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  • Shadowgod - Almost Home
  • Shadowgod - Almost Home
  • Shadowgod - Almost Home
    Stellar
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Hidden Sunlight - 18. Approaching Destiny

The view of Aurum's greatest urban centre was at once inspiring and fear-inducing. The feeling of inspiration was quite illogical, but it arose from the familiarity the city's silhouette generated. The outline, the grand spreading cluster of dominating buildings made me think of Seattle and of other American cities too; San Francisco, New York, Boston and many more. Aspira was alike to all of them and yet unlike any; the European influence setting it apart and giving a distinct style. Even in this ruined state, there was a unique flavour about the capital that was particularly 'Lucere'; a tone that Earth's metropolitan giants didn't have.

On the other hand, the fear-inducing part was simple to understand. This was the largest human graveyard on the planet, and although the sharpeling numbers would not now be close to the millions that would have spawned as the city was consumed by the virus, we all knew there would still be a large number in residence. Konstantin had said he guessed it could easily be tens of thousands scattered throughout Aspira's larger area, creating a restless shifting minefield of danger between us and the city's central district.

Yet, we had little choice but to enter. The destination and what it represented was too important to ignore.

I really hope that the control node will give us some way out of all of this.

It has to.

"Quite something, isn't she?" Morgan's voice cut across from the other building's rooftop. To our left from the expanse of the city view, Morgan's condo wasn't too far from the one Mira and I were standing on, a roadway's width of grass and weeds separating us. His voice carried easily in the stillness of the morning air without needing to raise it to a shout to be heard. "Sure makes Lorentz look like a village. It must have been a hell of a picture back in the old days."

Smiling, I didn't reply, turning to gaze again at the skyline. It really was something. The jewel of Lucere, a shining example of what mankind could achieve. Beside me, Mira was regarding the view somewhat disinterestedly as it presented neither an immediate threat nor any points of curiosity. To him, a ruined city was just a ruined city, a collection of artificial substance that had no significance from this distance. I could tell his attention was scanning idly over the surrounds; the rest of the horizon, the natural environment about the city, even the sky, for anything of note. His vigil slowed and just as I was about to ask him what he was looking for, if anything, he froze altogether, his body stiffening at the same time.

Huh? What's going on?

Before I could get out a word, Mira was turning to our left, fists clenching. His voice was ringing out, a blast of sound that was a shock to hear, a slap across the face.

"Morgan!"

It was an alarm bell, a pressing demand for instant response. Morgan's head came round in swift surprise to stare, never having heard Mira utter a single word, his look of bewilderment mimicking mine. Yet, Mira wasn't looking at the sergeant himself, but at what was behind him; at the figure who was approaching rapidly and quietly up the stairs, in Morgan's blind spot.

Fuck!

He realised where our attention lay a moment before the ambusher reached him. Whirling, Morgan barely deflected the first blow with his right arm, but his attacker was lightning fast, the other fist impacting heavily into his face. Pushed back, he recovered easily, executing a rapid turnabout of his momentum and putting his weight into a shoulder barge that sent the aggressor flying several metres. Fumbling, I pulled the pistol, but Morgan's opponent was rolling, then springing upright, returning to a martial stance with fluid ease, then forward again at the same time. It was only in that moment where they were clearly parted that something else became obvious.

It's a ... woman?!

Morgan was on her, right fist jabbing, but her reactions were very well timed. The punch was evaded, two counter blows landing on his torso. He shrugged off the effect, his solid build absorbing the impact. The left fist came through in a powerful hook, this time cleanly striking the woman's jaw. Her head snapped across through the punch's arc but her body moved with the force of it, pivoting around where the right foot was planted, transitioning straight into a reverse spin, the left foot coming full circle to smack into Morgan's face.

Fuck ... fuck! I can't hit anything like this! The figures were so close that I couldn't get a clear shot on her, and as Morgan rolled himself, attempting to come right and get to his feet, she dived in, striking him a second time in the face. Stunned for a second, there was another sweeping ground-kick, tripping him, and he sprawled flat. Not a millisecond of this opportunity was wasted; she was in yet again and in the moment where he was prone, grabbed his right arm. Pulling it behind his body, she gripped the collar of his uniform with the other hand, his left arm flailing to resist her as she pulled him onto his knees. They were faced directly towards us, Morgan's body almost completely blocking any shot on her as she crouched behind him. There was blood on his jaw where she'd kicked him and his face morphed into a grimace of powerful hurt as she twisted his right arm up his back. His eyes bulged as the pressure increased, most probably as his arm was either dislocated or broken, and for the first time, the woman's attention left Morgan, her gaze flicking up, directly at me.

Mira had not moved, not leaving my side. There was an implicit concern that this woman was not alone, and with the whole fight having taken only a few seconds, he had no way to reach Morgan in time. The other rooftop was a very uncertain risk to try for, even with his speed and I knew he would not leave me unprotected. My breath was ragged as her voice cut through the renewed calm, issuing a command as she held him to ransom.

"Gun down." She kept behind him, not enabling enough room for me to target her. "Let's just ... talk."

As I lowered the pistol, Morgan's face distorted in obvious pain. "Bitch." He grunted it, with some difficulty. "Fucking bitch."

"Oh sergeant," her voice was soft, consoling, her English accented but the words from this distance indistinct, not revealing her national origin. She leaned forward, almost as if she was going to whisper in his ear, her voice dropping in pitch for the following sentence.

"You're mistaken. I'm not here to talk to you."

She let go of his arm, the left hand still gripping his collar. Like clockwork, she reached down, and in one smooth brutal movement, drew a blade, pulled her arm away then stabbed, burying it completely in Morgan's back.

No ... NO!

The expression on his face was agony, but even as his head lolled, his eyes fixed on me. His lips trembled and his voice quavered, near choking on the sound. Weak as it was, he still managed it.

"Kill ... him." He coughed, ignoring the fatal barb lodged in his back.

Insisting, begging, demanding me.

"Kill ...... him," he repeated, bloody saliva bubbling from his mouth as he forced out the words.

Then, she pulled the blade out, whipping it around as she tilted his head back, and in a short decisive slash, cut his throat. Shoving him forward, Morgan's body slumped onto the rooftop, rolled once then slid off the edge, falling to the grass below.

No ...

Dismayed, I could only stare at the woman, unable to believe what had just happened. She spoke again and as soon as she did, I finally recognised the accent and it all began to make sense.

"Now, we can talk."

She's French.

Tall and wiry. Slender but with curves enough that the average male would find quite desirable. Streamlined tight-to-the-skin black military jumpsuit, sealed at the ankles and wrists for minimal disruption of movement. A bob of black hair, a sharp nose, and an almost-beautiful face.

Almost, but not quite.

It was like a ghost, a female reincarnation of someone else I had seen die with my own eyes; the similarity was that strong. Yet, he was dead and this woman before me was very much alive, which really could mean only one thing.

Le Renard has a sister.

"It's nothing personal, you understand." She continued on, wiping the blade down and then sheathing it before she met my gaze again. Her voice was silky, the seductive and alluring sing-song tones teasing and hinting. Boldly feminine and suggestively sexual, beckoning of pleasure and forbidden lust, she was a black widow for Aurum's season of conflict. "Just that ... Miles cannot abide a traitor. Treason is dealt with very harshly."

Treason?! I was so angry I was shaking, gripped by the icy dismissal of the sergeant's existence. "You call that justice?!" I spat. "You killed him in cold blood! That's not justice, it's MURDER!"

"My my," she murmured, "you really know how to compliment a girl." She gave a lazy smile, her hands resting easily at her sides as she stood across from us, casual and unbothered by the recent fight. "You are delightfully cute when you're mad. All burning skin and wild eyes. What a picture." Her eyes shifted to Mira. "Who is this? Miles mentioned nothing about you, but ... mon dieu ... très magnifique, or et bleu ... like the sun in a cloudless sky, bright and clear. How radiant you are. How easy to look at." Her smile widened, becoming lascivious, savouring him and practically undressing him by sight. "If only I were a year or two younger."

My nails were digging into my palm and my hand twitched on the pistol. She noticed the movement even from the distance, the precision of her observational powers seeming to rival Mira's eagle-sharpness. "Let's leave the gun down, mon cher. You don't want me to draw mine. Remember, we're having a chat, my business is already done."

Her business?

Morgan wasn't 'business' ... he was a person ... a MAN.

A good man in a flawed world, who deserved a chance to make things right. A man who, despite his failings, had sought redemption.

"What the FUCK do you want?!"

"To make sure the sergeant atoned for his crimes," she glanced down disdainfully, to his body upon the grass, before settling on me once more, "and to meet the famous Shay for myself, on one of the last chances I might have. I am La Tigresse and I am told you knew my dearest brother." A beat, and then she went on. "Yet, this is more than simple curiosity. It is also to deliver a little message: I hope you have a good plan to make it alive to Memorial Plaza, because the commander, mes petits chatons, does not fuck around."

The sultry tone of her speech slipped into a deadpan certainty at the end, delivering the point of it: if we were not well prepared, the Liberators would simply kill us. Though, I was beyond caring, beyond the insane manipulation and psychosis that just kept on and on with everyone I met on this planet.

Fuck her.

Fuck him.

Fuck all of them.

I'm going to make sure Hartley dies and it's going to HURT.

"Well, you can tell 'the commander' that he's a walking corpse," I snapped. "He's a dead man still on his feet."

Turning she stepped across to the corner of the condo's roof, giving an amused knowing smile. Behind me I could hear Konstantin's footsteps on the stairs as he finally came to find out what was going on.

"Oh we all are, sweet little cub, but I will not steal the joy of you delivering that message in person. A'voir et bonne chance. You will need it."

I heard an intake of breath as Konstantin appeared on the roof, sighting the mysterious woman and the rustle of movement as he raised the rifle he was carrying. At the same time, La Tigresse stepped forward, vanishing out of sight off the side of the condo.

Gone.

-o-0-O-0-o-

Carlos had been feeling nauseous after exiting the APC, badly enough to be physically ill, and Konstantin had stayed with him to make sure he was okay. The result was neither had heard any of the commotion that had occurred, with the Russian only arriving after the fact. Not that I thought that it would have made much difference as in all likelihood, the murder would have been committed before anyone could do anything to assist Morgan anyway.

Trying not to let the distress overwhelm me, I told Konstantin what had happened, the suddenness of the attack and how it all unfolded. He listened patiently, the evidence visible right next to the opposing condo on the ground. When I finished, all he said to me was: "Go back to the APC with Mira. It is punishment enough to witness a senseless crime. Carlos and I will treat Sergeant Morgan with the honour that he should receive."

My mind was awhirl with all sorts of thoughts and feelings as we re-entered the vehicle, with might-have-beens and should-have-dones, but it didn't change the single indisputable fact.

Morgan was dead.

Two of us, a matter of hours apart. With no good reason, just plucked away, extinguished because of ...

Because of what?

The impotent hatred that had been brewing in me demanded release and I turned, furiously slamming my fist into the wall of the vehicle's interior. My knuckles jolted and a burst of hot pain seared through my hand from the impact but I ignored it.

FUCK!

Mira was watching me expressionlessly, cautiously, as I stared at the blood trickling over the skinned knuckles, detached and isolated from the waves of hurt that rippled through the bone and flesh.

Who's going to be next?

How many more deaths will I witness?

Will there be anything left when this is over?

The feeling was strangely empty, the blood and skin just an image, a still photograph captured by my eyes and mind. The pain, anger and desperation, seemed so worthless, and I was as removed from that snapshot of reality as the stars themselves were from the planet's surface beneath us.

Distant and disconnected.

I stared at that image, that momentary painting of the mind's gaze. I lost myself in a cold dreamlike contemplation, as I tried ... tried ... to find some point, to reconnect myself to a universe that seemed singularly devoted to the chaotic meaningless destruction of my entire race. Then, feather soft, his fingers slid around my bleeding hand, the caress igniting a flurry of real connection, affliction and relief joined together. The fingertips dabbed red as they stroked my skin, evoking a desire to heal while his other hand was on my chin, pulling it up to look at his face.

His eyes ...

Gentle grey, a haunting loneliness that was wet with unshed tears. There, I saw a distraught reflection of my own hurt and he blinked, the dimmed light of the interior twinkling and dancing over his liquid sadness. He was undeniably beautiful and the voiceless whisper I could hear from within him overflowed with sorrow; so quiet but so distressed, a solitary plea that touched my heart: 'don't let go of hope.'

Hope.

He's more real than anyone, anything else, in this whole world.

My own tears gathered too as his thumb grazed my bottom lip, the invisible shield of his empathy, his love, wrapping about me. "Am I going to see them die too?" I whispered, still staring into his face. "What if it's Konstantin next? Carlos? What if ... this is it?" My brow furrowed and I sucked in a breath. "I'm scared, Mira. I want this to end, but I don't know- ... I don't know how to make-"

"Shay."

Instantly silenced.

Every time.

His eyes squeezed shut, his teeth gritting and nose wrinkling in mental effort. Then, eyes open again, he spoke; disjointed, methodical but eloquent as a poet and deep, powerfully intense with the emotion of our limitless attraction.

"Light is here." His fingers shifted to brush my cheek. "The sun and stars live ... in you." Then another pause, his eyes closing again briefly as he strove for speech, his other hand tightening ever so slightly around mine in effort and frustration. "Light cures dark, and ... you shine." Despite the sorrow, a small demure smile appeared, a poignant offering. "No more despair. You are bright, an angel of fire. My angel. My Shay." Then, a second longer, and with fierce strength: "No darkness. No fear. You will see better days. You will win."

If I hadn't been locked in place by his presence, I'm fairly certain I would have melted into the floor.

Okay. I nodded dumbly, incapable of anything remotely close to speech. Dozens of words. Sentences. His strength of conviction is so strong, his belief in me is unchanged ... how- ... how could I ever really doubt? Exactly as he intended, my angst and troubled conscience lay smashed apart, ruined by his simple words.

No fear.

There was a part of me, however, that was centred on that little phrase and wanted to hear him repeat it over and over again like it was on action replay.

If anyone is a divine messenger, it isn't me.

It's him.

'My Shay.'

Our connection would not let me break eye contact with him, my chest buzzing with shared happiness. Time became just a concept and we were adrift, wilfully immersed in one another and I only became anchored again to reality a few minutes later when Carlos returned to the APC. He immediately seated himself beside me; the tan of his normal complexion much paler, either from his recent queasiness or because of Morgan's sudden removal from our lives. Silence remained after Carlos sat, and I suspected the latter reason was true, as it had certainly shaken me. That was why it was a surprise to hear him talk at all, in the thoughtful peace while we waited for Konstantin.

"His name was Esteban." He said it so quietly without looking at me, just gazing at the far wall of the vehicle.

"What?"

"My mother, she met another man after my father died. I think I was six or seven years old. He was okay, I guess," Carlos shrugged, still not looking at me as he continued his spontaneous tale. "She was happy though and that made me happy. Then she was pregnant. There were no problems until she gave birth. She bled too much and died bringing my little brother into the world."

"Oh, Carlos. I'm sorry."

He glanced sidelong at me, an unreadable expression on his face. "She always told me I looked just like my father, but," he paused, taking a steadying breath, "my brother, Esteban, he looked like her. Shay, he looked like you."

Wait, what? Like ... me ... ?!

"I know this seems a bit strange, but he looked exactly like you. Your eyes are different and you are whiter than he was, but everything else -- it's so close. Anyone could say you were his brother or twin, whatever, and no-one would argue. If he were still here, he would be eleven now, maybe." His head cocked as he thought, a smile pushing his mouth up at the edges. "Este was so delicate, just like my mother. I would tease him all the time about how perfect and pretty he was. He would get so embarrassed too, just like you do."

"I had no idea ... "

"You weren't to know." He shrugged again. "When we met you that first day, even León was surprised. He told us you were an older Esteban. It made it easier to hate you, back then. I wanted to hit you so badly, just for how you appeared. It wasn't fair to you because this was nothing from your life, but just the same, there you were, a flawless copy of little Este. 'Fair' never fits anywhere, it's just life these days."

All along he had been seeing the face of his dead brother whenever he looked at me. In retrospect, his teasing and the inexplicable supportive streak I had witnessed in him at unexpected times didn't seem so strange now. I think he feels responsible for me, in some weird way. He doesn't want anything to happen to me like whatever happened to the real Esteban. I'd never had a sibling of my own, so it was difficult to appreciate the sort of feeling it involved, though if I thought about it ... he stole a repulsor bike and rode across Palatus, he staked the Liberators out too, to make sure I got free. He wasn't fond of Mira either, at least to begin with, but that was not because Carlos was any rival for my affections.

It was because in some part of his mind, I was his little brother and he didn't want anyone to hurt me.

He must have loved Esteban very much.

"I'm telling you this because- ... because Morgan and Lily are dead. Yesterday they weren't. Maybe it will be me tomorrow, maybe not. Who knows. I think I wanted you to know this, just so if something happens to me, you understand the truth." Before I could say anything to that, he continued. "There was something else I wanted to tell you about, something a lot more important. When we were at Mersenne, at Bainbridge's house, a couple days ago?"

"Yeah."

"That sound we heard, you know the one. The one that just ... was SO loud. There was no way you couldn't hear it. Well, while you were inside facing Hartley, me and him," Carlos nodded to Mira, who was faithfully placed next to me, as usual a witness to the conversation, "we were sorta responsible for it. Him more than me, it wouldn't have mattered if I wasn't there. Not for making the sound either, but for, uh, waking the thing that did."

The ... thing ... that made it?

"What do you mean?"

"Okay, waking is the wrong word." He blew out a breath then looked at his hands in irritation. "This will sound a bit strange too because it is strange, but you've seen some really weird shit yourself, so just believe me, okay?"

"Carlos, you can tell me," I assured him. "After all of the stuff that's happened, I'll believe you."

He nodded. "Well, what made that sound, it looked like a sharpeling but ... it wasn't just another sharpeling. It was different. Even looking at it felt wrong."

Okay ...

"Shay, it wasn't something that grew from a person. Sharpelings aren't natural to us, but we can still tell, sorta, that they were once people. Not this one. It was thinner and taller, and it looked like- ... like this moving statue made out of claws and bones. It didn't look human anymore, if it ever was. It looked alien."

What ... ?

"Every part of it was a deep black. I've never seen a black sharpeling before and I bet if you ask Konstantin, he hasn't either. They come in lots of colours and mixes, sure, but not pitch black all over." There was a pause, and he fidgeted like he knew he was about to say something far-fetched. "It was ... burning, too. I don't mean on fire for real. I mean, you know," he slowed to translate the imagery in his head into plain English, "like when wind changes over a flame? You see a wave of heat, like a blur, above the fire. That was all over it, like the air was fighting with it."

Black fire on the skin of an inhuman black creature.

Most people would need to give some thought to picture something close to the description Carlos had given, but I knew exactly how this thing appeared. I didn't need imagination to visualise it.

I had seen it in my dreams.

"Shay, this creature didn't care about me. It seemed ... angry or surprised, or something, by Mira. From as soon as it saw us, it only looked at him. They just stood facing each other. He wasn't afraid of it like I was and he moved closer to it a step at a time, like he was daring it to do something, then ... it made that sound."

That sound.

It was a summons that alerted all the sharpelings from nearby. It drew our enemies together and forced them to engage each other in one place, Liberators versus sharpelings, so that we could escape Bainbridge's mansion. The first time I heard it, that noise mustered those four sharpelings to aid their superior, seconds before they would have discovered and killed me alone in the Palatus forest at the foot of that oak. Then knowledge, realisation. Mira hadn't actually fled from danger that first day, he had sought it out. He hadn't abandoned me, but instead raised the alarm, finding this creature and provoking it to cry out. He was moving attention away from where I was.

He was barely hours old as a person when that happened, not even possessing his own name, but he saved my life ... and I didn't even know it.

I wished right then that I was alone with him, that I could tell him in full what Lily had promised me to say every day. Instead, I was left with the wall that Mira always showed everyone and the promise of later on. He was built from mystery, not letting me discover anything else in that moment.

What was that thing Carlos saw? You know what it is.

"Stop doing that." Annoyed, Carlos rolled his eyes to illustrate just how tired he was. "Maybe you can sit there reading his mind, but I'm not a superhuman."

Whatever it was, I think it was ... scared of you. It was -- is -- scared of aqumi?

The light that cures darkness.

Then it came, that pure emotive wordless kernel of feeling and information. He could not deny my curiosity and I could feel his message as much as I could hear it inside myself; 'they live the darkness. They are arbiters.'

Arbiters?

Even unspoken, the word still carried it with all the mental undertones of a precise definition. Where some things being transmitted non-verbally had a certain openness, that meant interpretation was possible, this was not one of them. This was unusually deliberate. It was chosen with a purpose. I knew the meaning; an arbiter was a judge or sole decision-maker, sometimes with considerable power.

So if these creatures are 'arbiters', what are they judging? Is it us? Is it the sharpelings? Everyone? More importantly, does this mean they are working on the authority of something else? Are they just servants or overseers for- ... for what?

For something bigger?

"I, uh, I'm sorry," I said, coming out of my reverie, shaking my head as Mira looked away too. "I don't really know what it is, but ... I dreamed about it. Three times, the same dream. Every time, one of them was in it and every time I was running away, through Aspira."

"Aspira?" Carlos looked away through the metal in the direction the city lay. "You dreamed about coming here?"

"Yeah."

"Why?" Soft and questioning, the single exclamation held a thousand possibilities. I knew what he was asking, but at the same time it felt like a dozen questions rolled into one. Why the capital? Why is it me? Why these arbiters? Why the virus? Why so much death? Why aqumi? Why ... why did it always come back to this boy next to me?

Why was it always Mira who was the immovable rock in the midst of a maddening sea of conflict and delusion?

"I don't know," I breathed. "I really don't know, but I am going to find out."

-o-0-O-0-o-

The loss of one person was hard enough, but the new shock of a second put us off balance. I wasn't sure how the others felt but I was very muddled; not just from the upset but also from the news about this 'arbiter' and what it could possibly be. Muddled enough that I only noticed Konstantin when he was closing the vehicle's rear door and sitting down with the rest of us in the troop compartment.

"Well," he began, "I had hoped that the sergeant would provide us with valuable help. It is a sadness that evil should follow in our wake."

An evil that Morgan knew would seek him out, but in the end, it was not Klaus nor Hartley that did the deed. It was the unnamed 'her' that became the executioner. Now though, I know who she is. We all do.

"Le Renard's sister," I said, repeating the words I had already told Konstantin in the immediate aftermath of the sergeant's death. "Just like her brother, she's calculating, ruthless and cold. Morgan was fast but she was quicker, and killing him was just 'business'; something to be taken care of. She called herself La Tigresse."

"Sister?" Carlos stared, the muscles in his neck and shoulders visibly tensing. "That fucker has a sister? You know, I don't think hitting girls is right, but this moment ... I could put her face through a wall."

"The tigress," muttered the Russian. "If my youthful study of Earth's wildlife stands, the tiger as a species was a powerful solitary predator, not to be taken lightly. It is worrisome that she is as dangerous in close combat as you've described, but I am more concerned about why she did not try to shoot you."

What? I raised my eyebrows at this statement.

"Consider this scenario, Shay. She is following us and sees the APC stop here. People exit it. I am with Carlos. You are with Mira. Morgan is alone. Out of the five of us, you are the most important target. With surprise on her side, she could have shot anyone without warning. Instead she attacks and eliminates Morgan hand-to-hand when she knows he is isolated enough that we cannot help him, and then ... talks to you."

"Hartley said he wanted us all dead," Carlos' eyes danced between me and Konstantin as he mulled over the idea. "So either she's playing around and isn't doing what he ordered, or ... "

"... or he was lying and actually wants us to make it there," I finished. "She killed Morgan right in front of me, to settle the matter of 'treason' and to taunt us, to lead us on, but what for?"

"It is not so important." Konstantin was standing, then rummaging in the collected supplies. He pulled a small wad of paper free and began unfolding a map in front of us. "We need to get there, regardless of what Hartley intends. This is what the sergeant and I discussed late last night."

It's Aspira City.

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"This is the central business district," he indicated a section that clung to the vertical north-south divide that made up most of the capital's urban coastline. The section ended on the northern side just as the coast began to turn and slowly angle west, disappearing off the map into a long rambling curve that continued to Leeuwenhoek. "To the south, southwest and west are big suburban zones." His finger circled a broad swathe of the map which expanded outwards and inland from the core. "Too much trouble to attempt, we would get bogged down easily. Here though, to the northwest, the city development seems less extensive and less dense. This is our best approach as it is the shortest and most direct line from outside to the CBD. We had begun to veer north last night to match that vector."

"How far will we be able to drive?" On the map the distance didn't look that great, but I knew it wasn't a wide open country lane, it would be a messy obstacle-filled roadway with any number of problems. "I can't think we'll get all the way there so easily."

"We won't. There will be wreckage left over from the military fortification. Roadblocks, vehicles, that kind of thing."

Carlos eyed the map suspiciously. "We're going to see so many sharpelings before we get near the centre."

The Russian sighed. "I know. It is not the drive that concerns me as much as when we stop and have to get out." He traced the aforementioned route until his finger touched the western boundary of the central district, another north-south line that appeared to be a narrow river, hedging the CBD in on three sides by water. "Likely we will be forced to go on foot from here, a road bridge over the Verdigris Run. That way it will not be far to the plaza itself."

The destination. On the map it was no more than a square shape near the northern end of the CBD, occupying a decent chunk of Aspira's withered heart. The grid design of the roads meant that since the plaza was directly east of the bridge, there was a single unbroken avenue connecting the two. It was this innocuous stretch of road, probably not much more than a dozen blocks long at a wild guess, that was so crucial to our success.

Half a dozen, two dozen, I don't know the scale. Konstantin is right though. The tiny detail isn't so important, and we have to get there.

We're going to make it work.

"Not far at all." I gave him a wan smile, that felt like more a grimace. "The ocean's pretty close too. Do you fancy going for a refreshing swim after we're done?"

The Russian gave me a look as if I had sprouted a second head and then immediately began to chuckle. His right hand thumped paternally onto Carlos' shoulder and his left first onto mine, then shifting again to rest on Mira.

"Look at me," his tenor thrummed as he regarded all three of us together, with his irrepressible bemusement, "an old man struggling through the last days of a forsaken world. What aid do I bring for my troubles? Three teenage boys." He stopped to grip the shoulders of the other two in solidarity, before nodding to me, smiling fondly. "Three remarkable teenage boys who I would not trade for the presence of any. This I would rather than a company of heroes at my command."

I would rather it than a legion, an army of heroes.

"Believe there is a way through this. Know it," he continued, soft-spoken, "and remember this: if you trust yourselves and each other, then the grace within you will move mountains. I have faith in you. All of you."

Move mountains, cross oceans and reach the stars.

"So, come. Let us plant seeds in the ashes of Lucere."

-o-0-O-0-o-

The first houses were close to the remains of a perimeter fence that had stood as a bulwark against the incoming Sharpe virus. We had to slow to navigate the debris that was once a freeway military checkpoint, effectively the city's northwest entrance, but after that it was a cruise at a decent speed. Though there were the hulks of cars and trucks still dotted here and there, the outer freeway was fairly clear. It was not surprising to me when I thought about it, as there would have been few people trying to travel anywhere around the time of the city's downfall.

Though Konstantin had learned to drive the APC, it was still a complex piece of machinery and most of the controls seemed like a bunch of hieroglyphics to me. Morgan had told me the previous day in our conversation that not even Hartley's 'experts' fully comprehended the ATT41's functionality. While they still had access to some technical information from prior to the virus, the art of understanding the machine was something that had degraded over time, the knowledge becoming successively more incoherent and fractured with each new generation of survivors.

In my mind it was something akin to an eye-witness description of an event, which would gradually change with each retelling until quite some time down the line, where it resembled a myth more than a factual account. Some of the story was still true and made sense, but parts were impossible to grasp. The sergeant had been quite adamant that the differences between reading a manual on how to operate an armoured car and being taught to do it by an instructor from pre-2104 Lucere were significant.

I was watching over Konstantin's shoulder as we rolled along what the initial sign had proudly described as Expressway No. 7, the Harding-Leeuwenhoek Connection. The driver's view was transmitted from periscopic sensors on top of the APC and the image was very slightly grainy but generally good definition. Aspira's suburbia sailed by, the eroded and collapsed housing spreading out on either side of us, some areas of it smothered by the resurgence of nature as Harding's back yards, parks and roadsides reclaimed the stolen land.

Progressively, the houses and small shops became apartment blocks and malls, the suburban giving way to the developed urban. The buildings grew larger as we moved deeper in, the expressway splitting into three lesser routes that diverged, one heading north towards a coastal housing development and the spaceport, another south towards the next suburb, Mannheim East, while our chosen route continued east. The road was cluttered and in more than one place, Konstantin was forced to change course around craters blasted in the surface, and other war wounds. Barging through smaller obstacles and riding the sidewalk was the safer option, as sharpelings were appearing with greater frequency and Konstantin did not want to slow down. Sometimes they trotted after the APC for as long as they could be bothered trying to match speed; other times they skittishly maintained their distance as we passed by. The effect of seeing no humans made them act as if the APC itself were a loud mobile foreign predator of unknown quality, there to stalk the stalkers.

By the time we reached the roundabout at the expressway's end, there were probably a dozen sharpelings visible at any given moment. It was a broad curve, a good hundred metres or more wide, offshoots branching from it like spokes on a wheel. Wrecked cars congested a good half of the circle, so the Russian simply plowed straight through without turning, bouncing us in our seats as the APC fishtailed somewhat. The wheels ripped through the grass as we careened across the centre, and I heard Carlos cry out over the engine's rumble.

"Konstantin, I think I can see something!"

He had been playing with what seemed to be a thermal imaging camera, on a secondary set of controls attached to the autocannon console, and as I leaned back to get a better view, he was squinting at some shapes on the screen.

"What is it?" Konstantin's voice rang back across the din.

"I think it's ... it looks like ... " he craned his head in close, trying to make out a shape, then finding the zoom, switching to normal view. Instantly the shape was magnified and painted in normal colour and even I could see it clearly, and though it shook from our bumpy ride, the image was unmistakable.

Vehicles, moving along the expressway.

"Liberators! They're following behind us!"

We're ahead of them. Ahead of Hartley!

"Behind us?" The Russian was bellowing as he wrestled with the APC's steering, the car bucking as we exited the roundabout going at a speed that would have earned Konstantin a hefty traffic fine in this zone. "We're in front of them?! How close?"

"Close enough! They have to be able to see us, I think they're gaining!"

"Then that means I'm not going fast enough!" The engine volume and pitch jumped as Konstantin hit the accelerator. I couldn't see the speedo but we were doing at least 80 kilometres per hour, which was pretty damn scary with all the things in the way. "We're almost at the bridge, the Verdigris is close! Boys, get ready to move!"

He was right. The highrise and skyscrapers of the CBD were looming large on the viewscreen, the dip in the skyline telling me that the river was rapidly approaching. The Russian blasted straight up the lane, unheeding now as the APC knocked aside the forlorn wreckage like it was cardboard, thundering onwards. Finally, we were able to get a clear view of the bridge and as we did my heart leaped into my mouth.

Shit!

Near the opposite side, the left lanes were blocked by a pair of tipped-over freight trucks, burn-out remains that were mangled, the frames poking through the bridge's railing and the adjacent vehicles. In the other lanes was the largest tank I had ever seen, probably the biggest the Lucere military possessed. The huge hulking shape was angled so that it completely removed any chance, whatsoever, that we would have space to get past it without smashing into that immovable monstrosity.

"Konstantin!"

"Lord Almighty!" His hands gripped the controls as we tore onto the bridge, the remaining distance insignificant at the speed we were going, my heart pounding as the forbidding sentinel expanded in our vision, growing bigger and closer with every second. "Chyort! Son of a whore! There is no other way! Brace yourselves!"

A moment before we would have struck the tank, he turned hard to the right and the APC crashed through the railings. For a second, it felt like we were hanging in the air, suspended gracefully next to Aspira's heart over the Verdigris. Then we were plunging forward and down. The far bank of the river was achingly close but so was the water, and as we dived forward, the engine still roaring in angry defiance of gravity, all I could do was hold my breath and hope as the surface rushed to meet us.

Fuuuuuuuuuuck!

The front struck the rocky riverbank, the back wheels smacking down in the water. Violently colliding with the ground, the vehicle's frame creaked and juddered as it took the brunt of the crash. All the loose items had flown forward, the sudden inertia and hard surface leaving me rattled down to my bones; all of us shaken jarringly as the APC's interior was bounced around like a toddler's plaything.

The engine complained from the stress of the impact, and I thought for a second that it was done for, but Konstantin, wits recovering from our nosedive, gunned it again and urged it onwards. Sputtering, it burst fully back to life and the APC lurched, the wheels hauling us up the rocks, out of the water. With a burst of speed as we reached the top, the car's nose shot into the air and then we slammed down flat, sliding through the road barrier and onto the intersection on the other side of the bridge, finally coming to a complete halt.

Holy. Shit.

"Is everyone okay? Anyone hurt at all?"

"Thrown about a lot," huffed Carlos, from where he had nearly wedged himself against the vehicle's wall, unscathed barring a cut across his cheek, "but okay. Shay?"

"The same," I managed, still pressed into Mira's embrace, one arm protectively around my stomach and the other latched onto the APC's wall grip, "not hurt, just really knocked about. Oh my- ... Konstantin! Look!"

We had a perfect view of the avenue we needed to follow. It was a canyon of metal, concrete and rock, the buildings ranging from maybe ten stories through to giants that seemed to disappear into the clouds. Largely intact for the first two blocks, the problem was that one of the buildings had toppled onto the avenue itself. It spewed a pile of girders and rubble that was at least ten metres high, spreading in all directions along the road where there was any space.

"That's it." The big man stared grimly at the latest in our series of obstructions. "We're going on foot."

"They're going to reach the bridge any second!" Carlos was watching the camera, his fists balling. "We need to act fast!"

"Yes. Sharpelings will be next. Shay, Mira. Take your things and move."

"What about you and Carlos?"

"We will follow," growled the Russian, his tone firm, commanding. "You must beat Hartley there and Mira will protect you. We will delay them as we can. Do not wait for us, Shay. Understand? Keep going."

"Okay. Alright." I took a deep breath, swinging the backpack onto my shoulder. Next to me, Mira was pushing the APC's side exit free and jumping out of it. His hand grabbed mine and he was pulling me from the vehicle. I resisted only for a second, holding onto the door. "Konstantin?"

"Yes?"

"Good luck."

He nodded, his eyes softening for a moment. "God be with you, my friend. We will see you again."

I nodded back, then releasing the door, letting Mira pull me down to the road.

Aspira.

Far above, the clouds drifted, barely tinged with aemfid's glow, the sunlight dull on such an overcast day. In the not-too-distant background of the ruined city, I heard the coughing wheezing call that sharpelings would make, that eerie sound that was disturbingly human for such an anti-human being. First a lone call and then like cicadas, setting one another off, other calls came from elsewhere nearby; some way off, but all the same, uncomfortably close. Speaking to one another, talking. The current residents of the central district knew they had visitors.

In an equally uncanny response, the sound of weapons cracking came from behind us on the bridge and then the ping of ricochets, as gunfire began to strike the vulnerable side of the APC. In seconds it seemed as if it had become a storm of bullets, the plinking of metal striking metal intensifying, reminiscent of hail.

The Liberators had arrived.

It was time for us to leave.

Mira's hand was in mine and we were running, dashing through the open space to the far left side of the street, heading for the cover in the lee of the first building. It was the corner of Verdigris Drive, parallel to the river, and Lancaster Avenue, the road that would lead us to destiny.

Accession Memorial Plaza ... here I come.

-o-0-O-0-o-

The enemy infantry were laying down fire as their vehicles clustered behind the bridge's blockage. More soldiers, whatever passed for the Liberators' engineers or demolitions specialists, were working on the obstruction. Konstantin was at three kills as he reloaded the rifle, then aiming down the sights again, the barrel resting in the firing port. Behind him, their collected gear lay ready in a pile in the centre of the floor while Carlos manned the autocannon console. The cannon thumped in a stop-start rhythm as he switched targets, firing sparingly and trying to catch the soldiers out of cover. Though the heat of combat was hardly a place to be considering life's possibilities, Konstantin had to admit to himself that Hartley was right: Carlos had all the makings for an excellent soldier.

"They will be through it soon!"

"Yes, I see them!" The boy was not wrong, their job would be done regardless of how much suppression was given. "When they do, we abandon the car, make for the building behind us."

"The hotel?"

"Yes! Hold there, if we can, then retreat building by building."

"Got it."

That moment came sooner than expected. Seconds from those words, Konstantin saw the first APC nudging through the beginning of a narrow corridor, the soldiers falling behind it as it forged on. Not wasting time, he pulled back from his slot, the boy reacting with imitable confidence as they both shouldered their gear and popped the side hatch.

The hotel was a towering cornerstone of the intersection, the right side of the eastbound Lancaster Avenue, opposite from where Shay and Mira had first run. The two boys were gone from sight now and instead Konstantin could see sharpelings off down the street, jumping and running nimbly through the assorted flood of material rubbish. The sounds of incursion had alerted plenty of them and now, the day was about to get very interesting.

They rushed into the hotel lobby, but before either could take up position to counter the approaching enemy, there was the thwack of the autocannon and a volley of fire began to smash into the walls, ripping in a broad arc through the building's bottom floor, a second APC opening up as the first finished. Konstantin dived to the floor, pulling Carlos with him and they scrambled along the ground. Coming past the cover of the check-in counter, Konstantin powered around a corner, by the stairwell, heading directly for the fire exit to the adjacent building on Lancaster. It was jammed, and he gave it an almighty kick, the strength sending the door flying open, banging against the wall. Unbalanced, he didn't stop, charging awkwardly through the exit, Carlos right behind him.

However, fate was a fickle mistress.

There was a claustrophobic service alley separating the hotel from the neighbouring restaurant. It joined to the road out front, and vanished round behind the building at the back. As Konstantin came to a screeching stand-still, the sharpeling standing no more than two metres away reared, hissing in surprised anger. Instincts kicked into overdrive and the rifle flew up, the creature's face erupting in a spray of blood and bone as he blasted it at nearly point blank.

"Carlos, run!"

The boy was reversing course, backpedalling as he did an about-face with frantic need, diving back through the door into the hotel. A dozen sharpelings were lagging a few metres behind their now-terminated leader as they stealthily made their way towards the commotion. With Konstantin's appearance, executing their alpha in front of them, they all paused in synchronisation. There was a creepy moment of calm as the situation sunk in, before at once, a chorus of angry hissing and growling, and they began to run at him.

The first three fell, his aim switching neatly from one to the next, before the oncoming group was too much. He turned to sprint back down the alley toward the street, but without warning more sharpelings appeared at the mouth of the alley's street entrance. They were peeling away from those running past towards the Liberators on the avenue itself, uncaring who their human targets were, so long as it were prey.

Trapped, between a rock and a very sharp place.

He ignored the hotel fire exit, the probability of making it through untouched was pitifully small with the oncoming sharpelings. There was no intent to lead them to Carlos, and Konstantin gave a yell of righteous fury and defiance as he charged directly toward the street and his oncoming doom. As the distance narrowed and he prepared himself, Konstantin saw, with incredulity, a door. A service entrance in the wall of the restaurant, rusted, blended in, and nearly invisible.

Providence.

Turning, using all his weight and momentum, he slammed into it once, then twice, and it buckled, falling inwards. Claws whirred through the air, slicing at his backpack as he staggered through the entrance, the first sharpeling missing him by centimetres. He crashed along the corridor, the sound of claws scrabbling on tile behind him, then left, into the kitchen.

Rows of ovens and benches divided the room, the miscellanea of cooking pans and cutlery scattered across the empty surfaces and Konstantin could only seize the nearest kitchen dolly, a multi-levelled gurney-like dish holder that came to chest height. He shoved it into the doorway behind him, the contraption's wheels slewing and tipping it flat. The first sharpeling collided with it as it rattled through, knocked back briefly, and in this moment of grace he followed it up with a second. Lifting the metal frame up and heaving it directly through the doorway, it ground against the jamb, slotting into an awkward pinion of geometry and inertia.

Their slavering hatred was coming in stereo as they piled into the corridor. Only the topmost third of the doorway was free from Konstantin's impediment, and while they jostled to get through the opening, he discarded his backpack, throwing the rifle to the ground with it. Drawing the Tokarev, the magazine was ejected with feverish concentration and an entirely different one reloaded. He ignored the claws shrilling and clattering on the lodged metal as he rammed it into place; hurriedly working the slide to push the first round into the chamber and bring it to bear.

He was ready.

The first sharpeling was squeezing through the gap and he called to it as he stood square three metres from the door. "Come! Bring yourself, beast! Meet your maker!"

The jaws opened wide as it came free, the prelude to attack and he fired, the armour piercing round felling it in a burst of gore. Behind, two more were thrashing as they broke through the gap and Konstantin laughed, unafraid, fearless; though his senses cried out in dismay, he did not waver.

"Absolution is yours! Redemption is yours!"

Three more shots, two into one and the third into the other, the fragmented pieces colouring the dirty mess on the floor.

"The prison is broken! The agony is over!"

Back two steps as the next three emerged together, Konstantin nailed each in turn with a single shot as they clambered over the bodies of their brethren.

"God forgives! Your sin is no more!"

They kept coming, another pair dropping through, the first joining his mates in death as the final shot in the magazine was expended. The second followed, yet Konstantin was unbothered by it steadying itself on the uneven death-littered floor in front of him. With practiced style and a flawless quick hand, he dumped the empty magazine and reloaded the TT-33 again.

"You are freed!" The sharpeling got within an armlength before he finished it. A new pair were following their group, but Konstantin was done drawing them on. Flicking between them, each was finished with a single precise shot to the head. The corpses were half through the aperture, now blocking it like a demonic foe paralysed, reaching for the world of man through the devil's conduit. He holstered the pistol and went to turn away, but one of the creatures let out a pitiful yowl, the job unfinished as it somehow remained alive.

Drawing his hunting knife, he stepped solemnly over the carcasses of his slain foes, until he reached the sharpeling. The head rocked slowly against the metal frame and it struggled so weakly, a pathetic burbling gurgle escaping from the throat. Konstantin stared at the thing, and though he knew, as he had known since very young, that they were corrupted beyond measure, there was something else here. Beneath the layers of mutation, bile, rot and plague, there was still an incurably human quality about the sharpeling in the most odd and unexpected moments.

This was one of those moments.

He hated all they were, but he could never love killing them, knowing that some part of them hid repressed DNA and a strangled, starved and conquered human spirit. Crouching beside it, he looked sadly at the sharpeling's shattered skull. "Hell is passing," he told it, softly, "and your soul goes to eternal rest. Amen."

Konstantin stabbed the knife down, quick and merciful. The creature spasmed once then stopped moving.

Retrieving his backpack and rifle from the floor, he made his way from the kitchen, pushing through the swinging double doors. The interior of the restaurant was expansive, both vertically and in ground area, and he stopped to take it all in. The street entrance onto Lancaster was to his left, the section for the maître d adjoining it, the delineation of where it had once been barely visible now. The ground floor was wide and square, accommodating dozens of tables when in use. To his right there was the bar, an elegant curving countertop that pointed towards the rear of the building and the stairs to the mezzanine.

There was no doubt this had been a connoisseur's retreat, a costly exercise in gastronomic pleasantry. The upended tables were little more than tinder now, but were once designer craftsmanship, the richest Pyropian ashwood that carpentry could produce. Broken glass, ragged carpet and the remnants of the finer part of Aspira's establishment were liberally scattered everywhere; even the few intact bottles behind the bar would have borne the labelling of the most luxurious brands, if any could still be read. The front windows were sealed over, as many places were, though the ceiling made up for this overt deficiency, the skylights broken open, the clouds visible. Dangling about the holes punched through to the heavens were palatial chandeliers, the cables connecting them to the roof having lasted the test of time.

It was another glimpse into the world that was no more, and Konstantin wondered, as he stood beholding that place, if Fyodor had ever eaten here, if he had tasted the finest vodka that money could buy from this very bar.

He was about to make for the door, to attempt to find a way to reunite with Carlos, when something struck him from behind, the double doors swinging as a force slammed into him. Flying forward, he tumbled along the restaurant's floor, his backpack, rifle and pistol all coming loose and departing in different directions. Dazed, Konstantin rolled onto his back and came to his feet, prepared to defend himself yet again from whatever this city had to offer.

Klaus.

Hartley's biggest enforcer stood in the kitchen doorway. The enormity of his physique was no less oppressive than the first time Konstantin had encountered him with Le Renard and Hartley at Volkov, only now the giant wore his own set of improvised armour over the uniform. It consisted of metal guards along both the front and back of the legs, arms and torso, bolted together to make an incomplete yet formidable encasing of support that provided a great deal of protection from the wayward teeth and claws of the virus.

"I hope to catch you alone." The accent was just the same, an ethnic parody of speech, the words clipped and laboriously slow. Klaus produced an amiable look, a friendliness that belied his following statement. "Ever since Volkov, I want to kill you. Hard to find good fights. I think you will be ... fun."

"You're on your own?" Konstantin eyed the German suspiciously. "I thought Hartley kept a tight leash on you."

"Hahaha!" The benign aggression was none diminished by this insult, a solid wall of impenetrable refusal. He pointed a massive finger at Konstantin, poking the air for emphasis. "You make me laugh, little Russian. Soldiers do orders. Hartley has plans, Tigresse is crazy, but me? Von Eichel likes fight. Bigger fight, more challenge, more fun." He pounded one fist into the other, generating an echoing smack. "I will enjoy this."

The period at the end of the statement was the opener for his attack, for Klaus began moving as soon as the words had left his mouth. Lumbering, but still quicker than he appeared, the charge closed the gap rapidly, the right fist a freight train of industrial potency. The Russian evaded it by the smallest of margins, leaning back as it flew by. Counterstriking, he swung his own right hook in with impressive force, jolting the man's head back, the follow-through left hand a jawbreaker uppercut that would have knocked a lesser combatant out cold.

Recoiling, the gentle mark no more than a love tap, Klaus replied, thrusting his brow forward and down. The headbutt sent Konstantin flying once more, crashing through a nearby dining table, the giant laughing and stomping forward to continue it.

"I will toast you when you die, little Russian." The left hand was reaching for Konstantin, the right pulling back simultaneously for another power drive. In response, the smaller opponent stood, his own left hand swinging the table leg in a whirling backhand strike. It snapped the German's head across with far more force than any punch and he was back a step. Then again, with both hands reversing the blow, and a third time, the wooden leg snapping in half as it came straight down onto the top of the man's skull.

Klaus blinked, momentarily stunned, then his eyes refocused and he shook his head, discarding, refreshing. His face was cut from the blows but he grinned back down to the Russian who was staring up at him horrified, his assault ineffectual. "Good! Hahaha! Good!"

Bodily, the German gripped him, then threw him to the side, across the counter into the bar shelving. A melodic waterfall of breaking glass and splashing liquid took place and Konstantin was staggering to his feet, winded, pulling himself upright again. His hand found some intact glassware and they became projectiles, and he hurled them overhand. The chest plates destroyed the first bottle and the second was batted away as the German approached the counter, mere pin-pricks of annoyance. The third hit Klaus in the face, smashing on his right cheek, and he grunted aloud, but barely slowed.

"Ja, give your best! Hahaha!" Vaulting over the counter, Konstantin swung a bar stool but the bigger man stopped it just so, the metal striking metal and bouncing harmlessly off. A meaty fist was grabbing him, the other smacking lazily into his cheekbone, the low-strength blow still a haymaker by any other standard. A ragdoll in the German's grasp, Klaus tossed him along the counter top with testosterone superiority.

Bloodied, he struggled to maintain his composure and keep up his strength, the sound of Klaus' continuing laughter saturating the air with mortal dread. The behemoth was leisurely thumping past the line of bar seating to retrieve him, and in those few seconds, Konstantin's gaze rose in desperation and in an audacious prayer of hope, to the cavernous ceiling and the gaping wound of the skylight in the restaurant's vaulted roof.

To the momentary outline, that shape against the light, that held steady as it was framed by the midday sun and the clouding of aemfid in Aspira's sky. The same outline that let him see it and was gone again when he blinked, vanished and moved on ... or had it?

Was that real?

Then Klaus was in the way, a shadow thrown by the spawn of an Olympian pup. "No more fight?" An oversized hand was on his shirtfront yet again. He was being held up so they were face to face and not letting the moment pass, Konstantin drew back his right fist, heedless of the fatigue and physical incapacitation given so far, and socked Klaus straight in the nose. It was delivered with all the strength that remained, and he was released from the grip, the titan laughing in shock and sadistic joy, his nose bloodied and broken.

"This! Yes! Better!"

"You are a barbarian!" He stumbled back, the words tumbling from his lips as his eyes shot upwards to the skylight, for confirmation that his rambling strange vision was real. Yet, the truth was closer now and Konstantin knew that he would have only one chance to make good, or he would surely die. Then, to the monster in front of him, as it wiped its face with a fist and spat a gob of blood, so boorishly masculine in all ways: "You belong a thousand years ago, in Earth's darkest ages!"

"What you want on your grave?" The grin was red and quite unshaken by the panoply of abuse that had been thrown at it. "Special for you, longest fight ever! You last whole minutes! Hahaha!"

Another second's glance and then Konstantin knew. The timing had to be just so. The placement had to be just so.

The footfalls were a tonne a piece, the heaviest sound a human could make. He had to slow the enemy's approach, to make the mark a target remaining, painted on the floor.

But how?

"Wait! Stop there -- please!"

To his immense surprise, the aggressor obliged, allowing the smallest respect for a worthy opponent. Coming to a halt, the Germanic caricature stared at him, a 'this had better be very important' expression fixed on his brutish mug, not intending to hold longer than Konstantin could take to tell him whatever it was.

"I want- ... I want to tell you my last wishes."

Stand still and listen, he silently pleaded. Listen to my words.

"What?" The word was stretched, elongated so the W became an overpronounced V.

Say anything to him. Anything at all, if you have to. Lie, if you need to.

"That ... I want the boys to be treated well."

"This is it?" Klaus made to break into motion again, but Konstantin interrupted him.

"Please, I'm not finished yet."

"What then?" The giant beckoned, for the first time a malicious look appearing, an arrogant smug gesture that was equal parts taunt and insult. "Make it quick."

Oh, it wouldn't take too long at all.

His voice dropped a pitch or two. "I want you to tell Hartley ... "

"Tell Hartley what?" The tone was impetuous, impatient, and irreverent.

"Tell him to give my sympathies to the devil."

Uncomprehending, the colossus stared. It raised the same hand, whether to beckon again or make some other mocking retort, it wasn't clear. Instead, there came another voice, shouted from above.

"Heads up!"

The plummeting chandelier crashed onto Klaus a moment before Carlos exited off it, departing the falling mass of metal and synthetic crystal a bodylength before it hit the target. He was retrieving the Tokarev from where it had come to rest on the floor, and he tossed the pistol to Konstantin, who was coming fully vertical, slowed physically somewhat from the battering he had just received. It had only just arrived in his hands when there was a great jingling crash of sound and a very angry, very hurt Klaus began to stand, somehow still alive, his voice breaking out in an accusing cry.

"You will not stop me so eas-"

BOOM!

"Yes, I will." Truncated, the pile fell back to earth, interrupted by an armour-piercing round and crushed afresh beneath the glass trap that had been sprung. Sighing, Konstantin holstered the pistol, clipping it securely back in place, this time forbidding it to go airborne in the event some other Hercules wannabe decided to try his luck.

"Carlos," he managed, "I don't know how you got up there, but ... thank you."

"If you think I'd leave you to have all the fun by yourself," he grinned, "then you don't know me so well."

"Indeed." He looked the boy over. "Please tell me you weren't bitten by one of them?"

"No, I wasn't." Carlos shook his head. "Though it was close, and I felt like I broke my legs jumping onto this roof from the hotel's stairwell. Plus I lost my rifle, it fell down in the alley. It was either let it go or get my leg eaten. Those things are ... fast."

"That they are." Konstantin hoisted his backpack once more. "We will retrieve the rifle with some care, but we cannot delay here. Safe as this building may be, the Liberators will be moving on and Hartley will be there somewhere, with them. There are many blocks left to the plaza. Are you ready?"

Carlos nodded. He was ready.

-o-0-O-0-o-

It seemed like magic, and as I followed Mira as closely as I could, I became convinced that what he was, who he was, seemed fuelled by it. I didn't know whether it was aqumi or something more inexplicable that provided the answer and I certainly didn't have the time to let the idea gestate.

All I knew was that right then, he seemed even more miraculous than ever.

We had traversed five blocks -- five blocks -- without a single sharpeling laying eyes on us. Every time there was a risk, a chance of being seen or taken unawares, he would know it. He would push me back, moving us both around a corner, into the shadow of a wrecked vehicle, behind a hunk of fallen masonry; every time it was just right. Every time, he would anticipate, predict, and know just where to wait and for how long.

The flow of sharpelings seemed to be constant. We had manoeuvered past the collapsed building, but now as we glimpsed along Lancaster, all that existed for a good six blocks to the entrance to the square was ... rubbish. More wreckage. More lifeless vehicles.

More sharpelings.

We sat there, in that cross street linking to Lancaster, a minute's rest in the concave of a destitute building's front porch. Mira stood, slipping silently to the edge to spy into the intersection when there was a sound. There was a rustling of paper and rubble, and Mira whirled, fists tensed, to locate the source.

A couple of metres from my feet, it freed itself from where it had been napping, shook itself off and looked about. Without any ado, the tiny little shape waltzed fearlessly across the ground until it was looking up at Mira, where it stopped and gazed at him as curiously as he was looking at it.

A kitten?!

It was white with ocean-blue eyes, and it mewed expectantly at Mira, unconcerned about the warzone about us, demanding that he give it some attention. Stretching a hand down to the tiny creature, it jumped onto the proffered limb as a human would enter an elevator. It rode his hand up to chest level where he held it in front of him, for the first time seeing another living thing that fit into a category that wasn't 'human', 'sharpeling' or 'food'. The kitten remained comfortably resting on haunches on his hand. in the way only cats can, and it tipped the head to one side as if to say: 'you've picked me up, when are you going to pet me?'

Then, his look of wonderment.

Despite the situation, I wished I had a camera.

My untouchable golden warrior, a miracle force to be reckoned with. In his hand, a tiny snow-white kitten. On his face, awe. Behind him, a halo of dimmed sunlight and cloud, in the backdrop of Aspira.

Perfect.

Then the moment was gone and he was taking my backpack. With precise care, he unzipped the top, placing the kitten into the softest part, nestled in clothing. It mewed again, but Mira gave it a cautioning look as if to say 'save it for later' and zipped the pack back up.

As beautiful as you are and as much as you are making me want to jump you and have my way with you right here ... we're running out of options to reach the plaza without divine intervention.

His eyes were on mine and I knew he understood, his empathy nearly as close as literally mind-reading me. Just as I understood that his skill, whilst amazing, could not manage everything.

There has to be another way.

Mira's gaze held mine for a few seconds, but then broke away, sweeping out over the street as if searching for something. Then, he found it and without pause, he was dragging me behind him. In a second, we were in the middle of the road, completely exposed and he was jimmying the manhole-equivalent open, revealing a hole into Aspira's understreet level.

"Mira," I gasped. "We're going down there?"

He could not reply to say anything, as the first sounds of onslaught were beginning. Ahead of us on the parallel to Lancaster, several sharpelings were hissing as they moved towards; the same surprised vitriol was coming from behind. Our cover was gone and the enemy knew we were here.

Mira's hands were pushing me down, and I was following the ladder, feet and hands clunking on the rungs as I moved as fast as I was able. He was following me and as I plopped onto the surface in the dark barely-visible underground, he landed next to me. His hand was on my shoulder and I felt him point at the distant blur of shape and light that indicated other portals to the surface, closer to the square. His voice came in the dark, whispered quiet, but with all the punch it normally had, undiminished by time.

"Go."

Then, behind us, a snarl and a clattering thump as the first sharpeling fell through from street level, the handholds of the ladder only slowing it down as it landed. There was a hushed shrill of steel as I heard him draw the blade and I knew that an implied continuation came with it; a singular expression that couldn't do other than remind me: 'I will kill what comes for you, but you must run.'

So, towards the faint glimmering shapes that held an entrance to the plaza, I ran.

Yes, yes, I know. The time -- the time! For the record, this chapter was completed 2 weeks ago, it has just been languishing in beta for a while -- but no longer!

A note: I have altered the map links that were available in Ch. 17 because the previous ones were horrible and I wanted something better. Apologies if you found your understanding of that chapter lessened because of this.

As usual, any comments, reviews and likes (the button at the bottom right) are very much welcomed ^_^

Copyright © 2013 Stellar; All Rights Reserved.
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Chapter Comments

Holy cowwww. Such a long and awesome chapter with yet another plot twister. Cant wait for the next chapter!!

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They kicked the hornet's nest in Aspira, didn't they? At least there's only one down

that I could have cared about, -and that's good. I don't know what'll happen when

Shay gets to the sweet spot, but I know it will surprise.

 

The description of the heat burning off the carbonous alien was a thing of beauty.

We've all seen that distortion, and I thank you for making me aware of it. I'll never

see it again and ignore it like before... I'll think of your alien.

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On 05/20/2013 10:15 AM, murakisdoll said:
Holy cowwww. Such a long and awesome chapter with yet another plot twister. Cant wait for the next chapter!!
thank you! It is indeed the king of wordcount, a fact I wasn't even aware of until I had finished and did a tally.
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On 05/20/2013 04:34 PM, Stephen said:
They kicked the hornet's nest in Aspira, didn't they? At least there's only one down

that I could have cared about, -and that's good. I don't know what'll happen when

Shay gets to the sweet spot, but I know it will surprise.

 

The description of the heat burning off the carbonous alien was a thing of beauty.

We've all seen that distortion, and I thank you for making me aware of it. I'll never

see it again and ignore it like before... I'll think of your alien.

Oh the 'sweet spot' .. it is so close now, isn't it? Chapter 19 is going to feature that particular plot mechanism in spades.

 

Shay now knows about the arbiter! Still, the audience is none the wiser, perhaps though given some clues by the additional dialogue and Carlos' description.

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Wow I was starting to think Klaus was unkillable lol. But leave it to Carlos. That snapshot of Mira with that pure white kitten would have been beautiful to see. You weave a story of darkness, death and desolation then up pops scenario of light and goodness to give us a breath of fresh air so that we can continue onto the path come what may.looking forward to Shay busting Hartley's ass and beating them all.

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I liked Morgn, :( and Klaus really needed to lighten up.

Ok fantastic chapter, from start to end lots going on, loved the kitten bit. All the evil around and we have a little bundle of cuteness in it.

Now I gotta wait again.

Keep it up Stellar.

K

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On 05/22/2013 04:46 AM, Kiltie69 said:
I liked Morgn, :( and Klaus really needed to lighten up.

Ok fantastic chapter, from start to end lots going on, loved the kitten bit. All the evil around and we have a little bundle of cuteness in it.

Now I gotta wait again.

Keep it up Stellar.

K

I liked Morgan too, but he was on borrowed time from the second he was taken captive. Sad but true; La Tigresse might be a coldhearted bitch, but she was certainly right about Hartley's attitude towards 'treason' - he hates traitors almost as much as he does the rebels that defy him.

 

Klaus, on the other hand, was probably the most easygoing of Hartley's three principal minions. He didn't care amount much except for getting the job done, and hopefully seeing a good bit of action for it. Quite sadistic though, a sort of jolly 'I'm going to love hurting you' to contrast with the coolness from Tigresse and her brother.

 

Yes, the kitten! It's not all death and destruction. Well, most of it is .. but here and there, life finds a way.

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Been stewing over this chapter ever since I read it and I must say, the action is fast paced. I am beginning to wonder if Shay will even make his destination without another intervention by fate.

As usual, I am enjoying the writing, but the story has me so filled with anticipation that I can hardly contain my desire for more and more right now!

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Oh.....WOW. edge of my seat action, and my favorite animal....a kitty. Awwww and snow white with blue eyes. Had a few kittens who looked just like that. I'm so worried about the four remaining heroes. Divine intervention, fate, somebody help!!!!

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OMG...this just keeps getting better and better. The kitten was amazing...I have a special place in my heart for cats!!!

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On 05/23/2013 08:23 AM, LadyDe said:
Oh.....WOW. edge of my seat action, and my favorite animal....a kitty. Awwww and snow white with blue eyes. Had a few kittens who looked just like that. I'm so worried about the four remaining heroes. Divine intervention, fate, somebody help!!!!
One of my friends has a house that was until recently filled with an excessive amount of kittens. Some were tabby and tortoise-shell, but around half a dozen were the exact same as in the story. One even had split blue/green eyes. I love cats but it was hard to walk anywhere without almost stepping on the damn things.
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On 05/23/2013 10:47 PM, Gene63 said:
OMG...this just keeps getting better and better. The kitten was amazing...I have a special place in my heart for cats!!!
So do I. Though I enjoy having dogs around (well dependent on the breed, some are less tolerable than others), I have more of a weak spot for cats. They are remarkable creatures, so contradictory and so curious.
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On 05/23/2013 04:56 AM, Daddydavek said:
Been stewing over this chapter ever since I read it and I must say, the action is fast paced. I am beginning to wonder if Shay will even make his destination without another intervention by fate.

As usual, I am enjoying the writing, but the story has me so filled with anticipation that I can hardly contain my desire for more and more right now!

Chapter 19 will see the culmination of the plot and things reach their climax. You will see some rather ... ahem .. explosive .. events.
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Practically everyone has mentioned the kitten, and indeed the almost spiritual description of Mira holding the kitten and haloed by the sun and the aemfid begs a movie version of this wondrous story. The other bit of "hidden sunlight" in this chapter -- to balance the death of Morgan, the evil of La Tigresse and Klaus, the overwhelming destruction everywhere -- is learning about Esteban. Finally we understand the fascination by Carlos and his hot then cold then hot responses to Shay: in hindsight it so obviously fit the dichotomy of a younger brother relationship. I still wonder, however, if Carlos is not at least a little in love/lust with Shay. I hope we learn some more about Esteban and his relationship with Carlos before the end. Could Shay and Esteban have been related genetically? Hmmm...

 

My heart is both delighted to hear that the end of their quest is coming and dismayed that we will no longer have our boys to read about. I do hope you are already writing or at least planning your next story, Stellar -- be it sequel, another story in the same universe, or a totally new story altogether. Otherwise, the world will be drearier without your elegant prose.

 

John

 

PS: By the way, "le petit frisson" of La Tigresse calling Shay and Mira "mes petits chatons" juxtaposed with them finding the kitten was a magnificently subtle touch. Makes me wonder if their petit chaton will play a bigger part in the denouement than one might expect.

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On 05/26/2013 06:53 AM, hillj69 said:
Practically everyone has mentioned the kitten, and indeed the almost spiritual description of Mira holding the kitten and haloed by the sun and the aemfid begs a movie version of this wondrous story. The other bit of "hidden sunlight" in this chapter -- to balance the death of Morgan, the evil of La Tigresse and Klaus, the overwhelming destruction everywhere -- is learning about Esteban. Finally we understand the fascination by Carlos and his hot then cold then hot responses to Shay: in hindsight it so obviously fit the dichotomy of a younger brother relationship. I still wonder, however, if Carlos is not at least a little in love/lust with Shay. I hope we learn some more about Esteban and his relationship with Carlos before the end. Could Shay and Esteban have been related genetically? Hmmm...

 

My heart is both delighted to hear that the end of their quest is coming and dismayed that we will no longer have our boys to read about. I do hope you are already writing or at least planning your next story, Stellar -- be it sequel, another story in the same universe, or a totally new story altogether. Otherwise, the world will be drearier without your elegant prose.

 

John

 

PS: By the way, "le petit frisson" of La Tigresse calling Shay and Mira "mes petits chatons" juxtaposed with them finding the kitten was a magnificently subtle touch. Makes me wonder if their petit chaton will play a bigger part in the denouement than one might expect.

You know, when I imagine things, it is always cinematic; sometimes it seems prohibitively so, to transcribe that into actual prose. If I am imparting that to you, then I am succeeding in some measure and that is satisfying.

 

Re: Carlos and his relationships with his brother. Clearly Esteban isn't alive any more, even though he was six or seven years younger, according to Carlos. This means that Esteban died at a somewhat young age, which suggests more than a few scenarios and none of them pleasant. It must certainly set the mind alight with how that is impacting the current relationship between Carlos and Shay - and what that means. Is it *just* the remains of brotherly love that Carlos feels or is there truly something else there too?

 

While I cannot and will not say anything about the ending ... it is not premature at this point to say ... this may not .. umm .. exactly ... uh ... be the end for at least Shay and Mira. Yes, I did just hint at what you are thinking about, and no I'm not going to say anything else on this topic. ^_^

 

Lastly: that kitten, huh? There has been a theme with cats in this story, but it is well woven into the fabric of the plot so many readers would perhaps not notice it. Cats have both a spiritual and personality archetype associated with them that makes them more than just a stylistic symbol. Sharpelings themselves have a somewhat catlike quality, both in their predatory nature and their social structuring (the comparisons to a pride of lions are not without merit.)

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Ok, I will not mention the kitten (oops). I have my vuvuzela and the popcorn is ready, bring it on. This just keeps getting better and better. Thank you.

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On 05/28/2013 11:33 PM, sandrewn said:
Ok, I will not mention the kitten (oops). I have my vuvuzela and the popcorn is ready, bring it on. This just keeps getting better and better. Thank you.
A vuvuzela? :o Please keep that hideous thing to silence or I will be forced to impose strict quiet upon the audience.
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Two gone in a matter of hours.

The balance of opportunity has somewhat altered. Although in some strange ways, there is a benefit to the death of at least one of the two that have fallen. In some ways a subtle benefit, but one none the less.

I did find it strange that the Tigress would not harm Shay, but then Hartley is not an idiot, and possibly realises that he needs Shay to unlock the mysteries that await at the plaza, a possibility only somewhat added to in finding that the Liberators are following them into the city. Truth is, I think Hartley knows that Shay will understand it all, and for this reason he was hands of when the Tigress attacked.

In honesty I was somewhat surprised that no one was seriously hurt by the fall from the bridge, They are lucky in that instance.

Shay looks like Carlo's brother??? Ok, I didn't see that one coming at all. Not sure that I liked that revelation, as part of me always felt that Carlos wanted Shay on a different level, and I guess I do still kind of wonder if there was just a brotherly concern playing out. More so, I wonder how in the hell does Shay look so similar to his kin. Is there more to that than meets the eye? Did maybe be one or both of his parents survive the initial scourge of Sharps. Is it possible either of them at some point procreated with another and that down the line led to a youngster with similar characteristics to Shay being born? Shay and Carlos related???? God....

So Morgan is gone, they have made it to Lancaster Ave, an Arbiter lies ahead of them (very Halo 3 esque) aqumi is in their grasp, they've walked into a storm in a hornets nest, and have a foe hell bent on beating them to the central node to deal with.

Oh and in the midst of all this they find a cat............

Your mind works in mysterious ways my man, but wow. Surreal, and amazing, and on edge. Tension, exasperation, anger, frustration. Screaming at the screen! It's all going on, and you have every reader wound up and caught up in the midst of this wild adventure. Kudos sir, you have done a remarkable job.

So, on to the final dash to the finish. The work goes on......

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for the record... German-Russian Agression seriously... lol

i think it would have been more funny if they ended up at the bar drinking together... possibly between punches... then the Russian hits the German with a bottle and he's out cold or something.

Mira and kitten = cute.

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On 04/15/2015 01:56 AM, Celethiel said:
for the record... German-Russian Agression seriously... lol

i think it would have been more funny if they ended up at the bar drinking together... possibly between punches... then the Russian hits the German with a bottle and he's out cold or something.

Mira and kitten = cute.

There was a certain amount of historical amusement going into that confrontation, I'll admit.

 

Mira + kitten = most definitely cute.

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Well, I did like the quick fight but, I am sure you have more in store?
Mira is ever the fighter and Konstantin sure surprised me :)
Ashley D

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On 11/28/2015 03:04 PM, Ashdaw said:

Well, I did like the quick fight but, I am sure you have more in store?

Mira is ever the fighter and Konstantin sure surprised me :)

Ashley D

There is no shortage of combat in the last few chapters, I can assure you.

 

Konstantin is not only physically large, but quite capable of winning a brawl if need be. He may not particularly enjoy conflict, but he is not someone to be messed with -- far from it.

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