The Man Without a Face

"Good morning, Mr. Bennett!" The call turned the head of Nolan Harper, a well dressed young man, as he was just stepping out of his apartment. Nolan nodded in response to his elderly neighbor who, still in his robe and slippers, was retrieving his newspaper. The old man's wife hovered in the doorway behind him.

Brushing a lock of wavy black hair from his eyes, Nolan stooped to lock his door. "And to you, Mr. Banks, Mrs. Banks," his voice was cordial, but lacked warmth. In a clear attempt to avoid conversation he turned on his heel and strode down the hall.

Mrs. Banks clicked her tongue, "Not a very sociable young man, is he? It's been a month since he moved in and I still know nothing about him!"

Mr. Banks laughed. "Barrett Bennett is a sensible young man who likes old busybodies to keep their noses out of his business." He put his hand on his wife's elbow and gently steered her back into their apartment. "Leave the boy alone, dear, and be content that he is a decent, polite fellow, if unfortunately too boring to make for good gossip."

Nolan Harper, or, as he was known here, Barrett Bennett, left the apartment building—an aging stone structure located in the outskirts of Chicago—and walked briskly to the corner bus stop. 'Just in time!' he thought, seeing the bulky vehicle screech to a stop. He clamored up the steps with about ten other people and sat down in an empty seat. With a crisp flick of his wrist he had his own newspaper opened, and he buried his face in an article entitled "Firecracker strikes again!" A color picture accompanied the text, showing an office building going up in flames, but not the typical red, orange and blue ones. These flames were impossible shades of color; violent purple, green, and even hot pink exploded from the windows. "Those aren't firecrackers," Nolan murmured to himself, "and that is no ordinary arsonist."He had visited the scene of that fire the day before, as well as the two buildings attacked prior. Between the three of them he found ample evidence to squelch all doubts he might have harbored. The fires were most certainly the work of another of his master's pupils. Nolan couldn't help but chuckle wryly at that thought. Even after discovering Vormelos's lies, his brother Vincent's murder, and swearing vengeance on the loathsome creature, Nolan couldn't put the title of master from his mind, just like he still thought of himself as Nolan Harper instead of Barrett Bennett.

The bus jostled to a stop in central Chicago, and Nolan was forced out of his introspection. He gave the newspaper a little shake and folded it up again, revealing his face. His previously wavy black hair was now shorter, straiter, and a sandy blond color. The sharp features of his chin and cheekbones had smoothed out, looking more rounded than angular. His nose was also shorter and turned up more at the end, brushed with a new sprinkling of freckles. Casually, Nolan made his way to the front of the bus, where he hopped off onto the bustling sidewalk.

'If he follows the trend he started, the office building on the next road should be our arsonist's next target. Aha!' Nolan turned the corner only to find the street littered with police and firefighters. They too had seen the pattern.

"They say the Firecracker will try striking here today," a man came and stood next to Nolan, who realized he had been gawking at the building's defenses. The man clutched a Styrofoam cup of coffee from which he took a sip from time to time. Nolan studied his face and soon lost interest in him, seeing that the man didn't have the mark of fire magic on his skin. In fact, his features were about as plain and forgettable as possible. 'Actually, such a face could come in handy sometime,' he thought, examining the features with a new purpose, memorizing the details.

"But with all the police milling around here, I would be surprised if the guy did try to get in, which he couldn't," The man gave a short laugh, "I work in that building, but they won't let me so much as stand five feet from the door!"

Nolan nodded his head politely, only half listeningHis eyes were trained on the people traversing the sidewalk behind them. 'He should be showing up any minute.'

"I'm sorry but,"--'There! In the trench coat, with the hat pulled low over his face!'--"but I really should be getting to work. It's been nice talking to you." With that said he turned around and walked in the opposite direction than the man in the trench coat had gone, ducking swiftly into the first vacant alleyway he came across. Five seconds later he trotted back onto the sidewalk as a small, scruffy brown dog.

'He couldn't have gotten too far,' Nolan sniffed the air. 'In any case, I know where he's headed and it doesn't look like he's caused any trouble yet.' The little dog hurried towards the office building, dodging quickly around the sea of legs clogging up the path. 'And that would definitely be his smell: smoke, sulfur, and burnt flesh.' The dog sped up its pace, nose snuffling at full strength, when he careened head first into the arms of a young boy.

"Hey Mom!" the kid shouted, his fingers tightly entangled in Nolan's fur, seemingly oblivious to the dog's struggles and growls. "Mom! Look at this dog!"

"Oh, Henry! What did I tell you about stray dogs?" A harried looking woman stepped out of the shop they were in front of, causing an alarm to sound. Three of the shop's attendants pounced on the lady, who had unthinkingly carried out an item she was considering buying. Seeing the adults satisfyingly preoccupied, Nolan took the opportunity to rid himself of his child captor. The wriggling little dog grew larger and fiercer, his growl deeper, and with a final bark he sent the kid squealing and crying to go cling to his mother's skirt.

Nolan rocketed down the street, through the police blockade, knocking down quite a few cones and strips of tape in the process, before he circled around the side of the office building. Several police officers took off after him, afraid he would cause more trouble. But when they got around the building and saw no dog, they gave up and returned to their posts.

What the officers had failed to notice was the absence of guards on this side of the building as well as the strange man in a trench coat crouched low between a couple of dumpsters. This man was making full use of the shadows as well as his own powers to avoid detection. What he failed to notice was a dirty gray mouse next to his foot, glaring up at his unlikely face. The man's skin was a dark ebony color, dry and cracked in an almost scale-like pattern. His eyes shown red out of the dark shadow produced by the brim of his floppy hat. Suddenly the face turned sharply, fiery red eyes meeting the tiny beady ones of the mouse.

"You must be Nolan Harper," he chuckled in a low, raspy voice. "The master said the fires would draw you out. I am not to kill you if you agree to return to him." His red iris's swirled brighter, the edges tinged with a flickering of blue.

The mouse skittered a few feet away and began to shake. Its fur seemed to melt off as it grew larger, its features distorting until a handsome, dark-haired man wearing a nice, if wrinkled suit sat in its stead. Nolan was back to his Barrett Bennett look.

"I thought I made it clear to Vormelos when I left that I had no intention of helping him," Nolan's voice held a quiet anger as he slowly rose to his feet.

The arsonist stood up as well, his mutated face reflecting surprise, "And I thought shape shifters could never return to their original form, that was the price for the power. Just as this" he gestured towards his face with a gloved hand, "was the price for mine."

"They can't." Nolan looked at the arsonist's face more closely. "Who are you, that you would recognize this face?"

"They've been calling me Firecracker," he smiled a crooked smile, revealing a neat row of yellow teeth. "But in Nekati I am known as Rajta. We met once, before you betrayed Master Vormelos."

"Rajta?! I remember you, Vormelos had high hopes for your abilities. And I see you became a fire mage." Nolan scowled at his old acquaintance. "As for this face, it belonged to my brother. We had similar features."

"Vincent Harper," Rajta released his hoarse, throaty chuckle again, "was killed for betraying his master, as you will be if you do not surrender and return to Nekati as the master has ordered."

"To be fed more lies!" Nolan spat. "Tell me, Rajta, has Vormelos told you what his true plans are? About the war?"

"Of course. I am Nekatian, what do I care what he does with Earth? As long as it is for the good of Nekati, I will support my master in all of his plans."

Nolan could see Rajta could not be reasoned with. Apparently Vormelos had only found the need to hide his plans from him and Vincent, since they were from Earth. 'Curse that blasted stone!' he thought bitterly, remembering the day everything in his life had changed so drastically. He had just earned his bachelor's degree in linguistics, and was visiting Vincent on one of his archaeological digs. His brother had discovered a large, perfectly flat stone deep in an African jungle. A strange and unique type of pictograph writing was crammed onto every inch of it. As a favor, Nolan agreed to study the unfamiliar language. They spent hours pouring over the stone and piles of textbooks, but they found no success. In fact, they were feeling quite dejected when Vormelos seemingly materialized out of the stone. He was elegant in strange, flowing clothing foreign to the brothers, but he spoke perfect English. He explained that he was the ruler of Nekati, a country on the planet, Savol, which used the stone to monitor the civilizations of other worlds they discovered. However, Earth, he believed, was not ready to come into contact with such outside forces. He adamantly informed them that the best course of action would be to hide the stone away again. No one could know of it, and so he would either have to kill the brothers, or they would need to agree to help him guard it. Naturally, they chose to live. Vormelos took them back with him to his planet, Savol, and began to train them in the magical ways of that world so that they could understand the stone and effectively protect it. This, of course, was a lie to cover up Vormelos's plan to start an interplanetary war. Their discovery of the plan led to Vincent's death, and Nolan's flight back to Earth. He had been living as Barrett Bennett for a month now, waiting for some sign that Vormelos was pursuing him. Rajta was as clear an indication as anything.

"Tell me, Rajta," Nolan intoned, buying time to think of some sort of strategy. "Why is Vormelos so anxious to retrieve me? Hasn't he an army of shape shifters trained to do his bidding by now?"

Rajta laughed again, his fiery eyes dancing, "Not many are fool enough to sacrifice their own identity for such a power, not to mention it is outlawed. Besides," and here his smile widened, "He wants someone who understands this planet enough to work things to his benefit on the inside. You and your brother were the only Earthlings he's ever trained."

"I see," Nolan struggled to keep his voice level "so he is holding off his plan until he has a new student trained, or I return."

"Precisely. Once the shifter is in place, the rest of us mages attack, bringing as much panic as possible. Earth will discover Savol's existence, and undoubtedly declare war. Quite handy for the master really, Earth will do all the work, and through his shifters he would have control of both planets."

"Well, he'd better find that new student soon. He'll have no cooperation from me." Nolan leaped backward, feeling the now familiar changes rippling through his body, and took flight. A jet black crow circled up into the air, and then dived down to meet Rajta's face. His first sweep served to knock off the fire mage's hat, and then he circled around to peck at the intensely glowing eyes. Rajta howled in pain, frantically flapping his arms at the bird, trying in vain to cover his face. 'Fire!' Nolan lurched upwards, feeling his tail feathers scorch a bit. Rajta stood below, his right eye bleeding, but his left stared intently at the bird; bright blue flames protruded from his gloved fingers. Nolan continued circling above, easily avoiding the flaming balls Rajta hurled in his direction. Unfortunately, they had to hit something, and the office building next to them caught fire.

Rajta quickly spread flames across the ground to block off the entryway to their back ally, and grinned up at Nolan. "I can keep this up for quite a while, Harper! I'll burn this entire city while you hide like a coward!"

Resigned to his obvious fate, the crow landed as far away from the fire mage as he could manage, and appeared to explode in a flurry of feathers. An elephant seemed to grow up out of the ground, its bulk pushing against the side of the already crumbling building next to it. 'This may not work.' Nolan sprayed as much water from his trunk as possible towards Rajta while he shrunk once again into the ground. Now a fly, he flew in a panic, unsure of what to do next. Rajta was laughing again, convincing Nolan that the mage was thoroughly mad. He watched helplessly as Rajta calmly blew a hole in the wall next to him and walked into the building, throwing small, flaming explosions in random directions as he went.

Feeling like his small fly form would burst into flame from the sheer heat surrounding him, Nolan landed and burst into the spotted form of a cheetah. The moment the shift was complete he took off at full speed into the hole Rajta left. He sped past the pyromaniac and through the length of the building, dodging scalding flames and falling debris, and finally he burst out into the confusion ensuing at the front of the building. Fireman were doing their best to put out the flames, but Nolan knew they would find no success as long as Rajta kept up his tirade. Ignoring the shouts and stares that followed him, Nolan raced to the nearest fire-hydrant and tore off the hose. He backed into it, replacing the hose that had been hooked onto it with his tail, which he began transforming into a rubber hose. Then he rushed back into the building as his body slowly thinned out and elongated, his tail trailing behind him as the transformed hose. He worked to prolong the process as long as possible in order to keep the use of his legs. Catching up with Rajta, he completed the transformation and released the water full blast.

The spray was clearly weakening the fire mage, who stumbled away from the onslaught of water, hastily putting up a shield of flames. Nolan kept the water blast strong and fast, taking down the shield as soon as it was brought back up. Rajta sunk to the ground, shaking. Just as he thought victory was at hand, Nolan lost his water; some fool had disconnected him from the hydrant. As soon as the stream trained on Rajta died down, the mage shook himself off and stood. He slowly raised his arms red and blue flames seemed to engulf his body. With a shout he released an enormous explosion on the ceiling above them, which promptly came crashing down on top of Nolan, but anything that came remotely close to Rajta vanished in the heat shield surrounding him.

'This isn't good.' Searing heat pressed all around Nolan, and he felt even his rubber hose body beginning to melt. Thinking fast, he transformed into the only thing he could think of that could possibly survive an onslaught of such a temperature. 'Well, this is certainly discreet! As if the cheetah/hose scenario wasn't enough to freak the locals out.' Nolan drew his elongated body back together and burst upward in a violent surge of movement. All flaming debris easily fell off of his gargantuan scaled body as he drew himself up to his full hight. The general bulk of this new body knocked down most of the building that was still standing at this point, and Nolan was relieved to see that the firefighters and onlookers already moved out of the way of the collapsing building. Jaws dropped all around as the dragon reached his full size, towering above the still flaming Rajta. Nolan pinned the now minuscule mage under one claw and snarled, smoke wafting out of his nostrils.

Still, Rajta managed to keep some semblance of composure. "Impressively done, Nolan Harper," he laughed. "I will have an interesting report for the master. Until next time, then." With a wave of his fiery hand, Rajta touched a small flat stone hanging from a cord around his neck, and disappeared.

Content that the threat was over for the day, Nolan allowed himself to collapse. The dragon form melted swiftly back into the familiar human shape he spent the majority of his time in, and Nolan laid back against a still warm concrete slab in the midst of the building's rubble.

'I feel too tired to even stand,' hesighed, gazing out at the people obviously staring, but too afraid to approach. Then one man stepped forward, slowly picking his way through the rubble, stumbling in a couple of places. The rest called after him, convinced of his lack of sanity. 'It certainly won't do to ruin Barrett Bennett's reputation just yet.' Feeling like it was the last of his strength, Nolan altered his features to the bland, forgettable face he had memorized that morning.

The man approaching finally reached Nolan's side, his face amusingly set in a bewildered expression. "I hadn't thought to find myself looking into a mirror," his voice sounded dazed.

Nolan smiled up at the man, who had a quite obvious coffee stain on the front of his shirt. "But yours is such a handy face, I hope you don't mind me borrowing it, just for today." The man smiled hesitatingly back. Nolan noticed he kept as much a distance as their conversation allowed.

"My name is Albert Johnson; I'm a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times," the man paused, and Nolan nodded in response. "And you are?" Albert Johnson pressed.

With an effort Nolan brought himself to his feet, brushing off his dusty, ripped and charred suit. He stared at the reporter, his mind a complete blank except for the suffocating exhaustion clouding it. "Why don't you call me Vormelos?" He laughed a dry laugh, and tumbled forward into the form of pigeon.

Nolan flew lazily away from the mad scene surrounding the building and landed on a bench in an empty park. Stretching out into human form and still borrowing the face of Albert Johnson, he fell asleep. It was late afternoon when he awoke, and dragged himself to a clothing store, thankful his wallet had survived the battle along with his suit. He still didn't understand what happened to such items during a transformation, figuring it was another thing he could have learned if he stayed with Vormelos a little longer.

With a new suit, nearly identical to the one he ruined, and back in his Barrett Bennett form, Nolan returned home to his apartment. He was unlocking his door when the Banks exited their place next door.

"Bennett! Good day at work?"

"Terrific Mr. Banks, thank you for asking."

"So formal! You might as well call him Fred, Barrett. You know, we were about to go out for dinner, would you care to join us? I was just thinking how nice it would be to get to know our new neighbor better!"

"No thank you, Mrs. Banks, I..."

"Call me Lettie, Mrs. Banks makes me feel old!"

"Lettie then, I'm rather tired tonight, maybe some other time?" Nolan didn't wait for an answer, but smiled politely and shut the apartment door in his indignant neighbor's face.