Jack Turner wasn't one to sleep during class because he didn't want it to affect his grades. He wasn't a bookworm or a geek or anything like that; he had never made the honor roll. He didn't spend more than an hour studying, unless of course there was a test coming up. He generally made high B's and low A's. Being top of the class was never his goal. He just wanted to do good enough now that it wouldn't come back to haunt him later in life. He didn't have MBA dreams, but he didn't want to struggle either. A well-paying job was all he was after.
Jack Turner wasn't one to sleep during class, but at that particular moment he couldn't keep his eyes open. Every few seconds his eyelids would droop or his head would sag, only to snap back up the next instant. It was apparently quite comical, as the people to both his left and right snickered each time it happened. Jack just tried to tune them out and focus on the notes they were supposed to be copying.
"He's gonna get it," one boy next to him thought.
"Can't believe he's got the balls to sleep in class," thought another.
"Mr. Turner," came the voice of his World Literature teacher.
Once again Jack's head snapped up, his eyes wide with alarm. "Yes Mr. Alaker?"
"Is my lecture on 13th century Italy soporific to you?"
Jack's face turned a faint shade of red as he realized he'd been caught dozing off. "No sir," he replied ignominiously. He had always been interested in literature.
"Then how about staying awake for the rest of it?" his teacher suggested. "See me after the bell," he added before returning to the board.
"Knew he'd get caught."
"What an idiot."
"Guess it's his naptime."
The other students let out more low snickers as class resumed while Jack sank in his seat, ignoring the voices he heard. He stayed awake for the rest of the period. When it was over he remained in his seat, packing his things slowly while waiting for everyone else to leave. Luckily it was his last class of the day, and Friday, so there was no rush to get out.
When the room was empty he approached his teacher's desk and waited to be acknowledged.
Mr. Alaker was bent over his desk, reading over the latest papers the class had handed in. "I don't normally have any trouble with you, Jack," he said without looking up. "You're a good student. So why are you suddenly falling asleep in my class?"
"I'm really sorry, Mr. Alaker," Jack apologized. He had always found Mr. Alaker affable, sometimes discussing classical works after class. He felt bad to be letting his favorite teacher down. "I just haven't been sleeping well lately."
"Staying up too late on the internet?" his teacher asked. "Too many video games?"
At this Jack gave an indignant frown. It wasn't that he didn't occasionally burn the midnight oil on a PS3 binge or site hopping online. But to automatically be accused of it like he was just another typical kid hurt a bit. "No," he replied stiffly. "I've been having weird dreams."
His teacher finished what he was doing and straightened up. Dante Alaker was a young teacher, in his late twenties, who neatly spiked his dark brown hair that didn't quite go with his casual blue dress shirt and black tie. He pulled off silver-rimmed glasses and set them on the desk, looking Jack squarely in the eye. Jack had always found Mr. Alaker's eyes interesting. They were brown, looked as if they had the faintest shades of red in them, like the color of bricks. He found them interesting because he'd only ever seen one other person with eyes that color – himself.
"What kinds of dreams, Jack?" his teacher asked.
Jack rolled his shoulders in a shrug. "Dreams where I'm falling. There's this giant gate I'm falling toward, but it's really far away. Every night I get a little closer. And there are demons, all around me, only they're not after me. Rather they're following me, trying to make sure I can't go back. I think they want me to reach the gate."
Mr. Alaker remained silent as he scrutinized the boy's face. Jack wondered if maybe his teacher was trying to decide whether or not he believed him. But then the older man sighed and ran a hand through his spiky hair.
"I suppose that would make sleeping a little difficult," he acquiesced, running his hand through his spiky hair. "All right, you're off the hook this time. Try and get rested over the weekend. I don't want you sleeping in here again."
"Yes sir," Jack said with a nod, feeling slightly relieved.
"Go on home then," Mr. Alaker said dismissively.
Jack gave another nod before turning and heading for the door. He wasn't sure, but he thought he could feel his teacher's eyes on him as he left.
Jack Turner liked to walk home, even though the bus would've been much more convenient. It gave him time to think, to plan out how he'd use the rest of each day. But more than that, the walk home was much quieter. School was loud enough, and often gave Jack headaches, but the bus had always been worse. Being trapped in a large metal tube with all of the other noisy children had been torture. He'd been so relieved when he turned sixteen early that year and his parents had started allowing him to walk to and from school, provided he wasn't late.
Jack Turner liked to walk home because Jack Turner had a secret he never told anyone. Jack could hear people's voices inside his head. Whatever they thought, he could hear. And when you hear things not just with your ears, but directly in your mind too, it can be quite overwhelming. Jack didn't know why he could do this, but he figured it was better not to tell anyone. He'd read enough books and seen enough TV shows to know what happens to people once word gets out they have super powers. Next thing they know everyone around him has super powers and they're getting dragged into all kinds of weird and/or dangerous situations. A simple life was all Jack was after.
It was November, and the air outside was cold, but Jack didn't mind. He pulled his dark green coat tighter around him and adjusted his messenger bag so that it sat more comfortably on his shoulder. He decided he would go home, knock out his homework early, and then relax the rest of the weekend away. In hopes of getting some quality rest he'd already sworn off all horror movies and games, spicy foods, and anything else his body or subconscious could carry over into his dreams.
No one was home when he arrived, as usual. Both of his parents worked late, which was nice because it gave him the free time teenage boys needed to do what teenage boys did. After cleaning up and clearing his browser history, he immediately cracked open his text book and set to work. An hour and a half later his homework was completed and he was ready to get his relaxation on. During the week Jack would usually start on dinner and let his mother take over when she got home, but on Fridays, as a treat, his dad would bring home pizzas or something, so Jack didn't have to worry about it.
As his washed his hands after using the restroom he looked himself over in the mirror. His hair, a sandy blond, was its usual unruly self. He noticed he looked paler than usual. He had never been pasty white, but he his skin did seem to somewhat lack pigmentation. He also noticed the dark circles under his eyes and chalked his pallid appearance up to the lack of sleep. He decided a nap until his parents go home would be best.
Jack Turner was falling. The hot air rushed up at him as he plummeted into nothing. He was falling fast, so fast that he could make out anything distinct around him. All he could see was the color red. Every now and then something dark would fly by in his peripheral vision. Sometimes it they were far away. Sometimes they were very close. They were always indistinct.
Jack Turner was falling, as he had been for several nights. He was falling into a place he had seen, and was coming to know quite well. He knew that soon he would come crashing down and black and charred earth. That he would find himself surrounded on all sides but one by demonic forces who would watch him from the shadows and leave only one direction to go. Down. Further down. Down toward that gate.
Jack cried out as he fell, though he knew it would do him no good. There was no one to hear him cry, except for the demons. But they weren't there to help him, only to guide.
He saw it rushing toward him now; a floating chunk of earth in the red abyss that he would crash down onto like always. He threw out his arms to catch himself, landing roughly with an, "Uooff," on the dry, soot-covered ground. He immediately scrambled to his feet and cast his gaze around.
He stood in the clearing of a dead forest. The trees were bare, withered, and black; the rest of the plants were equally lifeless. Several large black stones, vaguely shaped like tombstones, stood around the clearing. Darkness encroached on him, a quivering and writhing shadow the crept out from the dead forest. It whispered to him, egging him onward.
"To the Gate of Soul..."
"No one can help you…"
"One way down..."
"ANOTHER FUSE TO BURN!"
"I see the end of your FALL!"
"Heaven shall NOT be given!"
"Twist your dreams... and make it REAL!"
"Dark... is the END!"
Jack took one step back, and then another. A hot wind blew from nowhere, whistling loudly in his ear. He took another step back and felt himself nearly fall. Looking back, he found that he stood in the precipice of the floating earth. He quickly spun around, planting his feet firmly down on the black ground.
He could see it now, looming ominously below amidst a fiery Hellscape. The giant black gate, closer now than it had even been. A squared archway with several figures decorating both its doors and its frame. Something glowed along the top of the doors, burning brightly orange. They looked like words though Jack couldn't read them from so far away.
"Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'entrate."
Jack jumped and spun around at the voice. To his disbelief, Mr. Alaker stood before him, or at least he thought it was Mr. Alaker. He had Mr. Alaker's voice. He had Mr. Alaker's face. He even had Mr. Alaker's spiky hair. But the man standing before Jack wore armor that made him look like a Roman gladiator.
He wore a bronze chest-plate with several pieces of studded leather hanging from the waist to protect his legs, leather gauntlets on his arms, metal greaves on his legs, and a decorative lion-themed galerus on his right shoulder. In one hand he held a large around parma and in the other an ornate gladius.
"You remember these words, don't you?" he asked Jack, taking a step toward him. "Or did you sleep through that part of class?"
Jack shook his head to clear his stupor. It was Mr. Alaker. But why was he here?
"Answer me, Jack!" Mr. Alaker barked.
It startled the boy, who quickly recovered. He thought back frantically to the words he's teacher had just said to him. "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'entrate… Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. The inscription above the Gates of Hell in Dante's Inferno!"
"Very good," Mr. Alaker said, coming to stand before his student. "So now you know where you are."
Jack looked over his shoulder, down at the imposing gate, and then back at his teacher. "Those of the Gates of Hell?" he exclaimed. "But why am I dreaming that? Is this lucid dreaming? And why are you here?"
"You're not dreaming, Jack." Mr. Alaker's own brick-red eyes met the boy's. "What you're experiencing is closer to astral projection. In short, your soul has been leaving your body when you sleep and been brought here."
"Because this is your Choice. You probably don't know this Jack, but there's a reason your eyes have that red color. It's because you're like me, a nephilim."
"Nephilim," Jack repeated in a whisper. He knew that word, heard it a few times in books and on TV. Nephilim were the offspring of fallen angels and humans. "But how is that possible? How can I be a nephilim?"
Mr. Alaker looked Jack in exasperation. "Well obviously, one of your parents is a fallen angel. Your father goes by Barry, and is an astrology professor at the college right? I've felt his angelic aura. His real name is Baraqiel."
Jack opened his mouth to object but found he couldn't find any words.
Another hot wind howled around them, and from the corner of his eye Jack saw something he hadn't seen here before. From out of the shadows came one of the demons. At first it was shapeless but then it took form. It was grotesque and evil-looking, with dark gray skin and large fangs. It flew across the ground at Jack, its great claws raised.
Frozen in fear, Jack could do nothing but close his eyes and stand frozen at the demon attacked. He heard a sound, a loud clang, and opened his eyes to find Mr. Alaker standing between him and the demon, the monster's claws held back by his teacher's shield.
The blade of gladius Mr. Alaker held glowed with pale blue light as he swung out with it, cutting the demon down with ease. As he did the stones surrounding the clearing suddenly screamed, an earth-piercing sound that shook Jack to his very soul.
The older man growled. "My presence is making them restless. I'm sorry Jack. I shouldn't have come, but I didn't see any other option. Your father obviously hasn't told you anything about your heritage. And you seem to be a bit of a late-bloomer, so there's no way you could be ready for the Choice."
Another demon came shooting out from the shadows at them but Mr. Alaker intercepted it as well, killing it with another strike of his blue-glowing sword. Red demonic blood splattered on the ground and the surrounding stones let out another ear-shattering screech.
"What do you mean?" Jack cried out, his hands pressed firmly over his ears. "What Choice?"
Mr. Alaker grunted as he cut down another demon, wincing as the screaming of the stones. "Because nephilim are the offspring of fallens we're predisposed to Darkness. But we have the free will of humans as well, meaning we have a choice in which side we'll turn to."
"Which side of what?" Jack demanded in confusion. Nothing his teacher said was making any sense.
"Which side in the balance of souls," Mr. Alaker replied, struggling to hold one demon back while he ran his gladius through another. "Between Heaven and Hell, God and Iblis. Every living thing with free will has a choice, but when it comes to us nephilim the forces of Hell get pretty pushy. Once we hit adolescence and our powers start to awaken they come for us and try to win us over. That's why the demons haven't attacked you. They want you to side with them, and if you fall through that gate you'll be one of them."
He pushed back on his shield, throwing the demon aside. One more tried to attack him from behind but he pivoted on his left foot. The demon flew past him and he slashed it across the back with his glowing sword and the following through to cut down the other one he just threw away. With every demon he destroyed the stones screamed louder.
"Why hasn't my dad told me any of this?"
"You'll have to ask him. All I know is, you need to make your Choice now."
"Who in their right mind would choose Hell?" Jack asked incredulously.
"Depends on what they're offered."
"So if I don't choose Hell then what? Am I supposed to become some saint? Act like some pedant Mormon to show I choose Heaven?" Jack's parents had never been terribly religious, and so neither had he. He understood why now. But was he ready for a life of piety?
"It's not like that." With his blade glowing pale blue, Mr. Alaker swung out at the air in front of him, releasing a wave of pale blue light that flew across the ground at the shadowy mass, pushing them all back into the trees. "The Choice is just Hell trying to win you over early so that they can influence the development of your nephilim powers. If you choose against Hell you could spend the rest of your life as a normal human, making any choices you like and face judgment upon death like everyone else."
The shadows were moving quicker now, the entirety of them beginning to draw inward. Mr. Alaker swung his gladius again and again, throwing one glowing wave of energy out after another. They pushed back the shadows where they struck, but only marginally. Its slowed their progress, but progress was still made.
"At this rate we'll have to jump," Mr. Alaker said as they fell back toward the ledge.
"Won't that mean we'll be giving in to Hell?" He looked around, desperately trying to find anywhere he may have missed they could take cover until he woke up… if he did wake up.
"No, though there's no guarantee we'll survive the fall either. Unless you choose now."
"Of course I'm not siding with Hell!" Jack declared. "I don't know anything about all this, but I do know I'm not ready to make some big life-changing decision like siding with Heaven or Hell. I just wanna live my life, get a decent job, and live peacefully. I don't want any of this."
The stones around them shrieked once more, the sound seeming more angry now.
Mr. Alaker laughed. "They're angry now. They don't like to lose."
"There must be something we can do!"
For a moment Mr. Alaker was silent. "There is one thing," he said, running his thumb along the edge of his gladius, "but I don't think you'll like it."
"Do it!" Jack pleaded.
"All right." The teacher squeezed his thumb so that blood fell on his blade, then turned to Jack and drove the sword into the boy's side.
Jack's eyes grew wide and he coughed, blood issuing from his lips.
"You won't die," his teacher whispered to him. "You'll feel better when you wake up."
His voice came haze in Jack's ears, but he heard it clearly in his mind. The red world in front of him was getting darker. He watched through the haze as his teacher drew out the blade, now covered in Jack's own blood.
Mr. Alaker turned back to the encroaching shadows and raised the gladius, the blade of which was now glowing a deep color that was somewhere between crimson and indigo. When he swung down this time the energy wave released was far larger and appeared to be more solid. It spread out through the entire clearing, dissolving the shadows.
Jack barely saw any of this. He felt weak as he dropped to his knees and then fell forward.
"Don't worry," came his teacher's voice in his head. "Just wake up now…"
Jack Turner shot up from his bed, panting and covering in a cold sweat. His eyes were wide and frantic. Immediately he felt around on his side where he'd been stabbed but there was no wound. He wondered if everything had been just a dream. It must've been, right? There was no such thing as demons or nephilim. His father a fallen angel? Impossible. Hell? Well, who could be sure about that.
Jack Turner shot up from his bed and wiped his brow, relieved that it had only been another bizarre dream.
"It wasn't just a dream."
"Ah!" Jack cried out, startled. He turned to his desk, where the voice had come from, and found Mr. Alaker sitter in his chair, dressed in his same casual blue dress shirt and black tie. "How did you get in here?"
Mr. Alaker blinked. "Your front door was unlocked. You should be more careful about burglars."
Jack opened his mouth to say something but couldn't find the words.
"What time do you expect your father home?" his teacher asked abruptly.
"Um… he teaches a late class tonight, so not until after eight." His response came automatically and vapidly, his mind too numb to process and other responses, questions, or emotions.
Mr. Alaker frowned and sighed. "I see. And your mother."
Jack hadn't even considered that. If it was true, if he really was a nephilim and his father a fallen angel, did his mother know? "She should be home any time now," he replied, glancing at the clock.
Again Mr. Alaker sighed. "All right." He got up from the desk and headed for the door. "I'll give your father a call on Monday and set up a meeting for you, him, and I. We have a lot of work to do with you, late bloomer."
"Hold on." Jack threw back his covers and got up from bed, meeting his teacher at the door. "I thought you said I could live a normal life now."
"You can, provided you learn to control your powers. What, did you think you'd stop being a nephilim just because you made your Choice?"
"Well that's how it seemed."
Mr. Alaker let out a short laugh. "Sorry if I misled you. No, your powers will never go away. They're a part of you, and you need to learn to control them. That's one thing I want to talk to your father about; putting you in contact with the Lionheart Institute."
"An organization dedicated to helping people like you with nascent abilities. I wish it had been around when I was your age." Mr. Alaker reached out and placed his hand on Jack's head. "Don't worry; everything's going to be all right Jack. I know you want a normal life, and I'm going to make sure you get the help you need so you can. Like silencing those voices in your head."
Jack's jaw fell open because that last sentence had only been heard in his head, his teacher's lips not moving.
"For now just do what I said," Mr. Alaker went on.
Jack brushed his hand away indignantly and cocked his head. "And what is that?"
Mr. Alaker flashed him a crocked smile. "Try and get rested over the weekend. I don't want you sleeping in my class again. Later late-bloomer." With a parting wave he turned and left the room.
Jack Turner stood flabbergasted in the door as his teacher walked away. In the span of one Friday his world had been turned upside down. He'd seen his teacher, dressed up some kind of gladiator, fight off a horde of demons with a glowing sword. He'd learned that his father was most likely a fallen angel, and that the recurring dream he'd been having was really the forces of Hell coming after him. He'd just learned that there was an institute dedicated to helping others like him, and that, by extension, there were others like him?
Jack Turner stood flabbergasted in the door. He wasn't a bookworm or a geek or anything like that. He didn't spend more than an hour studying, unless of course there was a test coming up. Being top of the class was never his goal. He just wanted to do good enough now that it wouldn't come back to haunt him later in life. He didn't have MBA dreams, just a well-paying job. He never wanted to be extraordinary.
But now he was a nephilim.