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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


[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.


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.



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?”


“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.”


“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.


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

Other chapters can be found here:…

Thanks so much for reading!  
[Chapter 21]

“Ah.” Miri bit her lip as they approached the entrance to the Passion Lounge. The pale pink light from the buzzing sign flickered in the night like a beacon. “I think I understand what you meant.” Her ears twitched for a moment, arching one eyebrow high as she gave him a look. “Spend time here often?”

“Hardly.” Hal wrapped his fingers around the handle to the heavy door. “But I know the people who run this place. We go way back.”

“How far back are we talking, here?”

“Far enough.”

He pulled open the door and it emitted the faintest of heavy creeks as it swung outward to let them into the foyer. The brothel's velvety but heavy aroma was quick to greet them. Miri coughed a bit on her first breath as they stepped into the building and left the cold of night behind.

“Welcome to the Passi-OH SPIRITS!” Cassi and Jonny were both standing behind the front counter, but neither were prepared for the sight that had just walked through the front door. “Sugar, what in the world happened to you!”

“Don't just stand there like an idiot Hal, get your ass out of sight!” Jonny quickly grabbed Hal and hustled him away from the entrance, dragging him across the foyer into the back office. Here, they were no longer at risk of being seen by other customers.

Once the door was closed behind the four of them, Jonny finally had a moment to give Hal a good once-over. He whistled in awe, brushing some imaginary dust off of Hal's shoulders. “Wow. Ok. I never thought I'd have to say this, but first thing's first I guess.” Jonny looked Hal in the eyes, his trademark golden smile wasn't anywhere to be seen. “Hal. Why the hell does it look like you just killed a couple guys with your bare hands?”

“Um...” Hal cleared his throat. In the bright light of the office, he noticed for the first time just how shocking his appearance was. Blood stained deep into his clothing, and dried remnants still clung to his  legs, arms and face. In the darkness of the midnight streets it was easy to miss, but here there was no hiding the evidence of the violence he so recently survived.

“That's not important right now.” Miri butted in rather boldly, cutting short the question and answer session. “Hal says you can help us. Marcus is going to topple the Tower and we need to get word to the troopers outside of normal channels.”

“Wait, come again? What's Marcus up to? And who are you for that matter?” Jonny looked to Hal with surprise. “Is this that girl you were telling me about?”

Hal nodded tiredly, scraping at some of the dried blood around his eye. “Here, hun.” Cassi handed him a fresh towel with a quiet whisper. He muttered his thanks and did his best to clean himself up. “It's true Jonny. It turns out Marcus was the leader of that crazy zealot group all along, and he's planning on starting a revolution. Like, in the next 12 hours. We barely got away with our lives.”

Jonny shook his head in disbelief. Clearly it was a lot to take in all at once. “A revolution? That could be messy for business. Doesn't Marcus know not to rock the boat around here?”

“Apparently not.”

“Kid's damned crazy.” Jonny scoffed, shaking his head. “And why in the world would Marcus try to kill you Hal? You're brothers. You're the only family he has left. You used to be so tight.”

“I know Jonny. I know.” Hal's voice was strained, stretched close to the breaking point by the chaotic events of this one terrible night. “Everything's totally screwed up right now. I can't even begin to talk about the shit we just went through over the last few hours. And now, I don't have anywhere else to turn. You two are the last living souls in this city that I believe I can trust.”

Jonny and Cassi shared a look. “Alright, Hal. Let's say for the sake of argument that I believe you. What's Marcus' plan of attack and how do we stop him? That tower isn't going to fall over all on its own, and as much as your brother loves huffin' and puffin' he ain't gonna just blow it all down.”

“It's the meteor.” Miri adjusted her glasses, willingly launching into the explanation. “It greatly amplifies an individual's Dreamkeeper power. He has a whole army of power-awakened ex convicts equipped with shards of it, and between the lot of them, they probably have what it takes.” She gave Jonny a sharp nod. “Look, this is way out of our league here. This isn't some action movie where we win by launching some stupidly brave and heroic assault against the forces of evil. We need to let the troopers handle this. It's what they're supposed to be trained for after all.”

“Man, fuck those guys. I hate the troopers.”

Everyone hates the troopers.” Miri agreed. “But they have the tools to handle it. We don't.” Hal wiped the towel over his eyes, nodding in silent agreement. Miri continued undaunted. “You look like a guy who knows people. The kind of guy who gets deals done in back rooms with a handshake and a smile. Maybe there are some people you can call, to get the warning passed to City Central Authority directly. They need to send a full company to the Church of Celestia and stop them before they start.”

“Damn Hal.” Jonny whistled. “You sure know how to pick 'em.”  Cassi gave Jonny a jab to his ribcage. “Ow! Hey watch it, girl!”

Cassi smiled warmly at Hal and Miri. “What Mister Riggazoni meant to say is that he is delighted to make your acquaintance, hun, and that it would be his absolute pleasure to make some calls for you and sort everything out.”

Jonny coughed and ran his fingers through his rainbow-dyed mane. “Yeah. Um. Exactly. I think I know a guy who might know a guy who's friends with a dude that can help. It might take a little  while, but maybe I can make a few calls. See what's up.”

Hal felt a wave of relief wash over him. “Thanks, Jonny.”

“Hey!” Jonny pointed a finger at Hal with a sly grin. “You already had your free lunch. You seriously owe me now.”

“Yeah. Yeah.” Hal nodded his head. “I know. I'll buy you dinner or something.”

“Dinner!? Are you kidding me?” Cassi started to push Jonny towards the door, and he shouted over her shoulder as he was forced out of the room. “You better have, like, a fucking zen revelation about the nature of existence and invent a better glo-orb or some shit, because I am getting too old to be bailing your ass out of every little two-bit 'blow up the tower' conspiracy you find yourself swept up-”

Cassi shut the door on Jonny before he finished his rant, leaving the three of them alone in some welcome silence. She placed her arms on Hal and Miri, giving them a warm, matronly smile. “Now that, that unfortunate business has been taken care of, are you two alright? Poor little Hal here looks like he's about to keel over dead. And I'm sorry to say it sugar, you put on a good game face, but it looks like you could use a breather as well.”

Miri didn't argue the point. “I guess we could use a place to lay low for a while. It's been... well, it's been kind of crazy tonight.”

“I bet.” Cassi walked over to her desk and consulted a large floor plan of the building. Each room had colored tokens placed on top of them representing their “occupancy” for the evening. “I think you two are in luck.” She pointed to the top room with a smile. “It looks like our private penthouse suite was just finished being cleaned up, and no one's booked. Why don't you head on upstairs and make yourselves at home. I'm sure it'll take ol' Jonny a while to get everything sorted out. Just don't hang around in the lobby for long. It makes my customers nervous seeing people stumblin' about all covered in blood. You just make sure little ol' Hal here gets some rest.”

“Thank you. I will.” Miri offered her sincere thanks. “I know it's all of a sudden, but I really appreciate your help miss...”

“Cassandra DuPuis.” Cassi offered one arm for a handshake. “But you can just call me Cassi, hun. Ain't nobody got time for formalities in a place like this. Y'all go do your thing. If you need anything at all, just holler. I'll be here all night.”


With their business concluded, Miri helped Hal struggle up the stairs to the suite that rested alone on the top floor. With his energy stores nearly exhausted, Hal didn't have much left in the tank to do much else than let himself be led. Soon enough they reached the top landing and the suite which would serve as their refuge for the evening.

The room was wide, but lavishly furnished. A large, heart-shaped bed sat at the far end of the room, accented with a mind-boggling number of smaller throw pillows. The bedding seemed to be made of shimmery, skin-hugging satin. A control panel sat at the edge of the bed, the many buttons controlling features Hal could only begin to guess at. The windows to the room were obscured by thick velvet drapes that completely hid any view of the outside world, and the ceiling seemed to have a reflective mirror finish, no doubt for the benefit of certain patrons. One door off to the side led to an attached bathroom which was certainly decorated in a similar manner.

Their current lodgings would normally be rather uncomfortable for Hal, but he frankly didn't have the energy to care anymore. He crashed down on the bed with a heavy sigh, finally surrendering to the weight of the day. Miri shook him gently to prevent his immediate fall into slumber. “I know you want to sleep, Hal, but maybe you should get cleaned up first.”

“Mmmm.” Hal gave Miri a muffled grunt of acknowledgment, and eventually summoned enough willpower to get back on his feet and shuffle over to the bathroom. The cold, mosaic tile that decorated the floor was quick to shock Hal into action, and he soon had the shower running with the hottest water he could bear to survive. Steam quickly filled the air, giving it a rejuvenating weight that he could drink in with each deep breath.

He shed his clothes and stepped into the stream of hot water, pushing through the initial sting as he adjusted to the high temperature. He leaned one arm against the forward wall and dipped his head, letting the world finally grow quiet to his senses. Soon he was mercifully alone, with only the sound of simmering water to keep him company.

Here, at one with his thoughts, the events of the past few hours flashed through his mind: Dr, Kincaid's spasming end. The sick slippery sensation of talons tearing into flesh. The cold touch of a trigger against his finger as he smiled with vengeance.

Blood washed down off his body and swirled lazily into the drain between his feet. Despite the water that ran into his eyes, Hal found himself mesmerized by the whirlpool. Over the minutes that passed, the crimson swirl gradually lightened, and eventually became clear when there were no more memories to be washed away.

Hal blinked the blur from his eyes and finally urged his body into motion again. He grabbed a bottle of body wash without bothering to read the label, and proceeded to take his time scrubbing away any last remnants from the fights he survived. Soon the steamy air had the tingling sweet smell of tropical fruit.

Eventually, the heat of the flow was too much to bear, and the faucet was turned off with a high-pitched metallic squeak. A luxuriously thick and soft white towel waited patiently for him on the rack just outside the frosted shower door. Hal stepped out and used it to wipe himself dry. The languid air grew quieter still, and a blanket of calm silence wrapped around him as snugly as the towel he wrapped around his waist.

He stepped over to the sink and ran the cold water, splashing some onto his face, shocking his nerves back to alertness. Looking up, he was greeted with the misty shadow of his own reflection. He reached out with one hand and wiped at the condensation, clearing a diagonal path for him to see clearly the image of his own face.

The man that looked back at him was one Hal scarcely recognized. His eyes were sunk deep into his face, rung by heavy darkened eyelids. His lips curled involuntarily into a bitter scowl. His tail, normally quite animated and lively, merely hovered, staring unblinking into the image presented to them. It looked almost like Hal had been through a week long alcohol and amphetamine bender, with maybe one wild night of chemotherapy mixed in.

Was this the face everyone saw when they looked at him? Is this who Miri saw?

Hal was hesitant to touch his power again, but he had to dip his toes one more time, just to see. After the world grew out around him, Hal finally saw his true state. Neon blue tendrils of color glowed brilliantly from nearly every vein in his body. They spidered out, transitioning from a complex web in his chest into long winding avenues down each limb and up his neck. Even the tree branch network of capillaries in his fingers, toes, and face glowed brightly for him to see. The meteor's corruption over him was nearly complete.

The world shrunk back down around him and the glow faded to dark. Hal couldn't bear to see it any longer. He was left again with his own sad reflection, staring back. He swallowed desperately between deep breaths, and realized that the face across from him looked as scared as he had ever seen. It was exactly the same terrified face as the one Vanir gave him, one heartbeat before he gleefully shot a bullet through her chest.

Like the one delicate snowball that eventually grows into an avalanche, Hal felt the weight and finality of that gunshot wash over him and rip his heart to pieces. She was just as scared as he was. She wanted to hold on to what she had just as bad as he did. And now, she was dead, along with her unborn child. Hal could never face his brother again. He had no family anymore.

He took one more breath, but the shuddering exhale became a snowball, and the snowball became the only thing it was destined to be. The avalanche hit hard, and Hal had no power to hold it at bay. His legs buckled, and soon he was leaning heavily over the sink and sobbing deep into the drain. The heavy, gut-wrenching bursts of emotion flooded the basin and quickly spilled over into the other room.

A knock at the door failed to interrupt him. “Hal, are you ok?” When Miri's question received no response, she opened the door to find Hal crying into the sink. Soon her hands were on his shoulders, gently pulling him away from the mirror. “Come on... I got you.” With some soothing words and a light touch, she guided Hal back into the bedroom, sitting him down on the edge of the mattress. She didn't interrupt his grieving, but instead patiently waited it out with one arm resting tenderly on his shoulder.

It took a minute for the flood of emotion to subside. When the overflow was reduced to scattered sobs, Miri reached out and wiped the tears from his eyes. Hal looked up, staring deep into her own eyes as the blur slowly cleared. “Miri...” Hal's voice wavered unsteadily. “Am I an evil man?”

“What?” Miri shook her head. “No Hal, of course not. Why would you even think such a thing?”

“Because Vanir...” Hal blinked away fresh tears that threatened to blind him. “I murdered her.”

“She was trying to kill us, Hal.”

“No Miri!” Hal cut her off with a loud bark. “You don't understand. I didn't just kill Vanir. I murdered her.”

Miri offered Hal a sad frown, and he continued. “Her body was broken. She wasn't a threat anymore. We could have just left her behind. But I...” Hal shook his head violently, as if trying to deny the truth he was speaking. “I wanted her to die, Miri. I wanted her to feel pain. My pain. The pain she first gave to me when we fought at the river's edge. The pain I felt when she took everything away.”

Hal laughed bitterly. “I wanted to savor her end. I wanted to see the scales balanced. I thought it would liberate me.” The laugh devolved into cry at the very end. “But it didn't Miri. It didn't. All I feel now is the emptiest I've ever felt in my whole life. I wish with all my heart that I could go back in time and change it all. Do everything over again.”

“Oh Hal...” Miri reached forward and pulled him in for a hug. Her voice whispered in his ear as she held him close. “That is exactly why you are not an evil man. Evil men don't regret their mistakes. They let it harden them and turn their heart into stone. That's not who you are.”

“Then who am I Miri?” Hal pulled back slightly so he could see her face. “I don't even recognize my own reflection. I thought I knew where my life was going. I thought I'd escaped all this violence. But now...” Hal blinked, shaking his head. “The only thing I know is that I don't know anything at all about my life. I don't know if I ever knew anything to begin with.”  

Miri reached out and smoothed the feathers on the top of his head. When she spoke her voice was calm, gentle and soothing. “Can't you see how special that makes you?” She smiled at him. “Hal. Your life is a miracle because you've built no walls around your heart. You have no affectations, no self-made illusions of who you are. You live every day entirely open, entirely vulnerable, and because of that... the world hurts you sometimes. I think it hurts you more than anyone else.”

She leaned closer, brushing the last remnants of tears from his face. “But that also means that you can experience life in ways that no one else can. You can see things, feel things, that no one else even knows.” Miri's own eyes began to water. “Let me tell you a story about a person I met.”

“A few years ago I met a man. At first, I didn't think I liked him that much. He was kind of funny looking, a little shy, and he struggled at first with the simple things that the rest of us students took for granted. Taking notes, doing homework, learning how to use a telescope for the first time. But he learned quick, and he didn't let anyone stop him from doing the things he loved.”

Miri continued. “Soon enough we were working together, and through countless nights, some of them darker and colder than any can be, he taught me who he was. When I felt down he would make me laugh, always ready to offer some witty remark. When I was lonely, he would keep me company, talking with me deep into the dead of night. When I was hungry, he made me breakfast. When I was cold, he built me a fire. And when I was tired, he gave me an extra blanket and his only pillow so that I could sleep.”

“And when that man thought I was asleep, when he thought he was truly alone... do you know what he would do?” Miri smiled at Hal, caressing his face. “He would walk outside onto the balcony. He would stand out there, alone, against all the cold and all the wind and all the darkness of the world, and he would look up at the stars.”  

Tears started to roll down Miri's cheeks. “And do you know what happened when he did that? He smiled, Hal. He smiled with such raw and rapturous joy, like a little child, discovering the tremendous beauty of his world for the very first time.”

“That man is the person I fell in love with.” She half-laughed, half-cried, looking into his eyes. “That man... is you, Hal.”

“Oh Miri...” Neither of them could hold back the second flood that carried them both. Hal pulled Miri close holding her tightly, and they both cried in eachother's arms. “Miri...” Hal sobbed, finally unable to hold back the words that he meant to say. “I love you. I've always loved you.”

“I know.” Miri returned his embrace, crying over his shoulder.

They held eachother for a long time, letting the years of pent-up emotion finally spring forth. It seemed like such a simple thing to acknowledge, yet it took them almost an eternity to finally reach this point. Eventually, Hal pulled himself together enough to speak again. “Why did it take us this long, Miri? Why is it that only now, near the end, are we able to say the things that we mean?”

“Heh.” Miri pulled back, wiping at her face, clearing the water from her eyes. “I guess no one's perfect.”

Hal laughed, shaking his head. “I don't know how much time I have left Miri. The meteor inside of me... it's spread so far. I can feel it and I can see it. If I have to use my power for one more night...” Hal didn't look away from her eyes. “I may never wake up from it. I'm already so tired.”

Miri nodded in sad acknowledgment of the truth. “I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, Hal. Truth be told, I'm scared to find out.” Her fingers traced across the edge of his jaw. “But no matter what happens, whether it's good or bad, whether we make it or not, we still have right now.”

“Yeah. I guess we still have that.” Hal nodded slowly in agreement. “When did you figure me out so well, Miri? Since when did you become the wise one among us?”

“Ha.” Hal's remark was met with honest laughter. “I guess you could say I've been an interested observer for a long time. As for wisdom... beats me Hal. As far as I'm concerned, we're both wise, and yet we're both lost fools all at the same time. It's kind of messed up to think about, but that's the only way I know how to describe it.”

“Yeah. I guess so.”

The air of the room seemed to hang still, trapped in a moment of suspended animation. When Miri spoke again, her voice was much softer, almost a whisper.

“Hey Hal?”

“Yes, Miri?”

“ you want to see my power?”

Hal's heart froze in surprise. In all the years he had known her, not once did Miri even hint that she had found her dreamkeeper power. “You found your power!?” Hal was unable to hide the astonishment in his voice.

Miri nodded softly. “I found it after...” She hesitated for a moment. “After you were shot. After they killed Tesla. When I held him in my arms before they dragged me away.” Her own composure seemed to tremble a little bit. “I haven't used it since then... but... I think I'm ready to show you, if you want to see.”

Hal nodded, still speechless.

“Ok.” Miri took a long, deep breath, letting it out slowly. She placed both hands on Hal's shoulders, finishing the exhale. “Close your eyes.”

Hal wasn't sure how he was supposed to see with his eyes closed, but he did as she asked. They sat there in silence for a few more heartbeats. Then, all of a sudden, Hal's world changed in an instant. His one heartbeat became two heartbeats. His one breath became two breaths. He saw an image of himself through Miri's eyes. He felt not only himself... he could feel everything she felt. Hal opened his eyes, and suddenly he had a dizzying overlay of double vision as he saw the room through them both, all at once. Vertigo quickly overtook him, sending his sense of equilibrium reeling as his brain struggled to process competing inputs. Miri broke the link before things got too far out of hand.

“What the hell was that!?” Hal asked, gasping for breath as he placed both hands down on the bed to regain his balance.

“I told you to close your eyes...” Miri whispered, blinking away the disorientation. “It's a sensory link. Full two way synthesis. If I touch somebody else, I can feel everything they feel, see everything they see... and vice versa.” She looked down at the ground. “The first time I used my power... I felt Tesla die in my arms.”

“I'm sorry Miri.”

She shook her head. “That day has come and gone, now. I don't have to focus on the bad memories. I don't think that's what my power was meant for. I can build good ones as well.” Her eyes found his again. “Do you want to try it one more time?”

Hal swallowed, and nodded, bracing himself for the second wave. “Okay.”

“This time, actually keep your eyes closed.”

He closed his eyes and felt her hands back on his shoulders. In the next breath, he felt his senses duplicate, and the two of them were breathing with shared lungs, holding with shared arms. Her eyes were closed as well, letting them each wade into the pond slowly. He felt them both lean forward with care, adjusting to the waters. When the ripples began to subside, they each tilted forward just one more inch, and felt their lips touch.

It was so faint at first, like the gentlest breeze or the softest whisper. A mere memory of a kiss. They parted, for just a moment, each grabbing on to a thread of that memory before coming back together. The second kiss was deeper, more yearning, and soon all hesitation had drifted off into the night. They drank deeply of eachother, breathed deeply, and let themselves fall back onto the bed, entwined in mutual embrace.

There were no words Hal could use to describe the experience. They lost themselves yet found eachother all at the same time. Here, alone together in the deepest dark of night, they remembered that they were alive.

* * * * *

Some time later, after their hearts and their bodies had been spent, after the fire of passion faded into the glowing embers of comfort, they rested. Miri slept soundly curled close next to Hal, resting her head on his chest. Her warmth leeched into his core with a tender softness. One arm, wrapped around her back, held her close.

Hal felt his body, so tired now, sink deep and heavy into the mattress. Even if he wanted to move his toe with all the will in the universe, he wouldn't be able. There were no more words he could say, no more energy he could spend, no more minutes in his day. At the end of it all, there was nothing left that Hal could give.

He looked up at the ceiling and the dim reflection of the two of them, feeling his eyelids begin to close as he surrendered to the end of the night. Before he drifted off into a long and welcome rest, Hal couldn't help but understand that in this one fleeting moment, perhaps for the first time in his life, his soul had found peace...

[End Chapter 21]
The Wayward Astronomer: Chapter 21

Wow. It feels so amazing to have reached this point. It's an incredible moment in the story, and it's almost like a huge weight has finally lifted from my shoulders now that I'm here. The story's not over yet of course, still plenty more to come, but now is a pivotal moment. I'll save my long winded self-reflection for another time, perhaps when the story is complete, but I'll simply say that this chapter means so much to me. 

Chapter 21 clocks in at the longest chapter to date at nearly 5,000 words. I hope it isn't too long winded, and that it ends up being easy and enjoyable to read. If you do read, please let me know what you think in the comments section below. 


Thanks so much for reading! 
[Chapter 20]

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]
The Wayward Astronomer: Chapter 20
EDIT: After starting work on the next chapter, I decided it would be a better seque for the chapters to add the end of the escape to this chapter before proceeding into 21. There's about 1,000 words of new content at the end of this chapter. I hope you enjoy. 
Man, writing action is hard! I finally got through this, which is probably the first time I've written a chapter entirely devoted to action, as opposed to characters. It was a new challenge for me, but I'm happy to get through it finally. This next chapter is going to be one of my favorites I think, and I can't wait to share it with everyone. 

As always, if you read my work, please let me know what you think, good or bad. All feedback is helpful to me. I'm immensely thankful for all of the support people have given me. 


Thanks so much for reading! 
The Path by Kafelnikov
The Path
We all walk different paths in our lives. This one was mine for one memorable afternoon on the far side of the world. For as long as I live, I will remember the sound it made under my boots as I marched forward. 

Picture taken at "The Craters of the Moon" in Taupo, New Zealand. Canon ELPH 150 IS. 
[Chapter 19]

“What happened back there was murder, plain and simple! How the hell do you justify killing someone in cold blood like that!?” After a sorrowful and silent ride back, Hal now found himself in a heated argument with his brother in the cozy top-floor office of the cathedral. Despite the comfortable setting, it felt like the argument could boil over at any moment. Vanir, Dubs and Miri all played spectator to the unfolding fight.

Marcus sighed, uncorking a bottle of fermentae and taking a sip before responding to Hal. “Hal, you're angry. I get it. I really do. But what was I supposed to do? Capture him? Risk more people discovering us? Start a whole big collection of captives to keep you and Miri company? I can't afford that, Hal. One slip up when we're this close, and everything falls apart.”

“God damn it, Marcus! He was my friend!” Hal couldn't restrain his outrage. “You could at least pretend to show remorse for all you've done!”

Marcus threw his hands up in exasperation. “Words can't change anything Hal! What's done is done. If an apology will make you feel better, fine, I'm sorry. I'm sorry it had to come to that. I really am. But I don't have the luxury of mercy under these circumstances!” Marcus set his drink down and leaned forward, planting both hands on the top of his desk. “Do you have any idea how hard I've had to work to keep the meteor's power hidden from the government!? To establish my power base? To finally reach a point where we're ready to strike? Years of deliberate and methodical effort: collecting data, buying influence over important officers and politicians, building a network of agents in key positions.” He shook his head. “I can't risk any rogue elements disrupting this delicate web, now more than ever!”

Hal stomped his cane on the floor “That doesn't make it right, Marcus!”

“Maybe not, but that doesn't mean I'm wrong either. Things just aren't that simple, and you know it.”

Miri spoke up from Hal's side, joining in. “How many more people need to die before it is wrong, then? How many more people need to die before you're done killing in the name of this cause?”

“If we're smart about it, hopefully not too many.” Marcus stepped around the desk, walking closer to the two of them. “If we want to save lives, in the end, then we need to strike hard and end the revolution on the very same day it begins. Quick and clean.” Marcus punched one fist into his other open palm. “Just think about it Hal. The tower isn't just a symbol of our oppressors, it's the nerve center of all of their operations! If we destroy it all in one momentous strike, they won't be able to resist us, and the people will finally learn to trust in the power of their own hearts rather than the power of the troopers and the Viscount!”

“Hmph.” Hal grunted and shook his head, but that didn't seem to do anything but embolden Marcus and his little lecture.

“Just look at you. Look at us, Hal.” Marcus placed a hand over his heart. “We are MIGHTY. We have within us a beautiful and tremendous power. It wasn't given to us by the goddess so we could just sit back and merely exist as slaves. It was given so we could free ourselves. So we can remove our shackles and finally learn how to live again!” Marcus laughed a little. “Why do you think they make it illegal for anyone to use their power? It's because they KNOW that they cannot keep us contained once we've tasted the strength of our own souls!”

Passion dripped from each one of Marcus' words, feeding the fire that crackled happily in the fireplace. Dubs seemed to be nodding agreeably to the little speech. Vanir stood quietly in the corner, her attention hyper focused on Hal and Miri.  

“Marcus...” Hal shook his head, feeling his eyes water a little at the edges. “Do you really think you're a savior? Heroes don't murder innocent old men because they're inconvenient.” Hal settled his weight on his cane, letting it react as much exhaustion as he could bear. “Dr. Kincaid taught me how to study the stars. He introduced me to Miri. He gave me patience, helped me start my life over again... and now he's dead. Dead all because of you and your bloody aspirations of revolution.” Hal took a deep breath, the next words emerging with the weight of finality. “I don't think I can ever forgive you.”

“I don't need your forgiveness, Hal.” Marcus hefted the freshly-retrieved meteor fragment, staring at its  center. “If you truly valued his life, then we should work together to make his sacrifice worth the cost.”

“No.” Hal shook his head. “I'm done with this. All of it.” Marcus appeared to be disappointed by Hal's stubborn refusal, but Hal didn't let that dissuade him. “We had a deal. You've got another meteor. Now let us leave. We don't belong in this nightmare anymore.”

Marcus sighed, staring into the fireplace while he idly turned the meteor over in his hands. “Alright.” He hefted the black stone and tossed it between his hands. “Give me 24 hours, and then you're free to go. You won't ever have to talk to me again, if you so choose. We'll all be free to live the lives we want by this time tomorrow.”

“24 hours!?” Miri wasn't happy. “We deserve to go free right now!”

Marcus' lips twisted downward into a bitter scowl. “We all deserve it. But you can't leave until we've struck the first blow. No rogue elements.”

“Come on, Marcus!”

“Don't even start, Hal! Don't you even start that 'come on Marcus' bullshit with me.” Yellow eyes narrowed, cutting through the protest. “I just need enough time to organize my forces, distribute the meteor shards, and launch the operation. You can afford to wait just one day longer.”

Marcus tossed the meteor to Dubs, who caught it in his massive paws with a cry of surprise. “Make sure it stays safe. We begin the ceremony of distribution as soon as possible. Everyone earns their shard tonight.”

“Sure thing Arch.” Dubs eagerly marched his way out of the room, cradling the meteor like a fragile child as he disappeared down the hall.

Marcus nodded to Vanir, who drew her pistol and held it pointed in Hal and Miri's direction. “I'm sorry to have to do this to you, brother, but it will all pay off with just a little more patience. You need to trust me on this.” Marcus placed his hand on Hal's shoulder, leaning in close. “You look like you could use some rest. Just relax. Spend some quality time with your girlfriend. Get some sleep. When you're ready to open your eyes again, you'll be able to look out onto a better world. I know we've been walking different paths, but we both want the same things. We always have.”

Hal wasn't happy. Marcus' words did nothing to assuage him. In fact, a bubbling pool of frustration and anger continued to simmer beneath his surface, one notch warmer than before. He was done letting people dictate terms to him. He wanted to return fire, offer a witty one liner about Marcus' definition of quality time if Vanir always has to use a gun, but said nothing. Vanir had a pistol trained on him, and she looked to be in no joking mood.

“Get moving, you two. It's time to call it a night.” Vanir's commanding contralto urged them forward with the wave of the barrel.

“This will never end the way you want...” Miri muttered under her breath as she started walking, grabbing Hal's free arm and helping lead him onward.

The three of them walked out of the office and down the hall in silence, leaving Marcus alone to plot the coming hours. Hal and Miri shuffled along in front of Vanir's steady aim, saying nothing to each other, nor to Vanir. They descended the spiral staircase and proceeded down another dimly lit hall. The stained glass windows watched them march on with twisted and shadowy shapes. No light shone through from outside to give life to the momentous events they depicted.

Hal and Miri shared a glance as they started to approach their room. Her brilliantly beautiful eyes shone with a determined fire he never saw before. She gave him a subtle nod. They both knew what they had to do.

“Hold up.”

Vanir's footsteps stopped and they all paused just in front of the bedroom door that served as their cell. Hal turned, and found that she was aiming her springer straight at his head. “I think this is far enough.”

“Far enough for what?” Miri asked, her voice mockingly indignant.

Vanir shook her head. “I'm not an idiot. And neither are you.” Her expression was dead serious and pinpoint focused on her target. “You're going to betray Marcus.”

“I just want to get some sleep. I'm not in any shape to fight.” Hal lied. Vanir was buying none of it.

“Please.” Vanir sighted the pistol in on Hal, shifted it to Miri, and focused it again on Hal. “You expect me to believe that you're going to play nice? After everything that's happened? Watching your mentor murdered like that?” She took a deep breath and brought the hammer to full-cock. “You're Marcus' twin brother, which means you're far too brave, far too stubborn, and wholly incapable of letting an injustice  turn into water under the bridge. I'm afraid that your story ends here.”

Hal held his hands up slightly in a gesture of half-surrender. “So... what? You're just going to shoot me? Here, in this hallway? Kill the last family member he has left?” Hal narrowed his eyes. “Marcus and I may not agree, but I promise you.... he will never forgive you for this.”

“Maybe not.” Vanir agreed with a sober nod. “But at least he'll still be alive. At least we will still have a chance to build something new. I can't let you take the future from us.”

Her aim settled over Hal's face. “I'm sorry.”

“NO!!!” Miri leapt into action, diving at Vanir in a desperate attempt to stop her. This took Vanir by surprise, clearly thinking that Hal was the one who would move first. Her aim shifted in that twitching half-second as she pulled the trigger, and the bullet whizzed by the edge of Hal's skull, missing by mere hairs.

Miri tried to get her hands on the gun, but Vanir turned her body and batted Miri to the side with a sharp, skillful strike. Hal didn't hesitate and dropped his cane and letting his power come alight. He reached into his jacket and drew his own pistol, training it on Vanir just as she was training her's upon him. Time seemed to move so slow in that moment, once again. History could only be destined to repeat itself.

Hal fired first, his aim missing her chest, but instead clipping her revolver with a metallic *pang*. It was knocked free from her grasp and spun across the floor, ending out of reach down the hall. They both seemed to take a sharp inhale of breath as time sped back up, snapping them into an accelerated reality. Hal cocked the hammer for his second shot. Vanir dove to the side. Guided by adrenaline, the bullet missed its mark, ricocheting off the wall.

“Shit!” Hal thumbed the breech release, and the barrel of his pistol angled down sharply as the back end hinged up to allow reloading of two new rounds. The spent casings and uncoiled springs shot out the back of the gun, nearly hitting Hal in the eye before falling onto the floor with a hollow metal echo. He reached into his pocket, desperately groping for fresh ammunition with trembling fingers. Every one of them was drunk on the intoxicating promise of survival.

Vanir rose to one knee and held her palms together. A shimmering blue halo erupted to light over her head. As she separated her palms, a crackling, humming, throbbing sphere of black-purple energy grew into the space, filling it with tremendous and terrible singularity of doubtless destruction.

“Shit, shit, shit, shit...” That looked bad. Hal muttered his way through the panic, struggling to load new bullets into the breech. His unsteady hand failed him, and a small handful of bullets fell from his grasp and clattered to the floor below.

“Look out!” Miri propped herself up and kicked at Vanir just as the orb of energy was launched forward. Hal dove to the ground, hitting the deck as fast as he ever had before. Gravity was barely strong enough to drag him down and out of the way of the projectile.

The orb sailed down the hall, crashing into a corner where the wall met the ceiling. It expanded in an instant, swelling into a massive black hole ten times the original size. It ripped at the universe itself, tearing fragments of matter in a final and irresistible implosion.

Wind rushed though the hall, sucked past them into the event horizon. Hal dug his talons into the floor, resisting the pull with every ounce of strength and will. The only sound he could hear was the high-frequency scream of molecules ripped asunder. All light seemed to bend, be absorbed, and rush past his shoulder into the roiling angry sphere.

Seconds later, after an eternity had passed, the sphere collapsed in on itself, leaving behind nothing but the perfectly round imprint of nothingness where clean walls, floor, and ceiling once stood.  The air dropped in temperature a couple of degrees.

Miri wrestled with Vanir, disrupting her from summoning forth a new singularity, and buying Hal a precious few seconds to come to his feet. As much as it helped Hal, it was a losing proposition for Miri, and quickly Vanir emerged for the better, knocking the wind out of Miri with a sharp knee and knocking her down to hit her head on the side of the wall.

Vanir was fast in neutralizing Miri, but not quite fast enough to be ready for Hal. His tail lurched forward and nipped at her with its fangs, creating the one opening that he needed to unleash a devastating combination of raw fury. The first strike caught her in the gut, liberating the air from her lungs and jack-knifing her buckling body. The second strike snapped her head back in a dazing blow to the temple. His hands grabbed at her arm, twisted, rotated, and exposed her to the final third attack. Hal's palm slammed into her already extended joint, snapping it in the wrong direction with wet, sickening scream.

She rolled there on the floor, writhing and howling in pain, effectively incapacitated. Miri was slow to gather herself up. Hal smiled and stood triumphantly, exhaling a deep cloud of vapor from his nostrils. His fingers, steadied now, easily loaded his pistol with two fresh rounds. He snapped the breech back closed with a sharp flick of the wrist and the sweet metallic sound of imminent victory.

“How does it feel now, huh!?” Colors shimmered in Hal's eyes as he stood over his oppressor. “It hurts,  doesn't it? It hurts having your life changed in an instant, dragging you down from the place you thought you stood!”

He grabbed Vanir by the throat and lifted her up high until her feet were barely dangling over the floor. “I never wanted to be here!” He slammed her into the wall, ringing her skull against the stone as his fingers tightened their grip. “I never wanted to die!” His free hand pressed the barrel of his pistol against her chest, aimed straight into her heart. “I only wanted to find peace! I only wanted to be happy!!!!”

“Hal...” Miri's voice weakly objected somewhere behind him, but he could hardly hear her. The pressure of the moment was deafening. Overwhelming. Inevitable.

Tears rolled down Vanir's face as she struggled to breathe. Her lips twisted and fought, struggling to form words to speak. Hal's tail leaned in close, bearing fangs that dripped venom in front of her face. “Do you know what it feels like to lose everything you love!?” He hovered his face inches from hers and pulled the hammer back with a satisfying *click*.  “Do you know what it's like to be given no mercy!!?”

“N-n-no.” Vanir gasped, her voice only emerging as a weak whisper. She was in tremendous pain, gasping for air, and struggling to move her body. More than all of that, though, she was afraid. Completely and absolutely afraid. Her eyes said it all. “P-please...”

Hal locked his eyes onto hers, drinking in her fear. “Let me teach you.”

The gunshot wasn't loud. It heralded the end of her life with a faint, meaty slap of metal slipping through flesh. A small fan of blood emerged from the gap between the barrel and her heart, and the sanguine droplets fell like rain into the suddenly still and silent air.

Hal released his grip and took a step back, letting her body slide down onto the floor. A trail of blood followed her down along the wall, ending where her back lay doubled over at an awkward and uncomfortable angle.

“Spirits, Hal!” Miri's voice was audible now: surprised, disbelieving, and sad. “ killed her.”

The warm and comforting glow of revenge faded quickly, cooling and condensing into the bitter pit of panic. Hal's lungs sucked in air with an ever growing greed, and soon he was hyperventilating, unable to escape the reality of an act that could never be undone. Vanir was dead.

“Oh gods.” Hal half-sobbed, unable to reign in the racing of his heart or slow the terrible forward progression of time. Alarmed shouts of others echoed through the halls, pursued by the sounds of hurried footsteps. There was no way to go back. The only course that remained, once again, was to go forward.

“We need to go, Miri.” Hal's panicked voice could not have echoed any truer in that hallway. “We need to go, now.”

[End Chapter 19]
The Wayward Astronomer: Chapter 19
I've had this chapter half finished since before Christmas, but haven't gotten around to it until now. Part of the reason is that real life was very busy, but I think part of it is I needed to work up the will to go through with it. This is officially the "shit just got real" segment of the story, for better or worse. The lead up and climax of this story should be quite the ride, especially for me. You don't know how many times I've lived through the last handful of chapters in my head. 

I hope you all enjoy the chapter, and I highly encourage any thoughts you may have or want to share. Thanks for reading and joining me on the rollercoaster.


Thanks so much for reading! 
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:

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.

  • 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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Add a Comment:
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! =)
Kafelnikov Featured By Owner Apr 16, 2015
Thanks Caitlin! Im currently in Midland looking for places to live
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. ;) 
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. 
(1 Reply)
LunarOutcast Featured By Owner Apr 15, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
Happy Birthday Kafel!
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
ezioauditore97 Featured By Owner Apr 15, 2015  Student General Artist
I know the gift was early,but I hope you have an enjoyable birthday!
Asylbek Featured By Owner Apr 15, 2015  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Happy birthday!
Kafelnikov Featured By Owner Apr 15, 2015
Thank you very much, Asylbek!
ezioauditore97 Featured By Owner Jan 14, 2015  Student General Artist
I don't have a wordpress account so I couldn't comment,but I've been reading your blog and all the entries have been really entertaining reads with some nice photography as well.

 Anyways hope you finish your trip on a high note!
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