Eye of the Storm

AN ENOCHIAN WAR SHORT

by Luke R. Mitchell

It began, as friendships only rarely do among urchins, with a shy smile and an offered scrap of bread.

The boy peering down at me through dirty blond curls was even scrawnier than me, and at least a year or two younger. I was shocked at the sight. Not because I hadn’t heard him clumsily ascending to the sun-bathed rooftop from the alleyway below over the past several minutes. I’d carefully chosen my urban retreat for that exact reason. But that wasn’t why I was shocked. Nor was it for the fact that the boy barely looked physically capable of the climb—though that part was true enough.

What truly shocked me, though, was the hunk of bread he was holding out. Holding out freely, as if he actually intended to hand the precious morsel over to me.

Unless you happen to have grown up on the streets, I doubt I can adequately express the significance of such a seemingly small gesture. The comparison is far from perfect, but suffice it to say: it would have been less disconcerting on that day to see the boy pointing a knife or a loaded gun my way.

He couldn’t have been more than six or seven years old. He looked more than half-starved himself. He had no business offering me anything. Least of all, precious food. No business that could possibly end well for him.

Not that I posed any threat to the boy.

Even by that young age, I had somehow been terminally afflicted with a soft spot for soft people. Confrontation was unavoidable living on the streets of Serenity, but I did my best to avoid it whenever possible. I certainly never went out of my way to cause a fellow urchin any harm—a fact that endlessly delighted the young, sociopathic tyrants who’d ordained themselves the divine rulers of our sad little kingdom.

A beard biter, those older, stronger boys and girls would call me, on the rare occasions when I failed to flee in time to escape their corporal punishment. Punishment for what, none of us could have rightly said. For the audacity of daring to exist at all in such a world, I should think. And to that end, I hardly blamed them for their pressing need to inflict pain. We were all of us equal casualties of society, after all.

But that hardly meant I had any desire to see that shy, smiling boy dead in an alleyway come the next morning, bereft of his bread and repaid in kind with a terminal head wound.

“You shouldn’t wave food around out in the open,” I said, squinting up at him against the sunlight, and trying to ignore the cavernous rumbling of my empty stomach. “Not unless you want a nice alley rock to the back of the head.”

“You looked hungry,” the boy said, with an honest shrug.

Those words should’ve been a joke, I feel compelled to point out. Anyone who grew up in such conditions would tell you that hungry was simply the way that urchins looked. Everyone was hungry. Even those bold, juvenile tyrants who so ruthlessly collected their undue tribute from every unprepared urchin they happened across in their ceaseless patrols. But this boy was speaking plainly, as far as I could tell. Which made me all the more certain he was a doomed fool.

“You climbed all the way up here because you thought I looked hungry?” I asked, pointedly eyeing his bony frame, which was pretty much all there was to him. “How long have you been on the streets?”

The boy’s smile turned guilty, and he dropped his gaze down to the bread in his hand. “Long enough to know you like rooftops a lot,” he said. “But never the same one twice in a row.”

Those words hardened my insides, freezing my breath and threatening my better judgment. My head raced with urgent whispers that I’d finally been caught—that this meek little boy might have already discovered my safe haven. That he might have tracked me here from there.

That maybe the older urchins had sent him.

But no, I consoled myself, resisting the urge to spring to my feet and check my surroundings. The older children wouldn’t bother with such an elegant plan, and if this boy truly knew anything, he would’ve attempted to catch me off guard back at the hideout I’d so carefully assembled over the years.

“I like the sunlight,” I said, offering the most logical explanation, along with my best conspiratorial grin. “Did you know some people believe it can nourish us, if we let it? That you can live off of sunlight alone?”

The boy seemed to give that real consideration before finally shaking his head. “Never heard that. Doesn’t look like it’s working, though.”

This time, my smile came more easily, the hardsteel grip on my innards loosening at the boy’s sincerity. “But you can’t blame me for trying.”

The boy shrugged. “I just thought you must like it because you don’t see it all day like the rest of us.”

And just like that, my ease snapped back to rigid tension. Heart thumping. Panic rising. Flush with a kind of wild desperation I’d only felt once before, the first time Baltor and his gang of young sociopaths had caught me off guard in the streets.

“I know you probably don’t want anyone else to know,” the boy said quickly, apparently sensing that he’d just crossed some territorial line. “And I know it’s none of my business, really. But, well, I just thought… if you found a safe place down there…” He held up the bread again, taking a small step closer. “If you found a safe place down there, I want in. I can help you, you know. We could… What? What is it?”

What exactly the boy saw on my face in that moment, I could only guess. I was too mired in my own cold calculation to care.

To say it was the first time I had ever truly contemplated murder would not have been inaccurate. Not technically. But I do suspect that that statement implies a far deeper level of emotionality than I actually experienced in that moment.

In my mind, it was little more than a reflexive glance at the rooftop edge, underscored by an aching pang of desperation to protect my sad little world from this unexpected perturbation. Or maybe that was only the ache of my empty stomach. I couldn’t have said. Regardless, the thought itself—the mental image of my springing to my feet and hurling the boy to his death—was purely clinical. A bird’s-eye assessment of but one of the options ostensibly available to me moving forward.

It terrified me.

“What is your name?” I asked, desperate to add some substantive identity to the boy in front of me—to form him into something other than the problematic intruder in my mind, that I might balance my moral scales before the hunger and the fear and the years of corporal punishment all got the better of me and took control of my shaking hands.

“Zeke,” the boy said softly. “My name is Zeke.”

And that was when I noticed that his hands were shaking too.

“What’s… What’s your name?” he asked.

Silently, I reached out a hand for the bread. He gave it willingly.

It was good bread. Hearty. Baked full of nuts and dried goja berries. Even dry and crusted as it was, the sight made my mouth water.

I looked back to the uncertain boy. Zeke. So small. So malnourished. Yet so dignified as he stood there. And clearly clever. And motivated enough to carefully follow me for Alpha knew how many days. Dedicated enough to offer me what was probably the most valuable thing he currently possessed—the gift of a day’s sustenance.

What he thought I had to offer in return, I couldn’t have said. Yes, I’d found shelter where few others had. And yes, to the best of my knowledge, I’d managed to keep that fact a secret. But it wasn’t as if I had roast swine and baskets of fresh fruit waiting there.

Still, I could somehow feel that this was right—that Zeke was genuine, and that we could help each other. I felt it deep down, right in the same place where I sometimes felt the tingle of unwelcome company approaching. That same instinctive place that had led me to find my hidden shelter in the first place.

I didn’t have any idea back then what my dormant senses would one day evolve into. But even then, my intuition told me clearly enough what I had to do.

I handed the bread back to Zeke. “Eat.”

The boy looked down at the bread in his hands. “But—”

“Eat,” I repeated more firmly, rising to my feet and reaching for the tattered rag I called a shirt. I pulled it on, silently thanking the sun for another day’s imaginary provisions, and turned back to find Zeke watching me, cautiously hopeful.

“Does that mean…?”

“Eat, Zeke,” I repeated, gesturing to the bread, and allowing myself a small smile at the excitement blooming across his young, dirt-smeared face. Alpha willing, the boy saw something that I didn’t.

“My name is Carlisle,” I said. “And I can’t have my one and only friend collapsing before we make it back home.”

***

A very wise man once told me that nihilism is for the very wise, and that the very wise need nihilism like they need an extra hole in the head. And if that statement leaves you wondering who the truer fool is between the thinker and the ignoramus, or what exactly it is that the very wise in fact do need, then rest assured, you find yourself in good company here.

My name is Carlisle, and I expect this is the end.

I would tell you more if I could. Perhaps a family name, to start with. Alas, I do not know where I came from. Not in the familial, biological sense. Presumably, I did have parents. Possibly, the single memory I have of my mother’s face is accurate.

Carlisle may even be my real name.

Truth be told, I do not know. No more than I claim to understand why it is Zeke’s story that comes to me above all else, here at the brink of death.

If this should simply be my subconscious self casting its vote for that which most merits repeating before the end, then I cannot say I would disagree with the choice of Zeke. Still, to tell you the details of all the many adventures the two of us shared in the years that followed that sunny rooftop truce would be well beyond the scope of what time I fear I have left.

Suffice it to say, I’d never had a friend like Zeke.

He was clever. Far cleverer than me, I suspect, though the fact would’ve been lost on most—and not by mere trivial happenstance. As brazen as his introduction had first appeared, I soon learned that Zeke was as discreetly cautious as he was clever.

In the end, it wasn’t enough to save him. But that was hardly any fault of his.

Early on into our burgeoning partnership, we began forming wild aspirations, as children are wont to do when left to their own devices with little but empty bellies and empty silence to pass the time. We began stockpiling what scraps of food and coin we could. It wasn’t much at first—there was rarely more than we needed to survive. But Zeke was quite clever, and it was easier with the two of us.

What began as a pitifully scant oilskin bundle of two copper nuggets and a single miraculous bag of flash-dried durja fruit soon grew to a brimming pack of rations and coin. Not so long after that, we’d stockpiled enough goods to fill the shelf we’d carefully excavated in the dark depths of the long-abandoned sewage outlet we called home. In two short years, our riches had grown nearly beyond our humble comprehension, and with those riches grew our grand, audacious dream of one day leaving Serenity.

We didn’t know where it was we would go. Humility, perhaps, where we’d heard longing tales of how the Sanctum’s generosity more readily flowed down to homeless like ourselves. Or maybe to New Amestown, a city said to be ripe with all manner of scrappy upstarts, like we imagined we could be, given the opportunity. Sometimes, we even talked of going to Divinity.

The location itself didn’t matter nearly as much as the dream. We were too young, after all, or perhaps just too willingly ignorant, to see that no mere change of locale could ever undo our position in the eyes of Enochia—though, looking back now, I do begin to suspect that perhaps we did know, somewhere deep down. That perhaps, despite our bright spirits and tireless efforts, neither one of us ever truly expected we’d go through with The Great Plan. I think we knew an end was coming, even as I feel mine coming now. And perhaps that is precisely what draws me back to this long-closed chapter of my life.

Because Zeke’s end was all my fault.

Or so I would tell myself for years to come.

From a rational point of view, it is easy enough to see that it was their fault as well—those sadistic young tyrants, bred and nourished on the malicious under-crust of humanity’s worst indifferences. It was even Zeke’s fault too, if we are being perfectly honest. In the end, we all share the faults of our shortcomings as a species. To think otherwise is beyond arrogant. But in all the years since, I have never truly escaped the weight of my blame in the matter.

I was the one who scared him back onto the streets, after all.

To this day—to this exquisite, excruciating end—I cannot truly say what it was I was thinking that day. No more than I can claim to understand the depth of the emotions I felt, or what they might have one day become had I only been more careful.

All I know is that I loved Zeke. And it was the death of him.

***

It is possible I overestimate the weight of my contribution in what transpired that day.

After all, it was little more than a warm embrace between friends, and the light brush of uncertain lips on an unexpecting cheek. Little more than a confusing misstep, by most reasonable standards. But it was enough. Enough to send Zeke out into the streets, sputtering hurried excuses about unplanned supply runs. Enough to rattle that cunning caution of his that had kept him safe throughout the years.

I don’t know how long the older boys and girls had been tracking us. Years later, when my senses had grown so refined that I could’ve counted the hairs on a man’s head from a quarter of a mile away, I thought to track those once-tyrants down themselves, and ask them. My power had grown to match my senses, after all. By then, a gang of unarmed beggars would’ve posed no more threat to me than a swarming mound of insects.

But back on that awful day, that gang of poorly-armed urchins might as well have been a full Legion company.

By the time I found Zeke, I could scarcely believe he wasn’t already dead. He’d been beaten. Badly. Not with the playful, pseudo-ritualistic sport with which the urchin tyrants so often treated those smaller, weaker victims they caught and wished to leave with a lesson after having deprived them of food and coin. This was different. More savage. More emotional. The scene reeked of unbridled hatred. I swear I could smell it over the sickening metallic bite of the blood. I smelled it just as plainly as I could see that Zeke was barely clinging to his last breath.

He used that breath to tell me what I wouldn’t once in a thousand years have even thought to question.

“Didn’t… tell,” he only barely managed to gasp, after multiple attempts. “Have to… run.”

I’m not sure I really registered the words at all in the moment. I didn’t care that Zeke had protected our secret, and that the brutes who’d done this to him would be out there, looking for me. Hunting for me. That didn’t matter.

All that mattered in that moment was the look in Zeke’s eyes as he labored to utter his next words—the look that said that, even after what I’d done, I was the only person on Enochia he wanted to see in those last moments. That his spirit had indeed been holding on solely so that I could find him, and so that he could tell me whatever it was he needed to tell me. Only he couldn’t, in the end.

Zeke died in my arms, last words unspoken. I do not think it an exaggeration to say that a part of me—and not a small part—died with him in that broken Serenity alleyway.

The rest barely merits telling. How I wept and raged over Zeke’s broken body, shouting to Alpha for mercy, and to the apathetic streets for the promise of vengeance, and the swift delivery of those savage tyrants to my waiting fists. How I found them—or, rather, how they found me­ later that afternoon—and how my brash outrage would have most certainly seen me join Zeke in death that day, if not for the interjection of a very wise man.

I didn’t understand how Cassius found me that day. As I lay beaten and bloodied within the ring of those glib tyrants, all of them sneering down upon me, taking their turns at the boot, I’m not sure I even cared. I was too occupied clinging on to my blind rage even as they drained it from me, kick by kick.

It wasn’t until cycles later, when Cassius had finally accepted his inescapable role as my new teacher, that he told me how the awakening of my extended senses had cried out to him like the keening of a bereft mother narwhal that day. How he’d known that I’d lost someone precious, even from miles away.

At the time, it seemed reasonable enough to assume he’d merely appeared by magic.

A flash of light and thunderous sound roared through the alleyway, buying me a brief respite from the rain of kicks—and even from my own senses. It was overwhelming. Paralyzing. Like we’d been hit by lightning, or singly targeted by some other raw force of nature.

Only when my dazzled eyes came back to my grimy alleyway execution, it wasn’t some elemental storm spirit I saw, but a lone man. Slender and dressed in threadbare robes of gray. An unmistakably deranged look in his eyes. He was more than a little intimidating, though perhaps not in the way you might imagine.

Regardless, half of my would-be killers were already stumbling away in retreat before they’d recovered their sight enough to even spot the interloper. When they did, a few threw stones at him, only to watch in horror as their crude missiles slowed in midair and dropped neatly to the man’s feet, guided by some unseen hand.

A repulsor field, my brain insisted. Some kind of advanced, personal repulsor field apparatus. And snap flares for the dramatic entry.

But even as I thought those things, I knew them to be naive rationalizations. I wasn’t sure how I knew. I just did—felt it as certainly as I felt that the mysterious stranger had come there looking for me.

It was a bizarre feeling. But I’d just watched the man work an impossible magic. An impossible magic wielded to protect me. And in that moment, all I could focus on was the desire to see that magic turned to violence against the wretches who’d taken Zeke away from me.

Cassius refused me, of course, as I struggled to find my feet, shouting and screaming all the while for him to stop my fleeing tyrants and punish them for what they’d done. He simply held me, not seeming to mind the shaking and sobbing, until those tragic, sharp-edged specimens of humanity’s under-crust had long scrambled to safety, away from the cursed magic, and away from my mournful wailing.

I’d never cried like that in my life. Never have since. Cassius didn’t have to restrain me. My fight had gone, bled out. I cried for Zeke, and for myself, and for everything dead and gone in the world I thought I’d known, and Cassius held me until I was done—no questions about who I was, or who they’d been, or what in Alpha’s sweet mercy had happened there. Just gentle hands, reassuring me that my world had not quite ended. Not quite yet.

It wasn’t the last time I would need those reassuring hands in the years to come.

Would that I could tell you more about how that wise man rebuilt me over the years, and how he trained me until I was sure we could rightly call ourselves the two strongest Shapers across all of Enochia. Would that I could. But our time here is ending. And Cassius never seemed to care about such things anyway.

It is this last lesson of his which I have struggled so long to fully grasp.

Fitting, I think, that I should finally find it here at the brink of death, with you.

For a long time, I clung to the belief that the entire ordeal had always been a matter of power. That those savage boys and girls had come after us simply because we had more than them—food, and shelter, and even coin. But that wasn’t it at all, I came to realize in the years that followed, seeing the world by Cassius’ side.

They did not hate us because we had more than them.

They hated us because we’d done the thing that every urchin across Enochia has at some point dreamed of doing. They hated us because they knew perfectly well they could have done the same, had they only dared to try.

They hated us not because people despise their cages, but rather because they despise those with the audacity to show them that the door has in fact been open all along, and that they need only take their first steps forward to see it.

That is why I mourn for Zeke.

That is why I fear for Haldin.

Not because of the raknoth. Dire and severe as that threat is, it is also corporeal. It can be quelled from this planet. Will be. No raknoth will stop that now. No matter how strong.

But when you and I are gone… When this planet is left to tend to its wounds, seeking answers in the still-smoking ashes… That is when Enochia will inevitably stare down the rift that has been a thousand years forming. That is when we will need wise men, and even braver ones still, to stand for what is right in a world that demands nihilism or religion as the price for sanity. A few audacious dreamers, standing against a thousand years of fearful dogma, and the wrath of the willfully ignorant.

And they are legion.

I cannot help but think it should all fill me with a terrible rage. My selfish desire to find Cassius aside, everything I have done in the past decade has been in the sole interest of stopping you and yours from staking your bold claim over this planet. And while I do not deign to fancy myself a hero of Enochia—or even a particularly good man, at that—it does strike me rather bitterly that an entire population could so easily be made to fear and resent the man who has quite possibly done more to stop your kind than any other living Enochian.

Yet, for all of this, I feel no rage.

I feel little at all.

Perhaps I’ve given over to nihilism too completely.

Or perhaps it is simply that I have placed too much silent faith upon the shoulders of Haldin Raish. If there is anything that brings me more guilt than Zeke’s death, it is most certainly that: the burden with which I have left that boy.

Not that I dare to worry he cannot handle it. I shudder to imagine what manner of weight that boy could not bear. No, if my heart aches for anything, it is for the knowledge that he will handle this burden. That he will break himself asunder upon the challenge, if he must. The challenge we might have faced together, if not for this. But now…

Haldin will not stop while he still draws breath. Of that, I have a fool’s faith, and a father’s fear. But it no longer matters, what I feel or think. What matters is that you were foolish to come to this planet, creature. And now it is too late. Too late for me to lament that any of this came to pass. Too late for me to wish that Haldin might have been spared from it all. For as much as I might wish it, I know all too well that it is no kindness to protect a person from the pain of life in a universe such as this. Just as I know that that boy will survive, and that your people will come to rue the day they set their hungry eyes on our kind.

And now it is too late for me to do anything but to end you, and to give him a head start at seeing it done.

I only hope it will be enough.

***

Howling winds tore through the once illustrious Great Hall, tinged with an eerie violet glow, whipping what few monstrous creatures remained alive toward the center of the enormous hall like an arcane cyclone stirred to life by the wrathful hand of Alpha himself. Only it couldn’t have been by Alpha’s hand, Carlisle knew. Mostly because the uncanny storm was his own doing, but also because there was no longer any arguing the matter: if Alpha or any other deity had ever graced that hallowed darkstone hall, they had most certainly vacated these walls well before the evening’s morose catastrophe had begun.

To call it a slaughter—or even a massacre—would have been entirely too underwhelming, and inappropriately anthropomorphic to spare. What had swept the Great Hall that evening had not been some idealistic demonstration, or even an act of war. Nothing so personal, so emotional.

What had swept the Great Hall that evening had been a plague. A dead-eyed plague of sharp claws and bloody fangs, carried in on the intergalactic wings of the creatures who’d come to Enochia to replace humanity with a breed of their own. And now Carlisle sat dying with the uppermost echelon of the plague bringers, holding back the increasingly violent tides of the growing storm inside him even as the thing with the face of the man who’d once been Cassius stared back at him, desperately fighting to get his claws to Carlisle’s throat and end what feeble flutter of life remained.

Not that death could stop what was about to happen.

The energy was already there, roaring through every crackling molecule of the air, lighting the depths of Carlisle’s broken body like a terrible new universe waiting to collapse in under its own mass.

The instant he lost control, whether by death or voluntary choice, everything in this Great Hall was going to die. But not until Haldin was clear.

The Legion transports were gone. Everyone was gone. Haldin had jumped with Elise, and Johnny, and Phineas. Beaten and bloodied as his young partner had been, Carlisle knew it was too much to ask Haldin to survive that fall for all four of them. But Haldin would do it anyway.

Carlisle only had to hold the inevitable collapse back long enough to give him the time.

“Fool,” growled a murderous, beastly voice in his mind. “You believe blind faith and sentimentality can overcome the reality before you?”

The raknoth tore against Carlisle’s telekinetic restraints without warning, thinking to catch him off guard. Carlisle flexed his mental construct and listened without mirth as the creature’s hardsteel bones cracked at the intersection of its own brutish strength and the storm’s unfathomable pressure.

“Sometimes. Yes.”

If the creature called Zar’Faenor thought much of Carlisle’s point, he didn’t say so. The raknoth just struggled harder, seemingly oblivious to the pain, and no longer inhibited by whatever hold Cassius’ lingering presence had exerted on him only moments ago.

Carlisle couldn’t keep this up much longer—was astounded he’d managed to contain the energy of Cassius’ unraveling atoms at all.

There was a reason Shapers didn’t do this.

“It scarcely matters what either of us think,” Carlisle sent to the creature, nearly losing it completely when the growing storm flared with an unexpected surge of power. “Neither of us will be here to see it.”

“Naive fool,” Zar’Faenor rumbled in his mind. “You seek to impose order on your meaningless memories even as you drown here in the chaos of the unraveling universe. You are not worthy of the power you wield. To the cursed void with you and your human drivel.”

The storm bucked against Carlisle’s control again, stronger than ever, unrelenting. If he’d had the air left to lose, it would have been breathtaking—the sheer, raw power of it. He searched for that faint tendril of Cassius’ lingering presence one last time, and found that it, too, had faded. But all was right. He knew Cassius was with him in spirit, now. It was enough. Perhaps he’d even see his beloved mentor again on the other side. And Haldin…

Haldin would be close now. Another few seconds and—

The swelling tide of energy hit him like a natural disaster, demanding release. The Great Hall sang with a roar of shattering glass, and half of the expansive ceiling came raining down in a deadly shower, ready to finish what Zar’Faenor had failed to.

No more stopping it.

“Very well,” Carlisle sent, his lip twisting upward in a pained grin despite it all, his forehead still pressed firmly to that of the creature that’d once been Cassius. He felt one last flicker of gratitude through the exquisite pain. One last brilliant flame of bittersweet guilt and hope and love for the young Shaper plummeting to the street below.

“To the cursed void with both of us, then,” Carlisle sent.

And then he let go.