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The Untrodden Path
Dexter peeled his eyes away
from the heroic activity around him and looked at
“Need a hand, pal?” said a young man at the foot of the steps.
“I need to find an address.”
“Let me take a look at it.”
“Thanks,” said Dexter, stepping down to him. A cardboard box was beside the man, filled with pamphlets. “What are those?” asked Dexter.
“These? Right now they’re going to be firewood, unless I can give them away,” the man replied sullenly. “They’re information packets on the environmental damage being done to New Faultline. It’s a travesty. Here, take one.”
“Thanks,” said Dexter, not wanting to be rude. Dexter pretended to flip through it as the young man looked at the address.
“This isn’t far from here. About ten blocks, near an old electronics warehouse that was destroyed by Clockwork.”
“Destroyed?” said Dexter apprehensively. He didn’t like the idea of living near Clockwork. Whoever he was, he sounded dangerous.
“Well, not exactly destroyed,” explained the man. “They were looting Rafferty Electronics and some heroes went in to stop them. Trashed the place.”
“Oh,” said Dexter. Clockwork are things, he told himself. “Are --, are any still in there?”
“Oh, no. They were trashed along with the warehouse. The neighborhood’s pretty safe now, except for some Hellions who took over an apartment building nearby. Stay away from them and you’ll be okay.”
“Don’t mention it. And hey, why don’t you take some pamphlets to give to your friends?”
“Uh, sure. I guess,” said Dexter. It was the least he could do.
When Dexter arrived at the address, he saw what appeared to be a normal U-shaped two-story apartment building. Its fading gray-brown block walls were scarred with the remains of years of graffiti wars. Its roof was uneven and damaged in places. Its windows were filthy, coated with the dust and dirt of many years of neglect. On the right hand landing stood three tough looking young men, smoking. Could they be Hellions? he thought. They glanced at Dexter but said nothing. On the left landing was a slim girl about Dexter’s age. She stared at him as he climbed the wide cement steps.
“Excuse me,” he began, lifting up the key, but she whirled quickly and disappeared into the open doorway behind her. When he reached the landing a young man with a heavy hiking pack on his back came out of the doorway.
“Can I help you?”
“I hope so,” said Dexter. “I was sent here with this key to meet Ramon.”
“I’m Ramon. Who are you?”
Relieved, Dexter said, “I’m Dexter Mooney. Azuria sent me.”
“Sent you to do what?”
“To stay here, I think. For a little while.”
Ramon said nothing.
Dexter held up the key. “She really did.”
Ramon eyes glanced at the key, and then settled back on Dexter for a long moment. After a pronounced sigh he said, “C’mon then. Let’s see if we can get you set up somewhere.”
Dexter followed him into the apartment. To his surprise, he saw that the left wing of the second story had been gutted. Dexter could see the outlines where the walls had been removed. Only discolored yellow paint remained. There were posters everywhere. Heroes and rock bands. Maps. Movie stars.
The rest of the wall space was taken up by a variety of holes, marks, drawings, notes, and pictures. On one wall someone had written Beetlebug was here in large black letters. Beneath these decorations dual rows of cots lined the room, twenty in all. In the middle was the doorway to the kitchen, and from what Dexter could see it was every bit as yellow and run down as the living area. At the foot of each cot was a small trunk. Some were open, some were not. On each cot was a thin mattress. Some had blankets, some didn’t. Some cots were empty, some were not.
Staring back at Dexter were a half dozen kids his age. They were as different from each other as they were from Dexter.
“Okay, this is The Loft,” announced Ramon. “This is where Azuria puts those who have no where else to go. Not to worry. You can bunk here, eat here, read here, do your homework here, or whatever else you want as long as you respect others. You have to be out in one month. No exceptions. I’m Ramon and I’m in charge. I’ll help you get a job if you need one. Otherwise you’re on your own.”
“Okay,” said Dexter. “Thanks.”
Ramon gestured to the young girl who met Dexter on the landing. She couldn’t have been more than ten. She wore a pair of faded jeans, tennis shoes, and an old Statesman t-shirt. Her closely-cropped black hair framed a white face and two enormous dark eyes. She stared at Dexter with those eyes and Dexter found it hard to look away.
“This is Monica,” said Ramon, “otherwise known as Moonchild. You’ve already met her.”
Dexter gave a little smile and a nod. “Hello.”
Monica only stared. Her dark eyes never left Dexter as she moved slowly across the room to stand behind another girl. As, she peeked out at him from behind the girl, Dexter wondered what the look on her face meant. She did not appear frightened, but there was something else in her eyes. Was it accusation? Dexter felt a twinge in his head, in the back of his brain.
*She senses me* said the Minion, sounding mildly amused. *That is… interesting.*
“And that’s Sienna,” said Ramon, nodding at the older girl. “She’s known as Silver Moth. At least, she will be when she registers, right Sienna?” Dexter thought Sienna was about fourteen. She wore a simple blue top and light green pants. Her brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail. Her face was round and her mouth firmly set. She stared, too, and nodded yes to Ramon.
“Hello,” said Dexter.
“Hello yourself,” Sienna shot back with a tilt of her head. “So, what are you all about?”
Dexter wasn’t sure how to answer. “What am I about?”
“Yeah,” replied Sienna. “What’s your thing?”
“Uh, I’m not sure what you mean. Azuria –.”
“Azuria sent you here, yeah yeah yeah, blah blah blah,” finished Sienna. “She sent all of us here. I’m asking why she did.”
“Well, I --.” Dexter paused, unsure how to continue. “Something happened to me. I ran away from home and I got caught in a storm and I went into this cave and…” Dexter faltered, not knowing how these children would react to the truth.
Moonchild’s black eyes peeked out from behind Sienna’s legs. There was something in them Dexter didn’t like. “And what?” said Sienna.
*Be silent. Do not be foolish. I can still overcome your will when I please. You do not want me loose in this room, do you?*
No, though Dexter. No, I don’t.
*Enough talk. Answer if you must, but make no mention of me.*
For once he and the Minion agreed. “And I was – infected,” Dexter explained. “I was infected with something and I came here to cure myself.” Under the circumstances that wasn’t a bad explanation, thought Dexter.
“Can we catch it?” asked one of the other children.
“No,” replied Dexter. “I don’t think so.”
“Why did you go to M.A.G.I?” asked another girl. She was perhaps twelve, pale, with curly carrot colored hair and freckles. She had an odd staccato rhythm to her speech. “M.A.G.I. is for magic or the occult or something and only people who have magic or know magic can go there. We all know magic or have magic or the occult or natural forces or whatever you want to call them, but we don’t know how to use our powers yet. That’s why Azuria took us in and lets us stay here, so we can learn our powers and help the people of Paragon by fighting evil magic in the world. There is evil magic in the world, you know, I’ve seen it with my own two eyes. My aunt works for M.A.G.I. and she’s called Vintressa and she says this whole city was built on the ruins of an evil magic city and that’s why the evil magic is so strong and the followers of evil magic are so powerful. She says --.”
“Okay, Aliceanne,” interrupted Ramon, gently holding up his hand. “I think he gets it.” He turned to Dexter. “That’s why we call her Cicada,” he explained.
“It’s a good question,” said Sienna, eying Dexter suspiciously. “Why did you go to M.A.G.I?”
“I didn’t go on my own. I was sent. There was a soldier at the entrance gate. He pulled me out of the crowd and talked to me. He said I needed to go to Azuria, so he sent me there with some of his soldiers.”
“Was it the guy in charge?” asked a black-haired boy about sixteen. “Was he a big guy with a rough voice?”
“Yes,” said Dexter.
“Watchdog,” said the boy to the others. Some of children nodded silently. The boy said, “You met Watchdog. He has mutant senses. If he sent you to Azuria it’s because you needed to go to Azuria. He must have smelled the infection on you. If he sent you to Azuria, it must be a magic infection.”
“It is,” replied Dexter.
“It must be a dangerous infection if he sent soldiers with you,” said Sienna. Dexter found he had nothing to say to that.
Then another person spoke. It was a young man, older than the rest, perhaps twenty, wearing a long black trench coat and large brown gloves. The beginnings of a brown beard shadowed his cheeks. He stood in the shadow of a far corner. He raised his voice so all could hear. “I knew M.A.G.I. was hurting for people, but to send a sick kid in to fight the bad guys is a little desperate, don’t you think, Ramon?”
Ramon leveled a stern look at the young man. “I don’t make the decisions, Johnny. Azuria gave him a key. That means he’s okay, at least for now, so lay off him.”
Johnny ignored Ramon. “Hey, kid, does Azuria know you have this infection?”
“Oh, man,” chuckled Johnny. “Things are worse than I thought.”
Another person spoke, a boy of about sixteen with a thick shock of brown hair shooting out from under a Baltimore Orioles baseball cap. “No one’s making you stay here, Johnny. If you don’t like it, you can leave.”
“I’d love to leave, Richie!” Johnny shot back angrily. “But I have to stay in this daycare from Hell until Azuria gives me the okay to register. It’s ridiculous, I know. I have twice the power of any of you, except maybe Cupie Doll over there.”
Sienna turned to face Johnny. “Her name’s Moonchild.”
Johnny grimaced. “Whatever. My point is I should be out there right now looking for the thing that did this to me.” Johnny held up his two gloved hands. “I should be out there right now trying to get my life back! Instead I’m stuck here with you losers.”
“We’re not losers!” said Ramon. “We’re learners!”
Johnny looked like he was going to be sick. “Oh, that’s sweet. Did Mamma Azuria teach you that? Did you have to memorize that in Power Control class? That is adorable, but don’t be fooled, Ramon. You lot aren’t going anywhere. I mean, look at you. Look at all of you.” Johnny gestured at Moonchild with a gloved hand. “A seven year old head case too afraid even to leave this apartment, much less help real Heroes.” He pointed at Sienna. “A sixteen year old surrogate mother whose only valuable power is the ability to cook macaroni and cheese.” He opened his arms to Ramon. “And a would-be birdman whose wings are so heavy he can’t lift them!”
“Stop it, Johnny.”
The voice came from the darker kitchen area to Dexter’s right. Dexter turned to see another teenager, a boy, move slowly into the common room. He wore a pair of new tennis shoes, blue jeans, and a Metallica t-shirt. He moved with a strange kind of balanced shuffle, and almost seemed to Dexter to be leaning on the wall for support. He spoke quietly, but there was gravity in his voice, and a deeper undertone Dexter couldn’t place. Was it pain? Was it cruelty? Dexter felt the Minion staring at the boy. The Minion’s attention made Dexter very uncomfortable with this young man.
“Stop what, Peters? Telling the truth?” said Johnny.
“Just stop it. Nobody cares what you think anyway.”
“Well you should. If you listened to me, we’d all be out of here by now.” Johnny gestured to Ramon with a gloved hand. “Oh, except for you, flyboy.”
“If we listened to you, we’d all be in jail. Or worse, the Zig.”
Johnny grimaced in disdain. “Nobody’s going to the Zig,” he spat. “You all think your deformities are part of God’s plan or something. Well I’m here to tell you they ain’t. The world sucks, and we all have to deal with it. I know you didn’t pray for giant wings, Ramon. I know you didn’t ask to dream of every evil you sense, Sienna.” Johnny turned to Dexter. “And whatever you have, I’ll bet you didn’t ask for it either.”
“Actually, no, I didn’t,” replied Dexter quietly.
“And I didn’t ask for this!” said Johnny, tearing off his gloves and raising his two fists in front of him. They were instantly engulfed in crimson flame. Dexter felt himself cringe back. It felt like the fire gave off more than heat. It felt – wrong. The Minion’s attention sparked. Dexter could feel it coming forward in his mind for a better look. *Well, well, well…* it mused.
“I didn’t ask to become a conduit for hellfire. I had a job. I had plans. And now look at me.” The flame went out with a hiss and Dexter could see Johnny’s hands – malformed and bony, full of dark red cracks and tipped with sharp, thick, yellow nails. “I can’t play guitar anymore,” he explained to Dexter. “I can’t do what I love. I had that taken from me by a demon whose name I can’t mention because when I do my guts heat up like a barbeque. All because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. And I was good, too. I was the best damn player in this town. So no, I didn’t ask for this, but I’m stuck with it. We’re all stuck with it. And I may have to live with this, but I don’t have to like it. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Peters.”
In one deft motion Johnny snatched his gloves off the floor. Leveling a challenging stare at the room, he slowly put them on as he walked out the front door. An uncomfortable silence followed, broken by Sienna. “Don’t listen to him, Dexter. There’s more damaged in Johnny Hex than his hands.”
At last, Ramon said, “Here,” and led Dexter to an empty bunk. “You can have this one. It used to belong to a girl called Roan. She’s a Hero now. What’s her name again?” he asked Sienna.
“Right. Moonspell. Good name.” Ramon turned to Dexter. “Good names are harder and harder to come by these days.”
“Oh, really?” said Dexter. “Sounds like there’s a lot of moon names available.”
Ramon laughed softly. “Yeah. I guess. Well, see you tomorrow. Remember, we all walk to class at seven thirty. And you better get up early if you want a warm shower.”
“Yeah. At M.A.G.I. We all still have to go to school. State law, you know. So we take equivalency classes at City Hall Monday through Friday.”
“Ah.” Great, thought Dexter. How am I supposed to stay anonymous when I have to enroll in school?
After a satisfactory dinner of canned chili and hotdog slices, Dexter settled in for the night. Young people came and went. Some watched a tiny color TV from one of the half dozen battered recliners and sofas that made up the lounge area. Some did their homework. Some listened to their iPods or spoke to friends on their cell phones. For Dexter it was a nice reminder of the kids at his high school, of the life he used to live. That had all changed now. The more he thought about it, the more he understood what Johnny was feeling. After all, he didn’t ask for this, either.
Things were quiet, the children subdued, as if they were all unwinding from a strenuous day. If I were an orphan in the most dangerous city in the world, I might be tired at the end of the day, too, thought Dexter. As if on cue, he fell asleep.
When Dexter awoke it was dark. As his mind struggled to clear itself, he had the fuzzy notion that he had not awakened on his own. A soft glow of awareness bloomed in the back of his head, and he knew the Minion was awake too. As he fought to see, he felt a portion of the Minion’s consciousness surge forward into his eyes. Dexter felt the sickening pressure of the Minion’s feral senses on the backs of his eyeballs – and suddenly he could see. It was not the seeing of humans, or even mortals, Dexter knew. It was the seeing of the Minion. It had happened before in the dark acres of the forest outside that accursed cave. He could hear the pulse of every heart in the room, feel the warmth of every sleeping breath. The dull red glow of heat came off their bodies in slow motion waves. As quickly as the awareness came, Dexter realized he was being watched.
Sienna sat with her back against the wall on a bunk across the room. She stared openly at him in the darkness. I know you can see me, she said in his head. And I can see you. As he lay on his cot the Minion moved in his mind, a cool grey presence slipping forward. Dexter tried to push it back, but the black tint of its malice shadowed his thought.
What do you want? The thought was more accusation than inquiry.
She knew something was wrong with you the moment she saw you, Sienna said in his mind.
Involuntarily, Dexter’s night eyes shifted to little Monica, Moonchild, sleeping peacefully on her bunk across the room, then shot back toward Sienna when they sensed her anger.
If you try to harm her, I’ll kill you, she thought. And I can do it.
Dexter believed her, but the Minion bristled at the threat as if challenged. To Dexter’s relief it remained silent, like a stalking wolf sensing its prey has become wary.
Then to Sienna: I told you, I’m infected.
Oh, you’re a lot more than that.
I don’t know what you mean.
Didn’t you listen to Johnny? I’m a Sensitive. I know things about people. I know you are not what you appear. Monica knows it, too. She showed me things, things about you. Things about the thing inside you. You can’t hide here, Dexter, and you can’t keep that thing inside you forever. Every minute you’re here puts all of us in greater danger.
I’m working on it.
Not good enough. You don’t understand what it needs. You can’t control it. You need to leave. You need to take that thing away from here. Now.
The Minion’s consciousness surged forward again, this time Dexter felt it swell within him like air inside a balloon. *Little girls should not tempt the devils of the world.*
Sienna recoiled involuntarily from the power in the voice. Dexter felt it too, a raw, ragged mindvoice with a knife edge of hate. When she spoke, it sounded like she was in a trance.
I know what you are.
Moonchild showed me – things. Great grey wastelands with skies the color of death and strips of crimson cloud like bloody bandages, wrapped about a silver moon too big to be real. But they could not cover it. I saw a red mark on the moon and I knew it was named for you. I saw towers of shining black stone and cracked valleys, baked by a merciless sun and filled with a thousand pitiful wandering creatures. I know what you are. I saw you there, in that valley, seated among the ruins of a great city. You wore a crown. You sang to the moon. You are Veszoi.
The Minion seemed to hesitate, as if savoring the scent of a meal long anticipated. *So I am,* it said at last.
Sienna continued as if she had not heard him. You are an animal guardian of the Circle, a servant of the Night Mages. You guard the Crystals. You are the protector of their evil. You--. She faltered, stumbling over the words as if her mind rebelled at the thought of saying them. You were bound to a human sacrifice. You…were…once…
*Human? Yes. A part of me was, a long time ago. Many of your lifetimes ago, in fact. And a part of me is from another place altogether. From the place you saw. Ah, but it is good to hear the old names again! Tell me more.
No. You must go. Take Dexter and go.
*No. I want to hear the names. Say them.* Dexter could feel the wave of dark wil that rushed outward at Sienna. She fell from the bunk onto the floor, closing her eyes tightly. She clutched at her hair.
*The moon you saw. What is its name?*
I don’t –.
*But you do! What is it?*
Va--, Va--, Vadai.
*Yes! Vadai the Nightwalker. And the valley?*
I can’t --.
*Oh, but you can! The valley!*
Se--, Szekkoighara. Please, release me!
Leave her alone! screamed Dexter from the pit of his mind.
*Yes. Szekkoighara. Jewel of the Moonlands. How I miss its smell. Little Moonchild possesses knowledge far beyond her years. Are you sure she is all human? Perhaps I should open her up and see for myself?*
Leave them alone! Dexter tried to push forward, but the Minion was too strong. The force of its will shoved him down, down, into a pit of darkness. Even as he fought, he felt his body rise from his bunk. He sensed Moonchild now, roused by the foul waves of hunger coursing through the room. He sensed her power, her innocence. It was intoxicating. He felt her mind, glowing like a gray light in the darkness. He wanted to break it into a thousand jagged pieces.
Foul Veszoi, you are unclean, said a new voice in his head, clear like sunwater, painful as silver. Shall I cleanse you?
He turned to see the Loft’s open doorway and Azuria standing on the doorstep. Robed in bright grey she was, with hair the color of bleached bones. Her mindvoice was sharp as a scimitar. The stars behind her seemed to lend her their light. It hurt his Minion eyes.
You cannot banish me, witch!
And you cannot harm me, Nightclaw. Not as you are. This boy you have, he is not strong enough.
And you will find prey elsewhere. This place has my protection. Return not, lest you suffer for it!
A burst of silver light came from her. The Minion turned and threw itself through the window opposite, dropping to the street below. Dexter knew it was his body, knew he had been hurt by the fall, but was powerless to stop the Minion. The hunger and rage of the Minion overcame him. As he ran from the Loft, from the young people he had met only hours earlier, he was filled with sick sadness.
In spite of itself the Minion paused, glancing quickly back at the window. Turning, it ran toward a nearby park and the smell of prey.