An Introduction to Shadow, First Installment
|July 6, 2012||Posted by Derek Elkins under All Projects, Elkins Projects|
Malcolm took a moment to run his eyes across the man’s face: The weather-ridden cheeks, the scar across the bridge of his nose. Honestly, the best feature on this guy was his lush, blonde hair. If it hadn’t been for his actions earlier, Malcolm would have pegged his as just another homeless: just a faceless man among a legion of faceless.
“Who’s we?” Malcolm asked at last. “You French or do you have a mouse in your pocket?”
“There are more Awakened than just me. Now, if you value your life, we have to leave. It won’t take long for the Fallen to sniff out our trail. If it catches us out in the open, we’re dead.”
“And how exactly can we get away from something like that?” Malcolm asked. “I don’t know if you saw what I saw, but there was this guy whose head fell off and then he grew a bird’s head that pecked my friend’s to death. Now, where in this big ugly world can we go to get away from a guy who can grow a bird’s head and snake’s for arms?”
The man fell silent for a moment before a semi-distant caw brought his head up quickly. “There’s a safe house not far from here. It’s our only hope.”
The man grabbed Malcolm’s coat sleeve again and hauled him from the darkness of the doorway. Glancing back the way they had come and seeing no one, the man guided Malcolm further down the street.
Malcolm, who hadn’t run this hard since he had been in elementary school, was breathing heavily after a few moment. “Man, I hope this house is close, cause I’m gonna throw up.”
“It’s not far,” the man said.
“And how is running into a house gonna save us from that nightmare? Couldn’t he just peck a hole in the wall then send a tentacle in after us?”
“Save your breath,” the man said as they ran down another deserted sidewalk. “We’re almost there.”
The rounded another corner and pulled up quick, stopped by the Fallen, which was now blocking their path.
“Did you think I wouldn’t know where you were scampering off too?” The thing with the bird’s head asked. “You’re so predictable, Variel. It’s just your kind to run off to your hidey-hole as soon as the temperature heats up. You’re all the same: vermin who come out to chew and destroy in the darkness and who run to hide in the walls as soon as someone turns on the light. All these years and you’re all just the same.”
“You’re the ones who hide from the light,” the man answered as his eyes lit on a trashcan not three feet from him against the side of a nearby apartment building. “Why don’t you come out of your host and fight like a man?”
“Fight like a man? Now that’s a fine joke. What do you monkey boy’s know about fighting. I was fighting before you parasites were a glint in the Creator’s eye.”
The bird-thing’s coat twitched slightly as a tentacle shot out. With the same speed, the man leapt toward the trashcan and griped it around its round top. As the trashcan lifted in the air, the tentacle reached its target and began to wrap itself around the man’s leg.
“Now what do you think you’re doing with that?” The bird thing asked right before the man stepped on the tentacle with his free foot. “Crap!” And the tentacle just as quickly recoiled.
The bird thing bent down and picked up its wounded tentacle end, rubbing it slightly. “That hurt, you…”
The trashcan propelled by the man found its mark on the bird’s forehead, knocking it effortlessly to the ground.
Malcolm found himself once again being pulled along as the man led them down a nearby alleyway. He looked back once to see the bird thing on its feet and headed toward them.
Without warning the man stopped, causing Malcolm to smash into the back of him. Quickly, he turned around to see the bird thing walking casually toward them.
“Looks like you finally picked the wrong cubby hole to run into.”
Malcolm turned to see that the alley ended just a few feet in front of the man in a ten-foot chain fence. There was one door on the right side of the dead end that the man had just attempted to open to no effect.
The Fallen stepped closer.
“No where to run to, baby. Nowhere to hide. About the only thing you parasites got right on this hell-spawned planet was rock and roll. Course, I’m sure you had a little help. You never could do anything for yourselves, could you?”
The man stepped in front of Malcolm. “Don’t step closer or I’ll cast you out of your host.”
“If you could have, you would have already.” The thing said, but it halted a few feet from the man. “You had your chance and you couldn’t or you wouldn’t. I can never tell with you. Is it a matter of weakness or meekness, do ya think? What are you gonna do, Variel, cry out to daddy again? Think he’ll save your skin two in one night?”
“No,” the man stated calmly, “I’ve got an easier trick up my sleeve tonight.”
The lights in the alley slid off and showered them all in darkness. In the ensuing black, Malcolm felt someone grab him by the armpits and haul him away. He heard a door shut and a light clicked on, revealing an inner hallway.
He turned around to find a raven-haired lady, smiling slightly at him as she rubbed her hands together. A bright streak of pink ran through her hair like a neon river cutting a swath through a night sky.
She smirked at Malcolm. “Hoped you showered recently, friend. Sorry about the armpit drag.”
Turning her shining blue eyes on the man behind Malcolm, the girl allowed her mouth a generous smile. “Variel. How interesting. I thought you were here already.”
Variel nodded to her. “Alyx, how delighted to see you once. Why, it’s been since when…lunch?”
Alyx raised one eyebrow. “Sometime around then. So, what’s with the theatrics just now?”
Something thumped loudly on the outside of the door, causing Malcolm to jump. Apparently the noise didn’t faze the other two.
“There’s an aerocortis on our doorstep. It followed us all the way from the overpass after taking out this man’s two friends.”
Alyx nodded, completely serious. “I’ll ring brother Skyler immediately. He’s prepared.”
She turned to stride down the hallway. After a few steps, Variel stopped her. “If he can, don’t let Skyler cast him out. I want to trail this one. Maybe he’ll lead me back to their nest.”
Alyx rolled her eyes slightly. “Variel, can’t you think about the host for once? This is madness.”
The Fallen banged into the door again from the alley.
Alyx turned. “I better get Skyler. I’ll…I’ll see what I can do for you, Variel.”
“Thank you,” Variel called after her.
Another bang by the Fallen made Malcolm jump and turn immediately to Variel. “Look, can we just get away from this door? I’m sure you and your friends think you’re more than a match for that thing, but I saw it in action, remember? I have no desire to see my guts ripped out any time soon.”
“That’s a good non-desire to have.” Variel said. “Come on.”
Variel took Malcolm down the hallway, which twisted to another hall, this one littered with doors.
“You hungry?” Variel called back.
“Are you kidding?” Malcolm answered. “I haven’t had anything since those eggs and bacon some church was handing out for breakfast. I would have eaten at the Shelter for lunch, but they kicked me out. That’s no decent way to be.”
“The reason they kicked you out…did it have anything to do with you wearing a dress?”
“Yeah, it had everything to do with that. They’re just a bunch of homophobes down there.”
Variel stopped at a doorway. “So, why didn’t you take off the dress? Was it worth not eating for?”
Malcolm pushed past him and stepped into the dining chamber. “Yeah. It’s the principle of the thing. I mean, they start with taking away your individuality, then they take away your freedoms and pretty soon, you’re just a robot like everyone else.”
He stopped to take in the spare wooden tables, four of them, two on either side of a supporting beam, and another table to one side which held a large pot, pouring out steam. They were the only two people in the room.
Malcolm raised his eyebrows expectantly. “So, what’s in the pot?”
Variel, in response, inclined his head. “Let’s find out.”
A few minutes later and both men were seated at one of the tables, a heaping bowl of beef stew lay in front of each of them. Malcolm grabbed the spoon and dipped it in the bowl. He was stopped by Variel’s hand on his wrist.
“Wait. Let’s take a moment to thank the Creator for this meal and for our safety this afternoon.”
Malcolm dropped his spoon and eased back in his chair. “You go ahead with that.”
Variel dropped his hands, palm down on the table and lowered his chin to his chest, closing his eyes. “Father,” he said solemnly. “We thank you for your salvation earlier today and the sustenance you provide us now. Let us always place you first in our thoughts and actions.”
Popping his eyes open, Variel grabbed the spoon and set to eating. After a moment, Malcolm joined him, his enormous appetite overcoming whatever suspicions he might have about his host.
They consumed the stew I silence, Malcolm because his hunger didn’t allow his mouth any other use until it was sated and Variel appeared to be lost in his own thoughts. After fully satisfying his stomach, Malcolm pushed the bowl to the side.
“So, what is this really: some kind of religious commune? Are you guys a bunch of warrior monks or something, out fighting the forces of evil? Is that your gig?”
Variel answered with silence, carefully finishing the meat he had in his mouth before speaking. “We are the Awakened…”
“Yeah, yeah. The shadow walkers. The Makers of Great Smells. I forget the rest. Your own nicknames don’t tell me anything. What does being an Awakened…what does that mean?”
Variel considered carefully before speaking. “You asked me if we’re religious and I would have to say that we’re not religious. At least, not like you know religion. Man, very often under the influence of the Fallen, makes his own religions. You can tell when someone makes their own religion, because they are often the ones who prosper the most from it.”
“So, if you’re not…”
Variel held out one finger, stopping him. “Tell you what. Let’s go somewhere a little more comfortable while we talk. My bottom doesn’t enjoy being molded to hard wood.”
“Yeah,” Malcolm agreed. “I think my butt’s falling asleep.”
They rose and, following Variel’s lead, dumped their empty bowls in a nearby tub of soapy water. Soon, they were back in the hallway. Variel led them silently to the door at the very end.
Pushing the door open, Variel led Malcolm into a dimly lit room, occupied to capacity by several dozen tall-backed armchairs, each facing a twin. In a wall to the left, a fireplace blazed, allowing the majority of the light in the room. There were no windows that Malcolm could see.
“Cool.” Malcolm remarked. “This looks like an old, white man’s club.”
“I don’t think it was meant to,” Variel mumbled in return.
They passed by a chair which they thought was unoccupied, but which held a man, his legs draped over the arm. His index fingers were steepled together under his chin. As soon as he caught a glimpse of the two men, the little man sat up and leaned forward toward them.
“Variel, how wonderful. I haven’t seen you in the common room for some time. What brings you out of that cave you call a room? Finally desiring some human interaction?”
Variel paused and turned. “Merec. It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?”
Merec nodded toward Malcolm. “Who’s your friend and why is he wearing a dress?”
Variel turned to Malcolm. “You’ll have to excuse Merec. He doesn’t get out much and so doesn’t often get to exercise proper manners.”
“On the contrary,” Merec said. “I get out just enough.”
“Merec, let me introduce…” Variel paused, looking back. “I’m sorry. I don’t think I’ve ever asked your name.”
Merec grinned. “Now who’s showing a definite lack?”
“My name’s Malcolm. Just Malcolm.”
Merec nodded. “Well, Malcolm, be safe in our house. You’re always welcome here.”
“Thank you.” Malcolm said.
“Merec,” Variel said, “has anyone seen or heard from Cillin? If anyone’s heard something…”
He let the sentence drop to the floor.
Merec flourished one hand in a gesture vaguely reminiscent of a magician. “If anyone’s heard anything about Cillin, it would be the eyes and ears of the safe house, our dear Merec? But, sadly, no. It’s been eighteen days with no new news.”
Variel grunted. “Let me know if you hear anything.”
Merec smiled. “You’ll be the first.”
They moved on to find a quiet pair of chairs by the fire.
Once seated, Variel started. “I’m sure you’re just bursting with questions, but which one to start off with? But give me this: if I answer a question for you, will you answer one for me?”
Malcolm nodded quickly. “Sure. Who are you and what is this place? What is an Awakened?”
Variel took a deep breath and was immediately halted by Malcolm raised finger.
“No, scratch that,” said Malcolm. “I can just tell that’ll be one of those hour-long lectures that’ll go an hour two long and be filled with all kinds of messed up stuff. So, let’s do something a little more simple. That thing that killed my friends and almost had me for dinner: you called it The Fallen. Course, you also called it aero-something, I didn’t quite get that one. Was that a real-life monster, like Bigfoot or something?”
Variel smiled kindly. “I guess you could say it was a little like Bigfoot.” They both could hear Merec chuckling softly. “And it was definitely a monster. The Fallen…this could also be an hour-long lecture if we’re not careful.”
“Don’t worry,” said Malcolm, “I’ll let you know when you’ve overstayed you’re welcome.”
“I’m sure you will,” Variel said. “The Fallen are exactly as their name describes. They were once mighty, beyond anything you could imagine. They were warriors, singers, and they worked tirelessly for the Creator of this world. They were also…ambitious. Have you ever noticed an actor or a singer gaining tons of adoring fans who write them wonderful letters and who win awards and it just seems like the whole world loves them?”
“And did you ever think to yourself, I could do that? Why him and not me?”
Malcolm lowered his head a little. “Sure. Everybody does that though, right?”
Variel nodded. “They do. Well, these beings did the same thing. They looked at the Creator and wondered why he was so great. After all, they could be just as big, couldn’t they? So, they did what anybody does who allows envy and jealousy to fester long enough. They decided to take down the Creator and put themselves in charge. What they didn’t figure on was that the Creator, having created them as well, would certainly know how to put them in their place.”
“Yeah, that’s kind of stupid,” Malcolm agreed.
“A little bit. So, the Creator, in no time, totally wiped them out, except for their souls.”
Malcolm held up a hand. “Okay, I’ve got to stop you. This is starting to sound like a made-up history class. If I hadn’t seen that thing with my own eyes, I wouldn’t even be taking you seriously right now. So, the Creator beat these mighty warriors and sent them down to earth and now their monsters? Is that right?”
Variel shrugged. “Kinda. They’re monsters without any bodies of their own. The Creator stripped them of that. They live in a shadow earth unless they can occupy the body of a human. Then they’re free to come into our world and do want they want.”
“And how come I’ve never heard of them before. You’d think if monsters had been around since this world began, we would have seen them or heard of them before now.”
Variel smiled. “Ever heard of vampires or werewolves?”
“How about Chupacabra or Kaiju? Those are Fallen most witnessed in Mexico and Japan.”
Malcolm grabbed his head in his hands and physically shook himself. Once clear, he said, “Wait a second. You guys believe that all the old monster movies have come to life and are killing people and it’s your job to what, kill them before they destroy all mankind? I mean, I get that they’re monsters. I just saw one. It tried to kill me. But what are you saying: Freddie Krueger and Jason Voorhees are Fallen?”
“Look,” said Variel, “you’ve got to give the depraved human mind a little credit. Man can come up with and be their own monsters time and time again. But the Fallen are real. You’ve seen the aerocortis yourself.”
“And just what the heck was that anyway? I never saw a movie where a guy had the head of a bird and tentacles coming out of his body. Where’d that come from? Ripley’s believe it or don’t?”
“Actually the ancient Egyptians knew our aerocortis very well. They called him Horus or the god of war.”
Malcolm waved his hand to indicate the entire room. “And what are you guys: a bunch of Van Helsings, going around and driving stakes through their hearts and stuff?”
“We couldn’t kill the Fallen without also harming the host.”
Malcolm stood. “Who cares about the host? Did you see what that thing did to my friends? Wouldn’t it make more sense for one guy to die than have that thing kill more people?”
Variel stood as well. “Sometimes, what makes the most sense to us…”
He was stopped as the door to the room slammed open and Alyx rushed in. Her eyes lighted onto Variel and she steered toward him, pausing once to glance at Merec, acknowledging his presence with a nod.
“Variel, it’s Cillin. He’s back.”
Malcolm followed after a hurried Variel down a few shifting corridors and became hopelessly lost. As long as he kept his eyes steadily on the large man’s back, however, he shouldn’t have had any problems. Alyx, followed by Merec, quietly brought up the rear.
Doorway after doorway they passed without seeing another human soul. It was almost like everyone else had suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. As they rounded a final corner, the mystery of the missing inhabitants was finally revealed.
They came upon a corridor crowded with about twenty men and women lined on either side and talking in hushed whispers. As they caught sight of Variel, the whispers stopped immediately.
One young man they passed raised his hand hesitantly. “Hey Variel. Glad to see you back.”
Variel smiled in return but pushed on still.
As the rest of the group followed, Alyx stopped to lay a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “I’m sure he’ll talk with you soon enough, Emil. Variel’s got a lot on his mind right now.”
Emil nodded. “Oh sure. I gotcha. No worries.”
The room they entered was obviously a chapel of some sort as pews lined either side, facing the front. At the front of the chapel was a raised platform with a podium pushed hastily to one side. And there, on the floor beneath a gnarled, wooden cross was the most ancient man in the world lying on a makeshift stretcher.
The man who had been working at cleansing the many jagged wounds that lined the old man’s face, neck and chest, paused as Variel came forward, kneeling down and grasping the old man, Cillin’s available hand.
The doctor looked up once at Alyx, rolled his eyes slightly and shrugged as if to say that there wasn’t much he could do, then bent back to the task at hand. Malcolm slid into the empty space between the pews, feeling like an intruder at a stranger’s funeral.
Variel knelt before Cillin, rubbing his hand gently and mumbling: praying. Suddenly, the old man coughed, bringing up a frothy blood from his lips and his eyes shot open. The eyes rolled around the ceiling, maybe trying to determine their whereabouts, until they finally came to rest on Variel. Cillin smiled slightly, bringing on another coughing spasm.
“Variel,” he whispered softly, although in the quiet of the chapel, even Malcolm could hear him in the third row.
Variel raised eyes already thick with crying to look upon his dying friend.
“Variel,” Cillin mustered once more. “You were right. There were three of them.”
“Please,” said the doctor, “You’re just making it worse.”
“How could I make this any worse?” Cillin asked, bringing a fresh flow of blood from out of his mouth.
In response, the doctor turned from the scene and began to slowly organize his medical bag.
“What do you mean, Cillin?” Variel asked. “There were three?”
Cillin attempted to raise his head, but couldn’t and brought it heavily down again. “You were right. They have a nest here…in the city. They’re planning something big.”
Variel lowered his head. “Cillin, what were you doing out there by yourself…”
Cillin’s hand shot out and gripped the younger man by the chin. “That’s not important,” he stated through clenched teeth. “It’s important to know that they’re not acting alone anymore. At least some of them. He’s pulled them together. Maybe not all of them, but soon he will have all of them. It’s just a matter of time.”
Another coughing spat caused Cillin’s hand to drop to the ground.
“Do you think he’s referring to Talios?” Merec asked Alyx behind an open hand.
“Of course, he’s talking about Talios. Who else would he be talking about?” Alyx retorted loudly.
“No,” disagreed Cillin violently, causing more blood to run as he attempted to sit up. “Not Talios. There’s someone new: someone with a powerfully placed host. His pride is running them. His pride is pushing them on.”
Variel placed a hand on Cillin’s chest, pushing him back onto the floor. Cillin’s eyes closed momentarily.
Alyx stepped closer. “Variel, we have to know who he’s talking about. If there’s a way we can bring that one down…”
Cillin’s eyes flittered open. “There is also a traitor.” He whispered.
Variel turned from Alyx to focus once more on Cillin, only to find the old man’s eyes closed once more. He noticed the doctor sliding a hypodermic from out of the old man’s other arm.
“What are you doing?” Variel questioned.
“I just gave him some pain medication.” The doctor stated as he placed the needle back into his bag. “I may not be able to stop him from dying, but I don’t have to watch him suffer doing it.”
Alyx grabbed the doctor by an arm. “But we’ve got to talk with him. It’s important.”
The doctor reached over and patted her hand. “And you will talk to him. What I gave him won’t knock him out. Just give him a moment. I doubt there’s anything I could give him that would allow him to sleep.”
Alyx glanced over at Cillin, whose eyes were again fluttering. The old man began to fervently whisper, causing Variel to lean his head near.
Suddenly, Cillin’s eyes crashed open: the whites overflowing red from some internal bleeding. A forked tongue whipped out of his mouth, catching Variel on the cheek and immediately burning its imprint.
Variel cried out and rolled backwards just as Cillin’s body rose from the floor. Black, skeletal wings emerged from his back as a long rat-like tail dropped from behind. Alyx leaped off the platform but the doctor was not so quick.
Cillin, or whatever was inside Cillin, grinned as it whipped the tail, wrapping its scaly length around the doctor’s throat.
Variel kept his eyes glued to Cillin as he yelled. “Merec, get the Scathan!”
Merec exited the room at a run.
The tail began slowly to rise, drawing the doctor, face already turning blue, up with it. “Well how does it feel, Variel?” The beast drew out in an oily voice. “For all the years of running as you scoured after my kind, and soon you’ll be running. How does it feel to know you’re days are numbered? How does it feel to be hunted?”
“And what makes you think we’ll be the ones that are hunted, Fallen? You can band together all you want. The Creator will still be in charge, just as he always is and was. There’s nothing you can do about it.”
The creature screamed in rage, drawing its tail, and the doctor, higher up into the air. “That’s your pride talking, Awakened, and it’s like a sweet musical twinkling to my ears. You’ve grown prideful and sloth. Think the Creator’s gonna back a bunch of arrogant children?”
Alyx took that moment to jump onto the platform and grab the doctor and tail, dragging them both to the ground. Variel jumped into the fray, lying on the thing’s body as he attempted to keep the thing’s mouth closed with the other hand. The beast, however, was far from idle as it whipped its head from side to side, trying to dislodge its captor.
“Merec!” Variel yelled.
Merec, who had just re-entered the chapel, clutched the burden he had in his arms tighter as he raced to the front of the room. Alyx had finished unwrapping the tail from around the doctor’s throat and was pulling him off the dais as Merec arrived. For a moment, Merec paused.
“What are you doing?” Variel shouted. “Get the Scathan out and finish this!”
Merec untied the string, which held the cloth on the long object. “Are you sure he’s dead? What if Cillin’s still in there?”
“You know the Moertifallow as well as I do.” Variel dodged a vicious swipe with the tail, turned the creature over and brought it down heavily on its own tail. “They only come alive once the host is dead.”
Merec slid the cloth down to reveal a long, naked broadsword, intricately carved with silver runes down the length of its blade. “But what if he’s still alive somewhere down deep? You never know.”
Alyx stepped toward him and grabbed the hilt of the Scathan. Eagerly releasing the sword, Merec stepped back as she stepped toward the dais.
Variel, sensing her approach, grabbed the thing by the chin and shirt and flung it back to bang against the wall. It struck the wall and fell, to remain motionless at the foot of the cross.
As Alyx moved cautiously forward, Cillin’s body jiggled upward, like a puppet on a string, until it was kneeling, its hands held out in supplication. The head jerked up and suddenly it was Cillin in front of Alyx, no wings or rat-like tail, no split tongue, just Cillin.
“Oh, child,” he said. “Haven’t I suffered enough? Why must you torment this old, haggard body further? Don’t I mean anything to you?”
“It’s gone now,” the old man continued. “Whatever it was, it’s gone. It’s just me now, your old teacher.”
Variel stepped forward and grabbed the Scathan from Alyx’s grip. “Must you mock him even in death?” He raged.
The body of Cillin shot forward, all pretenses aside, with bloody eyes and the forked tongue flicking in and around the mouth. “Do it,” it roared back at Variel. “Or haven’t you got the guts?”
Variel plunged the sword through Cillin’s frail chest, causing the old man to suck in air. A second later and a smile played on its lips.
“Is that all you’ve got?” It sneered.
Variel reached up and twisted the ruby inset in the pommel of the sword. Suddenly, Cillin’s body bucked as his eyes bulged out. The silver etchings on the blade grew dark as whatever had been inside the old man entered the sword. As soon as the body fell again to the floor, Variel twisted the ruby again.
Holding the sword out in front of him like a vial full of poison, Variel strode from the room.
As soon as Variel had left, Merec called a few of the men inside the room. “Take the body to the doctor’s chambers.” He looked back to where the doctor was still rubbing his neck, assisted now by Alyx. “And get Kemuel to look the doc over.”
As the men moved to complete their requested tasks, Alyx left the doctor and approached Merec. “So what do we take as fact and what as fiction? I mean, how can we honestly say that anything that came out of that thing’s mouth belonged to Cillin at all?”
“I agree,” said Merec. “We must proceed cautiously.”
“I know one thing,” Alyx said. “We’re gonna have to convene a general assembly and we might even need to call in some of our sister…”
She trailed off as her eyes caught sight of Malcolm, who still stood between the pews, but whose face was now ashen and whose hands gripped the seat in front of him, like a sailor gripping the railing on a sinking ship.
She left Merec and walked over to the boy. “It’s Malcolm, right?”
Malcolm slowly twisted his head so his eyes could meet hers. “Yeah?”
She placed a hand delicately on his shoulder. “Malcolm, Variel’s gonna be a little busy for a while. What if I got you somebody to show you around, get your mind off what just happened in here?”
Malcolm nodded. “That’d be good.”
Alyx nodded as well and then looked down the hallway for whoever was still lingering. One face stood out from the rest.
“Emil, can you come here for a moment?”
Emil hurried down the hall and entered the chapel.
“Emil, this is Malcolm.” Alyx said as the two shook hands. “Malcolm’s had a pretty rough day so far, a lot more excitement than he’s probably used to. Think you can show him around a bit, give him a place to prop up his feet if he needs to?”
Emil nodded. “Sure, Alyx.”
“I appreciate it,” she replied.
Emil held out his hand. “Well, you ready to do a little sight-seeing?”
Malcolm stepped forward, eyeing the other man’s hand. “If it’ll erase what I just saw, even for a little bit, it’ll be worth it.”
As they left the room, Alyx went back over to Merec. “Think he’ll stick around?”
Merec shrugged. “I wouldn’t. Two Fallen in one day’s enough to send anyone on a permanent vacation.”
“Yeah,” she said. “But I remember how it was for me. Once I knew the truth, there was no going back to anything else.”
“There is that,” agreed Merec as they left the chapel.
* * * * * *
Once they were well away from the chapel, Malcolm felt like he could finally take a deep breath. He hadn’t realized it at the time, but he’d been holding his breath for quite some time while the drama in the chapel escalated.
He allowed the droning of Emil’s voice, thank goodness the kid didn’t ask any questions, to allow him time to process what had happened in the chapel. The point that he didn’t exactly know any of the people involved, with the exception of Variel, helped him think of what had occurred as more like watching some late night horror movie on tv. Sure it was horrible, but it didn’t affect him personally so he was good to go.
He didn’t hear the introduction Emil gave, but Malcolm gave this next room his full attention. There was a soft, spongy material covering the walls, some sort of padded dummy at one end, rubber mats on the floors and a weapons rack that held all manner of blunt instruments.
“This must be the kung fu room,” Malcolm observed.
Emil turned around, smiling. “Well, actually, you’re not far from the truth. We come here to workout, to learn different styles of hand-to-hand combat and to train with some of the weapons. Our main instructor is Gabrielus, but all the more mature Awakened teach a class now and then. For instance, Merec is our instructor for Ju-Jitsu.”
“What? That little guy? What does he know about that?”
“You’d be surprised what the people around here can do. And with that in mind, may I advise you not to hit on Alyx any time soon. She’s well trained in the art of…”
Malcolm waved the comment aside. “Yeah, That’s not gonna be a problem any time soon.” He walked over to the weapons rack and grabbed a pair of nun chucks. “You know, this is great and all, but what’s this really gonna do against one of those things except piss it off? Why don’t you just carry swords or guns or whatever and just take them out?”
“Because that wouldn’t take care of the problem.” Emil spoke slowly, like he was trying to converse with a foreigner. “Sure, you’d take care of the immediate problem, but really all you’d be doing is killing the host. The Fallen’s true nature is spirit. If you kill the host, the Fallen will just find a new host. And all you’d really be doing is punishing an innocent. It isn’t the host committing the atrocities. It’s not the host who turns into those things. It’s the Fallen within the host.”
“So why did Variel use that sword…”
“The Scathan.” Emil offered.
“Yeah. So why did Variel use that to kill the one in the chapel?”
Emil absently picked up a mace and began to twirl it around his fingers. “Well, there was a couple reasons for that. First, know that the Scathan’s unique. You can’t just go plunging any sword into the Fallen. Most of them would just laugh at you. The Scathan is the only known weapon that can contain a Fallen until we can properly dispose of it. Also, you’ve got to realize that the Scathan, although it’s unique, will kill the host while it’s removing the Fallen.”
He set the mace back into its cradle. “Second, from what I heard, and I was pretty far down the hallway, Cillin was already dead when the Scathan was used, or he was pretty close to it. I’ve gotta admit I don’t know what happened completely back there. I don’t know how a Fallen can occupy a corpse. I was pretty sure the host had to be alive. Of course, I’m still learning, so what do I know?”
“So how long have you been here?”
Emil smiled. “You know, time kinda soars around here. I’ve been here about six months. But, I’ve got to tell you, I’ve seen some pretty weird stuff during that time.”
“Oh yeah,” said Malcolm. “I haven’t been here one day and I’ve seen that. It’s just a lot to take in, you know?”
“But it’s worth it. It’s not like my life was all that hot before now, but it’s so crisp now. I’ve got purpose. I’ve got focus. I really know where I belong in this world now that I’ve become an Awakened.”
Malcolm frowned. “You sound like a bad infomercial for Jim Jones.”
“I know it sounds crazy. It would have sounded crazy to me seven months ago. It’s just hard to explain. It’s like I was a zombie for so many years and then I suddenly woke up. You find out one day that everything you thought was real is just surface. It’s like…It’s like an iceberg. You see this big chunk of ice and it’s pretty massive. You think, this thing could really tear a hunk out of the Titanic. But it’s not until you see a picture of one that you realize that there’s about five times more of it underneath the water that you can’t see. Do you know what I mean?”
Malcolm fingered a three-piece staff. “Kinda. I mean, I get it that a new world opens up to you. It’s cool to be able to see and do things that no one else does, like a secret society or something. But at what price? I would have never known about those things if Variel hadn’t come along and saved me.”
“No,” said Emil. “You would have just been lunch.”
“Yeah, you got that right. Still, it sounds like a lot of hard work. Is it really worth it? Do the perks outweigh the chance of dying on a daily basis?”
“That’s a question that only you can answer.” Emil took in Malcolm’s baggy eyes and slack face. “You look exhausted. Let me show you to a place you can rest a while if you want. No one’s gonna make you choose anything you don’t want. Being an Awakened doesn’t work that way. It’s all about free will. Well, most of it’s about free will”
Emil showed Malcolm to the safe house’s sleeping quarters. A few of the bunk beds were occupied, mostly by those who worked primarily on the night shift. Malcolm noticed quickly enough that the sleeping quarters were divided between the men and the women. But when asked, Emil commented that it made things a lot simpler.
After locating Malcolm a bunk, Emil took one more look down at the dress Malcolm was wearing and grinned. “Want me to find you some clothes that are more comfortable? We’ve got tons.”
Malcolm pulled the blankets up close to his chest and closed his eyes. “No, I’m good.”
In a moment, his snores mingled with the other inhabitants of the room as Emil quietly let himself out.
For the first time in a long time, Malcolm had no dreams.
Malcolm awoke once to a dark room and, for a moment, could not recall where he was or who he was with. It wasn’t the first time he’d been in such a circumstance and his mind immediately ran through the events of the past week in order to get it completely up to date.
There were more snores coming from the room around him now and the light from what had to be the moon was falling gently through the only window.
He took the time to run through the choices he felt had been laid out before him until the sounds of the night, aided by a previous twenty-four hours of emotional and physical exhaustion, led him back down to dreamless slumber.
* * * * * *
In the morning, Malcolm had come to a decision. During a breakfast he had shared with Emil, who had mysteriously shown up a few moments after he had woken, Malcolm asked to speak with Variel.
“You know,” said Emil, “he’s kinda busy right now. Him and some of the others, Alyx and Merec, along with Tadeu and Sabela, were in meetings all night long trying to determine what, if anything, they should do about the messages received from Cillin. There’s also the matter of deciding a new leader for this safe house, but I think that one probably went pretty quick.”
Malcolm interrupted him. “Man, how do you come up with those funky names? You can’t have been born with them right?”
“Actually, we’re given a new name by the Creator at the conclusion of our awakening ceremony. It’s a way of saying that we’ve been changed; we’re not the same as we used to be. The old self has been wiped away and…”
Malcolm dismissed him with a wave. “Yeah, yeah. I get it. So, you got the name Emil, huh?”
Emil blushed. “Actually, Emil is my given name. I’m kinda new at the Awakening thing and I’m not used to the new name yet. Everyone else around here is trying to help me out: calling me by my new name, Oeric. Everybody, that is, except Alyx. She still calls me by my old name and it keeps messing me up.”
“Why? What’s the matter with her?”
“Oh, nothing really. She’s the one who brought me in, showed me the hidden ways, so to speak. I’ll see if I can pass word to Variel sometime after breakfast. He’s probably fast asleep by now.”
Alyx entered the dining room, steering directly at the two young men. “Malcolm, Variel wants to know if he can talk with you for a little bit. Hey, Emil.”
“Hey,” Emil answered. And then said to Malcolm, “Or maybe I’ll just hang out here and finish breakfast.”
“I’ll take care of your bowl for you,” said Emil.
“Thanks,” Malcolm said. “And thanks for showing me around and talking and all that.”
Malcolm followed quickly after Alyx, who, if she had stayed up all night, didn’t appear to be tired in the least. At least her mouth was wide-awake.
“So, did Emil take you around, show you the sights? It’s pretty impressive what we’ve got hidden around here, once you take in all the false walls and passageways. Of course, he probably didn’t point out any of that stuff. Emil probably doesn’t know half of the secrets around here yet. But, given time, he’ll learn everything there is to know. He’s a smart one, that kid.”
Malcolm could do nothing but nod and keep his eye on the pink stripe in her hair as she dove down hallway after hallway, like a trapdoor spider that knew every twist and turn of its lair by heart.
“He’ll make a fine leader one day as well. Did he tell you his Awakened name: Oeric? Know what it means? It means golden. It’s interesting, but when the Creator gives someone a new name, he knows exactly what he’s doing. You can just about watch someone grow into their new name, their personality and character changes by circumstances and events seemingly outside their control. But then, you take a look down the road they traveled and it’s amazing. It’s like the Creator composed this brilliant concerto all designed to help one person grow into what the Creator needed him or her to be.”
“So, this Creator,” Malcolm said, “am I ever gonna meet him?”
Alyx turned and smiled, her blue eyes sparkling in the dark corridor. “I sure hope you will.”
She stopped in front of a door at the end of a long, narrow hallway. “Malcolm, whatever happens in your life, whatever choices you make, I wish you the best and it was good to meet you.”
She held out a hand, which he shook. “Thanks.” Malcolm said. “It’s certainly been…weird.”
She giggled slightly, patted him on the shoulder and left.
Malcolm didn’t know what he expected to find inside the door: maybe Variel meditating on a bear skin rug in front of a roaring fire, or maybe the door would open to another dimension where animals spoke and walked around on their hind legs like people. Absolutely anything was a possibility after the last twenty-four hours.
What he didn’t expect was a sparsely furnished room with a bookshelf bursting with books, an old army cot in the corner of the room and Variel behind an oak desk talking on the cell phone. Variel motioned Malcolm toward a plush chair in front of the desk as he concluded his call.
“That’s right, Inina. No, you’re right. It’s been way too long. Uh-huh. Okay, we’ll see you then. Grace to you too.”
Variel hung up the phone, smiling softly at Malcolm. “So, we’ve been busy, haven’t we?”
Malcolm smiled back. “And not in a good way either.”
Variel’s smile dropped. “You’re right. A lot of horrific events in just the short amount of time we’ve known each other. Events are still going quickly, too quickly for some.”
Variel evened out a stack of papers on the desktop before stopping his hands and laying them gently, palms-down on the wood. He smiled back at Malcolm again, this time a trifle uneasily.
“I have the feeling that you’ll be leaving us. Is that what you decided?”
“Yeah,” said Malcolm, not quite meeting the other man’s eyes. “I just really…to me, it’s not worth it. I mean, I’ve seen plenty of horror movies, but I’ve never wanted to be in one. It just seems a little too one-sided, if you know what I mean.”
Variel smirked. “We’re not completely defenseless. But, I can definitely see where you’re coming form on that. The stress level alone may be enough to kill some people. But it definitely has it advantages.”
“I don’t know. All I’ve seen so far are things that want to kill me or eat me or both. I just don’t think I’m built for this kind of life, you know? I just want to lay low and keep out of the way.”
Variel folded his hands on top of the desk. “I know what you mean. I wasn’t always an Awakened. There was a time when I just wanted to be left alone. But sometimes we don’t have much of a choice. Sometimes our path is already plotted out before us, waiting for us to come to the same conclusions. I’ll tell you what. Let me tell you the downsides, try to talk you out of becoming an Awakened and then, at least, you’ll have a reasonable excuse not to do it.”
Malcolm shrugged, not feeling he needed any more excuse than staying alive.
“Becoming an Awakened isn’t something you come at lightly. You’re no longer your own man. Suddenly, you’re taking orders from someone else and what you want to do isn’t as important anymore. Not only that, but there’s also the commitment factor. The Creator doesn’t want somebody who isn’t totally committed to following him for the rest of their lives. This isn’t a decision to come at likely because it will change the rest of your life. No matter who you were, how rich, poor or indifferent you may have been, you will be changed forever.”
Variel rose to his feet. “Now, don’t get me wrong. If you’re young, got a good job, a great family life, whatever, then maybe you see absolutely no need for a change. After all, if you don’t think you’re sick, you’ll never want to see a doctor, will you? And there’s a whole lot of people out there today who would prefer to live shallow, unchallenged lives than possibly live two hours doing something truly meaningful, something that could change the world forever. People are just like that. They’d rather spend their days in comfort rather than help their next-door neighbor. It’s human nature.”
Malcolm looked up, directly into Variel’s eyes. “Look, I know what you’re trying to do. And it won’t work.”
“What won’t work?”
“You’re trying to challenge me to do whatever, and it’s just not gonna work. You don’t get it. There is no different life for me. There is no college-degree, jackpot-winning other life waiting for me. This is it. This is all I’ve got. You want me to what; go fight monsters for a living? You may as well want me to go be president of the United States or be the guy that cures cancer. It’s not gonna happen.”
“Malcolm, I just want you to be the man your Creator made you to be.”
Malcolm stood up and beat his chest. “This is it. It doesn’t get any better than this.”
Variel sat down again. “Malcolm, look, I’m not trying to get you angry. I just wanted to tell you a little more about us. I wasn’t attacking you.”
“Well, it sure felt like it,” Malcolm said, but eased his body back into the seat.
“I can appreciate that. You know, about seven years ago, I was homeless too. Actually, homeless kind of glosses over my issues. I was a drug addict. More specifically, I was a coke addict, but when you run out of money, pretty much anything could be my new coke. My addiction cost me my job, my family, I had a beautiful wife and three kids, and pretty much any friendships I ever had. But, you know what? I didn’t care.
“I had lost everything and I was living on the streets, but my mind didn’t like to dwell on all that stuff I lost, so I kept thinking about my next fix. I stole to get what I needed. I lied. I cheated. I’d betray anybody that dared call himself my friend if I thought it could get me what I wanted. That was my life. There was nothing else.
“And then something happened that was a little like what happened to you. I was riding this bus late at night and suddenly the bus pulls into an empty parking lot. I didn’t notice what was happening at first. Tell you the truth, I fell asleep and I was the only one on the bus at the time. The driver started walking back toward me and he suddenly turned into this thing. I still don’t know how to describe it. But it had these huge fangs and tons of hair. I was so scared I couldn’t move.
“Well, before it could kill me or eat me or do something worse, there was a huge crash and one of the windows blew in. This guy, who I’d never seen before, jumps through the window and gets between me and the thing. The next thing I know, the guy is yelling something at the monster and the monster just falls over and is still. After a moment, it’s just the bus driver again. The monster’s gone.
“Well, I tag along after this guy for a while and he brings me back here. After all, I didn’t really have anything better to do. And then he offers me something I thought I’d never see: a second chance. No, I wouldn’t be getting my family back. I blew that one a long time ago. But being Awakened gave me a new life, actual purpose and a reason to think about something other than drugs for once. I realized that I wasn’t dead, that my book wasn’t written after all. It gave me my life back.”
Variel completed his story in silence, while Malcolm sat back in his chair, thinking. After what seemed like an hour of a minute, he leaned in toward the desk.
“I understand what you’re saying. I really do. And, in a way, I’m walking right along with you. I could use a do-over, a new start, somewhere where people either don’t know or don’t care about where I’ve come from. But at what price? I’m not superman material. Look, I appreciate what this did for you. But me? I’m not ready for this yet. I may never be ready.”
Variel started again, softer. “Remember yesterday, in the meeting hall? I told you I’d answer a question for you if you answered one for me.”
“I’ve got one question and you don’t have to tell me. You don’t owe me for what happened yesterday, even though you may think you do. I wouldn’t have been anywhere near where you were yesterday if the Creator hadn’t sent me out there in the first place. So, really it wasn’t me. Anyway, my question: why are you wearing a dress?”
Malcolm’s eyes dropped to the front of the desk. “It’s complicated.”
“I’m sure it is.”
“What does that mean?” Malcolm said, his eyes turning up in quick anger.
Variel, oblivious or at least appearing so, said, “I just mean that nothing in this life is ever simple. There are always levels and deeper still, more levels. Analyzing the human life is like studying Shakespeare. There are always more levels than what you first picked up.”
Variel waited, expectantly, for anything additional, but was greeted with a stony silence. “I understand. I really do. There are some things better kept as secrets until you have time to develop a real relationship. And, unfortunately, I don’t think we have time for that right now. So, do you know where you’ll go after you leave here?”
Malcolm sat up, back in familiar, comfortable territory once more. “Thought I’d head over to the Third Street Mission. I know a few guys over there. Thought I’d hang out and lay low for a little bit.”
“Well, I don’t mean to belittle your choice of attire, but have you thought about dressing a little more main stream for a little bit, you know, just to fit in?”
“Yeah, I thought of that too.” Malcolm said, smiling slightly. “I was wondering if maybe…”
Variel nodded. “Of course. We can give you whatever supplies, clothes, and hygiene items you might need. Alyx will set you up as soon as you leave here. But I’ve got one more thing I need to tell you before we do all that. The Fallen, they’ve seen you and you’ve seen them. Once you step a foot into shadow, the shadow marks you. You’ll be easier to recognize by the Fallen. Your life, and I’m not saying this to frighten you, but your life could easily be in danger once you leave our protection.”
Malcolm spread his hands out. “I’ve been on the streets for a while. I can take care of myself. Plus, if I stay in the open, they won’t be able to get me, right?”
“Well, no, they can still get you in the open.” Variel said. “They’ll find a way to get you alone, away from prying eyes. They have a way of doing that. Plus, for whatever reason, regular people tend to look away when something strange and unusual is happening. They don’t want to get involved and it’s easier to plead ignorant than negligent.”
“A lot of people are like that,” agreed Malcolm, “and it’s not just about funky, horror stuff either. As a homeless guy I get that about fifty times a day. People look right through you like you aren’t even there.”
“Regardless, I want you to take this.”
Variel took something out of the top drawer of the desk and slid it over to Malcolm. It was a cell phone.
Malcolm simply eyed it, not picking it up or commenting on it.
“We don’t want to spy on you,” said Variel, “so don’t think we’ve put any sort of tracking device or whatever on it. I just want you to use it if you get into any scrapes you can’t get out of. My cell number is listed in the contacts. You’re welcome to call me anytime, whether you’re in trouble or just want to talk. I’d just feel a whole lot better, especially knowing that the Fallen know you’ve seen them. Will you do that little favor for me?”
The cell phone slid off the desktop and into one of Malcolm’s coat pockets. “Sure. It’s the least I could do.”
Variel reached into his own pocket then and began to text. A few moments later and the door opened to reveal Alyx, who smiled briefly at Malcolm.
“Are we ready?” She asked.
Malcolm stood and they walked to the door. Variel’s voice stopped them at the door.
“Oh, and Malcolm. You may be tempted to sell my cell phone for some quick cash. Don’t. If you need some money, and I mean for food and clothes and not drugs or booze, we can float you a little.”
“A little?” Malcolm questioned.
“Yeah, a little. And keep in mind also that I said loan and not give. With the clothes, food and other stuff, we give freely. With the cash, we’re a little more strict. We would expect you to pay us back.”
“Sure, I’ll pay you back.”
Variel smiled broadly. “I’m sure you’d try. I’m not going to lie to you, Malcolm. For a little bit, my people are gonna keep an eye out for you. I wasn’t joking or being light when I said you’re in extreme danger.”
“I’d rather not have folks following me around.”
“I’m sure you wouldn’t. It was good meeting you Malcolm. Hopefully, we’ll see each other again.”
* * * * * *
Alyx didn’t say much as she showed him to the clothing room. He quickly got what he thought would fit him, along with some other supplies and a bag to carry them in. He didn’t want to take much because he didn’t want to feel indebted to this group at all. In reality, and despite how Variel had saved his life, he thought this group was extremely dangerous.
At the front door, Malcolm shook Alyx’s hand but quickly declined her offer to escort him to the shelter. He was a grown boy, after all. He felt quite sure he could take care of himself and, now in the light of a new day, the events of the past day started to lose a little of their reality for him.
He wandered the streets alone, continuously heading toward the mission. The streets, unlike the day before, were not completely deserted and Malcolm felt a bit safer. After a quick stop to change his clothes and make himself less conspicuous, he made it to the mission and lined up with the other guys outside, waiting for the noon meal.
As he stood in line, someone caught his eye. A stooped Asian man in a ratty old jacket was slowly making his way down the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street. Malcolm looked directly at the man and caught him staring back. As soon as Malcolm caught his eye, the Asian man disappeared. The funny thing was that the opposite sidewalk was practically deserted. There was no place for that guy to hide in or behind.
And then, about twenty steps down that same sidewalk, the stooped Asian man suddenly reappeared. This time, instead of looking at Malcolm, the man had his head down and rushed forward as if he had been walking that way all along. Soon, he came to a corner and disappeared around it.
For a moment, Malcolm glanced around to see if anyone else had seen what he had, but all the other guys were in their usual positions, smoking, or hands in pockets and staring forward.
Malcolm tapped the shoulder of the man standing in front of him. “Hey, did you see that old Chinese guy across the street? Looked like he just disappeared and then showed up again.”
The man turned around and the first thing that popped into Malcolm’s head was, I wonder why his neck’s all jacked up like that. A guy with a neck jacked up that bad and you’d think he wouldn’t be able to breath.
Then Malcolm’s eyes traveled up to the man’s face and he immediately recognized his old buddy Larry. His eyes were slightly more bugged and he had matted blood in his beard, but it was Larry and Larry was smiling at him. Larry, the guy who had just had his neck snapped by that bird-thing was standing right in front of him and was smiling like a big, dumb, bloated hillbilly.
“Well, hello there kid,” the thing dressed as Larry’s corpse said. “Long time, no see.”