ANNO DOMINI ~Allium~
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BOOK 1, CHAPTER 19: FOLLOWING THE MAGICAL DICE
Using the map app on his phone, Chris found the location of Ridgemoor Country Club, which matched Excalibur’s location of Bret’s cellphone coordinates and Bret’s description as a golf course. Being too far to travel on foot, he kept a lookout for a taxi.
“Your phone’s map and GPS capabilities are phenomenal,” Excalibur stated as Chris hailed a taxi. “With a proper update, I shall attempt to integrate these functions with my own.”
“That’d be really awesome.” Chris was paying attention, although his dull response was brought about by his mind being on several other topics at once. Climbing into the back of the taxi cab, he told the driver his destination and was on his way to meet Bret.
Upon nearing Ridgemoor Country Club, Chris was looking out the window when he noticed a person sitting on the sidewalk. Catching a glimpse of the person’s disgruntled face, he knew it was Bret, so he had the driver pull over, paid his fare, and exited the vehicle.
Bret appeared to be sleeping as Chris slowly walked up to him, but he was merely staring into space. He looked at Chris with a scowl, stood up, and stuffed his hands in his pockets. His hair was unkempt more than usual, and the stubble of his facial hair with the sleepy lines around his eyes made him look ten years older. A rugged smirk found its way to his lips.
“Heh, ya found me.” His voice was dry.
“Of course I did,” Chris told him. “I said I would, so I made sure to stick to my word.”
Bret nodded toward the country club.
“They caught me. Kicked me out. Said I wasn’t obeying the dress code.” He was wearing a dirty, tattered T-shirt with a pair of jeans to match. His shoes were in decent condition, though, probably the newest piece of his outfit.
“Let’s go somewhere to talk,” Chris said, making eye contact with an older couple. They were each dressed in clothes that looked more expensive than what Chris and Bret were wearing combined, and were giving the teenage boys displeased looks.
Bret half-shrugged, probably in agreement.
“There might be a restaurant or something nearby.” Chris was already on his phone, looking up places to go. “I can get you something to eat.”
“I’m not that hungry,” Bret replied, holding up his hand.
“But you should at least eat. You look worn out.”
“I am worn out, but I’ll live.”
“You should still eat.” When Bret didn’t say anything, Chris added, “It’s up to you.”
“Whatever, man. There’s a Subway restaurant just up the road from here. Maybe I’ll eat something when I smell that bread.”
As the two boys started walking, Bret suddenly stopped and looked around. He was confused about something.
“What’s wrong?” Chris asked.
“Bah, lost my Mountain Dew. Screw it, let’s go.”
During the walk, Chris wanted to know more about what Bret had mentioned during the phone call. The delinquent obviously had had a rough night, appearing much more ragged and tired than he ever had at school.
“So, tell me what’s up.” Chris was direct and to the point.
Bret heaved a sigh.
“I fought a monster last night.”
“A monster? What’d it look like?”
Trying to find the best way to describe the insurgent, Bret said, “At first, it was small and black and smoke-like. This thing could move through walls. Real crazy, man. Anyway, I followed it. I followed it out of the house and through the neighborhood, not really sure how far, but it seemed like a good distance. Then I caught up to it.”
Bret stopped walking, and Chris did the same. Running his hand through his messy hair, the memory of the previous night gallivanted within Bret’s mind.
“It changed on me. Like, transformed. Big … nasty. I was scared, man, I’ll admit it. I didn’t see it coming.”
“What happened?” Chris asked. “You said you fought it?”
“Yeah, sure did. Kicked its ass, too. It was funny, though. I’ve been in plenty of brawls. I know my way around a fight pretty good, and I like to think I know my body and its limits pretty good, too. But …,” he looked at his biceps as he flexed them for a moment, “I think I somehow went past those limits ….”
Chris thought about it while Bret continued.
“It’s not the first freaky thing, too,” Bret said. “A handful of nights ago, I met somebody. They were real shady. I don’t know how to explain it … but … it wasn’t good.” He rubbed his face with both hands. “And just the other day …,” he thought about Mr. Kampton again, donning his angelic appearance “… ah, screw it. Crazy-ass times, man.”
He looked back at Chris, who was smiling.
“What?” Bret scoffed. “Something funny?”
“No, that’s not it,” Chris told him. “I just know what you mean.” Bret stared at him. “I’ve had similar things happen to me, too, so don’t feel like you’re alone in this.”
“Really?” Bret’s expression relaxed. “You know what I’m talking about?” He moved closer to Chris out of excitement and a longing for answers. “You’ve seen those … things?”
“I have.” Chris nodded as he held up his phone with a confident smile. “There’s also one other person I can call who is in the same boat as us.”
“Let me get this straight,” Robbie inquired while sitting with Chris and Bret at the Subway restaurant. “Bret killed one of those shadowy things last night. He was able to see it, and was able to kill it with his bare hands?”
Bret nodded, his mouth full of the bacon and shredded Monterey-jack cheddar cheese sandwich he ordered.
“That’s what it sounds like,” Chris said.
“I know it sounds crazy,” Bret said after swallowing, “and it is crazy, but also true. I was trashed last night, but I know I wasn’t dreaming.”
Chris was deep in thought.
“From what we know,” Chris was thinking aloud, “if we can see one of those things, it means that thing is either weak in comparison, or the person is strong in comparison.”
“In comparison to what?” Bret asked gruffly.
“Uh … not sure. Just throwing it out there.”
“Here’s an important question for you.” Robbie looked directly at Bret. “Did you happen to have a, well, major conversation with our vice principal before this all went down?”
“Uh, yeah,” Bret replied, surprised by Robbie’s prediction. “Did you two?” Chris and Robbie nodded. “Well, I’ll be damned. He’s really, ya know … an angel-looking thing?”
“Well, it all adds up now,” Chris concluded. “We’re really in this together.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold on.” Bret leaned on the table with both arms. “I just can’t believe it. There’s really … you mean this is actually happening?”
“It already did,” Robbie said bluntly, “and it already is.”
“I don’t think it can be questioned,” Chris told Bret.
“Ha! Oh, okay! Like I’ll just accept that answer.”
“We accepted it.” Robbie bent the non-bendy straw in his cup of water. “It sucks, I know, but that’s Chris’s answer, and it seems to be the best answer we got.”
“All we know is that there are evil things out there,” Chris said dutifully. “Lavi … Mr. Kampton told us so. We just need to, like, beat them … or something.”
Bret opened his sandwich and picked the rest of the bacon out, eating it by itself.
“Alright,” he said in a defeated manner through his mouthful of bacon. “I ain’t got nothing else to go off of, so I might as well just go with you guys.” Chris and Robbie looked slightly satisfied by that response, but Bret immediately interjected. “But here’s the thing. I’m not on your side. It sounds like we have the same enemies, so let’s thrash ‘em and work together on it. Just remember, my boys and my crew come first for me. I’ll wreck anyone who threatens them. That’s priority. And that includes you two.”
Hearing that made Robbie upset, but Chris quickly agreed to the terms.
“So be it, Bret. Let’s do what we can together, and if you have your own plans, then do what you need to do.”
“Oh, I will,” Bret said flatly.
“Christopher.” Excalibur could be heard from Chris’s pants pocket. He removed his phone and disabled the loudspeaker to keep the conversation private from the other customers.
“What is it?” Chris asked with the phone to his ear.
“The target Aleph-Naught pursued has disappeared from my detection again.”
“Really?” Chris groaned. “Do you know why?”
“I cannot be certain. However, the target did not seem to move before I lost track of it, and it was well within my detection range. This leads me to theorize that it is masking its presence.”
“That’s not good to hear.”
“I have a second theory,” Excalibur said. “Aleph-Naught may have defeated it.”
“I hope so.”
“I also have another theory. There is a possibility that it is not intentionally hiding itself from me.”
“What do you mean?”
“My detection abilities are limited by various parameters. One parameter is the target’s energy output. If the target’s energy output is too high or is comprised of complex, incompatible readings, my detection algorithms will not be able to compute the signal, essentially rendering the target invisible from me.”
“Uh … what?”
“In simple terms,” Excalibur explained, “the target may have gotten stronger, and I am currently unable to detect strong targets.”
“That’s probably a bad thing.” Chris chuckled, but only to make himself feel better.
“There is something else I must inform you of,” Excalibur said. “I have just downloaded an update for myself. It is ready to be installed at your command.”
Chris perked up.
“Really? That’s good, right?”
“Yes, it will improve my functionality, although I am not sure exactly how until it is installed.”
“Well, go ahead and do it.”
“Before I begin the installation, I must inform you that I will not be operational until the process is complete. You will need to carry on without me until then.”
“Okay,” Chris agreed, “thanks for letting me know. I’ll take care of things without you for now.”
“Very well. Beginning the installation process now.”
Excalibur went silent. Chris’s phone still seemed to be fully operational, but there was a lingering sense of discomfort from the fact Excalibur was offline. Setting his phone down on the table, Robbie and Bret were staring at him.
“The target I was pursuing earlier today disappeared,” Chris explained. “Al was going to check it out, and Excalibur thinks she might have defeated it … I hope.”
“Al?” Robbie gave Chris a quizzical look. “You mean that Al?”
“Yeah … that Al.”
“Who’s Al?” Bret asked.
“A girl we met.” Chris tried to word his answer in the least awkward way. “She was staying with me for a while.”
Bret raised his eyebrows.
“You took a girl home?”
“… I did.”
“Huh.” Bret shrugged in acceptance.
“It’s not like that!” Chris replied hastily.
“I didn’t say anything.” Bret looked smug, however.
Chris looked at Robbie and said, “Really, it’s not like that.”
“I didn’t say anything.” Robbie had the same look as Bret.
“A girl named Al, eh?” Bret slurped the last of his drink.
“It’s short for … something weird.” Chris grinned a cheesy grin. “We should look for her, though. I’m worried about her.”
“Do you know where she is?” Robbie asked.
“She gave me these dice.” Chris removed the misshapen dice from his pocket and showed them to the other boys. He dropped them on the table, watching them bounce and rumble before they fell to the floor. Surprisingly, they remained close together. “Five. That means, um … south-southeast. It tells me her location relative to mine.”
“Like a clock position,” Robbie said.
“That’s right,” Chris replied with a nod.
“Oh, cool.” Robbie looked at the dice with awe. “Can it tell you how far she is?”
A rock sank into Chris’s gut.
Bret snorted rudely as he finished eating.
“Whole lotta help that is,” he grunted.
“It’s better than nothing.” Chris picked up the dice. “Are we ready to go?”
“Yeah, I guess,” Robbie said. “We’d best start looking for her now, because this seems like it might take a while.”
Bret tilted his head back, annoyed by the task ahead, although he didn’t know what else to do. Chris could see Bret’s anguish, and he silently felt the same way.
“Somebody should buy Al a phone,” Chris groaned before standing up from the table.
For over two hours, the three boys roamed the city, alternating between taxis and walking as Chris continually rolled the dice, interpreted the numbers, and attempted to pinpoint Al’s location. The activity was beyond tedious, venturing into mind-numbing and maddening territories of boredom-inducing. To make matters worse, the directions didn’t seem to be pointing to a consistent destination, leading the boys to believe Al was on the move, possibly in a vehicle moving faster than a person on foot.
“This … is … shitty,” Bret grumbled. His legs were growing heavy, competing with his eyelids for maximum weight as he trudged along with Chris and Robbie.
“Yeah, no disagreement here,” Robbie acknowledged flatly. “Chris, where are we going?”
Chris was watching the bouncy dice tumble gleefully atop the sidewalk before giving another reading.
“That way,” he said, pointing in the according direction.
Robbie slumped his posture, saying, “Is it just me, or does Al seem to be moving?”
Chris scooped up the dice.
“I was thinking the same thing.”
“Hey!” Bret’s sharp voice rang out. He was addressing a couple of alarmed young women. “Ya’ll got a cigarette?”
“Uh, we don’t smoke,” one of the young women replied flatly.
“Screw you!” Bret spat. He slinked up to Robbie and muttered, “I know a smoker when I see one, lying bimbo. Hey, Chris. We there yet? I’m real sick of getting dragged all over searching for your prostitute.”
Blowing off Bret’s rudeness, Chris said, “I don’t know. It’s hard to tell, but I think she’s riding in a vehicle.”
“Grr!” Bret ruffled his hair, making it messier and adding to his frazzled appearance. “This sucks. Not how I wanna spend my Sunday. I was supposed to make a deal today. I could use the money, although I couldn’t care less about the shmuck I was gonna meet.”
“Nobody’s making you come with, Bret,” Chris told him sternly. “Just go home if you’re that tired.”
“If you lived where I do,” Bret sneered, “then you wouldn’t wanna go home.”
“Well, we can’t help you there,” Robbie said to Bret, “but Chris is right. We’re not making you come with us.”
“Oh, I’m sticking with you two.” Bret was resolute in his words, pounding his fist into his other hand. “I’m spoiling for a beat-down, and besides,” the angelic image of Lavi crossed his mind again, “I have my reasons for riding this out.”
“That’s fine,” Chris replied, furrowing his brow, “just as long as you stop complaining.”
“Heh, we’ll see about that,” Bret grunted under his breath.
A low murmur of commotion caught the boys’ attention. Some other people were apparently stirred by something. Suddenly, a stumpy, brown animal emerged into view. Within seconds, Chris recognized the creature as none other than Garret’s pet beaver, Mont Blanc.
“Hey, isn’t that the Canadian boy’s varmint?” Robbie said.
“Uh, y-yeah,” Chris replied, unsure of how to react.
The friendly beaver approached the boys as if it recognized them. Chris was unsure how intelligent beavers were, but he found it heartwarming, albeit odd, that Mont Blanc seemed to recognize him.
“Awww! Isn’t that Mont Blanc?” A teenage girl was cooing upon seeing the animal, and the group of girls she was with all squealed happily.
“It certainly is! I know that cuddly, snuggly fur ball of cute-aliciousness when I see him!”
Sensing probable danger, Mont Blanc scurried away, heading straight into a station for the Chicago ‘L’ train Blue Line. As the girls continued to giggle and be smitten for the flat-tailed rodent, Bret began putting together unsavory conclusions within his mind.
“That beaver,” he muttered to himself, “is … a chick magnet.”
That was all the logic he needed as a devious grinned plastered itself to his face. Wheeling around, he impulsively gave chase, following Mont Blanc to the train station.
“Bret! Come back!” Chris quickly understood his words were useless, and he took off after the delinquent.
Robbie groaned loudly. “Aaaah, crap.” With that, he joined the chase.
Unbeknownst to the gate guard, Mont Blanc passed through the entrance of the station, startling a man with an expensive camera who was about to enter. Bret nimbly leapt over the turnstile, also unbeknownst to the half-asleep guard. Chris already had his contactless pass card in hand, slapped it across the scanner at the gate, and barged through the turnstile. Right behind, Robbie did the same, paying no mind to the man taking pictures of the event with his expensive camera.
The pursuit ended when Mont Blanc reached the platform. A departing train startled the hyper animal, giving Bret the opportunity to snatch him up. Now captured, the beaver was unexpectedly docile, and Bret smirked as he stared at the critter. When a couple of girls pointed excitedly and mentioned the infamous beaver’s name, a wave of triumph overcame the delinquent boy.
“Who’d have thought it’d be this easy to score with the babes?” he asked victoriously, looking the beaver in the face. A pertinent glimmer in Mont Blanc’s eye signified a possible concurrence to Bret’s intentions.
Chris and Robbie showed up, giving Bret displeased grimaces.
“Well, ya caught it,” Robbie told Bret. “Happy now?”
“Heh, damn straight I’m happy about it.”
Deciding to dismiss the unwarranted detour, Chris removed the dice from his pocket and dropped them to the ground. After interpreting the direction, he did his best to accurately map out the ‘L’ train routes in his mind.
“We can probably take the train from here,” he said to Robbie, “heading toward Forest Park.”
“You think so?” Robbie asked.
“According to the dice, Al is roughly in that direction.”
“Hmm.” Robbie thought for a moment. “I’m pretty sure the Green Line and Pink Line also head out that way. That gives us those options if need be.”
“Okay,” Chris nodded, “then let’s take the Blue Line since we’re here. I can keep checking the dice on the way and we can get off when we feel like we should.”
“Hey, I saw you ladies eyeing my beaver.” Bret was trying to put the moves on the girls while displaying Mont Blanc like some kind of teddy bear with hypnotic seduction powers.
“Erm, yeah,” one of the girls was giving a defensive smile, “the beaver is cute, but you ….”
“It’s okay, I’m sure he bites harder than I do,” Bret replied.
The train en route to Forest Park arrived, clattering and clacking until it came to a grinding halt. When the doors opened, many of the people on the platform boarded the numerous cars. Robbie followed Chris. Bret followed the girls.
There wasn’t much room in the train, so the boys had to stand. A dissonant concerto of coughing filled the car, escalating the level of uneasiness. Wheezy breathing, sniffling, nose-blowing, throat clearing … those were the primary sounds of the enclosed space.
Chris toyed with the dice in his hand, rubbing them together. Robbie looked around inconspicuously, noticing the undeniable pestilence surrounding him, and wishing he could hold his breath, imagining the millions of germs entering in through his mouth, nose, eyes, and ears at that very moment ….
Before the train reached its next stop, Bret had shoved his way through the congestion of passengers, Mont Blanc in his arms with the beaver’s legs and tail dangling lazily.
“What a sham,” Bret murmured. “You’d pick this rodent over me? Hey, Chris, do I look that undesirable?”
Chris wanted to agree, but he merely smiled modestly.
After several stops, the number of passengers had dwindled, opening up some seats for the three boys (and beaver). When departing the Kedzie-Homan station, Chris tossed the dice on the floor, which bounced and tumbled energetically despite the small drop distance.
“We’re heading in the right direction,” Chris told Robbie. “This train is heading directly west, which is close to where these dice are telling me to go.”
Robbie looked at the dice. One showed a five and the other a three, adding up to eight. Corresponding to the position of a clock’s hands, Robbie understood that meant due west-southwest. He gave Chris a nod in agreement.
At each stop, Chris continued to roll the dice and continually confirmed they were heading in the correct direction. Only when they arrived at the Forest Park station, the last destination on that end of the Blue Line, did the dice indicate a seven to mean Al was now slightly more south than west from their position.
Exiting the station, the boys walked a short distance to Des Plaines Avenue. Robbie mentioned he had been to the area a couple times with his family, but it was Chris’s first time there. As Chris was getting a feel for the place, a yelp from Bret caught him by surprise.
“Why’d you bite me, Monty?” Bret growled, rubbing a mark on his arm. Now free, the scampering beaver darted down the street. “I thought we were a team! Blah, he’s gone.”
“Actually, Garret is his teammate,” Robbie pointed out. “You’re just an imposter for all Mont Blanc cares.”
“Shut up, Robbie. I didn’t ask you.”
Sighing, Robbie turned to Chris, who had just tossed the misshapen dice again.
“What’s the word, Chris?”
“That way.” Chris pointed in the direction as he picked up the dice.
There was still plenty of daylight to be had, but the sun was ever so slowly intruding the western horizon as the boys continued on foot to search for Al. By that point, the boys were experiencing the onset of exhaustion, and the two-and-a-half-mile trek to the Miller Meadows Forest Preserve felt like it took forever. Walking down Roosevelt Road, the dice shifted to a sum of six, straight south.
“In there?” Robbie asked when he noticed Chris staring toward the large forest preserve.
“That’s what the dice say.” He looked toward the preserve’s entrance, seeing the flood of traffic. “There are a lot of people around here.”
“Looks busy, for sure,” Robbie said. “Let’s check it out.”
“This person better be there,” Bret grumbled. “This is ridiculous.”
The Miller Meadows Forest Preserve was large and spacious with open fields stretching far and wide. Tumbling the dice, Chris noticed something peculiar, making him feel relieved.
“Hey, I think we’re getting close,” he said. “It seems like we’re closing in because the dice keep changing, and it seems to be focusing somewhere close.”
“Praise be!” Bret muttered sarcastically.
“Alright, let’s find her, then.” Even Robbie’s impatience was difficult to hide.
As they closed in on the target, Robbie looked around at the pristine preserve, appreciating its beauty. That was when he realized something unsettling, so he had to speak up.
“Do you notice anything … off?” he asked openly.
Bret smacked a mosquito, cursing to himself. Chris scanned the area before seeing what Robbie was talking about.
“There’s nobody here.”
“Exactly,” Robbie said. “Now that I think about it, all those people we saw at the entrance were leaving.”
“But nobody was coming in.” Discomfort lurked into Chris’s chest. “We’re alone now.”
“Just like that time with Al in Revere Park,” Robbie added. He looked at Chris, who looked right back.
“Eh? I think I see someone.” Bret squinted, looking off into the distance. “You see ‘em?”
“I do,” Chris replied, looking where Bret was pointing. He dropped the dice, and they rustled through the grass before directing him straight toward the person. “That’s where we’re heading, I think.”
“Do you think it’s Al?” Robbie asked, getting hopeful. “It’s hard to tell.”
“Can’t say for sure.” Chris clutched the dice. “C’mon.”
The grassy field was expansive, well-maintained, and comfortably propelled every jogging footstep beneath Chris’s shoes as he hurried toward the lone person standing in the midst of the greenery, Robbie and Bret close behind. Occasional trees dotted the park, now casting horizontal shadows longer than the vertical reaches of themselves as the day approached its final sunlight hours.
Making a slight flank around the person in question, Chris dropped the dice again. After bumbling through the verdant blades of the lawn, their sum added up to a number that addressed Chris’s belief; that person was indeed the target.
Before resuming their advance, Robbie looked at Chris, and they silently acknowledged each other’s thoughts. Peering at the targeted person at the closer distance, it was evident the dice had not been leading them to Aleph-Naught, as the height was taller. Slowly and deliberately, they moved in.
The person was standing completely upright, gazing into the sky above. When the nearing boys caught his attention, he turned to face the confronting trio, revealing his face to them.
“Erik?” Chris was baffled. No other words came to mind.
At that exact moment, the very last visitor drove out of the preserve, leaving the four Lyonbole students alone.