Chapter 8: Noise
On a private airfield in the outskirts of a metropolitan area, the single passenger of a small plane stepped out into the cool afternoon air. The pilot of the plane followed behind her, eager to see if there was any further service he could provide. He had not thought much of this young woman when she had first approached him and told him that she needed an immediate flight. That was, until he had a look at her seemingly bottomless accounts. The amount she was willing to pay made him calling in every last favor he had with the FAA to quickly push a flight plan through. It hadn’t been that long of a flight, either, but he wasn’t one to question how rich people spent their money.
“The taxi’s waiting right ahead, like you asked,” the pilot said, hoping to ingratiate himself to his wealthy patron.
She nodded but didn’t reply, just kept a brisk pace toward the waiting cab.
“I’ll stick in this area for a bit, so if you need a return trip, or if you want to go anywhere else, just give me a call -”
She disappeared into the taxi before he got a chance to finish. He shook his head and took it as the usual mannerisms of the super wealthy. If he had been more observant, he might have noticed the strain of concentration distorting her features.
“South,” she finally spoke to the taxi driver.
“Going anywhere specific?”
“South,” she repeated.
The taxi driver shrugged. The meter ran the same either way. The taxi took off following its passenger’s cryptic directions.
The man in the strange military attire slowly approached the rubble, his right hand jangling, his eyes fixated on the two standing within the ruins. Despite having not spoken a single word, Arthur found him more intimidating than any of the opponents he had fought so far. Short, neatly styled hair framed a strong face covered in scars. A light but long one ran horizontally across his forehead. A deep and jagged one crossed over his nose and left cheek. Three of the more pronounced scars ran vertically across the right size of his face. But the most imposing part of him was the eyes. Narrow and intense, like the eyes of a falcon with its prey in sight.
“Friend of yours?” Marco asked.
“Don’t think so,” Arthur replied.
“Maybe he’s a fan of mine?” Marco did not sound too hopeful.
The uniformed man stopped in front of them, his right hand finally ceasing its jangling.
“You are making too much noise.” He spoke with a stern, commanding tone.
“Sorry, did the neighbors complain?” Arthur said, trying to mask the exhaustion in his voice. “We’ll turn the music down.”
His reply was stony silence. Arthur couldn’t believe he found himself missing Spike.
“Look, buddy, it’s been a long day,” Marco said, straightening up to make himself larger. “First I couldn’t get a drink, then someone dropped a building on me. So why don’t you just get on with it?”
“Noise attracts unwanted attention,” the falcon-eyed man finally continued. “You both will need to come with me. Now.”
“And if we refuse?” Arthur asked, though he already had a pretty good idea of the answer.
“Then I will have to silence you.”
“Getting kind of tired of people demanding I go with them today,” Marco declared. He began to pick his way through the rubble, his fist clenched. Despite his injuries he seemed intent on fighting. “Used to be, people would book time with me weeks in advance, and pay a lot for the privilege. Now everyone just shows up and makes demands. Well let me tell you something, kid: I don’t care what kind of crazy magic shit you are capable of. I ain’t going easy.”
The uniformed-man didn’t visibly react. “Do you know how much effort goes into keeping things quiet when half-wits like you decide to rampage through the streets?” He briefly glanced at one of the nearby buildings.
Arthur was reminded of his earlier puzzlement that he had seen no one come outside to see the cause of the disturbance from the bar’s collapse. Was this man somehow responsible?
“Should I take it that you plan to resist?” the falcon-eyed man asked.
For a moment, Arthur legitimately considered the question. He was exhausted and injured and the carrier wasn’t looking much better. Perhaps the best course of action was to go with this man and try to explain the situation. He didn’t seem to be working with The Dark God, or at the very least he wasn’t behaving like it. If there was a way of talking his way out of this …
Only a warning he had received from Ryu stopped him: The Dark God was not the only one interested in the carriers. Others would try to take them and use them for their own purposes. They might even kill them for their fragments. It was just too much of a risk to surrender the carrier, and himself, to an unknown force.
“I guess so,” Arthur finally replied.
The uniformed-man held out his right hand. Gripped between his fore and middle fingers was a long, sleek black needle. With a flick of the wrist he tossed it straight up into the air. Arthur followed its arc carefully. He wasn’t sure what the trick was going to be but he wanted to be ready for it.
What he was not expecting was for the needle to suddenly become many times its size. As it arced it expanded rapidly, becoming as long as Arthur was tall and as thick as his arm. The end glinted a deadly sharp point. And it was angled directly at Arthur.
“Why is everyone trying to skewer me today,” Arthur grunted as he tried to form his sword to deflect the missile. As he did, he accidentally put too much weight on his sprained ankle. Pain shot up his leg and broke his concentration. He winced as the massive black spear neared him.
The spear was stopped just inches from his face. Standing in front of him was the hulking form of Marco, whose face strained and muscles bulging with the effort of stopping the needle’s flight. It became apparent why when he dropped it beside him, letting it fall to ground with a resounding thud. Arthur could only imagine how heavy it must be.
“Nice reflexes,” Arthur said, honestly astonished. “I can’t believe you caught that.”
“That was nothing,” Marco replied, grinning.
“It wasn’t,” their assailant agreed. “That was just a warning. I could have killed you if I wished. Now I’ll give you one last chance to surrender.” He held open his right hand, revealing dozens of the little needles.
Arthur focused and was relieved when the sword appeared in his hands. He raised it, hoping to channel an attack through it before his opponent had a chance to react.
He was too slow. In one fluid motion the man had tossed the entire handful of needles into the air. These seemed to reach their height quicker than the previous one and quickly grew into the deadly spears. The sky seemed to grow dark with the sheer number of projectiles. There was no way to run out of the area in time. Arthur wondered if it was possible for him to destroy enough of them to protect both himself and Marco. It seemed like his only option. He braced himself and focused his Light through the sword.
Suddenly the air in front of him began to glow a bright white. The light quickly took form, its sides rounding, curving to single point at the bottom and two at the top. In the center a curving pattern took shape, chaotic spirals curving in on one another as they reached out from the center. It solidified into a massive shield that Arthur was all too familiar with.
The spears impacted the shield and for a moment they hung there, locked in the shield’s energy as the swirling patterns twisted around them. Then, with a bright burst of light, they were sent flying away at the same speed they had been dropping at. Flying directly at the man who had thrown them.
The uniformed-man raised his hand as if he intended to do something to stop them, but whatever it was there was no time, not with them coming so fast. They crashed, one after another in close succession, into the ground around him. When the impacts had stopped a full circle of the spears had formed around him.
“That was a warning,” a woman said as she calmly stepped into the street. “I could have killed you if I wished.”
It had been a while since he had last seen her, and she had changed a little since then. Her jet black hair, which she had always kept boyishly short, now ran to her neck in the back and parted just above her eye-line in the front. Her fair skin was a shade tanner, having gone from porcelain to ivory, and in some places red splotches showed where she had been burned by the sun. She had traded in the white t-shirt and jeans that had been the staple of her wardrobe for a simple black blouse and matching shorts. Arthur would still recognize her anywhere.
Ai. His fellow student under Ryu.
Arthur’s opponent eyed the new arrival, then looked back at Arthur, sword still drawn. He seemed to be carefully calculating his odds. “Very well,” he said at last. “At you insistence, I will leave you be. Fighting here would only create further noise. But he comes with me.”
Following the man’s outstretched finger, Arthur spotted Spike desperately trying to crawl away. He couldn’t help but feel a wave of relief wash over him that somehow he hadn’t killed him, servant of the Dark God or not. One day he would not be so lucky, but for the moment he had avoided being a killer.
“That’s fine,” Ai declared. “We’re done with him anyway.”
The man tossed the struggling Spike over his shoulder and began quickly walking down the street. Arthur was going to call out to him, try to demand to know who he was, why he had tried to fight them. Before he could a thick mist rolled in all of a sudden, obscuring the man from view. Just as quickly as it had come the mist dispersed. The man, and Spike, were gone.
“You mind explaining that trick to me?” Marco asked, scratching at his head.
“I will when I figure it out.”
Arthur picked his way out of the rubble, limping slightly on his hurt ankle, until he was face-to-face with his fellow pupil. She seemed to have grown little, though she had always been fairly tall, and though Arthur was still a few inches taller yet she had a way of looking at him that felt like she was looking down. She regarded him with the same serious expression that seemed perpetually locked on her face.
“Arty. It is nice to see you are not dead,” she flatly stated.
“Nice to see you, too,” Arthur replied. “What are you even doing here?”
“Thank you for saving me, Ai,” she demanded.
“Thanks for the help.” It was the best Arthur was willing to do. “Now how about answering the question.”
“Ryu was worried about you, and I happened to not be too far. It took digging pretty deep into the Riley-account to get here, but once I was it was pretty easy to find you. You put out so much energy when you fight.” She glanced over at Marco, who stood a few paces behind, his arms crossed and his expression bemused. “Is that the carrier?”
“Yeah. Managed to get to him before Adaghast’s servant could get away with him.” He looked back down the street that Spike had been carried away. “Was it really alright for us to just let him be taken away like that?”
Ai shrugged. “We can’t take prisoners back to the farmhouse. Did you plan to finish him off?” Arthur”s wince gave her the answer. “Didn’t think so. Nothing else we can do. Might as well let the ECT have him.”
“ECT? The letters on that guy’s uniform. You know who he is?”
“Not specifically, but I’ve had the misfortune of running into his kind before. All I know is they’re a bunch of assholes who have made it their lives’ work to keep Elementalists a secret. They’re all threats and bluster.”
Marco chimed in, “I assume at some point someone is going to explain what all that means?”
“When we get back to the farmhouse,” Arthur promised. He turned his attention back to Ai. “Where have you been, Ai? Not that I couldn’t handle protecting the carriers myself, but I thought you’d want to be here.”
Her face twinged with frustration for a moment before she mastered herself. “I was in a place far from any true civilization doing some scouting. It took me a while to even get Ryu’s message, and when I did I had a long trip by bus, cab, and even horse-drawn cart to get to anything resembling an airport. I just got back in the country today. I was waiting for the flight that would finally take me home when I got Ryu’s call to come here.” She hesitated, clearly struggling with what she wanted to say next. “I am sorry. I came as fast as I could. You should not have had to face all this alone.”
For whatever reason, her apology didn’t make Arthur feel any better. She was only a year older than him but had a way of treating him like she was the much older, much more mature one. “We should get back to the farmhouse. It is tough for me to take more than one person, but with another carrier I can do it. I’ve done it once before.”
Ai shook her head. “I’d rather not risk it, especially with you looking as worn-out as you do. Focus on getting the carrier back. I’ve already got a flight booked. I should arrive tomorrow.”
She turned to leave, but stopped for one last observation. “By the way, I’m glad to see you got rid of that hat, Arty. It never looked good on you.”
Arthur patted his hat-less head. “I didn’t ‘get rid’ of it. It got blown off my head in a fight with a Wind Element. And I really like that hat. It was a gift from Ryu.”
“You just liked it cause you could hide being asleep while pretending to meditate.”
“That was … part of the reason,” Arthur admitted.
Ai gave a light chuckle, though the serious look on her face never broke. “See you at home, Arty.”
Arthur watched her go. Before she was completely out of sight, the door of one of the nearby shops opened up. A woman with a small shopping bag came out and stopped in her tracks when she spotted the destroyed bar. Whatever phenomenon that was keeping everyone indoors had apparently ended.
“Alright. I’m going to take you to the guy who will answer all your questions,” Arthur said as he gestured for Marco to follow him. “Let’s get out of here before anyone else shows up.”
“We catching a cab or what?”