Kyler Withers decided it was safe to teach journalism again when he stopped dreaming of dead children.
He celebrated his decision by leaving his townhouse and driving downtown to pick up a few things. San Jose had grown since he'd lived there as a teenager. The lush orchards that had once dotted the landscape were gone, replaced by a foliage of glass and steel.
Kyler lost himself in this man-made jungle, passing corporate hunter-gatherers and potted trees. It reminded him of the green twilight of South America, where people lived and died under the shadows of--
He was doing it again.
Kyler focused on the afternoon, the light traffic, the people around him. Summer had died, leaving this October day cool and mourning. The wind whispered over him, tugging at the end of his leather duster as he went from shop to shop, picking up a new briefcase, some notebooks, and, in an alley between two buildings, a knife camouflaged like a pen. The notebooks he placed in the case; the knife, an inner pocket of his duster. He found it ironic that such a deadly thing could look so innocent.
The brooding thought followed Kyler back to his black Scion. He toyed with calling his old college roommate. They could have an early dinner, watch Citizen Kane, and try to convince themselves they loved the movie. Old times. It could be fun.
He couldn't do it.
Kyler started the car. He would be replacing Owen in the spring, and while Owen looked forward to starting his life over, Kyler feared his gloomy nature would taint his friend's hopes. Life, he knew, could twist in a moment. Owen might change his mind. The San Jose/Evergreen Community College hiring committee might have another look through Kyler's last book and become uneasy. The dreams might return.
In this moment, the fears were just ephemeral things. Owen was happy. The District Board was fond of him. No one was dead.
His car got awesome gas mileage.
Laughter blossomed inside of him. Mileage. He was at a place where that was a concern. He was lucky.
Fifteen minutes later, Kyler and his awesome mileage car pulled in front of a two-story townhouse.
The house was too new to really feel comfortable, but the trees in front hid it from the street, and the red brick facade gave it a subtly elegant look. Anyone could live here. A new teacher. A Pulitzer-winning journalist. A rumored murderer.
Kyler told himself no one thought that. It was just a house. He was just another man.
Murderers could look like anyone, though. They could live anywhere. He might not remember what happened, but it didn't make the people who were killed less dead. They--
The memories he'd spent the afternoon running from had found him.
Kyler frowned and headed for the house.
In all honesty, there were parts of the last two years he was proud of. He'd originally gone to Colombia to investigate the effects of the government's crackdown on drugs on a small town, and ended up substituting for a former lover in his school. When people began disappearing around the area, Kyler stayed, first to investigate, then as he got to know the students, to protect.
And he had protected them, hadn't he? He might not remember what happened the day the guerrillas came into his classroom, but he knew that some of the children got out alive. The scar that crept from the corner of his left eye to his hairline told him he'd been in danger, but it proved...
It proved nothing.
An ache threaded out from his stomach. It crept through him, tightening his chest and stealing his breath. He didn't know what had happened but the surviving children did. They never spoke against him but whenever he approached, they crossed themselves.
And trembled. They were afraid of the dark. They were afraid of shadows. They were afraid of him.
Kyler unlocked his door and slipped inside, snapping the bolt shut behind him. Until that realization, until that afternoon, he'd wanted to remain there. Let others chase stories. He'd found himself.
Well, others had found him too, and they'd rather he be several thousand miles away. So Kyler had left and, being him, wrote.
Kyler dropped his briefcase on the coffee table. He thought the words would give him closure. Instead, they sharpened his nightmares and got him the Pulitzer.
He'd dreamed of the award. Now that it was his, he dreamed of it still, only now the neat black print on the certificate was crimson. The world recognized him. Fucking great. He didn't.
Kyler shoved the thoughts back. Tearing himself apart over what had happened hadn't helped in the past. If he didn't force himself to move on, he was afraid it'd kill him.
The ache in his stomach changed, reminding him that he hadn't eaten since that morning. The quiet pain comforted him, giving him something to focus on. Pizza, he decided, and maybe some coffee.
Kyler walked across the library/living room. When he'd moved in four days before, this room had been unpacked first, and now bookcases lined the walls.
At the entryway, he took two steps down to what he was currently calling the Valley of the Kings, for most of the kitchen was still in boxes. Three miniature pyramid-stacked structures set around the hard wood floor. Somewhere, hidden within one of the cardboard sarcophagi, was his Pulitzer.
The award had been his dream for years. Now it was just a slip of paper, a physical representation of missing time.
It had allowed him to pretty much choose his next place of work, though. Kyler could have approached any university or newspaper in the area and been fairly certain they would offer him something. He could've tried his hand at Stanford, San Jose University, anywhere.
Instead, he chose San Jose City College. Or, to use the vernacular, Silly College. Ghetto College.
His choice had surprised many. Despite the new tech building on the corner of Bascom, the small campus was an old place, one that had little funding and had to do the best it could with the resources it had. Its students were a varied mix of race, gender, and age, its teachers and administration at once working together, and yet apart. When Kyler was there, he felt... something. Alive. Needed.
It was a Colombia thing, he suspected. Whatever might or might not have happened that afternoon, he'd liked the man he had been. Since he'd left, he had been living a half life. Perhaps, once he returned to teaching, he'd be whole again.
After ordering a pizza, Kyler picked up a package of coffee, put water to boil, and then rummaged for his favorite mug--a large black cup that one of his dead students had made him. He cradled the cool shape against him and carried it over to the counter.
Something glinted red out of the corner of his sight. Kyler followed it to the edge of the counter, and to a tabloid-sized newspaper.
His lips quirked. There were no mysterious deaths there. The staff would be his in the spring, so Kyler had gone through the eight-page issue that morning to get to know them. A couple of hours fresh from the printer and he'd debauched it with red ink. A word in the caption was misspelled on page four. Someone relied a little too much on quotes on page six. And, Kyler's personal peeve, they forgot to continue a story from one page to another.
Beautiful page design, though. If Kyler hadn't known the editor was an art major, he would've suspected after seeing the young man's strip on the entertainment page. The kid had talent. In a world that wanted something big and shiny to look at, he would get attention. Someone who drew readers to a publication could be forgiven a couple of spelling mistakes. All Kyler needed to do was find him a copy editor and the Spectator would be perfect.
A chill breeze stirred his hair.
Across the kitchen, the back door crept open. Sunlight bled across the hardwood floor.
Unease unfurled inside of him. He always locked doors behind him. When he didn't, someone died.
Kyler crossed the room.
His image scowled at him from the door's glass as he approached. He'd once been told he was classically handsome. The man who'd said it had wanted to sleep with him, though, so one had to take that with a grain of whatever salt best suited their diet.
Personally, Kyler thought he was more Byronic. That wasn't any better, he'd written a term paper in college arguing that the type should come with a surgeon's warning, but it was more accurate. Cerulean eyes, aristocratic nose, and lips that were set to frown. At thirty-six, he unfairly looked thirty.
When he was with others, he set his shoulder length black hair free, letting it hide the scar. Alone, he preferred it out of his way.
He also preferred not to watch himself, so when he reached the door, Kyler shoved it away, knocking his doppelganger aside.
Outside, sunlight painted the small yard in an ethereal light. There was a patch of concrete, some grass, and a cluster of yellow flowers. The gate in the left corner was locked. No one was there.
Behind him, someone sighed.
A shadow spilled across the entryway to the kitchen.
Kyler's heart thumped staccato-quick against his chest. In Colombia, the guerrillas had come up silently behind him.
They were dead, though. He'd seen the bodies, the way their heads had been nearly twisted off. They couldn't be here.
But what if--
Kyler reached into his coat and withdrew the penknife.
A quick tug at the cap, and then the blade caught a flash of the overhead bulb, sending a splash of light over the wall, across the room, and into the eyes of the figure stepping into the room. It--she--raised one hand over her eyes.
Kyler studied her. She was pretty, with light brown skin and short dark hair. She wore a black vest and jeans, exposing the various tattoos that dotted her flesh. Butterflies lay along her right arm, a long red serpent wound around her left, a couple of small spiders dotted the bit he could see of her stomach, and a dark slash of color lay across her neck.
"Hello," she said. Her voice was sweet, with a trace of an Irish accent.
The surprise faded into disquiet. She wasn't from Colombia, but she'd broken into his house. Judging by her empty hands, she'd discovered he didn't have much she could steal.
"If you leave now," he said, "I won't call the police."
Her fingers splayed, allowing Kyler to catch a glimpse of her eyes. They were the green of Colombian woods. Very pretty. People disappeared into them and were never seen again.
"You can call them, if you like," she said. "It won't matter."
Kyler's unease sharpened, making his hand twitch. The reflected light jumped and stabbed her eyes.
The woman's fingers shuttered. She chuckled, and the soft noise made her chest and shoulders shake. "I'm pleased to see you too, Etherwolf."
Etherwolf? "What're you--"
A shadow. Ethereal, a second skin that he could never touch. That's what he saw, the night the guerrillas came. Just his shadow and theirs; his crouching while theirs towered over him. Crouching, shifting, waiting--
Kyler blinked. For a moment he'd thought that he was in Colombia again. The shadows...
God. What was he thinking?
"It's going to be all right," the woman said. She drew closer.
"Get out," he said.
"No." She unbuttoned her vest. "There's something you need to see."
Kyler closed the distance between them. He didn't want to hurt her, but he could scratch her. A light pain would hopefully send her running.
He raised the penknife.
And then discovered that he couldn't hurt her. She wasn't threatening anyone. She simply wasn't well.
The realization was a relief. A worry. He couldn't attack her. He wasn't a monster. He was just in trouble.
"I'm not interested," he said, pushing past her. The phone was on the counter. Hopefully the police would arrive in a few minutes.
Movement whispered behind him. "I was never your type."
Fool! To turn his back on an unknown. Had he learned nothing?
Kyler turned and scowled at her.
"My name's Rhune," she said, undoing the last two buttons. "You'll understand soon."
She took a step towards him, causing his shadow to fall over her. Then, she turned. The vest slipped off her shoulders, giving him a hint of another tattoo. His shadow hid its features. Considering the odd dichotomy of the others, this one was likely either as innocent as a butterfly or as deadly as a spider.
Kyler clicked the phone on. If he was straight and she wasn't weird, this could've been interesting. As things were, this still was interesting. Interesting wasn't always good. "I'm calling--"
Circles rippled across her skin.
Kyler stared, watching the movement sweep over her shoulders and down her arms. Where it crossed, spider legs stretched and butterflies fluttered.
Kyler slid back along the counter. His shadow slipped away from her flesh.
Light swept over her, revealing pale cocoa skin and an obsidian tattoo of a man. The figure echoed his posture, his stance, the curve of his face. It was odd and beautiful and--
It shifted, turning its subtle features toward him.
Different shades of black wove a nose, hint of eyes, lips. It smiled.
Kyler stilled. It couldn't be moving. He had to be imagining this. Had to be dreaming or hallucinating or--
Kyler set the phone and penknife down, then touched Rhune's back.
She had warm skin. Warmer where the shadow was.
The darkness lapped at his fingers, sending a cool shiver through him. Images flickered at the edges of his mind. The guerillas, their shadows...
...painted a story across the wall. Two of the men wanted to take a student outside to talk, yes, just talk. Kyler said no, but it wasn't a request, and he was introduced to a knife.
It traced from the corner of his left eye to his hairline, giving his burgeoning scar the illusion of Egyptian kohl.
It was a game, the guerrilla explained. The knife would go in deeper if he blinked.
Kyler remained quiet as blood snaked down his face. Behind the guerrilla, the shadows drew closer.
A breeze traced over him, whispering... something.
The guerrilla's hand twitched, sending the knife in deeper.
Pain stabbed Kyler, blurring his sight. Men became shadows, shadows men. When he could see again, the guerrilla smiled.
The wind sharpened, making the shadows dance.
"Etherwolf," the wind whispered. It caressed Kyler's skin, lapping at the blood. The touch was familiar. Comforting.
Behind the guerrilla, the shadows approached.
Kyler stared at them, at their man-made darkness, and knew who he was. Kyler, yes, but also--
Kyler yanked his hand back. God. There'd been something in the wind, something alive and--
Black tendrils followed him, tugging at his fingertips.
He stumbled back, hitting the counter. The tendrils snapped and retreated into Rhune's flesh.
A cold breeze brushed over Kyler, stealing his warmth.
"Etherwolf," it whispered.
"Did you hear that?" Kyler asked.
Rhune half turned toward him. "No. I can sense it, though." She held out an arm. Ripples moved across her skin, stirred as if a breeze was playing across water.
A moment later, the breeze swept over him.
It teased his skin, slipping beneath the ends of his coat and shirt to taste his skin.
The wind stilled.
Kyler snatched the penknife off the counter turning to Rhune. "What the hell was that?"
"The Darkness." She glanced at the knife and smiled. "A sentient culmination of all of humanities' fears and hates."
Dear God. "What does it want?"
"It's mercurial. Sometimes it wants death. Sometimes domination. Every once in a while I think it wants to look at something pretty. Right now, it wants you."
No. "Get out."
Rhune's smile faded. "I'm beginning to wonder if I should've brought someone for you to kill."
"I don't kill people."
Rhune laughed. The quiet sound shook her body, making the ink shimmer. "Oh, my friend. Do you think the Darkness would be able to call you if there wasn't something inside you yearning for it?"
She was wrong. The only thing Kyler wanted was to remember and...
Was that really true? He'd begun to remember something a moment before and he'd shied away from it.
Rhune's laughter faded. "I read your last book. I know how the guerrillas died."
"The authorities believe they turned on one another."
"The authorities can be blessedly stupid."
Kyler drew back. When he'd woken up beside the bodies of the guerillas and five of the children, the surviving kids said nothing. Kyler had hoped he hadn't hurt anyone.
What if he had, though? What if Rhune was right and this was in him? What if he had killed them?
"It's going to be all right," Rhune said.
She was wrong. It might never be all right.
Rhune approached him. "You've been reborn into a marvelous time. Once you've killed again, you'll remember the Darkness and--"
Kyler stabbed her in the chest. No darkness, no moving shadows or tattoos, no, no, no.
Rhune slumped against him.
Kyler held her. God. What had he just done?
A tremor ran through her body. Her blood was hot. The heat surprised him. He'd never stabbed anyone before.
"I'm sorry," he whispered.
Rhune chuckled. "Don't be."
Rhune shoved him back. Obsidian liquid crept down from the knife wound.
"We're going to have to do this the hard way," she said. The green in her eyes leaked out, leaving brown.
Kyler stumbled, and then caught himself. Her blood--her eyes--spilled into the dark splotch across her neck and stomach, disappearing. The surrounding tattoos trembled.
Then the ink crept down her body.
Rhune's skin lightened to the gray of cigarette ash. A moment later, black ink bled out of her skin and onto the floor, forming a pool.
Ripples flowed across the surface. After one passed, an onyx butterfly leapt out of the center of the pool. Gossamer wings fluttered, black veins solidifying in the semi-transparent material. It was beautiful and ugly and--
He had to get out of there.
Kyler headed for the back door. He'd have to go around the house to get to his car but at this moment he didn't care.
Heat spiked through Kyler's foot, stopping him.
Kyler looked back and saw a glistening black hand stretched out of the pool, clinging to his leather shoe.
He jerked, breaking free. The fingers flexed and then came after him.
Cursing softly, Kyler leapt up onto the counter. The hand searched the ground for him and then returned to the pool.
A tremor lanced through him. God. This was happening. He couldn't deny it, couldn't unsee. How the hell was he going to deal with it?
On the ground, Rhune slumped beside the pool, sinking her fingers then her hands, into it. The surface shimmered, and the liquid pulsed.
Kyler looked around. Weapon. He needed a weapon, preferably something he could use at a distance.
He hadn't unpacked much in this damn room, though. What was he going to throw, that stack of paper plates? Some plastic forks? The hose from the sink?
Holy crap. The hose. And by hose, he meant hot water.
Years working with ink and paper had taught him that water and ink didn't mix. The liquid might only irritate Rhune, but it would have to do something to the tattoos.
Kyler grabbed the hose from the sink and turned the knob. Water erupted out, turning the soft plastic cool, then warm, then hot. He turned, aiming the nozzle into the growing black pool and--
Rhune disappeared into the pool.
Fuck. What was she doing?
Maybe he didn't want to know.
Kyler flicked his wrist, sending a strike of water over the pool.
The liquid trembled beneath the water, broke apart, then leapt in different directions.
Kyler pursued it, sending water over one pool, then another, then another. Could he weaken her this way?
Distant ringing echoed into the room. The phone--
No. Not the phone. The doorbell.
On the ground, the pools pulsed, darting towards the entryway. Butterflies erupted out of the ink, followed by quivering worms, ants, and spiders.
Kyler cast a spray of water across the floor. The ink scattered, then dragged itself out from the water. It reformed and disappeared into the living room.
The doorbell rang again.
Kyler stopped the water. Rhune hadn't fled the water. She was running to the door.
Fuck. If Rhune got to whoever was there--
"Run!" Kyler hopped off the counter and ran into the other room. "Run!"
At the doorway, butterflies and spiders crept under the front door, leaving small drops of onyx across the threshold.
"Run!" Kyler ran up to the door and yanked it open.
Outside, a young man stood on the new welcome mat. His smile twitched, and the plastic pizza container in his hands shook.
Black shadows bled across the young man's skin, settling into new shapes. A snake twined around one arm, a spider crouched in the hollow of his throat. A butterfly fluttered across his face and disappeared into his hair. He dropped the pizza.
The young man blinked. One blink, he had blue eyes. Two blinks, green.
Kyler threw himself at the door, shutting it.
A hand appeared at the last moment, forcing it ajar.
The pizza man chuckled.
"Well," he said, leaning against the door. To Kyler's horror, he felt the door slowly pushed open. "This isn't my preferred gender, but it'll do for now."