"Is this some kind of joke?" Vince Raines demanded as he stood. "Demons? Next you're going to tell me I can telepathically communicate with Santa Claus!"
Malcolm Xavier shook his head. "No joke. How many of these dead relatives speak to you through pain and agony?" From the blank look on Raines face, Malcolm realized he was clueless. "Hell, Mr. Raines. How many of these dead relatives are speaking to you from hell? None--is my guess. Do you truly believe nobody that has ever died went to hell? Or, maybe you believe more so in a coincidence that every client you've had since you received these powers has been from a strong religious family."
"I don't believe in any of that."
"Belief doesn't negate the truth. You're being used--plain and simple. Now you have a choice. I'm supposed to bring you to lockdown so you can be contained and studied. But I need your help."
"You're out of your mind. I had a hard enough time accepting I was hearing the voices of dead people. Now you want to be believe I'm being used as a pawn by some imaginary creatures from the depths of hell!"
Malcolm didn't care what Vince Raines believed and he told him such. "But I do care that I find the woman that gave you those powers," he said, firm gaze locked on the false-proclaimed Spiritspeaker. "So what will it be--poked and prodded or helping me?"
"How am I supposed to help?"
Malcolm drove the van along a stretch of unpaved road in the middle of nowhere. Fields dotted with an occasional tree passed by on either side of the vehicle. Next to him in the passenger seat, Vince Raines listened in disbelief as Malcolm tried to explain to him a reality of which he, along with most of the population, was unaware. In the back of the van, Lacy and Jesse listened on in silence.
For the most part, Malcolm tried to explain, the world people knew seldom revealed its true self. Every once in a while a normal person unaware of the dark layer of existence stumbled into a situation that opened their eyes. Ninety percent of those people chose not to accept or believe what they saw and usually ended up right back where they started, mentally blocking out the whole ordeal. Those other ten percent, though, they became aware and stayed that way. Some formed small factions, doing what they could to help maintain a proper balance between the veil and the truth. Most ended up dead or working for groups like the Order of Darius.
Demons are spirits unable to cross physically into the world except via rare, difficult processes such as possession--and even then, that took a willing host. Their influences, however, were wide and strong on this world.
"Where does the supposed God fit into all of this?" Vince asked.
"He's there," Malcolm replied. "How couldn't He be? He created it all."
"And He just lets all of this go on?"
Malcolm brought the van to a halt in front of a small cottage hidden between towering trees. An old man stepped out of the front door, supporting his weight on a gnarled cane. His bushy eyebrows lifted at the sight of the van; a pleasant smile crossed his lips.
"Hello!" the old man called out as everyone left the van.
Malcolm shook the man's hand and made introductions. "This," he said to the others, "is Gregory. He taught me everything I know."
"Everything you know, at least," Gregory said with a sly smile. "Not, however, everything I know."
To his right, Malcolm eyed Vince Raines. Vince seemed reluctant as if he wanted to say something but struggled to hold it in. The voices, no doubt, were speaking many terrible things to him right now in the presence of someone like Gregory.
To Gregory, Malcolm said, "We can't stay long, unfortunately. I just needed Mr. Raines here to be near you."
Baffled, the old man shifted his attention to Raines. Questions lingered but remained unasked; he knew Malcolm had his reasons.
"Don't understand. No. How is that possible?" Vince murmured loud enough to be understood, clearly not speaking to anyone present. His eyes opened and closed in slow blinks.
"Raines!" Malcolm shouted to jar him back to the present. "Control the voices. Command them. Tell them you know the truth and won't be fooled any longer."
Vince glared at Malcolm, eyes narrowing. "He knows her."
Not surprised, Malcolm turned back to the old man. "Gregory, what can you tell me about a girl with hair like flames?"
Frowning, Gregory shook his head. "Not much, I'm afraid. I ran into her once, and only once. She offered me the world if only I would release all those held in containment. When I refused, she nearly killed me."
"Anything at all? A name, perhaps?"
"The only name she gave me was--"
"Phoenix," Vince said.
"What?" Vince staggered for a moment. Lacy and Jesse each seized an arm to steady him. "They want me to take them to her. They say they know where she is."
As night fell over the city, Malcolm followed the directions Vince gave him through a series of rundown buildings filled with crackheads and other assorted "people."
After dropping the others off at a hotel with explicit instructions for Jesse to keep them there at any cost--even if it meant killing them--he had a momentary delay as Vince and then Jesse tried to convince him to not go alone. That wasn't an option, though. The danger this woman represented carried with it the potential of death. Gregory said as much and maybe that was why they wanted to come--Jesse at least.
The voices in Vince's head had multiplied since his newfound reality. No longer in the dark, he discovered the whispering menaces that previously informed him were now trying to guide him. Over time, the influence would grow and he'd find it more difficult to fight off the suggestions. For now, though, he was safe enough--probably.
Malcolm pulled the van up to a curb and hopped out. Before him stood a large building of unknown origins, its shell broken and ruined. As he walked through the filth inside, stepping over more than one homeless man sleeping off a drunken stupor, he found a weak stairway. Tempting fate, he climbed the abomination; more than once he nearly fell through as the wood planking crumbled under his weight.
On the second floor, while carefully traveling along a dark corridor filled with rooms, Malcolm glanced through each door despite knowing none of them held his prey. If the demons in Raines head were true--and it's highly possible they were lying--the woman known as Phoenix would be on the roof of this dilapidated building. He crossed another hall and then took a flight of stairs up out of the building.
Without much to look at here on the roof besides some gapping holes that looked down into the building--one hole bore through both the roof and the floor directly underneath to show the bottom level--Malcolm Xavier made his way toward the ledge.
"Hear you're looking for me," a voice called out.
Malcolm paused near the ledge, slowly turning around.
There she stood in an outfit fit for a slut. Even in the night sky lit only by the moon and the stars this deep in the deserted section of the city, the girl's fiery hair blazed as if made of true flames. The two-floor-deep hole stretched out between them.
"You hear correct," said Malcolm. "Phoenix, is it?"
The girl knelt and picked up a piece of debris, idly tossing it into the hole. She remained crouched for the moment. "What do you want, Malcolm Xavier?"
So she knew his name--that wasn't too shocking, many of the creatures of the night were familiar with him. Still, it surprised him and he did his best not to show it.
"I'm here to stop you," he said.
An amused laugh floated across the gap. "Stop me from what?" she asked innocently. "Your values are off kilter. I do this world a service. It is you that needs to be stopped."
"I don't kill innocent people."
"Neither do I."
"I saw your handiwork just a few hours ago."
"Nobody in this world is innocent anymore. Come on, Xavier. Open your eyes and look around you. This world belongs to the demons now. All these humans that you're so fond of, they've all been tainted beyond hope. Tell me you can't smell it every time you take a breath. Tell me you don't truly see the lost cause you're fighting. What happened to you? Do you honestly think doing this will make up for all that you've done before? Do any of these humans you work with--do any of them know what you used to be? What you still are?"
"What I am makes no difference. You seem to know much about me; yet, I know so little about you. Oh, that's right. That's because I'm important on the grand scale. You, on the other hand, are merely a blip--and an erroneous one at that."
Phoenix stood--a swift, liquid-like motion that flowed like the wind. "If I'm such small potatoes, why are you trying to stop me? I'll tell you why. You fear me, Malcolm Xavier. You fear me unlike any creature you've faced because you know I can kill you."
She wasn't wrong. Simplified as it was, part of him couldn't deny her words. Before he could get a word out, though, she spoke again.
"It doesn't have to be this way. We can kill each other if we must, but think, Malcolm Xavier. Think of the potential between us. With your powers and mine, we could rip the veil away in one violent swoop and lord over these humans. King and Queen for an eternity. Unstoppable by any man or beast."
"Not going to happen."
"Right." Phoenix rolled her eyes. "Because you've grown soft for the humans. You've become weak and pathetic in your vain attempts at restoring some semblance of order in the chaos. Why do you do it? What is so special about this world and these humans that makes you strive to return them to some past glory that hasn't been seen for over six thousand years?"
"You were human once, Phoenix. Have you been so corrupted that you can't remember what it was like to be one of them?"
"Was I?" The girl brushed her fingers through her hair, grinning. "Was I once one of them? What makes you so sure?"
"We were all human once."
"Some more human than others it seems. Were you so noble in your past life that the change wasn't enough to erase all that humanity? Is that why you fight?"
"I made a mistake choosing this. There are others like me, those that were young and foolish when they decided to accept an offer they weren't fully prepared to understand."
Phoenix spat into the hole. "Mistake? How can you call this a mistake? We are gods. Nothing can touch us. Still we hide in the dark. What for? So this precious world isn't knocked askew? So the veil remains firmly in place? Who cares about them? Who cares if they know the truth. Half of them would die if they knew--good ridden!"
"Gods we are not. Half of them would die, yes--but the other half would rise up and destroy us. That's why we hide. You pretend it's some glorious creature of darkness image you're trying to protect. You know the truth the same as me, though. If the humans knew, they would fight, and they would win. We hide because we fear them."
"I fear no human. And I certainly don't fear you."
Malcolm Xavier nodded to the girl across the hole. Then his eyes lit up bright red, glowing in the darkness, and he leaped across the gap, slamming into the one called Phoenix.
To be continued...