"You’re mad, Will Stanton," Bran said quietly. He was standing in the back of the packed lift, his shades up and his arms crossed. He had urged Will to cut his holiday short and come home, but of course Will wouldn’t have it.
"I never argued it," Will answered. "Gomen nasai. Our stop." They apologized their way out of the press, then had to dodge a cleaning crew furiously mopping up yesterday’s mud. Bran shook himself out like a dog out of the wet. Will was immediately sorry that he had been taken from his wide spaces into this cosmopolitan jungle, with the culture shock besides.
"How are we going to get access to a crime scene, again?" Bran said. He was staunchly ignoring the secretaries’ open stares.
"Ask nicely?" Will shrugged, reading the office doors. "I can always say it’s for a book. Not entirely lying."
Bran fell silent, his hand drifting to the pocket where he’d tucked away the blue green stone and Jane’s note. From what little the news report had shown, the open square had been blasted apart. It was a miracle the roof hadn’t been taken off. The prayer tree had gone up in flames, as had a couple of adjoining shops. All they had against this was a talisman and a pair of verses.
"There we are." Will passed a stocky man in a leather jacket who looked like he belonged in the booking area, not the administrative offices. A cross-shaped scar marred his cheek and rose over his brow, into his thick, dark hair. His thick denim pants were splattered in mud. Will didn’t make eye contact, but Bran did.
Inside the office Will allowed himself the freedom of speaking in the local dialect. The genial police administrator was put at ease by the informality, and complimented Will on his accent. If Bran noticed the shift, he didn’t say. He remained aloof, his chin tilted arrogantly as he surveyed the office.
In the end there was no getting in. The shrine ‘bombing’ had become national news. The media would eventually pick up on any outside visitors poking around. Drawing the attention of an unknown enemy was right out.
"You are not the only one making inquiries, Stanton-san. There is a Yagiyu-sensei from Tokyo. Perhaps she will have information on the shrine?"
They left the office with no more than a phone number and a handshake. Will was almost convinced this was all a fool’s errand. Since his eleventh birthday he had known himself to be immortal, ‘planted loosely in time’ as Merriman had put it. He was the Watchman, the last of his kind. Was it possible to end his life? They were trying for me, just the same. Even if impossible, they could catch those close to me. He glanced at Bran, the dull disbelief giving way to a sense of urgency.
He stopped in the hallway. "I just remembered," he said to Bran. "Yesterday, do you recall seeing a young man standing next to me? He was... striking. His hair was blue."
Bran was looking up and down the spotless corridor. "No, I don’t. There were people passing between us, so I might have missed him." He glanced sharply at Will. "Don’t tell me he disappeared."
Will closed his mouth with an effort. "He did! I turned and he’d vanished. How did you know that?"
"I guessed," shrugged Bran. "Because that fellow with the evil eye and the muddy boots? He’s gone too. And I don’t see his tracks anywhere."
They supped quietly, the poems and the shrine and their anonymous watchers all much on their minds. Will stayed up as long as Bran, for it was still light in their home country, and sleep was hard to come by. Some time after midnight they decided to burn the poem, in case it was a draw for any malevolent powers. It existed only in their memories now, which Will knew was safer.
Bran was beginning to doze off when he asked the question Will had been dreading all along. "You never told me, Will. That you’re different."
Will, dry-mouthed, could only take a seat on the bed. Bran pulled the covers up and gazed at him with half-lidded eyes. Had his pale skin been bruised with weariness before? No, Will thought, the perfect memory forming in his mind. Young as they were, Bran was aging, and subject to the turnings of time.
"Hey. Will. Won’t you tell me? I’ve seen many a strange thing in the mountains, all alone. I won’t laugh."
"I can’t," Will said firmly. "You wouldn’t laugh, though." Of all the things he had learned as a man walking the earth, the hardest was the sorrow of loss. Bran had too much of that already.
"Ah," said Bran. Will glanced down at him. There were came moments, more often as the years passed, that he felt Bran was reading him like a book; that he knew no more of Bran Davies than the first day he’d met him on the mountain. Perhaps his friend had seen so many pages that the last and most important was of little consequence to him.
It was a comforting thought, at least. "Normally... I sense things. I should have known there was something about those two, and if there had been anything watching the shrine." That was safe enough.
"Hunting you, you mean," Bran said, curled up over most of the bed.
And by extension, you. Will glanced down at Bran all tucked in and snug. "Hah, budge over. That’s my bed you’re hogging."
Bran smirked sleepily. "Make me."
Will laughed lowly and nudged him till he moved. He lay down, hands cradling his head, staring at the ceiling. "I dunno, Bran. If I can’t see it, I can’t fight it."
"Who said anything about fighting?" Bran said, sharp, alarmed. "We should catch the first flight out."
"And if it follows me? Whatever it was attacked a shrine. A holy place. We still have to go through the airport, fly in a plane..." Will was in fact tempted to cut corners and whirl them back home. But the timing and the watchers were too much of a coincidence. There was a design here, even if unseen. He also did not wish to draw anything dangerous back to England, much less something strong enough to threaten an Old One.
"Whatever it was also knows it’s on home ground. Reading it in a book’s not the same as—" Bran’s words died on his lips. Will was about to ask him what was wrong when he grabbed his elbow. "Could it go through mirrors too?"
They both sat up. The mirror opposite the window, no doubt placed with feng shui precision, was no longer flecked with the city lights. Now it was cloudy as a lake whose murky bottom had been disturbed.
Will forgot Bran, and responded as an Old One. "Begone!" he cried in the Old Speech, his arm outstretched. This only made the smoky presence churn all the wilder. It heaved once, and then again, as though banging on the glass.
Bran pushed Will back till they were halfway to the window. "Just our luck it’s eleven stories down!"
Will threw a shield of power around them. He dared not run for the door. Having seen worse than this creature, he was not afraid of it— rather it was his inability to sense it which panicked him. Bran was standing his ground, eyes blazing and angry, even as he squeezed Will’s forearm tightly. Will remembered that he was afraid of mirrors.
The milky smoke receded... and then splattered over the mirror’s surface, burst through, and broke it.
"Well you wanted to fight it," Bran said softly. It poured out onto the floor into a column of malevolent smoke. It smelled like burnt garlic.
Will nodded, drawing himself together. He realized that his forearm was hot under Bran’s grip: it was the Sign, marked upon his skin when he had come into his own as the Sign-Seeker, burning invisibly. Keeping an eye on the growing figure, he said, "Keep your hand on me. I will need you." Bran nodded instinctively. Mortal as he was now, there was still a power in his humanity, and in their own bond together.
The figure was hunched over now, floating just above the ground, spasming. Will was suddenly reminded of another lonesome wretch, trembling before a stopped clock... "Bran. I might hurt you. Or... or worse."
Bran watched the shadowy form straighten up, its smoky robes billowing from a good two feet above their heads. It had no feet and no face. "If that thing blasts us, it won’t matter." He squeezed Will’s arm. "Do what you must."
Will grimaced. The figure raised its long, long arms. He took a chance and pushed, and got through for an instant— only to encounter another blank mask. Now Will knew the kind of it, but that was no use. It’s hiding its true name so I can’t break it or banish it! He dared not drop the shield. Attempting to wrest it out of this time might not work, and might risk Bran besides. All the while smoke filled the room, stinging his eyes...
"Will! Will!" Bran was shaking him. To his horror his body was growing heavy, under some unnatural lethargy. The only solid things were the Sign burning on his skin and Bran supporting his arm.
It was then that the door exploded open, literally. Wood splinters bounced off his waning shield. Bran was dragging him back by his shoulders but all his focus was on the restless ghost.
Suddenly through the gloom came a light, shining so brightly that Will thought he could see them again, his Circle, his other family... "The stone, my lord, the stone," he murmured, his eyes blinking at the bright shower of cherry blossoms. "Do you have it, Bran?"
"Then let’s get out of here!" said an unfamiliar voice, and he and Bran were whisked away to safety.
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