Hal sucked air deep into his lungs, fighting off the clamor that seemed to be erupting from all around him. Though the walls, the floor, and the ceiling he could feel the pressure of the lives suddenly thrown into movement in reaction to the violence. No matter how hard he wished it, the bees' nest couldn't be unkicked.
The giant void ripped into the world by Vanir's singularity prevented Hal from continuing down the hallway, which was probably a good thing. The evil rec room was down that way. He could already begin to sense and see the IR heat shimmers of multiple people moving towards them from that direction. Miri ran to pick up Vanir's springer, but found the body of the weapon to be badly damaged from the deflected bullet. It wasn't useful as a gun anymore.
“No time for that Miri, let's go!” Hal grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her along with him as he scrambled back towards the stairwell leading upwards, to freedom. The sound of his own amplified and adrenaline accelerated heartbeat made it difficult to hear her response.
“Easy Hal! I'm right there with you.” While his power washed away the pain from his old wounds, Hal still couldn't move as fast or as quick as Miri, who was healthy and nimble on her own. “You're the one with crazy supervision. Lead the way!”
The heat from the bees was strongest down here. Hal needed to get up to the ground floor, and from there, out of the cathedral for good. A short sprint down the hallway led to the base of the spiral staircase. Its steps seemed to be hewn from alternating slabs of white marble and black granite, each one of them deeply cold to the touch of his feet. It was no matter, though. He consumed them all in his haste, skipping over one color as his long stride passed by every other step. The sounds of frantic pursuit chased them both towards the top. They had a head start, but that wouldn't last long if they hesitated.
Hal made it only a handful of steps past the top of the staircase and down the hall before he stopped all of a sudden, causing Miri to crash into him awkwardly. “Ow! Hey-” She started to protest his unexpected halt, but he silenced her without a word, dropping low to take careful aim with his springer. There was someone about to round the far corner up ahead. Even though Miri couldn't see it, he could.
The heat blur of a woman rounded the corner, but Hal was ready for her. He settled her shape in between the thin vee-notch sights of his pistol, and pulled the trigger. The bullet, launched forward by a coiled, high-power spring, spiraled through the air, shedding vortices that shimmered brilliantly in its wake. It traversed the distance of the hallway in a flash, intersecting his target as she came into full view.
There was a short surprised scream of pain, and the woman lost her footing, half-tumbling, half-crashing against the opposite wall. Hal rose from his crouch and thumbed the breech release, exhaling a long-held breath of billowing vapor. The spent casings and springs ejected out of the breech of his again-spent pistol. He looked down, reaching back into his pocket for fresh bullets.
“Um... Hal!?” Miri's worried voice caused him to look up. The woman was back on her feet, still alive. Blood dripped down her arm from where the bullet wounded her, but failed to put her out of commission. Her expression was one of pained fury, and with her good hand she drew a vicious looking blade. A halo materialized over her head, and she started to charge at them. Her heat signature shifted and changed, growing much fainter as it morphed away from the spectrum Hal was perceiving.
“Hal!” Miri's voice jumped from worried to alarmed. “She's invisible!”
He reached one arm back, handing the gun and the loose bullets to Miri. He barked a single word: “Load.”
“Wha-?” She accepted the weapon with surprise, nearly dropping the loose bullets onto the ground.
“Load the gun!” There was no more time to argue. Hal took a step forward, placing himself in the center of the hall between Miri and their attacker. His eyes flashed with all colors as he sequenced through every wavelength he could see, but at best all he could detect was a dim, indistinct cloud of color that rushed towards them at accelerated speed.
Hal could sense Miri's fearful but focused determination as she fumbled with the ammunition, forcing her untrained fingers to complete the delicate task. He could also sense the murderous intent of their assailant, and that intent grew into an ever increasing pressure as the sound of static began to fill his mind. “Come on.” Hal muttered , balancing his weight between both legs, opening his stance. “COME ON!”
The faint shape was almost in reach. It jumped sideways, off the wall, and then up into the air. Its trajectory, in a few more tenths of a second, would fall directly onto Hal's chest. From behind, the sound of a breech clicking shut prompted delayed movement into action.
Hal leapt forward with all his might, up towards the falling field of color. As his feet left the ground, he punched out his right hand, sharp talons forwards towards the center of the pressure that shoved against his heart. He felt the momentary flicker of surprise, like a candle flame wavering in the wind before it was snuffed out. Talons slid effortlessly into flesh, and his forward movement was only stopped as fingers reached bone, wrapping around her spine. His momentum pivoted forward, and the jump ended by slamming her head down into the marble floor, fingers speared through and grip wrapped around her throat. In an instant, her form returned to normal, becoming visible. Miri gasped in surprise as she saw the results, and Hal could do nothing to stop the sudden flood of blood from spraying onto his face and wetting his hand with warm and violent flow.
“Oh, spirits!” Miri sobbed, holding the pistol loosely in one hand as her knees buckled, but failed to fully collapse. There was no hiding the raw results of the battle for survival in which there could be only one victor. Hal let loose a primal cry of triumph and pulled his talons free, releasing her neck to instead close around the handle of the curved machete-like weapon.
More alarmed shouts echoed upwards from the stairwell behind them. The night would not wait patiently for them to proceed. “Come on Miri! We need to keep moving.” Despite her shock, she was able to get her legs to obey, and the two of them stepped past the body of the would-be Celestial Assassin and rushed onwards, towards the front door.
It was a short sprint down the corridor and around the corner, to reach one of the doors that led forward into the main chamber of the cathedral. Hal paused at the door, taking a few precious seconds to scan the room beyond with his sharpened perception. In the chaos, the Celestials hadn't much time to secure the area, but two humanoid shapes roamed the space beyond, amidst the pews, each carrying a military grade springer rifle. The business end of those weapons scanned across where they were set to emerge.
“Ok Miri.” Hal breathed deep, sucking in every molecule of oxygen his lungs could hold. “We have maybe 60 seconds before we're caught. Two men in the other room. Both have rifles. I'm going left, you go right. Split their fire, make it easier to get close. Use the columns for cover and only shoot if you have a good shot. You have two bullets.”
Miri's eyes were wide, and her fingers gripped the handle of the springer as tight as she could. It was clear that the moment was threatening to completely overwhelm her. “Hal... I don't...” Hesitation and fear caused her words to falter.
“Miri.” Hal looked straight into her eyes, placing both hands on her shoulders. “Do you trust me?”
Her confusion wavered, and she ever so slightly nodded her head. “Yes...”
“Do you want to live?”
She nodded again. Her voice found its foundation, this time emerging more clear. “Yes.”
“We can make it through this, but only if we work together. I'm not going to let you die, and you're not going to let me die. Right?”
Hal allowed himself the luxury of two seconds to give Miri a strong hug and a kiss on the cheek. There were so many other things he wished he could say, but now was not the time. Despite his hopes, somehow it seemed it as if time was never on their side at all. The precious seconds continued to pass unabated, and neither one of them could stay the clock any longer. “Okay.” Hal swallowed, trying to wet a throat that was suddenly far too dry. His fingers wrapped around the handle of the door, gripping the metal with decisive finality. “I go left. You go right.”
Miri nodded, raising her pistol to rest at the ready, pointed upwards alongside her head. “Right.”
“Three, two, one.... GO!”
Hal pushed the door open and surged through, ducking low and diving to the left. He rolled forward towards the partial cover of the wooden pews as springer bullets whizzed through the air where his center of mass should have been. Miri didn't hesitate either, darting into the main chamber and angling to the right to take cover behind a sturdy pillar of white marble.
The two Celestials shouted out in alarm, and their large-bore rifles splintered wood and chipped stone with relentless ferocity as each one of them cycled round after round downrange. Miri screamed as she cowered behind cover. Hal screamed as he scrambled low behind the pews. The gunmen screamed as they traced differing targets, struggling to hold their weapons on track behind the massive recoil. The intensity of the moment overtook them all, like a storm overtakes a coastal village. Everyone knows what's coming, but not one can do a thing to stop it.
Fragments of wood splintered against Hal's face as he traversed sideways, narrowly avoiding a direct hit. Soon he reached the opposite row of marble columns, and was able to turn, heading deeper into the room, closer to his attackers. The Celestial targeting Hal did not relent, holding Hal in his sights as best he could. Every round springing forth from the barrel of his rifle hit hard, pulverizing stone into a fine white cloud as Hal weaved forward between the columns. The tricky landscape offered only fleeting windows of a clear shot. Miri cried out, letting loose a primal bark of emotion as she pressed her body tight against the first column, completely pinned down behind the flurry of oncoming fire.
Hal stopped at the column closest to his gunman, hiding behind cover as the bullets meant for him found obstacles instead. He could sense the fear in his attacker, and that fear quickly turned to panic as the magazine of his rifle ran empty. One finger reached up to depress the magazine release, and that faint click triggered Hal's all-or-nothing charge. The gunman realized his dire situation as Hal turned the corner, just as the empty clip hit the ground with an echoing *clank*.
The second enemy seemed to realize the new trouble, however, and turned towards Hal. The barrel of his weapon angled towards Hal mid-charge, and started to stitch a trail of bullets across his axis. The first bullet hit the back of a pew, sending forth a spray of wooden splinters. The second bullet whizzed inches from Hal's body with a sharp, high-pitched whine. The third bullet... never came.
Miri took that moment to peel out from cover and fire a shot at bad guy #2. The bullet narrowly missed behind her novice aim, clipping the very top edge of a wooden bench to shower the man with stinging fragments of debris. It wasn't much, but it was just enough to buy Hal the time he needed.
Bad guy #1 was just slapping home a fresh magazine into the side of the rifle when Hal reached him. With a ferocious scream, Hal swung his machete diagonally in a chopping motion. The blade carved into the gunman with disturbing ease, and it passed straight through his collarbone to rend the center of his torso in a single terrible strike. The blade found more bone and finally caught, stopping the blade and awkwardly pinning Hal's weapon into the dying enemy, who lost his balance and fell forward.
The second gunman wasn't dissuaded for long. Rather than return fire at Miri, he continued to fire at Hal who was much closer. The next few bullets slammed into his dying comrade, whose body shielded Hal's from the attack, if only for that one moment. The metal slide of the springer rifle kicked forward a bit too fast between shots, and it jammed onto a spring that had yet to clear the firing mechanism.
After a brief struggle, Hal was able to free his blade, and he tossed the body of his now-dead enemy to the side before charging the remaining Celestial across the narrow aisle between pews. This one was well trained, however, and he cleared the stovepipe jam with a swift and forceful chop of one hand, allowing the bolt to finish cycling forward and load a new round. The barrel of the weapon quickly trained back towards Hal.
In desperation, Hal threw his machete at the gunner to disrupt his aim. His throw hit home, but the blade hit hilt first. The weapon, instead of delivering a swift and dramatic end to the engagement, merely clattered off to the side after rudely inconveniencing the enemy, but otherwise leaving him unharmed.
That momentary disruption was enough, however, as it afforded Hal the precious additional second to get into melee range. With one hand he batted away the rifle barrel that attempted to home in on his chest. In that same step, Hal kicked out with his good leg, plunging his wickedly curved foretalon into the abdomen of his target before ripping sharply downward. The man screamed in pain, but was quick to fall. Within seconds, he had been reduced to a writhing bleeding mass on the floor of the cathedral.
Hal gasped, dragging in a ragged breath. The carnage of the brief but bloody battle was impossible to ignore, and already he felt his stomach begin to clench and revolt against him. He closed his eyes and tried to swallow down the bile that simmered underneath the surface. Miri hesitated for a moment before realizing that they were clear and quickly jogged forward to join Hal. She tried her best to avoid looking down at the blood that slicked the floor and stained Hal's clothes. “Are you ok?”
Hal nodded absently, using his forearm to wipe blood away from his eyes. Whether it was his own or not, he wasn't sure, but the strong metallic taste of iron lingered in his mouth. “I'm alive. You?” His heartbeat was almost deafening inside his own skull.
“...I'm ok.” Miri was shaken by the entire ordeal, but she nodded with certainty.
“Ok. Let's get out of here.” Hal started to run towards the final door: the exit to the streets beyond, but he was halted suddenly by an electric shock that gripped his whole body and sent him tumbling to the ground. Miri screamed and dove off to the side, out of his sight.
“Awwwww, YEAH! Get some, BITCH! Get some!” The booming voice of Dubs erupted from behind them, and a fresh arc of brutal electricity leapt forward to wrack Hal with spasms of pain. He lost the grip on his machete and convulsed helplessly on the cold stone floor of the cathedral. Every muscle in his being clenched involuntarily as he flailed in the aisle, powerless beneath the assault. Hal could barely hear anything, save the sounds of his own screaming.
“That's what you get!” Dubs' voice continued. “That's what you fucking ge-”
All of a sudden the electricity stopped, and the room fell oddly silent. Hal waited a few seconds to gather himself and make sure he was still alive before he managed to angle his head. As his eyes focused, he saw Miri, standing with both arms outstretched, still holding her pistol in firing position. Delicate arcs of smoke wafted from the friction heat of the barrel as tears streamed freely down her cheeks. Dubs was shot dead with a bullet placed clean through his skull. She sobbed slightly as she released a breath long held.
Miri wiped away her tears and ran to Hal's side, reaching down to help him stand. “Get up! Come on, get up!” Though they both struggled with the action, Hal eventually found his feet beneath him, and was able to finally limp towards the door. Miri kicked the entrance open with a decisive strike, and the two of them fled into the dark and empty city streets.
At this time of night, there was almost no one in sight. The grand and open streets of Theophanies were normally so awe inspiring during the day, but now, under the scattered halos of intermittent street lights, darkness seemed ready to engulf the whole city with shadowy tendrils. There was nowhere for them to run except deeper into the abyss.
The two of them fled the scene at a dead sprint, Miri leading the way ahead of Hal, who labored hard to keep up. They darted down alleyways and crossed boulevards, seemingly at random, and soon Hal lost track of where they were. Despite that, the sounds of pursuit never seemed to lag very far behind them. While neither of them could see the pursuers, Hal could feel their pressure urging him onward even as his body cried out for rest.
Miri dragged Hal around another turn and suddenly they were greeted with a view of the Eridan River, which flowed through the western core of the city. Ahead, a transport barge was steaming hard on its way upstream, pulling away from the riverside dock where it had just picked up cargo. The open deck was littered with crates, ropes and tarps.
“Hal!” Miri pointed to the barge without breaking stride. “The boat!”
Hal felt his spirits both buoyed and sunk by the form of their salvation. “Miri, I need to tell you something!” It looked like at least 15 feet of water between the shore and the ship. “It's really important!”
“Make it quick!” She called back breathlessly, not slowing at all.
“I don't know how to swim!”
Hal heard a winded laugh from up ahead. “Then you better be good at jumping!” Miri put words into action, and scrambled up the stairs to the wooden dock with surprising grace. Three more light strides and she reached the end of the platform. Without hesitation she hurled herself out into empty air, uncoiling her body to get every last erg of energy into her forward movement. She landed onto the deck of the barge with a controlled shoulder roll, and finished up on her feet, no worse for wear.
Just do that, Hal.... no problem.... Hal muttered to himself under labored breaths. He clambered his clumsier and heavier body up to the dock, and ran as hard as he could towards the edge. Miri held her arms out at the narrow wall of the deck, ready to help catch him. His tail looked back behind him, towards the pursuers that had yet to round the final bend.
“Don't look back, Hal! Just jump!”
“Grrrraaaah!!” He felt his left foot curl around the final plank of wood, and he shoved forward with all of his might, letting out a feral cry. Hal's body floated out over the dark water, his arms stretched out in front of him, his feet trailing back far behind. Hal was strong, but he wasn't nearly as light as Miri. Only now that he had committed to the leap did Hal realize that he didn't have enough altitude to clear the wall of the deck of the barge.
There was barely enough time to brace himself before his body crashed into the side of the boat. He barely managed to get his arms above the ledge before the rest of his body hit, and he rocked his head against the metal hull, sending stunning shots of electricity into his skull. Dazed, he slipped downwards, barely managing to close one claw around the lip of the wall. His fingers quickly gave way, but the fast and firm hands of Miri quickly reached down to grab at his jacket.
“I got you. Come on!” She pulled with all her strength, and it was just enough boost to help Hal get his other arm up to pull himself over onto the cold and damp wooden deck. They didn't waste any time, retreating into the maze of crates and finally falling into an exhausted heap under a foul weather tarp stretched over some equipment. Soon enough, the dock was well behind them, as were the sounds of their pursuers. They were safe... for now.
Hal deactivated his power and the world contracted back in around him with a sickening quickness. The shock was so severe, he couldn't do anything except gasp for air for the next several minutes. Miri watched him with worry, resting one hand gently on his shoulder. “Are you going to make it?”
Hal nodded, swallowing loudly between breaths. “I'm alive.”
“We lost them. But I don't think it's over yet.” Miri looked deeply concerned. “Marcus is still going to try to destroy the Sabbaton Tower tomorrow. We need to let the police know.”
Hal shook his head and coughed, wiping at his mouth. “That won't work. Marcus has the local authorities in his pocket. At best, the warning will be dismissed or delayed until it's too late. At worst, they'll arrest us.” His tail looked back towards the roiling wake that passed through the water behind them. “We can't just go to the police.”
“Well, we have to do something, Hal! Thousands of innocent lives are at stake!”
“I know, Miri.” He closed his eyes for a few heartbeats, taking a precious moment to think about the situation. The sound of the lapping water helped calm his nerves. “This barge is heading north, which means it's probably going to stop in Calypsa soon. We're moving at a good clip. I have an old friend there. He knows people. Hopefully we can use that to bypass the cronies and get the Troopers alerted.”
Miri's voice softened a bit, and she leaned closer to Hal, smoothing the frayed and blood spattered feathers on top of his head. “What about us, then?”
Hal opened one eye, looking her over, and then closing it again, leaning back with an exhausted sigh. “I don't have much fight left in me tonight, Miri. I'm sure Jonny will let us crash at his place until everything blows over. It might not be your cup of tea, but at least we'll be safe there.”
Her voice grew suspicious. “What do you mean by that, exactly?”
“Heh.” Hal let out a weak chuckle. “You'll understand when we get there.”
[End Chapter 20]