Not for the first time, Sasha put his hand on Julian's shoulder, steering him away from one street and towards another.
“You don't want to go that way,” he offered, readjusting his grip on the handgun he'd been given as he cast glances over his shoulder at the road they were leaving behind.
Julian took his advice without question, apparently more heavily concerned with keeping an eye out for anything that might attack them. Sasha didn't mind; each of them was using his strength. It had kept them alive a lot longer than Sasha had anticipated; from the moment Julian had them repelling down the side of their building to the window under their bedroom’s till now as they roamed the streets.
If someone had told him that being the Witness might not always suck, he'd have laughed or punched the guy in his stupid face. That wasn’t to say that tonight’s situation would have proved that person right, but for once there seemed to be at least one way in which all the insanity could benefit him. Seeing ghosts had always unnerved him, but now they were an easy way to predict the movements of the demons.
Most of the ghosts he saw on a regular basis weren’t really ghosts in the classical sense. Rather than full-bodied apparitions like the little girl in the hallway at home or the figures that hung over other people’s shoulders, they were generally a soft glow of energy that moarked the location of death and faded with time. A bright haze above the body had died recently, while a faint glow meant it had been lying dead for a while. Those weren’t the kind he was seeing tonight, though. Tonight, he was seeing what looked like real people running for their lives, unaware that they’d already lost them. It was stomach-turning, but Sasha considered them warnings: if even the dead were running away from a place, there was no reason for the living to be there either.
In a turn of events that was both surprising and welcome, Julian had been able to take down several demons with the small arsenal of guns he was carrying. The problem was in the finite amount of ammunition they had on hand. Every bullet was a moment added to their lives and they spent them frugally. They had to last long enough for them to find some stronghold among other survivors where they could let their guard down at least a little. It had been their first plan and, as far as Sasha was concerned, the best plan.
Things had changed when the buildings started coming down.
If it had only been a couple of buildings, it would have been shocking but not unbelievable after everything else they’d seen so far. But it wasn’t a few buildings: whole city blocks comprising multiple levels were crumbling. It was something that couldn’t be ignored. The sounds of the destruction, carried along by great, rolling clouds of dust and debris, went on forever. Something was destroying Solace, and it was doing a very quick and effective job. Suddenly, Julian wasn't interested in finding survivors, only in catching up to the devastating force that was burying Solace’s lower levels.
And of course Sasha had to come, too, despite Julian’s instructions for him to lay low and wait. It was a stupid idea to chase after something with enough power to turn the shopping district into a massive quarry of concrete and steel, but as far as Sasha was concerned, it was stupid to sit and wait, too. He was sure that they were absolutely going to die, but if he had his way, he'd get to die beside the man he loved. Maybe it would be quick. Maybe the building-destroyer would just look at them and their bodies would disintegrate. He'd had a bad trip like that once; it wasn't as scary as some of the deaths the corpses littering the ground around them had met.
The air around them began to vibrate. Sasha had picked up on the trend and stood closer to Julian, looking up at the tall buildings around them in apprehension. When the ground began to tremble as well, it was violent enough for the glass in the windows around them to break.
They hurried for cover, huddling against an alley wall as Julian wrapped his arms around Sasha, shielding him from the sudden showers of glass. Sasha closed his eyes and mouth against what he knew would come next and felt a wave of dust collide with them with the strength and speed, if not the solid mass, of a tram. They both lurched backwards as it hit them, nearly rolling end over end further into the alley even with the buffer the alley walls provided against the dreadful gusts.
Another building had toppled nearby but not directly above them. The closer they got, the worse the experience became. Whatever it was that was doing it was moving at an even pace, however, and not at the unnatural speed of the monsters. They'd catch up to it if they kept moving.
Sasha wasn't exactly happy about that.
He clung to Julian until the clouds of dust and debris subsided, uncomfortably tucked under his chin, but with the end too near to be anything but grateful. It was a shame they both smelled like smoke and dust now; Julian usually smelled like his vanilla bean shampoo with a hint of mint from his aftershave. The familiarity of that smell would have been a nice, if momentary, escape. Instead he involuntarily breathed in heavy fumes and coughed spasmodically as his body tried to close up against the noxious air.
Julian’s hands grew warm in a regular sign of the energy passing between them, as Julian tried to heal away the irritation in his lungs and keep the filth out of his blood. It was odd in a way; Julian either thought they might actually survive or else he was just trying to make the last few hours more enjoyable. Either way, the warmth was comforting.
“We're getting closer,” Julian said, echoing Sasha's observations.
Sasha uncurled from his position against him, alleviating the stress in his back as he blinked past the settling dust. “Yeah. Still far enough away we can maybe turn around and go back to the finding shelter part.”
“And when this thing got there, we wouldn't have enough warning to evacuate before the whole place came down. Best to take it out first. Right now it's the biggest threat to us and any other survivors.”
Sasha hated it when Julian made sense. It would have been much easier if he had fallen in love with a coward. Then, at least, the “let's just find a nice place to cuddle and have end of the world sex” idea would have gotten more than a raised eyebrow as he shoved another clip of ammunition home.
“Right. So we find it and take turns blowing holes in it and just hope it doesn't just shake it off and blow us up. But in case there's not enough time before the whole plan fails and we die, lets just get it out in the open that I hate this idea and think that running for our lives is a perfectly acceptable alternative.”
“Objection noted, Private.”
“I'm a private now, huh?” Sasha smirked. “Not gonna call me civilian anymore? I like it. The awesome and all around good looking private and his sexy Captain.”
Julian laughed, shaking his head as he stood and brushed dust from his shirt. “I never dated my subordinates.”
“That doesn't rule out the men who outranked you.”
“No, it sure doesn't.”
Sasha continued to smirk and stood, brushing himself off as well and following Julian as they wandered back onto the street. “So, say we find this thing and kill it? Then what?”
“Then we go back to finding someplace safe for you.”
“For us,” Sasha corrected.
Julian sighed and the dust in front of his lips danced. “You have any idea how much trouble I would be in if I decided that I didn't want to fight? This is what the military police was intended to do: to protect civilians with necessary force against any major threats to the city. You think we train with specialized weaponry just in case there's a huge mob of protesters that needs to be mowed down?”
“Yes, I'm sure in boot camp you all learn about what to do if demons attack. Right after the part about alien invasions and before giant robot armies.” Sasha wanted to rip out his hair in frustration. “Julian, I don't care how well you think the military police are trained. They are way out of their league, and by they, I mean you, too.”
“Those things aren’t impervious to bullets.”
“They don't have to be if they can swarm in and rip your head off before you can aim your gun!”
Apparently Julian had no comeback for that. Brainwashed like all the other service men, he seemed okay with the idea of fighting in futility, except that he believed they had a chance. The healing, the fear of repercussion should he go AWOL, all things dependent only on the fact that Solace--let alone the human race--existed in the morning. Julian hadn't given up hope. Sasha didn’t have hope so much as a wish; right now, he wished if either of them had to be right, that it would be Julian.
Sasha kept the neck of his shirt pulled up over his nose as they walked through the thick dust, doing his best to filter in only good air and keep the wheezing down to a minimum. His eyes watered but visibility was limited anyway. As far as he could tell, the road ahead was clear except for dead bodies and a few weak ghost lights.
Then the fog of debris rolled aside and he could see two standing figures. They were obviously humans, and it looked like they had noticed Julian and Sasha approaching, though neither of them made any movements to come and meet or even acknowledge them. Squinting, Sasha thought they looked like a mother and child, the former holding onto the little boy's shoulders as they looked on at something still out of sight.
Sasha couldn't imagine what they were doing just standing there in the middle of the road. It was dangerous. They had to know that. The fact that they seemed disinterested in the strangers approaching them worried him as well. Seeing living people again had made Sasha's heart pick up a little in surprise and elation that they weren't, in fact, the only ones who might be left, but the abnormality of their behavior was unsettling.
Julian raced forward. Sasha paused in surprise before taking off after him, his shirt slipping away from his mouth as he ran. Perhaps seeing other survivors was even more important to Julian than Sasha had expected; he didn't just run towards them, he raced. The gun strapped to his back bucked and jostled with every furious step and Sasha found himself worrying it might somehow fire and take off the back of Julian's scalp.
Sasha ran after him but was no match for Julian’s speed or stamina. Several paces back, he could see Julian skid to his knees and embrace the child with a fierceness that was unbecoming of strangers. The mother neither moved nor acknowledged Julian's presence.
A few steps closer and the other Witnesses were more than happy to explain why, a few snickering in delight like the gluttonous gossips they were. It was time, apparently, for Sasha to meet Yokoshima Arashi. He hated him instantly on a purely impersonal, jealous level. If they had met under more normal circumstances, he might have been alarmed at the amount of energy he wasted on illogical hatred toward all the other men Julian paid attention to, but at the moment he was just happy to have something petty and mundane to occupy him.
He joined them in the middle of explanations and the exchange of pleasantries such as “well, I'm glad to see you're not dead”; eager on Julian's part and dismissive on Yoko's. Yoko was as much a mess as they were, with a layer of dust turning his black hair brown and his skin streaked with grime. He was more or less exactly what Sasha had expected, except that he was smaller in person than Sasha had pictured him. He gave Sasha the slightest of nods, acknowledging his existence but no more, as he continued to converse in simple, terse sentences with Julian.
“Your police have made a stronghold on the upper level. Here below, we are on our own.”
“What about the buildings?” Julian asked, crouched in front of the small man but no longer holding him. “Do you have any idea what's causing the city to fall? Do the demons have weaponry?”
The idea seemed so absurd to Yoko that he merely stared at Julian as though reevaluating his intelligence. “Demons require no technology,” he explained after a moment. “They are weapons. Destroying the buildings is the best means of destroying them in significant numbers.”
“The demons are knocking down buildings to kill the people inside?”
“No,” Yoko said with a slight edge to his voice. “I am knocking down the buildings to kill the demons inside.”
Julian's expression was caught somewhere between awe and horror. Sasha’s petty, crazy side couldn't help but feel a little better about the situation: Yoko wasn't so perfect after all. He was sure seeing things and being a little crazy was still better than being a mass-murdering midget. Score: Sasha 1, Yoko -20.
“But there are people inside them, Yoko.”
“Consider it the price of salvation. Their numbers must be dealt with until the proper action is taken to rectify the situation.”
It made sense to Sasha: one demon could kill hundreds of people, but one typical person stood almost no chance against even one demon. And based on the chatter he was hearing from the Others, he could tell it wasn’t the military police Yoko was referring to when he mentioned proper action.
“Mind if I ask the obvious question about how the hell you’re knocking them down in the first place?” Sasha raised his hand to get their attention as he interrupted. “I mean, if you've got some kind of explosives on you, I'd sort of like to have a few of my own.”
Yoko's large golden eyes regarded Sasha with mute disinterest before rolling in the direction of an abandoned bus some distance away. He shifted his stance, feet spread for stability and held up one hand towards the bus, palm out and fingers splayed. The air began to vibrate again and Sasha took a step back, feeling the skin on his arms prickle. The bus began to rattle; the glass that was left in the windows shattered and exploded out of the window frames as the metal frame caved in. It was a crinkled, mash of warped metal when Yoko put his hand back down and straightened up. And the destruction wasn’t limited to the bus. The light posts nearby, the fronts of the shops, the concrete between Yoko and his target; everything around the bus seemed to have been effected in one way or another, warped or cracked or shattered.
Sasha backed up until he was beside Julian again. “What are you?”
“I am divine,” he said in the same dismissive tone. “I must continue now.”
Julian reached out to him, grasping Yoko's shoulder. “Would you mind if Sasha and I came along?”
Sasha wasn't so sure he wanted to go along. Had Julian missed the part where Yoko had decimated a ton of steel and concrete before their eyes? Had he not heard the part about being a divine being? It certainly hadn't escape Sasha's notice. Even though it seemed like everyone Julian met, Sasha included, was abnormal--either a Shard or somehow connected to them--there were a few too many supernatural beings on the scene tonight for Sasha’s comfort.
Yoko nodded, though, admitting them to his party of one and offered nothing further as he set off down the street towards whatever destination he had chosen. The woman followed close behind him. That was when Sasha realized she wasn't real. With the dust behind her, she had seemed as vibrant and alive as any other person, but standing behind Yoko, his outline was visible through her. Sasha didn’t know how to quantify her. She was unlike most phantoms he'd seen, but she wasn’t quite a ghost, either. The peculiarity caused a great deal of debate for his invisible entourage. They were curious and Sasha could understand that; there was a lot about Yoko that had him curious, as well. The first chance he got, he'd try and get them the answers they sought.
The chance came when they stopped at a locked down and abandoned police facility. Yoko helped Julian break in, but stayed back to guard the door as the other man went inside to search for ammunition or weaponry. Sasha stayed outside also, eyeing Yoko so that it was evident that he was the reason. Julian noticed, but he just shook his head and went in alone, probably deciding that whatever Sasha was going to start with Yoko was something he was better left out of. Accordingly, they waited only a few seconds before speaking.
“I don't suppose I need ask what you want to talk to me about,” Yoko said, sounding bored already.
“It might surprise you. I actually just wanted to talk about that...well, that thing behind you.”
Yoko scowled as though Sasha was trying to pull an immature prank on him. “There is nothing behind me.”
Sasha smiled just a little, facing Yoko with his back against the wall. “Yeah, I doubted you could see it. The problem is, I can't figure out what she is and it's driving us crazy. Most ghosts don't follow people around, but most phantoms aren't this interactive.”
“Someone follows me?” Yoko’s eyes were wide and piercing as they met Sasha’s, though it seemed to strain his neck some.
Taking the expression for fear, Sasha slid partway down the wall to be closer to Yoko's height. “Not in a bad way. Just about everyone has a phantom. Julian has two. I figure a phantom is made in the mind of the person because of some fixation and manifests outside of them. It’s usually people you can't forgive and the things you can't forget get carried behind you like that. Most phantoms are just there and they don’t do anything. Well, most phantoms that aren’t mine, anyway.” Sasha cast a cursory glance at the other members that made up the Witness. “I've got the whole fucking peanut gallery following me around. Every last Witness that ever existed sits in my living room half the day, but it's not really them.
“They’re not like ghosts, which are formed from the energy left over from the memory and will of the dead person. Ghosts can move, talk, and do whatever they can remember doing, almost like they can think on their own. Yours is like...well, it’s like both. She just...stands there behind you like a phantom, but she holds your shoulders or watches your back like she thinks she's protecting you or helping you in some way, like a ghost. So, I mean, what the hell kind of stuff have you been doing to get a...a spirit or whatever guarding you? Do all gods have one?"
Yoko's hand was clutching at the base of his chest. Sasha could tell it was stunned disbelief and not fear that was making him wide-eyed. “You can see him?”
Him? Sasha looked back at the transparent woman. He recognized the broadness of the shoulders hidden under waves of hair and how the hands, though any hands would look large against Yoko's shoulders, were not the thin hands of a woman. Looking at it up close, it was almost laughable he had mistaken the frame for anything but male. It was very much like one he knew intimately.
Yoko had his back to the doorway, and through the opalescent fog of the non-being, Sasha could see Julian coming back to join them. For a moment, his face was framed in the wisps of the spirit's hair as he stood in the doorway, looking between his two companions. Sasha fell back, looking at Yoko with a primal, gut-chilling fear.
Yoko looked back at him, eyes narrow, as though daring him to say anything. As with the reality of his divinity, there was nothing more to say on the subject as far as he was concerned and so nothing more would be said. Part of Sasha felt an underlining “or else” attached to the unspoken instructions. He shuddered and turned to face Julian's questioning stare.
“Did I miss something?”
Sasha smiled, slipping his arm around him to steer him away from Yoko without being too obvious about it. “Nah, you know me. I see ghosts around every corner. This one just surprised me.”
“Oh.” Julian pulled away, not far but far enough that Sasha could only put his hand on his shoulder “Well, I had to leave the G-series, but they had more than enough ammunition for the standard handguns. It should last us the rest of the night.”
“Then we go,” Yoko announced, walking ahead again without hesitation.
Julian picked up his pace to match him and Sasha did the same, though his heart said to stay back and pull Julian with him. He couldn’t say anything, though, and Julian wouldn't understand without the words. He took Julian's hand and gave it a squeeze. Words never really were their strong point.