|Conflict With A Keeper
||[Jan. 15th, 2006|08:30 pm]
As swift as his passing was, I was grateful for what the Librarian had given me. Not only had he pointed me in a new direction, a place to follow beyond gut instinct, but he’d banished that one damaging feeling that had been following me like a cursed shadow – doubt.
The way I see it, there’s more than one kind of intelligence in the world. There’s mental intelligence – reasoning, working out mathematical problems, working out puzzles and the like. And then there’s instinctual intelligence, the kind that I was following all along – a feeling in your body that something was wrong, and letting that lead you. Null mages, dusters, all gotta have instinctual intelligence – it’s the guiding force that helps us pick out the cracks in material fabric, the sense that helps us reach tiny invisible fingers into the chinks of atoms and pull it apart bit by bit. It was the only way I could have known of the weirdness going on in the fabric of the universe, and the fact that some part of my mind doubted it was logical enough. The lerft hand really didn’t know what the right hand was doing.
And as I led the dead girl down familiar passageways of dark sewers and grimy sidewalks, I realized that whatever the strength of my resolve now, I still had to think this all through. Time was of the essence, but if I kept moving like this without any forethought, I figured I’d lose my edge. I had somewhere solid to go now, something that was no longer a matter of instinct, and I decided that whatever the danger, it was time to lay low. I’m only human, after all.
The aching muscles in my tired old body seemed to agree as well, and though the dead girl gave no sign of exhaustion, I wondered if there was a limit to her stamina as well. We took a break for a bit, ate some of the spare food we scrounged up from my dead mentor’s place, the darkness hugging us like some kind of overstretched garment. I should correct that last bit, actually - she didn’t eat, I did, though I tried offering some to her.
All she did was just shake her head mechanically and answer, “I’m not hungry,” and I continued on.
Food weren’t the only thing we brought with us from that one place my master called home. In his store rooms of stuff I found a gleaming blade, a short sword of quality you really don’t see these days in current self-defence arnaments. My master had a thing for concealable blades, something I couldn’t fathom having myself but nonetheless appreciated in him. I took it with me - I didn’t figure that a weapon would do much good on the road I travelled, but I guess I wanted something to remember him with. Undergrounders never keep pictures of themselves, for obvious reasons.
There was one destination I was dead-set on now - a small bar, designed to look marginally like one of those bright little seaside coffee shops you used to see way back when - I’m talking about a time centuries back, of course. That was back when culture weren’t being downtrodden like it is now, and when clean atmosphere actually existed. The owners of the bar liked to try keeping the place looking authentic - that meant that there weren’t no security cameras or photo ID, and the machines kept their distance, like they had developed a 6th sense in respecting the privacy of outcasts.
I was glad to see that not much had been changed, though, when we finally climbed out of that dank underground in a tiny alleyway and tiptoed four blocks through abandoned and broken homes to our destination. Signs of Life was a tiny respite of sanctuary in the midst of urban desert and festering gangland, a place where food was actually pretty good and had comfortable surroundings which didn’t suddenly erupt into sporadic bouts of gang violence - the owners knew how to take care of their store.
I had ordered a herbal tea - real stuff, not the pre-packaged synthesized kind - and found a good spot with the girl near the corner of the room, where we could look out the window at what passed as daily weather in our giant bubble of a world. I took my time sipping the stuff, feeling like I’d come back to something that most resembled home, while the dead girl looked beyond my shoulder and around the room with those blank eyes of hers, detached but searching, her doe-like face framed by brown hair cut to her shoulders that swished around when she moved. She must have been beautiful, once, before the pallor of cold death washed her skin white and made her eyes sink so they looked perpetually tired.
We said nothing, and for a while, I dozed a bit, for once actually feeling comfortable without any cameras around. I must have clocked half an hour’s rest or so when I felt an urging tug on my jacket sleeve. I woke up quickly to stare into two frightened eyes and heard the dead girl speak - “We have to go.”
Her gaze wasn’t on me - it was past my shoulder, looking at the entrance from behind me, occasionally looking back to me to spur on the sense of urgency and alarm building inside my gut. I looked to where she was looking, carefully, not wanting to attract attention to myself by being overly cautious.
It was a man, a Keeper of all things, one of the kinds that used ancestral magic - the only non-metallics out there with any solid, official position of power. There was no hair on his head, he was bald, wearing a jacket with his Family insignia on his breast pocket - one that I didn’t immediately recognize. He hadn’t seemed to notice us. Walking with him was another man, not of his Family... not a Keeper at all. He dressed like a businessman, and went along with the look by carrying a black briefcase in his right hand.
I felt no immediate sense of danger. They took up a table at the far corner of the room, using the café as a speakeasy to arrange some sort of deal. But the girl kept tugging on my sleeve, urging me to attention. I turned to her, curious now. What was it about the two men that frightened her like this?
“You know those men?” I asked, trying to pull her hand off my sleeve. Her fingers held on regardless, as tight and unbendable as rigor mortis.
“Those men,” she repeated, staring at them with - with what? Fear? Revulsion? And then once more, she added, “We can’t stay here. We have to go.”
“Okay, okay,” I said, holding up my hands to soothe her. “Let go of my sleeve. We’ll go out the back way. No trouble.” I finished what was left of the homegrown tea, cooled down now after being left for too long, and took the girl’s wrist in my left hand as she unhooked her fingers from my jacket. It would be easy - I’d go over, pay the money owed for the tea, we’d leave by the back door, say goodbye to whoever this Keeper was that got the girl so wild like this.
But nothing in this world ever truly goes the way we’d want it to go.
As I left the credit cash on the counter for the host of the café, I saw the bald Keeper stand up - stare straight at the dead girl beside me with a look of unconcealed shock. As I led her to the door, his eyes turned to me, and I locked his gaze for one brief, heated moment, before turning my back to him and walking calmly out the back door, taking the girl with me.
There’s an important safety rule for dealing with angry Keepers - never try to outrun them, ever. They’ll find you, no matter what you do or where you go. Another rule to abide by is to never turn your back to them, unless you have the situation under control. I was far from being in control at that point, but it would’ve been no good to rile up the locals of one of my more frequented spots in Dome 9. I did the only sensible thing that was available to me - I took it outside, like the quintessential bartender would have wanted me to.
We hadn’t covered too much ground walking when the bald man emerged from the back door in pursuit after us. “Lish!” I heard him yell after us, and soon after I heard the padding of running feet. As I turned to face him, I got a better look at his face.
Were it not for his clothes, I could have easily mistaken him for some common inner-dome thug - the thin rise of stubble over his chin, the earring, the way his green eyes bore into mine with murderous ferocity. I recognized the insignia on his jacket now - Gayue, one of the more prominent Families in Dome 9, the movers and shakers amid some of the more undesireable elements in human society.
If the dead girl had somehow gained the ire of this set of Keepers, I was in for trouble down the road.
Then he said something, far from any taunt or threat I would have expected from him - “Let go of my sister.”
I felt the dead girl’s arm slip out of my hand and watched her recoil from him, backing away slowly like a a defensive animal. I turned away from her and looked back at her supposed bald-headed sibling, whose eyes had turned to her briefly, and then back to me.
“She’s supposed to be dead,” he said with venom in his voice. “What are you doing with her? Who are you?”
“It doesn’t look like she wants to talk to you,” I said in a blithe sort of manner. I was trying to gauge him, figure out his agenda. A crowd of curious people was starting to gather around us.
With a scowl, he pushed me back and looked to the girl, still looking like a terrifed animal being backed into a corner. “’Lish,” the bald man said softly as he went forward, “It’s time to come home. The whole family’s worried about you. Come on, let’s leave this place.”
“Don’t come any closer,” she whispered. Her eyes didn’t look doe-eyed anymore - there was something ferocious in them, an aggression that I didn’t see earlier. I wasn’t intent on seeing what might come after if she were further provoked, so I put a hand on the bald man’s arm.
“Easy,” I spoke, looking at him with what I hoped was a more neutral expression. “There’s obviously something about you that’s bothering her. Why don’t we just back off a little, talk this over--”
“Take your hands off me, you devil-spawned unraveller,” he spit, alluding to my arcane trade, and as he took a hand out of his pocket I heard the distinct click of a switchblade. This was quickly getting out of hand, and I had never gotten lessons on how to diffuse a riled-up Keeper (short of bolting like a hare, which contradicted with the rules anyway).
Nonetheless, he was acting like an arrogant thug, and as my patience waned I felt an increasing desire to show him how just how far an attitude like that could take him.
I leaned my head around to look at the weapon behind him. It was a wicked thing, sharp and polished, something that a man like him would take special care of. I concentrated on the blade first - finding a tiny crack in its metallic sheen that I could make a wedge into - and as he raised the thing in warning I pulled it open. With satisfaction, I watched as the blade eroded and disapeared, becoming more than fine sand sprinkling down the bald man’s hand.
He looked down at the blade handle as it happened, the only remnant of his beloved dagger. Judging by his reaction, he hadn’t realized that I was a null master.
“That was your blade I just destroyed,” I said matter-of-factly, stepping back from him. “Your fingers go next, if you’re not more careful in your conduct with strangers.”
But the man was more stupid than I would have given him credit for. That’s the problem with the stubborn - they won’t be mollified, they just get angry. I was ready for the punch that he aimed at my stomach, side stepping it, but I was no brawler, and the second blow landed against my chin, making me stagger backward with a hand to my jaw.
They say that only the guilty fall with one blow. As the third punch went to my temple and my shoulder met with concrete, I thought about that saying, reflecting on my past sins as the world turned into a blur above me. I could hear a woman yelling something, see pale hands on his jacket pulling the bald man back as he lifted his fist for another whack at me.
With fading concentration, I looked toward the raised hand and fervently searched for the neccesary fracture...
(posted as a cliffhanger so that Nielthunn gets to do something)