Runic Vengeance Preview
The old man hobbled down the long underground tunnel, the butt of his wooden cane clanging on the metal platform below with each step he took. The platform extended down a long tubular tunnel made entirely of large white crystals. Each crystal was over seven feet long, with a broad hexagonal base that tapered to a razor-sharp tip pointing toward the center of the tunnel. The metal platform levitated a few feet above the crystals below, suspended by an unseen force.
The old man smiled to himself, countless wrinkles on his face deepening as he did so. He gazed forward with cataract-glazed eyes, continuing down the shaft at a glacial pace.
A shaft he'd been walking through for miles.
He hardly minded the walk, no matter the hours he'd spent taking it. The automatic nature of this body's shambling gate, the repetitive clang, clang of his cane on the metal below, freed the better part of his mind for more important matters.
He vaguely recalled being mortal, engaging his body with some mindless task to allow his mind to wander. A mind freed from its overbearing consciousness proved fertile soil for ideas to grow forth from, after all. And how many wondrous ideas had come to him during such walks, during his mortal life and far beyond! He would hardly be here today, walking in the midst of his own creation, had he not so exercised his brain.
After what seemed like an eternity, he finally made it to the end of the metal platform. The tunnel continued forward ahead, but was much narrower, the crystals forming a channel barely large enough to fit a human head through. There was no way forward...or so it seemed.
The old man glanced upward at one of the crystals above his head, focusing on what lay beyond its glittering facets. There, embedded in the broad root of the crystal, he could barely make out a shadowy form. A long-dead corpse forever encapsulated in its crystalline grave.
An unwilling Chosen.
He turned his eyes forward again, at the narrow channel beyond. There were Chosen in every one of the countless crystals – his Void crystals – lining the shaft he'd been walking through. A brain entombed in every crystal, each connected to one another in one massive network.
With a thought, the Void crystals around him flashed, then stopped their faint glowing. The old man rose up from the metal platform, levitating a foot above the grated steel, his cane dropping onto it with a clang. He closed his eyes, raising his arms out to his sides.
Then his head tore off, rising above his neck.
It flew forward down the narrower tunnel, rapidly picking up speed. The tunnel curved downward, traveling deeper into the earth. Faster his head went, Void crystals zipping past it in a dizzying blur.
Then the narrow shaft opened up into a massive cavern, a Void chamber so large that it defied explanation. The walls, the ceiling, and the floors were all made of glowing white Void crystals. Massive crystals hung like stalactites from the ceiling, some well over a hundred feet long, their facets shimmering dully in the faint light cast by their smaller brothers.
The old man's head slowed its descent, rotating as it dropped through the air, until his eyes faced the center of the chamber. A single, translucent rod-shaped crystal hung from the ceiling there, so long that it reached the floor. It was nearly fifty feet in diameter, this crystal. On the floor, encircling the base of the crystal, grew a corona of green crystals some twenty feet tall.
The source of his Chosens' shards.
His head descended further downward, until it reached a headless body levitating directly below it. His head fused with the body's neck, leaving a thin, jagged white line between the two. Within seconds, he was once again whole.
The old man stared down at his new body's hands. They appeared much younger than those of his other body, the skin smooth and supple. He remembered being young once, long ago. Such a gift, youth. A gift only appreciated once it was lost.
He sighed, gazing at the huge cylindrical crystal extending from the floor to the ceiling. He peered through its translucent surface; despite its girth, he could see a faint shadow in the center of it, something suspended deep inside.
The old man levitated forward toward the crystal, until his nose was nearly touching its slick surface. From here, he could see what was trapped within it. An emaciated body, its arms and legs mere bones covered in a thin veneer of flesh, its ribs jutting out from its sunken chest. Rope-like sinews ran up its neck, its mouth open in an eternal agonizing scream.
The old man stared at the pathetic figure trapped in its crystalline tomb, even as it stared back at him. Every Void crystal had a body encased within, an undead mind in various states of awareness.
But this one was different.
The old man ran his fingers down the smooth surface of the crystal, marveling not for the first time at how remarkably well preserved the body inside appeared. He stared at its head, noting the faint blurriness around it, a halo of imperfect crystal encircling it. There was perfection in that imperfection, he knew; for that faint blurriness was due to millions upon millions of microscopic metal wires, countless fibers extending from deep within the corpse's brain. These spread outward through the entirety of the crystalline tomb, connecting to every single brain in every single Void crystal in the massive chamber. And by extension, every Void crystal in the miles upon miles of tunnels that had led him here.
Millions of minds, all subjugated to this one being, an enormous nervous system of the greatest consciousness that had ever lived, the most powerful intellect ever constructed.
The old man sighed, turning away from the crystal and its entombed occupant. He closed his eyes then, recalling the name Kalibar had given him a week ago, of a man in black armor, a man he'd recognized earlier without realizing from where. Or more importantly, when.
The implications were paradigm-changing, of course. There was no doubt that the man protecting the second Empire was the same man who had abandoned the first.
He should have suspected the bodyguard earlier.
The old man chuckled, turning back to face the massive crystal in the center of the chamber, at its shriveled captive deep within.
“You haven't changed a bit, Ampir,” he murmured.
Ampir had not aged at all, through some miracle of preservation. The body suspended before the old man had not been so lucky. It had nearly run out of time before achieving immortality, had decayed long past a normal mortal's ability to survive. But in a testament to its will, and its genius, it had survived.
And now there was no body it could not possess, no mind it could not subvert to its own use. Not with the power carried by the enormous Void crystal that surrounded it, a construction long ago steeped in legend. It was a machine, one that the devout called God, or Xanos.
But the true god was not the machine. It was the man in the machine.
The old man closed his eyes. With a thought, he pulled his mind from his body, his vision blackening, his arms and legs going numb, as if they no longer existed. For a brief moment, he was pure thought, a consciousness floating in endless space. Then he felt himself being pulled into the body within the crystal. His true body.
Agony shot through his arms and legs, a crawling, burning sensation gnawing at his limbs. Bright light assaulted his eyes, and though he tried instinctively to turn away from it, to close his eyes, he was utterly paralyzed...he could not move. He waited patiently, knowing that the light would fade as his eyes adjusted. And fade it did, his vision clearing and sharpening. He was within the giant crystal now, staring outward into the chamber. He could see his former body levitating before him. It was his avatar, the body that offered him the slightest reprieve from the torture of his own pathetic existence. The body that had borrowed his name...a name lost to time, of a man that should have died two thousand years ago, but lay trapped for eternity in this crystalline tomb instead.
Kyle cried out, pain ripping through his chest, his vision going black. He felt his legs go out from underneath him, felt himself fall to the ground. He tried to get up, but his limbs would not obey him. He lay there, his chest feeling as if it were caught in a vice.
And then it stopped.
The pain subsided rapidly, his vision slowly returning. Pins-and-needles shot down his arms and legs, almost painful in their intensity, as life returned to them. He blinked, feeling something soft but prickly pressing on the side of his face, and realized that he was laying on his side, on a beige carpet. He groaned, then rolled onto his belly, pushing himself up off of the carpet and onto his hands and knees. He waited a moment – his limbs still felt like jelly – then got up onto his feet, taking stock of his surroundings.
All around him, there was darkness.
He spotted a dimly glowing blue light a few feet away, and squinted at it. It was oddly familiar, but he couldn't quite place where he'd seen it before. Then it came to him...it was a nightlight. His nightlight, in his room at his Dad's house. He felt his heart skip a beat.
Am I really...
He spun about, seeing a familiar bed tucked in the corner of his room, a nightstand next to it, with the glowing red numbers of an alarm clock sitting atop.
This was his room. He was home!
Kyle grabbed the alarm clock, feeling the familiar heft of it, then set it back down. He walked up to his window and peered out from under the blinds. It was only morning, he guessed, the sun rising over the trees in the distance. He turned away from the window, gazing across his room – his room! – hardly able to believe his eyes. He walked to his bedroom door, opening it. The hallway beyond was deserted. He hesitated, then walked to the staircase, going downstairs to the foyer. He turned into the kitchen, stopping to stare. Everything was exactly as it had been a month ago – or rather, several hours ago in Earth time – before he'd been taken from his home to a strange planet. One where magic was real.
A world called Doma.
Kyle stepped from the kitchen to the living room, spotting someone curled up on the couch, completely covered with a white blanket. The blanket rose and fell gently, a soft snoring sound coming from within. He crept up to the sofa, grabbing the edge of the blanket and pulling it away. What he saw made his heart leap with joy.
“Dad!” he cried, leaping onto his sleeping father and giving him a big bear hug. His father jerked awake, rubbing his eyes, then peering through the darkness at Kyle.
“Hey buddy,” he grumbled, grabbing his phone from his pocket and staring at it for a moment. “It's seven o'clock in the morning!” he exclaimed, sitting up. “Oh man, I must have passed out in front of the TV,” he added, rubbing the back of his neck. Then he frowned at Kyle. “Did you just wake up?” he asked. Kyle nodded, grinning stupidly at his dad. He couldn't believe he was staring at his father, his honest-to-goodness father, after a month of thinking he'd never see his parents again. It was almost too good to be true.
Suddenly he felt a pang of fear, and reached over to pinch himself on the back of one forearm. To his relief, there was immediate pain.
“Kyle?” his dad asked, waving a hand in front of Kyle's face. “Hello, anyone there?”
“Oh, sorry,” Kyle mumbled, realizing that his father had been waiting for him to answer. Something.
“I guess we both needed our sleep, huh,” Dad said with a yawn.
“Yeah,” Kyle replied, realizing he was grinning again. So much had happened to him while he’d been away...he had the sudden, mad urge to tell his father everything. About all of his adventures, down to the last detail. But he’d been forbidden from doing so.
“Well,” Dad stated, rubbing his eyes again and standing up from the couch. “...sorry I fell asleep so hard. I was hoping to spend more time with you.”
“You're working today?” Kyle asked. Dad nodded, stifling another yawn.
“Morning shift,” he confirmed. “I've got to bring you back to your mother's house in a half-hour.”
“Oh,” Kyle mumbled, his heart sinking. He hadn't seen his father in a month, and soon he'd be gone again. To his dad, it had only been a few hours, but to him it’d seemed like a lifetime. Kyle was happy that he was going to be able to see his mom, but not at the expense of being with his dad. He suddenly wished – as he had many times before – that his parents were still together. That they hadn't gotten divorced when he was three.
“Hey, Dad...” Kyle blurted out suddenly. He felt a pang of fear, realizing that he'd nearly finished the sentence. The question he’d wanted to ask the day he’d been transported from Earth to Doma so long ago.
Why did you and Mom break up?
“Uh,” Kyle stammered, rubbing his hands together. “What do you remember about, you know, your dad?”
“Not much,” Dad admitted. “In fact, I don’t know if I really remember anything at all,” he added ruefully. “I do have some memories, but I'm not sure if they're real.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I sometimes have dreams about a...guy who I think is my dad,” he answered, rubbing his chin. Then he sighed. “But I think I watched too many movies as a kid,” he added.
“Well, I, uh, always picture my dad wearing a suit of armor,” he said with a sheepish grin. “Too many cartoons, I guess. Maybe I just wished he was a hero who'd come back to save me from foster care.”
“Yeah,” Kyle muttered. Then he glanced sidelong at his dad. “What color was his armor?” Dad frowned.
“That's an interesting question.”
“Well, what color?” Kyle pressed.
“Black,” Dad answered. “With blue lights on it,” he added. “Why do you ask?”
“Just curious,” Kyle mumbled. He glanced down at his own hands, at the faint blue light lining them. It was magic, he knew. The ability to see magic had been Ampir’s unique gift...and he’d passed it on to Kyle. Most Weavers could only feel magic, as a sort of vibration in their heads. “Hey, do you ever see strange blue lights?” he asked. His heart began pounding in his chest, and he glanced at his father, who was staring at him with a strange expression on his face.
“Ah, you've been talking to your mother,” Dad deduced. “I used to see them all the time,” he admitted. “After the accident, I mean. Always at the edges of things, especially myself, or the things I touched. My neurologist said it was a result of the bleeding in my brain...that sometimes people end up seeing strange lights or patterns at the edges of objects after a stroke.”
“Do you still see them?” Kyle pressed.
“Sometimes,” Dad admitted. “I stopped seeing them during high school,” he added. “In fact, I thought I'd grown out of it until you got older.”
“What do you mean?”
“I started seeing the lights again when you were, oh, I don't know, six?” Dad answered. “Just around you and the house, actually,” he continued. “I still see them, even now.” He pointed at Kyle. “I see blue all around you, and around your backpack.”
“Huh,” Kyle mumbled. He stared at his own hands, feeling a chill run through him. There was no doubt about it now...his father had the ability to see magic. An ability that he'd inherited from Kyle's grandfather, perhaps the most powerful man alive.
Kyle swallowed, staring at his backpack, at the faint blue light bleeding from its edges. Of course his father would only see magic around him...after all, Kyle was the only person on Earth who could produce magic. His backpack had absorbed that energy, as had anything else he'd been in contact with, to varying degrees
Kyle glanced up at his father, a sudden sadness coming over him. Dad would never know the truth, not if Ampir continued to insist that Kyle keep it from him. He would always believe that his memories of his father were just silly dreams. It didn't seem fair to keep it from him. To lie to him.
“Well, we'd better start getting ready,” Dad declared, pushing himself up from the couch. He yawned, stretching his arms to the sides, then offering Kyle a hand. Kyle took it, and Dad pulled him up from the couch. “Get your stuff and I'll drive you back.”
Kyle sighed, doing as he was instructed. They both walked through the kitchen to the mud room, and Kyle pulled on his shoes and grabbed his overstuffed backpack – which seemed lighter than he remembered – and slinging it over one shoulder. Dad followed suit, and they made their way to the garage, hopping in Dad's SUV. They pulled out of the garage and down the driveway, making their way to his mom’s house. Neither of them said much to each other as they drove down the street. Kyle stared out of his window at the passing scenery, marveling at how very different everything was here compared to Doma. The trees, the grass, the smells...even the air was thicker, and he felt a bit heavier somehow. It would make sense if Doma were smaller than Earth, with less gravity and a slightly thinner atmosphere.
Kyle turned away from the window, glancing at his dad. Then he looked down at his lap, taking a deep breath in, then letting it out. He knew he only had a few more minutes with his father before he wouldn’t see him again...potentially for another month.
“Dad?” he asked, feeling his heart skip a beat.
Kyle hesitated, taking another breath in, feeling his heart hammering in his chest. He kept his eyes on his own lap, feeling his father's eyes on him.
“Why did you leave Mom?”
Dad said nothing for a long moment, and Kyle felt a spike of fear course through him. Then the car slowed, and Dad pulled over to the side of the road, turning the hazard lights on. There was another long silence, and then Kyle felt his father's hand on his knee.
“Kyle...” Dad began. Kyle paused, then turned to face him.
“I'm glad you asked,” Dad said at last. “I've been waiting for you to ask that, actually.”
“Really,” Dad confirmed. “The reason I left was because I wasn't happy,” he admitted. He paused for a moment, as if choosing his words. “It was the hardest decision I've ever made,” he continued. “And the most painful. By far.”
Kyle nodded, not daring to say anything.
“Leaving your mother meant losing you,” Dad continued. “Not completely,” he added hastily. “But it meant I couldn't see you every day. Or tuck you in every night before you went to sleep. I remember lying next to you after telling you a bedtime story, when you were three. Before I left. Thinking that...thinking that if I left, I wouldn't get to do this anymore. And it just...”
He stopped then, shaking his head.
“Divorce hurts everyone,” he muttered. “Scars everyone.” He turned to Kyle then. “It was selfish, what I did.”
“It was,” Dad insisted. “I did what I did for me. For a chance to be happy again.” He smiled then. “And to be honest, I am happier now.” He put a hand on Kyle's shoulder. “Your mom is a good person. She is.”
“We're both good people,” Dad continued. “But sometimes you can have two good people, and no matter how hard they try, they end up not being good for each other.”
He went silent then, turning off his hazard lights. He pulled away from the curb then, continuing down the road. Neither one of them said anything as they drove the last few minutes to his mother's house. They reached the long driveway leading up the hill to his Mom's garage, and Dad parked just outside of it. He turned to Kyle then.
“Well, we made it,” he stated. Kyle smiled weakly.
“I'll see you in a few days,” Dad promised. Kyle paused, then nodded, knowing full well that it would be much, much longer for him. The thought of not seeing his father – for what on Doma could be months – was utterly depressing. Kyle unbuckled his seatbelt, then leaned in and gave his dad a hug.
“I love you Dad,” he murmured. Dad hugged him back, giving him a tight squeeze.
“I love you too,” Dad replied. They stayed like that for a long moment, and then Kyle pulled away.
“Thanks,” Kyle said, opening his door. “For answering.” Dad smiled.
“Thanks for asking,” he replied. Kyle stepped out of the car, closing the door behind him. “And Kyle...”
“You can tell me anything, you know,” Dad said. Kyle nodded, thinking of all the things he couldn't tell his father.
And then he was off, pulling back out of the driveway, then driving down the street. Kyle watched him go, waving goodbye. He stood there on the driveway long after his dad had left, staring off into the distance.
* * *
Kyle opened the front door of his mom’s house, stepping into the foyer and closing the door quietly behind him. He took off his shoes, then walked into the kitchen. His mom was standing there in her blue scrubs, eating a bowl of cereal. Kyle felt his heart soar, and he grinned from ear-to-ear, dropping his backpack on the floor.
“Hey Mom,” he greeted.
“Hey honey,” she replied, walking up to him and giving him a hug with one arm. Then she stepped back with a frown. “What’s wrong, baby?” she asked.
“Nothing,” Kyle replied. “Why?”
“You look exhausted,” she answered. “You didn't have another nightmare, did you?” Kyle paused, then nodded. His experiences over the last month – being mortally wounded by an Ulfar, kidnapped and psychologically tortured by the Dead Man, and nearly killed again by the massive Void Behemoth – surely counted as a nightmare of sorts.
“Kind of,” Kyle replied.
“What was it about?” Mom pressed. Kyle shrugged.
“I dreamed that I'd never see you again,” he answered. It was the closest thing to the truth he could think of.
“Oh honey,” she murmured, grabbing him and hugging him again. She kissed him on the forehead, then held him at arm's length. Kyle heard footsteps creaking in the foyer, and saw Steve – his stepdad – walk into the kitchen, squinting in the light. “Kyle had another nightmare,” Mom declared worriedly. “Maybe we should have him see a doctor,” she suggested.
“Why?” Steve asked. “They’re just nightmares.” Mom arched an eyebrow.
“About never seeing your parents?” she countered.
“I think he should see a doctor,” Mom opined.
“He's fine,” Steve insisted. “He'll grow out of it.” Mom frowned.
“We'll talk about it later,” she promised. “We shouldn't fight in front of Kyle.”
“Good point,” Steve agreed. “Kyle, go to your room while I beat your mother,” he ordered. Mom punched Steve playfully on the shoulder, and he chuckled, grinning from ear-to-ear.
“I'm fine,” Kyle interjected, having no desire to talk to a shrink about his dreams. “Really, it was just a nightmare.”
“Are you sure?” Mom pressed, running a hand through his hair. Her hand stopped suddenly, at his right ear, and he felt her tense up. “What's this?” she asked, grabbing his earlobe between her index finger and thumb. He frowned, pulling his head away from her hand, then reaching up to touch his earlobe. He felt his earring there, the on that Kalibar had given him a few weeks ago. It was a magical earring, a universal translator of sorts, allowing Kyle to understand any language spoken around him. He'd gotten so used to wearing it that he'd completely forgotten it was there.
“Uh...” he stammered, covering the earring with his hand. “It's nothing.”
“Nothing?” his mom retorted, putting her hands on her hips and staring at him incredulously.
“What is it?” Steve asked.
“An earring!” she exclaimed, pointing to his ear. “Is that real?” she asked, reaching for his ear. Kyle pulled back, but she was quicker, and she grabbed his ear, peering at it closely. “It is real!” she gasped, recoiling with horror. “Kyle, who did this to you?” Kyle shrugged, trying to seem nonchalant, all the while wracking his brain for an excuse – any excuse – for having an earring, but his mind drew a blank. He stared at her helplessly, suddenly thankful that the clothing he was wearing was mostly indistinguishable from his usual Earth clothing.
“Who put the earring in, Kyle?” Steve asked. Kyle shrugged again.
“A friend,” was all he could say. He kicked himself mentally, wishing he could turn back time and take out the dang earring before he'd come in.
“From school?” Mom gasped. “Kyle, it's not sterile, it could get infected!” Steve leaned in to get a look.
“It doesn't look infected, does it?” Steve asked. Mom peered at it, and shook her head.
“Not yet,” she admitted. “But it should come out before it does get infected,” she added. Kyle recoiled, pulling away from them.
“No!” he nearly shouted, covering his ear with his hand protectively. They both stared at him. “I mean, it was sterile,” he added, knowing that he was doing a terrible job of sounding convincing. Mom stared at him for a long moment, then put a hand on his shoulder.
“Kyle, why did you get an earring?” she asked.
“I, uh...” he began, trying to come up with something clever, but coming up empty. “I wanted to try it out,” he answered rather lamely.
“You wanted to try it out,” she repeated, staring at him for a long moment. She turned to Steve, giving him a look Kyle couldn't read.
“Kyle, who gave it to you?” Steve asked. Kyle shrugged.
“A friend,” he replied cagily. “I thought it would look...nice,” he added rather lamely. Steve's eyebrows rose.
“I see,” he murmured, staring at Kyle for a long moment, then turning to exchange a look with Mom.
“Oh,” Mom gasped, putting a hand over her mouth. Steve put a hand on her shoulder, then walked up to Kyle, putting a hand on his.
“It's okay, Kyle,” Steve stated, his tone carefully neutral. “If you want to look...nice, your mother and I will support you.”
“Wait, what?” Kyle asked.
“Steve's right,” Mom piped in. “We love you no matter what, it's just that we'd rather you talk about what you want with us first, before you get...pierced,” she added. Steve grimaced at that.
“Yes, well,” he grumbled. “We’re going to keep a close eye on that ear...and if it looks the slightest bit infected, we're taking it out,” he promised. Kyle nodded.
“Okay,” he agreed. “Thanks,” he added, feeling quite relieved. Mom smiled
“Oh honey,” she murmured, reaching in to give him a hug. “Of course we understand.” She pulled back then, running a hand through his hair and letting out a sigh. “We just need some time to get used to it, that's all.”
“Love you mom,” Kyle stated, smiling at her. And it was true; he couldn't imagine that, only a month ago, he would have been embarrassed to say those words. Steve cleared his throat then, rather noisily.
“Yes, well,” he grumbled. “Better get going hon,” he counseled. “You'll be late for work.”
“I know, I know,” Mom replied. “You will too,” she added. Steve turned to glance at the clock.
“I have another ten minutes,” he countered. Mom turned to Kyle.
“Bye honey,” she stated, giving him a hug.
“Bye mom,” he replied, hugging her back. He paused then, staring at her for a long moment, realizing that he might not see her again, at least not for another few weeks. He only had a half a day before Darius would come back for him, after all.
“What's wrong?” Mom asked, disengaging from him.
“Nothing,” Kyle mumbled. “Love you.”
“Love you too sweety,” she replied. Then she turned about, giving them both one last wave before leaving. Kyle watched her go, his heart aching. Both of his parents would be gone for work for most of the day...on the one day he'd come back to see them. By the time they came back, he would be gone again.
He sighed, sitting on a barstool at the island. He glanced at Steve; everyone was gone except for his stepdad. This trip back to Earth was not turning out the way he'd expected.
“What's up?” Steve asked, sitting down beside Kyle. Kyle shrugged.
“I'm just tired,” he mumbled.
“How was school yesterday?”
“It was fine,” Kyle answered, not really remembering whether it had been or not. Steve paused, then leaned in, giving Kyle a conspiratorial wink.
“Did it hurt?” he pressed. Kyle stared at him blankly. “The earring,” he clarified. “I bet it hurt to put it in.”
“A little,” Kyle admitted, remembering how Kalibar had leapt at him, jabbing it into his ear. Steve grinned.
“Who was the surgeon?” he asked. Kyle hesitated, knowing he couldn't very well tell the truth. He thought about it for a moment, then shrugged.
“A girl,” he lied.
“A girl?” Steve asked. “A friend of yours?” Kyle shrugged again, feeling his cheeks flushing.
“My girlfriend,” he corrected. He glanced at Steve, whose grin was suddenly so wide that it would've taken a sandblaster to wipe it off of his face.
“You have a girlfriend?” Steve exclaimed. “Really?” Kyle nodded. Steve slapped his knees with his hands, looking oddly relieved. “Oo, wait 'til I tell your mother!” He leaned in closer. “So tell me about her...who is she? What's she like?”
Kyle blushed, feeling suddenly very self-conscious. He'd never really talked about this kind of thing with Steve before. Then again, he'd never had a real girlfriend before.
“Her name is Ariana,” he admitted.
“You should invite her over so we can meet her,” Steve suggested. Kyle didn’t reply. “Hey, between you and me,” Steve continued, “...why the earring?” Kyle shrugged.
“She thought it would look cool,” he lied. Steve grinned.
“That explains it,” he declared, a little too obviously relieved. Kyle frowned, suddenly alarmed.
“What were you thinking?” he asked. Steve shrugged nonchalantly.
“I dunno,” he answered. “I don't get you young whippersnappers these days,” he added in an old geezer's voice. Kyle couldn't help but smile; Steve was a pretty great guy, even if he wasn't his real dad. He'd been less kind to Steve in the past than the man deserved. “Anyway,” Steve stated, standing up from his seat, “...I've got to get to work.”
“Yeah, it sucks,” Steve confirmed. “I should be home by six or so.” With that, Steve walked out of the living room and back into the kitchen. “See you later kiddo,” he said with a wave. Kyle waved back sullenly, watching as Steve disappeared into the foyer. He heard the front door open and close, and then there was silence.
Kyle sighed, looking around the empty kitchen. He thought about going back upstairs to his bed – he'd hardly gotten any sleep, after all – but the couch in the living room was closer, and he was struck with a sudden, near-crippling fatigue. The thought of doing anything else but closing his eyes and falling asleep was almost overwhelming, and he stood, walking over to the couch and lying down. He knew he only had a few more hours left on Earth before Darius would take him back, but he was too tired to go over his best friend Ben’s house. He felt himself sinking deeper into the cushions, his eyelids growing heavy. Then he spotted something moving in the periphery of his vision, and glanced up at the ceiling.
A faint ripple appeared there.
Kyle blinked, then sat up on the couch, staring at the ceiling. The rippling continued, like water in a pond after a rock was thrown in, spreading outward from directly above his head.
And then the universe ripped open.
Sabin ignored the constant burning pain that coursed through what remained of his body, suspended for eternity in his crystalline prison. He watched the body he’d been controlling only moments before descend until it was below his field of vision. He could not move his head to follow it, trapped as he was. This body could do nothing but torment him.
But his mind, ahhh...that was another story!
He felt his mind expanding even now, extending beyond the thin bones of his skull, spreading through the millions of microscopic wires that coursed through the crystal surrounding him. He felt his consciousness growing as he linked his mind with the thousands of other minds trapped within their Void crystals in this chamber. Still his mind grew, as his awareness spread even further, to the millions of Void crystals beyond, in every Void chamber of every Chosen's lair, scattered throughout every continent of the world.
It was ecstasy.
His pain shrank as his mind grew beyond the feeble confines of a single brain, the agony still present, but less important now. He felt the presence of a million linked minds, each with their own consciousness. With a thought, he grasped control from them all, forcing them to give up their brains temporarily to him.
Within moments, the process was complete. Each mind in the network was his now. Their memories were his memories, their bodies his to control. Every Chosen on the planet was his to command.
Sabin darted from continent to continent with his mind, feeling the full scope of his army. Within minutes, he knew of the status of entire governments, many of which he'd created and continued to secretly rule through his Chosen. All completely unbeknownst to the humans that believed they were in control, that they had created this modern world.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Having completed his survey, Sabin redirected his awareness to his avatar floating on the floor of the chamber below. He directed a small portion of his now-massive consciousness to the shard buried in the avatar's skull. He could see from his avatar's eyes, yet still saw from his own. He could feel his avatar's limbs, and move them, and yet he still felt the burning, crawling pain searing his own tortured limbs. He was a consciousness divided, existing in two bodies at once.
And if he desired, he could exist in dozens at once.
With a thought, he levitated his avatar to the ring of green crystals surrounding the base of the huge cylinder. These were where the shards were manufactured, the crystals that powered his Chosen. He guided his avatar to one of the green crystals...one that would become the most advanced shard he had ever constructed.
With a sliver of his consciousness, he set his avatar to work.
* * *
Kyle froze as the ceiling above him began to churn violently, the very walls around him quivering like jello. The ceiling above tore apart, revealing a golden glowing disc. The ceiling and walls of the living room melted around him like candle wax, revealing a dome some twenty feet above their heads, walls of gold surrounding them on all sides. The wooden floor wavered, then shrunk, a golden metallic floor replacing it. The last of the cherry wood floor beneath his feet disappeared, and he braced himself, knowing all too well what was coming next.
It slammed into his chest almost immediately, the pressure so intense that it knocked the wind out of him. He gasped for air, clutching his throat with his hands...but no air came. He tried to scream, but no sound came out. His vision blurred, and then there was blackness.
And then it all stopped.
Kyle gasped for air, his vision returning. He found himself lying on a cold, hard floor, bright light assaulting his eyes from a golden disc above. He groaned, shielding his eyes from the harsh light. A blurry shadow came over the disc, and Kyle lowered his hand, squinting at it. A hand clad entirely in golden, metallic armor reached down, grabbing his arm and hauling him to his feet.
“Hey kid,” a familiar voice greeted.
Kyle squinted, his vision clearing gradually. Intense blue eyes stared back at him.
“Darius!” he cried. It was the bodyguard...his grandfather, perhaps the most powerful being in the world. Kyle looked around, realizing that he was in the center of the Gateway, a circular room that served as the only entrance and exit to Antara, a floating island that existed in two worlds at once. The Gateway was some twenty feet in diameter, with a ceiling consisting of a large dome made of many thick, golden metal bars arching upward toward a brightly glowing disc at the top. The bars were set back against walls with tiny runes etched into them, each rune glowing a soft blue like the disk above.
Kyle rubbed his left shoulder gingerly, staring at the man standing before him. Over six feet tall, with short brown hair and blue eyes, his skin tanned by countless hours spent in the sun, Darius looked resplendent in his golden armor. The smooth metal plates that covered him from the neck down glimmered brilliantly in the light from above, the armor polished to its customary mirror-shine. Kyle couldn't help but stare, as he always did when he hadn't seen Darius for a while; the bodyguard was formidably handsome, and possessed of an undeniable presence. Anyone who didn't know him would automatically assume that he was powerful and charismatic, and they'd be undeniably right about the former. As to the latter, well...that assumption only lasted as long as Darius kept his mouth shut. Which he did most of the time, thankfully.
“Follow me,” Darius ordered, turning about and walking toward the curved outer wall beyond. Kyle hesitated, then sprinted after him.
“Why are we back on Antara?” he asked.
“I've spent the last week locating Xanos,” Darius answered, not bothering to turn around. Kyle blinked. Had it really been a week since he’d left? For every day that passed on Earth, about 40 days passed on Doma. He’d been on Earth for maybe an hour and a half, which would make 60 hours on Doma...less than 3 days.
“It’s been that long?” Kyle asked.
“On Antara, yes,” Darius answered. Kyle paused for a moment. It made sense; for every day that passed on Doma, three passed on Antara. That meant about a week had passed here. Darius was right, as usual.
Darius stopped before the curved wall. Suddenly his armor flashed bright blue, the golden metal plates covering his body instantaneously replaced by inky black armor etched with countless runes. A visor appeared around Darius's face, its curved mirror-like surface reflecting the wall before it. In a heartbeat, he'd metamorphosed from a simple bodyguard into the most powerful Battle-Runic that had ever lived.
The runes on Darius's right forearm flashed a bright blue, and a curved section of the wall in front of them rippled, a hole expanding in the middle of it. Beyond, there was a familiar long, upwardly spiraling corridor. Darius stepped through the hole into the corridor, and Kyle followed.
“Did you find Xanos?” Kyle asked, following Darius to a window on their left. Beyond the window was a familiar room; he'd seen it the first time he'd visited Antara. It was filled with squat tables littered with strange devices. Kyle rested a palm on the cool glass of the window, trying to make out what lay inside.
There was a flash of blue light, and suddenly he was inside the room.
“Yes,” Darius answered. He walked up to one of the tables, grabbing a small metallic disc from the large pile of odds and ends stashed there. He shoved it right onto the center of Kyle's chest.
“Hey!” Kyle protested, taking a step back. The metallic disc vanished in a flash of blue light, and Kyle felt a horrible pain rip through his chest. He cried out, slumping against one of the tables behind him and clutching his sternum. The pain subsided quickly; Kyle glared at Darius, rubbing his chest gingerly. “What did you do to me?” he demanded.
“That was a spacetime bridge generator,” Darius replied.
“That disc makes spacetime bridges,” Darius clarified.
“The same things you use to teleport?” Kyle pressed. Darius nodded. Kyle frowned. “What's spacetime?” he asked.
“A part of space at a particular time,” Darius clarified. When Kyle stared at him blankly, Darius gestured toward the window that looked out into the hallway they'd come from. “The hallway is one space,” he explained. “This room is another.”
Suddenly there was a flash of blue, and a portal appeared in the air beside Darius...a window of sorts that gave a long view of the hallway, as if they were standing in it.
“That's a bridge connecting two spaces in one time,” Darius concluded.
“A spacetime bridge,” Kyle murmured. He lowered his gaze, spotting a pair of long, jet-black metallic things on the table in front of him that resembled rifles. Kyle remembered having seen them the last time he'd been on Antara.
“What are those?” he asked curiously. “Is that a scope?” he added, pointing to a cylinder on top of one of the rifles. Darius said nothing, picking up one of the guns and pointing the barrel right at Kyle's chest. Kyle took a step back, raising his hands above his head automatically. Darius smirked, handing the gun to Kyle. Kyle took it gingerly, pausing to glance at Darius, then peering through the scope himself. He saw something red flitting in and out of focus there.
“What's that?” he asked.
“Your heart,” Darius replied.
Kyle jerked his eyes up from the scope, staring at Darius incredulously, before peering down the scope again. He saw the flitting redness again – although it was going faster now. He swung the barrel of the rifle around, but the image on the scope remained the same.
“It's still showing the same image,” Kyle realized.
“Don't pull the trigger,” Darius warned.
“What happens if I do?” Kyle asked, taking his finger off of the trigger.
Kyle jerked his head away from the scope, dropping the rifle on the table with a clatter and backing away from it.
“Get it off my heart!” he demanded, staring at the rifle with horror. “Get it off me!”
“Relax,” Darius replied. “It's off.” Kyle shook his head at him, goosebumps rising up on his arms.
“What if I had gone back to Earth?” he asked. “Would that thing have followed me there?”
“It could've killed me from across galaxies?” Kyle exclaimed. “How?”
“Spacetime bridges,” Darius answered. “It's an old prototype,” he added, nodding the rifle. “A spacetime bridge cannon.”
“I'd hate to see what the latest version can do,” Kyle muttered, putting a hand over his heart. Darius smirked, then turned toward the shimmering portal beside him, striding down the hallway beyond. Kyle hesitated, then followed after the man, stepping through the portal. He was expecting to feel something weird as he passed through, but there was no sensation at all...besides the slight vibration of the magic involved. When he turned around to look back at the room however, all he saw was more hallway. Kyle turned forward again, shaking his head; spacetime bridges were going to take some getting used to.
“So where'd that disc go?” Kyle inquired, rubbing his chest absently.
“Inside your sternum.”
Kyle stopped abruptly, his eyes widening.
“I teleported it into your sternum,” Darius clarified, as if that were the most reasonable thing in the world. Kyle blanched, clutching his chest and feeling suddenly queasy.
“Why'd you do that?”
“Later,” Darius promised. He continued up the spiral hallway, Kyle following close behind. He'd only spent a few minutes with Darius, and he was already getting tired of his grandfather’s cryptic ways. He preferred Kalibar's more straightforward approach.
“Where are we going?” Kyle asked.
“To see Marcus,” Darius answered. Kyle frowned; Marcus was Darius's former “employer,” and had been Kalibar's mentor.
“Why?” he pressed. Not that he minded paying Marcus a visit. The old man was wonderfully pleasant and considerate, unlike Darius.
“To deal with Xanos,” Darius replied.
Darius stopped suddenly. Kyle halted, realizing that they had reached the top of the long spiral hallway at last...and that it had ended, as before, in a nondescript wall. Kyle glanced at Darius, whose runes glowed bright blue for a split second. Suddenly the wall vanished, sunlight pouring into the hallway. Kyle squinted, turning his head away from those searing rays, blinking rapidly as his eyes adjusted. After a moment, he turned forward again, seeing a long road extending beyond the golden floor of the hallway, trees flanking the road. The sun peeked out from behind a white, puffy cloud, sending squat shadows across the road. At the end of the road was a small cul-de-sac with a light brown ranch at the end of it. A short white fence surrounded the front yard, its small gate partially open. Kyle recognized it immediately; it was Marcus’s house.
Darius stepped out of the hallway and onto the road beyond. Kyle followed, feeling a warm, gentle breeze rustle his hair. He followed Darius past the gate to the front door of Marcus's house, and Darius pushed the door open without bothering to knock. They walked down the long, narrow hallway beyond, the floorboards creaking under their feet as they went. They made their way past a few closed doors on either side, reaching the door at the end, which Darius pushed open. Beyond, there was a familiar room; it was quite large, perhaps thirty feet square, with a cathedral-style roof supported by rough wooden beams. There were a few round tables in the center, with a large stove at the far end. Standing at the stove was a tall man with long salt-and-pepper hair. The man turned when they entered the room, smiling broadly.
“Ah, Darius!” he greeted. “Kyle! So good to see you both.”
“Marcus!” Kyle exclaimed, grinning from ear-to-ear. Marcus bowed slightly, then turned back to the stove, upon which sat a large silver pot. He used a ladle to spoon some delicious-smelling stew into three bowls, and carried these to one of the tables in the center of the room.
“Come, sit,” Marcus urged, pulling up a chair and sitting down. He turned to Kyle, his gray eyes twinkling merrily. “I remember how much you enjoyed my stew the last time, Kyle,” he added. Kyle sat down, as did Darius, and they all dipped their spoons into their bowls, eagerly consuming the delicious stew. Kyle made short work of his, polishing off the entire bowl within minutes. Darius was no slouch either.
“Now,” Marcus proclaimed as he finished his own stew. “I believe we had business to discuss.” He turned to Darius. “Have you explained everything to Kyle?”
“Does he ever?” Kyle grumbled. Marcus turned to him, smiling ruefully.
“Yes, well,” the old man stated. “To put it simply, Darius believes he's found where Xanos is living.”
“Where?” Kyle asked.
“Well, we're not exactly sure,” Marcus admitted. “Do you remember the Void?” Kyle nodded; the Dead Man had brought him to the Void on two occasions. “Darius searched for Xanos under the assumption that Xanos would live in or near a Void chamber similar to the one you both visited.”
“That makes sense,” Kyle reasoned.
“So Darius scanned Doma – the entire planet – for Void chambers,” Marcus continued.
“How'd you do that?”
“By creating small spacetime bridges and passing them through the upper part of Doma's crust,” Darius replied. When Kyle stared blankly at him, Marcus cleared his throat.
“You see,” the old man explained, “...the simplest spacetime bridges typically generate...and require...magic on both sides of the bridge.” He paused for a moment, sipping a glass of water. “When you both were captives of the Dead Man, Darius observed that the Void absorbed all magic from the earth around it, for at least a few hundred feet in all directions. And that was a small Void chamber,” he added.
“Very small,” Darius agreed.
“So you see,” Marcus continued, “...any time Darius tried to create a spacetime bridge anywhere near the Void, the magic needed to maintain the bridge was completely absorbed into the Void crystals, and the bridge collapsed.”
“Ohhh,” Kyle breathed.
“So by recording the coordinates of all the places on Doma where he couldn't maintain a spacetime bridge,” Marcus continued, “...Darius was able to map the likely locations of every Void chamber on the planet.”
“Wow,” Kyle stated, nodding at Darius. “That's really clever.” Marcus nodded.
“That's not the half of it,” he replied. “Darius was also able to estimate the sizes of each of the two hundred Void chambers, and one of them was much larger than all of the others.”
“There were two hundred of them?” Kyle exclaimed, his jaw dropping. Darius nodded grimly.
“Most the size of the Dead Man's chamber,” he confirmed.
“Yes,” Marcus agreed. “While the Dead Man's chamber was roughly forty feet in diameter, there was one chamber that was substantially larger.”
“How much larger?” Kyle asked. Marcus didn't answer, glancing at Darius.
“Eight miles,” Darius answered.
“Whoa,” Kyle breathed, a chill running down his spine.
“Indeed,” Marcus stated grimly. “You can see why we believe that's where Xanos must live.”
“But how can you be sure?” Kyle pressed. Marcus glanced at Darius.
“I interrogated Rivin and Bartholos's assassin,” Darius replied. Kyle blinked.
“Wait, how?” he asked. “The assassin vanished after Xanos...”
“I brought him here,” Darius interjected. “He's still here,” he added.
“He’s on Antara?”
“He is,” Marcus confirmed. “Darius employed my skills as a diplomat to win his trust, to get him to talk.” He paused the, glancing at Darius. “Darius made the alternative...unpalatable.”
“What did the guy say?” Kyle asked.
“Darius's methods were far more effective than mine, I'm afraid,” Marcus admitted with a grimace. “I got very little out of him.”
“He confirmed that he got the shard he used on Rivin from an old man,” Darius stated. “The description matches the old man we met, and the one who killed Ariana.”
“Sabin?” Kyle asked. Darius said nothing, but Marcus sighed.
“Kyle, do you recall Kalibar telling you of how the Ancients were destroyed? How the original Empire was defeated?”
“Yeah,” Kyle replied. “Some guy tried to assassinate the Grand Runic and got caught,” he added. “They caught him and he escaped, and then he made the Behemoths and sent them to destroy the city.”
“Correct,” Marcus agreed. “And do you remember that man's name?” Kyle frowned.
“Uh, yeah, it was...” Then he blanked.
“Sabin,” Marcus finished.
“Right,” Kyle agreed. Then his eyes widened. “Oh!” He put a hand to his mouth, leaning back in his chair. “You're saying he's the same Sabin?”
“He is,” Darius answered. And the finality with which he said those two words left little room for doubt. But doubt Kyle did.
“How can you be sure?” he pressed.
“Because it's obvious,” Darius grumbled. Kyle glanced at Marcus.
“Sabin was the preeminent researcher of magic vacuity in Ancient times,” Marcus explained, leaning back in his chair. “His focus – before his arrest – was something he called the 'void mineral.'”
“Ohhh,” Kyle breathed, smacking his forehead with one hand. “Master Banar told me that!” he exclaimed. “I can't believe I missed it.”
“I can,” Darius grumbled.
“As Darius mentioned,” Marcus added, ignoring Darius's comment, “...there are numerous other clues as to Xanos's true identity. And they all point to Sabin,” he concluded. “A man considered to be second only to Ampir in ability.”
Kyle's eyes widened, and he felt a chill run down his spine.
“Wait,” he protested. “...you're saying that the old man we met in the Arena was the Sabin?”
“Not exactly,” Marcus corrected. “We have reason to believe that the old man you and Ariana met is merely another Chosen,” he added. “A body controlled by the real Sabin. Darius sensed shards in the old man...shards with a similar to the ones in the other Chosen, but far more complex.”
“The old man had more than one?”
“He had dozens,” he replied. “Each shard far exceeding the complexity of the Dead Man's.” He glanced at Darius. “And too complex for even Darius to decode in such a short amount of time,” he added ruefully.
“But how do you know he isn't the real Sabin?” Kyle pressed. “Ariana said he even called himself that.”
“It has to do with the location of Sabin's Void chamber,” Marcus answered.
“I don't get it,” Kyle admitted. Marcus stood then, walking to another table and picking up a large roll of paper sitting atop it. He brought the roll to their table, the bowls and silverware vanishing and reappearing on the counter at the far end of the room. Marcus unrolled the paper, revealing a large map.
“Stridon is here,” Marcus stated, pointing at a small dot on the map, at the western coast of a large continent. He slid his finger westward over a long expanse of ocean, settling it on the coast of another continent. There was a small red circle there. “This is the general area of the large Void chamber,” he explained.
“So Xanos – uh, Sabin – lives on another continent?” Kyle asked. “How is he controlling his Chosen from so far away?”
“He has a communication network,” Darius answered. “It's...sophisticated. Ariana's shard gave me a few ideas as to how it all works. I changed her shard so that she can access the network, but the network can’t access her.”
“That explains why she could sense the Chosens’ thoughts,” Kyle realized. Darius nodded.
“It gets worse,” Marcus admitted. “We believe that Sabin's powers are limited by such a large distance, and that there must be a significant delay in communication.”
“Why is that bad?” Kyle asked.
“Because it means that Sabin will be much more powerful the closer we get to him,” Marcus explained. “We likely haven't seen a fraction of what he's really capable of.”
“Great,” Kyle muttered, feeling suddenly depressed. Xanos – or Sabin, or whoever he was – had nearly crushed the Empire from across the ocean; what horrors would he be capable of up close?
“This delay is why we believe the old man you met – the one who killed Ariana – is not really Sabin,” Marcus stated. “Every Chosen Darius killed reacted instantaneously to his attacks when they were under their own control. But when Sabin took over – as when the Dead Man's shard glowed – there was a second or two delay in their reactions.”
“Ohhh,” Kyle breathed. It made perfect sense.
“Keep in mind that their grasp of magic was far more sophisticated despite that delay,” Marcus continued. “So much so that even with a delay of seconds, the Chosen – once possessed – were extraordinarily dangerous.” He shook his head. “No one but Darius stood a chance against them.”
“So why isn't that old man really Sabin?” Kyle asked.
“Because,” Marcus replied. “...he reacted to Darius – and the Dead Man – with the same delay as a Chosen possessed by Sabin would.”
“Meaning the real Sabin must have been controlling him from far away,” Kyle reasoned. Darius nodded.
“I visited many of the smaller Void chambers across the globe,” he revealed. “I secretly observed the Chosen there, recording the response delay for each. The closer each Chosen was to Sabin's lair, the shorter the delay became.”
“So you see Kyle,” Marcus stated, “Sabin – the real Sabin – must be located in that massive Void chamber. And by measuring the lag times over the last few weeks, Darius has discovered that Sabin has never moved from that Void chamber.”
“I'm going to find out,” Darius stated, resting a black gauntleted hand on the table. Blue light crawled across the runes inscribed on the metal.
“How?” Kyle pressed.
“I'm going after him,” Darius answered.
“You're going after him?”
“Yep,” Darius confirmed.
“Finally,” Kyle muttered. Marcus raised an eyebrow.
“What's wrong?” he asked. Kyle hesitated, glancing sidelong at Darius. “Please, feel free to speak your mind.”
“Well...” Kyle began. Then he lowered his gaze to the tabletop. “I don't get why he didn't do this sooner,” he confessed. He shook his head, feeling a sudden bitterness come over him. “I mean, I understand what happened with Kalibar's eyes,” he continued. “But if he'd gone after Xanos sooner, Ariana wouldn't have...”
He stopped then, swallowing past a lump in his throat. He shook his head silently, his eyes locked on the tabletop in front of him. He heard the legs of a chair slide against the floor, then felt a cold, heavy hand on his left shoulder. He glanced up, seeing Darius standing at his side.
“I'm sorry, Kyle,” he murmured.
“Yeah,” Kyle muttered. No one said anything for a long moment, until Marcus sighed.
“I heard about what happened,” he confessed. “A terrible tragedy,” he added gravely. He paused, glancing at Darius. “But we must keep in mind that if it were not for Darius, Ariana would be dead, as would Kalibar, and the Empire as we know it would no longer exist.” He sighed, scratching his salt-and-pepper beard. “And, if Darius had not learned about the Void chamber from feigning his imprisonment by the Dead Man, he never would have developed the means to find Sabin.”
Kyle nodded, knowing that Marcus was right. Still, it didn't make Ariana any less...undead.
“I'm going after Sabin,” Darius proclaimed firmly, lifting his hand from Kyle's shoulder and sitting back down in his chair. “That's why I put that disc in your sternum,” he added.
“What does it do?” Kyle asked.
“Teleport you to Earth,” Darius answered.
“Really?” Kyle pressed. “Whenever I want?” Darius shook his head, as did Marcus.
“It's a last resort option, Kyle,” Marcus explained. “Think of it as a back-up plan.”
“What do you mean?”
“If Darius...dies attempting to confront Sabin,” Marcus replied carefully, “...you will have a way to escape back to Earth before...” He trailed off then.
“Wait, you're not serious, are you?” Kyle blurted out, staring at Marcus, then Darius. “You can't die,” he protested. “You're Ampir!”
“Just because I've never died doesn't mean I can't,” Darius countered. Marcus nodded.
“We have reason to believe Sabin may be nearly as powerful as Darius,” he stated. “Or perhaps more powerful.”
“That's impossible!” Kyle exclaimed.
“He was a gifted Runic,” Darius countered. “And extremely creative.”
“But Sabin's only two thousand years old,” Kyle reasoned. “Darius is twice that old, with his time on Antara. How could Sabin be more powerful?”
“Sabin is...obsessive,” Darius explained. “I didn't spend every minute of my life planning for world domination,” he added wryly. “Sabin likely has.”
“So you think he might be more powerful than you?” Kyle inquired worriedly. Darius shrugged.
“Only one way to find out.”
The three of them grew quiet then, all staring off into the distance, lost in their thoughts. Kyle sighed, feeling terribly depressed all of a sudden. If Darius did die trying to kill Sabin, then the Empire would surely be destroyed. And Kalibar, Erasmus, and Ariana...and everyone else Kyle knew on Doma...would be killed.
“So,” Marcus stated, ending the uncomfortable silence. “...that is why Darius placed the spacetime bridge generator in your chest.” He faced Kyle then, his expression grim. “If Darius dies, it'll be your only way to get back home...and be safe from Xanos.”
“What about Ariana?” Kyle asked. “And Kalibar, and Erasmus?”
Darius said nothing.
“Well?” Kyle insisted. “What happens to them if Sabin wins?”
“The device will only take you back,” Marcus answered. “And it will only work one-way,” he added. “Once you activate it, you will never be able to get back to Doma...or Antara.”
“And my friends?” Kyle pressed.
Marcus glanced at Darius, then dropped his eyes to the tabletop. He shook his head slowly, saying nothing. Darius stared right at Kyle, his blue eyes cold and unblinking.
“They’ll die,” he replied.
* * *
Kyle, Darius, and Marcus sat around the circular table, the two men saying nothing as Kyle glanced back and forth at them. He'd been floored by Darius's response, and hadn't said anything in the moments since. Marcus wouldn't even meet Kyle's stare, the old man's gray eyes locked on the tabletop before him.
“What?” Kyle blurted out at last.
“Kyle...” Marcus began, but Darius stopped him with one outstretched hand. Marcus's jaw snapped shut with an audible click. Kyle stared at them both incredulously.
“You can't be serious!” he exclaimed. “They're my friends,” he added. “They're your friends!”
“I'm serious,” Darius countered.
“But why can't you give them the same thing you gave me?” Kyle asked, pointing to his chest. “Send them to Earth with me,” he pleaded. Darius shook his head.
“Then send them to Antara!” Kyle insisted. “They'll be safe here.”
“But why?” Kyle pressed. Darius just stared at Kyle, saying nothing. Kyle turned to Marcus, whose eyes were still locked on the tabletop. The old man sighed, then met Kyle's gaze at last.
“If Darius dies,” he stated, “...we all die.” He grimaced. “Without him, we'll all start aging again,” he explained. “Most of us would die rather quickly,” he added ruefully. “If Darius sent your friends here, they would soon be alone, able to do nothing as their friends and families were slaughtered back on Doma.”
“Then send them to Earth with me,” Kyle pleaded, turning to Darius, who shook his head.
“So what, they die?” Kyle blurted out. “You'd just let them die?”
Darius said nothing, and Kyle stared at him incredulously, feeling anger rise up inside of him, indignation at how callously Darius had decided to cast away his friends. But there was nothing Kyle could do.
There was a sudden flash of light in the center of the table, and a small black object shaped like the handle of a flashlight appeared. It was entirely nondescript, having no markings on it whatsoever.
“What's that?” Kyle asked.
“A weapon,” Darius answered. He picked up the thing, tapping one end of it with his finger. The end flashed red, jutting outward to reveal shiny silver metal beneath. He tapped the end again, and it retracted.
“What kind of weapon?”
“A bomb,” Marcus interjected. “It's our...plan B, if you will.” Darius set the bomb back on the table.
“Trigger it like I just did,” Darius stated, “...and it'll explode in 5 minutes.”
“How, uh...big is the explosion?” Kyle asked, staring at the thing. It was about the size of a heavy-duty flashlight.
“Ten-mile diameter,” Darius answered. Kyle's eyes widened.
“If I die,” Darius continued, “...this bomb will destroy any enemy that threatens the Empire.” He pushed the bomb toward Kyle. “You're the only other person who can set it. Get close, set it by tapping on one end.” He smirked. “And fly.”
“But this'll only stop the enemy once,” Kyle countered. And it was true; if Sabin sent another Void Behemoth against the Empire, and Kyle used the bomb, what would happen when the next Behemoth came?”
“Then make it count,” Darius replied. He stood from his chair in one fluid motion, pushing it in and walking away, back toward the hallway leading to the front of the house. He stopped halfway to the door, turning his head to the side, his visor reappearing over his eyes in a flash of blue light.
“We leave in ten minutes,” he stated.
And then he vanished.
Kyle stared at the space where Darius had just stood, a cool breeze whipping through the room. He heard Marcus clear his throat noisily, and turned to face the old man. Marcus rolled the large map on the table back into a long cylinder with the bomb inside, handing it to Darius. Then he stood from his seat, gesturing for Kyle to do the same.
“Let's go outside for a bit,” he suggested. Kyle rose from his chair reluctantly, following Marcus toward a door at the far end of the kitchen. It opened into a small backyard, and Marcus led Kyle across this, toward a rocky ledge in the distance. It was the very edge of Antara, beyond which there was a sheer drop to the roiling maelstrom of gray clouds immediately below...the deadly atmosphere of the alien planet half of Antara was hovering over. Beyond this narrow ring, and miles below the huge floating island, was Doma. Whereas on his last trip here, he'd seen only endless ocean, now Kyle saw a huge expanse of trees far below, obscured by thick white mist. A trio of mountains were barely visible on the horizon, dark gray clouds hovering over the tallest of the three. Marcus turned to Kyle, sighing heavily.
“I'm sorry Kyle,” he apologized, shaking his head. “When Darius makes up his mind, there is no denying him.” He raised one palm up toward Kyle when Kyle started to protest, cutting Kyle off. “Just try to remember what I said about Darius the last time you were here,” he added.
“What's that?” Kyle grumbled.
“I don't always agree with his methods,” Marcus answered, staring out across Doma's surface. “But he does everything for a reason.”
“Yeah, right,” Kyle groused. Marcus put a hand on Kyle's shoulder.
“We have to trust him,” the old man stated quietly.
“Why?” Kyle retorted. Marcus gave him a pained smile.
“We don't have any other choice.”
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