Chapter Thirty-Two: Ashe
Everything is Relative
Jaxx looked around. The place was empty—what, did no one read anymore? Or did they read everything on their Drakkon Ignition tablets?
They snuck from shelf to shelf until they reached the door that led out into the castle hall.
Ashe cracked the door open and peered outside, and then back at Jaxx.
"So what do we do? We can still run.”
Jaxx shook his head. “We’ve come this far. We go on. But first…” He pulled Ashe close and kissed him hard. Then it mellowed into something deeper, longer. When they split apart, he whispered “I love you, Ashe Heyoka, no matter what comes next.”
“I love you too,” Ashe said.
Jaxx grinned. If he’d been a betting man, he would have gambled that Ashe had had no idea those words were going to come out of his mouth.
Ashe blushed and turned away, slipping out into the empty hallway.
Jaxx followed right behind him. Electric torches burned in sconces in both directions. “I’m starting to hate musty old castles.”
Ashe’s eyes twinkled in agreement.
“So—which way? Left or right?”
Ashe consulted the flash drive. “Right, apparently.”
“Got it.” They ran down the hall past a doorway, but the drive faded.
They retraced their steps back to the door. The drive brightened.
Ashe peered inside. “It’s a stairwell. Looks like we’re going up.”
Jax followed Ashe up the circular stairway, going three quarters around before coming to a doorway on the side wall.
The flash drive said yes.
Ashe reached for the handle, twisting it left and right. It was locked. “Want to do the honors?”
Jaxx laughed. “Sure. Get out of my way.”
It wasn’t often he got to use his singular talents for the greater good. He backed up a couple feet, as far as he could, and rammed the door with his horns, once, twice, three times before it burst open, slamming against the wall outside and coming to rest loosely on its hinges.
Jaxx peered out into the hall. “No one here. Come on.”
They stepped into a hallway that was the twin to the one below that they’d explored on their first foray into the castle more than a week earlier.
Jaxx closed the door. It stayed shut, although it no longer hung quite right. He hoped it was enough to pass a casual inspection.
“This way,” Ashe whispered, leading Jaxx down the hall. When they reached the third door, the flash drive shone brightly.
“This has to be it.” Ashe stuffed it back into his pocket. “Ready or not.”
Ashe reached for the door handle.
It was unlocked. The door swung open silently.
“I’ve been waiting for you two,” a man’s voice said from inside.
* * * * *
“Come in.” The voice came from a dapper looking phoenix. He was tall with salt and pepper feathers on his head, piercing gray eyes, and a hawk-like nose. He was dressed in a gray Italian business suit. He looked much more corporate than professorial. The feathers on the back of Ashe’s neck were standing on end.
“Come on. You two have come all this way, looking for answers. Have a seat, and I’ll give them to you.”
“Who are you?” Ashe stared at the man, unable to believe he was a phoenix. And why was the man’s office here instead of at the labs?
The man held out his hand. “Dr. Dexter Cooper.” His gaze took in their dirty, rumpled clothes. “Looks like you have gone through a lot to find me.”
Ashe and Jaxx exchanged looks. This wasn’t going at all the way they’d planned it. Bewildered, Ashe held out his hand to shake Dr. Cooper’s.
The man came around the desk and closed the door behind them. “Please do sit down,” he said, picking up a crystal decanter filled with a golden liquid. “Scotch?”
Ashe and Jaxx sat in the two leather armchairs that fronted Cooper’s dark mahogany desk. “No thanks… I’m not really thirsty.”
Dr. Cooper’s desk was meticulously neat, with only a laptop in the middle and a snow globe of the Swiss alps on one corner.
“I like mine neat. I find that a little alcohol makes these things more… pleasant. But suit yourselves.” He returned to his own chair, sitting and taking a sip of the golden fluid as he watched them for a moment over the rim of the glass.
“You said you were expecting us?” Jaxx had a belligerent glint in his eye.
“Yes. Ashe’s mother was quite resourceful at collecting all of this information.” He tossed over a manilla folder to their side of the desk. It was about an inch thick.
Ashe picked it up and flipped through the pages.
“That’s a summary of what was on that little flash drive of yours.”
“How did you get this?”
“I have friends, even in Akemi’s camp. You don’t happen to have that flash drive with you, do you?”
Jaxx shook his head. “It got lost when your goons attacked us.”
Ashe was so proud of his little satyr. “What’s this all about, Dr. Cooper?”
He didn’t trust the man. His mother’s gift had led them here. That was warning enough.
“You know what we’re doing here.” It wasn’t a question.
“I’ve seen enough to guess. You’re breeding dragons that can do things dragons have never done before.”
“In a nutshell, yes. The Guild is a little… hidebound in its thinking. Society will never advance under the current system. The whole world is a mess—nations at war, an economy that no longer works for the common man—we need to shake up the system.” He pulled up something on his computer screen, and then spun the laptop around for Ashe to see. It was a video of a dragon. A beautiful, sleek black dragon. “She’s twice as fast as any other dragon on the market. And eventually she and her kind may be able to take us to the moon and back.”
“But that’s not all. She’s capable of enough firepower to destroy a city. In the right hands, she could take down fascist regimes, destroy terrorist bunkers…”
Ashe glared at him.
“What? She’s beautiful.”
Ashe had to agree. “Who decides who’s a terrorist? Who’s a fascist government? The Guild would never stand for this. They’ve fought for centuries to bring dragons under control, to limit the damage they could do. There’s a reason we no longer use them in war.”
“Rubrum Lux would make those choices. We know more about geopolitics than anyone else.”
“What if they got into the wrong hands?” Jaxx’s voice sounded brittle, on edge.
“Unlikely. In any case, we have a once-in-a-generation chance to shake up the status quo.”
It sounded like a bad, bad idea to Ashe. “So what does this have to do with us?” he asked warily.
Dr. Cooper steepled his hands and stared at them across the desk for a long moment. “If this got out before we’re ready, it could put the whole program in jeopardy. The Guild is very powerful, and has friends in high places.”
“Yeah. So?” The feathers on the back of his neck were itching.
“Although I started in the lab, I’ve attained a certain prominence in the organization here, and with that come certain perks. I’d rather buy you off than create another questionable disappearance or two. I’ve got a few spots to fill in the organization. I think someone with your training capabilities…” He looked at Ashe, “…and your medical skills…” He gave a nod to Jaxx, “…could find a place here with us.”
“Not really interested,” Ashe said, feeling dirty even thinking about the idea.
“So sorry to hear that,” the doctor said. “It’s too bad, though. It would have been cleaner if you’d said yes.”
“Cleaner?” Ashe was starting to get a bad feeling about this.
“Akemi made quite a mess when she decided to start poking her little fox nose into places where it had no business being. My associates and I have had to take some… extraordinary measures to put that genie back it its bottle.” He set down his glass. “This could all have been avoided if your mother had just left well enough alone. I met her several times, the last one at a conference in DC. I never did buy that cover of hers.”
“She worked for the government…”
“She was a spy.”
He shook his head. “She worked for the state department.”
Dr. Cooper laughed, an ugly sound. “She was a spy. Even so, I was saddened to hear that she had passed away… suddenly.” He sipped his scotch. “And under such suspicious circumstances. It’s hard when fate takes away the ones you love.” He glanced at Jaxx, and the threat was implicit.
“You son of a bitch,” Ashe all but growled. This was the one, the man who had ordered his mother killed. His ‘Mita.
Dr. Cooper laughed at Ashe’s discomfiture. “You’re just like your father, aren’t you? Look at you, just about ready to burst. Kinan should have learned to keep his temper.”
“Don’t say another bad word about my father.” Ashe’s blood was boiling.
“If he’d just given us what we wanted when our boys came knocking on that ramshackle trailer door of yours—”
Ashe screamed, his vision filled with red. He leapt across the desk, intent on taking out the man’s throat, his wings bursting forth in a blaze of fire.
Something slowed and then stopped him, and he found himself suspended in midair, wings ablaze, as if trapped in amber.
Jaxx had gotten up as well, but he too seemed trapped.
“Did you think I’d let you come in here, myself unprotected?” Cooper opened his palm to show a glowing amber stone. “I paid a pretty penny for this, but it’s worth its weight in trapped phoenix.” He smiled lazily. “Throws a stasis spell around anyone within five feet. It does give me a bit of an unfair advantage, but… I think I’ve earned it.” He chuckled and pulled a sharp-looking hunting knife out of his desk drawer, testing the blade. “You’re overmatched, my little friend. Now let’s see what your handsome satyr boyfriend is made out of.”