The road to hell is paved with good intentions. It has a cobbled pavement that is swept free of litter and fallen leaves; the sound of footsteps clear and crisp in the biting wind, a long, long way to an end that is dark and dimly lit. Its gate opens only in the shrouding of darkness, the coming of the night; and the path it revealed is long and winding, the route beautiful but uncertain—paved with good intentions.
"What is your name?"
There is an alternative to the phrase: that hell is full of good meanings but heaven, of good deeds. The slightest consideration—an idling in thought, deadly to action that sometimes required there to be none—would reveal every flaw in the alternative; weak and unlikely. It meant that good deeds did not necessarily come from good intentions. One did not need to be inherently good to conduct an act of goodness or exhibit a generic behaviour of goodwill to go to heaven for all they needed to do
"No, your real name." They came upon the gate.
"It is...Umbra." The name was unfamiliar on his tongue. As though he was speaking of an acquaintance that he'd made only a day before.
was the act itself. And should an intended goodness end up—under the disfavour of fortune or the gust of a wind—lost and dull in its meaning, its will diverging from the outcome, the end that was intended, then hell was due.
"Umbra," the man smiled, giving the teenaged boy a firm clap on the back. "Welcome."
"And you, sir?" He turned to the man with a rifle on his back, as the latter greeted their gatekeeper with a nod. "I don't know your name."
But how should one identify the intentions of another unless their minds could be read and their thoughts, laid bare? Did intentions play such an insignificant role in the distinction between those who belonged up above and down below?
"Vater." The man confirmed as they came to a fork in the road, to which he chose the path that was well-lit.
"Father?" In German.
Vater threw a hearty laugh in his direction. "Yes. Everyone calls me that."
The boy deduced that his guide had more years of experience as a Hunter than he had as a human being at all. It frightened him immensely; that a high-ranked officer would voluntarily show him around the Market.
The creature inside the cage was prone to many things among those that came in slithers of smoke and shadow. Fragile, it was susceptible to greed, envy, vengeance and hatred—things that often dwelled within and never on the surface, hidden amidst a forest of thought and intention. These do not appear in 'deed's.
"I heard you've earned yourself quite a bit during the final test," Vater pointed out the tiny satchel that hung from his pocket. It was bulging. "How many you've got in there?"
The father nodded, impressed. "The maximum you can get as a starter. You've got an advantage over the rest so use it wisely, eh?"
Two alleys down and a turn into the back, through a bar and out by a rattling, dingy-looking door, past a rubbish site and dark, darker, so much darkness later, they came upon the Market. It was black and cold, stalls hidden by plastic curtains and the only light coming from a sign that blinked 'Food for the Heart'.
Gatekeepers were an added security to the place but unsuspecting passers-by chancing (by some unlikely fortune) upon the Market would have passed it off as ordinary street food down the lane either way, where older men liked to meet for a drink or a late-night snack.
They weren't entirely wrong.
A man wearing a butcher's apron greeted the pair with a knowing smile, eyeing Umbra specifically. "Here to have the first meal of your life, son?"
He nodded warily, uncertain. "Yes, sir." These were terms and questions that he'd come across along the way, at points of time in his journey and now—it felt as though he had started all over again as a child.
Being reborn did not necessarily feel as grandiose as the stories made them out to be. It was, merely, a prolonging of the end that he sought.
"Then you got nuttin' to worry about," the butcher laughed. "Long as Vater's the one bringin' you around, you're in safe hands."
Vater laughed. "I don't recall you being so generous with compliments."
"Always am, sir. Follow me," the butcher beckoned the pair into the darkness, deeper. Darker.
All that was within Umbra's field of vision, shrouded by shadows and the night, flickered and died like the flame of a candle. His head was lowered in an attempt to follow the stone-flagged pavement but that, too, had vanished somewhere along the way and he felt the unknown swallow him whole; the fear that his next step was into nothingness beginning to contain him in a cage of his own.
He couldn't tell if his eyes were opened or closed.
The boy couldn't tell where the voice was coming from but he identified it as Vater's. It was soft and lowered, almost like a father teaching his son how to walk.
Light. They came upon it moments later, at the turn of a bend and the sudden disappearance of shadows, falling from the shophouses lining the alley as it opened up into a vast, spacious road. Across, was a single store open among the hundreds of others down the street, dark and closed.
Cage of Bird
The lights coming from inside were warm and inviting, drawing any lone, wandering traveller into its open jaws like a moth to the flame.
"Go on in. George's shift ends in an hour so. Better hurry," said the butcher with a loud, hearty laugh. "I'll be at the back. Choppin' away." He made the semblance of a knife in his hands, cleaving away at whatever it was on his board. Vater snorted, chuckling low.
"Stop scaring the kid, man."
The butcher shrugged once, careless in his demeanour before turning down the alley next to the shop—whistling. Umbra turned to his guide.
"Don't mind him. He's a good guy...been at it longer than I have, anyway. He works for George, the owner," Vater jerked a thumb over his shoulder, at the Cage of Bird. "This is the store you wanna know about coming here to the black market. It's the most important one."
"Sure looks like it, sir," said Umbra quietly, and Vater laughed, clapping him on the back. He opened the door and like every other store, the bells above jingled in a merry welcome—startling the hearts inside.
Together, they stepped in.
The hearts were jittery all at once, beating faster and stretching its walls of muscle in an attempt to escape the cage that was keeping them alive. They stared at the child who had come.
"Ay, Vater. Just in time to see me?" The shopkeeper emerged from behind the counter, a short, skinny man with an abnormally long nose. He took in Vater's companion, a gleam in his eyes. "Is that the one who scored full on the test?"
"Yeah, he is. Umbra, meet George," Vater stepped aside to give the boy a clearer view. George wriggled his fingers. "He'll get you the best one in no time."
"I'll be in your care, sir."
"Oo, good manners," the shopkeeper was pleased, sliding past the narrow gap between the counter and the shelf placed beside it. "You've got of 'em, right? Is that how much they give the best these days? The last time was about four years back, ain't it. Kupera."
"Five," Vater corrected with a smile. Nostalgic. "Kupera's one of the best. He was different, that boy."
George nodded, parting the curtains that separated the front and back of the store before showing them inside. "An' you wouldn't tell me how he's doing in the Ops of yours! The last time he came in here with goods to sell, he said somethin' about a...a masterpiece."
"Wouldn't tell me anything more!" George went on, dragging a stool along.
Shelves and shelves of cages, different from the ones out at the front; each of them housing a living, beating heart. Umbra was lost. The sound filled his ears like never before, no longer able to differentiate which was the beating heart inside of him and the ones outside.
"Of course not."
"Not even that cute lil' mission you sneaky brats are on?" The shopkeeper climbed up the stool and reached for silver cage. "Sally said something about it being the 'final' one. 'Aight kid! Here."
George placed the cage in his arms and all at once, Umbra could feel its thundering—thumping and beating as though it was a creature, alive.
"This one came in yesterday! Belonged to a hawk. Harris. Clean shot," the keeper dragged the stool along, beckoning them to follow. "No struggle! Makes the ritual a whole lot easier. Wouldn't want to run into lots of resistance, would we? Ah."
He produced another silver cage. This time, the heart was a lot smaller.
"A buzzard's. Week older than the hawk's but," George shrugged. "Still pricey 'cuz the owner was a wimp. No resistance for this one, so. All good for beginners." He hooked it onto Umbra's arm and now, there were two thundering hearts that he wore.
The boy's feet came to a halt.
"Sorry, sir, can I just clarify...something?"
The two men turned to him with curious eyes. "Go ahead kid."
Umbra knew perfectly well what he had to do with the hearts. It was written in the Hunter's guide and every teaching reinforced this stage as one of the most important transformations after his rebirth.
"These are...human hearts?"
They burst into loud, raucous laughter—startling the creatures behind bars.
"I mean! Haha, kid! C'mon," George clapped him on the back. "What else did you think it was? A real hawk's?"
"They have to belong to a Winged, Umbra," Vater explained slowly. "Else nothing's going to happen to you."
"Yeah. Sorry, I...kinda just. Forgot."
"It's okay kiddo," the keeper ducked under the shelves and produced a tiny bronze cage. "Made up your mind yet? Or you wanna take a look around...?"
Umbra knew that he preferred the hawk's. Those were the kind of wings that he longed to have as a human; the kind that could take him to heights greater than any human on land could ever imagine for once he'd tasted flight he knew well that he would walk the earth with eyes turned towards the sky, longing for the return up high.
Still, greed stirred in his cage that was empty.
"What's worth twelve marks?"
The shopkeeper was thoroughly amused. One could tell—his brows shot up at the question and a hint of a smile hung on the corners of his lips like the edge of a cliff. Umbra was about to fall.
"Twelve! Why, you're only going to be left with ten after getting a prey's," George reminded with a chuckle, giving the bronze cage in his hands a little shake. The creature inside shuddered in fright. "Didn' Vater tell you? Every young'un he brings get two Avians: one harmless little guy and one beautiful monster."
Umbra blinked. He had forgotten about it.
Vater was here only because he had accepted the offer to join the undercover faction among the Hunters. One of the conditions was having dual Avians so that they could get around unnoticed.
"No harm showing him around," said the chief hunter with a smile, clapping the boy on his back. "What d'you want to see?"
He didn't know. What he did want to know, however, "how much are golden eagles worth?"
George and Vater turned to him at once, perfectly in sync.
"A golden eagle's!"
"Going for the kill, aren't you," Vater mused with widened eyes. "Those aren't things you buy at Markets like these, Umbra. You have to get them yourself."
The shopkeeper shook his head with a snort, casting his gaze skywards. Umbra could not help but ask the question, probing into the darkness.
"Golden eagles don't come easy, son. There was only ever one family of golden eagles," Vater explained with a strange look in his eyes. "That family doesn't exist anymore."
"What happened to them?"
George had turned around and was waving his arms at the boy to stop. "Enough of that, come on. You wanna see the cages for twelve? I'll show ya. Just—"
"They died," said Vater with a smirk that reminded him of the devil.
It shook his very core and made him feel like a fetus; if foetuses felt like anything at all.
The man breathed a laugh, low and delightful. "I killed them all."
George was shaking his head, pinching the bridge of his nose for additional control. "Dammit Vater. Why do you always get all the glory? Let the boy choose in peace, will ya?"
"He asked me," Vater held up his hands in defeat, dusting the blame aside. "So you got any worth about ten to twelve?"
The shopkeeper spared him a glance, shifting left and right while he scratched at his beard. He beckoned them down a short flight of stairs that led to a deeper, darker part of the store—the faint sound of a chopper cleaving away getting louder and louder. Flames were the shade of ice.
"A lower-tier Nocturne, maybe."
Umbra didn't like Nocturnes. He didn't think that heads should have the ability to turn at such an angle, frightening and uncanny, let alone desire a skill like such.
"Suits his name," the chief nodded in approval. "Could always use some better eyes, hm? You were practically blind on the way here," he laughed.
Umbra flashed a stiff smile in return.
"Sorry to disappoint, folks," George lifted a torch from the nearest wall and waved it around. "Here's everything above ten, so. Eleven onwards."
Indeed, Umbra was upset to find the cages fairly empty despite the fact that these were not within his budget. Down here, the thundering had been reduced to a soft, mellow rhythm that soothed the sharpened edge of thought and reason; leaving him calm and in peace but strangely—dangerously vulnerable.
The blue flame was enough for his eyes to latch onto one particular cage that gleamed in the darkest corner. A diamond cage.
He drew towards it, knowing not that he did for every step he took was beyond his will and control. As though something else was making him tick.
"What's that supposed to contain?"
George raised his gaze towards the teenaged boy, incredulous. "The strongest of them all, of course."
"That one's meant to restrain the most monstrous heart and protect it at the same time," the keeper ran his fingers along a single bar of the cage. "Only diamond 'd do the job."
Why was the question. Umbra could not connect two and two for if the heart should one capable of most destruction among the others, should it not only be restrained and kept in a cage to protect the rest? Why protect it too?
"Aye, 'cuz the most destructive heart's the easiest to wound."
He ended up settling for the hawk despite his initial resistance towards the idea—having had raised hopes for something bigger and better. The boy emptied his satchel of marks onto the countertop, bronze clinking against one another and rolling before coming to a stop.
"Twelve 'aight?" George took the liberty to count them one by one, sweeping them onto the heart of his palm. Beside him, the muscles thumped and thundered behind bars, waiting to be consumed. "Take your cages and head on upstairs. Good view for a meal."
The process had been shorter than he'd imagined it to be. Umbra was expecting something grand and magnificent for an occasion this important; fireworks and magic or at the very least, the draw of a heart towards him. After all, the boy had heard of stories that involved 'the hearts that choose their owner' and was hoping to become one of them. His shopping had been anti-climatic, falling far too short of his expectations.
Little did he know, they were pretty little tales stemming from a river of lies.
Vater shook his head, smiling. "Giving him the window seat?"
"I always give the ones you bring a window seat." George spared the chief a shrug before inviting the boy upstairs with a bony finger. "Don't worry. I give complimentary glasses of water too."
Umbra was quietly thankful that he needn't ask. The thought had been on his mind for quite some time—whether or not he'd be able to stand the stench of iron and how it would stick to the roof of his mouth. His last resort had been to swallow the thing whole and pray that he would not choke on the moving muscle.
They climbed the stairs to the second floor, boots heavy against wood that was worn.
"One more," announced the shopkeeper at the landing, pointing towards another flight of stairs that led them away from a lit room in the far corner. Umbra stared at the arched doorway, wondering what was beyond.
Vater clapped him on the back. "Wondering what's in there?"
In a moment of rash curiosity, he nodded.
"Pests," said the chief, "dragonflies, moths, butterflies. You eat them whole."
Umbra's eyes widened, feet slowing to a stop. "Who'd have those as Avians?"
"You'd be surprised!" Vater laughed. "But not all of them are meant to be eaten, y'know. Some people collect them for fun. Have you seen them preserved? Specimens that researchers make and display on their walls?"
"Yeah," Umbra smiled for the very first time since their meeting. "They're beautiful."
Encased in a substance that would separate the creature from the rest of the world as though it lived in one of its own, independent of that which existed beyond itself—frozen in time. The act of eternalizing beauty was addictive and harmless, or so many humans seemed to think as they drowned the body that was dead in a clear, airless liquid; sealing the fragile creature from a world of decay and destruction.
The longing for immortality and that which was eternal
"Indeed," smiled the chief. "But these are even more beautiful. These aren't ordinary pests, son—these are Winged."
It meant that there were things worth preserving and others that weren't. Just what the criteria for preservation was remained unknown to Umbra. It seemed almost natural that humans would keep what was beautiful and loved.
"I thought Hunters only ate hearts." Umbra was an honest boy.
"Insects don't have hearts, Umbra," Vater mused quietly. "You have to eat them whole for the ritual to happen."
"While they're still alive?"
Vater paused. He didn't know if the boy was referring to the human or the butterfly whose struggle was useless under the grasp of a human hand, between the thumb and the index. Either way, the answer remained the same.
"Yes. Of course."
They sat him down by a window that gazed into the darkness of the streets, dim lights of the market going out every now and then. The beating muscles were taken out of their cages and placed on white, polished plates made out of ceramic, so clean that the hesitation in his eyes stared in return before they were blocked by food.
He had waited for a fork and knife but it never came and so he picked up the smaller one in the heart of his palm and sunk his teeth into its throbbing redness.
Once the boy started, he could not stop. The glass of water remained full and untouched beside his plate while the latter became increasingly clean and empty. Vater and the keeper waited for him to finish, ready to witness his collapse.
He did after a couple of seconds, upon the final swallow.
"Leave him," said Vater when George attempted to straighten Umbra's neck and arms. "He'll wake in seconds."
His companion snorted, raising his hands in defeat. "If you say so. Eh, the last time I've seen you this confident about a Hunter was Kupera." He raised a brow in suspicion. "What's so special about this kid that can replace him?"
"He's not being replaced, George." Vater seemed fairly displeased by the chosen word. "Kupera's been away from some time and this boy has potential. That's all."
The chief pulled up a chair. "It's been a year."
George slid into the seat across the man, drumming his fingers on the wood while keeping his eye on the unconscious Hunter. Kupera had been both his favourite dealer and customer at the same time, so much so that he'd see himself reserving a couple of cages just in case the Hunter returned with yet another prize.
"Yeah," Vater sighed. "I'm beginning to think that he might be dead."
The keeper blinked hard, eyes wide. "That's not a very nice thing to say, man."
"It is only the truth," he breathed a laugh, shaking his head. "I sent him on a case. Long term but half-a-year, at most. The boy's expected to return."
"Long term?" George could not help but frown. "Kupera's a kid! You're not afraid he'd be led astray?"
"The boy's too rigid to be led onto another path," Vater brushed aside the keeper's concerns. "I only fear that he walks a path of his own—led astray by no one other than himself."
His companion cracked a chuckle. "Reux. Always the special one."
"Too special to lose," said the best Hunter in the world. "He said it himself. That he'd return victorious or die trying to be."
George shook his head that was lowered, disappointed.
"And if he doesn't?"
The unconscious boy showed signs of waking; the ritual almost complete. Vater smiled at the nostalgic scene, wondering if he'd ever tire of Hunting.
"We can't let him die in vain."
A/N: I'm losing a lot of motivation, frankly. I love writing this series but it's time again and the pain is dull. Thank you for the kind comment on the previous book. Still, I can't help but wish for more and oh...what a disgusting thought.
Next week's chapter will be in 'Adventures of Flight Crew', titled: An ordinary day with Iolani Tori and Luka Sullivan. The week after that, it's in 'Flight School: Lore', a chapter requested by TheLostPancake as the winner of the contest on Uncharted Skies (Faustes and Callaghan's backstory).
This book's in for a ride and the first chapter says it all. As I said, I'm starting to lose motivation trying to explain every meaning behind my words and every delicate attribute of all my characters. It's really hard. Maybe simple writing really is the way to go—maybe people just like one-dimensional characters.