Riftwalker

Chapter Ten: The Demon of Empire City

Until that day I'd never seen the object of mine and Serena's obsession in the flesh before. We knew what he looked like, everyone in Empire City did before it was blown apart (and Bertrand appeared to believe our man MacGrath was at the centre of things yet again), but we'd assumed he'd be nothing more than a terrorist despite the alleged acts of good he'd propitiated for the good of its people. Naturally we'd taken these reports with a grain of salt. It made little sense after all, for the man who had practically reduced Empire City to ruins (before apparently blowing it up altogether) to suddenly start trying to help it.

We heard the stories of the 'Lightning Man' that was Cole MacGrath, but never in my wildest imagination could I have possibly comprehended the sheer, raw, unstoppable power he wielded now. His limbs crackled and raced with energy, lashing at the towering behemoth with bolts of electricity that were actually forcing the beast back!

It was mesmerising.

It was terrifying.

This was the man Serena and I (and Sía) had been seeking, and for a moment I started to wonder why in all the seven layers of hell we'd thought to search for this man.

I became dimly aware that someone was helping me up. Julie, who had evidently recovered from her slack-jawed stupor at the sudden appearance of the 'Demon of Empire City' had remembered that I was in the middle of bleeding in the middle of the road. So did I, now that I thought about it, and suddenly the stinging agony of the gash the freak had given me returned with a vengeance. I was only thankful that the even more crippling pain from before hadn't kicked in yet.

And no sooner had I thought that, when it returned with almost as much gusto as the pain of my more immediately concerning leg wound. I gasped and suddenly bent over to clutch at my boiling insides in the vain hope that doing so might somehow alleviate the pain. Both of us fell, Julie surprised at my sudden movement and shock had already weakened her.

I collapsed next to the body of a strangely portly Militiaman, his left side had been savaged frightfully; the stink of blood and organs made me gag and despite my aching everything I pulled away from him…

And then I stopped and stared as I realised I knew the identity of this cadaver.

Mr Reid lay on the ground in front of me, a wide pool of blood spreading out from underneath his large frame. His rifle lay in two pieces at his side, sheared by the same blow that had felled him. His skin was a ghastly white and I knew there was no way he was ever going to be okay. I heard Julie gasp in shock as she too realised who it was she was looking at and I cursed myself for forgetting about her in my own horror.

Incredibly, though, Mr Reid was still alive, and an unhealthy, wet cough escaped his increasingly blue lips. He looked at the two of us staring down at him, and a look of indescribable pain came over him, as if he wanted nothing more than to spare us this pitiful, terrible sight. I could almost feel my heart rend at his all too obvious agony, and the knowledge that he clearly wasn't long for this world.

"You got to her… good," he wheezed, and in my focus the clash between the two titans and the Militia reduced to an irritating background noise. "I tried… to get to her but… bastard blindsided me." His breathing was getting more and more infrequent, and more laboured. Julie wept, and I think I was on the verge of doing so myself.

"Keep her safe… and… tell Mary I'm sorry…"

And then he died.

Just like that.

My mind was reeling. I was physically a wreck, still bleeding heavily from my leg wound, some crippling injury or sickness was wracking me with spasms and burning pain, and now this kind, gentle man, who had wanted nothing more than to help defend his home and protect his family and friends, had died. A faint voice in the back of my mind kept telling me I was seeing things. Mr Reid had made waffles with my dad just three days ago before I'd set out with Serena, he'd cracked an awful joke that dear Mrs Reid had found hilarious, and even the rest of us had cracked a wry grin.

Things like this just didn't happen to people like him. They couldn't.

And then something inside of me broke.

My cheeks wet with recently shed tears; I turned towards the scene of the duel between MacGrath and the walking leviathan. The thing was bleeding from a dozen horrific wounds and it was clear to any observer that MacGrath had it on the ropes. Then as the Demon of Empire City prepared to unleash the final blow, the monster shrieked, an ear-splitting cry so high-pitched and so loud that all the glass in the street shattered and MacGrath actually staggered.

Instead of capitalising on the opening, however, the monster seemed to conjure up a thick, green smog that wreathed around it like a smoke screen. I could hear a horrendous cracking of bones and slithering of flesh and then the smog disappeared…

And the monster was gone.

Cole MacGrath stood in the centre of a maelstrom of destruction, a strange look on his face, like he'd discovered exactly what cards his opponents on a poker table had.

And then he started running.

I wasn't going to let him go. Not this time, not when I was so close, but I hurt all over and there didn't seem to be any way I could possibly keep up.

I staggered forwards after him, leaning on a wrecked taxi cab for support. Julie rushed after me and tugged on my arm but I shrugged her off, completely fixated on Cole MacGrath's retreating form. He hopped onto a window ledge and started to climb. Jesus, I'd never seen anything like it, not even on some of those old free running videos Tommy liked to show me.

Desperation welled up within me. I was losing him. I couldn't afford to lose him. Damnit I wouldn't lose him.

I strained my body and my powers, knowing full well it might just kill me, but I did it anyway and suddenly I was in the air and closing on him. A wave of anguish ripped through me again and for one horrible moment I was in freefall above the wartorn streets of New Marais. Fresh determination once more surged through me as Cold hopped over the edge of the building, clambering effortlessly onto the roof of an apartment block.

I screamed. It was a primal, savage noise. Pure emotion, and which ones exactly I still can't say for certain. I jumped, again and again until I was – finally – within arm's reach of my target.

'MacGrath!' I bellowed, and then I cannoned into him like a charging bull. Both of us fell over, a confused tangle of limbs before we separated abruptly, and I rolled over and over, coming to a stop just on the opposite edge of the building. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Cole rising to his feet, dusting himself off and no doubt wondering what the hell had just happened.

I felt more weak than I'd ever felt in my life, but I was convinced that if I let him go here I'd never get this close to him ever again and, shakily, I too pushed myself up. Cole turned his head towards me, regarding me with a curious expression.

I let him stew on his thoughts before I jumped again.

My fatigue was clearly weakening my gifts too, though, as instead of behind him as I wanted to, I rematerialized just in front of him. I recovered quickly – remarkably so considering my pathetic condition – and threw a sharp, slugging punch aimed squarely at his jaw…

And then pain enveloped my world.

I saw nothing but white for a moment, and then I was on my back, limbs splayed, looking up at the night sky on top of a rooftop in New Marais, bleeding and broken and crying like a newborn.

Cole stepped over me, one hand crackling with power. He placed a cautious foot atop me, but he needn't have bothered. Whatever he'd done, it had knocked all the fight out of me.

"Who are you, and what the hell was that just now?" he asked me.

"You know what it was," I slurred, "murderer." I said, trying to muster enough strength to spit at him. Cole squeezed his eyes shut at my slander, why though, I couldn't say.

"You've seen Bertrand's broadcasts," he said, matter-of-factly.

"Empire City," I breathed, "you killed everyone. My brothers, Serena's friends, and then you blew it up as if we hadn't suffered enough already."

A forlorn expression appeared on Cole's face, and he took a deep breath.

"So this is a vendetta?" he asked slowly.

I nodded in response, hoping my expression was sufficiently hateful. If it was though, it didn't seem to faze him much. He sighed again, a very soft expression, before, incredibly, he took his foot off my chest and sat down next to me. I was more than confused. I'd expected cold behaviour, gloating, a megalomaniacal laugh at a stretch, but this seemed almost human.

"I don't have all the time in the world right now kid," he said, placing a hand behind his head and scratching for a moment. "But I can tell you this… I caused the Empire City disaster. Not directly, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't my fault. I caused so much suffering that I had – needed – to make it right."

I wanted to tell him he was a liar, and that if there was a hell he was most certainly headed there when he died, but the words caught in my throat. He sounded completely sincere. I tried, vainly, to try and shake my head to clear it. There was no way I was hearing this correctly, right?

"What happened in Empire City to destroy it though, was something else. It's something much worse than me, worse than that giant maggot that just strolled through town. I was… supposed to be ready for it, and I wasn't, and people died. And I don't think I'll ever really forgive myself for failing them." He paused for a moment, taking another few deep breaths.

"It's coming here too. You've seen the news of the devastation striking all along the East Coast right?" It was kind of hard to avoid them, as the mystery surrounding them coupled with the frequency of the disasters was still very much a hot topic among the major news networks. "I've been given something that can help me defeat it, maybe even kill it, but to do that I need…" he trailed off, and turned his head to the side.

Following his gaze, I found Sía and Serena standing a handful of metres away. Serena looked a mixture of vengeful and terrified, and appeared to be constantly fidgeting with the box of nails she carried. Sía just looked stupefied, both at Cole's mere physical presence and my sorry state if I was any judge, which I wasn't considering my pitiful condition.

"Friends of yours?" Cole asked softly, so as not to raise any undue alarm. I nodded slowly, ever more confused. Surely if he was the villain Serena and I had taken him for he'd not at all be opposed to frying the both of them then and there. But then he confirmed it himself: he caused the Empire City incident, the bombing that had sent it not so much spiralling as careening into a downward slump in the first place anyway.

"Get away from him," Serena called, placing a nail between each of her fingers. Her eyes were wide and sweat trickled down her face, her purple highlights falling over one eye which she didn't remove, too focused on Cole's every minute movement.

"I'm not going to hurt him," Cole called, "or you." He added.

Sía placed a hand on Serena's and lowered it. Serena looked at her sharply before acquiescing, gradually lowering her arm.

"So you guys are all conduits?" Cole asked. I nodded again.

"Good, then they can take you from here. I have to follow up on Godzilla's ugly cousin," with that he hopped onto his feet and turned. A thought seemed to occur to him as he stopped short of racing off, turning back to face me.

"By the way… have you run across someone about your age called Joan by any chance?" he asked.

My puzzlement must have shown, because he sighed again and shook his head.

"Never mind then… hold still for a moment," he said as he held his hands together, electricity began to course through his arms and for a moment I feared he was going to barbeque me than and there. I squeezed my eyes shut, already anticipating the death blow.

A sharp, sudden jolt made my body spasm and shudder and I waited for death to claim me… but instead I felt… good. I hurt like a bastard, but unlike before it felt… bearable. Incredulous, I raised an arm. No blistering pain, just the ache and throb of my bleeding wounds. I cringed as I took in the state of my hands for the first time since the mess with the behemoth had started: two of my fingers were undoubtedly broken, and in one place I'd even laid open the skin to the bone.

I turned away from my ruined hands, gingerly avoiding putting them under any great strain. I looked up at Cole, who had taken a step back, likely fearing an attack by Serena or Sía. Serena looked like she had started, but had once more been stopped by Sía. After a brief moment making sure Serena wasn't likely to try planting a few nails in his spine when his back was turned, he glanced back down at me.

"I'm sorry kid. I really am, but I'm not your enemy."

And with that he turned and raced across the rooftop, hopping from one to the next with a mixture of power usage and pure athleticism.

We didn't do anything except stare at his departing figure for a few minutes, and my brain was working on overdrive trying to process everything he'd said and done. Was it entirely possible that our little quest for vengeance was unfounded? No, no he'd said he was responsible for the bombing of Empire City… which led me to the other thing he'd said. If he hadn't reduced Empire City to rubble all that time ago… what exactly had? And he'd said that whatever had done that was on its way here as well.

I held my head in my hands, for all of a second before remembering their terrible state and snatched them away from my pounding skull as the first pinpricks pierced their way through my digits.

"Rhys!" Serena shouted anxiously, rushing towards my sitting form and crouching down next to me. "Are you okay?"

I nodded dumbly, not entirely sure I could trust my mouth to work. I'd had to deal with so much in such a short amount of time.

"You sure?" Sía asked, her face a mask of concern, "you look like something a stray cat spat out."

I almost chuckled, but I still hurt too much to do so with any great deal of comfort.

"No," I said finally, my voice creaky with pain.

"Julie's back at the house, your folks are there too, and Mrs Reid. She asked me if we could look for her husband while we were out looking for you," Serena said, and a wave of relief and grief flooded through me. In the encounter with the Electric Man I'd forgotten all about my sister…

And Mr Reid.

"I need to talk to her about that," I told her. She looked ready to argue the point but I shot her a look and she held her tongue.

"Okay then," she nodded, "Let's get down from here."

-X-

Telling Mary Reid that her husband was dead was an experience that'll haunt me until the end of my life. I can recall every second of her grief, the way her head shook, visibly rejecting the possibility that I was telling the truth and that her beloved Dennis was dead. Even telling her that he had died in the noblest way possible hadn't assuaged her in any way, and honestly, I hadn't expected it to.

Julie had been out playing with a friend she'd made from the house next door and looking for me and Serena when the behemoth had attacked. She'd not seen her friend since, and the haunted look in her eye tells me she blames herself for kind, soft-hearted, jolly Mr Reid's murder. I still haven't told her otherwise even though I know it's the truth. Regardless of whether or not she'd been out there playing with her friend Mr Reid still could have been called out to help defend the city from the monster.

Where exactly that big fucker came from or where it went nobody seems to know. The Militia claim that they're on top of it, as they do with everything bad that's happened since they took over, but not even they seem to believe that if the way their patrols all seem that much jumpier is any indication. Sía seems to think it's a conduit, but conduits can't possibly become things like that, can they? They teleport, or shoot lightning or fire, or control metal. They don't turn into monsters like those from old myths and legends.

The most frustrating thing about all of it is that I can't do anything to even try to verify what I've been told, as I'm confined to a hospital bed, fervently praying that no one notices anything out of the ordinary about my blood or skin or whatever and notifies the Militia. My family visits every day, and they tell me Mrs Reid went to a Militia memorial service honouring those who perished fighting the Behemoth. Interestingly enough, Joseph Bertrand wasn't there to lead it, delegating it to one of his subordinates, who proceeded to turn what should have been a respectful service into a hateful anti-Conduit rally.

Assholes.

But even my time spent fuming over that is short-lived, as my mind replays my meeting with Cole MacGrath over and over, trying to work out an angle. The profile Serena and I had built up of him hadn't fit even slightly with how he'd appeared to be on that rooftop on that night, and try as I might I still couldn't make my mind up.

Part of me wanted to believe he was telling the truth, that he hadn't intended on anything like the devastation he'd inadvertently caused (or so he claimed), but then if that was the case then what had been the point in me and Serena hounding him all this time? The more cynical, spiteful segment of my mind refused to accept that our witch hunt had been for nothing, and that Cole was merely a very well-practised liar, and he was laughing about our little confrontation as he fried the next group of bystanders to cross his path.

My head hurt. I needed to sleep. I needed to rest. Maybe when I next woke up everything would seem crystal clear again as it had been before that night.

And so for the first time in my life, I went to sleep not knowing exactly what I wanted to believe.