Speaking With Your Demons
17: Death From Above
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate:
only love can do that.
Martin Luther King Jr.
There was already a crowd when Phil exited the police headquarters to face a ready news team and a hastily prepared podium. Along with Abe, Meg and the Lieutenant, another officer held a tactical vest and helmet, though it wasn’t clear why.
Approaching the microphone, Phil cleared his throat. Although he’d cleaned his face and combed his hair, he left the trail of dried blood along his cheek for effect, including a few swatches of his unbandaged injuries along his forehead.
“Thanks for attending this last-minute news conference. I don’t have much time, but I want to address the reports of a police disturbance and my being attacked earlier. It seems I’m engaged in a personal war with a renegade group of creatures.” When one reporter raised his hand, Phil held up both of his, revealing a can of spray paint. “In order to respond to the skepticism about whether the photos released yesterday were real or not, let me tackle that issue now.”
He shook the can vigorous. “Unfortunately, the only paint the police had on hand was bright red—which looks terrible on dragons—black suits them much better. If you can focus your cameras right here, please. Those of you with cellphones will probably want to capture this, too.” He spoke some words in a language the crowd had never heard before, and then proceeded to spray an empty area, revealing a four inch dragon. He continued spraying as it unfolded its wings, recovering areas as they vanished from sight, exposing the full extent of its wingspans. The audience gasped as it moved and shifted, hovering in the air.
“This is Smurttle, a companion of sorts.” At his command the creature turned, as Phil continued spraying displaying its flickering barbed tail. Phil put the can down, and a moment later Smurttle completely vanished. “Another dragon, larger than this one, att—”
He halted, mid-sentence, turning to look into the sky. “Officer, helmet, please!”
The officer stepped forward, unsure what to do with it since Phil was facing the street. Abe waved for an intercept, so he threw it to him.
“Hold on, let them come to us,” Phil yelled, so the audience could hear. As he waited, the crowd watched with bated breath to see what was happening. A moment later he said, “take the one on the right,” in a quiet whisper. He then swung his cane in a two-handed swing like a big-league batter, the impact making a satisfying “thwunk” sound when it connected with ... nothing.
Seeing the dead air and confused looks from the crowd, Abe approached the microphone as Srk joined the battle. Aided by his own creatures, he provided a running commentary, although a bit delayed.
“Phil took out one dragon, while Smurttle, Zukr and Srk, our three dragons, attacked the other. The one Phil struck is gone, while Smrttle continues to fight his opponent.” That didn’t help the crowd much, as they had no clue who they were.
Phil, unable to reach the two combating dragons, took the helmet from Abe as Srk joined the skirmish in the sky, assisting Smurttle—now the junior dragon. Phil watched the battle unfold for a moment, then shouted something else unintelligible—”Halt!”—in dragon. He and Abe both lifted their arms as the battle ceased.
Phil turned back to the crowd, still wearing his helmet when he shifted to the side after a warning cry from Tristan, just in the nick of time.
Two berserkers attacked Phil from the back. One hacked at his neck with his sword—aiming for his jugular, while the other plunged his into Phil’s back, aiming for his spine. Both missed—barely—but blood streamed from the new wounds. An officer approached, but Abe waved him back. Instead Meg advanced, blowing her whistle and flashing her penlight to little avail. However, Phil’s other creatures jumped the new attackers, their swords too difficult to remove to defend themselves against the winged attacks.
Phil dove forward, shaking his head as he clutched the sword sticking out of his neck—but not removing it. After a few awkward motions, he held his hands open, even as blood dripped from his neck into his shirt and closed his fist around something unseen in his left.
Grabbing the spray can, he again shook it vigorously for several moments, and then holding his left hand up, sprayed it revealing the struggling form of a tiny Viking. Holding it aloft, spraying it again as the paint began to fade, he declared. “These are the creatures causing the problem and planning these ambushes. Zukr, if you’d do the honors.”
As the crowd watched, multiple cameras recording every motion, the head of the tiny creature was yanked from his body as his blood spurted out, covering Phil’s hand only to magically vanish. He repeated the entire exercise again with the second berserker. Finally, he called the police lieutenant forward, reaching behind him and delicately pulling something from his neck. Blood ran down his back, soaking his shirt. The officer quickly wrapped a cloth around it. However, instead of stopping or resting, Phil walked unsteadily to the microphone, holding something else invisible, as his blood dripped from it onto his hand.
“While unfortunate and brutal, I couldn’t trust those two not to try the same thing again. This is, after all, war, and they’re out to kill me by any means necessary. However, I’m sick of death. It only solves the immediate threat without correcting the underlying issues. This is why I’ve been reaching out to these otherworldly creatures, searching for a compromise which benefits everyone. That’s why I’m offering their remaining companion—who they recruited by inventing lies about me—a boon. Join my forces and I’ll allow you not only to make amends, but to bravely battle as your fellow dragons do—proving your honor when not duped into committing foolish acts.” He then translated the speech into dragon and held out his other hand.
While the audience was horrified by what they witnessed, and by Phil’s actions, they sat entranced, leaning forward with his latest offer, eager to hear the response. When his left hand dipped from an unseen weight, the crowd cheered, satisfied that this new war between species they’d never even knew existed might have a successful resolution.
Phil bowed his head, spreading his arms before placing the new dragon on his shoulder. “Ladies and gentlemen, as rewarding as this presentation has been, I’m still bleeding, and suspect I’d best see a doctor to discover whether there’s any damage to my spine.” He held the invisible blade up, spraying it with red paint so everyone could see it. “It’s stupid to not take the necessary precautions.” With that, Phil staggered off his impromptu stage, and sagged against a nearby tree, sinking to his knees.
“So could you kindly explain why you chose this particular moment to open up,” Abe asked, “revealing all your secrets to the world?” They sat in yet another Emergency Room, as a physician superglued his wound shut—at Phil’s insistence. Instead of being squirreled away in a private room, he’d elected to sit on a gurney in the middle of the ER, despite patients—even those with gunshot and knife wounds—openly staring at him. “It’s not like anyone was demanding those details. You essentially tipped your hat concerning the type of research UW is conducting, too.”
“It was part of my plans. What’s more, the timing of the attack—while unfortunate—was ideal. Virtually everyone had heard the news reports and seen postings of my either being attacked to walking bleeding through the streets. In short, I had to address the concerns. But more than that, this buys me what I’d politely requested but never expected to receive—which is the ability to operate independently.”
“How?” Meg asked. “If everyone watched you being attacked, wouldn’t they want to know what’s happening?”
“Oh, they definitely want to know, but no one will push as stridently. While it’s simple for someone to politely request just one more miracle cure, they’re unlikely to demand the same from someone in a war environment. Nor will reporters corner me for yet another photo-op when there’s the distinct chance I’ll be attacked during the report.
“Finally, it keeps my many human foes at bay. There are still people who despise what I’m teaching, either considering it dangerous poppycock or threatening their livelihood. But now, seeing as I’m already under attack, rather than target me directly, they’re willing to bide their time in the hope these creatures will do their dirty work for them. If I don’t survive, all their problems are solved.”
“But didn’t you just prove that they are real?”
Phil frowned, shaking his head. “Things aren’t as clean-cut as we’d all like to believe. When you threaten someone’s position, their livelihood and their opportunities, they tend to ignore reason and look for any excuse not to accept what they see before them. There are many who’ll claim it was all trick photography, or perhaps a grand magic show, featuring nothing but simple sleight of hand. However, it makes it incredibly difficult for them to convince the public, who saw my revelations at the same time they saw me physically attacked. You’ve gotta admit, that’s damn entertaining televisions!”
“Still, why’d you drone on so long, knowing another ambush was likely,” Abe asked. “After all, you stated you wanted to investigate where the first attack originated in order to find the instigators. You may have killed two and captured another dragon, but there are still plenty still out there, undoubtedly planning yet another assault.”
“If I expect anyone to believe that I’m engaged in a physical war with an unseen enemy, they need to see evidence of it. I have to prove my naysayers wrong. There are already numerous claims that the models of Mizo and Slavsin are merely artistic renderings—despite experts claiming it’s virtually impossible to fake that level of detail. I need something more definitive. While an artist might be able to create a realistic rendition of something, given enough time, it’s unlikely anyone could do it on the fly, in real time, as events unfold around them. Hell, if I was faking this, who wouldn’t think I’d run for my life once I was physically injured, rather than elaborating while my blood soaks through my shirt.”
“That was disgusting,” Meg announced. “The least you could do was to take your shirt off.”
Phil slapped his stomach, causing it to jiggle. “That might work for movie actors, but my pot belly isn’t the draw it used to be. What’s more, it also makes further attacks more likely. They’ve tried my skull, eyes, throat, jugular and spine. Undoubtedly they’ll try for my heart or privates next.”
“Add a cup to the flak jacket, helmet and goggles you should be wearing,” Abe chided.
“No can do. I require all my wits about me to see them coming. The dragons have excellent eyesight and are now constantly watching the skies, but as you saw, I need to time my attacks. They work primarily through surprise. No one expects someone as old and chubby as me to be as fast as I am, but they’re learning, which is why they’re now launching coordinated assaults.”
“I’m telling you, he’s in here somewhere,” a familiar voice rang out, though it was one unfamiliar to Meg and Abe.
“You can’t go back there unless you’re authorized medical personnel!”
“We’re friends of Phil Walker, and we’ve defended and provided first aid for him many times. We’re well equip—there he is!”
“Good to see you, Emma,” Phil said, without turning around. “Hope your flight was uneventful, Ethan. I’d hoped to meet you at the airport, but as you’ve no doubt noticed, I’ve been a little preoccupied.”
“So we gathered,” Emma answered as they sat on either side of him. “We read your initial newspaper interview before we took off, and when we landed the media was waiting with questions. Then the news of your attack spread, and before we reached the city your live press conference aired.”
“I’m Abe and this is my niece Meg,” Abe said, offering them his hand. “How’d you know where to find him?”
“It didn’t take much to guess he’d end up in the ER, as that’s his typical modus operandi.”
“They didn’t do anything with his modus,” Meg calmly informed them. “Just his head.”
“Speaking of which, what are his injuries this time?” Ethan asked. “He’s already suffered some significant bone damage to his cheeks and his skull is still weaker than it should be.”
“They targeted his spine and carotid artery,” the ER doctor told them. “Another fraction of an inch in either direction and he’d be dead or paralyzed.”
“Smurttle warned me in the nick of time. As I said, they’re now watching the skies for incoming fire.”
“Smurtle?” Ethan asked. “Seriously? Did you pick that name, or did they?”
“I asked him the same thing,” Meg told them. “He doesn’t look anything like a turtle.”
“You always manage to scrape by, by the skin of your teeth,” Emma reminded him. “You must have someone watching out for you.”
“Oh, me, me!” a tiny voice shouted teasingly in Phil’s ear. “I know, I know.”
“Hush up, Tristan,” Phil urged. “You can’t tell them who you’re referring to anyway.”
“Who’s that, and why can’t she tell us?”
“She’s a fairy and she’s referring to the creators of all these creatures,” Meg said knowingly. “He’s spoken to them a few times, including yesterday in the cab with all of us there. They rewarded several of our aides, sending them home and replacing them. She and the rest were impressed because he yelled at them.”
“Toni mentioned something about that, but didn’t offer any details, just that they’d revealed a lot of details when they returned your abilities.”
“Tristan was the one who first suggested we start working with these creatures, as well as explaining the specifics about how the transfers work.”
“Don’t bother soft-pedaling your role in this,” Abe corrected him. “You sought her out. You already knew what you wanted to try, you just weren’t sure of the details.”
“So why can’t Tristan tell us?” Emma asked, studying Phil. “I was under the impression they’re used to whispering secrets in our ears all the time.”
Phil sighed, glancing at his doctor. “Are you finished back there, doc? You’ve been standing back there not doing anything for a while now.”
“Nope, I’m done, but I’m not about to miss a front row seat to this discussion.”
“So I’m free to go?”
“No, we’re still waiting for your X-ray to see whether you spine might have been impacted.”
“Oh,” a junior doctor in a lab coat who’d been idly listening to the chatter said, stepping forward. “I’ve got your x-rays here. You’re clear. The incision was well off the mark by at least an inch and a half. If you hadn’t jumped just before they attacked, you might not have been so lucky.”
“You watched the attack?” Meg asked.
“Honey, everyone in the city was watching. We’d listened to reports of his attacks. When they announced he was holding a press conference outside of the police station where he went to interview the man who threatened him, it became ‘must-watch’ television viewing. I watched the entire event unfold, so I was surprised when you walked in, as if nothing unusual happened.”
“Believe me, it’s not so unusual,” Abe quipped. “You get used to it after a while.”
“You can leave in that case,” the first doctor said. Though I’d call a cab rather than stopping for another press conference this time. Those media events will kill ‘ya.”
“Very funny, doc, and thanks for your help. Chances are, I’ll be back before long.”
“Expect it,” Ethan added. “He’s an ER regular.”
Instead of continuing, Phil stood, collecting his goods. As they walked out, he tossed his soiled shirt in the trash, since Abe had already bought him a new one.
“As for Tristan naming who’s looking out for me, the creators were ingenious. It seems none of their creatures can say the name of the creator species, but they recognize it as soon as someone else says it. As a result, it conveys an incredible amount of instant cachet.”
“That’s terrific,” Emma enthused. “Toni will love that. So what’s the name?”
“Sorry, but that’s something I don’t feel comfortable sharing. While it’s useful, it’s a tremendous reward for their generosity, and I’m not willing to betray their trust by sharing it willy-nilly.”
“I doubt they’d mind,” Ethan said. “After all, they want you to succeed, don’t they?”
“They only revealed it to me after our third talk, and then only because I specifically asked. She didn’t seem keen on answering, but did after considering it for a few moments.”
“Ah, you may be right in that case,” Emma agreed. “With a tool that valuable, it’s better to be safe than sorry. After all, as handy as it is having someone in your corner, it won’t pay to piss ‘em off!”
“I hate to ask,” Abe asked, “but where are we going? We need to consider our options before we walk outside and risk getting attacked again.”
“I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m heading to UW. I’m hoping to finish off their study quickly. Now that everyone knows I’m associated with them, the heat is on. It’s only a matter of time before word leaks out.”
“What about us?” Emma asked, “after all, we’re only in town for a few days.”
Phil shrugged. “You might as well tag along.”
“After dancing around Toni for so long, you’re just going to reveal everything to them now?” Abe asked.
“They pretty much know most of it, and it will definitely help everyone if they observe our techniques.” Phil turned to Emma and Ethan. “Just remember, you’re there as guests only. You’re allowed to watch, but not to take part in the activities. You and the rest of the Walker Institute can’t be associated with the study—just so there aren’t any accusations of collusion.”
“We’re fine observing from a distance,” Emma said, “though if you don’t mind, I think I’ll keep my dog whistle handy, anyway.”
“You don’t need to worry; Meg’s perfectly capable of handling any emergencies.”
“I wasn’t the other day,” she reminded him.
“Au contraire, mon ami, if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have survived. You bought me enough time to turn the tables, taking control of the situation.”
“I don’t know what that means,” she answered, grinning, “but I like the sound of it. French is more romantic than Dragon.”
“It means you did good,” her uncle informed her. “But that doesn’t answer the question, how are we getting there?”
Phil shrugged. “The Link, as usual. There’s a slight risk in reaching the station, but since it’s underground, it’s relatively safe. They’re watching my hotel, because Desttr was with me long enough to know I lived there. However, they don’t know where we are at the moment.”
“He’s also familiar with the university,” Abe reminded him, “so it makes sense they’ll look for you at both locations.”
“True, but the likelihood of their catching me when I happen by isn’t good. It isn’t worth their investing much time camping out and waiting for me.”
“That depends on how many agents he has working for him. A cab is more logical. It’s slower, but it’ll stop by the door and wait for us, and we’ll have more privacy to plot strategies.”
“That makes sense, but instead of a taxi, I’ve got the name of an Uber driver I trust—the one who drove me during my interview with the Seattle Times. He’s got a vested interest in protecting my privacy. He’ll be extra cautious about dangers, at least once we warn him of the risk of attacks.”
“Now we just have to worry about getting to and from the vehicle.” Abe glanced around. “Let me check out the gift shop, you need a disguise. A hat or maybe a hoodie, so you aren’t as easily recognizable from overhead. It won’t help much, but it may buy you enough time to slip past. Personally, given what’s at stake, I’d prefer you wearing a helmet.”
“The police tactical helmet didn’t do much good. What’s more, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m famous now. I stand for something. If people see me slinking around like I’m afraid of what’s affecting them, it will undermine their confidence in my treatments. However,” Phil turned and waved his dragons forward, “I’ll send some scouts out to determine if it’s safe.”
“Not a good idea,” Tristan cautioned. “Your dragons are large and easy to spot, especially from high up in the sky where the other dragons will be searching for you. Let me go, I’m smaller and the other creatures don’t understand us fairies, since we’re more focused on artistic than gritty, real-life issues. If they see a lone dragon they’ll suspect something, but not if they see a solitary fairy they likely won’t even notice.”