The kiss suddenly felt like poison, not that I’ve ever gone tasting poison, but it both burned and repulsed in a way that made me feel like something was off.  I felt uncomfortable, somewhat violated… even if it was just a kiss.  Even if I kind of wanted it, which didn’t really make it better.  I felt too warm, too much like even my clothing was loud (by which I didn’t mean it was garish, but like it was shouting at me) and abrasive.  I pushed myself away by taking a step back.

The room around us had changed; there were people in seats around us, and by people, I meant strange creatures I could maybe pull names of from mythology and too many nights reading monster manuals from various role-playing systems.   We were in the base of a coliseum of dark stone and wood, and that same bridge now showed caryatids of more monstrous design.  The coliseum had a dome, more like a baseball stadium, and I could see faint phosphorescence from the roof, like stars made of mushrooms.  The creatures were mostly less than I’d say five feet high, with a few notable exceptions like Darius staring at me.  I couldn’t read his expression.

The eerie thing was just how quiet the audience was.  There was none of the shifting, shuffling, sneezing, wheezy noises of the crowds I was used to, with murmurs to the person next to you, and occasional creaks of the seat as you leaned back and sipped your soda.

What was it that Sir Darius had wanted me to remember?  Something about boundaries.  Eight corners of Colfax.  “Bound an eight time and small things will begin to leak out.”  Or what he said about it at first.  “Small kingdoms do not wage small wars.”

The King was seducing me in front of everyone for a reason.  “The form of war,” Rayya had said.

I didn’t understand ecstatic practice. The King kept dancing around the assurances that I wasn’t being used as a fertility symbol of sacrifice, but this still seemed very fertile. And sacrificial.  The whole egg motif was something from a spring festival or an adult toy catalog, either one.

The egg cracked again, I could see where light came out of it.  The King was still standing next to where I’d been a moment ago, her eyes still dark, and the feathery lashes still unblinking.  “Would you rather be a King than a wizard?” the Viktor in my head asked me.  I voted for “None of the Above,” and thought hard.  The Seven King. Did the Shadow King make eight?  Did I?

In my dream, Matana suggested I had unresolved anxieties regarding violence.  I had not really considered what a war meant.  I figured amongst witches it was a lot of minor inconvenient hexes and being sarcastic at each other.  I began to think that I was wrong.

The aftertaste was war.  It was swords and blood and battle, and the dust from the hooves of horses, and the burning scent of magics of destruction.  War had kissed me.  Better than Pestilence, I guess.

“We can work with, against, or just surrender to the flow of things,” the Questor’s wife said.  Had I been about to surrender?  I had a rule.  A rule about not sticking anything starting with a ‘p’ into inhuman things.  A rule I had almost forgotten, almost been seduced against, after the Messenger, after everything I’d seen.  What was it?

“What is the Seven King?” I asked.

The flicker of change came across the King once more, a roll of change, this time back into the statuesque ebony, and this made a few sounds from the crowd. She turned away to look at the egg.  “We do not love, that we are loved.”

It sounded like a quote, almost biblical, but I didn’t recognize it.  Not that I was likely to unless it was really obvious.  My grandma was a bit of a, well, you wouldn’t call her a skeptic because she was a believer in a lot of odd things.  She believed in gifts of fortune or fate, and that there were shepherds of both wolves and sheep.  In fact, one of her euphemisms for the underworld translated that way.  She was always looking for pysanky patterns in odd bits, like a scryer of sorts.  That said, she didn’t spend a lot of Sundays listening to a preacher-man howling from the scripture and scowling, if you know the song.  I knew the cultural Bible, the bits repeated and part of the otherwise secular discourse as familiar stories and references.  I knew a whole heck a lot more about Star Wars.  Not that there wasn’t a schism against the Lucas testament there, but I think I’ve made my position on that pretty plain.

I didn’t ask the question again; I just waited for an answer.  About all I could think of that had Seven Kings was the quote from Saruman, “…[W]hen you also have the Keys of Barad-dûr itself, I suppose; and the crowns of seven kings, and the rods of the Five Wizards, and have purchased yourself a pair of boots many sizes larger than those that you wear now.”  But that was Kings, plural.

“Seven Kings, though Kings be men, seven Queens seemed meet to bind them. Seven Kings, and Seven Gates from which powers confined did stem.    A Kingdom Small, in need of Kings, that no other would align, the drifting grace, the levels of place, no other could design.  We are one and seven, and the gifts of sons, and daughter’s tears as endings won.”

Rayya pulled her white robe closer.  “The seven gifts.  Knowledge, kindness, might, beauty, victory, foundation, and kingdom.  Or the seven deadly sins?” she asked.  There was something mocking in her tone.  Her pale skin seemed even brighter in the light of the egg, as if there was a connection between them.

“There are seven colours in the rainbow,” I said, scoffing slightly.  “And I can name seven shapes in my Lucky Charms cereal.  Oh, and seven samurai, seven seas, seven continents, seven wonders of the ancient world, seven chakras, and all seven Disney dwarfs.  You’re not answering the question.”

“What does it matter, Door-closer?” Rayya asked.

“Seven gates,” I repeated.  “Seven seals.  What are you wanting from me, really?  And why is Thomas hatching?”

“Because of you,” she said, simply.

Oh.  I took a moment to think this through. I had already exercised my particular little trick in an unusual way, and this seemed an opportunity to try something different.  To Close the egg.  At least until I knew more of what was going on, because unless he was hatching a plan, I was still grasping at straws, trying to make sense of things.

I continued ignoring the crowd, trying to find that place inside me that I could use to push things Closed.  I felt the edges of the egg like a wound, a piercing shriek of burning marshmallows, a razor-sharp sweet candle, and I slid my mental hands to push the edges together, trapping the chestburster within using its own slime as an agglutinant plaster of sorts.  I felt the pressure building both within the egg, and within the crowd, as if the first was fighting me, and the second aiding, but I almost lost track of both, enveloped in the syrupy shrillness of what was opening.  It didn’t taste of madness, for what it was worth.  Thomas was true.

I had my answer, and the egg was closed.  It was dark again except for ambient light from a number of crystals on the floor, and somehow I felt we were alone.  The three of us.  Rayya, my keeper, a pale guide, the dark statue of the King, brooding, formidable, and myself, a mere mortal man with a trick way out of his depth.

“Speak Secret-Caller.  Speak, Door-Closer.  Tell us what you’ve seen.  Found and lost, dragon’s vassal, speak of what it means.”  The King’s words were quiet, breathless in the sense of I could not hear anyone breathing but myself.

“I am no one’s vassal,” I grumbled.  “Thomas is true, for what it’s worth.  If that’s it, I want to go home.”

The change in the King was sudden, like a PowerPoint slide with a wipe-style transition.  The almost sexless crystal translucent being stood there for a moment, silent.  The light caught the occasional facet and was in turn captured in some fashion, adding to the King’s faint glow.  Rayya was pale and shadowy within her white robes.  Her silver ring reflected the light.

“I am reminded of my duties,” the King said, and her voice was thin and distant.  “I would not have harmed you,” she continued.  Her hairless head turned. “You stand on the threshold, but are no trickster.  The worlds in-between are not for you,” she shook her head, and her dark eyes seemed almost sad.  “Do you tire of my hospitality?”

“The room was great, and the food tasty, but the worlds in-between are not for me,” I said, gently.  This was a different King, one who spoke with the word, “I” instead of the royal, ahem, “we.”

“I had hoped to spare you the pain,” she said, one liquid hand lifting up to my cheek.  “To keep you here while the place you knew raged in fire.”

“Fire?” I asked, concerned.

She dropped her hand to her side, and turned away.  “The breath of Dragons is but the beginning,” she said.

Rayya muttered, “They will give it words like drought, but the hills burn in your land.  There is light and ember upon the mountains.”

I took a step to the side.  “We’re in a drought.  Fire would just…whoosh.”  Colorado had not been getting its necessary rain.  Used to be you could half-predict the farming season based on how late in summer there was still snow on Pike’s Peak.  It wasn’t as good a rule of thumb anymore.  I felt weird.  Not like I could do anything; I knew nothing about fighting fire.  I had an extinguisher in my house, but I hadn’t tested it in half a dozen years, and I never did any frying on the stove because it just seemed like trouble.  Besides, it wasn’t very healthy anyway, although it was the only thing that made leftover fries worth it.

“The war has started, hasn’t it?” I asked.  I knew the answer, but I had to make sure I knew it with my heart as well as my brain.

Rayya said nothing, but the King turned back to me.  “I need not remind you of the mark you bear.  It weighs heavy upon the balance.”  She took a step forward.  “Come, little wizard, let us bring you home.”

“I am not a wizard,” I said, for the umpteenth time.

“Wizard of Portals, mage of doorways.  Which is better, a power that is honed or a potential?” the King asked.  She began to walk along a path of broken black stone.

I found my footing as a grey mist began to rise around us.  “Is that rhetorical?” I asked.  It was probably pretty snotty, but I had already made my choice.

Rayya smiled.  “You did not ask about Ghost-Walker,” she pointed out.  She followed us at a decent pace.

“I figured it was a metaphor.” I shrugged.  It was getting brighter if still foggy.  Things occasionally peered out of the dark grey.  A lamp post.  A fire hydrant.  A gargoyle.

“Nothing our True Thomas said was wasted,” she said.  She sounded a lot farther away.  When I looked back, I couldn’t see her.  I was no longer standing on broken stones, but asphalt.

“Yeah, but he needed an interpreter.  Is there a rhyming prophet to English dictionary app?” I asked, hoping to find her when she replied.

There was only silence.  Then a puff of wind cleared most of the fog.  The grey air smelled slightly of smoke, and the sky above was filled with smog.  The street sign indicated I was about three blocks away from home.  There was no sign of Rayya or the King.

My phone rang.