Everything he knew was about to change.
“You’ve been a Shadow since you were born. You were always one of us, but it’s possible your Shadow is different than ours and it cannot be detected by that strange test.” The girl explained with an unbreakable smile, smoothing back her long brunette hair in an unerring grace. Mark took in her big oceanic-blue eyes. “Each Shadow has two abilities—”
“—I can…” Mark broke in, summoning some courage, “…turn invisible, and…” he stopped himself, again, hesitating to confirm what he thought. Clutching his fist, he felt the flames swelling and it hurt as it burned at his skin and clothing.
“We all can,” she said sweetly, “but it’s not simply turning invisible; it is entering into the Realm only we Shadows can see.” Mark’s heart lifted as he heard this, something about the Realm drew him in. “We each have our own unique ability, a deep understanding to the world, and also these.”
The girl turned her cheek to him, pulling aside her long hair to uncover her right ear and display that it curved to a soft point. Mark’s eyes dashed about the room at each of the Shadows around him, skittishly making out their pointed ears and ethereal faces. Hastily, he reached up, gracing his fingertips along the edge of his own ear. It was subtle, but it was unmistakable when compared to the Shadows around him.
How had he never noticed this? If it was such a telling sign of being a Shadow, why was it not more pronounced? And why had no one else in his life noticed until now, his mother, his father, or his friends?
He wanted to ask. He wanted to shriek out in protest. But he didn’t speak fast enough. The girl lit up, giving a warm smile to everyone. “I don’t mean to break this off, but I just don’t want to be rude to the others, and you don’t even know my name.”
Mark studied her as she jumped to offer him a hand. “Oceana the Shadow Marine. You can call me Ocie.”
One of the ginger girls pushed away from the group of Shadows crowding him—a motherly, kind girl with sapphire eyes and ever-present spunk. “Give him some space! My name’s Elise, Shadow Elastica, nice to meet you!” Her words flew together in one breath.
The four Shadows closest to him all seemed motherly, hovering closely as if he were a newborn child. Mark flustered to keep track. Ocie’s the brown haired one. Elise is bossy, and Kip…
Mark glared at the smaller boy. He was a little too close for comfort, and Kip had an unusually high-pitched voice for a guy.
That left the other red-haired girl, the one with emerald eyes. “And what’s your name?” Mark forced, gesturing to her.
She cackled with a chortling laugh. “Rita,” she stated. Opposed to Kip, she had a quite deep voice and some kind of accent. “I’m Shadow Teleport.” A green mist puffed around her form as she vanished from one side of Mark and appeared on the other. “I teleported over from Scotland a couple years ago, and they caught me pretty fast.”
Mark found Ocie’s eyes and gathered a bit of reassurance from them. However, while his eyes were distracted, Kip touched his shoulder, and his back straightened. Cautious, his hands clenched to quell the flames. Swallowing hard, he shuffled away from Kip’s hand.
“What is this place?”
Elise gave him a smile and a chance to take in the room. Every inch of the walls, ceilings, and floors shimmered in white marble, and except for a pair of skylights in the roof, the stone was more or less unbroken. The L-shape of the room created two sections, a common area where they stood now, and a bedroom stuffed with a cluster of various beds against the walls.
It was a bland and seemingly empty space, but the bed area was crammed with tiny bookcases and eclectic belongings tossed among the blankets. “This is the ASH,” Elise said. “Have you ever heard of this place?”
Pressing his lips together, Mark cringed on the edge of tears, his nose stung as he nodded. He bit his lip feeling the crackle of fire between his fingers snapping at his skin like a lit match. It stung, and he felt powerless to take his hands away from the flame. No amount of jumping or reeling back would allow him to get away.
Mark contained himself as they walked to the middle of the room, allowing the Shadows to surround him. Despite Elise telling them to give him space, they got closer, and his flames grew hotter.
“Just…” Mark hesitated, considering sticking his hands in his pockets but thinking better of it. “How many Shadows are there?” he asked with a stray glance at the crowded beds.
Elise shrugged, not an ounce of worry in her demeanor. “Fifteen of us in here, and I don’t know… two hundred in the rest of the ASH.”
“Two hundred!” Mark gaped. His cheeks burned with heat that felt like it was emanating from his eyes.
Ocie chuckled, an elegant hand curling near her mouth. “And so many more in the rest of the world. Haven’t you heard anything about Shadows?” she asked.
“Plenty,” Mark replied, his eyes glancing over each of the Shadows around him, “but they’re supposed to be dangerous and out of control. You guys can’t all be…”
Mark shivered, falling quiet and trembling. Suddenly cold, he reached to draw his jacket. The nervous feeling still lodged in his stomach, Mark paled coming face-to-face with the white-haired figure Silverstonarellena glaring down at him.
He looked powerful and calculating, his eyes cool and golden. His long white hair was wild and untamed with random, messy, knotted braids hidden among the silver tresses.
To Mark’s horror, Sil’s eyes flared in hatred, as he handed something to Mark.
Letting out a shriek, Mark looked at what Sil had shoved into his hand. Within his palm was a large snowflake with sharp spikes on every edge. Sil had done his best to jab it into his skin. Mark felt the fear in his mind screaming at him as he dropped the ice ball to the floor and gaped at the blood on his hand.
Elise hurried to him, but his eyes shot to hers, burning into her. “Don’t touch me!” Mark demanded, terror in his body as he hastily stepped away. All he could think about was getting as far from the Shadows as possible, but the white marble room enclosed him. There was no escape.
“I got it.” Kip assured with a look to Elise, darting towards Mark. “Look, your fire can’t hurt me. I can make fire too,” Kip said, a glow in his eyes as he held out his palm to show off a small, yet intensely bright star within his hand. “Can you let me help?” Kip’s eyes were gentle, but similar in color to Sil’s, only much brighter and warmer.
A golden ray of light cast from within Kip’s eyes reassured Mark, and the fire quelled gradually. Mark visualized himself pushing away Kip, but he did not. Even though he told himself over and over to do it, he didn’t move at all.
Giving up, Mark shrank to the floor, losing his senses, and dragging himself to the wall where he let his fear consume him. He was surrounded by real Shadows, boys and girls who he had been taught were dangerous, but these kids were just people. He felt lost.
Kip gently placed a hand on Mark’s shoulder, drawing him up and silently helping him as he took Mark out of the main room into a closed bathroom.
He felt dazed as Kip led him to the sink and forced Mark’s hand under running lukewarm water. The shallow wounds stung as soon as the water touched them, but the coolness quickly soothed the pain
“You should calm down. I’m not going to hurt you or anything.” He smiled, and Mark silently stared into the mirror.
His eyes sparked when he saw his reflection, a dim glow when he realized they were a deep ruby-like crimson. He tensed, and they flared brighter. Leaning closer to the mirror, he gazed at them long and hard. “My eyes changed color,” he gasped.
Kip let out a gentle laugh as Mark awed at their new crimson color. “What color were they before?”
“Brown,” Mark breathed. The intensity of his eyes paralyzed him. He wasn’t sure if he was truly scared of them, but he couldn’t stop staring.
“That’s normal.” Kip shrugged. “They’ll get even brighter when you use your Shadow.”
This did startle Mark. Unused to being a Shadow at all, it hadn’t dawned on him that the fire was something he could use.
Kip leaned on the counter. “So how old are you?”
Mark shuddered to see his own eyes flash before he stammered, “A-almost fifteen.” He let out a troubled breath as he felt another sharp sting in his palm.
Suddenly overjoyed, Kip almost jumped from his place while nearly singing the words, “I’m fourteen too!”
Mark pressed his lips together. They might have been the same age, but they couldn’t have been more different. Kip was a Shadow, and Mark… he didn’t know what he was.
Shadows had powers they couldn’t control; they were dangerous. Shadows were… complete monsters. These were kids, people, his age. It made no sense.
Taking his hand out from under the water, Mark used his left hand, which hadn’t been hurt, to brush his hair out of his face.
Kip brighten, his shining yellow eyes flashing as he noticed something. “You’ve got red strands in your hair too!” he said. The excitement in his voice confused Mark.
A pair of bright red clusters of hair situated in the middle of his hair line fell directly between Mark’s eyes. A hand still over his head, Mark saw another one appeared, hidden within the obsidian ocean.
“Oh… I’ve always had that,” he mumbled.
Kip’s face lit up, and Mark sighed. The strange discoloration made sense now.
Mark brushed the red strikes out of his face and over his head, but they stubbornly fell back into place. At the same time, Kip brushed several of his curly red locks behind his pointed ear.
Mark leaned against the counter with him, distressed. “So, will you tell me?” Mark asked, somewhat irritated.
Drawing his eyebrows together, Kip asked, “Tell you what?”
Almost smugly, Mark smiled. Eyeing the boy with the crimson glow in his eyes, he grinned. “I saw that look. You’re comparing yourself to me. Tell me, how do you find us similar?”
Sighing, Kip looked down at the floor. “I can’t say,” he whispered.
Frustrated, Mark pushed himself off the wall. “Why not?” He raised his voice just enough to startle Kip. An anger he’d never felt took control and combined with his fear and need for answers. New to feeling the flames forming in his hands and burning in his fingers and eyes, he tried to stop himself.
Kip kept silent as if contemplating. “I’m sorry,” he whispered finally, “we’re just told not to come to any conclusions before your Shadow name is decided.”
“Why?” Mark demanded.
Kip’s eyes drifted across the tile. “Your Shadow name is who you are. I just don’t want to give you the wrong impression.” Awkwardly, he brushed his hair behind his ear again. “I promise. I’ll tell you as soon as Keller decides.”
Mark fell pale and drew back. Who was he? Questions spiraled about in his mind, and fear overcame his senses. Why did he have to be here? Why couldn’t he just stay home? It wasn’t like he was a bad person, or he was even capable of hurting someone. Why did the world have to be afraid of him? He wasn’t like these Shadows, not by any stretch of the imagination.
“Come on,” Kip offered, gently nudging Mark’s shoulder, “let’s try again. We’re not all that scary. I promise.” Meekly, he didn’t portray a lot of confidence, but Mark accepted enough to follow Kip out.
Standing in the doorway, he saw all the Shadows, again, staring at him, waiting for him, curious about him, but unmoving. He couldn’t look them in their eyes but let his gaze wander toward the skylight and the warm sunshine beaming inside.
He heard a gentle laugh, sweet and mischievous, but uncomfortably close to him. He wanted to contain himself, but he whirled about, nearly screaming as the figure of a girl sprung over his head and clung to the wall directly behind him as if gravity had no effect on her.
She pounced on him like a spider and grasped ahold of his shoulders firmly in a handstand on top of him as if she were hanging there.
From where she was, suspended aloft, she smiled widely as she reset her hands on his shoulders. “Ah,” she practically sang, then glancing at the others, she grinned like she had vampire teeth or something, “this one’s scared!”
Looking into his face, the girl’s eyes were lightning green, and she laughed as Mark let out a cry in fear. Placing a feminine hand on his cheek from her place still above him, she whispered in a comforting voice, “Don’t be afraid…” Mark’s eyes widened by the lies in her tone. “You are in the Shadow of the wing!”
As soon as she finished, she pounced off him and vanished in midair. Mark stumbled to the floor. “Who was that?” he said under his breath.
Ocie knelt next to Mark, grimacing. “Emilie Meyvise,” she hissed with a sour tone.
Just as suddenly as Emilie had struck, Mark’s eyes widened as he repeated, “Emilie Meyvise?” A worse fear overcame him.
More than arriving in a strange place, more than being immediately resented, more than being surrounded by strange powers, more than being unfamiliar with everything going on, his fear this time was familiar.
“I know that name,” he whispered with his eyes pinned open. “I know that name,” he repeated. Remembering Emilie’s eyes and her expression as she spoke to him, he grimaced. “And I know that face.”
The name shot through him like a bullet and the words “Hellen Meyvise,” escaped his mouth. Standing too quickly and somehow knowing Emilie was still close by, he shouted, “Hey! Are you related to Hellen Meyvise?”
Appearing only inches from his face, Emilie grinned evilly. “As a matter of fact,” she affirmed as she twirled in the air, her dark brown hair in a wave about her as if it were underwater.
Piecing things together, Mark brushed the red strike out of his face again. “My aunt’s name is Hellen Meyvise…”
Emilie smiled and placed her feet on the floor from floating effortlessly. Suddenly, she let out a brisk laugh, and threw her hair over her shoulder with sharp eyes. “Are you saying we are related?” she asked with a broad, wild smile on her face. Gulping, Mark nodded, adopting a pensive expression to try to seem surer. Emilie moved closer to him airlessly, threatening, before raising an arm.
Mark flinched but his eyes went wide as he felt the arm he expected to strike at him gently wrapped around his shoulder in what seemed to be embrace. Bringing her lips close to his ear, Emilie whispered, “Whether we are cousins or not, you may call me Feather.” Leaning away from him with a much kinder smile now, Emilie gleamed toothily, then whispered, “Ut mei Pluma Umbra,” and again vanished in a wild spiral.
As soon as she was gone, Mark spotted something that made the color drain from his face. The elevator doorway, from which he had appeared, was opening again and the figure inside promptly declared in a raised voice, “Mark Halo.”
Ocie placed a hand on Mark’s shoulder and gestured him to go forward. To Mark’s best assumption, if Ocie suggested it, it was a good idea. However, realizing he had only known her for a few minutes, it confused him to see his feet driving him forward. Then it occurred that since this had been the way he came in, this would also be the way he got out. It was over now. The nightmare was ending.
After stepping in, the elevator door lurched closed behind him. His eyes grew tender, and he relaxed, his whole body loosening. However, as he looked out at the Shadows through the closing doors, he noticed their confidence as well as the mixture of unease. He could hear the mutters.
“He’ll be back.”
Mark felt the fear vanishing. He kept an empty expression on his face, and he felt comfortable knowing the man who stood next to him was completely normal unlike the freaky Shadows inside that room.
Recognizing this was the second time he had felt it, the fear of the elevator rippled through him. His heartbeat rose with the flames in his hands as the whole box shuddered. The floor was cold, and though the lights were firm, it seemed completely dark and overcoming.
“You go by Mark, correct?” the man standing next to him confirmed as soon as the door opened before them. Mark somehow nodded, and the man smiled as Mark noted how short he was. Letting out a distressed breath, Mark realized this guy had been the same man at his home.
Coming out of the elevator, the two of them stepped into an endless hallway. Turning to meet Mark’s crimson eyes and not showing the least bit of fear, the man finally extended a thick burly hand to shake. “My name’s Ian Keller. I’m sure they’ve already mentioned me down there, once or twice.” Keller raised a brow as if to inquire, and Mark tensed, forcing a mostly nonexistent nod. “Now…” he breathed, his voice sounding almost excited, “show me what you can do.”
Maybe Mark was wrong. Maybe this was not how he was getting out. Maybe this was his initiation. Maybe this moment would determine if he was staying. Maybe it all depended on how he used his power before Keller that decided when he was going to leave. With too many options available, Mark’s eyes once again flared to the bright crimson against his will.
Frantically, he referred to the feeling that caused him to vanish, and once he did, a feeling of relief came over him, comforted and held by the Realm.
It was becoming easier to handle and control with practice. Hesitantly, he flickered back into visibility like a flame. He met eyes with Keller, trying to express he had done all he could do. Keller eyed Mark as if he were a little disappointed. “You do know all Shadows can do that, right?”
Mark’s face burned with a mixture of embarrassment and ignorance before he murmured, having been told this by the Shadows, “Yes, sir.” Like a bullet, a thought shot through him and he used the adrenaline he assumed had caused all this to summon flames in his left hand. They burned harshly on his skin. He couldn’t take the heat for long and he shakily let it off, unable to sustain it any longer.
“Fire…” Keller whispered gently, then placed a hand over Mark’s. “When you create it, you’re sustaining it so securely that it will burn anything, even you. From now on when you create it, keep it in your mind that you don’t want to burn yourself.” Listening intently, Mark felt as if Keller’s instructions were critique-like and meant to help him become better at controlling it.
Keller eyed him keenly. “Would you like to know where you are?” he asked.
Keller smiled a bit smugly. “You’re in Culpeper, Virginia, where the Library of Congress used to be. Do you know where I’m talking about?”
This time, Mark shook his head.
Keller invited Mark to walk down the hallway with him. “The facility is known as the ASH on the inside while on the outside it is the Library. The goal of this facility is to bring the Shadows together, to forward their powers, and prevent them from misusing their powers in the public,” he explained. “I and a few others started this facility twenty years ago. The entire building is surrounded by a machine I designed called the ASI which makes all Shadow activity invisible from the outside, like the Realm. And it keeps all the Shadows inside until the time is right and they know how to use their powers properly.”
Mark felt calm speaking to Keller, and his words nearly passed over him meaninglessly. Mark also felt that while this normal person was touching him, his flames held back as if they didn’t want to burn Keller. It was like gratitude was forming inside him as Keller took something out of his pocket.
Keller folded Mark’s fingers over the object almost in the same way Sil had shoved the ice ball into his hand, but far more gently. “Lunch is at noon, dinner is at six, from one to four you’ll be free to go outside with the others, and the ASOs will be there if you ever need anything or lose something beyond the barrier. You’ll make a fine part of the ASH, Mark.”
Like a wooden beam had been sent through his torso, Mark felt as if he couldn’t breathe. “Wait!” he spat like a nasty taste hit his tongue. Keller turned back to him as Mark stood like an awkward broomstick scared upright. “What did I do wrong? Why do I have to stay?”
Keller frowned. “Because you are a Shadow, and nothing more,” he stated flatly then gestured Mark into the elevator. Mark stumbled back, the soles of his feet feeling weak. Every step was like falling over marbles. So, when he slammed into the far wall, it was as if he had been thrown in violently.
As the doors closed, Mark leaned against the wall, ignoring the startling shake of the elevator as it moved either up or down, the direction of which he was unsure. Hours before, he had awoken and was dressed in these clothes by people he didn’t know and thrown into this room. Now, here he was again, lost in despair as he felt so utterly helpless against the Shadows consuming him.
Fighting the tears forming in his crimson eyes, Mark sank to the floor as he had the first time. They’re going to eat me alive in here. There was so much fear in his mind, he could barely move. His thoughts flashed with the many faces of the Shadows in that room, Sil’s especially. If he didn’t figure out how things worked, that guy was going to kill him.
I can’t be afraid, he thought, there can’t be any more fear. The elevator jerked a bit as it came to a stop. Glancing down at the object Keller had placed into his hand, he saw it was a thin sheet of metal reading:
MARK HALO #016
“No more fear,” Mark whispered as the door opened.