THE SHADOWS: Fire’s Hope
The Shadows have three abilities: one unique power, the ability to enter a distant Realm and communicate through it, and one inert understanding of a human trait.
A little overzealous during an MMO raid, Mark’s hands suddenly burst into flames revealing he’s a Shadow. They’re dangerous, powerful, and contained in a hidden facility covered by a shield known as the ASH. Mark can’t possibly be a Shadow, but he’s still thrown into the ASH like just another monster.
Afraid the fire will consume him, he clashes with the icy Shadow, Silverstonarellena, certain he’ll live out the rest of his days imprisoned and paranoid of angering his roommate. Still, he holds onto hope that he’ll be able to escape and return home, but it might be more complicated when he finds out he has the power of an Orchestrator named Shadow Hope, allowing him to pass through the shield and free all the Shadows.
Even if he is some powerful Shadow, why didn’t he know? Why wasn’t he taken to the ASH at birth like the rest of the Shadows? And why won’t anyone give him straight answers? He fights to trust the Shadows. Even though he wants to help them, he fears there’s an even bigger mystery unraveling when he uncovers the suspicious death of a Shadow who had attempted to escape and may have been his doppelganger.
November 6, 2015
In the warm comfort of the night, sweat beaded on Hellen’s body as the tension in her muscles faded. Her eyes lost on the furious pink infant with spindly limbs in her arms.
Tears finally dripped from the apples of her cheeks and a wave of relief washed over her as the droplets of water touched her daughter’s contorted face. The child’s lungs were powerful, and this fact assured Hellen her daughter was healthy and safe. She drew her closer, holding her tightly against her chest so the tiny girl’s fingers curled around her collar bone.
Hellen sank back into the hospital bed, refusing to let her child leave her breast, even as the nurse urged her to rest. This labor had been long into the night, and the stale hospital room was now humid with the scent of blood and fluid.
It calmed her, and the sweet moisture in the air tickled her throat as she panted. She didn’t know where her boyfriend was. She didn’t have a clue if he even knew their baby had arrived. She wasn’t even sure if he cared. He didn’t matter now. All her cares rested upon her little girl’s heartbeat as the infant helplessly relaxed into her mother’s bosom.
“Miss Meyvise, we need to test her,” the nurse urged at her side, reaching out to touch the pale-yellow blanket on the infant’s back.
“No…” Hellen moaned, still caught up in the beauty of her daughter’s face as she closed her eyes and fell asleep. “No, just let me have her, just give me a minute,” she cried helplessly, overcome with love for the tiny creation she held.
“It’s been an hour,” the nurse whispered. “It will only take a moment.” With elongated and ungloved fingers which were dry from excessive washing, the nurse pried the child from Hellen’s grasp, and as gently as could be seen, the nurse carried the girl away from her mother. “What are you going to name her?” the nurse asked as she placed the baby within the curved bassinette.
Laying her head back against the pillow, Hellen heaved through the thick air. “Emilie…” she murmured, barely audible. Her eyes locked upon the nurse as from a canister she retrieved a small red film, similar to a litmus paper in purpose. Hidden from Hellen’s view, she tested the child for a Shadow.
The woman paused to wait for the reaction of the child’s blood smeared on the paper. She didn’t move for several long seconds, causing Hellen to worry.
The nurse turned, and Hellen saw the thin red film had turned black where the blood touched it. “No!” Hellen screamed, reeling up in bed, “No! Please no!” She couldn’t get up. She couldn’t rush to seize her child. She could only lay there alone in the hospital bed to scream. “No! I’m begging you, please don’t take her away from me!”
Despite her heartbroken tears, the nurse’s eyes darkened and wordlessly, she wrapped up the baby girl, and carried her away. Hellen’s eyes lingered on the sight, scarring her more deeply than murder as she cried out, shrieking for them to let her hold Emilie a little longer.
SOME KIND OF MEANING
October 25, 2030
A red strand of hair fell between Mark’s eyes as he sat hunched over a keyboard, his fingers flying across the keys, ignoring the pain in his back from the awkward position, adrenaline fueling every decision he made.
One by one, the party members came online, each name and icon appearing as new voices joined within his headset. With anticipation high, the dungeon opened, and after waiting a solid thirty minutes, the raid had begun.
Mashing the keys, Mark’s simple character, decked to the teeth in armor, followed along the path closely behind his friend, who sat beside him at a separate laptop.
Gary sank back into the huge leather office seat in the basement of his home, far more relaxed than Mark, who was rearing to go as he charged into the dungeon. Without desire for the loot or the rewards, Mark was in it for the adrenaline surge he got from listening to the twenty other voices screaming over his headset as they got slaughtered.
Mark’s only consciousness pertaining to the real world was of his annoying bangs that kept falling into his face, especially the obnoxious red one which migrated from the sea of ebony to right between his eyes. It always fell, no matter how many times he pushed it away, and the red patch wasn’t dyed either. Those strands of crimson hair that tumbled before his gaze were completely natural.
“Follow me to the left flank!” Mark fired into the microphone on his headset, getting more hyped as he led a stealthy trio around the army of ghouls, abandoning his party.
Gary stood among the trio, joining Mark in the enraged crusade up a path overlooking the largest opening out of the dungeon. Hundreds of monsters spawned, waiting just around the corner to smite the main party.
They hadn’t been seen yet, and there was a thin path around the ancient cathedral which was lined with chests of loot and gold, endless rewards for the one who got there first, but one could only be so stealthy with so many ghouls just ten virtual feet beneath them.
“The bridge is out above the exit. Do you see that?” Gary pointed out, his nimbler archer inching his way closer to the ledge, crouching and casting a spell to hide himself.
Mark nodded to his friend, thinking over their next move. His brawny character could last far longer against the horde of ghouls than any archer could, but a single arrow could equally stir up the beasts if Gary fired into them.
Gaming was all Mark thought about day and night, and with his best friend nearby who shared this passion, Mark’s addiction flourished. This level of gaming wasn’t exactly accepted within his own home. His mother thought he got a little too into it.
Gary addressed the third member of their trio, forming a plan and deciding it would be best to help the others deal with the ghouls in the first catacomb then deal with this ambush later.
However, Mark tuned out. Gary saw it in Mark’s dark brown eyes as he rationalized the situation, weighing his options, and jumping the gun. Greedily, Mark’s character dashed forward, opening one of the chests along the path to snag some gold before flinging his character into the fray.
“Mark!” Gary shouted as he saw the gray armored character disappear into the sea of monsters. Digital blood flying, Gary slapped his face as Mark screamed, elated, quite effectively holding his own even though he was surrounded on all sides.
“You idiot!” Gary laughed, firing arrows into the beasts below. He took out as many as he could, but carelessness rapidly depleted his arrows and he was forced to draw his sword and jump in.
“I got this!” Mark assured, starting to aggressively slam the keys harder to the extent he was becoming oblivious to how his A key was sticking. He was taking damage. His character veered left because his keyboard was breaking, and there was no way Gary could get to him in time to give him cover.
Utterly surrounded, Mark’s heart raced, struggling to deflect oncoming blows and hold on to what little energy his character could regain.
The health gauge fell into the red. Gary threw his hands up and growled at the computer screen. “I died!” he spat. “This wouldn’t have happened if you weren’t so greedy. You had to go rile them up. Now there’s nothing stopping them from annihilating the rest of—”
“Shut up!” Mark screeched so loud, he was sure Gary’s parents would be slightly concerned about the noise. “Come on!” he yelled, mashing one key over and over. Nothing was working. Only a few more hits and he’d be gone.
The ghouls pushed him farther back to the passageway where the rest of the raiding party battled. “No!” Mark shrieked, and as the final blow struck him down, a party member charged in to be met immediately by the riled-up monsters. “No!” he screamed again, realizing he’d thoroughly ruined their chances of catching these beasts by surprise.
In horror, his dead character watched the rest of the party get slaughtered. Gary’s character revived from the back, too far from the fighting to be able to do anything, and Mark stared at his own revival timer in fury. His fingers useless at the keys, his hands formed into fists, growing tighter and smoldering.
Shouting a curse, Mark slammed his fists on the keyboard harder than he thought he ever could in real life. The screen shut down abruptly, and Mark felt his heart and gut implode as his psyche grasped what he’d done.
Abandoning the game, Gary shrieked and burst up to his feet. “Whoa! Fire!” he cried out as Mark jumped away from the seat.
“No, no! Not my laptop!” he screamed, not sure what he was seeing because, indeed, his keyboard was on fire, destroying the computer entirely. Before he could think further, Gary threw a towel over the flaming laptop and Mark hurriedly patted it down with his hands to try to suffocate the flames. “Oh no, oh no! No!” He fretted, his voice finally coming down before the towel also caught on fire.
Smoke welled at the ceiling of the basement, and Gary coughed. However, Mark’s only concern was for the expensive gaming computer he’d do anything to save. Losing his mind with worry, Mark ripped the towel off the computer, also knocking it to the floor, and he stamped the fire out of the towel. When he was sure the fire was out and the towel was ruined, he turned back to the fried computer in despair.
Kneeling, Mark froze, astonished. “I know I said the fan was acting up… but I didn’t think it was this much!” Turning over the laptop, Mark observed the charred surface and sighed. “Maybe the hard drive isn’t too damaged. I’ve got all my school on there and everything…”
“Mark, did you not just see that?” Gary screamed, standing back from Mark and staring, disturbed. Mark gazed at his friend, brows drawn. “Your hands…” Gary trembled, “before you touched the towel—they were on fire!”
“What?” Mark gasped, not truly believing this, sure Gary was exaggerating, but as he stared at his fingers, he saw the smoke rising. Clenching his hands into fists then rubbing them against his clothes, Mark pushed down the desire to look at his laptop. “Everything is ruined…” he murmured, drawing the laptop off the tile floor and picking up what shattered pieces had fallen away.
“That’s what you’re worried about?” Gary snapped, stumbling behind Mark and grabbing his backpack from a pile on the floor. Their basement hovel was the only place in the little house to set up the two clunky gaming laptops, and the spot near the window was the only area in the basement that got good internet.
Mark’s mind slipped away, lost in worry. It wasn’t that he was at all materialistic, but his laptop had been expensive, and it meant a lot to him. It was one of the few things his father had given him that was genuine, a huge gesture, and a step forward.
Now the laptop was just another reminder that any kindness from his father was fleeting. Shoving what was left of his laptop into his backpack, he threw the pack onto his back, wincing a bit as the school books inside hit him hard.
“What? Are you just gonna leave?” his friend said, ignoring the game he had stepped away from even though his character had gotten killed again.
Heaving a sigh, Mark hesitated, still staring into his palm, expecting the smoke to rise once more. Fear chewed at his heart. The sight of the red flames upon his laptop left him conflicted. He wasn’t sure what he should be more scared about: his father’s reaction to the destroyed laptop he’d only had since last Christmas, or the fact he might have caused the device to spontaneously combust. “You know the Addisons, right?” he murmured, sinking into his chair before the charred table.
Gary shrugged. “Name rings a bell.”
“They’re family friends. The girls babysit my sister a lot,” Mark said, “and… they sometimes tell the story about their brother who would have been my age if they hadn’t found out he was a Shadow.”
“Shadows?” Gary lost all ability to be serious. “So, what are you? Some Shadow?”
Smirking, Mark adopted an air of sarcasm he got from his mother. “Oh yes, I must be some kind of Shadow creeping into your life to destroy everything you hold dear!” Hoisting his backpack up again, Mark grimaced at the weight of the dead laptop on his back.
“I’m not joking!” Gary hollered, grasping onto Mark’s arm as he stormed toward the stairs. “Where you going, hothead? You don’t have to listen to me, but if you’re a Shadow, you better hide it! Most of the time Shadows are taken away at birth. Who knows what they might do if they find you.”
Mark deadpanned, torn away from the stairs, “They?” he grimaced. “You’ve been watching conspiracy videos again, haven’t you?”
“Come on! You’ve seen the news, Shadows are freaking dangerous! None of them know how to control their powers, and on top of it, they’ve got access to another dimension where they can communicate telepathically!” Gary’s enthusiasm worried Mark, his friend released his arm, but the intensity of his voice prevented him from budging from the bottom stair.
“Dude… you need to get off the dark side of the internet!” Mark spat coldly, his feet stamping up the hollow wooden stairs as he turned his back.
“Says the guy who has to fight his sister for game controllers!” Gary called up, following him.
Mark waved at Gary’s mom, saying nothing when she asked him why he was leaving so soon.
She called out to catch the boys. “If he’s leaving, Gareth, you have dishes to do before dinner.”
Gary protested Mark’s every step, half acknowledging his mom. Mark shook him off and at the door he forced a smile. “I guess we’ll have to try that raid again someday… maybe when I can afford a new computer.” He frowned. “It’s not like my dad will buy me another.”
Gary shrugged it off. “There’s always the console games you got. Maybe you can dig up your old games and we can brush up on some of the classics? If you can kick June off, that is.”
“I’ll get her off,” Mark said, waving as he jumped down the two stairs from the porch and tripped through the grass to the sidewalk. Gary was a few houses down from Mark’s home, and the brisk walk stung his face in the frigid October air.
In Mark’s eyes, the only upside to autumn was his birthday, otherwise, he hated the cold that came with it. He walked as fast as he could, not quite running, but hurrying home to get out of the cold, gray weather.
When his house was in sight, he hurried a little faster toward the small, one-story home with a garage to the side of the front door, four small bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a window that didn’t latch in June’s room which was easy to sneak in and out of. This was only possible if Mark didn’t wake June in the process of sneaking out.
“Mom, I’m home!” he called in a taut but quivering voice as he stepped through the door. He took off his coat as soon as he came in, savoring the warmth of home.
As he hung up his coat, he heard his mother, Marissa, in the kitchen. “You’re back early,” she said as Mark came into the kitchen and made his way to the refrigerator. “Stop! I’m making dinner!” With a grumble and a sigh, he closed the refrigerator begrudgingly.
“My computer… crashed,” he lied, thinking over his words as he sat at the kitchen table. Restless, and a bit hungry, Mark rolled around his father’s tea jars on the table. “How come Shadows are taken away at birth?” he asked which caused his mother’s shoulders to arch.
Glancing at him from the stove, she forced a smile. “Please tell me you and Gary didn’t spend that whole two hours looking up conspiracy videos. You know your father hates them.”
“I was just asking…” he grumbled, hating everything about how his father oversaw the family, when he even did that. “But… I did some research…” he admitted, then defended himself. “On my own. Did you know when Shadows turn invisible, they enter another world and all you can see of them is their shadow on the ground? That’s where they got their name. They call the invisibility thing the Shadow Realm and not a lot is known about it.”
He watched his mom move from the stove to the freezer and get out frozen vegetables. “Actually, I did know that. Why the sudden interest? Something come up in your video game?”
Gulping a little, Mark shook his head. “Well… I was thinking, you know how you’re always getting on me for being hotheaded?” He winced at the word.
Giving a small laugh, Marissa nodded. “All your life, but not as much as I fight to keep your head out of the clouds. It’s impossible to make you focus on one thing.”
Mark opened one of the jars of tea and smelled it. Reeling away, he never could understand why his mother kept it. She never drank it—only his father drank tea, and even then, it was strong a black tea he scoured international stores for. “Today… I think… well… I think I might be a Shadow… I…”
Setting down a pan for the vegetables, Marissa paused and stared hard at him for a long few seconds. “You know that’s impossible. They tested you the day you were born.” Turning her face away, her shoulders arched, nervously fidgeting with the vegetables. She added, “It was negative. I promise you.”
“It’s not that,” Mark replied a little too hastily. “It’s just… I may have gotten a little too worked up during the raid… I kind of, set my laptop on fire.”
Marissa didn’t move, staring at him with her drawn eyebrows, then glancing at the lumpy backpack he still wore containing the charred laptop. She studied his face, making him overthink his choice of words. Her all-knowing blue eyes dashed across him, and a whirlwind of speculation turned in his stomach. “Listen, I don’t want you getting too deep into this, your aunt was never the same after she gave birth to a Shadow. It changed her. Shadows, even young ones who can’t control their abilities, are incredibly dangerous.”
Suddenly, Ode to Joy started playing from his mom’s pocket as her cell phone rang. He jumped at the sound.
She answered, and Mark let himself drift off again. He had not believed Gary, but to be honest, he was not sure. What if he could create fire?
Sitting very still, Mark stared at his hands while his mother talked on the phone and was distracted in her cooking. He had an image and he focused on it. The flickering tongues of crimson fire expanded in his mind as if he were dreaming.
He couldn’t block the image until he tried to open his eyes again. Around him, he could see nothing but darkness and the wavering objects of smoke which were on the table before him, the kitchen counters, and even his mother walking about.
He saw her ghostly form turn towards him and the burning phone fell to the floor. Blinking several times, Mark brought his mind back into reality and saw his mother staring at him with a horrified look on her face.
“What’s wrong,” Mark said now more scared than ever. He watched his mother’s trembling hands dial a number and hit send. She turned away, worrying him more, but he heard her frantic voice and that same nervousness returned to his heart.
If this was some sort of emergency, he wondered why the conversation only lasted a minute and barely held any content as to his predicament.
“We’ll be expecting you, thank you,” she said as she hung up and then turned back to Mark. “You just, please… stay right here.” Her request seemed frantic with anxiety though she had not explained anything to him.
Mark did not stay put for long. Instead he wandered over to his younger sister, June, who sat on the floor in the living room playing. “Hey there, what are you doing?” he asked, kneeling with her.
“I was waiting for you to get home,” June answered, giving an exasperated sigh which was comical for a six-year-old. “Can we play CoursesGo now?”
June preferred racing games over the violent strategy games Mark was addicted to, in fact, for her age, she was particularly obsessed with them and played as often as she could get her hands on a controller. However, she still required Mark’s help setting up the system to play.
Mark groaned a bit. “I was going to get online with Gary…”
“Aww…” she whined, “but you’ll be on for hours. Please, just one short game.”
With her convincing argument, he mocked her previous sigh and did so. Setting up a race for the two of them, they started in third and fourth place out of twelve cars, and as he expected, June soon took the lead and was almost over-lapping him.
A loud, quick knock on the door almost made Mark jump and their mom hurried past them through the living room. As Mark whipped his head around, he wrecked his virtual car, losing to his sister. His interest was completely lost.
They were here.
Setting down the oddly shaped controller, which June seemed to treasure like a doll, Mark stood. A short man leading the group of five entered the house and stared directly at him before acknowledging his mother.
The man stuck out his hand to his mother, shaking hers gently. “Thank you for calling us. Have you had any issues?”
Mark realized his mother was trembling even as she shook her head. “He only turned invisible, and he said he had set… his computer on fire.”
The man’s steady eyes accepted this, emotionless, professional, relaxed.
“My sister had a Shadow, do you think it’s possible it runs in the family?” Marissa fretted.
With an apathetic shake of the head, the man denied, “The Shadow is not hereditary.” His entire posture made Mark nervous. Despite being rather short, the man was robust with thick arms and a militaristic demeanor. The man looked him over, assessing as much as he could before finally, he offered a false smile and a personable manner.
“It’s good to meet you. Why don’t we sit down and figure this out?” The man’s offer was the fakest thing Mark had ever heard. This was a threat. Only silence was given to him as he complied, and the man signaled someone to rush to Mark’s side with a small kit in hand.
“We’re going to test you for a Shadow again,” the man warned. “It’s just a finger prick, you’ll be fine.”
Mark bit his lip as the kit opened. Inside was a stack of square cotton pads, a quarter-thick cylinder, and a thick pen. Before Mark could comprehend what each item was, the complete stranger took his hand, pressed the tip of the pen to his finger, and snapped a button on the side. A tiny lance shot into his finger, startling him, but the person did not react, merely drawing out a small daub of blood and holding his hand steady. They retrieved a thin red film from the cylinder and placed it over the drop of blood, collecting it onto the paper.
Setting the film into the kit, the man squeezed Mark’s finger tighter, then pressed a cotton pad onto it. He took the prompt to hold it there himself and wait for the bleeding to stop. By then the short man picked up the film and held it to the light. They waited, every second paralyzing Mark.
“Negative,” the man said finally.
Mark breathed a sigh of relief simultaneously with his mother.
Personably, the short man took a seat beside Mark, placing the film back into the kit as his assistant cleaned up. “Tell me, what did it feel like when you turned invisible, do you think you could remember?” he asked.
Trying to make sense of it all, Mark’s fingernails dug into his knees. “I don’t know, warm, and alone in the darkness. Is that what the Shadow Realm feels like?” He pinched the cotton between his thumb and his pants.
Anxiety spinning in his gut, he reflected on the feeling he had drowned himself in, rage and adrenaline fueling his heart and it happened again. He vanished. It was getting easier now. He stared at those around him, knowing they still knew he was there, but all he could focus on was the expression on his mother’s face.
Finding it now slightly easier to control, he released the feeling and returned to visibility. A little triumphant, he relaxed. Having even the small control felt good, but his mother stood with her hands over her mouth, horrified.
“How odd,” the man hummed, very surprised. “Has he shown any signs like this before?”
Marissa nervously shook her head and in a low voice, as if she didn’t want Mark to hear, she spoke to the man, “Not really,” she whispered, and Mark’s eyes widened, “but last February—he doesn’t remember it well—we found him on the floor with massive tachycardia. I thought I saw him turning invisible, but I couldn’t tell for sure…”
The man sighed. “As much as keeping his powers hidden was unsafe, waiting to confirm was wise…” he said, but Mark’s confusion only soared higher. Powers? Tachycardia? What?
The man sat next to him in a friendly manner then strictly looked him in the eyes. “Mark, listen to me.” Mark gulped. “From what you have displayed to us…” Mark noted the two men moving closer to him as the shorter man spoke. “You have proven that you are, in fact, a Shadow, and you will be coming with us.”
“What!?” Mark burst out, scarcely finding his voice. Many thoughts spiraled in his head, too many questions to be answered. But he wasn’t given a chance to ask and another strange feeling came to him.
At first, he thought it was like the feeling he had just experienced when he turned invisible, only this one almost hurt. In the second Mark realized what it was, his eyes widened in fear. One of the two men with the short man had revealed a small syringe and without warning injected the light blue serum into his shoulder.
In all his fear and confusion, he found a new sensation: he couldn’t move, couldn’t see, couldn’t speak, and couldn’t even force his own breathing. There was only blackness. His entire consciousness faded as he felt the second man taking hold of him securely but gently as he collapsed from where he sat on the edge of the couch.