A Strange Visitor
Looking at that horrid mark made me want to hurl. It looked like a flame, writhing and angry. I raced through the other kids, trying not to push but we needed a path for Amanaki, who followed me as quickly as he could. I almost tripped on a manhole, but held my footing and kept on going. I was glad though when we reached Maxwell's alley.
“Max!” I shouted. “Maxwell, we have a sick boy. He needs help!”
Maxwell was seated on the curb, his head in his hands. At my words he raised his head, his clear eyes meeting mine for an instant before settling on the boy Amanaki held. He stood quickly and came over to meet us, holding his arms out for the child. “Where did you find him?” he asked, cradling the frail body.
“I heard the dogs hunting. I had to help him,” Amanaki said quietly, almost defiantly.
Maxwell nodded, his eyes studying the boy’s face. “You did well, Amanaki. It takes a lot of courage to do something like that.” His gaze trailed to the burn mark on his arm, and they widened considerably. “Did either of you touch this mark?” he asked hoarsely. I was startled by the sound of it.
“I did,” I said hesitantly. “But he didn’t act hurt when I did…”
Amanaki nodded silently.
Maxwell studied us, something unreadable in his eyes. He nodded toward a puddle alongside the curb. “Clean your hands,” he commanded gently. “It might help.”
“Is it dangerous?” I asked, quickly obeying.
“It might be contagious,” Maxwell responded, gently laying the boy down on the sidewalk. “And yes, it can be dangerous.” He stared sadly at the boy, shaking his head. “I had hoped never to see this again.”
“Maxwell, what is it?” I asked, trying to keep the quiver of fear out of my voice.
He turned to look at us, smiling gently. “It’s alright Asha, Amanaki. Go ahead and go play. I’ll help the boy.”
“Won’t we pass it on if it’s contagious?” I asked. He shook his head.
“I doubt it. Go play, child. All will be well, I promise.”
I smiled at him, thanked him and followed Amanaki out. The others were waiting for us, watching nervously. “Is it safe?” a little girl asked.
“Maxwell says it should be alright,” I told them with as much assurance as I could. “He wouldn’t have told us to go play if it wasn’t, right?” That seemed to relieve the others. “Come on, let’s play!”
Everyone quickly began to argue over what they wanted to play. Sash walked to me till he directly faced me, putting his hands on his hips. “How serious is it?” he asked.
“Max says we should be fine,” I replied. “It’s okay. Come on, let’s play.”
The afternoon passed swiftly. We took a break from our games to scavenge for lunch. When I brought some for Maxwell, he was kneeling over the boy with a worried look o his face. His eyes were so grim, I feared the boy wouldn’t make it. He asked me if I felt any different, to which I replied no. Then he asked me if I had seen anyone strange. Again I said no. But when I asked him what he meant, he told me to call him if I saw any strange people come. I found it very hard to focus on a game now, wondering and worrying if everything would be alright.
Finally sunset came. Some of the kids began to scatter, depending on their conditions and where they needed to go. Lumina had crawled into her dumpster and had fallen asleep. She was only six, poor thing. Sash, Amanaki, the rest of the kids and I all agreed to a game of freeze tag before calling it a day. Some of us would hang around to check on Maxwell afterwards, but that would be it. A little boy was chosen as It, and he proved to be quite fast. I quickly made tracks for the edge of the corner, watching as he took the others down. I saw him turn towards me, and quickly whirled around to run. I suddenly crashed into something and started to fall. Something caught me and pulled me back to my feet. “You have a hard head,” it said ruefully. “You alright child?”
I was staring at a purple leg, and the edge of an equally purple jacket. I raised my eyes to see a man smiling down at me. I gasped and stumbled back. He had blonde hair that had been neatly arranged, with glowing green eyes. His face was more angular than I had seen before, and he was neatly dressed in a rich violet suit. He didn’t have that animal glint in his eyes, but there was something odd, I was sure. Maybe it was because he was a stranger, or maybe the events of the day had made me ready to distrust any unfamiliar face. Either way, I instantly distrusted this odd stranger.
“It’s alright, I won’t bite,” he said soothingly. “I’m looking for someone, a boy about your age. He has a mark on his arm, a birthmark that resembles a flame. I need to find him, he’s dreadfully ill.”
A birthmark? Maxwell said it was an illness. “I haven’t seen any new kid around her, particularly one with such a birthmark,” I said shortly. “I’m sorry, you’ll have to look elsewhere.”
He studied me, eyes moving up and down as they took me in. His scrutiny made was making me uncomfortable. “What is your name child?” he asked me.
I opened my mouth to retort it was none of his business, but instead my actual name came out. And not my assumed name, I told him my real name. “I’m…Alethia.”
He nodded slowly, his vibrant eyes seemed to glow with brilliance. It was an attractive glow, and I couldn’t draw my eyes away. He rested his hand on my shoulder, dropping slowly to one knee so he could look me in the eye. “A lovely name, Alethia. Tell me, do you know what that means?” I shook my head hesitantly. “It means ‘truthful one’. I don’t believe you’re being honest with me, little truth.” I stared at him, then nodded. His smile deepened. “I understand. There are uncertain days. How can you know who to trust? Perhaps it would be easier if you knew my names. Friends know each other’s names, right?” I heard Sash shouting my name, my assumed name. But I ignored him, enraptured by those eyes. The green seemed almost to swirl…it was so pretty. “You may call me Doran.”
“That happens to mean ‘exile’, but I’m sure you’re aware of that. Get away from Asha, Donovan!”
“Maxwell,” I gasped. Suddenly, all the swirling colors and lights were gone. The stranger was staring over my head, and Maxwell was behind me. I scrambled back, away from the man, and flung my arms around Maxwell’s legs, burying my face in the soft cloth of his pants. He put an arm protectively around my shoulders. I heard the other man start talking.
“I am not Donovan anymore, Maxwell. I cast aside the name long ago. I am Doran now.”
“Tired of being the ‘dark warrior’?” Maxwell seemed almost like he was mocking Doran,. I’d never heard him sound so angry. “So you are the exile now. I suppose it fits.”
“Technically you gave me that name, when you and the others cast me aside all those years ago.” Nervously I peeked at the man. He was standing feet apart, one hand on his hip and the other gesturing aside. He didn’t look all that happy either. “But I didn’t come to settle that score. Not yet. Where’s my boy, Max?”
“Sleeping peacefully for the first time in months. How dare you reawaken the Flame?” his voice quivered in fury. I could feel the tension on his body in his arm. “Did you not learn from all this? You would restart the destruction and evil?”
“It’s not evil!” Doran argued fiercely. “What happened those years ago was your fault! You and the others had to attempt to fight it, to kill it! But then it fought back. I’m the only one left with any strength, because I accepted the reality of my situation! It protected me!”
“Because it knew you were susceptible, fool!”
Doran was quiet, head lowered while his entire body shook from some deep rage. His hands clenched and unclenched again,. His breath came out harsh, like it pained him to breathe. Suddenly, his entire body went still, like he had suddenly paralyzed. His shoulders began to shake again, but the sound from his lips was laughter. But it wasn’t warm nor did it resonate like Maxwell’s laugh. It was a sharp, biting sort of sound. He raised his head, eyes flashing. “I’m the fool, hmm? If I am a fool, what are you?” He put his hand to his chest, head lowering slightly. “You hide among children, fill their little heads with cotton candy tales. What do you call a monster who uses little children?”
“You’re a puppet for the Flame, Doran,” Maxwell said quietly. “Let it go, before it consumes you.”
Doran raised his eyes to meet Maxwell’s own. “So what…if I’m a puppet?” His fist suddenly began to glow, a pulsing red energy. I stared at the pretty, but angry color, suddenly deeply afraid. “Have you heard this tale? Once upon a time…” His body turned away slightly, arm cocked. “You were too!” He swung around, flinging the ball of red directly at Maxwell. It took on the form of a bird of prey, aimed directly at Maxwell’s chest. He suddenly pushed me back, arms outstretched to meet it. The bird connected and exploded.
“Maxwell!” I gasped, scrambling to my feet. I stared at the pillar of smoke and ash where Maxwell had been mere seconds ago. Tears began to form in my eyes. Maxwell was gone. I’d never see his smile again, never hear another of his wonderful stories, never hear his laugh anymore. I focused on Doran, who looked so smug and happy, and my fury rose to the surface. “Son of a goat!” I cried, running toward him with fists clenched.
I stopped still, turning to stare at the pillar. The smoke was clearing, and I saw a flicker of blue. Eyes wide, I watched as the smoke cleared away, revealing Maxwell. He was surrounded by a filmy blue light, with not even a mark on him. I laughed unbelievably, too happy to speak. His eyes never left Doran, who had taken a fighting stance. “Asha, stay back,” Maxwell commanded. “Stay out of the way. Go keep the others safe.”
“But who’ll keep her safe?” Doran asked slyly. “She’s got spirit, this one. If I can’t have my boy, maybe I’ll take her to replace him.”
“I think you would find you bit off more than you could chew,” Maxwell answered calmly, refusing to be goaded. Doran began to laugh again.
“So strong Max! Let’s see if your gifts can save you.” And he rushed forward, launching a kick at Max’s midsection.
Maxwell almost casually slapped it aside, aiming a punch at Doran’s chest. Doran caught his fist with an open palm. He swung a short hook, and Maxwell caught that one. They pushed at each other for a second, then Doran swung back, bending back at an impossible angle, to throw Maxwell off. But Maxwell merely swung over his head to land in a similar position.
“You haven’t lost your touch,” Doran said with a small smile. “Sturdy as an ox and as agile as a monkey. Always my biggest competition.”
Maxwell suddenly straightened, swinging Doran around, though he didn’t let go. He spun Doran in the air for a second, then smashed him to the pavement left, then swung him right, before hurling him at a lamppost. Doran’s body twisted so he landed feet first, then pushed off to come shooting like an arrow back, but when Doran came with a knife strike to the throat Maxwell returned with a punch. Doran dropped his arm and stepped aside to dodge the punch. Maxwell suddenly stuck his leg out, sweeping Doran off his feet. He landed on his back with all the air knocked out of it. Before he could recover, Maxwell grabbed him by the collar and took off. Doran’s head was smashed against the pavement at least a dozen times before Maxwell swung around, hurling him against one of the older buildings. He struck with such force the entire wall gave, falling atop the prone form. With a loud rumbling, the crumpled figure was buried by bricks and scaffolding.
Maxwell’s chest heaved as he inhaled deeply and exhaled. As there was no apparent movement from the mound, he straightened, visibly relaxing. His dirt brown jacket was torn and covered in ash, as were his pants. Still, when he turned to face me, he was smiling. His white tee was dirt-stained, but untouched. “Are you alright?” he asked, taking a step toward me. I nodded, smiling at him. He smiled wider and came forward again.
Suddenly, the pile exploded in a flash of red. Doran came shooting out, his entire body pulsing with red energy. Maxwell suddenly shone blue and whirled around, palm open. An arrow of blue shot from his hand. Doran caught is mid-air and snapped it with two fingers. Still he kept coming. He leapt up into the air, hand raised in a knife motion. Maxwell leapt up to meet him, punching. Doran arched over it and swung his hand like a knife. The red energy slashed out, striking Maxwell. As it hit him it spread over his whole body, crackling like a surge of electricity. Maxwell screamed in pain, falling to earth as it raked his body. Doran swung his arm back and came down, smashing the earth so that it cracked. Maxwell was flung away, landing hard on his back. Doran straightened leisurely, his smile back and settled smugly on his face.
Maxwell!” I shouted, stumbling.
Doran strolled slowly toward Maxwell, why lay still. He stepped over him than knelt down, straddling him. I began to stumble forward, hand clenched. Doran pulled a knife out of his boot and put it against his shirt on Maxwell’s chest. He swiftly cut upward, slicing open his shirt. I was close enough now to see what was revealed, a flame like what was on that boy’s arm, except it looked like mark that was healing. “Interesting,” Doran said. “What have you been up to.” He put the knife against his chest again, clearly intending for blood this time.
“NO!” I howled, running now. I swung my arm back and punched him in the face as hard as I could. He gasped in pain, a satisfactory sound, as his head swung away. Then, slowly, it turned back to face me. That side of his face was a deep red, and his eyes were narrowed, angry. I gasped and stumbled back, falling on my rump. He stood, looming over me threateningly. Suddenly, Sash was there, standing between us and glaring at Doran.
“You leave my friend alone!” he shouted.
Doran bent down, grabbed Sash’s collar, and flung him aside. Sash cried out fearfully, but Amanaki caught him before he hit the ground. Doran bent down, grabbing me at the point where the chin and neck meet, and lifted me up till I hung at eye-level. I whimpered in pain, grabbing at his arm, kicking wildly.
“You need to learn to respect your betters,” he said in a dangerously quiet voice. He raised his hand and I cringed back, sure he would hit me. “And to stay out of what is not your business, little firebrand.” He lightly brushed my face, his gloved hand burning hot. I winced.
“Leave her be, Doran!” Maxwell said, rolling painfully onto his side.
“I think not,” Doran replied. “She has spirit and strength, if poorly spent. I could use this one.” He smirked, relaxing his grip on my neck. He perched me on his hip, his arm wrapped snugly around me. “Keep the boy Max. I believe he is going to die anyway.”
He leapt up, flickering with the red energy again. He jumped atop a two-story building, a leap no ordinary man could have made. But then, no man could come out still kicking after a fight like that. I screamed and clung to him, scared of falling. I saw Maxwell stagger to his feet as Doran took off again, travelling across the rooftops. I heard Sash call my name, but it quickly faded away as Doran travelled further away, toward the most dangerous side of town. “where are you taking me?” I asked fearfully.
“To my present home,” he answered. “Be silent child, or do you want to attract the attention of the madmen with guns?”
I shivered, whimpering. I was scared, terrified even, and Maxwell wasn’t there to comfort me anymore. I was alone now, with a man who might or might not intend to hurt me, in an area that was full of dangerous things.
I mentally shook my head. No, I wasn’t alone. Maxwell and my friends weren’t going to abandon me to this man’s whims. They were going to rescue me, and everything would be alright again. I’d just have to hold on till they got to me. I’d need to be an adult now, and be tough. I’d make Maxwell proud, and not cry like a baby.
Doran’s arm tightened around me. “Hold on now, here’s where things get interesting.” He leapt off the roof and into the street. Hitting the ground running, he streaked past a group of scruffy, miserable looking men who were dozing or whatever in the gutter.
“Ditto that for me,” I thought, clinging tightly to him as the one alert man in that bunch fired a bullet into the air. Like the dog pack, they were on our trail.