“The way down to Hades is easy. The gates of black Dis stand open night and day. But to retrace one’s steps and escape to the upper air, That is toil, that is labor.” —Virgil, Aeneid
Julian Gamier found himself in no favorable condition for spiritual warfare. The meal served on his flight had disturbed his stomach even more then the effects of jet lag. And, as usual, the disorientation of a rapid shifting of time zones had left him with a migraine, dulled somewhat by the pills that left him sleepy and lethargic. To top it all, a mild fever presaged an onset of a summer cold or some other bug he’d picked up over the past two days and half-dozen countries.
He passed through the ornate iron gates of the garden, paying little heed to the signs proclaiming them PRIVATE PROPERTY. His thoughts concentrated more on the mundane than the summons that had brought him here. If he could have just taken a day or two to recover before the meeting. But he knew the need would be too urgent, time not a luxury.
The lush scents of the garden failed to penetrate his stuffy nose, just as the beauty of his surroundings made little impression on his jaded consciousness. All but oblivious, he followed a winding cobbled walkway over a little bridge spanning a pool teeming with goldfish, ducked beneath the low branches of a tulip tree, and entered the cool green shade of a bamboo thicket.
Julian froze in his steps, his inner senses screaming an alarm. Julian’s heart thumped. He had forgotten to speak the proper words, announcing his presence! In a rush he recited the spell, then repeated it to cover any potential errors made in his haste. The sense of jeopardy dissipated. It took a little longer for his pulse to calm.
Stepping out from the bamboo stalks, he found the guardians waiting for him. Wicked, fanged statues with carved eyes protruding, the stone monsters thronged around the pathway, waiting to pounce. Julian cursed himself, shocked by his own carelessness. How could he presume to be qualified for this?
A voice snared his attention, delicate and feminine, punctuated by melodious laughter. An Asian woman—little more than a girl in appearance—approached him on the pathway. Her black, waist-length hair billowed around her like the folds of a garment. She smiled at him.
“Daydreaming?” she asked, giggling.
“Don’t laugh,” Julian said, his own mood lightening in response to her. “You were almost lacking a teammate.”
“A good thing I came out to meet you,” she said, pausing to give him a warm hug. He caught the faintest hint of the aroma of her hair through his clogged sinuses. “I’ve missed you,” she said.
“And I you,” he answered. “You look even lovelier than the last time I saw you. And just as young. I look like I’ve aged twenty years.”
“You spend far more time out in the world,” she said. She offered her arm and he took it. “In many ways, I envy you.”
“You shouldn’t,” Julian said. “Cassie, what’s wrong? Why did your grandmother call this gathering?”
“Grandmother is dead, Jule,” she said. “I sent the summons.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t sense it.”
“We are not our forefathers,” Cassie said. “Our abilities are not their abilities.”
The pathway ended in a large clearing, ringed along the perimeter by a low stone wall, curious glyphs etched into the masonry surface. In the exact center of the circle stood an immense palm tree, its trunk perfect and round and over ten feet in diameter. Its fronds, towering overhead, waved in the breeze like the wings of dragons. The tree’s bark had been carved with more of the strange symbols. In ascending rings, they reached to the top branches.
Gathered around the tree in a circle, sitting cross-legged, were ten people. Men and women, of every color and various nationalities, they smiled as Cassie and Julian came into sight.
“I found the prodigal son,” Cassie said. “Jule, will you join us in the sacred circle?” They paused outside the stone barrier, reciting the spell of protection in harmony. She led the way to the others and Julian took a seat next to her, spaced the appropriate distance between her and the man on his opposite side. The symmetry of the circle around the tree now complete, Julian closed his eyes.
“Within this ring,” Cassie began, her voice rising as piercing and vibrant as a brass gong, “the Enemy cannot hear us! Within this ring, the Enemy cannot see us! Within this ring, the Enemy has no power! The Lotus blooms!”
“The Lotus blooms!” Julian said.
“The Lotus blooms!” said the dusky-skinned man next to Julian. One by one in clockwise order, they each repeated the words.
“My brothers, my sisters,” Cassie said, after they had finished. “You have answered the summons. The Council of the Twelve is convened; the heirs of the Shemsu-Ra have gathered. Now you must hear the reason why you have been called.” Cassie stood. “Know then,” she continued. “Much has been seen, and there is much that must be told. The Enemy has chosen an avatar, even as the Scion of the Lotus stands revealed!”
“The Chosen?!” a tiny bronze-skinned man asked.
“Have we the names?” A powerful, red-bearded man spoke from the other side of the tree.
“The servant of the Enemy remains hidden,” Cassie said. “But the warrior of the Light is called Brian Alderman.”
“Where is he?” Julian asked, unable to contain himself.
“Beyond our sight,” Cassie said.
“And the Enemy?” a turbaned black woman asked.
“Already it has drank of the lifeblood of the Earth,” Cassie said. “In the land where life began, that is where the bane of all life sinks its roots. From there, it will spread to claim the world.”
“The land where all life began,” the black woman said. “Africa.”
“Yes,” Cassie said. “And it is there that the Enemy has placed its pawn.”
“Where in Africa?” Julian asked.
“These things are hidden from us,” Cassie said. “For the time.”
“We have to find this Brian Alderman,” Julian said. “And we have to find the avatar and kill him before he can bring about the Culmination.”
“It is too late for that,” Cassie said. “The die has been cast. Now the time draws near when the Enemy will make war against all that lives, the time for which we were born. The Culmination of All Things is upon us!” Julian sneezed, sniffed. He sighed. “I’m in no shape for the end of the world,” he said.