ANNO DOMINI ~Allium~ [Beta version]
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BOOK 2, CHAPTER 15: SLEEPOVERS IN CASTLES
The crass prodding of a large rat stirred Father Dood from his slumber, bearing a note from Aleph-Naught (written on a scrap of magazine paper) saying she was waiting at the monastery gate with the other Desphelmers. The priest undertook the long walk through the stony corridors with some difficulty, feeling mild stiffness in his legs from the few hours of sleep. Wearing a simple robe, he greeted the guests who, to his surprise, were all quite young. He then showed them to the refectory and offered them water poured from a large jug into clay cups.
They all appear to be children, Father Dood thought while his guests finished off the water in no time. I was not expecting this.
The priest led the group to his office. Robbie, Bret, and Sandra were astonished by the medieval environment, gawking conspicuously at everything as they followed the priest. Chris realized the rows of candles lighting the corridors remained lit at all times, even as the residents slept, which didn’t seem very economical.
“Please forgive the lack of seating,” Father Dood told them austerely when they entered the minimally furnished room. “I do not often have an audience with so many people.”
Nobody replied. The combination of tiredness with the stupor caused by the castle-like monastery created a convenient sense of acceptance to the lack of chairs.
“I’ll have you all wait here,” the priest said, heading out the office door. “There is one more person who shall join us.”
The door closed with a click. All was quiet.
Not wasting any time, Al fetched a quill and ink bottle from the priest’s desk, then began writing on a piece of parchment, not bothering to sit.
“I need to report to my organization about today’s events,” she explained, “request a delivery of more Panacea Crystals, and mention the involvement of the Desphelmers.”
“They’re going to know about us,” Sandra stated, coming to terms with that fact.
Al didn’t take her eyes off the letter parchment. “It can’t be helped.”
“I don’t like that.” The young woman narrowed her eyes at Al. “I don’t know who these people you work for are.”
With an irritated sigh, Al replied, “Yeah, well, we don’t know what you are, being a Desphelmer. I’d say the suspicion is mutual.”
Waiting for Father Dood to return, Bret sat on the floor and leaned back against the wall, his arms crossed and eyes closed. Sandra attempted to examine the various books on the bookshelf, but she had little interest in the books themselves. Robbie stared at the large clock on the wall, absentmindedly enticed by the hypnotizing swing of the pendulum which kept track of the stagnant time.
Before Al finished her letter, she moaned and slumped over, resting her hands on the desk.
“I really hope my superiors don’t get too upset about all of this,” she grumbled.
“You mean about today?” Chris asked. “But you said it’d be okay.”
“Here’s the thing,” Al explained, tapping the tip of the quill on the ink bottle’s rim. “I’m not technically breaking any rules or going against orders, like I said. That I can be sure of. The problem is, well…I’m bending a lot of rules, I guess you can say. Going through a couple of loopholes.”
“And they might not like that,” Chris said. “Makes sense, but you’re still not doing anything wrong…kinda.”
“Yeah, but it’s complicated.” Al pulled the hood off her head and rustled her blonde hair. “They might change my directives, or give me new orders to follow. It’d be so I’m forced to be more predictable. That kind of thing.”
“You’re referring to me and the others joining you?” Chris asked contemplatively. “That made it hard for your superiors to know what you’re doing.”
“That, and basically telling you guys about the things I’ve told you. Normally, all information about my organization is kept a secret, period. We can’t talk to any outsiders about it, and must keep its existence a total secret.”
Chris stared at Al. “You told me and Robbie about it right off the bat.”
Father Dood suddenly entered the room. Sister Farrah Elaina was with him, dressed in a similar robe. The young Afghani nun, with much deliberation, made eye contact with the new guests. Sandra and Robbie could sense her underlying rigidness, but Bret quickly dismissed the encounter, remaining seated on the floor and propped against the wall.
“Aleph-Naught had special permission to explain certain points to certain individuals,” Father Dood told Chris, shutting the door behind him. “It’s not common, but such permission has been granted before.”
“Right,” Al said. “I was given limited permission to speak of my organization ‘to mortals of significance if, under [my] judgment, it is deemed that providing information about [us] will be beneficial and/or necessary in the success of the mission(s).’ I can tell you that the organization exists, the basics of what we do, and about the elementary workings of how we manifest our innate abilities as perceivable phenomena—magic, in other words.”
Chris understood, nodding. “Which is what you did with me and the others.”
“Right. Regardless, if anything bad happens because I told anybody this stuff, I’d be punished…severely…” She placed the quill in the ink bottle with a stern expression. “Do not tell anyone.”
“Ain’t planning on it,” Robbie said with an ironic chuckle.
“Let me ask something, Al,” Sandra said. “You were supposed to look for so-called mortals of significance?”
“Correct,” Al answered.
“And if necessary, you can tell them about your organization.”
“But why not send others from your organization with you?” Sandra asked. “Why risk having to tell strangers about your secrets, in hopes to recruit them, rather than have people who already know with you?”
Father Dood and Sister Farrah silently glanced at each other. Only they knew of Aleph-One’s involvement, but Sandra had posed a good question.
“Uh…well…” Al thought about it. “Probably because recruiting new people is part of the goal?”
Sandra stared at Al. “That doesn’t sound like you’re sure.”
Rolling her eyes, Al replied, “It’s not up to me. I’m just following orders.”
“So,” Chris said to Al, “what kind of loopholes are you going through now?”
“Two things.” Al held up two fingers on her right hand. “The first is the Desphelmers. I’m pretty sure they count as being mortals of significance, but I don’t really know. I was told to look for mortals of significance, which I assumed were other magic users, but you guys don’t use magic. The second thing…” her voice dropped and she paused briefly, “…is your Hispanic friend.”
“Ha!” Bret stood up, wearing an impudent grin. “Guess I’m just a burden after all.”
“Don’t jump to conclusions, Bret,” Sandra said irritably. “We’re here to work things out, remember?”
“What’s this about?” Father Dood looked directly at Bret. “Explain.”
“I understand.” Sister Farrah opened her eyes, as if suddenly waking up from a dream she had been having. She turned to Bret, speaking quietly, yet sternly. “Just now, my prayers have told me that you possess wickedness in your heart.”
The delinquent scowled at the young nun.
“How many times ya’ll gonna tell me this?” he muttered, looking away. “I ain’t happy about it, either.”
“Bret,” Chris said, “we already decided to trust you. Just accept it how it is.”
“Easy for you to say, Chris,” Bret replied, “but yeah…I ain’t got much choice.”
“If it’s of any solace,” Sister Farrah told Bret, “you don’t exude an exclusive wickedness. What my prayers tell me is that you contain a mix of good and evil, and both sides are unwilling to coalesce. That seems to be different from the boy named Erik that Aleph-Naught had spoken of.”
“That’s right,” Al chimed in. “Erik had pure evil, and enough of it for me to feel without the use of any enhanced clairvoyance, such as Sister Farrah’s prayers. It was raw and powerful.”
Father Dood nodded, compliant with the direction of the discussion.
“That may be so,” the priest said, “however, it goes without saying that this boy here,” he gestured toward Bret, “still possesses something that no human should.”
“Yeah.” Al glanced at her unfinished letter to her superiors. “Bret’s abilities and possession of that kind of power at all…they are all taboo. General teachings in my organization say that Bret is an abomination, and he needs to be annihilated.” She looked at Bret, who stared at the ceiling. “Think about it. I’ve been told my entire life that I should despise anything like that. And here, just recently, I’ve encountered two people who have that kind of energy, which is supposed to be impossible. And yet, I’ve seen it. Humans are supposed to be exempt from those dark energies, yet that rule has been disproven. But the rule that still holds is the rule saying that anything with those dark energies is defiled…which now seems to include humans. I don’t really know how kindly my superiors will take to this knowledge, or what they’ll plan to do with your Hispanic friend.”
“That’s why you acted the way you did earlier at Seward Park,” Chris said, “treating Bret like an enemy.”
“Right,” Al replied. “After Erik, how can you blame me?”
“Wait,” Robbie said. “Does that mean Bret is as strong as Erik? Can Bret make people sick like Erik did?”
“Erik was ridiculously strong,” Al said bleakly, “but he was unrefined and didn’t know what he was doing, which we’re really lucky for.” She looked at Chris, Robbie, Bret, and Sandra, and they all intently paid attention to what she was saying. “The thing is…I don’t know how powerful any of you are. You don’t use magic, and magic is an indicator for output.”
Chris heaved a sigh. “Not using magic really makes us that much different.”
“According to my teachings,” Al told him, “the effective level of a person’s ability is dependent on how skilled the person is with the magic they use. Magic is like a door between where their powers come from and where their abilities take form. The better use of magic and the more advanced the magical formulas, the higher output of energy and power. The Desphelmers, though, don’t need magic. Based on what I’ve been taught, that would mean you guys have no limiter on your abilities.”
“Is that a bad thing?” Chris asked.
Al shrugged. “It could be. Think of that time when we first met at Revere Park. You blew away almost half the street.”
The memory was far from pleasant, although it was muddled and pieced together. Chris gripped his jeans as he recalled the swath of devastation he had caused.
“How could I forget?” he muttered solemnly.
“From what I saw and what I know,” Al said, “that was the result of your powers running wild, unfiltered by magic. There was no formula, no control. It just sort of exploded like that. But on smaller levels, like earlier tonight, you guys use your abilities as if they were controlled by magic. By all means, that shouldn’t happen, and there’s no guarantee any of you won’t accidentally lose control of your abilities.”
“Then tell me this,” Chris walked across the office toward Al. “If this power is supposed to be unlimited, and the Desphelmers don’t require magic to suppress it at all, then why do we get tired after using so much of it? Robbie’s big energy shield has its limits. I know I get worn out after using so much of my own power, even though it isn’t physical tiredness.”
Al was quiet. Her face showed deep thought before answering.
“I know what you mean,” she said. “Actually, that’s not a new question, and has been a mystery for as long as my organization’s history.”
“It is as Aleph-Naught says,” Father Dood said. “Sister Farrah and I use magic, and the flow of our gifts come with restraints.”
“So,” Chris said slowly to the sturdy priest, “you don’t actually know if this power is really unlimited.”
Father Dood shook his head.
“No, it in fact seems to be unlimited. However, there appears to be a limit as to how much a person can use at a time. It’s comparable to the way a person can train their body and become stronger and faster; we learn by improving magical efficiency for more output. Yet, no matter how much a person strengthens their muscles, their bodies grow tired after exertion, and their bones will still break under too much pressure. Does that make sense?”
“Um, I kinda know what you mean,” Chris said, putting the explanation together in his head.
“It’s an ongoing mystery,” Al told him. “There is an unlimited supply of energy that can be tapped into, but only so much can be used, and nobody knows why. This applies to angels and demons as well, although they can access far more of that energy than humans, and we don’t know what their magical requirements are, if any. That’s all according to my teachings…and these days it’s hard to trust my teachings.”
Robbie shook his head. “Ya’ll are saying that after thousands of years, these powers are still a mystery, but you use them anyway? Forgive me for saying this, but that’s just plain stupid.”
“I don’t trust it, either,” Al snapped. “How do you think I feel? My entire way of life has been based on mysteries and secrets, and now I’m finding out it may all be bullsh—er, I mean…inaccurate.”
Father Dood, while standing upright and assertively, hung his head slightly at Al’s blatant wavering faith in her teachings. Sister Farrah saw the priest’s solemn reaction, and she placed her hand over her heart, doing her best to suppress the unease she felt.
The seven people in the room took part in a dilemma that brought them together. With the tools of their beliefs now stolen away, they faced a path laden with one of the most menacing foes of all: the unknown, and it offered no horizon by which to judge its expanse.
Looking up, Father Buck Dood instantly saw the overbearing disdain everyone held.
“I have a question, Sister Farrah,” Chris said.
The young nun did not expect a question from the boy.
“Yes?” she asked.
“When I was here earlier today, you mentioned something about another mortal of significance who felt wicked. Fully wicked, I think.”
Sister Farrah nodded. “I did.”
“I know what you’re getting at,” Al told Chris. “You think this other person might be like Erik.”
Reluctantly, Chris told Al, “Yeah, I think so.”
“So…” Robbie said, looking at Chris, “…you think we gotta go stop them, or something.”
“It’d be worth looking into,” Chris said. “Sister Farrah, do you know where they are?”
“I shall attempt to locate them,” the young nun replied.
Waiting for her response was suspenseful, as she appeared to be sleeping upright with her eyes closed and spirit open, listening to what her prayers brought back to her.
After nearly a minute, she awoke from her trancelike state.
“They are still within the city,” she told everyone. “I estimate at least six or eight miles south or southwest of here. Because of the distance, I would require much more time with my prayers to determine a specific location.”
Wow, Chris thought in awe, she can detect things farther away than Excalibur can, which has a five-mile radius.
“That’s okay,” Chris said, “it doesn’t have to be now.” He turned to Al. “What do you think, Al? Should we go after them?”
Screwing up her face in thought, Al said, “Well…it’s an option, but not my priority, and we’d have to play it smart.” With a firm expression, she added, “If this person is anything like Erik, we’ll need to be very careful, but also act very soon because thousands of people are in danger, possibly millions.”
Before the discussion could create any more atmospheric malaise, Father Dood spoke.
“It’s late,” he said, “and everyone must be exhausted. I’ll allow you all to stay here tonight. Our accommodations are frugal, but we will be more than happy to lend our aid.”
The group exchanged glances. No one opposed the offer, but no one immediately accepted.
“That might be a good idea,” Chris eventually said. “I know we’re all worn out. And if we stay here, we’ll be together.” He looked around at everyone. “We’re a team now, and we might as well get used to this kind of stuff.”
Bret snorted. “What you mean is that our old lives are long gone, so sleepovers in castles are on the menu from now on.”
With a weary smile, Chris replied, “Yeah…that about sums it up.”
Sandra rubbed her eyes and dragged her hands down her face with a groan.
“Sooo…” she said flatly, “I came to Chicago looking for an adventure…and now I’m sleeping with superheroes in a castle…” She laughed to herself, although it almost sounded like she was lamenting a little. “How ghastly epic…”
“It’s not actually a castle,” Al said, “but they have a bunch of boxed macaroni and cheese. Dinosaur shapes! Some are wagon wheel-shaped, too!”
“The food rations we receive from supporters are diminishing,” Father Dood said, “but we still have enough to share with you all.”
“Diminishing food rations?” Sandra wondered aloud. “The food shortages are affecting the monastery, too.”
“Do not worry about us.” The priest assured them. “We are more than willing to assist you.”
“We’ll stay the night, then,” Chris told the priest. “Thank you for your kindness.”
“The honor is mine,” Father Dood said humbly. “If you all follow me, I’ll take you to the guest chambers.”
The monastery dormitories were divided into two sectors, each sector being a long corridor lined with doors on both sides. Both sectors were rather far apart, and Father Dood halted at the splitting staircase leading to either residential sector.
“For certain reasons,” the priest explained, “we do not allow the men and women to reside in the same lodging. Therefore, I will ask that the men follow me up the right staircase, and the women follow Sister Farrah up the left staircase.”
“You separate the men and women?” Bret said curtly. “That’s pretty sexist, don’t ya think?”
“It is to prevent fornication,” Father Dood said. “Although I would like to trust my fellow followers of faith, I admit it is a necessary measure to take.”
Bret sneered. “Heh, this isn’t much of an obstacle to get from one area to the other, if you ask me. Men will walk across the country if they know they’re gonna get a piece of tail.”
“You’re an open book,” Robbie said, rolling his eyes.
“Shut up, Robbie.”
“All right, you guys,” Al said to Chris, Robbie, and Bret. “I’ll see you bright and early.”
At that, the men and women climbed their respective staircases. Father Dood led the teenage boys down the cobblestone passage, past the many doors where the other monks slept, and to an empty room that was unlocked.
“This is where you’ll be staying,” the priest told them.
Not surprisingly, the room was rather small, bare, and pitch black. Father Dood removed a nearby candle from the corridor wall, entered the dark room, and lit a candle atop a small table with one drawer, creating an orange, dancing illumination. Two wooden bunk beds were situated against opposite walls. An uncomfortable-looking wooden chair occupied the corner. There was no carpet nor closet, and the only window was a small opening above eye level and too small to fit through. Although the appearance of the room was rather clean and tidy, there was a faint mustiness that permeated the stones themselves.
“The water closet is located at the end of the corridor,” the priest said. “Is there anything else you’ll need?”
The boys shook their heads.
“I think we’ll be fine,” Chris replied.
“In that case,” Father Dood said, stepping toward the door, “I’ll see you all in the morning. Have a good night.” He exited the room and closed the door, cutting the available light source in half as he took the candle he held back to the corridor.
Robbie approached one of the bunk beds and pressed his hands into the bottom bed’s mattress—it was flat with almost no springiness, in accordance with the plain white sheet, thin white blanket, and small white pillow; all four beds were identical.
“The mattress is sorta rough,” Robbie said as he stretched out on the bed, feeling the lumps of the individual springs. The same musty smell of the room was pushed out of the sheets as soon as he lay down. “Not the worst…but it’ll do.”
“Heh, this place is a turd,” Bret muttered, climbing to the top bunk over Robbie. “I hope I don’t get lice or bedbugs.”
Chris lay down on the bottom bunk of the opposite bed, confirming Robbie’s description of the mattress.
“Ya know what, Chris?” Bret asked. “I gotta thank you.”
“For what?” Chris asked.
Bret looked over the side of the top bunk down at Chris on the other bed.
“For sticking up for me back there.”
“I was just being honest.”
“For sure.” Chris stretched and yawned. “I wonder what’ll happen next,” he said while staring at the bottom of the top bunk above him. “Like, what’ll we really be doing?”
“I dunno,” Robbie said after a few seconds. “Helping Al find that Chashman thing? Monster hunting?”
“Well…” Bret sighed, “whatever we end up doing, it won’t do any good worrying about it. That’s one thing I gotta give to ya, Chris. You got balls, or at least you pretend to, and you somehow stay calm during all this.”
“You just said it yourself,” Chris replied, “worrying won’t do any good.”
“We all know that,” Robbie said, “but…it’s hard to actually go through with it. Staying calm, I mean. Feeling like it’s all gonna be okay.”
Not replying, Chris thought it over. Deep down, he felt confident and at peace with the current circumstances. Unfortunately, as Lavi had said from the beginning, he expected to be facing plenty of hardship.
“It’ll be tough,” he said. “I really mean it when I say I think it’ll all be all right. But I can’t help but feel like if there’s really something in charge of everything…some kind of higher power responsible for all of this we’re doing…then it’s gonna do its damnedest to prove me wrong.”
There was a moment of silence.
“Why do you say that?” Robbie asked quietly, looking across the small room at Chris.
Chris looked back.
“It’s the same as why I feel at peace. It just feels that way.” He stared back at the bottom of the top bunk. “It’s a contradiction inside me…and it’s something I can’t explain with thoughts, only feelings.”
“And what kind of feeling does this contradiction give you?” Robbie asked.
Looking at Robbie again, Chris said, “Nothing but pain.”
Nobody replied, and the boys eventually gave in to their tiredness, Chris taking much longer than the other two to fall asleep.
Sandra stepped into the room Sister Farrah had indicated to her, and took a deep breath through her nose; there was something relaxing about the cool, dank smell as opposed to the rented hotel room in The Loop.
“This is where I’ve been staying,” Al told Sandra, pulling off her baggy, gray hoodie and tossing it over the lone wooden chair in the corner. “Not bad, I’ll say.”
Running her hand along the handcrafted wood frame of one of the two bunk beds, Sandra smiled.
“If only I’d known about staying here tonight,” she said, “I could’ve saved a night’s payment on my hotel room.”
“Which hotel are you in?”
Sandra brought up her hotel’s information on her smartphone and showed it to Al.
“That’s a good price,” Al commented, looking at the phone screen. “There’s no electricity here, so you know. You can’t recharge your phone.”
“I thought so.” Sandra pocketed her phone. “It’s okay, it’s not almost dead.”
“Speaking of recharging,” Al turned to the Afghani nun, “any luck with my bandalores?”
“I’m afraid not yet,” Sister Farrah answered. “Father, Brother Benjamin, and I have examined them, and it seems possible to restore them. We will attempt again tomorrow, and ask you to accompany us as you are more familiar with them.”
“Yeah,” Al nodded, “because I know their magical schematics, so it’ll help if I’m there.”
“Is there anything else I can do for you before I retire for the night?” Sister Farrah asked.
“Not really,” Sandra said quietly, lost in thought.
“Very well. Goodnight.”
As soon as the young nun left and closed the door, Al stretched and yawned loudly.
“Man, I’m beat!” Al tossed herself onto a bottom bunk. “This mission has been a hell of a lot more crazy than I thought.” She watched Sandra slowly take a seat on the opposite bottom bunk, and noticed the downtrodden look on her face. “Hey, you okay?”
Al didn’t want to say outright that Sandra looked depressed.
“I know it’s a lot for you to take in,” she told the young woman. “If there’s something you need to get off your chest, just let us know.”
Sandra removed her light red windbreaker, peeling the interior fabric from her sticky, sweaty skin, and tossed it on the stone floor.
“Yeah,” she said. “What about you, Al? How are you doing? You’ve been through more than you’re used to, haven’t you?”
“Huh?” Al didn’t expect someone to ask her that. “Yeah, I’m okay.” She wondered if that was actually true, and settled with hoping it was. “It’s not really more than what I’m used to. It’s different, though. Usually, I’d have my superiors with me. This time…I’m doing what they’d be doing, or at least trying to.”
“You did good, Al.” Sandra gave Al an assuring smile.
Al sighed. “Thanks.”
Not lying down, Sandra sat on the edge of the bed and stared at the floor, enticed by the irregular, stony layout.
“What are we doing next?” Sandra asked, not looking up.
“Well, I’ll need to run some errands tomorrow,” Al replied, stretching her legs, “and I’ll need to assist with the restoration of my bandalores. They got drained when I fought that Erik guy, so my combative abilities are gone until then. So…I guess we’ll split up in the morning.”
“Split up, huh?” Sandra slumped back onto the mattress, ignoring its lumpy, hard texture. “I wonder if we’ll be okay on our own.”
“We should be.” Al rolled over. “Let’s talk about it tomorrow. I’m too tired to think right now.”Fully agreeing, Sandra closed her eyes. She was asleep in seconds, lying sideways on the bed with her legs sticking out and feet on the stone-laden floor, taking in the comforting mustiness with every breath as she slept.