DEAD MAN WALKING
OVER A THOUSAND FEET of nothingness separated Charlie Blake and concrete. A sense of calmness radiated through him as he listened to the call of the city. Had it been any other occasion, he would have tuned the noise out. Not today. He needed the reminder for why he was standing on the rooftop of one of the tallest, most iconic buildings in the world. One thing was certain: it wasn’t for the view.
On days like these, Charlie often found himself yearning for instantaneous premonitions to forewarn him when his plans were flawed – or, in this case, utterly ludicrous. Admittedly, it wasn’t his wisest idea but rather a spur of the moment decision. After weeks of failed attempts and frustration, it had finally come down to this. There was no other choice. He had to do it.
Tilting his head back, he stared up at the specs of stars scattered across the dark sky, and then he closed his eyes, inhaling the clean, fresh air. He outstretched his arms to the sides and inched forward, feeling the tips of his trainers hanging off the ledge. Within seconds, he tipped forward and plunged over the edge.
The surrounding noise vanished almost immediately. The cool air struck him hard against his chest as it clung to him, a welcoming embrace. The moment he caught whiff of a stale, pungent odour, he opened his eyes.
Although there were street lights and illumination from the surrounding structures below him, the darkness gained prominence the farther he fell. He was at the midway point, his speed increasing the closer he got to the ground, his breath trapped in his throat.
Charlie closed his eyes. You just had to pick me, didn’t you? he thought. A warm sensation coursed through him, and his body started to tingle. For a moment, he felt as if he was floating, his breathing returning to normal –
The noise was suddenly back, the air no longer clinging to him. He was standing on a hard surface. Opening his eyes, he saw a metal barrier. He was back on the observation deck.
Charlie groaned and hung his head. ‘I had it under control,’ he said.
‘How so?’ said a familiar voice.
Charlie glanced to his right at Candra, who had her hands clasped in front of her, her expression stern. As always, she was trending her signature black cloak. He shifted so that he was facing her. ‘I had enough time. It might have worked had you stuck to the plan –’
Candra interjected, ‘You were seconds away from making contact – with death.’
‘I almost had it this time.’
‘Perhaps I should have informed you prior to this moment that I am not particularly experienced at scribing obituaries.’
Charlie frowned. ‘Do you have to be so melodramatic?’
‘Melodramatic? Need I reiterate the objective of our being here?’
‘Yes, please, because, clearly, it’s not enough that you have to remind me every single day.’ A low, dull sound pounded inside Charlie’s ears. Feeling a stabbing pain in his right temple, he squeezed his eyes shut and turned away from Candra. He walked over to the metal barrier and observed the city of lights, inhaling deeply to ease the pain.
‘You ought to utilise your time more effectively.’
Charlie spun around. ‘What?’
‘I asked if you were feeling well,’ Candra responded.
Charlie nodded. ‘Yeah, just a little vertigo. Need to catch my breath for a second.’ He knew it hadn’t been Candra who had spoken. For one, it had been a male voice – his voice. It just hadn’t been his thought. You’re still alive then. You had me worried for a second. You think maybe just once you could try surfacing without giving me a headache?
‘You are going about this incorrectly,’ said Sol.
Well, since you’re less than eager to share, you’ve left me no choice, so pipe down –
‘Charlie,’ Candra interrupted him. He registered concern in her voice. He saw caution in her eyes. ‘Is there something you would like to discuss with me?’
‘Do you think there’s something we need to talk about?’
Candra averted her eyes from him. It appeared as though she was calculating her next move.
The seconds ticked away, as did Charlie’s patience. ‘What is it?’ he demanded.
Candra looked back at him. Her eyes bored into him, so much so it seemed as if she was looking right through him. He suddenly felt alone.
‘You’re freaking me out here,’ he said, crossing his arms over his chest. ‘You’re not giving me the silent treatment, are you, because that would be … well, predictable?’
‘I should never have agreed to this. Evidently, you have misinterpreted your dream. It is time for us to leave.’ Candra moved towards Charlie but stopped when he drew back.
‘I didn’t misinterpret anything. I was falling, and then the world vanished. I don’t know how the dream ends, but what I do know is that I’m an angel of death, and considering the kind of visions I have, I’d say the odds aren’t in my favour.’
‘You said yourself you know not how the dream ends.’
‘That was me being optimistic.’
‘And what do you call this task in which you are attempting?’
‘I call it trying not to fail my covenant. You think maybe you can help me do that instead of knocking me back every time? That’s why you’re here, isn’t it, to help me?’
‘Indeed, my duty is to assist you in your endeavours and keep you from harm, so you can imagine my surprise when you came to me with this request. For your own safety, I must insist that you put an end to this notion. You are not one with all the elements. You cannot teleport.’
‘I’ve done it before –’
‘You fool only yourself,’ Sol cut in.
Charlie rolled his eyes. ‘Shut up!’
‘I beg your pardon?’ Candra said in a surprised tone.
Oh great, Charlie thought. You see what you’ve done. ‘It’s just an expression. The same as if someone were to say “get out of town”.’ The look that came over Candra’s face was indescribable. There was no doubt she knew what he was implying. ‘Can we just do this thing?’
‘Not until you tell me the truth.’
‘The truth about what?’
‘What it is we are doing here.’
Finally, she gets it, Charlie thought. ‘You’re teaching me to teleport.’
‘You have yet to adhere to a single instruction I have offered. You are not here to teleport. So I ask again, what are we doing here?’
Charlie bit his bottom lip and dropped his arms. He grazed his fingers over his low-cut hair and then placed his hands inside his jeans pockets.
‘Do you not trust me?’ Candra asked after a moment’s silence.
Charlie narrowed his eyes, pondering her words. ‘Is that a trick question?’
‘I haven’t the time for sarcasm.’
‘It’s not working,’ Charlie exclaimed. Seeing the anticipation on Candra’s face, he added, ‘Fear doesn’t trigger my abilities – at least, not as much as it used to.’
‘And this concerns you why?’
‘Why?’ Charlie pulled his hands out of his pockets and started pacing slowly. ‘We’re being attacked by demons left, right and centre. Not to mention all the chaos happening in the Mortal Empire, and to top it off, Azrael won’t let me anywhere near the talisman – not that it even matters because I still have three elements to conquer before I can restore it.’
‘One’s strength stems not from external sources but from within –’
‘Please, enough with the doctrine,’ Charlie pleaded. He felt a vibration against his right thigh but ignored it. ‘If I can figure out this teleportation thing, maybe it will be easier for me to receive my mark. I’ve done it before, and I know I can do it again. I just need your help.’
‘You know that is not how it works.’
Charlie stopped pacing and faced her. ‘Yes, I know, but we have sixteen months to restore the talisman before the Annus Magnus wipes everything from existence. I have to try something. In case you’ve forgotten, I’m only one with the earth element, and that was the easy one.’
‘Nothing you have accomplished has been easy.’
‘Oh, come off it. We all know I conquered the earth element because Sol’s on board.’
‘This journey was never going to be simple.’
‘Was it ever meant to be possible?’ Charlie tensed at the sound of defeat in his voice. He snapped his fingers as though a thought had just occurred to him. ‘We need to go higher. I need enough velocity to get a real momentum going.’
‘I will not assist you.’
Charlie groaned. ‘Okay, fine. We can forget about teleporting, but I still need to figure out what this dream means, which I can’t do because there’s too much going on right now. I can’t focus.’ He gulped, his pulse racing. ‘Maybe the reason I haven’t received my calling is because there are too many distractions.’
Candra held her hand out to him. ‘It is time for us to leave.’
‘Didn’t you hear what I just said?’
‘Yes, which is why I insist we return to the watchtower –’
‘Don’t you mean home?’
‘Call it what you wish. We are leaving.’
Charlie didn’t take Candra’s hand. He didn’t want to return to the watchtower. He knew what awaited him there: nothing but his thoughts – and a thousand watchful eyes, forever wondering when or if the true Ruler will emerge to save them all.
The vibration against his thigh returned, and again, he ignored it. He walked back over to the barrier and leaned his back against the wall.
Candra approached him. She stopped about an arm’s length in front of him. ‘Why are we here, Charlie?’ she asked, a tender look on her face. ‘I am well aware of your capabilities. You have nothing to prove to me or anyone else.’
Charlie clenched his jaw. ‘What happened to “practice more and try harder and do better and not get killed”?’ He stood up straight. ‘You don’t think I can stop the Annus Magnus, do you?’ When Candra didn’t respond, he said, ‘You think I’m going to fail.’
‘I said no such thing.’
‘No, but you’re thinking it. You’re all thinking it. Maybe Sol did choose the wrong person.’
‘You are creating assumptions that need not exist.’
‘So you think he chose wisely, do you?’
‘I know you are the only person capable of fulfilling this task.’
‘If you really believe that, why are we still here?’
‘You are the one refusing to return to the watchtower.’
‘No, I don’t mean here in New York. We planned to leave on prom night. That was over a month ago, and we’re still here. What are you waiting for?’
Candra opened her mouth, as if to respond, but nothing came out. She hesitated a little too long for Charlie’s comfort. Despite her composure, her eyes revealed a different reaction, one he wasn’t certain he had witnessed before. In that instant, he no longer felt confident about his approach.
‘You were right,’ he said. ‘I should have listened to you the first time you talked about us leaving. I wasn’t thinking straight then, but I get it now. There are too many distractions. I see that now.’
‘We cannot leave.’
‘Why not?’ Charlie barked. He dropped his head and exhaled hard. ‘I’m sorry.’ He raised his head and looked at Candra, who still appeared perfectly composed. She was staring at him as if he was someone she barely recognised. ‘We’ve worked so hard to get to this point. I just don’t want anything getting in the way of our covenant. You said it yourself … We have one chance to get this right. If I can’t stay focused, then we’re all as good as dead.’
‘I vowed that I would never let anything stand in the way of you fulfilling your covenant.’
‘Well, I think you need a new strategy because nothing is going the way it’s supposed to. We need to leave.’
‘Gaddis knows who you are,’ Candra reminded him. ‘If we leave now, Derkein and the others will be at risk, which means you will be at risk. Your heart is here. Your mind is here. We need you at your strongest. Leaving is not an option.’
Charlie knew she was right. He knew it now and he had known it the moment Gaddis had trapped him inside Street Town Hall on the night of his prom. Nothing had been the same since that day. But Gaddis wasn’t his only problem, and because of that reason, he couldn’t stick around. He couldn’t let his family watch him slowly deteriorate.
‘Okay, let’s say, for the sake of not arguing, I buy that excuse. Since everything’s been about stepping up our security, why have you stopped training me?’
It took Candra a moment to react. When she spoke, her voice sounded winded. ‘There is nothing more I can teach you.’ She relaxed her stance. Anxiety riddled her scarred face, her emerald-green eyes bright with recognition.
‘Really? Nothing? So you’re saying this is me at my best. You can’t be serious.’
A hint of a smile played at the corners of Candra’s mouth. ‘You completed your training the moment you decided to accept your fate.’
‘And to think, all I had to do was kill an innocent man.’ Sarcasm tainted Charlie’s voice.
‘You did what had to be done. David Jones was merely an obstacle. There will be more along your path. There is no such thing as choice, Charlie. There is a single road one must travel to get to their destination. It may not have occurred to you but you have already decided how you will journey that road. I have never nor will I ever doubt your ability to fulfil your covenant. You have surpassed my expectations. Your best has been and gone. You have only greatness awaiting you.’
Candra’s words rendered Charlie speechless. It was not the response he had expected. He felt a throbbing pain in his arms and glanced down. Seeing his hands balled into fists, he relaxed his fingers and let out the breath he had been holding. He looked back at Candra, who was now standing beside him. He kept his eyes trained on her face as her gaze wandered across New York City.
‘For future reference, you needn’t jump off a building to get my attention,’ Candra said after a short pause. She turned her head in his direction, and their eyes met.
‘Considering this is the longest we’ve talked in a while, I think I do. Trying to have a conversation with you hasn’t exactly been easy these past few weeks, since you’ve done everything possible to avoid me.’
Candra’s lack of immediate response was proof she had been steering clear of him. He didn’t know what hurt more: her negligence of his health or her rejection of the truth about Sol.
‘You have my full attention,’ said Candra.
Charlie’s throat suddenly felt dry. It took him a moment to pluck up the courage to address the issue that had been the cause of great distress for many weeks. ‘He wasn’t an Archon.’ He felt breathless after the words left his mouth. He should have felt relieved that they were finally acknowledging the truth, but the level of despair he had acquired over the past few weeks was going to need an equal amount of hope to shift it.
Charlie turned to face the barrier and rested his hands on the wall. It had been over a month since the town hall massacre. That same night, he had discovered the daunting truth about Sol, and since then, all that had plagued his mind was one question: ‘Why would someone pretend to be an Archon?’
He couldn’t wrap his mind around it. He had come up with many potential motives, none of which appeared satisfactory to the ever-domineering ego lurking within the core of his diminishing soul. Archons were demons. It wasn’t something one would aspire to become, yet Sol had made certain everyone believed him to be just that. ‘Archons can’t regenerate. Why wouldn’t he want to return to his role as Chief Ruler of Arcadia?’
‘I haven’t the answers you seek,’ Candra informed him.
‘Yeah, so you keep telling me, but aren’t you just a little curious? I mean, I get that he made a deal with Azrael so he could steal my soul, but why disguise himself as an Archon? He had to have done it so he wouldn’t regenerate, right?’ Charlie shot a sideways glance at Candra, who was donning her poker face.
‘I do not wish to waste time with hypothesis.’
‘I don’t get how you can push this aside as if it doesn’t matter.’ Charlie inched away from the wall and turned to her. ‘Who knows what else Sol used the talisman for.’
‘What makes you think there is more to unravel?’
‘Well, for one, questions seem to be constantly popping up and we don’t have any concrete answers for any of them. I may not know Sol as well as you do, but even I know none of this is a coincidence. There’s something he doesn’t want us to know, and I need your help to figure out what it is.’
‘Perhaps you are right.’
Charlie raised his eyebrows. ‘Did you just say I’m right?’
Only a few inches separated them when Candra turned to face him. ‘There is really only one person capable of providing us with the correct answers.’ Candra gazed into Charlie’s eyes with such intensity he had to fight the urge to look away. ‘What are you concealing from us?’
Charlie had to glance behind him twice to make sure it was only him and Candra on the observation deck. ‘What are you doing …?’ His voice trailed off when he realised what was happening. ‘Oh, I get it,’ he said, nodding in acknowledgement. ‘I’m Sol, so I must have the answers. I’m trying to be serious here and you’re mocking me. Nice. Thank you.’ He inched away from the wall.
There was no way Charlie was ever going to get through to the Legion if they continued to believe he was Sol. Losing their king thousands of years ago was still fresh in their minds, especially where Candra was concerned, for, according to her, there had been no time between her death and her return as Guardian of the earth kingdom. Maybe sixteen years just wasn’t enough time for her to face the truth.
The faint call of sirens brought Charlie’s stupor to an end. ‘You know, Sol isn’t the only enigma here. I’m not what I’m supposed to be, and neither are you. What does that say about us?’
‘Not all puzzles can be solved,’ Candra said.
Charlie turned around. ‘In other words, I should ignore it,’ he said, his voice laced with discontent. ‘I should be like you and pretend that nothing has changed – pretend that Sol didn’t trick everyone. That he didn’t stage that battle scene to make it seem as though you had all died.’
A slight hint of an expression, be it annoyance or unease, was starting to appear on Candra’s face.
‘Archons don’t return from the dead. You don’t remember anything about Tartarus – gee, I wonder why that is? Could it be that maybe you weren’t in Tartarus? For all we know, you could have been trapped somewhere in the earth realm just like Gaddis was. I know you’ve thought about it, and as much as you want to disregard everything that’s happened, you have to agree that fact trumps logic. If Sol wasn’t an Archon, then it’s possible –’
‘The Legion can entrap me with the protection symbol because I am an Archon,’ Candra cut in with conviction. ‘The uncertainty regarding Sol’s true identity may be in question, but I am what I am and I have come to accept that. I am an Archon.’
‘That’s what we all believed about Sol, and look how that turned out.’
‘I hate to be the bearer of bad news, Charlie, but, were I not a true Archon, any incantations cast upon me would have terminated upon the destruction of the talisman.’
‘Unless the talisman happened to act like a wishing well,’ Charlie said. ‘The thing about wishing wells is that the only way to undo a wish is by making another wish, and if something were to happen to the wishing well, say for instance, it broke, well … I guess you’re trapped.’
Candra regarded him with a mixture of curiosity and intrigue.
‘I’ve seen the things you can do,’ Charlie went on. ‘You’re no ordinary Archon. I knew it the moment I saw you enter the Temple of El.’
‘I suspect I can enter sacred establishments because I am your protector.’
‘So you can enter any premises as long as I’m present, that’s what you’re saying, right?’
‘That is correct.’ Although Candra retained a balanced composure, the rigidity in her stance, particularly her squared shoulders, suggested otherwise.
‘Why didn’t you come and get me when I was trapped in the air watchtower?’
‘I cannot enter Gaddis’s domain uninvited.’
‘You can cross sacred ground marked by a source greater than the Legion but not one marked by Archons.’ Charlie let the seconds drag on. ‘Do you see my confusion?’
‘The feeling is mutual, I assure you,’ Candra said. ‘You claim to believe I am an Archon, so why continue to seek answers, especially when it is clear we may never unearth the truth?’
‘Because this isn’t just about the talisman anymore. There’s something bigger going on here, and if we don’t figure it out, we might just lose this war. You told me once that this was the last straw – the end of human civilisation as we know it. If we fail, it’s over. You’re right. We may never find out the truth, but I’d rather try and fail than fail for not trying.’
Candra didn’t respond, and from the faraway look in her eyes, Charlie deduced she wasn’t going to, or wasn’t sure how to. But he knew an understanding had passed between them. She stared at him as if for the first or last time. He felt a sudden jolt of pride and desire.
‘I’m not trying to deny what’s staring me in the face,’ he said in a calm voice. ‘I know you’re an Archon. What I’m trying to figure out is if you’re an Archon because you broke your covenant or because of something else … someone else. There were three people who disappeared on the battlefield that day, but only one came back different. I think only one person died in that battle. It wasn’t you, and it certainly wasn’t Gaddis. Archons can entrap me with the protection symbol because the Chief Ruler is now detectable. Sol is a pure Aeon. He reverted to his true form the day he died. When I became one with the earth element, I practically reactivated him. What I want to know is why an Aeon, the Chief Ruler of Arcadia, would choose his enemy to be the protector of the very thing that upholds the fate of existence. Didn’t he try to kill you once?’
‘Are you questioning my allegiance?’
‘No,’ Charlie said truthfully. ‘I’m questioning your significance to him. He could have chosen anyone – someone from the Legion – so why you?’ He recalled the intense confrontation he had witnessed between Sol and Candra when he’d touched the talisman earlier in the year. That was the second time he had heard the call of the talisman. It was also the first time he had realised the emotional bond between the Chief Ruler and the Guardian, a bond Ash had insisted angels did not possess. ‘I know how much he cares about you. I also know how you feel about him.’
‘I know not what it is you are implying –’
‘I think you do.’
Candra’s eyes glistened, her brow furrowed. She turned to face the barrier. ‘Your phone has rung five times in the past three minutes. Answer it.’
Charlie rolled his eyes and sighed. Even with the phone silenced, she could still sense it ringing. He slipped his hand inside his pocket and pulled out his vibrating phone. Glancing at the screen, he saw an image of Derkein. He dropped his arm by his side. ‘It’s not important.’ He looked up just as Candra turned around. ‘It’s okay to admit you felt something –’ The words had barely left his mouth when he felt the phone slip out of his hand. Before he even had time to react, Candra was holding it to her ear.
‘Derkein,’ Candra said into the phone.
‘Gimme the phone.’ Charlie tried to snatch it out of her grasp, but she spun around and stepped back from the wall.
‘Charlie is otherwise engaged,’ Candra was saying. She held her hand up, an indication for Charlie to stand back – a request he complied with. ‘Perhaps you could shed some light as to why he is ignoring your calls.’
Charlie’s stomach sank. ‘I’m not,’ he yelled in hopes Derkein would hear him. ‘Don’t listen to her.’ He stepped forward. Candra stepped back, giving him a warning eye. ‘Give me the phone,’ he pleaded.
‘I have noticed that, yes,’ Candra said, continuing her conversation with Derkein.
‘Noticed what? What is he saying?’
Candra dropped her arm and raised an eyebrow. ‘Is that so?’ The second her gaze shifted, Charlie lunged at her. He stumbled to a halt as she vanished into thin air. He looked left and right and then spun around. She was standing on the ledge on the other side of the barrier, staring at him.
‘Okay, now you’re being childish.’
‘Yes, he has,’ Candra was saying to Derkein.
Charlie held his arms out in surrender. ‘You made your point. I can’t teleport. You win.’ He waved her forward. ‘We can go now.’
‘I must confess, his behaviour does have me concerned.’
Charlie shook his head at her. ‘Hang up the phone.’
‘Not quite. Our training has taken a different course of action, which he failed to inform me about until shortly after we arrived.’ Candra paused for a second and then said, ‘Oh, no, no … We are at the Empire State Building.’
Charlie clenched his eyes shut just as Derkein’s voice exploded from the other end of the phone. Goodbye freedom. He opened his eyes and saw Candra holding the phone away from her.
‘He is rather vocal, don’t you think?’ she teased Charlie. She lowered her voice. ‘Should I mention your teleportation method now or later?’
Out of the corner of his eye, Charlie saw his right hand rise. He looked at his hand just as his wrist jerked. His eyes widened, and he looked towards Candra. He caught sight of her cloak and her feet as she disappeared over the edge. ‘No,’ he cried out, dashing towards the wall. He glanced below, trying to catch a glimpse of his Guardian, but he couldn’t see anything but darkness. He looked at his hand. ‘That did not just happen.’
‘Oh, but I do believe it did.’
Charlie jumped and spun around. Candra was standing in front of him. Oh boy. The look on her face made it clear that he should have run a few seconds ago. ‘Accident,’ he said, holding his hands up as he stepped away from the wall. ‘That was an accident.’
Candra held the phone up to her ear. ‘Charlie and I have a personal matter to discuss.’ A green energy ball materialised in her other hand. ‘We will see you shortly.’ She dropped the hand with the phone, her eyes never leaving his.
‘Candra,’ Charlie said in a calm voice, ‘I didn’t attack you.’ She didn’t look convinced. ‘I’m almost certain I didn’t attack you.’ The energy ball in her hand was growing larger by the second. She mimicked his movement as they slowly circled each other. ‘Let’s be civil about this. It wasn’t even me.’ Before he could stop himself, he blurted out, ‘It was Sol.’
Candra stopped, her head tilted to the side.
‘No, seriously, it was Sol.’ Candra wasn’t buying it. Charlie stopped walking. ‘What am I doing? I’m mortal. You can’t hurt me with that thing.’
‘I do not wish to harm you, Charlie.’ Those were the very words Candra had uttered the first time they met, right before she had knocked him unconscious. ‘I merely intend to aid you in your bid to teleport.’
Charlie didn’t like the serenity in her voice. ‘How would stunning me help me teleport?’
‘You wished for a greater challenge. What better way to motivate the body’ – Candra raised her hand, the energy ball the size of a watermelon – ‘than when it is inactive?’ She released the energy ball.
Charlie’s eyes widened. Oh, come on!
Charlie heard muffled sounds around him. His eyelids felt heavy as he forced them open. A dark and blurry scene greeted him. It took seconds for his vision to clear, and when it did, he found himself staring at a high vaulted stone ceiling. He had a second of solitude before he heard a familiar gruff voice say, ‘You were on top of me for two seconds.’
‘I think you’ll find that was three seconds,’ Oren proclaimed. ‘Be honest. I gave it to you good, and you can’t handle it because I bruised your manhood.’
‘Sweetheart, you couldn’t bruise my manhood even if you tried. I was trying to go easy on you, you having no protection and all, but since I know you can handle it, how about we do it again?’
Charlie remained still, uncertain whether or not to move in fear of what he might witness.
‘If you think you can go another round, fine,’ Oren agreed.
‘All right, then. To be fair, because we’re clearly working on different timescales, let’s make it a threesome –’
‘Please stop,’ Charlie begged. ‘I haven’t seen anything, so just stop with whatever it is you’re doing, and we never have to talk about this again.’ The sound of dull footsteps reached him before Demetrius appeared over him, a smug grin on his chiselled face as his bright blue eyes glistened in the dimly lit surroundings. Charlie was relieved to see him fully clothed in a sleeveless white vest top and loose-fitting black trousers.
‘At last, Sleeping Beauty awakes,’ the Lightworker said.
‘If you two start swapping saliva, I’m going to throw up,’ Charlie whispered.
Demetrius leaned over him. ‘I don’t think there will be any chance of that happening in this lifetime.’ He glanced behind him. Charlie followed his gaze, and his eyes fixed on Oren, who was walking over to them. She was wearing a similar outfit to Demetrius’s, sporting black leggings instead of trousers, her silver pixie hairdo looking ruffled and messier than usual.
‘Oh, you guys were talking about training,’ Charlie said.
‘What did you think we were discussing?’ Oren asked.
‘I was thinking about a whole different kind of exercise’ – Charlie exchanged a brief look with Demetrius, who wagged his eyebrows, a look that was both pleading and threatening – ‘Nothing specific came to mind really. So what’s going on here?’
‘Well, I’ve been trying to figure out what you could have done to upset Candra,’ Demetrius said, ‘then I realised the list would probably be too long, so I gave up.’ He patted Charlie hard on the back as he helped him to sit up.
‘Why would you think I did anything – wait, Candra’s upset with me?’ Charlie glanced around the rectangular room. He was lying on one of the four beds in the confined space. Although it was his first time being inside the room, he had toured the building enough times over the past few weeks to know exactly where he was. He often wondered why the room even existed, considering the fatality rate was far greater than the injury rate among Arcadians. ‘Why am I in the infirmary?’
‘Candra knocked you out,’ said Demetrius.
Charlie stared at him in shock. ‘Why would she …?’ He paused, scrutinising Demetrius. ‘Is that true or are you just saying that for your own twisted satisfaction?’
‘I won’t deny my moment of glee when I found out, but it’s the truth. She knocked you out cold. It came from the horse’s mouth herself – no pun intended.’
‘Demetrius, you know very well she did not intend to knock him unconscious,’ Oren said as she advanced on them. Charlie swung his legs off the bed. Oren halted in the space between his parted legs and brought her hand up to his face, placing it on his forehead. ‘Your temperature has dropped. How do you feel?’
Charlie could feel Demetrius’s eyes on him but refused to look at him. Oren inched closer to Charlie, making the situation even more compromising. ‘I feel great – good – as good as I can feel without being content. What was the question again?’
Oren stared at him with concern. ‘What’s the last thing you remember?’
Charlie thought long and hard as Oren moved her hand along his face. He remembered being on the rooftop of the Empire State Building and having a minor disagreement with Candra. ‘She balled me.’ Seeing Demetrius and Oren eyeing each other in what he construed to be confusion, he explained, ‘We had an energy ball fight.’
‘She told us you passed out after she struck you.’
Charlie shook his head. ‘Energy balls don’t have that kind of effect on me. The most they do is immobilise me for a few seconds.’
‘Well, it appears things have changed,’ Demetrius announced. ‘Let’s just hope that whatever this is it’s part of your transformation and not an indication of ill health. The last time you were sick, mortality rate spiked.’
‘You know, you talked a lot less when you had more hair,’ Charlie said.
‘You like?’ Demetrius ran his hand over his shaved head. ‘You’re my inspiration. I figured if you could pull it off with the size of your head, anyone could.’ He lowered his gaze, and his expression hardened. Charlie looked down and saw Oren’s hand on his leg. He looked back at Demetrius to see the Lightworker staring off to the side. ‘You should probably go talk to Derkein.’
‘Yes, he is not pleased that you lied to him,’ Oren said.
Charlie slid off the bed and stepped around her. ‘I didn’t lie.’ Demetrius and Oren both raised their eyebrows at him. ‘I was training with Candra.’
‘Is that what you call throwing her off the Empire State Building?’ Demetrius asked.
‘It wasn’t like that.’
‘So you didn’t throw her off the building.’
‘Technically, I did, but it wasn’t intentional. I don’t think. The important thing is that she was unharmed. Besides, she got her own back.’
‘Charlie, this is very worrying,’ Oren said.
Charlie waved off her concern. ‘It could have been worse. This is probably a temporary thing, like with the Black Death symptoms. They came and went quickly, albeit I did go a little crazy, but it worked out all right in the end. My symptoms went away, and we stopped the virus.’
‘In exchange for a world of immortal beings,’ said Demetrius.
‘How many times do I have to tell you I didn’t know that was going to happen? It’s not like I planned this. Besides, not everyone’s immortal.’
Demetrius gasped. ‘Oh no. I think he’s suffering from amnesia.’
‘Why do you say that?’ Oren asked, alarmed.
‘He thinks the selection process applies to everyone.’ Demetrius looked at Charlie when he spoke. ‘He’s forgotten that all elementals are immortal, every last one of them.’
‘Charlie?’ said Oren.
‘I’m fine,’ Charlie replied. ‘He’s being an idiot. Ignore him.’
A flash of confusion crossed Oren’s face.
‘I get it, all right,’ Charlie said to Demetrius. ‘It’s bad.’
‘No, Charlie, it was bad when we were dealing with a deadly virus,’ Demetrius stated. ‘When demons start rising from the dead, that’s when you know you’ve crossed the line.’
‘Look, this will all be over as soon as I get the talisman back.’
‘Azrael is never going to let that happen.’
‘You let me worry about him. For now, we need to make sure he doesn’t find out about this new problem of mine. I’m sure he’d spend every minute of the day firing energy balls at me just to see me pass out.’
‘You were out cold for an hour,’ Demetrius told Charlie.
‘An hour?’ Charlie shook his head, purging the worrying thoughts threatening to invade his mind. ‘It’s a temporary thing. Nothing to worry about.’
‘Why were you in New York?’ Oren asked.
Charlie sighed. ‘Honestly, I should just record myself. I’m going to say this one last time. I was training with Candra.’
‘Yes, in New Zealand,’ Oren said.
‘No, in New York,’ Charlie corrected.
‘But you told Derkein you would be in New Zealand.’
‘No, I didn’t.’ Observing the silent communication that passed between his two companions, Charlie said, ‘Did I?’
‘If you’re going to lie, it might be a good idea to remember the details,’ Demetrius said, nudging Charlie’s arm as he walked past him. ‘Might come in handy.’
‘New York, New Zealand,’ Charlie said, turning in the direction Demetrius had headed. ‘It’s an honest mistake.’ He started to go after Demetrius when he felt a tug on his shoulder, and his body jolted to a stop. He shot a sideways glance at Oren, who grabbed his arm and turned him around to face her. She bunched the top of his vest in her fists and pulled him closer to her.
‘We’re family, Charlie,’ she said, rage written all over her face. ‘Tell me why you were really in New York. Do not lie to me.’
‘You know they’re going to grill you once you get out there.’
Charlie flinched and glanced over his shoulder at Demetrius. He suddenly felt entrapped.
‘If something is bothering you, you can tell us,’ Oren pleaded. Charlie shifted his gaze. Oren’s eyes were wet with tears. He took hold of her hands, detached them from his vest, and lowered them by her sides.
‘Breathe,’ he instructed, grasping her gently by the shoulders. ‘Everything’s going to be okay.’ He felt Oren’s shoulders slump. ‘I’m fine. I promise. I said the wrong location by mistake. That’s all it was.’ He gave her a reassuring smile, which she returned. ‘I should go talk to Derkein.’
‘Yes, you should, but don’t for a second think this conversation is over.’ Oren walked off while Charlie and Demetrius lingered behind.
‘What happened to you having my back?’ Charlie whispered to the Lightworker.
‘I got a little distracted,’ Demetrius said.
Charlie glanced in Oren’s direction and saw her marching towards the door. He looked back at Demetrius. ‘I can see that.’
‘Hey, you’re the one who told me to get close to her.’
‘Yes, on your own time. And FYI, when I said get to know her better, I meant take her out, somewhere she can relax. I didn’t mean beat her up.’
‘It’s cathartic,’ Demetrius said in a defensive tone.
‘She has less than three years to become one with her element before her two hundred and fiftieth birthday. The last thing she wants to do is take a timeout. Combative training relieves stress.’
‘I can tell. She’s just radiating with tranquillity.’
‘It was working before you showed up unconscious. What’s with all this training business anyway? I thought you and Candra were just going to talk.’
‘Yeah, that was the plan, but in order to get her alone, I had to come up with something convincing. I was getting through to her before Derkein called. So again, thanks for making sure we weren’t interrupted –’
‘Are you two coming?’ Oren said. Charlie saw her standing in the doorway. ‘Move it.’
The boys took off.
‘On a scale of one to ten, how angry is he?’ Charlie asked, referring to Derkein.
‘I hope you have life insurance,’ Demetrius replied.
As they emerged into a bright, narrow corridor, Charlie stopped.
The others stopped and turned to him.
‘Why aren’t you moving?’ Oren asked. ‘Are you injured?’
‘No.’ Charlie pointed behind him. ‘I need to pop by my room quickly, so you two go on ahead. I’ll see you in a bit.’ He didn’t wait for a response. He turned around and headed off in the opposite direction.
‘Taking the long route, huh,’ Demetrius called after him.
‘Bite me,’ Charlie said.
‘Dead man walking. Dead man –’ Demetrius’s voice faltered.
‘You’re not helping,’ Charlie heard Oren snap.
‘I was joking,’ Demetrius said.
As Charlie drifted farther down the long passage, he soon found the stillness of the watchtower creeping up on him. Were it not for the echoes of his footsteps, he might have allowed his thoughts to consume him. He descended a flight of stairs at the end of the passage and came to a large chamber with four upward staircases leading off it and a transparent octagon-shaped glass base in the centre – a lift to the lower floors that he had used on numerous occasions.
He headed for the stairs to his left that led him up to another passage. Charlie glided along the passage, taking care to make as little noise as possible so not to alert anyone of his presence. A stir of noise greeted him as he reached a turn in the passage. Braced against the wall, he peeked around the corner and saw that the coast was clear.
Charlie eyed the metal door to his bedroom, which was about ten feet from where he was standing. He made his move, sticking close to the wall as he tiptoed across the floor. As he neared his bedroom, he paused. He couldn’t see the door handle from where he was standing. His covert affairs forgotten, he eased away from the wall and scrutinised his partly open door. Slowly, he proceeded towards his room, opening the door wider.
George Odessa was crouching on the floor on the opposite side of the room, holding the black box with metal embellishments Charlie’s mother had bought him as a tenth birthday gift. The box containing his mother’s letters. The box that should be under his bed.
‘What are you doing?’ Charlie asked.
George’s head snapped in his direction, a startled expression on his face, the kind of look one would have when caught red-handed. He stood up, the box he had almost dropped clutched to his chest. ‘Charlie,’ he said. ‘You’re awake.’
Charlie surveyed the room. It wouldn’t be hard to figure out if anything was out of place, considering he hadn’t done much to the room since he’d moved in. Most of his belongings were still at 25 Windermere Drive. Apart from the addition of George and the displacement of the box in the man’s hand, everything was how he had left it, barren and grey. He didn’t mind the room in its current state. He didn’t plan on changing it. This was temporary.
‘It’s good to see you up and about,’ George said, drawing Charlie’s attention back to him. He put the piece of paper he was holding back inside the box and closed the lid, walking over to the double-sized bed in the far corner.
Charlie let go of the door handle and stepped farther into the room, his gaze never leaving George. ‘Those letters are personal.’
‘I realise that, and I greatly apologise. I didn’t read them.’
‘I detect deception,’ the voice in Charlie’s head uttered.
A burning sensation started to expand inside his chest. ‘This is my room.’
‘I’m sorry. I know what this must look like, but it’s not what you think.’
‘I’m thinking a lot of things right now, so why don’t you tell me what this is.’
George knelt down next to the bed and placed the box beneath it. ‘I lost something dear to me,’ he said as he stood up. ‘I’ve searched this place from top to bottom, so I thought I’d search the rooms just to be sure.’
‘You think I stole something from you?’
‘No, of course not.’ George walked over to Charlie, who tried not to deduce his ever-wandering eyes as suspicious behaviour. The man had not been able to sit still since the moment Candra turned up with him at Windermere Drive on the night of prom. Charlie had to constantly remind himself that George had been held in captivity by demons for over a year. Such an ordeal was bound to breed side effects. George also happened to be Derkein’s father, so he felt obligated to reserve judgement.
‘In all honesty,’ George resumed, ‘I lost my father’s watch, and I would really prefer it if Derkein didn’t find out. He and my father were very close, and when my father passed away, he took it very hard. The watch is a family heirloom. I made a promise to Derkein that I would pass it on to him. I planned to have it engraved for his thirtieth birthday next year, but it appears I’ve misplaced it.’
‘That can happen when you live with aliens,’ Charlie joked. ‘Be thankful you didn’t lose your head.’
George smiled, but there was something behind the gesture that made Charlie feel uncomfortable. ‘Most of the time, I feel as if I’m the alien, out of touch with reality.’
‘Welcome to my world.’ Charlie walked around him, giving the room another brief examination before turning back to George. ‘What does it look like?’
‘Oh, right, it’s black with a gold rim,’ said George.
‘Well, I haven’t seen it, but if I do, I’ll let you know.’
George’s forehead creased, his expression twisting from discomfort to concern in a second. ‘Are you all right?’
George brought his hand up to his face and touched his nose. ‘You’re bleeding.’
Panicked, Charlie touched his upper lip and felt the warm liquid. He pulled his hand back and saw blood on his fingers.
‘Should I get someone –?’ George began.
‘No, it’s fine,’ Charlie cut in. ‘It’s nothing. It happens sometimes when I pass out. I’m good.’ He grabbed the hem of his vest and brought it up to his nose, holding it there. ‘No need to bother anyone. They’re used to it.’ He stared at George, waiting for him to leave the room. ‘Seriously, I’m fine.’
George didn’t budge.
Charlie was about to politely ask him to leave when he spotted someone walking past his room that made his blood run cold. Without a second thought, he dashed out of the room, halting in the passage a few seconds later, staring after the barefoot man in the bright blue shorts, who was heading away from him. Although the man had his back to him, Charlie would recognise him anywhere.
‘Dad?’ he muttered under his breath, his heart skipping a beat.
Joseph Blake shot a fleeting glance behind him, waving Charlie forward as he made his way along the corridor. In a dazed state, Charlie followed his dad. Before he knew it, he was standing in a different passage, staring at his dad, who was standing in front of a closed door.
Joseph looked at him. There was something in the way his dad was staring at him that made him nervous. He knew the look all too well. It took Charlie a few seconds to realise he was standing in water. He glanced down at his feet, spinning in a circle as he observed the running water that extended along the entire length of the passage. When he turned back around, his dad was gone.
He hurried along the passage, splashing through the ankle-deep water, and stopped at the door his dad had been standing in front of only moments ago. Water was pouring out from under the door. He grabbed hold of the handle and pushed the door open.
A wave of cool, fresh air hit him.
Charlie sucked in a shocked breath at the sight before him. He was staring at an endless body of water, the blinding sun high in the clear blue sky.
Feeling pressure around his legs, he looked down and saw that the water was now up to his knees. He looked left and right and saw a deserted shoreline behind him.
Charlie looked back at the ocean. While the watchtower held many rooms, he couldn’t recall ever stumbling upon a gateway that led to a beach. ‘This can’t be good,’ he muttered.
‘Be not afraid, my child,’ said a familiar voice behind him.
The moment he felt a hand on his shoulder, arms wrapping around his torso, every muscle in his body tautened.