“Now is the time to ask ourselves - how long are we going to allow this?”
Annabel leaned back in her chair, crossing her arms. Her eyes remained on the TV screen where Gordon Bradbury, the United States’ most loved and supported Senator, gesticulated passionately. His expensive-looking suit and a clean-shaven face, his straight features and high forehead painted an image of a smart, trustworthy man but Annabel could see him for what he really was underneath. A scared, ignorant bastard.
“You see for yourself what they can do! Would you trust them with so much power? I know I wouldn’t. There must be order and equality and they represent the opposite of everything our great country is fighting for!” He continued with a firm, reverberating voice.
The camera switched to the crowd that had gathered on the square, hundreds of people chanting his name in agreement.
“How can we feel safe if we know that they could crush us with just one finger? That they can rob a bank or blow up a building and we can’t stop them? If we allow them to do whatever they want, take whatever they want and play gods with their powers we’re letting them take our identity, our rights, our future. Such power cannot be entrusted to just anybody.”
Annabel grunted as she searched for the remote. She had had enough of his bullshit. Everybody in the dining room was staring with the same angry expression at the screen.
“All those people must be detained and overseen at all times before we can decide if we can cure them. That’s why I pushed forward the Law for Registration and Retention of Enhanced Individuals and it was just accepted with an almost unanimous vote.” Senator Bradbury continued with a victorious smile. “Today the United States of America celebrates a victory. We took the first step in resolving this conflict, in taking the right action to save our country. I sincerely hope that the rest of the world would follow our example to ensure that those… Ascendants as they call themselves, will not have the chance to tear apart the natural balance of the world. We are strong together, without the need to hide or use any extraordinary abilities. We are going to prevail. I can en…”
A loud crack came from the TV and the screen turned black, interrupting the Senator mid-sentence. Smoke rose from it, filling the room with the smell of melted plastic.
“Maybe it just broke?” One of the boys asked from the other table, followed by quiet murmurs in agreement. Annabel didn’t care that they will probably get in trouble for that, she was glad she didn’t have to listen any more about how the humans were merely a victim of vicious monsters. They were the ones implementing absurd laws, they initiated military offensives and pending restrictions on basic rights for the Ascendants. Driven by fear, jealousy, hate or all of the above – they began the war between their two kinds and now they blamed the Ascendants for being born like this, for having powers beyond their little minds, abilities their science was yet to comprehend. It was pathetic.
She turned around when the door of the dining room opened, staring at the figure that was just walking in with a smug expression plastered all over his face. Most of the recruits greeted him, jumping at the opportunity to shake the intense frustration that had filled the room moments earlier.
Annabel glanced at the clock on the wall that was now showing half-past eleven. They were all past their usual curfew. And Jordan, the guy who had just joined them, was even more late than them. She avoided his eyes as she feared he might start picking on her again and she was not in a mood to deal with him. Instead, she returned to the thoughts that were haunting her for the past few weeks.
Six months ago she had joined the Order, an ever-growing organization of Ascendants who opposed the new law and all restrictions the humans were trying to impose to the Ascendants; they were the only ones mobilized enough to show their dissent with the system and get away with it.
Annabel had hoped that she would be a part of something exciting, something meaningful, that she’d be able to be one of those who’d change the world.
The humans and the Ascendants had always lived together but the difference was that up until recently the Ascendants stayed under the radar, hiding their abilities and blending in with the crowd out of fear of exposure. But not anymore.
The Order, led by Damien Blackwell, made sure of that. In the past few years, they had revealed to the world what they were really capable of. And ever since then the Ascendants were being hunted, killed or banished from their homes. weeks ago the new Law against the Enhanced individuals had come into force and they had started registering every Ascendant they came across, extracting them from their homes and throwing them into jails or clinics for research. It felt like a bad script for a horrible horror movie.
So as Annabel sat with six other recruits in the dining area of the Compound, she wondered if joining the Order was really the right thing to do. They days went by in carrying meals to the senior members, tending to their needs or running errands for them. They were more or less servants if you don’t count the time they spent training or studying their powers. Building character, they had said, learning to fall in line before learning to be equals.
“Oh, Priscilla again! I bet she would make me clean after her cat yet again,” Claire, the only other girl in the group, complained, banging her hands on the table. “I want to do something meaningful, something out there!” She quickly straightened up, shooting the man on the nearby table a sideways glance.
One of the members of the Order, Joshua, who by irony of fate was no more than two-three years older than most of them, sat there with his legs propped on the chair across from him. He didn’t seem at all interested in what they were talking about, even less interested in the TV report running earlier but Claire still glanced at him carefully as if expecting some kind of reaction. He seemed too focused on the game he was playing on his phone to listen but Anna couldn’t shake the feeling that they were being closely observed.
“I thought that by now they will trust us, give us a chance. At least, some of us.” Jordan joined in after returning from the kitchen with a plate full of cold chicken and mashed potatoes. He had been a recruit longer than all of them, a bit over a year if the rumors were true, and that made him very irritable and angry which was the main reason Annabel disliked him. The other one was that he was a complete douchebag. The others often mocked him for that but Anna was cautious. There was something off about him, a bitter-sweet harshness that shone through his cold blue eyes. And he was so determined to become a member soon that she was afraid how far he was willing to go to make it happen.
Annabel ignored their blabbering and took her sheet out, glancing towards the names for tomorrow. Four people in total was a good deal and she didn’t get Erika Princeton which was a relief. That woman was as crazy as they come but she was important, being one of the first to join the Order and all. She was an easy way in – if only Anna could make the damn woman like her. But Erika Princeton didn’t like anybody; she didn’t even speak to them apart from giving orders or insulting them.
“I got Erika tomorrow.” Jordan smiled, drawing everybody’s attention. Silently, they all stared at him in disbelief as he was grinning victoriously. That was the third time in a row she was in his list which was quite the big deal. He thought so too since he didn’t even try to hide his smug expression.
“Lucky bastard.” One of the boys laughed patting him on the back. “Maybe your membership is just around the corner.” Jordan’s smirk widened and he straightened up. Anna rolled her eyes, hoping he didn’t see that. Jordan’s ego was too big for his body without the others feeding it any further.
“Okay, guys, I’m out,” Annabel announced, rising from her chair. “Goodnight.”
“If your bed is cold you know where to find me, sweetheart.” Jordan laughed, winking at her. Annabel stopped in her tracks for a moment, fighting the urge to punch him in the face or set his ass on fire. As she continued walking away she motioned with her fingers, her mind focusing on the cup in front of Jordan. As if pushed by a non-existent wind, the cup rolled over, spilling its content all over his pants. By the time he was on his feet, shouting, Anna was already leaving the dining room with a smile on her lips.
She made her way down the corridor, not paying much attention to where she was going. She had been through those corridors so many times that it would have been a pleasant surprise if she got lost or confused.
Tall ceiling hung above her while the floor was covered in a thin red carpet faded with time. The Compound, as everybody called it, was a very old mansion in the middle of nowhere which was more than perfect for people who didn’t want to be found. This also meant that they couldn’t leave or go anywhere outside its grounds for there was nothing there. Six months she had not seen anything but these walls. It was suffocating, especially when you’re not doing anything interesting.
Patience, she thought. One day, very soon, everything will change for the better.
Too busy daydreaming of that day, she failed to see the figure that appeared around the corner and bumped straight into it. The clash was not that painful but she lost her balance, reaching out to grab onto something. The slick wall and empty space were not much of a help. Before she could crash on her back a hand grabbed her by the elbow, steadying her on her feet.
Feeling breathless, Anna was about to apologize but she couldn’t find the words. Instead, she kept staring straight into the blue eyes of the stranger like a complete idiot. He didn’t say anything either, just stared back.
Straightening up, Anna cleared her throat. His face seemed extremely pale with dark circles under the eyes. He was tall, almost a whole foot taller than her but for some reason he stood slumped, leaning on the wall as if he needed its support to stay on his feet.
“I-I-I’m sorry.” She finally managed to say. “I didn’t see you.”
He said nothing and simply released her hand. She looked down, not realizing he had been holding her until now. Her eyes slowly moved to his chest where his hand had returned, pressing his side with unspoken urgency, something dark and red slipping through his pale fingers.
“You’re hurt!” She exclaimed.
“Help me.” He finally spoke. Strangely enough, it didn’t sound like a cry for help or a request.
His body swayed back and Anna rushed to aid him, sliding his free arm over her shoulders and wrapping hers around his torso. He didn’t protest but a low hiss escaped his lips as they moved forward.
Annabel had no idea who he was and he didn’t seem in the mood for questions so she decided that she could take him to her room which was just around the corner and then go find somebody to heal him. When they reached the door to her chambers she waved with her hand without slowing down, helping him inside after the door opened.
He sat on the bed and slid his jacket off, throwing it on the ground. The black shirt he wore didn’t give her a good look of the condition of the wound so she motioned with her hand and the front of the shirt tore itself apart revealing the damage underneath. The sight of the torn tissue and the blood everywhere around it made her freak out even more, but she tried not to show it.
Anna pushed away any other thoughts but those of the problem at hand. The wound looked worse than she expected, his pale chest moving in uneven intervals as she was studying it. It appeared that something went through his side and got out, which was a good thing, but the damage was severe.
“You need an experienced healer.” She said after helping him lie down and putting pressure on the wound with a towel to slow down the bleeding. Before she got the chance to stand up and leave, his hand locked around her wrist.
“No.” He said firmly, his face going paler by the second. It was almost frightening to look at him. “You need to heal it.”
“Are you crazy? I could kill you if I try! I could kill us both! I’ve never healed anything so serious!” She pulled her hand in a poor attempt to free herself from his grip but he turned out to be stronger than she expected, especially for the condition he was in. “You’re losing too much blood!”
“No.” He insisted. A click came from the door as if somebody had locked it up twice. Anna turned to look at it in surprise only to return her attention back to the man a moment later. “Heal me or I’ll die. That door will stay locked until then.”
Annabel just stared at him in disbelief, unable to wrap her mind around what was happening. Why was he so insistent on not getting a healer, on not getting any help, putting his life in the hands of a complete stranger? An inexperienced one at that.
“Fine.” She finally sighed in surrender so the grip around her wrist loosened. His eyes kept following her around though as if he expected her to try and run. She carefully removed the towel, giving the wound one last glance before placing her hands over his chest.
She didn’t have time to get the usual ingredients for a healing spell of this magnitude. She knew some healing practitioners used candles, salt and herbs but she had no time, nor interest in checking how and why they did that – she only knew the rune that they needed to focus their magic.
For the lack of better alternative, Annabel used the blood that had been seeping through the man’s fingers to draw the rune on the good part of his stomach. It did not look as perfect as when she did it on paper but it had to do. She rubbed her hands together then placed one over the wound and the other on his forehead. His breathing quickened and before she closed her eyes she noticed that he was still watching her. Focus or he dies, she told herself. Healing a minor wound like a scratch or a cut was a piece of cake but something so serious was a challenge even for the most experienced Ascendants.
Anna emptied her mind. She could feel the damaged tissue under her palm; the blood pouring out of the wound, leaving a sticky, warm sensation on her own hand; the uneven breaths that he took and the muffled groans that reached her ears; his heart, beating slower and slower…
A jolt of pain spread through her, starting from her fingertips and rushing through every cell of her body. A warm, bright light appeared under her hands and he groaned in pain.
She felt her powers fading but there was something else too. A familiar sensation of weightlessness slowly engulfed her. She tried to stop it, opening her eyes in an attempt to block her ability from taking over but it made no difference. Her powers set forth, sliding through the crevice of his now weak mind and thrusting into his thoughts.
All she could see was a vortex of colors, shades and shapes she had never seen before. Everything started fading away, turning grey and dull forming a vision of a small dark room. A skinny boy cuddled into the corner of it as a couple of men kicked the door open and jumped on the woman that tried to place herself between them and the boy. One of these men was holding a knife that slashed through the air, stabbing the woman.
Her scream was cut short and Annabel took a step back, her heart racing like crazy. Nobody paid any attention to her as the two men stepped towards the boy, blocking his way to the door. He had jumped to his feet, tears streaming down his pale cheeks, clenching his hands into fists.
A moment later there was no trace of fear in his eyes, only pain and pure, blinding rage. The men were advancing towards him when they both started twisting in pain holding their heads as if they were going to explode. Their screams intensified as they dropped on their knees, now their whole bodies convulsing from the unbearable pain. The boy just stood and watched, no sign of remorse or pity in his eyes.
It wasn’t long before they got quiet, both of them lifelessly lying on the floor in a pool of their own blood. The boy didn’t move, just stared at their lifeless shells, his small, bony hands finally relaxing. And then the most surprising thing happened - his head turned towards Anna, who was silently watching.
They stared at each other for a few long moments, although Anna was not sure if he could really see her or not. She was there and she was not, a memory, a dream, a painful piece of the past that couldn’t be changed.
Suddenly another a jolt of pain ran through her head, one so intense that she wished to die. She opened her eyes but the darkness remained, still and terrifying, holding her in a chain of horror. And then the familiar white ceiling appeared, barely visible under the dim light of the lamp.
Anna found herself lying on the floor of her room, struggling to breathe as if she had been running for hours. She stumbled to her feet, moving further away from the bed as if the motionless man in it was going to attack her. His face was calm and he appeared to have lost consciousness. Her eyes quickly located the place where the wound was not long ago only to find bruised skin in its stead.
She had done it. She had healed him!
When the short moment of satisfaction passed she realized she felt like she had just been dropped from a cliff, multiple times… on her head. Every muscle in her body screamed in protest when she tried to move. She made her way to the bathroom and towards the sink, turning the water tap on. The white surface quickly turned bright red as she placed her hands under the cold stream.
After she made sure her hands were clean she returned back to the bed for one last look at the man in it. His short dark hair was sweaty and covered in dust which made him look much older than he actually was. Looking up close he couldn’t have been more than his late twenties.
Anna bit her lip when she realized that her room had turned into a bloody mess. There were dirty towels lying around, staining the carpet as if the mess wasn’t big enough. She herself was no better – her white shirt and dark jeans held proof if the severity of the situation.
“Damn it.” She murmured, looking at the door. Now that he was unconscious there was nothing stopping her from leaving. She took a few steps towards the door, turning the handle only to find it locked. Annabel frowned, closing her eyes, focusing on the locking mechanism.
She tried to make it unlock but her own magic clashed with his spell, solid and unyielding under her advances. She tried to find a way around it - blow up the door if she had to - but her exhaustion made concentrating onto her magic more and more difficult, her feet barely holding her up.
She let go of her powers with a sigh of defeat, taking a few steps back and sliding along the wall. Annabel leaned her head back, closing her eyes just for a second. Somebody had to look after him and he conveniently had locked them inside.
Tomorrow is going to be a horrible day, she thought.
Anna tried not to fall asleep but her body was too tired to comply with her wishes. Instead, she sunk deep into slumber, the last thing on her mind being the expression of the child she saw, the cruel, empty stare into the darkness within.