CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO: PARADOXES ARE TOO SIMPLE
I anxiously glanced around, hoping for somebody, ANYBODY, to show up. Being alone with Zenox was unnerving by itself, but knowing that he could easily take me out with a single swipe of his sword made me feel completely vulnerable. Even keeping my eye on him while he stared back was enough to render me paralyzed and unable to run.
“Are you afraid?” he asked me sinisterly.
I clenched my fists. Of course I was scared, but I wasn’t going to let him know that.
“Why do you care?” I said.
“Rionah Aether, huh?” Zenox had an amused look. “That’s the result of your little Heartfire experiment, am I right?” He walked up to me, quickly making me feel even more uncomfortable. The rancid claws of Darknae pressed against me as he came closer. “Realize that just because your power can only be defeated by Heartfire doesn’t mean that YOU can’t be killed by anything else. If I wanted to right now, I could end your little life and wait for Aether to appoint its new Rionah, possibly one better than you.”
Forcing myself to not cower away, I looked Zenox right in the face … Brandon’s face. Although the face was familiar, the animal inside was inhuman, merciless, and brutally deadly. He was standing about five feet away, far closer than I ever wanted to be.
“I find this rather bothersome, actually,” said Zenox as he began to pace around, taking each step slowly and deliberately. “Luminae is supposed to be the only thing Darknae has to worry about.”
“Then leave this battle between Aether and Heartfire,” I said. “Don’t get involved if you don’t need to.”
Zenox looked at me with a dark grin.
“If only it was that easy,” he said, pacing slowly back and forth. “This isn’t merely about keeping balance anymore. Things are far more complicated than you realize. Darknae had shrouded this world with its power. Luminae had fallen, ushering in a new age. An age of darkness. Heartfire helped with that, and it took that away, though.”
“When Kristy reset the timeline?” I asked.
“You know the situation, I see,” said Zenox. “You’re not bad for a Rionah. But countless other phenomena have resulted from the alteration of time. Humans have a pathetically simplified and diluted understanding of the continuous cause and effect of the universe; a concept you call ‘time’. What Heartfire did was far beyond your caliber of knowledge, and a result of its actions is best perceived by humans as ‘resetting the timeline’.” Zenox paused and his grin broadened. “Pathetic.”
Zenox’s condescending attitude didn’t bother me, nor did his explanation of Kristy’s ability to alter time. What bothered me the most was that he was doing all of this by using the body of one of my childhood friends as a puppet.
“You killed Brandon,” I said quietly, trying to keep my cool. “What did he ever do to you?”
“He did absolutely nothing to me,” Zenox answered. “His soul contained the proper attributes to initiate the Rionah Darknae ritual, so Darknae tracked him down. Our encounter right now is more than coincidence, you see. It was planned.”
“I thought that Darknae didn’t know whose souls had the right balance,” I said. “That’s why Night Stallion kills so many random people.”
“Oh?” Zenox looked like he was enjoying himself. “That’s an interesting rumor. Darling Krystal, what a shame it is for you to think such nonsense. Darknae knows perfectly well which souls contain the proper balance. Night Stallion just chooses to enjoy the thrill of the hunt from time to time, that’s all. Even Night Stallion knows how to have fun. It is a biological lifeform, after all. At least, according to the human concept of life.”
My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. All those people were killed by Night Stallion … and it was just a game? Then that would mean that my parents ….
“So, what are you going to do?” I asked, choking back my emotions.
“I want to ask you a favor.” The hair on the back of my neck stood up. “Will you hear me out?”
Zenox looked at me with the same expression that seemed to be permanently glued on his face, yet I could somehow sense the desperation in his eyes. My skin began to crawl. What could Darknae possibly want from me?
“I know what you want,” I lied, trying to worm my way out of the conversation. “I’m not doing anything for you.”
He teasingly pointed Shadow Blade at me, and I became paralyzed by its menacing powers. Zenox’s weapon had the uncanny ability to strike fear into the hearts of anyone who looked at it, and I was no exception.
“You lie,” he replied darkly. “Have you forgotten your place? No matter how much you try, mortals can never understand the full capacity of Darknae, nor Luminae for that matter. There is still so much about these forces that are beyond your understanding. This little Base 15 is a foolish effort to learn that which can never be learned.”
The immediate effect of seeing Shadow Blade pointed at me made it difficult for me to speak at first. Forcing myself not to give in, I remained as calm as I could.
“That’s not true,” I replied quietly. “Base 15 has done a lot of research and made a lot of discoveries.”
“Don’t get the wrong impression,” said Zenox. “That research has uncovered only an inconceivably tiny fraction of the larger picture. Why do you believe that a group of scientists can fully understand something they were never meant to know? Do you even think that ‘Darknae’ are ‘Luminae’ are the real names of those forces? You do not even know their true purpose.”
I thought back on the subject and realized just how right Zenox was. That bizarre, endless field of fire where James and Zenox once fought years ago … just where was that place? It felt like a completely different world. That was only one incident of something I hadn’t been able to explain, and it bothered me knowing that I’d probably never know.
“Now about that favor,” said Zenox. “I need you to bestow the power of Aether to me. That will give me the ability to destroy Heartfire.”
My first thoughts were to tell him that I would never do that in a thousand years, but I decided to dig into it a little deeper.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“Like I said,” Zenox told me, “allow me to wield the power of Aether. I will defeat Heartfire personally.”
I hesitated for a moment, but then gave it some thought. Surely Darknae would be able to handle the situation much better than me, but that didn’t sound like a deal I was willing to make.
“Why do you hesitate?” Zenox asked softly. “It is your wish to have Heartfire removed from this world, is it not? This way you won’t have to worry about it. Just leave everything to me, and we can both get what we want.”
I looked at Zenox for a moment, then quickly snapped back to reality. There was no way I was going to give Darknae any more power.
“What if you can’t beat Kristy?” I asked, trying to talk Zenox out of it.
“The Rionah Heartfire is mortal,” he replied, “as are you humans, the creators of her power. I suspect she will fall easily.”
“But what if you’re wrong?” I said. “What if she turns out to be a lot stronger this time?”
“I doubt my plan will fail.” Zenox smirked. “However, since you are so curious, I will tell you that the natural order of the universe will be restored no matter what. That is a promise. However, depending on numerous factors, it may not be the most preferable turnout for you.”
I didn’t fully understand what Zenox meant, and he seemed to read my mind as I stared at him questioningly.
“What are saying?” I said weakly. “I’m not needed in this?”
“Ultimately, no,” said Zenox. “For the sake of mankind, yes.”
The weight of mankind was resting on my shoulders? The word “responsibility” didn’t even come close.
“We won’t need your help,” I told Zenox. “We can do this on our own. We defeated Night Stallion in this timeline, and it was more powerful because of, uh, everything,” the concept of the timelines still confused me, “so we can do anything we set our minds to.”
“But you failed to KILL Night Stallion,” Zenox told me. “You may fail to kill the Rionah Heartfire, as well.”
“We won’t fail.”
Zenox chuckled sinisterly, sending chills through my bones.
“Arrogant as always,” he said in a bored voice. “And let me correct what you just said. You defeated Night Stallion in this timeline BEFORE it reached full power in the original timeline.”
It was getting very difficult for me to keep track of the events on two separate timelines. Not only that, but I had no idea exactly how the events on both timelines correlated. Science fiction often talked about paradoxes in time travel, but I was thinking that even paradoxes were too simple to explain what was really happening. Kristy had really screwed things up.
“I can see the confusion beginning to stir in your mind,” said Zenox amusedly. “If you do not understand, then it is best for you not to learn. Time is a very complex mechanism.”
“I don’t care about the separate timelines,” I said. “All I need to understand is what I need to do, and you’re not going to talk me out of it.”
“Don’t believe that because you can defeat Night Stallion, you are more powerful than Darknae,” Zenox told me. “Darknae takes many forms, most beyond your capacity to understand. Night Stallion is just one of those forms, perceivable by people only because it exists as a physical manifestation. Same with Luminae and White Phoenix.”
Every ounce of confidence I mustered up would keep getting beat back by Zenox’s brooding retaliations. The horrible truth of my humanly limits was becoming increasingly apparent. This was assuming that Zenox was telling the truth.
“Why don’t we fight together?” I wasn’t expecting any negotiations to go through, but there was no harm in giving it a shot. Kristy was unwilling to cooperate, so I doubted Zenox would be any different. Besides, I was running out of ideas on keeping the conversation going.
“Not an option,” he quickly replied. “This is not for you to decide. Darknae does not need help, only your power.”
“No,” I said quietly. “I’m not giving you Aether.”
Zenox closed his eyes and smiled.
“This is what it comes to, then,” he said. “Then I’ll have to do this the hard way.”
Zenox tightly gripped Shadow Blade in both hands and raised it up. All of my muscles tightened in anticipation for an attack. However, he pointed the vile sword back at himself and forcefully plunged the blade deep into his chest. Without even flinching, Zenox pushed the sword toward his neck, cutting along his breastbone. Blood gushed out of the wound and turned into black smoke that obscured his creepy grin. I backed away a few steps as he collapsed to the ground. Zenox had just committed suicide!
The black smoke swirled like a tornado and dispersed into the sky. Brandon’s body disintegrated and became dust. Just before I could make sense of what had happened, there was a loud noise and a flash of light. Shielding my eyes, I looked to find Gary, James, Kevin, and Brittany climbing out of a black, futuristic-looking sports car parked next to the black sedan I had been in. I immediately recognized the second vehicle as a Zoe car, although it had been years since I’d last seen one.
“Forgive me,” said Brittany before anyone else could speak, “but I have to get going now.” She looked at me with a melancholic smile. “May we meet again, Krystal.”
With those words, Brittany sprinted off. My heart fell as I watched her round the corner and disappear. Gary ran over to me and hugged me tightly.
“You’re okay,” he said. “I was worried when you didn’t come back and we had to look for you.”
“Yeah,” said James, “but at least we found you.”
“I’m sorry,” I apologized miserably. “I didn’t mean to worry any of you, but something happened and I got involved.”
“What do you mean?” Gary asked worriedly. “What happened? Why are you pale and sweaty?”
“Darknae happened,” said Kevin, scanning the area with his holographic images projected by his headgear. “The Heartfire resistance is still underway, but I’ve been sent in response to this sudden increase in Darknae activity. Krystal, please tell us what happened here.”
I told Gary, James, and Kevin about what had just happened.
“Brandon, huh?” James scratched his beard. “Never liked the guy, but damn ….”
Gary squeezed my hand tightly. I looked at him, and he returned a small smile of reassurance.
“We have a problem,” said Kevin. His holographic images were showing something had been detected. “I’m picking up a powerful Darknae concentration over a mile south of here.”
“Night Stallion,” James growled, looking in the same direction as Kevin. “I feel it.”
It occurred to me that Zenox had likely committed suicide to summon Night Stallion. Darknae was very sinister, indeed.
“Everyone get in the Zoe car,” Kevin ordered. “We’ll have to confront Night Stallion again.”
“Are you sure?” said James grimly. “It’s way more powerful than it was when we first defeated it.”
“This time we have a Zoe car,” said Kevin. “It’s the most powerful SP weapon ever produced. Now get in. I’ll drive.”
I climbed into the backseat with Gary as James sat in front. Just yesterday, I never would have remembered riding in one, but more memories had been returned. The Zoe car I had used once before was identical to this one. In fact, it might have been the same car.
“How’s this thing work?” James asked Kevin. “You mean this whole car is a Soulpower weapon?”
“Correct,” Kevin replied. “Its source of fuel isn’t gasoline, but actual Soulpower from the driver. While that gives it remarkable energy and durability, it can take its toll if overused. You’ll find yourself getting tired quickly if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
“So, this car is our trump card against Night Stallion?” said Gary.
“You can say that,” said Kevin as he used a touchscreen display on the dashboard to configure some settings. “Zoe cars also incorporate a highly advanced artificial intelligence system that allows it to operate on its own. It can even function without a driver by using Soulpower reserves.”
“Righteous,” said James with a smirk.
The Zoe car started up on its own and began to drive by itself. Once on the street, we immediately accelerated to breakneck speeds, weaving through city traffic. At first, it was a little unnerving, but I quickly felt a great sense of comfort and protection.
“How does this car act as a weapon?” James asked during our drive.
Kevin didn’t respond right away.
“I don’t know,” he said emotionlessly.
“You don’t know?” James looked uneasy. “How are we supposed to fight Night Stallion with a weapon we don’t know how to use?”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh.” James slumped back in his seat. “Uh, okay. Do you know why it’s called Zoe?”
James sighed and scratched his beard.
“How much farther do we have to go?” Gary asked.
“Around here somewhere,” James replied. “I can feel Darknae close by.”
The Zoe car immediately slowed down and parked on the side of the street.
“I’ll stay in the car and operate it,” Kevin told us. “You three get out and search the perimeter. I’ll make my rounds as well.”
Kevin drove off, leaving the three of us to do things on our own. I glanced around for Brittany, but didn’t see her.
“Where’s it at?” Gary asked James.
“Not sure,” he replied, looking around. “I’m unable to pinpoint it exactly. I bet Night Stallion knows we’re looking for it, so it’s dispersing Darknae energy over a large area. Pretty cunning, if you ask me ….”
Gary, James, and I walked around the block, keeping our eyes peeled for any sign of Night Stallion. I hated looking around like that, not sure where or when we were going to get ambushed. The city was really big, filled with plenty of hiding places. We kept our guard up at all times, preparing for anything.
Just where did Brittany go? She proved to be an experienced Soulpower user, and I would’ve loved to have her with us. We needed all the help we could get, and I wasn’t too sure about the Zoe car’s capabilities.
After searching a couple more city blocks, James whirled around. As soon as he did, a loud ruckus was heard echoing through the city. My breath caught in my throat.
“There!” James pointed in the direction of the noise.
“Sounds like it found Kevin!” said Gary. “C’mon!”
We ran with James leading the way. Flare Blade glowed brightly in his hand. The cold feeling of Darknae grew stronger by the moment. Pushing my fear aside, I pressed on through the city. As we rounded another corner, we were almost overwhelmed by the flood of people running away from the action. Stopping in my tracks and looking around, I saw Night Stallion soaring through the air. The Zoe car was on the ground, firing white SP energy directly out of itself without the use of any cannons or guns.
“Alright!” James yelled. “Rock and roll time!”
Before I could decide my plan of attack, Night Stallion had already noticed us. Or to be more precise, it had noticed me. Swooping through the barrage of attacks brought on by Kevin in the Zoe car, the winged horse made its decent directly toward me. No doubt it was after my power more than anything.
I immediately deployed an Aether energy barrier in front of me. Night Stallion slammed into it forcefully, knocking me back and nearly breaking through my shield. Once down, I was pinned on the ground underneath the demonic horse. The only thing between me and its vicious clawing was a thin, invisible barrier, which I did my best to keep up.
Gary opened up with a firestorm blast on Night Stallion. Underneath my Aether barrier, the temperature quickly began to rise, but I ignored it the best I could. The flames had absolutely no effect on the horse, but seemed to roll and bounce right off it.
A flash of white light from James broke through the flames, stunning the demonic horse. I used the opportunity to scramble away and get back to my feet, but a sharp pain across my back knocked me to the ground again. Wincing in pain, I assumed Night Stallion had gotten me with its sharp talons.
The roar of an engine caught my attention. I watched the Zoe car slam into Night Stallion at incredible speeds, launching the horse into the air. Regaining balance quickly, Night Stallion fired a potent blast of dark energy at the car, nearly missing it. Apparently deciding the Zoe car was the least of its worries, it transfixed its glowing red eyes on me again, flaring its flaming blue mane as it readied to attack.
Back on my feet, I readied to defend myself. The demonic horse charged at me so quickly that its sharp claws ripped up the pavement each time they made contact with the road. Gary and James flung themselves out in front of it to protect me, but were knocked out of the way effortlessly.
As Night Stallion leapt at me, I succeeded in punching it in the jaw with all my power, cracking the pavement beneath me and blowing out several storefront windows nearby with a burst of Aether. To my horror, the attack did absolutely nothing; it was like punching a tank. Before I could comprehend the pain in my hand, the horse sank its talons into each of my shoulders. Letting out a cry of pain, I felt the ground disappear from beneath my feet with the loud swooshing sound of wings. Windows from the higher floors of buildings rushed past me. Night Stallion was carrying me away into the sky.
“No, Krystal!” I heard Gary and James scream. “Krystal!”
An onslaught of SP energy, fireballs, and Luminae attacks ripped through the air at us. Everything below was getting smaller and smaller, and the air was getting chillier and windier. Wrestling frantically with the sharp talons implanted deep within my shoulders, I tried to break free, but to no avail.
Gary and James hopped into the air, launching themselves higher by jumping between the buildings. At the top of the tallest building on the block, Gary used his flames like a rocket to push himself upward. I watched him gain on Night Stallion, lose speed, and begin to descend as he lost momentum. Even with the trail of concentrated fire propelling him, he didn’t have the power to keep going against gravity.
Blood trickled down my arms and body, staining my clothes. Night Stallion’s black fur was so fine and soft that it cut my skin as I struggled to free myself. With no other option, I realized that if physical strength wasn’t going to work, I had to resort to Aether.
Charging up my energy to the fullest, I unleashed it directly out of my body like a bomb. The sky lit up so brightly that it must’ve appeared as a second sun from the ground. Night Stallion’s flight was only slightly disrupted, however. It was so much more powerful than before, thanks to it defeating Luminae in the past timeline, or something. I didn’t care anymore.
The air grew colder and thinner as we ascended higher and higher. Realizing that I would run out of oxygen if we kept going up, I charged my energy again. Holding it in longer than before, I waited until it felt as if my body was going to burst. Just as I couldn’t take it anymore, I unleashed a second wave, surprisingly more powerful than the first. When the energy dispersed, the talons could still be felt embedded in my shoulders.
“No,” I choked. “Please, don’t do this.”
A frightening sensation flooded over me. My body began to grow weaker as Night Stallion channeled Darknae directly into me. The pain itself was bad enough, making me scream, but when combined with the cold, evil sensation of Darknae, it was enough to drive someone insane. Luckily, I was well-versed in the ways of insanity, and almost smiled at the thought of having built a resistance against it. It could’ve been my imagination, but there was probably sand pouring out of my glass skull, constructing a desert below on the ground.
Helplessness filled my heart. This was really it? Was I going to die like this? My limbs went limp at the thought of giving up. There was nothing I could do now. Night Stallion had me, and it was going to kill me and take Aether as its own.
Closing my eyes, I apologized to everyone. I was unable to stop Night Stallion. I was unable to prevent Darknae from taking over the situation. Darknae was supposed to win. After all, this was supposed to be its world now, but Heartfire had interfered. Kristy had interfered. Kristy ….
Kristy looked just like me ….
Anna looked just like me ….
My eyes snapped open. Looking down at the world miles below me, I came to a realization. Anna was down there somewhere. There was no way the world belonged to Darknae. The world was ours. It was Anna’s world, and nothing was going to take it away.
Without warning, an uncontrollable rage was unleashed from deep inside me. It spread, filling every inch of my body and soul. My head throbbed, my chest ached. Everything turned red as blind rage replaced the pain of Night Stallion’s claws and freezing air around me.
“I’m not letting you take everything away from her,” I gasped angrily. “I won’t let you!”
An immense energy swelled inside me and was released all at once. There was no telling just how powerful the blast was, but I knew it was hundreds of times more powerful than the last one I let out, and it felt fantastic. Night Stallion’s grasp was released, and I found myself falling back towards the ground.
As quickly as it all happened, the overpowering rage vanished. It must’ve been my true powers that Kristy had told me about. They had awakened temporarily, but returned to a dormant state … just in time for me to fall from miles high in the sky.
Night Stallion was nowhere to be found, and the freefall sensation with roaring winds disoriented me. Twisting my body to turn over several times, I looked in all directions in case I had to block an oncoming attack, but a speck in the distance appeared to be moving away, which I assumed was Night Stallion.
Without the immediate danger of being assaulted, I focused more on the obvious problem at hand. Rolling over and facing downward, I braced myself for impact. I couldn’t see the ground through the clouds just yet, meaning I had plenty of time to prepare. There had been times when I received a greater blow than hitting the ground at terminal velocity, so this shouldn’t have been so bad.
At last, I broke through the clouds. Taking my first look at the ground, I quickly realized that I wasn’t over the ground at all, but the ocean. In the overcast weather, the water appeared dark and treacherous. Still, it was reassuring to know that nothing was going to get damaged due to me falling on it.
I knew that landing in the water could be harmful, despite being softer than the ground. Pointing myself downward into a diving position, I tried to angle myself for proper entry into the ocean. The change in aerodynamics allowed me to fall even quicker. Wind rumbled loudly in my ears as I continued my descent. Swimming was going to prove difficult with the injuries in my shoulders, but there was no option other than toughing it out. Sharks attracted by my blood would find themselves against a nasty contender, as my Aether attacks would be more than sufficient to drive them away.
Noticing a small boat close to my landing area, I felt relief knowing that I would possibly be able to hitch a ride to shore. Just before reaching the water, however, the ocean surged up directly underneath me. Before I could react, water swirled around me, bringing me slowly down toward the surface. I had no idea as to what was going on, but I was mentally prepared to deal with anything at that point. Unfortunately, I was at a severe disadvantage in the ocean if I had to fend off Night Stallion again.
A hand grabbed me by the arm. The water engulfing me fell back into the waves of the sea, and I found myself being pulled into the small boat. When I was completely out of the water, I was able to take a look at the person who helped me. My heart was warmed by great relief.
“Are you badly hurt?” Brittany asked me gently.
“Not too bad,” I replied quietly.
Brittany smiled, looking at my bleeding shoulders.
“My hotel room is nearby,” she said. “I’ll take you back there. I can treat your injuries.”
I glanced around at the skies.
“What about Night Stallion?” I asked.
“Don’t worry,” she said softly. “Night Stallion isn’t going to bother us at the moment.”
How did Brittany know we were safe? Though for some reason, I had complete faith in her.
“Okay,” I said weakly. “Thank you, Brittany.”
With a single graceful movement of her head, she gave me a very comforting smile.
“You’re welcome, Krystal.”
She started up the motor, and we headed off in the direction of the shore.