The wind picked up as the storm raged on around the small clearing, thunder screaming through the air, rain slicing skin like tiny daggers. It was dark, darker than a natural night, the only relief in the form of short, sudden flashes of lightning that tore jagged lines across a starless black sky.
The air was cold, bitter, tearing through the small figure huddled within a worthless blanket in the middle of the clearing. The end was near; he could sense it. With it came despair, and his heart screamed at it.
There was nothing left for him in this world, but the fear of leaving it still clutched at him, digging claws into his throat until it was all he could do to draw another breath. The sharp pain in his chest was his own doing, but it hurt all the same. He was alone, truly alone. His friends, his allies, were gone, one dead and the other a traitor. It seemed pointless to struggle against the inevitable, for there could be no doubt he would fall this night. It was what he wanted, even, to be done with this tormented existence at last.
"No," he said aloud, firm though his voice was only a whisper, barely audible above the crashing thunder and pounding rain. He heard a familiar laughter, cold and quiet, and spun around to face the man who'd once been his closest companion. It seemed odd, how he looked the same as he always had. He should have been ugly, as hideous to behold as the unspeakable atrocities he'd committed, but he was as beautiful as he'd always been. And though it was a dark beauty, as dark as his own was light, it had faded not at all.
"Why do you still run?" His voice, so achingly familiar, sent chills down his spine. How had it come to this? Where had he gone wrong, to have missed this cruel streak in the one he'd known best?
Whatever the others said, he knew the blame led back to him. If he'd foreseen his friend's betrayal, if he'd recognized his intent, he could have prevented it. And if he'd prevented it, she wouldn't be dead now. But he was selfish, and he'd seen only what he'd wanted to see, and now he was paying for it.
"I won't let you win." Though he still felt some strength, it was only a flicker of what he'd once been, and it showed in his voice. This man, this mutilated creature, only smiled at him, seeing through his pitiful attempt to hide his own fear.
Maybe, if this was a true sign of his own weakness, this was the end he deserved.
"You have no choice."
Hatred, so powerful it consumed him like a blaze of fire, ignited in his veins, heating his skin despite the painfully cold rain. This wasn't how it was meant to be! They were supposed to be united, three friends closer than any others, strong in their trust of each other. How had this happened?
"You killed her," he growled, and the other's smile faded slowly. His eyes darkened, and for an instant they flashed in pain, but it passed all too quickly, the emotion tucked carefully and safely away.
"She did it to herself."
"Because of you!" His voice was a desperate cry, filled with all the pain and fury he wasn't allowed to show on his face. His throat ached at the words, though it wasn't nearly as painful as the hollowness he'd lived with since her death. He'd lost everything, everything, and suddenly he had to have revenge, had to feel the blood leak away from the one who'd caused it all.
He drew his sword, made of the very air itself, hidden in nothing until he called it forth. He saw the wide-eyed surprise of the other as he lunged forward, thrusting his blade ahead of him to sink with a sickeningly pleasing noise through skin and more. He ripped the blade out, holding it horizontally next to him, blood washing away with the rain.
His breathing came harshly, painfully stretching his lungs, as he stared at the one who'd refused to be a stranger. Horror at his own actions came suddenly, and a sharp sob escaped his lips before he could silence it. Revenge was forbidden, and for so many reasons he'd never understood.
He watched, unable to move, as blood and life drained out of his closest friend, his brother at heart. He screamed until his throat was raw with it, cradling the limp form in his arms, breaking his own vows as crimson tears flowed from his eyes. His sword was gone, swallowed by the nothing, and with it went his shield of anger.
His hands stroked hair away from a face that would never move again, never grin at him or laugh at him or even glare at him. His friends, his life, his purpose were both dead and so was his last hope.
The blood of the man he held soaked into his own skin, and he knew as it did that his time had come. The nothing, the nameless entity that eventually claimed all of his kind, was reaching for him. He surrendered to it completely, forgetting the last shred of his own determination, and fell into the nothing that couldn't even be called oblivion.
And though he knew he had the power to stop it, he didn't even try.
Cursing under his breath, Noah Rye struggled to gather up the textbooks that he'd dropped on the sidewalk when he'd tripped over…well…nothing. It was raining, of course, and he'd happened to be standing over a particularly deep puddle when he lost his books. Why hadn't he brought an umbrella with him? It had been raining all week, but he'd foolishly believed the weather report when it promised lots of sunshine. He should have known better. It was a Monday, after all. Mondays were never pleasant.
Noah was reaching for his math book when a hand reached forward and grabbed it before him. Noah's eyes followed the hand up the arm and to a face that left him temporarily dumbstruck. The man before him was pale, even more so than Noah, and there was an impossible sort of perfection about his face. Clear grey eyes and perfect lips that were quirked into an amused sort of smile, the kind that always made Noah blush.
"Th-thanks," he stuttered. The man nodded.
"You're welcome." He handed the book over and then offered Noah a hand. "I'm Gabriel."
"Noah Rye," Noah said, automatically shaking his hand and nearly losing his stack of books again.
"Nice to meet you, Noah. Perhaps we will run into each other again." Gabriel's smile never faltered, and he nodded once before continuing down the sidewalk, leaving Noah to stare stupidly after him. A few seconds passed before Noah could shake himself out of it. He glanced at his watch and cursed again. There was a small possibility, if he ran as fast as he could, that he wouldn't be late for class.
"You can't be serious," Luther muttered under his breath, staring at the reflection in the shimmering water, trapped in a low, wide wooden bowl. He'd turned off the lights of his apartment to shield his doings in the darkness, but the faint light from the street lamps outside his window was enough to send a dim glow across the kitchen table and the rippling water held in the bowl. "He looks about as bright as a dead light bulb."
Perhaps he was being unfair, but Luther had spent a lot of time contemplating this moment. He'd thought the figure would look a little more daunting, a little more intelligent. Instead, he found himself watching a scrawny kid with a ratty backpack slung over his shoulder, hurrying through the rain across the campus of the local university.
"I don't believe it." Luther laughed, more from shock than amusement, and slowly shook his head.
"Believe it," said a cool voice from behind him. He nearly jumped, but caught himself just in time. He'd grown used to this by now, odd, silent appearances of strangers at random times. He wasn't fond of these instances, but he'd learnt to deal with them well enough.
He turned around and let out a startled gasp in spite of himself. There were two beings standing in his kitchen, contrasting oddly with the normal, mundane appliances. They both had the same soft, silver hair that fell in a multitude of tiny braids down their backs. Their eyes were a clear, sharp purple, their skin glowing like the moon, as though it reflected some unseen light source. He was used to ethereal appearances, but these two surpassed even his high expectations.
"You're the weirdest Guardians I've ever seen," he told them, aware that his comment might have been interpreted as rude, but unable to find a reason why he should care.
"And you are the most human," the male replied, his tone never changing from melodic but unreadable. Luther frowned, absently brushing his own golden-blonde locks out of his eyes. He could have gladly cursed his father then, for all the good it would do him when the man was already six feet under. What curse was worse than death?
Luther had a feeling that was a question he didn't want answered.
"I am human," he snapped. The two exchanged a look, expressions never changing from their pleasantly blank states, before turning back to him. He was used to this emotionless behavior from Guardians, but it was disconcerting nonetheless. Maybe he'd been spending too much time with the humans, just as his mother often told him.
"As you wish." The female spoke this time, and there was barely a difference in their voices. Hers was of a slightly higher pitch, but the variation was miniscule at best, noticeable to Luther only because he had the same annoyingly perceptive hearing as they did.
"You've seen the Second." It wasn't a question, but Luther felt the need to answer anyway.
"Yes," he agreed, "and he looks quite pathetic."
"Perhaps judgments should be held until you've met him." Luther couldn't be certain, but he thought he heard just a tiny hint of amusement in the female's voice. Nothing showed in her face, but then Guardians were never so dependent on facial expressions to convey their emotions as humans were. He'd certainly never seen his mother's change, though he almost never heard her speak without annoyance lacing her voice.
Still, these two were odd. Guardians, though nearly always disturbingly beautiful, had mostly human features, enough so that they could blend in if they so desired. His mother had the same golden hair as he did, though it seemed to shine a bit brighter. And her eyes were blue – a haunting, crystalline blue, but blue all the same. She certainly attracted attention when she ventured into the human world, but no one would think her another being entirely.
The silver-haired and purple-eyed twins were another story. Luther couldn't even imagine how a normal human would react upon seeing them, but he had no doubt they would recognize that the two were far from human.
So why, then, had they been chosen for this task?
"You are meant to collect him on the morrow." The male's eyes traveled to Luther's bowl of water, now empty of anything but ordinary reflections since Luther's concentration had been lost. He watched it for a few seconds longer, then met Luther's gaze. "The Third should be informed immediately."
"You aren't meant to know the Second yet," the female's voice came from right beside his ear, and Luther shuddered, slowly turning to find her face directly in front of his. He had a feeling she was studying him, testing him, though he had no idea what she was searching for. Her eyes traveled from his feet, covered in plain grey socks, to the tip of his eyes, an enchanting blue that he knew very well weren't quite as entrancing his mother's. He held himself still until she finished and then lifted one eyebrow.
"Are you quite finished," he drawled. He realized, the moment the words left his mouth, that he'd temporarily forgotten he was dealing with a Guardian. A human would probably have blushed at his words, but she just continued to stare into his eyes until he found himself unconsciously looking away.
"The Third will come here tonight of her own accord. It is your task to explain things to her." The male spoke, and the female backed up to stand beside him. "You are not allowed to read the Second, and if you attempt to, your eyes will be removed."
Luther's mouth fell open. He hadn't even known Guardians were permitted to issue threats, and certainly not violent ones. He'd even occasionally laughed to himself at their strictly pacifistic nature. He'd almost have believed it was a joke, if he hadn't known better.
"I won't try then," he said, because they seemed to be waiting for a response. Both nodded, perfectly in sync, and he'd have laughed if he hadn't felt such dread weighing down on him. The Guardians slowly faded from sight, until there was only a shimmering silver dust where they'd stood, catching stray beams of light from the lamp outside.
Tonight. Imogen would come tonight, and they'd prepare to find the Third. It was hard to believe, after spending so long waiting, that it was finally happening. He'd anticipated this night, had been eager for it really, but now that it was here he couldn't help but feel the tiniest bit of fear.
He wasn't the sort to believe in prophesies and destinies, but he'd heard this tale from the time he was a small child, repeated so many times that it could be nothing but truth. He was the First, the center. That knowledge had been the source of his arrogance and his humility, his weakness and his strength. Sometimes he hated knowing his life was preordained, his choices worthless because they would all lead him to this night. Other times he felt only relief, a safety in knowing his purpose.
Luther stood suddenly, eyes flickering to the ordinary water in the bowl on his table. He was going to see the Second tomorrow. He had to be prepared, had to look as powerful as the First should.
He felt suddenly ashamed of his small apartment with only three rooms and a bathroom. It wasn't how he was meant to be living, not with the power he knew he possessed, but his independence had seemed more important when he'd chosen this piece of his life. He'd been so damned proud of this place back then, grinning at the tiny kitchen because, no matter how small, no matter how cheap, it was his.
He could have afforded better – much better – if he'd allowed his mother to aid him, but he'd grown so tired of her rules. He was determined to run his own life, and the only way to do that was to depend solely upon himself. Otherwise, she would still have a say over him, and he couldn't have that any longer.
He was used to being admired, used to the silent awe of the Guardians that inflicted their voices if not their faces. Perhaps it had made him arrogant, but there was some strength in that. He'd never doubted himself before, not really, and that had been the key to retaining his sanity with such a heavy burden on his shoulders. He couldn't hate his mother for laying this weight on him so young, because it had made him far more determined that he would have been otherwise. Without the knowledge of his role in the prophecy, he would have disavowed his mother altogether, and without her, he couldn't have learned of his own gifts.
Luther eyed the still water one last time, finding it strangely easy to resist the urge to look further at the Second. He would know him soon enough.
Imogen tiredly read the same paragraph yet again, annoyed with herself for missing its meaning the first few times. She despised her own inability to concentrate, but her eyes kept threatening to close without her permission and fighting that took all her attention.
She'd so been looking forward to this, a couple of lazy hours sitting back in her living room and reading the book she'd borrowed from the library weeks ago. It was long overdue, as the messages on her answering machine constantly reminded her, but she was determined to finish it. It had been so long since she'd last been able to manage such a feat, and it was something she'd always taken great pleasure in, that sense of accomplishment that filled her when she read that final word and closed a book for the last time.
Stories had once been her savior, the only way she kept any shred of sanity during her childhood. It only depressed her to realize that now reading was a rarity better left to lonely, rainy nights when she wasn't working and wasn't training and could think of nothing better to do.
It wasn't as though she didn't still enjoy reading. It still gave her an odd sense of peace, as though nothing else in the world particularly mattered. It was nice, letting a make-believe character make all the choices, with her tagging along, free to take a step back when the going got tough.
She would probably have enjoyed it more if she hadn't been so exhausted. As it was, she could feel her mind struggling to remain alert. She hated that all her free time recently seemed to be devoted solely to catching up on sleep.
Still, it wasn't something she could fight much longer. She decided to compromise; she'd finish this chapter, and then she'd get some sleep. She didn't have to go into work until four the next day, so she could spend the morning reading some more. Maybe she'd even go by the little café next to her apartment building and let someone wait on her for once.
Just as she happily accepted her own proposition, the light in the ceiling flickered. She glared up at it, hoping her gaze would be threat enough to keep it working. There was a low rumble of thunder, and then the lights were suddenly gone and Imogen found herself trapped in the darkness. She plopped her book down on the couch with more force than necessary and stood. Where had she put the flashlight after the last power outage? The silverware drawer, maybe? That was her general storage bin for items that had no other home.
She made her way cautiously towards the kitchen, though her careful steps didn't save her from crashing into the wall. She kicked it out of spite, then squeaked at the pain in her toes. She felt along the wall for the doorway and when her fingers found the corner, she trekked through the kitchen. The drawer was right beside the refrigerator and by running her hands along the counter, she found it easily enough. She let out a triumphant cry when she felt the flashlight, resting in the back of the drawer.
She flicked it on, and then waited. Nothing happened.
"Shit," she muttered. Batteries. She needed new batteries. She knew for a fact that her spare batteries were in this drawer, but when her hands dug through the mess behind the small tray of silverware, she couldn't find them.
She may have given up then, decided to just go to sleep and hope the power had returned by the next morning, but she couldn't leave her chapter unread. She just couldn't do it. She'd always been that way, determined to finish what she started. When she gave herself a deadline, she kept it, no matter what.
Well, there was nothing for it then. She'd have to go next door and borrow something from Patricia.
It wasn't until she somehow made it all the way to Patricia's door and banged loudly, impatiently, against it that she remembered Pat was gone for the weekend.
"Oh, fuck it all." Imogen pounded one last time against the door, and glanced down the other end of the hallway. A pointless move, since it was too dark to really see anything. Who else could she beg for batteries?
The couple across from her had a small baby that was probably sleeping, so they wouldn't appreciate being disturbed. On the other side of her apartment was Ronnie, the creepy old guy who coughed like he was about to vomit up his intestines. Jenny had gone with Pat, and she didn't really know the two on the end. So that left Luther, who almost certainly wouldn't appreciate her appearance so late at night. He hated being bothered at all, really, especially when Pat and Jenny were always attempting to get him in bed.
Honestly, she didn't care if he was sex in a suit, she just wanted batteries. Tapping her dead flashlight against her leg, she felt along the wall, counting doors until she reached his. If he wasn't home or he refused for some inexplicable reason, she was reasonably certain she had enough cash to buy her own from the convenience store across the street. It wouldn't be fun venturing out into the rain, but it wasn't like she would melt.
Sighing, Imogen decided she would play nice and get her batteries one way or another.
Luther was in the middle of brushing his teeth when the power went out. He blinked confusedly a few times before he finally realized what had happened and groaned. He finished with his teeth in the dark, and then found the matches he kept in his desk drawer, lighting the numerous candles scattered through the apartment. He smiled to himself, wondering if the Guardians might have had anything to do with the power loss. It would certainly make everything much more mysterious when he explained things to Imogen, who was generally rather difficult to convince.
He'd changed clothes and was now wearing black dress pants and a dark blue button up shirt that made his eyes stand out even more. He hadn't tucked it in, but he had put nice shoes on. His hair had been thoroughly brushed and pulled neatly back at his neck. He didn't look quite as ethereal as the twins, but he was confident he could convince Imogen of the seriousness of their situation.
He surveyed his small family room, stuffed with two dark green chairs with plump cushions, a long coffee table whose scars were hidden by a matching green cloth, and a few mismatched shelves holding an assortment of objects. Candles flickered from the table and the shelves, numerous enough to cast a warm glow over the room. The question was, did that much light make the room too inviting and thus detract from the purposeful atmosphere he was going for? Maybe if he blew out a couple of strategic candles on the shelf closest to the chairs, it would look better...
Luther's thoughts were interrupted by a fierce knock. He turned to stare at the door for a long while until another angry knock spurred him into action. He hurried to the door, undoing the locks and jerking it open without bothering to look through the peephole. The Third was here at last.
"Hello," Luther greeted. The girl in front of him was small, tiny really, and instead of containing the peaceful wisdom he'd always expected of the Third before meeting her, her dark grey eyes flashed with annoyance and barely suppressed rage.
"I need batteries," she barked, and Luther could only smile faintly. Her glare turned even more fierce. "Do you have any batteries I can borrow?" She paused for a moment, and then grudgingly added, "Please."
"I..." Luther shook himself and stepped back to allow her in, swallowing the insult he automatically felt surfacing. It would do no good to upset Imogen when he would need her the next day. She glanced into the room suspiciously. "Come in," he said, "I'll see if I can find any. How many do you need?"
"All right. One moment." He waited patiently as she stepped through the door, closing it behind her and moving to the desk against the wall in the small hallway that led to his bedroom and bathroom.
"Are you trying to burn down the whole fucking building?" Luther's eyes narrowed at her muttered question. Yeah, he definitely should have lost some of the candles.
"At least I can see, right?" he asked in what he hoped was a polite tone, though he found he was a bit annoyed now.
"You're a bastard, Luther," she hissed, eyeing his family room with her nose wrinkled up in disgust. He couldn't help but laugh, and she jumped at the sound, then slowly grinned at him.
"What's your point?"
"Just wanted to bring up the uncomfortable subject of your parentage," she said, after only a second's hesitation.
"Imogen," he said with a long-suffering sigh, "that will never be an uncomfortable subject for me."
"So you say." She absently flicked the switch on her flashlight on and off. "But I don't believe you."
"What about you?" he asked, nearly laughing again at her sudden dark scowl.
"What are you talking about?"
"Nothing." He wondered how he was meant to start this little explanation, particularly when she seemed so volatile. He probably shouldn't tease her any longer.
He found two batteries buried in the drawer and pulled them out with some surprise. He'd thought he had none, and he couldn't remember buying these. Silently, he held them out to Imogen, who snatched them out of his hands and quickly shoved them into her flashlight. She grinned when she flicked the switch and the beam shone brightly even through the candlelight.
"Thanks, I'll buy you more when I get a chance." She started toward the door and Luther caught her arm before she could escape. Luther grinned helplessly at the return of her scowl.
"Sorry, Im," he said. "No escape yet. I had a visit from some interesting Guardians today."
"Oh? Is that why you're all dressed up? Or are you just trying to get me into bed with you?" She smirked when Luther dropped his hold on her arm, an unhappy frown on his face. She rolled her eyes when he took a step away.
"I am not going to repeat the past, Imogen," he said sternly. She laughed aloud.
"Good. You're too fucking stuck-up for my tastes." She dropped into one of the chairs and, sighing, Luther took the other chair. He felt an odd pressure in his chest, weighing down on him. He'd convinced himself he could do this, he could change the course of the future, but now that the final step was approaching, he couldn't help his own fear. "Luther?" Imogen rested a hand on his knee and he sighed again before managing a sort of half-smile.
"We're to find the Second tomorrow," he said, smiling fully at Imogen's gasp. She groaned, dropping her head back against the chair.
"Show him to me," she ordered. Luther shook his head, but her eyes were closed and she didn't see.
"I can't. The Guardians threatened to take my eyes out if I did," Luther said. Imogen's own eyes flew open at that.
"There was more than one of them?" she asked. Luther nodded.
"Two. Twins, I think. They were…creepy." He felt a bit juvenile using the word, but it seemed to fit.
"Creepier than your mother?" Im asked, smirking. Luther considered throwing a pillow at her, and then decided against it. He didn't want to accidentally burn down the apartment building.
"Yes," he said shortly. Imogen shuddered theatrically.
"Damn," she said.
"Yes," Luther said again.
"So when do we go find him?" Imogen asked after a few long seconds.
"Tomorrow," Luther said, straight-faced. Imogen didn't have his qualms and seemed to find no problem throwing a pillow at his face. He caught it and saved a few candles from being knocked off the coffee table.
"When tomorrow, smartass?" Im clarified. Luther shrugged.
"They didn't say. I suppose they'll tell us, or we'll just have to guess. You know how Guardians are, always feigning omnipotence and assuming we'll do the same."
"Maybe they just figure the First should be smart enough to know that on his own," Imogen suggested innocently.
"Shut up. If they hadn't forbidden me to use the water, I would probably know already. But, you see, I like my eyes where they are." Luther glanced at Imogen's scowl, noting the amusement she couldn't keep from her eyes. He'd thought her quite the bitch when they'd first met, but by now he'd grown used to her volatile temper. He'd seen a few glimpses of her past through the water, enough to know that she had plenty of reasons to be grouchy and mistrusting. He'd tried to be kind to her at first, afraid she would follow the fate of the original Third, but that hadn't worked very well for either of them. She'd finally threatened to cut his hair, which now went halfway down his spine, if he didn't stop coddling her. He'd happily followed her commands.
"So do you know anything about the Second?" Im asked. Luther shrugged.
"I saw him before the Guardians came. He looked pretty small, and I guess he was a University student because he was walking across the campus and he had a backpack on."
"What? He's practically a baby then," Imogen said, scowling. Luther grinned.
"Im," he said, "He's probably eighteen at the youngest, only four years younger than you. Hardly a baby."
"Close enough," she muttered, but Luther could tell she was just being her usual pessimistic self and let it go.
"Well, I'll find you tomorrow then, and we can wait for word from the Guardians."
"I have to work at four, so it had better be before then," Imogen remarked as she stood, flicking on her flashlight.
"I'm sure it will," Luther said, grinning as Im showed herself out.