Klaus's vision swirled with images. Images of a man in a dark cloak, a boy cowering in the corner of the room, an infant, a man holding hands with an older woman. They didn't make sense. They never did. It was only through Klaus's highly trained and specialized magic that he was able to see all the way back and pick out the memories that were most relevant. It took focus, concentration, and an eye for things of importance. But it also took a deep understanding of how his magic worked—the things it would deem most important and why.
Klaus let the images flood into his mind. They were quick— flashes of a moment of a person's life. But they were all important in one way or another.
He focused his mind on the task at hand. He needed motivations, details, and most importantly, weaknesses. He needed to know what they were up against. It wasn't just the monster, but this Human too.
The first image that came to mind was the image of the boy. He focused on it and it pulled in front of him like a Gnomish illusion might, except this was all inside of his own head, only visible to himself.
The image came closer until he was looking through the boy's eyes. They were blurred and raw. The boy sat hugging his legs in the corner of the room. His body jerked spontaneously, and then it did it again. He was crying.
"Malcolm," said a voice from somewhere deeper in the room. "Malcolm, come here." The voice croaked like a frog. It was old and frail.
The boy stood and more of the room became visible. He lifted an arm to wipe his face on his sleeve and then walked past a lit fire to the small cot in the corner of the room. On it lay a woman. Her skin was pale and her expression weak. On her throat was a green glowing mark, like an ink stain that spread down her neck. She coughed and then breathed out a few words. "Malcom, you're a very special boy. You know that, right?"
"Mom," said the boy. "I'm scared."
The woman smiled back at the boy. "There is nothing to be afraid of. I'll be better before you know it and we can go back to life as it was before." Her eyes made Klaus believe that she didn't believe the words herself. "But I want you to know that you're a very special boy. Special in ways you don't even know."
Malcolm looked at the floor and the memory faded out.
Unsure of how that was relevant, Klaus searched for the next memory that would help them discover more about this boy. An image came into view of the same boy standing in a field. Before him stood a single cross in the grass. The boy stared at it with no tears in his eyes, but a look of anger instead. He breathed heavy, with his chest rising and falling visibly even from the distance that Klaus viewed the scene. Klaus let the memory take perspective and shift into Malcolm's view. The boy turned and walked back to a small house on a hill. He slammed the door open and stormed into the bedroom where his mother previously laid and sat down on the floor. He still breathed heavily. After a moment, he let out a guttural scream. With the scream came fire magic, blasting from his hands. It shot straight up and caught a curtain on fire.
When he stopped screaming, he was shocked. Malcolm spotted the burning curtain and ran to it. He frantically tried to pat it out, but the flame had already spread higher than he could reach.
His head darted back and forth looking for something. He settled on a small bucket of water with a pair of wet pants hanging over its edge. He threw the pants aside and grabbed the bucket, struggling to carry it to the window. He sloshed the water at the flames, but they only served to douse the lowest parts of the growing fire.
The image faded out.
In the next, the soot-covered boy stood shivering outside of what used to be his home. It was now reduced to piles of ash with a few upright blackened timbers. Rain poured and dripped down the boy's head. He stepped forward into the rubble and kicked at the burnt wood.
He walked through the rooms. There was very little left of the world he knew. He found the frame of the bed where his mother laid previously. It was a couple of timbers and a small remnant of the quilt that covered it. He kicked the frame. His foot crashed through the charred wood and one of the upright planks toppled to the ground. He growled and proceeded to kick it several more times until the frame was shattered. He gave it one more kick for good measure, but this time his foot stopped short.
He groaned, grabbing at his foot, and looked for the object that he kicked. Whatever it had been, it was still solid and intact despite the fire. He shoved it with his foot and a metal box pushed out of the rubble. Malcolm bent down and dusted the remaining ash from it. It had a metal handle on top and a grey body. He reached down and picked up the box, turning it over in his hands. He blew on it and a cloud of dust billowed out from it. It was a lockbox, with a small lock on the front latch. He tried the lock, but it wouldn't release. He grunted and then looked around. His eyes settled on the stone that once formed part of the fireplace. He lifted the metal box far above his head and slammed it down on the stone. The lock held on. He slammed it again and again until he heard something break free. The lock dangled from the clasp. Malcolm tore it off and opened the box. Inside he found a medallion of a dragon laying down with gems scattered in its reach. Beneath that was a small book bearing the same design on its cover. He paged through it and found words that looked foreign, or ancient. Klaus realized what the boy was looking at.
The memory faded and gave way to another.
Flames burst into the alley. They were massive and hot, charring stone walls that looked to be too far from the flames to suffer any effects. Flames and water magic were exchanged back and forth. A Saurian in a hood tried to defend himself. He was clearly skilled with water magic, but the Human was far better. The flames evaporated the water before it could reach the Human.
The Saurian's face shifted to fear, and he tried to run. But it was already too late. The Human chased him down, using a blast of fire to launch himself into the air. With another blast, he softened his landing in front of the running Saurian. The lizard's eyes widened as he made eye contact with the Human, and then he turned back to run the way he had just come. Malcolm sent a blast of fire into the ground beneath the Saurian. The Saurian screamed and fell to the ground with the sizzle of skin and scales against the cobblestone alley floor.
Malcolm walked forward and the flames lit his face. He looked down at the suffering Saurian, smiled, and then the brightness of fire washed out the memory.
"There may be some things we do that would be frowned upon by most Humans and even other races," said Malcolm. He was older now—maybe in his 20s. He had the shadow of facial hair. His hair was longer and he wore a tortured look on his face, yet he smiled through it. "But I can assure you, everything we do is in the name of protecting and bettering the Human race."
"I understand that," said another Human. She was in her late teens and had tattoos coming up her neck, reaching toward her head. "And I want to join. I want to help in any way I can."
"And you are willing to keep this information a secret?" asked Malcolm. "Once you are part of this group, there is no backing out."
The girl didn't hesitate. "Yes. I am ready."
"Good," said Malcolm. "Welcome. You are now a member of the Shades." He turned around and grabbed folded dark cloth off of a shelf and handed it to the girl. She opened it up and slipped on a cloak identical to Malcolm's.
"Where do we begin?" the girl asked. She looked eager to get started.
"There is much for you to learn, but we are currently in the middle of an operation. We'll have to teach you along the way and as time permits." Malcolm walked away from the girl, expecting her to follow him down the long hallway. It was a stone building, lit by sconces. Malcolm pushed open a door and entered a room with several other people wearing dark robes. They were all positioned around the room working on various tasks. One stood in front of a pile of dirt, and wave his hands causing a green light to shine from it. Another stood over a plant, chopping it into tiny pieces. Deeper in the room was a fire burning, with one of the Shades holding a pot over it. And then another approached an animal that was hard to make out in the darker part of the room. There was the sound of chains and growling. The Human approaching the animal had something in hand, a type of powder.
Malcolm ignored the various activities in the room and walked to the center where plants were being chopped on a table.
"What's our progress?" he asked.
The Human approaching the animal in the corner looked back. "We may have it," he said. "We have a prototype that has killed a rat, a rabbit, and a snake. We're testing on this coyote next."
"Good," said Malcolm. He turned to the girl, the new recruit. "This is our current project."
"And what is it?" the girl asked, sounding a bit unsure.
"The Treek plague," he said, looking pleased with himself.
"Why would you want to create a plague. Wouldn't that affect everyone? Including Humans?" asked the girl.
"Yes, it will. But we're focusing on water-based plants since Humans are less settled around the water."
"And what about the ones that are settled around the water?" the girl asked.
"It is an unfortunate sacrifice, but it needs to be done. They will not be forgotten."
The girl looked down with a conflicted look on her face. "And why do we need to create a Treek plague?"
"Because we need a war. We need to create chaos to get what we want, what my ancestors wanted. With this plague, the Treeks will be to blame. Militaries will mobilize against them. The best part is that we don't even have to deploy it. We figure out how to do it and then we pass the knowledge on to them. They'll use it and it will be their downfall."
"Why the Treeks?"
"Because I hate them," said Malcolm, looking directly at the girl. "And their magic is perfect for creating worldwide damage. We weaken our enemies, buying us time to build our strength and wipe them out entirely."
"And how do we build our strength?" asked the girl.
"You have read The Dangers of Magic?" asked Malcolm.
The girl nodded.
"Most of the book is a lie. I have the actual history in this book." He held the book that he had found in the ashes of his home as a child. "But the true part of The Dangers of Magic is the part about Shayde Mortem's dragon. The dragon still lives. And this is how we wake it up and use it to destroy our enemies."