Den skönlitterära varianten på det avslutande äventyret i första delen av den långa rollspelskrönikan jag spelleder i WoD: Mage – The Awakening. Andrei är den spelade karaktären (en nyuppvaknad magiker som redan lyckats skapa sig många fiender), medan alla de andra är s.k SLP:s. Innan händelseförloppet nedan har många andra saker hänt som det bara hintas om här, men jag tror texten kan vara spännande även för den som inte varit med från början.
He could feel Anzhela pressing herself against him, hiding her face in the fabric of his jacket, even as the wind got stronger and whipped sharp snow flakes into his eyes. The chill from the frozen ground was beginning to get through his damp clothes, and he shuddered unwillingly. He hoped for his life that they were invisible below the low roof of the improvised shed where they had thrown themselves when they spotted the helicopter, but fear was rising inside.
If what Malcolm had told him was true, those who were now coming were not normal human beings but something else entirely. And based on Malcolm’s – and his own, lately – definition of “normal”, that would have to mean something quite radical. Had those in the helicopter come to help Sender? Was it true that he had found something with which to do bargain with these people – and did it have anything to do with Rodja’s sudden show of power? These and other questions flashed through his head as he watched the big helicopter land on top of the factory roof, just some two hundred yards away.
“Who are those people?” Anzhela nearly had to scream to make herself heard over the roaring of the wind. Strands of her blonde hair had escaped from her braids and were now blowing into his face.
Andrei raised his head and cast another glance in the direction of the factory. The helicopter had landed, and the rotor blades were slowly coming to a stop. Three people were climbing out of it even as he watched, and his breath caught in his throat as one of them, visible only as a silhouette against the full moon, turned his head and looked straight at him. Even from this distance the figure’s gleaming spectacles could be seen reflecting the moonlight, before he let his gaze continue its wandering over the city below – almost as a ruler assessing newly conquered lands.
Andrei was quiet for a moment. It must have been his imagination playing tricks on him; noone should be able to spot them from that distance, in almost total darkness on top of that. “I don’t know, but they are probably trouble. Come!”, he said finally and dragged Anzhela onto her feet. “We have to get out of here!”
Together they ran in the opposite direction from the factory, several times slipping on the sheet of ice that lay concealed under the feathery snow. The full moon cast its light upon them as they ran between the abandoned warehouses, their every breath standing in the air like heavy clouds of ice. Finally they reached the right warehouse, and Andrei threw himself on the door handle and at last managed to drag it open in spite of the thick layer of snow that blocked it.
Bright light fell upon the snow outside as the door swung up and revealed the empty room to which Andrei had grown quite accustomed over the last couple of days. The building-site lamps on the floor illuminated the inside of the warehouse with its uncountable paint buckets scattered everywhere, the wooden chair with the laptop upon it, and the big, yellow car in the middle of the room. Malcolm was sitting directly on the floor, his back against one of the car’s back wheels, a tired and despondent look on his face. He hardly turned his head as Andrei and Anzhela entered, closing the heavy door behind them and at the same time blocking out the storm’s din.
“They’re here”, Andrei stated, trying to catch his breath after the sprint. “The Eyes of Night. They just landed on top of the factory with their helicopter.”
Malcolm’s shoulders, if possible, sagged even more. “As I said, then. We’re fucked. Congratulations.” He was quiet for a moment. “I wonder why they would travel by helicopter, though…. When there are so much quicker ways to do it.”
Andrei just shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Yeah, yeah. It doesn’t matter. They are here now and they are going to kill us.” Malcolm seemed first now to notice Anzhela, who was still cautiously keeping herself behind Andrei. “I see you brought your girlfriend. Lovely.” A forced smile passed his face before he resumed his defeated look and pose.
“I’m Anzhela”, she answered irritably. “And I’m certainly not his girlfriend. “And you are…?”
“Malcolm”, he said, extending and then instantly dropping an outstretched hand. “Nice to meet you, here at the end of things. Make yourself at home, I guess. We have a chair and lots of hotdogs.” Then he leaned his head back against the car’s body and stared up into the ceiling.
Andrei stared at him for a moment, while Anzhela shrugged and went about exploring the warehouse. He could hear the rattle of paint buckets as she followed Malcolm’s advice, but didn’t turn around to see what she was doing.
“So you are just going to sit there and let them kill us? Shouldn’t we do anything?”
Malcolm cast him a skeptic look. “What do you want me to do?”
“I don’t know. But we have to do something! We can’t just let them take Rodja…”
“Rodja?” He hadn’t noticed Anzhela showing up from behind. She was holding a dried up paint brush and was trying to scrape the paint from it even as she spoke. “What about Rodja?”
He realised suddenly how little she actually knew. He sighed. “Those people we saw in the helicopter… We fear they have come to take him away. That’s why I’m here, I’m trying to protect him.”
She raised one eyebrow. “Why would they want to take him? I mean, sure, you told me before about this mobster-thingie you’ve gotten yourself mixed up into, but Rodja? Have I missed something?”
“It’s no ‘mobster-thing’, alright? It’s much more complicated. It’s… Ah, forget it. You would never believe me anyway.”
Without warning he was hit across his nose, backing away a couple of steps from the impact. He covered his face with his right hand and stared at her. “What the hell are you doing?” He hoped he would not get a nose bleed. He hated nose bleeds.
Anzhela was rubbing her right hand knuckles with her left hand. “I’ve had enough of your secrets, moron!” She stared at him. “Are you calling me stupid or what? Just tell me, and let me be the judge about whether I believe you or not. I’ve about had it with this town being all fucked up, people dying and nobody telling me nothing about what’s going on. So quit trying to be cool and mysterious and just tell me, okay?” Her voice was calm and just as cocky as always, but somewhere below the surface he thought he could detect a hint of fear. “I was the one found Kit, remember? I think I’m smart enough to see things are complicated.”
“Okay, okay…” No, no nose bleed, luckily. “But you didn’t have to hit me.” How in hell was he going to explain all this to her? “Okay, as you wish. I’ll just break it to you, then. Those people that we saw… They aren’t normal. Hell, I’m not normal, and Malcolm here certainly isn’t. They have, like, abilities, okay? Like… Aw, what the fuck, Malcolm, you explain it to her!” He looked helplessly to Malcolm, who was still staring at the ceiling.
Malcolm gave him a look that seemed to say ‘You are the source of all my suffering’. “Must I?”, he said. Andrei nodded. “Okay, what part do you want me to explain? That we are wizards that can do magic and create fire from nothing or turn people into cupcakes? That you have pissed off one of the most powerful magicians there is, and that he has called for help from people even more powerful? That these people are coming here to beat us up, flay us and then kill us, probably raise us from the dead and then kill us again? That we are royally, indisputably, inevitably, fucking mightily fucked? Fuck!” He beat his fist against the concrete. “Satisfied?”
Andrei cast a hesitant glance in Anzhela’s direction, preparing to be laughed at and ridiculed. Instead he was surprised to see her staring at Malcolm with eyes wide with fascination.
“What, you’re trying to tell me that it’s all real, like in the books? You know, Gandalf, Sauron and stuff? All real?”
“Well”, Andrei said hesitantly, “I’m sure that didn’t really happen. It’s just a novel, after all…”
For an instant he was sure she was going to strike him again, but she didn’t. “No, silly, I know those characters aren’t real. But they could be, right, if what he’s telling me is true.” She turned back to Malcolm. “Show me something. Something… magical. So I know you’re not pulling my finger.”
Malcolm sighed helplessly. “Must I really? Alright…” He snapped his fingers, and instantly a small flame appeared in his hand. Anzhela reached out to touch it, but Malcolm closed his hand over the flame before she had a chance to do so. “Ah ah, no touching!”
Anzhela withdrew her hand, a little disappointedly. Andrei could see a sudden hint of fascination
in Malcolm’s eyes as he looked at her, however. “Andrei, I be damned if you haven’t found yourself a Sleepwalker.”
“And what is that?”, Andrei said, having no idea what Malcolm was getting at.
Malcolm rolled his eyes. “Man! Sometimes I forget how nooby you actually are! Okay, a Sleepwalker is a person who does not know magic, but doesn’t intervene with it, either. You know, normal people make casting spells complicated. She doesn’t. Ergo, she is a Sleepwalker. Okay?”
Andrei shrugged. “Okay, whatever…” He was tired of people calling him inexperienced, and had accepted long ago he would never be able to understand everything about his new existence.
“So these people we saw on the roof…”, Anzhela interrupted, clearly oblivious of the speculations directed at her. “They can do this stuff, too?”, she said, looking from Malcolm to Andrei.
“Yeah, or I mean, maybe not exactly the same thing but close enough. I guess I know a couple of tricks myself…”, he added, awkwardly scratching his neck.
Now she looked even more amazed, if possible. “You? What, you can make fire from thin air, too? Or what can you do?”
Andrei drew a deep breath and realised she was not going to be satisfied until he told and showed her everything. And he did need her he felt, in some strange way. “Okay, look”, he said, and started to concentrate. As she stared at him he began to gather shadows to himself, calling them out from the darkest corners of the room to do his bidding. And after a few heartbeats he began to experience the now rather familiar sensation of darkness congregating at his feet, in the otherwise brightly lit room.
Anzhela kept staring at his face, not noticing the shadows gathering on the floor. “Well?”, she said, rather smug but also a little disappointed. “I don’t see anything.”
He motioned with a nod for her to look down, and when she did she drew a quick breath. “What the hell is that?” She backed away from the crawling shadows on the floor, reaching for her like tentacles of night. Andrei watched with an amused half smile on his face. “This is my type of trick”, he said, and pulled the shadows back, ordering them to return to their respective corners. One by one they dispersed, melting away like ice under a bright sun.
Anzhela took a quick look around, assuring herself that none of the weird shades remained in sight. “Okay, I believe you”, she then said. “You and your boyfriend here can do magic. Can you teach me?” Both she and Andrei looked to Malcolm, questioningly.
“I can assure you I am not a boyfriend of Andrei’s, miss. And magic can not be taught, if, of course, a person is not subjected to enough of it to awaken of his own accord”, Malcolm said tiredly. “And by the way, I would have guessed you two had something going, the way you are bickering and all. Am I wrong?”
“Couldn’t have been farther from the mark, dude. But you two look quite cute together, I’d say.”
“Yeah, well, if you don’t want him I’ll be happy to take him, or whaddyah say, Andy boy?” Malcolm blinked in Andrei’s direction, momentarily losing his moody attitude. Then his face froze when a determined knocking on the warehouse door broke the calm atmosphere inside.
“Hell, they’re here! Quick, hide!” He sprang to his feet.
“Who’s here?”, Andrei whispered. “Sender?” Anzhela stared in fright and confusion at the door.
Malcolm motioned for them to take cover behind his car. “No, no. My boss! Stalker! Now hide for heaven’s sake!”
The knocking on the door was getting more aggressive, and Malcolm hurried over to open it. Andrei and Anzhela had just enough time to dive behind cover before the door opened, letting in the cold and roaring of the wind. What was also let in were, as far as they could see from their hiding place, five pairs of feet.
The door closed, offering once again sheltered silence to the room. Then a deep, calm voice, filled to the brim with self-conscious authority, broke it once more. “What took you so long, Malcolm?”
“Well… Er… I was naked. Taking a shower. Thought that you, Mr. Stalker, wouldn’t want me to answer the door dressed in just a towel… So… Well…”
Andrei had heard Malcolm speaking to his employer before, if only over the phone. But he knew that this William Stalker made Malcolm really nervous. Malcolm was stammering, and really not lying that well. This was not something that Mr. Stalker seemed to notice, though.
“Very well. So this is where you have bunkered yourself up?”
Andrei could see Malcolm’s feet from under the car, moving a couple of steps into the room. “Yeah, I mean, I’ve been kind of busy actually, of course… I’ve not been sitting around here all the time. Ah, sitting! Please take a seat, gentlemen. I… Well, I’m sorry to say I’ve only got one small chair, but…”
“I see six chairs, Malcolm”, said Mr. Stalker. And suddenly Andrei could actually see the legs of six oaken chairs appearing on the other side of the car.
“Oh… Of course, Mr. Stalker, what was I thinking. Here, take a seat, all of you!”
The five pairs of feet moved across the room, towards the chairs. Malcolm waited for the new arrivals to sit down before taking a seat himself.
One pair of feet was dressed in shiny, black shoes that didn’t seem to have been much used. Another pair had practical winter boots that nonetheless seemed expensive and, thought Andrei, somewhat familiar. The others, excluding Malcolm, were dressed in some type of military boots, black and uniform. Andrei guessed that the shiny ones belonged to William Stalker, the American businessman magician. The three military pairs must belong to some kind of bodyguards, he thought. But the fourth man… He had no idea. Until the man spoke up, that is.
“Mr. Hanotrivic, have you found out anything about my son?”, Andrei’s father said anxiously.
Andrei hurried to produce his cellphone, and sent Malcolm a text message. ‘Don’t tell him anything!’ He didn’t want to drag his father into anything, and besides, he had heard enough about the man in his company, this Mr. Stalker, to think twice about revealing himself. Terriam had warned him about Stalker, saying he would want to use Andrei as a tool or weapon now that he knew about the thing inside of him. And Andrei was done being used by power hungry magicians.
He heard Malcolm’s cell beeping, and could hear the sound as he opened the message. “Er”, he said at last, having taken far to long a time to answer James’ question. “I’m still working on finding him, Mr. Winters. I think I’ve found some clues, though.”
“Very well, Malcolm”, Stalker interrupted, calmly. “If you manage to find the boy, that would be good. But don’t forget your true mission, the one you’re getting paid to do. Have you found anything out about Ashton Sender and the… people he has contracted?”
But James Winters would not have his inquiry dismissed so easily. “What do you mean, ‘his true mission’? Didn’t we agree to find Andrei the first thing we did? What is this, Mr. Stalker?”
William Stalker sighed. “Yes, Mr. Winters, we agreed to that. But you have to understand that I would not have come here if it weren’t for me having certain… errands of my own.”
“I only contacted you with this information because I needed your help in finding my son, and I still intend to do that. We had a deal, as far as I can recall. We spoke about it as recently as just before we left San Francisco some minutes ago, remember?”
“Yes, I remember our agreement. I have certain things that need be taken care of before I can honour my part of it, however. And I would prefer it if we could continue this conversation in just a little while, after I have had a chance to hear what Malcolm has to report. So if you’d please, Mr. Winters…?”
Andrei could hear no answer from his father, but he could tell form the tension in the air that James Winters was not content with how things were turning out.
“Very well then!” Stalker clapped his hands together in a business like fashion. “So, Malcolm. If you would please continue your account…?”
Malcolm released a breath he seemed to have been holding. “Of course, Mr. Stalker. Of course. And yes, I have actually found out a couple of things. For one, they are here. The Germans, I mean. They’re here.”
“They are already here?” Stalker seemed slightly surprised but not taken aback by this news.
“Yeah, they arrived by helicopter just a little while ago, I heard from A… Er, I saw this myself, actually.” Now Malcolm was beginning to sound a little smug, despite his nearly giving himself away.
“By helicopter, you say? That is interesting. How many? Do you have any names? Descriptions?”
Malcolm went silent. “Er… well… Descriptions… Er… Hehe”
Andrei hurried to send another text message, describing as well as he could the men he had seen on the factory roof. Right after sending it he could hear Malcolm’s cellphone signal notifying its arrival. Why couldn’t the man turn off the sound? Andrei hoped they were not being all to obvious, but of course realised they were pushing it.
Malcolm read his text and then resumed, a little more sure of himself now. “Well, one of them seemed to be dressed like some kind of SWAT-guy. And then there was one who was wearing a hat and a coat or whatever. And the third guy wore round glasses and a long coat… And had long hair. Hmm, could it have been a woman? No, it was a man, I guess.”
“I see. These descriptions tell me nothing, but maybe they will come in handy later. So, have you found anything out regarding the deal Sender has made with this group, these Eyes of Night?”
Malcolm swallowed. “No, nothing.” He was quiet for a moment, maybe trying to keep his questionable poker-face before Stalker’s scrutinising gaze. “I’m working on it, though!”, he added, when the silence obviously became too much for him.
“That is all very well, Malcolm. Well, if that was all you had to report right now, I guess you can get back to work. I’m sending you to the factory. Get inside and find out as much as possible about the newcomers.” Stalker’s voice was calm and even, but had a certain determined authority to it that left room for no misunderstandings. This was an order.
“Of course, Mr. Stalker. Or, do you mean now? As in… right away?”
Malcolm quickly rose from his chair. “At once, Mr. Stalker, at once! But… Well, if you would please come with me, I’m sure I can arrange for somewhere more comfortable for you to spend your time while you’re waiting…”
“No, Malcolm, we’ll be just fine here. This place is good enough for a war council, don’t you think? We will stay here, so hurry now and get me some information.”
This sent Malcolm backing towards the door, clearly at a loss as to what to do.
Andrei suddenly realised what was happening. Malcolm was being sent away. To the factory, where a full scale war was going on between Sender’s men and Stalker’s own. And on top of that, inside the factory building were the three men he had heard so many terrible things about. And of course Ashton Sender, who was not to underestimate, either. It would be suicide to go in there. And as if that wasn’t enough, Malcolm would be forced to leave Andrei and Anzhela here, hiding as best as they could from William Stalker and his men who were apparently not going anywhere. Anzhela was staring at him nervously, but he put a calming hand on her shoulder as Malcolm backed out the door and closed it behind him, all the while murmuring his “Yes, Mr. Stalker, of course, Mr. Stalker.”
Silence reigned for a couple of heartbeats, during which Andrei did his best not to breath. Then he flinched as his father’s voice, suddenly having taken on a subtle edge of anger, broke the silence.
“Now, Mr. Stalker, would this be a good time to continue our conversation?”
William Stalker laughed quietly; the kind of laughter Andrei associated with businessmen suddenly turning from salesmen to fierce predators. “Mr. Winters. James, can I call you that?” He continued without waiting for Andrei’s father’s approval. “It would seem we have run into something of a misunderstanding.”
“You don’t say”, James Winters replied sarcastically.
“Well, yes I do, as a matter of fact. You say you contacted me with this information on Ashton Sender’s whereabouts with the sole intention of asking for my help in reclaiming your son, Andrei. And this is probably true. What makes me wonder, though, is your refusal to accept that I had my own agenda all along. I mean, with your heritage you should be well aware of my kind’s… strife.”
“That is of no importance, Mr. Stalker. We still had an agreement. I would give you information about this Sender character, and you would help me find Andrei. And now suddenly you’re telling me you have no intention of helping me at all?” Andrei could hear the all too familiar tone of irritation rising in his father’s voice.
“Ah, please, do not tell me you did not see this coming. That would only force me to conclude you are even more naïve and ignorant than your father let shine last he mentioned you. Which was a very long time ago, by the way.”
James didn’t reply to this, but rather seemed to have taken it as a slap in the face. Andrei recalled Terriam’s regretful story about his disappointment when James showed no potential for magic whatsoever, and realised how below the belt that last comment had actually been.
“So, James. Please understand that your problems are way beneath me and my attention. I know I have been acting nice and civilised towards you this far, but if you become a problem you must know I will not hesitate to take measures. You are nothing more than a Sleeper, after all. But if we happen to find your son, no one will be happier than me. I would very much like to have a talk with Andrei, after all.”
Suddenly one of the chairs fell over, and Andrei realised his father had gotten up. Stalker remained seated. “Now, Mr. Winters…”
“I will find my son, Mr. Stalker, with or without your assistance. I don’t give a damn about this Ashton Sender or any other of your problems. And if you will not honour our agreement, I will gladly end it here.” James started walking towards the door, anger in his stride.
Just before he opened it, William Stalker spoke up again. “I really must say, Mr. Winters, that in stubbornness and stupidity you certainly are your father’s spitting image.”
James Winters didn’t even turn around. “Fuck you, you bastard. I hope you burn in hell.” Then he disappeared out into the blizzard, slamming the door shut behind him.
Andrei hurried to send his father a text, telling him to stay within the industrial area. Malcolm had told him this was the only place in the entire town where Sender and his lackeys could not detect activity, and he didn’t want to risk his father wandering straight into a trap of any kind. He got a reply right away. ‘Andrei, where are you? Just tell me and I will come and get you!’ A lump caught in his throat. He could not tell him, could not risk involving James in any of this. ‘I can’t tell you’, he wrote. ‘But stay in the area. I’ll contact you later.’ He barely had time to send it, before he got a reply. ‘How do you know where I am? Can you see me? Andrei, please don’t do anything dangerous! Where are you?” Andrei tried to come up with a good reply, but ended up putting away his cellphone without writing anything at all.
Inside the warehouse things had been very quiet ever since James stormed out. William Stalker sat absolutely quietly, not moving at all, as if waiting for something or conducting an invisible conversation inside his own head. The three guards, however, could be seen growing more and more restless by the minute. Boots scraped against the concrete floor, necks were scratched and throats were cleared. Anzhela poked Andrei in the side. ‘How long are we supposed to sit here?’, she mouthed, staring at him irritably. Andrei shrugged, and motioned for her to keep down as he continued to spy on the other men in the room.
He blinked, and when he opened his eyes after a split second, he was somewhere else. He had seen the corridor before, recognised its red carpet and the glowing sphere lamps on the walls. He also recognised the heavy oaken door at the end of the corridor, now slightly ajar which was highly unusual. Another thing that was unusual was his point of view; he saw everything from a distinctly lower angle than what he was used to. It was as if he were crawling on the floor…
And then he started to slither forward, towards the door at the end of the corridor. Slither like a snake. He reached the door and reflexively felt that he wouldn’t fit through without widening the chink, but barely had he completed this thought before he was through.
Inside the room an orangeish illumination reigned. Andrei was used to a more yellow hue of light in this place, but everything seemed slightly off-colour in his current state of being. More red. The first thing he laid eyes upon was a pair of boots, not completely unlike the boots worn by Mr. Stalker’s guards, standing right by the wall on his left. He looked up, and saw that the boots were attached to a pair of legs dressed in black, continuing in a torso covered by a Kevlar vest and ending in a head hidden behind a helmet with visor closed. The man (or woman – Andrei could not be completely sure) was armed, holding a rifle Andrei recognised from movies as an automatic.
Further into the room were two more pairs of feet, and as he looked up he saw two more men standing with their backs to him. One of them was dressed in a black trench coat, and a black hat crowned a head of short, blonde hair. In front of him, slightly to his right, stood the other man. He wore a long, purple coat – velvet, Andrei thought – and his hair was long and auburn. Under his right arm was a huge, leather bound book. From both of the men emanated some kind of dark energy, awakening thoughts in Andrei’s head that he didn’t want to think.
Behind the round table Ashton Sender was sitting, hands clasped in front of him, an unsure expression on his face. “Yes, I have found what you are looking for. At least, that’s what I suspect. A creature, a boy, who has abilities rivalling my own but still without being one of us. I suspect he does not even know the extent of his own powers.”
The man dressed in purple nodded calmly. “And how do you know?”
Sender laughed nervously. “The Hallow me and my former colleagues prepared in this town some thirty years ago… He sealed it. Sealed it to another boy, barely Awakened, and now I cannot use it. I know the boy magician didn’t do it himself, because the spell left a resonance I did not recognise. Until I met the creature in question, that is. He came here, threatening me. And then I knew at once who had sealed the Source. And it was not done by any kind of magic I’m familiar with.”
“Very well”, said the man in purple, speaking English with only the slightest hint of German accent. “This could certainly be what we are looking for, Mr. Sender. I take it you have already done us the service of securing this creature?” He looked around, as if expecting the person in question – and Andrei was with growing dread getting more and more certain the ‘creature’ they were talking about was nobody else than Rodja – to materialise out of thin air.
Sender shifted nervously. “I know where he is”, he said, bracing himself as if expecting a blow.
The tall man straightened himself, suddenly seeming even taller than before. “Are you telling me that you dared wasting our time – time I can assure you we, and definitely I, could have spent in much more useful ways – without even having secured the item with which you are bargaining? Do you even know who you are dealing with?”
Sender lowered his gaze. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Obeah…”
“No you are not, Mr. Sender. But we could easily and with pleasure make you so. Gentlemen?” He turned and looked to the two other men, both at ample attention. Ashton Sender tensed, obviously expecting to be punished for his infraction. But he looked up in surprise as nothing the likes of this happened. “Let us leave, we have nothing to gain here”, continued instead the man in purple, and started to turn away from Sender. The other two turned as well, and for the first time Andrei could see the face of the man in the trench coat. Fair features framing two piercing, clear blue eyes. It was as if something forced itself upon him at laying his eyes on this man, implanting the word Aryan in his thoughts – even though Andrei had never followed such lines of thought before in his life.
“No, please don’t go!”, intervened Sender, almost throwing himself across the table, reaching for the man he had called Obeah. “I know exactly where to find him! And his friend as well, the boy with the Shadow inside of him!”
Obeah paused and turned back towards Sender. Andrei could see a faint, malevolent smile on his face as he turned, and wondered suddenly if the man had ever intended to leave at all, or if it had all been a rhetorical trick to make Sender more nervous than he already was.
“You know exactly where he is, you say?” His voice was sly as that of a wolf, had wolves had voices to speak with.
“Yes, Mr. Obeah. Or, I mean, I think I know. I’m almost certain. There’s an area in town that has had me curious for a long time… That must be the place they are hiding. Please let me send my men there to help you find the creature!” Eager like a child suddenly, this otherwise so extremely confident man, Andrei thought.
“Help us?” Obeah laughed quietly. “No, you are going to help yourself, you foolish man. You will go yourself, as a display of good will towards our cause. And then you will come back here with the catch, and we will be gone. Otherwise, you will be.”
Sender just stared at the man. “But… I thought that with your resources, you’d be able to secure the creature in no time…?”
Obeah nodded. “And surely we would be. If we lowered ourselves to that. But now you have promised us something that you apparently do not possess, and therefore it is your responsibility to make sure we get what is our due. And when – and only when – you have done that, we will consider being more reliable than you and actually honour our part of the bargain, helping you against your enemies. But”, he added, raising a warning finger, “should you return empty handed, we will take pleasure in killing you painfully. Verstanden?”
Sender nodded silently, clearly defeated.
“Good. Now go!”
Sender rose to his feet and started walking towards the door. Andrei thought he had never seen the man so overcome, despite Sender’s best efforts to walk with dignity, obviously straining not to take too quick steps out of the room.
When he was gone, the man called Obeah walked over to the window – the same window where Sender had stood himself so many times, gazing out across his kingdom and probably keeping a lookout for Andrei as well. “An idiot, this Sender”; he said, without looking at either of his companions. Andrei realised that he was not speaking English anymore, but in some inexplicable way he could still understand what was being said. “An idiot, but hopefully a useful such. Erich?”
The man in the black trench coat, standing at attention already, straightened even further. “Yes, Mr. Obeah”, he answered in an almost military fashion.
“I do not trust that fool to find what we so desperately crave. I want you, with your refined sense of finding, to go as well. Find me that Celestial – alive, of course – and his friend as well if you can. I understand it he is a feudatory of our Master, just as yourself. I have no doubt we will be able to turn him to our cause, once his mortal misconceptions have been suspended.”
“Yes, Mr. Obeah”, the man called Erich said, and turned on the spot and started walking towards the door. No, not walking; almost marching. Andrei just had time to notice a small medal shaped like a black, overturned cross hanging from a purple ribbon on his chest, before he, as well, disappeared down the corridor.
“Very well, Heinz”, Obeah said, obviously addressing the Kevlar man but still staring out the window at the snow and darkness beyond. “Now all we can do is wait. Perhaps this Sender will not find our quarry, but Erich Von Bremmer certainly will. And once we have the creature in our possession, the ritual can commence.” The man by the wall said nothing, apparently recognising his superior’s statement as strictly rhetorical monologue.
“I certainly hope we can secure the other one as well, but he is of course far from as essential as his friend.” He was quiet for a moment, thinking. “Maybe I’ll actually help this Sender character, clearing some space for him so to speak. It never hurts to make allies, or display one’s power, every now and then. Anyway, Heinz”, he said, turning to look at his subordinate for the first time, “you would do well to make peace with all your doubts. Our Master will soon be born.”
Andrei opened his eyes, and was at once back inside the warehouse. Anzhela was holding his shoulders and was staring at him, obviously frightened.
“Andrei, what happened?”, she whispered.
He didn’t know what to answer. Something had happened, alright. It hadn’t been a dream, he was sure of it. And somewhere inside his head a raspy voice was laughing hissingly. ‘You sssssaw what you ssssaw, obviousssssly’, echoed the words inside his scull. Nobody else seemed to have noticed anything.
“They’re coming”, he hissed. “Sender and someone called Heinz.” Or was it some other name?
Anzhela’s eyes grew wide. “How do you know that? Never mind, we have to get out of here!”
Andrei looked across the hood of the yellow car, at the four men sitting in the centre of the room. “Yeah, but how?”, he replied absent-mindedly.
“We’ll take the car”, Anzhela said. “We sneak into the car and hit the gas!”
She seemed really determined, but Andrei shook his head. “It will never work, they will see us and then they’ll know where we are.” He was silent for a moment, thinking. He really didn’t want to attract attention from this Stalker, but if this was impossible to avoid – and it certainly seemed that way right now if they wanted to get out of here before Sender and the other man arrived – at least he didn’t want to make another enemy by running away. He took a deep breath and rose to his feet, totally exposing himself to all in the room.
“What the hell are you doing”, Anzhela whispered.
But it was already too late to return into hiding; he had been spotted. One of the guards hastily rose to his feet, overturning his chair with the sudden movement. The two men next to him stared at him in confusion for a second, and then realised what had happened. They got up as well, each drawing a weapon and aiming it at Andrei.
William Stalker didn’t move a muscle, and his voice sounded hardly surprised at all when he said: “I see. So we meet at last, Andrei Winters.” And he stood up, turned around and looked straight at Andrei. A smile spread across his face, as he extended his right hand in a businesslike manner.
“Pleased to meet you, Andrei. My name is William Stalker. I’m a friend of your father’s.”
Andrei only looked at the extended hand, without taking it. After a couple of seconds, William Stalker casually withdrew it without comment.
“I’m really glad you turned up finally. Your father will be so relieved, and I myself have some very interesting things to discuss with you. Please sit down.” He motioned towards one of the empty chairs, still smiling.
“Last I checked, you and my dad were not on such good terms, Mr. Stalker. I’d rather stand.”
Now the smile died on Stalker’s face. “Sit”, he said. And against his will Andrei found himself thinking that this was a really good idea. He approached a chair and sat down.
William Stalker took a seat on the chair across from him, and was just about to speak when a sudden noise from the direction of the car caught his attention. Anzhela had stood up as well, and was looking uncertainly at Andrei.
“Ah, I see you brought a demoiselle, Andrei. Please take a seat, milady, and join us!” He motioned at the chair next to Andrei.
Anzhela shook her head and hurried across the floor, positioning herself behind Andrei’s chair. He could feel her hands on the backrest. “I’ll stand”, was the only thing she said.
Stalker nodded, seemingly indifferent to this and to her as a whole. “Very well then. Where were we? Yes, we had just started discussing our mutual problem: Ashton Sender, right?”
Andrei shrugged. “I think you have bigger problems to worry about than him.”
Stalker leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees and eyeing him in a curious fashion. “Is that so? Then please tell me about my ‘bigger problems’, if you would be so kind.”
Andrei sighed and made a sarcastic face. “No, nothing. It’s just that the people Sender has contacted are here, and that both Sender and one of the newcomers have seen through this area’s protection and are on their way here right as we speak.”
Stalker leaned back. “Ah, interesting. And how do you know this?”
And what should he tell him? He couldn’t very well tell him about the vision, could he? Both Terriam and Malcolm had warned him repeatedly about not discussing the shadow with this man.
“Malcolm told me”, he said at last – maybe speaking a bit too quickly. “He managed to get inside Sender’s building, and he texted me.
Stalker did not seem at all pleased at hearing this. “Malcolm? So you’re telling me Malcolm Hanotrivic, the same Malcolm who is working for me, is sending you – and not me – information that I contracted him to gather?”
“Yeah, I guess…” Andrei shrugged and tried his best to look casual.
After collecting himself for a couple of moments, Stalker took a deep breath and smiled. “Okay”, he said. “And has Malcolm told you anything else I should be aware of? Any names, for example?”
“Er… Yeah. One guy was called Obeah, and another one was named Heinz.”
At this, Stalker just stared at him. “Obeah, are you sure?” He didn’t wait for Andrei’s confirmation. “This is quite bad. The name Heinz tells me nothing, but if Malcolm is right and one of them is calling himself Obeah…” He went silent for a moment, and then resumed his soapy smile. “But let’s leave those troublesome matters for later. Now let us discuss our potential cooperation.”
“So you mean you’ll do nothing about the fact that there are people coming for us this very second?” Andrei was actually quite shocked by Stalker’s apparent lack of worry. What was the man playing at?
“I will certainly do something. But there’s no point in rushing outside and getting myself killed, is there now. Instead, I want you to join my cause.”
Andrei gave him a sceptic look. “Which is…?”
“Well, the same as yours, obviously. I want Ashton Sender dead, for reasons I think I need not state. And you want vengeance, yes? I trust he has treated you and your kith and kin somewhat… inconsiderately, has he not? So by giving him what he deserves you are also helping me, indirectly. And I will of course aid you in this endeavour in any way I can.”
“And how would we get rid of all the Germans running around, if they are so bad as everyone says they are?”
Stalker’s smile grew even bigger. “Not by killing them, that’s for sure. I feel no urge to make myself such powerful enemies. No, I am sure that the only reason they are running Sender’s errands is that he is in possession of something they want – something important. And I suspect that you, Andrei, know what it is. Because you have been living quite close to him for a while, haven’t you?”
Andrei felt himself tensing. “And what would you do if you found out?” This man could not, under any circumstances, know about Rodja.
“Take it from him, obviously. If Sender were no longer in possession of the prize they’re after, they would no longer hep him. And perhaps I could make myself some useful allies by handing it over to them myself…” He looked to the ceiling for a moment, dreamily, before again fixing Andrei with his gaze. “So, do we have a deal?”
Andrei hastily rose to his feet. “I don’t know what you’re talking about”, he said quickly. “I’ll be right back, I have to make a phone call.”
William Stalker rose as well, smiling at him. “Of course, Andrei. Make your phone call, and make up your mind. When you get back inside I expect an answer from you. Okay?”
Andrei just nodded, and then turned and ran towards the door. “Come, Anzhela”, he called over his shoulder. But she was already following him. William Stalker was watching them from the same spot, a smile on his face that told Andrei he expected no complications to his schemes.
Once outside the blizzard hit them with full force, slamming the door closed with its pure magnitude. “We have to get you into hiding”, Andrei shouted to outvoice the storm. “Come!”
He led her towards the warehouse where Malcolm had kept his base when Andrei had first met him, and dragged the door open just wide enough for them to pass through. Anzhela squeezed through and Andrei followed. Inside the warehouse everything was dark except for the spot where a small desktop lamp on top of a crate broke the darkness. The warmth emanating from its bulb turned the cold air around it into smoke that danced in the gust as they closed the door behind them.
“There, hide behind those crates!” He motioned towards the boxes closest to the wall. Anzhela looked at him reluctantly, but still did as he said and crawled into shelter behind a row of crates.
Andrei looked down at her where she sat huddling against the wall. “Okay, stay there. I’ll go and try to stop Sender before he finds Rodja.”
She looked at him, and he thought he could see fear and something else in her eyes. “But why must I hide? I can defend myself…”
“I’m sure you can. But against these people only one of their own stands a chance. Try to keep hidden, I’ll come back for you!”
She drew a small knife and held it up in front of her. “Will this help?”
Andrei sighed. “Maybe. I don’t know. Hopefully we’ll never find out. I have to go now!”, he said and hurried away, out into the blizzard once more.
Towards the gates of the industrial area he ran, careful not to slip on the ice beneath the snow. He had to know if these people were already here, and if they weren’t, he would have to stop them when they arrived. He got out in the open as the row of warehouses ended some thirty yards from the fence and the gates. The full moon made everything seem very bright, and the snow was glistening. And for a moment, the wind seemed to take a deep breath, holding it.
There at the gates a silhouette loomed. The silhouette of a man. And it was slowly walking towards him. Andrei froze.
“Ah, so there you are”, Ashton Sender said calmly. He seemed to have regained some of his posture since last Andrei saw him, and was apparently not aware of Andrei’s having observed his previous humiliation. “I was just wondering when you would show up. You see, this area has puzzled me for some time, and your being here now is indisputable proof of my speculations being correct. So, now, where is your friend?”
Andrei clenched his fists. “And why in hell would I tell you that? You’ve done enough already, leave him out of this!” Inside his head something was getting increasingly excited. ‘It’sssssss tssssime, atssssss lasssst it’sssssss time for vengeancccccce….!’ Andrei tried his best to suppress the alien will inside his mind. This was not the time to lose himself to this thing, not at all.
Sender continued walking towards him. “Ah, but you see, Andrei, this is not about you and me anymore. Of course you’d still be welcome to join me, but I suspect you have no such intentions. No matter, I have much more powerful allies now, and all they ask of me is that I capture your friend and bring him to them.”
“Then why should I help you? If you want to get to Rodja you’ll have to go through me.”
“You don’t have to help me, but I have more urgent matters at hand than fighting you, and was hoping that you’d be sensible enough not to throw your life away for a cause that is already lost.”
“Yeah, right, like you’d not kill me or try to imprison me anyway.”
Sender laughed. “You truly are a brat, Andrei Winters. Despite the fact that you have cost me all I had, you are not important enough for me to hold such grudges against you. In the game I’m currently playing, you are no more than a speck in the eye. I will not waste more time on you than I have to. I can assure you, though, that I will kill you if you stand in my way. I have way too much to lose by not getting these people what they want for me to be graciously merciful tonight. So will you tell me where he is or not?”
“Over my dead body”, Andrei growled.
“So be it”, said Ashton Sender. He raised his hands in an intricate gesture, and the ground beneath Andrei’s feet disappeared. He fell to his knees, one leg caught all the way up to the hip in the bottomless hole that had just appeared where he had been standing. He could feel a throbbing pain spreading through his leg, but had no time to pull it up before he saw Sender slowly and confidently walking towards him with a scornful smile on his face.
Sender raised his hands again, doubtlessly closing in for the kill. Inside his head the sly voice spoke up again. ‘Letssss me fixssss him…. He dessssservess it.’ But Andrei still wasn’t prepared to let the creature take over. He had to do something, though, and fast. The man was getting closer. Instinctively Andrei began to summon the shadows, raising his hands and drawing flaming darkness into his open palms. In an instant blue and black flames were dancing in his hands, illuminating his face and warming but not burning his skin.
Ashton Sender stopped dead in his tracks at this, suddenly cautious. Andrei took advantage of this moment of hesitation, and hurled the fire towards his opponent with full strength. Sender flinched and tried to get out of the way, but only managed to protectively raise his hands in front of his face before the comet like projectiles, melding in mid air creating a larger ball of black flame, struck him right in the chest and forced him backwards.
Still on his knees, trying his best to get his leg out of the hole in the ground, Andrei was not surprised to see the other man still standing. He had not expected this to be an easy showdown – hell, he still wasn’t sure he would make it out alive – and was beginning to doubt that his own relatively newly required abilities alone would be enough to get him through this.
Sender had slumped forwards, steadying himself with his hands on his knees even as the last flames burned out on his chest. He looked up, and Andrei was struck by the cold stare that met his. This was hatred, true hatred. Then he heard the other man murmuring something in a language he half recognised but in words he didn’t understand. A spell. He didn’t know what his adversary was up to, but he was sure it would be hurtful. ‘Ussssssse me… Without me your are chancccccelessss.’ The creature inside of him was getting increasingly insistent, and against his better judgement Andrei realised that the voice was right. He would not last long if he didn’t draw from the shadow that shared his body.
Ashton Sender was moving his hands to complete the spell, but Andrei was quicker. In an instant he had raised his own hands, and felt hatred that was and was not his own surging through his entire form as a power long embanked overflowed and infused his entire body. He could see Sender’s eyes widening as Andrei hurled pure destructive energy towards him, hitting him square in the torso.
Nothing happened for several heartbeats. Panting from the strain this outburst had placed on his body, Andrei stared at Sender who was in turn staring back at him in confusion, seemingly unhurt by the attack. Then he coughed. Black bile stained the white snow, and his shoulders sagged remarkably.
“You…”, Sender growled, and Andrei thought he could see a gleam of fever in the man’s eyes. Then he raised his right hand, pointing at Andrei, who could suddenly feel something being drawn out of his body. And before he could do anything, this something trickled up his throat and out of his open mouth. A blueish smoke could be seen floating through the air from his mouth into Sender’s eyes. The man laughed feverishly. With a sudden pang Andrei realised that something had been taken from him. He could not define exactly what it was, but he suddenly felt that some of his future, or the potential of a future, had been stolen. Was it a part of his soul? Was it some of his time? He did not know. And he did not have time to consider this, either, he realised.
Sender was still laughing quietly, the look of one sure of a victory within grasp spreading across his disease ridden face. “Yes, you can feel it, right? Loss of time is a strange sensation, isn’t it?”
“Go to hell”, Andrei breathed, and let the strange will of the plague demon engulf him once more. ‘Yessss, thisss will cccccertainly ssssshow him!’, he could hear it musing as he hurled yet another blast of decay towards this man who had caused him so much pain and suffering.
Sender had no time to back away from the force that struck him and entered his body. He was not cast back, not wounded or otherwise hurt – at first glance. But Andrei knew that the sickness that had already infected the man’s body was now spreading at a precipitated pace, devouring both vigour and flesh in a matter of seconds.
The man himself didn’t seem at first to realise what was happening to him. He just stood, swaying, for a couple of seconds, obviously struggling to keep his balance. Then the coughing commenced. Sender put his hand to his mouth and bent over, fighting without success to catch his breath between the outbursts. He fell to his knees, still coughing black liquid, panic rising in his bloodshot eyes.
Suddenly his true age seemed to have caught up to him, Andrei thought. Before him in the snow was not a powerful, evil man, but an old, sick man with not much time left. He almost felt pity for him – but then he remembered all the evil that Sender had done, and changed his mind. And barely had he thought this, before his foe looked up. Blackness trickled down his chin and hatred burned in his eyes as he pointed at Andrei and screamed an arcane phrase in a hoarse voice. Andrei felt himself being struck in the chest by an unseen force and was thrown backwards. The icy ground struck him full force as he fell, and he momentarily lost his breath.
And as he lay there, staring up at the stormy sky, he could feel something spreading across his chest. Looking down he saw that his jacket had been torn where the blast had struck him, which didn’t surprise him following such a powerful blow. But then he saw how his own skin was beginning to darken, the stain increasing as the curse slowly crept across his chest. Rotting…
He didn’t have much left to give, he felt. He hurt all over and it seemed very tempting just to stay down, savouring the cold snow against his face and the numbing wind that was slowly putting his body to oblivious sleep. But he struggled into a sitting position nevertheless, banning the worry about the decay spreading through him to the back of his head. He would have to deal with that later.
Sender was still on his knees, but was struggling to get up. Andrei knew he had only moments to act before his opponent would be upon him again, striking the finishing blow. Desperately he began drawing shadows again, forcing them into forming once more the illogical flames of which he was master. Ashton Sender seemed to realise what was happening. Still struggling to draw breath he closed his eyes, concentrating, and suddenly Andrei felt the fire in his hands dying out, faltering as if under great pressure and leaving him empty handed.
Then Sender put up his left hand – the one he was not steadying himself with – and spread his fingers in Andrei’s direction. Then he clenched his fist, and Andrei thought he could see light getting crushed between the man’s fingers – at the same time as he felt some of his own energy going out of him.
But just as Andrei felt his own power faltering, Sender was visibly on the decline himself. This was the endgame, and it was drawing to a close. Sender put down both his hands in an attempt to steady himself. The sickness was culminating, but would it be enough to kill him? Andrei could feel his own affliction getting worse, and his right leg hurt like hell. This would be his final summoning, he could feel it. There was not much left to draw from. ‘Letsss me finissssh him, letsss me forthhhh…’
But he would not let himself be taken over. This was his fight, and he would see it through himself, without giving up his body to this vengeful creature. He closed his eyes just as Sender slumped to the ground. He sensed rather than saw the darkness congregating around him, felt it crawl up his legs and gather in his open palms. The night was still around him, the storm had quieted. It was almost as if he could hear the stars twinkling high above. He was one with the darkness, and the master of it.
He opened his eyes, and could feel dark fire burning there as well as in his hands. Sender saw the fires as well and tried desperately to crawl away, but Andrei would not let him escape this time. Perhaps he was under the influence of the plague shadow, he didn’t care. For now, this hatred was his own and he was going to vent it, once and for all. A strange kind of calm stole over him as he took a deep breath and hurled the black fire towards his enemy, engulfing his frail form in a blazing inferno of burning darkness.
He watched the fire burning out, going from a raging blaze to a pile of glowing embers, only here and there disturbed by dying, flickering flames. The snow had melted in a wide circle around the spot where the last of Ashton Sender lay very, very still. Nothing moved in the night, nothing breathed or stirred. Andrei moved closer, cautiously. The man must be dead, noone could survive something like that – still he didn’t want to take any risks.
As he drew closer he got a more detailed view of the damage done. The man’s entire body was burnt black. The skin had turned to crust, and in several places it had cracked, revealing the boiling, bubbling liquids underneath. The clothes were almost all gone as far as Andrei could determine, but then it was difficult to make out where the fabric of the burnt suit ended and the naked skin began. Only half the face was visible as the other side was turned towards the ground, but the part of it that Andrei could see was scorched beyond recognition. Apart from the burns he could also make out traces of a rash having spread along the man’s hairline – probably as a result of Andrei’s own spell.
He still didn’t dare relax. He half expected Mr. Sender to get up at any moment, throwing his burnt form at him and smothering him with his bare, crusty hands. And just as he pictured this nightmare scenario, the dead man turned his face towards him, not completely dead after all.
The part of the face that had been facing the ground was not burnt at all, just very pale and heavily scarred where it had scraped against the asphalt in the fall. Blood trickled from ugly scars, and the one remaining eye was bloodshot from strain and disease. Still the man smiled tiredly at him, causing the burnt part of the face to crack and break in several places. A weak laughter escaped the tortured lips, turning in mid-breath into faint and powerless cough attack.
“I guess you turned out to be a worthy opponent after all, boy”, Ashton Sender whispered in a raspy, barely audible voice. “You and I would have been able to accomplish great things together.”
Andrei just looked down at him for a moment. He wasn’t sure whether to feel sorry for the dying man before him, or to let him know finally all the wrongs he had done, all the suffering he had caused Andrei himself and others. Surely this man, who had never thought twice about how many lives were laid in ruin by the furthering of his ambitions, didn’t deserve pity even in a moment such as this. “I’m not like you”, he said. “And I’d have never become like you, either. And either way”, he eyed Sender’s ravaged frame, “You’re obviously done for.”
Sender smiled. “Yes, so it would seem. But please don’t worry about me. Your friend’s mother is not the only one who has ever offered up her soul for me, if I’m allowed to speak so bluntly. But I think it will be a while before we meet again, Andrei Winters. Even soul-jars have their limitations, as you will learn for yourself someday.” He paused, blinked and coughed weakly. “And now, I’d recommend you hurry if you want to save your friend.”
And with that Ashton Sender closed his one remaining eye and turned his face away from him, sucking one last, deep breath into his collapsed lungs. When he finally released it, he didn’t draw another one. Everything became quiet once more, as in front of Andrei’s disbelieving eyes the body of Ashton Sender began so crumble and fall apart. Chunks of flesh fell away, revealing insides that poured away like sand. Finally nothing but dust remained, and the soft wind that still grazed the cold winter night began carrying it away until the man called Ashton Sender was no more.
It was impossible to tell how much time had passed since he had left Anzhela in the warehouse, and Andrei worried that the other man that had been sent out – whatever his name had been – had already entered the area. He hurried back towards the warehouse where she lay hidden, hoping that nothing had happened while he had been occupied.
And as he ran there, beneath the full moon and the stars that were beginning to shine through the clouds, he suddenly realised that today was his eighteenth birthday. In this night of chaos and confusion he had come of age, and he could not help but reflexively thinking that the past battle had been his rite of passage. He was a man now, responsible for himself and for his own actions. And while struggling through the deep snow between the warehouses he made himself a promise: he would live up to that responsibility, and he would make everything right, not letting down any of those who trusted and depended on him.
The abandoned warehouse loomed before him. The moon was still out, but in between the buildings its light did not reach and he stood in pitch darkness. He grabbed the door handle and pressed it down, cautiously. He prayed that nothing had happened while he was away, but he could feel anxiety growing inside of him, out-voicing for a moment all the hurt and pain that was also tearing at his body and daring him to take another step.
The door swung open on its rusty hinges, creaking forebodingly. Just as he was about to step into the darkness beyond it, something flew at him from the shadows inside. He had time to see the gleam of metal in the faint light of the moon before the figure was upon him, stabbing the knife towards his face. At the last moment he managed to get a grip on the hand holding the blade, and squeezed tightly. The figure drew a shocked breath and froze. It was Anzhela.
“I… I’m sorry!”, she said, almost desperately. “I didn’t know t’was you! I thought… I thought it was that man that had come back!”
Andrei let go of her wrist, feeling his pulse slowly going back to normal. “What man?”, he said, but dreaded the answer.
“The blonde man… In the black coat. He was sneaking around here when you were gone. I thought he was going to notice me, but he didn’t. And well, if he had, he would have gotten a taste of this for sure!” She waved with the knife before putting it away.
Andrei wasn’t so sure about that. The description fitted exactly the man that had been sent out right after Sender, to find Rodja if the other man failed. And to find Andrei himself as well, if possible. And from what he had seen – and sensed – of the man, a simple knife wouldn’t do much good. “Where did he go?”, he said absent-mindedly, dreading the answer. He suspected he already knew.
“I don’t know”, Anzhela said. “He left through this door, but I didn’t follow.”
Andrei looked back, out of the door. And in the light cast by the moon upon the white snow he could actually detect faint footprints leading off into the darkness – further into the area.
“Come”, he said quietly. “We must see where he’s gone.”
And with that they set of, stealthily struggling through the snow, following the footprints. In some places they were hard to detect, in others almost impossible to see at all. Many times they had to stop and look around to pick up the trace, especially in the places where the storm had removed almost all the snow from the ground. But all the while Andrei could feel the sense of foreboding growing inside of him. They were unmistakeably heading towards the farthest parts of the area – towards the warehouse where he had hidden Rodja and his mother.
They reached the warehouse finally. The tracks had taken many detours and wrong turns, and the man they were following didn’t seem to have known exactly where he had been going. But in the end Andrei’s fears were brutally confirmed. The footprints led up to the gates of the warehouse – a very generic building, not distinct at all from any of the rest – and ended. One of the double doors stood slightly ajar, and light from within fell upon the snow outside at a strange angle.
He paused for a moment. What awaited him inside? What had the man done to Rodja? He really didn’t want to know – not after hearing from Terriam and Malcolm what these people were capable of – but in his heart of hearts he knew that he would never be able to live with himself if he backed away now. Rodja needed him. No matter what everyone said about his friend, what powers he supposedly possessed, Andrei knew that he himself was the one who had gotten Rodja involved in all this. He had been the one who had stubbornly wanted to visit the old hospital building again and again; he had been the one to attract the eyes of the monster who had called himself Ashton Sender. And now, finally, he was the one who had made his father worry to the degree that he had contacted Sender’s enemies, forcing the man to take measures and strike a bargain with men even more terrible than himself, offering up Rodja as bounty. He could not back away now, would not.
“Wait here”, he told Anzhela and started moving towards the warehouse.
“What are you going to do? What’s inside that building?” She started to follow him.
He turned around and looked sternly at her. “Rodja is inside, and those people want to take him away. I must go alone, I don’t want to put you in danger.”
So determined was his look that she backed off, crouching down in the shadow of the nearest warehouse. “Okay. But don’t do anything stupid!”
Without answering he turned away and resumed his way towards the half open door. He was beginning to tire of people telling him that – as if he was a stupid kid unaware of the danger that lurked all around him. Why couldn’t people see that all he did he did because he was forced to do it? Apart from the episodes where he had gotten into trouble because of a painting or another that he had made in a stupid place, he had never done anything to consciously place himself or others in harm’s way. This was definitely no exception. He wanted so desperately for people to recognise that all he did, all he risked, was to keep others – and himself of course – safe. Right now, though, he was not sure whether he would succeed.
He reached the large double doors of the magazine, one of which stood slightly ajar. He carefully looked inside, and managed to get a view of the floor lamp that had fallen over inside. There seemed to be several other items lying around as well, as if a fight had occurred inside the building. He had just begun to wonder about this, when he heard the sound of an all too familiar engine starting. His dad’s car…
He threw the door wide open, drawing his strange gun – the formable Daikwato weapon that Sender had so inconsiderately given him – and aimed it at random into the warehouse. The first thing he saw was his father’s Hummer H2, still standing in the middle of the room just as he had left it, but now belching out smoke from its tailpipe. The surrounding disorder confirmed Andrei’s previous suspicion that a fight had taken place; clothes and items were everywhere, the lamp had fallen over and chairs had been thrown about the room. Rodja could not be seen anywhere, but what did catch Andrei’s attention was the face that could be seen staring at him through the left side mirror of the large, black car.
The blonde man that had been sent out by Obeah to find Rodja gave him a split-second, surprised look and then hit the pedal. The car let hear a deafening roar and sped backwards, straight at the place where Andrei was standing in the doorway. Panic struck him for a second, but he managed to throw himself out of the way, if just barely. The large vehicle crashed through the one of the two double doors that remained closed, sending splinters flying in every direction. Andrei was back on his feet before he had time to think, but the car was already outside the warehouse.
He ran to the door just in time to see the driver turning the wheel in an attempt to turn the car around as quickly as possible; the space in between the warehouses was not wide enough for the large car just to spin around. Andrei realised he had just a moment to act before the kidnapper would escape – probably with Rodja stashed in the back seat – and acted instinctively. He raised his gun once again and aimed for one of the wheels. The shot found its mark and hit one of the car’s back wheels as it reared around. A terrible explosion sounded as the tire burst – almost louder than the shot itself.
The driver looked up at him in mid-turn, startling him with the hate in his eyes. Andrei would never afterwards be able to tell whether it had all been an illusion caused by the stressful situation, or if he indeed had seen what he then thought he saw. But for a split second the skin of the kidnapper’s face seemed to crack like a porcelain mask, revealing the burning chasm that lay beyond. Andrei froze with the realisation that something not of this world was staring back at him from behind that mask, and that it was only inches away from being let loose completely.
Without thinking he fired another shot, this time aiming for the hellspawn that was apparently driving the car with his friend in it. Everything became clear as crystal for a heartbeat, as the bullet left the muzzle and broke through the air like a projectile through water. The crack of the gun seemed to come an instant later, when the bullet crashed through the car’s side window and struck the driver right in the side of his neck.
The man’s head tilted to one side as blood started pumping from the brutal wound in his throat, and the bullet went straight through him and broke the window on the driver’s side as well. The world went silent for an instant. Andrei had time to release the air he had been holding, causing a compact, white cloud to materialise in the air before his face. Then the man straightened up, raising his head with a snapping sound.
He turned and looked straight at Andrei. The cracks in the mask were gone, but now that he had seen what hid behind that pale face, Andrei could see through the charade all too clearly. This was not a man. Not anymore. Andrei started running towards the car, suddenly realising that his gun would do no good here. But the driver just nodded viscously in his direction, as if in confirmation of retribution yet to come, and sped the vehicle into motion. When Andrei got out of the door, the large, black car was already disappearing from view amidst the warehouses. All that could be heard was the sound of the powerful engine, struggling to make up for the broken tire, fading away in the distance.
This could not be happening. This was not happening. Rodja, his best friend in all the world, taken right before his eyes and without him being able to do anything to prevent it. Steam billowed from his mouth as he fell to his knees, screaming all his frustration and anguish into the cold winter night. He could feel tears stinging beneath his eyelids, threatening to break forth any moment. Everything was lost. He had failed, utterly and completely. Failed Rodja, failed his family, failed everybody. But most of all he had failed himself.
Ashamed of the vain and useless oath he had sworn only minutes before, to protect everybody and to prove himself, he leaned forward and put his hands to the frozen ground. And for the first time that night, and for many nights past, he let all the pain in his body and mind envelop him completely. Useless. Totally useless.
Everything happening in flashes. Running steps approaching. Somebody screaming his name from a great distance. A hand on his shoulder. Anzhela’s voice. What had happened? How was he? Where was Rodja? A thought. You know nothing about me. Nothing. Stop pitying me. I have myself to blame. Don’t touch me. Stop it.
Throwing Anzhela’s worried touch and words aside he sprang to his feet and ran out into the night. Wind rushed by his face, chilling the tears that had maybe fallen from his eyes. One last chance, he thought. One last chance to put everything right again. Anzhela had already been left far behind when he came to his senses. And by then he was already standing in front of the warehouse where Malcolm kept his yellow car. And where William Stalker awaited him.
His cellphone rang. “Andrei, where are you?” He could hear that she was running – both from her heavy breathing and from the sound her shoes made when they rhythmically struck the ground.
“I’m outside Malcolm’s warehouse. I’ll get the car. Where are you?”
A moment before she replied, obviously out of breath. “I’m following the tyre tracks! Pick me up at the gates, I’m closer to there than to where you are now!”
“Okay”, he just said and hung up. Walking towards the warehouse, he really hoped that William Stalker would not still be inside. But he was.
The man was standing in just about the same spot as he had stood when Andrei left him, still smiling his smooth smile as if Andrei had actually been gone for no more than a short phone call’s time. One of the guards was still present, keeping his position at Stalker’s side.
“Andrei!” Stalker’s smile expanded until his face was nothing but a big grin. “Did you make your phone call? Have you made up your mind?”
Without a word, Andrei marched to the yellow car and threw the door open. The driver’s seat was so high up that he was forced to heave himself up, and so he did.
Stalker walked up to the car just as Andrei was beginning to ponder how to get it started without the car keys. He put one hand on the roof of the car and eyed Andrei in a relaxed, belittling manner. “And where do you think you are going?”, he said, his voice rife with viscously venomous amusement.
Andrei banged his fist against the dashboard. “Please start, please start…”, he whispered through clenched teeth, knowing full well that the only reason William Stalker was acting so calmly was because he knew that Andrei wasn’t going anywhere.
Suddenly the dashboard’s display lit up, glowing faintly yellow. The high pitched, computerised voice took him by utter surprise. “Would-you-like-a-su-gar-lump?”
He looked up, and saw how several brightly coloured lights were flashing alternately across the panel. The next thing he knew the glove compartment opened up, and a small crane emerged, delicately holding a white lump of sugar in its aluminum grabber. “Here. Take.”
Andrei accepted the lump. “Thanks. But could you please start?” He could sense Stalker watching him curiously.
“Yes-And-rei. But-first-ridd-le-me-this. What-is-it-that-is-yel-low-and-bent-and-has-a-blue-pro-pell-er?”
He was dumbstruck. This was definitely not the ultimate time for riddles, and especially not silly ones. “I dunno”, he said exasperatedly. “A banana with a blue propeller?”
To his great surprise this was followed instantly by a high strung motor sound, almost like a giant cat purring ecstatically, as the big car’s engine suddenly burst into action. “Yes-An-drei”, the yellow car replied. “That-is-the-corr-ect-an-swer.”
Smiling victoriously, Andrei turned to Stalker and reached for the door handle. Stalker kept his hand on the roof of the car and tried to get in the way of Andrei closing the door.
“Listen here”, he said, trying to establish eye contact. “I can help you out a great deal. Remember that I’m the only useful ally you have in this situation. And in any case nobody ever walks out on me.”
Hearing the poisonous note that had crept into the man’s voice, Andrei just reached out and slammed the door closed before he could lean any closer. He had just enough time to notice the shocked expression on Stalker’s face, before he put the gear in full reverse and floored the pedal. This is not a man who is used to being disobeyed, he realised. Somewhere deep inside of him a shadowy creature was furiously fighting to break forth, but his desperate worry for Rodja’s life helped keeping it in check.
He looked up from the wheel, having turned the car around so as to be able to escape the warehouse completely in his next move. Through the newly replaced wind-shield he could see Stalker folding his arms across his chest and eyeing him sternly, his gaze suddenly devoid of all its former obsequiousness.
“Kill him”, William Stalker said in a flat voice without looking at his armed minion.
The latter instantly reached behind his back and drew a large, black gun that made Andrei think of American action movies. He flinched as he suddenly realised the man was going to shoot him, and instinctively gunned the engine.
The double doors of the warehouse were only partly open, and he saw at once that his angle was too small if he wished to get out in one dash. But then he hadn’t expected assistance from the yellow car itself – or herself, as Malcolm would have said. The pedal disappeared beneath his foot of its own accord, and the wheel turned itself several degrees more to the left than what Andrei himself felt comfortable with. But the car seemed to know what it was doing, and together they managed to make such a drastic turn that they hit the doorway straight on, crashing through the wooden doors and sending splinters flying all around.
Instantly Andrei could hear two distinctly different sounds. The first sound was caused by the side view mirror striking the door frame full force and falling off with a metallic crash as they passed through. The other sound was far more menacing, and Andrei had only a split second to consider its source before several bullets from the automatic carbine sprayed through the rear window, breaking it into thousands of glittering shards that snowed onto the back seats.
By some incredible streak of luck none of the bullets seemed to have hit Andrei himself, but he was still glad that the yellow car did most of the driving as they sped away from the warehouse, cold wind bursting in through the broken window. He didn’t know if any of the men were trying to follow him, but he dared take no chances to find out.
By the gates of the industrial area he stopped to pick up Anzhela, who arrived there at a running pace at just about the same time as Andrei did. He quickly filled her in on what had happened, and as they drove out through the now-open gates she repeatedly cast nervous glances backwards as if expecting to be fired at from behind any moment.
Out on the road, turning right. The fires were still burning around the factory, and the high roof of the main building could be seen above the treetops as they drew closer. Andrei reacted at once to the fact that the highest window was dark; the room from which Sender had been watching over the town like a hawk preparing to strike had been abandoned, for good or bad. The occasional explosion could still be heard every now and then as they approached the gates, but buildings and warehouses blocking the view prevented them from seeing what was going on inside the area.
They reached the fence, but saw at once that the cars that had been placed in front of the gates to block the way were still in place. A dozen vehicles with their engines off blocked the road in both directions, and Andrei instantly recognised his father’s car that stood abandoned with open doors at the rear of the line. He pulled up behind it even as the yellow car shut down its engine, apparently aware that their trip was at an end, and jumped out – already running towards the Hummer when his feet struck the icy ground. He still harboured a tiny spark of hope that Rodja would be lying in the back seat when he reached the black car. Maybe the kidnapper had been mortally wounded by his shot after all, and had been unable to carry out his assignment. Or maybe Rodja had managed to overpower him at the last moment. But when he reached the car and looked in through the open door, all such hope died instantly.
The back seats were still flattened to make the trunk space larger, and looking in he saw a head of thin, worn hair sticking out of the blankets that lay there. Rodja’s mother had been left behind, her thin frame barely visible beneath the covers. The cold air had invaded the car since it had been abandoned, the open doors letting in both snow and cold, turning her every breath into steam. He could see the woman’s chest rising and falling in irregular, shallow breaths, and realised that although she was still alive, she wouldn’t be for much longer in this freezing temperature. And there was nothing he could do about it save close the doors and hope that he would be able to come back later to move her somewhere warmer.
Anzhela caught up with him as he took up his cellphone and dialled Malcolm’s number. If the man was still inside the factory building, perhaps he could tell Andrei something about where Rodja had been taken. Several signals sounded before anything happened. Then a click.
“Malcolm? Are you there?”, Andrei exclaimed when the line remained silent.
His blood froze when another voice than the one he had been expecting replied – and he recognised the voice from his vision. Obeah. “I am afraid Mr. Hanotrivic cannot be reached at the moment. Is this perchance Andrei Winters I have the pleasure of addressing?”
“What have you done to him?” Andrei felt his knuckles go white as he clutched the phone hard in his fist.
The man’s voice remained calm and pleasant, devoid of all the mockery and threat Andrei had grown accustomed to from dealing with Ashton Sender and William Stalker. “I can assure you that your friend Malcolm has not been hurt in any way. He has merely been subdued lest he interfere with our cause. He will not have taken any harm when he wakes up. We find it… wasteful to throw away the noble blood of the Awakened without explicit need.”
“And Rodja? He’s not one of us, what have you done with him?” He was looking to the roof of the tall building as he spoke, and could see the full moon slowly aligning itself with the spire.
“The Celestial will be put to a glorious cause, endowed an honour few granted. I would advice you not to try interfering with this. As I said, we would resent being forced to spill such pure blood as yours.”
Andrei was growing desperate. “Let him go, or I will interfere! I killed Sender, so don’t underestimate me!”
“Ah, you did, did you not? Well, I guess you have done me a service, then, saving me the trouble of keeping to my end of our agreement. This Ashton Sender was a weakling, obviously, who fell into his own trap. I will not underestimate you, Andrei Winters. I will only congratulate you on your victory and establish that once again has the rule of the fittest’s survival proven itself. Will you not come with us? It would be an honour.”
Andrei wasn’t completely sure to whom this honour would apply. “No, I won’t. I will fight you if I have to. Let Rodja go!”
Obeah laughed pleasantly. “Yes, certainly. We will let him go after his part has been played out. If everything goes according to plan, you can come and reclaim him in Trier by Christmas. Hopefully he will not be harmed at all, and he will be free to go – with the privilege of having been a part of this great event – wherever he wants. And a little trip to Europe hasn’t hurt anyone now, has it?”
“If you hurt him in any way, I’ll…” He clenched his teeth in powerless frustration. He didn’t know what he would do.
“There, now. I promise you that you will get your friend back in due time. And I’m looking forward to having a longer talk with you when opportunity presents itself. I would advice you, however, to be wary of my companion Erich Von Bremmer. Sadly enough he fails to realise that the two of you have more than a little in common, being vassals of our Master as you both are, and seems to be harbouring some kind of vendetta towards you.”
“Yeah, you tell that freak that when I see him next time he’ll be dead.”, Andrei snapped back angrily.
“I will make sure to forward your proposal. But now, regrettably, I am forced to end this intriguing conversation as we are just about to take off. It has been a pleasure talking to you, Andrei Winters. Until next time…” The line went dead.
Only an instant later Andrei could see, as silhouettes against the now completely aligned full moon, five shapes filing out of the hatch in the roof of the tall building. One of the shapes walked hurriedly up to the helicopter and opened the rear compartment in order to let two of the others in. Another climbed into the pilot’s seat, and soon Andrei could see the rotor blades spinning into motion. One of those shapes was Rodja, Andrei was sure of it. And he had only moments at best to prevent these people from taking off with him.
He could hear Anzhela gasping behind him as his body started to change. His legs grew shorter, his spine warped and morphed and his head shrank. The peculiar feeling as his arms were forced back and his face was elongated into a sharp beak almost made him scream out, but he was getting used to this transformation. And as the magic worked its influence on his body, so did his mind change as well. It was no longer important what Anzhela felt, or what happened to Rodja’s mother. All that mattered was his prey, and his prey was on the roof. He spread his wings, and with a forceful flap he was airborne, speeding like a dart towards his mark.
As he flew upwards through the freezing night air he could not help noticing that everything was silent and still around the factory building. Where recently there had been lethal fighting there was now only darkness. He didn’t have much time to reflect upon this before he neared the summit of the tower, but one thought crossed his mind: had the defenders given up when they realised that Sender was dead? In any case, the area was now covered in darkness, broken only by the occasional fire that was still burning here and there.
The pinnacle spread out before him suddenly as he passed the edge of the tall building at high speed. A thin sheet of ice covered the rooftop, making it shimmer in the moonlight as he dashed for the rear section of the helicopter. He paid no heed to whether or not there were other people on the roof – right now all he could think of was getting to Rodja as quickly as possible, irrespective of any danger he might be putting himself in.
The black Daikwato gun was in his hand the instant his body changed back to human in mid-air and his feet touched the ground. The man he recognised as Obeah eyed him calmly though the back window as Andrei raised the weapon and pointed it at him point blank through the security glass. He had time to think that maybe the man had already known that he was going to show up, before he pulled the trigger. With a crash that echoed out over the silent town the bullet broke through the glass, sending spindly cracks in every direction of the hole. Andrei saw Obeah flinching in sudden pain, and then he could hear gunfire from inside the vehicle even as the helicopter started to lift from the ground.
But before he had time to think or do anything, a sharp blow to the back of his head sent an explosion of white pain burning through his skull. Stars danced before his eyes as he staggered with the impact. Turning around groggily he discovered Lev standing behind him, a lead pipe in his hand and a stern look on his face.
“Lev, what the fuck are you doing?”, Andrei exclaimed, putting a hand to where the blow had struck and grimacing in pain. He backed away a few steps from his former friend. On his left he could hear the helicopter gaining even more height.
The boy with the blonde hair just stared at him, a hind of victory in his eyes. “You were always the better one, weren’t you? In school, with the chicks… And now with the Master. Just when I thought I had found something that was mine, where I could shine, you had to show up and out-shine me.” He smiled spitefully. “Well, I’m through with you now. Let’s finish this once and for all!”
Andrei shook his head in disbelief. “What’s the mater with you? Can’t you see that Sender’s only been using you? That’s Rodja they have in that helicopter for fuck’s sake!” He pointed desperately towards the helicopter that was now several yards off the ground, its downwind so strong as to nearly throwing them both off their feet.
“Yeah, I know. I figured you’d come here to try to save him, that’s why I came. To find you. I want to finish this now, like we agreed to do, remember? You and me, Andrei. Let’s settle once and for all who is the stronger, the smarter, the better. Your rich dad won’t help you here, ya’know.”
“What’s your fucking problem, man?” Andrei was growing desperate. His injuries suddenly made themselves felt, reminding him of the inevitable: he was in no shape to fight, and if he tried he would in all likelihood get himself killed. “You never had a hard time! You’re popular with the girls, you grew up with both of your parents in a normal home. And you never had to be Sender’s prisoner, either. So what are you whining about, you damn moron?”
Lev’s scornful smile widened, and Andrei suddenly noticed the feverish glow in his eyes. With a pang he realised there was nothing of his old friend in there. Some kind of madness had gnawed away at him until only jealousy and vengeful insanity remained, leaving only hate where once there was life and reason. And Andrei also knew that Sender was the one responsible for this perversion, just as he had ruined everything else Andrei had ever held dear.
“You don’t know anything about me, Andrei. And don’t try to patronise me, I know what you’re made of, you smug bastard. Always thinking you are better than everyone else. But this is the end of that, you know. Now it’s me or you.” A knife gleamed in his hand.
Without warning Lev threw himself at Andrei, who could do nothing but to back away in surprise. Overhead the deafening din from the helicopter decreased in intensity as the vehicle gained even more altitude. Mentally going through his options as he fell back, Andrei realised that his only chance of survival was flight. Lev was obviously far beyond redemption, and would probably stop at nothing to be rid of the object of his odium. Drawing a deep breath and hoping for the best, he once again forced his body into raven form, throwing himself towards the edge of the roof. But just as he felt his wings beating through the cold air, catching the upwinds from below, he also felt a searing pain flashing through his whole body. With a triumphant cry Lev pulled back the knife and laughed. And this laughter, coupled with the final audible noises from the helicopter that could be viewed only as a tiny silhouette against the full moon, was the last thing Andrei heard as he fell towards the ground far below, dying, dying, dead.
A sound, like a drop of water breaking the surface of a still, untouched lake. The sound reverberating through an endless space, reaching his ears in an instant reminder of living senses. Or was the lake inside his own mind? Opening his eyes, if they had not been open all along, he could see the rings spreading across the black water, slowly like ripples on eternity. How long had they been working their way from the source of the disturbance? Was it a second ago that he had heard the sound that again made him aware of his surroundings, or a decade? Only the growing rings, golden and blue, made it at all possible to discern what was water and what was nocturnal air. They disappeared out into the inky distance, their faint glow fading gradually until they could not be seen anymore.
But the last one of the rings remained, not growing like the others but rising out of the water, its golden surface gleaming from a sourceless illumination. It was right in front of him, but he never saw it approaching. On its inside was an inscription, and he suddenly realised he had seen it somewhere before – in another life, maybe. “For my beloved Efim”, it said.
A pale hand reached out of the darkness, its fingers extended towards him. Slender fingers with beautiful nails, one of them passing through the the golden ring as an arm clad in white followed fromout the gloom. He was not afraid, he had felt this presence before. The woman stood before him finally, her features like carved marble, her eyes full of sadness. Clad in the same uniform she had worn in the vision where he had first seen her, she soared above the water’s surface in mid-darkness. He thought that she was beautiful even now that he knew she was dead.
“Have you come to join me at last, my dear Efim?” He could hear a faint hint of joy and anticipation in her voice, but clouded as if she dared not let herself hope.
He shook his head, if he had one, suddenly confused and afraid. Join her where? Wasn’t he supposed to be doing something? Every thought echoed through this endless space like the wind between dreams.
She eyed him in silence for an eternity. Then she nodded solemnly, her eyes suddenly clear with heavy insight. “You are not Efim after all, are you?” She clasped her hands over her chest in a defeated gesture.
He shook his head again, slowly. “No, I’m not… I’m sorry.”
She sighed. “I should have seen it, but I didn’t want to realise it. When you came to the hospital I… I wanted you so much to be him. I wanted you to join me at last. Or rather, I wanted him to join me. My Efim…” She paused, but he didn’t know what to say to her. I all seemed too sad.
“You don’t have to say anything, Andrei Miljovic Winters. That is your name, is it not? Do you remember? All I wish of you is that you not forget me, and that you speak of me once in a while.”
Something stirred at the back of his mind. A memory, awakened from a long slumber by the mention of his name. For it was his name, he knew that now. He was Andrei, and he was dead.
“I’d love to speak of you, I really would. But I’m afraid it’s too late for that now… It’s too late for everything.” He was supposed to have saved a friend, but he had failed. He should have tried harder, not been so weak. But these thoughts were as distant for him now as voices from across a vast sea.
She fixed his gaze. Her blue eyes were beautiful. “But it is never too late, Andrei. Not for you, at least. Let me atone for the suffering and confusion I in my deluded state may have caused you by performing the task I was assigned in life one last time. Will you let me send you back?”
“Send me back? Can you really do that? But… what about you?”
He noticed the hint of a smile on her face. “My time has come. In fact, my time came a very long time ago. I just didn’t realise it at the time. I thought that I had to wait for someone dear to me, one whose life ended the same night as mine did. But he never came. And I see now, finally, that he will never join me. That I will have to leave this world by myself.” She saw his expression and raised a hand in a calming gesture. “But it is alright. I don’t know where his soul has gone. Maybe I will find him again someday. But even if I don’t, my time here is at an end. I will leave this place behind. But your time, Andrei, is not over yet. I believe that you have things yet to accomplish.”
Her name came to him suddenly. “Gabrielle! Gabrielle Hesker… I won’t forget you. I will tell your story…”
She smiled, gently caressing his cheek with the back of her pale hand. He could feel the cold metal of the golden ring against his skin, and remembered suddenly that he had skin. He closed his eyes, already feeling the cold spreading through his body as if he lay in cold water. Or in snow…
He drew a desperate breath, feeling his heart beating forcefully in his chest to pump life into his cold body. He lay on the ground, a thin layer of snow already covering his chest and face. Opening his eyes for what seemed like the first time in aeons, he could feel melting snowflakes being pushed upwards by his eyelashes and piling on his brows.
He coughed, his lungs not used to breathing the cold air – or maybe not used to breathing air at all – and struggled into a sitting position. Then he suddenly remembered what had happened to him, recalled Lev’s frantic smile as he had jumped at him with a knife in his hand. A sudden flash of remembered pain went through his right side where the knife had dug in, and he hastily put his hands to the wound. He was shocked, however, to discover that there was no scar. And as he inspected his whole body in disbelief, the shock was prolonged by the discovery that all his injuries were gone. Even the darkened blotch where Sender’s magic had hit him was nowhere to be seen. He still had holes in his jacket where he had been hit by the assassins’ bullets, but his skin was intact. Only a crumbling layer of dried blood let on that he had ever been wounded at all.
He started to remove the improvised bandages, all the while marvelling at the absence of damage, but froze when he heard someone approaching from behind at a running pace. Panicking, he started to turn, but was hindered when the unknown person wrapped its arms tightly around him from behind. It was not until he heard the quiet sobbing that he realised it was Anzhela.
“Andrei… Oh my god, I thought you were dead! I saw you fall… I…” She buried her face in his hair.
He was still confused himself about what had happened. He seemed to recall a very dark place, but he hadn’t been alone… The memories of the experience, what had happened between falling and waking up in the snow, were fading rapidly like remnants of a dream. But he could still see her face in front of him when he closed his eyes. Gabrielle… I will tell your story.
“I through so too… Or, maybe I was…”
He sat motionless, still absent-mindedly pondering his situation, even as Anzhela started examining him for injuries. “Where does it hurt?”, she said, frantically feeling his arms and running her hand through his hair. “Anything broken? Do you feel dizzy?”
Andrei just shook his head, slowly. “No… I don’t think I’m hurt at all. She helped me. Gabrielle Hesker. She helped me.”
Anzhela continued searching him, pulling up his sleeves to examine his arms. Finding only coagulated blood, she looked at him in confusion. “But I saw you fall from the roof! It’s like… forty yards at least! How can you not be hurt?” He could see her struggling to hold back tears. “I thought you had died!”
He stroked her back as she threw her arms around him once again, clearly even more shocked than he was himself. “I’m okay. It’s okay. It was Lev, that bastard. He stabbed me.”
She tensed and stopped sobbing. “Lev? But isn’t he your friend?”
Still stroking her back, he looked off into the darkness, in his mind again and again reliving the scene on the roof where he had stared into a madman’s eyes and realised that he had lost his friend forever. “Yeah, I thought so.” His own voice sounded so distant. “But Sender… He drove him to it. And he let himself be driven. Maybe he always hated me, after all. Maybe it was always just a matter of time…”
“But isn’t this lovely, two little chicks nestling in the snow?” He had made no sound approaching, but looking up over Anzhela’s shoulder Andrei was shocked to see William Stalker standing by the gates in the fence, calmly staring at them with his hands in his coat pockets.
Andrei warily rose to his feet, never taking his eyes off Stalker. Inside his head a voice, newly awakened it seemed, echoed in a poisonous hiss. ‘Death… Death and desssstruction… One down, four to go.’ He closed his eyes and with a heavy effort managed to push the now-not-so-alien will back. Anzhela turned her head as he stood up, hastily rising as well when she saw who it was. Andrei moved his hand towards his gun, but she instantly positioned herself in front of him, drawing her knife and pointing it at Stalker.
“I swear to God, you touch him and I’ll fuckin’ kill you, you creep!”
But William Stalker just raised a hand in a calming gesture. “There, now. No need to get upset. Your chevalier here has a void creature inside of him – one that it was I who released, originally – and I’m doing both him and the world a service by sending them both back into the abyss where they belong.”
“Not if I gank you first, motherfucker! Don’t act so high and mighty when I’m the one with the knife here!” Andrei could hear her voice trembling, but still admired her courage going up against a man so implicitly powerful when she must know she would stand no chance against him.
“Ah, you’ve found yourself a little Sleepwalker, Andrei Winters? How delightsome isn’t that? Or, at least, it would have been if you had had more time to enjoy her. As it is now, I’m cleaning up my track by banishing you and your plague spirit to oblivion. And don’t even think of resisting me now. Not only could I easily handle the two of you by myself – I am also not alone.” He made an all-encompassing gesture towards the darkness behind them.
Anzhela turned her head nervously from side to side, and Andrei himself suddenly felt as if he was being watched. From the darkness on either side of them, between warehouses and factory buildings, he imagined he saw shapes standing on guard, menacingly eyeing them. A shiver ran down his spine when he realised they must be the invaders Stalker had hired to drive Sender out of his lair, and that if they were only half as many as they had been when Andrei had seen them earlier, it was still bad. He could hear something growling next to him, and looking down he saw Nikko standing there, ears back and staring at Stalker.
“And no”, Stalker added in a by-the-way fashion, “Your borrowed familiar will not help you here. Not all of my men can use magic, but the odds are still against you since you are only one beginner magician, one girl with a knife and a demon dog. If you come peacefully, Andrei, I will refrain from harming your little friends.” He took a step towards them, one hand outstretched in a hortatory gesture.
Andrei contemplated their chances, and was just coming to the frightening conclusion that the only way to guarantee that Anzhela and Nikko got out if this alive was to sacrifice himself, when a voice rose out of the darkness on his far right.
“Enough of this!” Terriam’s voice was stern and commanding in a way Andrei had never heard it, as he stepped out of the shadows between two buildings. Beside him walked a tall figure completely dressed in white, and behind the two of them loomed three dark shapes that never came into the light. One of them towered above the others in a way that made Andrei wonder if it was human at all, and another walked with such an arrogant stride as to seem intentionally provocative. The thing inside Andrei’s mind stirred more violently now, but again he managed to keep it back.
William Stalker turned his head in the direction of the voice, and Andrei could see some of the confidence going out of his stance when he discovered the newcomers. “Winter. I was just wondering when I’d run into you… And Rester, I see you have crawled out of your lair finally. What owes me the honour?” But Andrei could tell from Stalker’s face that he didn’t feel honoured at all.
“You’re messing with my grandson, that’s what.” The group had stopped, and they all now stood staring at each other. “So get your scrawny ass out of here before I kick it.”
Stalker eyed Terriam irritably. “Not even you can possibly be so stupid as to not see the importance in disposing of this plague shadow that we have unleashed. Your grandson is a danger both to himself and to all those around him. It would be irresponsible to let him roam free.”
“Since when do you care about responsibility, Stalker?” Terriam’s gaze was intense, and Andrei got the feeling this was a confrontation that had been pending for a long time.
Anzhela had never met Terriam before, and seemed unsure whether this was a new enemy or not. Andrei put a reassuring hand on her shoulder, and then spoke up. “Don’t you speak about responsibility, any of you!”, he called. The other men turned and looked at him, obviously surprised by his outburst. The man called Rester, however, just lowered his gaze as if in shame.
Andrei threw them all an furious look. “I know what you have done, you and your group. I’ve seen it. Do you know how many people you have hurt, killed? I, for one, never asked for any of this, but I was thrown from the roof of this building, not five minutes ago. I would be dead now if it wasn’t for a woman named Gabrielle, who saved me.”
Terriam looked at Anzhela. “This girl?”
She just stared back at him, and Andrei shook his head. “No, this is Anzhela. Gabrielle is dead. She died in the old hospital. Shot when she tried to escape the building. Ringing any bells?”
Now it was Terriam’s turn to look to the ground.
“I hope you all realise one day exactly what you have done, and that it will haunt you for the rest of your lives. How many cities, towns, villages have you destroyed in the name of power? I’ve heard that Sender was such a bad person, but none of you are any better. Don’t you care about anything except yourselves?”
Stalker was the first of the men to find himself. “You are just naïve, boy. Just you wait until you have lived for as long as I have, and then tell me you wouldn’t do exactly the same things.”
Andrei stared at him hatefully. “I will never be like you. Mark my words. Never.”
The man stared back, and his mouth twisted into a sly smile. “Ah, but you are right. You won’t become like me, because you will not live long enough even to try.”
Now the man in white – Rester, Stalker had called him – spoke up for the first time. “That is quite enough, my friend”, he said in a melodic voice that reminded Andrei of Gothic poetry. “You will not harm this young man in any way. He is right, you know. We have done our share of unjust killing.”
“Well, you’re no saint either, Liam. We all did what we did to further our separate ambitions… “ Stalker cast the other man a spiteful look. “And I see that I’m not the only one who managed to realise mine.”
Liam Rester spread his hands and nodded solemnly. “I don’t deny my part in it, far from. And yes, I finally found what I was looking for. But only then did I realise at how great a cost. My eyes were opened up in more than one way, one could say. And now”, he turned to Andrei, “I wake every night with the sole purpose of atoning for my sins. I believe that you have lost one dear to you tonight?”
Andrei at first could not decide whether the man was referring to Rodja or Lev – or maybe both – but finally he nodded quietly. “Yeah, they took him. This man, this Obeah, told me I would get him back unharmed, but still… I couldn’t do anything… I failed.”
Tears were burning in his eyes now, but the other man just nodded as if confirming what he already knew. “I see. Yes, these people – Eyes of Night, as they call themselves – have destroyed many lives. I have personally made it my quest to track them across the world, and everywhere they go chaos and destruction follow in their wake.”
“Tracking them?” A small spark of hope was lit deep inside of him. “So you know… where they are?”
Rester nodded. “Yes, I know where they keep their base, and I suspect that is where they have taken your friend. A town in Germany have been completely cut off from the rest of the country, on the surface upholding a façade of normalcy but at a closer inspection showing all the signs I have learned to associate with this cult and their doings.”
Andrei was getting impatient. “So tell me! Where have they taken him?”
“I cannot tell you this yet. It would be far to dangerous for you to go revenging there on your own. But…” Seeing Andrei’s upcoming protest, he raised his hand. “But I know of some people who bear a similar grudge as yours. And I believe they would be happy to let you in on their crusade.” He eyed Andrei closely, and for a split second he got the feeling that he was being scrutinised by a drilled predator. However, the feeling faded as the other man spoke again. “If you so wish, and I will not force you into anything, I will contact these people for you, and then let you know where they can be found.”
Before Andrei could reply, William Stalker spoke up. “Or, I could help you find your friend. Why waste your time using this old fossil as a middleman? We could leave for Germany right away, Andrei.”
Andrei gave him a sceptic look. “Why would you help me? You just told me you were gonna kill me!”
Stalker responded to this by shaking his head in, Andrei presumed faked, resignation. “Yes, and I’m sorry. I didn’t see the width of this problem, but when you reminded me of that horrible incident at the old hospital I realised my error. I hope you will give me a chance to redeem myself by helping you against those fanatics.”
Terriam threw Stalker a sideways glance, and then looked at Andrei with worry in his eyes. “Andrei, son, I’m not gonna force you into any decision… I want you to know that. But I’d advice you not to listen to anything this man has to say. Of the five of us, he was always the driving force. And I’ve never seen him show the least bit of remorse before now.”
“How dare you…”, snarled Stalker. “Every man has the right to repent, hasn’t he?” He turned to Andrei again. “Andrei, if you come with me I will teach you things beyond your wildest imagination. Alone you’d be no match for those cultists, but together we would stand a better chance. And we could accomplish other great things, as well…”
Liam Rester put up a hand, silencing him. “So, Andrei Winters. You see you have been made contrasting offers. Either you take up on my suggestion and wait for me to gather information and get back to you. Or you go with William Stalker right away and trust him to help you in this – without my many years’ experience with the cult, and risking his likely betrayal.”
Terriam nodded. “Yeah, boy, how’s it going to be? We can’t choose for you.”
In the darkness around them shapes were still stirring, obviously too wary of the magicians to attack but still loyal enough to Stalker not to run away. Andrei wondered if his choice would cause them to go against their fear. All eyes were on him as he stood in silence, contemplating his situation. He didn’t know this man, this Liam Rester, but since he had come together with Terriam perhaps he was trustworthy. In any case he had been part in interrupting Stalker’s intentions of killing him and Anzhela only minutes before. Stalker himself, on the other hand, had proven on several occasions that he was out for Andrei’s life. Be that he had offered to help Andrei recover Rodja right away – and Andrei’s impatient worry for his friend was definitely enticed by this – but there was no guarantee that he would not fulfil his earlier threat as soon as Terriam and this Rester was out of sight, remorseful for his former sins or not.
He eyed them all in turn, calmly making up his mind. Finally his eyes settled on the man in white. “I will do as you said. Please help me find Rodja.” He could see Terriam letting out a breath of relief. Rester nodded silently, his face and stance showing no emotion.
“You damn brat!” Stalker’s mask of pleasant calm cracked and fell in an instant. He remained in the same spot, but stared at Andrei with undisguised fury and disgust in his eyes. “Be it that your grandfather and his tame nightwalker have your back right now, but you will bleed, I promise you. Don’t think you can hide from me, boy. No, no. I will find you, mark my words. And when I do, you and your pet demon are going back to the Abyss. You live on borrowed time, Andrei Winters. Use it well.”
Terriam just stared at him, daring him to make a move, even as Anzhela was obviously fighting with herself not to jump at Stalker’s throat. Andrei raised an eyebrow in theatrical amusement. “Yeah, so that’s your true face finally? I was just wondering when it would show.”
Stalker eyed them all for a moment, clearly estimating his chances. Then he turned on the spot and started walking away, out through the gates. Without turning he waved a hand over his shoulder. “As I said, use your time well, boy. Cause next time I see you, your time is up.” And with that he was gone, disappeared into the shadows as if he had never been there at all. And all around them in the darkness they could hear figures moving away, withdrawing into the darkness as if at a silent command, until all was quiet once more.
Andrei turned to the other two with a sudden fierceness in his eyes. “But don’t think I will ever forgive you for doing what you did to all those people. You are behind one of the biggest catastrophes this part of the world has ever known, and that is only one of the terrible things you’ve done. Gabrielle who saved me, she was a nurse at the hospital in town. Her fiancé was brought there because of the illness you spread, and died right in front of her. And she got the virus, too, but that wasn’t what killed her. No, she was shot to death by your men when she tried to escape. I hope it was well worth it, because none of those people are ever coming back. Innocent people, dead because of you.”
Anzhela turned to look at him, obviously taken aback by the anger in his voice. He put a hand on her shoulder, reassuringly, without taking his eyes off Rester and his grandfather.
Liam Rester closed his eyes as if in pain, seemingly taking Andrei’s outburst as well earned lashes from a whip. Terriam sighed heavily and lowered his gaze, suddenly unwilling to look Andrei in the eye. Yet it was he who first replied. “I have tried all these years not to think about the consequences. Everything I’ve ever done, I did for the sake of knowledge. But since I met you… You’ve opened up my eyes.” Was that tears in his eyes? “I’m not gonna say I’m sorry, ’cause that wouldn’t be enough. But I can tell you that I… I am beginning to understand now.” He clenched his fists and fell silent, obviously fighting something inside of him.
Rester opened his eyes and looked at Andrei. “I know that you are right, Andrei Winters. I spent all of my wretched life looking for a way to elongate it. Death frightened me, and I wished to escape it. And in my ridiculous folly I committed heinous deeds, indefensible acts, to achieve this goal. It was not until I reached the fruit of my ambition that I stopped to look back, and realised what I had actually done. I could have killed myself then, I nearly did. But in the end the road of penance conquered such thinking, and I made a vow ever to strike down upon those who dared commit such atrocities as those we have made ourselves responsible for.”
When Andrei said nothing, he continued: “And these people who call themselves Eyes of Night, I know that they have done terrible things. They are worshippers of the Devil, and all over the world they go searching for ways to prepare their dark master entrance to this world. I myself believe that they are misguided, but that does not make their rampagings any less sinister. Something is guiding them, and even if that something is not what they believe, it can never be anything good. So whatever ritual they are intending to use your friend for, the result must be powerful since one of the most influential leaders came here personally to retrieve him. And a ritual of that calibre cannot be allowed to take place. I will not force you to take part in my struggle. And I will not lie to you; if they told you that your friend will be returned to you unhurt, chances are that you need not worry. But if you, apart from rescuing your friend, wish to contribute in securing the future of this world, I bid you welcome to join our cause. Even misguided people can cause tremendous harm, as I am sure you have already seen.”
“I have.” Andrei threw a glance to the roof of the building – but Lev was nowhere to be seen. “So what do you want me to do?” Weariness was beginning to creep up on him, and what he wanted most right now was to get away from here, lie down and never wake up again.
“Right now, if you have chosen to accept, I just want for you to go as far from here as possible and stay in hiding until I contact you again. And this I will do as soon as I have been in contact with my allies, and also gathered some more intelligence on the organisation we are going up against.”
“Yeah”, agreed Terriam, his old grumpiness suddenly back in his voice. “Find a large city where you can blend in, and wait for us to get back to you. Stalker may have left you alone for now, but he ain’t one to give up easily. And apart from him I’m guessing you’ve made yourself some new enemies, as well. So try not to do anything stupid that will attract attention, okay?”
“Yes”, Rester said, nodding slowly. “Keep a low profile. And do not tell anyone where you are going. If you have a cellphone, throw it away and get a new one. Do not contact anyone, not even your family.”
“And I hope I don’t have to tell you not to use your real name, boy. Knowing a person’s name gives you power over him, and you don’t want anyone to hold that power over you, do you?” Terriam gave him a sceptic look, all resignation and shame gone from his stance in an instant.
Andrei shrugged irritably. He was growing exceedingly tired of people talking down to him. “I’m not stupid, okay? I will stay hidden and I seldom do stupid things if I’m not forced to. And nobody ever told me anything about names!”
Terriam seemed to be ready with a comeback to this, but Rester silenced him. “I think you will do well, Andrei Winters. Just remember what I have told you, and wait for me to get in touch with you again.” He started to turn away.
“But wait! How will you contact me if you don’t know where I am?” Andre took a step towards the white clad man.
“Do not worry. I have my ways of finding what I seek.” And with that he turned and walked away into the darkness between two buildings – the same way he had come. The three figures behind him followed, and soon the darkness had devoured them. The last one to be engulfed in shadows was the character with the stride Andrei had noticed when they first arrived. This figure paused for a second before stepping into the darkness, turning towards him. Still shrouded in shadow it was impossible to make out anything of the figure, but when he smiled broadly before turning to join his companions Andrei could see a sharp, snow white tooth gleaming for an instant in the light cast by the setting moon. Then they were gone completely as if they had never existed, and Andrei was left alone with Anzhela and the man he had learned only recently was his grandfather. Nikko was gone.
Terriam Winter (Andrei wondered whether this was his family’s original surname, or if it was Terriam who had removed the ending ‘s’ to better match the names of his colleagues), eyed him sternly. Andrei could tell that he wasn’t completely comfortable with the silence. “So… I guess this is goodbye for now, boy”, he said. “I don’t wanna know where you’re going, so don’t tell me. Well, I want you to know that you’ve done good. So… Anyway…” He nodded awkwardly and started to turn away. Then he apparently came to think of something, and turned to Andrei once more. “Oh, I almost forgot! You should have this.” He produced a rolled up paper from an inner pocket, and walked up to him, handing it over.
Andrei accepted the scroll, recognising the paper as the same type as that he had been given before – the instructions on how to use his Daikwato weapon. “Thanks”, he said, and unrolled it partly to see more of the unskilled drawings on how to hold the weapon, and what words to say.
“Yeah, I figured you’d find use for it… So if you read this and become a little better at stuff, maybe you’ll be able to master that weapon of yours some day.” Terriam’s uncomfortable look gave way for his patronising attitude once more.
Andrei just sighed without looking up from the scroll, not in the mood for these recurring argumentations over his skill level. “Uh-huh, I suck and I’ll work hard to get better. Right, I get it.”
Terriam was silent for a moment, and then surprised Andrei by putting his big hand on his shoulder. “You know, son, I’ve been a bit hard on you. It’s for your best, of course, but I want you to know, as I said, that you’re doing good. And I also want to tell you that I’m indescribably happy I finally got a boy like you. I’m sure you know I’ve had certain… disappointments….”
Before Terriam could continue, he was interrupted by a voice from behind. “Right, and I suppose that would be me?”
Andrei looked up in surprise to see his father standing by the gates, beneath one of the still functional street lamps. James smiled as Andrei left Terriam standing by himself and ran to throw himself into his fathers arms. His face had a weary look, and his clothes were cold. Andrei didn’t know where he had been, but obviously he had been out in the cold for a long time.
“Where have you been?”, asked his father before Andrei could do the same. “I’ve been so worried! And your mother has been worried sick, too! I have been looking all over for you…. I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you everything, there are many things I have kept secret from you. But no more. I will tell you everything… Nothing of this would have happened if I had talked to you about certain things and kept you safer from certain people.” James stopped rambling and looked up over Andrei’s shoulder at Terriam, who still stood silent in the shadows.
Sensing the tense atmosphere, Andrei hurried to intervene. “Where is Anya? Sender said he had taken her someplace, and a strange man answered her phone when I tried to call her!”
Returning his gaze to his son, James Winters gave him a reassuring smile. “Your sister is safe, too. She was returned to your mum completely unharmed by some unknown people a couple of hours ago. I don’t know who sent them to get her, or if they were Sender’s men, but she is okay. There is nothing to worry about. And both she and mum will be so happy and relieved to see you! Let’s go home, Andrei, and I will tell you everything I should have told you several years ago… About why we have been moving so much, about our family… And about what one of your relatives and his companions have done.” Once again he threw Terriam a cold gaze, and put one arm across his son’s shoulders to lead him away.
Terriam eyed him just as coldly, and in a booming voice he said: “I don’t thing you understand, James. Andrei can’t go back. He can never go back.”
James turned back to him angrily. “Pardon? And why is that?” But Andrei could still detect a small note of fearful foreboding in his father’s voice, as if deep down he already knew.
“Because your son has awakened to certain abilities that have attracted attention from the wrong people, that’s why. He can’t go home, and neither can you. These people will want to use you to get to him.”
James went silent and just stared at his father. Then something inside of him seemed to break, as if a castle made of air slowly crumbled to dust behind his eyes. But behind the shock there was also a feeling of resignation, as if something feared and anticipated had finally caught up to him and come to pass. “I see…”, he said at last, his voice much lower than it had been before. Then he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, before turning to Andrei once more.
Feeling like a traitor, as if he had caused his father worlds of suffering, Andrei could do nothing but to throw his arms around his father and feel the tears finally spilling over. In his heart of hearts he had known he could never go back to how things had been before, but a part of him had still wanted to pretend, to keep harbouring that small piece of illusionary hope that he would be able to come with his father and just go home. But Terriam was right, off course. Things would never be the same again, and if he went home he would be a danger to everybody. Even if he hadn’t had a murderous demon inside of him, there would still be people looking for him who would stop at nothing to hurt him or kill him. He could never go home…
“I’m sorry…”, he whispered sobbingly into his father’s jacket. “I’m so sorry…”
James slowly stroked him across his back, thoughtfully, but there was a sad smile in his voice when he said: “It’s okay, son. It’s okay. Now I understand how ignorant I have been, how much it is that I didn’t know. But that isn’t your fault, Andrei. I tried to keep you from many things, but you have to know that you’ll always be my son. Always. And I love you, no matter what. And… And I guess it’s a good thing that you turned out to be special. So, I’m happy for your sake. ‘Cause I myself certainly never was.”
Andrei hugged him more tightly, desperate not to make his father sad. “Yes you are!”, he called, his voice louder than he had intended. He had a hard time controlling his feelings, and deep in his mind the pain of his grief was coupled with the hissings of a creature that had other intentions.
But James just laughed bitterly. “No I’m not. I never had that thing. But I hope that I have other qualities, and have accomplished other things, that will be worth something one day.”
Andrei just nodded against his father’s chest, not knowing what to say. Was this the end of everything? Tears were flooding down his face, never letting up. He wanted never to let go. But when he noticed that everything had been very silent for a while, he dried his eyes and looked up.
Terriam and James – father and son – stood staring at one another. James was still holding his arms around Andrei, but not as tightly as before. There was something decisive in their eyes, and Andrei could sense years of enmity and alienation passing between them – but also something else.
Terriam sighed, and some of the harshness left his eyes. “It seems there are things in the world that are more important than what I’ve been valuing all my life”, he said thoughtfully, watching James holding his son in his arms. And in that instant, Andrei thought he could see some kind of consent passing between the two men – some kind of understanding that it had taken all these years and all this loss to reach.
“We must leave now, James”, Terriam said at last. “We mustn’t know where he goes and we can’t stay here. People will come soon to cover things up around here, and we don’t wanna be here then.”
James nodded reluctantly. “I guess…” He turned to Andrei, his eyes full of indecision and worry. “Will you be alright?” He looked into Andrei’s eyes, and seemed to find something there that answered his question because he didn’t wait for his son to answer. Instead, he took something from his coat pocket and pressed it tightly into Andrei’s right hand. The cold metal burned against his palm. “It was meant as a birthday present. I hope you will find some use for it…”
They stood like that for a couple of moments, staring at each other. Andrei didn’t know what to say, and finally it was his father who took the step. “Go now, before people come looking. I’ll see you when all this has blown over.”
“Yeah, you’ve got lots of dangerous people looking for you now. Stalker, for one. And I happened to hear you made yourself an enemy amongst the Night-eyes as well. And then of course Ashton Sender, if he’s still alive. I’ll take care of your dad, don’t worry. Go now.”
Andrei eyed them both for a moment, no more tears to cry but still full of sorrow at having to leave these two behind, to whom he in accordance with all rationality should be turning for protection. Then he drew a deep breath, turned his back on them and started walking away. When he turned around one last time some steps later, both of the men were gone – as if swallowed by the earth.
Snow started to fall again as Anzhela came running after him, grabbing his arm. “Can I come?”, she said, catching her breath after the sprint.
“But you don’t know where I’m going”, he said. The truth was, he didn’t know himself.
“No, but I’ve got nothing left here anyway… And you don’t wanna run away alone, do you?”
She smiled at him as if this was all a great adventure and there was no worries in the world. And he had to confess to himself that he really, really wanted her to come with him. “Yeah, okay. Why not?”, he said, and continued walking through the snow, leaving the factory and all its brooding secrets behind. Still holding his arm as if afraid he’d run away any moment, Anzhela Gise walked beside him. He was not alone.
People didn’t come right away to smooth things over at the factory and around the industrial area, which gave them some time to make preparations. Anzhela returned home one last time to gather up some things, and Andrei did the same.
But before he did anything else, he made sure that Rodja’s mother was picked up by an ambulance and taken to the nearest hospital (which was not in Arkadak, but in Andrei’s own hometown). He was told she would recover from the cold, but he didn’t tell them anything about her other symptoms. He could just hope that they would giver her the treatment she needed, since he could not stay to look out for her himself.
In the basement of the factory main building he found Malcolm lying on the very same bed where Andrei himself had brooded himself to sleep so many nights when he had been Sender’s prisoner. He had clearly been sedated, but seemed otherwise not to have taken any harm. Obeah had been true on this point, at least. Andrei could just hope that all the other things the man had told him had been true, as well.
Malcolm didn’t stay long after waking up, but thanked Andrei for everything and told him that he had some matters back home “in the States” to see to. Andrei got the feeling he was talking about something he had been postponing for a long time. Something emotional. Soon both the man in the purple, furry coat and his yellow car was gone without a trace – but Andrei suspected it was not the last thing he would see of Malcolm Hanotrivic. Far from it.
He went home finally. Or rather, he went back to the house he had until most recently regarded as ‘home’. He used his father’s car to driver there, and the blown up tire turned the trip into a long and slow affair. The fact that it was Andrei himself who had punctured it with a well aimed shot didn’t make things any better. But well at home the gate-man helped him replace the tire, and he climbed the few steps to the front door of his house.
Inside every room was empty. All that remained in the way of furnishing was his dad’s favourite armchair – a piece of furniture that Andrei’s mother had been trying for years to get thrown out of the house. Now, apparently, it had been left behind when everything else had been removed from the house – as by an act of magic.
The cellar, however, was as he had left it. All his things remained, and he hurriedly gathered up his most important belongings. It was with a pang of regret that he turned to look at the room one last time before running up the stairs and leaving it forever – but he knew that it must be done.
He still had some time to kill before he was supposed to pick Anzhela up by the station, so at returning to Arkadak for what could well have been the last time in his life, he set to work leaving his mark there. Returning to the old factory building, where Sender had kept his base, he unpacked his faithful spray cans and commenced doing what Andrei Winters did best: painting.
There was not much left of the night; dawn was approaching. When they stepped out of the Hummer they could smell snow in the air and hear the first drowsy morning birds beginning to awaken in their treetop nests. Before them was the gate of a huge garage – one of many in a row – and in his hand Andrei held a set of keys bearing a tag carrying its address.
Anzhela closed up beside him as he turned the key in the lock, and together they watched with suspense as the gate started to slide open, completely soundlessly. Little by little the thing inside was revealed, until it stood completely exposed to their unbelieving eyes and they both gasped for air. Before them, inside the huge garage and bearing the same symbol as one of the keys he held in his hand, was the most amazing car Andrei had ever seen.
Before the sun had risen completely above the horizon that morning, Andrei and Anzhela had left the city and its memories far behind. And as the road stretched endlessly before him and more and more miles separated him from the people who wished him harm, Andrei thought back on the promise he had made. He would run now, yes, but only to strike even harder another day. If this was what freedom really tasted like, he would do everything in his power to give Rodja the chance to taste it, too.
He would not fail again.
They managed to remove every trace of what had happened in Arkadak. No bodies, no fires, no evidence that a small scale war had ever taken place in the small, nondescript town.
But one thing they couldn’t remove, one thing that no amount of chemicals or force ever managed to erase, was the skillfully executed painting etched into the facade of the factory main building:
‘Here one fell victim
to one of his best friends’ knife.
Slipped into darkness,
by Gabrielle Hesker
- remember the victims -
TO BE CONTINUED…
(Christina Smedbakken, 2011)