Episode 1: The Shadowed Ones

part of: The Shadowed Ones

by Jeff Beardwood

related by Daegle, Member of the Shadowed Elite in the Fourth Generation of the Wanderers 

We are the Shadowed Ones. That is what they call us. It makes me proud. They are not wrong.
Simply said, we survive, we avenge…always, we remember. We are invisible, chameleons, instruments of fierce retribution. They say we are terrorists and I suppose it is true, in that terror is one result of what we do. It is a tool of desperate peoples, but not a shameful one.
On the particular night I’m recounting, we had a target. We were going to set a bomb in an apartment building. Our people worked in small teams. We didn’t get a lot of information. We got orders and we carried them out. It’s safer that way…in case of problems. Those of us working here in Canada don’t know anything about teams in other regions or even other teams in our own region. Even so, we do see news reports. We knew why we were hitting this target. One of our teams had been uncovered recently. Many betrayed us to make that possible, but the spotlight shone on one man…one man whose family lived in this neighborhood. Others would also die, a tragedy I would change if I could.
An eye for an eye, as the saying goes. Perhaps it is little wonder we are all blind. It has been that way for a very long time…our response to their response to our response…for generations, back to the beginning of memory and story. It makes me tired sometimes when I think about it too much-so I don’t.
We were very good at what we did, my team and I. As the Shadowed, we struck silently, without a trace. Our training was intensive, my team members were the very best. This night, as always, we moved unseen with drilled precision through the streets. The patrols were timed and missed. We moved where street lights could not reach until at last we approached our target building. All lay silent, the tenants sleeping as peacefully as our times allowed. 
We set up watch in a safe location near the building. All was still. Maere took a small sack from under his jacket. It always astounded me that something so compact could cause so much damage. Of the six of us in the team, he and I were to set the package in its final resting. It is the most dangerous of jobs, there being both a risk from the explosive if something unexpected happens and the ever looming risk of capture. We did not fear either danger, but neither did we court it.
The other four in our team each prepared for their role in the mission. Each was to be a watcher. Marty would secure the safe spot and warn of anything threatening our security there. Our roamer would be Peanut, the Prince of Stealth. He would follow the patrols at a discreet distance until he knew their rounds were no longer going to weave back our way, then he would return to rejoin Marty. Panther was the relay between us inside the building and the safe spot. He would be positioned just outside the apartment, invisible and ready to relay any word of trouble in either direction. Clive was our high lookout. He would take his position high up a nearby fire escape, watching all below for movement with the eyes of an owl in the night gloom, but also securing the skies, as low flying aircraft had on rare occasion been used to patrol streets in times of high alert. Everyone knew their role, nodded they were ready to move.
“You ready Slick?” Maere asked me quietly, casually as he tucked the explosive back out of sight.
I would set the timer on the charge, as I always did when Maere and I were teamed. “Steady as a rock,” I whispered, showing him my hands held out unwavering in the dim light. Then I patted my own jacket pocket to ensure I had the tools we would need.
Maere and I slipped away into the stillness of the street, each of us approaching from a different direction. I knew that soon not even our own team could discern our movements, so stealthy was our progress, so practiced our routine.
As we entered the building to meet at the appointed spot…the vulnerable place on the first floor of the building where the most possible damage would result from our blast…I continued to reflect. There was a reason I took such pride in our caution. Shadowed Ones had become even more diligent of late in their practices. There were reports filtering down to us of alarms going off in the still of night before our charges went off, warning of the pending danger. The rumors flew, of course. Stories of those called Wanderers reached our ears. They said these people were more sensitive to approaching danger somehow. That they and their practices were somehow thwarting some of our efforts. Maere, who led our team, scoffed…in part because scoffing is what was called for and in part to calm our unease.
I was not satisfied. In some of my private time, I found a chat channel about Wanderers on the Internet and signed on. Perhaps my handle was a poor choice, thinking back. I logged on as “ShadowedOne”. The response was predictably harsh. Maere would not have approved. He would point out that the Shadowed do not step into the light in such a way. I was feeling very self conscious about this and would probably have just signed off and tried again later, differently, if the moderator hadn’t intervened. She called herself Katia.
“If this is indeed a Shadowed One, who better to hold a conversation with?” she asked the others in the channel who had raged against my presence. “We are not going to ultimately solve anything with our discourse if all we can do is agree.”
I was intrigued. Then she asked me why I was there.
I was bluntly honest. “I have heard stories of Wanderers as some kind of Sorcerers, sensing dangers, thwarting our teams’ targets. I wanted to see for myself, to learn.”
“Sorcery is just science ahead of its time,” she said. “The real work is much more interesting than the parlor tricks you’re describing.”
“So there is nothing magical about Wanderers,” I was leading her to a conclusion that would put my mind at ease.
“If feeding a superstitious fiction about some kind of Wanderer magic was the price of peace, then I would tell that white lie with a clear conscience. It would be the cheapest end to a war in history; the only casualty being a simple truth.”
“I’m afraid the war is not over that simply!” I could feel the rage of our ancestors welling up inside me, placing distance between us as I typed my response. I had liked her quite a lot a moment before. “I would kill you if I could right now,” I told her. It was a shocking thing to say. Sometimes that’s why it’s been said. Usually the response is to question why. Sometimes it’s to spit insults and threats back. I was quite taken aback at her simple answer.
“I know,” was all she said.
There was neither fear nor accusation in those two words. She had just accepted something that was…the sun rises, the earth turns and I would kill her if I could in that moment. I was back to liking her, grudgingly, along with wondering why I hadn’t signed off before this conversation had really begun.
“I don’t know why I came here,” I’d told her, truthfully.
“Perhaps you have some questions about us and why we do what we do,” she suggested.
I told her my theory, how they respond to our response, and so on, continuing generation after generation.
“So if one time we didn’t respond, it would be over?” she asked.
She had a knack for startling me with her ideas. “Well, no. Likely someone would think the scales of balance were still not even,” I answered her as honestly as I could.
“Ah, yes…all that history you mentioned.” she wrote. There was a long empty period where she seemed to be thinking about this. I let it hang there without typing anything.
Finally she wrote, “In martial arts, isn’t there some code that one is obliged to use just enough force to deflect at attacker? It’s the idea of a measured response. If I’m much stronger and under no threat, I should just block your attacks. If I’m pushed, I use a little more force, and so on. Until we get to the most even, life and death match where self preservation requires lethal force. Isn’t that about how it goes?”
“I’ve heard of something like that.” I answered, wondering where she was going with this.
“I wonder if we’ve come to a place in war, as we have in comfort, where we take things to insane extremes. Just as all discomforts must be overcome, by stocking more food than we could ever eat, conquering nature, from mosquitoes to weather…maybe so too have our grudges turned to similar extremes. If there is any threat, we eliminate it outright. We’ll never be sick ever again. We’ll never starve, ever again. And we’ll never be threatened ever again. What we don’t seem to get, in either case, is that WE ARE SO COMPLETELY NEVER GOING TO BE IN CONTROL. ‘Ever again’ is a really long time and we don’t have a knack for seeing the big picture in these cases.”
Her words rang in my ears as Maere finished his part of the job, securing the package safely in the perfect place. Now he held a tiny light for me to do my work. I made myself comfortable, took a deep breath and started my work.
“We are never going to be in control” she’d said.
Well, if not control, at least tonight we would assert ourselves. Our cause would get some press tomorrow. Someone might think twice before crossing us again. It was at least a measure of control.
“Come on Daegle!” Maere was getting antsy.
“A Master’s work takes precisely as long as it takes to be done well,” I chimed at him softly.
“And how much longer will this good job take?” he wanted to know.
“Twenty-three seconds,” I estimated, partly because it wasn’t too far off and partly because counting the seconds would give him something to do to relax himself.
“Times up,” he told me twenty-four seconds later.
“Time’s counting,” I said, activating the device and standing up briskly. We had 60 seconds to get to the others.
Still moving with complete silence but a little more urgently, we made our way back to the safe location and took cover. All six members of our team had returned safely.
A minute passed. Then another. Everyone was shifting uneasily. Something was wrong. No alarm had sounded. We had not been detected, but the bomb had not detonated.
Was my brain so fuzzy thinking about Wanderers that I’d made a mistake in activating the timer?
Maere looked a question at me and I shrugged. I got up to go inside to check.
“What if it goes off while you’re in there?” he asked.
“We’re all prepared to die on any mission,” I reminded him. “Besides, it’s a sixty second timer. Either it goes off in sixty seconds or it doesn’t. It’s not like it can suddenly decide to be a one hundred and eighty second timer.”
He knew this of course. We all did. But this had never happened to us before. We had always been a precision team, with no screw ups. I felt responsible, without really knowing why or how. I’d been the trigger man…the one who had activated it.
“If I don’t go back in, someone will find the explosive. We don’t need that complication!” I said, renewing my assertion to return to the place it was set.
He knew I was right. “I’ll go with you.”
“An unnecessary risk. I’ll either reset it, or bring it out with me. It should take only seconds.”
As I stood to go, there was an soft scrape on the pavement behind us, followed by a woman’s voice speaking softly, in whispers not unlike our own.
“Did you boys lose something?”
“Scramble!” Maere ordered none too quietly, leaping from our hiding spot and attempting to lead a merry chase. If our guest had followed Maere, she would never catch him, but would be led through such a race until the rest of us were safely out of the way. But she did not follow Maere, nor any of the others. I remained, frozen where I’d stood and slowly turned around. I don’t know why I couldn’t leave, but I felt I had to see her.
There, in the dimly lit street, was a woman; tall, confident…the first thing I noticed about her were the chestnut colored ringlets of her long hair, cascading down over one shoulder. She smiled warmly at me. Her appearance was a sharp contrast to my own. Where I was dressed to blend into the night, the night served only to accent her appearance. She was dressed in a long flowing deep blue robe. Her eyes seemed to also be blue. Perhaps it was a trick of the shadows, but her eyes seemed to be unusually pale blue…eyes so light they were almost translucent.
She held up the pouch we’d left in the apartment building. In the same soft whispered voice she said, “You forgot this. You should be more careful Shadowed One.” Then she tossed the sack over to me.
“The bomb?” I asked dumbly.
“It’s gone.” she stated simply, as if assuring a child some imagined danger could do no harm.
“But how? Even though I was going back in, I know I set it.”
“You did indeed,” she assured me.
“Once set, they cannot be disarmed,” I said in wonder.
“Indeed,” she smiled. “One of those Wanderer parlor tricks, as yet to be debunked.”
I stared at her, recognition slowly dawning on me. “You…”
“You should run after your friends,” she interrupted. “They will worry and then wonder about your delay.” She was quite right, especially after the detonation had failed at my hands.
I slowly turned to go.
“Wait,” she said.
I turned back to her, poised to run.
“Measured force…remember?”
“I didn’t turn that bomb back on you, on your friends or loved ones, on your community…I just kept it from hurting innocent people. Measured force, you see?”
“You blocked,” I said in some kind of faint, hollow recognition, more instinct than revelation.
“You must go now. We can talk more later. You know where to find me,” she said.
I was about to agree with her when she vanished before me eyes.
I wanted to go back to where she’d stood, look for mirrors, cameras, anything that would account for this last wonder.
“Damned Wanderer parlor tricks,” I muttered as I reluctantly dashed off into the night.