“Dustin, come look at this,” Eliza said, practically dragging him to the television. “This is so weird. It’s on all the local news channels.”
It took Dustin a moment to make out what he was supposed to be seeing. Then the cameraman zoomed out. It was a cloud, but not like any cloud he had ever seen. A massive column of soft gray fog, reaching hundreds of feet into the sky, encircled by white tendrils of vapor, blanketing the area in a thick, humid haze that painted the gray with a rainbow. The whole mass stood spiraling gently, like a languid hurricane that had decided to take a sunday stroll instead of going on the warpath.
“The air is remarkably still,” said a reporter’s voice. The camera cut to a view of her standing in front of the gray wall. Her hair and makeup did not seem to be faring well in the humidity. “We have spoken with local meteorologists, who have reached no conclusion about the origins of this unusual weather system. The fog is incredibly thick, and the area has been blocked off for safety reasons ever since the cloud appeared an hour ago. Those within the cloud are advised to stay put until this weather passes.”
“That’s MacAdam Street,” Dustin said suddenly. He walked over to the window and threw open the curtains. Only a few miles away, the pillar of mist swirled serenely, towering over the trees. As soon as Dustin saw it, a thrill ran up his spine. There was something there, he was sure of it.
He closed his eyes, a practice that was quickly becoming habit. He focused his thoughts on the area of the fog, and found… nothing. Scowling, he focused harder, but he could see nothing. He turned to ask Eliza to try it as well, but found her with eyes already closed, brow furrowed.
“Where is everything?” she asked, but her eyebrows shot up a second later. “Wait. There’s a little. Only a sketch. I can’t make out anything useful.”
Dustin didn’t question it. She was better at darksight than he was. “I think the fog is causing it,” she said. “It’s diffusing all the light and dampening the shadows.”
“There should still be something, shouldn’t there?” he asked. “We can even get shadows under clothing.”
“I think… there’s something about the fog itself. Can you feel it?”
Dustin had felt something as soon as he saw the cloud, but he focused again to try and get a better handle on it. There was something strange, something almost familiar, but alien nonetheless.
“We have to find out what’s going on,” he said.
Eliza agreed instantly, which surprised him still. Ever since they had agreed to start training, she had become more confident, and increasingly comfortable with her abilities. She was gaining a sort of shrewdness, too. There was a time where she would be surprised by a twist in a movie or something a coworker had done, but lately she seemed to have things figured out before they even happened. She still wouldn’t call her powers gifts, and she was never as reckless as he was, but the shadows had awoken something within her, a strength that she didn’t know she had.
He could feel it changing him too, though as far as he could tell, the changes were mostly physical. He had always kept himself fit, but lately he had moved from being a fitness enthusiast to an Olympian. His muscles felt as hard as rocks, but moved with a quicksilver grace. He hadn’t gained any bulk, so you couldn’t tell by looking at him, but it was there regardless. Eliza hadn’t progressed that far, but she was already stronger than a lot of athletes, and more agile than any of them.
Had it been night, they would have ran to their destination. They were learning rapidly how to climb, how to move unseen and surefooted. In their dreams, they received whispers from the ancients, and the shadow within them guided their every step, lending them grace and power. But it was daylight now, so they drove. Dustin drove with his eyes closed, and Eliza no longer protested. She had tried it out herself, and found it was actually safer than normal driving. You can only look one direction at a time, but darksense and darksight let you see all around and through at the same time. They had not encountered any more cops.
The cloud column wasn’t far, but they had to get out several blocks away due to all the other people who had come to get close view of the fog. The second Dustin opened the door, he could feel the change in the air. It was heavy and cool, rich with the scent of rain. Dustin inhaled deeply.
“Petrichor,” said Eliza. It was both her favorite word and her favorite smell.
“If it smells like this all the time, I hope it stays,” Dustin said. “It’s worth shutting down a few blocks.”
There was a strange sort of energy to the air, something bracing and alive, a quickening breath carried on the gentle wind. Dustin felt a thrill dance across his skin, raising goosebumps and leaving him with a dizzying, heady anticipation.
“This is not normal,” he said, staring upwards, where the pillar was ringed with rainbows. “Something is going on. Something important.”
Eliza too was staring into the mists, peering into the empty void at the base, where the world vanished. Suddenly, she started to step forward, moving as though in a dream.
“Eliza?” Dustin called.
“It’s in here,” said Eliza vacantly. “We have to go inside.”
Dustin followed, though he moved more cautiously. The atmosphere of this place was almost too strong, bewitching. He had no problem with skydiving or underwater caving, but something about this place gave him pause. He took Eliza’s hand in his own, and was gratified when she grasped it, and squeezed tightly. He wished she had looked at him though.
Nobody stopped them, or even seemed to notice they were entering. There were lots of people stepping into the mists, but none moved out of sight of their cars. Before long they had passed into the heart of the fog, and they were alone. Even though they knew there were buildings on either side of them, they could see nothing. The world was empty and still. So why did he feel so energized?
He was tired of not seeing. He wanted to know who or what was behind this. He closed his eyes, drew a deep breath, and summoned shadow. The world around him grew dark, a thick blackness like smoke. He pushed, expanding the cloud as far as he could. He had been practicing this skill for a while now, and could make the entire inside of his house pitch-black. He suspected he could fill a much larger area, but right now, he was hard-pressed to darken even fifty feet. There was a pressure pushing back, like the mists themselves were getting in the way. Eliza saw what he was doing, and joined her strength to his. The darkness billowed outward, engulfing several blocks. At last, they could see.
“Over there,” Eliza said. Dustin felt her pointing down the street. “The mist is thickest there.”
They walked hand in hand through their own personal midnight. Dustin realized that the strange restless energy he had been feeling was gone now. Instead he felt the familiar comfort of night, the serenity of shared secrets, the intimacy of hidden things. His nervousness vanished. In the dark, he was strong.
On swift and silent feet, they approached the heart of this quiet storm. In Eliza’s touch, he could feel her thoughts, her apprehension, her doubts. She could feel his. This, too, strengthened him. It was a closeness he had never known. And then a brilliant, terrible, fiery light ripped through the darkness and tore them apart.
Dustin gasped and Eliza screamed as the light burned away their cloak of darkness and drove them apart, breaking their handclasp as they stumbled away from each other. He felt suddenly naked, but when he looked down, all his clothes were intact, though singed. The sudden light had stripped away all his privacy, like a parent walking in on a make-out session and flicking on the lights.
This wasn’t an ordinary light, though. Regular light couldn’t pierce his thick shadow, not even fire. But this light had cut through it like a laser. Even the fog around them had vanished in the heat of the attack. He tried to see what had caused the attack, but it was hard. Even with his eyes closed, the brilliance of the light had half-blinded him, and his world flashed red with afterimage every time he blinked.
He stumbled over to Eliza, who had fallen, and was huddled in a miserable ball, weeping. He tried to get her to stand, but she would not budge. He grabbed her hand, hoping to share strength with her, but when he touched her, he nearly fainted from the shock.
Touching skin to skin while gifted with shadow was to touch soul to soul. The ancients had called it a shadowself, all of a person’s secrets, weaknesses, fears, and pain, wrapped up together. The more subtle aspects of a shadowself had to be sought carefully, like a pulse, but big secrets or great pain would leap out at you unbidden, like a punch to the gut.
He had felt a secret hit him before, with the fast-food robber, but he had never been struck like this before. The exposure to the light had shaken him, but it had shattered Eliza. She was broken. And that made Dustin madder than he had been in a long, long time. He rose to his feet. He could do nothing for her but give her time, but he could find the person who had done this to them.
He wasn’t hard to find. He stood about a block away, dressed in some sort of red tunic and covered in gold jewelry. He was Hispanic, clean-shaven, with his hair slicked back in a ponytail. Even from here, Dustin could see his eyes. They shone, as if reflecting the sun itself, even though the sky was still blotted out by the relentless gray. There was a glow around his person, a radiance. Dustin knew in his gut that this was the man responsible.
Growling, he called on his shadow again. This time, rather than spreading it out for coverage, he kept it close and dense, coating him like a second skin. He poured all his anger into it, until the shadow was roiling and smoking like dark flame. It was darker than the night would ever be, darker than ink, darker than pitch, darker than death. He felt strength surge through him, and he could feel every hair and pore on his body.
He charged, swift as oblivion. The man with the gold raised a hand, and a beam of light burst from it, but Dustin was too quick, somersaulting to one side without breaking his stride. The man then turned and unleashed a wave of white flame, but Dustin’s shadow was too thick, and the fire broke on his dark armor. He could feel it eating through, but he would reach his opponent before it dissipated.
He was only a few feet away when a sudden, violent wind erupted from nowhere, veering him off course. He tripped, and rolled, eventually coming to a stop some twenty feet away. Another figure emerged from the encroaching mists. He was tall, with dark skin, dressed in loose green robes and carrying a staff. He walked toward Dustin confidently.
“Please, we mean no harm,” he said. He spoke with a refined British accent, his voice deep and soothing. Morgan Freeman would be jealous of this voice. Out of the corner of his eye, Dustin noticed Eliza stirring in response to his voice. The mists were returning in force now, and Dustin felt more energized, his anger and hurt being soothed away. He was grateful, but his paranoia returned. He didn’t like being manipulated.
“My associate acted hastily,” the man in green continued. “You must forgive him. He has spent most of his life being taught to fear the children of shadow, and he wanted to be sure you would not take him by surprise.”
He knows what we are, Dustin realized. That didn’t make him trust them any further.
“What are you?” he asked. His own voice nearly took his breath away. It was quiet, like a spoken whisper, but carried through the air as clearly as if he had shouted. A susurrant sound, heavy with meaning, soft and silky and inviting as sin, tinged with menace and danger and excitement all. The three words of his question sounded more meaningful and impressive than the rest of his lifetime total put together. The voice of a shade.
“We are what you are,” said the man in green. Dustin realized the man’s voice was also likely being enhanced like his own. “And yet different entirely. We are forces of nature, long lost, and now resurrected. Light and fire,” he said, pointing to the man in red. “Night and shadow,” he said, pointing to Dustin, and then Eliza, who had sat up and was looking with rapt attention toward the man in green. “Rain and life,” he said, spreading his arms. “And one more, who has not yet returned.”
“What is going on?” Eliza asked. Her voice sounded weak, though that might have only been in comparison with their own. “Why are we returning?”
The man in green smiled gently. “December 21st, 2012.”
“What?” Eliza asked. “The end of the world? It’s already past,”
“No, not the end of the world. The beginning of a new age. We have been out of balance too long. It is time to make a new world. You two are a vital part of it.”
The man in red stepped forward. “We do not have much longer. I am Huracan, formerly of the the People of the Sun.”
Dustin and Eliza gasped. They knew the name from their nightmares, from when the darkness had been imprisoned. “I thought they had perished long ago,” Dustin said.
“No, they are only hidden, often in plain sight. Most men knew me as Joseph Hernandez, but I left that life behind when I turned against the People of the Sun.”
Dustin had a million questions, most of them angry, but the man in green interrupted them. “We do not have long,” he said. “We made this fog to draw you to us, but it has caught the attention of the People of the Sun as well, and we have only a few moments before they arrange some pretext to come searching for us.”
“You can’t leave now,” Eliza said. “You need to tell us more.”
“Soon enough,” said the man in green. “But not now. I can cloud the sun, but the day is theirs, and they will be upon us soon enough. A moonless night is best. Meet us at midnight by the statue in Frontier Park. Until then, stay out of sight. They are watching.” He suddenly tilted his head, as though hearing a faint sound, and then stepped back into the fog. “Run, and we shall speak later.”
“You can’t expect us to trust you like this!” Dustin called, but Huracan and the man in green had faded into the mists. Soon enough the mist itself began to fade away. Dustin ran to Eliza’s side. She still looked shaken, but she was no longer the wreck she had been. “We need to get out of here.”
“Quickly,” she agreed, and stumbled to her feet. Dustin took her hand again, sharing his shadow with her. She took it and spread it out, giving them a cloud rather than armor. “We don’t want anyone to see us.” Together they ran back toward their car. By the time the mist had vanished completely, they had abandoned their cloak and were mingling with the onlookers at the fringe of the crowd.
Dustin saw fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars rushing into the area, though they didn’t have their sirens on. “What’s going on?” he asked a bystander.
“Apparently someone reported an electrical fire,” the man shrugged. “I don’t know why that warranted all this commotion, but that’s the government for you.” We have only a few moments, echoed the voice of the man in green. They are watching.
Eliza felt his concern through his touch, and they hurried back to their car.
“Somehow, this is even bigger than we thought,” Eliza said as they pulled out. “I can’t believe this. A new age? We’re supposed to help save the world or something?”
Dustin shook his head darkly. “I don’t like this,” he said. “And I don’t trust them.”
“Well, I know we just met them, but I think we should give them a chance to explain things.”
“Eliza, I don’t know if we can trust anything they said in there. Did you notice that feeling in the air? I think they were manipulating you.”
“What, and you’re immune?” Eliza challenged. Dustin nodded. “I had the shadow on, or did you not notice my voice? I think the rain guy’s mist is like our shadow. He can affect people with it. And don’t tell me you liked Little Miss Sunshine.”
Eliza’s hands moved automatically as if to cover herself, and she squirmed. “No,” she admitted. “that was horrible.”
“Exactly. They attack us, refuse to answer our questions, and then vanish. For all we know, these guys they warned us about are the good guys!” That felt wrong the moment it left his mouth. “Or maybe they’re both against us,” he amended. “We can’t just let them tell us what to do or who is what.”
Eliza stared at the road for a few blocks, arms still crossed over her chest. “But what if they’re telling the truth?” she asked. “What if we’re meant to do something important with this gift? What if we are supposed to save the world?”
Dustin scowled. “I don’t know.”
“I agree we should be cautious, and I did feel that influence you mentioned, but I still think there’s something important here. I could feel it.”
Dustin pulled into their driveway and shut off the car. “All right,” he said at last. “We’ll give them a chance. But we’ll do it on our terms, not theirs.”
Dustin kissed her. “We’ve got a lot of practicing to do.”
Sanya Fang Song stepped off the helicopter, her long braid swaying in the downdraft despite the heavy gold ring at the end of it. Two rows of attendants lined the runway, standing at attention. They formed a corridor that led to the man she had come to see. He was handsome enough, she supposed, though much of that was glamor, and might as well have been clown makeup for all it fooled her. She smiled. Her host smiled in return, but she could tell she unnerved him by the twitch in his eye and the sweat on his brow.
She walked toward him, swaggering seductively, bare feet soundless on the red carpet they had laid out. As she walked, she drew on the guards she passed, calling on their blood. Two by two, they grew pale and fainted, collapsing like a row of dominoes. By the time she reached the end of the line, two dozen men lay passed out and moaning on the blacktop, and she could practically feel the power exuding from her skin. Her irises would be blood red, she knew, and she had gained nearly a foot in height. Her host looked about to wet himself, but despite his nervousness, he was no coward, and collected himself, drawing upon the sun for power. This was a private airfield, so nobody would see his display.
“Xipil,” Sanya said, showing pointed teeth. “The refreshments were lovely.” Her voice was the sound of slaughter, raw and reckless.
“Lady Huntress,” Xipil answered, speaking clearly. His voice was resonant and piercing. “I am pleased you have joined us. Our people have warred in the past, but I am pleased to form this alliance. Together, we shall crush these worms and seize another age for ourselves.”
“Blood and fire,” purred the Huntress. “My two favorite things.”
Xipil smiled in relief. He had probably assumed that she would try to kill him. Fool. She had plenty of time for that afterwards.
“Take today to get yourself and your crew comfortable,” Xipil said. “Tomorrow, the sun rises bloody.”