Kendall rested back against the foot of the bed. In the black room, all that could be heard was the labored breathing of the girl on the bed. Her foot had fallen off and rested on the floor to his left. He looked for a moment at her bare leg.
She was fine.
He licked his teeth, trying to get out the copper taste.
Have to reinforce the binding, he told himself. Human essence was essential.
With a groan, he pulled himself up and straightened his clothes. He looked to the far wall, which was glass, out onto the city. It was night and the moon was full, sending down silver light. He walked the length of the room, sliding open the glass wall’s door and stepping out onto the porch.
The air was crisp and carried no sounds of sirens or traffic. Everyone was simply asleep for the night. Just like it was supposed to be.
He did the last button on the banded collar of his grey shirt, then rolled down the sleeves. With the elastic circlet on his wrist, he tied back his long brown hair.
Kendall, with a hop, stepped up onto the railing of the balcony. He angled his feet and slipped off the end, dropping. The apartments bellow rushed past him, floor after floor. He decelerated to touch down on the ground without impact, not even bending his knees.
Down on the street, no lights buzzed, only a few mellow strips of LEDs lining the sidewalk illuminated his feet. Pillars of metal jutted through the buildings at this level, where the construction was older, unused. It’d been built over a long time ago.
He snapped his head to the right, cracking his neck, then the left, doing the same. He started walking and the way began to darken. The lights dimming out. He traveled faster in darkness, moving abstractly. Without his form visible, he could relax the binding and take advantage of the other just beneath the surface. Light.
Light made him weaker. More human.
“Hey there,” a familiar voice appeared. Kendall whipped around, caught off guard. The figure gingerly approached with arms behind their back. “It’s good to see you again, Kendall. Old friend.”
“Christopher?” Kendall asked.
“In the flesh,” he smiled. He wore the same suit that he always had, only he had aged. Kendall had not. Not in the three years since they’d last met.
“Where the hell have you been?”
“Biding time, quite frankly,” he replied. The lights along the road were coming back on. With the area lit again, Kendall couldn’t vanish.
His doing, Kendall sensed.
“Well, what do you want?”
“A much better question, much better, is what are you doing, Kendall? Finding you wasn’t so hard, a simple trick, really. But I’m curious.”
That wasn’t a question he was going to answer. He didn’t speak.
Christopher did. “You see, I think a lot of people would be curious. Between friends, you know, I think they’d want to check into what you’ve been up to. Because you’ve officially ceased practicing after Porter dismissed you. So what reason could you have for shrouding yourself, hm? And that is a nice shroud.”
He was referring to the masking aura he kept. Disabling Aku’s eyes.
“What do you want?” Kendall asked more forcefully. He couldn’t stand this veneer of passivity. Of friendliness.
“I know you’re not happy to see me, Kendall.” He raised a hand, defensively. “But it really is great to see you again.” His smile was genuine. “I’m just concerned that you’ve started some immoral practices, Kendall. Engaging a slippery slope.”
Kendall didn’t respond, again.
Christopher waved his hand as if dismissing the subject. “Another time. But I’m sure you want to know why I’m here.”
“I’m about to tell you to fuck right off, actually.”
“Before you do that… It’s Odessa.”
That name broke his defenses. “What?”
“And Doran, and Anna, and the demon Ashmedai. They’ve survived.”
Kendall couldn’t believe it. He looked up at the sky for a moment, far above, and collected his thoughts.
They’d broken his binding. He remembered the day. Sitting in the hell outpost. He’d had to concentrate for those six days as they’d drained his strength from afar, testing the binding. When it’d broken, it was like a rope snapping as he pulled. He’d fallen, knocked back. And he hadn’t fully recovered.
And they’d survived? Down in hell? It couldn’t be possible. Ash would’ve left them, he wouldn’t have protected Anna. Odessa couldn’t manage her.
A more disturbing question reached his mind.
“Where are they?” he looked to Christopher.
“In this dimension.”
He wanted to shout, curse, but he restrained himself. Don’t test the shroud. Don’t give in to your humanity.
“Are they in this city?” Kendall calmly asked further.
Christopher checked around. “Is this-? Is this city A or city B? I teleported here for you, so I honestly have no idea.”
“They are in one of the cities, though.”
“Yes. Here, now, with us. That’s why I’m here. To tell you. And to get your help. You’re going to find them.”
Kendall reacted to that. “I’m not doing anything for you.”
A pleasant smile appeared on Christopher’s face. “I wouldn’t expect you to do anything you didn’t want to,” he said.
Kendall grimaced at that wording. “Why would I want to get involved. Odessa is the only one I have any connection to, anymore. And she doesn’t want to see me. The Council can dispatch a team of Magi to bring them in. I don’t need to be there.”
“We don’t want to get the court involved. Not with your illicit activities. They’d come to light under the inquiry launched for Doran.”
“There’d be an inquiry?”
“Yes. I conjured him, and I can absolutely say so.” Christopher held out his hand. “Come with me. It’s time I brought you up to speed on this.”
Porter was nursing a bottle of rum at the counter’s far end. He was wearing the same dark grey shirt and pants that all Utopian citizens seemed to wear. There was little variation in fashion, I’d noticed. His hair was longer and his face unshaven. He slouched, planted on his stool, leaning forward to stare at the dark.
The bar was completely unlit except for a lantern which he had set down. Some street light came in through the open door, along with a midnight wind.
I knocked twice on the metal of the counter, breaking my shroud.
“You think I didn’t know you were there?” he said, sliding the bottle my way.
I pushed it away. “You could have said something.”
“I was waiting. Thought I’d see how long you took.” He motioned me over.
I moved to a closer seat, keeping one between us. By the lantern, I was a bearded, bald-headed, and stern visage. Exhaling slow, I tried to relax some.
“So,” I asked, “how’ve you been, Professor Porter?”
Porter laughed. “It’s not Professor anymore. I gave up my position almost a year ago. I realized my… folly. Yeah, folly.”
“Mhmm. No hope for a reversal of the council’s decision?”
“It was a false hope. I was waiting for them to need me. For calamity, right? Which- I’ll admit – that sounds kind of bad,” he slurred just barely. “But I knew it was going to happen. You saw how fast they involved me when they needed to. I bound the Ouroboros. That was me.” He trailed off, suddenly morose. He realized the bottle was still at the other end of the counter. He went, retrieved it, and sat back down in the seat just beside me.
“You thought the binding wouldn’t hold.”
“I couldn’t’ve known. I thought I had the metaphysics straight. Nature can’t be truly overcome, right?”
“The binding held. Man overcame the Ouroboros. I hear the plan is to set up a self-perpetuating machination which builds on his binding forever. They’ve already moved the planet to a pocket dimension. They’re going to beat him with expansion. Evolution beats nature, I guess. Who could’ve seen that coming.”
“It still can’t hold forever,” I said.
I should know. There’s no such thing as forever.
“Well, if I feel like waiting a few trillion years, sure. Then maybe I’ll be needed to redo the binding.”
“It’s less time than you think.”
He raised his eyebrows and looked real closely at me. “Where have you been?”
I was still wearing my suit. It was singed on the right side from where Amanda had shot me. “In hell. I’ve been awol, you could say.”
“I certainly would, soldier,” he admonished jokingly.
Porter took a swig. Then he grinned. “Who wouldn’t.”
We sat in silence for a while. I checked the watch on my wrist.
Porter spoke before I could. “I never much liked you.”
“You were out of place. Wrong. And generally suspicious.”
“I can get that.”
“So the question is; why are you here? Could’ve gone anywhere, I assume. Maybe Anna’s with you, maybe you’re just passing through? I don’t get the sense.”
“Mm. It’s really complicated, honestly. I can hardly keep it straight.”
“Well, it’s Christopher. We’re going to kill him.”
Porter was unimpressed. “How about why?“
“He’s going to try to kill me. I figured I’d get the jump on him.”
“Why are you telling me?”
“Because it involves you. Everyone. I’m a Primordial, Porter.”
He looked off into space for a moment, thinking about that. “Sure, why not.”
“Very few people from my era survived. One of them, they got out of control, and they’re still around. They got so out of hand that I had to do some desperate things to put them in check. They’d become a consuming Darkness.“
“Spooky,” he sarcastically commented. Drunk Porter.
“I know what you do, Porter,” I said. “And you couldn’t fight this thing. No one can. It’s like a flood. Noah’s flood.”
“But you stopped it?”
“How?” he insisted.
I thought for a moment, not answering.
Aziacht. The old name felt fresh. Inexorable truths. You set things in motion, you knew how they would end. And they always do end.
“I’m here to warn you, Porter. Your catastrophe is a lot closer than you think. And it’s not going to be what you want, I worry.”
“Did I say I wanted catastrophe? That’s awful.”
“You’re the only person I could safely contact, Porter. Tell the councils to evacuate the cities. Be very clear. They have to get every person they can under Magus protection. You can’t stop what’s coming, none of them can.”
“We’ll see.” He raised the jug to his lips.
I knocked it out of his hands, sending it bouncing off the counter and onto the floor. Spilling everywhere.
“Tell the council,” I ordered him.
He grimaced deeply. “Fuck those people.”
“People will die if you don’t.”
“Just get out.” He shoved his thumb back at the door.
“I’ll see you again Porter.” I patted his back. “And it’s good to see you.”
I walked out onto the street and into the night. Checking my watch again, it was four in the morning. I should get back.
We were so close. So much time had passed. Uncounted time. And I was so, so close. There was more work to be done. Had to get back.