Stepney and Harlow made their way from the house cautiously, looking out for strangers, checking and double-checking the door. A silence had grown between them, neither willing to ask the reason for the other's nerves; neither willing to admit to his own fear. They made their way through the streets of Celestis swiftly, examining every stranger with a mixture of relief and suspicion – relief at the sight of others, suspicion towards their motives.
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Why? Stepney could not answer. He had seen Harlow's reaction at the meeting, the pain, the disorientation, the fear. The sickness. While unaffected, Stepney had felt something in that place. Something unreal. Something without spirit. Something that should not be.
And who are you to say what should and should not be, Stepney? He tried to silence the inner voice, always critical, always judging. Sometimes it would be softened, muted, yet always it remained, lurking somewhere within him.
He gestured to Harlow as they reached his office. The two men approached the door, glancing about the street. All seemed normal. Perhaps it was simply nerves. Perhaps it was nothing. Stepney turned the key and pushed at the door.
Not so lucky, Stepney!
The door stopped. The key was in the lock, yet the door refused to open. Above him a window opened and a woman leaned out. She was of evident age, her eyes bright, seeking, judging. She spied him out; he could hear her snort in disgust even from where he stood.
“How many times have I had to tell you, Stepney? Get out! Leave!”
“What the...who are you?” Stepney stared at her in confusion. Behind him, unseen, the people in the street drew to a standstill, watching as the woman harangued Stepney from above. “What have you done with my office?”
“Oh, your office now, is it?” The sarcasm dripped from her tongue, soaked in acid. “How many times do we have to go through this routine? How many times?”
“You don't work here, you have never worked here. I live here. This is my house and I would thank you to get away from it.”
“Not one of life's great debaters, are you, Stepney?” The sarcasm was back, doubled, pouring mocking scorn on the man before her. Stepney half-turned as he heard a small moan escape Harlow's throat, but his confusion took charge.
“Get lost!” The woman slammed the window down with an enormous crash. Stepney remained frozen to the spot for a moment, dumbfounded, before being dragged into the waking world by Harlow. He turned. Behind them, passersby, the men and women of Celestis, had stopped dead, staring at the two men outside what had once been Stepney's office. Some were pointing, others talking in hushed tones.
The two men made their way from the building as best they could, Stepney holding up the young mystic with one arm as they ventured down the street. Yet the crowd would not part for them, would not move. They simply stood, immobile, their eyes hollow, their expressions a vacant, hateful stare.
“It's him. It's them.” Stepney heard the voices coming to him from all around as he made his way as best he could through the throng. “It has to be now. Their time is now.”
Without warning his head exploded in pain. He turned; a man stood before him, already preparing for another punch, his face a hideous, emotionless sneer. A hatred stripped of all humanity, a mind stripped of all compassion. Stepney staggered, slipped, felt Harlow slip out from his arm and fall to the floor, unconscious. His skin was becoming grey, trickles of blood appearing from the sides of his mouth. Suddenly, Stepney's vision flashed white as the fists came down, slamming into his skull, his stomach, his legs. He gazed at the faces of his tormentors with fear and confusion.
I know you, came the message screaming in his ears. I helped find your child when he was lost, two years ago. We have not met since. What is this? Why is this? He screamed as the man's boot made contact with his chest, his lungs exploding, every breath agonising. He tried to shelter his head from the blows but it was of no use. Time's up, Stepney!
Stepney did his best to move over Harlow as the crowd moved in, to spare him agony beyond what he already suffered. He covered his companion's head with his arms, ineffective against the violence, the blows coming more quickly now, from all around. He craned his neck up painfully, trying to see who was responsible for the attack. Suddenly, in spite of the violence, the pain, the anger, the world slowed to a standstill as he looked into the street before him.
A single doorway, open in the middle of the street. Standing, impossibly, outlined in an indescribable light.
The door opened, showing only blackness beyond. Into it stepped a woman. She was beautiful. Her eyes of deepest red, her hair, crimson, flowing over her shoulders. Her skin was pale, delicate. She was fascinating, almost hypnotic in her beauty. Stepney felt the pain drain out from him, dissipating, evaporating into nothingness. She approached him, parting the crowd with ease, their faces contorted in heartless, unfeeling rage.
She stood before him, smiling, her eyes burning sparks leading into infinity. A sense of peace radiated from her, filling the world around with tranquillity. Stepney felt himself filled with a sense of calm beyond experience.
“Omega,” he said, his voice but a whisper.
She smiled, beckoned him closer. “Come.”
And with that, she turned. Stepney raised himself to his feet, took up Harlow's unconscious body, and followed the mysterious woman as she approached the doorway and entered, vanishing into nothingness. He took a final look at the world around him and followed her into the unknown.