*** Matt ***
“Craig! If you touch that car, I will seriously kill you!” Matt Reed barked. The offender, Craig McCain, was not perturbed in the slightest.
“Nice, very nice. Toyota Tundra? Man, how much did that cost you?” Craig asked as opened the door to admire the interior. He lifted his aviator glasses from his eyes to view it more clearly. The car was nearly brand new, as Matt had bought it earlier that day. Craig, Matt’s roommate and best friend, was very intrigued by it.
Matt huffed, brushing his red hair out of his eyes. “It cost me an arm and a leg to buy that, so you’d better not leave a scratch on it, or I’ll take yours to compensate the loss.”
“No need to get grumpy, Fancy-Pants. I’m just looking.” Craig closed the door and replaced his shades. He was tall and wiry, with short dark brown hair and eerie pale-grey eyes that were usually hidden behind his tinted glasses. “Surprised you afforded this when you can barely afford college tuition. Did you pick up dinner while you were out, by any chance?”
Matt hesitated before answering. It was his turn for dinner today. “No,” he answered honestly.
His friend grinned, his eyes twinkling like silver coins as he removed his glasses again to go inside. “That’s okay. I figured you’d forget, so it’s your turn for the next two days, alright?”
“What did you make?” Matt was especially wary of Craig’s cooking, because everything that he made was based off taste, not recipe, and sometimes Craig had a very unusual taste.
Craig sensed the unease. “No worries, man. I made burgers. Can’t go wrong with those, right?”
Matt allowed himself to relax a little. It was hard for even Craig to disturb the normal taste of a burger. “Okay. So, is it ready?”
“Yeah. Now come on. I’m wasting away as we speak.”
Craig entered the small house, shrugging off his leather jacket and hanging it on the door. Matt followed suit, hanging his denim jacket on a free hook.
“I took the liberty of making a batch of coffee, so make sure you pick some up tomorrow.”
“Alright. What’s going with the burgers?” asked Matt.
Craig was already bustling around the tiny kitchen. “We’ve got cheese puffs and carrots. No ranch, we’re out.”
Matt sat at the bar as Craig set out a plate of each food item. They did not have a dining room or a table, so that was generally where they had their meals. Matt hummed to himself as he piled items onto both his and Craig’s plates.
“What song is that?” asked Craig, rummaging through the half-full freezer. He plopped himself down on the other side of the bar, setting two beers on the counter and helping himself to a burger. He bowed his head to say a quick blessing, and then began to inhale his dinner. Matt mimicked him, and then cleared his throat to answer.
“My latest masterpiece. The Mountainside Path. Do you want to hear the words?”
Craig held up a finger, signaling that he was in the middle of chewing his food. He swallowed, and looked down his nose at Matt.
“Why not?” asked Matt, “It’s actually pretty good.”
Craig looked skeptical, as if thinking for a moment. Then he shook his head, taking another bite of his hamburger.
“You got a problem with my music?” said Matt, glaring at him with mock accusation. Craig nodded enthusiastically.
“Yep.” He took another bite.
“And why would that be?”
Craig smirked. “Do you remember Daisy Valley?”
“So, how was work?” asked Matt, eagerly changing the topic. He felt his face grow hot; Daisy Valley was his first song, and it had been quite awful.
Craig shrugged. “Work’s work, ain’t it? You?”
Craig worked at a coffee shop part time and spent the rest of his time working at the local book store. Both he and Matt were working to pay for their college. Matt, for his part, worked at a gas station. He likewise shrugged. “Eh. It was alright. You know how it is.”
The two friends sat in silence for a moment, savoring the hamburgers. Matt noticed that despite the fact that it was a hamburger, Craig had still somehow altered the flavor. Thankfully it wasn’t bad enough to deter him from a second one.
The silence was broken when a loud BEEP BEEP pierced the air. Craig pulled a phone from his pocket. Matt noticed that the screen was blinking bright red as Craig answered it.
“This is Craig McCain,” Craig spoke into the phone, glancing apologetically at Matt. “Yes. Seriously? Is it really that important? What’s the zone? What do you mean the meter’s off the charts? Calm down, calm down. Alright, I’ll be there in a mo. Hold down the fort, alright Wally? Good. I’ll be right there.”
As Craig hung up the phone, Matt looked inquiringly at him. “Sounded more like a police force call than a call from the coffee shop.”
“Yeah, well, you have no idea how important it is to get the cappuccino just right.”
Matt chuckled, but asked seriously, “Who’s Wally?”
Craig, who was sliding back into his jacket, replied nonchalantly, “Just some guy at work. He’s a co-worker of sorts.”
“Uh huh,” Matt grunted. Craig grabbed a handful of cheese puffs and stuffed them into his mouth. All the while, Matt wondered what the call was really about. Despite Craig’s insistence that the call was from the coffee shop of the book store, Matt could tell that the calls were not as trivial as cappuccinos.
“Do you want a lift? It’s supposed to rain pretty soon now,” offered Matt.
Craig shook his head. “No thanks, I’ll be fine with the bike.”
As Matt followed his friend out into the miniscule garage, he noticed how nervous Craig seemed. What could possibly be so worrying?
Before Craig swung himself onto his old black motorcycle, Matt grabbed his shoulder. “Craig, you’re going to tell me where you’re off to. This is the third time this month that you’ve been called in. What’s going on?”
A sad grin split Craig’s face. “You wouldn’t understand. All I can say is this: the call itself isn’t what’s worrying me. It’s the fact that it’s the third one this month and it’s bad enough that they need me.”
With that, Craig shrugged off his friend’s hand and started up the motorcycle. Craig donned his helmet and started off down the road as thunder clapped and rain started to pour.
*** Wally ***
Wallace Bates was not in a good mood. Anyone who knew the man at all could tell that. His beady black eyes were darting about at every noise, and his silvery white hair stuck up as if the Head Warden had decided to see how his finger fit in a light socket. His thin nostrils flared, giving him the look of an angry, worrying bird, if such a thing could be imagined. Perhaps most distracting of all, his long bony fingers simply would not stop moving.
“Four years had passed with no disturbances, and now this,” muttered Wally. Eight attacks in a month. The situation was so bad that they had been forced to call in the help of Craig McCain three times now. What in the world is happening?
There was a flash of light as a square appeared in the air on the far end of the portal strip. Thinner than a sheet of paper, the tear in the air opened wider to admit a motorcycle and its rider into the building, both dripping wet from the rain on the other side of the tear. Nobody appeared surprised by this, although several assistants came bustling forward, asking questions in anxious tones. Like all the Watchers, Craig McCain stood half a head taller than the Wardens as he pushed his way through the crowd. Most of the time Watchers did not have such dramatic entrances, but Craig McCain was not a normal Watcher. For one thing, unlike many of the Chosen, Craig chose to live a mundane life in the Center Realm claiming to be the age of 22. Crazily enough, Craig was really 18 in all aspects but actual age, in which he really was 22, but was blessed with the steady appearance of youth until his death like all the Chosen. All Chosen kept the age that they were Chosen and served for a hundred years. So Craig would not continue to age until the age of 118, after which time he would have five years left to live. But for another thing, whenever Craig McCain made an appearance it meant that something was extremely wrong. He was the best Watcher the Chosen had seen in centuries.
“Wally,” Craig inclined his head slightly, “What’ve we got this time?”
“Disturbance in the Barrier. More powerful than those before it. We’ve established that the disturbance is the doing of a darker force than that of the last.”
Craig sighed, turning to Evelyn, an assistant Warden. “Last time was a skiaz trying to penetrate the Barrier, what is it this time?”
Evelyn, Wally’s personal secretary, flipped through her notes as she answered. “It appears to be a pyralis of sorts.”
Craig directed his attention back towards Wally. “What do you mean, a pyralis of sorts?”
Evelyn appeared to notice that Craig was not talking to her anymore, because she was now bustling off to check on a disturbance meter. Wally hesitated. He didn’t like not knowing things, and loathed admitting the fact even more so. Annoyingly, Craig had a habit for noticing those very things and asking questions about them.
“We mean that we aren’t sure what it is. The closest thing we can compare it to is a pyralis, but it appears to be much more intelligent and powerful than the average. We believe that it may be some sort of crossbreed or mutation,” said Wally.
That got Craig’s attention. His expression darkened. “Saldor,” he breathed.
Wally’s brow prickled with sweat at the thought. “We can’t be sure of anything yet, McCain,”
“Yes, we can. Only one would ever try to tamper with the natural forces, and the skiaz and the pyralis have always served the Shadow King. You know as well as I do that mutations are never natural. All of them are induced in one way or another.”
Wally grimaced. “McCain, Saldor has not been heard from since his attack in 1803! He has been Forsaken.”
“People like Saldor don’t just give up when they’ve been Forsaken. If this is Saldor’s doing, then war is on the horizon, Wally,” Craig’s tone was final. It was obvious that the meeting was closed.
As they stood in silence, Wally sighed inwardly. If Saldor really was back, then Craig’s pessimistic view was fairly accurate. The Chosen had been able to avoid war with Saldor, but even from his prison Saldor was completely capable of causing problems. Most recently, that meant the disturbance of the Barrier.
But that was not what the Chosen needed right now.
“There can be any explanation for the mutation, McCain.”
Craig leaned back, cracking his knuckles and adjusting his aviator glasses. He sighed and didn’t bother replying to the Head Warden’s half-hearted objection. “I’d best get rid of the disturbance, hadn’t I?”
*** Evelyn ***
Although she was watching Craig and Wally intently, listening to every word, nobody could have told. Evelyn Whyte appeared in all senses to be engrossed in the movements of the disturbance meter. It was higher than it had been since 1945, when the atomic bomb had nearly shattered the Barrier with its power. Whatever variety of pyralis was attacking it, it had to be something terrible.
This is why I signed up as a Warden, she thought. Wardens monitored the Barrier, but rarely ever had interaction with the source of disturbance. That was what the Watchers did.
When a disturbance occurred, it was often too small to worry about. But when it got high, the Wardens had to call in the Watchers to take care of it. Since the Barrier was not a self-renewable thing, it was critical to preserve it and monitor it carefully. Watchers could often take care of threats like bombs in the Central Realm, or a particularly fierce battle in the Middle Realm, but it sometimes got bad enough to call in the elite Watchers.
And young though he was, Craig was about as elite as they came.
What was worrying was that the need to call in the Watchers was becoming more and more frequent. Hearing Craig and Wally talk about Saldor and war just made it worse. Craig was known among the Chosen as a joker, but he would never joke about something like Saldor. He was far too young to have fought Saldor personally, but he was Chosen and trained by Terra Gellert, the Watcher from the Chosen line of Saldor’s greatest opposer, the legendary Watcher Aramis Eldrian. Terra had taught Craig everything she knew and passed on to him not only her considerable power, but also her vigilant watching for their Chosen line’s old enemy, Saldor.
The Chosen came from a long line of former Chosen. After the Barrier formed to separate the warring realms three thousand years ago, a thousand were chosen to serve as the guardians of the Barrier. They were called the Chosen, blessed with their appearance of youth and their magic to prevent any of the realms from coming in contact with another. Occasionally even the efforts of the Chosen were not enough, and that was when some creature from one realm managed to break through into another realm, like when the Tiberian dragon broke into medieval England and terrorized villages until Beowulf, a middle-aged Watcher, killed it. But the thing about the Chosen lines was that every Watcher only chose one successor who carried their torch for the next hundred years. Evelyn personally carried the torch for the line of Reyna Delmar, the Warden who invented the disturbance meter that the Chosen now depended on.
And the disturbance meter served other purposes too. It was a great coverup for when Evelyn wanted to listen in on her boss’s conversations.
“-taking care of it right now. He says that he shouldn’t be longer than half an hour, tops,” Evelyn heard Wally tell Yuri, one of the monitors.
“If Saldor’s behind this, you know what it means,” said Yuri, “Craig isn’t going to just take care of the situation like Dennis or Nelson. He wants proof of Saldor. You know how obsessed he is with finding the Shadow King.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” muttered Wally, “Craig’s my best Watcher. I don’t want him out hunting for Saldor. Nobody goes looking for him and comes back.”
Yuri nodded. “Agreed. I want Dennis and Nelson recalled if Craig isn’t back in thirty minutes. I don’t care about false alarms. Keep them in touch.”
Evelyn listened closely. She knew better than to take notes; eavesdropping was prohibited among the Chosen, and offenders were severely punished.
*** 5 days later ***
*** Matt ***
Matt paced back and forth. Craig had not returned after the mysterious leave, and the coffee shop claimed that he had never received any emergency calls from them. The book store claimed the same thing.
It had been nearly a week now.
Now Matt was getting desperate. He had no idea where Craig had gotten to. Had he been murdered? Kidnapped? Drafted into a secret war? Abducted by aliens?
“Stop, Matt. Just…stop,” Matt told himself over and over again.
He was digging through Craig’s messy shelf now. It bothered him to butt in on Craig’s privacy, but this was an emergency.
“There must be something to help,” growled Matt through his gritted teeth. Then his hand touched something. It was spherical, smooth, and somehow both cold and hot to the touch.
Matt drew it out of the bag. It was a clear orb, with white mist swirling around within it. Matt peered closely at it, seeing a symbol on one side of it. It was a simple circle, nothing elaborate. Yet still indescribably beautiful. For some reason Matt thought that this was, in fact, a perfect circle. Matt touched his finger to the symbol, and the mist within the orb began to swirl faster. The orb grew hot, and Matt watched in horror as it began to glow, burning his hand.
Yelping, he threw the orb away from himself. It hit the ground with a crash, an exploded into a million shards that evaporated before they flew farther than two feet.
Matt covered his eyes as the symbol blazed bright on the ground. It was so bright, and it burned his eyes even behind the protection of his hands. He heard a rush of wind, and felt his body evaporate.
And Matt Reed lost consciousness.
*** Wally ***
When a tear opened in the air, Wally spun around to yell at Craig. Craig had been gone for five days, with no contact. They had no idea where he was now.
Like usual, Evelyn was the first to the scene. The secretary had an uncanny knack for getting to where she was needed before anyone else could. Wally marched over to where Craig should have been. Something was wrong, he could feel it.
“Sir, we have a situation,” said Evelyn. She was hunched over a body.
“What happened to him? I’m going to kill him when he wakes up,” seethed Wally.
“Sir, it’s not Craig. It’s not even a Chosen,” murmured Evelyn. She stood, and that was when Wally realized what was wrong. Craig would have been on his feet, taller than every Warden in the room. But for some reason, he was on the ground.
Or, so it seemed, someone else was.
Wally looked at her, trying to find the sarcasm in her face. Hoping to, really. But her face was completely serious. “How did it happen?”
“We don’t know sir. It appears that he accidentally activated a portal belonging to Craig McCain.”
The Head Warden slumped into a chair that materialized as he fell. In the Etherealm, where the Chosen monitored the Barrier, the Chosen’s magic was stronger than it was in the Central, Middle, or Outer Realm. Since the Etherealm was literally made of Chosen magic, it was incredibly easy for the Chosen to tap into the life energy that fueled their magic.
“So Craig is still missing,” asked Wally.
Evelyn bit her lip.
“I’m sorry, sir. Nelson is still searching, and Dennis is on reserve. We’re in the middle of organizing a backup squad from the other outposts.”
“Good. Has Nelson found anything?”
“Nothing out of the usual. The spot where Craig encountered the disturbance is radiating Watcher pulses. Craig obviously used a lot of energy, whatever he did.”
“Any trace of the pyralis?” asked Wally.
“No sir, the creature apparently didn’t put up a fight. We found the remains of a creature that matches the description, but from what we can tell it’s been dead for a while. We couldn’t even detect Watcher pulses within ten feet of it, so it seems unlikely that Craig even encountered the creature.”
Wally raised an eyebrow. “So the pyralis wasn’t the source of the disturbance?”
“Sir, the magic that attempted to break through the Barrier came from the creature. We managed to match the elemental pulses to the remains, but we’re still unable to explain the mutated pulses origin. We have to be missing a piece somewhere.”
Wally sighed. “In other words, we have no clue.”
“Exactly sir. However, we did manage to find something else.”
Evelyn looked uncomfortable. “We’ve detected unusual pulses from the Netherealm. We haven’t been able to match them to anything we’ve ever encountered. We’ve never seen anything like it. Even shadow magic isn’t as dark or nearly as potent as this is. Four Watchers have already died from disruption when they attempted to investigate.”
Disruption was a condition in which the magic outside of the self was so potent that it unraveled the magic that was within the self. Used with immaculate accuracy and precision, it could be used to alter the framework of a being of a magical source. More often though, it shredded life magic into its pure form, releasing it all in one burst as it unraveled its pulses.
“So what? We’ve cut off all portals to the Netherealm, and no Watcher would dare to allow something through the Barrier.”
“No sir, but we have to wonder if this is the work of the Shadow King. After all-”
“Saldor is in the deepest pit of the Netherealm. For him to tap into any energy at all would be a miracle. Nothing is alive there, and the Netherealm is designed like a magic sponge. Not even the strongest Watcher could activate so much as a portal in there without a Shield.”
“Yes sir, I’m aware of the unlikeliness of it, but we have to prepare for the worst. If Saldor really is back-”
“Then we will put him back where he belongs, just like last time.”
“Sir, we have half the Watchers we did during the Great War, and our best one just vanished without a trace.”
Wally rubbed his eyes, sighing. “I know, Evelyn. And that’s what’s worrying me. Saldor should have never lasted this long in that pit. We always knew he was capable of stuff none of us had dreamed of, but we still don’t know the extent of his power. If he’s managed to destroy McCain without releasing any pulses of his own, then what else has he been up to that we haven’t caught on to yet?”