We arrived to the news that an attempt had been made on Anna’s life. My world slowed down for a moment, the sudden seriousness of the moment hanging upon me like a great weight, until I was reassured that she wasn’t hurt. The four of us were greeted at the hospital’s reception by my old lecturer, Davis, who looked over and smiled at my confusion.
“Sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, my friend,” Davis said, his hand brushing through his curly white hair with embarrassment. “I’ve been a friend of Antoine’s for a long time. We met some years ago while I was working abroad. My interest in the Zodiac brought me closer to him, and we’ve been close friends ever since.”
“That explains why you took me aside that time,” I said, wondering how many more secrets Antoine kept close to his chest. “Anna, she’s okay?”
“Just a few grazes, Jack, that’s all. But you might want to go and check on Antoine too. He was injured trying to protect her.”
“How serious?” I asked, concerned for my old guide. Once again I could feel the brooding feelings of guilt working through my mind.
“He’s been better.” Davis said honestly. He turned to Liwanu and whispered into his ear. The two stood there for a few moments, exchanging words and glances, while I slipped further and further into the trappings of self-directed abuse.
“I need to see them both, please.” I said. Davis nodded and beckoned for me to follow.
“Go with them, Isabelle,” Liwanu said, placing his hand around her shoulders and pushing her gently forwards. “You need to see him.”
She stared at him without moving, looking as if she was fighting with her conscience over the dilemma.
“Do it, girl,” Harrison said forcefully. Her eyes widened in shock, but it seemed to propel her back to life as she moved reluctantly towards us. “Tell the old goat to get off his backside, will ya?”
“We will.” I said, smiling slightly but without conviction. Davis led us across the main corridor and into the elevator, where we waited and exchanged dispassionate small talk. After reaching the third floor we stepped outside and walked past a few rooms before coming across Antoine sitting privately in his own space. I rushed in, becoming attentive to his frail and drawn face, and saw Anna standing at the side of his bed.
“You came,” Anna said coolly. “What took you so long?”
“I’ll leave you guys to it.” Davis said, leaping forwards and closing the door behind him before any of us could seek out his support.
“Are you okay?” I asked, feeling conflicted over where to stand. I moved towards the other side of the bed and looked down at Antoine, who looked back with his eyes half closed. “I’m sorry I couldn’t come sooner, I’ve not been here.”
“Yes, I know.” she said curtly.
“Give him a break.” Antoine said hoarsely. His mouth formed into a lopsided smile but the weakness in his voice left me feeling worried. There was a bandage around the top of his head and an eye patch that had been rolled around his right side, which made him appear more ominous and menacing. Most of his body was covered by white pyjamas that thankfully concealed the amount of damage he’d received.
“We seem to be coming here a lot lately,” I said, laughing softly. “Antoine, what happened?”
“Same bastards that put Molly in hospital, I think,” Antoine said, failing to hide the emotion in his voice at the mention of our friend. “It was a surprise attack on Anna while she was at her home. She’d asked me that same day to talk about the signs, and I drove out to find her. I was lucky enough to get inside before the man could do anything else but hit her over the head.”
My eyes darted over towards the purple bruise on Anna’s cheek. She stared back at me, holding the mark self-consciously, before brushing it off as painless. There was a slow, burning anger swelling within as I mulled over who had dared to lay a hand on her.
“The man had a knife,” Anna said, meeting my eyes with her own. She was still edgy but less distant than before. “He was toying with me for a while, trying to get information, which was lucky because otherwise I wouldn’t be here. Antoine caught him by surprise but was stabbed in the attack. He scared the man enough so that he ran away, though.”
“How bad is it?” I asked him, greatly concerned for my friend. In some ways I also knew I owed him for saving Anna’s life, and I felt guilty that I hadn’t been there to intervene.
“No real vital organs were harmed during my heroic endeavours,” Antoine said sardonically, breaking into a long torrent of coughing. “Hurts like hell, but the doctors think I’ll pull through. Even if they didn’t, I’m a stubborn devil. I’m not going to die on you just yet, kid. I need to see the Zodiac complete.”
He stopped talking and saw Isabelle for the first time, who had been waiting in the background until finally stepping out to show her face. His eyes grew large with emotion as his hand reached out for hers, which she took after a hesitant pause.
“I’m glad to see your safe.” he said. I wondered if Liwanu had told him that they had been travelling together for some time, before quickly rejecting the thought. It was impossible to think that they had kept that secret from him, but until now Isabelle might not have agreed to see her father in person.
“You could’ve died,” she said disbelievingly. Her voice was strained and pitched with all of the fears she had over losing him. No matter what had happened in the past, I could see that they were both relieved to find one another alive, and that the thought of either one of them dying was too much to bear. Later, once Antoine had started to recover, there would be a time for heated arguments and bubbling resentments to spill out into the surface – for now though their better natures had truly taken hold.
Anna and I left them to it after I told Antoine that I would go back later that evening. He nodded, his bright eyes holding back the tears, while we walked out into the corridor and turned to face one another. She looked into my eyes and, as if as a token of good will, moved in to kiss me on the lips.
“It’s good to see you again, Jack,” she said, more warmly than our initial greeting. “Antoine told me what happened, and I know you couldn’t help it, but I just would’ve liked to have known sooner.”
“I’m sorry. I would’ve, but I was knocked unconscious and dragged into the Dales. Believe me, I was in shock too.”
She laughed in spite of herself and said: “Okay, that sounds about right. That could only happen to you.”
“Seriously, I’ve had a really bizarre few weeks, and I don’t think it’s over with yet,” I said, feeling sorry for myself. “When I thought that I might’ve lost you, I stopped completely. It’s bad enough Antoine being hurt. I’m just glad you’re both still here.”
“He acts tough, but there’s a heart of gold in him. He’ll pull through, he has to. What now, Jack? What are we going to do?”
“No idea,” I said honestly. “We’ll go and speak with the others, and see what happens next. We need to find Mercury before he gets to any more of us.”
Hours passed before I was allowed to see Antoine again, this time on my own. We’d waited at reception with the others and had conversations about the attack and what we needed to do to move forward. We were all agreed that Mercury needed to be found, but despite the creativity of the ideas proposed we were still at a loss over what to do next.
When I moved through the room and sat at the side of Antoine’s bed, I could see that the past few weeks had really taken it out of him. His face was thinner than before, with the skin around his eyes looking dry and worn. His hair was always long but never usually unkempt, which made him appear even more unwell. What gave me pause for relief was the glint in his eyes that were still ignited with presence, and made me see that he was still fighting to keep the life in them.
“You look troubled,” he said, knowing that I was drawing into myself again. He was one of the few who understood how I thought. “Did you find your time with Liwanu helpful?”
“I learned some new tricks, you might say. There’s a lot that I don’t understand though, even with the memories. Antoine, I’m sorry about Molly. I wish I could’ve done something.”
“It was already fixed,” he said, his voice wavering and roused. “I didn’t know it was going to happen, but now I realise that Molly was always going to die. She’s not truly dead, I know that, but I wanted to save her, Jack. I was powerless, in the end. We always are.”
“Do you think we can still come together with three already gone?” I asked.
“I believe the essence lives on, Pisces,” he said, holding my forearm with surprising strength. “Their descendants will come, but until that time, the guardians of those signs will still exist. Your friend, Aiden, walks with you often.”
“Aiden?” I said, faltering. “Do you think he’ll come through?”
“We never truly die, you know this. Have faith in the universe. Pisces, all my life I’ve always known that there is a greater force tying us all together. For too long, I listened to my head, and to the laws of physics, or the limitations that our peers place on us. Now, at the latter end of my life, I’m beginning to believe in our essence.”
“Yes, Antoine, I feel that too,” I said, sensing that we were heading for a poignant moment of understanding. “And I think that I’m being drawn into that, as if all of my learning and experiences…will bring me closer to that very essence.”
“You have almost overcome your dual nature, Jack, and I’m proud,” he said, smiling brightly. Once again we were talking as friends. “The rest of us must carry on with our lessons and keep living until our time comes. You’re heading for your own resolution, the maturing and realigning on all that has come to pass. I think…Jack…I’m being guided to tell you all of this. There’s a knowing, somehow, that isn’t really my own.”
“It resonates, Antoine,” I said, soaking in the depth of his words. “Whatever it is, I think the climax is coming.”
“And new beginnings,” he said tiredly.
We sat in silence for a few moments as the weight of his words tunnelled through my being and, without undermining the severity of the phrase, I truly felt enlightened. Suddenly, though, an uncomfortable feeling passed through me, as if Antoine and I were conversing for the last time. I was just about to voice my fears when Anna walked into the room, looking sombre and serious, while holding a mobile phone outstretched in her hand.
“Jack, it’s not good news,” she said gently as she moved towards us. “It’s your friend from Tai Chi.”
“What’s happened?” I asked after bolting upright.
“Your mum rang me – Jack, I had to let them know where you were – and she said that someone rang the home phone a few minutes ago. It’s Tom. He was at home and…they think he had a heart attack.”
“Not Tom,” I said, losing the threads of understanding. First, I’d braced myself for Anna and Antoine, who were thankfully left alive from the attack. Out of all of the people I knew, Tom had been the last person I’d worried about, believing him to be a temple of health. He was strong and able-bodied, and the idea was simply beyond my own ability to comprehend. “We’ll go and see him.”
“It’s too late, sweetheart,” she said softly, touching my cheek. “He didn’t make it. They still need to do tests but they know it’s natural causes. They suspect it might’ve been a blocked valve…”
“But he’s one of us, Anna,” I said, feeling empty. “He’s Leo’s descendant. He can’t be dead.” We looked at each other as I saw in my mind’s eye the Magician, tittering with glee over my loss. I remembered his curse, and the fixed signs, and wondered if Tom’s fate had been in somehow linked to his black magic.
“Jack,” Antoine said weakly. He could see that I was at a loss, falling into the agonies and ruthlessness of the mind. “It’s not your fault. It’s just the way of it, we can’t control these things.”
“Take it,” Anna said, placing the mobile into my hand. “She’s worried about you.”
“Mum,” I said, holding it against my ear. My mind was racing but it was a relief to hear her voice on the other end of the line. I hadn’t been able to see either of my parents since the night I’d left, and they still didn’t know about Pisces. “I’m sorry.”
She asked if I was okay and then told me what had happened. Phil rang her to say that Tom had been under the weather during class, but had never suspected that it was more serious. Hours later, an ambulance had arrived at his house and Tom was dead before even reaching the hospital. There had been no knowledge of his medical history and no awareness of any past health scares.
Somehow I managed to keep my cool and tried to convince my mum that I wasn’t too upset. My voice didn’t fail me and I gave reassurances that I didn’t feel. “We’ll talk again tomorrow.” I promised after running out of conversation.
All the while, though, I was fighting with myself to keep from crying. It was all too sudden, too soon. Losing Molly had been tragic, but at least she was on the verge of death in the first place. That hadn’t taken away the loss of life but Tom had been a million miles away from my thoughts. A mix of feelings, including guilt, stole away at my energy until I remembered the Magician’s haunting promise. I looked at Anna and prayed that she would outlive his curse.
“It’s all coming to an end, now, isn’t it?” I said, with that sense of foreshadowing harrowing over me.
“What are you going to do, Jack?” Antoine said, patting my elbow. I turned to him and failed to hide the fear written upon my face.
“I don’t know. All I can do is do whatever is planned for me.”
“You won’t be alone,” Antoine said, his eyes staring into mine with powerful resolve. “You are one from Twelve and your paths must now cross.”
“Let’s hope it won’t all be for nothing.” I said.