ANNO DOMINI ~Allium~ [Beta version]
***THANKS FOR READING!***
Hey everyone! I had originally intended for a different chapter here, but I decided to move it as not to interrupt the flow of the story. That moved chapter was already edited and ready to be uploaded right after the previous chapter. It took me an extra day to edit this chapter, but it's only one day after, so that isn't bad.
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BOOK 2, CHAPTER 12: GOOD OL' MONSTER HUNTING
“It’s Friday night,” Bret muttered with a crooked cigarette hanging from his lip as he looked at the forlorn overcast sky, “it’s humid and chilly. So…why the hell are we at school, Robbie?”
Robbie and Bret were waiting in a bus stop shelter, the one closest to the front gate of Lyonbole Public High School, just a stone’s throw away. The increasing evening darkness portrayed the large school building in a strange, unfamiliar palette of dim colors.
“A big rat brought me a letter saying to meet here,” Robbie said bluntly, taking the letter out of his green and gray Lyonbole sports jacket. “Sounds ridiculous, I know. But I think I know who sent it.”
“Ha!” Bret tossed his cigarette butt onto the wet sidewalk. “Sounds ridiculous, for sure. I got a text message from Chris telling me the same thing.” He looked at his cell phone with the badly cracked screen. “I steal another charger, and this is the first text I get. And seeing as you’re here, I can only imagine what fun, shit-stained escapades are waiting for us.”
A city bus pulled up, letting three passengers off; one of them was Sandra Starling, and she stopped in her tracks when she noticed Robbie and Bret. Nobody else was around to board the bus, and it took off; the other two people went their separate ways.
“It’s you guys,” she said, surprised to see Robbie and Bret.
“Wassup, Sandra?” Robbie greeted. “You…were told to meet here?”
She nodded. “Yeah, I got a text from Chris. With you two here…it gives me a feeling of what to expect.”
“Yup,” Robbie grunted. “Man, we can’t ever catch a break.”
Sandra was wearing an unzipped light red windbreaker and blue jeans, a basic outfit for casual outings on bleak days. Bret was still trying to gauge the shape of her body through her clothes, but something pulled his attention away—something far off down the dark street.
“I think that’s him.” Bret pointed toward the distance. “Is there somebody else with him?”
Sure enough, Chris was walking down the sidewalk toward them. As Robbie strained his eyes to see through the dark, he could get a faint visual on the person accompanying Chris.
“T-that’s…!” He hurried out of the bus stop shelter to get a better look at the shorter person approaching. “No way! I knew it when that rat came to me!”
Bret and Sandra were left to their own conclusions as Robbie hurried up to Chris and Al.
“Hey,” Chris said to Robbie with a corny grin. “Look at who I found.”
“Al! You’re back!”
“Heh-heh, yup!” Al said cockily. “What’d you think? I was a goner?”
“Um, yeah, I did,” Robbie told her.
Bret and Sandra walked over to see what the excitement was about, and they both looked questioningly at the young girl wearing the baggy, uniquely-patterned hooded sweatshirt with green strings and gold aglets. Before Chris could introduce anybody, Bret spoke up.
“Who’s the kid?” he asked, uninterested.
“Don’t call me a kid,” Al said hastily. “Call me Al.”
A feeble memory tumbled through Bret’s brain before coming to light.
“A girl named Al?” he said. “Isn’t this who ya were lookin’ for when we were following those dice?”
“It is,” Chris told him. “She ran into Erik before we did, and it didn’t go so well.”
Bret silently acknowledged what Chris said. After all, he had seen firsthand what Erik Hawthorne had been capable of, and it was no wonder someone would have problems with such an encounter.
Chris introduced his new teammates to Al.
“This is Bret and Sandra. They seem to be Desphelmers, too.”
“Nice to meet you!” Al said.
“Nice to meet you, too,” Sandra replied with nominal enthusiasm. Bret didn’t say anything.
“Hey,” Robbie gave Chris a casual hug/handshake, “Good seein’ ya, dawg. But…what’d ya say we seem to be?”
“People who don’t use magic,” Chris explained, “but still have powers. We’re called ‘Desphelmers’ from now on.”
“Oh. So, what’s up?” Robbie asked Chris and Al. “You’re the ones who wanted us to come here, right?”
“Yeah, I did.” Chris looked at the high school building for no reason, seeing the silhouette of the bronze statue depicting Frederick Randolph Lyons. “I have something to tell you all.”
Robbie, Bret, and Sandra listened to Chris and Al explain what they had discussed earlier that day at Saint Baptiste Monastery. They explained the theft of the Chashman Artifact, Al’s deployment by her organization to search for the artifact, how the Desphelmers were a new class of people with abilities that didn’t require magic, and the reasons why the existence of Desphelmers could upset the ancient teachings passed down since the dawn of history.
There were a lot of explanations to absorb, but they still listened intently; it was difficult to refute any such talk at that point, given what they had already witnessed for themselves.
The clouds were quickly dissipating, creating a cleaner canvas for the orange, city-lit night sky glow. As the group of five occupied the bus stop shelter in front of Lyonbole, the evening transitioned to night.
A short period of quiet contemplation accented the meeting before Robbie posed a question.
“We’re supposed to help look for this artifact thing?” The black boy wasn’t in disbelief, but it was a hard bite to swallow. “Hrmm…” He crossed his arms.
“Like I always said,” Chris told them, “I won’t make anyone do this against their will. Right, Al? They have a choice whether they want to do this or not.”
Al twirled one of her bright green hoodie strings, making the 24-karat gold aglet spin in a circle as she thought about her specific orders.
“More or less,” Al replied. “No specific instructions were given to force recruitment of mortals of significance, nor prevent it. Putting it that way, I’d say everyone has a choice.”
“Bah.” Bret tossed his arms into a floppy shrug. “Just whatever. What the hell ever.”
“But now that you all know about the situation,” Al said to everyone, making sure she had their attention, “just know that you may never be able to walk away without some lasting effect.” Her tone took a straightforward turn. “If everyone here has manifested some sort of powers, gifts, or whatever, that means you’ve all touched on a plane of existence other than the one you thought was the ‘only’ one or ‘real’ one.” She narrowed her eyes and dropped her voice. “You’ve all been branded by your powers, to put it simply. The strings you’ve been fitted with—the strings that tied you to the otherworld where your powers come from, no matter how briefly—aren’t so easily severed. And there could be things on the other end that wish to tug on those strings.”
“Meaning?” Bret grunted.
“Meaning your paths have been set,” Al explained, “and veering off may have consequences. Who knows what kind of attention you’ve already been capturing with what you’ve been doing? Not just the attention of inhuman beings, but other humans with powers or not.”
“Ha!” Bret snorted at the thought. “That means we’re already up to our necks in this tall tale. Might as well go balls out.” He pounded his fist into his other palm with a mischievous grin. “Whatever. My life kinda sucked anyway. The only thing I’m concerned about is my crew—er, my real crew. You guys are just…you’re you guys.”
“I said it already, Chris,” Robbie said, “I gave it some hard thinkin’, and I’m sticking with you. I ain’t backing out. If this is gonna help make things better, then let’s go for it.”
Chris smiled. “Thanks, guys.” He looked at Sandra. As if knowing she was next, she appeared to want to divert her gaze, but she didn’t. “What about you, Sandra? You’ve been quiet.”
The thought was quick to Sandra’s mind, but it still took her some time to answer. Nobody had ever called Sandra quiet.
“Yeah,” she replied timidly, “I’m normally not this quiet, really. But this is still shocking to me.” Covering her eyes with her hands and massaging her temples, she began to laugh in a not-so-funny, cracking up kind of way. “Yeah…oh yeah…it’s just shocking…that’s all…ha-ha…”
“Don’t mind her,” Bret sneered. “She’s a loon-bat.”
“Screw you, asshole,” Sandra snapped at the delinquent. “What do you expect? You have no idea what I went through!”
“Uh, yeah I do,” Bret said snobbishly. “Trust me, you told me all about it yesterday after you got drunker than a skunk.”
Sandra glared at Bret, who stared right back. Chris didn’t know how to continue the conversation, so he simply picked up where he had left off.
“Sandra. Are you with us?”
“Yeah, sure,” she replied snippily. “It’s just…I’m trying to get a job right now. Trying to get my life together.” She sighed and looked down at her shoes. “I have a lot going on.”
“It must be tough,” Chris said.
“The word ‘tough’ is an understatement.” Her face was solemn, but it slowly lifted. “But that’s sorta how I am, though. I like challenges. I love adventure.” She looked down the street, the headlights of several cars lighting her blue eyes, a small sparkle in her gaze. “I’m free right now. I’ve never felt so free in my entire life.” The smile on her face was inevitable as she turned to Chris. “This is what I live for. Well, this in particular is some crazy shit, but whatever. I’m with you guys, at least for now, so don’t bore me with mundane stuff, or I’ll move on to the next big adventure.”
“There you have it,” Al said to Chris. “Sounds like we’re all in this together!”
“All right!” Chris held his fist high above him. “Let’s do this.”
The others raised their fists into the air as well, sharing the gusto.
“But,” Robbie said, “what are we doing, exactly?”
“Uh…good question,” Chris said with an airy chuckle.
“Wasn’t there that malevolent being your phone detected?” Al asked Chris. “It’s not exactly part of looking for the Chashman Artifact, but you noobs could use some training with your abilities.”
“Oh yeah.” Chris checked his GPS map. The target marked as “Inherit” was still in range. “Excalibur found one of those things.”
Bret looked at Chris’ phone screen.
“Let’s go get it,” he said. “We all know the danger, and we all just did some dumbass ‘yay team’ crap, so don’t try to talk us out of it.”
Chris looked at the others, and the confidence they exuded was enough to rev him up.
“Sounds good.” He smiled. “We’ll do some good ol’ monster hunting and level grinding, then. This is the first mission for the Desphelmers, so let’s make the best of it!”
“Ha! I like the sound of that,” Robbie declared. “Monster hunting!”
Al grinned, entertained by everyone’s attitude. “That’s the spirit.”
Right on cue, the next bus for that stop arrived, heading in the appropriate direction closer to the Inherit target. The five of them boarded, high in spirits, despite the fear of heading directly toward another unknown enemy.
Each of them knew their lives were at stake, no matter their attitude.
Seward Park, located in the Near North Side community area, was a seven-acre spot less than a mile from the coast of Lake Michigan and featured plenty of space for family and athletic events. A few noisy college students were biding their time there as Chris and his party arrived, following the Inherit indicator Excalibur had marked.
However, as they approached the tagged location on Chris’ phone, there was no visual on the malicious creature.
“It says it’s right here,” Chris said, looking around. “I don’t see it, do you guys?”
“No,” Robbie replied as he scanned the surroundings.
“The target is underground,” Excalibur said.
Feeling peeved, Chris muttered, “Now you tell me.”
Sandra looked at the ground, uncomfortable that the dark entity was beneath them as she made subtle, futile efforts to remove her feet from the grass.
“It’s…in the ground?” she uttered meekly, switching from one foot to another. “It’s under us?”
“Well, they can move through walls,” Bret said, cracking his neck, “so it makes sense. So…what do we do? Dig it up?”
“It is over twenty-three feet below you,” Excalibur said. “Digging may be difficult. Also, the water table may be close, considering your proximity to the lake.”
“I could use Terra Geyser to blast an opening easily,” Al said, “but my bandalores are useless, and I left them at Saint Baptiste Monastery.” Looking at the handful of noisy college students in the park, she added, “There are people nearby. We should’ve had Sister Farrah come with us to take care of crowd control, but she’s helping restore my bandalores.”
“What do you mean?” Chris asked. “Crowd control?”
“Yeah.” Al nodded. “That nun you met at the monastery has impressive skills. She can use a type of evacuation magic to make people go away. It keeps our actions a secret. Every leader in my organization is required to know some sort of evacuation magic. If I ever get promoted, then I’ll learn it, too.”
Chris and Robbie looked at each other as the notion dawned on them.
“That’s why people always disappear before our fights!” Robbie rubbed his neck. “Man, those Saint Baptiste guys have had our backs the entire time.”
Al gave Robbie a puzzled look.
“Huh? What do you mean? Sister Farrah hasn’t left the monastery since she accompanied me to find you and Chris. It couldn’t have been her any other time.”
“Oh.” Robbie’s face went blank. “Then…what…?”
“Don’t be scared, Rodney!” Al said with a toothy grin. “You probably have a guardian angel, or something.”
Bret choked on air. Sandra’s eyes grew wide, although she was still staring at the ground. Chris and Robbie exchanged glances again.
“Uh, Al?” Chris said to the blonde girl. “What do you know about angels in Chicago?”
“Angels here?” Al considered the question. “I wouldn’t be surprised. They’re everywhere on Earth.”
“Have you met one here?” Chris asked, leaning closer.
Al sensed the intensity in Chris’ inquiries.
“Uh, no. I’ve never met one myself. What’s up with you all of a sudden?”
Knowing Chris was hiding something, Al sighed.
“I understand you might have your secrets,” she said. “You’re an exceptional person, after all.” She looked at the others. “You all are.”
The loud conversation being held by the noisy college students could be heard halfway across the park.
“Hey, Corey just texted me!” one of the college boys yelled to his friends. “He just bought My Hero Academia on Blu-ray! We should all go watch it!”
“Man, I don’t know,” another boy replied. “I don’t wanna watch any more anime!”
“But you like The Boondocks.”
“I don’t think that’s actually an anime…”
Chris and the others watched the group of college students leave. More precisely, watched them sprint to their cars and zoom off, a hasty retreat from Seward Park down West Elm Street. In almost no time, the park was devoid of all other people.
“They left,” Robbie said quietly, clenching his fists in anticipation for the worse.
Distant sounds of traffic and a tender breeze remained, all while a mysterious enemy prowled through the earth beneath.
“Is this evacuation magic?” Chris whispered to Al.
“Don’t know,” Al replied, remaining alert and keeping her voice low. “With our circumstances, it might be. If it is, the question is who used it?”
Nervously looking at his phone, Chris saw the target had not budged, and he wasn’t sure if its inactivity unsettled him or not.
“Excalibur,” he said to his phone, “is the Inherit thing not moving?”
“It is not.” That was all the app had to say.
“Then what do we do?” Bret stomped the ground impatiently. “We really do gotta dig it up.”
“More than twenty feet down?” Robbie argued. “That’s a long way to dig. We’ll get caught bef—” He cut himself off, realizing even though they were in a public place, there was nobody around to see them. “We’ll be damaging public property on top of that.”
Bret rolled his eyes and clicked his tongue, annoyed at his teammates’ ongoing persistence to follow rules and ethics.
“You’re actually worried about that kind of stuff?” Al asked Robbie in disbelief. “This is more important than respecting public property.”
“Thank you!” Bret blurted out. “At least someone understands me.”
“Well, it’s common sense,” Al said. “We aren’t causing damage for no good reason.”
“Yeah.” Robbie sighed. “I’m just not used to it. I guess I’ll have to man up and deal with it.”
Chris took Gunnhildr in his hand and aimed it down.
“Will an absolving bullet reach the target, Excalibur?” he asked.
“No,” Excalibur told him. “Absolving bullets typically can only pierce their target. Aside from that, they behave very similarly to a photon laser, or a beam of light, and will be interrupted by most other physical objects that light cannot easily travel through.”
“I see.” Chris dismissed the sleek, holy handgun, then gripped his smartphone and released the large, leaf-shaped energy blade while smiling confidently. “All right, then. We’ll just have to dig this malevolent being up.”
“Whoa…” Al was awed by the Excalibur sword feature. “That’s a cool trick! What are you going to do? Slice up the dirt?”
“Nope,” Chris said, smirking. “I’ve got a better idea. Stand back, guys.”
Everyone moved away. Robbie and Bret had seen Chris use his phone sword, and they knew what it was capable of.
“Farther back, you two,” Bret told Al and Sandra, who were still too close to Chris. “It’s gonna be a show.”
Al was curious as to what Chris would do, watching the teenage boy clutch the phone sword with both hands, the tip toward the ground. On the other hand, Sandra was skeptical.
“What’s he doing?” she asked.
“Just watch,” Robbie told her.
In that moment, Chris shouted, “Eden’s Lance!”
When the energy flowed through Chris, he experienced the beautiful sensation of its efficiency. In fact, it felt so good that he temporarily forgot about his distaste for destruction and violence, even as the brilliant beam of energy shot from the sword blade and blasted the ground. Dirt and grass scattered all around, getting in his face and blocking his vision.
Sandra jumped from the explosion as Al cheered, entertained. When Chris wiped his face clean, he saw the hole he had created, which was about three feet deep.
“Oh man,” Chris sputtered, spitting out dirt, “I should’ve stood back, too.” He looked at the hole, feeling somewhat unsatisfied. “That’s it, huh?”
“He totally blew dirt all over himself!” Bret laughed at Chris’ dirty face. “Ah, that was good.”
“Did he just shoot something out of his sword?” Sandra was clearly baffled. “How? How’d he do that?”
“Don’t ask me,” Al said, “but I like it!”
The young woman rustled her voluminous black hair in a frenzy.
“That’s impossible! Swords don’t shoot!”
“Yeah,” Robbie told her, “but most swords don’t come out of a super intelligent phone.”
As Chris prepared to use Eden’s Lance again, and do so as many times as it took to reach the target, Excalibur spoke up.
“The target is moving closer. It may have noticed your use of powers.”
“Hey!” Chris called to the others. “Get ready! It noticed us!”
Everybody readied themselves for the unexpected, yet were rendered speechless as two black masses slowly broke through the ground; evidently, the vileness had taken on a physical form before burrowing toward the surface. Chris was in between both formations, seeing up close as they grew toward the sky, tree-like and branching about in various directions. The tips were pointed and sharp, multiplying by the second.
“Chris!” Robbie shouted. “Get outta there!”
Seeing the danger sprouting around him, Chris was too late to escape. In an instant, the branching, twiggy beast blossomed into a thorny, knife-riddled bush of tangled, crushing vines, having doubled its size in under a second. It violently twisted around, squeezing the space where Chris stood.
Desperate, Chris slashed his phone sword in a wide arc, releasing a large blade of energy that cut through the imposing fiend. A frightening reaction followed in which the branching cretin shuddered and whipped its remaining parts; the severed portions evaporated and passed through indefinite exits, their whereabouts unknown.
“Ball Protection!” Robbie bellowed, materializing a large orange energy barrier above Chris. Although the malevolence did not attack, Chris was safer for the moment, as he was no longer vulnerable from above.
“What are you all doing?” Al yelled at everybody. “We have to take it out right now!”
The two black formations were still rooted in the ground as they suddenly morphed. On both individual formations, all of the branchlike extensions wove together and quickly changed shape to resemble two giant arms with solid shadow hands growing from the earth, which were disturbingly proportioned like regular human hands.
“Here I go!” Bret charged at the action, fueled with his own teeming powers in his arms and legs. It was act, or be killed.
“I can’t move from this spot,” Robbie grunted, straining as he held his hands in front of him. Holding the substantial Ball Protection shield in place, especially from afar, demanded a hefty quantity of spiritual energy. “I…have to keep up the shield…around Chris.”
“You!” Al pointed sharply at Sandra. “Do something! You have unique abilities, right?”
“I-I don’t fight!” Sandra looked at the horror taking place before her. “I can heal them if they get hurt, but I can’t do anything until then!”
“Grrahh, better than nothing!” Al groaned.
“What about you?” Sandra said to Al, feeling angry. “You just bark orders? That’s your job?”
“I don’t have my weapons.” The blonde girl grit her teeth. “Barking orders is about all I can do now. But you need to trust my judgment. I’m more experienced with this than all of you put together!”
Sandra pursed her lips. She knew Al was right.
Is this all I’m good for? Sandra brooded. Powerless unless someone gets hurt first? Standing here and doing nothing?
“Hey.” Al could practically read Sandra’s thoughts based on her facial expression, and spoke softly to the skeptical young woman. “You said you can heal. That’s amazing.” She smiled warmly. “I don’t have any more Panacea Crystals, so your abilities are essential for treating injuries right now. Remember that, and trust yourself.”
Relaxing her tensed shoulders, even just slightly, Sandra soon felt a bit more confident after hearing Al say that. The small bit of extra confidence was crucial, she knew, since life-or-death situations needed every little piece of advantageous resources.
One of the massive arms of darkness remained tall and motionless. The other lurched forward in a manner unfitting for its humanly resemblance, and smashed into Bret with disgusting force, bringing him off the ground. If not for the boy’s quick reflexes and impressive physical power behind his blocking stance, he’d have been smeared across the lawn as a bloody pulp. Despite his superhuman defenses, Bret was knocked back a hundred feet, left to roll and bounce across the park before getting tangled in the faraway playground equipment.
“Oh no!” Sandra saw Bret come to a stop after taking the nasty hit. “I’m going to help him!”
“Got it!” Al replied quickly. “Hurry, he might be seriously injured!”
The arm that had hit Bret split into its many thorny, branchy, gnarling vines again, placing their attention on Chris. Chris was still protected under Robbie’s energy barrier, yet the shadowy thorns began attacking him from the sides. Vines of vileness whipped at him, and he fended them off with his phone sword, chopping away at the shadows as a thought occurred to him.
I need to use Eden’s Lance on one of the main arms! There’s just not a good opening yet. I can’t stop fighting off these smaller parts attacking me, or I’m done for!
The onslaught of dark, blooming daggers continued against Chris, and their movements were becoming more erratic by the second, constantly shifting their properties and mode of assault. They weaved and lolled, bubbled and whipped. Even the wide arcs of cutting energy Chris emitted from the phone sword were barely enough to chop away at them all, and he suffered plenty of painful cuts all over his body as his blue and gray jacket was easily sliced through. Fortunately, the vileness wasn’t as sharp as Chris had feared, and his skin seemed to have some level of resistance against the stabs…yet the bleeding wounds were evidence of the potential danger.
Bret watched the action from afar as he used the nearby playground equipment to pull himself up. When Sandra came to him, he just chuckled.
“You’re saving me again, huh?”
“Shut up and let me heal you,” Sandra told him bluntly as she put her hands on his shoulders.
“I don’t know how many bones I broke,” he said with a twitching smile. “I kinda hurt all over.”
The green light and soothing numbness of Sandra’s Heal ability covered Bret, which was so relaxing he felt he could fall asleep if not for being in the middle of a fight. In moments, the boy regained the energy to stand on his feet with no problem.
“All good?” Sandra asked, not sounding very concerned.
“Good enough,” Bret replied curtly.
“Good. Now get back over there.”
“Heh, you’re bossy.”
Running back toward the fray to help Chris fend off the nebulous knives, Bret couldn’t help thinking about Sandra’s ability.
I’m more than good, he thought with a grin as he charged into battle. You’re more awesome than I wanna admit, lady!
Bret snagged two of the pulsing branches, one in each hand, and wrestled them away, which gave Chris more openings to slash at the surrounding horde. As Chris severed vine after vine, Bret ripped them apart with his bare hands, ignoring the pain from being cut and whipped.
The behavior of the malicious entity remained unpredictable, growing the way a plant would during a time lapse video; unraveling the way yarn does, without the comprising threads being any smaller than the larger whole; evolving like snakes crawling out from other snakes, and maggots out from other maggots.
Even so, the two boys together were able to turn the tide, back-to-back beneath the orange energy barrier of Robbie’s Ball Protection. As the razor tendrils continued to multiply, they were being fought back at a faster rate, the severed bits evaporating into realms beyond human comprehension.
“This is unreal,” Sandra gasped, staying out of the action. “This is…my reality now…”
Al stood by, keeping by Robbie’s side. She looked at the black boy who struggled to uphold the mighty energy partition from afar. However, what unsettled her the most was the other giant shadowy arm protruding from the earth close to Chris and Bret. It hadn’t moved since assuming that form, like a watchtower, patient and poised.
I don’t like this, Al thought. That arm thing hasn’t acted for a while, but if it did, those two boys will be in trouble. They’d be outmatched for sure.
“Ronnie,” Al said.
“It’s Robbie, for the last time.”
“How are you doing?”
“Eh, I’ve been worse,” Robbie replied as sweat dripped from his chin. He’d held the same position the entire time to maintain the large force field for Chris and Bret, hands forward, muscles tensed. “But I think it’s getting easier to do this…I’ve just never done it…for this long…”
“Listen.” Al kept her focus on the huge hand-like abomination. “That big arm hasn’t moved yet.”
“Yeah, I’ve noticed. You got a bad feeling, too?”
“I do. We’ll need to pay attention to it. Who knows what it’ll do.”
Al beckoned for Sandra to come over. Sandra hesitated, because Al and Robbie were much closer to the danger, but she hurried over. As she drew nearer, the nightmarish whipping and cutting sounds from Chris’ and Bret’s fight made her cringe; they were nasty noises that no human should ever hear, created by substances and actions that had no right to exist.
“Does that hand over there look suspicious to you?” Al asked Sandra.
“Not as suspicious as scary.” Sandra wanted to cover her ears to block out the grim noises, but refrained from doing so. She gulped, her mouth dry, and said, “Is there something I should know?”
“Hard to say,” Al told her quietly. “We need to keep an eye on it.”
Removing a pair of ordinary binoculars from her nearly invisible hoodie pocket, Al zoomed in on the giant hand, scanned it up and down several times, and lowered her binoculars.
“What do you see?” Robbie asked, sounding strained from upholding the barrier.
“Nothing I can make out.” Al handed the binoculars to Sandra. “Take a look. Get an idea for the target. If anything, we’ll need to attack that arm…somehow.”
Sandra reached for Al’s binoculars. Nervousness shrouded her spirit, and doubt muddied her mind. Those emotional impulses were suddenly dislodged from inside her and propelled forward to her right hand, as if pressurized.
Before Sandra could grab the binoculars, they suddenly tumbled from Al’s grasp. With impressive reflexes, Al snatched the binoculars from midair before they hit the ground.
“Wah! Sorry.” Al apologized, handing them back to Sandra.
Sandra didn’t take them.
“Hey, use these,” Al told her sternly, waving the binoculars in Sandra’s face.
Still, Sandra didn’t take them, distraught and eyes wide.
“W-what did I j-just do?” She stepped back from Al, frightened, acting as if Al was handing her a severed head. “What was that?”
“They’re binoculars!” Al grunted. “Get it together! I need you to follow my instructions, or—”
“What the hell is happening?”
Chris could hear Sandra’s shrieking over the ruckus of bladed, defiled whips. He glanced in her direction for a second, opening him up for a sharp slap across the back by an extension of the sinister entity, tearing his clothes and slicing his skin.
“Dammit, pay attention!” Bret growled, tearing away at the fluxing branch that had struck Chris. His hands were dripping blood from fighting the darkness without a weapon. “You left yourself wide open!”
“Right!” Chris slashed his phone blade through three dark branches at once. “I think something’s wrong over there.”
“Forget over there! We’ve got our own problems right here!”
A blooming spear of barbed petals launched at Bret’s face, and he caught it with both bloody hands, then flicked it up so violently that it snapped like metallic licorice before evaporating from three-dimensional space.
However, it was impossible for Chris to forget what was happening to his other teammates from afar. Sandra’s wails were so panicked that it hurt to hear.
“Get a grip!” Al grabbed Sandra’s shoulders and shook her harshly. “This is a fight! It’s all over if any one of us cracks, do you understand?”
Having Al scream right in Sandra’s face was enough. The young woman, trembling and gasping, forced herself back into a moderate breathing pattern. When Al let go, Sandra stared at her own shaking hands, which appeared much more frail and worthless than the giant arm monolith that continued to cast its presence upon the entire park.
“Why…do things…move away from me?” Her voice was meager as it was forced out of her scream-tightened throat, and she looked at Al in desperation. “Is it a sign…?”
Impatient, Al furrowed her brow at Sandra, and tried her best to ascertain what the young woman was experiencing. Robbie, unable to move for fear of bringing down the protective barrier, could only eavesdrop on what was happening directly behind him.
“What are you talking about?” Al asked, studying Sandra closely.
Sandra wiped her eyes. There were no tears. It was a blessing and a curse…Sandra was too strong to cry.
“I think it’s a sign.” She squeezed her fists; what emotion was she squeezing out through her fingers? “Things move away from me.”
“Oh no,” Al groaned at the sky. “Please don’t lose your mind right now. I’m not equipped for this.” She thrust the binoculars into Sandra’s hand with a stern face. “We need you to be strong.”
Sandra gripped the binoculars.
Strong? I am strong.
“Can you do this for me, Sandra?”
With a deep breath, one that slowed her heart and cleared her mind, the young woman replied, “Yes. I can.”
“Good.” Al relaxed. “Man…if I don’t get promoted to a leadership position after this role, I swear…”
Using the binoculars, Sandra observed the immobile foulness shaped as a human arm and hand, then turned to Chris and Bret. The boys had slowed down and their movements more coordinated, but only because their opponent was now altogether smaller and unable to multiply as fast.
“I think we’re winning,” Sandra said, concealing her hopefulness while gazing through the binoculars, “but…”
“But there’s that other part,” Al added. “I think it’s on standby, or waiting for something.” She tapped her foot in rapid succession as she thought. “With our two fighters busy, and the three of us on support, there isn’t much we can do for now. Arrgh, if only I had my bandalores!”
“I can fight.” Robbie was growing tired from the constant energy required to erect his large energy shield, and his voice indicated as such. “I’ve just g-got my hands full right n-now.”
I’ve never had sufficient leadership training, Al thought, swallowing the lump in her throat, so this is going to be hard. I have to do it, though. This is my responsibility right now. Think about how my leaders and superiors acted in these situations.
“The shadow whips are weaker now.” When Al spoke, she did her best to calmly address her two nearby teammates, although she was unsure of how well she upheld her authoritative disposition. “If this keeps up, you’ll be able to cancel your shield, Robbie.”
“Got it,” Robbie said. “Then I’ll be able to step in with Chris and Bret.”
“That’s right. When that happens, you three will need to go after that big arm thing quickly. I have a feeling it’ll react to our change in formation. It’s still just one enemy, but some of these shadow creatures are pretty smart, and I think this is one of the smart ones.”
“I’ll still be support, right?” Sandra asked, lowering the binoculars. “That’s about all I can do.”
“I told you already,” Al said to Sandra, “your healing ability is remarkable. It’s not the rarest ability, but we need it right now. Keeping you out of danger is important, and we don’t want to risk draining your energy.”
Without the binoculars, Sandra watched Chris and Bret gradually whittle away at the assailant. She didn’t like being a supporter, and wished she had the power to be a fighter.
“I’m just support, huh?” she muttered under her breath. “But…but that’s not really like me…I didn’t think…”
Holding Al’s binoculars in her right hand, she didn’t move a single muscle, yet she unknowingly shattered both lenses at once with ambition alone.It was the same ambition that had gotten her this far, and she was learning it had profound effects on the real world around her.