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  • Malorie Nilson

READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: Order of Dust by Nicholas J. Evans



We’re all a little broken, aren’t we?


Jackson Crowe is dead.


Or, at least he was. After his death, he awoke in the North-Lane and found himself at the crossroads of life and the beyond. The higher beings gave him a choice: move on, through the North-Lane and into the universe for your next chapter. Or, return to earth and claim revenge. Now, Jackson is known as the Order of Dust, with the task of hunting the ones who take possession over human bodies and return them to the higher beings. Jackson, both grizzled and pained, looks to find who took his life, and the life of his love. To do this he will need his two pistols; one for humans, and one for demons.


On September 22nd, Nicholas J. Evans’ ORDER OF DUST will debut with The Parliament Press!


Preorder your copy now:

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1


Dream Awake


THERE WAS NO SOUND, as if the world had lost noise in its entirety. As if nothing but silence had ever existed, and the world was just starting anew. A bird, newly hatched, that hadn’t yet flapped its small, weak wings. A heartbeat would be as thunderous as an explosion here, if there were a heartbeat to be found.


Jackson Crowe opened his eyes and found himself in a vastness of bright white. He felt weightless as he kicked his arms and legs around him like swimming in the deep end of a pool. Every direction he looked there was nothing but the white. It was blinding. He touched a hand to his temple and felt the warm liquid that painted his face. The tacky, crimson leaked from his wound, streaming down his neck. The wound was still fresh and stung as his calloused fingertips gently slid over the open hole. He could feel the knotted, melted flesh burned in a hollow circle.


“Hello... Jackson...” a feminine voice called out from the light.


His eyes scurried around the emptiness to find the source of this disembodied call. That was when a dark silhouette appeared from the nothingness. It was the form of a beautiful woman graced with pale skin and flowing blonde hair. She moved slowly towards Jackson, and hovered. A translucent cloth wrapped her body, streamed over her narrow shoulders and fell over her breasts. There was a shine under the cloth, it came in brief flashes as she approached, shifting from her nude, porcelain skin to something else entirely. A warrior with flowing hair that brushed over golden shoulder pauldrons, and down a gleaming breastplate. The armor came and vanished in uneven intervals like the blinking static of an old screen, and at her hip hung an oddly large blade that vanished again before Jackson could see it clearly. Her wide, soft eyes offered a brief reprieve as her hand extended towards him. Fingers caressed him, ever so lightly rubbing over his wounded temple and down his face. When she pulled her hand back the glossy red liquid coated her colorless fingertips and dripped down her palm.


***


“Welcome... to the Paragon...” her sultry voice whis‐ pered once more. “It is...a resting place... For those who have started their ascendance through the North-Lane..”


“So... I am dead then? And I guess I am about to enter the universe for my next chapter or something?” Jackson urged confusingly. “Like what Fortega said?”


Jackson, or what was left of him, recalled an odd man in a suit with a large grin and shaved head standing on a stage before a sea of people waiting on his words. His name was Jonathan Fortega, or that was the body’s name at least, and his words would soon drop on the world like a bombshell. On that stage, to the entire planet, he announced that he was in fact not Mr. Fortega, and was instead Terrance Greene, a young man from Queens who was caught in the crossfire of a shooting. He explained that when he died he met two beings, and refused to say their names. Terrance/Jonathan announced the Dusts, the possession of this body, and of the white space he found himself in where he learned of the North-Lane. Now, according to Jackson's parents, this was nothing but a crazy man’s ramblings for years before others came forward, and then powerful officials backed it, then even‐ tually the scientific community as a whole. With it being nearly proven, the world adapted as best as it could.


He was young back then, and took this information as well as any one of that age could. He did not question it, he took it like a large pill and swallowed it just as others from his generation had. If there were any truth to what his assassin said, then Fortega, or Greene, did have that ‘purpose’ he spoke of. He would go on to lead the revolu‐ tion against organized religion, gain followers and others who revealed themselves. It was a hungry great white amongst a school of writhing fish, ready to consume all they knew and offer truth in the form of blood-soaked teeth.


Even in the purity of adolescence. Jackson knew the truth. He understood why Fortega, or Greene, was the first to announce the truth; most Dusts who return are back for the wrong reason.


At only six years old, Jackson had witnessed the closing of the last church. Each one had either become a place for people to gather and discuss the North-Lane, or a place for the homeless to gather and protest their hunger. These relics, once beautiful and powerful, became just as forgotten as an old abandoned building someone would pass by without thought. Years passed and even with all the knowledge gained there still was no way to decipher who was the real person and who was possessed by another. The fear that spread caused a hate for the Un-Ascended and a term, buried amongst the pages of dust-covered books, came to as a slur towards their kind: Demons.


“You certainly could Jackson... But not many Dusts have this opportunity... to meet us here. At the Paragon,” she said once more as she floated back a few feet away. “Like... Terrance Greene...”


“It’s like winning the lotto, kiddo. Bingo, here’s your prize,” another voice called out from behind him.


Jackson turned and viewed the new stranger who had joined in this phenomenon. He was tall and lanky in a tight-fitting pinstriped black suit. His pointy black shoes rested flat on a floor of nothingness and a black fedora rested on top of his head. Under the brim Jackson could make out a large pointed grin not unlike that of his assailant, except this man had stiff blonde hair that bled out from the bottom of the hat and pinkish skin. His fingers were long and pointed, and his eyes were sunken yet frightening. He made his way a step at a time around Jackson and to the side of the glowing woman. The two stood next to one another staring at Jackson in the contrasts of light and dark. A perfect juxtaposition, like that of Ying Yang; Jackson did not know who to fear more.


“Since Usra has so rudely ignored introductions I guess I’ll jump right to it then,” said the man. “First off, nice to meet you, Jackson Crowe.” He removed his hat, placed it to his chest with his pointed fingers, and leaned in for a bow. The man, who seemed to be something more than human, carried a mobster-esque accent. He never once broke eye contact, and never removed his smile. “My name is Azazel, The Ender.”


“And I...” the soft voice rang, “am Usra, The Creator... and we are the start and the finish.”


“I... uh... I don’t get what is happening here... who are you people?” Jackson asked nervously.


“We are... Everything. The founders of the North- Lane... the Creators of the Dusts–”


“The end of your meager lives!” Azazel interrupted.


Jackson remained puzzled. So, they were life and death? If that is the case, why meet Jackson? He spent his life waiting for something that would never happen. Like watching a television commercial with no idea what show was coming on. His mundane existence should not have awarded him this meeting, and he, in fact, did not think he would ascend to begin with.


“We... have a task for you Jackson Crowe. One that required our meeting... One that–” Usra had begun.


“Yea, Yea. I’ll speed this up. She likes to drag a little bit,” Azazel interrupted again. “We got us a middleman of sorts. A gray area if you will. Ya see, I deal only in the dying, the dead, and the Un-Ascended. That lovely lady right there deals only in the new life, the Dusts ascending, and the North-Lane. But... Earth... Well it don’t play by the rules too much. That's where you come in.”


Jackson once again floated there, in the empty white, completely confused.


Me? Shit. You people have the wrong guy, Jackson thought to himself.


“On the contrary... we believe we have... the right guy...” Usra said with a smile.


What?! They heard my thoughts?


“It’s the Paragon, man. Open space. We all share everything inside of this world. So do not come here if ya need some alone time, get what I’m sayin’?” Azazel chimed in sarcastically.


“Jackson Crowe... you are to become... our forceful hand... against the Un-Ascended...” Usra continued as she hovered gracefully toward Jackson with a gentle hand extended. “Our... Order of Dust.


Order of Dust? I really do not understand...


“It ain’t too hard, kid.” said Azazel. “The position is called ‘Order of Dust’ like the lady said. We can’t act against mortal business, and sadly that includes the Dusts that stuck around. Gotta send ’em home.” He slowly stepped toward Jackson.


“But... why me?”


A feather-like pale hand fell onto his cheek and ever so gingerly held his face in its palm. Usra looked into his eyes, her beauty stunning him for a moment. She smiled as her hair flowed around her lips. Then a sharper hand with a red hue rested firmly on his shoulder and the beady eyes of the suited man pierced his own. In their silence, Jackson felt warm yet frozen, calm yet panicked. All at one time he felt the rush of dormant emotion evoking just from the presence of these two beings.


“You were... dealt a cruel injustice... one in which we could not intervene. And in that moment, we sensed something from you... A chill... Revenge...”


Jackson looked within himself. There was anger, maybe even revenge, and mostly fear. It was an iron pot of bubbling stew that boiled at his depths, but he was so tucked away that it seemed as though he could pass by it or forget it all together. Though, it almost seemed to speak from within him, as if it were alive and full of fury. In his truest self he knew this was not him, these feelings were not the Jackson Crowe that had held her, loved her. But he could not pull himself from this odd calling within him even if it was not rightfully his.


“And us being the great entities that we are decided to give that revenge a purpose there, Sport,” said Azazel with arrogance. “Wanna kill that tan-suited assassin? Wanna prevent others from that same end? Then come on down because YOU are our lucky winner.” He leaned in close to Jackson’s face and whispered in a low, raspy tone, “Time to claim your prize...”


“I can’t... I am not a killer, or a hunter, or even a strong enough man for this. I’m just angry... anger can warp the mind... that is all.” Jackson paused. “Even if the anger is... new.”


“Jackson Crowe... we can... make you a strong man...” Usra said, as gentle as a whisper, as chilling as thunder. “We can... channel... these new feelings...”


“Don’t be weak, Jacks,” Azazel mocked.


Jackson clenched his fists, and felt his unmoving blood boil, “I’m not weak...” he growled behind clenched teeth. He was beginning to not recognize who he was inside, but something burned at his every nerve. “I’m not... fuck‐ ing... weak...”


Azazel moved around him, as smooth as a dance and as slow as a predator. His horrid grin flashed in the scorned man’s face, and his eyes pierced him as if to chal‐ lenge his statement. He chuckled, and snickered, and laughed as he watched the absolution of hate within Jackson grow and expand.


“A strong man gets his revenge, boy,” he said as he circled him like a whirlpool. “But, a weak man? Well that fella is the kind to let his lady die and do nothin’.”


Jackson forced his eyelids closed and pushed away the foreign emotions, the thoughts of cold blood and fiery hatred. Become, something said within him. Become... the Order of Dust... Jackson fought a war within himself against emotions that now spoke as if sentient. Kill... the Un-Ascended...


“It’d be a real shame if that pretty girl of yours watched you be such a fuckin’ coward,” Azazel muttered behind his painted smile. “All I’m sayin’.”


A fire broke inside of Jackson. Rage unchained like nothing he had ever felt and boiled in him like an over‐ flowing cauldron. Was this his own emotion or something the beings had placed within him? He looked in Usra’s starless eyes once more then to Azazel.


“I’ll be your Order...


Suddenly the white space swirled with vibrant colors of deep, rich purples and oozing greens. They enveloped him and soon all he could see were the beings who continued to hold him. Usra moved her hand to his chest and a warm, red glow ignited within him.


“This... is... the Heart of the Creator.” she said as her palm glowed. “May it heal your wounds... and sustain your life...”


Then Azazel placed his palm over his eyes and his head began to feel clouded, heavy. “Eyes of the Cruel. They will help you see the Un-Ascended who take up residence inside the bodies of innocents. Let’s say that you’ll see a different smile now.” Jackson began to grunt loudly as the pain swelled inside of his skull.


A finger placed over his lips and Usra’s voice rang sweetly in his ears. “Symphony of the Wise... to commune with the Order of Ascendance... Angels are what your people called them... and me... long ago.”


Guts of the Strong will give you some strength and endurance that your kind would normally not possess. You’re welcome, kid.” Azazel thrust his palm into Jack‐ sons stomach who he let out a cough, winded from the blow. “And before I forget, here’s something important.” He placed his hands over Jacksons ears and leaned in with his toothy grin. “Echo of the End...” he whispered, “now you can call on me whenever you need to.”


Jackson fell back as his eyes grew heavy and began to close. He laid and floated in the nothingness around him. As his consciousness drifted, he felt a cold, metallic weight on his chest. The item was dense as it pressed into his torso. His eyes fully closed and Ursa laid beside him, pressing her face to his. She placed a hand over the object and whispered in a way that reminded him of a short breeze on a summer evening. “Arm of the Savior...”


***


Damn it... my head is killing me, Jackson thought to himself. Jackson sat up, finding himself in his own bed. His apartment lay thick with dust and the air held a musty scent. As he rose to his feet his body felt different, more mature and stronger than before. He slowly walked outside of his room, pushing the door with a force previ‐ ously unknown to him. With each solid thump of his steps small clouds shot up from the raggedy carpet. He entered the hallway and passed a mirror that his fiancée had hung as a decoration. He hated it. When his eyes met his own, he did not recognize the reflection staring back at him. The face was doused in wrinkles of a long life which he had not had. Thick, gray stubble adorned his once smooth face and long graying hair hung from the sides of his head onto his broad shoulders. He raised a hand to touch his jaw, rubbing his chin and then pushing it through his hair. Even his hands had grown rougher. What truly threw him was the lack of a bullet wound on his head. Jackson touched a hand to the glass and outlined the reflection of his face; the man who looked back at him. If this was him, he thought, then time as truly changed him. He stormed off toward the living room where he saw a sight that brought on familiar emotions.


“No...” Jackson grumbled low.


In the center of his living room sat a large red, crusted stain. It coated the carpet having solidified into a circular pattern like old paint thrown onto a canvas then left to dry. It was not until he abruptly stopped that he felt some‐ thing hanging on his side, and hit against his thigh. He reached down, grabbed it, and held it up. The object was a large gun that appeared very old, with a fantastical design. The metal was a smooth, shining amethyst color with decorative gold-swirling accents across the barrel. Jackson grabbed the dark, stained wooden handle and felt its cold surface on his palm as his finger glided along the trigger. He remembered Usra’s words, gentle in his ear as he quietly drifted away. Arm of the Savior, he thought to himself, a weapon to remove the Un-Ascended from a host.


In a moment, he felt the eerie creep of déjà vu crawling over his consciousness, as if he had held this gun before. Many times before. Somewhere far from here, in a place where life and death have a neutral place to meet. Muscle memory of his hand pulling that trigger so many times before, and the thoughts blurred as he tried to collect them. He stared long at the weapon, but nothing came; not yet.


After admiring its beauty, Jackson placed it back at his hip as he continued his journey towards the pool of dried dead memories. Jackson examined the gray carpet as it transitioned to deep red and had become rigid. While everything else in his apartment seemed untouched, even dormant, there was something here that had not been there prior; and it was not the weapon at his side. A small white box with a letter folded on top sat in the center of the dried blood. He knelt beside it and, with his now hardened, aged hands, snatched the letter from its surface.


“Well good morning, Sunshine. Welcome back to life. Ya may have already noticed this but it’s been 19 years since your train left the station, so to speak. We kept this place completely untouched for ya, including the friendly reminder here of why you became The Order. In the box you’ll find a little something I couldn’t give ya with Usra right there watchin’ us. You already got one for the Demons, so here is a little something for the rest of em. See ya real soon, kiddo.”

-Azazel


“Nineteen years...” Jackson said aloud. His large, old fist clenched and released quickly as he grinded his teeth. “This body... it doesn’t feel like me... Like a shell. Maybe, it was just hollow for too long. Is that the price of an Order, Azazel? Does your world destroy mine?” He spoke to no one, but inside he spoke to the Ender himself. Somehow, he felt that maybe he heard it.


Jackson removed the lid of the box to see something shining back to him, reflecting the light that crept in from between the curtains. The hard, silver metal glossed over the barrel and rested with a black grip. A much more modern weapon, for a much more modern problem. The barrel read “Beretta. Cal 9mm. Made in the USA” with a warning disclaimer about its loading. Jackson raised it up and held it in front of his worn face.


“Hmph,” he grunted. “I hope... this doesn’t get much use, Azazel.”


Utilizing an old kitchen knife with a rusted sharp point, he went to work. His new armaments lay before him on the counter as he hacked and sawed at the metal. Each line let out a shearing screech that pierced the hollow silence of his home. Flakes of metal built small piles like ant hills along the sides of the weapons and he let out a deep, warm blow from his lips scattering the shavings. Throwing the knife to the side, Jackson smiled at his handy work. He stood once more before the large mirror as a different man than the one who had laid bleeding on the floor nineteen years prior. A long, tan trench coat adorned him with a collar covering his dark‐ ened face. The graying hair rested at his shoulders and from this mane a furrowed brow stared back from the reflection. Each of his hands held a different pistol. With an engraving carved alone the barrels.


For Humans.


For Demons.


2


Scarab


FROM JUST OUTSIDE OF the door the air hung in thick, rich smoke and the smell of tobacco.

“Come on, let’s get this party started already!” said a robust, round man in an ill-fitting suit.


He sat in a row of chairs that faced a brightly lit, yet small, stage. Each seat held a man with a more sinister snarl than the last, with various upscale attire adorning their bodies. Clouds of heavy smoke rose towards the ceiling as they took deep, long drags of their cigarettes, and the streams of gray haze rose and twirled around them leaving a dense fog that filled the room.


A stage such as this one had no business being here. It had beautiful glazed wooden flooring with a thick velvet- red curtain draped over it, blocking a door that was just out of sight. Surrounding the stage was the rest of the room; stained grey concrete walls, furnished with the smell of mold and blood. It lay windowless with only the light from the stage offerings a glow on the disheveled audience. Behind the row of seating was a single steel door with no handle.


There was no escape from the inside. That is how they wanted it.


While so much of this world had changed, the most unfortunate part was that this city never changed.


Crime had not changed in abundance, only in its victimization. New Ashton had once flourished during the industrial boom, with each block becoming a thick jungle of office buildings, apartment complexes, and corner stores. There was a time when this was prosperous, but with commerce came criminals. New Ashton soon had lost the title as industrious, and traded it for new terms such as overpopulated, unemployed, poor, and, of course, murderous. Over the decades, once the great truth of the North-Lane came to pass, the Un-Ascended grew rampid. And, with supply comes demand, which was when the Scarabs crawled their way in.


“Get this auction started, Carter!” said a man, seated beside the round one.


Carter emerged from behind the curtain; tall and thin with a bone-chilling smile and eyes that mimicked that of a lifeless doll. His tight, black suit of velvet stretched across him and matched his slick, black greasy hair.


“Gentlemen...” said Carter in the silky tone, heard only from someone with years of dark dealings. “I apologize for the delay, but let us begin.”


Carter motioned his hand as the curtain opened slightly revealing a dark, opened doorway. The sounds of hastened breathing and sniffling echoed softly within the rich darkness.


“Our first item up for auction,” said the silver- tongued Carter.


A burly figure emerged, large in stature with a stoic face, and a shiny head. In his hand he dragged the arm of a young, almost nude man. He was visibly trembling with his hands bound by duct tape matching his covered mouth. His eyes flew back and forth in fear, and he hunched as he walked to the center of the stage.


“Stand up straight,” growled the burly man as he turned back to the dark room and disappeared.


“Some information,” said Carter as he slowly skated around the boy on the stage. His eerie presence clearly made the young man much more nervous. Carter placed a pale, cold hand on to his shoulder.


“With his physique you can see he is athletic... captain of his college baseball team. Twenty years old, almost old enough for the drink. This young man comes not only with youth and vigor, but also a wealthy family involved in law.” He wrapped his face close to the frightened boy, “And let us not forget...” he said with a sinister smirk, “he also has a gorgeous young lady by the name of Venus who is just mad about him.”


“Five. Hundred. Thousand.” A man from the row stands and shouts.


“Six hundred thousand!” screamed the man beside him.


“Stop the child’s play,” interjected the round man who hobbled up from his seat. “Two million dollars for the boy.”


A hush silence fell in the small room. A few men looked around to one another. The boy stood, shaking in his blue boxer-briefs.


One.


The round man approached the stage.


Two.


He stood at the edge, staring at his prize.


“Sold,” said Carter with a haunting whisper, and a bone-chilling grin.


The steel door flung open and crashed into the concrete wall beside it. The silhouette of a man in a long jacket stood amongst the pouring fluorescent lighting behind him. Straggled hair, coarse and flared, outlined a dark unrecog‐ nizable face. He took a large slow step into the room.


Seven chairs sat before him, facing a stage in the short distance. Seven men stood at these chairs and turned to face him. Two more stood on the stage; one was thin, with ghastly features and a marionette expression, the other young, nude, and bound.


“Scarabs...” a low voice, as thick and raspy as gravel, came from the entering stranger.


“GUARDS!” shouted the round man who had re- entered the line with the other six beside him.


A metallic flash ran before them in a blur of shining purple and brilliant gold. The item was visible to them for only a brief moment as it pointed from the stranger’s hand.


Seven men stood, facing the stranger.


Seven bursts exploded from the barrel of the purple and gold weapon.


Six bodies fell to the ground.


In their place stood humanoid figures of a speckled sand with no distinguishable features. The specks moved within their human shape and those shapes were as still as snowmen. Out of the seven men who waited at the chairs, only one remained who now stood by the six figures of Dust. His face bent in horror, and beside him the face of Carter contorted with an odd excitement as if he fed on the thrill of danger, and the meal had just been served.


“Oh my,” said Carter in a cheerful tone. “You must be the strange man who keeps attacking my gatherings. I was hoping you’d make our little party here.”


“Hmph...” the man said as he walked closer, the stage glow revealing his true features. His tan trench coat, his grizzled face, his hardened stare. “Six demons, one human.” He grunted.


Jackson had been working these cases for a few months now, hunting Un-Ascended and searching for Scarabs. “I’ve learned a lot from hunting you,” he said taking another step closer. “One lesson stands out more and more at every one of your fucking parties.” He stepped once more and stood before them. “Some humans are no better than Demons.”


In his other hand he slowly raised a more familiar weapon of steel. A loud pop crackled through the small warehouse room, bouncing off each wall in a deafening boom. The bullet entered the last man through the fore‐ head with a perfect circular hole leaking a thick crimson liquid. His eyes rolled back as his knees buckled and he fell limp over the back of his chair.


“Azazel...” muttered Jackson.


In an instant the dark presence revealed himself from a thick cloud of black smoke that wreaked of fire and ash, wearing a similar large grin to that of Carter. He leant over in a bow. “Thanks, Jackie.,” he said, turning back toward Carter. “See ya soon!”


In a flash Azazel had disappeared as quickly as he came, taking the six Dust’s with him. Now Jackson’s cold eyes met the fires of Carter’s anxious ones.


“Ah, so you prefer Jackie then?” Carter said with a serpentine hiss.


“Jackson. I have questions for you, demon.” Jackson raised the Arm up toward Carter. “Where are the rest of the Scarabs?”


Carter began to laugh, his chuckle growing louder with every passing second. “Oh, you are newer to this than I thought! You’ve attended so many of my gatherings that I assumed you knew better than this!”


The amethyst barrel pressed against the chest of Carter as the two stood face-to-face. “Won’t ask again.”


Two large arms wrapped around Jackson’s waist. Before he could make out what had happened, he was flying backwards through the air. His back smashed into the row of chairs behind them, clattering and falling to the ground. The body of the human man tumbled along the side of him, leaving a small pool of blood on the concrete floor. Jackson quickly pulled the Arm up and fired it at the new threat who walked towards him. The gigantic man stomped slowly, and Jackson could feel the tremors ripple against his back with each step. He furrowed his brow and fired two rounds into the large figure.


The shots flowed right through him and out of his back. They did not faze him or slow his approach. Before Jackson could remove his other firearm, the large man was on him, bending down to grab his jacket lapels and tossing him like a child’s stuffed toy into the concrete wall beside them.


“Agh! Damn it,” Jackson said as his shoulder slammed into the stone wall with a thud, like a bag of old, rotten potatoes.


Carter made his way to the open exit door and looked back at Jackson before he left. With a hollow smirk and a tilted head, he left him with one last piece of wisdom.


“There are hundreds of Scarabs in this city alone. I wish you luck in all your endeavors!” He gave a wave, as if to let Jackson know that he would take his leave now. Jackson’s vision was blurred and slowly came into focus enough to watch Carter smile at him once more, a smile that showed victory like a shiny new trophy. Just as he walked through the doorway out to the city street, Jack‐ son’s line of sight became obstructed by a looming shadow. All that remained was Jackson, the large man, the nude boy, and the muffled screams from the dark room behind the stage.


Jackson raised his head as he crouched like a damaged toy on the ground.Jackson’s vision was blurred and slowly came into focus enough to watch Carter smile at him once more, a smile that showed victory like a shiny new trophy, and just as he walked through the doorway out to the city street his line of sight became obstructed by a looming shadow. A large, Neanderthal-like figure glowered down at him, reached for him with huge bear paws that would end him. He took a breath, and the air stung as it entered his lungs and pressed against his damaged ribs. When he looked up only a moment stood between him and the large man.


***


A few months prior, Jackson struggled like a walking corpse in the solitude of his apartment, the one he had shared long ago with her.


“How’s the world treatin’ ya, Jackie?” Azazel said to

Jackson from his living room, only a day after he re-awak‐ ened in his bed. “Ya look like shit, kid.”

His body still felt stiff, as if he was learning to walk before learning to crawl and the muscles were not ready. Jackson’s skin felt rigid, and there was a twirling in his stomach, like a carnival ride, that made him want to spew its contents at any minute, which he realized was probably nothing after nearly two decades. This new life was not one he was accustomed to, and the odd memories of Paragon came and went like the pulsating flicker of a dying light bulb. Nothing felt right; life felt more like death, and that alien-like anger that punched him in his core still sat there waiting for an outlet, waiting to be utilized as an Order should.


“I feel... sick,” Jackson said as he sat stiffly on his couch. “And weak...”


“Normal,” Azazel said with a grin. “As normal as it can be for someone who’s dead.”


Jackson slumped over and felt the creaking tightness of his body as he rested his scruff face in the palms of his hands. His elbows dug into his thighs and he cringed for a minute as his pain receptors ignited, having not been trig‐ gered in some time. The funny part, Jackson thought, is that the last time I felt pain was the last time I was alive. His dying, gray hair remained stiff as he slowly shook his head side to side.


“What are you doing here, Azazel?” he asked bluntly.


“Ya know, a good boss checks in on his new employee, isn’t that how it works? All I ever get is you people cryin’ about ya fuckin’ jobs, so I got a good handle on the thing,” Azazel smiled toward Jackson. “Speakin’ of that, got some work for ya, kid.”


“Work?” Jackson groaned. Then, instinctually, he remembered a brief moment of Paragon and why he was truly back. Why he wore the guns at his sides.


Azazel passed an opened envelope to Jackson with a bit of crumpled, white folded paper sticking out of its mouth. Jackson painfully sat upright again and grabbed it with a robotic coiling and uncoiling of his fingers. He removed the paper only to find a list of addresses and dates over the span of a few months written in beautiful script, in what appeared to be colored pencils. On the corner of the page was a drawing, like that of a beetle.


“What is this?” Jackson groaned.


“Body traffickers,” Azazel responded and stood up from the couch. He walked over to the dried pool of blood that was hardened and brown on the carpet, stared at it, then shook his head. “Snatchin’ up the good people of this city, and sellin’ ’em to the highest bidder.” Jackson stared at him with a blank gaze. “Literally, they do auctions,” he said more firmly.


“Are they all Demons?”


Azazel shook his head, “Afraid not.”


“Never killed a person before...” Jackson stared intently at the addresses and dates scribbled on the page.


“Haven’t killed an Un-Ascended before either, Jackie. But, first time for everything I heard.” Azazel flashed a stare at Jackson followed with the widening, horrific grin of the Demons. “The top ones are written in blue, they are light gatherings according to my other employee. The last one is written in red, and I’m guessin’ you’re a smart boy, Jackie, so you can figure out that’s the big one.”


***

Another loud pop reverberated through the small room. Jackson stood up and propped himself against the wall, one arm wrapped around his torso holding his ribs, and another raised with the silver handgun pointed toward the figure. The shining silver, reflective and untarnished, glowed from the stage lights nearby. The weapon was separated from the skin of the large man’s face by the width of a single hair. Just beyond its barrel stood a hole where flesh once lived.


The large man fell back expressionless as the blood ran from his face, caressing his chin and dripping onto his chest.


“Can you hear me up there?” huffed Jackson.


The young man nodded, still bound and muffled. “There any more back there? Enemies?”

He shook his head, trembling.


“Good...” said Jackson as he slowly made his way tO the stage. The man on the ground before him, sprawled and lifeless, had a small object poking out from his pocket that the light bounced off of metallically. He bent down, his body roaring in pain greater than when he had just awoke, and he took out a small switchblade with a black handle and matching black blade. The young man was startled by the sound as the blade swung open and snapped into place, but much more relieved when he felt the knife slicing through his duct tape confinement. Jackson grabbed the tape’s corner from his cheek,


“Gonna sting...” and ripped it from his mouth. The young man panted, choking on air with a nervous panic. He swallowed repeatedly, trying to say anything until his stomach turned and from his gasping, open mouth, poured the liquid contents in a splash below.


“Th-Thank you. Thank you. Th–” the boy said between heavy panting and coughing.


“You’re safe now,” interjected Jackson. “Go free the others.”


The young man wandered into the room where muffled sobbing could be heard like a muted church chorus. Jackson took the chance to approach the bodies that lay on the floor fanned out in a row of collapsed corpses that took shallow, fleeting breaths; all but the one man, the human man, who would never draw a breath again. From the pocket of his trench coat he removed a small pouch full of tiny crystals and put it under the first body’s nose, waving it around.


A startled man sat up quickly, coated in sweat with wide, scanning eyes. “H-holy shit,” he said. “What the hell just happened?”


Jackson ignored him and continued to the next body with his smelling salts. This one rolled over and rose to his knees with a similar expression. As he continued down the line, finally reaching the sixth body he had shot with the Arm of the Savior, each woke with the same questions and confusion.

“It... it was like watching a long movie through my own eyes,” one man said.


“I couldn’t move, couldn’t talk. My body moved and my lips opened but nothing was mine,” said another.


Jackson stood up, brushing off his pants and jacket before addressing the confused, suited men. “You have all just been inhabited,” he said in an emotionless expression.


“Guess possessed would be a better word. You weren’t in the driver seats.”


Slowly people emerged from the dark corridor behind the stage, each also barely clothed. Many were young men ranging in age and race but all with athletic builds. Two young women had also emerged and behind them, clinging tightly to one’s side, was a small child.


I have been tracking this Hive for over a month, Jackson thought to himself. Still no closer to taking down this faction’s leader. These fucking Scarabs... They are revolting. Selling off the most valuable human life they can find, just the keep their grotesque existence going. I will kill every last fucking one of them. Every one, until I find the man in the tan suit.


“W-where do we go? What do we do?” asked a suited man who scanned his surroundings with trembling eyes.


“Don’t care,” answered Jackson as he limped toward the door.


“I’ve seen...” Another man started and paused, pressing his hand to his face. “I’ve seen so much... I had no control...” He began to whimper, but Jackson was already nearly gone.


“Are you a hero?” asked a small, frightened voice from a young girl behind him.


“No,” he answered, and vanished from the doorway into the dark streets of New Ashton.


Jackson walked through the city, limping a bit, and thought about the world he now lived in, and the past he left behind. Just outside of the door, he walked into the brisk air of New Ashton at nighttime, which smelled of cigarettes and gasoline, and he embraced the light drizzle of fresh rain that pattered against his old face. He walked the city like a nameless man with no face, just another street-sleeping bum in an overcoat covered in bruises. He could ignore the looks of those who passed, unless he saw that familiar smile.


The few months since he returned had not been kind, but they had been fruitful. Azazel would deliver tasks, or cases as he called them, and Jackson would move out. Even though it was simply a list written in colored pencil, these cases were special in that they held promise of a certain man, an unknown assailant in a tan suit. A lot has changed since his first case, the first time his finger felt the pull of a trigger, and his wrist felt the recoil of an exploding gun barrel. Jackson could recall the fear of what could happen, and the weight he felt when it meant ending someone’s life; even a life already ended. As a boy he thought he understood the words of Fortega and Greene, the world they weaved of Dust and the North Lane. He even could understand the evil incarnate that hid behind the glass smiles that he could now see as clearly as the moon glowing in an open sky.


Then, there were the Scarabs.


Jackson mumbled angrily to himself, which only granted him further puzzled glares from those who he passed by on the dark streets. He passed under the street lamps, swarmed with buzzing insects, and he walked by heaping piles of torn garbage bags crawling in thick, city rats. The New Ashton he left hadn’t declined this much, but nearly two decades will ruin anything, he thought to himself as he remembered his old, burly body. Around the corner, just passed the pizzeria with boarded windows, was his building.


Brick walls, cracked windows, a few dead plants on the steps, and a sign so worn that someone unfamiliar would never know it said “Ashton Garden Complex.” The garden part used to give Jackson, and her, a good laugh.


These days, Jackson did not laugh.


***

On the morning of his first assignment, the very top address and date written in sky blue pencil, Jackson paced the length of his apartment living room spouting out nervous grumbles and pep talks.

Each thick step landed with a loud thud that shook the dust covered television or the cobweb coated lamps, and he carefully stepped around the large circle of dried blood that reminded him of why he agreed to this new life; reminded him of her. His hands, not as stiff and brittle as just a few days before, fumbled at the handles of his guns as he tried to remember the split-second memories of his time in Paragon with the higher beings. He knew he held the Arm before. He physically remembered the weight and how he gripped it tightly, but pulling the trigger was just a memory that was as distant as static on a dying television. And so, he continued to pace and grab at the weapons on his hips.


“Fourth and center...” he mumbled. “September nineteenth,” he continued to growl. “First assignment, come on...”


He stopped and threw himself down on the couch, shaking his head from one side to another and running his rough fingers through the dry, gray hair.


“You can do this, Jackson,” he told himself in a whisper that rolled like gravel. “You aren’t the same man as before...”


He closed his eyes and focused on Paragon, on the higher ones. He thought of Azazel, his words and his sneer, with the ways he toyed with the new Order and almost goaded him to act on that foreign rage that still tumbled inside. He remembered the gifts instilled within him to make him strong, to grant him the ability to truly end the Demons’ hold on innocent lives and the gifts that made him more than just Jackson Crowe: Bank Loan Officer. Then, he remembered the First Light, Usra. Her flowing sheer cloth, the brief flashes of golden armor, and the words she spoke to him in that distant, haunting breath that was less than human but more than godlike.


“Usra...” he said in an almost silent breath.


Before he could even open his eyes, a loud phasing explosion sounded before him and a bright light turned the darkness he saw into bright red from behind the skin of his eyelids. He opened them just a crack, but the light stung the old, dead eyes he awoke with and he raised a hand to block them. The sound was unbearable as it rattled his eardrums. He felt that his ears would fall from his head and hide under the couch like frightened rats. He forced himself to his feet while blocking his vision with the sleeve of the jacket. Almost instinctively, as if something from Paragon had retained even if his memories did not, his free hand pulled the Arm loose and raised it toward the bright, cylindrical beam that roared before him.


Then, as quickly as it came, it had ended, and he could open his eyes once more.


Order,” a voice sounded before him, feminine and firm.


At first he could see nothing but the silhouette as his eyes adjusted, and he raised the barrel up toward it with caution.


“Who the fuck are you,” Jackson growled as his vision began to restore. His hand trembled nervously as it gripped the gun.


The glow of new light and restored sight had revealed it to be a dark-skinned woman in a reflective, bronze armor. The bits of metal bounced the light and between each piece were tightly bound leather straps. She stood, back to the large picture window over-looking the city, her broad shoulders outlined in the moonlight that beamed in, and her defined arms crossed in a guarded fashion. This warrior woman stood with her muscular legs firmly open and locked, as if both an immobile statue and a lion ready to leap all at once. Beside her stood a tall lamp which hadn’t been turned on in nearly two decades, but she reached up and pulled the small metal-beaded cord.


The light let off a simple glow that shown against her bronze breastplate, chiseled with ornate designs like that of vines with thorns dancing around her torso. Her shoulder pauldrons held the same design with that of an etched eye shape at the center of each. On those same shoulders, down her back, and over her neck hung thick dreadlocked hair that dragged over it all as she turned her head to once more face Jackson.


She was stoic by nature, like an ancient warrior who had no time for this world, and yet her eyes flashed with life as she eyed him with a pointed brow.


“Nice to meet you, Order,” she said with a near-sarcastic spin.


Jackson, fighting the trembling of his hand, raised his thumb and cocked the hammer of the gun.


“Won’t ask again.”


“Ah,” she answered, and unfolded her arms to place her hands on her hips, in an almost heroic stance, and then, as she closed her eyes in a slow blink, she turned to face out of the window and look at the streets below. “I thought you would be expecting me.”


He stepped toward her, weapon raised, and then noticed the blade that hung beside the leather straps of her warrior’s skirt. It was a little shorter than a sword, but wide like that of a butcher’s cleaver, and the handle was wrapped in tight red designs around its leather base.


That blade, it was like the one that briefly material‐ ized on Usra in Paragon, he could nearly remember.


“I am Ayres,” she said, and Jackson halted. “I am here by the direction of Usra, the First Light. A guardian, to assist or protect you.”


Jackson hesitated, the Arm raised and shaking began to lower as he stared toward the back of the stoic and strong figure. He eyed the oblong blade carefully as it sat on her hip and questioned if he was letting his nerves get the best of him; if he was becoming too trusting of this new figure. Still, he thought to himself that if she truly was an emissary of Usra he should hear her out, or perhaps even ask for assistance.


For she was a warrior, and he was a man heading to his first potential kill.


“You came at the right time,” he grumbled. He dropped his gun back into the holster on his hip and its weight plopped into the leather bounds of the carrier. “First job is tonight, a small nest of these people. Human traffickers, potentially Demons.”


She let out a huff, as if to laugh and then slowly lurched her head to give him a brief glance from over her shoulder, “Written in crayon, Order?”


“Colored pencil, actually.”


Ayres sighed, “I will not assist you on this assignment. I do not work for the Ender, or his runts.”


Jackson took a few steps towards her, which shook the apartment’s trimmings around him, and she turned with her back to the moonlight once more to meet his gaze with a glare of her own. Her wispy eyes flicked with a blink as they found his.


“What happened to the assist and protect, act?” he questioned and shoved his hands in the scratchy pocket of the overcoat.


With a shake of her head she answered, “I do not hunt the Un-Ascended, that is not my duty. I simply protect you, here, as you rest and heal.” She stepped toward him and they were now face-to-face where he could admire just how broad and strong she truly was. “I assure you, Order,” she said and ran her eyes down the length of his body and back up. “You are not the only one who will hunt. Sometimes, the prey hunts you in return.”


“Appreciate the help,” Jackson said sarcastically with a grunt.


Order,” Ayres said quietly, without even a glance towards him. He cocked his head to her and made a shallow noise to confirm his attention. “I’d like to share something with you, a story I have held from others. You are new, but you need to hear this.”


Jackson again did not respond, but he softened his cold eyes, and gave a nod.


“My kind, the followers of Usra, are not always so... enlightened. I have been around your people before, too many times I am afraid, and I have seen madness in all of its splendor.” She finally turned to him, arms still crossed and legs still braced. “I know what the title can do to the mind, for I witnessed this once before. When he fell it was by my blade, but when his mind left him there was nothing that I could do to bring him back.” The warrior, who always remained on guard, had momentarily lost her fiery stare before she recomposed herself. “The truth is that I am not here for your protec‐ tion. The day will come when you need me, but I will not be there. No, it pains me to admit that I am here to claim only one life: yours. Should it need to be claimed, that is my position in this home with you, and the old boy.”


Jackson pushed a fake smile, “Wasn’t much of a story, more of a threat. But, when that day does come,” he looked down at the wide blade that hung off of her, “I won’t go down without fighting back.”


***


Jackson slid a key into his apartment door after a slow, painful walk through downtown New Ashton from his injuries. It was deep into the night now, and he still needed to speak to Azazel about the leader’s escape. He turned the key, twisted the knob, and embraced the deso‐ lation of his apartment, but his eyes stared at something unfamiliar: a clean living room carpet. The red that stained its center with the memories of Jackson’s last moments with her was now cleaned, as if it had never happened. He stepped into the darkness of the room, dimly lit by street lights and the moon pouring through the windows, and searched the floor beneath him.


“Back so soon, Order?” said a familiar female voice from the shadows.


Jackson turned to her with a pointed glare, “Ayres.”


She paid him little attention as he wandered in, broken and beaten from his hunt. “Do you require assistance? Were you followed?”


Ayres spoke to Jackson, yet remained focused out the window to the world below.


“Hmph, not this time,” he grunted mockingly, hobbling his wounded frame further into the apartment.


“I should be fine, but keep an eye out tonight? Found that Scarab hive, leader got away.”


“Unfortunately, I am not permitted on your missions, Order,” she said with a sigh. “You know this, otherwise we may have brought him down.” Her tone held something from Jackson, but he could almost recognize that hidden anger; he had it himself. “How about your wounds?”


“Right,” Jackson said, removing his long jacket. Under it he wore a black button-down shirt that was frayed and scuffed. “Ribs are broken, possibly a dislocated shoulder...” He threw his jacket over the chair beside him. “I’ll sleep off the concussion.”


“Excellent, I’ll get you some ice,” she said, wandering toward the kitchen.


“Ice? That’s it?” he said, befuddled.


He watched as she opened the freezer door at the top of the fridge and ruffled through the freezer burnt items inside. Jackson could almost feel himself healing from his gifts, and his body bent and contorted to combat his injuries; no dulling of the pain. He clenched his jaw and clutched his ribs that throbbed in bass drum kicks, then took a sharp breath. Jackson looked back at Ayres, who was deciding which bag of old, frozen, expired vegetables would work to numb his wound and which would work as dinner. He recomposed himself with thoughts of microwaving the freezer-burnt vegetable medley against the expired peas and carrots, and that’s when he heard a flush come from the bathroom down the hall.

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