(Author's Note: The events of this chapter take place slightly before the events of the previous chapter)
Chapter 3: A Voice From the Shadows
A quiet Thursday evening at the hospital, and the hum of Manhattan traffic faded out through an open window. Dr. Ethan Fabian took in the vanishing sunset. Down below in the parking lot, the doctors of the day shift called out to him as they made their way to their cars and lit cigarettes. Fabian sighed as he made his way over to close the window. His shift was almost over—just another few hours of evening rounds, and the night was his.
He glanced at his clipboard, mentally marking off the patients at the bottom of the list.
Wallace. A new patient checked in for acute anxiety, currently undergoing evaluations for prescription.
Whitney. In the ward for two weeks after a suicide attempt, showing signs of progress.
Wyatt. In the ward since Monday, history of instability, possible schizophrenic.
All simple enough, but the last name gave him pause: Wyngarde.
Jason Wyngarde had been brought in six months ago. His handler had given Fabian and the others the patient's name and made few offhand remarks about some incident at a club in Manhattan. Coupled with the cash under the table for giving the man a place at the psych ward, it had been more than enough.
He was brought in catatonic, and six months of scrutiny hadn't brought him out of it. In all that time, he hadn't spoken a word to the doctors. The handlers weren't eager to discuss it with the staff, but promised them a steady supply of cash for keeping an eye on him.
"Mr. Wyngarde is a valued member of out organization," they had said. "While he recovers, he will need the best care that your doctors can offer. Discretion is essential—my employer, Mr. Shaw, wishes to avoid undue scrutiny. I'm sure you understand."
The months had passed without a hitch, and the checks had come every week. Jason Wyngarde gave the doctors nothing but glassy-eyed stares, never struggling as nurses fed him in the morning and bathed him in the evening.
Fabian gripped the clipboard tightly, holding it close to his chest. The nearest corridor stretched out before him, empty but for the sound of a janitor mopping somewhere in the next hall. At the end of that hall, Wyngarde waited in his room, sitting like a Buddha atop a flimsy white cot.
He's just another patient, Fabian told himself as he tried to steady his quivering hands. He can't hurt you, he can't even speak. Somehow the silence made it worse—whatever nightmares the man kept inside him, they were too terrible to share.
He could hear his ragged breathing as he put his hand the doorknob. He fumbled with the key, flipping it around twice before fitting it in. The door came open with ease…and Wyngarde was there, without a word to welcome him.
He hadn't been near a hospital barber in months. His hair hung down over his face like dark reeds, plastered to his face with sweat. With every labored breath, the dark strands moved. He had come into the hospital with an elegant pencil-thin mustache, but now a wild tangle of a beard crept over his cheeks and hung down past his chin. His eyes, expressionless orbs of dark glass, contemplated Fabian without malice or compassion.
Fabian stood up straight and gathered his notes.
"Good evening, Jason!" he said, working his lips into an uneasy smile. "How are you feeling tonight?"
Jason stared up at him, his breathing settling into a steady rhythm like a heartbeat. It took all of Fabian's willpower not to look away. He had looked into the eyes of delusional men and heard their echoing screams, but nothing had ever scared him like those empty eyes. He knew terror, pain, and rage, but this was something else—a mind like a void, reflecting back all that would look inside.
The silence hung heavy. Fabian shifted uneasily, moving his clipboard into his other hand.
"Jason, can you hear me?"
Jason's breathing sped up, gathering strength, but his gaze never wavered.
"Jason, you know I'm here if you ever need anything. We're all here to help you."
Fabian's voice trembled. Jason's stare was like a poised blade cradled in the steady hands of a killer.
Fabian backed up slowly, his hands feeling behind him for the doorknob. He slipped through the open space in the door, slid in the key, and shut it behind him. Even behind a closed door, he could feel the man's gaze on him.
Too many lonely nights in this place could give any man nightmares. Even awake, the nightmares followed you down every hallway. Every shadow hid watchful eyes full of hate. Every sound was a furtive whisper. At the center of it all, Jason sat waiting, shrouded in his silent dreams.
They can't keep him here forever, Fabian thought. They won't.
Whoever "Mr. Shaw" was, something told Fabian that he could afford the payments. If they bothered with cash under the table, they still needed him for something. If they bothered with secrecy, someone else wanted him too. To someone, Jason Wyngarde's usefulness hadn't yet run out. Behind those shadowed eyes, there was something that bricks and mortar couldn't hold.
Fabian made his way down the corridor, his feet picking up speed. In the next hallway, another patient was waiting. There were hours left in the night shift—Jason Wyngarde could survive another few hours without his attention.
Fabian's eyes found their way to the row of doors around the nearest corner as he ran through the notes on his last session with Wallace.
Behind him, away from prying eyes, a dark shaped moved through the shadows. Not a sound echoed through the empty hallway.
Behind a locked door, his mind cried out.
Drifting free, the thought went out.
An empty mind, scarred beyond recognition. No human psychic left a wound like that. The Phoenix left its traces far too easily.
Wyngarde was awake. A mind like that…even wounded, perhaps it was salvageable.
The thought went out again.
It was a dull impulse, like the twitching limbs of a dying man. Even in a dying mind, great power could be found. Power—it burned dully in every nerve and vein of the man's withered body.
A mutant. Like Grey, before all of this began. Twist it just right, and that power became a weapon. The Phoenix knew that—with Grey's mind and body at its command, it left D'Bari in ashes. To bring the Phoenix down, it would take the same path. Somewhere on this planet, a human host waited.
Wyngarde's mind called out, echoing out in the yawning void of the psychic plane, waiting for another voice to call back. For the first time, the Wraith answered.
"It's time, human. Last time, the Phoenix left you an empty shell. Now, retribution beckons"
The shadows grew and spread, unfurling across the hallway like tendrils of smoke. From behind the door, Jason could sense them.
For the first time in six months, his dry, cracked lips parted, and a voice escaped.
Through the crack under the door, the dark shape entered. It reared up like a great black pillar, stray tendrils stretching out like claws. At the heart of it all, he could feel eyes on him like burning coals, staring into him and through him.
"Show me what you saw, human. Show me the thing that did this to you."
A lone tear rolled down Jason's cheek. In six months, the image of the Phoenix had never left his mind. In this place, he only dreamed one dream—every night, the Phoenix haunted it.
"Wings of fire…wings of fire…"
He felt the flames on him again, saw a red-haired woman laughing over him as bolts of light caressed the curves of her body. He stared into those empty white eyes and felt his mind go numb.
"The Phoenix destroyed more than your mind, human. But even a power like that can be brought down. Before the universe began, destiny made the Phoenix my enemy. Now, our battle begins again."
Then Jason saw another vision: endless darkness, silent and cold, a distance too great for any human mind to measure. Jason closed his eyes and let it enfold him—a perfect void, where the Phoenix and its flames would never reach him.
Then he saw it.
At the center of it all, there was a pinprick of light exploding outward. In every direction, waves of light raced into the distant shadows, lighting up the void with the glow of orbiting stars.
Jason closed his eyes, feeling for that blessed cold, willing the lights to fade away again. He drifted, feeling his body wither, and the darkness spoke to him.
"Do you see it now? In the lifeless void of space, without eyes to watch us, our battle began. Cold and darkness struggling with light and fire."
Then Jason understood. In the flicker of the distant stars, in the spark that gave them life, he could feel the Phoenix. Its endless hungry scream echoed out, framed by the flash of its fiery talons.
"The spark…" Jason breathed. "The spark…"
The darkness spoke again, a whisper like a mighty chorus.
"The spark at the beginning called the universe to life with its voice of great fury. They called it 'Phoenix'—the beast destined to die among the flames and be reborn anew. But what of the darkness that came before? The shadows that the spark arose from?"
"The ones who felt my presence called me 'Wraith'. The avatar of the void between the great lights. The all-consuming shadow from before time had meaning."
Jason stretched out his hands, feeling for the source of the voice, trying to bring himself closer to it.
"In the beginning, the Phoenix arose from the depths of the abyss to bring light to the darkness. Now, it has taken a human host. In the path of its great flight, stars grow cold and planets turn to ash. The time has come, Jason Wyngarde—to preserve the balance, the Phoenix and the Wraith must meet in battle once more. The Wraith must take a human host to balance the scales."
Jason could feel the cold closer to him than ever before. It was in every breath he took, in every movement of his atrophied heart. He let it fill him to the core. In his room at the hospital, his limbs gave a violent twitch, reaching into the empty air.
"The Phoenix…it showed me the darkness between the stars. It made me watch, after I tried to make Grey fight for me. It tried to drive me mad."
The Wraith was silent. Jason could feel its eyes boring into him.
"I felt the void at the center and watched the galaxies orbit it. I'm not afraid of the darkness. But the Phoenix…"
"There is only one with to kill the Phoenix—with the darkness that it arose from."
Jason shut his eyes and let his body go limp, saving his strength for what he knew had to come next.
The shadows around him drew close, winding in and gathering at the center like a great spear, positioned an inch from Jason's heart. Jason drew one last breath as the Wraith entered him, then went silent. He felt it burying itself inside him, felt it stopping his heart and driving him forward with a force like nothing on Earth.
With a sudden crack and a grinding of metal, Jason tore the door to the room from its hinges and watched it tumble to the floor, twisted and broken.
Under harsh, flickering lights, Jason stood. His lips twisted into a smile, and with a wave of his hands, the lights went out.
Fabian dashed out of his office as the crash rang out through the hospital's halls. Three orderlies dashed around the nearest corner, meeting him as he fell into a panicked stride.
"Doc, what the hell's goin' on?" one orderly demanded.
Fabian shook his head in confusion.
"I just finished a session on that hall about ten minutes ago."
The orderlies stopped and turned to look at him.
"That hall?" one of them asked.
"Christ…is that where…?
Fabian nodded again.
The orderly exhaled and brought a trembling hand to his face.
"You remember what the guys from that club told us when they passed out the cash! If it is him…they told us we couldn't call the police. 'Complete discretion', remember?"
"I know what they said."
"Goddamn muties… The second I saw the bastard, I knew he was one of 'em."
Suddenly, the conversation stopped. Up ahead, a row of darkened lights caught the men's eyes.
Then another row flickered and went out, throwing shadows across the floor and walls. Then another.
The men turned around, ready to run. On the other side of the hall, they saw more lights going out, each row closer to them than the last. They stared into the gathering shadows.
Fabian's voice shook.
"Can…can you see the end of the hall?" he murmured.
The orderlies didn't answer.
There was a rattle from the nearest window, like clawed fingers drumming a restless beat against the glass. The window was like a sheet of frozen tar, nothing visible outside.
Fabian let out a breath and watched it fog up in front of him. His fingers, trembling silently, went numb with cold.
"Alright…" he heard an orderly say. "The front door is just fifty feet away. Everyone knows the way there. We can make it. Right?"
He didn't get an answer.
Fabian saw a shape moving silently in the dark. From both sides, long tendrils of shadow slithered and twisted along the walls. There was movement on the ground, coming closer with every second. A thousand twitching shapes moved across the floor as one, twitching and flailing.
The orderlies were the first to run. As they left the light, the shapes sprang up. Two tendrils lashed out from the walls to grab them, pulling them by necks and ankles into the distance.
A third went down thrashing and screaming as the shapes on the floor covered him. As they came closer, Fabian could make out dripping fangs and glittering clusters of eyes topping eight spindly legs on each—spiders, each one three inches across.
Fabian looked left and right, looking for a clear path where there was none. He pressed himself against the wall and shut his eyes tight. If death would come, let it come quickly. Don't give them the satisfaction of pain.
As if from miles away, he heard the orderlies cry out, their screams slowly choked out by a chorus of hissing breath through a thousand pairs of fangs. He could hear tiny spine-tipped legs furiously scuttling and scraping across the floor, rising to the walls around him.
Then he heard the voice.
"Illusions…" it mused to itself. "Lehnsherr called me Mastermind when I fought with him. I could make men see whatever I wished—mere parlor tricks, but they served me well. But with the Wraith inside me, the possibilities are endless."
It came closer. A breath colder than any wind brushed his face. The man spoke to him in a voice like knife against bone.
"How does it feel?" it asked. "The Wraith feels the beating chaos of life. He brings this world's wayward children back into the darkness. Your souls feed him well…"
It was the fist time he had heard the voice, but he knew who it belonged to…
"Now look upon me, one last time."
He opened his eyes, and saw Jason Wyngarde staring at him with eyes full of hate.
His hospital clothes were gone, replaced by a ragged black robe that hung limp across his skeletal frame. He hovered effortlessly a foot above the ground, shadows following him like stray sparrows. He stared down at Fabian, rearing himself up to full height. Slowly, purposefully, he raised one bony arm.
His voice filled the halls, beckoning to anyone still alive to hear. With every word, Fabian's skin crawled.
"Hear me, mortals!" he called out. "No longer am I the man you once knew! I am the Shadow! I am Oblivion, and Death incarnate! Now and forever, I am the Wraith!"
The shadows were closing in around him like billowing smoke, the cold like a jagged knife. He felt a hand caress his cheek, and all was numb.
A mile below him, the clamor Manhattan's evening traffic echoed out, dots of light making their sluggish way though streets lit by moonlight. His new black rags unfurled behind him as the city block's buildings faded behind thin wisps of cloud.
Over the horizon, the smoke of a distant highway mixed with gathering storm clouds, the echo of thunder far away from Manhattan and her sleeping children. He could feel the electricity in the cloud's dark underbelly.
The last feeding had given him strength for days, for weeks. Another day, there would be time for chasing horizons. Today's destination couldn't be reached by flight.
Somewhere far from this world so full of life, a dead one awaited him. There, the Phoenix would know death, walking among the silent graves of the ones she had killed.
He raised its hands and felt the shadows rise up far above him, unfolding and coming together in a tight spiral. They unfurled and came together, stretching out like a great tunnel. He knew where it would lead.
Leaving Earth far behind, he crossed the tunnel's threshold and let it close behind him.