Chapter 18: While The Cat’s Away
As Ryu feared, the child was not in his bed. He had been having terrible nightmares ever since the tragedy that befell his home. During the day he seemed to be adjusting aright; at the very least, he was eating his meals, more than could be said those first few days. The nights were the problem. Ryu, unfortunately, had very little experience with children.
He found Arthur in his usual hiding place, in the closet, cradling himself behind a nest of shirts and blankets. The poor boy was terrified, and Ryu was at a lost of how to comfort him.
“What’s the matter, champ?” Ryu asked, lowering himself to the boy’s level. The words were awkward in his mouth, and not for the first time he wished he had more to go on for child raising than old sitcoms.
The only response he got was a light whimpering. Ryu added that to the list of unhelpful quotes.
Some time passed, Ryu silently, patiently waiting for the boy to feel like speaking. When he finally did, his voice was little more than a whisper. “He found me again.”
Ryu did not need to ask who he was referring to. Arthur was plagued with nightmares of the night he lost his family, and of the man who had taken his family from him.
“He can’t come after you anymore,” Ryu reassured him, as he had almost every night since he had taken the boy in. “He is dead. I killed him.”
The boy didn’t seem convinced. “What ’bout otha monsters? They’re more like ’em, ain’t there?”
For a moment, Ryu considered lying to the boy. But that wouldn’t do him any good in the long run. One day, this boy would need to face those monsters.
Not today, though. “No one can find you here, Arthur. This place is safe. I will keep you safe.”
“What if you’re not around!” the boy insisted, a kind of desperation in his voice.
Ryu scratched at the back of his head as he pondered some way to convince the boy. His fingers idly grasped at the edges of the old straw hat hanging off the back of his neck. Perhaps a little dishonesty might help here, after all, just until the nightmares had passed.
He pulled the hat off and plopped it onto the boy’s head. It completely dwarfed him, encompassing him all the way to his shoulders. “All of my power is in this hat,” Ryu said. “So as long as you are wearing it, you can do what I do. This way, even if I’m not around, the bad guys can’t you.”
Arthur lifted the hat off his face so he could see. “Really?” he asked, sounding as if he wanted to believe but wasn’t quite sure.
“Try it yourself.”
Arthur held out a fist in a childish imitation of the stance Ryu had shown him. Ryu fell back, pretending to be hit with a powerful force.
“Woah, careful there, Arthur,” Ryu said. “It’s not a toy. Only use that power in emergencies, okay?”
The boy’s eyes widened in the kind of amazement only a child could feel as he took off the hat and held it in front of him, his young mind attempting to unravel its secrets. “Okay!”
Arthur gripped his hat tightly as he watched his old mentor sleep. Ryu seemed to have aged overnight. Or perhaps he was just finally looking his age. It was hard to imagine Ryu as weak. They had known about Ryu’s heart problems for a while now, knew the risks that would be involved if he pushed himself through channeling. But he had always seemed so … eternal. A fixture in the world as ancient and unchanging as the Elemental flows themselves.
Seeing him in this state was rough, to say the least. It was the shattering of one of the core pillars of his life. He took a small comfort from the familiar feel of the straw hat in his hands. It was strange: he hadn’t even realized how much he had missed it until he had gotten it back. Ryu had given it to him when he was only a child, and for some reason he felt more confident when he had it.
Eventually, he had to leave his teacher’s side. He still had responsibilities to attend to.
Ai was waiting for him outside the room. “He’s improving,” she assured him. “He was up earlier long enough to eat a little. He’ll be up and about in no time.”
Arthur nodded. Neither of them wanted to vocalize what they both feared: Ryu would never be the same again. Could their powerful and wise teacher be replaced with a frail old man?
It was this fear that caused Arthur to reach a decision. “I need you to take over training the others.”
Ever perceptive, Ai didn’t need him to explain. “You want to master crossing into the void yourself.”
“Ryu may no longer be able to do it. Plus, I saw how Ullen was able to create a path while stepping into the void. I think I can replicate it.” It was risky. If he messed up, lost his concentration for even a moment, his physical being could be unraveled into the Elemental Flows. It was one he had to take. “Every moment we’re stuck here, unable to act …”
Ai nodded her understanding. With Ryu down, any new carriers were defenseless.
Who knew how many were in danger right now?
Maximilian Pengrass waited for the doctor to finish his blathering with great agitation. He checked the time on his thirty-thousand dollar Rolex watch and noted that the fool had been rambling on for the better part of two minutes. The doctor had been fortunate that no more important calls has come in; Maximilian would have hung up on him in a second.
His patience had its limits, though, and as the doorman of his uptown apartment building held the path open to him he had reached it. “Okay, I’m going to have to stop you right there, doc,” Maximilian interjected as he stepped outside, wincing for a moment against the blaring sunlight. “This is about money, right?”
A pause. “Well, it’s about your father,” a befuddled voice responded. “As I was explaining, the procedure he needs -”
“Costs how much?”
Another pause. “Around sixty-four thousand dollars, after his insurance has covered its share. I know it is a lot, but we have plenty of payment-plan options to help -”
“Please,” Maximilian scoffed. “I make that much before I take my morning shit.”
“So then you’d be willing to -”
“You know the only time one of my relatives tries to get in touch with me is when they money? ‘Oh, Suzy needs braces.’ ‘Jimmy’s invention just needs an investment.’ ‘Your mom can’t afford her retirement home.’ I’m going to tell you what I told all of them: ‘no hand-outs.’”
There was some exasperated stuttering on the other side of the line. “Sir, without this procedure, your father will likely die.”
“Then he’d best find a way to come up with the money. He’s still got both his kidneys, right? Let him sell one. But I’m not about to be his god-damned piggy-bank.”
He hung up before the doctor could make a plea to familial duty of his goodwill. His father was a grown man. How was it his responsibility that he hadn’t worked hard enough, invested wise enough, to be able to afford his own medical expenses?
Maximilian hadn’t just fallen into his wealth. He had worked for it, scrounged for it, gotten his hands dirty for it. Every penny scraped, every opportunity taken, every business rival defeated. That it why he could afford the custom-tailored Dulce & Gabbana suit, the Gucci aviator sunglasses, the six-hundred dollar hair cut. He had earned those things with his own sweat and blood, and yet everywhere he looked it seemed someone wanted to take a piece from him. And if he held onto his hard-earned cash, suddenly he was ‘greedy.’
He passed his phone to one of the few people in the world who understood him, Gregory Fust. “Block that number before they waste any more of my time.”
Fust, his assistant and bodyguard, quietly performed the task. He was a rare find, part of a dying breed of the quietly ambitious. His nearly seven-feet of sleek muscle and hard lines didn’t reflect his intelligence and his desire for more. He had worked for a private military contractor for several years, building quite the reputation for his effectiveness and willingness to get down in the dirt. When he decided his employer was not paying him what he was worth he went looking for something better, and of course Maximilian snagged him right up.
As an assistant he was competent, and as a bodyguard he had proved his worth time and again during Maximilian’s trips to third-world countries. Maximilian paid him what he worth, and in return got his loyalty. See, Maximilian wasn’t actually greedy, despite what people claimed. He just gave people what they were worth to him.
When was the last time his father had provided any value?
His Mercedes was waiting in the street where the valet always parked it. Today it seemed to come with a bit of special add-on: a young woman seated cross-legged on his hood. Not that this was an altogether unfamiliar occurrence; women would often seek him to gold-dig. If they were attractive, he might even indulge them.
Today he was too busy, though. Plus, this woman wasn’t really his type. Sure, she seemed cute enough at first glance, with that curly strawberry hair and that bright smile, and she seemed to have a pretty good figure, but that face was marred with freckles and her figure was ruined by the torn jacket and sweatpants she was wearing.
“Oh, you’re finally here!” she beamed. “I’ve been waiting. You’re as cute as you were described!”
Maximilian gestured for Fust to remove her from the hood of his car. “Sorry, kid, I got places to be today.”
The overshadowing figure out Fust loomed over the girl we he put a hand on her shoulder to forcibly move her.
The girl wriggled in his grasp, but it wasn’t the rough squirming of someone trying to break out of a hold. There was something oddly sexual about the way she was gyrating. “Oh, you’re exactly my type,” she said, looking up at the big man. “I really wish I had time to play with you.” She licked her lips. “But the boss-man said I can’t take a break to have fun. I have to bring your friend right back.”
Ignoring the girl’s strange comments, Fust pulled the girl by the shoulder off the hood. She didn’t resist, but as she went past him she swiped her fingers at his face like a claw. Fust instinctively leaned back to avoid getting scratched by her fingernails, having learned several harsh lessons from the frenzied women he had expelled from his boss’s apartment in the past. He thought he had ducked away with plenty of time to spare, but to his surprise he felt a sharp pain spread across his face. An intense one.
Letting go of the woman, he clutched his face and felt the warm flow of blood drip through his fingers. This was no surface-level fingernail scratch; she had pierced him deeply. Fortunately she hadn’t nicked his eyes, but the pain was pretty severe nonetheless.
“Now then,” the young woman said, sauntering over towards the frustrated Maximilian and putting a hand on his collar. “We have places to be.”
“Get your dirty hands off me!” Maximilian barked. “Fust!”
The big man was already behind her, trusty combat knife in hand. He didn’t see any weapons in the woman’s hand, but knew she must have been hiding something to do that kind of damage to his face, and his boss needed to be protected. Without mercy he jabbed the knife at the woman’s back.
There was a loud clang of metal meeting metal. The knife recoiled in Fust’s hand and he nearly dropped it. Was the woman wearing some kind of protective material underneath that jacket? Whatever it was, it was tough enough to crack the edge of his blade.
“Naughty,” the woman chimed. She turned around and swiped her fingers at him again. He jumped back this time, and felt as something cut through the air just an inch from his face. The woman stopped to give a wide, joyous smile, and he could now see these sleek, polished black blades extending a few inches from the tips of her fingers. He could have sworn those weren’t there just a moment ago, nor could tell how those blades were attached.
“Stop fucking around Fust!” Maximilian ordered. “Put this bitch down!”
Fust gave a brief shrug, then with one fluid motion dropped his knife and drew his concealed FN Five-seven handgun. Firing the weapon in public would come with hassles, though he was sure his boss would cover any legal expenses. In an instant he took aim at the dangerous girl and fired.
Somehow, at near point-blank range, he missed. Fust never missed. Back in his private-military days his squadmates had joked that he must have had robotic eyes, like a Terminator. After a confirmed kill he would have to deal with all the bad Austrian accents for hours.
He pulled the trigger again, then again, and yet again. Each shot seemed lined up in a perfect trajectory for his target. Each seemed to miss her by inches. It was as if the bullets were somehow curving at impossible angles. Was there something wrong with his gun?
“Fust what the hell are you doing!?” Maximilian yelled. “My car!”
It was only then that Fust realized every one of his missed shots had somehow wound up in the side of his boss’s Mercedes. Momentarily distracted, he didn’t realized until too late that the blade on the woman’s pointer finger had been pointed at him and was somehow growing at an extreme rate in his direction. He tried to dodge but there was not enough time. The blade caught him in the shoulder, piercing deep into him. The blade continued to grow, sending Fust on a ride into the side of Maximilian’s upper-scale apartment building. The strange metal spike detached from the woman’s finger, leaving Fust hanging by his shoulder a foot off the ground, consciousness fading as blood seeped out of his wound.
A stunned Maximilian quickly looked around for help as the woman again sauntered towards him. Any bystanders were quickly running from the sounds of gunfire. Even the doorman had managed to disappear. Gathering himself, he faced his strange assaulter with a scowl. “What do you want? Money, isn’t it?”
“Oh no, it isn’t your money I want,” the woman cooed. “It is you I desire.”
Something heavy struck Maximilian on his head and the world went dark.
Maria Flores was sweating under the thick layers of her Kevlar vest. The tenseness of the situation was certainly not helping any. She and the other members of the Upper East SWAT had been standing in position for the better part of twenty minutes, just waiting to be given the order to breach.
In front of her was the side entrance of the bank, which led through the security room onto the back end of the main floor. That was wear five heavily armed gunmen were currently holding a dozen bank employees, five clients, and one security guard hostage after a failed robbery attempt. Maria’s team had been on standby for an hour while the situation escalated, then half-an-hour ago one of the gunmen had shot the security guard when he had tried to play hero. They claimed he was still alive, but either way it had been decided that things were bad enough that Maria’s team was going to need to go in there. It was risky; the gunmen might kill the hostages the instant the door was breached. But not doing anything was riskier.
Her team had gotten into position quickly and had been waiting for the go-ahead. No telling what the cause of the delay was. Perhaps those in charge were trying one last attempt at negotiation. Nothing Maria could do but wait. Her hands were sweating on the grip of her P220 and she wiped them on the front of her pants. Around her the rest of the team seemed just as nervous as she was, both the experienced and the younger. This was not a job that got substantially easier with experience, and this operation was one of the most dangerous they had been called to. Both for them, and for the hostages inside.
A crackle on comms. “You’re clear to breach.”
Maria nodded to rest of her team. She counted down from three. Then everything all seemed to happen at once.
A blast as the door was blown open. Shouting from inside as the main floor was flooded with tear gas. Flashes of movement. Gunfire from her side as the teammate on her left flank release the fury of his assault rifle.
She sensed something at the other end of the room, and focusing her attention she spotted two of the gunmen through the haze of gas making a break from the gathered crowd of civilians, intent, no doubt, to use them as human shields. Maria leveled her gun and squeezed the trigger. It was strange; during intense situations Maria didn’t seem to need to waste time aiming. Her bullets just seemed to know where they needed to go. She chocked it up to instinct, the hours of practice at the shooting range paying off when she needed it the most.
Her chosen target went down in a heap as the bullet impacted his chest. The other turned and returned fire in her direction. She fired back while praying, willing, that none of those shots hit her. Her bullets hit the mark. The gunman’s didn’t. Didn’t even get close, really. In his panic his aim must have been terribly off.
It was all over in thirty seconds. The gunmen were down, the hostages had managed to come through, coughing from tear gas but alive. The security guard was in critical condition but still breathing. And none of Maria’s team had taken a hit. Overall, a mission success.
A short time later, Maria and her team were outside, patting each other on the back for a job well done, with an embarrassed Maria getting the bulk of the compliments. Mostly because everyone knew how uncomfortable they made her.
“Did you see how she didn’t even flinch as those bullets went flying by her?”
Maria squirmed. “It’s not that … I didn’t want to give him an opportunity to get to the hostages so I needed to hold my ground …”
“Every one of her shots hit! Has anyone ever seen miss?”
“I miss s-sometimes,” she stammered. Not on missions, but at the shooting range. “It’s luck, really.”
“How did she even see those two through the gas? We were told the gunmen were all clustered on the east side of the floor. She’s got like, spider-senses.”
A beet-red Maria was grateful when their commanding officer pulled her away from the chuckling crowd. “There’s someone here who insists on seeing you,” he explained. “I told him to come find you another day, that you deserve a rest after today, but he started talking my ear off …”
“It’s fine,” Maria responded. “Who is this guy, anyway?”
“A representative of some government agency called ‘ECT’. Never heard of them, but apparently they’re some kind of military think-tank.”
The man in question was an older guy, with lightly grayed hair and thick glasses. He gave Maria the widest smile she had ever seen and rushed up to shake her hand.
“Ms. Flores!” he declared as he forcibly justled her arm up and down. “I’m so glad to finally meet you. My name is Stacks, I’m a recruiter for the ECT. I’ve been following your career for some time now and I have to say I am very impressed.”
“You have?” Maria asked, trying not to let her discomfort show. Why did she have such problem with anything even remotely resembling a compliment.
“Oh, why yes indeed!” Stacks enthusiastically replied. “Completed a four-year degree in Criminal Justice in only two. First in your class at the police academy. Many commendations in your three years on the force. Passed the SWAT examinations and training with flying colors, and have been a star member of your team since. Not to mention you hold two black belts and are working on a third, if I am correct?”
Not compliments, just the facts. So why was her face reddening? “Yes, that’s all right. Why are you so interested?”
Stacks adjusted his glasses and gave her a look like a game show host about to announce what she had just won. “My employers would like to offer a job to you, Ms. Flores.”
Nearby, a bored Myst wasted his time on a phone game while waiting for Stacks to complete his spiel to the carrier.
The Forked Tongue Restaurant catered to a clientele of wealthy politicians, their donors, their spouses, and their mistresses. Its patrons were dressed in custom-tailored suits, stunning dresses, and expensive jewelry. Needless to say, Madeline’s 80’s fashion drew quite a few looks.
She ignored all these glances, and the few protests of the servers, and found the table she was looking for. Senator Vermon was as predictable as always, sitting at the same table in the same restaurant he had every other Tuesday for the past decade. He was busily typing away at his phone.
“How’s it hanging, Verm?” Madeline asked as she plopped down in the seat across from him.
Vermon barely glanced up from from his phone. “You know, there is a dress code here.”
“Is that how you greet an old friend, Verm? Especially one who used to be so close?” She leaned across the table. “So close that they learned quite a few of your secrets, yeah?
The manager of the restaurant was approaching now, ready to deal with the disruptor, and call security if he needed. Sighing, Vermon waved him away. He would have to come up for some explanation for this later.
“My 3 o’clock appointment didn’t show,” Vermon stated, finally putting his phone away. “That’s the only reason I am entertaining you right now. You have five minutes to tell me what you want.”
“Right to point. You always were a quick-shot.” She laughed, a high pitched chortle. “Alright, Verm. I’ll get to it. I was recently told that there’s stuff going down behind the scenes. Carriers being targeted. You understand why that would catch my interest, right?”
Vermon didn’t say anything.
Madeline smirked. “A dead fish, as well. Look, I need you to use your contacts at the ECT and get the skinny on what’s going on. I’d be very grateful for the information, you know?”
“Oh?” He reached under the table and put a hand on her knee. “How grateful?”
He only just barely stifled a yelp as a shock ran up his hand and down his arm.
“Now, now, Verm. It was all fun and games in the past, but you know I don’t fool around with married men.”
“I’ll be sure to inform my wife’s lovers of your commitment.” Vermon replied dryly.
“Look, Verm. You and I both know that some of the stuff I know, the stuff I got, well, if any of it gets out, you will have more than a loveless marriage to worry about.”
Vermon scowled but couldn’t argue the point. “I’ll ask around. No promises.”
“Thanks, Verm. You’re the best.” She gave him a kiss on the cheek, then was merrily on her way, winking at a confused busboy along the way.
With a sigh, Vermon held up his empty glass towards the closest. “Yeah, think I’m going to need something stronger.”
Deep within the void, along the flow of the Element of Light, the being known as Ruvian, a being that existed now only as a part of that flow, that took the form of a dragon during those rare moments it was allowed form at all, watched as a familiar figure struggled to open a path through the flows. It was the boy who called to him these days, the one who desired to control his power.
The tendrils of the Dark One were everywhere now, grasping, trying to grab the boy and rip him bodily into the void, to make him lose himself and become a formless nothing. That Ruvian could not allow. The boy might not be aware of it, but Ruvian’s presence kept him shielded, kept him safe from the growing power the Dark One possessed.
But for how much longer would Ruvian’s power alone be enough?