Chapter Twenty-Six

The next thing Elle remembered was waking up to the afternoon sun filtering in through partially-open blinds. Her head was throbbing and she had no idea how she had gotten there. She had a foggy memory of being out in the woods with Velia and a few other people, but after that it was all blank. Guessing by her current state, there had probably been alcohol involved.

The thought made her think of Jade. She was probably getting ready to leave work if she hadn't cut out early already. What was going on in her head right now? Was she imagining the kind of things Elle and Thearch Reinhert were seeing? Or was she distracted by something that was happening in Creighton? Not that anything interesting really happened in Creighton. It had only been three days since leaving but it felt like a century the way everything had been turned on its head. It made her feel a little homesick.

Elle rolled over in bed to get the sun out of her eyes and stared blankly at the wall, following the pattern of the wood as it swirled into knots.

"Oh, good, you're awake."

Elle sat bolt upright in bed, banging her already throbbing head against the bunk above hers. She clutched her head with one hand as she looked around, seeing no one in the room until Darshan appeared out of nowhere sitting on the dresser on the other side of the room. "Holy shit, are you trying to kill me?" she demanded, taking deep breaths to try and slow her racing heart. "Spirits, were you watching me while I was sleeping? That's really fucking creepy."

Darshan laughed. "You're funny when you're hung-over."

"How do you know I'm hung-over?"

"You don't remember last night at all, do you?"

"Why? Should I?"

"Let's just say you weren't exactly quiet when the six of you came back from wherever it was you had gone off to."

Elle moaned as she covered her face with her hands. "Oh, no, what happened?"

"You and Variel were going at it. Total cat fight. Really entertaining to watch."

"What about?"

He shrugged. "I don't even remember at this point but it doesn't change the fact that it took a lot of effort to keep you from strangling her with her own hair."

"I didn't."

"You didn't, but you tried really hard."

She hit her palm against her forehead a few times, ignoring how it aggravated her headache. "Great. Absolutely great. That is exactly what I needed to not draw attention to myself after the whole fiasco with Hagar last night."

"Yeah, Maitho's pretty pissed. I think the only thing that saved you was that it wasn't just you drunk out of your mind."

"Great. So why are you here, then?"

"Because you decided to go get crazy last night instead of coming to find me like I asked, so I decided I'd save you the trouble and come to you."

"What are you talking. . .oh, jeez, I completely forgot. Last night was kind of crazy even before whatever I can't remember happening happened." She left out the part about him acting oddly and how she had been sort of avoiding him.

"I figured as much. That's why I'm here to remind you. I think you'll be interested in what I want to show you."

"Which is what exactly?"

"It's a secret."

"That's the same thing Velia said when I asked her what was going to happen last night and I apparently got drunk and got myself into a cat fight without being able to remember any of it. You'll understand if I'm not interested in seeing any more of your family's secrets."

"I promise there's nothing like that involved. Unless of course you want there to be," he said with a wink as he pushed himself off the dresser. "I'll wait outside."

Elle watched as he left and shut the door behind him. She could see him outside the window as he leaned up against the side of the house, oblivious to the partially-cracked curtains. Maybe it was what Velia had said the night before coloring her perception, but he seemed different today. It was something she couldn't quite explain, and in the state she was in, she probably wouldn't have explained it very well anyway. What exactly was it that he had to show her so urgently? Then she remembered that Velia said he had a secret collection of books stashed somewhere that she had never seen but she knew existed. Could that be it? If so, he was right about her interest in it. If not, well, there was no saying what he could be so excited about. Shaking her head, she pushed the covers aside and stood to close the curtain before changing clothes.

After a new change of clothes and running a brush through her hair she felt a little better. A shower would have improved her mental state, but she didn't really feel like traipsing over to the building that housed the showers. She dug her sunglasses from her bag before stepping outside to meet Darshan. He grinned when he saw her.

"What?" she asked, putting her hands on her hips.

He shook his head. "Hangovers. Gotta love 'em."

"Do I really look that bad?"

"I won't dignify that with an answer. Come on." He started off toward the other end of the village.

She followed after him. "We're not leaving, are we? Because after last night I really don't think I can afford to go against what Maitho asked of me."

"Nah, we're not going anywhere. Just to my lair." He let out an exaggerated maniacal laugh complete with tapping his fingers against each other in an evil fashion.

"I changed my mind. I'm going back to bed," she said, stopping and turning back the way they had come.

"Hey, come on, I was kidding."

She stopped and turned back again with a grin on her face. "So was I. I'll admit this air of secrecy has me interested."

He led her to one of the buildings and stopped before opening the door. "Just keep your voice down until I tell you. Everyone else is still asleep, or at least I hope they are."

When Elle nodded he twisted the knob and stepped inside, beckoning her in before he closed the door. She found herself in a room remarkable similar to the one she had been sleeping in except all of the beds seemed to be filled with a sleeping body. It was amazing how much more inviting a room could be when it was actually inhabited.

Darshan led her between the bunks and around a corner to a hallway where he opened a door to the left. Inside was a small closet that was completely empty except for the step ladder that was leaning against the wall. The place was filthy compared to the rest of what she'd seen with cobwebs filling the space. It obviously didn't get much use. Darshan set the ladder upright and pulled the door shut behind them so they were standing in near-darkness. He climbed to the topmost rung of the ladder and when he pushed against the ceiling a part of it came loose. He pushed it off to the side revealing a dark hole above. He was tall enough to stick his elbows out to either side and pull himself up into the unknown above. After a moment he reached a hand down to help Elle up. She climbed to the top of the ladder and then up into the attic above.

She waited for her eyes to adjust to the low light before she moved around, but there were no windows and there was very little light coming from the hole. There was a strong smell of something old and musty around her. From the little she could see, she was aware that Darshan had moved off somewhere. "Where are we?" she whispered, forgetting what he had said about not speaking.

There was a click and the room was filled with the light from a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling behind her. There wasn't much to see. The wooden supports that held the roof up sloped to edges of the room on her left and right. The wall ahead of her was far enough from the light that she couldn't see it, but that end of the room seemed entirely empty. When she turned around to look at Darshan for direction she saw a desk stacked with books of varying sizes and styles. Short book cases stretched out on either side of the desk to the point where the uppermost corner met the roof.

He watched her as she walked over to the desk to investigate. In addition to the books there were a few journals, and judging by the wear on them, they were well used. A book lay open on top of the desk to a section about Midwestern trade routes. She turned to look at him. "What is all this?"

"Call it a hobby," he said, coming over to the desk and closing the book before tossing it onto a pile on one of the bookcases.

"Do you really take all of these with you when you move on to the next place? It seems like an awful lot to carry around."

He shook his head. "Just the important ones."

"How do you decide what the important ones are?"

He shrugged. She couldn't help but notice he seemed uncomfortable. Was she the first one he had ever shown this to? She looked at the titles printed on the spines of the books on the desk. "Why are you showing me this?" she asked.

"You seemed interested in everything 'Shadow Walker' so I figured I might impart my knowledge. That's why you're here, right?"

"Yeah, I guess." She looked away from the books back to him. "But why is all of this up here? It seems a little troublesome to come all the way up here," she said, gesturing to the open air around them.

"Some people around here don't exactly appreciate the kind of things I'm interested in. It's better they don't know about any of this."

"Like what?" she asked, though she already knew what he was going to say.

He shuffled awkwardly as if he hadn't expected these kinds of questions. "Let's just say an interest in the cities that doesn't involve finding a way to bring them down isn't exactly approved of."

"You have an interest in the cities?"

"Yeah, it probably seems a little weird to you."

"Not at all," she said, turning back to the desk. "I see you've got some pre-war era books here. You've got an interest in the history of that time period?"

"A little bit of everything," he said, seeming a little more comfortable now that Elle was taking control of the situation.

"I've always had a fascination with that sort of thing," she said, opening a book titled The Importance of the Information Age. "If I hadn't had such a gift with people I would have gone into research instead of becoming a counselor. I guess I never really thought that you. . .this is going to sound like a strange question, but I feel like the term Shadow Walker is in some way offensive and I've been avoiding using it but I've never had the opportunity to actually ask anyone about it, so what do you call yourselves as. . .as a race, I guess?"

She had been speaking so quickly it seemed to take him a moment to process what she had said. He shrugged. "People. I don't really know what else to tell you."

"Oh, that's good to know, I guess. But anyway, I hadn't really thought that the kind of people that my people think of as Shadow Walkers would be studying that sort of thing. I imagine things might be a little different research wise. Maybe even conclusion wise as well."

"It's possible. Given that we're coming from two different ideologies of thought I'd be surprised if they weren't." He stepped over to one of the bookcases, running his fingers over the various spines until he found the one he was looking for. "For instance, I'm sure you have much different interpretations of the development of society after the Great War," he said, looking over at her as flipped through pages. He seemed to know the book well enough to be able to find the page he wanted without looking.

"Sure. I suppose."

"What's the story you have about the creation of the cities? You think we're all possessed by demons or something, right?"

"A bit of a crude assessment, but I suppose that's close enough for the point you're trying to make," she said with a frown.

He handed her the book opened to the page he had been looking for. "Here. Take a look. You might find this interesting."

She took the book from him and looked down to see a familiar pattern looking back at her from the page. She ran her finger over the three interlocking circles, remembering everything she had been taught it meant. It was the mark of those taken by the evil forces outside the city walls, but now that she knew none of the stories were true, what purpose could it possibly serve? She glanced further down the page where a section heading in bold face read 'The Early Days' and started reading aloud.

"As established in prior chapters, life shortly after end of the Great War was difficult for all those involved no matter what race, ethnicity, or status an individual held. It was discovered early on that forming protective groups was the best method for survival and before long these groups grew larger and began to merge, requiring them to find a permanent settlement area. It was during this time that the first signs of abilities are said to have been seen. Though scholars argue over what ability was the first to surface, it is generally agreed that they were those most directly linked to survival, these being the ability to conjure fire, become invisible, and to fly. Whether it was a sudden onset or something that developed over time is also under debate.

"Perhaps the most surprising part of this turn of events was that for the most part those who did not manifest abilities were not at first frightened by the strange capabilities of their peers. Instead it was accepted as a gift from the chosen God to aid in survival. For a time, a peaceful system of governance was set up within individual settlements that allowed these abilities to be used for the good of the collective whole. This continued for at least a quarter of a century. During this time there were also those groups, though few, that felt mistrust for anyone with a special ability of this kind. There is documentation of these groups visiting various settlements to preach their beliefs. Sometimes they would even go so far as to instigate some kind of trouble in order to force those gifted individuals to use their abilities out of spite. This was one of the primary ways they set about achieving their goal. Because of this, they were often referred to as Initiators.

"At some point after the quarter century of this way of living a general unease began to come over those lacking in special abilities. It became apparent that these gifts were passed through the bloodline and that they would soon become a majority of the population if not kept in control. Those in power were mostly of the ungifted and they saw a possible uprising if the trend continued. Harsher control was exerted over those possessing abilities. The gifted, understandably feeling mistreated because of these new regulations, began to lash out in response, using their abilities to fight for what they saw as their rights still protected by the U. S. Constitution, though by this time the United States had long since become a distant memory for some and a tale of the past to others.

"The Initiators took this upheaval and used it as an opportunity to take root in as many settlements as they could. Their most significant contribution to this oppression of the gifted came in the form of the tri-corona pictured above. In their view of events, those exhibiting extraordinary abilities were doing so in exchange for trading their souls to the devil. The tri-corona had been developed as an adaptation of the ancient Christian belief in the Holy Trinity. The mark was forcibly branded onto the forehead of each gifted when discovered as a sign of their turning from the ways of the assumed good." Elle stopped reading for a moment as she rubbed her fingers against her own smooth forehead, imagining how much pain it must have caused not only physically but emotionally. "It was useful to the Initiators and those in the settlements where they were able to take root because it prevented the gifted from moving to another place in order to start life over. While those with physical manifestations of their abilities were easily identified, the mark was especially useful for identifying those with less obvious abilities, such as the various kinds of readers and animal-speakers. Often, if careful enough, those with these particular abilities could slip by unnoticed by the Initiators and be left unmarked. People-readers were especially adept at this due to the nature of their abilities being seen as natural understanding of people.

"This wave of Initiator oppression led those marked to withdraw from the society they were once welcomed to as esteemed members. They were forced to hide during the day to avoid the raids of Initiators looking to cleanse the world. At night the gifted would return to the settlements in retaliation, burning buildings to the ground and attacking anyone who was still out. Instead of killing as the Initiators had done when they led raids, those found outside had the tri-corona burned into their foreheads, sometimes by branding with metal and other times by burning into the skin by a fire-starter. This led to great confusion among those still living in the settlements and they began to call the gifted, who they saw as truly evil beings now, Shadow Walkers. To prevent further retaliation, walls were built to keep the gifted out, this time out of stone instead of the wood that was generally used. To this end was the beginning of the developed societies still existing today—the cities and the gifted."

Elle stared at the page for a moment, reflecting on what she had just read. How could one short passage completely turn her understanding of the world on its head? She looked over at Darshan who was curiously awaiting her reaction. "This is. . ."

"Mind blowing?" he suggested when she didn't continue her statement.

"That's one way to put it. Mind incinerating might be a better term." She shook her head. "I've never heard of any of this. Initiators. The tri-corona. None of it. I mean, I've obviously seen the tri-corona numerous times before, but it was always just called the mark of the Shadow Walkers. This entire history goes against everything I was taught."

"Then I may or may not suggest you read the rest of that. I think you'll find that a lot of what you've been taught is misled."

She snapped the book closed. "No offense, but these things happened centuries ago. I'll admit that given what I do know now, this is much more likely than what I was taught, but that doesn't mean everything you know is right and everything I know is wrong." She realized her voice had come out harsher than she had intended. She knew he might be right about certain things, but she couldn't help but defend her own intellectual integrity. Misled as they may be as a people about their founding, there still had to be an essence of truth in everything somewhere. While she had seen enough to believe what she had read, she had to keep in mind that people on both sides of the story had something to gain and that the truth probably lie somewhere in the middle of the two perspectives. That was one lesson she had learned early on in life.

Darshan looked uncomfortable again. "Sorry. I didn't mean it like that."

"Yeah, I know," she said, sighing as she set the book down on the desk. "It's just that so much of what I thought I knew has turned out to not be true and for once I'd like to have the knowledge that not everything I believe is based on a lie."

He seemed to brighten at her words. "Then maybe you could look at something you're an expert in and tell me that I'm wrong."

"Like what?"

"The cities."

"Given what I've learned I don't even know if what I know about them is true. Apparently there's some kind of evil order running underground to hide the truth about all of this and I had no idea. Some expert that makes me."

He tilted his head back and forth, considering what she had said. "Maybe. But you're thinking big picture stuff. We have our own assumptions about that. Maybe they're wrong, maybe they're right. Maybe we as outsiders have a better view of what's going on than people on the inside who are concerned with other things. You know, forces that are there and you subconsciously know about but you never actually acknowledge. I'm more interested in the little things, mostly so I can pass it along to my overheads and they can use it as intel for when we attack." When he saw the shocked confusion on Elle's face, he laughed. "Just kidding. But I wouldn't mind hearing your take on some of the things I've come across. There's no real consensus on anything, though most of it is pretty negative. As I've read stuff, though, I get the feeling none of them have actually entered a city or done any kind of research other than what they fabricate in their own heads."

She raised an eyebrow. "And you have? Done your research, I mean," she said, knowing the answer before she even asked the question. She wondered what he would do if he found out Velia had told her everything.

He grinned. "Maybe. Once or twice."

"Uh huh, right," she said, rolling her eyes.

He picked up one of the journals from the desk and handed it to her after flipping through the pages once. "Proof that I've done my research. Maybe you can explain some things to me. I've already got my own interpretation of things, but maybe you could shed a little light on it."

"Have you ever been in Creighton?" she asked, taking the journal from him.

He shook his head.

"So you sent Keene off by himself. Doesn't exactly seem like something a best friend would do," she teased.

"There's a hell of a difference between being an unseen observer and actually having to blend in. I could never do it," he said, holding his hands in front of him as a reference to his pale skin, "and I probably would have gotten in the way. Not to mention he was being downright insufferable about it."

"He didn't want to go?"

"I'm pretty sure you've heard his opinion of the cities, Creighton in particular. Tell me he seems like the type to voluntarily go if there was nothing to come of it."

"I see your point." She was silent for a moment before continuing. "How does he feel about your interest in the cities? He can't be too happy about his friend being interested in a place that tried to have him killed."

"Let's just say we don't talk about it all that much and leave it at that. When he first got pulled out of the river we did but as you may have noticed he's become rather bitter over the years."

"And yet you still consider him your best friend."

"No one ever said I was smart," he said with a shrug. "After all, who in their right mind goes into a place knowing there are people out to kill him if he's discovered when there's nothing to gain from it?"