A Bridge Between Worlds - Chapter 8

A Bridge Between Worlds - Chapter 8

A Bridge Between Worlds Ch. 08

“My name is Edward Baldwin.  I’m your biggest fan.”

“Biggest fan or not, would you mind explaining how you managed to get in here?” Hiro asked defensively.

Laughing, Edward replied, “It was child’s play, really.  Your security systems aren’t quite as powerful as you think they are.”

Beginning to sweat, Hiro muttered under his breath, “Kimiko, if you can hear me, get me out of here right now.”

“Don’t waste your breath, my friend,” Edward scoffed.  “Kimiko can’t help you now.”

“What has happened to her?” Hiro asked, his rage building within him.

“Oh, nothing… yet.  Just needed some leverage over you so you’d hear me out.  I have a business proposition for you, Hiro.”

*****

Mike awoke with a start, unsure of what was going on.  Panting as he tried to gain his bearings, the room he was in seemed somehow familiar.  Seeing his trumpet case on the floor ahead of him, he realized that he was in the soloist’s dressing room of Atlanta Symphony Hall.

“What the hell’s going on here?” he muttered to himself.

The hallway door opened just then, revealing Maestro Robert Spano.  “They’re ready for you, Mike,” he said, motioning for him to follow.

“Huh?  Who is?”

“The media, of course!  Come on.”

Following him down the hallway, they soon reached another door.  As Robert opened it, the pair found themselves besieged by a flurry of camera flashes.  Trying to keep his wits about him, Mike stuck close to Robert, standing beside him as he stepped up to a podium.

“Thank you all for coming out tonight,” Robert said, raising his hand to quiet the media.  “Obviously, you aren’t here to listen to an old man like me ramble on, so I’m going to go ahead and turn the podium over to our star trumpet player, Mike Braxton.”

Mike was nothing short of confused, unsure of what this was all about.  Robert shook his hand and whispered, “Just smile for the cameras, and go with it.”

What the hell does that mean?

Stepping up to the podium, Mike tapped the microphone a couple of times, testing it out.  Confirming that it was on, he said, “Uh, good evening everyone.”

The room of reporters began shouting and raising their hands for questions.  After hesitating a moment, Mike called on a middle-aged black man in the front row.

“Mr. Braxton, Sam Powell, Fox 5 News.  To what do you attribute your career-defining performance tonight?” the man asked.

“Well, I don’t know about ‘career-defining’.  I work hard every day, but there are always improvements I can make.”

“Mr. Braxton,” said a beautiful blonde in the second row.  “Stephanie Adams, ABC.  Critics are already hailing your performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony as ‘changing the way the world hears music’ and ‘the new standard for professional musicians the world over’.  Yet, you still believe improvements can be made?”

“That’s kind of them, but I’d say the more reliable reviews are from my colleagues that performed with me tonight.”

The woman now stood, revealing that she had a beautiful, curvaceous body to go with her gorgeous face.  “Are you sure?  Many professionals assert that the Atlanta Symphony owes the vast majority of its recent success to your skills, and that the orchestra wouldn’t even be on the map with the rest of the personnel it has on staff.”

“That’s complete crap, excuse my French,” Mike shot back, annoyed with her insinuation.  “The ASO contains the finest group of musicians that I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.  They are talented, hard working, and above all, great people.  I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be half the musician I am today if not for the incredible people I work with on a daily basis.  If these are the sorts of questions I will continue to be asked, this conference is over.”

Mike walked down from the podium and exited to the side of the room, hearing the flurry of camera clicks and questions come from the various members of the media.  Ignoring them, he marched straight for the dressing room he had come from, closing the door behind him once inside.  He relaxed on the sofa in the room, trying to comprehend everything.

“None of this makes any sense,” he muttered.  “What the hell are all of these reporters doing here?  I’m a trumpet player, not an athlete or a rock star, or even a politician.  Something here doesn’t add up.”

Before he could ponder further, a soft knock came at his door.  Opening it, he found himself face-to-face with a gorgeous, blonde woman.

“Ms. Adams, what can I do for you?”

“Um, may I come in?” she asked, biting her lower lip.

Acquiescing, Mike motioned for her to enter.  “May I offer you anything to drink?”

“No, thank you,” she replied.  “I apologize for being so forceful out there.  I just am having a hard time understanding your refusal to take credit for saving this great orchestra.”

“Because I didn’t,” Mike responded, sipping a can of Coke.

“Bullshit!” she said with a laugh.  “You know damn well how strapped for funds the ASO was before you were promoted to Principal Trumpet.  It was nearly bankrupt!  Then you come in with your charm, talent, and incredible showmanship, and all of a sudden people from all over are donating to the orchestra again.  How can you not see the connection?”

Shaking his head, he replied, “Even if what you’re saying turns out to be true, I won’t allow that sort of vanity to creep into my mindset.  It’s dangerous, and leads to short-lived success.  Not to mention awful performances.”

“So you still assert that you’re not the reason the orchestra has bounced back as of late?” she asked in disbelief.

“Completely.  Look at the other talented musicians in this group: Darcy White, Stuart McKay, Jessica Miller, just to name a few.  All would be starring as principal players no matter what orchestra they were in.  I’m just one piece of the puzzle.”

“Doesn’t mean you aren’t the most important piece of all.”

“Again, I don’t care if that’s true or not, I refuse to think that way.  Now, if there isn’t anything else, I’d like to have some privacy to call my wife, Ms. Adams.”

Sighing, she replied, “Very well done, Mike.  Good luck to you.”  With that, she walked out and closed the door behind her.

Very well done?  What’s that supposed to mean?

Before Mike could contemplate this any further, he felt an enormous urge to sleep wash over him.  Figuring he just needed a nap after the concert, he stretched out on the sofa and propped a pillow behind his head, passing out in no time at all.

*****

“Fuck off, Baldwin.”

Edward sighed and shook his head.  “Hiro, you disappoint me.  I’ve made you an exceedingly fair offer, and a fantastic opportunity to join the winning side.  I thought you were smarter than this.”

“With what you’re talking about?  Hell no.  I don’t care if you are the winning side, I want nothing to do with you,” Hiro replied with defiance.

Chuckling, Edward said, “What you want is irrelevant, Hiro.  I have need of you and your abilities.  You can either profit from my need, or I can use more persuasive measures.  But you will be assisting me, one way or another.”

Hiro stared him square in the eyes, again stating, “Hell no.”

The two men stood silent for several moments as the tension in the rose to astronomical levels.  Neither conceded an inch in their resolve.  At last, Edward broke the silence.

“Very well, I suppose I’ll have to pull out the big guns.”  Snapping his fingers, a flash of fire appeared behind him, which soon disappeared, revealing Kimiko, bound and gagged to a wooden post, her clothes ripped off of her.

“Kimiko!” Hiro shouted, attempting to rush to her.

“No so fast, my friend,” Edward said, grabbing him by the collar.

“You evil bastard!” Hiro spat, struggling to break free.

“Sticks and stones, love,” Edward replied.  “As you can see, my power is far beyond Kimiko’s, leaving you at my mercy.  And I am merciful; after all I haven’t killed either of you yet.”

Eying him, Hiro then glanced over to his genie.  “Kimiko, did he hurt you?”

Though tears stained her cheek and her face bore a look of sheer terror, she managed to shake her head no.

Sighing in relief, he asked Edward, “What the fuck do you want?”

“It’s simple, really.  You help me out, and I let you and Kimiko go scot free afterward, no harm done whatsoever.  Like I said, simple.  Honestly, it’s not a matter of if you will help me, only a matter of when.  After all, a refusal could be met with some… unpleasant consequences for poor Kimiko here, all while you are forced to watch.  So, do we have a deal?”

Hiro was torn.  He knew damn well the consequences of helping this man in what he wanted to do.  Not only could countless innocents die, but also if his existence proved the further existence of Heaven and Hell, it was a pretty safe bet where Hiro would be going for assisting in Edward’s plan.  Still, Kimiko was innocent, and did not deserve any of this.  He loved her with all his heart, and wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he allowed this bastard to harm her, not on Earth, not in Heaven, and not in Hell.  Resigning himself to his fate, he nodded his head in agreement.

“Splendid!” Edward cheered.  “Now then, let’s get to it.  We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

*****

Mike felt a twinge of excitement as he pulled into his neighborhood that evening.  After all, it was video game night with Darcy and Stuart, one of Melody’s favorite times of the week.  He pulled into his driveway and saw Darcy’s car already parked next to the mailbox.  Walking up to the front door, he unlocked it and stepped inside their cozy townhouse.

“Melody, I’m home!” he called out.  “Stuart, you ready to get your ass kicked?”

“Stuart couldn’t make it tonight,” he heard Darcy say from the living room.

“Just the three of us then, I guess,” Mike said, dropping his bags on the floor near the coat closet.  Walking into the living room, he was surprised to find only Darcy there, relaxing on the sofa under a blanket.  “Uh, where’s Melody?”

Giggling, Darcy replied, “She had to run to the store; said she had quite a few things to pick up and won’t be back for quite some time.”

“Ok… are you alright?  Want me to turn the heat up?”

“Oh this thing?” Darcy asked while motioning to the blanket draped around her.  “I was actually just about to… take it off.”

As she slid the blanket off and laid it next to her, Mike was shocked to find her dressed in a sexy, sheer nightie.  The satiny, pink material hung loose from her shoulders and accentuated her perky tits.  Mike could even make out her hard nipples poking through the fabric.  Every curve of her body was outlined as she sauntered across the room towards him.

“Wha… what the fuck are you doing?” he managed to ask.

Giggling, Darcy replied, “Well, if you must know, I am trying very hard to have my way with you.”

Swallowing hard, Mike said, “D-Darcy, you’re married, I’m married.  This… this is wrong.”

“Oh, Mike,” she pouted.  “You’re hurting my feelings.”

Mike continued backing away as she approached, but soon ran into the wall.  She placed her hands on his chest, pinning him to the wall.  As bad as this was, Mike couldn’t help but notice how great she looked.  And the smell of her perfume, it was completely intoxicating.  Darcy leaned forward and kissed his neck, causing Mike to gasp in response.

“Oh wow,” she said seductively, grinding her leg against the raging boner hidden within Mike’s pants.  “Feels like you’re rarin’ to go”

“No, no I’m not,” he replied.

“I see, you need a bit more help then?” she said with a smile.

“N-no, that’s not what I me-”

Placing a finger on his lips to silence him, Darcy said, “Shh, don’t you worry.  I know how to take care of you.”

Before Mike could protest, Darcy began to drive him absolutely wild.  She first ran her fingers through her light brown hair, pulling it back into a sporty ponytail as she did so.  Next, she crossed her arms in front of her chest and slipped the straps of her nightie off her shoulders.  Letting the garment fall to the floor, she now stood completely nude before him, her perky tits and nipples growing harder by the second.  Finally, she began to run her hands all over her own naked body, tweaking her nipples and jiggling her breasts before traveling lower.  As she reached her bare pussy, already glistening wet with her juices, she stared Mike seductively in the eyes.

“Please, Mike.  Give me that cock of yours.  Stick it right… in… here…” she said, pushing her middle finger into her slit as she spoke.  “You know you want to.”  Closing the distance between them once more, Darcy slipped her arms around Mike’s neck.  “I know you’ve wanted me for all these years.  It’s the worst kept secret in the universe,” she whispered into his ear.  “So just relax.  This is what you’ve always wanted.  This is love.”  Planting her lips on his, she kissed him sweetly for several seconds.  Mike nearly gave in, feeling his hands begin to move towards caressing her body.  In the nick of time, however, his common sense was able to kick back in.

“NO!” he shouted, pushing Darcy away from him.  “You’re wrong, Darcy.  Melody is all I’ve ever wanted.  You’re a fantastic girl, but you won’t come between us.  This isn’t love; this is just lust.  We’re done here.”

Cocking her head to one side, Darcy replied, “Very well done.  Most interesting.”  She gathered her clothes and left the room to dress.

Mike plopped down onto the sofa, his face in his hands in shame as he tried to comprehend what had just happened.  Not only was Darcy more than willing to cheat on Stuart with him, he had nearly gone along with it.  He couldn’t deny that she was quite an attractive girl, but for her to go so far as to try and seduce him, it was all beyond anything he had ever thought she was capable of.  As he continued to ponder all of this, he suddenly heard the front door open and close.

“Mike, I’m back!” Melody called out.

“I’m in here,” he replied.

Sauntering in wearing her favorite black tank top and a pair of khaki shorts, she sat next to him on the couch.  “How’s my sexy man?  Have a good day?” she asked, kissing him on the lips.

Yeah, called that one right, he thought to himself.  She’s still my dream girl.

“Uh, yeah, ‘bout normal,” he replied, though his voice was still uneasy.

Looking into his eyes, she asked, “You ok?”

“Oh, yeah I’m fine.”

Before she could inquire further, the pair heard Darcy descending the main staircase.  “Bye guys,” she said.  “Sorry I can’t stay tonight, Stuart had something come up.”

“Not a problem,” Melody replied with a grin.  “Next week!”

After Darcy had left through the front door, Melody was about to stand when Mike gently grabbed her elbow.

“Wait, hang on a second,” he said.

Sitting back down, she stroked his hair with her fingers.  “You sure you’re ok?”

Going back and forth in his mind, Mike debated about what he was about to tell her.  After all, the only way she would know about what had just transpired was if someone told her.  Chances were that she would never find out.  Still, Mike already felt the guilt setting in, even though he had not done anything.  He knew it wouldn’t go away, not until he did the right thing.

“Ok, here goes… Melody, Darcy just came on to me.  She… tried to seduce me.  I didn’t go along with it, told her no, but still…”

Melody sat in stunned silence for several moments before replying.  “Wow.  Mike, you know I would have never known if you hadn’t told me, right?”

“I know.”

“And you know that if you had slept with her, I’m incapable of jealousy, right?”

“I know.  But it still would have been wrong.”

Nodding, Melody asked, “Because of Stuart?”

“Well yes, but also because of you,” Mike replied.  “I don’t care that you’re a sex genie incapable of being jealous if I slept around; that doesn’t make it right for me to do that.  And you deserve to know the truth.  The last thing I want is for you to somehow think that Darcy is someone who would never do such a thing.  Besides, I still feel guilty.”

“Why?  You didn’t do anything.”

“I… I nearly did.  Holy shit I nearly touched her, kissed her back… I’m sorry, I just-”

“Shh,” she said, placing a finger on his lips.  “Don’t worry.  The important thing is you didn’t.  That means more to me than anything.”

Sighing in relief, Mike reclined back to stretch out on the sofa, with Melody soon joining him, laying her head on his chest.

“I love you, Melody,” he whispered, beginning to fall asleep.

Kissing his cheek, she replied, “I love you too.  Very well done.”

Before Mike could ask her what she meant, he had fallen asleep.

*****

Awaking in her bed, Melody was about to venture into the palace to forage for some breakfast.  She knew damn well she would need her strength once she managed to find Edward Baldwin.  As she finished dressing in a black t-shirt and a pair of blue gym shorts, a knock came at her door.

“Yes?” she asked, opening the door.

“Good morning, ma’am,” a guard said politely.  “King Farzan is holding a grand breakfast in the banquet hall, and attendance is mandatory for all.  Breakfast begins in thirty minutes.”

“Oh, ok, that will be fine,” Melody replied.

“Very well, good morning.”

Closing the door as the guard left, Melody began to wonder what this was all about.

Mandatory attendance?  Something big must be going down.

She wandered the halls of the palace for a little bit, admiring the artwork on her way to the banquet hall.  Soon, traffic began to increase with breakfast time drawing near.  Arriving at the large hall, another guard greeted her and escorted her to her seat at a circular table near the front of the room.  Servants soon began bringing out all manner of delicious foods, from the freshest of fruits and pastries, to succulent meats such as bacon, sausage, and ham.  As the guests began to enjoy the food, the lights dimmed and a large curtain at the front of the hall was illuminated.

A herald stepped in front of the curtain and greeted the room.  “Esteemed members of the Water Jinn, honored guests, I welcome you this morning on behalf of our wise and powerful ruler, King Farzan.  He has called each of you here today for an important announcement on the future of our people.  Without further ado, I give you King Farzan!”

As he stood aside, the curtain parted to reveal the large, powerful man.  Melody applauded with the rest of the hall, and couldn’t help but notice that he seemed to have an exuberant smile on his face, far larger than normal.

Wonder what’s got him in such a good mood?

Farzan bowed graciously before raising his hands to quiet the crowd.  “Thank you, thank you one and all.  As you know, we of the four tribes of the Jinn have learned of some startling events in the world around us in the last twenty-four hours.  A servant genie of our friends, the Fire Jinn, has rebelled against the Council of Four and allied with a man that we believe poses a significant threat not only to us, but also to all of humanity.  Make no mistake, my friends, there are trying times ahead for all of us.

“With such trials in store for us in the near future, I have paused to reevaluate the state of our tribe.  I have concluded that, while we are certainly strong and prosperous, we must also put ourselves in the best position to succeed for millennia to come.  As such, I have decided to take a bold step forward towards ensuring that, regardless of what happens in the new threat we now face, the Water Jinn shall continue to have wise, trustworthy leadership.  Therefore, it is with deep pleasure that I introduce to you… my wife.  Queen Selena of the Water Jinn!”

“No way!” Melody gasped in surprise.

For several minutes, the room was filled with thunderous applause as Selena joined Farzan from behind the curtain.  Melody noticed that she was now wearing a golden necklace with a brilliant sapphire pendant.

Must be their version of a wedding ring.

Again quieting the crowd, Farzan said, “Thank you very much.  You are all too kind.  I wish to convey to you that, while I have taken Selena as my Queen out of love and admiration for her, my wish is also for her to rule at my side.  I have the utmost faith and confidence in her leadership, and if the day should come that I am incapacitated, then there is no other that I would trust my people to than her.  Now then, with the official business out of the way, a celebration is in order.  Continue the feast!”

After another round of applause, Farzan and Selena worked their way through the crowd toward Melody’s table.  As they approached, Melody popped up and grabbed Selena in an excited hug, nearly throwing her to the floor in giddiness.

“Ohmygod ohmygod oh, my, GOD!  Congratulations!” Melody squealed.

“Thank you, my friend,” Selena said, returning the excited hug.

As they sat at the table, Melody’s mind was racing at a mile a minute.  “Ok, wow… um, first question.  When?”

“Last night,” Selena said with a slight giggle.  “As my wound was healing, Farzan kept talking on and on about the threats you and I faced, how I could have died, and the future of our people.  He never rambles like that, but in hindsight, it was rather adorable.”  She glanced affectionately at him and rubbed his leg as she spoke.

“Well, I was a nervous wreck, but it was worth it in the end,” he said.  “I felt that I had to tell her the truth of how I feel.  The last thing I wanted was for that to be a secret I took to my grave.”

“I am glad he did.  I was… hesitant at first, as you can well imagine, Melody.”

“Because of your past?”

“Indeed,” Selena said with a nod.  “But after much careful consideration, I came to the realization that this is what Ahmad would want for me.”

“Good girl,” Melody replied with a wink.  “So, is there a formal wedding or anything like that?”

“In our tradition, no,” Farzan answered.  “This public announcement and banquet is the closest thing to that.  Our joining together has already taken place, just this morning.”

“Forgive me for not telling you sooner, Melody, but this is a very sacred and private matter in our customs,” Selena said quietly.

“Please, no worries at all!  So, what happens in the ‘joining together’ that you mentioned?”

Selena began to explain, “When a Genie and a Jinn decide to devote their lives and existences to each other, they essentially become as close to one entity as is possible.  This is accomplished by a special incantation that melds our magical energies together.  No matter how far apart we are, Farzan and I are now always connected.”

“That’s so awesome,” Melody marveled.  “So, where’s the honeymoon gonna be?”

Farzan laughed jovially.  “We will have to give that some thought, but for now, I wish to remain focused on the issue of Edward Baldwin.  There will be plenty of time for a vacation afterward.”

“I agree,” Selena chimed in.  “These are not ordinary times we live in, after all.”

“That’s an understatement,” Melody muttered, snapping back to the reality of their situation.  “What’s our next move?”

“As soon as this banquet is over, the Council of Four will go to interrogate Persephone,” Farzan replied.  “We must discover what she knows of Edward’s plans if we are to have any hope of stopping him.”

As soon as he finished speaking, the other kings waved Farzan over to their table near the edge of the hall.  He excused himself to go and speak with them.

Melody leaned in close to Selena.  “Ok, most important question of all.  How is he?” she asked slyly.

“Hah!  You think I am the sort of woman to kiss and tell?!”

“You know you want to.”

Selena eyed her for several moments before replying, “He is a King Jinn.  I think that tells you all you need to know.”  She tried to be coy, but the look of arousal and desire in her eyes told Melody exactly what she was prying at.

“Nice.”

By this time Farzan was making his way back to them.  “Forgive me, my love, but the Council has decided to go ahead and begin interrogating Persephone.  I will be back later.”

“Of course,” Selena replied, kissing him on the cheek.  “Let me know if there is anything I can do to help.”

“I will.  Melody, good morning.”

Collecting his thoughts, Farzan rejoined the other kings as they began making their way to the prison tower.

*****

“MELODY! NO!!!”

Mike watched in horror, seeing his wife stabbed in the back, her killer standing over her, laughing with a maniacal grin on his face.

“Oh, don’t look so sad, mate,” Edward sneered.  “You’ll be joining her soon enough.”

“You bastard…” Mike seethed, taking Melody’s scimitar in his hand.  “You fucking BASTARD!  I’LL KILL YOU!”

Mike turned to face his adversary, raising his sword overhead.  Edward merely laughed, refusing to believe he was in any danger from Mike’s efforts.  As Mike began his attacks, Edward sidestepped, avoiding the slashes with ease.  He at first didn’t even attempt to counter with his own sword, despite ample opportunity to do so.

He’s toying with me, Mike realized.

Deciding to change up his strategy, Mike switched from heavy swings to lighter, pinpoint slashes.  This, when combined with more agile footwork, forced Edward to engage more directly, blocking Mike’s attacks with his katana as he evaded.  Though Mike was untrained, he was gaining skill with his weapon, and could tell which kinds of attacks would work best with it.  After a few more quick strikes, Mike spun the sword in his hand as he transitioned into an overhead attack.  This allowed him to use the top-heavy weight of the sword to his advantage, increasing the power of his strike.  Edward saw right through this and managed to block, but stumbled back in surprise at the strength of Mike’s attack.

“Impressive, mate,” he mused.  “Looks like I may have to do this for real.”

Now gripping his katana with two hands, Edward went on the offensive, striking from all angles and driving Mike back.  Mike defended as best he could, but soon found that he was at a distinct range disadvantage; Edward’s weapon has at least six inches over his own.  Keeping his blade close, Mike continued to block Edward’s attacks, now resisting giving ground until it was necessary.  All the while, he studied Edward’s patterns and tendencies, looking for any sort of opening or weakness he could exploit.

He’s quick, no doubts there.  Still, he may not be quick enough to defend against a well-planned offensive.

As Edward attempted an overhead attack, Mike brought up his sword to block it, their blades locking momentarily.  Seizing the moment, Mike placed his hands on either end of his sword and pushed with all his might, forcing Edward to stumble backwards.  Knowing that he now had his opening, Mike again pressed his attack.  He first swung at Edward’s left leg, then at his right.  Edward managed to defend against both attacks, but was taken aback by Mike’s sudden aggression.  Mike pressed on, continuing to let the momentum of his swings increase the power of his blows.  At last, he managed to land a slash right across Edward’s belly, drawing a gash of blood.

“You… will pay dearly for that,” he growled in anger, staggering back a few steps.

Both combatants now went on the attack, each attempting to end the fight as quickly as possible.  Edward, however, was now clumsier than usual, distracted by his rage at being struck by Mike.  On the other hand, Mike remained calm and focused, counterattacking at every opportunity.  After several minutes, the two men found their blades once again locked together.  Mike seized on this opportunity, forcing both swords to the side and down to the ground, whereupon he stomped as hard as he could on Edward’s wrist.

“Ah, shit!” he yelped in pain, releasing his grip on his sword.

Now in control of the fight, Mike slashed Edward’s right arm, weakening his dominant side drastically.  Edward attempted to counter with a haymaker from his left, but Mike evaded the drunken attempt, cutting Edward’s left arm as it passed over his head.  Edward was stunned by the sudden symphony of pain he was now experiencing; he gasped for air and clenched his fists, doing anything he could think of to try and fight through his injuries.  As he looked up, Mike now attempted to end the fight, punching Edward multiple times, first in the gut, then the shoulder, and finally square in the jaw.  Edward landed on the ground from the last blow, bashing his head against the stone floor of his hideout.  He hacked and coughed, blood now seeping from his mouth and nose.  Reaching for his katana, his hand was soon pinned by the force of Mike’s foot.

“Don’t even think about it,” Mike threatened.

Lying on his back, Edward looked up at his adversary, and couldn’t help but laugh.  “Look at you… you could have killed me… so many times in that fight… yet here I am, still breathing.  Why?  Why let me live?  I’ll only kill again.”

Mike’s hands started quivering, almost struggling with the weight of Melody’s scimitar.  “I… would definitely like to…”

“I know you would,” he hissed.  “I’m total scum.  I don’t deserve to walk away from this.  I killed your wife.  I’ve killed countless others in my life.  I’m sure to kill countless more.  Put an end to it all.  Do it.”

Mike’s heart was being torn in two.  Every word Edward spoke was true; he was a killer, and nothing would change that.  And Melody… he had murdered her in cold blood.  Mike wanted to punish him for that.  He deserved to pay with his life.  Yet, Mike also recognized the seduction in Edward’s voice.  Mike had beaten him.  He had won.  Edward was bloodied, lying on the ground, helpless and at his mercy.  Killing him now would only serve to make Mike more like Edward.  As he debated back and forth, Mike finally raised the scimitar overhead, the blade poised to run Edward clean through.

“DO IT!” he screamed.

Drawing in a sharp breath, Mike gripped the sword with both hands, closed his eyes, and thrust it downward, impaling it in the stone floor.

“No.”

Laughing as he choked on his own blood, Edward replied, “You… are such a fool.  It’s no less than I deserve, and you know it!”

“Maybe so,” Mike replied.  “You killed my wife.  You murdered her in cold blood, stabbed her in the back.  You do deserve to die… but not like this.”  Mike pressed his foot onto Edward’s chest and leaned in close, face-to-face with his enemy.  “I’m not like you, Baldwin,” he hissed.  “I don’t murder in cold blood.  When my enemy is at my mercy, I grant him mercy.  I want justice… not revenge.  You… will face justice, one day.  I have no doubt of that.”

Continuing his stunted laughing, Edward croaked, “Very… well… done…”

*****

“GAH!” Mike gasped, startling himself awake.

“Easy there, Mike.  You’re back,” Jesus said.

Looking around, Mike found himself standing in the center of the same laboratory from earlier, Jesus and Michael on either side of him.

“What the hell… was that?” he asked, rubbing his aching head with his hand.  “Wait, I can move!”  He flexed his arms and took several steps to confirm that he now had full range of motion within the Armor of God.

“Most impressive my friend,” Michael said.  “The armor has accepted you as its master.”

Still thoroughly confused at his experiences since putting the armor on, he asked, “So just what was all of that?  Was any of it… real?”

“No, none of it was real,” Jesus replied.  “The armor was using your subconscious to test you.  It placed you in situations that you would find plausible, so as not to realize you were being tested, yet also forced you to use every ounce of your will and determination.”

Michael continued, “We designed the armor in such a way that, in order to wield it, one must overcome what humans refer to as ‘The Seven Deadly Sins’.  However, the armor is somewhat autonomous, with a bit of a mind of its own.  Thus, it only tested you on four of the sins.  Subconsciously, those four were likely the ones you might have been most susceptible to.  Tell me, what do you recall of the last several hours?”

“Well, let’s see… first I was back at work with the ASO,” Mike said.  “There was a huge press conference, apparently after a performance of mine met with incredible critical reviews.  This one reporter, she kept pushing me to take sole credit for the orchestra’s recent success.”

“Did you?” Jesus asked with a grin.

“Um, no.  I kept reminding her that the orchestra would be nothing without my colleagues, and that I was merely one piece of the puzzle.”

“The sin of vanity you were tempted with,” Michael replied.  “Verily, no human is completely capable of escaping its grasp.  Vanity has always been regarded as the strongest of the Seven Deadly Sins, affecting nearly every person in some way, shape, or form.  Still, your resistance is most notable.  Very well done.”

“Oh yeah!” Mike said, snapping his fingers.  “Several times, someone said those exact words to me.  What was that all about?”

“That was a signal that you had overcome one of the trials,” Jesus answered.  “Alright, what happened after the press conference and the reporter?”

Running through the events in his mind, Mike replied, “I’d… rather not say.”

Michael placed a hand on his shoulder.  “Have faith, Mike.  Nothing you experienced was real, and therefore you should feel shame over nothing.”

Swallowing hard, he recounted the situation he had found himself in: Darcy attempting to cheat on Stuart, seducing Mike to nearly do the same to Melody.  Though he had in fact restrained himself, he still felt incredible guilt at how close he had come to giving in.

“I’m guessing that was the test of lust, right?” Mike asked.

“Indeed it was.  You still are greatly troubled.  Why?” Michael asked.

“Because of how close I came to… to…”

“But you didn’t.  That’s always what matters,” Jesus reminded him.  “Your dedication to Melody won out over your physical attraction to Darcy, even when you were at your most vulnerable.  That’s more than some are ever capable of.  That’s a win, and a big one at that.”

“Agreed.  And far more, you passed one further trial immediately following your encounter with Darcy,” Michael said.

“What do you mean?” Mike asked.

“You had no requirement or incentive to tell Melody of what had transpired, yet you chose to do so anyway.  You believed that it was the righteous thing to do, and so passed the trial of deceit.”

“Deceit?  But I wasn’t lying to Melody regardless.  How was that a trial of deceit?”

Chuckling, Jesus said, “I think you already know the answer to that.”

Slapping himself on the head as it dawned on him, Mike repeated his mother’s favorite phrase.  “A lie by omission is still a lie.”

“Precisely,” Michael said.

“One more question.  Why Darcy?  I mean, I’ve known Darcy almost all my life, and she’d never do something like that, no matter how attracted she was to me, or any other man for that matter.”

“A fair question,” Michael answered.  “In order to be a true test of your willpower, the armor had to draw you into a situation that, according to your subconscious, would require every fiber of your being to fight against.  If, for example, you had been put in a situation of being seduced by a famous actress, it would have been far easier for you to either resist or recognize that you were being tested.  Darcy, on the other hand, was an individual that you had enormous natural attraction to, resulting in her being the prime test of lust.  But you are correct; that was not the real Darcy, who in reality would never do such a thing.”

Mike sighed, relieved to know that Darcy was still the same girl-next-door he’d come to know and love.  “Alright, now what was up with that last situation?”

“A recreation of your fight with Edward, though this time, the two of you were on equal footing.  However, the fight itself was not the point of that test,” Michael said.

“Right.  You were supposed to win the fight all along, but the real test was what you did after winning,” Jesus continued.  “You had Edward beaten and at your mercy.  You could have done anything you wanted to him, even kill him in retribution for your wife’s murder.  Which sin does that sound like?”

“Wrath,” Mike said, nodding in understanding.  “I was this close to doing it, too.  Probably even closer than I was to giving in to Darcy.”

Michael said, “Every individual has one of the sins that they are most prone to.  Yours is wrath, particularly in such situations where the act of revenge would be seen by most as justice, blurring the line between right and wrong.  However, you still managed to put aside your personal emotions and differentiate between justice and revenge.  In doing so, you refused to become similar to Edward.  Such willpower, determination, and perception is what you shall require when you do battle with him once more.”

“So, what about the other sins?  Greed, gluttony, and envy?”

Jesus replied, “Those three are ones that you have never been particularly vulnerable to, so it seems the armor decided that you didn’t need to be tested in regards to them.”

“Alright then,” Mike replied.  Again inspecting the armor, he couldn’t help but be impressed, not only with its construction, but also with the autonomy it possessed.  “I can see why you decided to craft this thing to combat the Antichrist.”  Taking up the sword, Mike tested it out, finding the one-handed weapon to be lightweight and easy to swing, yet also incredibly sharp and durable.  “Guess it’s about that time, then.  I’d better get back down there and help Melody.”

“Not yet, my friend,” Michael cautioned.  “Though you have passed the trials, granting you the ability to use the armor, you must still learn how to use its powers to the fullest.  Come with me.  The rigorous training you will experience under my tutelage will more than prepare you for your upcoming battles with Edward Baldwin.”

*****

“Please, Master, do not forsake me…”

Persephone sat on the floor of her prison cell, weeping at being taken away from her beloved Edward.  Try as she might, her powers were gone from her.  She could not sense him anywhere and had no idea where he was and what he was doing.  Still, even in her despair, she held out hope that he would return for her once his labors were complete.  She believed that in her heart of hearts, for it was all she had left.  As she pondered these things, the door to the tower creaked open.

“What do you want?” she sneered.

“We need to talk,” King Salim replied.

Persephone now saw that the entire Council of Four was present.  “I have nothing to say.”

Stepping up to the bars of her cell, Salim quietly stated, “You are still one of my subjects, even with your power removed from you.  Therefore, you will obey your king, or you will suffer the consequences.”

“I am loyal to my Master!  He is my everything!” she shot back.

“That, as it turns out, is what we need to speak of,” Salim replied.  “We need you to tell us everything you know about Edward Baldwin.  Specifically, where he is going and what he is planning.”

Persephone began to laugh.  “You fools… do you really think he would tell me his plans?  He knew you would capture me, so why would he give me information for you to extract from me?”

“So, you are saying that you do not know his plan?”

“Precisely.”

Shaking his head, Salim said, “I still believe you know more than you are telling us.  What is Edward’s endgame in all of this?”

Staring at her captors, Persephone replied, “To fulfill his destiny.”

“Becoming the Antichrist?  Yes, yes, we are all aware of this.  Melody told us.  However, does Edward really believe that this will end well for him?  Surely you both know that we will not rest until he is stopped, Antichrist or no.”

Persephone again laughed to herself.  They thought they knew so much that they were blinded to how ignorant they really were.  “You cannot possibly understand us.  You have taken my power from me, yet I still desire nothing but my master.  He and I are kindred spirits.  Even in this cold cell, I still know he will return for me, and on that great and glorious day, I will again be at my master’s side, and I shall assist him in serving at his great master’s side.  His destiny will be fulfilled, and he shall rule over this world in the name of his lord.  All shall bow to the almighty Lucifer, or else perish at his hand.  Once the Great Cataclysm has been completed, nothing of this world will be able to stop my master.”

“Great Cataclysm?” Salim inquired, his ears perking up.

Dammit!  Persephone, you stupid idiot!

Persephone knew well she had said too much.  Though no specifics had been divulged, she had in fact confirmed that Edward was in fact working on triggering a single, large-scale catastrophe as part of his rise to power.  “As I told you, I have nothing to say,” she steamed.

Smiling, Salim replied, “You have said plenty.  My thanks to you.”

As the Council turned to leave, Persephone remained defiant.  Grabbing her cell bars and pressing her face between them, she threatened, “He is beyond you!  All of you, fools and traitors you are!  His power, his will, and his cunning are greater than anything mere Jinn can possibly muster.  He will rule this world, and when he does, your punishment will come.  He shall not merely kill you for your defiance; he shall punish all of your subjects before you.  You shall see the pain and agony in their eyes as each and every last one of them are exterminated, one-by-one.  Only then, when you have been made the last of your kind, will my master grant you the kindness of death.”

Snorting at her melodramatic threat, Salim replied, “We shall take our chances.”  Slamming the tower door shut, Persephone was once again alone.

*****

“Well done, King Salim,” Farzan said.  “Now we know that he is in fact planning a large scale event of some sort.”

Chuckling, Salim responded, “Well, I owe it all to Persephone.  She seems to enjoy talking a great deal.”

“King Nadir!” a guard shouted, running down the hall towards them.

“Yes?  What is it?”

Panting as he arrived, the guard said, “Sir, we have just received a coded distress signal from one of your servant genies.”

“Show me!”

The group hurried to the central courtyard of the Water Palace.  Once there, Farzan approached a small fountain behind the large tower in the middle, running his hand under the water.  As he did so, a set of stairs appeared in the ground, leading underneath the tower.  The group finally arrived in a large workroom containing several areas used to monitor servant genies and magical activity across the globe.

“Here is where we first got word,” the guard said, leading the group to a workstation.

“Alright, let us see what we have here,” Nadir mused.  Pulling up an ethereal globe of Earth, he was able to pinpoint a spot of yellow light in Japan.  Touching the point of light, an audible message began to play.

“If anyone can hear me, this is Kimiko of the Wind Jinn.  I am being hunted, my every movement tracked.  Whoever or whatever is doing this is far more powerful than even I; none of my magic has allowed me to escape this.  I fear my master may be in danger… if anyone can hear this, please send help!  Huh?  Wait, who are you?!  No!  Stop!”

Silence.  All who were present were disturbed by the message.

“This is very bad,” Nadir muttered.  “King Ardashir, what do you make of this?”

Thinking for a moment, the elderly man finally said, “These events are no coincidence.  We capture Persephone, only to have one of your servant genies under attack?  Baldwin must be connected to all this.  It is the only logical explanation.  King Nadir, can you pinpoint Kimiko’s current location?”

He worked on the globe for a few minutes, but to no avail.  “Nothing.  It is as if she and Hiro have disappeared from the planet.”

“I have seen this before,” Farzan chimed in.  “It can only mean one of two things.  First, that Edward has somehow captured them and is shielding them in such a way that we cannot penetrate.  Second… they could be dead.”

“I highly doubt that,” Nadir said.  “If one of my servant genies had been killed, I would have felt it.”

“I agree,” Farzan said.  “How long has it been since the distress was sent out?”

“About two hours,” Nadir confirmed from the message.  “Do you think this is a hostage situation?  A means for Edward to get Persephone back?”

“Perhaps, but perhaps not.  His motivations are unclear.  After all, if he had wanted to prevent us from taking custody of Persephone, he was more than capable of doing so,” Salim said.  “Why allow her to be captured, only to then take a hostage to trade?  Something else is at play here.  What, I cannot be sure.”

“I believe we should ask Melody’s opinion,” Ardashir offered.  “If anyone can guess as to Edward’s motives, it would be her.”

“Very good.  Guards!” Farzan called.  “Bring Selena and Melody here at once.  We need their assistance.”

Before it is too late, Farzan couldn’t help but think to himself.

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