Flame and Shadow

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Chapter 65

The following morning, we were up before the sun had risen. Milo and Sera wanted to thank Mrs. Redenbacher for allowing us to stay in her shed, but I advised us against it. Actually, I absolutely forbid it. Conversations with this particular old lady usually led to extended stays. No one knew this better than I did.

We departed the small city of Bindmont and headed west toward Tsalderek’s headquarters. Milo was the most familiar with the area, so he led the way. Surprisingly, traveling alongside him was less awkward than it had ever been before. Now that all my feelings were in the light, and we had made it to the other side still as friends, I felt much less uncomfortable. My outlook on life was different. I felt like there was less pressure on me to be perfect for him, and I could breathe easier.

We were around 10 miles distant from our destination, but our pace was quick. Much of the path we took was through a coniferous forest. The shade provided by these tall, needly gymnosperms shielded us from the hot summer sun, and made the journey generally more pleasant. In fact, if not for the fact that we were possibly marching toward our imminent death, the hike through the woods could have actually been quite pleasant.

The forest was filled with a symphony of bird songs. I had walked through tropical rainforests, deciduous wooded land, and peaceful coniferous woods, but I couldn’t pick a favorite out of them. They were all beautiful in their own way. Just like humans. At that moment, with Sera and Milo by my side, I knew that I would never be completely alone as long as I lived.

A couple hours later, Milo motioned for us to slow down, and be silent. He guided us along a rather indirect path for a while. We must have been avoiding security systems. Good thing Milo knew how Tsalderek worked. Maybe we’d have half a chance. After a while, the large building that served as the organization’s base of operations appeared. It just looked like an abandoned Voortman’s cookie factory. The front must just be a cover to divert suspicion. I wonder if it’s a common practice for top secret organizations to use old abandoned buildings as their headquarters?

While still a few dozen feet away from the clearing surrounding the headquarters, Milo motioned for us to stop.

“Alright.” He whispered. “Based on our experiences so far, there’s a good chance that what we’re after will be in the commander’s office or vault. The only problem with that is that Commander Razo’s office is in the underground floor, and almost no one within Tsalderek has ever gone down there. There’s only one way in, and one way out. That’s a secret elevator on the first floor. I know where the elevator is, but it won’t be easy to get to.”

“So, first we need to break into the building, then we need to break into the basement. I assume we’ll also be tangling with Tsalderek and Teklos, and probably the Mafia while we’re at it. And the fate of the world is resting on our success.” Sera remarked sarcastically. “Did I forget anything?”

“Nah, that’s about it.”

“Right. Well, wake me when things actually get interesting.”

“Anyway, my plan is to get up to the third floor, in the manufacturing center. There’s a break in security by the big pump. The surveillance room isn’t far from there, so I can get in and disable the security systems on the first floor. Then, you two can sneak in through the rear shipment docks, and we’ll meet up there. Got it?”

“Sounds like a plan.” I confirmed.

“Yes sir! Lead the way Snake!”

“What? Oh, never mind.”

Milo stealthily circled around the compound, looking for his ideal entry point. He knew the gaps in security; the spots where cameras couldn’t reach. All he had to do was time his approach to avoid patrolling guards. There was a high fence topped with barbed wire between him and the compound, but that wasn’t going to stop him. He removed his outer shirt, took several steps back, and dashed toward the barrier.

In one moment he leapt into the air and swung his shirt against the wire. When it caught on the sharp points, he kicked off the fence and pulled down on the fastened cloth. This swung him around in a high arc around the top of the fence, and over to the other side. He hit the ground with a smooth summersault, and proceeded to sprint toward the building. Then, Milo fired his grappling hook up toward a ledge on the third floor, and pushed off the wall several times, parkour-style. Using his skill and his climbing tool, he bounced up the side of the building, and made it look easy.

After he disappeared through a window, Sera and I waited patiently outside. Well, I did. Sera was getting a bit restless. She paced back and forth.

“OK, where is he. He should’ve been out by now. I hate this stealth infiltration crap. I could just melt a hole through that stupid fence. Wait a second, what even is the signal! We never discussed a signal! How are we supposed to know when he’s ready? What if we missed it?”

Just then, there was a high-pitched squeal. We both snapped into attention to see a guard flying out of a third story window. Just before he hit the ground, his fall slowed due to a long black cord attached to his pants, and he landed mostly unharmed.

Sera turned to me.

“I guess that was the signal.”

I nodded, and we both sprinted for the fence. True to her word, Sera melted a hole through it, and we proceeded toward the old factory. Let’s see, shipping…Milo said to meet him at the shipping and receiving area. There it is!

“Sera! Follow me!” I called, and altered course around the right side.

There was a series of docking bays for semi-trucks that used to deliver ingredients for the cookies and ship the finished product. Now, they probably received supplies to sustain the members of Tsalderek here. I hoped Milo was able to successfully sabotage the security systems, because we had no cover as we ran across the clearing. We didn’t even encounter any guards. They must have gone to investigate the scream.

In a few moments, we reached the entry door for the shipping office, and darted inside. Once we were within the old factory, it was peculiar how quiet it was. There was virtually no activity at all. In fact, I didn’t see a soul. To be cautious, Sera and I still took cover behind a large pillar. Looking around though, there was still no sign of Tsalderek’s men anywhere. Were the only ones here the guards outside?

Just then, a dark form appeared behind some kind of futuristic golf cart thing. My heart kicked into high gear in terror. I was startled, and reflexively put up a force field around Sera and myself. It took a few seconds, but after he motioned for me to drop the barrier, I realized it was Milo. I put down my shield, and Milo walked over to us.

“How’s it going?” Sera asked. “Is it always all empty and abandoned like this around here?”

Milo shook his head.

“No. I can’t help but think there’s something going on like what happened at Nahalore. I haven’t seen anybody except for a few guards.”

“I guess we’d better be extra careful, then.” I remarked.

Milo nodded, and led the way. We slunk through the converted factory very quietly. Milo was right. There was no sign of anyone around. He took us through a huge expansive area that must have formerly housed production, and around to the right. We passed a couple of research and development rooms, and a sign for a training area. The young man paused for us, and whispered:

“OK. Up here to the left is the room where Razo always disappears. I’ve never been inside, but I’ve heard that it’s the only entry to his underground office. That’s our target.”

Sera and I nodded.

“You two stay here. I’m gonna see if anyone’s inside.”

With that, he crept forward in a crouched position toward the generally unsuspicious door.

As I approached the door, I had a strong feeling that someone or something was just inside. Every muscle in my body was absolutely tensed as I crept ever closer. When I reached the outside of the room, I heard voices. Pressing my ear up against the door, I attempted to gather what they were saying.

“…They’re all in the auditorium again. Man, this is easy.” Began a gruff voice.

“As easy as Nahalore?” asked a woman.

“Ah, yeah. For Nahalore, we just had to control their leader.”

“Are they all dead?”

“No. There was a resistance, and they pushed us back. Everything’s going according to plan, though.”

“Hm. Well, they’ll die soon enough.”

“Tsalderek’ll die first. When we have their leader, they’ll do anything. Pathetic idol worship.”

In a few minutes, Milo came back over to us. He looked fairly calm, but I knew that he had bad news.

“Teklos is here. Their army in Nahalore was defeated, which is the good news. The bad is that they’re planning on exterminating all of Tsalderek next.”

“Hah! Ol’ Rhino-Nose went running home to mommy!” Sera quietly exclaimed. She seemed very relieved that at least some of Nahalore must have survived.

“Yeah, but that doesn’t help us. There’s no way we can take them. I think their primary commander is here. For all I know, they could have the majority of their force here. And they’re right in front of where we need to go.”

“Well, whadda we do now?” Sera wondered.

“I’m thinking.”

“Hey guys.” I had an idea, but it was contingent on something out of our control. “How did we do it in Nahalore? How did we end up making it out alive?”

“We… we defeated their leader.” Sera answered.

“Yes, but what happened after that?”

Milo looked like he understood.

“We had all of the Nephilim on our side.”

“Exactly. If you could convince Tsalderek to fight back against Teklos, we might have a chance.”

Milo let out a deep breath.

“That won’t be easy. These guys are the stubbornest people on the planet. And they hate me.”

“That’s what I thought about Nahalore.” Added Sera. “But it worked. They helped us. Maybe Tsalderek will too.”

The boy shrugged.

“Well, I might as well try. I don’t see any other way.”

We resumed silence, and Milo led us back the way we came. Then, he headed toward the south side of the first floor. After creeping for some time, still encountering no opposition, we arrived at the outside of a huge auditorium. At last, there was a sign of human presence. Voices were emanating from within this seminar room.

“I’m gonna check it out again. Gimme a minute.” Milo declared, and slowly advanced toward a door near the rear of the auditorium.

Again, after an agonizingly long minute or so, he came back to us.

“They’re all in there. They’ve been promised that Commander Razo would speak to them. In all of the time I was here, we never once heard him speak, so I’m not surprised they’d all be waiting there. Actually, I’d be interested myself if the situation were different.”

“OK, what do we do next?” I wondered.

“Well, it’s time to go into the lion’s den.”

With that, Milo hurried toward the door that led to the front stage of the auditorium. We had to pass by a number of other entrances to get there. Just as we were about to go by one, it opened slowly toward us. The three of us instantly pressed against the wall, and hoped that whoever was exiting the auditorium wouldn’t see us. Thankfully, he didn’t look to his left, and the door he pushed open prevented him from noticing.

Whew, that was close. We were about to continue on, when Milo seemed to recognize the young man.

“Kazushita…” He growled under his breath.

I wasn’t sure what kind of history these two had, but judging by my friend’s reaction, it wasn’t a good one. Milo began creeping after him, looking like he had intent to kill. This was not good. I wanted to call out and remind him to let go of his anger, but if I were to do that, the game would be over. We’d get killed for sure, so I had to helplessly watch Milo’s hatred take over him.

Just when it looked like he was about to strike, he stopped. It was as though everything he had learned and believed came flooding back to him. Instead, he took a step backward, and cleared his throat.

The muscle-bound other man flinched, and flipped around.

“Hello, Kazushita.” Milo said.

“You…” Kazushita responded menacingly. “What’re you doing here?”

“Look, coming back here wasn’t my idea. The prophecy itself dictates where we go. We’re just trying to bring peace.”

“Peace, huh? You came to the wrong place, freak.” The aggressor began walking forward slowly.

“Our rivalry is over, Kazushita. There’s no reason to fight anymore. You won.”

“After you left, they did promote me to agent, finally. But I’ve still dreamed of making you pay for the humiliation you put me through!”

“I’m sorry. I treated you wrongly. I was ambitious. But if this is about revenge, it needs to wait. I don’t want to fight you-“

Don’t you? I wonder what your little dumb blonde would say about that!”

Milo stiffened. Uh, oh. I remembered him saying before that there were people in Tsalderek he wanted to kill for what they did to someone he cared about. This must be one of those guys.

“Yeah. Don’t tell me you don’t want to get revenge. She’d probably want you to get some payback on me. Or did you forget all about her? After she couldn’t do what you wanted her for anymore, you just moved on, didn’t you!” He gestured to Sera and me. “I see you’ve got a couple of ‘em now. You’re doin’ just fine!”

“Shut up!” Milo began raising his voice in anger, then remembered that detection would not be a good thing. However, his rage-imbued quiet voice was even more chilling. “You’re right about one thing. I do want to kill you. But… I’m not like that anymore. If it were up to me, you’d already be dead. But Dani, that’s the Little Dumb Blonde, in case you forgot her name in the time since you destroyed her life, told me that I need to let go of my hatred. My sister and friend have helped me remember that. This hatred turns me into something I’m not, and…and I’m letting it go.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Kazushita was baffled. “Forgiveness? Forgiveness makes you weak! It kills any chance of advancing in this world! Are you really that stupid?”

“Yes I am.” Milo answered calmly. “I forgive you, Kazushita. If Dani can do it, then I can. We’re on the same side.”

The furious rival stopped only inches from Milo’s face.

“I’m not going to fight you.”

“We’ll see about that.”

With that threat, Kazushita threw a right punch. Milo blocked with a lightning quick movement. This did not deter the aggressor, who slammed his knee into Milo’s stomach. He stumbled backward, holding his gut and gasping.

What a jerk! I took a step forward to help, but Sera beat me to it. Before Kazushita could lay another finger on the unresisting young man, she blasted him with a jumping fiery punch in the face.

“Don’t you touch my brother, Godzilla!!” She shouted, then slapped her hands over her mouth.

In a moment, a bald man popped his powerful, scarred head out the door.

“What’s all the- YOU!”

Milo had stood erect again, and shrugged his shoulders.

“Why is it always all about me?”

The older man didn’t seem to think this was funny, as he immediately reached for his gun. I was still standing by the door where he had come from, so I slammed it hard. The force knocked the gun from the man’s hand. Then, I grabbed his arm, threw the door back open, and flipped him over my back, punching his head through the door. Finally, I closed the door again, leaving only his head sticking out from the auditorium.

“ARRRRRGGH! GET THEM!!” He screamed.

That sounded like our cue to leave. Milo took off in the direction we had come from, and Sera and I quickly followed. It did not take long for the sounds of pursuit to begin sounding from behind us. I didn’t turn around to look, instead just focusing on keeping up with the twins.

“Nice one!” Milo praised. “I’ve never seen anyone get the better of Hanson like that!”

“Ah…he just didn’t see me coming.” I modestly replied, pushing ahead at full speed.

At first I was confused that Milo was leading us right back to where he had heard Teklos’ commanders, then I understood. He knew he wouldn’t be able to convince Tsalderek that Teklos had invaded, but if they saw it for themselves…

After the mad sprint across the converted factory, our pursuers were almost on top of us. The room we had eavesdropped on before was just ahead. Only a little more! When we reached the destination, Milo skidded to a halt, and stared in disbelief. The door was wide open, and there wasn’t a soul inside. Seconds later, we were surrounded by Tsalderek’s agents. Hm…They must have wanted to question us or something, because they didn’t shoot us already.

The bald man, Hanson, stepped to the front of the posse.

“You’ve got some balls coming back here like this, boy.”

“I didn’t have much choice. But that doesn’t matter now. I wanted to warn you, Teklos is here! They’re planning on-“

“Pfftt! Do you really think we’re that frickin’ stupid?! Oh, yeah, we’ll let you go! Since we’re under attack by Teklos! I don’t see any sign of Teklos anywhere around here! Why should I believe you!?”

“Don’t.” Milo calmly responded. “Believe him.”

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