Here is the final chapter. My thanks as always to Merisha for the beta, Muffy for the thumbs up, and to all of you who reviewed. I hope that those of you who are interested will check out Muffy Morrigan's profile to get more information on her Custodis Noctis novel, CN information, and related stories here on fanfic.
A/N: Like Chapter 2, I'm backing up the time line a bit – this scene begins while Galen is still at the hospital. This is a long chapter but I hope you'll enjoy it.
"Galen!" Rob's vision whited out as his legs buckled beneath him, knees cracking onto the rough pavement of a Georgetown sidewalk. "Flash, he's in trouble, we have to… he passed out." Flash's hands were under his arms, lifting him onto his feet. Rob turned unsteadily and pointed, "He's right there. We have to go." His feet started moving before he was aware he was walking.
Flash was tugging on him. "Rob! Wait! Come on, we're at the bookstore. Let's find out if he was here." Flash turned him toward the entrance and pushed. "The cab is going to wait for us…" he stuck his head back in the cab, "you are waiting for us, right?"
The cabbie shrugged. "Meter's running."
They were out a few minutes later, Rob shaking his head. "Pandas? It doesn't make any sense. Gwen was waiting to have dinner with him and he went to see pandas?"
Flash pushed his shoulder. "They are really cute, Rob. Anyone would want to see pandas. I would want to see pandas." Rob glared at him as they climbed back in the cab. Flash amended, "Not when we are trying to find Galen, of course, but the rest of the time, I would want to see a panda."
Rob growled, "National Zoo" to the cabbie. When the driver turned north, Rob couldn't help his head from swiveling to look out the rear window. He ground his teeth for a few minutes, and then leaned forward. "Turn around – we need to go south, south and east. Can you do that?"
"You're the boss." The driver pulled a U-turn and barreled back down the way they had come, barely flinching when Rob yelled, "Take a right. A right –here!" He turned to Flash. "He's really close." Back to the cabbie. "What's down in this direction?"
"GW first, I guess. Then the Mall—Washington Monument, Vietnam Vets, all your big monuments."
"Yeah, GW University."
"Slow down." Rob pointed. "What's over there? Is that a hospital?"
"Sure, big one." The cabbie pointed out his window. "Right through there."
"Stop. Let us out here." Rob paid the driver, and bolted, Flash hard on his heels. They slowed down enough to enter the hospital at close to normal speed and casted about for the stairs. They went up three steps at a time until Rob pushed through the doors onto the fourth floor. Rob led them unerringly down two hallways and around a few corners before skidding to a stop.
There was a crowd in the hall in front of them. Rob could pick out police uniforms, nurses, orderlies, some suits, but no brother. "Flash, I don't think he's here anymore. He was. He was here."
"Can you tell which direction he went?"
Before Rob could answer, his eyes were drawn to a man in a white coat standing to one side of the crowd. He didn't seem to be participating in the conversation, just listening. People walked past the doctor as if he wasn't there. One person almost ran into him, and then disconcertingly, walked through him. Rob's eyes locked with the thing's black gaze and he felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Images and sounds assailed him—moving water, fireworks, smoke and fire… a voice hissed in his head.
"You have a bracelet like the other. It didn't protect him. Will it protect you?"
He answered in kind, silently projecting words to the other. 'What have you done to my brother?'
"Where were you, boy when I found the other? Cowering, sniveling children trying to interfere with one infinitely superior to you. Leave here."
'Not without my brother.'
"Brother, father, family … human concerns. The other is mine now. Run now to escape his fate." The image of an immense reptilian head arched up behind the thing.
'My brother is not yours. You don't exist here. Your human form is an illusion... a mirage. I know you now, monster. And I'll destroy you.' He backed up, pushing his friend back with an arm across his chest.
"Try as you will. But your sibling is lost to you. I will devour him."
"What? What is it?"
"Just move." Rob hustled them around the corner, down the stairs, and back out to the street, keeping a constant eye behind them. He put two fingers in his mouth and whistled up a cab. As they climbed in, Rob directed it back to the hotel.
"What the hell, Rob? Why the hotel? Where's Galen?"
"We need to prepare ourselves. It won't attack again until tonight. And Galen isn't good..." He reached through his connection. "But he isn't worse. And that thing in there has to be stopped. I know what it is. Why I've been seeing what I've been seeing." He fumbled for his phone, scanning his contacts. "Even the pandas make a weird kind of sense. I need to make a call."
Flash stared at Rob. "Pandas hurt Galen?"
"What? No. Did you see the doctor standing to one side?" Flash shook his head. "I did. And he wasn't a doctor. He's not even human. He's a Shen." Flash rolled his hand in a keep going gesture. Rob continued as he placed his call and brought the phone to his ear. "A Shen is a dragon. A very old, very powerful Chinese water dragon. They use illusions, control of the mind, to lure their prey. It must have attacked Galen…" His call connected, and he held up a finger to hold up their conversation. "Yes, is this Marcus? This is Rob Emrys, from Seattle."
"Rob! Galen called when he reached town. Are you coming east, too?"
"I'm already here. Marcus, I need something esoteric. In a hurry."
"You want something esoteric? That's kind of like saying… hell, I'm not sure. What is it? And don't say phoenix tears because I'm tired of kids asking about all that Harry Potter crap."
"A peach wood sword. Two if I can get them."
"Damn, boy. Damn. Let me think."
"Did Galen ask you for one?"
"No. But why are you asking me?"
"He's not with me right now. And I think he went up against a Shen."
"A Shen here? I need a couple of hours. You get here around seven."
The zoo was bustling when he arrived, crowds moving up and down the paths, fanning themselves in the afternoon sun. Grimacing, he squinted against the pain lancing through his head from the bright sunlight. Even with hospital pain meds lingering in him, everything that had happened to him was starting to catch up. He felt like he'd been hit by a bus.
And it might have been a bus for all he knew. Something happened. Somewhere. At some time. By some one. And he still didn't remember.
Nothing looked familiar as he moved slowly through the park, keeping in shade as much as he could, following signs to the panda exhibits. He rested the book on the sign he'd found the night before, running the fingers of his right hand idly over the zoo logo as he watched a pair of red pandas tumble about in their enclosure.
He sat down heavily on a bench and dropped the book. It felt like his head was going to drop off when he leaned over to drag it back next to him. He rubbed his eyes before brushing dirt and a wad of chewing gum off the cover, and tried to straighten out some rumpled pages with clumsy fingers. The book sure looked a lot worse than it had yesterday.
When he could, he stood, and walked as steadily as he could through the giant panda exhibit with a chattering crowd, muttering apologies whenever he hit someone with the book. Short of putting it on his head, or pitching it in the trashcan, he really couldn't keep it out of everyone's way. He just wished it didn't feel heavier the longer he carried it. Or he could remember why he was carrying it.
Just as he exited, a waterfall in the enclosure caught his eye. He stood stock still and stared, Water. Something about water—something in water? Out of water? It was making his head hurt. More.
He staggered to a shaded bench and sat with the book in his lap. He glanced through it, re-confirming what he had determined in the hospital. He couldn't read a word. But… someone could. Someone he knew. Maybe the same someone who could whistle with two fingers. The book started to slide off his lap. Growling, he pushed the book onto the bench and sat on it. At least, it was a little softer than the seat.
His chest was probably bleeding again, his left arm was on fire, he was seeing purple and black spots, and the only thing he could think about was that it felt like his right arm was missing. Something huge was missing.
He went through his pockets again, hoping that he'd find an aspirin. Better yet, Vicodin. A syringe of morphine.
He sighed gustily and leaned over to hold his head in his right hand, resting his elbow on his knee. Exhaustion pushed him toward sleep, but even that was denied him when the now familiar images and sounds once again tried to overwhelm him. Being a victim to this was getting old. He had to take control or he really would need a psych ward.
Grinding his teeth in frustration, he concentrated. Running throughout every image was just one thing. Standing, running, falling, dropping, moving, reflecting, water. He separated out slivers and mirror shards of pictures–light sparkling on water, the movement of waves and currents, tugged out the sounds of water, note by note, until all he heard was water rushing, falling, trickling and dripping...
He fought it, looping the inner movie back to water, again and again, holding the kaleidoscope at bay and maintaining his focus. Slowly and surely, the cacophony of sights and sounds slowed and dimmed, slipping back and under the still image of a lake reflecting a fiery sunset, the only noise the gentle susurrus of water lapping the shore at his feet. It was beautiful and blissfully peaceful.
He raised his head, blinking his eyes clear. The sun had dipped behind a stand of pines to the west. He must have fallen asleep. He looked to his left and was so startled he almost fell off the bench. A man was sitting next to him. He tried to stand up.
"Whoa, chill, dude. It's me, Shymal. Remember? From last night."
He squinted at the man. Looked at his uniform. "You're the guard. You found me."
"That's right. Man, you look terrible. Why aren't you in the hospital?"
"Um, no insurance, I think. What time is it?"
"Almost eight. You've been asleep for an hour or two. I was just starting my shift when I saw you. Wasn't sure it was you at first, but I recognized that." He pointed at the book. "Come on. Let me take you home."
They both looked up at the sound of pounding feet, just as two men, running flat out, appeared on the path and headed in their direction. Both men skidded to a stop in front of him. They guy in the lead was … it was the angry guy from his head. Crap. He got to his feet, this time holding the book up on his shoulder. "Stay behind me, Shymal."
"Come on, man, I'm the guard here. And I have a gun." Shymal tried to step around, but he held him back with his casted arm.
Angry guy took a step toward him. "Galen? Are you alright?"
"Keep back." He waggled the book. "Just, keep back."
"What?" The kid looked around frantically, before bringing his eyes back to his face. "It's not here yet, I would feel it. Galen, what happened? You haven't answered me for two days!"
He didn't know how to reply. He moved the book in what he hoped was a threatening manner. "Just tell me why you're here!"
The second young man sniggered. "Look out, Rob. He has a book and he knows how to use it. He's a Keeper on the edge!"
"Flash, this isn't the time." Angry Guy glared at his companion. The kid's gaze softened abruptly and he thought for a minute he could see the young guy's soul in his eyes. "Galen? I came to find you."
Rob. Flash. "You're the one who's been putting," waving a hand near his temple, "all this–stuff in my head."
The kid, Rob, Rob he reminded himself, took one step closer, and held out his hand. "No. No, I'm not. But I know what did. And how to stop it. And so do you."
He shook his head, and groaned when his head pounded with pain. "I don't know who you are!" Rob gasped as he heard Shymal move up behind him. He turned back to the angry guy.
"You don't know me? Oh, Gods, you have to know me." Rob took a deep breath. "I see you have my book."
He brought the book off his shoulder and propped it up with this cast. 'Your book?"
"Yeah, you picked it up for me in Georgetown, remember? Yesterday." Rob took a step closer. "Oh, man. Galen, you look terrible."
"Yeah, everyone keeps saying that." He really wanted to sit down. Lie down. Fall down. But he lifted his head and held the book out toward the kid as best he could. "You can read it?"
Rob took another step and gently tugged the book out of his hand before it fell. Handed it to Flash, who had to juggle to hold it along with a long ungainly package. "Of course I can. You know me and old languages."
He snorted. "If it's ancient and incomprehensible, you write limericks in it." He stumbled, the pain in his head spiking. "How did… who are you?"
Rob reached out a hand just as Shymal caught his biceps and held him up. "You say the word and I'll have these guys arrested. Are they the ones that mugged you?"
"No, Shymal. They're okay." He looked at the boy, the man, the angry guy from his head and took in a breath that even he knew sounded like a sob. "My head really hurts."
"I can help with that. Take my hand, big brother, just take my hand. Please."
Brother? His brother. He did the only thing he could. Held out his hand and grasped the one being offered.
And felt everything slide into place. He knew who he was. He knew why he'd been missing part of himself. Why nothing had felt right until this instant. "Rob."
Rob pulled him into a hug. "Galen, I was worried out of my mind. I couldn't find you."
Galen drew back. "There's a Shen in the park. Water feature in the panda exhibit. Present from China. Think it hitched a ride somehow."
"I know, Galen. I met it at the hospital. Just relax. We've got a couple of hours to go before Draco rises. We'll get it then."
"Oh, Gods, of course. Dr Shen." Galen closed his eyes and felt a tear slip down his cheek. "Missed you, Rob. What took you so long?"
He felt Rob's hand on his shoulder. "Shymal? Would you and Flash get behind him for me?"
He tried to open his eyes, but the healing his brother was guiding into him felt so right. He focused his own healing energy onto himself. The pain in his head was finally fading, and it felt so good to be whole again, he just relaxed into it. Then his knees felt funny, and his head fall back, and he felt his brother's arms guide him back onto the bench to lie down. He took a deep breath and as he exhaled, he let sleep claim him.
Rob let Galen sleep past nightfall and even so they were ready by the time true night fell and the constellations wheeled above them, bringing Draco the Dragon above the horizon. Rob watched Galen finish a complex series of chants over the peach wood swords as he patrolled the clearing they'd selected for the battle.
Shymal leaned in. "I don't know how you got those in the park and I'm not sure I want to. Just tell me if you are going to be done soon. I'm going to lose my job if my partner catches me aiding and abetting sword wielding lunatics."
Rob grinned. "That's harsh, man. They're only wooden swords. You checked them already. And we had friends throw them over the fence once we were in."
The guard groaned. "That simple? I'll lose my job because someone chucked sticks over the fence. Fantastic." He looked around again. "So something…" a noise interrupted them.
"Shymal, get behind the utility building. Flash? With me." Rob stepped forward and tried to take both swords from Galen. "And you too. Step back. I'll do this. Flash is my back up."
"No, Rob. This is my fight more than yours. My right arm was never hurt. And I'm a lot better than I was." His eyes widened and Rob could see his jaw muscles clench, just as his own warning system kicked in. "It's here. Trying to get in my head." He straightened and looked straight ahead into the dense shadows of the thickets around them. "Shen. Show yourself."
A noise like a teapot hissing and whistling floated around them. "Who are you to order me? We were old when you scratched pictures in rocks."
The sound died almost to nothing before the dragon emerged. A crocodilian head with bulging eyes and flying mustaches pushed into the clearing. A huge red mane started just behind its tremendous jaws, and four huge legs supported a long, sinuous body. Mist was belching out around it like huge smoke rings, rising on all sides, and in the mist… shapes and sounds of monsters. The smell of gunpowder filled the air.
Galen gestured dismissively. "Mirages, lizard? We demand you leave this place we protect. Leave this place and return to China, your home."
"Why should I? There are rivers here that suit me. And swallows and pheasants enough. And humans by the millions if those morsels do not satisfy me. And here I can stand guard over a new domain."
Flash nudged Rob and whispered. "Pheasants? Do you think it means pigeons because, man, there are a lot of them."
"Stay back, Flash. Keep Shymal safe." Flash nodded but didn't move.
Galen gestured and Rob stepped into the center of the circle with him. They each held a sword at their sides.
Rob called to the dragon. "We stand guard here, too. We are Custodis Noctis." Rob held his wrist up, and Galen raised his to match. "We are Keepers and are from a line as ancient as you. We have fought your kind and far worse in the past and won. We will do it again. These rivers are not yours. The birds here are not those of your homeland. And we protect the humans of this land. Return home."
The dragon shook its head, mist trailing out in wreaths around it. "I will not leave."
They raised their swords. Galen said, "Then, Shen, we are forced to kill you."
It struck in silence, without warning, and almost faster than their eyes could see. Rob thrust at the head and missed the eye, but his sword left a two foot smoking gash down the dragon's head and neck. Galen spun when Flash shouted a warning, and struck as the dragon's tail swept at them with deadly accuracy. The peach wood sword parted scales, skin, and flesh like a hot knife through butter.
The dragon screamed in pain, coiling back upon itself, the clouds of vapor partially blocking their view. Rob and Galen moved into the mist cautiously.
Galen shouted again. "Return to your home, Snake, or we will destroy you. Give us your word, and we will spare you!"
The dragon lunged, snapping foot long teeth just inches from them as they parried and dodged. Rob could hear Galen's breathing change from a quick pant to harsh heaves of air, but still his brother continued to fight, gracefully avoiding a strike, and even with his left arm in a cast, inflicting a deadly slash to the dragon's spine.
Rob knew this had to end quickly. He stepped up to stand by his brother, nudging him gently with his shoulder. "Come on, Worm. Come and get us! We're right here!"
One eye reduced to a smoking ruin, maddened by pain, the dragon darted straight for them. As one, they stepped to the side, dodging the strike and allowing the head and neck to pass between them. They brought their blades down simultaneously with all the force of their arms. Galen's sword went through the dragon's remaining eye and sliced deeply into its skull. Rob's sword cleaved the neck in two, separating the head from the body.
Heaving in a breath, Rob looked up and grinned at his brother. Just in time to see Galen's eyes roll back in his head. Rob dropped his sword and vaulted over the smoking carcass. He caught his brother before he cracked his head on the pavement and held him until Flash and Shymal helped him ease Galen to the ground. Rob dropped to his knees next to his brother.
"Rob? How is he? Is he…?"
He put both hands on his brother and concentrated. "Exhausted. Pain, pain from his…" he jerked Galen's shirt up, exposing bandages sodden with blood. "Stitches pulled out." He closed his eyes and channeled the adrenaline still coursing through his body into his healing. He lost track of time until Flash pulled him away from his brother forcibly.
"I don't know everything there is to know, but I do know that you can't do too much of that in one day, let alone a couple of hours. We need to get him to a hospital."
Rob shook his brother's shoulder, rousing him a little. "No, he'll be fine back once we get him back to the hotel. He needs a lot of rest." He stood and stumbled. "And I need to eat something." He looked at Shymal. "Can you get us to the nearest exit?"
Shymal grinned. "I thought you'd never ask." He darted off, only to reappear in an electric cart. "We can take this to the parking lot and to my car." Rob and Flash got Galen up and into the back seat and leaned him back carefully. Shymal was about to get in the cart but stopped in mid step, looking over Rob's shoulder. "First though, what are we going to do about that?"
Flash laughed and held up a couple of water bottles. "Sorry. Almost forgot. Lighter fluid." He upended them over the body and walked the length of the dragon until every drop was on the carcass. He gathered up the swords before lighting a match and throwing it.
The body burst into fire with a roar, burning fiercely and brightly but with very little smoke. They covered their eyes when the flames suddenly flared, Rob turning to place himself between his brother and the searing light. It was over as quickly as it had begun, leaving small rings and drifts of pale ash all around the clearing, but nothing remained of the dragon.
Rob sighed. "Now we can go."
"That's a relief. I didn't want to lose my job because there was a dead dragon lying around." He shook his had and grinned. "It would almost be worth it. A dragon!" Shymal grunted when his walkie-talkie squawked. "All I have to do now is talk my partner into letting me take my break early." He picked up the microphone as he put the cart in gear. "Brian? All clear. One of the big light bulbs burned out."
Rob sat next to Galen in the cart and steadied him as the cart bounced through the zoo. A drop over a curb brought Galen's head up. "We leaving?"
"Yeah, bro, Shymal's giving us a ride to the hotel."
"Got your book?" Rob looked up quickly to see Flash holding the book in his lap, the swords on top. "Yeah, Flash has it."
"Hope you don't mind us crashing in your room at the hotel."
"Gods. They'll never let me in looking like this. I don't even have my wallet."
Flash turned around to say something but had to turn back to keep the swords' tips from jabbing Shymal's side. "Yes, you do. Well, I do. You left it at the bookstore." He held up the wallet. "Probably thinking about dinner with the lovely Ms. Eggleston. Got all distracted."
Rob was pretty sure that Galen was blushing. When they reached Shymal's car, Rob and Flash packed Galen, the book, and the swords into the back seat. Rob fit himself in and sat next to his brother. As they pulled onto Wisconsin for the ride back to the hotel, Shymal and Flash talking quietly in the front seat, Rob nudged Galen gently. "Why the zoo, Galen? Why did you go see pandas when Gwen was waiting to have dinner with you?"
"I, ah, I like pandas. And it was the only day I had an afternoon free. And I didn't see pandas instead of having dinner with her." He yawned. "I was supposed to get your book and see the pandas before having dinner with her. Last time I'm picking up a book for you. You should have told me how big the thing was."
Rob picked up the 'thing' in question from where Flash had set it on the seat. He inspected it critically in the light from passing street lights. "Oh man, the guy said it was in perfect condition. He ripped me off. Look—the spine is cracked, the cover is filthy, the pages are bent and falling out… I can't believe this. I'm going to see him before we leave, let me tell you." He stopped talking when Galen put a hand on his arm.
"Wait, wait. It was in perfect condition when I picked it up. It's been through a lot."
"You are so right that you are not picking up another book for me if this is what happens to them in two days, Galen. It's rare, and valuable…"
"And incomprehensible except to gnomes…"
Rob growled. "And an irreplaceable reference book. You're lucky it survived."
"I'm lucky I survived."
Rob felt himself blush that time. "Sorry. Yeah, you are. And I'm lucky. You can't die. You don't have any little keeper kids yet. Were you thinking about having some mini-me's with Gwen?"
"That's none of your business." Galen looked up as Shymal pulled up to the hotel but looked back when Rob punched him lightly on the leg.
"Incorrect. It's going to be my business from now on. Because, big brother, I'm never letting you go ANYWHERE by yourself again. You understand me? Not across the street for coffee, not to the grocery store, not anywhere by yourself. Ever. Again."
Flash opened Galen's door and looked in. "Everyone alright back here? You get the leash on good and tight, Rob?" Flash held out an arm and Galen used it to pull himself out of the car. Rob scrambled out then had to duck back in to get the book and the swords.
He got out just in time to see Gwen hurry down the stairs and support Galen's left side, Flash on his right. Shymal stood next to him and watched them disappear into the hotel.
Shymal said, "Flash called her on the way here."
Rob ground his teeth together. "I didn't know he had her number."
Shymal slapped him on the back. "He has your number, too." He laughed. "I'm glad you found him. I'm glad I was there to see a dragon. But do me a favor."
"Of course. Anything."
"Don't tell anyone about this, okay? I don't want to lose my job because …"
Rob held up his hands. "I know, I know." He handed him a card. "We live near Seattle but if you need something, anything, call. We'll find a way to help."
Shymal slipped the card in his pocket. "Thanks. You'd better get into the hotel if you don't want to lose your brother again."
Galen pushed himself out of the way to let the stewardess go by. "If I'd known that you two had First Class tickets I would have seen if I could upgrade."
Flash snorted. "What'sa matter, Galen? You don't want to sit all by yourself? In Coach?" He smiled as the waitress squeezed by again and set down a glass of Patron Silver tequila and some limes in front of him and Rob. He took a sip and smiled.
"But I'm the hurt guy." Galen pointed at his cast. "Let me switch with one of you."
Rob took an appreciative sip of his drink and stared at the fruit. "Galen, you want the limes? No?" He handed them to the waitress who was just squeezing past his brother again. "You said you were fine. You said we didn't need to change your return flight. So we didn't. We just got on."
The stewardess didn't squeeze past Galen again. This time she stared up at him. "You need to move to your seat." She took a step toward him and he took an involuntary step back. "The First Class area is only for First Class passengers." She stepped forward again.
He moved back. "I'll upgrade if there are any seats available."
She pursed her lips. "I'm sorry, sir, but the First Class section is fully booked." She unhooked the curtains and drew them closed. He heard her through the curtain. "Now, return to your seat."
He turned and hit his cast against a seat back. It was going to be a long ride home.