You believe you can separate fantasy from reality. You’re starting from an incorrect premise. You believe there is a difference.
–The Night Train
The storm elementals closed us and the burning stink of ozone accompanied them.
We could barely handle one. How in the world would we fight four?
As we prepared to strike, their bodies powered up and they lit up from the inside. Then with a flash of lightning and a thunderclap that threw Manny and I away from where we were standing and sliding back up the ramp in Grand Central Station, they were gone.
It took a minute until my vision came back and my ears stopped ringing.
When I finished wiping the tears from my eyes, I saw Albrecht standing there whispering to the small elemental formation surrounding the heart of the elemental we mostly destroyed earlier.
“Should I ask why you weren’t flat on your ass?” Manny was more than a little pissed and I understood.
Albrecht’s sharp-toothed grin was disturbing both from a human point of view since he was a vampire and from a personal perspective since a smile was the last thing I would have expected him to show. To us, no less. “I guess it liked me and protected me from the other elementals leavetaking. Next time, I promise to warn you in advance.”
I bet. I dispelled the lightning blade and picked up the ice cream. “We’re here. Where do you want us to go?” I looked up the platform and noticed all of the staff that bustled around the engine had disappeared while we were blinded.
“ALL ABOARD,” boomed from all around us and no place in particular.
“I guess our ride’s leaving. And me without a ticket. What now, fearless leader?”
“After you, Mr. Rodriguez.” I smiled and waved toward an opened train car door.
“Oh, no. After you, Mr. Engram. I insist.” He wasn’t smiling. “No, really, I do insist.”
“For the love of all that is unholy, we will go first. Come along, Sparky.”
Manny looked at me and mouthed silently. “He’s named it?”
“Does that mean you’re planning on keeping ‘Sparky’, Albrecht, you hardly know him, her, or it? I’m not judging. Just asking.” I wasn’t surprised he didn’t answer, he seemed totally absorbed by his interactions with the elemental.
Albrecht entered the darkened car and Sparky started glowing with a low blue light, illuminating what appeared to be a modern passenger car for a transcontinental rail. We followed staying close to the circle of light being cast by the creature. The train doors snapped shut behind us and the train began to move.
No turning back, now.
“Before we begin our journey, I would like to have the ice cream placed in the dropbox at the front of the car. Engram, you remember your way around, don’t you?”
“It looks different, but I can figure it out. Do I have to scoop or will you just eat the container as well?”
I found the door and pulled it back. I just dropped the whole bag into the hopper and closed it. Out of curiosity I pulled the door and just that quickly the ice cream was gone. No sound, no thunk, just vanished. When I was here as a kid, I learned nothing was as it appeared to be, but now with so much more experience, I was beginning to think this wasn’t even a train.
“Please be seated and take a look out of the windows.”
I was disappointed for a few minutes, it appeared to be nothing more than a subway tunnel with the occasional burst of light from passing through a station on the center express track. No one seemed disturbed by our passage, their bored expressions told me they must be seeing exactly what they expected; an express train as it zipped by.
This wasn’t a revolutionary trick, most magic worked along the same principle. People saw what they expected to see or could rationalize away what they saw with just the smallest amount of effort. This lent itself to the Agency’s mission since most people simply refused to believe in the supernatural even when confronted by it face to face.
Zombies became drug addicts, demonic possession became psychological dysfunction, the face of Jesus on a pancake could perform a miracle but only the pious would believe it, even if it actually happened. By the way, it would happen because the person believed it would, not because Jesus would manifest Himself through a pancake.
There were two thousand such pancakes, toasts, paint splotches, skidmarks, togas, coffee spills which, through the belief of people all over the world, manifested such miracles spontaneously at any one time. This belief in the power of pancakes, as well as belief in such a charged religious figure caused an interaction with the ambient Magiosphere all over the planet.
There weren’t more because so many people didn’t believe it was possible for that to happen. But there were enough that the agency was forced to take action, so they created tabloids. Funding publications like the Enquirer, the Tattler and the Star to keep misinformation out there, seeding disbelief while confusing what people thought was real.
“And you believe the Agency is clever in this trick, do you?” The sound came from a crackling speaker system in the overhead.
“Do you have to do that? Can you pick one way of communicating with us and stick with it?” I wasn’t even sure which way to face so I just sat there like I was crazy and spoke out loud to no one in particular.
We came above the ground and were heading uptown into the Bronx. I knew this route. The train blew its whistle. I opened the window, stuck my head out and saw a train on the platform ahead of us.
Stopped ahead of us. With passengers getting into the train.
The Night Train sped up. Blowing the whistle more frequently and louder, it covered the distance between itself and the train ahead in a matter of seconds.
I sat back down and strapped myself in and counted down.
When I expected to be crunching up against the Number 6 train ahead of me, I instead saw the fog grow fantastically thick and the train was gone from view, and the sound of the track disappeared as well. It was replaced with a sound similar to the fridge in my old apartment, an annoying buzz and hum, complete with the scent of food gone bad.
Then I remembered the nausea that accompanied a jump. The move to a new track, someplace else. It didn’t last long but it was uncomfortable, something you never got used to.
I felt something warm running down my lip and I realized my nose was bleeding. This never happened before. I looked at Manny and his nose was also bleeding. He had taken out a handkerchief and leaned his head back. I never had a handkerchief when I needed one so my sleeve would have to do. I pinched my nose shut, leaned back and waited for the blood to stop.
Albrecht appeared to be unaffected. Oh, goody. Am I really surprised?
The train car door opened in front of us. A light backlit the shape of a man wearing a conductor’s coat. He came into our car and the door shut behind him. The lights in the car came on, thankfully quite dim. He was a man of middling height and build. He would have been completely unremarkable except for his lack of an actual face. That and he was noisily eating ice cream.
“Your noses will stop bleeding in a minute or so. Nothing to worry about.” His eyeless face was quite a distraction. Only slightly less so than the gusto with which he consumed his ice cream. His mouth flickered into and out of existence appearing only long enough to manifest for a spoonful of ice cream and then disappeared once the spoon was out of his mouth.
At this point, nothing could surprise me. I just decided to accept everything I was about to see. I didn’t yet understand what that would mean.
I had so many questions, some Agency related but many just to understand what this thing was that I owed my life to? Start at the beginning. “Do you have a name we can call you?”
“Call me…Vita. Without me, life on Earth might have never come into existence, so I will accept that as my name. I have to admit, I am glad you did though. Dinosaurs didn’t invent anything and they hogged up the Earth for sixty-five million years. All that time and they didn’t invent, create, or do anything interesting. When I saw the meteor that ended their existence, it was the first time in my existence I did not fulfill my design.”
“Excuse me? You have been around since the dinosaurs?” Manny looked up from sharpening his sword, intrigued but trying to appear nonplussed about the revelation.
“Yes, I let those bastards die.”
“Because they didn’t invent ice cream?”
“No, Engram, because they didn’t do anything. They just existed. Sat around eating plants and each other. Every day, day after day. Nothing changed. Until that moment, the entire universe for me was this tiny blue planet doing absolutely nothing. I knew when I let the comet strike the Earth, I had changed the face of our local reality forever. My choice damned this planet.”
Albrecht looked up from his preoccupation with Sparky and asked, “What does this have to do with today and your current affliction?”
Vita walked to the window and put down his ice cream. “What do you see?” Outside the window had become black as night, there was nothing to see. At first. Then I could see tiny lights twinkling in the distance. Stars. I noticed a section of the sky was blackened out, no stars, nothing visible. A crescent of light appeared at the edge of the blackness and then I realized it was a planet. A planet with three moons.
All pretense of aloofness gone, Manny pressed his face against the glass. “Where are we? Why aren’t we dying? This looks like spaceflight to me.”
“We are looking at Primal Earth. The perfect Earth, with the idealized citizens who make the right decisions, who do things the right way and have made the most correct decisions for everyone who lives there. This is the Earth all of the others are descended from. See that third moon? There is an entire civilization built on the Darkside which acts as a launchpad to the solar colonies established in the early 1900s.”
“Can we see it up close? I always wondered what a perfect world looked like.”
“No. This is the one Earth, I can never visit. My presence would disrupt what is a golden age there. But we came here because I wanted to show you what the Agency has never truly let you understand. Your civilization is one of many, more successful than some, less successful than others and all of you are reflections of this one planet. On Primal Earth, there are three species of Homo Sapiens, intelligent raptors, no over-population, no wasteful developments, travel to the stars, and a Humanity in harmony with itself and the universe around it.”
“What about my kind? Is there a place for my people with the Dark Gift?”
“Yes, on Primal Earth, the Dark Gift is nothing more than a mutation with beneficial capacities making your people tough, durable and fearless explorers of new worlds. The bloodlust, the fear, the destruction have been tempered with wisdom and kindness.”
Color me suspicious by nature, but I simply can’t help myself. “Okay, they have a perfect world and have managed to avoid all of the catastrophes my world did and they are now happy, peaceful and one with the Universe. Why did you bring us here?”
“I have to take you to a few other places to make that clear. You might want to lean back in your chairs. The transition will be jolting.”
I had never experienced pain like this. Every nerve in my body was on fire with each dendrite complete with its own personal torturer. It seemed to go on forever. When the pain stopped, I saw my skin was swollen and distended, blood covered my entire face and I wasn’t sure if I would survive the night. Manny looked almost as bad, especially given his weakened state, only the vitality of youth kept him moving. I looked to the vampire member of our party and found him motionless, still and covered in blood. The elemental sat silently upon his lap unmoving and without any form of elemental display.
“They are dead. While they recover, we shall continue our conversation. Clean yourselves up. We’re going outside.”
I looked outside the window and what I saw was nothing less than the end of the world. Broken buildings littered the landscape of what might have been New York or Shanghai or some other sweeping metropolis whose influence was nothing less than magnificent. Remnants of buildings whose superstructures touched the sky swayed in the hot and dusty winds we experienced as we stopped the train on a section of a monorail that still had a platform near it.
“What happened here?” The air was cloying, hot, oppressive, filled with a sense of futility, of a war that had been fought and lost. Piles of sand were everywhere, and nothing green grew here. As far as the eye could see there was nothing but a war zone. Once I paid attention, I could see craters, as if bombing had taken place. I could see gun emplacements on the tops of the remaining tall buildings. This explained why the tallest were missing their tops. Someone shot them off.
“This is the result of a guardian who was unable to do his job to protect the people of this planet.” Vita stepped onto the platform and reached down to the sand covered ground and picked up a fistful of the fine brown dust. He let it blow between his fingers. The dust was pulled away in the wind.
The city was eerie in its silence. Nothing this big should be this quiet. I strained my hearing to find even a single sign of life.
Then I heard it. A wind that wasn’t a wind. The sound of an aircraft high in the sky. Then I saw it. A contrail. Then two, three, four. The primary contrail continued on but its three spawn changed direction and began to move toward our position.
“Is there something you want to tell us? Now would be a great time.”
“I failed these people. I wasn’t here when they needed me. You will help me make this right.”
“These people are dead. I don’t think we can do anything for them, now. If this was your job, you screwed it up.” Harsh, I know, but it was the truth he needed to hear.
“Don’t lecture me about duty, Ingram, Slayer of Dead Gods, Dog of the Apocalypse, what I need from you is your fury. This was a world filled with twelve billion souls just like your Earth. Are you saying you won’t avenge these people?” Vita was screaming, eyes bulging wide, standing over me and positively intimidating.
“Boss.” Manny tried to get my attention.
I got mad when he reminded me of my family name and the prophecy associated with it. I’ve run from that all my life and was content to keep running. “Avenge them? I didn’t even know they existed beyond a theoretical understanding they could exist! I see you’re having some kind of issue regarding this and it is a tragedy but there is nothing we can do for them at this point.” I grabbed his coat and pushed back trying to draw some kind of reason out of this entity I didn’t truly understand.
“The part of me stolen on your Earth, prevented me from getting back here in time. I failed them because I didn’t understand Human greed. You must help me make this right. They will not stop here. They will continue to move through the Nexus, devouring Earth after Earth until they reach yours.”
Three explosions occurred less than a mile away from where we were standing. The builders on this Earth, made things to last. The impact of the three projectiles made a lot of noise but very little dust and barely damaged the buildings they landed on. Then they started coming out of the craters.
The creatures on the ground took off, using some form of jet pack. They were humanoid in appearance and dropped out of the sky in seconds, landing all around the monorail platform and aiming strange weapons at us.
Then the howling began. The wind of an elemental burst out of the train car, surrounded with lightning reaching out to whatever was around it. The strange alien armors exploded as the creature struck one after another. After only a few seconds of local devastation, the elemental flew through the air toward the center of the landing spots and grew in size, larger until it dwarfed the sites completely a cyclone of devastation. No new units would join the hundred or so surrounding us.
Then the Vampire left the car behind the elemental. But it wasn’t exactly Albrecht any more. The Dark Gift had become completely manifest, showing him after another thousand years of evolution. His skin had turned completely black. He was swollen with lifeforce, his muscles rippled, veins bulged and his eyes blazed a fiery red. He leapt from the train car and disappeared from sight. Armors exploded one after another. Ripped apart, black blood shot from each, two or three at a time. Albrecht could be seen only for a second as he dispatched foe after foe.
Vita, Manny and I took cover as the aliens began trying to fight back, firing too slowly to track Albrecht. A few who managed to keep their heads tried firing at the three of us and their weapons shot pulses of hot blue light that destroyed whatever it hit. We began to run into the platform seeking cover. Then Manny stopped and screamed. I thought he was hit but he grabbed his head and a black energy started leaking from his eyepatch.
He lifted the eyepatch and a black light shot forth and scoured the sky. Anything it touched, died. Machine, being, technology. Only Albrecht seemed immune. A third of the invaders stopped and died. A few seconds later the black energy stopped and Manny fell over quiescent, mumbling to himself.
Then I felt it too. I was about to try and channel energy when I found myself filled with it. Not my personal qi. This was a dark and necromantic power. The power of angry souls crying out. There were thousands, no as their voice filled me I realized there were millions calling out to me. They filled me. They demanded vengeance. They demanded retribution.
They expected me to get it for them.
On the horizon, a dozen more contrails made their way toward us.
The Phoenix residing within my being, rose from its slumber. It feasted on the souls of the damned, each willingly giving themselves to it. Each increasing its already considerable power.
It took to the sky and I could not stop it. With the zeal of a million souls seeking retribution overcoming my will, I did not want to.
Vita stood and a face slowly formed, a cruel face, sharp and angular. A face that smiled a devil’s smile as the Phoenix streaked toward its prey.
Motus Vita © Thaddeus Howze 2013, All Rights Reserved