fight at your own peril.

The snouter, sensing Dom's presence, whirled, the knife held ready, and Dom put up a hand, indicating he meant no harm. "I think we're on the same side," he said.

"Motainee," the snouter buzzed. His voice was like a distant radio transmission, filled with static and space.

"I don't know what that means," Dom said.

"Motainee," the snouter buzzed again. He jabbed the knife at Dom—not in an aggressive way, but as if he was excited and had forgotten what he was holding. He jabbed the knife toward the back of the lab, where the smoke drifted into the ragged hole in the wall. "Elkbarh roobess roobess."

"I need to find my friend," Dom said. He glanced at the remaining bodies in the room, making sure none of them was Elze.

The snouter continued to jabber, and Dom ignored him. He had to find Elze. He went to the platform and discovered it was a pool, filled with a shiny liquid that was strangely opaque. A white-robed technician floated in the pool, and Dom didn't like the way the liquid grasped and licked at the corpse.

"Doom kheetal," the snouter said. He shook his head. "Nah nah."

Dom nodded. "Nah nah," he said, agreeing with the masked soldier. Whatever was in the pool wasn't right, and he had no intention of getting any closer.

Something howled in the hall outside the lab, a roaring noise like a hundred lions coughing, and a bright light seared the shadows. Dom smelled burning things again—cloth, flesh, plastic—and a plume of black smoke rolled into the lab. A figure staggered into the doorway. It was one of the snouters, but his helmet was misshapen and his uniform was dark. Dom realized it was because the man had been horribly burned. His helmet and gear had been melted, searing through flesh and bone.

"Motainee," the snouter with the knife cooed. He plucked at Dom's arm, tugging him toward the back of the lab.

The burned snouter tottered into the room and then collapsed. The smell of cooking meat grew stronger, and Dom's stomach tried to tie itself into a knot. The lions roared again, and this time, Dom saw tongues of angry flame lick the wall and floor of the hall. A flamethrower, he thought. They've got a flamethrower.

The snouter's tugs became more insistent.

"But . . ." Dom began, but then he heard that sound again. That tacky-ticky-tack-tack sound of time being torn, and he understood the snouter's apprehension.

A shadow filled the hallway, and that was enough for Dom. He turned and hurried after the snouter, who was already more than halfway to the hole in the wall. He heard—no, he felt—an inhalation behind him, and he quickened his pace. The snouter was picking his way over the rocky rupture of the hole when Dom reached him. Unceremoniously, Dom shoved the smaller man ahead of him, and banging his knees against the ragged edge, he hurled himself into the dark hole. Elze! he thought. I'll find you. I will.

Behind him, lions roared, and the lab filled with fire.

*

CHAPTER 18

Most time declinations are minor, OTP field supervisors would warn their assets. They'll manifest themselves as shifts in language or cultural expression, and they won't require much acclimation. Crossing the century-threshold is more of a shock, they said. Once you've made your first hunner-jump, orienting to a declination will seem like remembering how to ride a bicycle. 

That always got a laugh, because when was the last time someone rode a bicycle? 

This declination, however, was a wave unlike any other. Elze had no idea when it diverged, or how it had managed to sustain itself. The script on the walls had more in common with the Cyrillic alphabet than the Latin one. The structure they had flown around looked like the Eiffel Tower, but how did all that sand come to cover France? 

And the monstrosities? The pair Weston said were his boss. What aberration in the wave created them? 

Elze had a lot of questions, and when the trio of technicians approached the cells where she and Dom were incarcerated, she briefly thought she might get an answer or two. But when the pair pulled out shock sticks, it seemed they weren't interested in a little Q & A. 

She stood back from the door of her cell. They were going to have to come in to get her, and in the enclosed space, she might be able to get one of those sticks before they lanced her full of electricity. She was surprised when both of them charged into her cell. 

She avoided the first one's swing, and got her hand on his elbow. They tangled for a moment, and then she felt his balance shift. That was enough for her to shove him against the wall. 

The second one tagged her in the side with his baton, and she cried out as her body seized from the baton's discharge. The charge wasn't enough to incapacitate her, but that didn't mean she didn't feel it. She backhanded the guard across the visor, but her muscles were still twitching and the blow lacked power. The guard shook off her attack and jabbed her again. This time, the charge coruscated through her chest, and that definitely hurt. 

She backed off, trying to catch her breath. Her lungs weren't working right. Sparks danced in the periphery of her vision. A couple more taps like that and her muscles were going to stop responding. She had to—

The back wall of the lab exploded. 

She and the guard were shoved to the back of the cell. Her head struck the wall hard, and a wreath of bright lights danced in her field of view. A shroud of grey smoke filled the cell, and her lungs seized from the cascade of grit and smoke she inadvertently inhaled. 

The guard, who had been cushioned by her body, tumbled off her. He had dropped his shock stick, and he fumbled for it. He found the baton and turned toward her, intending to use it, but he was interrupted by a figure who slipped out of the dust and smoke. The newcomer wore a atmosphere mask with a heavy filter—Elze had seen masks like this before, but, once again, the differences were in the declination—and he was carrying a compact assault rifle. The weapon made a burping noise, like someone ripping bubble wrap, and the guard went down. The mask-wearer turned his weapon on the other guard, too. 

Elze wondered if she was going to be next, but once the two guards were dead, the mask-wearer gestured for her to come out of the cell. He said something, his voice mechanized by the mask, but she didn't understand his words. 

Regardless, his message was clear: this was a rescue. 

She felt like there was something she was supposed to say, some sort of cultural touchstone that would help identify a commonality between she and them, but she couldn't remember what it was. "I don't mind," she said lamely. She didn't dwell on it any more than that, and she pushed off from the wall. She grabbed the guard's shock stick as she passed, feeling more confident the moment her hand closed around the slender baton. 

The mask-wearer garbled at her, and at first, she thought he was repeating the same words he had said earlier, but when he staggered against the bars of the cell, she realized he had been shot. She caught him as he sagged to the floor, and as he went limp in her arms, she peered out of the cell. The room was a confusion of smoke and flashing lights, but visibility was clear enough to tell that a squad of armed beetle-men had responded to the assault team's attempt to rescue her and Dom. 

Dom! A quick glance to her left informed her that his cell door was still closed. He's safer in there, she thought. She shoved the dead soldier aside, and trading the shock stick for an assault rifle, she left her cell. 

The haze and the war-time lighting had it difficult to distinguish players by the colors of their uniforms. The techs were in white, which got dirty quickly, what with the smoke and dust and blood; the beetle-men were shards of darkness; and the mask-wearing soldiers were in a combination of tan and grey that made them nearly invisible. 

She shot the techs first. They were the easiest targets. 

A mask-wearer came up suddenly on her, and she nearly shot him before she saw his upraised hand. "Genglah, genglah," he said. 

"I don't—" 

He shoved her suddenly, interrupting her frustrated exclamation. She tumbled to the ground, losing her grip on her gun. "What the hell—" she started, but her response was cut off by a burst of gunfire that raked the masked man from crotch to forehead. 

Elze felt a momentary flash of dismay at the soldier's sacrifice, but there was nothing to be gained by getting all maudlin. She slithered around, searching for her gun. She was reaching for it when a burst of gunfire ricocheted off the floor. A round caught the weapon, and it went spinning away. 

She nearly lunged after it, but she caught herself at the last second. Spinning, she focused on a dark shape coming at her, and she barely had a chance to tense her body before it struck her. 

She and the beetle-man slid across the floor. He was heavier than the guard she had wrestled with. If the guard was a cockroach, this guy was a rhinoceros beetle. She slapped at his visor, which earned her a head butt. Her vision went blank, and she heard a noise like the tolling of a great cathedral's bells. She tried to grab the beetle-man's visor, but her fingers weren't working. Her vision flickered, like moths flash-burning from kissing an industrial spotlight. 

The beetle-man unceremoniously dragged her, and she offered no resistance. She wanted to, but every part of her body seemed very far away. She tried to speak, but all she could manage were fish noises. There was more gunfire, some of it very close by, and when a body collapsed on her, she grabbed at it like a drowning sailor grasping at a lifeline. 

The body was one of the mask-wearing soldiers. She stared dumbly at his headgear. If only she could understand how it worked, then this declination would make sense to her. Part of her realized she was dazed, and that she was struggling to find herself. If focusing on the minutia of the dead man's headwear brought her back to herself, then, yes, she'd memorize every seam and piece. 

The mask had large eyepieces, polarized and filtered against an array of spectrums. There were internal glow lights as well, and when she put her face close to the smoked glass, she could see the other man's eyes. His gaze was fixed, so there wasn't much to see. The skin around the eyes was pale and wrinkled, and there was very little color in the man's irises. 

There were snaps and straps, connecting the helmet to the face mask and the mask to the chest assembly. It was too complicated for her splintered mind to follow, and she latched on to a boxy pin attached to the man's uniform. It was some sort of insignia, cool to the touch, and it took several tries before she could rip it free. 

She bounced over the threshold to the lab, banging her shoulder. The mask-wearer slipped, and she made a half-hearted attempt to grab him. He's dead, she thought. Why am I trying to save him? Her right hand clenched tightly around the insignia. 

More gunfire sounded, its echo deafening in the hall. Hands pawed at her as she was dragged past, but none of them managed to hang on. Their owners were dead or dying, the flickering closure of the hands a fading nervous twitch. Her vision was staring to behave, and she craned her neck to see where she was being taken. 

Men shouted. More guns burped and rattled and coughed on empty magazines. Something snarled up ahead, and she twisted in the beetle-man's grasp, trying to see what was ahead of them. She caught sight of a smooth-faced apparition. It's one of them, she thought, unable to tell the difference. 

Whoever it was lifted their head and put their hands up to their mouth. They pried their jaws apart, the top of their head tilting back impossibly far. There was something inside, something that shouldn't--couldn't possibly—be there. Elze heard the snarling noise again, and this time, a bright light started. 

She turned her head away, squeezing her eyes shut. 

A roaring noise filled the hall as the air ignited. She felt her tears vaporize, and the skin on her lips dried and cracked. The beetle-man dragging her stumbled, his hand suddenly going slack. Smelling her sweat steam off her skin, Elze threw her hands over her head and buried her face against the floor. Her cheek burned. A scream got caught in her throat. It didn't dare come out of her mouth, because the sizzling air in the hall would rush in. She couldn't let that air in. 

The Egregore exhaled, and their breath was like a plume of fire from a dying star. Elze flattened herself on the floor, trying to be insignificant against such incandescence, trying to be anywhere else. 

 

For the fourth time in as many minutes, Dom banged into an outcropping of rock. This time it was a jagged slab jutting out from the ceiling. He rebounded, cursing. Touching his head, he found a tender spot, but there was no blood. He leaned against the tunnel wall and massaged his temples, trying to relieve the banging pressure in his skull. Too much smoke inhalation and running into things. 

Ahead, the glowlamp the snouter fellow was carrying stopped moving. The soldier hooted, admonishing him to keep moving, and Dom waved him off. "I need a minute," he said. His shins ached. There was dried blood on his chin and in his hair—though not from this latest collision with a hard surface, thank you very much. Muscles in his lower back were flexing randomly—precursors to a full-on spasm that would probably debilitate him for a day or two. The transition to this declination was starting to make itself felt on his body. Any snatches of rest he could take now would forestall his eventual collapse. 

He tried not to think about Elze. He hadn't seen her body in the lab, and he hoped she hadn't been out in the hall. 

The snouter hooted at him again, and this time, he nodded. "All right," he said. "I'm coming." He groaned as his back complained, but he staggered on, keeping his head low to avoid the stone slab that had brought him up short a few minutes earlier. 

The tunnel continued to slope down, and it made another turn to the left before it leveled off. Dom slowed as he felt a change in the air around them. He looked around, trying to see anything, but the weak light from the snouter's lamp failed to penetrate the gloom. In fact, he couldn't even see the walls of the tunnel anymore. Putting his hands out in front of him, he edged to his left. 

There was nothing there! He stopped suddenly, as the toe of his left shoe ran out of floor. His heart thudding in his chest, Dom crouched and explored with his hands. The floor was cold and dusty, but it wasn't rock. It was man-made, and his questing fingers traced a precise edge. He stared into the black until his eyes ached. 

There was a breeze. That's what was different. They were no longer in the claustrophobic tunnel. Dom titled his head, feeling the breeze caress his cheek. They were in a larger space now, walking on some kind of elevated bridge, and Dom marveled that such a construct had no lip or rail to keep folks from walking off the edge. 

The snouter was waiting for him, and when Dom caught up, he saw the bridge more clearly in the light of the snouter's glowlamp. It was made from segmented plates of dull metal, and when he concentrated, he could feel a tiny sway in the bridge. The snouter gestured ahead of them, and Dom nodded, suddenly eager to get off the narrow bridge. 

They continued on, and soon thereafter, shapes materialized in the glow's light. Large discs butted against the bridge, and they were part of an intricate system of gears and flywheels. Dom peered over the edge of the bridge after they passed between the thick discs, and he caught sight of an immense roll of segmented pieces. Just after the discs, the segments ducked under a flat plate, and beyond the plate, there was an open platform. His mind still puzzling over the machinery, Dom followed the snouter off the bridge and onto the platform. Was it some sort of bridge maker? he wondered. The segments reminded him of tank treads or one of those flexible metal watchbands. 

The glow light revealed a wall at the edge of the platform, and in the wall, there was a narrow opening. It was a meter wide, and it had a curved ceiling. A man-made made tunnel, and Dom hesitated, feeling like he had seen a passage like this before. The snouter went into the tunnel, and the light from its lamp bounced off the tile-covered walls. 

"What . . . ?" Dom hurried after the snouter. He touched the wall of the passage, tracing the grouted edge of a tile. He knew these tiles. 

They were in the Métro, the subway system that ran under Paris. 

The snounter kept moving, and Dom realized there was some ambient light in the tunnel. He started after the soldier, who still carried his glow lamp, but there was another source of light, coming from farther up the tunnel. Dom was unable to help himself, and he started shuffling faster. His right hand dangled out, letting his fingers trail along the tile. How many times had he done this in the Paris underground? Feeling the tiles hum with all the movement and power running under the city. 

The tunnel sloped and then opened onto a platform. The light was brighter here, and Dom raised his hand to shield his eye against the source. There was a single disc, hanging out over the track, and Dom couldn't tell how it was suspended. 

Standing at the edge of the platform, as if they were waiting for a trail, was another group of scouters, along with a taller figure. For a moment, Dom panicked, thinking this was another being like the Invocator or the Egregore, but when the figure turned, he gasped at the very human face he saw. 

"Dad?" 

*

CHAPTER 19

Admittedly, Dom has a complicated relationship with the memory of his father. First, there was the paternity issue. His mother—God rest her soul—never answered his questions about who his father was. I do not wish to revisit those painful days, was all she would ever say, when she deigned to acknowledge his question, which was rare. His "first father," which is to say the man who claimed Dom as the product of the seed in his loins (which, even for the time, was a rather crude way to talk about one's offspring), was absent more often than not. He was under a lot of stress during Dom's early years, and it wasn't until Dom revisited his father's final year as an anonymous observer that he understood the pressure being exerted.

That pressure was, to speak flippantly of a formative period that didn't turn out well for most parties, not unlike the process his father was attempting to accomplish. Though, in those final years of the sixteenth century, the limitations of scientific inquiry were quite extensive.

Anyway, the failed alchemist and one-time scryer wasn't actually his father. It wasn't until after that man's death that young Dom was told the truth. His real father lived in London, and he was taken there by a family friend (though, again, "family" was relative, like much of Dom's existence once he learned his true nature). His biological father, who was fighting fits of paranoia and dissociative behavior, didn't take to the young lad very well.

We're not naming names, but let's be honest, it shouldn't be hard to figure out. There weren't that many wife-swapping occultists on holiday in Prague during 1587, after all.

Over the next few years, there were accusations of witchcraft and demonic possession, bouts of melancholy and fits in inchoate rage, and many, many pages of foolscap were covered with intricate sigils in an attempt to discern the God's honest truth. In the end, when his father died in the winter of Dom's twentieth year (or was it the following spring? The record was getting muddy even then), there was little reconciliation between the two men.

For most of the next century, what Dom missed most about the old man was his library, which was fair, because it was a really impressive library.

All of which is to present an inkling of the emotional baggage that Dom pretended wasn't there, but which exerted a subtle drag on his subconscious. The man who was waiting for the train in the abandoned Métro station, beneath a Paris covered in sand, was not his father. Given what Dom had been through in the last few hours (relatively speaking), it was an honest mistake. To be fair, his father—in those final fading years—had become the archetype that would populate fantastic fiction for centuries to follow. The long beard, the dented skullcap, the way the eyes were recessed in their sockets, lending a sepulchral air to the man's presence. And his voice—oh, yes, his voice—that breathy quaver that suggested each word was very carefully selected, weighted, and then expelled with just enough air to force it pas the dry and cracked lips. There were, after all, only so many words left in old occultists on the verge of actually meeting all those angels they had been scrying with for decades.

In the now, the old man shrugged off the cascade of questions that had spilled from Dom's lips. He indicated they were waiting for some manner of conveyance, and Dom fell into a frustrated fugue. It wasn't that he was terrible at waiting (which was true), but it was a shock to finally feel as if there might be answers, but such revelations were—once again—being withheld.

The snouters, sensing some signal that Dom could not feel, gathered in a neat group near the edge of the platform, and in short order, a light bloomed in the gloom of the tunnel. The platform started to vibrate, and the light bloomed into a broad lamp mounted on the front of a miniature train engine. It reminded Dom of the hulking beasts that devoured coal or wood and that belched great funnels of steam as they churned along kilometers of track, but it was half the size he expected. There were only two cars behind the engine, and the old man waved Dom toward the second car as the snouters piled into the first car.

Inside, the old man indicated Dom should make himself comfortable in one of the luxury chairs in the long stateroom. Dom felt a thrum run through the car as the train started to gather power, and he made his way to the nearest seat as the train started to move. The chair was oddly comfortable in contrast with its stark Modernist lines.

The old man, moving with the relaxed posture of a man who had spent many hours in train cars, wandered over to a cabinet made from the same sort of wood that graced the frame of the chairs. He opened a cabinet, took out two crystal glasses and a bottle filled with an orange liquid. He came over to Dom, offered him a glass, and labored to remove the stiff cork from the bottle. When he poured, the liquid seemed to flow backward out of the container.

Though that impression may have had more to do with the motion of the train than the persistent tug of gravity. Dom glanced out the windows of the train car, expecting to see darkness, and he saw brief staccatos of light. As if the train was passing through tiny stations without slowing down. "Where are we—" he tried to ask, but his tongue kept curling in his mouth.

The old man, having finished pouring the contents of the glass back into the bottle—no, that wasn't how it goes, Dom thought, his thoughts as sluggish as the orange liquid—walked backward to the cabinet.

Outside, the flashes of light came more quickly, and Dom realized too late that he was being hypnotized. He started to rise from the chair, but his legs weren't his, and all he did was pitch forward onto the floor of the train car. His head was turned to the side—not the side where the old man was moonwalking into the future, but in the other direction—and the light bled through the spectrum. White to red to orange to yellow to greeeeeeeee—

 

Elze found Weston staring at her when she opened her eyes. He offered her a nervous smile, but it faded quickly as he saw the rising tide of her anger. "It's not—" he started.

Her fist got halfway before something stopped its course. Elze struggled, and eventually she realized her lack of motion was because of heavy straps. She tried with the other hand, and didn't get much farther.

"You're angry," Weston said.

"No shit," she snapped. The words were sharp in her throat; it felt like she had swallowed glass. She grimaced, and her skin was stiff, like it wasn't her own.

Weston raised his hands, as if to touch her face, but he thought better of it and patted the air over her. "You've suffered some burns," he said. "There's a salve . . ."

"What about—" she couldn't finish.

Weston looked away, and at first, Elze thought it was because he couldn't look at her when he lied, but the look in his eye said otherwise. He's scared, she thought, and as much as she didn't want to fall for such a transparent ruse, she found herself believing him. She turned her head (she could do this much, even though her body—like her hands—was restrained) and saw a pair of beetle-men standing guard near a narrow door. She was in a featureless room that she knew was a laboratory bay of some kind—the lack of any aesthetic design was the only constant across the centuries—and she was strapped on a table that could be used as a medical bed or an operating table.

"What happened?" she asked, falling back to an obvious question.

"There was an attack," Weston said. "Rebels tried to seize some—" He shook his head at the question in her eyes. "They were repulsed. The Cohort took some losses."

"The Cohort?"

He jerked his head toward the pair at the door. "Cohortes Lunarum." When she didn't respond, he leaned closer and whispered. "They're a . . . version of Cencarrion."

She had already realized this much. The purpose of the OTP had always been to maintain the primacy of W-1, their time wave, and during her last few iterations, she had come to know the adversary who sought to undo the efforts of the OTP. They were called Cencarrion—a word that meant something in a declination that had been flatlined some time ago (relatively speaking)—and they were a legion of faceless soldiers sourced from some period in the early twenty-first century. Their leaders were equally anonymous, and the OTP designated them as Castor and Pollux, after the twins of Greek mythology. It had been her mission, in fact, to infiltrate the Cencarrion and get close to the Twins.

Too close, she thought, feeling a sympathetic breath of heat pass across her face. She tugged at her bonds. The straps were several centimeters in width, and the material wasn't going to tear easily.

Weston made a show of checking the straps. He spoke quietly, his lips barely moving. "Sebastian escaped," he said. "The Egregore is angry. The Invocator has sequestered themselves in the ossuary. I don't know why, and no one will tell me. I don't dare ask too many questions."

Elze turned her head away from the pair of guards. "What do they want with me?"

"You're a walking bomb. They were going to dip you, but that all went to hell when the Templars attacked."

"The what?"

Weston fiddled with the strap on the far side of the table. "The Order went underground—literally. They disappeared for several centuries, and when underground transit systems were introduced, they infiltrated and took them over. Not just in Paris, but in London, New York, Moscow. Everywhere. It's a subterranean cabal. They are either responsible for the climate change in this declination or they're the only ones who were prepared. I can't tell with these people. Either way, they're . . . pernicious." A hint of a smile tugged at his lips. "Like moles in the garden."

"A flame-thrower is a bit much," Elze said. "Even for moles."

"Well, that's the Egregore," Weston said. "Their management style is extremely heavy-handed."

"But they trust you."

Weston's lips flexed. "I hope so."

"You hope?"

"They aren't subtle," he said. "Which leads me to think they do, but . . . they know a lot about the time waves. And I get hints of Architect-level thinking from them. They could be more iterative than they appear, and if they are . . ."

"They're using you." Elze listened for any sound from the beetle-men, who continued to remain motionless. "But why? What do they want?"

"They want him," Weston said. "Sebastian."

"Why?"

"You heard what the Egregore said in the conference room. ‘The last drops of Dee.' They think he's the son of Dee—John Dee, Queen Elizabeth's pet alchemist."

Elze frowned. "An alchemist?"

"Among other things. He was also interested in astrology, astronomy, mathematics—the usual stuff that natural scientists and occultists were obsessed with prior to the Industrial Revolution."

"But why him? Why not Flamel or St. Germain?"

"Because, unlike Flamel or St. Germain, Dee was supposedly in contact with angels."

*

CHAPTER 20

—Eeeeeeeeeen to purple to—

Snap.

"It will take a moment to—ah, there we are." The old man swam into focus.

Dom's thoughts had been rushing through dark tunnels, and he felt like heavy brakes had been applied. Sparks flared in the back of his brain, and there was an immense pressure on his chest. He struggled to breathe. He struggled to think slowly.

Outside the train car, the light was pale. The sort of glow you saw on an early winter morning, when the sun didn't want to get out of bed. They were in an open space that was much larger than a metro station.

Dom started to lean toward the windows of the car, and stopped when he realized he was holding a drinking glass. There was a thin layer of orange liquid at the bottom. Had he drank it? He didn't know, which meant he had lost a few moments of time. A shiver ran up his back on tiny mouse feet and tickled the back of his neck. To lose time was . . .

"Come," the old man said. "There is much to discuss." He opened the door, and for a moment, he stood framed by the light, seemingly almost translucent. "Come," he said, and when he gestured for Dom to follow him, he became solid again. 

The train nestled against a stone porch that led into an immense space filled with stone columns. Dom recognized it as the interior of a gothic cathedral, though he had never been in one that wasn't filled with all the religious accoutrement of the Church. There were no pews. There were no smoky candelabras. He raised his gaze as they entered the nave, and he saw no stained glass windows.

There were no shadows either, a constant feature of most cathedrals. Where he expected to see the grand glass at either end of the transepts—the two arms jutting out from the main body of the cathedral—there were dozens of globes of light. He couldn't see how they were suspended. In fact, they were in motion, slowly rotating around each other. Like celestial orbits, he thought. They were astronomical models, he realized.

At the far end of the nave, where you would traditionally find the altar, there was a circular wall made from aged walnut. The outward side was intricately carved, and Dom barely had a chance to track the story that marched around the periphery. There was a gap in the wall, and though it, Dom glimpsed the inner side of the wall.

There were shelves, and the shelves were filled with books. The wooden circle at the center of the church housed a library.

Unable to stop himself, Dom wandered through the breach and inspected the shelves. Yes, if someone were to bait a trap for Dominion Eldritch Sebastian, this was, undoubtedly, the way to go about it. Of course, the more esoteric the bait, the easier it would be to lure him in. Dom ran his gaze over the nearest shelf, and his brain immediately started cataloging what he saw. Quarto. Octavo. Unmarked spines. Hand stitching. He lifted out a folio-sized volume and held it close to his nose. It smelled like ash and oak and earth; the leather was stiff but not brittle. Balancing it in one hand, he lifted the cover and peered at the title page. He saw the author's name—Rogeri Bachonis—and judging by the title—de retardatione senectutis et senii—it was a medical text.

He put the book back on the shelf and reached for another. Arzachel's tablae astronomicae—which was a Latin translation of a book written by the Muslim scholar Abu Ishaq Ibrahim al-Zarqali. Next to it were several folios written by St. Isidore of Seville, a sixth century Archbishop of the Catholic Church, who was instrumental in bringing a number of the Visigoths into the arms of the Church.

Dom returned Isidore's de natura rerum to the shelf, and let his gaze roam across the shelves. He had a few folios like this in his personal library, but there was one other library where he had seen copies of these books, although it had been awhile.

The old man, who had stayed outside the circular library, now came through the gap. He shivered as he did, and for a moment, Dom saw a visual echo around him. As if many versions of the man were collapsed in a cosmic rush, many histories becoming one. "A man who knows himself knows where he is," the old man intoned. There was a final flicker of other faces over his, and then they were all gone.

"Which one are you?" Dom asked.

"I am the one I have always been," the old man said.

"Yeah, me too," Dom replied, "but that's not enough for me right now. You're not my father, even though"—he gestured at the shelves—"this is his library."

"Is a man not measured by the knowledge he possesses?"

"No," Dom said. "A man is measured by what he does with that knowledge."

The old man bowed his head. Once more, he flickered out of phase, and when he raised his head again, the flicker collapsed into his eyes, which continued to change color. "I am the eighty-fourth to carry the key," he said. "The first of us was named Bernard. Therefore, I, too, am Bernard, but that is not the name I wear with others, just as this face is not the face I wear with others."

"I'm not going to get a straight answer from you, am I?"

"All paths lead to the same end."

"Of course they do."

"All time collapses to a single point." The old man's eyes turned black. They stayed that way long enough to make Dom look away.

"Why am I here?" Dom asked.

"You are the one who knows of the book. You are the one who has been lost. You are the one whose hand will break the final seal."

Dom rubbed his face. "This is why we never got along, Dad," he said.

"I am not your father," the old man said.

Dom let out a hard laugh. "Well, you both share the same aversion to sarcasm."

A figure moved near the breach, and Dom caught sight of one of the snouters before the soldier ducked away. Was it the one who had brought him to the train? He wasn't sure—they looked alike. Dom drifted toward the breach, curious as to why the snouter was trying to hide.

The snouter peered around the edge of the wall, and this time, he didn't draw back when he was spotted.

"What are you doing?" Dom asked.

The snouter didn't say anything.

"Come over here," Dom said. "Don't make me talk to this guy alone."

Reluctantly, the soldier stepped into the ring of books. He glanced nervously at the old man. He was careful to stand as far away from the books as he could, which was tricky in the round library.

"What's your name?" Dom asked.

The soldier said something that Dom didn't understand. Dom looked at the old man. "Look, between you talking in riddles and these guys talking some language I don't understand, you're not giving me much to work with here. So, either you drop the old wizard routine or get me and these guys talking, because I'm not playing a part in a game I don't understand."

"I am not able to illuminate you on the entirety of your existence," the old man said.

"Oh, fuck off," Dom said. "I take it back. You're definitely not my father. You're worse. I didn't think that was possible, but here you are."

He turned his back on the old man and examined the snouter. He was only about a meter and a half tall—a little small compared to the others Dom had seen him with at the train platform—and his uniform covered his whole body and head. He wore a helmet under the hooded portion of the uniform, and the front had large eyepieces and the long snout that curled down to a rectangular pack strapped to his chest. Dom examined the pack. There were several valves that opened and closed regularly, along with a tiny grill. When the snouter spoke, his voice emanated from that speaker. There were several dials and knobs on the pack, as if there were aspects of the machine that could be fine-tuned.

Dom reached for one of the dials. The snouter drew back from him, one of his hands raised in alarm. Dom noticed his glove only had four fingers, and part of him commented on how he should have been paying better attention earlier. There was a lot going on, Dom thought, shushing that annoying part of his brain.

Dom advanced one of the dials. "What's your name?" he asked again.

When the snouter replied, Dom felt like he almost understood what the soldier was saying. He clicked the dial once more and repeated his question.

"Klaatu," the snouter said.

"You said that before. I don't know what that means."

"My . . . I am designated Klaatu," the snouter said. His voice buzzed out of the speaker on his pack.

"Oh," Dom said. "I—okay. I understood that."

The snouter straightened up. "Klaatu," he said again. He tapped his pack. "Klaatu is this one."

"Excellent," Dom said. He tapped his chest in a similar fashion. "This one is Dominion."

The snouter shook his head. "That is—" He tapped a hand against his helmet. "That is not-truth," he said.

"No, that's my name," Dom said.

"No, no." Klaatu turned toward the old man. "Not-truth," he said.

"That is one of the names the luemenarians give to the Oppressor," the old man said to Dom. "The One who drove them away from the surface. The one who breached that which should not be broken and—"

"The what? No, that's—that's not me," Dom said. "I'm not that guy."

Klaatu remained agitated.

"I'm not this—I'm not that guy," Dom said. "You rescued me, remember? You rescued me from the beetle-men. And that—that other one. The Manifest Invoc—"

Klaatu wailed loudly, putting his hands over his face.

"Speak not that name in this place," the old man thundered. "To speak their name is to draw their attention."

"Okay, okay." Dom held up his hands. "I get it. You gotta be careful with saying things out loud. I understand. I'm not going to say it." He reached out and touched Klaatu on the wrist. "It's okay," he said when the snouter lowered a hand. "I'm not going to do anything stupid."

The old man started to speak, and Dom interrupted him with a warning shake of his head.

Klaatu lowered his other hand, and Dom gave him an easy smile—the one that had disarmed many a high society lady and which had, once upon a time, granted him access to a high security vault in a mountain fortress. It still had its charm, apparently, as Klaatu relaxed.

"You should give me a name," Dom said. He tapped his chest. "Name me."

Klaatu looked at the old man, and the old man nodded. "It is the way," he said. "It has been foretold."

Klaatu dropped his head slightly, and the shiver slithered up to Dom's neck again. It whispered in his ear. "Wait," Dom said, trying to brush off the serpent of unease that was tickling his ear. "Wait a second."

Klaatu lifted his chest and faced Dom. "Mooble," his voice box said with a crackle. "You are Mooble."

"Asked and answered," the old man said. "It is done."

"No, wait a minute."

The old man started to hiss, and when he opened his mouth, the hissing sound became a roar of wind. For a moment, Dom was frightened, flashing back to meeting the Invocator and the Egregore. Was the old man's face going to turn inside out and reveal that he was like those two?

The old man's lips pulled back, revealing jagged teeth, and as the wind became a roar, he started to fade. The sound got louder—loud enough that Dom flinched and covered his ears—and then it was gone. The silence was so abrupt that Dom staggered, a gasp bubbling out of his mouth.

The old man was gone. All that remained was a silver key on a silver chain. One key.

Dom stared at the key and the chain, knowing he had seen one like it before.

Klaatu started toward the key and chain, but Dom put out a hand to stop him. "Leave it," he said.

You are the one who knows of the book, the old man's voice echoed in his head. Like a breath a wind that had looped around the library and had found its way back in.

Klaatu raised his snout toward Dom.

"It's not mine," Dom said.

His father had worn a chain like that, and though he had never seen it, he knew that key had hung from the chain.

You are the one who has been lost, the wind whispered.

"I'm not my father," Dom said. "Nor am I going to be responsible for whatever burden he had to carry. It's not mine."

You are the one whose hand will break the final seal, the last breath of the old man sighed.

"This is not going to be my fate," Dom said. "I'm not going to fulfill whatever stupid prophecy you think I'm supposed to fulfill."

You cannot undo what has already been done, the voice croaked.

"I'm a goddamn time traveler," Dom said. "Watch me."

*

CHAPTER 21

The beetle-men left with Weston, and soon after that, the lights in the room went dim. They came back up when she struggled, and Elze made a show of testing her bonds for a few minutes. Just to go through the motions that would be expected of her, in case anyone was watching.

Not only were her hands restrained, but there were straps across her chest, hips, and knees. Her ankles were restrained in the same fashion as her hands. She was wearing a simple outfit, much like the shirt and pants that Dom had worn off the skyboat. None of this was terribly concerning. What alarmed her the most was that her bracer was gone. She had no way to manipulate the wave. Nor could she attempt to contact the OTP.

Even if such contact was possible. She had no idea of the degrees of separation between this declination and W-1.

Her last mission as Sky Ten—her interation before this current Return—had been to infiltrate a warlord's compound in Abkhazia and retrieve a set of dragon teeth. Not that dragons were real, but the OTP had been concerned enough to send an agent in to snatch away the artifacts before the warlord did something foolish with the teeth. Weston, who had been her handler for a few years (relatively speaking) had talked his way onto the mission as field support. She had acquiesced, even though she should have known better. They had gotten too close, allowing the line between handler and field agent to get fuzzy, and when the mission went sideways, she had hesitated.

When she had been decanted into this body—Azure Eleven—they hadn't told her what had happened, and the mission report had been sealed. And, because of explicit OTP protocols regarding Returned agents, she couldn't reach out to Weston. She—Sky Ten—had died on that mission. That was all he was allowed to know.

But that clearly wasn't the case. Weston knew of her mission to infiltrate Cencarrion. In fact, it appeared he was partially responsible for its implementation, and if that was the case, then . . .

Elze frowned at the bare ceiling. Her mission had been to use this waveframe to get close to Castor or Pollux, and when she had left Perpetuum-3, her contact hadn't been her new handler. It had been an actor, someone posing as a Universal Temporal Courier—an OotCee. But who had given the actor that job? It had to have been either her new handler or the Speaker—OPSec P-9, after all.

But Weston was here, she thought. He knew I was coming. He knew my job had been to lure Dom into coming with me. Was he her new handler? If so, that was without precedent.

Which made her wonder about the mission in Abkhazia. Had the whole thing been a setup? If so, then her failure had been expected--necessary, even—in order to get her into this waveform. But why? Why the subterfuge? Had they thought she might object to the mission? Had they thought she was compromised?

Which was another line of questions that needed consideration, but she didn't want to be distracted by those right now.

Because, regardless of the original OTP mission parameters, she wasn't in W-1. She hadn't infiltrated Cencarrion. They—whoever they were (relatively speaking)—knew who she was. (Here's an interesting side question: did they know who Weston was?) And they didn't seem to care. Weston said they had been planning on "dipping" her—was that what the cross and assembly had been for in the lab?—as if they would have . . . What would that have done?

She had too many questions. The oscillations and collision patterns of this declination were too obtuse. She was a pawn in a game she didn't know all the rules of.

Anchor yourself, she thought. What do you know? Field agents had to adapt quickly when they found themselves in situations that were abnormally out of phase. Read the room, they used to tell young field agents. Listen to your gut. What does the lizard part of your brain say?

I can't trust him, she thought. Weston was lying to her.

 

"I need a box," Dom said to Klaatu. "Lead-lined, preferably."

Klaatu made a noise that his translator couldn't find an English equivalent. Dom pointed at the silver key the ghost of his not-father had left behind. "We need to secure that," he said. "But I don't want anyone touching it. I don't want anyone feeling it." He looked at Klaatu. "Do you understand that? No feels."

Klaatu nodded. "No feels," the speaker on his chest wheezed. "Mooble wants no feels."

"Yes," Dom said. "That's what Mooble wants."

Klaatu saluted and wandered off, leaving Dom alone in the circular library. Keeping the key in the corner of his peripheral vision—that sinister serpent of unease was still slithering along his spine—he took stock of the rest of the books on the shelves. It was an impressive collection, and he spotted at least one title that he had thought to be wholly invented by an author.

(Not the Kitab al-Azif, more colloquially known the seekers of the twentieth century as the Necronomicon, which was refreshing, because however far out this declination was, it wasn't that far out.)

There was only one way out of the library, through the breach he had entered originally, and Dom smiled as he realized this wasn't just a clever library built in the center of a church. It was also a place of power, much like the library in his apartment in Paris. All that was missing was a door, but that could be fixed with something as simple as a shower curtain.

Little steps, he thought. He glared at the silver key on the floor. A box for you. A curtain for me. And then I need to find her.

Elze. All of his bravado with the specter of his haunted family aside, he couldn't do this alone.

 

Elze focused on her breathing, letting the darkness of the room settle around her. She didn't think her watchers could see in the dark—why would they bother with motion-activated lights if they could?—and so she practiced patience and calm breathing. They would get bored staring at a black screen. They would be lulled by the lights alerting them to activity in her prison. If she was very, very careful, she could do all sorts of things.

First, her heart rate. She got that under control. Then, she focused her attention on individual muscle groups, tensing and exercising each within the confines of her bonds. Moving very slowly so as to not trigger the lights. When she finished, she did the whole routine again, making sure she knew the fine limit of the motion sensor's range.

Then, satisfied that her watchers were bored and that her body was in tune with her mind, she considered how she was going to get out of these straps. It was going to be—

She held her breath, listening intently.

She had heard a noise.

There. She heard it again. It sounded like a pebble rattling against metal. But where was it coming from? Something in the walls? When the sound came again, she revised her impression. It wasn't a pebble; it was more like . . . A talon.

Tacky-ticky-tack-tack.

She knew that sound.

She felt something touch her foot, and since she was primed for action, she was able to curtail the instinctive flinch and the gasp of alarm that tried to fly out of her mouth. The room filled with light, and having anticipated this sudden burst of illumination, her pupils were already tightening.

A large black raven perched on her foot, its talons breaking the skin. It stared at her with its midnight eye.

She stared back. Her heart was struggling against her control. Adrenaline was flooding her bloodstream. She wanted to fight. She wanted to flee. She wasn't going to let either happen.

The raven cocked its head at her, and she realized why the Invocator's movements had seemed terribly familiar.

"What do you want?" she hissed at the bird.

It hopped off her foot, its talons clattering against the tabletop. Tacky-ticky-tack-tack. It darted its beak toward her leg, and her muscles tensed, but it didn't touch her.

It looked at the wall behind her, at the ceiling, at a spot over the door, and then back at her. There was an intelligence in its gaze. A malevolence and intent that was not directed at her, but which was definitely there.

"Who are you?" she whispered.

The raven flapped its wings, a flurry of darkness blooming in the center of the room, and it screamed at her. Now, she did flinch, unable to keep her control clamped tight. The bird launched itself at her face, and there was no way she could stop it. She couldn't raise her hands. She couldn't turn away. All she could do was tuck her chin toward her chest and close her eyes.

Her face was buffeted by a breeze, and a dirty stench of carrion filled her nose. When she opened her eyes, the raven was gone.

Her jaw hurt. Clenched in her teeth was a single black feather. She fought the urge to spit it out.

One end of the feather was a hard point.

It would be enough.

CONTINUE TO PART SIX :: RETURN