Jack didn't want to take the elevator to the basement. He didn't want to get there that quickly, and he didn't want to take the chance that Cecilia could control the elevator. He didn't know why it occurred to him that she might or why the stairs would have been any safer if she did have that much power. It wasn't up to him, though. He could barely stand up, and Julian had to half-carry him to the elevator.
He felt as if his brain were unfolding itself, smoothing out all the wrinkles, cortex and amygdala and everything else stretching into a blank slate. Memories flaked off from the flattening lumps of tissue and blood. He could hold them for only a second, and then they were gone again, forever this time. At least for that second, he could remember everything that had been stolen from him seven years ago.
The elevator reached the basement, and the doors slid open. Jack stood there and stared out at the black space in front of him. He felt Julian take hold of his hand but couldn't say for sure Julian was actually there. "I'm dying, Jules," he said.
"I know," Julian said.
"Since when are you afraid of anything?"
"It's not like fighting a demon. It's real. It's not an experiment any more."
"Jack ... "
"It isn't fair. I didn't ask for this. I wanted to be normal. I tried to keep them out of my head and keep my brain waves in. I didn't want to see the ghosts. I didn't want to fight them or be their friend. I didn't want to take the hell hound back to her demon, but if I hadn't ... "
"Jack. Hey. Look at me."
Jack did. Julian's eyes gleamed with tears, but he was surrounded by a soft white glow, as if whatever biological lock that had kept his psychic potential latent had been cracked. "You're beautiful, Jules."
Julian put his hands against Jack's face and drew him closer. "So are you," he said. "Listen to me, Jack. You have to keep going. No one else can stop her."
"But that's -- "
"Not fair, I know. But even if someone else could, no one else will."
"That's even more unfair."
"You have to keep going."
"I want a choice, Jules. I've never had a choice."
"Keep going or let the Agency continue to destroy people like us."
Jack looked away from Julian and into the yawning darkness of the basement. He wondered why he was hesitating. There was never any question about what he would do. His grandmother had told him everything happened for a reason. He'd never been a big fan of the idea of fate. The world wasn't organized by some outside force, but then again, if it weren't, how had he ended up here? Wasn't everything he'd ever done a step towards this end? He'd chosen this years ago when he had said yes to Sue's offer.
Jack let a shikigami spin itself into a tight, glowing ball of light. In the second before the light was big enough and bright enough to illuminate the room, Jack felt the massive, menacing weight of Ramiel's presence, and then Ramiel was lunging towards him. Jack saw only Ramiel's blood stained hands and the terrible grimace straining his face.
Jack pushed the ball of light at Ramiel's face. Ramiel grunted as the light popped in front of his eyes. It did nothing to deter him. Jack got his arms up to protect his throat and his face and felt Ramiel's knife slice deeply into his forearms. He stumbled backwards and would have fallen, but Ramiel grabbed the front of his shirt with one hand and held him up.
Julian had gotten back to the elevator and stood on its threshold, holding the doors open for the meager light from the interior. He aimed at Ramiel's head. He didn't have a clear shot, but Ramiel stopped anyway, his lips peeled back from his teeth in an ugly snarl.
"Let him go," Julian said.
Ramiel's snarl turned into a grin. "You won't shoot through him. Will you? You don't even know what this about."
"Neither do you, Ramiel," Jack said.
"I know enough. You brought my brother into this awful place and led him straight to people who destroyed him."
"They destroyed me, too."
Ramiel wasn't impressed with that information. He cocked his arm back to plunge his knife into Jack's chest.
Jack rammed his knee into Ramiel's groin. Ramiel started to double over, but Jack pushed him back. They fell to the floor. Ramiel's head cracked against the cold concrete. His grip on his knife loosened, but he didn't let it go. Jack straddled Ramiel, his knees on Ramiel's wings and his hands on Ramiel's wrists. His hold on Ramiel's arms was weak, though. He felt no pain from the deep cuts in his forearms, but he was losing strength and blood.
Ramiel struggled under Jack's weight, but the blow to his head had dazed him. "I will kill you for what you did to my brother," Ramiel said through his teeth.
"I know," Jack said. "And that's fine. But you need to know what this is about first."
"It doesn't matter!"
"Yes, it does." Jack leaned forward and pressed his forehead to Ramiel's. Ramiel fought harder to get out from under Jack but only for a second. Jack transmitted everything he knew about Project Icarus, everything Sue had told him, everything he'd gotten from reading Dr. Henry's reports and every slowly decaying memory he still had.
When it was over, a few seconds later at most, Jack sat up. Ramiel didn't move.
"I don't understand," Ramiel said. "Why ... "
"I don't know," Jack said. "But Cecilia's down here somewhere. I'm gonna get answers out of her, and then I'm gonna end this shit for good."
"Get off me, you freak." Ramiel sat up abruptly and shoved Jack away from him.
Jack let himself be shoved and sat where he landed.
Ramiel stood up and paced violently for a minute. When he stopped, he jerked Jack to his feet. "You were really going to bring him home and seal the portal?" he asked.
"Yes," Jack said.
"But you loved him."
"That's why I had to do it. He couldn't stay here safely."
"I always thought you were a willing participant."
"I was, but I didn't know everything. I still don't."
"Where is Azrael now? Is he even alive?"
"I don't know."
"You're going to make Cecilia tell you. I'm taking him home, and you're sealing the portal permanently."
"I can't -- "
"You can. You have just enough power for that."
"And if you do anything to try to stop me from taking Azrael away from this place, I'll kill you and your lover."
"I'm not gonna stop you."
With a shikigami floating a few feet ahead to light the way, Jack followed the faint whisper of Cecilia's power deeper into the basement. Julian stayed close to his side, and he leaned on Julian more than he wanted to. The migraine wasn't just on the left side of his head; it was everywhere, sharp, throbbing and, at times, nearly blinding. His nose kept bleeding, and he was nauseous. All he wanted to do was lay down and stop. But not yet, he thought. Not yet.
Behind Jack and Julian, Ramiel followed silently. He kept the tip of his knife aimed at Jack's back, but Jack got no indication from Ramiel's thoughts that he was prepared to use his knife. Ramiel's anger had been pushed to the back burner. He was afraid now. Jack felt sorry for him.
The light stopped in front of a red door. TELEPHONE ROOM was stenciled on the door in white. The building hadn't been on a wired telephone network in decades. Jack pressed his right hand against the door. Cecilia loomed in his vision. She turned to face him when she noticed his presence. Fingers she didn't have curled in a beckoning gesture, and the door opened. The red light blazed.
As soon as Jack stepped through the door, it slammed behind him, locking him in with Cecilia. He tried to open the door, but his hands were slick with blood from the cuts in his arms. He couldn't get a grip on the doorknob and had so little strength left that he wouldn't have been able to open the door if he could get a grip on it.
"Leave them out there," Cecilia said. "I want this to be a private conversation, Detective."
Jack turned to face Cecilia. Cold sweat flooded his pores at the sight. What was left of her body, her head and most of her torso, floated in a large, round tank filled with some substance Jack couldn't, or didn't want to, identify. Her bald scalp bristled with wires that ran to computers at the top of the tank. Around the periphery of the room were a dozen smaller tanks. Each one contained the inert figure of a psychic or a demon or --
"Azrael," Jack said. He stumbled to the tank that held Azrael and began to pound on it. The glass was thick, and Jack was weak. After a minute, he stopped and looked up at Azrael's face. Azrael's eyes were open, but there was no life there. Like Cecilia, his head was hairless and wired to the top of the tank.
Jack looked around the room. Each tank was the same, the victim suspended in pale fluid and wired to the computer at the top and then connected to Cecilia's tank. Some of the computer components looked ancient. Others looked as if they'd been installed the day before. Jack sat down at the base of Azrael's tank and tried to get what was left of his mind around what he was seeing.
"Well?" Cecilia asked.
Jack said nothing.
"What do you think, Detective?"
"I think this is worse than I thought."
Cecilia smiled. The expression didn't touch her blind white eyes. "You never had any idea it went this far. And why would you have? You didn't know the purpose of the experiments."
"Just to have power to siphon off for yourself? No, that's not all it is. You wouldn't have done this to me."
"I wouldn't have been able to. You were too strong. It would have been you here in my place and me in one of the outer tanks."
"Do you know what I am, Detective?"
"I don't give a fuck what you are."
"I'm like you. I have a spirit in my blood."
Jack stood up and made his way towards Cecilia. He leaned against the console at the base of her tank. It would be easy enough to destroy the machinery and cut her off from the power she was sucking up from the others, but to kill her, he would need to get her out of the tank. Or himself into it. He looked up at her.
"Do you know much about voodoo, Detective?"
Jack was sure there'd been some mention of voodoo in his training. He couldn't remember the details, but he knew what Cecilia was getting at. "Being possessed by a spirit isn't the same thing as being born of a spirit."
"When it's trapped? When it's sealed in so tightly that it will die when I do?"
"You think I feel sorry for it or for you?"
"No. I don't want sympathy. Empathy, though ... I expect empathy. I didn't do this to myself."
"Who are you, really? If Cecilia Bennett is just the horse, who's the rider?"
Cecilia tossed her head back and laughed. The wires flowed like hair. "I thought you didn't care."
"I don't, but if you want me to help you ... that is what you want, isn't it? I don't mean help you get out of this tank or even out of that body. You seem to like it in there."
"I do. It gets lonely, but I'm well fed. What do I have to complain about?"
"What do you want from me?"
"I want a lieutenant that I can trust, someone who understands what I am and what I need. To keep me fed, protect me and obey my orders. If I can't get out of this body, I'll at least open this city up even further. It's not you, though. Not willingly, anyway. I could keep you from dying, promise you your angel and let you keep the lover you have now. But you wouldn't do it."
"No." Jack looked down at the console again. He tried to sink a shikigami into the machinery, but it shuddered at the contact with whatever it found and shot back to his hand hard enough to make him stagger away from the console.
Cecilia and the loa inside her laughed. "This isn't just a computer system, Detective."
He ignored her and looked around the room for something he could use as a weapon.
"Do you understand what's been done to me, Detective? The Agency found out about me, about the real me, Kalfu, not the girl, although the girl is a powerful enough conduit in her own right."
Jack picked up a rusty crowbar from a pile of discarded tools in a far corner of the room. "Kalfu?"
"Keeper of the crossroads."
"You let them in. The ghosts, the demons, whatever. You pulled something through your crossroads that killed the city that used to be here. Pale's a ghost. That's why Leland called you the city."
"The Agency wanted to use me to control the traffic."
"Immigration services for freaks."
"It was against my nature to let them vet what I let in or out. It was my duty to decide."
Jack walked over to the tank to his right. He looked up at the face of the tank's occupant. Do I know you? he thought. Did I bring you here? Is this my fault?
There was no answer from inside the tank. The creature there wasn't alive, not really, but the question lingered as Jack looked at the semi-circle of tanks. He would never know the answer. He would never remember any of the creatures. Except Azrael. That was his fault, and the thought made him sick to his stomach. I'm so sorry, he thought.
"I'm still not sure you fully understand, Detective," Cecilia said.
"I don't have to," Jack said. "Whatever they did after you came here -- you came just as willingly as I did -- is irrelevant. What you did once you were here, though ... that's another matter."
"I took over. The ones who brought me here got old and died, and the new ones didn't know everything. The more turnover there was, the easier it was to make them believe they worked for me."
Jack looked down at the computer console. It was about waist high, with rows of green lights under silver switches, screens of numbers that meant nothing to him, more screens with scrolling lines that were either flat or had regular, pulse-like jags.
"We can't co-exist with humans," Cecilia said.
"Speak for yourself." Jack stepped up onto the console and turned to face Cecilia. The fluid in the tanks he stood between began to bubble in agitation. He tapped the crowbar against the glass of one of the tanks.
"You want to live among people who hate you for being different?"
"If it weren't because of my abilities, it'd be something else. Because I'm smarter or because I'm half Japanese or because I'm gay. Maybe because I smoke or because I drink too much. Take your pick."
"Do you really think Julian will continue to love you once he learns what you are?"
"He knows. He's on the other side of that door right now because he loves me and refuses to let me die alone."
"Walk away from this now, Detective, and you don't have to die at all."
Jack didn't know if Cecilia or Kalfu could actually save his life. He didn't think so, but Kalfu probably could persuade some other spirit. Problem there was that Jack was already dead, had been dead for several minutes, at least since he'd walked into the room with Cecilia, maybe slightly before. His shikigami were keeping him going, sealing up the ruptures in his brain, but they wouldn't be able to stave off full on apoplexy for much longer. "Fuck you," he said and swung the crowbar.
The tank shattered. Cecilia began to scream. Outside the room, someone began shouting and pounding on the door. Jack swung the crowbar at the other tank. The fluid, which wasn't fluid at all but a physical form of psychic energy, spilled over the consoles and around Jack's feet. His shikigami lapped at it experimentally, and Jack felt a rush of power. He let them gulp down as much as they could.
"What are you doing?" Cecilia shrieked. "You can't do this to me!"
Jack dropped the crowbar. He wasn't going to need it any more. His shikigami had sucked up so much power that it was running from his eyes like tears. He grabbed the wires that ran from the creatures' heads to the tops of the tanks and pulled.
Cecilia lashed out as Jack moved towards the next tank. The blow slammed him back against the concrete wall so hard that bones snapped. He felt no pain, couldn't tell what was broken or how badly. It didn't matter. "Stop it!" Cecilia pressed her body to the glass of her tank, twisting the energy she floated in into fists. She battered the glass and howled.
Jack watched her for a moment. Maybe he did feel a little bit sorry for her. She couldn't have known any more than he had what would happen when she accepted the detective's offer. Maybe she had wanted to be normal, but she wasn't. Spirit-ridden or not, Cecilia had never been a normal girl any more than Jack had been a normal boy. He looked at the remaining tanks, and the spark of sympathy was smothered.
He put his hand against the next tank. All of them burst open with such force that shards of glass pierced Cecilia's tank. The tops of the tanks were ripped out of the ceiling where they were anchored and crashed down, smashing the consoles at their bases.
Desperately, Cecilia drew as much power as she could from the energy she had left to draw on. She shoved it all at Jack as hard as he could. It broke around him like a puff of smoke. "No!" Cecilia screamed.
Jack stepped down off the consoles. His shikigami were gorged on the fluid from the ruptured tanks. He could do anything he wanted. He could destroy Cecilia and then keep going, destroy the entire building, then the city. He could resurrect the city Pale had replaced and purge the ghost. He could police the demons, ghosts and psychics. He could break open the mind of every latent psychic. Nothing would stop him.
Nothing would stop him from being a tyrant, either.
He was glad, in a way, that he was already biologically dead. He'd never get a chance to find out if he could keep his moral compass steady.
"You're mad," Cecilia hissed as Jack walked up to her tank.
He grinned. "I am. Mad Jack Runner."
Cecilia's tank was losing fluid. She struggled to keep herself buoyant, but the tank was emptying rapidly. She twisted on her wires and howled.
Jack broke the seal Cecilia had put on the door. As soon as he did, it flung open. Brian stumbled in with Julian a step behind him, trying to pull him back out. Ramiel remained at the threshold.
"Cecilia," Brian said. He gazed at his daughter, wide-eyed with shock and horror.
She twisted around to face him. "Daddy." She was clearly surprised to see him. "You shouldn't be here." She twisted back to Jack. "Why did you let him in?"
"So he could see you," Jack said. "So he could say goodbye." He waited, but Brian only stared. Jack stepped up onto the console at the base of Cecilia's tank. She roared and flung a final attack at him. He put his hand against the glass, and it dropped away like sand. He reached for the wires.
"Wait," Cecilia said.
"There's one more thing I want you to know. There was never any portal in the basement at St. Gregory's. They told you that to see what you would do. You opened it all by yourself."
Jack studied her face for a long time. "That scared you, didn't it?"
"I'd never been so terrified. I was just a traffic cop. You were the roads themselves."
"You never should have fucked with me, Cecilia." Jack pulled the wires from the top of the tank and let Cecilia's body fall.
"What is all this?" Brian asked. "What the hell happened in here? Jack? What did you do?"
Jack stumbled off the console and into Julian's arms. The warmth of Julian's body made him realize how cold his own had gotten.
"Jack," Brian said.
"Shut up, Bennett," Julian said.
Brian started to protest but then snapped his mouth shut. He turned away and started to examine the remains of the computer consoles and the bodies.
"Almost done," Jack murmured. "One more thing."
"What is it?" Julian asked.
"I need to get Azrael home." Jack pointed to Azrael's body sprawled face down on the floor, wires cascading from the back of his head. Jack tried to remember the color of Azrael's hair and couldn't.
By then, Ramiel had come into the room and was kneeling beside Azrael's body. He looked up when Jack walked over. He would have said something, but Jack chose that moment to collapse.
Julian caught Jack and eased him to the ground. Jack shivered, on the verge of a seizure. The glutted shikigami were paying for their overindulgence now. He lifted his hand and pressed his finger to a seam in the fabric of energies. It rippled open.
"God ... " Julian whispered.
Without a word, Ramiel picked up Azrael and vanished through the portal.
Jack was vaguely aware of a gentle touch against his cheek. He opened his eyes on a grey room. He saw nothing but a small window. Outside, snow was coming down hard and fast.
"It's snowing," Jack said.
"Yes." Jack didn't recognize the voice, couldn't tell if the speaker was male or female, someone he knew or a complete stranger.
"I don't want to get up."
"You don't have to."
Jack sobbed with relief and closed his eyes.