Hal zipped up his leather jacket, experimentally flexing his bad leg. His knee made a loud popping sound that solicited a grimace.
“Are you going to be ok?” Miri asked the question Hal wondered himself.
“I hope so.”
The two of them were now in the 'evil rec room' yet again, but this time the entire cathedral seemed to be buzzing with activity. The network of agents Marcus claimed to command seemed to be heeding his summons, trickling in by the hour, usually alone or in very small groups. All of them looked fairly hardened, as one might expect from an army of ex-convicts. Many of them seemed eager to act, and were kept busy arming themselves and preparing for the events to come. The air had a tension to it that was impossible to overlook.
Rather than sally forth right away, Marcus preferred to sit tight until later in the day, sending Vanir ahead of the rest of them. Though the university was over in Calypsa district, if they traveled by telepad, the excursion would be shortened considerably. According to the clock on one wall, it was almost time to leave.
“Hal. Miri.” Marcus approached them with a smile, genuinely beaming with delight. He seemed to be put in a chipper mood by the sense of imminent action. “Are you ready for a date with destiny?”
“Oh, I don't know.” Hal pretended to be shy about it. “How does my hair look?”
“It looks like a sarcastic asshole.” Marcus returned fire with a smile, seemingly taking Hal's sarcasm in stride. Undaunted, he turned his attention to Miri. “Now, don't say I haven't done anything nice for you. You have your old clothes back, and I even had them washed for you. No more 'creepy ceremonial robes' for a day like today.”
Miri ran one hand through her hair. “Thanks.” She sounded at least partly grateful, though not particularly impressed. Hal caught her amused glance. Though it was more of a practical gesture than a generous one (robes weren't great for trekking through the city inconspicuously), it was still an important symbol. Miri certainly seemed a little brighter, now that she was dressed in the comfortable and warm expedition gear the two of them wore just before all this began.
Marcus too was wearing new clothes. He eschewed his normal upscale clothing for a medium weight trench coat that was subtly styled with epaulets and brass buttons. Paramilitary fashion was something of a recent trend that was making its way through various cuts of society. Marcus seemed to be no exception to that rule.
“I want to introduce the two of you to somebody.” Marcus looked over his shoulder and called out to someone in the background. “Dubs! It's time.”
Hal recognized the man that approached as the same hulking bear that had been beating the living daylights out of the punching bag yesterday. He stood well over 2 meters tall, and his brown fur was interrupted in places with the stark line of a deep, healed scar. This man, whoever he was, had certainly not been a stranger to violence.
“Dubs, I want to formally introduce you to my brother, Hal. You already know Miri, of course.” The hulking beast offered one hand for a handshake that practically engulfed Hal's forearm. “So, you the brothah of the Arch. Respect.” Dubs spoke with a deep booming voice that nonetheless had the unmistakable accent of a man who lived his life in the inner city. Norvondire district if Hal had to guess.
Hal gave Dubs a sharp nod as he finished the handshake. “Dubs, huh? Is that a nickname?”
“Yeah.” Dubs seemed prepared to answer the question as if he had done it thousands of times before. “My real name is William W. Wilson the Third. But that takes way too much work to say, and I ain't no 'Willie'.”
“Dubs it is then.” Hal nodded and cleared his throat. No doubt Dubs would be accompanying them as a little extra muscle to keep Hal and Miri from entertaining thoughts of heroism. In a close in fight Hal normally liked his chances pretty good, but between Dubs' sheer size and his bad leg, it wasn't an experiment he cared to run.
“Let's get going.” Marcus stepped forward and waved for the others to follow. “We'll take the telepad to save some time.”
The four of them walked out into the city streets to find that the sun was settling slowly into the final moments of daylight. The sky was already beginning to fade from sky blue into pastel hues of pink, lavender, and gold.
“Wow, look at the colors!” Miri smiled at the sunset, basking in the evening's fragile glory. After being cooped up inside for so long, it must have been a refreshing sight to take in. “They're beautiful.”
“Yes they are.” Hal grunted his agreement, contemplating the view. As the sun descended to the west, the moon was already up and shining in the east, half obscured behind the immensely tall spire that was Sabbaton Tower. As they walked past one of the main radial avenues that led inward towards the tower and the center of Anduruna, he glimpsed the anchor point for one of the several tension cables that held the massive tower steady. The spiral-wound metal cables were thicker than some tree trunks, and even under tension they seemed to visibly sag under their own mass.
“Impressive isn't it?” Marcus seemed to take note of the direction Hal was looking. “That a structure so grand could be built and held aloft securely.” He chuckled as a gust of bitter wind swept between buildings to chill them. “What a perfect symbol of all we can achieve, if only we sit down, lay back, and submit.”
“You're a very cheery man, Marcus.” Hal scoffed. “Has anyone told you that?”
Marcus laughed out loud at Hal's comment. “Oh, but I am.” His smile had a cutting sharpness to it. “I'm no engineer, but I wonder what would happen if those cables were to disappear all of a sudden and something were to happen to the foundation...”
“A lot of innocent people would die. That's what would happen.” Hal narrowed his eyes. Was Marcus seriously bold enough to suggest toppling the Sabbaton tower itself?
“Oh it would be quite the destructive event. Tragic. It would be an event everyone would remember for generations.”
“You're insane.” Miri muttered, her mood now subdued as the topic of conversation changed quickly from her original comment.
“Am I really?” Marcus countered, seeming to relish in the debate. “When a forest becomes thick and overgrown, it begins to decay. New life cannot take hold because it is choked out, and the entire ecosystem falls into stagnation. Nothing changes, nothing grows, until one fateful day when a storm rolls through and strikes down with a flash of lightning to set the entire area ablaze. The fire is destructive, yes. It lays waste to the old forest, but in that same stroke it fertilizes the land and sets the stage for new life to rise up, grow, and flourish.” Hal's brother held his arms out to his sides. “Is the storm truly evil?”
“Good and Evil are words we use to describe the actions of people, not nature.” Miri was emphatic in her response. “The storm isn't good or evil. It just is. The lightning doesn't choose to strike the forest, and the trees aren't sentient creatures! It's just nature, and nature doesn't make decisions like we're capable of doing.”
“But are we not all creatures of nature? Subject to the same natural laws?” Marcus sighed, shaking his head. “I don't know why I waste my breath trying to illuminate you short sighted people. We need to look past the familiar and accept its removal in order to discover a better world waiting beyond it.”
“That makes for fine poetry, Marco, but that doesn't change the fact that you're suggesting the murder of thousands of innocent lives.”
“Someone has to have the courage to do what is necessary.” Marcus pulled his jacket tighter as they approached the telepad station, his voice matching the temperature of the air. “If no one else will do it... Let it be me.”
Everyone fell quiet for a while after that sobering comment. Words weren't going to change the opinion of anyone present. Miri clung close to Hal keeping him on the windward side of her to fend off the cold. His tail wrapped around her and rested on her opposite shoulder.
The telepad itself was an elegantly engraved circle of stone set into the center of a large plaza. It was large enough in diameter to fit several dozen people within its perimeter. The area was cordoned off such that you had to buy a ticket in order to get access to the inside, but for that nominal fee the average citizen now had near-instantaneous access to the center of any other district in the city. Telepad technology was relatively new, but in a short handful of years it had revolutionized intra-city travel, making the manekale-pulled groundcars more a utility item for distributing bulk goods, rather than people. As far as Hal knew, telepad technology was controlled tightly by the government of Anduruna and not available private use.
Marcus purchased tickets for the four of them and led them into the circle where they waited with a handful of other clusters of people. A bored voice emerged from a loudspeaker as a telepad attendant announced their jump. “Please keep all limbs and belongings inside the circle. This next jump is to Calypsa station. Calypsa station is the next jump.”
After one more repeat of the same message, the attendant counted down to zero and initiated the jump.
There wasn't any sensation in the act of jumping itself. Hal merely blinked and found now that he was standing in a new circle in Calypsa district, and the tower was at a different angle to his orientation than it had been before. The aftereffects Hal always felt though. While most people experienced no ill effects, or built up a tolerance, Hal always felt nauseated after using a telepad. As a result, he rarely chose to take advantage of the convenience.
“Ahhh... home sweet home.” Marcus waved them forward, stepping out into the now-darker city streets. “Let's keep going. Vanir should be waiting for us near the university.”
Once they were free from the crowd of people at the telepad, Hal started up the conversation again. “You've been awfully quiet, Dubs. How did you get involved in all of this?”
“Me?” Dubs chuckled a bit, but the low bass of his laugh caused it to carry deep into the alleyways. “It start with beating theshit outta someone who done me wrong and gettin' thrown in the lockhouse for a couple. Then they come to me, say I can get out if I join this new 'second life' program. I took the deal.”
“So you're behind all this 'down with the establishment, new world order' stuff?”
“Hell yeah.” Dubs nodded with certainty. “Like the arch said, if we wanna get ahead, we can't jus' play by the rules. You can't change the rules. That won' work. You gotta change the whole game.”
Hal tried to keep his poker face intact. “But if they catch you, you'll be tried for treason. They'll execute you. All of you.”
“Thats why when you go, you go all in and get it done befo' they have that chance. And 'sides, I ain't afraid of dyin'. The arch put a gun in my hand and say 'Dubs, you roll wit' me, ain't no one gonna step on you again.' I like that.”
“If this is just a political movement, why the veil of religion?”
“Hey, if you got a problem wit' the goddess, you got a problem wit' me, aiight? Not everyone might care so much 'bout that sorta stuff, but I do.” Hal was surprised by Dubs' response. “I don' know if she's like... real, and like, messin' with the world direc'ly and stuff, but she say she gave us our powers for a reason. She say we all got a purpose. An' we got her gift to give us power and to protect this world from evil.”
Dubs certainly appeared to have a passion hiding beneath his bulk. “Ever since I sign on, Vanir been helpin' me learn to read by teachin' me the scrolls. They ain't so easy to read, but they mean somethin', you know? I like to believe that they ain't no lie. That we be actually more than what we look like on the outside.”
Hal furrowed his brows, falling into contemplative silence. After a moment had passed, Miri hesitantly spoke up, her voice no more than a confused whisper. “...you didn't know how to read?”
Dubs was quick to lash out in anger at her disbelief. “Don't you judge me, pretty little fox girl! You ain't got no idea what it's like, growin' up on the streets! When you fightin' every night just to make it to the next day!” Dubs made a disgusted grunting sound. “You ain't never had to fight for nothin'. You ain't never gonna know what it be like livin' my life.”
“Easy Dubs. She didn't know.” Marcus reigned in his subordinate with a stern stare.
Marcus nodded his acknowledgment, proceeding to lead them through a few more side streets until they reached the circle in front of Calypsa University. Now that the sky was darkening, the tree lined avenue leading up to the main building had taken on a more sinister and foreboding appearance.
“Over here.” A voice spoke up from the alleyway to their left, and Vanir stepped forward from the shadows out onto the sidewalk. “Have our guides been any trouble?”
“No, they're behaving.” Marcus gave his lover a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “What about on your end?”
Vanir's bright blue eyes seemed to almost glow in the dim light. “No trouble so far. Not much foot traffic on account of the wind and cold. Little activity entering or leaving the building. I have a groundcar waiting in the alley for our extraction.”
“We're not taking the telepad back?” Miri sounded concerned.
“I don't know how big the meteor fragment is, but if it's the same size as the last one, it won't be easy to just carry through public transport; Especially if things go wrong and we need to get out quick.” Vanir didn't seem to be in a very hospitable mood today, and her tone of voice was curt and condescending. “Don't you worry about the details. All you need to to do is get us to the meteor without running into security.”
Marcus nodded in agreement, turning to Hal and Miri. “Well, this is your territory. Why don't you lead the way.”
Hal swallowed. “Ok.” A nervousness seemed to now settle over him, drying his mouth. “Our best bet is one of the side stairwells. No one really uses them.”
“Then by all means brother, lead on.”
Hal and Miri started forward, walking up the side of the lawn to the edge of the building. Even without using his power, Hal could sense Miri's uneasiness. “This is so weird, Hal. We shouldn't be breaking into our own school. I've got a really bad feeling about all this.”
“I know, but let's just get it over with.” Both of them were already whispering, a sense of tense caution present throughout the whole party. Hal tried the side door, and it moved only a tiny bit before being held up by the locked handle with a rude, sudden stop.
“It's locked.” Hal stated the obvious with a frown.
“Of course it is. Hang on...” Miri began to search the pockets of her recently-returned jacket. “Where is- Oh! Here it is. I still have my ID. I wonder if they ever deactivated it...” She slid the card through the little reader to the side of the door, and they could all hear a faint but distinct click as the lock temporarily disengaged. “...I guess not.”
Hal opened the door and stepped into the empty stairwell. The cold interior lighting matched the air now leaking inside as they all filed into the narrow ground floor landing. Hal could already begin to feel a weight pulling on his heart. They weren't far from the meteor. His tail looked straight up through the center of the spiraling staircase to the floors above, flicking its tongue rapidly.
Hal took a deep breath and looked at everyone around him. Dubs was following his tail's gaze, staring up the center column of the stairs. Marcus and Vanir were waiting with a look of impatient but fixated expectation. Miri bit her lip, looking as worried as Hal had ever seen her. He allowed himself one last exhale before activating his power and letting the unseen colors of the world wash over him.
The static was here. The gravity was here. He barely acknowledged the prismatic kaleidoscope of reflecting light that surrounded him and quickly ascended the stairs. Every inhale added to the tingling sense of energy that drew him ever upwards.
“Hal, please slow down.” Miri's voice chased after him.
“Be quiet you fools!” A sharp whisper from Vanir also gave pursuit.
Every footstep echoed loudly in the confines of the tall but narrow chamber, barely registering in Hal's awareness as he passed each threshold. Second floor. Third floor. Fourth floor. The light was here. He stepped through the door into an empty hallway, and quickly paced onwards past doors to unlit labs.
“I don't think he can hear us.” Marcus' voice had an urgency to it, but it lurked close behind Hal, waiting just over his shoulder.
The placard to the next room read '409 – Geology Lab'. Hal didn't read the text so much as sense it, his eyes focused on the searing white orb of light that hid just on the other side. He pushed the door open, and the ceiling lights automatically turned on as a sensor detected motion inside the room.
Hal marched forward and came to rest in front of a long and deep work table. The light was coming from the center of a stone slab that lay in the middle of the workspace. Hal couldn't resist now that he was this close. He reached for the light, extending taloned fingers towards the source of his fixation... and touched only sandy, coarse stone. He blinked. This wasn't right.
“Hal.” Marcus' hand firmly gripped one shoulder, and his forceful voice shook Hal out of his power. He blinked again, drawing a ragged breath as he adjusted back to normal light.
“Wha?” Hal looked bewildered, but it quickly became clear what he was actually looking at. The stone tablet in question was a fossil, roughly one arms length wide and fairly thick. Visible on the surface was the well preserved fossil of two ryuu-nekos, partially entangled with one another in the shape of a rough circle. One appeared to have his jaws around the neck of the other, as if they had died together, still locked in combat. The entire fossil was not yet exposed, and there was clear evidence that the caretakers of this fossil had been slowly chipping and brushing away to reveal the remainder.
Miri saw the fossil and gasped in surprise, taken aback by the sight. Vanir spoke, an uncharacteristically unnerved quality weaved among her words. “What is this?”
“It's here. It has to be here.” Hal's tail flicked its tongue at the center of the circle between the two ancient creatures, kicking up a tiny cloud of dust as it tasted for his target. He looked around and found a miniature hammer and chisel sitting to one side of the table. He snatched up the tools and tapped away at the area where he remembered seeing the meteor-light. Normally fossil cleanup was a very slow and delicate process, but Hal perhaps was using a bit too much force, and after only the 7th or 8th tap, a large flake of rock chipped away, revealing beneath a dark and other-worldly core.
The second meteor.
“There it is!” Marcus eagerly watched as Hal continued to reveal it with the hammer and chisel, eventually freeing it from its prehistoric prison of rock and bone. “They must not have realized it was hiding within. I can't believe they came that close without feeling it.”
“Maybe only certain people can sense the meteor remotely.” Miri offered a hesitant theory, but her fear was tangible now. “Were those ryuu-nekos fighting over it?” She was struggling to hold back tears. “They died... battling over this?”
Everyone was leaning in close now to get a better look. Hal liberated the meteor from one last fragment of rock, and pried it free, holding the cold familiar weight in one hand. It was maybe the size of a grapefruit, and already tiring the one arm that held it tight. It reflected almost no light, appearing in the sterile walls of the geology lab to be almost as black as black could be. It leeched heat from his fingertips and palm with all too eager tenacity.
Marcus reached over and took the meteor from Hal's grasp, beaming with delight as he held it for himself. “Finally....” He wrapped one arm around his brother, giving him a tight hug. “I knew I could count on you, Hal. I always knew we were brought back together for a reason.”
“What in the world is going on in here!!!!”
A sharp alarmed voice startled them all from behind. Hal couldn't stop himself from instinctively jumping in surprise. Vanir and Dubs spun and drew their weapons in a flash, pointing them towards the unwelcome intruder.
“Doctor Kincaid!!!” Miri called out, relief intermingling with surprise. It was none other than their old mentor, who had just unfortunately stumbled into something he was never meant to see.
“Oh dear!” The aging cardinal gasped in surprise as weapons were pointed at him, and he held up his arms in surrender. His crimson feathers were fading in many places from deep red to a pale pink or even white, betraying his advanced age. He noticed his students not long after the weapons. “Miriel!? Halcyon!? You're alive!?”
Miri rushed forward, heedless of the danger, and engulfed the old bird in an emotional, tear-filled hug. “Oh, Miriel my dear, when you didn't return I feared the worst! We thought you had a terrible accident, falling from a cliff or getting swept up in an avalanche! We searched and searched, but never found you! I'm so glad to see that you're alive!!!”
“Step away from him, Miri.” Vanir interrupted the reunion with a sharp command. “Now.”
“No!” She defiantly held her ground, holding her arms out in a shielding gesture. “I won't let you hurt him! I won't let you hurt any more people!!!!”
The bear grabbed Miri with one massive hand and yanked her away, tossing her back like a weightless ragdoll.
“Nooo!!!” Miri screamed in desperation, but was powerless to stop from being torn away. She fell to the ground and slid across the waxed floor, coming to rest at Hal's feet.
“Get in the way again and I'll shoot you.”
“Hey!!!” Hal and Kincaid protested in unison, both angry at the manhandling. The old professor huffed himself up in indignation, still looking impossibly small in comparison to Dubs. “Stop this at once! Who are you people!? What in the world are you doing here? I demand to know what's going on!” He turned to Hal, anger and bewilderment clear as day. “Hal, who are these people?!”
“Hal, shut up.” Marcus pointed his own pistol in Hal's direction as a warning. “No one can know we were here.”
“What?” Kincaid took a half step back, holding his hands even higher in the air. The atmosphere was beginning to feel like fear and smell like panic itself.
“You can't just kill him Marcus!”
“Don't say my name, you idiot!”
Vanir's voice grew taut, to the very edge of breaking. “Now we have no choice.”
“No! Don't do this!” Miri was hysterical.
Dubs aimed his springer at Kincaid's skull.
“WAIT.” Marcus cut through the mania with one authoritative word. Everyone held their breath as an odd silence fell upon the room. Marcus turned his yellow and gray eyes from Kincaid to Dubs, who stood like a statue, frozen in time one moment away from pulling the trigger.
Dubs nodded, and the hysteria was set back in motion. Setting aside his pistol, Dubs marched up to Kincaid and with an engulfing grasp wrestled the old man to the floor, squeezing fingers around the small neck as he strangled him in a display of complete and brutal violence.
Miri screamed at the terrible sight unfolding before them, and Hal stopped her from running out by grabbing her and holding her close, pressing her head tight against his chest so she couldn't see. She wailed and sobbed at the top of her lungs, which was the only sound Hal could hear over the entire horrifying act.
A halo appeared over Dubs' head as the bear activated his own power, and arcs of blue electricity funneled down his arms and into his hands, where it delivered an intense electric shock into his victim. Kincaid spasamed and convulsed beneath the onslaught, and at that point even Hal had to turn away to stop himself from having the entire murder indelibly burned into his memory.
It wasn't long before the deed was done, and the air started to smell a little bit like burnt hair. Miri couldn't stop crying. Save for her, the room was now dead quiet. Hal continued to hold her close, his back still turned to the aftermath.
“What now, Arch?” Dubs asked, his booming voice emerging without a hint of guilt or regret.
Marcus sounded disgusted and disappointed. “Hide the body in one of the closets. Then get ready to move out.” Hal heard the sound of something being dragged along the floor as his brother sighed in frustration. “What a fucking disaster....”
[End Chapter 18]