No Heroes

III – Full Stop

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… These machines therefore run, without complaint or dissention, down the same track for their entire existence, doing only what they know, every action perfectly predictable. Better then to be a man, free of choice, free of thought and free of restraint! The machine is an aberration to the human spirit. When I explained this to the foreman he predictably failed to grasp the notion…

- Prince Bevard of Enton, a Treatise on Dwarves

 

Detective Horne was clearing out the drawers of his desk. Several piles of folders en paper adorned his desk, crowding the phone, the monitor and the little plant he was unsuccessfully caring for. His keyboard lay on the floor. In theory nearly everything could be done with the stone age program on the computer, but Horne was born old-fashioned that way. He liked the tangibility of paper.

      The job frustrated him. Nearly every file, every piece of paper on the Delao case lay before him. Eight months of solid work. Eight months of work down the drain since the court hearing yesterday – not that it mattered that much; he should be out there after yesterday! He had barely slept at all. First the car had to be inspected, documented and towed to the garage, and even then he could not sleep for the adrenaline in his body. The little projector in the back of his head kept running past the same memory of the rows of teeth inches away from his face. He felt exhausted and angry and anxious all at the same time. He should be looking for Ferrick.

      He lifted the last stack of folders out of his drawer and dumped them on the others. These were probably going to need a little sorting.

      “Frrranklinnn.”

      Franklin put on his professional face and looked up into the mustached, puffy face of Bob Farway.

      “Bob,” he said.

      “I’m here for some information,” Bob said, inviting himself to a nearby desk, sitting down on the empty chair and swiveling it towards Franklin. He set down his paper cup of coffee on the desk  and leaned back nonchalantly.

      “Daleo case?” Franklin said. “I’m working on that.”

      Bob rubbed his mustache.

      “Nnnno, not that.”

      Franklin had held a mild dislike towards Bob for a number of years now. Bob had been there when Franklin had been made detective. Bob had always been there, with his little failure of a mustache, his bloated body and the perpetual paper coffee cup glued to his hand. You could tell where Bob had been by the little coffee rings on the surfaces, and while Franklin had never directly worked with him, he suspected that Bob was one of those people who was especially good at looking like he was working. It was as if the positive results of other people’s efforts automatically clung to him as if attracted by a strange sort of gravity. Franklin wasn’t sure what Bob actually did.

      “Well?” he said.

      Bob picked up his coffee, took a sip, and put it back down.

      “I hear you got in a bit of an incident last night,” Bob said.

      “Yyyeah, bit of an incident,” Franklin said, sneering at the euphemism.

      “Care to fill me in?” Bob asked.

      Franklin sighed. His brain felt like it was running on fumes.

      “Look, Bob, I’m a bit busy…”

      “Okay, okay,” said Bob. “I’m investigating the matter, see.”

      Franklin stared at him. Bob was investigating the matter? Bob!?

      “Well, erm,” he said, trying hard for detached neutrality. “What do you want to know?”

      “You saw a man fall from an undetermined height on Brunswick Avenue, correct?” Bob said. “What.. Do you remember happening afterwards?”

      “Well, I ran towards him. He’d fallen into a car and he looked like he’d be pretty broken. So I kept an eye on him and waited for the ambulance. Pete did crowd control. It’s in my report.”

      Bob ignored the last remark.

      “And he was taken to the hospital, and then what?”

      “‘Then what’ what?” Franklin was getting irritable.

      “Can you tell me what happened there?”

      “Can you be more specific?”

      “Can you just… Summarize?”

      “Bob, did you read my report?”

      Bob looked uncomfortable.

      “Right,” Franklin said. He turned back to his folders. “Can you come back after you read it?”

      “Frank,” Bob said with a nervous and insincere grin, “I only want—”

      “Bob, please!” Franklin burst out. “Last night a giant beast wrecked my car, nearly bit my face off and flew off. I barely slept, my car’s in the garage and I have things to do. Just read the damn report!”

      An eerie silence descended on the conversation, one that became all too audible due to the subtle change in the volume of the background noise. Franklin became painfully aware that that outburst had just earned him entry to the center of attention.

      “…I can’t,” said Bob, who’s facial expression had turned decidedly distasteful. “It’s withheld.”

      Franklin stared at him for a few moments.

      “Excuse me,” he then muttered. He stood up and walked through the room, eyes fixed straight ahead of him, to the captain’s office. He peered through the window in the door, saw she was alone and burst in.  He closed the door behind him.

      “Captain?”

      Captain Totes was a small black woman whose size had only served to heighten the general sharpness of her character, which at times seemed to have edges. She was busy typing on her keyboard in a sort of accelerated hunt-and-peck style. She paused a moment for him, then said “Franklin…” and typed a few more letters before pushing away the keyboard and giving him the full glare of her attention.

      “I’d been meaning to have a word with you,” she said. She nodded at an empty chair but did not take off her half-moon reading glasses.

      Franklin sat down. He did not quite know how to proceed now; around superiors he always felt a bit like a schoolboy in the headmaster’s office.

      “Bob just came to speak with me,” he said.

      Captain Totes removed her glasses and tightened her lips.

      “My fault, I’m afraid,” she said. “I don’t think I was entirely clear with him.” This was the effect Bob had on people. “Franklin, I’d wanted to speak with you first, about your report.”

      Franklin said nothing. Captain Totes picked up a transparent plastic folder containing a small stack of paper.

      “I have here,” she said, “the one copy of your report. I printed it before I called IT and had it removed.”

      Confusion and indignation jockeyed for first place in Franklin’s mind.

      “You can’t do that…” he said.

      “Oh, I can,” said Captain Totes, “And I did. Detective Horne,” – she really only reserved the D-word for special occasions – “Disregarding the discussion of truth for a moment, what on Earth possessed you to write such a report?”

      “Having it happen to me?” said Franklin.

      “Franklin,” Captain Totes sighed, “yesterday afternoon you were murdered before a full courtroom, and I was faced with the unpleasant prospect of having a talk with you, about speaking your mind.”

      Franklin found it best to say nothing.

      “And then you sent me this,” she said, holding up the file.

      “Captain—”

      “Franklin,” the captain interrupted him; her voice was tinged with a sort of concerned desperation. “They would have eaten you alive for this. Do you realize that? Do you realize what would have happened had this report ended up higher up? Or worse, in the media? Police looking for dragon, er…” She waved the report around  in short, nervous motions as she grasped for a more catching headline. “Dragon wanted for questioning, APB out for dragon, you know how they are.”

      “I don’t say it’s a dragon!” Franklin burst out.

      “No, but this Ferrick does. And here you are describing it two pages later. After a rooftop chase no less.”

      “There were three cars—”

      “Two of whom saw nothing, detective. But go ahead, what do you think it was, Detective Horne?”

      The sudden question hit Franklin hard. This one didn’t sound rhetorical; she actually expected an answer of him. He hesitated.

      “Detective Horne?” she asked.

      “I-I don’t know,” he said. “How the hell should I know? Maybe if we can find it? I got fingerprints in my car.”

      Captain Totes tossed her reading glasses on her desk and sighed.

      “The thing is, Franklin,” she explained, “it doesn’t matter what happened, or what you think happened. All that matters is what’s in that report and how people will read it. You’re a good detective, Horne, you care, you have drive. I don’t know many men who want justice more than you want it. You are honest and forthright, and they are all fine qualities that make you a good man, Franklin, but it also makes you vulnerable. And I have to protect you from that. Don’t you see?” she said. “Nobody” – she held up the folder for emphasis – “wants to hear this.”

      Franklin lowered his head. He realized that while It was difficult to imagine Captain Totes as anything but a stern and demanding captain, in her time off she was also a – presumably – loving grandmother and a caring wife. The proof of such a claim lay in the one personal item on her desk: a picture of three smiling young children in the grass, which she replaced every year with an updated version. And she was protecting him.

      He sighed a long sigh.

      “So what happens now?” he asked.

      “I asked Pete to write the report, and I’m going to assign you to smaller cases,” said the captain, and she held up a hand before any protest could be filed. “Nuh-uh, listen Franklin: after yesterday you cannot afford to so much as trip over a loose shoelace. It’s about reputations, egos, your taxes at work, you know, the whole deal. So you’re going to stay inside, do a good job and wait for people to forget all about you because the last thing any of this is about is you. And I don’t want to lose you, Detective Horne.”

      They sat in silence for a few moments. Franklin felt bitter, but was not sure towards whom exactly. Everyone? No one?

      “Look, Franklin,” the captain finally said. She had lowered her voice slightly. “I’m no fool. I read the reports from last night – including this one – but more importantly, I hear the stories. Something screwy went on last night, everyone can see that, people raining down on the city and all, but hell if I know what it was. And this Ferrick may know more.”

      She paused.

      “Which is not to say I’m ready to believe a word of what this says yet,” she added, and with that she opened a drawer in her desk, lifted up a pile of files and shoved the report under it.

      “Now Franklin,” she then said. “Why don’t you go home and get some sleep. Because frankly… You look like hell.”

      Franklin stood up. His head felt fuzzy, and he noticed that he shook slightly. He felt like a humiliated idiot, humbled by a part of the world that he never could get to grips with. He very much wanted to sleep. But instead, he said:

      “Can’t. I still have files to sort.”

      Captain Totes gave him a small, slow nod, then picked up her reading glasses, pulled her keyboard towards her and hunted for the next letter. Franklin observed that she never found it before he walked out of the office and closed the door behind him.

 

* * *

 

The night drizzled on Varsity.

      Long ago Varsity had had a city hall in the style of an old court building with a large clock tower. But the city outgrew it, and it was therefore abandoned for a modern, soulless cube of an office building. This was a somewhat controversial move, however, that was paid for with the assurance that the stately old building would be given a fitting and dignified new use. This too turned out to be a controversial issue, and over the following decades many a committee, council member and mayor considered the matter through their own prism. It almost became a museum, a plan to turn it into apartments narrowly fell through and in the end the property was sold to a private party, an investor who had meant to turn it into a mansion before the financial crisis du jour put an end to him, his money and his plans. The tower was gutted of its clockwork mechanism, because even that turned out to be worth at least something. And now it housed a dragon.

      Scyce lay behind the open service door of the clock face, staring grimly into the veil of water on the other side. Square in the middle of the empty space, on the concrete block that once housed the clockwork mechanism,  sat Kara. She sat with her feet close to her body, soles touching, and her arms outstretched until her fingertips were a mere inch off the floor. Her face expressed a  sort of very grim inner peace, or at least something akin to an inner peace accord.

      “This is insanity,” Scyce grumbled.

      “No interruptions,” said Kara, with closed eyes.

      “Interruptions!” Scyce cried out over his shoulder. “We sit here and do nothing!”

      “No,” Kara said. “You sit here and do nothing.”

      “You’ve sat here all day!” Scyce stood up, stomped over to the healer and stopping only when his snout was inches from her face. It appeared to have no effect on her, so he sat down instead and glared down at her.

      “Only destruction takes seconds, General Scyce” Kara said. “All other things take time.”

      Scyce’s jaw squared. He was not used to this. Powerlessness was an old familiar condition that he had left far behind him years ago; most people either did what he wanted or died, which was often roughly the same thing.

      “What are you finding?” he demanded.

      “Nothing yet,” said Kara.

      “Enough of this then.”

      “No.”

      Scyce craned his head in frustration and growled a gurgling growl at the heavens or, in this case, the ceiling.

      “You are a distraction, Scyce,” said Kara. “Please leave.”

      Scyce jumped up on his feet. He paced around her like a stalking predator, swishing his tail agitatedly.

      “Then let me do it,” he demanded. “Show me how.”

      “You are not capable.”

      In a flash Scyce’s teeth moved to within inches of the healer’s face. The anger that would have powered the remaining gap came out as a slow, soft growl hat seemed to slowly deflate the dragon.

      “Why not?” he demanded.

      Kara seemed to hesitate for only a moment before speaking boldly:

      “Because you lack the strength.”

      Something jolted Scyce from the inside. He seemed to bulge back up with indignation.

      “Show me!” he roared.

      This time Kara opened her eyes. She turned her head and glared straight into the dragon’s eyes.

      “You wish to learn the techniques of the old Masters of the Azean Temple,” she said. “Who meditate twelve hours a day and sleep four each night. Who take their students among the smallest of children so that there is a chance they may learn before adulthood. Who teach without speaking, live without owning and die without leaving.”

      Scyce’s gaze faltered for a moment as he processed the litany. Backing out was, of course, unacceptable.

      “Yes,” he said.

      “Lesson one: sit down.”

 

In an alleyway off of Dove Lane four figures shambled around in filth. The filth was their own fault; it came from various trash bags which they were methodically tearing open. Cluttering the alleyway were discarded foods, packaging, wrappers, paper, glass, all the hallmarks of civilized modern life, stinking to high heavens.

      One of them was a zombie wearing jeans with scuffed knees. The jeans were both too short and too wide, so he was holding them up with one hand. With the other hand it chewed the meat off a bone; it was chicken. Two other zombies were scavenging through the layer of refuse, while the fourth was examining an overly large blue sweater, sporting a big yellow 3 on the back. In fact, this is what they looked like:

       The zombie wearing the overlarge jeans also wore a red buttoned shirt washed down to the colour pink, and a white left sock. Another zombie – the female one – wore bright pink track suit pants and a brown leather jacket that was shedding fluff through a large gash in the left arm. On its head it wore a light beige baseball cap with the insignia ‘VR- Varsity Rangers’. The third zombie wore a sensible combination of slightly scuffed jeans and a blue plaid buttoned shirt, which it had topped off by putting faded red tea cozy on its head. The last one was just about to exchange a frilly white blouse for the large blue sweater. It wore lightly coloured sunglasses to hide the empty eye socket in its head but, alas, no pants. Occasionally they went “beuh” at each other, but quietly, because the radio barely gave out any volume at all anymore.

      Philosophers over the ages have tried to answer some of life’s important questions: what happens to you when you die? What is it like to die? In this world the questions remain just that: questions. In a world where the dead may be raised from their graves, though, it would seem like a triviality to find an answer. Alas, it is not. Death, on the whole, has a negative effect on the brain: once it stops, it cannot be fully restarted, and the end result is usually a sort of more or less benign animal stupidity, a mockery of the man that used to inhabit the shambling shell. Such a being could not understand the question even if it still retained the answer.

       But the radio changed things: four rotted minds are better than one, if they are synchronized!  Detached in the most complete and utter way from the bonds of their master, moving to the heartbeat of an otherworldly song, the four corpses became aware of something rare and unusual happening inside them. They started to regain awareness of the world around them, and a magnificent world it was, full of new things and new sounds and new tastes! It was an exciting time to be dead indeed.

      The radio was important. The radio was their prized possession. The radio held them together.

      The radio stopped.

      For about eight seconds complete silence filled the alleyway. Each zombie stood or sat frozen, listening intently to the silence. Then they turned their gazes to the radio.

      One of them turned the volume knob, both ways. Earlier this had produced interesting results. This time it did nothing.

      Another pressed the power button. This too had presented fascinating results in the past, but it proved fruitless in the present.

      After a while, a third zombie began fiddling with the tuner, to no result.

      “… Beuh?” said one of them.

      They all looked at one another, and broke out in a alarmed discussion:

          “Beuh!”       “Beuhbeurhbeeeeeuh!” “Beuh beuh beuh.”     “Beeurh!”

              “Beeeeuh!”      “Beeeeeeuh! Beurh.”              “Beuh.”  “Beeeuh!”

            “Beuhbeuh! Beurh.”     “Beh Beuh BEURH.”   “Beeeeeeuh”   “Breuh.”

        “BEUH!”    “Beuh beuh.”         “Beurh.”      “Buhbuhbuh, beurh.”

      For a few moments they looked silently at the radio, and then they continued, this time with a lot of finger pointing in various directions:

            “BEUH!”         “BEUH! Beuh!”                           “Beuh!”

          “Beuh!”                  “Beuhbeuhbeuh!           “Beurh!”

               “Beuh!”         “Beeeeeeeeeeuh!”        “Beuh!”                   “Beuh.”

        “Beuh.”                            “Beurh. BEURH!”             “Beuh.”

The process was laborious – one zombie got turned around for a while and spent some time pointing to the moon – but by the time they were done all arms were more or less pointing in the same direction. With a united spirit and a shared drive they picked up the radio and, carrying it between two of them, ran off onto the street.

 

Scyce sniffed up a deep breath. He held on to it for a fraction of a second, eyes shut, and then pushed it back out of his lungs. He did this again, and again, and once more. His face grew more tense with every breath. He breathed in one more time, and then let it out in a snarl as he opened his eyes. He stood back up and walked back to the door.

      “Meditation requires balance, patience and strength.” Kara still sat motionless where she sat before, eyes closed, but inner peace apparently did not make her any less stern.

      “Really,” Scyce said, “And what do you expect to see?”

      “That which binds us,” said Kara.

      Scyce turned around and took a step towards her.

      “Explain,” he said.

      “The Azean Masters teach us that the goddess Azea took the energies that flow free and weaved them together,” said Kara.  “So she created life. Through meditation a Master, or a gifted student, can envision these energies in the world wound them, both bound and free.”

      “And?” said Scyce.

      “This world has gone cold, but is not without life. If all its energy is bound to life, then I may see the free energies that leak from the rift into this world.”

      “And you can find it?” Scyce said.

      Kara said nothing.

      “You believe this!?”

      “No,” Kara said. “Life manifests. It requires no originator.”

      “Then why!?”

      “Bedacian Acolytes teach us both the finest mathematics and that demons live in legumes. One does not invalidate the other.”

      Scyce grunted and turned away. He looked out the door to the bright and rainy world outside. He made a decision.

      “I’m going out to find the rift,” he said.

      Kara opened her eyes.

      “Scyce, no,” she warned. But Scyce crouched down and leapt up with a single flap of his wings, up onto the rafters of the belfry, where the openings were wide enough for a dragon to pass.

      “Scyce!”

      Scyce bore his teeth and growled softly from the very back of his throat. Then, propelled by sheer frustration, he leapt out of the belfry.

       The world changed in an instant. Cold drops blew in his face as this new, bright world rolled out below him. The noise of human habitation and the stench of their machines rose up to greet him. He flapped his wings hard, gaining height and speed as swiftly as he could manage. The lights shone at him like a second night sky under the clouds, orange, red and white. He banked, if only to be out direct sight of the clock tower, and glared down at the world below. Rage sloshed around inside him; the healer’s chains chafed and her stoic ways aggravated him to no end.

      Back inside Kara snarled at the space that used to contain dragon. She got up, straightened her dresses, pulled her hair behind her airs and headed for the tower ladder.

 

Minutes later Scyce landed on the gravel-strewn rooftop of one of the many multi-story buildings that littered this city – harder than he needed to. He felt defiant; even without his power he still had strength – whatever the healer meant to imply – and he was eager to assert it. He quickly looked around in all directions. It seemed that no one had expected him there; he was alone.

      He looked down to the street below from the side of the rooftop. He had seen the same last night, but back then he had been to busy to really take it all in. Down below he saw cars moving along smoothly paved streets. He saw humans rush through the rain. He saw street lights that emitted an unnatural light, much like the lights on the vehicles that the humans used. Any other time he would have guessed at the magic involved, but this time it was a mystery. The healer was correct; this was a cold world. If not dead in life, then it was at least dead in spirit. So were these all simply machines, or were there powers here that he simply did not know how to tap into? Could he learn?

      His attention was drawn to the sound of a conversation that seemed somehow off. Directly below him passed a woman with a cell phone. Scyce saw that she was holding something to her ear and spoke an unfamiliar language with great articulation to no one in particular. Occasionally she paused, uttered some sounds that sounded like confirmation of something, and continued. None of the other humans seemed to pay her any mind. He followed her first with his gaze and then along the side of the rooftop until he reached a corner. He watched her pace off through the drizzle and then withdrew silently.

      Humans. His blood boiled at the sight of them, defiantly going about their daily lives without so much as a fearful glance. But on this rooftop in this cold cinder of a world, his rage was mixed with apprehension. He lacked power; Scyce was not prone to fooling himself easily; a mass of humans such as that would easily overwhelm him. He would have to move with some discretion until he found a way to either leave, or overpower them.

      He walked back to the edge of the rooftop and peered down again at the human population, frustratingly oblivious to his presence. He still had his strength. What he lacked was knowledge, but knowledge could be gained and from strength and knowledge came power. And with that power he could destroy whatever human stood in his way. First the healer, and then…

      Before leaving Scyce took the time to look at the population below just a little bit longer. The corners of his mouth curled up around his grim expression, because a pleasant thought was one worth holding on to.

      Then he took flight into the cold and wet night.

 

Cold and wet was hardly an issue for the quartet of corpses shuffling through the rain. For one thing, being dead somewhat negated most other negative bodily experiences. A bit of rain just doesn’t seem like a big deal once you have died, been stuffed into a casket, buried, rotted and then brought back to the land of the, roughly speaking, living. But aside from that, they had a bigger issue, for which they now stood before an old and ugly little building sandwiched between two larger apartment buildings, labeled thusly:

 

T.V. & RADIO

REPAIRS

 

Hanging in the window was a bright yellow sheet of paper which optimistically read: “We also do VCRs”. It was a dingy little shop, named with little imagination, but it had the worn look of a loved but dying trade. Everything in the shop window looked old in some way, like it had been cherished to pieces. It was like a museum to the shop itself, and how it had branched out to survive over the years. On display were a large cathode tube television, two tape decks, three VCR’s, various portable CD players and, scattered about, various CD’s in jewel cases and sleeves, some of which were plain white, with the name of the CD written on it in pencil. A few vinyl records were leaning up against the corner of the display, right next to the most important relic of the entire display: a scuffed portable radio.

      The owner of the shop, one Roy White, a name which applied more to his hair than to his skin tone, looked up from a partially disassembled mixer when he heard a gentle thud against the store window, followed quickly by three more, more or less simultaneously. He leaned to the side; there was a crack between the VHS tape display case (The Ice Pirates, the 1984 classic, only $2.50!!) and  the TV set in the window where he had a good look of what was going on in the outside world, were he so inclined to find out. Through it a row of unpleasantly damaged faces, pressed up against the glass, stared back at him.

      Roy White put down his screwdriver and stared back at them for a few seconds. Finally he pantomimed a wordless “Well?” by spreading his hands and raising his eyebrows. The four faces detached themselves from the window, engaged in some enthusiastic debating and disappeared. Two seconds later the door went ‘ding’ and four… Persons entered the shop. They squeezed themselves through the door, clustered together and paused to look around with immense interest. One of them even went so far as to give the ceiling an extended inspection.

      “… Can I help you?” Mister White asked.

      They turned their heads to face him, as if only now remembering he was there in the first place. Then they shuffled hurriedly towards the counter, where two of them deposited a portable radio that they carried between them.

      “Beuh,” said a third.

      “Buh,” added the fourth.

      Three pairs of eyes and a pair of blue sunglasses looked at him expectantly.

      Mister White slowly ran his eyes from one end of the group to the other. To a one, they looked like the semi-finalists to a ‘ugliest hobo’ competition: their skin seemed actually in worse condition than their clothes, which themselves carried with them an unpleasant smell with overtones of garbage. One of them wore a freakin’ tea cozy on his head!

      The second from the left raised a finger –hideously scarred – and lowered it theatrically on the radio’s ‘on’-button. When he pushed down it did nothing.

      “Beuh,” he said earnestly.

      Without immediately taking his eyes off of the customers mister White grabbed the radio and felt his way around the edges.

      “Well, let’s see now…” he muttered. He took a deep breath, tried to forget that he had just noticed that the one on the far right was not wearing any pants and laid the radio down flat on its face. He opened the battery compartment, took out the batteries and touched one of them with the tip of his tongue.

      They stared at him with a kind of desperate awe that was unsettling.

      He felt around under the counter for the batteries he kept around for situations just like this – or at least somewhat like this – and swiftly inserted them into the battery compartment with an experienced hand.

      Music blasted out!

      “-re we go again, I feel the chemicals kicking in!

      “BEUH!” one of the customers cried out. The others chimed in immediately, excitedly uttering the same monosyllable grunt over and over again.

      “Alright, alright!” yelled a startled Mister White. He quickly pulled out the batteries and as the radio fell silent, so did his customers. “Yeesh…” He turned around, took one of the battery packs off of its peg and put it down on the counter.

      “There’s your problem,” he said. “Dollar six.”

      The four figures before him stared at the new item. They did this for a while, then conferred among themselves in muted tones until finally one of them slowly reached out for it. On a hunch Mister White casually laid his hand over the batteries and asked, with a bright, serviceable smile:

      “Cash or credit?”

      They looked stupidly at him.

      “Dollar six,” Mister White repeated.

      One of them blinked. There lay a silence over the shop that became increasingly awkward.

      “Do… Any of you speak English?” he ventured.

      More stupid looks. One of them looked at the others and went “Beuh.”

      “Beuh,” replied another, and another contributed with “Beuh, beuh. Beuh!”

      “Beeeeeuh,” added the fourth, even as the first continued with “Beuh?” This went on for a little while during which Mister White thought it prudent to remove the batteries from the counter.

      “Look!” he interjected. “Look…” He held up one finger. “One dollar…” And then he held up six. “Six cents. Dollar six.” With age came patience, and he made sure to pronounce those last two words with the greatest of care and clarity.

      In response, the one with the tea cozy on its head took it off and held it out respectfully.

      “N-no, no,” said Mister White, leaning away from the vile object. “No,” he added more firmly. “Money,” he said.

      The tea cozy remained where it was.

      “Money?” Mister White continued. “Mon… Nee…

      Another long pause.

      “Beuh,” said one. Another seemed to agree: “Beuh,” and they sagged collectively. The owner of the tea cozy slowly held it slowly up against his chest and fumbled it slowly, like a corpse at its own funeral.

       At this point Mister White let his heart – and, it had to be said, his discomfort – speak.

      “Alright,” he sighed. He held up the batteries and dropped them hand and all on the counter. “You can pay me later.”

      The four looked up in wonder and stared at the batteries while at the same time slowly glancing at each other.

      “Beuh?” said one, very quietly. This led to a brief interlude of muttered utterings, which in turn ended with four fixed, uncertain stares.

      “Go on, take it!” said Mister White, who was reaching his limits with respect to unsettling visitors. He picked up the pack of batteries and tossed it lightly at the group. Eight hands fumbled to catch it and four bodies disappeared below the counter to go after it. Shreds of packaging savagely flung through the store, and when the buyers re-appeared they bore big smiles and four double-A batteries distributed between them. One of them grabbed the radio, and they began an attempt to cram batteries into the battery compartment any old way. After a few false starts where they put in too few batteries, or put them in the wrong way around, the radio suddenly came back to life:

      “-you waaaiting foooor, take a bit of my heart tonight!

      … And a collective cheer filled the shop. The four of them cried out excited “Beuh!”s while, with wild gesticulation, indicating the radio and the apparent hero of the hour: Mister White.

      “Alright, alright, please!” Mister White yelled out over the ruckus. And then, meaningfully: “Will that be all?”

      One of them pulled a notepad out from under his shirt. Another took a pen from his (her?) pocket. Two of them held the notepad between them while the one with the pen started scribbling on it with great concentration. The one without pants – oh God… – looked on, chiming in with an occasional syllable. When they were done the owner of the notepad tore out the page and held it out at Mister White with something resembling a flourish. It looked like this:

 

 

      Mister White smiled, nodded and told them goodbye and saw them off. After he saw them off and made sure they stayed off, he walked back to the cash register and looked at the drawing they had given him.

      After some thought he put it in the register as a form of IOU. It just felt like the thing to do.

 

Kara walked outside. She actually liked being outside because being outside was not being inside, and sometimes things were just as simple as that. The drizzle was persistent, she noticed; a perpetual blanket of minute raindrops soaking this noteworthy city and its inhabitants. She wondered if this was a common form of weather around here. There was a lot she had yet to learn.

      When she had gone outside she had left the frustration behind. It was a common trick that she had learned to cope with the demands of her calling: when she shut the door behind her she trapped the emotion inside. She could picture it in her mind as a stifling purple mist, waiting patiently in the clock tower for her to come home; a more loyal companion could not exist.

      Now that she could concentrate, though, she could see her target quite clearly before her mind’s eye. But, walking through the streets of this city, she did not neglected to keep her actual eyes and ears open. She had a knack for remaining innocuous. Like most small people she had learned to assert several inches to her height; when she let that melt away all that remained was a little black haired woman in several plain dresses, shuffling quietly through the streets, watching, listening and learning.

 

Elsewhere, in a nearby parking garage, Scyce was conducting some reconnaissance. He stalked through one of the upper levels, wings low and head close to the ground. He did not like the confined space; a roof over his head meant fewer options in battle, and the amount of light made him nervous. He felt vulnerable.

      He made his way over to one of the parked cars and regarded it suspiciously. It was white, or at least it had been at some point. However, when he scraped a talon along the driver side doors it left a deep scratch revealing metal. Metal was interesting. Metal vehicles were rare. Metal implied machines. He briefly reared up on his hind legs to confirm that his surroundings were abandoned, sat back down and proceeded to roll the thing on its side. It was heavier than he had expected, and it landed with a loud metal crunch that echoed through the building. He reared back up again and looked around, listening intently for approaching footsteps. After some time, when he became convinced that no one was coming, he dropped back down on all four legs and examined the result of his work.

      With the belly of the car now exposed he noted pipes of various sizes running along a chaotically organized metal undercarriage. A machine that moved itself – he had heard of these. As the stories went, they were used in the dwarven tunnels of Maynmar. The scouts had also reported similar devices when they cleared the Worbaen Mines. They ran on rails and moved troops at great speed. He had those destroyed unseen, though. A battle is no time for surprises. What kind of a city would have such machines in such abundance, he wondered. And what kind of a world would hold such a city?

 

Kara meanwhile crossed through one of the busier parts of the city, where the amount of light became outright staggering. The myriad of lights glowed brightly in the rain, mostly red, orange and pale white, casting long streaks on the wet pavement. Lights that did not flicker like a flame were, under normal circumstances, a sure sign of magic. In this world she considered them a wonder.

      She had already observed the vehicles that the people here were using to get around and she too had wondered how they worked. It was an interesting question but she knew that when it came to facts ‘interesting’ was not the same as ‘useful’. The fundamental fact was that they did, and the how seemed largely irrelevant. What she observed instead was how these vehicles – most of them – gleamed in the light. She observed the smooth streets on which they ran and, after some study, the intricate light system which regulated their flow through the city. Red, green, orange, red…

      Once, many years ago when she had still been a child, a man had come to the Azean temple seeking shelter from a terrible storm. He had with him a small, heavy box. When he wound it up and opened the lid bells played a gentle piece of music and a little man and a little woman danced and spun in jerky motion. She had watched it with fascination. The man had explained that it ran on clockwork, but it was clear that he himself had no real idea how it really worked.

      Kara had spent hours staring at the rigid little performance, as the man had been kind enough to wind it up for her many times throughout the evening. If she tried she might still remember the music, or even the storm. The rigid start-stop motions, repeating themselves tirelessly in an endless dance, however, came to mind easily as she watched how the city operated. Organized and clean, it ran like a giant clockwork box with people as its gears, moving in start-stop motions. And she too wondered about this city: what kind of a people would build one such as this?

 

Back in the parking garage Scyce was squinting up at the sickly white bars of light that lined the ceiling. They were strategically placed so that there was not a single dark spot on the entire floor. It made Scyce apprehensive. Such light was to see what would otherwise remain unseen. What was it that they expected to see here?

      He reared up and carefully tapped one of the bars. It appeared to be a glass tube. He reared momentarily to sniff it and tap it again. Then he reached up, gently placed his talons around the tube and pulled at it. It dislodged fairly easily; the light in the tube went out.

      “Hrm,” he muttered as he examined it. Though it appeared to be sealed, whatever it was that emitted light in there appeared to be either gone or inactive. He smelled it again; this time he noticed that it emitted a strange, alchemical or static smell, somewhat reminiscent of the aftermath of a magical discharge. Curious, Scyce snapped it open. A foul hot stench emerged and hit his nostrils with such force that he instantly threw the two halves of the tube down and backed away. He dropped back on all fours, coughed and wheezed at the ground and spat out a glob of corrosive acid that sizzled slightly between his front legs. When he was done with most of the coughing he roared briefly and then growled resentfully at the shattered remains of the offending tube.

      He turned his eyes back towards the lights above him. The bars of light lining the ceiling did not seem to be hindered by the removal of the tube. In fact, even though he half expected light to pour out of the opening like some sort of liquid luminance, the effect was more like that of a missing tooth. Treading carefully, not eager to step back into a cloud of hot, toxic gas, he approached the gap. There were no open holes on either side of it. There were two circular indentations where the holes would have been, each filled with metal. He examined one of them closely and reached up to touch—

 

“Beuh,” said the zombie in the tea cozy.

      “Beuh,” agreed the zombie with the Varsity Rangers cap.

      “Beurh,” added the zombie with the overlarge jeans.

      “Buh,” concluded the zombie with no pants.

      And so they were of one mind: Mister White was a swell guy. Mister White sold them things for nothing and fixed their music. Their resurfacing sense of morality told them this was a big deal. With a few more grunts they came to a further conclusion: they should do something nice for Mister White…

 

When Scyce’s brain switched itself back on it found its body lying on the ground in darkness. The right side of it felt like it was recovering from a massive cramp.

      He quickly pushed himself up on his front two claws. It was difficult at first – his right arm felt like it was not quite back under his control and initially he just fell back down. He managed on the second try, though, and followed up with his hind legs. He looked around cautiously. A whole block of the lights had gone out; in turn, a few tiny lights had sprung on, providing some bare minimum of lighting to see by. Scyce usually felt more comfortable in the dark, where his night vision provided an extra advantage over most foes. Under the circumstances, though, he felt even more unsafe than before. He took cover beside a parked car and peered around for signs of hostility.

      After a short while his ears picked up an approaching sound. It came to him as a distant hum, repeatedly working itself up towards a high-pitched wail before dropping back down. Then a light approached from the floor above. One of the vehicles rolled down the ramp, cutting the darkness with bright beams of light. It rounded a corner and suddenly the light was heading directly towards him. Scyce clawed over the top of the car and dropped on his side down the other side just in time to dodge the approaching beams. The light flashed past and a few seconds later the car rolled past without taking notice of him. Scyce watched it tensely as it rolled down another ramp and out of sight. He rolled back onto his belly and growled after it.

      Back in the city streets, Kara paced away with as brisk a pace as she dared. She felt the eyes of the unhelpful bystanders in the back of her neck. It had been frighteningly unexpected: one moment she was examining the buildings and people of this city, the next her muscles contracted with such a searing pain that she could not help but fall to the ground. The entire right side of her body had felt like a badly twisted ankle. When she looked around she had almost met the gazes of the people watching her; their eyes darted away before she could capture them with her own.

      The healer helps. Nobody helps the healer. That’s what mother used to say. A person took action. People waited for someone else to take action. It was human nature; there was nothing to be done about it. That’s why the healers had to take action. Healers had to be responsible all the time. The healer helps.

      Mother, however, had been too forgiving. Fueled by embarrassment and resentment Kara swung around and glared back hard. Then she quickly picked up her pace and stormed off.

      Scyce got back up on his hind legs and, looking around cautiously, started walking back towards the outside air. He stopped to kick a car hard enough to bump it off its spot. It made a big dent and an even bigger noise, but it didn’t matter anymore because he dropped on all fours, charged towards the open air and flew off in a rage.

 

* * *

 

“Here we are,” said Pete. He pulled his car up at the doorstep of the nondescript apartment building that Franklin broadly called ‘home’.

      “Thanks for the ride,” Franklin muttered, opening the door and climbing out of his seat in one motion.

      “Frank, hold up,” said Pete. Franklin looked back tiredly. Pete gave him a little gesture with his head to indicate that he should get back inside. Franklin closed the door, sat back and looked at him.

      “What?” he asked.

      Pete’s mouth moved slightly for a second, and then he said:

      “Bob’s been saying things ‘bout you.”

      “’bout me,” Franklin repeated. “To you?”

      “No. Some of the other guys.”

      “And what’s he been saying to ‘the other guys’?”

      Pete paused for a moment.

      “Bullshit, Frank,” he said. “Bullshit. Look, they came asking me, just thought I should tell you, you know?”

      Franklin exhaled tiredly.

      “Thanks,” he muttered.

      “Go get some sleep, Frank,” Pete said. “See ya tomorrow.”

      “Yeah.” Franklin opened the door and leaned back out into the drizzle. He paused at a thought, and then asked:

      “Speaking of bullshit, what are you going to write in the report?”

      “What?”

      “Captain told me you are writing the report now.”

      Pete sighed.

      “Frank, just get some sleep,” he said.

      “You were there with me in the car,” Franklin said. He got out and turned around to lean back into the open door. “You saw what I saw.”

      Pete gripped his steering wheel tightly.

      “You were there, Pete” Franklin said. “You were there!

      “And what did I see, huh?” Pete said. He glared at Franklin. “You tell me what I saw. What did I see? A monster? A man jumping rooftops? You honestly think that’s what we saw?”

      “I know what I saw,” Franklin said.

      “Really?” Pete said. “Explain it to me then, because I don’t know what the hell I saw. Okay?” He sighed again. “Look, Frank, get some sleep, will you? You look like shit.”

      “Yeah, same to you,” Franklin said. “Good night.” He stood up, shut the car door and watched Pete drive off.

      That was just brilliant, he considered. He hauled himself up the steps at the door of the building. There was no sense getting mad at Pete. Hell, there was no sense getting mad at anyone. That was the maddening part, wasn’t it?

 

* * *

The coin was dull, scratched and merely a quarter, but it still found itself under great attention. One zombie held it up between thumb and index finger, still crouching where it found it. The other three admired it from above. They moved their heads closer as the first zombie got back up. They all recognized it as a coin. The concept of coins transcended not just nations, it transcended worlds. Wherever there was trade, there were metal disks with engravings, shorthand for wealth. This particular one had an engraving of the head of a man on one side and of an unrecognizable lump on the other. Both sides were littered with symbols which they presumed to be letters of some sort.

      The first zombie pointed down at the piece of sidewalk at his feet and said:

      “Beuh.”

      This led to a brief but excited debate from which flowed a unanimous consensus. Then they broke up and spread themselves out through the street, scouring the ground.

 

The drizzle was letting up a bit, though this barely improved Scyce’s mood. He looked out over the city from atop the tallest building he could find. It was a tower of glass and steel, square with a mysteriously slanted rooftop. It was possibly taller than the Black Stone Tower itself. The humans had built a number of smaller towers as well, roughly clustered together in one part of the city. The reason eluded him. In the distance he saw the skeleton of yet another tower being constructed, far away from these.

      In Scyce’s view of the world, tall buildings were for important people. A king lived in a castle or palace; a magistrate lived in a large house; the rich lived on any hill they could find and many temples had towers from which the priest could look down upon his flock. For beings with wings the concept was difficult to grasp, but humans really liked to look down upon their inferiors. This here was the tallest tower he could find. Somewhere, he reasoned, there would be a mage, or this world’s version of a mage, or an important figure or someone who either knew how to get home, or who could find out.

     He stepped down the slope of the rooftop and scaled down the side of the building using available seams and ledges. There were many windows on this tower; in fact, and this puzzled him, the tower was nearly all window. A single trebuchet would reduce it to rubble in a matter of minutes. He tapped one of the window panes experimentally and then pushed his claw through it. It broke, but not in shards as he had expected. All he had achieved was to make a small hole the size of his arm. Annoyed, he climbed up a bit higher, wrapped his claws around the  ledge of the rooftop and kicked hard against the glass with both legs. This worked better; after a few attempts he had managed to clear most of the glass from the window, making a wide enough gap for him to squeeze through. What remained of the glass snapped off against his thick hide.

      Inside it was dark. Scyce carefully stalked through the room. He found it housed a large amount of tables and chairs and many objects he did not immediately recognize, but it was abandoned as far as humans were concerned. The tables were flimsy, the chairs were on wheels. He was not sure what to make of that.

      He took a picture frame off of one of the desks and regarded it with great suspicion. It contained an image of the world so precise that it seemed as though someone had frozen it in place and then cut out a rectangular portion. In the image stood three children. Two of them were blonde; the middle one was much taller than the other two, had light brown hair and metal on his teeth. They all grinned at him in a way that made the back of his neck prickle.

      He turned the picture over. The back was black and flat, with a little protrusion to make it stand upright. He turned it over again to look at the image. The three children still stood there, motionless and grinning at him. He put it back in place, gently, and watched it for a while. It was like looking into someone else’s mirror, where little human children just grinned and grinned…

      Something snapped inside him. He grabbed the picture frame into his mighty claw and threw it hard against the nearby wall. The frame fell down to the ground face down amidst shattered glass. For good measure he stomped down on it with his front claw and ground it hard, crushing it completely. He stepped back and huffed at the mangled remains, growling slightly to himself with satisfaction. Wiped the grins off of their faces.

 

Kara had meanwhile taken a slight detour. Humans needed to eat and by extension so did she. So when her nose picked up the smell of fried foods, she followed it and found herself at a restaurant.

     Inside she had seen a sterile place, with humans sitting at small red tables eating what looked to her to be their entire meal for the day. She had gone around the back because, as she had learned, where there were humans there was garbage. There she had found a large dumpster. It had been difficult to open with her small frame, but inside it she found a surprisingly large amount of fried potato products and, after some brief searching, part of what she did not yet know to be a hamburger. She also found some greasy but otherwise relatively clean pieces of paper, which she used to wrap the food in. The hamburger she wrapped separately.

      She foresaw a problem. Humans needed to eat at least once a day; her hunger was a stark reminded of just that. Dragons could go without food for days and would then eat large amounts of food. In a few days Scyce would need to eat, and it was unlikely he would make a meaningful distinction between, say, human and cow.

      Or, alternatively, he would starve, and she possibly along with him. The bond between them was quite strong. Should that time come she might be forced to let him go.

      Or… She would have to find a way to keep him fed. Things were starting to get quite complicated.

 

A quarter, two dimes and one nickel. The zombies had put the meager result of a thorough search in the tea cozy and placed it beside the radio at their feet. They had looked for the biggest, busiest street they could find. Now they gazed at the crowd with, for the first time, some unease and shuffled nervously.

      “Beuh,” said one of them quietly.

      “Mmh,” another agreed.

      The plan was sound, the execution frightening and thrilling at the same time. After the dead and emotionless world of before, stage fright was a particularly exciting new addition to the pallet of emotions that they were now experiencing.

      One of them kneeled down and turned up the volume on the radio. A rapid dance beat rang out across the street. Four heads glanced at each other and bobbed up and down. And then the dancing began. One dictionary definition of the word dance goes as follows:

 

dance [dans, dahns] 1. verb to move one’s feet or body, or both, rhythmically in a pattern of steps, especially to the accompaniment of music.

 

And this was indeed precisely what they were doing. While Lady Gaga sang loudly about her poker face one stomped its feet theatrically, the other gyrated its upper body and the third paraded in place while swinging its arms wildly, smacking the fourth in the face no less than three times before they found some sort of rhythmic compromise. This, even on a rainy evening, attracted attention. On the sidewalk and across the street people slowed down to grant the spectacle a confused, suspicious glance.

      Then, across the street, safely anonymous behind the passing traffic, a few people stopped to gaze. These were the first beginnings of a crowd and, since even a small mass has gravity, people on both sides of the streets now slowed down or stopped – if sometimes just briefly – to join in watching the spectacle. Sure, it was not much of a spectacle: the dancing was terrible, the music low quality and the slapstick somewhat predictable. But on the other hand: the costumes were impressive and, above all, it was unusual. The dancers danced with a great intensity to their expressions, as if their very lives depended on it: squared jaws, eyes wide with concentration. A few little cameras here and there began recording for posterity, or at least a brief moment of fame on the internet.

      After a little while a young lady left the crowd, walked past the dance spectacle and, in passing, added a coin to the tea cozy. This caused the dancers to freeze in unison. They stared at the coin for just the briefest of moments, then at the generous young lady, and then burst out, wildly gesticulating their joy and gratitude:

      “BEEEEEEEEUH!”

      “BEEEEURH!”

      “BEUH!”

      “BEEEEEEEEEUH!”

     The woman made a little jump and squealed in shock, enticing some muted laughter from the assembled crowd. The dancers trailed off in their utterings, looked at each other, pantomimed embarrassment and quickly continued their dance, marching in place, swinging arms, gyrating upper bodies, hopping back and forth…

 

General Scyce was a rational being. As he viciously tore through the rain in flight, reason positively filled his brain from front to back. A magnificent tower, in the middle of a thriving city, completely abandoned and utterly undefended. So far everything he had done was wrong and his experience only served to deceive him. And if everything he did was wrong, then he needed to change his plan. If mighty towers stood abandoned, if magic took unfamiliar forms, if machines took the place of the mundane, then perhaps the answers he sought lay behind answers to questions he should have asked first.

      And those questions could be answered by, perhaps, anyone.

      Thus, being a completely rational being, Scyce raised his wings, dove down and took his rage to the city streets.

 

Kara stood up against a dull grey piece of wall between two window displays. Wedged between these two attention magnets, she was barely noticeable at all. Her stomach was full, though her body was exhausted. She closed her eyes, raised her head and soaked up the world around her. Perhaps this time it would be easier.

      But it was not. Her mind’s eye saw little of the energies of this world. Here and there as people passed her by she saw a faint wisp of life, a golden puff of smoke in her mind’s eye. She could feel them. The energy of this city vibrated around her, hidden in darkness. She could feel the pull of it, close enough that she could almost touch it with metaphysical hands.

      As she tried harder she could occasionally see the outline of a human being passing her closely. But everything continued to be overwhelmed by the glowing red silhouette of a dragon. It was far away yet nearby, wrapped around and wrangling with a part of her soul. It dwarfed everything, pulsating with an energy so raw and angry that all else simply evaporated before it. It was on the move again and she had no hope of catching it.

 

Harold Stern left the office late, which was not unusual for a systems administrator. Often the moment the office workers left was the moment the administrator could do his job. The evening jobs were not so bad, overall. They usually entailed software updates which would take care of themselves. He was just there in case they didn’t.

      Harold often considered that Jenn was a good woman for him. He knew women who would have complained endlessly about their man coming home late. But Jenn understood: a man has to balance responsibilities toward to more than one master. Things would get more difficult in a few years, though, when they were thinking of expanding their family. But all that did not matter because shortly after he turned his car off the parking lot an enormous crash rocked the world.

      Scyce’s claws dug deep into the hood of the car. He glared through the shattered windshield, where a pair of yellow balloons blocked his view. With a brief snarl he dug out one of his claws, grabbed the balloon on the right and tore it in half in a single swift motion. Behind it he found Harold. Harold straightened his glasses and stared back in dazed shock.

      Scyce leaned forward.

      “Who rules this city?” he asked.

      Harold only gaped.

      “Who rules this city!?” Scyce repeated.

      A look of utter incomprehension passed over Harold’s face. He touched the side of his head. Bits of glass fell from his hair. Blood started to run from a small cut in his forehead.

      “Where am I!?” Scyce demanded.

      Harold began to look away, as if the dragon was not really there, in his face, threatening his very life. Scyce regarded him with impatience. Then he pulled his out other claw, leapt onto the hood and grabbed him with both claws. The human was tied into his seat, but that did not prevent Scyce from pulling him closer and roaring in his face.

      “Speak!

      And so the human spoke. Harold began to whimper:

      “Oh-oh God… Oh God, no, God, no, no, no. No. God…”

      Scyce stared at him. The terrible realization dawned on him that he had not understood a word of what the human had just said.

      “Where am I!?” he roared. “Who’s in charge!? WHERE IS THE RIFT!?

      It hit Kara hard: the rage bled into her mind, sloshing into her thoughts and washing them away. The dragon’s silhouette turned into a burning red blotch, filling her mind.

      The human whimpered more words. Utterly incomprehensible pleas and prayers, a language Scyce had never heard, words he had no hope of deciphering. This human could not tell him anything because he did not know how.

      “WHERE!?” he still tried against what was left of his better judgment. He pushed the man’s body back into the seat with such force that he could feel the ribs snap.

      People were all around. Kara could feel them. Kara knew they were looking at her. The blinding rage flowed unchecked into her head as her mind scrambled to save itself from the madness it had tapped into. She fell on her knees and clenched her fists. She knew a man stood nearby. She could see his feet and feel his doubt. She wanted to claw him open.

      Scyce pushed himself back and roared at the world. Then, with all the force he could muster, he rammed his talons through the open windshield into the man’s body. The blood momentarily warmed his claws.

      Kara sat up on her knees. She unclenched her fists long enough to clench them around her hair…

      Scyce pulled out his claw and madly rammed it back in again, and again. Then he dove after it with bare teeth.

      … And she pulled and screamed. Hard.

      Scyce’s scalp caught fire. His head jerked up and banged into the roof of the car. He pulled himself out and fell on his back, screaming. Kara continued to pull with all her might, until her hands held nothing but plucks of long hair. And even then she grabbed more hair and pulled again, until she could stand the pain no more.

      Finally, Scyce’s pain stopped. He lay on the road for a little while, panting heavily.

      And Kara fell forward on her hands, still clutching her dislodged hair. A healer was strong. A healer had to be strong, for everybody else. And that was about the only reason that she did not cry now.

 

* * *

 

Mister White had retired for the day. Yet, as he lay in bed, he heard the door of his shop downstairs rattle. After a while it rattled again, then again, and then yet again.

      Then, after some brief silence someone on the other side said:

      “Beuh.

      The door rattled again.

      “Beuh.

      “… Beeeeuh. Burh.

      “Buh, beeeurh?

      “

      “   Beuh.      Beeeeuhbuhr!                     Beeeeeeeeuh.           Bruh!

      “  Beurh. BEURH. Beurh.         Beeeeeeeeuh.       BUH.

      “       BEUH.          BeuhbuhrBUHR.         BEUHRbeuh! Burh.      Beuh!

      “    Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeuh. Beeeeeeeeeeeeuh.        BEUH.       Buhr.

      Finally there was some silence, followed by a lot of scratching.

      By the time Mister White, who was not so spry anymore, had gotten out of bed and worked up the nerve to take his baseball bat downstairs, the noise had stopped. At the door he found $5.15 in quarters, nickels, dimes and dollar bills, along with the following note:

 

 

He processed this for a while, then put the money in the cash register, tore up the IOU and went back to bed.

 

Kara looked up towards the top of a building. It stood in a quiet street, which made her dare raise her voice a little.

      “Scyce,” she called up.

      The lack of reply was telling.

      “Scyce,” she said again, more weary than stern.

      Nothing. She closed her eyes.

      “I can see you up there, Scyce.”

      The dragon’s head reluctantly appeared over the side of the rooftop and treated her to a grim glare.

      “We can’t speak like this,” she said. She motioned over to the alley beside the building and headed towards it. Shortly after she entered Scyce’s massive frame dropped into it with a loud thump. She crossed her arms and looked at him. He looked resentful, but not necessarily angry. She waited.

      “How do you know where I am?” Scyce asked.

      “Because I see you,” she said.

      “How?”

      “We have a bond,” she said. “My life energies are inside you, and I know where I am.”

      Scyce looked down at himself. He seemed horrified by the notion.

      “Problem is,” she continued, “you are all that I see.”

      “This is my body!” Scyce growled.

      “The body is yours,” Kara agreed. “It’s the one possession we are born with.”

      “You possessed it.”

      “No.”

      “You’re no healer,” Scyce said, narrowing his eyes. “What healer needs a spell like this?”

      “A good one.”

      “Dark arts,” Scyce growled.

      “There are dark thoughts,” Kara said. “There are dark actions. But there is no such thing as dark magic. Things are defined by their purpose, not their use.”

      “Release me.”

      “No. You have murdered,” Kara said. “And you will murder again if I allow it.”

      “I will not be caged,” Scyce growled, “I will not be chained, I will not be held.” He stepped closer. “I am strong, I have the will to be free! And,” he roared in her face, “I will be FREE!”

      Kara flinched. She stepped back, wiped some saliva off of her face and gave him a firm look.

      “You are a slave to your rage,” she said. “I can feel it. It drenches your soul. They are chains just the same and whoever holds them controls you. You are pitiful.”

      Scyce growled menacingly until the irony made him trail of. He stepped back, sat down and glared down at her.

      “So here we are,” Kara said.

      “Here we are,” Scyce agreed.

      Kara looked up at the night sky for a moment, a thin strip of black over the alley.

      “You say I am no healer,” she said. “You will be satisfied that the Azerean temple is in agreement. They too do not approve of the spell I cast on us. You seem to have much in common.”

      “What spell is this?”

      “The energies bound to life are more difficult to manipulate than the free energies, but they can be manipulated nonetheless. I manipulated my own, mixed them with yours. And so we are bound, you and I. What befalls the one, befalls the other. It is a spell that can save the life of a man on the brink of death.”

      “How?”

      “Because I share not only my weaknesses, but also my strength. Should your life energies falter, mine will keep you alive.”

      “And you would cast this on your enemy?” Scyce said.

      “Reality collapsed,” Kara pointed out. “I had little time to improvise. Now I am chained to you as much as you are chained to me. And this makes things… Difficult.”

      “How?”

      “If you leave through the rift by yourself, part me will disappear to another world. And that part cannot live by itself. I expect we will both die.”

      “Very convenient,” Scyce noted.

      “Very unfortunate,” Kara corrected him. “We must leave together. And for this we must first know where the rift is. But when I meditate all I see is you: a red, pulsating dragon shaped blob. I open my mind to the world around me and your rage seeps in. That rage has to go.”

      “I decide what goes on in my mind!” Scyce stated.

      For the first time in… Well, forever, Kara smiled at Scyce. It was a bit of a wry smile, though.

      “Scyce,” she said, “that’s what we all think.”

 

* * *

 

“Excuse me, you Detective Horne?”

      Horne looked up from what was now considered his ‘work’. At polite distance from his desk stood a tall black man in an almost immaculate black suit, sporting little hair but a well groomed beard. Presumably he did not know the man, which made sense, because he did not recognize him.

      “One of the guys over there told me you were Detective… Franklin Horne? If not I’ll just leave you to—”

      “Ah, no, no, that’s me,” Horne said. He sat up straight and looked up at the man. “How may I help you, sir?”

      “Detective Hayes,” said the man. “Lowell Street.” He stepped forward and extended his hand in greeting.

      “Franklin Horne,” said Horne, shaking the hand. “But,” he added, “you knew that.”

      “Yeah,” said the man. “Erm…” He averted his eyes, found an empty desk chair and made a questioning little gesture towards it.

      “Be my guest…” Franklin said. Detective Hayes rolled the chair to the side of Franklin’s desk and sat down with great care. Because the chair belonged to Esteban, who was at least two full heads shorter than Hayes, he ended up sitting with his knees leaning outward. Hayes folded his hands together, leaned his elbows on his thighs and looked thoughtful for a moment. Then, for the first time, a grin broke through.

      “Detective, I’m not sure how to ask you this,” he said.

      Since this was not a good sign and he had not been in a good mood in the past few days, Horne said nothing and let the man struggle.

      “See,” Hayes continued, “I know this guy, and he knows this guy who works here and he sort of… Dropped your name, you could say.”

      “Nothing bad, I hope.”

      Detective Hayes opened his mouth, hesitated, and then said:

      “Detective Horne, have you… Have you recently encountered some sort of… Creature?”

      It was the way Hayes had said ‘creature’, the careful pronunciation, the pause, the almost euphemistic quality of the word that gave Franklin a pretty good idea of exactly how his name had been dropped. Fucking, fucking Bob…

      “Look,” he sighed. “I don’t want to go into—”

      Hayes raised a finger to stop him.

      “Hold up,” he said. He reached inside his jacket and produced a plain envelope. “I approached this the wrong way, I apologize, could you please just take a look at these?” He dropped the envelope onto Franklin’s desk and sat back, regarding him thoughtfully.

      Franklin picked up the envelope; it was blank on either side. Inside was a thick wad of folded paper. He took it out, unfolded it and looked at the first page.

      “Are these familiar to you, detective?” Hayes asked.

      Each sheet was a print-out of a single photograph. The first one was familiar. It showed a car in the middle of the road with a damaged front, people in fluorescent clothing in the background, standard tragedy on the road. The second, however, was a picture of the hood, which showed two deep impressions. The windshield had shattered, judging from the shape of the hood possibly from the force of the impact.

      It was the exact same thing! The indentations even looked like claws, if you were inclined to believe so.

      “Careful with the third,” Hayes warned. “Not a pretty sight.”

      Franklin flinched inwardly as he turned to the third. Not a pretty sight indeed.

      “We are treating this,” Hayes said with careful emphasis, “as a hit and run.”

      Franklin studied the picture. He tried to look with a professional eye, checking for telling details or interesting discrepancies. But the harder he tried, the more his brain felt like it was taking a swim. Had that almost been him? There, in that car seat? He remembered the teeth, oh so many of them… He was, of course, aware that Hayes was studying him. He felt like he should say something, but his mind was failing him spectacularly.

      “Hm,” Detective Hayes said after a while. “Maybe I was wrong.” He unfolded himself from the chair and straightened his jacket. “Sorry to bother you, detective. I know we’re all quite busy, people never satisfied, so thanks for your time. Keep the prints.”

      “Hold up,” Franklin blurted out.

      Hayes, in the midst of turning away, looked back over his shoulder.

      “… Where was this?” Franklin demanded. It was a solid question, no commitment implied.

      “June Street,” said Hayes. “Right past the Sandler building.”

      “What happened, you think?”

      “Hit and run,” Hayes said. “Unassuming man, no criminal connections, stable family life, ripped apart in a gruesome and tragic car accident. Stands to reason, no?”

      Franklin glared at him.

      “We get some weird shit, though, lately,” Hayes added. He sat back down and leaned just a little bit closer. “Like the other night. 911-call from a hotel. Guy who works there is all worked up, wailing about things on the roof, some creature, a little woman… So patrol comes by, guy’s in a back room, this look on his colleagues faces when they pointed them to him. They talk to the guy and now he’s not so talkative anymore. Says he was imagining things. Thing is, they go round the building and find two cars with smashed roofs in the alley. So, they take him to the station, we give him a cup of coffee, have a chat with him, and he tells us, he got no idea what happened to the cars. He says he was stressed, imagining things, his bosses were very understanding and he just wanted to go home. Gonna take some time off.”

      Hayes nodded knowingly at that.

      “Smart man,” he said. “Why jeopardize what’s left of your career?”

      The detective paused for a moment, looked thoughtful, and then continued at a conversational tone.

      “Lots of smart men in this world. I like to think I’m one. What about you, are you a smart man, detective?”

      Franklin stared at him. A feeling crept around his heart that he had never experienced before in the seven years he was doing this job: dread. He had not mentioned the little woman except in his mysteriously vanished report. An important part of himself had resisted what the rest of him had seen, truth be told. But it was out there.

      Find the woman, find the beast. Find Ferrick, find the woman. He stood up.

      “Excuse me,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”

      Captain Totes was reading from her monitor in the manner typical to her: she stared at the screen through her half-moon reading glasses as though it would reveal a surprise if she stared long enough. Occasionally she would fumble for the mouse to spend a few seconds aiming for a button to click, or for stare at the keyboard for that one navigation key. When Franklin entered she only tore herself away from the task long enough for a quick glance over the rims of her glasses.

      “Detective Horne…” she said slowly. She paused to find and press a single button on her keyboard, and then continued to stare at the screen, pursing her lips thoughtfully.

       Franklin walked across the office to her desk, print-outs in hand, dropped them on her desk and took a step back.

      Totes now looked away from the screen and at the pictures. She pressed another button on her keyboard, rolled her chair to the middle of her desk and picked them up. There, after taking off her reading glasses, she carefully studied the first picture. Only when she had studied it into oblivion she continued on to the second. She slanted her head very slightly at the sight of it.

      “Interesting,” she admitted.

      “Third one’s the best,” Franklin said.

      Captain Totes flipped to the third picture. She studied that one with equal diligence, pursed her lips and breathed out slowly.

      “Where did these come from, detective?” she asked.

      “Lowell Street,” Franklin said. “There’s a detective Hayes here with them.”

      “I see,” said Totes. She lowered the pictures and looked at him. “So what now, detective?”

      “A man died,” Franklin said. “We have to look into this.”

      “Mm,” Totes said. “So what’s Lowell doing?”

      “Hit and run.”

      Captain Totes looked thoughtful for a while, staring at the three prints on her desk.

      “Please ask detective Hayes to come in for a moment,” she then said.

      “Yes ma’am.”

      Franklin watched the conversation from his desk. It dragged on for several minutes, very slowly, like a contest between two people on who can drop the most meaningful pause. Finally, Detective Hayes came out and Captain Totes signaled him to come back in.

      “Close the door, will you?” she asked when he entered. Franklin shut the door gently and took the seat previously occupied by Hayes.

      “Detective Hayes has shown … Personal initiative in bringing these pictures to us,” the captain said. “Initiative that I know will not be appreciated by everyone in the force.” She lowered her voice. “I think we should stay far away from this if we don’t want a piece of the disciplinary pie.”

      “He has, however, informally requested your assistance specifically in this matter, Detective Horne. So I’ll reluctantly leave the matter up to your judgment – if you can make the time between your assigned tasks. I only ask, Detective,” – and here her voice became so stern it would make his old teachers flinch – “that you do not disappoint me.”

      “Yes ma’am,” Franklin said.

      “Franklin,” Totes said, “I know you want this, but if you do this, I cannot protect you.”

      “Yes ma’am,” Franklin said, nodding. He turned his eye towards the pictures, still on her desk. With a finger he pulled the third picture partially out from under the other two and glanced at it.

      “But we’re not here to protect each other,” he added.

      “Mrhm,” captain Totes grumbled. She put her reading glasses back on. “Now get those out of here. I got enough to look at as it is.”

      “Yes ma’am.”

      When Franklin returned to his desk he found Detective Hayes there waiting for him.

      “I get you in trouble?” he asked.

      “Probably,” Franklin said. He pulled his coat off of the back of his chair and put it on as he walked towards the exit. “Let’s have lunch before you leave. You got a car?”

      “Yep.”

      “You like Thai?”

      “Nope.”

      “This week just really sucks.”

Next: Human Resource!

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