Xani stood off to one side of the gate which led into the courtyard of The Sharpeton Institute. Ashlin Nix, her best friend waited with her. The two watched for Samaji as the October morning warmed in the sunlight of a clear day.
They wore uniforms like the other students milling about entrance. The clothing varied in combinations of black and gray. Cardigans and vests displayed the school’s embroidered logo. Customary cliques loitered in front of the building. Xani and her friends preferred a specific tree inside the fence line, but another group of sleepy teenagers occupied their coveted spot.
She tapped her foot. She was a not a morning person, and her stance radiated annoyance. Her untamed, raven locks bounced with the movement as they flew away from her face in layers. With a sigh, she lifted her watch to her face the way a person does when they are not seeing the time.
“Where is Samaji? She knows I can’t be late for first period again, and Mama’ll kill me if I get detention,” she yawned, and it sounded like a growl.
She had stayed awake too late tossing and turning in her bed as the night dragged by. The numbers on the alarm clock taunted her cutting wounds in the dark and scoring her eyes with their sharpness. Her racing thoughts turned to the book that she found in library that day. The book Samaji had claimed. Her friend would read anything. The content of the pages did not matter, she would devour them. The behavior was normal, even expected. What Xani could not figure out was why she seemed obsessed with showing it to them.
After dinner, T.V. with Mama, and homework, she and her friends chatted through an online instant messenger service. The screen shone, a smattering of text in each of their favorite colors. Hers was royal purple. Samaji exploded in emerald glory about the book. The rambling was full of incoherent, half-finished thoughts. Liev, Ashlin’s older brother, asked her to bring to school the next day. The text was cobalt blue. Xani wondered at someone’s favorite being grey.
Ashlin pointed as a schoolbus stopped at the covered drop-off. She barely reached Xani’s shoulder in height. Ashlin Nix pushed a couple of dirty blond dreadlocks away from her round face. It made her appear much younger than fourteen. Her hairstyle choice was not within dresscode, but a counselor convinced Dean Moss that Ashlin’s hair was her way of maintaining her individuality in an atmosphere of conformity. Or some nonsense..
Ashlin peered around Xani. The latecomer raced toward them on the sun-cracked sidewalk. Samaji’s round cheeks flushed as she reached them. She leaned over placing a hand on Ashlin for support. Her chocolate brown hair hung down in braided pigtails that swayed with her breath.
“Sorry I’m late...overslept...almost missed the bus,” she panted. Her bright green eyes locked with Xani’s dark brown ones which ignited in the morning sun and then softened. Xani set her jaw reigning her temper in, but it was not subtle enough for her friend not to notice. She opened her mouth to apologize, and Ashlin popped up between them in Samaji’s face. She looked from one of her friends to the other.
“So you said you have the greatest book ever to show us or something like that? “ she quirked a grin at Samaji as she pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose.
She smiled and reached inside her backpack to reveal the thin book she had taken from the library. The bespectacled girl had a strange look in her eyes as she displayed it.
Xani shifted her weight, apprehensive. Just another dumb book. Probably full of magic, heroes, and impossible odds. The escapism Samaji loved. If it was just a stupid book, then, why did she want to take it and burn it?
Samaji beamed, “When I got home, I looked it up online. There are all these crazy stories about this thing. They seem like urban legends but old. Like really old. I can’t believe we just found this lying around. Seems like it should be in a museum.”
Ashlin plucked it from Samaji’s grasp, “Urban legends? People been murdered for it or somethin’?”
Xani lifted a hand to stop her. She did not want anyone to touch it. The gleam in Samaji’s eye was strange even for the bibliophile. Her insides crawled up into her ribcage threatening an abrupt exodus via her throat. The sun was bright in the cloudless sky, but the view seemed dimmer, and the air had a bite to it that was absent before. The world jolted becoming different while appearing the same. Distorted. It was a surreal sensation of awareness like a newly discovered sixth sense. Xani made a swipe at the book which Ashlin avoided.
“Angel Night...,” she read the title and flipped through the pages, “What’s it about?”
“Have to start at the beginning with that,” Samaji replied. This was the true source of her excitement, the story behind the story. “The title is actually The Angel’s Knight. It’s hard to see because some of the lettering has rubbed off. See? It’s like a rare translation of a play written during the Renaissance, English not Italian. Some people say that it’s cursed, because it was only performed once. Apparently, something happened during the show, but no one seems to know for sure what. There are lots of crazy theories like the actors died for real, and it was banned. All the scripts were burned except for one. It’s the one that keeps popping up, because of the actors’ restless spirits. That’s just one theory. I found them all on this website. Another goes that a witch charmed the playwright....” Her enthusiastic rambling trailed off as she watched her friends. They stared through her, transfixed. Xani, despite herself, fell under the spell of the book’s mysterious history.
From the student parking lot a couple of girls approached the gate. One of them slowed long enough to elbow Xani in the ribs as they walked by. The jab staggered Xani and Ash out of their trance and they bounced off of one another. Xani’s features flooded in irritation as she threw daggers over her shoulder at her attacker. Samaji tried to ask if she was okay, but the chime of Big Ben, the warning bell drowned out the question. Xani cursed and pelted toward the door. The book and the odd moment shared between them forgotten. A sharp pain in her ribcage as she made long strides. The blow was not. It ached like a premonition. Ash nudged her questioningly. Xani froze with her hand on the door-handle as other late-comers brushed her aside.
The Essence of the Unmaker’s Guardian awoke experiencing a confusion which was not all its own. It struggled with the part of itself that reacted first and pushed it down as if swallowing something caught in the back of one’s throat. Its Anchor to the world, a residue of something once human, fought in a futile effort to maintain control. The Anchor’s effort was wasted, though, it had more strength than in many years. The Essence sensed a furious resignation as it gained full control in the In-Between Place.
The Essence opened its attention to an infusion of information. The book absorbed and stored the knowledge the Guardians needed to move about between the waking times. The magic also selected an unobtrusive vessel for the purpose of allowing the Guardians to seek out their wards. It formed a mental picture of the commandeered vessel and would have scoffed if it had a physical mouth to do so.
“A cat? I’m to be a cat? I’ve been a houseboy, a soldier, a mother, an artist...and my finale is a cat? Better than a horse, I suppose,”The Essence said without a voice. It began to think of itself as Midi, a fluffy, black tomcat.
“You were none of those things. You stole those lives as you did mine,”the Anchor rebuked him sounding slighted as a pouting child. It had as much effect on The Essence which is to say none.
The Unmaker’s Guardian used animal vessels before, but found the accommodations limiting and disagreeable. The Guardians required both their anchors and vessels to manifest in a physical form. If Midi’s Anchor wrested control or if the vessel was not viable, then, he would be as tangible as a ghost and as effective.
The book’s interpretation of vessel likened to a doppelganger. The Guardians did not possess the creatures whose forms they wore. Their presence might not affect these at all. Often, their interference was not benign.
“Oh, give it a rest. Even you have to agree we can do better than a cat,” he replied in the vernacular.
Midi conjured an image from centuries past, and his Anchor thrashed.
“Be still, boy. You know I prefer a human form, and your is on hand,”Midi explained as if it were a simple thing to wear another’s face.
“Please, no. You and that demon woman took everything from me! Don’t do this!”his Anchor protested. Midi wondered if the boy now wished he had been nicer to The Essence or at the least more cooperative. It would have changed nothing, but he thought about it.
Neither of the essences of the Unmaker’s or Knight’s Guardians were alive. The did not feel. Not hate, love or compassion. They served the will of the powerful magic inscribed onto the book’s pages. Both Guardians were guilty of acts so ruthless to be called evil.
Midi ignored his Anchor’s pleas as he sculpted the vessel to his liking. He had learned how to draw on the magic giving him life and manipulate it. He would not be able to eradicate all vestiges of cat, but his prescribed vessel would be tolerable with some adjustments.
“Besides just think about all the things a human body can do. The houseboy worked particularly well, don’t you think? Remember how sweet those lips tasted...?”
At times ruthlessness took the guise of charm and seduction. The Guardians played any role required.
“Stop! You don’t talk about her! Any of them!”
Midi readied a scathing retort and shelved it in favor of encyclopedic knowledge of the world in which he had awakened. The progression of technology held a particular fascination for him. The advancements in the past couple of decades proved astounding.
While impressive, the trappings of modernity were of little consequence. Only The Unmaker, always a woman...or a girl, mattered. Possibilities wove before him as he entered the world and breathed the air.
He reached to touch her.
“I wonder how she’ll taste...”