ANNO DOMINI ~Allium~ [Beta version]
***THANKS FOR READING!***
Hey, Honeyfeeders! I had expected to exceed the character limit for this chapter, as the previous chapter gave me the same concern, and this one is slightly longer. Being where the story is now, I felt it would interrupt the flow if I divided these longer chapters. Fortunately, I didn't need to.
BOOK 2, CHAPTER 29: MOST DEVOTED
“Chris Findale?” Ned Jackson looked up from the list of students’ names during Monday homeroom roll call. “No Chris?”
“Oh, here. Sorry.”
There was always noticeable awkwardness whenever Erik was present in school. Feeling this familiar air of subtle attention, Erik kept his head low and stared at his desk. To make matters more uncomfortable, Chris was also in class that day, although he didn’t react to Erik’s presence; it was as if Chris didn’t acknowledge the sickly boy’s return after a weeklong absence.
My first day back, Erik thought, and it already feels like I’m out of place. He looked at the back of Chris’ head and dark brown hair. I need to get over it, but it’s not easy.
Marilyn Collins bounced her leg under her desk and tapped her pencil on her history test study worksheet. Glancing at Chris, she saw that same lackluster demeanor he’d carried for the past couple weeks, and she wondered if there was anything she could do to cheer him up.
After roll call, Mr. Jackson looked around the room and sighed.
“I know some of you are sneaking snacks in here,” he said to his class. A sudden rustle of plastic and cardboard resulted from several students attempting to conceal their crackers, chips, and veggie sticks. “Save it for lunch, and no eating in the halls outside the designated commons.”
When homeroom ended, Marilyn headed straight up to Chris’ desk. However, Erik made it there seconds before, as if he’d been waiting for the opportunity to speak.
“Hey, Chris,” Erik said.
Chris looked at Erik and smiled. “Hey, what’s up, Erik? Glad to see you’re in school today.”
Erik nodded with a meager smirk.
“Yeah,” he replied. “It’s all thanks to you, man. For your support, I mean, and everything you did.”
Noticing Marilyn standing there, Chris said, “No problem, dude.”
“It was a huge problem!” Erik retaliated, raising his voice enough to catch other students’ attention. He shook his head and chuckled. “But…it’s over now.”
Chris patted Erik’s shoulder.
“I have your back, Erik. Ask me if you need something, all right?”
“Awww!” Marilyn pushed her puppy dog face into the conversation. “Did I just witness a friendship being born?”
Both boys looked at her, surprised at first, and chuckled.
“I think you did,” Chris replied.
Erik grinned at the thought, but soon turned sullen.
“I really need to make up with Robbie.” Erik sighed, looking at the interactive whiteboard for no reason. “He helped me through this, too.”
“I’m sure he’ll forgive you,” Chris said. “Just be honest.”
“Yeah,” Erik said, finding his confidence.
As Chris stared at his history test, he regretted his decision to research conspiracy theories rather than fill out his study guide. Adding to that, only one multiple choice question featured “Illiniwek Juncture” as an answer (which Chris believed was incorrect).
I didn’t really study with Marilyn that time, he thought with dismay. I wonder how she’ll do on this test.
The rest of the day dragged by. With the memories of Regal still fresh in Chris’ mind, focusing on school was impossible. The teachers’ lessons disappeared as soon as they entered his ears. The worksheets and homework assignments meant nothing.
“What is wrong with you guys?” Garret asked Chris, Robbie, and Drake at lunch. “You all look bummed out and stuff.”
Chris and Robbie didn’t respond. They had been quietly eating their lunches that seemed too insufficient, too painful to ingest, overloaded with flavor and weight…although the portions were no smaller than previous lunches. Hunger, it seemed, was constantly unsated.
Drake, on the other hand, lashed out. “Maybe we just don’t feel like talking, Garret!”
“Whoa, didn’t mean to stab a nerve,” the pudgy Canadian boy replied. “Don’t be a hoser. I’ll let you play with Mont Blanc after school if that’ll make you feel better.”
“I don’t… Well, maybe.” Drake considered the cuddly beaver’s face. “We’re just in a bad mood, so don’t bother us about it.”
Garret shoveled a fork-load of pork curry loaf into his mouth and gulped it down, following it with an entire blueberry punch juice box in a single slurp.
“No lie, I’m used to you being moody, Drake,” Garret said flatly. “And you’ve barely touched your food. I’m not hungry, but this loaf is ratchet.”
“I don’t really feel like eating,” Drake muttered.
Garret looked at the other two boys at the table. “But Chris and this guy…Robbie, was it? You always seem to be immune to the badness that flocks around here. So, it’s weird seeing you two down, and it makes me kinda uncomfortable, like something really bad is looming on the doomy cliff side.”
Such was the sludgy trudge of the day, all the way up until Chris got out of woodshop.
Walking down the halls to his locker, Chris shook the sawdust from his hair and clothes. He stood in front of his open locker and stared at the stacks of books and folders. What were the homework assignments due tomorrow? Did it matter?
Sighing, Chris slipped on his hoodie bearing the Graveyard Shift Auto VI video game logo, and hoisted his empty book bag on his shoulder, leaving his homework behind, then closed the locker.
Drake wasn’t by the school statue of Frederick Randolph Lyons. Chris glanced around to look for him, but instead was met by Marilyn. Her cinnamon scent paired with her glowing expression, and she rocked on her heels and toes while talking to Chris.
“Hey,” she said with a melancholy-melting smile. “Whatcha doin’?”
“Uh, leaving.” Chris wasn’t sure how to answer something so obvious.
Marilyn laughed. “Yeah, I guess that’s true. Katie’s staying after classes today. Ms. Vaughn is helping her with math and stuff, so…” Marilyn brushed her burnt orange hair out of her face. “Do you wanna walk home with me? Not all the way, because we live in different places, but, like, ya know.”
Feeling glad to do so, Chris said, “For sure.”
“All right!” Marilyn nodded.
Amid the mass of students, Chris and Marilyn left through the main gate of Lyonbole Public High School. They were just two more students among the hundreds.
“So,” Marilyn said when the crowd had dispersed and they were around the block, “tell me something.”
Trying to find the words, she said, “Are you doing all right? You’ve been off, or something.”
Chris turned his gaze up at the sunny sky while they walked.
“You think so?” he asked, failing to cover the dimness behind that response.
“Well, yeah, kinda. Is it because of Drake? I thought because he’s been so down lately, you’ve been feeling it, too.”
How do I tell her this? Chris wondered, being put on the spot.
“No, not because of him,” he answered. “I’m…being more responsible these days. I guess that’s taking it out of me.”
Not replying right away, Marilyn said, “Yeah, I think I know what that’s like. I don’t wanna give up the things I know and love…but I’m starting to think that’s how it’s gotta be.” She smiled at Chris. “Maybe we’ll get better at it when we grow up.”
“I think we’re pretty grown up already,” Chris said with a smirk.
“Ha! Okay.” Marilyn turned her face away, suddenly feeling the need to sweat. “That’s what I like about you…”
Chris looked at Marilyn, who was looking off toward something in the distance.
“You what?” he asked, curious.
A ringtone interrupted whatever answer Marilyn was about to give. She removed her smartphone from her jacket and stopped walking, staring at the caller ID. The name displayed was “Ophelia.”
Chris watched her bring the phone to her ear and turn her back to him.
“Hi, Ophelia.” Marilyn’s voice was unlike how Chris had ever heard it; repressed…detained.
There was silence as Marilyn listened to Ophelia on the other end of the line.
“Is that…really?” Marilyn asked, confused, but still speaking as if she was afraid of conveying too much energy to the other person, even over the phone. “Okay. Yes, I will. I’ll hurry home now.”
She pressed the “call end” icon, and the small sound the phone made upon hanging up (a common, subtle sound) resounded definitively through the quietness.
Without turning to face Chris, she said, “That was my stepmother. It was about the photography contest I entered for the picture Eden’s Lance; I named it that from your suggestion.”
“Do you mean the one for the magazine?” Chris asked.
Marilyn nodded, slowly turning around, looking at the ground. “The results are in.”
“How’d you do?”
Chris was stunned. When Marilyn’s smile blew up on her face, he started to laugh.
“I won!” Marilyn repeated, her hazel eyes shining with jubilance.
The joy from the girl washed over Chris, making him chuckle.
“That’s great!” Chris told her, grinning. “Really, good for you!”
Marilyn’s face turned red from excitement and giddiness.
“I-I gotta hurry home,” she said, putting her phone into her jacket pocket. “Some of the magazine’s staff members are there to, like, take my picture, and stuff. Like an interview! They’re gonna feature me as part of the published results.”
“Then you better go now.”
“Yeah.” Marilyn hoisted her backpack straps up her shoulders. “Ooh, I’m so happy right now! ‘Eden’s Lance’ is the name for victory!”
She unexpectedly wrapped her arms around Chris, squeezing him tightly as she squealed with glee. Chris had to regain his balance as the excited girl rocked him in a hyper hug.
As he looked at Marilyn’s face up close, dazzling from her achievement, the homey scent of warm cinnamon circling around, and the energetic pressure of her hug…he received a glimpse of something hypnotically bright, something that starved the murkiness around it, something that possessed a verve vibrant enough to paralyze Chris in the moment.
Everything stood still as Chris experienced this temporary eternity, caused by the opened door leading to Marilyn’s soul…
…A soul that shined as bright as Lavi in all of his angelic, heavenly majesty. Deep inside, Chris could see how pure and sincere she was at that very moment.
Then Marilyn let go. The radiant light went away.
“All right, I’m going now!” she said. “Maybe I should, like, celebrate with a frazzleberry crepe. They’re so good! And I’m starving from this excitement!”
The sudden disappearance of the breathtaking, sunny ambience dazed Chris, and he almost forgot to reply.
“Uh, yeah! Definitely!”
“I knew my mother was right.” Marilyn put her hand on her chest, right where the gorgeous light had been nestled. “Good things are meant for me. I just gotta follow my heart, and it’ll take me where I need to go.”
Chris had nothing to say. For reasons he couldn’t explain, he did not want to say a single word in response.
“See ya tomorrow, Chris!” She turned and jogged away.
Now alone, Chris headed home. The smell of warm cinnamon stuck to his hoodie as he thought about the evening before him, devoid of homework.
Plenty of daylight remained when Bret knocked on the door to the messy house in the Canaryville neighborhood. He stuffed his hands into the pockets of his dirty blue jeans, leaning his back against the side of the house while staring across the street.
The door opened as a tall man in his early twenties stood in the doorway, eating a huge slice of taco pizza. He rubbed his shaved head, greeting Bret with a blank look.
“Oh, it’s you,” Guy said to Bret with a mouthful of pizza. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m here to get something from you,” Bret replied, hardly looking up from the old porch floor.
Guy narrowed his eyes. “You know to call me ahead of time.”
“Can’t. Phone’s dead.”
“Dude, I’ll buy you a charger.”
Bret raised his chin. “I won’t say no.”
Inside the house, Guy closed the door and looked at Bret.
“So, how much do you want?” Guy asked. “I just got some powder in two days ago. It’s not the best, so I’m charging the regular price.”
A familiar smell of old food and dirty carpet hung in the living room, but Bret was already used to it. He took a deep breath and turned to Guy.
“The premium.” Bret pointed at Guy. “I’m here for that.”
Staring at Bret, Guy gave a dead serious look.
“Are you for real?” he asked, lowering his voice, letting some ground beef and cilantro tumble off his pizza and join the other dried, unidentifiable crumbs on the carpet.
“Yes, Guy, I’m for very real.”
Guy looked around the cluttered living room for a moment.
“You must be going through some deep shit, then,” he told Bret. “Are you okay to handle it?”
“Yeah, yeah, I am,” Bret grunted. “Things are just…intense right now. I need that to help me.”
“Well, if you say so,” Guy replied, “I’m not here to judge, but I just want to remind you, ya know…it’s dangerous.”
“I know, dammit. I just have something to take care of at school, so it’ll help.”
Stepping back, Guy was appalled by what Bret had said.
“For fuckin’ real, you’re gonna use it at school?”
Bret’s blood pressure rose into his head. “Hey! You just said you ain’t here to judge! I’m giving you cash for it, fair and square.”
Guy groaned, then shrugged.
“Right, okay,” he said. He crammed the rest of the pizza slice into his mouth and gestured for Bret to follow him. Walking through the living room, Bret snagged a slice of pizza from the box on the saggy couch and scarfed it down.
The two walked up the stairs to one of the rooms. Unlike the rest of the house, it was organized and clean, although loaded with shelves, drawers, and boxes. Guy retrieved a small wooden box with a hinged lid attached, which he showed to Bret.
“Here it is,” Guy said. He opened the lid to let Bret see inside. “Same price as I said. Comes with everything you need…for a school day.”
Bret’s face showed nothing as he took a wad of money from his pocket, staining the bills with taco pizza grease.
“Good,” he said, handing the money over. “It’s all there.”
Guy counted the cash and gave the box to Bret, who tucked it under his arm.
“I swear, Bret,” Guy said sternly, “I better not hear something about you for stupid-ass shit.”
“Whatever.” Bret walked out of the room.
“I’m for real!” Guy called. “Don’t be a jackass.”
“Thanks for the business!” Bret shouted back, not stopping.
By the time Guy made it back downstairs, Bret had left.
Tuesday morning seemed to be a carbon copy repeat of Monday morning as Chris walked to school. His book bag felt odd, being so light from having nothing in it. When he made it to the main gate of Lyonbole Public High School, he stood and stared at the school building, ignoring a loud growl from his belly.
“Lavi,” he said to himself before joining the flow of students.
Robbie was already at the main office when Chris arrived.
“Talkin’ to Mr. Kampton?” Robbie asked.
“Yeah. You too?”
“Yup. He wasn’t here yesterday, so I’m checking today.”
Mrs. Brown wasn’t at her desk, so the boys headed straight to the vice principal’s office. The door was open, so they walked in.
Lavi was sitting behind his desk, probably doing nothing and already smiling before the door had opened. Already, he appeared chipper.
“Oh,” Lavi said, “good morning, boys!”
“I want to talk to you,” Chris said.
“Of course, no problem. Just close the door, will ya?”
As Chris reached for the door, Bret appeared.
“Oh, hey,” Chris greeted.
Bret ignored him, brushing past. He stood in front of Lavi’s desk.
“Okay, angel,” he stated firmly, “I’m here for answers.”
Lavi cocked his head.
“Of course you are,” he replied with a smile. “I know you have a lot of questions, especially because things have been hectic lately.”
“Damn straight, it’s been hectic.” Bret’s voice grew louder. “That’s why I’m here for answers.”
“Don’t worry,” Lavi told the teen, “whatever you need to know, I’ll help.”
“I don’t believe you!” Bret shouted. Chris and Robbie looked at each other, thinking the other office workers could probably hear. “You always say something stupid about trusting ourselves, or that the answers will come on their own. Well, I’m done with the runaround!”
The angel raised his eyebrows.
“Are you really done, Bret Taurus?” Lavi asked. “Or are you just frustrated?”
Bret clenched his teeth. “That all depends on if you’ll answer my questions, angel.”
“Bret!” Robbie hissed. “Watch what you say too loudly.”
When Chris reached for the door to close it, Bret pushed him away, forcing the door open with one hand.
“No,” Bret muttered, “it’s time to shove your secrets up your ass, Lavi.”
The angel smiled and stood up.
“Hey, hey…I know this is difficult for you, but—”
“Shut up!” Bret yelled. He slammed his fist on the desk, spittle spewing from his lips, his face shiny with sweat. “Only speak when I ask you a question, and only say the answers to my questions. Got it?”
Now with a straight face, Lavi gave his undivided attention to Bret.
“Very well,” the angel replied.
“Why are we the ones doing your dirty work?” Bret demanded.
“It is not up to me why you are responsible,” Lavi said straightforwardly.
“I said answers! That is not an answer!”
“I do not have the answer to that question, Bret Taurus.”
Bret trembled, his breathing shallow and audible.
“Then what are we really fighting?” the delinquent asked, glaring at Lavi. “We fought Erik, we fought Regal, we fight weird monsters made up of some kind of evil. What is it, really? What are we really up against? Why do we have to fight things I never knew existed until the other day?”
“You are fighting against that which threatens mankind,” Lavi said, interlocking his fingers. “Chris is the savior of mankind, and you are Chris’ companions. Together, you will fight the threats to the human race.”
“It’s bullshit that I’m involved!” Bret yelled.
“That’s one opinion,” the angel replied.
“Why do I have negative energy inside me? How did I get it?”
“I do not have the answer for that,” Lavi said. “Humans should not wield negative energy, so you should be careful.”
Bret wiped the sweat from his flushed face. His breathing grew heavy. “Was it because of that thing I met? It tried to bargain with me, and I know it did something to me, even though I turned it down!”
“I am not sure what you are talking about.”
“Yeah, of course you ain’t sure… And the Illiniwek Juncture,” Bret pried, “…what is it? Why’d you tell us about it?”
“I see you didn’t do your homework like I said.”
“Kapow! Another dumbass reply!” Bret pounded his fist against the open door, slamming it into the wall, chipping the drywall. “Are you ever gonna answer my questions?”
“I just did,” Lavi told him.
“You’re a damn liar!” Bret hollered.
“Bret,” Chris grabbed the delinquent’s arm, “calm down!”
Pushing Chris away, Bret spat, “Screw you, Chris. From what it sounds like, this is all your fault! Everything me and Robbie and everyone else are stuck with…it’s because of you, Chris!” He turned to Lavi. “Ain’t that right, Lavi?”
“Yes, it is,” the angel replied.
“And you’re part of it!” Bret added, pointing at Lavi. “Really, I think you’re the kingpin of this shit!”
“You can say that,” Lavi said.
Bret shook with rage, fuming and seeing red as he stared at Lavi, who returned a rock-solid look of expressionless observation.
“Well, here’s what I think of that!” Bret reached into his jacket, sneering with violent anger, and removed a Beretta APX Compact pistol and pointed it at Lavi; ten rounds in the clip, one in the chamber. “Burn in Hell, you holy fucker!”
Pak! Pak! Pak!
The second and third bullets went through Lavi’s neck before getting stuck in the wall behind. The first bullet was the only one to hit Bret’s target, lodging itself inside Lavi’s head, having entered between his eyes.
Chris and Robbie flinched from the gunshots. Bret kept the gun aimed at Lavi, who remained standing with his arms held behind his back, a clean hole in his face, and two holes in his neck. The smell of gun smoke only made the situation more tangible and harder to erase from memory.
Bret tightened his hold on the gun. “Heh, figures you ain’t dead,” he huffed.
Another pistol was brandished, this time in Chris’ hands, sleek and chrome-like with no discernable features. Keeping the angel at gunpoint, Bret looked at Gunnhildr and furrowed his brow.
“Enough!” Chris shouted. “That’s it, Bret.”
“What’s it?” Bret growled.
Entangled knot-work became bundled and crocheted inside Bret’s soul, making him suddenly pay uncanny attention to Chris, whose mean-looking eyes were bladed with anger. The delinquent wanted to deny the ropes of kinship connecting them both, but it was difficult to fight.
“I’ll free you of your darkness,” Chris told him, his voice solid with resolution. “That’s what I’m here for. We’ll share your pain together!”
A small puff sound filled Bret’s ears as he witnessed the silver beam from Gunnhildr pierce his chest. His breath locked and a feeling of being dipped in liquid silk wrapped around his body.
But the silver beam of the absolving bullet did not disappear. Chris sensed the distressful energy emanating from Bret while the delinquent tried to pull the beam from himself. However, the beam could not be grasped.
“Gaahh!” Bret groaned. He wasn’t in pain, but the unpleasantness was debilitating.
Starting from Bret’s chest, the silver beam turned black, and a dark shockwave surged back into Gunnhildr. Instantly, the holy handgun shattered into sparkling dust. Chris thought his hand had been blown off. He fell to the ground, but there was no injury. Gunnhildr had disintegrated.
Bret examined himself, assuming he was unharmed, baring his teeth.
The Beretta APX Compact fell to the floor. His hands mutated into scaly claws, and he plunged them both into Lavi’s torso.
In seconds, he yelped in fright and yanked them out, then cancelled Soul Ripper. His hands returned to normal as he stared at the bullet hole in the angel’s head.
“What are you?” Bret said almost in a whisper.
He grabbed his pistol, then dashed from the room, pushing past two office ladies who stood in the hallway, covering their mouths. Frantic whispers from the other office workers came from outside the room as Bret escaped, still brandishing his pistol.
Robbie pulled Chris back to his feet, who appeared unharmed.
“What the hell?” Robbie squeaked. “Wh-what…what…?”
Swishing his hand, Lavi slammed the office door shut from afar, locked it, and established a magical barrier to ensure absolute privacy, all without moving from his spot.
Inside the quarantined room, the two boys watched the angel take his hand and squeeze his fingers into the bullet hole between his eyes. Disgusting suction and cracking sounds accompanied something they did not wish to witness, ending with Lavi holding the 9-millimeter bullet between his thumb and index finger. There was no blood.
“He should’ve known that gun would be useless,” Lavi said, looking at the bullet. His face had returned to normal, as with the two bullet holes in his neck, and he appeared as if nothing had happened.
“Bret just screwed everything for us!” Robbie shouted in despair. “The cops are coming! They’re gonna find out everything!
“This will not prevent your paths from continuing,” Lavi said, his tone deep and emotionless as he placed the bullet on his desk.
“H-he’s gonna be expelled and arrested,” Robbie continued, “and get thrown in prison!”
“I assure he will not get arrested for this,” Lavi replied, “although he will be expelled. My influence has its limits.”
Robbie grabbed his head with both hands.
“How can I be sure?” he whined. “How can I…?”
Summoning Gunnhildr, Chris was relieved the holy handgun was not destroyed, as it returned to his beck and call without delay.
“What happened there?” Chris asked, bewildered, checking over Gunnhildr. “I thought for sure that absolving bullet was on the right wavelength.”
“It was on the correct wavelength,” Lavi told him, “however, that was not an absolving bullet.”
“Gunnhildr is more than just a purifier and cleanser of unholiness,” the angel explained. “As you grow into your role, your tools will grow with you, Gunnhildr included.”
Chris bit his lip. “Then, if it wasn’t an absolving bullet, what was it?” He further asserted himself, stepping toward the angel. “Lavi! What did that bullet do?”
“That particular bullet resulted from you wanting to share Bret’s pain,” Lavi said. “You took some of his negative energy for yourself.”
Shivers ran up Chris’ spine. He had heard correctly.
“What? I took his negative energy for myself…?”
The angel gave a look the boy could feel humming in his ribcage. It was not a feeling of Chris’ imagination.
“It’s the mark of a true savior,” Lavi explained. “You are embracing mankind for all it is, embracing with all its good and bad…”
Lavi stepped up to Chris, getting face-to-face.
“In that moment,” the angel told the boy upfront, so close that Chris’ skin tickled from the divine radiation, “when you pulled Gunnhildr’s trigger, your desire wasn’t to erase the dark energy from Bret, because you accept it as half of him and part of him. Instead, you wished to understand him, to feel his pain, and share that darkness with him. Your desire to understand his darkness is what attracted you to him from the beginning.”
Lavi pressed his palm against Chris’ chest. The angel’s light blue eyes had a peculiar shine, irises like rings of sunlight; it actually hurt Chris to look directly into them.
“That is what makes you most special, Christopher. You don’t want to annihilate the evil in people, but to embrace it as part of the whole, and stand beside those who are lost in the dark, facing the trials together. I will reiterate this: you are not a destroyer, but something much grander.”
Chris was lost for words, but retrieved his speech, saying, “That doesn’t make sense! Why did I use the absolving bullet on Erik and Regal, then? How do I know to use Gunnhildr correctly?”
“You don’t know,” Lavi replied, stepping back. “You just do it. Excalibur, send Chris a comprehensive list of Gunnhildr’s features.”
Chris’ phone vibrated as he received a string of text messages. “Upload complete,” Excalibur stated.
A stressed chuckle filled the pause. “What the hell, Lavi?” Robbie grunted through his teeth. “Do you ever listen to what you say? Like, ever really listen? Being real with you, I kinda understand Bret. He’s an idiot for shooting you, but I really feel his frustration! It’s because of your stupid word plays, Lavi!”
“Robbie!” Chris snapped. “It’ll be okay. Just trust in yourself, and trust in us.”
“Shut your damn mouth, Chris!” Robbie barked. “Why do you gotta be so wishy-washy and carefree about everything? Don’t you see what we’re involved in now?” He pointed at the closed door through which Bret had run away. “There’s no way we can keep this on the down-low! We’re busted, man. Open your eyes.”
“If you walk out now, Robert,” Lavi told the black boy, disengaging the magical barrier, “then I promise you nobody will fully remember your association with his event.”
“I don’t give a damn,” Robbie muttered, flinging the door open. “I’m done.”
When Robbie was gone, the door slammed shut with a wave of Lavi’s hand. The barrier was reinstated to seal the room.
“Christopher,” Lavi said firmly.
“Uh, y-yeah, sir?”
“My abilities to hide things from the populace can only go so far. Keeping people out of danger and your actions out of sight is one thing, but once they notice something for themselves, there is only so much I can do.”
“Still, I will attempt to keep this event a secret, although it will be impossible to completely erase the suspicion the witnesses have of you three boys. No matter what, you, Robbie, and Bret will be somehow associated with a school shooting and the violent acts against the vice principal. The typical effects of such actions may not manifest as they normally would; you would be under police surveillance otherwise.”
“What are you saying?” Chris asked, trying to keep cool against his nervous pulse.
“Some school workers have witnessed something just now that they shouldn’t have,” Lavi explained, looking at Chris with a stern expression unfitting for the usually-smiling face of an angel. “There are bullet holes in the wall behind me. Innocent bystanders watched it happen. The more that happens, the more irreversible the effects will be.”
“Oh, I think I understand,” Chris said, “but I’m safe, right?”
“You are never safe, Christopher.”
The words hit Chris. He hadn’t expected such a harrowing revelation from Lavi, who had always been full of positivity and good news.
“It’s okay to continue this conversation, though,” the angel added.
“Well,” Chris said, thinking about his response, “I want to believe what you always say about the answers eventually coming to us. Actually, I do believe that, in some crazy way. I think I’ve been making progress to become what I need to become, and doing what I need to be doing. My powers are growing a little, and I’m making more friends involved with this stuff…”
“But?” Lavi pressed, seeing the hesitation Chris wore.
“But…I still feel lost. I don’t know what it takes to be a good superhero, and it seems like I’m not meant to be one, based on stories and everything. A writer girl who knows a lot about stories and writing told me that I’d be a terrible superhero, so…what do I do? What do I do next? It’s confusing, because I’m constantly moving in a direction that’s different from what it seems it should be.”
Lavi moved forward, giving Chris his full attention, which was intimidating, and Chris was wholly submerged within the presence of a holy entity.
“Having doubts is normal,” Lavi told the boy. “You will be plagued by your own mind throughout this journey.”
“You have Excalibur,” the angel continued, “a highly advanced piece of technology far surpassing anything else that exists in the world, but there are things you can observe that Excalibur cannot. And then there’s me, an angel, a divine being that exists on a plane that isn’t higher than humans, but outside the hierarchy altogether; and you come to me for answers, yet there are answers you can find that I cannot, even with me being what I am. That’s very much proof that you’re capable of extraordinary things.”
Hearing that made Chris feel better.
“I didn’t think of it that way,” Chris replied.
Lavi continued, “Everything you know about ‘superheroes’ won’t help you. You are not a superhero. Perish the thought, and be yourself. The sooner you understand that you have nothing to base your actions off of…no guide, no reference…the sooner you will realize that you, and only you, ultimately define yourself. You set your own limits, be there any limits at all.”
Cracking a smile, Chris said, “Yeah…I didn’t think of that that way, either.” He looked at Lavi, who did not return a smile, but a firm expression.
“Is there anything else you’d like to discuss here today, Christopher?” Lavi’s voice had no friendliness.
“In that case, I’ll leave you to your own devices.”
The barrier around the room vanished, and the door unlocked. Chris walked away from the angel, who watched quietly, then exited the room. All of the office workers had returned to their usual duties. Everything was normal as Chris passed through the office and left.
Seconds later, the phone on Lavi’s desk rang. The angel stared at it, knowing exactly who it was, and left it ringing while walking out of his office. He approached the door to the principal’s office and stepped in without knocking.
Baal was sitting at his desk. He placed his phone back on the terminal upon seeing the person he was calling enter the room.
Closing the door, Lavi grinned. “You need something, boss?”
As soon as the demon sealed the room with magic, he cleared his throat and leaned forward, staring at Lavi with spite.
“I heard gunshots.”
“Funny. I heard fireworks.”
“Nobody else seems to care about the gunshots,” Baal grunted, “even though they were panicking just a minute ago.”
“People get used to fireworks really quick, I guess.”
Baal narrowed his eyes. “I’m not gonna get a straight answer from you.”
“Anybody rarely does, don’t feel special,” Lavi said with a shrug. “Our interactions are pointless, Baal.”
“Pointless from a human perspective, I guess.”
“Well,” Lavi said, clasping his hands together, “considering the humans’ perspective is what’s important, it’s a problem that they don’t like how we transcend them. As an angel and a demon, we do things they’ll never understand.”
His white, feathery wings suddenly snapped out with great force, releasing a shockwave. The flash of light and gust of holy pressure gave Baal some equivalent to hives on his imitation human skin, all while his office shook from Lavi’s quick energy outburst.
Giving the demon a sideways look, Lavi continued, “People refuse to accept that we, as higher beings, have our role to conveniently lay things out so the lesser characters navigate through a pre-planned storyline. They are ruthlessly opposed to dusting off their seemingly entitled ‘suspension of disbelief.’”
“Enough!” Baal dropped the magical barrier surrounding the room. “If you’re gonna spout idiocy, then get out.”
“Then I’d best be on my way.” The angel did a small curtsy, folded his wings out of existence, and bowed out of the office with a smile.
The demon growled, squeezing his fat fists.
“I know he’s behind something,” he muttered. “Somebody is defying my plans…and it has to be Lavi. Damn…the worst part of being a purveyor of fate is that I can’t act outside my boundaries, otherwise I’d rip his little angel head clean off his shoulders.” Calming down, he leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling. “Even in all of this, he and I are still only middle management in the destinies of this shitty world.”
Chris walked down the empty hallways, feeling light and afraid at the same time, his empty book bag hanging from his shoulder. He headed toward the side exit where he and Bret had left to skip school last week, pushed the door open, and walked away. Outside the small side school gate, he kept walking.
The first rule of skipping school: Never look back.
Therefore, Chris didn’t look back.
“Excalibur,” he muttered into his smartphone, “show me the locations of Shocking and Home.”
“Here you go.”
Two generic monster face icons appeared on the phone GPS, and Chris immediately went after them.
In Hyde Park, a murky stain inked its way into an old, quiet roadway intersection. As Chris approached it, an acidic atmosphere burned the skin on his hands and arms. A single beam of Eden’s Lance ended the encounter before it could get into his eyes or airways.
‘Eden’s Lance’ is the name for victory.
West down I-290, Chris entered Cicero. He left a liberal tip for the Lyft driver, who didn’t seem to notice the subtle spine-tingling ripples of negativity in the area. Across the street from a convenient store, the boy used an absolving bullet (proof of him not using one a few hours ago on Bret) on an invasive shade only he could see; he swore it resembled a two-headed primate. He also swore Gunnhildr smelled like gun smoke, the newest addition to his other familiar-for-life smells.
With a GPS free of negative energy targets, Chris went home, not giving the trip much thought. He found his old duffel bag in his closet, which he filled with as many clothes as he could fit. In his book bag, emptied of all school supplies, he packed extra shoes and items that would be useful. All of his video games, movies, vinyl records, and unnecessary possessions remained in their places.
For the next several hours, Chris waited in his room, gradually eating through an entire pack of Oreos. He viewed Excalibur’s task manager on the phone app, watching the hundreds of mysterious processes depleting petabytes of data by the second. And he waited, staring at the walls, floor, and indefinite imaginary space beyond.
When his parents were both home, he walked downstairs with both full bags hanging from his shoulders. They saw their son and questioned what he was doing.
“Mom, Dad… I’m dropping out of school. I’ll be living in a monastery to seek spiritual enlightenment.”
His parents yelled. They warned him of the dangers of being on his own, and the downfalls of not completing high school. They begged him not to go, asking what they could do for him, asking where they’d gone wrong.
“It’s nothing you guys did wrong.” Chris spoke so formally and with so much resolve that he questioned whether or not he was being too heartless. “I need to find my own path, and do what I think is best.”
His father told Chris he was a fool and careless, to ruin his life as he saw fit if that’s what he wanted. His mother hugged Chris and told him he’d always be her baby, that she loved him more than anything, and although she was against the idea of him leaving, he would always have a home there.
And then his parents fought. Chris heard them screaming and arguing with each other about Chris’ validity as a worthy child and as an honorable American citizen, and about which parent was most responsible for their son’s delinquency.
I’m a delinquent and an outcast now, Chris thought as he opened the front door.
When Chris closed the front door behind him, he could hear his mother crying and father slamming things in the kitchen, but he didn’t look back. He never looked back.
At the large gate in front of Saint Baptiste Monastery, a young monk was repairing the lock mechanism. He noticed someone approach, and looked up to see Chris, strapped with two stuffed bags.
“Ah, you’re the boy, Christopher Findale,” the monk greeted warmly. “Do you have business here?” He wore the same simple robe as the other Saint Baptiste residents, and his head of white hair suggested he was older than most others, including the priest.
“I do,” Chris replied.
“Come on in. I am Brother Benjamin.” The monk opened the gate enough for the boy to enter. Its hinges were still in perfect condition. “It is a pleasure making your acquaintance.”
I don’t care what involvement they might have with the Illiniwek Juncture theories, Chris thought, stepping through the large gateway. They may need my help.
The teen smiled. “Thank you. Is Father Dood available?”
“Perhaps,” Brother Benjamin said. “Please feel free to enter. I am busy fixing this broken lock. An intruder last night damaged it when they broke in.”
“An intruder?” Chris asked. “What do you mean? Is everyone okay?”
The monk took a deep breath. Before he could respond, Father Dood called across the front courtyard.
“Christopher!” The sturdy priest hurried over. “What great timing.”
Chris could see the deepened stress lines under the priest’s eyes. “Father, I’ve heard about the intruder.”
“Yes, I’m afraid we were attacked last night. Aleph-Naught and I had to use violent force against them. We succeeded in scaring them off. However, Sister Farrah Elaina is…” His voice trailed off. “I’m afraid she has suffered a nasty affliction.”
“What can we do?”
“Come.” Father Dood gestured toward the monastery entrance. “We’ll speak about it inside. Aleph-Naught is waiting for you, as well.”
“I’ll contact the Desphelmers.” Chris heard the gunshots from school echoing in his memory. “I don’t think all of them will come, though, but Sandra might be able to do something.”
“The more, the better,” the priest replied. “Follow me.”
Chris followed Father Dood through the monastery to the women’s lodging, making him feel uncomfortable at first for entering an area usually restricted to males. Down the long corridor, Chris saw Al sitting on the floor outside one of the doors. Her hood was over her head as she heard footsteps.
“You’re here!” she said to Chris, standing up. “Have you heard what happened?”
“Yeah,” Chris said. “An intruder broke in, and they did something to Sister Farrah.”
“That about sums it up,” Al muttered with a nod. “We’re at a loss as to what’s wrong with her, but we think it’s a mental breakdown caused by severe spiritual damage.”
Chris didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded horrifying.
“She’s very unpredictable at the moment,” Father Dood said in a hushed tone. “Proceed carefully and try not to startle her.”
The priest gingerly opened the door, as to avoid loud creaks to Sister Farrah’s quarters. It was a minimalistic room identical to the others, but only with one bed instead of two bunk beds. The young nun was sitting on her bed in a position that reminded Chris of cavemen or monkeys, her body and limbs at odd angles that appeared uncomfortable. She was dressed in a cloth gown rather than her nun habit. Her dark, reddish-brown hair was as short as Chris’ and was matted with sweat, shining in the sliver of sunlight coming through the lone, small window.
An elderly nun sat in the chair in the corner, keeping watch on Sister Farrah, and she smiled at the visitors. She was putting the finishing touches on a small trinket she had been making, fixating a thin chain to it.
At the sound of the door opening, Sister Farrah skittishly turned her attention to Chris, Father Dood, and Al, her light brown eyes bloodshot and bulging out. Just as Chris prepared for her to pounce, she dismissed their arrival, clutching the bedsheets tightly, rocking around while moaning and sobbing.
Strange, unfamiliar symbols were scrawled across the walls and floor in black ink, and the furniture appeared to be damaged and jostled.
“Sister Farrah,” Father Dood said softly, “Christopher is here. He will help us find a way to cure your ailment.”
The nun did not reply. She collapsed onto the bed, squirming and giggling as she pressed herself into the mattress.
“Was this caused by negative energy?” Chris asked solemnly as he watched Sister Farrah’s behavior.
“I am not sure,” the priest replied, “but I believe negative energy had a role in this. When she attempted to use her prayers to learn about the intruder, she went into a fit, and has been like this ever since.”
“It seems like whatever her prayers told her,” Al added with her arms crossed, “was enough to break her. Also, the intruder asked what we knew about Regal and Erik.”
“Why would they ask about them?” Chris asked. “Who was this intruder?”
“We don’t know,” Father Dood said. “We’ll begin looking into things soon.”
Chris looked at the odd scribbles on the walls. “What’s written there?”
“They seem to be many of the symbols inscribed on her cubit rod,” the priest explained. “It’s a fascinating and ancient tool carved from a meteorite, and possesses phenomenal attributes. However, only Sister Farrah is able to call out the tool’s full potential, because only she knows how to decipher the symbolism. She has once said that explaining the meaning of the symbols is akin to a mute person explaining colors to a blind person who cannot read braille…yet she immediately understood them.”
“But she’s been writing them like mad,” Al said, glancing at the walls with a grimace. “We had to take the ink away from her, because she was using it like finger paint to do all this.”
“It’s possible,” the priest said, “that the meanings within these symbols are so important to her and her prayers that they are what’s left of her mind after the attack. I believe this is a language that goes beyond her mind, and speaks directly to her from God’s domain.”
Chris approached the nun as she gripped her mattress.
“Sister Farrah Elaina,” he said. “We’ll do what we can to help. You’re in good hands now.”
His words had no apparent effect as she ignored him, hunched over with her face in the mattress, gripping the sheets, rocking rhythmically, and mumbling to herself.
“Let’s leave her be,” Father Dood said. He turned to the elderly nun sitting in the chair. “Thank you, Sister Agatha, for keeping her company.”
“It is my pleasure, Father,” the elderly nun replied with a wrinkled, but soft grin. She held up the trinket she had been working with, which was a necklace with the aleph-naught symbol on its pendant. “Aleph-Naught, it is complete.”
“Oh, cool!” The blonde girl took the necklace and put it on. “It’s different from my old one, but I like it. Thank you, Sister Agatha.”
Sister Agatha remained in the chair as the others left. Outside Sister Farrah’s room, Chris got right to the point.
“Father Dood,” he said, “I wish to stay here at Saint Baptiste.”
The sturdy priest gave the boy a hard stare.
“Is that so?”
“Yes,” Chris said. “I have all of my important belongings in these bags, and I already told my parents that I wanna live here. It’ll be good for what I’m doing, and good for spiritual enlightenment.”
After a silent moment of consideration, Father Dood smiled and nodded in an underwhelming, humble manner.
“Very well,” he replied. “I’ll see to it that you receive your own room.”
Chris blinked. “Really? That’s it? I don’t have to, like, take a test?”
“No,” Father Dood said, waving his hand. “I don’t expect you to adapt to our faith entirely. If spirituality is what you seek, then who are we to tell you what you should do. There will be rules, but you may require exceptions due to your status as a Desphelmer and your actions alongside Aleph-Naught.”
“Thank you, Father. I’m happy you’ll have me.”
“As am I.” The priest gave Chris a hug…firm, gentle, inescapable. “I am sure there is much we can learn from you as well.”
“Yeah!” Al slapped Chris on the back. “I’m gonna make your life awful!”
“What’s that mean?” Chris muttered.
“Training and stuff,” Al replied with a tilted smirk. “You’ll be a fine mortal of significance. There’s a lotta stuff for you to learn. I’ll pass to you what I learned from my education and sparring mentors.”
“Expect strict lessons and conditioning exercises,” Father Dood added.
Chris hoisted his stuffed bags onto his shoulders, grinning.“That’s what I’m going for,” he told them.