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An Introduction to Shadow (Free First Chapter)

Chapter One

 

 

Malcolm looked around the impromptu campsite in disgust.  This was no way to live.  He should have been snuggled warm and cozy in that shelter.  Even with the iron bar in the bed nailing its way though his back, it would have been miles better than this.  The cold bit into his bones and the smell of the bum sitting near him was enough to make him want to vomit.

This was all that punk Meyer’s fault.  He didn’t like gays: everybody knew that.  It wasn’t Malcolm’s fault.  Yes, he had been wearing a dress and yes, he knew the shelter had that rule about men wearing men’s clothes, but what did they want form him?  A man’s gotta be what a man’s gotta be.  Wasn’t that what they preached at him every time he was in there?  You got to be true to yourself.

He and the other two guys: Larry, the big, wooly white guy with a thick beard and tape on his glasses and that other monstrosity were sitting in a clump of bushes by the interstate: just three bums waiting to die from the cold.

Malcolm couldn’t stop shivering as he drew the hoodie up closer around his face.

“Mal,” said Larry, “you doing okay?  Maybe you should have dressed a little warmer, huh?”

The stench of Larry’s breath seemed to come out of his mouth like a big green wave, striking Malcolm square in the nose with its offensiveness.

Malcolm turned his head slightly as he shoved the exposed part of his dress back under his coat.  “I’m a rebel.  A rebel’s got to lead the way with his outrageous fashion sense.”

“Is that what you call it?”  The other guy asked, whose name, Malcolm remembered, rhymed with melon.  “Maybe if you hadn’t had such keen fashion sense you’d be warm in that shelter now.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Malcolm replied.  He was too cold to put up much of a fight tonight.  They could have their little laughs.

Malcolm pulled his hoodie almost completely closed around his face trying to shut them out and keep a little warmth in.  If, by the end of the night, he hadn’t lost some part of his body to frostbite, it would have been a miracle.

The lull of nearby traffic from the interstate was just sending Malcolm off into a slight doze when a booming laugh brought him back to the real world.

“Well, lookee, lookee,” said a man’s voice, “it’s the three stooges: Moe, Larry and Homo.  How you boys doing?”

Malcolm didn’t recognize the voice so he kept his hoodie pulled tight.

“Hey, what’s that ya got there, friend?”  Larry’s voice had a weak, pleading quality to it: one that Malcolm recognized immediately.  This new guy must have come bearing gifts.

Malcolm eased his hoodie open just far enough to get a look at the newcomer.  He looked like just another bum, had two or three jackets on and a week’s worth of beard on his chin.  But the thing about this new guy that really got Malcolm and the other’s attention immediately was the bottle he swung around like a baseball bat.

“I’m surprised to see you guys out here on a night like this,” the stranger said, then took a swig from his bottle.  “Thought you’d be tucking your tails between your legs down at the mission like usual.  Didn’t think you had enough hairs on your collective chests to brave this night.  What happened?  They kick you out?”

Larry licked his lips; his eyes never leaving the bottle.  “Sure, that’s it.  You know they always want to get me naked and scrub the skin off of me.  That way they can get my soul.”

The stranger laughed hard at that announcement.  He took another swig as Malcolm yanked his hoodie open just a bit more.

Larry continued.  “And the Felon there,” he pointed at the other man still hiding slightly under the bush, “The Felon can’t be contained in a building no night and no day.”

“That’s right,” The Felon mumbled, also keeping his eyes glued to the stranger’s bottle.

The stranger pointed at Malcolm.  “And what about the princess there?  They don’t allow female impersonators at that shelter?”

Larry glanced sideways at Malcolm and smiled.  “Naw.  Junior here refused to part with his evening dress.  Said he needed it for the pageant finals.”

The three men, sans Malcolm, broke out into gales of laughter.

Malcolm threw the hoodie off his head.  “Yeah, that’s right.  I hope you all choke.”

The stranger passed the bottle to The Felon, who gulped on it greedily.  “So, even among bums, you’re a nobody.  Is that it, cupcake?”

The stranger ripped the bottle out of the Felon’s hands before more than a swallow had passed his lips.

“Hey!”  The Felon said weakly, then shrunk back into his bush.

The stranger passed the bottle to Larry next.  “Here.  Warm yourself up, old man.”

Larry accepted the bottle and took a long swig, before passing it back to the man.  “Thank you kindly.  Now, I remember seeing you around the streets but never in the shelter.  Where you been staying?”

The stranger, bottle again in hand, rose to his feet.  “I can’t allow any building to hold me in for long, boys.  Feels a little too much like prison to me.  Naw.  Give me the sky for a ceiling and the cold ground for a bed any day.  See,” the stranger winked at Malcolm, “when you lie in a man’s house, you gotta play by the man’s rules and I can’t play with anyone’s rules except my own.  You understand?”

Larry nodded, his eyes once again held by the bottle.  “Sure, that’s the way for all of us.  Now, how about another sip? I’m getting awful parched.”

“Cool your jets, grandpa, can’t you see I’m pontificating?”

“Pontificating?”  The Felon asked.  “What’s that?”

The stranger laughed quickly.  “Why, you’re stupid as well as ugly…and smelly.  Seriously boys, you all need a bath sometime real soon.  You’d think the cold would have eaten up some of the smell, but it comes right at your senses all the same.  I think it might do your soul some good to lose a part just so you can get some of that stink off of you, Larry.”

Larry’s eyes left the bottle long enough to be drawn up to the stranger’s.  “You know, it’s mighty odd how you know my name and I don’t know yours.  How’s that?”

The stranger’s eyes flashed, revealing flames hidden deep within.  “That’s no mystery, old timer.  A boy like you that smells so fresh is bound to be known by just about every bum around this part of Kansas City.  Isn’t that right, Felon?”

Felon shrugged and moved a hair farther from the stranger.

The stranger didn’t seem to notice.  His eyes were now resting on Malcolm and didn’t seem like they’d be letting up any time soon.  “And what about you, little rebel?  You ever spent a moment out in the night’s air, knowing what it is to be free?  Or are you too busy jumping from bed to bed, keeping other fellas warm, busy selling yourself to know what it feels like to be free?  I bet you never knew a day of freedom in your life, have you, you little maggot?”

“Look,” said Malcolm, “I don’t know what your problem is, but maybe you ought to take it on the road.  In other words, give me a drink too or shut up.”

The stranger took a long swig.  “You talk pretty big for a boy in a dress.  Is that why mommy and daddy kicked you out, Mallie?  Is it because you were a malcontent?  A malodorous pervert?  A malignant tumor growing on the inside of their house like a spot of mold behind the dry wall?  What really happened, Mal?  Did daddy come home and find you in mama’s dress?  Did mama come home and find you in the throes of ecstasy, gazing into the pages of the newest Boys Life Quarterly?”

“Look,” Larry started, “I don’t know who you are, but…”

The stranger turned on Larry.  “That’s right, Larry.  You don’t know who I am.  None of you bums know who I am, do you?  But I know too much about you.  Larry, you ran over a little girl while you were out drunk, joy riding with your buddies, right out of high school.  You never knew it, but the father of that little girl was so swallowed up in his despair that not more than a year later, he ate himself a shotgun just so he could be with his daughter again.  And what did you get for your vehicular manslaughter, Lawrence?  How many long cold nights did you spend in the stony lonesome for your crimes against humanity?”

Larry sunk his head to his chest and began to violently shake it back and forth, muttering “no” over and over, like a mantra.

The stranger’s smile widened.  “Why, you didn’t spend more than a month did you Larry?  And all because that slick lawyer that your folks hired blamed it all on your buddy Charlie who wasn’t even driving.  Now, you’ve got to appreciate a man that can spin a no-win situation to a victory like that.  A man like that ought to run for congress.”

The bush behind the Felon rustled ever so slightly as the man attempted a hasty withdrawal.  Quick as electricity running through a socket, the stranger reached out and grabbed The Felon by a shoulder.

“And does everyone know why the call this man The Felon?”

The Felon attempted to shake the stranger’s hand off and found out that he felt much like a piece of wood squeezed tight by a vice.

The stranger’s grin, beyond all reason, continued to grow, almost seeming to reach his ears.  “They call him the Felon cause he got caught robbing this old lady.  Only, you weren’t just robbing her, were you felon?  No, our boy was doing something infinitely more disgusting than that.  Want to tell them all about it, Felon?”

At that moment, Felon yelped and shrugged himself out of his out layer of coat, falling to the hard, cold ground.  He immediately scrambled to his knees and attempted to crawl out of the thicket.  A tentacle shot out from within the folds of the stranger’s coat and wrapped itself several times around the Felon’s ankle and yanked him flat.

“Oh no you don’t,” the strange shouted.  “No one’s going anywhere until I let them go.”

The stranger grinned so wide that his smile met and the top of his head fell to the ground, revealing a churning mass of red bubbles and questing tentacles.  Suddenly, a beak shot out of the mass where the stranger’s head had once been.

Larry screamed in alarm as soon as the stranger’s head had parted and fell backwards, striking his head on a chunk of concrete.  Malcolm edged as far away as he could without making an out and out run for it.  He had seen how quick those tentacles had snatched up the Felon.

Another one of the tentacles snaked out of the stranger’s coat, through the dead leaves mixed with powdered snow and began to wrap itself around Larry’s semi-unconscious neck.  It dove around his neck three times.

Malcolm looked around quickly like a rabbit running from a hawk as the beak slip further out the stranger’s neck to reveal a large raven’s head, still dripping with the bloody goo from which it had emerged.  The tentacle holding the Felon lifted the man up into the air in front of the stranger as the bird head lunged forward, taking a huge section of the man’s face clean away.

In between bites, the thing spoke, still with the stranger’s booming voice.  “See princess, the only true freedom is the freedom to do as you wish, to kill or hurt as many and as often as you like.  Running from town to town like you’ve been doing is just running away from life.  To live, to be free, you’ve got to take a little initiative: kill your fellow man.  Give in to your animal nature and really live a little.”

Malcolm screamed and pushed himself off the stump he’d been sitting on.  In response, the bird-thing threw the pecked body of the Felon at him, knocking him to his feet.

“I ain’t done with you yet, boy.  Nobody leaves until I say they can.  And I right now, I ain’t done playing.”

Larry groaned loudly from the ground by Malcolm’s feet.  The tentacles wrapped firmly around his neck slowly turning his lips and then the rest of his face blue.

The bird’s head turned to look at Larry and then shook its head.  “Oh, no, no, no,” the stranger said.  “There’s no easy exit to this pain trip, Larry me lad.  Here, let me give you a bit relief.”

The tentacles loosened immediately, spilling a heavy gasp from Larry.

Malcolm, temporarily forgotten, or at least he hoped, shook his head, attempting to clear it so he could crawl to freedom.

The bird’s head whipped around to face Malcolm and emitted a horrible cry.  “Good,” the stranger stated, “Clear your head a bit, cupcake.  We got some more playing to do.”

The thing turned back to Larry, who was sitting up on his hands and knees, rubbing at his neck.  Its tentacles hung loosely around the man’s shoulders.

“Larry, you’re about as much fun to play with as a sack of bones.  Time to take out the trash.”

The tentacles suddenly flexed and across the makeshift camp Malcolm could make out a dull snapping sound, almost as is someone had broken a wet branch in half.  The tentacles loosened and allowed Larry to slip to the ground, a lifeless mass.

The bird head turned to Malcolm, who had just finished pushing the body of the Felon off himself.  “You ready, small fry?  This hunter’s ready for a little adventure and so far it’s been one disappointment after another.  Even among bums, is a little screaming, flailing, running through bushes too much to ask?”  The bird’s head slowly revolved around the carnage-filled campsite.  “Apparently.  I am severely disappointed in the lack of enthusiasm I am finding among today’s up-and-coming homeless.”

Malcolm attempted a scramble from his knees to a running position and ended up slipping on some dead leaves.  He fell onto his stomach hard, the breath temporarily escaping.

The thing continued.  “I mean, once upon a time, men would actually attempt a fight or flight, know what I mean?  They wouldn’t just sit there like a dead toad on a log, waiting for its body to dry up and its husk to blow away.  Once upon a time, dying meant something.  Once upon a time…Woah, woah, woah!  Hold on just a minute, cupcake.”

A tentacle slid across trash and wet leaves to wrap itself firmly around Malcolm’s ankle.  It yanked him backwards several feet, completely erasing the two or so inches he had been striving to place between himself and the thing.

Angrily, Malcolm threw himself on his back and began to beat at the tentacle with his closed fists.  “Quit calling me cupcake, you stupid, big bird!  Leave me alone!”

“Well now, at least I got me some meat with a little life left in it.  What do you have left to live for, cupcake?  Huh?  Got anything but crap from this life so far?  Is that what keeps you hanging on?”

Malcolm’s eyes searched for a rock nearby as his hands continued their useless assault on the tentacle.  “I may not have much to live for, but that doesn’t mean I want to die.”

The tentacle moved Malcolm forward inches.  “Oh, well, you don’t always get what you want.  But as the Rolling Stones once said, if you try sometimes, you might find.  You get what you need.  And what you need most of all right now is to be in my belly.”

The tentacle raised Malcolm off the ground so his upside-down head was level with the bird’s beak.  Gravity pulled his dress down, covering his eyes.

“Let me down,” yelled Malcolm, flailing the air.

“Well, I would, but I’m kind of a little tuckered out from killing Larry and The Felon.  Now, don’t be such a big baby and crawl down my...”

Suddenly a man burst through the bushes, screaming like an attacking Viking.  He jumped at the stranger, tackling him and knocking him to the ground, scattering Malcolm as well.  Before the bird thing could fully recover, the man grabbed it up in a bear hug.

“Go!”  The man yelled at Malcolm, who lay slightly dazed against a far tree.  “Get out of here!”

Malcolm made it to his feet as quickly as he could force his bruised body to move.  He made to move, but was stopped, noting the newcomer’s long hair as he whipped his head back and forth, attempting to evade the thrusts of the beak.  It was like watching someone trying to strangle a snake from the front.

“Would you get out of here?”  The man yelled again.

“Get off me,” the bird thing screamed.

Malcolm turned and ran as fast as his spindly, little legs could carry him.  He pushed himself through some bushes that clawed and scraped his arms and bare ankles but continued regardless.  He finally broke out into the open, directly in the middle of a deserted street.  Quickly, he scanned both directions but couldn’t see any indication of another human being.

The bird thing screeched again from somewhere behind him.  “Is this how it’s gonna be?  Eat this, Variel!”

The man, it had to be the man, yelled in pain.  His scream stopped and then Malcolm heard his voice cry out, calm and sure, “Father, save your servant!”

Before Malcolm could make it several steps, he felt rather than heard a massive crash, like a bolt of lightning had struck directly behind him and the night sky lit up almost as if it were the middle of the day.

In the silence and return of darkness that followed, Malcolm picked himself up slowly from the black top.  He hadn’t realized that whatever had happened behind him had propelled him nearly halfway across the street.

He raised his eyes that still were shooting afterimages of light across his vision just in time to see the bushes part and the blond-haired stranger who had saved him rush out.  The man, obviously in a hurry, ran directly toward Malcolm and helped him the rest of the way to his feet.  Instead of leading him gently away, however, the man grabbed his coat sleeve and yanked him forward.

“Come on,” said the man.  “It won’t be down for long.  We’ve got to get you out of here.  Somewhere we can mask your scent.  Otherwise what just happened back there will be for nothing.”

Malcolm nodded absently.  Just trying to place one foot in front of the other without tripping was becoming a major chore.  Every door and building they passed was dark and wore the look of long abandonment.  They wouldn’t find help anywhere near.

A roar split the night somewhere behind them, causing Malcolm to glance behind him.  The street was still deserted however.  The man pulled on Malcolm’s coat, dragging him down a side street.

As they continued to run past apartment buildings, Malcolm glanced around at the stone silence and noted a light on here and there, like they arrival of fireflies.  Wherever they had been, they were nearing civilization or at least there were people about.  He slowed down to a jog.

“Look,” said Malcolm, “why don’t we stop and bang on one of these doors?  Get them to call the cops?”

The man with the long, blond hair didn’t bother to look back.  “And then we have to wait for the police.  And, in the meantime, it comes and kills not only us but whoever is unlucky enough to open their door for us.”

Malcolm suddenly stopped, yanking his arm free from the man.  “I don’t know what’s going on but I want to know right now.  I just watched two of my friends, well acquaintances really, get eaten by this guy who lost his head and grew a bird’s head.  Then, out of nowhere, you come running in like a crazy Viking and tackle the bird like you were playing a game of shirts and skins down at the local playground.  Now, could you take just a moment, one’s all I’m asking for, and let me know what the hell that thing was and what is going on around here?”

The man nodded, looked around quickly and then drew Malcolm toward the darkness of a nearby doorway.  Once they were fully concealed, the man drew his trench coat closer to his body and held the boy’s gaze with two luminescent brown eyes, the only objects shining in the shadows.

“That thing back there, the bird that killed your friends, is one of the Fallen.  In particular, it is an aerocortis.  If I hadn’t arrived when I did, you would be just as dead as your friends, or maybe somehow worse.”

Malcolm held the brown eyes steadily.  “And who or what are you?”

“We are the Shadow Walkers, the Homeless Ones, the Hunters of the Fallen.  We are the Awakened.”

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