Pulling the slung rifle into his hands, Urban hugged the side of the thoroughfare. Hail stones pinged off metal awnings, a cacophonous deluge that made it impossible for him to think. The hail struck the sidewalk, fanning out to kiss his feet. His gaze darted between burned out husks, down the alleys. A baseball sized hailstone hit the ground, bounced and vaulted into a storefront display. It punctured glass, sending long tendrils through the window from where it left a hole. But amidst the road, if he hadn’t seen it, Urban would’ve been oblivious. But now that he’d noticed, he saw these projectiles everywhere. He realized that his “safe” place was only so because he had not yet been hit. An ice chunk pinged off the stone above his head. He recoiled, was immediately awash in the downpour.
His decision now made, he ran toward Amin’s Lighthouse. With smoke and soot covering the area, the multicolored buildings had fallen to tones of grey. They’d been burned, so tarnished the constant rain couldn’t wipe them clean. He darted past looted storefronts, skewered electronics, smashed screens and cables soaked in the streets. Huddled shapes lay about inside, limbs bent at odd angles. He lowered his head. He was struck by a hailstone in his chest, forcing the air from his lungs. He choked out a shout, but it was drowned out. He stopped short, caught sight of one of those huddled figures shift and rise. Even though he was not ready to move, he forced himself forward into the wall of rain. The fog knit together in a thick weave of obfuscation.
His lungs burned as he ran. Rain spattered his face, soaking his skin, making it impossible to know if he was still running in a straight line. Amin’s Lighthouse appeared through the vein so abruptly that Urban almost ran straight into it. Amin’s windows were a spider web of tiny fissures but the glass had held. There was no power, but a spark of hope filtered in with seeing the building more or less whole. He tested the door, found it unlocked.
A bell tinged with his entry, but the silence beyond left him uneasy. He crept through the littered room. Something metal toppled in the backroom.
Urban trained the gun on the glass, trying to distinguish anything in the dark. The door to the back swung open, striking the wall with a thud. Urban let off a quick burst round, slamming into the metal.
Urban lowered the weapon, his shoulder hurting from the recoil. He said, “Sern?”
A young man left the safety of the doorframe, his eyes shining in the dim light. “It’s damn good to see you,” he said, voice shaking. “I didn’t think— well, it doesn’t matter.”
“Me either.” He embraced him.
Sern used his sleeve to wipe his face. “There’s more in the back.”
“About a dozen.”
Urban crossed the doorway, saw a handful of Na Creidmhigh members, battered and afraid. The rest were civilians he didn’t recognize, but judging by their faces, he had nothing to worry about.
He kept his hand tight around the rifle.
“Nice to see you’re alive and kicking.”
“Well, I’m kicking,” Urban said, no humor in his words. He stepped cautiously into the small room, glancing over his shoulder to the blocked windows. The thrum of a generator came from the back. “How long you been here?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Sern piped in, flashing daggers at the other men. “You’re supposed to be underground.”
Urban’s jaw set. He shook his head. “Plans have changed. My escorts were killed in an attack. I barely managed to escape. I’ve been making my way back through all this madness.”
“Is it bad?”
Urban said nothing. A murmur spread amongst them.
“What’ve you heard? Anything on the radio?” Urban asked as he remembered himself.
“It’s mostly been static. But—”
“Raine’s dead.” Sern cut in. His features were hard as if he’d been worried about delivering this news.
“And Carrick?” Urban’s voice remained stoic, unflinching. The news struck him hard, but he maintained his composure. He didn’t have time to mourn. He had to catch the fucker that did this to them, then he would grieve.
“No. All the police bands have gone quiet.”
Urban nodded. “We’ve got to go.”
Sern straightened. “What do you need, sir?”
Urban took the cord to the generator and pulled it free from the radio. He turned, moved to a table, and plugged it into its base. A screen lit up from below, obscured by loose papers, folders, drink. He shoved these off, revealing a terminal. A pale off-white light filled the room, casting everyone in a ghastly glow.
Urban dragged three stained fingers along the glass, leaving smears in their wake. A bank of images opened up, filling the tabletop. Urban selected three, spaced them out. He studied the images of the city.
The men leaned in.
“We have to hunt down Carrick. He’ll stop at nothing until we’re dead and the city is his.” He placed a finger in the center of the docks. “This is where we start.”
Though the bandages and raided pain killers had helped, Cale fought to keep moving. He skirted the edge of the tram tracks on his winding path through the streets of Sandhyanen. The hail had abated in the last few minutes, allowing him to move more freely, though he kept a wary eye on the vibrant light pouring through the clouds.
The banks of the trams were overflowing, spilling over in thick streams. They struck the pavement with a slap beside him, but he didn’t start, he just stepped a couple feet to the side to give it a wide berth. He tried his best to clean the shotgun of the fallen building’s debris, but, all things considered, it had been spared the brunt of it with its spot underneath the shelves.
Cale hobbled toward the tower, though he’d all but lost sight of it. Every once in awhile he saw a light fizzle and pop, heard the snap of hungry wires, but mostly, he was left with only a vague sense of where it was. Still, he knew the city better than most.
The tram line dipped down to a landing. Cale froze to find a man standing there, walking away from a still-burning husk of a tram. His hair was pulled back behind his ears, head down, but, even from this distance, Cale could see the wide line of his mouth. A faint memory triggered for him, but he suppressed it, instead bringing his focus to the man and raising the barrel of his shotgun to meet him.
“You . . .” Cale searched for the word, but realized he’d addressed the man. His voice caught, but he managed, “You good?”
“Sane as any man,” the stranger responded. “Name’s Therran, Officer.” He half-heartedly raised his hands, the line of his smile spreading into a grin that, at any other time, Cale would’ve been unsettled by.
Instead, he kept the shotgun trained on the man. “What happened?”
Therran looked back, shrugged. “I heard a loud crash and decided to check it out.” He laughed, though his body movement was all wrong, as if he was restraining his veracious glee. His muddy brown eyes locked onto Cale’s.
“Doesn’t seem like the smartest move.”
“I’ve never made the best decisions.”
“Indeed.” Cale tried to tell himself that it was just the environment, but the alarm bells were going on in his head and he had to trust his gut. “Look, it isn’t safe out here. You should go back to where you were hiding. Hopefully we’ll get things straightened out by sunrise.” Cale tried to smile through his grimace, nodded, and began to follow the tram line toward the vague shape of the tower. He kept the man in his periphery the best he could without giving away that he was watching him.
Cale kept walking, but there was a hitch in his step at the request. He hoped Therran hadn’t seen it. Footsteps followed, each step slightly dragging across the pavement as they struggled to catch up.
“I might be wrong here. But it seems to me,” Therran said, “it’s dangerous to go alone.”
“Not for you. For me.”
Cale stopped, measuring up the man in his dingy suit. The smile had disappeared to be replaced with a tight grimace. Cale failed to read the expression. He nodded. “Where I’m going isn’t any better.”
The whip-crack of the expanding temple beckoned him. Cale pointed toward the structure, the silhouette in the night sky.
“I’ve got nothing to stay here for,” Therran reasoned. He indicated the burning buildings that flanked the platform. “If I could assist the Officers, then I say it’d be worth it.”
“I’ll act as a lookout. You need as many eyes as you can get and I’ve always be acclimated to the night.”
Cale sized up his options, trying to find a way out of this situation. At the end of it all, he kept returning to the truth: there was no downside to this. Sure, he didn’t necessarily trust the stranger, but that might be a side effect of madness that had descended on the city. But, since he was aware of this suspicion, wouldn’t that make him less susceptible to any deceit? He lowered the barrel, angling it toward the ground but away from him. He offered a hand. “Officer Edmonds. You can tag along if you like, Therran, though I can’t guarantee your safety.”
Light seemed to catch in Therran’s eyes. He grasped Cale’s hand, sending gooseflesh up Cale’s arm. “Deal.”
Cale couldn’t escape that grip fast enough. He struggled to find something to say. “Good. Let’s get going. We’re maybe a half an hour out.”
They followed the tram line in mutual silence, with Cale playing vanguard. The city felt abandoned, reinforced by the myriad destruction, but Cale kept an eye on the shadows. At times, he forgot that Therran was following, only for the thought to come back. He’d check over his shoulder to find the white-haired man smiling eagerly. Cale would look away immediately, not wanting to confront that elastic grin.
“Looks like you’ve been through the wringer, Officer.” Therran spoke up.
“It’s been a hard night.”
“It’s almost as if the gods themselves have come down.” Therran laughed. Again, that restrained oddity to the laughter. “Before the world came to an end, what were you doing?”
“I could ask the same.”
“Ah, but I think your story would be all the more interesting.”
Cale measured his thoughts, caution preceding his words, but he didn’t think it’d cause much of a panic at this point. “I was hunting the Stalker.”
“Really?” A strange glee settled in Therran’s voice. His eyes seemed to spark, swimming with a bright orange that took over the brown irises. “I’d thought that he’d escaped.”
“Which means,” Cale’s voice had an unwanted edge to it. “he’s still out there.”
“True. So I take it you’ve been on the case all these years? What has it been? Five years?”
“A little more.”
“And you, Cale, ran him off. Just think of all those poor children you’ve saved.”
Cale stopped in the middle of the street, watching him, reassessing the man he’d brought into his company. He knew full well he hadn’t given his name, but — there was an uneasy recognition in Therran’s movements, but Cale couldn’t fit the pieces together.
“But now you think he’s returned?” Therran’s face became a mask of contempt, a seriousness sitting uneasily on his features.
The visceral sound of rending metal filled the space between them. Cale spun around to see that a tram had crashed into the husk they’d left behind. Cale started to retread their path, only for Therran to stop him with a measured hand. “It’s probably automated. And, even if it wasn’t, there would be nothing we could do for them.”
Cale’s brows furrowed, but he didn’t fight the advice. There were probably hundreds of people that were hurt. He couldn’t be expected to help every single injury. He’d also used most of the bandages to repair himself. He looked from the wreckage in the distance, then back to the tower. He stared into the newly orange eyes, eyes that burned in the darkness unlike anything he’d seen before, and had an inkling who had joined him. And to think, he had pegged Raine as the Stalker. Deciding not to tip his hand, he nodded. “Point taken. Let’s go.”
Therran’s smile stretched even further than Cale had thought possible.
With a lump of trepidation pressed hard in his chest, Cale continued down the debris riddled path toward the tower.