“Another meteor?” The entire room fell strangely silent. Marcus' tone took on a breathless quality. “Where?”
Hal shook his head, still struggling to regain his breath. “I don't know where exactly. It's somewhere in that direction. That's all I know.” He waved one claw towards the wall that his tail continued to stare at.
“This changes things.” Hal's brother glanced over at Vanir. “We need to retrieve it at once. With just a little bit more, we will have enough shards to equip each and every one of us.”
Vanir nodded, smiling confidently. “We'll finally be ready to move on to the next phase.”
“Vanir, take Hal and determine its true location. Let's not waste any time. I'll spread the word for everyone to assemble.”
“Wait. Hold on.” Hal spoke up, seeming to finally find balance on the legs underneath him. “I never said I was going to help with any of this.”
Marcus narrowed his eyes, as the two of them stared each other down for a tense moment. Miri fruitlessly struggled against the two goons that continued to hold her back. Finally, Marcus broke the silence. “I'll make you an offer, Hal. An offer that should give us both exactly what we want.”
“Help me just this once. Help me find and acquire this last meteor fragment... and I'll let you and Miri go free. You won't ever have to talk to me again if you so choose. Just stay out of my way after that, and we'll be even.”
“Even?” Hal snorted. “I don't owe you anything in the first place. You're holding Miri and I hostage, and you think that we owe you a god damn thing? You're delusional.”
“You may not think so now, but soon enough we will be living in a different world.” Marcus clenched one hand into a tight fist. “You'll be more thankful when you see how everything turns out.”
“Sure.” Hal turned away, bracing his weight with his cane.
Marcus sighed. “That's the deal, Hal. Take it or leave it. If you leave it, I'll simply have to keep both of you under lock and key until all the dust settles, and it will take so much longer without your eyes to help me.”
Hal looked over at Miri. She looked afraid. Not afraid of Marcus or his gang, but afraid, perhaps, that this might be their only desperate chance to escape before it was too late. Time was not a luxury he could afford to waste. She gave him a silent nod, and that urged him forward.
He took a deep breath, letting the air out slowly through his nostrils before finally offering an answer. “...alright, Marco. Alright.” Hal reluctantly agreed. “Let's just get this over with.”
“Let's.” Satisfaction dripped from Marcus' single word of agreement.
Vanir approached Hal with a bone-chilling smile, slipping an arm around his. “Come with me, hero. We have work to do...”
A short while later, the two of them were outside in the blindingly bright sun of late morning. The streets were filled with the chaotic hustle and bustle of thousands of people going about their lives, blissfully unaware that there was a anarcho-cultist group getting ready to do who-knows-what to the city.
Vanir had changed from her more formal Celestial robes, and was now dressed in comfortable street clothes: a close-fitting pair of jeans and a light jacket that wrapped around her lithe frame surprisingly well. It was probably the first time Hal really got a good look at her since all this began. She was certainly fit; many would say that she was strikingly beautiful. Her bright blue eyes contrasted severely with her deep black fur, and her accent only added to her air of mysterious and exotic beauty. She stood tall and confident among the crowds of the streets, as if the world were already her own.
It was difficult for Hal to guess her age, but she was probably a couple years older than he and Marcus. Whether that number was 2, 5, or 8 years, he had no precise way of knowing. It wasn't a surprise that his brother would be attracted to Vanir, but Hal wasn't sure how Marcus was able to overlook her other less appealing qualities. Her eyes and her smile always seemed to have a subtle hunger hiding underneath the surface, and her laughter, though light and pleasant to the ear, had an undercurrent of playful malice that Hal could always hear. She was a dangerous woman in a lot of different ways, and Hal knew that she wouldn't hesitate to kill if it served her aims.
“So... where to, Mister Hero?” She smiled and looked at him with mischief in her eyes. She stood close to him, her body language friendly and familiar. To other observers in the Theophanies streets, they might as well look like a couple going for a stroll through the city.
Hal grunted, tightening his grip on his cane. “I don't know why you keep calling me that. My name is Hal.” He frowned, looking down the main boulevard that ran double wide through the center of the district. “The light came from that direction. It felt like it wasn't very close. It could be in Norvondire district.” He looked around anxiously at the buzz of people which appeared to pay him no mind. “I can't take another look unless we're in private.”
“I can take care of that.” Vanir gave him a wink and stepped forward, beckoning him to follow her. “There's a luxury groundcar depot only two blocks away. Let's catch a ride.”
The two of them walked together along the edge of the boulevard, moving at a modest pace that Hal could manage. It was an odd feeling, walking alongside the woman who just weeks earlier had shot him multiple times in the chest. He had reservations about even playing along with their plan to acquire more Celestial meteor fragments, but Hal didn't know any other plausible option for getting out of the hole he was trapped in. A groundcar would be a good private way of traveling through Anduruna. The telepads that dotted the city made for faster travel, but privacy was not an option that way.
“So, this is what life is for you, huh?” Hal quipped, lowering his head so he didn't have to meet eyes with Vanir. “Wake up in the morning, eat some breakfast, go hunting for some miracle mineral that makes us all gods, shoot a guy, go home, and then relax with a cup of tea and watch the evening news?”
“Some days.” Vanir chuckled, sending chilly tremors down Hal's spine. “Don't tell me you have hard feelings about our first meeting.”
“No. Not at all.” Hal didn't hide the bitterness in his voice. “Every weekend of mine ends with being killed. It's how I like to unwind after a long week.”
“Cooperate, and we won't need to make it a habit.” Vanir smirked, giving him a quick glance over her shoulder. “We don't have to be enemies, you know.”
“Right.” The dry sarcasm in that one word could almost be tasted. “I think we're already becoming fast friends.”
Vanir merely laughed at Hal's less-than-friendly reply. Soon enough they reached the groundcar depot, where a small handful of comfortable groundcars were parked in a row, waiting for a fare to give them a destination. Vanir paid the well-dressed attendant for a cab, and they were ushered into the carriage of the lead car by a smiling, white-gloved driver.
“Take us to Norvondire. We'll give you more specific directions when we get there.” She commanded the usher with a silky but forceful smile. Once they were off, she slid shut the privacy curtain between the front of the cab and the passenger compartment in back, leaving her and Hal in relative privacy and comfort.
“You don't need to talk to me if you don't want to. But you will need to use your power to guide us more directly.” Her eyes were locked onto his own, a taut sense of expectation bridging the gap between the two of them.
Hal sighed. He felt nervous about activating his power again, but after a few deep breaths to steel his revolve, he sat back and half-closed his eyes, letting his senses slip into another phase of reality. Barely a second passed before Hal was almost doubled over in his seat, absolutely overwhelmed by the bombardment to his awareness unleashed by all the life of the city.
He could see all the indescribable colors of other ranges of light, but layered on top of that was a tingling pressure exerted by all the other Dreamkeepers nearby. He could somehow feel the intangible touch of life all around him: The sharp aggression of a gang of teenager street thugs as they closed in on a target to rob. The bright, desperate flood of emotion from two young lovers curled together near the window of a nearby apartment. The dim boredom of a retail clerk as she counted down the long minutes until another work day was over. Somewhere, out beyond the wall of pressure that surrounded him, was that burning white-hot light of a meteor fragment.
“Keep going north to northeast-ish. It's a ways off.” Hal could barely hear himself as he spoke, and he inhaled deep to keep himself from suffocating underneath the chaos that seemed to surround him from all sides.
Vanir watched Hal carefully as they continued. He could smell her curiosity intermingled with her delicate perfume. Calculations were being executed just out of his sight, deep inside her skull. The world was almost too bright for his dilated pupils, even in the confines of the carriage. No matter what direction he turned, he couldn't look away. Eventually the tension seemed to well up inside of his heart, growing tighter and tighter as the groundcar traveled forward. Fear and suspicion seemed to become the world, permeating all the life around him. The tension reached an unbearable level, and with a silent snap, Hal deactivated his power. Suddenly, he found himself sitting with Vanir in the real world, gasping mightily for air. It took him a good while to regain his composure and his energy, and only after a minute of labored breathing did he realize the groundcar had come to a complete stop.
“Miss, it looks like we have a roadblock.” The drivers voice drifted into the compartment from further up front.
Vanir sighed sharply, irritation apparent in her features. With a beckoning tilt of the head, she opened the door and stepped back out onto the streets. Hal followed behind her.
Just ahead of them was a barricade of troopers, heavy sloped armor reflecting bright in the sun. “SAFETY TROOPER” was painted in dark capital lettering along the full length shoulder-shields they all wore. Those shields covered nearly their entire body from a side profile, giving them near total protection when arranged in a firing position. Behind the barricade, other soldiers appeared to be finishing up an armed raid. Suspects were being dragged out onto the street and restrained face down on the ground. Some of the detained shouted and struggled fruitlessly, while others were silent. One of them didn't move at all, a dark pool of blood barely eeking out from underneath his prone form. Smoke billowed from a second story window while shattered glass and spent springer cartridges dotted the sidewalk.
“This is a restricted area! For your protection, please stay back!” One of the perimeter troopers was shouting at the scattered spectators and urging them away while a few other soldiers stoically held the line. The trooper's face was concealed beneath the identity guarding balaclavas they all wore, but his voice sounded young. The single red bar on his helmet indicated the rank of Corporal.
Vanir didn't appear to be phased by the violent scene in front of them, and she approached the roadblock with the faintest hint of a superior smile on her lips. “Is there a problem here, officer?” The last word emerged with a twinge of condescension.
“Hey! What part of stay back don't you understand!?” The corporal held one hand forward in the universal stop gesture. “This is an active crime scene. No one is allowed through until everything is over.”
“Oh. I see.” Hal watched Vanir's eyes narrow slightly. “And what did these criminals do?”
“That's none of your business citizen. Now back off!” His voice took on a sharper, more authoritative edge. The barrel of his springer rifle raised ever so slightly to point at the ground nearer to their feet. “Clear the area immediately, or I'll place you under arrest for obstruction!”
Vanir seemed to be looking the officer over, mentally taking notes. Rather than goad him on, she relented, taking a step back after one last glance at the suspects on the other side. She turned and walked back to their groundcar, grabbing Hal by the arm and guiding him back along with her.
“Go around.” Vanir directed their driver with a firm tone as she shut the passenger door with a slam. Once the car was in motion again, she seemed to have regained her composure, forcing her obvious disdain and hatred back beneath the surface. Her attention returned to Hal, as she regarded him with a measured stare. “Can you tell how close we are?”
Hal was reluctant to use his power again, but yet, at the same time, a part of him wanted to keep using it even more. To perceive the entire world even deeper than he had before. He dipped his toes once again, only briefly, and snapped back with yet another gasping breath.
“We're closer, but it's still somewhere beyond here. I think it's further north. It could be back in Calypsa even.” Hal shook his head, gathering himself.
Vanir relayed the directions to the driver, who was more than happy to ferry them across two districts to collect a handsome fare. The groundcar soon settled into a steady pace, working its way through the streets of Norvondire, leaving the grisly trooper raid long behind them. She tilted her head to the side and asked, “Now do you see why we need to change this city? Those people the troopers were arresting. Shooting. Shoving face down into the dirt. They were just young men, teenagers even, assaulted for the so-called crime of being yourself.”
“Yeah, you're right.” Hal nodded in agreement. “Shooting people for touching a rock is a much more fair and just application of lethal force.” The sarcastic smile on his lips devolved into an angry sneer. “Why don't you take a hint and just leave me alone.” Hal half-paused. “Oh, and while you're doing that, why don't you go fuck yourself as well.”
“My my...” Vanir seemed to welcome his insolent attitude, responding with a self-satisfied smile. “How brave you are with your words. So bold.” She chuckled a little. “You really are Marcus' brother.”
“We're not the same.”
“No. You're not.” Vanir shook her head. “Marcus takes action when he sees something he doesn't like. He doesn't mope about and complain like an insolent little boy, angry for not getting what he wants.”
Hal felt a surge of anger well up inside his chest, but he trapped it before it burst out. He wasn't going to take the bait and play in her verbal sparring match. He merely exhaled sharply to himself, and turned his attention back out the window.
They traveled in silence for quite some time; the only words exchanged were terse directions on how to navigate closer to the meteor-light. Eventually though, a question broke through the forced quiet. “I know you don't like me Hal. To be honest, I don't think I like you either.” Vanir smiled, that hint of mischief showing through. “But we're going to be family someday. At least we can be civil with one another.”
Hal felt his heart skip a beat, freezing his blood. “Family?” He asked the question he already felt he knew the answer to. “What do you mean by that?”
The smile widened. “...I'm pregnant.”
The sudden storm of emotions sent Hal's mind into a flatspin. He was going to be an uncle? An uncle to the child of his ego-maniacal brother and his murderous girlfriend? Fan-bleeping-tastic. That would be a great family dynamic. Hal didn't expect to survive his new and evolving affliction long enough to see the day when it became reality. The anger in his heart solidified into an even sharper edge. “Congratulations. I'm sure you'll make a great loving mother. Set a good example.”
“Oh, I will.” Vanir didn't acknowledge the obvious sarcasm. “We're going to burn down the old to build up the new, and I will give my child, your nephew, a world worth living in.”
Hal scowled. “I don't care about your little revolution, so stop trying to sell me on it. You're not so different from the troopers back there; you just wear nicer clothes and wrap your lust for power in the comfy veneer of religion and destiny.”
“Hmmmm.... Such an insightful young man.” Vanir's eyes lit up. “So observant. But such talent is wasted without a cause.” Her head tilted slightly, the curl of a smile tugging at the edge of her lips. “I wonder if beneath that wit of yours if you care about anything at all in this world.”
Hal didn't answer her.
“Nothing?” Vanir's voice took on an extra curious tone. “I wonder what Miri would think.”
The anger finally burst through and Hal's voice erupted with fury. “THAT'S IT!!!” He slammed his fist into the side of the door. “Why are you always teasing me about her!? Why the hell do you care at all about our lives?! My life was fine before you showed up and TOOK IT ALL AWAY FROM ME!” His vision started to blur a little from the tears that started to pool in the corners of his eyes. “STOP TOYING WITH ME AND JUST LET ME GO BACK TO LIVING WHATEVER SHORT LIFE I HAVE LEFT!”
“Is everything alright back there?” The drivers voice drifted through from the front of the groundcar.
“Yes, everything is fine.” Vanir answered without turning her focus from Hal. He fought back a sob and blinked the water from his eyes, turning away from her. His tail hissed, hatred apparent in the cluster of red eyes. When she finally spoke to him again, her voice was lower, more guarded. “You don't actually know that you're dying. You think the meteor is a sickness? It's a gift that's giving you more power than you ever had before. You think you're dying? You've already died. Your old life is gone, and now you're beginning a new one. Here. Today. This very moment, in fact.” Her eyes narrowed sharply. “You may hate me for what's been done, but you need to learn that all life is change. You can either hide from it, or you can learn to embrace it. Celestia teaches us these things.”
Hal shook his head, exhaustion replacing the anger in his face like a slow rolling wave. “I don't need your lectures...” He crossed his arms and looked at the floor. “Just leave me alone.”
“Our little trip can end as soon as you find the meteor.”
And thus, that simple fact, that promise of release, slowly guided Hal's focus back to the task at hand. It took him some time to get his bearings again. The groundcar had stopped at the intersection in front of the University of Calypsa. They were already out of Norvondire? They must have been traveling for a lot longer than Hal realized.
The campus was a welcome and familiar sight to Hal, who had spent the last several years of his life studying and working there. The walkway up to the main building was lined on either side by those curious goblet shaped trees that dotted the slopes of the Starfall mountains. The old, hard, and spiral swept wood wrapped around a hollow core that was filled with a thick bed of amber leaves. Just beyond, the main building itself stood regal and proud, sturdy architecture wrapped behind a veil of ivy.
Hal activated his power again. That white noise was so much louder now, filling his skull with a deafening non-sound. The hot meteor light was close. Very close. Hal blinked, making sure he was seeing it right. It looked like the last meteor fragment was inside the university itself. He snapped out of his power trance, swallowing hard to erase the dryness that now flooded his mouth.
“I think....” Hal inhaled a ragged breath. “I think the meteor is inside the university. Fourth floor.”
“Are you sure?”
Hal looked back with his normal eyes. Scattered pockets of students walked around in the distance, happily ignorant of the cursed stone that hid somewhere behind the walls. Even now, without using his power, he could feel the almost invisible tug against his heart. “It's there.” He nodded, swallowing again. “I'm sure of it.”
“I think I can sense it too, just barely, now that we're close.” Vanir sounded like she was struggling to hide her eagerness as she craned her own head in an attempt to get a better look out the window. “Alright. Let's head back then. We can't have you go running in there, using your power during the middle of the day. We'll return at night to retrieve it.” She pulled herself back, fixing Hal with that same evil smile. “Good work... hero.”
As the groundcar started to pull away, uneasiness clenched Hal's stomach into tangled knots. He tried to relax, leaning his weary body against the window and closing his eyes, but it was no use. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't shake the feeling that he just made another wrong decision...
[End Chapter 15]