Epilogue- From Dust
The Ivory Tower Hotel was, for the first time in decades, bustling with activity. A motley collection of trailers, tents, and squat, prefabricated offices were arrayed around the walled courtyard in loose formation, heads clad in yellow hard hats weaving between the blocky structures at a fever pace. A team of surveyors had set up shop in the plaza, taking measurements from a tripod mounted theodolite while a group of engineers disappeared through the tower's battered entryway. Bent over a plastic table was a lonesome architect, squinting between the blueprints spread over the tabletop and the decrepit building before him. Its cracked and faded edifices seemed to glow with newfound vigor, as if the lonesome structure sought to impress its guests. The architect eyeballed the courtyard's dusty fountain and tsked under his breath, scratching himself a note on the blueprints with a pencil stub.
Out on the horizon, over the rolling dunes, glinting like a sliver of glass, was a helicopter. The beating of its rotors was faint at this distance, but their volume increased as the aircraft's silhouette grew against the sky. Unperturbed by the approaching chopper the architect continued about his work, hand moving in smooth and deliberate patterns as he sought to transcribe his vision onto paper.
A dozen assault rifle armed hazmat suits picked their way across the rubble mound that had once been an apartment building with practiced delicacy. There were only a handful of buildings still standing inside the quarantine zone, and many of the ruins had yet to settle. If the city wasn't already treacherous enough, Prometheus and DEADE's bout had destabilized the entire region, upsetting faults that hadn't been active in decades. There had been more than a dozen small earthquakes in the days that followed the attack, bedeviling the military's cleanup efforts to no end. So the soldiers took great care in traversing the clutter, wary of any loose stones or stray tremors.
One stumbled, darting a hand out and catching itself on an exposed piece of rebar. Another paused, shouldered its carbine, and stooped to help. The two struggled for a moment before regaining their footing, the first giving muffled thanks that the second waved off. They clambered up to the rest of their squad, huffing from the exertion and cursing the loose debris, who waited for them at the top of the rubble mound. When they reached their comrades there was a moment of respite as the leader of the group consulted a map and attempted to reorient their band. The one who stumbled sheepishly shrugged its rifle from its shoulder and examined the weapon for damage from the fall. Satisfied that it could trust the weapon in a moment of need, the hazmat suit raised its shielded face and pondered the geography of the street. Another soldier stood in the center of the thoroughfare, dressed in a formidable looking Kevlar combat suit and full face respirator, unarmed save for a sheath that sat at the small of his back that the hazmat suit could only assume held an enormous knife. The hazmat suit watched the man with a curious air as he examined something at his booted feet.
Rotors beating with the fervor of a hummingbird's wings the helicopter dropped, sending tent cloths flapping and dust devils fleeing in all directions, workers raising their arms to shield their eyes from airborne sand grains and staggering to a safer distance. Sighing at the interruption the architect left his table and approached, ducking behind one of the portables while the chopper finished its dusty descent. It alighted cautiously, seeming to test the half-buried asphalt of the road that led to the hotel gates, the hydraulics of its landing gear hissing unheard as the aircraft settled into its temporary resting place.
It was a sleek, powerful looking machine, all smooth contours painted a subdued shade of gray. Emblazoned on each of its doors were the letters F and E in bold red type, the corporate logo of Foundry Enterprises. As its rotors slowed and the shroud of upset sand began to fall some of the workers emerged from their hiding places to scrutinize the new arrival. From a safe distance of course. The architect abandoned the shelter of the portable and stepped forward, planting his feet and crossing his arms to restrain his tried patience. He'd been expecting this visit a full day ago, and though the reasons for the delay were reasonable ones it still irked him that he and his crews had had to endure another twenty-four hours in this sweltering sandbox while the sun laughed at their suffering. One of the doors slid open, allowing a woman to step out onto the sand.
The clumsy hazmat suit jumped when the masked man in the street suddenly turned towards the squad of resting soldiers. For a moment unsure of itself, the suit raised a covered arm and waved. The man waved back without hesitation. Another soldier squatted next to the first, voice muffled by its protective headpiece.
"What's that guy doing alone out here?"
The first shrugged. "Beats me. Maybe he's Special Ops?
"No way, he'd still have a couple other guys with him. My guess is CIA." The second said, helmet twisting back and forth in dissent.
"Hey, isn't that where one of those Shibusen kids got killed?"
"Yup." The second grunted. "Their only casualty. They say all that's left is a smear on the pavement, no body or anything." The first remained silent as its companion rambled on. "It's fucked up, sending kids out to die like that. Maybe after this little cluster fuck somebody will get a mind to do something about it. It's fucking wrong man."
There were murmurs of agreement from the rest of their squad. The man in the street had dropped to his haunches and placing a gloved hand against the cracked thoroughfare, turning his masked face away from the group of resting soldiers to eye the opposite side of the street. A gruff shout from their Staff Sergeant brought the soldiers back to their feet, slinging their rifles over their shoulders and following the NCO over the crest of the rubble heap and out of sight, leaving the lonesome man to ponder the rust colored stain against the pavement in silent solitude.
She walked with purpose, black leather shoes rising and falling like the paws of a great cat. Her lithe form was framed by a deep blue pin stripe suit, inky black hair cut close to the dark chocolate skin of her scalp. Analytical gray eyes wept over the desert camp with unnerving, predatory intensity, as if she were evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the landscape itself. The architect swallowed hard when she came to a stop before him and settled those powerful gray orbs on his own blue ones. They shared a tense moment of mutual appraisal before she spoke.
"Robert Gunderson I assume." The architect blinked at her sudden, curt vocalization. There was the slightest hint of a British accent in her voice. He cleared his throat and held out a hand.
"Yes, I'm the architect in charge of the surveying team." She shook his outstretched hand firmly. "You must be Rebecca Barker."
"Ms. Barker, Mr. Gunderson." She corrected, eyes leaving his to survey their surroundings once more. "You've had no problems?"
Gunderson shook his head. "None at all Ms. Barker. We're all alone out here."
Rebecca nodded, satisfied. The architect's camp seemed quiet enough. A little haphazardly arranged for her taste, there weren't any unobstructed lines of sight in the whole compound, but they wouldn't be staying long so the risk was minimal. She would tolerate this oversight, and increase her own vigilance to compensate for the shortcomings of her employer's associates. Turning on her heel she faced the helicopter and gave a sharp nod. Gunderson straightened himself as the door slid open once more.
A muffled grunt punctuated the silence as the masked man ran a gloved hand over the blood stained pavement. Marcus had scored deep gashes in the street with his final attack, and the man quietly observed how they wound across the black top and terminated shortly after crossing the bloody site of Roland's demise. With a pensive sound he pivoted on his haunches to face the caved in storefront beyond the sidewalk. It was a sorry sight, all twisted steel and broken glass. A clothing store if the scattered pieces of fabric amongst the rubble were any indicator. The debris shifted noisily under his booted feet as he scaled the rubble, reaching its peak in a few nimble motions. There he lingered. Caught on a charred wooden beam, twisting in the breeze, was a singed scrap of green fabric. With utmost delicacy he freed it from its resting place, holding it loosely in his palm. It was hard to determine what the material was in its current state, perhaps part of a coat, maybe a scarf. As he pondered the cloth a crow alighted on the wooden beam, squawking indignantly at the masked man.
Trapping the green scrap of cloth between his gloved fingers he started down the backside of the ruined shop. At his departure the crow threw itself into the air, darting past the man's head with another squawk before lifting itself above the blasted rooftops with a few quick beats of its ebony wings. Wheeling over the shattered landscape, a beady eye trained on the masked man, it followed his trail as he transversed burnt out alleyways and hollow buildings, hidden face downcast as he clutched his olive colored treasure to his chest and followed an invisible trail through the ruins.
Dedrick Smit stepped from the air conditioned womb of his corporate helicopter into the sweltering desert sun like a snake shedding its skin. He moved with practiced ease, his footsteps full of confidence, an easy smile brightening his handsome face as he crossed towards Gunderson and Barker. His hand found its way into Robert's own and the two shook.
"Mr. Gunderson." Smit spoke with a soft, whimsical air, friendly, as if his voice had its own pair of open arms with which to embrace those who observed its sound. "We meet at last."
Gunderson couldn't help but smile back at him. Dedrick was a young man, somewhere in his mid-twenties by Gunderson's estimation, with the poise and slim frame of a crane. His eyes were a lively shade of green, his neat hair a rich golden brown reminiscent of brass. Light tan slacks hung from his waist and a blue dress shirt with its cuffs and collar unbuttoned revealed the pale skin of his chest and clavicle. Somehow this charming and easy going character seemed incongruous with who Gunderson thought the CEO of Foundry Enterprises would be.
"It's a real pleasure sir." Robert, his grin widening in an almost childish way that made him feel rather foolish, replied. "A real pleasure Mr. Smit."
The young CEO gave a little hum of amusement and flashed the architect a winning smile. "Please, call me Dedrick. No need for formalities so far from civilization. May I call you Robert?"
Somewhat startled by Dedrick's informality the architect muttered an affirmative and, regaining his composure, waved towards the hotel behind him. "Would you like to have a look?"
At Smit's nod Gunderson turned and started back towards his camp with the CEO in tow. Barker followed at a respectable distance, allowing the two men some semblance of privacy as the architect brought his employer up to speed on the progress of the past two weeks. Dedrick absorbed the mundane details of the survey's results with more interest than someone unversed in engineering and architecture had any right to, a gesture for which Gunderson was grateful. It was good to know that his boss appreciated the time he and his team had invested in this project, toiling in the sun, picking through the innards of that dusty tower, shaping the face of its rebirth. Or at least that he cared enough to pretend to care. Robert supposed that counted for something too.
Barker, however, unnerved him. She slipped in and out of his periphery like a ghost, little more than glimpses of blue pin stripe against the sandy tones of tent canvas. The rational part of his brain reasoned that he had nothing to fear from her. He couldn't count himself among Dedrick's enemies; he had trouble believing that the affable executive had any to begin with. But that hard eyed woman hadn't flown out to the derelict hotel with Dedrick just to make Gunderson's men uncomfortable as she stalked through their campsite, and Mr. Smit was far too humble to keep a personal bodyguard as a status symbol.
"These plans are fascinating." Smit muttered, jarring Gunderson from the ominous undertones of his musings. The CEO was pouring over Robert's blueprints with the expression of one pondering a portrait, trying to draw insight from the crease of a smile, or the incredulous arch of an eyebrow. It made the architect's chest swell with pride to see someone from outside his profession regard his work as art. "Fascinating." Smit repeated, and Barker was forgotten as Gunderson joined him at the table to outline his vision for the new Ivory Tower Hotel.
It would be a bold undertaking. Renovating the existing premises was simple enough, expanding the hotel to meet Smit's specifications, however, was a far more daunting task. Fortunately Foundry Enterprises was diversified enough to provide most of the necessary materials at prices greatly reduced. But the sheer size of the project worked to counteract those savings. Robert gave his estimate of the price tag with a twinge of melancholy, seeing his dream crumble under the cruel weight of reality. His boss was quiet, mulling over the hefty bill that had just been presented to him, Gunderson's heart sinking as the silence stretched on. Then Dedrick smiled and clapped the architect on the shoulder.
"Perfect." Smit pulled himself upright, hands on his hips as he craned his neck to peer at the uppermost levels of the hotel. "These plans take into account our staffing considerations, correct?"
"It'll be as solid as a rock." Robert nodded quickly. "Blast doors, window bars, all concealed mind you. If anything goes wrong this place will shut up so tight a fly couldn't get in or out without the security key."
Smit's smile grew. "Very good Robert, very good." He gave the architect's shoulder a squeeze. "You'll turn the pharaohs green with envy."
"Thank you sir."
"What did I tell you about calling me sir?" Smit chided. Robert laughed sheepishly.
"My apologies Dedrick." The two shook hands a final time. "Have a safe flight back to Cairo."
Rebecca was waiting for him by the helicopter. She rebuffed his warm smile with a cool stare, prompting Smit to pause a few feet from the waiting aircraft. His smile shrank to a faint grin.
"You don't think it will work."
"It will work. If you really want this resort built in a year, it will be done in ten months." Barker said simply.
"I know you're more astute then that Ms. Barker." Dedrick pressed. "You know what I'm talking about, and you don't think it will work."
"Mr. Smit, it is not my business telling you if it will or won't work. My business is to make sure you don't die either way." She replied curtly. "This philanthropic venture of yours is going to upset people, Shibusen and most of the world's governments to name a few. You want to change the way the world thinks. That is a dangerous ambition."
Dedrick hummed pensively. The world was changing; Shibusen was losing face and international support after a series of disastrous failures, and people were feeling increasingly vulnerable to the supernatural forces Shibusen was in place to guard them from. They needed leadership, they needed someone to fill the void opening in Shibusen's wake. They needed Dedrick. Whether or not the transition was a smooth or painful one was largely up to Lord Death.
"Well worth the danger." Was his stern response. Rebecca followed close behind as he stepped up into the helicopter. "We're going to build a brave new world. And it all starts here."
There was a halfwarg in the alley. It was a trembling, mangy thing, cowering in the shadow of a dumpster behind a blasted diner. By some stroke of luck it had survived the battle, finding refuge among the crumbling buildings near the city's edge as the titans turned downtown Hedgeton into a field of rubble. Alone, frightened, and hungry, it crept through the ruins in search of something to fill the pit in its stomach. In its manic, emaciated state the corpses of its slain brethren would've sufficed. But its mouth had been fused shut by the Mongoose Witch's cruel magic, and the bounty of carcasses could do nothing to sate its hunger. So it hid.
The masked man regarded it from some distance, cloaked in the shade cast by some crumbling edifice. His right hand moved to the knife sheathed at the small of his back, hovering there for a moment, then clenching into a fist. He moved, crept forward like silence given shape. The distance between them shrunk over the course of whole minutes. Each step was placed with practiced precision, like the stroke of a calligrapher's pen, keeping the masked man's approach quiet despite the loose debris littering the alley floor. A textbook silent kill, an undetected approach concluded with a swift twist of the neck.
At least it would've been. As the man drew within several feet of the halfwarg a helicopter passed low overhead, a thundering UH-60 with its nose pointed towards downtown, and when the emaciated creature spun to find the source of the noise their eyes met. It flinched and recoiled, seeing its own likeness reflected in the circular lenses of the man's gas mask as he exploded into motion. The creature lashed out and loosed a muffled yowl when he broke its arm with a quick twist and tackled it into the dumpster. Milky eyes wide with terror as the man wrestled for a choke hold the halfwarg planted a foot against his armored midsection and sent him tumbling away with a powerful kick. He landed in a crouch, barely winded by the blow.
At the sight of its opponent returning to his feet the halfwarg felt something stir within it, an upwelling of disgust and shame. Had it endured the witch's mutilations, survived the massacre of its kin, and suffered the desecration of its identity for this honorless, anonymous end? A single defiant thought straightened its spine, pulling the creature to its full height so that it towered over the man who challenged it. With a rumbling growl it raised its remaining hand to its face and gouged into its cheek with a misshapen claw. Blood ran down its neck in rivers of crimson, the sound of flesh splitting making the masked man's fists tighten with apprehension. The halfwarg filled its head with images from its youth to dull the pain, the memories of a lost home and dead friends nursing the spark of fury that drove its claw through the scarred flesh of its cheeks. When its bloody work was done its maw gaped wide, tattered and bloody lips revealing the razor edges of teeth long hidden. Though its language escaped it the howl that screamed forth from its unbound jaws was thick with pride and anger and defiance.
The masked man inclined his head slightly as it lunged, perhaps out of respect, before twisting around an incoming claw and breaking the halfwarg's neck. It dropped lifeless at his feet, and he seemed to ponder the mangled creature before turning to go. He could not allow himself to linger when he was so close to his goal.
There wasn't anything to distinguish this particular pile of rubble from any of the others that had become ubiquitous in post-DEADE Hedgeton. A collapsed store maybe, perhaps a residence, all splintered wood, bent steel and shattered glass. A heavy oak door lay against the ruins, its carved face scorched black and its knob crumpled like a brass raisin. The man took hold of it with both hands and heaved it aside with a grunt. A crow landed nearby and peered into the cavity the man had revealed, squawking as he sat nearby and disturbed its perch. Resting his elbows on his knees he played the scrap of green cloth between his gloved fingers and looked skyward. The sun was setting over the ocean, nodding off and slipping behind clouds colored fiery pink by its waning light. An albatross orbited overhead, descending in tight circles towards the crow whose squawks had changed from indignant to urgent, and the man who swept the horizon with a sigh distorted by his gas mask.
"You don't always get a sky like that in the city."
A/N: Mystery! Foreshadowing!
A couple of weeks I said...
Midterms, slam poetry, pursuing lady folk, college. The normal excuses I guess. As AD pointed out, one of the biggest things I'm gonna work on in the next arc is writing discipline so I can actually release these in a timely manner. A million thanks to my readers and reviewers!