Eli curled his spidery fingers through the translucent smoke rising from his cigarette. The smoke parted swiftly around his fingers before traveling forever upward in a never-ending spiral, tendrils wrapping against his skin like snakes. Eli watched each strand with mild interest, his lips partially open in fascination as he inhaled another breath of the cigarette.
Across the cold black-walled room he sat in, a computer hummed peacefully atop a slim glass desk. The monitor purred and sprang to life, casting a faint greenish glow across the otherwise blank and black room. Eli tore his sight away from the smoke and stretched his legs out from underneath him, taking another long drag of the cigarette.
The computer had woken from its deep sleep to show its master non other than a single picture, fuzzy and dim. Eli slid over to the computer, running his pale fingers across the keyboard with inhuman smoothness. A long string of data began to appear from below the picture, filing across the screen in a single code.
Eli hummed quietly to himself, reading the data as it sprang onto the screen, his eyes flickering back and forth madly from behind the shady glasses that perched on his nose. A small smile tugged at the corner of his lips.
So the rumors were true.
Smiling, Eli Elverson ran his fingers through his angelic brown hair and leaned back against the swivel computer chair, his sharp face glowing with pleasure. Eli crossed his long legs and distractedly pushed a pin sized red button next to the keyboard.
“We’ve found him,” Eli said, his voice, as always, not rising above a whisper. He sounded almost bored, as if he had seen it all before and was simply reliving the experience for the pleasure of it.
“Yes sir!” a fuzzy voice replied through the speaker.
Eli let the line go dead, folding his hands in his lap peacefully and tilting his head back to face the ceiling. He traced the lines of his palm thoughtfully, still humming.
“Tsubasa,” Eli whispered to himself, “The Angels of Old…hmmm.”
Outside the supposedly soundproof room, Eli could hear feet slapping against the tile floors as his workers scrambled to get in order. Eli wrinkled his nose in disgust and inhaled a deep breath of smoke, “Bastards,” he breathed to himself, watching the smoke rise above him.
“If only they knew…” he trailed off, smiling faintly to himself.
And with that, the self-proclaimed eighteen-year-old child prodigy, founder of the Elverson Genetics Lab, laughed quietly to himself and mulled over the rewards of his efforts.
The heart of an Angel.
Ever lasting life.
* * *
Kale kept his eyes on the horizon, his gaze sweeping across the moors in search of something invisible to all others. The slight morning breeze ruffled his hair, sending a faint chill down his back. Kale turned to face the rising sun, his boots scuffing against the shingled roof of the dorm tower. A new wind blew in, heavy with a certain stink.
Thoughtfully, Kale closed his eyes against the wind, taking a deep breath of the sour smell. He let out a deep breath, slowly letting his eyes slide open…
* * *
Sona pushed her way past a group of giggling girls. One of them turned to shout at her angrily, but Sona didn’t hear exactly what she said. The crowds of Salem Academy students were steadily growing larger as the kids scrambled to collect their breakfast at the last minute.
Ticked, Sona let her gaze sweep through the crowd, trying to pick out Kale’s distinct features. His black mop-hair and icy eyes were nowhere to be seen. Sona folded her arms impatiently across her chest and tapped her foot, blowing a stray strand of hair out of her face.
Where was he?
Ignoring the rush of student bodies, Sona pressed past them, her intentions of reaching the dining hall door slowed by the sheer number of students. Finally, Sona gave up her ducking and weaving, resorting instead to brute pushing.
“Watch where you’re going!”
Sona spun to face the boy who had shouted at her, her bare knuckles slamming against his jaw. “You watch it!” she spat, grinding the heel of her hand against his face. The boy stumbled back, shock etched across his face. Sona turned away, pushing open the dining hall door and slipping into the courtyard without so much as a backwards glance.
Shielding her eyes against the mid-morning sun, Sona focused her sight on the boys dorm tower across the courtyard. She couldn’t help but feel a bit angry. She wasn’t used to being around so many kids, the constant press of bodies made her angst. Not to mention the person she and her Hunting Party had been tracking for years was suddenly missing in action…
Several boys on the stairwell that lead up to the top of the tower glared at her warily. One of them looked like he was about to object to having a girl in the boys chambers, but he seemed to think better of it and Sona brushed past angrily.
The wooden door at the top of the staircase opened easily to her touch, unlike the girl’s door, which was always jammed and swollen.
The dorm room appeared to be empty. Several dressers and beside tables were entwined along the countless rows of beds that stretched across the room. Each one was made perfectly, not a wrinkle in sight. Sona spotted a bed that had been shoved away from the perfect row and pushed against the window; its sheets were crumpled and twisted.
Sona ran her fingers over the end-posts of his bed, biting her lip thoughtfully. “Kale?” she said, feeling foolish for speaking into the silence. The latch on the window wasn’t secured, which Sona found odd. In a high-end school like this, it was made absolutely sure that everything was in order.
Feeling even more foolish, Sona climbed across Kale’s mangled bed and pushed open the window, leaning out as far as she could reach. A makeshift wooden ladder was positioned against the sill, tilting steeply upward against the shingled roof. Trembling slightly, Sona took a deep breath and climbed onto the windowsill, her hands shaking as she gripped the ladder.
Kale sat cross-legged at the flat top of the tower, his back hunched in thought as he studied the horizon. Sona hauled herself onto the flat roof and took a deep breath, giddy from being up so high.
“Hey,” she snapped. Kale didn’t turn.
“Shhh!” Kale hissed, placing a silent finger across his lips, “you’re very loud.”
Sona bit back a remark and clomped over to him, purposefully stomping her feet hard. She sat down next to him, folding her arms moodily across her chest, “What’re you looking for?”
Kale’s gaze didn’t shift from the horizon, “Can’t you smell it?”
Sona sniffed the air experimentally, shaking her head.
“It’s sulfur,” Kale whispered, blinking as a strong breeze tugged against the roof, “something’s coming this way. Something big. I can’t see it yet…” he trailed off, tracing his fingers across his wrists distractedly.
Startled, Sona let her gaze slide down Kale’s arm to the twin scars that crossed his wrists. She felt her throat constrict and her stomach drop. “That bad, huh?”
Kale turned to face her, his eye confused, “What?”
Sona nodded to the hands folded in his lap, “You tried to kill yourself…why?”
Kale snorted, tugging the edges of his black shirt over the scars, “You tell me. All my life I’ve seen these…things. And the entire time people have told me they aren’t real. They told me I was insane…right to my face. I wanted it to end…I wanted it to end so badly.”
Sona chewed her lip, “You still feel that way?”
He hesitated, not meeting her stare, “Everyday.”
* * *
Matsu Oracle folded his burly arms across his pale blue button-up shirt, his beady eyes scanning the roadside with expertise. Behind him, a large black van with no distinct markings was pulled off to the side of the road, the engine thrumming loudly.
A breeze stirred across the grass.
Matsu’s eyes narrowed. What was a Demonian doing so close to the city? Matsu ran a square hand over his face and turned back to the van, the idea of squeezing back behind the steering wheel sickening him. The side door slid open.
Jin squatted childishly next to the sliding door, the red bandana tied through her short black hair fluttering against her face. “What’sit?” she called, rocking back on her heels and shivering in her too-short tan chinos, “You see them?”
Matsu shook his head mutely and slid back into the truck next to Daisuke’s sleeping form. Jin peeked over the seat, her red lips pulled back in a tight smile; she dangled her bare arms over the edge of the seat and hummed to herself.
“We goin’ to Salem? Sona’s probably wondering where we’re at.”
Matsu shook his head once more, “She’s got to learn to take care of herself. It’s good for her…being alone.”
Jin wrinkled her nose, “But she said she’s found the Tsubasa! What if it’s not a false alarm this time? What if it’s true?”
Aoife rolled over on the cot set up in the back of the van, her long white hair ruffled from sleep, “It’s probably a dead end,” she yawned, stretching her arms over her head as the van rolled forward, “I swept that school inside-out. The only person exceeding interest was that Fredrickson kid. Don’t you think I would have noticed if there was an Angel right under my nose?”
Jin stuck her tongue out at the tracker behind her and moodily folded her arms across the seat, “I miss Sona,” she whined, playing distractedly with the tassels on her headband. Daisuke sat up silently, his wispy hair not even disturbed from the sleep. He continued to stare down the empty road as if he had never fallen asleep in the first place.
“Morning, Dai,” Jin cackled, tugging at a strand of his hair, “Nice sleep?”
Daisuke shook her hand away, his eyes not straying from the road.
“We’ll pick her up,” Matsu said suddenly, turning the van onto an even more deserted dirt road, “and check out this so called ‘Tsubasa’. But if she’s wrong again, I’m holding her Recognition off for another three months.”
Jin gaped at him in horror, “Three months! Matsu, that’s cruel.”
Matsu gave her a wide grin, flashing his broad teeth, “She’ll learn in time. Sona’s a good apprentice; I’ll give her that. I don’t think I’ve met another person her age so eager to grow up.”
Jin smiled and swung her arms cheerfully, “Was I that way?”
Frowning, Matsu shook his head, “You’re still not grown up Jin…now get your arms out of my face, I can’t see a thing!”
* * *
Sona rushed to meet Kale in the hall, her boots slapping against the tile. The times between classes seemed to be the only time that Sona knew exactly where Kale was. As usual, he sat silently on the only stone bench at the edges of the courtyard, his feet tucked under him, staring into the clouds.
Sona had been a little startled by the news Kale had delivered her that morning. Something was coming…but what? Not that it mattered much; the news she had just barely gotten pushed the mysterious warning out of her mind.
“Kale,” Sona panted, collapsing on the bench beside him.
“Why do you run everywhere?” he asked distractedly, not even flinching at her presence, “you’re going to give yourself a heart attack.”
“Right,” Sona snorted, trying to catch her breath, “Look, I just got a call in from Matsu,” Kale turned to face her, his curiosity peaked, “He’s stopping by with everyone else to pick me up…I want you to come with me.”
Kale picked at a blade of grass next to his leg, “Did Matsu say he wanted me to come?” Sona scratched her chin, “Well…no. He doesn’t think you’re the one we’ve been looking for.”
Looking a bit crestfallen, Kale shrugged, “Then maybe I’m not.”
“But I’m sure of it!” Sona interrupted, “You can see the Nariko, right? Then that should be enough. You’re the one we’ve been looking for…and even if you’re not…well, you’d make a damn good spotter anyway!”
Kale shook his head, plucking at the grass.
“Listen,” Sona snapped, irked that he would give up so easily, “At midnight Matsu’s going to be at the little corner gate next to the girl’s dorm room. He doesn’t want to come to the main gates…he’s a bit strange that way. I’m expecting you to meet me there, don’t pack too much because our vans a little cramped as it is.”
Sona sprang to her feet, bubbling with excitement, “I’ll see you tonight.”
Kale watched her bound away with a quirk of a smile tugging at his lips. Why was he left with the feeling that he’d been shoved into something unnatural…and very quickly?
* * *
Kale slid his legs out from under the sheets of his bed; the floor was chilling against his bare feet. Not bothering to find his boots, Kale slowly made his way across the dorm room, taking care not to wake any of the students. The Nariko from the night before had yet to make another appearance, for which Kale was grateful…but he couldn’t help but wonder where the cat-like creature had gone too…
The courtyard was drenched with midnight dew, soaking Kale’s feet as he padded almost silently across the grass. The small burlap sack he’s snagged from the school’s storeroom bumped against his ankles, a constant reminder that he was about to jump into something he wasn’t sure he wanted to get involved with.
Maybe he shouldn’t go. It would be easier to just stay at the Academy, let the government take care of tuition until he was of age. Then he would get a low-end job and live the rest of the life out in a crappy apartment in the ghettos of some big city where no one knew his name. He would ignore the Nariko…and eventually he would die. And it would all end.
Kale wiped a cold hand across his face as he paced the courtyard, possibilities running around his head, the familiar moon watching over him in the dim light. Nearby, a cricket chirped noisily, drowning out the normal silence that usually settled over the moors at midnight.
Chirp. Chirp. Chirp. Chirp…
Kale jumped, spinning around to face the direction the voice had come from. Standing slouched against the stone wall of the courtyard was a gangly boy, no older than eighteen. His smooth brown hair hung in wispy strands around his face, a light halo to circle his smiling green eyes. Though his eyes did smile, his lips did not. They clamped lightly around a cigarette which billowed light blue smoke, translucent against the night sky.
The teenager took a long drag of the cigarette and smiled knowingly, his teeth where straight and clear, “Don’t worry about it,” he said, his voice smooth and light, “I pace too…at times. It’s a great stress reliever…good for solving problems.”
Kale stared at him, his breath fogging the air.
His smile widened as the teen took another drag, “No worries. You don’t have to talk; I’ll do that for both of us. You’re Kale, I presume? An honor,” he bowed his head slightly, “my name…well, you may call me Eli. I hope smoking doesn’t bother you?” The smoke drifted in front of his deep eyes.
Kale shook his head, still not trusting himself to speak.
Eli leaned his head back against the stone, slowly closing his eyes, “I know about you, Kale Oakridoe. I know what you can see.”
“How?” Kale blurted, his heart racing.
Eli glanced at him slowly, his gaze lingering, “We’re not so different. I, too, can see the Nariko…granted, not all the time. I’m afraid your traits are original when it comes to that. But I have a feeling…that we’re alike in many ways more than one.”
Kale shifted his weight to the other foots, his toes going numb in the cold.
“Take, for example,” Eli continued, flinging his wrist distractedly, “Your parents…they died when you were very young, correct? I, too, have lost my parents at a young age…though it was no train wreck that killed them.”
His eyes flashed.
“Don’t get the wrong impression, Oakridoe, I’m not a bad person…simply, misunderstood. Such as you are…and our types, the loners, the exiles…we have to stick together, right? Otherwise, we’ll have no one.”
Eli flicked his cigarette into the grass, watching it simmer against the dew, “I’m here to make you a proposal, Oakridoe. I understand that a certain ‘Sona Black’ has asked your hand in a journey…”
Kale bit his lip, his eyes wary.
Eli shrugged, “Or is about to. I offer the same hand…but granted, a much safer hand. Matsu Oracle, I take it you’ve heard of him before? Yes? Matsu Oracle wishes to use your powers to his advantage…but I’m not like that, am I?”
Relaxing slightly, Kale pressed his lips together, slowly shaking his head.
Eli’s eyes flashed cheerfully, “Exactly. What I am offering you, Kale Oakridoe…is a cure.”
Kale’s stomach dropped.
Eli sensed his surprise and slowly shook his head, a smile playing across his lips, “Yes, I know. But it is true. I’m offering you a cure, Oakridoe. A cure for your curse…I can make it all go away with a simple flick,” he twitched his finger, “of my wrist. All you have to do…is trust me.” Eli extended a spidery white hand and smiled.
Kale stared at Eli’s extended hand, his knees shaking with indecision. A cure. A way to make them disappear. Someone…a friend?
He didn’t move.
Eli paused, his smile slowly fading. “Fine,” Eli shrugged, taking back his hand, “how about this…I’ll give you a few moments of thought. If you wish to rid yourself of the curse forever, meet me at the main gates. If not, I will leave and never return.” He folded his arms over his chest, “Cross my heart.”
Kale nodded, his hands shaking.
“Good,” Eli breathed, nodding slightly. He turned his thin back on Kale and strode away, walking casually and waving to Kale with one hand. Kale watched him leave until he turned the corner of the building. His eyes strayed back to the girl’s dorm tower in the distance.
* * *
The loose gravel of the dirt road crunched softly under Kale’s boots, kicking up midnight dust against the darkening sky. Sona bounded energetically beside him, her face practically glowing at the thought of being reunited with her ‘family’.
“Just wait,” she rambled, throwing well-aimed punches at imaginary adversaries in the road ahead, “you’ll love life as a Hunter. It’s like a great big family, only with awesome fighting and blood…you know, the occasional explosion.”
Kale nodded, only half-listening. His thoughts were on the main gate behind them. He could practically see Eli’s slender form draped against the bars of the gate, his hands folded across his chest, waiting patiently for the arrival he knew would come. A cure. He’d been lying, of course. Kale shivered in the cold…there was no cure.
“…anyway, it’s really not as hard as it looks,” Sona continued, her clenched fists flying out in front of her in a blur, “it’s really all in how you throw your…Look! There they are!”
A large black van rumbled smoothly toward them, a column of dust kicking up behind the off-road wheels. A tiny silver rod stuck up from the front of the roof, spider-webbing across the tinted windows on one side. Kale stepped quickly into the ditch on the side of the road next to Sona as the van slid to a stop, skidding against the gravel.
For a moment, nothing happened, and then the side door slid open.
Matsu Oracle was shorter than Kale had pictured him. A short-sleeved button down shirt that was pale blue masked his bulky chest; his light tan cargo pants were baggy against his squat legs. His head was square and solid, shaved on top to reveal a large black snake slithering across the skin, its head resting just above his eye.
Sona snapped her hands out in front of her and bowed stiffly. Matsu raised his right hand and she straightened up. Kale gritted his teeth…orders.
“You brought the kid?” Matsu said bluntly, as if he’d been expecting it.
Sona twiddled her thumbs innocently, “He’s the one, Matsu! I’m sure of it!”
Matsu folded his arms across his chest, not even glancing at Kale, “You were sure about the one in Peru also. What makes you think this isn’t like all the others?”
Sona stomped her foot, bristling at his comment, “Peru was a mistake! God, I slip up one time and you jump all over me! When are you going to let that go? Listen, he can see the Nariko that much is for certain. And he can see them all the time! What more proof do you need?”
Matsu grunted, finally swiveling his beady eyes to scrutinize Kale, “Can you prove it? I won’t let you in the van unless you can prove you see the Nariko.”
Kale shook his head, shoving his hands in his pockets, “I wouldn’t get in the van anyway,” he said softly, his eyes straying over the roof where the Nariko from the academy sat rigidly, its two tails switching back and forth.
“Why not?” Matsu asked, ignoring Sona’s snort of disbelief.
Kale shook his head, “You really can’t see him?”
“See who?” Matsu snapped, looking pissed.
Kale stared at the Nariko, studying its blood-red eyes with worry, “It’s on your roof…” Matsu spun to face the roof of his van, “I don’t see anything!”
Discouraged that he was the only one that saw, Kale bowed his head, averting his eyes from the cat-like body and glinting eyes.
The Nariko began to growl and pace; it’s needle-like claws padding across the slick van roof in a steady pattern. The tips of its ribs poked out beneath its midnight pelt, dancing across its skin like torture.
“Really, really hungry…”
Eyes flashing, the Nariko became solid, its teeth bared as it lunged for Kale’s exposed throat. The icy claws bit deep into his shoulder, scraping across the skin and leaving razor-thin trails of blood. Kale could almost feel the water from the nightmare lapping at the edges of his boat as the Nariko’s teeth broke through the skin of his neck…
Don’t fall asleep…