THE FINAL BATTLE
By Dr. Jeffrey A. Robinson
(unpublished)

Chapter 1

Fires still burned on the plains below the hill. The huge oak trees at the edge of the ancient forest lay scattered like kindling from the battle that had raged here less than an hour ago. Black acrid smoke curled up from craters that marred the once green fields of the Ashuran countryside and rose on the cold wind to disappear into the low clouds of the gray weeping sky.

The battle was won and the enemy had been put to rout, but the losses had been great. Thousands of bodies lay strewn across the killing fields, most of them the twisted inhuman monstrosities of the enemy, but many of them had been dear friends.

The commander, his black battledress torn and bloody, lay back against the ruins of an old barn he had used as a command post. After the enemy retreat, he had sent the rest of his troops to chase down the remnants of the enemy forces.

The enemy had launched a last final assault on this hill, aimed specifically at him and his command staff only at the end of the battle when all seemed lost. The ferocity of the attack reflected the enemy’s desperation here on the last world they controlled.

Coughing, he grimaced in pain and focused his mind to ignore what he could of it. Blood rose to his lips and he could hear air bubbling up through his lungs as he gasped in short shallow breaths. His left arm hung limp and motionless at his side, so crooked and twisted that it had to be broken in several places. Fortunately, his whole left side was numb which spared him agony he probably would never been able to bear.

As he struggled to reach his sword, he almost passed out. Leaning back once more, he fought against darkness that crowded at the edge of his vision. Finally, he glanced down at his chest. Whenever he breathed in, his whole torso shifted as if there were no bones inside it. So many ribs were broken, it was a miracle he could breathe at all.

He was dying.

The giant that had killed him lay a few yards away. The huge deformed creature had stood more than twelve feet tall and massed more than two tons, but the whole top of its head was sheared off just above the monster’s brow. The commander’s killing stroke, however, had not been enough to turn the deathblow delivered by massive fists that spanned more than a foot-and-a-half across.

Turning his head to one side see if anyone else nearby still lived, he heard moaning but could not tell which of the motionless forms of his companions around him were wounded, unconscious, or dead. As he drew in breath to call out, a shape emerged from around the corner of the barn. One of the remaining enemy shock troops stepped into view, and noticing him, turned toward him.

Its mouth twisted up at the sight of him lying on the ground. The expression could hardly be called a smile, however, for the creature had no lips and the gash that was its mouth opened to show multiple rows of teeth. It drooled with glee, as if in anticipation of a favorite meal, and shambled closer dragging a large ugly looking spear in one hand. Its other arm, ended in a bloody stump that dripped black ichor as it approached.

When it finally stood over him, it raised the heavy spear high over its head and tilted the ugly barbed blade down at him. Then it raised its head into the air and howled in victory. To his surprise, there was a distant answering wail. Both he and the creature turned and looked in the direction of the sound.

From the trees at the base of the hill a piece of shadow separated itself from the darkness of the trees and raced directly toward the two of them. With blinding speed it, flew across the ground and stopped abruptly mere yards away.

The wraithbeast had assumed the shape of a dire wolf, fully four feet tall at the shoulders and easily the size of a fully-grown bear. The beast’s eyes and fur were so completely black and unreflective that, if it did not move, one would have sworn it was carved from onyx or obsidian. The beast paused and examined the pair. The soldier with the spear glared at the dying commander and then back at the newcomer, grinning even more than before. Then it raised its spear to finish of the defenseless soldier on the ground just as the wraith-beast snarled, bared its maw of teeth, and launched itself into the air.

The spear thrust never struck. Instead the shadow-wolf hit the other creature and sank its teeth into the enemy’s neck, shaking its head violently back and forth and working its teeth deeper and deeper into its victim. The creature dropped its spear and fell to its knees, frantically pounding at the beast with its bare hands. The war hound, however, ignored the beast’s feeble defense and savaged its prey until it finally tore the head loose from the body. As the body of the enemy soldier shuddered and slowly came to rest, the wraith-beast continued to worry its prize, snarling and batting the head across the ground.

Eventually it lost interest in its gory toy and turned to the only other survivor on the field. It approached the commander, black blood dripping from its jaws, and stood looking down at him. Kneeling, it lowered its snout and nuzzled its nose under an unresponsive hand waiting for its master to pet it.

At least I won’t die alone then, thought the commander. Closing his eyes, he succumbed to unbearable weariness that settled over him like a cold, heavy blanket of darkness.

******

The Lady Muriel sensed something was wrong, even as she led her troop of warriors through the woods chasing one of the scattered bands of enemy deserters. Trusting her feelings, she called her hunting party to a halt and separated four of her best scouts from the rest. Sending the main group on their way with instructions to leave none of the enemy alive for questioning, she ordered her chosen four to follow her. Then, turning back the way she had come, she sprinted back toward the main battlefield.

She ran recklessly across the uneven ground, dodging and weaving her way through the thick woods where the enemy had sought to hide. Her wide dark grey cape spread itself out behind her like a giant raven’s wings. Quickly outdistancing her companions, she emerged from the woods and raced across the battlefield ignoring fallen, foes and friends alike. Reaching the hill that overlooked the killing fields, she heard a low waning wail and found her worst fears confirmed.

Surveying the carnage around the command post, she prayed that what her heart told her was not true. Nonetheless, when she spied the dark motionless form on the ground next to its shadow-shrouded protector, her shock nearly turned to despair. She slowly approached the commander’s faithful pet, which raised its head and howled mournfully once more and knelt beside the body.

Reaching out a hand, she was surprised to find the commander still alive.

Gasping for air, the first two of her scouts arrived and stood behind her. “Is he dead?” asked the first.

“Not quite,” she replied, reaching behind her and tugging at her cape. “But if he doesn’t get to a place of healing soon, he will be.” With an urgency that hinted at her desperation, she tore the gray material into strips to bind the worst of the commander’s wounds. Yet even as she applied make-shift field dressings, she considered her options in silence.

The last two of her scouts caught up and knelt down beside her. One began tearing his own cape into strips, as well, handing the pieces to Muriel. The other placed a hand on her arm. “There isn’t a place of healing on this world,” he said. “We evacuated the population when began our surprise attack. As we suspected, the enemy systematically destroyed all population centers, when we launched our assault. There are no healers on this world and the nearest permanent Waygate is a dozen leagues away.”

Muriel continued her make-shift ministrations. “He’ll never survive such a journey,” she said. “But he’ll die if we leave him here. So I’ll have to gate him somewhere else.”

The scout’s face twisted in a look of disbelief. “But where? There are no other Waygates on this world, except those our forces defend and those are too far away. You can’t open one alone. It takes at least three adepts to hold a gate open.”

As she finished binding one last wound, she laid her hands on the fallen commander and, using her gift of empathy, she touched the tattered thread of spirit, which barely clung to the broken body. Coaxing him gently, she separated him from the pain and lulled him into a trance far deeper than sleep. She slowed the commander’s body functions down until she could barely detect his life at all.

The others watched in silence, not daring to interrupt her.

When she was finished, she leaned back and sighed wearily. “You’re right, of course. He’ll die of his injuries if we try to carry him to the nearest gate. It’s also true that I can’t hold a gate open alone, but I may be able to open one just long enough to get him to safety. There’s no other option. I’ll have to create a Waygate here.”

“But all the other worlds are warded,” insisted the second scout. “It will take time to get a runner to one of them and convince them to unweave the wards. That’s how we trapped the enemy here. With all the known worlds cut off, there was no place left for them to run.”

“No, we will have to do it here… now,” said Muriel. “There isn’t time to lift the wards to the other worlds, but there might be another way. I think we were wrong when we assumed we’d blocked all routes of escape from this world.”

She turned to the nearest scout. His eyes were wide with wonder, but he did not question what she said. The unwavering conviction of her words and the certainty in her eyes left no doubt that she believed it to be true.

“There is a way to save him,” she explained. “Remember, what happened on the battlefield when our victory drew near? Their leader stood in the center of his troops then he opened a gate and stepped through it. It was when he fled the field that his armies broke and scattered.”

The scout nodded in silence.

“That means there’s another gate accessible from here, a hidden gate, a secret one.”

“But that would mean…” began the scout.

“Yes,” said Muriel with a mixture of hope and fear. “It would mean that the stories of lost worlds might be true and that the enemy has been using them all along.”

Unspoken the news was almost too terrible to consider. It would mean that this was not the final battle after all. If the enemy had secreted forces on other unknown worlds, then the war would continue. Moreover, having lost nearly half their numbers in this last strategic assault, their forces may have irreparably crippled themselves. The illusion of victory faded as hope for an end to this eternal battle waned.

Muriel stood and with the last remnants of her black cape she shaped the last pieces into a harness. Bending down, she tied it around the fallen commander’s shoulders and rose once more.

Walking to the body of the giant, she wrestled their leader’s weapon loose from where it had lodged in the creature’s giant misshapen skull. Focusing her thoughts and twisting it, she shaped it into a short, thick rod and tucked it into the belt of his combat uniform.

“I’ve put him in a trance,” she announced. “If nothing disturbs him, it will take him a day or more to die. But even if I can get him to a place of safety, it will take him many more days to heal. We have no choice but to try. He would never survive the transition through the wards, which guard the other Waygates to this world. His only hope is if I can open a gate to the unguarded world where the enemy commander fled.”

Turning her back to the others, she began weaving her hands in the air, focusing all her will and spirit to make contact with that other world. “Lend me your strength,” she instructed and the others knelt beside her, placing their hands on her shoulders. Closing their eyes, they focused their wills and joined them with hers, surrendering their life-force for her to use. Such channeling was dangerous even under the best of conditions and this action could easily kill them all, if her focus faltered or if she drew too much of their spirits from them. Still, such was their faith in their lady, that none of the four hesitated.

After a moment, she said, “It must be close. It has to be.” Speaking half in explanation and half in an attempt to convince herself, she reached out further with her mind trying to find any other place near this world, a place strong with life-force that would allow her to open a Waygate there..

For long painful minutes, she detected nothing. Creating a Waygate that was not properly anchored was reckless beyond imagining. If she opened a portal with no destination, it would draw their spirits through the gate and kill them all instantly.

The four scouts sat motionless, their eyes closed and their breathing slow. The lady held her hands outstretched. The black shadow beast whimpered mournfully as the wind blew leaves across the ground. With the thickening clouds, the light faded until it seemed more night than day. The smoke from the nearby fires stung her eyes and she clenched them tightly shut concentrating even harder, as she felt herself weaken.

Stretching her awareness to its limits, she sought any indication of life beyond this world. At last her empathic gift touched the whispers of other lives very close, yet very far away.

“There!” she cried and she forced open the tiniest of cracks to that world. Straining with all her heart, she gasped with pain. Trembling, she widened it and a small circle of purple light appeared before her, which grew until it was a dozen handspans across. A wind grew from nowhere and blew toward the portal, drawing leaves through the opening, like insects scurrying to safety. In the dim twilight, the gate glowed as brightly as a bonfire. Flickering purple shadows seemed to drive the surroundings into even deeper darkness.

“This is not at all what I expected,” she said probing the distant world. “There is too much life here, far more than I have ever felt before.” She shivered from her efforts. “I can’t just abandon him anywhere. If I can find a place of healing, there may be a chance.” Closing her eyes once more she searched for anyone in that otherworld with any trace of empathic gifts, healers, caring souls who would not let a stranger die.

One of the scouts opened his eyes afraid. Glancing at the gate, he closed them quickly, surrendering himself to Muriel once more. The portal slowly grew in size and stabilized.

“There,” she cried. “I’ve found a place of healing. Quickly, I cannot hold the gate open for long. Give Shadrack the harness. Get him through the gate… Now!.”

The wraithbeast nodded with an unnatural understanding and grasped the cloth strap in its teeth. Tugging on the harness, it dragged its master’s form toward the swirling purple light.

“Take him to a place of safety,” she commanded. “I’ve opened the gate to what I think is a place of healing. With luck, they may think him just another nameless soldier. Stay close to him and watch him, Shadrack. I will come as soon as I can.”

The beast walked backwards through the gate, towing the body of his master with him. When they disappeared from sight, vanishing in the swirling purple light, Muriel lowered her hands and collapsed exhausted to the ground. The gate dimmed and shrank to a point, which vanished without a trace.

Holding herself on her hands and knees, she gasped in short shallow breaths.

One of the scouts beside her slowly rose and extended a hand to her. Without the light of the gate, he seemed a shadow standing against the night. “Do you think he’ll survive?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she said, slowly regaining her strength. “Death was certain here. At least there he has hope.” She took the hand of the scout and let him help her to her feet.

“It is all we could do.” Glancing out across the open battlefield, she heard distant inhuman screams and battle cries. While the enemy was routed, they were not completely defeated. “Come, we must rejoin the others and finish our work here. Then we must assemble our forces and prepare to follow Michael. When he wakes, he’ll find himself in a strange world, in the midst of the enemy. He’ll be lost and will need help.”

Glancing up at the sky, she tried to see the evening stars, but they were obscured by clouds and smoke. “We thought this would be the last battle, but it looks like we still have more to fight. ”

Unbidden they turned together and headed back down the hill, walking slowly this time. Muriel said nothing, but her companions could feel her weariness like a heavy weight pulling at them. As they strode into the night, the hope they had nurtured before the battle vanished. Their commander, Michael, was gone, the enemy fled and the battle they had thought they had won seemed now a hollow victory.

Chapter 2

The doctor made his rounds through the intensive care unit, as a small crowd of interns followed him like a gaggle of baby geese. One of the more senior medical students stayed close by his side taking notes on a clipboard as the doctor spoke.

“…and here we have an interesting case,” said the physician drawing back the curtain of one of the CCU beds. Before them lay the unconscious body of a young man, who appeared to be in his late twenties. While there were no obvious injuries, the patient lay motionless and unresponsive. His body seemed healthy and young, but his white hair and the deep lines in his face seemed to belie his apparent youth.

Wires and tubes from a life support telemetry units bound the man in place. Monitoring systems nearby displayed his breathing and pulse rates. Both were extremely slow.

“The patient, a John Doe, was found two months ago outside this very hospital. He’d sustained massive internal injuries and multiple fractures of the upper chest, left arm and hip. From the extent of the trauma, it’s a miracle he was alive at all. Since his arrival, he’s been on life support here in the Critical Care Unit and has undergone eight different surgical procedures to address his internal injuries. We’ve wired back pieces of bone in his ribcage and set the fractures in his arm and leg. However, he has never regained consciousness.”

“What happened to him,” asked one of the intern.

The doctors turned to his students and shrugged nonchalantly. “We’re assuming he was a hit and run victim that someone anonymously dropped off at the emergency room. Other than a fall from a very tall building, there’s little else that could account for the massive blunt trauma injuries he sustained.

“What’s unusual about this subject is that he’s demonstrated rather remarkable regenerative abilities. Not only has he healed completely from the surgical procedures on his ruptured spleen and collapsed lung, his skeletal injuries reflect accelerated healing as well. For example, the eight multiple fractures in his left arm, the sixteen in his chest, and those in his hip and leg have already completely healed. Normally, it would take six months to a year for such injuries to mend. More surprisingly, however, you will note from the patient’s charts that the fourth and fifth metacarpals of his left hand were completely crushed and had to be amputated. Yet look.”

The doctor pulled back the sheet and raised patient’s the left hand. “The missing joints have grown back.” The students and interns leaned close to see that the fingers did indeed look normal, albeit pink and pale.

“The attending staff brought in a research team to investigate the patient’s regenerative capabilities. They took tissue samples and are looking for evidence of genetic tracers that could help in the development of stem cell research.”

Dropping the man’s arm and covering him with the sheet once more, the doctor said, “Nevertheless, while his body has healed remarkably, John Doe remains in a coma with no detectable brain activity. He may have sustained irreversible brain damage from blood loss before we treated him. In any case, we’ll have to make a decision in the next day or two about what to do with him. Since he’s out of danger now, he no longer warrants a bed here in the CCU and we can’t justify keeping him here. Are there any questions?”

“Have you no idea who he is?” asked one student.

“Absolutely none,” replied the physician. “He had no identification or papers, not even a wallet. The police tried to ID him, but his fingerprints aren’t on file and he doesn’t match any open missing-persons reports. They’re at as much of a loss as we are.”

Shrugging, he returned the chart to its place at the end of the hospital bed and turned toward the next bed in the ward. “Now, if you’ll follow me, we’ve another interesting case over here. Mr. Wilkins here suffered what at first seemed like a normal myocardial infarction, but his physiological response to treatment was quite atypical…”

The doctor droned on and the student interns followed in tow.

The beeping of the heart monitor by the nameless patient continued monotonously without change. To the staff, he was simply a medical curiosity and one of passing interest at that.

******

A few hours later, a physical therapist arrived. Her job was to exercise the muscles of coma patients and paralysis victims to help prevent muscle atrophy. She drew back the sheet and prepared to begin passive exercises on the patient’s legs. After bending, flexing, and stretching them for several minutes, she stopped and moved on to his arms, working each of the major muscles in turn. As usual, his limbs were flaccid and unresponsive.

Once, long ago, she’d found her job exciting and rewarding. Over time, however, her days had become filled with cases like these and there was little interesting about tending the abandoned bodies of nearly lifeless bodies that lingered too close to death. Recently she’d decided to seek retraining and apply for a job in one of the surgical units. Even as she progressed through the series of exercises on this subject, she daydreamed about her new career options. As she finished the proscribed number of extensions on the patient’s left arm, she walked around the bed and began the same exercises on his right.

Unexpectedly, as she flexed his posterior tripesious muscle, the patient’s arm stiffened. She tried to flex it and then attempted to fully extend it, but the muscles were locked tight. Then the patient’s eyes opened. While unusual, this reflex response sometimes occurred, if the therapist’s actions inadvertently caused pain. She let go of the patient’s arm and stepped back to reassess her scheduled regime of exercise, but before she could think of what to do, the patient turned his head, looked directly at her and blinked.

She jumped back and screamed.

Within seconds the charge nurse hurried into the room. “For God’s sake, Rebecca” she said, “What is going on here?”

The young physical therapist held one hand over her mouth and pointed at the patient with the other. The large older nurse turned toward the patient just in time to see him sit up and begin investigating the IV tube that was inserted into the back of his right hand. As another registered nurse arrived, the charge nurse shouted, “Go get Dr. Shannon stat. And tell him that his John Doe in CCU twelve just regained consciousness.”

When the other woman paused to look at the patient, the duty nurse shouted, “I said stat!” RN dutifully disappeared.

Hurrying to the patient’s bedside, the ward nurse pushed him back down on the bed and slapped his hand, as he continued to play with his IV. “Now, you behave yourself,” she said. “Just lie back down and the doctor will be here in no time at all to explain your situation to you.”

Less than five minutes later, the doctor arrived, blinking in surprise as he entered the room. Quickly beginning his examination, he found the patient lucid and curious about his surroundings. The man, however, did not reply to any questions put to him. All his vital signs, his pulse, blood pressure and reflexes, all seemed normal.

Then when the doctor pulled out a penlight to check the patient’s pupil response, the man grabbed the doctor’s wrist and took the instrument from his hand, studying it carefully. The doctor gasped and winced in pain, as the man held his arm. The patient’s grip was incredibly strong.

When the patient finished examining the instrument, he handed it back to the doctor and released the physician. The doctor jumped backwards and nursed his wrist before cautiously taking back the penlight and replacing it in his pocket.

Regaining his composure, the doctor said, “The patient can obviously hear us speaking, since he physically responds to our questions and looks at the speaker. But he doesn’t answer and doesn’t seem to understand what we say. He may be suffering from aphasia or some related dysfunction as a result of neurological injury. I want a cranial MRI and a full neurological workup on him by this afternoon to determine the extent of any brain damage.”

Detailing additional instructions, the doctor and nurses left the patient alone in his bed. Outside, the therapist still waited by the nurse’s station.

“Well?” asked the duty nurse. “Don’t you have other patients to attend to?”

The therapist nodded and pointed at the CCU station where her ministrations had been interrupted. “Uh, my papers and assignment schedules are still in there.” Her hand trembled, as she pointed toward the curtains that hid the mysterious stranger.

“Well, don’t just stand there then,” admonished the charge nurse. “Go get your things and get on with your work.”

The young girl scurried away from the matronly nurse and cautiously peeked through the curtains. The patient sat in his bed methodically examining his surroundings. He glanced at her, but neither smiled nor frowned.

Pulling herself together, she feigned confidence and strode up to the bedside. Snatching her clipboard, she said, “You nearly scared me to death the way you woke up that way. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

The man apparently didn’t understand her words, but he must have understood her tone, because his eyebrows furrowed and his gaze softened apologetically.

Smiling, she wondered who he was and what must be going through his mind.

As she paused, his hand reached out like a snake and grasped her wrist. She gasped and inhaled deeply to scream again, but he pulled her closer to him and she froze with terror. The man reached out and grabbed hold of her other arm. Then he drew her near until her face was mere inches from his own. He did nothing, however, but stare at her.

His eyes were a strange colorless gray and his unblinking gaze transfixed her. All her thoughts of struggle or escape vanished, as his eyes seemed to probe deeper and deeper into her own. She lost track of time, as she stared back at him, fascinated and enthralled. After what could have been a short seconds or long minutes, he released her and she stepped back with unexpected dizziness.

She steadied herself and thought about fleeing, but the young man with white hair seemed harmless and innocent again, his eyes deep with compassion. Bending down to pick up the clipboard she had dropped, the therapist backed carefully away.

The man smiled and said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Leaving the clipboard behind, she screamed and once more dashed out of the room toward the nurse’s station.

******

Hours later, as the day shift staff prepared to leave and the night shift was arriving, several CCU nurses whispered to one another at the main counter of the emergency intensive care unit. It was customary to turn down the hallway lights after the evening meal to make it easier for the patients to sleep.

Huddled in the shadows, they gathered around the main desk, looking like girl scouts whispering ghost stories to one another around a campfire.

“So do they have any idea who he is then?” asked one.

“Not a clue,” replied the older charge nurse. “One minute he’s in a coma and the next he’s wide awake, but can’t to say a single word. Doctor Shannon examined him for nearly an hour, but the fellow was mute as a mime. He finally wrote up orders for a full neurological workup for trauma induced aphasia, but before the orderlies could come down to take him upstairs, John Doe started talking like nothing was wrong.”

The matronly nurse started chuckling and the others leaned closer to hear. “Oh and that young physical therapist who comes down afternoons was with him both times, when he first woke up and again when he started speaking.”

The nurse laughed and banged softly on the counter. “He nearly scared the poor girl right out of her skin. I don’t think she’ll ever show up for CCU duty again.”

One young nurse frowned, “So they don’t know his name or anything?”

“Nope,” said the day shift nurse. “He hasn’t told them anything, either. He seems normal enough, but the doctors aren’t sure now whether he has amnesia or if he’s just being uncooperative.”

One young nurse glanced at the empty curtains of CCU unit 12 and asked, “So where is he now?”

“Oh, they moved him up to a room upstairs. They didn’t want to tie up a bed down here.”

“So he might be single?” said the younger nurse raising her eyebrows.

“Oh stop that, Margaret” laughed the day nurse. “Is that all you ever think of? My Lord, was that why you were always volunteering to give him sponge baths when he was comatose?”

Blushing she sighed wistfully and added, “Well, you have to admit, when he healed up he was quite a specimen.” They all burst out laughing then and it was a nearly a minute before they composed themselves.

“So what’s going to happen to him now?” asked another of the day shift nurses as she gathered up her purse and coat to leave.

“Who knows?” shrugged the charge nurse. “He doesn’t need treatment anymore; that’s for sure. I figure they’ll discharge him or transfer him over to county, if they decide he’s a head case.”

The youngest of the nurses stared at the closed curtains. “Such a waste,” she sighed.

As the day crew said their goodbyes and left, the night nurse took up her station and started reviewing patient charts. Moments later she nearly jumped out of her chair when she thought she saw a shadow moving across the far end of the corridor.

Staring down the hall, he looked closer, but saw nothing. Calming herself, she decided she was just seeing things and returned to her work. As depressing as the thought was, the CCU was as quiet as a morgue.

Concentrating on her paperwork, she didn’t notice the shadow continue down the hallway and disappear around the corner to the stairwell at the end of the passageway.

******

Upstairs, the patient everyone knew as John Doe had spent the afternoon watching closed-captioned television. The news gave him a detailed, albeit inaccurate, image of the world, but it helped him learn the language of this world more thoroughly. With his eidetic memory, Michael was now proficient at written English before the evening meal came.

Turning his attention from the news, he focused on his food and in no time at all consumed it all. The nursing staff was kind enough to bring him a second helping and, after he was done, they brought him a box of his personal effects, or at least the clothing and items he had with him when his injured form had been found at the hospital entrance.

The nurses questioned him again about whether his memories had returned.

“I don’t have any memories at all of this place or how I got here,” he said. “Honestly, I’ve never heard of New York City before or any of the other places you’ve mentioned.” His memory was completely intact, but being new to this place, he naturally had no memories of it. Therefore he wasn’t lying, though he nevertheless felt awkward about deceiving them.

The nurse shook her head and asked him to call her if he remembered anything at all. “If you need anything, John, just buzz me with that button there,” she said. Then she left the room.

Rummaging through the large cardboard box they had brought him, he pulled out the tattered remains of his combat fatigues. They’d literally had been cut off of him and he inspected the remnants. Glancing about to ensure no one was watching, he picked up the scraps and started assembling them like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. He concentrated, as he aligned the edges, and with firm pressure of his fingertips the severed pieces of the black uniform melded and merged together until any evidence of a tear or cut was gone. When he was done, his uniform and cape were restored to their original condition.

Inside the box was also a plain metal rod, about two and a half inches across and more than two feet long. He smiled as he took it and focused his will upon it. The rod glowed briefly as it flattened and shortened until it was a square metal plate about ten inches on each side. Placing it against his arm, he curled the metal until it enclosed his forearm like a steel bracer.

When it was in place, he pulled down the sleeve of his hospital gown to cover it and pushed the empty box under the bed, turning his attention once more to the television. The news broadcasts, however, were a repeat of the previous hour and while the news was bad, the other stations were worse. The shows on the other channels were little more than idle chatter or mindless amusement.

Using the remote handset, Michael turned the television off and sat in silence. Alone in the partially dimmed room, he considered what he should do. While he could undoubtedly remain here as long as he wished, feigning injury or memory loss, he needed to get out and find out what kind of world he had been sent to. Michael had never heard of this place, which was most unusual, since he had thought he had visited every one of the thousand different worlds where humanity resided. Somehow, someone had brought him to this unknown world, but he had no idea where it was, why he had been sent here or what his should do next.

As he pondered his next move, he sensed rather than heard a familiar presence approach from outside his room. Watching carefully through the open door, he saw a shadow flow along the dark far side of the hall. It hesitated and paused before dashing across the corridor into his room. Cowering behind the door, the liquid blackness coalesced into the shape of a large black hound which approached him, wagging its tail.

Michael reached down and petted the beast, which raised its head and licked his hand.

“Shadrack,” he whispered. “My last memories are of you with me at the end. I was wondering if you’d be here.” Michael scratched the large beast behind its ears and he heard a low rumbling growl that seemed more like a purr.

“So,” he said, staring into his companion’s eyes. “Have you any idea where we are or how we got here?”

The beast looked up at its master and squinted its eyes. It could not talk, but sometimes it could convey feelings, which its master could interpret.

“Muriel?” he said. “She sent me here?” He scratched the beast’s ears again and asked, “Have you any idea why?”

The beast laid its head on the bed near his hand and wagged its tail.

“Wait?” he said. “I’m just supposed to wait?”

The wraithbeast nuzzled, Michael’s hand eager for attention, but it seemed confused and licked his master’s hand apologetically.

“All right then,” said Michael petting the creature’s thick black mane. “But wiat am I supposed to wait for and for how long?”

The beast whined softly unable to reply.

“It’s okay, Shadrack,” he said scratching the back of its neck. “We’ll figure something out.”

Footsteps from the corridor alerted both of them and the shadow abandoned its lupine shape, flowing into darkness behind the curtains at his bedside. No sooner had it hidden, than a nurse appeared with a small tray and a glass of water.

“I have your medication for you, John,” she said.

“Medication?”

“Pills,” she said. “They’re to help you sleep.”

He nodded politely, but he didn’t need pills to help him sleep. In fact, he never needed to sleep at all. It was curious, he thought, that humans who had immortal souls should spend one third of their lives mimicking death, while he who had no soul never needed sleep.

Without argument, he took the pills and drank the water.

“Good night, John,” said the nurse.

When she was gone, he spit the tablets into the wastebasket near the bed and set the glass of water on the nightstand. Shadrack promptly reappeared and looked up at its master with anticipation.

“You’re right,” said Michael. “I think it is time we left. If we’ve been sent here for a purpose, we’d best start learning more about this place.”

Standing, he took off his hospital gown and removed the metal vambrace from his forearm. When he finished donning his combat uniform and cape, he reshaped the armpiece into a rod once more, which he then bent in half and hung from his belt. When he was done, he stretched and flexed his left arm and leg, grunting with discomfort. They were stiff and sore. He would have to work out more than usual to get his strength back.

Walking to the window, he peeked out and stared down at the dark city street. An unfamiliar skyline of glass, steel, glaring lights loomed before him, blocking out most of the night sky. So many people,he thought. What a strange place this is. I wonder how it could have remained hidden for so long.

Glancing down at the dark street four floors below, he opened the window and leaned out. There was little traffic and no one looked up. When he opened the window wider, a cold wind blew into the room, billowing the drapes around him like linen storm clouds.

“Come on, Shadrack. Let’s do some exploring and find out how strange this place really is.”

Pulling out the metal rod, he shook it and it immediately became thin and slack like rope. As he concentrated it grew thinner and longer. Coiling it, he affixed one end to the window frame and threw the other end out the window. Stepping out through the opening, he repelled down the black cable, while the wraithbeast hopped up to the sill and shifted its form. Its body shrank and large black wings appeared.

Before the man reached the ground, a huge raven, as black as night, launched itself into the sky and turned to circle slowly high overhead.

Reaching the ground, the man held one end of the thick black cord and it glowed briefly as it uncoiled itself from the window above and retracted back into a thick black rod about four feet long. With the wind tugging at his cape, Michael strode confidently off into the night with his ebony walking stick looking quite anachronistic and totally out of place, though no one in New York would likely notice.

Chapter 3

Case fumbled with her totebag and muttered to herself, as she tried to pull a jacket out of the canvas satchel without dumping everything she owned onto the ground. A knit ski hat was already pulled down over her short dark hair, but it was not heavy enough to keep her ears warm. The windy winter air was getting colder now that the sun was down and it felt like a storm might be rolling into town. She realized that she was going to have to find someplace to stay or she’d catch her death of cold. Struggling into the coat, she managed to cover herself without having to set her bag down. Unfortunately, she found the zipper of the jacket was broken and it wouldn’t stay closed.

“Damn those assholes,” she said to herself. “Of all the nights to get thrown out on the street, I have to pick the first snow of the season.” While a few snowflakes fluttered down, all of them melted as soon as they touched the ground. Shivering from the cold and damp, she grasped the collar of her jacket tightly and hurried down the sidewalk. Gazing up at the unforgiving sky, a gust of wind tugged at her cap and blew open her coat. Muttering another curse, she crossed her arms in front of her to hold the coat closed more tightly. But even as she did so, more snowflakes appeared and the weather threatened to worsen into a full-fledged blizzard. With the thought of an approaching storm, the jacket didn’t seem nearly warm enough and she stopped to fumble through her bag once more only to discover she had nothing to cover her hands.

“Shit,” she muttered. All the rest of her possessions were locked up in Bob and Ray’s apartment, in lieu of the back rent they claimed she owed them. Of course, they made it very clear she could pay for her things with services instead of money.

At seventeen, Case had a nice body, but she wasn’t quite desperate enough to start selling it to a couple of horny punks just for a place to sleep. She didn’t have much, but she still had a little pride. She also knew that once she started turning tricks for rent she’d soon be doing it for food and everything else she needed, as well. Since she’d dropped out of school, too many of her friends had disappeared down that particular dead-end and Case still entertained hope of finding a different solution to her problems.

It’s not my fault, she thought. I’ve just had a bad run of luck. If my dad hadn’t run off and mom hadn’t taken in that shithead of a boyfriend, I’d still be living at home. But he couldn’t keep his hands of me any more than he could keep them off of Mom.

Her mother, of course, hadn’t believed Case’s stories of the boyfriend’s sexual advances and Case had left home, swearing never to return as long as he still lived there. Since then, she’d lived off the generosity of her friends. But as time passed, she’d run out of friends and as they ran out of generosity.

Night settled slowly on the city, as she reviewed her options. There were the shelters, of course, but they closed early and you had to stand in line most of the afternoon to be guaranteed a bed. Even then, the only thing you were sure of getting was lice. Her best friend, Janie had been busted holding dope for a friend and was in jail for at least another thirty days. The super of her building had rented her apartment to someone else and put all of Janie’s stuff in a locked closet in the building’s basement.

Oh, Bob and Ray would take her back in a second, but they’d probably demand payment in advance and they’d probably both want to do her at the same time.

Case shuddered and huddled against a graffiti decorated brick wall, as another icy gust of wind cut her like a knife. She pulled her jacket tighter around her, but it didn’t help. The bitterly cold air, that nipped at her, made all her choices seem even more chilling. Glancing uptown, she decided her best bet for tonight was to hang out at an all night diner she knew, nursing coffee and picking at a piece of pie. If she was nice to the guy on duty and let him feel her up a bit, she might be able to sleep in the storage room in the back. At least it would be warm.

She dug into her overstuffed gymbag one last time and grinned as she pulled out two wallets. This’ll teach those two pricks. Feigning a tearful goodbye to her former roommates, she had hugged them both and let them manage one final grope, as she lifted each of their billfolds. Thumbing through the contents, she discarded photos and miscellaneous papers. She kept the cash, the ATM and credit cards, and a $50 phone card. For a moment she considered throwing their driver’s licenses away, but then remembered a pawnshop that paid thirty bucks for real ID’s, if they were for real people over twenty-one.

If you think about it, she mused, those two assholes owe me money for putting up with all their crap. Smiling, she tossed the unwanted portions of the wallets into a nearby trash bin and hurried to get to the 52nd street pawnshop before it closed. If I remember, there’s a used clothing store on the same block. I should be able to buy a couple pairs of warm socks and lift a decent pair of gloves at the same time.

With the money she’d taken from Bob and Ray and what she’d get for the credit cards and ID’s, she was set for at least a week, if she didn’t buy anything except food. That’ll give me plenty of time to find an angle and a place to stay.

A gust of wind stirred papers on the street and set them flying in a small circle like dogs chasing one another. The hand grasping the collar of her jacket felt like it was on fire and she stuffed the other into her jacket pocket as she headed down the street. She hurried along, as she tried to tuck her head into the coat like a turtle hiding in its shell. After a few steps, she broke into a trot down the sidewalk, fighting the contrary winds which swirled debris and leaves about her feet and harried her as she raced into the night.

******

The man in black walked along the street studying everything and everyone he passed. A dark unseen shape watched from overhead and paused, from time to time, to perch on windowsill or eaves overlooking the street. The stranger stopped at a bakery and closed his eyes savoring the smell of fresh baked bread. When he entered the store and asked for something to eat, the merchant put the bread in a bag and asked for $2.50. When the man in black said he didn’t have any money, the shopkeeper laughed and shooed him out the door.

Michael left, resuming his trek down the crowded sidewalk, cautiously examining his unfamiliar surroundings. Busy pedestrians shoved themselves past him, affording him no more attention than if he were a street post. No one raised their face or met his eyes. How odd, thought Michael. So many people, yet they go out of their way to avoid noticing one another.

At an adjacent corner, Michael paused and stared in disgust at a rack of magazines with naked women on the front. Nearby, several women nearby, wearing little more despite the cold wintry air, competed with one another as they tried to win the attention of passing cars which slowed down to view them. Whispering a ward against evil, Michael walked on, amazed at the display.

Continuing down the roadway, he came upon a large stone building set back from the street, with a long row of steps leading up to the entrance. Out front, stood two stone statues of large feline beasts with thick manes. Lions, he thought recognizing them from distant worlds he had visited long ago. At first Michael thought they might be idols, carved symbols of worship, but they did not display the evil aspects of the many beast cults he had witnessed on enemy worlds. These merely seemed ornamental and decorative. Indeed they seemed to portray noble protectors of some sort.

Turning his attention to the building behind them, he read a sign that said “New York Public Library”. Michael raised an eyebrow. A place of learning seemed out of place with the neighborhood around him. Pausing, he extended his empathic awareness and gathered conflicting impressions from those around him. Inside the ornate building, people emanated feelings of curiosity, wonder and excitement, but also of fear and apprehension. Closing his eyes and reaching further, he felt every conceivable human emotion; tenderness, apathy, generosity, loneliness, love, anger, tenderness, despair, hope, self-pity, joy.

Nearly recoiling from the cacophony of disparate and unusually intense sensations, Michael withdrew his awareness and shielded his mind against the cacophonous roar of the life forces surrounding him. Shaking his head, he wondered how anyone could maintain their sanity here. There were simply too many people radiating too much unbridled emotion. Nothing made sense. Human populations simply did not grow this large in one place, yet the city was undeniably real.

Despite all the contradictory evidence, his telempathic scan of the area confirmed his worst fears. Despite the unusually high density of life gathered here, this was indeed, the enemy’s world. All life here seemed embroiled in an invisible battle of shear survival that permeated every aspect of the city around him. In spite of the abundance of life, the Worldhater had undoubtedly corrupted this place. Nowhere else that Michael had ever visited over a hundred centuries of experience on a thousand different worlds had he sensed such an environment of silent, seething conflict.

There was only one plausible conclusion. This was the enemy’s secret base of operations. They one they Michael and his companions had suspected for years.

Now all he had to do was find the liege lord of the enemy and eliminate him. Tightening his hand on his cane, Michael gripped his walking stick and it glowed briefly, slowly morphing into the shape of his favorite weapon. Stopping himself, Michael tapped the walking stick on the hard cold concrete and admonished himself to be patient. Brandishing a sword in this crowd would make him appear more out of place and draw unwanted attention.

He would need to be patient since he still had no idea how large this place was or what the enemy’s defenses or capabilities were here. Arrogance at this stage would be foolhardy and likely lead to danger even he would not survive.

Turning and scanning the skyline, he spied a familiar shadow high on the parapets above him. As his eyes touched the silhouette, it leapt into the sky, spread wide bat-like wings, and sailed toward the taller buildings nearer the city center. It was already hunting. All Michael had to do was follow it and trust the beast’s own empathic gift.

The wind blew colder and played mischievously with Michael’s cape. The cold, however, did not bother him, as much as the dread at being so close to the source of evil here within the enemy’s camp. Ignoring the biting wind, the solitary figure in black strode confidently deeper into the city’s heart.

******

Across the street, Case stepped out of the pawnshop, as she folded her money and stuck it deep into her carryall bag. She paused just long enough to notice the man in black clothing with a long black cape up ahead at the corner across the street. Chuckling to herself, she shook her head at the sight of someone dressed so out-of-place. Then she reminded herself that this was New York. Compared to some people you’ll find around here, it’s not really that weird at all.

Ignoring him, she blew on her hands and stumbled, as someone ran into her from behind. The impact threw her forward and she flung her hands flew out in front of her to catch herself on a nearby street post. But before she could grab it, she was jerked around as her unseen assailant yanked at the bag she carried. Case fell onto the cold concrete with a muffled grunt, the wind knocked out of her momentarily. Tearing the bag from Case’s hands, the purse-snatcher took off down the sidewalk. “Shit,”she thought. “He’s got my money!”

As she struggled to her feet, she shouted, “Thief! Stop him, he stole my bag!” But she knew it was a waste of time. This was New York. No one was going to get involved.

The thief, a lanky Hispanic youth in his early teens, picked up speed and lengthened his stride. As he glanced back briefly, Case saw the gloating smile on his face. She regained her footing and rose, but he had too much of a head start. As he raced along the sidewalk and pedestrians scattered to get out of his way, she knew she’d never catch him.

Crossing the street, the youth passed the man in black and his feet flew out from under him, as he was jerked to a sudden halt. The teenage punk fell painfully to the sidewalk, desperately holding onto his stolen prize.

Rolling quickly to his knees, the street thief looked up and stared into the face of the dark clad man. The silent stranger nonchalantly held onto an oddly shaped cane that was curved like a shepard’s crook at one end. The strap of the stolen totebag was snagged on the outstretched hook.

Rising to his feet, the youth yanked on the bag, but the strap might as well have been tied to a lamppost. It didn’t budge. “Hey, leggo,” cried the youth as he yanked ineffectively once more.

The man in black didn’t respond. He merely drew the hooked cane closer to deny the thief’s attempts to free the bag. While the young man worked himself into a fury, the stranger stood with an unnatural calm, examining the youth.

Glancing around, the sidewalk bandit noticed other people pause to watch the altercation and he cringed as he saw the girl at the pawnshop running toward him The thief kicked at his silent opponent, but the man simply shifted his weight and moved the targeted leg. The youth’s kick missed and his foot swung wildly through empty air.

Growing angry, the teenager threw a punch at the interloper who had spoiled his getaway. Hoping to distract the stranger enough that he could get away with the bag, the youth aimed a jab at the man’s face, but his victim simply reached up with his free hand and caught the boy’s fist in midair.

The thief tried to yank his hand back, but the stranger in black held onto the fist with a viselike grip. As the youth struggled, the uncooperative stranger shoved the youth backwards with his cane. The boy lost his balance and fell backwards onto the ground, but with his hand still held in the stranger’s grasp, he rotated around as he spun to the ground and his arm twisted painfully with an audible snap.

The anguished scream drew the attention of everyone nearby who had missed the first part of the confrontation. The man casually released the helpless youth, who rose awkwardly and tucked his injured arm into his side like a bird with a broken wing. Then the teenager took off, abandoning his prize and leaving the man in black literally holding the bag.

As the thief vanished into the crowd which quickly resumed its normal flow down the sidewalk, the girl arrived. Given the choice between chasing the thief or regaining possession of her tote-bag, she stopped and watched the frustrated robber disappear from sight. Satisfied, she examined her mysterious hero.

The man was tall, just over six feet in height, and had a young face with deep eyes that seemed much older than the rest of him. His clothing appeared to be a uniform, unadorned black, but she couldn’t tell if the material was leather, canvas or silk. His closely trimmed hair appeared to be light blonde or maybe gray, and he offered no word of explanation for his actions but simply stood, holding his hook shaped cane with her bag dangling from its end.

“Thanks,” she said, reaching for the bag. The man let her take it and studied her with a puzzled expression on his face. Putting the bag’s strap over her shoulder and twisting it around her hand, she started to leave, but felt the man still staring at her. Spinning back toward the wide-eyed stranger, she said, “What? I already said thanks.”

The man didn’t reply, but his look of curiosity deepened.

“So, you’ve never seen a purse snatcher before?” she said, wondering if she were confronting a simpleton. The man, however, didn’t seem dumb. He merely seemed curious. The intensity of his scrutiny was unsettling.

Finally, she laughed and said, “Well, I have to admit you handled yourself pretty well back there. I guess I really ought to repay you for your help.”

Nodding, the man said, “Buy me a loaf of bread.”

“What?” she asked wondering what he meant. She had made the offer without meaning them, more as a matter of form than anything else. She really hadn’t intended to repay him at all.

The man pointed back down the street. “There, at that bakery. They have good bread.”

She looked incredulously in the direction the man indicated and spied a bakery a half block away, across from the library. It was such an unusual request, she was taken off guard.

“Sure,” she said. “Why not? Some fresh bread sounds good.” Scanning the street, she stepped off the curb and looked over at her benefactor who followed, keeping pace with her.

“So, what’s your name?” She asked. “And what are you doing out on a night like this, other than saving damsels in distress, that is?”

A flicker of a smile flashed across the stranger’s and he replied, “My name is Michael and I’m just trying to see New York and learn about your city.”

A tourist, she thought. That explains his behavior. Wonder where he’s from? Leading the way into the bakery, the man in black followed. With a nod and a gesture, Case ordered a large bag of hard rolls with the terse efficiency of a native New Yorker. Michael, however, pointed at a large loaf of French bread. Sighing, Case paid for both.

Her rescuer took his loaf and paused silently for a moment with his eyes closed. Then he tore off a chuck and ate it. As he chewed, he methodically studied the faces of the other customers in the store, seemingly fascinated by the crowd.

Case found herself watching him closely in return, wondering who he was. After a few moments she tried to categorize specifically what it was that she found so strange about him. Deliberately delaying her return to the wintry winds that terrorized the streets outside, Case waited inside the bakery with him and she studied him as he studied everyone else. Biting into one of her own rolls, she savored the warmth and smells of the bakery momentarily forgetting about the cold outside.

“So, where are you headed now? Back to your hotel?” said asked, assuming the stranger was visiting town and was out for an evening stroll.

“No,” he replied. “I’m haven’t found a place to stay yet. I’ve only just arrived and was just looking around the city. I have yet to learn about this place and need to get some money.”

Case stifled a chuckle. “Well, with the cold front moving in, you’re going to freeze to death in that outfit and with the attention you get wearing that cape you’ll likely learn a lot more about New York than you might want to.”

Michael looked down at his clothes and then back at her with a look of amusement in his eyes. “So, do you know where I might find some more appropriate attire?”

Biting off another mouthful of roll, she mumbled, “Yeah… there’s a pawn shop back the way we came.” She gestured back the way she had come, “Over there across the street.”

Michael turned to look out the window that was rapidly fogging over from the cold outside.

“Pawn shop?” he asked.

She shrugged and said, “Come on, I’ll introduce you to Herby. He’s a cranky old codger, but maybe I can get him to cut you a deal.” Case continued chewing on the last of her roll and crammed the rest of her horde into her carryall. Then she shoved the door open and stepped out into the gusty night. Michael followed.

Agilely dodging cars, she jogged up to the pawn shop door and pushed it open. A loud buzzing sound announced her arrival. Michael followed slipping deftly in through the door before it fully closed. A grubby old man with unkempt hair peered up from the counter at the far end of the store, but soon returned his attention to the magazine he held. As Case started working her way through a nearby rack of clothing, the old man seemed to ignore them from the other side of a metal cage where he sat, but his eyes flickered up at them repeatedly and watched them closely if not unobtrusively.

“Hey, Herbie,” shouted Case. “I want to introduce you to a friend. His name’s Michael. I’d appreciate it if you gave him a break. He’s shopping for a warm coat.”

“So,” she whispered up at Michael. “How much do you have to spend?”

“I have no money,” replied Michael.

Great, she thought. I’ve found another derelict. “Well, if you’re going to buy something like this,” she said, flipping the sleeve of a long trench coat on a nearby rack. “you’re going to have to sell something or offer something in trade.”

Michael stood thoughtfully for a moment and then nodded. Walking to the counter where Herbie sat, he took off his cape and said, “What will you give me for this?”

The old man leaned close and glanced at the black cape. “What do you want for it?”

“That coat over there,” said Michael, “and some money.”

Case held up a dark navy P-coat coat from the rack. Herby glanced at the cape and fingered the material. “Pretty fancy duds,” said the pawnshop clerk. “Not too warm though and there’s not much demand for stuff like that.” He sniffed and shrugged, turning once more to his magazine. “I’d call it an even trade.”

Michael looked at Case and she nodded. Michael, however, faced the clerk once more and said, “No. The cape is worth much more than the coat. You’ll give me money and the coat in exchange for the cape.”

The old man squinted and laughed. “You’ve got to be kidding. What do I look like? Some kind of idiot? Who in their right mind is going to buy a cape in this weather? You’re lucky I’m giving you an even trade.” Waving his magazine as if Michael were a nuisance, he said, “No take it or leave it.”

Michael shook his head with disconcerting confidence. “No,” he said again. “You know the cape is worth far more than the coat. Look at it again more closely. You’ve never seen material like it before.”

The man reached over with feigned reluctance and fingered the unusual material. Then he looked closer and studied it for a moment more. He couldn’t even find the stitching on the hem. “Say, what’s this made of anyway?” he finally asked.

“It’s a special fabric made only where I come from. I guarantee there’s nothing else like it in your city.”

Pausing as if preparing an argument, the pawnbroker sighed and said, “All right, all right. I’ll give you twenty five bucks and the coat. But that’s my final offer.”

Case walked up beside Michael and tugged on his sleeve. She nodded enthusiastically and handed him the coat. It was a far better offer than she would have expected. Herby was rarely so generous.

Nevertheless, Michael shook his head and stood his ground. “No, you’ll give me more money than that. The cape is worth many times what you’ve offered and you know it.”

The old man glared at Michael and the two of them stared at one another for long seconds. Herby gave the stranger his most intimidating scowl, but Michael did not flinch. Finally, the old man broke. Shrugging, he said, “Fine. I’ll give you seventy fifty bucks, and the coat. How’s that? Now take it or leave it.”

Michael simply said, “More.”

“Are you crazy?” whispered Case. “You’re gonna piss him off and get nothing if you keep this up.”

The old man started to reach for the cape, but Michael snatched it away and held it up. “This is worth more than all the other clothes you have in this store. You’ve never seen anything like it and you know it. Now make me a better offer or I’ll take it somewhere else.”

The pawnbroker’s face grew red and Case thought he was going to explode. The old man sputtered and finally shouted. “All right, damn it. One hundred and fifty bucks, the coat and a pullover hat, but that’s as high as I’ll go.”

“No,” said Michael. “You’d go much higher. But I’ll sell it to you for a hundred and fifty or you’ll take it out on other customers and cheat them more than usual.” He stuffed the cape through the opening of the shopkeeper’s cage, holding out his other hand. The old man tugged on the cape, but Michael’s wouldn’t release it until he was handed the money.

The transaction was completed without further comment and Michael put on the heavy winter coat. Case selected a dark woolen ski cap and handed it to him as well. Then she tugged at him impatiently to leave the store. Once outside Case chided him, “My God, Michael, that was some hustle. I’ve never seen anyone haggle with Herbie the way you did and get away with it. How’d you do it?”

Michael raised the collar of his coat and tested its fit. “It’s a gift,” he said.

“Well that was really worth watching,” laughed Case. “I thought Herbie was gonna have a stroke. Tell, you what. Follow me and I’ll show you a place where you can get a great piece of apple pie and the best damned coffee in town. I’ll even let you buy me one.”

Michael nodded and said, “Thanks,” as he put on the thick cap and pulled it down over his ears. Then Case hooked her arm around Michael’s and half dragged him along the sidewalk, talking and pointing out landmarks, as if she were a tour guide.

Glancing up, Michael noted the large dark shadow launch itself from the precipice of a nearby building and circle before roosting on another rooftop a block further down the street.

Case didn’t notice the dark form overhead, but neither did she notice that Michael’s walking stick was shorter and no longer had a crook at the end.

Chapter 4

After walking for more than twenty minutes, through a maze of busy streets and isolated shortcuts, Case cut through an alley, continuing to talk without pause. “You’re gonna love this place. The diner’s got what they call ‘atmosphere’. It used to be real popular a decade ago, but it’s a bit run down now. I know the guy that works the counter on the night shift, so we’ll get good service. Anyway, the place is clean and the food is top notch. You’ll love it, especially because of their pies. They have a thing for fancy pastries and they’re the best in the neighborhood, even though their clientele isn’t to high class….”

Michael followed a comfortable distance behind her and only half listened to Case’s mindless chatter. Halfway down the alley, however, he stopped and called out. “Wait.”

Case came to a halt and turned back towards him. “What?” she asked impatiently.

“Come here,” he said. “It’s not safe.”

“What do you mean?” she said raising her voice angrily. “I know these streets like the back of my hand, I… “

“No,” said Michael. “Don’t.” Stepping toward her, he grabbed her jacket and pulled her beside him. Just as Case started to protest, two youths stepped out of the shadows up ahead and blocked the alley. Both were dressed in dark colors, but they each wore brightly colored bandanas tied on their right arms. One held a pipe and the other gripped one end of a chain that hung loosely by his side.

“Shit,” muttered Case, stepping back behind Michael.

As she retreated, he grabbed her arm and held her in place by his side. “No,” he said not taking his eyes off the two menacing men in front of him. “They’re back there too.”

Turning her head, Case glanced back and saw another pair of young men silhouetted against the street behind them. “Shit and double shit,” said Case sideling close to Michael.

“Now what do we have here?” said one of the two punks in front of them. “Don’t you know this is a toll road? You gotta pay the toll, if you wanna use my road.”

Case answered, “Hey. We didn’t mean to intrude. We’ll just go back the way we came.”

“Uh uh,” said the punk. “Too late. You gotta pay to go on. You gotta pay to go back. Those ‘er the rules.”

Michael gesture with his cane at the side of the alley. “You stay over there,” he said. She didn’t question his order and obeyed instinctively. Michael’s voice had been frighteningly calm and his eyes terrified her. Nodding mutely, she stepped to the edge of the alley and tried to melt into the bricks.

“So, what do you think the toll should be, mi amigos?” asked the leader.

The youth beside him spun his chain and laughed. “How about everything they got?”

The leader laughed, as well. “Hey, chico, sounds fair to me.” Waving his pipe at Michael, the punk said, “What do you think, gringo?”

Michael stood erect, not acknowledging the threats. He didn’t seem to realize the imminent danger. He didn’t crouch into a defensive posture or seem to react at all. If it weren’t for the expression on his face, Case would have thought he was just standing waiting for a bus.

The leader, while a good twenty feet away raised his pipe threateningly. Michael ignored the gesture, but sidestepped gracefully as one of the youths behind him sailed through the air where Michael had stood a fraction of a second before. As the gang member flew past him, Michael swung his cane, striking the back of the youth’s skull with the blunt end of the heavy cane. The body continued its trajectory forward and slid across to the ground, stopping at the gang leader’s feet. The young man didn’t struggle to get up. He didn’t move at all.

The leader looked down at the motionless form, and then back up at Michael. The brash confidence that had been in his eyes a moment before was gone. The leader stood his ground, but gestured widely with his hands. “Hey, amigos, venga aqui” he shouted. At his command, the remaining gang members stepped of the surrounding shadows into full view.

Case looked up and down the alley. There were now five youths in front of them and two behind. The leader spread his hands and waved his pipe, as he faced Michael. “Hey, gringo. We can do this easy or we can do this hard.”

Case raised her bag in front of her, as if it would defend her, and her eyes darted back and forth between Michael and the two groups of youths.

Michael stood still for a moment and then ducked slightly as a bottle thrown from behind passed inches from his head.

God, he’s got eyes in the back of his head, thought Case.

Rising up once more, Michael said, “You’re making a mistake. Go back and leave us alone while you still have a choice.”

The leader’s bravado returned and he laughed once more. “No,” he said. “It’s too late for that. Now we have a little fun with you and then we have some fun with your lady.”

The gang member next to the leader stepped close and spun his chain over his head. He waited for Michael to move one way of the other, but the stranger in black simply waited. Finally releasing the chain, the youth charged. Spinning, the chain flew low toward Michael’s legs. At the same instant, the leader threw his pipe at Michael’s head. When the chain reached Michael, however, he was suddenly in the air, his cane held vertically before him and his knees tucked tightly against his shoulders. The chain passed cleanly beneath him and banged noisily on a dumpster behind him. The pipe struck the cane and bounced harmless to one side. Without taking his eyes from the charging assailant, Michael’s grip shifted on his cane, both hands moving to one end and, even before his feet touched the ground once more, the cane descended with blinding speed on the skull of the thug who had thrown the chain.

A second unconscious form, slumped to the ground, as Michael landed catlike right where he’d been a moment before, his cane held defensively in his hands.

Before anyone else could move a shapeless black form darted down from the night sky and vanished into the darkness of the alley behind Michael. Everyone except Michael flinched and ducked. There was a sickening wet thud and the sound of someone falling. Then there was a scream and the sound of running feet.

Looking back, Case saw the last gang member behind them disappear around the corner toward the street.

“Madre de Dios,” muttered one of the youths behind the leader.

No one moved. For a moment there appeared to be a standoff of sorts. Then the leader, finally reached into his pocket, pulled out a knife, and the knife went click.

“All right, gringo,” he said softly. “Now, you’ve had it.”

“No,” said Michael. “The fight’s over.”

“What? Are you crazy?” asked the leader. “We haven’t even started yet.”

“No, it’s over,” said Michael condescendingly. “You’re not going to attack me with that knife and none of your followers are going to attack me either.”

“What make’s you so sure of that?” chided the leader.

Michael shrugged. “Because you’re afraid… and you only attack when you’re feeling brave and have the advantage of surprise or numbers. Right now, you’re not certain of either. You’ve lost your confidence. When you don’t have the superior force, you can only attack when your anger is sufficient to overcome your fear. Right now, you’re not that angry right now, and your fear controls you. You are bluffing hoping that I will seek the escape route behind and and run so that you can save face.”

The leader smirked with feeble bravado and shrugged. “So why don’t I just have all my boys take you on at once?”

“Because they’ve seen what I can do and they’ve seen you fail three times trying to attack me.” Gesturing at the bodies on the ground around them. The one at the leader’s feet was moaning and beginning to stir. “Besides,” Michael added, “they know what will happen to them if they try.”

Michael shook his head. “No, they won’t attack. They’re waiting to see what you do. If you don’t attack, neither will they. If you’re afraid, they will be too. That’s what it means to be a leader.”

The youth in charge looked around at his companions. Their eyes showed it was true. None of them were certain whether to stand or run, but none of them were willing to press their attack. Nothing had worked out the way it had been planned.

Turning back to his targets, the leader asked, “So what do you propose we do now, gringo? You know I can’t turn back and I don’t suppose you’d be willing to go back the way you came either.”

Michael laughed softly, not in a demeaning way, but in an almost friendly fashion. “I’ll tell you what, my ambitious little thief. Why don’t you put your knife down and send all your friends away?”

Case’s eyes grew about as wide as they could get and the gang leader’s jaw dropped as well until he regained his composure and closed it again.

“Now why would I want to do that?” he asked.

“Because otherwise,” said Michael, “we’ll have to fight and I might not be able to sample the excellent apple pie that I’ve been told awaits us at the diner at the other end of this alley.”

The gang leader stood stunned at the suggestion, but after a moment he started chuckle. Soon he was laughing uncontrollably. His gang watched in amazement as their leader folded his knife and put it back in his pocket.

“All right. Go on, amigos. All of you head back to my place. I’ll catch up to you later.”

One of the gang looked worried and came close to ask, “But, Roberto. You don’t mean you’re gonna to let him go, are you?”

“Of course,” said the leader. “Otherwise he won’t buy me any apple pie. Will you, gringo?”

Michael extended his hand to Case, who hurried to his side, and he calmly walked toward the young hoodlum. Several gang members hurried forward to help their fallen comrades to their feet and the three of them, Michael, Case, and Roberto, strolled on along the alley toward the best little diner in the borough.

******

The waiter served the three mismatched companions their plates of apple pie, but watched them warily. Patrons who wore gang colors often caused trouble and they rarely associated with others outside their own group.

When the desserts arrived, Roberto and Case eagerly attacked their pie, but Michael paused and folded his hands briefly in prayer. The two New Yorkers looked at each other with slight amazement. Case shrugged and Roberto tilted his head. Prayer was unusual; public prayer was unheard of.

When he was done, Michael picked up his fork and took a bite of his pie. At his first mouthful, his eyes widened with surprise. “This is quite good,” he commented. Then, with unexpected abandon, he hurried ate more.

Case giggled at Michael’s apparent naiveté. It was as if this was the first time he had eaten apple pie.

After a few mouthfuls, Michael slowed his pace and addressed the gang leader. “So tell me, Roberto, why do you play the role of highwayman in this city?”

“What do you mean?” replied Roberto.

“Why do you steal? Have you no other skills than being a thief?”

The gang leader’s face grew red. “Hey, I have plenty of skills. But you can’t get a decent job in this city, unless you’re white and have connections. Hey, we got nothing. So tell me, what are me and my homeboys supposed to do? We gotta make ends meet somehow.”

Michael paused and said, “But if you prey on others, what’s to stop others from preying on you? There would be chaos. Besides, you know what you do is wrong.”

Roberto started to argue but his eyes dropped for a fraction of a second. His lips grew taught and the grip on his fork tightened. “Hey, others do prey on us. The only reason we took over this turf was because another gang rousted us out of our old territory. They’re organized and have special muscle that we don’t, so we took over this turf to do our business.”

“This other gang is new?”

“Yeah, they expanded from the Bronx and moved into Queens a few months ago. They don’t give you any options. You do what they say, join them, or disappear.”

Michael nursed his last piece of pie, as if tasting Roberto’s words as well. “Is this typical? Are there a lot of little gangs or a just a few dominant ones? And what are the big ones like?”

Roberto stopped eating and squinted at him. “Hey, you’re not a cop are you? You don’t act like a narc.”

Michael shook his head. “No. I’m not a member of your local police. I’m just trying to learn more about…how things work here. So why do you steal?”

“Cause you gotta have money to survive. If you don’t got money and don’t want to starve to death, the only way is to take it from others.”

Michael frowned and turned to Case. “Is that true?”

Case shrugged and stared at her plate. “Well, sort of. You can get a job, but for most good ones you need a permanent address, a high school diploma, references and a work history. If you don’t have those, you can kiss off any chance of getting a livable wage.”

“But a city can’t survive, if most of its people steal from one another. Society would collapse,” said Michael.

“Hey, so some people are lucky,” shrugging dramatically, “if you call working twelve to fourteen hours a day for minimum wage lucky. Oh, some choose to live on the dole or hang out at shelters, but me and my boys… we got our pride. We don’t grovel to nobody.” Looking a Case, he added, “Hey, does he always go on asking questions like this?”

“Beats me,” she replied. “I’ve only known him for an hour. He’s just a tourist in town. You interrupted us before we got fully introduced.” Looking at the stranger askance, she smiled. “By the way, my name is Case.” She offered her hand and shook Michael’s, while giggling softly.

She offered her hand to Roberto to, but he ignored it as if such introductions were a privilege Case had not yet earned. Shrugging, she continued, “Michael does have an interesting way of looking at the world, though. In the time I’ve known, him he’s mugged a mugger, talked himself into a snack at a bakery, outhustled a hustler, fought off your boys, and talked you into sharing dessert with him.”

Roberto scowled. “Hmmm… definitely not a cop. Way too cool. Let me guess, you’re ex-military, aren’t you?”

Michael nodded. “Yes, I am a soldier.”

“I knew it,” Roberto said slamming his hand on the table. “Special forces, right?”

Pausing, Michael replied, “After a fashion. I suppose.”

Case scraped the last of her pie from her plate and said, “But you’re not from around here. Where are you from and what are you really doing here in New York?”

The man in black shrugged. “Actually, I’m not sure. Earlier today I woke up in a hospital. I don’t remember how I got here. I think I was sent here.”

“Sent? What for?”

“I’m not sure, but I think…”

Suddenly, there was a distant crash toward the rear of the diner. Almost before the sound faded, Michael jumped up from his seat and dashed to the service entrance near the rear of the building.

The rear exit was ajar, but Michael hit the door running and nearly ripped it off its hinges, as he crossed the alley out back and descended a short set of concrete steps and closed on the scrawny waiter who had served him earlier. The server held a girl roughly by her forearms and had apparently forced her to her knees. Tears streamed down her face as she struggled to free herself. Grabbing the man’s shirt, Michael yanked the lanky young man toward him and dragged him off the young girl who seemed stunned with terror.

The girl clutched her waitress uniform where the youth had torn it with his over zealous advances. The young man started to fight, but Michael removed the rod from his belt and slapped it across the waiter’s arms. The rod flowed like a rope and instantly hardened once more, locking the youth’s wrists together in a seamless band of steel. Then Michael shoved the man down onto the ground and turned his attention to the girl.

Helping her to her feet with remarkable tendernes, he asked, “Are you all right? Did he hurt you?”

She nodded feebly, still recovering from both the shock of the waiter’s attack and the abruptness of her rescue.

“Hey,” protested the man, who struggled to his feet as he tugged at the solid metal restraints that bound him. “Where the hell do you get off…”

Michael turned and grabbed the man by his collar and said, “I will deal with you in a moment. Now sit still or you will be stilled.” Then he pushed the young man back down to the ground and called out to the empty air, “Shadrock, come. Watch and make sure this one does not cause more trouble or try to get away.”

Both Case and Roberto now stood in the doorway, the heavy metal door barely hanging by one hinge. They both looked down at the waiter who seemed somewhat dazed, and all of them jumped when a rustling sound came from behind the nearby dumpster and a large black hound stepped into view, gazing down at the would-be assailant.

Admonishing the frightened waiter, Michael said, “Shadrock won’t hurt you if you stay still, but you must stay very, very still. Understand?”

As if to emphasize Michael’s warning, the large black beast growled and fixed its glowing yellow eyes on the waiter, whose own unblinking eyes were wide with terror. The man seemed half his former size and nodded timidly shivering more from fear than the cold.

Roberto and Case half stepped back into the diner clearly as shocked at the sudden appearance of the black beast as the waiter.

In the meantime, Michael talked to the girl and calmed her down. They spoke for a moment in hushed tones and he told her to go back into the diner to collect her things and go home.

“But, he’ll dock my pay and I need the money,” she protested.

“It’s okay,” said Michael. “He’ll pay you for a full night’s work. Trust me. After you leave, he and I will have a nice long talk.”

The girl nodded and clutching her torn dress she pushed her way past Roberto and Case, disappearing into the diner.

Finally, Michael turned his attention once more to the waiter. Grabbing the steel restraints binding the man, the metal straightened once more into a short thick bar, releasing the prisoner.

Rubbing his wrists, the man stood and backed away from the black wolf. Stiffening his back and raising his chin, he blustered, “Hey, you can’t do this to me. You’ve got no right. This is none of your affair. I’ll…”

“You’ll do nothing. You’re the one who has exceeded his rights. What do you think you were doing to that girl?”

The waiter sneered and said, “It’s none of your business what I was doing, she was just getting what she wanted. I don’t have to listen to…”

For the first time, Case saw Michael grow angry. His eyes flared, terrifying her more than the huge black hound. Michael reached up and grabbed the man’s throat, tightening his fingers just enough to stop the man from talking. The jet black dog growled, echoing the sentiments of its master.

“You will listen to me now,” said Michael in a soft whisper barely audible over the wind that stirred pieces of paper on the trash ridden ground nearby. Staring deeply into the frightened man’s eyes, Michael said, “You will go back into the diner and we will settle our bill. Then we will leave. You will pay that girl her full wages for the night and you will not bother her again. As a matter of fact, you will promise to never touch any other woman without her permission ever again. Do you understand?”

The terrified man nodded meekly, all outward signs of protest now gone, yet he and Michael continued his silent visual contact for several another full minute. In complete silence, the waiter’s face grew as pale and he began to tremble. The man's legs buckled and Michael held the man upright, carefully but firmly with his right hand. After a few moments, the youth began to cry softly and Case stepped back when she realized that the waiter had wet himself.

Finally, Michael released him and the man fell to the ground.

Gasping for breath and clutching his throat, the night clerk slowly rose and avoiding eye contact with all three of them, he slowly stumbled back into the diner, whimpering softly as he struggled to hurry.

Michael took a deep breath, composed himself and turned to face his two companions once more.

Shaking with fear, Case pointed at the huge black dog behind him.

Michael glanced around and smiled, reaching down to scratch the beast behind its ears. The creature purred with a rumble that sounded like a small car engine. “Oh, don’t mind him,” said Michael. “This is Shadrock. He is a dear friend and he won’t hurt you.”

“He… he belongs to you?” asked Case.

“Yes,” said Michael, standing erect and tucking the short black rod in his belt. “He’s with me.”

Case noticed that the dark metal stick was now half its former length though also much thicker.

“Hey, man,” said Roberto. “You know that’s not going to work. That dude’s just gonna take it out on the bitch when she comes back to work. Then he’ll probably just fire her after he finishes what you interrupted here.”

“No, he won’t,” said Michael. “He’ll do just as I told him to.”

Crossing his arms, Roberto grew smug. “What makes you think that, gringo? Soon as you’re gone, he’s gonna do what ever he wants.”

“No,” said Michael again. “He knows that, if he doesn’t do as I instructed, I’ll return to deal with him. He also knows that what he did was wrong and he’ll never act that way again.”

“Why? Just cause you told him? an' stared him down?”

“No, because I showed him what the girl felt and I gave him her terror. I made him fear like he’d never feared before. I let him feel what it’s like to be helpless and powerless. I touched him and he’ll never behave that way again without re-experiencing that same fear just as intensely again.”

Roberto started to protest, but Michael’s demeanor made any argument seem pointless. Despite whether or not Roberto or Case believed him, Michael’s own conviction in what he had said was indisputably evident.

Gathering her own courage, Case asked, “Say, how did you know what was going on back here? You bolted out of there like you heard a scream.”

Michael frowned and then nodded slowly. “Ahh, I hadn’t realized it, but that would explain a lot. Your people can only hear others scream when they cry out loud, isn’t that right?”

Roberto and Case blinked at Michael and then at one another. Abruptly Roberto blew on his hands and hugged his arms close to his chest with the realization that he was freezing in the cold night. Stomping his feet, he shoved his hands deep into his pockets, and asked, “Hey, I’m gonna ask you again and this time I want a straight answer. Who the hell are you? Cause you sure as hell ain’t no tourista.”

Case didn’t say anything, but simply nodded her head in agreement.

“Come on inside, where it’s warm” said Michael. “We'll get your coats and go some place where I’ll try to explain.”