They flew low towards midtown, where their target had killed Nallit's men a few blocks from the Empire State Building's former location. Marius led, zig-zagging from cover to cover, pausing while hidden to ensure they were not being followed. The city around them had settled down into eerie silence as everyone had either escaped Manhattan or managed to find some form of shelter by this point. Traffic lights and crossing signs continued to shift through their preordained cycles in the near total absence of humans. The changing lights combined with the periodic gusts of wind set Mike on edge.
He had never given much thought to this Nallit. For him, the so-called demon had existed as a fanciful character in Marius' tall tales. A comical exaggeration of a villainous archetype who did bad things for the thrill of being evil. Yet now . . . he had been given cause for concern. The man had tossed a large skyscraper at an even larger skyscraper. This was the same fellow who had thrown an asteroid to end an entire world. Someone who the self-aggrandizing Marius was scared shitless of. Almost as concerning to Mike was the woman they were trying to find. He had heard very little about her, other than the fact that she might want Marius dead. Presumably that motivation would change if she knew about Nallit being on Earth. Presumably.
While they moved through the silent city, Mike alternated between healthy paranoia and an obsessive preoccupation with his next meal. He had not eaten since an early dinner the previous day, which placed his fast at close to twenty-four hours. Though he heard great things about fasting, Mike never intentionally skipped a meal. Considering he had been involved in two fights to the death, a breakthrough in his power level, kinetically stopping a terrorist attack, and now a protracted cat-and-mouse game with him as one of the mice, Mike did not feel great about the empty pit in his stomache and the lethargy weighing down his limbs. On one occasion, they passed an abandoned food cart wafting heavenly hot dog scent and Mike had to fight the urge to stop for a quick bite. He would have stopped, too, if he wasn't worried about losing Marius.
For the most part, their course stayed to the densest areas. Without needing to be told, Mike understood they were using the skyscrapers as cover to avoid being spotted by any kinetics hovering in the sky. Their pace slowed considerably as the neared their destination. Marius spent more time watching between flying dashes, careful to communicate their next hiding spot before breaking cover.
The former home of the Empire State Building came into sight soon. Unlike the rest of the city, there were people in the area. Emergency responders sat in vehicles with flashing lights, watching the sky more than they did the street, while utility workers tamed sparking wires and stemmed the tide from water mains. Marius landed to walk, using a parked city bus to obscure the line of site between them and the nervous normals. Mike nudged his mentor when he noticed something unusual a few streets over. "Boss, we have a bunch of bodies floating in the air like balloons."
Marius turned to squint at the sight. "I wonder: Cassandane or Nallit?"
"Was your ex a psycho?"
"Not a psycho, an Aoleyen."
Mike cocked his head to the side. "Didn't understand that last bit."
"She is an obsessive perfectionist who fixates on specific objectives. Stringing up someone's followers as bait would not be out of the realm of possibility for her. Nallit . . . would do it as a joke. Or to intimidate people. I could never tell where one motivation ended and the other began with him."
"Boss? Are you sure we want to be here right now? I'm not saying we should bail on the city, but walking into a trap seems like questionable tactics."
"If we start running now, we would keep running for the rest of our lives. We need to meet up with Cassandane."
"Why is that?"
Marius' shoulders sagged. "To gain us entry back into the fleet. Hafnym may have cultivated the reputation of a hero, but he is an utter coward where Nallit is concerned. He will want the fleet to run, but they are short on kinetics. Two full kinetics are a resource he could not pass up."
"So now you expect me to join the fleet?"
"You caught the building, too, Mike. Nallit will be looking for you. Let's get closer. Move carefully and if we have to escape, meet up later outside the airport we visited on our way here."
Mike followed Marius on foot up Fifth Avenue, avoiding the attention of the police as they bypassed the emergency scene by using the kinetic talent to create distractions. The sudden shattering of a window across the street turned every eye in the wrong direction to catch their rapid flit through the emergency scene. Then a fire hydrant began to gush. Finally, the siren of an unoccupied ambulance began to scream. Though he couldn't be sure, Mike suspected they had escaped all notice. Certainly, none of the emergency workers looked in their direction.
When they were two blocks past the cordoned off area, Marius pointed to a building with a terraced roof. "We'll survey the situation from there. To avoid being obvious, we're going to circle around the building and come down from the top."
Once Mike had nodded his understanding, Marius counted them down in a whisper and they zipped up into the air to shoot down what was labeled as thirty-sixth street.
Mike had reached a height of about ten feet and was slightly behind Marius when his corona gave out. Plunging to the ground, Mike's vasted mind managed to note Marius had begun to fall as well before it went into overdrive. Hardening every inch of his body was the first priority. Bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons, skin . . . his mental vasting let him expand the scope of his hardening more than he had ever done before. As he struck the ground, Mike had his legs bent already. He let them collapse as he rolled forward over his shoulder, spreading out the impact over as large a period of time as possible. Mike completed the roll by bouncing back to his feet and shedding the remaining momentum by taking several followup steps.
Beside him, Marius chose to simply face plant with his hardened body. The disturbing thump apparently didn't bother him. Marius popped back to his feet with intensity written on his face.
A uniformed figure landed beside Mike, exactly opposite Marius. When Mike attempted to use his corona, he once more found it out of phase. The woman who had attacked them affixed her piercing gaze upon Mike a moment before turning her attention to Marius. "A full paragon. I expected much less from you as a teacher."
Marius raised his hands in a calming gesture. "Cassandane. We need to talk."
"Nallit is back," she said.
The lips of Marius twisted up as if he had tasted something bad. "You always have to be a step ahead of me."
"It's more than a step, Marius. And we shouldn't stay out here." Cassandane's eyes turned back to Mike. "Can I trust you to behave, paragon?"
Mike raised his hands as if surrendering. "We came here to join forces."
"Then walk towards The Langham."
"The five star luxury hotel down the street," she said.
Mike couldn't repress a laugh. "Hey boss, I think I will get along just fine with the new girl."