Ep 04: Hope of the Doomed

          Derek’s bullets exploded the bone-white heads of the little demonlings that were hopping up and down on my chest. This type of thing was happening a lot tonight, I realized with not a little chagrin. Limp bodies fell off of me, scattering to both sides. I backed away, on heels and palms and elbows, until the back of my head slammed against the door.

          Laura was in front of me, her progress blocked by my legs, which I had pulled up against my chest.

          The swarm continued to power through that broken window until there was a sudden flash of violet light and we felt some hole, which had been opened before us, seal itself shut. Some sort of magic sphincter, I guess.

          Derek continued to fire at the creatures, then he stopped, and rushed for the door to the exam room, shouting “Alice!” in a tone that was no less authoritative for all the fear that it contained.

          He disappeared inside that doorway, which slammed shut after him with the force of an apocalypse.

          I looked at Laura. She looked back at me, then at the dozens of twisted, empty-necked bodies intertwined on the floor around us. “What do we do now?” I asked her. I don’t know why, exactly, but Laura … even moreso than Dan, is usually the one who knows exactly what to do in any given situation.

          Trapped by a supervillain because you stowed away on his submarine headquarters? Laura.

          Hanging off the side of a mountain ready to shake itself apart, with only fifteen minutes to get your pics in before the paper’s deadline? Laura

          Need to deliver a baby, set  a broken arm, or perform an emergency appendectomy? Laura. She was a girl scout, you know.

          Imprisoned in a slave pen in hell, trying to avoid being branded by a demonic overseer? Laura. Well, ok, that time she wasn’t totally successful, but she did keep me from being gelded. Don’t ask.

          From the way she was slowly getting to her feet, I could tell that she was figuring out what to do here, as well.

          So I stood up with her.

          As the door burst open again, and Derek tossed himself through; his arm was hooked around the shoulders of Alice Nakamura.

          Derek let go of Alice, turned around, and slammed shut the door again. I’m not exactly certain why, since if there was anything left in that exam room to chase after us, it could have just come through the broken window. Alice dropped to her knees, bent over as if she was going to puke on the floor. Laura took a few steps away from her, but I just stood next to her while she heaved, fascinated for some reason.

          Confident in the door’s useless security, Derek returned to Alice and dropped on the floor in front of her, his face close to hers. “Alice … you gotta tell me…” he said.

          Alice nodded. “I don’t know what … what happened, exactly,” she said. “I told you I didn’t know what I was doing.”

          “She’s dead, isn’t she?”

          Alice shook her head. “I don’t know. Her body is gone, but I … I may have been able to extract her essence before it dissolved like that. I was trying to get in there between the cells and code in a restore spell, but … but when you do something like that you have to draw the power from somewhere, and … and I guess I drew something else as well.”

          “If her body is gone …” Derek looked at her, expecting her to finish the sentence.

          “I pulled her … I guess you’d call it her soul, Jen never used that word … I put if here.” She held up her arm. Around her right wrist was a braided leather chord which had several crystalline beads embedded in it. One of them glowed a faint purple, but the rest were clear. “I may have her … at least most of her … right here.”

          “You have what?” Laura had returned to kneel beside Derek. “her soul is in that little crystal?”

          Alice fell back to sit on her knees. “I might. But I won’t know until I have someplace else to put it.”

          “Some place like…?” Laura asked.

          “Another body to put it in.”

          “A dead body? It would have to be dead, right?” Laura said.

          “We’d need Jen for that,” Alice replied. “I’m way out of my element now. I’m not her.”

          “Later,” Derek said, clearly not wanting to dissipate the tiny little cloud of hope Alice’s uncertainty was allowing to hover there in the room. “For now, I’ve got to get out there and help my guys.”

          “Where are your guys, Derek?” Laura asked. “I thought they were just outside.”

          “I had them sent out to help who they could. It’s not their job to be waiting around on me when there are people dying out there.” He stood up and went for the door. Laura followed him. When he opened it, he turned around and said, “Get home. Or at least get to a safe place. I need to find out exactly what this creature stomping through downtown is.”

          “I’m coming too,” Alice said. “There may be something I can do to help. And I may be able to help you find Jen. I sent out a locating spell on my way over here. It hasn’t come back yet, but when it does…”

          “Fine. You’re in. But stick with me.”

          “I’m in too,” I said. “I just need a new camera.”

          “We don’t have time for that. And you’re a civilian with no useful skills if that watch on your wrist is as dead as I think it is. Go back to your paper. And Laura, don’t think …”

          “I’m going back to the paper, and I’m going to check on my daughter,” Laura announced. “Try not to fall over in shock.”

          Derek nodded. “Take your kid brother with you.”

          “I’m not her kid brother,” I protested at the exact same moment Laura said “he’s not my kid brother.”

          I followed Laura, who followed Derek, down through the hallway. We took the stairs to the main lobby, pushing past others who were fleeing the hospital, and some who were running their way upstairs to take refuge. This was not a good sign. When we reached the bottom of the stairs, I saw the open door of the little hospital gift shop. Someone had broken the front glass door and ransacked the snack rack. Nice. I tossed a twenty on the counter and grabbed one of the disposable cameras hanging on the back wall. It was my last twenty for the month, but I didn’t feel like adding to the theft.

          At the front of the hospital, the XDF had formed a little barricade made of official vehicles and sandbags, and were watching down the street for the arrival of … something. Derek grabbed one of the agents, yelled into his face, and pointed toward Laura. Apparently Laura was to get another escort. I ran over to her, placed my broken camera in her hands, and said “Get this to Claire so she’ll have the pictures.”

          “You give it to her,” She said.

          “You know I’m not going with you.”

          Laura just shrugged. But then she gave me a hug that lasted long moments before she allowed Derek’s lieutenant to guide her toward the hospital’s other entrance. I rejoined Derek and Alice behind the barricade.

          “Laura’s gone,” I said, my way of announcing myself.

          “And you’re supposed to be with her,” Derek replied, without turning around. Alice’s eyes found me, and gave me another appraising look. I still could not remember when I had actually seen her before, but I knew that I must have.

          “I’m staying with you. I have to see this through.”

          “See what though?” Derek said. “But I’m not going to argue, especially as I may have a use for you yet. Just stick with me, all right? And don’t do anything else stupid.”

          “All right,” I said. I took the camera out of its stiff, foil-plastic wrapping. It was crappy, but it had thirty-six pictures, which was better than I was going to get from my own camera. I would have taken a test shot if I hadn’t been worried about using up the film too soon. I was going to have to be selective in my shots. “What are we waiting for here?” I asked him.”

          “The beast,” he said. “It came through a while ago, and I’m told it looks like it may double back.” As soon as he said it, the ground started shaking, and we could hear the whir of helicopters in the air. The chatter around us increased, and everyone around me huddled down behind the barricade. So, of course, I took my little toy camera and tried to climb up over it. If I could just get a full frontal shot of this monster, it could top anything I’d gotten so far.

          Derek yanked on the back of my shirt and pulled me down on the asphalt. “This is the last time I’m going to tell you not to be an idiot, all right?”

          I rolled my eyes, and stood up again to watch the scene, but did not attempt to climb over the barricade again.

          I must have convinced him that I wasn’t going to jump out again, because he released my shirt collar and moved away to consult with one of his men. I was standing next to Alice now, but had the camera over my eye, ready to snap. This was how I got my first look at a lot of things, through a lens. This one was a piece of crap, but again, it was something.

          We could feel the streets shaking, but I couldn’t see anything yet. Whatever it was, it was as huge as it was distant. How was some little police barricade going to stop it? I felt Alice at my shoulder, and I glanced back at her, just for a second. Her eyes were closed, but they were closed in concentration, not in fear.

          “Your thing…what did you call it? Your locator spell? Is it coming back to you yet?”

          She shook her head. “No. It might not. If she’s too far away…”

          “Did the hospital explosion draw her out too, like it did my brother?”

          She shook her head again. “I don’t know. After class today I went to the bookstore and there was a note for me, saying that she was investigating something.  I didn’t think anything of it because it happens all the time. Then … then everything happened.”

          “What do you think is going on?” I asked her. I was still not looking at her, still looking down that street where I expected a monster to emerge at any second.

          “I have no idea.”

          “But you, like … you know magic.”

          “And?”

          “And what? You can’t like, consult the oracle or something like that?”

          “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Jen is the sorceria primer, not me. I’m just … I’m just a grad student with a little aptitude. She teaches me things, but mostly I just run errands for her.”

          “Oh. So, you’re useless, just like me.”

          “Yeah, well I at least avoided getting my ass branded by Abbadon … you still have that Sanskrit character there, or did you have it removed?”

          “How the hell?” I lowered my camera now. “I thought I knew you from somewhere. You were there?”

          “I was in the same pen you were. We slept next to each other. You honestly don’t remember this?”

          “I remember the experience. I don’t remember you being a part of it. But a lot of it I may have blocked out. You know, pain trauma.”

          “Whatever,” she gave a little huff, but she was grinning now, just a little..

          “Wait. We didn’t … you know.” It would have been a shame to have forgotten that, especially as it would have been the most recent of my, well, experiences. Which probably tells you more about me  than I really want you to know.

          “Oh, absolutely not.”

          “Good.” I said. I lifted my camera to my face again. “Is that why you keep looking at me so weird?”

          “Weird, how?”

          “Well, now that you say that, I realize you’ve been looking at me like you want to slap me.”

          “I don’t want to slap you.”

          “Whatever.” Her grin was gone now as the reverberation in the concrete grew more intense, vibrating the buildings around us as well as thrumming through the ground.

          Down the street I could the Nova Banking building, a narrow structure with concentric rings topped by a metallic sunburst design. It towered over this section of town, even if it was not the largest or most ornate building in Nova City.

          The creature’s roar was lost in the sound it made as it moved. I was expecting something the size of the T-rex from the timequake, or maybe something a little larger. I was unprepared for what came around the corner. It had two legs, the tops of which vanished in a explosion of tentacle and mouth that made up its torso. It must have had eyes there someplace, or some other organ that allowed it to see, and the middle of its torso was at the level of the Nova bank sunburst. One of its tentacles ripped away from the rest of its body to grab hold of that sunburst and rip it off the top of the building. Anchored the way it was to stand up to the wind, it took the top floors off with it.

          I didn’t see any bodies fall. The building must have been evacuated. Thank god this was all happening after midnight.

          It half lurched, half jumped toward us. The hospital behind us shook and more sirens went off somewhere. Helicopters rotated around the ghastly things head, shining lights onto it. I don’t think they were helping. It wasn’t like it had large, visible eyes they could blind by flashing into the core of them.

          “Alice!” Derek shouted at the girl. “Do you have any idea of what that thing is?”

          “Um … um …” Alice threw down the pack she’d been holding around her shoulder and then stooped to sort through the old books she drew out of it. “I’m looking … It’s … it’s obviously extra-d, maybe from the fourth fold?”

          “How do we kill it?”

          “You think we can kill it?”

          “How about sending it back, then!”

          “I’m looking, I’m looking …” She protested.

          As I watched it, certain it was about to come down here and smash us all, I saw another object wing in and out of the helicopters. Shining white, like Lady peace had been as she was falling. But this was not falling, this was flying, accompanying the helicopters on their circuit, but taking care to stay out of their way as it did. This camera had no zoom lens, so I pulled it away and stared at the spot as the whole mess made its way toward us.”

          “What the hell is that thing?” Derek yelled. I looked over at him to see one of him men, in full armor, with a sniper’s rifle mounted on his shoulder, climb up onto the barricade, waiting for his shot.

          “I hope you have some really powerful bullets in there,” I yelled to Derek. “Or some fucking spectacular doses of elephant tranquilizer.”

          “That stuff I brought for you,” Derek said. “Alice, you have an answer for me?”

          “Still looking!”

          “You should really have all that stuff scanned into a database,” I told her. She just looked up at me and glared.  I’m told that, at times, I overestimate my own cleverness.

          The monster (I feel stupid calling it that, but didn’t know what else to call it) seemed to stand in place for a second, and its entire form rippled as if it was there and then not there and then it was back again. Behind me, Alice said something about the extra-d properties it seemed to be displaying, but all I could do was stare.

 The white spot peeled away from it as if it had spotted us, and came toward us. As it approached, it coalesced into the familiar, white  winged form of Pegasus, and I almost felt tears welling up when I realized what this meant. Bellerophon was here, surely he would know something of what was going on.

          But as it landed in front of us, gently lowering itself so that its rider could dismount, I realized that rider was not Bellerophon. I followed Derek to greet the new arrival, climbing over the barricade to do so. It was just some guy, I thought. White, with short brown hair, dressed in khakis, hiking boots and a loose white shirt, as if he’d pulled the clothes on at a moment’s notice to jump on the flying horse he suddenly had a chance to hijack. Who was this dude? Where was Bellerophon?

          Close now, I lifted the camera to get a shot of the dismount. The flash popped.

          And that’s when the stupid horse bit me.