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The Alchemist's Children: Panacea

The Alchemist’s Children: Panacea

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Alchemist’s Children:

Panacea

 

J.W. McVeigh

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2015 J.W. McVeigh

 

Cover art by J.W. McVeigh

 

All rights reserved.

 

ISBN: 0692298975

ISBN-13: 978-0692298978

 

 

This is a work of fiction. All the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this book are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This book is dedicated to those who dream of becoming a legend and choose to make it happen.

“If religion were true, its followers would not try to bludgeon their young into an artificial conformity; but would merely insist on their unbending quest for truth, irrespective of artificial background or practical consequences.”

H.P. Lovecraft

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]CHAPTER ONE

 

Beyond the wet hospital window, the distorted glow of neon painted the city electronic fire. A variety of aircraft sporadically flashed across the skyline like a paintbrush, as if an invisible artist was struggling to save a ruined masterpiece. However, nothing pleasing could be pulled from those colors. The world was dying, rotting, inside and out, and it was only a matter of time until the last of its beauty was little more than legend.

A fourteen-year-old boy, dressed in worn jeans and a black t-shirt, placed his hand on the window glass and the lingering summer warmth ran up his arm. His hair was buzzed short. However, it wasn’t by choice. A little over a week ago, the golden brown had just started to grow back.

The room was dimly lit, which allowed him to look into the night without the artificial glare obscuring his view. Through his glasses, he watched the drops of water bead up on the windowpane and run like rivers of tears. He liked the rain. To him it meant luck or the closest thing to it.

On the street far below, people were moving about with their umbrellas, like ants caught up in the drive of consumption. They bounced between fast food joints and coffee shops on their way to perpetually fuel both the cycle of the industry and their wanton desires. That saturation of greed was a luxury that was so far from the mind of Callen Thorne that he could scarcely imagine what it would be like to ride the wave of humanity’s progress. He had always focused on a something that people take for granted. That something was, quite simply, living.

Callen had spent the last ten years of his life juggling cycles of partial remissions, treatments, and the failures of modern medicine. One foot was stuck in a grave that he could neither lie in nor climb out. If, for some reason, he did manage to climb out, the scent of the graveyard would forever cling to him, for one doesn’t stare into the eyes of the reaper and remain unchanged.

On the bed behind him sat his few belongings that he had packed hours ago in hope that his mother would have managed to get out of work early. His medical gown was half resting on a worn cardboard box that was full of his belongs that included his collection of 1980s action movies and variety of custom-built electronics.

The lights clicked on, illuminating a variety of medical devices, monitors, and furniture for visitors. The nurses rolled a bed into the fully lit room.

The flash stung the Callen’s eyes, but after a few blinks he saw the zombie-like face of his roommate being wheeled in on a bed reflected in the window.

Callen watched the reflection, with a grim shadow hanging over his heart, as the nurses connected the computerized monitoring system and IV bags to the subcutaneous medical implants under his roommate’s skin.

The electronics hissed on, followed by the faint gulp of a pump. Callen’s roommate winced, and his tattooed flesh rippled with goose bumps as the chemical wave hit his bloodstream.

Callen knew that pain all too well. His roommate was fresh out of a treatment, and those connections hurt at reattachment even without the extreme skin sensitivity gifted by the chemotherapy.

“Going home tonight, Callen?” Derrick gasped from his bed. He forced a smile and slid up on the pillow. The smile didn’t do much to hide his grimace. Callen didn’t answer. “Hey, earth to Peter Parker!” He coughed.

Callen slowly released his breath. He knew that this was probably the last day he would see his best friend and roommate. Soon Derrick would step into Charon’s boat.

“Don’t call me that.” Callen turned to glare at his friend. “I’m not ten anymore.” Neither the growl nor the glare had any real anger behind it, only the slight annoyed feeling, like that a younger child gets when teased by an older sibling.

“Well, you look like him, and you certainly like to invent stuff…” Derrick teased. “You read the comics quite a bit too…”

“My sister leaves them for me to read…” Callen grumbled.

“Come on, you know you’re a fan…” Derrick laughed. “But, so am I…By the way, can I have your window bed when you leave?”

“Maybe…ask Dr. James.” He took a breath. “But, it will only be until I come back.”

“Come on, man, you’re out of here. ‘Sides, if they hear you, they might make you watch that wicked good positive thinking video again.” He laughed, and then coughed.

“Have you ever watched that thing?” Callen asked. “It is all about how thoughts control your destiny. I was trying to make sense of it using quantum…”

“Stop.” He laughed. “I don’t get it when you talk all science. I don’t think anyone does, except Dr. James and his techno-nerd engineer of a son Matt, but no I don’t ever listen to it. It’s crap, ‘sides every time they put it on I hear nothing but the good stuff. Nothing’ but classic metal is on my iPod.”

Callen nodded and felt a slight tinge of jealousy. “Yeah, well, my mom can’t afford one of them. Besides, I could probably build one, just need the parts.”

Both of them enjoyed the same aged classics that were even old for their parents’ generation. In their opinion, that was music for men, by men, back in the golden age of muscle cars and muscle-bound action heroes that spit one-liners.

“That’s one way of getting the five-finger discount,” Derrick said. “But, maybe you’d have one if you didn’t use everything you had to make that e-reader or that laptop.”

Callen shrugged. He always felt weird when Derrick talked about things like stealing. It wasn’t because Callen had any particular attachment to the law. It was more because Derrick spoke of these things from experience rather than a boyhood outlaw fantasy. But, Derrick was a few years older than Callen and had experienced much of the world beyond the confines of the hospital. Derrick was a street kid through and through, and unlike Callen, didn’t know the love of a family.

He had spoken little of the time before he had been picked up by social services and Callen never asked. It wasn’t because he wasn’t curious; it was more out of respect for the baggage that his friend was carrying. Callen had weight of his own and didn’t want to walk down the path of those memories.

Although their friendship was of convenience and the unfortunate common bond of cancer, the two boys rapidly had become depend on each other, like soldiers in a war, and they were brothers.

Derrick made it his personal project to toughen Callen up, in a traditional Alpha-male sense, and Callen provided Derrick with that intellectual edge which true tough guys so often lacked. They would joke how if the world created a comic about them, and they would save the world through the blend of Callen’s brains and Derrick’s brawn.

Derrick looked especially sad today. Even the stale glow of the florescent lights couldn’t hide that. The room was now without color since Callen had taken down all the decorations his sister had drawn for him. The only thing that even resembled something that a parent would leave a sick child was a stock teddy bear that sat on one of Derrick’s monitors. He had added a hangman’s rope around its neck made of discarded medical tubing.

“I’m gonna miss you man.” Callen’s voice was sincere. “I’ll call you every day.”

“What are we, dating?” Derrick coughed. “You get out of here. You’ll forget me in a week. Everyone else does.” He tried to laugh it off, but Callen’s gaze didn’t waver.

“No, I won’t. Besides, if you’re not around, who’s gonna teach me not to be the prince of nerds?”, Callen smiled. That was Derrick’s other favorite nickname for him.

“Awww, you’re becoming the Prince of Queers now with your wicked emotions.”

“Hey, you’re the one who mentioned dating…”, Callen laughed. “Besides, you know I’m into girls.”

“Name one.”

“Ah…”

“Is the Prince of Queers still worried I’m going to die without him to hold my hand?” He shot another teasing grin.

“Well, in all seriousness…”

“Come one man, I don’t care what the doc says about my chances. Four years ago I was homeless. Then I got taken by social services. Then I got taken in by that shit foster family that abandoned me here…but because I am a ward of the state…I get everything paid for. There is no way all that stuff happened like that just to let me die here.”

“It is an interesting string of coincidences…”

“Luck.” He smiled. “Same shit that you got. Think about it, you’re still here despite all odds.”

Callen shrugged. “My dad would call that God.”

“Nah. God is bullshit. Luck is better. Luck always works in your favor. If God is so good, then why does cancer exist in the first place?” He laughed bitterly. “Screw God, I’ll take piles of luck over God any day.”

“I guess luck is good.”

“Damn right.” Derrick’s expression got serious again. “But, as luck would have it…you’re going home today.”

“Yeah, that and other stuff.”

“Like what? You leaving me here?”

“Yeah.” Callen tore off a piece of his box of belongings and produced a pen from within his pocket. He quickly jotted down his phone number. “Here,” He handed Derrick the piece of cardboard. “Call me every day, and when you’re better, you can come visit. We don’t have much room but our couch is comfortable.” He felt a little weird as he handed Derrick his phone number.

Callen’s mother was paranoid about him giving out his address and had prohibited him from using his father’s last name. But it was important for patients to have support. He couldn’t leave his friend alone. Luckily, she had said nothing about phone numbers. So he shook it off.

“Thanks, Callen. I wish I met you a long time ago. It would have been nice to have a little brother for longer. Things might have been different for me.” He started to choke up a bit, but hid it with a cough. He forced a smile. “But, I will call, and I expect you to have a nice lady friend when I do…that better be your priority when you’re a sophomore in a few months…”

“Yeah right.” Callen rolled his eyes. “Like that will ever happen.”

Both boys looked towards the door as the squeak of wet shoes, and voices came down the hall.

“Guess your mom and sister are here.” Derrick pointed out. “Time for you to go.”

“Yeah.” Callen sighed. “Home.” Worries of going back to school flooded into his head. It wasn’t the work that bothered him; it was the other students. He was always a target because the treatments had taken their toll on his body and made him small for his age. He wished Derrick was coming with him. He helped him feel tough. Luckily, it was summer, so he had some time to deal with that reality later.

“You ready, pup?” Callen’s mother, Eve, asked as she walked into the room. Her layered red hair fell loosely just above her shoulders, and underneath her light raincoat, she still wore the uniform of a cashier from an electronics store. “Sorry, we’re late. Boss was shorthanded.”

“It’s ok Mom.”

“Hi Ms. Thorne.” Derrick coughed.

“Hello, Derrick.” She smiled, but Callen knew she forced a smile. There was something that his mother didn’t like about him, but she managed to bury her emotions so only her children could see her discontent. “How are you feeling?”

“Same as always, Ms. Thorne.” Derrick coughed.

“Well, I pray that will change.” Eve pulled off her coat and rested it on a chair in the corner of the room. Despite the stress in her life, Eve looked much younger than 37 and walked with the spring of a dancer. She kept her body fit and trim, much like a gymnast. Callen got a little grossed out when he saw Derrick gawking.

Shadowing their mother was Callen’s thirteen-year-old sister, Ania, carrying a sketchbook in her arm with a pencil tucked into the binding. Her deep chestnut hair flopped with each step as she grinned with the excitement that her brother was coming home.

“Well, let me talk to Dr. James and I’ll get you signed out.” She turned and went back into the hall.

“Pup, what a lame nickname,” Derrick teased. “Who came up with that name?”

Callen scratched his head. “I have no idea.”

“Me either.” Ania moved their mother’s coat off the chair and pulled off her backpack before sitting down. “But, for some reason…it makes me think of a Native American…but with a heavy beard.” She laughed at the absurdity and placed her notebook on a nearby table and unzipped her bag. She glowed with excitement but didn’t remove anything. She leaned back in the chair and grinned.

“You know…I think the same thing.” Callen admitted with a shrug. “Ridiculous considering Native Americans don’t have beards…”

“Whatever.” Derrick shook his head and looked at Ania. “You look different, Ania. Did you do grow or something since the last time I saw you?” He scratched his bald head. “Naw, it wouldn’t be, that would be ridiculous. I saw you last week.”

“I got my cartilage pierced on Monday.” She smiled and pushed back her hair to reveal a gold loop with a small platinum bead.”

“That looks expensive…” Derrick pointed out.

She nodded. “Took some saving…because I can’t wear stainless. It makes my ears swell up.”

“They look wicked,” Derrick said.

Ania blushed a little.

A loud commotion was coming from the hall, and in walked Dr. James and Eve. “All set, pup.” Eve had three pieces of cake in her hand, which she handed to her two children and Derrick. She had brought a cake for the children in the hospital wing to celebrate her son’s remission.

“Give everyone a few minutes,” Dr. James said. He was a heavy set balding man in his late fifties. His bifocals sat low on his nose, and he had always reminded Callen of an absent-minded professor, but he was far from absent-minded. He was one of the world’s foremost experts on rare unclassifiable forms of cancer. He usually worked with children and despite the pain caused by endless streams of death, his face was kind and lightly creased like a beardless Santa Clause. He carried a clipboard under his arm and a package wrapped in brown paper.

Callen knew exactly what was going on. The nurses were moving the other children in the ward that could move into the hall to bid him farewell. It was more about the other children than Callen at this point since he had gone through the same cycle many times before. They always made it a big deal when someone went home. They had to, since so many didn’t.

Dr. James placed his clipboard under his arm and took the brown package. He handed it to Callen. “This is from all of us.” He said. “A going away present.”

Callen took the package. “Thanks.” The curiosity was swelling. His birthday wasn’t until the fall, and he hadn’t given the slightest thoughts to any presents. He tore back the brown paper and found a box. He slid it open and inside rested a roll of bubble wrap with a thin plastic rectangle inside. His eyes widened with excitement as he realized what it was. “You didn’t!” He unwrapped the computer display screen.

Dr. James smiled. “Of course we did. Matt’s project moved from alpha testing to beta testing, so he made sure to ‘borrow’ one of the prototypes. He’s sorry he couldn’t be here to send you off; he got called off on business. All the firmware is in the USB taped to the back. You’ll have to hook it up, but I’m sure that won’t be hard.”

Callen smiled. Matt James had taken a liking to Callen over the years when he would help his father troubleshoot or install new diagnostic equipment from his company in the children’s cancer ward. He had helped Matt figure out a problem with a piece of equipment, and Matt started teaching him all sorts of electrical and computer engineering concepts. Callen contributed heavily to Matt’s projects and specifically this one, a touch screen with a motion sensor for video games and other advanced graphical manipulations.

“You just have to wire it up into that Frankenstein system of yours, load up the firmware, and it will take your gaming to a whole new level.” Dr. James’ face wrinkled. “I know, the slogan is terrible. The marketing guys need to work on it.”

Ania pulled a second package from her bag and handed it to her brother. “One more. Derrick and I picked it out, but it’s from Mom too.”

Callen tore off the paper to find a box decorated with computer graphics and comic art. The box read ‘Shadowborne’ in black and army green lettering with the shadow of an elf holding a Thompson sub-machine gun.

The massively multiplayer online game had been recently released to critical acclaim. The game’ setting was WWII and layered in common fantasy archetypes into the frantic loot-based shooter.

“The next expansion is coming out in a few weeks,” Ania said. ”I…err…we got the version that gives you the expansion for free when it comes out.”

“Yeah,” Derrick said. “It’s all about an evil cult that worships some deep sea god…like Cthulu…influencing the war from the shadows…it looks badass.”

“Wow, thanks!” Callen knew that Matt was working with this game’s programmers so it will utilize the new gaming board. It was incredible; Callen was speechless and lost in the package art until a firm knock came from the door.

“We’re ready.” The nurse said.

“Come on, Callen.” Ania jumped up and grabbed her brother’s belongings from the bed.

Callen followed his sister, Dr. James, and his mother into the hall. He turned back to look at Derrick and a lump formed in his throat. He felt tears beginning to form. The excitement of gifts was something he wasn’t used to, and unfortunately dulled the pain of leaving his friend only for a mere second.

“Derrick…” Callen started to say.

Derrick leaned over the edge of the bed and pulled open a drawer on a small bedside table. He coughed as he pulled out a small electronic device wrapped in a thin white wire. He held it out. “For you.” He said with a sickly smile. “Get going. The car’s waiting.” He coughed.

“But…” Callen stuttered as Derrick dropped the iPod into his hand.

“I can’t let your sis buy presents for you from me. Tough guys don’t listen to that popular crap that passes for music these days. ‘Sides, I’m not gonna need it where I’m going.”

Callen didn’t say anything he just stared at his friend and let the tears stream down his face. He expected Derrick to tease him, but he didn’t.

“Callen?” Ania poked her head in the room. “Everyone’s waiting.” She glanced at Derrick, and she understood. She gave him a warm smile. “Get well.”

Derrick rubbed his eye and pretended an eyelash got caught in it. “Just do me two favors…one, if you put anything new in the mix, make sure it’s badass…”

Callen nodded, but didn’t even try to say another word; he knew that if he spoke he could do nothing to hold back his sobs. He just gave his friend a forlorn glance and turned towards the door hoping that this wouldn’t be the last time he saw him.

“And two, don’t look back, Callen.” Derrick choked as the tears started rolling down his cheeks. “Don’t ever look back.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]CHAPTER TWO

 

Callen kept his mind on the buildings, cars, and streetlights as the car sped down the highway. He had his new headphones pressed firmly in his ears. He hadn’t wiped the tears from his face, but he had stopped crying, leaving his skin crusty from the tears.

Accompanied by the sad cords of classic rock and metal ballads, his heart hung heavy after leaving Derrick and having the rest of the ward cheer the familiar farewell ritual. From the moment the door closed, he missed the kids in the ward. However, the lonely bedridden image of his best friend, with more tubes and wires stuck under his skin than could be quickly counted, haunted him most.

He wanted to go back, but didn’t at the same time. He could visit, but things wouldn’t be the same. Familiar faces would vanish with barely a whisper while new ones, with eyes wide with fear, would appear and struggle to accept their death sentences.

The old station wagon whined as his mother pulled the car onto the off ramp marked Marquis Point. The rusty sign was beat from harsh weather. Two of the five lights that illuminated it had long since burned out, a third flickered. Marquis Point was a place where anything could be found; anyone could be forgotten; few would even remember your face, and fewer still would care.

The car bumped and jolted as it hit pothole after pothole as it made its way past abandoned factories and warehouses. The engine creaked when they turned past a leaking stack of sandbags, which were the city’s cheep attempt to stem flooding. The car’s wheels caused a wave smash against the sandbags as they climbed out of a salty puddle into a residential area that was far from what even the most depraved would consider desirable.

Eve locked the door when the car rolled into the most habitable part of the poor urban town. She got several looks as they passed and placed her hand firmly on a handgun she kept tucked between her seat and the shift stick. The handgun was no slouch. The weapon carried .44 caliber magnum hollow points designed to tear a man in half.

Things were bad here, very bad. With the combination of economic instability and climate change, spots like these were like the Wild West under the artificial glow of the modern world.

A song about fallen angels blared in Callen’s ears as his mother parked the car outside a rundown old apartment building. The sign on the building once read ‘Silver Grove,’ but the ‘i’ and the two ‘r’s’ Had long since fallen off. There were no plants around except for a few strings of grass growing from cracks in the blacktop. A junky lay mumbling in a mound of rubble with a bottle of cheap liquor.

After climbing out of the car, Eve placed the pistol in her coat pocket, and they walked towards the entrance. She handed Callen the key to the main entrance and stepped behind him to keep her eyes on the street.

She was a cautious woman, and she wasn’t about to drop her guard. In the past few years, she had been jumped a few times, and she knew better than to walk around unarmed. Each time she subdued her attackers with anyone being injured, but the last fight would shock even the toughest of soldiers. A gang ambushed her and Ania on the way to the last day of school, and she had no choice but to step into the realm of lethality. Poor Callen had to learn of this attack on the news two weeks ago, but luckily his mother didn’t get in any real trouble. Cops in these parts just didn’t care when gang bangers die. It saves the city money.

She eyed the bum and a car as it picked up a woman or a man, and drove off towards the hourly motel.

“A wee bit wet tonight, isn’t it?” A voice with a dulled Irish accent said. A match flashed in his hand illuminating his short red beard, tiny glasses, and curly red hair. The brim of his soggy green tweed hat kept the rain off just long enough to light his tobacco in his old-fashioned pipe.

“It is.” Eve’s shoulders tensed when she saw a tarnished gold-plated magnum tucked into the front of his pants with a green clover in the handle. “I suggest you move along.”

Callen pulled the door open and turned back to his mother. Her eyes were fixed on the short man, waiting for him to try something.

The short man chuckled. “Oh, the irony,” He cooed. “Still running in circles, lass?”

“I don’t know who you think we are, but get lost,” Eve warned. “Callen, go inside.”

In youthful defiance, Callen ignored her.

The short man grinned. “Funny, isn’t it? How all manners of beasts are at home in the night?” The short man produced a gold coin as if it were from another world. He flipped it in the air and caught it. “But, then again, you know that better than, perhaps, anyone.”

“You have me confused with someone else…” Looking for the slightest movement that would identify the short man as a threat, Eve didn’t blink.

He took a draw of his pipe. “No, I’m not mistaken. But, I’ll take my leave”, He said after a long puff on his pipe. The water trickled from the brim of his hat onto his face as the creases on his face from his satirical jest faded to an ancient canvas of somberness. “You can’t run forever.” He looked at the coin and stiffened his jaw. The wind blew, and the water sprayed across all of their faces. The warm glow from the pipe embers went out. “Nothing good rides on these winds.” He looked down the street and out over the sandbags towards the sea. “Or these tides…” He chuckled at his wit. “Yes…very dark tides indeed…and it’s only a matter of time before the old world comes calling…”

“What?” Callen stepped forward, but the Irishman disappeared into the shadows of the alley from where he came.

“It’s nothing, Callen. Go inside.” Eve’s voice was biting, but it did little to hide the layer of fear in her voice. She backed in, and a bum with the bottle stirred. He mumbled something about filthy spriggans.

The door beeped and they passed the second security door. The rent-a-cop snorted, looked up from the electric glow of a smartphone and looked ravenously at Eve. She shot him a death glare, and the man went back to his device.

“What was that Mom?” Callen asked again, this time more forcefully.

“Nothing…it was just some loon, like everyone else that’s out on a night like tonight.” Her expression shifted from one of concern to one of a disciplinarian. “And next time I tell you to do something, you do it. Got it? You know where we live.” The fear shook into anger as she spoke. Her scolding was much too harsh.

Callen felt himself shake as he felt his mother’s anger and disappointment. “I’m sorry.”

Eve pulled back as if she realized how she sounded. She relaxed. “I just love you two too much. To lose you now, after all we’ve been through. I just couldn’t bear it.”

“I know,” Callen said.

They reached the elevator and Ania tapped the button. The elevator dinged open. It smelled like urine and vomit. The children didn’t dare touch anything.

Callen spotted three bullet holes. “These new, Mom?” he asked.

“Yeah.” She said. “Gunfight in the lobby a few weeks ago. Drugs, I think.”

“We gotta get out of here.” Callen shook his head. “We have to go someplace better.”

“People don’t ask questions around these places, Callen. You know we have to stay hidden.”

“I know.” He sighed. “You had me create us new identities before I started with Dr. James. It’s just that it’s horrible here.”

“I’m going to need you to do that again tomorrow. The media hid our identities, but there’s no way to be sure. We have to move.”

“Who are we hiding from, Mom?” Ania asked. “Dad? The Irish guy outside seemed to know us? Who?”

The elevator dinged, and they stepped out into the dim hall. The light in the corner flickered like a strobe. They walked towards their coffin of an apartment passing a room or two that pounded with an angry tribal beat. There were more bullet holes in the walls and Callen stepped around a bloodstain that hadn’t been part of the dingy rug last time he was home.

Eve unlocked the door with another key and entered the stale room. She flicked on the light. A cheap chandelier dangled from the ceiling, and a few pieces of old furniture sat in front of their TV on milk crate. A cockroach skittered under a jury-rigged mess of circuitry lay next to it that Callen built so they could enjoy free TV programs.

Years of neglect had matted the carpets, and Eve had long since given up trying to clean the years of filth from the place. No matter how much she scrubbed, Marquis Point could never be washed off. The dirt became a part of anything and anyone inside of it.

She headed into the kitchen to make dinner while the two children headed down the short hall towards their room.

Two twin beds rested near the walls, a single barred window between them. The room had a few other pieces of furniture including a desk, two chairs, and a table covered in electronic parts. The room looked like an electronic graveyard that Ania or Eve never bothered to straighten because Callen knew exactly where everything was. Neither of them wanted to disturb his inventions.

The walls hung with hand drawn sketches of a variety of superheroes, movie characters, and beasts from mythology. Ania’s hand put even the greatest digital artists to shame.

Ania placed her brother’s box next to his bed and sat down on hers. They weren’t more than three feet apart. “So, how long is it going to take for you to install the new screen?”

“Only an hour or two.” He said. “I helped designed it so it will go quick…”

“Mom’s taking us shooting tomorrow.” She sounded excited, as if shooting was something they both loved doing. “But, then we gotta go to summer camp at the Y.”

“Mom said we’re moving. So we shouldn’t have to be there for too long,” He sighed. “Not looking forward to that.”

“Least it’s better than school.”

“Not by much.” Callen sighed.

“Maybe for you. You only get to go to school between remissions and you get those tutors when you’re not there.”

“Yeah, and everything they teach me I can do in my sleep,” Callen said. “Matt has taught me more than the school could in thirty years.”

“Well duh…Matt’s one of MIT’s top grad students and a chief engineer at Nextigen. So, I guess you’re right, considering you’re being taught by the best of the best in the top tech company in the world. But still, I just wish we could go to one of those better districts or prep schools when we go back,” Ania said. “Matt told me we would burn through the best schools and probably start college in a year. Then we could get all of us out of places like Marquis Point for good.”

“Yeah, I just wish he completed getting me into MIT.” Callen sighed. He began rummaging through his box and pulled out his laptop. He placed the computer on his bed and flipped open the screen. He started looking around for something.

“Here,” Ania handed him a multi-tool from the table.

“Thanks,” He took the tool and picked up a remote control that was on his desk. “So, Terminator 2, Aliens, or Expendables?”

“Terminator 2,” Ania answered. She looked at their shelf that was full of a variety of DVDs. She grabbed the box and put it into the DVD player.

After starting the movie, Callen began removing the old screen.

“So, what does that thing do?” Ania looked at the new screen.

“It’s a specialized sensor screen designed for competitive gaming and will add another method of input for programs I write. I need to figure out how to use these motion sensors and these micro-projectors. If I had the compatible games, I could make a holographic image appear in my hand for my shooters…that, I just may be able to do with a few more pieces of tech…maybe…I could use the 3d glasses…and edit the game’s source code…”

“Cool,” She nodded her head. “I don’t understand exactly, but making games cooler sounds awesome.”

Callen worked for the next few hours getting the device installed. As he worked his imagination wandered and seeds of ideas for new computer programs, malware, and such grew in his head. He had created countless programs, for all sorts of applications.

Callen was a hacker. He had viruses for everything, deleting information, rewriting log files, stealing information and causing system overloads. But, he wasn’t the bad kind, at least in his opinion. He took it on himself to attack hackers that preyed on others, and wrote code for tracing, and infecting just about any system. He liked to think of himself as the Batman of cyberspace. He even had a Guy Fawkes mask hanging next to his desk.

Sure, he bent the law, but he never broke it, with the exception of stealing a hand full of IDs from dead people, like his mother asked every time they moved. The few names he stole never hurt anyone, save maybe a government record keeper or two, and he knew his way around cyberspace too well to ever get caught.

“Callen, can you describe the bunny-man again?” Ania asked as she tapped a pencil on her lip. She curled up against the wall with her pad resting on her knees.

“Shut up,” Callen said. “Leave me alone.” He didn’t even bother to look up from his project.

“Don’t be Grumpy!” She said. “But, I’m not teasing. Tell me. I’m drawing a comic, and he’s gonna be the main character’s guardian…”

Callen let out a low growl. “Fine.” The bunny man was Callen’s imaginary friend from when he was a child; at least that’s what the doctors wrote it off as. He had been teased mercilessly when he started elementary school and didn’t like talking about it. He knew the bunny-man was real, even if everyone else said he wasn’t. The only one to ever say anything one way or the other was his mother. “I don’t remember much. Except he was white, copper stains…or tattoos…on his fur, and dark hair on the back of his head, like dreadlocks.”

“All right,” Ania began to sketch again.

“And one glowing blue eye. The other…well, I don’t remember, but it didn’t glow.” Callen added, and he went back to work. He screwed the last pieces in place finishing the hardware install. He powered up the computer. The operating system that he, himself, had built began to load. He loved open source programs. He could get software for free, modify it how he wanted, and make completely superior programs, including entire operating systems. “So, what’s the comic?” He asked.

“Hmmm?”, it took Ania a second to process his question as she finished a line. “Oh, it’s about a cat-girl who can control the four classical Greek elements through speaking to elementals. She has a bunny swordsman that protects her…and teaches her swordsmanship. Mountain gorilla barbarians slaughtered her tribe, and the two are unlikely companions united against a common enemy. They become friends and end up taking down the evil empire in the story. You know the classic story with a sprinkling of ideas from various places.”

“Sounds cool.” His system finished powering up.

The first thing he did was connect his computer to his wireless router to make sure that everything was working since the last time he was home. The quiet rush of cyberspace washed into his upgraded system.

Unlike the majority of their generation, Callen and Ania didn’t have their lives displayed online. However, that wasn’t just because of their mother. Callen knew the risks associated with electronic forms of social indulgence and how to keep his sister and him hidden, even if many of their video games required certain online profiles. In cyberspace, he was an undetectable digital ghost that prowled between the layers of computer language and could slip quietly into any system his heart desired to pluck or place anything he wanted without the slightest trace.

He loaded the firmware to run the most complicated aspects of his new piece of equipment. In the blink of an eye, the files loaded and began installing.

Leaving the hospital, no, leaving his best friend to die began to resurface in his consciousness. He swallowed hard as he watched the bar complete, and the new software began running its checks. He instantly thought of the security cameras and knew he could check it out, maybe even catch a glimpse of his friends. Then, he could start his new game.

He paused the movie and activated the new screen. His eyes washed over with light. He felt an itch in his head. He reached to scratch it, but it didn’t stop. So, he ignored it. He was conditioned to ignore even the worst of pain.

He moved his fingers across the keyboard and touch screen dragging, activating, and dropping all kinds of programs as he began working his way into the hospital’s main computer system. Everything in the most modern buildings was moving towards computerized integration for things like door locks and temperature controls. Everything was networked, and that meant they were all his, if he wanted them to be.

Static and strange code that he had never seen before began scrolling through the text window as he hacked. Something wasn’t right and if felt it grow in the pit of his stomach. He made sure his security programs were all running just in case a virus had infected the hospital’s computers. He loaded his favorite rapidly replicating virus that was built to overload an infected system and prepared to fire it if he noticed any threats. He checked for streams of data, and the only one he saw was the strange code in the black and white text box scrolling on his screen.

He tried to access the security cameras, but he got only static. He tried to detect a cell phone, a camera phone or maybe a personal laptop with a webcam, but there was only static. He turned towards his sister. “Something’s not right.”

“What?” Ania asked. “What’d you do now?”

“I just wanted to check on Derrick.” He scratched his head. “The hospital is…well…nothing is working. I can’t even pull up a video feed from the security cameras.”

“Probably doing maintenance.” Ania offered.

Callen shook his head and looked at the gray screen. “Not this at time of day.”

Their mom called from the other room. Dinner was ready. The two children headed into the dreary kitchen and sat down at the slightly rusted old table.

The food was hot and looked delicious. Eve had cooked one of Callen’s favorites, chicken, red mashed potatoes, gravy, and garlic green beans. Pulled pork and pizza were his other two favorites.

Eve handed both her children plates and forks. The three of them then began loading their plates like starving wolves. Being a vegetarian, Ania ignored the meat and covered a tofu block with some Asian sauce.

Eve was an awesome cook so Callen couldn’t wait to eat. He stuck his fork in his gravy-coated potatoes first and inhaled the delicious aroma.

“Wait,” Ania said, just before Callen took a bite. “We have to say grace.”

“When did this start?” Callen sounded irritated. “No one ever says that anymore.”

“Well, maybe we should start,” Ania said. “Mom said Dad used to.”

“He left us,” Callen said bluntly. “You were too young to remember. He left us when I got sick, and now, we have to hide from him.”

“Callen,” Eve said warmly. “Relax, and you know it isn’t your father that we are hiding from.”

“Then who?”

“Now’s not the time.”

“Then when?”

“Let your sister say grace.”

“Fine.”

Ania placed her two hands together and closed her eyes. She whispered The Lord’s Prayer and offered thanks for dinner.

Callen coughed and not on purpose. He put his fork down. His head started to pound.

Before Ania said Amen, Eve cut her off. “You okay, Callen?”

“Yeah.” Callen struggled to suppress his cough.

“Let’s just eat.” Ania sighed. She looked sadly at her brother. “I guess God doesn’t want our prayers.”

After eating, Ania clicked on the TV while Callen helped his mother clear the table. His belly was full, and he had let the misplaced concern about not being able to get into the hospital’s system behind. Ania was right. They were probably just doing maintenance.

Callen noticed his sister had clicked on the news as he washed off his plate.

The screen flashed with stories the sad state of the world coated with a heavy dose of celebrity gossip. The picture went static for a second and then the image blinked back. It was an old T.V., so it did that often.

Callen grabbed a glass of water and headed back to his bedroom. He half paid attention to a commercial about electronic prosthetics and pharmaceuticals. When the news came back on, he ignored latest news update about corporate negotiations with the government to purchase bankrupt cities in efforts to combat an exploding national debt. However, the news anchor suddenly swore, and it caught Callen’s attention.

“Wait…what?” The news anchor interrupted. “Hold on…this just in.” His startled tone caught Callen’s ear. “Breaking news from Boston. St. Luke’s children’s hospital has just been the victim of a horrific tragedy.” The anchor paused and looked off screen as his microphone went mute.

Callen dropped his glass.

“Callen!” Eve yelled from the kitchen, at the sound of the glass getting dropped. “Oh my…” She joined her children in staring at the TV.

Images flashed of police cars, ambulances, and all other sorts of chaos. The camera panned across the side of the hospital, which revealed no structural damage. The flashing blue and red police lights highlighted dark liquid smears on several of the windows. Hazmat tents and heavily armed police were setting up a parameter around the hospital. However, the scene was only visible for a few more blinks of an eye before a static bar rippled across the picture. “Excuse me, the authorities have made their first statement about the tragedy. There was a boiler explosion that took out an entire wing of the hospital.” The anchor announced. With a flicker of the TV, the images soon changed to suit the updated report of a gas explosion.

“What?” Ania gasped, noticing the discrepancy in the image. “These images are…doctored…by…” She looked at her brother, but he didn’t look away from the picture.

The mood in the apartment sank. Callen didn’t know what to do. Memories of the other children waving good-bye and his friend as he lied in his hospital bed flashed before his eyes. They were all gone. He heard his heart beating in his ears, the sounds of his mother and sister’s horror or their attempt at comfort blended with the TV. He understood nothing they said. He was somewhere else and soon he fell asleep working on his computer.

 

 

 

 

 

[]CHAPTER THREE

 

After hours of playing his new game to keep his mind distracted from the hospital tragedy, sleep claimed him in his computer chair. Despite the awkward position, he slept, and memories locked deep in his mind filled his dreams.

“Hey Daddy!”, Callen sounded happy. His four-year-old, almost five-year-old, hands held a small Lego space fighter. “You’re home early!”

Callen sat on the floor surrounded by a plethora of Lego pieces and a few partially built projects. Shades of blue and dark cherry molding that matched the furniture decorated the room. The warm light casted very few shadows in the room and made his father’s face seem even more kindly as he stepped inside.

His father wore a worn UPenn sweatshirt and a pair of jeans and was carrying a short glass filled with an amber liquid and two ice cubes slowly melting in it. Under his arm, he carried a leather-bound book.

“It’s your birthday.” He rubbed his neatly kept beard with his free hand. “I thought you would want to do some building before presents tonight.”

“Yeah!”, Callen cheered.

“Mommy and Ania just left to pick up your cake and a few more last minute things.” He smiled and placed his book and drink on the Callen’s dresser. “So, how you are feeling today, Pup?” His father lowered himself to the floor, and a small silver Celtic cross fell out between the unbuttoned collar of his shirt. He tucked the cross back inside.

Callen shrugged. “Hurty.” He rubbed his bruised shoulder. “Too many needles.”

“I’m sorry, Pup.” He said. “I had to do those tests yesterday. It will help me make you feel better.”

Callen nodded slowly and touched a spot for inserting a tube into his chest. He pushed on it with his small hand and bit his lip. “It stings still.”

“Don’t push on it.” His father shook his head. “Did mommy give you medicine?”

Callen nodded. “Yeah.”

“Good. Would you rather get some sleep than play Legos?”

Callen shook his head. “No Daddy. Building makes me feel better.”

“Yeah, me too.” Alex glanced towards the Lego spaceship that Callen placed on his knee. “Now show me the ship.”

“Okay!” Callen smiled and held it out for his father.

“That’s a nice one.” His father sat down next to him and took a look at the ship as Callen held it out. “Wow! Quite an improvement over your last design.”

“I listened Daddy.”

“You certainly did. Each piece provides mechanical support and adds to artistic design. I don’t think you could break this one by just dropping it.”

Callen shook his head. “Nope! I tried, and only the decorations broke off. It’s solid.”

His father smiled. “When building things you always got to pay attention to how the pieces interact. The placement of each piece must complement the whole design.”

Callen nodded. “Yeah. Daddy, can we build a base?”

“Of course.”

Callen smiled deviously. ”I want to build something weird.”

“Ok, like…?”

“Well, I wanna build a castle with a secret base connected to it that has spaceships and computers.” Callen smiled excitedly. “And then we can make you, me, and the bunny-man. And we can be there and then we can make some robots and some bad guys and we can fight them!”

“Sure.” Alex laughed. “But, I don’t see any robots. How about you build the robots, and I’ll build a castle, deal?”

Callen nodded. “But, I want the castle to have a bust away wall?”

“Deal.”

“Can I make the robots have a weakness?”

“Of course! Everything has a weakness. Sometimes they are hard to find, but they are always there. Make it tough. Then you, me, and the bunny-man can find a weakness to save the day when we play.”

“Yeah!” Callen smiled. “Should I build Mommy and Ania too? What about Grandpa or Uncle Balkor? I want to build Uncle Balkor’s truck…you know, the one with all the cool weapons in the back? Or maybe his boat…”

“We can make whatever you want, Pup. But, let’s build the robots and the castle first.”

They began rummaging through the giant pile of Legos.

**********************

 

Callen gasped as he was jolted awake by a large thud. He rubbed the back of his neck and wiped the dried tears from his eyes. “Dad,” the word brought the feeling of abandonment when the whisper rolled over his lips.

The clock at the bottom of the screen turned 2:56 AM. There was another thud. He ignored it. Loud noises were quite common in this place. Someone was either listening to loud music or slamming around drunk, fighting or both.

His headphones had fallen out of his ears and were pulsing with the Guns and Roses version of Knocking on Heaven’s Door. He clicked off Derrick’s, now his, iPod and wound the headphone cord around it.

The room was dark, save for the multi-colored electric glow of his computer. He looked backward and saw Ania had long since gone to sleep. How he fell asleep in his chair felt like the dream he had just exited. He vaguely remembered the news program, but it didn’t seem real.

He stood up and headed to the bathroom. He flicked the light on, and a cockroach skittered out of sight. He hated this place, and he especially hated cockroaches. The dream of his Dad reminded him how good their lives were before.

He flushed the toilet, washed his hands, and filled a paper cup. He drank the water and gagged a little at the taste of chlorine. He stared at his reflection in the cracked mirror.

A touch of anger lurked below his frozen surface. He wished he could catch that cockroach and make it suffer. It was as if tearing each disgusting brown leg off its body would somehow bring his dad back, resurrect his friends, stop his cancer from ever returning, and get his family out of this hole.

He took another swig of water. He knew in his rational mind that torturing an insect would solve nothing. He closed his eyes slowly, and hoped to see any of the faces that have disappeared from his life, but nothing came.

Thud.

He opened his eyes, and the bathroom shook slightly, like something had just smashed into the wall. “He’s beating her again,” Callen whispered. “I wonder if the cops will show up this time. Poor woman.”

Thud. The plaster chipped.

“He’s gonna be jailed for murder.” He whispered. When a shriek came from deeper in the complex and fell silent, he let out a sigh.

He hated how Ania thought Dad left because of some domestic dispute with their mother. To Ania, their father was the root of their misery and in a sense, she was right. But Callen knew her demonization of their father was merely a product of her pain filling her emptiness. There was nothing he could do to break the illusion, for it was of emotion and not logic. She blatantly ignored the fact that anyone who laid a finger on their mother would end up losing their arm. Emotions and logic didn’t mix.

He left the bathroom and saw a sliver of light coming from his mother’s room. He saw her seated on her bed reloading her handgun. Gun cleaning supplies sat on a towel in front of her along with a tomahawk. She had a headset plugged into her ear. Her rosary, which she almost never used, hung from her neck. She put the handgun down and picked up the tomahawk. Callen could see the swirls of dark steel and metallic blue on the blade. A strange combination of Native American and Celtic designs decorated the dark wooden handle.

“I understand, Dad,” Eve whispered as she looked at the razor sharp edge. “But, I can’t believe it. After all this time?” She sighed. “Yup, I’ll be ready.” She packed ammo and other gear into a military backpack. “We can get the children up at first light. I know you’re sorry, but I don’t see another choice. See you soon.”

Callen placed his hand on the door to push it open, but the pale light from his bedroom suddenly flashed red. Without a second thought, he ran back towards his room. Red meant a computer attack. Something had hacked his network, and something was breaking through his firewalls on his newly upgraded system.

He franticly began checking his computer’s status. For now, the firewalls were holding. He opened the network status to see that there was one unknown icon linked to his network. The icon flickered and changed as if his system had a hard time recognizing what the device was that was connected to the network. It flashed a few strange glyphs and settled on a skull-like glyph that was missing the bottom jaw and had four tentacles in place of its teeth. “What the…?” He whispered. “Not good. Not good at all. Gotta be some hacker’s symbol.”

The computer flashed another warning. The intruder was communicating through Callen’s network to something outside it, like the intruder was some proxy system. He pulled up the data feed. The window began scrolling with static and strange glyphs. The glyphs looked as if they were a blend of Egyptian hieroglyphics, kanji, Viking runes, and other obscure symbols.

His heart skipped a beat. It looked like what he saw on the hospital computers. His gut told him that the intruder was going to hijack his system’s computing capacity. When whatever he was trying to do finish, he was going to erase his tracks with a virus bomb.

In the hospital, there was stuff to steal, like personal information, but there was no profitable information of Callen’s computer. In fact, he made sure there was nothing personal on it. However, the “why” could be answered later. He had to do something now. There was no way he was going to let some hacker get the best of him.

Thud. There was another smash, but this time it was from somewhere else in the apartment building. The room shook. A large crack ripped across the outside wall. He ignored it.

He brought up his hacking program and began running a scan, but there was nothing. There were no backdoors. Whatever it was that had broken onto his network was impossibly secure.

He began to panic, and his head started to itch. The communication stream and the fact that it wanted onto his computer was key. If he could translate part of the encryption, he might be able to insert his overload virus into the intruder as it opened a port to connect with his system.

Data flows both ways. If he dropped his firewalls and fired his virus encrypted with the same symbols, the intruder would recognize Callen’s signal as a friend. It would accept the virus. At that point, it would be too late for him to attempt any sort of counter measure against Callen. He just needed the proper glyph. He started to set his trap. It was a long shot and a nearly impossible hack, but he didn’t have a choice.

A loud creak came from the fire escape, but Callen focused on his hack. The glyphs scrolled across the text window. His hacking program struggled to make the translation. It wasn’t going fast enough. The code was extremely complex, whatever was receiving it was incredibly complicated as well. He cursed. Whatever was on his network was like nothing he had ever seen. He felt a buzz in his brain as a particular ridged circular glyph scrolled across his screen. That was the execution glyph. He knew it in his gut. He bypassed the translation program and started the virus transcription. He hoped he was right.

Another loud creak came from the fire escape, followed by several more. The metal groaned.

Callen turned to look at the window in time to see the glass shatter. A dark blur moved through the maelstrom of shards glittering with the red light from the computer.

The shape landed crouched on all fours and slowly lifted its skull-like head. The pale glow from the computer revealed sharp artificial, yet organic, angles across its demonic body. Under patternless patches of stitched foreign skin, moved dark metal parts and strands of muscles with the color of polished graphite.

The demon’s eyeless face turned towards Callen and the tentacles that hung from its upper lip flexed like a scorpion’s tails as it hissed. It crouched as if to pounce and brought the blade on its barbed tail up over its head. Its claws, tail, and tentacles glistened with a thin coating of slime.

Fear paralyzed Callen. Somehow, through the flesh knitted and folded over where eyes should be, he knew it was staring at him. The creature that was inching towards him was without a soul. The dark fibrous muscles flexed beneath the rotten flesh and the putrid scent of burnt ozone stung his nose.

Ania screamed, and the monster twisted towards the new sound. It hissed and circled closer to Ania as if she were a mouse huddled in the corner futilely protecting herself with her pillow and teddy bear.

The door to the room busted open, and Eve entered, like a Special Forces commando. The old door’s rusted hinges snapped from the force and fell to the floor. “Callen, Ania, run!” The first pop from her revolver filled the room forcing the children to cover their ears. She took aim one handed and tossed Callen the military bag. “Take this and go!” She fired again.

Sparks flew from the monster as the rounds glanced off of it. The monster spun to face its new threat.

Despite the needles of paralyzing fear, Callen managed to catch the bag.

Eve rolled as the creature took its first swipe. It was fast, very fast, but Eve was even faster. Its strikes hit only air. She angled herself behind it and unloaded the rest of her cylinder. Plaster erupted off the walls from the ricochets. The bullets did nothing.

One of the ricochets skimmed Callen’s cheek. He cried out in a blend of pain and surprise. Eve’s attention dropped from the creature just for split second. Just long enough for the monster’s elbow to connect with the side of her face and the tail to pull her feet out from under her.

“Mommy!” Ania screamed.

Eve hit the ground hard with a stream of blood erupting from her mouth accompanied by the sound of cracking bone. “Run!” She gagged. She coughed and pulled herself back against the broken door as far away as she could get from her children.

The monster slowly backed into its predatory crawl stalking Eve, savoring the kill. It stopped before her and flexed its razor sharp talons and pulled its hand back to deliver its final strike.

Eve was cornered. Blood oozed into her left eye as she struggled to reload her pistol with a speed loader she pulled from her jacket pocket.

Its strike was too fast for the gun. She dropped it and pulled her tomahawk as she narrowly evaded it. She sprang underneath its elbow away from its bladed hands. Her hand flashed and the razor sharp blade connected with the creature’s face. Sparks flew and the creature’s head reeled from the attack. A split from the tomahawk’s fine edge opened a deep slash of the creature’s face tearing through sewn flesh and the dark weave underneath. However, even with the appearance of a viscous fluid, it didn’t slow.

Eve positioned the tomahawk to slice into the creature’s neck, but it drove its elbow hard into her shoulder dropping her to her knees. She dropped the knife and supported herself with that same hand. She looked up at the monster while choking a little on her blood. It paused with its head at an angle just for a second as if it was taunting her. It hissed, and its tail blade tore across her torso. The four tentacles raked across her face as she leaned forward to avoid the tail blade.

Eve screamed. Chemicals rushed through her blood stream, and her vision twisted. She coughed for her children to run, but fear had petrified. Another swipe from the tail sent her stumbling backward into Ania’s desk. The desk splintered and her back broke. Her words were gargled with blood and chemical paralysis as she crumbled.

The demon hissed again and prepared to deliver the final blow. It dug its front claws into the broken desk. It leaned its horrible deformed skull over the fallen woman. Its tentacles spread as it moved its face towards Eve’s.

The light on the computer flashed blue. The shadows on the creature’s face shifted, reviling an unholy weave of bone, metal, and electronics buried beneath the rotting skin and black webbing. The tentacles moved to engulf Eve’s head. It’s hot breath that reeked of infection filled Eve’s nostrils and slime dripped onto her cheeks. Ania screamed.

The flash from his computer and Ania’s scream pulled Callen’s gaze from the horrid abomination. His eyes went to his computer. His hack was complete and it was nearly waiting for him to give the command for it to send the virus. His heart fluttered, but he couldn’t be sure what was receiving the signal. Or could he?

His mind worked quick, stringing together the clues. None of this was a coincidence. It had to be the monster that was about to kill his mother. Her conventional weapons had done little to slow the monster. Perhaps it’s weakness was what Callen knew best. It was a long shot, but he didn’t have any other options. The creature was too fast for him and his sister to out run. He couldn’t let his family die. The feeling of desperation in his gut was the final push that broke his paralysis. His computer was their last chance.

His fingers flew over the computer. He dropped the firewall as the demon’s tentacles entangled Eve’s face. His mind felt as if it were connected to the computer and in response, it sung with a symphonic grace of zeros and ones. He tapped the final note, and a jolt ran through the creature’s body. He bit his lip and turned.

The tentacles slowed. Her mouth had been forced open by the some of the tentacles and others begun to burrow into her skin.

Ania ducked a slow swiping tail as she pulled her mother’s head out of the creature’s tentacles. With a little effort from girl, her mother fell free. The staggered creature attempted to swipe at the women. Before it hit her, Callen’s computer virus froze it in place. Although, the rasp of a faint breath came from deep in its chest. The creature wasn’t completely mechanical.

“Mom?” Ania yelled as Eve’s eyes rolled back into her head.

Eve struggled to say something, but her tongue was heavy from the chemicals. The wave of unconsciousness washed over Eve as she lay on the blood-soaked carpet.

Callen rushed to his mother’s and sister’s side. He checked his mom’s pulse like he had seen dozens of times in the hospital. “She’s alive. Grab me a sheet.” He ordered.

Ania tore one off her bed and Callen attempted to bind his mother’s wounds. However, he was no medic. He couldn’t stop the bleeding. His hands, knees, and poor bandage were soon slippery with blood.

“She’s alive.” Ania sobbed.

Callen struggled to bind her wounds. He worked harder, not smarter, and the panic grew in his chest. He had seen death before, far too many times, but he had never been soaked in the fluids of life as it left the body.

“Callen!” Ania choked as she stared at the demon. “Its finger moved… It’s not dead…”

He didn’t know how he was going to get their mother out of the apartment, but he grabbed her arms as if he were going to drag her.

“Lad, stop!” A Scottish, or perhaps a deep Irish, sounding voice said from the doorway.

The man was short and almost as wide as the door. His black clothing and dark weathered skin helped him blend into the shadows caused by the dim light from the computer. His mouth was invisible because of a large gray braided beard, not characteristic of a Native American. Along with the Native American decorations in his beard, a feather of an eagle hung from the back of his wild mane. He was wearing a pair of strange goggles and a large shotgun of custom manufacture that hung from a tactical strap comfortably clipped around his shoulders.

He looked at the frozen demonic thing with a look of amazement just for a brief second before kneeling down to check Eve’s vitals. Worried wrinkles crossed his forehead. He released the gun’s handle and began tapping on what seemed to be a keyboard that only he could see. He adjusted something on his goggles then paused for a second to look Eve as if he was scanning something. “Lad, she’ll make it, but I gotta be a getting her to me truck. We gotta get her out of here fast. Them things got bad poison in their tentacles and tail.”

“Ah, okay.” Callen sounded overwhelmed. But, it wasn’t just the monsters. There was something familiar about the old Native American. “Grandpa?” Callen whispered.

“Aye, pup. I be Corth Greftar. Yer mum’s adopted pop, but we’ll talk about that later. Let’s go, the both of you. Hurry.” He took the sheet from Callen and finished binding Eve’s wounds. Before hoisting Eve onto his shoulders, he slid her tomahawk into his belt. “We don’t have a lot of time.”

The demon’s tentacles began to stiffly squirmed. It tried to hiss. The faint rasping sound was louder this time, almost like it was trying to breath.

There was no way Callen was going to leave his computer behind, not after it saved their lives. He grabbed it, Derrick’s iPod and multi-tool off his desk and shoved them into the military backpack his mother had tossed him. “Ania grab some us some clothes.”

He was in a t-shirt and boxers while Ania wore flannel pajama pants and a sweatshirt. She grabbed a shirt and pair of pants for each of them from a pile on the floor, and they followed Corth out into the hall.

The demon tried to move after them, but it stumbled to the ground.

The dim hallway was littered with bodies and soaked with blood. The moans of the dying mingled with the sounds of the flickering hallway lights. The scent of pierced bowels and bile filled the hallway, and they stuck to the floor as they walked and climbed over broken chunks of wallboard.

In the flicker, a mutilated innocent’s head, still attached to its body, fell from the tentacles of a second demon in the doorway of another apartment. Chunks of skin looked like they had been peeled off. Callen could have sworn its victim was still alive. It dropped the mangled body and moved to attack.

He turned his eyes from it’s hapless victim, only to rest his gaze on the demon, who had different pattern of fresh flesh dangling from its metallic body and no cut across its face. “Oh my god!” Callen yelled in horror. “There’s more of them!”

“Go lad!” Corth yelled as he turned down the closest stairwell. He raised his shotgun and fired. The slug hit the demon like a battering ram, but it only knocked it flat. It struggled to its feet as the children and Corth descended.

A third leaped from the second-floor hallway, decorated in its hellish wake, narrowly missing their grandfather. It landed like a cat against the wall. The blood and bits of flesh from its victims slipped free from its metal skin and slapped against the crumbling wall. Somehow, the old wall supported its weight and the demon sprung after them.

“How many of those things are there?” Callen yelled.

“No idea, but keep running, lads. Get to the black truck!” Corth moved like Eve’s weight on his back was nothing. “Catch!” he tossed Callen the keys. “Start the truck!”

Despite the threat of the demons, the keys flew in a perfect arch. Callen easily caught them.

Corth pulled out a device. He clicked the button and mumbled something about “Felix” and “better work.” He tossed it into the stairwell and fired another round knocking the third demon down as he followed the fleeing children.

The stairwell exploded as the three escaped the building. The building collapsed. The dirty building called Silver Grove Apartment no more as it should have been long ago.

Callen opened the truck and started it up from the passenger seat. It smelled of peat and tobacco.

Ania climbed in the back and held her mother’s head as Corth tossed Eve in the back seat. He slammed the door and jumped in the driver’s seat. He jammed the pedal and sped off as the two demons pushed their way out of the rubble.

The car shook as something landed in the truck’s bed. Ania screamed as the third demon’s claw smashed through the window. She rolled to the floor as glass sprayed through the cabin.

Their Grandpa popped the truck in reverse smashing the creature into the back of the cabin. He hit the accelerator, jammed the break, and accelerated again. The creature went flying off as the truck screeched down the street.

The other two caught up with the third and they followed. “They’re coming…” Callen sounded frantic. “And gaining…”

“Not for long.” Corth moved his hand over the dashboard, but he touched nothing but air. All of a sudden, the truck flew forward, like a drag racer.

“Mom is dying!” Ania shouted. “Her…colors are fading…”

“Hold on Evy, hold on,” Corth muttered as he took a few turns completely losing the creatures in the process. They just weren’t fast enough to keep up. “Lass, there is a box under the seat marked first aid. Grab it.”

“First aid? She needs more than…” Callen started.

“Lad, trust me.”

“Got it.” Ania opened the box. She looked at the strange metal gear, needles, glass vials, and injection gun. “Ummm…”

“The red vial first. It be snapin’ into the gun. Hold the gun over every wound and pull the trigger, lass.”

Ania followed directions and thick foam filled Eve’s wounds with a loud sucking sound.

“Fook, those fookers be fast.” Corth glanced out the side window. “They are usin’ the roofs. We gotta get out of the city fast.” He began muttering a Hail Mary.

Callen noticed he had a headache, and his face was bleeding from where the bullet skimmed his cheek. He ripped off a piece of his shirt and applied pressure to it. It stung.

The truck buckled as one landed on the roof. The children’s grandfather tapped another space like there was an invisible button. “Hold tight lads.” He took a hard right onto the highway smashing through a concrete barrier with no damage to his car. The demon lost its balance and rolled out of the truck smashing through the debris and the window of a closed flower shop.

Another landed in front of them as they turned. The truck plowed into it smashing it through the concrete wall of the on ramp. The creature went under the truck and spun out behind them.

“What the hell are those things?” Callen pulled on his jeans.

“Demons…maybe,” Corth answered.

“Anything else I need to do?” Ania interrupted.

“Aye.” He said. “Load the orange one. And inject it into her arse.”

“Ah, excuse me?” Ania said.

“The arse…err…butt cheek, lass.”

The aerosol sound hissed again. “That it?” She asked.

“Aye. She just be needing a doctor.”

Ania used the sheet to pad her mother’s head. Then she pulled on her jeans.

“I think she will hold out a bit longer. She is a tough one. Hang on Evy.” He made the sign of the cross on his forehead.

“I can’t believe you’re here, Grandpa,” Callen stated as he stared at the stout bearded man.

“Aye, lad. Glad yeh remember. It has been far too long, lads, far too long.”

“Where have you been all these years?” Callen yelled. “I haven’t seen you since Dad…”

“Yeah, and I’ve never met you!” Ania added.

“Yeh met me lass…yeh were just a wee lass then…yeh may not remember. But as fer where me be all this time, it be a wee bit complicated.”

Ania shook her head with frustration and confusion. “Tell us what is going on!” She yelled. “Mom is nearly dead; you crashed through a wall onto the highway, and blew up the building! There were people in there!”

“Aye, things should have gone a bit more covertly. But, as fer people, they were going to die anyway, or worse…if they weren’t dead already.” Corth said. “All of them.”

“Demons.” Callen shook his head in disbelief. “How can those things be real?”

“Lad, there be all manner’s o’ creatures that dwell in the shadows that be real,” Corth said. “I not be concernin’ meself wit’ how they be real. I worry about killing ‘em.”

Callen rested his head against the headrest and took a deep breath. He rested his hand on the truck’s worn leather seat. He had a hard time accepting what he just saw, let alone that his grandfather had shown up out of nowhere and told him they just saw a demon. He didn’t even need to look back to know that his sister was in the same boat.

“How did we…” Ania started to ask.

“God wouldn’t be havin’ yehs die today…and maybe something else too.” He gave Callen a wink. “If my guess is right your brother is the first one in the world to slow one of those things down ever. Quite an accomplishment, lad. I know a certain member of me clan who are gonna want to meet you.”

“Wait, your clan?” Callen asked. “Don’t you mean tribe?”

“No lad, not me tribe, me clan.” Corth shook his head with obvious frustration. “And me clan…well, it’s a wee bit complicated…and the tribe…well that gets even more complicated.”

“Are you a dwarf?” Ania asked bluntly. “Our long lost grandfather is a dwarf?”

“Aye, some call us that in the old world…among other things, but here in America we be called somethin’ else.”

“Alright, demons and dwarves.” Callen sighed. “Anything else we should know?” He pressed harder on his face to slow the bleeding even more.

“Aye, there be more than one can understand in a lifetime.” He sighed. “But, I think yeh have had enough to deal with tonight, I’ll explain when we get back.”

“Back? Where are we going?” Callen looked over towards him as he drove and noticed a rosary hanging from his rearview mirror. It was just like the one that belonged to his mother.

“Philadelphia, laddie.” He turned the truck onto interstate 95. He glanced back at Eve and sighed. “I don’t have much choice.”

“What’s in Philadelphia?” Ania asked.

“Long story, lassie. But, you’ll both be safe there while I deal with what happened tonight.”

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

It didn’t matter the state or city the worn highway cut through, the homogeneous sprawl of the northeastern United States blurred through the window. The beauty of untamed nature was a scarcity. Old trees thick with moss and the pleasant chirping of birds had been replaced by spires of metal and the sound of car horns. Housing developments sat in a sea of chemically treated weeds and carefully placed pruned bushes. Trees rarely chose their homes in these places or how their branches tangled or grew. Society kept that which was wild firmly pressed under its heavy steel-toed boot.

The truck pulled off the highway and passed over the Delaware River, into the City of Brotherly Love. Most of the city had begun long ago to crumble under the weight of itself. Though, it still had a touch of colonial charm, like the parts of Boston that Callen had the privilege of seeing a few times. Many wondered what would become of these things if the corporate purchase of the city came to pass and given the mixed results of these types of deals throughout the world, there were many unanswered questions.

The skyscrapers of Center City grew closer as they passed teenagers that were wrapped in gaudy colored clothes plastered with logos loitering on the streets. Desperate and displaced homeless begged for change at most of the stoplights. Passing Businessmen and women ignored the homeless. They were all captured in the electronic glow of their handheld slave collars. They didn’t even take the time to look up from them as a group of hoodlums began abusing a hapless veteran in a wheelchair holding a sign begging for aid.

They made their last turn into an underground garage, passing a man preaching about the end of the world being near and some cultist peddling his form of Christian heresy to an apathetic crowd.

The cracked cement walls inside the garage dripped with dirty water that ran slowly over the vulgar graffiti. The garage’s throat was lined with tiny stalactites hanging from the aging concrete. Modern cars sat between fading yellow lines like teeth encrusted with plaque.

On the bottom level, they pulled towards a collection of old cars parked in the farthest corner. One car had a boot and several tickets crammed between its wiper and windshield and the others just looked old. Despite the boot and a lack of a driver, the center car backed up and the truck drove through the now empty parking space.

Callen awoke in a haze of restlessness as the truck paused to wait for a chunk of the concrete wall to sink into the floor revealing a mechanic’s elevator. The truck pulled in. Behind the truck, the booted car rolled back into place, hiding the entrance. The wall rumbled closed sealing the truck off from the garage.

He rubbed his eyes and blinked twice. He had expected to wake up back in his room in Boston and that those monsters were nothing more than a bad dream. He turned towards his grandfather. This was no dream. He was in an elevator shaft hidden behind the walls of the world as if he had just joined the stage crew for the greatest theater performance the world had ever known.

The elevator creaked and moved them up through tarnished and slightly rusted building support beams. It came to rest in a mechanic’s garage; dirty from years of constant exposure to all things auto and perhaps much more.

The concrete floor was stained with oil around the toolboxes, workbenches, welding gear, and electronic mechanic tools that crowded the room. Metal shavings from machines used to cut metal lined the creases between the floor and the equipment. Shelves were stacked with plastic containers filled an assortment of car parts.

A few dwarves dressed in medieval Catholic robes, marking them as members of the Order of Saint Augustine, entered through a far door. Two carried a stretcher and two others carried medical supplies. None of the dwarves shared Corth’s weathered Native American features. Two were fair in complexion, as if their heritage came from Northern Europe, and the others were from Latin America. Some had mighty beards, while others kept themselves clean-shaven. All of them wore rosaries and heavy leather belts over their robes.

“More strays?”, a regal looking dwarf with a pruned beard said as Corth and the children climbed out of the car. He was an older dwarf with kind eyes.

“No, Brother. Not strays. Me grandchildren.” Corth opened the back door. “And me daughter.”

He looked shocked. “My God! Eve, The Hand?! I didn’t realize…” The regal monk’s voice trembled with panic. “The doc just said you had wounded.”

Corth nodded. “But God had nothing to do with this.”

The regal dwarf swallowed hard. “What was it?” He began to check Callen’s cut.

“Lad, I can’t even comment.” Corth sighed. “And if I could, I’m sure yeh wouldn’t even want to know.”

The other three dwarves carefully moved Eve out of the truck onto the stretcher and immediately hooked up an I.V. “She’s still alive.” One said. He held up a strange electronic device that flashed light over her body. “The gels are at their limit. Let’s get her to the infirmary, ASAP.”

“We’ll make sure she gets to the doc without any unwanted eyes on her. She’ll be fine.” The Regal dwarf paused from cleaning Callen’s cut and looked at Ania. “Welcome, children. I know it’s under undesirable circumstances, to say the least, but…welcome. I’ll make sure you both have rooms in our church’s rectory. I am Father Kenton Greftar.”

“Hello.” Callen winced as Father Kenton returned to working on cleaning out the beginnings of a crusty scab on his cheek. It stung, but the pain quickly ended with the hiss of aerosol and a cool blue gel filling the cut.

“Unfortunately, that’s gonna scar.” Father Kenton sighed.

“Can we go with mom?” Ania asked with panic in her voice. “I don’t want to leave her.”

“Lass, the doc will do his job. If yeh go while he is doing his work, you’ll just get in the way. Besides, we just drove for the last five hours, I bet yeh both be hungry.”

The monks carried Eve out of the garage and the children followed their grandfather through a different door into an old narrow stairwell. It led up into the a restaurant’s overstuffed stock room. Corth glanced at his wrist device and wall covered the stairwell once they exited before leading the children through the maze of wine racks, kegs, food, and brewing supplies.

“What is this place?” Callen asked.

“Lad, this be one o’ those places that legends are written about.” Corth’s beard wrinkled as if he was smiling. “Come along now.”

**********************

 

Through a door latched with black metal, the children followed their grandfather into a quaint colonial pub on which time had scarcely left a mark. From the open rafters of the low ceiling, unlit lanterns hung above antique wooden furnishings. The few lights that revealed the chips of the original paint and rough brick walls came from above the dented copper bar and the turf embers in the impressive fireplace. If it weren’t for the subtly placed wiring on the lanterns, a few carefully placed TVs, and a pair of modern beer taps, it would have been as if they had stepped back in time.

Callen looked at the heads of stuffed animals, muskets that hung above the fireplace, and hand-carved furniture as he breathed in the smells of hops, smoking turf and burning wood. With the warmth, he instantly calmed and felt safe. He even allowed himself to think about how nice it would be to sit on one of the large comfy couches near with his computer. He could even rest his feet on one of the low tables and warm his feet by the fire.

Behind the bar stood a fat, fair skinned dwarf dressed in a white button-down shirt, a black apron, and a beat-up ball cap. He gently polished a clay mug with a moist cloth. He hung the mug on a hook that hung from the ceiling among hundreds of others all with the same decorative seal that read: ‘The Heavenly Pint.’ The dwarf’s hair was a ruddy brown and kept back in a tight ponytail and his beard was kept neat with braids similar to Corth’s, yet different in style and lacking the beads or feathers. His right eye was covered with an eye patch.

“Welcome back, Corth.” The dwarven bartender reached over the bar and both clasped each other’s right forearms in a hearty shake. “I didn’t expect yeh would be back so soon. After what yeh said I figured yeh would be with yer family. Guess yeh decided to bring back some unfortunate victims?” The dwarf spoke with a similar accent to Corth and the flickering firelight from the torches painted a warm glow across his skin as the crow’s feet and wrinkles filled with inky shadows.

“Lad, yeh know the council forbids me from takin’ in any more orphans. Yeh don’t think I be stupid enough to do that with the mess we be facin,’ do yeh?”

“No.” The dwarven bartender laughed. “But yeh never know.”

“But these not be just any random victims, lad.” Corth was grim. “These be me grandkids.”

“I knew you were goin’ there, but I didn’t realize yeh would be bring them here. Where’s Eve?” The bartender’s face looked worried. “What happened?”

Corth just shook his head.

“That bad?” The dwarf scratched a part of the scar that poked out from beneath his eye patch. “Maybe it’s best if yeh keep this ol’ retired vet in the dark.”

“Aye.,” Corth grunted. With a deep breath, he looked back to the children and his foreboding demeanor shifted when he let it out. “Children, forgive me, I’m being rude. Callen, Ania…this be Rurik Brewer.”

Callen looked around the bar. “Fitting.”

“Aye, it not be a coincidence, lad.” Rurik chuckled. “The oldest member o’ me family always be clan Greftar’s brew masters.” He smiled warmly and checked his watch. “Luckily fer this ol’ place me battle scars had gotten the best o’ me, so I was able to inherit it. I couldn’t deny the rest.”

“And the ale got quite a bit better too.” Corth chuckled. “But, retirement is something I long fer as well.” He let out a long sigh. “There still be too much going on and not enough of us left to face it.”

“Face what?” Callen asked.

Corth sighed. “Well, the jury still be out.”

“What was it?” Rurik asked. “What type of demon?”

Corth gave Rurik a hard stare.

“Yeh mean…”

Corth nodded.

“You know what those things are?!” Callen yelled. “I asked before and you said you had no idea!”

“We don’t have any idea, lad,” Rurik confirmed. “We have only run into them a few times in the last few decades..” He paused when he saw the looks of confusion crossing the children’s faces. “There be plenty o’ time to discuss specific monsters later. I can only imagine yeh brought these two here fer some lunch. Let me go whip something up. Me thinks yer grandpa be having some explaining to do.”

Rurik limped into the kitchen.

Callen looked towards his Grandfather. Rurik was right. He needed answers. However, the look on his grandfather’s face was so very dark and his old eyes held a scar-carved warning that even a partial answer came at a horrible price.

“So, where are we?” Ania sounded much more mystified and caught up in the realization that their grandfather was a dwarf. “What exactly is this place?”

“Well, this place belongs to Clan Greftar.” Corth rubbed his beard. “Me kin have kept it since before the revolution.”

“How are these dwarves your kin?” Ania’s face creased with curiosity. “You know, ignoring the question of how dwarves exist, of course.”

“I guess that be a good enough spot to start as any.” Corth chuckled to try to lighten the mood. “Well, first me pop was part o’ clan Greftar, as is Rurik and all the other dwarves here. Brewer is just one o’ the several families that are included in our clan’s history. Me mum, however, be an Ohdow.”

“Ohdow?” Callen shook his head. “What’s that?”

“It’s actually not complicated, lad.” Corth’s voice was warm, welcoming and calming, like he was just their old grandfather telling them bedtime stories. “Different cultures have different names for creatures that are the same. Ohdow are just Native American dwarves, nothing more.” He cut a complicated explanation short in order to keep the traumatized children from being overwhelmed further.

“How is this even real?” Callen still had a hard time believing what was happening.

“There be many theories but there be no real answers. What matters is that monsters have been around, well, as long as there be people, maybe longer.”

“So, you’re a monster?” Callen asked. He tried to keep a stiff upper lip, but being that kind of strong wasn’t something he was used to. He always had his mother for that. So, his voice trembled a little.

“No lad. Dwarves not be monsters. We were perhaps different from humans once, but not anymore.” Corth’s voice sounded reassuring. “There are others though. They aren’t human, can never be human, and don’t want to be. A wolf never wants to be a sheep.”

“Where did you come from?” Ania sounded wide with wonder. “Err..sorry, that was rude.” She covered her mouth.

Corth laughed. “Well lass, there are many legends that attempt to explain that, but they are so old that any truths in them have eroded with time. And as fer a better explanation, you would have to ask God.”

“So, supernatural creatures exist,” Callen said slowly as if accepting it was like he had just swallowed a large pill without a sip of water. His mind struggled for a rational explanation, but he came up empty and he had no choice but to accept the lump in his throat.

“Supernatural not be the right word lad.” Corth gently corrected. “Occult be a better choice. Occult means hidden, while supernatural implies that things are unnatural, and all this be anything but unnatural. The easiest way to put it be that demons exist as do many other things from myth and legend. But lad, I think what yer sister be looking fer an answer that be a bit more personal.” He took a swig of juice as Ania nodded. “So, what exactly do yeh know about yer parents?”

“Our father was a scientist, and Mom was a cashier at an electronics store,” Ania answered.

“I remember he was a professor at UPenn.” Callen sighed. “We’re not far from there are we?”

“No lad, actually this ol’ pub is only a few miles from there,” Corth admitted. “But, Aye, yer pop is a scientist…err…o’ sorts. But, yer mom was more than just a cashier. She was an operative of our mother church. A knight actually, like me, but better.” Pride hung on the old dwarf’s tongue. “In fact, we be a secret order of the Catholic church that has been hunting demons and other fiends for centuries.”

“Excuse me?” Callen’s voice was ripe with skepticism.

“Wait, does this include, like…umm…magic?” Ania was wide-eyed with excitement.

“Aye, lass, magic. That be part of the picture.” Corth’s grim expression grew darker. “But, magic, well, that’s a bit more difficult of a topic to explain, much like how all the occult things in this world exist. Perhaps they’re even connected, but I don’t know…”

“Wait, hold on.” Callen shook his head. “Are you saying the crazy medical supplies, the hidden passage the truck went into and the stuff in the garage are magic?”

“No lad. That just be some clever technology and a lot of really ingenious engineering…we don’t rely on magic. It be unpredictable to say the least.”

The word ‘cool’ slipped out of Callen’s lips. However, his grandfather’s somber expression told him it was anything but. The old dwarf just stared at the boy. His dark orbs briefly lost their luster. A shiver ran down Callen’s spine.

“And the magic?” Ania’s forehead wrinkled with worry. “Is that what happened to Mom?”

“Maybe, lass. Magic is evil.” He sighed. “And…before yeh get started…I know where you’re going…magic will not save yer mum.”

She looked confused. “So, what is magic then?”

“Some say it be incomplete knowledge of creation that Satan stole from God during his war for Heaven, but there are other explanations as well.” His voice stayed low and dark. “However, there is much older stuff that has been lost over time, but who’s to say where that came from exactly. Regardless, it comes from places where even the most pious of men should never venture, and even for us, dealing with any magic requires extreme caution.”

“Caution?” Rurik laughed as he exited the kitchen with a tray loaded with breakfast food. “That’s an understatement. This lad be a by the book demon hunter who has been protecting the world for, what are you, 35 years shy of a century?” Rurik seemed to wink at Corth, but it came off as more of a blink considering his missing eye.

Corth laughed. “Yeh don’t get this old from being reckless.”

“Aye.” A painful look fell over the bartender’s face, as if he remembered the deep pain, both physical and psychological, that came with his injuries. “Ya also don’t end up like a half-blind cripple like meself.” He began serving the plates of eggs, bacon, toast, fruit, and orange juice.

“Guess yeh should have listened to me.” Corth chuckled.

“Guess I should have,” Rurik answered. “But then I’d be pounding the pavement, like yeh, instead of enjoying my retirement.”

“I thought we were having lunch.” Ania watched Rurik grab three mugs from above the bar and filled them high with orange juice.

“We’ll call it brunch then, lass.” Rurik handed her a mug. “Figured yeh missed breakfast and I had all the stuff out from cookin’ fer the monks earlier.” He started serving the children and Corth.

She nodded. “No bacon for me.”

Callen loaded his eggs with ketchup and took a bite. They tasted delicious, probably even more so than they really were considering how hungry he was. “So, how do my sister and I fit into all of this?”

“Well lad, it’s simple, slaying demons be in yer blood.” Rurik answered.

“So, if that’s true, why didn’t anyone tell us?” Ania still sounded both frightened and excited.

“Lass, yer mum and pop kept a lot o’ secrets.” Corth’s voice was heavy with pain. “All I can say be that the best answers lie with yer mum…”

“I heard you and my mom talking last night…just before…” Callen shivered.

“Well…I had no choice but to contact yer mum.” Corth admitted. “Something showed up that is connected to yer pop.” Corth reached into his coat pocket. “This arrived here two nights ago…it be addressed to yeh.” He handed Callen a small box wrapped with golden apple motif wrapping paper. There was a folded piece of paper that read The Key of Creation. To: Callen Love: Dad.

Callen’s heart jumped. “Do you know where he is?”

“No lad. It just showed up. I woke up one morning and found it on me desk. I had the handwriting sample confirmed. Yer pop wrote it. I had no choice but to deliver it to you as fast as I could and yer mum agreed.”

“Open it, Callen,” Ania said.

He tore open the wrapping paper and opened the box. Inside was a silver Celtic cross. He unraveled the chain and rubbed his finger over the old Celtic cross. “Wow.” He knew how important this simple cross was to his father.

His mind flooded with questions, the dominant one being why did his father refer to the cross as ‘The Key of Creation?’ His father had never called the cross that before. However, one thing was for sure, his father was alive as of a few days ago.

“He had to have a reason to send it to you, but couldn’t find you and sent it to me. I was coming to get yeh three so we could make sense o’ this. Then, those monsters struck the hospital and your apartment building.”

“Could they be related?” Rurik asked.

“I suppose it be possible, but I don’t know, lad.” Corth said. “Either way, I gonna be gettin’ to the bottom o’ this.”

“Aye.” Rurik looked at the three plates that were scraped clean. “You should take yer grandkids to see their mum. I’ll clean up here.”

“Aye.” Corth nodded. “Thanks, Rurik.”

**********************

Beneath the churning grey sky, the children followed their grandfather into the brick canyons outside the dwarven pub. The falling mist had soaked the discolored buildings, cracked sidewalks and had placed a slippery film over the cobblestone street.

Across the intersection from the old pub stood a massive church. Stains of the city had worked their fingers up the Italian revival’s brick, carved marble, and once polished white. Only the simple cross at its pinnacle sat in stubborn defiance of the world dying around. Somehow, in all the darkness, it’s white polish kept this little street with an old dwarfish pub on the corner safe from an infinite night.

“Wow,” Ania whispered, with an artist’s excitement. She raised her hand over her eyes to shield them from the needle-like rain drops to admire the church’s architecture.

“Welcome lass. Our church be St. Augustine’s Church…his order of monks keeps watch over this place.” Corth’s voice held an air of pride. “We have rooms in the rectory in back. I’ll show yeh yer rooms a bit later. But, let’s go see how yer mum’s doing.”

**********************

 

Instead of crossing the street to the church, Corth lead the children down a few blocks towards Jefferson Hospital. Through the smog that hung between the buildings, the faded glow of rusty street lamps and electric advertisements lit the way. They stepped over trash and wove between the ranks of the oblivious people going about their daily business. Soon, people dressed in hospital scrubs became more common. They passed under a glass walkway and entered the busy hospital.

Without stopping at the reception desk, Corth led them to the elevator and tapped the button for the 14th floor. When the elevator dinged, they turned towards the department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior.

“Mom’s not crazy…?” Ania gave her grandfather a confused look.

“No…yer mum isn’t crazy, lass.” Corth said. “But…well, you’ll see.” He pulled open the door and let the children pass into the psychiatric ward. Nodding to the guards at a gated wing, they walked down the long hallway passing therapy and patient rooms. He stopped in a barred abandoned stairwell. He unlocked the rusted chain, and after relocating the gate, they went down a level.

The dimly lit hallway was packed with medical supplies and large crates marked in several different languages. He pointed to the first room they came to. Inside, Eve lay in an old bed attached to a plethora of strange medical devices.

“Here we are,” Corth said. “Be quiet the doctor be working.”

Bent over her was a wild looking dwarf, that looked as much like a mental patient as he did a doctor. However, with great skill, he inserted a needle that was attached to custom made injection tool. He tapped the tool’s buttons rhythmically and the device began an IV drip of blue liquid. He attached it to a stand and continued to work on his patient, paying his visitors no mind. After rubbing his hand through his unkempt beard, he inserted oxygen tubes into her nose and activated a device strapped to Eve’s ribs to aid her breathing.

Eve’s face was pale, almost lifeless. The sight was almost too much for both of the children.

“Is he…” Ania impulsively asked.

The doctor looked up, obviously annoyed. “Yes, yes…” He mumbled with a crazy, yet irritated exuberance. He adjusted another piece of medical equipment and the heart monitor beeped on. “Now…she’s stable…but the sooner I’m able to synthesize an antidote…the higher the rate of success…” His voice sounded strangely, professional. He stood and shuffled towards them as he adjusted his lab coat, which read ‘Scolestis Brewer, MD. “But for that…” He reached into a pouch that hung among the variety of medical utility pouches, vials of strange substances, and custom surgical tools on his packed utility belt. “Well, let me do my thing…” He unfolded a set of electrodes that were wired to an ancient handheld computer. He placed the notes on Eve’s skull and adjusted the controls. His voice went bit crazy with some strange laughter and a brief muttering about shady chickens. “Oh…and my patient is not a ‘he’…it’s a ‘she’…like me…” he paused again and a third gruff voice came next. “No, no…Zelika…you mustn’t let them know about you…they’ll say things…”

“Who, us?” Ania asked.

“No…” The doctor’s feminine falsetto voice said. “You can know…shhhhhh though…it’s the chickens…there’ sleeping now…don’t want them to stir…shhhh…talk about George Washington instead…” He scratched his head before making more adjustments on Eve. “Yes…let’s sing.” The deep masculine voice said. “That will keep them asleep…” He started singing a song that alternated between his deep masculine voice and his feminine voice.

“Umm…his he actually qualify…”

“Don’t lad.” Corth cut him off. “We can discuss that later, lad. So, Doctor how is she?”

He stopped his song and cleared his throat. He spoke with his overly excited professional voice. “The stasis fluid blend should keep her alive…but I don’t know for how long, yet.”

“Stasis fluid?” Ania asked.

“I make a variety of elixirs, potions, gels, and…” He shook his head, and his voice cracked a bit. “Oh…yes…I mean we…we make them…the three of us…I know….I can’t make them all by myself…and they are quite potent…”

“Well, this be Dr. Brewer, perhaps one of the best doctors on the planet,” Corth said. “He was one of Jefferson’s medical professors years ago and will always be one of the order.”

“So, he’s a patient and a doctor?” Callen looked skeptically at his grandfather.

“Aye…and he’s got everything he needs here to practice his form of brilliant medical work…his knowledge is unparalleled…”

“I think you mean…insane,” Callen mumbled under his breath.

Scolestis grinned at Callen. “There’s a fine line between insanity and genius…” His voice went deep. “Yes…a very fine dotted line…worn and weathered…and desperate times require the best…and the riskiest…out-of-the-box…and two is better than one….think about it…” His voice shifted to professional. “And I do what I can for your mother…she would definitely die if you gave her to one of those doctors…hacks…out there. The combination of the toxin and the concussions has her in a deep coma. My elixirs will help the body repair the damage from the concussions, but reversing the effects of the poison is going to take a lot of work…and some new and interesting concoctions…”

Callen looked at Corth skeptically.

Corth smiled reassuringly. “There probably isn’t a better medical doctor in the world. He’s a bit off his rocker with everything else, but when it comes to…”

Dr. Brewer interrupted to complete Corth’s sentence. “Medicine…conventional, ancient…occult…and even magical…I’m your dwarf.” He paused and his voice shifted. “Errr…we are your dwarf…”

“You can use magic?” Ania asked.

“Ohhh….no…never…” Dr. Brewer chattered each word was said by a different voice. “Never…never…never…no magic…never magic…very bad…” Wildly he shook his mane and his voice went professional again. “But, I will do everything I can think of…and even what I haven’t yet…or what we can think of…your mom’s in our good hands…”

“Thanks, Doctor.” Ania smiled.. “Can we stay here for a while?”

He looked a little annoyed, but somewhere in his crazy eyes of brown and green, he understood the children’s plight. “Of course…I’ve got these blood samples to test…” He looked at the children and his eyes went wide. He spoke in his deep voice. “If you stay…make sure you don’t wake any of the chickens…they like the fingers of men…and tear them off with their dagger-like teeth…”

Callen glanced at Ania who was staring at their mother. She wasn’t blinking. “Well…then…I won’t…I’ll let the chickens…errr…starve.” He cracked a grin, but Ania didn’t respond. She was zoned out and looked like she was getting ill.

“No! Not out loud…they might hear you…” He picked up a few vials of Eve’s blood and moved towards the door. “Then they’ll strike! Only the girl can…” He pointed at Ania. “She knows…she sees…” He sprinted out of the room as fast as his stubby legs could carry him.

“Umm…right…” Called looked confused and looked at Corth. “You sure about this, grandpa?”

“Aye…Scolestis has pulled me back a few times from impossible situations.” Corth admitted. “So, if I weren’t sure, Eve wouldn’t be here.” He turned towards the door. “I’ll be back in a while to show yehs yer rooms in the Church’s rectory. I be havin’ some things that need to be done to get the ball rolling to deal with these creatures and help yer mom.”

“Right.” Callen nodded. “Ania, you okay?”

Her voice sounded groggy, as if she were waking from a dream. “Yeah…just tired…and overwhelmed.” She rubbed her eyes. “But, Grandpa…umm, can you take me to my room now? I need to lie down. I have a migraine.”

“Sure, lass,” Corth answered and Ania followed. “You want any medicine?”

“No…just sleep.” She turned and followed her grandfather out.

Callen dragged a wooden box next to his mother’s bed and sat down. Tears formed in his eyes, but he choked them back. Luckily, the few cries from the people suffering from mental illness above him and the muttering of the mad doctor at work made it easy. As he absorbed everything that happened, he wondered what would happen if and when his mother woke up. He knew they couldn’t go back to their old life. There was just no way. His life was never going to be the same.

 

 

 

 

 

[]CHAPTER FIVE

 

The soft summer moonlight illuminated the stain glass window of the Blessed Mother washing Callen’s rectory room in the kaleidoscope of colors. The pale illumination hung on sparse bedroom furniture and Callen’s few belongings, but the watchful glow of Our Lady of Sorrows did nothing to comfort Callen’s mind as he tossed in his sopping sheets.

Visions of his own mother flashed in his mind along with the demon’s hellish visage that tore her away. His mind flashed scenes of children in hospital beds flayed by writhing tentacles and razor sharp claws. The high pitch of their vocalized terror waxed and waned as they succumbed to external demons rather than those that they fought against each day inside their very bodies. In the flicker of the damaged hospital lighting, he heard the gulp of the pump, a gurgled moan for help, and saw a clipboard with Derrick’s name on it lying on bloodstained sheets.

A tear rolled down his cheek.

“Can’t get too attached,” Derrick said as Callen picked up a clipboard. The medical information was stained and impossible to read. “You never know what life will take away.” It felt like Derrick had been sitting there the whole time.

Callen looked up from the clipboard towards his friend. Derrick stood behind him with all his medical connections broken, hanging, and protruding from his flesh. His skin was a lifeless grey, and the low light from the broken lighting and medical monitors made him look like rigor mortis had already set in.

“I can’t help it,” Callen whispered.

“It’s a tough lesson to learn,” Derrick whispered. “Everyone dies. Best get used to it.”

Callen nodded. “I just never saw it before. Well, not like that. I’ve heard it…yeah…but the nurses always did their best to prevent us from seeing it when they could. But, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it. The two-year-old died alone, in pain, without her parents around. No one held her hand as she took her last breath. The life she had…”

“You call that a life? Or yours? Or any of us?” Derrick spat. “Hospital beds? Burning chemicals? Constant pain?”

Callen closed his eyes. “I don’t know.”

“It sounds more like what those born-again moron foster parents o’ mine call Hell.” Derrick winced.

“I thought you didn’t believe in Hell.” Callen pointed out.

“No, I have no choice but to believe in Hell.” Derrick corrected. “We live in it, every day. In here, out there, it doesn’t matter. Heaven is crap and everyone dies alone…you can be sure of that. It’s Heaven that I have a problem with.”

**********************

 

After a restless sleep and a cold shower, Callen sat in the warm glow of the Heavenly Pint’s massive fireplace. His computer was idle beside him on a large comfortable couch. His arm was rested on the backpack and his fingers nervously played with one of the straps. A sluggish fly buzzed around his half-eaten chocolate chip muffin Rurik had given him.

He yawned. His exhaustion had hung on him all morning and the crackling flames in the fireplace entranced him. The flashes of red and orange flickered in his irises. He missed Derrick and his mother. He took a deep breath and the feeling of helplessness washed over him. Cancer was something he understood, but here, now, with the arrival of those monsters, everything had changed. Hell had somehow mutated from tiny cells in his body into a different kind of nightmare.

“Mom, why didn’t you tell me?” Callen whispered. He hoped that she would answer from behind him and that her being unconscious was just a cruel joke. When it didn’t come, loneliness crept in. He felt a tear roll down his cheek. “You should have told me.”

“What did you say, Callen?” Ania asked from the opposite side of the couch. She had a new drawing pad resting on her knees that she was filling with her comic characters.

“I just can’t believe mom didn’t tell us about any of this.” Her voice instantly shook off his feeling of loneliness. He felt stupid for allowing himself to feel that. She was always there by his side, no matter what.

“She had to have her reasons and besides, if you knew things like those monsters were real, wouldn’t you do what you could to protect your children from that reality?”

“I don’t know.” Callen played with his father’s cross that now hung around his neck. “I don’t have kids.”

Ania rolled her eyes. “Come on, you’re not that bad with the emotional stuff to not be able to understand that. Just think, wouldn’t you do anything to stop someone else from having cancer like yours?”

Callen nodded. “Yeah.” He sighed. “But, I try not to think about it.”

“From the look on your face it isn’t working. And if she did tell us, what difference would have it made? You’d still be sick. You’d still be in the hospital, in a bed. You’d just know there were demons lurking in the shadows in addition to the ones in your body.”

“Yeah.” Callen shrugged. “And just when I thought I was getting better…they showed up, and Hell got worse.”

“You’re having nightmares, aren’t you?” Ania asked. Callen just swallowed hard and she continued. “I am.” Her face stiffened with the emotionless bravado of a soldier.

“Yeah.” Callen sighed. “But, I think there both nightmares and memories all jumbled up.”

“Like what?” Ania asked.

“Stuff about Mom, Derrick, the metal demons…Dad…” Callen sighed.

“Dad?” Ania said. “Any idea what it means?”

“I don’t know, probably nothing.” Callen shrugged. “I just want Mom to be okay.”

“Grandpa is on it. He’ll save mom. He has to.”

“I hope so. I just wish he had more time to spend with us. I feel…”

Clunking and stomping came from the stairs into the basement. “Lost? Worthless? Helpless?” Rurik wheezed as he carried a keg up from the cellar. “I got something that will cure that right up.” He chuckled as he caught his breath. He grabbed a bar rag and wiped the sweat from his brow. “Of Couse, the type o’ ale that ran out last night has to be the one that is stored in the worst possible location…”

“I don’t think Callen or I can carry a keg…” Ania pointed out.

“No lass, yeh can’t,” Rurik admitted. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t be needing some help.” He rummaged behind the bar and grabbed a piece of paper and began jotting down a list. “Alright, Ania…I’m gonna teach yeh how to hook up the taps and clean the bar. Callen, I need yeh to go into the basement and bring up these bottles off the shelf in the back.” He walked over and handed Callen the list. “Usually yer grand pop helps me to restock the bar befer a big Phillies or Eagles game…but right now he’s got his hands full.”

Callen started to grumble, but the look he got from Ania shut him up. He scanned the list. “Alright.” Callen headed down into the basement.

It was easy to find the shelves of bottles, but before beginning to gather what Rurik needed, he glanced around to find the hidden door they had come in yesterday. The damp room was filled with barrels that had recently been shuffled around, so spotting it was almost impossible. He quickly gave up and began carrying the bottles up the stairs.

On his sixth trip up, he stopped at the base of the stairs when he heard the slam of the door into the bar and a girl’s voice among the muffled sounds of casual introduction. There was a scrape of a stool being dragged followed by the plop of a book bag being tossed on the floor.

Callen climbed the stairs with the five bottles wrapped in his arms. He saw a green bandana holding back a mane of dark curls. Climbing slowly revealed the profile of her pretty face. She wasn’t but a year older than Callen and carried herself with an air of mischief. He paused and gawked when he reached the top of the stairs, but the creek of the old wood floor drew her attention to him and she flashed a bright smile. He almost dropped the bottles when her green eyes met his.

“Whoa, there cowboy.” She said as she rubbed her index finger around the edge of a mug full of water. She spoke as though she had grown up in Philadelphia. “Put those bottles down before you wipe the drool from your right cheek. Rurik had most of those imported.” She grinned and the warm firelight reflected off her high cheekbones. Her smile was elegant.

Callen found himself rubbing his cheek on his shoulder as he approached the bar. He blushed when he put the bottles down and found a wet spot. The tingle from the lingering sensitivity of his new scar wouldn’t let him forget it. “Don’t flatter yourself.” He grunted to try to save himself from embarrassment. “I’ve been running up and down stairs for the last half-hour. It’s sweat, wise one. And besides, I wouldn’t classify someone from the northeast as a cowboy.”

“Would you prefer Yankee then?” The girl chuckled.

“I’m from Boston,” Callen said. “And you are…?”

“A Sawks fan, eh?” The girl grinned as she imitated a Boston accent. “If you like cheering for the underdog, you’ll fit in well here, just do yourself a favor…if you’re gonna buy sports memorabilia…make sure it’s a Philly team. I wouldn’t want you to get in trouble.”

“Ain’t that the truth.” Rurik laughed. “Anyway, This be Sadie. Sadie MacRey.” Rurik leaned on the bar. “She’s Webb’s daughter…”

“Thanks, Rurik, for breaking my fun. I wanted to enjoy my anonymity for a few more moments.” Sadie mischievously pouted.

“Who’s Webb?” Ania asked.

“Oh, he’s the boss of our operations here in the States.” Corth shrugged. “He’s currently out of the country.”

“He’s on a dig in Greenland,” Sadie said. “Anyway, Sir Cor…err…your grandpa messaged me on the way home from school. Ick…glad that’s over for the summer.” She stuck out her tongue. “Told me you two are here and he wants me to show you around.”

“Alright…” Callen glanced at Ania, who just shrugged. “So, there’s more to this place than just a church, a rectory, an underground car garage, and a bar across the street?”

Sadie laughed. “You-bet-cha. But, I’m not referring to a tour of our hodgepodge. That will come later when the adults get their stuff in order. I’m talking about Philly and occult life.” She turned to Rurik. “What do you think? Helga’s to start?”

“Aye. That’s a good way to ease them into it.”

“What’s Helga’s?” Ania asked.

“You’ll see.” Sadie sounded excited. “And you two better be hungry. Come on.”

**********************

 

The siblings followed Sadie through the city towards South Street. After several blocks, they arrived in the strange mishmash of American subcultures was South Street. Between the street performers and seemingly random mixture of stores, anything could be found here. They passed an old concert hall and a silver building with a huge line of patrons that wrapped around the outside of the building.

Soon, they stopped beneath the dull glow of an incandescent sign that read Helga’s Eatery hung from above an old restaurant. The sign sporadically flickered from faulty wiring but wouldn’t fall dark. Through the windows, the 1950’s decor looked classically inviting and the stickers on the door displayed a plethora of culinary awards. With a jungle of a rusty string of bells, the children entered through a glass door coated in moisture.

With the cooling wave and the roar of an air conditioner, the disgusting street smell instantly vanished in a cloud of deliciousness that emanated from the grimy diner’s silver plated kitchen. Any loss of hunger soon vanished and the children were seated happily at a both glancing over browning laminated menus looking for the perfect delicacy of Helga’s making to satisfy their returning hunger.

“Hello, Sadie.” The waitress said as she smacked a piece of chewing gum between her lips while she carried a steaming pot of coffee towards two truckers who sat at the bar eating slices of pie. “Early today?”

“Last day of school, Renee. Half-day.” Sadie said.

“Hope yah did well in school this year. You’re gonna be a junior next year aren’t you?” She asked.

“Yup,” Sadie said.

“You’re getting old. You better not drop out, like I did.” Renee blew a bubble and it popped. “Anyway, Helga’ll be right wit’ cha.” She refilled the trucker’s coffee and smiled with a smile that was missing more than a few teeth. But, it was a kindly smile even with the bags under her eyes being loaded with all sorts of experiences that the children could scarcely imagine. “She’ll be happy you’re in early. She’s a good ol’ bird that one. Don’t know what a stray like me would do wit’ out her.” She placed the coffee pot between the truckers and pushed her ratty hair behind her slightly pointed ears that were loaded with piercings.

“I guess you showing us around is more than just walking around the city.” Callen began scanning the menu.

“So, you noticed Renee’s an elf. That’s pretty easy.” Sadie teased. “But so are the truckers.”

The two men carried the wear of the road, both in the lines on their faces and the unkempt nature of their appearance. One had a confederate flag sewn onto the sleeve of his stained blue jacket and the other wore a NASCAR hat over his greasy mullet. The points on their ears were very slight and he wouldn’t have picked it out if Sadie hadn’t told him.

“How are those guys elves?” Ania asked.

Sadie shrugged. “Well, how are you a human?” She asked rhetorically. “You just are.”

“But elves in the movies and books…” Ania started.

“I know where you’re going.” Sadie reached up and pushed a lock of her curly dark hair that had fallen free from her bandana back behind her ear. “And the answer is no. Not anymore. Not for a long time, maybe not even ever. If there was something magical, it’s long since disappeared…anything that’s there now is because of demonic pacts.”

With a creak from the red pleather booth, Callen leaned back and glanced around the diner. There wasn’t anything special about the diner’s patrons, save a few curious features that were barely identifiable. Since he was looking, they were easy enough to spot, but occult ancestry mattered little in their daily lives. They still ate burgers and tipped the waitress when they left. With their occult origins muted by generations of genetic dilution, they were simply human.

“So, what exactly is this place?” Callen jumped back in on the conversation.

“This is Helga’s.” Sadie flirted.

“Quit being cute.” Callen scoffed.

“So you think I’m cute?” She chuckled.

Callen rolled his eyes.

“So, I’m not cute? Here I am taking you and your sister out to lunch and you don’t even consider me cute?”

Ania started to laugh.

“Sadie stop. You’re going to give the poor boy an aneurysm. I’m sure he already has enough to process.” A tremendously large woman with a southern accent said as she exited the kitchen. Her green tinted skin wrinkled as she laughed. She had a large nose, small eyes, scraggly black hair, a few scattered warts, and a kindly smile. “I’ll be with you kids in just a minute. Renee, pour them some waters please and that pie needs to come out of the oven.” She pulled off a check from her checkbook and handed it to the pair of truckers. Renee followed the large woman’s directions with a nod and Helga began to chat with the pair of truckers.

Callen half listened to their conversation. They were headed to a Wal-Mart distribution center in Pittsburg and they were stopping at a new casino and grill on the river before they headed out along the highway. It was all so mundane, and this side of their new reality made everything more palatable, even if it did dispel the fantasy of hidden elven woodland villages.

“Those two guys…” Helga rolled her eyes and put it in the cash register and came back to the children’s table after grabbing a tray of waters that Renee had just finished pouring. “The menu has got you looking a little green. Well, not green like me green…but sick green…you know what I mean.” She gave a pig-like laugh.

“Don’t think it’s the menu,” Callen said sarcastically.

Helga snorted out a second laugh. “Guess this is the first time you noticed a troll, eh?”

Callen nodded slowly. “Among others…” He glanced at Renee.

“Well, lucky for you, we take no offense. But, you best watch that tongue. There are many folks who are quite sensitive about the way they look.” She laughed. “I blame the media for their obsession with hungry looking women…and men for that matter. But, we’ll have none of that hungry here. Welcome to my eatery for all sorts of lost souls. So, what can I get ya?”

“I’ll have a burger and fries,” Sadie ordered as if it were a ritual. “Human style of course, medium rare, and a vanilla milk shake.”

“Human style?” Callen asked.

“That just means that we don’t use any of the extra stuff that regular folks don’t eat,” Helga explained. “But, regular is relative…you wouldn’t believe how many folks would be able to balance their diet simply by adding minced dung flies or moldy cheese to their morning eggs. If they only knew…”

Callen gaged at little at the idea.

“I’ll have a veggie burger, salad, and apple juice,” Ania said. “Hold the gross stuff.”

“And you?” Helga asked.

“Umm…I’ll have the barbecue pulled-pork sandwich and a chocolate milk shake.”

“That’s our specialty, coming right up. I learned to cook barbecue from the best, down in eastern N’Carolina.” She lumbered back into the kitchen. “You’re gonna love it.”

“She’s the civilized type of troll,” Sadie said. “We call them city trolls.”

“Creative.” Callen rolled his eyes. “I take it there are forest trolls, swamp trolls, and a bunch of other troll types that are named after the environment they live in?

“Yup. It doesn’t have to be creative if it works.”

“So, how exactly do you know this?” Callen asked.

“Well…that’s where it gets complicated…” Sadie explained. “Research…both into ancient lore and modern science.”

“Alright, but how do you, specifically, know about this stuff?” Callen asked.

“Stay around here for a while, and you’ll pick up a lot about demon hunting,” Sadie explained. “It’s just how I grew up, and one day, I’ll hunt them too…and my dad’s an expert…”

Callen shook his head. “They should have told us. Mom should have told us.”

“But she didn’t.” Ania sighed. “And now…” She swallowed hard.

“I don’t know why you weren’t told.” The pleather creaked when Sadie leaned back in the booth. “Leaving the order just doesn’t happen and you two should have grown up like me.”

“Yeah.” Callen sighed. “I’ve pretty much figured that part out…”

The bell jingled again and a few businessmen with corporate ID badges came in and sat at in one of the booths and began ordering. The last one to enter caught Callen’s eye. He had a neatly trimmed brown beard; his hair was pulled back in a ponytail. He looked like a dwarf, but less robust. He walked with an energetic spring in his step, despite walking with an intricately carved wooden cane.

“Brownie,” Sadie said before either of the siblings had the chance to ask.

“For desert?” Callen looked back at Sadie. “I haven’t even gotten my sandwich yet.”

“No, he’s a brownie, well part brownie.” She clarified. “The one you’re staring at.”

“Trolls, elves, dwarves, brownies?” Callen raised an eyebrow. “I guess I should get a fairy field manual. Maybe you should have taken us to the new age shop instead of the local diner.”

“Na, those books are written by people who wanna profit off people who think they are ready to know what we know.” Sadie giggled. “We have all sorts of lore going back through the ages. I think the only place that may have stuff we don’t is the lost library of Alexandra or some hidden Tibetan monastery. We go to the hidden archives in the Vatican for occult lore. Not some new age shop.”

“How do people not notice?” Ania asked.

“People see what they want.” Sadie was making light of the situation. “They always have and always will. They say the devil’s greatest trick is convincing the world he doesn’t exist, right? Well, maybe its even better to convince the world that the endless pits of Hell…and everything else from mythology…are just child’s tales.”

“And a more practical explanation?” Callen didn’t sound convinced.

“Well, I guess, you can thank things like the witch-hunts, and the inquisition or some careful sociological engineering by some super powerful secret society…but that’s just conjecture too.”

“Wait, a secret society? You mean like the one you, Grandpa, our parents, and everyone else here seem to be a part of?” Callen asked, sounding annoyed.

“Nothing secret about our parent organization, save what we do and what we know. We’re part of the Sovereign Army of Malta.”

“What?” Ania asked.

“Knights Hospitaller. The Order of St. John.” Sadie explained. “Well, that’s what we are now. During the Crusades there were a lot of orders of Knights…some switched loyalties, others disbanded over history. Ours, well, we didn’t. Now, were just part of the Pope’s private army…the demon hunting back ops branch…”

“Food’s ready.” Helga grabbed the plates from the serving window and began serving their food. “Eat up, ‘cause I got the best food in all o’ Philly.” She smiled. “You eat just like your daddy, boy.” She handed Callen his sandwich. “I don’t know about your sister though, I have never seen a Thorne eat a vegetarian meal in my life.”

“You knew our parents?!” Ania asked.

“You bet yah! They use to come in here all the time when that old monastery was bustling with activity. The knights have always been good to us. They have kept the riffraff away. Too bad things are going south around here in the last few years….hey come to think about it…whatever happened to your parents?”

“My dad disappeared when we were little and my mom is in the hospital in a coma.” Callen looked down at the sandwich she placed in front of him. His heart sank.

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Helga’s jovial voice and expression disappeared. “I had no idea.” There was a moment of awkward silence.

“It’s ok, Miss Helga,” Ania whispered sadly. “You didn’t know.”

She nodded. “Well,” She brightened up, perhaps a little falsely but Callen appreciated it. “Don’t you two worry, ol’ Helga will take good care of you until everything is all better!” She looked back towards the kitchen. “Now, you three best be eating up, oh, and Tende will be done his shift soon so you all can do something fun. But before you go, ol’ Helga has cooked you up a fresh cherry pie.”

“Human style?” Callen tried to help break the awkwardness.

She gave me a funny look. “Like there was any other way to have cherry pie? Ol’ Helga would never flavor no cherry pie with dried fish eyes, rabbit gall stones, or any other deeee-liccccc-ious additive out there. Cherry pie is sacred and all must be able to indulge in its perfection. Now eat your sandwich, and I’ll get the slices ready.”

Callen took the first bite of his pulled-pork sandwich. It was absolutely delicious. The barbecue sauce was amazing. It was the best pulled-pork he had ever eaten and was soon raptured in its heavenly blend of smokiness, vinegar sauce, and cold slaw.

“Hey Sadie, who are your friends?” A muscular albino Asian with small tusks for bottom canines and a heavy sloping brow said as he came out of the kitchen while pulling off an apron caked with cooking stains. His sleeves were rolled up on his shirt revealing a collection of tattoos. His tattoos were all holy images and a variety of biblical passages.

Sadie swallowed a big bite of burger. “Oh, this is Callen and Ania.”

He grabbed a handful of Sadie’s fries. “I’m Tende.”

“He’s pretty much my big brother,” Sadie said. “He was raised at the church, like me.”

“Um, what are you?” Ania asked as she grabbed her mouth. “Sorry, that’s rude.”

Tende laughed and tried to grab another handful of fries from Sadie, but she slapped his hand and shot him a glare. “Don’t worry about it. I usually get called a freak or bleached ape. Those morons wouldn’t recognize what I am even if I told them. But, in a way they’re right. I’m a freak. I’m half-oni.”

“Japanese devil?” Callen looked at the large teenager in disbelief.

“Can be,” Sadie interjected. “He isn’t of the devil variety. He is of the ogre variety. Just the Japanese ogre variety, as opposed to the European ogre varieties.”

“But I’m not Japanese.” Tende laughed. “Well, all Japanese. My Japanese side is oni and my human side is Filipino.”

“So, you’re a knight?” Ania asked.

“Nope.” Tende answered. “But, I got an offer to become a squire. I don’t think it is going to happen though. I’m going to go to seminary school…and become a lore scholar for the order. But until then I just help Sir Corth and the others…”

“You help grandpa?” Ania asked.

“Wait, you’re Sir Corth’s grandkids? The children of Eve and Alexander Thorne?”

“Yup,” Sadie said. “This is them. I thought Corth told you. They arrived yesterday.”

He turned and looked at the two siblings. “But wow, it’s an honor. Both your parents are legends…well, among some of us…err…” Tende started, but Sadie nudged him hard. “Oh…right…ah…”

Callen felt the sadness begin to slip into his heart again.

“I still can’t believe you told Sir Jason no.” Sadie shook her head with disgust. Callen was grateful for her effort to change the subject. “How could you turn down a squire-ship with him?”

“Wait, what’s a squire-ship?” Callen asked.

“Well, you know, like, in Star Wars or ancient Europe, jedi have padawans and knights have squires?” Tende shrugged. “Well, that’s pretty much how it works here too. Only being a knight isn’t like being a jedi and getting a glowing sword. It’s more like being a combination of a navy SEAL, James Bond, and Moulder and Skully from X-files.”

“I take it you’re a sci-fi nerd?” Callen asked.

“Yeah, why?” Tende stole another handful of Sadie’s fries.

“Your description gave it away,” Callen said.

“That bad, huh?” Tende sighed and stole another handful of fries. “Oh well, shoot me. Anyway, don’t you know nerds rule the world?”

“All you have to do is look at the tech that people can’t live without to realize that.” Callen laughed. “But, still, you’re the first guy with religious tattoos who is into sci-fi and wants to become a monk that I’ve met before.”

“Yeah, I can’t say I’m not a weird combination…” Tende laughed. “But aren’t we all?”

“Yeah, well get used to it.” Sadie took a sip of her water. “If you think you meet weird things on the fringe of mundane society, you’re gonna realize that those sub-cultures are a joke in comparison to what we see.”

“Tende, did you play Shadowborne yet?” Ania pushed her plate back to return to decorating her place mat. However, instead of starting, she was focused on the conversation.

“Oh…no…you didn’t just…” Sadie gasped.

Tende grinned with excitement. “I signed up for the beta…but didn’t get in.”

“I got Callen Shadowborne for a coming home present. He didn’t start it though because of…” She paused.

“Wait, you got it?!” Tende asked excitedly. “No way! I was actually going to go pick up a copy after work, and then I saw you guys. Did you create your character yet?”

“Well…ah no, not yet, things have been…crazy since I got it.” He sighed. “But I think I’m gonna make a Leprechaun combat engineer on the Allied side. But, I was thinking about making a soldier or an assassin too, but I’m not sure what race or faction. I was thinking maybe Russian side orc soldier or Nazi human assassin.”

Sadie cursed under her breath. “Guys…there’s more to life then…” However, she crossed her arms with frustration when she realized no one was listening.

“I didn’t know you can be a Nazi…that just screams controversy right there.” Tende sounded amused at the idea.

“No, when you make a Nazi you’re not loyal to Hitler and fighting to end his evil reign from inside. At high levels, you get to get to defect to the Russians or Allies.”

“Now you’ve done it.” Sadie glared at Ania. “Now we got to listen to those two nerds talk about video games.”

“Yeah, my brother is the Prince of Nerds.” Ania sighed. “That’s what his friends use to call him. But, nerdy stuff is fun…”

“Hey, now…” Callen objected. “Your worse than I am…”

“Come on guys, lets talk about something else…” Sadie whined.

“Did you consider the pacific campaign?” Tende asked, completely ignoring Sadie.

“No. It’s not released yet. They are still working out the rest of the details. It will come out in an expansion pack, besides the game was just released the only American option is a spy class.” Callen explained. “In the game world Pearl Harbor hasn’t even taken place yet. But they said they one of the new classes for the Americans is techno-gunslinger and I am totally gonna make one of those as my main character when I can.”

“Is it true that it’s like that game Destiny, but like…way better?” Tende asked.

“A lot of the same guys that made Destiny made Shadowborne,” Ania said. “They learned from what the critics said and made major improvements.”

“Sweet. I can’t wait.” Tende said enthusiastically. “Let’s get me a copy, and do some playing!”

“Me too,” Ania added happily. “I don’t want to have to just watch…”

“You too?” Sadie sighed and looked at Ania. “I thought Callen was joking…”

“Yup.” Ania smiled. “Like I said, it’s fun. But, I don’t have a computer or any…”

“I’ll totally buy you a copy since I doubt Sir Corth gave you any money.” Tende said, “He forgets that stuff…and I’ll get you hooked up with one of my old computers.”

“Thanks.” Ania fidgeted with excitement in her seat.

“No thanks required.” Tende nodded. “Corth was one of my dads, so as far as I see it, your family.”

Callen felt himself relax a little. It felt like the first good news he had heard in a while. “Let’s make a coordinated team.” He suggested. “It’s gonna be awesome.”

“Just my luck.” Sadie sulked. “Nerds a plenty.”

“Guess Sadie has no interest in ruling the world.” Callen laughed.

“Na…not really.” Tende confirmed with a jovial smile. “She’s into girly stuff…”

“Don’t talk about me like I’m not here…” Sadie half laughed and pleated. “And I wouldn’t call…”

“You hear something?” Tende laughed.

“Nope.” Callen shot Sadie a half-grin. “So, pie and then video games, here we come…”

“Just great…” Sadie moaned.

As soon as Helga noticed they were done with their lunch, she served each of the children a huge piece of cherry pie. Callen and Tende paused their video game conversation until their plates were scraped clean.

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

Raptured in the pixelated landscapes of WWII Europe, stylized images of mythological creatures, and sounds of battle accompanied by an epic music score, Tende, Ania, and Callen didn’t even hear the door. The Heavenly pint’s door slammed shut. “Do you nerds do anything besides play that game?” Sadie waltzed in. “I mean, it’s almost dinner time and Rurik is gonna open the pub…” She glanced around at Rurik’s employees as they prepared for the evening rush.

“We just started like three hours ago. You were, you know, doing whatever you do.” Callen didn’t even bother to look up from his screen. He had dark circles under his eyes and yawned without covering his mouth.

“Yeah, like after only a fifteen minute break for a sandwich. Not to mention you guys have been playing that almost non-stop for a week…” Sadie moaned. “Can we please do something else?”

“Maybe you should play.” Callen hid a little smirk.

She started to sputter in annoyance, but he had stopped paying attention to her when the electronic ink painted pictures of a shadowy Nazi Laboratory across their screens. He tapped the keyboard and his leprechaun combat engineer, named Bunny-man, loaded his submachine gun.

“Alright, Tende, you tank the monsters and I’ll keep you healed. I got a stasis spell ready for any adds.” Ania ordered “We got this. No deaths guys.” She rearranged the game interface to make the spells that her elven field medic, Kelestia, used in the game easier for Ania to access quickly.

“Seriously guys?” Sadie grumbled.

“Maybe you should play too.” Tende suggested.

Callen looked over his laptop to see that she was really boiling over after being ignored for the past few days. His smirk grew bigger.

“This reminds me of those video game parties that kids in school always talk about,” Sadie whined. “You know, the ones with the stacks of pizza boxes, mountain dew, and the bloodshot eyes. The kinds of things that nerds do…you know?” Sadie paused as if waiting for a response.

“Callen, there are tons of zombies in the room we gotta go through.” Tende moved his half-vampire shock-trooper, named The Wall, into a defensive position near the door. He activated an in-game ability and his character raised his shield and heavy machine gun to prepare for the attack. “Can you throw a grenade to pull, Callen?”

“I’m on it.” Ania cut in. “I’ll pull with my stasis spell.”

“Good, my incendiary bomb is on cooldown,” Callen said.

“I said this is what nerds do!” Sadie grew louder.

“Wait, what?” Callen glanced at her for a second. “Nerds yell?”

“Oh, snap.” Tende roared with laughter. “Sadie got burned.”

“Shut up, you big oaf.” Sadie crossed her arms. She let out an annoyed laugh. “Now come on, let’s do something else.”

“Tende, we got a necromancer. Ania, keep him counter-spelled, I’ll hold off the zombies with my turret, and get my tactical advantage from flanking.”

“I’m talking here!” Sadie yelled. “Real people first!”

“Buff up.” Tende ordered. “Boss time.”

“You guys listening to me?” Sadie asked. She paused for a second as if waiting for a response. When none came, she sighed really loudly. “Fine, since you won’t listen to me, I guess you guys aren’t hungry and you won’t be joining me for cheesesteaks.”

“Hungry?!” Tende looked up from his monitor.

“Wait, Tende! The boss!” Callen cried as the evil Nazi cyborg with chemical tanks attached to his arms sprayed their characters with poison. “Use your cleanse ability!”

“Cheesesteaks are SO good.” He looked away from the screen and back at Sadie. “We going?”

Their screens flashed and soon our characters were dead.

“Now we gotta do it again.” Ania sighed. “But least I can play the whole thing now.”

“I’ve never had a cheesesteak,” Callen admitted as the mission failed screen popped up. “It better be good enough to cause us to die at a boss fight.”

Tended spun around in his chair looking completely shocked. “You two haven’t had a cheesesteak yet? We took you to Helga’s first…” He sighed. “Helga’s is amazing and all, but she doesn’t even try to make cheesesteaks. For those, you have to go to where they were born: South Philly. Anywhere else is just sacrilegious. Going anywhere else if you can get one at their birth place is like not going to the Vatican for mass if you lived a block away.”

“I guess he really likes cheesesteaks…” Callen looked at his sister and she nodded.

“If you don’t, you definitely have something wrong with you.” Tende logged off the game.

“I won’t like them, I’m a vegetarian.” Ania said.

Tende paused and gave her a confused look. “Like I said, something wrong with you. Let’s do the quest again later Callen, I’m starving. Besides, there’s cheesesteaks waiting!”

“I should’ve mentioned the food first,” Sadie grumbled. “Then I might have gotten a response. Note to self: talk more about food.”

“Oh, come on, you said you grew up with this guy,” Ania teased. “You had to figure that food was the way to get his attention or any guys for that matter. I’m only thirteen and I know that!”

“Oooo, Sadie got told by a thirteen-year-old!” Tende mocked. “To much Sadie talkie and not enough Sadie thinkie! Oh! Double zing! Air tap Ania!”

“Shut up!” Sadie sounded slightly irritated, but she couldn’t help but laugh. “Callen’s on my side, he thinks I’m cute and definitely don’t talk too much. Right, Callen?”

“Ah…what? Sorry, I didn’t realize you were talking. You just do it so much…it makes it easy to tune you out… Logging off now.” He hit the log off button and closed his laptop. She gave him a scowl as Tende walked out into the hall. Callen grinned.

“Funny, har-har.” Sadie gave him another dirty look.

“Shouldn’t set yourself up so much.”

“You’re one to talk…” Sadie said.

“Shut-up.” Callen rolled his eyes.

**********************

 

Outside the pub, in the smog muffled twilight, Corth’s truck pulled up in front of the church. He hopped out and dragged a greasy looking man from the extended cab. The man had a jacket draped over his shoulders that was doing a mediocre job of concealing a pair of handcuffs that were binding his wrists behind his back. He stumbled as Corth tugged him towards a stairwell descending into the basement of the church. However, the difficulty walking was not from Corth’s tugging alone. The man seemed to be having minor seizures. Two monks opened a side door as they approached and they closed the doors behind them after Corth and the handcuffed man entered. One had a leather-bound book in his hand and a whiskey flask.

“Bet Sir Corth’s got a demon.” Tende rubbed the back of his neck. “A neophyte by the looks of it…drug dealer, pimp, or some low-level errand boy…”

“What?” Callen waited for someone to answer his question.

“Yep. Fr. Thomas must have just blessed the water in your grandpa’s favorite holy water flask and they got the book.” Sadie sounded excited. “Guess he’s gonna burn some leads out of him.”

“Burn someone with a book?” Ania asked.

“For exorcisms,” Sadie answered. “Come on, let’s check it out.” Sadie flashed Callen and Ania a devilish grin. “I can’t think of a better opportunity to…”

“Sadie, don’t…” Tende started to say, but it was too late.

With a look of mischief and adventure on her face, Sadie headed towards the right of the church were a walled off area rested between the street and the rectory. “Come on you wimps can do it in a video game, why not in real life?”

Callen looked at Tende and Ania, who were just stood there.

Ania had a scared look on her face. “I’m just staying here.” She stated. “I don’t want to spy on Grandpa.”

“Good choice.” Tende patted her on the shoulder. “Anyway, there are cheesesteaks that want to be eaten.”

“You guys can’t just let her go by herself.” Callen started to protest, but the expressions of his sister and Tende told him they weren’t budging. So, he shrugged and ran after Sadie.

**********************

 

Sadie ran up the stairs and stopped at a locked gate. She slid through the bars into a well-kept garden with a pair of shrines nestled among the artistically gnarled plants. She ignored the shrine to the holy mother and ran towards the smaller one with a large cross as a focal point. They passed a few gravestones, and she dropped to her knees behind the large cross, and dug her hand into the dirt to find a lever.

She pulled the lever that caused the cross to move revealing a small opening at its base. She then slipped into a hidden opening. “Come on.”

“I don’t think…” Callen started.

“Yeah, don’t think. Let’s go.” She flashed her pretty, yet roguish, smile and Callen followed crawling through old musty tunnels. She pulled out a small flashlight and clicked it on. “These tunnels are all over the place in this place. They run beneath the streets into the Heavenly Pint. I think some of it may be old parts of the rectory before it burned down in the late 1800s. But there are also some parts I think they connect to some of the old sewer systems. I’ve never gone that deep though. It just smells too bad.”

Sadie and Callen inched through the dark crawlspace. After a few turns, they started to hear voices. One was Corth’s and the other sounded like someone who had throat cancer. Sadie dimmed the flashlight and pushed a small block. The crawlspace opened and she peered into the room. When she was sure the room was clear, she climbed out. “Aren’t old buildings great? There’re all kinds of nooks and crannies in this place, lucky for us those in charge never get a chance to fix this place.”

“I guess they’re too busy fighting monsters.” Callen followed her into a stone room with a few computer monitors on the table and an empty set of chairs.

Sadie brought up the camera feed from the interrogation room. “Normally, your Grandpa’s partner would be in here during an interrogation, but he’s still in Boston. So, we get to watch.” She pointed to the monitor. “They are in the next room over, so be quiet. Some of the older walls in this place are really thin.” She adjusted the speakers.

Before a massive table, the shadows of Corth and his prisoner moved in the warm candlelight. From one of the candelabras hanging from the wall built of time-warn brick, Corth plucked free one of the holy candles and bent down towards the floor. In the shifting light, the faint patterns of holy writings had been etched in the cold cement floor. He touched to the flame to the runes, and the oil that ran in them ignited, and slowly spread through the room. Bound to a heavy chair, the sleazy man, with his thin mustache, greasy hair, and aviator sunglasses, struggled as the glowing runes encircled him.

Corth stood, and after replacing the candle he glared at the man. Hatred boiled in his eyes, as if all heaven’s vengeance for this demon’s crimes rested in the old dwarf’s reach. With a satisfying grin curling beneath his thick braids hanging from his upper lip, he tapped his fingers on an old tome, which was resting before the man on an old table. With his other hand, he pulled a wooden cross from his pocket and slammed it down next to the whiskey flask. “I suggest you start talking, lad. ‘cause if yeh don’t, yeh know yer not walking out o’ here…”

“You…can’t kill me…you guys have rules.”

“Lad, who do yeh think I be? The cops? The Feds? Look at the room. Don’t play dumb with me, devil-spawn.” He uncapped the flask and splashed the man with holy water. The man’s flesh warped and bubbled. The scent of rotten eggs grew more intense.

The man screamed. “I’ll kill you for that.” He roared.

“I doubt that.” Grandpa laughed. “I suggest you start talking. I can play with holy water all day, but I don’t have time. So, I’ll cut to the chase: start talking or I’ll start the exorcism, and fer you half-bloods, which means ripping yeh in half. Holy water this fresh will just help me rip you from this world quicker and more painfully. So, get talkin’.” Grandpa reached into his pocket and slammed a medium sized wooden cross on top of the leather book.

“Isn’t magic evil?” Callen whispered.

“Exorcisms aren’t magic. It’s channeling. God is doing the work.”

“What?”

“Didn’t your grandpa tell you anything about magic?”

“No more than you did. Your classifications just seemed like crap to me.” Callen grumbled. “Considering Jesus had magic and probably was magic.”

“Jesus wasn’t magic,” Sadie whispered. “Jesus was god. He used miracles. Miracles are God’s creation powers working towards his will. Magic is the perverted knowledge.

“Semantics…” Callen grunted.

“Lad, yeh have to the count of three.” Corth opened the book. “One…”

The man started to panic. “I told you I don’t know anything about no missing children. I told you everything. We’re just after the glams, humans don’t care about them. Please…let me go.” He whimpered.

“Glam?” Callen whispered.

“Demon slang for unseelie fey,” Sadie answered. “Fairies that can’t visibly pass for human.”

“Great,” Callen muttered sarcastically. “Demons and Tinkerbelle. What’s next? Mermaids singing under the ocean with a talking crab?”

“You wish you were in a Disney flick…” Sadie whispered. “Then you might get the girl…”

“Thanks,” Callen muttered.

“Pity.” Grandpa picked up the cross and began to say something in Latin. His voice got stronger and more intense as he read. The man’s skin started to smoke and his skin began to split open as if some invisible clawed force was tearing out of him.

“Wait.” He coughed. Corth didn’t stop. “It wasn’t us, I swear. You know that we wouldn’t kidnap that many, not so close together. It is something else, you have to believe me!” The man’s skin began to smoke.

“You’re gonna have to do better than that.” Corth chanted more, and he began to burn.

The demon voice grew frantic as the flames grew stronger. “And the word in the shadows is…some of those kids you’re looking for return a few days later…with scars on them…no one knows why…you should really do your homework, thin-blood.”

As Corth continued the Latin, the demon leaned forward. The hungry look of a feral animal washed over his face. Through the thin cloud of smoke, he lunged towards Corth with a malicious snarl. His jaw unhinged and rows of rusty shark-like teeth slid out of his gum line.

Corth didn’t flinch as the teeth gnashed a few millimeters from his face. Unyielding with his holy words, he kicked the table into the demon knocking him backward and causing him to crack his skull on the floor. Before the demon could reorient himself, Corth’s boot was on his neck and a sparkle of enjoyment twinkled in the old dwarf’s eye as righteous flames erupted. The flames grew, like a bonfire, in which Corth stood unharmed. The demon, however, convulsed and snarled in a hellish tongue as his flesh cooked.

Callen felt his lungs spasm and the burning exploded in his chest. He held back the cough. As the guy screamed in pain, Callen slowly let go of the cough; otherwise, it would turn into a spasm. Sadie shot him a dirty look.

“You’re gonna get us in trouble.” She whispered.

“Sadie, I don’t feel so good.” He started to get dizzy, but Sadie caught him and helped him into a chair before he fell over.

“In the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit.” Corth roared. He slammed the book closed and held the cross before the burning man. “Amen.” The demon stopped moving and the flames dissipated, leaving only a smoldering corpse with blackened metal modifications on his fingers and jaw. “One less o’ you fookers on the street.” He inspected the demon’s corpse. “These alterations are damn expensive…”

Sadie leaned me back against the wall. “You alright?”

“Yeah.” He swallowed. “Maybe I’m allergic to something down here.” He coughed with his mouth closed.

By touching something on his wrist, Corth answered a phone call. “Ello, lad.” He spoke without holding anything to his ear as if he had a microphone somewhere on his person. “Aye, lad. Things are going well up there? No?” He cursed. “Aye. But, as for some good news, I caught a few leads on the kidnapping case here. Said it wasn’t anything he knew about. He insisted through the exorcism that it be someone else and deh kidnappings be far too many to be related to demon magic. He said his bunch be after unseelie fey, well, that in less polite words. But, I not be believing him just yet. I got some checking up to do. However, I should mention he was surgically altered.” He paused and listened.

“Surgically altered?” Callen asked as he gained control of himself.

Sadie shrugged.

“Aye, he also said the children were being returned with scars on their spines…so, that rules out possession.” Corth paused to let his partner talk. “Aye, and those types of surgeries are costly…so, that could explain why the money led me to him…I’ll make a note in the file about looking into medical professionals and fey connections.” He paused again. “I don’t know, lad. But, there could be two separate issues here…and that would mean there’s another player involved. But, either way the kidnappings are the priority…if demons aren’t the culprit, we’ll deal with them later. If they’re wrapped up together, then watch yer back, lad. A shadow war between demons and fey not be two things we want to be sandwiched between. Good luck and Felix will get yeh what yeh need. Later.”

“So, what the hell just happened?” Callen asked.

“You started to get sick.”

“No, with Grandpa.”

“Interrogation and a standard exorcism.”

“Does it kill them?”

“The host tends to die, unless you get them really early in the process. But, whether it sends the demon back to hell or destroys them, who knows.”

“What about the water and the oil?”

“Holy oil and water will kill them too, but you need a lot of it, like enough to fully submerge someone. They’re better for torturing those monsters.” She looked at the screen and saw Corth step towards the door. “But, we should get out of here. Besides, you’re looking a little ill. Let’s go get those cheesesteaks. That’ll fix ya right up.”

 

Callen followed Sadie back through the crawlspace. He felt a sharp edge on the smooth stone wall. He paused for a second and ran his hand across it. It felt like something metal had scratched the cement wall. “Hey, there is a scratch here…” He whispered. “Gimme the light.” He grabbed the light from Sadie and began inspecting it.

“Yeah, I think that’s from the original foundation or maybe when they added these crawl spaces. I have seen those all over the place. Maybe someone damaged this place when they rebuilt what’s above us.”

“It looks newer than that. Like it was scraped by some sharp tool.”

“Yeah, but who knows?”

**********************

 

Outside, Tende and Ania waiting for them on the church steps with disapproving looks. “I can’t believe you two did that.” Ania shook her head. “The whole thing gave me a really bad feeling.”

“Well, it should have since your grandpa tore apart a hell-bag with a well-placed exorcism.” Sadie sounded like an action movie fan talking about an epic climatic battle. “Don’t worry, he is disposed of now. I can’t wait to do that exorcism stuff and begin my lessons in demonology.” She looked at Tende. “Speaking of which, I still can’t believe you turned down Sir Jason’s request for your squire-ship. Killing demons and all that stuff is so cool. Not to mention, Sir Jason is hawt.”

“Yeah, as if that was part of my decision process.” Tende scoffed. “To get Sadie a date with a knight that is twenty years older than her, right.”

“Hey, I’ll be twenty in six years, then it won’t matter.” Sadie batted her eyelashes.

Callen rolled his eyes, but he wouldn’t admit that Sadie talking about a crush bothered him. “Tende,” Callen asked, moving the conversation towards something more important than a crush. “Grandpa said the demon he had surgically altered himself…do you know anything about that?”

Tende nodded. “Demons tend to severally alter their appearance to suit their needs, from what I understand. Surgery is common, but there are other means that are more disturbing.”

“Like what?” Ania asked with a forbidden curiosity lingering in her voice.

“Infection with viruses or diseases and manipulating them with magic.” Tende shook his head in disgust. “I’ve seen pictures of ones that are pretty gross…and ones that are extremely beautiful.”

“I don’t get it, why would they alter their bodies?” Ania asked.

“I’ve never had a chance to meet one, let alone ask one.”

“Yeah, so demons are gross,” Sadie interjected. “Anyway, Sir Jason…”

The church door creaked open.

“What’s so great about this Sir Jason?” Callen asked with an air of irritation in his voice.

“Sir Jason be your uncle.” Corth exited the church. “On yer dad’s side that is, actually yeh look very much like him.”

“So, I guess he’s pretty good looking then.” Callen shot a half-grin at Sadie.

“I didn’t know we had an uncle…” Ania scratched her head.

“Actually, yeh have two.” Corth sighed. “Me blood son, Balkor and your father’s brother.” A look of pain hung on the old dwarf’s face when he mentioned his own son. However, it wasn’t the look that came from any depth of permanent loss. The look on his face read Balkor was still alive, but whatever choices he made pained Corth dearly. “But, both be long stories…and Jason is happy you two are ok.” He looked at Tende. “He expressed his disappointment to me at our last conference for yeh not accepting his offer. He said his offer still remains if yeh change yer mind befer he picks a new candidate.”

“Will he pick me, Sir Corth?” Sadie asked.

“Lass, yeh know yer still got some time left befer yer approved,” Corth answered. “But, if he doesn’t choose someone by then I’ll ask fer yeh.”

“Really?!” Sadie’s excitement was overbearingly exuberant, as if she meant it to dig at Callen. “That would be awesome.”

“Lad,” Corth looked at Callen. “Do yeh remember anything about fairies in Boston?”

“Ah, no.” Callen shook his head. “I don’t think I would know one if I saw one, even now.”

“What do fairies have to do with anything?” Ania asked. “And what exactly are fairies…considering everything we have learned thus far…is well…”

“Twisted?” Callen offered.

“Well, yeah.” Ania agreed. “Fairytale definitions need not apply.”

“That be a fair assessment, lads.” Corth nodded. “Unseelie fey are a sinister, alien lot. I don’t have enough information to even determine the type, let alone motivation at this point. “ He rubbed his beard. “Well, I guess I don’t know a better way of putting it. If you define good as white and evil as black, then unseelie fey usually come in the shade of dark green. Their goals tend to be…elusive.”

“What does that mean?” Callen asked.

“Unseelie fey aren’t all bad, but there be a reason why people say pointed ears be the mark o’ the devil.” Corth clarified. “Interaction is more often than not, harmful.” Corth nodded and rubbed his beard. “But, that be nothing fer yehs to worry about lads.” He took a deep breath. “Now, I have a something to ask yeh four. There be some bad things going on in the city, so I want yeh to remain in the hallowed ground around the Church until I get a chance to figure everything out. It should only take me a couple of days.”

“Does that include The Heavenly Pint?” Ania asked.

“Aye.” Corth nodded. “The Heavenly Pint is safe.”

“Damn. No cheesesteaks.” Tende grumbled. “Can we still go to Helga’s?”

“Aye, but only in daylight.” He looked at each one of the children and noticed Tende and Sadie’s disappointed faces. “Since I don’t want yeh four going out, and I guess I ruined yer fun tonight, I’ll cook yeh all up some o’ me chili. How’s that sound?”

“That’s the only thing that I love more than cheesesteaks!” Tende licked his lips.

“Good, let’s go to the kitchen and I start cookin…and yes Ania…I’ll make a pot o’ vegetarian chili fer yeh…though the thought curdles me stomach.”

 

 

 

 

 

[]CHAPTER SEVEN

 

In his dreams, the nightmares continued. Images of his dying mother coupled with the eyeless faces of the demons flashed in his mind. The squirm of blade-like tentacles, the demon’s hiss and screams of pain resonated like a sadistic soundtrack.

He felt the tentacles bite into his flesh and begin to peel the flesh from his face. The pain was excruciating, almost as bad as the fire that began to tingle across his flesh.

The pain didn’t jolt him from the dream world. It actually did quite the opposite. He fell deeper into the shadows. But this pain was not from demons; it had morphed in the dreamscape. This pain was from metal nodes that he gazed at that were dug into his skin.

“I want mommy.” Callen was sitting on a medical table surrounded by a variety of buzzing medical equipment and computer systems. The room was sterile, like a research laboratory. The shadows crept in every corner like prowling demons. The few lights did nothing to keep them at bay.

“I know pup,” Callen’s father whispered as he slid the needle into Callen’s vein. “I want us to be with mommy too.” The man smiled at his son from underneath his groomed beard and his kind eyes consoled his frightened son through his circular glasses.

Callen’s father took a few steps towards a blinking computer screen and checked something. “Looks like all the nodes check out. We’re ready.” One of the two medical tanks that were a few feet from the bench creaked as it slid from vertical to flat. Rust shavings from the grinding fell to the floor as it came to a halt and hissed open.

“No tank. No burn.” Callen whimpered as he shuddered in his thin hospital gown. He itched one of the larger metal nodes implanted in his skull. Aside from the few in his skull, there were many others placed on other parts of his body.

“Stop Callen.” His father ordered firming. “Those are delicate. I don’t want to have to start over.” He forced a smile. “You don’t want to have to start over again, do you?”

Callen shook his head slowly.

“Good.” He walked over and helped Callen over to the tank.

Callen looked up at his father’s bearded face. “Will the lady come? I hope she comes. When she comes, she keeps it cold. No burning.”

“Lady?” His father asked. His face wrinkled with confusion.

“She sings to me when I’m in the tank,” Callen whispered. “Nice music daddy. Like the Irish stuff, you listen to all the time.”

“It’s okay to dream pup.” His father tried to hide the air of concern in his voice. He scratched his beard. He turned back to the computer screens and began checking through program settings. “Must be a side effect of the A.I. communicating with his neurological system…maybe…could I have miss…not possible.” He muttered under his breath. He paused when he noticed the look of confusion on Callen’s face. “Don’t worry pup. It’s okay. Let’s get you in and then we go home to mommy. I think Grandpa is coming over tonight.”

“Uncle Balkor too?”

“Yup. Now, climb in.” He helped Callen in and began clipping various wires and a cable to a few of the larger electrical nodes across the almost five-year-old’s body.

“Daddy.” Callen felt the pinch of the last cable flowed by the tingle of a slight electrical current. “I sorry I got sick, daddy.” He whispered.

“Not your fault, pup.” He forced a smile. “But, I’ll fix you, I promise.”

“I love you, daddy.” Callen relaxed on the horizontal tank.

“I love you too, pup.” His father walked back over to the computer screens and the tank slid closed. The tank began filling with a viscous orange and metallic swirled fluid. The fluids frosty fingers danced across his skin with the low hiss of air being vacuumed out buzzing in his ears.

Callen watched his father working through the glass as the fluid level rose. No matter how many times he had done this it always was scary. It always felt like he was going to drown in lava. He saw a short child-sized figure walk into the room and hand something to his father. If it weren’t for the dingy glass, Callen would have been able to see more than just a blur. But, the contrast between the figure’s stark white skin and dark walls told him the figure wasn’t human. He looked familiar. He felt kinship, but the figures identity sat on the far edge of his memory coated with a thick layer of dust.

Callen blinked and pushed his face towards the rapidly filling void. He could make out long pointed ears as the figure turned its head to the side as it conversed with his father. The fluid soon stole the last of the glass’s clarity, but he felt the white figure’s single glowing blue eye on him before it was obfuscated by the swirl of the liquid over Callen’s gaze.

He tried to hold his breath, but the fire tore through him stealing the last of his air from his lungs. He felt the metal fluid tentacles attach to the notes on his body and dig in like knives. The burning tore through his insides. He tried to scream, but there was no air. The fluid over took the child, bringing him into darkness accompanied by the gentle melody of a woman’s voice that sang in a language he couldn’t understand. He felt a touch of frost shoot across his burning skin like lightning splitting the sky. The melody grew stronger, but with a jolt, the dream was torn away.

**********************

 

Wake up sleepy!” Ania shook her brother.

The light stung his eyes and his dream lingered in his mind. “What?” he gasped as he coughed as the feeling of choking faded. His mind still clung to the dream and the feeling of the fiery fluid tore through his nerve fibers. He dug his fingers into his forearms and scratched expecting to feel clumps of ash fall into his hands.

“You alright?” Ania asked.

“Yeah.” Callen lied. He was far from all right, but he knew how to lie about pain. “Just dreams.” He wiped the sweat from his forehead and sat up in his bed.

“Me too.” She whispered. “They’re always in my dreams. They won’t go away. You fell asleep while we were playing games last night…Tende carried you to your bed.”

Callen looked at his sister and ignored the burning like he had done with his chemotherapy. He took a deep breath. His heart pounded. He swallowed hard and tried to sound tough. “Yeah.” He hoped his voice didn’t shake too much.

“Any idea what they wanted?” Ania whispered. “We haven’t gotten a chance to talk about…”

“What?”

“The metal demons.”

“No.” Callen touched his father’s cross for comfort. He began to relax a little, and the fire in his nervous system began to calm. “No idea…but they got Derrick.”

“There haven’t been any reports.” Ania sighed. “So, hopefully, he got out.”

Callen nodded. “Yeah.” The feeling of loss swelled inside him twisting with the maelstrom of emotions still lingering beneath the surface. Physical pain he could deal with. He felt the corners of the cross dent his flesh as he tightened his grip almost enough to draw blood.

“Callen, you sure you’re alright?”

“Fine.” He groaned. He didn’t want to talk about the monsters or anything else. He wanted to protect both of them and push their mutual dread into a vault in the back of their minds. He had played this role so many times. The role of the older brother is to protect. He always did what he could, even from his hospital bed. He had never fed her worries when he was in the hospital, and he wasn’t going to now, even if a part of him knew they needed each other.

“I know you’re not fine. Hanging out and playing games is a good distraction, but I’m not fine. I’m here when you need me.”

“Right.” He pushed himself out of bed and his feet touched the old wood floor. He felt the cold rush up his legs. The cold felt good. He liked the cold. He began to relax a little as a distant melody buzzed somewhere deep in his mind.

“Tende and Sadie are waiting for us in the pub. Hurry up and get dressed. I know Sadie’s gonna be pissed, but we gotta take out that vampire scientist in Shadowborne today and Rurik’s breakfast is no good cold. So, let’s go.”

He nodded. “Good cold.” He murmured as she left.

He took a cold shower to wash the last bit of burning from his flesh. As the water ran down his face, he tried to sort through his nightmare, but he could find no explanation. In all of his logic, nothing made sense.

**********************

 

“Mornin.” Tende greeted as Callen joined his sister and their new friends at one of the booths in The Heavenly Pint. Everyone else was already started. “You ready for another day of Shadowborne?”

Callen’s plate was heavy with eggs, bacon, and toast, which he began preparing to eat. He was glad that Sadie, Tende, and his sister were there and seemed to be in good spirits. It helped him think about something else aside from his nightmares.

“God, please, no.” Sadie scoffed. “Can’t we do something else?”

“Three to one…you lose.” Tende teased. “Besides, what else is there to do? Sir Corth is mad busy and hasn’t asked us to do anything.”

“We could see a movie…something…anything…please?” Sadie whined. “I just don’t want to be stuck watching you guys play that game anymore.”

“Read one of your motorcycle books.” Tende suggested.

“Yeah, ‘cause I DIDN’T do that YESTERDAY or THE DAY BEFORE that,” Sadie complained. She turned towards Callen and took a breath to say something, but instead gasped in shock. “What are you doing?”

“What?” Callen put the ketchup bottle down. His eggs were covered in the tomato vinegar blend.

“You like eggs with your ketchup?” Sadie asked.

“Some.” He grinned as he put some jelly on his buttered toast. He then took a spoon full of ketchup-covered eggs and dropped it on the toast.

“You’re gonna eat that?” Sadie watched in horror.

“Yup.” Callen topped it off with a slice of bacon. “All of breakfast in one bite.”

“Ewww.” Sadie gagged.

“Well, excuse me princess.” Callen grinned. “You don’t know good until you’ve tried eggs-a-la-Callen.” He took a huge bite.

Sadie put her fork down. “I lost my appetite.”

“You’re missing out, it’s quite good.” Callen sighed. “Derrick and I made it when we were trying to make hospital food taste better.”

“Whose Derrick?” Tende asked. “You haven’t mentioned him…”

“He was my best friend back in Boston.” Callen let an exhale gently carry his words as if to prevent himself from crying.

“You alright?” Ania placed her hand on her brother’s shoulder.

He nodded slowly.

“You sure?” She asked. “You’re not looking so good.”

“I’m okay.” He answered.

“Probably that nasty egg mix.” Sadie joked.

“Is it Derrick?” Ania asked. “Can I tell them?”

“Yeah, among other things,” Callen mumbled.

“Callen got a little sick yesterday when we were in the crawl space,” Sadie said. “Guess the mold got to him.”

“Mold?” Ania sounded skeptical. “You sure?”

“I just got a little dizzy, that’s all.” Callen sighed. “And I’m overtired.”

Ania looked unconvinced but turned back to Sadie and Tende without questioning Callen further. “He was there when the metal demons attacked the hospital in Boston. Hopefully, he made it out fine.” She rested her hand on Callen’s arm as he lost himself for a second staring into his breakfast mess. “He’s pretty resourceful. I think he got out just fine.”

“Yeah.” Callen gave up on eating. “Hopefully.” He wished he could hear the twinkling melody from his dream.

“If he’s alive, Sir Dren will find him.” Tende said. “That guy’s amazing.”

“My grandfather mentioned him, what’s he like?” Ania asked.

“He’s an Army Ranger sniper that got in over his head with an evil voodoo cult in New Orleans.” Tende explained. “That’s when he met your Grandfather. He was forced awake, and your grandfather squired him. Now they are partners.”

“Isn’t saying voodoo and evil a bit redundant?” Callen joked.

“Not always.” Tende corrected. “It’s like anything else. All religions have their dark sides.”

“Speaking of dark sides, you guys know why Grandpa asked about fairies last night?” Ania asked.

“He said they were connected to whatever case he is working on here in Philly and Boston…” Callen answered.

“Yeah, fey,” Sadie added. “He and Sir Dren were talking about them on the phone. He said something about a fairy mound…”

“Depending on the type of fairy, that could be why he asked us to say on hallowed ground.” Tende said. “But, it could be a variety of things. He asked me to begin gathering what we know about pure fey religious rites and rituals.”

“Broad topic.” Sadie sighed. “Hopefully he gets some clues to narrow your search down.”

“Yeah.” Tende agreed. “I’m gonna start helping tomorrow.”

“Shadowborne?” Ania asked grinning widely.

“Yup.” Tende grinned. “Gives him a chance to get some more clues before I start research and listening at Helga’s.”

“Great…more time wasting time…” Sadie muttered.

“Morning lads.” Corth entered the Heavenly pint. “I hope yeh slept some.”

“A little,” Callen answered.

“Not much,” Ania admitted.

“Aye.” Corth nodded and rubbed his beard. “I bet. Yeh two look like yeh haven’t slept a wink. But, this old dwarf wouldn’t have expected yeh to. Me thinks I should have gotten ol’ Dr. Brewer to get yehs some sleeping pills.”

“There’s a lot going on.” Callen shrugged.

“Yeah, in a virtual game world.” Sadie rolled her eyes.

Corth laughed. “Well, not fer long.” He looked at Sadie and Tende. “Thank yeh both fer making me grandkids feel as comfortable here as possible. Yeh know I appreciate it. I just haven’t had time to breath in the last few days.”

“We know.” Tende said. “Hanging out has been awesome. It’s like we’ve known each other forever.”

“Actually, that’s not far from the truth.” Corth chuckled. “And I’m glad to hear it. But, unfortunately, I’m gonna have to break up yer little posse fer now. I need yeh each to do some duties. Sadie, Felix needs yeh. Tende, I need yeh picking up word at Helga’s about disappearing children today. Hopefully, that will give yeh some idea where to start with that lore search I mentioned to yeh last night.”

“Alright.” Tende said. “I’ll get to it.”

“Aye and Tende, pay attention to anything you may hear about demonic shipping too,” Corth ordered.

“Why? I thought you said it was fey.” Tende inquired.

“Something’s scratching at the back of my mind.” Corth stared at the fireplace for a second. The flames made the salt and pepper in his braided beard look orange. “Just call it old hunter’s intuition…I don’t know if it’s related to the kidnaped children, but I know there’s something big going on there…” He looked at his grandkids. As fer yeh two, well…I need yeh to come with me.”

“Now?” Callen asked.

“Aye.”

“For what?” Ania asked.

“Conference with Dr. Webb and…well…some o’ our people who just arrived.” The old dwarf sighed.

“Who they send?” Rurik asked as he entered the pub from the kitchen. He looked towards Corth raising his eyebrow

“Who do yeh think?” Corth took a mouthful of eggs.

“Fook. Felix is gonna be pissed of something fierce.” Rurik roared “This really be that serious?”

“Aye. She has the best relationship with those government spooks that always be poking their noses in our stuff. This one bled over, and the spooks will be up our arses soon…” Corth cursed. “We don’t need those amateurs muddying the water…”

“Great.” Rurik’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “In more ways than one.”

“Aye, worse than yeh know,” Corth grumbled. “She be placed in charge since Webb’s at the Greenland site. Gotta love them fookers. That means we do our work and hers while she gets a vacation.”

“Aren’t yeh just mister bright-side.” Rurik chuckled.

“Aye. Sunshine and glitter. It’s always been what dwarves are known for.” Corth laughed sarcastically. “Anyway, lads, we better not be keeping everyone waiting.”

**********************

 

After a two and a half mile walk to the Penn Museum, the siblings followed their grandfather through the magnificent courtyard towards an employee entrance. Corth opened the door and they walked through a network of hallways, labs, and storage rooms until they came to a staircase. They climbed a dimly lit staircase that was crowded with boxes. Dense cobwebs hung in every possible corner.

“Museums never have enough storage, and you gotta love building expansions…a few quick alterations to the plans and you got a hidden wing. It’s even easier to do today considering all we gotta do is do a quick hack…then contractors build it for us…then we erase all proof of our modifications.” Corth chuckled as they stopped at the third-floor door. The door creaked as he pushed in the tarnished handle. “But, we tend not to get the maintenance or custodial staff in our hidden corridors…anyway, right this way, lads.” Corth gestured for them to enter through the open door.

The hallway was still crowded with boxes, books, and papers, which made walking difficult. The walls were covered with peeling wallpaper that was stained with grime. Many of the offices they passed were vacant. The few that were occupied had strange scholarly people in severe need of a makeover absorbed in research.

Old pictures and posters hung from the wall depicting all sorts of diagrams of creatures from folklore. Callen shivered when he saw an artist’s twisted rendition of Cthulhu and one of H.R. Geiger’s prints of his original design for the Alien.

“Those things real?” Ania whispered with a shiver in her voice.

“Cthulhu? The Alien?” Corth asked. “The world is a dark place. Many times artists get glimpses into hell that even we knights do not. I’m not a scholar, so, I’m not going to even attempt to explain Webb’s theory on these modern myths. But, what I do understand is that he believes an important part of protecting society lies in understanding fear.”

“You mean chemically?” Callen asked. “It’s just a bio…”

“No lad. Not the biological chemical reactions.” Corth turned a corner. “It’s their effect on man’s development he’s interested in and how they affect what our interpretation of the beyond. Again, if yeh want a more academic or scientific explanation, I’m not yer dwarf.”

They stopped at a room directly across from a door marked Dr. Michael Webb. Ania turned towards Webb’s office, but Corth pointed to the door across the hall. “Here lass. Dr. Webb is out. We’re in this room.” He pulled open the old door.

“Nice of you to be on time, dwarf.” A woman jeered heartlessly, as Corth led his grandchildren into a messy conference room packed with boxes. Her stone gray eyes glared over the old oak table at them through her pair of thin glasses and a slight sneer curled in the corner of her angular lips. The woman had a warrior’s gaze similar to their mother’s. However, it didn’t carry the same depth of prowess. Even in comparing her to Eve in her current state, would make this woman seem second rate. Although, second rate to Eve would still place her among the most skilled and experienced demon slayers in the order.

A few feet away from her, a man with dark skin pulled a pot of fresh coffee from a coffee maker and poured two cups. Above the coffee maker hung a rack of books marked ‘folklore dissertations’ with a bowl of coffee fixings on top of them. He took some creamer and sugar for one of the coffee cups while giving Corth a law enforcement officer’s stare.

“We’re here Cole,” Corth didn’t sound happy and completely ignored the man making coffee. “I see you let yourself in.” His eyes were fixed on the blond woman and his normally calming voice had been replaced completely with a deep hatred that only grew with time, like roots of a massive tree.

“I did.” She cooed. Corth’s hatred seemed to satisfy her somehow. “And I see Webb hasn’t neatened up his act.”

“Well, we’re busy,” Corth said. “Yeh should try it sometime. The world would be safer.”

“Show some respect dwarf.” Bethany Cole took the cup of coffee the man handed her. She didn’t take her eyes off Corth. “Remember, I outrank you.”

“I may have to work with yeh, but respect isn’t part o’ the deal. Besides, rank can be gained through favors beyond the job description.” He pulled out two chairs and motioned for Callen and Ania to take a seat. “I suggest yeh keep it civil for the children’s sake.”

The woman snickered as she glanced at the two children. “Fine. I’ll keep the pleasantries, but not for the benefit of two mongrels like them.”

Corth looked like he was going to leap over the table and break her neck, but something held him back. He choked down his anger and glanced at the man. “Who’s yer friend, Cole?”

“I’m Sir Jefferson.” His voice had a deep resonance. “Jefferson Reeves. Pleasure.” He pulled another cup from the cabinet under the counter. “Coffee?” Corth nodded and Reeves poured him a cup.

“Black, Lad.” Corth took the cup. “Now, let’s get this over with.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out two pairs of glasses that looked like safety eyewear. He handed them to Callen and Ania. “Put these on.”

“Alright…” Callen looked at the glasses. “What for?”

“You’ll see, Lad.”

Callen put the safety glasses over his normal glasses. Graphical interfaces appeared on the new lenses that layered onto some of the furniture in the room. He could see panels of holographic buttons on the wall and on the table.

“Those glasses are linked to our computer network, lad. From what I understand, it lays a virtual interface over reality. Our stuff is completely invisible without specially attuned gear.” A proud grin appeared somewhere beneath his heavy beard. “Unfortunately, I can’t give those to you permanently, but yeh will need them fer this meeting at least.”

He knew companies sold augmented reality lenses, but the technological integration here was amazing. He saw panels that appeared near highlighted sections of the wall that looked like they would move. The lenses then took an x-ray like image of his hands and displayed a brief flash of his unique pattern of blood vessels. There was another indicator that informed him that the glasses were synced to his movements. He reached his hand towards a nearby image and was able to move it with a flick of his wrist. He grinned with excitement and wanted nothing more than a chance to play with these and figure out how they worked seamlessly to add a new layer to the dusty old conference room.

“Yes, let’s get going.” Lady Bethany rolled her fingers across the holographic interface on the table’s edge.

The table rippled and the wood top rolled from died dark oak to obsidian black as if it were liquid. Several holographic screens expanded in Callen’s lens across the table top. Various computer application icons appeared in front of each seat.

Callen sat mesmerized as the technology reviled itself before his eyes. “No one would ever know…” He whispered as colors flashed on the screens and on the table. A floating image of a three-dimensional graphic image of a spinning Celtic cross blended in an intricate design along with a pair of wolf heads appeared above the table.

“Everyone here?” A holographic image of a man dressed in cold weather gear said as he phased into one of the chairs in the room. The man had a thick mustache and a pair of oval glasses resting at the end of his nose.

“Aye, Dr. Webb. We’re all here.”

“Good.” The mustached man nodded. “Unfortunately, I could not let this meeting wait until I return. I thank you, Lady Bethany and Sir Reeves for arriving at our Philadelphia sight so quickly. Sir Corth is in need of assistance and as you know, I’m unable to provide my full direction.” Dr. Webb paused. “However, with the boldness of the attacks in Boston we have to be proactive with these new creatures. We have very little information on them. Hopefully, this discussion will help us move towards a definitive solution rather than the cover-up that we have been working jointly to implement.”

“What about our mom?” Callen interjected.

“She isn’t a priority.” Cole jeered with heartless efficiency. “Focus can’t be placed on the dead.”

Callen’s blood began to boil. He felt his lips begin to curl a cutting response, but the weight of his grandfather’s arm on his quieted him. Callen controlled himself.

“She is in good hands, child,” Dr. Webb reassured him. “This is the first step on the road to helping her. With God’s guidance, we will be drawn to a solution. Lady Bethany, the council informed me of your involvement with the Boston cover-up, do you have an update?”

“The cover-up is running smoothly. The government, both local and federal, has been dealt with. If any information surfaces, it will be in the tabloids. All major media have been fed what we want them to know. This one took some real string pulling, but overall, we got lucky.” Lady Cole said. “However, there are a few loose ends, but we are working to tighten them up. And a lot of questions to answer…”

“I don’t like getting lucky,” Dr. Webb admitted. “But, since this didn’t blowup, we can only be relieved. I trust that the cover-up will be finished soon.”

“Lying’s one thing yer good at lass,” Corth grunted.

“Sir Corth, when should I expect Sir Dren’s report?” Dr. Webb asked. “He hasn’t reported into me yet.”

“Spoke with him last night, lad,” Corth answered. “He’s following up some leads. We’ll make a report as soon as we have something.”

The image of Dr. Webb nodded. “Hopefully, he will learn something new. Now, onward. The point of today’s meeting is twofold.” Webb explained. “First we are going to document what Callen and Ania Thorne witnessed and then we will move into the details of our investigation.”

“Hopefully what we learn will enable us to predict and thus prevent this type of attack in the future.” Reeves cracked his knuckles. “Or just a way to put whatever these things are into a grave.”

“Agreed.” Webb nodded. “But, before we get into the interview, we will open with an introduction by the researcher who has been pooling the information on these creatures these children encountered. Scribe Lannus who is based in Madrid. I asked him to join us to help lay the groundwork for a solution. I hand the stage over to him.”

A hologram of a man whose hair was pulled back in a ponytail and features marked him as part Chinese and part Hispanic appeared in one of the empty chairs. “Gracias, Dr. Webb.” He said with a Castilian accent. “I will keep this short and concise.”

In the inky blackness of the table flashed hand sketches of the creatures that the children had faced in their apartment. They looked like an attempt was made to create engineering specifications, detailing height, weight, and other details specific to the occult nature of the creature, but it was far from complete. A partially complete three-dimensional image replaced the cross and hovered above the table along with scrolling numbers. Nothing, except for distorted skull, was even close to accurate.

Despite the inaccuracy, Callen felt needles run up his spine. Its eyes were dark, like a skull and the tentacles hung lifelessly from the images upper lip. However, and perhaps for the best, there was no flesh stretched across parts of face and body. He saw Ania whimper out of the corner of his eye and held back mentioning the missing detail for both his and his sister’s sake when he saw her terrified expression.

“I have just brought up the images that have been compiled from the spotty scans we have collected from the few documented encounters over the last 20 years. As you can see, there isn’t much. Unfortunately, we have been unable to classify their mythological origins, occult species, draw any conclusions on the possibility of a mythological blend, or even determine if they are living. We don’t even know if they’re truly demons. All encounters with these beings have been unpredictable and we have been unable to find any pattern in their appearance. Quite simply, we don’t have enough information to gain a proper profile. All encounters have ended in tragedy, with only these children and Sir Corth being surviving witnesses.”

“So, you know nothing, Scribe?” Cole sounded disgusted.

“We know very little.” Lannus’s voice was ripe with frustration. “The creatures seem to disturb our electronic devices. Thus, our collected footage is shoddy at best, even the new stuff that Sir Corth recently gathered. The images we have managed to clean up enough show a creature capable of tearing apart veteran warriors like they are rag-dolls. The drawings were extrapolated from images that we managed to clean up enough to get an idea of what they look like.”

“Useless.” Cole sighed with even more disgust.

Lannus ignored her. “Aside from these vicious close combat abilities, autopsies of their victims reveal they somehow inject a neurotoxin that systematically shuts down a victim’s body causing maximum pain until death. The poison is genetically adaptive and we have been unable to obtain a pure sample to create an antidote. Lastly, they are immune to conventional weapons, including all standard equipment carried by our knights in the field.”

“How come you haven’t tested non-standard stuff?” Ania asked. She sounded like she was choking down panic.

“Encounters have been sporadic across the world over the last two decades or so. This is the first time they have been involved with anything that would draw any sort of attention. They have killed scientists and knights on research expeditions and been spotted in other random locations. Quite simply, there is no way to be prepared.” Lannus answered. “Proper tests, given what we have experienced, have been impossible. Hence, why this meeting has been pulled together so quickly. We are hoping you children can provide some information that will lead us to some sort of way to stop these monsters before something like the Boston tragedy happens again.”

“So, we rushed to get here to look at a few pencil sketches and talk to two children?” Cole snapped. “I’m disappointed, Webb.”

“Lady Cole,” Dr. Webb stated as his image expanded on the screen. “This isn’t some coordinated attack plan on some organized group of well-known occult creatures, like a routine case. This is brand new. The United States is in a state of constant change and so are the horrors we face here. I remind you why you have been assigned here. You have a lot to show to earn my vote.”

Cole folded her arms and waited with a condescending sneer on her face.

“Alright, we have all read Sir Corth’s report.” Dr. Webb refocused the conversation. “His exposure was limited compared to these two children, and unfortunately there are no signs that point to why these creatures attacked.” Dr. Webb continued after taking a breath. “So, children, please tell us what you know, every possible detail that you remember. Anything could help us stop these monsters and save your mother.”

“I don’t know much,” Ania said. “Except, they were collecting skin from their victims.” Her voice shook, but Callen could hear a strength beginning to grow beneath it, a strength shared by their mother.

Callen stiffened his posture and continued to stare the drawing of the demon’s face. His sister had surprised him, and he felt less alone in his nightmare.

“Skin?” Reeves stated sounding disturbed. He glanced at Cole, but Callen noticed the glance she gave him read say nothing more.

“Skin collecting? Odd.” Dr. Webb asked. “Please continue.” He said to Ania.

“I don’t know much more, Ania admitted. She looked down, bit her lip and took a breath. “But, I’m an artist. I can make your pictures more accurate.”

“That would be appreciated. A more complete image of the creature will, hopefully, give me some clues to help discern the creature’s origin.” Lannus said. “I will work with you remotely to hasten our results, as long as Dr. Webb agrees.”

“Of course. She can work in my library and she’ll have access to what she needs. A new set of eyes might also help.” Dr. Webb said. “Sir Corth, can you make the arrangements?”

“Aye,” Corth said. “Tende will take Ania to the archives tomorrow morning. He has research to do for me. Webb, you’ll need to give her clearance.”

“It will be done.” Webb nodded. “Anything else, Miss Thorne?”

“No.” She shivered. “I was too afraid to do anything more than stare. Callen was the one who didn’t panic. He was the one that stopped it.”

“Stopped it?” Cole laughed. “A mere boy stopped an unknown monster from slaying his family? How quaint.”

“Luck had nothing to do with it,” Corth growled.

“Go ahead Callen,” Dr. Webb said. “Tell us what happened. In your words.”

Callen glared through the screen at Lady Cole. “I woke up to use the bathroom and when I got back to my room, my computer was flashing an alert. Someone was hacking my network. I made sure my defense programs were up and began a scan. I saw glyphs and hieroglyphics appear in my coding screen and as network icons for the attacking system. But before I could get much more beyond that, the monster leaped through our window.”

“Your electronics didn’t scramble?” Webb asked.

Callen shook his head. “They worked fine.”

“Strange,” Webb admitted. “We’ll have to look into this.”

“And the Hieroglyphics?” Scribe Lannus asked. His eyebrows wrinkled with curiosity. “What did they look like?”

“There were many.” Callen sighed. “Some looked Egyptian, some Chinese maybe, most I’ve never seen before. I have some of the code on my computer, if you want to look at it.”

“I’ll look at it later; right now, just continue with your story,” Dr. Webb said.

“The thing battled with my mother. And…” He stuttered as the horror of the battle flooded his mind.

“Spit it out,” Cole stated. “We don’t have all day to listen to these children whimper.”

Something changed in Callen with that insult. His fear and irritation turned to focus. He looked at Lady Cole with the same resolve that his mother looked at the demon. “We’re not whimpering,” Callen stated. “If you have been listening you would realize that these monsters would have torn you apart like you were paper. My mom stood toe-to-toe with the creature and lived. You don’t look half as tough as her…and besides, my mom wounded it with her tomahawk.”

Cole narrowed her eyes at him and said nothing.

Callen caught his grandfather smirk out of the corner of his eye.

“Wait, she wounded it?” Webb asked. “With a tomahawk?” He eyed Corth. “Was it made of something special?”

“I don’t know, Lad,” Corth grumbled, but Callen could tell the old dwarf was lying. “It may be one of my tribes missing heirlooms, but I can’t be sure.”

Callen wasn’t sure if he should tell them about his grandfather picking up the tomahawk. But, before he said anything, Cole cut in.

“Did you retrieve the weapon?” Cole hissed. “If you did, I suggest you hand it over.”

“No lass,” Corth growled.

“You left a family treasure that managed to damage a new type of demon and blew up a building?” She sounded disgusted.

“The way I see it, I got my family treasures out safe and sound,” Corth growled. “If yeh think otherwise, it’s no wonder that yer alone and yeh would be lucky to have a pigeon show up at yer funeral to shit on yer fookin’ grave.”

“Sir Corth, keep it professional,” Webb ordered. “And Lady Bethany, try to show a little more respect. Lives are more valuable than items.” He looked at Callen. “Please continue, son.”

Callen nodded. “During the fight I noticed a symbol carved into its skull was one of the ones that I saw in the computer code. So, I hacked it and sent a virus to shut it down. It worked, and then my grandpa pulled us out.”

“You hacked it real-time?” Dr. Webb sounded deeply skeptical.

Callen nodded. “I noticed it was continuously relaying information, so I modified my code and injected it into the lines of code. Everything lined up perfectly.”

“That’s amazing.” Reeves gasped. “I’m pretty damn good with computers and something like what he just described is nearly impossible with mainstream computing technology. Assuming these creatures are more advanced than what is in every household in America…”

“His shutdown only worked temporarily,” Cole stated as if unimpressed. “And he wasn’t quite quick enough to save that bitch of a mother of his. Such a pity.”

“Watch your tongue, Cole, or I’ll rip it out.” Corth barked.

“Enough.” Dr. Webb scolded. “Lady Cole, Sir Corth, leave your personal feelings out of this. Don’t let me have to say it again. But, thank you, Sir Jefferson for offering your expertise. Our technical support currently has his hands full.”

“You’re welcome,” Reeves stated. “So, it was communicating. But with what?”

“I assume you didn’t get that information, did you boy?” Cole asked giving Callen the Librarian stare.

Callen shook his head. “Computing capacity isn’t unlimited. My system was built and programmed to give me the greatest advantage with the technology I had. But, I couldn’t do the hack and trace everything at the same time. That would have slowed everything down to a crawl, and I didn’t have the time to steal computing capacity from other places.”

“Figures.” Cole scoffed. Callen knew from her tone that her computer skills were more than lacking. He had seen it before, with older medical employees, when the younger ones fixed simple computer problems that baffled them. The disgust in her voice did nothing to hide her inadequacy. “You should have done the trace.”

“If he didn’t do what he did we would be dead!” Ania yelled. “What is your problem?”

“Webb, with all due respect, this is all just too convenient.” Cole shook her head. “The one of the most significant encounters with these creatures is directly connected to Alexander Thorne. How can you not question this connection?”

“Wait, what’s this have to do with my dad?” Callen asked, but they ignored him.

“We are Lady Cole,” Dr. Webb said. “But, that is not the purpose of this meeting at the moment. As for what we can deal with right now, Callen found an Achilles heel. I suggest we exploit it.”

“How do you suppose we exploit this weakness?” Reeves asked. “The kid’s laptop isn’t exactly designed for combat…”

Dr. Webb rubbed his mustache and after a moment, he smiled. “The boy’s ingenuity produced results with tech far below ours. Let’s see what he can make if we improve his options. I guess I will have to rearrange Felix’s list of priorities and get the gear authorizations he’ll need to equip the boy. I’ll arrange everything so he can start work tomorrow morning.”

“Here that, lad?” Corth whispered as he watched Lady Cole’s face twist with irritation. “You’re gonna help save your mom.”

Before Callen had a chance to react with more than just a nod, Cole stood up and smashed her fist into the table. “You overstep your bounds, Webb! The council will never approve! Protocol has already been bypassed just with this meeting! But, those decisions were made before I was put in charge. He obviously got lucky and our circles of the order are there for a reason. Even if you make the bloodline case, there is no way we can trust this boy after…”

“I am well aware of your opinion as is everyone else here, Lady Cole.” Dr. Webb cut her off. “However, they gave you authority over the investigation, cover-up, and the hunt, as defined by your rank in current circle. Not anything related to developing our technology to further enable us to defend against these creatures. The information Callen gave allows us to proceed with the development of technology that will dispatch these demons. At the point where it is field ready, that’s where you have the authority.”

“But, what about my dad?” Callen yelled, again falling on deaf ears. “What does this have to do with my dad?”

“This has everything to do with your father,” Cole spat. “Your father is responsible for the existence of those monsters! How quaint it is that YOU are the one who revealed a weakness in them!”

“You have your baseless theories, Cole.” Corth spat. “Ours are different. Keep your accusations to yourself. The judgment of the Thorne bloodline is still in limbo.”

“Fine, but I do have say over where we place our non-technical resources in relation to this case. I will not put any personnel under my command at risk to test a toy cooked up by a terrorist’s son.” Cole stated. “Even you, dwarf.”

“Yeh have no evidence Alex did anything that…!” Corth stood up and pounded his fist into the table.

“Sir Corth,” Webb forcefully cut off the dwarf. “This is not the place. The trail on Dr. Thorne has been cold for ten years. We have matters at hand that need to be addressed.”

Corth’s heavy beard wrinkled around his mouth with anger. “Fine.” He grunted and glared at Cole. “Leave Alex out of this, or I’ll put me fist down yer throat and rip out that block of ice yeh have fer a heart.”

“On the contrary. I think Dr. Thorne is involved, you don’t.” Cole grinned coldly. “It looks like we have a negotiation point. A quid pro quo. I’ll allow whatever solution he creates to be field tested under my watch under two conditions: Release to me investigation files for Alexander Thorne’s disappearance and whatever the boy makes, he tests…personally.”

“No,” Corth growled. “I will not let him face those things again. He is just a child! I’ll test it.”

“Technology is neither of our strong points, dwarf,” Lady Cole stated. “And I’m sure you are aware it is rare inventions work as intended and who’s to say that these monsters didn’t already adjust to the weakness he exploited? He may need to make adjustments on the fly.”

“Good point, Lady Cole,” Webb admitted.

“I’ll test it,” Reeves interjected and looked at Cole. “No arguments, Bethany…you know I have a son about his age and a daughter that’s a little older. There’s no way I would allow either of them or any other child to face those things alone. He can teach me to use whatever electronic disruptor weapon he makes. Besides, necessity is the mother of invention, and to a child, his mother’s life is a necessity. I expect if he was able to do what he did almost by accident under duress, he will do something even more amazing with our resources and without one of those things staring him in the face…”

“You’re a knight, Sir Reeves. Your background isn’t in developing our technology.” Dr. Webb stated. “You sure you can handle this?”

“After my knighting, I got my bachelor’s in computer engineering from Virginia Tech while dealing with a cluster of possessions there. Since then, I learn whatever I can on each of our assignments.” Reeves explained. “I have a lot of combat experience and I’ve done a lot of undercover hunting in the computer industry. I’ll be just fine with the tech.”

“Impressive.” Dr. Webb sounded relieved. “I think you may be one of the first knights that bridge the gap between those who make our gear and those who use it.”

Lady Cole flared her nostrils and glared at Reeves. “Fine. Make the arrangements. But Webb, I want the files. That is non-negotiable.”

 

 

 

 

 

[]CHAPTER EIGHT

 

“I guess I’m gonna learn to make ale?” Callen asked. He knocked his fist on the closest cask, while following his grandfather through the twists of stone corridors, rooms, and staircases beneath the Heavenly Pint. Between the old walls that dated to the 1700s, there was a maze of giant oak casks, tanks, and other brewing equipment. The only thing that marked the rooms as modern was a device on each oak cask to monitor the aging process of Rurik’s ales. The centuries hung on the brick, like elegant wrinkles on a wise man’s face and the scent of roasted malts lingered in the cool air.

“A sip o’ some o’ Rurik’s ales could knock out a hill giant.” Corth chuckled as they twisted through the maze of casks and stopped at a blank wall. “But, wouldn’t we be so lucky if them demons just wanted a drink and didn’t know how to ask?” Corth glanced at his wrist and activated something on his personal computer system. In response, wall rumbled as a section moved to reveal a hidden staircase.

“We didn’t come this way when we first arrived,” Callen stated. He adjusted his backpack, which contained his computer, on his shoulder.

“No, lad. There’re a few different ways into the technology hub and workshops.” Corth said. “They’re connected, I just wanted to give yeh more o’ a tour.”

“Wait, technology hub? Workshops?” Callen asked. “There’s more to this place?”

“Aye,” Corth said. “Me clan has a long history with the order and many of us have become knights. The combination of the church across the street and this being one o’ me clan’s oldest establishments in America makes this a perfect location for our order to have an outpost.”

“So, how many around here are knights?” Callen asked.

“Only a handful,” Corth said. “The dwarves and the monks know about what we do, help maintain our secrecy, and provide some support. But, the only official knights that live here are meself, Dr. Brewer, me partner, Dr. Webb, and our tech guy that yer about to meet.”

“What about Father Kenton?” Callen asked. “He was there when we got here and helped with mom…”

“He’s the head priest o’ the church,” Corth explained. “He was once a part o’ the order, retired, like Rurik. He doesn’t talk about it though, and only helps us a little.” Corth sighed. “I be sorry, lad. I really haven’t had much o’ time to explain everything to yeh, I was hoping Sadie o’ Tende would fill yeh in, but…I guess not. Everything be so crazy I haven’t really gotten to the pleasantries or even a bunch o’ the necessities. Hell, I haven’t even gotten yeh and yer sister into Church.”

“Church?” Callen sneered. “Why would I have to go to church?”

“Lad, we be an order o’ religious knights,” Corth said as he began to walk down the damp stone cave-like hidden staircase. “Don’t let the chaos fool yeh. It be only a matter o’ time befer someone, namely Lady Cole, gets up me arse about getting’ yeh and yer sister to go…”

“Sounds like a waste of time…” Callen grumbled. “You know…with everything that’s going on.”

“It’s anything but…lad, there’s a lot of yeh don’t understand.” Corth scolded and let out a sigh. “I just haven’t had the time. I should just ask Sadie and Tende to take yeh. But…I’d like to take yeh…fer personal reasons…but, believe yeh me, if Webb were here…yeh would have been in church the day yeh got here. I’ve been a wee bit lax in our protocol. Don’t tell anyone.”

“I won’t tell,” Callen said.

“Hopefully, yeh have been recently…”

“I haven’t gone since Dad was around.” The door slid shut behind them as Callen followed.

“Yer Mom never took yeh?” Corth asked.

“Nope,” Callen said. “Maybe it was to keep us off the grid?”

Corth shrugged. “Well, that not be good lad…”

“What’s so special about watching some old dude read from the bible?” Callen asked, trying not to sound snide, but to no avail.

“The rites of the Church are fer yer protection, lad,” Corth answered. “They give yeh a layer of armor against the darkness.”

“Did my mom do it?” Callen asked.

“Yep, yer pop did too,” Corth said. “I don’t know what made her stop, but I need to remedy this…”

“How about when I’m making progress on whatever I’m going to do…mom’s life is in the balance…” Callen sounded sincere. “And you said you want to take Ania and I…so lets wait until you are free too?”

“Aye,” Corth said. “I’ll accept that. We’ll make it a family thing when things settle down a bit.”

“Grandpa, why did my mom leave?” Callen asked.

“No idea lad,” Corth said. “But, whatever it was that caused yer mum to take yehs away, it was big. But maybe yeh and yer sister got some sense of what it means to have a normal life out o’ the deal.”

“I wouldn’t say I had a normal life,” Callen said. “Hospitals, playing with tech, and shooting ranges when I wasn’t in the hospital…well…”

“Yer Mom always kept her cards close to her chest,” Corth admitted. “With a poker-face that could rival a statue…it be her killer instinct…and if I not be mistaken, yeh got it too…”

“You see her in me?” Callen asked.

“Aye,” Corth admitted. “A dangerous warrior yeh would make, and with yer pop’s genius…yeh will truly be a force to be reckoned with.”

“Well, if I wasn’t such a mess…maybe,” Callen said. “And, my life has a way of placing me back in a hospital bed.”

“Sounds like yer lacking a wee bit o’ faith lad.” Corth pointed out. “But, yer mum told me yeh are a pretty damn good shot…”

“That’s what she said last time we went shooting.” Callen sighed. “But, it wasn’t like it would have mattered if I had a gun when those demons attacked. The bullets just bounced off. It was that tomahawk that did something. By the way, why did you lie about it?”

“Lad, I think you understand why.”

“That Cole lady. What’s her problem anyway?”

“That’s a long story that goes way back,” Corth admitted. “Frankly, I barely can make sense of it meself.” He sounded like he was deflecting quite a bit, but Callen couldn’t tell if he was covering up not knowing or something deeper. He let out a long sigh. “But lad, do me a favor…”

“Alright…”

“Don’t mention the tomahawk again, to anyone.”

“But…”

“No buts, lad. I know what you’re thinking…make more of what it is and use it to kill those things.” Corth sighed. “Let’s just leave it as being impossible at this point in time…just focus on what you did. Trust me.”

“If…”

“No lad, one axe isn’t going to stop a pack of those things. We need another option and yours is far better. The world is changing and we need to add new weapons to our tool box.”

“Alright Grandpa.” He shook his head.

They entered a basement that was lit like an old film development room and was crowded with blinking electronic equipment. There were boxes filled with loose parts scattered around the room that seemed to lack any sort of order. Large electronic systems, large metal jars with view ports glowing with heat, and pipes and wires ran between devices. Complex machines had been built into the walls, in rows, and crammed into every space possible with cables running to a vast network of computers and off into a few hallways. Despite the apparent chaos, Callen could tell that the room was far from disorganized. The equipment that he could identify were quite logically placed. Whoever worked here, knew where everything was, and had a method to what looked like madness.

The heavy cave like moisture had been replaced by a cool dryness from a number of dehumidifiers that sat on the floor and hung from the ceiling near an array of piping and ductwork. The place felt, strangely, clean.

“This is pretty weird.” Callen looked at the quartz reactors, chemical delivery systems, pumps, flow controllers, and countless wires on the plethora of machines. A few of them pulsed and flashed with colors from across the spectrum of visible light.

“We are used to building things where people a) don’t look and b) wouldn’t expect to find something anyway. It be how we’ve stayed in the shadows all these centuries.” Corth led him down a narrow path between a cluster of computers, piping, and other devices. As they came to the doorway, Corth pushed back the yellowing clear plastic strips that separated a short hallway from the factory floor.

They entered a short hallway with a few doors, and only one was open. The glow of computer monitors shined from the room. Among the arch of glowing computer monitors, sat a tiny man in a large chair that looked like it came with a certificate of authenticity from the original Star Trek set. Though, the chair had been modified with all kinds of attachments, including a variety of keyboards, touchscreens, and other devices clustered around him in a convenient half circle. The tiny man sat waving his hands and tapping the air as if there were invisible buttons that Callen couldn’t see.

The dim glow from the monitors reflected off the man’s bald head and silhouetted a pair of non-symmetrical technological eyewear. Wires ran up the man’s arm connected to the goggles and a glow of electronic light came from a variety of electronic devices strapped to his arms. A stack of pizza boxes, half-eaten bags of Doritos, empty cans of Dr. Pepper and Mountain Dew lay on the floor next to the massive chair. A dripping can of each rested in the mismatched cup holders that were stuck on the armrest by some sort of adhesive.

Around the edges of the room sat a mess of containers, stacks of books, papers, half-finished electronic projects, a wide assortment of tools, and a pair of tables with other powered down computer stations.

Among the computer screens displaying everything from security footage and engineering schematics to swimsuit models, Callen spotted one screen with a Shadowborne character sitting idle. He grinned. This was his kind of room.

Corth tapped the small man on the shoulder. He muttered and spat before tugging a pair of headphones out of his ears. Callen instantly recognized Black Sabbath’s ‘Ironman’ blaring on the headphones. “What?” The man squawked as he turned around. “Can’t you see I’m busy here?” He spoke with a pronounced Italian accent. “You need my approval to enter my command center!”

The man’s face was so pale that he was almost translucent and his carefully trimmed long thin mustache and pointy soul patch looked as if they had been drawn on. He wore a dingy red shirt and an old pair of brown canvas overalls that looked like they had been made for an elementary school student. The man was a dwarf like Corth, but actually did possess the dwarfism gene.

“Morn’ Lad.”

“Moring?” He scoffed. “It’s…” He looked at one of the devices on his chair. “Oh…guess it is morning…here…yeah. So, what do you want? I got a whole mess of…”

“I know yer busy, Felix. Webb told me he gave you directions last night and to bring Callen down to see you this morning.”

“Ummm…no.” Felix’s tone instantly filled with grumbled irritation. “What does he want now? He has absolutely no respect for what I…”

“Lad, did yeh get his message?” Corth asked with a bit of force in his voice. He obviously had years of practice cutting through the shorter man’s attitude.

“No, I’m too busy to check those messages right now,” Felix complained. “I got weapons to make, things to upgrade, repair, design, all these electronics don’t maintain themselves you know. Not to even mention the problem with the breach, I’ve had that kidnapping case to trace, algorithms to program and run…”

Corth cut him off. “I know, yeh told me a million times lad.” He sighed. “But, to sum up Webb’s message. Yer priority is to work with me grandson here.”

“I don’t have time to play babysitter, Corth.” Felix spat. “I’ve got a lot of…”

“We all do, lad. But, I doubt this lad will slow yeh down. Callen, this be Felix Longwood. Machinist, technologist, inventor, designer, artificer, professor, and straight up pain in the arse.”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s me. I’m Felix Longwood.” His eyebrows wiggled when he said his last name, which was in comical contrast to the irritation in his voice. “But, you can call me Dr. Longwood.”

“I’m Callen Thorne.” Callen held back a chuckle.

“Yeah, I know who you are, and now you’re my problem…great.” Felix sighed as he gave Callen the once over that ended with him rolling his eyes. “Corth, this kid isn’t even in high school…I doubt he has even the simplest understanding of…”

“Those are our orders, Lad. Read them.”

Felix brought up his inbox and looked over Webb’s message. “Do you have any idea what Webb is asking me to do here?” Felix complained. “No one appreciates what I do here! No one even has the scientific understanding or the technological skills to make decisions about my…”

“Lad, he took down one of those demons we have been working for years to classify with a personally built computer system. The tech he used was light years behind ours.” Corth stated. “Hacked real-time and shut them down temporarily. All completely improvised in the heat of watching his mother fight a losing battle against it.”

“Wait, what?!” Felix sounded shocked.

“Yeh really didn’t read the whole message, did yeh? And here I though yeh be just giving me a hard time.” Corth shook his head. “I bet yeh didn’t even check my recordings from that night.”

“No, Webs too long winded…or should I say typed? Oh well, you know what I mean. I’ve got doctorates in engineering, not folklore, anthropology, and archeology. I don’t like reading long-winded fluffy bunny stuff. But, something about building a disruptor stuck out. Does that help?”

Corth shook his head. “No, the title doesn’t quite cover it, Lad.”

“Fine, fine.” Felix tapped a few buttons and took a few extra seconds to finish Webb’s long email. He closed the message when he was done and shook his head. Several unanswered emails filled with tech requests sat idle on the screen.

“I guess yer already starting to get orders from the bitch?”

“Yup.” Felix cursed. “And then some. She wants crazy gear updates for both her and Reeves. It’s easier for her to make demands here than in Europe. She’s a real piece of work.”

A new email from Webb titled Status Update: Callen Thorne flashed in Felix’s inbox.

“New one from Webb.” Callen pointed out.

Felix sighed and opened the message. After a second, came a few choice Italian curse words.

“What be the problem?” Corth asked.

“Webb’s request for authorization was partially overruled. They approved the work, but not the gear.” Felix sighed. “The council won’t issue new gear to the kid because of the controversy surrounding his family.”

“Webb assured me everything would work out. What changed, laddie?”

“Not what, who.” Felix shook his head with frustration. “The bitch. She went over his head. Damn politics. But, Webb’s work order was approved…so…”

“So?” Corth said.

“Do you know what that means?”

Corth shrugged. “Not really, lad. Yeh make the gear, I use it.”

Felix cursed again. “I gotta have that kid build everything from scratch! Which means I have to teach him how to do everything! I can’t just give him one of our rigs and have him play with it…he has to build every component from the ground up! Do you have any idea how long that will take?”

“But, if yeh teach him, he could be an extra pair of hands…and with your unparalleled skills…”

“Well, that’s true.” Felix twirled his mustache. “Yeah, but even then…maybe if he had a Ph.D. in material science…”

“I’m a fast learner, Dr. Longwood,” Callen said. “I’ll do whatever I have to.” He took a deep breath and forced himself to sound confident. “I want to save my mom and get some payback.”

“Well, that’s a start,” Felix grunted. “But, heart doesn’t always cut it, kid.”

“Lad, we gotta do what we can.” Corth pleaded. “Me daughter…”

“Yeah, well…it’s not like I got a choice.” Felix shook his head with frustration. “Guess I get to play kindergarten scientist.” Felix gave Callen a long stare and twirled his mustache with his index finger. He visibly calmed a little. “Well, aside from what I have to teach you, I guess I should give you credit for what made me your babysitter.”

“That’s a good start, lad.”

Felix rubbed his bald head and gave Corth an annoyed glare. “If you remember, I made the suggestion at the last sighting that those things had a vulnerability to electronic attack…but no one listened. Hence, the whole computer scrambling…eh…never mind. Water under the bridge. Damn occult anthropologists and biologists wanting every monster we face to be organic. But here you are, the boy wonder who exploited the weakness on a whim. So, how’d you do it?”

“It hacked through my network security, I found a communication signal, translated enough of the encryption to inject my own virus, and overloaded their system.”

“How did you realize it was a demon on your network?” Felix asked.

“I saw a symbol on the head of the monster that looked like part of the encryption hieroglyphics,” Callen explained. “So, I just hoped I was right and sent the virus. But, I had already started the hack. So, when I saw the symbols on the screen and on the demon I just hoped.”

Felix nodded. “I’m curious on how your system didn’t get scrambled.” He rubbed his chin. “Either you had something special in there or maybe they didn’t register your system as a threat. We’ll talk more about this later. You have the computer you shut it down with?”

“Yup.” Callen nodded. “I wasn’t gonna leave my computer behind, especially since it saved our lives.”

“Good, you’re logical even when terrified,” Felix said. “There may be some hope here.”

“Sorry to pull yeh lads from yer tech talk, but yeh two set here?” Corth stated. “Cole’s waiting fer me.”

“Yeah, yeah, we’re set, and you have fun with that,” Felix stated. “At least the pit she cast me into doesn’t include her.”

“I take it you and her are BFFs?” Callen grinned sarcastically.

“A smart-aleck and logical…this may work.” Felix chuckled. “But, sarcasm aside, all kinds of bloodsuckers would find that woman’s blood toxic. But, since I’m no vampire or deer tick, I would equate her presence to bashing your head with a hammer during a brain freeze.”

Callen grinned. “Colorful description, you sure you’re not a poet rather than a scientist?”

“Only when it comes to describing objects of my disaffection does my true artistic and linguistic aptitude come out.”

“Aye, if that’s what yeh want to call it.” Corth laughed. “But, don’t get too comfortable, she’ll be around, I bet, to talk about old times and she’ll probably have some work orders.”

“Yeah, I know. Nothing like shooting the breeze with that bitch and accommodating her demands for technological upgrades.” Felix grunted.

“Aye, she be a hemorrhoid, lad. But, I’m sorry to cut and run…”

“I know.” Felix glanced at Callen. “But, if I find your grandson just talks a good game…well…that extra case of limoncello isn’t gonna be enough.”

“I’m sure you two will be just fine.” Corth laughed. “If yeh need me give me a call. Off to pound the pavement for clues on those missing children.”

“Oh, speaking of that case…I traced that demon’s movements on through the grid over the last week…I’ll send you the data.”

“Alright,” Corth asked. “And, the short version that I don’t have to interoperate from yer data files?”

“Well, seems he made some friends not far from Helga’s,” Felix said. “Couldn’t get a good look at who…but from what I saw they were small. Child sized…possibly, a changeling or a goblin…definitely unseelie…”

Corth nodded. “Friends how?”

“Can’t draw any conclusions on what was happening from the feed, but it’s a place to start…and there wasn’t any conflict that I could see…” Felix answered. “I’ll send you what I patched together.

“Aye, I hate this type o’ case,” Corth grumbled. “When creatures go all crime syndicate on us…it just reminds me how truly short handed we are…but he did say subterranean…so goblins be a solid lead…now comes the question of tribe…”

“Tell me about it.” Felix nodded. “Oh…there’s one more thing…a few of the kidnaps with the MO you’re investigating…well…all of the victims have been reported to have returned with no memory of their abduction.”

“Now, that is curious.” Corth stroked his beard. “I guess I have some things to look into…thanks for finding the info…”

“Big brother is always watching.” Felix grinned.

“Aye,” Corth grumbled. “Thought, it be always good to have another set o’ eyes. Anyway, I’ll keep yeh posted…and let’s keep our fingers crossed that this case doesn’t lead me underneath the city…”

“Well, keep me in the loop…you might need special gear if that happens.” Felix chuckled. “Good luck, let me know and I’ll play operator when yeh need me.”

“I know yeh will, lad.” Corth turned and left the room.

Felix gave Callen another once over. “You don’t look like much of a tech nerd…”

“What’s a tech nerd supposed to look like?” Callen asked.

“Well…” Felix pointed his thumbs at himself. “Me. I was king nerd when I was at Georgia Tech all those years ago. Best of the best…but being one of us, well…I didn’t get to graduate Magna Cum Laude.” He let out a sigh. “But, what can you do? In our world, the spotlight is for second place, and first place gets to live in the shadows. Anyway, how long you were playing with technology?”

“Almost as long as I can remember.” Callen shrugged. “Five or six, maybe? And I’ve been coding for longer…”

Felix nodded. He leaned over and popped open the top box on his stack of pizza boxes. He grabbed a slice that was loaded with bratwurst and sauerkraut. “So, what you got in the bag there?” Felix pointed at the backpack hanging from Callen’s shoulder.

“My computer.”

Felix nodded and smiled. “Well, show me what you got.”

“What do you want to look at?” Callen asked as he pulled out his computer.

“The algorithm you cracked,” Felix suggested, “I think that would be a good place to start.” He watched Callen as he brought up the appropriate program windows. “Nice setup, I must say. Unreleased technology and a custom operating system. Conventional…but, brilliant.”

“Thanks. I kept the code in that file there.”

Felix nodded after staring at the program. “Interesting.” He started to reread the code and began to twirl his mustache. “You’re right about the hieroglyphics, other symbols from other ancient languages, and common computer code, but there are some new symbols and sequences from the Key of Solomon…and…” He paused and took a longer stare. “Alchemy runes…this truly is an interesting code…”

“Wait, Key of Solomon? Alchemy runes?”

“A simple explanation is that the code is occult computer code. As for The Key of Solomon, it’s a grimoire, basically, it’s one of the many magic textbooks in the world. Whether it has a connection to King Solomon or not, who knows…but Webb’s gonna want to hear about this…”

“These symbols…do you know what any of it means?”

“Individually, yes, some of them. But, put them together and it could mean anything.” Felix sighed. “Which one did you see on the creature?”

With a few taps on the keyboard, Callen brought up the image of swirls, smudges, and dots that reminded Callen of a skull with tentacles. “That’s the one.”

“It’s a tri-blended rune. Looks like Alchemy dominant and the others, I can’t place. The direction and curvature of these slashes below this blotch that looks skull like all mean something, but that’s Webb’s area of expertise…” Felix sighed. “I’ll have to get him to look into it. Hopefully, he may have some insight…and your hack will, hopefully, be the Rosetta stone for Webb to complete a translation…Anyway, come on let me show yah around. Then, we can get you started on the monumental task that just got dumped on our shoulders.” He took a huge bite of the strange pizza and after hitting a button; he slid out of his electronic chair. He waddled out into the hallway and through the browning clear plastic straps. He gestured towards the room full of machinery. “So, this is the fab…we got fabricators of all types, reactors, 3d printers, and all kinds of stuff. I got everything you could need here to build anything you couldn’t order over the Internet or trick some grad student at one of the universities to build as a project through our convenient arrangements.”

“Did you design this place?” Callen asked.

“A lot of it was here when I arrived, but I did do a lot of changes,” Felix admitted. “The rooms you just came from are the workshops…and my command center of course…”

Callen nodded and knelt down next to a panel on one of the complex pieces of machinery. He ran his finger over some chipped paint that read ‘Nextigen.’ “This is the company that made most of the hospital equipment that they used to do all the advanced scans and diagnostic stuff when I was in the hospital. They made my new laptop computer screen…”

“You know Nextigen equipment?” Felix sounded impressed.

“Yeah. One of their top hardware engineers was my doctor’s son, Matt. He was in a graduate program at MIT. He taught me all kinds of stuff when I was in the hospital. I helped fix things with the hospital equipment whenever I was feeling well enough…he was working on getting me into MIT instead of going to high school when I got better…”

“Really?! I just got more impressed.” Felix said happily. “Not only is Nextigen revolutionizing a lot of the tech industry, but you’ve been tutored by…wow…” He smiled. “Anyway way, I love their equipment…absolutely brilliant. They make a lot more than just hospital equipment and are rumored to be releasing their first commercial bipedal robot for home use. But, if you know their hospital tech, then you’ll learn everything else very quickly, it all runs very similarly. Maybe I did jump to conclusions about you…”

“Matt taught me how to work on the hospital equipment, but he was in RnD, so I got to play with some of the robotics too…among other stuff he built…So, I’ve even played with a lot of stuff they haven’t released yet.” Callen said. “And I even helped him create a few new things.”

“I gotta see it to believe it though. I’ll see how good you are when you get working.” Felix stopped walking in front of a quartz reactor that was pulsing with blue light.

Callen’s eyes weren’t focused on the light. He stared with amazement as a floating robot that was connected to the computer system on the reactor turned its optics towards them. Its many arms continued to make adjustments on the reactor’s controls.

“Callen, this is Mavis.” Felix’s voice was ripe with pride. “He’s one of my mainframe’s bots. They’re all different. Designed this one based on two of my favorite movie robots…this one’s like a probe droid…and I made one like R2D2…they float on a magnetic rail system I got set up. No need for legs.”

“Star Wars fan?” Callen asked, and Felix nodded. “Guess that answers my question on how you manage to both run all this stuff and keep it maintained.”

“Greetings, Sir,” Mavis said in a robotic monotone voice. “I am Mavis V. Face recognition failed, who is the organic life-form accompanying you sir?”

“This is Callen Thorne. He is going to be working with us. Feel free to add his facial profile map to your database.”

“Excellent. Welcome, Sir.”

“Mavis V?”

“Yes. I am unit number five.” Mavis answered “There are ten other units in the Mavis collective all working on projects assigned by Mr. Longwood. We keep his facility running at top efficiency.”

“Mavis, I want you to assist Callen in any way you can. His work has priority unless otherwise stated by me.”

“Understood, sir. Would you like me to finish the containment canister and wave emission particles for your current project?”

“Finish them. We aren’t near the point to where your assistance is required.”

“Understood, sir.” Mavis turned back to its work.

“So there are more of them?”

“Yes, the others are working throughout the shop. They are all attached to a centralized AI that coordinates them for me. I input their directions and they do what I need them too. But, kid, they’re nothing compared to some of the new tech we are pioneering. The newest bots are swarms of nanobots that can do all kinds of things. Borderline magic, even for a tech guy like me. I swear.”

“Awesome.” Callen grinned. “Got any of that here?”

“Some.” Felix nodded. “We use them inside some of the reactors and 3d printers to create specific things. It’s a new area, so there’s a lot of room for development. Now, come along.”

He led Callen towards a garage door, which he opened, with a wave of his hand. The door rumbled open revealing an automobile garage and Grandpa’s truck was sitting in the middle of the room. “This is where the dirty work is done, like welding, forging, etc. You probably won’t be working much in here, but I thought I would show it to you anyway.”

“This is where we came in.” Callen pointed out

“Yup. We call it the docking bay.”

“94?” Callen asked with a grin.

“94.” Felix chuckled.

The truck had its hood popped open, most of the body had been removed, and there was a pair of Mavis bots working on installing armor plates into the frame around the truck’s cabin.

“Just got my order for carbon fiber armor plates for Ol’ Bessie here. That’s what your grandfather calls her. She is a good old Truck.” Mr. Longwood said, but the pair of female legs sticking out from under the truck’s hood stole Callen’s attention.

“Felix, we got that transducers that you ordered.” The voice said from under the hood. “And, I got the hydrogen fuel cell upgrade installed. I’ll have this baby purring in a few hours.”

“Sadie?” Callen said, recognizing her voice and shaking his head to tear his eyes away from her attractive lower half to avoid the embarrassment of her noticing he just checked her out.

She stood up, pulled a pair of welding goggles onto the top of her head, and whipped her forehead smearing grease across her face. “Yeah, who did you think it was, cowboy? You forget your grandpa instructed me to go work for Felix?”

“Well, I’ve been a bit overwhelmed,” Callen admitted. “And I really didn’t expect you to be…”

“What you saying that a girl can’t be a mechanic?” Sadie asked. “or even be good at it?”

“Ah…no…” Callen stuttered. “I mean…sure…” He blushed.

“Got yah.” She laughed as she stepped towards a toolbox that was on the opposite side of the truck and grabbed a rag to wipe her hands. “Still cute when you’re flustered.” She winked.

“Sadie has a knack for engines and the like,” Mr. Longwood said. “I think it was when she was about eight that she dragged in a busted dirt bike from an alley and asked me to help her get it to work. So, I got her started…she’s a natural with that stuff…”

“Yup. When it comes to engines, firearms, and machine shop stuff, I’m your girl.” Sadie grinned.

“If I can’t help you find something, Sadie knows her way around.”

“Yeah, Mavis doesn’t have the best inventory system,” Sadie admitted. “Things get moved or disappear all the time.” She shot Felix an annoyed glance before putting the welding goggles back over her eyes and grabbing a pair of wrenches from her toolbox.

“Yeah, I know, Sadie. It’s on the list…and hopefully we’ll get to it.” Felix grumbled. “Oh, and before I forget…add spelunking gear to your list of preps…just in case…Corth might need to go underground…”

“Got it…” Sadie returned to working on the truck.

Felix looked at Callen. “Now, let’s get you started.” He led Callen back through the shop towards the command center and plopped down in his chair.

“I think the best place to start for you is to make a pair of these.” He tapped his goggles. “And a personal computer, like this one on my wrist.” He pointed to a device that looked like a combination of a watch and a smartphone.

“So, I’m going to make a watch and a pair of glasses?” Callen sounded unimpressed.

“Ye of little faith.” Felix grinned. “They’re a bit more…well, complicated…than their mundane cousins…and well, this thing is not a watch. It’s an incredibly advanced computer system, and in conjunction with the eyewear, you can actually see the interface and they augment reality with all kinds of data applications.”

“So, it’s like what I wore in the meeting.”

“Yeah, exactly, but the computer is on you and can see virtual interfaces that are controlled by Mavis in our facilities,” Felix answered. “Think of them as your own personal heads up display…like in a video game. Normally, I would just give a set to a new knight.”

“I’m not a knight. Neither is Sadie.”

“I know. Sadie’s borrowing my spare.” Felix sighed. “But, with the roadblock from Bethany, I don’t have that convenience with you. You will have to build everything from scratch. But, building them will allow you to learn the basics of our tech and you can build your demon disruptor right into your wrist computer. You have complete freedom, but it’s gonna take a lot of work.”

“But, the device is for Sir Reeves to use…” Callen started to say.

“It’s all politics,” Felix grunted. “The short version is you have to do it from scratch and develop the disruptor as a tool that can be added to Reeve’s computer. So, ready to have some fun?”

“I have access to everything here?” Callen had a devilish smirk on his face.

“Yup.” Felix nodded. “You can sync your laptop to Mavis. Then, you can use Mavis’s AI to enhance, well…everything you do on your computer.”

“Like…”

“Well, she can take a look at your virus code…designs and help you improve them. There are programs that will allow you to virtually design anything you want, simulate the effectiveness, command the Mavis bots to make parts you design and get parts you need that are standard. Also, the background knowledge of material science, nanotechnology, and any other stuff you might need are all somewhere in my database. I’ll make a file for you to set it up.” He shook his head. “That touch interface you got there for gaming will suffice until you finish your rig.”

“So, where should I start?” Callen asked impatiently.

“First, we can’t get ahead of ourselves. I admit, I’m not exactly prepared for this. But, we will have to make due…give me an hour before downloading the Mavis software and I’ll get her set up with tutorials and info that you may need…But, I warn you, even for someone with your electronic skills what your doing isn’t going to be easy.” Felix sighed. “I wish someone consulted me on this whole process of having you…” He shook his head with frustration. “But, orders are orders. You are going to have to do a lot of reading…and I’ll do my best to teach you…”

“How do you mean?” Callen asked. “You’re giving me high-tech components, the designs, and every tool I could possibly need. Can you just give me a box of parts and let me work?”

“Maybe, if this were the CIA or DoD fighting conventional terrorists. But, we are fighting things that few have even a remote understanding of…we’re like the occult DARPA. We have to be vastly superior in our tech to make up for the advantages our enemies possess. Besides, you did something to those things that none of us have been able to do yet. So, I guess the idea of this arrangement is to hope you tap into whatever miracle helped you in the first place.”

“Okay. So, what do I gotta do?”

“Well, first, you gotta realize that our gear isn’t mass produced and is largely custom. A lot of the things we make aren’t new concepts or devices. We are just way better at it. The quick explanation is that we build what we need to from the molecule up.”

“From the molecule up?” Callen asked with a combination of confusion and overwhelming curiosity.

“Yup, the materials of each part are carefully arranged at a molecular level, depending on the material, to maximize the effectiveness and efficiency of the total part. And we make sure they look similar to commercial devices so people who aren’t us don’t notice out superior tech or make them small enough to easily conceal.” Felix explained. “We also look at how that part works with other parts and how everything builds into a whole. Everything is carefully made and then, we have to make sure that it doesn’t look any different than what the conventional world has. But, that’s becoming less difficult now than it was in the decades and centuries past…but that’s a topic for another day.”

“I think I like the sound of this.” Callen’s grin grew wider.

“Yeah, molecular engineering’s fascinating work. It’s the fun stuff, that is, if you got the smarts, and will push into the realm of what stupid people call magic. But, I just hope…well, let’s put it this way…we got a lot of work to do.”

“When do I start and…” He looked back towards the reactor room. It wasn’t a place he saw where he could work. “And, well…how? And where? This is your command center…”

“True…” Felix scratched his head. “Yeah…I guess I did forget that part…oh, there’s a room two doors down the hall you can use…you may have to organize that workshop. It hasn’t been used in a while…Mavis can help…maybe you can convince Sadie.” He cursed suddenly, as if out of the blue.

“What’s wrong?”

“Oh, I just got an emergency I gotta attend to.” Felix moaned. “You know, one of those ones that’s only an emergency if you have the IQ of a peanut?”

“The Cole lady?”

“Fast learner.” Felix grinned. “Anyway, you’re welcome to start rearranging the room whenever you’re ready. It’s two doors down from mine…I’ll set Mavis to check the integrity of the rooms electrical systems…so, the rooms all yours…”

**********************

 

The dim lights flickered on and the stream of curse words that shot from Callen’s mouth would shock even the most veteran of sailors. The mess that was packed into this room was beyond anything he thought possible, and for him that said a lot. He worked best in a mess, as if he drew inspiration from the chaos itself. But, with that in mind, it did come back to one thing. This wasn’t “his” mess.

With his headphones in, Poison’s Nothin’ but a Good Time helped him accept cleaning was the first thing he had to do to save his mother. With an irritated acceptance, he slowly looked over the assortment of equipment crammed into the room and spotted a pair of buried workbenches.

Only a narrow path snaked through the mess, which looked about the size necessary to accommodate the stride of a dwarf with dwarfism. He looked towards the bench that had the most monitors on it, and saw the makings of a chair beneath the mess next to it. The powered down computers beneath the bench looked old, but functional.

A variety of imaging equipment was easily accessible from the chair and there was a clear spot for him to work on the bench, once he removed the clutter. “I guess that’s as good a spot as any to start with…” He muttered and took one last look before diving in. “A lot of dust…so I guess I’ll be sneezing…but, at least the dehumidifiers keep out the mold…well, Mom…I guess this is for all the times that you told me to clean up and I ignored you…”

The first thing he did was clear the chair. When he sat down to start clearing the workbench, he had a moment of joy in how comfortable the chair was. He didn’t delay for long, his mom needed him to hurry.

There was a lot of dust as he began clearing things, and soon the hallway was beginning to house a lot of his overflow. However, as he cleaned he took note of what was there and did his best to keep an organizational system.

Among the mess, he found half complete prototypes, parts, busted Mavis bots, books, paper blueprints, and he scrutinized everything that he couldn’t immediately identify. Along with the spare parts, this room seemed to be what Felix used as a depository for things his abandoned inventions. However, despite the aging technology and dates on some of the blueprints, the things he saw seemed like they were built from concepts from another world or the future. He could scarcely imagine some of their purposes. However, one thing was for sure. If they were finished, many would work.

Hours of cleaning rolled by, and after whipping the sweat from his brow, he picked up a multimeter he had found and began checking all the power nodes he had uncovered. Sure enough, most of them worked and the others would be ready once Mavis fixed them. He had just enough sockets to get the bench’s computers running.

Before plugging them in, he popped open the side panels with his multitool and looked over their internals. The towers were old in look, but the insides were very advanced and custom made. When he was sure everything was in order, he bolted them back together. Using some zip-ties, he re-ran all the cables and plugged everything in. The lights on the computers and old monitors blinked, perhaps for the first time in a decade.

Looking at the crowded bench, he shook his head. “I’m gonna have to get some flat screens and tablets for this place. These ’90s cathode ray tube monitors take up way too much room.” He sighed. “But at least they work…and with any luck, I’ll have those sweet glasses soon…”

He plopped back down in his comfortable old chair and watched the computers boot up. He smiled and noted the lines of code that indicated the custom operating system. After a handshaking session with the Mavis system, he saw a string of updates begin loading. “Yep, these haven’t been used in a while.” He sighed and prepared for a long wait. He looked back at the mess in the room and realized he had a lot more to do. However, he was beyond tired of cleaning. He needed a break.

As the updates continued, he pulled out his own laptop and loaded up Shadowborne. He laughed when he saw that update as well, although they were quick. He logged on and began working his character through the series of quests he had last left off on. He began hunting mercenary monsters hired by Nazis to release zombie gas in French villages.

He had lost himself for a while in the game before he was pulled out by chime of the bench computers’ operating systems flashing onto the screens above him. When the desktop software loaded, the wallpaper background image immediately caught his eye. Each computer monitor had a different pictures of him, his sister, his mother, and his father.

There were pictures of him as a baby, a child being carried by his dad and pictures of him playing on the beach. He saw Ania covered in food in a high chair, and many other happy scenes that seemed like they were clips from a movie he had no memory of. On the center, screen was a picture of his mother and father, together. They looked so happy. He felt tears, but wiped them away as fast as he could when he realized that this computer might contain something about his father.

He immediately looked over the programs and the files for any sort of clue. However, all the data that one would expect to be on a scientist’s personal supercomputer had been cleared. Among the common programs and Mavis control icons, he found a shortcut that was out of place. It didn’t have any text descriptor under the icon and it only was marked by a digital representation of the cross that hung from Callen’s neck.

His hand instantly went to the actual cross and with the other, he moved the mouse cursor over the digital icon. He bit his lip as he double clicked. As the loading symbol circled, he continued to rub the cross. This was once one of his father’s workshops. What exactly that meant, he wasn’t sure. This could even be the place from his dream if it were cleaned up.

The program window opened, and images that looked like raw versions of medical diagnostic programs Callen had seen spread in the window. There was a graphical depiction of a generic body and the various sub-layers of organs, tissue, and bones that made up a human being. There were markers on the body that felt familiar and he remembered at least some of those spots were the locations that his father had placed medical implants in his most recent dream.

He shivered at the idea, and when he looked back at the screen, he noticed that at the top of the window, the program’s name read Panacea Interface, alpha build v1.1. He clicked on the file icon, it instantly brought up one file and it was marked with his name. There was no choice but to load it, and soon his own medical data from years ago appeared on the screen. It asked if he wanted to remotely access another off-site computer system to update, he clicked yes. Where the computer he was connecting with, it wouldn’t tell him, but he noticed this computer isolate itself from Mavis as it began to search for a connection.

After a few moments of searching, an error message appeared and indicated that whatever computer system the program was remotely accessing was unavailable. A few error messages exploded in one of the program’s text boxes. The list was long and showed the program wasn’t complete. In addition, there were errors related to machinery that wasn’t here, pharmaceuticals he had never heard of, and the command to install a medical tank. The picture of the tank appeared on the screen and he looked back at the pair that sat among the mess.

He cursed when he realized the tanks didn’t match the software. Upon further inspection, they didn’t even have the connections that the computer program indicated were critical. His father had another secret laboratory somewhere. The excitement dwindled a little, and the reality of the task at hand resurfaced. As soon as he saved his mother, he promised himself finding his dad was next. Though, when he saw Felix’s work orders begin lining up on his computer, which included a bunch of things that Felix needed for some other projects, he knew he couldn’t waste anymore time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]CHAPTER NINE

 

The glow of Callen’s array of computer monitors glow illuminated the many times repurposed workshop. As he organized the room, he added a variety of televisions, monitors and a network of computers to his bench. The screens displayed various designs, crystal lattice models, material properties, and Felix’s tutorial programs. He read through blue prints that began with the smallest arrangements of atoms in an individual part and built into individual parts that eventually were combined into a tangible object in the macro-world.

Hypnotized in the possibilities that flashed before him, he absorbed it like a sponge. As the hours passed, the steady thud of his blend of heavy metal kept him energized and he even found an application that allowed Mavis to fetch his meals. Looking at these images made his head spin, especially when some of the most advanced materials dug into applications of quantum mechanics. When he got to the subject of how quantum principles affect classical physics and chemistry, he began to realize how tired his brain was.

With a few clicks of his mouse, he paused the simulations, tutorials, and minimized the variety of schematics on his screens. He took the last gulp of a large glass of water and swallowed the last piece of a turkey sandwich before leaning back in his chair.

He pulled his headphones out and yawned. “Damn…” He muttered. “I had no idea…” He paused his music and pulled off his glasses. He rubbed his eyes and rested his head on the back of the chair. “There’s just so much to know…I just hope there’s enough time.” He closed his eyes.

He started to entertain the idea that they may never see a metal demon again and the work that he had barely begun would be for nothing. But, before that hopeless thought overwhelmed him, he realized that another problem could also occur. They could resurface before he was finished, and that was something he couldn’t have.

Because of Cole, he wasn’t allowed to just use what the other engineers already had. That frustrated him. He had to study what they did and start from square one re-engineering everything to his specifications. Sure, normally, this would be a fantastic opportunity. However, his mother was at least in a coma, and possibly dying at an unknown rate.

It felt unrealistic that he could be expected to do this in a reasonable amount of time. He had concluded that for some reason that woman wanted his mother dead. He couldn’t help but fantasize about killing her if his mother died before he finished. Although, he knew his grandfather would beat him to it if it came to that.

A rumble came from down the hall that sounded like wheels. He didn’t bother to open his eyes. He just continued to rest. Felix said that he would be able to begin working once he finished the introductory material and he was nearing done. Hopefully, he would be able to begin doing something besides reviewing Felix’s online material science graduate classes and studying how the theories apply to the specific devices he was supposed to build. He always learned better by doing.

The sound of the wheels stopped outside the door. “You napping there, cowboy?” Sadie entered the room pushing a large toolbox coated with chipped black paint into the room. She struggled a little as she maneuvered it past a few stacks of boxes and into the room. ”I didn’t think you were the type to sleep on the job…”

“Just resting my eyes.” He said, looking up. “Been at it for a while…”

She nodded and looked around the room. “Damn…you barely put a dent in cleaning this place…”

“But it’s better.”

“You have noticed the rest of this place, right? It’s a mess save…the garage and the armory…Felix isn’t exactly the most organized of brilliant minds.” She put one of her hands on her hips and looked at Callen’s bench. “And apparently, neither are you…just do me a favor, try to keep this tool box I got together for you neat?”

“You got me a tool box?” Callen beamed.

“Yeah, you’re gonna need it…so…” Sadie grinned. “I modeled it after the list in Felix’s and got him to give up his spares of his custom stuff that I could. So, you got a lot of stuff in there that, frankly, I have no idea what they do…”

He leaned forward and in addition to the gratitude for a distraction, he felt the curiosity takeover. “What do you mean; don’t know what the do? Do you at least know what they’re called?”

Sadie shrugged. “Nope, there may be an electromagnetic hammer or sonic screwdriver in there somewhere. I don’t know…might just get you out of any problem you face…”

Callen smiled. “Dr. Who fan?”

Sadie nodded. “Don’t tell anyone…I gotta keep my image…” She giggled. “We’re all geeks here at heart…you a fan?”

“Ania’s into it.” He stood up and began looking through the collection of drawers. Impressed, he smiled. “This is awesome, Sadie. Thanks.”

She giggled bashfully. “No problem, cowboy. Felix’s got a lot going on and I knew he would forget.”

“I never needed anything more than a multi-tool before.” He was truly excited. “My first tool box…and it’s wicked badass.” He looked at her and along with a wide grin, she was blushing. However, it was those glittering green eyes that he lost himself in. “I just won’t tell anyone I got it from a girl.” He flashed a half grin.

She laughed. “Yeah, normally I’d have a comeback about being better with cars, guns, and bikes…you know the man’s-man stuff.” She shook her head. “But, actually…I was going to ask for your help with the electronics in your grandpa’s truck…Felix suggested I ask you…besides, you look like you need a break…”

He looked back at the screen and back to Sadie. “Yeah…actually, I do…so…I’ll do what I can…lead the way.”

**********************

 

In the garage, Corth’s truck had been gutted. Wires, engine parts, armor, and weaponry lay organized around the vehicle, as did the various tools and supplies needed for the job. However, that wasn’t what caught Callen’s attention. Sadie had kept the garage remarkably clean and organized. He wondered if she had OCD. “So, what’s the trouble?” Callen asked as he opened the truck’s door.

“I installed a new sensor module that…well…here…” Sadie pointed at a device that had been wired into the computer system that sat inside the dashboard. The covers had been removed. She handed him the goggles that sat on her toolbox and the handheld computer that she pulled from the pocket of her coveralls. “It would be easier if you had these of your own.”

“I’m working on it,” Callen said as he pulled the goggles over his eyes.

“Yeah, I know,” Sadie said teasingly. “You should hurry up.”

“Tell me about it,” Callen said. “My mom…”

Sadie paused and her tone switched from teasing to apologetic. “Oh…yeah…I’m sorry…I didn’t mean…”

“I know,” Callen said. “I’m going as fast as I can.”

Sadie took a deep breath and pointed to the computer display to break the awkwardness. “Alright, I got the plans scanned in so, just use the app right there, it will show you how it’s physically integrated.”

Callen held the goggle lenses up to his glasses and gazed through them. The new parts were highlighted in blue as he gazed at the car. “Very nice.” He said. “These things are amazing. They show everything…elemental analysis, crystal structures, electrical flaws…I can really zoom in…”

“Yeah, there are scanners in the room that do that stuff through Mavis. Felix’s goggles do them on their own.” Sadie said. “Mine are just spares. Initiates don’t get theirs until they officially have a role in the order. Then the eyewear apps fit the role. Your grandpa’s are designed for tactical analysis in combat or investigations while Felix’s do science stuff.”

“I haven’t gotten into the details on the apps,” Callen said.

Sadie watched him gaze through the goggles like they were a pair of binoculars. “So, I’m guessing you built something into your goggles that will allow you not to wear two pairs of glasses?”

“Actually, I haven’t even thought of that yet,” Callen admitted. “But, from what I understand it is possible to put a layer of an amorphic substance that forms a crystalline focusing lenses that correct for my sight when stimulated by an electrical current from the command program…”

“Yeah, a simple yes would do.”

“Not trying to learn any of the science, are you?” Callen sounded a little disappointed.

“I learned enough to get by and ask for help when it gets too crazy.” She said. “Besides, if everyone were doing all the development stuff, then this stuff would never get done. Besides, I’m more of the building it person and hopefully will be the use it person soon.”

“Like being a knight?” Callen asked as he flipped through a few application programs. He looked through the various scans and schematics that were displayed in the lenses around each part in the car.

“Yup,” Sadie said.

Callen lowered the goggles from his eyes. “So, I guess this thing you installed in Grandpa’s truck is a scanner designed to detect demon pheromone concentrations in targeted buildings?”

“Yup…it’s a demon sniffer. He needs it for the kidnapping case. If it works right, he should be able to follow the trail of the demons and find where they’re taking the victims. Hopefully, it works.” Sadie said. “It’s experimental of course.”

“Of course, isn’t everything here?” Callen climbed into the truck. He connected the handheld computer to the truck’s computer and after a few software adjustments, hit activate. He wasn’t synchronized to this device, so he had to use it manually. “You forgot to uninstall the old firmware from the previous sensors that you removed before you put the new stuff in. They were incompatible.”

“Oh,” Sadie said with a grin.

“You knew?” Callen asked.

“Yeah…I…” She smiled bashfully and took a deep breath. “Umm…when you design your goggles, can I help…I mean, with the style?”

Callen shrugged. “Alright, sounds good to me,” Callen said pulling the goggles off and returning her smile.

“Helga’s?” Sadie said.

“Are you asking me out on a date?” Callen said with a half-grin on his face.

Sadie blushed. “Ah…um…” She stuttered. She took a breath and her forehead wrinkled with fake anger. “No, why would I do that? Tende texted me to see if we wanted to grab food with him and your sister.”

“Oh.” Callen tried to hide his disappointment. He glanced at the truck’s clock and took the time to swallow the lump that had developed in his throat. “But…”

“No buts,” Sadie said. “You’re taking a study break…then you can get back to it on a full stomach…now come on.”

 

As they exited the fab room, they heard Felix curse loudly from his workroom, followed by a the chilling hiss of Bethany Cole. With a devilish grin, Sadie grabbed Callen’s wrist and pulled him into the hallway before he could protest.

“You have to tell me the relevance,” Felix ordered. “You know that project was moved beyond my access decades ago. Hell, that project was beyond my reach before you even finished college…that was before it was stolen by…”

“Don’t give me that crap, Longwood. I know you.” Cole hissed. “I know how you always have a trick up your sleeve. Your inability to show transparency in your work is what denied you the alchemist’s rite.”

“That can’t be proven.” Felix spat.

“Exactly my point, Longwood. You have problems with the rules.” Cole stated. “As does Webb and everyone else here, apparently. Guess that’s why Webb requested you when Thorne disappeared. For once that trait has a purpose and you’re gonna do this for me, no questions asked.”

“Say your right. Then, why should I?”

“You owe me, Longwood, plain and simple,” Cole stated coldly. “Without me you would have been exiled instead of just hitting a glass ceiling.”

“Maybe.” Felix spat. “But then again, it wouldn’t have been a question if it weren’t for you…and I wouldn’t have hit a glass ceiling…I would have been…”

She cut him off. “But, it also could have been worse if I didn’t do what I did.” Cole took a breath. “And besides…I need your help.”

“You know, it’s actually refreshing to hear you say that,” Felix said. “This would have been a better conversation if you started with that.” He sighed. “Fine, but if I’m to do it, I need genetic information to do a scan.”

“It was collected in Boston.” She said. “It will be here tomorrow.”

“Did you notify Corth or Webb?” Felix asked.

“No,” Bethany said. “It’s a hunch. Keeping them out of this is the best for both of us.”

“Fine,” Felix said. “But after I do this, my debt is paid, especially because you’re wasting my time on a hunch.”

“We’ll see, Longwood.” Her heels clicked on the floor as she spun towards the door.

Sadie grabbed Callen and pulled him into Callen’s new work room. “What the…” Callen sputtered.

“Tell me about the amorphic…crystal thingy’s again…” Sadie said looking at one of the computer screens on Callen’s workbench.

“Umm…ah…yeah…what?” Callen shuddered until she elbowed him in the stomach. “Oh…”

“What’s your status, boy?” Cole asked from the doorway.

When he heard her voice, he knew what Sadie was doing. “Ah, going well.” He answered. “It shouldn’t be too long…got a lot of good ideas…and I should be done designing soon…”

“Good,” Cole said sounding surprised. “I’ll notify Reeves to touch base with you and Longwood when he returns from aiding the dwarf.”

“You mean my grandpa?”

“Yes, the dwarf,” Cole answered. “Now, get back to work. I want results not you and your little girlfriend holding hands.”

“He’s not my…” Sadie started, but Cole spun around and left.

“Bitch,” Callen said loud enough for Cole to hear him.

Sadie shook her head as she looked at Callen, and paused for a few moments. “You aren’t too good at the whole sneaking around thing are you?”

“Ummm…” Callen said.

Sadie shook her head. “Haven’t you noticed this place is all about secrets? You can’t be caught eavesdropping or anything. You gotta learn.”

“What were they talking about?” Callen asked.

“I don’t know, but you leave figuring that out to me,” Sadie said. “Like she said, we’re not a big fan of rules around here. Now, let’s go eat…we’re late.”

**********************

 

The scent wave of greasy food made Callen’s mouth water as he followed Sadie through the glass door of Helga’s Diner. Behind them, the door jingled as it shut. Sadie waved happily at Ania and Tende, who were seated in one of the old vinyl booths, each slurping a milk shake. “Finally, a break from that dungeon.” She said as she plopped down next to Tende.

“We’re not much better off,” Ania said. “We got dusty tomes and musty back rooms to deal with.”

“That’s how we roll.” Tende said with a chuckle. “Better get used to it.”

“Oh, I know…but, better you than me,” Sadie grumbled. “My dad’s been making me read that stuff…forever.”

“I find it fascinating,” Ania said. “And, we get to help Grandpa by making herbal concoctions, holy water, demon slaying poisons, special candles…the traditional stuff that has been passed down that aid in defeating evil things.”

“You mean Grandpa uses more than just holy water and a big rifle?” Callen asked.

“Yeah,” Ania said. “There’s a lot of documented knowledge that goes way back. Specific types of creatures are allergic to different herbs and herb blends…salt or a candle made from a blessed wax can guard a room against spirits. There’s a lot of stuff like that that goes into grandpa’s job aside from the tech stuff you and Felix are doing.”

“So, you’re making that stuff?” Callen asked.

“Somebody’s got to. Dr. Webb usually does all the lore and ancient concoction stuff.” Tende said. “But, since he’s out of town and the knights have a few cases, we’re picking up the slack…Sadie’s done it before…you would probably be helping if you weren’t doing the tech stuff with Felix.”

“You should see Dr. Webb’s herb room,” Ania said. “It’s got everything that I’ve ever heard of herbalist-wise in video games, and even more stuff that I’ve never even heard of. Some of the herbalist tomes talk about some herbs that were made through primitive genetic engineering.”

“Why doesn’t Felix do any of that stuff?” Callen asked. “I mean, we could probably mass produce…”

“It isn’t Felix’s specialty and that stuff requires specific mixes that can vary slightly depending on the situation,” Sadie said. “Felix makes special ammunition and other things to incorporate herbal blends, poisons, holy water, holy oil and other stuff to make it practical in the field.”

“So, you can’t just fill a demon with lead and call it a day?” Callen asked.

“You can, but think about it this way,” Tende said. “It’s a lot easier to kill a tranquilized polar bear than one charging you, right? And you probably could use a smaller weapon, which in our case is easier to conceal, right?”

“Makes sense,” Callen said. “So, what are you making?”

“Right now, Grandpa just asked for some anti-fey poisons, like troll’s bane, holy oil, and holy water,” Ania said.

“Ania’s doing great with the poisons and the oil, but she can’t get the holy water right.” Tende said. “She’s not using enough ash or wine and mixing in bits of stuff that doesn’t belong. You’d think she’s trying to conserve resources or something.”

“Hey, I cut down on using the rare herbs in the troll and boggart blends,” Ania said. “Making this stuff is an art, I’ll figure my blend of holy water out…and I’ll make it more potent, like I’ve done with everything else.”

“Yeah.” Tende said doubtfully. “The church has been making holy water for hundreds of years and you’re gonna walk in one day and make it better. I doubt that, Ania, sorry.”

“Maybe no one has tried,” Ania said. “So, maybe I will.”

“How’s the lore research going for Grandpa’s cases?” Callen asked.

“It’s going,” Ania said. “We are just waiting for information from the field to further narrow our search…for both the metallic demons and the abductions.”

“We’re pretty much stonewalled with the metal demon research. However, with the abductions, we’ve been searching through layers of lore connected to child sacrifice, enslavement, and other terrible things connected to specific creatures.” Tende said. “The odd part is that the abduction victims that return have scars along their spine. That piece of evidence is very specific and there’s nothing in the lore. It’s also strange that nothing shows up in the victims medical files.”

“That’s not including the strangeness of the victims, well some of them, just appearing in their homes again days to weeks later,” Ania said. “And others, well, they’re gone without a trace…”

“Maybe there are multiple things involved?” Callen suggested. “Like, I don’t know…several different types of Fey and demons? They could have the same unifying reason…or maybe not…” He shrugged. “I don’t know, just a thought.”

“Doubtful.” Tende said. “Think about how humans from different cultures or races interact when confronted with each other. Now, make put them in a confined space, like the Fey are forced to live in, since humans dominate the world. Different types of fey tend not to be friends…then throw demons in the mix who have a history of exploiting fey and humans alike, well…”

Callen glanced at Sadie. “Guess what we heard that demon that grandpa exorcized say was right. Any guesses on what type of fey yet?”

“We still don’t know enough to determine the creature responsible, aside from most probably, goblin involvement. But, the precision of the scars on the victim’s backs is too medically advanced for any goblin tribe. There are things that still don’t add up to the lore. Goblin, changelings, and the like usually take infants.” Ania said. “If Grandpa could just bait whatever is doing it, we may…”

“We still don’t know how they choose their targets.” Tende said. “Then you got the traces of demonic magic…rusty metal parts…the sheer randomness of the victims…the fact that no camera or anything, at least that your grandpa has discovered, has offered any clues… And it’s getting larger scale and unpredictable. It’s only a matter of time before at least the beginnings of this end up on nightly news.”

“Grandpa is working hard to find the next clue,” Ania said. “This one is getting close to a major breach.”

“Breech?” Callen asked.

“A breach in the social construct,” Sadie said. “It’s when an occult event breaks the obliviousness of normal people. Then, we have to go into damage control to stop the hemorrhage from bleeding out.”

“Like Boston?” Callen gulped.

“Yup.” Tende said. “Exactly like Boston. But, in my opinion, I think this one is going to end up being a human dabbling in magic. Most monsters know the advantages of and like being hidden, which makes it easy to contain. We just remove the occult evidence or just enough to make the perpetrator look like an idiot. The problem is, we gotta find them.”

“Have you considered how the clues add up?” Callen asked. “Anything in the lore that connects rusty parts, kidnappings, goblins, and whatever else you got?”

“Working on it.” Tende said. “The variables are tough to connect.”

“Sounds frustrating,” Callen said. “But, I do have a question, what’s a goblin and a changeling?” Callen asked. “I mean, I know the pop-culture fantasy definition…”

“Well, changelings are a type of fey. They’re unseelie fey, but they aren’t aggressive, unlike satyrs, boggarts or a ton of others.” Ania said. “They are simple minded and live in small packs that hide all over the place. They’re nocturnal and are no bigger than a 10-year-old human.”

“Think of them as human rats.” Tende said. “They live in cities running around like homeless gangs. They are smart enough to stay out of sight, small enough to not really be noticed by those who aren’t looking but big enough to be a nuisance. They don’t get close enough to regular people for anyone to realize they are more than just children.” He glanced over at a table that was stacked with dishes from a group that just left the diner. “I think I should just show you.” He got up and pushed open the kitchen door. “Helga, the diner’s empty except me and my friends. There’s a dirty table, can you have Beebles clean up?”

“I take it that Beebles is a changeling?” Callen asked.

The door to the kitchen opened. Out stepped a three-and-a-half foot creature with long pointed ears and stark white skin. He itched his stomach through his stained sports shirt and looked around the room. His arms were disproportionately long for a human and his face was primitive, similar to that of a chimpanzee. He sniffed the air. “Which table start?” He said slowly as sounding like he had a mental handicap.

“Table three,” Helga yelled from the kitchen.

The creature looked over towards one of the tables and made a funny face. He looked at the table that the hobbit family just left from and walked over to the table like an ape. He started collecting the dishes.

“I don’t think he looks like he would pass for human to a blind guy.” Callen murmured.

Sadie shushed him. “Quiet, you’ll upset him.”

“Ok…he looks like my old neighbor’s six-year-old son. Ah, good kid that neighbor’s son.” Callen said sarcastically. “And speaks like him too.”

She shot him a dirty look. “‘lings are very simple minded. Helga caught him eating from the diner’s garbage and making a big old mess in the alley. She got in trouble with the state department, so she caught him and gave him a job working here cleaning dishes for food.”

“How exactly do others like him go around unnoticed?” Callen asked.

“People don’t notice their ‘off’ characteristics unless you are looking for them,” Sadie explained. But, aside from that, they have their survival tactics, like all things. They usually live underground…in networks of sewers, abandoned subway tunnels…and other abandoned places…”

“You sure they aren’t dangerous?” Ania asked skeptically.

“I’m sure. They are just very simple minded. You never have to worry about them hurting you. They will eat your trash and steal junk from you though. It is their redcap and goblin cousins that are dangerous.”

“Redcaps?” Callen asked. “You only mentioned goblins and changelings…”

“Goblins, satyrs, and a few other types are malicious fey mutated by demons, and Redcaps, are what happens when a goblin embraces their demonic heritage and bind themselves to a demon master. A changeling can become a redcap too, when that happens, a changeling’s innocence and simplicity is replaced by malice and rage.” Tende answered. “They are called redcaps because they soak their hats in the blood of their victims. They are similar to goblins, but redcaps are far eviler. A goblin can become a redcap by worshiping demons and going through a ritual. I imagine that requires a lot of murder and soaking a hat in blood.”

“Did you ever see one?” Ania asked.

Sadie shook her head. “I here they are vicious though. But, I wouldn’t worry about them, they rarely come above ground. And even if they did, you are safe at the monastery. It is holy ground. Demons can’t enter on their own. Most unseelie fey can’t either.”

“Unseelie fey and demons don’t seem much different.” Callen said.

“There’s a difference,” Sadie said. “But there is overlap, just like there is overlap between demons and humans, and seelie fey and humans. It gets complicated…especially when you start trying to research origins, habits, and weaknesses.”

“Hence all the time researching…” Tende said. “But, we’ll get it. It’s been like this many times before, and we’ll figure it out.”

Beebles finished gathering the plates and headed back into the kitchen.

“Sounds like you like it.” Callen said.

“Occult detective work is fun.” Tende said. “I’m just not a big fan of the actual, well, hunting and neutralizing part.”

“Why?” Callen asked. “You’re built like a body builder. I bet you could kick some serious…”

“That and this guy’s a master of Eskrima,” Sadie said. “Hence why Sir Jason attempted to squire him. He can fight and do detective work.”

“Eskrima?” Ania asked.

“In a nutshell, Filipino martial arts.” Tende said. “There’s a lot of hand, stick, and knife work.”

“So, I guess you’re the stereotypical Asian?” Callen said with a grin. “A ninja-computer-game-loving-nerd?”

Tende scowled while laughing. “Thanks for pointing that out.”

“But he does love country music and is Catholic…” Ania said. “So…”

“Country music?” Callen scoffed. “Seriously, the dog died, broken pick-up truck, miss my ex-wife stuff?”

“I guess I’m not so stereotypical after all.” Tende laughed. He glanced at the biblical tattoos on his arms. “I’m a bit more detailed.”

“That was bad,” Sadie said shaking her head.

Tende shrugged.

“Bad puns and…” Callen shook his head. “Country music…shheesh. Sadie, why did you introduce us to this guy?”

“I didn’t. He just showed up and barged in.” Sadie laughed.

“Hey! Sadie’s the target, not me!” Tende laughed. “Make fun of her.”

“But, you’re such a big target,” Ania whispered.

The laughter continued.

“Food’s done. Tende and Ania ordered for you two.” Renee, the elven waitress, said as she approached smacking her Nicorette gum with a tray full of food. She handed the children their plates. Callen was happy to see a pulled pork sandwich placed before him.

“Renee, can you have Helga put on 95.2?” Tende asked shooting Callen a teasing grin as Renee handed him his burger.

Renee nodded as she went into the kitchen. A second later the radio blared with the latest country hit. Tende, Ania, and Sadie instantly started singing along.

Callen’s eyes exploded with shock. “Are you kidding me?”

“You got Ania into it?” Sadie asked, ignoring Callen.

Tende nodded and continued singing.

“We gotta go to a concert,” Sadie said, laughing as she saw Callen’s jaw drop. “We can get Callen one of those straw cowboy hats, pair of cowboy boots…”

Renee sliding four glasses of ice water onto the table interrupted their laughter, for which Callen was grateful. “You kids taking about going to that concert?” She asked. “It will be amazing…”

“I thought Philadelphia was part of the union…” Callen sighed.

“Nice civil war pun.” Sadie giggled. “But, country crosses borders. Maybe you should give it a chance it’s very romantic.” She batted her eyelashes.

Callen rolled his eyes. “Can I at least get a gun?”

Ania chuckled. “You two are too cute.” She laughed.

Both Callen and Sadie went beet red. Callen couldn’t help but like it.

“Young love.” Renee giggled but didn’t say anything further when she got the death stare from Sadie. “So you fans know, I hear the tour is coming ‘round Philly in September.” She headed back towards the kitchen.

“Ooo…I smell early birthday present for Callen.” Ania laughed. “Two tickets, one for him and one for…” She stopped when she felt Sadie’s death gaze. “…umm…yeah, I mean four. One for each of us. It would be awesome fun.”

“Yeah…awesome.” Callen rolled his eyes. “Not exactly the word I’d choose.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]CHAPTER TEN

 

“Think about how each Lego goes together, Pup,” Alex said. “If you pay attention how each piece can be placed to support each other while picturing what you want to build in your mind, you can make your Lego creations very difficult to break.”

“Like this one daddy?” Callen asked. He held up a tightly built spaceship.

“Exactly,” Alex said. “Like that. The one you’re building right needs to be more like that one.”

“OK, daddy,” Callen said.

“Remember how I always tell you to think about how they go together to form a whole,” Alex said. “A creation is only as strong as its weakest link.”

**********************

 

The morning air was heavy with moisture when Callen made his way to his workbench. He carried his bag over one shoulder with his computer. Thoughts of his father lingered in his mind, and if he was here, Callen knew things would be different. If he was here his mom… Callen plugged his ear buds in to drown out his wishes with some of his angry music. His practical mind knew that wishes weren’t going to change anything.

He yawned as he arrived and placed his bag on his chair. He pulled out his laptop and began connecting it to the computer hub on the workbench. There was imagining equipment next to him, x-ray devices, and a toolbox loaded with any tool he could possibly need. He powered up the benches computer.

“You’re getting another early start today,” Sadie said as she walked into the workshop and immediately pulled an ear bud from Callen’s ear. “I guess you haven’t had time for Shadowborne over the past two weeks…Tende mentioned some new expansion the other day while you were working with Felix.”

“Yeah…I’ve been a bit busy.” Callen sighed as he pulled out the second ear bud. “But, I did download it last night. It looks pretty cool they’re adding an evil cult to the mix.”

Sadie rolled her eyes. “Yeah, sounds great…anyway, that makes me wonder…is evil cult redundant? ‘Cause I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a good cult…”

“Wouldn’t that be like, um…Christianity, Islam, Judaism…?”

“Those aren’t cults,” Sadie said definitively, as if seeking to end an argument. “Besides, I think it’s too early for that conversation, cowboy.”

Callen shrugged. “Oh, my mistake. I thought you were a morning person…” He shot her a half grin.

Sadie ignored it and turned her attention to his electronic workbench. “So, how’s your work coming so far?”

Callen shook his head, shrugged, and decided to accept the change in conversation. He ran his fingers through his slowly returning hair and sighed. “I’ve managed to build a few chips…but at this rate it’s going to take forever. The way the molecular transistors, conductors, and semi…”

“Yeah, not my thing, stop here so I can at least not feel dumb when things turn complicated.” Sadie yawned “But still, I can tell you’re overwhelmed.”

“Yeah, and frustrated.” Callen sighed. “I’ve only been working on chips, scanning them when their done with X-ray machines and such, and writing programs for things that he gives me. I haven’t even started to work on the project to save my mom yet. Maybe I’m doing something wrong and Mr. Longwood doesn’t think I’m…”

“Don’t,” Sadie said. “You definitely are smart enough.”

“But…”

“No buts…you got it.” She smiled. “And Felix knows what he’s doing. Just be patient and have faith.”

“Yeah, right. There’s just so much to know in order to even begin.” Callen scoffed. “If God cared…or existed…then my mom…”

Sadie gave him a dirty look, stopping him before he went further. “I thought we weren’t gonna go there…” She sighed and she moved a bin of parts to expose a coffee maker, which she promptly began setting up. She glanced around the cabinet and looked in the drawers. “Guess Felix forgot to buy sugar and creamer. I hope you like your coffee black.”

“I don’t drink coffee.” Callen said.

“You serious?” Sadie scoffed. “No wonder you look like a zombie every day until like noon, when you slug down a chocolate milk shake and a coke or two at Helga’s…”

“What can I say, I’m not a morning person.” He watched her grab two cups as the coffee began to drip. “Maybe we should get some coke for me to wake up with…”

“Yeah, soda…” Sadie scowled. “Bad for you! It’s one of the major causes of obesity in…”

“Mr. Longwood drinks Mt. Dew in the morning…”

“Yeah, I know, but he’s not exactly worried about his figure,” Sadie said.

“And you think I am?” Callen looked at her with a raised eyebrow.

“If you’re not, you should be,” Sadie said. “Girls like guys who are in shape. I wouldn’t want you turning into a basement dwelling overweight video game player with a neck-beard. So, it’s time you give up soda and drink coffee.”

“Well, I got the basement thing and the video game thing going on now…so…”

“Exactly my concern,” Sadie said. “Time to be more healthy. And, just so you know, I’m not taking no from you on the coffee thing. Coffee is like air. People can’t function without it.”

“And here I thought it was because I’ve become an insomniac…” Callen yawned.

“Not sleeping?” Sadie said as she watched the pot slowly fill up.

“No,” Callen admitted. “But it gives me time to work here. So…”

“That’s not good. Really not good…you should see Dr. Brewer. He’ll give you something to help.”

Callen nodded. “Maybe. I think it will be better when I save my mom. I got a lot of work to do to get there…and…” Callen paused and stared at the bench. His mind drifted.

“And what?” Sadie asked. “Callen?” Her voice sounded worried.

He shook his head. “Nothing. I’m just groggy. I’ll be fine.” He looked at the pot of dripping coffee. “Just give me a cup.”

“Glad you see it my way.” Sadie grinned. She grabbed the pot and poured two steaming cups. “But, for the record, burning the candle at both ends won’t help your mom. So, promise me you’ll see Dr. Brewer?”

“Half as long, twice as bright.” Callen murmured as he began tapping on the keyboard.

“What?” Sadie asked.

“Oh, ah…” Callen said. “Just something Matt…the guy who taught me a bunch about electronics used to say about me.”

“Depressing.” Sadie sighed and placed the cup on Callen’s workbench.

“I never looked at it that way,” Callen said. “I’d rather live a few years of amazing than a hundred years of mediocrity.”

“You’re certainly not the average American teenager…” Sadie laughed. “Most of them are cooing over that reality TV garbage that takes less than half a brain to make and even less than that to understand.”

“Just teenagers?” Felix said as he walked into the room sipping from a coffee cup filled with Mt. Dew. “The entire world is wrapped up in celebrating stupidity and no one can what we do. Anyway, Callen, you ready?”

“Yeah,” Callen said taking the first sip of the coffee and made a disgusted face. “Did you get the parts I designed that you asked for? I had Mavis send them to your office last night.” He forced another sip.

“Yes I did, and they are perfect,” Felix said. “I put them into the prototype I’m building…”

“That’s my cue to leave,” Sadie said. “Felix, Sir Corth, and Sir Reeves took the truck last night, so I can’t install the parts you wanted me to get in. So, before I let you two go all super nerd, do you want me to work on those two assault rifle platform mods or get the case-less feeds into those sidearms? Or can I have the day to work on my baby?”

“Get the assault rifles done,” Felix said. “That won’t take long. The conventional actions just need to be removed and replaced with our adaptable ones. Then you can work on your baby.”

“Your baby?” Callen asked as he choked down another sip of coffee. “I hope this isn’t some crappy reality TV show about a teenage girl, a baby, and demons…”

Sadie giggled. “No, my baby is my motorcycle.” Her voice was filled with pride.

“How come you haven’t shown me it yet?” Callen asked.

“It’s not done yet.” She answered. “I haven’t shown anyone, so don’t feel bad, cowboy. But, maybe at some point, I could use your help with the electronics I want in it…” She flashed Callen a grin and headed towards the garage.

“I still think the cowboy thing doesn’t quite work…” Callen sighed.

“She’s a pistol, that one,” Felix said shaking his head. “And she knows how to use them too, build them, and make them quite dangerous…” He sighed and chuckled at Callen’s expression. “Guess someone has a crush…”

“Um…no,” Callen said, but the blood flowing to his cheeks said otherwise.

“Right,” Felix said. “And you’re just choking down that coffee because you like it…”

Callen rolled his eyes. “So, what are we doing today?” Callen asked changing the subject. “Am I ready to start on my stuff yet?”

“Patience, my boy, patience.” Felix said.

“But, my mom…”

“I assure you, I’m well aware, and I’m doing everything I can to make sure that you are able to succeed. Rome wasn’t built in a day, you know.” Felix stated. “Now come with me.” He waddled out of the electronics shop and down the hallway towards the farthest door from the factory.

“Where we going?” Callen asked as he followed.

“Server room,” Felix said. “I want to show you what I used some of the parts you made for practice for…remember the strange chips?”

“Yeah, looked to me like they would somehow rapidly transfer information to something you would store in a thin cylinder. That something has to get the info fast…least that’s what all the designs you let me look at indicated.”

“Very good,” Felix admitted as he unlocked the door. “I’m pleased you’re learning how these things go together.” The door beeped and metal locks creaked from inside the wall.

“Why is this door so much more secure than the rest of this place?” Callen said as the heavy door hissed open. “I don’t think you can get any more secure than this place considering…”

“You’d be surprised,” Felix said. “I’m doing a lot of security upgrades around this place. It just takes forever. Actually, that’s part of the reason why I had you working on components for this device for practice.” He reached into the pocket of his apron and pulled out a thin electronic tube about the width of a straw that had a small box of connectors at one end. He began walking down the stairs.

“What is it?” Callen asked as they emerged in a room filled with computer servers.

Felix grinned as he flipped on the lights. He walked over to one of the servers and popped open an access panel. “You see what’s wrong?”

Callen glanced over the series of circuit boards. “Well, ah…give me a minute. Is there one designed the same way without a problem that I can compare it to? I didn’t design these so picking out exact flaws will be nearly impossible without a reference if you want a quick answer.”

“Good answer.” Felix smiled. “But look at the quality of the electronics. See the difference?”

The computer card itself was extremely advanced, but there was a spider-like device that looked outdated and built by jury-rigging old technology attached to it.

“Yeah,” Callen admitted. “What the hell is that thing?”

“It’s a bug,” Felix admitted.

“Literally,” Callen said. “It looks like it’s feeding off the chip.”

“Yeah, essentially it is,” Felix said. “I’ve been finding these things in the Mavis servers for years. They are always slightly different, look like junk, and they…”

“Are some sort of transmitter.” Callen said. “It’s like bugging a telephone.”

Felix nodded. “But the weird thing is, they never transmit anything and I can’t even figure out their purpose! They don’t seem to be hurting anything, but I don’t like them and every time I want to remove them it is a pain in the ass. Whatever is installing them keeps stripping away my TEMPEST shielding…and the bugs seem to be reading the electronic emissions from the circuits…but they’re not broadcasting anything! I have to break the card or shutdown the network…blah, blah, blah…but then the next day they’re back. Since they haven’t actually done any real damage, it hasn’t been a priority to get this done. So, I gave you projects related to the solution that I haven’t finished yet to teach you the basics of molecular engineering.“

“So, what is the device I helped you finish yesterday?” Callen asked.

Felix attached the cylinder to his wrist computer and pulled his goggles over his eyes. The status lights on the cylinder. “The cylinder is full of a special adaptive nanoparticle designed to manipulate electromagnetic fields based on a variety of scans from my goggles. Each nanoparticle positions itself to form a reverse Faraday Cage to contain an EMP within it. I’m scanning the bug now. When it’s done, I’ll specify my target, and release the particles. They will arrange themselves in a pattern that will allow them to manipulate the electric field that comes out of the targeted device, interrupt the electron flow, and temporarily disable it without damage to the primary card. Then, I can pull it off without shutting down the network and maybe I can find out why they’re here. Then my problem is solved, well sort of.”

“What if the bug and the card it’s attached to are made of the same stuff?” Callen asked. “Then wouldn’t you fry both?”

“Yes,” Felix said. “But, that’s only if you didn’t have the schematics for the device you’re trying to save.”

“I guess the algorithm is pretty complex,” Callen said. “Especially to control an EMP.”

“Well, yes, it is quite complicated,” Felix said. “It’s all based on how these specially designed particles react to their command signal and the vibrations they emit.”

“Cool,” Callen said. “You mostly had me designing the circuitry and programming…”

“Yeah,” Felix said. “You’ll get more into the material science of what the electronics we build control when you start on the eyewear.”

Callen nodded. “It’s awesome, but Mr. Longwood, don’t you think building this EMP device was overkill?” Callen asked. “Why didn’t you just install security cameras or using Mavis to find out who is doing this then shoot them?”

“I did, initially…conventional means shouldn’t be disregarded in favor of a complex solution…so your thoughts are in the right spot. This has been going on for a very long time. So, I pretty much exhausted all my options conventional or imaginative. It’s kinda like a chess match for me…this is just my latest attempt, and hopefully my last.”

“Sounds frustrating,” Callen said.

Felix tapped his rig’s interface. “Not anymore.” A low electrical hiss came from the tube and a slight haze formed around the strange spider-like bug. With a snap-fizz, the bug pulsed dull blue and fell off the card and Felix caught it. He slowly looked over the card. “And my scan reads no damage. I’d say we did good.”

“Great, now we built a bug zapper to deal with a minor problem that you have been basically ignoring for years,” Callen said sarcastically. “I guess a minor problem is more important than…”

“Yee of little faith, and much impatience.” Felix sighed. “Just you wait.” He turned towards the stairs. “Now, come on.” Felix started to climb the stairs.

“Alright, what’s next a pedicure machine to add to…” Callen started to mumble, but something shiny in one of the cracks in the stone floor caught his eye. He bent down and picked it up. “Wait, Mr. Longwood, what’s this, did you drop something?” He held a strange spur gear that looked handmade with little precision.

“I have found parts like that around the place before. It was probably just a part that got stuck in my shoe a few years ago. That happens to me all the time. I drop a screw or something and it rolls somewhere. Then you forget to pick it up because you just grab a new one.” Felix said. “Besides, this place is a mess. I just wish I had time to organize it. That might actually be half my problem with whatever is installing these bugs. This place’s such a hodgepodge of mainstream technology and our own work…”

Callen nodded and inspected the gear. It was an interesting looking gear. It was scratched, rusted, and was heavily scarred on one side. It reminded him of an old penny. “Tails…dark side…you’re lucky, I keep you.” He flipped it in the air and caught it as he walked up the stairs.

He returned to the bench and sighed as he glanced at the coin. He turned towards one of the material analysis devices that sat next to him. The part was out of place for the workshop and looked like it was old. He reached over to power up the X-ray fluorescence imaging. He placed the rusted spur gear in the device and began a composition scan.

The screen next to him blinked, which surprised him because the material analysis would take time, but it was Felix’s image on the screen. “Alright.” He said. “I’ve updated your access, Callen. You’ll find the files you need to begin your next assignment on the system.”

“Alright,” Callen said.

“Pay careful attention to the how the materials respond to the signals sent from the software as you work,” Felix said. “When you finish each schematic, and process recipe, I’ll look over them…we’ll go from there.”

“Sounds good…” As the x-ray machine buzzed, Callen returned to work. The materials he was designing were, in a sense, alive. He began looking at each part as an organ, the CPU as the brain, and the total assembly was like an organism. He lost himself in the complexities of a crystalline material that was built with different layers, like those of a cake. The layers were very adaptive and each responded to specific programs that he began editing or he wrote from scratch. It was like he was a baker that could shift the layers of the cake from chocolate to vanilla to strawberry to whatever flavor he wanted in whatever layer he wanted as someone enjoyed the cake.

After a few hours and over another cup of coffee, he remembered to check the composition results of the strange gear he found. He minimized the design programs and looked over the results. He shook his head in confusion. This metal was a proprietary alloy that was used in navy ships back in the early 1900s. He pulled the gear out of the x-ray machine. “A coin-like gear from over a hundred years ago in a sci-fi secret basement for demon slaying dwarves?” Callen said to himself. “Can this place get any weirder?” He shrugged and tucked the gear into his pocket and returned to his work.

 

 

 

 

 

[]CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

Callen’s days washed by on a tide of progress that floated on the sound classic guitar rifts. He sank everything he had into his work and his mind was like a sponge. In the glow of the assortment of display screens, flashes of electrical tools, and the hum of reactors, he scrutinized his final designs. One of the thin monitors hanging from the wall behind his bench flicked on and an image of the fully assembled goggles appeared along with a dotted outline representing his wrist computer. A series of numbers and codes cycled on the screen while images of goggle subassemblies flashed green and blue.

“Alright, Mr. Longwood, all the designs are done and I just started all the virtual testing,” Callen said to the computer image of Felix that he appeared on one of the vacant screens.

“Be there in a minute,” Felix said.

Callen brought up the other devices on separate screens to make it easier for Mr. Longwood to check his work. He activated Mavis’s diagnostic program and test data began cycling on the screens.

“I hope your progress is impressive…” Felix said with a sigh. “Not that I’m rushing you, but that bitch has been up my ass since she got here. It will be nice to shut her up…” he turned towards the flashing design images of Callen’s goggles, computer, and disruptor.

“I think it’s as good as it’s gonna get through virtual modeling…” Callen said. “We all know no virtual model is a perfect match for reality…I think it’s about time for me to get my hands dirty.”

“All that green is expected…but the blue…that means you improved on the original design.” He pulled out a cigarette from his pocket and struck a match. He continued examining the plans. “ I can’t deny it, your molecular arrangements are ingenious…”

“You told me a few days ago to pay attention to the crystal layers. Those crystals are the goggle lenses. They will be able to shift to allow me to change vision modes and put data on them.” Callen said. “I now see why, and your assignments related to the EMP device were a great introduction.”

“So, you admit there’s method to my madness? I had to give you something to start with that connected the virtual programs to real-life fabrication to introduce you. If I dropped you into developing your rig from scratch, it would have been a train wreck. I admit I should have stepped you into molecular engineering slower, but…you have what it takes…” Felix laughed as he drilled into a few of the subassemblies and the molecular arrangements of the individual parts. “I must say, I’m impressed. Very impressed…so…” He paused. “Mavis, begin the manufacture, purchase, and/or requisitions of the parts that are required by Callen’s designs.”

“Understood sir,” Mavis answered, in its electronic monotone voice.

Callen rubbed the back of his hair. “Thanks.” He grinned. “The stuff you use here is very similar to what Matt taught me on in the hospital…and then with everything else, it just clicked.”

“I’d say, but I’m not talking about you working with Mavis or putzing around virtually.” Felix laughed. “I’m talking about your application of science. That’s that part that amazes me. Your molecular models are…spot on…I love how you arranged each molecule and how even the geometry of the electron orbitals…”

“So, I did good?” Callen asked with a half grin on his face.

“Yah did good, kid,” Felix said. “Some people are amazing in music, art, or any of the other classical disciplines…but you…well your gifted in something that isn’t even supposed to exist yet.”

“It’s all physics and chemistry,” Callen said with a grin. “Least that’s what my dad always said when I asked him what he did every day.”

“And he’s right,” Felix said. “Everything comes back to those two things.”

“Even magic?”

“Even magic,” Felix said. “Somewhere it all makes sense. Where, well…I don’t know…and I wonder if anyone even does…or ever will.”

“My dad did, didn’t he?” Callen asked. “I mean, that’s gotta be the controversy connected to him.”

“No, your dad was an amazing scientist. The controversy surrounding him, well…I have only heard a few rumors and none of them deal with magic.” Felix said. “But, magic, as far as I’m concerned, it depends on how you define it. Magic, how I see it, is relative.”

“Like Einstein’s theory of relativity-relative?”

“Well, yes, in a sense. In my opinion, what is magic and what is technology is contingent on the knowledge of the observer,” Felix said. “Think about it this way. If you saw an airplane today, you would understand that it flies because of a combination of speed, aerodynamics, pressure differences that result in lift, among other scientific principles…however…if you lived in say…Europe during the Dark Ages…well…you would think it was magic that was making the object, which you would lack the vocabulary to define as an airplane, fly.”

“Makes sense,” Callen stated. “But Grandpa defined magic as evil and you essentially defined magic and technology as a difference in understanding. So, doesn’t that make technology evil too?”

“No,” Felix said bluntly. “Technology is born out of understanding of our surroundings through human observation, experimentation, innovation, and invention. The wisdom is earned and the control is that it is limited by man’s understanding of their surroundings. Magic, on the other hand, comes from the application of knowledge that has not yet been earned and learning it generally requires some sort of pact with an evil being with knowledge to sell.”

“Yeah…philosophy, not quite my strong point…” Callen said.

“Alright.” Felix took a puff of his cigarette. “Try this scenario. A kid is getting picked on in school and feels powerless to stop it. The kid gets angry and when he gets home from school he sees his brother shooting tin cans with a .22 pistol. The kid asks his brother if he can try. The brother says sure and hands the kid the pistol. He takes a few shots and manages to hit the can. Then the brother says I love shooting, it makes me feel powerful. A day later the kid ends up on the news because he shot the bully with a .22 that he stole from his brother. That’s magic. The kid didn’t earn the knowledge for himself, didn’t understand really what everything that surrounds that the tool means, and the results are tragic. Thus, the application of said knowledge is evil. Now, on the other hand…the brother doesn’t shoot anyone because he has learned respect for the tool, how it works and has the proper maturity level to manage it.”

“So, the difference between magic and technology comes down to maturity?” Callen asked.

“And an evidence-based body of knowledge,” Felix said. “Hence why in Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is a kid and uses magic, while Han Solo is an adult that uses technology. Luke becomes an adult when he defeats his magical opponent at the end of Jedi and tosses his ‘magical’ sword away and faces the essence of magical evil with the knowledge he gained through his adventure. He abandons the naivety of magic, faces reality, and becomes a man, like Han Solo, was in the first place.”

Callen nodded. “I guess I understand. But, why is this tech stuff so much more advanced than the rest of the conventional world?”

“Maturity through experience and faith,” Felix said. “God offers insights into how he crafted existence to those that have the capacity to listen. It’s also a lot easier to make things for fewer people…especially with a knowledge base…and bank account…like ours. But overall, it comes down to this…as the conventional world fights over the apparent contradiction between science and faith; we see the grace of their synergy. Is it any wonder why scientists who changed the conventional world with their ideas, like Faraday and Einstein, blended their science with their faith?”

“Faith…you sound like my dad.” Callen scoffed. He sighed. “I wonder if he would be proud of me…”

“I’m sure he would. It took a lot of guts to agree to what you did…any father would be proud.” Felix took a drag of his cigarette. “Anyway, I think that’s enough wisdom for now, my young Jedi.”

“You forgot one thing, Felix,” Sadie said. “Han gets the girl because he’s a man. Luke isn’t ready to have a girl in the movie, so Lucas made her Luke’s sister.”

Callen rolled his eyes, but he also felt a flutter in his stomach when he heard her voice.

“She’s right!” Felix laughed. “But not completely, Han wasn’t a good man at the beginning of the story. He was jaded and disillusioned with reality. He was angry, impulsive, and indebted to Jabba. His journey is about how he overcame those hardships of manhood to become the man the girl turning into a woman wanted. Hence, why I’m so annoyed that Lucas changed that in the originals, Han shot first. It made his journey less epic.”

“I liked it better when Han shot first,” Callen said as he turned towards Sadie. “How long you been standing there?”

“Only since Felix started talking Star Wars.” She said. “I just came to ask for some help.”

“One second, Sadie,” Felix said. “Callen, you still got a bit more work to do on your goggles before they’re done. You get to do the fun part,” he scratched his cheek. “Well…let me clarify…the fun part for non-science people.”

“What’s that?” Callen asked.

“The style,” Sadie said.

“Style?” Callen asked turning his head. He grinned. She looked cute with a smudge of grease on her cheek.

She glanced at his black t-shirt and worn jeans. “Yeah…exactly…what’s style?” She laughed.

“Shut up,” Callen said. “I got style.”

“Yeah, if you wanna call lack of style a style.” Sadie chuckled. “But, pick something cool and not like Felix’s.”

“Hey, what’s not cool about mine?” He asked. “They’re perfect for what I designed them for.” Both Sadie and Callen laughed at the pile of non-symmetrical imaging equipment that looked as if they came from a steampunk/dieselpunk fan-boy catalog that sat idly on Felix’s head. “What, retro-futurism is a style.”

“Touché.” Sadie giggled. “But, just so you know…that’s totally not you Callen.”

“Alright, so what is my style?” He asked.

“I’d say…urban and-or industrial….” Sadie said.

“Ah, what?” Callen asked sounding completely lost.

Felix shrugged. “As Sadie so eloquently put, this isn’t exactly my area of expertise. So, I’m gonna leave you to it then and don’t forget to input commands to start the fabrication process to Mavis. The lenses take time.”

“Alright,” Callen said.

Felix glanced at Sadie. “So, what did you need help with, Sadie?”

“Those pistols you ordered just got in. I was wondering if you wanted me to qualify them…”

“Callen can help yah,” Felix said. “Besides, if he’s gonna be sticking around, he should know how to shoot…”

“You want me to teach him?” Sadie’s voice was full of excitement, and when Callen saw how excited she was, he held back on telling her that he knew.

“Who else?” Felix raised his eyebrow. “Tende’s terrible with firearms…and everyone else is busy…besides, you’re pretty damn good…”

“Alright.” Sadie grinned.

“What about…” Callen started.

Felix cut him off. “Relax, Mavis needs time to make everything…so take a break. They should be ready mid-afternoon. Then, after everything’s done for the day…Tende and your sister are dying to finish that Nazi laboratory dungeon in Shadowborne. I caught my character up…so let’s do some of that later tonight.”

“Great…” Sadie said sarcastically as Felix left the room.

“Maybe you should just give in and play,” Callen said with a grin. “All the cool people are doing it.”

“Umm…how ‘bout…no, code monkey,” Sadie said. “And I don’t think I would define any one of you as ‘cool.’”

“Nice…very nice…here I am inviting you to have a nice evening after a hard day of work…and you gotta get all insulting…” Callen shot her a half grin. “But, if you wanna go that route…I could call you grease-girl.”

“You’re getting better at this.” She huffed. “Two zings in one. I’ll let you quit while you’re ahead…now let’s go.”

“Thanks for that,” Callen said sarcastically as she took the lead.

**********************

 

Another old stairwell led them down underneath the garage to a heavy door locked with heavy duty electronic locking mechanism. Sadie paused before a door locked and waited. The lights on the control panel that were initially red, faded to green and she pushed open the door. As she entered, a motion sensor triggered lighting. The room was made of the same masonry that was spread throughout the whole complex, but in this room a wall had been removed and a long hallway, padded with sound proofing foam, had been added.

“Well, here we are.” Sadie seemed unusually happy.

Along the old stone walls hung racks of many weapons, in an almost religious fashion. The racks themselves had been carved from mahogany and were adorned with Celtic carvings of crosses and Christian saints. Between each of the racks was a sacred candle, in the far corner was a statue of a warrior angel and a door in the back that lead to a workroom designed for weapons.

“Damn.” Callen was a little overwhelmed. “This is like a shrine to all things weapons and angels…”

Sadie nodded. “Isn’t it badass?”

Callen nodded and looked at the racks of melee weapons, bows, crossbows, and a variety of firearms. The room didn’t look much like an armory. The room looked more like a private collection or a museum. “So, where’s all the modern hunting gear?” He asked when he didn’t see any of the gear his Grandfather carried on the racks.

“Oh, that stuff is issued…or ordered conventionally then modified later,” Sadie said. “This is just our collection that knights stationed here carried…well, the stuff that wasn’t passed on or got completely replaced.”

He nodded and looked at the variety of weaponry. He could tell that each of these pieces was far more than standard production model. Each was heavily modified compared to the ones he had seen pictures of and seemed much more capable than the conventional tech of the time. He looked at the old colonial rifle and saw an interesting loading mechanism that would allow the weapon to fire much more like a repeater than a musket. “So, I take it that the gear we’re testing isn’t on the racks then…and significantly more advanced than what you can get at the store?”

“It depends,” Sadie said. “We have standard platforms made from deals with conventional manufacturers, but most get modified by the knights using them.”

“So, no ray guns…” He stopped at the 1800’s weaponry and smiled when he saw the colt single-action army. “Now there’s a classic.” He scratched his head. “So, what are we shooting?”

“We can use whatever we want. But, the weapons we’re testing are right there.” She pointed at the pair of plastic cases she had rested on a loading table near the booths. She walked over and picked up the two cases. “Here.” She gave him one of the boxes.

He placed the box on one of the counters of the firing booths and opened it. Inside, resting in the gray molded foam, was a pistol made from dark metal and modern synthetic materials. All though it was modular and built with all the modern conveniences of tactical mounts, the weapon’s conventional parent was a powerful revolver.

“The X2019 Hellbreaker,” Sadie said with pride. “Standard issue and sidearm of choice for demon-slayers everywhere…well in our order that is…”

“A revolver?” Callen asked as he picked up a weapon.

“It’s all about reliability, from what your grandfather says.” Sadie crouched and opened a drawer. She pulled out four boxes of ammo. “.38s and .357 magnum.” She said. “Both will fire from this thing.”

He took the bullets and opened the cylinder. “Alright…six?”

“Once you’re issued your own hellbreaker, you can mod it however you want,” Sadie said. “You can even get it in automatic.” She glanced down range. “Alright, load it with the barrel pointing down range…and don’t forget the ear plugs.” She tossed him a pair from the box on the ammo bench.

Callen placed the gun and the bullets on the shelf in the firing booth before sticking the plugs in his ears. As he did, he looked down the corridor at the sound insulation and electronic monitoring systems for collecting ballistics data. He reopened the cylinder and loaded the weapon. He looked back at Sadie, faking that he didn’t know what he was doing. “So, what do I get if I hit the bull’s eye with my fist shots?”

“You won’t, so…” She sounded confident. “I don’t know…respect…” She tapped a touch screen built into the boot and a paper target descended from the ceiling at around thirty yards.

“Creative.” He rolled his eyes. “Come on, you can do better than that…”

“Like what?” A bashful look crossed her face. “What could little ol’ me give you?”

Callen couldn’t help but smirk when he heard Derrick’s words about girls bounce around between his ears. He felt butterflies. Derrick wouldn’t let him live it down if he didn’t. He swallowed hard and rubbed the back of his head with his left hand. “Umm….ah…a kiss?” He heard the words slip past his lips before he even realized they came from his mouth. Embarrassed, he looked down the range. He didn’t know what to say, and felt uncomfortable. He swallowed what he wanted to ask and shook the feeling away by rolling his head.

“What was that?” Sadie said with a large grin on her face.

Callen ignored her and pretended he didn’t say anything.

“Alright,” She giggled. “I won’t make you repeat it…but you gotta get all six in…and I’m not helping you…”

He swallowed hard and cursed himself. He should have told her and now he wouldn’t be in this awkward situation. His heart was pounding. He took a breath and wondered if he should just miss so he wouldn’t have to deal with the consequences. “All six?” He managed to get out, and he struggled with the idea of coming clean now.

“Yep, in the inner circle.” Sadie taunted. “The odds of you succeeding are, extremely…”

With those words, he made his decision. His life had always been about beating the odds. If he gave up every time someone told him the odds weren’t in his favor, he wouldn’t have lived past age six. He raised the gun and focused. He lined up the iron sights and squeezed the trigger. The gun kicked a little, but it wasn’t too much for him. The weapon felt perfect in his hands. All six rounds hit the center circle in a tight grouping.

“What the…?” Sadie sounded shocked. Her face also went beat red. “How did…? Wait…you already know how to shoot, don’t you?”

“Yeah…our mom’s been taking us since we could fire a .22.”

She shook her head. “You played me…”

He shrugged. “Never tell me the odds.”

She nodded. “I guess it serves me right…I underestimated you.” She didn’t seem upset. Instead, she seemed excited in her own roguish way. “But, since you lied, I’ll tell you if you get your reward or not…”

“Actually, I didn’t really lie.” Callen pointed out. “You never asked me if I knew how…”

“Well, you cheated.” Sadie flirtatiously scoffed. “So, let’s get the other weapon done.”

Callen rolled his eyes and nodded.

“Don’t roll your eyes at me.” She warned. “Now, according to Felix’s directions he wants 114 more data points for that weapon and 120 for this one.” She refocused quickly.

“Alright.” He sighed. He felt upset and relieved at the same time as the two friends began firing.

As the guns popped, they didn’t talk much and there were a few awkward glances. Occasionally, their eyes met, which did little to help the knots in his stomach. However, he was glad that after they had finished, the awkward situation had faded.

Sadie put the weapons back in the boxes and clicked them shut. “You know, I still can’t believe you know how to shoot…” She said. “And well…”

“Why is that weird?”

“I’m usually good at reading people…” She seemed a little disappointed, but she let it roll off. “I figured your ma raised you all normal, because of, well, you know…and here you are a marksman…”

“What, my cancer?” Callen scoffed. “Na…that was like one of the big things that we did whenever I wasn’t in the hospital.”

“I guess that’s why you don’t like hearing the odds…”

“I should’ve been dead so many times over if I went by the odds…” He nodded and smiled briefly at the memories. “Good, or bad…I got a lot of luck.” He drifted into memories of his mother taking him and Ania to the range, like normal parents would take their kids to the park. Here he thought all of that was just because they lived in bad neighborhoods. The memories soured quickly at the thought that he might never again talk to his mother.

“Hey, you alright?” The usual edge in her voice was replaced by something Callen hadn’t heard yet. She sounded empathetic, rather than practical and sarcastic.

“I just feel like I’m still struggling to catch up.” He covered, not wanting to admit the truth. “Between the science and the monster stuff…”

Sadie nodded her head slowly and raised her eyebrow at him. “Yeah…ain’t that the truth.” She swallowed and rested her hand on his shoulder. “Hey, I know that’s not what’s eating you…and it’s okay.”

He felt a tingle when she touched him and felt a few tears well up in his eyes. But before the tears came, he forced down the growing lump and stepped away from her. “I’m sorry for lying to you…” He looked towards the weapons to break the mixture of emotions.

As he moved, she took her hand back and shrugged. “No, I’m sorry.” Her voice was cautious, but a depth understanding that overpowered mere empathy surfaced in her voice. “I know it’s not easy to say you miss your mom…”

He reached under his glasses and wiped the tears. He nodded before looking back at her.

“And, well…I miss my mom too…every day.” Her voice trembled, ever so slightly, as if the emotional wound of whatever took her away had never quite healed. “So, I know how you feel…better than anyone here.”

Callen wasn’t sure if it was an invitation to ask, comfort her, or change the subject. Instead, he just stood there, emotionally paralyzed. However, he managed to get a few words out when he saw the deep upset on her face. “I had no idea…” He hoped he didn’t sound like an idiot. “I’m sorry…”

“What’s to be sorry for?” The sound of anger polluted her expression and her voice. A curious green shimmer in her eyes caught Callen’s attention. It was as if at that angle, her irises lit up like a cat’s in dim light. “To most she was just a drug addict…no one cares when people like that die.”

“She was your mom.” Callen offered. “No matter what she did.” He couldn’t help but remember the conversations he had with Derrick about family. Sadie, like Derrick and himself, came from broken homes. It was something he and Derrick bonded over to begin with, and he knew that nothing he said really could help calm those feelings of loss or abandonment.

“I don’t matter now.” Sadie stiffened and shackled her emotions.

“Yes it does,” Callen said.

“Look,” She said. “I don’t want to talk about it…” She paused and took a deep breath. “Just do me a favor…”

“Yeah?”

“Save your Mom…like I couldn’t for mine…and to hell with the odds.”

Callen nodded. “So, does that mean…” He shot her a half grin.

“Verdicts still out…” She winked. “Anyway, back to work…I know we both have stuff to do…”

**********************

 

Once Callen returned to his workshop it took him a moment to refocus. He really didn’t want his time with Sadie to end. However, he had to focus. His mother needed him. He plugged his ear buds in and to the tune of electric guitars hours rolled by. With each passing song, the designs for his computer and disruptor began to form in virtual space.

He turned when Mavis arrived with a spread of all the individual parts for his goggles. He pulled one of his earbuds out.

“This is everything that you requested for the eyewear construction.” The robot said. “Everything is ready of assembly, sir.”

Callen took the parts. “Thanks, Mavis. Reactor seven needs a change over before you start making the semiconductors for the motherboard. I changed some of the dopants in the process. So, the chemicals will have to be changed out.”

“I will have the next pieces prepared for you shortly, sir.” The robot buzzed away.

Callen picked up one of the lenses and held it up to the light. For a moment, he felt impressed with himself, but he was far from done. So, he didn’t delay. He pulled what he needed from his toolbox and went to work. The room flashed with sparks and the scent of melting electronics as he carefully placed each electrical inlay and contact. The hours evaporated.

“They’re done?” Felix said as he walked into the room. When Callen didn’t respond, Felix tapped him on the back. When Callen had removed his ear buds again, Felix repeated the question.

“Yeah,” Callen said. “Almost. There are only a few things left, and then I’ll be able to see the world in a whole new way.” He grinned with pride.

“I like the sound of that, but…” Felix glanced at the parts that were laid out on Callen’s workbench. “You don’t have all the parts here. How can you possibly be almost done?” Felix asked skeptically.

“I had the vision processors and a lot of the other materials grown inside the carbon nanotubes that make up the frames, remember? I didn’t design insertion spots for vision modules.” Callen said. He placed both lenses beneath an imaging machine that included a variety of tools, including an electron microscope and specialized parts for x-ray diffraction. “I just programmed the necessary sensors for infrared and night vision to function without the companion computer. The other materials I put in there that would adapt to perform functions I want via programming them with my computer.”

“What made you do that?” Felix said. “That wasn’t in the designs I looked at the other day.”

“My gut,” Callen said with a cocky grin. “I just wanted to see if I could do it.” He snapped the lenses into the frames and began testing each electrical connection to the frame and did a material scan to check the integrity of the assembled device. He glanced at the computer screen. “It checks out. Now, one last step.” He grabbed the goggles and the straps.

“You realize the sacrifices you made will result in a delay when switching functions outside of the two you built into the frames without the additional processing capacity from the companion computer.”

“Yup,” Callen hopped up from his chair. “I figured the versatility is better. I already have the flexibility needed once the new sensor and software package is prepared.” Callen grinned. “Besides, I doubt I’ll…or maybe anyone…could ever notice…this stuff is, well, fast to say the least.”

“And where did you put the battery?” Felix asked.

“Nowhere,” Callen said. “Well, maybe that’s not exactly true. The battery is the strap.”

“You mean, the straps that hold them on your head?” Felix asked.

“Yup.” Callen smiled. “The fibers I used to make the straps are durable, stretchy, and gather ambient energy to power the goggles. The problem with electronics has always been defects in the materials causing decreased battery efficiency. With molecular engineering and a whole lot of intuition…the whole defect thing disappears. Then add these nanotransistors and fusion cells inside the tubes that make up the straps…”

“Nice idea. Reduces the weight and allows for more power for the device.” Felix said as he gazed at the computer screen. “Pretty outside the box, kid.”

“Well, what do you expect? Having me do this is outside the box and don’t even get me started on the whole demon thing…” Callen grinned. He leaped up to the bench and walked out onto the manufacturing floor, Felix followed. “Just one more reaction and they’re done.” He placed the goggles in a small canister with all kinds of piping, coils, gadgets, and gadgets attached to it and hit the button. The jar hissed as a pump began churning beneath the reactor.

“I like that you’re thinking about the power source,” Felix admitted as he watched the buzzing reactor. “It’s so crucial. Battery life is one of the major problems with conventional technology. You can have the best apps and processor possible, but if you don’t have the energy…you might as well have a paper weight.”

Callen nodded. “And if you have too much energy…” He grinned with explosive excitement.

“Vulnerability.” Felix pointed out. “Something that can be exploited…”

“You mean over-clocking the temperature thresholds?” Callen asked. “Like what some gamers do to enhance computer performance?”

“Yup.” Felix nodded. “Overclocking without the water or nitrogen cooling systems that gamers install. My EMP device uses some of that concept to destroy those damn bugs. The bug’s power source is where the pulse comes from.”

“I thought it was the nanoparticles…” Callen said.

“Nope,” Felix said. “No room in the material for any more than the semiconductors that control the shielding.” He sighed. “I’ve recently improved it a bit after knocking off another five bugs over the last few weeks. I’ve improved the goggle’s scanning, particle movement, and pulse speed. It’s good that I’ve improved it, but their constant reappearance is still quite frustrating…I’ve sent you the improvement specs.”

“Wicked cool,” Callen said. “I’ll incorporate them into my computer design then. But still, why don’t we try to figure out what they are searching for and maybe we can rig the system to tell them what they’re looking for isn’t here?”

“Well, the problem is the bugs aren’t broadcasting, remember?” Felix explained. “It’s like they are waiting to broadcast. I haven’t been able to recover any data from them after removal.”

“I just thought that if we could find a signal, we could set up a trap computer…maybe with a digital maze to get them lost in or something…”

“Maybe, but they’re dealt with for now,” Felix said. “We can come up with a more advanced solution when things calm down. Besides, your stuff is done.” He pointed to the reactor.

Callen opened a valve and gas hissed into the canister. He counted to five and closed the valve. “Step one, done, step two and three in the process.” He popped open the reactor and pulled out the finished goggles. He headed back to his workbench.

“You better have that in the design specs,” Felix said. “I’d love to see what you did exactly.”

“My base designs are in the system. But, I changed a lot of stuff on the fly.” Callen said. “But, let’s see if it worked.” He turned and headed back to the bench and wired the goggles to the computer.

He pulled the goggles over his head and began running diagnostic programs. He grinned when none popped up and loaded up the infrared protocols. The lenses rippled with color and the world washed over with the heat signatures of his surroundings. A blue line appeared around the edge of each object in the room noting the separation line between objects. He smiled again. “Even better.” Callen brought what he saw upon the bench’s computer screen and set the programming queue for viewing other pieces of the electromagnetic spectrum.

“You tweaked the inferred program,” Felix said. Your lenses are only one-way. Impressive.”

The world on the monitor and in the goggles was painted with shades that represented heat. But, each object didn’t blur completely together because of temperature equivalencies. Thin green lines defined object edges so things of the same temperature wouldn’t blur together.

“Yup.” He then switched to night vision making the world turn shades of green. “I feel like the Predator. But, better…you know…once I get all the vision apps going.” He laughed. “Guess I’m not the burden you thought I was?”

“Maybe a little.” Felix joked. “You do realize that your modifications place reliance on the wrist computer for whenever you need it to help shoot a gun?”

“Yeah.” Callen shrugged. “I’m a lab rat, tech nerd, like you. Besides, I hyped up the targeting computer designs to help with the disruptor. I also got the manufacturing specs for the computer and disruptor parts are all queued up. So, it shouldn’t be long until I’m ready for testing. I’ll be building the rest simultaneously…I even had the EMP device you made built in…just in case.”

Felix smiled. “You really do well alone in the dark!”

 

 

 

 

 

[]CHAPTER TWELVE

 

With all the manufacturing directions inputted into Mavis for the last parts he needed, Callen decided to program his computer apps for his rig while sitting with his mother. In a worn chair, he worked next to the strange custom-designed medical equipment and IV bags full of unnaturally colored liquid.

Carefully, he entered the last lines of code for a program he called Labyrinth and a group of applications that would assault whatever he trapped in the mess of shifting firewalls. Then the assault applications would hack the system caught in the maze and allow him to upload whatever he wanted into the intruder’s system. The idea behind it was to use it to isolate the bugs that were constantly being installed on Felix’s network. Once the bugs were isolated, he could quickly modify the assault applications to learn, in a controlled environment, what the bug’s purpose was.

Remotely, he set Mavis to run a simulation and to test labyrinth and yawned before pulling up some unfinished projects that Felix had provided him access to get some more ideas. There were files that had ideas for armor, various weapons, computer application programs, and various devices that weren’t developed enough for him to quickly discern their purpose. So, he skipped those.

He pulled up the specs for a pistol that used a magnetic firing system and projectile accelerator coils. The designs were far from complete, but they got his imagination flowing. There were concept designs for a .50 magnum revolver. He pictured his mother armed with a finished version of the pistol on the screen and his disruptor tearing through one of those twisted demonic abominations.

He looked up at the tank and nodded with confidence. “Mom, when I save you, I’ll make a weapon that can tear through those demons. You’ll be better soon.” He whispered and leaned forward. He placed his hand on his mother’s hand. “I promise.”

“Promise what?” Ania said as she entered the infirmary. Behind her, strange flashes and laughter came from Dr. Brewer’s other rooms. She shook her head and laughed at the craziness as she adjusted the pair of old musty tomes and drawing pad she carried at her hip.

“To get Mom back.” Callen said.

Ania nodded as she gazes at their mother’s motionless face. “I hope it’s soon, I don’t think she has a lot of time left.” She paused and her gaze shifted into the beyond. She shook her head. “But, I’m glad you found time to come visit her…”

Callen nodded. “It’s good to have a chance…” His sister looked worn out. “You alright?”

“Just dazed. I had another migraine yesterday…a bad one.” She admitted. “But, I’ll be back to normal soon. Anyway, how’s your stuff coming?”

“Good,” Callen said. “I should have a working prototype in a day or two for Reeves. Then he can pull down one of those demons, and Mom…”

Ania nodded. “Good.”

“You sure you’re okay?”

“I’ve just been having clusters of migraines lately…” Ania shrugged. “I don’t know…”

“That’s unusual…what’s going on?”

“I’ve had them before…”

“Did Dr. Brewer check you out?”

“No…and he isn’t.” She shook her head. “Callen, I need to tell you something…I can’t keep it a secret any longer…”

Callen’s gaze shifted to a concerned curiosity. He drew a breath to ask what, but before he could say anything, frantic commotion came from the hallway.

Dr. Brewer ran out of the other room, wild-eyed, as a group of monks carried a stretcher into the chained off section of the psychiatric ward. Renee was strapped to the stretcher. “In that room…not the one with the girl…in the door way…” He pointed further down the hall. “That one…the isolation room…quickly…”

The siblings immediately went to see what was happening. They saw the monks roll Renee’s body onto a stained bed with rusty support rails. Once the monks had Renee situated, Dr. Brewer shook his hands. “Now out with you…” He ran into the room without closing the door. Immediately, he went to work using his equipment to plug in medical implants, run tubing, and forcing his strange elixirs down her throat.

Soaked in sweat, Renee struggled. Gurgles came from her mouth that sounded like words of extreme suffering. She could not see, and eyes were swollen shut. Her skin was covered in blisters, boils, and strange red blotches. The smell of sulfur hung in the air.

Callen noticed he had a dizzy spell and as he stabilized himself against the wall, he saw his grandfather arrive with Sadie and Tende following. He tapped his wrist computer. “Felix, we need yeh at the infirmary. Now…we need the residue scan…how far are yeh?”

“What’s going on?” Callen asked. He felt a cough coming on, which he held back. “Is she contagious?”

“Sir Corth’s initial field scans say no.” Dr. Brewer professionally muttered. “But, I need to figure out what she has. I need you two out of here.” He paused for a second as he finished filling a syringe with morphine. “No…no to the both of you…I told you before…no experiments on kids…that brings chickens….” He immediately went back to work. “Evil chickens…and not the tender kind…”

Ignoring the insanity, Corth elaborated. “I’m sure it was magic, lad. No idea what origin yet….now go…Sadie and Tende are at the gate.

Sadie looked petrified.

Callen coughed hard and noticed a little blood in his hand. “What happened?”

“I don’t know…” Sadie said. Her face was ghost white. “Something came at us…fast. It had a glowing purple mark…and a scream…and the scent of sewer and sulfur…”

Another horrible scream from Renee pulled the children’s attention to the window. Out of the corner of his eye, Callen noticed Ania staring hard at Renee. Blood began seeping from her injection sites and the other orifices on her body. Her boils began to ooze yellowish puss down her blotched skin, but they held fast in their struggle to aid the critical woman.

Felix came running down the hallway as fast as his legs could carry him while attaching some strange lens assembly to his goggles. He waddled into the isolation room and began helping Dr. Brewer.

“Sadie, can yeh tell me what happened?” Corth asked.

She nodded. “I was helping Renee with the trash…” Sadie said. “So, Tende could get out early. He had been stuck at Helga’s late…and…”

Corth swore. “I should have had yeh take a vacation…”

“I saw a guy with a black jacket talking to some kids in the back of the alley. It looked like they were buying drugs…or something…they gave me the creeps.” Sadie shook her head. “He looked at me and left the alley. I couldn’t see his face, but the kids drew weapons and turned. When they turned, their faces were not human. Their faces were…” She shuttered. “Like changelings, but they had shark-like teeth and long pointed ears.” She paused. “They were goblins, they had to be…but it was dark…then, the one began muttering something I didn’t understand. Something glowed on its face…purple…it raised its hand and…Renee pulled back inside the Diner and a second later she began screaming…then you showed up in the truck and they scattered into the darkness.”

Corth rubbed his beard. “Alright.” He leaned into the treatment room. “Scolestis, demonic involvement…magic…”

“Thanks,” Dr. Brewer answered in-between loud slurping noises. “Corth, I need your help too. Come in…and shut the door…we need holy water and your bible…I need you to …” The door closed as Corth followed Dr. Brewer’s directions.

Ania grabbed Callen’s arm. “She has a carrion blood curse.” She whispered. “To someone who doesn’t know magic, it looks like an aggressive flesh-eating disease.”

Sadie gave Ania a questioning look, but Callen spoke first. “Wait, what?”

“She needs a tranquilizer, a cold blood transfusion, and then an immense dose of antibiotics. The Needles need to be silver plated and blessed…” Ania whispered. “Followed by surgery and a skin graft…and…”

“Hold on, wait a minute here…How do you…” Callen asked.

“Lots of reading in Dr. Webs archives…” Tende answered slowly as he watched in horror.

“Too late.” Ania sighed.

Renee tried to scream as her eyes snapped open. Her eyeballs bulged as her leaky boils exploded. Her eyes followed with her heart monitor flatlining. Her blood soaked into the old sheets.

With shoulders hung low, Corth and Felix entered the hallway where the children stood in horror.

Felix adjusted something on his computer rig. “The source was goblin. I think. The spell residue left on her has goblin written all over it. There isn’t enough to exactly what the curse was…but it was definitely goblin…” He shook his head. “I thought we cleared them out, and I thought goblin used simpler magic like fire…this is odd…”

“Yeh never get rid o’ goblin…they are like demonic cockroaches…” Corth sounded sad. “This be a tragedy. Poor lass. We just not be quick enough…” The old dwarf’s face was heavy with grief. “Poor lass…”

“Corth, we don’t have time to get all sentimental,” Felix said. “We gotta get to work to prevent this from happening again…this spell is way too complex for goblins…”

“Aye. It’s more like a human sorcerer or demonic half-blood…” Corth sighed. “As fer their spells, maybe they discovered a new ritual or something…but we will talk more about this later.”

“Whatever happened…I’m willing to bet that it’s related to your case,” Felix said. “Considering your last kidnapping was in that neighborhood.”

“Aye, lad…that’s what I be afraid of. Looks like I have something to approach my contacts with now…” Corth looked at Sadie. “Yeh alright lass?”

“Not really.” She admitted.

“Aye,” Corth said. “Yeh best be seeing Father Kenton. He’ll help yeh set it straight. Tende, can yeh take her?”

Tende nodded.

“I…” Callen started to volunteer, but Ania grabbed his arm. He wanted to go with Sadie, but he knew he needed to talk to his sister.

“Don’t worry, Callen.” Sadie smiled warmly. “I’ll be fine…I’ll be in prayer…and I know how much you love that stuff…”

He relaxed a little. “Alright…come see me when you’re done…I’ll be where I always am…” He laughed awkwardly.

“I’ll see you after church tomorrow,” Sadie said. “Now come on Tende…”

“The both of yeh…good move calling me to come pick yeh up when yeh found out Tende got stuck there late.” Corth said as Tende and Sadie turned to leave. “Things could have been worse.”

Tende nodded. “Tell that to Renee.” He sighed and he led Sadie back to the church. They passed Reeves and Cole as they walked down the stairs. Callen and Ania watched Dr. Brewer begin to dispose of Renee’s body using a strange mixture of chemicals, an old bathtub, and a hacksaw.

“Yuck…” Ania said.

“Aye…yeh gotta do what yeh gotta do sometimes, lass.” Corth sighed. He watched Cole and Reeves approaching. “Kinda like now…” He muttered.

Felix shook his head. “Let’s keep this short shall we?”

“Aye.” Corth agreed. “Callen, Ania…yeh two can head back now…”

“We’re giving Sadie and Tende a few minutes head start,” Ania said. “Before we go back…”

Callen looked down the hall and watched Sadie disappear into the dark stairwell. He let out a frustrated sigh.

“Don’t worry. Sadie will be fine…the order has blessed ways of dealing with this stuff…she needs a priest.” Reeves said as he and Cole joined the group. “Magic can have side effects.”

“I just got Dr. Brewer’s update,” Cole said. “Looks like we have another problem in this city on our hands. This one’s too close to us.”

“Aye,” Corth said. He swallowed hard and looked his grandchildren. “Way too close. I’ll hit the troll market and the less hostile fairy mounds…I’ll find something…even the least friendly of fey hate goblins…”

Cole nodded. “When you go to any of the mounds, watch yourself.” She said. “Reeves and I are looking into something happening with the Fey population…”

“Yeh sound almost concerned…” Corth pointed out.

“I wouldn’t count on it,” Cole replied snidely. “I’m more concerned with the why…”

“What are yeh seeing?” Corth asked.

“Not sure yet,” Cole said. “I’ll let you now when I have more. Just make sure you’re well armed.”

“Oh, he will be.” Felix grinned. “Got some new special rounds that need field testing…”

**********************

 

“So, what just happened?” Callen asked as he and Ania left the hospital. “And don’t say it was from reading, because what you said definitely wasn’t from just reading. There was no way you could diagnose her from a glance…”

“Ah, well…it was kinda from reading but…I don’t…”

“Well, considering I just saw Renee die from some demonic curse, and you know exactly what is going on like some sort of medic occult specialist, I think you have some explaining to do.”

“Yeah…” Ania said. “But, not here. Let’s go back to your room.”

**********************

 

Callen sat down on his bed and Ania sat at his desk. He waited for his sister to start talking. He couldn’t help but look skeptical as she visibly struggled with finding words to explain her situation. “Well?” He said impatiently. The horrific scene of Renee’s death still at the forefront of his memory.

After a few moments, she started. “Umm, I have been trying to figure out how to tell you without you thinking I’m crazy or evil…”

“What?”

“Promise you won’t think I’m crazy or evil?”

“I have no idea…”

“Just promise.”

“Okay…”

“And no making fun of me.”

“Fine.”

Ania nodded. “Well, I really don’t know how else to explain it, but, first, I started seeing colors around all sorts of stuff. I noticed it one day in school when I had a migraine. Recently the colors have been kinda talking to me and telling me things about everything.”

“Umm…what?” Callen asked.

“You think I’m crazy…”

“Ah, no, I just don’t know what you’re trying to tell me.”

She shook her head. “I was hoping you’d say you saw it too.”

“Ah…umm…no…” Callen said.

“It’s like the Predator’s vision, but not…”

“Inferred?”

“Yean, but no. People become shadows surrounded by a glow of rainbow colors. The colors tell me things…”

“What? How can color talk?” Callen said. “I see colors every day too. Colors are just the brain’s interpretation of wavelengths of light. Objects absorb and reflect certain wavelengths which results in an object having a specific…”

“No.” She cut him off. “That’s not what I mean. You can’t find what I am talking about in biology or physics books. I’m not talking about light or how the eye sees. It’s something different.”

“Ok,” Callen said skeptically. “So, describe.”

“You don’t believe me, do you?” She sounded disappointed.

“No, it’s not that at all. I just don’t understand what you mean, and you haven’t told me enough to even decide.”

“I just thought that after all this with those monsters, the dwarves, this whole place, you might actually believe me.”

“I never said I didn’t believe you. I just don’t get what you’re talking about.”

She sighed. “I guess I was hoping that you would say that you have it too…I guess there is no point in…”

“Stop. You’re jumping to conclusions. Just start from the beginning.”

She stared at her brother with her big eyes. “Ok, well…you know when I was little and Mom and I were with you in the hospital and I started screaming?”

“Yeah. Dr. James was there and he sent you to a neurologist because the symptoms pointed to migraines. I remember you talking about a shimmering in your eyes. Then after the test the doctors gave you medicine and it made them go away.”

“You do remember.”

He nodded.

“Well, the medicine never really worked. No matter what I would always have to go to sleep in a dark room to get rid of them. Then when I started school, and Mom was either working or with you at the hospital, I couldn’t ever go home to sleep. Since the medicine didn’t work, I just didn’t take it.”

“Alright.”

“Well, the shimmering moved sometimes and sometimes I saw it around people. I could never really focus on it and when I tried the pain got worse. Mom got me tested, of course, for any medical problems, but the only thing that showed up was migraines.”

“So, what changed? Migraines are pretty common…and I remember Mom saying that shimmering was a common symptom.”

“I saw them again in Grandpa’s truck when we were escaping those horrible creatures; then again in church when I went with Sadie and Tende…though, I realized I could focus on the shimmering. The shimmering became a glowing of a collage of colors. There were colors over the altar, over the people, over some of the objects, and the holy water looked like a swirl of rainbows. It was like the objects were glowing.”

“So your vision became a big blur of hazy colors?”

“No. The colors didn’t mix all the time, and everything living puts off different combinations of colors. I was only able to focus on one set at a time. It is like when you look at an object with your normal eyes you are focused on the object, can see its details. However, you can still see the other stuff around it but that other stuff is all blurry.”

“Ok, I sort of get it. I can at least picture it now. So, people glow with colors?”

“Yes. But there is more, well…since I started going to church, I have been getting fewer migraines but the color shimmering remains. It comes and goes as it pleases mostly…but sometimes I can do it when I want to. But, that’s when it hurts. Then I started meditating with Tende and the monks. The pain started to go away completely and I have been able to see the colors when I want.”

“So, what does this have to do with what happened to Renee?”

“I saw the colors and I just knew what they meant. I don’t know how or why, I just did. It was like I have always known what they mean and have always seen them. It felt as natural as breathing. It all just matched up right then. The colors, and my research that I have been doing, and…” She stopped herself. “Some of the colors I don’t understand though, like black, white, and some of the others. I have started seeing the colors move from people to objects, like when making holy water or bless the wine and bread at mass. I get a lot of feelings about them all, but what each one means…I’m not sure.”

“Maybe we should look it up?” Callen suggested. “That’s what I always do when I don’t understand something.”

“I did as much reading as I could from the monastery’s library, but nothing covers this. Some of it talked about halos around holy people…but that was the closest I found. There is some lore on psychic abilities and auras, but it’s so vague. Most of the stuff Dr. Webb possesses relates to research given to him by a contact in the Azure Dawn, but…the research is incomplete…”

“Azure Dawn?” Callen asked.

“A mage order,” Ania said. “They’re a fraternity of occult research and practice.” She paused. “Wait, you didn’t think this order that our parents were apart of is the only one did you?”

“To tell you the truth, I hadn’t given it much thought,” Callen admitted.

“Well, there are quite a few that are known…” She said. “And even more that aren’t.”

“Secrets breed more secrets, I guess.” Callen sighed. “So, what do you think this means? I mean the stuff with you?”

“So, you’re saying that you believe me?”

“Who says I doubt you?”

“Your colors.”

“Oh. I guess I just don’t understand, but don’t worry I don’t think you’re evil.”

“Thanks.” She smiled. “But there is one thing that has really been bothering me. Your colors have been changing rapidly since we got here. That’s what really sparked my whole research and meditation thing. I saw your colors change after grandpa exorcised that half-demon and I saw it again when Renee entered the infirmary. Most people stay fairly constant in their base colors. There are some shifts with major emotions. However, with yours the base has been changing and growing dimmer for no apparent reason. There’s a lot of black too. You feeling okay?”

“Yeah, I feel fine. Any idea what it means?”

“I don’t know, but I get a worried feeling. I just wish there was someone who could explain this to me.”

“You’ll figure it out I’m sure and I’ll help if I can. From what you have been saying it is getting easier…so there isn’t any reason to think you won’t get better at it as you do that meditation stuff.”

“Maybe.” She said.

“Well, here is my explanation. All matter vibrates, even at absolute zero. Maybe there is something in your brain that allows you to see those vibrations? Or maybe, since mass and energy are two faces of the same coin connected by their relationship with the speed of light…”

“I don’t know about that stuff. But…” She looked towards a glass of water that Callen had sitting on his desk. She made some funny faces and then sighed. “I guess there isn’t a better way to explain it. So, here it goes. As I got better at seeing colors, I started seeing elementals, like the catgirl character I made in my comic does.”

“Wait, elementals?”

She nodded, sighed and looked down at the floor. “Yeah, I know it’s not scientifically accurate, but I don’t know a better word. I started seeing them more often too as I meditated more.”

“More often?” Callen asked.

“Yeah, I thought I saw something in the bathtub one day when you were in the hospital. It looked like a face of a girl in the water, then it disappeared before I could really focus on it. I also would see them out of the corner of my eye. When I started being able to see the colors, I also started seeing more like the girl in the water, little mudmen in the dirt, fiery dragons in candles and wispy women in the air.”

“I guess that’s where you got the idea from for the character?”

She nodded.

“I guess I don’t really know what to say about all of this.”

“The undines, all my reading about curses and other magic, and the colors together helped me figure out what was wrong with Renee.”

“I guess you have been busy,” Callen said. “Is there anything else?”

“You have been busy too learning all your science and technology stuff.”

He nodded.

She looked down at the floor again. “Well, do you think I’m evil?” She asked.

“Ah, no…I already said that. Why would that change in the last few minutes?”

“All the church and knight stuff says magic is evil. Elemental spirits are magic apparently.” Her expression told he that she was dead serious and very unnerved. “That’s why I’m having a problem making holy water, doing it the Church’s way does make it bright with God’s power, but it kills the undines…I don’t know how undines could be evil. Do you think they’re evil?”

Callen shrugged. “Since when do I flat out believe religious propaganda, without a shred of proof?” Callen asked. “I think you know me better than that.” He smiled. “And as for the holy water, you’ll figure it out.”

“Your colors changed a little.” She smiled. “Thanks for believing me.”

“How could I not?”

“Well, you started to doubt me…and I thought you were going to suggest I had a brain tumor…”

“Yeah, I thought that, but I didn’t say it. Well, what did you expect…as you would say I am all sciency…”

“I had Dr. Brewer do a scan a week ago because my migraines changed. Everything came back normal. So, I covered that.” She smiled. “But, I don’t want to tell anyone else.”

“What about Sadie and Tende?”

“I’m not sure yet. But, until I decide, please don’t tell anyone. The last thing we need is someone investigating me.”

Callen nodded. “My lips are sealed.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]CHAPTER THIRTEEN

 

In Callen’s dream, the world moved as if he was being carried. He looked down to see his father’s arm wrapped around him as he floated down a cement hallway. His father’s thick beard and dark hair could be seen out of the corner of his eye. The air was stale and cold, like a man made cave. Several men worked on facility electronics as they walked.

He looked over his father’s shoulder into the glass windows of several laboratories. People in containment suits worked in some of the rooms, in others people were dressed in lab coats conducting their research. A cry came from the room as they walked past raising the hairs on Callen’s little neck.

From around the corner ahead of them came a group of men in lab coats pushing a metal bed labeled with subject VI. A pitiful creature with long pointed ears slightly folded against the bloody sheets was strapped against. A variety of medical devices dangled from the hapless creature. It was no bigger than a child and was missing its right arm. Its stark white skin rippled into a sneer as it past them, but it’s eyes couldn’t lock with Callen’s as he stared at the creature. It’s sockets were empty and its nose curled as it sniffed the air.

Callen’s flesh crawled. “Daddy, what’s that?” He shook with a child’s fear.

“Don’t worry about it son, she can never hurt you.”

He relaxed a little.

Alex stopped moving in front of a metal door that hissed open. They entered a room with cardboard boxes stacked in the corners and a variety of empty glass shelves waiting to be inhabited by the stacks of books that rested near the boxes. The books looked like ancient tomes filled with a combination of information on magic, alchemy, and scientific principles. Alex’s various degrees in nanotechnology and biophysics hung on the wall.

Alex put Callen down and activated his computer. The thin screen erupted with images of various research projects. He zoomed in on the project marked ‘Panacea.’ He flipped between two images one marked ‘Test 26-Niknak’ and ‘Callen-Primary.’ After scanning through some data, he turned towards Callen. “We’re getting close Pup…very close…”

**********************

 

A half-eaten muffin and a cold cup of coffee rested next to Callen on his workbench. He pulled his goggles over his eyes and smiled. He turned on his wrist computer, disruptor, and goggle combination for the first time. His rig was complete. The actual computer was about the size of a large watch and the materials that Callen had made the device look like a leather strap. A metal disk was attached to the strap and housed a series of sensors, but absolutely no monitor was on the strap-like computer.

He attached the band to his arm, and after a quick adjustment on the workbench terminal, a graphical interface spread out over his hand. He lifted the goggles and the graphics disappeared from around his left hand. “Cool.” He murmured. “No way to see the glowing interface without goggles synced to my system…though tapping on something invisible over my arm in public would make me look crazy…but, oh well.”

“System detected, sir, would you like to sync to the Mavis interface overlay for the shop?” Mavis asked.

“Yep,” Callen said as he pulled the goggles back on. A variety of graphical controls could be seen next to doors and other machines around the room. “Man, if I could have used all this stuff when I was building my rig, everything would have gone so much faster. This augmented reality is sweet. Guess it’s time to test my disruptor.” He brought up the targeting system for his disruptor. “Mavis, activate the five test targets. Randomize the code using the arcane symbols from the cipher.”

“Test targets activated,” Mavis said.

He let out a slow breath. “Here goes…well, everything…” He triggered the targeting software for his disruptor and saw the various computers in the room highlight as possible targets. His rig rapidly discerned the computers communicating with the arcane cipher. He specified one of the five computers as his target. His rig visualized the wireless network connection allowing him to note the specific electronic systems that were communicating. He started the hack and in a heartbeat, the target computer stalled.

“Alright.” He said with a grin. “One works fine.” He repeated the targeting sequence. “Multiple target time.” He hit activate, and in perfect synergy, the four dummy computers flashed as they shorted out. “I did it, and this is just plain more wicked sweet than I could ever imagine.” He said to himself. “Derrick would never believe this. Mavis, reset the targets with new hardware that has protection protocols in place. I wanna test how fast this thing rips through the best of defenses.” He scratched his head and looked at the test computers. “I really should do something to enhance this. I wish I knew more about the metallic demon’s electronics and power distribution, then maybe I could enhance the virus too…” His motion sensors on his goggles blinked. They both interrupted his thoughts and revealing that someone was in the doorway. He turned to see Ania standing there.

“There you are.” She said. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”

“Where would you expect me to be?” He said as he flipped to view the X-rays. “I see your bones.” He chuckled. “And the goggles put whatever graphics I want over anything in my vision…this is sick…”

“Let’s go.” Ania said. “We gotta go now…Grandpa said…”

“Go where?” Callen said. “I got work to do and its 7 AM…”

“Well, good, but we have to go to church. Grandpa woke me up and said we have to go…Lady Cole is demanding it…”

“That’s ridiculous!” Callen yelled. “We have been here for two months and now they want us to go to church? This is dumb…”

“I’ve been going since we got here…guess since you have been working so much you got out of it…but now you don’t have a choice…”

“For what?” Callen said. “I got stuff to do now…I’m almost done…I just have to set up a test and finalize the assembly of the disruptor module for Sir Reeves, and…”

“Yeah, well, after last night’s demon attack, Lady Cole and Grandpa say we have to attend mass,” Ania said. “Let’s go…”

“Why?” Callen argued. “You know I don’t believe in that crap…”

“Doesn’t matter,” Ania said. “Mass is a ritual that provides protection against demons and since Sadie’s close encounter…you have to go…or…”

“Or what?” Callen asked.

“Or Lady Cole said she would suspend any use of things you invented related to saving mom on suspicion of demonic possession…”

“What?!” Callen roared.

“Yeah.” She said. “I don’t know. That’s just what I heard her yell at Grandpa over breakfast. So, come on!”

“Fine.” Callen gave up. He didn’t have a choice if he was going to finish saving his mother. They left the shop and hurried towards the church.

**********************

 

The song of church bells struggled in the unrelenting roar of the city, but their call still brought those who considered themselves faithful from the drudgery of the modern world. Out of tradition, church-goers made their way along the cobblestone street. From the annoyed protests of children, it was obvious that the threads of atheism and existentialism had been woven deep into the minds of the populous. Most worshipers were not here for God, most were here for a perspective that allowed them to, in arrogance, condemn others with their self-righteous judgment.

Callen sneered at the building as they entered through the old doors, annoyed that he had to waste an hour of time sitting and watching a priest talk about Jesus. Inside between the Italian woodwork and religious statues, Sadie, Felix, and Corth were waiting for them in the lobby.

“Sorry Lad,” Corth said. “Didn’t have a choice here…after what happened to that poor waitress…”

Callen rolled his eyes and followed them in.

Sadie, Felix, Corth, and Ania all did the sign of the cross with holy water, but Callen walked right by and plopped himself in the pew next to them. The organs soon started singing, and Callen felt his lungs tighten. He choked back a cough and Ania gave him a curious look. He checked his hand and he saw the blood left in his palm.

The mass began, and the priest began speaking in Latin. Strangely, Callen felt his mood lighten as a deep serenity washed over him. He took a breath and the smell of candles and lightly fragrance incense tickled his nose. He looked around the room, and for the first time, he noticed the variety of humans that gathered here. He saw those with elven blood, other dwarves, and several things he couldn’t recognize among the crowd of people. However, most were working on balancing their checkbooks or playing on their electronic devices.

He let out a sigh. He remembered being here a few times with his family, but they were spotty at best. Somehow, in those days, Callen remembered people caring more about Church. He remembered his father quietly listening to the mass as he held his old cross in his fingers. He remembered his look of deep focus, and memories began to surface of restlessness in his father and people in their Christmas attire.

Overwhelming sadness came down on him, crushing him. The last time he had entered this place was the evening his father disappeared. Years of feeling abandoned and loss grasped him in a vice-like grip, as the Latin rolled on.

After the offering of peace, the Anaphora began. The priest waited for the alter children to bring the wine and bread towards the altar. Among the words of the

A bell rung as the priest transitioned towards communion.

He noticed Tende get up and carry a flask of wine and the other altar children carry the supplies for blessing the wafers to the altar. As to custom, the priest began to bless the offerings and recited the Eucharist prayer.

With the archaic practices and scientifically baseless rituals happening before him, Callen couldn’t believe the stupidity. What was occurring angered him. However, his feelings were misplaced. It was his feelings of loss that fed into a deep anger. This place took his dad from him. Now all of this was taking his mother too.

He had to get out of here. He looked to his right and saw Ania. To his left sat Sadie. He couldn’t escape without making a scene. He felt trapped and his skin started to itch and burn. Sweat began to form on his brow. He noticed Ania’s concerned glare.

Then he noticed Cole, across the isle and a few pews closer to the altar. She was seated there with her hands folded on an old bible as she mouthed the blessings in sync with the priest. He felt as if she were seated there, mocking his loss and enjoying every moment of his family’s pain. Her insults and condemning accusations fueled his boiling anger. As the rage grew, deep pain tore through his nervous system as the priest blessed the bread, exponentially intensifying with each passing second.

He had to do something; the pain and the rage were overwhelming. He bit his tongue and struggled not to scream. He coughed and caught more blood. He heard a whisper in his head. He couldn’t understand it.

“Your color’s just changed,” Ania whispered franticly. “I think you need a doctor…”

“Ah…” He choked. His eyes began to throb as he struggled to get his burning lungs under control. He was overheating. He knew these symptoms. They always came a few days before he ended up in the hospital. Panic began to set in and he heard Cole’s heartless voice laughing.

Tende knelt beside the priest and the people followed by kneeling. Confusion raced through Callen’s head. He grew dizzy. The world began to twist. Images of his fears danced in the shadows casted by the flickering candles. The sweat came pouring down his forehead. He desperately looked around the church trying to find the closest exit as the vertigo set in.

People started to move in lines towards the front of the church. Sadie all of a sudden stood up and grabbed his arm. “Come on, silly.” She whispered.

Without thinking, he stood up. She tugged him into the communion line. Each step was like walking through concrete. Before he even realized it, Callen was in front of the priest. He muttered something about ‘the body of Christ’ and held a white wafer in front of Callen’s face. Callen didn’t know what to do. The priest’s eyes grew angry. ‘Demon-spawn.’ He seemed to whisper, but his lips didn’t move. He looked around and the world spun even more. The shadows seemed to form faces that looked as if they were laughing.

Callen gasped for air and the priest dropped the wafer on his half stuck out tongue. He tasted the soggy cardboard. Sadie whispered for him to say ‘amen.’

Whether he said it or not, he didn’t know, but Sadie grabbed his arm and pulled him back towards their pew. The world around him was like looking into a maelstrom of darkening watercolors smearing over demonic faces. Among them, he saw Cole staring at him with the eyes of an inquisitor and she seemed to whisper ‘burn devil as he walked past.’

With those words, he lost himself to the flames, and he scarcely felt his knees land on the pad for kneeling in the pew. In his agony, he noticed his hand had clasped his father’s cross. The world twisted faster as he knelt there, his stomach churned, and he vomited all over Sadie.

Sadie ignored the vomit and caught him before he fell back and smacked his head on the pew in front of them. Blood began streaming out of Callen’s nose as he lay in her arms. “Help!” Sadie yelled. “Callen!”

Ania grabbed her brother and helped Sadie lower him to the floor.

“Panacea,” Callen whispered as he tightened his grip on his father’s cross. The metal bit into his hand. “Dad…” He coughed.

“What?” Sadie asked.

Before he said, more the world went dark to the rush of people around him.

**********************

 

The dream was one of those picturesque scenes that were depicted on Christmas cards of the perfect family seated by the Christmas tree with a roaring fire in the fireplace. It all seemed so magical. The lights twinkled like little stars and the glow reflected off the small pile of presents that rested beneath the sparkling tree.

There were only a few. It was only Christmas Eve and Santa always brought the big stuff in the morning. Christmas Eve was just a chance to exchange small presents among each other before the overwhelming circus that was Christmas morning.

Callen’s father was sipping a glass of Irish whiskey and his mother was nibbling on a gingerbread cookie while they watched Callen and Ania stare into a pile of gifts.

Eve laughed, and Callen looked back to see his father put his arm around her. “Go ahead, Pup.” He put his glass down.

“Me too, daddy?” Ania asked.

“Yup, go head, princess,” Alex said.

The children were ecstatic. It was the night before the only day better than a birthday. Callen’s fingers quickly ripped through the three packages to reveal three new Lego sets; one space base, one castle, and a magical dragon cave. He instantly began imagining the creations that he would make and add to all the projects that he had made with his dad.

From the kitchen, an alarm sounded from Alex’s cell phone. He leaped up from the couch and ran into the kitchen.

“Alex, what’s going on?” Eve asked as she followed.

“I’m not sure,” Alex said. “It looks like a security breach at the lab.”

“How did they find it?” Mom asked. “That place is so well hidden it might as well not exist.”

“I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. I got tests running for…”

“You have to go. We can’t risk it. You’re so close.” She paused. “You think they found you out?”

Callen stood up and wandered towards the kitchen. He saw his mother reached atop the refrigerator and pulled out a metal box with a padlock on it. She put it on the table and popped it open.

“Eve, you have to stay.”

“I know, but if it is them then you will need these.” She handed him a knife and a pistol. “Give Niknak the knife. My AR is in the trunk.”

Alex checked the gun. “Alright.”

“Do you want me to call my father?” Eve asked. “You might need backup.”

“No, it isn’t a good idea. If my cover isn’t blown, then it certainly will if your father comes, and that would be very bad for everyone here. Besides, it could be nothing but a false alarm.” Alex said. “He needs to give Sadie and Tende a nice Christmas Eve. I don’t think she has ever had one. Then, we can introduce her to Callen when they come over tomorrow. It’ll be okay.”

“What’s going on, Daddy?” Callen asked nervously.

“Something at work, don’t worry, it will be ok.” He answered. “But I have to go to work for a little while…”

“But…”

“I don’t have a choice, Callen.” He said. “We can play some Legos when I get back.”

“You gonna get Bunny-man, Daddy?” I asked. “He needs to be here for tomorrow.”

“I hope so, pup.” He sighed.

“Make sure he gets my present.” Callen held up a Lego figurine with a white head and two swords in his hands. “It’s him.” He smiled.

“Sure, son.” Alex sighed and took the Lego figurine, glanced at his smartphone and then at his mom as he shook his head. She nodded back with a worried look. “You be good for your mom, and watch out for your sister.”

Callen felt tears well up in his eyes. He looked at the weapons his father’s hands. He finally busted into tears. Through the window, he watched his father drive into the snowy night.

He woke up for a second and felt liquid rolling down his throat into his lungs. His skin burned. He could vaguely make out the shadows of Dr. Brewer’s odd medical equipment. He tried to move, but he couldn’t. The straps held him tight in the old stained bed.

The last of the liquid washed down his throat. He tried to hold his breath, but something forced the air out of his lungs. He inhaled and the fluid flowed in. He locked his eyes tight and started to gag. The sensation of burning erupted inside and out.

Memories flooded in of Ania holding his hand. He felt the burning of his treatments rip through his bones for the first time and his tough-as-nails mother looking absolutely helpless as his body swelled before the vomiting began. He remembered lying to them about how bad it was.

Voice of children echoed around him between the notes of the song that still hummed in his mind. Images of Derrick, the other children in the hospital, and the metal demons flashed before his eyes.

His skin was on fire and his breathing, aided by the plastic mask that fed pure oxygen into his nose and mouth. He was lying in his hospital bed with a pair of aids and one of his nurses guiding his bed back to the cancer ward.

They propped his bed near the window so he could look out the window and see the T.V. The aids headed back while the nurse made some adjustments to his IV bag. “You alright, Callen? You in any pain?” She asked with a warm smile.

He nodded.

“Let me go get some pain meds for you. I’ll be right back.” The nurse headed out of the room and he turned to look out the window.

“Hey, buddy…you alright?” Derrick asked as he slid over a chair that was sitting next to some fat kid that Callen could only guess was the foster brother that he had mentioned a few times. The fat kid was fiercely pounding his chubby fingers into his Gameboy and cursing. He really didn’t look very happy.

“I just got a bad one.” He coughed. “A new mix of meds.”

He shook his head with pity and fear. “My foster parents just got here a few minutes ago and they are talking to Dr. James about me doing that too. Frankly, I’m surprised they even came.” He shook his head. “They probably came just to prove to the state that they are still taking care of me so they can continue to get their check to buy fatty more stuff. Shitty brat. That’s how those freakin’ Born-Again-Christian types are, you know? Damn hypocrites. I wish I had telekinetic powers so I could throw them out the window.”

He shrugged the best he could while lying in the bed.

“What you call me?” The fat kid yelled as he got up and charged towards them looking like he wanted to fight.

Derrick turned to face him. “I called you a brat.” He stated. “And what you going to do about it, cry, piggy-wiggy?”

Piggy tightened up his fist and took a swing. Derrick stepped back easily dodging the weak punch. The kid lost his balance and fell onto Callen. The weak punch to him felt like a gun shot. He tried to hold back the pain, something he had learned from all the treatments, but his skin was too sensitive from the treatment. So, he screamed.

The fat kid stabilized himself by pushing on Callen’s leg. He couldn’t help but start to cry.

“Back off, piggy,” Derrick warned. “He just got out of treatment.”

Piggy smacked Callen’s leg again and stared at Derrick. “How do you like that, you little gangbanger? Did my parents reform you into someone who cared about people?” He taunted. Callen tried to dodge, but he was far too weak, but this time he only grunted. He managed to press the buzzer for the nurse.

“Back off, now!” Derrick warned. “I’m warning you…”

“That piss you off, you self-righteous prick? Your little gang abandoned you. You got caught and sick. If it wasn’t for me and my parents, you would be in jail!”

“Cut it out!” Derrick warned. His nostrils flared and his eyes glossed over. Derrick was ready to kill.

Callen had never seen that look in his friend’s eyes before. Something had risen in his friend that something had been deeply buried. It looked like he was about to take sadistic pleasure in whatever was going to do to his foster bother.

Piggy raised his fist again, but one of the nurses grabbed his arm. “What are you doing?” The nurse yelled. “Cut it out! Call security!”

Piggy struggled with the nurse. “Mom and Dad should have let God cure you like the rest of our church…but the state won’t allow that for you. God puts people like you all in here for a reason. If he wanted you all cured, he would cure you! God thinks you are all demons!” He laughed with a pig-like snort. “I can’t wait to get some new stuff from the check that the state sends to my parents for you now that the hospital pays for your food.”

“You’re messed up.” Derrick let go of his hand. “One more time and it’s over.”

“Let me go, devil slave!” Piggy roared at the nurse. He snapped his head backward and cracked his skull into the nurse’s face. The nurse staggered backward with her broken nose. “God wants to hear him scream again.” He snickered and dug his nail into Callen’s leg.

He screamed again, this time really loud.

The door busted opened and the nurse ran in with a shot. “Callen?” She saw Derrick and Piggy’s posture and the bleeding nurse. “Get away from him the both of you!” She commanded, not even taking the time to take sides. Security charged in right after her.

Piggy swore and threw the Gameboy at Callen. The plastic didn’t give like flesh did, which made it hurt even more. The pain shot through his face as the device hit him in the head. Derrick’s chair collided with Piggy’s face followed by a spray of blood. Callen’s world went dark.

Callen’s consciousness began to return and outside the tank, he could see shadows of his sister and grandpa standing next to Dr. Brewer. Their voices were muffled, but he could make out what they were saying.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with him,” Dr. Brewer said. “The nanobots have stabilized him, so he should be fine. I just don’t understand what triggered this. Looking at the new medical data and comparing it from what I got from his old medical records, well, the comparisons indicate a change, but nothing that could cause an attack this severe. I’m going to keep him in the tank to run some more tests, and then I can collect information over the next few weeks so I can figure this out.”

“Is he going to…?” Ania whimpered.

“Not if I can help it,” Dr. Brewer said. “He’ll be functional once I remove him from the tank. But, something’s not right, it’s almost like some of the data from his old files is missing something….”

“Can’t you just program those thingies to heal him?” Ania asked.

“Yes,” Dr. Brewer said. “However, I need to know what’s wrong to properly program them. If I did it wrong, it could only make matters worse.” He sighed. “There is no silver bullet in medicine, even with the great technology I have access to.”

“What about mom?” Ania asked. “Is it the same with her too?”

“Similar, but with her all I need is a pure sample of the poison,” Dr. Brewer said. “It mutates when it enters a host. If I have a pure sample, I can extrapolate the process and develop an antidote. But, she is stable.”

“Do what yeh have to, Doc,” Corth said. “And I’ll make sure yeh get the resources yeh need.”

Dr. Brewer nodded. “I’ll do what I can…for the both of them. Just need to prepare the next dose of meds.” He left the infirmary and Corth followed.

Ania looked into the tank and placed her hand on it. “Don’t worry, Callen.” She grabbed a chair and dragged it up to the tank. “Felix says your stuff is tested, and Tende wants to play the new Shadowborne expansion with you. So hurry up and wake up, and don’t you worry. Sadie, Tende and I are on it…you mentioning Panacea and Dad before you passed out sent us on a bit of a scavenger hunt. If Dr. Brewer can’t save you, then perhaps we can…” She had his laptop in her hand and she pulled out a gold pen. She began doodling on the back of it. The shadows washed over Callen’s mind once again.

“Alright pup, release your breath. Hold it.” Mom said. “Line-up the iron sights and squeeze.” The gun kicked in his hand and the bullet flew downrange hitting one of the outer circles of the target. “Nice, you hit it first try this time! You have five more rounds. Finish out that cylinder. I have a speed loader ready. Try pulling back the hammer this time, like I showed you.”

“Alright.” He said as he followed her directions. The pistol felt good in his hand. He felt powerful. For once, he didn’t feel helpless. He didn’t feel like a victim. He fired. The second round whizzed down range hitting the circle next to the bull’s-eye. “It worked Mom!”

“The trigger cocks the hammer. That motion inside the firearm throws off the aim in a pistol.” Mom said. “When you need extra precision, cock the hammer.”

He nodded. “That makes sense. Applied physics.”

She laughed. “Well, apply your physics and fix your stance. You have four more rounds, pup. I want to see bull’s-eyes. How would you stand if you were holding a rifle?”

He adjusted his stance, cocked the hammer, lined up the sights as he exhaled, and fired three times. Each round tore into the center of the target. He cocked the hammer one more time and aimed for the clip that was holding up the target. He fired. The paper fell to the ground.

“See?” Mom said. “You got it.”

“Yeah.” He said. “When can you teach me the martial arts stuff you practice every day? I want to be able to do the knife, pistol, tomahawk, and the other stuff you do too.”

“One step at a time, pup.” Mom said smiling. “Learning the stuff I do is very demanding on your body. I will teach you once the doctors say you’re out of the woods.”

“When will that be?” He emptied the brass from the cylinder and grabbed the speed loader. He jammed the six fresh rounds into the gun.

“Hopefully soon.” Mom said with a sigh. “You’ve made so much progress with the treatments Dr. James has been trying. Hopefully, that will be it.”

“Yeah.” He said. “He said the next round of treatments will be six months long and if it works right, I will be out of the hospital again before my birthday.”

“You’ll be fifteen.” She said. “That’s a special number among our tribe. That’s when a young brave starts his vision quest that defines his life.”

“But mom, that was thousands of years ago and besides, you were adopted.”

“Some traditions never die and transcend blood, Callen.” She said smiling. “And, in your grandfather’s tribe, adoption is as good as blood. You father’s family is also descended from a long line of warriors with similar traditions. They blend in both you and your sister.”

“What warriors was dad descended from?” He asked. “He never told me.”

“The Celts.” She said. “I believe he said he had traced his blood very far back in the history of Ireland.” She reached over and grabbed an automatic pistol off the table next to us. She slid in a full magazine.

“Cool.” He said.

“Yeah.” She said. “Here, now you need to work with the automatic.”

“Why?” He asked.

“It’s good to know the feel of both.” She said smiling. She handed him a semi-automatic handgun, with Heckler and Koch USP cut into the side, and a loaded magazine. “Now, load it, take aim, and fire. Watch the slide.”

He followed her directions and fired until the magazine was empty. “I think I like the revolver better,” Callen said.

“That’s just because you’re used to it, and the revolver is loaded with .38 rounds. I have .40 cals in the USP. My .38 special is all-metal, while the USP has polymer parts. The metal is heavier and will absorb the lower recoil. Making the .38 easier to control.” She said looking at the target. “You’ll get used to the larger caliber and the lighter gun. You just need to practice.” She handed him a fresh magazine.

“Yeah.” He said. “I also take the time because I have fewer rounds in a revolver.” He slid out the empty mag and snapped a new one back in. He pulled back the slide and chambered a fresh round. “Mom, did Dr. James tell you at all about the new treatment?”

“It doesn’t matter, Pup.” Mom said. She looked vulnerable, which was a rare sight. She placed her hand on his shoulder and forced a smile. “I want you to know, that no matter what, you are stronger than you even know. You’re stronger than anyone I have ever met. Stay strong, and never give up. I love you, Callen, and I’m very proud of you. I want you to know that. Remember that always.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]CHAPTER FOURTEEN

 

Callen coughed and felt liquid drip out of his mouth. He was lying flat on his back. With a pneumatic hiss, Callen slowly opened his eyes. He could see the dark shape of Dr. Brewer’s wild beard backlit by a large medical lamp. He felt a pinch in his arm as the doctor removed one of the various medical implants from his skin. It took a few more blinks for his eyes to adjust to the abrasive lighting. With a rough tug, Dr. Brewer pulled the breathing tube from Callen’s throat.

“What happened?” His voice was coarse. He attempted to sit up, but Dr. Brewer gently pushed on his shoulder to keep him lying down.

“You passed out.” Dr. Brewer and his voice shifted to the feminine. “The chickens know…they’re whispering…” He shook his head and his professional voice returned. “It’s been a hell of a few weeks, to say the least. But, the good news is, you’re conscious. Now, sit up slowly, I don’t want you to get dizzy. How are you feeling?”

“Like I had one of my cancer treatments. But, I guess that’s the bad news, right?”

Dr. Brewer sighed. “Did I say there was bad news?”

“No, I just know the look on your face,” Callen said. “I’m used to it. My remission ended, didn’t it?”

“Yeah.” Dr. Brewer’s voice shifted to the deep voice. “Tell him….tell him.” His expression grew confused. “Fine….you know…to tell you the truth, I don’t think you were ever in remission this time…”

“Wait, what?” Callen asked. “What do you mean? Dr. James said…”

“We got your medical files. They were missing quite a bit of information…I don’t know how…” Dr. Brewer muttered about chickens briefly before continuing. “Son, there’s no easy way to say this.” His voice went feminine. “James lied…he’s a liar, liar, pants on fire…” He cleared his throat and his voice returned to professional. “His treatments had failed…and he omitted a lot of information…the only conclusion I could draw was when he approved your release, you only had a few months left at best. I think he may have let you go spend your last days having a normal life.”

“So much good that did,” Callen grumbled.

Dr. Brewer chuckled and spoke with the feminine voice. “Yeah, I guess you’re right…right, right, right. Ha!”

“So, did you find anything new out?” Callen asked. “Like maybe a cure?”

“Nope…” His voice changed back to professional. “There isn’t a silver bullet for cancer, Callen, even with our technology it just isn’t possible at your age. I…errr I mean we….would have to rewrite your DNA upon conception. Even then, it’s a crapshoot. There are some things that are still in the hands of God no matter how much we learn about his grand masterpiece.”

Callen looked over towards his mother’s room. “And my mom?”

“Felix said your device performed perfectly in the testing he set up. Sir Reeves has a working model of your disruptor and the hunt for those monsters has begun. We’re ready to synthesize an antidote once he drags one down.” His two other voices promptly thanked him for using ‘we’ and he promptly muttered something about being quiet soon because of the chickens scuttling about.

Callen nodded and let the news process. He would have expected to feel sad or angry, but he didn’t. He felt numb. “Good,” Callen said.

“How do you feel?” Dr. Brewer asked curiously.

“I don’t know.” He answered. “It’s a lot to take in. That and all the dreaming…”

“It is.” Dr. Brewer nodded and his voice became feminine. “I thought you might be dreaming…the others didn’t believe…like the knights don’t believe in the chickens…but they’re there…” His voice went professional again. “Some of what I learned was some of your cancerous cells are in the part of your brain linked to memories and dreams. It’s a complicated part of what makes a person up. I’m not surprised and you should have more dreams as the cancer moves towards its final phase.”

“So, it’s moved to my brain, and thus, its everywhere.” Callen was emotionless. “So that means my dreaming is like the grains of sand in an hour glass?”

“No. I don’t think so.” He smiled with an insane kindness. “In my opinion, I don’t think your mind is ready to give up your battle quite yet.”

“But you said…” Callen started.

“I did,” Dr. Brewer said. “However, miracles do happen. You have survived this long and God works in mysterious ways…”

“Yeah.” Callen sounded disgusted. “If it weren’t for him I wouldn’t be sick in the first place, Mom wouldn’t be clinging to her life in that bed, and Dad would never have …’

Dr. Brewer sighed disapprovingly, but he didn’t push the subject. He turned and picked up a stack of clothes for Callen that were sitting next to the medical control console. “Here, I suggest you get out of that hospital gown.” Dr. Brewer handed Callen his clothes. “You want me to tell everyone that you’re awake?”

“No,” Callen said. “I’ll go find them myself.”

**********************

 

Callen didn’t search for anyone. The desire to be alone was overwhelming. He found himself seated on the rectory’s clay shingle roof, staring at the cityscape as the sky darkened. Below, cars sat in the standstill of rush hour traffic, and the hordes of normal people began their commute home. Despite the hustle below him, the sounds of the city didn’t reach his ears. His earphones were pressed in his ears and one of his favorite hypnotic rock drew his dazed mind into the ethereal as he sat on his lofty perch.

He was still numb from what Dr. Brewer had said and found his thoughts dwelling on those who played next to him in Boston Children’s Hospital. He remembered the faces of those he saw die, and remembered those he left behind. “Guess I’ll see you soon Derrick.” He whispered.

About halfway through Metallica’s The Unforgiven, he gripped his father’s cross. Images of his family began to trickle into his mind’s eye. As he tried to push them away, his gaze locked on the cross on the church spire next to him. He felt his first tear roll down his cheek and soak into his shirt. He swallowed hard and fruitlessly tried to hold back his tears.

“What are you doing Callen?” Ania asked. It took him a second to realize his sister had sat down next to him. She tugged one of the earphones out of his ears. “You there?” She smiled.

He didn’t say anything, and attempted to wipe the tears from his eyes, but it was futile. They kept coming. “I’m dying Ania.”

She nodded.

“No one can stop it now.” Callen cried. “Even these knights with all their technology…”

“What exactly does that mean?” Ania said bluntly. “Technology, no matter how advanced, is still made by people. People can be wrong and they are wrong a lot.” She gave him a strange look and her eyes scanned his body. She looked at him as if his physical form wasn’t even there. She blinked and looked him in the eye. “And how is this any different than usual?”

He sniffled and the tears slowed. She, after all, was right. He took a deep breath. “Well, the day might be closer…”

“Might, being the key word. No one knows when they’ll die, Callen. You still have time.” Ania said. “You never got better like Dr. James said back in Boston. You have been getting worse this whole time. I just wish I knew sooner.”

“You said no one knows when death will come,” Callen said. “Or is this one of your colors and elemental things?”

“I don’t.” Ania said shaking her head. “I just wish I knew what I knew now sooner.”

What good would that do?” He sniffled. “Dr. Brewer can’t cure me, so knowing sooner would have done nothing.”

“Not true,” Ania said. “And why didn’t you tell me?”

“Tell you what?” He felt the spit of rain against his cheek.

“About Dad, Panacea, and his secret lab.”

“Wait, what?”

“Before you passed out in church, you whispered about Dad and something called Panacea,” Ania said with a grin. “And, well, like a good sister…”

“Correction, like a good group of friends, including your sister…” Sadie said as she pulled herself out the closest window onto the roof, followed by Tende. “We did some digging…and had a good old time.”

“Seems your dad was a busy man.” Tende added.

“But…” Callen started. He gave Ania a worried glance. He had mentioned her powers.

“It’s okay,” Ania said. “They know what I see. Tende has been helping me and teaching me to meditate. Only Sadie and Tende know what I see, and they promised not to say anything to anyone. So, don’t you worry. Anyway, that’s a story for another day.”

“Yup,” Sadie said. “Like Tende started to say, your dad has been busy.” She reached into her pocket and handed him a flash drive. “Everything we need is on there.”

“What?” Callen asked looking confused.

“Well, Panacea is a mythological cure-all,” Ania explained. “Ancient alchemists used to search for its formula. When you mentioned that when you passed out, we decided to look into it. We didn’t find anything on Panacea per say, but…”

Sadie grinned devilishly. “Through a bit of careful thievery from one Bethany Cole…”

“We found clues in the files we stole that pointed to cancer research and other things we couldn’t understand,” Ania said. “But, one thing led to another and we acquired the location of a secret laboratory where dad was working before he disappeared.”

“Felix helped us pull it out of her personal laptop computer using a hardwire connection to Mavis. It was weird. She didn’t have it connected to Mavis and Felix said something about her personal tech being of a make he didn’t recognize, but I don’t know what he was talking about. Anyway we got what we need.” Sadie said. “We think your dad was working on a cure and at the very least, it could be a place to start to get you fixed. I know it’s a long shot, but it’s something.”

“With Sir Reeves, Lady Cole, and your grandpa out working, that leaves only Felix and the priests at home base,” Sadie said. “And he is going to gear us up and help us get to the lab. So, tomorrow morning, we’re going to the docks. But, you gotta come. Because according to those files, that place’s computer system locked it up tighter than Fort Knox when your dad disappeared. There’s no remote computer access to the facility and that means you need to unlock it. Felix can’t do it remotely, and he isn’t exactly physically built for fieldwork. Not to mention, none of us are exactly computer geniuses…so that leaves you.”

“Yup.” Tende said. “We got brawn.” He pointed to himself. “We got magic,” pointing to Ania. “And we got, well, whatever Sadie is good for…and…”

“Hey!” Sadie yelled. “Not cool.”

Tende laughed. “Just saying,” he chuckled. “Now we need your brains and we got the workings of a real Shadowborne party for a quest of the up-most importance. I think a real quest is better than that new patch that just came out.” He laughed. “So, what do you say? Wanna help us try to cure your cancer once and for all?”

Callen wiped the last tears from his eyes and felt a little hope trickle in. He took a second and took a deep breath. “Wow.” He sighed in disbelief. “I can’t…”

“We need you Callen,” Ania said. “Here’s our shot. Maybe dad did something there that will allow Dr. Brewer to create a cure or maybe dad made a cure…who knows. And, you can. You have to. For me, mom, everyone…Just imagine how Mom would feel if she woke up and you were dead and you didn’t try.” Tears grew in her eyes.

“No…I wasn’t saying I can’t go.” Callen corrected. “I was saying, I can’t believe you guys did all this based on a whisper. I’ve been having dreams about this stuff for a while and here it is. Guess Dr. Brewer was right. I guess I’m not ready to stop fighting yet. So, what’s the plan?”

“Well,” Ania said. “We got the data, we’ll get us there…all you gotta do is figure out what to do when we get to the lab…”

“Alright,” Callen said. “The best place to start is electronic files you acquired…”

“Well, let’s not sit around and wait to get rained on…” Sadie grinned. “You got work to do…”

**********************

 

Using the combination of his rig, and the interface on his workbench, Callen examined the data that had been collected. He didn’t ask how they got it, and he didn’t want to know. So, he stuck to his job of planning and piecing together the combination of his resurfacing dreams and the sketchy data files.

The facility was completely underground with a secret entrance through a warehouse along with several underground entrances. The combination of the maps and the memories of being there with his father told Callen how complex the place was, but those same memories made him extremely nervous.

The facility consisted of three sub-levels below the surface and had been built in old underground water caverns. The factories that were over it had been built during WWII for ship manufacturing and had long since been abandoned, converted, or demolished. How the facility had managed to be installed there was beyond Callen, especially with the Delaware River so close to it. The whole place should be underwater, but he would cross that bridge when he came to it.

The first level was operations, the second was the research laboratory, and the lower level was all the equipment necessary to keep the place running. There was a pair of elevators that connected each level along with a few emergency stairwells. Each level also had emergency exits that lead into the city’s sewer and subway systems. His father’s office was located on the second floor. His work was more than cut out for him.

He brought up a partially readable file on the facility that described a complex computer system with a complex containment system and other facility security systems. To both Callen’s surprise and curiosity, the files he scanned indicated that the technology in this research facility was extremely advanced. Despite being ten years old, the systems in this facility were comparable to what he had worked on with Felix.

He ran the file through one of his programs to polish up the data file. His program worked a little better, and brought up images that looked like security robots and specs for some sort of self-destruct system.

The first file that came through gave more specifics on the facilities self-destruct feature. It was designed for containment and disposal. The building was lined with incinerators to dispose of biological research materials, computer systems, and to keep the husk of the facility completely unnoticed by anyone on the surface. Callen took that to mean no sinkholes and whoever installed this paid top dollar.

After his program had finished, the final image appeared showing a small logo on one of the pages. He did a quick search and the symbol was a logo for a dead biotech company called Biocore, Inc.

The company was involved with all kinds of pharmaceutical research, production, and a variety of other medical functions, like prosthetic limb manufacturing and medical diagnostics. They went under about ten years ago after a failed release of artificial limb technology for soldiers returning from military hot zones around the world. Afterward, the company was broken up and sold to a variety of other publicly traded biotech companies. Why they were broken up and sold was never published, but the controversy he read was connected to some electronics in their prosthetic limbs and other unethical biological research. There was a paper trail of lawsuits that gave nothing conclusive. The files that Callen opened didn’t say much aside from health problems, malfunctions, and a list of deaths.

“Weird.” Callen shrugged and leaned back in his chair. He let out a sigh. “Guess I’m set. Maps are set, got all my computer gear for hacking, hard wire connectors, programs, everything is good to go.”

“Not everything,” Felix said waddling into the room. He was carrying the revolver he had tested with Sadie a few weeks ago, but it had a few added tactical attachments. “When Ania, Sadie, and Tende came to me with their plan I took the liberty of preparing this for you while they chose their gear. We knights have a habit of running into trouble. So, I’m not about to let you go marching into some sealed up laboratory unarmed.” He handed Callen the handgun. “Don’t tell anyone. Your grandpa would disapprove but agree…and well Bethany…I don’t even wanna go there…”

Callen checked the weapon. “No problem and how’s Reeves doing?”

“They are doing just fine tracking those monsters. I helped them get a pretty solid lead. So, don’t you worry a bit about your mom. You need to take care of yourself now, and ol’ Felix is more than happy to help.” Felix said. “Not that I wouldn’t help you out anyway, but this whole thing makes it even more fun that I get to stick it to the bitch.”

“Why are you helping me?” Callen asked, sounding tired. “I mean, can this get you into serious trouble?”

“They really can’t do anything more to me, aside from exile, and being here is just as close. Besides, your family has always done right by me.” He grinned. “So, I’d say now you’re prepared. Well, almost. I gotta sync the gun attachments to your computer.”

Callen yawned. “Alright…where’s the software?”

“No, no, I got it,” Felix said. “You go rest. It’s getting late. You four are starting early tomorrow. I got the gear for Sadie, Tende, and Ania to finish up anyway. I’ll get all the systems prepared for me to play tech angel on your shoulder as you guys go into the facility.”

“Do you think we can actually do this?” Callen asked. “I mean shouldn’t we call Grandpa or Reeves…I don’t think…”

“What?” Felix said sounding shocked. “Do I hear doubt? Kids younger than you have faced all sorts of dangers and lived to tell about it. And here you have already battled monsters, victoriously I might add, that have killed experienced knights. All you need to do here is get on a bus and enter a derelict subterranean laboratory.”

“Sounds like a video game and there’s always monsters in those games…”

“Yeah. Hence the weapons,” Felix said. “You know how to shoot without your computer and goggles targeting system. Now you have that to aid you. Besides, according to those files that place is sealed up tight. So, once you hack the system you’ll have control of the security system and it will be a walk in the park. Any issues and Mavis and I will be remotely supporting you.”

“Are the Mavis servers cleared after your issue with the bugs?” Callen asked.

“I cleared the last of the bugs this morning after a few more adjustments to my EMP device. I found a few issues after our first test and fixed it. Now our network is clean…and I’m gonna have Mavis run a scan on it tonight to get more details on the make of these odd devices. Anyway, I’ll add the improvements to your wrist computer when I sync up one of the hellbreakers you and Sadie tested. Who knows, it may come in handy. You’ll be more than set to go in the morning. I have faith that we’ll be making inventions long into the future. Just trust yourself.”

“I guess you’re right.”

“Damn straight,” Felix said. “Now, let me finish your load out and you go rest up. You got a big day ahead of you…oh and keep your goggles with you…I don’t need them for the sync process because of your designs. You should play with them and get used to using the different vision modes before you go to sleep. Now, go rest.”

**********************

 

No matter how hard he tried, Callen couldn’t sleep. He was wired. Between the fear and excitement, the adrenaline surged. However, he knew he needed rest. Without a project to distract him, he reached for his laptop to load up Shadowborne. He glanced at the drawings Ania had done all over the case. “She finally found time.” He smiled. He quickly glanced over the intricate design of Celtic knots, superhero symbols, and markings from Shadowborne.

He loaded up his game for the first time in over a month. The login screen was different and fiery imagery covered the screen. He had obviously missed a major content patch. An introductory cut screen played as he loaded up his combat engineer. It showed that the world of Shadowborne was struggling with a cult from beyond that worshiped an entity called the ‘Risen’ and players could choose to join the cult or fight against it.

He decided to join the cult and began doing quests to relax his mind. As he worked through the quest chain, which focused on establishing the cult’s power in France to help overthrow the Nazis, he began taking quests that revolved around gathering souls using a rune covered book. He finished a quest that required him to sneak into a cave and kidnap a Nazi commander to feed to the book. It finalized in his character being part of a cut scene ritual to remove this guy’s soul.

He yawned as the scene played out and stretched. He was ready to sleep. He leaned forward to exit the cut scene, but it ended before he could hit escape. Above the Nazi commander’s corpse, a green skull without a lower jaw appeared with tentacles hanging from its upper teeth. Callen felt his heart skip a beat as the symbol faded. He knew that symbol. He saw that the day in his apartment in the code related to those demons. He shook his head to hold back the fear from taking over his imagination.

“Coincidence.” He said. “Just a cool symbol in the game.” He logged off and closed his computer. After getting a drink of water, he watched Terminator 2. Before he went to sleep, he loaded his computer into his backpack without noticing that the squid-skull was drawn among Ania’s designs.

**********************

 

Surrounded by bookshelves loaded with books and walls covered with family pictures, Callen watched his father from the corner of his office. With it’s scattered projects and table in the corner overflowing with designs, the office was an organized mess.

Over the large wooden desk that housed an advanced computer system, Alex waved his hands using a motion interface. Images flashed on the monitors that crowded the desk and e loaded up a file marked Panacea. He began working through the variety of data screens filled with medical diagnostic and genetic data.

The largest x-ray caught that Callen’s eye depicted the image of a strange chimp-like creature, which was missing a leg, an arm, and an eye. Next to the image, it read ‘Niknak.’

Alex waved his hands a few more times sorting through other graphic pictures showing scans that were labeled ‘Callen,’ with certain similarities to the Niknak scans. He stopped at a top file that showed a collection of genetic information. He swore.

“What, daddy?”

“Oh…ah…sorry…it worked…but the simulations of the effects on a human were inconclusive. There were just too many possible outcomes for me to test…” After a long sigh, he smiled. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a thin chain. Attached to the chain was a metal beetle with runes stamped into it. It reminded Callen of an Egyptian scarab. He waved his other hand and loaded up a strange program. Some code scrolled across the screen followed by light flashing on the desk and he held the charm up to it and waved his other hand again.

A sliding tray extended from a computerized portion of the desk. From the tray, he picked up a rune stamped coin. He looked at the coin before attaching a loop on it and placing it on the a chain. “Alright. It’s ready.” Using his cross, he made one of his bookcases him vanish. Behind it was a small pressurized metal door that hissed open.

“What’s that Daddy?”

“You know that’s the door to my private lab.”

“No, not that…I know the door comes from your cross…what you have in your hands?”

“Oh, these?” He said holding up the coin and the scarab.

Callen nodded.

“The runed coin helps me fix Niknak if there is a problem. The scarab I need to give to Dr. Patterson later to control his test subjects. Anyway, I have to go check on Niknak so we can get home on time. You stay here. I’ll be back fast.”

“But…”

“You know the computer is set for you to use. Just put your thumb on this spot.” Callen did and felt a familiar prick from the DNA access device. “So, just load up one of your games.”

Callen pulled on the gloves. The gloves shrunk to fit his small hands. “Yeah…they are so cool here…it reacts to my voice and hand motions…instead of an analog controller.”

“You are learning fast.” Alex smiled. “Next year I’m scheduled for a virtual interface upgrade. So, you will be able to fully enter the game. You will get to see the places in the game, like you’re there.”

“Wow!” Callen began loading up a game.

“I knew you would like that.” He laughed. “Be right back.” He turned and walked over to the wall opposite the door to the hallway. A section of the wall near the corner hissed open and Alex disappeared into the hallway. The door closed behind him.

Callen was enthralled in the game, which required an intense combination of reflex and hand-eye coordination. It was an adventure game starring cartoon animals battling each other with quirky guns.

The time seemed to melt away and soon Alex returned carrying a glass canister filled with some sort of viscous metallic fluid. He placed it on the desk.

“Why did you bring the metal stuff upstairs, daddy?”

“My equipment up here is all set up with the stuff I need for this one.” He said. “This one is just about complete and I need to tweak it as everything finishes up downstairs.”

“Ok.”

“So, how did you do, pup?” He asked.

“I did well, it was better than last time.”

“I had Nichols do some upgrades on the program. We had a conversation about marketing it as a combat simulation to the military. Of course, he was going to have to remove the infinite life for training, but you get the idea.”

“I wish I could have this game at home.”

“I know, Pup. But, I need the computer now.” With a few waves of Alex’s hands, a metal drawer hissed open from the desk. The drawer had an electronic rack, which slid out to hold the canister. He placed the canister in the spot and with a wave of his hand the drawer closed.

“What is it, daddy?’

“This should be the last version. With the data I am getting from my experiment downstairs and all the simulation that I will be running up here, this is going to be great. Any problems will then be corrected for. Hopefully, I will get some more conclusive test results and it will be done soon.”

Someone walked up and knocked on the doorframe to Alex’s open office. A dark-haired man in his early 20’s smiled at Callen and looked at Alex through his little circular glasses. In his hands, he held a package. “Dr. Throne, these just arrived.”

Looking at the visitor, Alex nodded. “Thanks, Skylar”

I guess they finally sent them.” Skylar stated.

“He sent word. Did they tell you where they got them?”

The messenger shook his head and handed Alex the package. He rubbed his hand through his cropped dark hair.

“Great, he didn’t tell me either. Was this authorized?”

Yes, and sent them to you for a material analysis…they told me they sent you directions.”

“Oh…I haven’t had a chance, but I will…thanks.” He pulled a pair of scissors from his desk drawer.

“Dr. Thorne…since I’m here…”

“Yes?” Alex looked slightly annoyed, but with a breath he let it go. “What is it?’

“I was wondering if you’d take a look at some of my designs…I think I may have found a way to make them work with humans…if you confirm it…it could mean we’d be ahead of schedule…”

Shooting for a job, when you graduate?” He let out a long sigh. “I guess I could take a look. My free time’s on my calendar…send me an email…”

“Sure thing, Dr. Thorne…and thanks. Oh, and before I go…Dr. Card said for me to have test subject 6 ready for when you complete your material analysis.” The intern turned and excitedly walked down the hall.

Alex slid the scissor blade over the tape and folded back the flaps. He scratched his beard. “I wonder how this would affect…”

Callen interrupted him. “What is it, Daddy? Is it Legos?”

He looked confused as pulled out a metal box, kept closed by secured electronic clasps. “No, not Legos…” He waved his cross next to the case’s lock, and lifted out a mask. “Four masks, what was he thinking?” He let out a sigh and inspected the one in his hand.

The mask’s face was a mix of shiny black and dull black that looked blended like watching falling snow land on fallen snow. It had narrow sad eyes and a mouth twisted downwards in a perpetual frown. A single tear was carved below the right eye. “I guess they finally got them.” He sighed. “Subject six is perfect for the first test, before I move to see what the effects are on the blessed. So, I guess I better notify Patterson.” He looked into the box. “Wow, I really can’t say I’m not impressed though…magnificent work. This should help a lot. I may be able to reverse engineer…now I’m just getting ahead of myself.” He laughed. “Too much excitement.”

“What, Daddy?” An uncomfortable feeling washed over Callen as he gazed at the mask.

“Oh, ah…” He put the mask back in the box. “I’m sorry, Callen. You didn’t need to see that. Everything is okay. You don’t need to worry about a thing.” He smiled reassuringly.

“I don’t like it here sometimes, daddy. I’ve heard screams and seen monsters…”

“The monsters can’t hurt you. They have to do with what is being done here. You are safe, and if something did go wrong this runed coin, I made emits a low command frequency signal that helps prevent the monsters from deciding to attack whoever has it.” He sighed. “It still needs months more research and development before it can fully prevent attacks. Although, it will be enough if they don’t realize what the coin is doing…and if I finish it will be able to control them…regardless if they know about it or not…”

 

 

 

 

 

[]CHAPTER FIFTEEN

 

Frantic shaking jolted Callen from memories locked deep in the complexities of his mind. He felt two hands on his shoulders and the sound of Ania’s frantic voice pleading for help overcame the words of their father. He groggily opened his eyes to see his sister’s face in the dim light. Her eyes were wide with fear.

“Ah…something’s here,” Ania said, struggling to find the words to describe.

“What?” Callen yawned.

“I heard a noise outside and looked I saw their colors…”

“And…”

“They’re not human.”

“Wait, what? Slow down. Do you mean demons?” He felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck and a shiver roll down his spine as the fear began gnawing at the edges of his rational mind.

“No…not them.” She paused and took a breath. “I saw them exit the sewer and enter Rurik’s pub…ah…like commandos…through a secret hatch like the one you and Sadie used a few weeks ago.”

“Then what?” He relaxed slightly, but the look of paranoia in his sister’s eyes gave him little reprieve.

“Like Beebles, the changing busboy at Helga’s…but different…”

“Like what Sadie said killed the waitress at Helga’s?

“I don’t know…”

“Show me.” He grabbed his goggles off his desk.

The siblings rushed next door into Ania’s rectory room, which was heavily decorated with comic art. Callen reached for the lights instinctively, but Ania stopped him.

“No, they might see us if we turn on the light,” Ania said. “And we can both see in the dark!”

“Force of habit,” Callen said pulling his goggles over his eyes. He allowed his mind to sync with them and activated the night vision.

They both climbed on Ania’s bed, which was pressed up against the wall, under the window.

“They came out of the sewer grate right there…the one to the left just outside the streetlight’s glow,” Ania explained. “They entered the pub in that alley.”

“Alright. I do not see anything out of the normal. You sure you saw something?” Callen asked.

“Yeah,” Ania said. “I can still see their prints.”

“Wait, what?” Callen asked. “They were walking on asphalt…”

“When something with colors touches something they leave a color print on an object for a short time. Although, everything aside from the colors around the living things appear black, I can see the last bits of where they stepped beginning to fade on the hatch they entered the pub through. Can you zoom in with those things?”

“Yeah. I’ll start with the grate.” He zoomed in on the grate, which had been moved. He saw fresh scratches on the metal. “Something definitely came out of there. There’re scratches on the grate.”

“Like the ones in the tunnels that Sadie uses?” Ania asked.

“How do you know about the scratches?” Callen asked.

“How do you think we got the information about Dad and the lab off Lady Cole’s computer?” Ania asked. “It’s not like Sadie, Tende, or I am a hacker like you…so, the old fashioned way was called for.”

“Whatever they are, they’ve obviously been here before. They have to be what is bugging Felix’s servers.” Callen stated. “But why? No data was transferred from them.”

“What?”

“Nothing.” The streetlights flickered off. “Did that happen before?”

“What?”

“The lights flickered off in the street.”

“No idea,” Ania said. “I don’t see electric lights when I use my color vision.” She paused. “Wait, they just popped out. See them.” She whispered. “In the alley next to the pub.”

Callen zeroed in on the alley. The first creature, dressed in tattered military fatigues, climbed out from the hidden passage and it took cover next to the closest dumpster. It’s one large robotic eye scanned the street while its robotic arm held an assault rifle at ready. Callen had seen a changeling before, so the characteristic long ears and pale skin weren’t a shock to him. What caught his attention were their robotic parts. These creatures were cyborgs.

Another creature left the passage carrying a box of stolen electronics. The second creature’s electronic parts looked vastly different from the first. He just carried a knife on his belt and was at least half focused on keying up computer commands on a system of computers built into his arms. Callen reached into his pocket and felt the gear he had found in Felix’s server room. It had to belong to these strange creatures.

A few others, each lacking any robotic symmetry, followed after him with a few more boxes of parts. There were eight in total, and all of them were very well armed. Callen felt his stomach churn as images from his dreams popped into his mind. But before he could start drawing serious connections, he spotted his wrist computer in the box and his hellbreaker among the stolen equipment. He swore under his breath.

“You see them?” Ania asked. “There colors are like nothing I have seen so far. What are they?”

“No idea,” Callen said. “They look like they’re part changeling. But beyond that, they look like hairless gimped chimps with robotic parts.”

“Robotic parts?” Ania asked. “I can’t see them, I just see a dark shape highlighted by plumes of color. The metallic haze over their auras must be related to that. Callen we gotta tell someone.”

“I’ll tell Felix…grandpa and the others are still out,” Callen said. He wished he had his wrist computer so he could get a scan of the creatures.

The team of creatures headed across the darkened street to the sewer and began lowering the parts. After a few quick glances and moving lips, two hopped into the sewer with the boxes of parts. The one who Callen guessed was the leader turned towards the rectory. He shifted his assault rifle to his other hand. He barked something.

Light flashed from the one with the computer arm’s electronic headgear and rolled, like some sort of scanner over the building. His apish face wrinkled in a primal sneer. He pointed towards Ania’s room. The six who didn’t enter the sewer moved towards the rectory.

Callen grabbed his sister and ducked, but he imagined it was too late. He cursed. “We gotta go. Now.”

“They’re coming for us,” Ania said. “I saw it.”

“Let’s get Felix,” Callen said. “He’ll know what to do.”

“What about everyone else? What about Sadie and Tende?”

“They’ve been here before, obviously. I don’t know if starting panic will help. Felix will know what to do…come on.”

**********************

 

The workshop looked like a tornado came through. Benches were turned over, parts were dumped all over the place, and Callen’s gut told him that the bugs were back in place. Callen swore as he ran towards Felix’s room with the giant computer system and command chair. He pushed back the flaps and saw Felix was folded over the Star Trek chair’s armrest with a flashing computer program that read that a target being scanned for was in Philadelphia.

“What happened?” Ania sounded panicked.

“No idea,” Callen checked Felix’s pulse. He was alive but unconscious. Before he started to consider his next move, another blinking computer monitor caught his eye. Felix had figured out the bugs had transmitted a signal and decrypted the message. It was just a simple code, but his heart stopped as it registered. ‘Transition Sent: Activity on the network related to Alexander Thorne. File moved across network to IP address: 123.13.256.4. Hardwire connection. Location Room 216.

“Sadie. That’s her room,” Callen cursed. “They’re going after Sadie!”

“That’s where we accessed the files…and loaded them on the computer.” Ania cried.

“Then they’re looking for Dad…” Callen said. “And, they’re gonna hurt Sadie…”

“You don’t know that…but, let’s go get her!” Ania yelled as she pulled out her cell phone. She dialed Sadie, as they ran. “Crap, not answering…”

“Try Tende…”

They ran up the stairs through the Heavenly Pint. “Got him…” Ania said. “Tende, no time to explain…get Sadie awake…there’s monsters coming for Sadie…you gotta get her out of there…” There was a pause, and she swore. “I think they got him. Callen, we have to get them…”

“Try grandpa…” He ordered. “Hopefully, we can find out who they are…let’s go…”

**********************

 

The call to their grandfather was fruitless, and Sadie’s room was empty with signs of a brief struggle. Callen swallowed hard. “Ania…I don’t know what to do…”

“Grandpa will need info…your computer’s in your room.”

With his heart pounding, they ran to his room. Quickly he synced his goggles to his laptop and gazed out the window. Painted in the alien greens of night vision, he saw the six creatures moving like a well-trained military squad.

Ania looked outside. “They’re there, coming out of the garden. They got Tende and Sadie…” She sounded worried. “How did we not run into them in the hall?”

“They were using the secret passages…” Callen whispered. “They had to be…now what are they?” Since his laptop was wirelessly connected to Mavis, he started a scan. Information about height, weight, body temperature and other information began popping up on the screen.

According to Mavis’s preliminary analysis, the creatures weren’t changelings and they weren’t goblins. Although, they did share a common ancestors with the two of them. Whatever was outside was something that wasn’t in the knight’s registry. However, the words homunculus did pop up among Mavis’s related topics. However, the file was restricted.

Callen zoomed in on the creature with the computers seemingly growing from his body. The keyboards, touch-screens, and small monitors were seamlessly part of his flesh and bone. He carried a group of drones that were charging on a strange backpack contraption. On his belt hung a collection of parts that instantly reminded Callen of the bugs that Felix had shown him. Callen wondered if he could hack the drones and use them to rescue his friends.

With a smirk, he glanced at Ania as he unfolded his laptop. “I got an idea…here goes nothing…” Using Mavis as support, he began his hack. The code on his laptop scrolled as he pinged the creatures IP address and began stripping his defenses.

“Callen…I’ve got a bad…” Ania started to say.

Callen cut her off with a curse. “This guy’s too fast…his mind must be wired…” He cursed again. “He found us…”

Instantly, the computer creature turned back towards the rectory. The leader barked a command and three of the soldiers ran back towards the rectory. The computer creature followed a feminine creature in a cloak and a male with a large robotic arm into the compound. They didn’t bother going for the hatch. They went straight for the front door.

“They’re coming for us…” Ania’s voice shook. “What are we gonna do?”

He cursed when they heard a noise on the stairs. The signs of a counter-hack appeared on Callen’s screen. “They’ll be here before I can do anything.” He disconnected his computer from the network and shoved it back in his bag. He put the bag on.

The physical threat had to take priority, but they had nothing. The creatures would be there in seconds. In a desperate attempt to find something to defend them with, he glanced around the room. He saw his multi-tool sitting on his desk. It wasn’t a weapon per-say, but at least it was something. He grabbed it as the door creaked and backed up behind his dresser.

“Hide,” Ania whispered, and moved to hide behind under Callen’s bed, but the door opened. She wasn’t quick enough. The sound of a pneumatic gun firing several darts cut the silence in the room. The first dart hit Ania in the back, the second hit bed, the third hit the window and the last hit under the desk.

Callen covered his mouth, as Ania’s body slumped to the ground. His heart pounded and he pressed his back tighter against the wall.

The disproportionately large robotic hand bashed the rest of the broken door out of the way. The cybernetic creature scanned the room. The creature knelt next to Ania. It sniffed her and barked something into the hall. Another voice answered. With his large arm, the creature in the room scooped up Ania and handed her over to one of the creatures in the doorway.

A feminine voice grumbled something Callen couldn’t understand. Carefully, Callen peaked around the edge of the dresser. The large armed soldier handed Ania’s body to the cloaked female creature that was armed with a bow. She effortlessly took Ania over her shoulder and she disappeared down the hall. There were a few more verbal exchanges between the creatures and the computer creature motioned for the creature with a large robotic arm to continue searching the room.

Callen backed against the wall and he hoped for an opportunity. He tried to figure out something he could do, but if the creature looked the wrong way he was in trouble. Holding his breath, he waited and the big armed creature checked under the bed first. It hadn’t seen him. He only had a second at most before it turned around. If he was going to do something, he had to do it now, and since he was going to die soon anyway, he had nothing to loose.

Using what he knew best, he focused on the creature’s cybernetic parts for any flaws. At the base of the creature’s skull, a bundle of wires protruded from it’s spinal column and connected to the large arm. He flipped open his multi-tool’s wire cutters. With his heart in his throat, he clipped the wires.

The bundle of wires sparked. The creature’s smaller hand dropped the gun and reached for the back of his skull as the large arm fell limp. The creature screamed and black ooze erupted from some tubing that was bundled among the wires. It staggered and swung wildly while he turned to face Callen.

Ducking the uncontrolled metal arm, Callen scrambled for the gun. The creature was startled from both the attack and the dresser he knocked over. It turned to look at Callen as he fired twice from crouched position. The first shot clanked against the wall while the second stuck into the creature’s neck. It started to yell something, but its voice slurred and the creature collapsed.

The creature with the computer arm ran into the dorm room. The creature’s metal foot clanked on the floor as he entered, chipping the stone floor. His gaze locked on his fallen companion and it twisted its head towards Callen with a primal sneer. He bared his metal fangs and drew a knife. He lunged at Callen with the knife.

Callen raised the dart gun, but after two pneumatic hisses, he realized that the gun was empty. As the creature’s knife strike came in, somehow Callen managed to evade it. Dropping the gun, he moved towards his desk. The creature attacked again. A lucky step prevented the knife from piercing Callen, but the knife went through his shirt pinning him to the desk. The creature let go of the knife and grabbed Callen.

As they wrestled, Callen jabbed the point of the wire cutters as hard as he could into the creature’s flesh leg. He opened and twisted the wire cutters tearing a larger wound. Releasing the knife, the creature grimaced in pain and smashed Callen across the face with his forearm.

Callen was dazed and the creature used that to tighten his hold. He raised his fist to smash him again, but Callen managed to jam his thumb into the wound on the creature’s leg. He flexed his thumb and pulled at the flesh, muscle, and veins. As the creature screamed and loosened his grip, Callen planted the tip of the wire cutter in the creature’s eye and he pried it open. Another roar was followed promptly by a firm kick to the creature’s soft stomach that sent it sprawling to the floor.

Callen was breathing hard and he could feel his muscles begin screaming from exhaustion. However, at that moment he felt powerful, like his mother when she battled those demons in his bedroom in Boston. He ignored the pain and grabbed the lamp from his desk.

As the creature pulled himself backward with one arm holding its stomach and another holding his bloody face. He raised the lamp, but the creature darted forward under the focus point of Callen’s attack. The lamp shattered on the creature’s metal backpack. The movement turned into a solid uppercut that connected with Callen’s face.

Callen fell onto his bed and his vision blurred. As he oriented himself, his cross fell out from his shirt. The creature looked towards the knife, but his eyes went wide when he saw the cross. The creature jumped on him and tore the cross from his neck.

The motion gave Callen just enough time to grab the knife from the desk. He connected with a wild strike. The knife dug deep into the creature’s face. With his feet, Callen launched the creature off of him. He landed near the door.

Callen stood up and tightened his grip the knife. He won and the creature was his. “Where did you take them?” Callen yelled and grabbed the creature’s shirt. He held the knife to his throat.

The creature growled, and it ripped a pair of cables from his arms. Using them as a make-shift stun gun, he jammed them into Callen’s sides. Callen felt an electrical current surge through his body. The shock wasn’t much, but it did force Callen to release the creature and stagger backward. Defeated and with an opportunity for escape, the creature ran through the door with blood oozing from its variety of wounds.

Callen shook of the effects of the shock. He picked up his multi-tool from the floor and rushed after the creature. He tried to hold the knife like his mother did. The adrenaline pumping through his system clogged any more rational thoughts from entering his brain. He didn’t even think to call for help.

Callen followed him down the stairs to the rectory’s basement and into the network of hidden crawlspaces. After several twists and turns, Callen caught up with him at the old sewer shaft. It grabbed a rope that hung down the shaft.

Callen tightened his fist around the knife and rushed towards the creature. He hesitated when he noticed his father’s cross in the creature’s hand. However, it was only brief. He tackled the creature.

The creature grabbed Callen’s arm to block the strike with the knife. He dropped the cross when he tried to unsuccessfully disarm Callen. The creature’s grasp was weak and Callen easily shook him free. The creature fell backward near the hole. As it stood, the creature looked at the cross that lay at Callen’s feet.

Callen didn’t delay, he sprang up with another knife strike. In the creatures attempt to evade, he stumbled backward down the hole.

Callen grinned and glanced down the sewer shaft. He saw the creature had managed to grab the rope. With a curse, Callen picked up the cross and stuffed it into his pocket. He grabbed the rope. He knew his inexperience climbing was going to cause him to loose the creature, but he went anyway. He had to at least find where they were going. Below, the creature reached the bottom and limped deeper underground.

When Callen reached the bottom, the creature was gone. He cursed and felt the putrid underground air sting his lungs. The smell made his stomach churn and he prayed he wouldn’t get sick. Through his goggles, he looked for a trail. He saw the creature’s blood smears. According to the goggles, the blood was still warm.

Switching to inferred, he trailed him through a mix of tunnels. Some were dug of just earth while others bored through and incorporated long forgotten architecture. After a while, he emerged in an abandoned subway station. He followed the blood for a few more paces and halted when he saw the creature resting next to an abandoned train car. He ducked behind some rubble and watched for just a second to decide what to do.

Before he could come up with a plan, the rest of the creatures appear from another tunnel. They still had his sister, friends, and stolen equipment. One of the creatures then bandaged up the wounded computer creature and all of the creatures tied cloth over their mouths and noses before they headed deeper underground.

Callen took note, and debated going back to find help, but he knew there wasn’t anyone around. His friends and sister only had him. He had to at least find out where they were going before heading back. “Here it goes…time to see what you’re made of.” He stuck just far enough away to make sure that they wouldn’t see him following them. As he crept after them, a part of him hoped for an opportunity to rescue them. They didn’t give up on him when they stole the information from Bethany about his father’s lab and he couldn’t abandon them.

The tunnels were damp and the air was heavy. The strange combination of rock and crushed remains of old human buildings was coated with thick iridescent mushrooms and layers of filth.

In the thick air, he began to smell burnt plastics, smoke, and sewage. As he came to another bend, he could see lights reflecting on the moisture stained stone. Carefully, he looked around the corner. The cavern before him was massive, and there were many tunnels leading in other directions. However, the size of what had been dug out here was not what caught his attention. He placed his hand on the wall for stability as his jaw dropped open.

Through the plumes of smoke and among the stalagmites, a village born from industrial scrap dominated the cavern. Stretching out around it, was a hastily assembled refugee camp that was clogged with imps. From the inner edge of the chaotic assortment of tents, a rusted wall stood strong protecting a maze of smoke filled alleys and buildings. Faint electrical lights flickered in some of the dwellings, and grew more common closer to two massive buildings that stood dominant.

The kidnappers move past some light fortifications among the dirty mess of disorganized tents. Even with the fire and jury-rigged lighting, the paths among the tents were dark. Gnarled organic faces of an innumerable amount of cybernetic imps glared at the kidnappers as they passed. Most were armed, dressed in strange religious garb or both. In the chaos of the outer tent town, Callen soon lost the kidnapper’s trail, but he guessed they were going to the main gate. It loomed just beyond the mess of tents. Above the fortified gate, hung a glowing sign that read: Gearshire.

Beyond the walls, he could make out two important looking buildings that rose above the maze of smaller dwellings. The closest one looked like a church steeple and the second one was a palace, carved into the stone cavern that loomed over everything in Gearshire. Everything was heavily fortified and armed creatures were everywhere.

All hope of any sort of a successful rescue vanished. He had no choice but to return to the surface. He cursed himself for making the irrational decision of running after them. However, he at least he could bring his grandfather here. He would have to shake Felix awake and get him to contact his Grandpa. He just hoped it wouldn’t take too long. Before he started moving, he pulled out his computer. Hopefully, he could send a message to speed things up. After a few quick computer strokes, he began his scan for a network. He prayed he wasn’t too deep.

He saw something move out of the corner of his eye and felt something hard smash into his back. He fell hard, onto his computer. He looked up after seeing his computer blink off, to find himself staring down the barrel of a gun. There was a total of six of them. He cursed, now no one knew where he was. He should have woken up someone…anyone. He was on his own, and these guns were not loaded with darts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]CHAPTER SIXTEEN

 

The robotic imps dragged Callen to his knees. Surprisingly, they didn’t force him to remove his goggles. After taking the only weapon, Callen carried, one of them bent down to inspect the Callen’s laptop. The device had been damaged, but the creature’s eyes grew wide when he gazed at Ania’s decorations. He snatched the laptop from the ground.

While scrutinizing the pictures, the fleshy parts of the creature’s face wrinkled with confusion and excitement. It stopped and pointed to something, which the others began barking in primal celebration, like wild dogs around a recent kill. At first, Callen couldn’t see which of Ania’s pictures they were pointing at, but when he saw the creature’s rusty robotic finger pointing towards the skull with the squid tentacles.

After binding his wrists, the monsters took turns pulling gas masks or medical masks over their faces. They forced him to his feet and they forced him towards the gnarled mess of a village.

With each step, the air got thicker and more putrid. The acrid scent of sewage and rotting garbage mixed with the smell of melted circuits stung Callen’s lungs. He hoped that their masks weren’t for any poisonous gasses lingering in the air. Only one of them wore a full gas mask that would protect against gaseous poisons. The others wore rags or paper painting masks, but the thought crossed his mind and it made him wish he had a gas mask of his own.

As they entered the refugee camp, they passed the light fortification around the village’s outer rim and the few soldiers waved them through. They walked the narrow path between the tents and curious faces saturated with desperation glared out at him. Despite being monsters, the look on their faces was unmistakable. It was a look that Callen knew all too well. These creatures were sick and the hope in their eyes was dim, if not faded completely. None did anything more than give a brief pitiful glance, and all slumped back into misery as he passed.

The sounds of disease and flies were everywhere. Creatures wearing gas masks worked with torches and homemade flamethrowers to clean out the death and disease as quickly as they could. Others frantically attempted to distribute medical supplies, obviously stolen from the surface. Despite his situation, he felt a tingle of empathy as he noticed an impish mother applying wet cloths to her child’s blotched skin and rub a strange salve into it’s oozing blisters.

She looked up at him from her makeshift tent and said something in their jackal-like tongue. However, Callen didn’t need to understand her words. He knew the look all to well. Her eyes were asking for some sort of aid. She rubbed a small cross, and he noticed the dark spots on her white skin.

Callen stopped walking. “Wait!” He said, and he felt the barrel push into his back and heard an angry growl. “Mask.” He made a motion with his elbow to cover his mouth, but the creature just barked and armed his weapon. He had no choice but to keep walking and hope he wouldn’t catch their pestilence on top of his own.

Ahead, the city gate grew closer. Two towers made of scrap cars, and other junk from above, held a massive gate in their arch. Like a medieval castle, a bridge made of an airplane wing lay across a sludge filled mote with heavy oxidized chains. His captors paused and spoke with the masked guards posted at the sandbag checkpoint at the foot of the bridge. With barely a delay, they forced him across.

Just beyond the raised portcullis, two heavy machine gun nests flanked the massive gate and stone ground had been roughly carved into descending stairwell that went under the newly constructed wall. Boxes of medical supplies lined the walls, and many creatures frantically worked to organize their distribution.

Buckets of bleach were everywhere and sheets of plastic lined formed tunnels designed for scrubbing of sickness. Through the translucent plastic, he could see the rivets and rough welds marked the building’s metal skeleton. The building was built for physical war but had been retrofitted to protect against something much worse than conventional weaponry.

He was steered through a busy clinic towards a heavily fortified door. Two creatures with beat assault rifles stepped out from behind a metal riot barrier and barked at the captors. After a brief exchange, the guard pulled a lever. The sound of the second lever followed. With a rusty metallic rumble and the sound of rattling chains, the heavy steel door creaked open.

The barrel of a gun forced Callen over a trough of bleach, out into the claustrophobic streets. Above them, wires and a few electric lights, were woven between the apparent buildings, stores, and eateries. The glow from jury-rigged lighting reflected off liquids that dripped from overhead piping. The colored liquids fed streams that ran down the edges of the gutter-less streets towards drainage grates that poured into the moat.

Their path led into a crowded bazaar. Creatures without the marks of sickness shopped like nothing was happening outside. The stands were packed with goods, most of which taken from the surface, but there were quite a few strange forms of cuisine, homemade robotic parts, and even chained imps being auctioned off. All could be bought here for a collection of gear shaped currency, like Callen had found in Felix’s server room.

Using their weapons, his captors pushed a path through the bazaar. On the other side, a large church loomed. Between massive stalagmites, the jagged cast iron building raised through the clouds of smoke. It’s spines and profane hideousness marked it as a fowl mockery of its surface reflection.

Another push of a weapon into his back forced him towards the gaping maw of a door. Reluctantly, he climbed the metal stairs. On the door, a metal squid-skull had been carved. Realizing the similarities with the metal demon’s and their code, Callen’s heart skipped a beat. Fear of what was waiting for him inside overwhelmed him, but he couldn’t run.

The door groaned open, splitting the symbol. The torch’s lining the stairs and placed on the walls flickered in the slight draft from the opening door painting halls in hellish shades of flame and electric lighting.

To his surprise, there was no predatory hiss of any metallic demons. In fact, there were none. The only connection to them was a large squid-skull, chipped from stone, which formed a horrible religious shrine. The monolithic skull’s tentacles stretched from the very back wall of the shrine and bent to make up much of the furniture and parts of the structure of the building itself. The pews were packed with tattooed worshipers, all without filtered masks of any kind that sat watching a few cloaked figures conduction a dark ritual at an altar below the massive squid-skull.

Callen felt his head began to throb as he was forced towards the altar. The heads in the crowd glared at him, but their religious whispers did not pause. A shiver rolled down his spine and his lungs began to spasm.

Perhaps it was the smell of burned flesh mixing with the sewer smell or something else. With each step, he grew sicker. He fell to one knee as he struggled to breath, but the barrel of the gun between his shoulder blades pressed him forward. Each step towards the giant idol and chanting religious figures near the altar grew more agonizing and he fought to keep down the vomit. He hoped it wasn’t whatever was making these creatures sick.

On the angled sacrificial altar, Callen saw a human child lying exposed and lifeless. In addition to impish cybernetic parts that had been installed on his body, his face was frozen with the creases of a tortured death. Symbols, some of which familiar to Callen, had been carved across the dead child’s body, and at his feet, a circle of complex symbols had been carved into the floor. The complex runic tributaries were filled with partially dried blood. The closest cloaked figure, leading the ceremony, hovered over the dead child with a sinister dagger and leather bound tome.

He looked away in horror, only to see large ape-like creature chained beneath the two of the tentacles on both sides of the idol, just below the floor. The creatures were bound with a complex system of chains and electronic locking mechanisms. Gremlin workers were removing parts of the creature’s bodies with rusty tools while others were attaching new mechanical parts that looked as if they were designed for war.

Across a small catwalk lined with candles, they dragged him before the altar. He looked at the cloaked figure as her feminine figure raised her hands in worship. Her chant grew stronger and the crowd followed her. With the intense chanting, his knees buckled and he threw up.

The robed figure conducting the ritual stopped chanting. It turned towards Callen with it’s tattered dark robes swirling. Her feminine features were creased with anger and it’s two glowing purple eyes narrowed on Callen with a rapacious hunger. But, she only looked briefly at Callen and her focus rested on his captors. She halted her religious ceremony and closed a leather bound book on a podium. She stepped towards them.

Callen’s heart pounded as he looked up from the pile of vomit that rested at his knees. He recognized her face from long ago, but this time she possessed robotic eyes and a robotic arm that poked out from beneath her robe, holding the ritual dagger. A single black crystalline tear sat beneath her eye, implanted into her flesh. Her fleshy hand appeared from the robe and pointed at him with her tattooed hand.

As the priestess yelled, the chanting stopped, and Callen felt some of his symptoms subside. The captors replied in their harsh language and the priestess face shifted from anger to curiosity as one of the captors handed the priestess the decorated laptop. She waved her fleshy tattooed hand in a flamboyant gesture, and the crowd of worshipers began funneling out. “Yes, this is curious indeed…we weren’t expecting this yet…” She turned her gaze back to Callen and smiled with sinister warmth that revealed only a fraction of her polished metal fangs. “So, tell me, human…why do you carry a holy portal inscribed with a rune of The Many?”

It took a second to realize she was speaking English and that she was referring to his laptop. “Ah…um…” Callen coughed. The flavor of bile hung in his mouth.

“Speak up, human.” She growled. “These of my flock think you are the herald that we have been waiting for…is this who you are? Have you been sent early?”

“Ah…” Callen murmured in confusion “I…was…” Her eyes narrowed in suspicion as he shuddered. He had to get out of this himself, if he died, so did his friends and his sister. He thought of his mother’s strength and the fear of seeing his sister ending up on the altar behind the priestess pumped courage into his heart. After a moment, he answered, there was no shake in his voice. “I’m sorry….” He forced confidence into his voice. “Please forgive my awe. I was guided here and unaware of the…ah…feats of engineering that have taken place down here.”

The priestess nodded. “Well, your awe is understandable, for we are the first, and greatest, of The Many’s children.” She looked at him and her eyes narrowed. “However, I do not see his blessings upon you…in either divine cybernetic enhancements or tattoos.” She looked at her cybernetic hand and flexed it. “Yet, you carry his seal marked on your device…which isn’t one with you…this is curious…without his blessings, you cannot learn to hear his calls. Have you not been blessedly anointed by your shepherd?”

“Um…no, priestess.” Callen tried to make himself sound like he knew what he was talking about. “I’m among a group of…ah…new initiates, so my knowledge of The Many is…umm…limited.” He stumbled over his words a little, but it didn’t seem to draw suspicion.

“Curse that surface priest.” She slammed her fist on the altar. “That horned bastard lied to me…he said he would send a Herald of Ascension…” She roared with rage. “Not some un-indoctrinated human boy!”

“Ah, I’m sorry, Priestess, you said earlier there was little time, and my shepherd though it best to have you indoctrinate me…” Callen held back his smile when he heard the lie roll naturally over his lips. “He was…umm…more than impressed with you…and said you were more masterful than he…”

“Well then, I did make an impression that night…” She grinned with the flattery.

He glanced at the boy’s modified body. “Hopefully…he was just practice…for my indoctrination…” Callen attempted to hide his confusion with a joke. But, immediately, he could hear the failure in his tone. He swallowed hard.

“Humm…” She scratched her chin. “Maybe, our deal will come…and you’re just…” Her words were evasive. She stepped towards him and leaned towards him. Her eyes flared with anger as she lunged forward, grabbing Callen’s throat with her robotic-clawed hand. “A spy…or an assassin!” The crystalline tear pulsed with a dim glow from somewhere within. “If he sent you, you would not be completely of flesh…nor would you be alone…and you would know of what I speak!”

Callen’s breath vanished. He felt his windpipe crush under the strength of her mechanical arm. The nails began to draw blood and with the pulse of the tear, the skin on his neck began to burn as if he had an allergic reaction. He tried to breath and grabbed her metal hand in a feeble attempt to loosen her grip.

“This is what we do to spies.” She roared as she positioned the dagger next to his heart. “Now die!” She leaned as if to feel his last breath on her face. Her nostrils flared and eyes ignited with a murderous passion.

Callen struggled, but he couldn’t remove her grip. He felt needles of pain ripple into his flesh. He smelled the stink of an infection mix with the air and his stomach churned.

She grinned as his eyes began to roll over white. She breathed deep, as if the air from Callen’s gasps were a vaporized drug and her eyes grew wide with shock. Without warning, she released him. Callen fell to the floor and coughed as he struggled to regain his breath. “Now I understand!” She smiled wickedly. “The Many’s truth has been revealed! The Many has revealed my error! Blessed I am, oh, great one!” She looked towards the squid-like idol and began murmuring to herself.

“What?” Callen coughed. His hand went to his neck and he felt crinkled flesh and pain began to retract as the pulsing tear on the priestess’s cheek slowed to a stop. He forced a deep breath. “What are you talking about?” He said more forcefully, as the pain subsided.

Her toothy grin that followed sent a shiver down Callen’s spine. “The truth, human. The day that I have long prepared for is finally here.” She looked back towards the idol and made some religious motion that reminded Callen of a perverted sign of the cross. “I am sorry for jumping to conclusions, Great One. As always, I am your faithful servant and you humble me.” She lowered her head and muttered a prayer that Callen couldn’t comprehend. She looked back towards him. “I am High Priestess Virette, shepherd of the gremlin people, and speaker of the divine words of The Many.”

“Gremlins?” Callen asked. “The Many? What are you talking about?”

“The Many’s fingers weave grand plans, which will be revealed in due time, dear boy.” She grinned. The flickering torches played with the shadows on her face as she grinned augmenting her sadistic poker face. “But yes, we are gremlins.” She explained. “Born of metal and flesh. Built to serve the will of The Many, the one and true God.”

“What was revealed?” Callen asked forcefully.

“Why, you have been revealed.” She stated.

“How?” Callen asked, but he had already known the answer. She smelled him and remembered from when he was little. Her sense of smell was obviously sharper than a human. Regardless, the idea of her remembering his smell from over 10 years ago unsettled him. The feeling in his gut told him the reason for remembering couldn’t be good.

“A vision, perhaps. The Many gives his faithful glimpses into the future.” She grinned again, with a sadistic glee and glanced back at the monolithic squid-skull idol. “Yes, a vision…” She whispered. “But…” She paused and seemed to fade into the realm of insanity that she drew from. After a quick shake of her head, she turned back to Callen. Her face brightened with excitement. “But, we mustn’t rush…”

“Umm…” Callen said slowly, hoping that the priestess would elaborate. He was having difficulty following, to say the least. He wasn’t used to trying to comprehend crazy.

She nodded, as if in conclusion to an unspoken question. “Well, human…the words I speak of must wait for another day. More must unfold, yes…more…”

“Alright,” Callen said slowly. “Do you wish to know who I am?”

“I know who you are, so there is no need for introductions. The Many has made that clear to me. Now…”

A loud high-pitched creak cut the hiss of electronic parts in the room. The doors out of the dark cathedral parted and a group of armed gremlins hurried up the aisle. The leader barked something to the priestess as he ran down the aisle.

“A new group of candidates, and there is reason to believe that The Marked One is among them?” She bared her teeth. “That’s not possible! Curse that bastard!” She growled with frustration and turned towards the statue, muttering under her breath. She suddenly spun back towards the gremlins after a quick glanced at Callen. She scratched her chin with her bladed hand. “I guess I’ll have to adapt…no matter…tell Bracket that I will be arriving shortly.” The visitors nodded and left the twisted cathedral as the priestess turned her attention back to Callen. “We will see who he’s found.” She snickered.

“So, who is the Marked One? Who is Bracket?”

“The Marked One is the Forger’s demonic offspring and holy redeemer. Bracket is our fool king that clings to his dying faith. Nothing but lies, ridiculousness, and blasphemy!”

“Forger?” Callen asked. “Is that some sort of God? Don’t gremlins all follow The Many?”

“Do humans all follow the same religion?” Virette’s voice was coldly frank.

“Point taken. So, why do they call him the Marked One?”

“He is said to have an invisible mark that can only be seen with some unholy contraption.” She scoffed. “The fruitless hope of a desperate monarch that is loosing control.”

“I’m not sure what you mean…” Callen pressed. “Why does he want to find this marked one?”

“Prophecy.” Virette seemed visibly annoyed, not with Callen, but with her answer. “In the original scriptures of the Forger, The Marked One is said to come to us and return the holy city of Forgeholm that we lost almost a decade ago to a great horde of goblins. The city was built on the doorstep of the Domain of Creation, where our people were given life by The Many. We were released and the domain was locked, by the Forger’s magic.”

“Why was it sealed?”

“Fear.” She said bluntly. “The Forger was afraid of the power that The Many desired to grant his beloved creations. Now, our legacy waits behind the holy door…yet, Bracket believes that we are meant to keep it sealed…and has even denied the latest revelations of the prophet. He clings to his failing faith, denying The Many…and an end to the plague…”

“An end to the plague?” Callen asked. “You mean a cure?”

“Yes…the prophet says the cure waits within the Domain.” Virette leaned on her podium and tapped on her leather book. “It’s a far greater cure than the relief The Many has allowed me to give…” Her tone was of mocking condescension. “Yet, Bracket attaches wild new claims to his ‘Marked One.’ All he has to do is admit it’s The Many that watches out for our people…and no human with magic is going to save us…nothing but lies…from a fool…”

“So, you have magic?”

She shook her head. “The Many protects his faithful…but, this is no fix…my people are dying…I work tirelessly to help those I can and pray that The Many will save them…meanwhile, a real cure is just beyond the door and Bracket refuses to even consider it an option.”

“Why?”

“Because he believes that the Forger locked away something terrible. Something that he believes shouldn’t be released…yet there he has no prophecy that explains what…and I know it to be a cure…not a curse…” Virette answered. “Perhaps he believes it’s a monster of some kind…but that is just lies to scare children…” Her tone became ripe with mocking condescension. “That fool believes some magical human will fix all of our woes…and lead us in retaking Forgeholm. Then, we will be blessed when we return to our sacred duty of guarding the domain.”

“Sounds rather, um…far fetched.” Callen agreed. “But, how can you be sure of the prophet?”

“Through his prophecies the gremlins have grown strong. He was the only one of us that has any true memories of the Domain of Creation. He walked with The Many’s servants and spoke to the Forger…and he speaks of a cure…and the Domain must be opened.” She shook her head and let out a frustrated sigh. “I would tear down the walls of my church…renounce all the truth that has been shown to me just to save my people…but, Bracket will not see reason…” She turned and looked at the massive monolithic squid-skull. “Pleases, show us the way, Great One.” With a forlorn plea, she looked back at Callen. “Now come, we must go to the castle and watch Bracket doom us…”

“Priestess, before I follow…I can’t help but wonder…do I need a mask?”

She shook her head. “This plague hasn’t spread to humans. You need not worry…and the air scrubbers are running to keep the air from poisoning your fragile lungs…Bracket doesn’t want his candidates dying from the deep’s poison gasses…now, accompany me to Bracket’s castle…the final days of my people are upon us…may The Many smiles upon us and end this suffering…”

 

 

 

 

 

[]CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

 

Surrounded by an armed escort of tattooed gremlins, Callen walked beside Virette. At their flanks, followed a pair of hooded priests that carried torches decorated with their profane religious symbol. With each step up the street, the featureless haze of smog hiding the castle’s details cleared. Among the oxidized metals and partially melted plastics, the massive castle had been carved from the cavern wall in primitive fashion at the cost of the lives of countless slaves.

Beyond a final clutter of patchwork buildings, they passed another series of medical tents and machine gun posts before coming to the castle’s massive gate. Caked with years of rust, and reinforced with improvised supports, the gate had been made to work like the toothy maw of a massive shark. Despite time’s touch, the teeth were kept sharp as if to sever those unlucky enough to get caught in it when it closed.

Before entering, Callen looked back over the village. The village wasn’t much more than a mile in diameter, but it was impressive, none-the-less. How these creatures managed to make this place was beyond him.

Virette looked at him and handed him his bag. “Here’s your equipment…the computer’s screen no longer works…I will allow you to repair it after this. Remember, you aren’t my prisoner here…you’re my guest. Be warned, the king is volatile…and doesn’t enjoy when anyone argues with him…if you anger him, I will be unable to do anything…and he will have you killed.”

Callen nodded and glanced in the bag. “Thanks…and thanks for the warning.” His collection of wires and connectors were there, as was his multitool. He didn’t see the combat knife. “My knife?”

“I’ll make sure you have higher quality equipment when we get back…you won’t even need a knife then.”

Glancing at her cybernetic hand, he nodded. “Got yah.” He followed Virette towards the castle.

Beyond the gate, several guards, equipped with filtered masks eyed them from their posts. Nervously, they waited for Virette’s entourage to near the four plastic portable toilets. The blue plastic sheds had been modified with piping, pumps, and tanks of antiseptics. Each was operated and guarded by identically built and heavily armed gremlins.

“Cogs.” Virette sneered before Callen could ask. “Bracket’s personal army, gremlins that were built from birth to be unquestionably loyalty to his highness. Some believe that his court physician builds them to be extensions of Bracket himself.”

“Builds them?” Callen asked.

“Yes, he has almost a legion. His personal guard.” Virette said. “Like all gremlins, they are born of flesh but are incomplete. Metal and wires must be added to account for ‘genetic defects.’ Careful attention must be taken for each gremlin that survives birth…the ones that are unable to be individuals become cogs. I served as chief salvage physician once…”

“Prepare for decontamination.” One of the cogs ordered as he opened the plastic door. “Please step into a scrubbing station before proceeding.”

“I thought I was immune…”

She nodded. “It spreads through droplets and blood,” Virette answered. “You walked through the village. Bracket is paranoid of the plague…and has taken powerful chemicals from those above to kill the germs.”

“There’s no need to remove your clothing…just hold your breath inside.” The cog said. “And do not delay, King Bracket isn’t going to wait.”

Beyond the booths was the castle’s impressive entry way. Carved stone statues of heroic gremlins holding blazing torches lit the path to a large double door guarded by a pair of cogs. On the palace, hung several banners blotched with ink in the form of a Celtic cross.

“Welcome to Bracket’s Red Castle.” Virette spat. The castle’s name obviously came from the heavy coating of rust that coated the steel. “The site of our final demise…unless, something blessed saves us.” She walked towards the massive door and Callen followed.

They were expected, so the doors parted without hesitation. Inside, red LEDs and flickering torches lit the hallway. The cross banners were hung next to the alcoves, which housed the artwork, and under each of them stood an armed Cog at attention guarding various halls that lead off into the depths of the palace. The Cogs, armed with electrified spears and idle firearms, subtly herded them towards the open door into the throne room packed tight with arrays of blinking electronics.

Spotlighted by a strange assortment of lighting, a bloated gremlin sat before a table crowded with advisors. The disgusting king was wired into the very room with hundreds of cables. From his bent robotic spider legs that formed a throne, the abomination grinned happily as one of his several female attendants fed him. Slurping down a glowing mushroom soaked in some slimy broth, he watched the door close and turned his attention to the assembled court.

Ignoring the depraved feeding method that was happening next to her, a female gremlin sat beside the king. Looking like Virette without wrinkles, she was dressed in armor made of metal plates and enhanced with modern tactical gear to support her modern weaponry. He guessed she was a princess and some sort of warrior, perhaps a commander of some kind based on her badges.

Off to the left side of the room Callen spotted the gremlin soldiers that had conducted a covert operation that resulted in his plunge into this strange hidden world. Two of the eight were missing, which were the ones that Callen had wounded.

“So, you have decided to witness the demise of your religious coup?” The king whined in a high-pitched voice, as Virette took a seat at the table along with her priests. She motioned for Callen to sit next to her as he delayed in confusion.

“Or your failure,” Virette stated. “Which is more likely…but a coup it isn’t. I work tirelessly to cure our people with the strength granted to me by the Many while you chase a ghost…”

“We will see, priestess.” The king’s spider-like eyes focused on Callen. “And who is this human that you bring to my table?”

“He is merely one of the Many’s faithful,” Virette said. “Surely, great king, you understand that the words of The Many are far beyond our people alone. He is only here to listen and learn.”

Bracket loosened his grasp from a necklace that dangled beneath the rolls of his chin and be begun biting his dirty thumbnail. The necklace that fell free caught Callen’s eye. Both a scarab and a rune covered coin hung from the tarnished chain, which he instantly recalled from one of his dreams. Bracket spit a nail out of his mouth and it landed on his gut. “Interesting,” He sneered. He then let out a series of barks and growls. “If you are to stay, and when I succeed, then will you carry the Forger’s truth to the surface instead?”

Callen looked at Virette and her body language pointed him towards accepting the king’s suggestion. “Yes…um…great King. I will…we seek truth…and if yours is the truth I shall speak it.”

“The surface brings wisdom, maybe you should listen, Priestess.” Bracket gloated.

“If a greater truth is revealed, then I, as well, will have no choice but to follow it.” Virette snapped. “Pity you lack the ability to heed your own advice.

Bracket curled his lip and showed one of his stained fangs, but if he was enraged, it didn’t affect his tone. “Now, we begin.” Cameras mounted all over the room clicked on and televisions built into the architecture lit up showing live video of the meeting.

The King began barking and growling, as if he was introducing a television show. As if on cue, a group of clergy emerged from a distant door. They stopped before the gremlin king and bowed. Their long beards looked like they were made of wires and they reminded Callen of Jewish rabbis. They turned towards the assembly and the cameras. In unison, they made religious gestures and began a televised religious ceremony. The throne room seemed to double as a temple.

The two of the rabbis began chanting slowly forming an almost hypnotic beat. The third began a blessing. As the prayer continued Callen began to feel dizzy. He gagged, but he swallowed the vomit. The horrible room began to spin, he struggled to stay in his chair. Luckily, the prayer ended before he passed out.

“Alright, shall we get on with this?” Virette hissed. “We have heard far too much of your religious heresy, Bracket. Let this move on so we can usher in a new era for our people when you fail.”

“Don’t be so sure, priestess.” He laughed. “The Marked One will save us with his magic and return us to Forgeholm. The Forger’s child is here this time, I assure you and our suffering is nearing its end. This plague is just a test of faith.” He glanced at the Special Forces team, and with a toothy grin, he returned his gaze to the priestess. “Today, your blasphemy ends!” He turned back towards the camera and began addressing his people in their harsh language.

“We shall see.” Virette hissed.

“Those who have lost faith will now have it restored…the Marked One will save us all! As was foretold!” He stated to the priestess. He returned to growling orders.

Two doors creaked open near the Special Forces group. Several lab coat wearing gremlins emerged. One was pushing an electronic contraption on wheels. Wired into the strange machine was a small red and black skinned humanoid about the size of a house cat, with bat wings and long horns. Shackled into the strange contraption, the creature’s snout was locked in an electronic muzzle and its eyes were sewn shut. The creature struggled and muffled growls came from the winged beast. Another pushed a hospital stretcher webbed in wire and modified with a variety of jury-rigged electronics. The last pair pushed a cart carrying more of the small black skinned creatures locked in cages.

Following the technicians, was a psychotic looking gremlin, dressed in a dirty lab coat that walked with a lurch as he favored his fleshy leg to a mechanical peg leg. With psychotic glee, he made adjustments to the dirty medical equipment on his elongated metallic arm.

Bracket grinned at the sadistic physician and growled more orders. The physician responded and the medical assistants began connecting the modified stretcher to the device holding the struggling winged creature.

“What’s going on?” Callen whispered.

“That machine apparently was made to test for the marked one’s magic somehow…” Virette answered. “I imagine it works much like exposure to radiation…if the marked one can heal…he surely wouldn’t allow himself to die…but it could be something else…I didn’t build it.”

Bracket nodded towards a pair of Cogs standing at attention near one of the several doors into the throne room. The Cogs each pulled a lever and with the scraping of rusty gears, a metal door groaned open.

From the dark tunnel, another group of Cogs herded a group of bound and gagged children with cattle prods. Filth, blood, and tears clung to all of their terrified faces. Aggressively, they were forced to their knees at the opposite end of the table from the king.

Callen instantly recognized the shadows that hung on the children’s faces. The fear of death was unmistakable. Many times had felt the breath of the reaper whispering in his own ear as he refused to listen to the call. He felt guilt for surviving well up in his gut, but that guilt was mixed with a small bit of relief when he saw Sadie, Tende, and his sister mix into the crowd. They looked groggy from their drug-induced sleep, but they were alive, for now, which gave Callen hope.

The gremlin king again addressed the crowd, followed by more excited conversation with a physician. The assembled nobles whispered between themselves and gave quick glances towards Virette. She sat patiently, waiting for something.

While his assistants calibrated the strange device, the physician pulled a set of sharpened metal tubes from a storage compartment on his arm and handed them to one of his assistants. Carefully, the assistant attached the hollow pencil sized needles to a network of tubing that connected to a bar that hung with multiple empty IV bags.

When the assistants finished, the physician took his place next to the controls and began making the final adjustments. From recycled plastic containers, the assistants filled the empty IV bags with glowing green liquid. The physician gestured toward the children with a snarl when the bags were full. The assistants glanced at Bracket, waiting for his permission to begin.

Bracket’s eyes scanned the trembling children. Several attempted to hide their head from his gaze. He laughed and pointed one of his gnarled fingers at a small boy closest to the medical assistants.

Callen watched in horror as the closest cog grabbed the boy by the collar and tossed him to the assistants, like a rag doll. The assistants grabbed him, dragged the petrified child towards the rusty stretcher and began strapping him in.

Callen noticed a necklace fall from the boy’s shirt, which was marked with a medical cross, and his on his wrist hung a hospital bracelet. The boy had diabetes. Callen’s heart skipped a beat when he heard the boy wince when the first implants were clipped to nerve clusters on his skin. The boy’s first cries came from the special needles that were shoved into the base of his skull, arms, thighs, and spine. The gremlins didn’t even bother to remove the boy’s dirty clothes, which were soon soaked with spots of wet blood. His cries became nothing more than a gargle when a garden hose was shoved down his throat. He franticly looked at the faces of the monsters before him, and his eyes met Callen’s. In the terror on his face, there was a wrinkle of hope, which soon died as the physician jammed his finger into the start button.

The device began to hum. A compartment beneath the writhing creature slid open, revealing a basketball sized orb, the physician grabbed the orb and pulled it from the machine. Wires trailed behind it and metal shutters on the orb opened like lids on an eye. Beneath the eyelids, the iris began to pulse with a green light.

The creature wired to the machine began to struggle harder. Its skin wrinkled as its veins bulged and countless incisions from medical procedures could be seen on the creature’s skin. The tubes squirmed as the sounds of pumps from within the contraption gulped pushing the strange fluid from the IV bags into the bound child.

The physician lifted the glowing orb, and a beam of light washed over the boy’s body. His veins bulged and his flesh tightened. Slowly, green light began glowing from the inside. His arteries began to pop and his tears ran red with blood. His eyes grew wide, and with one last desperate struggle, the light pulsed out and his flesh tore outward. The ribbons of flesh and torn clothes were quickly consumed, which left a smoldering skeleton strapped to the table.

Instantly, the smell of burning flesh mixed into the rotting air and the device powered down. Callen stared at the boy’s charred skeleton in shock. He felt a wave of guilt rush over him. He wondered if he could have done something, anything, to stop it, and three of the people who he cared about most were waiting to share that boy’s fate.

As the physician made adjustments on the device and the assistants began resetting the machines consumables, an image of the boy’s internals began to appear on the contraption’s monitor. The physician barked angrily and pointed to the data that was slowly being revealed. Ignoring the screaming winged demon’s shrieks, Callen watched the data appear, and from what he could tell, it looked like a medical scan of some kind. The image showed a graphic of the boy’s skeleton and blinked in locations across his body.

“They’re looking for something…medical…what is it?” He whispered to Virette.

“The forger’s child’s form is supposedly marred by a contradiction within. Since the marked one is a hybrid of the a demon’s infernal power and a mortal being, the marked one’s body is at war with itself.” Virette answered. “The eye is said to detect that war.”

“But he just killed him…” Callen swallowed hard, choking on his inaction.

“Part of why he will fail,” Virette whispered. She motioned back to the display.

“At war with itself?” Callen whispered to himself. The screens on the strange device flashed with failure. He shivered when the assistants casually disconnected the boy’s remains from the stretcher. The green tinted bones became an iridescent dust when they hit the floor.

“One down, Bracket,” Virette cooed. “Choose your next failure.”

Bracket face wrinkled with anger, but he didn’t respond to the priestess taunts. Instead, his eyes darted over the group of captives. After a few seconds, his eyes narrowed on a target, and his commands followed. The nearest cog grabbed Ania and tossed her towards the machine.

Ania pushed herself up and a pair of assistants grabbed her under the arm. She attempted to resist, but they were stronger. One pulled the gag from her mouth, and her panicked breaths became audible. In seconds, she would be strapped to that contraption. Her eyes met Callen’s, but she didn’t speak, her voice was silenced by terror.

“No, she’s not it!” Callen yelled. He glanced down and saw that he was standing. His fists were clenched and his voice was strong. He was ready for a fight.

“Excuse me?” Bracket roared.

“She’s not your Marked One,” Callen yelled with unshakeable confidence, or at least he hoped. His heart pounded.

“I order you to sit, human…and hold your tongue…or you’re next.” Bracket threatened.

Virette grinned when Callen didn’t sit.

“You have a lot of nerve boy…but it’s the fear that your naïve faith is about to die that is guiding this stupid decision. So, I’ll give you one last chance…don’t speak out again.“ Bracket glanced over at the priestess. “Shall we continue?”, he asked rhetorically.

Virette said nothing and waited.

“I’ll take your silence as acceptance, priestess“ Bracket looked at Callen. “As for you human, when this is over, I will allow you can carry words of the Forger to those above! Just like you agreed.” He nodded at the medical assistants to continue. The assistants lifted Ania and began strapping her to the modified stretcher. Next to them, they snapped the harness on the creature and the machine began to hum with a second dose of energy.

His feelings of desperation swelled when the assistants moved to insert the needles. “Wait!” he yelled. “You are making a mistake!”

“I warned you, human!” Bracket roared. “Guards!”

With robotic speed, two Cogs had spears at Callen’s back.

“You’re wrong!” Callen yelled. “That girl doesn’t have what you’re looking for! She isn’t even sick! That’s what that machine detects!”

“You know nothing human. We aren’t looking for illness…we have plenty of that among our own people! We are looking for the mark of divinity!” Bracket yelled. “Virette, silence your pet or I’ll be forced to follow through on my threat!”

Virette rested her hand on Callen’s tense arm. “Sit.” She said, but it wasn’t an order. It was obvious that she wanted him to do the opposite. “Your death won’t help us.”

Callen shook off her hand. “NO!” He yelled. “Let her go! Let all of them go!”

The first needle pierced Ania’s arm. She screamed.

“Stop!” Callen yelled. “Test me! You said if I spoke out again that I’d be next…so…be a king of your word…or are you too scared that I might be your Marked One?”

Bracket looked Callen over and his irritation was obvious.

Virette hid her pleasure by tapping her metal nails on her upper lip. “Yes, my king…why don’t you test him right now…I mean…if he dies…then you can continue with the rest…after all, you’re the one that holds all the power here.”

“You do have a point, Priestess…and for once it’s actually in my favor.” Bracket admitted. “I guess it’s because your faith in your false god sounds like it’s waning. Is this the truth?”

“My beliefs are built on evidence,” Virette said. “They always have…The Many has helped me relieve many plague victims…and his faithful have grown because the Forger failed us. But, dear king…I only care for our people’s future…and what is best for all of us…”

Bracket looked satisfied. “Well, you heard it…what’s best for all of us is unification. There’s no way that The Marked One would follow The Many…so, my people…consider his death the first step to the prophecy being fulfilled and the end of our suffering!”

The cavern outside the castle echoed with the cheers of the gremlin populous. The cogs grabbed Callen’s shoulders, but he pushed them off. “Bracket, I go willingly…that’s for the record too.” He took his first steps towards the table. “Unstrap her, now.” With a nod from Bracket, the assistants followed suit.

Ania fell to her knees. Callen kneeled next to her and placed his backpack down. “In here.” He unzipped the bag and dropped his goggles inside next to the multi-tool.

“What are you doing?” She whispered in confusion. “Callen?” But, when she spotted the multi-tool, Callen hoped that she understood to use it to help her escape.

“It’s okay. I got this one.” Callen whispered he shot her a half grin and another towards Sadie and Tende. “The least I can do is give you a chance to escape. I don’t have much time anyway.”

Callen climbed into the device and the assistants began strapping him in. He stared at the king, without a flinch, as the needles were inserted into his body. He didn’t cough as the hose was inserted into his throat. With the buzz of the machine, and the gulp of the pumps, the rush of chemicals flooded his system. He closed his eyes when he felt a warm light wash over his body that came from the orb and listened to the gremlins’ cheers.

The energy washed over his body and the only signs of pain, which were visible, were his tensed muscles and a tight grimace on his face. But, he felt as if he had been thrown into the fires of hell as his insides began to pulse. He felt like every cell in his body was about to explode, but something held him together. The burning was as intense as any of his cancer treatments, but he had always managed to pull through. He clenched his teeth as the pain intensified, and his body began to spasm. The pain pushed him to the limits of consciousness but not over. He thrashed violently. He felt searing light erupting in the depths of his body. However, he didn’t glow like the other boy. Nor did he explode. His flesh and clothing remained intact.

Without warning, the machine snapped off and the machine powered down. A display screen blinked that the process was complete. Callen remained, and the gremlins fell silent.

The assistants released the straps and Callen fell to the ground with steam rising from his skin. As he pulled out the medical connections, he looked up at Bracket with a stare that could kill. He pushed off the wave of dizziness and stood. “I guess you found what you’re looking for.” Callen declared. He coughed and the machine buzzed as it finalized the analysis. “I’m your marked one!”

“By what trickery…” Bracket started to say, but his words decayed into the grunts and barks of the gremlin tongue as the sounds of chaos grew outside the palace. His attention turned to the scarab, and soon the riots quieted. After a few barks from the physician, the king’s face wrinkled with disbelief.

Unhindered, Callen grabbed his bag and his goggles. He wiped the sweat from his forehead as he rose to his feet before pulling the goggles back on his face. His legs were a little shaky, but he held strong. “So, what now?” He asked, augmented by forced confidence.

“This just cannot be. The Marked One cannot follow his father’s mortal enemy!”

“I didn’t say I followed this Many, did I?” Callen asked. “All she did was find me on my way here…”

Virette grinned approvingly. “He speaks the truth, my king.”

Bracket nodded slowly. “An interesting point, those words belonged to the priestess.” He nodded. “Also, your actions have contradicted your allegiance through you volunteering for our test…a follower of the Many would have never stepped forward.” He paused as if considering his words and he studied Virette’s expression. “However, these circumstances are curious…and sabotage isn’t out of the question. So, if I am to consider you the Marked One, as our device indicates, I have a question. As the child of the Forger, and thus The Marked One, you must know your father’s true name. So, tell me, human, what is the forger’s name? Speak the truth, for only I and the Prophet know his true name.”

Callen glanced down at his sister, hoping for some sort of advice. However, she just shrugged. With no time for the two of them to craft a story, he had to tell the truth. He went with his gut. “My father is, Alexander, Alexander Thorne or Alex for short. I am his son. Callen Thorne.”

Bracket gasped with joy. “He knows the true name…you are the Forger’s son.”

The gremlin city cheered around them, and Virette leaned back in her chair. “So, Marked One…” She hid her smile. “Do you carry the cure? Can you end our people’s suffering with your magic?”

Callen’s heart skipped a beat. He looked at the king. “I cannot…cure the plague with magic.” The city roared in chaos around them. He glanced at Ania and then to Virette. “My father granted me no magic.” His confession sounded apologetic, but it did nothing to calm Bracket’s rage. However, before the king was able to respond coherently, Callen continued. “But, I know where to…”

At that second, the door to the throne room parted and in walked single gremlin. He bared his apish teeth and his stark-white brow creased beneath the hood of his warn-out sweatshirt. His long pointed ears, one with a gold band in it, poked out through holes torn in the hood, and copper dreadlocks, contained by his hood, fell out over his face and shoulders. With his one glowing blue eye and other organic, he glared at Bracket. His dark copper metal tribal tattoos could be seen on his hands and neck seemed to move as he seethed.

“Bunny-man…” Callen whispered under his breath.

 

 

 

 

 

[]CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

 

The village was lost to chaos and Bracket went for his scarab. Four cogs went for the bunny-man. Instead of drawing their firearms, they activated their electrified spears. At blinding speed, the bunny-man pulled a pair of knives from his belt. He eyed their movements, patiently, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. When it came, he moved with an uncanny grace and with a few quick strikes, the cogs fell dead.

The simple brutality of their deaths brought the entire village to silence, even before Bracket could. The bunny-man glared at the fat king. He sheathed his knives, next to his collection of others that were concealed by the rolls of his sweatshirt. No one moved to question his prowess. “No! Stop! Mistake!” His voice was loud and confident. However, there was a nervousness underneath it that scarcely could be detected. He gave Callen a quick look over and shook his head. “He no be Marked One!”

“What brings you here, Prophet?” Bracket mocked. “Or should I say ex-prophet?”

The bunny-man responded nonchalantly by pointing at Bracket’s camera.

Bracket’s lips curled. ”You know are no longer welcome in this court! Take yourself and leave! Or I’ll authorize the use of more potent weaponry…”

“The bunny-man is their prophet?” Callen whispered to himself. “This is…”

“More just die.” The bunny-man warned. He rolled his shoulders and calmly placed his hands on two of his knives, like a gunslinger.

“Here him out, Bracket…we’ve seen enough death to last us many lifetimes. Besides, he may shed some light on The Marked One’s lack of magic.” Virette suggested. “Besides, you know he’s notoriously difficult to kill…and if you don’t like what he says, you’ve already exiled him…”

“Fine.” Bracket agreed. “Speak, Niknak.” The Cogs lowered their weapons.

Satisfied, the bunny-man stepped over the bodies of the dead cogs. When he reached the table, he bared his teeth. He grabbed the back of one of the noble’s chairs and tossed it to the ground. Stepping on him and up to the table, he smashed his fist down. “This mistake!” He roared. “He no be Thorne!” He paid no mind to the noble backing away with a broken arm.

“Thorne is the name of the Forger.” Bracket stated. “The eye didn’t fail, it couldn’t have! But, he says he cannot cure the plague…explain yourself…”

“No be Thorne!” The prophet insisted.

“Alexander Thorne is my father,” Callen stated. “If he is the Forger, then that makes me his son…”

“He no be Thorne.” The prophet stated. “Give me boy, me dispose! He lies!”

“This is ridiculous, Father!” The princess yelled. “This entire process is making a joke of our court! Our people are dying! Debating this boy’s divinity is a waste, just like all the resources you spent finding him! We would have some progress to show for if you weren’t all blinded by this religious debate!”

“Silence, daughter!” Bracket roared. “You are not yet queen! And you must remember the importance of faith in order to rule…”

“I have not forgotten the importance of faith, but when it rips our people apart, it is worse than the goblins and the plague THEY spread to us! Believing this is a divine curse is insane!” The princess yelled. “Just give him to Niknak to be dealt with, Father, and let this be over…we will kill the goblins that make us sick with their demonic magic. Please, give our people a chance at victory through strength of arms and strategy, not religious dogma.”

“Faith has carried us this far, and it will save us now!” Bracket roared. “We must not waver! It is faith that will unite us once again and it is faith that will bring us our redemption!” He began addressing the cameras to placate the crowd as he did his fingers tightly gripped his necklace.

Virette leaned in next to Sprocket. “If you have noticed, Princess Sprocket,” She kept her voice low, as if not to interrupt the King. “The unity you seek converges on this boy. Embrace it, and you just might be able to make the right suggestions to bring an end to this goblin plague.” She leaned back in her chair, as if pleased with herself. “Now’s your chance princess. Take it and unite our people.”

Sprocket gave Virette a hard stare. “I don’t get you, priestess.” The word ‘priestess’ sounded unnatural, as if she was used to calling Virette something else. “You have the most to loose in the affirmation of his identity.”

“Who am I to deny the truth?” She stood and leaned on the table. “My king…” She said interrupting Bracket’s speech. She waited for him to pause. When he did, she continued. “My king and the great gremlins of our growing society, you know that I have always been a seeker of the truth, that cannot be denied. It was that truth that caused the Church of the Many to be born from our people’s suffering. But, at this moment even I am humbled by the revelation occurring right before our very eyes. But, I must bring up a point of contention, my king. Your tests have shown him to be the Forger’s son. Yet, he says he cannot cure the plague with the magic you desire. So, Bracket, what do you say to that? Do you admit that your faith isn’t enough to save our people?”

“She is right, Father.” Sprocket said. “You claimed he could cure us…so, where is the cure?”

“Silence!” Bracket ordered. “Is what you say true, Marked One? Can you not cure us?”

“If it wasn’t true, why would I tell you that?” Callen answered, and the cave magnified the sound of the village’s riotous screams.

Bracket quieted them with a few barks and rapid movements of his hand on the scarab and looked to Callen. “So, speak…” He sounded like he was getting desperate.

“But, I know where a cure is…” He looked at Virette and she nodded. “I’ve come to tell you it’s in the Domain…”

The cheers in the cavern erupted again, this time they sounded more united and less riotous. “Silence!” Bracket rubbed one of his fingers over the scarab and shook his head angrily. The gremlins relaxed. “Those words were declared heresy long ago.” Bracket yelled. “They are blasphemy. The domain must stay sealed! It is our sacred duty!”

“Only because they also bring into question your Forger-given right to rule…” Virette pointed out. “More of your Forger’s prophecy was reviled, as well. He spoke of the door being opened with a holy key by your Marked One and him retrieving cure beyond it…as his mark turns outward…”

“Your purpose becomes transparent, Priestess,” Bracket stated. “Your intentions seek to usurp me with the rule of the prophet! The Prophet is not the chosen king!”

“I only seek to save our people.” Virette sighed. “I wish that you could see that…after you exiled the Prophet, he continued to speak. A cure was locked beyond the door for us, not a monster…a cure for the day we need it most…and that day is here…and the Forger made this cure! The Forger was the one that made our salvation! Don’t you see? We have to open the domain!”

“But, we have no key…how can this be right?” Bracket slumped back in defeat. “Why would the Forger lock the domain if we would need to open it? It doesn’t make sense…”

“Father, just give the order and I’ll…” The Princess started.

“But, what if there was a key? Would you know it if you saw it?” Virette cut her off.

Bracket nodded. “I remember his blasphemous words, I’ve seen the drawings in the scriptures, and I remember the last being to have it was the Forger. So, I would know it if I saw it…but our sacred duty is to guard the domain…The Forger locked it when he gave us our freedom…the key was then destroyed…”

“If it weren’t destroyed, Great King, would you consider using it?” Virette pressed. “What if the forger never destroyed it? He was the last one to possess it…and why would he destroy an object of such power? What if he…”

The king roared with frustration. “But there is no longer a key, priestess…if’s are pointless…”

“I’m tired of the bickering!” Sprocket roared as she stood up. “It is time to disregard superstition and unite for our common goal! This ends now!” She pulled a pistol, Callen’s pistol, from her belt. “No more of this…” She cocked the weapon.

Callen felt a drop of sweat roll down his forehead and he lifted his hand to his neck to hold his father’s cross. His heart skipped a beat when he grabbed only air. He remembered the cross was in his pocket, so he reached into feel it one more time.

“Wait, princess!” Virette screamed. “He has something! Show us, Marked One!”

Callen listened and opened his hand to reveal his father’s cross. “It’s only my father’s cross…”

The prophetic bunny-man didn’t look surprised and cursed under his breath.

Bracket’s eyes focused on Callen’s hand. “Wait!” He said, and Sprocket lowered the gun. “He carries the Forger’s Cross?” He shook his head. His face creased with disbelief. “It is…can’t be…”

“I have your Key of Creation.” Callen insisted, remembering it was referred to as that when he first received it. “I have memories of him using it in the domain, and I know he used its power to lock the domain…and I can open it…”

“The Marked One has his father’s magic…it controls the domain! Our salvation is here!” A sinister grin crossed Virette’s face. “So, will you take this chance to save our people, wise king? Or will you condemn us?”

“Father…it seems things are converging on this boy…” The princess shook her head. “This is…crazy…but even I cannot argue…even now, as you debate his fate he is uniting our people…”

“You see, great king? We stand ready to be united!” Virette said. “All you have to do is allow the domain to be opened by the Marked One and he will save us…” She grinned. “And all the Many’s faithful know that our true king would do anything to save our people…with all our prayers, we all look to you dear king…”

“This is…unbelievable…” Bracket shook his head. “But, I cannot deny it…I have no choice…” He looked at Virette. “If you seek a king that will save our people, then so be it…I will be that type of king, like I’ve always been. We will deal with our differences in faith when this concludes if they remain…Princess, assemble our army. We have a prophecy to see unfold!”

“No!” The prophet yelled. “Bad, Bad! No army. Send with me. Me take.”

“The Forger’s child will lead our army to reclaim Forgeholm as it has been written!” Bracket stated.

“But, the prophet has some validity in his point, Father.” Sprocket said. “You cannot rely on an inexperienced boy to lead our army and we know nothing of the state of Forgeholm! The only one who has managed to move past the goblin patrols is the Prophet.”

“Yes, you are right. This is a perfect opportunity…and the Marked One needs to cure us first according to scripture. If he is to lead us, he must get the cure and bring it back.” Bracket admitted. “A squad can provide an escort and gather tactical recon on the current status of Forgeholm to aid in the eventual siege.”

“I cannot deny your logic, my liege or yours Princess.” Virette pointed out. “The Prophet wanders the forbidden tunnels and knows the ways around the enemy. He knows the tunnels better than any of us. He has wandered all over the deep on his vision quests! He should take the boy there before we send our army and open the domain.”

“Fine, do as Sprocket suggests. The prophet will lead, Alpha team will escort.” Bracket said. “General Sprocket, gather our forces in Tiremound and send runners to our other settlements. When the Marked One returns, we are going to war!” The crowd roared.

When the crowd quieted, the Niknak spoke. “No take soldiers. Just me and boy.”

“That will not be what happens, Niknak. I am king, not you!” Bracket roared. “You will do as I order!” The anger left his voice. “Sarge, Alpha team ready?” His gaze was locked on Niknak.

“Yah, My king,” Sarge, the gremlin dressed in commando gear, replied in a deep Austrian accent. “Just say the word.”

“Then, no take!” Niknak protested angrily.

Bracket stared hard at Niknak. “You will do as I command, scout. You wouldn’t want to fail your master, now would you, prophet?” Bracket placed hard emphasis on the words fail and master.

The prophet’s head twitched slightly. He then looked angrily at Bracket. “Fine. I take.” He said at last. “Niknak…no fail,” he twitched. “Niknak must serve.” He shook his head violently.

“Surely Bracket,” Virette said. “After all he has done and his protests to your orders, are you just going to take his word? Surely he harbors resentment for you…if only there something to bargain with him for…a wise and powerful king would give anything to save his people…”

Niknak looked at Virette and his organic eye widened with a realization. “Yes, Niknak demand pay!” He turned and stared at Bracket’s hands that were tightly clasping his necklace. “Niknak want what Bracket stole! Niknak want Niknak’s coin and scarab back!”

Virette grinned as Niknak mentioned the coins.

“Never, they are mine! I never took them…I was given them by the Forger!” Bracket roared. “Your failure of your mas…”

Virette interrupted before he could finish. “King Bracket! That is a fair price to pay for the return of Forgeholm! We are all united under this human boy and you. You have no need for those relics now. We are all with you, those of the Many or Forger, it makes no difference now…a new day is upon us. Especially, if the prophet denies his prophecy based claim to the throne…” She looked at Niknak and waited.

He nodded. “Niknak no want to be king…Niknak just want coin and scarab back!”

“So be it.” Bracket growled. “Guide them, Prophet and you will have what you request.”

Niknak grinned happily. “Then Niknak take, but no trust Bracket. Give now.”

“You will be paid on your successful return,” Bracket said. “Not before.”

“No trust. Give now or no take!” Niknak growled. “Many changes in tunnels. Many collapses. Need me or no reach Forgeholm.”

“Give me them both, and I will pay him when he returns,” Virette stated.

“What makes you think I would EVER hand them over to you, Priestess?” Bracket roared.

“Father, them to me. I will hold them.” Sprocket suggested. “I will pay him after we retake Forgeholm.”

“Do you accept this?” Bracket asked Niknak.

Niknak looked at Sprocket and nodded. “Accept. Take, then princess pay.”

“Fine.” Bracket seared and he tossed the two necklaces to Sprocket.

“You shall get this upon your return, Prophet.” Sprocket said. “You have my word as heir to the throne and General.”

“It is settled then.” Bracket stated. “Our salvation has begun!”

“No, it isn’t settled,” Callen interjected. “You all talk as if I’ve agreed to help you.” He looked at Sadie, Tende, Ania and the other captives. “But if you free these children…”

Bracket’s eyes focused on Callen and his horrible face twisted with anger. “This was not part of any prophecy!” He roared.

“I doubt that killing them and countless others to find me was either,” Callen said. “You need me, and I need them to be released. Now.”

“What, do you think I am stupid?” Bracket said angrily. “If you are using this as a bargaining chip, you obviously have no care for the gremlin people!”

“Shouldn’t a savior care about everyone?” Callen stood firm, his heart pounded. “Humanity’s savior did.”

He stared hard at Callen and finally nodded. “I guess if you didn’t care for them it would make you less of a savior. So, I offer you this…when you return they will be set free, as insurance.”

“As long as they’re unharmed, I agree,” Callen said. “However, I have an additional request.” He gestured to Ania. “This girl I saved to come with me along with that the girl there and the boy there.” He pointed to Sadie and Tende.

“I agree to the no harm, but only a human with the blood of the Forger in his veins shall fulfill the prophecy.” Bracket started.

“Well, that makes part of it easy then,” Callen stated. “The girl I stepped in for is my sister. If you have any question of that, why do you think I risked my own death to protect her from your test machine? If you don’t agree to at least this, then you’re going to have to shoot me…”

“Fine!” Bracket roared angrily. “The girl will go! But, the other two will stay here with the other humans until you return Forgeholm to us.”

“It will be done.” Callen nodded. “You have my word.”

“Then the deal is set.” Bracket roared. “Assembly adjured.”

“Ah, my liege,” Sarge said as the crowd seated around the table began to leave. “They will need supplies. The tunnels are dangerous.”

“Sprocket, take the Marked One, that girl, and the prophet to the armory.” Bracket ordered. “Then, do as I ordered. I await news of victory.” Bracket looked towards the guards who were watching the children. “Take the prisoners to the castle prison to wait for the marked one’s triumphant return.”

“As will I, King Bracket,” Virette smirked. “I will call all the Many’s faithful to prayer. We must give thanks and pray for the Marked One’s success.”

“Excellent to have you returning to reason, Priestess.” Bracket smiled. “Now, we must prepare!”

**********************

 

Sprocket led Callen and Ania towards the long hallway that they had entered through as the assembly of religious gremlins and nobles headed out before them. Before leaving, Callen watched the Cogs drag the frightened children back into the depths of the dark castle. Sadie gave Callen one last sad glance as she disappeared behind the door. He hoped he would see her again. He gave Tende a nod of confidence as he disappeared after her.

“We’ll get them back,” Ania said as they reached the door. “You did the best you could.”

Callen nodded. “But, it wasn’t quite good enough…they’re still in danger.”

“But, so are we,” Ania said. “So, what’s the difference?”

They followed Sprocket through the doors and Niknak followed behind them, muttering to himself.

In the hall, next to one of the dark alcoves, Virette waited for them. “Impressive, Marked One.” She grinned at Callen as they approached. “You as well, daughter dearest.” She looked at Sprocket. “I always said I knew you would be pivotal in uniting our people.”

“I don’t know what your game is, Mother.” Sprocket crossed her arms as she stopped.

“Same as yours, dear, same as yours,” She grinned. “I want to see the goblins crushed, the plague cured, and our people united, just like everyone else.”

“I don’t get it mother.” Sprocket sighed. “You have the most to lose from all of this…everything you built…gone if he returns victorious…yet you encouraged this and even accepted the Marked One prophecy as truth…why?”

“Our people are suffering…we need hope…civil war will do none of that…”

“That’s not it, Mother. Your actions are what…well, were, leading us to civil war…”

“Still brainwashed by your father?” Virette sighed. “It was actually he that was the problem, I wish you’d see that…and I wish that you’d see that this old woman misses her children dearly.” Virette sounded distant, and her voice was ripe with deep pain. “If we end this through the combination of both faiths, then we will reach a new era for our people…a golden age…I cannot deny that. You also forget that what I built was out of necessity. When the plague arrived, I had no choice but to spread the word of the Many and use my medical skills to heal as many as I could. The church grew around me…nothing more…your father sees me as usurper…while you seem to agree…when I only want our people cured…he brainwashed you…when our love died. I guess you’ve never stopped to consider my side…” She looked at Niknak, who had walked ahead, and stood waiting next to a dark hallway. “Or have you forgotten what he forced you to lose too?”

Sprocket looked at her mother and at Niknak. Pain crossed her face. “My duties are to my people, not sad affairs of broken hearts. But, mother…I will consider your words as I wait for all of this to be over.”

“I thank you daughter, and hope your siblings will as well…hopefully we can discuss being a family again before you help The Marked One save us all?” She smiled with a mother’s warmth. “And maybe…somehow…after all this, your love will be who he once was…”

Sprocket shifted uncomfortably, but she obviously wanted both to come true. “I’ll think about it…if I decide, I’ll send you clearance to visit me in Tiremound.”

“That is enough for your old mother. Until you decide, I will pray to the Many for victory.” Virette looked at Callen and produced a flash-drive from her robes. “Marked One, take this.” She pressed it into Callen’s hand. “It will show you the pieces of the cure you must seek. Find them and bring them here.” She gave him a sinister grin. “The Prophet will lead you to the Domain. We all await your revelations.”

“Is this what you were talking about in your church?” Callen asked.

Virette only smiled, and with a twist, followed by a flutter of her tattered robes, she exited the palace.

“She has something up her sleeve, I know it.” Sprocket murmured.

“What?” Callen asked.

“Don’t worry about it.” Sprocket said. “I’ll deal with her. Now, come along.”

Sprocket led them through the torch-lit hallways of the palace. They walked over chipped stone, floors of metal and wood, down rickety stairs, and under dripping pipes. They passed computer rooms and a variety of machines designed to keep the entire village running. There was a small electrical plant, filter systems for cleaning air and water. All were poorly maintained, but somehow still roared with mechanical life. Cogs were everywhere, and many were made just for keeping the castle functioning.

“Bunny-man?” Callen whispered to Niknak. Sprocket gave him a strange look.

He shook his head. “No that.” He let out a low growl. “Bad, bad.” He looked at the two armed cogs standing outside the door we looked like we were headed towards. “Stupid, stupid.”

“You two know each other?” Sprocket asked.

“No,” Niknak had stated coldly before Callen had a chance to answer.

The cog guards crossed their electric spears as they approached a vault door, but a few barks from Sprocket cleared it up. The guards uncrossed their spears, and one of the cogs spun the large tarnished metal dial. With the aid of the second cog, the heavy metal door was pulled open. Sprocket ignored the cogs as she stepped through.

Inside the vault, metal racks and shelves were bolted to the walls of an aged concert room. Stains and mold grew in the corners near a few workbenches and overflowing plastic creates chaotically stacked around the room. The parts in the crates varied across the spectrum of human technology as did the walls of weapons that hung on the walls. The room was a technological graveyard and the pieces were just waiting to be resurrected.

“Well, here we are…my father keeps all the best stuff here…” Sprocket sighed. “So, let’s make this quick…”

“If you understand English, why don’t you all just speak it?” Ania asked Sprocket.

Callen began looking at the equipment and scanning through the disassembled machinery, tools, and gear. He noted the cybernetic parts being built on one of the benches, and carefully scanned over the designs that rested near them. The gremlins understanding of technology was amazing. They were able to take chips, computers, parts from machines and build them into something that worked with their biology. He didn’t exactly understand how and he found himself hoping for a chance.

“What is this English?” She asked.

“What we are speaking now.”

“You mean the divine tongue?”

Ania nodded.

“It is only for the lips of the creators, the royal family, and those deemed worthy by my father.” Sprocket said. “Now, get what you need.”

Callen grinned as he spotted his wrist computer on the top of a crate that sat at the foot of one of the workbenches. He strapped the device on his wrist and it immediately began to sync with his goggles. He was relieved that it was in tacked. However, he realized that the EMP device was resting on the bench along with a few other items that Felix had developed. Luckily, there were just some confused writings in the notes and the device hadn’t yet been tampered with. As he clipped it on his wrist and his computer immediately informed him that the device was active. All the software Felix was installing for him had been loaded. He knew that this little device might be something he could use if these creatures decide to betray them. How, he wasn’t quite sure, but it did give him a slight bit of relief to have a device that he knew affected the gremlin’s technology.

When his goggles finished their sync, he smiled when it alerted him to the cautionary levels of poisonous gases. It wasn’t enough to hurt them, however if it increased slightly, they might need oxygen masks. Looking at Ania, she had already grabbed a portable respirator system and gas masks. She tossed him a set after loading hers into a back pack with an angry cartoon kitty on it.

“A Kitty of Suffering backpack?” Callen asked. “Wasn’t that like one of your things when you like six?”

Ania nodded and stuffed a pair of flashlights, batteries, and some plastic water bottles in the bag. “Yeah…but you liked it too…just admit it…it’s a pissed off kitty that always wants to hurt people with her diabolical plots…but ends up hurting herself…” She picked up a first aid kit she found and continued searching.

“Garfield without the lasagna.” Callen laughed as he opened one of the many boxes. Inside, he found loaded with military field rations. He gave Ania some and loaded his own backpack with survival gear. He grabbed a knife off one of the racks and a clipped it to his belt. He turned towards the door and looked at Sprocket. “Anything else you recommend?”

“You found our human food.” She shrugged. “So…” She glanced at Niknak.

Angrily, he crossed his arms and muttered something about the children being stupid. With his chin, he motioned to the racks of weapons. “Knife not enough for you.” He grumbled. “Need more weapons…tunnels very dangerous…” He pointed towards the guns near a few boxes that were loaded with a variety of ammo.

“What about you?” Callen pointed out. “You have no guns…”

Niknak glared at Sprocket. She shook her head. “I made sure I kept your shotgun in my locker.” She stepped over to a locked box bolted to the wall and opened it with a key around her neck. She pulled out a pump-action pistol grip shotgun that had seen a lot of use, but it was well cared for and was decorated with personal designs. Some of the carvings looked like alchemical runes. She handed him the weapon and a box of shells.

Niknak nodded. “Firestorm’s home.” He muttered and loaded the weapon. He looked at Callen and gestured towards the firearm racks again. He loaded the rest of the shotgun shells into empty loops on the weapons shoulder strap.

“Ok, but those are assault rifles. Neither of us is trained to use them and they’re not exactly ideal for tunnels.” Callen pointed out. “I need my gun.” He looked at Sprocket.

“The commandos gave it to me earlier.” Sprocket said, giving Callen a curious look. She pulled it out of her holster on her belt.

Callen took his hellbreaker pistol from her. The second the gun entered his hand he saw the goggles flash a small symbol that the synchronization had started. He grinned and felt as if he had a chance to get out of this mess.

“No be stupid. Crazy bad.” Niknak growled as he rummaged around through one of the benches. He looked at the children and shook his head in disgust. He handed Ania a knife and gave her a small .22 rifle. He slid open a drawer of a bench and pulled out a tactical belt, much like the ones that he was wearing. He tossed Callen the belt. “No be stupid, boy.” He glanced at the guards and at Sprocket. “Bad.”

“You don’t have to worry…I’m not…” Callen placed the pistol in the tactical holster and clipped it around his waist.

Niknak growled. “Dangerous surprises in dark…”

Ania picked up a fragmentation grenade from one of the racks and placed it in her bag. “What do you need that for?” Callen asked. “Aren’t we going to be in tunnels? Grenades and tunnels with us in them might not be exactly a good idea…”

She shrugged and shouldered the .22. “Niknak’s right…you never know.”

Niknak shook his head in disgust at Ania and stared hard at Callen as he shouldered his shotgun. He shook his head and rummaged through the ammo crates. He plucked a pair of boxes of .22 and .38 ammunition and he handed them to the siblings. “Just, no be stupid.”

**********************

 

“Alright,” Sprocket said as they left the refugee camp around Gearshire. “Niknak and Alpha squad will be your guide and protection respectively.” She sighed. “Keep this clean and religion free. The crap that was spewed in my father’s throne room is meaningless in these tunnels. Make this quick, I can do what I have to take back Forgeholm. Anything else, skip it, I can’t have you wasting time chasing ghosts, got it?”

“I really don’t have that choice,” Callen said. “Your father has my friends and a bunch of innocent children captured. I won’t let them die. If that means searching for ‘ghosts,’ you’re just going to have to wait.”

They reached the waiting commando squad. Niknak darted towards the closest tunnel and crouched on some rubble. He pulled a knife and began rolling it between his fingers.

“Sarge, where is the last member of alpha squad?” Sprocket asked a gremlin commando leader that looked like a four foot tall Austrian body builder with long pointed ears.

“Kusari is coming.” Sarge adjusted his M16 with a grenade launcher on his shoulder. He let out a thick cloud of smoke from his cigar.

Sprocket nodded. “I guess I should formally introduce you all. These are not only the most skilled warriors among our people, they are also my most trusted.” She pointed at the commando. “I think you know Sarge, he’s alpha’s commanding officer. Alpha’s members are Tuco, alpha’s sniper…Nikolai is alpha’s medical support…and Kusari is alpha’s stealth expert.”

“Ok,” Callen said as he looked at the strange cast of soldiers before him. All had similar armored uniforms with their own personal touches added to them. So he wouldn’t offend them, he swallowed his laughter as he realized they were all stereotypes from many of his favorite movies.

“Hole, Uno Marcado.” The one Sprocket called ‘Tuco’ took off his sombrero and bowed. As he returned to attention, he adjusted the poncho he was wearing over his armored uniform. Underneath, he wore several gun belts and a few finely kept single action revolvers. Happily, he patted his Winchester rifle modified with a sniper scope.

“It is an honor, Marked One,” Nikolai spoke with a fake Russian accent. Along with the medical equipment he carried in his large pack, he carried a Russian light machine gun and a few large plastic bottles of some clear liquid with the picture of a Russian czar glued on it.

“Sorry, I’m late,” Kusari said as she approached. She pulled on a ninja hood on which covered some stitches on the back of her neck along with her cropped pink hair. Attached to her lighter version of Sprocket’s armor, she carried a variety of archaic martial arts weapons, including a pair of swords and the contemporary addition of a silenced submachine gun.

“I wish I could be accompanying you all to Forgeholm, but I will take you all as far as Fort Tiremound. All roads towards Forgeholm start there.” Sprocket admitted. “But, I wish you the best of luck.”

The siblings looked at each other. Both had the same look on their faces. They were digesting the absurdity of what had just happened. The steps they took from potential sacrifice to savior was a lot to take in. The road ahead didn’t seem much better and the fear on all of the gremlins’ faces only made everything worse.

 

 

 

 

 

[]CHAPTER NINETEEN

 

By the flickering light from the lanterns and torches that lined the tunnel walls, they hiked Through twisted tunnels chipped from layers of earth and long buried surface architecture. The road was heavily traveled, crowded with groups of gremlins dragging carts full of salvaged gear. They passed a few military patrols and several groups of religious missionaries spreading the word of The Many.

The road was well defended by strategically placed, heavily armed military checkpoints. They passed bodies of gremlins that died along the roads and cleanup crews with flame throwers.

The weave of tunnels that Niknak lead them through brought them into a cavern dominated by a massive fort, built of concrete and old tires, on the shore of an underground lake. Docks ran out from the fort, and on the ramparts a variety of weapons sat ready for an attack from the water or from the few tunnels that were beyond it’s strong walls.

“Welcome to Tiremound.” Pride hung in Sprocket’s voice. “The only place in all of the gremlin kingdom that is free of religious influence. The frontline has no place for that…and luckily…there’s nothing that we hate more than goblins.”

A small mechanical door built into one of the two massive gates opened as they approached. Through the door, the military fort was extremely busy. Soldiers drilled, rested, were cooking things and entertained themselves with games near the barracks and a collection of tents.

“Sarge,” Sprocket said. “Sarge, take your team and rest up…you guys have access to any gear you think you may need…and feel free to grab a meal.” She glanced at Niknak. “Niknak, help Alpha team …you know what they will need for the trip better than anyone. I’ll get the Marked One and his sister something to eat while we talk. I bet you two are starving.”

Callen looked at Ania, and the siblings nodded. “I definitely could use something to eat.”

“Alright then, I’ll have some food brought up to us…we’ll make it a working lunch.” Sprocket pointed to a large building in the back. “The command room is inside.” Sprocket said. “I’ll also show you what I know about Forgeholm, so you’re going in there less blind. Come on.”

Niknak went with Alpha team towards the building that was marked ‘Armory’ in neon lights and the siblings followed Sprocket up a set of stairs to a balcony that overlooked the fort. From that vantage point, they could see the tunnels and the dark water beyond the walls. Before the tunnels, defensive trenches had been dug and soldiers kept watch. Others kept moving bodies and stacking them near the tunnel mouths.

“A lot of attacks come this way.” Sprocket said. “The tunnels beyond Tiremound’s walls are perilous. I don’t know how Niknak manages to survive out there.”

“You’re really well armed here.” Callen pointed out as he looked at the fort’s defenses. “You’re telling me you can’t move past this position?”

“There’re several reasons.” Sprocket said. “Most of it’s political, and the other, well, when we have tried. It looks like the goblins have some sort of seer, sorcerer, or visionary that allows them to anticipate our movements. It’s frustrating, because I think things would be different if our people were united. Maybe then, we could coordinate something massive and overwhelm their seer’s ability to anticipate our movements. Hell, we can’t even get an assassin in there and it isn’t like Niknak would do it. The other problem is…our other settlements won’t agree to aid a siege without you…”

“I guess that’s where I come in.” Callen sighed. “Two-fold…”

“It seems that way. I may find their religious debate frivolous, but part of me is glad your arrival has forced everyone to work together…and, hopefully, that will find us a cure for this plague. The only thing that bothers me is that my father will make me answer to you when we finally decide to siege Forgeholm.”

“That’s the only thing that bothers you about this?” Callen scoffed. “Seriously?”

“If I focused on all the things that bothered me, then nothing would ever get done.” Sprocket sighed. “I find what my father and mother have done to the children they ordered to be stolen for their religious practices to be horrible. I would have never condoned such atrocities.”

“Are they safe?” Callen asked. “Will your father live up to his word?”

“He won’t have them killed if that’s what you mean.” Sprocket answered. “But, today’s ritual would allow you to draw an incomplete conclusion about what happens to those they take. Most, don’t die like the boy you saw. That only happens to one or maybe two a batch, while my father’s physician adjusts his machine.”

“What happens to the rest?” Ania asked. The look on her face showed that she was preparing for the worst.

“At first they were traded, now my mother takes them…for what, I don’t know.” Sprocket sighed. “That started after my mother claimed to receive some vision from people on the surface that shared her beliefs.”

“She said something about that when she captured me…” Callen pointed out. “She thought I was one of them at first…she seemed to be expecting someone…”

Sprocket shrugged. “I have no idea, except that it was negotiated because my father was losing soldiers willing to go to the surface to take humans for the cause of the Forger. They negotiated…his advisors weren’t even called, and I was asked to leave. I have no idea what for…although, I’ve heard the screams, but the ones that survive are returned to the surface.”

“How many were taken?” Callen asked.

“I don’t know.” Sprocket admitted. “A lot is all I know, perhaps thousands…maybe more?”

“How long did this go on?” Ania asked.

“A while.” Sprocket said. “It started soon after the plague began…it’s been going on while…”

“How did you get away with it?” Ania asked. Her voice was heavy with shock. “ How did no one notice?”

“They did. Hence the news reports and grandpa’s investigation…” Callen said. “But, it wasn’t soon enough…”

“They started with the homeless.” Sprocket explained.

“I guess no one ever questions someone going missing when they’re missing or unwanted in the first place.” Ania’s posture slumped with gloom.

“Or those who live off the grid,” Callen added. “That makes them the perfect victims for evil things because no one comes looking unless bodies start showing up…in this case they never did…”

“I’ll do what I can to protect those that my father has captured from any harm.” Sprocket said. “I can’t promise much, but I’ll do what I can. I do have the scarab and coin after all.”

“Thanks,” Callen said. “It obviously controls the gremlins…so, do you know how to use it?”

“Only a little.” Sprocket did little to hide detest for the scarab. “My father could control everyone in his presence, that includes the TVs and speakers he has around the village. With it, I could only dominate one or two. There was a book that disappeared that I know had a few verses translated that allowed him to learn to use the coin…I don’t know where it went though. I think it was lost when we were forced to leave Forgeholm. But, my bet is that it has more power over my people than even my father has been able to use.”

“If it’s so powerful, then why did he give it up?” Ania asked.

“He can’t keep everyone under constant control. He has to sleep. When that happened, our people would smash the monitors, microphones, everything that he could speak to them through…then, they would collapse the palace on him from a distance in rebellion.” She said. “He had to give it up, Niknak wouldn’t have taken you to Forgeholm otherwise, and that would unite all the gremlin people in a way that he is trying to avoid.”

“Why did he not just control Niknak?” Callen asked.

“Niknak’s not like us…he’s something more…no one knows what…he’s a living legend.” Sprocket said. There was a bit of romantic admiration in her voice. “He is immune to the scarabs effects and if anyone wants him to do something he has to be convinced.”

“But, Bracket seemed to have some hold over him…” Callen pointed out.

“No,” Sprocket said. “He has some brain or computing issues, but he is the only one of us that is free from the scarab. I long for that kind of freedom.”

“But you seem to be able to have your own thoughts,” Ania said.

“All of us can…except cogs.” Sprocket said. “Acting on the ones that my father doesn’t like is a problem. No one can oppose him directly. But luckily, he’s done well for our people. So, despite religious disapproval, there hasn’t been civil war…but the plague has broken that stability…and if it weren’t for what happened today…” She shivered.

Callen nodded. “I got that…” He looked out over the water and watched some of the rowboats moving towards the docks. He was lost in the strange beauty. Here he was on the fort’s ramparts overlooking an underground lake. High places always comforted him. He laughed when he looked at the ceiling. He understood the irony. “Sprocket, how exactly does this place exist? I mean…all of this is…”

She nodded. “I can see how it would be hard to understand for a human. But, your world is like that for us…only those strong enough will sneak above…to get things you throw away…and the bravest will go a bit further.”

“I saw a report on the news about hidden under cities…but I had no idea…this is more like an entire world,” Callen admitted. “Do you ever find humans down here?”

“Sometimes.” Sprocket sighed. “But they don’t live long…ultimately, we don’t know what built this part of the world. We were freed into it by your father. Beyond that, I have no idea. The goblins and maybe…a few of the bands of intelligent trolls might have some idea…”

“Maybe, no one has ever really looked?” Ania asked.

“I don’t know…perhaps it’s magic.” Sprocket shrugged. “The stories that some of the old gremlin women tell stories about how we go to the world above when we die…but until then, we avoid humans…and they care not for us.”

“Like God’s angels…” Ania pointed out. “There are few in Christianity that care for humans.”

“Yeah…if you believe in them.” Callen shook his head.

“Well, a lot of us believe in you.” Sprocket pointed out. “And here you are…” She paused. “For better or worse…” She sighed and walked over to an opening that hung with a tattered curtain. “But, enough about that stuff, let’s eat.” She pulled it open and motioned for the siblings to enter. “Afterward, I can also show you our map.”

They entered the hallway and took the staircase down. Lit by torches and candles, the mess hall was lined with rows of tables, like a cafeteria made from a variety of salvaged materials. In the back, several fireplaces glowed and a group of gremlins worked franticly to cook rats and other exotic subterranean meat. They seasoned bubbling caldrons with molds and mushrooms while singing something in their odd language.

“I hope that’s not what you’re planning on feeding us,” Ania said. “I’m a vegetarian.”

“A vegetarian?” Sprocket said. “You mean a herbivore…aren’t those the things that carnivores eat? I saw that once in a book about giant lizards.”

Callen laughed, but it wasn’t because he was dying to eat roasted rodent. “I think we’ll be fine with the field rations.” He said. “Rat and mold isn’t either of our things…”

Sprocket shrugged. “More for us,” She shrugged. “So, I guess you can eat whatever’s in those silver packages you grabbed when we look at the map.”

They went back up the stairs into a room with a large fireplace. The windows were tight to prevent projectiles from slipping through, but they did provide a good view of the surrounding the battlefield. Next to a large hearth, sat a table and chairs built of leather and bone. A massive head of a mutated alligator hung looking over the room from its post above the roaring fire.

Sprocket stepped up to the table that had several large browning pieces of paper nailed to it. After pressing a button, a group of pale electric lights flickered on. On the papers, an elaborate set of maps had been drawn. The maps showed side views, top views, and artistic attempts at two-dimensional representations of the 3-D nature of the underground world.

As Callen snapped pictures with his goggles, he was overwhelmed for a moment with the complexity and the depth, not only of the detail, but the scale of what they were mapping. This world was amazing. The a near endless network of tunnels connected caverns and various surface buildings, like subway tunnels and the basements of buildings, was overwhelming. He wished he wasn’t too deep to connect to Mavis and have these maps made into a 3-D version. He did take note on some of the paths that he would need to take if he needed to make his way back without a guide.

Sprocket pointed to one of the maps that seemed to be a few city blocks from Tiremound. “Well, this is where our military patrols have gotten to. Beyond this zone, its solid goblins…there are tunnels that will avoid their patrols, only Niknak knows them. Though, don’t ask me how.”

“The map looks pretty detailed.” Ania looked over the maps. She pointed to a spot that was outlined with lighter and less detailed markings than the rest of the map. “I guess that’s Forgeholm?”

Sprocket nodded. “The map is made from our memories. But, a lot can change in eight years and goblins aren’t known to be good house guests. Actually, quite the opposite.” She sighed. “There are only a few entrances that we didn’t collapse upon our retreat.” Sprocket explained. “So, Niknak will take you to Forgeholm through one of these. I dare not speculate which, given even if he were here to tell you, it could change depending on what happens out there. But note, here is the rune-covered holy door into the domain.”

“There looks to be tunnels that wrap around…” From her bag, Ania handed Callen a bottle of water and she tore open the ration’s foil. “Are there other doors?”

“I imagine so, but I haven’t seen them.” Sprocket said. “However, even if there was, this is the holy door. So, it’s the only one we know of and the one we left from, you will have to use that one.”

“Why do religious types always pick the stupidest and most difficult way to get things done?” Callen asked rhetorically. He opened his ration and took a swig of water. “We gotta have the door that’s blocked by a village full of bloodthirsty monsters rather than a stroll through a grassy park.”

“If that park was central park, in Philly, Boston, or New York,” Ania said. “I think I’d choose the goblins…”

“Maybe that will change with the corporations getting involved,” Callen said. “But, corporations rarely make things better…”

“What?” Sprocket said. “I agree with religion making things complicated, but what are corporations?”

“Big businesses,” Ania said. “That humans work in. Instead of kings, our world has CEOs and instead of priests, we have CFOs.”

“Oh.” Sprocket sounded like she only partially understood what they were saying, but she didn’t ask for clarification. Instead, she pointed back at the map. “There are many routes Niknak can take…my guess is that he will take the least traveled route which will go through the tunnel nearest to the lake and down. He knows paths that he will never share with anyone…so, I guess it’s purposeless to guess. But, from what is remembered of Gearshire, no matter which direction you approach it from, you’ll need a distraction of some kind to get to the door.”

“Ah, that’s where my team comes in.” Sarge said as he entered the room. He was carrying a backpack. “Princess-General, you will need to order more C4. I took the last of it.”

“Noted.” Sprocket said. “Is everyone else ready?”

“Of course. Nikolai filled his medical supply bag and everyone got more ammo. They are resting in the mess hall.” Sarge said. “Since it’s meal time, and the goblins are most active after this meal, I think we should wait until tomorrow before we go. That will give everyone enough time to rest up for the trip.”

“Agreed.” Sprocket said. “I will send word to give your team cots in the barracks. Marked One, Ania, you can use the guest chamber near my quarters. I’ll have another cot brought in there.”

After eating their field rations, Callen and Ania were lead by Sprocket to the guest chamber. It didn’t look like much, but it was functional. The two cots were waiting in the room. Each came with a pair of rough blankets and pillows.

“The waste chamber is down the hall.” Sprocket said.

“Waste chamber?” Ania asked. “You mean the restroom?”

“If that’s what you want to call it.” Sprocket said. “But, Marked One, I have a favor to ask of you.”

“Alright.” He sounded skeptical.

“I ask you, that when you return, that you let me do the battle plans.” Sprocket pleaded. “I will tell them to you and then, you can tell them to the troops. I want to win this.”

“What you trying to say?” Callen said with a jesting sarcasm. “That I’m not a skilled general?”

“Ah…” Sprocket sounded a little thrown off. “Well, I don’t mean to offend…but, yes.”

“Good.” Callen laughed. “Because I would have to agree. It’s all you.”

“Good, I am glad.” Sprocket’s posture calmed. “Religion has no place guiding decisions in warfare, and I only saw ruin if you didn’t see the logic.”

“Well, I don’t see religion having much purpose anywhere.” Callen sighed. “Only idiots believe in things without proof…but here we are marching to find a cure for the plague because of some myth…”

“A funny thing to hear from the mouth of a religious figure.” Sprocket said with a smile.

Callen laughed. “Yeah, well, I’m wondering how exactly I got that status among your people, and I’m guessing I’ll find out when I go into the domain…”

“Be careful what you ask for.” Sprocket said. “You may not like what you find…”

“Yeah, well, even if that’s true, I doubt I’ll find anything that will shatter my faith,” Callen said. “Considering I really don’t have any…”

Sprocket nodded, and a slight attention-grabbing growl caused her glanced down the hall. She grinned slightly. “I’m coming.” She said, before turning back to Callen and Ania. “You two rest up. You have a difficult journey ahead of you.” She turned and closed the door.

Callen turned towards his cot and began preparing it while Ania peaked out the door. “She’s with Niknak,” Ania sounded happy, like she was watching a romantic movie. “He feels more stable and his colors show how important she is to him…and vice versa. They calm each other…make each other whole.”

Callen sat down on the cot and twisted to lie down. “So?” He said. “Your point?”

Ania shrugged. “I just think it’s nice.” She said. “There’s some good in these gremlins.”

“Yeah.” Callen scoffed. “Maybe in one or two of them…to them we’re…”

“Gods,” Ania said. “Maybe we can use that status to our advantage.”

“We’re gonna have to consider that this seems like a bunch of opportunistic bullshit,” Callen stated. “But, I don’t know how far that will go. Sprocket’s priestess mother, I just have a bad feeling about her…her church is full of icons of the metal demons…and she sacrifices humans…”

“I don’t blame you for having a bad feeling,” Ania climbed onto the other cot. “I mean, even if there weren’t icons of the metal demons, having a bad feeling probably wouldn’t be a surprise…”

“No, not at all.” Callen yawned. “But, I don’t think a holy gremlin cure locked in a sealed underground laboratory makes much sense…”

“So, I take it you believe Sprocket in that the goblins created it?”

“That seems most likely, but I don’t know…I guess it doesn’t matter much how it started…we just have to end it. Somehow.” He sounded frustrated. “But, I think we should get some rest.”

“Yeah, me too.” Ania curled up on her cot.

“Sleep well…err…the best you can,” Callen closed his eyes.

“You too.” She said. “And Callen, thanks for saving me today.”

“I’m glad I was able too.”

“But, Callen,” Ania said. “Don’t die before we get to this domain…”

“Don’t worry…” Callen did his best to sound confident. “I’m pretty sure that the domain is dad’s lab.”

“Panacea.” Ania smiled. “You think the myth is built on your cure…”

“A possibility, but if it is, then we need to find another way to cure the gremlins. The lives of those kids, Tende…and…” He paused and a lump grew in this throat. “And…Sadie…are depending on us…”

“Yeah…no pressure…” she swallowed hard. “But, we can’t tell the gremlins it’s for you. So we have to play along…”

“Yeah, all as we can do now is learn as much as we can about these gremlins…and look for something we can use against them. I don’t trust them and we may need to exploit any weakness we find in order to ensure everyone gets out alive.”

“That sounds a little cold,” Ania said. “But, I guess we don’t have a choice…” She sighed. “Oh, and Callen…one more thing…the gremlins…the sick ones…it looks like they’re dying of something similar to Renee…”

“What?”

“I noticed it when we left Gearshire…”

“Similar how?”

“Well, the gremlin plague is magically enhanced…but not nearly as potent as what Renee died of.”

“What does that mean?”

“Sprocket’s idea about a sorcerer has to be right…”

“Well, maybe that’s who we have to kill to cure them…and I get panacea…looks like we got our work cut out for us…now let’s get some sleep.”

**********************

 

“What’s inside?” The bunny-man asked pointing to Callen’s Lego robot creation. “How does it work?” He sat down next to Callen on the floor of his father’s office with a huge grin.

“Umm…what do you mean?” Callen asked. “He attacks the knights, but the knights have magic guns and swords.”

“No, what is inside that makes the robot work?” he asked rubbing his arm. Niknak’s arms had a lot of needle marks, but no tattoos. “Did master tell you to think about what happens inside?”

“No, daddy didn’t ask,” Callen answered as he adjusted the Lego robot’s guns.

“He just a robot or he have organics too?”

“Just a robot,” Callen said. “Daddy never told me about that other stuff.”

“All electronic.” He said. “CPU brain, motherboard, sensors, controls…everything. Not complicated. They are controlled by computer language and mechanical parts not by electrical nerve impulses and muscle contractions. I have both.”

Callen shrugged. “I don’t know. It is just a toy bunny-man. Do you want to play?”

“Show me how, please.”

Callen nodded and showed him how to play with Legos. He took two of the blocks and stuck them together. “See? You can put them together to make stuff.”

He nodded when he understood. “What should I make?” He asked.

“Umm…well, I have a robot…the knights are ready.” Callen grabbed a plastic container that was sitting next to him and pulled off the lid. He took out a mountain covered in Lego plants that he opened to reveal a hidden laboratory full of knights. “I’ll make you!” Callen smiled. “Bunny-man and I can fight the robots!”

Niknak smiled. “Yeah! Make me!” Callen started rummaging through his extra Legos. “But if you make me with the extra pieces, then I will be too big!”

“I’m gonna use these,” Callen said pointing to the extra body parts. “You build the people from the parts that look like people.”

“But they are yellow and they don’t have pointed ears or blue robot eyes.” Niknak sighed.

“Well, I don’t have yellow skin. It is pretend.” Callen said. “See?” He picked up the Lego figure that he used to represent himself. The figurine held a pistol in his hand. “I have a pistol like mommy.”

“But…” Niknak started to say.

Callen jumped up and grabbed a white and a blue marker off of his father’s desk. He sat down and colored the head white and marked the eyes blue. “Good enough?” He asked. “We can just pretend it has long ears since they all don’t have any ears.” He handed him the Lego figure.

“Pretend. I like pretend.” Niknak nodded as he looked at it. He picked up two swords from the bin. “Can we pretend these are knives too? He asked.

“Yup.”

“Ok, good.” Niknak placed the figure inside the mountain fortress. “Can I build a fort?”

“Yeah! There’re enough extra pieces.”

“I will build combat school.” Niknak grinned. “Mistress can train me and you to fight robots there.”

“Yeah!” Callen said. “But then we need more bad guys. ‘Cause if we get training, we will be awesome. But, we need to make mommy too.”

“And make an army of monsters to fight,” Niknak said. “Use the monster heads.” He pointed to the green heads in the Lego box that looked like monster heads from one of the assorted Lego sets.

“We need dwarves like grandpa and uncle Balkor to help,” Callen said. “I’ll make them too.” He grabbed the Lego box and dumped it on the floor and quickly got to work.

The wall next to Callen suddenly slid open with a low rumble. “Niknak, everything’s ready,” Alex said as he stepped into the office. “Let’s go.”

“But Daddy, Bunny-man and I are playing,” Callen said. “We didn’t even get to start our game…”

“You guys can play later. Niknak and I have important work that needs to be finished.” Alex said. “We’ve talked about this…you know we don’t have a choice. When we finish, you can play with bunny-man all you want.”

“Okay Daddy,” Callen said. “But, can I come?”

“Yeah, come on.”

In addition to the robot, Callen grabbed the Lego figures that represented himself and Niknak. He hopped up and followed them through the door, which closed behind them. They walked down a metal staircase and emerged in a lab loaded with a variety of machinery, equipment, tanks, benches and computers. Callen plopped himself down in one of the chairs and began playing with his toys.

“Alright, Niknak, hop into the chamber.”

“Yes, master.” He said. “Time for application?’

“Yup,” Alex answered.

“No more pain?” he asked as he climbed into the medical tank.

“With any luck, after this, it won’t hurt again.” Alex began hooking up wires and tubes to him that were attached to electronic panels inside the bed.

“I don’t like needles.” Niknak said.

“Yeah, I know…sorry about that,” Alex said. “I either have to cut you open or use needles to get the stuff into your blood. You are going to be a petri dish in this test, Niknak. I’m going to try to keep you comfortable.”

“I know,” Niknak said. “Is everything ready to begin making the final version when you get all the data you need?”

“Yes, and with all our work, it should be close to perfect,” Alex answered. “I wrote all the programs and prepared all the equipment. The programming will happen upstairs as your data is collected. Both will be done at the same time with all the modeling. Any errors will be compensated for. Hopefully, by Christmas everything will be all set.”

“Good.” He said as he rested his head down on some mechanical device. “Will it make my skin change colors like the previous versions?”

“Unfortunately, yes. No matter what the simulations showed a blotched change in skin color.” Alex said. “However, I made sure this time around that they look like tattoos in a pattern. The designs will start from the small nodes under your skin, but we’ll have to wait to find out what they look like.”

“Did you do Celtic tribal ones daddy?” Callen asked. “You have those in that book…”

“Mommy designed them,” Alex said. “But, I placed the nodes for the designs for both of you last test.”

“Why you going to do it to the Bunny-man too, Daddy?” Callen asked.

“Bunny man is sick, just like you… I got something that will cure him and will help me to cure you.” He hit a few buttons on the control panel attached to the bed. “Alright, Niknak. This shouldn’t hurt. Least I don’t think it will…”

The cover closed on the bed sealing Niknak inside. Alex walked over to the main computer console and began entering commands. Some large canisters began bubbling. “Here it goes.” He whispered.

Callen watched thick chemicals began pumping through tubing connected to the bed and to the Bunny-man. His face twisted in pain. He screamed, but there was no sound. He started to spasm.

Alex input commands into the computer. Inside the bed capsule, Niknak began to relax. Callen could see copper spirals forming around the needles in his body and copper tentacles begin to entwine with his skin. The beginnings of a Celtic tribal pattern began to form.

“That’s going to have to be worked on a bit,” Alex said. “He is much more resilient than a human. I can’t have it cause cardiac arrest…” He whispered.

“Is he okay, Daddy?” Callen asked.

“Oh yeah, he is fine. Everything is under control.”

“Can he play now daddy?”

“No, he is going to be in there until Christmas, sorry pup,” Alex said. “There’s a lot of data to collect…and a lot of work to be done.”

“Can he come to Christmas?”

“If all goes well, we will all have a lot to celebrate,” Alex said. “That’s for sure.”

 

 

 

 

 

[]CHAPTER TWENTY

 

After leaving through Fort Tiremound’s massive rusty gate and following Niknak along the edge of the underground lake into the tunnels, the siblings learned quickly that moving beyond gremlin territory was extremely difficult. The tunnels weren’t lit, except by some strange glowing molds and mushrooms growing between the jagged tunnel walls.

Callen and Ania were forced to learn how to navigate the hazardous environment rapidly in order to just keep the gremlin soldiers in sight. They crawled, climbed, jumped, and shimmied over pipes, rubble, and around narrow paths over pits. They trudged through the putrid-smelling water and dodged the occasional subway train when their path bent close to the surface.

As they hiked, there was no time for conversation. Not only were the siblings being pushed to their athletic limit, but the gremlin soldiers were anxious. They were anticipating a coming battle. They moved like a well-oiled unit, and they were obviously veterans of their secret war in these dark tunnels. However, they didn’t move like they took their experience for granted, and cracks in their stone cold expressions revealed an anxious fear of what lay ahead of them. After about a day of travel, they stopped to rest when the tunnel went underwater.

“Short swim,” Niknak said. “Rest. Hope good at holding breath.”

Sarge began preparing a small fire as the rest of his team set a parameter around the camp. Ania handed Callen one of the field rations from her bag.

“So, you defeated two of our team, Marked One,” Sarge said looking at Callen. “That’s impressive.” There was no anger in his voice.

“You aren’t angry?” Callen asked as he tore open the field rations.

“No. Both Chuck and Glitch are great warriors. The Marked One is a greater warrior. Being defeated by you is an honor. “ He said. “And there is no greater honor than dying in battle. So, if they die, you honor them two fold. Besides, you are to save our people.”

“Righ…” Callen started to say sarcastically, but a glance from Niknak stopped him mid-sentence. “Ah, yeah. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m your savior.” He tried to sound confident, but Niknak’s glance disturbed him. The look of murder glowed in the creature’s eyes.

“I’m sure you need your rest, Marked One,” Sarge said. “My squad and I have to set our parameter. We leave you two to eat.” He stood up and left the siblings and Niknak at the fire.

After eating, Callen played around with his wrist computer to see what Felix had managed to install. Much to his dismay, the larger programs like the creature identifier, and some of the complex scanners weren’t working because they required connection to the knight’s database and it was searching for a signal.

“You think anyone can find us down here?” Ania said with a forlorn expression.

“Nope…there’s no signal…we’re too deep.” Callen admitted. “It’s on us to make it back. I just wish that I had a chance to go back to before I ran after you and…” He cursed. “It was irrational. I don’t know what was going through my head…”

“Don’t do that,” Ania said. “If you didn’t I could be dead and so could Sadie and Tende. Those things could have burned through every one of us.” She gave a thankful smile. “It isn’t the best situation, but at least we have a chance to make it right. I’m thanking God for that.”

“There’s a waste of breath.” Callen scoffed. “But, still, I can’t deny your optimism.”

“I don’t like this either, Callen,” Ania said. “But, here we are…possibly on the way to Dad’s lab…”

“What’s to like?” Callen sighed. “I just wish I had some concrete evidence that we were headed to Dad’s lab.”

“Don’t we?” Ania asked.

“I don’t consider religious dogma proof of anything,” Callen said. “Sure, it suggests that, but I want to be sure. Maybe…” He glanced at Niknak, who had just pulled out a pipe and was lighting some strange cave mold.

“Can we talk with him here?” Ania whispered. “Maybe he’ll confirm we’re headed to Dad’s lab.”

“I don’t know,” Callen answered as he looked at Niknak. “I don’t know if the Bunny-man even remembers…” He said, almost in disbelief. He hoped that Niknak would respond to his nickname, but he only briefly sneered and smoked his pipe.

“So, what was that priestess’s deal?” Ania asked after Niknak didn’t take his chance to speak. “She seems to be playing a game of cloak and dagger…”

“Yeah, and the riddles are nonsense.” Callen agreed. “But, maybe the data the priestess gave me will shed some light on something.” He unzipped his backpack and pulled out the flash drive she gave him along with his laptop. “Oh, by the way, your drawings saved my butt.”

“Yeah?” Ania grinned.

“Especially the squid-skull,” Callen said. “That’s the priestess religious symbol. I admit, I don’t like the coincidence with that being a symbol in the code I hacked or looking like the metal demons, but, hey…I’m not complaining…”

“Yeah, it’s weird that it is also a symbol in Shadowborne,” Ania said. “I saw the similarities, but I just felt as if I should add it to your computer decorations. I did it despite the chills it sent up my spine to add the skull of those monsters to my artwork…”

“Well, like you said before about my irrational moment, yours saved us too,” Callen said. “Now, let me see what I can find on the flash-drive and salvage what I can from my damaged computer.” He connected his wrist computer to the laptop and began setting up the parameters to upload what he thought was important. However, before he could activate anything, his wrist computer came alive. Something had begun uploading on its own. “What the…” He whispered and tried to get it to stop, but it was too late.

He pulled up the logs and read through the code. It wasn’t a virus. He never got viruses, but whatever it was, he couldn’t tell what type of file it was. He shook his head in confusion. He had built both of these devices and programmed everything on them. He shook his head. The file came from the drivers for the touch screen on his laptop. He tried to access the file, but it wouldn’t activate.

He shut the laptop off once he determined it hadn't done anything harmful to his wrist computer. He shook his head and sighed before looking at Virette's flash-drive. Inside, he found an assortment of pictures of the pages of an old book. The pages were all handwritten in alchemy symbols making it impossible for him to read. The fourth page then had a picture that looked like a cylinder container labeled with the same symbols. The next page contained six metallic colored circles with more strange symbols next to them as well. The top was gold, silver, rusted iron, bronze, copper, and dark steel. The first four were crossed out, the fifth had the letters NN and AT next to it, and the final one just had AT next to it and was circled. "Guess this is what I'm to look for." He said to Ania as he highlighted the dark steel colored circle. When he did that, a note dropped down, which read: 'Carrier, needs to be retrieved... ~Virette.'

“What’s it say?” Ania asked.

“I can’t read it” He answered. “But there’s hand drawings of some complicated containment canister that, Virette noted, needs to be retrieved.”

“It has to be panacea.” She stated. “But, why does she want it? Didn’t dad make it for you?”

“As far as I know.” Callen sighed. “But, who knows…”

“What are you going to do?” Tears gathered in her eyes. “If…”

“We’re getting ahead of ourselves.” Callen interrupted and flipped forward in the file. “One thing at a time.”

As Ania calmed herself, he spread the pages out in his HUD so that he could see them all at once. He zoomed in on the last two pages, one looked like design plans for a human body with no face. In the lower corner, there were images of four faces. One had sad eyes and a tear, one was angry, one had its eyes and mouth sewn shut and the last looked like a skull. There were notes about recovery here from Virette as well, but he couldn’t determine any more detail than that she desired what was on this page. The other page held images of a strange device that looked like one of the unused medical tanks in his workshop. He guessed the later, being that it was drawn among a group of machinery that looked vaguely familiar. It was here, among the variety of symbols, that Virette noted that was the Many’s last place of mythological continuousness. However, she had circled everything, and what she wanted here was not specific. He wished he could understand the symbols. There was a chance that they would shed some light on the situation. He glanced at Ania and handed her his goggles. “Recognize the symbols?”

“The previous ones near the metal circles, are alchemy glyphs. But, not all of them are. I have no idea about the meaning and your guesses are as good as mine.” Ania said, with a shrug. “But, some of her regular notes point to Virette thinking her god was trapped in something here…and she seems to think that freeing it will do something good for the gremlins. Maybe that’s the cure they want?” her voice sounded hopeful. “Maybe it can work out for everyone…other than that, I got nothing.”

“I doubt it will work out like that…” Callen sighed.

“I guess she wants us to collect that canister, those faces…whatever they are…and free her faceless god?” Ania sighed. “Are all of them together the cure?”

“Or just one of them or maybe a combination?” He leaned back on his hands. “There’re just too many holes here…I feel like we’re going on a high-stakes wild goose chase based on lies.” Callen shrugged. “Maybe…” He looked towards Niknak, almost as if it was reflex to ask him a question.

Niknak was sitting by the fire with all his knives unsheathed and laid out in front of him. He looked as if he were in his own world. As he sharpened his knives, he mumbled and munched on a high-calorie energy bar.

Of all of his knives, the last one he worked was the one he paid careful attention to. It was a strange knife that sparkled in the firelight revealing a swirled three toned dark blue, dark steel, and silver blade, like an ocean during a storm. The single edged blade was about four inches long and reminded Callen of a dragon’s tooth. The grip was made of some sort of white material carved or molded to maintain its gripping texture even when soaked in slippery blood. However, the strangeness of the knife was not what interested Callen. He recognized the knife. It belonged to his mother.

He took the last bite of his energy bar and flipped the final knife through his fingers like it was weightless. His hand moved like it was some sort of master dancer twirling his beautiful partner in the final musical number of an award winning performance. It moved in his hand as if the knife was a part of him, but he stopped as soon as he noticed the siblings watching him. He glared angrily at Callen.

“Wow,” Callen said. “That is amazing.” He drew a breath to transition to asking Niknak about the knife, but Kusari approaching them cut him off.

“Yes, very impressive,” Kusari approached from one of the tunnels near their camp. “I have heard of your prowess, Prophet, but never seen it…until the other day.” Her voice was dangerous and seductive obviously modeled after a combination of James Bond girls with an Asian accent. She stopped behind Callen and turned towards one of the other tunnels. “Sarge, Tuco, and Nikolai are on their way back. Sensors are in place. We will be able to rest for a bit.”

Niknak snorted and looked up with a hateful glare. “No like.” He sheathed his weapons like lightning. “Bad, bad. You very bad. No take.” He twitched. “Must take!” He twitched again. “No! Bad, bad.”

“Niknak, do you know my father?” Callen asked. He resisted the urge to call him Bunny-Man in front of Kusari.

Niknak’s face seemed to get even angrier looking if that was even possible. “Master no talk. Bad, bad.” He tightened his grip on the dagger he was sharpening. “Must stop! Bad, bad!” He lunged across the fire.

Callen’s eyes instantly locked shut. The dagger cut only air and he felt its breeze against his neck. He swallowed hard and opened his eyes to see Niknak’s neck being held by Sarge’s muscular arm. Niknak’s flesh eye grew wide with surprise. He started twitching as he stared at Callen.

“The boy must live!” Niknak growled angrily and began to twitch uncontrollably. “I got back just in time!” Sarge then threw him to the ground and Niknak’s seizures got even worse. “Ah, what the hell is wrong with you, Prophet? We need the Marked One!”

Niknak continued to twitch for a few more seconds and then stopped completely. His electronic blue eye then pulsed like the light on a computer as if he was rebooting.

“What the…” Callen started.

“Ah, he always having problems,” Sarge said. “That part of dah reason we were sent with you. He has always been an unpredictable asset.”

Niknak began muttering on the floor about bads, liquid metal, kill, burning, mark, master, many and Thorne. The string of words was incoherent.

“He does that a lot?” Ania asked.

“Ah, he does…Priestess Virette calls them his trances. That’s where his prophecy comes from.”

“Like the Oracle of Delphi,” Ania said. “You know, they were drugged…”

“Well, that’s special,” Callen said. “Besides him being crazy, what’s the other reason you all were sent with us?”

“Our mission is to protect you,” Sarge answered. “But, personally, I would like to see Forgeholm again with my own eyes.”

“So, do you have any problem with opening the domain, like Bracket did?” Ania asked.

“If it does bring a cure to this plague, I do whatever I have to,” Sarge said. “As will all of Alpha squad…we all volunteered and are sworn to help you find what will turn the mark outward…”

“Yeah, for some reason, that only make me picture me exploding,” Callen grumbled.

“No, you must live,” Sarge said. “You cannot explode, or we will fail to find a cure and retake Forgeholm.”

“How many goblins exactly?” Ania asked.

“Could be a few thousand,” Sarge said.

“And how many gremlin soldiers?” Callen asked.

“A legion or two.” Kusari said.

“So, you only have about 200 soldiers to take on a few thousand? Assuming a low of 2000 goblins, we’re outnumbered 10 to 1…” Callen sighed. “This all seems very poorly thought out…”

“We have faith,” Kusari said.

“Great…” Callen scoffed. “Because praying wins wars…and cures illnesses.” His voice was dripping with sarcasm.

Kusari raised her hand and began to mention Virette’s name, but Sarge cut her off. “A conversation for another day, Kusari…we have much traveling ahead of us. And many goblins to slay…get some rest while you can.”

Tired from all the hiking and climbing, Callen nodded and curled up beside the fire. As he relaxed, he watched Niknak twitching on the ground and fell deep into thought. The gremlins had been kidnapping, torturing and killing kids. It didn’t sit right with him that he was now working with them. However, he didn’t have much of a choice. For now, they thought he was some sort of godly savior, which meant that he and his sister were safe. He needed a way to ensure it stayed that way. He thought of his disruptor and wondered if it would be enough to stop an army of these gremlins.

**********************

 

Next morning, Niknak was awake and functioning with no recollection of what happened. He was already soaking wet when we woke up. “Eight mile swim.” He said. “Lots of air holes. Follow lights. Many tunnels, no get lost.”

“You said yesterday it was a short swim…” Callen grumbled “I’m not exactly what you call a good swimmer.”

“Use ground.” He stated. “Pull. No other way.”

The other gremlins began plunging into the water one by one.

Callen looked at Ania and shook his head. “Man, Sadie and Tende are going to owe us for this. If I don’t drown, of course.” He waited for her to respond, but she wasn’t paying attention. She was whispering to herself. She climbed into the water after the gremlins.

Callen swore. Even if he did manage to not drown he wouldn’t have any of his electronics. Felix didn’t mention anything about his wrist computer or goggles being waterproof. He assumed they would be considering the specs he started to design off of were for the field, but he wasn’t exactly sure. He took a deep breath and went in after them. However, he didn’t feel the water hit his skin or clothes. He stayed completely dry and felt something pull him forward.

He popped out of the water filled tunnel where Ania and the gremlins were waiting. As he came up, he felt the water on his clothes and his hair was wet. It was strange. He had gotten wet after he left the water.

Niknak motioned for them to follow. They continued moving. Callen checked his bag to find nothing in it got wet at all. He looked at Ania, who was smiling brightly. “Like that?” She whispered.

“What you do?” Callen whispered back.

“Nothing, but ask the undines for help.” She grinned. “Oh, and they said your gear was waterproof…”

As the journey continued, Callen studied the gremlin soldiers. Sarge, Tuco, Nikolai, and Kusari worked together tactically covering the area ahead of them. Callen noted to himself that they moved at tactically advantageous moments without verbal commands in perfect unison, but only with each other. Niknak was an exception. Every movement he made was communicated vocally or via hand signals. There was some connection between the four soldiers, and Callen wondered how it worked. So, he decided to investigate further.

With his wrist computer, he noticed there were wireless communication signals between the four gremlin soldiers. It was fascinating, it was like they were communicating telepathically. The biology and the computer systems were extremely well integrated. Curiously, Niknak was excluded and that made Callen even more curious about how the gremlin’s organic and inorganic parts worked in harmony.

“How deep are we?” Ania asked Kusari as they walked.

“Almost twenty stories.” She answered.

“Wow,” Callen said. “I had no idea any of this was physically possible. It’s amazing that the city doesn’t collapse on itself.”

“There is always that risk,” Kusari said. “But, we just sort of ‘know’ where to dig new tunnels and how to ensure things don’t destroy the world above. There are also some sentient creatures who live down here that say that once you go deep enough the earth is soaked with powerful magic and you slip into another world.”

“That sounds like crap,” Callen said. But, the look he got from Ania told him it probably had some truth to it. She mouthed something about gnomes when Kusari wasn’t looking. Callen shrugged.

Niknak stopped knelt down touched some of the muck on the old floor and sniffed the air. Everyone fell silent before Callen could ask any more questions. Niknak pointed towards the tunnel and made a few quick hand motions. “Bad, bad.” He whispered. “Goblins know of secret way.”

They were in an old partially collapsed old building that looked like it was partially filled in. Ania and Callen ducked behind the rusty remains of an old moldy brick wall. Ania switched off her flashlight. There was a tunnel ahead of them that looked like it was coming down the old stairway.

Using simple sign language, Niknak communicated that there were about ten of them.

The Special Forces gremlins seemed to blend into their surroundings and each of them prepared their weapons.

The smell of rotten eggs filled the subterranean passage. Carrying flickering torches and a variety of primitive weaponry, the goblins fanned out in a loose formation. If it weren’t for their black and red blotched skin, they would look almost identical to a gremlin. However, goblins didn’t possess any cybernetic modifications. The stronger looking goblins also had vicious horns growing out of their foreheads.

The lead goblin carried a stop sign for a shield that was wrapped in barbed wire with bits of flesh stuck to it. He carried some sort of club built of a metal pole and cement block in its other hand. He was dressed in tattered clothes and a t-shirt with the same kitty cartoon on it that was on Ania’s messenger bag.

He walked about three yards from the tunnel and stopped. It growled loudly like an angry dog and more of them began fanning out over the abandoned station. There were ten of them and they were armed as well with a variety of weapons ranging from knives and clubs to simple one-shot pistols, crossbows, and poorly maintained assault rifles.

The air grew heavy and Callen’s goggles showed him the concentration of sulfur compounds in the air was extremely high. He watched the gremlins with his hand on his gun as they slowly moved through the station towards the entrance of a different tunnel watching for the slightest movement.

The goblin with the stop sign shield stopped and sniffed the air. He made a low growl and headed towards the new tunnel with the rest of the goblins.

As the last goblin moved into a new tunnel, Niknak began to edge along the wall towards them. He stopped inches from the mouth of the tunnel, pulled the shiniest of his knives out and used it to peak around the corner. He made a few motions with his other hand and the squad relaxed.

“Goblin patrol,” Niknak whispered as the gremlins gathered around Callen and Ania. “From tunnel, we going, bad, bad.” He sheathed the shiny knife. “Close.”

“What does he mean?” Callen asked.

“Goblin camps always have short range patrols to protect the main camp from threats. Did you notice the lack of supplies besides weapons?”

Callen nodded.

“Patrols tight now,” Niknak said. “We go towards surface to avoid. Then go deep and enter Forgeholm through different tunnels. Safer.”

“We must be cautious, but if there is a problem, I will terminate them,” Sarge said. Without words he, Tuco, and Nikolai headed towards the tunnel that the goblins exited through.

“Goblins backtrack. Bad, bad. Move quick.” Niknak ran ahead of the other three.

Sarge and Nikolai flanked Niknak while Tuco took up the rear. Kusari stayed close to the siblings.

“You ever fight goblins before?” Ania asked.

“Yes, every gremlin has at least once. Sarge, Tuco, and Nikolai have years of combat experience against them.” Kusari stated.

“What about you?” Callen asked.

“I have only fought goblins twice. Once on an extraction mission, and once on an ambush. That’s why I was late to meet you. I had some pending repairs that had to be done. But, goblins fight more viciously than cornered rabid starving pit bulls.”

“But I thought you were part of this experienced group of elite warriors…” Ania stated as they followed her towards the tunnel.

“Well, yeah…I am, but I’m a new recruit. So, my field experience is quite a bit less than the others, but I’m damn good. I was designed to be perfect at hand to hand fighting. The only gremlin that is stronger than me is Sarge and the only faster one is Niknak. So, you have our best and nothing to worry about.”

“I’ve got a bad…” Callen started to say as an arrow whizzed by his head and a second hit Tuco’s shoulder. Sarge swore and opened fire, as did Nikolai. Tuco cursed in Spanish and pulled the arrow out and joined his squad picking off goblins.

“They circled around,” Kusari yelled, pulling her submachine gun.

In a flash, Niknak was face to face with the stop sign goblin. His movements reminded Callen of how his mother moved when she fought the metal demons. He was quick, precise and efficient. His blades floated in his hands making graceful, yet powerful, strikes against the goblin’s vitals, but it wasn’t going down easy.

Callen pulled his pistol and from the cover of the tunnel, he looked for a target. There were three taking cover in another tunnel firing with pipe rifles and crossbows. A fourth was injured and a fifth had taken a hit from Tuco through the forehead and two fighting Niknak. There were only six of them. Callen spun around as he realized there were four unaccounted for.

Next to Callen, Ania ducked and Kusari took the first step towards the battle, but Callen grabbed her arm. “We’re being flanked!” he shouted.

As if on cue, a battle cry echoed up the tunnel behind us as the other four goblins, armed with melee weapons, charged up the tunnel behind them.

Callen’s goggles lit up with all the targeting data and he fired. The pistol kicked slightly spitting each round towards his target. The creature tried to dodge, but he wasn’t quick enough. The bullets tore through his black and red skin spraying yellow blood against the decrepit tunnel wall. The last round ripped into his eye dropping the creature to the ground.

Callen began to reload. He was expecting himself to panic as he placed each round into the cylinder as the sound of their footsteps told him they were on him. To his surprise there was no panic, only focus. Focus just like his mother when she fought the metallic demon. For that very moment, he felt like he was her son, as tough as nails, and not some rotting boy. He reveled in it.

Ania screamed and fumbled with her rifle, but Kusari exploded into action to protect her from a pair of approaching goblins. Her weapon chattered as she pulled her sword with her other hand. The closest goblin went down, but the next used his ally as a shield. He quickly closed the gap when Kusari was forced to reload.

She dropped her gun and defended with her sword. However, her graceful slices gave way to the goblin’s powerful sweeping strikes with the giant pipe wrench. It swung hard smashing her weapon back into her body dropping her to her knee. She pushed off and thrust her sword into its stomach through a weak spot in his makeshift armor. The goblin grunted and raised the wrench again completely ignoring the sword.

Kusari tried to pull back, but the sword was stuck. The goblin’s wrench came down hard on her head dropping her to the ground. Sparks erupted from one of her eyes as she fell. The goblin looked at Callen and stepped on Kusari’s skull. She screamed and it kicked her with its back foot sending her rolling down the steep tunnel.

Callen snapped the cylinder in place and brought the gun up just as the goblin charged. It brought the pipe wrench up just as he pulled the trigger. The first shot hit the goblin’s shoulder destroying any chance of its attack having any power. The second went right through his mouth. It fell backward down the steep tunnel after Kusari.

The fourth goblin was on him before Callen even had a chance to aim. It swung his fire axe for Callen’s head. He dropped to the ground and rolled as a second strike sparked against the rock floor. Callen fumbled for his knife, but he wasn’t fast enough.

The Goblin raised his axe, but gasped before delivering the final blow. Yellow blood poured from its nostrils. The creature slumped to the ground before Callen as Ania pulled out her knife from the back of its skull.

“Nice one, sis,” Callen said giving her a half grin. Her gun was lying on the ground.

“Gun didn’t fire.” She said as she looked down the hall. “Kusari…”

They ran after Kusari. Not knowing what was waiting of them, Callen wished his mother had taught him to use his pistol and knife at the same time. That might be useful if there were more of them. “Note to self: learn close quarters battle martial arts, provided I survive this.” He muttered.

About halfway down the inclined tunnel, they found Kusari barely conscious.

“She is alive,” Ania stated. “We have to do something!”

Callen knelt down and did his best to assess Kusari’s wounds. Her skin was torn revealing badly dented metal pieces and a slightly cracked bone skull. It looked to him like her electronics were the most badly damaged, but he wasn’t sure.

From the tunnel where the rest of the Gremlins were fighting came the sound of a train. Once it passed, sounds of battle were gone. “The last ones ran like babies when the train cut them off!” Sarge said a few moments later, as he approached with Tuco and Nikolai following. “But they will be back with more!”

“Where is Niknak?” Ania asked.

“Tracking them,” Sarge said. “Though, train was long…not much chance of catching up.”

Tuco pushed the bolt through his shoulder as Nikolai knelt down beside Callen and flipped open his bag. There were all sorts of bandages, surgical gear, metal parts, welding supplies, circuit boards, and spools of wire. He pulled a syringe, filled it with some strange unmarked liquid, and shoved it into Kusari. “You know, for the pain!” He said in his thick Russian accent. He then began to whistle as he began to cut her head open. He popped open a panel on her head.

“Stop! What are you doing?” Callen asked. Inside, Callen could see a mesh of organic brain, a few complicated electronics, and some strange black leather-like webbing that looked out of place.

“No!” Nikolai answered as he continued cutting until he found four metal bolts covered by flesh attaching a metal plate to bone. He opened the metal plate with a screwdriver revealing a mess of wires hanging from a computer chip that ran into an organic brain mass. “Need to see inside. CPU and organic interface might be damaged. Need instant repair.” He pulled some strange looking camera like tool and took a snapshot of the wire-computer chip-brain mass.

“Shouldn’t this be sterile?” Callen asked.

“No need. Gremlins are tough.” He stated as he plugged some sort of connector into the computer chip. A device in his backpack beeped and he swore. “I could fix biology, no fix this!” He roared and took a deep swig of his clear non-water liquid. “She is dead! I not salvage doctor! Glitch our field salvage doctor!” He looked at Callen angrily. “You injured Glitch! Glitch no here because you damage! You kill Kusari! Stupid American!”

“He attacked me in my room!” Callen yelled.

“Stupid American cowboy!” Nikolai roared. “You should allow yourself get kidnap like others!”

Kusari twitched catching Callen’s attention. One eye was busted and the other was blinking slower and slower. Nikolai was right. She was dying. Something clicked when Callen noticed a USP port in her electronic arm. He pulled his USB cable from his bag and connected her to his wrist computer. He loaded up the Mavis command program and made some quick gut guided decisions to modify the program to the current situation.

He felt his mind and the computer meld, and it felt like it had happened before. The computer responded seamlessly and faster than he could tap the buttons. Within seconds, his diagnostic program had discovered the problem. The system was jolted hard causing a power surge that interrupted her subroutines that controlled her vital organs and destroyed some of her circuitry. He rewrote her command firmware. “Sew her up!” Callen ordered. “Now.”

“She is dead! No point!” Nikolai fumed.

“Do it!” Callen ordered. His computer flashed something about closing her skull. “I can’t bring her back with her brain open to air!” Nikolai started to object again, but the he started sewing. He had only a few more seconds to reroute the command protocols and reboot the computer part of her brain before the organics were permanently damaged. His eyes scanned over the lines of code and it all just made sense to him. “Close her up, now!” Callen ordered. As he tightened the last bolt, Callen activated the program. Her heart stopped and the last of her breathing faded. Her blinking eye stopped.

“See, what I tell you, she is dead. D. E. A. D. dead. Stupid American!” Nikolai scoffed. “You waste our time on a dead girl!”

“Patience. You…stupid…wanna be Russian.” Callen growled. A second later, Kusari gasped for breath and a pink light glowed briefly beneath her organic eye. “Welcome back, Kusari,” Callen said with a sigh of relief.

“How did you know how to do that?” Amazement was woven into Nikolai’s faux Russian accent.

“I’ve always been good with hardware,” Callen explained. “There was minimal biological damage, but as I worked, something just clicked…” He glanced at his sister. She had a look on her face that told him she noticed something, perhaps related to her ability to see colors that she wanted to mention in private. So, Callen didn’t ask. It only made him wonder about how and why something happened. Working on Kusari felt natural, like the realm of binary code and bio-electricity responded to him like clay would respond to the hands of a sculptor.

“Ah, you must have the Forger’s gifts within you,” Sarge said. “You possess divine hands. He was right to send you to save us!”

Niknak returned. The last Goblins had gotten away because of a second subway car. There would definitely be more if they didn’t get moving. However, Kusari still wasn’t in any condition to move.

“Leave behind,” Niknak said. “Baggage slow down.”

“We need her.” Callen insisted. “We are marching into a city full of demons for some prophecy that you babbled out of your mouth! We need all the help we can get.”

“No need!” he growled. “Bad.”

“I am not bad,” Callen said. “Bad is leaving her behind when if I had just a few hours I could fix her.”

Niknak shook his head in frustration.

“We need short break.” Nikolai said. “Then get moving.”

“Take us to a safe spot,” Sarge said. “You can then plan a safer route.”

Niknak let out a low growl but finally shook his head in agreement.

 

 

 

 

 

[]CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

 

Niknak lead them to an old maintenance room that showed signs of once being inhabited by a some homeless people that ventured beneath the subway. Signs of their unfortunate end were left stained on the walls near their bones. “Be quick,” Niknak growled. “Goblins here recently…Forgeholm close…” He pointed to a pile of chewed bones.

Callen didn’t waste time getting to work. Nikolai began patching up the minor wounds on the rest of the squad, including Sarge, who declared the gaping bullet hole through his abdomen was ‘only a flesh wound.’ He taped himself closed with duct tape. As soon as they were bandaged up, the squad began securing the area. At Kusari’s pleading request, Nikolai reluctantly left his medical kit with Callen, which contained spare electronics and first aid supplies before joining the rest of his team.

“Alright…you’re gonna have to do some cutting.” Kusari warned as she set up her equipment as a pillow. “Think brain surgery…or lobotomy…” She was prone on her gear. “You ready?”

Callen flipped open his multitool and inspected the knife. “You got a whetstone? This knife’s pretty dull…” He sounded nervous.

Kusari pulled a small sharpening stone out of her pocket. “Relax…there’s already stitches…just slice them…”

Callen sharpened the knife and pulled some clamps from Nikolai’s medical kit. “Well, what should I do if you pass out?”

“I won’t.” She grinned. “One of my upgrades allows me to choose to ignore pain.”

“Umm…you’re lying…” Callen pointed out.

“Am I? I guess I could just have a high threshold of pain.” Kusari joked. “Guess you’ll never know…now get to it…”

“Here it goes…” Callen gulped as he began cutting and using the clamps to hold the folds of skin over her skull. He felt a rush as he looked at the metal and bone that made her skull. Part of him was concerned for her, but the majority of him was overtaken by the excitement of his scientific curiosity. He knew he had to go slow. So, he paused after the skin was pulled back. “Alright…walk me through this…”

“Go slow.” Kusari winced.

Paying careful attention, he opened the screws on the metal panels with his multitool. With the edge of the knife, he piped off the panels and looked at the mess of brain tissue and computer circuitry interwoven in her head. He wished he had more time to indulge his fascination, but he had to work quickly. However, he realized this was his opportunity to discern vulnerabilities he could exploit if the gremlins were to betray him. He’d just have to be smart about what he looked at and make sure each action he took could be connected to repairing her.

Using parts from his old computer, parts in the medical kit, and spare parts in his bag, he wired his wrist computer into her hardware. He made a few adjustments in the program he used to direct the Mavis robots. Without much time wasted, he was able to see her vitals, power distribution, network activity, and monitor her system’s activities on his goggles. Of course, he made sure that the path was heavily firewalled. He didn’t want her getting anything from his system.

He started running a hardware diagnostic check. “I’ll know what I can repair internally shortly, but I don’t think I’m going to be able to fix that eye. There aren’t any parts for that.” He looked at her damaged eye.

“I guess my depth perception will be off…” Kusari sighed. “And it’s on the side of the hand I shoot with…”

“Guess you won’t be doing any precision shooting…though your sword skills will be fine…” Callen said. “But, it could be worse…”

“Yeah, just do what you can.”

Although she was dominantly organic, her cybernetic system was amazing. Information and energy flowed freely between her organic and electronics. Her electronics supplemented her organic muscles providing stimulus for extra strength and grace, but the down side is that it made her very fragile. Her brain controlled everything with the CPU working as an interface converting her thoughts into computer language, which allowed her to choose to communicate through a wireless network to other gremlins.

Overall, her inorganic computers weren’t much different from the computers that he had worked on in the past. The unfamiliarity came down to how the electronics interfaced with the organic parts. Through assessing some computing errors, he deduced that her biological system was primary and the computer was secondary. The computer’s responsibility was to control her electronic additions and allow for her organic brain to control her entire system.

The diagnostic told him what hardware had been damaged, and he began replacing what he had supplies for. With each repair, he tried to get the same feeling of electronic artistry that he had experienced while working to save her life, but to no avail. However, he began to reflect on the feeling, and remembered the rush was similar, if not identical, to what he experienced with the metal demons. He considered that pressure might focus his mind, or perhaps the rush of adrenaline as someone’s life was at risk. Those conclusions didn’t satisfy him and he couldn’t put his finger on what he had done exactly. However, he was sure that in these two instances, he mentally interfaced with two different computers.

When he replaced the busted hardware he could, he began working on bypassing any of the circuitry he couldn’t fix. Luckily, he found some redundant electronics and was able to reroute the command signals to avoid the damaged parts. Unfortunately, he would have to make her less efficient.

“So, what’s the damage?” Kusari asked.

“Overall, I’d say, that everything was going to be fine,” Callen said. “And, you’re going to be hurting, but who wouldn’t be after getting stomped on by some evil monster and falling down a steep rocky tunnel?”

“Yeah.” Kusari said thankfully.

“Do you know you have some redundant circuitry?” Callen asked.

“Yeah.” She said. “Is there a problem?”

“No, the extra parts helped me fix you…but everything wasn’t available. So, you’re reaction time will be delayed.”

“So, I’ll be slower…great…” She sighed. “But, can it ever be fixed?”

“Yeah…just not here…but, if you don’t mind I’ll keep looking to see if there’s anything else I can do…”

“Please do…” She sounded afraid. “What’s ahead of us is…”

“That bad, huh?”

“Very bad…”

“I guess I can’t even imagine.” He began checking her programming. “I’ll keep going.”

Carefully written into her operating system’s subroutines, a combination of code caught Callen’s attention. As he looked deeper, he noticed some of her programming had been recently modified. He noticed firmware had been added to run the new piece of hardware that had been integrated into her system. From what he could tell, the new hardware had to do with the strange black webbing deep in her skull. The symbols looked like the arcane and alchemical runes, but he couldn’t exactly be sure. He couldn’t read either. So, he began running diagnostics on this recent update in addition to other his data scans.

“Kusari, how often do you gremlins get upgraded?” Callen asked as he attempted to decipher the strange code.

“It depends, why?”

“I just noticed that you got something in here that had a recent update.”

“Yeah, I had the first surgery for a new upgrade done right before we left. It’s the precursor hardware for a skin color shifter device. With some special clothes, the idea is to turn me into a chameleon…then, I will be the perfect assassin. Goblins beware. Well, provided I survive this.”

“That sounds pretty advanced…”

“A military prototype we stole from some surfacers…” She shrugged. “So, anything I should worry about right now?”

“You should be better than fine for now, but you might want to have a gremlin doctor look at you when you get back. I don’t know what will happen if the circuit board that broke isn’t repaired properly.”

“I’ll definitely get it looked at. That goblin hit me hard. I’ve met sewer trolls that hit lighter than that…”

“If I had more tools, time, and didn’t have to worry about killing you, I would do it right now, but…”

She laughed. “Well, thanks for not trying harder.” She looked at the floor. “I was partially awake when Nikolai declared me dead and argued with you about fixing me.”

“Nikolai couldn’t fix you and he didn’t know that I could.”

“How did you know?”

He shrugged. “I just knew. I’ve always been good with electronics. I also have played around with some robots before. I just kinda hoped that you and the robots I played with were similar.”

“I guessed I lucked out.” She smiled. “Thanks, I guess there is a chance that you might be some sort of savior.”

“Well, technically, I am now, but I don’t even know if I’m the type you are looking for.” Callen sighed. “I may not even make it.”

“But you passed the tests. Only the Marked One could have passed.”

“Yeah, that’s the problem.”

“What is?”

“Being the Marked One means that I’m broken worse than you, but there is no one who can fix me,” Callen stated. “The doctor didn’t give me much longer to live…”

“But you keep going?”

Callen nodded. “What choice do I have? I don’t want to die, but I don’t want my sister to die or any of the other kids. So, I have to go on this strange journey to do whatever your king wants so everyone can go home.”

“What about you?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Callen said. “Just as long as my sister, Tende, and…”

“And who? You just blushed a little bit.”

“I’m just flushed from the fight and saving you…I didn’t…”

She smiled. “Come on, tell me…everyone else, including your sister, is keeping watch.”

“Sadie,” Callen admitted after a long pause.

“Well, I guess you like her…”

Callen shook his head. “No way. She is just a friend.”

“That didn’t sound very convincing. But, either way, I think it matters if you get to go home. You fixed me in just a few hours…I bet you can do the same for yourself…if you have the resources…”

“I’m good with electronics. I don’t have electronic parts.”

“There has to be some way. You are the son of the Forger. He built us. I doubt he would ever let his son die. Maybe that’s what they mean by making the mark come outside?”

“Yeah, I hope. I have vague memories that come to me in dreams. I had a dream my dad made something to cure me, but it is just a dream.”

“The thing about dreams is that sometimes they come true. Today you saved me. Most gremlins couldn’t even dream of doing that as quickly as you did.” She smiled. “I’ll do whatever I can, just like you helped me.”

“Thanks.” Callen smiled.

She sighed and looked down the tunnel towards were the other gremlins were preparing to continue the trek.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

“That wasn’t a nothing sigh. That was the type of sigh that my mom would give whenever she got the opposite of what we were hoping for one of my diagnoses.”

“Yeah…well…I guess you can say I kind of feel that way too…”

“About?” Callen asked.

She paused for a minute and let out a longer sigh. “Family stuff, it weighs heavy on the soul…”

“Alright,” Callen said slowly, but he decided not to push her further. “Why don’t you test my fix?” Callen asked. “If there’s a problem, I can try improving anything you may notice.”

After he had disconnected the wires, Kusari stood up. She was a bit wobbly at first, but quickly she got her bearings and she soon began working through a sword kata.

As she practiced, Callen began analyzing the data he had collected on the both how she worked and the strange code. Her system was fascinating, but as he looked in detail at the code, he recognized a familiar pattern. He opened the file that contained the line of code that he took from the metal demons and compared them. His heart jumped. They were very similar, but not identical. The code he extracted from Kusari was more primitive. However, it didn’t leave him with a good feeling.

With nothing but unanswerable questions, he returned to watching her practice. She was obviously slower, but it was the best that could be done. She stopped and nodded after a kneeling slash. “It should do,” Kusari said, with a sigh. “But I’m half my speed.”

“Look’s like you still got it to me. But, I can take a look again.” He scratched his head as he continued scrolling through the system data he collected. He stopped at the scans of her power distribution system. “Maybe rerouting power will help…”

She nodded. “Alright,” she said as she sat down next to him.

He connected his computer. “Okay.” He said once he was re-connected, this time with longer wires. “Try swinging the sword.” He paid careful attention to the programming that regulated how the command signals and the energy powered her limbs. Energy and commands seemed to be routed through the black webbing as they moved between her brain and her electronics.

In his curiosity, he began analyzing exactly how she was powered. A hybrid system that combined powerful batteries with an organic digestive system drove her. A combination of computer code and brain signals managed the cyclical relationship between how the system operated. He scratched his head and, with fear weaving into his mind, he began to wonder how the creature he was watching was similar to those horrible metal demons. They were both organic and electronic, like these gremlins. He shuddered at the thought, but there seemed to be a vulnerability here. A simple change could fry her system.

“What?” She asked.

“Just looking for a way to fix you further.” He forced a smile and realized that he had broken a haunting expression. He turned his attention to the programs and noticed an oddity in her power distribution coding. “That mod in your head doesn’t seem to be doing much for all the power it’s consuming.” He began working on the necessary programming to fix the issue. “I’m going to move power from it to your normal parts. Do you know if it is anything besides a part that will lead to your chameleon upgrade?”

“Yeah,” Kusari said. “Combat targeting and networking enhancement. It’s experimental.”

“That’s odd. This thing is just taking energy to run while sitting idle.” Callen said as he worked. “I can’t find a reason for it…it’s taking too much energy to run when you’re not in combat or networking…”

Kusari shrugged. “Maybe it got damaged too? Can you do anything?”

“I’ll reroute your internal power grid and send the extra to your kinesthetic system,” Callen explained as he worked. After a few minutes, he paused and scratched his head. “Well, I reduced the mod’s power consumption by 25%. That looks like the maximum it will allow me to do. But, it will be better, I just need a little more….” He made a few more adjustments, and when he was finished, and felt a rush of accomplishment. “Okay, swing your sword.”

She did and she moved quicker than her recent practice. “Better.” She admitted.

“Glad I could help.” He said, as be prepared to close her up. He was feeling particularly pleased with himself for both his repairs and gaining a greater understanding of how the gremlins worked. He hoped he could think of some way to use what he learned to his advantage. Otherwise, he, his sister, and all the captives were dead.

**********************

 

Once Kusari was sewed up, Niknak had them on the road again. The delay for her surgery had given him time to discover the pattern of goblin patrols and weave a path through a variety of crawlspaces, cellars, and raw tunnels that would minimize the team’s risk. The patrols were tight and they were forced to move slowly.

Behind fallen bricks, networks of sewer piping, ventilation systems, and behind any rubble available, they hid. Silently, they watched the patrols pass. Steadily, they grew more constant. They were getting close to Forgeholm.

Near some abandoned digging machinery, Niknak stopped them and pointed up a large tunnel lit by a dim glow. After briefly listening, he gestured for the team to follow. They crept along the tunnel walls, around more rusted equipment, barrels of leaking chemicals, and over bodies of decayed gremlins. Blood, both dry and wet, was everywhere as were the swarms of insects feasting on the decay.

They came to a junkyard wall that clogged the tunnel. However, the structure was a shadow of the former gremlin construction. It had not seen their hands in many years, and the repairs woven into the failing structure were made by nailing the corpses over gaps in the trash wall. In front of the wall, and dug into the tunnel floor was a garden of spears mounted with the heads of gremlins and other subterranean humanoids. Their ominous expressions of torture were a warning of what lay ahead in the cavern beyond the wall.

Near some cover, Niknak motioned for everyone to stop. He pulled out his favorite knife and a second blade. He lifted his favorite knife to his lips, as if it were his finger, to silence the group. In response, Sarge pulled a silencer and attached it to the muzzle of his assault rifle while the others followed with their respective weapons. Sarge whispered for Ania and Callen to hide and the gremlin warriors turned off any lights that my give away their positions.

Switching to infrared, Callen could see shapes of several goblins. He watched as the gremlins used what cover they could along with a few of Tuco’s carefully placed silenced sniper shots to reach the wall without being detected. Niknak and Kusari snuck through gaps in the wall after they each removed a rotting body. Next, came the creak of the gate and the hiss of silencers and carefully placed blade strikes. The goblins were dead within seconds. Sarge motioned for Callen and Ania to join them. Nikolai and Tuco began to set bombs on the wall while Niknak moved further up the tunnel.

“This is one of the five tunnel gates that lead to Forgeholm. We collapsed the most direct routes to Gearshire when we evacuated.” Kusari said as the siblings approached. “We are almost there, Marked One. I hope you’re ready.”

“Yeah,” Callen said.

Once Niknak and Tuco returned, the gremlins moved up the hallway in a tight formation. Ania and Callen hung back while the soldiers took out any goblins patrolling between this gate and Forgeholm. As the silencers whispered and the siblings waited for their instructions to move forward, Callen took Ania’s hand since she wasn’t able to use a flashlight.

“You don’t need to hold my hand,” Ania whispered. “I can see…well, not perfect, but I can at least navigate…”

“I know,” Callen whispered. “But they don’t know that.”

“I wish you could see what I see,” Ania whispered. “Although I still have no idea what I’m looking at, it’s amazing, and I’m getting better at it.”

“Like how?”

“Well, I’m beginning to be able to distinguish someone’s identity through the colors they put off and I also see colors on items personal items that things carry. Like, Niknak’s favorite knife.” She paused. “It has more than just Niknak’s colors on it. I see Mom’s on it too.”

“What?”

“Mom’s colors are mixed with Niknak’s colors on that knife.”

“Strange,” Callen said.

“What’s strange?” Kusari said as she approached.

“I think what isn’t strange is a better question,” Callen said trying to cover for Ania. “Considering I’m trekking around underground with a group of gremlins that my world doesn’t believe exists.”

“I guess you’re right.” Kusari agreed. “Anyway, the squad is waiting. The goblins are practicing a ritual, so we have a distraction. I picked out the best path for me to lead you both through. Come.”

Beyond the wall, they crept towards the hellish glow. The goblin’s drums grew more intense with each step. When the tunnel became a ledge, the path spread into a network of catwalks, bridges, platforms, and dwellings stretched through the entirety of a large cavern. The several story tall goblin structure hung over a deep pit filled with dirty water and old gremlin dwellings.

Constructed from flesh, bone, and salvaged metal, the grisly structure was suspended from the remains of the skeleton of an unfinished bunker, engineered by men. Thick cables woven of the guts of sentient creatures hung from the leaky pipes of corroded fire suppression system, old elevator shafts, support beams, and a ventilation system. In the center of it all, on the largest of the platforms, burned a massive pyre before a mighty hut.

In the flashing reds and oranges, Callen watched the goblins dancing in profane worship. He swallowed hard.

Tapping his shoulder, Kusari pointed to a rune-marked door in the shadow of a large hut. “There’s the holy door.” She whispered. “Two stories down part of that large hut’s platform leads to it.”

With the horde’s attention occupied, the gremlins didn’t delay. Using the shadows to their advantage, they began weaving their way down the hellish architecture towards the rune-covered door. They crept between the ghoulish dwellings, past stacks of crates, and barrels that were recently marked with biohazard labels. They past a crude elevator system, stacked with more barrels.

Callen wondered their purpose and where the elevator went, but before he could ask, he felt his lungs tighten. The ritual was intensifying, and he felt nauseous, but Kusari kept him moving. He struggled not to cough. The smell of herbs from dark rituals mixed with the rot that hung heavy in the air made it worse. He tried to breath through his mouth, but he could taste the air.

“Your colors aren’t looking good, Callen,” Ania whispered.

The large fire roared brightly as the goblin horde dropped to their knees and one goblin remained standing. From his current angle, Callen could get a clearer view of him. He raised a staff of rusted metal, topped with a stained skull, over his head as he chanted. His brow wrinkled around his sharpened horns, and his eyes glowed with hellfire.

Without the rhythm of the chant, the goblin began speaking in some infernal language to the crowd. He brought the staff to the ground and tightened his fist. His fingers were capped with a metal device that was wired to a glowing red stone on the back of his hand, but the stone was not loose. It was actually growing out of his hand, and spiny protrusions extended up his arm. They began to glow as well as his focus intensified. He waved his hand and the fire began to dance faster with the screaming faces forming in them. The biggest face to form was a horned skull that opened its mouth spitting flames out. It faded and the fire roared even greater.

“There are no salamanders in that fire,” Ania whispered. “Sprocket was right about the sorcerer.”

“Great.” Callen choked back a cough.

Four goblins, wearing identical robes, left the large hut. The first two carried a rusty coffer adorned with a variety of skulls and dark precious stones on a pair of bone poles while the second pair dragged a child bound in chains towards the sorcerer. The coffer was placed before the sorcerer and the pair carrying it bowed as they opened it. The child was forced to her knees over the open chest.

The sorcerer lightly touched the girl’s face with his dirty, sharp nails. She whimpered in fear. The fire flared again with the face, and the sorcerer’s face creased with a hellish sneer. The jewel growing out of his hand pulsed and his body tensed. He dug his nail into the child’s flesh and carved a rune on her cheek. The girl struggled and screamed as the sorcerer continued. Her blood dripped down her face mixing with the tears into the box below and the goblins were silent.

Callen stood in awe. The burning that was dancing through his nervous system, and that he recognized the runes being carved into the girl’s flesh. He saw a familiar circle carved into the floor at her feet. The circle of runes and arcane tributaries was similar to what he had seen near Virette’s sacrificial altar.

“Oh my…we can’t let her die!” Ania whispered. “We have to do something! Tuco…” She looked for the sniper, but he was too far ahead of them. She cursed and looked back at the ritual. Her eyes grew wide. “Callen, she’s was in Gear…”

But before she could say anything else, Kusari covered Ania’s mouth and held up her finger. “Tuco can’t shoot or they’ll be on us…and we can’t waste this distraction…” She pulled them towards the next shadow.

They descended down the curving path and rounded behind the large hut, which was the last cover that would completely keep them from being spotted before they needed to make a dash to the rune-covered door. The tunnel before the door was short, and the collection of bodies there were not yet stacked, like on the way in. They were going to have to dart between piles of bodies, and perhaps hide among them, to get to their destination. Watching the goblin’s movements, they waited for the opportune moment.

As he waited for the gremlins’ signal, Callen ducked behind a disgusting water wheel. He followed the device up along the back of the hut. A series of gears and an axel lead into the hut and a water system hung under the catwalks, platforms, and bridges. They only trickled with a small amount of water, but the gremlin mill had seen much use.

Through a hole in the stretched flesh, he looked inside. Some of the firelight from the ritual lit the hut. Just past a few empty cages and biohazard barrels, he could make out a grinding stone. Both the stone and the milling surface shined with an unearthly iridescence. He wondered what was kept here, and what the goblins were doing. He wondered if it had to do with the gremlin’s plague. If it did, the sheer amount of material stored inside pointed to some unknown purpose that spread beyond their war for control of the tunnels.

Ania grabbed Callen’s forearm to tell him they were ready to move. Turning, he could see the sorcerer’s fowl grin. A gut-wrenching cry from the child brought the horde to begin a low chant while they touched their heads to the ground. The child’s limp body was dropped into the polluted water below.

Two by two the gremlins snuck towards the rune-carved door. When they reached the holy door, the goblins’ chants intensified. The gremlins prepared for a pending attack. “Do your thing, Marked One.” Sarge suggested.

Callen pulled out his father’s cross, but the ritual caught his eye. The goblin sorcerer waited for two of his assistants to reach into the coffer. They pulled out a blood-soaked hooded cloak and the crowd cheered. They stepped forward and wrapped the sorcerer in the cloak. The sorcerer reached up and pulled the cowl over his head. The blood dripped down his face like sinister tears.

“Redcap ritual.” Ania gasped in horror.

“Do something, Marked One,” Sarge said. “I don’t know how much longer until we are spotted.”

Callen looked back towards the door and to his father’s cross. He had absolutely no idea what to do.

Niknak’s gaze darted between Kusari and Callen.

Callen looked back when he heard a blade scrape a scabbard. He turned to see Kusari draw her blade. She looked at Callen and nodded. “Open it…hurry…” She whispered.

“No! Bad, bad!” Niknak roared as he leaped towards Callen, Kusari, and Ania. With little movement, Kusari tackled Niknak, the two of them knocking Callen and Ania to the ground. “No, bad, bad, enter!” Niknak shouted.

The other gremlins turned towards the commotion, as did the sorcerer and several among the goblin horde. They roared and began rising like a wave of hellish terrors as the sorcerer pointed his glowing hand towards the intruders.

Nikolai and Tuco immediately opened fire, however fruitless it was. But, the narrow bone pathways helped funnel the crowd, buying precious time.

Sarge pulled out some sort of device and smirked. “Hasta la vista, Baby.” He said. The device made a slight beep and was an explosion from the tunnel they came from. The first gate bomb exploded.

The goblins looked towards the explosion, delaying their charge towards the apparent attack only long enough for the sorcerer to direct the horde. Several split towards the explosion, while the rest returned their attention towards the intruders.

“How’s that for collateral damage?” Sarge said as he pushed another button. A bomb on some of the supports exploded as a part of the horde passed another bomb. Bridges and platforms fell bringing goblins with them. He began blowing up smaller bombs sending the horde scattering and causing a few smaller collapses. “Terminated.” He said with a grin. “Do what you need to do Marked one.”

Callen stepped towards the door. He felt the cross begin to vibrate.

“No bad, bad! Open! No Bad, Bad!” Niknak screamed as he fought with Kusari. “Fail…master…bad, bad…The Many…no!” He screamed as he struggled towards Callen.

“Hurry!” Ania said. “We don’t have long! Do something.”

Callen knelt down next to the ruined door. “I really hope something bad isn’t waiting for us….” With a thought, he activated a scan to see if he could detect any signals from beyond the door.

“Do it,” Sarge said. “We are here. Do it now!”

“Do something, stupid American!” His machine gun chattered. He moved forward to the closest building for cover along with Tuco while Sarge provided cover.

“Forger give me strength in battle!” Sarge roared as he launched his first grenades into the charging horde. “If we die here today, what matters is few stood against many!” His assault rifle began to chatter.

The first of the horde reached Sarge, Tuco, and Nikolai.

Among the screams of the incoming goblins, gunfire, and movie quotes, Callen’s head was spinning. “I don’t know,” Callen screamed. “I can’t even find an access point to hardwire into or a signal to hack into…the door is technologically dead…”

Tuco cursed in Spanish as the first of the goblins reached him. He butted the closest one with his rifle snapping it in half. He drew his pistols and backed towards the door firing along the way.

“Open the door!” Kusari yelled as she smashed Niknak’s face into the ground.

“I don’t know how!” Callen said.

“We only have seconds!” Ania yelled.

“I just don’t know…” Callen yelled.

Nikolai cursed in Russian as his gun clicked empty. He dropped it and reached for his sidearm. He wasn’t quick enough. The wave of goblins washed over him dragging him to the ground. Several leaped on him and began tearing pieces.

“Open the door!” Kusari called. “Or we all die!”

“There is no key hole and I can’t find an electrical signal…!” Callen screamed.

Niknak head-butted Kusari hard in the face and she loosened her grip on him. He leaped at Callen, grabbing his hand with the key. His cross vibrated more violently in his hand, and the door rumbled open as they fell to the ground.

“No, bad, bad, enter!” Niknak screamed. Kusari grabbed his shoulders and dragged him off Callen. She tossed him to the floor. She planted her elbow into the base of his skull and smashed his head into the ground again knocking him unconscious. He started twitching.

She grunted and tossed Niknak thought the door. “In, now,” Kusari commanded.

Callen dove inside. “Come on!” Ania shouted as the first goblins reached Sarge.

“Esta muerto!” Tuco said as he stepped inside and continued firing doing what he could to cover Sarge.

Callen drew his pistol and took a few shots. “Let’s go Sarge! Now!”

“Close it!” Sarge yelled as he backed towards us. “Leave me.” He continued firing.

Tuco muttered ‘no’ and he jumped back out and grabbed the back of Sarge’s shirt. He pulled with all his weight and they stumbled backward into the door as Callen fumbled with the cross.

“Ah…close…shut…” Callen yelled, in desperation. The door then hissed squishing a pair of goblins. He looked down at the cross and shook his head. The six of them were now inside the domain as the goblins pounded on the door behind them.

 

 

 

 

 

[]CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

 

Ania clicked on her flashlight and Callen’s HUD instantly adjusted to the new source of light. They were in a facility basement filled with a variety of equipment designed to supply the installation with electricity, water, air, heat, and other necessities. The variety of advanced equipment had been long powered down.

Bloodstains, bullet holes, scattered cages designed to transport medium sized animals, and skeletons (human and gremlin, among others), lay strung throughout the basement. Scratches in the wall caught Callen’s eyes reminding him of how the metallic demons clung to the walls in his old apartment building when they chased him, his sister and grandfather. Some battle had taken place here that the six of them were ten years late for.

Ania floated the flashlight beam over the fleshless skeletons. “This place is a graveyard…” She whispered. “Whatever happened here was…” She shuttered. “I don’t like this place.”

Callen nodded. “Well…lets get this place working so we can get out of here…” He looked around the basement. Using the maps of the facility he had on his computer, he located the control console for the geothermal electrical system. He looked at Ania. “Looks like this door we came in is the emergency access door to the power system…Let’s see if I can power this place up.” He looked over the variety of plastic buttons, levers, and powered down status indicator dials.

“Can the door hold?” Ania yelled over the pounding of fists on the door behind them.

“Si, seniorita.” Tuco said. “Esta muy fuerte.”

Ania nodded. “So, we are safe for the time being…”

“So, we’re here.” Callen said as he began allowing his computer applications to provide him with start up directions. He glanced down at Niknak who was twitching and mumbling incoherently. “What the hell is his problem?”

“No idea.” Sarge said. He pulled his roll of duct-tape and began patching his wounds.

“He said something about failing the master when we were wrestling.” Kusari said. “I don’t get it. Who is his master?”

“I don’t know.” Callen said. “He must answer to someone different than himself considering his breakdown a few days ago and now.”

“Yeah, but who?” Ania asked. “But, I don’t think he was trying to stop us, Callen. I think he was trying to stop them.” She pointed to the soldiers. “He attacked Kusari.”

Callen shrugged. “I guess he is just crazy.”

“Bind him. In case he wakes up.” Sarge said. Kusari and Tuco did so.

“I don’t get it.” Kusari said. “This place is said to be mystical. The minions of either the Forger or the Many should be here to greet us…”

“Once I get this thing going, I guess we should look around,” Callen said.

“Let’s move,” Sarge said. “I follow your lead, Marked One,” He then hoisted Niknak onto his back.

“Give me a minute.” Callen followed the start up directions, which appeared on his goggles, and began pressing buttons, flipping switches and pulling levers. After a few moments, the final start-up button glowed green. “Here it goes.” Callen said. “I hope this place doesn’t explode from all the years sitting idle…” He took a breath and pressed the button.

There were some pops, whines, and electronic moans from somewhere deeper into the facility. A few lights flickered and shattered in the room and out in the hall they could see a slow flickering, rather than the constant glow of fluorescent lighting on the cement walls. “Alright, the place is powered. The ventilation system and power the elevators should click on next. The rest, I will have to activate from the main control room.”

“Lead the way,” Sarge said.

The fans and air filters clicked on when enough power had been harnessed. That’s when they all smelled it. The room filled with the scent of rotten eggs.

“The goblins are inside the Domain!” Kusari said nervously. “How did…”

The sounds of goblin war cries echoed from the floors above them.

“We don’t have time for how yet.” Callen cursed. “But, I wouldn’t doubt that they are coming for us. I can’t access anything more than facility life support controls from here. I can’t access the security systems or anything like that. The main computer needs to be rebooted. If we can get to the main control room…I might be able to do something with the security system to take care of the goblins.”

“Let’s go there,” Sarge said. “Quickly.”

“And we could use the cameras to find the Many,” Kusari stated.

“We better hurry,” Ania said as the goblin screams grew closer. “Where is the main control room?”

“Sublevel 1, we are on sublevel 3. Sublevel 1 is operations control, sublevel 2 is the research labs, and level three is where all the facility equipment needed to keep this place running. Now that they got power, the main control room is where we need to go.” Callen said. “There are three emergency access stairwells and two elevators we could use.”

“Any guesses on the best route?” Ania asked. “You do have the maps.”

He marked the location on his wrist computer. “We can use the stairs or the elevators…” The first of the goblins came out of the stairwells screaming. “Elevators it is.”

They charged towards the elevators with Sarge and Tuco laying a suppressing fire. Ania hit the button and the door didn’t open. She hit it again and the button lit up. “Hurry up.” She screamed at it.

Callen pulled his pistol and began firing at the incoming goblins. The goblins swarmed, but the elevator opened. “Inside. Now!” He yelled. When everyone was in, he jammed the close door button and some elevator music clicked on. The door started to close.

A goblin leapt in just before the door shut tackling Sarge. The goblin’s foot hit the safety bar in the door and caused it to re-open. He dropped Niknak and his weapon. The next ones started to clog the door preventing it from closing. There were just too many of them. Tuco and Kusari shot and sliced to keep them from flooding the elevator.

“We gotta move the bodies!” Kusari yelled. Bullets began flying past their heads as the goblin artillery took their positions in the room.

Callen looked up as he reloaded his gun. “Kusari…we’ll have to climb…get ready.” There was an access panel. He fired four shots destroying the four bolts holding it in place. The panel fell and cracked the goblin on the head that was on top of Sarge. The creature’s head busted open and Sarge tossed its lifeless body to the ground while getting to his feet.

“Nice one.” Sarge drew his machete and chopped as he picked up his assault rifle. He began firing with one hand and slicing with the other. “RPG incoming!” Sarge yelled while firing at the goblin rocket propelled grenade launcher in attempt to keep him pinned down.

“Ania, jump!” Callen boosted her up.

The RPG whistled forward and luckily, impacted on the wall outside the elevator. The impact shook the elevator.

With Sarge and Tuco covering the door, Kusari ran up the wall and pulled herself through the panel. “Jump Callen. Ania and I will catch you!” she yelled. Callen jumped and the two of them grabbed his arms and they hoisted him through the elevator’s roof.

Callen pulled his gun and began firing. “Ania, find a way up!” He screamed. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her begin to climb a maintenance ladder.

Sarge tossed Niknak to Kusari giving up the little ground that they had left. “Go!” he hacked off two more goblin heads.

“Hurry!” Kusari yelled. She attached the unconscious Niknak to her back and began climbing.

“Senior, vas!” Tuco screamed to Sarge.

Sarge nodded and leaped for the hole. He pulled his shoulders through as the hiss from the rocket launcher roared over the sounds of battle outside the elevator.

The RPG buzzed into the elevator hitting Tuco in the chest. The elevator filled with flames. Sarge screamed. Callen fell backward away from the open access panel. Callen had grabbed Sarge’s arms before he lost his grip.

“Callen!” Ania yelled.

“I’m fine. Keep climbing.” He looked at Sarge, who was heavily damaged. Any flesh on his legs was burnt off, and his electronics were seriously damaged. “Can you climb?”

“Ah..I have arms.” He said.

With Sarge following, Callen climbed after Kusari and Ania. Below, the goblins begin to pull themselves up the through the panel. “Climb faster!” Callen yelled. Ania reached the top of the three story ladder.

“The door is closed!” Ania screamed.

Kusari reached the top and positioned herself on the support beams to begin firing at the climbing goblins with her submachine gun. “Least we have a choke point…and I can keep them pinned…but, my bullets aren’t going to last for ever…”

Callen reached Ania and hung onto the ladder with one arm. He looked at the back of the elevator control button. “I can run a bypass.” He exposed the wire with his knife and began hot-wiring the locking mechanism.

“Hurry up!” She had scored two more hits before her weapon jammed. She swore and threw her gun down the shaft. It hit the closest goblin to Sarge.

“Got it.” Callen crossed the wires and the door opened and the sibling climbed in.

“Sarge, hurry!” Kusari yelled as she tossed Niknak over their heads into the room.

Ania backed into the room to give Kusari room as Callen fired to cover Sarge.

The goblin climbed through with the RPG.

“Sarge, jump!” Callen yelled. He activated his targeting system, and with a thought the goggles began making the targeting calculations to hit the RPG goblin. He fired. The bullet ripped through his eye. He fell on his stomach, reveling his backpack full of rockets. Callen took aim at the rocket launcher itself once it fell. If he could hit it right it would trigger the loaded rocket, but the shot was going to be difficult, even with his computer.

“Jump!” Kusari yelled to Sarge. “I’ll catch you.”

Sarge was all muscle and metal. He tightened his arms and pulled up hard putting forth an inhuman amount of power propelling him the final four feet to grab Kusari’s hands, however, the goblins were on him.

The closest one leaped on his broken legs and began climbing by digging its sharp claws into Sarge’s crispy flesh. He screamed and jerked his body like a bronco knocking the creature off his back. It grabbed onto his useless legs. Sarge let go with one of his hands and grabbed his machete.

“I need both hands to get you up!” Kusari yelled.

He pulled the machete as a second goblin grabbed his legs. Ania grabbed Kusari to prevent her from falling.

“Do it!” Sarge ordered. “Do it, now!”

Callen’s bullet hit the rocket launcher and ricocheted. He swore and took aim again as another goblin grabbed onto Sarge’s legs. Callen took aim again, but the angle was bad. He cursed.

Sarge stuck his machete through his abdomen into his spine. He screamed as he continued to cut.

“Hold tight, Kusari. Just for a second.” Ania had mumbled something about sylphs and salamanders before she tossed her grenade. “I knew this would be useful.”

“Yeah!” Noting Ania’s whispers, Callen watched the grenade fall.

Sarge’s lower half broke free and Kusari pulled him in.

For a frag grenade, the explosion was a bit too intense, and the flames started a chain reaction. The rockets exploded jostling the elevator and the goblins on the ladder were tossed. With the fire rising, Callen hit the close button and the door slammed shut.

The door shook and then there was silence. Callen took a deep breath and stared at the elevator door. “Wow.” He looked at Ania and grinned. He knew she had done something with her abilities and he was happy she did. He didn’t say anything more.

“Sarge, you alright?” Kusari said.

“I need a vacation.” He stated looking down at his missing lower half of his body. There was a good deal of blood, but there were no vital organs hanging out. The blood was just from a layer of skin over his metal parts. His spine wasn’t cut. It looked like it was designed to plug into something.

“What the…how?” Callen asked.

“My arms and everything below my ribs is all robot.” He said. “My vital organs are above. My skin just grew over it all.”

“Lucky you,” Callen shook his head.

Sarge looked at Kusari. “Thanks for not dropping me. I owe you one.”

“What the hell is that thing?” Ania asked. She pointed at one of two six and a half foot tall robots built from plastic and metal. One was lying on a workbench and the other was plugged into a portable power station on the wall and completely inactive. The status screen next to the plugged in one read charge complete. Both were badly damaged, but functional and armed with large belt fed machine guns.

“I didn’t see anything about robots in the files…” Callen said.

“I’m glad they are off,” Kusari said. “That would have been a nice surprise if they weren’t.”

“No doubt.” Callen agreed.

The room was a wreck and had three doors. There were overturned tables and equipment piled up to form some sort of hastily assembled defensive wall around one large door. The second door was barricaded and the third was welded shut. Near the robot, and behind the defense wall, charging docks sat next to repair tables with welding supplies and all sorts of extra parts to repair the robots.

“We safe here?” Kusari asked staring at the bodies. “I can’t hear any goblin cries.”

Callen looked at his map. “Wow, that’s convenient,” Callen said. “The welded door and the equipment blocked door seal this place up tight. The only way in or out is the elevator or maybe the air ducts. But looking at the schematics for the air ducts, you would need some serious climbing equipment or a lot of time to climb up them. The fans in them are running now too, so, I guess we are pretty safe.”

“Good, but I don’t think we should stay put for long,” Ania said. “Now, where is this control room?”

“Agreed,” Callen replied. The control room is through the non-barricaded door.” Callen pointed at the door. “I guess they were trying to defend it from whoever was attacking.”

“Well, open it up,” Sarge said. “We have to get control of this place.”

“Get going, Marked One.” Kusari looked at the robot on the table. “Sarge, do you think we can hook you into that robot?”

He nodded. “Do what you need to, Marked One. Kusari and I will get me mobile again.”

She lifted Sarge onto the workbench and picked up a welding mask. “Here we go.”

Sarge nodded. “Let’s do my arms too.” He said with a large smile staring at the duel Gatling guns strapped to the security robot’s arms.

Callen pushed opened the door into the control room. He powered up the computer system and the various monitors that hung from the walls began to buzz to life. The screens glowed with Biocore’s corporate symbols as the system booted. He cursed when he saw how decimated the computer system was. It was nearly unusable.

He ran a diagnostic program to see what he could repair quickly. There wasn’t much. He activated the basic support systems that weren’t automatic, like water system and lights. He linked the controls to his wrist computer so he could them access them remotely. Some work had been done to prevent damage to the security system, so he started there. He managed to debug the security system in a few minutes and access the command history, and activated the security system’s restore function.

“What happened here?” Ania asked as she peered over his shoulder. “This place has to record something…”

“Yeah, sorry this place has been ravaged. Whatever happened to the records in this system didn’t completely destroy everything. So, I think I might be able to piece together some explanation.” He brought up the access history to the last recorded date. “What the hell?” He asked.

“What’s wrong?” Ania asked.

“Someone was here a few months ago and accessed the system,” Callen said. He flipped through more of the files. “But, the only trace is that whatever they did was wiped clean. Whoever was able to do that to this system has some serious computer capabilities. I don’t think I could reverse it if I had a year…I thought this place was sealed.”

“Obviously not, considering the goblins,” Ania said. “What about before then?”

“Nothing for 10 years. The last file that remains is dated the day Dad disappeared.” He read further into the access/command history. “There are some files attached to that date, but most are wrecked. There are some partial security recordings that I can get to run though.” Callen brought them up. They were incredibly choppy. The computer flashed images of gremlins escaping from the research rooms and attacking facility personnel. The recording blinked on and off with only the sounds of gunfire and static remaining.

“Why can’t we see anything?” Ania asked.

“The images are 10 years old, but they shouldn’t degrade. It’s stored digitally. So, I don’t know what’s wrong exactly, but the system itself is barely working. Let me check the text logs for some clues, but my gut says some sort of virus. But I don’t know of anything that could destroy a network this bad.” He brought up the files. “According to these logs, the facilities computer system was infected with a virus that the system’s software wasn’t able to defend against. It looks like the virus knew exactly where to strike to rip this place a part and control whatever it needed. The attack was perfect. Much better than anything I could ever do, and that’s saying a lot.”

“That doesn’t sound good…”

“Not at all, especially because the code is written in alchemy symbols…”

“Like the code you saw at our apartment?”

“Yeah, exactly,” Callen said.

“I don’t like this.”

“Me either,” Callen said. The repair function finished on the security system. “That’s odd, there is no virus left in the system.”

“That’s good, right?”

“Yeah, that means I can get at least some basic security running to help deal with the goblins.” He shook his head with confusion and began entering command codes to power up the security robots and cameras. “It is just odd though. There is nothing about reformatting the network, loading advanced anti-virus software or anything like that.”

“Maybe whoever was here a few months ago took the virus out?” Ania asked.

“No, I don’t think so. Because the last trace of the virus was the same day that Dad disappeared.”

“Maybe Dad did something. Can you see what happened before the virus?” Ania asked.

He brought up what he could. Some images of gremlins being pushed down the hallway on operation tables and scientists walking through the halls popped up, but nothing more detailed than that. He sighed. “All the files for what happened in the labs were corrupted. But this whole mess started with the cyber-attack.”

“But from who? The knights themselves barely know this place exists, the gremlins think its some Garden of Eden, and the goblins don’t seem to want to be friends with anybody.”

“No idea, but the computer network is closed. So, it had to come from some inside connection.” Callen continued flipping through programs until he found the ones that controlled all the facility defenses. “But, that isn’t what disturbs me. There is no trace of the virus except the text log and the wake of damage it left. The antivirus software didn’t take care of it. It is just gone almost like…”

“An electronic poltergeist.”

“Exactly. A smart one. Who had minions.”

“Let me get everything set up so we can do some exploring.” He said. “I’d say we have some questions to answer.” He programed the robots to remove goblins, which was already one of the defense protocol presets. He programed them to ignore humans and gremlins. Out of a possible thirty defense robots, only ten were functional and all were heavily damaged. Six were on level two and the rest were split between one and three. The second one on level one was about to be taken apart so that left nine total. Callen synced his wrist computer with the security system to monitor the robots.

Within a few minutes, he had them activated and selected a clean sweep function that was designed to secure compromised sections. He activated the security cameras that weren’t destroyed over the years to find that most of them were in terrible shape. Their lenses were coated with dust and grime. Shadows of goblins moving in the halls could be seen on the monitors.

Outside the room, the robots activated. The robot rolled towards the working elevator and soon descended into the lower levels of the facility. “Guess we give the robots sometimes,” Callen said.

Ania nodded. “Hopefully we can fix Sarge in the meantime.”

They headed back into the room and he joined Kusari in hooking Sarge into the robotic legs. Kusari had disconnected the robot’s legs, pushed its torso onto the floor, and started the basic wiring.

“I thought you didn’t know how to do the mechanical integration stuff,” Callen said.

“Any gremlin can do the mechanical and electrical stuff. That’s easy. We would be long dead if only a few of us could jury rig technology. It is when you mix the biology, computers, machines and how they communicate with each other that it gets complicated. So, you are going to need to do some quick programing to get everything working right.”

Callen nodded and attached his computer to Sarge as the sounds of gunfire could be heard beneath their feet.

“How intelligent are goblins?” Ania asked.

Sarge shrugged. “They are fierce like their demon ancestors. They were made to be expendable soldiers by demons, not thinkers. They are not one for strategy, unless there is a sorcerer or greater demon to lead them.”

“Like the one with the staff,” Ania asked. “And according to the lore, goblin sorcerers can augment their power by sacrificing innocents to create a redcap. Or in his case, a red-hood. I think that was the ritual they were performing when we snuck in.”

“Yeah,” Kusari said.

“So, expect strategy. Got it.” Callen said. “Hey, wasn’t Grandpa searching for a sorcerer?”

“Yeah, he was, one that uses pestilent magic.” Ania sighed.

“Could the goblin sorcerer use fire and plague?” Callen asked.

“I don’t know…maybe…it depends on the demon providing the magic,” Ania answered. “And as far as goblins go, they don’t have the greatest capacity for magic…at least, as far as I know…”

“So, you mean magic runs out?” Sarge asked. “You know, like ammo?”

Ania nodded. “It’s fueled by rituals…and more powerful spells take more from the sorcerer.”

“The energy has to come from somewhere…” Callen shrugged. “Any clue on when it would run out and need to refuel?”

Ania shook her head. “I’d need to research the name of the demon they worship to have any clue about the specifics…but, the redcap thing might change it.”

Callen nodded. “Probably makes it more powerful and have a higher capacity. Otherwise, why else would you bother conducting an elaborate ritual? But, any idea how common a goblin sorcerer is? Let alone a redcap.”

“It is rare. It requires a lot of blood sacrifice to the redcap tribe’s patron demon and years of devotion.” Kusari said. “Last time we saw one was when they took Forgeholm from us, and that might be the one we saw earlier…the one that became a redcap.”

“Think the bodies we saw all over Forgeholm would be enough?” Callen asked.

Kusari shrugged. “I wish I knew, but it isn’t exactly easy to study goblin culture…I mean if you want…you could probably go ask…”

“Thanks…but no thanks…I don’t care enough about the inner workings of their society…I just want them out of our way.” Callen stated.

“Do any of you know anything about the sorcerer’s magic that took Forgeholm from you?” Ania asked. “You know…like in a myth or story?”

“No…” Kusari sighed. “We don’t have anything written down…we were in chaos back then…and most of our people grew up after. There’re many stories. So, which is right I’m not sure…though, some of the stories give him sickness powers, fire powers…mind control…it depends on who’s telling it.”

“Yeah, well…you could have added the sickness powers because of the suffering of your people,” Ania said. “You know, to have someone to blame…”

“Well, either way it doesn’t matter.” Callen sighed. “It looks like we have a redcap sorcerer with hellfire and possibly plague magic…and maybe even more to deal with…what should we do about it?”

“Kill him…he must be the plague’s source,” Sarge said. “In one mighty blow we will avenge Tuco and Nikolai, cure our people, and take the first step in retaking Forgeholm.”

“Sounds good,” Kusari said. “But, let’s get you moving again first.”

“Speaking of the mission, Callen, the girl that the sorcerer sacrificed to make his redcap…” Ania paused. “She was one of the girls that Bracket is holding captive.”

“You mean…” Sarge stated as he used his arms to sit up.

“I think Bracket may be allied with the goblins,” Ania said. “Or at least negotiating them.”

“Maybe that’s why our journey here was so easy…” Kusari said.

“Easy?” Callen scoffed. “You call that easy? You got stomped, and you call that easy?”

“Princess Sprocket did say that every military action beyond Tiremound were thwarted by goblins as if they new her soldiers were coming…” Ania pointed out. “So, there must be something going on here that kept us alive and give us time. She’s crafty like that.”

Sarge shook his head in denial. “Bracket wouldn’t have betrayed us.” He sighed. “As for General Sprocket…I don’t think that makes no sense, we would have seen many more fresh bodies of gremlins coming in…”

“Maybe, it was Virette?” Ania suggested. “Sprocket said Bracket and Virette were both somehow involved with the kidnap victims…”

“She would never deal with goblins,” Kusari said in a dismissive tone. “This is absurd.”

“This’s speculation anyway,” Callen said. “Let’s worry about gremlin politics after we get out of this place alive. Shall we?”

Callen finished modifying the last bit of firmware that Sarge needed to control his new limbs. Kusari turned her attention to the rest of the robot and began stripping the armor from it so we could attach it to Sarge. She managed to salvage a chest plate, large metal shoulder guards, and she tuned the head into a helmet. She put them on while looking very proud of herself and then attached the large ammo drum for the two guns.

Once he stood up. He clenched his fists and the two Gatling guns spun on his wrists. He grinned from beneath the helmet made out of the defense robot’s skull.

“That’s definitely you,” Callen said smiling.

“I’m back.” He said. “Now, let’s do what we came to do. You lead, Marked One.”

Callen took a deep breath and began looking over the map. “Alright…” Callen started nervously at the realization that he was to take over leadership. “I didn’t see anything that points to what we’re hear for on the cameras, so…”

“To hell with these gods,” Sarge said. “This is all made of bullshit, all of it. They sent us to a meat grinder, for nothing! This place isn’t holy…it is just like some of the other places we have stolen equipment from! We just need to kill that sorcerer and all of it will be over!”

“Blasphemy!” Kusari snarled.

“Actually, that might be so,” Ania said. “Look at how this has turned out so far.”

“Yeah…I agree…but we should go to my dad’s office, either way.” Callen said. “I just hope Bracket doesn’t kill or trade any more of the children before we get back.”

“There has to be some explanation. Maybe giving the goblins the child was a false peace offering to help catch the goblins off guard or a decoy to pull their attention from us?” Sarge asked. “Things will change when everyone learns the goblins have desecrated the domain.”

Ania nodded. “It will unite your people further…but, who traded that child?”

“We won’t get those answers sitting here.” Callen pointed out. “So, lets go see what we can find. If we find it’s all bullshit…we find an exit and kill the sorcerer on the way out…hopefully, that’s the cure for your plague.”

“How are the robots doing?” Kusari asked.

Callen looked at his wrist computer. “It looks like the security bots have pushed the goblins towards a giant hole in the wall. It looks like someone drilled through.”

“What? You mean the goblins didn’t get through with magic or using a door?” Kusari asked.

“No, there is some large drilling equipment that the goblins are using for cover against the robots,” Callen explained.

“Maybe it was whoever accessed the computer a few months ago?” Ania asked.

“How could someone just drill into the tomb of a god?” Kusari asked. “This place is magic.” She looked like she had a hard time dealing with what was going on around her.

“They do it all the time on the surface when people are studying ancient cultures. The cultures thought their tombs were magic too.” Ania said. “Like the Egyptians.”

“We can discuss archeology later,” Callen said. “I don’t know how much time we have until the goblins destroy the robots. We gotta get moving.”

“Kusari, carry the Prophet,” Sarge said motioning with his head towards the unconscious Niknak on his back who was starting to stir. His electric blue eye blinked faster. The muttering started again.

Kusari looked like she was in another world for a second until Sarge bumped her. “Alright.” She said reluctantly and hoisted him onto her back. “I got him.”

They took the elevator to the second level. The elevator opened and revealed a hallway with all sorts of bones decorating the walls and skulls lining the edge of the floor. Bone torches lit the hallway. The decorations didn’t look like they had been here very long, and there were sections of the hall that were still waiting to be decorated. It looked to Callen as though the goblins had just recently moved in.

The robots had done a good job of clearing the goblins out and there were several fresh bodies lying around. The place reeked of sulfur and there were splatter marks of the goblin’s yellow blood everywhere.

They rounded a corner and found a bunch of recently dead human bodies piled next to an electronic door. The partially eaten bodies were dressed in construction clothes.

“That one has a Nextigen name tag, Callen. That’s the company Dr. James’ son works for.” Ania said as she knelt down beside a recently dead human body. “Why would they be here? Do you think…”

“I have no idea, but I suppose its possible that they broke in here last. But, I don’t know. This is just getting weirder.” He said. “Let’s get out of here as soon as possible.”

“After we find your cure,” Ania whispered, as the resumed walking down the hall.

“Yeah,” He said.

Kusari stared at the electronic door. “Wait! I remember this.” She hit the open button on the door’s control panel. It flashed access denied. “Marked one, can you?” She asked.

Callen nodded and tore open the access panel. He connected it to his computer and he hacked the lock. The control panel flashed access granted and the door hissed open. She stepped inside. They all followed, except for Sarge, who guarded the door.

The room was full of tanks each filled with some green liquid, but the layers of dust resting on them prevent them from seeing anything more. High on the left wall there was a giant window and around the entire room was a series of catwalks. There were stairs going up in the far left corner. There were hundreds of tanks that went up about two stories. Above there was a series of large robotic arms hanging from the ceiling.

Ania walked over to the closest one and wiped the dust off the glass. The light in the tank then turned on and she squealed in horror. Inside, floating in the liquid was a gremlin that was missing half of its face and all its limbs except a single arm. The creatures face was locked in a perpetual grimace. She backed away. “Oh my god! That’s…a deformed changeling! It was grown without parts of its body!” She looked at Kusari. “Then they added…” She glanced at Kusari’s electronic parts. Horror spread across Ania’s face. “I really don’t like this place.” On a display below the tank, the vitals were shown. The creature had died on the Christmas Eve almost ten years ago.

“My memories are blotchy, but I remember coming through the door in agony and then the cold came,” Kusari said with a look of terror. She shook her head. “After the cold there was nothing but black.”

“Bad, bad! No grow room! No freeze.” Niknak said as he stirred. He struggled in his bonds causing Kusari to drop him. They held tight and he hit the ground hard.

“We were grown?” Kusari asked sounding horrified as she noticed work benches lining the walls with numbered schematics for robotic parts matching the missing parts of the floating correspondingly numbered changeling corpses in the tank.

“That’s what it seems, probably from spliced and engineered from changeling DNA,” Callen said, looking at the schematics that were laminated in browning plastic. “Along with being placed in some kind of suspended animation.” He stopped when he noticed the battery schematic. The gremlins all had the same power system…”

“Is that even possible?” Ania asked.

“Theoretically, yeah both…but there are a lot of issues that still need to be worked out for genetic engineering this advanced or suspended animation. And I mean a lot. I doubt even Felix or Dr. Brewer could pull it off.”

“But…I thought…I don’t know if I can handle this…” Kusari shook her head. She started breathing heavy. “We were…we were molded in his image…”

“Test build.” Niknak muttered. “Experiment.”

“Deal with it later. Come on.” Callen said. “I need you to help me, like you said you would. We need to go to my dad’s lab. Maybe we will find something there that will answer your questions. Keep it together, Kusari.”

She nodded. “Yeah, got it.”

“I hope Dad had nothing to do with this…” Ania said.

“Master no make alone,” Niknak said. “Master and others grow all of the first gremlins.”

“Who is your master?” Ania asked. “Bracket? Virette? Or…The Many?”

He looked hard at her and then stared at Callen. He twitched. “No Many….no Bracket…no Virette…Master…be…” He twitched. “Mast…is….forg…Thorne.” He collapsed into convulsions.

Callen shook his head in confusion. “It didn’t make sense. My dad couldn’t be Niknak’s master anymore. Niknak was trying to kill me! He has to be lying. There was just no way!”

Outside the room, Sarge’s gun fired. “We better move!” He called.

Kusari picked up the twitching Niknak and they exited the tank room. Six dead goblins lay at Sarge’s feet. “I think I like this upgrade.” He said.

“Stragglers?” Ania asked.

Callen checked the video feed. “The robots are losing ground, we don’t have much time. We have four left. I guess some got passed” Then he saw the goblin sorcerer with the redcap wander forward on the screen and lift his hand. Fire poured forth from his hand igniting the robot. A robot exploded a few seconds later in the image. “Ok…three…we better hurry.”

**********************

 

Déjà vu washed over Callen as they made the final turns towards his father’s office. He pushed open the rotting door, and it fell from it’s hinges. But, the room wasn’t the homey place he remembered, the office was in shambles. Time and goblins had turned the place into a pile of junk. However, the desk still stood, though most of the wood had been torn away. Luckily, the metal beneath it was strong enough to withstand the gremlin’s best attacks. Thus, it’s advanced skeleton still remained.

Callen didn’t waste time on the scattered things; he went directly to the desk. He hoped it still worked. Nervously, he looked for the on switch and felt the cross move in his pocket. A hidden drawer slid open and inside rested the control gloves for the motion interface. He pulled on the gloves and the monitors flashed with light. He felt his memories guide him, reminding him exactly where to go. He opened the program that controlled the stasis chamber that he had seen his father place the canister in during his dream. His heart pounded with excitement and the chamber hissed open, while Niknak stirred on the floor.

“Goblins!” Sarge roared from the hall.

“Buy us time!” Kusari yelled. She eyed the canister and drew her swords.

“That has to be what we are looking for,” Ania said. “It’s panacea. It’s colors…”

Callen nodded and knelt next to the drawer. Inside, he saw the stasis chamber had a separate power source from the facility, and somehow it had kept it safe for ten years. “So, how do I administer it?”

“I don’t know, grab it and let’s go. I’m sure you, Felix, and Dr. Brewer can figure it out.” Ania climbed on to one of the bookshelves and began using her knife to open the panel covering one of the air ducts. “I think we can crawl through here, Callen, when you’re done. Hurry.”

“Come get some!” Sarge taunted at the goblins. His guns begin spitting a wall of bullets.

Callen picked up the canister, and a voice came from the computer. “Hello, son.” Something said as a light came on from inside the rubble. Without hesitation, Ania pulled back some debris, and a damaged computer screen flickered with their father’s image. “Things didn’t go as I had planned and I didn’t get home on Christmas morning. For that, I am truly sorry. If you are watching this, then you have made it here as I hoped you would. I hope your mother is with you, and I love her and your sister dearly. Now, I don’t have much time, so I’ll get to the point. You now have a cure for your cancer, however because of what happened here, I was unable to check its integrity. It may not be entirely stable.”

“Dad.” Callen sighed. He glanced at the canister. Inside was a dark steel colored viscous fluid that moved as if it was alive.

“Master?” Niknak muttered. “No fail master.” He muttered, but none noticed.

The recording continued. “Things got bad here very quickly. Biocore’s cybernetics research facility, I’m sure you know by now, was subject to a cyber-attack which sent it into a critical state and wreaked havoc on the facility’s systems. After the cyber-attack had taken over the system, the facility was infiltrated by nalkori. I activated thousands of research subjects that were being kept in stasis to help defend the compound, but I was too late. The virus had also corrupted a large number of the test subjects, whom I had not anticipated, but upon this realization I managed to get an anti-virus program in some of them. As I worked, I noticed that the corruption took place because of similarities between them and the nalkori. To my surprise, they were along the same iterative engineered evolution, with the test subjects of this facility being the lab rats for the more far more advanced nalkori combat units. Unfortunately, I was unable to determine more. There were too many questions.” The image flickered as it revealed Alex glance out the door into the hallway for attackers. The sounds of battle could be heard.

“What’s a nalkori?” Ania asked.

“I’m not sure,” Callen said. “I guess there whatever physically attacked this facility in conjunction with a virus.”

Alex’s image returned to the screen, and he began loading rounds into a pistol. “Callen, I did what I could in what time I had to react, and the virus was my focus. I had to try to regain control of the facility. I slowed it down by trapping it in my homunculus and programed an amulet to remove it from him. It seemed it was some sort of entity that was the summation of many individual viruses resulting in a singular dominant consciousness, but I would need more time to confirm that. Regardless, I didn’t need to do anything but provide it an opportunity to infest a body in order to trap it as if it wanted to be there. I, unfortunately, didn’t have time to figure out what the virus’ purpose was, but I have my theories and I know that this thing is not something that should ever be free. By now, the virus should be removed and he has guided you here, as I asked him too and you must…”

“No!” Niknak roared. The ropes snapped like they were nothing and leaped through the computer projector screen with a knife in his hand sending shards of glowing glass everywhere. His shoulder crashed into Callen as his fist with his drawn knife missed and almost cut into Kusari. They fell backward into the bookshelf causing Callen to drop the canister. “No, bad, bad!” He jumped to his feet.

He knocked Callen back to the ground as he tried to stand up. He blocked a low strike from Kusari with his arm. Blood flowed, but it didn’t phase him. He jammed a dagger into Kusari’s flesh. “No! Bad, bad, bitch!” “ He drew another knife.

Callen reached for the canister as he was distracted, but Kusari stepped in the way to counter another strike from Niknak.

Niknak used his pair of knives to pushed Kusari’s blade into the air and slashed his second knife across her stomach. She tried to evade, but Niknak was much faster. She counter attacked, but Niknak jumped backward. Her strike went wild cutting deep into Callen’s left arm as he grabbed the canister. Niknak stepped in and head-butted Kusari breaking her nose and dropping her to her knee. Callen backed up cradling his bloody arm.

“Bad, bad!” He screamed. He tightened his hand on his knife and stepped in between Callen and Kusari. “No…master no want.” He tightened his grips on his knives and looked between the two of them, paying careful attention to Kusari as she got back to her feet. She readied herself for another attack with one blade over her head and the other poised to tear open someone’s abdomen with a single strike.

Niknak bent down and picked up the canister. As he stood, Kusari took the opportunity to strike.

As Niknak dodged Kusari’s strike, a chair, pushed by Ania, slid in behind him and he fell. His knife hit the wall next to Callen as he fell to the ground letting go of the canister.

Callen grabbed it with his left hand and pulled his gun, leveling it at Niknak. “My dad doesn’t want me dead!” He yelled. “You must still be infected with that Virus!” His blood dripped on the canister. The fluid became excited as it stretched for his blood. “Huh?” He looked at the canister and in that moment Niknak tackled him again as both of Kusari’s blades whistled over them.

They fell to the ground. Callen’s pistol slid across the floor. He managed to keep control of the canister as they fell. He had it between the floor and his left hand. In the fall, he smashed his forehead on the floor. The world started spinning.

The weight of Niknak on top of him was suddenly removed. There was a loud smash into the wall. As Callen’s vision refocused, he saw Kusari standing over him holding her bleeding wound.

“Stop!” Ania yelled, but neither Kusari nor Niknak listened. “I got it open!” The panel fell to the ground. “Let’s go! Callen, get Sarge out of that mech so he can fit!” She swore when she noticed no one was listening.

Niknak roared and pulled another knife. Kusari made three quick slices followed by a downward thrust as he closed. The blood sprayed against the wall. The blade of one blade pierced through Niknak dropping him to his knees. He grunted and twisted bending Kusari’s sword making it impossible for her to remove quickly. He screamed and fell to the ground. His electronic eye went dark.

She watched Niknak for a second to make sure he didn’t get up before falling to her knee. Then she looked towards Callen. She took a breath but fell to her knee before she said a word.

“It’s bad.” Ania as she hopped down from the shelf. “Her colors are fading. I got an exit, let’s go!”

“This time it isn’t electronic.” Kusari gasped. “I don’t think I can make it.”

“Ah…” Ania stuttered. “Umm…we…ah…look.” She pointed at Niknak.

Kusari’s blade began to disintegrate as it sat bent inside of Niknak’s body. The slices on his body then began to fill with a copper metallic fluid. The copper came from inside Niknak’s body and moved with purpose. The copper pulled his wounds together, as if it were healing him. His eye began blinking. His hands tightened on his knife and he sprang up towards Kusari and Callen with his two knives poised for the kill.

Kusari still had some spring in her step. She tried to block but wasn’t quick enough. She blocked one knife, but not the other. The knife cut into her arm severing her bicep. She staggered and the two of them fell on Callen.

He pushed the two them off with his feet, pinning Niknak under her body.

She slumped on Niknak and reached for Callen’s gun.

Niknak kicked Kusari off him and jumped to his feet. Callen stood, but Niknak grabbed his arm as he stood up. He pulled hard causing Callen to smash his head into the desk, and the two of them evaded a wave of throwing stars. A single shot echoed through the room. Callen landed hard on the floor and the broken container. The bullet had shattered the container. Niknak grabbed another knife, and turned towards Kusari, but his attention was pulled towards Callen.

From the shattered container, the living fluid moved like a swarm of serpents into towards Callen’s bloody arm. His flesh rippled as the tentacles of metal fluid tunneled through into his skin. He screamed, but no sound crossed his lips. Instead, he watched the liquid tendrils weave through his arm with their frozen touch. His world went dark to the chatter of Sarge’s machine guns barely holding goblin onslaught at bay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[]CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

 

Everything was black and cold. Along with the sounds of the ocean, a distant melody twinkled in the distance. The sounds swept through the chilling air casting an eerie comfort across his mind. His back was cold, as if he were lying bare skinned in a pile of snow. He felt an icy rain on his skin and the partially frozen blades of grass slip between his fingers. He was cold, but didn’t shiver and what he felt was something he had never felt before. He couldn’t help but wonder if he were dead.

The melody grew closer and the faint sound of bagpipes added to the quiet frosty symphony. Pulling him deeper into the hypnotic twinkle, a woman’s voice worked into the melody in the delicate words of an ancient tongue. Despite being unable to understand, the song was intoxicating, and like a drug he craved more.

He had to find it. Someone, whoever it was, was calling him. He felt desire begin building in his gut. But, something held him and pulled at the back of his mind. Something heavy, something dark, which began burning deep inside and held his eyes locked shut.

The faces of rune carved children, including his loved ones, and metallic demons peeling their flesh off took hold. Locked in place, he burned, but the song worked between the flashes of his nightmares, quenching their spell. The disturbing flashes of torture faded with each note.

His eyes began to lighten and slowly opened. Above him, the shadows of leafless trees stretched towards the curtain of grey clouds being pulled back by an invisible hand. The glow of the moon touched his skin, and the canvas of stars stretched out before his very eyes.

He felt the cooling rain, and a breeze eroded the last of the flame and darkness. He smiled. It was calm here, peaceful, and refreshing. For the first time ever he felt at home, relaxed, and at peace.

As he sat up, he noticed a black bird land on a tree’s branch, silhouetted by moonlight. The gnarled tree had grown out over the ledge of a cliff, and beyond it rolled the infinite ocean. The bird cawed, sounding much like a crow or raven. It fix its single eye on him. The other was heavily scarred. It cocked its head, and looked backwards, waiting, as the song neared.

Through the trees came a woman dressed in warrior’s leather and heavy plaid cloak. Her ice green eyes glowed beneath the hood. She floated with angelic grace. Her sweet voice came to a hum as she sat next to him. Her face came into focus and she lowered her hood. She touched his face and he smiled. She was perfect. A few of her jet-black curls dangled free of her mess of braided hair. Her alabaster skin and artistically placed freckles wrinkled as her emerald lips formed a loving smile. She leaned in, rubbed her soft finger tips along his jaw line, and kissed his cheek. “I’ve been waiting for you, my love…”

He felt drawn to her, but her words didn’t make any sense. “Am I dead?”

With her other hand, she rubbed his other cheek. “That is far from a simple answer, but…if you mean the permanent passing of an earthly body to the next, then no…you are not dead.”

“Then, I dreaming?”

“In a sense…yes…thinking of this as a dream will suffice.” She smiled and ran the fingers of her right hand down his neck and along his left arm and held his hand. “But, does it matter? A dream shapes reality and reality shapes dreams. They are one world with two faces, forever intertwined.”

He watched dark steel colored liquid beginning to ripple on his skin near her fingers. “What’s…?” He started to ask, but she only answered with a gentle smile. “Panacea…” He whispered. She began drawing on his arm and the liquid metal danced after her fingers, as if they were magnets. Swirls settled in her finger’s wake which formed tribal designs from an age long past. Over his shoulder and along his ribs the metal designs came to rest, and they finally stopped when she rested her hand over his heart. “Who are you?” The crow cawed on the branch, and if it spoke the answer, he didn’t understand.

Without removing her soft hand, she looked at him with a puckish lover’s gaze. “They’re calling you back.”

“So?” He didn’t want to leave.

“It isn’t time…you know you must go.”

“But…”

“You have no choice.”

“Will I see you again?”

“What does your heart tell you?”

The crow cawed and she began to hum again. The enchanting words rolled into the same ancient language and he felt himself drift with the fading world. The last thing he saw was her loving eyes glittering in the night.

**********************

 

Ania shook Callen violently while Niknak twitched on the floor. “Wake up! You’re not dead…you can’t be!” She screamed. “Come on!” With another shake, Callen gasped for breath. Relief washed over Ania’s face. “Thank…” Cutting her off, a fire bolt shot over Sarge’s head searing the cement wall. The flames filled the room with an unbearable heat. The fire system hissed on showering the room with water. “We gotta go! Now!” She ordered before Callen even had a chance to orient himself.

Sarge’s right gun clicked empty. The horde rushed forward, with the sorcerer leading the way. The sorcerer’s hands were wreathed in flickering green flames.

Sarge steadied himself for a powerful sweeping swing. The sorcerer ducked his strike and his left machine gun fired the last of his bullets into the front of the horde.

The sorcerer, in an amazing feat of agility, climbed up Sarge’s side. His hands melted into his armor on his way up. Sarge smashed his shoulder into the wall crushing a pair of goblins as they tried to pass him. The sorcerer narrowly avoided being crushed and didn’t waste any time digging his flaming hands into Sarge’s eye sockets and under the neck piece of Sarge’s armor. Sarge roared with pain as his head began to burn.

Groggily, Callen grabbed his pistol with his left hand. As he stood up, he noticed the dark metal streaking up his arm. From the tips of his fingers, the metal had wrapped up, like a Celtic tribal tattoo. The cut from Kusari’s blade had been completely filled with the substance and had blended with the swirling design. He was no longer bleeding. The metallic fluid felt cold and he could feel it moving through his body. He noticed the copper streaks on Niknak. “Oh my god…” He whispered.

His goggles had re-synced with his pistol and three shots displayed on his goggles. He took aim at the sorcerer and fired. The bullet hit him hard in the shoulder knocking him off of Sarge.

Sarge thrashed more violently to try to hold back the horde. “I will crush you!” Sarge roared.

Callen tried to take aim again, but Sarge was blocking his shot. The sorcerer stood up and plunged his hands into Sarge’s chest. The fire intensified as the sorcerer chanted causing the closest goblins near him to fall down dead. Sarge’s armor rapidly liquefied. The fire system in the hallway hissed on.

Sarge screamed as the tongues of the sorcerer’s fire covered his body, the sprinklers did nothing to quench the hellfire. “Run.” He yelled as the metal began melting into his skin and down onto his body.

The fire erupted like an infernal volcano with the deaths of more goblins. The sorcerer pressed forward, and his fiery claws tore into Sarge’s soft organs.

Sarge tried to charge forward but fell to the ground as the last of Sarge began to succumb to the heat.

“Where?” Callen yelled in frustration while franticly looking around for a possible means of escape.

“Don’t leave me…” Kusari moaned on the floor.

“I can’t get Kusari into the duct,” Ania yelled.

Callen swore.

“Trapped like rodents!” The sorcerer growled. He motioned for the goblins to charge.

Callen reloaded his gun, and backed towards Ania, who had dragged Kusari under the vent. He felt the cross vibrate in his pocket as he leaned against the wall. He pulled it out. The wall rumbled open, revealing a hidden passage. “That’s right, Dad’s hidden lab!”

“Niknak?” Ania asked as the first goblins entered the room.

“No time, and he just tried to kill me,” Callen said as he hoisted Kusari through the door. Niknak was lying on the floor convulsing.

“Thanks…” Kusari murmured with her oily blood leaking from her mouth.

He closed the door, narrowly escaping the goblins. They were safe for the time being.

Kusari coughed. “Thanks for not leaving me.” She moaned.

“You saved me again.” Callen said.

“Yeah, we couldn’t leave you,” Ania added. “We’re friends.”

Kusari smiled and coughed while Ania and Callen used Ania’s first aid kit to bind her wounds.

“Guess we can only go down,” Callen said. “Kusari, can you move?”

“Do I have a choice?” She glanced at the door. “I’d rather not be sitting here when they melt their way through…”

The three companions descended down the wrapping claustrophobic ramp into an advanced lab. Among the tanks of various chemicals and robotic arms, there was a metal encapsulated bed with all sorts of wires and tubes running from it into a computer system.

“What the…” Ania started.

“I don’t know, but this stuff is crazy advanced,” Callen said. “Beyond what Felix has…or Dr. Brewer…”

Ania looked at one of the tanks. “Arsine gas?” She asked.

“Yeah, if that stuff leaks you smell garlic before you die. Some of these chemicals are used to make a lot of the special materials I used in Felix’s workshop. But some of this stuff I have never seen before.”

“What did Dad use all this stuff for?” Ania asked.

He looked at his arm. “Probably this, among other stuff. How did this stuff get on me exactly?” Callen asked. “My memory is a little blurry.”

“I thought he was going to kill you…” Kusari sighed. “I grabbed your gun…I missed.”

Ania nodded. “Then, I ran to your side. I checked your pulse and your heart stopped beating and Niknak started having one of his convulsions.”

Callen nodded. “That’s odd. Why would Niknak have an episode if I died for a second? He was trying to kill me.”

“I don’t know, Callen,” Ania said sadly. “How do you feel?”

“Hungry.” He said. “Extremely hungry.”

“I hope panacea wasn’t destroyed.” Ania sighed.

Callen looked at his arm and shrugged.

“Before we get too comfortable, what’s going on upstairs?” Kusari coughed. “Are they still coming? That sorcerer should be through that door by now…”

“Hold on a second.” Callen flipped through the cameras on his computer. “Looks like Niknak ended up helping us in the end. The sorcerer is leaving the facility with a few goblins dragging Niknak. The horde is following.” He smiled. “But still, it doesn’t make sense that he would just leave. I bet if that sorcerer wanted to he could melt through that door.” As the goblins dragged him, something fell out of his pocket. Callen zoomed in with the camera. It was a Lego figure Callen had given to his father to give Niknak the Christmas his father vanished. The sight of the toy struck an emotional note, and he wondered why Niknak would keep the toy if he were trying to kill him.

“I bet they will be back,” Ania said. “We better figure something out quick.”

Callen nodded. “Where should we start?”

“There is an air duct we can crawl through here,” Kusari said. “I’ll get it open.”

“Alright,” Callen said. “Let me check the duct layout.” He brought up the duct map on his wrist computer. “Ah, we got a problem. This lab and all the duct work down here, well, it isn’t on the map I have. So, I don’t know where that goes.”

“Maybe Dad has the information on that computer?” Ania asked.

“Maybe, but I don’t really know what any of this stuff does. There is a lot of stuff here.” Callen said. He paused. “Wait as second.” Callen pulled up the page with the lab drawing that Virette had given him on his goggles. “This is the place, that is in noted Virette’s file.”

“Where The Many is trapped?” Kusari asked.

Callen nodded. “But, I don’t even know where to start….”

“Don’t give me that, there is nothing you can’t figure out with all that technology stuff,” Ania said.

“Yeah, you repaired me.” Kusari coughed as she continued duct taping her wounds. “Do what you can.”

“Alright…” He walked up to the command computer and stared at the controls. The computer was far from common. “Um, I can’t even find the power button.”

“Maybe Dad used the cross?” Ania suggested.

He nodded. “Why not, he uses it for everything else around this place.” He pulled out his cross and the lab hummed to life. “Ah…” He shuddered. The monitors buzzed to life.

“Callen, I’ve been thinking, do you think the Many might be the virus that attacked this place?” Ania asked.

“That would make some sense.” He said. “Dad said in the recording upstairs that something had corrupted some of the test subjects and the virus was many different streams of completely different code. But, I don’t know. That’s too much of a leap for me without any proof.”

“But Dad said that it was taken care of and he locked it in his homunculus?” Ania said. “And a homunculus is…”

“This large machine,” Kusari said, she seemed excited, but it was cut off when she wiped a mixture of blood and oil from her mouth.

Callen gave Kusari a weird look. “I have no idea,” Callen said, cutting her off. “But, I have a guess…”

“No,” Ania said. “I wasn’t asking. I was about to tell. I saw it in some of the tomes I was reading. A homunculus is an assistant to an alchemist. It’s a living being that they made as an extension of themselves.”

“More alchemy stuff?” Callen sounded irritated. “And thus…no answers…”

Kusari looked confused. “What’s alchemy?”

Callen scratched his head. “Felix mentioned that it has something to do with technology beyond the time and then there’s the cipher…But, aside from being the forefather of modern physics and chemistry, I don’t know much more than that…”

Ania shrugged. “I didn’t research any more into it. So, I don’t know either.”

“So, if the homunculus is a creature, where is it?” Kusari coughed and dropped the last screw on the floor. She lowered the duct cover to the floor and sat down against the wall.

“I think the goblins took him,” Callen admitted.

“Niknak’s The Many.” Kusari whispered slowly.

“We don’t know anything yet,” Callen said. “Right now, we’re just guessing. Let’s see if there are any more clues on this system.” He turned his attention towards the computer, which was on standby. Like the stasis chamber that held panacea for the last ten years, the secret lab room was also on a separate power source from the greater facility.

“Dad…what were you up to?” Callen muttered. He looked down towards a collection of three minimized programs. He expanded the first of the idle programs. He scratched his head as he looked through the code “Ok, well, it looks like this is what Dad used to create a program to counteract the virus that infected the gremlins.” He said. “He called the anti-virus he wrote ‘Forger.’”

“So, I guess that means the virus is definitely the Many,” Ania said. “I guess we know where the gremlin ‘gods’ came from.”

“Yeah, but it’s more than that. By the way it is written, it looks like the gremlins would have to accept the anti-virus to counteract the virus. So, in a way, they really could be considered gods.” He said. “My best guess is that maybe that has to do with the way their CPU and brain interact?” He shook his head. “Warring computer programs as gods. Derrick would love that.”

“Yeah, he would,” Ania stated, sounding uncomfortable with the idea. “But, that must be why things developed the way they did before Forgeholm fell. But, why did they begin to revert to the many after he installed the anti-virus on them all?”

“I don’t know,” Callen said. “I guess it had to do with Niknak somehow since Dad said he contained the virus within him.”

Kusari was quiet in the corner and slowly shaking her head. “Niknak is the Many.” She muttered.

“Check something else,” Ania said. “What else was Dad working on?”

“Alright” He opened the next program. “This one looks like more programming for some device. But, this one is loaded with more alchemy symbols.” He touched something in the program and a circular coin with a hole in the middle and runes on it popped up. The screen started blinking out of range. “Wait, that looks like one of the charms Bracket had and Niknak wanted for payment.”

“Could that be the device Dad mentioned that would fix Niknak after he trapped The Many in him?” Ania asked.

“It must be,” Callen said. “But I can’t read all the code to find out exactly what it does.” He sighed. “I guess I need to learn this alchemy stuff.”

Ania nodded. “We have some research to do…” Ania pointed at the bottom of the screen. “Look…check that program it says Panacea.”

Inside there were two choices written in alchemy symbols. Each choice was a different color. One was copper the other was dark steel. Callen glanced at his arm and clicked the dark steel set of symbols. The screen flashed something Callen couldn’t read. It was followed by scrolling through more lines of unreadable code with date stamps from the last ten years.

“What the hell?” Ania gasped as the light flashed on the bed-tank.

“Ah…I don’t know…” Callen said. He walked over to the bed and the canopy retracted. He glanced back at Ania and he climbed into the bed. The tank closed and the scanning light passed slowly over him before the tank then re-opened.

‘Panacea Detected. Status Active. Computing results.’ Flashed on the screen before Ania. “Come here, watch this.” She motioned for Callen to return to the computer. “It looks like it’s analyzing whether it worked…”

“Ah…ok…” Callen said slowly as he looked at the graphical display his body. The representation of his skin was translucent and the details of his nervous, skeletal, circulatory, and other bodily systems could be seen, each in a different color. Over the image, the words computing were written.

“Cross your fingers,” Ania said.

Before it finished, another window opened on its own.

“What the…” Callen expected to see something related to his medical scan, but instead he saw a live video feed streaming the face of the redcap sorcerer. “Umm…” The image was labeled by copper alchemy symbols.

“It has been quite some time, Prophet.” The sorcerer mocked, placing sarcastic emphasis on the word ‘prophet.’

“What?” Ania asked sounding very confused.

“We are looking through Niknak’s eyes,” Callen explained. “I guess this program accesses Niknak’s hard drive so Dad could view things from his perspective.”

“Sure…” Ania whispered skeptically.

Free Niknak, Niknak cut you dead, evil!” Niknak grumbled as he struggled with the ropes attached to his wrists and hands. They were inside the large hut that housed the grinding apparatus. Niknak lay near a small fire with crates and biohazard barrels stacked around him. The three robed goblins that had assisted in the ritual held Niknak with metal sticks attached to his ropes. They looked like apprentices to the sorcerer, but none had a jewel sticking out of their hand like the sorcerer.

Niknak was bound in the corner with the sorcerer standing over him. Two guards were standing beside Niknak with crossbows pointed at his head. “Doesn’t this look familiar? The sorcerer mocked. He belted Niknak across the face with his jeweled hand and laughed. “That’s for disobeying.”

Ania and Callen looked at each other in confusion and immediately turned their eyes back to the screen. “What are they talking about?” Ania asked.

“Cut you!” Niknak yelled. Through his eyes, two trolls could be seen sitting in far cages, but the room was too dark to make out anything more than their shadowy crouched form.

Callen looked at Ania and he shrugged.

“Not while I have your knives.” The sorcerer laughed and looked at two of his closest goblin guards. “Tie him tighter.” He scratched his chin.

“Master,” One of the apprentices said. “The Dark Ones are growing suspicious, we need a new sacrifice to keep them appeased for a bit longer.”

The sorcerer nodded. “I am aware.” He glared at Niknak. “You’ll do nicely.”

“Niknak cut you!” Niknak growled.

“Come now, you don’t want to displease the friend who gave you everything now do you? Your death will keep everything right for just a little longer.” The sorcerer said. “It only fits that you die for the cause you started.”

“No Niknak’s friend…Master give Niknak everything…no…” Niknak hissed and struggled harder.

The sorcerer cut him off. “She did give you everything. So, stop struggling.”

“No not her!” Niknak looked down at the ground. “Niknak have New master. Must protect!”

“Cute.” The sorcerer said. “But the only master you have left is me and my love.”

“Nooooooo!” He yelled and struggled with the ropes. “No dead!”

“Yes, dead. You only serve us now. And that you have done well, that much can be said.”

“No serve you. Kill you both!”

“Oh, you will serve us in death…and it is a pity, everything was going so well for you…and now here we are back at the beginning…where it all started…”

“No fail master…” He muttered and hung his head. “Niknak succeed.”

“Soon The Many will be free.” He laughed. “And you have failed everyone but me and my love! That boy will be dead soon and you will have failed whoever you think your master is.” He laughed again.

“NO!!!!!!!!!” Niknak screamed and struggled. He began to twitch.

The sorcerer scratched his chin and looked back towards the goblins seated near the fire. “Prepare him.”

The goblins nodded as Niknak’s vision faded to black.

The siblings looked at each other with the same confusion.

“So, Niknak didn’t want to kill me?” Callen said.

“I guess not…” Ania said. “But, I don’t like what this implies.”

“Yeah.” Callen agreed. “I know what you mean.” The status display under Niknak’s vision feed indicated that his memory upload was completed. “I could check what he has recorded…”

“Do it,” Ania said. “The thing’s still computing your results so…”

Callen opened the downloaded information. Instantly, a skeletal graphic of Niknak appeared complete with a table of contents. The categories were: Background, Experiments, and Status. His current status read ‘unconscious.’

“At least it isn’t in alchemy symbols,” Ania said.

“Yeah,” Callen said. “So, where should we start? It looks like we can access his memories since his creation…”

“Check what has been causing his unconsciousness,” Ania said.

Callen rapidly found the file and noted how much easier it was to navigate through Niknak’s computer with the use of this interface that it was with Kusari. “The error came from conflicting command codes and has happened thousands of times since the date Dad disappeared. Each error has a video file. He must record things, store it like a computer does, and then his organics use the information to accomplish things.”

“Check the first one,” Ania said.

The image was scrambled and the text files were loaded with alchemy code.

It began to clear up when an image of the rune-covered coin was placed around Niknak’s neck. The recording was blotchy and got clearer as time went on. He seemed to be fading in and out of consciousness while he was sitting on the strange bed-tank in the corner of this secret lab with wires running into his arm.

Niknak pulled the wires and tubes from his arm and jumped down from the strange bed after a voice ordered him too. Niknak walked over a table with a pile of personal equipment resting on it, including his knives and a backpack.

He strapped a belt on with only a pair of knives on it and pulled a backpack on. He stared at a Lego figure that was sitting on the table. He looked towards Callen’s father who was right where Ania and Callen were now. “Brother…” He twitched and his vision blurred. “Give?” His fist tightened around the Lego figure.

Their father looked up from using his computer and making a few adjustments to his wrist computer. He nodded. “Yeah, he wanted you to have it when you got up as your Christmas present.”

“We go see brother and sister too?” Niknak asked and then he twitched.

“How are you feeling?” Alex asked looking like he was avoiding the question.

“Nik…“He twitched and wiped a tear from his eye. “…Nak…err…”

“Great,” Alex said sarcastically. “It is going to take a little more time to get you back to normal.” He walked over and placed the rune-covered coin necklace around Niknak’s neck. “Don’t take this thing off, until it glows. Then destroy it if I’m not there to do it. I will make sure you have my book with the directions if we have to separate.”

“No…take…off.” He stuttered. “Know symbols. Know what to do. Book has powerful words for coins. Know tests.”

“I know Niknak.” He sighed. “I apologize for that.”

“No choice. Save brother…now save all. Niknak choose. Niknak volunteer. No let die!”

Alex reached into the pocket of his coat and pulled out a knife. “Eve said you were going to need this to get us out of here.” He handed him the knife. It was Niknak’s favorite knife. He clipped it on his belt. He pulled Eve’s knife and looked at the tricolored blade. “Mistress say…” Twitch. “Niknak have knife when Niknak ready. She say Niknak ready?”

“She did. She trained you the best she could. Now, I am going to need your help to get out of here. Those nalkori are upstairs.”

He looked at the knife in one hand and the Lego guy in the other. His gaze fixed on the Lego figurine. From brother…” he twitched and his voice grew deeper. “Want masks and…” Niknak shook his head violently.

Alex looked at him questioningly. “How…” He paused. “Wait…it must have…yeah that’s it…the virus…” He picked up four metal masks from the workbench in the corner and placed them into a backpack. He threw the bag over his shoulder and checked the pistol that was strapped to his leg.

Niknak’s vision blurred as if he was nodding.

“Masks?” Ania asked. “What for?”

“No idea,” Callen said. “There were some masks in the data file that Virette gave me…but I couldn’t tell what they were for…”

Niknak tightly grasped the knife with both hands and shook his head. His vision cleared again. “Clear.” He said. “Niknak love knife and Niknak love brother. Brother love Legos. Give knife to brother. Niknak need give brother present like Brother give Niknak. It be Christmas.”

“You hold on to that. He is too young right now. You can give it to him later if you want. Use it to help us get out of here. That knife has been in our family for a long time…”

“But, Niknak be younger than brother…”

“I created you after Callen was born, yes. But, he’s human. He grows slower than you. I created you. You are my homunculus.”

Niknak nodded.

Alex nodded. “Come on.” He motioned for Niknak to follow. The two of them ran up the stairs into the office and into the hall were a group of gremlins was waiting. Among them was Bracket, who was much skinnier and was lacking his spider legs. The gremlins fell into formation escorting my father and Niknak towards the basement using the closest stairs.

The message scrambled, but the sounds of battle could be heard. The picture returned with Bracket, Niknak, and their father in front of the emergency exit into the tunnels: The door that they entered through.

“Everyone out?” Alex asked when they reached the basement door.

“Yes, we have released our brethren and they killed the dangerous ones. There are some that are covering our escape and holding the nalkori off. They should be enough to cover your escape as well, my lord.” Bracket said. “Thank you for sparing us when you didn’t have too.”

“A life is a life,” Alex said. “But, I warn you, keep everyone to the shadows and stay in the depths or you will get a lot of unwanted attention.”

Bracket nodded. “We will survive and await your return, great Forger.”

A loud hiss came from the stairwell. T

he siblings’ eyes grew wide with fear. They knew that sound.

“Niknak will lead you. Now, go!” Alex ordered. Bracket and the other gremlins turned and ran through the door out into the tunnels.

“Master?” Niknak asked.

“Go with them Niknak…they’ll need everything you know to not fall to the evils out there.” He pulled the scarab of his pocket and placed it with the coin around Niknak’s neck. “Keep this on, it will make them follow you and ensure they listen to the Forger. Use it to make them strong enough to choose what is good.” He cursed. “The other is not going to be good for any of us. I wish we had more time.”

“Niknak will…” He twitched. “Be ok. Master must go. Niknak no…” He twitched. “No fail master!”

Alex reached into his bag and pulled out a leather-bound book. “You know what to do with these.” He then removed his cross from his neck and tucked it into the cover of the book. He handed both to Niknak, who immediately tucked them into his own backpack. “You need to make sure that…” The message scrambled and returned. “…is what matters…find our family…protect them…Callen must not…and Ania…they will…her….to…”

The hiss came again sounding much closer. The image then scrambled again and Niknak was in the tunnels with the door hissing closed behind him. He rounded the corner and took the butt of a rifle in the face. Niknak fumbled to grab the necklace, but another smash from the rifle butt flew in. The image scrambled again as Bracket leaped on top of him and pulled off the necklace. “I rule, necklaces are mine!” He said and he hit Niknak again in the face knocking him unconscious.

“It looks like we know what made Bracket exile Niknak…” Ania looked at Callen.

He nodded. “And didn’t get completely fixed. The coin never glowed…” He sighed with disbelief. “And Wow…just wow…it’s like creating a religion based on the ramblings of a schizophrenic.”

“Not one, but two.” Ania pointed out. “But, no matter the basis for the gremlin faiths…those things, the metallic demons, nalkori. Whatever, attacked here…they were after Dad.” Ania said shaking. “And, what the hell is going on?” She swallowed hard. She looked like she was about to panic.

“Ania, relax,” Callen said, trying to sound brave. “They aren’t here anymore, and if they were, I could stop them.” He tapped on his wrist computer.

She nodded slowly. “Yeah. Not here.” She began taking deep breaths. “Check some more of the files,” Ania ordered.

“I don’t know. There are quite a few. There is a lot of data.”

She nodded and sighed. “Check for all things related to The Many. That has to give us some answers. Then hopefully we can save our friends with that.” Ania sounded focused.

“I’ll set up a search parameter. That should filter all the crap we don’t need.” It took him only a few seconds to prepare the filter.

The first file showed Niknak stumbling through underground corridors and falling into random convulsions. He was muttering about failing and Bracket banishing him. He cursed and smashed his fist against the wall while images of Callen playing Legos with him appeared. “No die. Need gremlins to find…” He cursed again. He started muttering about The Many. Each time he muttered the word The Many before the screen went black and then switched to a different image. His mind was breaking.

Images of experiments flashed through his eyes followed by his screams of pain spliced with memory recordings of Callen playing with Legos. Flashes of computer code written in alchemical symbols appeared every so often as well. Everything was so broken, it wasn’t possible to get a good understanding of anything. There were flashes of him fighting goblins, falling in love with Sprocket, killing gremlin rivals of Bracket, and eventually being dragged into a camp before the goblin sorcerer.

The images became less random and clearer when Virette’s face appeared standing next to the sorcerer. “Clear, Prophet.” She said. “All is well.” Niknak’s vision cleared as he began to relax. “So, The Many is power? Tell me more…” She looked at the sorcerer. “I can’t think of anything better than power, vengeance, and you my love.” She put her hand on the sorcerers and looked back towards the tied up Niknak. “I am soon to be a widow.” She laughed. “That fool will pay for hurting my daughters.”

“Then we shall rule, my love.” The sorcerer said. “Both gremlins and goblins! I knew sparing you was the best decision I ever made.”

Virette looked at Niknak. “Bracket always said that you are failing your master to get you to speak prophecy. Now do it for me, Master’s little failure!” Niknak began to twitch and his vision started to fade. “It worked.” She smiled. “So, tell us more…” She laughed. The image went static again as Virette removed the leather-bound book from Niknak’s bag. The cross fell out into her grip. He muttered something as he began to shutdown.” So, the cure? Maybe I can use this to free this Many…”

“So, Virette made the religion up from Niknak’s ramblings?” Ania asked sounding concerned. “And Virette is in league with the sorcerer? She is their mutual friend and whatever part of the virus is still in Niknak is what has been screwing him up and they used his ramblings to create a religion?”

“That’s what it looks like and so does Bracket. I guess Virette thinks whatever Niknak is rambling about when he is sent into those seizures has to do with a god, but it is actually just parts of a computer virus interrupting his system!” Callen said with uneasy laughter. “And she’s convinced the sorcerer to follow her…”

“Try something more recent.” Ania suggested. “Like maybe something about the plague or the cure?”

Callen tapped the keyboard and the screen changed again.

Virette’s face snarled angrily, but she wasn’t looking at Niknak. His head turned, and he saw Bracket. “You heard him!” Virette yelled. “He said there’s a cure in the domain and you have no right to rule! A sickness is upon us and you refuse to listen! You will damn our people!”

“Rid him from my sight!” Bracket yelled. “And pray I don’t banish you as well…”

“But…we must open the domain!” Virette yelled. “You can’t…”

“Final warning!” Bracket yelled. He rubbed the coin. “Submit!” He looked at Niknak. “The cogs will toss you into the tunnels for your lies! Master failure!” Niknak shut down.

“That’s terrible…can you fix Niknak since the computer is connected to him?” Ania asked pleadingly. “He has been suffering like you have since Dad left.”

Callen nodded. “Let me see if I can find out a pattern of stability so I can isolate the infected files. Any ideas as to what might make him ignore the virus?”

“Sprocket,” Ania said without hesitation. “If he was totally crazy…she wouldn’t have fallen in love with him…and I saw their colors…I know I’m right…start there.”

Callen shrugged and conducted the search. Sure enough, the romantic memories were clear of any corruption. “Guess you were right…” He quickly began looking for the problem.

“Love concurs all?” Ania grinned.

“Yeah…so does corrupt politicians,” Callen stated. “Bracket and Virette destroyed their daughter’s relationship for their own gain. Each time they shut him down…it drove him more insane.”

“Well, can you fix him?” Ania asked.

“Working on it.” Callen noticed the errors that shut him down were all connected to a specific file. It looked like the file contained contradictory orders from both his father and the virus. He cursed. “I won’t be able to fix him fully…I think he needs the coin for that, but I can prevent those corrupted files from being accessed.” He isolated that file and placed it in quarantine. “He shouldn’t have that shutdown problem now, but, a lot of his memory is corrupted.”

“Good,” Ania said.

“Yeah, but I don’t know how we were supposed to rescue everyone now,” Callen said. “Considering…”

“Considering what?” Ania asked.

Callen pulled out the cross. “Dad didn’t send me the cross, Ania. Virette did…”

“I’m not following…”

“I was a pawn, Ania,” Callen said. “In her game…to open this place and get the computer virus…”

“I guess Virette and the sorcerer orchestrated the fall of Forgeholm so Virette had a platform to grow her power on,” Ania said. “Growing it on fear and the plague…we have to destroy that coin and end all this crap.”

“And…”

“And what?”

“The bunny-man is my friend and very real.” Callen grinned.

“Guess you aren’t crazy after all.”

“Verdict is still out on that one,” Callen said with a half grin and began uploading the program that monitored Niknak into his wrist computer. “Guess we are even. But, still, that doesn’t explain what he has been doing since we left Gearshire. If he has been trying to protect me, then…” He said the scrape of a sword being drawn from its scabbard caused him to turn his head.

“Callen, Ania…I’m sorry…I can’t stop it…kill me.” Kusari choked. “Before…” Kusari stood with her remaining blade drawn. She was holding her stomach with one hand and was breathing very hard. “Before…” Her once glowing pink eyes now flashed electric purple. “This is the end of the line Marked One. You have served your purpose.” Kusari whispered coldly with a change in her voice’s tone. “Here I thought that the metal liquid contained the Many, only now do I see that what I have been searching for all these years was right under my nose and didn’t require much planning. But, no matter, it is all the same in the end.”

“Virette. I guess I know what that thing in Kusari’s head is now…” Callen said. “But, to what end? You just learned that both your gods are just computer programs. It is over.”

“Oh, dear child, The Many is not just some virus. He is divine through and through again. The Forger was just like Judas was to Jesus. But you did get one thing right. It is over.” She laughed. “The Many will be pleased and the celebration begins with the deaths of ten innocent children!”

“You bitch!” Callen said. “You leave them alone! Or I’ll…”

“Die on Kusari’s sword? She always was the mommy’s girl of my daughters.” She laughed. Kusari’s body stepped forward and prepared to attack. “Guess sending you that the key worked out nicely. I will thank the Prophet for all his information before he dies and tell him of the failed messiah’s death.”

Callen swore. Virette had been watching the whole time. That was what the device that he saw in Kusari’s head did. Virette watched, waited, and learned what she needed to know. Callen knew he and his sister were now expendable.

“Kusari, don’t let her control you!” Callen yelled in desperation.

Kusari began to twitch. She laughed with Virette’s voice. “Funny that you haven’t realized that she has been planning on killing you the entire time. She was never your friend.” She grinned. “Even if she was, she is gone. There are only whispers left.”

“Kusari, if you’re in there, fight her! You don’t need to do this.” Ania pleaded. “We are friends…”

She stepped forward and gripped the weapon. She bared her teeth and fell to her knees. She twitched and spoke in her normal voice. “Callen, I’m sorry. Virette gave me no choice. I learned my target. Got you to trust me, then you saved me from death. So, right then I knew I couldn’t betray you. But after what the hologram of the Forger said, Virette wanted you dead earlier than she planned. She ordered me to kill you. I refused as she tried to take me over. I grabbed the gun during the fight upstairs. I wasn’t aiming at Niknak, like I told you, she had control of me and was aiming at you. But, I resisted at the last second and through off the shot. The bullet hit the canister. Then her wounds overwhelmed me, and the pain broke the connection. Niknak knew all along that Virette did this to me. I’m so sorry.” She sighed and twitched again. “You are heroes, the two of you…now kill me…before…”

“No, I can…” Callen started. His heart pounded.

“No time! Draw your gun!” Kusari ordered. “You gave me a few more seconds…with your prog…raming…One more breath…thank y…ou…”

“No!” Callen said.

“Callen, do something something’s changing in her colors…” Ania said.

She screamed and her eyes flashed a brighter purple. “No choice…I’m sorry…Virette…taking over…I’m done for.” Her voice changed again. “Enough words!” She staggered forward and slashed at Callen.

He reacted quicker than he had ever done before. The blade sliced air harmlessly sparking against the metal floor where he once stood.

She snarled and prepared for another strike.

Callen felt a cool rush move through his muscles as he leaped backward causing the blade to narrowly miss his stomach. Her strike threw her wounded body off balance bringing her to the floor.

It gave Callen enough time to draw his pistol. He aimed at her head. “Virette, let her go!” He yelled. “Fight her, Kusari!”

“Too late, Marked One.” She hissed. “Kusari isn’t here anymore…” She coughed up some blood. Her body was failing. She tensed preparing for a strike from her kneeling position.

He pulled the trigger. The round entered her head through her glowing eye. She toppled backward landing hard on the floor. Callen stepped over her and fired another round into her heart. “Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight, bitch…and I’m coming for you.” He taunted. “Kusari…” He whispered.

“She said Kusari was dead already. Virette killed Kusari, not you.” Ania said, resting her hand on her brother’s arm.

He nodded and stared at the body. “First Derrick, then Tende and Sadie, and now Kusari, was everyone I befriend going to die?” He wondered.

“Callen, calm down.” Ania rested her hand on his shoulder. “If my guess is correct, the coin didn’t fix Niknak all the way. So, part of The Many is locked in the coin and in him. If we get Niknak back, we can stop her, and if Sprocket has the coin, then Virette can’t do anything.”

“Yeah.” He said. “You’re right. She won’t kill Sadie, Tende or the others until she does whatever she needs to do.”

“Exactly. We can stop this.” Ania smiled. “And now that somehow you can move fast and with my magic…”

“Wait, move fast?” He asked.

“Yeah, you dodged a sword strike that was, well, really fast. You couldn’t do that before.” She said.

The scan results then popped up on the screen. ‘Bonding complete. Panacea Mark II detected. Application complete. Patient Beta: Callen A. Thorne; Status: Stable; Capacity: Unknown. Further testing required.’

“What?” Ania looked at the computer screen.

“I don’t know.” He said. “I feel different…”

She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She reopened them giving him a librarian-style focused stare. “You are different…in more ways than one.” She smiled. “Your colors have changed. The black streaks are now the color of steel. I think we did it.”

“Yeah, but…we need to…”

The computer flashed as Niknak regained consciousness. His edit to his hard drive worked. The program displayed what was occurring in real-time.

Niknak was bound to a wooden plank with his wrists behind him. The three apprentices were standing near him with rusty scalpels that were thick with Niknak’s blood.

Niknak tried to struggle. He looked at his belt of knives, which were now strapped to the sorcerer’s waist.

“Master, his flesh heals every time we cut him.” One of them said.

“Rune him with blood then.” The sorcerer stated angrily.

“Whose, Master?” The same apprentice asked.

The sorcerer sneered. “Yours.”

The apprentice looked confused. That look shifted to suppress when one of the other apprentices stabbed him in the back with a rusty knife. He dropped to the ground and the other two began using his blood to draw runes on Niknak.

“Guess you have some surprises in you, Prophet.” The sorcerer stated. “No matter, I have other rituals.”

Niknak struggled. The sorcerer began chanting as the apprentices smeared him with bloody runes. But, before the sorcerer could get a second line out, a computer that sat near a fire flashed on. He paused and looked at it.

An image of Virette’s face appeared. “Hello, my love.” Virette smiled at the sorcerer. “Our plans are nearly complete. All that remains is Bracket and those loyal to him in my daughter’s army.”

“Ah, what?” Callen said with shock looking at Ania.

She shook her head with surprise with her gaze fixed on the image.

“Bracket attempted to bargain with me.” The sorcerer said. “Of course, I took his offering and told him I’d think about it.”

“He’s getting desperate.” Virette gloated. “This civil war will be over shortly as I planned.”

“The plague worked wonders, then?” The sorcerer asked.

“More than you could ever realize.” Virette smiled. “More than I could ever have anticipated.”

“Excellent. Then we will be together soon.”

Virette smiled. “Yes, but in I need more of your aid before we can be together.”

“What is it, my love?”

“There have been…,” Virette stated.

The sorcerer narrowed his eyes. “What is the delay? The dark ones are growing suspicious; I cannot ease their suspicions any longer and the fallen will deny our power if they are not appeased.”

“Demons,” Ania said. “He gets his magic from powerful demons in exchange for loyalty and sacrifices.”

“I am aware. However, our liberation is still within our reach…and I have already begun my ascension…yours will be next. We only need the time it will take you to get the prophet to me. I need him. Alive…”

“I thought it was hidden in the lab…”

“Turns out it was right under my nose the entire time…fate is funny that way.”

“No wonder we couldn’t find it after those surfacers drilled…lucky you had a backup plan…”

“I always do. Now, accompany the prophet here…we have much that lies ahead. By the time you and your horde arrive, the Forger will be cleansed from the hearts of my people and we shall celebrate our victory together.”

“Excellent.” The sorcerer grinned and looked back at the hapless Niknak. “We will be arriving shortly.”

“Prepare him for transport.” Virette smiled. “Soon we will be together my love, and we will have more power than we can imagine!”

“I take it you made contact?” The sorcerer asked.

“I have, and I will make sure they are notified that we fulfilled our end of the bargain.” She sneered.

“Then we will rise…and grow fat on the flesh of the blind herds above.”

Virette nodded. “Among other things, my love. We have all lived in the dark too long. Now, hurry…we don’t have much time to waste.”

“Bitch, I’ll cut you.” Niknak spat.

“You are a failure, Niknak. You failed your first master, and accidentally succeeded for your second one!” She laughed. Niknak’s gaze didn’t twitch. He just stared at the fiery image. She looked at the sorcerer. “I have one more thing to ask you my love. My assassin has failed and that boy and his sister are still alive. My people are at a delicate time. So, we cannot have him return.”

“Have we gained everything we need?”

“Yes.” She grinned. “Our allies are more prepared than I expected…so, we only need him…you may dispose of the two children…use them as you may…”

“Good, I will get him and use him to appease the Dark Ones one final time my love.”

Excellent,” Virette said. “Their deaths will fuel our magic until The Many’s blessings are upon us!”

The Sorcerer nodded in agreement. The fiery image of Virette’s face disappeared and the sorcerer turned and looked at his remaining apprentices. “Find them.”

The apprentices nodded, grabbed their weapons and ran off.

“I don’t know about you, but I don’t plan on making a very good sacrifice,” Callen said. “You with me?”

“Yeah, I’m too bony,” Ania said looking towards the grate Kusari had removed. “Let’s figure a way out and fast so we can save Niknak.”

“But…” Callen started, but she cut him off.

“No buts…everyone else betrayed him, left him to die, and used him for their own gains. Even Dad.”

“No…I know that…I agree. He is the Bunny-man. He has been looking out for me all along.” He looked at his arm. “He has been on our side the whole time. So, my question before you interrupted me was not: but why. It was: but how.”

“I don’t know, but get whatever you can from Dad’s computer before we go…we may need it…” Ania said. “You plan stuff, remember?”

Callen nodded and began extracting files related to Niknak, Panacea, and a variety of other projects. Rumbles came from the hallway leading into the lab. “We got some time, but, let’s think and run at the same time.” He swore. “Not enough time to get all of this…download will take hours there’s a lot of stuff…”

“Get what you can about Niknak,” Ania said. “And Panacea…”

“Agreed.” Callen did so and the download shortened. “Now for our escape…” He glanced at the tanks of chemicals and looked over at the wall where the HAZMAT gear hung. There were two suits and two gas masks. One sized for his father and the other for Niknak. He pulled open the glass cabinet and handed Ania the Niknak sized suit. “Put it on, and pull out those flashlights. I got an idea.”

“What?”

“Put it on now!” Callen ordered as he made some adjustments on the computer. He pulled on the suit and sealed the mask on his face with a deep breath. He opened the air tank valve and the oxygen flowed in.

Ania reluctantly pulled on the suit as he walked over to the computer.

“When that door opens they are going to have a little surprise.” Callen grinned as he checked the facilities environmental conditions. “Good, this stuff won’t explode under these conditions…we just have to hope there’s no spark to light it up…”

“What?” Ania said. She handed him a flashlight.

“Arsine leak…it’s poisonous and extremely flammable…” He explained. “Make sure that the mask is sealed by pulling the straps tight to your face and inhaling, then open the air valve.”

Ania swallowed hard and pulled the mask tight. “Sealed.” She said. She opened the valve. “Are these things fireproof?” Callen nodded. “Still…I hope the salamanders are with us…and luckily the fire system will extinguish their torches…”

The door busted open and the goblins roared and rushed down the hall. He hit the button on the keyboard and the valves for loading the tank opened. Warning lights started flashing in the room. As the first goblin entered the room, it died before its battle cry even started. The rest followed like dominos.

“Not bad,” Ania said. “Wait, will this get outside?”

He shook his head as he checked the computer. “No, there isn’t enough gas to keep the concentration high enough to kill them throughout the facility. However, there is enough gas to fill sub-level three which includes anything on the same level of this secret lab and the facility basement. Arsine is denser than air, so it really shouldn’t rise to sub-level two that much as long as the fans are off. As long as we stay on sub-level three, we can sneak under the goblins. The goblins are on sublevel 2. Since the gremlins said that the goblins are dumb, hopefully, they will keep charging into the gas while we make our escape. Arsine gas is colorless, so I didn’t think it was too much to ask, they would probably think it was magic or something like that.”

“Gotta love the science stuff,” Ania said. “So, we will be clear up to the door we entered this compound through?”

“Yup…but I got to set the facility controls into a certain balance…it’s flammable too…and can light itself if the concentrations aren’t right.” Callen pulled up chemical data on the gas and began setting the facility controls. “Then we can clear the gas, open the door, and figure out how to rescue Niknak and escape.”

“Why would we clear the gas?” Ania asked. “Couldn’t we use that to fill Forgeholm?”

Callen shook his head. “There is not enough gas, but I suppose I could rig the facility to pump it out there. However, if we filled Forgeholm with arsine, then we might kill Niknak…and then there are the fires out there…”

“But doesn’t he regenerate?” Ania asked.

“I don’t know if you can regenerate from being poisoned like that,” Callen said. “We are trying to rescue him, so do you really want to take that chance?”

She shook her head. “No. I just wanted to make sure I understood. But, what do we do to get through Forgeholm?”

“I’ll think of something.” He slid into the vent. “Our tanks have 15 minutes of air, so let’s get out of here.”

Ania patted her bag. “I still got the ones I took from Gearshire if we need them, and now it’s time to learn what a T.V. dinner feels like.”

They climbed into the vent and began crawling with the sounds of goblin bodies rolling down the stairs as they died.

“Left or right?” Ania words hissed through the mask.

“I don’t know, can you ask the elementals or something?”

“No.” She stated angrily. “Metal is too refined for me to talk to the earth spirits in it.”

“Great.” He looked left and right. “Left is right or right is always right?” He murmured.

“What?” Ania asked.

“Nothing.” He paused. “Left. We are going left.”

They turned left after a few turns they reached a vent into a dark room. “I guess this one is as good as any to climb out of.”

“Shouldn’t we have to climb up to get out of here?” Ania asked.

“I don’t think so. I’m hoping that this will connect to the basement or to a room that connects to the basement we came in, but if not we can go up to the second level and down the stairs.”

He looked at the vent and tried to figure out how to open it from the inside.

“Hurry up!” Ania said. “I don’t like being this cramped.”

“Working on it.” Callen cursed, his suit was over his equipment. “But, I’m having a little problem.”

“What’s that?” she asked.

“I have no tools,” I said. “My tools are under my suit. I can’t get to them…”

“Stop thinking like an engineer and bash it.”

“That’s it,” Callen said. “Hand me those two extra tanks we brought.” He took the tanks and positioned the bottom of one of them towards the vent. He smashed the valve with the bottom of the other and the tank rocketed forward smashing through the vent.

“Nice.” Ania complimented as they climbed out, paying attention not to rip their suits. “What the hell is this room?” She asked looking around.

The room was dark and worn from a decade of neglect. Although, signs of recent of a recent disturbance was clear. The door above on the metal catwalk had been melted off it’s hinges, and the tracks in the dust showed the trail of men. The dust trails led to a collection of old tanks, nine in total. Eight were covered in plastic sheets, and the last had been broken open.

“Another secret lab room?” Ania asked as she looked at the strange collection of computerized medical equipment and an operating table a few feet from the tanks. “Isn’t it enough to have a secret lab facility with just one secret lab room?”

“Who knows if it is actually secret? I think that the catwalk leads to an office we passed on the way to Dad’s.” Callen looked at the computers. “Whatever they were doing here, someone looted it…and recently by the dust…”

“Guess this is what those people that drilled into this place were after.” She walked over to the open tank. “I wonder, what the hell they took?”

“No idea, but it can’t be good…and we should get out of here. We only have a few more minutes of air and we don’t have a lot of time to save Niknak. I need to get to a maintenance computer and clear the gas before that happens or we die.”

She nodded. “Just let me…” She started to say as she pulled down one of the plastic sheets. “My God!” She swore.

“What?” Callen said as he ran over to her. What was inside this tank stole the breath from his lungs. Inside this tank was a partially developed abomination that had his face.

“It looks like you!” She gasped in horror.

He stood there and stared. His heart pounded and the sweat beaded up under his gas mask.

“They are all you!” Ania gasped as the last plastic sheet fell to the ground. “What the hell is this?” None of them had developed the same and were all at different ages of development. Some were missing limbs, others eyes, and some were just completely misshapen. “Where is the sixth one?” She grabbed his shoulder and shook him. “Callen?”

But, he just stared at a deformed doppelgänger of himself floating in the tank before him.

 

 

 

 

 

[]CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

 

Before the depravity lingering in the derelict tanks, Callen was slumped on his knees in trepidation. The flashlight he held illuminated the scientific coffin and Callen’s eyes were locked on the eyeless sockets of his own lifeless image suspended in the powerless tank. The faint hiss of the sibling’s air tanks was the only noise to cut the silence of the darkness. Callen shivered as the tingle of the reaper’s fingers rolled down his spine. In the hollow sockets before him, he saw what wasn’t and what was.

“Callen?” Ania asked after a few moments. “We have to go…”

Callen nodded slowly. “Yeah…” He sighed, but he made no attempt to move.

“No, like now.” Ania said. “Our air…”

“Air,” Callen whispered. He felt like he needed fresh air. He reached up to remove his mask.

Ania grabbed his arm. “What are you doing?” She asked angrily. “Arsine, remember? You in there?”

“I don’t know…” Callen said. His eyes remained locked on his half decomposed face.

“I know this’s hard, but let’s focus. I know you have questions, I do too, but we have to get out of here so we can find the answers…” She said confidently. She stepped forward and rubbed her gloved hand on some of the rust and discoloration on the tank. “Besides, these tanks look like they have been here for a while…so, just staring at them will get us nowhere,” Ania said.

“Yeah…but…” Callen looked towards the empty tank. “There are chemical stains on the floor and the tank looks as if it were opened with a crowbar…that’s recent.”

“Well,” Ania shrugged. “Another reason to get out of here.”

Callen nodded slowly.

“You alright?” Ania asked.

He shook his head slowly.

“Neither am I.” She admitted. “What do you want to do?”

He stared hard at the tanks and clenched his fists. “Destroy it. All of it.”

“I agree, but we still have to deal with the goblins outside and save Niknak,” Ania said. “We need a plan before you blow this place up and we run out into a horde of goblins.”

“Yeah.”

“Come on, let’s go back in the duct and go the other way that we didn’t go through at the T-intersection. Hopefully, that will lead us to the basement and the exit.”

He checked the dial on his air tank. “Only six minutes of air left. We don’t have enough time to crawl through and we don’t know how many secret rooms there are in this place.” He looked towards the door that lead upstairs. “And there may be…”

She cut him off. “Whatever is above us might have some clues to who did this.” She looked at the tanks.

He nodded. “Exactly what I was about to say. We should only be a few offices down from dad’s, so the elevator is close…we can use that to get out.”

“But what about…” Ania started to say.

“One step at a time,” Callen said. “Let’s get back to the basement in one piece first.”

They climbed the stairway connected to the catwalk and took the door that led to a ravaged office. Callen turned as they left the lab to find that the door they left wasn’t a secret door, unlike in his father’s office. The door had been jammed open recently and its key card access panel still had the bypass wires dangling from it. There was a puddle of water on the floor from a leaky sprinkler, which had soaked many of the papers, books, and the office computer.

“Can we take these masks off?” Ania asked.

“No.” Callen pointed at a blinking light in the corner of the room. “Concentration is still too high here because of the open door. We need to get further away first. Callen glanced around the room hoping to find some answers or at least a clue.

“Then, we don’t have time to search…” Ania reminded Callen.

He nodded, reluctantly.

As they started climbing over the mess to reach the exit, a shattered picture frame partly hanging on the wall caught Callen’s eye. There was a partial piece of paper that was stuck in the remnants of the frame. He moved to get a closer look. It looked like a diploma, but he couldn’t tell where it was from. Much of the writing had been worn off by a combination of age and water.

He looked down to see the rest of the picture frame and some of the torn diploma. The only part of the name of the recipient could be read among the tears and stains. The letters spelled ‘Sim.’ “Who the hell is Sim?” Callen growled staring at the paper.

“No idea, but the coast is clear,” Ania said. “But, let’s go…only three minutes of air left.”

They ran into the hall. He passed the gremlin tank room and rounded the corner towards the elevator. Callen looked down to see the Lego figurine he gave Niknak resting near the door. He picked it up as Ania tapped the button, which luckily hadn’t been touched since they came down from the control room. The door opened as a group of goblins came around the corner.

“Up or down?” Ania asked.

“Up,” Callen said. “Back to the main control room. I can control everything from there, and we will be safe from goblins and arsine for a while.”

They went into the control room and Callen, without delay, accessed the main computer.

“Can we get these suits off?” Ania asked.

He checked the gas monitoring system. “Yeah, it’s fine.” He said pulling the mask up and closed the oxygen valve. He put his goggles back on.

“Good, I hate these things. They are so uncomfortable.” She pulled off her mask and closed the oxygen valve on the tank. “Callen, are there any recordings on the computer that might show us what happened with whatever was taken from that tank?”

“No, everything that was done here was deleted on this mainframe except for the files that I read earlier. The older stuff wasn’t deleted perfectly, but the newer stuff was wiped clean. There is no way of finding out exactly who took the abomination of me out of that tank.” He sighed. “Someone went to extremes to make sure that nothing could be traced.”

“I wonder how whoever came in here got past the goblins,” Ania said.

“Yeah, that would be nice to know,” Callen said. “I would have initially guessed that they were just sneaky, but I saw an abandoned digging drill near the hole the goblins use to get in through the eyes of one of the robots. So, either the goblins let them or they had something to hold them back.”

“We saw bodies of people from Nextigen downstairs, so I doubt they were friends,” Ania stated.

“Assuming Nextigen was the one who opened this place. I don’t think we have enough information to reach that conclusion.”

“Well, since Matt taught you a lot about computers, don’t you think there is a good chance that they would have the know-how to do what they did to the computers here?” Ania asked.

Callen shrugged. “Yeah, but, I don’t know. We are just speculating. But, that doesn’t mean I don’t have a bad feeling about this.” He opened the program that controlled maintenance functions and other things, including the facility destruction protocols.

“Yeah, about that and the getting out of here part…” Ania said. “What are we going to do? It has been fifteen minutes since Virette ordered the sorcerer to bring Niknak to her. So, I don’t think we have much time to waste. We need a way out fast.”

“I’m already on it,” Callen said. “According to the maintenance programs, which weren’t hit by that system wipe or virus, the cavern outside was an expansion that never got completed, so it has some facility functions.”

“So, if we activate the self-destruct, then does that mean we burn up Forgeholm too?” Ania asked.

“Nope, I’m making some modifications to the programming now.”

“What functions are out there? Maybe, we can use the facility to help us?”

“Hold on, I’m looking. There’s a lot of damage, but…” He flipped through a few more controls and facility schematics. “Well, there is a functional sprinkler system and a power supply for the broken elevators, but the power supplies aren’t functioning. There is some plumbing. So, I could open the valves and some water would come out, but that’s about it. I think the goblins are using the valves to power their mill…so, the mechanical controls might be manually overridden.”

“Could we get the power supplies running and electrify the water underneath it?” Ania asked. “Then collapse their city into it?”

“I think that’s too big of a job for what we got.” Callen sighed. “I got nothing, but setting off the self-destruct in the facility and hoping that distracts the goblins via the hole they use to get in and then we slip past.”

“I know you want to destroy this place, but won’t that kill us and Niknak by collapsing everything on us?”

“No, the place is set up so destroying it won’t be noticed. The facility sprays chemicals throughout the whole secret research facility that works like napalm and burns hot enough to destroy everything inside. Even the walls start to melt, but the fire system is designed using a pressure system that triggers at a certain point. The water sprays and puts out the fire. Effectively, it turns the whole place into more underground tunnels.”

“So, the gremlins will see the fire?” She asked.

“Yup, from the tunnel and they will get wet from the sprinklers…they’re designed to trigger immediately after the self-destruct is triggered. But, we should be out of Forgeholm by then.”

“Because while they are in chaos dealing with the fire, we will sneak through the city, got it.” She said. “But what about Niknak?”

“We will have to wait and ambush them as they start transporting him back to Virette.” Callen nodded. “With some luck, it will work.”

“Great, more relying on luck,” Ania muttered. “And a half-assed plan…”

“Hey, it’s gotten us this far hasn’t it?” Callen said. “Besides, we’re getting good at improvising.”

“Yeah, but I really don’t want to be here when the luck runs out.” She said. “Anyway, I see one problem. This place is like an underground building with tunnels wrapping around it, right?” Callen nodded in response. “So, that means that Forgeholm could be one side and the hole could be on the other. We don’t now where they are relative to each other. So, how do you know it will even distract them?”

“I don’t.” Callen said. “We are just going to have to hope it works and hope they are close enough.”

“Callen, stop.” She said. “You’re not thinking straight. That plan is suicide. First, you tried to pull your mask off when you were looking at the cloned bodies of you, and now you’re going to run into a village full of goblins that want to kill us. We have come all this way, gotten you cured, and now you want to die? You have fought all your life to live, and now that you can you are going to toss it away?” Tears began to gather in her eyes.

Callen shook his head. “No, I don’t want to die.” He said slowly.

“Well, let’s get a better plan then!” She tried to hide the sniffle.

“But, I’m pretty much out of ideas.”

“Well, since you’re all logical, well, usually logical, unlike now, let’s start from the beginning.” She looked around the room. “Since we got here, I have had one major question.”

“Alright, what’s that?” Callen asked.

“The question that I have been wondering is, how exactly was this place built? I mean, very few know about it, so general contractors are out of the question…”

“Yeah, I have wondered that myself.” He looked back at the maintenance computer’s screen. He began looking for construction details. It was simple to find. Running the facility was the core function of what this computer did. He saw the answer and glanced back at Ania with a grin. “The facility uses construction robots to maintain and build everything.”

She nodded. “Well, I think we have our distraction.”

“Yeah! I’ll reactivate the construction sequence for the incomplete expansion that Forgeholm was built in.” He flipped through the specifics of the programming and began editing it. “Alright, the first step is for the robots to remove clutter. Do you think the crap the goblins live in is classified as clutter?”

“I certainly hope so…”

“Good enough for me. So, robots and facility fires…I hope it works like we want it to..”

“How many robots are there?” Ania asked. “And do they have any weapons?”

“They’re just maintenance and janitorial bots. No weapons, just mechanical arms with cleaning and construction tools. They float around on a propeller system like helicopters cleaning and fixing stuff.” He said. “There are about a two hundred that are operational. I think that will provide enough of a distraction for us to sneak past. I’ll set it so the bots start working on one side of the Forgeholm.”

“Callen, since we have to move quickly and quietly, can we get the rest of these suits off?” Ania asked. “They aren’t exactly the easiest things to move in.”

“Yeah, I have to filter the arsine to get this place to allow me to activate the construction robots anyway. We won’t need them when we go back into the basement to exit this place. Once the arsine is clear, we are going to have to give the bots some time to do their thing before we open the door. So, the time it will take for us to descend and open the door will be perfect.”

Ania nodded. “Alright, are we just guessing when to run out or do you have a plan to open the door at the right time?”

“I’ll sync my computer to this terminal to the camera feed from the bots. Once the goblins start attacking, we go.” He started making the last preparations. “That will be plenty of time…self-destruct set for ten minutes…”

“Ok, let’s do it.” She said.

He hit the execute button. The fans buzzed to life. They watched the concentration of arsine decrease in the basement until the toxicity warning blinked off.

The camera feed from one of the robots showed the bots power up and fly out of their storage racks. The walls creaked open and the bots hovered out in systematic order following their programming. Small circular ports built for the robots opened along the top of the wall. The walls were filled with tubes for these bots to travel through. The goblins on the cameras scrambled to deal with the new threat.

“Guess that worked pretty well,” Callen said. “Very easily distracted. Let’s hurry.” As they ran to the elevator, Ania grabbed the gas masks.

“What do you need those for? I cleared the gas.” Callen said.

“I just get the feeling we may need them again…”

“Alright, hit it,” Callen said.

“Yeah, here goes everything.” She said hitting the button for sub-level three.

Callen checked his pistol and slid rounds into the empty spaces in the cylinder. “Alright, the goblins are attacking the maintenance bots.” He grinned. “They can’t destroy them fast enough! It’s perfect! We open the rune door and run left to the closest cover. They are all frantically fighting to the right.”

“Any sight of Niknak?” Ania asked.

“Yeah, they were heading toward the exit with him strapped to a motorized cart. They all ran to attack the bots. If we are quick enough we can get to him, cut him free and run.”

“Anything in the basement waiting for us?”

Callen checked his computer. He cursed. “Goblin patrol just entered the room…and they…” He waited for his computer to complete its threat analysis. “And…they have gas…tear gas…”

“And we have masks…” Ania grinned.

“Good call…” Callen grinned and pulled out his cross.

They pressed their backs firm against each side of the elevator for cover if the goblins patrol opened fire when the door opened.

“Put on the mask,” Callen ordered.

“What about you?” Ania asked as she slid hers on.

“They are right outside the door. I need the goggles to make the three shots quick enough. If they fire the gas, I’m going to have to hold my breath and hope the seal between my goggles and my skin will give me enough protection.”

The elevator door opened, followed immediately by the screams of goblins. A grenade hit the wall and the white gas began hissing out. The goblin loaded another round into his launcher. “Here comes another.” Callen took a deep breath.

Firing, Callen leaped out of the elevator and landed on his stomach. The patrol was dead before the second tear gas round hit the wall. They wasted no time opening the door back into Forgeholm.

**********************

 

Forgeholm was in chaos. The goblins madly attacked the bots. The goblins outnumbered the bots, but most were armed with either slow firing single shot ranged weapons or melee weapons. As they filled their purpose, several bots exploded, but slowly the scaffolding began to crumble, sending goblins into the pit of dirty water and spine-like shards rusted junk. Screams of dying goblins from below caused more panic.

“We better hurry before we can’t use the bridges to climb up…” Ania pointed up a few levels at the motorized cart holding Niknak. It sat idle on a stone ledge, in the mouth of a tunnel near a few bridges and a goblin hut.

“Stay close.” Callen nodded and they ran, keeping tight to the shadows. Over the rickety bone catwalks, they planned each move as the gremlins seen the gremlins do. They climbed a set of stairs below the cart and came up underneath the farthest bridge from the frantic horde. Using it as a cover, they circled around a gristly hut towards Niknak.

Spotting the sorcerer near the cart, they froze. Luckily, his back was to them and he was focused on the swarm of maintenance bots tearing apart his village. Callen swore under his breath.

“I’ll cut Niknak’s ropes, you watch the sorcerer. If he turns towards us, shoot.” Ania whispered as she drew her knife.

Callen nodded. “The sorcerer is going to notice…”

“Then if he does, make sure you kill him with one bullet,” Ania said. “With all the chaos, I doubt the others will notice…and his aura looks like he needs a recharge…”

“That should provide us some slack…” Callen grinned

“Going now,” Ania whispered. Quietly, she darted toward Niknak and hopped on the cart. The gagged and bound Niknak looked relieved as she began cutting the thick robes. Callen followed her, prepared to shoot.

Coming from the nearby bridge, and catwalks, several goblins backed towards the sorcerer as they fired at the bots. Suddenly, they dropped to their knees, and the goblins began to glow the same color as the fire he shot from his hands. The sorcerer gritted his teeth and his hands burst into hellfire again. The skin of the goblins around him started glowing.

“Not good…” Callen muttered.

Streams of fire shot from the goblins towards the sorcerer. His muscles tightened, and his veins popped up as the flames grew with power. The twelve goblins burned to dust and the flames spread around him glowing like a bonfire and melting the floor he stood on. He waved his hand and bolts of fire shot out in every direction colliding with each of the bots. The horde cheered as the bots exploded.

Callen swore. “I didn’t know he could do that. He only shot out one bolt at a time before.”

The Sorcerer turned to look back at Niknak and smiled at Ania. He pointed. His lips said something slowly and every goblin’s attention snapped to towards the children, silencing the hellish cries of celebration. Their eyes all glowed with the infernal fire.

“Ah…” Callen looked at Ania.

“Shoot him! He is controlling them with a spell!” Ania yelled. “You break his concentration; they all will be confused for a few moments!”

“He’s gotta be on empty…”

“Just shoot!”

Callen fired. The bullet collided with the chest of the closest goblin as he leaped in front of the sorcerer. The rest of the horde charged around the sorcerer towards them like a wave of fire ants waving their weapons. “Guess our luck ran out.”

“Guess so.” She gulped.

The horde stopped, circling them. All breathed heavily and stared at them with hungry eyes that burned with a fiery rage. Drool oozed over countless lips and their muscles tensed.

“There has to be something…” Callen desperately looked around the room.

“Think quickly…” She muttered trying to hurry, as if freeing Niknak would somehow help them.

The sorcerer slid out of the crowd and began walking around the parameter of the circle of bloodthirsty goblins. “Ah, I guess my apprentice was right that you used a powerful spell to slip by us, an amazing feat for a pair of human children. Magic is uncommon among your kind…” He said. “The spell in the Domain was genius, and many died to it. Impressive power, and completely invisible.”

It took Callen a second to realize that he was talking about the arsine gas. “I aim to impress.” Callen taunted sarcastically. The countdown to the facility destruct flashed a twenty-second countdown on his goggles.

“Then you send metal minions at us.” The sorcerer said. “I admit that I have underestimated your mastery of the sorcerer’s arts. But, even a sorcerer beyond my magnitude would be exhausted after the spells you created.”

“That’s nice.” Fifteen more seconds flashed. Callen decided to buy some time. “Guess I am a pretty impressive sorcerer…but you’ve crafted some pretty impressive spells…so you got to be running low too…”

“I have my tribe, all willing to die if they are called…” The sorcerer laughed. “But, as a sorcerer, you understand that the source of our power must be appeased, and goblin blood can only satisfy my source for brief moments. A powerful rival would grant me much power. So, are you going to make this easy?”

Callen nodded as if he understood. “I got a better idea, you just let us live, and I can connect you with my source. You already have been working towards his resurrection. Letting us live will be good for you, especially because you seek to gain favor with your new god, right?” Five seconds.

“How do you know that?” The sorcerer hissed.

“I’m the son of the demon Virette calls The Forger, remember? Or did Virette not tell you?” Callen pointed out. “You have already witnessed some of my magic. My power has no limit!” One second. “Now witness it again as I destroy the domain!” He lifted his hand and tightened his fist while grimacing with effort.

The roar from the domain was loud and the goblins turned their heads in unison with the sorcerer. One of the tunnels glowed as a fireball roared out of it. The flames disputed as it rose to the ceiling of the cavern and lit some of the shaky goblin dwellings.

Callen relaxed. “There…you have it…”

“Impressive, magic, and you anticipated that I was going to ask for more proof.” The sorcerer said with amazement.

“I didn’t anticipate. I can see the future!” Callen lied. “Well, what do you say? Let us live, and I will give you more than you can even dream of!” Suddenly, he felt like he exaggerated too much and bit off more than he could chew.

The sorcerer scratched his chin. “An interesting proposal, but I see through your lie. You have no vision.”

“Well, sucks to be you then.” Callen shrugged. He had no choice but to go with it. He knew the sprinklers should crack on any second now. “But, I will give you a chance to reconsider with a free prediction…I warn you not to underestimate my power…”“

“I’m listening.” The sorcerer narrowed his eyes skeptically.

“It will…umm…” He blurred the ‘um’ into the sound of a monk’s meditation as he closed his eyes and pretended to have a vision. “It will rain, here…where rain has never come! A great storm is upon us and it will quench the fires caused by my mighty spell!”

Ania bit her tongue to hide her laughter.

“When?” There was impatience in the sorcerer’s voice. “I’m waiting…”

“Just give it a second,” Callen said, trying to buy some time. The sprinklers didn’t come on. He looked up. “Ah, crap.” The sprinklers were too corroded to work.

“Sad.” The sorcerer shook his head. “If you delivered you might have convinced me. But, that chance is over.” He waved his hands and a group of goblins dragged Ania from the cart. “Now, take the prophet to Virette. I will deal with these two and join her shortly.” The goblins followed their orders and powered up the poison cart.

Callen took a step towards Ania as a drop of water landed on his nose. “I’m warning you.” He tried to appear confident.

“Really? I doubt that. Your death will please the Dark Ones and fuel my power until The Many is reborn into our world.” The sorcerer said. “But, unfortunately, I have to settle for less than your full sacrifice potential by skipping the full ritual in favor of time. So, I’ll just make this quick.” His hand began to glow with flames. “But, for her, I’ll kill her in a proper ritual…”

With the smoke puffing from the old lawnmower engine, the prison cart lurched forward, and the horde parted and returned, as the cart began its journey towards Gearshire. Callen shook his head and struggled to find a solution. The sorcerer was too close to the mob to shoot. As if the pipes were mocking him, a second drop of water landed on Callen’s cheek.

“Prepare to meet the Dark Ones, human!” The sorcerer’s fire grew with intensity. He grinned and raised his hand. He muttered something in his harsh language. “Burn knowing that you brought us The Many. You can watch us rule the world from the clutches of the Dark Ones as they torture your soul eternally for their failure to see the Many ascend to power!”

Callen wished he could steer his bullet around any bodyguard who jumped in the way. He wiped another drop of water from his cheek his left hand touched the scar left by his mother’s bullet. “Ricochet.” He whispered. “Get ready Ania…”

Ania gave him a confused look but looked ready for anything. She steadied her stance, in hopes of breaking the grip of the goblins that held her.

“Checkmate.” His computer finished its calculation and displayed the targeting data on his goggles.

“Well put.” The sorcerer opened his hand and the jewel that was jammed into his flesh glowed brighter with hellfire.

He raised his gun, but he didn’t fire at the sorcerer. Two goblins leaped in front of the sorcerer, but the bullet was aimed at the rock ground. The fire roared forth like a flamethrower from the sorcerer’s hand. The bullet soared over the goblin bodyguards and hit the sorcerer’s elbow. Callen ducked the flames and the sorcerer’s arm kicked up and his fire spray swept across the ceiling.

The intense heat cracked the pipes and the sprinklers popped. The water sprayed across the village. The horde, including the sorcerer looked up in confusion.

“Bless the water, Ania!” Callen yelled as the water came raining down and he tossed her the cross. The cross-chattered to the ground, at Ania’s knees, but the sound was overpowered by Callen’s gunfire. Two bullets pierced through her captor’s skulls, and their fowl blood splattered in the rain.

“But…” She started as she grabbed the cross.

“Do it!” Callen yelled. He angled for another shot on the sorcerer.

Ania began muttering a prayer.

“Kill them!” The sorcerer ordered as he tried to regain his focus. The horde was slow to react, granting the siblings a few seconds.

A few of the goblins reoriented themselves rather quickly and one fired a crossbow bolt at Callen. He rolled to dodge it and took a shot at the sorcerer. He pulled one of the disoriented goblins in front of him. Callen fired three more shots, emptying his gun. Each time a goblin jumped in the way.

The sorcerer’s unwounded arm began to glow with flame as he drained power from another hapless goblin.

Callen opened the cylinder, but there wasn’t enough time. He fumbled with the bullet and didn’t get any in. He needed cover, or a speed loader, preferably both. “Ania, they’re demons, right?” He started to say nervously, but then he felt a ripple in the air, like some sort of static, as she whispered amen. Like an expanding bubble, the water bulged with power around them. The drops became a fine mist, clinging to everything and the water kept falling.

Soaked in holy water, the goblin horde crumpled. A few crossbows went off, but the bolts flew harmlessly in random directions. Smoke erupted from their skin, and screams of agony filled the cavern.

Callen shot Ania a half grin. “Nice.” He said feeling very satisfied as the goblins writhed on the ground. Their skin began to blister and pop. “Knew yah had it in yah.”

“I told you I couldn’t bless stuff!” She roared in anger. “Did you even listen to me?”

“Meh…” Callen said with a shrug. “I knew you would pull through.”

“Don’t do that again.” She warned. “Ever again. Don’t put me on the spot.”

“It worked didn’t it?” Callen said, with a grin.

She looked around as the goblins continued to melt. “Guess I did.” She marveled at her handy work. “It really worked. The rituals in Dr. Webb’s books and what Tende taught me didn’t make sense. The ritual replaces the natural magic that was in the water already with holy ritual magic, then the light of God pulses in the clarity. I only had the cross and none of the other components. I felt what I had been doing before was magically purifying the water and killing the undines. So, I focused on prayer with the cross and asked the water spirits to sing with God’s holy power…the sylphs helped too.”

“Ah…sure.” He said. “Either way, it worked…and I bet you kept the arsine from igniting too…”

“Well…it wasn’t me…I just asked. But, now we gotta go get Niknak.” Ania turned to run after the cart, but something caused her to stop. She stopped and looked back towards her brother. “Duck!”

Before Callen could comprehend, a poorly aimed, weak fire bolt crackled over his head. He dropped and spun see the sorcerer pulling himself to his feet. Snarling, he leaned on his staff. A struggling hellfire shield protected his bubbling and partially melted skin. He clenched his teeth, focusing. The crystal growing from his hand blazed with light. His veins bulged and the flames grew stronger. The water hissed as it evaporated. He raised his glowing hand and aimed at Ania.

Callen hadn’t reloaded his gun, so he thought fast. The fire was too intense for mist of water from the sprinklers. The sorcerer needed to be submerged. His back was to the edge that dropped into the water filled pit underneath the village. Callen threw his gun smashing the sorcerer in the face. The weapon spun off into the pit behind the goblin. The brief surprise was just enough distraction. He tackled the sorcerer, grabbing his arm and pulled it away from Ania. As the sorcerer resisted, the flames rolled across Callen’s right side.

His flesh burned. He grunted and pushed the sorcerer towards the edge as hard as he could. The flames licked his flesh, but he knew his nerves would be dead in seconds anyway. With everything he could muster, he pushed through him and they fell backward, through the bone railing, into the pit below.

They smashed through, the crumbling grotesque structures, splinters of bone and rusted metal slashed Callen’s flesh. He screamed as a metal barb pierced his leg when they splashed into the water below. The splash putout the burning parts of Callen’s shirt and gave a second of relief.

“Hold on Callen!” Ania yelled, grabbing an axe from a dead goblin. She began a slow descend on the rickety goblin ruins towards them.

Before Callen could free his leg, the sorcerer was on him. With his flaming claws, he went for Callen’s head. His thumbs poised to pierce through his goggles and into his eye sockets. He grabbed the sorcerer’s wrists, and his flesh cracked and fell off as it began to turn to ash. Pain clogged all thought, and instinct took over.

Focusing on the glowing crystal, he tore his leg free from the barb and used his weight to smash it into the closest piece of metal debris. Viciously, he smashed it until it shattered. On the final hit, the spike cracked through the crystal, and out the other side of the sorcerer’s hand. He screamed and a pulse of energy ripped out of it.

The shock was intense, but the jolt kept Callen conscious a little longer. As he pushed himself to his knees, he drew his knife and went in for a strike. However, he was too slow and the sorcerer grabbed his hand, as he tore his other hand from the spike. Callen went for his knife, but as the sorcerer stood, he brought his knee into Callen’s chin sending him backward into the water. The knife plunged into the water.

He felt something pierce is stomach. He screamed and dark water filled his mouth. He coughed and his hands went for the sharp bone that now held him down. He struggled to free himself as the goblin stood over him, no longer wreathed in flame.

He raised his hood, and yellow blood from his hand soaked into the dirty cloth. The water began burning off the last of his flesh and began working on the muscle. He picked a rusty pipe and his lip curled in an angry sneer. “You die!” He muttered as he stepped on Callen’s chest, pushing him further down the jagged bone. He raised the pipe and muttered something demonic.

Callen closed his eyes as Ania screamed and the sprinklers stopped.

The crack of two gunshots echoed in the cavern over the screams of the last of the dying goblins. Callen opened his eyes to see the sorcerer fall dead.

Callen would have expected to see Tuco or Sarge make a dramatic entrance like in an action movie, but they were dead. Next to one of the elevator shaft