He glanced over to Abigail, who watched him with a penetrating stare that said she was dying to know what they were talking about. He was grateful she didn’t interrupt them. That was something he’d always found rude and extremely annoying.
Jess returned his attention to Ren. "My mother didn’t talk that much about her beliefs or tell me many stories." She’d been too sick for too long. For the last three years of her life, every breath had been a precious struggle for her. So she’d conserved them for living and not for talking. "And when she did, it was in a hushed tone." Because she’d been terrified of anyone hurting him over their heritage.
Better to blend in than stand out, penyo. The one who flies against the flock is always flying into opposition. No matter how strong the beast, sooner or later, he tires from his ragged journey.
And when he falls, he falls alone.
His mother’s words were still with him.
Even so, he’d never been one to conform. But all that had done was prove to him how wise and right his mother had been. In the end, he had died alone and he was tired.
Then and now.
He cleared his throat. "So you’ll have to forgive me my ignorance."
"A wise man never argues a mother’s decision for her child. Not unless he wants to face her claw, and there is nothing sharper than a mother defending her young."
Jess definitely concurred with that.
"You probably want to put me on speaker so that Abigail can hear it, too."
"All right." Jess pulled the phone back to comply. "We’re here."
"At the beginning of time when the Code of Order was being established, the First Guardian locked away all the evil he’d found in the world. Things that had been created by the Dark One for no other purpose than to plague man and hurt him. The First Guardian knew that mankind wasn’t strong enough to fight it. So he banished it all to the West Lands where the sun lay down on that evil every night and kept it weak."
Ren paused. "But Evil is always resilient and ever resourceful. In time, it bred with Father Sun, and a tiny piece escaped to find an embittered warrior whose heart was blackened by jealousy over his own brother. He took the evil into him and was seduced by its promise that if he hurt others enough, their pain would make him stronger and drive his pain away. It succored him like a lover, and he embraced its insanity with everything he had. And so he went on a killing rage, and he consumed the lands until he ruled all from his bloodied fists."
"The Grizzly Spirit," Jess said quietly. He knew this legend from Choo Co La Tah.
Ren continued. "His war brought him to the realm of the Guardian, and the two of them fought for a year and a day-a battle so violent, it left a permanent scar on Mother Earth."
The Grand Canyon. It was said the red color came from the blood of the wounds they’d given to each other while they fought.
"Finally, the warrior made a mistake and the Guardian was able to pin him down. He stripped the evil from the warrior, but it was too late. They had sweated and bled so much over that year on the earth that the very fabric of Mother Earth’s gown, the granules of sand that carry man on his life’s journey, was saturated with it and forever stained by it. There was no way to take all the evil back or to make her gown white again. The damage was done."
"What did he do?"
Jess smiled at the way Abigail was completely absorbed by the tale.
"The Guardian realized his mistake. There was no way to keep evil locked away forever. It’s as pure an essence as good, and like good, it can’t be denied or held back. And as Night and Day divide the sky between them, so must good and evil divide the world. Only then can there be balance and harmony for humans. Only then can there be any semblance of peace. So the Guardian banished the Grizzly Spirit that had infected the warrior and locked it behind the West Land Gate so that it could rage without harming man. He then took from Mother Earth eight jars to hold the plagues that had helped the Dark One escape and sealed them with his tears so that they could never again be used by the Grizzly. Those jars, he turned over to four Guardian protectors. North. South. East. West. The strongest corners of the earth who could be called on to defend should the West Gate ever be opened. Two of those Guardians were ruled by the Dark and two ruled by the Light. Perfect balance."
"How did he choose them?" Abigail asked.
"All but the East Guardian went through a trial created by the First Guardian to see who was the worthiest. The top three were the chosen ones."
"And the one from the East?"
"He was the warrior who’d been owned by the Grizzly Spirit. The First Guardian thought that if anyone would understand why they had to protect the West Gate, he would be the one. And that he would stand strongest against all threats to keep it from happening again. Not to mention, given their fight, he knew the warrior would be a worthy opponent for anyone who dared to breach his gate."
"That makes sense."
"Once they were given their jars, the First Guardian warned them of how serious their duties were and that they should never waver or falter. They were to stand together and to keep each other in line. Then he retired into the West Land so that he could rest after his battle. They say he still slumbers there even today."
"And the Guardians?"
Ren let out a light laugh. "Each took his jars deep into the sacred land where the Fire touches the Earth and hid them so that no one would be able to use the plagues against them or man."
Jess sighed as it all started coming together. "Coyote released his jars already." The scorpions and the wasps.
"Yes. Coyote has been trying for centuries to find the key to unlock the Gate and free the Grizzly Spirit. He knew as long as Old Bear and Choo Co La Tah were joined, there was no way for him to overpower either of them and open the Gate. Now that one has fallen, he and Snake can join together."
"And screw us royally," Jess said under his breath.
"You’ve no idea, my brother."
"But why?" Abigail asked. "Why would Snake join him?"
"Snake by nature is, and has always been, a follower. And he’s served the Dark One too long. It was something the First Guardian feared the moment he assigned the two Dark Guardians their posts. He knew how insidious the Dark would be and how corruptible even the most noble of heart is. He’d hoped that the East Guardian would watch after and counsel Snake away from the darker side of his personality. But just in case the East Guardian failed, it was why he put a finite limit on the service of the Guardians. Next year, during the Time Untime when our calendar resets, the feathered rattlesnake will bear his color, and on the night when the evening star comes first, new Guardians are to be chosen by the one who holds the key. Old Bear. With him dead, that choice moves to Choo Co La Tah. If Coyote and Snake can kill him, they can choose the new Guardians."
Abigail frowned. "Why is that important?"
Jess answered before Ren had a chance. "Whoever assigns the Guardians, controls them and most importantly, controls the West Land."
"Ultimate power," Ren said. "Your every wish granted. You own the entire world."
Who wouldn’t want that?
Well, okay, Jess didn’t. He had enough trouble managing his own life. Last thing he wanted was to be responsible for everyone else.
Unfortunately for all the world, Coyote didn’t feel the same way.
"Snake is now a loyal servant to Coyote and has been for a long time," Ren continued. "The only thing that kept them at bay was the Light Guardians."
And Jess didn’t miss the heavy dread in Ren’s tone. "What haven’t you told us?"
"One of Old Bear’s jars contains the Wind Seer which is the one plague that can open the West Gate and free the Grizzly Spirit."
Crap. Crap. Crap. Jess flinched at the very thought.
Abigail drew her brow together in confusion. "I don’t understand. If the First Guardian is there, can’t he stop the Grizzly Spirit from escaping again?"
"It’s not that easy, Abigail. No one has heard from him in countless centuries. For all we know, the Grizzly might have killed him when he went behind the Gate or he could have possessed him. You have no idea what the Grizzly is capable of. Trust me. We have to stop them from opening that jar. If the Grizzly gets out again-"
"It’ll be a fun time in Disneyland," Jess mumbled. "Y’all think we could arm Mickey? He might be badass with a gun."
Abigail slapped him lightly on the arm. "What do we have to do, Ren?"
"Get his jars before they do."
It amazed Jess that Ren could make the impossible sound easy. Too bad reality didn’t go that way. "Does Coyote know where it is?"
"I don’t think so. But then, neither do we. Choo Co La Tah should be able to track it … if we can get him to wake up. However, the one who spilled Guardian blood has to make an offering on the sacred ground to appease the ancient elements before sunrise. Otherwise all of the jars will open … at once … which would then also blow open the Gate and all that concentrated evil would pour out of it."
Oh yeah, that would seriously suck. "Did they launch that last space shuttle yet?"
"I don’t follow," Ren said.
"I’m just thinking maybe we should evacuate the whole planet. I’ve heard the moon is kind of nice this time of year."
Both Abigail and Ren let out mutual sounds of aggravation.
"Focus your ADD, Jess."
He rolled his eyes at Ren’s quip. "I gotcha, brother. What you’re forecasting is six more plagues coming out of the northwest at maximum velocity with a mild chance of survival. Followed by the world getting swallowed whole into a vat of evil."
"Well, yeah. That’s exactly what I’m saying."
"Nice to know I didn’t misunderstand and all." He purposefully exaggerated his drawl on that. "Ah, hell, y’all lucky I can follow anything, especially given how many times I got kicked in the head when I’s a kid." Sobering, Jess let out an irritated breath.
Instead of Renegade, his name should be Mary Sunshine. "I’ll get Abigail to you as soon as I can."
"I’ll keep working on Choo Co La Tah. You be careful."
"Same to you. Let me know if anything changes. I could really use some good news right about now." Jess hung up and turned to face Abigail. Unfortunately, she had her clothes buttoned up all the way to her neck.
She let out an exaggerated breath. "I don’t want to know about Choo Co La Tah, do I?"
"Not really. Kind of wish I didn’t know." Jess toyed with the keys that dangled from the ignition while he watched the wasps continue to swarm outside. He didn’t like the idea of being trapped, and he wasn’t keen on the idea of being beholden to Sasha for anything.
"Ah, screw this. I’m not going to wait for rescue like a puppy on a float. Buckle up. We’re going for it."
Abigail wasn’t sure she liked the sound of that. But what choice did she have? Jess was in the driver’s seat.
Besides, she was with him on this. No need in waiting around when they could at least be trying to get home.
She snapped the belt over her lap and braced herself. "All right, cowboy. Let’s do it."
Jess put the car in gear, then opened the garage door with his powers. The wasps immediately swarmed inside. Something that didn’t faze Jess at all. She admired that.
He gripped the wheel, then tore out of the garage as fast as he could. The lights were dimmed by the number of wasps gathering around them.
But that wasn’t the worst part.
She cringed at what awaited them on the street. Everything had gotten worse. There was no movement from anyone, anywhere. Businesses and homes had their windows drawn shut, and most were dark-as if afraid that the light might attract more wasps.
It terrified her.
But at least there was no sign of the mountain lion. He appeared to have moved on.
Needing to understand what was going on in the world around them, she turned the car radio on and scanned the channels until she found the local news.
The reporter’s voice was thick with concern, and it made her own throat tighten. "There’s no explanation for this rash of insect uprisings or these unprecedented weather fronts that keep moving in. The authorities are advising everyone to stay calm and in their homes until the experts have figured out what’s causing it. As of now, several roads and highways are being closed, and everyone is being told to watch out for flash flooding. They also want us to remind everyone that wasps can and do sting even after death, so please don’t pick up any of their remains without gloves or some other form of protection. Officials are advising everyone to turn off any light that might attract more wasps. And if you have pets in your yard, please do not venture out to get them."
Flash flooding? The dark sky above them was completely clear.
She turned the radio off. That hadn’t been very helpful. "Guess they can’t report that it’s the end of the world, huh?"
"It’s not the end."
She stared at the wrecked cars and bodies they passed. The people who’d posted handmade signs in the windows of their homes asking for God’s forgiveness and warning others to repent. "It sure looks like it from my seat."