Chapter 34:

Book 2, Ch. 9: Price of a Miracle

ANNO DOMINI ~Allium~


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BOOK 2, CHAPTER 9: PRICE OF A MIRACLE

A dark, heavy blanket of clouds pushed in from the west, bringing an early approach of nightfall. Chicago’s skyline was still barely in view, blurred by the thickening thunderstorm as a taxi pulled over to the curb. As droplets of rain spattered on the taxi’s windows, Robbie, Bret, and Sandra exited the vehicle, followed by Chris after he paid for the fare.

Thunder gently rumbled from the darkening west skies, making Robbie and Sandra gaze at the thunderheads with disdain.

“Forecast said a storm would be comin’,” Robbie remarked with a sigh.

“Yup.” Bret stuffed his hands into his pants pockets. “Prepare to get rained on.”

With a chilly breeze, the rain suddenly picked up. The four of them quickly sought shelter under a nearby awning, each sharing the same disheartened expression as the storm worsened by the second.

Sandra turned to Chris, who was looking at his smartphone to check the location of the target labeled as “Pilgrim.”

“So, what’s the plan?” she asked. “How do you guys normally do this?”

“That’s the thing,” Chris told her, “we don’t normally do this.”

Rain beat down around them as lightning flashed. When the following thunder rolled past, Sandra stared across the road, having nothing to say to Chris’ insufficient answer.

“We’ll just go beat the thing up,” Bret said. “There ain’t much planning needed.”

“I don’t think that’s too smart,” Robbie said, shaking his head. “What if we run into somebody like Erik again? We barely made it outta that last scuffle alive.”

Chris nodded.

“I agree, but we won’t really know what we’re dealing with unless we see it first.” He looked at his smartphone. “Excalibur, what’re your thoughts?”

“According to my analysis,” Excalibur said, “Pilgrim is emitting a negative energy signal close to the limit of my detection parameters. That means it is rather strong, but it is something you should be capable of extinguishing.”

“Heh, it really does talk,” Sandra said weakly, looking at Chris’ phone in his hand, “and it sounds a lot more intelligent than any other personal assistant A.I. I know.”

“There you have it, guys.” Chris gave his teammates a confident smile. “We’ll just go take care of it, but we still need to be careful.”

Bret spit on the ground, which quickly blended into the rainwater.

“Too bad I didn’t bring my baseball bat,” he grumbled. “If it’s a strong enough creature, then it’d be able to be hurt by hitting it, right? Like, it’ll be physical, or something?”

“That is a worthy assumption,” Excalibur answered, “but may not be true in every circumstance.”

“Bah.” Bret scowled. “These monsters don’t make sense. They have stupid rules for how they work and stuff.”

“The stronger they are,” Sandra asked, “the easier they get hurt?”

“Stupid rules,” Bret repeated.

“I do not understand your logic,” Excalibur told Bret. “First, these beings do not necessarily have ‘rules’ to oblige by. Second, you must consider how it takes a great deal of nonphysical energy to emulate the properties of physical matter, so entities with more negative energy may (or may not) be more capable of adhering to—”

“Shut up, Cortana,” Bret said sharply.

“That is not my name.”

More thunder rumbled down from the skies.

“Well, ready when you are, Chris,” Robbie said.

Chris looked at the pouring rain. “Uh, Excalibur…my phone’s waterproof now, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Just checking. Okay, let’s go.”

The group of four dashed out from under the awning and into the rain, splashing through the puddles quickly forming on the sidewalk. Water streamed down the touchscreen on Chris’ phone, and he was grateful for its indestructible durability as he led the way, following the onscreen marked target.

Before they turned down another street, Robbie took a quick look around.

“What the hell?” he wondered aloud while jogging with the others. “Why does everyone disappear during times like this?”

“What do you mean?” Sandra glanced up and down the street, not slowing her pace to keep up. “Oh, you’re right!”

No cars and no pedestrians. Signs of life seemed to hide away, and the loneliness was loud and palpable.

“It helps us out, doesn’t it?” Bret grunted. “Just don’t worry about it!”

In fact, Chris, Robbie, and Sandra still worried about it, as the road they were currently running down should have been plenty busy…and yet it was devoid of any other human activity. The thunder boomed without apology.

*******

A line of cars filled a usually modest side street, honking angrily as the disgruntled drivers swore to themselves. Why on Earth was the main street, with nary a hint of obstruction, closed off in favor of a detour down an insufficient side street?

There was a traffic cop at the intersection, directing traffic yet farther away from the desired route. Several drivers waved their fists and middle fingers at the young blond man in charge of the detour, who smiled smugly at the irate motorists.

“Just a minor detour, folks,” Leon Kampton said inaudibly to the passing cars that he directed. He was wearing the typical attire for a traffic cop. “Nothing to see over yonder, at least nothing you would understand.”

He looked over his shoulder toward the evacuated section of the neighborhood with a smirk.

*******

Lightning and thunder frolicked across the stormy clouds as rain stampeded upon the city. Chris and his companions, dripping wet, huddled beneath a different awning, and they peered through the windows of a closed flower and gardening shop.

“It’s in there somewhere,” Chris said, looking at the map app, then back inside the store.

Sandra stepped back from the glass window her breath had been fogging up.

“What’s it doing in there?” she asked in a hushed voice.

“I’m not sure.” Chris pocketed his phone. “These malicious entities seem to just wander around, and they can move through objects. If I had to guess…it just ended up in this building.”

A gust of wind carried a cool mist that rushed past the group as Sandra focused again on the store’s dark interior. With an unfair stroke of irony, her mouth was dry while rainwater streamed down her face and body; the stale taste of beer was her tongue’s only comrade.

“What…do those creatures do?” Her gaze never veered from the storefront window as she posed her question, quiet and unsettled.

Chris looked at Robbie, who didn’t answer immediately. Bret removed a bent cigarette from the crushed pack in his pocket, lit it, and silently puffed on it.

“We don’t really know,” Robbie told Sandra. “As I see it, those things just roam about, but…who knows? They’re a mystery.”

“And they’re made from this stuff called negative energy?” she asked. “What is negative energy, actually?”

“That’s also a mystery,” Robbie said.

“Let’s take a look around,” Chris said. “There’s an alley right there.”

A shoddy roof-like structure made from plywood and metal covered much of the alleyway, providing protection from the rain. However, the dreariness of the pathways between the surrounding buildings was barely chased away by the few floodlights providing illumination. The storm continuously declared its presence with the din of falling rain, punctuated by occasional thunder.

Small skittering silhouettes flittered amid the shadows as the group proceeded cautiously. Perhaps rodents and other small animals were on the move, although it was unsettling to note how they seemed to flee away from the spot marked on Chris’ GPS; it was uncertain if they were even animals at all.

Sandra followed closely behind the boys. “Uh…”

They stopped walking, and Robbie turned to the young woman.

“What’s up?” he asked her.

“Let’s say we find this thing,” she spoke almost in a whisper. “How will we know?”

“We’ll know it,” Bret said, breathing out cigarette smoke.

“It’s labeled as a Negative Energy Nonhuman,” Chris said, “so I don’t know what to expect.”

“Will that weird gun work on this thing, too?” Sandra asked, inching closer behind the others. “I mean, it purifies them, right?”

Chris nodded. “Yeah. Gunnhildr should do that.”

“But sometimes we gotta use force,” Bret added. “Beat ‘em up.”

“My phone turns into a sword,” Chris explained as he displayed the leaf-shaped blade on his phone.

Sandra eyed the phone sword, taking note of its size as a full-on assault weapon.

“Urrgh, that’s pretty violent,” she said grimly.

Hearing somebody say that only complimented Chris’ opinion of the weapon. He looked at the somewhat-holographic blade for a second, then dismissed it.

“I know,” he told Sandra somberly. “I don’t like using it, but I’ve already had to. I had no choice, it was life or death.”

The other two teenage boys fell silent, even as Sandra turned to them for affirmation; their eyes said it all.

“Oh.” Sandra sighed, acknowledging the purported use of violence. “Are there things out there…that are that dangerous?”

“There are,” Robbie said with a long sigh. “Some of them aren’t monsters, though…”

Chris nodded in agreement. Bret flicked his cigarette butt onto the concrete ground and stomped on it.

“That boy you mentioned at the hotel room?” Sandra asked. “Erik, or something.”

Robbie nodded. “He was a student at Lyonbole.” Sighing, he added, “He was my friend, Erik Hawthorne. He had powers, too. But his energy wasn’t like ours…it was negative energy…just a dirty, evil-feeling energy.”

Bret continued grinding his cigarette butt under his shoe, not looking up.

“Did you get into a fight with him?” Sandra asked quietly.

“Yeah, and it was crazy,” Chris replied. “He tried to kill us, and we had to defend ourselves. Luckily, we’re okay, but Erik hasn’t been to school since. It’s been almost a week, and nobody’s seen him.” He summoned Gunnhildr and stared at it. “Lavi told me this wouldn’t hurt him, but I still don’t know if Erik’s okay.”

Sandra looked at the holy handgun. The sleek contours gave it a somewhat soothing appearance.

“What was wrong with him?” she asked. “Was it all because of negative energy?”

“He was a pissed off little brat!” Bret growled. “He could make people sick, or something. You know that big disease that was going around here for a while?”

“Actually,” Sandra said, “I’ve heard people talk about something like that since I’ve been here. It was on the news, too.”

“That was Erik.” Bret squeezed his fists. “Grrr! Don’t get me started on that scraggly crybaby!”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold on.” Tension boiled up in Sandra. “You guys said that we’d be fighting monsters, like inhuman, lifeless animals and stuff. I don’t like the thought of fighting people!”

“Eh, it was kinda a surprise for us, too,” Chris said with a corny grin.

“We might hurt people doing this…” Sandra said, her throat tightening.

Excalibur interrupted her thought process.

“Christopher, Pilgrim is heading your way,” the app stated. “It has likely noticed you.”

The monster icon quickly slid across Chris’ phone screen toward their marked current location. The boys perked up, eyes sharp, ears alert. Sandra felt her stomach drop out.

“Get behind us.” Chris ushered Sandra behind him, stepping forward with Robbie and Bret.

Static: often referring to a hazy signal or disruption of quality; also referring to being unmoving, unchanging, and without response. Static…that was how the air felt at that very moment.

Sandra’s hairs stood on end, consequentially becoming more receptive to the splintery, dastardly waves palpitating from the looming shades advancing upon them. Its direction and source was difficult to determine, but one thing was clear: it was there, and it was coming.

The nightly entity descended; it sapped what little illumination the alleyway lamps provided, sinking the four humans into a consummate darkness, and the light seemed to bend and shy away from the threatening shroud.

“It’s another cloud-type being,” Robbie muttered, closely watching the familiar actions of manifested negative energy. He deployed an orange energy shield over half his size in front of him.

“Yeah,” Chris said, clutching his smartphone sword in his right hand and Gunnhildr in his left, “and I hope it doesn’t have electrical abilities, like the one in Revere Park.”

It was hard for Sandra to breathe, not only from fear, but because the wickedness made her own lungs feel like foreigners within her chest.

“Is…this…?” She swallowed, seeing the formless shadows creep up from all directions. “This is what you’re after?”

“That’s right,” Robbie told her. He discovered that he could move his energy shield around by using both of his hands at once, an action that felt instinctive. “Damn, I can’t tell which direction I should guard from.”

“It probably won’t matter much,” Chris replied gravely as the four of them huddled with their backs together. “We’re inside it. It can probably attack from all sides.”

Sandra fell utterly silent as the effects of sleepiness and alcohol were entirely wiped away by imposing panic. Her heart raced as sweat replaced the rainwater on her skin.

“I guess it’s up to me,” Bret said, cracking his neck. “Watch this. I’ll put this thing down real quick.”

Robbie looked at him, confused.

“Oh yeah? You better not be foolin’ me, Bret.”

“Nah, I ain’t foolin’ nobody.” The cocky delinquent looked around, feeling with his spirit to locate his target. An unexplainable intuition tugged at his attention, getting stronger with each passing second.

Suddenly, an undeniable confirmation presented itself to him.

“There you are!” Bret shouted haughtily, fixing his eyes on something his companions didn’t detect. “Got you now!”

He crouched down, channeling great strength into his legs, and leapt up into the surrounding darkness. With his right hand outstretched, his fingers yearned for the grand sensation of grasping another vital core of an inhuman assailant.

As anticipated, he punched through an unobservable wall high above the ground, plunging his arm into the vacuous zenith within the vile entity’s innards.

“Whoa!” Robbie was surprised when he saw Bret’s arm seem to disappear into nothingness; although the darkness was extreme, there was still enough light to see Bret’s arm had possibly entered another realm. “Look at that! What’s he doing?”

Chris rested his shoulders, grinning at the delinquent dangling from the unorthodox wound in the malevolent being.

“Bret has a gift,” he said. “I’ve seen him do this once before.” He gave Robbie a thumbs-up. “This is how he beats those things with his bare hands.”

With nothing to say, and not wanting to miss the action, Robbie merely watched. Sandra was awestruck by the scene, mesmerized with terror.

Bret touched the familiar texture of the shadow’s essence, sneering with delight. He savagely clutched it, yahooed victoriously, and yanked it with brutal strength. However, the vital core did not yield.

“Huh? What the hell?” He yanked again, frustrated when he failed to tear the malevolent being’s central source away. “Grahh, what’s going on?”

Agonizing pain shot up Bret’s arm, and he was blasted backward with a frigid wave from the balloon-like shadow organ. He smashed into a nearby building, damaging the brick and mortar with his body, then collapsed to the ground. His vision blurred from the high-velocity impact, and the pain in his hand and arm was debilitating.

Bret cried out as he saw his right hand and forearm were frozen solid, steaming in the warm, humid air. Bits of flesh were cracking and falling off due to his very bones having been exposed to temperatures below absolute zero.

“Bret!” Chris shouted, seeing his teammate had been severely injured.

Robbie dismissed his energy shield and hurried with Chris toward Bret, but they were intercepted. The malicious entity, which was nothing but ambiguous cloudiness moments ago, speedily morphed and assumed a physical body while getting between Bret and the others.

As an object amid the material cityscape, the entity was now more hideous than before, appearing as a large blob that constantly fluctuated its characteristics; one moment it was like stone, the next like mud, and treading across the ground with blubbery spasms.

A low, guttural bellow emerged from somewhere within the amoeba-like abomination as its body sputtered and lolled, but it was not loud enough to block out the thunder from the sky and the wails from Bret as his crystallized extremities grew blacker and more dead.

The cretin instantly surged at Bret with a massive, rocky battering ram from itself. Bret had no chance to react, and was pummeled by the assault and smashed against the brick building, which cracked. His hand and arm chipped away as frozen shards of blood burst through his solid flesh and turned the oily rain puddles into crimson slush. Bits of bone peeked through the skin.

In seconds, the abomination contracted and prepared for another strike, having no qualms with ending Bret’s life using little effort.

Ball Protection!”

Robbie immediately erected a large energy partition from afar, effectively shielding Bret from a deadly attack. The vulgar blob splattered against the huge orange energy shield, then pooled lethargically across the damp alley ground.

An opening—Chris recognized his chance. He spawned Gunnhildr in his grasp and took aim. The bleak entity showed no signs of resilience, yet quickly launched an obsidian spear of itself at Chris. In an instant, the teenage boy was knocked off his feet from a powerful blow to the jaw.

Chris slammed onto the ground. Stars occupied his vision as throbbing pain shot from his chin and mouth. He watched, his back against the wet asphalt, as the shadowy malevolence spit dozens of oozy strings in all directions, which stuck onto the surrounding buildings. Using the stringy extensions, the rocky blob nimbly lifted itself into the air directly above Chris, and formed a solid club ready to be propelled into the boy’s torso.

Gunnhildr! He realized that he still held the holy handgun.

Time slowed to a drizzling chug as Chris aimed Gunnhildr at the threatening shade. His mind and thoughts permeated and merged cohesively, allowing him to witness the ebb and flow of all energies surrounding him. The shadows now appeared to have a sort of predictable arrangement within themselves, showing off a pattern that no human normally learns. Yet, Chris immediately recognized and reciprocated this phenomenon.

Wavelengths of consciousness formed a bridge between the boy and the darkness. When Chris matched his spiritual frequencies with the violent evilness, he knew it was time to squeeze Gunnhildr’s trigger.

Next came a gentle puff sound, a fleeting glimpse of a silver beam, and deafening silence with no more negative energy to speak of.

Sandra had been pressing back against a stack of wood pallets next to a store’s backdoor. When she could sense the rapid erasure of anxious air in the area, she breathed quicker as the oxygen no longer felt toxic.

Robbie hurried over to Bret, whose hand and arm were still inflicted with permafrost conditions. Chris rose to a sitting position, his clothes and hair soaked from the alleyway’s oily puddles, then was helped to his feet by Sandra.

“Thanks,” he told Sandra, feeling his bloody lip swelling.

Sandra said nothing.

“Hey guys!” Robbie called. “Come here! Bret’s hurt bad.”

Upon seeing Bret’s frozen, smashed extremities up close, Chris and Sandra were stunned and sickened.

“I can’t move it,” Bret grunted, sweat covering his face. “It’s totally frozen.”

Swallowing her nausea, Sandra knelt to examine Bret’s condition closer.

“Let me see.”

She touched the blackened skin, but quickly withdrew her fingers. The delicate touch was filled with a stabbing cold.

“Ah!” Sandra gasped, holding her chilled fingers. “That’s really cold.” She looked Bret in the face. “You…might need an amputation.”

Bret rolled his head back to the brick building he was seated against. He felt no pain from his hand, but the partially frozen part of his elbow and lower arm teemed with agony.

Through the pain, the delinquent forced a grin.

“No shit,” he muttered. “Well, I guess one arm outta two ain’t terrible.”

Chris’ ringtone sounded off. Fighting his discouragement, he checked the incoming call, seeing it was from his mother. Not wanting to look at Bret’s injury any longer, Chris moved away and answered the phone.

“Hi Mom…yeah, I’m still not home.” His swollen lip throbbed with each word.

His mother explained that she was meeting his father after work. Keeping track of her words was difficult; Chris couldn’t care less what his parents were doing at that moment.

Robbie turned away from Bret and shook his head, his stomach a little queasy.

“Hey, Sandra,” Robbie said, keeping the young woman on the edge of his peripheral vision. “We should call an ambulance, or give him a ride to the hospital.”

“Yeah,” she replied sullenly. Looking at Bret, she added, “You need to have that hand dealt with.”

Bret growled in misery as he imagined the imminent amputation. Never mind having no health insurance.

“I don’t have a phone,” Robbie told Sandra. “Does yours work?”

Not answering, Sandra looked at Bret’s blackening hand and forearm. The melting blood in the mud puddles seeped into Bret’s pants as he remained seated on the wet ground.

Even so, the young woman couldn’t look away. Without realizing it, she was staring at the devastating injury…

…And she listened…

From beyond the reaches of the alleyway, beyond the city limits, past where the sky began and cosmos ended, Sandra heard that specific message. It was a message tailored precisely for her, wordless and soundless, which bypassed her ears and speech recognition sections of her brain.

Sandra didn’t merely understand this message; she felt it, melded with it, and espoused its context and purpose.

Sandra,” Robbie said firmly, trying to get her attention, daring to turn toward the graphic scene. “We need to do something.”

“I can help him,” she replied softly.

Bret and Sandra looked at each other—so many things were said in that exchange alone.

“Uh…what do you mean?” Robbie asked, moving his eyes back and forth between the young woman and injured teen.

Not knowing what to say, Sandra said, “I feel like I can do something.”

She approached Bret, fixated on his rotting extremities. Despite the grizzly sight of the injury, an uncanny attraction brought her closer. A notion of responsibility and natural instinct guided her as she took the freezing flesh into her hands.

Bret winced when throbs shot from the parts of his arm that still weren’t dead. His hand and wrist were painfully cold for Sandra to grasp, but she knew it would be all right, because the messages from unreachable summits had told her so.

A gateway leading to the otherworld granted access into the conventional world, bestowing limitless energy through Sandra. The young woman directed this power into the dying parts of Bret’s body, and with great finesse, she performed the subatomic operations. Oddly, she was not surprised by this sudden ability, as if doing so was her raison d’être and something she had always desperately wanted to accomplish, but was unaware of, and it was quite satisfying.

Without any second thoughts, Sandra was stitching together the double helixes stringing together the DNA in Bret’s cells, connecting the proteins, and promoting the miraculously rapid production of new biological material. No effort was required from Bret’s body as the ethereal energy acted as a supercharged engine for the restoration, providing every necessary resource for the creation of physical matter to replace the dead flesh…and Sandra held total control of its procedures, flawless and precise.

That was when the sting of consciousness interrupted Sandra’s work. She became aware of what she was doing, and it scared her.

“Ah! W-what?” Sandra pulled her hands away, astonished and stunned.

The unexpected jolt from Sandra startled Bret.

“The hell are you doing?” Bret snapped, gritting his teeth through the pain.

“I-I don’t know.” The young woman grabbed her head, taking handfuls of hair between her fingers. “What was that? What…?”

Robbie placed his hand on Sandra’s shoulder.

“Hey, calm down,” he told her directly. “Whatever it is you were doing, it’s okay. It’s your powers.” When Sandra remained bewildered, Robbie added, “The first time I used my powers, it was scary as hell. I didn’t understand it either, but trust me, it feels right, doesn’t it?”

Looking back at Bret, Sandra swallowed. Robbie’s words made sense to her.

“Yeah,” she whispered. “Uh, a-all right. I’m…I’m gonna try it again.”

As soon as she grabbed the frozen arm, the process resumed, and she still couldn’t comprehend what she was doing. Yet, it felt perfect.

“Give it a name,” Robbie told Sandra.

“A name?”

“What you’re doing. If you name your actions, what you do with your powers, it’ll make it work better.”

“Give it a name…” She looked at Bret’s injured hand for a moment. “I don’t know.”

“Grr, c’mon!” Bret grunted angrily. “You’re obviously healing me. Just name it ‘Heal,’ dammit!”

“Er…all right, then.”

“You gotta say it,” Bret said as he reached the end of his patience. “Say it like ya mean it.”

The young woman took a deep breath as the purpose of her ability solidified within her mind—this was a certainty.

Heal!”

A gentle green light radiated out from under Sandra’s hands; beautiful and warming, sparkling like flower petals caught in an updraft, appearing like springtime sunlight shining through the blooming canopy of a backyard forest.

Sandra’s ability multiplied its potency, and the restoration effect received an exponential boost. However, the spectacle was not the only thing that gave Bret absolute comfort. Sandra’s ability stretched far past simply mending what had been damaged, and took on a sort of goodwill and sympathy. As a result, the orchestrated creation of living tissue saw to it that Bret’s repaired nerves were fully numbed until all surrounding damage was reversed; there was not a trace of pain, only a truly soothing experience.

Sandra knew when the mending was complete. She halted her abilities, shutting the path of infinite energy from outside the physical realm. The green light of convalescence ceased. Bret’s hand and forearm were good as new.

As Bret examined the flesh that had been dead, he couldn’t help but smile.

“No way,” he said with a sneer. “You’re gonna be useful, that’s for sure!”

“That’s unreal!” Robbie was overjoyed at the literal miracle he had witnessed. “You really did that! You healed him!”

“I’ll be okay,” Bret grunted at Sandra. He rubbed his hand, moving his fingers. “Thank you, though. I thought I was gonna need an amputation.” He chuckled, unable to stop himself.

Sandra sighed, but smiled. “Glad I could help. Really.”

For an injury so severe, Robbie was lost for words. He remembered how his arm had been broken recently…and remembered what had broken it.

In the blink of an eye, Robbie’s mood took a dive.

The thing that broke my arm…

Hideous, beastly, and with a body like pure muscle and destructive intentions incarnate. The mental image of that particular white-furred cretin by Erik’s side sparked Robbie’s fear.

“Chris!” he called.

Several yards away, Chris was still talking to his mom on the phone. He noticed Robbie approach, who looked eager with something to say.

“Yeah, I’ll tell you more later,” Chris said into the phone, wrapping up the conversation quickly. “Yeah…yeah, that’s okay. I gotta go, Mom. Love you, bye.”

As soon as Excalibur ended the call, Robbie spoke up.

“Chris.” He looked his schoolmate straight in the face. “We need to rethink things.” Chris didn’t reply, but looked at Robbie and shook his head. “I’m serious, man! Are you listening to me?”

“I know,” Chris said steeply.

“That thing we fought just now was strong.”

The thunder and lightning went unnoticed as the storm reached its climax. Only Robbie’s words played out in Chris’ thoughts at that very moment.

“It was very strong.” He looked at Robbie. “I don’t think it was as tough as Erik, but still. Good thing I hit it with Gunnhildr.”

Robbie stepped closer to Chris, glancing around.

“Do you remember that white monster that was with Erik?” Robbie asked firmly.

“How could I forget?”

“Never mind Erik. That monster he had there was a whole different level. And you and Bret told me it got away.”

“I know what you’re getting at,” Chris replied dully. He glanced at Sandra and Bret, who were looking back with curiosity. “The thing we just fought was dangerous, but there’s something else out there that’s way worse.” He gripped Gunnhildr and looked at it. “At least it takes only one shot with this, but I need to let it charge for twelve hours again.”

“That’s a long period with no surefire defense,” Robbie muttered. “How can we know if Gunnhildr will work on everything? Some things may have a resistance, or…”

Wind pried at the shoddy ceiling-like structure covering the dank alleyway, which dripped streams of rainwater in various places. Sandra helped Bret to his feet while Chris and Robbie acknowledged each other’s thoughts and feelings nonverbally.

Chris licked the blood from his lip. When he saw Bret walk up, he was shocked.

“Huh? Your arm! How?”

“Sandra’s a miracle worker,” Bret replied with a smirk, flexing his right hand. “She’s got healing powers!”

“That’s amazing!” Chris smiled at Sandra. “Your powers heal people? That really is a miracle!”

Not ready to fully accept the compliment, Sandra said, “Yeah, kinda.” She thought of the life she’d left behind to boldly embrace her current life. “I wonder about the cost of that miracle, though…” She held her hand to Chris’ mouth. “Heal.”

The throbbing in Chris’ lip vanished. When he wiped the blood away, the cut had been closed. He smiled at Sandra, and she did her best to return that smile.

“I wouldn’t worry about that cost right now,” he told her.

“Easy for you to say…”

“Well,” Chris said to everyone, “what now?”

“Me and Chris were just talking,” Robbie said to Bret and Sandra. “There’s a good chance we’ll run into things way tougher than what we just did.”

“You mean like Erik’s pet?” Bret murmured. “Yeah, it’s probably out there somewhere.”

“We’ll need to be ready for it,” Chris told them.

“Ready how?” Bret asked. “Your absolving bullet got used up, and I really don’t think we can stand up to something that strong anyway.”

A brief silence held the mutual agreement.

“Guys.” Sandra’s voice was tired. “I hate to be the one to say this, but I really need to rest.” She looked at Chris. “I know there’s a lot you want to get done, Chris, but you need to remember when to stop and take it easy.” With a smile, she added, “We took care of one monster today. Shouldn’t that be enough?”

“You have a point,” Chris replied. “What do you guys think?”

“What do I think of going home and sleeping it off?” Robbie asked with a chuckle. “Please and thank you. I don’t know about ya’ll, but I’m gonna hit up a pop machine. I’m dying of thirst!”

A gas station with an outdoor vending machine was a short jog away. Only four tired, thirsty customers were present. Not even the employees were anywhere to be seen.

“Nobody’s at the counter,” Bret muttered, skulking outside from the minimart. “I wanted to buy cigarettes.”

Robbie ordered a Purple Killer Grape Soda from the vending machine. Chris, a bottle of CataTonic H2O. Sandra, passionfruit vitamin water. Bret ordered a Mountain Dew, but received a can of Mello Yello, which he stabbed with his house key and angrily chugged out through the carved hole in the can’s side…a technique he referred to as a “shotgun.”

“I didn’t pay four dollars for a can of Mello Yello,” Bret grumbled, wiping his soda-soaked mouth on his sleeve. “Expensive-ass vending machines…”

“Yeah,” Robbie said, “it’s getting real expensive. These drinks were too.”

Sandra considered the flavor of passionfruit water before gulping more down. Should she have gotten the orange flavor instead?

“I know a friend who works at Agrarian-Schism,” she said. “He told me he knows about the food cost inflation.”

“What’s Agrarian-Schism?” Chris asked.

“A huge company in the city,” Sandra told him. “They oversee food production and distribution. Something like more than half of all the food sold on shelves and in restaurants in Chicago are somehow provided by Agrarian-Schism. And their reach isn’t just in the city, but most of the Midwest United States, even all across the country. I think the only states they don’t do business in are Alaska and Hawaii.”

“What did your friend say about the inflation?” Robbie asked Sandra.

“Hmm…” She thought about her conversation with Regal, up until it had ended with a peculiar conclusion. “Nothing, really. I asked him if his company was responsible or not, and he didn’t really give a straight answer.”

“Shady,” Bret said, tossing his empty, gouged soda can into a trash bin.

“I wanted to talk to him more,” Sandra continued, “but he just suddenly left. It was weird, like he was scared…” A chill touched the inside of Sandra’s chest. “It was like he saw something that I couldn’t see. Nobody else but him.”

The boys glanced at each other.

“I believe it,” Chris said to Sandra. “I now know it’s possible to see things other people can’t.” He sighed. “And a lot of those things are terrifying.”

“Wait,” Robbie said, turning to Sandra, “if your friend could see something nobody else could, then is he like us?”

Sandra looked at the ground.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I can see those things now, so why…?” A realization perked her up. “Oh…I didn’t know about Lavi at that time. Do you think…?”

“Yeah,” Chris smiled, “that seems to be how it would work. You didn’t have these abilities until Lavi revealed his identity to you.”

“There we have it, then,” Sandra said breathily, tiredly, swirling her drink in its bottle. “So…is Regal aware of Lavi, too?”

Excalibur replied, “There is no person by the name of ‘Regal’ in my database.”

“Shady,” Bret repeated with a belch.

As the storm blew over, its dreary trail of light drizzles saw the group of four split up for the evening.
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