ANNO DOMINI ~Allium~ [Beta version]
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BOOK 2, CHAPTER 25: INTO THE DEEPEST RED
“This requires immediate action.” Father Buck Dood stood next to his desk in his minimally furnished office. The team of Desphelmers occupied the room, having arrived moments earlier at Saint Baptiste Monastery, dirty and tired and desperate. “Such a heathen must not be left to wander freely.”
Although the group had no physical injuries due to Sandra’s marvelous Heal ability, Father Dood could see the impression of a tragedy.
“I know we need to do something,” Al said hastily, repetitively tapping her foot on the floor, “but what can we do?” Her voice quivered as she addressed Father Dood and Sister Farrah. “The enemy is strong. Very strong.”
“Gunnhildr is the fastest way to end it,” Chris said, making the sleek pistol appear in his hand.
Bret grunted. “But we gotta wait twelve hours, or however long we have left.”
“How long do we have, Excalibur?” Chris asked his phone.
“Nine hours, fifty-one minutes, and twenty-one seconds,” the app answered.
The sturdy priest gave a disapproving look to Chris’ smartphone.
“Sorry, Father,” Chris said firmly, “but Excalibur is an important tool for us. I keep it with me at all times, and it won’t turn off.”
Hesitant, Father Dood replied, “Then I’ll allow it.”
He looked around at the ragged team, especially noticing Sandra leaning against the wall; she’d neither spoken nor moved during the meeting, wearing Chris’ bloody Callout 89 hoodie.
Father Dood added, “You all must be tired. We’ll arrange for you to stay here another night.”
“And hungry,” Al muttered, rubbing her stomach. “We worked really hard today, and we’re mentally beat up…so a good meal is a good idea.”
Father Dood nodded. “Agreed. I am quite hungry as well, although supper is already over. I can provide bread and water for you, but do not expect a full meal.”
Nobody replied, but cast sorrowful eyes at nothing in particular.
“I know you’re all troubled.” Sister Farrah stepped into the middle of the room to speak closely to everyone, her solid expression softened a little by empathy.
Robbie let out an angry chuckle. “We almost died!” he said, raising his voice. “That guy had murderous intent…no, that thing he had with him was made from murderous intent!” Robbie calmed down and stared at Sister Farrah. “Do you know how damn freaked out we were seeing everyone get manhandled like we were? So, yeah…we’re really troubled.”
“We know exactly what that’s like,” Father Dood told Robbie, stepping up to the boy. “There were many more followers who would be living here with us,”—he stopped in front of Robbie, lowering his voice, keeping eye contact— “and I personally watched many of them lose their lives or their souls, one at a time, over the course of two decades…often over spilled blood.”
Robbie stared at the priest in awe, then looked away.
“You must remain strong,” Sister Farrah told everyone, still speaking softly, “There is nothing we can do at the moment except rest, so take this opportunity to get the vital rest you require.”
Father Dood straightened his posture. “Sister Farrah Elaina is right. You all must rest. First thing tomorrow, we’ll take action. Until then, I will continue aiding Sister Farrah and Brother Benjamin to restore Aleph-Naught’s bandalores.” He smiled at Al. “I believe we are nearly finished.”
“Nice.” Al smirked, rubbing her chin. “I’ll be back in action soon!”
“I’ll grant you permission to use the refectory,” Father Dood told Chris and his companions. “We can’t offer much, but it will restore your bodies. Desphelmers or not, it seems your gifts won’t protect you from starvation and fatigue. You may use the washrooms as well, and we have some spare robes if you wish for one.”
With little delay, Father Dood led his guests out of the minimally furnished office.
The food, as promised, was simple bread, baked earlier that day by the monastery residents. Being homemade, the bread had a characteristic chewiness and freshness, but also a familiar blandness of pure sustenance without manufactured flavor. It did nothing to curb the appetite nor soothe the mind, but it was food, nonetheless.
Robbie laboriously chewed his bread, looking down at the plain wood table in the refectory. The room reminded him of a cave cut into a perfect, squared-off hollow fitted with the longest benches he had ever seen, and was very similar to the washrooms they had used prior to eating.
“I really don’t want to eat this,” he muttered, cringing from the bread he held, “but I’m starving. It’s like my appetite is gone, but my stomach is empty.
“Same here,” Al said between bites. “We need to keep up our strength, though.”
Eating was unpleasant and painful, but a sharp hunger in their bellies provided a strong incentive to finish the offering. Afterward, slowly and reluctantly, Chris and the others followed Father Dood and Sister Farrah to the residential quarters.
Sleep? Chris thought, the words in his head echoing into the vast overhead rises of the stone corridor. There’s no way…no way…
In the room, Chris called his mother and lied about staying the night at Drake’s house again. Sleep eluded the boy as he lay in the modest bed, listening to the snoring of Robbie and Bret from the other bunks. His stomach continued to rumble, the effects of the bread imperceptible.
Hours passed. After one in the morning, Excalibur detected two low-threat beings of malevolence, and Chris dismissed them.
At some point, he fell asleep, but upon waking, he checked his phone and saw it was just after 5:00 AM. On his phone’s internet browser, he did a search for Agrarian-Schism, Inc. and learned the headquarters was in The Loop.
Regal works there, he thought, looking at the displayed information. We never found out if he or the company have anything to do with the food prices.
Chris stretched out on the plain bed. “But that’s not why we’re after him. He needs to be helped.”
Restless and far from falling asleep, he got out of bed, then quietly snuck out of the room. All of the corridor candles were still lit, as they seemed to always be, so he wandered through the monastery with little effort. The other residents were probably waking up, if they hadn’t already.
“You know what I hate most about what we’ve been doing?” he asked aloud, probably to Excalibur.
“Are you referring to your tasks that Lavi had burdened you with?” the app replied.
“Yeah.” Chris looked around at the stone walls that gently carried the sound of his footsteps. “I hate how the others have to risk their lives.”
“Your allies are essential to your development and tasks.”
“I…don’t know if I can accept that. I wonder if there’s a better way, so they don’t have to suffer.”
The app offered no response.
Outside, Chris approached the heavy, spike-tipped monastery gate and stopped. The orange glow over the city gave illumination, but the absence of electricity at Saint Baptiste Monastery kept the area dark. Looking through the gate’s metal bars, he knew he could easily leave, but returning would require being let in—although he figured he was always welcome.
Sandra approached the boy. She was wearing a simple robe similar to the ones the residents wore.
“Hey,” Chris said. “What are you doing out here?”
“Clearing my mind.” Sandra looked toward the sky. “Open spaces help when I’m anxious.”
“Is that robe from the monastery?”
“Yeah, my clothes are ruined.” Sandra spread out her arms and did a half turn, showing off the cloth that reached down below her knees. “It’s kinda comfortable.” She looked at Chris. “Are you taking a walk, too?”
“Something like that,” Chris replied. “I can’t sleep knowing we need to stop Regal.”
The moment Sandra took before speaking was a harsh silence.
She gripped her fists. “I still can’t believe what happened.” Before Chris could speak, she quickly added, “Don’t worry about me. I’m better now. I know I can’t keep denying things, and that just isn’t my style.” She turned away and cracked a big smile. “I mean, a frickin’ angel came to me! I have a mission now, a real direction for my life, something to strive my ass off for, and I just know the adventure will be unlike anything my other college classmates will ever get to experience.”
“That’s the kind of thing you love, isn’t it?” Chris asked, grinning.
Sandra chuckled. “Oh yeah, it sure is.” Looking at Chris, she warmly added, “And because I trust you, Chris. I really mean that. Just so you know, it takes a lot to earn my trust…but I can tell that about you. I can tell that you’re not like most people, especially kids your age.”
“I just do what I do.” The boy shrugged, but was happy nonetheless.
As the young woman looked back at the orange sky, Chris was still troubled.
“Excalibur,” he muttered, holding his phone. “Show me all of the negative energy targets.”
“Here you are.”
Two monster face icons appeared on the GPS, one labeled “Home” and the other “Shocking.” He viewed their information, both having no picture data. Home was described as “nonhuman, humanoid” and Shocking was “nonhuman, amorphous.”
Chris sighed. “These aren’t the ones we encountered yesterday, aren’t they?”
“No,” the app answered. “The target named Regal Landers has not been detected since the previous encounter, and the so-called ‘big monster’ has never once been registered.”
There has to be some other way to find them, Chris thought. With that much negative energy, there has to be a way.
“You can also detect positive energy, right?” Chris asked.
“I can detect signals provided by people who have learned of Lavi’s true identity, whom you refer to as the Desphelmers. That is what I conclude is your idea of positive energy. Buck Dood, Farrah Elaina, and Aleph-Naught are not within my parameters.”
“Uh, how about other signals? You can detect everything a regular cellular phone can, can’t you?”
“Ah.” Sandra gave it some thought. “Is it possible that negative energy has an effect on other signals?”
“In fact, it does,” the app replied. “Although the interferences are various and not yet documented, it may be possible to estimate the presence of negative energy by observing the disruption of other signals.”
A weight lifted from Chris’ shoulders.
“All right,” he said. “That might be what we need to do.”
“Please realize that signal interference happens at all times and in many ways. My search results will likely return many irrelevant results.”
“It’s worth a shot.”
“Understood. What parameters should I use during my detection?”
“Uh…I don’t know. Try all of them first.”
“Very well,” Excalibur said. “The search has generated over two hundred seventy-six trillion results. Would you like to view them?”
Chris and Sandra bugged their eyes out.
“N-no,” Chris said with an airy chuckle, “I wouldn’t. Um, how about you take out the results that you absolutely know aren’t caused by negative energy?”
“Very well. The search has generated seventeen thousand one hundred eighty-three results.”
“Ahh…that’s still a lot…”
“I have a suggestion,” the app said. “I have a record of all signals detected since the start of my operations. I can use these records to compare to current detections. That may help determine which interferences are most unusual.”
“Oh,” Chris said, “if you say so…”
“To further narrow the results, I can attempt to generate hundreds of forecasts based on Regal Landers’ negative energy increase before he exited my detection parameters, which will create hypothetical blueprints of his signal. I will then compare those forecasted blueprints to the interferences to estimate which signal may be his.”
“Fine, okay,” Chris said impatiently, unable to follow the app’s wordy explanation. “Do it.”
“The search has returned two hundred seventy-seven results.”
Chris scratched his head with a long sigh.
“Guess we’ll have to check them all.”
“However, there is one result with exceptional qualities,” Excalibur said. “This single result appears to be creating a ‘dead zone’ of sorts, where all signals are either absent or heavily distorted beyond standard activity.”
“Really?” Now Chris was intrigued.
“Yes. The quantity of interference is eight hundred fifty-four percent higher than the second-most interference-based search result. In other words, it is a particularly significant phenomenon within these current search parameters.”
“That sounds like a hit to me! Bring it up on the GPS.”
“Here is the area of effect. It is color-coded to show the various intensity of interference, but I believe it all to be part of a single system with a single source.”
A colored area appeared on the GPS, covering all of the business district in The Loop, along with the neighboring areas. According to the onscreen color code, blue was the least intensity with red as the most intensity; there was a red center that slowly progressed to blue farther out, so it seemed likely that it was coming from a specific source.
“Wow,” Chris whispered, “it’s amazing that you could find this. But,” he frowned, feeling his chest tighten, “it’s a huge area, and it looks centered right in downtown.”
“Agrarian-Schism has their headquarters around there,” Sandra said, pointing at the phone screen. “If Regal had a reason to go there, then this must be showing it.”
“Although I cannot detect the negative energy itself,” Excalibur told him, “if it is indeed negative energy, it is a truly colossal quantity. Judging by my general knowledge of negative energy, I believe any carbon-based lifeforms in the indicated vicinity would be experiencing a very unpleasant stimulus, as it may be detrimental to their biological functions.”
“Meaning it’s dangerous.” Chris pulled the large monastery gate open and stepped out without hesitation. “We have to go now.” Holding the gate, he looked at Sandra. “What about you? Do you wanna see about Excalibur’s forecast?”
Sandra hesitated, the lack of illumination accenting the darkness under her eyes. However, she looked up at Chris and smirked.
“What’d I tell you when we first met? Hell yes, I’m coming with you.” She glanced at the monastery. “What about the others?”
“I don’t want to involve them,” Chris replied. “Really, I don’t want to involve you, either. It’s dangerous.”
“It’s definitely dangerous,” Sandra said, “but you’re stuck with me. You can’t offer me a good time and then stand me up.”
She laughed. “Let’s go.”
The traffic of early Sunday morning going into The Loop was practically nonexistent. Staring out the rideshare car’s window, Chris was somewhat weak as his stomach felt more empty than before. Although the bread he’d eaten at the monastery was a small portion, he still felt unusually hungry.
“You all right, kid?” the driver asked. He was a Pakistani man with a noticeable accent. “You look a little queasy.”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Chris replied humbly. “I just feel a little off.”
“Well, you must be feeling good enough to joyride around the city at this time.” The driver grinned, keeping his eyes on the road. “I joke.”
“Early morning is the only time to party,” Sandra said with subtle jest.
Chris forced a chuckle, staring out the window.
I don’t feel sick, he thought, but I don’t feel right, either. I wonder what it is. He gripped his knees with both hands. It’s been like this ever since we fought Regal.
“I’ve been feeling tired, too,” the driver said. “I don’t know what it is, but it’s like I’m drained. Some of the other passengers are saying the same, too.”
“Are they?” Chris leaned forward to speak with the driver. “Like, what are they saying?”
“Just tired. Weak and hungry.” He eased the cab into the right lane, ready for the upcoming exit off the highway. “I hope it isn’t that ghost flu thing.” He grinned again. “I joke.”
This time, Sandra didn’t reply and Chris didn’t chuckle. In fact, the driver’s joke almost made too much sense.
An effect that everyone in the city feels… Chris thought. It has to be Regal’s ability.
Several blocks away from the destination, at the nucleus of redness on Chris’ map app, the driver suddenly pulled over.
“Sorry, but I can’t go any farther,” the driver said.
“Why not?” Sandra asked.
The driver shook his head. “It…doesn’t feel safe around here.” He scratched his chin nervously. “I’m very sorry, but I don’t want to be here.” He turned to look at his passengers. “You shouldn’t get out here. I’ll take you somewhere else, free of charge.”
However, Chris already had the door open. “You don’t need to get any closer, but I’m not going anywhere else.”
The driver sighed.
“If you say so. Be safe, kids.”
With a nod, Chris and Sandra got out of the rideshare car. The driver took off, quickly pulling a sharp U-turn; Chris made sure to leave him a good tip through the phone app. The air was chilly, but another sort of coldness made them shiver, sending goosebumps across their skin. Sandra had her borrowed robe, but Chris’ plain, white T-shirt did nothing for warmth.
Chris checked his GPS. “We have some walking to do.”
“What was the driver saying about everyone feeling tired?” Sandra asked. “It’s not just us…”
“It could be the negative energy,” Chris said. “I hate to think it’s the ghost flu, but…”
“Or,” Sandra said quietly, “it could be something Regal did. I think I first noticed it when we got into that fight with him.”
“You mean like something got taken from you?” Chris asked. “That’s kinda how I feel.”
“Yeah.” Sandra nodded. “That driver acted weird, too,” she muttered. “I wonder if there’s some evacuation effect.”
“That is possible,” Excalibur said, “but if there is as much negative energy nearby as I estimate, then humans and animals may be compelled on their own to leave.”
“I think it is negative energy.” Chris rubbed his arms as he and Sandra walked toward the marked indicator on his GPS. “I feel something…something similar to what I always feel against malicious entities,” he hung his head, “including humans with those kinds of abilities.”
“I am using this opportunity,” the app said, “to analyze, forecast, and calculate the various energy activities in this area. With this data, I may be able to request an update that allows me to directly detect this type of signal, thereby expanding my detection parameters.”
“Nice,” Chris replied, trying to sound enthusiastic.
Every step closer instinctively felt like a mistake, but Chris and Sandra forced themselves to ignore the doubt and malicious pulsations growing stronger. Nothing was visibly out of place, making it different from Erik’s smoggy aura of disease.
“Christopher,” Excalibur said, “the absolving bullet is now available with Gunnhildr.”
“All right, looks like I planned it right.” Chris looked around as he kept walking. “I wonder how different Regal’s powers are from Erik’s,” he said to himself. Excalibur and Sandra didn’t reply.
A block away from the marked destination, the color-coded indicator showed they were on the cusp of the deepest red zone. There wasn’t much farther to walk, yet Sandra stopped. She stared ahead down the empty street. Streetlights, signs, and traffic signals were lighting up a totally deserted path.
“What’s wrong?” Chris asked her.
Sandra trembled. Her pulse quickened as her breathing grew harsher. She bit her lip, taking another step, and stopped again.
I…I don’t want to keep going.
The prying abrasions of vicious vibes held her in place, and her instincts kept kicking at her, screaming to run away. The cab driver was correct: it didn’t feel safe there.
No, Sandra thought. I gotta keep going. I’m capable of keeping everyone safe. But…I really don’t know what to do…
“Christopher,” Excalibur said. “You are close. The destination should be on the screen.”
“I know,” Chris replied, looking at Sandra.
“If you say so,” Excalibur said. “I am merely speaking because you stopped for no apparent reason.”
“Hey,” Chris said to Sandra, “don’t push yourself. That negative energy can mess with you.”
A shiver ran up Sandra’s spine. “I’m scared.”
Chris put his hand on her shoulder.
“I’m scared too, actually,” he said. “It makes me a little ashamed to admit it. Do I really have a right to be afraid?”
While the boy battled the conflicting feelings, an unannounced calmness embraced him from behind, which he didn’t notice until the loving light covered him.
“Did I just hear you say you’re scared?” Lavi’s voice said from no single point.
The glowing angel floated down next to Chris and Sandra, his head glowing with a glorious halo of enlightenment, his white wings spread out.
“It’s you!” Sandra squeaked when she saw the divine display. “You’re Lavi…”
When Lavi’s brown suede shoes touched down on the sidewalk, he smiled at Chris and Sandra, and clasped his hands together.
Chris looked away. “Yeah, I am, and I don’t know if…um…”
“Don’t be ashamed of having fear,” Lavi said as if reading the boy’s mind. “It’s a natural reaction programmed into your (dare I say it) lizard brain.” He grinned. “The real shame comes from being dominated by it.”
“Is that so?” Chris asked softly. He looked down the street toward the source of wickedness. “What’s going on here?”
“Hmm, how to say this?” Lavi touched his index finger to his chin for a few seconds. “There’s somebody around here who needs you.”
“I figured that much…”
“But, to further answer your question,” Lavi added, “the keyword is ‘ascension.’” When Chris looked at him longingly, the angel said, “It’s a curious word, really, but I think it appropriately fits this situation.”
“What do you mean?”
“That man, Regal Landers, has done what many humans have been dreaming of throughout history.” Lavi held his hands behind his back, rocking back and forth on his toes and heels, seeming like he’d been wanting to give that explanation for a long time. “To say someone has ascended from mankind to something else is a vague, controversial topic. For good reason, though. Where do you draw the line that must be crossed to cease being human?”
Chris shrugged. “I really don’t know.”
“That’s okay, I don’t expect you to know that answer yet,” Lavi said.
“You’re saying Regal isn’t human anymore?” Sandra looked at the angel directly.
“That depends on where you draw the line between human and elsewise,” Lavi told her.
“That’s kinda freaky,” Chris murmured, “if Regal is…something else now.”
“Yes, it is. Believe it or not, this is a mystifying experience for me as well.” The blond angel gave Chris a sideways glance, smirking. “Now, with that subject behind us, I’m curious as to why you came here without your other allies.”
Knowing the answer right away, Chris replied, “I don’t want them to get hurt. This is my fate and duty. You said yourself that I’m the special one…the savior of mankind.”
“I did say that,” Lavi said, “however, ask yourself this: How much do you believe that?”
“I absolutely do. It wasn’t a new thought that occurred to me when you revealed your identity, but was always there.”
Lavi nodded, satisfied. “Excellent. But you screwed up.”
“You forgot and dismissed your most valuable asset. Your friends and relationships are absolutely essential to your journey.”
“But they’ll be in danger!” Chris protested. “I can’t let that happen.”
Shrugging flippantly, Lavi said, “Meh, you’ll learn.”
“You don’t sound convincing.”
“I don’t need to be convincing. Anyhow, you should probably get going. The negative energy here is positively sweltering, and is growing every second.”
Chris baulked at the thought of proceeding.
“Will you come with us?” he asked the angel.
As expected, Lavi shook his radiant head.
“Nope, I can’t come with you because I don’t have permission. I can’t be a party member. Angels are incapable of breaking the rules, you see.”
“But you showed up here anyway,” Chris said, “or did you get sent here just now?”
“Don’t try to understand how we angels work. You’ll hurt your noggin with those concepts! But I’ll say this, Christopher, you needed to have this chat with me before going any farther, so that’s why I’m here.”
“Oh.” Chris gulped. “Well then…I can’t let fear stop me!” the boy declared with confidence. He closed his eyes, finding the courage to forge ahead.
I don’t just have to do this. I want to do this! I’ve always wanted to…and this negative energy is only messing with my head. Yeah, thinking about it like that makes it much better.
He opened his eyes and turned to thank Lavi, but the street was lit only by the manmade illumination and first signs of sunrise; the divine glow was now gone.
“He left,” Sandra said flatly.
“Way to just leave,” Chris muttered, irritated.
“He’s kinda flaky.”
“Kinda.”Taking a deep breath with his phone pointing the way, Chris ventured into the regions thickest with villainous intent, Sandra beside him.