In the early morning hours of Saturday, two figures walked along the desert Ferguson & Brown Street, nearby the port. It wasn't, by far, the best place of the city; it was poorly illuminated, because one of the local entertainments involved finding new and creative ways of wrecking the street lighting; the walls were covered in graffiti; a persistent smell of public toilet hung over the narrow alleys, where garbage was democratically distributed inside and outside the containers. Most of the houses were two or three-storey, but rather old, and nobody seemed to weight up the idea of investing in rendering or painting; what for?. Many lit up rooms could be seen through the glasses of the uncovered windows, and the residents watched the telly, played the console, dozed off or had their fun discussing at the top of their voices. Sometimes those voices could be clearly heard from outside.
It was the perfect place for someone, or a group of several someones, to come up from a dark corner and demand your very last coin, and you could be completely sure no one would call the police, no matter if you shouted yourself hoarse. The best course of action was, in fact, crossing the street as stealthy as possible and praying to be unnoticed.
The two figures weren't paying much attention to that sensible maxim; their steps resounded on the pavement, and the silence of the night magnified the echo. And keeping in mind their appearance they should have been the first ones to fear any sudden assault, any violent demands, or at least some mockery at their extravagance. They were wearing identical black leather outfits: a long, reinforced coat, with two concealed zippers in the middle of the chest and back, tight down to the waist and very loose to the ankles; they carried something long and thin that made a bulge along their left sides. The toes of their sturdy boots showed with every step, along with the hem of the garment on top of their trousers, some kind of long skirt of the same colour and material. The only apparent decoration was the belt, the backstitched cuffs and edgings and the buckles of their boots. The shorter figure was wearing gloves; his companion's height was so remarkable it could have discouraged any possible assailant in a less quaint place of the city, but not there. Upon walking past one of the windows they found a bored girl's face stuck to the glass, and despite the look that man in black leather cast on her, she totally ignored them. Odd...
They arrived to a house, and the tall one openly looked through the windows. No light in the ground floor, but it looked as it there was still activity upstairs; he walked to the side, raised his head and confirmed he was right. The nearby wall was easy to climb, and from there it would be a piece of cake to reach the roof of the adjacent house and get a good observation post to spy on the only lit up window of the facade. He climbed nimbly and motioned for his companion to follow him.
The guy wearing gloves could calmly watch the inside of that room: his occupant was a fifteen or sixteen years old boy with blond and curly hair, and a light spray of freckles covering the white skin of his nose and cheeks. The portable console in his hands was engrossing him, and his face displayed an expression of intense concentration.
'So that's Davenport. He's very young...' he whispered.
'The average. You know it.'
'And to think he lives in this dump... Well, not much worse than my old place...'
'I'm already taking care of that. The theatre is his passion and he's very serious about it, but in his present circumstances that would only cause him headaches. We're offering the boy a grant to a drama school; those worthless parents of him won't ever think of refusing.'
The figure wearing gloves, who was none other than Mìcheal, felt sad for a second. It had been a grant to the Conservatory in his case; and he had indeed attended it for more than a year, and had received praises. But pressure had been too much and made him drop out; he had stuck to Faulkner's training program and had left his guitar for the privacy of his home.
'An actor? Wow... a talented boy. And besides very ha...'
'I know what you're going to say, Mick, and you were more handsome. And still are.'
'But at least it looks like you'll be enjoying it.'
Faulkner released an impatient sigh; he didn't like at all the turn their conversation was taking.
'I do what it must be done, my duty.'
'A duty I'd wish for myself...' remarked the young man with soft voice.'
'Four times in three years, Mick. And you know if I had a choice...'
'It's okay, Owen. Just kidding.'
Munro's strange mood couldn't last long, that night was too important and exciting for him. His first Marked Day. After three years, that was his first night walking the streets with Faulkner. He knew Jaleesa had been his regular partner so far during those occasions: Jaleesa Donahue, the lawyer's attractive, efficient and extremely skilled assistant, both in worldly affairs and in the unusual ones. She regarded him as much more than a boss or a mentor; the young man had no doubt about it, if only because of the stares she pierced him with in the rare opportunities they met... as if she was cherishing the idea of plucking that blond bird... and wring his neck. And now that he had ousted her in the street, her warm affection had surely increased beyond limits. Well, that wasn't his problem. He had been waiting for his chance long enough.
'Still long for him to ripen? Will it be today?' he asked.
'No, I don't think so; but it'll be soon enough, and since others are on his trail, we can't get our eyes off him. I don't want them to try some dirty trick to put him out of my reach. I spent enough time earning his trust, and the next Marked Days I'll be there, making sure the first thing he sees when the moment comes is me. By the way, Mick, I think it's better if Jaleesa or anyone else accompanies me when...'
'No. Three years, Owen? I think I waited long enough. You're very wrong if you think you'll be able to leave me behind again. Send me out with some other partner if you want, but I'm also part of this...'
'I will never send you out with anyone else but me.'
'Then you'll have to put up with me, since you don't trust my abilities.'
'It isn't like that at all. You're good, fast and skilled; but I wouldn't even be able to concentrate, knowing I exposed you to danger under someone else's guidance. And in the very moment one of the others set eyes on you, your existence with be revealed. You know it's convenient to be discreet about the size of our ranks until the last moment; I don't have many cards left up my sleeve, and you were one of them. But the worst... is that you will become a target, like the rest of us. Do you know how hard is that for me?'
'Is it better for me to be locked up forever, waiting and praying for you to come back home? I bet the others were gossiping when I spent the days swinging the sword inside the four walls of the gym while our people were killed.'
'Two casualties. We are the group with the least casualties, Mick. We are the best, don't doubt it for a minute; and don't doubt either we will win.'
Faulkner's voice became cold as an ice floe; words came out of his mouth like a frozen puff that made his partner lower his head. He had hurt his pride and also made him feel guilty, he was sure about that. He had had nothing to do with his companions' deaths -they had taken part in fair combats- but would always carry the burden of responsibility, like a huge tombstone on his chest. He was a good Alpheh, a great leader; no, Munro was sure their people never questioned his decisions and respected him above all things. Those words had been out of place.
'Sorry, Owen... I...'
'I'm just worried about you,' interrupted the lawyer, stroking the younger man's gloved hand. 'Look.'
He pointed at the window. The boy was opening it right then, leaning on the sill and looking at the landscape with bored expression. He raised his gaze to the roof where the two figures rested and apparently fixed it on a spot besides them; Mìcheal became tense.'
'Don't worry, he can't see or hear us,' calmly remarked Faulkner. 'It will take some time, but that's one of the Marked Days gifts you have to get used to.'
'It's... strange... I never understood quite well how it works. Are we invisible?'
'No, but people can't perceive our presence. They will always try to turn their heads aside and their brains won't record the space we occupy.'
'And the cameras?'
'Exactly the same: they will turn away or stop recording.'
'Wow... such good bank robbers we could be...'
'Yes, but that isn't the purpose of our abilities.'
'I know... Just kidding.'
He studied his young target again; they both did, silently. Until the echo of some steps arrived clearly from the corner; a sound which the boy didn't react at either...
Two silhouettes were outlined against the faint light of a surviving streetlamp. One of them was much taller, but otherwise they looked alike: clothes tight down to the waist and very loose to the ankles... They walked towards the window, raised their heads and openly watched Davenport; the boy ignored them.
Down there they no longer were a dark spot, and their features became vaguely visible. They were both dark-haired and wore leather uniforms very similar to Faulkner and Munro's, but grey.
The lawyer stifled a curse. He couldn't say that encounter was taking him completely by surprise: in the very moment Jaleesa had called to tell him one of the Greys was hanging around, the possibility that he could be back had haunted him restlessly. He had prayed to be wrong but obviously his prayers hadn't been listened... It had always been a question of time for him to return, and anyway he had enjoyed a three years long truce...
For his part, Mìcheal had become nervous. Greys... would his first Marked Day also be his first confrontation? At least he didn't have to fear the arrival of more enemies: traditionally there was a single place where his kind could gather in groups. Ah, but that guy commanded respect, was so big... as big as Faulkner... Munro frowned and even leaned down to get a better view.
A sparkle of recognition shone in his eyes, that opened wide, almost double size.
The name came out of his lips before he could stop them. Barely a whisper, but enough for the newcomers to turn their gazes at them. Munro didn't pay attention to the shortest; he could only stare at that attractive Asian face that scrutinised the darkness, trying to find out the identity of those two shadows crouching on the roof.
Faulkner's hand, so far covering his companion's, grabbed then his wrist and pulled abruptly, making him stand up.
'Greetings, Jang,' said the lawyer. 'Tired of wandering?'
'Faulkner?' asked the Asian with a soft, musical voice that didn't match his size. 'I should have guessed it was you. If you have no intention of fighting, come out to the light.'
'I'm fine here, thanks. Consider it a fair reward for not attacking you from behind.'
'What's wrong? So much office work dulled your reflexes? Maybe I should be the one taking the initiative then...'
'Ho-Jun,' the younger man repeated aloud. His companion gave a quick pull on the arm he was holding, partially covering him with his body; but this time the Asian could hear clearly. He dropped his jaw and knit his eyebrows.
'Mìcheal? Is that you?'
The man called Ho-Jun Jang in western style made as if to climb the wall, but Faulkner's firm voice stopped him.
'Stay right where you are, Jang, or you'll start something we'll have to finish, like it or not.'
'You finally decided to let him out, from what I see.'
'That's no concern of yours any more.' His hand pressed the wrist it was holding so much that the young blond had to muffle a whimper.
'I just want to ask how...'
'Best is that you leave for tonight,' interrupted the lawyer.
Jang let his tongue slip along his lips. His deeply concentrated expression revealed the tempest of contradictory ideas that had broken inside his mind. After some moments of consideration he said:
'I'll choose to leave, for tonight. But don't you think this ends here,' he nodded at the window; 'neither this, nor...'
The Asian left, dragging his amazed companion behind, after a last look at the portion of shadows where Munro should have been.
Mìcheal had tried to raise the subject once they were safely back home, but Faulkner hadn't even wanted to hear about it. The youngest didn't think of insisting. What was the use of it? They hadn't exchanged a single word about it since Jang's departure, and they wouldn't do it now. There was nothing to say; Ho-Jun was the Alpheh of the Greys, a rival, an enemy. Someone who could, who should try to kill him during a Marked Day.
He hadn't seen him in three years; he was gone to wander, as Owen has called it, leaving the Whites and themselves alone. It wasn't a senseless manoeuvre, as the lawyer had been forced to acknowledge. That city was the best place to swell their ranks because it would be there were most of the Alpheh's future targets would be born or attracted to. Recruiting in the rest of the globe was hard, it demanded exclusive dedication and being continuously on the road or in the air, letting their instincts to serve as a guide to find them; but as an advantage, confrontations were very rare. Three years with the Greys out of the equation, leaving the other two factions taking care of each other... No, it wasn't such a bad plan, in theory. Yet Jang's reasons hadn't been purely Machiavellian; in fact they hadn't been at all.
Now that he was back, the confrontations would intensify. They both had acted discreetly regarding the boy Davenport, but obviously none of them would let their prey escape. Faulkner would have gladly left his partner at home, but he'd have rebelled; there wasn't a damn thing he could do.
One night, the lawyer came for Munro much earlier than usual.
'Get ready because it will be tonight. I can feel it.'
The young man obeyed without a word. The nights had started to be warmer, and their uniform wasn't the most suitable outfit for that temperature; but it couldn't be helped, since it'd offer extra protection in case of need.
He couldn't understand quite well how would both Alpheh manage in such a tight struggle; he knew that as the ranks of each faction increased, the number of candidates was reduced and it was very difficult to avoid fighting over them. In their world, full of rituals and traditions, a faction leader's first duty was making his people trust him from the very first moment; nobody would think of earning an adept's trust by using violence. Seldom.
They appeared in front of the boy's house right in time to see him walking away from the dark and silent building.
'Where could he possibly go at this time of the night? He had never done it before,' whispered Faulkner. Let's follow him.'
Both men made haste to catch up with the freckled youngster. He wouldn't be able to see them unless they allowed him, hence it didn't matter if they walked practically on top of him. Davenport's mood wasn't relaxed at all; he looked around in all directions, as in fear of being attacked -a sensible behaviour in such an area-, but his expression was determined and longing at the same time. He seemed to be in search of something exciting and forbidden: his first night party; drugs; sex; everything at the same time...
The boy kept walking, undisturbed, for a quarter of an hour or so. The lawyer racked his brain trying to imagine where he was going, and if he should simply approach him. And then he saw them.
Jang and his partner appeared in his field of vision, as if they had come out of the blue. The other Alpheh had clearly done the same as him, but had chosen to follow them from a distance. As he had announced that wasn't going to end there, and any clash with Faulkner would turn into something personal; the lawyer would have bet his head about it...
Knowing the Greys were on their heels was a threat, but nothing unexpected. The problem, the real problem, came up when he could no longer see them... The tall man in dark leather was alarmed. After a quick peek at the street he activated his mastoid.
'Jaleesa? Run to the end of Fairview Market Street; they'll be on top of us in no time.'
He disconnected and guided Munro to the nearest turning. If he wasn't mistaken Jang had walked away to send another pair against them; they'd try to hold them and make them lose sight of their target. It was their people's tradition, never more than one pair in a confrontation. The boy wasn't going to disappear, but if they had to stop and face two Greys, most probably he'd get out of his reach and fall into their Alpheh's clutches. He knew his opponent, he would never harm Mìcheal; but there were many ways of knocking them out without actually killing them...
He wasn't wrong: two grey uniforms were visible around the corner. Good thing Faulkner had thought about it and had prepared two support pairs, one to watch his back and the other to track Davenport. He looked upon his shoulder for half a second; one of the grey uniforms had stopped and was performing some strange gestures, her left arm stretched in front of her, her right one folded to her chest, as if she were pulling an invisible string...
A muffled cry. Bless Jaleesa, right in time, the lawyer thought. He didn't even bother to look back, such a strong confidence in his assistant's abilities he possessed. Still dragging Munro behind he adjusted his trajectory and resumed the race after his target, activating his communicator again.
'Where...? Goldbrook Park?'
It was nearby. But it wasn't the place he'd recommend to visit by night; it was barely illuminated, and the least you could expect was they'd even steal your trousers. And you were lucky if they stopped there. He cursed the boy under his breath for being so irresponsible; if anything happened to him then, when he was still a completely normal human...
Goldbrook Park wasn't very big, but the grove was thick and wouldn't allow a good view, specially during nighttime. The bushes, abandoned to their fate, wouldn't make easy to track anyone either. Faulkner tried to remember if there was any place specially suitable for a meeting. He believed there was some kind of grotto besides the dirty trickle of water which the park had been named after, long time ago; and close to the centre there was an old stone structure that was used as shelter from the rain. The best was to split up. He turned to his partner, a look of concern in his eyes. Moving away from him, even if just a short distance? Was Munro really ready for that? Truth was he needed Davenport; four in three years wasn't a brilliant count. He desperately clung to his conviction that Jang wouldn't want to risk hurting him.
'If you follow this path you will arrive to a grotto, maybe hidden behind some bushes. You'll check if he's there.' Mìcheal was surprised that his companion had entrusted him with that task, but he wouldn't have dreamt of complaining. 'I'll head to the centre, to the stone shelter. Leave the communicator open; if you can't find him in five minutes I'll come back for you, do you understand?'
Faulkner's hands moved to his neck to pull both zippers down, the front and back ones. The top of his outfit was split in two; he released his arms and both halves simply hung down his belt; he wasn't wearing a shirt or any other kind of garment under it.
The scars on his bare back slightly protruded, became wider and opened...
Black stumps sprouted from the openings, silky and wet like the skin of a newly-born chick; they grew and branched at both sides of his shoulder blades, above his shoulders and bellow his waist. The thin dark threads expanded, dried and hardened, gradually acquiring the appearance of feathers; shiny feathers, beautiful as black velvet.
Black, huge, perfect wings. So long it was barely possible to keep them folded. The process lasted mere seconds, but Mìcheal never grew tired of watching it. He was still fascinated when his partner mightily flapped them and took flight; his eyes followed him as he gained height, until he remembered he had a very important task to do and started running.
Faulkner achieved a good view of the park from up there; as good, at least, as the dim light of the crescent moon allowed him. He had a quick look at the spot where Munro should be, but his figure was already lost under the tops of the trees. Losing sight of him provoked him a pang of anxiety, but he couldn't afford paying him more attention. Not during the next five minutes, at least.
He flew over the grove. Near the centre there was a wide circle where shadows had a less dark hue than the rest: a clearing in the middle of the trees. And an even paler shape marked the place of the stone structure. But there was something else as well... two smaller shadows, standing at a certain distance of the rectangular form. He dared to descend so that he could make out who they were, although he had a strange feeling. They were actually the grey Alpheh and his partner; their wings weren't spread, but their open clothes revealed they had just used them. They both raised their heads to look at him, and the shortest adopted an offensive stance; Jang placed a reassuring hand on his forearm.
Faulkner landed with the agility acquired after years of practise. He realised the Greys were as surprised to see him as he was to meet them there, just watching. However, it didn't take him long to get an idea of their reasons, according to the kind of sounds coming from the shelter. He moved his hand to his mastoid very slowly, to show he had no intention of attacking them, and commanded Munro to go there.
'I though it was you, the one inside there,' quietly said Jang.
'I can't believe... Swift! That son of a bitch again beat me to it...' Swift was the white Alpheh. Faulkner bit his tongue as soon as he pronounced those words, but it was already too late.
' 'Again'? Owen Faulkner has gone soft through the years; or maybe he became slow,' mocked the Grey.
'You haven't performed better, I don't think you have moral authority to make sarcastic remarks.'
'And you simply have no moral authority to speak about moral authority.'
The lawyer was about to retort when Munro came out of the trees at full speed. Three pairs of shiny eyes turned to him; upon seeing those figures standing there, apparently chatting, the young man felt intimidated. Owen approached him, protective. Protective, and possessive.
'What is going...? started to ask Mìcheal, his gaze alternately travelling from one Alpheh to the other. The Grey's attention was momentarily disconnected from the world around him and focused on the newcomer. Faulkner couldn't be sure, but he assumed his almond-shaped eyes were devouring his partner; that drove him even madder.
'They went ahead of us,' he informed with his most self-restrained voice, like a lawyer who knew he was on a loser but affected all the calm in the world.
'Swift?' The other nodded. 'What if... what if it's a girl? What if it's just a... date?'
Faulkner frowned and turned to his rival. Jang stretched his arm, palm facing upwards, as if he were inviting him to confirm it himself.
And so did he, with Munro stuck to him. As they went closer to the structure, the youngest could also hear the moans... and they were revealing indeed... Mìcheal felt despicable for spying on something so intimate, yet he couldn't help but being curious; as curious as a branded animal that wanted to watch how they branded its companions.
The rain shelter had ceased being useful long time ago. A big part of the roof was missing; the hole served as a frame for the silvery half moon that spilled its faint light over two figures.
A slender built, fair-haired person -undoubtedly Davenport-, his back to the entrance, was straddling a body that remained hidden behind him. The way his hips moved up and down, the way those hands had taken possession of them, the sensual and slightly tortured music that came out of his lips... cast no shadow of a doubt on the nature of the events that were taking place. Nobody else but an Alpheh could be then inside him; two wounds were opening on his back, at both sides of his shoulder blades; two dark, shiny trickles were running down, parallel to his sides. The Alpheh's seed was the essence that awoke that present, dormant from birth inside a handful of chosen ones.
Spill Blood to Spread the Wings...
Faulkner withdrew in frustration, but Mìcheal kept peeking, mesmerised by the ritual. It should have been Owen, his lover, the one placing his own seed inside that boy, or maybe Ho-Jun; the race winner had been Swift instead, the third leader he didn't even know. Ah, they were starting to appear... it was always painful, the first time... always... Yet there's much more than pain in his voice, thought Munro, it sounds as if there were no other place in the world where he'd choose to be, but here, inside these ruins, right under the moon...
The young man with aquamarine eyes observed those tender shoots. The semi-darkness and the blood were surely playing tricks on him, for they didn't look white at all... However, his partner grabbed his arm again and dragged him away from there; there were certain things they shouldn't be prying into.
Mìcheal didn't get to notice that the man under Davenport was aware of his intrusion. During an instant, just a few seconds, a pair of eyes stared at him over the boy's shoulder. So wide open that it seemed as if they were about to pop out of his head.