The Darker Fringes

The reddish orange leaves scattered over the steps that led to her mentor’s cabin conjured up images of blood and fire. This isn’t helping, she thought, rushing down the remaining steps.

She reached the door and almost walked in without knocking, before she remembered whose home this was—a Captain of Crossroads’ trigger finger didn’t lose its speed just because he no longer worked for the government.

The door opened before her knuckles hit wood.

“I sensed your anxiety before you even—” A glance at her clothes silenced her mentor.

He reached for her hand, but she stepped back before he could touch her skin. She didn’t want him to sense the raw energy of the recent carnage, not before she could explain. “Can I come in?” She pointed at the blood staining her t-shirt, at the burn spots on her jeans. “It was bad, Sir.”

Her mentor moved aside to let her in.

She walked into the one-room cabin, removed her badge from her belt, unholstered her M9 pistol, and placed them on top of a rustic coffee table next to a steaming mug.

“Care to sit?” her mentor said, settling in a ratty armchair and offering a loveseat. He grabbed his mug without saying a word about the gun or the badge.

“I attacked my Captain of Crossroads.” When her mentor said nothing, she sat down and waited.

“What happened?” Perhaps perceiving her hesitation, he added, “I didn’t leave the agency because I was tired of my career. I have always fed on the energy I get out of serving and protecting. One of those two was compromised by agency policy. I complained and was told to consider my place, to think of the dangers, to remember who I was. I did. I remembered that it was dangerous to allow myself to get so hungry that I nearly forgot why I needed to serve and protect others.” He returned the mug to the table. “Tell me what happened.”

Her mentor’s words banished the unease. And she told.

“Earlier this morning, I noticed that the names of two Mythicals I escorted to Headquarters three weeks ago didn’t make it into the End of Quarter Report…”

“Nothing says ‘You have no life’ like visiting strangers on your day off,” she said to the foyer mirror before walking out of her apartment. But she was being too hard on herself. A one-parent family leaving Pre-Chaos to join the general population was a rare thing. She couldn’t be the only agent curious to see how the young father and his son were adjusting to New York City, where they would have to hide what they were from almost everyone.

She headed towards South Ferry Station wondering if it would be appropriate to get a small gift for the child. Maybe next time, she thought, scrolling down her emails and opening the file that contained her EQR.

After skimming through the document a couple of times, she stopped walking. The date was correct. The badge number in the subject line was correct. Everything was correct; except that she had escorted 21 Mythicals last quarter, not 19. She almost called Crossroads Headquarters to request the two Mythicals’ temporary address. But her unit was fewer than five blocks away, and she decided to walk there to print an updated copy of the report.

Since the building was supposed to be empty on holidays, the harshness of someone’s distress took her by surprise. She glanced towards the front desk. There was no one there. She started to think that she was only feeling the annoyance of someone who had to finished paperwork on a day off, when a man’s pleas crawled out of the Captain of Crossroads’ closed door.

She pulled her M9 and began inching towards her boss’s office.

“Don’t do this, please.”

She didn’t recognize the first voice, but the second speaker was her boss.

“It’s simple,” he said. “Work with us, and your kid will be placed with a good family.”

“You don’t understand. He… he needs me,” the man spoke through sobs. “He won’t be safe without me around to teach him. He’s too young. His control… He won’t be safe. Please, let—”

“Fine,” her boss said. “I’ll ship you to Headquarters. The doctors there will be more persuasive. Just know that I was offering the kinder choice. You’ll walk in front of me. Make the wrong move and I’ll send the kid to sleep.”

She took a few steps back and crouched by the front desk.

The man was in handcuffs. The child’s hands were zip-tied and there was a hood over his head.

When the man neared the spot where she hid, her boss said, “Stop right there.”

The man stopped. And looked right at her.

She raised a finger to her lips, and breathed a sigh when the man did nothing to give her away.

Her boss locked his office door and attached the end of a leash to a collar around the child’s neck.

“Let’s go,” her boss said to the man.

She crouched lower, waiting for her boss to walk by. When she glimpsed the back of his shoes, she got to her feet and pushed her M9 to the back of the Captain of Crossroads’ skull.

“Don’t make a—” she began to say, but he jabbed an elbow into her gut and the gun went off.

Her boss and the child collapsed.

The child’s feet began to twitch. She ran to check on him, but the child’s father got there first.

“He’s too short. I couldn’t have shot—”

“It’s the cord,” the father said, pointing at her boss with his chin. “He’s using it to drain my boy and heal himself.”

“What do you…?” Then she saw what he meant. The wound her bullet had left in the Captain’s head was closing. She knew that every agent working for Crossroads possessed some minor Mythical ability, but no one had ever said anything about instantaneous regeneration.

“…the cord,” the father yelled as he tried to flip the Captain’s body, while still handcuffed. “We need to sever the cord or he’ll kill my boy.”

She handed him a set of keys. “How can I help?”

Removing the handcuffs, he said, “The cord connects into a wristband. There,” he pointed at an iridescent bracelet encircling the Captain’s right wrist. “I need to hold on to my son. He’ll wake up confused. I’ll let you know when to unplug the cord.” He knelt in front of his son, his hands hovering palm down over the child’s back. “Now!”

She yanked on the cord. And the Captain was on her, pinning her to the wall. She tried to scream, but no sound left her mouth. The room darkened, her body began to go limp…

As consciousness slipped away, she heard a soft voice, saying, “But I must, Daddy. I must help.”

“When I came to, I was in a sleeping bag under a maple tree at the south edge of your property.” She stood up and took a note out of her jean’s back pocket. “This was in the bag with me.”

Her mentor grabbed the crumpled paper from her hand, and read aloud, “I healed your crushed ribs and trachea. I’m sorry to have caused trouble. The man at this address was listed as your emergency contact. He helped people like my boy and me in the past. You’ll be safe with him.”

“I killed the Captain, Sir. I will never—”

“You only injured that parasite. The child did the rest. He didn’t mean to,” her mentor said, when she opened her mouth to argue. “You helped him. He wanted to protect you. He lost control.”

“Who is that child?” she said.

“He’s one of several children who have been running for their lives since before they could talk.” He walked to stand by her and put a gentle hand on her shoulder. “He is a Mythical who can use the help of anyone willing to give up gun and shield and walk the darker fringes with me.”

She stared at the blackened blood that had stuck to her singed bootlaces, and said, “I can walk.”

inspired by “Balance”, winner of the sixth Expanding Wee Bits of Dark Fiction and Poetry

Red Maple Leavesdetail from “Red Leaves Stair Forest Fall Scenery Wallpaper”