Machina – 3.12

I wasn’t going to do this alone.

“Ash!?” I called. The horde was so densely packed, it flooded out in every direction. Kendall’s mass rose above the crowd, his twisted body pulsating.

I couldn’t go back. The goal was across this room, and so was Ash. Driven apart, I couldn’t hear his gun anymore. There was no going around.

The demons were running ‘round me. While I panicked, unable to think a way through, they solidified my options, creeping along the walls and behind me. I swung my cleaver at the crowd, scaring them back. Demons were afraid of me. For a moment. They crazed, each one egging the others on. The crowd was brimming with rage, being held back for only a moment.

I kept swinging at the air, I cut down one that tried to break the line. Then another got brave, tried to run at me from behind. I slashed without looking, letting the body fall behind me.

The lights above flickered off and on, each time the crowd moving.

See it, you fucking moron. What do you see?!

My eyes narrowed, trying to see through the blur of blood streaming down my face. The crowd was moving in, seconds slowed as they closed the distance.

The horde approached, but it wasn’t growing.

He’s emptied his well.

The demons surged. I lashed out, but it didn’t matter. It was a dogpile and there was nothing I could do. I shielded my face, grabbing the blunt side of my cleaver and trying to hold the blade out. Their bodies crashed down on me, each one pressing down and failing to tear in, each one trying to go for my face. I screamed. Claws ripped my brow and cheeks, tried to slide into my eye sockets.

I worked my blade through the bodies as if they were air, only constrained by the motion of my arm. But it wasn’t enough. There wasn’t a plan for this. There wasn’t a way through. The crush was a feast held back only by my armor and my failing efforts to protect my face.

Fire! Flame!” I cried desperately.

My weapon’s rusted metal turned white hot, erupting in sparks and vicious melting heat. Bubbling flesh sprinkled onto me, burning skin. My palm on the handle was immolated as the heat spread down. My suit melted into the skin. The pain was in every part of me as my bones ached and skin singed and bled. I didn’t know what I was doing anymore. I fought to my feet, tearing through with my sword and hand. I realized I was still screaming.

“Ash!?” I slurred. I heard gunshots.

“Is that all you’ve got?!” I heard him yell.

I focused on him. I could get to him. I needed him.

I could see. The crowd was growing thin, now, as I twisted and lunged to attack the demons surrounding me. Yes, I could finally see through to Ash.

He was using a stout machine gun in one hand and a knife in the other. His precision had kept him intact. Kendall was bashing at the floor, shouting for the demons to kill him.

I was in a daze, powering through what was left in my way. Ash saw me and grinned. Kendall tracked his line of sight, glancing back at me and spewing out dozens of more demons.

No. He was supposed to be out.

If he were, he’d return to normal. Think. He’s holding back the ones that give him strength. The most powerful are yet to come. Outnumbered, soon outmatched.

Then I can’t.

The new demons forced me back. All the way to the glass. Backing into it, I could finally hear rain again over the screeches, through the broken hole just to my side. The escape offered again. I’d made no progress. The horde replenished and approached. There was nowhere to go.

I wiped gore from my face. The blade I held had melted into my hand. Searing pain crawled up my arm. It wasn’t hot anymore, the fire had gone out. But the wound was still there.

Ash looked at me over the crowd as he stepped up onto the platform just before the elevator. He looked back to the open elevator doors, then to me again. He knew he couldn’t do it without me. He needed me. He was here for my purposes. In a flash on his face, a look of confliction, I knew he hated it.

He mowed down the demons in front of him, which were practically clambering over the bodies of those that had tried before. He raised his arms defiantly. “You never could get a single fucking thing done!” he mocked.

The remaining demons attacking Ash returned to Kendall, swept up in a cloud of darkness. He was left standing among the bodies. His own returned to normal. He swept hair from his eyes. “I’m going to kill you. I am going to kill you, Ash! You know it.”

I killed the faster demons that came for me. I almost fell over doing it. I caught my breath, trying to see and hear Ash’s reply.

I reflexively looked at my watch. Remembered it was broken. Time had run out.

From beyond Kendall, Ash met my eyes. He threw down his gun, grimaced.

Kendall started walking forward when it impacted the ground. “I’ll break you.”

Ash hung his head. Nodded slightly. When he looked up, he was grinning. “You never could before, faggot. You’re the weakest fucking mortal I know!”

“Look at me now, Ashmedai! Demons are nothing compared to me. Fodder.”

A hound jumped up, lunging for my face. I impaled it, but it nearly clamped down on my neck.

“You’re fucking gross, you know that?” Ash continued. “Seriously.”

A spike shot out from Kendall’s body as he deformed for a moment. It went into Ash’s chest. I craned over the horde to see. He looked down at it, still smiling. Pulling it out, casting it away. “You can’t kill me, but nice try,” he said. “Ya lil bitch! You can’t shut me up!”

“I can!” Kendall moved in and grew monstrous. He slapped Ash away before fixing his form. He looked like he was in pain, but he constrained it. He held up a finger at me, letting me know I had to wait for my turn if I survived.

Ash got up and spread his arms, unfazed. His eyes were on me the entire time. “You really can’t, boy! You always thought I was a demon of sin or some shit. I’m a worm! This body, it’s a fucking mask. You can’t touch me!” He cackled. An obviously fake laugh. Mocking.

I slipped to my knees, unable to stand anymore. Ash’s eyes were still locked with mine through a gap in the crowd. He was backed up against a pillar at the room’s edge.

“I’ve stopped you both,” Kendall declared.

The dozen or more demons remaining were only a few seconds away from me now. I didn’t have any fight left. I could only hold out the point of my sword.

“I always survive,” Ash said. “One way or another! I’ll go the long way around, boy. I’m like an STD. Probably like the one you gave Odessa. All those girls, too. There’s a lot more, right? Gotta get dat essence.”

He was thrown up against the pillar as Kendall sprinted in and hit him. He smacked the pillar and Kendall was there to pick him up again. Ash’s head was bashed against the concrete.

“You think you’re going to save the universe?!” Ash bellowed. He pointed over Kendall’s shoulder to me, not letting him see. “Do it then!” he ordered.

“I can!” Kendall bashed him harder. His eyes ruptured, his jaw broke. Kendall’s concentration wavered, some of the demons losing focus on me, watching him.

Still sound came out of Ash’s mangled head. “I’m a demon and you disgust me! How fucking hilarious is it!?

“Shut up!” Kendall pounded a bloody crater into the pillar.

“You know me, faggot! It’s the thing I can’t do. The one thing!”

“I can make you, Ash!” Kendall’s body split open. A seam cracked along his face and down his chest, a maw unhinging. Every demon stopped in awe. Ash was pulled in, laughing hysterically. Swallowed into Kendall’s mass as I watched, his eyes never leaving mine.

Everything was silent.

I had to steady myself. My sword held out was violently shaking. A demon stood over me, staring down, but every ounce of its attention focused away. Red eyes gone glassy.

Kendall fixed his hair and tried to wipe a shaken look from his face. He looked to me from across the room. “It’s over,” he said. Then, to the demon, “kill him!”

My sword hand dropped. “Fuck you,” I forced the words out, spitting blood.

He laughed bitterly, long and hard. He tried to respond, but he kept laughing. He shook his head. The demon wasn’t attacking “Yes. You-” Kendall shook, fell to his hands and knees. “It’s funny,” he said. “Just how fucked you are.” A horrible laughter broke loose again and he had to cover his mouth. “What?” he asked. “What the fuck happened?”

I told him. “You took in an unbound demon, Kendall.”

“I…” He seized up in pain. His face contorted, every demon in the room instantly disintegrated. They returned to him in a cloud of darkness. He fell onto his side, every muscle in his body spasming.

I rolled up off my legs and barely stood. I walked the long distance towards the elevator. It felt like an eternity with every move hurting.

I stopped by Kendall’s side. He looked up to me, grinning, terror in his eyes. He couldn’t speak.

“You took in a demon you have no control over.” I knelt in front of him. “I’m not going to kill you for what you are. What you’ve done. It won’t matter. I just want… I want to thank both of you for seeing me this far. I’m sorry.”

After a second, he burst out laughing again. I found a weak smile of my own as Ash looked back at me through his eyes. “Damn you to hell,” he coughed.

I looked past him to the elevator doors, grimacing. I nodded.

I snapped my fingers and the elevator responded to me. When I entered, the doors rolled shut, slowly taking the sight of him laughing from me. It began to rise quickly into the storm. I slid down against the wall as inertia hit me, staring out through the windows as I ascended. As I came up out of the building’s protection the weather hit the glass box at full force. Thunder and lightning became distant, my gaze unfocused.

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Machina – 3.11

The visitor’s entrance was around the curve of the building. Ash and I took the steps two by two. Dozens of grey flights to the glass-front of the building. So much of that glass was tinted dark. As we ascended, I passed in front. I stopped with my hand on the door.

“I sense something,” I said.

“No heartbeats in there,” Ash told me.

“That’s not a good sign.”

I didn’t bother trying the doors, instead slashing through the glass and letting it dash against my rain-soaked skin. Stepping onto the expansive tiled floor the sound of the storm grew quiet behind us. I wiped at my face and eyes to dry them with my free hand. Dusted glass away.

Further, into the back of the long room, it grew darker. At the very end, there was a single skylight around the elevator’s wide doors. Soft light fell on our goal.

“There’s nobody. We made it.” Ash grinned.

There was a disturbance. Kendall stepped into that light. He stepped up in front of the elevator so we could see him, across the distance. In his dark green suit, long hair undone. He put himself in our path and looked smug about it.

It was a long walk, but we were going to get there. We wouldn’t stop.

This is his last chance. He wants to do it himself, I thought.

I was his mistake. Kendall was all about control and this was him standing immovable, taking it back. He’d made the decision. In his eyes, I could see he knew. He’d decided he would do it himself. Alone and holding nothing back. This was Kendall… from the start.

The doors were far behind us and so too the light. Kendall steeled himself and stepped down and into the dark with us. Three pairs of footsteps echoed. Silhouettes grew.

Ash raised his gun. “You’ve got us all to yourself, faggot!” He fired. Muzzle flashes lit up the horrible sight of Kendall coming for us. He loped forward as a vision of teeth and limbs and wings, shrugging off hits.

I held my breath as the last few yards were covered. I closed my eyes.

A memory flashed into my mind. Kendall pulls a pistol from his drawer. I’m in the circle. He could have killed me then. Look what’s happened to both of us, now.

Ash ducked to the side and so did I. My sword raked over Kendall’s belly as I went.

Ash was quickly up, having reloaded on his fall to fire again on the ground. The flashes showed Kendall sloughing skin off where I had cut him. The mark moved from his chest to the chest of a newly birthed demon, sliding off onto the floor. It shrieked and died of its wound.

Ash’s gun ran dry and the darkness persisted again. I held my breath and listened.

The sound of a rifle reloading. The drops of ichor falling from Kendall’s bullet wounds. The gurgling of the dying demon. New, wet footsteps hitting the ground as another broke away from Kendall. Crunching, contorting, they formed. They were silhouetted by the building’s glass front behind them. When free, they ran to the side to hide. Fuck.

Can’t hurt him. The blade cuts the soul, but his soul is too far recessed. Under an ocean of demonic flesh. Hiding at the bottom of his well. He’s shedding hits.

Kendall charged forward. He wouldn’t let me dodge this time. I put my sword forward and dug it into him. My feet lost traction as he hit me, his claws trying to dig into my back. I was driven back.

He roared, feral. I returned the sound as I put all my strength out. Braced against the long handle of my cleaver, meant specifically for this person. With leverage enough, I threw Kendall over my shoulder, off my blade. He hit and rolled.

Ash fired again and I turned around. The flashes showed a new demon, pale white, right in front of my face. It bashed me with its head, sent me to my back. The bone spikes on its forehead cracked against my skull, sent a stream of blood down my face. “Fuck!”

It pounced and I pulled up my sword to impale it. Kendall was back on me. The only thing between us was the dead demon’s body. I held it over me, protecting my face as so much blood poured up my nose.

“Oi, bitch.” Ash lit into him on top of me. Kendall reacted, I could feel him shift his weight.

My blade twisted in the corpse and I pulled, slicing to the side and freeing it. I escaped while Kendall was distracted. On my feet, for only a moment before he struck me.

I slid until I hit a pillar at the room’s edge. Before I could recover, he was already charging at me. I got up, sliced a gash across the floor as I went. I ordered, “Halt!

The silhouette dove easily to the side, around my command and bouncing off a pillar. Kendall’s claws scraped, trying for purchase on the tile and failing. He slid behind the row as I ran for the room’s periphery.

“Here!” Ash yelled.

I found him behind another pillar on the parallel row.

“Strategy?” I blurted out, catching my breath, sliding to cover.

“Run ‘em dry.”

I couldn’t see Ash, but I knew he could see the doubt on my face.

Kendall’s too powerful. He’s an army.

He came flying into the pillar we were hiding behind. It crashed down, sending Ash and I running in opposite directions.

A demon lit itself on fire as it came running towards me out of the dark. Its black gnarled hide was swathed in flames, ready to embrace me. I cut it down easily enough, but something else wrapped around my neck. A long tendril encircled and tried to crush. I whipped around and severed it from the source. It loosened. Something skittered away squealing like a child. Gunfire echoed everywhere around me. I couldn’t find the source, I was distracted by the sheer number of figures the flashes revealed.

An imp jumped to latched onto my knee, holding tight. Suddenly dozens more did the same, clambering over each other to grab me. I hacked at the pile of bodies, trying not to hit myself. “Ash!”

Bullets rang past me. I covered my head as he shot off the remaining imps. Perfect aim. Chittering alerted me a moment before the next strike came.

A massive pincher clamped down on my midsection. It hoisted me up as I hacked down. I defended against a stinger on its tail, bashing it away. I threw my sword, lodging it into the scorpion’s head and quickly recalling.

Sword back in my hand, I lashed around to cut another demon down.

The darkness was too great an advantage. Had to get light.

I slammed my sword into the ground. “Let there-

A quadrupedal beast dove into me. My sword was left behind. It snapped rabidly at my face, driving me back along the floor. I pushed into its neck, holding it back. My hands reached up, grabbing it by the jaw. I rent its mouth open and tossed it aside.

Demons piled on. Teeth raked across my skull. Limbs clambered over my body in the dark. I was throwing them off as I went for my sword.

The weight was driving me to my knees as my hand found the hilt.

Light!

The building’s lights came on in an instant. I drew my sword and threw off the demons. Stood up tall to see the dozens that lurked behind the pillars. That encircled me.

Kendall’s face protruded from the mass of demons which formed a larger creature. Bodies entangled to work and bend as limbs. They broke away and more welled up from the soft flesh. His face focused on me. His expression darkened with determination. He didn’t care that we could see him.

The demons let out a chorus of screaming when I saw them.

I hacked at the horde as it closed in around me. They tried to overpower me. The sheer number was overwhelming. There was one on my back, gnawing at my bleeding neck. With my free hand, I grabbed it by the arm and threw it over my shoulder into the crowd.

“Ash!” I was frantic. They were like a flood. Kendall continued to spawn them.

Bullets tore through the crowd, but it wasn’t enough. I didn’t have room anymore to swing my sword. Kendall was going for Ash, keeping him from helping me.

I lashed out with my arm, trying to beat them back. The skeletal horde could be pushed away, but some were strong, grotesquely fat. For those I needed the room to cut. I was drowning in my own blood and theirs. It was a thick, cold sludge, filling my throat and nose.

Raising my arm above the crowd, I hacked down blindly. I punched out and my fist connected with soft flesh and hard bone. The fluorescent lights were blinding as I turned my head up for air. I couldn’t get air. Their arms pushed me down, they teeth gnashed.

I braced my legs, so many grabbing me that my weight was supported. I kicked off, breaking myself and demons behind me away from the crowd and towards the door. I fought free to stand and killed those demons on the ground with me.

Finally, they were coming at me from one direction. I spit out the rot and gripped my sword white-knuckled.

Must make progress.

I tore through the crowd, sending limbs flying.

A hellhound burst forth and knocked me down. Its mouth clamped around my sword arm, bit down hard. I brought my fist into the site of its head, imploding its skull, but it didn’t flinch. The demons closed in. The hound’s head shattered apart with another hit. I scrambled back and to my feet again, pried the still clenching jaws off my arm.

A flaming snake shot out and I cut it down in the air.

“Ash!?” I cried out. I couldn’t see him over the crowd.

The door was to my back. The Sentinel somewhere in the storm.

Can’t go back. I had to keep momentum. Can’t stop.

The terrors approached. Countless in number.

Machina – 3.10

We covered the lot in a sprint. Ducked into the open apartment stairwell, through the building. There were only two more structures between us and our goal.

The rain was beating down harder. Fat drops broke against the crown of my head as we moved back out. There was a golden mean between timidness and recklessness. Courage. I wouldn’t have called it courage, though. That wasn’t a term I didn’t associate with.

My sense alerted me to several blue shots coming down from above in a trail of vapor. I turned to block them. Ash got behind me as I did.

The Sentinel was targeting him. He was trying to slow us down.

Keeping a watch on the sky, I needed Ash to guide me. There was water in my eyes, but I could make out the falling blue light. Though one arm was injured and both were tired, I could still block the barrage. He couldn’t beat me.

You’ll need that attitude.

One more apartment building to go.

Ash and I dashed down the hall. Up ahead I could see, back out in the storm, that a line had formed across the parking lot. A colorful lineup of Eidolons. Less than a dozen, but too many. These were the reinforcements they’d conjured to stop us, now standing in our way.

We stopped in the hall’s threshold. Ash fired from the hip once just to confirm my suspicion. A shimmer rested on each one of them. They’d gotten a Shielder.

I backed up a few feet. My mind was racing.

The Sentinel blasted down between us and them.

He held gravitas. “Stand. Down.”

“Never,” I answered. I kept backing up. Had to think of a way out.

We had one chance now. Need to bottleneck them.

“Come on, fuckers!” Ash yelled. He saw what I was doing and followed. He threw down his gun and withdrew a knife covered in hellish symbols.

Someone sent out a black smoke. A curse of death. I cut it down.

“That not going to work!” I shouted to them.

“The longer you wait,” the Sentinel growled, “the tighter the noose gets.”

They would get in more reinforcements. They would get in ships. At any moment, the only reason we had a chance was because of their restraint. He was right. They weren’t falling for it. They were standing in the rain, waiting. They would abstain from a fight and run out my clock.

I was trapped. There was only one path forward.

Into the storm.

“Stay… stay behind me, Ash.” I mustered some confidence.

“You got it.” He knew the odds.

Courage. It was necessary today.

I raised my cleaver up and ran out into the rain.

The Sentinel rocketed out of my way, shouting for them to attack.

A technicolor volley hit me. Every Eidolon threw what they had. Ice, fire, light, electricity, and shadow. But their primitive magic ended at my swords edge. They spaced out and those that had weapons brandished them. The first one came at me with a lance. I knocked up his stab and slid into my own, penetrating his gut and slicing up and out. I came back over into another’s shoulder, cleaving off the arm.

Ash would have to look out for himself.

I was hit with a blast of force. The concrete sprayed up and I went into an Eidolon and tumbling. When I was up, the seven or so remaining fighters were facing me. One had Ash face down under his boot, a sword to the back of his neck.

“I’ll kill your friend,” she warned. “Drop your sword.”

“That one?” I asked. “He’s fucked up, you know?” Quick and dirty plan.

Ash was seamless. “That’s funny, coming from you. I thought you liked men?”

“Sometimes. But don’t tell them the plan!” I shouted.

“What pl-“ The moment she was sufficiently distracted, Ash’s arms reached back, one hand knocking away her sword and the other stabbing her leg. He rolled and she crumpled. The other Eidolons were slow to react to her fall.

I threw my cleaver. It spun wildly through the air and into one of them. I rolled under a fireball and threw out my hand. The intention was clear. There was a momentary delay, but I had power over what was mine.

The blade dislodged and returned to my hand, slashing another across the face as it did. I was close enough now that I cut down the flame Elementalist on coming up. Ash was standing and killed another, stabbing him in the back.

We’d surprised them. The moment they believed they would lose, they had. And that moment came when more than half of them were dead. We’d mowed them down.

The last two ran when we’d gotten the rest.

“Doran!?” Hasami yelled. He was hurt, but he stood tall. He came out of the dark hall with his sword in hand, just now catching up. “You’re killing them,” he pleaded.

I stared back at him. I couldn’t say anything. Couldn’t doubt now. Ash started off without me, forcing me to catch up. We made it through the last building. There was an elevation of concrete and a bit of railing which we easily climbed up to another parking lot.

We’d reached it. The circular base of the space elevator.

We were so close.

O

Porter watched the digital room render. A table in the dark. Of the people still appearing, the first he recognized was Master Wulff. That old guy, Cobb. Ali was notably absent to this impromptu meeting.

The three important Magi had arrived, though. Next came the council.

Nameless ethicists, a few high council members. Everyone exchanged glances, waiting for the meeting to begin. Emergency meetings were supposed to be rapid.

The last one to arrive was a Zenith Council member. A singular man who held more sway than one-third of the rest of the council.

He looked like Santa Claus.

One of the old populists. A vote winner. A Zeitgeist, Porter thought.

On the table, a perfect hologram suddenly appeared. Doran, Porter recognized. Doran and the demon running away from a slew of bodies in a rainy lot.

“The reason for this meeting,” Aku’s monotone voice sounded. “The entities Doran and Ashmedai are on the move and dangerous. Permanent death weapons are in use. The council needs to decide on a course of action. Protocols have failed.”

Throwing Magus at it didn’t work.

“Why don’t we call in drones? Use nanites?” an Ethicist proposed.

“It’s not going to work,” Porter said.

“Truly,” Cobb agreed.

“Doran is using momentum, channeling raw sway. It’s like he’s got armor. You won’t get him with a stray bullet or a drone. He’s fucking with reality’s mechanics. Degrading natural law and strengthening metaphysical ones. Just passively. It’s a titanic ability. There’s no poetic justice in stopping him now,” Porter told them. He crossed his arms. This is what he’d known.

They didn’t know about the Primordial thing. It was about timing.

Wulff narrowed his eyes at him. “You’re proposing they’re impossible to stop?”

Porter didn’t respond.

“We could nuke them,” Wulff tested.

“You won’t and so you can’t,” Porter countered. “Same difference.”

“Gentlemen,” a councilwoman cut in. “We won’t know what measures are appropriate until we know what’s at stake? What is their motivation?”

“That’s my department.” A blond young man had appeared at the table.

“Who are you?” Cobb asked.

Aku enlightened. “Kyle, Magus.”

The young man continued. “Their apparent goal is the space elevator. That will take them up to a platform where they can access older, still functional teleports. Ones which can be manually overridden. Those teleports are short range, however. They could have only one destination in mind.”

“Jesus Christ.” Santa realized what he was saying. “Could he do it?”

Porter knew. “That machete he’s got, it’s called an Ender Blade. We don’t know how to make or break one. But I know what it can do. And the answer is yes. Absolutely.”

Kyle jumped in. “But Doran thinks he’s doing whatever he is for good reasons,” he said. “His determination is driven by conviction… And desperation.”

“Can we dismantle the lunar teleports?” Santa asked.

“I’ve cut power to both them and the elevator,” Aku informed.

Porter grimaced.

“Deploy me,” Wulff suggested. “I can control the outcome of this situation. Losing doesn’t need to be an option.”

“I vote so,” Santa agreed. The other council members were redundant. He represented such a large number of people, they couldn’t altogether overpower him.

“Why not take out the space elevator?” The same Ethicist from earlier.

A little trigger happy.

Porter told him, “it may not be staffed anymore, but if the elevator falls, it’ll wrap around the earth. The reason it’s still there is because it’s so hard to dismantle.”

“The ends justify-”

Porter cut him off. “It doesn’t matter.” None of them understood. This wasn’t about them. The Utopians were just collateral damage in all this. In an ageless machination.

He was going to get the hell out of here.

The meeting was adjourned. He was standing alone in his own apartment again. The curtains were drawn, the sound of pouring water the only thing that reached him inside. Slowly, his expression hardened. That calamity he’d wanted?

He was grimly awaiting.

They can’t see. He thought about what had to happen. The timing was now, they shouldn’t avert this thing. Utopians were arrogant in thinking they were bigger than what was going on now. He never believed in the Cause. The Omniverse was too big to make a difference in. They were complacent idiots. Mistaking outer strength for inner.

Utopians didn’t get it. Everything was going to break at the weak spot. Doran was their only hope for survival and they were trying to kill him.

Porter was out the door. He had to get to the Monastery fast.

Machina – 3.09

I’d blacked out for a moment, going limp.

Relativity, I thought. Assert one reality over another.

I’d locked into Sebastian’s eyes. A trick learned from demons. And when he looked up, with Ash holding tight onto my back, we’d accelerated at breakneck speeds. Traveling with his line of sight, letting go at the peak, we’d sailed high through the rain.

I can fly. Absolutely loved that trick.

What goes up. Not the last bit.

In the air, Ash manipulated me around. I was lightheaded, couldn’t think straight. Our arc would be harsh, our landing harsher, I knew. Suddenly, though, I understood what Ash had done. When we hit the roof of the first apartment building, I landed with him beneath me.

I rolled off onto the pebbled roof, knocking over a folding lawn chair. Somewhere distant a woman yelled. Ash was pulling his limbs back into place beside me and swearing. A brief coughing fit hit me as I stood over him. I was getting over the impact, limping a little, as I looked back over the building’s edge. The silver man, the Sentinel, jumped. Thrusters on his back spewed out red hot air, misting the asphalt with his ascension. He was seconds away.

Ash was barely up, his form still distorted. The entrance into the stairwell was almost a hundred feet off across the roof. That wouldn’t cut it.

My cleaver quickly in hand, I cut easily through the ground beneath us. Sparks erupted as I cut through powerlines and the roof caved in. We dropped through just as the Sentinel hit.

It was almost a dozen feet to the floor where I hit my knees and then side. The silver guy leaned into our hole, ready to jump down. I had a hunch about him.

I raised my blade up at him and he ducked back like I was about to fire something. Suspicion confirmed. I got to my feet with Ash and looked for a door.

He’s a Magi. Attuned enough to know to be afraid of this thing.

Ash opened the apartment’s door and held it open for me. He followed just after me, throwing one of his knives back as the door closed behind us. I caught a glimpse of it bouncing off the metal man’s head.

He’s not going to flinch at anything Ash can do.

In the hall, I could see both the stairwells at hall’s ends and the elevator.

“Can’t touch the suited fuck,” Ash quickly said. “There’s thirty heartbeats in the building. Shields for us.” He chose the direction for us, darting for the stairwell.

He’s right. The Sentinel can’t let loose. Collateral damage.

I’d seen him take out a building in the war games, I remembered. Overkill.

Ash jumped the first stairs, knocking into the rail at the bottom and then flying the next flight. I hopped the first like him but had to dive down the next.

The sentinel dropped and stopped just beyond the railing, hovering in the air past it, over the parking lot, his armor seeping with blue light. It opened for only an instant, flashing a rune on his dark-skinned chest. The magic hit me as I hit the third floor.

I tried to stand but stumbled. A sleeping spell wrapped around my neck like a millstone, pulling my face into the concrete.

My eyes were blurry, but I could see Ash with his gun up and firing at the Sentinel.

Shake it off.

Ash’s eyes widened. I knew his attack was useless.

I was vulnerable. The Sentinel was going to kill me.

My cleaver cut through a blast of energy as I rolled over, dissipating it. The Sentinel fired another, larger blast. I slashed it again, letting the crackling plasma roll off me.

“Fuck,” I groaned. I rolled behind the descending stairs as more shots hit. His shots were breaking against the concrete. They weren’t breaking through?

May be using nonlethal. I doubted it.

“Stay behind me,” I told Ash.

I was heavy on my feet, but we managed to back up down the hall with me blocking the Sentinel’s barrage.  When we got close enough to the other end of the hall and the other stairs, he boosted out of sight. He knew, he had to either get the jump on us or throw something too big to block. Right now, we were managing both his options. Good.

“Yo, faggot!” Ash fired at the stairwell after catching a glimpse of Kendall coming up.

Right. There was more than just a Sentinel, too.

Deal with it.

“Advance!” I commanded Ash.

He hurdled the stair’s railings, landing at the very base to open fire. I followed, dropping down behind him. Wind and rain washed against the back of my neck. As I came down Kendall kicked in an apartment door and escaped Ash’s shots. Black fluid dotted his path.

I was yanked backward by something amorphous wrapped around my left leg, pulling me down the stairs. Dragging my on my belly to the ground, hoisting me up, then slamming me down. I couldn’t see what it was whipping me around. I was pulled by my leg, bound to an axis and spun three hundred sixty degrees right back around into the apartment building’s walls. I was just fast enough to spin my sword and sever the line at my foot.

I scrambled to my feet, baring my teeth. I clutched my free arm to my chest. It’d taken the walls impact. It didn’t feel right.

The red substance which had grabbed ahold of my leg turned to dust when severed. The nanites dead. The line returned to the one who’d sent it.

A non-distinct Eidolon and beside him, Hasami. Both wore helmets, but I recognized the handcrafted katana he’d half drawn from its sheath.

“Hasami,” I said. “I can sense your hesitation.” The other Eidolon, I sensed anger. “Listen-”

“I want to listen.” He fully sheathed his sword, raised his hands. “But you must stop.” He stepped closer, keeping both hands raised.

“He can’t,” the other one spoke. A male voice. “What are you trying, Doran?”

They couldn’t know that. It would make things worse.

Where the fuck was Ash? I could hear him firing. I could hear the Sentinel’s thrusters too.

I moved my injured arm just enough to check the time. The watch was cracked. Dead.

It didn’t matter anymore. They’d caught up to us. There was no subversion or hiding left to do, only people left in my way. I had to keep fighting. Keep momentum.

I sprinted for Hasami and covered the distance before he could reach down to draw his sword. I jumped to kick him in the chest. He tumbled back and skid into a car.

The other Eidolon fired out a spike of red nanites from his hand, which I cut down.

“Symbolic resonances,” he said to me. The nanites formed a sword. He stepped forward and my blade clashed with his, not going through. He was smart.

He knew, a sword against another sword meant more than just nanites.

Our weapons unlocked when Ash shot him in the head. He crumpled with holes in his helmet. “Kendall’s slipped me,” he told me.

I asked him as we ran for the next building. “You went after him?”

“I hit him a couple times, almost had the fucker.”

We ducked into the next apartment’s center hall. “He’s not mortal, Ash. Don’t get distracted again.” I ordered him.

He didn’t like it, but he listened. “Fine.”

My foot flew out from under me.

Motherfu-

I was pulled quickly out the mouth of the hall and thrown through the air. I landed on the roof of a car and rolled off behind it. I could see the Eidolons feet through the gap underneath. Fuck this guy.

“Tumble!” I smacked the car with my palm.

It rolled violently over the Eidolon, crushing him in a flurry of glass.

Didn’t you already get shot?

That didn’t stop him. He was up again, blue blood spilling out the holes in his head.

An avatar of some kind. Remotely controlled.

“I know what that thing can do!” he yelled, pointing at my cleaver. “I’ve seen it. I-… Wasn’t going to be risking that.”

I tasted blood. One of my teeth was loose.

“Not what you wanted to see, though.” I could read him like a book. I could see his soul. “You lost someone to the cleaver. You wanted to see what the element was, get close enough to know. Now you know… She’s gone.”

Hasami pulled himself up from beside the car across the street, drew his Katana.

“Ash!” I called.

The hall where he’d been was unnaturally blackened. Sound didn’t escape.

Kendall. Ash’s not coming.

“Closure,” the Eidolon muttered, angry. He reformed the red sword in his hand.

“Two on one, then.” I grit my teeth and stretched out my injured arm. I’d need it.

“Stand down,” Hasami warned me.

“Never.”

The Eidolon lunged. I met his sword with mine, slid under it and cut through his arm. I weaved around him and kicked him in the back, moving for Hasami.

Hasami swung twice at once, simultaneously deflecting my slice and stabbing. I twisted around the stab and swung my cleaver around for his face. He barely formed a ghostly katana quick enough to block. He took several steps back and I sensed the Eidolon running up behind me. I parried his first strike and his second, having to alternate as Hasami tried to come at my undefended side.

I was dealing with a flurry of attacks from both sides. I couldn’t keep it up.

I had to slip close to the Eidolon the next time I deflected him. He had no hand to stop me from ramming into his chest, nor balance to save himself from falling. The moment he hit the ground, I chucked my cleaver into his chest.

Hasami came at me with four coexistent swings, filling up his max reach. I jumped backward, away from my weapon. I hit the ground and scrambled.

Hasami leaped and brought his sword down.

From the Eidolon’s chest, my cleaver dislodged and flew to stop his attack. It landed in my grip, caught in both hands, letting his strike hit the flat side.

Finally, I kicked him from me and he sprawled.

I picked my head up to see. He wasn’t ready to get up. Hasami was completely mortal. That fall had knocked the wind out of him.

“Ugh.” I let my head drop, let a sigh out. Breathe. I rolled over onto my stomach, got my arms under me to stand.

The Sentinel dropped out of the sky and landed beside Hasami on the ground. His suit thrummed with energy, but he wasn’t attacking. He was protecting.

I backed away towards the hall. The darkness had lifted and Ash wasn’t there. I ran through, looking into the open apartment doors. I came out the other side.

“Doran,” he said. He was on a knee in the grass just there. His rifle up, aiming at the apartment windows all around. “He can fucking teleport.”

“Ash!” He was fixated.

“What?” he snapped.

“We’re close. Ignore him.”

“He’s taunting me.” I grimaced at him. He changed subject. “There’s new heartbeats,” he said, getting up. He kept his eyes on the balconies. “New heartbeats. They’re not running. They’re comin’ in. Reinforcements.”

“It’s a mad dash, now. Come on!”

Machina – 3.08

Ali threw the blanket in his hands and it billowed out. The black shape stopped falling and it hung in the air. Ash let off a few rounds, but I knew they’d not penetrated. The bullets had been caught in the effect he’d placed on the cloth.

I remembered. Chronomancy.

“Last time I saw you die won’t be like this time,” I warned. “Run, Ali.”

His hand briefly showed from behind his barrier, the fingers posed, the movement fluid while sweeping across. It was a motion casting, a physical ritual. I could see the power gathering around him, the anticipation of a command.

I marched forward with my rusted cleaver, Ash staying back.

“Stop!” I ordered him.

There was a brief hesitation, but the spell climaxed. A resonation which formed a field over the alley. Immediately I knew what it might be, and as I looked at my watch ticking minutes as seconds, I was sure. The sun behind me began to inch forward faster.

I’d reached the blanket in the air and stabbed into it. With the spell, it cracked apart, falling as tatters. Ali wasn’t behind it, though. In fact, I saw that he was behind Ash.

Hate that trick.

Ash was frozen in space with a touch. He’d been slowed down so quickly that his startled turn would take him days. And Ali was ready to do the same to me.

I’d fought the Grand Chronomancer, Sosias, the heaven’s rearranger. I could face this practitioner. Utopian magic was in its infancy.

With four quick slashes, the concrete was marked with a diamond around me. Ali entered back into time right in front of me, frowning at the protection I’d made.

“How did you imbue it so quickly?” he asked, genuinely interested.

“How did you find us so quickly?” I’d give one to get one.

I resisted checking my watch. I could hear its rapid ticking.

Ali nodded at my return question. “I can’t manipulate causality, not like Wulff and his disciples. I change time.” He spoke energetically with his hands as well as his words. A side effect of casting with them, I thought. “I used time travel to search the city. I’m in many places this morning, but only the path in which I find you is kept.”

I chanced a look down at my watch as he finished.

It was bad.

I spoke rapidly. “The element of the blade is absolute. The intention of a border is obvious. The metaphysical command is clear.”

“What is so absolute?” he wondered. “I can’t sense anything?”

I didn’t answer. I lashed out, severing one of his hands. His reaction speed wasn’t fast enough and wasn’t enhanced by his super speed. He was caught off guard.

His hand hit the ground as he staggered back. Ali hit his back and scrambled away. He was on his feet and several yards back in an instant. I stepped forward and slashed many more times at the ground, etching out three more diamonds and a larger one overall. Expanding territory. I had to get to Ash. Time was running out. I could build towards him. He wasn’t too far.

Ali was on his feet and his body was a blur acting out a spell. I realized that he was using his magic to enhance itself, which was an absolutely bullshit tactic. He was slowed, though, by his missing hand. He bravely fought through with his will, but couldn’t compensate in his rituals which needed to involve both hands. He was trying to alter them on the fly, but he was losing blood incredibly fast.

I drew my automatic pistol and rattled its short store of ammo off.

Ali was peppered and stumbled back once more, this time into the alley wall. His greying face was shocked. He ripped at the dirty shirt he’d wore to see that his Eidolon body suit had stopped the bullets. It dawned on his face as he clutched his stump, that he was about to die if he didn’t do something. His gaze was cast down the alley.

If he escaped, they would know exactly where we were.

We’d have no chance of evading them for long enough. If we still did.

Ali signed with his remaining hand and the temporal field over us dropped.

He tried to stand and slipped on the concrete which was instantly wet. Rain appeared all around us, rushing in, and the sky greyed nearly to black when the effect ended. A storm had arrived.

He fought to his feet and was about to disappear. Flee.

I slammed my cleaver into the center of the four-part diamond. “Die,” I said. The command was clear, the power beyond necessary.

Ali gasped for breath. He slipped again into a puddle, clutching his arm. He lay very still, only his eyelids fluttering. I stepped out of my diamond protection.

That was what I was capable of. He’d felt the force of a determination trillions of years old. The sheer momentum I was carrying.

Freeze tag. Ash was still stuck.

I went and touched him, killing the effect. He whipped around for just a second before realizing what had happened. He grimaced.

“Fucker got me,” he said.

“I got him, don’t worry.” I checked my watch again. It was past twelve. “Dammit.”

“He ate our time? Can we make it?” Ash asked.

I looked down the alley. “No. We’re going to encounter Kendall. I can sense it. Everything is gathering in front of us. It’s the last trial. They’ll be an army to face.”

“Just you and me, yeah, against all of them. That’s abulous.”

I took off my jacket first, shrugged off my shoulder holsters, then put it back on. No ammo left for my pistols anyway. I had my own weapon. A personal connection.

“They’ll try to stop us, but we’ve got all the weight behind us. Even Christopher wants us moving forward. The bastard has us in line for now. But even with all that, Ash, there’s only so much that armor can do for us. Against Kendall… Hasami, I sense. And possibly the whole Guild? We’ll see.”

“I guess we will,” he smirked.

“Come on.”

O

The rain was beating down on us. Droplets gathered on my watch-face in the shadow of my body. 12:50. The light above was muted. The alleys boxing us in. The sight of the elevator was muddled in the clouds, but I could still make it out. Getting lost was not a concern.

What was a concern; our enemies discovering our destination.

I couldn’t properly shroud the body of Ali, and I suspected he had a failsafe in place. They will have known we made our way past the church. Our direction might be inferred.

They’ll be trying to quarantine the area, at this point. Create a search grid.

“They’re on our trail. The shroud, it’s keeping us unnoticed. Why don’t they just flood the city with drones?” Ash asked as we ran.

“Shrouds are effective against Aku because their attention is too spread out. They’re incapable of focus, as a single soul which occupies so much space. I can play on that. Create blind-spots.”

Ash wasn’t breathing as he went, whereas I was huffing raggedly. I forgot sometimes that he didn’t exert. Wasn’t alive.

“And we can’t just metaphysic our way to get where we’re going… fastly. That’d be too easy.” Ash was still smiling.

“If you ascribe to the notion… We kind of already are… Reality is a shadow in a cave… Magic is just a feedback technique, leveraging rules. What we’re doing now is magic.

Elements in battle. Good and evil, some times. Not today.

“I don’t really care, bud.”

We took a flight of steps, Ash following my lead, up onto street level. With the rain and chaos, there was no one really on the street. A few figures under black umbrellas sat around.

One of them, I sensed, wasn’t human. A watcher.

I didn’t have time to care about that. They were passive observers. Numbered around eight, but I couldn’t quite tell. Only one was manifest. His blue eyes visible beneath his umbrella, across the park on a bench. The wet grass vibrant between us.

“Creepy,” Ash commented. He’d spotted it too.

“They’re important,” I replied. “But not to us.”

Just past a row of apartment buildings, the very base of the elevator was hidden. Less than a mile, now. We could make it.

There was only a parking lot between us and the densely packed three to four story buildings ahead. We ran under the unpowered lot lights, nearing them.

From up above he sounded, “Doran, this is law enforcement!”

No. We were too close.

The silver man landed in our way. I quickly glanced back and Kendall was there with Hasami and another at his sides. They emerged from the same alley stairs we had. Three behind and one ahead.

The silver man approached. “Listen,” he spoke.

“No-” we were boxed in. Too much open space to my left and right. They could encircle us. “-How’d you do it? You tracked us to Ali?” His body was solid, his face was hidden. He had stopped moving and listened now, the rain pouring down. I looked back to Kendall. “You guessed our path by the only landmark in its way?” His face gave it away.

“That’s a yes,” Ash saw it as well.

“It doesn’t matter,” the silver man continued. “You’re done.”

He was right. It didn’t matter. The situation is what it is.

Ash spat at the ground.

The silver man began to approach again. He was a few dozen feet off. His voice boomed. “There’s nowhere for you to go. You’re coming in. Now.

I put out a hand. He did slow for a second, thinking I might have cast a spell, but quickly started again. Ash at my side met my eyes, expectantly.

Closing in. I couldn’t go around. I couldn’t teleport us. The silver man could fly, Kendall was fast. I couldn’t possibly fight them all, not in the open like this. I sensed the firepower the silver one could level. There wasn’t a way out. I couldn’t fucking fly.

Oh. Oh! Yes.

“You’ve got an idea?” Ash saw the look on my face.

“Get behind me. Grab on when its time.” He understood, putting myself between him and the silver guy. I set my feet, drawing out my hands and hardening every muscle. I stood strong and addressed the silver Sentinel. “See me,” I ordered him. Then again, “see me!”

He stepped cautiously, raising a hand which blue light billowed out from.

Watch this.

I put on a grin and looked right up at the sky. The silver man, who had before had his vision locked on me, followed my line of sight. Ash jumped on my back. I tensed up.

Then, I flew.

 

Machina – 3.07

We’d been jogging for a while, over bridges, and down alleys, on our way to the elevator. The entire city was made for easy transport, with compression tunnels and teleporters, but we couldn’t use those. There were several miles between us and our destination, and no shortcut to help us.

I could see the vertical black line in the sky growing closer. We were so many levels down that the sight would come and go behind towering buildings.

The space elevator’s base was its own structure, wide and tall. It was out of commission now but had once been used as the loading and storage for the platforms above. Because of new technology, they no longer used the elevator or platforms for space operations.

I was looking for something else, though. In the same general direction.

“What are we doing?” Ash asked, noticing my distractedness.

“It’s important,” was my reply. “Trust me.”

“Meaning I wouldn’t think it’s important.”

Tucked between two massive slabs of concrete foundation, built out of old wood into what used to be an empty alley, was a hovel marked by a wooden cross.

“Religion,” he said. “Not important.

“Your mortal enemy?”

“All the cool demons are atheists.”

I stepped up to the cloth door. “Does that mean you can come in?”

“I’d combust, so no. This is a massive waste of time.”

“It’s more helpful than you know.”

“The whole universe is at stake and you-”

This is a waste of time,” I cut him off. I knew what I was doing.

“Listen, you fucko-“

I stepped inside.

I’m appealing to God’s sensibilities.

It was a single room in the church. No seats, concrete floor, and walls covered in poorly hand-painted art. Depictions of lambs, infants, and the crucifixion. Faceless figures with wings spread out. The back wall was wood, the roof was a tarp strung out between it and the front. On the floor wrapped in blankets was a sleeping bearded man. At the back, sitting surrounded by lit candles was the shepherd. On his lap, he flipped through delicate gold-rimmed pages of the Bible.

I came to kneel before the alter, which was a platform of old carpet.

With the candles, that was a fire hazard, I absently thought.

I again felt disconnected. My vision subtly vibrated, the candles left streaks and spots on my sight. My mind was pulled to the quiet drip of water running off the wood somewhere behind me. My mind wouldn’t sharpen.

The pastor in front of me looked like he was surrounded by fire in my unfocused eyes.

I rubbed at my face, shook my head.

The idea of God right now didn’t help me calm or feel the present. All the religion on the walls, the building itself seemed to demand thought. Commanding self-awareness. Know thy sins, is what they shouted.

The snowy white haired Pastor, his old eyes crinkling, asked me, “Why’re you here?”

Too complicated a question. “Why are you,” I returned the question. “Down on the street, I mean. There’s no excuse for homelessness in this society.”

“There’s no excuse for me, either, then. There’s no such thing as charity anymore. You’ll find no love of God in the churches above, you’ll see,” he told me, flatly.

“That’s a bitter thought,” I responded.

“What devotion.” He closed his bible. “What devotion is there from people who have everything and give nothing? With no consequence for actions, they’ve been rendered amoral.”

“You’re an ascetic.”

He was wearing circular reading glasses before, but took them off, setting them aside on the leather hide bible. It had a place on the shelf behind him. “I won a court case,” he told me. “They ruled that it was within my rights to treat myself this poorly. You know that? But I used to have a wife. She left me when she realized what I knew from the day they first tried to haul me away.”

“What’s that?”

He pointed over my shoulder. I looked back and saw what he was indicating. The painting of a tiny infant curling up, hiding its face from me.

“They would keep them from me,” he said. “I wouldn’t be allowed.”

“All Utopians are sterile,” I stated. Universal artificial selection, I recalled.

“Yes, but it was more than that. I didn’t have a right to disseminate false information. There’s no example I can set, no message I can preach when kept hidden. Utopians have one point of nondebate, that. The thing that drew us all together. I’m an old man, I’ve seen what it was like before their grip was complete. But now? Their Utilitarianism is absolute.”

“What happened?”

“It was Cultural Supremacists, that’s what the opposition called Utopians. A long time back, now. That’s a word my father taught me. They started out making women barren, poisoning the water, using drones. A tiny sect of terrorists with just a handful of brilliant men in their ranks. They played a long game. And in one generation… they had won. My grandfather saw it.”

“Culture? Yet religion survived?”

“It wasn’t about beliefs or science. It was about the future. And after that world war three, it seemed like there might not be one. They played on people’s fears.”

With how quickly he talked, more emotion on his face, I could see why he was here.

The old man, sterile and alone, had been put where he couldn’t be heard.

He continued. “-Everyone was so shocked when they heard it. Something they’d been hearing their entire life. Whether Christian or Muslim, they’d heard it. Heard it prophesied and preached. It lingered with them until finally… finally, someone outside the pew fed it to them. The idea religion had from the start. They heard it.”

“What idea?”

He leaned in close, conspiratorially. “One people.

That’s it. “…I see.” I checked my watch. 10:55.

“So… so here we are,” he trailed off. “No them, just us. All the them are dead.” He smiled for a moment at his wittiness, then grimaced.

I wasn’t sure if I’d been hoping for advice. But somehow, I was let down.

There was nothing this man could teach me. I don’t know what I had expected.

He was just an old man with a belief. This was just a hovel beneath a vain city.

10:56, I compulsively checked.

“I’m… I’m going to take a moment,” I told him.

“Of course,” he made a serious face, nodding, then reached back for his book and glasses.

I looked up to the angel drawn over him and the candles. Protection.

God was a complicated notion. But here, now, he was watching. He was writing my story. With the end fast approaching, begging wasn’t out of the question.

No.

No. Fuck me.

I was the Pilgrim, the Stranger. I wouldn’t kneel to a false God, even if they were mine. I didn’t belong here, playing to a sick joke. I would stop this nightmare.

I’d been so conflicted, confused, that I’d come here. I’d begged, in the beginning, not to be faced with this challenge. I wanted to be someone else. I’d lied to myself.

I was done. I knew, now. I knew who I was. I’d had a million faces, countless lives and deaths. I’d dreamed that I was happy, brilliant. But I was incomplete.

I’m here, in this low place. Created imperfect.

I stood slowly. A little dizzy. I rubbed at my eyes. They were sore, damp.

Finally, I had hope and a resolve. That’s what I’d found.

You’ll be complete, I heard the promise. Complete your work.

Exiting the church, Ash was outside leaning against the wall on the other side of the alley.

I had needed a moment. A moment I didn’t have. But I had needed it all the same. “Wasn’t a waste of time,” I chastised him. 11:04.

“Woop de dooooooooooooo.” He pushed off to start walking.

I caught up with him and patted him on the back.

Ash was the only one who’d stayed by me. I smiled.

“Thanks,” I said. He knew what I was thanking him for.

“Just once, Doran. I’ll let you think I’m your friend.” He half-grinned back at me.

Suddenly, I looked back over my arm, dropping it from his shoulder and turning around. Ash stopped to see what had made me stop.

With a blanket wrapped around him, black hair fallen over his long dark face, the man stared back at us down the alley. A perplexed look marked his face.

I narrowed my eyes. They quickly widened with recognition.

“Oh, hey. Shit.” Ash saw it too.

Ali. Master Ali.

He took the blanket off his shoulders and held it in his hands. His gaze locked on the gun in Ash’s. A voice I recognized better carried to us. “Two demons to church?”

To speak to God on his own terms, we must know him.

Ali had said that once. Now the memory returned with perfect clarity.

Purpose overwhelmed. Nothing could stop me. And I could see by the look hardening in his eyes that Ali was about to try. A few seconds passed as he waited on us to say something, do anything. Ash was ready to shoot. One second away.

Shadows leapt from the alley’s corners, nothing drawing together in my hand to form the rusted blade. Its weight in my hand was a declaration. It’s abstract force causing the buildings around us to groan and resettle, a wind ripping towards me into the steel’s vacuum.

It solidified in my grip. A sword unsheathed.

A declaration of war.

Machina – 3.05

With haste, Ash and I crossed the street to the police station. At the front, it was me who pushed the plywood aside. Into the building and I knew instantly. In the murk of that place, there was only dust. Odessa wasn’t here.

“She’s gone,” Ash stated.

“Yes. She’s gone.”

She’s been gone for a long time.

Kendall. She must have went looking for him. I knew how that would end. I could only hope she hadn’t been taken alive, as horrible as that was. I hoped it was quick.

I pinched the bridge of my nose, hanging my head, taking a moment.

People had begun to die.

“Time to go, Doran.”

I quickly rotated my wrist around to show the time. 8:03.

“Give me a moment.”

“We haven’t got one of those. What’s the plan?”

“It’s…” I looked up and around. Ash was lingering by the door. “Find Christopher. Kill him… He’ll have been summoned to the court along with Kendall. If Odessa hasn’t changed things, he should be waiting for us there.”

“If he was where Kendall is, he ain’t there anymore.”

“You mentioned…” I tried to recall the plans. We’d had months to work this out. “You said you considered escape for a long time, you learned.”

Ash knew my thinking. “I got into the emergency protocols, yeah. If he’s not there in one of two,” he held up his fingers, “count em, two courts, two cities, then they’ll move to the council’s voting chamber. Giant parliament type building. Increased security. In city one.”

Fantastic.

“Then that’s where we go.”

We were out the door. I could sense now that the shroud I’d cast on Odessa was broken. She was predictable. It was the last thing that had been on her fading mind that she would pursue. Her honor. And who had taken it from her.

The plan was still in hand. Christopher would be forced out of hiding by his summons.

The worst-case scenario could still be avoided.

O

I checked my watch again. 9:29.

People on the street would pass us without a second glance. Ash, armed to the teeth, both of us in grimy suits. They simply didn’t notice.

It was Sunday, I’d seen. There were bulletins all around, holographic street signs and directories. Most were in church so we had the roads to ourselves. We were closing in, now.

Up ahead, past a useless parking lot, was the massive stadium.

Ash led the way across the expanse of concrete. What few people out had vanished. That was convenient for us but troubling. I didn’t want collateral damage, but I was expecting more. Perhaps some were already in hiding?

The council would have advised them to stay indoors, I hoped.

Ash reached the glass doors and held them open. I entered past him, pulling one pistol from its place, arming myself. The lobby was empty.

“How do you want to enter?” he asked.

“Fire off a few shots, but if you see Christopher, fire at him first,” I answered.

Ash nodded. He was the superior shot, so he rushed past me to the heavy wooden door which marked the stadium’s entrance, resting against them.

“Here we go,” he smirked.

Ash pushed open the door with his body and raised the gun.

Blast shields raised on the glass behind us.

He opened fire.

“It’s a trap!” I shouted.

Ash rattled off shots still. “Forward!” he ordered me, stepping through his door. I followed.

Into the stadium, Ash blazed away at the dozens of androids which sent a volley of red bolts our way. I ducked down behind the seats with the wall behind me turning to slag. Not able to look, Ash and I moved low leftward around the stadium.

Had to circle around, try to find a way out.

“The fuck happened?!” he demanded.

“Porter didn’t come through.” It had to be. Without Porter to implicate Christopher, he was still in the game. He would be predicting every step.

He wants to force us. Not to kill us.

We can’t let him win. I won’t give him the chance.

“There!” We were nearing the back of the stadium; an emergency exit was ahead. With no cover between the seats and the exit, though, Ash had to give me an opening.

He came up and fired, I made my dash.

As I ran, I looked. Christopher was standing at the lowest point of the stadium, behind a shield, directing the androids. We made eye contact over the long distance for a moment.

I saw that pleasant smile.

I hit the exit and pushed through, breaking the lock. I turned back and aimed. My little pistol buzzed with automatic fire, eating its ammunition. I could only hit two androids.

Ash ran the gap, red lighting the air around him. He fell through the open exit door.

I closed it and looked to him. “Are you alright?”

He checked and on his side the armor had melted away. His skin had healed back, though, and he was left without clothes there. “I can take a lick, son.”

The exit came out onto a ramp which descended to a hall that circled behind the building, small windows running the hall’s length. A person came around the corner.

They were wearing brown cloaks, their hood back. The guy, stopping in his tracks as he saw us, threw up a hand. Lightning arched out.

I pelted him with bullets, spraying up a mist of blood. He twisted and fell.

I replaced the empty clip. “There’s Magus in the building,” I said.

“Really?!” Ash asked, astounded. Smartass.

At the bottom of the ramp, I checked the Magi. He was a young red haired man. He was dead, but I didn’t have time to think about that. It wasn’t a first.

“Left again,” I pointed. We didn’t want to go towards Christopher.

All we needed was a window wide enough to fit through.

We sprinted for a long way. 9:43, I checked, in motion.

The hallway ended on double doors. I kicked them open wide, shattering the lock.

Ahead in the kitchen, every android turned and fired.

I planted my feet and bellowed, “Leap!

With that command, the stoves, the counters, and everything jumped. A storm of objects intercepted their shots. Huge pieces of metal throwing themselves across the room, colliding and crashing. For a moment, the entire kitchen tossed violently.

In an instant, though, it settled. The surviving androids dug themselves out.

Ash fired at the ones he saw. He took a shot in his left shoulder, bone vaporizing, one arm falling, but not dropping his gun. Finally, he finished them up.

When I looked at him, the joint had reformed. “Only a flesh wound.”

We climbed over the wreckage and made it to the room’s other side, Ash’s arm fast returning. The passage there opened into a loading bay. The large descending bay doors were up.

From around one of the trucks parked there, another Magi appeared. This time a woman, she threw back her hood. Her determined eyes narrowed.

Ash didn’t hesitate. He fired on empty air.

What?

He was propelled across the room, denting and bouncing off the side of a truck. I whipped around and there she was, lowering her leg from a kick. No gun in hand, I jumped onto one foot, bringing my other leg around. She caught it beneath her arm, quickly punching me in the kneecap.

I cried out as it nearly broke.

I jumped up, hooking my foot on the side of her neck and swinging. She was thrown to the ground. I rolled back, away and onto my feet. She vanished off the ground.

Behind you.

I elbowed where I thought she was and missed. Somehow, she’d put a delay on her reappearance, and came back where I had been facing. She clocked me behind the ear, sprawling me.

With me out of the way, Ash fired. The girl was thrown back.

I stood up and looked at her. Her cloak had grabbed one bullet by the collar bone, but the other had struck her face. She was dead.

“Fuck me!” Ash yelled.

He was on the ground by the loading bay’s doors, his legs twisted. He’d pulled himself up just enough to fire, but couldn’t stand. I could hear the bones crackle as they knit.

“You need a moment?”

He got up, standing crooked. “No, do you?”

We started slow and picked up speed as he healed. We came out onto a shipping road, highways above, faceless buildings to the side. A black alley.

We took that alley and ran. We got ourselves lost as fast as possible.

I slowed for only a moment to check my watch. 10:13.

Taking the break, Ash stopped me from continuing.

“Where are we going, boy? What’s the plan now?

“We-“ I gathered my breath, “…I was wrong. Porter didn’t force Christopher in, so there’s no inquiry, no time waster, no vulnerability. Kendall will get dispensation and help to come after us now. We’re fucked up, Ashley. I fucked us up with Porter. I tried to smoke Christopher out with him, an inquiry. But he turned that back on us. With Kendall applying pressure, we can’t just go into hiding. We can’t wait for Christopher to show his belly. We have to toss the board.”

“How do we do that?”

I pointed up, through a gap in the skyline, to a line piercing the atmosphere. “The only thing left is a mad dash. The space elevator. Christopher won’t fight us. We’re going to make it. We can make it there.”

Then, to the moon.

God help me.