The Ember and the Knife by Chris Loblaw by Chris Loblaw - Read Online

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The Ember and the Knife - Chris Loblaw

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real.

Chapter 1: Two Years Ago

The hallway outside Mallory’s dorm room was filled with an unending cacophony of shouting, music and laughter. The excitement of being at university, on their own for the first time, was intoxicating for the students. They ran at full steam from room to room, shouting and joking with their newly made friends. Mallory had felt the same giddy rush for the first few days, but by this point two weeks later, the thrill had gone. Now she grimaced when her flimsy dorm room door closed and failed to block out the noise outside.

Fine, why would I need to study in peace and quiet? Jeez.

Mallory pulled out her textbooks and dug around her nightstand for a pair of earplugs. A knock at the door interrupted her.

Unless you’re the silence fairy, go away she shouted.

Undeterred, the knocker opened the door and strolled in. Mallory couldn’t believe the audacity of the man standing in front of her, with his purposefully dishevelled hair and multiple layers of thin sweaters.

What the hell? I said go away, doofus.

The irritating beanpole of a man flitted his fingertips on his patchy moustaches and goatee before dramatically holding a single finger in front of his lips. He flourished his arms and spun to face the whiteboard hanging on the back of the door. He snatched up the marker and wrote Salutations! It is I, the silence fairy! Come to whisk you away!

Mallory read the note out loud, with as much scorn in her voice as possible. The angular young man with the bad facial hair was unaffected by her derision. He unrolled his long arm and held his hand outstretched towards her. With puppy dog eyes upturned to her, he gestured with his other hand towards the door.

You want me to go with you? I don’t follow rude men with ridiculous names, you know.

The man recoiled in mock horror, clutching his wounded heart. He drew imaginary lines of tears running down his face, until Mallory laughed despite herself.

I figure the only way to get rid of you is to follow you. Is that right?

The man’s head bobbed up and down enthusiastically. Mallory warned him that no funny or grabby stuff was going to happen, and he held up his hand and gave a silent solemn vow. For a second time, she laughed out loud.

Fine. Here’s the deal. I’m bringing my sociology textbook, because I have a lot of reading to do. You will not interrupt it. During my breaks from reading, we might be able to have a conversation, as long as you’re not uncomfortably weird.

The tall man pondered the terms and then nodded in agreement. With hand outstretched again, he waited. Mallory shoved her book into her satchel and grabbed her jacket. She pushed away his hand and shoved him out the door.

They crossed the campus, navigating the seemingly unending stream of students travelling in every direction. The crowds would die down as the day turned into evening, but the time between classes would always see a rush of human bodies hurrying past each other. They left the crowded sidewalks and entered the depths of the Arts and Humanities building. In the murky light of the hallway, the whole building felt empty and abandoned. Weaving his way through narrow side hallways and intermediary classrooms no bigger than closets, the man led Mallory to the backstage of the school’s theatre space.

Mallory sniffed distastefully at the dusty dingy air of the room. She dragged her index finger along the edge of the railing and displayed the thick line of dust that now stuck to her skin. In response, the silent man cupped his hand to his ear and made a show of searching for sound. Mallory brushed the dust off of her hand and sighed.

Alright you win. It’s quiet here.

Permission to speak, milady?

Oh good god don’t pull that ‘milady’ business. You’re weird enough as it is.

The young man grinned with a smile that made his eyes light up. Maybe I’m okay with being weird.

With a name like Gadshill, you better be okay with being weird. Now shut up and let me get some work done.

Gadshill folded his legs up and fell into an awkward sitting position.

As you wish, mila- Mallory.

Chapter 2: Now

The night sky shimmered with the Northern Lights and the first flashes of a meteor shower. Robert was confused by the display and his surroundings. There was no record of the Northern Lights being so clearly seen this far south, and there were no meteor showers expected this night. Slowly he realized that he was asleep and dreaming. He stood on the rooftop of the Old Alexander theatre, just as he had 5 years ago.

It felt like a lifetime ago. Moments before dawn on that day, he had begged the universe for the love of a girl in his class. His latent magical abilities became active and he unknowingly cast a love spell. Far away, two other mages cast their own spells, and all three magical effects had merged to create an uncontrollable magical mess. He had almost been kidnapped by one of those mages, a twisted and scarred man named Herlech Gate. It was only the heroic efforts of his friends Mallory and Kean that had kept Robert from whatever terrible fate Herlech had planned.

The next few years were a chaotic blur of wild adventures. The cross-dimensional rescue of their mentor Heisenberg. The battle with the backlash demon. The search for the pieces of their strange friend Sterling, and another battle with Herlech. The fights had taken their toll on all of them. By the end, Mallory had gotten tired of all the abnormal stuff in her life, and she walked away from the group. That was two years ago.

Robert missed Mallory, but nowhere near as much as Kean did. They were best friends, though something had happened between them right before she left that made Robert wonder if they were still as close as they had been. Kean still didn’t want to talk about it, so Robert had left it alone.

So why am I here on the roof again? Robert said to the stars. He wanted this to be a regular dream. When he dreamt like a normal person, it was a harmless vision of make believe things, and he was just along for the ride. He knew it wasn’t a regular dream when his grandmother appeared and sat down in a plush red velvet armchair with dark wooden arms and a high back.

Ni hao Wai Po. It’s been a long time since you’ve visited. Only the second visit since your funeral.

Robert’s grandmother ignored his greeting and looked up into the sky full of light.

Tsk. Poor Moon, hidden by all these garish displays. No one is where they should be. The light has no end, and it creeps into every space it can. Too much sun.

I don’t think the Northern Lights have anything to do with the sun, Wai Po.

Don’t be so literal, Robert. All light comes from Father Sun, and dark from Mother Moon. I’m sorry for the sadness that’s coming, grandson.

What…what do you mean? Robert asked. But deep down, he knew. He knew before his mom came into view and took the seat next to his Wai Po.

Oh, mom. Oh no. I should have been there. I need to wake up.

Robert’s mother reached up and put a hand on his arm.

Quiet my love. Stay with me for a moment. There’s no need to rush off. And nothing can be changed. Here, sit with me like we used to.

Robert’s mom pulled him into her arms and onto her lap. The dream accommodated his size and let him sit in his mother’s lap despite being a full foot taller than her. Her arms embraced him with strength and warmth.

It’s nice to feel you like you used to be. Before you got so sick. You were so sick, mom.

I know honey, I was there she said with a laugh.

I’m sorry I couldn’t save you, mom. Robert barely finished speaking before losing his voice to tears and sadness.

Robert’s mom rocked him gently as he cried. A moment passed, and then Wai Po reached over and gave Robert a quick, small slap on the cheek.

Enough foolishness! We live, we get sick, and we die. Not your fault. Spend your tears in celebration of your mommy, not feeling so bad for yourself. She loves you with all her heart. That will not change. It will stay with you for every step of your life.

Ow! No hitting, Wai Po.

Give my boy some time to be sad, okay? But your grandmother is right, Robert. I will love you for every minute of your entire life. I will look down from heaven and smile to you, whenever you need to know that you are loved.

Though the gates are closed and we all just wait for heaven Wai Po murmured.

And Robert, honey, I need you to make the most of those minutes. I know you live a quiet life of reflection, but you have to go out into the world. Tell your friends that you care for them and show it. Find love. Take chances. Be alive. I wanted to run for so many years, Robert. But my illness wouldn’t let me. Feel the wind rush past your face as you gasp for air and dash down a hill. Laugh at the funny things. Cry at the sad things. Be the man that I know you can be. And love yourself like I love you. Please.

They sat for what felt like hours, curled up in the chair while holding each other. Finally, Robert’s mom gave him a kiss on the cheek and stood up.

I have to go now, Robert. I love you.

I love you too, mom.

Remember what I asked?

I will. I’ll do my best.

That’s my angel.

Robert’s mom caressed his cheek one last time and faded away.

Are you leaving too, Wai Po? Will mom visit me again in the future?

It is hard to say, Robert. She should be at rest now. But the doors are closed. Your mother will wait. We all wait. Some get lost in the waiting. There is more sadness than one woman’s passing to come, Robert. You need to be strong.

Robert was about to ask another question when his grandmother looked off into the distant sky. Her face went rigid and her eyes turned slate grey.

Someone is calling the dead, and they cannot refuse him.

Chapter 3

The clinical tiled room was dim despite the bright fluorescent glow from the overhanging lights. The only spot that was fully lit was the hospital table directly in the middle of the room. The powerful spotlight above dispersed any shadow from the ground below, sending the murky darkness to fill the rest of the room. Strapped to the table was a young man with the widest smile on his face imaginable. Around the edge of the room were half a dozen people. Some murmured in low consultation with each other, while others stood stiff at attention with their eyes trained on the restrained boy.

General Regine Lemoreux stood beside the door and stared fixedly at the wall clock as the seconds ticked by. The minute hand crossed the twelve and it was now 11PM.

Tell me again how certain you are that this will work.

From the opposite corner, Herlech Gate slouched forward and shrugged. His body was perpetually twisted by pain into a jumble of parts.

What guarantees do you want from your ‘sideshow freak’ of an advisor? That’s the charming name your flunkies have given me, by the way. And you have barely believed any of what I’ve told you, so I haven’t the foggiest on what will assuage your doubts. There is precious little more that I could even attempt to explain, without losing the connection I have myself. I say it will work, and it will. You will have to make do with that. This boy has a peculiar talent that should allow him to enter into the extra-dimensional space and use it to travel to the Nexus.

Do not call that monster a ‘boy’.

Aw come on, General. Don’t I look like a boy in the prime of my life? the grinning kid said.

General Regine took a step away from the table, jamming herself back against the wall. She balled her fists tightly as she fought to remain calm. Regine let the silence in the room build as she made a show of checking the time again and reviewing the notes on her tablet. When she was perfectly composed again, she replied.

I have had enough of your games, Richard. Everyone in this room is aware of your unique medical condition. Your condition may make you look like a 10 year old boy, not the 30 year old psychopath that you are, but we know that your appearance lies. If it were up to me, I would have left you rotting in that cell for the rest of your natural life, as sentenced by the courts. Personally, I would love to see the last 40 years of your life slip away in isolation. That’s five years to reflect on each person you murdered. Let their ghosts keep you company.

But the dead do keep me company. They’re such fun.

Regine clenched her jaw and resisted the urge to strike the prisoner. The guard to the left of the bed had reached his breaking point and lurched over to wrap his hands around Richard’s throat. He pressed against Richard’s windpipe until his face began to turn purple, ignoring the order to stand down. With a weary wave, Herlech interceded.

You need to stop that man if you still intend to use him as the sapper.

Regine was already in motion as Herlech spoke. She slipped between the prisoner and the guard with speed and efficiency, finishing her movement with a flurry of quick strikes and grapples that removed the guard’s hands from the prisoner’s throats and immobilized the guard on the floor. She handed the neutralized assailant off to another guard.

I understand your anger, Corporal, but we must abide by the rules of war. You’ll be spending the night in lock-up. Take him away.

I’m curious, Gate. Why did you believe that he needed to be saved from the guard? Dead is dead. The method is irrelevant, no?

Herlech shrugged again. Perhaps. Or perhaps the emotional trauma of being throttled would distract him from his journey and he would get lost. Or maybe he’d enjoy being murdered in front of you by one of your underlings, enjoying it to the point that he does not want to leave. Either would compromise your goal.

Richard gasped and wheezed as he nodded in agreement.

That was harsh. But the burned up lizard man is right, it was also very arousing. There’s something about that struggle, isn’t there, General? Having someone fighting for their life at the end of your hand, desperate for release from your grip, but all you do is squeeze tighter, and tighter and-

ENOUGH! bellowed Regine.

As a military officer I would have expected you to be immune to the upset of atrocity.

I serve my country, Mr. Gate, and I have done everything asked of me in that service, but I do not commit cold blooded murder. Killing does not bring me pleasure. Though this may be the one exception to that rule.

General, we need him to be cooperative. No one else can travel the way he will, and without that new path we are at an end. The void between worlds is violently hostile. You have lost every unit that has attempted to breach it. The Broken who power the traversal juggernauts are a precious commodity, and we cannot afford to lose any others. We must strengthen the splinter reality under our control, the one you’ve appointed as the ‘staging ground’ and create the entry points to the core realities not under your control. This ‘monster’ as you have described him, is the only tool at your disposal to open a link between the staging ground and the Nexus reality, my home reality. He is, regrettably, necessary.

Regine stepped away from the table and wiped her hands clean with a look of disgust on her face. Why can’t I send you?

I’m not…suited for this kind of event. My gifts do not allow what his gifts let him do. I have done all that I can to prepare this. He must continue from here.

Quite a temper that fella had, eh Missus? Bravo to him. Though, I have to apologize for fibbing. I never actually killed anyone with my bare hands. I mean, look at me. Who am I gonna choke out with these tiny mitts?

Your court confession says otherwise.

Oh I am responsible for those deaths, don’t you worry about that. I’m just saying, I never did the killing myself. It’s really amazing what the haunted mind will allow when push comes to shove. All I did was provide the necessary pushing. Find a weak spot and push, push, push.

The room fell silent. Regine stepped towards the steel door and gestured for Herlech to follow her. They went into the adjoining office and Regine shut the door to make sure their conversation was private.

There is no other way to connect with the Nexus reality?

No, General, not that I can suss out. Blunt force against the barrier between your reality, this reality, and the void has been unsuccessful, while the portal to the staging ground has been relatively stable.

Is there any way to make that portal safer? We’re still losing every 10th soldier who goes through.

Herlech shook his head. The portal shouldn’t even work as it is. I am surprised, frankly, that it hasn’t snapped closed with a horrifying blast of redistributive energy. A credit to your science team for creating the stabilizers, General. Those resonators are adding just enough stability to the portal to keep it functional. Not that it has done us any good in breaking through to Nexus. Which leads us to where we are now.

The questions from the science team are never-ending and they never seem satisfied with a partial answer. All of this is above my head, with a fair bit of nonsense thrown in. If I hadn’t seen you pop through the portal I would not have believed it.

It’s best for us all if we leave the details to the unknown.

That’s not how I operate. Secrets cause disasters. We lost billions of lives due to secretive scientists and shadowy organizations. I will not allow such atrocities to reoccur. If all of these alternate realities exist as you say they do, each holds the potential to undo us all. There could be dozens, hundreds, of alternate worlds with their own invading force at the ready. The only path to security is to control the access point and keep our world safe.

Regine paced the length of the tiny office at an aggressive pace. Herlech lowered his eyes and rubbed his throbbing temples.

Your world, Ma’am, not mine. Mine is the one you need to conquer next, remember? It has the distinction of being most closely connected to the other core realities.

How do you know that?

Through the extremely painful glory of the lord, General.

Regine rolled her eyes. Ah yes. Your ‘sun god’. How is the old fellow?

Angry. Hungry.

Well, keep your worshipping to your own time. Walk me through the steps, then. How are we going to connect the staging grounds to Nexus?

Herlech sighed and slumped into the lone chair in the office. He took a sip out of the mug in front of him and winced.

Terrible coffee. Cold, too. I suppose it must do. The subject has a particular ability to interact with the residual energy left over when a human being dies.

Ghosts.

If we must use such florid language, then yes. But let’s stay to a more technical tone. That energy lingers and gathers in an extradimensional space that touches each and every reality. Normally, if one can use such a word anymore, travel is decidedly one way to that space. What we hope to do is send unpleasant Richard through that extradimensional space to the edge of the Nexus reality. He will attune himself to the human who most closely matches him in my reality, and manifest as that human’s new consciousness. This is so close to unsupported speculation that failure is likely, as I keep saying.

In the absence of a better plan, this one will have to work. Continue.

Once he has manifested in Nexus, he will use his inherent abilities to find a way to weaken the barrier between Nexus and the staging ground, while we weaken it from the other side. The combined force creates a rift, which your machines strengthen, and we launch an assault on the central hub.

What resistance can we expect?

Handful of mages. Excuse me, I meant ‘quantum probability manipulators’. Two of them are young, strong and determined, with a group of lesser support staff.

Anything that a fast strike team can’t handle?

No, I suppose not.

And when we control the Nexus, we can reach all of the others?

If that can happen anywhere, it is there.

Regine nodded and left the room with Herlech shuffling along behind. As she marched into the operating room she took a deep breath and stood as straight as an arrow.

Doctor, all the preparations are in order?

Yes, General.

Richard Malhouse, you have been given the opportunity to commute your permanent incarceration sentence. In exchange for your participation in this project, your sentence will be commuted from lifetime incarceration in a military high security facility, to exile. Your assignment will be to align yourself with the target area, infiltrate, and create an entry point to that area from the staging ground. On successful completion of your work, you will be given full and free access to one of the alternate areas, with clear instructions to never return here or to any of the core areas. You have signed the official documentation to this effect. To proceed, we need your verbal acknowledgement.

They waited for the small man on the table to respond. Seconds ticked away as everyone else shuffled nervously. The sound of the clock ticking away seemed to amplify and fill the room. Finally, Richard Malhouse cleared his throat and smiled again.

Okey doke. I mean, ‘yes ma’am, I agree and acknowledge this deal’. Time to punch my ticket, Doc.

The doctor came to the edge of the table with a syringe in his hand.

I would like to note for the record that I strenuously object to this course of action the doctor said with a nervous warble in his voice.

Exception noted. National security demands extraordinary actions, Doctor. Proceed.

The doctor made eye contact with General Lemoreux, then nodded. He slipped the needle of the syringe into the injection site and pressed the plunger. Seconds later, the toxin took affect and Richard’s heart stopped. The doctor leaned in to examine Richard. After taking several measurements, the doctor straightened up and looked at the clock.

Time of death is 11:11PM.

Chapter 4

Kean found himself staring at the church’s stucco ceiling as the mass droned on. He was trying to pay full attention to the sermon being given by the Catholic priest, but he was not used to the length and dull ritual complexity of a Catholic ceremony. He bit his lip to bring his focus back to where it should be, his grieving friend Robert.

Robert wasn’t showing any outward display of emotion, but that was typical for the introverted young man. Kean knew his friend was sadder than he had ever been before, but it barely flickered across his face. Robert had warned them that the mass wasn’t specifically being held to honour his mom.

Just so you know, this is a regular evening mass. Father Jacob will mention my mother in the requiem section, but the rest is a traditional mass. Which can take a while. There’s a lot of position changing too. Sit down, kneel, stand up, kneel, stand, shake hands with your neighbour, and so on. And when communion time comes, do not go up unless you’re really certain you want to, and you’ve been baptized and given your first confession. Other than that, there’s not much to know. After it’s done I have to talk to a few people, I think. Then we go to the funeral home for the memorial. My mom was cremated, so there’s just an urn, with pictures of my mom around it. She wanted to have her ashes spread in the lake at Nottawasaga Bay, so we will get in the car and drive up there after the memorial.

Robert had spoken in a non-stop stream. No one had a chance to interrupt him, though they had no idea what they would say if they did stop him. Robert had looked at all 3 people in front of him: Kean, Heisenberg and a space apart from the rest, Mallory. A look of panic had overcome his face and suddenly he had burst into uncontrollable weeping. Mallory had stepped forward and guided Robert to a quiet spot beside St. Justin’s church to give him space. Eventually he had calmed down enough to talk again.

It’s just…I had it under control. I really did. But then I realized, I had no idea who was going to drive me up there. I don’t have a car or a license. I never thought I needed one. And now, I need it and I can’t…

He had trailed off as the upset feeling returned. Mallory had put her arms around him in a fearsomely protective hug and grabbed his attention.

You’re as brave as a lion and kinder than anyone knows. This is harder than one person can tolerate. We’ll get you there. We love you Robert, and it’s okay to fall apart. We’ll keep watch over you.

The intensity and sincerity of Mallory’s words had brought Robert enough comfort that he could nod and calmly enter the church. Now they sat still, with no trace of the earlier grief showing in Robert’s demeanor. The only outward sign returning to Robert’s face was a silent stream of tears when Father Justin had spoken the names of the deceased and asked the congregation to pray for their souls.

As the parishioners filed out and Robert spoke quietly with the priest, Mallory and Kean stood awkwardly apart from each other, each tracing the lines of the wooden statuary with their eyes over and over again.

I thought Catholic churches were, I dunno, fancier than this Kean said.

They can’t all be St. Peter’s Basilica, my boy.

I don’t know what that is.

Do they teach nothing of prominent architecture in the schools these days? Notre Dame? Westminster Abbey? Any of those names seem familiar?

We’re not Catholics, Heisenberg. Lay off.

Heisenberg turned to give Mallory a response but paused when he saw the anger on her face.

"My apologies, Kean. I unintentionally spoke with a tone of hostility. The stress of the occasion, I suppose. What I meant was that each church represents the ideals and esthetics of the congregation at the time of the