CHAPTER ONE: BATTLING RIDERS
Tarex’s wind rider howled over the bazaar in the mid-day heat. He was thankful to be airborne, with the wind blowing through his hair. He sympathized with the merchants and their beasts of burden that struggled to barter and make a modest profit on the outskirts of Kul-gora.
He remembered many days when he’d helped Patalon sell his forged iron wares in the tumultuous marketplace.
The bazaar was the nucleus of the community of working people in Kul-gora.
The nobles lounged in their lofty towers, oblivious to the noise and dust of the city below.
Tarex veered his wind rider past the alabaster towers of the Kul-gora technocrats. He swooped in a precarious arc around the immense statues that decorated the tall buildings.
They represented founders and conquerors of the realm in ages past.
It was centuries since the port city was the target of invasion by pirates or foreign armies.
This did not discourage the garrisons of Kul-gora who were frequently called upon to pacify combative, nomadic tradesmen and disgruntled shopkeepers.
Tarex had been summoned to meet The Prefect.
'The Prefect of Kul-gora is a busy man and must have good reason to ask for my services,' Tarex considered.
The wind rider figured he was to be asked to act as a courier.
There were few wind riders in Kul-gora. The machines were expensive, even in these booming times.
Most of the riders Tarex knew were busy guarding silk barges and spice caravans.
The canopied entrance to The Prefect’s booth was replete with the scent of burning incense.
A domesticated lemur gnawed dried figs at the end of the counter.
Tarex didn’t see The Prefect among the multitudes of contract scrolls and civic records.
His assistant rose from her data station to greet the wind rider.
“Hello, you must be Tarex. My name is Angela. The Prefect said I should expect you.”
Angela was about the same age as Tarex. Like him she favored the vented, leather fashion popular in the arid climate of Kul-gora. Her hair was dyed blue and extended to her waist in a single braid.
“The Prefect is out on other business. He said I should give you this.”
Angela placed an electronically sealed scroll on the counter.
“He wants you to deliver this to the tinker in Rhajim. He said that it’s urgent and he’ll compensate you for the same amount when you report back.”
She handed Tarex a money card. Its small screen indicated it was set at fifty trade units. It was enough money to refuel his wind rider a dozen times.
Tarex was impressed but was sure to hide this from The Prefect’s assistant.
“What’s the hurry? Why doesn’t he send it with a land courier like everyone else?”
“I don’t know. I’ll be waiting here, though. If your wind rider breaks down contact me on your com unit. I can carry tools if the need arises.”
“Don’t worry,” replied Tarex. “My machine won’t break down. I’m a fine mechanic and a handy pilot, too.
"I’ll deliver the Prefect’s scroll to the tinker. Tell him I’ll be back soon for the other fifty units.”
Tarex wondered about the significance of his boon. He didn’t frequently find such work as a private courier.
Although the bazaar and marketplace of Kul-gora were bustling centers of industry, there was not much written correspondence with neighboring cities. This was due to the struggling reconstruction since the Bio-Wars.
Tarex managed to keep his wind rider in shape with the money he received from Patalon.
He’d visited the other cities only occasionally.
The Prefect paid well, though, and he looked forward to testing his machine over the open land.
Tarex shifted his wind rider into cruise. The booster whined as it fired a jet of compressed, ethanol propellant.
The twisted trees of the forested hills whipped below him as he used his helmet’s display to scan for altitude.
The wilderness was an untamed and inhospitable environment.
A lingering risk was to be confronted by The Shibuya Team. They ran a delivery trade over the unsettled lands.
The greatest threat lay in facing the exoskeletonous ceptors that roamed the marshes since the Bio-Wars. They hovered by cycling their three pairs of wings at a fast pace. The ceptors preyed upon many of the land animals and stunned them by firing penetrating stingers from their scorpion-like tails.
The Shibuya Team braved the attacks of the chitinous creatures by wearing plastic armor and deterring them with bursts from lasers installed on their wind riders.
Masamune was the leader of The Shibuya Caravan. His reinforced armor was dark blue and green.
Each member of the delivery team wore uniquely stylized armor that varied in color and structure.
The Shibuya Caravan detected Tarex’s wind rider as it accelerated to cruising velocity.
It sped away from the outskirts of Kul-gora.
On previous treks the rogue riders had mapped and charted the spawning fields of the predatory ceptors.
“This maverick rider is heading straight for a ceptor nest. He is clearly steering for Rhajim.”
Masamune addressed his comrades via helmet communication link.
“Ichiro and Ayako loop around the hills to flank him.
"Tetsuo and the rest of you join me in waylaying this unlucky courier.”
Tarex’s helmet display lit up with flashing warnings.
His computer chirped.
“Caution, multiple radar locks detected.”
He veered sharply to avoid the incoming attack but felt his machine shudder as it was scorched by several laser blasts.
Tarex’s wind rider hurled smoke and jolted violently. He was forced to decelerate and was overtaken by Masamune and The Shibuya Team.
Tarex’s ears rang as his communications link was over-ridden by the Shibuya channel.
“You have no choice but to relinquish your goods to us, Kul-goran. You are heading for a ceptor spawning field. We have you outnumbered and in need of repair.”
Masamune leaned over Tarex’s wind rider and grabbed at the Prefect’s sheathed scroll.
“No!” Tarex yelled.
He pulled away from the leader of The Shibuya Team.
Tarex hadn’t realized he had entered the marsh-covered spawning field of the ceptors.
The chitinous creatures fired several waves of stingers from their tails.
The piercing missiles struck the wind riders and lodged in their armor.
As Ichiro and Ayako entered the fray, they fired their lasers.
Several of the swarming ceptors were hit and fell to the swamp below.
Tarex seized the opportunity for escape from the insectoids.
He addressed The Shibuya Team as he turned his damaged vehicle to the north.
“Thanks a lot, you guys. I’ll send you my repair bill. I suppose I owe you wind riders for keeping me from becoming ceptor fodder. Arigatoo.”
Tarex managed to get his machine back into high gear and bolted ahead of The Shibuya Team as they fought with the winged animals.
A familiar voice emanated from his helmet link.
“Tarex, it’s me, Angela. I’ve brought extra fuel. I saw you were in trouble from the telescope on the roof of the shop.
"It looks like your vehicle has seen better days. You should abandon it and ride with me. We’ll take the scroll to the tinker in Rhajim together. The Prefect will reimburse you for your machine when we get back to Kul-gora.”
Tarex couldn’t conceal his relief that Angela had arrived.
“You’re right, Angela. I’m glad you made it. Those ceptors can be a hindrance.”
Tarex reached over to Angela’s machine and climbed on. He would miss his old wind rider. He’d worked several months for Patalon to save enough money to buy it.
“I don’t know what messages or blueprints The Prefect is having us send to the tinker in Rhajim. Whatever they are, he must think they’re important enough to deliver there as soon as possible.
"I can’t wait until the day that we can relax in the towers, like the nobles. I’m sure I’d miss all my friends in the bazaar, though,” Tarex said.
“My friends work in the bazaar, too,” Angela said. “I won’t be surprised if we all end up living the good life, someday.”
Her long, blue braid danced in the wind as the towers of Rhajim appeared on the horizon.
CHAPTER TWO: THE PREFECT'S BLUEPRINT
Tarex and Angela cruised to the edge of the city of Rhajim. They stopped at the gates and met with the city guards posted there.
“Greetings, visitors,” said the helmeted guard.
His voice was electronic and emanated from a speaker at the front of his helmet.
“What business do you have in Rhajim today?”
“We are delivering a package from the Prefect of Kul-gora to the tinker of this city,” said Angela. “My friend would have made it here sooner if he hadn’t been waylaid by some ceptors.
"The Shibuya Team helped us, but his wind rider was destroyed.”
“Very well,” answered the guard. “You may enter travelers. But don’t linger here too long. There are rival delivery teams in this territory, as I’m sure you’re aware. Be about your business and return home as quick as you can.”
“Thank you, soldier of Rhajim,” said Tarex. “We will heed your advice.”
Angela idled her wind rider into the city.
The pair of couriers beheld a bustling marketplace.
Merchants yelled over the crowd to praise their wares.
The sounds of the people mixed with bleating livestock and clucking chickens.
The riders cruised through the marketplace until they reached the tinker’s shop.
Angela turned off her vehicle and the two friends went inside.
The tinker sat behind his counter. He was a bald man who wore spectacles. He looked up at the two visitors as they activated the entrance chime.
“Hello, my name is Marc. How may I help you today?”
Tarex addressed the man.
“Are you the tinker of Rhajim?”
“Yes,” answered Marc.
“I have a data scroll for you from The Prefect of Kul-gora. It must contain important information for I was asked to deliver it across the wilderness at the greatest possible speed.”
Tarex placed the digitally sealed scroll on the counter of the tinker’s shop.
The tinker picked it up and attached a link to the plastic and metal seal. He downloaded a previously established interfacing code from his shop computer. The seal released its hold on the surrounding band and the scroll unfurled.
“As I suspected this is a blueprint for a new model of wind rider,” observed the tinker.
Marc stared at the shiny etching of the blueprint that used different colors to register as gradations and layers. These notations appeared in an holographic format to a reader wearing three-dimensional glasses. Marc pressed a button on the side of his frames, activating a red, liquid crystal display on one lens and a blue, liquid crystal display on the other.
"These plans are based on the use of refined hydrogen as fuel. Our existing models use a hydrogen-ethanol mix, as I’m sure you’re aware, Tarex.”
“Yes, Marc, but please tell me, why the urgency with a hydrogen-running model?”
“There are various regions beyond Kul-gora and Rhajim that depend on the commerce of fuel. These city-states are concerned that a transition to an hydrogen-based fuel economy will deprive their states from the much-needed exportation income.”
“How concerned are they?” asked Tarex.
“Very, Tarex. This information could start a war on multiple fronts. The proportions of such a conflict would out-stretch the ability of our humble guards to maintain the sovereignty of our borders and the safety of our cities.”
“Is there any way that the neighboring regions can assist Kul-gora and Rhajim in refining this new fuel? I’m sure that it can be extracted from potable water or sea water given proper desalination,” queried Angela.
“I agree with your analyses, Angela. Unfortunately, there is not a conference of delegates or open diplomatic discussion taking place between Kul-gora, Rhajim and the participating states such as Thal-set and Primordia.
“Such organizations are superfluous by our current elected representatives. Given proper time and coordination by lobbyists and junior diplomats I’m sure, someday, a council of city-states can be rebuilt over the ruins that remain of the tribes before the Bio-Wars.
“In a realistic perspective, however, the technology exists, as The Prefect’s diagrams illustrate, for such a hydrogen-fed wind rider to take to the skies now. The Prefect wishes for me to construct a completely hydrogen-fed engine. I will work in secrecy at the back of my shop.
“I depend on you two to keep this information to yourselves until a diplomatic contract has been authored to ensure peaceful trade between Kul-gora and the ethanol fuel producing states. None of us wish to return to the internecine conflicts that were promulgated during the Bio-Wars. Speak to no one about what you have seen here.
“Before I forget,” added Marc, “take this money card, Tarex. It holds a hundred trade units to compensate you for your lost vehicle. Be wary of the Shibuya Team for they can be formidable adversaries or loyal friends based on the actions of the travelers they observe.
“The information you delivered is quite valuable. You have my thanks. Return with Angela to Kul-gora and meet with The Prefect there. He will want to know the details of your conflict with The Shibuya Team and ceptors.”
Tarex took the money card from the tinker’s outstretched hand.
“I appreciate it, Marc,” Tarex replied. “I’m sure that The Prefect will have us return with updated scrolls in the future.”
The two couriers bade their farewell to the tinker in Rhajim.
Tarex addressed Angela from the rear seat of her wind rider.
“Take care to give a wide birth to the swamps, Angela. The safest way to Kul-gora is not as a crow flies.”
Angela heeded the advice of her friend and guided her vehicle over the open sea.
The coastline of the state of Kul-gora was jagged with tall, volcanic cliffs. The surf was powerful and met with the rocky beach in showers of spume.
The pair of riders passed over a fleet of fishing boats that were linked together by a wide net.
Tarex spotted a school of bass that flopped over the surface as they were trapped from all sides.
At last the towers and statues of the city of Kul-gora rose over the hilly horizon.
Angela turned over the beach and headed inland. As they approached the city gates the friends saw a substantial commotion at the entrance.
Tarex spoke to one of the guards from the rear position on the vehicle.
“What’s going on soldier?”
“My name is Michael. The Prefect has been killed in a most mysterious manner. A new Prefect by the name of Nichiren has filled the office on an interim basis. He left word that he wishes to speak with you both.”
“Thanks for the information, guardsman Michael,” answered Tarex. “We will hurry to The Prefect’s office at once.”
Angela was tearful from the sudden loss of her employer and friend.
“This news is as shocking to me as it must be for the citizens here in the marketplace.”
“Are you alright to keep driving, Angela?” Tarex asked.
“Sure. I’ll be fine, Tarex,” replied the blue-haired courier. “I’ll take us to The Prefect’s office. I look forward to meeting with Nichiren.”
The two riders hovered through the streets of Kul-gora. They pressed through the noisy crowds of farmers and merchants.
The city guards strove unsuccessfully to establish order in the bustling streets.
Groups of livestock and puttering motors merged in the chaos, creating a hammering din and clouds of smog.
At last the couriers reached The Prefect’s office located at the
westernmost edge of the bazaar. The compact building was surrounded by city guards.
Angela approached a tall guard who was taking statements from a gathering of concerned citizens.
“It was an out-lander in dark clothing,” described a salesman. “I saw him enter The Prefect’s office from across the street. He was a sinister-looking individual. The man carried a pair of steel daggers attached to his waist belt.
"I suspect he used those weapons to assassinate The Prefect, Hiryu. Someone with high social connections must have paid the killer to do his dirty work.”
“That remains to be proven, citizen,” answered the guard. “And what is your name?”
“Lotus, as I said before. I saw the suspect enter the office and exit a few moments later, wiping blood from his weapons before sheathing them. I am no warrior, of course, and was afraid to try to stop the man.”
Angela interrupted the sergeant and witness.
“Excuse me. I was The Prefect’s assistant. Is there any chance my friend and I can enter the office?”
“I’m sorry, Madame, but the crime scene is off limits to anyone but the homicide division. I’d like to take your statement, however. Have you noticed anything unusual regarding The Prefect’s workplace?”
“Yes, my friend and I just returned from delivering a secret document to Rhajim. I suspect that someone with a hand in the current technology that governs the city-states intended to prevent the delivery of the new schematics to the tinker there.”
A flurry of laser fire strafed the street in front of the gathering of citizens.
Everyone dove for cover behind shipments of fruit and livestock.
Other tradesmen in the vicinity scrambled for safety in the nearby buildings.
The Kul-goran guards unleashed a volley of laser fire from their weapons.
Tarex did not carry a laser because they were banned to the public. He did have a magnesium boomerang that he pulled from his travel pack. The courier scanned the rooftops of the bordering buildings from behind a shipment of melons.
The attackers fired a second barrage of laser beams at the people below.
Tarex was ready and flung his boomerang at the assailants with full strength.
The metal boomerang whirred as it spun upward at the silhouettes of the attackers standing before the afternoon sun.
A loud, clashing sound indicated that the hunting weapon struck its mark.
The city guards were quick to follow the sound of the impact and directed their lasers at the location.
Several grunts and moans wafted over the sprawling tradesmen as another group of assailants was injured by the scorching laser beams.
The guardsman who had taken Angela’s statement yelled into his com unit.
“Scramble groups two and three. Fly over us and deal with the murderous brigands!”
“I’m sorry, Madame,” said the guard. “I’ll have to take your story down later. Find a safe place until we eliminate these hooligans.”
Michael and the other guards of Kul-gora came to the aid of the soldiers at the crime scene.
“Angela, I need to retrieve my boomerang. With your permission, let me borrow your wind rider.”
“Okay, Tarex. Be careful. Meet me here when you’ve got your weapon. I’ll be taking cover in the alley.”
Tarex sat in the front seat of Angela’s vehicle. He activated the thruster and put it in gear. The engine whined as he turned into the street and rose to the level of the rooftops.
Most of the attackers had fallen under the returning fire of the Kul-goran guards. Those that remained standing became targets for Tarex and his borrowed wind rider.
The courier steered the machine at ramming speed over the roof, knocking the assassins to the street several floors below. Tarex turned the vehicle and steered to Angela’s hiding place.
“Things are getting curious,” said the young man. “Thanks again, Angela, for letting me use your wind rider. We have a burgeoning mystery on our hands, and I’ll wager that it will take much time and energy to get to the bottom of it.”
“I agree, Tarex,” answered the young, blue-haired woman.
Angela’s eyes were tearing as she confided in Tarex.
“I’m going to miss Hiryu,” she said. “He was like a father to me. My real parents were victims of the bombings in the Bio Wars. He took me in at a young age and educated me in the transactions conducted in the office of the Prefect.
"Kul-gora is a blossoming, economic metropolis and we were always with plenty of work on our hands.”
The screeching sounds of the wind riders of the city guards reverberated off the walls of the marketplace as they flew past. They had no governors on the fuel lines of their engines and could fly much faster than the average vehicle in the event of an emergency.
Tarex was surprised to see The Shibuya Team enter the small clearing at the center of the Kul-goran marketplace.
“Greetings, Tarex,” said the leader of the maverick riders. “It seems that you remain in the scope of danger despite your return to civilization.
"Can we offer you some help?”
The Asian wind rider grinned.
“Masamune, what brings you rapscallions here. You’ve already done enough damage to my wind rider. Is it possible that you intend to reimburse me for my lost investment?”
“It’s up to you, Tarex,” replied Masamune. “We have plenty of work to offer if you’re willing and brave enough to try it. Be assured that it won’t be long for you to make enough credits to buy another wind rider; one of the latest models in fact.”
“I wish I could accept, Masamune, but we have a mystery on our hands that may involve the financial future of all the cities in this region.”
“Let me guess, individuals beside us are interested in that tantalizing scroll you were carrying earlier today. Perhaps if you let us onto your situation, we can be a greater help to you and your girlfriend.
"She seems pretty upset.”
“Speak for yourself, Masamune,” said Angela. “I’m determined to find the culprits that killed Hiryu. Crime never pays in the long run.”
“We are willing to assist you by whatever means possible,” offered Masamune. “Hiryu was a great help to us over the years. He aided us in the fabrication of our armor suits. His knowledge of technology was advanced in comparison to the devices employed in the other cities.
"Accept the apology of The Shibuya Team for the untimely destruction of your wind rider. We realize now that our interests are in tune with yours and merit an alliance of sorts.”
“Thank you, Masamune,” said Tarex. “Your apology is accepted. If you care to assist us let us look casually for the assassins that succeeded in slaying The Prefect and attempted to do so to us as well.”
The wind riders shook hands in agreement to unite their efforts. They parted ways after establishing a rendezvous point in the bazaar at twilight.
Tarex found a mechanic who was willing to sell a rebuilt wind rider at a marginal price. He filled the fuel tank with ethanol and accompanied Angela as she flew her own machine.
They stopped at Patalon’s shop. The smith had taken care of Tarex from a young age. The wind rider’s parents had both been slain in the Bio-Wars soon after his birth. The husky engineer taught the young man to repair the variety of machines and vehicles that were used in various tasks throughout Kul-gora.
“Greetings, Patalon!” Tarex intoned. “I have returned with company.”
The middle-aged smith looked up over his bifocal glasses.
“Ah, Tarex! It’s good to see you. How go things in the bazaar? I’ve heard troubling rumors today. I hoped that you were not involved.”
“Unfortunately, I was, Patalon. Such was the case for my friend, Angela, also.”
The Prefect’s assistant shook hands with Tarex’s caretaker. She briefed the smith as to the recent events in Kul-gora.
“I helped the Prefect, Hiryu, in his shop on the other side of the city. Like you he also dabbled in experimental technology and instrumentation.
"Somehow his work, involving an alternate fuel source for wind riders and other vehicles, caused an upset among the circles of trade that exist between the neighboring cities.”
“That doesn’t surprise me, young lady,” Patalon replied. “I have also heard of research involving hydrogen and electric propulsion systems. In many ways, the fuel we use is as much a means of economic transaction as the money cards we carry.
"The oil miners in the flat lands keep a keen eye on the progression of business in the various cities. If there is to be a change in the fuel economy among the developed settlements, they will certainly oppose such an event.
"I urge you two to be careful. There is blood on the streets in relation to this issue. Conduct your investigations with caution.”
“I agree, Patalon,” Tarex replied. “We will remain cautious and will share this advice with our newfound friends in The Shibuya Team.
"You also should be wary in your business, Pat. There seems to be a campaign in effect against engineers and tinkers such as you and the Prefect. Be careful of strange visitors and suspicious individuals.”
“Don’t worry about me, young people,” said Patalon. “I can defend myself if the situation arises.”
The smith reached under the counter-top of his shop and brandished a gleaming bolt thrower. The device was loaded with a strip of tranquilizer darts.
“You two go about your business without me. New travels fast in the bazaar. I’m sure that if you catch a lead regarding the Prefect’s assassins, I’ll be quick to hear of it.”
The wind riders took their leave of Patalon and guided their vehicles at a safe speed over the tents and booths of the sprawling marketplace.
“Angela, I wonder if the tinker in Rhajim has knowledge of Hiryu’s demise. It would be a good idea to contact him on your com unit.”
“I concur, Tarex,” answered the blue-haired rider.
She activated the communication device embedded in her helmet and established a connection with the tinker’s shop.
“This is Marc. How may I help you?” said the tinker.
“Hello, Marc. This is Angela, The Prefect’s assistant,” responded
Angela. “We’re calling to let you know that The Prefect in Kul-gora has been assassinated.”
“That’s terrible news, Angela. When did it happen?”
“Earlier today. Tarex and I found out upon our arrival here.
"We too were attacked by unknown snipers but managed to eliminate them. It seems that a mysterious faction of individuals is intent on stopping the construction of new wind riders based on Hiryu’s blueprints. Be careful, for I suspect there are more people involved in this prohibitive undertaking than have yet emerged.”
“I will put some security measures into effect here. Thanks for the warning, Angela. I’ll shift my work on the blueprints you brought to the back burner. Things have been hectic among the cities in the years since The Bio-Wars. Tell Tarex, your wind rider friend, to remain cautious as well.”
“I will, Marc,” answered Angela. “We will confer with you again soon.”
Angela disconnected the com link and gestured to Tarex who hovered nearby on his idling vehicle. Twilight was beginning to fall, and the two friends set forth to the rendezvous point designated in the bazaar. They accelerated to cruising velocity and soon neared the waiting group of riders of The Shibuya Team.
Masamune waved his hand in greeting as the two wind riders decelerated and lowered their vehicles to ground level.
The other members of the team turned their helmets in the direction of the new arrivals.
Tarex activated the broadband feature of his communication device and addressed the entirety of the group.
“Thank you all for waiting here, today. The time is ripe for us to put our differences behind us and focus on the tasks at hand. I regret that all our resources will be put to the test in these troublesome times. Let us travel to the office of the new Prefect, Nichiren, and ask him what he may know about the assassination of the previous office holder.”
“That is a good idea,” responded Masamune. “There is clearly more than what meets the eye in this dark time. The Shibuya Team will follow your lead. In this situation, the new Prefect is bound to be apprehensive.
"We spoke with the city guards of Kul-gora while you were away. They said that armed soldiers now surround The Prefect’s office and that no one can enter without official business.”
“Well, our business is as official as it comes, Masamune,” said Angela. “We must get in to see him for the sake of the secured future of all our cities. Let us venture there and assert ourselves to be allowed access.”
The group of couriers and mercenaries shifted their wind riders into high gear and guided their machines across the purple and red-striped sunset.
As the stars emerged in the night sky the tall, alabaster structure of The Prefect’s office rose over the border of the marketplace and the civic headquarters.
The chamber of The Prefect was at the top of the buttressed tower. A sizable landing pad was affixed to the building and had enough space for all to land.
Several wind riders, colored red and green indicated the presence of the guards that Masamune mentioned.
A pair of tall, armed soldiers stepped out of the doorway of Nichiren’s office and approached the group of wind riders on the landing platform.
“What business do you have with The Prefect? This is a secured area.”
“My name is Angela,” said the female wind rider. “I was Hiryu’s assistant. We have information regarding a motive that may have driven the killer and potential accomplices to do away with the late Prefect. His replacement may be interested in hearing what we have to say.”
“Very well,” answered the guard. “You may enter after we conduct a weapons scan.”
The Kul-goran soldier held a metal-detecting wand that he used to scan Tarex and Angela. As it scanned close to Tarex’s travel pack it beeped.
“That must be my boomerang,” said Tarex.
The wind rider opened his pack and handed his magnesium weapon to the guard.
“May I pick this up on the way out? It’s an authorized model.”
“Yes, you may. We’ll hold on to it for safe keeping until that time. You may enter the office, now.”
The pair of friends strode past the guards and entered Nichiren’s lab.
The new Prefect was a husky man of Japanese descent who looked up at the arriving visitors over a pair of bifocal spectacles.
“Welcome, young people. How may I help you?” the Prefect offered.
“My name is Angela,” said the blue-haired, young woman. “My
acquaintance here is Tarex. We thought we should speak with you.
"My previous employer was Hiryu. I have information that may provide focus on the reason for his untimely demise.”
“Please, enlighten me,” the middle-aged man replied.
“We just got back to Kul-gora after delivering a sealed blueprint to the tinker in Rhajim,” said Tarex. “It was an assembly plan for a new type of wind rider, one fueled by hydrogen.”
“I see,” answered Nichiren. “Perhaps I should speak with the tinker in Rhajim personally. Such a device would surely stir up controversy among the representatives of the various cities in this region. Do you know how close this model was to completion?”
“As far as we know the assembly was in its early stages if at all. If such a device were perfected the demand would be large indeed. Everyone is looking for a cheaper way to travel and generate power,” Tarex declared.
The wind rider gazed out the window of The Prefect’s office as he
contemplated the ramifications of the burgeoning technology.
“I’ve heard of other alternative energy sources in the bazaar of Kul-gora. There has been talk of more fruitful harnessing of solar power along with steam compression and fuel oil taken from crops rather than underground.”
“I’ve heard of such methods, too,” Angela offered. “I frequently listened to Hiryu speak in hushed tones with visiting engineers about potential changes to the existing fuel economy of the cities of this region. If something constructive can be done in honor of the late Prefect’s legacy, it would be to consult with supportive engineers and bring his vision to fulfillment.”
“I take your recommendations seriously,” said Nichiren. “We should meet on this issue again in a few days. I will need some time to consult with other Kul-goran engineers and contrive a device that meets the parameters of the blueprint in question. I’m sure that once I speak with Marc in Rhajim he will be willing to send me a copy of my predecessor’s design.”
“Very well, Nichiren,” answered Tarex. “In the meantime, Angela and I will meet with Patalon, my mentor. He may have a closer degree of contact with the rumors that pass perpetually through the bazaar and marketplace here. I wouldn’t be surprised if he knows of opponents to the changes in the fuel market.
"We will report back in a couple of days. I hope that you will have received a copy of the blueprint by that time.”
The pair of young wind riders waved goodbye to the guards posted outside of the Kul-goran Prefect’s office.
Tarex made sure to retrieve his magnesium boomerang from the soldiers before mounting his machine and steering for the marketplace.
The friends enjoyed the breeze. It provided a soothing respite from the dust and heat of the ground level.
The sun was setting and formed a wavering, orange spheroid behind the spindly, alabaster towers of the technocrats.
Tarex was reluctant to consider the possibility that some of the
supposed public representatives in the towers nearby may have asserted their influence upon assassins and rogues to do away with the previous Prefect.
Tarex and Angela decelerated as they approached the bazaar. The adept pilots negotiated between the palm groves and fountains that lined the marketplace.
Several merchants and food sellers waved at the passing youths as they flew by.
The air was full of the scent of axle grease and cooking meat.
Children intertwined around the gangly legs of llamas and camels to catch samples of sweet meats and roast nuts.
Patalon looked up from his soldering iron as Tarex and Angela shut down their wind riders at the front of his booth.
“Tarex, it’s good to see you! How go things in the wind riding business?”
“Not so well, Pat,” answered the versatile engineer’s onetime
apprentice. “There is trouble in the air. I was sent on a mission to deliver a blueprint to the tinker in Rhajim. On the way, I fell victim to the ceptors only to be rescued by The Shibuya Team. In the process, they damaged my old wind rider beyond repair. I don’t know if you’ve heard of them. They have since volunteered their assistance to our cause.
“I succeeded in making the delivery,” Tarex continued, “and was
reimbursed by Marc, the tinker there.
"Angela was an invaluable help and followed me most of the way. She was saddened to hear of the untimely demise of her employer.
"We took the initiative and met with the new Prefect, Nichiren. He said that he would request a copy of the blueprint that we suspect was the motive for the termination of his predecessor.
"We also have made amends with The Shibuya Team. They wait outside to ride with us as I speak.
“Patalon, have you heard anything about technocrats that are
determined to support the existing fuel economy?” asked Tarex.
“Whoever was responsible for the Prefect’s undoing must have powerful friends in the senate. The plans in question were based on the concept of an hydrogen-fueled wind rider rather than the ethanol-hydrogen combination we use today.”
“Hydrogen…hmm. That is interesting,” said Patalon. “I’ve heard of such concepts before, but the ideas were theoretical at most. Like me most of the engineers in and around Kul-gora have their hands full with the repair needs of the merchants and soldiers. There has been little time for research and experimentation with whimsical models and esoteric fuel sources. Between you two and me I wouldn’t be surprised if the economy does in fact switch to hydrogen in the distant future. Based on the information you’ve given me someone with power and supporters decided to nip this plan in the bud.
"We must be careful, for it will be unlikely for such conniving individuals to be easily apprehended. There are sinister people afoot and all of us must take great care on the streets and in the skies.”
“You speak sound advice, Patalon,” said Tarex. “It is good to have you as a confidante. We will investigate the scene carefully.
"The Shibuya Team has also agreed to assist us. Allow us to conduct reconnaissance of the area and get back to you in a couple of days. I’m sure that you will find the blueprints in question to be engaging once you get a copy.”
“Thank you, young man,” replied Patalon. “You parents would be proud of you. I look forward to our next meeting. Take care when you venture into the public arena. None of us know what aids of the technocracy may be lurking around the area.”
The middle-aged engineer shook hands with the two adventurers, and they exited the shop. Before they drove toward the rendezvous point with Masamune’s team they paused at a fuel station to fill their tanks with ethanol.
Tarex and Angela flew to the base of the towers and the prearranged location of The Shibuya Team.
Tetsuo and Ayako were there and signaled the wind riders to land.
“Welcome, friends,” said Ayako. “We are glad that you decided to meet with us. It would have been a shame if you had second thoughts after the accident with your old vehicle.
"Masamune and the rest of us sincerely care for your best interests. I hope you understand.”
“I do, Ayako,” Tarex answered. “I’m going to miss my old wind rider but appreciate your team rescuing me from the spawning field of the ceptors. We have our work cut out for us. I’m glad to have your extra numbers available to conduct reconnaissance in the mystery of the assassinated Prefect.
"My old engineer mentor, Patalon, suggested that some factions of the technocrats in the Kul-goran senate may be responsible for Hiryu’s untimely death. What do you riders think about this possibility?”
“It makes sense to me,” a voice said over the com units of everyone present.
Masamune and the rest of The Shibuya Team decelerated and glided to a stop by Tarex and Angela.
“I must confess that I’m surprised to find you two here,” said the
Japanese leader of the team of wind riders. “I figured you riders would have high-tailed it out of town by now. You appear to have more resolve than we previously surmised.”
“It seems that if you folks wanted to dispose of me you could have done so long ago,” Tarex replied. “The wilderness alone is a hostile adversary. You riders have survived it well enough. We can use your numbers to get to the bottom of this dilemma.”
“I, too, am driven to find the identity of the killers at large,” said Angela. “Hiryu was like a father to me and I will miss him. Whoever is responsible for the foul deed must be brought to justice.”
“Let us travel beyond the city walls, my friends,” said Masamune.
“There are watchful eyes in this bustling metropolis, and it will do us well to discuss these issues in greater depth beyond the range of whatever scanners and eavesdropping devices that may be targeting us here.”
The leader of The Shibuya Team ignited his wind rider and gestured for his companions to follow suit. The motley group of friends mounted their vehicles and took to the air. They guided their wind riders up and over the city walls of Kul-gora.
Masamune led the group south, along the coastline.
The landscape on the way to Rhajim was varied in its terrain and foliage.
The group of couriers continued to remain on the lookout for the infamous ceptors, despite taking care to avoid their spawning grounds.
Other creatures that had mutated since the close of the Bio-Wars also had a reputation for predating wind riders as they passed through their respective foraging and hunting areas.
One species of hunting creature in the region was the chopterix. It was a winged reptile with sharp teeth and claws that pulled fish from the surface of the sea and small mammals from their habitats on the ground with equal facility.
Tarex and Angela were wise to the predatory instincts of the chopteri as were the members of The Shibuya Team.
Just as the travelers had become satisfied that they would not be
intercepted by any of the mutant animals the radar scanners on the various helmets of the pilots beeped a proximity warning.
Masamune signaled his companions to swerve over the sea.
Angela and Tarex arced in a similar curve and caught a glimpse of a flock of chopteri that rose on the warm air thermals to come within striking range of the wind riders.
Tetsuo and Ayako fired their lasers and winged a few the creatures but several more of them continued to rise in pursuit of the ethanol-burning vehicles.
One of the airborne reptiles drifted into Tarex’s path. The young man had just enough time to bring out his boomerang and hurl it forward before he was bowled over by the screeching creature.
Angela maneuvered her own wind rider behind those of The Shibuya Team.
“I envy your weapons, Masamune. Perhaps you can help us to install similar lasers on Tarex’s and my vehicles. I’m sure the structural regulations can be put on hold considering the trouble that is brewing about The Prefect’s blueprint.”
“No problem, Angela,” said Masamune. “We will set you up right once in Rhajim. We know of several mechanics that will gladly enhance the defensive capabilities of your wind rider.”
Tetsuo and Ayako circled around in a precarious arc. They targeted the widening flock of chopteri and fired their weapons from scanner lock.
Three of the mutant creatures were struck by the shots of the wind riders and were scattered into spiraling tufts of feathers and reptile flesh.
The pair of wind riders turned their vehicles once more and accelerated to meet up with the others.
The chopteri did not attempt to hinder the party of couriers again.
After less than an hour in the air the spindly communication antennae and towers of Rhajim sparkled in the afternoon sunlight.
The group of newfound friends lowered their vehicles to cruising altitude and decelerated.
Tarex and Angela noticed farmers and fishers who looked up and waved at the sound of their roaring jets.
Angela waved in greeting to the workers below.
A group of guards stood before the city gates. They gestured for the band of wind riders to stop their vehicles.
“Hello, wind riders. My name is Ian. Do you have identification cards for us?”
“Certainly,” said Angela.
She and the other pilots drew their identification cards from their travel packs and displayed them for the guards. They scanned the magnetic strip on each of the cards and waited for a beep that confirmed their identification data was up to date.
“Thank you, wind riders,” declared Ian. “You are free to enter.”
The tall, helmeted guard gestured with a remote control and entered a code that caused the hydraulic servos embedded in the steel surfaces of the gates to protract and open.
The interior of the city of Rhajim was much the same as that of Kul-gora. The marketplace was equally busy. It was crowded with merchants, peddlers and storytellers who catered to the various needs of the citizens of Rhajim.
A unique feature of the city was the fondness of the people for
accordions. They were ancient instruments but still enjoyed popularity in the northern city.
Many citizens had formed makeshift circles around musicians who played their accordions and fiddles in various styles from Polka to Zydeco.
Tarex, Angela and The Shibuya Team took a moment to listen to the musicians. The tunes were rhythmic and engrossing. Many of the residents of Rhajim clapped their hands and tapped their feet in time with the syncopated serenades.
Each of the accordion players had placed hats at their feet and members of the audience dropped money cards and plastic coins therein.
“We must move on, my friends,” said Masamune. “This is fine music, but we must survey the area for suspicious activity. None of us know whether the assassins of The Prefect will attempt their crime again with Nichiren or any of the many engineers and hardware manufacturers in our cities of origin.”
“I concur, Masamune,” said Tarex. “We should take to the air once more and observe the movements of the businessmen and women from above.”
Angela and The Shibuya Team followed the recommendation of Tarex and thrust their wind riders into cruising speed. The group flew for a short while when they noticed a trio of sinister-looking wind riders in flight around the shop of Marc, the tinker.
The individuals in question wore dark, plastic armor and cloaks that billowed in the arid, desert wind. Their faces were hidden by their helmets, preventing any would-be observers from determining their age or gender.
The trio of suspicious wind riders turned their heads in unison. They gazed at the group of wind riders through silver-tinted visors. Once they realized they were being pursued by the young wind riders they thrust their aircraft into high gear.
One of the dark riders addressed the ethnically diverse group of pilots.
“Do not pursue us, wind riders. We act on the behalf of the senate of nation-states. We are armed and will defend ourselves if necessary.”
“Some group of evildoers has been waging a campaign against the technological development of the propulsion systems used by the working people. That wouldn’t happen to be you folks?” asked Masamune.
“Yes, it is us. Many of our comrades-in-arms have been destroyed for their work on the behalf of members of the technocracy. Don’t interfere with our objectives lest you face the brunt of our superior laser arrays.”
“Speak for yourself, dark rider,” replied Masamune. “Our vehicles are also armed and represent the cutting edge of portable weapon technology.
"Your supporters in the technocracy will be exposed and defeated. Progress, both cultural and industrial, is an ongoing development of our people and will not be delayed or halted by violence or devious conspiracy.”
The mysterious riders split up over the towers and antennae of the city of Rhajim. They turned and locked their weapons arrays on Tarex’s group. They fired heat-seeking missiles and flurries of laser fire from their modified wind riders.
The group of couriers responded to the detected radar locks on
their helmets’ displays. They took evasive action and managed to destroy many of the missiles with their own laser cannons.
The groups of wind riders entered a dogfight at high altitude. They spiraled and rolled for position in the cloudy sky.
Masamune and The Shibuya Team were adept pilots and easily compromised the dark riders’ angles of attack. Numbers of heat-seeking missiles and streams of laser fire spiraled in the afternoon light.
Masamune and Tetsuo used their lasers to disable one of the dark riders.
The renegade pilot was forced to decelerate and land on the
The other two, mysterious riders were not so easily disabled. They evaded and arced their airborne vehicles with dexterity equal to that of the couriers.
Tarex and his friends overheard the communication of the would-be assassins.
“We must retreat from these intrusive riders, my friend. Our companion has already been forced to the ground.”
The black-cloaked maverick riders accelerated their wind riders into high speed. They blew past Tarex and Masamune and headed for the tallest tower in the metropolitan zone of Rhajim.
“Let us pursue these brigands,” declared Tarex. “They appear to be seeking sanctuary in the tower of the technocrats.”
“I agree, my diligent friend,” answered Angela.
“Shibuya Team, we must press on and determine the sponsor of our hostile adversaries,” said Masamune.
The couriers followed the request of their leader and joined with Tarex and Angela in following their adversaries. They flew upward toward the skyline of the post-apocalyptic city.
Their wailing engines left trails of water vapor in the atmosphere as they pierced several groups of smoggy clouds.
The dark riders were fast, and the gathering of friends shifted their vehicles into overdrive.
Tarex and Angela felt their engines rumble with the strain of the energy boost to their wind riders. They gripped the handlebars of their machines tightly and succeeded in growing closer to the renegades.
“These brigands are headed for the tower of the technocrats, my
companions,” Masamune declared. “We must intercept them before they enter the secured structure.”
Tarex drew his magnesium boomerang from his travel pack as his opponents signaled for a secured garage door to open and allow them entrance.
The suspicious individuals thrust their vehicles under the still opening door and directed it to close.
The onetime student of Patalon hurled his boomerang ahead of the pursuing group.
The metallic weapon spiraled into the technocrat’s garage and disabled the device controlling the door.
The dark riders realized they were in jeopardy of being cornered by The Shibuya Team. They fired a volley of blasts from their laser cannons at the following riders.
The attack was expected, and the pursuers evaded the beams of ruby light.
At last Tarex and his friends neared the technocrat’s docking platform.
The base of metal was emblazoned with the symbol of Brutus, one of the key members of the senate of the technocrats.
The riders landed hard on the platform and skidded awkwardly under the jammed door. They entered a fierce melee with the dark riders who exercised an adapted form of martial arts. They intended to deter the wind riders long enough to conduct an escape into the secured halls of the technocracy.
Tarex retrieved his boomerang and hurled it again at the pair of
brigands. They were knocked unconscious.
The gathering of riders surrounded the mysterious individuals and removed their silver-marked helmets. They were surprisingly young assassins, not much older than Tarex and Angela.
“We represent people interested in the safety of our cities. Who are you and what drives you brigands to interfere with the development of existing technologies?”
“We are Brute Force. Upon the request of Senator Brutus our group has acted to discontinue the propagation of new technologies threatening the economic balance that exists between the city-states.”
“Are you sure that your actions benefit the development of more
economical and environmentally conscious transportation?” asked Tarex.
“Yes, the smog that surrounds the various cities is but a minor side effect of the combustion of oil-based fuels. Now is not the time to change the engines to a hydrogen system.”
“What if your group is mistaken?” Angela queried. “No technology is meant to last forever. Even so it is not moral to assassinate those with whom you have a difference of opinion. Violence is not a salient method to express yourselves.”
“We act at the behest of Senator Brutus. If you disagree with his agenda, you should communicate with him directly. Brute Force is just following orders.”
“Despite the senator’s intentions you are individually responsible for the murder of the Prefect in Kul-gora and the assaults on the city guards,” Masamune interjected.
“If you are not brought to justice by the city guards you will still be held to an ultimatum by we united wind riders. Discontinue your attacks or answer to us. We too are armed and ready to support the free market system established since The Bio-Wars.”
“So be it, wind riders. If we must continue to fight in the skies above our respective cities then that is what we will do,” replied a dark-cloaked rider. “My name is Ixus. I am the leader of Brute Force and will not heed your ultimatum. Our cause is just, and we are willing to engage in combat to protect the continuance of the agenda of Senator Brutus.”
“Very well, Ixus,” replied Tarex. “Consider yourselves under citizen’s arrest. I am contacting the city guards.”
Tarex used the com unit embedded in his helmet to summon the guards of the city-state.
The dispatcher informed him that officers were on the way to his location.
In a matter of minutes, the guards arrived on the scene and took the testimony of Tarex, Angela and The Shibuya Team. They agreed with their assessment of the situation and placed the two, would-be assassins in a paddy wagon that hovered behind their wind riders.
“Thank you all for the tip,” declared a guard. “We have been looking for these malevolent fellows for some time now. At last we know which of the senators in the technocracy is responsible for the recent violence and assassination. Keep your eyes open in the skies above for there are bound to be more supporters of Senator Brutus’ cause that have yet avoided apprehension by the authorities.”
“I agree,” said Tarex. “Angela and I, along with Masamune’s Shibuya Team, will remain on the lookout for suspicious individuals. If things go well The Prefect’s blueprint may yet be brought to fruition. We bid you farewell for now.”
“Thanks, Tarex,” replied the guard. “Keep in touch with us if you run into any more brigands.
"Alas, we may not be able to hold these representatives of Brutus in custody for very long. The senator is powerful and holds many connections within the judicial and penal system. It is unfortunate that we may be forced to arrest the same riders again if they maintain their agenda of sabotage.”
“In the memory of my deceased employer and Tarex’s engineer mentor we’ll remain on the lookout for any would-be assassins,” Angela declared.
“Given sufficient time to work, Nichiren in Kul-gora and Marc in Rhajim may yet realize the blueprint of the past Prefect. It is what my supervisor would have wanted.”
The gathering of wind riders bade farewell to the guards and took to the skies once more.
“It seems we still have our work cut out for us, my friends,” said
Masamune. “We will assist you if we can. Stay alert and contact us if need be. We have decided to return to the wilderness and contend with the hostile, mutant creatures that thrive in and out of the swamps.
"We bid you farewell.”
The sizable group of wind riders divided their numbers as they went their separate ways.
Tarex spoke to Angela as they headed to Patalon’s booth in the bazaar of Kul-gora.
“Let us speak with my teacher and inform him of the events that have occurred here. He will be thankful to know that it is Senator Brutus who ordered the killing of Hiryu.
"These times after the Bio-Wars continue to be tense. It will be wise for us to remain cautious and communicate with The Shibuya Team upon their return from their hunt of the hostile mutants.”
“I agree, Tarex,” replied Angela. “Let us be on our way.”
The two wind riders flew to the south and soon approached the dusty marketplace and bazaar of Kul-gora.
The merchants and businessmen continued their work despite the recent events. They were determined to make sales and repairs for the customers that sought them.
Scratch sat at his massive throne within the Nether Realm. The countless souls in agony writhed in arcane spirals around his mountainous legs. The hulking entity reached into the pit dug around his lair. He clutched a handful of his minions and laughed as he watched them squirm in subservience. The immortal closed his fist and gobbled their energy in a single swallow.
A knell rang out across the near black horizon.
It caught the attention of the Ruler of The Below for such a bargaining protocol had not struck the Underworld for millennia. His white eyes, devoid of irises, shone arcane light, focusing on the source of the interruption.
The horned entity bellowed across the pit.
“What disturbs my plunder, here? I am The Beast to be reckoned with in this place.”
“It is I, Longtooth.”
“Ah, Longtooth. I remember you. Didn’t I have you banished for draining the energy of my yield? This is my feast and that of none other.”
“Perhaps we can arrive at a bargain, Scratch. I represent entities from the perimeter of your pit…”
“I have no interest in bargains, Longtooth. You were a power-monger before and continue to present yourself as such. Remove yourself from my presence. I care not for this conversation.”
“It is you who shall be removed, Scratch. Our spokesman was serious. Now we will take the necessary action to embody a new economy of power in this Realm.”
The pit was smitten by a violent rumbling. Smaller abysses collapsed in on themselves, crushing the damned that wailed within.
From the outer limits of The Void appeared Titans that were twice the height and girth of the Administrator of Suffering. The horned figures carried giant weapons ranging from scythes to tridents. They scooped and skewered those that attempted to flee the quake only to devour them in their gargantuan maws.
The Titans exuded red light from cracks and crevasses in their skin, revealing the inner fire that they had acquired in a slow stream over centuries.
Scratch rose from his throne and approached the invaders.
A cataclysmic battle ensued.
The Fallen Angel fought ruthlessly, clawing, and bludgeoning his opponents with profound force.
The Titans were prepared for Scratch’s resistance. They hacked and slashed at him with their arcane weapons.
Scratch was struck deep gashes in his chest and limbs. His left forearm was severed entirely. As he knelt to reclaim it, he was run through at multiple locations. The Demigod was outnumbered and outmatched.
The Titans impaled him on their weapons and carried him to the edge of the pit. Once he was in position, they hurled him over the edge.
The body of the onetime ruler of the Nether Realm bounced and ricocheted off the edge of the pit leaving a trail of escaping fire until he descended beyond sight.
Longtooth and the Titans turned from the edge of The Void. They set themselves to the work of draining the essences of the Fallen Souls.
* * * * *
Jack Nightingale was a solitary man. His only close friends were a bottle of Captain Morgan rum and the pack of cigarettes he kept in the pocket of his leather overcoat.
Leather was the couture du jour along the Sunset and Melrose strips in downtown Los Angeles.
When the sunset finished and the moon shone brightly the center of the coastal metropolis was veritably invaded by punked-out freaks with spiked hair and body piercings, leather wearing Goths and tattooed weirdos on motorcycles. Most of them were just kids looking for a good time to break the monotony of school and work.
Charlie, the owner of the Deja Vu nightclub, joked at Jack’s appearance and so-called profession.
“You call yourself a Hunter. But you hunt what? Pink elephants in a drunken stupor I say.”
The burly proprietor of the club was a gentle and reserved fellow. He wore a gray sweater and blue suspenders over his worn jeans. Charlie wiped down the counter with his meaty hands and berated the aspiring Occultist through his trimmed, salt and pepper beard.
“I can use your business, Jack, but you’ve got to cut down on the sauce. One of these nights the cops are going to find you shriveled and as dehydrated as a sack of raisins. You’re killing yourself, man. And I don’t want to be charged as an accessory to suicide.”
“Thanks, Charlie. I knew I could count on you for moral support. If you don’t believe in the hunt, tell me why you keep that Kreskin’s Crystal under your counter?
“Oh, that,” Charlie replied. “It’s just for nostalgic purposes. It helps me remember when you were sober. Where are you off to, tonight? You’re going to The Ward, aren’t you?”
“What if I am, Charlie? Don’t I have the right to travel where I please anymore? You’re not my mother.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. I take it things on the street are getting hot.”
“That’s an understatement, Chuck. The night scene is roiling with out-worlders and would-be poltergeists. Arcane forces are building in the summer heat of our city. I must find their source and countermand them before L.A. is smitten by some power-hungry Demigod on the rampage.”
“Well, do what you must, my friend,” the bartender replied. “Just be careful and watch your back. This city can be a shadowy and dangerous place for those who pry into secrets that are intended to be kept as such.
“Don’t forget about the Consortium, either. The cybernetic program feeds economies around the world and the cyborgs are known to take the law into their own hands.”
“I agree with your analysis, Charlie. Despite the risks involved something must be done to disperse the shadowy vibrations that have emanated around the city of late. I’ll investigate things and do what I can. I must be on my way. I’ll see you later.”
Jack slid his money card through the receiver at the end of the counter and typed in a generous tip for Charlie.
“I’ll return within the week if all goes well. If not, I’ll see you in Hell.”
“Perhaps you already do,” answered Charlie. “May The Fates be with you.”
Jack Nightingale exited the Deja Vu nightclub and mounted his late model Harley Davidson motorcycle. He donned a helmet and kick-started the engine.
The moon shone brightly through the cloudy marine layer of the L.A. night sky.
La luna del cacciatore his Italian cousin called it. It was the hunter’s moon.
Jack was far from alone on the street. Other bikers and drivers of late model cars stared at him as he rumbled by at high speed.
Nightingale was not prescient, but he was an Occultist.
Demi-humans and Denizens of the Undead disguised their preternatural states from the general population.
Jack was not fooled by the ruse of the darker half of the drivers and passengers on the nighttime freeway.
Vampires manifested red outlines in the milieu, while zombies and orcs bore auras colored blue and green respectively. These nocturnal predators wore loose-fitting clothing and heavy makeup to hide their pallid and bony appearances.
None of the spawn of the night desired detection and exposure to the general populace.
Similar in disposition to the night feeders and dwellers were the androids and cyborgs generated by the Consortium.
In the Twentieth Century Detroit and its neighboring cities became renowned for their fabrication of varieties of automobiles. In the Twenty-First Century Los Angeles became a bastion of dark things and ruminating secrets.
People were afraid to group in large numbers even if unable to put their fear into their conscious minds.
It didn’t bother Jack much. He liked living on the edge.
Nightingale shifted his Harley into high gear and sped between two buses bearing a variety of masked and painted freaks. The passengers screamed a cluster of epithets as Jack gripped the throttle. He headed toward the horizon.
The street reflectors burned with the light of his motorbike. The signs led the way, and he was soon to reach the exit for the Los Angeles Psychiatric Ward or The Ward as it was casually referred to.
The Ward was where insanity and prophecy intermingled freely and without restriction.
Miles before Jack arrived at the turnout, he sensed the auras of the mad and semi-delusional.
Among the flickering life lights of the institutionalized were moments of clarity and repose. These illuminations seemed to fall behind a defensive wall as his Harley rumbled into earshot.
The Ward was a wellspring for medical experimentation as doctors and pharmacists struggled to keep their patients tranquil among spiraling waves of abnormal brain activity.
The oligarchy of the Consortium sent the latest medications and sedatives to aid the process of healing the sick.
Cyborgs and androids programmed to assist the medical staff stepped in when patients attempted to gain freedom without clearance by the staff of doctors.
Insulin-induced seizures and schedules that included electroshock therapy still lingered in the psychiatric community as tools to fight suicidal depression and schizophrenia.
Upon his approach to the security kiosk Jack showed his Consortium-approved certification as an Occultist.
The guards let him through the gate topped with barbed wire.
The moon shone brightly through the passing clouds of the late, night sky.
It was nearing midnight when Jack rumbled to a stop at the central parking lot and turned the kill switch on his Harley.
Dr. Green rose from his desk at the main entrance to The Ward. He wore horn-rimmed glasses and held an electronic clipboard. He approached Nightingale and shook his hand.
“Ah, Jack, it’s good to see you. What vibrations have you detected in the world of the streetwalkers?”
“Too many, I’m afraid, Doctor. There is an unnamed evil gathering within the crossroads and highways of greater Los Angeles. I’ve come to speak with The Traveler. I must know what’s happening in the Nether Realms.”
Jack took off his leather trench coat and set it on the back of Dr. Green’s chair.
A large, hulking guard entered the small room. His nametag said ‘Butcher.’
“We had to move The Traveler to a more secluded cell. Things are getting hairy in gen-pop.”
Sounds that the Occultist thought to be ventilation equipment in the next room acquired an eerie, complex bass beat. It much reminded Jack of the stomping and chanting of the tens of thousands of sports-crazed fans that echoed around stadiums during home games.
Nightingale and Officer Butcher followed the lead of Dr. Green through the security office and a series of barred steel gates and surveillance cameras.
Padded cells lined the right side of the passage ahead. Each chamber was sealed in turn by a padded door with an observation window at shoulder height.
The stomping sounds grew louder as the trio of men neared the doors of the cells.
Jack glanced through several of the observation portals as he followed the lead of Officer Butcher and Dr. Green.
Supine patients struck their heels and palms against the floor and walls in a staccato rhythm. This was the source of the piercing bass sounds. Many of the patients screamed and moaned at the passersby.
“Release…Please release me!” chanted one resident.
“Yes…let us go! Our Master approaches!” cried another.
“I don’t think they’re referring to you, Dr. Green,” Jack said.
“I agree, Nightingale,” answered the Doctor. “This last week The Ward has been on edge with the emergence of magnified, arcane energy. Some entity or group of geists is building power within our city.
“I advise you to be careful when interviewing The Traveler, Nightingale. He is a source of information but will assert himself to find leverage to escape these walls. Don’t make any deals with him. He generates enough trouble with the orderlies and staff here.”
At last, the trio reached the cell of The Traveler. The man had been institutionalized for attempting suicide years before.
His cell, although padded contained a small desk, an easel and art supplies. A scuffed violin and bow stood on a stand in the corner. Strangely the carpet was lifted and rolled into a corner of the room. A pentagram, rendered in red paint, had been recently applied to the floor. The interconnected star figure gleamed in the light. It was not yet fully dried.
“Greetings, Traveler,” said Dr. Green.
“How are things going, Buddy,” added Officer Butcher.
“Hello, my friends,” replied the middle-aged prescient. “Is that you, Jack? I haven’t seen you for a while. Something is afoot. Yes?”
“Traveler, preternatural auras have flared to a state I’ve never seen. Who or what the source of this energy may be, it can’t be good for the people of L.A. or the world, for that matter.”
The patient of The Ward looked at the men with an amused expression. His file, hanging on the wall next to the large, protective glass window indicated that his age was unknown.
The Traveler was shirtless, and his arms and torso rippled with toned muscle. He clearly followed a regimen of push-ups and sit-ups on a regular basis. The Traveler’s eyes were a dark blue and his hair was tinted to conceal any gray.
The Traveler stared at the three visitors and chuckled. His face was moderately wrinkled, and his eyebrows arched with ire.
“It’s Scratch. He’s got you all grasping at straws.”
“Now hold on a minute,” said Officer Butcher. “I thought the rules said that out-worlders can’t cross over into ours.”
“Except for the expunged and weakened ones, forced to search for power in this realm in a spectral state. Isn’t that correct, Jack?” asked Dr. Green.
“That was the status quo, until now,” replied Nightingale. “Something has happened. A battle lost or an entity destroyed. Whatever the case may be the poltergeists are here, now, in L.A.”
“That is indeed the case, my friends,” said The Traveler. “I have seen many things in my travels over the years. The fabric keeping our place in the space-time continuum has been rent in a most powerful and desperate fashion. The stakes were changed and perhaps entities wore out their welcome in The Beyond.
“Where once we mortals were tormented in our dreams alone now The Fallen are among us. Scratch was pushed. He was attacked from below.”
“Well, he’s not known to win many popularity contests here or elsewhere,” added Dr. Green.
“There’s more,” said The Traveler. “Where Scratch goes his minions are sure to follow. From this point on you must notify the cyber-police of the emerging threat to the social harmony of our world.”
“I will do that immediately,” Officer Butcher replied.
The large security leader stepped back from The Traveler’s cell and activated his cellular phone. He began a hushed dialog with the dispatcher on the other end of the signal.
“I have taken precautions against invasion of poltergeists and larger daemons here,” The Traveler said. “Despite this action none of us are safe from the wiles of the greater entities fallen from grace.”
As if on cue the foundation of The Ward began to roll and shake in an earthquake of moderate force.
“It seems that my disclosure of information has not been appreciated by an unseen audience.”
The men were knocked off their feet by the temblor and struggled to regain their balance.
The Traveler moaned and addressed his visitors.
“Please, Officer Butcher. Unlock the door. You have my word that I will not attempt to escape from your custody. A cacodaemon from the Fell Regions approaches. My pentagram will not hold for long. You may re-lock the door and give us time to move to a safe sanctuary before the monster runs rampant through The Ward.”
The security official closed his cell phone and grabbed his key chain.
Smoke began to rise from The Traveler’s pentagram. Gleaming, arcane light outlined the figures hastily written within the five-pointed star. The surface of the design warped and twisted. Bubbles expanded along it and the shape of clawed hands rose into the air from beneath.
“By all means proceed, Officer,” said Dr. Green. “We may trap this invader for a time in The Traveler’s cell.”
Officer Butcher selected the correct key and opened the door.
The Traveler leapt from his confined chamber and joined the visitors watching from the exterior.
Steam emerged from the ad hoc seal and filled the observation hall with infernal heat.
The security guard quickly locked the door once more.
The claws pushing into the pentagram ripped through it and a gray, horned cacodaemon pushed his head into the room. The face of the cacodaemon was covered with the scars of numerous battles and exuded glowing red light from his eyes.
“Rrargh! Your days are numbered, Traveler,” declared the evil being. “You have spoken too much of the goings on below. I am Beezle. Scratch’s dominion has been compromised and the rest of us are free of his draining harnesses.”
The cacodaemon swung at the observation window with a gristly lochaber axe.
The thick glass cracked at the point of impact and was only held together by the binding wires within the pane.
“The emergency release switch is in the control room,” said Dr. Green. “Let us hurry there and give the patients here an opportunity to escape.”
As the men reached the door to the control room the sound of smashing glass and tearing steel emanated from the hall.
A few of the patients of The Ward had not recovered from their insulin-based seizure induction. Those that did helped their companions to hurry past the security door.
“Hurry, men! The Ward is no longer safe. We will lead you out,” cried Dr. Green.
Again, the building was rocked by the sound of intense force striking the window of what had been The Traveler’s cell.
Beezle succeeded in rending the security wire free of its attachment to the surrounding wall.
The last of the patients hobbled over the threshold of the control room.
Nightingale slammed the door shut behind them and engaged the lock. He took a moment to look at the security screen displaying the observation hall.
The cacodaemon turned his bullish head to stare at the camera.
Jack watched as the humanoid stepped into the full range of the lens. He had the legs and cloven hooves of a goat. His tail was scaled and forked. His torso and arms were humanoid, although larger and more muscle-bound than any man of Earth. Behind each shoulder blade Beezle possessed a pair of leathery wings that unfurled behind him.
The minion of the Titans drew in a deep breath and exhaled a blast of flame from his maw.
The plastic casing of the security camera melted, rendering the device defunct.
Nightingale pushed his companions from the rear.
“Let’s be on our way, Gentlemen. We have no means to repel this monster here. The Consortium is sure to be sending containment cyborgs by now.”
The group of escapees moved through the exit of the control room and Officer Butcher locked the door behind them once more. They headed up the subsequent flight of stairs and ran outside the architecture of the The Ward.
The sound of the rending of the first door of the control room rose from the bottom of the staircase. The screech of the metal door being torn from its hinges assaulted the ears of the humans.
Beezle snarled with frustration.
“I am coming for you, Nightingale. Your name is legendary, even in Hell.”
The escapees reached the extensive parking lot of The Ward.
A small army of Consortium cyborgs had the building surrounded. They allowed Nightingale, Dr. Green and Officer Butcher to pass through their protective line.
Beezle emerged from the same door and spat fire at the security corps.
Two transportation vehicles were knocked over by the blast and a dozen of the cyborgs were destroyed.
Jack turned and saw the Consortium forces open fire upon Beezle with a variety of weapons including high-powered rifles, assault lasers and missile launchers.
The gray cacodaemon emerged from the stairway entrance and was riddled with bullets.
Lasers streaked his scaled hide with smoking lacerations.
A pair of cyborgs activated missile-launching devices where their forearms once were. They fired a thundering volley of explosives at Beezle.
Several of the projectiles missed their target and detonated on impact with the concrete frame of The Ward.
Two shots struck their mark and Beezle was blown off his feet, slamming hard into the wall behind him.
The Denizen of the Underworld realized that his target was getting away. He released a yell of vexation.
“Rraargh! I have received my fill of this harassment. Mark my words, meddlers. You haven’t seen the last of me or my kindred. Our numbers are legion. And we are on the move into this puny realm called Earth. It will take more than your popguns and beams of light to detain us.”
Beezle spread his wings and took flight into the night sky.
The cyborgs fired a pursuing volley but their attempts to force him to the ground were ineffectual.
The cacodaemon spat a fireball at the Consortium police.
One patrol car was destroyed in a condensed firestorm.
Jack Nightingale turned away from the battle scene and spoke to Dr. Green and Officer Butcher. The three men were still short of breath from their hasty escape from the basement of The Ward. They trotted across the surface of the parking lot and wended their way through the security vehicles and troop transports.
The Occultist was relieved to see his Harley intact.
Dr. Green and Officer Butcher both drove company cars that they entered and guided to the freeway and sanctuary.
The Hunter made it to his condominium without interruption. He ate a light dinner and settled down to a turbulent sleep. His mind remained filled with apprehension of the newly emerged Beezle and the premonition of The Traveler.
The lights and sounds of passing traffic came through his Venetian blinds to etch eerie rays on the ceiling of his bedroom.
Jack was awakened early in the morning by the cries of his black cat, Nightfang, who he had forgotten to feed the previous day. He’d finished filling his pet’s bowl with kibbles when his cell phone rang.
Jack opened the device and spoke into the microphone.
“Jack, its Butcher. We’ve got some trouble at the LA security station.”
“What kind of trouble, Officer?”
“Poltergeists. They’ve breached our electric gate and are moving in on us. I already called Dr. Green and he’s on his way…Hey, you! You don’t belong here. An Occultist is coming. Arrgh!”
The sounds of a scuffle permeated the cell phone.
Jack heard moaning as a malevolent voice spoke into the receiver.
“Jack Nightingale. I know you. Call me Longtooth. Your friends have been incapacitated by the strength of The Titans. The day of the destruction of the Occultists is at hand. It’s only a matter of time before your soul is hurled into The Void.”
“You’re mistaken, Longtooth. Don’t hurt my friends. I will deal with you and your ilk personally.”
Jack closed his cell phone and grabbed his deployment bag before hustling to his Harley.
The freeway was nearly empty, and Nightingale reached the security station in record time. What was usually a nondescript concrete structure surrounded by barbed-wire fencing had become a focal point of evil energy.
The structure was surrounded by the light of an eerie, red cloud.
A pair of giant, disembodied, demonic eyes hovered over the security station. They followed the motion of the Occultist as he brought his motorcycle to a stop a safe distance from the infested building.
“Is that you, Scratch?” Jack breathed out loud.
A deep, bass voice emanated from the direction of the preternatural eyes.
“Indeed, it is I, Nightingale. My incubi have arisen from Hell and await you within.
"Your friend, Officer Butcher, is no more. He is now the first of my recruits. His will was strong, and he was not easily turned to our cause. Officer Butcher’s struggle is over, now, and he has become the first of a new generation of earth-born minions I have dubbed The Kraken. What once was Butcher will serve me well as the primary agent of The Kraken.
“Reflect before entering this meager station, Jack,” continued Scratch. “It is now the primary stronghold in my siege of power and submission.”
The red cloud surrounding the station thickened and intensified, nearly blurring the view of the structure within it.
“I will not heed your warning, Scratch!” Nightingale replied. “If what you say is the truth you have attacked my friend and that is unacceptable. This realm is the native home of we humans. There is no room for anarchic cacodaemons, and entities set on disturbing the peace of the Ethereum that resides here.”
“Very well, Jack,” answered The Beast. “Venture inside if it so pleases you. My servants and I have shifted our nucleus of energy to this place. Those who assist us will be rewarded. All who stand in the way of my legions will suffer and then be obliterated.”
“You are a potent Occultist, and your resources will aid us once bent to our disposal.”
“What happened, Scratch? Did something push you this far from your traditional territory?”
“Yes, Jack. As I’m sure you’ve sensed by now there has been a fight. The details do not concern you. Suffice it to say that I have been permitted to journey to this place and expand the boundaries of my operation.”
Nightingale thought before responding.
“I’ve heard enough, Scratch. Be gone from Earth or contend with me. You know the stakes. Your strength here is not what it is below. You will be turned from this place, and it won’t be without casualties. I will avenge Officer Butcher and any others that you aspire to control.”
“So be it, Jack,” answered the hovering, daemonic visage. “I welcome you to this structure. Explore it while you can. We shall meet again.”
The daemonic visage faded then disappeared entirely.
Jack faced the occupied building, exasperated.
'I've got to get a hold of Oculus and The Traveler. They'll know what to do,' thought the Occultist.
Nightingale turned from the possessed edifice.
The sound of his motorcycle kick-starting into gear filled the night.
'We'll be there soon, Officer Butcher. You'll be back to your old self in no time,' Jack considered.
The freeway was virtually empty, and Jack sped as fast as the law would allow.
Oculus was notoriously difficult to locate. The prescient wizard worked in a variety of low-profile occupations throughout the city ranging from fortune-teller to night-club owner.
There was one hang-out Nightingale knew the sage was partial to over time: Hell's Kitchen. It was a clandestine dive on the east side of town.
Oculus was a powerful aid to those who knew him and sought him out. Thus, he chose to lay low and avoid retribution from entities he helped to locate and, sometimes, eradicate from existence altogether.
Jack soon reached the structure in question in parked his motorcycle among several that rested out front.
Hell's Kitchen was filled with smoke. A variety of shady figures lounged in corners of the leery establishment.
Jack avoided eye contact with many familiar faces and went about his business.
A large bouncer dressed in vested shirt and slacks approached the Occultist.
“Nightingale, I'm not surprised to see you here on a night like this. The freaks are crawling out of the woodwork.”
“Thanks, Igor. It's good to see you, too. Where's Oculus?”
“Busy. But I think he'd like to see you. Come with me, Occultist.”
Jack followed the bouncer up a flight of stairs to a closed door simply labeled, “Office.”
Igor pounded on the door with his meaty fist and the sound of bolts sliding free soon passed through.
An emaciated, sweaty face appeared through the partially opened doorway.
“Rizzo, I've brought Nightingale. Let him in to see Oculus,” said Igor.
Igor's associate nodded in consent and opened the door so that the visitors might enter.
The first thing Jack noticed was the old-fashioned ceiling fan that rotated slowly from its attachment in the low ceiling.
A water decanter stood next to a desk illuminated by a lamp with an ovoid, green shade.
Rizzo stepped aside to give Jack and Igor room to enter the small office.
An obscure, hulking figure sitting at the petite desk exhaled cigarette smoke as he addressed the new arrivals to the room.
“Nightingale, it's good to see you. Word on the streets says there are some nasty entities set on taking you out for foiling their carefully made plans. In which case you are wise to visit us here. We can take measures to protect you, if you're interested.”
The source of the speech stood up and into the light of the cooling ceiling fan. He was a medium-sized human with a goatee and sunglasses with frames as round as coins. He extended his hand to Jack in greeting.
“My name is Oculus.
"As you can see the people of Hell's Kitchen have heard of you and your recent difficulties. What, do you think, may be the impetus for this recent, arcane invasion of our world?”
“It's got to be something that happened in the Nether Realm. Scratch was railroaded, I believe. And entities with equal or greater territorial avarice are now the custodians of great energy within the Astral Pantheon.
“Have you seen The Traveler recently? I lost him in the thick of an occult attack and am sure that he'll turn up somewhere safe and remote. You and he are the first on the list to consult regarding formulating a solution to the trouble that is now besieging our fair city.”
Oculus shook his head from side to side.
“Unfortunately, not, my friend. I assume arrangements were made for his timely release from The Ward.”
“Well, yes and no, Oculus,” replied Nightingale. “The Traveler was released but it was not done in a timely fashion. I was visiting The Ward when a cacodaemon by the name of Beezle was strong enough to break loose from his ethereal bonds and force himself into our own plane of existence.”
“So I see,” replied Oculus. “The Traveler is a street smart and scrupulous visionary. He will allow us to locate him when the time is right.
“Stay sharp, Jack. For the welfare and safety of the L.A. population and beyond you must remain on task. Keep me posted in regard to this issue. I will notify you if I hear news of Scratch, Beezle or The Traveler.
“I have your phone number.”
Nightingale shook hands with Oculus and made his exit from Hell's Kitchen. He returned to his vintage Harley-Davidson motorcycle and started the engine.
The night sky over Los Angeles shone brightly, reflecting the light of thousands of street lamps, businesses and residences.
'I need time to think,' Jack considered.
The Occultist headed west toward the coast. He soon arrived at Venice Beach. Despite the late hour many bars and restaurants were open.
At times Jack liked to watch the coming and going of people from the outside. He heard live music and saw different groups of citizens eating, drinking, dancing and having a good time.
Jack saw a small group of vampires outlined red in the shadows of the clubs. They commiserated peacefully and he did not interfere with them.
Nightingale had a plan. He would meditate and reach out to The Traveler through the Astral Pantheon.
'There must be a way to reduce Scratch's sphere of influence in this world,' Jack thought. 'I must consult with The Traveler and gain his input on the ramifications of the change of power in the Nether Realm.'
The Occultist found a quiet space on the nighttime beach.
The sound of the crashing waves generated a peaceful rhythm.
Nightingale collected driftwood and walked to the nearest fire pit. He set a small fire to provide light and warmth. Jack sat down, folding his legs into the lotus position.
'Traveler, I seek your counsel.'
The Occultist felt his soul move beyond space and time. He envisioned numerous gurus, shamans and regular people within the spiraling energy of the Astral Pantheon.
Some entities communicated energetically with each other while others resigned themselves to remaining stationary and observant.
'Traveler, are you there?'
Jack focused his thoughts on the Pantheon, attempting to use his full awareness to search for the escaped mental patient.
'Nightingale, I am here. What business do you have this night?'
The Occultist drew his mind closer to The Traveler.
'There's trouble on the streets, Traveler.' Jack projected. 'Scratch and Beezle continue to run rampant in this mortal realm.
'I spoke with Oculus and he will stay vigilant regarding the new change of power in the Nether Realm. All of us must exercise caution when dealing with the challenges with which this turmoil forces us to contend.
'I ask that you probe the spiritual realms, Traveler. I must know if there are entities and energies that can help us return a semblance of balance to this struggle for influence in Los Angeles.'
'Indeed, there are such entities,' answered The Traveler. 'I can help you in this regard.
'I know of a Nephilim. Her name is Neko.
'There are many such Nephilim that thrive in the open spaces of the Astral Pantheon. Just as the malevolent forces of the Nether Realm are aggressive and hostile, so are there benevolent entities consigned to peace and security.
'Neko has consented to enter your realm and assist you in your search. She will soon appear before you.
'Feel welcome to contact me again if you have any concerns or questions.'
'You have my thanks, Traveler,' Jack replied. 'I will keep in touch.'
The Occultist raised his consciousness from his meditative state.
'I have much work to do,' he thought.
Before Nightingale had awakened fully a green, temporal portal materialized before the fire pit on Venice Beach.
Out of the iridescent sphere emerged an armored Asian woman. She had short hair and a bio-metric scanner strapped to her shoulder. She also carried an electric crossbow.
“Greetings, Jack Nightingale. I am Neko. I am a Nephilim. I am glad to make your acquaintance.”
“Likewise, Neko,” replied the Occultist.
They shook hands.
Jack lead his new companion to his Harley where she sat behind him. He gave her a helmet to wear from one of the bike's storage cases. Both of them felt the gravity of their situation.
Nightingale drove to his apartment where he prepared a simple meal for them to eat.
He briefed Neko about the recent events involving Longtooth, Scratch and Beezle that had taken place in the Los Angeles area.
“I am interested in your descriptions of Oculus and The Traveler,” stated Neko. “I hope to meet them soon and help them determine an effective course of action to repel the evil invaders.”
Jack outlined the process of meditation to Neko. He showed her how to sit in the lotus position. Together they reached out to The Traveler.
'Traveler, we are here,' Jack projected. 'Neko, the Nephilim is present and we are prepared to continue your counsel.'
'That is good,' replied the renowned visionary. 'The forces of good are not without resources and power of their own.
'I have been moving about the greater Los Angeles area frequently. This is part of my strategy to avoid capture by Scratch. I advise you two to take some time and watch the streets. There is an extant shift of influence among the vampires, zombies and orcs.
'Your past companion, Officer Butcher, is yet a prisoner and agent of The Kraken.
'Jack, if you and Neko can succeed in locating and liberating Officer Butcher he could prove to be an ample source of information regarding the agenda and intentions of the newly formed organization known as The Kraken.'
'I agree with that assessment, Traveler,' Jack projected. 'Neko and I will seek the location of Officer Butcher and The Kraken. They must be close in this expansive city.
'We will contact you again and report on the progress of our search.'
Nightingale and Neko revived from their meditative state. They prepared to travel the city and seek The Kraken.
Jack left more kibbles and water for Nightfang, his cat.
The Occultist and Nephilim were ready to go and walked to the parking pavilion where the Harley waited.
Jack kick-started the hefty engine and decided to take the city streets rather than the freeways.
The pair headed east and south.
Neko activated her bio-metric scanner from her position behind Jack. She connected the video output to the electronic Head's Up Display in her motorcycle helmet. She spoke into the helmet's microphone so that Nightingale could hear her over the noise of the rumbling engine.
“Jack, I am reading substantial masses of zombies, registering blue, and orcs as green. This late hour of the night is known to be their hunting and feeding time.”
“Affirmative, Neko,” replied the Occultist. “Let's approach their location and see what we can find out.”
Nightingale parked his bike in an empty lot and prepared to hike with the Asian Nephilim on foot.
Neko hefted her crossbow and the Occultist his stun gun. The Nephilim continued to read the location of the zombies and orcs on her scanner.
The pair rounded a corner in the urban sprawl. In the distance stood a group of zombies who were wreaking havoc on an all night convenience store.
Jack saw that there were no police units in the vicinity.
The carnivorous humanoids had captured two store clerks in the center of their predating group. The people were clearly frightened and shaken, but were otherwise unharmed.
The Occultist yelled at the crowd from his position.
“What's going on, here?”
The zombies either didn't hear Nightingale or chose not to respond.
Neko fired a warning shot from her crossbow. The flaming bolt hit a nearby propane tank. It detonated in a rolling ball of fire.
The zombies turned to face the source of the raucous blast, but were only briefly distracted. They continued to push the unfortunate store clerks around their hostile circle.
“Alright, Neko,” said Jack. “They're not listening. Let them have it.”
The female Nephilim activated her auto-targeting scope to focus on the blue-outlined figures. She opened fire, quickly destroying six of the attackers.
The zombies in question were blown to pieces.
Nightingale drew closer to the humanoids and fired his stun gun at them.
Three were hit squarely and fell to the ground, unconscious.
At last the remaining zombies were pulled from their focus on their captives. They released the store clerks and turned to lumber toward the Occultist and Nephilim.
Jack and Neko did not hesitate and fired their weapons once more.
The remainder of the standing attackers were riddled by the projectiles launched by the vigilant pair and they fell lifeless to the asphalt.
The two companions strapped their respective firearms and sprinted to the harried clerks. They were traumatized from the attack of the zombies but were otherwise unharmed. They expressed their gratitude to their rescuers and sat on the sidewalk, activating their smart phones to contact the authorities and check in with family and friends.
The Occultist addressed his companion.
“It seems our work is done, here, Neko. Let us consult your bio-metric scanner and return to the road. We have yet to locate Beezle, the daemon who invaded The Ward some days ago, as well as Officer Butcher.”
Neko nodded her agreement with Nightingale's statement and the pair quickly made their way back to the Harley and mounted it.
Jack drove his motorcycle to a main avenue and Neko continued to scan for supernatural entities in the labyrinthine urban sprawl.
The night had run its course and dawn was soon approaching.
The Occultist saw layers of red light on the horizon.
Flocks of birds flew by, preparing for the morning sun.
Neko spoke to Jack through the microphone built into her helmet.
“Nightingale, we've done enough tonight. Let us return to your place and get some rest. We can look for Beezle, the agents of the Kraken, and their ilk in a few hours.”
“Sure thing, Neko,” Jack answered. “Let's go home.”
The Occultist guided his Harley to a freeway on-ramp and accelerated to cruising speed.
The pair reached Nightingale's apartment and they soon slept, overcome with fatigue from the night's events.
After sleeping for some time, Jack's thoughts turned to the captured Officer Butcher and the newly-formed organization known as The Kraken.
According to Scratch, Officer Butcher was now their primary agent. He could only imagine what this so-called transformation entailed.
It was then that Scratch's aura appeared within the minds of the Occultist and Nephilim.
'I see you, investigators,' the aura declared. 'You have thwarted my zombie conscripts and continue to annoy me. Longtooth and his Titan cohorts have pushed me into this realm, but I will return to Hell with greater power and minions at my disposal. The Nether Realm is mine and I will not be forced out.'
'So it seems, Scratch,' Jack responded. 'I caution you, however, to take care with the plane of Earth. Human lives are valued, here, and will not be willingly enslaved or destroyed by any menace.'
'Ah, so we disagree, Occultist,' Scratch answered. 'I will take what I wish but will fight if you and your friends continue to oppose me. Tread carefully in this matter. I will be watching you.'
Scratch's aura receded from Nightingale's mind.
The Occultist became fully awake and he jostled Neko from her slumber on the futon nearby.
The companions started a fresh brew of coffee and prepared to face the day.
“Let us seek The Kraken, Neko,” Jack offered. “I am still concerned for the welfare of Officer Butcher and the other agents of The Ward.
“Scratch and Longtooth must be close. They could not have taken Officer Butcher far without attracting the attention of the authorities.”
“I agree with your assessment, Jack,” Neko replied. “Let us cruise the streets once more. I will broaden the magnetic radius of my scanner. If daemons are hiding out there, we will find them.”
The Nephilim and Occultist left kibbles and water for Nightfang.
They were ready and exited the apartment to mount Jack's waiting Harley.
The Los Angeles streets at night were consistently well-lit by lamps and businesses.
Neko activated her scanner from behind Nightingale and her Head's Up Display soon registered sporadic positions of vampires, orcs and zombies throughout the miles of city. These markings on the screen were left as they were, for they were small groups and the pair of searchers had larger fish to fry.
Jack rode for several miles when Neko's scanner chimed, indicating a larger conglomeration of supernatural entities.
The source was a large, multistory abandoned warehouse.
Neko saw clusters of orcs and vampires on several levels within the structure.
Jack drove close to the building in question and parked his Harley.
He and the female Nephilim dismounted and cautiously made their way to the “hot” warehouse.
The structure was old, by L.A. standards, and possessed neo-Gothic and Art Deco designs and bas-reliefs. The previously abandoned edifice had boarded windows and locked doors.
Nightingale and Neko reached the steel formation of a fire escape on the northern side. They ascended it as quietly as possible and soon reached the level of the rooftop.
Among the air ducts and power generators was a door leading down into the heart of the newly established headquarters of whom the companions took to be the agents of The Kraken.
Neko saw the central chamber of the warehouse was lit by large, flickering torches. There was a circular pentagram on the concrete floor that was twice the size of the one that The Traveler had painted on the floor of his cell in The Ward.
Next to this arcane design was a makeshift, iron cage which held Officer Butcher and three other security guards abducted from The Ward.
The pentagram was surrounded by a dozen robed and hooded orcs and zombies.
“Look there, Neko,” whispered the Occultist. “Those acolytes are conducting a summoning or séance of some kind. Let us remain quiet for a few minutes and see if we can determine what they are about.”
"Longtooth, we, the previous servants of Scratch, beseech you once more," intoned a tall orc. "We, the denizens of The Kraken, have sensed your recent acquisition of power. We offer these mortals as a contribution to your agenda of dominance. These humans may intercede with the realm of Earth and its residents, convincing the populations of humans of the weight of your intentions. Hearken us, now, and make your presence known to these potential symbionts!"
Jack and Neko watched the proceedings of the summoning from their hiding place above.
At first the eyes of Scratch, which Nightingale recognized, appeared over the pentagram of the would-be acolytes. These were swept aside by an ephemeral gust of wind.
The image that next appeared was that of a horned skull with glowing, red eyes.
"It is I, Longtooth, now the ruler of the Nether Realm. I take your offering, acolytes. These mortals will be the first of a new batch of intermediaries who will advocate the hegemony of the spheres.
"Watch now as I claim their minds for my purposes."
The Occultist and Nephilim saw a wave of red lightning fly from Longtooth's eyes. These uninhibited, static bolts coiled around the human prisoners.
“I've seen enough, Neko,” Jack said. “Let us intercede before anything worse happens here.”
The companions made their move, quickly descending the nearby stairway to run across the central level of the warehouse.
The engaged acolytes were taken off guard by the sudden shots fired from Jack's stun gun and Neko's crossbow.
The group was soon consumed in the heat of battle.
The dark acolytes' attention was drawn from their assault on Officer Butcher and the other captive guards. The sorcerers guided their static bolts toward the alert Occultist and Nephilim.
The pair was quick to evade the counterattack, rolling apart and then continuing their barrage of stun bolts and military grade arrows.
Four of Longtooth's acolytes fell to the floor, incapacitated and unconscious.
Eight of the malevolent magic-users remained and their electric assault was thick and intense. Some of the static charges grazed Jack's left leg, scorching his blue jeans.
He evaded the brunt of the offensive maneuver and struck three more of the acolytes, rendering them senseless.
Neko contended with the other sorcerers. She tumbled on the floor of the abandoned warehouse, simultaneously firing shots from her crossbow. The Nephilim struck three of her targets, incapacitating them.
Two vampire acolytes stood between the humans and their makeshift cage. They opted to attack the infiltrators directly, with their claws and fangs.
These Jack blocked with hand-to-hand combat techniques. He turned the carnivorous acolytes' limbs to the side and engaged them with his survival knife.
The battle was over and the men in the cage yelled in relief.
Neko searched the bodies of the fallen acolytes and found a key ring. She grabbed it and hastened to the locked door of the ad hoc prison. The Nephilim identified the correct key and opened the door.
Officer Butcher and his associates leapt from the cage and embraced their rescuers.
“Thanks, Nightingale. We were in a bind, there.”
“Sure thing, Butcher,” the Occultist replied. “Let's get out of here!”
“The Magic Unit will get here, soon. I sent them the readings of my scanner.”
The men nodded their heads in understanding and exited from the aging building.
Officer Butcher and the liberated captives sat on the curb and waited to be checked out by the medical technicians.
Jack and Neko returned to the Harley and climbed on it.
Nightingale started the engine and headed for the Consortium headquarters. He spoke to Neko as they rode.
“The cyborgs of the Consortium can help us in this struggle. The modified humans aided the officers of the peace at the attack on The Ward. They will benefit from hearing of the recent course of events, here, in Los Angeles. I'm sure they can provide us with emergency contact information in the case of another inter-dimensional assault.
“The Traveler is monitoring our progress, Neko, and would approve, I believe, of the involvement of the agents of the Consortium.”
“Sounds good, Jack,” Neko replied. “Let's meet with the night shift at the Consortium base of operations.”
The pair of defenders rode the Harley onto a freeway and headed to the Consortium in the downtown area. The building was over twelve stories tall and was equipped with security fences, armed guards and a helicopter and drone landing pad.
Jack pulled up to the main gate and stopped at the security kiosk, where officers waited.
The Occultist showed the guards his identification card and told them he could vouch for the Asian Nephilim.
The security officers were familiar with the appearance of the ethereal warrior and allowed her entrance accompanied by Nightingale.
The structure of the Consortium headquarters, although well-lit, was decidedly ominous. Neo-Gothic and Art Deco pillars supported the steel and glass frame of the rectangular building. Each of the four corners of the roof bore modernistic sculptures of gargoyles. The expansive windows on each floor were tinted to obscure the view of the goings-on within.
Jack drove his motorcycle to the parking level in the basement below the first floor. He stationed the bike in an appropriate spot and dismounted with Neko.
The pair took the elevator to the information desk. The friends entered the spacious chamber and addressed the female receptionist who sat at a large computer station. The name plate on the front of the counter said, “Roxanne”.
“Hello, Roxanne,” Jack said. “I am an Occultist. My name is Jack. My companion here is Neko. We are visiting the Consortium today to gain knowledge regarding the recent chaotic events that have taken place in The Ward and greater Los Angeles area. We wish to consult with the director of the cybernetics division. At this point the Magic Unit and other law enforcement agencies could use the supplemental assistance of a cyborg detail. Beezle, the cacodaemon, Scratch, Longtooth and several of their diabolical adherents are creating havoc in our peace-loving city. Can you help us?”
Roxanne was a slender woman in her late twenties. She had dark, curly brown hair and wore the customary Consortium uniform. She looked at the pair over a set of reading glasses.
“Sure thing, Jack and Neko. The employees here at the headquarters have been following the police video footage of the skirmishes taking place around the city. Let me direct you to the cybernetics division. My computer indicates that Dr. Tannhäuser is in the middle of her shift. Please put on these temporary visitor identification cards and see her through the door on the left. I will buzz you in.”
“Thanks, Roxanne.” Neko said.
The Occultist and Nephilim made their way to the specified door and Roxanne pressed a button under the counter top of her computer station. There was a loud, electronic buzz followed by a mechanical click. Jack promptly turned the knob of the door and opened it so that he and Neko could enter. They stepped within and saw a vaulted, cavernous laboratory.
There were mechanical and biological components lined on shelves which had small screens indicating their respective electric and homeostatic vital signs. Other aquarium-like tanks filled with green fluid contained full cyborg amalgamations where mechanical tentacles surgically united men and women with machines.
There were over a dozen workers in the laboratory who monitored the progress of the cyborg generation process. Many of them carried digital data tablets. These devices were linked into the Consortium data network in order to keep track of the proper chemical percentages in the forming tanks and the electronic and organic body parts on the shelves.
“Hello, Jack and Neko,” a woman said. “I am Dr. Tannhäuser. How may I help you today ?”
The visitors saw that Dr. Tannhäuser was a middle-aged blonde woman dressed in a white medical coat with scrubs underneath. She also carried a data tablet and wore a pair of bifocal glasses.
She shook hands with the pair in greeting.
“Its nice to meet you,” Jack declared. “As you must be aware there has been some disorder in the city at night. Supernatural forces have appeared stronger and more destructive than those in past years. We are here on the behalf of Officer Butcher and the Magic Unit. The existing resources of the law enforcement agencies in L.A. are insufficient in this roiling conflict with the hostile invaders. Can you issue a detail of cyborgs to help us contain these daemons?”
“I believe I can, Jack. I have ten of the latest models packaged and ready from the assembly line. We can deploy them here and augment their programming to focus on the ephemeral entities in question. Let's go to the staging room. My assistants have been informed of your predicament and are ready to release the cyborgs from there.”
[To be continued.]
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