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Kafelnikov
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"The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion." ~Albert Camus
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[Chapter 24]

Is this what dying really feels like?

That question was the last thought to flow through Hal's mind, and it seemed stuck there in mid-stream,  unable to move forward. There was never any pearly gate, no flash of light or recanting of his sins. There was just the question. The single question that waited an eternity for an answer.

*BEEP*

A sound broke through the haze of timelessness.

*BEEP*

There it was again, and suddenly Hal realized he was having thoughts. Why was he thinking about having thoughts?

*BEEP*

Hal tried to open his eyes, to wake up, but he only partially succeeded. There was nothing to see, but he was clearly awake. He was thinking about being awake and how odd this felt.

*BEEP*

Something was covering his eyes, and yet even so they felt fused shut somehow. Slowly the cold truth of realization condensed in his mind. His eyes were covered by bandages. He was lying down. He was alive.

*BEEP*

Why!?

Hal wanted to cry, but he couldn't. Why was he alive? Was the universe just playing some great cosmic game of chicken with him? He had given his world everything, and yet it demanded still more. The call of life always asked him for more.

The beeping accelerated as he felt his heartbeat speed up. He was in a hospital bed. The air felt still and cool to his half-working nerves. He tried shifting his weight a little, but halted himself when he felt the tug of tubes sticking into his body. There were tubes in his arm. There were tubes in his stomach. There were tubes in his nose.  

He heard a sound like a gasp of surprise. Wherever he was, he wasn't the only person in the room. Hal heard footsteps shuffle from his right to his left and then hastened to even further beyond, leaving the room entirely.

So much for pleasant introductions.

Hal felt his tail begin to stir, and it slowly opened its four blood-red eyes. It was a strange feeling in that with his own eyes blinded, Hal for the first time remembered that he still had these ones. Their sight didn't manifest in his mind with clear images or even as the sensation of vision at all, but he suddenly had an intuitive feeling for his surroundings. He somehow understood that this room was longer than it was wide, and he shared this space with other beds cradling other unconscious patients. This room felt dim. This room felt tired. But most of all, this room felt forgotten.

He lay there alone with his thoughts for some time before the sound of footsteps returned. These new ones were sharp, and each footfall echoed through the halls with the sense of purpose. Before long the echo became a direct sound and the footsteps approached all the way to the front of his bed.

“Mister Adhil. You're awake.”

The voice was stern, female, and confident in the way that only experience could provide. It seemed to be waiting for his response, and only after a fair amount of delay did Hal speak up himself, testing his vocal chords.

“Um, good... morning?”

“Good morning indeed. I'm surprised you can speak.” Hal heard the sound of metal brushing against plastic and the faint flutter of paper as charts and diagnostics were consulted. “I don't think we expected you to wake up today, if ever at all. Tell me, how do you feel?”

Right to business then.

“Tired. Like I'm trying to wake up from a dream that I can't remember.” Hal offered the statements that he felt were best. After a few moments without a response, he hazarded a question. “Are you my doctor? Am I really alive?”

“The answer is yes, to both.” The clipboard clattered back into place at the end of the bed. “Forgive my abruptness, but it's not often that I get the opportunity to have these sorts of conversations. I'm Doctor Richter, and this is room 13B of Bergmann Memorial Hospital. Long term care.”

The footsteps moved closer to him. Hal could sense the faint pressure of fingers poking at buttons on his monitors. “Your blood pressure is a little high for someone who's been in a coma, but everything else looks normal.”

Hal's heart froze.

“Wait, I've been in a coma?” He dreaded the answer that was to come. “For how long?”

A minor sigh escaped the doctor's lips. “I'm afraid you've been asleep for quite some time. Let's see... about a year and a half.” Her voice lowered a bit. “It's pretty rare to have anyone wake up like this. Most of the time, it's just a waiting game until the plug is pulled.”

Hal tried to find some words, but they were slow in coming. So many thoughts were racing through his mind, it was difficult to settle on any one, but eventually enough laps had been completed to allow the most pressing one to rise to the fore. “Why am I still alive?”

“Don't you mean 'how am I still alive'?”

“Sure.” Hal shrugged, or tried to at least. His nervous system felt like it had been rebuilt out of molasses. Arguing semantics could come later.

The doctor took a moment to formulate her explanation before speaking. “Statistically, you should have been dead on arrival. Everyone's physiology is different, but the brain can only survive without oxygen for so long before the damage is irreversible. That amount of time is usually measured in minutes not hours. Conveniently, its distribution is described by a nice normal bell curve.” Dr. Richter's voice actually sounded annoyed. “You're the edge of the curve. Your life is an anomaly.”

Anomaly. That word was an unwelcome one. A word the doctor hesitated to even speak. No one ever knew how to handle anomalies.

“I've been writing a paper on your condition, but even I don't really understand it. From all appearances, you have very late-stage cancer that's spread to every single part of your body. But, for some reason it doesn't seem to be hurting anything.” Richter grumbled in dissatisfaction at her apparent lack of understanding. “It's the most widespread and comprehensive cellular mutation I've seen in a living body, and somehow it's benign. This collage of old cells and new cells... it's just what you are now.”

“That's good, isn't it?” Hal didn't understand why she sounded so disappointed.

“I suppose.”

Hal heard the sound of a pen clicking to life and the sharp scribble of notes on a clipboard. “Your mutated cells appear to use a different respiration cycle than normal, allowing for greater anaerobic energy production. I've been trying to nail down the specific chemistry, but all the cell samples I take die quickly when removed from the host. It's remarkably infuriating.”

Hal managed to tilt his head ever so slightly in a nod of understanding. It kinda made sense. He wouldn't have been able to wake up from being drowned if his cells couldn't some how get by without oxygen, even if that meant going dormant for a long time. After his mind finished absorbing the information, he offered a wry smile. “Sorry to be so inconvenient to you.”

“It can't be helped.” The pen clicked again and the clipboard clattered into place at the foot of his bed. The doctor sighed again. “Now that you're awake, I have to make some calls and take care of some paperwork. I know it sounds cliché, but you should just take it easy. We have an awful lot of difficult physical therapy to look forward to.” It sounded like the doctor was starting to walk away.

“Wait.” The footsteps halted in reaction to Hal's word. “What happened to Miri?”

“Miri?” The doctor sounded like she was thinking who that name was attached to. “Oh. Yes. The purple fox? She'll probably be dropping by soon.” Hal heard the faintest of chuckles. “She visits you almost every weekend.” Without another word, the footsteps left him and eventually faded into distant echoes down the hallway.

The news was such a shock to Hal, that he simply lay there, stunned, for what felt like another year and a half.

Miri was alive?

No way.

This had to be a dream.

No person could ever get that lucky. No life could ever be so blessed.

Could his?

Hal felt a familiar constricting sensation in his throat. He struggled against the inevitable pressure before finally giving way to a singular emotion that spilled out from his lungs.

The emotion wasn't relief. Relief is too transient. Relief is a cold glass of water on a hot summer day. When the heat fades, it fades as well.  

The emotion wasn't happiness. Happiness is warm, soft, and intangible. This feeling was strong, massive, and overwhelming, like a cresting wave, reaching, peaking, and ready to crash onto shore.

The emotion Hal felt... was Joy.

Joy surged forth from his heart, flowed through his lips and poured into the room, carried forward by the current of laughter. He laughed longer and harder than ever before, feeling the purity of those echoes reflect back and wash over him. For the first time in his life, Hal understood what laughter was always meant to be. Laughter, is the celebration of joy.

Hal laughed until his body was exhausted, and simply could not continue any longer. Even though he was blinded, the world felt brighter than it ever had before. It wasn't long before his world had become a lot busier as well. No Miri yet, but instead an army of medical assistants, perhaps drawn by his honest and vocal expressions of joy. There wouldn't be any of that here. This was a hospital.

Tests were run, samples were taken, interviews conducted. A lot of medical jargon and stern, disbelieving voices. What's two plus two? What year were you born? Do you feel dizzy? Nausea? Is it difficult to think of words? Describe what a square looks like. Apparently he was supposed to be brain dead, and the experts had a hard time accepting that he was not.

Amid the flurry, Hal learned more about his physical health. His muscles were atrophied from being in a bed for a long time. Between that and the old gunshot wounds, learning to walk was going to be difficult. Good thing he had some experience under his belt.

Both of his eyes were blinded. One had been smashed and one had been sliced, and neither one would be able to show him the world again. The bandages that covered them weren't really necessary for anything other than keeping people from being shocked by his appearance.

The scarring on his body was extensive. Bullet wounds, lacerations, blunt force trauma. Pristine and low mileage he was no longer. One young resident probably described it best when he remarked that  Hal looked 'pretty hardcore'. It wasn't an adjective Hal was accustomed to people applying to him, but it would do.

Somehow, none of these facts particularly worried Hal. What else could he do, but laugh at it all? He was alive. It wasn't a perfect life, not even close, but it was something. Maybe something was enough.

Eventually the nurses and doctors and residents finished their poking and prodding. They would be back, they promised, with more questions and more tests, but for now, Hal could relax in peace. His energy level was hardly up to the task of sustaining such attention. Simply laughing had drained him a good deal. The sound of the heart monitor was soothing, almost entrancing, and he flirted with unconsciousness in and out as time passed without being measured.

Eventually, the unmeasured future came to pass, and Hal felt the presence of someone else in the room. A warm hand gently placed itself on his own, and even without words, Hal knew who it belonged to.

“Hey Hal.”

Miri's soft voice crossed the space between them, sounding calm, but perhaps a bit sad. The quiet of the room told Hal that they were completely alone. It didn't seem like she knew that he was awake.

“Today's a special day for both of us, isn't it?”

Hal forced himself to remain still. He wanted to hear what she had to say without interrupting her. Hal honestly didn't even know what day it was, other than it was a weekend.

“I finished my thesis. If all goes well, I'll be 'Doctor Rodgers' soon.” The normally great news was delivered with a wistful tone. “Heh. Doctor. I don't know if that title even means anything to me anymore.”

Hal stopped himself from frowning at Miri's words. Her voice had a quality to it that he could feel but not quite place. The faintest trembling in her fingers telegraphed the subtle wavering that was soon to follow in her words.  

“You know, Hal, it's strange. I thought I'd be happy about this, but for some reason, the more things go back to normal, the more it feels like everything is wrong.”

Lost. That was the word Hal had been searching for. Miri's voice sounded lost.

“I always imagined that when I got to today, that Dr. Kincaid would be here to congratulate me. To tell me that I did a good job. He'd smile and say something about how I have a bright future ahead of me, and I think I would actually believe him.”

She drew in a long, hesitant breath, taking a few precious seconds to gather more strength.

“And I thought that you would be there too. That we would cross this line together. I pictured Dr. Kincaid saying the same thing to you, but you'd just smirk and make some joke about how I did all the real work. We'd all laugh and smile and everything would feel right. Like I was actually meant to live that moment.”

Miri sniffled a bit. “But that's not what happened today, is it?” Her voice became more strained. “Spirits, Hal... How many times have we had this conversation? This is so stupid.”

Hal almost spoke up, to comfort Miri, to let her know that he was still here. But something stopped him before he could start. Why did he suddenly feel afraid?

“I know you can't hear me. But I just wish...” Hal felt the dull sensation of a droplet of water falling onto his forearm. “Sometimes I just wish that I could go back in time and remember that I was happy once. Back when we could just watch the stars together, and talk about the wind and mountains and snowflakes.” Miri sniffled again, fighting against the strain in her throat.  “Now that today has finally arrived... I honestly don't know what the hell I'm supposed to do with my life. Every day just feels like I'm going through the motions. Have you ever felt like that?”

Hal heard her laugh bitterly at her own words. “Of course you haven't. Every day you had a new sky to look up at. I always wanted to know what that would feel like, if only for a moment.” Her hand squeezed his. “Everyone says that I need to move on. But they don't know what we've been through. The small moments we shared. What they meant to me. Not one person in the world understands who I am.”

Hal finally broke his silence, and his tail bobbed to life, angling over towards her. “I do.”

“Holy-!” Miri screamed in surprise and Hal heard the sound of a chair clattering to the floor. The faint tremor he felt through the ground meant that Miri fell too. Hal frowned, wondering if he was a little too cruel in surprising her like that.

“Miri? Are you ok?”

A fist responded with a firm punch to his side. “HAL!? You ASSHOLE! You're awake!!? Were you listening this entire time!?” Another fist landed home, even stronger than the last, followed by another.

“Ow. Sorry.” One jab struck him in the gut, close to where some tubes were. “OW! Hey! Don't mess up my happy tubes!”

“YOU'RE SUCH A JERK!” She sobbed freely, striking with one last punch to his side. The attack soon turned into a hug, and Miri embraced Hal tightly, crying into his shoulder. If Hal could cry he would too, but he settled for gently wrapping his free arm around her to return the gesture. They stayed like that for a long time, allowing the gravity of their improbable reunion to fully sink in.

“Hal. Oh Hal.” She spoke his name over and over, as if repetition would prove that that he wasn't an illusion. Her voice was muffled a bit from being pressed so close. “I thought you were in a coma! The doctors told me every time that there wasn't much chance you would ever wake up!”

“Yeah, well, I'm an anomaly apparently.” Hal smirked a bit at his own humor. “I thought you were dead.”

Miri pulled her head away for a moment, presumably to wipe at her eyes, as she struggled and mostly failed to compose herself. “I very nearly was.”

“Then how?” Hal only got a few words into his question before her head was resting close again.

“You have terrible aim.”

“I'm being serious.”

“So am I!” Miri jabbed him, much more gently this time. “The bullet hit me in the stomach, a few inches below my ribs. Right here.” Her fingers guided his hand along her side to a place where a patch of her fur was missing. Hal's fingers felt the odd, soft flesh of raw scar tissue. “It missed my vital organs. That said, I nearly bled to death in that church, but the medics were on the scene super-quick. A *lot* of medics.”

Hal grimaced as he remembered the final minutes of that encounter. To him it just happened yesterday, but Miri had a lot more time to recover and come to grips with the traumatic events. Unpleasant as it was, this was his opportunity to learn about the aftermath. “So... what happened?”

Miri sighed, closing her fingers around his, just like they had back then. “The troopers won, but, I don't think even a dozen people made it out of that room alive. So many bodies that used to be people just... everywhere. All over.” She tightened her grip a little. “Trooper ops always have paramedics on standby, and practically every single unit in the city was there to triage the casualties. It was all over the news for weeks.”

Hal felt her face nuzzle into his shoulder some more. “All it took was a few emergency blood transfusions, two surgeries, and way too much time in the hospital to get me back on my feet again. You know. Easy stuff compared to what you're used to.”

“Sounds like.”

Miri's voice was harder to hear with how her face was buried. “I thought I lost you, Hal. Are you sure this is real?”

Hal snorted. “Not at all. I'm probably hallucinating.”

“Is that so?” A little edge of mischief worked its way into Miri's words. He felt her head shift, moving up towards his to plant a kiss on his cheek.

“Ehhhh... still not convinced.”

A finger poked the side of his face. “Hmph. Nice try, but that's all you get. We're hardly alone.”

“Awww.” Hal pretended to be disappointed. “Hospital wards don't turn you on?”

“Sadly, no.”

“Well, there's one date idea out the window.”

The two of them laughed a bit at the joke, still trying to come to grips with the new reality they both earned. Hal didn't have enough energy to keep up the banter, which seemed to suit Miri just fine. They lay together in silence, enjoying each others company all the same.

Unfortunately, they weren't able to savor the moment for too long before more footsteps came down the hall. These ones sounded heavy. Boots marching in lockstep. Hal didn't need to hear the word to understand who was coming.

“Troopers.” Miri's voice sank low, and she pulled away from Hal to sit back down in the chair beside him.  

The loud boots entered the room, breaking the calm silence they had enjoyed. Some of the boots stopped there, but another pair continued on approaching them with a sharp sense of purpose. “Ah, Miss Rodgers. I didn't know you were here.” The new voice sounded imperious and overbearing.

“Prosecutor Graham.”

Apparently these two knew each other, and from the iciness of Miri's tone, it was not exactly a pleasant relationship.

“I need to speak to Mister Adhil.”

“Go right on ahead, but I'm not leaving the room, so don't even try to make me.”

The prosecutor sighed as if weighing whether or not to force the issue. He must have decided to let it be, because his next sentence addressed Hal directly. It was very formal and to the point. “Halcyon Adhil, I am here to inform you that you are under arrest for crimes against the city of Anduruna. The list of charges is rather extensive, I'm afraid.”

Hal grumbled. “Last I checked, I'm lying in this bed because I tried to help the city. What the hell am I being charged with?”

“Murder. Aiding and abetting a domestic terrorist. Power use. Illegal possession of a firearm. Many more items along that vein. Any one of them alone could put you away for a long time.” The voice seemed to take immense satisfaction in reciting Hal's so-called crimes. “You're in an awful lot of trouble.”

“Gee, I've never been in trouble with the cops before.” Hal quipped dryly, unable to hold back the snark.

“You don't seem to be taking this very seriously.”

“And you don't seem like a very pleasant person.”

“Hal.”

Miri chastised his tone, but it was difficult for Hal to keep the edge out of his voice. He smiled a false smile towards the sound of the prosecutor. “Thanks for the friendly notice.  So, do I get to talk to a defense lawyer now?”

“Oh, no. Not at all.” The prosecutor laughed a little bit, and Hal decided that this gloating sound wasn't what laughter was supposed to be. “Your guilt was determined by the courts many months ago. Sentencing simply hasn't been carried out because of your medical condition.”

“What?” Despite his physical weakness, Hal felt a fire begin to burn inside of him. “That's not fair. A defendant is supposed to be able to confront his accusers. You can't just convict me while I'm in a coma.”

“Terrorists like you don't get the same rights afforded to normal citizens.”

“I'm not a terrorist!” Hal started coughing violently, and Miri's gentle but firm touch made sure he leaned back in bed, preventing him from overextending himself.

“It's true.” Miri spoke up for Hal. “Hal was the one who helped stop Marcus! He should be thanked for what he did, not condemned!”

“That's quite enough from you, Miriel. The only reason why we didn't banish you for powers violations is because you agreed to cooperate with the investigation and prosecution. But you've played that card already and it would only take one word from me to have you arrested as well.” Prosecutor Graham cleared his throat, clearly not afraid to throw his weight around as he pleased. “Just because the two of you may have done some admirable things does not erase the crimes committed. We are a city of law and order, and those who violate our laws will be punished accordingly.”

The sound of footsteps slowly paced in front of Hal, and he pictured the Prosecutor wearing a smug expression as he clasped his hands behind his back. “You have no idea how much of a shit-storm you created. How many good men lost their lives because of everything that happened. Our finest company of shock troopers was nearly obliterated in that confrontation, and we lost many more people in the weeks that followed as we hunted down the last remaining elements of your brother's little insurrection. Those soldiers will never be brought back to life, and someone has to answer for their deaths.”

Hal was not pleased with the way they were being treated. It was only due to exhaustion that he failed to raise his voice. “So I'm the last loose end, huh?”

“Indeed.” The prosecutor paused in his slow pacing. The directness of his voice seemed to address Hal directly, instead of reciting a monologue into the empty room. “Your brother is dead. Even if we had tried to save his life, it would have been too late. You stabbed him through the heart.” Hal frowned. “Every known associate of Marcus is either dead or in prison, and the meteor shards that we recovered are safely secured from the public and renegades like you. Rest assured, we won't allow any  more citizens to make the same mistakes you have.”

Mistake? Hal mentally shook his head. No. His life wasn't a mistake. The meteor wasn't a mistake. This petty man would never understand.

“So what are you going to do to him?” Miri asked the question she didn't want answered.

“Lucky for you it's an election year, and the Viscount is trying to project a softer image. Instead of execution, it will be easier for everyone if you merely disappear. Leave Anduruna and never return.”

“Banishment?” Hal struggled to untangle the knot of conflicting emotions that balled up inside his heart.

“Yes. It's the standard punishment for powers violations. Trust me, you're getting off a lot easier than I think you should. As soon as you're discharged from the hospital, your citizenship profile will be deleted, and all of your assets will be seized by the state. You will cease to exist. You will leave the city and you will not be permitted to return. If you do, the consequences will be... severe.”

“You can't do this to him!” Miri argued against the verdict. “After all he's sacrificed, you're just going to reject him?”

“Would you rather we shoot him instead?”

“This isn't right!”

“It doesn't matter. It's the law.” The prosecutor's voice had a finality to it that indicated the issue was no longer up for debate. “Now silence yourself, unless you want to suffer the same fate.”

“I won't!” Miri didn't relent. “If you're going to banish Hal, then you'll have to banish me too!”

“Calm yourself, Miss Rodgers.” Graham's voice became intensely cold and serious. “This isn't the sort of choice to be made lightly in the heat of passion. There is no undoing it once it's been done.”

“I told you my answer. I have nothing more to say to you, Mister Graham.”

“Miri, you don't have to-” Hal started to protest, but he was quickly cut short.

“Hal, shush.” Miri gave his hand a determined squeeze. “After all that we went through to find each other, I'm not letting you disappear again.”

“So be it.” The prosecutor grumbled to himself. “We don't need a dissenter like you causing trouble, anyways.”

“Wait.” Hal got the impression that the man was preparing to leave. “Before you go, I have one last question.”

“What?”

“What date is it today?”

“Excuse me?” The prosecutor sounded peeved by Hal's mundane question.

“The date. Today. What is it?” Repeating the question only seemed to irritate the man more.

“It's April 15th.”

“Heh.” Hal felt the beginnings of another laugh stir in his soul, and he was unable to hold it back. Soon he was laughing in earnest, filling the room again with the sound of joy.

“And why do you find tax day so funny?”

“Haha.” Hal managed to slow his laugh long enough to speak. “It's not that. I don't think you'd understand. I'm just happy to be alive.”

“You awakened are all the same.” Graham's voice sounded bitter and spiteful. “You have no respect. This city is better off without you. You might be happy now, but when you're alone in the wilderness, cold, hungry, and lost, you'll wish you could come back.”

“Whatever.” A smile emerged on Hal's lips, undaunted by the warning. “Believe whatever you like. It doesn't change the way I feel.”

That seemed to bring an end to the conversation, and the footsteps of Prosecutor Graham stomped out of the room. As silence returned, Hal felt his body relax. The smile didn't go away. Happiness was not the normal reaction to a situation like this, but Hal decided that he just wasn't meant to be a normal person. He certainly was pretty bad at it.

Miri remained with Hal, letting her guard back down now that they were left alone. She laid her head next to his and snuggled close. For a long while, the two of them merely enjoyed the sensation of being together. Being alive. The beeping of his heart monitor reminded him every second that yes, he was here. Life was here. Love was here. He had everything he needed. Everything else, well, those were just minor details.

After a time, Hal finally recovered enough energy to speak. He almost didn't want to break the silence, it was so comfortable, but the words on his mind had to be spoken. “Thank you, Miri.”

“Mmmm?” Her muffled voice sounded like she had fallen half-asleep. “For what?”  

“You know. For staying with me. For everything. I don't know how I ever got so lucky.”

Miri nodded sleepily, brushing her cheek against Hal's shoulder. “I think we're both lucky.”

“I suppose that's true.”

“Mmm.” Miri placed a hand on his chest, lifting her head slightly.

“Hey Hal?”

“Yes Miri?”

She gave him a light kiss on the cheek. “Happy Birthday.”

Hal smiled.

“Thank you, Miri.”

[End Chapter 24]
The Wayward Astronomer: Chapter 24
Man, it feels amazing to be this close to the end. Only one more chapter to go! My chapters are definitely longer than what they used to be, as this one clocks in again at around 5000 words.

I hope that everyone enjoys the penultimate chapter, and that it gives us all something to look forward to. Through all the struggles and injustices we endure, sometimes it's great to just remember that you're alive, and life is beautiful. I can't wait to finish this story.

*****

The Wayward Astronomer is original fiction set in the DreamKeepers universe created by David Lillie :icondreamkeepers: www.dreamkeeperscomic.com

Other chapters can be found here:

kafelnikov.deviantart.com/gall…
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TWA Character Sheet: Marcus Adhil by Kafelnikov
TWA Character Sheet: Marcus Adhil
This is the fourth and final "character sheet" of The Wayward Astronomer, created by :icondarkspeeds: 

Marcus is a main character of the story, and the twin brother of Hal. Despite their similarities, very rarely do the two brothers see eye to eye. 

Marcus' Theme Song:
Linkin Park - Lost in the Echo
www.youtube.com/watch?v=NTz3yC…

First Appearance: Chapter 11 

Major Arcana: XVI - The Tower
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TWA Character Sheet: Hal Adhil by Kafelnikov
TWA Character Sheet: Hal Adhil
This is another fantastic character sheet commission completed by Elson Wong, aka Darkspeeds :icondarkspeeds: He gets a ton of credit for once again bringing a ton of life and visual detail to a character that I can only express through words.

Hal is the main character of my Dreamkeepers universe original story entitled "The Wayward Astronomer".

Hal's Theme Song:

Redlight King - Past the Gates
www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ow_eEQ…

First Appearance: Chapter 1 

Major Arcana: XII - The Hanged Man
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Mature Content Filter is On
(Contains: violence/gore)
[Chapter 23]

Hal materialized on the Theophanies pad with a sudden soundless jerk. Vertigo washed over his body briefly, but he managed to keep his balance in spite of himself. This pad was just as abandoned as the last one, but evidence of violent conflict wasn't hard to find. Small spatters of blood waited by the pad's exit, leading off into the streets. Hal didn't need to find the body to know what methods his brother used passing through here.

Slowly, Hal took a step forward and tested his weight on his unsupported legs. His power washed away any semblance of pain, but he still had to be careful. Pain or not, throwing his weight around wouldn't end well when he asked too much of bruised bones and torn muscle. Somewhere along the way he had lost his cane tonight.

Step by step, Hal worked his way forward, out into more empty streets. During the day, these avenues would be filled with the hustle and bustle of commerce. Vendors selling wares. Preachers selling faith. Everyone clamoring for attention all at once. But now, at this seemingly forsaken hour, even the wind seemed to hold itself still in a self-imposed curfew. He sensed the urgency of life from up ahead, a few blocks away. There was only one place it could be. Marcus was not far.

Hal moved with a slow and steady pace, measuring his balance with every shuffling step. His pistol felt like a lead weight: a burden he couldn't yet discard. Between the gaps of the large spires overhead, stray beams of moonlight spilled down onto the streets. Somewhere beyond those rays, the Sabbaton Tower still remained. It's hulking form, often the subject of so many low-brow jokes, failed to inspire any sort of feeling in Hal's heart. It didn't render him mute in awe. It didn't weigh on his soul. It was nothing to him, and yet, in spite of his apathy, tonight it had become everything. The night drew Hal ever onward.

Hal slowed his march and leaned up against the wall of his alley, stopping to listen to the world. Around the bend, just across the street, waited Marcus' cathedral. Inside, so many souls were caught up in rapt attention. Filled with anxiety. Hope. Fear. Confidence. The cold but inevitable wind of a storm ready to be unleashed upon the unsuspecting world.

One dim soul waited glumly outside the front door. Hal could feel him. A young man filled with doubt, wondering how he had been rejected among all the others and forced to guard the entrance alone. It was a thankless job, delegated down to the very lowest man on the totem pole. He was missing the dramatic speech, and no one in the world cared at all.

Hal pulled the hammer on his pistol back to full-cock and took a deep breath, but something inside his heart caused him to hesitate before rounding the corner. Was this right? He didn't sense any violent intent from the teenager left alone in the dark. Only doubt. The desolate but resonant sensation of not belonging where he was. It was a familiar feeling that Hal knew all too well. Half-forgotten memories danced through his mind, brought back to life for one tiny instant.

The gun felt heavy and cold in Hal's hands. It too didn't really belong. Slowly, Hal exhaled and let his thumb ease the hammer back up, de-cocking the weapon. Hadn't enough people been shot tonight? The survival instinct in Hal clamored out, demanding that he kill his potential attacker, but somehow his muscles didn't hear it. With tremendous difficulty, the pistol was tucked into his jacket pocket by one begrudgingly cooperative hand.

Hal swallowed, waiting one more insistent heartbeat before stepping out onto the street and into view. He walked slowly towards the church, forcing himself to keep the weapon stowed and unfired. The young recruit noticed Hal quickly, and he could feel the alarm wash over him with a shuddering inhale.

“H-hey!” The kid drew his own pistol and waved it in Hal's general direction. The barrel danced about with furtive uncertainty. “Don't come any closer!”

Hal didn't heed the warning, and continued his slow, unsteady march. This caused the level of fear in the air to swell higher, threatening to flood the street. “I mean it!” The wavering barrel kicked back, and a bullet leapt out to bite at Hal. It clipped a frayed shoulder of the leather jacket before skipping off further into the dark.

Fingers desperately clenched on the hilt of both pistols, but Hal kept his in check. He looked over at his graze wound and then back at the kid, finally pausing in his steps. After a short moment of silence, Hal offered words instead of his own bullet in response. “Are you going to kill me?”

The question took the young man by surprise. This wasn't how people were supposed to respond to being shot at. “I'm supposed to stop you.”

“And I'm supposed to be asleep, lying comfortably in a hospital bed with all sorts of tubes sticking out of me.” Hal shrugged, as if his defiance of the normal was nothing to be alarmed about. “But I've never been very good at doing what I was supposed to do.”

The youth didn't know how to react to Hal's apparent indifference. That much was clear. He wasn't supposed to have a conversation and argue the finer points of appropriate behavior at 4am. The gun, rendered temporarily mute by the mild debate, pointed aimlessly in Hal's general vicinity. “Why aren't you scared? I could kill you right now.”

“You could.” Hal nodded and looked his opponent in the eyes. “Since that's the case, why are you scared?”

The young man's confidence seemed to falter for only one more moment, and he placed another hand on the grip of his pistol, steadying himself. “Because.” His eyes narrowed as he found his resolve. “I don't want to die.”

“Huh.” Hal felt the corner of his mouth curl up into the edge of a half-smile. “That's funny.”

“What's so funny about that?” The kid aimed his pistol with more precision, hovering the sights over Hal's chest with an uncomfortable focus.

“I don't want to die either. I think...” Hesitation halted Hal's words for barely a second, before they inevitably fell from his lips, one by one. “I think, the idea of dying scares me.”

And there it was: A simple truth, floating between the two wandering souls that stood together in the cold pre-dawn air. They each watched it in silence before a gust of wind sent it drifting off, out of sight. The would-be gunman lowered his pistol a hair, unsure of whether he should chase after it.

“Look.” Hal returned his attention to the conundrum at hand. “I need to walk through this door, and I'd prefer that you didn't shoot me before I even got that far. I don't know what's going to happen when I walk in there, but I don't think that it's something you really need to stick around for. It might be in your best interest to go your own way.”

“Like you know.” The kid aimed his pistol at Hal's head. A defiant sneer was quick to replace the confusion on his face. “I don't have anywhere else to go. You think it's just that easy to walk away?”

“No.” Hal shook his head. His tail stared up at the sky. “No, I'm afraid nothing like that is ever easy at all.” The pistol didn't waver, which prompted the final question that had been waiting patiently the whole time. “So, what's it going to be?”

The recruit glared with uncertain anger, his finger teasing the trigger of the pistol at the apex of each heartbeat. The bullet wasn't going to miss its mark at this close range. Hal wasn't sure if he was even breathing anymore, so still his body had become. Every muscle, every last adrenaline kissed nerve, screamed out for him to grab his own weapon, but the call went unanswered. The paralysis of trust was too foolish and stubborn to be overcome by instinct. Hal could feel the flood of conflicting emotions wash through his unwilling companion, and no one knew which way they would spill.

“Screw this shit.” The pistol fell, as if finally acknowledging the pull of gravity. One arm guided it back down into its former hiding place. The kid only gave Hal one more passing glance before pulling up his hood to hide his face and marching off into the alleyway. Where he would end up, no one could guess.

Hal waited several more non-heartbeats before finally releasing his breath with a heaving, shuddering gasp. His lungs screamed for air, quickly accelerating to a greedy series of labored inhales. Hal leaned forward against the wall of the church and closed his eyes, coughing hoarsely at the ground. His stomach twisted itself into a knot of belated panic. He experienced all at once the primal punch of delayed emotions only now that his potential executioner had walked away. Hal's remaining eye watered quickly as a broken sob of relief spilled down onto the ground.

It took a minute for the wave to subside. He was alive. He was alive. Hal repeated those words in his mind like a mantra to give him the strength to stand again. Despite his power, his body was weak, and even his willing soul was having trouble with the effort expected of it. With tremendous difficulty, Hal pushed his forearm against the wall and levered himself back upright, drawing in a long, ragged breath of air. “Come on Hal... keep it together.” Muttering to himself seemed the only way to keep a new wave from washing ashore. Hal could have been killed so easily, but somehow, it didn't happen. It was strange how such a twisted and confused life could still be punctuated by small miracles. In spite of all that had happened, he was still alive.

The muted echo of his brother's booming voice focused Hal's attention on the present again. That dramatic speech of his must be getting to the good part. It wasn't too late for Hal to confront him. Miri was somewhere inside there too. He could still save them both. In the story of this night, there were still a few more pages that were waiting to be revealed.

Hal found the weight of his pistol pressing into his palm again. The grain of the grip reassured his hesitant fingers that indeed, he could write those final pages himself if he had the courage to try. His other hand gripped the elegant brass handle to the doorway. The threshold was here, ready, waiting to be crossed. Hal didn't know if he was ready. In truth, he wasn't. Hell. It seemed he was never ready for anything, and yet some unknown force inside pulled him forward relentlessly towards the future. A surge of emotion welled up in his throat and forced him ever onward.

Ready or not, it was time.

“MARCUS!!!” Hal pushed through the door and stormed into the room, screaming out his brother's name like a challenge against fate itself. Inside, a hundred heads turned to face him all at once.

Marcus stood at the altar at the front of the room, one fist still raised in a dramatic gesture even though his speech was suddenly interrupted. The meteors rested on their own decorative pedestals, many chips and fragments already hewn from their bulk. An army of converts, some dressed in ceremonial robes, but most wearing street clothes, turned from their positions among the pews and targeted Hal with a hundred different weapons. The metallic clicks of hammers being cocked and safeties released echoed in the wide chamber.

“Wait! Hold your fire!” Marcus leaned forward over the altar, almost eagerly welcoming Hal's surprise visit. He smiled wide, grinning at the sight of his brother before him. “You really are tougher than you look, Hal! I should say I'm surprised to see you, but that would be a lie. You missed most of the ceremony, I'm afraid.”

“Enough, Marcus!” Hal marched down the central aisle, past the columns of underground soldiers and the stains of blood he so recently left behind. “I'm done playing games with you!” He fired a shot from his pistol into the stained glass window that arched across the ceiling high above. It shattered into several heavy fragments that crashed down onto the marble floor between the two brothers. A rogue beam of moonlight finally had an opening to spill down from above, illuminating the scene that was unfolding. Hal aimed his weapon back down and stretched his arm forward, towards Marcus. “Where's Miri!?”

“Why, she's right here, of course. She didn't want to miss the big event either.” Marcus seemed unphased by Hal's anger or determination, and offered a smirk while he gestured off to the side. A few cronies shuffled around behind a marble column and emerged with Miri in tow, her body hanging limply between their arms as her legs dragged weakly along the ground.  

She was still as naked as when they dragged her from the Passion Lounge, only now she seemed to sport several more bruises and looked far worse for wear. At first, Hal thought she was unconscious, but Miri soon stirred and lifted her head to see what was happening. “Hal?” At first her voice was weak, but realization dawned on her quickly, giving her strength. “HAL!?”

“I'm here Miri.”

She took in a deep breath, and for a moment it looked like she was going to beak down into tears. Instead, the words that followed surprised everyone in the room. “Hal, you IDIOT!”

The raw anger in her voice hit Hal in the face like a scornful slap. “Why did you come here!? WHY!?” She didn't want to believe that she was actually seeing Hal in front of her. “Can't you see? Now we're all as good as dead! You could have saved yourself!” She hung her head, letting it droop down again as she screamed and cried at the floor. “Now none of us are going to make it out of here alive!”

“Awwww...” Marcus feigned sympathy. “She doesn't seem all that happy to see you.”

“Damn it, Marcus, what have you done to her!?” Miri's anger was quick to feed Hal's own.

“Me?” Marcus shook his head. “I haven't laid a finger on her. She would be in much better shape if she hadn't tried to claw the eyes out of every one around her.”

Hal grit his teeth, fighting against the pressure of anger ripping at his chest. “Let her go, Marcus!”

“Or what?” Marcus turned his head towards Hal, and his smile darkened into something far more bitter. “You'll SHOOT me!?” He stepped out from behind the altar, exposing the whole of his body. He held no weapon, but one hand gripped the top of his cane with an intense pressure. “Will that make everything better, Hal? To put the final nail in my coffin? Is that how you want our story to end!?”

Marcus' silhouette wavered behind the sights of Hal's pistol. “All I want is to be able to live my own life! Why can't you accept that? Why couldn't you ever accept me for wanting that!!?” There was no stopping the flood of repressed emotions now, and neither Hal nor Marcus were able or willing hold anything back.

“Because you left me alone in the dark, Hal! Because at the core of it all, you're only a selfish, useless, COWARD!” Marcus didn't bother to hide the contempt that dripped from the final word. “What have you done with your life other than run away? Who have you ever stood by other than yourself? What have you ever accomplished other than rip my heart to pieces time and time again!?” The rage in Marcus' face was bright as day. “DO YOU EVEN BELIEVE IN ANYTHING AT ALL!?”

“I BELIEVE THAT THERE'S MORE TO LIFE THAN THIS!” Hal's scream echoed through the walls of the chamber, reflecting off of every marble pillar, every stunned person, every shard of glass. He surprised even himself with the weight behind those words. Miri lifted her head again, watching in amazement as the echo of Hal's voice refused to fade away.

“What does existence look like through your eyes, Marcus? Do you see the world as a battlefield to be conquered? Do you view your life as a war to be won!? It is so much more than any of that, can't you see it!?” Hal shook his head and felt tears free themselves from his cheeks. “Look down the road that you're on and understand where it's leading. If you destroy the tower, you might kill the Viscount. You might even succeed in overthrowing the entire government, but what will that make you?”

Hal took another step forward into the field of broken glass and brilliant moonlight. “If you impose your will on everyone, you'll just be another tyrant. You might fly a different flag and wear different clothes, but that won't change what you are.” Marcus growled at the accusation, but Hal continued. “The only things you will create are sons without fathers. Daughters without mothers. An entire generation of tortured souls that scream out at the universe, their hearts filled with hate to replace the things they've lost!” Hal's voice cracked a little. “All you'll create... is a city filled with more broken children like us.”

“That's not who we are!”

Hal shook his head, undaunted. “It's not too late to stop this madness, Marcus. You don't have to be a prisoner to your pain, forever. We can learn to live our lives again if we're just strong enough to try!”

Marcus laughed bitterly. “Oh, that is rich, coming from you Hal. If I'm a prisoner, it's only because you were the one standing next to me, laying every brick of those walls with your own two hands!” The words stung Hal more than expected. “After all that you've taken from me, this fight is the only thing I have left!”

Marcus' voice took on a sharper, more manic edge. “With the meteor, I have the power to change the world. We all have the power to change the world!” He gestured out towards his assembled men, who despite all reason had obeyed his wishes and not shot Hal full of holes. “It's not a curse, Hal. It's a blessing! Just look how strong it's made you! It's an opportunity for real change that this city has never experienced, and I'll be damned if I let it slip away!”

“But the way you're going about this is all wrong!” Miri interjected into the debate with a hoarse protest, struggling weakly against the men that held her back.

Marcus sneered. “Do you have a better fucking idea!? What am I supposed to do instead, VOTE for the mythical politician that will allow us to be our true selves? To live without fear?” Marcus shook his head decisively, chopping through the air with his free hand. “You don't need to be afraid of this power! It isn't evil. It's just a rock! It has absolutely no notion of the concept! If there is any darkness to be found here, it is the darkness that you find within your own hearts!”
 
Marcus stood up to his full height, as if daring Hal to prove him wrong. He was a commander in full control of his domain, and he wasn't about to let anyone dictate any terms to him. “If you think that stopping me is the right choice, you'll have to do it yourself, Hal.”

Miri and Hal shared a glance. Neither one of them was ready to accept that as the best course of action. It would mean certain death for the both of them. Hal clearly didn't want to die, and neither did Miri. It was an impossible situation, but they needed to find a way out of it somehow.

The gun felt uncooperatively heavy and imprecise in Hal's outstretched hand. “I'm not here to kill you Marcus. I'm here for Miri. I don't care what happens to me, but you need to let her go!”

“Oh?” Marcus stepped forward a single stride to the edge of the ceremonial stage. “And why should I let her go?” His voice did not hide the constant hunger that lurked underneath.

“Because she deserves to live!” Hal felt his throat constrict a little as he said those words. “I've made a lot of mistakes, Marcus. I'm sorry for hurting you. I'm sorry for not being a better brother. But she has done nothing to you. Please. She deserves to live. Just let her go.”

“We all deserve to live Hal. That's not why you're here. If it were up to you, you would ignore everything you didn't like about the world, including me.” Marcus looked unconvinced, as if Hal was lying to his face. “Why are you really here?”

Hal's lips trembled a bit, and he watched the world blur as his eye teared up. There was no point holding back the truth. “I'm here because I love her.

“Love?” That didn't seem to be the right answer to Marcus, and it set him off like a spark to a powder keg. “LOVE!??” Marcus snarled at Hal, every syllable dripping pure venom. “Do you want to know what I've learned about LOVE!?” Using his powers of telekinesis, Marcus shattered the wooden altar into a million splinters and sent them scattering about the room.

“I loved our family, and then they were taken away from me. I loved Vanir, and then she was taken away from me. I loved you, Hal.” Marcus' words could not have emerged any sadder. “I loved you, my only brother, until you showed yourself for who you really are. You're were never my brother at all.” Tears flowed down his cheeks without restraint, and the words that followed echoed long in their finality. “You're my destroyer.” Marcus nodded. “That's all you ever were. That's what you are. That... is why you are here.”

Hal didn't know how to respond. A strange pause filled the space between them, and Marcus stared down at Hal with a sad, expectant hatred. “Well? Don't hesitate now, Hal. You've already come this far. Bring an end to this little tragedy of ours the only way you know how.”

“It doesn't need to end like this, Marcus! I don't want to shoot you!” Hal grimaced and shook his head slowly. “Please, don't force me to do this...”

“Then put the gun down Hal, and get the bloody hell out of my way!” Marcus pointed the end of his cane at Hal like the tip of a lance aimed straight at his heart. “I'm going to free this city from oppression, even if it means tearing it down! And I promise you, that anyone and everyone who ever wronged me is going to burn, whether it's the troopers, the politicians, that asshole Jonny, or even you Hal! And when you're all done burning, I'll brush aside the ashes, and I'll learn to live my life again as someone who is well and truly free!”

Marcus' passion was burning hotter than anyone could extinguish, and his men seemed to feed off of his energy. They wouldn't be held in check much longer. Hal was fighting a losing battle against the inevitability of the situation. “I won't let you kill any more innocent people, Marcus!”

“You won't let me!?” Marcus grinned wickedly at Hal. “Then prove it Hal! Gun me down like you gunned down my lover. Embrace your destiny!” Marcus held his arms out to his sides, exposing himself for a clear shot. “Do it!”

Hal swallowed a silent sob of grief. He couldn't do it. Memories flashed through his mind of quieter times. Playing games in the streets, wrestling in the living room, a quiet boat ride on a canal filled with sunlight. How could those moments ever lead to here, of all places?

“Come on Hal!” Marcus urged him onward with a single-minded focus. “Shoot me already!” That crazed and desperate cry filled the echoing chamber, begging for release. “DO IT!!!”

Hal inhaled one last breath and blinked away more water, clearing his vision. Marcus' shape rested somewhere beyond the brass sights of his weapon. Visions of a city lit by flame danced around the periphery of Hal's imagination. The barrel trembled nervously around its target, but found its purpose with the beginning of one slow exhale. That wasn't his future. Hal wouldn't let it be his future.

Hal watched the sights steady themselves with quiet calm and his finger brushed against the cold metal finish of the trigger. The exhale was over. “I'm sorry Marcus.” Hal let his eyes rest upon the broken man that waited in the short distance beyond, and he pulled the trigger.



Total silence filled the room.



Everyone looked around at one another expecting something to happen, but nothing did. The bullet never fired. Hal's finger was frozen, halfway along the trigger pull, paralyzed firmly in place. He struggled harder to force the action through, but it was useless. Soon, Hal's entire body felt pinned despite the desperate will to move forward.

Marcus' laugh was the first sound to break the silence. It started slow, like scattered raindrops falling on a hollow roof, but they soon grew in volume and frequency to flood the space around them. He stood at the edge of the platform, a dark halo shimmering over his head as he gestured towards Hal with one hand while the other firmly gripped the meteor-jewel that rested atop his cane.

“HAHAHAHA!!!” Marcus' voice boomed and echoed with empty delight. “You were actually going to shoot me, weren't you!? You cocky son of a bitch!”

Hal fought with every ounce of his willpower to move his arm, to move his finger, to even breathe, but Marcus held every vein of his body still with a iron-fisted telekinetic grip. He could only watch with growing terror as his brother continued to laugh in his face.

“Did you REALLY think you could just walk in here and save the day?” The laugh bounced off of the walls, reflecting even more hollow than before. “That's always been your problem, Hal. You never think things through. You're such a hopeless romantic, that even when your entire world is on the line, you foolishly believe that somehow everything will turn out for the better.” The laugh eventually faded and fermented into something far more sour. “That's not how the world works.”

“Stop this! Let him go!” Miri's cry for mercy went entirely unanswered.

A deep thirst in Marcus' eyes seemed to finally awaken after being hidden for so long. “You can't escape the connection we share, Hal.” He stepped down onto the main floor, pushing aside scattered fragments of glass with one foot. “If I can't have peace, then neither can you. If I can't have love, then neither can you! If I can't hold on to my happiness, then neither can you!!!

Hal watched with helpless horror as his arm started to move on its own. The barrel of his weapon wavered away from Marcus and traversed slowly sideways, drifting over towards Miri and the two converts who held her in place. A panicked realization flashed across her face, and she desperately fought against the grip of her captors, but her body was too weak to have any chance of breaking their grasp.

“Don't despair, Hal! There's one thing we can each still salvage from all this carnage.” Marcus guided Hal's arm into place, where the barrel of the pistol aimed steadily at Miri's center of mass. “That thing, that forgotten word, is Justice.”

Hal tried to cry out, to talk, to move, to breathe, to do anything at all, but he was frozen. No amount of will could overcome the singular one that gripped him. Marcus stretched out his own arm, as if he were the one holding the pistol, and rested his finger on an invisible trigger. “You see, I will have my justice... and you will have yours.”

Marcus' head tilted sideways, giving Hal a cruel, curious stare. “Do you know what emptiness feels like?”

The finger finished its motion, and the weapon jumped back to life...

The gunshot cracked the air like a thunderclap, striking Miri square in the gut. She screamed out in pain and collapsed down onto the cold stone floor as her captors finally set her free.

Marcus eased his grip just a little, allowing Hal's long-delayed cry of anguish to finally escape his lungs. It burned out his core until there was no air left, and the pistol fell free from his fingers with the last gasps of pain.

“There...” Marcus closed his eyes and nodded, seeming to savor the moment. “That is it. That's it exactly. Finally, you understand.”

Marcus opened his yellow eyes once more and refocused his attention and his power on Hal's shattered soul. “I had hoped that the meteor would unite us, Hal. But I understand now that you were never worthy of the gift given to you. This false life of yours... you were never strong enough to live it.”

An icy burn started to trickle through Hal's veins. He could feel tiny fragments of the meteor begin to move through him and drift towards the core of his chest. Marcus grinned wildly at Hal, like a crazed puppeteer holding his beloved creation over an open flame. The shards collected and condensed into a single dense mass in the center of Hal's solar plexus, tugging towards the waiting reach of Marcus' outstretched palm. “I'll take that life back, now.”

As if yanked on by an invisible thread, the meteor shards were pulled out of Hal's chest with a sudden jerk. The heavy sphere flew into Marcus' waiting grasp, and he clenched his fingers around the stone with a euphoric sigh. Hal's legs buckled and he collapsed onto the floor with a heaving cry, clutching ineffectively at the new hole just beneath his sternum.

“Now we're even.” Marcus' words somehow made it into Hal's head over the volume of his pained screaming. “You can rest now, Hal. Your role in this old world is over, and there is no place for you in the new one.” Marcus' voice carried the burden of truth through the cold air. “You can finally disappear... Just like you've always wanted.”

This can't be happening. This can't be happening! Hal's thoughts tried to find traction, to urge his broken body onward, but his energy stores were depleted. Gravity pulled him into the polished stone floor with an endless grip. He couldn't fight against it.

Hal lay there, alone, ignored now by the others in the room. If anyone was speaking, the words didn't register in his mind. Hal was dying. He knew it. He could feel it. All he could do was stare off to the side at one row of tall, stained-glass windows, an wait for the end to come.

A subtle flash of light or shadow from beyond the window caught the attention of Hal's tired eye. Seconds later, a few panels of the window shattered inward, and a rounded object bounced through and spun lazily across the marble floor. He had just enough time to recognize what it was and close his eyes before the blast wave hit.

The concussion of a half-dozen sparkers erupted in asychronous harmony and echoed throughout the room. A larger blast from behind threatened to collapse the entire building as shattered timbers passed through the air above Hal. The troopers were finally here... two minutes too late.

Armored soldiers surged through the doorway, through the windows, through the air all around them all at once, and the attack began in earnest with the sound of a hundred weapons finding purpose in unison.  The inevitable battle was finally here, and it came with only one word fitting to describe it.

It was a massacre.

From all around, bullets flooded the air, and they were met with the multi-colored flashes of powers unleashed in full. Beams of energetic destruction, clouds of poison, walls of pure energy and more, greeted the onslaught with an even greater volume. If chaos itself could be captured into a single moment, that moment was this.

Somehow, it felt like everyone was losing the battle. A grenade scattered a cluster of cultists into memories. A trooper spontaneously burst into flames with a quickly extinguished scream. Bullets sent bodies falling on both sides. Hal managed to turn his head and saw his brother Marcus, standing in the center of it all, laughing. It was the laugh of a man brought face to face with his fate. A man who reveled in the purity of it all.

A trio of soldiers surged through one shattered window and charged him at close range. Marcus emptied the entire clip of his pistol into the face of the point man, dropping him hard before he made it two steps. His companion tried to spear Marcus with a bayonet, but he barely missed as Marcus spun to the side, grabbing the barrel of the gun. A dark halo shimmered to life, and suddenly the soldier's helmet crumpled inward, crushing his skull before he could even react. That same telekinetic force flung the corpse into the lone survivor and sent him crashing back through the window from whence he arrived.

Hal couldn't watch anymore. Keeping his eye open was nearly impossible, and unconsciousness beckoned for him with greater and greater insistence. The din of the combat faded from his perception, and he was left alone with his thoughts and the echo of old memories. I must really be dying, Hal thought to himself. That old cliché is true, after all...

Voices in his mind sang a quiet lullaby, like forgotten ghosts, like the whispers of old friends.

“You may not think so now, but soon enough we'll be living in a different world...”

“You carry a large burden, young man, but do not let it define who you are...”


“We often don't have a choice when we discover who we must be.”

“I just enjoy the journey. You'll undahstand someday...”


“Someone has to have the courage to do what it necessary...”

“I am grateful that you chose to share your story with us. I know that it is difficult to tell...”


The memories were slowly fading into the dark, but one final question seemed to shine brighter than the the rest.

“Hey Hal?”

“Yes Miri?”

“Do you think we each have a destiny?”


Hal remembered the cold sunlight reflecting off of the mountains and Miri's confused face. “Why do you ask?”

“Well, I don't know. I'm just thinking, do we have some sort of  unique purpose for being here? For being alive?”
Her beautiful eyes looked so lost that morning as they stared into the wind. “Am I meant for something special, or am I just another snowflake among millions of snowflakes, blowing around in the wind without direction or control?”

“What do you think Miri?”

“I think I do have a destiny. We all do. I have to believe that.”
Her casual certainty rang true, even now. “If I don't, then this world really is such a cold and terrible place. In the end, I just want to know that my life mattered somehow.”

The words of Hal's response echoed louder now in his mind than they did back then. “We each make our own destinies, Miri. In our final moments it will be the choices we've made that determine whether we were worthy of our time in this world.”

Do you think our lives will be worth it?”
Miri's gentle face looked up at him, searching his own for an answer.

“I don't know Miri. But one day...” Hal remembered his calm smile as he held her close. “One day we will find out.”

Hal opened his eye once more, and drew in a final lungful of air. One arm pushed against the earth and moved it just enough to crawl onto his knees and raise his head. The battle had devolved into the raw unrestrained fury of hand-to-hand combat, as pockets of survivors still struggled for victory. One trooper strangled a gasping cultist between two shattered pews, wringing the life out of her second by second. Hal reached forward and took hold of a long, sharp fragment of glass, gripping it tightly in his hands.

Some steps beyond, through the field of shattered glass, Marcus too was still on his feet. He was beating the already pulverized face of a trooper Lieutenant with his bare fists, and his blade tails lashed out at the body, relentlessly slicing at it again and again. Marcus was beyond laughter now, and instead he was simply screaming. Screaming raw and long lungfuls of hatred into the corpse of the man who failed to kill him. Hal balanced his weight under one leg and pushed the earth again, rising unsteadily to his feet.

A glimpse of violet stole Hal's vision, and he saw that Miri was still alive, crawling herself forward on her arms, but dragging a dark trail of blood in her wake.  Marcus didn't notice her, and she inched her way towards him with desperate determination. Hal felt his body move, and he started to step forward.

Miri reached Marcus and stretched out one hand, grasping at his ankle. A bright halo of her own shimmered to life as her fingers found their grip, and suddenly the screams of hatred were replaced with a single cry of pain. She shared her sensory link with Marcus, and it doubled him over and staggered him to his knees. He clutched his abdomen and tried to protect his phantom gunshot wound, crying deeply just as Miri cried behind him.

Hal shuffled forward into reach, braving the flurry of tail blades that thrashed without purpose or aim. With one broken cry of effort, Hal released the air from his lungs and stabbed his glass dagger down at Marcus, and felt the jagged edge sink deep into flesh. One errant tail flashed in the corner of Hal's vision and cut deep across his face in one last gasp of violence. He felt his body collapse onto the floor, finally spent of all it could give.

The world was so eager to fall away, Hal barely felt it leave him. The last sensation he remembered was Miri's fingers gently closing around his own, before the night finally claimed its prize.

[End Chapter 23]
The Wayward Astronomer: Chapter 23
Music for the later sections: www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5JvbD…

Before anyone gets too far ahead of themselves, I will point out that this is the climax of the story, NOT the conclusion. Chapter 23 is not the last chapter of The Wayward Astronomer.

*****

I'm not really sure what to say here. This chapter is the culmination of nearly 5 years of effort. I don't think I can adequately express what it means to me, and how I feel. I'm relieved, overwhelmed, happy, and scared. I wasn't sure I would ever make it this far, but once I started down this road, I knew that I could never turn back. Somehow I found the strength to get here, one slow step at a time. 

Thanks for reading, everyone. I couldn't have made it this far without you.

*****

The Wayward Astronomer is original fiction set in the DreamKeepers universe created by David Lillie :icondreamkeepers: www.dreamkeeperscomic.com

Other chapters can be found here:

kafelnikov.deviantart.com/gall…
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[Chapter 22]

* THUD *

A dull tremor gently shook the floor, halfway stirring Hal out of his slumber. He lay in that murky miasma of half-sleep: barely even aware that he was no longer unconscious. It was almost impossible to wake any further on his own, and he lacked the willpower or energy to open his eyes.

“Hal.” He felt Miri's hand on his shoulder, shaking him awake. “Did you hear that?”

“Mmmm?” He rolled over, slowly forcing his eyelids to open. The room was dark and blurry to him, but Miri soon reached over to shake a glo-orb, and the needle of new light poked sharp pain into his skull. Hal winced, hoping his eyes would adjust quickly.

The room was well sound-proofed by design, so Hal couldn't hear very much of what was going on outside. He thought he heard the muffled sounds of commotion, like a violent argument was happening down on the floor down below.

* CLACK – CLACK – CLACK *

The distinct sound of springer fire pierced through the heavy walls, sending a jolt of adrenaline into Hal's heart. They were under attack.

“Oh shit!” Hal rolled over and instinctively reached at the nightstand, grabbing for his pistol. His talons found nothing but empty air and polished wood, coming up entirely empty. The gun was nowhere in easy reach. It still lay among the pile of his bloody clothes that sat in a heap on the floor of the bathroom.

“Miri! The gun!” Hal was slow to move, half-tangled in the sheets of the bed, but Miri was faster. She rolled out onto her feet and started running for the bathroom door. She only made it two steps before the door to their suite exploded inward, blasting free of its hinges and slamming into the far wall. Miri screamed and fell to the ground, covering her face from the shower of timbers that blew just past her head.

There, standing in the doorway, was the last person Hal wanted to see. Marcus' eyes were alight with raw fury, and a swarm of his cronies filled in behind him as he strode into the room, violence giving speed to every step. The business end of mixed springer rifles and pistols trained onto Hal's chest, pinning him in place at the edge of the bed.

“HAL!” Marcus' face was twisted into the darkest hate filled scowl Hal had ever seen. In one hand he clenched the shaft of his cane with a white-knuckled grip. In the other, he held a compact, easily-concealable pistol. “I knew you would go crawling back to Jonny and the rest of these assholes! Did you really think you could get away after what you've DONE!?” In a burst of telekinetic rage, the fragments of the door scattered outwards to slam against every wall.

Despite the armed intruders, Miri scrambled to her feet and tried to run for the bathroom. One of the cronies grabbed her, yanking her back and holding her rudely in place. “Let go of me you bastard!” She didn't stop struggling despite being outnumbered and overpowered. For a moment, she actually squirmed free, elbowing her captor firmly in the face and spinning away. She started to reach for a weapon, but a swift strike of a rifle butt to the base of her skull knocked her out cold just as quickly as her struggle had begun. Two of Marcus' henchmen held her limp body up, preventing her from collapsing on the ground.

Marcus growled, pointing his gun at Hal as he walked closer. “Do you have any idea what you've done to me!?” Tears rolled down Marcus' cheeks, and he thrust the barrel of his gun at Hal's skull. “DO YOU HAVE ANY FUCKING IDEA WHAT YOU'VE DONE!?”

Hal's tail lashed out, biting Marcus in the forearm. “Gah!” His own tails flailed in response, slashing at Hal, slicing into his skin with their sharp bloodletting edges. The hilt of the pistol was quick to follow after, striking Hal in the temple and shooting a sharp flash of pain through his brain.

Hal tried to move out of bed and stand on his feet, but Marcus' fury was too relentless to withstand. The pistol slammed down against his face again, and then again, and again, smashing teeth, cutting scales and pulverizing cells into a pulpy ruptured mass. Marcus only relented when Hal collapsed helplessly onto the floor, coughing out crimson saliva with wheezed and labored breaths. Hal felt the barrel of the gun press against one swollen and blinded eye.

“It wasn't supposed to end like this, Hal! We could have been brothers again! We could have changed the world together! But now....” Marcus half-sobbed between furious breaths. “Now that's all over, you god damn bastard of a brother!”

With a surprisingly strong grip, Marcus grabbed Hal by the throat and dragged him back upright, pinning him against  the wall. “I should kill you for what you've done. But a man like you doesn't deserve that mercy.”

“Marcus...” Hal coughed, barely managing to utter the word. A sharp punch to the gut halted his protests, causing him to wretch violently.

“I don't care what you have to say Hal. You don't matter to me anymore. You don't matter at all.” Marcus' face was inches from his, breathing toxic clouds of hatred into the air between them. “I'm going to make you understand the new pain you've given me.” With his good eye, Hal looked past Marcus and saw Miri hanging naked and limp in the arms of her new captors. “You like learning new things right? Let me teach you what it feels like to forever lose the person you love.”

Marcus released Hal and took two steps back, letting him collapse onto the floor. He looked back at Miri, then back at Hal. “Mmmm, she is beautiful, isn't she?” A twisted smile crossed Marcus' lips. “My boys are about to go into battle against our oppressors soon. What better way to reward them than to give them the uninterrupted company of a beautiful young woman. I'm sure they'll enjoy her just as much as you did.”

Hal fought mightily to push himself upright, but barely had the energy to succeed at the task. “Marcus... don't...” His protests were far to feeble to even reach across the room.

“Look on the bright side, Hal.” Marcus smiled a pained and tragic smile. “I'm not going to kill you. I'm going to let you live on. You'll have the rest of your life to live in our new world... as a miserable little cripple, alone, abandoned by the people you once loved.” The smile disappeared. “It's the only fate you deserve.”

Marcus trained his gun on Hal. “But... just because I won't kill you doesn't mean I won't shoot you. After all, I can't have any last minute heroics spoiling our moment of glory.” Hal didn't have time to move or to protest before Marcus pulled the trigger. The bullet whizzed through the air in a millisecond, striking Hal in the thigh with a bloody, meaty, *thwack*.

Hal screamed, rolling over onto his side and clutching at his wound. It bled freely, bubbling thin rivulets between the fingers that attempted to hold the tide at bay. Marcus and his companions ran out of the room without another word, leaving Hal to scream and bleed deep into the carpet.

“Fuck!” Hal cursed out loud, blinking away the tears of pain that blurred the vision of his remaining good eye. He pulled himself up, half onto his feet, and pushed forward towards the door. He made it one step before his doubly-injured leg gave way beneath him, dumping him back down into a graceless heap. Hal barked another curse and crossed the remaining distance in an awkward crawl, pulling himself forward onto the top of the lobby staircase.

Through the posts of the railing he saw Marcus and company had already reached the base of the stairs, and they were about to reach the double doors of the front entrance. Miri was slung loosely over one cronie's shoulder, completely unconscious. One of the accomplices fired a few rounds blindly into the central chandelier, causing those scattered patrons brave enough to watch to duck their heads back down. The dark nighttime wind blew cold air in through the shattered front door.

“Attack!!!” Jonny's voice echoed in pursuit of the intruders, and he erupted from the back hallway with Marvin and Geno, each one of them holding a military grade springer rifle. They surged forward and fanned out, opening fire on Marcus' entourage. A quick flurry of bullets and shouts were traded between the two sides, but one of the cultists quickly activated his power, erecting a shimmering translucent shield of energy to stop the bullets launched their way. The shield bearer stood firm while the rest of his compatriots conducted an orderly retreat back through the entrance.

“Fuck you, Jonny!” Marcus offered a parting shot of words. “I always knew you'd never move up in the world!”

“And I always knew you were a special kind of asshole Marcus! Thanks for messing up my shit for no good reason!” Jonny fired a few more impotent shots into the energy shield that flashed brilliantly with each impact.    

“Hmph.” Marcus merely grunted and sneered in response, walking back out the door and out of sight. The last remaining Celestial reached into his pocket and produced a glass orb filled with blue liquid. He  lobbed it into the center of the room and ran back out the door.

“Sparker!” Jonny shouted out loud and ducked back behind cover, just in time to escape the blast. The grenade exploded in a brilliant blue-white flash of light and sound, sending a concussive, dazing blast through the entire lobby. Even at the top of the stairs, Hal was not fully protected, and he felt the pressure wave pass through his body. It scrambled all of his atoms in a split second, stirring and then rearranging them into a loose facsimile of their original state.  

Perhaps it was because of the sparker, but the entire building seemed to fall completely silent. Hal blinked, barely able to move, as he watched muted, delayed fragments of chandelier fall down onto the floor below.

One by one, like reluctant lemmings, Jonny, Marvin, and Geno poked their heads back out of cover. They were followed by other patrons and employees, and even Cassi emerged from the back office where she had been hunkering down. Everyone seemed to look lost, as if they were unsure of what they were supposed to do next. It was a good dozen heartbeats before Jonny looked up and spotted Hal lying helplessly on the ledge above. “Hal!” The word echoed faintly though overloaded eardrums, barely acknowledged.

Hal tried to pull himself up along the railing to get back onto his feet, but was having difficulty with the task. Jonny and Marvin rushed up to meet him, and were quick to grab and steady his balance before he tipped too far over the railing. “He's shot, boss.” Marvin rumbled in his usual stoic tones, prompting another cry of alarm from Jonny. “Holy shit, Hal! You're bleeding all over the place. Come on. We gotta staunch that before you pass out.”

Marvin's engulfing grasp was strong enough to lift Hal clean off his feet. He cried out in pain at the sudden movement, but soon enough he was being whisked down the stairs in the arms of his acquaintance. He was gently deposited down onto the narrow counter of the lobby, where Cassi normally welcomed new visitors and arranged their accommodations. Hal could barely fight to stay conscious though it all. The electric fire of pain stretched up through his leg, and down from his face, converging in the center of his being. Adrenaline and endorphin were all that kept his heart beating.

“Hang tough, Hal. You ain't dyin' on me now, of all times.” Jonny's voice offered encouragement from behind and out of sight, as he retrieved a medical kit from underneath the counter. “You're lucky your brother uses a pea shooter. If that had been a trooper round, it would have broken your whole damn leg.”

Hal cried in pain once again as Cassi applied pressure to his leg with a fresh pad of gauze. The white fabric quickly seeped through, flooding into a deep, soggy red. She didn't seem all that encouraged by the results.

Hal half screamed, half sobbed at the ceiling. Why was this happening to him? How could one forsaken night go from the worst one of his life, to the best one of his life, back to the worst again so quickly? “Damn it, Hal, stop squirming!” Jonny held him still with an unusually firm grip, giving Cassi a bit more space to work. The loop of a tourniquet started to constrict around his thigh, its pressure seeming to build like that of the night. Hal wasn't sure if it was tears or blood that was flowing freely from his eyes, chilling his face and drying in a small pool next to his skull. Whether it was his body or his heart, something inside Hal felt like it was about to give out.

Cassi worked quickly, fighting against the tide with practiced fingers and a strong touch. Somehow it seemed like this wasn't the first gunshot wound she'd dressed.

Hal had no more words left in him. To utter one would break the fragile wall of the dam that kept him on the high side of consciousness. With his one working eye, Hal glanced around the room, blinking through his tears. Everyone was watching him. Not just Cassi and Jonny.

Marvin.

Geno.

More faces he didn't recognize.

Here in the quiet eye of the storm, the reluctant glances of employees and customers also watched on in silence. They were too scared to leave, but not brave enough to return to hiding, and instead remained trapped here in the lobby, looking on as the owners of this sanctuary treated him: a naked, broken, and bleeding man. The cold air of the night continued to blow in through the broken front door, wrapping around Hal's body like a thin blanket. It wouldn't be hard to just close his eyes and surrender. Let the night finish on its own without him. He had already given it so much. How could he possibly give it any more?

Cassi finished wrapping his thigh, pulling the bandages tight with a strained sigh. Only after taking a breath and looking him over did she realize his glance. Their eyes made contact for only a second, and Hal saw her expression soften a bit. He couldn't bear to hold it, and looked away, blinking salt from his eye.

Her hand reached out to rest on his head. When she spoke, her voice was matronly and calm, despite the violence scattered about them. “Hey, sugar. You're going to be just fine.”

Hal didn't acknowledge her. Lying exposed on the counter, surrounded by friends and strangers alike, one emotion seemed to swell the most within his heart. It wasn't fear, and it wasn't anger.

It was shame.

Such an overwhelming feeling drowned out even the pain that consumed his body. Hal couldn't remember the last time he felt like this. Never before had failures hollowed him so deeply than those of tonight. He wasn't able to save his family. He wasn't able to save his brother. He wasn't able to save the woman he truly loved. They were all gone, whisked away like a gentle sound carried by a strong wind.

“Awww, hun.” Cassi seemed to understand his emotions through her touch. “You don't need to be ashamed.” He angled his eye back towards her face, and Cassi gave him an honest laugh and a smile. “Do you really think you're the first man I've found naked in this lobby? Trust me. You won't be the last one either.”

Jonny seemed to notice that things hadn't quite reached their proper conclusion, and looked around the room. “Why the hell ain't the cops here yet?” He started barking at Marvin and Geno, who must have been waiting somewhere just out of Hal's vision. “Don't just stand there, guys! Hide those weapons and get downstairs cleaned out! Do you wanna end up in jail for a night or ten years?”

Hal heard them scurry into action, moving further out of sight without complaint. Jonny looked back down at Hal, offering a forced smile. “You doin' ok, champ? It looks like Cassi was able to get the bleeding under control. We have plenty of time to get you to the hospital, now.”

Hal levered himself upright with Jonny's help. With a grimace he angled his feet over the floor, taking a deep breath to brace himself for the second flood of pain that was sure to come.

“You able to walk?”

“No.”

“It's alright. I gotcha.”

Hal shook his head, fending off Jonny's attempt to help him stand. “No.”

Jonny gave him a look of pure incomprehension, totally confused as to why he was being shrugged aside. Hal inhaled a deep breath and looked out at the front door to the empty streets beyond. The night seemed to beckon for him with the atonal siren song of hinges swaying in the wind. The evening was not yet concluded, and even now it was not going to give way to morning so easily.

Neither was Hal.

“I'm not going to the hospital.”

Jonny gave Hal a look like he was insane. “For fuck's sake Hal. Do you even know what you look like right now?” The voice was quiet, low, and grim in its tone. “You need a blood transfusion and about a hundred stitches.” The dark pool of blood waiting mere inches below Hal's feet offered silent agreement. “You're in no condition to even host a god damn tea party, let alone fight.”

Hal acted as if he didn't hear Jonny's protests. “I need help getting my clothes back on.”

“Hal. Just think about what you're doing for a second. You're not gonna-” The words were halted by Hal's silent, serious stare.

“Jonny.” Hal grabbed his shoulder with one free hand. “If you're truly my friend, you won't stop me. Please... just let me go.”

Something in Jonny's face changed.  Behind the mask of bravado, Hal could see something softer in his eyes. Was it empathy? Sadness? Or just the sobering realization of truth, laid bare?

Jonny blinked and exhaled a deep long breath, gently clapping Hal on the back. “Alright, Hal. Alright.” He nodded, as if convincing himself that it was the right call. He forced a sparkle back into the slim smirk that followed. “But after tonight, you're a big boy. So I won't be helping you with your underwear anymore.”

Hal grunted a pained laugh. “Duly noted.”

It was such a simple task: clothing oneself. Hal had done it countless times across countless days of countless years. And yet now it was the hardest possible action he had ever asked of himself. Moving his leg took every ounce of willpower in every fiber of his being. Hal had to fight hard to stop from howling out in pain at each touch, each twitch, each brush of cloth against skin.

Jonny and Cassi both helped him dress, neither one willing to offer any more words. Slowly, Hal armored himself with the clothing of the streets, like a broken old knight, readying for one last joust. Cracked leather, stained fabric and dried blood. These were his protectors now. If only the morning could ever come when Hal wouldn't need them anymore. He had wanted to be rid of them for so long now.

Hal slipped his arm through the last sleeve on his jacket and felt the leather groan a little as it settled along his back. The familiar feeling felt so alien in its starkness. Would it be able to keep him protected anymore, now that everyone had seen his soul exposed? Maybe it didn't matter. Maybe it wasn't supposed to be hidden. Maybe...

Hal chuckled to himself, shaking his head. Maybe this really was his destiny. Maybe Miri had been right about him, all along.

Jonny dusted off Hal's shoulders, holding him at arms length to give him a look over. “Alright Hal. All dressed in Sunday best. Just like old times.” He looked over Hal's pistol, making sure it was still in working order. “Since apparently I can't stop you, do you mind telling me the game plan?” The pistol was offered to Hal, grip first.

Hal closed his fingers around the handle, letting the weight settle into his palm. “I can't say I've thought that far ahead.”

“Huh. And people say I'm the reckless one.”

“I learned from the best.” Hal took a deep breath and slowly slid himself down off of the ledge onto his feet. That lungful of air was quick to get exhaled again in a sharp, pained hiss. Jonny allowed Hal to wrap one arm around him as he settled in to help support his weight. “Marcus is going back to his church. He'll probably have some stupid ceremony and dramatic speech while he's at it. I guess all I need to do is get over there somehow.”

“The telepads are closed, but that ain't ever stopped me before. Think you can walk a couple blocks?”

“That depends.” Hal winced, adjusting his weight. “Have you been working out?”

Cassi and Jonny both laughed a bit at that one. “If you still have the energy to be a smartass, I'm sure you'll be fine.” The two of them started to limp for the door, but Cassi halted them for just one more moment.

“Hey, sugar.” Cassi pulled his tail close for a soft hug. “You take care of yourself, ok?”

“I've never been very good at that, Cassi.”

“I know.” She nodded, and gave his tail a kiss on the head. “But it's never too late to learn. Just do be careful, ok?”

“I will.” Hal offered a slim smile. “Thanks Cassi.”

She took a step back, clearing the way once again. “Get along now. Go do your thrillin' heroics before I change my mind and stop you.”

And just like that, the goodbyes were over. Jonny dragged Hal out into the streets, marching him forward with each shuffling, lurching step. The telepad wasn't very far from the brothel, but it might has well been miles away for how difficult it was for Hal to move. Still, they never stopped walking, and Jonny kept him supported every step of the way.

“Hey Jonny.”

“Yeah?”

“I've been thinking a lot, and I have a confession to make.”

“Oh yeah? What's that?” Jonny glanced over with a curious half-smile.

“You know the number one rule?” Jonny nodded. “Well... I think I'm pretty bad at it.”

Jonny laughed, the sound echoing deep and hearty off of the walls of nearby buildings. “Hal. Sometimes you just don't know how smart you are.” The zebra smiled wistfully, tightening his grip on Hal as they marched along. “If it makes you feel any better, Hal, just remember.” The smile widened into a golden grin. “Rules are meant to be broken.”

They both laughed at that one, and it helped to take the edge off. Truth be told, Hal's heart was beating a mile a minute, and by this point 'running on fumes' was an overstatement. Exactly what he was running into, Hal had no idea, but here he was, running all the same.

Soon they reached the telepad plaza, finding it entirely abandoned. The lights were on but not a soul was around to be seen. Normally there would at least be a security guard or two loitering around to keep the riff-raff at bay. A section of low fencing around the pad was toppled over, and the door to the control vestibule was left open to sway and clatter in the wind.  

“Well, this certainly isn't foreboding at all.” Jonny quipped, frowning at the scene. “You sure you don't wanna just take a breather? Let the troopers sort everything out?”

Hal shook his head, even though Jonny already knew what the answer was going to be. “I can't just make a mess for others to clean up. One way or another, I'm going to see this through. I've spent an awful lot of time running, and I think I'm ready to finally stop and stand on my own two feet.”

“Oh, well, in that case...” Jonny released Hal and stepped to the side, leaving the raptor to support his own weight entirely on his own.

“Ah, fuck!” He grimaced and struggled to keep his balance without any extra support. “You're very funny.”

“Bad metaphors hurt, don't they?” Jonny laughed and made his way to the control room. “Stop being all profound and just get on the damn pad already. It's nearly four in the morning. See earlier comment marked 'this shit', comma, 'getting too old for'.”

“Prick.” Hal half laughed, half grunted in reply, limping his way past the gap in the fence to take his place at the center of the telepad. It felt so large and empty without a crowd of people crammed in alongside him. The cold wind stung his eyes, causing him to blink a bit to fend it off. From the booth ahead, Jonny made a sour face. “Hal, I think your brother and his merry men came through here recently.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Well, for one, there's a dead guy in here who looks like he was killed by some supernatural face melting laser beam. That, and there ain't any cops swarming the area. Some crazy shit is definitely going down. City central is going to have a field day when they get the coffee pot goin' in the morning.”

Hal frowned. “Do you know how to work that thing?”

“Hal.” Jonny looked over through the window, shouting a bit to make sure he was heard. “Haven't you learned by now that I know how to do everything?”

Hal smiled and nodded, fighting off the lightning arcs of pain that danced through his body. He couldn't hold back any longer. Even though all he had was a pair of threes, it was time to go all in. With a relieved sigh, Hal activated his power, and let the clamor of the world wash over him. The pain in his body bled away, replaced only with a tingling energy and the subtle bass of his own heartbeat.

Hal inhaled deeply and looked up at the clear night sky. Showering down on him was a silent display of brilliant light and nameless hues. The stars were still there, like they always had been, just waiting for him to look up. It was a sight he had almost forgotten in the past few weeks, but the heavens waited patiently for him. In the end, those colors had never left his sky.

An almost imperceptible glow from beneath the horizon heralded the day that would be coming soon. Here, in the opening seconds of astronomical dawn, Hal was the only man to know it.

“Are you ready, stargazer?” Jonny called out to him, his hands resting on controls unseen. The voice tried to sound brave, but Hal could sense its hesitation.

“Yeah.”

Jonny looked down and nodded. Only once at first, but he followed it with another, and then another, convincing himself once more that this was the right thing to do. A few hesitant breaths marked the passing of time.

“Hey Jonny.” Hal called out, causing Jonny to look up from his procrastination.

“I'll see you on the other side.”

Jonny smirked, letting out one last sigh. The two of them locked eyes for one more heartbeat. “Heh... I'll see you there, Hal.”

And with that last breath, Jonny flipped the switch, and the telepad winked to life.

[End Chapter 22]
The Wayward Astronomer: Chapter 22
I know it took a little while but Chapter 22 is complete! The next chapter is going to be an awesome climax. It's something that's lived in my head in one form or another for over 4 years now. It feels great to make it to the beginning of the end. 

This chapter took a lot of chipping away over many different nights, so I hope it feels cohesive to everyone. Trust me when I say that the next chapter should be well worth the wait you've endured so far.

Thanks as always for reading, and please let me know your comments in the comments section below. They help me immensely.

****

The Wayward Astronomer is original fiction set in the DreamKeepers universe created by David Lillie www.dreamkeeperscomic.com

Other chapters can be found here:

kafelnikov.deviantart.com/gall…

Thanks so much for reading!  
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Hi everyone!

2014 has been one hell of a year, but the good news is I survived it and I'm looking forward to ending this year right and starting the new one with a bang. After going home to visit my family in RI for Christmas, I'm starting 2015 with a two-week solo motorcycle tour of New Zealand. 

If anyone is interested in following along in my upcoming journey, I've created a little wordpress blog where I'll be posting to as the trip goes on. You can find it here: adventuresofgeo.wordpress.com/

I'm very much looking forward to the trip. I really need some time to get away, clear my mind, and enjoy my own adventure with a minimum of scripting and planned distractions. It will just be me, a BMW GS650, and an ending destination for each day. I expect to meet a lot of great people, see some fantastic sights, and hopefully not go down the wrong side of the road and crash into a ravine.

Looking back on 2014, I feel like I've learned a lot. I've accomplished a lot professionally, made decent headway on my book, and grown a bit as a person. I found a great girl who I dated for a while, and though we eventually did part ways, I think we both gained a friend in each other. It's funny, how different people come into our lives when we least expect it. You could spend your whole life looking for love, only to finally realize that it comes to us unbidden, of its own accord. Though sometimes things may end, I'm still left with a young lifetime of fond memories with people I held close, and that isn't a bad thing at all.

I cannot express how happy I have been to receive great feedback and support from people here on dA as I slowly post each chapter in The Wayward Astronomer. I know it's been a long road, and I'm still not at the finish line yet, but it's in sight. I cannot wait to share with everyone the ending I've had trapped in my head for so long. Without the encouragement of others, most of you who I have never met, I may not have had the courage to carry things forward this far. Thank you. 

I hope each and every one of you who reads this has also had a great 2014, with plenty of things to be grateful for, and even better things on the horizon in 2015. Until next time, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Godspeed.

~Geo 
  • Mood: Optimism
  • Listening to: Glory 3usi9 by Nanou feat. Hatsune Miku
  • Reading: Joseph Campbell - The Hero with a Thousand Faces
  • Watching: The Last Samurai
  • Playing: Star Citizen
  • Eating: A sandwich
  • Drinking: Pepsi MAX

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:iconsuperflatpsychosis:
SuperflatPsychosis Featured By Owner Jun 19, 2015  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Psst, Geo! I heard that The Wayward Astronomer is done.

Is it?
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:iconkafelnikov:
Kafelnikov Featured By Owner Jun 19, 2015
Not quite! 2 more chapters to go. The climax is complete but I still have a little wrap up to do.
Reply
:iconsuperflatpsychosis:
SuperflatPsychosis Featured By Owner Jun 23, 2015  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Fantastic!!! I eagerly await its completion : D
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:iconbyakurai1313:
byakurai1313 Featured By Owner Apr 16, 2015
Sorry this is a day late, but Happy (belated) Birthday dude! I hope you had a good one! =)
Reply
:iconkafelnikov:
Kafelnikov Featured By Owner Apr 16, 2015
Thanks Caitlin! Im currently in Midland looking for places to live
Reply
:iconbyakurai1313:
byakurai1313 Featured By Owner Apr 16, 2015
Oh very nice! Must be nice to finally be heading out there about a year and a half after they initially said you'd be there. ;) 
Reply
:iconkafelnikov:
Kafelnikov Featured By Owner Apr 16, 2015
Yeah, no freaking kidding, but better late than never. It's actually like a huge sigh of relief to finally be at this point where it's for real. I mean, hell, in 48 hours I could be a proud Texan homeowner. Found a few good homes so far and looking at more tomorrow. 
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(1 Reply)
:iconlunaroutcast:
LunarOutcast Featured By Owner Apr 15, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
Happy Birthday Kafel!
Reply
:iconkafelnikov:
Kafelnikov Featured By Owner Apr 15, 2015
Thanks Lunar! I'm on a business trip for this one, but I'm still having a great birthday
Reply
:iconezioauditore97:
ezioauditore97 Featured By Owner Apr 15, 2015  Student General Artist
I know the gift was early,but I hope you have an enjoyable birthday!
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