Hartley and Lyra stood in front of their house, yellow police tape hanging torn from the front entryway, the night sky overhead as the red glow from Nerom bathed both the siblings and the house. The evidence markers that dotted the street where the van was parked had been removed and the house was cleaned out. Hartley approached the door and touched the handle.
“We don’t have to do this,” Lyra said softly as she put her hand on her brother’s shoulder. He could feel her grip tight as his t-shirt was tugged slightly.
“I do,” Hartley replied as he inserted the front door key into the bolt of the door and turned it, locking the house for good. He stepped back away and walked down the long pathway to the street where three large bags sat filled with their belongings. Hartley stepped off of the concrete path and into the grass, the soil was wet and saturated, and water came up and out from under his feet. He sat down next to one of the bags in the dry grass further away from the house. His eyes wandered through the building’s contour, the shape of the roof, the two windows of the living room on the right side. Hartley reached his hand into the bag and took out a road flare. Lyra took a seat next to him and mulled over memories of her own accord before the plastic cap of the flair popped off. Hartley looked down at it, turning it through his hand a few times before pressing the striker against the tip and lighting it. The bright, red light flashed as the siblings stared into the reaction. Hartley wound back and threw the lit flare up against the house as the streetside wall became engulfed in flames. The bright, orange light fought back Nerom’s glow as the siblings stared into their childhood home slowly melting into the bright blaze. Hartley sat forward, staring, the bright light reflecting off of his eyes as his fists tightened.
“There’s no going back now,” Lyra said as she too stared into the inferno in front of her.
“There never was,” Hartley replied, the heat radiating from the house warmed his face while the wind blew the smoke away from them, “They dug their graves. All we have to do is find them.” He turned to his sister and looked her in the eyes who nodded in return. The two sat and watched as their home crumbled and burned to the ground. The two sat for a while longer, staring into the fire. Tears began to well in the corners of Hart’s eyes as his lungs refused to take air. He cried to himself silently as the smoke from the fire stung his eyes.
The wood cracked and glass melted before the siblings finally got up from their spots on their front lawn and walked down and away from their street. Everything burned from the tapestry to the tape outlines from where their parents laid. All of the belongings they weren’t carrying with them and all records they ever lived there, soaked in fuel and lit to brighten the night sky. The siblings walked along the road, making their way to a lakeside path they used to ride their bikes down when they were much younger, beaches they swam at and places where they spent time as a family. Lyra stopped to turn back, watching as the plume of orange smoke rose in the distance while Hartley kept walking, not turning back for even a second. Hartley broke from the path to walk to the beach. He stood in the sands, both hands in his pockets, feeling the cold night air blow against him. In his pocket were the keys to the house, his fingers wrapped tightly around them before he took his hand out and flung the keys into the water. Lyra watched as her brother made his way back up to the path through the brush and continued on their way. They walked all the way from their home to the Juniper Grove train station where Norick was already waiting. It was 1640 AM as the pair arrived. Norick didn’t look happy as the two approached. Norick grabbed Hartley’s right arm and scowled at him.
“Do you mind telling me what happened this morning?” he asked as Lyra looked away ashamedly.
“It’s none of your business,” Hartley said as he wrenched his arm free and walked towards the platform.
“Why didn’t you stop him?” Norick asked Lyra as they watched the young man sit down at the platform, waiting for the eastbound train, “It’s a lot of work to try and cover up.”
“You try telling him ‘No,’” she replied while not making eye contact. She took the tickets from Norick as well as a small booklet before he sent her off with her brother. Norick watched as Lyra walked away from him. She strode forward with purpose, and it made Norick remember the first time he met Lyra when she was a young, timid girl. He turned away from the pair and walked away.
Hartley and Lyra sat waiting for almost an hour before the train arrived, boarding and taking their seats in a private cabin. Hartley sat looking out the window with his sister across from him.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve been to Omegrad, huh?” Lyra asked as she smiled at her brother. Hartley looked to her and smiled back fondly, “I remember the first time we saw the mountains up close. It was incredible.”
“Ha, well the Holy Capitol practically is a castle,” she said back, watching her hometown shrink in the distance, the lights from the city fading into a blurry line on the horizon. She looked at the train schedule, “It looks like we’ll get there at around 2100AM.”
“Geezus these things move fast,” Hartley commented as he laid back and put his feet up to relax along the long seat. Lyra watched him and sighed to herself.
“Norick is worried about you, I’m worried about you,” she said
“What are you worried about?” Hartley asked, “We’ll be fine.”
“It’s not about that,” Lyra said as she reached down and shook her brother’s shoulder to get him to look her in the eyes, “He’s worried that your head isn’t in the right place.” Hartley sat up to look at her.
“What do you mean?” he asked, “of course it is. We’re going to take those bastards down.” Lyra sighed to herself and looked down.
“That’s not what we’re doing, Hart,” she said quietly.
“What are you talking about?” Hartley asked, squinting.
“We just… we just said those things to get you on board,” Lyra said as Hartley leaned in close, “I didn’t want to get to Stigma only for you to find out, you deserved to know.”
“We’re going to Stigma so you can be protected,” she said, “Norick has no intention of letting us go after mom and dad’s killers.” She balled her hands into fists and started to breathe heavily, “He… he wants us to just let it go and let Jonah and the police handle things,” she said as her voice cracked slightly.
“We’re not going to,” Hartley said as he looked into his sister’s eyes.
“No, we’re not.”
The two of them caught some sleep on the train ride to Omegrad, making up for lost time they spent back at home. They were shaken awake by the train coming to a stop. Lyra helped her brother up and took their belongings and got ready to depart the train. They stepped out into the Holy City and were greeted by the early morning rush-hour. Foot traffic all throughout the massive city. They passed through bazaars and markets, street vendors selling food for commuters before arriving in the plaza of the Omegrad Cathedral. The two looked up at the towering stone structure with its ebony black doors inlaid with gold. Above the doors was the small balcony in which the High Priest, Jitan would deliver the daily sermons, ones the two had seen on TV hundreds of times over the years. Herds of clergymen moved about the plaza traveling in and out of the Cathedral.
“It looks like they’re getting ready for the old man’s speech,” Hartley noted as they walked through the polished marble plaza.
“You say that like you want to stick around for it,” Lyra joked as Hart chuckled in return.
“Yeah, I’ll pass on the daily accosting and warning of hellfire and brimstone,” Hart said as he raised his hands up, shaking them emotively, “How long are we staying here?” Hartley asked.
“We can leave whenever you want,” Lyra said as she pulled out the data pad Norick had given her, “We can stay until noon. That’s about the time where we would start eating into the travel schedule. We won’t make it to Stigma on time that way. They’re expecting us there by the end of the week.”
“We can try and find a hotel, maybe get some more rest?” Hartley asked as Lyra shook her head.
“No chance, hotels here cost an arm and a leg and none of them are really that clean,” she said as she took her brother out of the plaza and down towards a poorer part of town, “There’s a hostel in this burg that I’ve stayed at a few times while on assignment.” Hartley made a worried face as she took him up to a seedy looking building, “We’ll be staying in much worse places than this on our way to Stigma,” she said, “you should live it up while you can.”
Hartley and Lyra entered the decrepit building. The main lobby was painted a fading yellow, the man behind the front desk filled with heavy, metal piercings and was busy reading a magazine. Lyra walked up to the front desk and got his attention.
“Hey, we’re looking to stay for a while,” she said as she leaned against the counter, “got any beds open?” The man lowered his magazine to look at the two of them.
“Forty Bucks,” he replied as he went back to reading. Lyra grabbed her wallet and took out the two bills, tossing them onto the counter, “Food’s served a…”
“2230, I know,” Lyra said as she cut the man off. She brought Hartley from the main entryway up the staircase and to the common room. Hart took a seat at one of the picnic style tables along the wall as Lyra brought their luggage into the bedroom, putting each on one of the bunk beds available. She came back to the common room and sat down with her brother. All kinds of people were hanging out in the room, playing drums, burning incense, and chewing on grass. Hartley turned himself away from them to just focus on his sister.
“How many times have you stayed here?” he asked as he turned himself to keep the others out of his view.
“Too many,” Lyra said as she laughed and leaned back against the wall, putting her feet up on the bench of the table, “you’ll get used to it. There will be lots of places like these on the way to Stigma.” Hartley got visibly nervous for a second, “Oh don’t get so uptight about it. Everyone here’s too high to care who we are.”
“I’d still like to just keep a low profile,” Hartley said as he tried his best to shield himself from the other patrons’ view. Lyra grimaced a bit before shifting her position to sit normally.
“Hey,” she said, smiling as Hart looked up to her, “wanna’ go get some new clothes?” Hart looked at his sister somewhat confused.
“So that’s where all of your clothes would go?” he asked, “You just get rid of it and buy new stuff?”
“Yeah! It’s good practice for blending in and throwing tails,” she said as she reached across the table and pinched at the sleeve of Hartley’s t-shirt, “besides, you’ve been wearing this standard-issue crap for too long.” Hartley looked down at his shirt, the SSF logo printed on cheaply. It hung from him rather loosely too.
“Why not?” he said after sighing and getting up from the table. Lyra looked at him happily and went back to the dorm. The pair locked up their duffel bags and headed back out into the city. They admired the marble masonry and the red, tiled roofs topping each building. Lyra brought Hartley into the wealthier district of the Holy City, showing him around the various shops and boutiques. They settled on one showing off streetwear with expensive looking clothes in the window. Hartley looked around at the various outfits as people gave him odd looks for the cheap, mass-produced t-shirt and shorts he wore in. One of the employees came to help him find something good, letting him try on a number of different outfits before he settled on one he put together on his own. He brought to the counter a basket with a pair of jeans, a full-armed and fingered under-layer top, and a grey, sleeveless hoodie with a side button. On top was a black, leather belt with a minimalist metal buckle. Hartley smiled as he exited the store, showing off what he had purchased, flipping the hood up to show a plush, fur inner lining.
“How do I look?” he asked as he turned around to let his sister see the back of the outfit and his pants. He had even bought a new, blue tailwrap. He gave his long, white tail a bit of a flick before turning back around.
“I didn’t think that stuff together would look that good!” Lyra said as her brother smiled, petting down the hair on his neck as the two walked off. Hartley pulled his hood back down and let his hair out.
“What about you, are you looking to get anything?” Hartley asked before his sister shook her head.
“No, I’ll stick with what I’ve got. We have those jumpsuits we wore before in our bags,” she replied as she took him to the east side of the city, talking as they walked.
“How can you wear those things?” Hart asked as he stretched his arms out a bit, letting the underlayer squeeze around him, “they were so baggy and loose.”
“Heh, you know there are other people in the world right?” she replied, “Not everyone likes their clothes so tight that it feels like they’re naked.” Hartley looked down and dragged his hand down from his chest to his belly, feeling no wrinkles in the fabric, “Come on, there’s some more stuff we need to get.”
“Like what?” Hart asked as they stepped up to a bus station.
“Just some basic survival stuff,” she said as she looked at the schedule and sat down, a few other people joining them at the stop, “backpacks, clips, some light camping stuff, climbing too.”
“Climbing?” Hartley asked, making a weird face.
“We’re crossing over the mountains, remember?” she replied, turning to him, “there’s only one footpath through the mountains on this side of Omegrad. I’d rather not funnel us through it.” Hartley, once again, pulled her close so as to not make a scene. The bus came and picked them up, taking them to the eastern side of the city near the outskirts. It was much less lavish than the central hub of the capital city. Coming back to the hostel they were equipped both with backpacks and basic climbing gear as well as an assortment of hydration equipment. They got settled back in packing what was in their bags they took with into their new backpacks before sitting down for the 2800 meal.
“Jeez, these guys are still just serving noodles, huh?” Lyra remarked as she took her plate from the serving line and brought it back to the table they sat in earlier. Hartley joined her with a plate of noodles and steamed vegetables.
“Hey, at least they’re nice and savory,” Hart added as he took some in his fork, “do they serve them for breakfast too?”
“Give ‘em some credit,” a voice said from behind them as they laughed, “we get powdered eggs and toast for breakfast.” Hartley laughed along with the stranger as he leaned back against the wall with his plate. The dining hall was filled with smoke from burning incense and a loud cacophony of music being played over both a stereo and from someone’s drums, “So, where are you two headed?” the man asked between bites of his food.
“We’re backpacking through the Quarrels,” Lyra said as she got up and moved to the other side of the table, sitting on the opposite bench, “We’ve got family in Blarganthia that we meet up with every year in the mountains.”
“That sounds like a lot of fun,” he replied, “how long have you been doing it?”
“Ever since we were kids,” Hartley chimed in to play along, “our mom and dad would take us up the easier paths, but we started challenging ourselves a few years ago.”
“Well, I hope you two have a safe trip up, the mountains can be a bit tricky alone,” the patron said before both returned to their food. Lyra looked over to her brother who had just been poking at the vegetables on his plate. She wrapped her arm over his shoulder softly.
“It’s okay, Hart,” she said as she rubbed his back, “sometimes things just slip out.” He nodded before finishing what was on his plate. He returned it to the dish tub and retired to the bunk bed to rest for a while. Lyra sighed and watched him leave. She stayed behind, knowing he wanted some space to be alone.