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
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
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.
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?”
“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]