An Introduction to Shadow, Second Installment
|August 13, 2012||Posted by Derek Elkins under All Projects, Elkins Projects|
Malcolm felt a shiver delicately trace his spine as the voice continued. “Oh, and that little Chinese dude you just saw and didn’t see…that was Lo Chen. He’s another one of those twerp Awakened. You know, you were pretty smart to steer clear of those bozos. They’re nothing but trouble and lies. I bet they told you some pretty hairy stuff about the Fallen, didn’t they?”
Malcolm could only nod.
“Sure they did. They’re just jealous, that’s all. See the Fallen, we’ve been around for a long time. Millennia upon millennia. And we’ve got a job to do that the Creator Himself gave us, don’t think we don’t. See, I bet they told you some far-fetched story about us hating mankind and rebelling against the Creator and whatever. Am I right?”
Malcolm finally got his jaw to work. “Man, your throat is seriously jacked up.”
“Yeah, get over it, kid. Anyway, whatever they did tell you was a pack of crap. I mean, we’re the Creator’s go-to guys: the Fallen. Did we rebel? Some of us may have at one time, but that’s water under the bridge, that’s totally in the past.”
Malcolm’s jaw, once opened would not close, no matter what inane thought passed through his lips. “Your throat is really jacked up. Did you think nobody would notice? I mean, it looks like it was crushed and left that way.”
Larry, or the thing that now inhabited Larry, put his hands on Malcolm’s shoulders and looked him directly in the eye. “Kid, I’m wearing a bum. How close do you think people are actually gonna look at a bum? Yeah, you notice. But, one, you’re a bum. And two, you saw what happened to Larry, so you know where to look. Watch this.”
The line had progressed while they talked and they were now a step away from the door. A couple staff members stood by the entrance, inspecting the men entering. They nodded at Larry as soon as he approached.
One of the staff, a beefy, half-shaven man in a t-shirt said, “Hey Larry. Didn’t see you last night. Sleeping in the woods again?”
Larry nodded. “Can’t have you stealing my soul now, can I Norm?”
Norm laughed and waved them in.
Malcolm, as soon as they passed through the entranceway, looked back at Norm in surprise. “Are you telling me he didn’t notice that caved in portion of your neck? I could understand if it was just dented in a little, but that thing looks like somebody gave it a good kick with an iron-toed boot.”
“Look, kid, would you get off the neck thing? You’re starting to give me a complex. No, people only see what they want to see. Course, there are limits. I couldn’t have come in as the Felon. Nobody could miss a guy with half a face.”
They got in line and Malcolm grabbed a tray for lunch. “So, what do you want with me? Why can’t you just leave me alone? It’s bad enough that you tried to kill me yesterday…”
“Woah, woah, woah. That was definitely not me. Look, there are members of the Fallen that have gone a little nuts. Don’t get me wrong. That guy that killed your friends yesterday was not one of the more sane Fallen, if you catch my drift. No, there’s some of us that haven’t aged too well. They don’t play well with others. That was your Fallen from yesterday.”
“I don’t understand. Why are you telling me this? What do you want from me?”
The Fallen placed some hamburger type meat onto his tray. “Honestly, we just don’t want you to have the wrong opinion. See, the Awakened are a little nuts too. Probably more nuts than that Fallen who took your friends apart. See, they think they’re on a quest or something, some kind of King Arthur thing, and they believe that the Creator wants them to take us out. Yeah, I know. Crazy, right?”
They sat at an open table. “When we saw you back on the streets yesterday, we were relieved. We thought the nutso Fallen might have gotten you too. So, the other Fallen and me, we came up with this idea. Obviously, you had an in with the Awakened. They let you live, right? So, maybe you could intervene with us. Maybe you could talk with their leader, Variel, and arrange a meeting or something.”
“And you came as Larry because…”
“Honestly, I came as Larry because we thought you wouldn’t freak out as much if I showed up as someone you knew.”
Malcolm paused, fork of food halfway to mouth. “And how is that not going to freak me out if you show up as someone I knew had died? And, besides that, how do you explain the attack yesterday by that dead guy that grew wings and a rat-tail? If you guys just want to be understood, why did you send one of the Fallen to their place yesterday to attack them?”
Larry craned his neck. “Attack on their place? I don’t know what you’re talking about. We didn’t send one of the Fallen to their place to attack them. Maybe it was another rogue Fallen.”
“Two in one day?”
“How the heck should I know? It’s possible.”
Malcolm bent his head over his plate. “Look, I don’t care what you guys are doing, but I don’t want any part of it. If you want to make peace, you sure don’t need me to do it. I left them as well. They wanted me to join up, but I said no way. All I want is to be left alone…by them and you too.”
“Sure, Mal. I can appreciate that.”
He allowed Malcolm to eat a few bites in peace, before speaking again. “You know, there is one more thing. You saw that old Chinese guy trailing you, right?”
“So, do you really think they’re gonna just let you go after you’ve been in their place and know some of their secrets? They’re gonna keep an eye on you. See if you’ll lead them to us, so they can finish us off. They’re just using you.”
Malcolm took a drink. “Well, at least they didn’t try to eat me.”
“I told you, that was a rogue Fallen. The rest of us aren’t like that guy. We don’t hate your kind. The Creator put us here to protect your kind, if you want to know the truth.”
Malcolm dropped his spoon on the table and faced the Fallen, eye to eye. “You know, I would love to believe you, but I’m having a heck of a time swallowing your crap. There’s certain events that keep getting in my way. For instance, one of your kind tried to kill me yesterday and another of your kind possessed the body of this old dude and tried to kill a bunch of other people later that day. Okay, never mind all that. We’ll chalk it up to a misunderstanding. But then there’s something else bothering me. When you show your true selves, underneath all that human body, you’re just monsters, plain and simple. I mean, look at you. You’re a zombie.”
“Shh,” said Larry. “Keep it down, will ya?”
“This is a homeless shelter, remember? Crazy is common in here. Then you want to tell me that the people that act like the god guys, the ones who hunt the monsters are really the bad guys and that it’s all just a great big misunderstanding that’s lasted hundreds of years between monster hunters and monsters. Is that it?”
The thing that was Larry shrugged. “Kinda. You simplify matters a lot, but you’ve got the point of it right. Look kid, these monster-hunter heroes of yours, what do you think they want from you?”
“What do they want from me? I told them to leave me alone. I ain’t a monster and I don’t want to be like them either. They don’t want anything from me. They let me go.”
“Then what’s our little Asian friend doing in here?” The Fallen pointed to a table by the door, where a wrinkled Oriental face stared at them from over the top of a bowl. “I’m telling you, they don’t trust you. They sent somebody to keep an eye on you. I’m asking you, does that that sound like they’re just letting you go do your own thing? Looks to me like they’re keeping a tight tab on you. And I’ll tell you something else; they sure as heck don’t want you talking to me.”
The little Asian man returned his bowl to the table and smiled at them with a grin consisting of only three teeth.
“Ooh, that guy gives me the creeps,” said the Fallen.
“How is that guy gonna give you the creeps? You’re a monster. That guy looks like Mulan’s dad.”
“See, appearances are deceiving. That guy killed more of my kind than all the rest of the Awakened put together. He’s a remorseless killing machine.”
The little Oriental man took another sip at his bowl, spilling some of the soup onto his shirt. After a moment’s hesitation, he then pulled his shirt up to his lips and began to suck the soup off.
Malcolm turned back to the Fallen. “Are we talking about the same guy here?”
“Don’t let his appearances deceive you. He’s extremely dangerous.”
Malcolm rose to his feet. “I’ve heard about enough. I’m getting out here. Plus, I’m done with my food.”
The Fallen rose as well. “Good idea. Let’s see if we can lose him outside.”
Malcolm froze and turned slowly to the other. “Look, it’s not like I haven’t enjoyed your company, cause I haven’t. I don’t want to go with them and I certainly don’t want to go with you either. I don’t care if you guys want to kill each other. That’s not really my problem. By all means, go over there and kill the little Asian dude. Do whatever you want. Just leave me alone.”
Malcolm turned abruptly and walked toward the nearest staff member, who happened to be the beefy, unshaven man they had seen at the front entrance.
“Hey, how do I go about getting a cot for the night? What do I have to do to pay for it? I don’t have any money.”
The beefy staff eyed Malcolm curiously. “Yeah, there’s stuff we can let you do to earn your keep. You could sweep up in the kitchen, there’s laundry or you could take out the trash: stuff like that. If you don’t have any money, don’t sweat it. We’ll take care of you.”
“Thanks,” said Malcolm. “So, where do I go to see about a bunk?”
The staff member pointed across the dining hall to another corridor. “You go down that hall till it ends and knock on the door. Talk to Clark and he’ll set you up.”
“Thanks again. Oh, and by the way,” Malcolm pointed his thumb behind him. “This guy’s bothering me.”
The staff member looked back, surprised, at Larry who was directly behind Malcolm. “Larry, is that true? Are you bothering people?”
“Yeah. Sure. Why not?” The Fallen shot back. “No, I’m not bothering anybody. The kid’s delusional. Probably thinks I’m after his pot of gold.”
The staff member nodded and turned away.
* * * * * *
Later that afternoon, Malcolm lay out on his bed, which was at the bottom of a steel-framed bunk bed. They had put him to work in the laundry, which was exhausting enough work, but he enjoyed the time, allowing his mind to rove over the details of the past few days. He still didn’t have any grip on what was reality and what was not. Maybe he was experiencing some kind of mental breakdown. It wasn’t impossible.
Maybe this had all been some strange dream. Maybe that thing in the bushes had actually killed him as well and this was some kind of purgatory or something. Malcolm didn’t know and could hardly care at the moment. He was exhausted.
The smell of bleach, scored on his hands from the washing machines, wafted up to assault his nostrils. That smell almost reminded him of something unpleasant from his childhood. Something about the smell of bleach…
And then, overpowering the bleach came a new smell, a smell of decomposition. The rusty springs on the bunk bed next to Malcolm’s creaked as a body sat down.
“Say, Mal, how you doing? They running you ragged yet?”
Malcolm squinted one eye open to see Larry, or whatever was powering Larry, sitting on the bottom bunk next to his. “Go away. Go kill somebody or something.”
“Now, see, that’s just rude. And I told you, those were just rogue Fallen. Normal Fallen don’t kill people. We can’t.”
“Okay, I believe you. Now, go away.”
“Now, see, you say you believe me but your tone says that you don’t. That’s just like you humans. Say one thing and mean another. Not like us Fallen. No, we were created for a purpose. We don’t have it in us to lie or even to be sarcastic.”
Malcolm sat up. “Or kill either, I suppose. Okay, what is it? What do you want from me? Let’s get this over with so you can leave and I can go to sleep.”
“Well, the truth is that I’ve been assigned to protect me.”
Malcolm stared at him through half-lidded eyes. “Protect me from what?”
A head shot out from the bunk above Malcolm. “Useless protection is what he’s offering.”
The Fallen jumped to his feet as if the mattress below him had bitten him. “Lo Chen.”
The wizened Asian man studied the Fallen for a moment before speaking. “Fallen, why don’t you drop that dead man’s skin you wear and leave this boy in peace? Why don’t you leave us all in peace?”
The Fallen, who was now several feet away from both beds took a hesitant step forward. “And why don’t you keep your grubby little monkey hands out of my business. This doesn’t concern you. Me and the kid were trying to have a simple conversation.”
“Nothing you do is simple, Deceiver. You’re always weaving and dancing, hiding behind your untruths like you hide in that dead man’s skin. What was it the Bard said about your kind? ‘Oh, what tangled webs we weave when first we practice to deceive’.”
Lo Chen slowly climbed down from the top bunk as the Fallen back away. “Why don’t you weave your webs somewhere else and leave this poor boy in peace?”
“And why don’t you and your ilk leave us well enough alone? Do you really think the Creator put you here to hunt us out? Do you think that’s the truth of the matter?”
Lo Chen, now on the cement floor, said, “I do not listen to straight truth that comes out of twisted lips. No go, before I cast you out right here.”
The Fallen paused to place his hands on his hips in defiance. “You wouldn’t dare. You can’t do that in a…”
He stopped as a man carrying a basket of laundry suddenly entered the room. Without a pause, the man swung the basket around Larry and went out the opposite door as the three men watched.
Malcolm stood to his feet. “Look, you guys obviously have issues that don’t concern me. Why don’t you take this fight outside and leave me alone?”
Lo Chen cocked his head. “That’s sage advice to me. What do you say, Deceiver? Care to take this fight outside?”
The Fallen turned abruptly and exited the room.
Lo Chen moved to face Malcolm. “Come. You can’t stay here any more. It’s not safe.”
Malcolm didn’t budge. “I’m not going with him or you. I never asked to get in the middle of this and I already told you guys I was out. So why don’t you both just leave me alone?”
“The Fallen want you for some unknown reason. I can’t figure out why just yet. Until I do, you will not be safe. They will try another tactic. Or they may just grab you outright. You may want out but sometimes what you want is not one of your available choices. Variel asked me to keep an eye on you. I cannot guarantee your safety in this place so we’ll need to go somewhere else.”
“What’s the big deal? He didn’t try to kill me or anything. He just tried to convince me that the Fallen were just misunderstood or something like that.”
“And that is the nature of that particular Fallen. It is a deceiver. That is why it hides in a dead man’s skin. If it cannot get you by coercion, it will try something else. Now, do you want to live or not?”
“I just want to be left alone,” said Malcolm as he strode after the old man.
Lo Chen raised one finger. “Yes, but sometimes…”
“You’ve already said that, Yoda. I get it. How do I know I can trust you? Maybe you’re one of them and you’re just double-teaming me. He tries, badly, to make me trust him, and when that fails, you come along, I go with you and you turn out to be one of them. I watch movies you know. I know all about good cop, bad cop.”
“Then why are you following me?” Lo called over his shoulder.
“It’s a free country.”
The exited out a back entrance after Lo had a chance to make sure the alley behind the shelter was deserted. Garbage thrown roughly against sidewalls was the only thing in evidence. With Lo leading the way, they crossed down the alley and then slipped into another side street.
“I’m sorry you were involved in this, my friend.” Lo said. “Often, I find, the Creator has plans of his own and his plans always trump our own.”
“And whatever the Creator wants, the Creator gets. Is that it?”
“He is the designer of our lives.” Lo said. “I would hope that the one who made us knows us even better than we know ourselves. I would certainly hope so at least.”
“So, is that the final word for the Awakened? The Creator says jump and you say, ‘how high’? Don’t you even get a say in the matter?”
Lo Chen stopped and turned back to Malcolm. “It’s a matter of trust and logic. Is it logical to think that one who created us would be more able to plan out our destinies that we would be? Think about this. Is it easier to hammer a nail with a rock or a hammer?”
“A hammer, but either would get the job done.”
Lo smiled. “Of course. And either in the hands of a novice would be capable of bending the nail. You have the mind of a philosopher about you, my friend.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
Lo stopped to examine the alley they were currently in. Wooden sheds as garages lined either side of the street. Further ahead, the alley ended in a street, heavily trafficked by cars. Behind them, the alley jutted off into a separate alley.
“I think we may have taken a wrong turn somewhere.”
Malcolm glanced up and down the street, expecting trouble. “Don’t you know you’re way around? Are you even from Kansas City?”
Lo raised his eyebrows and smiled. “Originally, I’m from Toledo.” He headed off toward the street end, talking as he traveled. “But I’ve been in Kansas City for a number of years now. You know how it is. Every city starts to feel the same after awhile. Plus, you were talking to me and got me distracted.”
“Oh, so I’m the reason we’re lost. Is that it?”
As Lo passed a half-open garage, a shadowy figure stepped out directly behind the diminutive Asian. Without saying a word, the figure raised a piece of rebar and brought it down heavily on Lo’s head, knocking him instantly to the ground. The Fallen, still dressed in Larry’s skin, turned back and smiled at Malcolm.
“Well, now, that was a bit of luck, huh?”
Malcolm stepped back only to find something blocking his path. Before he could turn to see what was behind him, he was struck on the back of the head with a heavy object.
Stars came with the immediate pain and were followed by an ever-diminishing circle of darkness. Before the circle of darkness closed completely, a slightly familiar face swam into view.
“Well, howdy there, cupcake. Thought you wouldn’t see me any time soon, didn’t ya? Well, surprise, surprise, surprise.”
It seemed like he was at the bottom of a dark, dank lake with no sign of the surface. And, even though his head was pounding with a ferocity that shook his entire body, Malcolm pushed himself upward, toward the light. The light grew slowly larger, but not quickly enough, just as he became sure his air would run out.
Malcolm cracked one eye open to be rewarded with a shaft of light, which immediately sent his thumping head into overdrive. He closed his eyes until the feeling of nausea had passed. A moment later, he decided to risk opening his eyes once more. The light was still there, but now he could recognize that it was coming from somewhere far overhead, such as a skylight.
With force, he lurched his head downward to the hard, cement floor. There was nothing there but a few marks where something, tape maybe, had been placed and then pulled away. Slowly, he raised his head. He was in what looked like a large, abandoned warehouse. There were windows at approximately shoulder height, but these were so filmed over that they allowed absolutely no light in. No, the only light was coming from somewhere overhead.
Malcolm cranked his head to look around the room and was immediately rewarded with a renewal of the pounding. It felt like a hangover. Too bad he hadn’t done anything to deserve it. At least then, it would have been reasonable. He attempted to raise his hands so he could further examine his head and found himself unable to move anything but his head and neck. Looking down, Malcolm could see he was tied, arms behind his back, with some large coarse rope to some sort of office chair. The rope also wound around his chest, keeping him securely in place.
He looked around the room for any sign of the two monsters that must have captured him and brought him here and found nothing but an old pile of clothes laying on the floor by a set of stairs that led up to an old office.
To test and see just how severely in trouble he was, Malcolm shoved his chest further and could move only millimeters. Upon moving, however, he heard a groan directly behind him.
“Hello?” He asked quietly. “Is anyone there?”
Another groan answered him.
Malcolm twisted his head as far to the side as he could and noticed another chair right behind him, back facing him, and the shoulder of someone else. It had to have been the Oriental guy: Lo Chen.
“Lo? Is that you?”
Lo moaned again and then Malcolm could feel him moving around behind him. Whoever had tied them up must have used the same rope looped around both of their chests.
Slowly, Lo came more to life. He struggled against the ropes to no avail. After a moment, he was still once more.
“Lo, where are we?”
From behind came the sound of the man trying to speak through a thick blanket. They must have gagged him, thought Malcolm. This is just great. So, now they were meat waiting to be eaten.
Desperately, his mind ran through a checklist of everything he had on his body in an attempt to locate anything sharp enough to cut through the rope. He didn’t wear a belt, so no belt buckle. He didn’t have a knife. Heck, he didn’t even have a thumbtack. In fact, he didn’t think he had anything but a few pennies in the front pockets of his jeans, well the jeans that Variel had given him.
They had also given him a new shirt, socks and a nice jacket. If only they had given him a knife, or if he’d had the foresight to stuff a knife from the shelter into his pocket. In fact, the only thing he knew for sure was in his pockets was the cell phone that Variel had given him. Maybe he could…wait a second.
Malcolm moved his hands and could immediately feel the Chinese man’s hands directly behind his.
“Lo,” he spoke urgently but quietly, “I’ve got a cell phone in my jacket pocket but I can’t reach it. If I twisted just a little, I could probably get the pocket near your hands. Do you think you could reach in and get it?”
“Hmmph,” came the muffled reply.
“It’s Variel’s phone,” explained Malcolm. “He said that if I ever got in trouble that I should use it to call him and he’d come get me. Maybe it’s got some tracking built in so he’ll know where we’re at and can come find us.”
Malcolm could feel the little man nodding his head as his muffled reply came again.
As far as he could, Malcolm twisted his body to the right. Unfortunately, he found that he could only move so far. Whoever had tied the ropes, had made them extremely tight. It must have been enough, though, because Malcolm could soon feel the other man digging around in his pocket.
Lo exclaimed something which Malcolm took to mean success, which was just in time as he stayed any more in the twisted position, he’d soon losing all feeling in his chest.
“Okay,” said Malcolm, “this is the tough part. Flip it open and, I guess, just start hitting some buttons. Maybe he put his number on speed dial.”
Malcolm could hear the tones of the buttons being randomly punched and thanked God that it wasn’t one of those new touch screen phones. Soon, however, the little man must have punched the correct sequence as he could hear the phone very faintly dialing another number. After one ring, the phone clicked and he could hear Variel’s voice from very far away.
“Malcolm, is that you? What’s going on and where are you and Lo? We lost all track outside the Shelter. It’s almost as if you’d disappeared off the face of the planet.”
Malcolm turned his head as best he could toward where he thought the phone would be. “Variel, we had to leave the Homeless Shelter. Lo was taking down some back routes when these two Fallen jumped us. I just woke up and we’re in this warehouse. I wish I could give you any clue as to where we’re at but I can’t see through any of the windows.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Variel said from far away. “I’ve got something on my phone that can track your phone.”
“So, you were keeping an eye on me, just like the Fallen said?”
“Just like who said?” Variel answered. “I couldn’t hear that. But, yeah, I figured it would be for the best, under the circumstances and all.”
“I’m not mad at ya,” said Malcolm. “Especially if you can get us out of here. How long do you think it’ll take?”
“I need to hang up with you to use the program. Just hang tight and I’ll be there as soon as I can. Okay?”
“Sounds good,” yelled Malcolm.
He was answered by a click on the other end. And then the phone dropped to the ground with a loud crash.
“Lo, why’d you let it fall? We could have called the cops or something too. Wouldn’t hurt.”
He was answered by a laugh, growing in intensity until the ropes began to shake. Finally, the laughter stopped.
“You humans are so dang predictable.” Said a cold voice that definitely did not belong to Lo Chen.
In answer, the door to the office opened and the Stranger who had killed Larry and The Felon, back in human form, walked out onto the metal balcony. We smiled down at Malcolm like a cat that had just captured a baby bird.
“And what did I tell you?” The Stranger asked. “He was the perfect bait. And you wanted to keep the Chinaman alive just in case.”
The ropes holding Malcolm grew tight, then loosened then tightened again as the man behind Malcolm rose to his feet.
“And that’s why he put you in charge and not me, I reckon.” The thing that wore Larry’s body said as he walked around the chair and into Malcolm’s field of vision. It smiled hungrily down at the homeless boy. “So, can we have him now? The job’s pretty much in the bag.”
The Stranger strode heavily down the iron stairs. “And alert Variel as soon as he gets here that something’s wrong? No. I’d like to have every advantage I can get when I’m facing that one.”
The Stranger reached the bottom of the stairs and raised his eyebrows at Malcolm. But maybe we ought to shut up Junior here before he squeals to his friend.” He motioned with his chin to some place behind Malcolm. “Go look in the storage room and see if you can find some packing tape.”
The other Fallen nodded quickly and moved off as the Stranger drew near. “So now you see why I needed to kill a few bums yesterday? I knew Variel was in the area and he couldn’t resist picking you up. All we had to do was wait for you to get out and as soon as we had you, then we could get at Variel.”
The Stranger bent his face down until it was flush with Malcolm’s nose. Malcolm could smell some rotten wind, like carrion mixed with sewage, as the Fallen breathed on him.
“We’re weren’t after you at all, cupcake. You was just our small potatoes. Our carrot for the bunny, if you will.” His eyes looked up sharply as he nodded. “Yeah, that’ll do just fine. Wrap him up, good and tight.”
The Stranger stepped back just as a hand grasped Malcolm’s head firmly. Larry’s other decomposing hand slipped around and as he wrapped tape firmly around the boy’s mouth, around the back of the skull and then one more pass which covered the nose.
Malcolm’s eyes bulged as his air was cut completely off. His chest convulsed as it sought out any air and. Not finding any relief, Malcolm’s head whipped around in an effort, any effort to dislodge the tape.
Suddenly, the Stranger smiled and stepped forward. With one swift motion, it grabbed the tape by Malcolm’s nose and ripped it down, enough so that the boy could once again fill his lungs with the sweetness of the air.
The Stranger clapped the thing that was Larry once on the side of the head. “What are you thinking, idiot? Didn’t I just tell you I wanted him alive?”
The other Fallen ducked his head ashamedly. “Sorry about that, but I couldn’t see what I was doing. How did I know?”
“All right,” answered the Stranger, “Shut up. Let’s hide and wait for the Awakened to get here.”
They moved off behind Malcolm.
“What if he brings others with him?” The thing that was Larry asked.
“He won’t,” The Stranger answered.
* * * * * *
It didn’t take Variel long to show, although to Malcolm it felt like an eternity. One moment, it was just Malcolm, still strapped to the chair with the monsters hiding somewhere behind him, and the next Variel appeared from nowhere, standing in front of the chair and smiling.
“Well, you don’t look too terrible. They haven’t feasted on you yet.”
Malcolm’s eyes, in response, were bulging out and his head motioned backwards, to indicate the two hiding Fallen.
Variel smiled reassuringly and placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder. He did not, however, make any move to release Malcolm from his bonds.
“I understand, my friend. It’s all right. I knew this was a trap the moment that Lo reported the Fallen’s presence at the shelter. I’m just sorry that we couldn’t get protection for you sooner. There was a little drama back at the safe house I had to deal with first.”
The thing that was inside of Larry took that opportunity to step out of the shadows. “Well, Variel, it took you long enough. Were you gonna wait until we tore this boy limb from limb until you decided to show your face?”
Variel lifted his head to call out loudly. “You may as well come out too. Your friend already gave away the fact that there’s more than one.”
The Stranger, bird head now out with its razor-sharp beak pointing in the air, strode out from the closet where he had hid. “Well, if it ain’t my little rabbit. Can’t run too far inside this building, can you? Oh, and you won’t be doing any shadow-walking around us, will you?”
“It’d be kinda useless, wouldn’t it?” Variel asked.
The Stranger turned its beak toward the corpse of Larry. “And good job on the element of surprise! Idiot!”
Larry bowed its head in shame.
The thing with the bird’s head strode forward. “Ah, well. It’s not like it would have been a great advantage anyway, now would it?”
The Stranger, now only several feet in front of Variel, suddenly shot a tentacle out from the folds of its overcoat. The thing inside Larry took the opportunity to leap at the same moment, transforming itself as it jumped. Like the thing that had been inside Cillin, this one also had skeletal bat wings and a rat’s tail that dropped down between its legs. The difference between this one and the one at the safe house was the mouth. Where the other one had possessed a forked tongue, this one’s mouth had grown unusually large and filled with three rows of pointed teeth.
In response, Variel took a step back and pulled a long stick out of the folds of his coat. The stick he brought down heavily on the questing tentacle and used the momentum to kick his foot in the direction of the thing that was inside Larry. His foot connected with the corpse, propelling it backwards and into a far wall.
The Stranger, perhaps sensing such an attack, had sent a follow-up tentacle seconds later from his coat, which struck Variel’s ankle and quickly wound itself around. While Variel struck the other Fallen with his boot, the Stranger yanked hard on its fastened tentacle, yanking Variel’s standing leg out from beneath him.
Variel hit the ground hard, his stick falling uselessly by his hand. He tried to roll, but only managed to strike his head heavily on the concrete floor.
The Stranger rushed forward, sending out two other tendrils to wrap tightly around Variel’s upper legs and midsection.
The thing that was Larry, meanwhile, had gained its feet. Seeing Variel wrapped as tight as a Christmas package, the Fallen chuckled to himself. “Holy crap, that was easy.” It walked forward and bent down parallel to Variel’s face, which was now wrapped tightly by a fourth tentacle. “You ain’t so tough, are ya, big fella?”
One of Variel’s arms broke free, grabbed the thing that was Larry heavily about the neck and bounced his skull off the concrete floor once. The Fallen fell backwards.
“Get up, you idiot,” said the Stranger. “And don’t get so close next time. Come on. We’ve got to finish this quick before any friends of his show up.”
The thing that was Larry sat up, rubbing its head. “Hey, I thought you said he was coming alone?”
Merec materialized directly behind the Stranger and quickly wrapped a nunchuk around the bird head’s neck. “You guessed wrong.”
The thing that was Larry jumped to its feet just in time to have Alyx materialize behind. She quickly wrapped some sort of silk scarf around its chest, immobilizing it.
“Hey!” It yelled, shooting its rat tail out, only to have Alyx quickly stamp down on it with her boot heel. The Fallen yelped in surprise.
Meanwhile, Variel had thrown the tentacles off his body and gained his feet. Did you really think I would try to do this alone?”
The Stranger shrugged, causing Merec to tighten his grip. “Hey, I know how many movies you Americans watch. You think you can handle anything by yourself.”
Variel shrugged without responding and moved quickly over to where Alyx held the still struggling thing that inhabited Larry’s corpse. His mouth wrinkled in obvious disgust. “You know, out of all the Fallen, I think you stealers of the dead are the worst. It’s bad enough that you have to steal the bodies of the innocent, but to hitch a ride on an inanimate corpse, like maggots infesting a dead dog, that’s really more than most people should have to experience.”
“Hey, listen, it’s better than you monkey boys.”
Variel’s hand shot out and gripped the Fallen by the chin. In a loud, authoritative voice, he proclaimed, “In the name of the Creator, the Father of life and the only Living God, I command you to depart!”
The Fallen’s head shot up. It’s body contorted in Alyx’s struggling grasp as its eyes bulged out and it’s muscles strained. Suddenly, its chest thrust forward and its mouth looped low, crying out. After screaming what seemed like forever, it was a corpse again. Alyx quickly let the lifeless body drop.
The Stranger took its opportunity amidst the confusion to thrust its head backwards, taking a vicious swipe at Merec. It scored a rough cut down the right side of his face. He cried out and fell backward.
Suddenly free, The Stranger considered Variel and Alyx, now gathered around the corpse of Larry, thought better of it and ran toward the metal stairs.
“You better look after your friend,” it yelled as it ran. “I think he may have lost an eye.”
Variel sprang after the Fallen until Alyx’s cry brought him up short. “Variel, stop!”
He stopped, just short of the stairs that the Fallen had fled up onto and turned back toward her.
“Merec’s hurt bad,” Alyx explained, as she bent over the rolling and moaning Awakened. “And we’ve got to get the kid and Lo out of here as soon as possible.”
Variel nodded, walking away from the stairs. He walked toward the mound of clothes which Malcolm had recognized earlier and bent down to dig within them. After a moment, Variel had dug out Lo, beaten up badly and was checking for a pulse.
The Stranger paused at the top of the stairs, on the metal balcony. “You better get all the rest you need, boys and girls cause Rabidus is on the way and he ain’t leaving anyone the same.” Laughing, it exited into the office.
Alyx’s glance fell from the exiting Fallen down to Variel. In answer to Alyx’s unspoken question, Variel shrugged. Instead of answering, he hefted Lo’s motionless body from off of the ground.
Alyx had ripped Merec’s undershirt and was slowly wrapping it around the right side of his head as he sat up on the ground, completely still. As she wrapped the shirt, the blood began to stain through quickly. She tied it off as well as she could, wiped her hands on her pant legs and moved toward Malcolm.
When she reached him, Alyx quickly and painfully ripped the tape from around his mouth, and took a huge chunk of hair from out of his head. Malcolm screamed.
“Sorry, kid,” said Alyx. “I wasn’t thinking.”
She bent down to untie the ropes.
“I thought you guys were gonna forget all about me.” Malcolm said.
Variel paused in the act of helping Merec to his feet, the limp Lo Chen hanging over his shoulder. “Would you rather we left you to do all the fighting? I think we could have managed that.”
Malcolm rubbed his free wrist. “No, not at all. I’m good. Thanks.”
Variel smiled back wearily. “I know, Malcolm. I didn’t want to be here either. Sometimes…”
“You gotta do what you don’t want to do,” Malcolm finished. “Yeah, I get it. Responsibility sucks.”
Variel gazed closely at Merec’s eye. “We need to get you to a hospital, Merec or you may lose more than an eye.”
Merec waved him off. “And answer all those questions by the cops? No thank you. I’ll be fine till the Doctor can see me.”
Variel nodded once more and allowed Alyx to support Merec on one side and Malcolm on the other. He shifted Lo’s body onto his other shoulder.
Alyx motioned toward Lo. “You think there’s any life left in him?”
“Only the Creator knows,” answered Variel as they moved to the exit.
Darkness had descended fully on the town by the time the car Variel was driving came to a complete stop. It was a relief that they had finally reached the safe house. Some time during the drive, Merec had lost consciousness and began to moan and thrash around like something from the Fallen had crawled into the wound and entered his brain. Lo, on the other hand, was still breathing very shallowly, if at all. Malcolm couldn’t tell from where he was sitting in the back seat.
Alyx had attempted to examine Merec’s wound several times during the trip, but her hands continued to be knocked aside by his thrashing. After a few minutes, she gave up.
Malcolm looked out the window but couldn’t recognize anything about the house beside them. He realized that he had only been to the safe house once before, but something seemed completely off.
“Uh, Variel,” he said, hesitantly. “Are you sure we’re in the right spot? I don’t even think we’re in the same part of the city.”
Variel glanced back, his face set in a grim rictus. “No, we’re at Lo’s safe house. I told you we had some drama at our safe house. We were…”
“It’s okay,” said Alyx. “I’ll fill him in once we get these two inside.”
Variel nodded and got out of the car.
At Malcolm’s glance, Alyx smiled and nodded toward Merec’s feet. “It’s gonna take both of us. He’s not as light as he looks.”
This little Italian man is full of concrete, Malcolm thought as he hefted Merec out of the car and into the awaiting building.
It began to rain.
Just inside the building, Alyx and Malcolm passed a short, squat Oriental man, who stared at them quietly while he twirled the edges of his black mustache like a comic book villain. Must have been the door warden, Malcolm thought absently.
They passed several more silent, Oriental faces, peppered with some Caucasian and a few Latino faces throughout. Down a side hall, a man stepped out of a doorway and grabbed hold of Merec.
“Looks like you guys could use some help,” Emil said as he hefted Merec’s middle.
“Emil!” Alyx said. “Glad to see you got out of that mess. I thought you were back on the second floor and trapped. I had you written off.”
Emil grunted. “They would have had me too, but Valentine came running around the corner, crowing like a rooster. She led the cops down a different corridor so I could get out. Don’t know what happened to her though.”
“So, what exactly…” Malcolm started.
“Not yet.” Alyx said. “We’re almost to the doctor’s. Let’s drop off Merec and let the doctor start and then I’ll fill you both in.”
They turned another corner and took an immediate left into a brightly lit room that was devoid of any decorations. A stainless steel table bullied the center of the room with a thin sheet of paper covering the surface. They laid Merec carefully on the table, but Alyx had to hold him steady as his thrashings threatened to spill him off the table.
In a few moments, an ancient Latino woman, dressed in surgeon’s whites entered the room and went immediately to the small sink to wash up.
“Fill me in,” she stated sternly as she concentrated on cleansing her hands.
“It’s just the single gash, doctor.” Alyx said.
The doctor sighed heavily. “Where and by what?”
Merec kicked out violently, causing Emil to step forward and restrain his legs.
“We were in a warehouse…”
“Where on his body is he hurt?” The doctor instructed, much like a teacher with an ignorant student.
“Sorry,” said Alyx. “An aerocortis slashed his down the right side of his face with its opened beak.”
The doctor nodded as she brought a small, side table occupied with several instruments closer. “And what’s been done so far?”
“I covered his wound with a section of my shirt but nothing else. I didn’t have time to cleanse the wound.”
The doctor looked up from inspecting the surgical instruments to survey Alyx’s face. Finally, she nodded. “You’ll do. I need you to stay here and assist me.”
“But, I’ve never trained to be a healer. Maybe there’s someone…”
“There is no one else, dear.” The doctor said. “I’ll need you to assist me. You two can go.”
Alyx nodded, resigned, as she began to strap Merec to the table.
Once out in the hallway and out of earshot, Malcolm turned to Emil. “What was that all about?”
Emil shrugged. “Doctor needed Alyx’s help apparently. We’re all gonna need to help out in different ways now.”
Malcolm stopped in the hallway and grabbed Emil’s shoulder. “What’s going on around here? Everybody’s looks like they’re scared to even move.”
Emil quickly shrugged off the boy’s hands. “The police came to our safe house yesterday and were trying to arrest us. Skyler went out to talk with them and they knocked him in the head and tossed him in their van. When no one else would surrender, they knocked the door in and started grabbing anyone they could. Some of us tried to get out the back, but there were more of them waiting in the alley.”
“I don’t understand,” said Malcolm. “Why would the cops get you guys? I mean, you guys help people, right?”
Emil turned and indicated an open doorway not a few steps away. Leading the way, he entered a room with a number of padded chairs lining the walls and a large podium inhabiting the center of the chamber.
As soon as they were seated, Emil started in earnest. “We don’t know why they came or by whose orders. We’ve never had any trouble from the police before, at least not as long as I’ve been an Awakened. They’ve always kinda kept a safe distance. Maybe we’ve got an understanding with them or something? I don’t know.”
“So, how did Variel, Alyx and Merec get out?”
Emil nodded. “Yeah, I pieced that together since I got here. Apparently, Variel got your call right as the police showed up at the front door. As soon as he sent Skyler out to deal with them, they all shadow-walked out of the building to go rescue you.”
“Why didn’t you all just shadow-walk out then?” Malcolm asked.
Emil hung his head sheepishly as he answered. “Some of us don’t know how to shadow walk yet. The more mature Awakened would have left a bunch of us beginners behind if they would have all took off.”
“So, what? This shadow walking stuff doesn’t come naturally? You don’t get it as soon as you convert or whatever?”
“It’s training. A lot of it’s training anyway. We train to fight. We train to shadow walk. That’s why there’s a good combination of mature and beginner Awakened in each safe house. The mature each take at least one beginner under their wing and teach them the skills. It’s just part of the process.”
“And who was your teacher?” Malcolm asked.
“Variel was the one who first introduced me to the Awakened. Usually the person who introduces you is the one that trains you. But he already had an apprentice, so I got trained by Skyler. It’s cool, though. Skyler knows a lot.”
“Didn’t you say he was one of the first taken away by the cops?”
“Yeah. But he’ll get free. He’s pretty resourceful. We didn’t get to the shadow walking part yet, but he was walking me through the books of the Fallen, that’s a book that describes every type of Fallen and its weaknesses. It’s pretty important to know, so you know what fighting style to use on which Fallen and which ones you can cast out and which ones require a bit more work. You have to pass this test or its back to more studying.”
Malcolm nodded absently. “Yeah. So, did anybody figure out why the cops just raided you all of a sudden? I mean, it’s gotta be what everyone’s talking about.”
“Yeah. There’s been plenty of guessing. Of course, I can only catch about half of what’s said around here cause this house is filled with Koreans, Chinese and other Orientals mostly. But there was enough talk in English for me to figure some of it out. Most everyone thinks it was the host placed in a powerful position that Cillin was talking about. Probably the Mayor or Chief of Police or somebody like that.”
“Can they do that?” Malcolm asked. “I mean, can the Fallen just take over the body of anyone they want to?”
Emil screwed up his face in thought before answering carefully. “Well, I don’t think they can take over the body of an Awakened…”
“But what about the old man?” Malcolm interrupted.
“Cillin? That was a moertifallow; an inhabitor of corpses. It probably waited until Cillin had died and then jumped in.”
“But why couldn’t Variel or one of the others seen it? Can’t they see the Fallen?”
“No, they have to be in shadow to see one of the Fallen in their true shape. That’s why the Fallen hide in humans. Their true shape won’t exist in our world. Yeah, it comes out when they’re attacking and all, but mostly they stay hidden inside, safe from detection so they can look like the rest of us. That’s what this highly placed Fallen is doing and its what makes him so dangerous. If there’s a Fallen in a position that can do some real damage to the Awakened, we’ve got to do something about it quick. There’s been others, in the past. There were times in history where a Fallen inhabited a king or some other ruler and preceded to kill every Awakened they could find. We had to go into hiding just to survive.”
Malcolm was quiet for a moment. “So what do we do if it is somebody who can sic the cops on us and wipe us out?”
Emil didn’t miss the “us” in Malcolm’s question. He smiled to himself.
“We trust our leaders to have a plan and we trust our Creator to save us.”
Malcolm shook his head and finally lowered it, gazing at the carpet. “Man, that’s a lot of trust.”
* * * * * *
In another part of the city, Maria Velargas opened her eyes slowly. With each even slight movement, her head screamed out in agony. She had no clue where she was or how she had gotten here and her eyes weren’t helping out much either.
Directly in front of where she sat was a leather sectional, which was aimed toward a huge flat screen television hanging on the wall. In front of her, she could see a highly lit kitchen on the other side of a gigantic fish tank.
Maria attempted to move her arms and found they were stuck fast, probably tied behind her.
She shouldn’t be here. She should be on her way home as she usually was at this time of night. Maria remembered going to school earlier after she finished her shift. She distinctly knew this because she remembered the puddle that lay right outside her car door that she had to step in and which soaked her tennis shoes.
And next to that thought came another one. She was dreading tonight’s class because she had to turn in her paper on potential opportunities for tort reform. Yeah, she had worked on it for almost a week straight, had ignored her kid’s pleas to read a book and stayed up way past her bed time because she knew that professor Adams was very specific in what he wanted in a paper.
She wanted to cry out and see if anyone answered her and she almost did until the thinking part of her brain stopped her. She was tied up in a strange apartment when the last thing she remembered was leaving her class. Had she made it to her car? She didn’t think so. If she had, she wouldn’t have stopped so someone could take her.
From the other room, she heard a hiss like a cap had just been removed from a beer and then a man’s voice. She couldn’t make out what he was saying, but he was definitely talking to somebody else.
Okay. So did she know anybody who was a jerk enough that they’d do this just to put a scare in her? Her old boyfriend, Ricky. She probably wouldn’t put it past him. But he wouldn’t ever be caught in a place like this. If Ricky had taken her for some stupid reason, she’d find herself in a room covered with pizza boxes, littered beer cans and a rat-eaten sofa propped up by phone books.
So, that left her…where? Nowhere.
She was aware of the man’s voice stopping seconds before he walked into the room from somewhere behind her. He set the phone down on an end table and placed his open beer bottle on a coaster right next to the phone. Slowly, he sat on the couch, laying his long legs out in front of him, eyeing her like she was a piece of trash.
“Who the hell are you?” is what she wanted to say before she quickly realized that she must have something covering her mouth. Odd that she didn’t feel that.
He raised his eyebrows. “About to say something? That’s all right. We’ll have plenty of time to get to know one another.”
He laid his hands on his slacks, slowly following the crease with his fingers as he spoke. “I’m sure you have endless questions. Where am I? Who are you? How did you get such a fabulous apartment? All will be answered in time, I assure you.”
He sat up suddenly then bent forward so far that his black with red flecks tie brushed the ground. When he came back up, he was holding her purse. He didn’t take long to fish out her wallet. She wasn’t like some of those girls whose purse doubled as an overnight bag. Just the essentials. He pulled her driver’s license up and held it out in front of his face.
“Maria Velargas. Wow, that’s a mouthful. Resides at 10435 Baltimore and should be wearing corrective lenses.”
He dropped the license down long enough to look at her plaintive, frantic eyes.
“Hopefully wearing contacts,” he concluded. “I’m sure you wouldn’t be a danger to yourself and other civilians for the sake of vanity. And…not an organ donor. That’s a pity. And extremely selfish of you.”
He threw the license at her feet and dug out a picture that she knew well. “And what’s this? It’s a picture of you…albeit a picture of you in better days, with a little girl. Is this your niece? Your sister perhaps?”
He glanced up at her brown eyes, which were now crying profusely.
“Your daughter then. How sweet.”
He threw the picture at her chest, where it hit and fell to the floor, then dumped the remainder of her purse’s contents at her feet. Smirking, he sat back on the edge of the sofa.
“I don’t really care about the rest. It doesn’t interest me in the least. I never have been much interested in the game side of this, like so many of my fellow patriots. No, it’s more like a business to me.”
As he rose, Maria noticed the shoes on his feet, which looked amazingly like the diamond-studded shoes she had seen in that celebrity mag her mom was always leaving around the house. Gabby, her daughter, had gotten a hold of one such magazine last week that showed the latest celebs in all their toned and untoned glory at the beaches. That one had quickly found its way into the trash.
She heard him rummaging somewhere behind her as her eyes caught the picture of her and Gabby lying on the floor in front of the sectional. He quickly came back into her field of vision carrying some sort of instrument that looked straight out of one of those Saw movies. Casually, he resumed his spot on the sofa and reached for his beer.
“Did you know that there was this small village in Southern France in the year 1212? This was the year of the Children’s Crusade. Don’t recall that one? That was an engineering marvel orchestrated by one of the Fallen greats, named…well, you’re inferior vocal chords won’t allow me to pronounce his real name. Which is really a shame. Found himself on the business end of a guillotine not ten years later. He could create a marvel like the Children’s Crusade but couldn’t outrun an angry mob led by an upstart Jesuit.”
His eyes dropped once again to focus on Maria, and she saw, quite suddenly, something large and alien dancing within their depths.
“Sorry, I was chasing rabbits. Anyway, this town, which was called Pas De La Porte, was just a tiny little thing. It’s no longer there, of course. Not really entirely my fault, but I like to take credit when credit is due. But, this small town with its filthy little men and women gave me a most unusual nickname that lasted for three centuries. They called me Perdu La Clavicule or The Lost Collarbone. Actually, that was a pretty stupid and simple name, but what really do we expect from peasants? Un Grand Nom? Non. It was accurate enough as nicknames go. See, my specialty back then, my mark was that the victim, when found, would be missing their collarbone. Now, how’s that for originality?”
He stood, walked toward her and grabbed her chin, thrusting her head up to look him in the eyes.
“Now, I’ll be honest. I’ve changed since then. Call it a maturing of the tastes if you will or a refining with age, but I prefer the term evolved. See, society has evolved and my desires, my addictions have evolved as well.”
He stepped back and tossed stainless steel thing on the couch behind him. “Have you ever known an alcoholic, Maria? Hey, who am I talking to? You’re a Latino, right? Of course, you’ve known alcoholics. Well, alcoholics don’t start by drinking a case a day to get drunk. No, they don’t need much alcohol to get them high. It just takes a little. But, as time goes by, they need more and more, or they need greater proofs just to get the same drunk. It’s kinda like that for me too.”
He smiled at her. “So, no. I’m not going to physically hurt you at all. I’ve grown beyond all that. But what I’m going to do to your mind…well, that’s a different story altogether. See, some of my fellow patriots believe that dismemberment or evisceration is the be all, end all. But, I think of this a little bit more like an artist. I don’t want my work on display and then covered up and buried the next day. Where’s the eternity in that? No, I prefer living, breathing works of art to all that. Now, in the end, you may not agree with me, but that’s all right. Cause critics get to have their opinion, but the original intention of the artist, that’s where true beauty lies.”
The man hunched down in front of Maria so his eyes became level with hers. He smiled at her, which did nothing to comfort her as she noted the complete absence of any mirth anywhere in his face.
“Well, my darling, are you ready to go spelunking into the tortured depths of your soon to be fractured psyche? Cause I’m game.”
Maria gazed into those maddening eyes: eyes which seemed to want to suck every ounce of her awareness down into their depths. When he finally showed her his true face, it came almost as a relief.
* * * * * *
Sometime during the next four hours of uninterrupted mental torture, Maria became distantly aware that he had left her momentarily to answer a phone call.
“Yes, and your men performed to my every expectation,” she heard him say from behind a thick cloud. “But I’ll explain this to you once again, David. My sources say that there are more than one nest of these agitators. If you check 1818 Mockingbird, owned by a certain Lo Chen, you’ll find that’s where the rats from the previous house have fled. Don’t worry about how I know. My sources are my sources, not public knowledge. Don’t let me down, David. Safety and expediency are our number one priorities in this venture. Yes.”
And then he was back, filling her world once more with his promises of ugliness and otherworldliness.
“Oh, my darling, I’m back.” He said, sneering. “The mean man kept me on the phone for so long now. But don’t worry your pretty little head. We’ll pick up right where we left off.”
After that, Maria was no more.
The police did not find them completely unprepared like they had the day before. Variel figured that if they had been that brazen to attempt a raid in broad daylight, they wouldn’t stop at just one safe house. More than likely, what happened at their safe house was a pre-emptive strike.
Variel and the doctor openly debated as to whether they should leave Lo at the house when the police arrived. The doctor suggested that they leave him as he was in no condition to be moved and would just hinder the rest of them. As she was now in charge, the other member’s of Lo’s house tended to side with her. Variel, however, brought something else to the table.
“Look, I know that Lo would be better off with a doctor and staff, but we have no guarantee that he would be sent to a hospital. I don’t know about the police that’ll be here later today, but I’m well aware of the Fallen. If the Fallen that’s calling the shots in the city gets his hands on Lo, it won’t matter what condition he’s in. That will be the end of him.”
The doctor placed her hands defiantly on her hips. “So, where do we go from here? Have you thought about that one? He needs rest and carting him around from house to house isn’t going to get him any.”
Variel’s face softened. “Of course, I’ve thought about him. I’ve know Lo longer than anyone around here. We’ll get him some rest.”
He clapped her on the shoulder as her face softened as well. “But where?” She asked.
“I’ve been talking with the leaders of the other safe houses and they agree that we’ve got to clear out of all our houses immediately. It’s the best possible move. We’re not completely defenseless or without options. We’ve got plenty of benefactors who wouldn’t mind helping. In fact, I’ve got someone just in mind to watch over our friend Lo while he recuperates.”
The Doctor looked wary, but acquiesced shortly. As she hurried off to oversee the packing of her equipment, Variel turned to Alyx, who was hovering just shy of his elbow.
“How’s Merec? Well enough to move?”
“Why didn’t you ask…” Alyx shook her head, pushing on. “Never mind. He’s fine. In fact, he wanted to be at this meeting but the doctor forbid it. In fact, she had to give him a bit of sleepy juice just to keep him from sneaking out.”
Variel nodded, satisfied. He addressed the remaining survivors, circled around. “Well, folks, we know what we need to do. Just to recap, do not approach any safe house. And please don’t turn yourself into the police. We don’t know who they’re working for and we don’t know where are people are going or what they’re doing to them.”
He slowly glanced over the crowd, stopping to smile reassuringly at individual faces. “I don’t know how long this will last or who’s behind it. But the other leaders and myself will work tirelessly until we break the lid off this problem and get back to life as close to normal as possible. Remember folks, we’re more than soldiers and fighters for our Creator. We’re brothers and sisters, fathers and sons, and we will not stop fighting, we will never surrender until this earth matches perfectly the one foretold by our Creator.”
Variel bent down on one knee. “Let’s take a knee and thank our Creator.”
The others followed silently. Even Malcolm, sitting in a corner chair besides Emil, found himself drawn down like everyone else.
Variel’s voice rose above the men and women. “Great Creator, Father of all and Maker of all things, we kneel in your presence and bring you great praise, for your works are mighty and your love is deep. Creator, we enter this time of darkness, stumbling forward, not knowing where we step, but acknowledging your hand on us the entire journey. While we may not know what tomorrow will bring, while we struggle against enemies seen and unseen, even while some of us may face the darkness of death and despair, still we will not lose faith in you. Though all the legions of Fallen may descend on us, still we will cling to your hope, even still will we cling to you. Father, we humbly ask that you be with all your Awakened. Give us the courage to see this fight through to the end, the strength to hold up our brothers and sisters and the faith to follow you in the absolute darkness.”
“So be it,” came the chorus of voices.
They remained kneeling for several moments after, as each person afforded themselves time alone before their Creator. After several seconds, they began to slowly get to their feet and file quietly out of the room.
When the room was all but deserted, Variel approached Emil and Malcolm. Smiling crookedly, he openly searched the homeless boy’s eyes before speaking.
“Well, Malcolm, have you decided to stay with us or make your own way?”
Malcolm scratched his face before answering. “I’m not saying that I’m buying in to whatever crazy club this place actually is. But I tried going on my own and that didn’t work out so well. I think I’d be a lot safer with you guys for a while. If you’ll let me tag along.”
Variel clapped him on the shoulder. “I was hoping you’d say that. We’d love to have you.”
Variel’s smile dropped slightly as he turned to Emil.
“Skyler?” Emil asked.
“I tried all night to find out where they’ve taken him with no success.” Variel said. “There’s no trace of him. We’ll find him. But, in the mean time, until we get this all sorted out, you train with me. In fact, I’m taking both of you with me. It’ll do Malcolm some good to observe us for a while. Maybe that’ll help him make his mind up about us.”
Malcolm smirked. “Yeah, maybe.”
* * * * * *
The cab pulled over to the curb, parking next to a storm drain. Malcolm looked up at the façade of a massive but squalid three-story town home, whose principle feature seemed to be a lack of paint that didn’t seem to be peeling and iron bars that adorned every window like individual jail cells. One set of stairs led up from the sidewalk to a dark alcove of an entrance that fit the building like a mouth opening wide to swallow every visitor.
“Are you sure this is the place?” He asked, shivering despite his best efforts.
“Hold one moment, will you driver?” Variel asked the cabbie, before turning to address Malcolm. “Yeah, this is the place. Now, remember what I said. He’s a really good guy, but he’s got a few problems. Whatever you do, don’t look at him like he’s strange or unusual. That’ll only set him off. Under the circumstances, he’s our best choice at concealment.”
Variel paid the driver and they all exited the cab, taking what meager belongings they had with them. As they stopped on the sidewalk and watched the taxi pull away, Malcolm craned his head to look towards the top of the building, where an iron fence crowned a flat roof . He wondered to himself for the third time since leaving Lo’s safe house if he had made a mistake. He could be at a shelter right now, in an environment known well enough to him. Of course, he didn’t know how safe he’d be there. The shelter didn’t protect him so well last time.
Variel stepped forward, seeming to make up Malcolm’s mind for him.
As they set foot on the lowest step, a gruff male voiced barked out from the shadows at the top of the stoop. “Halt! Who goes there?”
After a second and no one left the shadows, Variel answered. “It’s Variel, Brian. And I’ve brought the two recruits along, just like I told you I would. Care to put the gun down?”
A 9mm semi-automatic appeared from the shadows of the doorstep. “How did you know I had a weapon?”
“I know you.” Variel sighed. “Come on, Brian. Can’t we do this inside? It looks like it might start raining any second.”
A gnarled, stubble-ridden face popped out of the shadows. “What’s the matter, Variel? Scared of a little rain?”
Variel glanced up at the cloudy sky before answering. “No, I would rather not get all my stuff wet.
A window above the doorstep cracked open and child’s voice yelled out. “Daddy, who’s at the door?”
Brian heaved his bulky frame completely out of the shadows so he could yell upwards. “Dang it, Emma, I told you to stay in your room. And what did I tell you about yelling outside?”
“If they hear us, they can find us,” the child recited. “And if they find us, they can kill us.”
Brian smiled fondly, his large face exposing two large dimples. “That’s right, darling. Now, go see about your sister.”
“Yes, sir,” said the child as shut the window.
Brian shook his head. “Kids. You can train them and train them, but they’ll still do what they want to do.”
Brian thundered down the steps and immediately grabbed one of the larger suitcases in his immense hands. “Come along, gentlemen. Best not to stay outside too long. It’ll draw too much attention.”
“And you hiding in the shadows with a revolver won’t?” Malcolm muttered under his breath.
Unfortunately, Brian had excellent hearing. “And did you see me when you approached? No, you didn’t. I can teach you a thing or two about concealment, boy.”
“Don’t call me boy,” Malcolm stated, almost automatically.
Brian lifted an eyebrow towards him. “Why? Are you thinking you’re a man?”
Variel lifted his own suitcase and stepped between the two. “Guys, let’s take this inside. Brian. Remember what you said about unwanted attention.”
Disturbed, Brian’s head twisted so he could look up the street. “Yeah, you’re right. Wouldn’t want to leave ourselves an open target for them now, would we?”
“Right,” agreed Variel, as they mounted the steps.
Once inside, Brian dropped the suitcase by a hallway table and quickly set about locking all five locks on the door. Satisfied, he dropped a bar down across the entrance and nodded to the others.
“That ought to hold them, eh?”
Without waiting for an answer, Brian led the men through the hallway and into a living room, where two small girls sat on the couch, their tiny legs swinging in the air. As soon as she saw the men, the slightly older girl’s eyes lit up. She jumped down and ran to the men, grabbing Variel by the legs.
“Well, hello, Emma,” said Variel, slightly startled.
Emma backed off slightly and smiled up at Variel, her enormous sky-blue eyes wrinkled at the creases. “Why did you take so long to visit again, Variel? It’s been over six months.”
Variel dropped his bags and knelt down so he could be face to face with the girl. “My apologies, Emma. I’ve been a little busy. But you’re gonna see a lot of me in the days to come. Maybe too much of me.”
Emma smoothed the front of her dress. “Oh, we could never get tired of you, could we Jillie?”
The smaller girl, still on the couch, shook her head happily. “Nope.”
Variel reached forward and lifted one of Emma’s braids. “And what’s this? Did you finally teach your dad how to give you piggies?”
Emma smiled back at her father. “No. Daddy’s still better at making messes then fixing them. Naw, my teacher showed me. So, I do mine and Jillie’s.”
“Yep,” said Jillie, whipping her pig tails around ferociously.
“All right,” Brian stepped forward. “You two will have plenty of time to get reacquainted. Let me show you where you’ll be bunking.”
Brian left the two girls in the living room as he led Variel and the boys past a tiny kitchen and up a staircase at the back of the house. The stairs ended in a large open area with a solitary door visible in the far wall. Several windows covered with newspapers lined one wall as boxes of assorted sizes littered the room. Brian pushed several boxes out of the way to make room for the suitcases.
“This room should be good enough for the boys.” Brian said.
Malcolm opened his mouth to retort but thought better of it and quickly shut it again.
Brian continued. “But I thought you might like a little more privacy for your studies and whatever, Variel.”
He moved to the far wall and pushed the door open to reveal a hidden study, lined with bookshelves overflowing with tomes and containing a desk and computer as well as a queen-sized bed.
“This here’s my secret study, my fortress of solitude if you will,” Brian said proudly as he held the door open.
Variel and the boys entered the room and let their eyes travel around in wonder. Besides the books littering the room, one wall lined entirely with peg board held, floor to ceiling, almost every sort of weapon imaginable to man: from a crossbow to an Uzi to several weapons that Malcolm had never seen or probably had ever heard of before today.
Variel nodded. “This is great. Sorry if I had to put you out at all.”
“It’s a blessing just to have you here, Variel,” Brian said, still by the door. “If there’s anything I can do to help you out, anything at all, don’t hesitate to ask.”
“You’ve been too good to us already. Oh, do you still have the, uh, gym in the basement?”
Brian bobbed his head. “Of course. And I still use it every day.”
Malcolm looked Brian over once more and noted that the bulk did consist mostly of muscle, although some fat had poured through around the midsection.
“Emil? Malcolm? My manners are poorly lacking. Gentlemen, may I introduce Brian Myrtleson, one of the most highly trained men this side of the Mississippi. Brian is proficient in over two hundred individual weapons, holds a white belt in Ju-Jitsu, Taekwondo and was a former golden gloves. He is also an expert marksman and been trained as a sniper by the Army. Did I miss anything?”
Brian’s chest puffed out. “Only a few things. I’ve been an instructor at hand-to-hand combat for over fifteen years. I make a mean quiche and my friends call me ‘Beef’. Any questions?”
Emil timidly raised his hand.
“Yes, son?’ Brian asked.
“What’s a quiche?”
Brian smiled, “I’ve got a feeling you’ll find out.” He turned to Malcolm. “What about you son, any questions?”
“Yeah,” said Malcolm, “two things. One, can I call you Beef?”
“No,” answered Brian quickly. “And the second?”
“Yeah, why does he get the deluxe suite and we have to sleep in the closet?”
Brian allowed a smirk to rise to his face. “Cause Variel’s the master and you’re the apprentice. Also cause his life’s a lot more important than yours. Oh, and may I add that he’s got a lot more important work to do than you little shrimp boats, so he’ll need all the resources he can get. Plus…”
Malcolm raised his hands defensively. “Okay, I get it. I was just joking anyway.”
Brian raised an eyebrow toward Variel. “Where’d you get this one from: the thrift store?”
“Actually, Malcolm’s not one of the Awakened yet. Let’s just say he’s still shopping around to see what his options are. It’s just safer for him to be with us right now.”
Brian turned back to Malcolm and rested one beefy hand on the boy’s shoulder. “War’s closing soon, son. You better make up your mind in a hurry.” Brian sniffed hugely in the air. “Can’t you smell it, boys? It’s in the air and all around us. Been there for weeks. There’s a fight coming. Sooner than later, the fight’s gonna get here and you better be sure your minds made up by then.”
Lightning crashed suddenly nearby, almost as if to emphasize the man’s point.