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September 26, 2022

Zodiac

By Mel Trent

The Immortal Guns of Talon Konstantine: Zodiac

I.

Iai opens his eyes to a soft, affectionate hand brushing his hair away from his face. The touch is unfamiliar and as cold as deep space. He's not sure if the comfort the caress affords him is what he wants. He would almost prefer to remain hollow. There is at least a certain calm after the torrent of grief. He knows that he can no longer lose his heart. It's already gone.

The face he looks up into is his own, yet it's as unfamiliar as the touch against his cheek. The eyes are the only difference. The eyes that smile on him are silver and cry heavy silver tears that splash down on his face leaving tiny purple bruises.

It takes him several seconds to realize who's leaning over him, and when he does, he finds it impossible to speak the angel's name. Instead, he closes his eyes and cries his own silver tears.

The cold fingers wipe the tears from his cheeks. A voice whispers, "Don't cry." The sound makes his head vibrate, and he knows without looking that the angel's mouth doesn't open when he speaks.

Iai would argue, but the angel's powerful presence still prevents him from speaking. He forces his tears to stop. It isn't easy. It almost rips him apart.

"I know you love him," the angel says. "Believe me, I know what it feels like to lose someone you love like that. But don't let it stop you. You still have work to do."

Iai opens his eyes. "But how can I do anything when all I thought I knew about myself died with Roland?" he asks. His voice sounds strange in his ears. He thinks about the first time he ever heard it and the first word he ever spoke, and he thinks about to whom he said that one word. Tears strain at his eyes again, but he holds them back.

"You know what you are. Roland doesn't define you. You know what you're here for."

"Then why did you give me the capacity to love and grieve?"

"Because." The angel smiles, and Iai clenches his eyes shut. "That pain is your only reward."

II.

Winston and Pollie reach the way station several hours after sunrise. They find the hovercraft, the broken sword, a stiff coil of bloodstained wire, a lot of blood and a lot of white feathers. Inside the way station, they find blood stains on the floor, a few bloody rags and feathers crusted with dry blood. The only other evidence they find that anyone had been there recently is a half full jug of pickles from the general store in Whatcheer. Iai and whatever companions he might have are long gone.

Winston tries not to worry, but he finds it difficult not to. Someone was seriously, maybe mortally, wounded. The fact that there is no evidence of the use of a med kit makes him think it's very possible that someone died. He doesn't think Iai was killed, though Iai was hurt. He wonders if it was Roland.

Winston sends the hovercraft's registration number to Superior C & D. While he waits, he and Pollie search the hovercraft thoroughly. They find weapons, coils of wire and various pieces of junk that look as if they were once weapons. There are blood stains on the back seat and in the trunk.

The hovercraft is registered jointly to Suada Zacharias and someone named Robyn Taylor. Further searching turns up massive bank accounts in Taylor's name but no proof that Taylor is a real person.

Winston considers heading towards Grave as he had planned, but he doesn't think there's any reason to. It looks to him like everyone is headed for Angel City, and he worries even more.

III.

Libra Grisha reaches the summit of the sand dune shortly after noon. Sweat beads on his dark skin as the sun glares down at him, but the heat doesn't bother him. He shifts his weight from one foot to the other as he watches the desert below him. The soles of his feet are thick with calluses. He could walk across broken glass on those calluses, but the scorching sand burns him every time. Maybe one day he'll put on shoes and avoid the problem altogether. Of course, finding shoes big enough is another problem.

In the flat white light, Grisha sees four vibrant colors approaching the dune. One is purple. One is pink. Two of them are white, but one of those is slowly turning grey. Soon the lights begin to take on shapes. A heart, a feather and two angels. The greying angel's wings are broken. Grisha concentrates on the dimming angel. He sees the pale hands of death clawing at its wings. He sees the last feathers plucked from those wings, and what follows is a universe of hopelessness and fear. He's seen the broken wings in his dreams. He wasn't sure what it meant until now.

Grisha touches his long crooked fingers to the red and green glass tube that hangs on a leather cord around his neck. His fingers tingle. The power of the names he keeps in the tube is reaching out to the approaching group. He smiles sadly. It's been a long wait, but wrong things will be set right at last. He slides down the sand dune to meet the travelers.

IV.

Kaine is hallucinating. At least he thinks he might be. He sees a tall man suddenly emerge from the side of the sand dune that looms in front of them. The man opens his arms to them ... or seems to. Four small but strong lights wink on the man's chest. Kaine knows they can trust this man. Those lights assure him of that, despite the fact that he has no idea what they are. He doesn't think he's ready to trust a hallucination, though, so he doesn't mention what he sees. Besides, he's more aware of the taste of blood in his mouth when he speaks.

"Who the hell is that?" Jynx asks. He squints into the distance.

"He came from the top of the dune," Iai says. "He's been standing there a while."

"Is he another star demon?" Kumiko asks.

"No. He does seem quite powerful, though."

"I think we can trust him," Kaine says.

"Where did he come from?" Jynx asks. "Steelrain? There's nothing else out here."

"The underground city."

"That's just a myth."

"No, it's not."

"Is too."

"Is not."

"Is too."

"Cut it out," Kumiko says.

"He's heading towards us," Iai says. "Why don't we just ask him where he's from?"

"Nah, that makes too much sense," Jynx says.

They continue in silence for a while. Soon the tall man is close enough to speak to them. He lifts his arms in a gesture of welcome. The sleeves of his threadbare jacket ride up to his elbows. "Welcome, my friends," he says. "I am Libra Grisha, member of the Council of Twelve. On behalf of the Council and the citizens of Zodiac, you are most welcome to our humble city."

"Zodiac?" Jynx asks. "Where the hell is that?"

Grisha smiles. "It is under the ground."

"Told ya," Kaine says.

"I won't believe it 'til I see it," Jynx says.

Grisha looks over the group. They're tired, and it's starting to show. He's a little surprised to see that the feather is carrying a body wrapped in blankets. "I will be most happy to show you Zodiac," he says. "You are weary from your travels. Rest with us as long as you need."

"How do we know we can trust you?" Kumiko asks. "I think you're a little too willing to shelter total strangers."

"You are not strangers to me at all. I know each of you well."

"I'm not that famous yet. There's no way you've heard my name in an underground city. Are you working for the demons?"

"Ignore her," Kaine says. "She's just tired."

"I have good reason to be paranoid. Everywhere we go, we're attacked by monster wind scorpions, psychotic trains, star demons and weird hallucinations I can't see."

Grisha frowns. "So," he says. "The corrupt one runs the trains again. The end is near."

"I don't think so," Kaine says.

Grisha smiles again. He's glad to hear that kind of determination. It gives him hope, but if Shaman dies, that hope dies, too. "Before I take you to Zodiac, I will give you names according to our customs. Your real names are very powerful tools that are not to be spoken by anyone." He presses his palm to his chest. Along with the red and green tube, he wears a blue bottle and a purple bottle. "Real names are kept secret and close to the heart. I will give you your name scrolls when we reach Zodiac." He steps up to Jynx, puts his hand against Jynx's cheeks and kisses Jynx's forehead. Jynx is too shocked to protest. "You are Gemini Firefly. Welcome to Zodiac." He stands in front of Kaine and does the same thing. "You are Gemini Shaman. Welcome to Zodiac." He pauses in front of Kumiko and thinks for a moment. Then he kisses her forehead and says, "You are Taurus Katya. Welcome to Zodiac." It takes him a little longer to consider a name for Iai. After all, the beautiful creature standing before him isn't human, and no name he bears will be without power. "Most holy one, we will call you Pero, but none will speak this name without cause. All your names are strong." He kisses Iai's forehead then places his hand on the chest of the body Iai carries. "We will have a proper funeral for your friend."

Iai nods. He almost feels uncomfortable with the way Grisha addresses him. He's never thought of himself as being that powerful, especially compared to Jynx and Kaine. Then again, he's starting to realize that he hasn't even scratched the surface of what he can do.

"Come with me, my friends," Grisha says. "It is not far, and then you can sleep and eat until you are ready to continue."

"Um, that means we have to climb the dune, doesn't it?" Jynx asks.

"The entrance to Zodiac lies just on the other side of the dune, yes."

"Um ..." Jynx looks at Kaine. Kaine's not going to make it up that sand dune. His heart won't take the strain. "Could we maybe go around it?"

"That will take far too long."

"Hmm."

"Maybe there's another way," Kaine says.

"No! Are you crazy? You can't do that."

"It's not gonna get worse than it already is."

"Yeah, it will. You being dead is worse."

"But I'm not dead yet."

"You will be if you do what you're thinking."

"Can we just walk around it, please?" Kumiko asks. "I'm tired. I'm hungry. I want to take a bath."

"We will walk around the dune," Grisha says. "But what prevents you from climbing, Shaman?"

"My heart," Kaine says.

Grisha nods. "Follow me, my friends."

V.

The entrance to the underground city is underneath the rubble of a way station destroyed during the Great Train War. They descend into the cellar of the way station and then down a long, narrow stairway of concrete. Soft lights are recessed into the walls around the stairs every ten feet or so. It's dim, but not dark enough to keep them from seeing where they're going. The walls are covered in colorful depictions of the zodiac symbols, and Grisha tells them some of the history of the city as they continue downward. They don't seem as interested as he might have hoped, but he feels obligated to tell them the truth. They're all just kids after all. They can't be expected to care but so much. Still, they're not ignoring what he tells them.

Finally, they reach the bottom of the stairs, and Grisha pulls a lever that slides open a heavy wooden door. He steps through the door and raises one arm to the city before him. "This is Zodiac," he says. "May it be as home to you."

"Holy shit," Jynx says. He had expected something that echoed the cities on the surface, something run down and ill kept or maybe something of towering glory, like the strange pictures of ancient cities on planets in the old universe before the Void took them all. What lies before him is neither of those. It's a simple city of stone and concrete. The buildings are only as big as they need to be, and the tallest appears to be a three-story high temple of some sort at the center. The surface under his feet is concrete, and, like the stairway, it's covered in paintings of the zodiac symbols. The fact that the place exists at all is part of its beauty.

He also expected it to be dark and cold, but it's neither. Tall lampposts put out artificial sunlight, and there's even a small park full of bright green grass and wildflowers. He doesn't need to ask how they get food and water. He can guess now. The people who built the city didn't just go underground to hide. They knew what they were doing.

"So do you believe it now?" Kaine asks.

"I guess I have to," Jynx says. "Unless of course it's some kind of hallucination. Which it could be."

"This place is amazing," Kumiko says.

"And you're only standing on the outside," Grisha says. "Come. I will show you more. But I think our first duty must be the sad one of laying your friend to rest."

Iai tries to thank Grisha, but a hard lump rises in his throat. He swallows. Tears burn his eyes. He lowers his head and doesn't let them fall.

They follow Grisha further into Zodiac. They pass only a few people walking on the streets. Most are taking short naps after the afternoon meal. Two old women sitting on a porch and smoking pipes wave to them as they pass by. Grisha greets them with a cheerful wave of his own. The twins notice that the women seem to recognize them. The look in their eyes is one of sadness.

Um, Kaine, have we been here before? Jynx asks.

I don't think so, Kaine says.

Then why do they know us?

They're all psychics, but ...

It's not just that.

Maybe Mom and Dad --

Jynx coughs up a big clump of feathers, and Kaine's heart clenches tight and stops. Jynx pulls out the needles, still spitting feathers out of his mouth. The medicine isn't going to work this time. He knows that, but he tries anyway. He can't think of anything else to do. He almost can't get the needle into Kaine's chest. Firefly whispers a jumble of things he can barely make out. He has to block out the voices for a minute. He slides the needle in and waits while Firefly keeps murmuring in his head. A minute later, Kaine's heart begins to beat again, but it's a slow, weak rhythm. Kaine remains unconscious. Jynx lets the voices in. He hears his parents' voices, but what they're saying isn't very clear. Then he hears Grisha's voice. "You and your sons will always be welcome in Zodiac," Grisha says. After that, the whispers are indistinct, but they don't fade. Jynx hears a voice under the whispers, muttering something over and over. The voice grows stronger. He doesn't recognize it, but he knows it's Michiyo. "The trains will run," she says. "The trains will run. The trains will run! The trains will run!" The voices all abruptly fall silent.

In the distance, many miles away from the walls of the cavern in which Zodiac is built, a train blows its forlorn whistle.

Grisha calls out for help. People pour into the street. Soon, Jynx and Kumiko are following Grisha to a hospital while a group of young men carry Kaine behind them. A minister named Aries Arman takes Iai to the funeral home and then to the temple while the undertaker prepares Roland's body.

VI.

"Take comfort in these, the words of the Holy Fire, given to us by God Herself through Her Holy Prophet and Angel, the Shaman star. 'Do not fear Death, for Death is not the end. Death is the step beyond what man can see, and in God's heart, all life remains. In Death, there is peace. In Death, there is comfort. Death is not the end.'" Arman's voice is warm. He speaks in carefully measured tones; a steady, hypnotic rhythm he uses to lull his audience into calmness. He sees pain in the eyes of an otherwise expressionless face, and he tries to ease that pain. He sees a love that hadn't had a chance to fully bloom. He sees guilt. He sees anger. He does everything he can think of to soothe the bereaved, but words won't suffice. Only blood can put that pain to rest. He continues his impromptu service and hopes the young man gets his revenge sooner rather than later.

Kumiko squeezes Iai's hand and feels him trembling. He's been almost frighteningly silent since Roland died. She's tried not to worry too much, but she can't help it. She knows how much he's hurting, but she can't imagine how hard it must be for him to deal with that pain. He's never had to deal with that kind of loss before. Neither has she, so she can't be of much help to him, but she can at least try to comfort him. It keeps her from worrying too much about Kaine.

She listens to the minister and finds herself wondering if maybe she made the wrong choice. Maybe she should have stuck to bounty hunting on Absolution or Salvation. It doesn't matter what comes after death. When people die, they're no longer in your life. She doesn't like the thought of losing anyone. She closes her eyes and leans her head against Iai's shoulder.

After the service, Roland's body is carried out to the back of the church and set upon a pyre. Arman says a few more words and then leaves Iai and Kumiko alone to watch Roland burn.

"Are you okay?" Kumiko asks after they've been standing there for several minutes.

"Honestly, I don't know," Iai says. "I suppose I have some understanding of death, but I've only seen older people pass away. Of course I was sad to lose brothers and sisters at the monastery, but somehow, this isn't the same."

"I wish I could help you."

"You are helping. I'm glad you're here."

"There wasn't anything I could do for Kaine. Or Jynx. And I didn't want you to be alone."

"Thank you. I think I'll be all right now. Suada will come back for me, and I'll be ready."

"What did she want anyway?"

"To take me to Chaos."

"Why? Is that like Hell or something?"

"Chaos is a person. I remember him somehow. But it's not my memory. It's Samurai's. Chaos was close to the Void. I thought he had died, but perhaps something happened when he was in hell. It appears he is to the star demons as God is to the angels."

"That's weird."

"If you don't mind, I'd like to be alone for a while."

"Only if you're sure you'll be okay."

"I will be. Go rest."

Kumiko puts her arms around Iai and hugs him tightly. She's a little surprised that he hugs her back, but it gives her hope that he really will be all right. As she pulls away from him, her hands pass over strange protrusions on his back. They feel like broken bones. She gasps. "Iai, what --"

He puts a finger to her lips. "Please. Don't ask."

"But --"

"It isn't painful right now. It's not an injury. Please don't ask."

"Okay. I won't."

"Thank you."

Article © Mel Trent. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-06-02
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