The Osiris Report

Ian Kenny

Dear Reader, Well how about this! After almost two years of stopping and starting, beginning and ending, and ripping out my hair and trying desperately to cobble together anything that might resemble a book, here we finally are. This whole endeavour began as an attempt to write a short prequel to the book I actually wanted to write—but somewhere along the way it all got out of hand. Over the course of writing, the plot of this book has changed constantly, the characters have been altered and modified and mercilessly pulled in different directions-scenes that were integral have been abandoned, and scenes that were inconsequential have been elevated. Furthermore, the story has evolved chaotically, and often without regard to what has been previously written. The result of this is a book that is, in places, strange, random, long-winded, shortwinded, poorly explained, and over-explained. I have spent the last three months editing the heck out of it to try and bring it into a readable state, and most of these problems have been ironed out, but there are still plenty of parts that I know could be improved. Don't get me wrong--there are also parts, particularly in the later chapters, that I am very proud to have written. I also want to say that I am under no illusions about the quality of my writing. I have written a lot of poetry but this is my first attempt at writing verse. To this end I would be greatly appreciative of any feedback anyone wishes to give. I am particularly interested in the more general feedback relating to my pacing, writing style, readability, dialogue, characterisation and other things that will assist me going forward. I understand that oftentimes people will ask for feedback hoping to receive slovenly praise, and recoil at actual criticism. I am not emotionally attached to this work—for me it was purely practice. I want to improve and will not feel offended by any feedback I receive. Thank you for enduring my ramblings. Ian P.S. I know I have overused both the em-dash (--) and the oxford comma (, and). I just couldn't help myself.

Prologue Everything was white Leon lay motionless for a few seconds in the spot he had awoken, trying to blink his vision clear. A blanket of nothingness prevailed. Where...where am I? His eyes lazed back and forth, searching for something that might spark a fuse of recognition. The totality of the emptiness was unmoved. At every point he looked to there was nothing but the whiteness—a soft, untextured, impenetrable white. He tried to run his mind over the steps that had brought him here but his brain felt like two-week-old pizza and his thoughts were moving even slower than his eyes. Ok, start with the basics—I’m awake. I don’t think I was awake a second ago. So…I must have been asleep. Where did I go to sleep then? He moved his fingers slightly, tracing the tips over the surface below him for details of texture or familiarity. It’s solid—too hard to be a mattress. So that means I’m not in a bed or on a couch...right? What is it then? He rubbed the surface some more, pushing his fingers into divots and cracks. He stopped when he came to some small round bumps. And these? What are these? There’s four of them. They feel like metal. His mind drifted, hazy as the air that surrounded him. It felt like he was drunk, or maybe in a dream—only not as good as either. Everything seemed to be going slower than it should have been. Four bits of metal… In the distance he could just make out a sound—like a truck reversing or of someone humming. The notes were slow and methodical, not changing or progressing, yet they sounded somewhat muted, as if strangled by the whiteness. Four bits of metal… Eventually the thought slotted into place. Nails... And what do you use nails for? Wood. But, no, that doesn’t make sense. Wood is flooring. Why would I be on the floor? A voice in his head began queueing these essential questions. It came as Mr Drew, his geriatric English teacher. At once he felt as though he was in the classroom, waiting for attendance to be taken. 'Alright everyone, roll call. Leon? Leon Wheeler?' Yes. Here. I am Leon Wheeler. 'Well, well, well. How surprising! Good of you to show up today! You were absent two days last week, I see. I suppose you think you can cut class just because you’re fifteen, do you?' Sixteen, sir. 'Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, you’re all still little children playing grown-ups. I mean look at you! Just take at look at you! Where on earth do you think are you, Mr Wheeler?' I’m… Well, I’m not sure, sir. I think I’m on a floor… 'Typical! Just Typical! And why are you on the floor, Mr Wheeler? And, goodness gracious where is your vision, boy?' I don’t know, sir. A dog ate my vision..? 'Good heavens. You would forget your teeth if they weren’t glued into your mouth, wouldn’t you?' Yes, sir.

'Very well then, I want a full report on these unanswered factors by first thing tomorrow. Dismissed!' Leon blinked again, returning from his cranial classroom back to the hardwood floor. Maybe I should move? Would that help? After a few moments dwelling on the possibility of action he finally decided to prop himself up. He instantly felt the stiffness in his arms and shoulders. Every muscled ached as if it had individually lifted a fridge, but he didn’t remember doing anything which would have caused it. Just as he was about to push through the aches and pull himself up to his feet the small hum in the background began to sharpen. Like an approaching plane the distance of its noise shortened until it became louder. Then blaring. Then piercing. All at once the sound was a terrible whine, ripping his ears out with a high pitched, banshee wail. What the hell? Immediately the fog was torn from his head. The all-surrounding whiteness was no longer calm, but billowed and churned violently—tearing at his eyes like an over-chlorinated swimming pool. The air burned, scalding his throat from tongue to oesophagus as he gagged on the fumes. His lungs felt full to bursting, yet totally empty--like he was drowning on nothing. Each breath he tried to inhale was thicker and more airless than the last, making him wheeze uncontrollably and gasp the toxic clouds even deeper into his lungs. What is happening!? He pawed at the floor desperately, searching for anything that might help. It was covered in rubble. Common, there must be something here! What abo—Ahh! The gash tore deep between his index and middle fingers. He felt the blood cascaded down his wrist. The wound throbbed all up his arm and deep into his head. In heaving motions, still unable to breath, he dragged himself up to his feet and staggered around lamely in the blindness--waving his gangly arms in front of him trying to clear even the smallest patch from his eyes and mouth. His lungs screamed at him for help, but there was nothing he could do. He stumbled over the debris, realising too late that he was barefoot. The razor edge scythed another wound into the bottom of his foot. What is going on!? I have to get out! I have to... Leon paused in panic. Through the thickness of the fumes and sting in his eyes he could just see a glow—blushing the distant edge of the whiteness a pale orange. At the same time he felt the heat from the same direction—screaming of a furious, inhuman power. The realisation came like a smack to the face. Leon still had no idea where he was, or how he had gotten there, but he suddenly knew what was happening. The piercing sound was an alarm. The whiteness all around him was smoke... And I’m in the middle of an inferno.

Earlier that day Leon's messy black hair curled under his right ear, where it was currently being used as a pillow against the hard wood of his school desk. Brief mutterings on scientific theory drawled in the background as his eyesight hovered over the face of the most beautiful girl in the history of the human race. Her brown hair hung like a silk scarf around her neck and down the ample, natural curves that rounded out from her chest and hips. Her face was like a portrait—flawless and expressive without the need for all the caked on make-up that most girls covered themselves in. And her eyes, oh god her eyes! They were brown--not in the single, mono-hue emptiness of so many others, but flared and speckled with the million varied colours of an autumn forest. They shone out like flares at midnight against her naturally warmer skin tone—guiding him to a place that was safe and hot and wreathed in the scent of jasmine and rose. Her name was Jade Dansel. And with every fibre of his being and with every ounce of his soul he knew that he loved her more than any person possibly could. She was the Juliet to his Romeo; Isolde to his Tristan. She was the muse that sketched a thousand lines upon canvas and willed greater males to pen the epic poems. Hardly a moment passed when he didn't think of her. However, amongst his sweeping teenage adoration was one small problem: In sixteen years he had lived in Barrington—a grey, industrial town an hour north of Capital City--he had never plucked up the courage to actually speak to her. For almost half of this time she had lived only two doors down from his own, and still she had never spoken to her. He wasn't even sure if she had actually ever looked at him. Every single morning for as long as he could remember he had waited on his porch for her to stroll past his fence, like an angel of suburbia. An angel who came, illuminated the world, and then vanished, without so much as a touch. But, Leon thought with a small smile, running his fingers absent-mindedly over his diary, in two weeks all of that will change. In two weeks it will all be better... The thought quickened the pace of his heart. A wry smile broke across his face as he looked across the room, into her astounding beauty, and imagined the things that he would say in that moment. The things he would finally do to get her to notice hi-‘—Mr Wheeler!’ The voice shattered his pleasant daydream and hurled him back into the real world. At the front of the classroom the teacher, Mr Grate, was looking down his long, red nose expectantly. So, he soon realised, was everyone else in the classroom--twenty sets of inquisitive eyes boring into him like a pneumatic drill. ‘Yes…’ Leon muttered, uncertainly. A few people in the back of the room giggled. He could already feel his face getting hot from the attention. ‘So nice of you to stop by, Mr Wheeler. And the answer would be..?’ ‘Oh. Ummm…’ Leon fondled the pages in front of him for an answer he knew he didn’t have. Scrawled all over the paper were drawings of dragons and swords, sketches of his little daydreams, half doodled cartoons with a safe falling onto a football player’s head, and little well-shaded hearts, filled with the name of the girl he was too lame to even talk to. There was nothing to help him in the book. He was on his own. His mind drew a total blank.

‘Well?’ Mr Grate asked calmly, with the voice of someone who had taught mid-teens for the majority of their life. ‘Ummm…’ God, they're still looking at me. All of them! Oh, why don’t you all just read a book or something? I’m surely not that entertaining! Okay now, quickly, quickly. The teacher is Mr Grate so it’s either Physics or Chemistry. I've got him for both. Alright then, what time is it? He looked up at the clock. It was 9:30 a.m. He looked back down to the book of scribbled pages and thought for a second. Right... Now what day is it? Crap! Okay, just say something. Anything to make him move on. ‘Ummm…’ ‘Sir! Sir!’ came a voice to his right. ‘Can we send him to the Principal's office, sir? He’s negatively affecting the learning environment. And some of us are here to learn!’ Leon didn’t need to turn around to see who had spoken—he knew it instantly. If there was a single inhibiting factor to the life of love and happiness he was destined to enjoy with Jade, apart of course from his inability to actually speak to her, then this was its voice. It had come from Daniel McClain, a monstrous boy who was, technically, Jade's boyfriend. Leon exhaled slowly, still feeling the sting of the attention upon him. Normally he would have just palmed off the comments and said nothing—laid low and sullenly brewed a comeback in his head. That was what he had done for the last three years when confronted by the obligatory high-school meat heads. But now he looked up and was immediately confronted with eyes like autumn trees. Oh God...she’s actually looking at me! Jade Dansel was looking at him. For the first time in his entire life she knew that he was alive. He knew he had to say something in his defence. ‘Oh, piss off Dan, like anything could help you take classwork in!’ Leon half-spat halfmumbled under his breath, doing his best impression of toughness. Some other boys in the front row 'Oooed' melodramatically and then reverted to that dull gorilla-snort that suggested a few rungs regression on the evolutionary chain. ‘Oh did you hear that, sir, now he’s using foul language,' shot back Daniel. 'I mean, that is just awful. First he ruins our class, and then he uses foul language. Some of us have a sense of property about things like this!’ Leon looked up instinctively and eye-balled the massive boy. ‘It’s propriety you dumb-arse. If you’re going to have a pitch at least line up shots you can actually hit.’ Daniel’s perfect, square face looked Leon over for a moment, and then cracked into a wide grin, clearly loving the rise he was getting out his normally quiet classmate. ‘Oh! And now he’s talking about sport, sir. That’s inappropriate as well. This is a Physics class. Did you realise that, spotty? Phy-sics! And besides, everyone knows that greasy here is a queer, and queer’s don’t even watch sport. Except for the hope of a bit of pants slip.’ Leon knew that he was digging himself into a hole, and if it had been in any other situation, in front of any other person, he would have just left it at that--realising that his responsiveness was what the boy craved. But now he could see those beautiful eyes on him, assessing his manliness, his willingness to not be a punching bag. Eyes that had never paid him any attention were now weighing up his worth. ‘Yeah?' Leon said with as much volume as he could muster. 'Is that why you spend so much of your free time in the showers with other guys is it?’ ‘Least when I get in there I’ve got something to show!’ ‘What? You been having a good look at everyone else have you?!’

Their voices had climbed up into a yell. The faces of the rest of the class were following their barbs back and forth like a tennis match. Daniel rose to his feet. ‘Some of us don’t have to search for it! I know you have to have a really good look just to find yours--it’s so tiny.’ The athletic boy mimed pulling out a magnifying glass and looked down at his crotch—zooming the invisible tool back and forth quickly between eye and stomach. ‘Where is it!? Oh God where did it go!?’ ‘Yes. Thank you,‘ Mr Grate interjected with a tone of defeated nonchalance. ‘If we could all return to adulthood that would be wonderful. And the correct answer would have been 12, Mr Wheeler. Basic following of Doyle’s Law would have given that number to you. Any time you’d like to join us here full-time would be appreciated. Most of us will be here for the next—’ the teacher looked down at his watch, ‘—two years, or so.’ The primates in the back corner sniggered again loudly . ‘—And while you’re with us, Mr McClain!’ the teacher continued, ‘and seeing as you’re so desperate to have your voice heard, perhaps you would help us out with the answer to question seven?’ Without skipping a beat the boy looked over unsubtly at Jade's workbook and traced his fingers down the page until he found what he was looking for. ‘Point seven five partial pressure, sir,’ he said smugly. ‘I’m sure even greasy here could have got that one.’ ‘Yes, thank you, Mr McClain,’ the teacher breathed with a faint sigh. ‘A brilliant solution as usual. I’m so glad to see that all of Ms Dansel’s hard work is rubbing off on you.’ A thick, stupid smile beamed from Daniels face. He leaned over to the other gorilla sized boys and loudly whispered, ‘Actually...I’m rubbing my work off on her!’ The girl slapped him hard across the arm, which barely registered on his massive body. ‘Not tonight you’re not!’ she retorted with a slight flick of her long, brown hair and a turn towards a group of four girls sitting opposite. The room had long just bordered on control, and this final comment pushed it over the edge. The room erupted into hormonal cat calls, whooping female ‘Go Girls!’ and male calls of ‘Burned!’. Without even raising his voice to try and regain the rooms composure Mr Grate sat down at his desk, picked up his coffee mug and reclined back in his leather chair. Leon’s ears were deaf to the noise going on all around him—all of his focus was on Jade. As he took in the air of confidence, the poses to the other girls, the comically exaggerated looks of shock and dismay, he couldn’t help think that amongst the smiles and laughs and finger snapping, that maybe, deep down, somewhere beneath the surface...there was a sadness in her eyes. 2 Leon took a cigarette from the crumpled white packet and lit it—drawing the hot death deep into his lungs. For long moments he stared out into the middle distance of the empty park, thinking about what had happened just a few short hours earlier. That monkey! That stupid Neanderthal! He didn’t have to say anything! He didn’t have to say a bloody thing! He could have just sat there. He could have just paid me no attention. He could have just carried on with his perfect little life and pretended that Leon 'Spotty' Wheeler didn’t even exist. What did he have to gain from that? He didn’t have anyone to impress. He's Daniel McClain--he doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone. He already has it all! The looks, the body, the girl…

'Damn! The girl!' The one time since he'd moved here that she was looking at him and it had been while was making an absolute fool of himself. While he looked like the worthless jackass that he actually was. While he was being owned by that moron. Jesus Christ… What on earth does she see in that pig? What did he have? Why can’t she see that she is so much better than him? All the boys in his grade know that Daniel doesn’t treat her right. Leon reflected on the things that he had heard Daniel say--what he did when she thought he was at football practice, about all the ways he messed around behind her back. The cheerleaders that sucked him off in the showers after almost every single game; the three-ways with sisters and mothers and friends and randoms; the desperate junior girls that he took around the bleachers one day to ‘initiate’; the other players that shared their girlfriends around like snacks and kept asking loudly after gym when he was going to liquor Jade up and drag her to a party so they could all have a ‘proper celebration’; and every single day, when he would detail graphically to anyone that would listen the things that he and Jade had done last she was a whore! Like she was just a piece of meat that he had pounded and fried-up and swallowed and thrown away… Leon sighed. How did it work out that some people—people who don’t deserve even a tenth of the good fortune that they have—get to wake up every day and look in a mirror, and see a perfect face, look down at their body and see the perfect shape, pack their bags with books filled with perfect answers, go down to breakfast with a perfect family, get into their perfect car wearing perfect clothes, go to school with their perfect group of perfect friends and sit down every single day next to their perfect girlfriend? Leon stared out through the wreathing tendrils of smoke that were collecting around his face. Some people--the Daniel McClains of the world—had everything. Everything in the entire world that they could possibly want. And what do I have? A greasy face, a predilection for imagining stupid, childish fantasy stuff with dragons and magic and junk, the body of an African famine victim, a mum who probably doesn’t even know what grade I’m in, and an average-at-best cock that’s never so much as gotten close to the body of a girl. Leon took another deep drag on the cigarette and sighed on the smoke once more. In his more objective moments he knew that he wasn’t actually unattractive. Yes, he was thin, and his nose was a bit big, and he had a few spots here-and-there, and his hair was black and curly and never seemed to do what he wanted it to, but deep down he knew that he wasn’t that bad to look at. His aunts and uncles had always said when he was younger, ‘That boy is going to be a real looker, you know. A real heartbreaker!’ Not that that was doing him a fat lot of good right now though. Not when everyday he had to walk amongst people who were better than him in so many ways. He looked at his watch. 12:13--he had half an hour before he had to be back at school, two blocks over from the silent park he was sitting in. This park and the school's football field were the only greenery in the entire town, and no matter how soon he rushed off, or how quickly he got here—to the place that he had his lightable lunch almost every single day—it just never seemed like it was long enough. Before he knew it the brief seconds of freedom had always drifted away. The line of trees at the edge of the park swayed gently in the breeze. To his right was a low of identical houses—dull and colourless They were the sort of uniform architecture born of lazy estate housing. In his eyes, however, their plainness didn't last long. As if a page in a colouring book, the boring space was gradually filled with something more interesting. Out of the hidden edges of his eyesight appeared an a frenzy of movement

on top of the shingled rooftops. One man in black, another all in blue, traded swift blows back and forth. His eyes watched the empty space as his mind filled it with the battle. Nimble feet danced across the tiles as the cloaked men dodged the thrusts and kicks that flew just a few inches from their heads. One reached down and grabbed a fist full of the ceramic slate squares—rifling them off in front of him. The other jumped into the air, defying gravity as he tiptoed across the flying tiles in mid-air and dove in a high spinning back-kick, projecting his opponent three hundred metres up into the air and out of sight altogether. Leon stared blankly at the space for a while. Suddenly he snapped back into the real world and yelped with pain. The cigarette in his hand had burned down the the filter. He put his finger into his mouth and cursed himself. If there was one thing he hated about himself more than anything else, it was this. Leon was a dreamer—not in the sense that he could envision hopes and dreams of a better world, but that he would drift off at the stroke of nothing into a daydream. When he was younger it had been a positive advantage. It had been him that constructed the grand settings for the endless summers—the pirate ships and soldiers going to war. He was always in demand, sweeping his circle of friends up in the wide, imaginative realm that he could create. Even just a few years ago he had kept them all enthralled at sleep overs with stories he would create on the spot, telling the tales of magical heroes on quests to save the world. At some point, however, the trait that had once born him so many friends had become a burden. What used to be imagination was now immaturity. What used to be creativity was now laziness. The day-dreams that he found himself drifting away to whenever he was bored were now laced in childishness and self loathing. No-one wanted to talk about dragons and swords when they discovered girls—and there were few bigger girl repellants than conversations about how cool it would be if magic existed. Leon spat onto the grass. Magic... That is the worst one of them all. If there is any one idea that better sums up childhood and immaturity it is that! Magic was the hope that all of the problems in the world could just be swept away. It was the desire to be powerful when you weren't, succeed when you shouldn't, and rise up to the top when you belonged at the bottom. It would be a perfect solution, wouldn't it? If magic existed then he could make Daniel disappear, impress Jade, make himself more handsome, and richer, and famous, and powerful, and then everything would be how it was supposed to be. But all of that was just childish hope wasn't it? Magic didn't make you a man. And no matter how much he daydreamed about magic wasn't going to get him Jade. As if on cue the image of her face filled his mind. It came with a picture of a redcircled date, two weeks from now. In two weeks it would all get better. In two weeks he was going to be one on one with Ethics class! Ethics was the only other class he shared with Jade, and while the subject matter didn't really appeal to him, the format did. This session was focused on collaborative debates between groups of four, which their teacher had drawn up on a rotation. Every week they were assigned a new partner and given one hour to prepare their arguments. And in just two weeks time, after months of having to work with idiots, his pairing was going to be Jade. Leon smiled to himself. In two weeks time it wouldn't matter how pathetic and terrified he was of striking up a conversation with her. On that day he'd have an entire hour alone with her—just the two of them. He could even prepare what he would say if he wanted too. He could write jokes and stories in advance that would show her how well they would work together. And then...maybe today wouldn't matter? Maybe it wouldn't be a problem that he

was made to look like a moron. In that hour with her, he could make everything all right. Flashbacks played in his head of her previous speeches, the ones that showed she wasn't just beautiful but smart and feisty and caring. Every lesson he would sit at the back of the room and watch as the beautiful, dark-featured girl deconstructed a case for war, or argued the plight of the downtrodden, or took issue with the intrusion of the government upon civil liberties or, in one amazing ‘students ideas’ lesson had to demand that marriage should be replaced with polyamory—where everyone should be allowed to pair off with whoever they wanted, whenever they wanted. Now that had been worth leaving home for! He had sat there like a scrawny little pervert with a total hard-on throughout her presentation—watching her plump, peach lips word these salacious ideas and imagining that she was saying them to him, and him alone. Begging him, pleading him, demanding that he take up his male privilege and acknowledge her lust. That he tend to the desires that she was proclaiming--that she was exposing, that she was screaming! Just for him! God it had been hot. It didn’t matter that the idea had been one that she had just picked from a hat, not one that she truly believed in, the message had become real in his ears. 'Let me be touched,' she was saying. 'Let me be touched, Leon—by you, and only you. Not at the hands of Daniel, not by the hand of the monkey man, but by you.' 'Animals', she had said, on numerous occasions with a faint blush and to laughs from everyone else in the class. 'Humans are nothing more than animals who should live as though we too were primal—taking what we wanted, doing what we wanted, doing who we wanted. Giving in to our most base desires and no longer denying our urges. That if we find someone who makes our hair stand on end and heart race like an Olympic sprint, that it would be foolish to not grab them and do what nature had built us to do.' It had been almost ten minutes after the bell for recess had sounded till he was able to move from his seat without projecting to the whole school how he really felt about her. He was eternally thankful that he had already stood up and presented by the time that she had, otherwise there was no way he could have got that visual out of his head. It was still an image that he found himself drifting towards during his fantasies--him and her, embracing their own primal nature, rubbing and grinding and panting and sweating and screaming and howling to the alabaster moon as they tore off their clothes — their fake, fabric shackle—and took control of each other. As they possessed each other’s bodies, and consumed each other with a wild passion that no other human beings had experienced for tens of thousands of years… Leon's eyes were glazed and distant as he allowed the thought to lead him away, reliving his most private of fantasies. God what I would give to spend just one hour with her. Just one single hour in his whole worthless existence—that would be all it would take. After that I could die happy... A small beep from his bag yanked him back into the park. He looked down to the watch that had peeped the noise. 12:45—five minutes till class. What! But, how? How could it go from then to now on just one thought?! It should have been, like, five minutes! Dammit! And I was heading in such a great direction as well. He reluctantly began collecting his things into his bag. For a moment he thought about not attending at all and just cutting class—but he quickly reasoned that his truancy had been bad enough of late, and he suspected that the school administration was getting wise to the fact he was forging his mother’s signature on the doctor’s slips and failed exams he was supposed to be taking home.

Better to just tough it out. I don’t want them to actually start ringing her… The last item was stowed away in the yellow and black bag. Just as the chunky zip wound round the upper seal and he was about to step down from the bench-top he’d been using as a seat, he realised that there was one other thing that he had to put away before he would be able to leave. The recurring fantasy about Jade and the moonlight had had its usual outcome on his hormones. Leon paused for a moment and looked down at the obvious lump in his battered jeans. ‘Well that’s not the best thing to bring to class,’ he said out loud. He was making an attempt to adjust himself--using the old ‘belt-tuck’ technique he always used—when, suddenly, an idea caught his mind. He looked up and around the park. It was empty. His eyes trailed across the vacant playground area and round to the public restrooms a few metres to his left—almost hidden by some trees and barely ever used. A devious little smile cracked across his lips. Well, it probably won’t hurt if I am just a few minutes late… Leon stood up and walked towards the concrete blocks, too occupied in thought to feel the sudden slither that crept through the air behind him. 3 The bell chimed the beautiful music of class’s end as the throng of students rattled their way out of the day’s final classes and back to their lockers for one last book exchange. All along the passage kids were laughing and talking and sharing the gossip of the day. Leon was sure that his encounter with Daniel this morning was already being joked about behind his back, and that some of the smiles he was seeing had more mockery than good nature to them. He could feel the looks of judgement and ridicule following him all day, and now was even worse. Leon traipsed away at the back of the herd, dragging his feet along the scratched linoleum flooring. Given how much he hated school this should have been the best time of the day—the part where he was finally let free to do whatever he wanted to do. But this last twenty minutes, between class ending and people actually leaving the school, always seemed to be the hardest part. It was the time when everyone would start bunching off, gathering around lockers and rooms and tables, sitting with their friends and planning all the things they were going to do that night. And that was something he didn't have. He hadn't always been a loner; he had the fondest of memories of a childhood surrounded with other kids. There were long summers that had been spent playing in backyards and buildings. There had been camping trips out to the green belt that separated Barrington and Capital City—wilderness times with hiking and fishing and building of forts in the forest and exploring until the heavy sun set beyond the all surrounding trees. And every single day, in every single location, his imagination had been king. But, piece by piece, year by year, his circle of friends had diminished—some moving away to other towns or schools, but the vast majority being lost, instead, to teenage-hood. And now, as if there had never been a transition, he was stuck in a world were the only thing that anyone ever wanted to talk about here who was big in the music charts, or how much weight some celebrity had put on, or who so-and-so liked, and who someone else was screwing, or what happened at the latest party, or how drunk they were on the weekend, or

what kind of car they drove, or how much their hat cost, or which chick they wanted to bang, or what the score of some game in some sporting contest was. He'd joined in with his old friends as the interests had changed and tried to fit in, but in the end he just couldn’t couldn't make it click. He wasn’t like all the others now were— he didn't fit in well with conversations like, ‘Oh my god! Did you hear Dawn Johnson gave Samuel Blaine a sucker right in the middle of the football pitch? Everyone saw it!’ Some of those boys that had been his closest friends were still at the school. They passed each other in the halls sometimes, occasionally making eye contact and then looking away quickly—somehow ashamed of the distance and difference they now shared. As a result of all this, he spent most of his free time alone. He managed to get by, the daydreams helped...but still, he thought as he looked over the sectioned-off groupings of students, sometimes it was hard, and as he walked through the crowded thoroughfare he heard small clips of all the conversations he secretly yearned to have with his own, nonexistent friends. ‘—doubt man, and John’s having a jam round his tonight, bring the boys and we’ll get—’ ‘—way that I am going to that restaurant again, not after last night. Let’s all just hit up the mall! I’ve got my dad’s card and Jake says he can drive—‘ ‘—Swedish, man! And we’ve got a deck set up in basement. Just bring some drinks, and Andy’s gonna get some smoke. It’s gonna be totally—‘ ‘—football practice. Then Daniel’s sister, Kristen, thinks that afterwards he’s going to take you out to La Bonita’s for your six month anniversary! I’m telling you Jade—’ Leon craned his head at the mention of the name that was never far from the front of his mind. He peered through the crowd of students. ‘—she said she heard him making the reservations last week! I mean, that place is, like, the most expensive in town! You’re so lucky! I wish I could meet someone like that— he’s just so romantic!’ Jade was standing in front of her locker, talking with five other girls he’d often seen her with. They were attractive in their own way and most of the boys at school would probably put them in the top of the school's hotness pyramid--but none were as beautiful as she was. Jade wasn’t just a nameless, replaceable cut-out from a gossip magazine like all the other popular girls. She was radiant. She was exquisite—a sight that no other being could possibly recreate or mimic. Leon sighed dreamily, as his brain drifted. After a few seconds he dragged himself reluctantly away and walked over to his own locker, across and down the hall, but still just within distance to hear what the girls were talking about. He put his bag down on the floor and rummaged around amongst the mess of books and rubbish aimlessly, trying to look busy as he secretly eavesdropped on the intimate details of the private conversation. One of the girls, whose names he could never bother to remember, or face he could never tell apart, was running through the ‘he-said, she-saids’ of the day, using that distinctive voice possessed by blondes of a certain bust size the continent over—a combination of a stoned budgerigar and a vacant hummingbird. ‘—way! Like, you’re going to have to really give him a present for taking you out there and spending all that bang on you. I don’t know about you girls but I’m, like, thinking someone is going to have to do a little more than just giving him an old-fashioned kiss on the cheek...if you know what I mean!’ ‘Oh, K! You’re bad! But yeah, J! It’s been six months, and he’s a stud! Do you really think that he’s going to live on the crumbs that you’ve been throwing him? Almost

two hundred days and you won’t even let him get to third base! What’s the big deal, anyway? He’s hot, he takes you to nice places, he buys you things, and he takes care of you! I think the least you could do is show him a little appreciation! I know I would!’ ‘You’d appreciate anything, Sam.’ ‘Bitch!’ ‘Shut up, you love it! And you know, Jade, he’s not going to eat at home if the oven’s not working. Pretty soon you’re going to start seeing him getting some take away.’ ‘You know it, K!’ ‘Hells yeah I do!’ Leon's heart skipped a beat—he had listened so many times as Daniel told all the perverted, filthy things that he and Jade were doing in bed, and every single time his stomach felt like someone had dropped a boiling anvil into it. But now he was getting it from the other side... All those times when he was talking about their sex lives... All of that had been lies? Just boasting? Jade really isn’t sleeping with him at all? The blondes continued their verbal ping-ponging as Jade finished packing her bag. She rolled her eyes comically, shut the door, and turned to face them. ‘You know it’s not like that Kristen. I’m not going to go all the way with a guy just because I feel like I have to do it to keep him. I want my first time to actually mean something. I want it to be special. And I know that might sound clichéd, Sam, but I think it’s a cliché for a reason, you know? People want someone that makes them feel wanted. That actually loves them. I’m not just looking for someone who wants to use me and then throw me away?’ ‘And you think that D is like that? No, way! He totally digs you. He buys you everything! Go on, admit it--you’re just stringing the presents and nice meals out for as long as you can!’ ‘Making him work for it, girl!’ Jade smiled cutely, almost shyly, and Leon thought for a moment that he could see her cheeks begin to blush. ‘I know he does all that, but, I just don’t know. I want to know that he actually wants to be with me for real before I let him...let know...’ ‘Go all the way?’ Another blush. ‘It’s not like I don’t want to. I do. And I know it’s like a crossroads but...I don’t know if tonight is the right time. I just want it to be perfect, and done for the right reasons. I don’t want my first time to be in the back of a car after a fast food meal and a bottle of bourbon…’ ‘Hey!’ one of the blondes snapped back quickly. ‘It was a bottle of vodka! And he said my ass was hot. What was I supposed to do, reject him? We were on a mountain lookout! How the hell was I supposed to get home if he didn’t drive me?’ ‘God, you’re such a slut, Sam!’ ‘Don’t I know it!’ the girl said, snapping her fingers and whipping off a pearly-white grin. Jade and the rest of the girls laughed along. Sam turned back to face her. ‘Well babe, like it or not, that crossroads may be coming quicker than you think, and you might have to make a call about which path to take tonight...if all this romantic planning stuff is true!’ ‘Hell yeah you will! Anyway, we’re leaving you to it,’ said another one of the blondes as they gathered their bags and began to walk away, giggling as they said her goodbyes. ‘Don’t stay up too late!’

‘Hope you have an eventful night, babe!’ The girls walked away down the now quieter hallway and Leon pulled his head back into hiding, taking in what he interpreted as a look of uncertainty across Jade’s face as he did so. His heart raced as he looked past the contents of his locker, closed the door and put his bag over his shoulder. They’ve never screwed! Oh my God! Oh my God! Ok, what does this mean?! She said she was waiting for someone! And that means he isn’t the one for her, and she knows it! Right? Oh God! Oh God! Is there someone else or is she just going to start looking for someone? It’s not the monkey, he isn’t the one! Okay, just think about this for a second, there has to be a way that I can— ‘—Hey, it’s Leon isn’t it?’ He almost smacked his head against the metal door as the instantly recognisable voice snapped him out of the daydream. It can’t be… He turned his head around slowly and looked straight into the face that had shaded his fantasies since birth. Jade Dansel was standing right in front of him, smiling with the brightness of the midday sun. 4 Leon stood there for a moment, stunned--his mouth open as if frozen mid-word. She knows my name… ‘Hi, I’m Jade,’ she said, holding out her hand and looking at him with those incredible eyes. Leon looked down at it as though it was an alien object. The whole situation was surreal, almost like he was dreaming. Although normally in the dreams she was wearing less clothing… Shake her hand you retard! What the hell is wrong with you!? She’s talking to you! Isn’t this what you’ve always wanted?! ‘Yeah, I, umm--cough—no, umm,’ he muttered. Not like that you moron! Smooth! Be smooth! He mentally shook off the shock, grasped at what little composure he could, and took her hand, careful not to be too gentle or firm. ‘—cough—ahh I mean, yeah, I know. I think I’ve seen you around before. We have a class together or something, don’t we?’ he said in a voice he hoped was nonchalant--a difficult task given his mouth had instantly gone dry as a desert wind; his stomach was twisting like a gymnast on crack; his breath had seemingly vanished; and he could feel his heart thump through his chest like a jackhammer on concrete. ‘Two actually,’ she replied, still smiling. ‘Physics and Ethics. Wednesdays and Mondays. And that’s kind of what I want to talk to you about—class. I just wanted to apologise for Daniel today…’ Her voice trailed away and he feigned a blank look for a moment, as if the events of earlier that day had barely even registered a second thought for him. ‘Today? Today... Oh! Yeah, right. That was nothing, don’t worry about it. Just a bit of guy stuff, you know. Nothing out of the ordinary really. And I mean you didn’t have to come and apologise, it’s not your problem.’ Leon registered the smallest hardening of her expression, and he realised his wording. ‘—I mean that you personally didn’t do anything wrong, so it isn’t like you have anything to apologise for... Not that there is anything to apologise for anyway, cause it wasn’t anything!’

He grasped once again for composure and was sure his forehead was beginning to sweat—it always did when he was nervous. Hot drips were already beginning to gather around his eyebrows. ‘—I mean it wasn’t nothing! Because it obviously meant something to you... And that’s great!’ Her full lips smiled again, but this time they held an element of sympathy. ‘I mean, kind! Not great, I don’t know why I said great. It’s very kind of you. But it’s not anything you have to worry about. I mean I haven’t worried about it. So you didn’t have to apologise But thank you for that. Even though you didn’t need to...’ Abort! Abort! We’re in the danger zone! ‘Ok, then. Well I just wanted to make sure that nothing—‘ ‘—Anyway, umm, yeah, so how was your day? Did you get up to much?’ Leon interrupted with an audible sigh of relief, hearing the ‘I’m about to leave tone’ in her voice and hoping to deflect the conversation away from his incompetent attempts at casualness. She looked into his eyes for a second, weighing him up. He could feel the sweat on his forehead, about to drip down his face. Leon was relieved when she finally smiled again, picked up her bag, and spoke to him. ‘Oh, nothing special really,’ she said, guiding him effortlessly into a walk. ‘The girls and I did some shopping at lunch, because I needed to get a new dress for...something. Then it was just the usual classes—English with Mr Porter, Civics with Mrs Barbin.' Ok, coolness didn’t work. Go for some humour! Isn’t that what the ugly boys have going for them? A joke or two? ‘Oh yeah, I hate Mrs Barbin.’ he said, suddenly hoping that she wasn’t a family friend or favourite teacher. ‘What is the deal with her make-up? It looks like someone threw it on with a spray can or something!’ Please laugh! Please laugh! Or just giggle, even that would do. Common! Just a reaction. Anything! Pleeeease! As is on command Jade turned her head and gave a full smile. ‘I know, right! I know she’s from a different era, but was there ever a time when that was fashionable. Okay, this is really bad, but do you want to know what the girls and I call her when she can’t hear us?’ ‘Yeah, sure!’ ‘Ok, we call her...The Seal! Cause she looks like she's balancing her hat on her nose all the time. Isn’t that bad?!’ ‘That’s funny!’ Leon laughed. Oh god! This is going well! ‘I mean the girls and I know she’s a good enough teacher I guess, underneath all the face paint. She at least knows about the subject she is teaching and tries to do something with it. Not like Mr Drew! Do you know this is the third year I’ve had him for History and I swear he just runs the whole think on auto-pilot. I don’t think he even prepares. He must just adapt the same ten talks to whatever class he’s in at the time, regardless of what the curriculum or grade actually is! I swear last week he talked about the current United States president, Ronald Reagan.’ ‘Ouch! Yeah, well I have him for English and he isn't any better. Maybe the eighties were a really good decade for him and he is sticking to them. Although, I don’t think he actually knows what year it is anymore... judging by the bow-ties at least.’ ‘Oh, those bow-ties! It looks like a sunflower died on his neck!’ ‘And don’t forget the pants! How high does he want to wear them? Do you think he actually has to undo the bow-tie just to go to the bathroom?’

‘Oh no, gross!’ she giggled, bordering just on the feminine side of a guffaw. ‘I know right! Oh look at me,’ Leon mimicked, suddenly morphing into the personification of his eighty year old English teacher. ‘Kids! Kiiids! I think this is...Biology...isn’t it? Or Maths... Or something... So today we’re going to look at plants! Everyone go to the window! Alrighty then, are you looking at the plants? Good! Everyone passes! Now, ah, where did I put’ ‘Oh my god that’s him! That is so him!’ Jade snickered, slapping him gently on the forearm like he had seen her do to Daniel earlier in the day. Oh my God! She touched me! He kept up the impressions for a bit, doing a joke about the old man trying to get out of his chair. He knees shook dramatically as he put his whole body into it. If he had looked objectively at himself from the outside right now—putting on the aged, drawling voice, copying the slow, shuffling walk, pulling a silly face and generally looking like a total moron—he would have pulled out a gun and shot himself in the head. This was his dream girl—the one that he had lusted after, and yearned for, and imagined the day when he would have the chance to be one on one with her--and his outside self would have said that he was ruining it. It would have screamed, as it so often did when he drifted away in thoughts of fantasy and adventure and magic, that he was really just a useless child with no ability to be a man. That he was a silly little boy who never had any chance at growing up. It would have told him to act cool, that he should have been being tough, or trying get her hot, or do something to make her think of him as a potential boyfriend—not parading around like the opening act of a bad stand-up routine. But right now, right here, he didn’t care. The most beautiful girl in the entire world was talking to him. And he was making her laugh. ‘Oh God!’ Jade giggled, stopping for a moment and wiping a tear away from her eye. ‘I hope they didn’t get that on the surveillance system because there’s no one else that impression could have been of!’ Leon looked around and realised that they were standing at the back exit of the building, leading onto the football grounds. Out the glass double-doors the just-switched-on glow of white flood-lamps lit a scene of lush green and clean wooden bleachers. He could just make out a few players sitting around in groups or throwing around a ball casually, and small groups of students were milling at the grasses edge and up in the stands. ‘Anyway, I guess this is me,’ Jade smiled. ‘It’s been nice talking to you, Leon. Maybe I’ll see you around again sometime.’ ‘Yeah,’ he replied, his own face smiling more than it ever had inside this building. ‘Yeah, maybe we will.’ Jade gave him one final smile, a cute little wave goodbye, and then she was gone. Leon exhaled the whole contents of his lungs. Their conversation had taken no more than a minute, two maximum, but it had felt like hours. She spoke to me. Oh my God, that actually just happened! If athleticism had been in his nature he would have ripped off his shirt, careened out that door and done great cantering laps around the pitch—spinning the discarded cloth around his head and screaming like a cowboy at a rodeo. Oh my God! I didn’t even have to start the conversation! And it went well! Well, I think it went well--she laughed and everything, even though the jokes were lame! But still, she laughed! Oh my God! Oh my God! He fought off the urge to dance on the spot as the lustrous sparks of success sizzled happily throughout his brain. It was not a feeling he experienced often and he was

savouring every sweet second of it. And I didn’t mess it up! How is this even possible? The last time she saw me I looked like an idiot, and her boyfriend totally owned me! Shouldn’t she have laughed at me? Shouldn’t she have thought I was the most pathetic thing that had ever existed? Leon rolled back his red-checked sleeve and pinched hard at the skin on his wrist. The faint pain registered—all of it was real. Holy mother of crap, he thought as he stepped out into the pleasant kiss of the night. That really just happened! He took a right turn from the door, adjacent to the pitch but behind the bleachers, away from the light and crowds ahead. For the first time in his life he didn’t want to run into Jade, he just wanted to feast on the amazingness of this moment. He walked through the dusken shadows behind the seating stacks—made darker by the brilliant whites of the floodlights. No-one ever came behind them except the groundskeepers, and he had to step over a few bits of old machinery and implements for gardening as he walked. He knew he was also going around the longest way but that didn’t bother him—not after what had just happened. Tonight he didn’t care if he ever got home. His mother could pour herself into bed on her own. He felt like he could run a marathon, climb a skyscraper. There were no words that could sum up the totality of his contentment right now. The feeling of genuine, unshakable, total, all-encompassing happiness. With barely contained energy he pushed his fingers through his curly hair, down his face and along his neck, turning his head up to neon-lit sky above and silently mouthing the words, ‘Yes!’ Which was when he first heard the sounds. In the beginning it was just a soft click, coming from an indeterminable location. It was gentle, barely even audible, and curiously unplaceable. He looked around the area he had fallen for a beetle or a bug or something that might be making the noise, but couldn't find one. As he listened in closer he was certain he could hear a smack to the click—a wetness, almost. Where the hell is that coming from? Before Leon could wonder any more about the cause, the question answered itself. ‘Oh, babe, you’re so good at that! Oh yeah, just like that!’ 'Ohh...’ he said to himself as the meaning of the sound became startlingly apparent. His face immediately burned hot. He could feel his heart begin to race. The hormones coursing through his teenage body leapt into life. He stood on the spot, listening to the dirty sounds--the porno soundtrack playing around him. After a few seconds he slumped back down onto his knees, hiding out of sight. What the hell do I do? I can't stay here and listen to this! That would make me a pervert. But if I move away, and then they see me, then maybe they'll think I was spying on them! Like maybe that’s how I get my kicks, by watching other people go at it! It wasn't helping that he couldn't tell specifically where the voices were coming from, which meant he didn't know where to go to escape. He wondered for a moment why he was embarrassed. They were the ones screwing out in the middle of school property. Shouldn’t they be the ones that are worried, or concerned about how they look? They were the ones that were putting him in a bad situation, not the other way around. The sounds intensified, becoming even more explicit. The noises became wetter; the moans of appreciation deeper. As his eyes adjusted fully to the darkness below the line of neon, he could just begin to see the shapes of their bodies--entwined into one shadow amongst the latticework of support beams and poles. The girl was clearly on her knees, and he could just make out the boys arm pushing

against her head, forcing himself even deeper into her. ‘Yeah, tell me you like it!’ Oh God, Leon thought, his pulse and breath seizing up as his face and skin burned hot and cold. What if they finish and then come over here. I won’t be able to get away! If those two see me and find out that I heard them or saw them then my life at this place is over. Everyone will call me a perv, and a sicko, and I will never ever live it down. This place is already bad enough without that as well. He slowly drew himself up from the dirt, careful not to make any sounds, and took the first silent steps down the path he had arrived by. Even though he knew it was the best thing he could do, a small part of him was still worried that-‘--Oh, yes! You’re so much better at this than Jade!’ Leon stopped dead in his tracks and pulled himself up to full height—suddenly not caring if he was seen. What..? ‘God you could teach that fidget bitch a thing or two! Come on, just like that!’ At once the identity registered in his head. It had been masked by the depth of the tone, the lust altering the resonance, but now it was painfully clear. That stupid, Neolithic voice. It was Daniel McClain. Leon’s blood was suddenly pulsing--no longer from the heat and fire of the lustful encounter, but in anger. Every part of his brain was burning with rage. Like a bull stampeding down a Spanish street his mind bolted, unable to be reigned in. How could he do that to her?! It's the night their anniversary and he's here with some slut, getting his dick sucked! Jade's probably in the bleachers, no more than fifty metres away, waiting patiently for him to come and speak to her, and he's here! Cheating on her! He stared into the dark space, boring his eyes into the couple. His skin was suddenly prickly. His mouth had clenched hard on his teeth. I would give my entire life for just one night with her and he's here, not even caring about her at all. How dare he! If this world had even the smallest shred of justice then that piece of trash would be run over, or have a heart attack or be massacred by a crazed mental patient after being tortured for a couple of days. His body began to shake. He should suffer, Leon fumed, his breath heavy and snorting, the bull rearing it’s angry head. He should suffer! Someone should find a way to make him suffer! To make him hurt! To make him bleed! Every cell of his body was alight, screaming bloody murder upon the body of Daniel McClain. He had no idea where the feeling had come from—he had never felt this level of intensity before. Every hate, anger, frustration disappointment and failure that Leon had ever experienced since beginning high school was funnelled into this one, coalescing moment. He should suffer!! An explosion ripped through the air, sending a million sparks of flame into the suddenly darker night. Leon snapped out of his rage and looked over to where the sound had torn from—seeing the burning remains of the fuse box at the base of one of the floodlights. The sparks leapt across several bags of straw behind the near naked couple. In a matter of seconds the whole bleacher had begun to burn. Leon watched dumbfounded as a crowd of people—football players, cheerleaders, students, as well as one or two parents—ran over to the area, shouting instructions for the fire brigade and the fetching of water. Like a slow motion movie the two figures, still half naked and covered in each other’s

spit, stumbled out of the sudden fire and exposed themselves fully to the gathered crowd. There was a moment’s pause where everyone stopped looking at the fire, and looked instead at the young pair—the boy with his pants round his ankles, and half-hard penis ringed in the same cherry red lipstick that was smeared across the face of the dishevelled looking girl. For a second everyone froze, uncertain about what they could possibly say in such a situation. What were you supposed to do when confronted with...this?! After a building silence, the predominate pack-minded gene of adolescence kicked in, and the group did the only thing they could with the material provided. They laughed. Like a loud, collective choke upon the dusk, the crowd erupted into thick, accusative laugher. Every breath of it was directive and unmerciful—feasting upon the dawning shame of the couple. It was sharp, it was pointed, and it was being fired, like a wartime cannon, directly into the apple red faces of Daniel and his random girl. But Leon wasn't focused on the pained look of the boy he hated. His attention was elsewhere. Amongst the crowd of people, each with their own expression, the only face Leon could see was Jade’s—a torturous blend of shock and disgrace. Her eyes looked the scene up and down, as if begging it not to be true. Leon watched as she put her hand over her mouth, her fingers shaking. Daniel didn't wait to pull up his pants before beginning to give an excuse, but by the time he had formed the first syllable Jade was gone. 5 The dull light of the tungsten bulbs reflected greasily back from the warehouse's grubby windows. The sun had long since set, but the low-watt orange almost suggested an element of daylight. The bare concrete floors were dusty, oil stained, and lined with the discarded wreckages of whatever machinery of production had once been used on the factory floor. It was old; it was forgotten. That was exactly how he liked it. The man stood in the centre of a ring of six onlookers. All were wearing suits—cut sharp and fashionably with hand-made fabrics. The impression was complimented with expensive watches, glinting silver cufflinks and black shoes polished within an inch of translucency. All of them were, in fact, dressed identically... All of them except the man in the middle of the circle. His suit was distinguishable by the triangular piece of charcoal grey satin in the pocket. He paced confidently around the ring, meeting the eyes pair by pair. 'Vigilance knows no boundaries. Preparedness knows no time constraints. We do not have the luxury of knowing when a opportunity might present itself, or a moment occur that must be grasped. The six of you are still in your early years of employment here. Up to this point you have assisted more experiences Associates by handling minor matters and errands that may have presented themselves. I have compiled reviews by your mentors and all of them have been glowing; on that you can give yourself full congratulations...' The man in the middle turned to face one of the onlookers. The man was young, somewhere in his mid-twenties. His slightly diverted eyes were met with a piercing icy blue. He drew in the gaze a fraction longer than was comfortable and then continued to speak. 'But to progress in this company you must show skill. To be given more freedom and

responsibility you must first prove yourself as worthy of it. You were chosen for apprenticeships because we saw potential in you, but it is your responsibility to develop that potential into something greater...' The man removed his jacket and folded it neatly onto a nearby chair. He stepped back into the circle and scanned it. After a few seconds he indicated and pointed to one person. Apprentice Hendricks, step forward.' The young man's face gave the briefest hint of hesitation as he stepped forward to his teacher. 'Your mentor, Associate Merrinson, has nothing but positive words to say for you. Your casework has been immaculate and your improvisation improving each day. He intends for you to accompany him to New York next month for the trail of the Slatsworth case. I believe his exact words to describe you were 'invaluable'.' 'Yes, sir. Thank you sir,' said the young man quickly. 'Good. And now... Apprentice Handling,' he said, pointing at a young, blonde woman. 'Would you also step forward.' She too appeared slightly apprehensive but took a single step into the circle. 'Your mentor, Associate Clifford, has said you are showing incredible progress in your work. She believes that if you continue the hard work you might turn out to be one of our most powerful Associates. High praise, I must tell you.' Thank you, sir,' she said softly. He gave her a comforting smile to ease her nerves. 'Do not worry, today is just a demonstration, not a test. Apprentice Handling, underneath the jacket I have just taken off is a book. I would like you to open it to any page and place your finger at the beginning of the first paragraph you see. Under no circumstances are you to read it aloud. I want you to focus on that thought—you are absolutely not allowed to read out loud from that book. Make that the most important thing in your mind.' The young woman nodded and moved over to the chair. She picked up the thin hardback book and flicked randomly to a page. Her finger trailed down it and, appearing to be satisfied, she looked back up at him. 'Good. And you,' he gestured towards the male apprentice. 'I want you to take twenty steps backwards.' The young man did so, a look of slight puzzlement across his face. He came to a point where his back was against a thick steel support beam. The man in front of him reached into his pocket, took out something, and tossed it casually across the space. The Associate caught it with both hands and then looked up in shock. It was a sheathed dagger. There was a collective murmur from the other four. The man in the middle grinned to himself. The moment their eyes will be opened... 'Throughout all of your training here,' he said to the room at large, 'you were told that your Talent was difficult. You know from experience that your special abilities are famously problematic, famously finicky. But if you cannot overcome these difficulties you will never be promoted to full Associate.' He turned to face the boy against the beam. 'Unsheathe the dagger,' he said, almost in a whisper. The boy did so, tentatively. 'Good. Now when I tell you to I want you to run at me, as fast as you can. When you get close enough to land a strike I want you to do it. I don't want you to hesitate. I don't want you to pause, not even for a second; not even for a breath. I want you to stab me in the chest as hard as you possibly can. Will you do that?'

The apprentice looked at his superior like he was mad. 'But...' he muttered. 'Trust me,' the man said softly—repeating himself slowly. 'Do not stop. I want you to try and stab me. Will you do that?' The boy looked down at the blade in his hand like it was about to bite. It glinted in what little light shone through the gloom. After a few moments he nodded. The man in the middle of the circle slowly closed his eyes. 'Begin,' he said, calmly. The boy began his sprint--his shoes sliding a little on the dust. At once the face of the girl became one of pained confusion. Her features knotted up in apparent struggle. Her eyes seemed to glaze in and out of focus. Her lip began to move—she bit it, but it didn't work. Her mouth gaped open and closed. The agony of resistance filled her. The expression reached the point of breaking... And then the look of pain vanished. The eyes suddenly became serene as a mountain stream. She looked down at the book in front of her and the words began to fall from her mouth. 'At last the child's mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child's mind...' The boy was now at a full sprint, charging at the defenceless man in front of him. His body told him to stop, but he found the strength to ignore it. His superior had given him an instruction. There was no disobeying 'And not the child's mind only...' Footsteps hammered hard against the concrete beneath him. He was now only a few steps away. The boy held the dagger in his hand firmly and raised his arm. 'The adult's mind too...' The man in front of him was still. His eyes remained closed. Against every urge in his body the boy hurled the dagger through the air—straight towards the man's heart. '...all his life long.' There was the thwacking sound of skin against skin. Several people in the circle gasped. The girl with the book shut it slowly and then her face went blank. After a few seconds she resembled her old self. She looked around in puzzlement for a few moments and then settled her attention on the two men in the circle. The older man had his big hand clasped around the younger man's wrist. The tip of the razor edge was a mere millimetres from his shirt. The boy was shaking—his breath was heaving. The teacher leaned in close to him. 'Thank you,' the man said softly, as he lowered the arm gently back to the boy's side. 'You are all good apprentices, you have all proved yourself capable. But that is not enough anymore. To be an Associate here you must demonstrate skill in your Talent. You must overcome the weaknesses we have all endured since birth. To move from an Apprentice to the position of must demonstrate that you can do what I just did.' Eyes widened when he said it. He knew they would. He had barely believed it all those years ago when he was an Apprentice. 'Many of you come from family's that have been employed with us at one time or another. They would have told you about some kind of final test you would have to undergo in your training. This is that test. We will train you for it, we will teach you how to pass it. I know you will give all of your energy to your training because, as I am sure you understand...there is no coming back from failure.'

From somewhere near the girl with the book came a ring. He looked around the group of young men and women—their mouths open and disbelieving--and gave a small laugh. 'Well don't just stand there, class dismissed!' The suited figures hesitated for a moment and then rushed over. The room morphed from silence to raucous conversation in seconds. The young woman was already back in the awe struck group by the time the man reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the cell phone. 'Associate Sanders,' he said, after reading the name of the screen. The voice was hesitant. 'Mr Grey. Where are you right now?' 'I'm in the warehouse. I just took the new recruits through their first glimpse of the final test. I never get tired of the look on their faces when they see it for the very first time.' 'Yes...' said the voice on the phone, a certain amount implied by the silence that followed. 'Sanders?' asked Mr Grey. 'What is the matter?' 'Well, sir. There appears to have been a development in one of our cases.' He sighed. 'It isn't the Taverston case again, is it? I don't care how many times that woman protests about a miscarriage of justice, she was found red handed with five kilograms of unrefined Black Amber and the necessary instruction to make two hundred unauthorised Power Stones. She is guilty, Sanders; If the Council wanted to they could hang her for this. We've managed to get her sentence down to five years of house arrest! Tell Merrinson to force her to take the plea if he has to; she will never get a deal this good ever again!' 'Ah... No, sir. That is not the case that I wanted to talk about.' 'Then which is it?' he asked, his curiosity rising. Associate Sanders was not the kind of man to be coy with information. 'Well, sir. It appears... I don't even know how to say this.' 'What, Sanders? What is the matter? What case is it?' The voice on the other end of the phone said nothing for several seconds. When it at last spoke it was almost disbelieving that the words would ever come out of his mouth. 'It... It is the Osiris Case, sir.' Mr Grey's face instantly morphed into shock. 'Don't move! Don't speak to anyone! I will be there in five minutes!' 6 Leon walked through the stillness of park—alone, as always, with his thoughts. It was almost seven o'clock now--but he had no intention of going home. He had spent the last two hours wandering around restlessly and he was showing no sign of relaxing. It was like the universe had suddenly developed a bad case of bi-polar disorder, and he couldn't clear his head of everything that had happened today. He looked around the park, shrouded in the calmness and silence the day had lacked. The crushed packet of cigarettes came to his hand without thinking. Delving into the contents as if performing keyhole surgery he found the least broken stick and put it to his lips. He took out the lighter from his other pocket—an engraved Zippo he'd stolen from his mother a few months back after she had passed out. The sturdy construction appealed to him—especially the motion of flicking back the cap, with that deeply satisfying tick that it made, grinding the wheel to a spark, drawing deep on the self-sustaining flame, and then snapping it closed with a no-fingers flick of his wrist. It was lucky that he rarely smoked

when other people were around, because the absent minded ‘tick-grind-snap’ ‘tick-grindsnap’ of his perpetual motion would have grated unbearably. This time though he didn’t close it after his cigarette was lit, but instead looked into the flame. The colours graduated from the wick, a light yellow around the base, orange in the middle, and the smallest hint of blue up top. The single tongue wavered ever so gently in its bullet-holed pen, shifting up and down, left and right. Even though it gave only the tiniest impression of movement, it was still mesmerising. Leon was remote now, far on the edges of his own thoughts—not even seeing his hand, or the lighter, or even the flame that had transported him here, but lost in a space where his ideas came full to the front of his vision. Over and over in front of him, like a bad, broken record, was the image of Jade’s face. There was just so much pain. So much suffering. How could she not have know beforehand? Everyone knew that Daniel was a player—all the boys knew he would sleep with anything that had tits and a pulse. Surely she must have known something was going on, or at least suspected. But her face... She really had no idea. Leon’s mind dwelled on that thought, and its horrible, obvious implication: Jade loved Daniel. No-one displayed that amount of pain for someone that they merely liked. At least before she saw the evidence of his cheating, she genuinely loved him. And in some strange way, he almost felt a level of guilt about that—as if he was in some way the cause. After all, he begged for the bastard to be exposed. And in some part of his head he had known what that meant. Some small part of him must have known that for her to leave her boyfriend, for her to be with him instead, she would have to go through some kind of pain— a breakup, cheating, something that would hurt her. Life wasn’t a fairytale, and in the real world there are no easy break-ups. For him to get what he wanted someone was going to have to get hurt. And he hadn’t cared. He’d wanted the football star to be caught out, and in that single instant he had wanted it more than he had ever wanted anything else in his entire life. And then it had… Of course there was no possible way his wanting something could have made it happen—as if his own anger could somehow explode a fusebox, set alight the bleachers and exposed Daniel for the scum he was. It wasn’t logical, he knew. He didn’t set it off, he didn’t call the crowd over, and he didn’t encourage Daniel to cheat, or do it in a public place. It wasn’t sensible to feel guilty about something that he had nothing at all to do with, but still... That look on her face... All of that pain… Leon stared silently into the orange flame for long minutes, allowing his mind to wander the hills and valleys of the thought. Eventually, like a self-set alarm clock, he snapped the lid of the lighter closed, blinked a few times, and came back into the silence of the real world. The park was just as it had been before he zoned out. Overhead a full moon rose above the line of distant trees. There was just the smallest hint of cool in the air now, and he suddenly developed the urge for movement. Ok... What to do? What to do? He knew that whatever he chose he would probably have to go home, just for a few minutes to get a better jumper. He could see his house from here, on the other side of the trees. His mother would still be up, if she had even come home yet, and he didn’t feel like one of her drunken lectures tonight. She wouldn’t remember it in the morning anyway, and no matter how many times she promised that she would do better and cut out the drinking, it was all just empty promises now.

He trudged through the grass—up and over a small dip and past twenty metres or so of trees. The road was up ahead, faintly lit. I guess I could always just pry open my window and try and avoid speaking to-The sound of crying was immediately recognisable. The sobs was soft and muffled but he could tell they were drifting out from behind an tree up ahead. Leon paused for moment, uncertain about whether or not he should approach. The sound was definitely a girl—which was better than encountering a crying guy, at least. But still, it was after dark. Maybe she just wanted to be left alone. Unless... Leon thought gradually, Could it be her? Could it be Jade? She only lives around the corner. Leon walked a few steps forward, to the point where he could see the slumped figure at the base of the tree, legs held tight to her body, crying into her knees. There wasn’t enough light from this angle to identify who it was so he hazarded a call into the darkness. ‘Jade..?’ The crying stopped abruptly. 7 Mr Grey drummed his fingers against his watch as the numbers of the elevator ticked slowly up. He was trying to stay calm. Different parts of his brain urged caution and advised him not to jump to any conclusions--arguing logic over the great stretches of fantasy he could feel forming on the edge of his mind. I can't be the time. Not yet! We still have years until that will happen. It must have been a mistake. Perhaps one of the Search Stones is malfunctioning—we have had them running continuously for so long... The doors of the elevator finally opened and he stepped out into a marble and chestnut lobby. No sooner had he moved out of it when a set of nearby doors opened quickly. Through them walked a twenty-something man in the same suit as the apprentices in the warehouse had been wearing. His movements were jittery, and he was almost shocked when he saw the man in front of him. 'Mr Grey! I was just coming to find you!' 'What is it, Sanders? What have you found?' asked the larger man, urgency in his voice. 'It is... I can't tell for certain... But I think we've found it!' 'Calm down, Sanders. Breath!' 'Alright,' muttered the younger man, regaining his composure. He handed a piece of paper to Mr Grey, who ran quickly scanned it. 'Half an hour ago the Search Stones got a hit on the target signature. I was only for a few seconds, and it was faint--far too faint to be fully awake. But it was there! I thought it might have been a mistake, or just a false reading, but I've rerun the data twenty times now. It is true!' Mr Grey looked down at the graph in the middle of the paper. Along a solid, flat line was a single spike. My God! After all this time... 'Sir...' asked Associate Sanders, his voice restrained but expectant. 'Does this mean... Is it really happening, sir?' Mr Grey stared at the piece of paper in front of him. There could be no doubt. 'Who do we have, Sanders? Who is still here?' The man did a quick mental count. 'Of the Associates? Well, Merrinson is still in New York. So is Hingston, and King—separate cases of course. Tyler is in London. Sagat is in Paris on that Department of Defence case. Jacobs is collecting one of our little packages

over the border and DeMere is scouting out possible locations for our European expansions. And, with all of them gone, that just leaves...' 'Barely a dozen Associates,' said Mr Grey, without thinking. 'Including the Apprentices...' Mr Grey hesitated. 'Round up the other Associates that are still in town. Reiley and Montes might still be downstairs, they often work late. Quickly! And have you informed the senior partners yet?' The man looked slightly taken aback. 'No sir. I assumed you would wish to do that.' Mr Grey nodded to the man, turned on the spot and marched down the long hallway until he reached a large, unmarked door. I didn't matter that it was past seven o'clock at night now, he knew it would be occupied--the man in the office never left before midnight. He reached for the handle without waiting to knock; whatever his superior was doing he would want to be interrupted for this. On the other side was a large office, filled with angular furniture of greys and yellows. Bright lights illuminated the sparkling reflections that emanated from the waxy black marble running the peripheral of the dark green square of carpet in the middle of the floor. In the centre of this stood a figure in a dark red robe. He was facing the far wall, mounted on which was a massive television monitor. He addressed it with the voice of gentle confidence. 'Mr Kemp, I can assure you that we will find a way around these charges. I was fortunate enough to visit the defence's lead witness, and there are some questions that they are sincerely hoping we will not be asking him. Did you know, for example, that the trace signature they took from the crime scene had received substantial contamination? His own estimates place the likelihood of your innocence as high as point two five percent.' 'Point two five percent, Mr Black?' scoffed a well dressed man on the television screen. His accent was curious—possibly South African. 'How on earth could that be considered a good number? Surely that isn't enough to have the evidence thrown out?' You could almost hear the hooded figure smile. When he spoke his voice was a precise as a watchmaker. 'It has been so in the past, Mr Kemp. In the case of Warren versus The Council in 1993, it was upheld that unless there is a level beyond certain doubt in the matter of degraded signatures--' 'Good, god man! There you go again! I would never use phrases like that. I have spent my entire life in the shipping business; I don't know the first thing about legal matters! The jury will see through this whole thing right away. And I am still not convinced about your insistence that I should appear to represent myself at these trials. Surely I should retain a dummy lawyer, and you could speak through them? Otherwise the Council will know that I hired you and then I will be finished!' 'I can assure you, Mr Kemp that the Council will never find out about our involvement. We are experts at masking our signatures. No-one will ever know about this except for you and this firm. And I believe that your defence will look better coming from you personally. It will put the prosecution off their game. It will make their charges seem personal and perhaps politically motivated.' 'But really, Mr Black,' insisted the flustered man. 'I find your methods...unconventional.' The robed figure paused for slightly longer than was utterly necessary. 'Mr Kemp, you are not known as a poor man. If you would prefer to disclose the full details of the situation to one of your family's many attorneys then I am sure--' 'No, no,' stammered the man on the screen, quickly. 'There is no need to involve that lot. I was just concerned about the process, that is all. I mean, won't they think that I shouldn't know all of this? Won't they become suspicious?' 'There is no crime in being well informed and widely read, Mr Kemp,' said the man

called Mr Black in a velvet voice. The folds of the hood moved just enough that Mr Grey knew his presence had been noted. 'On that assurance, I believe we should adjourn this conference,' he continued. 'And do not worry about the practical elements of the case, Mr Kemp. When the time comes I shall make sure that it is all very convincing.' The man in the robe snapped his fingers and the screen went black. The dark recesses of the robe turned to face Mr Grey. 'I can only assume this is matter of utmost importance, Mr Grey. That man has pockets deeper than the Mariana Trench.' Mr Grey handed him the piece of paper without saying a word. It was impossible to read any reaction from underneath the hood. After almost a full minute the man looked up to him. 'And you are certain, Mr Grey? Have calibrations been rerun on the Search Stones?' 'Yes, sir. The numbers are solid.' The man moved to the back of the room and sat down at a large, modern executive desk of steel and glass. 'What do you think it means, sir?' asked Mr Grey. The robed man reclined in the leather chair and looked over the paper. 'I believe it means that the next few hours will be very eventful, Mr Grey.' 'But sir!' exclaimed the man, shock in his voice at the confirmation. 'The Osiris Report insisted that we still had another decade before the signature would make itself apparent. How can this be this early?' The man leaned forward to his table and retrieved a pen. With sweeping motions he drew a few lines and intersections over the graph. 'How indeed...' he responded after a time. 'But that is perhaps a question for later. It appears my predecessor was correct in thinking this little town would be the epicentre of this matter. And we have more pressing concerns now than how.' 'Yes, sir, of course. I just can't believe it. I almost never thought that... What would you have me do?' After all these years. It has awoken. The moment is finally here. 'Knowing your competence, Mr Grey, you have surely begun to ready the Associates. I know we are running at a reduced in-house number at the moment, but I am sure you will make do. Put all cases on hold—i don't care about the priority, every single man and woman is on this. I want ears on the airwaves--Emergency Services, News Stations, mobile phone calls. And find a way to narrow the tracking processes. I know this data is weak and we won't be able to get anything definite but we might be able to bring it down to a few kilometres or so.' 'Shall I send out recognisance teams, sir?' asked Mr Grey, eagerly. The seated man raised his hands calmly. 'Let us not rush in haste, Mr Grey. The signature spikes are too small for the birth to have already taken place. I can only assume that it is feeling someone out. Perhaps it has already chosen someone suitable, we cannot know. And we cannot rule out the possibility that this is only just the precursor—the heralding of arrival. Perhaps we will see nothing more than this and we will still have to wait another decade for the true arrival. However,' he paused and looked down at the paper, 'there is also every chance that in a matter of hours this signature will be born. There will be something unmistakeable to herald its arrival. If that were to happen, Mr Grey, we would have no time to waste. If we see that, if we see that, we must be ready to move.' 'Yes, sir,' fired Mr Grey, before turning and beginning to walk out of the room. He was almost out the door when his superior stopped him. 'And Mr Grey...'

'Yes, sir?' 'Where do we stand on security?' Mr Grey waited a moment as he condensed a months worth of half minute briefings in his mind. 'The Council is placated, as usual. There has been no change in their temper. One of the junior Councilmen briefly tried to launch an investigation into a Supreme Court case he believed we might have been involved in...but he was quickly shown good reason.' 'Good. And the Enforcers?' 'There is still only one, Mr Black. Enforcer Christine LaBelle. She has been stationed in Capital City for almost two years and has shown no sign of moving against us. I would say she poses no risk.' 'And what of the woman...' The word was ambiguous but the tone was drenched in meaning. Mr Grey knew exactly who was meant. 'She is still talking; still lobbying and petitioning. Since her demotion she has become, if anything, more active. But I doubt that anyone significant is listening to her. I think her dedication to our downfall is seen by most as a sort of madness, and no-one takes her too seriously. The latest news from our contact is that she is investigating seismic activity in the Pacific Ocean. I doubt very much that she will be of any concern to us.' 'Good,' drawled the even voice from beneath the hood. 'The second that the signature returns in full I want it relayed to Mrs White.' The man hesitated for a moment. It was an unusual instruction. 'Mrs White, sir? Would you not rather receive the update yourself?' The robed figure turned to the right and stared at the wall without saying a word. Mr Grey followed the line of sight and then nodded in understanding. Of course... The Master must be informed of this development. 'Is there time for that, Mr Black?' he asked, as respectfully as he could. The seated man said nothing for a moment. 'For this, we shall have to make the time,' he said at last. 'Yes sir,' Mr Grey replied and then forced himself to ask a question that had been lurking at the back of his mind since he arrived in the building. 'Mr Black...' 'Yes, Mr Grey?' 'Are we ready for this? If this turns out to be real? We have made great progress in recent years with our...acquisitions. But we are still a long way off of where we would have been in a decades time!' The hooded figure said nothing for long moments. The empty hood staring at the wall across the room. Eventually he answered. ''We will have to make do, Mr Grey. You know what the stakes of this matter are.' 'Yes, sir,' he replied after a few moments pause, digesting the true significance. The two figures nodded at each other and Mr Grey walked snappily out of the room. He ran the last comment of his superior's over in his head. Do I know the stakes? Of course I do. How could I not? If this turns out to be real, If the host is truly being chosen, then the boy will be in the greatest of danger. 8 The crying stopped abruptly and the silhouette looked around. 'Who’s there?’ the girl asked, worry in her voice. It was Jade. ‘Hi. It’s Leon. I was, ah, just walking by and I heard crying. I thought I would come up and see who it was. Sorry. I’ll go if you want to be left alone.’

Jade sniffed in the darkness and wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her shirt. ‘No it’s fine. It’s fine,’ she said, her voice husky with the weight of her tears. ‘Don’t worry about it. I was just, you know, sitting alone in a park...crying to myself. You know how it is.’ Through the darkness he could see her turn her face up to him and attempt a little smile. ‘So, what are you doing out here?’ she asked. ‘Oh, nothing much. I was just thinking, and stuff. I prefer being outside to inside anyway. I kinda wanted to run the day over.’ Leon wondered if he should bring up the obvious topic, then decided that there was no point avoiding it. ‘I mean it’s been kind of a big day…’ Jade gave an involuntary laugh through her tears. ‘That’s one way of saying it,’ she responded in a low tone. ‘So I guess you must have caught the big show then? I mean, everyone else did.' She looked up into his face; the rising moonlight reflected of her wet cheeks. 'Did you see it Leon? Did you see...’ Her voice trailed away, and she began to cry again. ‘Oh my God, I’m so stupid! Everyone told me for six months that he would never be faithful, and that he was running around with other girls. But I didn’t believe them! Everyone told me. Everyone! And I didn’t want to listen. He told me that there was no one else and I believed him! I’m so stupid! Everyone knew that he was doing this and I was the last one to get it. And now everyone has seen it. Right there in the middle of the... He...’ Her chest heaved up and down as she broke down into her hands. Leon stood on the spot awkwardly and watched her. He didn’t want her to hurt like this, he didn’t want her to be in pain, but like most young men he had absolutely no idea what to do or say when confronted with a crying women. Should I hug her? That’s what girls do, isn’t it? But that’s girls—boys can’t do that. Especially not to girls, can they? Oh she’s really breaking up now, I have to do something. Leon kneeled down at the base of the tree, facing Jade. Before he could even make a decision she wrapped her arms around his chest and buried her face into his neck. Her hands gripped tightly at his shirt, and not knowing what else to do, Leon put his own arms around her body and held her while she cried. ‘It’s okay,’ he said, almost silently. ‘Everything will be okay. Don’t worry, I’ve got you…’ For long minutes Jade sobbed into his skin, and Leon held her close. As he comforted her it dawned upon him that he was holding the woman of his dreams. In the space of one day he had gone from being anonymous in her eyes to being the shoulder that she was crying on; from never having even spoken to her, to being here, holding her against him. Amongst the empathy he felt for the hurt Jade was experiencing, he couldn’t help suppress the smallest hint of happiness—whatever happened after this, she knew who he was and there was the chance, just a chance, that he might somehow be able to be with her. He silently chastised himself for thinking that way. Jade was hurt; she was vulnerable. And that was not something that Leon was going to use to any kind of advantage. Eventually Jade’s sobs lessened to sniffs and she loosened her grip around his chest. She ran her hands through her hair and pulled the sleeve of her shirt back up to wipe away the wetness covering her eyes and cheeks. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘Sorry...I didn’t mean to lose it like that.’ ‘That’s okay,’ Leon replied with a sympathetic smile. ‘I’m sure you would have done

the same for me.’ She laughed. ‘I don’t think you would have been quite that girlie.’ Jade looked at the place she had been crying and laughed again. ‘I think I need to buy you a new shirt as well!’ Leon followed her eyesight saw the large patch of wetness covering most of his tshirt’s right shoulder. ‘Oh, that’s okay. It’s just a shirt, it’s not important.’ ‘No, but I am sorry. I mean you barely even know me and I’m crying all over you. And I don’t normally even get like that. I’m not one of those girls that’s always crying over boys and needing someone to take care of them.’ ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s fine, really. I was...doing my duty.’ Jade laughed again and Leon moved himself around so he was sitting with his back against the tree. For a few minutes neither of them said anything. ‘You don’t have to sit here with me if you don’t want to,' Jade said eventually. 'I mean if you have somewhere to be, or want to go to home, then that’s fine. I’ll be okay.’ ‘No,’ Leon responded, perhaps a little too hastily. In his wildest dreams he would never have believed that he would have been sitting next to her, with the privacy and peace of evening wrapped all around them. Right now he had the chance to talk to her—not in a class full of people, not in a crowded hallway, but alone. He was exactly where he wanted to be. ‘I mean It’s no problem,' he continued. And if you want to talk about it then that’s cool too. Or not, if you don’t want to. I know it’s not any of my business or anything.’ ‘I think it’s everyone’s business now,’ Jade said, letting out another defeated laugh. ‘Football practice... I just can’t believe that he would do that at football practice! He knew that I was there; he knew that I was there in the stands waiting for him and he does...that! Right there where everyone could see? He couldn’t have made it any more public if he tried. If it had been in a bedroom, or if, I don’t know, if I’d caught him with someone...then maybe that would have been okay. Or better, at least. Somewhere where there wasn't a hundred people laughing at me.’ ‘I think they were all laughing at him, Jade. I don’t think anyone’s going to be going after you, are they? It was his fault. He’s the one that’s going to get all the ridicule.’ Jade sighed and puller her legs closer to her body. ‘You don’t know how mean girls are, Leon. Tomorrow it will be all sympathy and condolences to my face, and the second I walk away they will be at me like a pack of hyenas, talking about how I deserved it, how I should have just...given him more. They’ll all be there, every girl in the school—being sincere to my face and laughing behind my back.’ 'Even your best friends?’ Leon asked, slightly taken aback. ‘God, especially my best friends. They’re probably already ringing each other now and mocking me. That’s the kind of thing girls do. And they won’t hate him for it, not really. They'll talk about how he has needs and I wasn’t meeting them, and that really he is just a boy, and not totally to blame for it all.’ Leon considered this. He had always imagined that girls would be the more emotionally supportive of the sexes. ‘But Daniel will still be worse off, won’t he?’ Jade sighed again. ‘I don’t know— you know boys better than I do, but I can take a guess. Tomorrow morning he'll walk into school with his head held high and all he’ll get from the boys is pats on the back. This kind of thing won’t damage him at all, if anything it will make him even more popular. All the boys will talk about him like he’s the king of the school—screwing

some random while his girlfriend is just around the corner. They’ll use words like legend and champion to describe him. They won't mock him for what he did.' She ran her hands up and down her bare legs and stared out into the distance. ‘It’s just so unfair, you know. I’ll be ridiculed for being faithful and he’ll be turned into a hero for cheating on me. I don’t know what is wrong with people—I did everything that I could. I thought I was doing everything right and it was all just a lie. Everything he ever said to me, all the times he told me how special I was to him, all of that was just a lie.’ After a time Leon asked, ‘So have you spoken to him yet? Or heard anything?’ ‘He ran after me but I got away. He could go very fast because he had his pants around his ankles for most of the chase. It would have been funny if it wasn’t so tragic.’ Jade wiped the last of the errant tears away from her cheeks and neck. ‘Anyway, I really don’t care what he has to say, or how he is going to try and explain this all away. That would just make it even worse, you know—hearing him try and make it all better. How is that even possible? He was caught cheating on me by most of the school. Almost every single person that has any popularity in this place, or any influence, or any interest in gossip was there staring What on earth could he possibly say that would make it better?’ Jade let the question hang in the air unanswered. ‘So what do you think you’re going to do then?’ Leon asked. ‘I don't know. But whatever happens, it’s over. I don’t care if I never speak to him again in my whole life.’ Silence filled the space. After a few quiet minutes Leon reached over to the bag laying in the grass nearby and pulled out his packet of cigarettes, taking one for himself and then offering the open cardboard to Jade, who looked at them for a moment, hesitated, then tentatively took one. ‘You know I’ve never actually smoked before. Isn’t that funny! Seventeen and I’ve never even had a cigarette. The girls all smoke but Daniel told me he would never be with a girl that smelled like that, so I just never did. Plus I think my parents go through my bags and clothes when I put them out to be washed, and I’m sure they’d find a way to tell if I’d done anything bad.’ Jade looked the thing in her hand over a few times—inspecting it like a scientific sample. ‘Where did you get them from?’ ‘My mom's purse.' 'Won't she notice they are missing?' Leon laughed. 'She never notices anything I do. Not since my dad left.' 'That must be hard, Leon? Not having a father...' 'It's alright. I have some good memories of him, kinda like snapshots into the past, but I don't think he ever really wanted a family. And I can take care of myself well enough that I don't really need my mother anymore, either...' Leon took a cigarette for himself and lit it. 'These are menthol as well,' he said, changing the topic, 'so it might be better for your first time.’ ‘Menthol?’ ‘Kind of like a mint, I guess. It’s makes it easier to breathe it in.’ ‘Oh, ok.’ She put it gently against her lips as Leon snapped the lighter on. The cherry glowed hot at the cylinders tip as she took a few gentle drags to light it up, breathed a long draw back, and then took it out of her mouth. With the look of someone waiting for an injection

she began to slowly exhale, and immediately exploded into a fit of coughs. Leon couldn’t help but laugh at the look of revulsion that crossed every aspect of her face. Jade turned and slapped him on the arm. ‘Don’t...laugh!’ she spluttered through the coughs and laughter, flicking the cigarette away like a squashed cockroach. ‘Oh my God!! That is the worst thing in the history of the world! How can anybody actually like these things? Urgh! Oh, it tastes like a piece of chewing gum died in my mouth.’ ‘Yeah, there not everyone thing,’ Leon smiled. ‘Ugh! Ugh! And you say that those ones are the better ones? Ok, well I know that I’m not missing anything out from that then. God, and people actually spend money on those? That's unbelievable!’ ‘That’s okay, everyone has their own choice of poisons,’ Leon said, as he reached into the bag again and brought out a silver hip-flask. ‘Bourbon?’ he asked with a grin. ‘Wow, do you keep a stash of adult only items on you at all times?’ ‘Of course! At the bottom of the bag I've also got a Lexus and a mortgage statement.’ Jade laughed and moved closer to him, shuffling up to the point where there arms were almost touching. His eyes had adjusted fully to the darkness now, and could see her beautiful face up close. He smiled as he realised how natural their conversation had already started to become. Unlike this afternoon he didn’t feel nervous about speaking to her—it felt almost normal, as if it only the second time that they’d ever interacted. ‘Do you know...I never, ever drink,’ she said, taking the flask away gently. ‘I can’t think of the number of parties I’ve been too where everyone else is getting totally wasted and I’ve been sober. Wow...even as I’m saying this I realise how goody-goody I must sound. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink. Just the good girl that does her homework and always turns up on time. Well maybe, after today, it would be okay to change that rule up a little, wouldn’t it?’ ‘I think you’ve probably earned it.’ Jade grinned, unscrewing the top and upending the container for a few seconds. When she’d swallowed the shot she brought it back down and breathed out the hot fumes on her tongue. ‘Haaaaa! Haaaaa! Oh, wow that was strong!’ ‘Well it is straight liquor.’ ‘I know but...still, that stuff is like swallowing fire. Haaaaa! God, at least it washed away the taste of those awful cigarettes.’ ‘Maybe that’s why so many people smoke and drink at the same time, just to get the taste of each one out of their mouth,’ he said, drawing a shot of warm spirits out of the flask and suppressing his own urge to stick out his tongue and say Haaaaaa!’ Don't you dare look like you can't take a shot! Be a man! Not a kid! Hold it in. Suppress the shudder... There we go. ‘And don’t get the wrong idea about this,' Leon said after his throat had cleared, shaking the flask. 'I’m not an alcoholic or anything. I mean, I don’t really drink that much, not compared to most of the grade.’ ‘Well that would be hard, Leon. Have you seen the parties that the football team throws?’ ‘No. Believe it or not I’m not really the kind of person that gets invited to those things, replied with a smile. ‘Well, don’t worry. You’re not missing out on anything. Someone finds a bottle or two of something from somewhere and everyone drinks till the liquors gone, and before you

know it all the men have turned into dogs, and all the girls have turned into...well...’ ‘Sluts?’ Leon ventured. He could almost hear Jade’s face begin to redden. ‘Well, yeah. I guess. I mean I hate that word, but I guess it’s true. After a few drinks all of the girls that are so respectful and care about themselves in the real world turn into these horrible people--letting the boys do things to them they'd never normally do. Then in the morning they have to hang their head in shame because all the other girls will be talking about who did what with who. It’s just so...pathetic. I know it’s their own choice and they can do whatever they want with their body, but you have no idea how many conversations I’ve had with an embarrassed girl, regretting the terrible decision she made when she was drunk!’ A part of Leon—the ten percent inhabited by the libidinous, seventeen year old, perverted, virgin, wannabe sex-fiend—thought that all of that sounded like it would be really, really good fun. There were surely worse things in the world than getting smashed and banging a random. The rest of him, however, knew the truth—part of the reason he was still a virgin, when a lot of other people in the grade had at least done something, was that he didn’t feel comfortable sleeping with a drunk girl. In the first years of high school, before he’d been rejected totally, he had been invited to quite a few parties. And in that time plenty of opportunities had presented themselves— opportunities where he could easily have hooked up with a girl, barely sober enough to stand, ticked the boxes of manhood, said he was no longer a virgin, and written it all off as drunken misadventures. There was one girl, even quite a pretty girl at that, who had begged him, through rum soaked breath, to take her upstairs and get it on. And while that ten per cent of his brain always screamed ‘Yes!’ the rest of him always found a way to politely say ‘No.’ It wasn’t that he was afraid of sex, or that he didn’t want to have it—he did, sometimes more than anything else in the entire world—it was just that he never, ever wanted to wake up next to someone and see that dawning look of regret as they processed the decisions of the night before. At no point did Leon ever want to sleep with someone who would say yes when they were drunk, but would have said no when they were sober. He didn’t want to be someone’s drunken mistake. ‘Yeah, I know what you mean,’ he said. ‘I’ve never really thought that meeting people and hooking up when neither person knows what they’re doing was a good idea. I guess that’s why I’ve never…ummm...well...‘ Leon let the words trail, hoping that the implication was implicit through the context. He turned his face away, not exactly ashamed of the revelation, but certainly not proud of it. Being a male virgin was akin to social castration at school—it was the ultimate disease. It didn’t matter how old you were, or what else you’d achieved, if you hadn’t gone all the way with a girl then you were still looked at as a boy, not a man. He already had enough self loathing at his childish habit of imagining fantastical situations without also knowing that he'd never had sex. And even if he could become comfortable with his virginity, it was definitely not something that you admitted to a girl you liked. Men were supposed to be confident and decisive—not sweaty and nervous and useless. ‘Don’t feel ashamed,’ she whispered, after a pause. ‘I’ve...I’ve never...either…’ He was shocked to feel the soft caress of her hand as it glided down his forearm and interlocked fingers into his. He looked back up and she was smiling gently at him. It wasn’t the smile of a come-on, or a smile of pity—it was the smile of someone who felt there was someone they could allow themselves to open up to. Leon looked down at his

hand, back up to Jade, and then returned the smile. After a time Jade moved her body closer, and rested her head onto his shoulder. Leon could hear the gentle rustle of her breath as she looked up at the sky. ‘It’s a beautiful moon tonight,’ she said. ‘Yeah, it is, isn’t it. It’s almost like there is a second sun.’ Shining just for us. They were silent for a long time after that. Hours passed by and the stars rose. At some point in the endless night Jade began to gently run her thumb over his palm. ‘Thank you for being here, Leon,’ she said, finally. ‘No problem,’ he replied. ‘I’m really glad that I am.’ With the softness of a butterfly’s touch, Jade turned up her head and kissed him on the cheek. Leon smiled a wide, contented smile as the girl he loved more than any other turned back her head, and nuzzled gently into his neck... * The image ripped away. There was a moment of lost footage—a frantic search in the darkness. The next thing Leon could remember was the choking, billowing smoke and roaring heat of the inferno all around him. 9 The room was a symphony of shadow. It was not possible to know how big or small the space was, as the only thing that filled it was the deep, cold emptiness. The dead air did not so much shroud as drift away in all directions. There was no floor, no ceiling, no walls. Across this darkness, breaking the permeating void of all that was not in the space, came the smallest sound, soft as a feathers touch, light as the sparrow’s breath. It was like tap against pillows—muffled and subdued, barely even audible. It was as if the fabric of darkness had sucked it into the deep. Then it stopped. For a time there was nothing, and then something moved in the darkness—slowly but massively. The room seethed in a sandy hiss like velvet rubbing polished stone. Then came the voice, everywhere and nowhere all at once--a booming, dominant silence. It has awoken. It was a statement, not a question. The voice carried with it a confidence beyond mortal conception of such a word—there was no other reason that the disturbance. The risk was too great for any other explanation. From the infinite blackness drifted back a languid answer, dreamy and displaced from any specific source. The tail of each word stretched away into unending nothingness. ‘There has been movement on the matter, Master. The signature has been found. But…’ The hidden power understood without being told. You worry that you are early, my sage? Far earlier than we all predicted? ‘Yes, Master,’ replied the voice eventually. I am not, my sage. If the signature has allowed itself to be seen then there can be no doubt that it has awoken. It has returned, my sage! After all this time, it has returned! ‘Yes, Master! What would you have me do?’

When can it be initiated? How soon can he be caparisoned? ‘Soon, Master. Very soon.’ Good. But take no chances, my sage. Do not forget The Sunda Strait,' thundered the voice silently. ‘No Master,’ the voice replied as composed as it could. Then, once more came the sound of muffled steps—drifting away this time into the farthest reaches of the inky depths. They tapped at the night as they fell into the distance. Sage, the great force thundered mutely just as the sound had all but disappeared. ‘Yes, Master?’ Is the boy aware yet of what he carries with him? There was a pause in the darkness as the question was considered. ‘No, Master,’ breathed the visitor, eventually. ‘But he soon will be.’ The darkness fell away and soon he felt solidity under his feet once more. There was light—not much, but far more than there had been. Now he once again had space and gravity and the sense of existence. It was...uncomfortable. The red cloaked figure emerged into a dark hallway, lit on either side by low, yellow candles. The surrounding walls were covered in dramatic Baroque artworks of epic battles and lined at intervals with ancient stone artefacts. At various places along the wall were golden plaques. He read one as he passed. 'Shanghai, GMT +8'. He walked a few more steps down he corridor and read the next plaque. 'Bangkok, GMT +7'. An entire time-zone every few steps. The Master's powers, even now, are truly incredible. I cannot believe my predecessor was able to build this. There would be no way of knowing how much time the brief meeting would actually have taken from him until he was returned to his office, but by the feel of the drag against his skin and the speed at which the candles were already flickering in the near stillness of the passage, he was sure it was at least half an hour. Half an hour that I may very well have needed... But all that was unimportant now. It had awoken—and as such there were preparations to be made, and plans to construct, and all of this had to be done with haste. There was no telling what would happen now, or who else might come to the same conclusions... It was a dark thought, he knew. But even with Mr Grey's assessment that the woman was far away, on the other side of the world, he still couldn't help but think about her potential involvement. She was the only other one that would care about this—the only other one that might notice the signature. And the result if they failed..? Remember the Sunda Strait... How could I possibly forget? At the end of the hall was a large, black door inlayed with rosewood and gold. The figure made no movement to slow as it approached it, and if anything quickened his pace. He had never actually walked this hallway before, but his predecessor had warned him about it—an unavoidable by-product of the design. The time he was rapidly collecting would equalise itself in the end, and under normal circumstances he would have stayed a while and looked at the artworks or taken in the beauty of the artefacts. But not today. There was no way that he could assist the process today; no way he could ease the effect of the re-immersion upon his body. He had to get back, and there was no time for thoughts of self-preservation. He had only a few short hours to do his duty. He approached the doorway at pace, faster than a person normally would. His feet kicked up on the carpet. His hands reached for the brilliant brass door handle… And then everything went strange.

Suddenly the room was retreating and the floor beneath him stretched out into the distance. Now the doorway was ten steps away; then twenty; then one hundred. His movements, like the floor beneath him, became stretched. In the air the smell of burnt hair swirled. He quickened his pace, but as he did so the sensation began—the feeling that he was facing all 360 degrees of the hallway. The feeling that he was stepping forward and leaping sideways and rolling backwards all at once. The doorway was coming closer, but now it was no longer rectangular but triangular, then spherical, now cubic. It darted left and right on its dormant hinges—shuddering with each advancing step. He looked straight ahead, trying to find the pinpoint of solidity to focus on. Sweat ran across the figure’s cloaked forehead as he broke into a run. A pulling feeling twinged across the back of its eyeballs, and his breathing became laboured. Fight it off! Push through the pain! The sensation multiplied and wrenched at all sides. The door was right in front of him, now. As he reached the last few steps the air felt, just for the briefest of seconds, like it was made of tar. There was an intensifying of the stretching sensation across his head, a final moment of twisting perception across his sight, a drag like wild horses on the edge of his head... And then his movement broke free from the restriction and the world was once more as it was supposed to be. Without a moment’s hesitation the cloaked figure reached down, pulled gently on the cool doorknob, and stepped out into a room of black marble and panelled walls. No sooner had he entered the room than a hollow, perfectly enunciating female voice came from behind him. 'You certainly took your time.’ The robed figure did not look around—he knew exactly who it was that had spoken. ‘Yes,’ he replied in a voice clipped and sharp. ‘'Half an hour, if I’m not mistaken.’ ‘One hour, to be precise, Mr Black. It is past eleven. And I can tell that even at that you hurried the re-immersion. I can only assume that The Master was energised by the news you presented to him, to have taken up so much of your time. And the fact you are still alive suggests that things went smoothly?’ ‘We have received the confirmation about our tasks.’ ‘Ah,’ she intoned gently. ‘So the Osiris Report appears to be both correct, and fatally flawed then?' ‘But the prematurity does not appear to bother The Master, Mrs White. He is confident that the birth will take place. As such, when the moment presents itself we will move.’ 'Did you not hear?' asked the female's voice with sticky entice. 'Developments have occurred while you were away. The signature plateaued almost twenty minutes ago, Mr Black.' Mr Black’s mind raced. The boy has been chosen. It has begun! 'Then there is not a second to lose! We must move now. I trust that you have found an acceptable steed for me to caparison?’ ‘Oh yes,' replied the woman evenly. ‘Your predecessor showed me the plan some years ago. Dangerous stuff, if ever I do say so. But I have managed to corral the right sort. And,' she added with a faint hint of relish, 'I think you shall find it will be steeds, Mr Black.' The hooded man resisted the urge to look around and face her. 'Did you really think I was going to let you have all of the glory?' she asked, not a single hint of anger in her voice. 'I shall be accompanying you. Mr Grey will be able to

handle the Associates and make preparations here; after all that is his job.' Mr Black paused in thought for only a second, and then accepted the move. There was no time for these petty power plays with his second in command now. 'Alright, Mrs White. We must make haste. The possibilities if we do not are too dire to even consider. ‘Of course,’ replied the woman in a flat tone. ‘Horrible things may be descending upon him. And we are the boy’s sole chance of survival!’

10 Everything was white. Leon immediately wheezed back the full contents of his lungs as it all hit him like a cement truck—the heat, the smoke, the ravaging tongues of fire. His heart erupted and he broke into a cold sweat. He knew he only had seconds left. It’s still all white! I’m still in the fire! He sat bolt upright and ran a million different possibilities over in his head—how he was going to escape, where the nearest window was, what he was going to do to live. As soon as he was vertical he looked around frantically. I have to get out! I have to get out! Then he stopped. Through panting, sweating breaths Leon surveyed the strange room back and forth-utterly confused about where he was. There was no smoke in the air; there was no fire in the room. Instead of the soul wrenching whine of alarms there was now a mute nothingness. This building—wherever it was—was the opposite of where he had been only seconds before. In place of all the things that were causing his heart to thunder in the prison of his ribs, there was only an empty, calm, sterility. For the first time he breathed in consciously. The air was cool and clear and not in any way filled with the rip of acid, or the bite of smoke. Though his chest still ached he found he could actually breathe--deep, clean breaths. I’m...alive! I got out of the fire! But out of it to where? The unfamiliar room was lit with a bright, diffused neon—covering everything is the same layer of unbroken whiteness. There were four white walls, bare and clean. Directly in front of him was a simple, white-painted door, with a gleaming handle of stainless steel. One side of the room had a wide window, covered by a sheet of thin, white strip-blinds. At the moment they were set downwards. A softness underneath his hands caught his attention and he looked down to see that he was lying in a bed—made with perfectly ironed white sheets, folded neatly at the edges and tucked firmly from the base to up around his waistline. He followed the sight up his chest and noticed it was clad in an unfamiliar white gown—seemingly made of plastic, or some other cheap material. Finally, he completed the train along his limbs and saw the bandage around his right hand and the needle in his left forearm—slithering out like a hollow snake up to a bag of dangling liquid on a thin metal post. His location clicked. I’m in a hospital? How did I get to a hospital? What the hell happened? He knew there was the fire, ripping at his skin and clawing at his lungs. There had been the smoke, which made his eyes feel like they wanted to jump out of their sockets and escape. There had been the glass, or metal, or something, on the floor. Wait, that’s right! He’d cut himself, on his foot. How was that? He looked down at the two lumps at the end of the bed, hidden away beneath the white cotton sheets. They didn’t appear to be any bigger or smaller than normal, although it was hard to tell under the fabric. He tried to wiggle his toes and was happy to find that he could do so, and without very much pain. There was the slightest ache on the sole of one of his feet, though he couldn’t immediately tell which one. He looked over his body once more. Apart from the pain in his hand and foot, and the IV drip, it didn't appear that he had any other injures. He drew his uncut hand up and surveyed the skin. It was undamaged. With a bewildered exhale he let it fall once again to the fabric. How did I get in the fire? And where was the fire even at?

He hadn't recognised the room, although that wasn’t really very important—the only thing he could see was a few inches in front of him. Think back, he told himself. What was there before the fire? What had happened? His mind lurched like an arthritic tortoise, as he forced himself back past the events that were scalded across his most recent memory. There was the hallway, with Jade. He had just spoken to her, that he remembered. The memory felt fresh and clear. He could almost taste the happiness he had felt from the interaction. Then I went outside, and it was just coming night. And I walked behind the bleachers, because I didn’t want anyone to see me and then...that's right! There was that whole thing with Daniel. God, that had been worth seeing. But what then? He strained his head, pushing through the flickers of memory like they were shrouding veils. Then...I was in the park... I was in the park with Jade. And I found her crying. And I comforted her... And we talked for a while and she kissed me! And then... And then he couldn't remember. From that point onward there was absolutely nothing there—like foraging for treasure in an empty box. The last thing he could remember was being with Jade at the tree in the park. Apart from the minute or so of footage he had of the burning inferno everything beyond that was gone. Red blinking numbers caught his attention and he looked over to see a clock. 11:20pm. Hours had passed since he first found Jade by the tree. What the hell happened in that fire? We were in the forest for a while but not for four hours! Why can't I remember? His head felt groggy and distant, like someone had stuffed it full of mashed potato. Maybe I should sit up..? He eased himself up and stopped almost at once His muscles throbbed—a deep burn far below the skin that was impossible to ignore. It was like someone had crept into his veins while he was asleep and knotted his tendons into bowlines and rubbed steel wool over all of his joints. The tissue around his shoulder was locked together like concrete. His neck felt like it’d had a chair broken over the top of it, and a weakness shuddered inside his elbows as they tried to take his weight. Leon groaned as he forced his limbs beyond the point of pain and finally got himself up into the seated position. Suddenly he could feel where the glass had gashed him. All of the painlessness and serenity was gone. While before there was just the bandages and nothing else, now there was a definite throb from the area of the wounds—distant, but promising that they could very quickly become worse. He looked to his left arm and, for some reason he couldn't fully explain, reached down, gripped the IV needle, and pulled it out. A feeling of queasiness overcoming him as he drew the metal out through his muscles and past his skin. He suppressed a shudder and held down on the spot were a drip of blood appeared. There was a tray of food next to his bed but he certainly wasn't hungry, although he could have murdered for a cigarette. He wondered if they had confiscated the pack from his pockets when they dragged him in. They're probably not big on letting kids smoke in hospitals, are they? Damn... He looked back down at the clock. 11:24pm. Leon sighed. It was all too hard. His mind poured over and over the situation— trying to find the link that his brain has misplaced. There was a dark moment when he wondered if Jade could possibly have got caught up in the fire as well. He tried to dismiss that, but it stayed anyhow. His began to turn and wriggle with discomfort at the thought. He wondered if there was any way he would be able to find the answer to that now,

instantly. After long attempts to sleep the air conditioning seemed to kick into overdrive, making him shudder with cold. Amongst the dark stillness of the room he could hear the distant fade-away sound of a clock’s tick. It was faint and metallic, the sort propelled by an old mechanism. He hadn’t noticed it earlier, and he opened his eyes to see the the clock to his right. The digital red numbers beamed their information—11:24pm. He closed his eyes once more and tried to settle down. Like the flow of molasses from a teaspoon, the clunky gears of Leon’s mind clicked over and he remembered two important things. The first was that that 11:24pm was the same that had been shown when he first started dwelling on things, and it was not possible that less than a minute had passed since then. The second was that digital clocks don’t tick. A single spike of dread rang across him from the predatory, self-preservation section of his brain. He exhaled as slowly as he possibly could and attempted to make his already immobile frame even stiller. At once it felt as though the air had been doused in ice, and chills of prickly goose bumps spread over every inch of his exposed skin. There was a feeling in the side of his head, just around the temples; a feeling that through the darkness, somewhere amongst the shadows, and most definitely near that soft ticking, he was being watched. It hung on his skin like a steel weight. As though his eyes were hooked on a fishing line, his vision was dragged slowly around the room. First he looked to his left, along the darkened space of the bare white walls. His head moved with aching slowness—taking in the space, and embracing the pang of relief in every square metre that had nothing it in. His eyes prayed for emptiness. His breath begged for absence. His sight crossed the door in front of his bed, laced in frosty menace—the door handle appeared cold and surgical now, and he wondered if it was possible to lock it. He followed the wall around, not wanting to do it, but compelled to by some alien force in his head. He held his breath as his sight inched across the room. Closer and closer it came to the edge of the wall. It ran past a small patch of vacant plaster, and over to the final corner, where he knew there was a white, wooden chair. He swore he saw movement in his peripheral vision, but kept moving his eyes, begging for it not to be true. At last he turned to face the chair. His breath vanished. There was someone sitting in it. 11 ‘I’m telling you John there’s nothing in that kitchen! Will you stop wasting time.’ The athletically built frame of Officer Tania Kelly slouched in annoyance--holding several labelled, plastic zip-lock bags in her left hand and resting the other hand impatiently on the holstered butt of her Smith and Wesson Sigma handgun. 'You’ve been at this for ages now and I’m getting sick of it. Late shift finished at 11. We should have knocked off half an hour ago!' Her gravelly voice was directed towards a stockily built man crouching down on all fours awkwardly, his legs splayed out between two blackened beams—burnt almost totally to ash—which had fallen down from the now barely existent ceiling. There was an open bag of tools next to him and he was currently running a tiny pen light up and down the crevices

and gaps of what little remained of the kitchen. Every now and then he would flick a small switch on the side and the light would morph from bright white to a deep purple. ‘It doesn’t matter how minutely you look you’re not going to find anything in this wreck, John,’ she continued. ‘We’ve been over this place five times. The fire department gave it the all clear and mapped the whole thing out. The investigator from Capital City has assured us personally that he will be down in a few days. Can't we just leave it to the experts?’ There was no response from the other side of the counter. ‘Look, the overtime you're pumping into my account is all well and good, but I’ve got a late wine date to squeeze in and you should get home and actually spend some time with your wife!’ The crouching Officer, just visible through holes in the burnt-out kitchen cabinets, seemed to barely hear her as he prodded the light behind the cupboard door hinge, hanging loose from the scalded woodwork. The woman stared into the back of his short black hair, and then gave up. ‘Jesus Christ,’ Officer Kelly sighed, throwing the pile of evidence bags onto the half missing kitchen table and slumping down in the most intact of the lounge room chairs. Officer John Stansted had been her partner for almost five years now, and while she knew him to be a good cop, it was damn hard to put up with him when he got it into his head that something outlandish had happened when no evidence pointed towards that conclusion. Officer Kelly had a simple philosophy when I came to clues—you didn’t need to look under every single rock to hunt for evidence, most of the time just noticing there was a rock gave you enough to work with. Her eyes wandered the room while she waited for her partner to re-enter the real world. She had to admit that it was, or at least, must have been, a beautiful house— although what it was doing in this neighbourhood was anyone’s guess. Everywhere she looked were the remains of modern fittings and uniquely shaped windows. Now the room was little more than a smear of black. Everything smelled the awful toxic smell of burnt plastic. She looked up at the massive hole in the ceiling and could see the stars and moon high in the sky. ‘What exactly do you expect to find there John?’ she asked after a long pause, putting her booted feet up on a hunk of rubble that had probably once belonged on the roof. This time he answered her. ‘Who can really say, Tania, but it never hurts to be thorough with these things does it.’ ‘It does when you’re going to end up cock-blocking me! Two months it’s been since I’ve had a man, and this guy tonight is definitely the sort that doesn’t waste time. I'm already pushing it to squeeze in a late night quicky as it is! It’s all well and good for you, Stacey seems to never put on weight, even after the five kids she’s given you, but some of us still have to get out there and meet people, you know!’ The face of John Stansted rose over the top of the marble counter. It was covered in ash. ‘Tania, we spoke to both the girl's parents, and both of them said that they had never even seen the boy before. They said that they don’t remember him ever coming round to the house.’ ‘Yeah, and..?’ ‘And now he is suddenly found in the middle of a fire in that house, the first time he is in it?’

‘So what, John?’ ‘So,’ began Officer Stansted, pausing for dramatic effect, ‘who knows what he was doing here? Maybe he wasn’t even invited in? Maybe he just stopped by to, I don’t know, steal something? Or worse... You know how young men think. Either way something went awry and he tried to burn the place down to cover his tracks.’ ‘Oh come on, John!’ Officer Kelly laughed. ‘You really don’t know girls, do you? I know you probably don’t want to hear this, what with Amber coming up to that sort of age, but teenage girls keep secrets from their parents--even the good ones. They sneak out of their room at night. They open their windows and let in friends when they think their parents aren’t going to hear it! And, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but some of the people that those girls let in are boys!’ John Stansted clamped his hands over his blackened ears and spoke loudly. ‘Sorry Tania, I didn’t catch that! What did you say?!’ She threw the scorched remains of a nearby novel at him, missing by several metres but succeeding in getting him to uncover his ears. ‘Ass!' she said with a grin. 'Look, he was probably the girl’s secret boyfriend. And you don’t go introducing every boy you want to screw to your parents do you? Not at that age at least. I mean I certainly don’t even at this age. The oldies are out on a little adult dinner date, he probably came over for a quick bit of something while they had the house free. Someone knocks over a candle and then boom--fire!’ Officer Stansted stood up from behind the scorched counter ground, dusted the black marks off of his face and shirt, and rested his elbows onto a solid space on the bench top. His eyes opened wider, exuding honesty. Oh God! thought Officer Kelly, he’s going to do his father-knows-best voice, I just know it. What is the lesson this time? ‘Tania,’ he said, leaning his weight forward and looking at her earnestly. ‘What is the first thing we’re always taught about fires? The very first thing?’ Damn. It's a good one as well. ‘Yes, yes, I know!’ she breathed, throwing up her hands and slouching ever further into the comfy chair. ‘Always suspect something from strange young men in situations of suspicious fire. Most pyros are men in their teens or early twenties. Most fires are started by men. But that is only in cases where there is something suspicious. And this isn’t suspicious, John.’ Officer Stansted opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted before he could. ‘Ah! No, No! I don’t have time for this. I know you like to argue and banter and ping-pong these ideas around, and on any other boring day it is a welcome distraction from the grind of the job, but tonight is not the time for it. So, let’s cut all this down to the bone and say: fine, go on, show me one thing in this room that screams unusual. Don't give me ideas, or hypotheses or outlandish suggestions—just show me one thing in this room, something in front of either of us that is worth spending another minute in this place. Otherwise we’re calling it a night and I’m going to try and get laid.' Officer Stansted’s lip curled into a slight smile as his eyes scanned the room. His fingers drummed dully against the marble as he turned around on the spot, moved a few lumps of ashen rubble around on the floor with his foot, then turned back to face his partner. ‘There’s a suspiciously big lack of evidence... Which has to be, in itself, suspicious?’ he ventured, still wearing his slight smile. ‘Right, we’re done! I win!’ snapped Officer Kelly, standing up from the sofa, grabbing the bags of evidence from the table and walking towards the door. ‘You coming?’

'You don't think we should go to the hospital and interview the kids?' John!' she barked, already halfway out of the house. 'They've both just survived a house-fire! We can leave them until the morning you know!' ‘Fine,’ conceded the male Officer, throwing his tools into a bag on the floor, followed his partner out the door, underneath the yellow and black hazard tape and out into the warm evening. ‘But I still say there’s something strange going on. Mark my words before this is all over we are both going to be seeing something big here.’ They reached their plain brown squad car, recognisable as police only by the single red light on the roof and the dividing Plexiglas screen between back and front seats. ‘If it turns out there is, John’ began Officer Kelly, opening the door and getting into the driver’s seat, ‘and that’s a doubtful if, then I’ll buy you a case of Jack and you get bragging rights, okay?’ ‘Fair deal,’ said her partner. ‘Although you already owe me two lots of those bragging rights. Don’t think I’ve forgotten about them.’ ‘Hey! I always pay out with the whiskey though, don’t I?’ Officer Kelly laughed as she fired the engine into life and slipped the car into auto. ‘Hey, Tania..?’ asked the man, a small not of fragility in his tone. ‘Yeah, John?’ ‘All that stuff about teenage girls... You don’t think that Amber has any visitors. Do you?’ Officer Kelly looked over at the suddenly worried face of her partner and felt a genuine pang of fraternal love for the man. He really was a good father and a genuinely, decent man. But, on the other hand, she thought, he had almost certainly ruined her date. ‘Millions!’ she replied with a smile as they drove away. The car had travelled no further than one hundred metres down the quiet, suburban road when it slowed gently to a halt at a T-intersection and put its left indicator on. A car came in the opposite direction, along the main road, and then passed. The universe stopped momentarily. Rather than merge onward, the police car remained perfectly still. There was no movement from the occupants of the car, no indication of any activity at all--not an adjusting of the mirrors, a shifting in the seat, a rummaging amongst the contents of the centre console or even the smallest change of silhouette to indicate the turning of a head in speech. Everything was perfectly, totally still. Suddenly the indicator light switched around--now flashing right, and the tires screamed into life. At once the car was hurting off down the road, smoke billowing. 12 Leon tried to press his body against the bed-head but found his muscles locked. He wanted to scream. He wanted to yell. He wanted to do something, anything, but his mouth simply gaped open and closed in disbelief like a stunned fish. The figure in the corner chair was still. The only sound that punctuated the silence was the thin mechanics of a small clock ticking. Tick... Tick... Tick… He looked around frantically, unable to will the rest of his body into movement. There is a nurses button around here, isn’t there? There always is in hospital. A big red thing so they get to your before it’s all too late. Where is it? Where the hell is it! Before Leon could swing his arm around and slam a hopeful patch of wall, or even

move to indicate his intention to do so, words drifted from the near-darkness. It was the most horrible voice that Leon had ever heard—inhumane and acerbic. It sounded like acid eating a plate of solid lead. “As the sweet moon on the horizon's verge, The maid was on the eve of womanhood; The boy had fewer summers, but his heart Had far outgrown his years, and to his eye There was but one beloved face on earth, And that was shining on him…’ The voice caught itself in pause and with the smallest movement of a black-gloved finger the man, and it was clearly a man, reached up to the blinds and separated two of the thin metal strips with a soft clink. It allowed a small band of moonlight to drift in to the room and illuminate a single stripe of the man’s features. ‘He had no breath, no being, but in hers,’ he finished, looking out of the window. Leon stared at the man in shock. He didn’t move after he had spoken, but simply sat there in the chair, looking through the glass, out into the night. For a while nothing happened as Leon, too confused and scared to move, watching him. The near silent tick seemed to draw out the silence to infinity. ‘Lord Byron,’ the man declared into the silence of the room, the abrasive voice chewing the paint off the walls. ‘Though I doubt that poetry is one of the things that would compel your interest, Mr Wheeler.’ Leon shuddered. The way that the brutal voice pronounced his name made him feel like he was stripped off under a spotlight in the middle of a crowded stadium. It was horribly, utterly exposing. ‘And I wouldn’t be too concerned about searching for that emergency alert button, either. The button would respond but the nurses would not, as it were, get to you in time,’ the man said, still staring out the window. He held up his right hand, previously hidden in the dark, to the strip of white light revealing a glinting, silver pocket-watch—its door open and weight spinning gently on its light-link chain. The tick cut the air like a knife and Leon hazarded a brief glance down to the digital clock beside him. Even before he had done it he knew what the clock would say. 11:24p.m. Time had not moved. The spike of dread returned as the man again began to speak. ‘I must say that your sense of timing is not particularly appropriate. While it is not polite to arrive to an event after the scheduled time, it is also incorrect to arrive before it.' Leon stared transfixed at the shadowy figure. He opened his mouth to speak but no words came out. After almost a minute of silence the man again spoke. 'You are early... Have you nothing to say in your defence?' 'Wh...what do you mean?' he muttered in a terrified voice. A question,’ the man said to the world in general, ‘perhaps presents itself, does it not?’ ‘A...question?’ Leon stammered, feeling dislocated from his lips and the sounds passing through them. It was like hearing the words coming from another place around the room. ‘Yes, Mr Wheeler...' Every inch of his skin crawled once again at the mention of his name. The tone was like an arctic gale. ‘Yes, a question. Something that would be, shall we say, pertinent to the situation. The podium is yours, the microphone is wired, and the audience is awaiting the opening bars. Don’t be so objectionable as to keep them on tender

hooks.’ Leon stared at the seated figure, dumbfounded. ‘Who... Who are you?’ he squeaked without thinking, saying the first thing that came into his head. The man gave a small tut. ‘How disappointing. How typical, how common. I would have expected better.’ The pocket-watch spun slowly on the spot, still being held up by the man’s gloved hands. ‘An obvious first question, yes, but not one that allows for any great insight. It ranks with ‘How did you get in?’ and ‘How long have you been watching me?’ for inquisitive pointlessness. Suppose I told you who I was, suppose I was to be so generous to give you a name—if I told you I was Sean Michael Keynes, a thrice married investment banker from New York; or Douglas Fitzpatrick, a novelist and part time teacher from the outskirts of London; or Jason Briggs, a retired navy seaman from the Australian west coast, with a bad left leg and a predilection for sweet foods—would that really make any difference? Would you trust it? Could you know with absolute certainty that it was the truth? And even then, assuming you did, and it was, with a name and a face would you be any the wiser about what was going on? Would it allow you a greater stake in the bargaining? Would it assist you in any meaningful way in discovering the information that you actually want to know? I hardly think so...' The figure turned slowly away from the window and looked towards him, his hidden eyes piercing the room. 'And you haven't even considered for the possibility that I don't know what my name is! That is very careless of you. Very irresponsible. That hurts me deeply.' The seated man kept his finger on the thin sheet of metal that was allowing part of his face to be illuminated. When the eyes finally settled onto Leon's own the room seemed to immediately descend into the depths of an industrial freezer. ‘But I am not cruel,’ the voice seethed. ‘I do not believe people should only be given one chance. So I will give you an opportunity to redeem yourself. If you would be so kind, would you please ask me the right question.’ The stress the man put on the word right was like a dagger to Leon’s throat. His forehead began to sweat even amongst the freezing air. His heart was throbbing heavily. This can’t be real. This can’t be real. Who the hell is this guy? Noting Leon’s dawning look of confusion and panic, and without taking his eyes off him, the man swivelled the pocket watch in his right hand, subtly drawing attention to its polished gleam. ‘Take your time. As you can see, we have an abundance of it.’ He hazarded a brief sidewards glance down to the digital clock. It was still 11:24pm. Jesus! Okay. What does this guy want? A question. What kind of question should I ask? The right question... But what the hell is that? Should I ask about the time, how he is managing to stop it? Leon ran his hands nervously over the cotton of his bedding, and his mind created the answer on its own. Wait... I’m sitting in a hospital bed while a man with a voice like a massacre is quoting me poetry and stopping time. I'm a moron. This is a dream! They must have pumped me full of some weird drugs after the fire. If there even was a fire... ‘Is this a dream?’ he found himself asking. There was a slight movement across the man’s face. ‘Interesting,’ he hissed in that horrible, drawn out voice. ‘That is a truly interesting question. And not one that I would have thought you would ask. It has tones of assurance, fear, uncertainty, but also a measured amount of logic. Indeed, how can we make decisions, or know what is the correct course to take when we are not certain if our decisions are set in laws and rules we know to be true?’ There was pause as the seated man considered this further.

‘Yes. Yes, what a truly interesting question. And allow me to answer it for you. You are not dreaming, and this is very much the real world. Perhaps a little distant from where you are used to seeing it from, but the real world none the less.’ In the gloom of the corner he heard the sound of the man’s gloved fingers wrenching their grip tighter around the chain of the pocket watch. ‘But I am afraid, interesting as it was, that was not the right question.’ Leon felt the room get even colder, and his hands gripped at the thin sheets that covered his legs. The man’s unmoving eyes could be felt from across the room—they were like halogen headlights, casting him in a blinding spotlight and examining his reactions. It made Leon feel like every evil thought he had ever dared to think was spread out on a table-being gone over with a fine tooth comb. It felt was like he was being disassembled. It was like he was being taken apart piece by piece. It was only a look and yet he could almost feel it in his bones, taste it in his mouth. ‘One...more...chance,’ the voice enunciated, as slow and cold as a glacier. Tick… Tick… Tick… Leon’s mind turned—unable to take any of this in. Every pore on his skin slithered under the tone. No matter what the man had said, claiming this was the real world, he couldn’t fight the feeling that this had to be a dream. And yet, it was all so vivid. More vivid than any other dream he’d ever had. But what else could it be? In a few minutes I'll wake up! I just have to! Leon flinched as the voice came next to his head, bubbling and seething like a sulphuric hot-spring. The man hadn’t moved, not even a muscle--he was still seated in the chair, holding up the pocket watch--and yet suddenly the voice was being yelled directly into his right ear. ‘As I have already told you, Mr Wheeler, this is not a dream! This is real, Mr Wheeler! And the sooner you digest that little fact the sooner—‘ The voice stopped. The sound of the tick was all that filled the room. With the most gradual of movements the seated man turned his head away from Leon and looked up to the ceiling. With the same deliberateness he moved his gaze down to the floor, where it lingered for a moment. Then he brought it back and spoke once more. ‘They are coming for you, Mr Wheeler.’ His whole body shuddered. Every drop of his blood turned to ice. The voice carried with it a certainty. It held in the sounds of its twisted speech an absolute and total sureness. And suddenly Leon wasn’t so sure that all of this was a dream. It was a horrible feeling of creeping realisation. ‘Who is coming?’ Leon asked quickly, suddenly drawn into the possibility of belief. 'Friend and foe are close as love and hate, Mr Wheeler. You should remember that. It will serve you well.' 'What do you mean?!' 'Friend and foe are close as love and hate...' 'I don't understand! Who is coming? What do they want?’ There was the longest pause, a mockery to his sudden urgency. The hidden eyes mined through the frost of the room and into his body. When the deathly voice finally spoke it was like needles of ice into his flesh. ‘They want you!’ Suddenly there were footsteps all around him—like steep-caps on metal. They thundered in his ears, stampeded in his brain. He looked to the figure in the corner and suddenly there seemed to be less of him. The edges of his face were smudged and the bulk of his shading was ghosting away into the background of darkness.

‘No!’ Leon yelled over the din that filled his head. ‘You can’t leave yet. I have to ask you one more question. You told me I have to ask you the right question!’ There was a pause in the fading and suddenly the man was back to his full solidity. The pocket watch was still in his hand; his fingers still holding open the smallest space in the window blinds. ‘Indeed, Mr Wheeler? Then I suggest you ask it.' The stampede crashed louder—the steps falling all around. He could barely hear the sounds of his own words being formed in his mouth. He wasn’t sure if it was the right question, the one that the man wanted to hear—there were a million questions he could ask right now, none of what was happening made any sense at all—but it was the only question that Leon could think of. ‘What happened in the fire?’ For a few seconds the man sat still, unmoving. The footsteps exploded. Louder and louder they built till all he could hear and feel was their thundering stamp. Then, in the limited light of the low moonlight he saw the seated man smile. 'Tick-tock, Mr Wheeler...' he said with a hollow laugh. There was a snap of metal and instantaneously the man was gone. For a moment there was an awful sensation that he was being pulled in all directions, like there was a horse shackled to each of his limbs. At once there was as crash in front of him and a burst of light from the open doorway. In its blinding suddenness was the outline of a man, large and moving with urgency. It hurried to his bedside, grabbed onto his arm and jerked him forcefully to the open doorway. His legs felt like jelly. His feet tingled with pins and needles. The sensation of being pulled in a hundred different directions was still all around him. The man gripped tighter on his arm and pushed him firmly against the wall. He could see in the half-light filtering from the hall in that the large body was dressed in a Police uniform. ‘Ow!’ Leon complained, still shocked by the sudden intrusion. ‘What’s going on!’ ‘My name is Officer John Stansted,' the man hissed as he pushed them both against the door frame and peeked around the corner for a second. ‘You are in danger! We have to get you out of here!’ 'Why!’ Leon demanded. ‘What is going on?’ Officer Stansted pulled his head back from the well-lit corridor. ‘Leon, I don’t have the time to explain exactly what is going on here, I wish I could but I can’t. But we have to get you out of here, now!’ Before he could ask anything else and Leon felt a large hand pushing against his chest—guiding him firmly against the wall. He looked up at the man to see what was happening. The officer’s silently put on finger up to his lips. At first Leon looked around confusedly. There was nothing in the darkness of the room. Then he heard it--a noise that was hushed and only just audible. It was a slow, disjointed click coming from somewhere down the hall. It was like the sound of broken mechanism, or perhaps the noise of someone with heavy shoes trying to walk softly on a hard surface. Leon immediately held his breath. Click... Click… With slow movements Officer Stansted trailed his hand down his body, ran his fingers along the length of his black-leather belt and, as silently as he possibly could, unclasped the holster of his handgun. The metallic noise seemed to ring like a church bell in

the silence of the room. He held his hand in place for a moment. Click... Click... The sound was drawing closer now--inch by inch. With movement of painful brevity Officer Stansted lowered his fingers to the guns trigger guard and eased it gently out of the holster with a soft, leathery drag. Leon saw that it was a revolver—short barrelled and glinting in the limited light that shone in from the bright hallway. Click... Click… The sound was only metres way now. He saw the large man draw his thumb up to the revolvers hammer. With a sudden burst of movement the officer pulled it back with a now-thundering metallic click, whirled himself around the door-frame and out in to the hallway. There was a sudden gasp, a muffled scream and then a moment of silence. 13 Officer Tania Kelly was a mess. Her red hair frizzled wildly in different directions. Whatever make-up she had been wearing was smeared savagely around the edges, like she had gone swimming without removing it. The navy blue of her blouse was ripped in several noticeable places, revealing long scars of smooth, tanned skin underneath, and the leather of her utility belt seemed to be hanging by little more than the will of the stretched stitching. To Leon’s eyes it looked like she’d been mauled by a bear in a tornado. Even in the shock of all that was happening, an image of that scenario filled his head momentarily. The woman was slumped against the wall, supported by her left hand, a handgun held limply in her right--panting heavily with a look of annoyance covering her unkempt face. Leon looked her up and down, pausing only momentarily at the points of revealed flesh. He was surprised when he came to the floor. Around the souls of her shoes appeared to be a slowly growing pool of liquid—its clear surface glinted like glass in the bright whiteness of the neon hallway. ‘Don’t ever do that again! I almost had a heart attack!’ spat Officer Kelly, gesturing emphatically with the dull silver handgun. ‘God!’ muttered Officer Stansted. ‘What happened to you?’ ‘What happened to me? What happened to me!? What does it look like? I was attacked! They burst the fire hydrant just outside the entrance while I was standing next to it. I was lucky none of the metal hit me!’ 'What do you mean? Who attacked you?' 'Who do you think, John? That woman!' Officer Stansted looked at her, horrified. 'She's here? How!? Where are they now?’ asked Officer Stansted, firing off the questions in quick succession. ‘How much do they already know?’ ‘Well, I don’t know,’ said Officer Kelly tetchily. ‘In the process of fighting for my life I didn’t have time to give them a full sit-down interview. Maybe next time I’ll—‘ ‘—Tania!’ ‘Oh yes, fine! There are two of them,’ she replied, still looking annoyed. 'It seems she managed to find a lackey in her personal vendetta!' 'Damn, a Psychic is the last thing we need right now! Where are they now?' Psychic? What does he mean, Psychic..? ‘They followed me into the lobby, and by the time I was inside they already had control. Dozens of people are already under. I couldn't stop them. I ran as fast as I could

to warn you. But... once I was up the first flight of stairs I was alone...’ ‘They just let you come up here?’ The woman nodded her head. Leon stared in abject confusion as the two Police Officers talked. 'It's the weirdest thing,' Officer Kelly frowned. ‘They’re here for this one aren’t they?’ She gestured vaguely at Leon with her handgun. He flinched on reflex as the barrel lined up with his chest and she continued. ‘Why wouldn't they follow me up here?’ 'I don't know,' Officer Stansted replied shortly. Across the hall was a receptionist table. Officer Stansted walked over to it and picked up a phone, dialling a number from memory. After a few seconds he spoke. 'It's me, Mr Grey. That woman it here! Right underneath us! They got here so quickly that they must have been in the area already! God knows how long! Yes, right under our nose. But they must have a base—somewhere where they are keeping their possessions. You know what to do...' He hung up the phone and looked hurriedly around the white-walled passage. After a few moments he strode up to a grey double doorway, which apparently lead off into a different wing of the hospital. Mounted on the wood, split in two down the division of the doors, was a grey acrylic plaque. Both Officer Kelly and Leon followed behind and saw that the plague was actually a two-toned drawing, showing all five floors of the hospital. It was marked with the words, ‘Fire Evacuation Procedure,’ in bold red letters at the top. ‘I think they didn't follow you…’ John Stansted began as he took his hand and ran a finger over the bottom of the five near-identical layouts for a few seconds, ‘because they have us totally surrounded.’ ‘Surrounded?’ snapped Officer Kelly, pushing her partner aside and running her own fingers over the lowest level of floor plan. ‘How on earth can they have us surrounded? There is only two of them and this building is huge!’ She followed the green evacuation lines of the Fire Escape Procedure, the hard ends of her glossy nails scratching as they flicked furiously over the plastic. In the end she saw that all of them, from every single room, on every single level, came to the same ends—all of the lines followed central passages through the maze of hallways, down two sets of large stairwells on the north and south of every floor, and then out into the lobby. She looked the floor up and down hurriedly for a secondary option. She didn’t find one. ‘But this can’t be right! There is no way that a building like a hospital would only have one exit! There has to be another way out?’ ‘Look at the line. The one that leads to the lobby.’ ‘I am looking at it!’ she said with a snap. ‘What else would I be doing? And you’re the one that said that they have us surrounded! What do you want me—‘ ‘Just look at it again,’ he said, calmly. ‘Closer this time.’ Officer Kelly reviewed the board once more. Leon stepped forward slightly as well, until the fire escape map was just within his field of vision. Then he saw it. His eyes bulged in disbelief. For a fraction of a second the single line that proceeded unbroken to the front entrance shuddered. Suddenly it showed the directional arrows going off along different paths—some down stairwells, some through emergency access doors, some through back doors and others out small little side doors. Then, just as soon as it had come, the line again morphed into the single exit line that it had been before. What the hell!? Officer Kelly nodded and turned to face her partner. 'But this is too our advantage,

John! She's only altered the look of the maps. The exits are probably all clear.’ ‘Probably..?’ the male officer asked sceptically. 'Yes, probably!' she snapped. 'I'm not taking a risk on probably. They could have anything down those other paths, and we only have one shot at this. We have to go down there.' 'But it's clearly a trap, John!' The man shook his head, slowly. 'No. She is sending us a message. She is telling us that the only way she will let us out of here is if we meet her face-to-face. It is a challenge!' 'We can't risk that! It's too dangerous!' For a moment the man stood on the spot thinking then, suddenly, he snapped his fingers with a loud click. ‘Got it! But we have to move! Before they have time to get settled!’ ‘What have you got? Where are we going?’ ‘No time to explain, just follow me,’ he said, already pushing the doors open and jogging out into the next hallway. Officer Kelly wasted no time in catching up to him. Leon didn't follow them. After a few seconds he took a step forward and gingerly traced his fingers over the smooth acrylic. The fire escape line was solid. There was no ink or any kind of visual trick. But the lines... They changed. I saw it. ‘Come on, Leon!’ came the voice of Officer Stansted from up ahead. He stared at the sign and eventually broke into a jog--flinching at the pins and needles that still remained in his feet. He had no idea what was going on, but he certainly didn’t want to be left alone. He rounded the corner and started sprinting along another long hallway. Officers Kelly and Stansted were ahead of him by around twenty metres. On either side was door after door, most with a small window. He glanced into a few and saw the outline of beds— some occupied, some empty. In none of the rooms did their appear to be any movement. In the corner of his vision blurred health-issue posters and the green spiked fronds of potted plants. His heart pounded as he ran further on. Ahead the officers came to another set of doors and pushed them open, arriving abruptly to a T-intersection. Officer Stansted paused for a second and glanced around for a sign. Then he darted right—down the passage marked ‘Intensive Care Unit’. Officer Kelly followed and Leon was not far behind. Leon sprinted forward, sliding a little as he tried to slow for a corner. The slip came from the elasticated bandages on his bare right foot. He thought for a moment about the impact this would have on his cuts, but quickly dismissed them—there was no time for that. He had to keep up. He wanted to know what was going on. He rounded another corner with just enough time to see a flicker of material disappear ahead. He sped up, and then slowed down as he approached the turn--still rounding it with wide, wheeling steps. Suddenly there was a tightly packed area. There were no empty corridors--no free space. Leon skidded on the slip of his dressing. He flung out his hands and knocked something over, causing him to wince at the sudden stab of pain. In the end he bumped into the strong back and arms of the man that had rescued him, who barely even registering the impact. ‘Here!’ said Officer Stansted. ‘John...’ said Officer Kelly, barely even out of breath. 'Are you really suggesting--' 'We need the element of surprise if we have any chance of getting past her.’ Her... Her... Who on earth is this her? And before they called her a Psychic. They surely don't mean...

Leon glanced around and confusion covered his face. ‘A supply cupboard?’ he asked, reading the painted label in the middle of the door, but Officer Stansted was already inside, followed by Officer Kelly. A light flicked on in the darkness and Leon saw the beginning of great stacks of cleaning liquids and other miscellaneous hospital supplies. The room smelled like pine-cones and bleach. ‘Wait out here,’ an unseen voice yelled to Leon, just as he was about to enter after them. ‘It will be safer.’ ‘What?’ asked Leon, looking at the piles of brushes and mops in the corner of the room. ‘Why would it be safer? I’m not going to hurt myself in a supply cupboard!’ Officer Stansted’s face reappeared around the corner. ‘Trust me,’ he said with a look a fatherly certainly. ‘It will just be safer for everyone if you don’t come in.’ Something hot in Leon began to rise, deep from within his soul. He had accepted the bizarreness of this entire situation for almost twenty minutes now, ever since the seated man had come to him. He had accepted that there was something going on that was confusing as hell. But these Police Officers were here for him. The people downstairs, whoever they were, were here for him. Whatever was happening was about him. He deserved answers. ‘No!’ he snapped loudly over the sounds of banging and crashing that were coming from inside the room. ‘I’m running around a hospital with two Police Officers while wearing a plastic robe because I was found in a fire which I have no idea how I got into or how it started. I just saw a solid plastic board change picture in front of my eyes. You two keep talking about this her person. And you called her a Psychic! What the hell is that supposed to mean? And now you've both run into a supply cupboard and are telling me that it's too dangerous for me to be in there! The sound in the room stopped and Leon continued. 'All of this is about me, isn't it? I'm important to whatever is going on but I have no idea why! I want to know what the hell is happening! Tell me what the hell is happening! Because right now I am really struggling with the idea that all of this is nothing more than a crazy dream!’ After a few moments Officer Stansted crept over to the doorway. When he spoke his voice was unflustered. ‘Leon, I know this is hard, and I know that you want answers...but I can't give them to you. Not yet. And I'm afraid that this isn't a dream. I really wish that it was, for your sake, but it isn't. What is happening is real, and you are in real danger. I would explain it to you but I can't—for the same reason that we can’t let you into the room. Believe me the only people that you can trust right now is me and Officer Kelly.’ Leon’s frustration refused to ebb. ‘Why can’t I be told?! Why can’t I know?!’ ‘Because,’ began Officer Stansted slowly, ‘it is the only way of protecting you. There is every chance right now that if you know something, then she will know it as well.’ ‘Who is this she you keep talking about? And what does she want?' 'She is dangerous, Leon. And we've come here to save you from her. And to do that we have to get back into the room and--' 'What does she want with me!?' Leon yelled, refusing to budge. 'Trust me, you don't want to know th--' 'Tell me! Now! Why do I need protecting? What does that woman want with me?!' The officer's eyes were evaluating but not critical. After a few moments he let out a disappointed sigh.

'Leon,' he said, 'I don't know how to tell you this but what she wants... You see...' 'What?' screamed Leon, on the verge of breaking, 'What does she want?' The man's eyes looked apologetically, and with great reluctance he revealed the answer. 'She wants to kill you, Leon.' 14 Stabbing neon exposed the large, clinical space. Around the room were sixty or so people— some sitting down, some standing, some leaning against the wall. In the middle of the room were rows of chairs facing an oversized television monitor, which was mutely displaying a game of football. The images moved on the poorly tuned screen like a an ancient film reel—staticy and unfocused, often blurring in and out of colour. In the very front row a man tapped his feet distractedly. His muscular frame was emphasised by the slim-fit t-shirt and distressed jeans that clothed his pitch-black skin and shaved head. 'Come on, come on!' he muttered to himself looking over to a curious area of dark in the corner of the brightly lit room. Smoke rose as he stubbed a cigarette onto the floor below. In the seat immediately beside him sat an elderly man, hat and coat still worn even though it was summer outside. He appeared to be reading the newspaper. ‘Can you believe this,’ the muscular man said to the world in general. There was no response, and after a few moments he turned his head, attempting to make eye contact with the old man. ‘I said, can you believe this?’ Again there was no response. The bulky man moved his face slowly over until it was no more than a few centimetres from the upturned newspaper. Without diverting his gaze he brought his hand up and snapped his fingers. The sound seemed to pulsate through the air in a short, sharp wave. Instantaneously the television flickered to black. The old man remained perfectly still—newspaper covering his face. 'Are you having a go, mate?' asked the younger man, rising to his feet. At full height he was strong and intimidating—his biceps forming two perfectly structured balls of muscle. The seated man made no attempt to shift his posture or address the sudden escalation of the situation. In a flash the dark skinned man snapped a foot in front of him. There was a sharp thwack as the boot made momentary, whipping contact with the newspaper—sending twodozen pages of broadsheet up into the air in an explosion of grey scale. They fluttered slowly to the ground in various pieces of tattered news. The seating man did not so much as flinch at the violent act—he simply sat in his seat, the hands that had held the newspaper still out in front of him. After a few quiet moments he brought a wobbly finger to his wrinkled lips, placed it slowly in his mouth and then dragged it in an arc across the empty space in front of him. The fingers in his left hand, resting on his knee, loosened themselves for a moment and then firmed their grip again. The younger man leaned down slowly and looked in the man’s eyes. They were running back and forth, left to right, in slow, straight, horizontal lines. He put his hand directly in the man's face and waved. There was no reaction, and after a few moments the old man once again licked his finger and drew it across the nothingness up front. 'Not even a flinch,' he whispered. 'Damn, she is good.'

For what felt like hours the young man walked around on the spot, his hands tapping manically on his bulky thighs. He looked down at his watch as it ticked over to the next minute. Then the next. Then whatever deadline he was working on appeared to expire. 'This has gone on too long!' The man moved through the room, stepping between standing people frozen in midstep all around him. While the people sitting down were mostly still, or moving only slightly—performing some basic rote activity like the old man had been--the people standing were as still as a hunting lion. Their bodies looked like a rigid human maze as he worked his way through their frozen inaction. Just as he had almost cleared the unmoving throng he turned a little too suddenly and felt his large arms knock against something. Like time standing still he watched as the stiff mannequin body of a young, suited man tipped on its axis of balance, teetered on the edge of vertical, then slowly collapsed backwards—still stiff as a board. There was a flash of movement and suddenly the man was still—his body all but horizontal. Empty air filled the two inches between the man’s blue suit and the floor. The tip of his gold tie swung gently a few times in the gap before coming to a rest at his side. The man held his hand out in the manner of someone gripping a baseball. The muscles of his forearm were tense and the ligaments of his fingers bulged heavily just below the first knuckles. He twisted his head as he looked the businessman over—the face frozen in a blank, far-away stare; the hands to the side of his body, captured slightly off beat in the middle of their walking swing; and the left heel tip that was the only part of him that remained connected to the floor. With smooth movements he brought his hand closer to his body. As if on a string the rigid body drew effortlessly off the ground—like it was falling in reverse. When it had risen close to forty-five degrees he stayed his movement and then arced his hand back down. The man’s waxwork body followed suit, till it was once more only a few inches from the ground. After a second’s stillness he unflexed his hand. The air seemed to snap and there was a soft thump as the man fell the short distance to the floor, where he lay in frozen stillness. 'Couldn’t you just have put him back on his feet?' a hidden voice exhaled from the darkened corner, after a few moments. ‘It’s hard to convince people they are walking while still when you keep dropping them to the ground.’ ‘To hell with these people, Lilith! They are just getting in the way! Why don’t you make them go and sit in their cars?’ ‘While they are here, Fynn, I can see them. I can watch them. I can make sure that none of them are coming round. We don’t want random humans seeing this do we?’ the shadow hissed. ‘Now, what do you want?’ ‘Its been almost ten minutes, Lil!' the man called to the darkness. 'We've stumbled across the break of the century—being in this town when this happened! So, what are we doing down here?! Why don’t we just go up there and corner them? We'd get the kid, and get out of here before anyone even cottons on! Tight! Clean! Simple! They won’t even know what hit them!’ ‘No,’ said the woman flatly. ‘We will wait here, and we will allow them to come to us.’ The man called Fynn leaned in closer to the darkened space. 'Lilith, I know you've been planning for this a lot longer than I have. I know this is personal for you. Surely you understand the risks of what we are doing—leaving them alone with him.' There was no response. ‘Lil, please' the man pleaded. 'They’re just a couple of Riders, and they’ve already

caparisoned the steeds. They're defenceless! We could run up there, rip them to shreds, tear them limb from limb and grab the boy before they even have a chance to scream!’ ‘No!’ said the woman, this time more firmly. ‘We will wait here. We will allow them to make the come to u—‘ ‘—Dammit, Lil! This is insane. If we're not careful they might even escape with him!’ There was a drawn out moment as the shadow of the woman stepped forward into the bright white light. A trail of darkness seemed to flow off her skin as the neon gradually repelled it. She was tall and muscularly curvy, with skin like white chocolate. Straight black, hair, untied and free, cascaded all the way down to her feet, which were covered in short, sharp, stilettoed boots; at full height this made her several inches taller than the man. Long, delicate eyelashes framed her distinctly sapphire eyes. ‘You think I don't know the risks, Fynn? I have been planning for this day since I was a child! I brought you onto this team, I was the one that made you believe, and I will be the one that makes the decisions! The only way out of this place they will feel comfortable going through are those doors there!’ she barked, gesturing towards a huge stretch of automatic glass. ‘If they go along any path but the one right here I will make them severely regret it, and they know it! I am offering them a single option—come down the stairs and confront us. There is no easy escape. There is no getting away from us.’ Fynn opened his mouth to say something, saw Lil’s face, and then shut it. ‘Remember The Sunda Strait!’ she said with menacing deliberateness, her eyes glinting. The recognition dawned across his face, and he nodded slightly. ‘Believe me, Fynn, no-one wants to see these Riders suffer more than I do. And I promise you that before this night is over the boy will be dealt with and the Riders will be dead. I promise you that we will tear the flesh from their bones, rip their brains out of their heads and hear them scream in pained agony as we paint the sky red with their blood!’ By this stage the brown eyes of Flynn were glinting with hunger, and a dark smile had curled upon the edges of his lips. He could feel his hair begin to stand on its end. ‘I will let you do whatever you like to them,’ the tall woman continued, leaning in to her companion slowly and whispering in his ear. To Flynn the words were like honey, and his heartbeat began to race. ‘Kill them! Destroy them! Brutalise them! Crush them! They have nothing—no power, no ideas, no means of escape. They have already lost. None of them will make it out of this place alive. ’ She drew her face around his, holding his unblinking gaze as she moved in to his other ear. When she again spoke her words were hot as steam against his cool skin. ‘But we cannot make any mistakes. I cannot guarantee that my perceptions will hold if I have to walk, and run, and chase, and actually hunt them down. We cannot risk the possibility that while we are searching for them they could slip past us, and out to freedom.’ With delicate touch she ran fingers down his chest, along the iron six-pack she could feel beneath his t-shirt and slid a hand behind the belted waistband of his jeans. Fynn shuddered. ‘Can you do that for me, Fynn?’ she asked in a breathless tone, drawing her mouth up to an inch away from his. “Can we let them come to us?’ Fynn nodded slowly, staring into her deep-blue eyes. ‘Good,’ she replied in a casual, full-volumed voice—breaking the spell of the moment. With sharp movements she turned on the spot and walked back towards to the corner of darkness. ‘But l will make you a deal. Why don’t I give them something that will get them down here quicker?’

Fynn watched as she slipped back into the corner of unnatural darkness. With defeated movements he walked back across the lobby and over to the seat near the television. He snapped his fingers loudly and the set shone back into life. After a few fuming seconds he crossed his arms and leaned over to the old man, whose eyes were still scanning across the non-existent news-script. ‘Don’t even get me started…’ he muttered. 15 Leon wandered up and down the sanitised halls in a daze—his bare feet sliding along the cold, polished linoleum of the Intensive Care Unit. He hadn’t even knocked on the door after Officer Stansted had closed it, he’d just wandered off on his own. How on earth were you supposed to react when you'd just found out that someone wanted to kill you? He walked away from the small side-passage with the supply cupboard, down the long corridor lined with identical sky-blue doors.. At exact intervals between them were small tables with fake flowers and a few chairs to sit on. He sat down on one of them for a second...and then got straight back up. What the hell is going on?! How could he say that someone wants to kill me and then just walk away?! I want to know why! What the hell have I done? What is this all about? The fire? Is that all part of it? Did something happen there? Does this woman want me dead because of the fire? And the man in my room... And the map... Frustration clawed at him as he pondered the flurry of unanswerable questions. And why did that man in the room smile when I asked about the fire? What was he telling me? His own mind rebelled at the question—slapping him back with an internal berating.. Dammit, Leon, he wasn't real! People can't stop time! Kid's believe in that kind of stuff. Little boys read books about that kind of stuff. There is no way that is possible. He stopped wandering and stared ahead. But if that isn't the answer then what could it possibly be? That all of this is just a dream? A nightmare? The frustration in him snapped and he slapped the wall hard--the bang echoing down the long hallway. A second later he felt the stab of pain and realised he had used his bandaged hand. A small patch of damn red appeared around the edges of the tight white cloth. Hell! That's all I need right now! He was about to walk away--back towards the supply room--when he glanced up to where his throbbing hand was resting. His eyes lingered over it. His heart began to race. He had hit a small square of well-used whiteboard. Upon it, five letters were visible; the disjointed skeleton of familiar words. He slowly pulled his fingers away from the messy blue scrawl and read the unmistakeable name. Jade Dansel Without thinking he began knocking on the door heavily. ‘Jade,’ he said, with a quickly rising note of happiness. ‘Jade! Oh my god, I’ve been so worried!‘ There was no response from the room and the door was seemingly locked. Leon moved his head to the small window and looked inside. It was dark and still but he could just see the silhouette of a body laying flat on the bed. ‘Jade!’ he said, banging more loudly now. ‘Jade can you hear me? It's Leon. The door is locked.’ At first there was no movement from the room, but then, very slowly, came the smallest hint of rousing from the shadows. In long, drawn out steps, the shape of the body

drew itself up and sluggishly moved into a standing position. A huge sensation of relief filled Leon’s heart, and then he remembered how sore he had been when he'd first got out of bed. ‘It’s okay, don’t rush,' he called to the shadow as he saw it stagger forward on unbalanced feet. 'I don’t think they’re giving enough painkillers in this place, just take your time!’ The body moved closer to the door, step by aching step. He could just make out the shape of her hair and clothing—it looked like she was dressed in the same hospital garb that he was. The silhouette stepped into the first rays of light filtering in from the hallway. ‘Oh, Jade! I’ve got so many questions! I can’t remember anything after we talked! What happened with the fire? Where was it? Can you remember anything? Do you have any idea how…’ Ice filled Leon’s blood as he looked down at the legs that had just entered the light. ‘No…’ he whispered. The skin that was stumbling forward looked like rotten pork crackling. Wet patches of sickly white melded together with dry, flaking expanses of red that only barely maintained the shape of the original appendage. The sores and burns rose and fell like mountains and oceans on the ruined flesh. No sooner had the legs come into sight than the thighs, and then the arms. Leon couldn’t look away. His eyes were frozen to the body now less than two metres away from him, but separated by a door. He knew what was about to come, and yet his vision remained fixed. A tear fell down his cheek as Jade’s once beautiful face came into view. ‘God, no…’ It looked like someone had peeled her face off. Every single inch of her skin was bloody, and scarred, and weeping. The burns extended to halfway up her scalp--balding her completely except for the long hair that remained at the back. He started to take a step back but found himself unable to move—as if locked on the spot. The face drew in until its ghastly reality was less than six inches from him. Up close it was the most horrible thing that Leon had ever seen. ‘Leon,’ croaked the voice behind the door. ‘Jade…’ he replied, tears running down his cheeks. ‘What... What happened to you?’ Jade didn't reply. Instead she said something that made every millimetre of his skin crawl. ‘Run away, Leon! Get away from them while you can!’ ‘Jade…’ he muttered, as his heartbeat quickening further. ‘Jade what do you mea--‘ An awful, foreboding click to his right interrupted the question. Then another came from further down the hallway. Then two more behind him, then more and more all around. The air was still with dread as Leon stepped backward, suddenly free, and looked reluctantly along the passage. In one groaning drag all of the doorways opened. One-by-one, thirty red, raw, dripping bodies staggered out of their rooms and into the hallway. Leon’s back hugged the wall unconsciously as a hideous old lady stepped out of the doorway opposite Jade’s. Her mouth hung open—swollen red lips hanging free as her twisted body lurched towards him. Her eyes were white as pus. Leon twisted back around to the window in front of him. It was empty. ‘Jade!’ he yelled banging on the door. “Jade! What is happening.’ There was no response from within. Leon stared in panic for a moment, unable to

will his body to move. And then, without consciously deciding to, he was running. The officers! The supply cupboard! As he ran back down the hallway he heard the sounds of doors unlocking behind him, followed by the swish of their openings. He didn’t dare look around and raced to the side hallway just as a double door up ahead was pushed open to reveal another mass of suppurating bodies from the next wing. He rounded the dead-end corner and sprinted towards the door. The second he reached it he began hammering his aching fist on the wood. ‘Get out here!’ he screamed. 'Jesus Christ, get out here!’ There was a long moment of inaction from the other side. He thundered his hand even louder against it. The sound of wet movement was getting closer, only just around the corner. At last the door in front of him slid open. He looked up, about to speak, and then the breath died in his lungs. Officer Stansted’s face was a mass of weeping sores. 16 Officer Kelly opened a second bottle of the foul-smelling liquid and poured it into the bright, yellow mop-bucket with free-flowing precision. Around her was the discards of numerous chemicals, soaps and powders. To the right she heard the sound of hard knocking at the supply room door, but she had no time to look up. When she had measured the liquid to her satisfaction she threw the half-full bottle to one side, moved across the room, up to the stacks of cleaning products, and selected another large canister—screw capped and coloured orange. She brought it back to the mop bucket and added a glug. In the firing synapses of her mind fizzed something strange—a hidden conversation taking place just beyond the point of conscious acknowledgement. Her hands didn’t falter, her eyes didn’t blur, her waking mind didn’t even hear the silent voices whispering in muffled tones, but still, below the surface, a conversation was being had. ‘How am I doing this?’ it asked. ‘I don’t know how to do this...’ But of course we do, whispered another, its voice clipped and precise. It is a skill that we learned a long time ago, when we first became an Associate. The training that taught us how to survive, how to excel. How to make use of our surroundings. ‘A long time ago... Oh, yes, I remember. Back when The Master was taken away from us. Back when our kind was ostracised along with him for refusing to accept The Council's ruinous plans. I remember... But,! No I don’t remember that. I am Officer Tania Kelly. I am a Police Officer in Barrington. My parents are Ruby and Max Kelly. I was born in this town. I have never been an Associate. I have never been ostracised by a Council. And I certainly never learned how to make something like this.’ And yet we are making one. Doesn’t that tell you that we must have learnt how to do it at some point? If we had never learned, how could we possibly be doing it now? ‘But...well. I guess that I must have. ‘ Of course we have. And we know our purpose, don't we? We are here to protect the boy. We cannot allow any harm to come to him. ‘No harm to the boy. Yes. Those people downstairs—the Psychic—she wishes to kill him. She will stop at nothing to see his death. But, no! That doesn't mean that I should do this. I am a Police Officer; we don't make things like this.’ But it is not as simple as that? There are circumstances, remember? Have we forgotten already about what dwells inside the boy's flesh and bones?

‘Oh, yes. Inside his flesh…’ And those people downstairs have powers. We saw what they can do.' 'Yes. They burst the water main. They want the boy.! A person can't make a hydrant explode from across the carpark. A person can’t do that. That is the stuff you see in fantasy movies. Real people cannot do that!’ But we saw it… ‘Yes, I did see it…’ And we must protect the boy from them at all costs. They will stop at nothing to see him dead! We must make sure he does not come to harm. Isn’t that right? ‘Yes, of course. I must protect him.’ At all costs… ‘Yes,’ said one of the hidden voices as her oblivious body moved along the stacks of equipment until it found a metal chest—closed and more secure than the open shelves of cleaning supplies. She pulled open the heavy drawers one-by-one until she found what she was looking for. Her autopilot hands held up a small, heavily-sealed plastic box. Inside was row after row of surgical scalpels. Each blade-tip emitted a dazzling pinprick corona. ‘I must protect him at all cost...’ Even if it means sacrifices. ‘Yes, even if it means sacrifices.’ There was a pause in the internal conversation. A moment of slight confusion filled the space. Then there was an air of uneasy resolve. ‘I... I am Officer Tania Kelly.’ Yes, replied the second voice evenly as the sound of a nearby commotion filled her ears. Of course we are. 17 The horrific thing was still wearing the Officer’s uniform—blood-soaked around the collar where the dripping flesh connected with the blue cotton. Through the oozing complexion Leon could tell that it was still Officer Stansted, which made what was in front of him even worse. It took a step forward and Leon backed away, throwing his hands back to find something that he could grab. ‘Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ!’ he breathed in panic, feeling nothing but empty air. The thing turned its head from side to side slowly, staring out unblinkingly at him with milky, dead eyes. Leon realised with horror that it didn’t have eyelids anymore, leaving the spheres of mouldy grey open and exposed. It took another step towards him, this time quicker. Leon backed away further but found himself pinned against the wall with nowhere to go. His hands ran along the plasterboard desperately. Oh, God! Oh, God! There has to be something! Anything! The thing came within one metre of him. He could hear it breathe, making a squelch like boots in mud. Suddenly it opened its mouth. The teeth were yellow and black. It released a roar—projected from the pit of nightmares. Its breath reeked of rotting fish. Leon looked around urgently for a way of escape. To his right was a dead end with no other doors and to his left he could see the mass of other suppurating bodies advancing towards him. This can’t be happening! Suddenly he did a quick-fire double-take—looking back towards his right. There was

still the same ten metres of dead-end corridor, but in the middle of the far wall, blended to match the surrounding paint job, he saw the handle. A chute! What’s it for? Laundry? Rubbish? I can't see a sign on it! It might go down to an incinerator for all I know! The horrid thing took another step closer, now only centimetres away. A thick piece of yellowing flesh peeled away from its forehead and fell to the floor with a wet splat. Oh God! No time! Go! As if on command Leon's stillsearching hands touched on something solid. He didn’t even register what it was—it didn’t matter. With sudden speed he hurled it around, clubbing the Officer hard across the temple. Glass exploded everywhere. The thing spat violently, spraying bloody saliva over Leon’s face as he darted off to the right. The ten metres to the chute felt like miles, and after only a few seconds he heard the sound of wet footsteps behind him. The handle was far heavier than he expected, and opened with a drawn-out rusty creak. A long, black, vertical drop, less than one metre wide, was all that was inside. Movement raced towards him as he flung himself up to the precipice of the drop. He fed one leg into the chute, and then the other, then his torso, keeping a grip in the thick handle with shaking fingers. The metal was freezing. Suddenly the thing was right above him. His nose filled with the smell of death. He released his grip from the handle and embraced the darkness. No sooner had he begun to drop then the fall was arrested by a drenched hand gripping the back of his neck. The sticky fingers clenched like a animal snare. He screamed as fingernails like knives ripped into his flesh. He tried to reach up and fend it off but there was no space for his arms to move. All his hands could do was bang dully against the metal walls that encased him. With no other form of attack he flailed around, shaking his body left and right as it swung over the dead-drop. He felt the fingers begin to slip and wrenched himself even more, ignoring the pain. After a few seconds he felt the fingers give way, and in an instant he was falling. The pit of his stomach flew into his chest as black emptiness hurtled forth. His body banged against the tight walls as he fell--cold air racing over his skin. For several long seconds the universe stampeding past him blindly. And then there was light. At once there was a crash, an impact, and something enveloped him—cold and bracing. He couldn’t breathe. His lungs choked on the surrounding thickness as he rolled over and over, suddenly free from the monstrous pull of gravity. Then he realised what it was. I’m in water! His eyes were filled with swirls and bubbles of the water’s agitation. With what little remaining sense of direction he had, he swum upwards—towards the light. After two or three kicks he burst through the surface and sucked deeply on the air. It filled is lungs like nectar—sweet and fresh. He blinked his eyes clear and looked above him. His mouth dropped open. The source of the light above him was not a neon lamp, nor a tungsten bulb. It was something that didn’t even exist inside most buildings. It was the sun. A hot, white, brilliant sun. His eyes trailed down around him and suddenly he felt unable to breathe again. He was in the middle of a lush, green jungle. 18

Officer Stansted slammed the chute closed and marched back along the hallway. He kicked the stem of the vase that had just been broken over his head as he passed. Officer Kelly appeared it the doorway, her face turning straight away to shock. “I heard something break... John! Your face!’ Officer Stansted dabbed at the gash that ran four inches over his left eyebrow, sending long streams of red onto his otherwise undamaged skin. ‘Where is Leon?’ she asked, looking around. The man pointed towards the end of the hallway. Officer Kelly stared at him dumbfounded. ‘He’s...gone? What happened?’ ‘I don’t know. He was looking at me like I was some kind of monster. His face was terrified. And he didn’t respond when I tried to speak to him. He kept was looking behind me as well, like there was something there.’ Officer Kelly surveyed the area. Apart from an explosion of glass shards over the floor the space was totally empty. She thought for a moment and then turned back to her partner. 'The Psychic...' she muttered, with a faint air of bewilderment. 'Yes. It must have been her. I don’t know what she made him see though, and I’m shocked that she would even try it. Trying to break into him! He could have torn her apart if he wanted to.’ ‘Where does the chute lead?’ asked Officer Kelly, walking hurriedly down the hall.' Officer Stansted didn’t answer, instead he ducked back into the supply cupboard.. ‘John!’ she exclaimed. ‘There is no time for that! We have to follow him!’ ‘Stop calling me that!' snapped the man's voice from inside the room. 'Control the mouth of your steed! And I know we can't just leave him, but if we go down that chute then we are just jumping straight into their arms. A long, black chute--it's the perfect sensory deprivation space. She could pull us into one of her perceptions and there would be nothing we could do about it.’ ‘We have to take that risk! We can’t waste time! They might escape with him, and we won't be able to protect him!’ ‘Escape,’ said the male Officer over the sounds of banging. ‘If she is prepared to risk placing him under a perception then I think she will move in for the kill right now!’ Officer Kelly stared back for a moment and then gasped. ‘Here?! She is going to attempt it now—no preparation? That’s madness! Surely she would be no match for him; it would be suicide!’ After a few moments the man emerged, carrying the yellow mop-bucket. An ill fitting piece of plastic had been fixed over the top, closing it off. When he spoke his voice was all certainty, and seemed somehow out of place with the physical body of the man who was saying it. 'This woman has been fighting her entire adult life against us. She has sacrificed her career, made enemies with us, and ruined her name in the eyes of the Council. She has single-mindedly pursued us for over a decade, when no-one else did. I don't doubt her resolve to this cause. I think she is prepared to die for it if she needs to.' ‘So what are we going to do?’ asked the woman, in exacerbation. ‘We shall use the same plan as before,’ the man said, turning on his heel and walking off down the hall. ‘The spell she is going to attempts is always held under a perception--to try and keep the Adept calm and accepting. I am certain that she has Leon in one right now. She is no fool, she knows how powerful that boy is—that is why she is here in the first

place. And if she is trying to keep him from ripping her in two then it will be a deep perception. Totally immersive. She will be putting all of her energy into making it work. And that gives us an advantage.’ Officer Kelly ran along behind and opened her mouth to ask how on earth this situation could possibly give them any kind of advantage when, as if reading her mind, Officer Stansted held the mop-bucket up to shoulder height. She smiled as her superiors plan clicked into place. ‘All of her attention is on him...and not us?' 'She wants us in the lobby? Then we will meet her in the lobby,' he said as he steamed off down the corridor. 'And we will bring her a little surprise--teach her not to pick on little kids.' The woman smiled as Officer Stansted looked over his shoulder momentarily and caught her eye. 'Let’s fry this bitch!’ 19 It was the most beautiful thing that Leon had ever seen. The white, hot sun cast coronas of light that extended for kilometres across the deep, blue, cloudless sky. A thunderous fall of water crashed down from the top of the impossible mountain—a solid sheet of red, craggy rocks that filled all of his immediate, upwards vision. Its concave drop from mountain tip to heart caused a huge, all encompassing space, which technically might be called a cave, but instead appeared more like a monstrous, red, unsupported half-arch of stone overhead. The semi-circular cut in the base framed the rim of the pool he was treading water in, although lake would have been a far more appropriate word. To his right was the main impact point of the fall, in the middle of the lake and far away from the bulk of limestone--cascading down in a tumbling mass and giving the effect of an inverted fountain. The water it fell into was crystal clear, and prisms of colour reflected across the dazzling fish of gold, white and silver that flicked away below. And all of it, even though he had certainly never seen it before, somehow seemed familiar. ‘It’s so nice to meet you, Leon,’ said an ethereal voice, drifting in the mist filled air of the pool, displaced from any direct source. It bounced off the rocks and trees that lined the banks of the cold water--quiet, yet present all around him. Leon could tell it was female, and from the sounds of it young. ‘Who are you?’ Leon stammered, trying and keep his face above the water-line. As soon as the words had left his lips he flashed back to the man in the chair and what he'd said about that question. Now that he thought about it, it really was a pretty useless thing to ask, and yet, he had a strange feeling that if he had been put back here, in this same place, at the same time, he would still have asked it. A small laugh filled the space. It was not unpleasant, but warm and open. ‘Why don’t you come up here and find out for yourself?’ it cooed. A sensation of lifting filled his body and in a matter of second he was no longer swimming, but standing. As he traced his eyes along the path of a huge carp he realised with a shock that he was standing not on dirt, or sand, or any other solid surface, but on the water’s surface itself. He jumped back, trailing drops from his bare toes and sending out a shudder of rippling circles. The water gave a little when his feet returned to it--like it was made of cold jelly--and felt at any second it could give way back into liquidity.

'Beautiful, isn't it?' asked the voice. It rode on the back of the tumbling, vertical water--not fighting over the immense sound, but coming with it like an auditory attachment. He surveyed the scene. The familiarity was definitely there, just below the surface, although he didn't know why. The trees, the rocks, the waterfall; all of it seemed wellknown. It was like deja vu, but he had only ever visited places this beautiful in his daydrea... The familiarity of his surroundings clicked. ‘Yes,’ he said eventually, turning once more and looking at the dazzling scene, then adding, ‘But...then again this is all just a dream.’ But what if it isn't? said a little voice in the back of his head, before a hidden hand smacked the it away. ‘A dream, Leon?’ said the voice, a little surprised. 'Why would you say that this is a dream?' 'Because,' began Leon, watching as two nearby birds preened themselves. 'I created this place.' And that much was true. It had been almost two years ago, during the stretch of snow and frost that dogged three months of every year. One Saturday he was sitting at his school desk, avoiding his study like he always seemed to, when his mind had drifted to another place—a place of warmth and sun and permanent summer. Over the snowstormed weeks he had populated it with detail, breathed life into its depth. It had, of course, eventually fallen by the wayside—discarded for whatever momentary stimulus sent his mind on a different course, but it was still all there, filed away with all the other things he let his mind create. There was silence and the sound of the falling water. Eventually the voice returned. 'You are quicker than I thought you would be, Leon. I thought this place would be far back enough for you not to notice. But even so I am afraid that this is not a dream. Although in many ways I'm sure that would be easier to believe.' Leon barely balked at the statement. 'So far you're the third person in an hour that's told me this I'm not dreaming, and for a while there I might have believed it. But having me appear in a place that I know I created in my head? That's a bit of a give-away. I'm guessing that I'm just having a bad reaction to an antibiotic or something? And all of those people with the sores? That was a nice touch, because I don't normally dream in horror. My mind must be clicking into overdrive.' Leon's tone was facetious. The confusion didn't seem so bad now that this was so obviously not real. 'You believe that the people with all of the burns on them were part of a...dream, Leon?' 'A bunch of zombie monsters? Of course. What else could it be?' If could be... No! Stop it! 'That is a very interesting way of thinking about this. But I am curious, may I ask you a question?' 'Fire away,' Leon replied, somewhat flippantly. 'If you believed that those people in the hospital were just part of a dream,' said the voice with a catch in her speech, 'then why did you run from them?' Leon's brain ground to a halt, searching in its reason for an explanation. Why had he run? If he had been so convinced that the people were part of a dream, why did he flee them? 'Because it hadn't felt like a dream?' offered the female voice, as if reading his mind. 'Because even though you could convince yourself that something like that could only

happen in the world of nightmares, there was a part of you that didn't believe it. You said that this place, a place you created, could not possibly be real...but tell me, does this feel like a dream Leon?' Leon paused as he ran the answer over in his mind. No... he thought eventually. It looks like one, and the only explanation is that this has to be one, but doesn't actually feel like one. I've had vivid dreams before and there not like this. This feels real. This water feels real. The sun feels real. The air tastes real. Every part of me except my brain is telling me that this is real. In the distance came the sound of birds twittering. It was a gentle, happy sound. 'But this can't be real...' 'Does it have to be one or the other, Leon? Are there no places in between them?' Leon hesitated as he thought about that. 'But if this isn't a dream, and it isn't real... Then what is this?' he asked, cautiously, not yet prepared to let go of his disbelief. ‘We see the things that our eyes choose to show us, Leon.' 'Right,’ he said with a wry laugh. ‘For a moment there I though you might have given me an explanation or something. By now I should have just learnt from my mistakes and stopped expecting answers.’ ‘But you want answers, don’t you Leon?’ queried the voice. He laughed ‘Yeah, but as I’ve given up thinking that I will ever—‘ ‘You want the answers, don’t you, Leon?’ the woman repeated, the words curling off her unseen tongue like butter on a warm knife. He picked up the inflection in his voice. He tried to halt the curiosity but the idea picked at the seed of doubt inside his mind. Against every grain of better judgemen the allowed himself to go along with it. ‘What kind of answers..?’ he asked. He could almost hear the voice smile. ‘Oh, Leon, where would I even begin to answer that question? I could tell you if I intend to kill you, for starters—I know you were told I attempt that. And would you like to know exactly who those Officers really are. You could know the truth of that in the blink of an eye, and with a certainty you have never felt before. Or perhaps...I could tell you the origin of the fire? Why is it so significant? I know that thought has been troubling you. Or what happened in those patches of your mind that you can no longer remember, just before the fire? Or is it all really just a dream, you wonder?' Leon’s face remained still, digesting the possibilities. ‘Or perhaps,’ the voice drifted across the water in a thoughtful, measured tone, laced with sugary entice, ‘perhaps you want to know if all of this drama, and all of this conjecture and all of this uncertainty is caused by that one little word that you are refusing to let you mind speak...’ There was a telling silence, punctuated only by the white noise of the monstrous swell in front of him. After a few seconds the torrent of water parted in front of him, casting its edges aside like a liquid veil. A triangular recess appeared its middle, in the centre of which glinted something dark and heavy. Even at this distance he could feel his eyes being pulled towards it. ‘Every answer, to every question, Leon. That is what I can offer you.’ Leon’s stepped forward. His eyes stared unblinkingly at the pitch black spot in the middle of the now-open waterfall. As he got closer he could see that it was a stone of some kind, polished and iridescent as glass, yet black as the middle of a moonless night. ‘What is it?’ he asked without shifting his eyesight. His feet took another step forward.

‘This stone holds the truth, Leon. There is no knowledge that can escape it—no truth that can be restrained in its presence. It takes in everything, it sees everything. There is nothing you cannot ask it, no fact it does not know.’ Leon was less than ten metres away from it now, and as he looked deeply into its razor shine he noticed that the drops that fell nearby seemed to bend in their fall—being pulled closer as they passed. Even the light around it seemed to be moving inwards, as if being drunk from the air. ‘It knows everything?’ ‘Yes, Leon.’ ‘And you said no-one can lie when it is around? You and I can’t lie?’ ‘No, Leon,' replied the airy voice. 'Why don’t we try it?’ ‘Okay,’ he said in a slightly dreamy voice, staring dead-into the middle of the black rock. The voice came in perfect, calming tones. 'Do you believe what I have just told you? Do you hold the possibility that what you see, where you are, is not a dream?' His eyes held the black stone and the answer fell from his lips. 'Yes...' 'And do you still hold the possibility, even after what I have revealed, that all of this really is just a horrible nightmare.' His eyes were pulled towards the darkened shaddow. His tongue paralysed as he went to instinctively deny, then twisted itself into the answer of truth. 'Nnn...Yes.' ‘You truly believe that both are possible? 'Yes.' 'And do you want to know which one it the truth, Leon?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘And do you want to know the reason that the fire is significant?' 'Yes.' 'And do you want to know if what you saw of Jade in that hospital room was real, or if that was just something that I made you see?' 'Yes!' 'And do you love her, Leon?’ ‘Yes!’ ‘And would you love her even if what you saw of her just now was truth?’ ‘Yes!’ he said, without even having to think about it. The edges of his vision had begun to blur. Now he was only one step away from the black rock. His eye's were wide and alert. The darkness of the stone filled all of his senses. He felt like he could almost hear it beat. ‘And do you want to know if she will ever love you, Leon? And if you have a future with her?’ ‘Yes!’ ‘Do you want it, Leon?’ the voice said, rising in its tone. ‘Do you want it more than anything else in the entire world?’ ‘Yes!’ ‘Do you want it, Leon?!’ ‘Yes!’ he screamed, tears running down from his unblinking eyes. ‘Yes, I do!’ ‘Then touch the stone, Leon! Touch it and you shall know everything!' Without a moment’s hesitation Leon thrust his hand towards the jagged black, his fingers only millimetres away.

And then the world ripped in two. The crash of the fall became the crash of an explosion—brutal and shattering. The water vanished from in front of him and was replaced with a chaotic, smoky, unfamiliar room. He fell to his knees and heard the sounds of screaming all around him. Something soft broke his fall. He looked down and saw a red, bloody hole ripping open the body of a woman—stretching from her throat to pelvis and cascading blood and organs like a burst pipe. He reached up with shaking, shocked fingers, turned her face and looked into the dead eyes. It was Officer Kelly. 20 The corpse stared back at him, the eyes frozen and vacant. Leon’s mouth hung open in shock. She...she’s dead! A hail of plasterboard showered over him, breaking his disbelief and dragging him back into the real world. He brushed the dusty pieces off his face, where they floated in the ocean of blood that flowed from the officer’s monster wound. He realised that his arms, feet and legs were totally soaked in it—coating him like a thick tandoori marinade. Another crash sounded out behind him and the resonance of a hundred screams played like a macabre orchestra of pain in his ears. He shot a look around the room. As the smoke began to clear he saw the bodies—people everywhere were cut and bleeding and grasping at themselves in panic. To his immediate right he saw an unmoving figure lying on the rubble-covered ground. The body was of a young, white woman, no older than her mid-twenties. He looked up at her face. Her eyes were as open and as cold as Officer Kelly’s, and as he kneeled down next to her he saw the line of ten surgical scalpel blades embedded along her arm and into her neck. He was about to reach out and check for a pulse when he saw something that stopped him. Protruding from her clenched right hand, bloody and dagger-sharp, were several long shards of black glass. This is...her. The woman from the waterfall. He reached over carefully and tried to uncurl her fingers; they didn’t move. It didn’t matter, even though the room was barely lit and smoke still wreathed its curls in the air, he could see that it was the stone from the waterfall. It wasn’t anywhere near as dark, or deep, or heavy as it had been just seconds ago but there was no doubt about what it was. He traced his fingers along the skin of the woman’s hand, out to the base of the palm where the glass stuck out, and stopped just before he touched it. Will it still work? God, it has to! I want the answers. I need to know what is happening! I have to know what is going on here! Just as his fingers were about to graze the shard of glass a mass moved towards him from amongst the smoke. It was large and hulking. ‘Officer Stansted..?’ he hazarded uncertainly into the gloom, shifting his kneeling balance backwards. No sooner had he said it than the body of a fat man, balding around his crown and bleeding all down his face, staggered into view. His thick hand clasped at his left eye. After a few seconds he realised Leon was in front of him, and pulled his hand down—holding it out desperately. Two scalpel blades pierced his eye like a kebab skewer. Leon recoiled. ‘,’ he muttered, staggering forward a few steps before slumping to

the ground at his feet. A thick, translucent goo began to drip from his squashed eyeball. Leon stared at him for a moment. Suddenly his brain flashed the horrid images of everything he had seen today—all of the blood, all of the suffering. His breathing became short and sharp. I have to get out of here... I have to get out of here! I can’t take this anymore! I have to get out! He turned and ran through the room. His feet tripped over things soft and hard, big and small. He didn’t know what they were, he didn’t even look back. There was the sound of whines and crashes all around. At one point something huge and heavy sailed through the air at head height and passed just by his nose, missing him only by inches and smashing into the nearby wall. He didn’t stop. I have to get out! The air suddenly became lighter, the smoke grew thinner, and in front of him came a line of automatic doors—shattered saw-toothed glass jutting out from the frames. Beyond them was a car park. He barely even slowed as he leaped through the destroyed entrance, only narrowly avoiding the shards that stabbed from the metal jamb or spiked on the grey concrete of the entrance driveway past it. He didn’t care if it cut him, he didn’t even think about it. Now he was outside—the free, warm breeze kissing at his sweaty skin. The air smelled like spring and night-time pollen and each breath rid his lungs of the static, chemical-ridden stench of the hospital. A torrent of water exploded from a burst hydrant nearby which trailed off down a green bank and pooled around a fence to the right him. The asphalt pounded underneath his bare feet and he ignored the pain that was throbbing from the gash on his sole. The bandages on both his wounds were bloody and frayed—trailing away behind him and grabbing on the uneven surface. Around him the car park was still half full and bonnets and windscreens glinted in the overhead lights that sporadically broke the darkness. As his arms wheeled back and forth he caught the glimpse of his hands—soaked a thick, dark, sticky red. He didn’t care. He didn’t look back. He didn’t think about the people that were in the hospital. He didn’t think about what had happened to them; what was still happening to them. All his focus was on the gateway of the hospital exit, now only fifty metres in front of him. I’m going to do it! I’m going to get out of here! His legs found new reserves of speed, pushing his broken body forward. Now the exit was only twenty metres; then ten. Leon was just five metres away from the fence when the two cars parallel to the exit screamed out of their parking space, smoke billowing from the tires, and slammed into each other with a shatter. Suddenly the exit was blocked. He looked quickly into the windows of the cars and saw that they had no drivers. Surprised, he hazarded a look back up the gentle slope to the entrance of the hospital. The building loomed as a concrete square up ahead. In the entranceway was the small silhouette of a person. After a few seconds their arms outstretched towards Leon. Glass exploded in the air and the sound of metal crunching was everywhere. Suddenly the car park was alive. Cars wheeled back and forth--weaving across the asphalt, smacking into each other and forming great corridors and blockades of tangled, broken metal. The black below him glinted with the shards of wreckage like the sky above, dusted with a million, glinting stars. Then it was all still. He looked back up towards the hospital entrance. The man was gone. Suddenly Leon’s heart stopped. He stood stock-still for a second as he frantically processed what to do. He glanced around the space in front of him—open air, smashed cars

and an unwelcoming concrete structure, all boxed in with three-metre metal fencing. There’s no way out! I’m trapped! Not knowing what else to do Leon shot to his hands and knees, crawling down between the sedans and family-movers, trying as hard as he could to avoid the hunks of splintered glass and jutting, jagged metal that protruded from them. His eyes scoured the gaps between the wreckages desperately, scanning for any sign of movement, any hint of the person. He came to an impact point, where a Toyota sedan had mounted the bonnet of a small blue Ford, creating a little triangular burrow of space—just enough to fit a body. He crawled into it. His breath was shallow and stilted, unable to draw in the deep breaths his lungs craved. Ok! Think! There has to be a way out of this, all I have to do is— A sound came that made Leon gag on his own breath, freezing him up in horror. Just around the corner glass crunched slowly. He looked around his dark metallic cocoon and saw nothing but the slender tunnel in front of him—one way in, one way out. There was no other options. Crunch... Crunch... Leon felt a tear began to well in his eyes. His lip began to shake. He thought about the bodies in the hospital—the carnage that had been had wreaked. He knew they would see killing him as nothing. He closed his eyes and listened to the approaching sound, begging silently to his own mind for release. I don’t want to die! I don’t want to die! Please, please! I don’t want to die! The sound was only steps away, now. The tear rolled down his cheek. Crunch... Crunch... Suddenly there was light overhead and the movement of air. He opened his eyes and saw a body looming, lifting the car up like it was made of paper. There was black skin and eyes as focused as a soldering iron. ‘Gotcha!’ the man hissed. Leon thrust his hands up instinctively for protection. And then it happened. It was like he had just drunk a whole litre of whiskey—all of his insides warmed and glowed. The sensation of heat sizzled in his blood. His body surged like a power cable. It grew monstrous in an instant and his skin felt like it was about to snap in two. Then the world became fire. A smouldering, seething bolt shot out in front of him like a tidal wave of ember. It exploded across the car park, hurling vans and cars and bikes aside as it bludgeoned forward. There was a blast of almighty proportions as a moving-truck leapt on its axles, twenty metres straight up into the air, then erupted into a ball of orange heat that sprayed the scene with a million pieces of machinery. Booming metallic thuds sounded all around him. The smell of burning chemicals once again filled his nose. Then there was silence. Leon exhaled a breath that felt like it had been trapped in his lungs for days. Peaks and spikes pinged in his head and he looked down at his hands in amazement. They were ablaze—tendrils of blue-white flame dancing painlessly over his skin. He looked up and saw that he was now seated in the middle of a blackened crater, half a metre down into the asphalt. All around were the burning, smoking wrecks of former autos. There was no sign of the man. Leon's mouth hung open. The silence was broken by the sound of tires screeching, and Leon got to his feet instinctively, now ready to fight. The feeling in his head was like a superman drug—he felt

like the strongest, most powerful person that had ever lived. He felt like he could fight a bear, or wrestle a tiger, or move a mountain without so much as raising a sweat. And in that single moment he knew that all of this was real—that this was not a dream. Never before has his body and skin and blood felt so unequivocally alive. This was the real world, there could be no other explanation. A car appeared from the entrance ramp in front of the hospital, darting between the smoking wrecks; it slowed down near him and then clicking open a door. ‘Get in Leon! Quickly!’ It was Officer Stansted. Leon looked around for other signs of danger, and couldn’t see any. He paused for a moment, feeling something in his body telling him to resist, to continue fighting, to keep the fire burning and the sensation in his mind bubbling. Finally, and with great reluctance, he stepped into the car and sat down. The second he closed the door Officer Stansted slammed on the accelerator and drove through the now vacant exit way. Leon saw the cars that had blocked it burning nearby as they passed. Then they were on the road, headlights illuminating the grey industrial concrete that was Barrington. With swirling movements he reached froward and pulled the visor down to reveal a small dirty mirror. He looked at himself and saw that his eyes were filled, lid to lid, with a glowing, seething orange light. Leon relaxed back into his chair—swimming in the sensations. ‘I... I did all of that...' he muttered, evenly and under his breath. Officer Stansted gave him a small smile. He looked back down at his hands, held up in front of him and moving with fire. After a few seconds they dimmed, and then extinguished. ‘I don't think this is a dream anymore...’ he muttered distantly, as a creeping lethargy began blending into the notes of pleasure and overtook him. 'Not by a long shot,' said the Officer and slammed on the accelerator even harder. The rest of the car ride was a blur—a collection of snapshot images with weaving light amongst the dark. His mind felt like melted toffee—gooey and thick. He coulder just recall the image of construction and cranes. He barely even registered the weaving road, or when the car slid out of the night and into an underground space, or the elevator ride that took him far from the ground floor, or arriving into an office complex and immediately being met with a dozen people in suits. There was the vague recollection activity—mundane things like showing. Then there was the drunken image of a soft couch and after that it all faded to darkness. 21 Everything was white. It was worse than the worst hangover after the worst night drinking the worst booze could possibly have been. Leon clutched his head and groaned emphatically. All the metaphors about sledgehammers and trucks and safes falling on his head didn’t do a speck of justice to the deep, aching throb that bass-lined through his temple. Every breath he drew was torture. When he moved to sit up it felt like he was falling down concrete stairs. Surprise hit him as he saw himself. The tattered, blood-soaked hospital garb was crumpled in a heap on the floor. In place of that he was now dressed in unfamiliar clothes—a pair of scruffy black jeans, red Converse hi-tops and a black long-sleeve shirt with a large maroon star in the middle.

He blinked his dry eyes blearily and checked himself to see if he was still all there. While everything that could possibly hurt already did, there were no patches of more intense hurting to suggest that he was particularly injured. The cut on his hands and feet were, amazingly, no more painful than the rest of him. He brought his hand up to his head and hair and noticed that it was not longer a blood filled, matted mess. He must have showered before he slept—although he had only the faintest of memories of that. His mind clicked over an important detail of the preceding moments of being awake. My hands! My hands were on fire! He held them out in front of him. A loose weave of bandage coiled around his right palm and fingers. With gentle care he unwrapped it, letting ribbons of dirty grey fall to the reflective, mirror-finish flooring, revealing his cut. There were none of the burns, scars, or exposed bones that he had expected; his skin was white and smooth. 'Your hands are fine,' said a voice from nearby, seemingly reading his thoughts. Leon squinted his eyes from the bright lights and looked around. It had to be the most modern police station in the country, because they never looked like this on television. The couch he was sitting on was a neon yellow chaise lounge with bright silver trim, the floor was black marble and green carpet, and the desk in front of him-covering enough distance to fit a second room into it--was seemingly constructed out of a single piece of glass. He was immediately confronted with the face of the man who had saved him. In the back of his mind the horrible image of his burnt avatar flickered forth. The large man sat at ninety degrees, staring at the bare, panelled wall. His face was covered in dried blood and Leon could clearly make out the long scratches where he had been hit. Apart from that the man looked normal—nothing like the terrifying thing that he'd been when Leon had swung the glass. Officer Stansted rose slowly from the chair and walked across the room to a drinks cabinet. Amongst the many bottles of spirits and liqueurs--some of them Leon recognised as top shelf--was a shining silver pot. The large man poured its contents into a plain white mug and stirred in something with a spoon. 'I am not mad about vase you hit me with, Leon,' he said, again reading his thoughts. 'It was just you and me in that hallway, no-one else...but I know that was not what you saw.' He sat down next to him and threw him a small smile. 'You are not be the first one to fall victim to one of her attacks.' He handed Leon the mug and the drifting smell told him that it was coffee. He sipped it, the warmth immediately extending to all parts of him. Officer Stansted continued. 'And I bet what was waiting at the end of the laundry chute wasn't something you normally find in hospitals, was it?' 'No! It...' Leon paused, feeling slightly stupid for what he was about to say. 'I was in a rainforest. But I mean I was right in the middle of it. Everywhere I looked there was nothing but trees and valleys. There was the sky and the sun. And then there was this voice in the air...' 'And what did it want from you, Leon?' 'Nothing. It didn't want anything from me. But it did offer to give me something.' 'What, Leon?' Officer Stansted asked gently. 'To tell me stuff,' Leon replied, momentarily catching the man's gaze, then diverting his eyes down to the polished floor. He could see his own battered reflection in its glare. 'It

told me that if I would understand everything. And I was confused. I know you said that I shouldn't trust anyone but you and Officer...' The picture of a dead Officer Kelly was instantly splattered in front of him and he turned to face Officer Stansted, his eyes filled with sorrow. 'God! I just remembered! I'm so sorry! And all of those people in the hospital! I don't know what happened I just saw her there on the ground—' 'Don't worry Leon,' the officer said calmly, 'it wasn't your fault. She sacrificed herself so that I could protect you. Right now we have to do everything we can to make sure that happens? Can you help me do that?' Leon looked at the man for a moment and then nodded. 'Okay, and now let's continue. You were in a waterfall and heard a voice offering you knowledge. And now let me guess—the knowledge that she promised to give you, it was going to come from a stone? Black? Spiky at its edges? Almost like dark shards of ice?' 'Yeah...' Leon muttered in bewilderment. 'How did you know that?' The man smiled. 'By now you realise that not all people are built the same as everyone else? Some of us are more talented that others?' Leon nodded gently after a while and Officer Stansted continued. We are called Adepts, Leon. Each of us have different Talents—natural abilities to the things that most people can only dream of. She is a type of Psychic, more specifically a Perceptionist. She can make people see things that aren't there—lock their minds away and make them believe that something is happening when it isn't, or that something isn't when it actually is. What you saw tonight--those burned bodies, the rainforest--I know that it felt real to you, I know that it all felt like it was total truth, but it was just her, lurking in your mind and making you see things that weren't real. And I knew that she would have the stone Leon, because I knew what she wanted to do with you.' The uniformed man glanced over to the corner of the room, to a two metre long, rectangular chest of black wood and polished metal trim. The look became a stare and it was several seconds before the man again spoke. 'Do you remember what I told you, Leon. About what that woman wanted with you?' Leon's face grew with seriousness as the memory took hold. 'You said that she wanted to kill me...' He suddenly understood what the man was leaning towards, and looked up to the officer's face in shock. 'You mean if I had touched the stone...' 'You would be dead right now, Leon. What you saw, what she tried to make you touch is called a Banishment Stone. There are many stones that we Adepts use, each with different powers and different purposes—Lightning Stones, Air Stones, Gravity Stones, Light Stones. Some of these amplify natural abilities; some grant additional powers. But the Banishment Stone is different to all of the others. It is something that we can call upon when an Adept gets out of hand, or becomes too powerful, or uses their power for unredeemable purposes.' The man stared out into the middle distance. 'It's a horrible thing, Leon. It burrows deep into your soul and drains our every drop of power from the body. It dredges your blood, and grinds it out of your bones. It doesn't care about finesse; it tears it from you, and doesn't consider one bit what it destroys in the process. No-one, in the entire history of our kind has ever survived it. It is an instant death sentence, and one that is almost never, ever issued.' 'But! But!' Leon stammered. 'She said that I would understand everything! And I couldn't lie when I was in front of it! How could she lie about that then?'

The Officer sighed gently. 'At the point she already controlled what you felt and what you believed. She could have made you say anything, Leon; do anything as well. If she had wanted to she could have forced your hand, but it is more reliable and more successful to banish a willing Adept than one forced into doing so.' Leon stared out into the room and suppressed a shudder. He drank another mouthful of his coffee. 'Why would these people want to kill me?' he muttered after a while. 'I've never done anything to hurt any of them! Why do they hate me so much?' Officer Stansted laughed mirthlessly under his breath. 'Her motivation is not hate, but fear, Leon. The reason that they want to see you dead is that they are absolutely terrified of you.' Leon stared at the man blankly. 'Me? They are scared of me? The woman who can create a rainforest in my head, and has a stone that can kill me, and the man that can make cars drive themselves and lift them like they don't weight a thing, are scared of me?' 'Of course,' said Officer Stansted, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. 'Why?' Leon asked in shock. 'Why would anyone be afraid of me? Look at me! I'm the least terrifying person that has ever existed!' ‘Not to them you're not,' said Officer Stansted, sitting down in the chair behind the glass desk. 'Leon, after only one day of gaining your Talent you blew apart half a car-park. Most Fire Elementalists I have met would barely be able to cause a spark in their first few months of being awoken. There are many Adepts that wouldn't be able to do what you did today after training for ten years, and even then they would probably have hurt themselves doing it.' The man moved in close and spoke to him softly. 'You are more powerful than you could possibly imagine, Leon. Incredibly so! That woman has spent over a decade campaigning in hidden, dark circles for you to be found and hunted and killed. She is running a single minded vendetta against you. She is desperate to see you destroyed and I fear that she will stop at nothing to see it happen.' Leon's face didn't move. Never before in his life had anyone described him as powerful, let alone incredibly so. It was surreal. 'Leon,' said Officer Stansted kindly, 'for as long as she has been hunting you down, desperate to see you killed, we have been here, waiting for your arrival. I know you don't understand right now, and I suppose that can only come in time, but protecting you, and ensuring that no harm comes to you is the single most important thing that I can do. It is my life's work, and as long as I am here I will make sure that no harm comes to you.' 'But...that doesn't tell me why she wants to kill me! The way you are talking about all this, being an Adept...there are more than just us in the world, right?' 'Of course Leon, millions. All ages, all races. But none of us, not a single one, are anything like you! Do you think we have to go through battles in hospitals and hundreds of deaths for every single one of us? You are unique.' 'But I don't understand,' he pleaded. 'What is so special about me that they think I have to die?' 'Leon, how can you not realise this? What is so special about you is—' There was a click to the right and to Leon’s surprise a vertical sheet of the panelled wall opened out into the room like a door. Through it walked an Asian woman with sharp, striking features--dressed in a savagely cut, cleavage revealing pants suit. In her right jacket pocket was a white, triple-pointed pocket handkerchief. She carried a red rolled-up pile of cloth in her hand, which she threw nonchalantly onto the floor. ‘What is so special about you, boy’ she said, without so much as turning to face him,

‘is that you shouldn’t exist!’ 22 The door crashed open under his weight. Dust swirled in the dark air as the metal thumped to one side, revealing a long, derelict hallway. Blood fell like raindrops on the moulding carpet underfoot from the lifeless woman in his arms. He ran to one of the doorways and kicked it down in a hail of ancient splinters. A large, grey rat scurried away as he hammered through the bare room and over to an old, stained dining table. With one arm he flung the few items upon it to the floor and placed down the limp body. Flynn looked at her face. Her eyes were open but blank. Her mouth was lolling open and along her left side were thirteen embedded scalpel blades—some on her arms, some across her breast, some jutting savagely out of her neck. With shaking hands he reached down and took a pulse. It was there, but only just. He shot looks at the four corners of the room desperately until he found what he was looking for on the other side of the furnitureless space; it was a tool box, once white but now rusted maroon and covered with flaking paint. He snapped his fingers and the metal creaked open horribly. With a flick of his wrists a pair of equally old pliers cartwheeled out of the box, through the air, and into his hands. Their points were basically dust—it would have been almost ten years since anybody had used them. It was why they choose this apartment complex in the first place. He lowered them to the first blade along the woman's arm—piercing the dark jacket they both wore. The crumbling tool clamped down over the tapered finger of metal that was intended to attach the scalpel to its handle. Without pausing for thought he ripped it out of her skin. Blood flowed like water from her wound. He quickly removed his jacket and tore his t-shirt into long strips—revealing his muscular frame underneath--his black skin glinting blue in the moonlight that filtered in through the worn lace curtains. He knotted the cotton around her cut, not bothering to try and remove the jacket; there was too much clotted blood underneath--it would be like peeling off her skin. He moved to the next blade and repeated the process. Pull, tear, wrap. Pull, tear, wrap. Pull, tear, wrap. When the blades from her arm and breast had been removed he drew the pliers up to first one along her neck—a silver spike across an ocean of wet red. The second the tool touched the blade Lilith's eyes spun to his—staring ahead like drills into him. The voice came directly into his head, bypassing his ears. You did this! You want to kill me! I will kill you first! Flynn shot a quick look around the building site as vines and trees immediately began to sprout up through the dead plasterboard. They curled and twisted along the floors and crept quickly up the bare walls. To his right was a stairway to the next level of the apartment; after a few seconds a cascade of water began to rush down it. The wood below him began to feel slacker, looser. He looked down and saw that it was already shimmering into the pale image of a fish-filled lake. 'Lilith!' he said as he grabbed her shoulder gently. Her eyes shot even deeper into his and suddenly the water was all around him. He tried to stay as calm as possible. He had been partners to Lilith, in more ways than one, for almost two years now, and no matter how much he had trained, no matter how much he had studied her Talent of

Perception he still couldn't fight it off. He knew, better than most, that there was no water surrounding him--that both he and Lilith were still in the abandoned apartment complex on the edge of town that they had chosen for this month of reconnaissance. He knew there were no trees, there was no water—all around him was air that he could breathe deeply if he so wished. And yet, it didn't help. Every part of his body was telling him otherwise. He opened his mouth to speak—in spite of the screaming voice in his head that said it was impossible, that he would drown. With enormous concentration he managed to squeak the words, 'I'm sorry.' He reached down, his lungs beginning to strain and placed a gentle kiss on her cold lips. The water drained from around him in a thundering crash, the vines and leaves and foliage vanished. He looked down at his skin and clothing—they were completely dry, and yet he had to fight the feeling that he needed to towel off. Lilith's breath stuttered as she fought back the tears. A single drop fell down her cheek and he quickly wiped it away. 'I'm sorry,' Flynn said softly, 'but I have to finish.' After a few seconds of recoordination the woman shut her eyes and nodded. Flynn began to tug out the tiny knives in her neck—his soul recoiling at each sharp breath of pain his lover gasped. After a few, awful minutes the job was done, and the blades were laid to rest on the table. Flynn moved to the kitchen and opened a cupboard—empty apart from a half-drunk bottle of cheap vodka. He unscrewed the cap and took a deep swig, then brought it down to Lilith's mouth. 'Drink this, it is going to hurt,' he said quietly. She drank a few shots of the warm liquid and once more closed her eyes. When she looked more relaxed he upended the contents of the bottle all along her arms and neck. The woman stifled a scream as the sting tore at her flesh. It may have been salt and citrus for the amount it hurt. After a few seconds the pain dulled and she was left on the dining room table—more alert than she had ever been. 'What the hell was that?' she asked through heavy breaths, looking up to see that her partner's face was cut to hell. With small movements she reached up and ran a thumb over it. 'A peroxide bomb, judging by the smell,' he said, taking her hand in his. 'They took out most of the people in the lobby as well.' 'Why didn't we stay? We could have helped them!' Flynn shook his head. 'We had to get out. The police were already starting to come. The real police.' Lilith sat up with great difficulty. By rites of common expectation she should have been dead right now—being torn out of a Perception was like waking a sleep-walker, only far far worse. In the corner of her vision the room fluttered back into a forest, then returned to its actual filthy state. 'So they have him now?' 'Yes. They got away before I could follow.' 'And the boy..? Did he show his Talent?' 'Yes, Lilith. It is him. The power was undeniable. Everything that was in the Osiris report, everything you've fought for... It is all true.' The knowledge gave her no comfort. 'God, we have to get him back! Give me the Search Stone!' There was a moment of pause as the request was considered. Flynn hardly knew

what to say. 'Lilith, in the confusion of everything... I didn't have time. It must still be at the hospital with the shards of the Banishment Stone.' 'Don't worry, we have spares! Get the extra set, we have to move fast! If they manage to complete their plan then there is no hope for any of us!' Flynn nodded and jogged through the rotting kitchen, into the bare lounge towards a doorless hole in the wall to his left. When he approached it he could feel the back of his neck begin to crawl. There was something about the pile of papers and old rubbish that seemed off. As he stepped into the room he was greeted with an awful sight. The files and maps which had once laid neatly on the table had been tossed to the floor save the single manila folder in the middle of the shabby square of wood. The folder was marked, 'Top Secret' in red inky letters stamped over the top of the black printed title reading, 'The Osiris Report'. Cutting into the middle of the folder, glinting dully, was a dagger—embedded three inches into the wood. The only other thing that lay on the table was a small square of cardboard—brushed a solid, dark grey. Flynn picked it up and turned it over, although he already suspected what it would say. On the flip-side it read, 'Mr Grey, Staff Secretary, Black, White and Associates,' in a flamboyant, cursive script. As soon as he had read it the text faded away. After less that a second it was no more than a dull, cream-coloured blank square of old cardboard. There had been no address, nor contact number. That was part of the point. If you were rich enough to afford the Associates then they found a way to make themselves known; if you weren't, then you had absolutely no chance. Lilith had spent over a decade trying to find their location, and even now they only knew they were somewhere in this town. The Report on the table had only given brief and cryptic clue in that regard. He reached down tugged the knife out of the wood, rolling it over in his hands. Flynn felt his blood begin to boil. They think they can get away with this. How dare they threaten us. How dare they! If the Council had a backbone they would be sending a hundred of us after these bastards! Instead they force us to do this alone! Suddenly the rage turned to fear as a thought smacked into his head. His skin ran cold. 'God, no...' he muttered and flung open the small cupboard under the desk. It was empty. No! No! No! 'Lilith!' he screamed, running back into the kitchen. 'They took the Stones! All of them!' 'What! The Associates were here? How did they know where we were?' 'We must have left some tracks,' said Flynn, holding up the glinting knife. Lilith's eyes ran along it in shock, and when she at last looked at Flynn her eyes were heavy and horrified. She grabbed the knife and hurled it into the dry-wall, where it shuddered to a sudden stop. The grimace of pain on her expression melded with the one of anger. 'Jesus Christ, Flynn! Do you have any idea what this means?!' Flynn's own face was a portrait of terrified acknowledgement. She explained it anyhow. 'The most powerful Adept that this world has ever seen has been taken by Black, White and Associates. We are less than five hours away from the sunrise...' She stepped forward to meet the shirtless man. Her eyes were as focused as

telescopes. 'And we don't have any way of tracking where they went!' 23 The woman moved over to the glass desk and took Officer Stansted’s face in her hands—not with romance or care, but with the focused examination of a nurse. She turned it left and right, up and down. Her unblinking eyes stared deep into the man's. ‘There is a silhouette creeping around the cornea, and the iris has begun to meld. As always we could hazard a gentle disentanglement, but I see no need to take that risk.' 'Of course,' he replied, his voice suddenly distant. 'Good. And as for you, Leon...' the woman said, still not looking at him. ‘I'm sure you don't even appreciate the truth I just told you, so I shall repeat it. You are not supposed to be here or—' 'What do you—' 'Do not interrupt me,' the woman spat, barely raising her voice. 'Now, now,' muttered Officer Stansted vacantly towards the woman. 'You know who this is...' 'I know what he possesses,' the woman said with crisp enunciation, still not making eye contact with Leon. 'And I will honour that only as long as I must.' The woman's voice was disconcerting. Every single syllable and sound that ticked from her lips was enunciated with such surgical exactitude that one might have thought of them as a kind of walking diction lesson. Every ‘T’ was sounded in its full plosive; every ‘L’ was curled into the back of the teeth like a dentist's drill. 'You see, boy,' the woman continued, feeling around the back of Officer Stansted's head with her fingertips, 'while a Adept may come from any part of the world, of either gender, and any race, religion or background, there is one factor that connects us...' The fingertips stopped at a point near Officer Stansted's crown and pushed hard into it. 'Every Adept, born anywhere in the world, has inherited their powers from their parents. It may have only been from one parent, it may have been from both; it may not be the same Talent as them, though it remains likely that it will.' She dropped the man's head and it slumped lifelessly onto his chest. A sudden feeling of lethargy overcame part of Leon as well—he could feel something on the edge of his mind beginning to blur. 'And yet every single one of us has drawn our extraordinary power from the blood that our parents have passed on to us. You cannot have an Adept born from untalented parents. There are no exceptions to this rule. There is no Adept alive in this entire world that can claim that to be true…’ She turned for the first time and faced him. Her dark eyes were like frosted steel. Leon recoiled under the gaze as the woman straightened herself to standing. ‘Except for you, that is. We have kept track of this pitiful town for over a decade, and we know that neither your father, nor your mother are Adept. There is no history of Talent anywhere in your genealogy. You are straight human, through and through. And, therefore, there is absolutely no way you could possibly cast magic.’ Without diverting her gaze she stepped over to a cabinet, opened a display case adjacent to it and pulled out a long, sheathed sword. Leon’s heart skipped a beat. The realisation that something was very wrong crept across his skin like a spider's crawl. And without even looking for it a memory returned.

Something that was spoken by the man in the hospital chair. His blood ran as cold as it had back then. Friend and foe are close as love and hate. ‘And yet you can cast magic, boy,' the woman said, drawing the blade from its black scabbard with a velvet hush. 'You can cast magic that is powerful and terrible and destructive. You can call forth the fury of fire like you were a trained and powerful Elementalist.' Leon looked quickly around the room for an exit. The door behind him was closed, and he wondered if it was locked. 'That means that the Talent you have isn’t stemmed from a bloodline, or a family history, but from something else. Something deeper; something darker; something far older and more powerful than anything a mere initiate Adept could possibly hold.’ She stepped slowly to the near side of the desk, the sword held in her grip. Leon turned to Officer Stansted for help but his chin rested limply on his chest. She dragged the sword along the long, black chest in the corner--drawing out a foreboding hiss from the blade. She hit it with the scabbard, eliciting a dark thump; Officer Stansted flinched for a moment then once again became prone. Now she was in the middle of the room. She raised the blade in the air, staring him dead in the eyes. 'Power without a bloodline! That is what the others feared! So many hours and so many dollars have gone into this anomaly! We have all given our lives for this moment! All to find out what hat is making you tick, boy! And I want to see it for myself!' ‘Who are you!?’ Leon stammered, trying to back away into couch. She cracked a tiny, horrible smile. ‘What a nasty thing to ask someone who died to save you!’ The woman moved in a snap. Leon tensed his whole body. The blade scythed through the air… And decapitated Officer Stansted. 24 The head smacked onto the ground with a thick, wet splat, and a burst of blood shot out across the floor. After a few horrible seconds the headless body in the chair slumped forward and slid down the floor-length glass windows with a sickly squeak. The blade shuddered in the wall above, almost five metres from the woman who had thrown it. She walked over, pulled it out effortlessly from the wood, mopped the streaks of blood from the sword onto the slumped torso's police uniform, re-sheathed the blade, placed it back on it's display stand and nonchalantly walked back over to the glass desk. Her fingers caressed its surface as if it was an exquisite jewel. A thin, contented smile cracked over her face as she stepped over the corpse and sat down in the leather chair. Both hands brushed the clear surface lovingly as she felt the edges and lines of the table. Her eyes caught the triangular name plate on the desk and she plucked it up at once in a glint of silver—throwing it into the nearest drawer and slamming it shut. After half a minute she leaned over and pressed a button on the intercom. 'Enter,' she said curtly. The door opened and a man in a black pinstriped double breasted suit marched into the room. His shoes were polished so highly that they looked translucent against the dark marble of the floor. Two men, identically dressed except for the lead man's ash grey pocket-

square, fell in behind him at perfect diagonals. 'Ma'am.' 'The details, Mr Grey.' 'Of course, Mrs White. We just heard it across the Emergency Services radio frequency. Almost one hundred dead. A dozen more wounded. They're not sure about the cau--' 'You're a monster!' screamed Leon, all of a sudden. '' killed him! You killed all of them... Why... But... He was... They were...' 'Expendable, boy,' said Mrs White. 'That is all they were--expendable.' 'But he...he saved me!' spluttered Leon, looking over at the red smear on the window. 'He brought me here! And he was a Police Officer! You can't just get away with that! What is going on!?' The woman shook her head rigidly. 'Youth,' she muttered with casual disdain. 'Such melodrama. Such utter ignorance.' 'And the people in the hospital...' Leon continued, still in shock. 'You killed them as well!' The woman shot him a deathly look and grinned. 'That bitch couldn't have made it easier! All of them locked away under one of her little perceptions! It was like fish in a barrel!' He was about to stand in protest but found that his legs were unwilling to move. Suddenly his hands and shoulders felt like they had lead weights tied to them. 'Good, Mr Grey. And the our friends from the lobby?' 'We haven't heard their descriptions mentioned so the likelihood is that they managed to survive. It doesn't matter though,' Mr Grey smiled gently and snapped his fingers. One of the suited men behind him stepped forward and revealed a small metallic box--no larger than fifteen centimetres across. On the top of its lid was the symbol of a crescent moon, flanked by the letters ACE. Mrs White took the box carefully, laid it on the desk and opened it. She sighed happily. In one of the black-foam recesses was a round sphere of polished black—a tiny bubble floated dead in the centre. She held them up. 'Beautiful, absolutely beautiful. Only the smallest of flaws in the carving, and I can't see a single flaw in the amber itself. It is rare to find such quality in an Enforcer's kit—sorry, ex-Enforcer. I can only assume these are from her personal, family collection. What is the going price for a high grade Search Stone, Mr Grey? Around twenty thousand dollars?' 'I believe so, Mrs White. Shall I arrange its sale along with the other stone?' Mrs White smiled and slowly withdrew another piece of glinting black. Leon recoiled at its sight. It was a Banishment Stone. Mrs White saw his movement and laughed. 'Ha! Believe me, boy. You are far too valuable to Banish! But yes, Mr Grey, I think you should solicit bids. Our good friend Mrs Traverstone is up on amber smuggling charges, isn't she? Associate Merrinson is handling the case, I believe.' 'Yes, ma'am.' 'Good. If she can get us a fair price on their sale then perhaps we can find a way to get her an even better plea deal then the one she currently has. A more risky defence, so to speak. And now, I would like you to take care of this,' said Mrs White, waving a hand vaguely to the body at her feet and the severed head on the floor a few metres away from it. 'Of course, Mrs White.' 'Reiley, Montes...,' The man said, snapping his fingers again. Two more suited men entered the room carrying black plastic bags. Leon watched with horror as the head of the

man that had rescued him was picked up ungraciously by the hair and carried out the room. Blood dripped from it's slashed neck. He began to feel dizzy. 'Shall we plant him somewhere on the scene, ma'am. From the sound of the transmission there are several police there now, it would not be difficult to caparison one for an hour or so.' 'Yes,' said the woman, examining a streak of blood on her white blouse. 'But handle the drop of the body personally, Mr Grey. And take an entire team. Not that it will matter in the long run, once The Master has been returned, but assuming everything here is successful we will need the space to plan our next move, and we don't need any loose ends coming back to us before then. Caparison everyone at the site if you have to, and then just throw him under something; a sheet of metal through the neck, perhaps. It would be understandable in the chaos that he wouldn't be found right away--another policemen found in the rubble won't be a problem. But...' she paused in a dramatic catch of her voice. 'You are to use your natural talent, not your Sarcophagus. I want you nearby in case anything goes wrong. We need Adepts on the ground, not just a voice from a distance. Oh, and what is the state of the device?' Mr Grey considered the question for a moment. 'As good as could be expected with such short notice. I have inspected the set-up, and it appears to be functional. It doesn't have the materials to reach full capacity but I am sure it will do well enough.' 'Then that will have to do, won't it. Send a few Associates to activate it then. That will be all.' The man nodded stiffly and walked out of the room. He didn't worry about closing the door. The woman continued to stare at her blouse. She noticed several drops of ruby on her white satin pocket-square, pulled it gently out and held it up to the light. She let out an unemotive sigh. 'I shall never be able to get this out,' she said softly, like the smears of blood were just an unfortunate ketchup stain. Leon's mouth was hanging open, about to blast the woman again for her nonchalance at the murder he just witnessed, when a sound interrupted him--a small tap somewhere in the room. Leon's eyes moved around and saw that it was coming from the black-stone box in the corner. Then the tapping grew louder. Then there was the sound of sudden breath. After a moments hesitation the top of the box swivelled silently out, revealing what now looked like a coffin. For a few seconds there was nothing, and then there slowly rose the body of a tall, thin man--dressed sharper than the other men had been and sporting a pitch-black pocket-square with a bright silver pin through it. He was middle-aged, in his forties, with a gaunt face and an androgynous haircut—shoulder length black hair tied back in a sort of ponytail. He drew himself to his feet elegantly and stepped out of the box. 'Such a shame to be rid of that man,' he said in the same clipped pronunciation as the woman. 'His mind was open as a field; it was like picking flowers. And the empathy, such empathy. That is always he hardest emotion to force in a steed, but this one had it in spades. I really think we should caparison police officers more often, their minds are so...tactile. Such a shame we couldn't get back here earlier and withdraw from him a little more subtly.' Without skipping a beat the man walked over to the desk, opened a drawer and placed his name-plate back onto it. 'You should speak for yourself, Mr Black,' said Mrs White. My woman was insufferable. Such strong will, such ideals. It was like talking to a child the way I had to

constantly reassure her of what we were doing.' The woman walked over to Mr Black and brushed a small amount of dust off his jacket. 'And furthermore, I would refrain from arrogance--by the end of your Caparison his personality was definitely seeping into yours. I could hear your happy little voice from the other side of the world. It was, frankly, embarrassing.' 'We make use of the person that we take, Mrs White. We let their natural instinct lead. But I was in total control at all times.' 'If you insist, Mr Black.' 'I do. And what of the body?' 'I have sent Mr Grey to handle it, along with a team of the Associates. It will not take them long to return to the hospital and clea--' '--Recall the team,' the man said flatly. 'Mr Grey will be able to handle this matter himself.' The change across the woman's face was almost non-existent, and yet it was there-forced in its attempts to remain unchanged. 'But I have already issued the order, in your absence of course, Mr Black.' 'And while I'm certain your brief moments of authority thrilled you, my absence is no longer in question. Recall them,' he repeated, 'The Associates should be here. Not dumping the body.' 'Of course, Mr Black,' the woman smiled, as waxen a a mannequin. 'You are probably correct to doubt the logic and success potential of your predecessors plans. If you think failure means the Associates should be here, at hand, then of course--' 'I doubt nothing, Mrs White,' the man enunciated, every syllable a perfectly formed dagger. 'The plan is unchanged. And there is no room in this operation for my rationale to be questioned.' Leon stared at the two figures in personal conversation. Heavy fog condensed across his mind. The blurriness and distance were getting stronger, but even now a horrible realisation dawned on him. These people were...the Police Officers!? They were controlling them! 'But enough of this. I can see you have availed yourself of other privileges in my absence,' he said picking up the red cloak from the floor and folding it neatly onto the tabletop. 'What news is there from the Master, Mrs White?' The woman glanced at the open door in the wood panelled wall then brought her focus back to the man in front of her. Her eyes were, perhaps, more steely then normal. 'He believed that the time is right.' 'This early?' asked the man, his face unmoving. 'We could allow the boy to grow a few more hours. Sunrise is not for some time yet, there would be no harm in it, and the rewards of waiting would be immense. He could start at once if he did, without the need for any kind of recovery or adaptation. Did the Master consider this?' 'Yes,' said Mrs White. 'Anticipating your desire to delay the procedure I did proffer such a suggestion.' 'And the response?' She smiled victoriously. 'The Master said, 'remember The Sunda Strait'.' Mr Black himself turned slowly to face Leon. The boys breaths were becoming staggered and requiring almost all of his energy. 'Yes,' he replied, after a few seconds. 'Yes, I suppose that we must. The Impersonator then?' 'Yes. I already have a team calibrating it. And did you take care of him?' she asked,

looking over at the fading body of Leon. 'I did, Mrs White. From the looks of it his resistance is already failing.' Suddenly Leon's body was empty, removed of every ounce of strength; it was as if he was drunk, only without any of the pleasantness. His shoulders fell forward and the coffee mug rolled out of his hands, where it smashed on the floor. His whole body slumped forward, totally out of his control. His face smacked onto the rim of the marble. What the hell is happening!? As his vision blurred in and out of focus his eyes came to rest on the lip of the smashed China. A fine white residue was mixed amongst the brown coffee stain. The realisation set in. They poisoned me... With movements of surprising swiftness, the black haired man was across the room and dragging Leon up by his arm. The woman took the other one. Leon tried to struggle but his body was barren. The couple dragged him out of the room, across a low-lit lobby and into an elevator--his knees sliding along the polished marble. The doors closed behind them and the elevator began to lift. 'You should be honoured, Leon. Truly you should be,' said Mr Black as the numbers progressed upwards. 'In a matter of seconds you will have changed to world. If I had the power that you have right now I would gladly take your place—such would be the glory. I envy what you will do.' The numbers of the floors rolled on, fast approaching the top level. Leon felt like a battered mattress. He could barely keep his head up. The floor indicator blinked a green R and the doors opened, and a warm breeze flowed against his limp body. Leon's dazed eyes saw that it must have been a rooftop. A metal walkway clanked underfoot as they walked up to the triangular recesses of an atrium. All around were the roofs of factories and vast, cluttered industrial complexes. Crane arms lined the sky. The movement pulling him stopped. Leon forced his eyes open, looked in front of himself and wheezed. At the bottom was a wide pool of water, a nautical star tiled beautifully into its base. He was dangling on the edge of the building, a black plunge of forty stories below him. Running up the walls of the atrium were dozens of deep, purple lights, trailing away in a horrible perspective of distance. 'No!' Leon muttered with all his remaining strength. 'What do you want from me?! I'll give you whatever you want! Please, no!' A augh came from above his right shoulder. 'Leon, Leon, Leon. You already are! It will be a pleasure to see that body of power occupied by a mind of a little more fortitude.' His feet were dragged up to the very edge of the concrete ledge. He wobbled uncertainly, his eyes over the fall; the white canvas of his shoes barely afforded him a grip. The lines of lights across the twenty metre gap appeared to suddenly seethe and trail away in his eyes. He could feel the heat from here. 'Don't worry,' came the man's voice once more, 'it will only hurt for a few seconds. And after that there won't be anything left to register the pain!' 'But...I was saved! You said that you wanted to save me! ' The cold eyes of Mrs White crept down next to him, and his face was turned by her tight grip to see them. 'We were saving you for us, boy,' she spat. There was a force at his back. His body fell forward. Gravity wrenched at his stomach as he tumbled out into open space. The encirclement of concrete flew past him as he neared the first ring of superheated light. He

could feel the crackle of electricity in the air. He closed his eyes in anticipation of the end. And then it stopped. Leon opened his eyes, not even realising that he had closed them. Everything was still. Open space lay below him. The walls of the building were all around him, and a red hot light was just a few metres below--but they were not racing past. His body was frozen in mid air. His mind flooded with relief. There was a moment of joy across his face. Then he heard a sound that made it vanish just as quickly. Tick...Tick... 25 The air filled with frost. Mist tumbled out of Leon's lips as he exhaled a defeated breath. In front of him he saw the shadowed outline. The awful voice that he had expected slithered through the night. 'A change came o'er the spirit of my dream. There was an ancient mansion, and before Its walls there was a steed caparisoned: Within an antique Oratory stood The Boy of whom I spake;—he was alone” With slow steps the man came into the dark light and revealed his full image. His skin was deathly pale, almost ghostly, and contrasted violently with the worn black leather of his trench-coat. His eyes were concealed with a pair of square dark, rimless glasses and his redtipped black hair was spiked savagely—a million three-inch blades swept back and frozen in place like a wax sculpture. He walked up to Leon, steps falling securely on a floor of open air. 'Quite an eventful evening isn't it, Mr Wheeler,' the man said, looking down at the monstrous drop beneath them. 'And what a precarious position I find you in.' 'You!' barked Leon, still feeling like he was drunk. 'Wh--' The man lifted up a gloved finger and pressed a small vial against Leon's open mouth. A cold trickle invaded his throat, and at one he felt like he was about to vomit. A white cloud hissed slowly out of his mouth and into the vial.' 'Have you any use for this poison, Mr Wheeler?' he asked casually, clicking the lid closed. Leon said nothing and the man crushed the vial in his gloved palm—letting the shards and powder fall below, where they burst into flames in the beams of the purple light. At once the distance of the poison was gone, and his mind swelled with clarity and anger. 'Who the hell are those people!?' 'You mean the lovely folk that have just thrown you off a ledge, Mr Wheeler? I'll give you a hint—they aren't actually police officers!' 'I know that now! Who are they!' They are Psychics. Riders, specifically. Although they go by many names—The Associates; The mind manipulators; the masters of the Caparison; the puppeteers; the ventriloquists. The list of names goes on and on. Did you not enjoy their keen interest in you?' 'Go to hell!' Leon spat. 'Tell me what is going on or I'll...I'll burn you to a crisp! I'll do it! I control fire now. I know all about my powers! I'm an Adept. And a powerful one! Tell me what is going on or...or I'll set you alight!' 'Will you?' grinned the man. 'By all means go ahead, Mr Wheeler. I would love to see

that.' 'What? You don't think I'll do it? Watch this!' Leon willed his mind to flame. He concentrated hard on the feeling of sizzling heat that had coursed through his veins in the car park, begging it to return. He focused his thoughts on the burn and the crackle that he wanted to explode from his finger tips. He struggled and strained and pushed the idea out all around him. It didn't work. His face was going red from the effort by the time he finally gave up. Not willing to admit defeat he tried to thrust out and grab the man by the throat but his fingers and arms were locked in place. The only thing he could move were his lips and eyes. 'I'm right here, Mr Wheeler. Why don't you lay that punch?' 'Unfreeze me and I will!' The man stared up at him for a moment. 'An odd request... But if you insist...' Leon's stomach shot to his throat as his body dropped into free fall. The violet light was right below now, its heat blocking out all traces of the frost. Just as his body was about to pass through its furious furnace he stopped abruptly. 'It truly is a pleasure to see you in higher spirits, Mr Wheeler,' said the voice from several metres above as he came slowly into view—stepping down gracefully in rounded half-metre drops, as if on a spiral staircase that wasn't actually there. 'At our last encounter I wondered if you really were as powerful as I thought you might be. It's good to see a little bit of fight in you.' 'Stop it! Just stop it! Stop playing games! I want to know what is going on! I...want...answers!' The man stepped forward once more, got to his knees and moved his face until it was only an inch from Leon's. This close he could see through the man’s glasses – pinpricks of white ice burning amongst an ocean of black. His lips and nose hurt from the cold, even amongst the heat below him. 'It must be terrible to have so much happen, and yet know so little about it. To be in possession of such power and not know how to use it. It must be awful to be in the dark, alone--unable to see, unable to breathe, unable to know who to trust, unable to know who is right, and who is wrong. And before you interrupt...let me give you a little piece of advice. Never grow cynical of help when it is offered.' 'Piss off!' spat Leon. 'Advice!? Two different lots of people have just tried to kill me and you knew it was going to happen! Friend and foe are close as love and hate? You knew that those...those things, had already taken control of those Police Officers. They were right outside the door when you told me that, weren't they? You knew that all of those people in the hospital were going to die! You knew that woman in the hospital and these pricks here were going to try and kill me! You knew and you didn't do anything to stop it!' The man smiled again. 'Now, to be totally honest, Mr Wheeler, the deaths of the people in the waiting room could not have been foreseen. And even if I had wanted to I probably couldn't have stopped it. And, ha-ha, in strictest fairness, neither of these groups you have mentioned have actually made an attempt to kill you. The Perceptionist at the hospital was simply trying to banish the power from your body--' '--in a way that was going to kill me! I know all about the Banishment Stone! I would have died if I touched it!' The smile grew even wider, revealing a line of white, perfect teeth. 'Only probably, Mr Wheeler. There was an outside chance that you would have survived it—admittedly no-one else has, but if ever there was to be a first time, I am sure it would have been you. And if it

makes you feel any better I'm sure they both probably hoped you would have survived. They are not cruel people—they just feared what you might do if they didn't remove your power.' 'Why do people keep saying that—about being afraid of me? Why would anyone fear me? Look at me! I am not scary! I am not a threat to anyone! I don't deserve to die!' 'True, Mr Wheeler. I am hardly shaking in my gloves. But I think we both know it is not your body they are afraid of.' 'Yeah, I know, I am apparently really powerful!' spat Leon dismissively. 'But, I don't get that either! I'm not going to do anything bad with my power! I not going to hurt anyone!' 'Wouldn't you? That is gratifying to know. If I ever see the Perceptionist and her friend again, I shall pass your assurances on. You two could chalk the whole thing up to an unfortunate misunderstanding.' The man turned his face upwards towards the top of the building and looked at the unmoving figures, their bodies still frozen in the pose of the push. 'And I'm sure you would be surprised to know that your death is the last thing that they are trying to accomplish. When they told you they wanted to save and protect you, Mr Wheeler, they were very much telling the truth. They don't want you to come to any harm. You are too valuable for that fate. You are unique, Mr Wheeler.' 'But how!?' Leon demanded, his fragile patience near breaking. 'You wish to know? Really?' 'Yes! I know I don't have Adept parents, but why is that so important!? What is so different about me?' Once more the small smile spread across the man's face. 'You are unique, Mr Wheeler, because you cannot create your own magic.' Leon's face became indignant as he processed the answer. 'What are you talking about? I blew up half a car park with my bare hands. I can make fire! And--' 'Correction, Mr Wheeler,' said the man, his voice suddenly more acidic. 'It can make fire. The soul inside you can make fire. And on any other Adept in the entire world these two things would be one and the same, but not you, Mr Wheeler. No, not you. You see, I have a soul inside me, and it is mine. Those Riders have a soul inside them, and it is theirs; the Perceptionist and her friend have souls inside them, and they are their own; it is this soul that makes us Adepts and not humans' it is this soul that allows us to harness powers and use magics...' The voices catch was agonising. 'And there is a soul inside you, Mr Wheeler. This soul allows magic to pass through your blood and our of your skin...' The man leaned his face in close, until he was whispering into Leon's ear. 'But it is not your soul, Mr Wheeler.' Leon looked surprised. The man continued. 'That is why you couldn't control it just now, when you wanted to burn me. That is why the Riders want it, and the Adepts in the hospital lobby feared it. It is incredibly, incredibly, indescribably rare for this to happen. There are many Adepts alive—some would say a vast majority—who believe that what is currently happening to you couldn't happen. They would state it as superstition and far-fetched ideas. But the fact remains facts—you were not born an Adept, and now, suddenly, you have become one. This has happened because the soul of another has decided to use your otherwise human body as a base camp. And it appears, Mr Wheeler, that for some reason it has chosen you..' ''You mean...there is something inside me?'

The man smiled broadly, genuinely. 'Yes, Mr Wheeler. A soul stowaway if you will. And not just any soul, either. Banished over a thousand years ago, so terrifying that the man was removed from the record books. It is the most powerful creature in the history of the world! The Riders want that power! They need that power! They would give anything in the world to call the power that lies in your skin their own!' 'But...they can take over people's bodies, can't they?' Leon began, bewilderment on his face. 'They can get inside someone's head and make them do things; that's what they did with the Police Officers. If they wanted to have my power--this soul's power--then why didn't they just do that? What is the point of this burning dropping thing?' The trench-coated man stood up from the spot and walked over to the wall, kneeling down and inspecting the circle of deep, purple light. 'Remarkable thing,' he muttered distractedly, seeming to ignore Leon's question. 'Almost one-hundred Transfer Stones. Highly potent, almost unblockable in the hands of the right kind of Psychic. I knew that the firm was rich, but I never knew they were that rich.' Leon sighed slightly, getting used to the man's games. 'Why? What do you mean?' The man walked back to in front of Leon and kneeled down again. 'Each of these lights come from a stone that is completely illegal, banned years ago. They are very hard to come by, and only available on the black market. I would estimate that each would cost around five million dollars.' 'What! Why would they spend that on me? Just so they can control this soul inside of me?' The kneeling man laughed. 'I know you might not fully realise it yet, Mr Wheeler, but that soul is worth far more than the few million dollars, to the right person.' Leon said nothing, unsure what he could say. After a time the man continued. 'Did you notice that black chest our friend up there rose out of, Mr Wheeler?' the man said, knowingly, playfully aware he was leaving Leon's questions unanswered. 'Yeah... What was that?' 'The box is called a sarcophagus. It is simply a sound and light depravation chamber, which allows our friends up there to focus their power. Distance has always been an issue with the Riders; Mr Black and Mrs White up there couldn't, for instance, caparison the body of someone in China or Russia or India. In fact, they would have difficulty taking over the mind of someone more than a few hundred metres away without their sarcophagus. They could do it, but it is extremely difficult to maintain he connection with the host. But, with this device and its collection of Transfer Stones...' The man looked over the line of lights below them. 'You asked me why, if the Riders here can just take over your body, they would go to the effort of creating such a machine? The reason is that the person they are going to implant inside your body, Mr Wheeler, is very far from here—on the other side of the world, in fact. It would not have been Mr Black or Mrs White, they are mere functionaries in this puzzle. No, the Rider they were going to take over your body with is called The Master. He is the one they fight for—the one they die for. He is probably the most dangerous man in the world, and the main reason they have spent so much, and risked so much to create this machine. At the moment he is...occupied, and cannot come to take you himself. It is the only way his mind can cross the lands and mountains and oceans and come to your body. The other Riders believe that none of them would be powerful enough to tame the soul inside you. This Master believes that he is. And if he did I doubt there is anyone alive today that could stop him.' Leon's head was swimming. 'God, I can't believe all of this. So, you are telling me

that in my body is something that is powerful enough to...control the world?' 'Not yet, Mr Wheeler. But give it time. You will be amazed what the new day will hold for you.' 'And this soul needs my body to live,' continued Leon, talking through the developments. 'But I don't actually have any power over it? It acts through my body and does all of it's magic through me but...I don't have any say in it?' The man's eyes glinted. 'Of course, Mr Wheeler. You have no power to summon it from the depths, and no power to stop it when it comes. How else did you think the fire in the house was started?' A piece of the jigsaw that had long hung over the puzzle fell thunderously into place. Leon's mouth opened in shock. 'This thing started the fire! I...I stared it? Jade's burns...were from me?' 'Of course,' said the man nonchalantly. 'But, surely it is not that great a surprise? I thought you would have put it all together at the hospital, when you realised that you could cast fire; that seemed like a blindingly obvious link. I can only assume that this is all like the question of magic, Mr Wheeler. That brain of yours must refuse to think thoughts you find distasteful. That is a classic sign of madness, don't you know? You really should have that checked into by someone...' Leon's breathing became heavy. He looked down at the pool of water below and the answers all became clear. 'Get it out of me...' he muttered darkly. The man grinned ear to ear, but didn't say a thing. 'I said, get it out of me!' spat Leon, fury rising in him. 'Tear this thing from my bones if you have to but get it the hell out of my body! It almost killed me! People are dead because of it! It's ruined Jade! I don't care how powerful this thing is I don't want it!' The grin remained fixed. He didn't move. '!' Leon enunciated with deadly focus. 'Would if I could,' said the man, unperturbed. 'It would probably save a lot of trouble for everyone. But I would not want to see you die so soon.' 'What do you care about that? Why would you care if I live or die? If this thing in me is so dangerous why wouldn't you want it dead?' Even as the sweat ran down Leon's face chills raced up his spine. The man's face was frozen menace as it leaned in close to him. 'For the minute, Mr Wheeler,' he said with painstaking slowness. 'For the minute it is better that you live.' 'You expect me to to live with something that tried to kill me?!' Leon asked, more apprehensively. 'Mr Wheeler, really!' he laughed, his voice back to its normal level of horridness. 'You cannot blame a baby for crying. You cannot fault a kitten who scratches. The soul was new—deprived of a body for years—it only did what came naturally. I can assure you that it would never do anything to intentionally harm you! It might not listen to you. It might not obey your commands. But it's very existence depends on your safety, after all!' Leon's anger returned. 'What about Jade? I saw her! I saw what the fire did to her! How can I let that slide!' 'Mr Wheeler, you know as well as I do that you were seeing things, at that time, that weren't there. And you know as well as I do that there is every chance Ms Dansel is nowhere near as damaged as what you saw. I bet she will be fine.' The man walked away on a footpath of nothing. Leon snorted.

'Why are you still talking like your only half sure? I bet. Every chance. You know exactly what's going on, don't you? How do you know so much? You said that most Adepts don't even believe what I have is possible. But you seem to know everything about it! Who are you? What's your role in all of this?' The man's turned slowly. The glinting pocket watch was now in his hand and the tick seemed to shatter the world, just as it had at the hospital. 'As I have already told you, Mr Wheeler, my name is a necessary mystery to me. You can just think of me as a concerned bystander, Mr Wheeler--doing my little bit for the cause. And now it appears you have a date with destiny.' He released the watch from his glove and in it swung in a gentle arc. 'What?!' yelled Leon, suddenly aware that the man might be about to leave him like this—a monster drop into a machine that he would probably never wake up from. 'After all of that! No! You know what is going on! You have to help me! Get me out of here! Don't let them take over my body!' The man pushed his dark glasses to the back of his nose-bridge. 'I have full faith in you, Mr Wheeler,' he said with a devious grin, the awful voice sounding even worse. 'I'm sure someone like you will find a way to get out. That soul you wish removed may even lend you some assistance...' After a few steps towards the wall of purple lights the man stopped and looked over his shoulder. 'Oh, and Mr Wheeler... I hope you can hold your breath.' There was a snap of metal and then gravity once more wrenched at his body. As soon as he was about to pass through the blistering heat of the nearest light it flickered for a moment, and then died. The next one did the same. Wind rushed through his hair as he fell story after story, the lights dying just as he was about to meet them. He looked down below and saw that the pool of water was alive. A whirlpool had spouted in the middle of it. He was about to scream but then remembered the man's advice. As his body was about to make contact he sucked in the deepest breath he could manage, closed his eyes and braced for the impact. Water crashed all around him. The churning current surrounded his body. He felt the drag pull him deep, away from the surface down to the bottom of the pool. His whole body twisted round and round, faster and faster. And then he was gone... 26 At the top of building the two riders exchanged looks at each other. The man let out a sigh. The sudden pulse of energy was not even hidden—and the signature it left behind was strong enough to read without the need for a Search Stone. 'Well, well. Who would have thought that he would be involved.' 'It is unexpected, yes,' said Mrs White flatly. She looked down at the pool as the last metre of water vanished down a large drain in its middle. ''After thirteen years he appears to once again have involved himself in our affairs.' A seconds pause drew out as the two suited figures looked at each other. 'What shall we do now, Mr Black?' 'The development is interesting, but it changes nothing. We shall do our duty, Mrs White. Those pipes lead to an old industrial drain underneath this neighbourhood, I believe. And in them, you shall intercept the boy.'

'Will I?' said the woman with barely a raise in intonation. 'Yes, Mrs White. You will.' 'Indeed,' said the woman, evenly. 'Then I shall head to my Sarcophagus, caparison one of the Associates and go after--' 'No, Mrs White,' interrupted the man with the smallest hint of a smile. 'You shall intercept the boy as you are. Who knows what that soul in him might try to pull, or what power it might unleash. You will need all of your strength and focus, something you will not have if you are in someone else's body.' 'With respect,' said Mr White, her voice a symphony of deference, 'I am certain that I will manage.' 'I am sure you would,' replied the man, reaching into his suit and taking out a seven inch cylinder of metal. 'And yet, you will not attempt it.' He moved as if to pass the thing to Mrs White but she was already walking away. 'You already know I have my own,' she said cooly, marching across the gang-plank and stepping into the elevator. She turned once more to face him. 'And what shall you be doing while I am risking my life, Mr Black?' The man tucked the metal tube back into his pocket and looked down at the broken Impersonator. 'There is no need for any risks, Mrs White. Sunrise is still a hours away. Take the boy and we do not have to think about the repercussions of what will happen if he is allowed to see the dawn. And while you are doing your duty...' The man paused a moment as the realisation crossed him, 'I will be informing The Master on what has taken place.' After a moment of inaction the woman reached out and pressed a button on the wall. 'The future is looking up then,' she smiled as the elevator doors slid to a close. 'Perhaps I will finally receive the promotion I should have recieved six years ago.' 27 The tumbling water spun Leon three-sixty degrees. He opened his eyes and saw nothing but black. His hands clutched at his knees as all parts of him were banged against solid surfaces. He spluttered at each impact, forcing gurgles of water into his throat. Just when he felt his airways could no longer hold back the surrounding liquid his face burst above the surface and he rolled end over end out of the pipe. He sucked in great lungfuls of air as the water cascaded off him. Each inhalation was violent as a backstreet beating—heaving, shaking under the weight of its absorption into his bloodstream. Items of soaked clothing dripped and sagged from his skin. His hair formed a screen of black over his eyes. He spluttered out the last remaining water and suppressed the urge to cry. The breaths shuddered across his lips as he felt the tears well. He swallowed hard and fought back their flooding emotion. It's okay. I'm alive. I'm alive. Keep moving, it won't be long until they follow you. Get up! With great effort he brought himself to his knees, then to a crouch and finally to a full stand. He looked around himself. Everything was still black as pitch. He reached out tentatively and felt something solid to his right. It was wet and ridged--brick and mortar, and it felt like it went on for a while. He waited for his eyes to adjust and realised that there was no light to adjust to. Wherever he was was genuinely, perfectly dark. Then he took in the smell. It was absolutely distinctive and left no doubt of his current location. The sewers. He let out a grunt of disgust. Next time I see that poet guy he is dead! Curious bystander, my ass.

Leon tiptoed his fingers along the wall and tapped at the ground below him—it felt solid enough and he took a ginger step forward. The ground in front of him was solid too, as was the next one. On the Next his foot went ankle deep into wetness and he recoiled— holding himself against the wall and shaking his leg vigorously like he was punting a kick. 'Foul!' he spat, banging the shoe against the brick. Each thump echoed down the pipeway a half dozen times before trailing into the distance of silence. He remembered when he had finished that he was wearing clothes that weren't his own. He couldn't help but feel a little happy about that as he began walking forward again; If he was going to step in sewer water, at least it was with shoes that someone else had paid for. As the steps continued he thought about the building he had been in, and the moments leading up to Officer Stansted's decapitation. What's wrong with me? What did I think that place was? What kind of Police Station has furniture like that? Moron... He tried to comfort himself with the knowledge that by the time he could have realised the Police Officers were not all they seemed, he probably couldn't have escaped anyway. He had seen those men in the suits last night, when he was given the clothes. How many of them where they? Ten? Twenty? They probably had them filling the whole building, up and down every floor. Even if he had made a break for it they probably would've grabbed him in seconds. They had the whole thing mapped out. That whole time, he thought sadly, the whole time I was with the police officers...they were going to die. They were marked for death the second they met me and they didn't even know... Anger rose in his blood as his steps echoed down the darkened tunnel. They decapitated him right in front of me! And the woman acted like it was nothing. She was worried about a stain on her blouse! He wondered for a second whether the Police Officers had realised, in those final seconds, what was happening. If they had been there, behind the prison of someone else controlling their body, watching what was happening and screaming for it to stop. The image of Officer Kelly flashed in his eyes—the body shredded down its torso. Organs and blood cascading out of her. Had she known what was happening? Watching as someone killed her, and not having any power to intervene? Was it Officer Kelly or that horrid woman who had felt that wound? Who had breathed those final breaths? Was it her or that evil bitch who had felt the life drain away from them. Leon shuddered at the thought. He couldn't help but wonder if that was the fate awaiting him if this Master of the Riders found a way to take over his body. Would he too be trapped behind open eyes, watching as his body did things on the command of someone else..? It was a horrible thought. They will pay for this he thought darkly, as his mind drifted to the information he had just been given. Even if I am not actually an Adept. Even if I am just some kind of skin-house for an Adept's soul. I don't care! I will find a way to use it... Even though it isn't my own, they will pay. The steps continued one after the other for several long minutes. He wondered after a while, if there was any way he could communicate with the soul he now knew was sharing his body, or if it was just a power that moved on instinct. Did it have a mind, or not? He took a stab in the dark. 'Soul..? 'Can you hear me in there? Can you hear these thoughts? Do you even have a brain?' He felt no sense of recognition and dwelled instead on his inability to use the magic in his blood. He had barely even had time to embrace the ideas that magic was real, and that

he might be able to cast it, when that had been torn from him. It was just his luck, though—magic turns out to exist, and the power is inside his body, but he can't actually control it. God, why do I have to be the one trudging around the sewers? Surely someone like Daniel McClain or one of the monkey jocks would have made a better candidate for the whole 'fight for your life' thing. As he stepped in the darkness his mind ran naturally from Daniel to Jade. He suppressed the thought. Neither the idea that he might have been the one that started the fire nor the image of her destroyed face was any comfort right now. Even if it was just one of the woman's perceptions...he had almost killed her. This thing in him had almost killed her. After a few more minutes of walking the hand tracing the wall rounded a twist and came in front of his face. His fingers passed over what was unmistakeably a metal grill. The path had been a dead end. Damn! I'll never get anywhere in this dark. He felt around in his pockets for the zippo lighter he knew couldn't possibly be there. He was still disappointed when he discovered that it wasn't. Great. So I have no way to see where I'm going and I'm probably just going to run into dead ends until those suited bastards find me, suck out my brain and wear my body like a freaking coat. Brilliant. He clicked his middle finger and thumb together loudly in annoyance, instantly recoiling as a bright light punctured his vision. Black flickered into a dark orange. Long shadows stretched along the sewer tunnel. Once his eyes had adjusted to the sudden lack of darkness he looked around for the source of the light. He glanced at his hands instinctively and saw a single lick of flame at the end of his thumb--about the size of a match-head. It was hovering in the air a few inches from his skin. The fire emanated a tiny, warm aura around it's little, contained circle. He leaned in closer and saw that it was utterly self sustaining—floating in the air. With slow movements he reached an index finger out and circled around the flickering red. There was no heat. Slightly bolder now Leon ran his fingertip through the tongue of the flame. It was cool, and painless. At last he pushed his finger carefully into the core of the tiny fire. Now it hovered an inch from his fingertip, cemented in place and remaining there as he moved his hand left and right. He thought for a moment and then shook his hand vigourously, like he was quickly bouncing a basketball; the fire remained undoused. He brought it up to his face. An idea that seemed utterly ridiculous crossed his mind, and he decided that things probably couldn't get any worse. 'So--your this ancient Adept's soul in me, are you?' he said apprehensively to the little flame at his fingertip. Well...don't think you can try and buy me off, okay. I know what you did. You almost killed me. You almost killed the girl that I love. You're the reason that people are dead and I have to run around in the sewer! I'm running away to protect myself, not you. If your going to help me out then fine, cause from the sound of it I am stuck with you, but don't get in my way...' He turned up his hand and illuminated the area around him. The walls of the pipe were indeed brick—rotting and ancient. The tube was much wider than he had thought, and he saw in the middle was a deep recess full of...well, the things you would expect to find in a sewer. In front of him was a grid of thick, overlapping iron rods, concreted in-immovable. He traced his fingers over them and then, with sudden inspiration, gripped at their joins. 'Okay, soul. Now is your time. You need me, and I need you. Let's melt these bars and get out of here! Common now! Common now! People are trying to kill me! It's time

to move!' He focused his mind, concentrating once more on the idea of flame. He looked at the tiny fire above his fist, hovering just next to the metal, and willed it to expand and cover the grid. It didn't work. 'God! Fat lot of good you are!' Leon snarled. He release the metal and turned his tiny flame down the passage. It was long—and trailed into the distance. At several point overhead where openings of other, smaller pipes. They probably led back out but they were all too tight for him to climb up. He took a few steps down the path and failed to see anything that might get him out of here. He looked back the other way and saw only the grid; everything else was brick. Damn! I can't get out! I'm trapped! The feeling of urgency began to pulse in him again. He looked into the pit running down the middle and noticed that it fed into a little gap in the grid, small enough that someone could probably just swim through—if he was prepared to submerge himself in the sewerage. He took an unwilling step forward and was hit, even in this closed place, by an even more intense burst of foulness. He felt the bile rise in his stomach and stepped back to the wall. That was not going to be an option. He moved his finger light left and right, searching again for a way out. Finally he looked up. Relief filled him as he saw that above him, connected by a few metes of rusted, twisted ladder, was a manhole. It looked high— the ancient ladder was only a few rungs long—barely even coming down from the ceiling at all. With uncertain movements he reaching his lightened finger out into the open. 'Umm... Stay! Don't move...' He was surprised when he brought his hand back that the light had, indeed, stayed put—illuminating the ceiling of the pipe clearly. Without waiting he bent his knees and jumped as high as he could. He missed the ladder by metres. He took a few steps back, bounded forward and tried again. He was closer this time, but still far from touching the rusted rungs. He only just collected himself on the follow-through--almost tripping and falling face first into the horrid brown slurry below. He regathered himself, stood nearby and surveyed the scene. There was nothing that he could see which would help him--nothing he could stack or anything he could use to get higher. He was by far the most solid thing down here. He was about to go for yet another lunge when he heard voices in the distance. 'Down here! I can see a light! We have him cornered.' Hell! Go! He ran forward and leapt with all of his strength, missing the ladder. Without skipping a beat he was back in position and running forward at full pace. He missed again. He could hear the footsteps now, echoing down the tunnel behind him. He ran his hands desperately over the brickwork, trying to find a loose or protruding stone that he could grip onto, but all of them had been washed smooth long ago. There was a slim chance that he could run up the wall and push himself up to the ladder. He didn't wait around to think about how non-athletic he was, he took a few steps away from the wall and ran at it. As soon as the rubber sole hit the wall, it slipped away and Leon crashed hard to the bricks. 'Stay were you are! Don't move or we'll shoot! Great! They've got guns! Right, listen you joyriding bastard, he thought, tunnelling down inside himself to wherever the soul was lurking. I know you can here me! Help me out! You need me to live, and I can't do this on my own! He could just see the bodies of the suited men on the edge of the flame's light. 'Don't move!' yelled one, and he could see that he was holding his arm out in front of

him. He had no doubt that the man would shoot, even if it was only going to wound him. With movements like a cat he snapped back to his feet and bolted at the wall. Cummon! Cummon! Do it! Help me! There was a bang and he felt the propulsion upwards. He flew across the pipe, past the recess of stink and over to the other side of the tunnel. The second his foot touched the opposing wall he exploded back the other way. He could see the suited man following him back and forth as Leon's hands grasped at the ladder and he pulled himself up with all of his strength. 'Stop! Stay there! We will fire!' Leon scrambled up to the second rung, his entire weight supported by his arms. 'Dammit! Don't let him escape! Fir--' The area below him exploded into smoke--thick and choking. He could see a hundred tiny flames burning like firecrackers. Not waiting around to see the aftermath, he pulled himself up to the top rung, pushed on the heavy manhole cover, reached up and gripped the ground past it. His fingers burrowed into dirt and he wrenched his body up. He looked around quickly and saw a large metal drum. With great effort he dragged it over, leaving a deep divot in the dirt and slammed it down over the manhole with a booming clang. At once he fell to his knees, having to steady his balance with his hand. Pings and shimmers of twisting sensations swam through his head, making him feel blurry once more. They were not as intense as what had occurred after the car park, and after a few seconds they were all-but gone. Around him It was still dark. The longest night of his life had hours yet to give. God, when was the last time I ate, he found himself wondering as he struggled to stay awake. Last night he was in the hospital, and he hadn't eaten anything there. He always skipped lunch and didn't get any dinner because he was trapped in a house-fire. So then it was breakfast--almost twenty four hours ago. His stomach growled at the realisation. He breathed out deeply and tried to stand. He did so, but barely--knees shaking as he got to his feet. He fought to keep himself upright, and pushed onwards, knowing there was no time to waste. He moved around the corner and looked where he was. The place was an industrial wreck--a colossal warehouse dominated the scene of an old work yard which also housed some small, square demountables, massive piles of rusting machinery and enormous stretches of open, dusty ground. Bits and pieces of engines lay in ruin everywhere. As he looked closer to the warehouse he saw that three quarters of the windows were smashed and the wide roller-shutter entrance was hanging half-off its hinges. There was a derelict car up ahead, left in the middle of the open yard--missing its wheels, windscreen, and doors. God, what a dump! He thought as he stepped out into the wide space. The stars above were clear and brilliant in the word of no lights. There was an entrance gate to the yard just behind him. He walked over to open it but saw that is was locked with a chain and padlock. Unlike the rest of this place the metal here looked strong, and not falling to pieces. The same could be said for the gate. In fact, the exit and fences, which seemed to be the only thing not falling apart—they were solid, high, corrugated iron, which seemingly spanned the entire perimeter of the property. Home-made spikes jutted out from various places and he could just make out the faint outline of barbed wire along its three metre height. He held the padlock in his hands, looked it over and tried to bang it against the gate. The booms could have woken the dead. The padlock remained, not to Leon's great sunrise,

unbroken. Well, there has to be a way out of here somewhere... he thought, turning around and stepping out towards the derelict car. The rising heaps of scrap metal were ahead. He tried to think about the location of this place but could only come as far as the industrial area just outside Barrington. He had never been here before but knew this place existed—more than half of the kid's fathers in school worked in the plants and smelters and manufactures. Who the hell would leave a place like this? There are no shortage of trucks driving away with 'Barrington Made' on them. Surely a place like this could have been sold? He was almost close enough to touch the bucket-of-rust car when a bolt of lightning tore through the dark. It missed his left arm by inches and struck an axle, which flickered for a second, blue sparks arching from part to part... And then it shattered. Pieces of thick, rusted metal flew in all directions. Leon dived just in time to miss a hefty chunk of lead flying past his head. He slumped to the ground and remained motionless as hunks of machinery crashed loudly against the thick steel all around him. At first he felt nothing, just a sense of shock. Then the blood was cascading down his forehead. He scrambled to his feet on the dust ground. Up ahead was a group of men running towards him, all wearing identical suits. Behind them, with her arm outstretched, was Mrs White. 28 The alleyway was dark—lined with the neon glow that filled the streets outside. The sounds of cars drawled as they coasted by the dead-end lane and the smell of rotting food wafted awfully from the garbage dumpster nearby Enforcer Christine LaBelle waited in the darkness. Just under an hour ago she had received the strangest message of her life, from a woman she hadn't seen in almost seven years--back when they where in Academy together, training to be Enforcers. The call had been no longer than fifteen seconds, and yet the voice seemed to carry the weight of a dark seriousness. Her foot tapped nervously on the ground. In her right hand was a small box—held closed with a barely useful lock. She looked down at it and sighed. It was the standard kit for all Enforcers and one piece of it, the low-grade Search Stone, she had worn almost to death. She had received a new one a few months ago, so including the old one wasn't that great a loss. However, the other stone, the one that the call had specifically requested, had never actually been used. Christine clicked the box open and looked down at it. She could feel her eyes beginning to draw in, her body already resisting the urge to blink. After a few more seconds she snapped the lid closed and suppressed a small shudder. The stone was an enigma; she hadn't even received any serious training in it. They were all given them more out of tradition than anything--the actual use of the thing happened less than five or six times each year, in the entire world. Most Enforcers would go their entire career without even meeting a compatriot that had used it, let alone actually do it themselves. That was how serious a punishment it was. But in spite of all this having it nearby, knowing that it was there, had still been a kind of comfort. It was the personal equivalent of a nuclear bomb—even if you never used it, or had any intention of using it, people thought twice before they attacked you. And for an Enforcer, that could make a big difference. There was a sound to her left and she turned to see the black silhouette framed with

green and purple neons. The figure stepped forward and she knew instantly that it was her. Christine stepped out of the dark and into a half-lit line of blue. 'Lilith,' she said, breathlessly. 'You look awful!' 'You always did know how to make a girl feel loved, Chris,' said the silhouette in a drawn voice as she stumbled into the light, revealing the barely closed cuts along the right side of her skin. Her eyes looked distant. Her stance was fragile. 'What...what happened to you? I didn't even know there were any other Adepts in the state. The Council didn't send me word that you were coming, and they always keep us updated.' 'It is complicated, Chris. heard about my demotion.' The woman nodded sympathetically, after a while. 'Word travels, even to here. I heard you were kicked out of the Enforcer's for doing too much private investigation against your Captains orders. Although I didn't get any more details than that.' 'Think of this as a continuation of that. I am on more of a personal mission. If we are both lucky, I'll tell you all about it tomorrow. How have you been?' 'Fine, I guess. You're lucky to catch me in Capital City--this place isn't exactly a hot spot of Adept activity. I spend most of my time servicing the surrounding areas up and down the river. I almost never get to spend more than a few days in any one place.' 'What about Barrington,' asked Lilith her voice full of hidden meaning. 'Have you spent much time in Barrington, Christine?' Christine looked up at Lilith and it happened. She didn't mean it to happen-- it was normally considered bad form for an Enforcer to use their Talent on another Enforcer, even when one of them wasn't technically an Enforcer anymore. But sometimes when her mind was especially curious, she just couldn't stop it. She sighed. 'Damn, I'd heard about your little quest. Word gets around, even out here. Apparently you've been asking a lot of questions that people didn't want asked? I should have known when you called me that it would be about this.' Lilith's face hardened and the woman recoiled. It was like she had been yelled at, though no words passed through Lilith's lips. 'Ok! Look, Captain Darnelle gave me some kind of coded warning when I took this post about 'diplomacy' and the 'need for discretion' and the 'importance of knowing what I can and can't fix'. It thought it was weird until I got here and it clicked. Straight away I noticed there where lots of signature spikes of Riders,' she said with a slight sigh, 'far too many to be just a random grouping. And they where always changing as well, I would say half of the Rider fraternity in the world has passed through here at some point in the last three years. Some for a few days, some for a few months. It didn't take me too long to figure out what it was.' Lilith stepped forward, closer to the Enforcer. She didn't say anything, she didn't need to. Christine looked down, now slightly ashamed. 'Why? Because I am just one Enforcer, Lil,' she said, answering a question that wasn't actually spoken. 'I know what all of those Riders in one place means. I know it's...Black, White and Associates. And...look, I know what they do. I know what they get up to. I'm not in their cheer-squad, all of us have heard the rumours and think that it is despicable— the way they manipulate judges and rig courts and use their powers in defiance of The Amsterdam Accord, but all of that is way above either of our pay-grades. They don't cause trouble on the streets, they don't stop me from doing my job, they don't interfere in the extraction of young Adepts to the schools, so far they haven't hindered any investigation I have done, and I have never actually seen them break the Accord. I know they aren't good,

but they haven't done anything explicitly to me. And besides, even if I wanted to I wouldn't be able to find their base of operations. I know it is Barrington somewhere, but every time I look through my Search Stone it says they are all over the town—no two anywhere near one another. And I know that can't be right. They must have found a way to disrupt their signature—like we do. There is the rumour that they have Stonesmiths on call and that they have access to all kinds of Stones that no-one has even seen for hundreds of years, so they could be using anything.' Lilith looked at her unblinkingly for a moment, and then sighed. There was no use being angry; what Christine was saying was true. Even if she had investigated and followed up and actually managed to arrest one of them, her Captain would disown her investigation and the courts would find some reason to acquit. Black, White and Associates had money and power and threats and influence everywhere. 'Did you bring what I asked for?' Lilith asked, after a time. Christine held out the small box in her hand. Lilith reached for it and pulled it towards her slightly but the thing was still fixed in Christine's grip. Their eyes met. 'Tell me what is going on Lilith. After all the years we spent together in training, I think you owe that to me,' she said, sincerely. She smiled, adding, 'I can find out for myself-you know I could always read your thoughts--but I would rather that you just tell me.' They stood there, looking at each other for a few moments. Lilith sighed again and spoke. 'Get out of town Christine. Get out while you can.' Christine's face morphed to shock as she relaxed her grip on the box. Lilith had already turned and begun walking away. The curiosity had been too great. 'The Osiris Report, Lilith!? Not that again! I thought you left that in the past! Please, it's just a crackpot conspiracy theory. I know this is personal for you, and this has played a big part of your life, but please don't get yourself in trouble over it! It isn't a good enough reason to face them! You'll just be throwing your life away for no reason! You know how seriously those guys take that thing!' Lilith continued to walk towards the neon light, her steps stuttering and weak. 'You'll never bring him back, Lilith!' she called after the departing figure. The silhouette turned in the darkness, and Christine could feel the resolve—sharp as a dagger, cold as steel. 'No...' she replied, as she placed the box inside her coat. 'But I can avenge him.' 29 Stars swarmed across Leon's closed-eyed vision. The draining blood flooded over his face and he knew he was about to faint. No! Not here! Stay awake! They're coming! The words trailed away into nothing, as his ears filled with the sound of rustling leaves, and his skin felt the warmth from above blending majestically with the crisp chill of an autumn breeze. In front of him now, sun lit and purest white, was was a field of lush grass. For long moments he did nothing. His bare feet padded at the soft ground that rolled away in the distance over hills and meadows. In the air was the smell of jasmine and summer rain. He breathed it deeply and smiled a small, contented smile. At the furthest edge, far across the field and framed by a sky so blue it might have been sapphire, he saw a shape moving peacefully amongst the white flowers that covered the

grass in places—like clouds of the earth. It swished and swayed, inching closer and closer. After a few moments it came into a fuller view; its coat seemed to pick up the sparkle of the sun high above. Its angle turned—it began to run straight at him. Leon felt no fear as the glinting creature sprinted over the field in front of him, its pace faster than a cheetah. Blades of grass were tossed into the air as it come within fifty metres, then twenty, then ten. There was a leap. A ball of roaring incandescence rocketed towards his body. It struck like a sledgehammer. His eyes slammed open, the lethargy that filled him was pushed away momentarily, though still lurking at the edge of his mind. He was lying face down in the dirt, his body aching. He wanted more than anything to let sleep overtake him--give in and let his mind escape--but he couldn't. Against every, screaming urge of his body he dragged himself up. The group was already halfway across the large dirt space. The blood from his head sprayed over the ground as he jerked his body forward. He held his hand underneath it, collecting a thick, red pool—not wanting to leave an obvious trail to his location. Every step across the uneven mix of gravel and dirt seemed off balance. His vision shook violently as he ran as fast as he could towards the piles of scrap metal and rotting machinery to his left. How the hell did they shoot lightning at me? No time to think! Come on! Come on! Move it! A scar of burning light flashed behind him as he hobbled into the scrapheaps, missing him by inches. He stumbled past engines and chains and millions of pieces of worthless rust without seeing anything he could use. The path weaved back and forth like a maze and he knew he couldn't outrun the people behind him—not in his current state. After a few more uncoordinated steps he saw what he needed. In front of him was a big lead drum--propped up slightly from the ground on one side-- leaving a small, empty space below. It obscured the angle of the gate-wards approach. There was enough room for him to squeeze himself in. Boots thumped behind him as he jumped towards the gap and threw the fistful of blood as far as he could into the opposite direction. The second he'd stuffed himself into the gap five sets of feet rounded the corner and stopped. Leon checked his wet, sticky forehead. The cut was just above his right eyebrow-deep, but not large. He pressed his fingers down on it hard. The pressure slowed the stream of blood but didn't fully stop it. 'Spread out! He's wounded! You, Trainee Hendricks, stay here. Make sure he doesn't get out this way. Under no circumstances use your Search Stones to look for him. Any attempt at a psychic connection could unleash his power; he is to be treated as armed and dangerous, do you understand?' 'Yes, sir! He won't get past me.' The voice sounded young, and Leon moved his head around the lines of metal to try and get a clearer sight. He could just see glimpses through the gaps--perfect suits and polish black shoes. No sooner had he found a good viewing position when the group of men spread out--sprinting off out of sight. The remaining person came into view through the mesh of rusting pipes and Leon was surprised by what he saw. The man was really only a boy—still in high school, or only barely beyond it. His hair was buzz-cut and the suit he was wearing—though fitted—still looked baggy on his thin frame. Leon watched as the boy began walking purposefully back and forth around his hiding hole. His heart fluttered for a moment as his footsteps passed right by the drum, then calmed as he stepped away again. For fifteen long minutes the kid paced back and forth in

the narrow passage--patrolling more than searching--when, without warning, the boy's marching boots stopped dead,right in front of Leon's head. He could almost see his reflection it their shine. There was a fumbling noise, then a fizzing drag of something against the steel. A dim, red light flickered above, and after a few moments Leon smelled the cigarette smoke. There was pressure against the drum, iron creaked around him, and the stance of the boy shifted to suggest he had leaned backwards. Nothing happened for almost a minute, except the long drawing breaths of the smoker. Leon remained as still as he could. He was surprised that he was started to grow jealous of the man, realising that he hadn't had a cigarette for as long as he hadn't had food—and right now he wasn't sure which he was hungrier for. The pungent fumes made him yearn for his park bench on a quiet afternoon. Damn, he thought. Had it really only been six hours since the world had been that simple? Where the only thing he had to worry about was how he could get away with avoiding class? And now he was running away from people who wanted to take over his body so they could abuse a magical soul joyriding in his skin. Man, how times change! And only a few of those hours ago I'd been wishing for something like this—some kind of fantasy that would turn me into a feared and powerful man. Careful what you wish for, huh. Suddenly a burning spot of light dropped in front of Leon's vision--bouncing into the gap and under his nose and mouth. The acrid smoke filled his eyes. 'Dammit!' the high voice muttered from above. There was a brief pause, a moment of stopped time...then a knee appeared on the ground. Leon's heart stopped. A thick hand reached into the narrow hiding space--patting along the ground, inching towards him. Little clouds of dust puffed up as it crept closer and closer to his skin. The fingertips strained to full extension just centimetres from Leon's face. There was a further creak, thick with a sick inevitability of weight shifting away from the metal pile...and the other knee came to the ground. Don't do it! It's not worth it! Don't mess up your suit! Just leave it! Please! As if in horrid, slow-motion the man lowered himself down, flattened his face against the dirt, and looked into the space. A blue eye stared straight into Leon's. The smallest look of shock dawned, then the face came alive with expression. It's mouth opened to shout. 'He's ove..!' A burst of red exploded from the ember of the cigarette like a flame-thrower, causing the boy to reel backwards, clutching at his face. Leon scrambled out of the narrow space, willing his legs to take each step. He found himself counting down the seconds until the boy would scream out for help. Round and round the piles he staggered—hoping against hope that he would find each turn unoccupied. He looked up and saw the massive warehouse; it appeared there were some lights on inside. Behind him he heard the sounds of commotion and yelling—they had found the burned boy. Leon moved towards his new destination—reasoning that anywhere was better than here. He stepped out into a wide, exposed path and a figure appeared right in front of him. The body was only an arms length away; the suit was unmistakable. He held his breath in terror. It took him a few seconds to realise the man was actually facing away from him. Leon stood there on the spot--he couldn't bring himself to move. If the man turned just slightly he would see him there, in the open, waiting to be caught. After a few agonising seconds the man stepped away down the pathway and disappeared behind a pile of old engines. Leon breathed a sigh of relief.

He hobbled forward across the remaining distance to the warehouse's corrugated walls. He gently opened the door, stepped through it, and shut it silently behind him. Okay, now. Think! Maybe there is a way in here that I can-He felt the heat before he heard the voice. With slow movements he turned around. There was fire everywhere. 'Out of the frying pan,' cooed a familiar voice as a bolt of white hot light tore past him, 'and into the fire, boy!' 30 The building looked like a war-zone. All around was smashed glass and boulders of shattered concrete. What was once the reception area to the largest hospital outside of Capital City was now little more than a sick construction site. To the left and right Police Officers walked around with their hands on their hips. Their eyes were distant and down-turned. Behind them, in what remained of the car park, were seven ten-person lines of body bags—inconspicuous black plastic holding contents of horror. Ambulances and Fire Engines filled the space around them, and those officers, too, were walking around slowly. Amongst it all were doctors and nurses—running between the officers and the ambulance men to offer assistance and relay information. Out the front of what had once been glass doors stood a large policeman with a round face. He gently crunched the glass underfoot as he stared blankly at the scene. 'Makes you think, Captain, doesn't it?' said a voice to his left. 'One minute you're alive, minding your own business, just going down to the hospital to see a relative who's taken a turn for the worse, or waiting for your kid to be born, and then this happens. She would never have expect it, would she. Upstairs is where the people die...not down here.' The Captain nodded gently. There was no way that any of them would have thought about this. No way that any of those people would have considered that going to a hospital could have killed them. 'It's not the way that I would want to go, Sargent,' he said, picking up half of a scalpel blade on the ground just in front of them. They had found hundreds of them. The Captain of the Fire Brigade told him that the explosion must have come from the centre of the room-given the layout of the blast zones--but he couldn't find too much evidence to explain how it happened. He seemed especially uncertain about how these got everywhere. Half of the bodies in the bags had been killed not by the explosion, but from bleeding to death. And most of those looked like they hadn't even been able to put up a fight. 'Are the Ambulance and Emergency boys done here?' he asked, holding the tiny blade up to the light. 'Yes sir, they say they have all the bodies that they are going to uncover. And the Chief of Medicine says that it will be better just to keep all of the patients here, rather than trying to evacuate a few hundred sick people all the way to Capital General, which is almost full as it is. They are going to try and re-route any emergency they can there, though, but he says he wants a path cleared in all of this mess, just in case they get a bona-fide emergency that can't make the hour's ride.' The Captain looked over to the rows of body-bags. 'Do we have a list of names yet?' 'Some of them, Captain. The boys recognised a lot of them, and the staff helped identify a few more. Lieutenant Straith has begun the ring around. But...well...' 'Yes, Sargent?' 'He thought you might prefer to...that you might want to visit Ruby and Max yourself. Full gear. Flag and badge deal.'

'Yes,' the Captain said after a while. 'Yes I suppose that would be for the best...' Tania Kelly had been a cop with the station for almost fifteen years. Her father, Max had been one himself, back in the day. It was always the part of the job you wished you never had to do—telling an old cop that their kid had died on the job. 'Do we have any idea why she was here, yet?' 'No, sir. She was supposed to clock off after the late shift. I don't know why she is in uniform either. Maybe she was called by a friend after work? We tried looking for her car but you've seen the mess.' They both looked out at the automotive graveyard that was the car-park. The fireball must have been huge in order to start such a domino effect of exploding cars. 'Have we found John yet?' 'No, sir.' 'When we do he is going to be crushed as bad as her folks.' The Captain threw the small blade aside and sighed deeply. 'Alright, Sargent. There isn't anything more we can do here. Get the boys going on those ring around, then lets call it a night. We have a hell of a day ahead of us tomorrow.' While they had been speaking the body bags had begun to be loaded into the ambulances and the fire trucks had slowly begun trickling out of the car park. In the space of just a few minutes the whole space was empty. A few nurses collected things from the rubble, and some officers remained behind to move boulders aside and make access for any new ambulances that might come. Apart from that the place was soon still. Captain Vale walked out through the car park, out the smashed gates and over to his unmarked squad car. He didn't feel in any way that he was ready to go back to the station and don his full uniform, drive out to his old friends house, and tell him that his little girl was gone. He signed and reached into his pocket for his keys, inserted them with a click into the lock... And then he stopped. For almost a half minute the man stood in the dark, unmoving; he was still as a statue. Then he withdrew the keys, turned on the spot and walked down the dark length of the road. After a time he came to a polished car and opened the boot with a click. Without missing a beat he picked up a black-body bag from its depths, walked back down the road, and proceeded through what remained of the gates. The nurses and remaining officers were off to the right, near where the reception desk had been, and would barely have been able to see the approaching officer, even if they had wanted to—such was the mangled layout of the remaining walls and beams. The Captain walked off to the left, to a dark area of tangled substructure and half exploded furniture. He stepped confidently through the rubble until he found a spot, knelt down and unzipped the bag. Out of the bag he dragged a headless body, dressed in a police uniform, and wedged it under a large chunk of wall that had collapsed. He stood up and kicked at the bodies clotted, red neck—forcing it deeper into the small gap. Its hands bobbled around lifelessly with each kick. When that was achieved he reached down and wrapped his fingers around the the hair of the decapitated head. He pulled it out and brought it up to his face. The eyes were still open, and he was surprised to see how present they looked. After a few seconds analysis he lobbed it across the room, where it rolled under another pile of chairs and grey stone. He was just beginning to roll up the body bag when he felt the tug at his belt. He shot his hand around but wasn't quick enough. Behind him he heard the click and felt the

cold metal press behind his ear. Captain Vale let out a smile. 'A treaty comes to mind. The Amsterdam Accord, enacted in 1947. And I quote, 'Adept Council Enforcers are granted access to signatory countries and territories under the guarantee that there shall be no interference by any Adept Council Enforcer in the duties and actions of any member of Human police forces, under any circumstances, for any reason.' I can only imagine the dismay that the Prime Minister of Britain, or the President of America would feel if they saw a member of ACE pointing a loaded gun at a police officer. The scandal that it would cause the Council! The risk that it would enact on your entire, petty cause...' 'I am no longer an Enforcer...' breathed a voice behind him, 'and you are not a real police officer.' 'Ah, yes. You have me there. Maybe all that time with the Perceptionist is rubbing off on you. Although I can imagine there were one or two hiccups after this little mess here.' The voice behind him was a growl. 'I don't care that you robbed us, or that you threatened us, but people are dead! Can't you even pretend to care?' The Police Officer rose slowly from his knees. He could just see nurses in the distance, lit with makeshift flood-lamps on stilts, but he doubted they would be able to see the two of them, here in the dark. 'I fail to see what the problem is. And from what I hear, your little woman was pulled right out of a deep perception. And of course, Perceptions are terrible for that sort of stuff aren't they? You tug them out in the middle of their spell and it really messes them up. We didn't find either of you in the clean-up. Did you drag the body out so you could hold a little burial?' 'You'll be sad to know, Mr Grey, that Lilith is fine.' The Officer's hidden smile didn't fade in the darkness. 'So you know who I am, then? And she is still alive? Good! She has spent almost a decade trying to bring down our organisation with her lies and her slander and her wasted breath. It gives me great pleasure to know that she is still out there--that killing her is still an option. And, now that she is weak...' The metal behind his ear pressed firmly into the skin. 'She's a hell of a lot more resilient than you give her credit for!' 'Oh, I am aware of her skill. And her determination. We didn't even know that you two were here, in town. That is some good sneaking, because we pick up everything that goes on around here. Searching for those answers, was she? And now she has dragged you into this mess, forcing you into her personal vendetta. I knew she was resilient, but I never thought she would convince another one of you to go along with her. But, when I get my hands on her I can assure you I will find a way to beat that resilience out of her.' The man leaned forward, until his lips were right next to the officer's ear. 'Shut your mouth!' The officer laughed softly. 'Is this the part where you expect me to make some kind of irrational move? Something that compromises my position? I have been in this body for less than ten minutes, nowhere near the two hour limit. There is absolutely no chance that my personality will have bled into his. There is no need for a ritualistic execution; no requirement for precaution. You pull that trigger and I wake up in my nice, comfortable car totally unharmed, and you will have just killed an innocent man.' The Captain turned to face the dark skinned man. Blood and cuts covered his face and over his shaved head. 'I bet I know why you are here,' the man said, unperturbed. 'Why you aren't looking for the boy when time is running through the hourglass. Those

little stones that I took...they were your only ones weren't they? You thought you could find the Search Stone you left behind here, didn't you? And you've looked around and you've searched in the darkness and you haven't found a thing! You have nothing, do you? You're done! So why don't you just save yourself the time and kill me. Go on, murder this innocent, respected man—because there is nothing that you can threaten me with that will make me help you. Sentence this man to death, just like you were going to do with Leon! You're the real murderer!' Flynn scoffed. 'You're going to wipe his brain, stuff your madman boss into his body and try and force the most powerful soul in the world to bend to your will. How on earth does that make you any better?' 'At least with us he has a chance to be remembered. His face, his body; the one that will be photographed, the one that will be archived in the annuls of history as the ruler of the entire planet? Does it really matter who is actually inside the head? His name will be feared for centuries. I would say that he is far better off with us! And by now he is probably already one of us!' The Captain leaned forward, pressing his forehead into the gun's silver barrel. 'You'll never win,' Flynn said, backing slowly over the uneven ground. 'You will never bend the will of what is inside him. It will reject your Master as the dog that he is. All of your plans. All of your plots. All of them will come to nothing. You will never again wrest back control of the Adepts.' 'On the contrary,' the Officer said, twisting his head and opening his unblinking eyes ever further. 'I believe that it is you who will never win. You may have been demoted, kicked off the force for your association to that bitch, but you are still, at heart, an Adept Council Enforcers—dogs of the Council. Do you know, there have been members inside that hall that have known just as long as we have that the boy was coming, and that this is why my organisation is here, in this piss-ant town? Members who know all about our deviations and crimes and dishonesties? And do you know what they have done about it? Nothing! They have let us have the run of this country because they don't have a backbone!' His steps were getting faster now, and Flynn was struggling to keep up as his feet moved backwards blindly. 'No, I think what you will find the truth is that you will fail to stop us. Just like you always have. You come in here, following all of your codes, no new ideas, no new solutions. And on a personal mission no less—without back-up. Two of you against Black, White and Associates?! You have no power, you have no position! So do it. Pull the trigger. Go on! Do it! You've already lost this fight! Why don't you add another innocent person to the tally of people you've failed to protect.' Flynn stopped in his spot and pushed the gun forward. He waited for a few seconds...and then lowered the weapon. The Captain laughed. 'I suspected as much! As weak and pointless as the rest of you sidekicks! That woman of yours would have pulled the trigger...although I am sure she has more balls then you do!' 'Ah, but you confuse me,' said Flynn leaning in close to the round face. 'I never had any intention of shooting you.' He waved the gun about in his hand, and a small smiled broke, too, on his face. 'You had to dump that body, you had to bring it here, and that means you aren't in one of your little amplification boxes, your sarcophaguses, back in that office of yours, are you? That means your close; somewhere around here is your fragile body, prone and defenceless. Just lying there...' Lightning movements whirled and a click came from between them. A faint purple light came from below the officer and then faded. He looked down and saw handcuffs,

seemingly made of crystal, wrapped tightly around his fat wrists. Flynn grabbed the officer by the collar and dragged him in close. 'You are good enough at being a Rider to move in and out of a body from a distance without harming it, without anyone even knowing you were there, aren't?' As if on command the officer's eyes rolled back in his head. The handcuffs glowed a bright purple once more. After a few seconds the man's eyes came back, suddenly filling with panic. 'But you were just going to shoot yourself!' spat Flynn. 'Even though your car is only a few hundred metres away! Kill and innocent man for no reason but to appease your own murderous lust! I know what you do, how your association works! You never dismount peacefully. From the second you were in this man's body he was dead!' Flynn's eyes were wide and furious, carrying the weight of anger, the knowledge that his lover had almost been killed by the filth he held in his hand. 'You want to kill this guy? You want him dead? Do it! I've blocked your voluntary passage out of here! No magic is going to work for you while these are around your wrist. Killing yourself is the only way to get back to your body...' Flynn's voice was little more than whisper as he pressed his face against the Officer's. 'But without a gun there really aren't that many sure fire ways to kill yourself in a few seconds are there? And right now your body is defenceless, asleep—and you have no way of getting back there voluntarily...' The realisation dawned across the officer, and his face became ashen. Flynn leaned in even closer, his voice like daggers in the night. 'First one back to your car wins!' At once Flynn was sprinting out of the rubble and down into the asphalt of the car park. His pace was fast; his powerful body thumped forward with every step. The Captain watched him in shock then snapped into movement. He knew he only had one minute, maybe less. He would never be able to catch the man, not in this body, and there was no point trying to draw his mind back to the car again—he knew what the handcuffs were made from, and what they could do. His eyes, instead, traced the floor. There were sharp object everywhere but he rejected them. Cutting won't work—too slow. I can't guarantee it will work. Up ahead two nurses where sweeping and pushing aside a path towards the rest of the wings. Helping them was the young Sargent. For a second relief rose in his heart until he saw that the man had removed his gun belt and shirt for the work. No time to find it! What else is there? Without stopping the man leaned down and grabbed a fist sized rock. The second he stepped into the lights he hurled it hard at the nearest flood-lamp. The bulb sparked violently, as glass shattered to the floor. The Sargent filched at the sound, as did the nurses. They stared as the Captain sprinted over towards the broken light. One nurse was standing in his path and he flung her aside heavily. 'Captain! What the hell are you doing?' barked the Sargent as his commanding officer shot a quick look into the shattered flood-bulb. 'Getting out of here,' he said nonchalantly. Then he shoved his hand into what remained of the bulb. There was a moment of searing pain and then Mr Grey's view filled with the sight of a steering wheel and windscreen. He threw his body to the side just as the bullet punched through the glass--showering him with shards. Without looking up he turned the key, pushed the car into gear with his chin, and slammed his foot on the accelerator.

The wheels of the car roared into life, coating a line of black onto the road. A thump resounded from the bonnet and for a moment he felt the sensation of flight. The front axle jumped into the air a few metres, taking the back of the car with it. The landing was heavy, coming with a crunch of metal underneath him. Mr Grey didn't look up; he kept his feet on the accelerator and the car unwillingly returned to full speed. After a few seconds he sat up and shook the glass out of his hair. In front of him was open, darkened road. He looked into his rear view mirror and saw no trace of anyone behind him. In the corner of his eye he saw the flashing light of his mobile phone. He had missed a call from Associate Sanders. Alarm bells rang in his head as he slotted the car into a higher gear and sped off down the road. 31 The dust swirled across the road as the roaring engine drifted off into nothingness--leaving behind it a space of empty silence, broken only occasionally by a raised voice of alarm from the hospital lobby in the distance. From the side of the road, surrounded by bushes, crept the body of a man. His movements were laborious and he struggled to get to his feet. Being run over was not part of the plan, but he still achieved what he needed to, so it was not all in vain. He knew it was It was a long shot, but it was the only option that they had. The man reached down into his jacket pocket and pulled out a mobile phone— punching a few numbers into it. After several ring a female voice answered. 'Flynn! Thank God! Are you ok? I've been worried sick!' The voice sounded deeply frail, like each syllable was a struggle. His heart lurched at the thought of how much pain she must be in. 'Don't worry about me. I'm fine,' Flynn consoled. ''How are you holding up? We're you successful?' 'Yes. I got what we needed. And you?' 'I just tagged him now. Can you see anything?' There was a pause from the other end of the phone. 'There is no sign of Leon— none. And the signature of Mr Grey is almost 100 miles away. It looks closer to me than to you.' Flynn nodded. By Council Law the Enforcers were the only ones allowed to use the cloaking spells--he and Lilith were risking great punishment by continuing to use them now. Black, White and Associates rarely cared about laws though, and with enough money anything could become available. They had proved that with their acquisitions of the blacklisted Transfer Stones. 'They are obviously masking their signature, including their base. That must be where Leon is. Ans what about me?' 'Let me just focus in on it.' There was another pause and Flynn held is breath in anticipation. 'Ok,' Lilith continued, 'I can see two signature patters of you. One is just near the hospital and the other is heading East on an Arterial Road.' Yes! Flynn thought. It had worked. He had given Mr Grey's car a blast without hiding his magical signature—the opposite of what Enforcers would normally do. Under normal circumstances the anonymity from Search Stones was a blessing, one that allowed them to sneak into towns and follow suspects and make arrests without ever being noticed. But now it was a lack of anonymity that was working in his favour. 'Follow it, Lil. At some point my signature will hit their cloaking perimeter and then appear somewhere else, far away probably. It will start becoming erratic.' 'How will that help us?'

Flynn walked across the road and into a set of bushes, eventually coming to a white van. He opened the door and climbed up into the cabin. 'Just tell me where my signature starts going haywire,' he said, turning over the key and bringing the rumbling engine to life. 'It won't be perfect but it will give me a starting point of their perimeter.' 'Ok. Is there anything I can do from here?' He considered this, and then decided against it. Frankly, it was a miracle Lilith could even stand. 'No, don't exert yourself. You stay wherever you are. Find somewhere safe, somewhere hidden, and rest. You are going to need it...' The van shuddered as he slipped it into gear. There was a long pause from the other end of the line. He thought he could hear the fragile voice tense further as it once again spoke. 'Please be safe, Flynn. I love you... ' Flynn looked out to the road and swallowed hard. The reason for her concern was understandable--he was about to try and infiltrate the lair of Black, White and Associates. This could be the last time that either of them spoke. 'Not as much as I do...' he said, softly, and sped the van out into the street. 32 The room was beyond perceptual concepts like loud and quiet, up and down, left and right, rise and fall, and gave the impression instead of eternity—an ancient, black, eternity. For a long period nothing changed. And then the emptiness gradually became fuller—somehow less eternal. After a moment of stillness the dead air grew thick and greasy. 'Master,' came a hollow voice, reverberating through the blank. 'I am afraid that--' You dare return? I was halfway to that town when I was dragged back here! I was halfway across the world, almost out of this prison and I was slammed back into these shackles! You have failed me, Mr Black! If breathing had been possible in this place, it would have become strained. As it was everything simple became denser. The darkness seemed to extend beyond simple black and enter the realm of anti-light. 'No, Master! There is time to find a solution. The boy has not yet escaped! We will find him! We will take him.' I gave you the simplest instructions! I commanded that the boy be captured and his body be prepared for my triumphant return! I commanded that there could be no mistakes! What facet of that command was difficult to understand!? 'Master, I can make this right! Give me another chance! I promise I will find a way for us to repair this!' The boy is gone, Mr Black! My vessel has been allowed to escape! Thirteen years, Mr Black! Thirteen years I have stagnated here. Thirteen years I have rotted away in this pit of heel, waiting for my moment of release! And I will not allow your incompetence to rob me of that! The boy is mine! His power is mine! His destiny lies with me! What possible excuse do you bring?! The darkness filled with the smell of iron. Mr Black could feel his lungs being pressed together, even though there was no air in them to begin with. 'There...was...interference, Master! Someone we could not predict!' Who!? Who dares defy my destiny? 'It is him, Master. It is The Poet.' The all-surrounding crush lessened for a second, and then receded to almost nothing.

The Poet... How is it possible he could interfere, Mr Black? We have already dealt with him! 'I don't know, Master. But I will fix it. He will not be allowed to ruin our plans. Your revival shall not be undermined! On that I pledge my life!' The density grew heavy once again, hanging like a lead blanket in a weightless space. That pledge may yet come back to haunt you, Mr Black! But the circumstances have changed. We can no longer assume we will take the boy before dawn. We must assume from this point on that we will not be dealing with Leon Wheeler. We will be dealing, instead, with the soul directly. You know of who I refer, Mr Black... 'Master! You don't mean... Yes! answered the darkness. The Beast! 'But all of our plans told us to take us before the sunrise. The Osiris Report said we had no other choice but to take him before the transformation!' The Report was also wrong about the time when The Beast would come back. We must prepare for that eventuality. There are plans in place. There are contingencies that predate your rise to power. 'Yes, Master. But...' Make haste your preparations, Mr Black. 'Of course, Master. But all is not yet lost. I have dispatched Mrs White. As we speak she in intercepting the boy. There is still a chance we will take him before--' All sides of the void closed in. The voice exploded with the silence of millennia. By the time you have resurfaced, that woman will be dead! A fate you will share if you fail me once more. 33 The air smelled the poisonous smell of treated wood enflamed. Fire crackled around the concrete room, burning in small piles of offcuts and degraded scaffolding. Its dancing light cast shadows amongst the two dozen support beams that divided the football pitch sized hanger. Leon looked around the space but couldn't see the voice's source. 'I thought that this little set-up would bring you out of the dark, boy. And look at that, I was right. Like a moth to the flame.' The voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. Its methodical cadence drifting up with the ashen smoke. Leon stepped forward to the nearest beam and hugged his body to it—trying to hide, or at least reduce his visibility. 'That bitch at the Hospital may have feared you--she may have taken the weak solution and cloaked herself in water, drawn you into a perception, tricked you into being at ease--but I will not succumb to such cowardice. I wish to see you for what you really are. I wish to see this power we have all waited so long to see.' A shimmer of white light sparked briefly in the cavernous distance, and Leon crept to the other side of beam. He glanced around the warehouse and tried to map out an escape. The door he had come in by was surely where she thought he would run to, so that was out. There appeared to be several other doors further down the way, but only after fifty metres of open sprint. 'They all are petrified of what you carry with you, you know. All of the others have hatched these elaborate plans, and made these elaborate solutions. They are mapping out the most minute of details and ensuring that everything goes in some kind of order. All because they are afraid. All because they are too pathetic to take command.' Leon stared down at his hands as he felt a tingle dance over them. 'As for myself, boy,' drifted the voice. 'I do not see a reason to be afraid. Only for the timid is the sight of the almighty a fearsome one. Only for the meek is the image of divinity

one that brings forth a shudder. I am neither. And nor am I afraid of you.' Small dots of red light populated the air around Leon like LEDs. They moved slowly towards his hands in a marching processions of tiny flames, just like the ones he had seen in the sewer. The tiny lights revolved around him like a planetary orbit. The pins and needles sensation redoubled on his skin. Pricks of hot and cold ran over him. 'Be scared, we were told, the power that comes with the boy. Be petrified, we were preached at, all the damage that can be done with the dismembered soul of elemental fury. It will rip your body in two without so much as a flinch. It will turn your skin to dust with the blink of an eye. It will damn your waking body to a century of unending torment simple for the fun of it. These were the things that I was told. These were the things that the people I love most warned me of. Mother and father, sister and brother, all of them told me that you would be my undoing. And yet I stand here, unafraid of you.' 'If your so unafraid,' hollered Leon, glancing around the metal struts next to his face. 'Then why don't you come out and show yourself?' The tiny lights circled him faster. The woman laughed sickly, maniacally. 'I can feel the power growing within you, boy. I can feel the heat rising. Let it come. Let it out. Allow the fire to overtake you. Allow yourself to be one with it and let me see your face. Let me see the true power of what it is inside you!' Like a punch in the face came a voice in his head. It spoke not in words but in emotions. It screamed anger. It bellowed hate. Suddenly Leon's body was erupting too in an uncontrollable rage. Never before had it been so angry. Who does this bitch think I am? Who does this slut think she is talking too. I am the lord of fire! I am the harbinger of flame! I will not take commands from the likes of her. I will not be spoken down to! This insolence will not stand. I will not allow it! He turned on the spot and extended his arms—without even thinking of doing it. The heat rippled in the air as the tiny flames around his fingers flew the the four corners of the warehouse—blending into the existing fires. At once the tongues of flame all around the bare space rose into mid-air. He could feel it; he could hear its voice. The fire was speaking to him. It was it was telling him what to do. Like it knew the solution to all of his problems. He watched as his own hands drew back like a bow—tensing and solid. The fire in the air seemed to likewise tense. For one shining second he could feel the connection. The raw, undeniable, aching power. A surge of godly power hit Leon's mind like a world shattering orgasm. It surged and swelled in his cerebellum. A primal scream from the depth of his soul screamed the fury and power that was wracked his body as a great boulder of flame erupted out of his mouth like a dragon. He could taste the flame on his tongue—coal and ash—and there was nothing in that moment that could have tasted sweeter. The monstrous ball of flame surged across the warehouse floor, hissing through the dark, and smashed into the far wall, exploding a thirty metre hole in the structure. Metal and glass rained down in the dark distance. Leon felt like a god. He wasn't even sure if he was the one issuing the commands, but he wanted more of it. His anger rose ever further. 'You think you're tough? I know what you want! You want my body! You want to suck me dry and put your little Master in me, don't you? You want to take over the world by taking my power! My power! Well, guess what? You want to take my body?! You want to steal my body from me?! You want my flesh and my blood?! Then come and take it you fuc-' The light was blinding. In the space of a breath every ounce of power shuddered from him. He fell to the floor and felt himself convulse. He no longer had any control over

his limbs. The fire all around the warehouse was instantly extinguished. Slow, methodical footsteps tapped across the concrete. He heard the sound of a mocking laugh. 'My, my, my. And after all I had been promised. All of the stories and all of the legends about the transformation of the Beast and that was what you had in you.' Overhead appeared the face of Mrs White. In her hand was a six inch cylinder of metal—two double-helix prongs twisting out of it's tip. She smiled a cruel smile. 'Do you know how long I have waited for that little fizzle, boy? Do you know how long I have been waiting to see what The Beast could produce? Leon's tongue twitched uncontrollably. It took all of his efforts to stop it from sliding down his throat. 'Fourteen years,' she said monotonously, not waiting for him to reply. 'Fourteen years I have been told that you would be our salvation. That you would be the one that would lead us out of this isolation and into the green uplands of power. Fourteen years, ever since I was your age, I was told that my sole duty was to give my life, if the moment demanded it, to make sure that you would be captured.' The woman bent down and dangled the twisted prongs over his face. He could hear the seething tick of it; he could feel his hairs stand on end. He tried to raise a hand but his command was ignored by his body. It wasn't like with The Poet, when he felt like he was fighting against an unmoving barrier—now he felt like he was dislocated from his body. It was like he was watching himself from a distance. 'I have always wondered what the moment would feel like. What emotions would run through me when I was placed in this situation—one on one with the greatness that lays within you. In my teenage years, when my mother told me of my purpose--of my duty to find you, to hunt you, to put you to good use--I even dreamed about you.' In a stabbing motion the woman plunged the metal into his throat. His body convulsed in excruciating pain. His limbs spasmed epileptically on the hard floor. After a few seconds the woman lifted the ticking metal from his skin. Her face was one of mild annoyance. 'And all I feel right now is disappointment, boy. I am wondering how you could possibly be the one that we have been waiting for. For all this time we have been holding the Osiris Report like a bible—assuming that every word of it was truth. We moved our lives for it, we changed our entire world because of it, and now I cannot help but doubt all of that. I am wondering how something as pathetic and impotent as what is twitching on the floor underneath me could possibly be the great and powerful soul we were told about. If this worthless little teenager that can't even fight off the stun of a Shockwave weapon could possibly be the mythical entity that I have been told would save my Talent?' Leon's throat convulsed. He struggled to breath. 'It always seemed a little too convenient, boy. All of that destiny stuff. The waiting and single purpose of life thing. And the thought that I have long wondered has finally proven itself to be a unquestioning fact. All that I have ever been told, everything that the Osiris Report promised was a lie--passed down between the generations.' Sharp nails gripped at Leon's shaggy black hair and pulled his face up until her alabaster skin filled all of his blurring vision. 'Do you know, boy, that all of the Riders, all of our Talent, have been told that there is no-one alive that could caparison your body? That there was no-one in the world of Adept that could withstand the awesome, indescribably power that you supposedly have.' Her eyes became distant for a moment and she stared out into the smoky air. 'Noone...except the Master, that is. He could survive it. He could withstand it.' Her eyes

refocused and she stared back down at Leon. 'Every single one of us were told that our duty was to watch for your arrival, to capture you, and wipe you, and then, when we have this supposedly incredible, world-destroying power under own command, we were to step back, with the fullness of grace, and allow the Master to take over your vacant mind...because only he could possibly live through the process. The logic being that so long as one of us had your power, then all of us had your power. And with this power the Master was to rise up and take control of this planet. To make us the rulers of the world. After all, we were told, who could possibly stop someone who controlled The Beast.' Leon's eyes were rolling back in his head. In the distance he heard the sound of the metal tube being placed gently on the floor. A sharp pain above his neck brought him back and he saw the woman holding her hand over his face. Her enunciated voice was now little more than a whisper. 'And right now, boy, I am wondering that if all of the time that I have given to you and that wayward spirit inside your pathetic flesh has been nothing more than a cruel falsehood, where is the risk in seeing for myself. Because where I am kneeling right now, I don't see danger; I see the easiest caparison of my life! I see a broken little brat that any Rider could take over—without the use of a stone sarcophagus to amplify our focus. Right now, boy, I believe I am looking at the most overrated, hyped up excuse for power I have every had the misfortune of looking upon, and the idea that the capturing Rider is to step back and give up their captive for the good of the clan is seeming like a complete and total farce.' The woman pressed her sharp nails gently into Leon's sweaty forehead. 'If the power of one is the power of all, does it really matter who is the master of it? The face...the body... Perhaps with the correct training this Beast will indeed prove to be everything that was promised. Perhaps in time I could make you into the monster you are meant to be? If it is governed by the mind of the worthy...' Her eyes were now focussed. 'Yes... With my knowledge and training you will be the king. Your face will be remembered throughout time as the Lord of the world. And I shall be the one behind the throne...' The woman looked at him with steely determination. The jolt was like needles. At once Leon's brain felt like it was being scrambled—like it was being prised in two. It was a hideous sensation. There was a fraction of a seconds where he felt like he was looking out through two sets of eyes—as though he was looking out through the eyes that were looking back at him. A sensation like vertigo twisted all over. Every part of him felt like it was being violated. The sensation deepened. His mind felt like it was a rubber band—stretched to the edge breaking. Through the awful feeling came a whispered voice. 'Don't worry, boy. When I am done with you I will make sure we take care of your little girlfriend as well!' There was a second where the universe felt like to was about to snap... And then it was carnage. A jaw of molten fire bared its terrible fangs. A roar like world's end erupted everywhere. At once his vision came back to him. The feeling of invasion disappeared. Like a slow motion movie his eyes were now filled with the face of Mrs White. For a fraction of a seconds there was a look of confusion. A beat later this was replaced by the morphing face of agony. Before she could even open her mouth to scream the skin of her lips dripped down onto Leon's chest. Her face looked like putty, then melted rubber. Eyes of utter terror stared back at him—dark, petrified eyes. And then she was alight. Her body was a fireball. It staggered a few steps--hands dragging great white strings

of liquid flesh from the exposed bone. Leon watching in horror as her body melted away like cheese on a hot pizza. Her scalp slid down her skull and fell to the floor. In a matter of seconds there was nothing left but a skeleton. The fire extinguished, as Leon felt the distance creep up to him. It felt just like in the carpark—a sizzle of joy quickly morphing into the sensation he hadn't slept in weeks. There was the sound, far away as if in another room, of footsteps across the concrete. But all of this was simple background to him. In the space of a breath, he was gone. 34 The wood panelled door clicked closed behind Mr Black. He remove the crimson hood he had been cloaked in and threw it absently-mindedly over the yellow couch nearby. For a moment he paused in consideration and then walked to the pear-wood drinks cabinet. His fingers shook against the studded crystal as he swilled half a glass of scotch into a tumbler, spilling several drops onto the heavily polished surface. He threw back the drink in a single gulp and poured himself another. How could it have come to this? Mr Black dropped the glass with a clink, marched over to a book shelf and traced his fingers along the leather spines of the ancient tomes. Eventually his hand rested on a plain cream volume and he removed it from the shelf, bringing it over to his glass desk. His predecessor had never told him what the supplementary plan was—he had always been so confident that he would never need to use it. He had put all of his efforts into the foolproof idea of the device, testing it for years, back when they had even fewer Transfer Stones, to make certain it would withstand the strengths of The Beast and adequately cover the vast gap in distance between the Master's location and the place the Osiris Report foretold as the Beast's return point—here in this pathetic little town. It was supposed to have worked! The boy was supposed to fall through the amber and the Master was to abandon his prison—his mind wrapped in the most powerful flesh in the world. And then who would have stopped us? No-one! He turned the book on its side to reveal that there were, in fact, no pages in it, but rather a small lock. Mr Black reached into a one of his drawers and removed a metal box. On top of it was a perfect etching of a bucking horse, its mane flicking out in the wind. Three rings of numbers were on its side, which he slowly clicked into place. He had never been told the combination specifically, nor had he tried to open it before now, but his predecessor, if still alive, would have been disappointed if Mr Black had failed to assume what these numbers might be. There was a small, satisfying click and he opened the lid, removed a tiny ruby key and unlocked the book. Inside it was a brown paper envelope marked with beautiful cursive calligraphy. It read, 'For the eyes of Mr Black III.' The tall man smiled slightly—even all those years ago his predecessor had known it would be a Mr Black that would be leading the Riders, not a Mrs Black. The man had been a God… It was a shame that age took him before The Beast could rise. He picked up the envelope and turned it over. On the back was a wax seal, dark as the night, with the embossed impression of the letter B. He was about to break it open when there was a knock at the door. He looked up and saw Mr Grey. His face told him

everything he needed to know. Mr Black sighed gently and lowered the paper. 'So it is true then?' Mr Grey walked forward and stood on the other side of the desk. On the perfectly clear glass he placed a tiny circle of white fabric. Its edges where blackened. It looked as though any second it could crumble into dust. Mrs White is dead. He had no emotion about that. Their rivalry for control of the network web of companies and businesses and private services that was Black, White and Associates had been terse at best—and she had never forgiven The Master for promoting him six years ago from Mr Grey to Mr Black, leapfrogging her entirely and leaving her stalled as the second lieutenant, Mrs White. He knew it had been his personably relationship with his predecessor that had secured it. The man was like a father to him, and had told him everything about their organisation--all of the secrets of the past, all of the hopes of the future. Things that the rank of Mr Grey, technically only a senior Associate, was never intended to know. But still, much as there was no love lost between them, she had been a fierce warrior and had been successful in buying off the favours and selective deafness from the Adept Council, and had kept the Enforcers off their backs for this long. 'Details, Mr Grey.' 'Yes, sir. I must start by saying that I only arrived at the end, after all of this had happened. I was delayed at the hospital by the rogue Enforcers.’ Mr Grey composed his order of thoughts. ‘The gone. The device is ruined. And Mrs White… I have never seen anything like it. One or two of the Associates heard her screaming and they think she may have tried to caparison the boy for herself. Her injuries are...were...' Mr Black nodded without having to hear the specifics. He could imagine. It did not come as a monumental surprise that Mrs White would have tried to undercut him, or do something to enhance her own standing within the Master's eyes—and there could be no higher standing than ensuring the host of the Beast was under their control--but this! She must have been mad. No-one could withstand the immense power of The Beast but The Master. Only he was powerful enough to make a successful caparison. The suffering that must have been unleashed on her... 'Yes, Mr Grey. I can only imagine what she went through. And what of the Associates?' The bulky man's face remained still, but Mr Black saw the smallest change in his eyes. 'How many?' he asked, quietly. 'One of them has second-degree burns to his face, sir. But he was the lucky one. The others...' His voice trailed away, unwilling to say what he had seen. Mr Black turned his eyes out the window behind him. The darkness of night still hung like a painting over the industrial estate. The boy is losing control, if indeed he ever had any to begin with. He is truly becoming The Beast. The beginnings of the transformation are already presenting themselves. His actions will only become more unstable from here. Dawn will come. The sun will rise. And may mercy befall us if we do not have him back by then. 'They will not have died in vain,' Mr Black said, gently opening a drawer and pulling out a folded white pocket-square. His eyes met the other man's. 'Will they, Mr White?' There was a moment of stillness. Eventually, large hands reached out and took the finely-woven fabric, looking at it as though it was a newborn child. After a moment’s pause he pulled out the silver-grey cotton from his own jacket pocket and replaced it. He patted

the new fabric gently into place, looking at its perfectly starched creases, and then held out his old one to Mr Black. The thin man held up his hand in refusal. 'Now is not the time for a power vacuum. You have a much closer relationship with the Associates, Mr White--I trust your decisions to appoint your successor. How many permanent staff remain?’ Mr White didn’t have to count; the Associates were like his family. ‘Nine, sir.’ ‘And have we any idea where the boy has gone?’ ‘No, sir. It is like he has just vanished. There is a trail leading away from the warehouse for a few hundred metres but then it stops dead.’ Mr Black nodded. They both knew that, besides themselves, there was only one group of people with the skills to cloak such a powerful signature. ‘Assign everyone to monitoring, Mr White. I want everything scanned, everything searched. I don’t care if they know how to use the equipment or not; I want every man and woman in this place searching for that boy. Use the Trainees if you have to.’ Mr Black’s eyes looked out into the blackness beyond the window. ‘We have no choice but to assume that we are no longer facing the same boy that we have up to now. The Beast is shining through him. His overtakings are becoming more regular, and more violent. It can already smell the sunrise, Mr White. It knows it is coming. It knows that our time is running out.' 'But what happened, sir?’ asked Mr White. ‘We didn’t have as many of the Transfer Stones that we would have preferred, but the basic mechanics were sound. The device was tested again and again. It should have worked flawlessly!' Mr Black turned his eyes upon his second lieutenant. 'It appears that there was a complication. The Poet is back in the mix. 'Sir! How?' Mr Blacks eyes were already fading to the middle distance. 'How indeed… I am not certain, Mr White. I should not be possible but his signature was unmistakable. Perhaps he truly has proven his hypothesis.' Mr Black turned his focus to the folder in his hands. With crisp movements he broke the wax and spread the paper out onto the table. Both he and the new Mr White read it over. Half of the page was drawing—as red as blood. At the end of the note was a signature, cursive and bold as the message on the envelopes front. It was signed, 'Mr Black, The Second.' Mr White looked up at the current Mr Black, surprise filling his eyes. 'That is what the Beast will become?! How can we possibly fight that?' A thin, knowing smile spread across Mr Black's mouth. ‘I am sure we can enlist the help of someone…' Mr Black leaned back into his chair, still holding the paper. After a few seconds he turned to his second-in-command. 'Mr White, I feel as though we have been half-hearted in our endeavours up to now, particularly as they relate to the Amsterdam Accord...' Mr White looked at him quizzically. Mr Black continued, still smirking to himself. 'All of this business of Caparisoning local law enforcement; it is all just so weak willed! Interfering with the job of a Police Officer is a clear violation of the Amsterdam Accord, a mortal sin in itself.' The thin man leaned forward with a knowing look in his eyes. 'And why break a rule...when you could shatter it instead?'

35 Everything was white. Leon's eyes slowly parted to reveal the lustrous glow of the alabaster moon—full and radiating brightly in four divided sections. Each portion of the globe was separated by a vertical rectangle of black. It took him a few moments to adjust to the darkness all around and realise what the dividing lines actually were. Prison bars. He was locked inside a cell. Why can't I just wake up in my own bed! Just one time! More of the space opened up and the darkness retreated from ever-present to merely deep. The cell was unadorned brick. A shabby straw mattress lay in the corner. The window with the bars had no glass, and in front of him was a wall of thick, metal poles. An ancient heart shaped padlock had been used to close it, and he could practically smell the rust from here. This isn't a real prison. This looks like something out of a cheap western movie. He felt a restriction and looked down at his hands—they were bound with a pair of the strangest handcuffs he had ever seen. They felt heavy, covering most of his forearm, and deeply warm, nothing like the cold steel that he would have expected. He moved them over until they were resting in the bars of moonlight and saw that they sparkled and glinted, as if they were made of glass. From their joins stretched an ordinary chain, but like the bars it was old and rusted. After a while he noticed the strange taste in his mouth—as if the rust was on his tongue, covering his teeth and filling his throat. It made him want to gag. He reached up to try and check his mouth and noticed the blood all over his hands, arms and clothing. Leon Immediately recalled the fight with Mrs White, the unbelievable power that had consumed his body, the image of her flesh dripping from her bones, and then... Low blue light filled the darkness beyond the bars and glowed over the torso and face of a well-built black man. Even in the barely broken dark Leon could see that it was the other Adept from the hospital. 'God, for a couple of hours there I forgot there was a second lot of you after me,' he muttered to himself. He looked down at the man’s chest and saw what was causing the light. He was holding the thing Mrs White called a Shockwave. 'So…here to kill me then, are you?' At first the man didn't say anything. In his lips was a cigarette, which he pushed onto the small ball on the end of one of the helixes. After a few seconds it was lit. 'Kill you? Perhaps incrementally,' he said pulling out a second cigarette and holding it up. 'If I give you one you have to promise not to tell your mother.’ He flicked it through the bars and to the boy’s feet. 'And feel free to call me Flynn, Leon.' Leon reached down tentatively—wondering if perhaps it was a trick. Finally figuring that if the man had wanted him dead he could have just done it already, he picked it up and put it to his lips. He patted down his pockets awkwardly for a lighter and then remembered what he had done in the sewers. He moved his hands in the cuffs to free his fingers and snapped his thumb and middle together. A faint red glow spread over the crystal surface that bound him, and then was gone. No flame appeared at his fingertips. He tried it again with similar results. 'White Amber,' said Flynn with a puff of smoke. 'Bleached of power and totally resistant to any kind of magic. As long as they’re on you the soul is staying quiet.' 'Well then toss me a lighter or something, Flynn,' said Leon testily. The chuckle was deep and smoky. 'I'm thinking not. Even with those things clapped

around your wrists I'm not risking an open flame within a hundred metres of you.' 'Then I don't suppose you'd throw me that thing your holding instead?' The man drew back on the cigarette in his mouth and flicked the butt into the cell. Leon looked at it on the dirty floor for a few seconds, considered rejecting it, then reluctantly picked it up. He pushed the ember to the end of his smoke and lit it up. The draw was far harsher than his usual brand, and he had to suppress the urge to cough his throat up. 'Don't suppose you have any water or food back their do you?' he muttered after he had finished the death stick. The man appeared to not be listening. 'This is a thing of beauty,' he said, waving the Shockwave in the air like a wand, dragging a dull ocean of navy light across the dark. The static, electric sound was on the edge of hearing. It made Leon feel uneasy. 'A shard of Black Amber, cut into a Lighting Stone, suspended in an pool of liquid mercury. Tunnel it through supercharged rods of platinum and you've got the power of the Gods right in your hand. These used to be standard Enforcer issue, you know, although they were well and truly history by the time I joined up; A few got into the hands of some humans and the Adept Council had them all destroyed. Or thought they did, at least. Only a few remain, and they are incredibly expensive. But then, as we both know, money no object for your friends back there.' ‘What do you know about it,' spat Leon with a snarl. He wasn’t in any way prepared to trust this man yet. Flynn pulled out another cigarette and lit it with the Shockwave once more. His voice remained open and unconfrontational. 'About as much as we can know. They were started by The Master, and were led by him until…lets just call it the incident. The entire group was removed from the Council and meant to be outlawed, but over the years, they’ve transformed themselves into one of the richest and most powerful business groups in the world. They turn their Talent of Mind Control to a number of fields, legitimate and less so—from law, accounting, and information brokering right down to theft and political assassinations. Collectively their network of businesses is referred to as Black, White and Associates, although I challenge you to try and find their name and location in any phonebook in the world. ‘The Master, he is the guy who is in charge? Mrs White, while she was attacking me, said that he was in a prison.' 'Yes, Leon. The most secure one in the world of Adepts.' 'Who is he? What is this incident?' Flynn drew on the cigarette. 'That is a difficult question, Leon.’ ‘No it isn’t. All I asked for was he name and what he did to be in prison. He just tried to take over my body! Why can’t you tell me who he is?’ Flynn stared ahead for long seconds. When he eventually spoke his tone was uncertain, as if struggling through something. ‘I cannot tell you his name, Leon…because I don’t know it. No-one does. Not even The Master knows what it is anymore. It isn’t written down in any book or record on any source. Even the paperwork for the prison only referrers to him as The Master. That…was part of his punishment, although that is all I can say about it. All of this is secret information, and I could be Banished for sharing it. But I can tell you that the incident was bad; bad enough that it almost caused a third World War. We have him under constant surveillance, but there are some things we cannot control. He has found a way to issue orders to his followers through his mind. We have tried to stop it but have so far only been able to limit them. Tonight showed that we haven’t done enough.' 'We, we,’ mocked Leon. ‘Who is this we. I know who the Associates are, but who are you.’ Leon’s voice drifting once again towards unpleasantness. His mind had drifted back to

their last encounter, and the probably purpose of his incarceration was beginning to dawn on him. 'It is complicated, Leon. We are to the Adepts what the police are to humans. We enforce the laws of the Adept Council, the highest government body of our kind. We make sure that any use of power in the world is legal, and doesn't threaten either the safety of regular humans, or the anonymity of the Adept race.' 'Secret Society and that sort of stuff, right?' 'Had you ever heard of us before two days ago?' Of course not. Two days ago I would have scoffed at anyone who thought magic existed. 'So if your supposed to be in charge of Adepts all over the world, and stopping them commit crimes, why hasn't this group, this Black, White and Associates been shut down? You've seen what they have done! Surely that is all the evidence that you need?' The man sighed. 'It isn't anywhere near as simple as that. The Council has all but banned their organisation, and reduced most of their Talent to social outcasts—unable to join the Enforcers, unable to hold public office or join any level of academia or respected roles in Adept bureaucracy--but that still hasn't stopped them being one of the most powerful, influential and feared organisations in the world. If anything, their isolation and rejection had made them stronger—they don't fear reprisal or condemnation, and they have acted like a law unto themselves. Their powers have been honed to the point of near perfection. The Councillors are too terrified of losing their position to rock the boat, and most Enforcers would see nothing but reprisal if they instigated a private investigation. Everyone knows what they do, but there are few that will publicly speak out against them, and even fewer that would openly speak the deviances that they are suspected of committing. They are, unfortunately, almost untouchable.' 'But you are here.' A look of discomfort came across the man's face. 'Not...officially. Technically, I am not a real Enforcer anymore, because I pressed to hard against this organisation. The Council would not become involved in this matter. So this is…a personal mission. And we never expected to see you on it—we were just doing some surveillance. You have come far earlier than was predicted.' 'That's about the hundredth time someone has said that to me,' said Leon. 'Who made this prediction?' From behind the chair the man pulled out a slim manila folder, placed it on the floor and slid it with his foot across the concrete. It stopped just out of Leon's reach but he could still read the cover. Under a stamped red banner of 'Top Secret', was the title, 'The Osiris Report.' Underneath this was a smaller line labelled 'Written By.' In place of a name was a black ink stamp reading, 'Name Omitted.' Something in Leon's mind drifted over that, although he couldn't think why. Flynn stubbed the cigarette on the chair. 'Almost twenty years ago a young Adept theorist wrote this report. It contained many radical ideas, but the principle argument was that, in certain circumstances, an Adept’s soul could remain alive long after the death of that Adept's body and mind. It argued that the Adept's soul was far more than just a force inside our bodies but a living, breathing, independent entity. It went on to claim that under the correct conditions the lost soul would also be able to return in the body of an ordinary human.' The man reached for another cigarette then pulled his hand back, deciding against it. 'As a theoretical work is was labelled adventurous and daring-- which is of course to say that it was mocked as farce.'

Leon looked at the man dumbfounded. 'You’re telling me that you Adepts—people who can control minds and the elements and defy gravity—thought that this was weird? Flynn laughed. 'It might surprise you, Leon, that even amongst Adepts, with all of our powers, there are some things that are still considered superstitious. There was one aspect of the report, of which almost half The Osiris Report was focused on, which suggested that a specific example of this soul reincarnation could be demonstrated practically—even going so far as to predict a time, and general description when an ancient mythical King of fire, the supposed founder of the Adept Council, and long thought of as little more than a children's story, would rise from his long sleep and take the body of a human boy.' Leon looked at the man, taking in the significance. 'This was, of course, ridiculed beyond imagination. It would be like if Albert Einstein wrote a paper saying that King Arthur was alive and his that his ghost was responsible for gravity. It was career poison. The man who wrote it was laughed out of the professional world and his ideas where turned into the butt of jokes for years to come.' Flynn looked up and into Leon's eyes. His gaze was deep and knowing. 'But, there was, of course, one problem with all of this...' Leon nodded slightly and found himself uttering the words. 'He got it correct...' Flynn reached out with his foot and pulled the folder back. 'For years nothing happened apart from the ridicule, and then, unexpectedly, the author of the report was taken under the wing of a powerful Adept with millions of dollars, a fledgling business, and an eye for power. This Adept took in the young, rejected theorist and gave him a home. And I bet you can guess who this Adept was?' Leon barely had to think. 'The Master of the Riders...' Flynn nodded in the dark light. 'At the time he was the only one who believed in the theory. He supported the young man, he gave him space to work and further his study. He promised to finance and publish a second paper, if ever it was written. I am sure that for the man this was seen as a dream come true...' Flynn picked up the folder and ran his hand over the cover. 'In the end though, all of it turned out to be an exercise in exploitation. The Master was only interested in the idea that this returning soul might be captured and its power could somehow be drained, or utilised in some other way. The theorist learned of this plan, tried to escape and was killed for his trouble. The Master couldn’t wait the decade and a half until the theorised return date of the fire soul and, always the entrepreneur, found a different plan to take over the world—one that almost turned the Cold War hot.’ Leon digested the story—uncertain about how to feel as the end product of two decades worth of drama. He looked back up to the man. 'How do you know all of this? You said most Adepts don’t believe in what is happening?' The man smiled. 'I am here, Leon, because of her. I am here because of one woman. It is personal for her, and I am here because for all of these years she believed when it wasn't popular, and fought when it wasn't easy. She opened my eyes to the truth of the Osiris Report when everyone else mocked it. She couldn't convince any Captain to send us, or any Councillor to support us, and so we came alone. She believed that there was a merit of truth, and that if it was all allowed to stand, then we would all be danger.' The shape and texture of the room turned on a single word. Both of them could feel it-the dark change in the air. Suddenly the cordial atmosphere evaporated. The setting now seemed so much bleaker.

'Danger?' asked Leon. 'Exactly what danger are we talking about?' There was a pause, the man clearly registering the change in the air. He took the time to draw out a cigarette and light it before he answered. 'You know what has happened so far, Leon. I don't need to tell you the dangers that the soul inside you possesses.' 'No, please,' muttered Leon, his voice now acerbic. 'Don't think in this little session of story telling that I've forgotten about the hospital, Flynn. I haven't forgotten what you and that woman tried to do to me. I'm not an idiot. I know why you have me in a cell. And while I am here, and not going anywhere, I would like you to tell me exactly what danger I pose.' 'You know, Leon,' the seated man repeated slowly. 'You know what it has done. You know what you have done.' 'What I have done!' barked Leon, his voice ripping the air. 'All I have done is defended myself from people who have tried to kill me! All I have done is fight back! I haven't hurt a single person who didn't attack me first. And I know what I have inside me; you don’t! And the only thing that it has done is protect me. That is all! There is nothing bad about what is inside me!' 'You believe that, Leon? Even after what happened at the warehouse?' 'What about the warehouse? Yes, somehow I killed Mrs White! I don't know how I did it but that woman tortured me and tried to take over my body! I don't care what happened to her! She got what she deserved!' The man said nothing for a while. 'And you don't remember after that?' 'What after that? I passed out! Nothing happened after that. Flynn looked into his eyes, scanning him, weighing him up. After a while he looked away. 'My loyalty is to others. I'm sorry that you don't understand what is really going on here, I'm sorry you don't believe what we do, but I know what is inside you. I know what will happen to you when the sun rises. And I have to protect people. I make sure people don't come to harm, that’s what I do. I make sure people are free.' Silence filled the space. After an age Leon held up his shackled hands dramatically into the moonlight. 'For the most part, right?' he muttered darkly, full of morbid intent. Everything about his tone was accusative. It carried the weight of knowledge— knowledge of what Flynn had previously attempted; knowledge of why he was shackled in a cell; and the distinct knowledge of what his captor intended to do with him. The two shared a look that said more than words ever could. Both of them knew that through his attempts as civility, Flynn was soon going to do something that would probably kill Leon—and was no hiding from that. For almost a minute the man said nothing. Then he sighed. 'Leon... The Osiris Report gives other reasons that we have to be vigilant--' '--No! Fuck you! I won't hear that kind of shit! Just say it. Just say what you actually mean. You aren't going to be vigilant or protect the peace! Stop sugar coating it and say what we both know is going to happen! You are going to take a Banishment Stone, tear this soul from my body and in the process kill me! Admit it! All because you think what I have inside me is dangerous. You are going to try and kill me! Say it!' The words hung in the air like old, dank laundry. The silence lasted for almost two minutes. At last the man in the seat spoke. 'Leon, I wish that all of this was different, truly I do. And I wish that this task wasn't

mine. If there was any way that we could protect people without hurting you then we would take it. In a heartbeat. I didn't get into this job to hurt people, I did it to protect people. And I know that you believe the soul is protecting you. But it isn't, Leon; It really isn't. It is using you. And in a matter of just a few hours the Osiris Report confirms that we will go to a point of no return...and all of us will be in danger.' 'You keep referring to this Report, and some kind of secret within it! My ultimate destiny? What I will become? I know this soul is getting stronger! I can feel it each hour! But if you think you have some kind of proof that justifies my death then why don't you share it with me?!' The man looked down at the folder on the ground. After a while he sighed. 'Alright, Leon. I guess you deserve that. There is a place called the Sunda Strait where--' The sound of ringing broke Flynn's voice. The man's eyes flicked to his pocket for just a second and Leon lunged forward--slamming into the wall of metal and thrusting his fists between the bars, reaching out with all his strength to try and grab his captor. The handcuffs glowed a red flared orange. Sweat dripped down his forehead. Flynn didn't even flinch, but merely raised his left hand. Suddenly the rusted chain dangling from Leon's wrist slapped around several bars with heavy clangs. When it was fully coiled the knotted mass slid effortlessly up the poles, lifting Leon off his feet until his whole body was suspended almost a metre from the ground. Without breaking his eye contact Flynn reached into his blue-leather jacket one-handed and flicked open his mobile. 'Lilith,' he said with a note of relief in his voice. 'Flynn. It is so good to hear your voice. You didn’t call me. Are you alright?' “I'm fine. I thought you might be resting and I didn’t want to disturb you. And it all went fine. Better than expected. I'll tell you more about it when I see you.' 'Ok. Where are you now?' 'I'm jus--' His lips froze in mid word as he heard the sound on the other end of the phone—two tiny clicks, barely even audible. It was followed by a deathly silence. There was no speech from the other end and he knew straight away that she had heard the sound too. Both of them stood in silence, running over the possibilities for his wording. After the longest time Flynn spoke. There is nothing I can say about that,' he said in a calm, measured voice. 'What about you?' There was a pause as the woman thought, and then, at last, also she spoke. 'Bring him to the place were you proposed.' Flynn's eyes flared. It had only been a week ago. The location couldn't have been clearer. 'Done,' he said, and snapped his phone closed. Flynn immediately turned it around and ripped out the battery. He flung it across the room and dropped the phone's shell to the ground—shattering it with one heavy stomp of his boot. 'What?' yelled Leon, struggling with his suspension. 'What is happening? Tell me what you were going to say! What is the Sunda Strait? Tell me! It’s the reason you are going to kill me, isn't it?! What happened there? I deserve to know!' The chain above him filled with slack and Leon slid down onto his ankles heavily. By the time he had regained his balance the door to the cell was flung open and filled with the silhouette of Flynn with his arm extended. 'We're moving!' he said, as there was a snap and the coming of dull blue light. 'Now!'

36 Mr Black looked up. The wood panelled door was open, revealing the long, low-lit corridor within. It was lined with paintings and sculptures that stretched for a seemingly impossible distance. From this angle, inside the office, it appeared to go on for several hundred metres--a distance that was, or course, impossible... It was actually far, far longer than that, and went somewhere that no hallway could possibly lead. At the end, totally invisible from here, was a space of infinite darkness. A portal into a realm where physicality had no place. Mr Black picked up the crossbow at his feet—made of thin, lightweight metal and nothing like the weapon's medieval equivalent. Attached to the end of the slender, loaded bolt was a line of almost translucent wire, coiling around in a roll on the floor. White mist drifted off its surface, radiating a freezing cold. At the room's current temperature the wire should have been a liquid, and keeping it solid was a difficult feat. But it was better than platinum at conducting the transfer and there could be no mistakes with the process this time. This is the only chance we have now... He raised the bow to his shoulder, lined the sight up with the inky distance and fired. There was a snap. The wire at his feet hissed as it flew past metre after metre of red wall. Mr Black knew there was nowhere near enough wire to reach the full distance, all the way to the end, but that was not a problem—the space would make up for it independently. His predecessor had done a magnificent job building it—finding a way not just to cross the distance, but bypass all of the security the Adept Council around The Master's imprisoned body. After a few seconds the line stopped weaving and Mr Black pulled it taught, walked across the room and wrapped the wire carefully around a small, three-pronged silver mount on a table in the middle of the floor. He looked it over a few times and then stepped back. 'Is the transmitter prepared?' asked a voice behind him. He didn't turn around. 'Yes, Mr White. When the moment is right, this device shall work its little magic.' 'I...It feels a little strange to be called that, Mr Black. I still can't believe that she is gone.' The thin man smiled. 'It took me almost two years to stop feeling that I should be called Mr Grey, after I was promoted. But, it will grow on you, do not worry about that. And have you collected what I asked for?' The man came round to Mr Black's side. In his hands where two small balls of dark purple. They was no polish to them, none of the prestige they had held when they were purchased. None of the majesty and savagery that had warranted the search, or justified the huge expense. Almost all of the Associates profits over the last decade, from every branch, had gone towards the acquisition of the stones. He had been there himself when the fifth and sixth one had been bought—down a grubby, snow-lined alley in Belgrade—and he had been amazed by how different they were, now. What had once truly been radiant now they appeared dull and cloudy. 'Is that all that we could salvage, Mr White?' Mr White nodded. 'There was a third stone that might still work, but there is cracked badly down the centre. 'Indeed,' he said as he carefully picked up one of the Transfer Stones and inspected it.

It was a mess. Small lines spider-webbed along the edges. They looked ancient--like they had been used for decades, not seconds. Mr Black sighed. Millions upon millions of dollars, not to mention all of the favours and missions and deaths and covert operations just to acquire such rare items, and now they have been reduced to scrap. That Poet will fry for this... 'Mr Black carefully placed the damaged Transfer Stones onto the mount, which fit perfectly in between the three silver teeth. He reached into his pocket and drew out his Shockwave. The metal glinted in the light as he turned it, so the silver screw cap of the base was facing upward--revealing the cursive calligraphy of the word, 'Black'. With gentle movements he unscrewed the thick cap. His twists were like a safe-cracker's, his fingers delicate and tactile. After a few seconds the tension of the screw released and with the most careful of movements he lifted it upwards. Liquid metal, bright as the moon, dripped over the surface of a diamond shaped stone dangling from a tiny chain. Mr White reached over to steady the free-standing tube as Mr Black pulled the stone fully out of the pool of silver. In Mr Black's other hand appeared a small set of tweezers. He reached carefully to the stone and pulled it free, lowering it to the table below with a gentle clink. He reached down to Mr White's other hand and brought up the Transfer stone with the tweezers, which he slowly moved towards the tiny chain. After a few moments the purple stone snapped onto the bottom link like a magnet. They both breathed a small sigh and Mr Black lowered it back into the pool of liquid metal, aligned the cap's thread with that of the base, and gently screwed the two pieces together. When he was finished he handed the modified weapon to Mr White. 'Send an Associate to the address. We don't have any time for delays.' 'Yes, sir.' 'Good. Have the Associates found anything on the boy's location?' As if on cue the door swung open. Associate Sanders marched in, his face red from running. 'Mr White, we have something!' Mr Black nodded and stepped into his black stone box. He turned his piercing eyes up to his second in command. 'Make no mistakes about this. None of us will be granted another chance. We must find the boy before they dispose of him, Mr White.' 'Yes, Mr Black.' With solemn seriousness he lay down and slid the lid over himself. There was no time to loose. Mr White turned his attention to the man by the door. 'Show me!' They both ran down the hallway, turning right into a huge boardroom, lined along the walls with hundreds of computer screens. In the middle of the long room was a monstrous black table—a rectangular patterning etched deeply into its surface. This was more than decorative—beneath each of them was a stone sarcophagus, just like the one that Mr Black had laid down in. Right now not one of them was occupied--all of the remaining Associates were around the monitoring equipment. All of their eyes were turned now to face him. 'What do we have?' he asked the room in general. An Associate put up her hand cautiously and he moved over to her. Her name was Eliza Garrett, a good lawyer with their corporate division, though she rarely was assigned to information gathering. On her screen was a dark box, a shuddering line meandered horizontally through it, indicating the inflection of a voice. A short phrase repeated itself

over and over. 'Bring him to the were place you proposed... Bring him to the place were you proposed...' Mr White knew the voice instantly. 'That's her! Where is the rest of it.' The young woman's face was a picture of shame. Mr White understood without having to be told. It was a mistake that many people unfamiliar to the process made. She had attempted a phone tap and had botched the secrecy of the connection... 'Sanders?' he said. 'Did we at least get a location?' 'I'm sorry Mr White. It appears she was scanning the phone lines and came across this. She hit record without realising that it would be heard. I would have handled it personally but we were all doing something else, and most of these Associates haven't used this equipment in a very long time.' Mr White breathed out slowly. Part of him wanted to be furious with Eliza for ruining such a golden opportunity, but there was no point—it wasn't her fault. Even he hadn't used any of the surveillance equipment for almost a year—Associate Sanders took care of all that. All of the Associates had their own skills, their own abilities, and they were rarely required to work in a different capacity. 'Ok. Fine! At least now they had confirmation that the boy was with them...' But where? We haven't been tracking them! Mr White stood back up and faced the remaining fifteen people—the sum total of all employees left in the town. 'For over a decade we have waited for this moment. For over a decade we have fought, and suffered and died. Tonight we lost our colleges, our friends, our compatriots. But they will not have died in vain! Tonight we will be victorious. We will not fail our exulted Master. His ascension shall not be stopped!' his deep voice boomed. 'And if the honour and glory of knowing you could be the one that finally fixed this broken planet was not enough then I now give you something else to fight for. Whoever wins this day will be rewarded...' With a slow movement Mr White raised his right hand in the air. Nine sets of eyes followed it expectantly. He held a square of grey fabric. There was a moment’s pause as the audience processed the information, and then the frantic noise of activity returning. Mr White now moved around the room, directing traffic. 'Move! Find him! If there is even the tiniest hint of any of their signature I want it found! You, monitor the Emergency Lines. You, the police network. And you...' Mr White pointed his finger at Associate Eliza Garrett. The woman recoiled slightly, but still got to her feet. 'Sir, I am so sorry about the--' Mr White held out his hand. In it was Mr Black's Shockwave. The woman looked at it for a few moments, and then took it gingerly—awed to be touching such a thing. 'Don't worry about your mistake. You have an opportunity to redeem yourself. Keep your mind clear. I need you to deliver this to this location,' he said handing over a small piece of paper. 'Do you understand?' The woman read it and nodded crisply. Mr White turned back to the group. The space was alive with work. As bodies moved around him he looked out the window. In the far distance, across the immediate zone of construction sites and the suburbs beyond that, he could just make out the tiny lights of the skyscrapers that lined Capital City. 37

The chain attached to Leon's handcuffs snapped into rigidity and pulled him forward. He dragged his feet against the floor, pulling back on his restraints, but it didn't help. Flynn stood a few metres in front of him, his free hand hovering over the chain and his other pointing the Shockwave at Leon's chest. 'Don't make this harder than it has to be, Leon.' Leon jerked his wrists , fighting the pull. 'Harder than it has to be! You're going to kill me! This isn't a tantrum! You're going to kill me!' Flynn's eyes were downward cast for a moment and he turned away from Leon. The pull didn't stop. Like a man walking a protesting rottweiler, Flynn led Leon down dank and dusty halls, lined with other cells—broken, abandoned. They rounded a corner and Leon hooked his foot in one of the bars, momentarily halting the pull on his wrists. Flynn stopped for a moment and without turning around stamped his foot hard against the floor. The bar Leon had caught snapped away from the frame like a twig and he was once again being dragged forward. They moved through an archway—presumably there had once been a door but now it was just an open entrance. The air grew new, the space opened up, and then they were outside. Trees with a dirt track were out front. There was a white van parked next to a sign saying 'Barrington City Gaol, est 1898'. There was no artificial light or sign of any other person anywhere. The ground changed and Leon found renewed purchase on the gravel underfoot, digging his heels in and slowing the forward momentum. 'Leon,' muttered Flynn, still walking forward, 'This is going to happen. I don't like this any more than you do but this is going to happen.' 'Why?' screamed Leon, much louder than he normally would have. 'Because of the Sunda Strait? What the hell is that? Tell me what happened there and maybe I will help you!' His screams echoed and reverberated against the distant line of trees. Flynn continued walking him towards the van, without saying anything. He raised the hand with the Shockwave and flicked a single finger upwards. The van doors clicked open. The chain moved between the doors and towards a cage in the back. Leon kicked out his foot and caught the towbar. He pulled himself down, now almost parallel to the ground. 'Hell no! I'm not getting in that thing! Why are you doing this? Strait?! Tell me!' Flynn stepped forward, his face towing overhead. His eyes didn't meet Leon's. 'It is the reason that we have to do this,' He slapped his hand outwards. The force at Leon's wrists became too strong to fight, and he was flung into the van, crashing against the steel of the cage and falling to the floor. The chain went limp. He got to his knees and scrambled towards the doors just as they were slammed closed and everything went dark. He snapped his fingers together, trying to elicit a flame. Once again it only caused the smallest orange glow from the white amber handcuffs that covered his wrists. 'Come on. I know you can here me in there! You're strong! I know you are! You can get through this stuff! Give me a flame! I'm going to die!' After ten more tries he was still in the dark. He kicked hard against the doors and screamed for help. He forced every breath out of his lungs-. He summoned up as much volume as he could--bellowing in his confined cell. It was no use, after a few seconds the car's engine roared into life and drowned him out. He felt the sensation of forward momentum. Bumps and crashes rocked him as the van entered the dirt road and motored

forward. In the front of the car Flynn resisted the urge to keep the headlights off. He had to get to his location but he knew well enough that trying to be inconspicuous often just made something more obvious. The lights illuminated a potholed dirt track that wove through lines of trees, around tight corners. We're half way between Barrington and Capital City already. It should only take twenty minutes or so. The call from Lilith had been welcomed--they were rapidly running out of time. The attempted phone tap, however, had not been. It showed how close they were, how dogged their pursuit was going to be. Luckily they had botched it or else they might have learned much more about where he was heading. The van moved out of the winding dirt lanes and onto the highway. The thin band of undeveloped area between the two cities was quickly replaced with built-up suburbia. And yet, even though they were only forty minutes from each other, the cultural gap between the two couldn't have been greater. The homes here were bigger than Barrington, and the streets and yards and roadways incorporated far more of the original foliage. Minute after minute passed by. Green parks and trees lines the highway as it narrowed and branched off into smaller, slower arterial roads. He looked up again to the clock. 4:00 am. They were close now, only a few minutes away. He could just see the tip of his destination up ahead, flanked all around with far taller skyscrapers. From the back of the van he heard the thumping of Leon kicking at the door again, and the muted screams of help. He hoped they didn't have to stop anywhere before they got there, even this early in the morning passers-by might still hear the commotion. Damn! How could we have all been so wrong?! We thought we still had time! He pushed the thought out of his mind as the highway thinned out. Houses were giving way to tower blocks and office complexes. They were heading into the Asian precinct. Restaurants and storefronts proudly proclaimed their name in characters of Korean and Chinese, in some places adding the information in small English letters. Even at this early hour in the morning, with all of the stores closed, the area was still lit with the shimmer of coloured lights--laying a rainbow foundation of neon on the dark road. The van approached its first set of traffic lights and Flynn brought it to a stop. The banging from the back intensified. The van idled on the spot for over a minute. Flynn felt the tension begin to rise as the delay grew. Come on! Come on! I'm on a timeline here! Another sixty seconds passed and the red still hadn't shifted. Flynn craned his neck left and right; the green lit lane parallel was totally empty and there was no indication of anything oncoming. 'To hell with this...' he muttered and shifted the car into gear, running the red light and turning into a long, narrow parade of hole-in-the-wall eateries and mobile phone shops. The store-fronts had no doors but rather used roll-down shutters—making the kilometre long stretch look like a giant storage ground. He was no more than a few seconds down it when red and blue lights flickered along the corrugated shutters. The familiar drone of siren whined up the alley. Flynn looked into the wing mirrors to confirm the obvious—behind him was a police patrol car. 'Damn!' he spat to himself. It was definitely a real Police Officer as well, not a Rider in disguise—the Rider's never bothered with the routine. They would just have shot him, or rammed the van off the road if they knew he was here. He thought quickly. He knew that with a flick of his wrists he could send a trash can into the officer's face or lock his doors before he even opened them—but that wasn't the way

all of this worked. He knew the Associates were probably scanning the airwaves. Anything out of the ordinary and they would be swamped. Flynn sighed and slowly pulled the van to a stop in what little spaced passed as a parking zone along the narrow road. Let's just get this over with. I hope that kid is scared enough of cops by now to keep quiet. Behind him the Police Officer got out of his patrol car and began his slow swagger up to the van's door. He was old, and fat—a harmless, provincial looking sort. Flynn had been an Enforcer for almost seven years before his unceremonious sacking last year, and he knew how to handle this kind of cop. Honey, not vinegar. Flynn kept his hands on the steering wheel. A bright torch light shined in through the glass and onto his face. 'Evening, Officer,' he said, careful not to go too over the top. The man tapped the flashlight on the window and Flynn wound it down. The officer said nothing and shone his light over the seats and dashboard. Then he brought the light back up into Flynn's eyes. 'Do you know why I pulled you over, son?' he asked in a broad drawl. His face was round and unimposing. He looked like he belonged around a campfire, sipping moonshine, telling blue jokes. Flynn resisted the urge to sass—there was no time for it. At any second Leon could thump against the metal and turn this situation rotten. 'Yes, Officer. I know. I ran the red back there. The road was clear and I thought it would be ok...but I know that's no excuse.' 'Sure 'aint, my friend. So what you doing out on the road at this time of the morning? Young lad like you should be in bed, shouldn't you?' He was about to make up some fake excuse when a thought hit him. He carefully reached down into his pocket, smiling while he did so, lest the officer think he was reaching for a weapon, and felt what he had hoped to find. It was technically against the rules, Flynn knew—there was supposed to be absolutely no magic used on the Police. After a few seconds of running his hand over it he pulled out a plain, blank, white square of card and passed it through the window. The card was the one that Mr Grey had left in their apartment earlier in the night; hopefully it would still have some power left. The officer shone the light down on the totally empty piece of cardboard and smiled. 'Davidson's Bakery, huh. Well I never. You know I remember that place from when I was a kid. Just around the corner from here isn't it? East 35th and 12th? They used to make the absolute best pie in the city.' 'That's the one,' said Flynn, slightly more relaxed, although not knowing anything about any bakery. He had just given the man a cue-card—normal cardboard with a small perception enchanted onto it. What they showed depended entirely on the person reading it and the situation they were in—whatever it took to get you out of a bad situation. Flynn improvised. 'And you see, we're running a bit late with the deliveries this morning and I had to get back to the shop to fill up. And I just thought that if the road was clear then it would be okay. I guess I was wrong.' 'Yeah, well,' replied the officer, his voice clearly moving in a more amicable direction. 'I know how it goes, especially when you have these early mornings—you would not believe the number of corners I wish that I could cut. And every year they bring in new regulations. New paperwork. New rules...' The man sighed heavily, then remembered where he was. 'But, but yes. They're there for a reason, you know. Rules is rules, and we all have to follow them.' 'Oh, I know, Officer. It was a stupid thing to do. But the boss has been riding me all

night...' The Officer grunted in an understanding way. 'Oh don't even get me started on that. You should meet my Captain.' 'A real hard ass?' Flynn asked with feigned joviality. The man was a pushover. 'You wouldn't believe it if I told you,' the Officer laughed and then leaned in closer, giving Flynn a knowing look.. 'So, ah, what time are you opening this morning?' 'Seven,' Flynn replied, before leaning into the torch light a little more, now close to the cop. 'But I am sure I could arrange for a few cherry and creams to be sent to the precinct. I know how hard you all work, and we can't have our boys in blue going hungry now, can we?' The Officer nodded his head a little and smiled. 'I'm sure that the boys would appreciate that. Yes, indeed. North Central Station, send 'em to me, Sargent Nelson, and I'll make sure they get shared around. And, ah, any chance you've got a few too many of those jelly donuts as well? I remember they used to be just the thing.' Flynn tapped his nose and smiled back. 'I don't know how you knew that! We baked double today by accident. Let's send a few dozen around there as well.' The Officer took another quick look at the blank card and tapped on the metal of the bonnet. 'Well I think everything is in order here. You know what you did, and I think I can let you off with a warning this time.' 'You're a gentleman,' smiled Flynn. 'You enjoy the rest of your night!' 'You too, my friend. You take care now!' he drawled as he clicked off his torch and began to walk back to the patrol car. 'Freaking monkey...' Flynn sighed acidly under his breath as soon as the man was out of earshot. The policeman inside his brain laughed a the man derisively. If your going to take bribes then at least do it for something more than fried bread! He reached for the key and was about to bring the van back to life when an unmistakable sound stabbed him in the back. It was a thump against the metal. Then again. Then it was joined by a voice. 'Help! Help me!' barked the voice of Leon in a deeply muffled yell. 'Get me out of here! He's going to kill me!' 'Hell!' Flynn spat and threw open his door. The Officer had barely turned on the spot when the million fibrils of blinding white jolted into his body. The Shockwave's force knocked him back and onto the black bonnet of his car, smashing the windscreen under his huge weight. Flynn marched up to the body and checked for a pulse. He was breathing. His skin felt warm. He would be fine to lea-He saw something that made his blood turn to ice. On the dashboard of the car was a small camera. A red light was blinking on it's upper right. Flynn held his hand up in the air and made a quick fist. The camera imploded into itself, crumpling like a metal trash can. The recording device was destroyed, but it didn't matter. How often do they check the tapes? Is it constant? Capital City is big but its not that big is it? He turned to the van's back doors and slapped at the air. The doors flung themselves open. Leon's pounce for freedom was far too slow; he didn't even have a chance to hit the road before Flynn grabbed him by the shirt and picked him up. Flynn wrenched the boy by the shoulder and began to drag him down a side alley, further into the city. After five minutes of dragging the kicking, thrashing Leon he thumped the boy hard against the brick wall nearby and pinned him there with his muscular forearm. 'Do you have any idea what you just made me do!? Do you have any idea about the ramifications? They just got footage of an Enforcer assaulting a Police Officer! And Black and White are probably watching it right now!'

Leon squirmed under the force, constrained by the handcuffs. 'I don't care! I'm not going to let you kill me!' 'Listen!' barked Flynn staring at Leon with eyes of complete focus. 'If I wanted to kill you I could have slit your throat when I found you smouldering under a pile of Associates in that warehouse. Killing you is not our primary goal--' '--Not your primary goal? What is it then? A side effect? You've already decided that I have to die! That this soul inside me is dangerous? Because some old report told you that? But you're wrong! All this soul has ever done is help me. You and the others are all acting like it is this big evil force? Some kind of terrifying monster? But all it has done is protect me when I have been in danger!' 'You don't understand, Leon. It is using you to protect itself!' 'Bullshit! You don't know that! It is in me; I know what it is. It chose me for a reason! I could learn how to control it! People could teach me! You don't know that I couldn't learn! You don't know that I couldn't make it do what I tell it to. All you want to do it rip it out of me!' Leon beat at the muscular man with small, pathetic thumps. The handcuffs glowed a red flared orange. His eyes flickered between brown and molten yellow. Sweat began to drip down his forehead. 'That would never work, Leon. The fire is not your own. What you have inside you will never come to heel. You will never be the master of it! Never!' Leon was screaming now. 'I could control it! I can do it! You don't have to kill me! Why can't you see that?!' He struggled like an angry cat. His cuffed fists swung around and connected with the man's face heavily. The grip loosened enough for Leon to struggle free a little, but the man grabbed him and threw him once again against the wall. His face was hot and angry now. His eyes looked like drills. 'Do you think we haven't been through the possibilities a millions times before this moment!? Do you think this is something that we want to do!? We know that Banishing this thing might kill you, Leon. I'll be honest, I will be shocked if it doesn't! And that is horrible! We know that is horrible! I know this is horrible! I would rather be in the back alleys of some dirt-hole country evacuating a young Adept from a life of pain and isolation than doing this. I didn't get into this business to kill kids. I got into this business to protect people! And I have a duty to protect the greater good. Sometimes that means making awful decisions! We don't want to kill you, Leon. We wish there was another way. But there isn't! What you have is pure evil, and if your death is the price we have to pay to save us all from it then I will do it, Leon! I will do it in a heartbeat!' 'It's not evil!' spluttered Leon, tears falling down his cheeks as he thrashed against his restraints. 'It only wants to help me! Why can't you see that!' 'Help you? Help you! My god! You have no idea! You don't even have the smallest grasp of the havoc that lurks under your skin, Leon! The power you have seen is like a child taking its first crawl. It will grow a millions times beyond that. It will only get worse. By the time the sun rises it would have taken over your body completely, then your mind. You will be nothing but a flesh slave to its wrath. It will only get more unstable! Destruction is the only thing that it knows. Chaos is the only thing that it seeks!!' 'You don't know that!' 'I do know that, Leon!' 'You don't! How could you possibly know that? I have a future! Don't tell me that I don't know what is in me! You don't even know!' 'Do you think that this is the first time that this has happened!?' Flynn bellowed,

bringing himself nose-to-nose with the suspended teenager. 'The first time that a soul of fire has taken over a teenage human? It isn't! All of this is exactly what the Osiris Report predicted. And do you know what that report calls you? A maniac, a torturer, a sadist. One of the oldest Adepts in recorded history. The soul of the man who founded the Adept Council, laced it in flame and used it as a device for slaughter and massacre. Do you know what his name is, Leon? The names the soul inside you is?' Leon paused for a moment as Flynn spoke. 'It is called The Beast, Leon. It is a monster! Once the sun rises you will be The Beast, Leon. And you have no idea what will happen if we don't do this! There is no life for you, Leon. There is no future! The only future you have is in the Sunda Strait! The only thing that you are destined to become is--' 'What! What is it!'? croaked Leon, barely able to breath but resuming his struggling. 'What is the Sunda Strait?' 'You want to know, Leon? You want to know what the Sunda Strait it?!' 'Tell me!' 'The Sunda Strait is the last place that The Beast returned. Over a hundred years ago, Leon. A small set of islands in Indonesia. That was the last time that a human not born from an Adept lineage suddenly developed powers. And do you know what happened, Leon? Do you have any idea?!' Flynn's eyes were unblinking. When he spoke it was quiet and menacing. 'A hundred thousand people died,' he spat through his teeth, his voice carrying the weight of mountains. 'Mothers, fathers, children—dead! Clouds of ash that reached across continents! The sky was darkened for years! It was winter across the entire world for almost a decade! Last time it spared the planet, but this time there might be nobody left! That is what you are, Leon. That is what you will become. You are the harbinger of destruction for all of us. You want to know what you are, Leon? You want to know what The Beast truly is?!' The man moved his mouth until it was a whisper in Leon's ear. 'What you truly are, the Apocalypse.' Leon's face morphed in utter shock. His mouth gaped like a dying fish. 'But... But... What? No! I've never even heard of this place! This Sunda Strait!' 'No,' Flynn muttered and slowly pulled his arm back from the boy. 'But you might recognise the name of the volcano that was there.' 'What volcano...' asked Leon breathlessly. Flynn didn't meet his eye when he at last spoke. 'Krakatoa...' 38 Leon felt like he had been punched in the stomach. He barely noticed as Flynn dragged him along streets and underpasses, through parks and down winding back-alleys. At times they stopped and waited for cars to pass. One time the man pulled him into short dashes as lights of blue and red trailed in the distance. All of it was just a blur to Leon--every part of him was held in the revelation of minutes before. I am the Apocalypse... After a time they came to the massive construction site of a skeleton skyscraper. Its concrete spine stretched half way up the height of the surrounding buildings—its floors jutting out like forty hollow vertebrae. Flynn found a hole in the fencing and they stepped inside. Grids of rusting rebar and abandoned tools dotted the filthy floor, surrounded by aging fast food wrappers, yellowing newspapers and broken glass. Flynn led the vacant-faced boy across the expanse and into a cage elevator. He

pressed down on one of the cheap, cracked buttons; groans and metallic creaks filled the monstrous space as the elevator slowly began its upward journey. In his own head he churned nightmare visions of the damage that had been done in the past; that would happen again in the future. He had learned about Krakatoa in primary school; he had learned about all of the deaths and all of the suffering that the world had been through. And now the suffering had returned… Floor after floor of, unfinished construction blinked by as he wallowed in the horribleness of the through. After several long minutes the rusted creaking slowed to silence and the elevator settled. Leon looked up. Even in his current state he had to admit that it was beautiful. The football-pitch sized floor in front of him had no walls—the floor and ceiling simply stopped in mid-air and framed the magnificent picture of Capital City. They were high now, at least thirty floors up, and from this height the view stretched out in a distant panorama of night-time lights and velvet black. A faint, warm breeze flicked at his messy hair as he stepped out of the elevator and onto the concrete. A few pigeons that had nested fluttered gently away as he walked forward, led firmly from the shoulder by Flynn. When they reached the middle of the floor he brought them to a stop. After a few seconds there was a swish of movement and suddenly. There was a body around Flynn, grasping him tightly. A familiar voice mixed into the distant noise of occasional traffic far below. 'Flynn! God! You were supposed to be here half an hour ago. I thought you were in danger!' A beam of moonlight framed the woman’s face as she laid a hot kiss on the man's mouth. To Leon it was like seeing a ghost. Up her white neck were three sick-looking cuts, held together with crude stitching. 'We're here now,' said Flynn, returning the kiss. 'Thumper here decided to try and get the police involved.' The woman's face drew back and filled with deeper seriousness. 'He didn't...' 'No. Nothing like that. He just made a scene. But...I had to take one down.' 'A cop! You attacked a cop?' 'Yes. And it was caught on camera. If we manage to get out of this there will probably be trouble.' The woman stepped forward to Leon uneasily—not out of fear or hesitation, but with the weakness of someone that should be in a hospital bed. She looked down at his face. His eyes were forlorn and sad. His posture was defeated. Lilith turned quizzically to Flynn. 'Dawn is less than an hour away... I was expecting by this stage we would have been a snarling, kicking protester. He looks like he is in a coma!' Flynn squeezed gently on the shoulder he was holding. 'I told him, Lil,' he said, with the smallest air of apology. 'I told him about the Osiris Report.' 'Flynn!' 'He deserved to know. He needed to know what he was; why we were going to do this. You know he did. And what harm does it do? He already knows about the Banishment. He already knows what's going to happen.' Lilith shook her head for a moment and sighed. 'Fine. I guess it doesn’t matter at this stage anyway. We know what has to be done.’ Flynn and her exchanged looks for a second and then over to Leon. The boy was slumped against one of the concrete beams, staring ahead vacantly. ‘Let’s get this over with,’ Lilith sighed. From the recesses of her jacket she removed a

small box, clicked it open and removed something from it. The moonlight glinted of the surface of a jagged shard of midnight black. In the defeated, empty mind of Leon, the light seemed to come with the smallest of rings, a tiny sound, now growing in intensity. It began near silently and yet soon it thumped like a drum through the building site. Leon looked up as it struck his hearing. At once it was deafening. It was all around him; it was everywhere. He gave a sharp inhalation of breath. And then he saw it. Colours slashed across his vision. In front of him the pillars of stone were replaced by those of metal. Suddenly he was back in the warehouse. Flames flickered in the acrid air. Leon felt his eyes move but knew that he had never seen this before. He was laying on the ground. In front of him was the skeleton of Mrs White. In the distance came the advancement of people in suits—melee weapons at the ready. They closed in on him. He felt the first punch to his abdomen, and yet it somehow felt like it was happening to someone else. There was another, and then another. Then came the anger. Sadistic fury seethed through him. Leon could feel it like a crushing weight. His breathing became heavy— animalistic. The sensations were overwhelming. Every part of his body was hatred. Every cell of his skin was madness and lethal intent. Focus and certainty coursed through his veins. He could smell the blood. A voice like the crackle of ancient coals burned in his head. Kill them! Kill them all! At once Leon leapt—not in control of the movement. The first blow impacted a man's face, crushing it like a watermelon. He felt the bones of the nose and sinus cavity snap into a million pieces. The ecstasy of the action screamed louder than his own voice, right now, that recoiled at the sensation. It felt like bliss. What is this? This isn't me? I didn't do this... A kick came to his side and his body retaliated automatically. He grabbed the leg and swung it to the ground. In one movement he was back on his feet and returning the kicks--stomping with the force of aeons upon the attacker's sternum. Crack after crack sounded out as each rib shattered. The voice inside him cackled at the horrible noise. Weight upon his back was quickly removed. He swung a woman over his shoulder like she was a backpack and held her face up to his. He saw the look of terror in her eyes. His own voice became like an echo—like he was literally hearing himself think. No! Stop it! I don't want this! His uncontrollable fingers grabbed behind her head and ears. He felt his fingernails dig into her skin. He watched the woman flinch with the pain. No! Please! It was no use. He was simply a passenger to the action--he had no power over anything. He felt a rush of blood in his body. The indescribable rage filled him. He screamed. The woman screamed. And with a single movement he tore off her face. No!! Blood poured down her neck and chest from the skinless, exposed muscle, and Leon was horrified when he felt himself plunge his own face into it. His tongue lapped at the hot, thick red. He could feel it down his throat. He could taste it in his mouth. No! What the hell am I doing! He screamed for a cessation—but it was distant. He could barely hear himself as his voice drifted to silence. In the void came the other voice—the one of fire. The one of hissing flame and melting iron. It was animal. It was pure emotion. It was a voice from the pit of the deepest depths--desperate to survive, unwilling to die.

I have returned!! Leon's screams were muffled as the image in front of his head flickered back to the present, in the constructions site, and then drifted away in front of him. Dark walls of black filled the space. No! No! Don't do this! I don't want you to do this! The fading image showed his body surging forward—the Enforcers in his site. He tried to scream out. He tried to stop his body… But it was too late. 39 Flynn dove out of the way on instinct but Lilith was too slow. The charging force grabbed her around the throat with both hands and slammed her against a pillar—knocking the wind out of her lungs. His eyes were like torches in the darkness—glowing a hugely bright orange. The cuffs around his wrists pulsed and breathed heat. There was the sound of glass bending, then a hairline crack spider-webbed along their red-hot surface. 'You!' the body of Leon hissed, his voice as hot as lava. 'You will die first!' His fingers tensed around the woman's throat. With the ease of a giant lifting a pebble he picked her up and slammed into the beam. Then again. Then again. Then he loosened his grip around her neck, just enough for the woman to splutter in a short burst of air, then he wrenched his hands even tighter. Flynn leapt at him and the boy caught him in mid-air--snapping the linking chain between the two handcuffs. He held the man's much larger fist in his and twisted it, bringing Flynn to his knees in agony. 'There is no need for us to rush this.' 'Leon, stop this!' The boy's face smiled sickly, the eyes were like rolling flame. 'Leon is gone!' he whispered with dark intent, once again turned his focus to the woman. He pulled his hands back and punched the woman's head into the concrete with a horrid thump. He waited for Lilith's eyes to come back into focus and then did it again. A bullseye of sticky blood marked the point of impact. 'Yes! That's it! Bleed for me!' He thumped the head against the stone again. And again. And again. Blood ran down the dry grey in dripping streams. Lilith tried to scream but couldn't get the words out. Leon quickly moved the hand gripping Flynn in time to grab the up-swinging wrist with the jolting Shockwave in it. The force was like a vice. 'So eager? Wait your turn!' the boy spat and flung the man across the room like an empty cup. Flynn smacked into the concrete wall and slumped to the ground. 'And now back to yo--' It hit him like a sledgehammer, even though it was no more than a tap. The woman's eyes were once again focused. In his peripheral he saw the shard of black pressed into his hand. At once the flood of hate and fire washed away. His eye's returned to their normal colour, black against the darkness of night. A tear rolled down Leon’s cheek as he once again saw through his own eyes and regained power over his mouth. 'Help me...' he pleaded to the woman he was choking. 'I can't stop it!' Lilith gave a small, comforting smile as she took his cheek in her other hand. There was a glow of lilac and the image of the room once again changed. In the distance he thought he heard the sound of birds twittering. Then came the green and blue. Trees and

vines crept across the floor towards him. Water began to creep up his legs. He felt the tendrils of leaves creep around foot and ankle. The water rose higher, now up to his stomach, then his neck. With feeble movements Lilith trained the stone up his arm, across his shoulder and up to his throat. She began to speak—her voice barely audible underneath his incessant grip. 'Untamed and untamable. Unwilling to come to heel. A Talent that will not learn its place. From an unwanted position in unwanted flesh. Now, I Banis--' The force around the woman's throat grew even tighter, cutting her off in mid-word. In an instant the water drained from around Leon and the darkness closed over him once more. The vines and trees all around withered and died. Their husks turned black. Red light again rose in the eyes of the boy. At once the dead vines curled around his legs and arms burst into flame. The boy smiled. On each word he spoke his grip wrung even tighter. 'Cheap...failed...magic!' he laughed. 'Did you think you really think you could stop me? A commoner against a King!? You people have not learned. One hundred years to figure it all out and you haven't learned a thing!' In one movement he pulled the woman away from the pillar and flung her over the edge of the building site. Her scream pierced the night. At once a chain hurtled through the air and over the edge as Flynn staggered forward. When he reached the lip of the drop he looked down and saw Lilith dangling several storeys below—her body swinging to and fro. One end of the chain was wrapped around her leg, the other was knotted around some old scaffolding below. As Flynn stood there in shock, his hand outstretched, the chain unwound a few links, plunging Lilith down. He focused his energy and brought her jerking to a sudden stop. With great difficulty he began to run the empty air in front of him through his fingers, as if pulling up the distant chain from here. The metal wound tighter around the post, dragging Lilith slowly back up. The body of the boy stepped up beside him slowly. Flynn shot him a glance. He was grinning horribly. 'What a beautiful morning it will be,' he said, pointing out to the horizon. Flynn hazarded a look up. The distance had moved from black to dull red. The sun was about to rise. He struggled to hold onto the weight below him as he realised what that meant. ‘No! Not yet!’ 'Yes, yet!' laughed the boy and placed a hand on his shoulder, mocking the comforting action that Flynn had done only moments ago to him. 'The second the sun hits my skin I will become more powerful than anything this world has ever seen. And these...' He held up his other wrist, displaying the fractured, cracked handcuffs. 'These will not be able to bind me any longer. They will crumble under my wrath...' The boy grabbed Flynn's face violently and forced it to look out at the distant view of skyscrapers and suburbs. 'Just like everything you can see before you!' His radiating eyes fixed on the horizon. After a few moments the boy released his grip, turned on his heel and began to walk away. 'Where are you going!' yelled Flynn, struggling to stop the chain below him slipping. The body of Leon turned to face him. It smiled. 'I'm sure there is a better vantage point to greet this new day,' he said happily, and then walked up the set of stairs. 'No! Come back here!' Sweat streamed down Flynn’s face as he pulled the chain up another few links. Around him he could hear the sound of metal clanking and squeaking. He pulled and pulled and forced it up until the body of Lilith was finally lying on the metal strips of

scaffolding below. 'Lil! Lilith! Are you okay?' he yelled down to the five stories below. His voice echoed off the vast distance. She was unresponsive. The morning breeze flicked at her hair. He looked down at her body—weak, unmoving, possibly bleeding to death, and thought about the image of The Beast, walking away up the stairs towards the roof. He didn't want to have to make the choice. Down one path was the woman he loved. If he waited…then by the time he got to her she could be dead. On the other hand, if he didn't stop Leon now, then all of them would die. But even if I find him, what will I do? I don't have the Banishment stone. Without an answer he turned on the spot...and then stopped dead. In front of him were fifteen riot police. Each one of them was armed with a machinegun; each one of them was protected by helmet and flak jacket. From the group one man sauntered forward and spoke. Flynn could have recognised the tone anywhere. 'Well, good morning. It is truly wonderful to see you again.' Behind the eyes, behind the voice, was Mr Grey. 40 The breeze was brisk at this height. There was no roof, no walls, no beams. All there was was a hundred metes of open floor, flanked on all sides by the orange sky and views of what would soon become his Kingdom. The Beast looked around and took it all in. It was only minutes now until the sun would rise. Only minutes now until it would all be over. In the back of his head he could hear the muted cries of a voice. The voice called for him to stop. The voice screamed— desperate to be heard. That too, would disappear. And then this body would be his completely. The Beast brought his shackled hands in front of him and looked down at the skin of his arms. Flesh... The feel of blood and bone around me... A body to house these feelings...these desires... It has been so long. Sliver of gold glinted at the tips of the skyscrapers around him. The smallest raise in heat drifted through he morning. The Beast turned to face the horizon—now a band of deepest orange. From the base of the line came a tiny hint of yellow-white. A line of light ran like honey down the skyward spires that surrounded him. Drop after heated drop flowed along the steel and glass. The body of Leon stepped forward towards the edge of the concrete. With slow movements he removed the hooded t-shirt of black—revealing a tight, white sinewy abdomen underneath. From the smallest recesses of the body he could feel the distinctive twinge of protest, but it was too late. He had already won; the fight was over. He held out his arms in front of him—awaiting the embrace of the morning light. The line of burning yellow flowed downwards. He could feel it heat the air above his head. It has been too long... It hit him at once--the purest of pain, the purest of ecstasy. His blood boiled beneath his skin. Great waves of electricity sparked through his brain, surging deep and hard. His muscles convulsed maniacally as pulses of the most unbelievable feeling thumped through his new, unfamiliar body. He could feel every part of it, he was one with the boy's body, one with his flesh and bones and blood and memory and mind. And now he was one, too, with the world around him. Every hair on him was awake, sucking in a depth of sensation he had long since forgotten. A hot surge exploded. The white-amber around his wrists cracked and then melted

away without protest. The Beast raised his arms, crucifix style, and felt the boys skin drink in the morning light. The thirst was indescribable. It was like thunder and lighting and the screams of primal terror. Around him brilliant balls of fire—miniature suns--sparked into life. They hurtled at him and his body was immediately engulfed in flame. Hands and feet, arms and legs, head and chest—every part of him was alight. The flames roared off him in monstrous white-hot licks, burning painlessly over his skin. He let out an almighty roar as the flame gathered in a ball at his back. Then, in a shot, two thick lines of flame erupted out, three stories vertically, like solid beams of wildfire. For a moment they stayed still in their towering majesty and then, like delicate silk cloth, they slowly fanned out—fluttering and swaying in the breeze. The beams of flame were now a system of bright, pulsing veins across the most delicate sheet of shimmering orange. From his back now shuddered monstrous, incandescent wings. At full width they almost extended the length of the building site. The Beast breathed out in ecstasy. I am back... Before he could take it all in something drew his attention elsewhere. In the distance came the smallest sound. Over and over it came. The volume increased. Through eyes wrapped in flame The Beast looked to the East, directly into the ball of fire, as a glinting speck came into focus. The dot in the sky grew larger against the backdrop of blinding light. The noise now filled everything around; the sound of whirring consumed all else. The breeze that fuelled his enflamed skin picked up, now coming with a huge down-force. Then it was on top of him. It was a black helicopter, hovering a few metres from the bare rooftop. In the cockpit he could see a silver-haired, middle aged man. Even from this distance he knew who it was—he had seen the man before, not the skin, not the face, but the man underneath it all. He had seen that mind through the eyes of the boy whose body he now controlled. The Beast stepped forward into the down-force. The wings at his back fluttered and then filled with the passing torrent of air. He smiled as the pilot raised his black visor and looked into his eyes. 'You...' The Beast muttered in a voice like tectonic plates, 'are too late!' The wings of flame whipped outwards with a fiery snap, sending the body of Leon off the concrete and into the orange sky. 41 'Grey,' Flynn growled. The riot officer unclipped his helmet and pulled it off, revealing a mane of blonde hair. The man beneath the helmet was in his late twenties. His eyes were clear as crystal. 'It is Mr White now, actually. Your little boy took care of that. And I believe that you have something of mine, as well,' he said, pointing to the Shockwave in Flynn's hand and tutting. 'Now be a good boy and give it back to me. You know your kind aren't supposed to carry those things. Your mommy and daddy banned them. Bad Enforcer! Naughty! And you beat up a poor old Police Officer as well. Everything was caught on camera and it is all over the short-waves, making you a synch to track. You really aren't having a good day, are you?' 'You have no idea what you are doing, do you?' The riot commander laughed. 'Actually, I have every idea about what I am doing. I

am here to stop you from interfering in our plans. I am here to make sure that you don't get in the way of our destiny. I think that it is you that do not understand!' 'Let me pass!' Flynn rumbled. 'In a few minutes the sun will rise and The Beast will be unstoppable, don't you understand that!?' 'Really? Oh, dear. And we wouldn't want that...would we?' 'What is wrong with you!? If we don't stop him then all of us will die!' Another sick laugh fell from the body being controlled by Mr White. 'We'll take that risk!' The leading riot officer stepped slowly forward until he was directly in front of Flynn and grabbed the Shockwave. Flynn gripped it tighter. Their eyes met, loaded with malice. Ominous clicks came from behind them as a few officers shouldered their guns. Reluctantly, Flynn released the weapon. The riot officer backed away through the line of his troops. He inched towards the half finished set of stairs behind them all. 'I think you will find that the only people who will die if we don't stop The Beast...will be you. And your little girlfriend, of course.' Flynn's face hardened and he bared his teeth like an angry wolf. 'You stay away from her!' He stepped forward with intent but was instantly met once more with the sound of fourteen machine-guns being lifted. He stopped. 'Oh of course! You can trust me! After all...I would never want to hurt someone who has been so dedicated over the last decade! Protesting my organisation at every level. Revealing things that would be better kept hidden. Pushing and pushing for sanctions and restrictions and revelations when all we are trying to do is our job! No, no, no. I would never want to hurt someone that vigilant, would I? The steps continued backwards. 'Someone like that should be cherished, not interfered with. Don't you agree, Flynn? So I will just go and make sure that The Beast is settling in alright, shall I? As you say, that is the real problem here!' he grinned. He turned--looking at both the stairs going up, and the stairs going down. He made a half-step toward the upwards set...and then stopped. 'Although...' his voice drawled cruelly. 'Actually, now that I think about it, the responsible thing to do would be to make sure that she is alright?' 'Don't you dare!' barked Flynn. 'No, no. It isn't a problem. I will just go and check on her. We can't having our Adept Enforcers being left to bleed slowly to death can we. This is a personal mission, and I should handle it personally. Now...would you say it was four levels below us, or five?' 'You bastard! If you touch a hair on her head I will tear you in two!' Mr White smiled viciously as he took his first step down the lower staircase. He turned and met Flynn dead-on in the eyes. 'Best of luck...' Then he was gone. Flynn's mind raced. In front of him were fourteen men with loaded weapons, all of them pointed at him. The dark muzzles where painted a dull gold in the early morning half-light. For a while both of the sides stood on the spot, unsure of who would move first. After a few moments one of the officers spoke up. 'Common! Let's get him!' 'Yeah... I like that idea. And it couldn't hurt, could it? They would have to have tied up the loose ends at some point, anyway?' 'Then who will do it?' asked another. 'Me! It should be me! I have been training the longest, the promotion should be mine!'

'Maybe that just means you're past your prime!' spat another one of them. 'The promotion should go to the younger generation.' 'A trainee!? You wish! I will be the one that becomes the new Mr Grey!' 'You want to bet do yo--' 'Enough!' barked another one, stepping forward from the group and pointing the muzzle of the gun at Flynn's forehead. 'What are you, children? This is the mission of our organisation! Everything depends on our success. The Masters ascension! The future of this planet! Our future as rulers of it! It is not a time for petty fighting! Am I clear?' The riot Officers looked at each other and reluctantly nodded. The man at the front of the group stared at Flynn. 'Get on your knees, you piece of shit!' the man muttered. Flynn hesitated and the man shouldered the gun, looking through the sight. 'Do not push me!' 'Go on Sanders! Give it to him!' came a voice from group behind them. This elicited a smile from the officer. 'Maybe I will!' he said, tightening his finger around the trigger. Flynn put up his hands. 'Okay. Okay. I'm doing it.' With slow movements he brought himself down to one knee, and then the other. Fourteen officers. Heavily armed; heavily armoured. They're in a Caparison so they don't care about their welfare. I can't scare them. I will have to actually take them down. His eyes flashed around the room, looking for anything he could use to even the odds. He saw a few objects but there was no time to think through a comprehensive plan. He was going to have improvise. The lead Officer took another step forward, levelling the gun barrel over the man's head. 'Face on the floor...' Flynn complied. His forehead pressed against the cold concrete. He closed his eyes and tried to feel his surroundings. He felt the muzzle of the gun press against his shaved head. In the filtered world behind his eyelids, he felt the light go from dull orange to bright yellow. He saw the warmth over his skin. It was dawn. The Beast was about to be set free. He held his breath. 'Actually,' came a voice from above him. 'Now that you're here, and in such a subservient position, I think that I will be the one that finishes you off! Boys...say hello to your new Mr Grey!' Just as Flynn was about to make a desperate, final play, there came an almighty roar. It was like an inferno whoosh speeding by at a million miles an hour. The glow behind his eyelids erupted white. He heard the sounds of a low, surprised grimace from in front of him. In a flash he was on his feet. He slapped his hand on his chest. The gun that had seconds ago hovered over his temple flew threw the air. He caught it with a metallic smack. For a second he considered the Amsterdam Accord, and how much damage he was about to do. Then his mind filled with the image of Lilith, alone and broken just a few store's downstairs. There wasn't even a choice. Flynn opened fire. 42 The drone of the chopper filled the air as The Beast, now free in flight, hovered parallel. Every ten seconds or so the texture of the sound was changed to include the slow, dark beat of the monster's enflamed wings. It carried with it the heat of a wildfire and the smell of melting rubber.

The Beast eyed the man in the chopper—black uniformed and with now-revealed eyes. 'From the darkness I felt you, Mr Black,' he hissed, unblinkingly. 'From a world without blood or bone I felt your gaze upon my soul. You and your predecessor, and even The Master. Waiting for me to leave a signature. Waiting for me to return.' The Beast flew forward in heaving motions until it was only a few metres from the chopper. Its eyes were like razor blades. 'And all for your selfish purpose! I know what you want with me! What you intend to do with me! You envisage me as a pet you can train; as a dog you can teach to beg! You have no idea what you are dealing with! I am a King and you are a worm!' Drops of smouldering, yellow ash fell from his fingertips and fluttered down like a gentle rain. The Beast snapped his fingers together and at once the disparate specks burst into two thick lines of flame, wrapped around his wrists and up his forearm. They hung over the concrete building-top below them. The white and orange steamed the air. The helicopter had up till now held its ground but now the blades shifted and the craft banked sideways. With the roar of a blazing inferno The Beast spun around and lashed his arms forward. The ropes of flame in its hands swung out like a whip. The crack of the air came with an explosion where it hit, only narrowly avoiding the helicopter, which banked in the other direction. Another lash whipped through the scene. The wild swing missed everything and came back around, scything a gash through the metre-thick layer of concrete below. The Beast took both of the whips in his hands and swung them around in a seemingly random, wheeling motion. He dashed forward, swinging the furious yellow like two burning long-swords. The chopper was almost sideways avoiding the barrage of blows coming one after another. The air was torn with explosion after explosion erupting with each near miss. The erratic swings began to decimate the surrounding area. Two more times the half-finished building below was bisected like warm butter. The chopper paused for a second and was immediately met with a huge, double handed clobber of flame, which missed by only metres. The dodged blow continued through in its arc and the skyscraper behind the chopper ruptured like a disembowelled pig-haemorrhaging huge mountains of glass and metal as the lashes cleaved out a ten metre wide, six story gash into its formally pristine side. The Beast turned to face the chopper. A sick, wide smile broke across the face that had, up until twenty minutes ago, belonged to Leon. 'You are the one that wants me...' The Beast whispered, still as loud as tectonic plates grinding. His wings flapped in long, hot beats. 'All of what you want, I have seen. All of your intentions, I have heard. You think that you can have me? You think you stand I chance? Then do it! If you want me, come and get me!' The Beast swung around in mid-air and shot off, casting off the lumbering, heaving motions of moments before and entering full fights with ease. The chopper titled forward and took up the chase, the pitch of the whirr rising as it gathered its own speed. Ahead of the them rose the towers of the city centre, jutting out of the ground like a forest of stone and steel. The Beast shot through them all in a winding zig-zag until it was out and into the comparatively open space of the city's suburbs. Beneath them extended row after row of closed, tree-lined streets. It was an ocean of red brick and green lawn. The Beast laughed as it dived down into it. His body whipped in low and over the rooftops, sucking away great stretches of tiles

in the vacuum of his heat. Behind him was left a fiery line, like the tail of a comet. It hung in the wake of the Beast and gradually flittered down to the ground—over the cars and roads and backyards beginning to fill with the everyday people readying their early morning routine, or coming out to explore the distant firework sounds they'd heard. After a few seconds of contact the airy trail erupted like napalm. Everything that it had touched was instantly incinerated. The chopper sped along behind, dodging left and right to avoid the monstrous fireballs that were exploding all around. The Beast ducked and weaved though the lines of houses—detonating them one after the other in massive flaming cuts. Both of them sped forward, now racing twice as fast as any car below them, then three times the speed. The winged body continued to cast a path of roaring heat wherever it went, hurtling over streets and neighbourhoods and whole suburbs in a matter of seconds. The chopper found reserves of speed and somehow managed to gain ground on the flying monster—ducking in low and tight over the rooftops, cutting corners and hurtling around bends, only narrowly avoiding crashing at every turn as it chased the line of seething red. Suddenly the suburbs of Capital city, home to half a million people, were aflame. Even houses that hadn't been hit with the trail of destruction where quickly falling under its wrath. The fire jumped from one to the next, then the next, burning far faster than any fire should have. It seemed to intensifying exponentially, drawing heat and power from the morning sun. In a matter of minutes the green of the suburb had been replaced with a dancing, furious orange and the air was filled with the horrid sounds of a city burning alive. The Beast turned its head and caught sight of the helicopter, somehow still on its tail. He banked hard to the right and shot forward in a different direction, following the line of the road. The city built up again—backyards being replaced with smaller office complexes. Mr Black followed as The Beast weaved in and out of the roads, through lines of townhouses and four story buildings whose height totally obscured the path ahead. He chased down the target, only seconds ahead of the exploding line of fire that was following it. The narrow streets opened up momentarily to reveal space. The Beast shot ahead in a straight line. Mr Black pushed forwards on the control stick just as he noticed the familiar logo on the rotating sign just below him. He gave an sudden intake of breath as he realised what it was. Below him was a fuel station. He tried to pull out of what he knew was coming but there was nothing he could do. A few seconds after he had passed over its rooftop the trailing line of orange erupted. The world exploded in a black soaked fireball, hotter than the depths of hell. The Beast looked behind it and drew slowly to a halt. Debris crashed and spread all around. The fire and smoke settled slightly to reveal a blackened crater on the earth. The Beast hovered on the spot and took the moment in. The final hurdle is gone. He paused for a moment and surveyed the path that he had taken to his current point. All around, wherever he looked, was a scene filled with blackened smoke and shaking, shuddering, roaring flame. The Beast smiled. And this is only the beginning... The view of all the destruction was blocked in various places by the skyscrapers nearby, and The Beast decided to view the scene of his majesty in full. Once again the wings began their slow, deep beat, and it wasn't long before he was back at full speed. The winged fury was halfway up the skyline, flying hard towards the orange light above like it was the nectar of the Gods, when a sound ruptured its assent. Suddenly razor sharp blades where slicing through the air immediately in front of it.

The Beast banked hard out of the way, but found the view suddenly filled with glass and steel. The Beast raised an arm in protection and thundered into the side of the building with an crashing explosion that made the fuel station eruption look and sound like a cheap special effect. 43 Streaks of blood slashed across the scene as the bullets cut through the line of Officers. Six fell to the floor instantly. The man directly in front of him opened his mouth in shock and was met with a bullet through the forehead. As he was slumping to the ground Flynn met him on the descent—threading his arm between the front of the flak-jacket and the man's chest. He hoisted him up to his feet as a shield just as the first bullets were returned. They thumped into the officer's body like kicks onto a pillow. Flynn rushed forward, struggling to run under the weight of the man he was carrying. He hazarded looks out over the man's slumped shoulder as he did so. Whenever he saw the smallest speck of black he raised the gun and thundered off a few rounds. Bullets hailed around him as chunks of concrete started to fall. To his right an Officer ducked out of cover. Flynn swiped the gun horizontally and burst open his jugular. He dashed forward, up and around a pole—meeting a kneeling riot officer face on. The man's eyes registered a moment of shock as Flynn raised the gun and emptied the few remaining rounds of his clip into his body. The gun clicked lamely on its empty cartridge; Flynn threw it away and dragged the body over his arm backwards in quick retreat. One of the Riders saw the movement and himself darted forward, gun at the ready. Unlike the other officers he wasn't firing, but instead tracing the line of the limp human shield in front—searching for the smallest of openings. The gun barrel ran back and forth, waiting for a moment when it could be unleashed. Suddenly the retreating figure rushed behind a concrete beam near the edge of the floor, close to the straight drop off of the building site. Nowhere to hide! thought the officer. He moved to the other side of the support strut, pausing for a moment to ensure concentration and then turned around sharply. There was nothing there but empty space. He turned back just in time to see the oncoming body hurtling straight at him—tackling him with a great thump and knocking him backwards. His arms grabbed desperately at the air as he half-fell, half-rolled over the edge of the floor and into the thirty story drop below. Flynn watched as he disappeared, but had to immediately duck back behind a beam as a storm of bullets buzzed through the air. As soon as he heard a pause he sprinted towards the next beam. Erratic bullets followed him as he ran, blasting out fist-sized pieces of the floor and ceiling. He paused for a second when he got to the next beam, noticing the line of shot didn't. In a swift about-face he ran back in the direction of the pole he had just been at. It wasn't long before the angry zip of metal was back at his heels. He was halfway across the open space when the spit and bark of the gun was replaced with a dull click. The man was empty. Flynn turned on the spot and ran full speed at the Officer. The man in black reached at his belt for a new clip, finding the rectangle of metal and trying madly to insert it. The clip shook over the hole as Flynn closed the gap, now just in front of him. The officer slapped it in place, pulled back the load lever and had the gun halfway up to his chest when Flynn kicked him as hard as he possibly could in the groin. The man doubled over in pain and Flynn grabbed him in a headlock, using his free hand to

rip the black helmet off of his head and toss it to the floor. With a smooth, flowing motion Flynn threw his body backwards, slamming the Officer's immobilised head into the concrete floor with a sickening crack. He rolled through the motion and crouched on his haunches. In front of him, twenty metres away was a riot Officer in the same position—his gun raised securely up to his shoulder. Flynn knew he was in open space. There was not escape. The gun spat fire. Flynn reacted on instinct, throwing his hands up in the air. There was a rip of Velcro and then the sound of ricocheting metal. In front of him, halfway between his crouching body and that of Officer was a whirlwind of of movement. A Kevlar plate from the nearest body was wind-milling around in the air wildly, collecting and deflecting the bullets to the far corners of the open space. Zings and bangs sounded out all around amongst the bark of the gun. Something whipped by Flynn's head, then another near his feet. At once there was a feeling of a million bee-stings in his shoulder; he didn't need to look down to know he had been hit. In spite of this he didn't falter—the second the bullets had run out he was on his feet and surging forward. With his good arm he grabbed the Kevlar sheet from mid-air and charged. Adrenaline thumped through his veins as he steamed up to the man and swung the brick of grey like a baseball bat. It connected with his head in a great crack, knocking the man's helmet clean off. Flynn saw the opening and swung again, this time catching the man in the chin on the upstroke. The Officer stumbled to his feet and was immediately met with a walloping thump across the temple; then another on the other side of his head, then another. With one hand Flynn battered the man's face back and forward. The Officer was little more than a bloody mess when he fell to his knees and slumped against a nearby beam. Flynn spun on the spot, drawing all the energy he could into the motion and brought the plate around—trapping the man's head between his weapon and the concrete with a wet splat. Flynn panted and tried to ignore the stabbing pain in his left shoulder, which was now running down his arm and into his hand. To his right he saw another Officer step out into the open and shoulder his weapon. He knew he wasn't going to be quick enough. He breathed in what he feared would be his final breath. An almighty eruption blasted out in the distance—far away from the building site but sounding like it was just outside. The foundations around them actually shuddered. The Officer in front of him lowered his weapon only slightly as he looked down at the shaking floor. That was all the opening Flynn needed. He hurled the Kevlar through the air like a disc. It quickly covered the distance and embedded itself into the man's neck—halfway beheading him. The gun fell lamely from his hands as the body dropped backward, dead. Flynn struggled to stay on his feet—barely remaining on his haunches. He put out a hand to steady himself and felt the small pricks beneath his skin. He realised the hand and saw that mixed with the growing pool of blood from the man he had beaten to death where a few old nails and bits of rubbish left behind by the long departed workers. His eyes seemed to dwell on them for no reason—drawing him away from the present reality. He snapped himself out of it after a few seconds. Keep moving! I've got to stop him! Flynn dragged himself up to his feet, the energy drained from him. He staggered across the open space past the bodies that he had felled towards the barely constructed stairway leading down. He was almost past the last line of beams when he caught a black flash in his periphery.

He wasn't fast enough. The first punch caught him in the stomach, knocking every ounce of breath out of him. It was followed up by a rising kick to his neck, and then another to his chest. He raised his hands to try and fight it off but his left arm was barely able to move, leaving his right to try meekly to stop the onslaught of blows. There was another kick to his neck and then his feet where gone from under him. He hit the concrete with a heavy thump. No sooner was he down when the fist stuck him hard in the face. Then again. Then again. Blow after blow pounded into his head, knocking his senses left and right—turning him into little more than a disorientated bag of meat. The blows stopped long enough for the man in full-mount to lean forward. Through blood filled eyes Flynn could see him grin. 'How does it feel to know that you are here, helpless, while downstairs, right below where you are now, the woman you love is about to be killed?' Flynn looked into the man's eyes and then, eventually, smiled himself. Blood covered his teeth. The man over him gave a mocking laugh and opened his mouth to speak once more. With lightning movements Flynn brought his hands up to the man's face. The Officer tasted the rust and oxidised iron against his tongue. His eyes focused on Flynn's, now confused. A nanosecond later the nail was projected like a rocket through his mouth and neck, painting the ceiling above both of them a sick, lumpy red. The man slumped down on top of him and Flynn rolled him off. With incredible difficulty Flynn once again dragged himself to his feet and staggered towards the stairwell. He reached it and began his descent—each step downwards jolting him like a finger in the bullet-hole. He grimaced and moved as fast as his broken body would allow him. It had been almost five minutes since the Officer had left. He could only hope that Mr White was taking his time. The rest of the stairs came like a blurry dream. He pushed himself through the haze that was filling his head. Round and down; round and down. In less than a minute he was at the right floor. He ran straight out into the open space, not caring about trying to seek cover. His heart stopped. Across the floor, standing over the fallen body of Lilith was Mr White—the Shockwave extended out. Lilith was surrounded by a grid of metal, and he knew she would die instantly if hit. With slow certainty the man flicked a switch and the double-helix prongs sprang out. 'No!' Flynn screamed. His eyes shot around, falling on a metal pipe and instantly sending it hurtling through the space, cartwheeling end over end towards the Officer's head. A slap of blue light filled the remaining shadows of dawn. Flynn screamed again. The sound of his pained voice, blended with the electric fizz seemed to stretch out into eternity. Then, eventually, there was another sound in the elongated note of terror. Tick... Tick... 44 Lilith blinked her eyes open. Everything was still. In front of her was an uninterrupted view of mayhem and madness. At all angles her eyes traced was the image of a city under siege. Smoke and fire consumed everything. As she watched the hellacious scene, it slowly dawned on her that there was no actual

movement amongst the chaos—the smoke in the air hung like a blanket, unmoving in its black assent. The maddening licks of flame where frozen in place, their anger arrested into a field of horrid inactivity. She tried to turn her head, but found that it was--just like the flames devouring the city—totally immobilised. She moved her eyes in their socket, stretching her peripheral vision to accommodate the scene to her left. She breathed in sharply when she saw the body of a riot officer standing a few metres away, a Shockwave pointing directly at her. A fibril of electricity was itself frozen in place. Behind the man's head, only millimetres away from contact, was an old bar of iron suspended in mid-air. She followed the line of its arc back across the open floor and saw the pained expression of Flynn. His face was locked in a desperate, horrified scream. She looked back to the officer. There was no movement from either of them. No... It can't be... From the depths of the building site to her right came the small, constant sound that sparked a million memories of another time in her life. It was the faint metallic sound of an old clock ticking. Her breath immediately grew shallow. Tears welled in her eyes. It is a trick... It can't be real... The warm morning light immediately turned to ice. Her skin crawled as though there was snow falling upon it. In the distance of the space, blending in with the tick that filled the air, came the sound of a destroyed voice—one that she had heard almost every day for the first thirteen years of her life. 'A change came o'er the spirit of my dream. The Boy was sprung to manhood: in the wilds Of fiery climes he made himself a home, And his Soul drank their sunbeams; he was girt With strange and dusky aspects; he was not Himself like what he had been;' The tears rolled down her cheek, casting rivers along her milky skin. All parts of her brain told her that this was not possible; All parts of her mind said that this could not be happening. And yet, she didn't care. If it was someone playing a trick, if it was someone testing her resolve by creating this scene, then it was someone who deserved to get away with it—so perfect and correct had it thus-far been. From behind the nearest concrete beams stepped a man—black trench-coat and red, savagely spiked hair. Small dark glasses framed his still youthful face. It was like viewing an old photograph—an image from a long removed past. Lilith's first instinct was to divert her eyes, but that was overruled. She watched as the man wandered slowly over to her. He arrived by her side and kneeled down. Her tears redoubled, falling like summer rain. Her breath heaved and stuttered. 'Brother...' Lilith whispered through chokes. The young man reached down and wiped away her tears ever so gently with his black-gloved thumb. 'Where did you go, brother? I searched for you! I never stopped looking!' With great deliberateness The Poet ran his hand around her face, cradled the back of her head, brought himself down and kissed her gently on the forehead. 'I never left you,' he whispered in his broken voice, 'I was always there, watching over you.' 'They said that you where gone, but I knew you wouldn't just leave like that... I knew that you were somewhere. I just had to find you.' She looked up to him, only moving her eyes. 'Why didn't you help me? Why didn't you come back sooner? Why did you wait all of these years?' The Poet gave her a small, sympathetic smile. 'Every single day I wanted to. There

were times when I would be there, next to you, watching while you where struggling and pushing yourself. I saw all of it--all of the trouble you caused, all of the dangers you put yourself through--and I wanted nothing more than to put my arms around you. But I didn't know if I had more than one chance at this. I have spend the last decade saving up my energy, storing up myself for this moment.' 'I am so sorry!' she sobbed. 'I tried to stop this happening! I followed your teachings! I tried to make sure that The Beast wouldn't come back, but I failed! Look at it! It's happening again! All of these people are going to die! I tired so hard! I tried... I tried... I tried...' Her breaths wheezed even greater now as her lungs filled with arctic air. The cold grew stronger as Lilith broke down, overcome with a decades worth of anger and grief all in one moment. 'You did so well, my darling sister. You were so brave,' The Poet said, kissing her forehead again. 'You did more than I ever could have imagined. And do not blame yourself—I chose my own path. I made my decisions. And you couldn't have stopped it— even if you had wanted to. One way or another, I was doomed to die...' 'I could have been there, though! I could have believed you! All of those things you said, all those things you told were right! I was too young to believe them then! I didn't understand but you were right. I should have told you that before! If I had told you that, if I had supported you, then you would never have got mixed up with them! You would still be here!' The Poet rubbed the back of the neck soothingly. The sound of the clock's tick drew out into the morning. 'But I am still here,' he said, with a gentle tone. 'But its too late. The Beast has returned, we can't do anything now! I've failed!' To the right of them, barely secure on a surface of metal mesh scaffolding was a jagged black stone. With the smallest movements, careful not to allow it to drop to the distant ground below them, The Poet picked it up and held it to his eyes. 'It is never too late...' he whispered. He then kissed his sister's forehead one more time and rose to his feet. 'Where are you going?' Lilith asked, unable to stand or move to address him. The Poet looked to his right at the dominate stance of the riot commander. He leaned in closely to the end of the Shockwave—seeing the arcing centimetre of light frozen in place, unable to be stopped. He reached out and gripped the man's hand. With a clear struggle he wrenched it upwards, only by a few centimetres, but upwards none the less. He leaned over and looked along the line of the wrist. Then he smiled kindly. 'Before this morning is out there will be more than one injustice that I will make correct. That is the promise that I give to you.' Tick... Tick... Ti... 45 A pool of cool water flowed around his face and hands. Summer rain fell in sheets from above him. The Beast opened his eyes to see the faded view of dawn light—distant and inaccessible. Underneath his face was damp carpet; to his left was a colourless stretch of furniture. With great effort he stood up and stepped forward—to the point where the floor abruptly ended, and looked out upon the scene

Half of the building was missing. A vertical, semi-circular crater had been torn into the skyscraper, leaving ten stories open to the brisk breeze around him. He was standing at the edge of the middle floor, more recessed than the ones that sloped away above and below, out towards the edge of the building. The exposed floors had the appearance of a hugely separated staircases. Above him a fire safety system was emptying huge gallons of water, creating a cascade from each floor onto the one below it like a waterfall, which eventually emptied out into the world beyond the shattered, blackened glass and steel of what had once been the building's outer wall. The Beast looked into the distance. There was fire there--amongst the houses and skyscrapers--and smoke as well. What he had started was still progressing. A glint of silver radiated off the nearest building as, in the immediate foreground, a few birds flew into the cave-like crater, up two stories and out of view. The breeze from the world beyond the building swept in, rushing against the sodden cloth on his legs and the bare white of his chest. The chill it brought on was pure torture. He felt for the first time since his resurrection that he was weak, and powerless, and above all cold--that most wicked of sensations. It was the feeling that had driven the caveman to discover fire, the sensation that had directed survival for so many, for so long. The sun beat down outside, he could see it, but there was nothing here, in this space, but wet shadows. He raised his arms and closed his eyes. Heat began to slowly fill his skin. The sensation of flame teetered on the edge of arrival, then vanished. The torrent of water flooding over him was too great. It was suffocating. I have to get out of here... He turned on the spot and at once a crackle of purple fluorescence filled his vision. It struck him like lightning, arcing and dancing over his skin. The Beast's vision blurred as the image of the destroyed building was melded into that of something else... Black marble was on the floor. The walls were a dark, panelled brown. The Beast shook its head to remove the false vision and spun to his right, where the light had come from. Ahead were thirty desks and chairs, with no sign of anything that could have caused the sudden hallucination. He stepped forward cautiously on legs that ached from the massive collision. The shot of purple burst from his left this time. Once again The Beast's vision was morphed. There was glass furniture here, and in the centre of the room, like a dark glowing eye, was a luminescent Transfer Stone. The Beast slumped to the ground under its gaze, feeling simultaneously the sensation against his hand of polished marble and cold, soaked carpet—seeing simultaneously the charred office, and the ball of superheated magenta. Across his schizophrenic vision came a flurry of movement and a sashay of black. He snapped back into the skyscraper and looked up. The helicopter pilot was over him, holding a computer tower in both hands. With surprising speed he smacked it into The Beast's face, causing the body of the teenager to reel and stumble. As soon as he was on his feet again another blow thundered across his temple, driving him even further back. Another blow shattered the remnants of the electronics with a dull, metallic thump. The Beast had the sensation of falling. Floors passed by as he tumbled incoherently, only barely able to see what was happening. It came to a sudden stop as tiles shattered underneath him. He grimaced as a cascade of water from the floors above crashed down over him in a single, heavy stream. The torrent filled his eyes and mouth. It felt like he was drowning.

He rolled onto all fours and crawled away pathetically, grabbing onto a bench-top and dragging himself up to standing. There was a silver sink and The Beast realised that it was in the remains of a staff-room kitchen. His eyes shot to the cupboard above. Without thinking he tore the flimsy chipboard off its hinges and discus shot it out through the building's hole, into the sunlight, beyond. He smacked aside packets of tea and coffee, jars of sugar and detergent as he searched desperately. He did the same to three more cupboards and then, on the fifth one, it was there. The Beast withdrew a cheap glass bottle reading, 'Extra Virgin Olive Oil.' In one movement he tore off the top and upending the contents over himself. He opened his mouth and took in great gulps of the viscous liquid, drizzling the remainder of it over his messy black hair and shirtless body. When the bottle was drained he threw it to the floor it an explosion of glass. He could already feel the difference—the water that sprayed from the sprinklers overhead was now running over him, fleeing his skin like a coward as soon as it touched. He could feel the heat rise in the borrowed body, the skin beneath the sleek layer of oil prickled and squirmed. In and instant his body was once more engulfed in flame. The Beast looked up, his iris an incandescent orange. He immediately caught a glimpse of the pilot exiting a set of stairs onto this level and thrust out his hand. The door and surrounding wall exploded in flame, burning in spite of the water all around it. The Beast dashed quickly, feeling his vitality returning. His vision was back to normal as he strafed out a hole, where the kitchen wall had once been, and through a line of cubicles. A flutter ran by a pair of computer servers which where immediately melted down into a superheated black goo. The riot officer dodged the explosion and rolled through—drawing up to his knees and flicking off two bolts of purple light. They missed by centimetres and flickered on the wall behind The Beast, who responded with a punch of the air. A tidal wave of flame crashed through the office—sheets of paper, soaked into pulp were dried and evaporated into ash instantaneously. The thin cubicle walls burst into flames and small tongues of oilfuelled fire danced on the surface of the water. The Beast turned around—searching for his attacker. The space was empty. After a few more seconds of nothing he started flinging his arm angrily to the far corners of the room, exploding random area in a hail of debris. Desks and chairs were obliterated—glass was shattered and metal was melted. Damp cardboard burnt like raging gun cotton on the floors. Over and over The Beast lashed the office space. 'You will not have me!' he shouted, a fireball punctuating each word. 'When I get my hands on you there is no end to the pain that I will--' The Beast felt the briefest sensation pressing into the side of his neck and then the room was gone. His entire vision was once more of the purple lit Transfer Stone,. The sensations were unambiguous now--his feet were planted firmly on the marble below. The room around him was familiar—he had seen it when he was barely awake, lurking in the back of the boy's mind. Back when he was too frail to even fight back... To his right there was a slow, drawn out creak as a wood-panneled door opened slowly, revealing an enormously long corridor. Suddenly the gravity of the room turned ninety degrees. The floor below him was now a wall; the hallway was a long drop into nothingness. The Beast gripped at the floor-wall but there was nothing to hold. He fell. Past him flew paintings and artefacts as he hurtled into the corridor's depths. The red carpet in front of him faded to dark colours. The light dwindled until, in one motion, the sensation of falling was replaced with one of weightlessness. All light

disappeared as he entered a totally black void. Before he could even gather himself came a voice—deep and booming. 'I have waited for this moment for fourteen years!' it rumbled, filling everything in the space. 'The Beast, here, in my presence. The monster that was revealed to us in the Osiris Report, torn from history, at last gracing us with his presence. I was told that it could not happen. I was told that this would not happen. And even now I can feel your resistance to me, I can feel your refusal. You think you can deny me my destiny?' The depth of the darkness grew even deeper. A feeling of crushing weight encircled The Beast. In the darkness there also came a small sound, light as dandelions on the breeze. It was the sound of a boy crying. The voice laughed. 'What a pitiful thing he was. Why you chose his body is beyond me! But for whatever reason he can take the power you hold! And at least he knows his place, when to cede to a higher power. He has given up the hope that he will even know freedom. And it is time that you, my friend, do the same!' Everything in the darkness slithered. The empty space was alive. The voice shuddered like a construction ball against rock. 'I am your Master now! You will come to heel! You are my capariso--' At once the darkness was torn to shreds as a light as bright as the midday sun burnt through the black. In the space came the half-lit shape of three figures. One was a seated Leon, his legs clenched to his body, his face buried in his knees. To the right, radiating the new-found light was a true beast of flame—no longer bound by his host's anthropomorphic shape. It was huge—ten feet tall and twisted. Claws of lava extended from its mutated hands as a wavering, radiating heat pulsed off of its flaming skin. At the edge of the darkness, barely within the light, was the other figure. It was an old man—dressed in white prison fatigues and shackled to a strange device that bound his head like a vice and shackled his arms together as would a straight jacket. Chains ran the whole length, and it appeared that he was actually suspended in some kind of liquid, although there didn't appear to be any walls to enclose it. A primal scream ripped out from the man's direction, but his mouth didn't move. His closed, placid eyes remained still. The darkness whipped away as everything came flying backwards—the corridor, the room, the Transfer Stone. At once The Beast was back in the destroyed office building. In front of him was the riot officer, pressing the Shockwave into his neck. He grabbed the man by the throat, lifting him up with ease—defying the feeble size of the boy's muscles. His eyes where glowing red and the fire over his hand began to bubble the skin of the man. With his other hand he grabbed the Shockwave, raised it into the air and crushed it with a crack. Silver liquid ran down his arms and collected in pools on the floor. He then brought the metal covered hand up to the man's blistering face. In it was a small cube of glass, still glowing brightly. He looked deeply into his captive's eyes and smiled grotesquely. 'You will all burn!' he hissed as the flame around both his hands redoubled. The riot officer screamed as the Transfer Stone erupted into flame. At the same time a pulse of heat coursed through his veins, a red mist filled the space and the man was immediately exploded into a paste of blood and bone. 46 The lid of the Sarcophagus jerked open desperately and a suited arm squirmed out of it. Mr Black rose to his feet and then collapsed over the side of the coffin-like object. He squirmed around on the floor beneath him, as though his limbs belonged to someone else. His

muscles were rejecting the sudden transfer back into his own body. There is no time to adjust! Move! Across the room, in the middle of the floor, was the flickering ball of purple. Flame was already engulfing it. After a few seconds the silver mount melted and the freezing wire that had been attached to it, still radiating its frosty cold, slowly turned to black. Like a spark on the end of a dynamite fuse a single pinprick of light shot along its length—across the marble floor, through the gap left open in the doorway and down into the corridor beyond it. 'No!' Mr Black screamed. He tried to stand but collapsed like a newborn fowl taking its first steps. With huge concentration he forced his jelly-like legs into submission, demanding they cooperate with each other and bring him off of the ground. The room was spinning. Great figures of eight were being burnt into his vision by his lolling head's view of the white-hot light in the middle of the room. With pained, staggering movements he lurched across the space to the half-opened door and swung it open. Inside it was chaos. Fire burned up and along every single part of the passage's indeterminable distance. The red carpet roared down the centre, blocking any entrance. He looked to the walls and saw an ancient artwork—a winged angel, triumphant with sword aloft—singe at its edges and then, like a marshmallow at a bonfire, slowly turn to brown, then black and then, finally, burst into flames. Mr Black turned around swiftly and looked at the ball of fire on the ground behind him, floating in a pool of melted silver. The flames were flickering over its core of amber madly—the tongues rising and falling and moving manically to the sound of crackling destruction nearby. He paused as he started at it, waiting a moment before reacting. From the dark recesses of the passage came a distant, drawn out scream—bellowed in a voice that could have come from one person. The Master! He is dying! He waited no longer; there wasn't even a choice in that matter. He was a servant of the cause, a slave to his master. Whatever happened today, The Master was their only hope. It was his duty to do this. Mr Black moved across the room and grabbed the stone in his bare hand. At once the fire in the hallway turned, collected en masse, and roared towards him—pouncing like a furious guard dog. He was immediately covered head-to-toe in world-destroying waves of flame. The moments of excruciation were brief as the burning body of Mr Black turned on the spot, willed his melting limbs into a full run, hurled himself through the glass window and down into the certain fate of the ten story drop. 47 The Beast watched as the flowing stream at his feet collected the streaks of red and washed them over the edge of the precipice--out into the morning air below, where they dissipated into a fine mist on the breeze. The warm light sparkled off them as it covered his scene of destruction. The momentary distraction had not caused any great problem. Everywhere he looked was embracing the fire that he had given them. The streets and houses and cars were burning and crackling together—his ashen subjects, awaiting his next command. There was no resistance that remained. The only thing left to do was fulfil his purpose—to make this pathetic race suffer as only he could. To make these pitiful people

scream and beg for the mercy that he would make certain would never come. It had been over one hundred years since he last found the energy to return. That had been an event. That had been powerful and destructive and had touched so close to the heights he knew he could accomplish... But it had still fallen short. Too many of them had survived. The effect did not last long enough. Through the course of time his might had been all but forgotten—a footnote in history. This time, however, he would not be denied. The water that fell from the ceiling was now reduced to a cloud of steam by the time it hit his flaming skin. Through burning red eyes the boy reached up and stroked his messy black hair—feeling the connection to the skin growing, becoming certain that he had made the right choice. He knew he could grow stronger still, but there is no time left to do so. He had enough fire here to command the rest, and the Enforcers would send a sizeable back-up within a few hours, even after all the time they spent deriding his existence and denying his place in the books of history. Not this time, though. Last time he was greedy—he dragged the resurrection out too long. He revelled to deeply, too selfishly, in the sensations of his control and the feeling of domination. He gave them an entry, he allowed the Council to stop him before he had completed his revenge. This time they will pay for their original sin! Banishing me! Killing me! Denying me! They will be the ones that will die! In his head there was the distant sound of crying, but he knew that it was not going to cause any problems. The Master had been right about one thing: the boy had given up all hope that he would be back in control. But that was all just another small victory. Now, it was time for the real celebration. The Beast raised his arms and closed his eyes. After a few seconds the earth beneath the building began to shudder. The carpet under his feet twitched and vibrated. Then came the sound—like a giant crunching diamonds in his palm. Far below, at the base of the buildings, a hairline fracture--no more than a few millimetres across--opened up in the surface of the asphalt road. It snaked a few inches left and then spread right as well, creeping off in the two different directions. After a few more seconds the cracks grew wider until they where a few centimetres in width. Then they sped up and the new breaks in the road where almost a metre. Now the cracking was shooting manically—through the streets and boulevards and lanes, speeding out over the entire city. On the spot where the first crack had appeared there was a moment of stillness...and then a monstrous crash. At once a huge sheet of the road shot upwards like a steel weight in reverse. The piece it connected to dropped down into the depths of the earth, leaving a five metre hole. The air shimmered above it as a heat more powerful than any person had ever felt streamed out of the ground. After a few moments a geyser of iridescent orange erupted like an oil pipeline across the road and surrounding buildings. Entire stretches of the scene melted on contact—metal support beams the thickness of cars where reduced instantaneously to a molten grey sludge. The Beast looked through the crater in his own building and watched as the scene repeated itself at a dozen places around the city centre, then twenty more throughout the already burning suburbs. The shuddering beneath his feet grew into a shake and then a rumble. Suddenly there was an almighty crash from the depths of the earth and the entire building jerked to the left. The water across the carpet began to flow sideways. Tables and chairs slid over to the left wall of as the tilt grew. Soon the building was almost at a forty-

five degree angle. The Beasts wings once more extended from the boy's back and he watched as fifteen other skyscrapers in his line of sight, each almost fifty stories tall, had their base foundations eaten away by the lava and then, too, fell over at an angle. One by one they could no longer defy gravity and began to fall completely into the ocean of liquid fire —dissolving on contact like wet bread. The flames from them reached high up into the air. Black smoke chocked the life out of the sky. They will not stop me this time! They will not be able to refuse me! I will-The Beast did not look away from the apocalyptic vision, but he nevertheless felt it— the change in the air. In front of him he watched as a falling building stopped in mid decent and the sound of crunching metal halted abruptly. In its place came a tiny metallic sound. Tick... Tick... A wide smile broke over his face as he spoke. 'After all the times I felt you,' The Beast said to the seemingly empty room, 'after all of those years you stood by my side when no-one else would, it did cross my mind whether, in the end, you would come back to my side.' The Beast turned to look at The Poet. The movement felt like it was being resisted on all sides—like his muscles where being torn in two--but he found the strength to push through it. In front of him was a young man hovering in the open air—dressed in a trenchcoat. He traced the man's body down and let out a sigh. In his gloved right hand was a jagged black stone. 'I have come...' said The Poet in his shattered voice. 'But not to your side.' The Beast looked up to the man's glasses. 'After all of the years you defended me, all of those years you fought for me, it has come to this? You sacrificed your very life to prove that I existed, you risked everything to show that I would one day come back...and now you would try to destroy me?' 'You where just the title on the page,' The Poet professed. 'You where the ink that I penned my words with. I never fought for your benefit. I fought to raise awareness of you, of what you had done, what you would do again. I fought to stop you.' 'Of course you did... But, I am afraid that if this is your grand intention—to stop my retribution—then you are too late. The boy is gone, his resistance has folded like house of cards. And that little thing in your hands won't stand a chance against me.' The earth shook once more and the walls of concrete and steel began to fall all around them in massive blocks. 'Not even you can stop me. It took an army of Enforcers last time. One little Adept, even one as unique as you doesn't even stand a chance. You, of all people, know this to be true, don't you..?' The Beast deliberately caught the sentence before it finished. He moved forwards, his wing-tips grazing the sides of the remaining furniture and immediately engulfing them in flame. Each step felt like it was being resisted on all sides. When he was near the floating man he leaned in, until his smooth face was next to the intruders. 'You know, back in the hospital, when you were first speaking to Leon, you told him that there was a right question to ask. He may have not understood this—because you weren't actually talking to him. You were talking to me. He was not in a position to do so then, but allow me to do so now. The question you wanted to hear was, 'What is my name?' The Beast smiled and breathed his hot breath onto the Poet's face. 'It was the question I heard you ask night in and night as you examined fragments of that eruption in the Dutch East Indies. As you poured over the long degraded remnants of my glory. You knew that an Adept had caused Krakatoa, but you didn't know who. You wanted a name. You wanted a figure from history that you could pin to your theory. You saw, printed in the history books, a reference to a man called 'The Beast'. A man of fire, a

thousand years in the past, who commanded with a fist of iron. A man who many considered to only be a legend. A man who, according to this legend, was so bad, so brutal, so indescribably bloodthirsty, that they invented a new kind of punishment to bring him down. A punishment that would not only kill someone, like the Banishment, but also kill their legacy. You know what this punishment is called...' The Poet looked straight ahead. His eyes were unblinking. When he spoke, his voice was almost silent. 'The Omission...' The Beast moved around The Poet slowly. 'Banning a name... Omitting a name... Removing it for the history books. Wiping it clean from the minds of every single person on the planet, human and Adept alike. Making it so the people who loved you, and knew you, and saw you every day of your entire life could stand in front of you, recognise your face, know your touch, and not know what your name was! Making everything that you have accomplished in your life unattributable. Making you question whether or not you even really exist at all!' The Beast was behind him now. The Poet didn't turn around. 'Few people in history have every been deemed bad enough to warrant it. I was one of them--Omitted by the Council, for my ill deeds. The Master was the most recent-allowed to live, reckoning it to be a worse punishment than death, but still Omitted. His was done to clear the memories of recent deeds, buy time, and stop the outbreak of a third world war. Bad men, we were. Bad men we still are... Hands of burning heat gripped at his shoulder. 'But you, Poet, you are not like either of us. There was no meeting of the Council to decree such an abhorrent fate. There was no judge to declare the Omission, no Adept to case it. You did it to yourself!' The Beast leaned into the trench-coated man's ear. 'On that fateful day, before you were killed, you cast the most secret of magic and removed your name from the history books. You removed it from the mind of every person on the planet—those who knew you, those who loved you. And you did it because you knew something. You know that strange things happen when you take away a man's name, his place in history; When you make it as though he never truly lived. The Council never anticipated it. To this day they don't believe it. But you and I both know that it is true, don't we? And The Master, should he ever die, will also know that it is true! It is the reason that you are standing here. It is the reason that we are talking. You believed—strong enough to die in vain for it—that when you make it that a man never truly lived...' The Poet finished the incomplete statement on instinct. The assertion was the base of all that he slaved over. It was the core tenant that had sustained him for all of those years... When he had been writing The Osiris Report. 'You make is that he can never truly die...' The Beast smiled again. 'And you put that theory to test didn't you. You believed that one could use The Omission to their advantage and defy death itself! But still, in spite of your confidence, in spite of the near total belief, there was still a tiny shred of doubt. And that was the question you wanted answered. You wanted to know my name. You wanted to know if everything you believed was true, and if, in turn, there was a way for you to come back. But that is not up for debate any more, is it? You know who I am, just as I know who you are. I am The Beast; and you are The Poet.' The Poet said nothing. After a few seconds The Beast moved around until he was again face-to-face with the man. 'You know I do find The Poet to be an unusual name for you to choose. I understand

why the Council renamed the leader of the Riders The Master—after all that makes perfect sense, he is their master. And they called me The Beast for obvious reasons...but The Poet? Of all the names you could have called yourself, you chose that name. You come here, gripping a Banishment Stone, standing on the edge of history's end and you have a name as weak and powerless as any I have ever heard! The Poet! The Poet! What kind of man calls himself The Poet! You could have--' With impossibly quick movements the Poet tore off his glasses. Behind them were eyes like voids—deep as the greatest cavern. There was a fraction of a second where the Beast tried to shut his own eyes but it was too late. The stare held his gaze. 'You think that my name isn't powerful?' queried The Poet in a voice like arctic daggers. 'You think that I couldn't possibly beat you...with a poem?' The Beast's expression was held in place. His face was momentarily unmoving. The Poet stepped out on the empty air--dragging The Beast's gaze out into the open. His captive's eyes now had a full full view of the cavernous void and the fiery destruction beyond it. 'There is some very powerful poetry out there, you know. One of my favourite pieces comes from Robert Frost. It wasn't yet written last time you came back. This will be a new experience for you...' The Poet smiled his own, sick little smile as he began to recite the words. They came less as a voice and more of a distant memory. Some say the world will end in fire... As if on command the open space of the office crater exploded into flames—creeping walls of fire overtaking every single surface. Some say in ice... Instantly the fires hardened in their flicker—morphing into solid blocks. The temperature of the room plummeted. Soon the air itself felt like it was about to snap. From what I've tasted of desire... Amongst the field of ice appeared the body of a young, brown-skinned woman-naked as the day she was born. It was Jade Dansel, perfect in every single way. With sultry steps she began to walk across the ice field beyond—over to a distant, dark corner, where there was a a solid triangle of ice—shaped like a giant tongue of flame. The twisted voice of The Poet continued to enunciate each line as he stared straight into the unblinking eyes of the boy he had first met in a hospital room, all those hours ago. I hold with those who favour fire... As the naked body of Jade stepped closer to the pointed, metre-wide brick of ice small pinpricks of flame broke free from their frozen prison and danced around her skin. In a matter of second she was as covered in flames. Upon seeing this, The Beast began to shake slightly, his eyes still unblinking—held in place by The Poet. In the corner, Jade reached down and ran her burning hand over the smooth sheet of frost—causing the outer edges to begin to melt. But if it had to perish twice... Across from the gradually melting brick of ice was now another scene, even more lucid than the others. At the point where the floor fell away into the next level appeared an image. It showed a young man, dressed in a trench-coat, standing at the edge of a drop into an freezing, fast flowing river. The grey sky lay a blanket of snow over the top of him. The young man's eyes looked on ahead—knowingly but somehow without fear as a bolt of crackling white exploded out of the hidden space in front of him, dancing over his skin violently, and dropping him down into the frozen river below. I think I know enough of hate...

In the distance, past the room of clear frozen spikes, out in the field of magma that still covered the ground outside burst a mountain. It rose from the ground until it filled the entire view. At the top of it, hovering over a cavernous, boiling pit of lava was The Beast. His huge wings spread out like a fan, reaching both edges of the volcano's peak. This time he was not in the body of Leon, but was in the even smaller frame of a young, brownskinned Asian boy. His face was locked in a terrifying mask of glee as the lava beneath him exploded with a depth of sound that was not so much heard as endured. The sight erupted into white light and then all The Beast could see was again he face of The Poet. To say that for destruction ice is also great... The block of ice being caressed by the enflamed figure of Jade cracked and then shattered. Beneath the surface was revealed to be a young teenager, his head burrowed deeply into his knees. Sobs could be heard in the air. Jade kneeled down until she was at his height and leaned in to him, speaking unheard words into his ear. Like a lily opening to the heat, Leon's body unfurled from its foetal position and rose to a stand. The other Leon in the room, the body being controlled by the Beast, was now breathing heavily. His eyes swivelled around in their sockets manically, trying to divert their gaze. The Poet stepped even further forward, until his eyes where dead on with The Beast's. He uttered the final sentence. And would suffice... Now the image of the frozen Leon and the flaming Jade where shifted into a different hue. The colour of their skin returned to normal. The background changed. Four walls half-shaded themselves in. The naked body of Jade took Leon by the hand and sat down in mid air. A bed formed beneath her and Leon too came down to it. Their lips embraced passionately as the few remaining clothes where removed. Hands roamed lovingly over each others skin—their eyes never leaving each others; their mouths never knowing solitude. Their bodies intertwined. The tempo of the movement increased and increased until finally Leon threw up his head and looked dead into the eyes of himself, winged in flame, across the room. The Leon on the bed's eyes suddenly glowed orange and at once the half-visible room around him was engulfed with fire. A look of confusion dawned across both of the Leon's as the two worlds sped together like a locomotive. The only sound that remained was the voice of The Poet, distant and near at the same time. A change came over the spirit of my dream... 48 The perfect image wavered like a lucid touch. It was like a short film of a mirage, shimmering and distant--yet set in full colour with a second of blaring digital surround sound. It was the vision of himself and Jade, naked on the quilted layer of cotton, with their arms and legs and bodies and lips interlocked, both breathing hot and heavy breaths into each other’s mouths. There was a moment of stopped time, the beginning of a stuttering, female cry of bliss...which all at once evaporated from Leon’s vision. It was all replaced with a familiar sight. The sun kissed the warm breeze of the magnificent waterfall. Greens and blues more vivid than anything he had ever seen in real life flanked him on all sides. The sounds of screaming voices, burning metal and crunching stone where replaced with the most glorious white noise of cascading water, melodic birds and the ever-so-gentle rustle of leaves. Leon's feet were once again resting on a solid bed of

water—shimmering fish swimming freely through liquid as translucent as glass. What was that? Jade..? I slept…with Jade?! 'Surprising isn't it,' answered a familiar voice. From behind the torrent of thundering water in the middle of the glinting pool stepped the man in a trench-coat. 'It was the moment when The Beast broke free of the Ether and found a way into your skin. That was the moment that you couldn't remember. That memory, right there, is the point where all of this began.' He stated wide eyed at the man—rummaging thought his thoughts until he latched once more onto the image of himself and, yes, her! With his mouth open in shock, he relived the act as thought it was the first time he had ever seen it; as though it had never actually happened and right now, here, was the first time he had felt the touch of hers against his, the first time he had tasted her lips, and wandered the warmth of her exposed body. As if a jigsaw falling gently into place, the events that preceded that single image returned place. He remembered the morning—the Physics class and Daniel’s taunts. He remembered Jade talking to him in the halls of school. He remembered the exposure of Daniel, finding Jade in the park and talking to her. He remembered her tears, and the moon, and her reaching up and kissing him, without him even having to make a move to initiate it... And then the new memory began. Jade, more beautiful than he remembered, reached out, took him by the hand and led him through the dark trees near the line of houses, round to a back door. With creeping motions she led him through the house, both of them tiptoeing—their faces alight with laughter. He was guided into a bedroom, and then the scene from earlier replayed itself. It wasn’t a dream, thought Leon with a sense of shock. I actually slept with Jade. His face of pleased surprised was slowly replaced as with confusion as the remainder of the day replayed itself, right up to the revelations of only seconds ago. 'You are the one that wrote the Osiris Report...' The Poet said nothing as Leon ran over the significance of that revelation. The boy's face turned to disbelieving shock. 'You knew,' Leon stammered, struggling to take it all in. 'From the very start, when you came to me in the Hospital. You knew that all of this would happen? From the very beginning you knew that The Beast was inside me? You knew what it was going to do? You knew what it wanted...what it was going to become?' The Poet stepped forward across the floor of water until he was only a few metres away from Leon. The glasses were gone from over his eyes, and in there place was an impossible colour—a glowing, brilliantly lit black. He stared at Leon unblinkingly. It hurt to look at. 'I did,' he replied in a horrid but unemotional voice. 'And... All of the people who have died... All of the people who are going to die now... You knew about that? You could have stopped it? And you didn't?!' 'Yes, Mr Wheeler, what you say is true.' Leon stared at him, utterly dumbfounded. The man's answers where so casual, almost surprised that he was being asked them. Leon couldn't believe that he had to ask such an obvious follow up question. 'Why?!' he screamed, wide eyed. 'You could have stopped all of this! You wrote the report that everyone else was following! You knew everything that would happen and you didn't did nothing to stop it! You could have stopped me when you first met me! This could

have ended before anyone died! Why didn't you?!' The Poet's eyes didn't move but trademark smile crept across his face. It was a Mona-Lisa smile—one that suggested that there were secrets and reasoning and depths of knowledge that the wearer understood with unquestioning clarity; knowledge that the recipient of the smile would never be able to understand. His eventual answer was frustratingly typical of all the answers he had given Leon up until this point. 'I had my reasons, Mr Wheeler.' Leon shook his head and held the man's gaze, refusing to accept the answer. 'No. Not here. I have put up with that kind of crap for long enough! You knew that this was going to happen--you knew that people were going to die, you knew that a disaster was going to happen. I was inside The Beast's mind. I heard it; I felt it. I know what he wanted, what he was going to try and do. He wanted all of us dead. The humans, the Adepts. He wanted to kill off every living thing in the world! You knew this and you didn't stop it until the very, very last second! And now you've brought me here, to this place—where I was first brought to be Banished—when you could have just done that do me the first time you met me. If you wanted to stop this monster there were a hundred times you could have done it. I don't know how you do your little time stop thing but I don't have even the smallest doubt that you could have Banished me at any second in the last twelve hours...' Leon stepped forward, until he was chest-to-chest with the man. 'But you waited until the very end. Why?!' The mocking smile didn't shift as The Poet answered him. 'The events of what happened today were tragic, Mr Wheeler. Tragic but necessary.' Leon's eyes were balls of fury. 'You think that this is funny? You think that this is a joke? What the hell is wrong with you?!' The water crashed down in its unbroken drawl of power. A small bird fluttered through the sky from one branch of a tree to the one nearby. 'Sometime as an adult, Mr Wheeler, you have to make choices that are difficult. Sometimes you have to make decisions where there are no easy answers. You are quite right about some things--I predicted that all of this would happen. I predicted that all of the events that have occurred today would one day occur. Of that you are correct. Of your other assertion, however—that I have done nothing to stop all of this—you are most definitely wrong. A million small sounds drifted around the paradise as The Poet stared into Leon's eyes—fixing his gaze into the black pools inside them. 'Almost fourteen years ago I gave a clear warning to every Adept on the planet. Over a decade ago I yelled and screamed and begged for people to pay attention to my warnings. I wrote these predictions down, I publicised them to the world, I did everything that I could to help...and do you know what I got for my work? I was ridiculed! I was ignored! I was cast away by my colleagues and friends and even my family!' The Poet stepped forward until he was toe-to-toe with Leon. His face was impassive, his voice was unemotional. ''I did everything that I could to warn people. The didn't listen to me. They didn't take the precautions. And so I had to prove to them all wrong. I said that is was possible to cheat death.... And now I have proved it. Now I have been validated. And now they will listen.' Leon stared at him, mouth open in shock. 'You did all of this...for you ego! Just to prove that you were right! People have died! Even more people are going to die!' The man in front of him smiled 'My ego, Mr Wheeler, doesn't enter into this matter. I did what I did because all of

the people who mocked me, all of the Adepts who refused to believe, need to see this.' 'Why?' asked Leon. 'Why do they need to see this? What possible reason could there be that all of this destruction needed to happen!?' 'Because, Mr Wheeler, The Beast is not the only monster that was Omitted...' The air grew thick as the Poet waited, infuriatingly, to once again speak. 'The Omission is a rare spell. In the present it is hardly ever used. The Master—haha—The Master only had it done to him under the advisement of a leading Councillor, to hush everything up and delete the trail of blame--and I suspect that was on behalf of Black, White and Associates themselves, just to ensure his legacy. He is the rare exception nowadays. Those Adepts that know the full details of the Omission curse consider it too great, too far-reaching, to be done today. But that wasn't always the case. There was a time when the Omission was all too common.' The Poet looked up to the falling cloud of water beside them, losing himself momentarily in the distant, glinting heights. When he spoke again his voice was calm. 'The origins of our species, Mr Wheeler, lies somewhere in the realm of legend and myth—most Adepts think that The Beast was more fictitious than he was real. We know the truth of that of course. But he was not the only one--there were others according to these so called myths, Mr Wheeler. The first four leaders of the Adept council were A Council President of Fire, A Council President of Water, A Council President of Wind, and A Council President of Earth—each coming in succession, each capturing the leadership by battle, and each confining their predecessor to the indignity of the Omission curse.' The leaves behind them rustled gently. 'It is my belief, Mr Wheeler, that every disaster, through the course of human history, every single one of them, from the 1931 China Floods, the 1970 Bhola Cyclone, all the way down to Pompeii and the myth of Atlantis, is the result of these Omitted Adepts—crawling from the Ether and wreaking havoc on the world. I do not believe that there has ever been a truly natural disaster. All of them have involved these men, and their murderous desires.' Leon stared at him, unable to find the words to say. It all sounded crazy. 'But, that is just your theory isn't it. You don't have any proof.' The man's smile widened, showing of the tips of his teeth. 'That is what they said about The Beast, Mr Wheeler, and look how that turned out. These Adepts are real, and just like The Beast they feed on misery, they feast on blood. I was to start expeditions in Bangladesh and China, investigating disasters there that have killed over three million people...when fate called me up first. I had no time to find the proof, but that doesn't matter. These ancient elemental Adepts will keep on returning, Mr Wheeler. Their attacks are only getting stronger. They have not been able, thus far, to damage more than a select area, but they are growing. This time, The Beast...we may not have been able to stop him. He may have finally killed us all. And that is what the Adepts, and the Enforcers, and The Council need to see. If they are going to protect us in the future they need to believe now.' The boy said nothing. He stared down at his feet, into the crystal water. 'But you let people die..' 'We all make choices, Mr Wheeler. We all make decisions that are awful and unwanted. Just like you, Mr Wheeler. Just like you...' Leon looked at the man's face. 'Me?' The man's face was stoney. When he at last spoke his words were measured and even. 'Yes, Mr Wheeler. You see, you are going to have to make a decision that you don't want to.'

'What decision?' he asked curiously, hesitation heavy in his tone. The man stared at him. 'You are going to have to choose to die, Leon.' 'What!?' 'This is not a surprise to you, Mr Wheeler—surely you have known this for hours. The body you have is now not in your control. I can force you to accept the Banishment against your will but that increases the risk the Beast will still live. You must consent to it, Mr Wheeler. Only then will the force of the spell be strong enough to vanquish The Beast.' 'No...' spat Leon, shaking his head. 'Without it then there is no way of stopping The Beast from destroying everything. If you do not do this then everyone will die.' 'I don't care! Do you know what, when I first found out I had the ability to do magic I thought it was incredible. I thought it was amazing because I have spent so much of my life being irrelevant and powerless! I thought that this might actually make me special! But do you know what? I'm not special! I am just a normal kid that's had a really, really fucked up night! And you want to come at me with that hero shit? Guess what, I don't care about being a hero! I just don't care! It is my life and I will decide when I die!' 'And would you sentence Jade to die was well, Mr Wheeler?' Leon's face was pure fury. 'Don't you dare talk about her! You don't even know that The Beast would succeed! Maybe you can just screw off and I will find a way to stop him on my own! You don't know the first thing abou--' 'I know that she will die, Mr Wheeler. Just like you will. I have found a way to keep The Beast at bay for a few seconds, but no longer than that. If you do not do this now and on my terms then no-one alive will be able to stop him. And when he finally brings the world and all that lives on it to their knees, your body will be the epicentre of the genocide. If you do it this way—if you let me banish him--the damage will kill you, but at least you will be able to do the right thing by your family.' 'What family!?' barked Leon, utterly indignant. 'I have a mother that doesn't know I'm alive, that is all!' 'And what about your son?' The beautiful scene seemed to draw to a deathly hush. The crashing water seemed to fade to the background and Leon started ahead at the man's unmoving face. 'How could I have a son?! I haven't even...' It hit him like a slap in the face. Jade is pregnant... The man in front of him smiled—not cruelly as before, but like a friend sharing a joke. 'Shocking, isn't it? And if it makes you feel any better no-one predicted that this would happen. There was information I discovered over the years that gave me a moment where The Beast would likely return; it was this information I put in the conclusion of my report and the one that Black, White and Associates followed like lore. As it turns out my dates were out by over a decade because I assumed that The Beast would return and grow to term with your son, not the man that would father him.' Leon's eyes were bulging. His face was utterly shocked. 'Mr Wheeler, you need to understand. If you do not consent to the Banishment then it might not succeed, and then both Jade and your son will die. But...' the man paused and stepped forward, face-to-face with Leon. 'if you allow me to do this, I will protect them.' Leon's face took a few seconds until he registered the words. 'And why would they need protection?' he asked breathlessly. 'A child born of The Beast? In a time when every Adept alive is about to know that all that I proclaimed is indisputable truth? They would both be a target, Mr Wheeler.

Those who would want to exploit them, those that would want to steal from them, those that would fear what power the child might grow to have and take it upon themselves to protect all of the others. They would never know a moment of peace. Their lives, what little would remain of them, would be hell. But if you allow The Beast to be banished I would make sure they were safe.' Leon stared in silence at the man in front of him, panting heavily as he did so. After a few moments The Poet continued. 'One way or another, Mr Wheeler, you are going to die. There is no alternative to that. But if you choose to do it this way there is still a chance that the people you love might be able to live a real life.' 'Choose? Bullshit!' spat Leon furiously. 'This isn't my choice, this is your choice. You could have just finished this at the start. I never asked for any of this! You make yourself out like you are being noble. Like your the one doing the right thing and I'm the evil one! But this is all your fault! You allowed all of this to happen! You got me into this mess!' The Poet turned to face waterfall once more, its silver surface shining like diamonds in the pure sun. For the longest time he said nothing, then, at last he spoke. He sounded more real then Leon had ever heard him sound. 'I will admit that I am not a perfect man, Mr Wheeler. You are right: I strung you along when I could have ended this earlier. I pulled you left and right, helped you and confused you just to keep you alive until morning. I allowed thousands of people to die so that your body would become as strong as it has become because, to be truthful, I had to. I admit to all of this, understanding all of what that means! But I will also tell you that if you do this I will make sure that no-one dares harm the woman you love, or the child that is growing inside her.' Leon glared at him. His voice rose to a scream, piercing the stillness of the waterfall 'But I will be dead! Don't you get that?! This isn't a favour you are asking me for! If I do this I will die! I don't deserve any of this! I didn't do anything to make this happen! Why should I have to die?! Why?! Why?!' The anger boiling in his veins. Every part of his mind fought for life, defied the death that was hanging over his head. After all that he had done, all that he had put Leon through how could he dare ask this! It was grotesque and selfish and unfair and cruel and... It...still doesn't change anything, does it? The realisation crept forward. The sun shone brightly across Leon's face as the anger slowly drifted away. None of what was happening was fair, not a single bit of it, but it didn't change the facts. He was going to die. There was some part of him that had already accepted it--when The Beast had been in total control and he had just given up. He was going to die—in one way he would allow the destruction of everyone that he loved, and in the other there was the possibility that they would be able to live. The feelings of helplessness and rage and frustration at the horrific, morbid choices didn't change that inescapable dichotomy. Either he could save Jade and his child, or he could let them die. And when framed in those terms, laced only in logic and removed from his emotions...there really wasn't a choice. He turned his face back up to The Poet, barely able to believe he was about to say the words he was going to. 'You will protect them..?' Osiris looked at him with his deep, dark eyes—more open and honestly than he had thus far seen them. 'I give you my word! They will never come to harm.'

Leon stared at the man for the longest time—the weight of the world hanging on the next thing he did. After what felt like aeons he gently nodded his head. 'I...will do it,' he said, almost in a whisper. The sky, bluer than any sky he had ever seen, filled the four corners of his vision as he looked up and into the sun. A tear fell down his cheek and he stifled the urge to cry. After a few moments The Poet nodded back and they both slowly stepped towards the falling torrent of water in the middle of the lake. Quietly, almost in silence, Osiris began to recite something: Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white; Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk; Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font. The firefly wakens...' In the middle of the cascade of water parted two curtains, revealing a stone of deepest black. It filled the space around it completely. With aching movements The Poet removed his leather gloves, revealing hands of white, scarred, ghostly skin. The outline of the flesh seemed to fade in and out of visibility—blending into the rising mist all around. He held out his hand and gently touched the stone. It pulsed in the air, shuddering and seething. With the most deliberate of movements he held up his other hand to Leon and spoke for the final time. 'Waken thou with me...' Leon looked down at the crystal in the crashing water and then over to the hand in front of him. After the longest time he closed his eyes, filling his mind with nothing but the image of the woman he loved. His took the hand in his. There was a moment of pain, an arrest of breath... And then everything was white. Epilogue The room was a blackened char—lined along the walls and floor with fire-eaten wood. Half of the yellow chaise-lounge was missing and the clear glass table at the far end of the room had been melted into a twisted, dripping shape. The sun through the window was high now—white and clear, closer to midday than morning. It cast strange shadows through the broken, fractured window panes. Mr White walked across the floor, debris crunching under his polished shoes. He stepped up to the broken window and looked out and down to the pavement below. There was a small pile of dark dust in a bursting pattern. A faint wind whipped through the air and moved the top layer of the pile slightly—revealing a little glint of purple. He brought his head back in and turned to the wall—where the burnt rectangular outline of the formally blended door now stood clear as day. He moved over it it and ran his hand over the cracking wood. His finger found the small ring on the jamb and gently pulled it open. Inside was a small, empty cupboard, less than half a meter deep. Mr White exhaled and then clicked it closed. For a moment he stood at the wall looking blank. After a lengthy pause he stepped back across the room and to the melted desk. He leaned down slightly and opened one of the drawers—not fully consumed by fire—rummaged through the contents gently and finally brought something out of it. It was a black pocket square, held in the middle with a long, silver pin. Mr White

slowly reached up to his own pocket, removed the white cloth he had owned for less than five hours, and replaced it with the black. He threaded the pin through it carefully and patted it down. Across the desk was a long triangle of metal which he reached over and took. The face plate was ashen and covered in burn marks. He ran the sleeve of his jacket over it and, like magic, it came up as bright and glowing as when it had been new. It read, 'Mr Black.' He placed it carefully back on the tabletop, surveyed the room and considered the future. His workplace was destroyed, the access channel to The Master's prison was broken, and all line of command of the organisation had been broken. He had a lot of work to do... * The air smelled like pine-cones. Late afternoon sun drifted over the laying body of a young woman, encased in white sheets, set against a backdrop of further white. Across her face was a bandage, covering her left eye like a pirate. Somehow she managed to make it seem almost demure and fashionable. Every other part of her face, skin and complexion was undamaged. In the background was the shrill voice of a television presenter. Julia, I am standing at the edge of the no-go zone that Federal Police have set up around Capitol City. I can tell you that nothing I have ever seen has prepared me for this moment. There are predictions that twenty-thousand people are already dead, but everyone expects that number to skyrocket once the emergency crews have started going over this scene of devastation. She sighed sympathetically at what she had heard. The news had been reporting the tragedy all day, but it still wasn't possible to believe the scale and depth of what had happened. The nurses had already come round and told all non emergency patients that they would be released as soon as possible to make room for the likely influx. She wondered if their was anything that she could do to help. Just watching the disaster on television made her feel so helpless. There is still no word yet about how this tragedy started or what specifically caused it, but it is without a doubt the worst wildfire that has ever occurred in the history of the countr-The sound came to an abrupt stop and Jade looked up to the television. The image was frozen in place, unmoving across the screen. She reached for the remote but found that her arms where also frozen in place, unwilling to move. She tried to move her head and the feeling of restriction was the same. She looked around desperately, panic starting to rise. From across the room came a voice—familiar and yet somehow different. More authoritative, more certain of itself: A change came o'er the spirit of my dream. The Lady of his love;—Oh! she was changed, As by the sickness of the soul; A thousand leagues from his,—her native home, She dwelt, begirt with growing Infancy, Daughters and sons of Beauty...' Footsteps from across the room tapped closer as the voice spoke. By the final line the source of the voice had stepped slowly into view. The face was familiar, but just like the voice it was somehow different. Somehow changed. The person stood over her and stared. 'Leon...' she half said, half questioned. The face was indeed Leon's. Messy black hair dangled over his eyes. He reached up

with black-gloved hands and swept it aside, revealing familiar eyes. After a time a smile spread across his face—different from anything she had seen before 'Ms Dansel,' the boy said in a voice that gave away none of his motivation. 'It appears that we have much to talk about...'

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