Chapter 17:

Book 1, Ch. 17: The Hunt Begins

ANNO DOMINI ~Allium~


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BOOK 1, CHAPTER 17: THE HUNT BEGINS

Chris woke up Sunday, the day after meeting Bret for lunch, but didn’t open his eyes. Fully intent on quickly drifting back to sleep, he rolled over to find the appropriate position for sleeping in another hour or so.

His arm touched something, and he didn’t give it any thought in his half-asleep state until the thing he touched moved on its own. His eyes popped open. Complete wakefulness flooded his body as he threw the blanket off him, exposing his unexpected bedmate. Next to him, Aleph-Naught was curled into a ball and shivering from the sudden lack of a blanket. Slowly, her eyes opened as Chris jumped out of bed.

“You!” Chris snapped. “What are you doing here?”

“Hmm?” Al sat up and yawned, tousling her blonde, shoulder-length hair. “Why are you yelling?”

“Because you’re sleeping in my bed. With me.”

Her face still slightly red and puffy from sleep, Al stared at Chris with disapproval.

“It’s not a big deal,” she said bluntly. “I forgot how most Americans are touchy about sleeping in the same bed with other people.”

“I don’t think it’s just Americans,” Chris replied with a dry chuckle.

“Yeah, whatever,” Al muttered, yawning again. She sat on the edge of Chris’s bed.

“You didn’t answer my question,” he told her firmly. “What are you doing here?”

“Just sleeping,” she replied, standing up and stretching. “You told me I could stay here for a while.”

“But I thought you’d left.”

“No, I’ve been here. You just haven’t seen me.”

Chris gulped.

“You mean … sleeping next to me?”

“Yeah,” Al said, “this is the first time you woke up before I got up.”

With no thoughts to work him through the concept of sleeping next to a girl for the past few nights, Chris blushed a little.

“Hey, don’t get any weird ideas,” she told him. “I’m not gonna sleep on the floor when there’s a perfectly good bed with plenty of room. That’s all.”

Before Chris could think of any sort of vocal reply, a scratching sound came from outside his door. Curious, he stared at the closed door for a moment while wondering what the sound was. After a few seconds, he heard more scratching.

“Are you gonna answer it?” Al asked flatly.

Without a word, Chris walked to the door and opened it. To his fright, a big rat scurried into his room carrying a letter in its mouth.

“A letter!” Al quickly snatched up the ratmail and read it.

“From your organization?” Chris asked.

“It is,” Al nodded while looking at the letter, “and it’s about time.” After reading it, she grinned. “Looks like I’ve been given another task.”

“Does it mention me?” Chris asked.

“Nah, it doesn’t look like it,” Al told him. She placed the letter on Chris’s desk and wrote a response on the back of the page. When she was done, she gave it back to the large rat. The rodent hightailed it out of the room as Chris watched it.

“How … did it get in the house?” he asked. “I hope my parents don’t see it ….”

“Rats are cunning,” Al said matter-of-factly. “Anyway, I gotta go. Business and stuff.” She put on her uniquely-patterned gray hoodie. The look on her face was full of energy and determination.

“What do they want you to do?” Chris was suspicious of Al, especially after learning she had been secretly living with him for the past few days.

Giving it some thought, Al said, “It doesn’t concern you.”

“But I’m still curious.”

“Well,” she sighed, “I can’t say too much without breaking the code of confidentiality, so I’ll just say that I’m looking for somebody else now.”

“Oh, like one of those ‘mortals of significance’ you mentioned the other day?”

Al nodded, saying, “That’s right.” She reached into her hooded sweatshirt pocket and removed her plastic necklace, which she put around her neck.

Chris’s smartphone was on his bedside table. Normally, he’d have it connected to the charger, but the battery’s life hadn’t dropped a single percent since Lavi had “upgraded” it. He looked at the phone, feeling as if he had to take action.

“I’ll come with you,” Chris told Al.

Without an immediate reaction, Al stared at Chris.

“Why?” she asked.

Shrugging, Chris said, “To help. I’m pretty much up to the eyeballs in this situation, aren’t I? To be honest, I really feel like I should be doing something. Playing my part.”

“Oh yeah?” Al seemed skeptical. “What do you mean by ‘your part’?”

That was a difficult question to answer.

“Just to help.” Chris knew his reply was insufficient, but it was as close to the truth as his words would allow.

Al was unsure. She didn’t want to blatantly turn down Chris’s offer of assistance, but she couldn’t simply make the decision.

“Actually, it’d be nice to have you come along.” Al spoke softly and genuinely. “I’m only afraid of the repercussions of involving someone without permission from my superiors.”

“I’m already involved, though,” Chris said. “If this is still because of whatever happened with that stolen artifact, then I’m part of it, apparently.”

“I know that,” Al replied curtly. “But if it makes you feel better, then I’ll tell you that you’re already playing your part.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve been sending my superiors information about you,” Al explained with a mischievous smirk. “They’ve been able to make important decisions based off that information.”

“So, you’ve been spying on me!” Chris blurted. “That doesn’t make me feel better.”

“I’m a scout,” Al said defensively. “Collecting information and other reconnaissance is what I do. I, Aleph-Naught, am doing my job.”

Chris groaned and looked Al directly in the eye, getting close to her.

“Then tell your superiors this,” he said sternly, “that I’m not the kind of person to sit back and let things happen when I strongly feel I can do something.”

Surprised by Chris’s sudden assertiveness, Al smiled and snickered.

“I like your attitude,” she told him. “So be it. I’ll let them know that you came with me.”

“Will they really let you?”

“Maybe, maybe not. That’s why I’ll tell them after the fact.”

Al put her leather moccasins on, then hid herself with her invisibility as she and Chris got ready to leave the house. On their way out, Chris’s dad was carrying a bottle of cough syrup and a cup of water. He was tall like Chris and had the same serial killer eyes, but looked much more intimidating with his thick facial hair and sturdy build.

“Morning, Chris,” he said through his bushy mustache. “Off and roaming so early?”

“Uh, yeah,” Chris told his dad. “I’m meeting someone.”

“Okay,” his dad replied. “Stay out of trouble.”

Chris chuckled, knowing he was probably heading straight into trouble.

“I’ll try, Dad.”

“Your mom isn’t feeling well today,” his dad said. “She developed a bad cough yesterday and she feels a little feverish this morning.”

“Oh, really? Is it the flu?”

“I don’t know, probably. It’s going around. I’m taking this medicine to her to help her rest.”

“Tell her to get well soon,” Chris said.

“Will do.”

When leaving the house with Al, Chris could hear his dad coughing before closing the front door.

*******

Robbie was in the kitchen having breakfast with his mother. The local news was on the nineteen-inch TV on the counter, turned to NBBC 50 Chicago. As he squirted ketchup onto his scrambled eggs with sliced hotdogs, his attention was focused on the broadcast.

“The number of infected people in Chicago continues to rise,” reporter Jane Pelham announced. She was a woman in her early forties and had been wearing her brown hair in the same moderately voluminous, medium-length, layered style for the last decade. “Health officials are concerned about an unknown disease that is spreading quickly. This morning, over one hundred twenty additional people displaying the hallmark symptoms were admitted to hospitals, bringing the total estimated number of patients with the disease to nearly nine hundred since the disease’s discovery.”

“Wow,” Robbie’s mother gasped as she watched the live broadcast. “Isn’t that something?”

Robbie’s mother was a high-strung lady with a sharp tongue and crass opinions, and she listened intently to the broadcast while turning up the volume with the remote control. Robbie stared at the TV, feeling almost disconnected from the room he was sitting in.

“Yeah,” he replied quietly.

“Samples of the disease have been sent to several medical laboratories for testing,” Jane Pelham continued. “However, the results remain inconclusive as to the nature of the disease, and reports on the details have not yet been released.”

There was a cut to an interview with one of the elderly administrators of a medical laboratory.

“We’ve been performing multiple tests on the samples received,” the white-haired administrator explained, “but there have been … unexpected results.”

“What sort of results did your team reach?” the off-screen interviewer asked.

The lab administrator shook his head and shrugged.

“There are no results,” he said straightforwardly. “All tests are showing that there is something in the samples, but it is definitely not a disease, at least not what we generally consider to be a pathogen or … or …”

“What would you consider it to be, then?” the off-screen interviewer asked.

The administrator blinked his eyes a few times, his face showing hints of fear before saying, “Something to keep a close eye on.”

As the broadcast cut back to Jane Pelham, Robbie looked at his breakfast. The scrambled eggs covered in ketchup looked like brain matter.

“Health officials have stated that the Cook County Medical Laboratory and Research Center located in Norwood Park would be the best facility for the disease’s examination,” Jane Pelham said. “However, Chicago police had confirmed a recent incident involving a break-in at that laboratory between Thursday night and Friday morning. Many files appeared to be stolen, and much of the cutting edge equipment is nonfunctional, despite the lack of physical damage inflicted on said equipment. The whereabouts of the missing lab technicians remain unknown.”

“It’s a damned conspiracy,” Robbie’s mother said, gesturing at the TV. “How else would the top medical lab in the world be attacked right when a crazy disease is spreading? All in the same city!”

Without hesitation, Robbie scarfed down the rest of his bloody-brain-looking breakfast while doing his best to ignore the news. His eggs had gone cold.

*******

A Polish street vendor was setting up his food cart, preparing to sell his delicious homemade Vienna beef franks for the hungry pedestrians of Chicago. While finishing the layout for the condiments, a young, well-dressed man strolled up to him.

“Good morning!” the vendor greeted with a big smile.

“And good morning to you, as well,” Lavi replied warmly. “I’d like one of your Chicago dogs, please.”

“You got it. First customer of the day!”

“And hopefully the first of many,” Lavi said with a smile.

The vendor handed the Chicago dog to Lavi; a quality, juicy beef hotdog dressed with bright yellow mustard, diced yellow onions, vibrant green sweet pickle relish, luscious tomato wedges, zippy sport peppers, and a dash of celery salt, all nestled into a fresh-baked poppy seed bun.

“Thank you, good sir!” Lavi sang as he handed a twenty-dollar bill to the vendor. “Keep the change.”

“Ah, thank you much.”

The smell of the hotdog made the angel smile as he looked at the Polish vendor.

“This will make a great meal before I start my long day,” he said earnestly.

“You working on a Sunday, too?” the vendor asked, wiping a smudge of yellow mustard off his hand with a rag.

“Every day,” Lavi replied with a grin. “I gotta make sure people are managed correctly,” he glanced down the street that was beginning to get busy, “or it’ll be a big mess.”

“Well, best of luck to you,” the vendor told him. “I hope my homemade frank will give you the motivation you need.”

“It already has.” The angel returned a smile before biting into the hotdog, the casing popping to release warm juices with a succulent snap.

*******

The small store selling electronics had no cameras in it, and Bret had confirmed that for himself and had shoplifted there twice before. The current third offense was for a cellphone charger. Stealing the item was as easy as stuffing it in his designated shoplifting jeans (loose-fitting and baggy enough to conceal many stolen goods), and then walking out the door.

After making it around the block, Bret ripped open the plastic package for the charger. His next mission was to find an outlet and revive his dead phone, and there were bound to be numerous power outlets littering the city. He had heard “electricity theft” was a real crime, pertaining to “extracting electricity” from outlets in public areas meant for utility workers’ use only … but he didn’t care the least.

Bret had a very important phone call to make, and his lack of sleep and mild hangover made him incredibly bitter, reckless, and desperate. His entire body remembered the sensation of the void surrounding the beast he had encountered the previous night, and that was all the motivation he needed.

*******

Chris followed Al down a busy street. Without the invisibility, Al was in plain sight with her strange outfit, even though it wasn’t close to being the most outlandish thing some people wore in the city.

“Why don’t you use your invisibility more often?” Chris asked while they were walking.

“Nah, there’s no need to all the time,” she replied, waving her arm and baggy hoodie sleeve. “And the biggest reason is because it’s a difficult spell to keep active at all times. In fact, I can’t use any other magic while I’m invisible.”

“Oh, I think I understand,” Chris said. “It’s like it uses all your bandwidth when active.”

“What the hell is ‘bandwidth’?”

With a chuckle, Chris said, “It’s a first-world term.”

“But yeah,” Al said, “it’s a pretty powerful spell. I made it myself. Pretty good, right?”

“Uh, yeah. So, you use magic, right? Is it really magic, or is that just a term for it?”

Al gave Chris a quizzical look.

“It’s just magic,” she said. “What do you mean?”

“But … what is it, exactly?” Chris asked.

After a group of college students walked by, Al explained.

“It’s just a term to make it easier for ignorant people like you to understand,” she said snobbishly. “The techniques and methods are secrets, and well-guarded by my organization.”
“By the Illuminati?”

“No, we’re not the Illuminati,” she snapped. “Anyway … it’s a secret.”

“I’ve practiced magic tricks for a long time,” Chris said. “I’m pretty good at them.”

Al snorted.

“Yeah, those are just childish illusions. You don’t use real magic.”

Chris stopped walking. When Al looked at him impatiently, he said, “Then what about my powers? You’re telling me that’s not magic, or whatever it is that you use?”

After a moment of silence, Al said, “It’s something different.” She looked at the sky for a few seconds. “Really, I don’t know what your powers are. Or Rodney’s powers.”

“It’s Robbie.”

“Yeah, yeah. But it’s similar to the abilities of nonhumans, which I’ve never seen a person do. People are supposed to require magic to use powers and stuff, but you guys don’t.” She gave Chris a big smile. “I really hit a goldmine when I found you two!”

“You mean when your partner from Saint Baptiste found us.”

“Ugh, whatever. But hey, I’ll give you a good piece of advice.”

“Okay,” Chris said, “advice about what?”

“Your powers.” Al cleared her throat. “It might be different for you, since you don’t use magic, but it might be the same.” She moved close to Chris, making him rather uncomfortable due to the sudden closeness. “When you use your powers in a specific way or purpose, give it a name.”

Chris blinked, looking at Al.

“A name?”

“Yeah.” Al nodded. “You might find yourself doing the same thing more than once with your powers.” When Chris looked lost for words, she added, “Names traditionally were more than just titles. In the olden days, a name signified a lot of stuff: purpose, meaning, ability, and things like that. For magic users, giving our spells a name increases their power and makes them easier to access.”

That explanation made sense to Chris, mildly.

“I think I get it,” he said. “I just need to name my actions.”

“Well, it’s more than that.” Al scratched her head of blonde hair. “The name needs to be … meaningful. If the name doesn’t carry anything, then it won’t work.”

“What do you mean by ‘meaningful’?” Chris asked.

Al sighed.

“You need to go by instinct.”

Remembering the similar conversations with Lavi, Chris noticed a pattern.

“A lot of this stuff has to do with going with your heart or intuitions, it seems,” he said contemplatively.

“That’s right. That’s why it’s hard to teach.”

Chris nodded with a valiant smirk.

“So, I just need to name my attacks and everything.”

“Calling them out while doing them can help a lot,” Al said.

“Like a game from the Tales series or Star Ocean series, right?”

“Like a what?”

“They’re, uh … a type of video game.”

“Meh. Nerd. Stop using pop culture references. It’s cheap and doesn’t work on people who don’t get the reference.”

Vibrations in Chris’s pocket alerted him of his phone, and he checked it to see Excalibur was trying to communicate with him.

“Hey, Excalibur.”

“Christopher, I have detected a signal that matches with one of the two entities from your school the other day.”

That instantly garnered Chris’s full attention.

“You did? Is it the one that disappeared before we could find it?”

“That is correct,” Excalibur told him. “It is unlikely that two separate entities will emit the exact same signal.”

“Who are you talking to?” Al asked curiously.

“I am the Excalibur Artificial Intelligence application for Christopher’s smartphone.”

“I don’t get it,” Al muttered.

“Excalibur is a program on my phone,” Chris explained. “It’s like a personal assistant.”

“Oh, okay.” She still didn’t seem to understand.

“Where is this thing you’re talking about, Excalibur?” Chris asked.

“It is over two miles away,” Excalibur said. “South-southwest.”

“Sounds like an enemy.” Al had a slight smirk on her face.

“There’s a very good chance it is,” Chris told her seriously, “because it has a negative energy, or something.”

“You must also consider the possibility that it is the ‘mortal of significance’ you are looking for, Aleph-Naught,” Excalibur added.

Al was shocked.

“Has it been listening to us the whole time?” she asked, bewildered.

“The whole time,” Chris said with a small grin.

“It knows my name.”

“Anyone who’s had the rundown from Lavi is entered into Excalibur’s database,” Chris said.

“Huh? I don’t know this Lavi person,” Al said.

“Aleph-Naught has not met Lavi,” Excalibur said. “I simply eavesdropped.”

“Eh, that’s creepy.” Al shivered with a look of disgust.

Chris smirked and said, “It sucks to be spied on, doesn’t it?”

Al pouted.

“So, who’s Lavi?” she asked. When Chris hesitated to answer, she said, “Let me guess, it’s a secret.”

“Well, sort of,” Chris said.

“He gets the info on people from your phone, right?”

“That is incorrect,” Excalibur confirmed. “Anyone who learns of Lavi’s true identity is automatically logged into my system, and other methods of entry do exist, although I lack details.”

While tasting the unsavory flavor of that vague explanation, Chris’s phone rang, this time due to an incoming call. He didn’t recognize the number on his caller ID, and he hesitated briefly before answering it.

“Hello?”

“Hey. Is this Chris?”

“Yes.”

“Chris … it’s Bret.”

Chris glanced at Al, who stared at him impatiently.

“Oh, hi,” Chris replied, not knowing how to feel about receiving a call from Bret. Happy probably?

Bret was at a park, he wasn’t sure which one, and was ducked down next to a building with his phone plugged into a utility outlet. He had a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew by his side, more than half empty now, which served as his hydration, rejuvenation, and breakfast.

“There’s something I need to tell you,” Bret said, gripping his phone with the cracked screen. “It’s something really crazy.”

“Okay.”

“It’s some real crazy shit, man.”

“It’s okay, I’m listening.”

Bret took a chug of his soda before speaking.

“I don’t know how to say it, but … I fought a monster last night. I ain’t joking, man.”

Chris held his breath for a second, taking Bret’s words in.

“I believe you.”

Bret laughed.

“How did I know you’d believe something like that?” His vision blurred as he thought about his next words. “Really, man … I think I knew you’d believe me.” He wiped his forehead. He was sweating. “That makes it easy for me to explain, then.” He laughed again, but nothing was funny.

“Where are you right now?” Chris asked. “I’ll meet you. You can tell me about it in person.”

“I don’t know where I am. But I can figure it out. I just wasn’t paying attention to where I was going.” He glanced around, noticing he wasn’t in a park, but a golf course. “Looks like a golf course.”

Chris heard the call waiting sound come from his phone. Excalibur was trying to communicate with him.

“Hold on, Bret. I have another call.”

“Fine. Don’t take too long.”

Switching over the phone call, he listened to what Excalibur had to say.

“I can pinpoint Bret’s location based on his cellphone signal,” Excalibur said. “He is approximately six to seven miles away, west by northwest.”

“Good, I can find him with your help.” He switched back over to Bret’s call. “Hey, you still there?”

“Yeah.”

“If you stay where you are, I can find you.”

“Huh? How you gonna find me?”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll be there as soon as possible.”

Bret sighed.

“Okay. I’ll be here.”

“Alright, I’ll see you then.”

When Chris hung up, Al looked at him.

“You gotta go meet somebody?”

“Looks like it,” Chris replied.

“Tell you what,” Al said, “you go to your friend. I’ll find that other thing your phone told you about.”

“Are you sure?” Chris asked concernedly.

“Don’t worry about me,” Al told him confidently. She brandished her ornate yo-yo. The ruby red butterfly-style body was equipped. “I have ways of defending myself!”

Chris nodded and said, “Then I’ll leave it to you.”

“Before we go, can you have Excavator-whatsit give me the coordinates of the target’s location?”

“Yes,” Excalibur replied. “It will take several seconds, but I will attempt to pinpoint the location as accurately as possible from this distance.”

“Excellent,” Al snickered with a grin. “I’m getting stoked.”

Chris was concerned, more for the target’s safety than Al’s.

“I’ll give you my phone number so you can get in touch with me,” he said.

“Don’t bother, I don’t use a phone.” Al rummaged through her gray hoodie pocket and presented two six-sided dice to Chris. They looked slightly misshapen and possibly hand-crafted out of what appeared to be clay or stone. “Take these. They’ll help you locate me.”

Taking the strange dice, Chris examined them closely.

“Okay, but how?” he asked. “How do they work?”

“If you roll them both at the same time, you’ll get a number up to twelve. That number will tell you which direction I’ll be from you.”

“Uh, okay.” Chris could already tell the method would be confusing.

“Twelve is north,” Al explained, “and six is south. East is three and west is nine.” As Chris was trying to piece together the instructions in his head, Al sighed. “Roll them and see.”

When Chris threw the odd dice on the sidewalk, they bounced around for an abnormally long time before coming to a rest. The sum of the shown numbers was seven.

“It says seven.” Al pointed at the dice. “That says right now I’m south of their position, and little to the west, see?”

Chris chuckled as he tried to hide his confusion.

“I … think I understand … I think.”

“Meh, you’ll be fine,” Al said dismissively. “Think of it as a clock, with twelve always to the north.”

“Oh, I think I get it. But what if your location is in the ‘one’ position?”

“Say what?”

“If there are two dice, then it’s impossible to roll a one,” Chris pointed out. “The lowest number I can get is a two.”

The distant gaze in Al’s eyes said it all.

“Uh, that’s a good question. I never thought of that.”

Chris picked up the dice and put them in his pants pocket before saying, “Whatever, are you ready?”

“Yup. Just make sure you get those dice back to me. I don’t want just anybody being able to find me.”

“Yeah, as if anybody’ll know to interpret them that way.”

“Just sayin’. I’ll see ya later.”

“But what if I need to roll a one?”

“I don’t know! Just don’t be in that situation!”

“Okay,” Chris muttered.

With that, the two headed in their separate directions.

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