Chapter 32:

Book 2, Ch. 7: Blazing Through the Trials of Opposition

ANNO DOMINI ~Allium~


***THANKS FOR READING!***

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*******

BOOK 2, CHAPTER 7: BLAZING THROUGH THE TRIALS OF OPPOSITION

There was standing room only as Chris and Robbie boarded the crowded city bus after school, and the two boys remained shoulder-to-shoulder as the doors closed. Chris had the GPS app open on his phone, and Excalibur had marked a specific location in The Loop with a generic smiley face icon labeled “Alessandra Starling.” That was their destination.

Robbie looked at the phone screen, which Chris was staring at with a notable degree of intent.

“I think we’re in range of this person now,” Chris told Robbie. “Her name’s Alessandra.”

“That really shows where somebody is,” Robbie muttered, being mindful of the number of people around. “Somebody…who’s like us?”

Nodding, Chris said, “Seems so. And if that’s the case, then meeting them might be a good idea.”

“Eh, I hope you’re right.” Robbie was skeptical. “I don’t wanna deal with somebody like Erik again. I…I just don’t think I can handle that, ya know what I mean?” He sighed. “He was a friend…”

“I know.” Chris glanced out the window. “This is our stop.”

The boys exited the bus and transferred to the nearby ‘L’ train line. Heading to the platform, they continued talking.

“I’ve been thinkin’,” Robbie said. “I’ve been giving it some thought.” He scratched his chin. “What I wanted to talk to you about earlier, I think I wanna team up with you.”

Chris looked at him.

“Aren’t you already, like, on the same team as me?”

“Well, yeah. What I mean is I wanna do it fulltime. I got school and basketball and stuff, and Tinashe really wants to spend time with me…” he checked his phone, seeing a missed text message from Tinashe Bronson, “…and I really wanna spend time with her, too. But I’ve really been thinkin’, man…and I think this is the right thing to do.”

“It’s okay, Robbie.” Chris patted Robbie’s back with an assuring smile. “I’ve already told you that it’s your choice, but I’m glad you want to stick with me.” His smile morphed into a weary grin. “Otherwise I’d probably be stuck with Bret by myself…”

With a chuckle heartier than intended, Robbie said, “Man, I couldn’t leave you with that asshole by yourself!”

“Do you think ill of Bret Taurus?” Excalibur asked as Chris held his phone.

“Um, he’s difficult,” Chris told the app.

“He’s an asshole,” Robbie added with a grunt.

“Then I feel the need to inform you,” Excalibur replied, “that Bret seems to be accompanying Alessandra.”

Chris was shocked.

“Y-you’re kidding.”

“I am not,” Excalibur said. “Bret’s energy signal has been within close proximity to Alessandra’s energy signal ever since they have entered my detection range. I’ll display his location on the GPS.”

Another smiley face icon, labeled “Bret Taurus,” appeared on top of the other one.

The two boys exchanged glances as the train arrived. Both of them could see the mild anguish on each other’s face as they boarded the next train; once again there was standing room only. Furthermore, they wondered if it was coincidence—Bret already making contact with whoever Alessandra Starling was.

Another person with similar abilities was merely coincidence?

Chris received a text message from Excalibur:

["I have detected a malevolent being. It has been marked on your GPS."]

With a nudge, Chris got Robbie’s attention and showed him the generic monster indicator on his phone’s map app.

“Is that…one of those things?” Robbie was quiet, his voice bleak. When Chris nodded, Robbie added, “We gonna take care of it?”

Chris thought of their possible course of action as the train rocked and clacked down the track.

“Yeah, but let’s meet this other person first. As much as I don’t like it, these things,” he pointed to the monster icon on his GPS, “can probably be left alone without causing too much harm, at least for a little bit.”

An idea came to Chris, and he typed a reply text message to Excalibur:

["We should name the malevolent beings so I can keep track of them better"]

Before Chris could send the message, Excalibur answered:

["I will oblige. What name would you prefer for this current target?"]

Chris typed:

["I dont know, I’ll leave it up to u"]

Instantaneously, Excalibur replied:

["I will utilize a random word generator on the internet to perform such naming tasks. In doing so, I shall name this current target “Pilgrim.” The indicator on your smartphone’s map app has been updated to reflect this change. Unless you desire otherwise, I can do this for all future targets of negative energy."]

“Hey,” Robbie said, “Excalibur can find Bret and this new person. Does that mean it can find you and me?”

A text message on Chris’s phone from Excalibur confirmed Robbie’s question.

["Yes, I can."]

“Wait.” Chris looked at his phone. “Excalibur…can you find Al, too?”

Excalibur replied with another text message:

["No. Aleph-Naught is not aware of Lavi’s real identity, nor does she emit negative energy readings. As of now, either of those two parameters are required for my detection."]

Chris sighed. Robbie read the text message and shook his head.

“Ain’t ever easy,” Robbie muttered.

When the train arrived at the next stop, one of the boarding passengers was a middle-aged man carrying a crude sign made from writing on a piece of cardboard with a black marker that read “Can’t afford food. Please help.” Although his clothes and appearance weren’t terrible, it was obvious he was down on his luck.

The man looked at Robbie, who tried to avoid eye contact.

“Do you boys have anything I could eat?” he asked weakly.

Robbie shook his head.

“Sorry,” Chris said passively, being used to beggars.

“I’m not homeless,” the man said, “not yet. I have a job and have been skatin’ close to the bottom for a while, havin’ kids and all. But with food gettin’ expensive, it was a matter of time before it tipped me over the edge.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Chris told him.

“A lesson for you kids,” the man said, “keep yer credit up. Don’t go hungry even with a job and home, like me.”

Chris and Robbie looked at each other before nodding to the man, and he slowly made his way down the train aisle asking for help. Despite the large crowd of well-dressed, groomed people, nobody offered so much as a penny.

“The homeless problem in The Loop is getting outta hand,” Robbie murmured.

“He wasn’t homeless, though.”

“Yeah, true.”

“I feel bad,” Chris said. “I wish I had something to give him.”

“You can’t help the homeless, Chris,” Robbie said. “You shouldn’t. You’ve lived in Chicago your whole life and still don’t know this?”

“He wasn’t homeless. He has a job, too.”

“…Yeah…true.”

“And is it really wrong, or impossible, for me to help them?”

“Well…”

Chris looked after the beggar.

“Is there a food shortage, or something?” he asked.

“Uh, I’m not sure,” Robbie replied. “I keep hearing about how they’re raising the prices of food, so maybe there is. It really makes you think.”

“Think what?”

“How lucky we are. How good we’ve got it.”

“Is it all right, though?” Chris asked.

Robbie shrugged. “I dunno, but we might as well use our privileges since we got ’em.”

Chris took a moment to let that notion sink in.

At the appropriate station, the train doors slid open, withdrawing yet another barrier between the two boys and their coincidental encounter with Alessandra, another person who had learned of Lavi’s identity.

They walked down Michigan Avenue along the Magnificent Mile, closer to the marked location on the GPS screen, and eventually coming to the large glass entranceway of a reasonably-priced hotel offering its best seasonal rates.

Ubiquitous light fixtures dotted the mundane lobby. A middle-aged woman attended the lobby desk, talking on the phone and reviewing a spreadsheet on her computer.

Robbie glanced at the receptionist before leaning close to Chris’ ear.

“Can we just go right in?” he asked concernedly.

“We should be able to,” Chris replied, “but we’ll just find out.”

The boys crossed the unmentionable lobby to the elevator. The receptionist saw them, but paid no mind as she kept working.

“Judging by the average height difference among floors in other buildings,” Excalibur said, “I estimate the target is on the eleventh, twelfth, or thirteenth floor.”

“Okay,” Chris replied, pressing the elevator call button, “we’ll start on the eleventh floor.”

When the elevator stopped at the eleventh floor, Excalibur confirmed it was the correct one. Chris and Robbie exited the elevator as three young men entered, each wearing shirts for the anime Baccano! and talking about virtual reality brain surgery.

Keeping watch on the GPS, Chris saw he and Robbie were right next to the smiley face marker. He looked toward the nearby door, room number 1105.

“Is this it?” Robbie asked.

“I think so.” Chris shook his head and smiled. “Sorry, but this room is number 1105. That’s the date of my parents’ anniversary, November fifth. It’s also Guy Fawkes Night in Great Britain.”

“Ah.” Robbie didn’t know what to make of the random facts.

Chris took one more look at the room number.

It’s a coincidence.

*******

“Getting all worked up ain’t gonna do you any good.” Bret popped the cap off his bottled beer with a Bic lighter, his third since arriving in Sandra’s hotel room. “Just be ready, because things might get pretty wild.” Taking a sip of beer, he smiled, devoid of much empathy. “Not even I can tell you what’s gonna happen, though. I’m new to this, too. Hey…you listening to me?”

“Uhhh, yeah.”

Sandra sat on the bed with her back against the headboard. Her hazy, blue eyes peered somewhere in the general direction of the full beer bottle in her hand. Feeling the drilling stare from the delinquent teenager, she looked indolently at Bret sitting on the table by the window.

“Hmph.” Bret realized his host was resisting almost all social interactions, and he had already dropped all hopes of getting into that same bed as her at the same time. He wasn’t disappointed, though, since the knowledge of Sandra’s circumstances had ruined the mood. With another swig of beer, he grunted under his breath.

What do I do? Sandra looked back at her beer, thinking how uninviting it was. I shouldn’t have left my apartment. This wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t come here.

Annoyed by the brooding vibes oozing from Sandra, Bret stood up and pointed at her.

“If you wanna sit and cry about it, then go ahead.” There was no trace of tact in his tone.

“I’m not crying,” Sandra muttered, pouting.

“Sure, whatever. I’ll get outta your hair if you’re gonna mope all day.” Bret chugged the rest of his beer and placed the empty bottle next to the others on the table. “But before I go, there’s one important piece of advice I’ll give, ‘cuz you’re in the same barnacle-crusted boat as me.”

“Mmm?”

Shuffling toward the door with his hands in his pocket, Bret smirked.

“There are real monsters in this world. Be on your guard.”

The words dribbled into Sandra’s mind, slowly and steadily.

“What…do you mean?” she asked, looking attentively at Bret. “Monsters?”

“Yup,” Bret said, wearing the same smirk and running his fingers through his disheveled hair. “Monsters, plain and simple.”

Sandra gripped her beer with her right hand and the blanket with her left, still giving Bret her undivided attention.

“You’re not screwing with me, are you?”

Chuckling, the delinquent replied, “Nope, I’m being serious. They’re out there.” When he looked at Sandra, she saw the firmness on his face. “Fair warning: they’re dangerous. I fought ‘em, and it was terrifying. I really thought I was gonna die. Hell, I might get killed by one sooner or later.”

Goosebumps erupted all over Sandra’s skin, and she promptly sat forward, spilling some of her beer on the bed.

“What do you mean?” she demanded, nearly shouting.

“I just told you, dammit.” Bret groaned with irritation. “I can’t say it any more straight. Evil things that most people can’t see, and they bite… Uh, you’re spilling your beer everywhere…”

Sandra quickly slid off the bed to her feet, sloshing most of the beer in her bottle on the blanket and carpet before setting it on the floor. She fumbled for words, anything to say that wouldn’t sound ridiculous or incoherent.

And yet she said, “Huhhhh?” while her hands and eyes twitched sporadically.

“Now that you know,” Bret said wryly, “I’ll catch ya later…if they don’t catch ya first.”

“Hold on!” Sandra stepped forward. She felt defeated for having to stop Bret from leaving. “You…don’t leave me like this…please.”

“Changing your mind?” Bret snickered.

“You can’t just tell me something like that and then bail! Monsters? For real?”

“Heh, so you want me to spend the night with you, is that it?”

Clenching her fists, Sandra’s face heated up (with the help of the alcohol still in her blood), and she glared at the shameless teenage boy who had weaseled his way into her hotel room after all.

Four steady knocks from the door resounded sharply through the room. Sandra was startled by the sudden noise, clutching her chest. Bret merely grimaced and looked at the door.

“Well, answer it,” Sandra said, feeling her heart pounding as she still clutched her chest.

“I gotta answer it?” Bret replied flatly.

“You’re closer.”

“It’s your room.”

“I don’t care!” Sandra hissed.

Sighing, Bret approached the door and peeked through the peephole. Chris and Robbie were in view in the hallway.

“Hahaha! No surprise.” Bret opened the door and greeted Chris and Robbie with a scowl. “What’re you guys doin’ here? Ain’t too surprised to see ya, anyway.”

“Bret,” Chris said, keeping a neutral attitude. “Excalibur said you were here.”

The scruffy delinquent shrugged.

“Is there somebody else here?” Robbie asked, looking past Bret. Sure enough, there was a young woman with voluminous dark hair standing in the room, and she appeared overly cautious and full of suspicion, casting watchful eyes toward the two new guests.

Bret nodded toward her.

“Yeah. This is her room.”

“We’d like to talk to her,” Chris said.

“Yo,” Bret called to Sandra, “you got visitors.”

“Oh. Okay,” she replied firmly.

As Chris and Robbie entered the room, Sandra silently stood in place. The door latched behind the boys, and she had no choice but to address the situation with authority and confidence…although the long day, lack of good sleep, and uncounted drinks made it challenging.

Chris and Sandra made eye contact. He could see the uneasiness on her face—Sandra saw a lack of a definitive expression on Chris’ face; a sense of solidity and determination behind his sharp, mean-looking eyes that wasn’t alleviated by the warm smile he offered seconds later.

“Hi there.” His voice and mannerisms were not what Sandra had expected, being gentler and uncannily inviting with only two words. “I’m Chris.”

“Hey,” Sandra replied in a neutral way, the result of her not knowing yet how to present herself in the uncomfortable situation. “I’m Sandra.”

“And I’m Robbie,” the black boy said, matching Chris’ polite demeanor.

“Hi, Robbie.”

An obnoxious noise rang out as Sandra’s smartphone vibrated on the bedside table. She checked it, seeing the text message she had just received.

“Uh, do any of you know someone called ‘Excalibur’?” she asked slowly.

“Oh, sorry.” Chris chuckled, feeling slightly embarrassed. “That’s my phone, um, saying hi to you…”

Sandra didn’t answer, but her thoughts manifested as lines of confusion all over her face as she slid the phone into her pants pocket.

Bret took his seat at the table by the window, prying the cap from another beer bottle, and grinned inadvertently at the awkwardness in the room.

“Really, Bret?” Robbie said with disapproval. “Drinking alcohol?”

“I am. Help yourself.”

Robbie shook his head. “No thanks.”

“What do you want?” Sandra asked Chris and Robbie, speaking directly and harshly. “You look like you know this punk,” she pointed at Bret swigging his beer, “and I didn’t invite you here.”

“You met somebody named Lavi, didn’t you?” Chris asked her, similarly direct with his answer.

“I…yes.” She looked at the floor before looking back at Chris.

“Then you know what he is.”

“Not human,” she said quietly, speaking slowly. “I mean, he had angel wings and shone like a neon sign. But…but that’s not the only reason I know he’s not a human. I could feel it. There was something obvious about him, and I can’t really explain it.”

Robbie smiled and sighed in agreement.

“Yup, that sounds about right,” he said. “The three of us have gone through the same thing.”

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Sandra rubbed her eyes and groaned.

“No shit, huh?” she muttered gravely.

“That’s why I want to talk to you,” Chris told her. “We might have similar abilities, kinda like superpowers. It sounds ridiculous when I explain it like that, though.”

Sandra didn’t look up, but buried her face into her palms.

“Superpowers?” she murmured.

“My phone has an app called Excalibur Artificial Intelligence,” Chris explained. “Lavi gave it to me. It has a lot of useful functions, and it detected your energy signal. That’s how we found you.”

“Phenomenal,” Sandra responded with utter sarcasm. Her sweaty palms greased her face as she remained behind her hands.

“And, uh, that’s why we came to see you.”

Chris could feel Sandra’s resistance against the meeting, and he wondered if he was approaching her correctly, or if he had made the right choice to meet her at all.

Finally, she removed her hands from her eyes and looked at Chris.

“Then tell me,” she said, maintaining a dignified attitude, “what should I do?”

“Well…um…”

She stood up abruptly and confronted Chris.

“Go on, tell me what this means.” Her sudden aggressiveness was surprising, but Chris was not deterred by it. “I don’t know a damn thing about anything at this point. In fact, I’m too tired to care one way or the other!” She irritably rustled her hair, and as she continued to talk, it was difficult to determine exactly at whom her words were directed. “Today has been a day! And this isn’t even considering the last few weeks of my life leading up to this.”

“It must be hard for you.” Chris didn’t know what else to say.

Sandra laughed ironically.

“Yeah, it sure is,” she told Chris rudely. “So, screw it. To hell with the half-assed plans that I tried cobbling together. I’m a free spirit now. And I’m drunk, thanks to the under-aged dipshit over here.”

“You’re welcome,” Bret sneered, swirling the foamy contents around in his beer bottle.

“So, whatever!” Sandra declared boldly. She looked at Chris. “Tell me what I should do.”

Reluctant to answer, fearing that he might say something to further aggravate the young woman, Chris failed to concoct a resolute response.

“Uh, that’s really up to you,” he said.

“That’s all you gotta say?” Sandra tossed her head back in frustration. “You come here acting like you have a plan, and that’s the best you can say?”

“Hey,” Robbie interjected sternly, “this ain’t easy for us, too.” When Sandra shot him a dirty look of disbelief, he added, “We’re new to this. Figuring out what to do is, well, hard.”

“That’s right,” Chris said. “We’re making this up as we go along.”

“Gahhh…I can tell,” Sandra told them flatly.

“But even so,” Chris continued, “we’re also doing our best. I wanted to talk to you so we can help each other out.”

“Help?” Sandra folded her arms, unconvinced. “Help how?”

Chris shook his head.

“I don’t know exactly, but I’m willing to find out. We have these abilities, these powers, and it could help if we come together and get through it together. Don’t you think so?”

“Get through what?” Sandra asked, narrowing her eyes and keeping her arms crossed.

There was a short pause.

“To get through the danger.”

Another pause followed. Sandra stared at the floor, her mind and emotions competing for what little sanity remained within her. Chris and Robbie watched her, waiting for her to say something. A small pop and hiss indicated that Bret had opened another beer; he was enjoying the discord unfolding in front of him, and grinned vulgarly.

Finally, Sandra looked up, including both Chris and Robbie in a single prudent gaze.

“I want you to explain yourselves to me,” she told them in a mature tone confirming her willingness to understand. “Tell me what you think I should know, and…and I’ll decide what to do based on that.”

She took the other seat at the table by the window. Chris and Robbie sat on the edge of the bed.

They explained Lavi and his connection with their powers suddenly developing.

They explained Excalibur and its assistive abilities.

They explained the existence of negative energy, malevolent beings, and Erik Hawthorne, saying they were attempting to protect people from those threats.

Lastly, they explained Gunnhildr and the absolving bullets, and the role those tools played in the mission to right what was wrong.

In silence, Sandra took in all of the information. No doubt, such talk sounded absurd, but she believed them, and it was that very belief that brought her much grief.

By the time Chris and Robbie had finished their explanations, Bret had grown bored, and had not contributed to the conversation aside from a few snickers and grunts. He finished the beer he held, feeling no need to touch the remaining few bottles.

“Is all of that true?” Sandra asked, giving Chris and Robbie a weary look.

“It is,” Chris told her.

“I went through the same thing when Chris told me these things,” Robbie said, “so trust me when I say I know how ya feel.”

“And…” Sandra spoke slowly, “you guys are like freedom fighters, or something? Well, not freedom fighters, I suppose…”

“Kinda,” Chris replied, “but more like—”

“Super. Heroes.” Bret interrupted Chris with the first thing he had said in a while. He stood up, stretched, and gave Chris a belittling smirk. “Ain’t that right? Being a good guy who protects the innocent. Ain’t that right?”

“More or less,” Chris said confidently.

Sandra looked at Bret with distaste.

“Are you one of these good guys, too?” she asked Bret, already expecting the answer.

Bret shrugged. “Sure.”

After receiving a different answer than anticipated, Sandra raised her eyebrows.

“Is that so?”

Chris and Robbie remained quiet, not sure how to answer (and not really knowing the answer).

“We’re basically fightin’ the same enemies,” Bret said flippantly, “so that puts us on the same side. Besides,” he looked at his right hand, remembering the sensation of holding the dark voids ripped from two sinister shadow beings, “it ain’t like…I’m a bad guy…” his voice trailed off as a modest, glum expression cast over him, “or am I…?”

“Huh?” Sandra impatiently leaned toward the delinquent. “What was that last part?”

Bret looked at her with an uncharacteristic blank face.

“Nothing.”

Robbie grew suspicious of Bret in that moment. Chris quickly dismissed it, however.

“Bret,” Chris said.

“Huh?”

“Excalibur detected a malicious entity on our way here.” He looked at Robbie, who nodded. “We’re going to deal with it.”

The life leaked back into Bret’s posture.

“Oh yeah?” he said, pounding his fist into his other hand. “You inviting me for some action?” He grinned. “I’m down for that.”

Chris checked his phone’s GPS and saw the monster indicator was still displayed and labeled as “Pilgrim,” although it had moved. He held up the phone for Bret to see.

“That’s the one. It’s still within Excalibur’s detection range and isn’t too far away.”

“Man, that’s a handy app!” Bret said. “So, when do ya wanna go? I’m ready now. Let’s do this!”

“Hey, what?” Sandra watched the boys stand up and prepare to leave. “What’s going on? You found one of those monsters?”

“Yeah,” Robbie told her, “and now we’re going to deal with it.”

“You mean just like that?” Sandra asked skeptically, standing up as well. “With that gun thing you have?”

Chris held out his hand, making Gunnhildr appear in his grasp. Seeing the strange pistol suddenly materialize made Sandra’s eyes bug out.

“It r-really just came out of nowhere!” she exclaimed.

“Come with us,” Chris told her. “You can see for yourself what we do, and then you can determine what you want to do.”

“Uh…”

Although it was too sudden for Sandra to decide whether or not she wanted to come with, a large part of her thirsted for the adventure. After all, city life with lots of action was something she had missed dearly while living close to the countryside.

“I won’t pressure you.” A comforting attraction seemed to emanate from Chris as he consoled the diffident young woman. “That said, I’ll say that I want you to come with just this once. After that, you should be able to make your own decision.”

“…Make my own decision?”

Alessandra Starling, by default, was not a timid or easily persuaded individual. Many of her actions stemmed from an inner source of confidence, curiosity, and pursuit of whatever her heart desired. Meager were the obstacles that often stood to drive her off any path, and the entrepreneurial resolve within her provided a nearly limitless wellspring of satisfaction and contentment whenever she overcame said obstacles.

Blazing through the trials of opposition to cut straight to any problem with an infallible solution…this was the greatest fire that lit her steadfastness.

This is it, she thought as a near-forgotten giddiness took hold from head to toe. This excitement…the feeling of standing at the edge of the known and staring into the uncharted unknown, like a pioneer…I’ve almost forgotten this feeling. This is why I couldn’t stay in that little apartment to fade away, and chose to come back to the city. This…this is what I live for!

And

“This will be goodbye to my life as I’ve known it,” Sandra said. Her fluency and pervasive keenness sprang from dormancy and rushed to the foreground. “And I can’t express how much I need to make that leap.”

Chris did not look away from her. In fact, he couldn’t.

“Does that mean you want to learn more about this?” he asked.

When the signature glow of Sandra’s confidence rallied forth, it held Chris’ attention with such unwavering clarity that it was impossible to ignore the ironclad bond forming between them.

Chris couldn’t help but smile before Sandra had even spoken, as if her answer had declared itself already without her consent.

“Hell yes, I’m coming with you.”
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