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Brothers Before Souls

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I keep my phone muted when I’m teaching classes at the dojo. It reduces distractions and sets a good example for my students, who are sometimes too attached to their phones for their own good.

It’s also why I didn’t get Ishiah’s voicemail until more than an hour after he called.

It’s Ishiah. When you get this, remind that lazy good-for-nothing brother of yours that he’s supposed to be working tonight. He still owes me for the last time he took a night off without warning and I’m not gonna let him slack off again.

I stared at the phone in my hand. I’d left my brother three hours ago at the entrance to one of Central Park’s running paths so he could go for a run on the way to work. He should have long since made it to the Ninth Circle. There had to be a mistake. Ishiah had gotten the times wrong (no, because it didn’t take two hours to run through Central Park to the bar), Cal had gotten the times wrong (no, because he’d told me when he was supposed to be there and it was an hour before Ishiah called me), something had happened—

I cut that thought off before it could start. No. Cal was fine. I would call him and he would be fine and it would be a misunderstanding. My thumb was not shaking as I hit speed dial to call Cal. I forced myself to see only the wall of the instructors’ office, not the memory of Cal’s body on the floor of our old apartment, sprawled in a pool of blood. It was fake, that memory, planted in my brain most of a year ago by someone who’d wanted to make a weapon out of me, but I still had nightmares about it more often than not.

The phone rang only once against my ear, then went to voicemail. I left a message - “Cal, call me right now” - hung up, then dialed again, just in case. Still only one ring before going to voicemail. His phone was off. Off or damaged, broken, and again the memory of Cal’s broken body flashed behind my eyes.

I dropped my own phone on the desk and braced my hands beside it. Calm down. Breathe. Think. There wasn’t - shouldn’t be - anything in the park that could threaten Cal. Boggle and her children lived there, but they hadn’t been a real threat to either of us for years. There had to be some other explanation for why Cal hadn’t showed up for work yet.

For that matter, it was entirely possible that he’d arrived at work after Ishiah left the voicemail. I grabbed my phone again and called Ishiah. But his greeting left my blood cold.

“You better be calling to tell me your brother’s on his damn way,” Ishiah snapped as soon as he picked up. “Saturdays are our busiest nights and he knows he’s supposed to be here.”

“He left for work three hours ago,” I said, keeping my voice steady with an effort of will. “He should have been there by now.”

A pause, Ishiah’s silence broken by the raucous noises of the bar in the background. “Damn it,” he said finally. “No, he hasn’t showed up yet. If he does, I’ll call you.”

“Thanks,” I said, and hung up. I made myself set the phone down carefully on the desk, instead of throwing it through the window looking out into the studio. Cal was missing. My little brother was missing. I had to—

“Sensei? Are you okay?”

It was Keiko, one of my advanced students, a third-degree black belt who also taught classes occasionally. She had changed out of her gi and had her equipment bag slung over her shoulder as she leaned into the office, brown eyes watching me worriedly. I forced my fists to unclench, my shoulders to relax. “I’m fine,” I said. “But something’s come up and I might not be able to teach for a few days.”

“It’s color belt classes this week, right?” she said. “I can cover for you.”

“I’d appreciate that,” I said. “And would you mind locking up tonight? I have to run.”

“Sure.” She smiled at me, though I could still see worry in her expression. “Hope whatever it is works out,” she said. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”

I nodded. I hadn’t showered or changed out of my gi yet, but I didn’t care. Grabbing my duffel bag from under the desk, I headed for Central Park.

*           *           *

By the time I got to the running path Cal had taken, the panic hadn’t subsided but I’d had time to think. We’d taken a new job that morning, our clients a coalition of the major preternatural interests in New York. Nonhumans in the city were being kidnapped, seemingly at random, and those taken were never seen alive again. A few bodies had been found, nothing more than dried-out husks drained of their life force, but there’d been no sign of the creature or creatures behind the attacks.

Cal and I had spent the afternoon checking out places where the victims had been kidnapped, and talking to a Kin underling who’d witnessed one of the attacks. He’d been guarding the upper floor of a Kin-owned warehouse while his partner, another Wolf, patrolled outside. He’d heard a scuffle, and gotten to a window in time to see four giant spider-like creatures drag his partner away into the shadows behind the building. By the time the witness had reached the spot, the spiders - and his partner - were long gone, their scent trail indicating they’d climbed the wall of a nearby building and vanished across the rooftops.

Giant spiders could be any of a few things: Japanese Jorōgumo or Tsuchigumo, Congolese J’ba Fofi, a handful of others. I’d asked Robin to research, and Cal and I had planned to check out the spiders’ trail later tonight after I’d finished at the dojo and he’d finished at the bar. It was possible that the person or creature behind the kidnappings had learned we were investigating, and had attacked Cal to try to stop us.

But that led me back to where I’d been earlier: my little brother lying broken, dead; and I gritted my teeth until my jaw ached.

This particular path cut through the North Woods, a section of thick trees at the north end of the park. As I passed the turnoff toward Boggle’s lair, I spotted a faint orange gleam in the underbrush. Without breaking stride, I met the boggle child’s predatory gaze with a hard stare of my own, and after a moment the orange faded back into the brush as the boglet decided that jumping me would be a poor choice.

I ran for another minute or two before an unfamiliar, sour scent hit my nostrils. I followed the smell off the path into the darkness of the woods. I had a flashlight in my duffel, which was still slung over my shoulder, but I didn’t pull it out. My eyes were adjusted to the dim ambient glow of New York City at night - at least, what little of it filtered down through the trees - and the brightness of a flashlight would blind me to anything that wasn’t in its beam.

I hadn’t gone far when my boot hit something that didn’t feel like a typical stick or branch. I dropped to a crouch to peer at it in the darkness, and my heart stopped. It was a giant spider leg, as long as my forearm and sheared off cleanly just above the lowest joint. Past it, spread across a small clearing, were at least a dozen more giant spiders, all dead. Even in the dark, I could make out pale marks on the trees around the edges of the clearing where bullets had hit.

Giant spiders like the ones that had taken the Kin victim, and worse, I recognized the unnaturally perfect slice at the end of the leg I’d stepped on. It was what happened when something got caught half in and half out of one of my brother’s gates.

Cal had fought at least a dozen of the giant spiders here, and had opened at least one gate. But there was no way to tell whether he’d opened it as a weapon or an escape route. If he’d escaped, he should have answered the phone when I called. Or if his phone had been broken in the fight, he would have found another phone and called to let me know what happened long before Ishiah did. But if he hadn’t used it to escape…

Then the mystery kidnapper - killer - had him.

I dug my own phone out of the duffel and called Robin. When he answered, I said without preamble, “You need to come to Central Park right now.”

“Why, Niko, this is unexpected,” he said. “A puck might question the intent of such a demanding call this late at night—”

Now,” I growled. Before he could say anything else, I snapped directions to the clearing where I stood, then hung up on him. My little brother was missing, possibly kidnapped, possibly alone in an unknown location and too injured to call me. I didn’t have the patience for Goodfellow’s relentless flirtation right now.

While I waited for Robin, I continued to investigate the clearing. Fourteen dead monsters, each looking like the unfortunate product of a mating between a gorilla and an enormous spider. I didn’t recognize them - they weren’t Jorōgumo, Tsuchigumo, J’ba Fofi, or any other creature I knew. Considering how much time I spent studying the world’s supernatural creatures in order to avoid exactly such a situation, that was an unpleasant surprise. I’d have to hope Robin had made progress on his own research.

Thick fluid oozed from the creatures’ mandibles, and I carefully avoided touching it. Without knowing what type of creature they were, I didn’t know if it was poisonous, venomous, acidic, or some combination of the three. But if they could take down a Wolf in under ten seconds, it was safe to assume it would do much worse to a human like me.

I also found a series of odd markings on the trees around the clearing, deep gouges in the bark that wound serpentine around the trunks, as if an enormous snake made of steel had slithered through the trees. Combined with the unfamiliar gorilla-spider creatures, the marks added another layer to the mystery - but I couldn’t shake the sinking feeling that the snake marks belonged to whoever was behind the kidnappings. The creature who controlled the spiders, who was draining the life-force of supernatural creatures across the city.

Who might have kidnapped my little brother.

I was glad when Robin showed up, his grumbling under his breath about getting mud and scuffs on his eight hundred dollar Armanis a welcome distraction from the sick fear curling in my gut. He froze when he saw the spiders in the clearing, nattered complaints dying on his lips. “Gamisou,” he breathed. “Are those…?”

“Are they what?” I demanded. “You recognize them?”

“Nepenthe spiders”, Robin answered almost absently. He clambered over a tangle of spider legs to join me in the middle of the clearing, and crouched down beside one of the more intact bodies. With a wrinkle of his nose and a careful touch, he lifted its head to get a better look at it. “Egyptian, from before the time of the pyramids. Their venom—”

“—was used in an elixir coveted by Egyptian royalty who wished to forget their sorrows,” I interrupted. “I read about them, but none of the books had a useful description. The books also,” I added pointedly, “said Nepenthe spiders have been extinct for millennia.”

“You of all people should know not to believe everything you read about supernatural fauna,” Robin said, dropping the spider’s head and wiping his hand in the grass before standing. “But yes, I haven’t heard of or seen them myself since I left Ramses’ court.”

“They were described as predators, but not sapient,” I said. “And while they use their venom to hunt prey, they consume their victims in the normal, flesh-and-blood manner. If that’s true, it means that something else is controlling them. Something that consumes life force.”

“Hmm,” Robin said. “Speaking of hunting, where’s Cal? I thought you two were working on this case together.”

“We are,” I said tightly, and gestured to the dead Nepenthe spiders. “Cal didn’t show up at the bar tonight. He would have come straight past here.”

Robin blinked, his face going pale. “Oh.”

I paced away from him, forcing my hands to stay open and relaxed at my sides rather than grasping weapons and tearing through the dead spiders. “He gated at some point during the fight. But now he’s not answering his phone. I don’t know where he is.”

I heard Robin move up behind me before his hand came to rest on my shoulder. “We’ll find him, Niko,” he promised quietly. “Cal is more than a match for a handful of jumped-up bugs. I’m sure he’s fine.”

“He’d better be,” I said under my breath.

Robin squeezed my shoulder, then let go abruptly and strode away - apparently that was too much a show of genuine emotion for him. “Have you found anything else?” he asked. “Anything that might help us find him?”

I swallowed hard, forcing back the worry, and gestured to the serpentine marks around the tree trunks. “Just these. I suspect they were made by the creature controlling the Nepenthe spiders—”

Robin snapped his fingers, cutting me off. “Ammut,” he said.

“What?”

“Ammut.” He pointed at the dead spiders. “If I recall correctly - and I always do - she liked to use Nepenthe spiders to fetch her meals. And her tail would leave marks like these.”

“Ammut was a demon in ancient Egyptian religious practice,” I said, thinking out loud. “The Eater of Hearts, Devourer of the Dead. She ate the hearts that Anubis judged unworthy.”

“Well, sure, in mythology,” Robin said, waving a dismissive hand. “In real life, she eats souls. Life force.”

Our mystery kidnapper. The Eater of Hearts. My fists clenched at my sides as I tried very hard not to think of Cal dead on the ground. Robin was still talking, something about his time in Ramses’ court and the rumors surrounding Ammut that had been going around back then, but his voice grated on my ears and my nerves in equal measure. I didn’t care about Ramses, and the only thing I cared about Ammut was that she might have my little brother.

I turned away abruptly, striding out of the clearing and back onto the relatively open jogging path. I couldn’t stand there any longer, doing nothing while Cal got further and further away. I needed to move, needed to take action, needed to be doing anything other than standing in the dark thinking about an Egyptian demon goddess making a meal out of my brother.

Lost in his own story, Robin kept talking for several seconds, his voice fading behind me, before he realized I was gone and came hurrying after. “Niko!” he called. “Where are you going?”

“Where do you think?” I snapped over my shoulder. “I’m going to find Cal.”

*           *           *

Twenty-four hours later, I still hadn’t found Cal, and I could barely breathe around the panic. I had checked every place I could think of that he might have gated to in an attempt to escape the Nepenthe spiders - our apartment, the Ninth Circle, Robin’s apartment, Promise’s apartment, half a dozen other places. I’d run through every part of Central Park in case Cal hadn’t gone very far in his escape. I’d called every hospital in a hundred-mile radius to ask if they had any patients who resembled my brother. Then I’d done it again. Twice.

I’d found nothing.

Now I paced back and forth across the main room of our apartment, while Promise stood nearby and watched me worriedly. She’d convinced me to take a shower, change into street clothes, and eat enough that I wasn’t running on fumes, though the yogurt and granola sat heavy in my stomach and I wasn’t yet sure I wouldn’t throw them back up. I had my phone in my hand, listening to yet another hospital receptionist tell me that they didn’t have any unidentified young men with pale skin and dark hair in their care. I managed to thank her politely, but the moment I hung up I flung the phone across the room in frustration.

There was a blur of tiger-striped hair as Promise moved with a vampire’s superhuman speed to catch my phone before it could hit the wall. She didn’t give it back, though, just held onto it and looked at me. Her lavender eyes were warm and sad, and I looked away first.

“Breaking your phone won’t help,” she said gently.

“I know.” I ran my hands through my hair, yanking on it until the braid came undone. The snap of my hair tie against my wrist stung, but the pain grounded me for the briefest of moments against the panic. “But what else can I do? It’s like he—”

The words caught like glass in my throat, the memory of a burning trailer and a hole in the world swallowing me for a moment until I could have sworn I smelled smoke.

The Auphe were gone. We’d killed them all, for good. They hadn’t - couldn’t - come back to steal my baby brother off the face of the Earth, away to a hell worse than I could imagine. I shoved at the memory until it faded enough for me to feel Promise’s arms wrapped around me from behind.

“We’ll find him, Niko,” she murmured. “But you’re not going to do him any good if you run yourself ragged. You should sleep, get your energy back—”

“No.” I shook my head immediately. “I can’t.”

“Niko—”

“I can’t,” I said, and didn’t care that she would hear the desperation in it. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw the burning trailer, the spot where the Auphe gate had swallowed up everything I cared about. Or I saw Cal’s body dead on the floor in a puddle of blood.

Promise sighed, arms tightening around me. She knew what I was thinking, even if she wouldn’t say it. We didn’t talk about it anymore - that it had been her daughter who’d killed Cal, however temporarily; that it had been I who’d killed her daughter in return. There wasn’t anything else either of us could say on the topic. But that didn’t change the fact that I couldn’t close my eyes without remembering two of the worst moments of my life.

We stood that way for a while, Promise with her arms around me, I leaning back against her and trying to steady my breathing. I was glad she was there; the only other person I trusted enough to let my guard down this much was my brother, and the part of me that wasn’t half-blind from panic knew that I needed her voice of reason. Even if I couldn’t do as she asked and sleep, just the fact that she was there was enough to steady me.

“Robin has all his contacts on alert,” Promise said into my shoulder. “You’ve spoken with all the hospitals. We will find him, Niko.”

I nodded. We would find Cal, or…

There was no or. I would find my brother. It was the only option I had.

*           *           *

“Cooperstown, New York,” Robin said, “two days ago. Unidentified male, shots fired, no arrests made.” He scrolled down through his email, grabbing the next report from his police contact. “Charlottesville, Virginia, yesterday. Dark-haired man found… no, that is definitely not something Cal would be caught dead doing.” He kept going, reading out the descriptions of incidents involving people matching Cal’s description anywhere on the East Coast.

It was Wednesday. Four days had passed since Cal had vanished, and we’d still found no sign of him. Nepenthe spiders continued to kidnap victims for Ammut to consume, and our clients were getting restless. But when Vukasin, our Kin liaison, tracked me down to complain, I’d nearly taken his head off. Our clients had agreed to give me three more days to find Cal before they washed their hands of us. I suspected it was a bluff - if they didn’t need us, they’d not have hired us in the first place - but after four days of searching fruitlessly for my brother, I couldn’t have cared less if Ammut ate every last one of them.

“Albany,” Robin continued. “Double homicide. Victims a young man and his girlfriend - unless Cal has drastically improved certain skills in the last four days, that’s not it. Stillwater. John Doe in the hospital…”

I sat on Goodfellow’s couch, legs crossed in a simple lotus position, hands resting on my knees, my eyes closed. As much as I wished otherwise, I needed to sleep - hallucinating would not help Cal. But when I’d forced myself to sleep two nights ago, I’d managed fewer than three hours before waking up screaming from a nightmare of Cal’s bloody, lifeless body being torn apart by Auphe. I hadn’t dared try that again, so instead I meditated. It wasn’t sleep, but it was the best I could do.

“Nevah’s Landing, South Carolina. Town drunk claims he was thrown through a window by the diner’s new waiter, a city kid with dark hair. As if Cal would run off to become a diner waiter of all things. Warren, Vermont. Fistfight between two young men in a back alley.”

I was so exhausted that my very brain hurt, but something in Robin’s words struck me. “Wait, back up,” I said, and forced my eyes to open, my exhausted body to unfold off the couch. Crossing the room, I squinted over Robin’s shoulder at the screen. “That last one.”

“Vermont?” he asked, confused.

“No, the one before it.” I scrubbed a hand over my face, trying to kick my thoughts into gear. Four days of nonstop panic and next to no sleep take a horrible toll on the body and mind, but I was certain I’d heard something important.

“Nevah’s Landing,” Goodfellow repeated, and leaned aside to let me look at the report myself. There wasn’t much - as he’d read, the town drunk had gone through a window at the local diner. The diner’s owner claimed he’d fallen, but the drunk himself insisted he’d been thrown by “that damn vampire-looking city kid she just hired”.

Nevah’s Landing.

A memory, sitting with Cal in a library and reading a children’s book. Cal’s eyes so wide I thought they would fall out of his head. Colorful pictures of flying boys, pirates, and ticking crocodiles chasing each other across the pages.

Conviction settled in my stomach. “That’s it,” I said. I pushed away from Goodfellow’s chair and headed for the door of his penthouse apartment, veering aside briefly to grab the bag of clothes and weapons I’d brought over from our apartment. “Cal’s in Nevah’s Landing.”

“What?” Robin demanded. I didn’t stop, didn’t slow down; after a moment I heard him swear under his breath and run off deeper into the apartment. He caught up to me a couple minutes later at the bottom of the stairs, a bag of his own slung over his shoulder. “Niko, wait! Why do you think Cal is in a tiny hick town in South Carolina?”

“Because of Peter Pan,” I said grimly. I strode out of the building and over to where my car sat in the visitors’ street parking.

“Because of—” Robin stopped and stared at me for a moment before realizing that I wasn’t going to wait for him. He dived into the passenger seat, tossing his bag in the back. “Never mind. You’re sure?”

“Yes.” I was, too, though I couldn’t have said why. It wasn’t as if that lead was any more solid than the others, except for that gut feeling and the flash of childhood memory. But Robin had only dismissed the report because he couldn’t picture Cal waiting tables at a diner. “The Nepenthe spiders’ venom can cause memory loss, correct?”

“In low doses,” Robin answered. “But if Cal was bitten by one—”

“He’s half Auphe,” I ground out. The words tasted like ash in my mouth, but I thought that, for once, I might be grateful for his parentage. “I’ve seen what his immune system can do.”

“You think he has amnesia?” Robin said, then answered himself. “I suppose it would make a certain kind of sense. But what twisted, sleep-deprived leap of logic are you making to conclude that an amnesiac Cal would take a job slinging hash in a two-bit tourist diner?”

I shook my head. I was too tired to put into words the instinct that was screaming at me, the memory of a small dark head bent over the pictures in a book, the knowledge inside and out of how my little brother worked. “He’s there, Robin.”

For a moment I thought Goodfellow was going to argue with me, but he just studied my face and then sat back. “Fine. It’s a full day’s drive, though. If you want me to take over—”

“No,” I said.

“Fine,” he repeated. “Wake me up when we get there.”

*           *           *

Cal didn’t remember me.

I very nearly threw up as I carried Cal’s unconscious body to the car; I probably would have if I’d had anything to eat in the last forty-eight hours. My little brother had looked up at me as if I was a stranger. Had asked who I was as if the answer meant nothing to him, as if he couldn’t care less about me. I’d feared he’d been affected by the Nepenthe venom, but I hadn’t realized… Hadn’t thought…

Robin had stayed behind to smooth things over with the diner’s owner. He returned to find me leaning against the side of the car, Cal cradled in my arms the way I’d used to carry him when he was little. I felt like a vise had closed around my chest, stealing my breath away; intellectually I knew it was a panic attack but intellect had nothing on the raw clawing panic tearing its way through my insides. Robin took one look at me and moved silently to unlock the car and pull the back door open. That I hadn’t felt him pick the keys out of my pocket was as much a testament to my mental state at the moment as to his skill, but his actions gave me the minute I needed to get myself under control again.

I laid Cal in the back seat as gently as possible. When I turned around, Robin held out a set of handcuffs to me. “I’d rather not get stabbed in the leg again,” he said pointedly. “I know he’s Cal, but I draw the line at being attacked with dining utensils that probably haven’t been properly cleaned since you were in diapers.”

“Fair,” I admitted. My voice came out level, far calmer than I felt. He was right. I knew exactly how dangerous Cal was - had trained him myself - and until we had a better idea of what he did and didn’t remember, we needed to take precautions. I put the cuffs on Cal, then brushed a stray lock of hair off his forehead. He’d gotten a haircut, which I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around, but of the things I had not ever expected from my little brother, a boy band haircut was low on the list of what he’d given me today.

Robin kept grumbling as he circled the car to climb into the passenger seat. I tuned him out, sliding behind the wheel. It didn’t matter that Cal had a new haircut, or that he’d stabbed Robin for being a monster, or even that he hadn’t recognized me. We’d found him. He was safe.

Anything else, I could handle.

*           *           *

That guy is not happy and that guy is not right.

Cal’s words rang in my head as I bagged up the Nepenthe spider he’d killed while I slept.

You’re one of them. You’re a monster.

He hadn’t known. He’d said them. When we’d found him at that diner, he hadn’t remembered who he was.

What he was.

Not a monster - my little brother was anything but that - but not entirely human, either. I hadn’t been able to deny that for a while now, especially so since it was the non-human half of him that had kept him alive after being injected full of Nepenthe venom. Yet after two and a half days of having him back, I was beginning to think that Cal was closer to fully human right now than he’d been since he’d been born.

History, and Robin Goodfellow, said that Nepenthe venom caused its victims to forget everything. How to move, how to think, how to breathe, everything. Cal had survived a full dose with nothing more than a bad case of amnesia, and both Delilah and the boglet in Central Park had implied they couldn’t smell the Auphe in him anymore. A tiny, selfish part of me wondered -  hoped - that perhaps his Auphe half hadn’t just kept him alive. That it had taken the bullet, so to speak. That maybe, just maybe, my little brother would have a chance at the human life he’d never gotten, free of the Auphe.

Monsters are monsters, and monsters are bad.

But that chance would only last until his memory came back. I didn’t pretend to understand Auphe biology, but I did know that Cal had an immune system capable of withstanding nearly anything. Earlier this year he’d survived walking into a plague cloud created by the world’s most powerful antihealer, one that would have killed me in an instant. It was very, very likely that if Cal’s Auphe half had taken the Nepenthe-venom bullet, it wouldn’t stay down for long.

We look like a nuclear bomb with a timer clicking over zero and fast.

I held the dead Nepenthe spider’s head in my hands. A drop of venom oozed from the tip of one mandible, and a thought oozed into my brain, just as ugly, just as wrong as the malformed creature I held.

It wouldn’t take much - the venom from this spider alone could last months, and it wasn’t as though Ammut lacked for spiders to send after us. Robin would know someone who could turn the venom into a usable form, something Cal would use every day without thinking twice. He couldn’t know about it - if he ever realized that I was keeping his memory from him, it would be over, and then...

Buy a cattle prod for when I’m all the way back.

I had realized, last year while dealing with the lies that Promise had told about her daughter, that I, too, would lie for my family. Would lie for Cal. That I would tell any lie to anyone if it meant keeping him safe.

I don’t want to be that guy. I really don’t.

I just hadn’t considered that the person to whom I would lie, the thing I would be protecting him from, would be Cal himself.

Plastic wrapped tightly around the Nepenthe spider’s mandibles would keep its venom sealed inside long enough for me to get the spider to Robin. When Cal asked, I told him it was to make sure the venom didn’t leak on some unsuspecting delivery person during transit.

It was the first lie, and it sank sour into my gut like poison.

If it meant Cal got to be happy, it would be worth it.

END