FLAK FIRST CHAPTERS
As he strode up Lavender Hill, lugging an army-green backpack and carefully avoiding the cracks in the pavement, Ben felt no less distracted than he had for the past week.
He was in limbo, with one part of his life still firmly rooted in his mundane world of rain-damp streets, charity shops and overcrowded buses. The other part, the part he would much rather be living, was perched precariously in his buddy, Christian's, Tribe-world of evil villains and barely-avoided catastrophes.
He had always craved adventure, and that bone-deep yearning was the reason he'd made the effort to talk his way into the Tribe in the first place.
It wasn’t so hard in the end. He had always been a fast talker and, with Christian and Kai on his side, he’d managed to wheedle his way in with a few heartfelt words and £10,000 worth of body guards. Still, he wasn't a platinum member, and in all likelihood he’d never reach gold card carrying status.
Why? It was simple – he wasn't among the chosen.
Without being one of the chosen, there was little chance he would ever be more than he was now - half in and half out. Even though he was instrumental in getting him a seat at the table, Christian didn’t respect his place in the Tribe. Moreover, Zack pretty much loathed him, Kai was obviously more interested in Zack than Ben, Lexy was indifferent, and he was pretty sure that Raven didn’t even know he existed. He would forever be on the periphery of greatness.
Because the rest of the Tribe were chosen.
They'd been transformed into immortal gods with magical powers in Raven's elusive tattoo studio. They had been tasked with saving the world from evil, and they had done a admirable job too.
Ben wasn't tasked with fighting evil. Sometimes he even thought he was evil, though he’d never admit that to anyone else.
After returning from the desert, Ben spent his first week in the unappetising, but familiar, surroundings of his parents' home.
He had slept in his childhood bedroom, woken beneath his old Batman bed cover, and spent seven empty autumn days listening to music and waging online war against all comers, all the while studiously avoiding his feelings.
Even the familiar stony silence at the breakfast table had been a comfort to his frazzled nerves.
In that house, with Ben in residence, his parents were locked in a silent battle of mutual self-loathing. With Ben gone they could almost imagine they’d never had any children and managed to live an uneasy truce. But Ben was living a nightmare of their making, and he could hardly be blamed for the family misery.
It was their damned fault. If they hadn’t sent Mel away she would have been fine, and they wouldn’t all be living under a shadow of the past.
Mel had been three years older than Ben. He’d been five when she was sent off to school and seven when he’d walked behind her tiny white coffin in a bourgeoise statement of parental guilt and grief.
Yes, Ben would give them that. His parents had missed her when she was permanently gone. Pity they’d sent her away in the first place then, wasn’t it?
Mel had never been a strong swimmer. When they were kids, they went swimming in the river running through his parents’ estate on lazy summer days, and Mel had always been the last one in and the first out.
But, because of his parents, Mel had been completely alone that night, hadn’t had her tiny brother to watch over her when she’d ventured into the freezing school swimming pool on a dare.
Ben had loved his older sister with a child’s ferocity. When he lost her, he’d been certain he would never love anyone again. He’d built a wall around his wounded heart and not a single person had ever broken through it again.
That was until he met Christian. The two boys had met at the grand old age of eight in a primary school playground, and slowly, with his loving carelessness, Christian had achieved the unachievable and won a place in Ben’s broken heart.
His time at home had become unbearable, and Ben decided to head back to his flat. As he walked the last mile or so from the station, he tried calling Christian. Instead, he managed to rouse Patsy, Christian's ditzy mother, who huffed in irritation at the interruption before lazily assuring him, 'Don't worry, little friend, I'll be sure to tell him you want him to come out to play.' He would try again later, he decided. She wasn't exactly the reliable sort.
He was bone-tired, always was when he spent a few days in the mausoleum, dragging his feet as he drew closer to home. On top of the usual Richmond malaise, he hadn't been sleeping well after losing Pax and Echo. It would pass, he knew that, but he needed to track Christian down so they could embark on their next adventure.
Wandering up Lavender Hill, staring into the overstuffed charity shop windows and passing the local coffee shop Chris loved so much, he considered how much easier things would be if he really was part of the Tribe. If, like the others, he had been chosen rather than having to elbow his way in.
He had killed a man, point blank with a handgun. How did one come to terms with that?
If only his insomnia was due to killing the man, he could at least talk to someone about that. But how did you tell someone that you weren't sleeping, and walked the streets of London in a daze, not because you were traumatised by what you'd done or what you'd lost, but because you had enjoyed it.
His personality was perfectly suited to the task, Ben thought as he continued his slow progress along the street. Having lost someone so dear at so young an age, something seemed to have cracked inside him. Or perhaps it had never been there in the first place? But what he did know was that people had died on the icy wastes of Antarctica and he could hardly raise the energy to care – even about Pax, who’d been one of the Tribe, or Echo, who he’d held in his arms as the blood spilled from his body.
Of course, there had been shock at his first kill. But shock had turned quickly to satisfaction, even elation. And then, he was embarrassed to say, to glee.
Oh well, he thought. It was late, and he was almost home. There'd be plenty of time to pick over the bones with Christian tomorrow if he was back from Oxford. Chris was someone he could tell; he would help him sort this out, because that was what they did for each other. They had been friends when they were still wearing short trousers and it was cool to pull pony-tails, and had even stayed in touch after Chris was expelled from primary school.
He smiled thinking about it. Christian had arrived one morning, near the beginning of the autumn term, and refused point-blank to sit facing the teacher at the front of the classroom, saying he learned better facing west. Rather than rearrange every classroom in the school, Christian’s parents had been asked to move their unruly child before the rest of the kids got ideas.
Ben had never been expelled from school even though his behaviour was no different than his friend’s. Ben was a consummate actor, and so far nobody had seen through his facade except Christian, who loved him like a brother and cut him a great deal of slack. Well, and perhaps Deshi, who didn’t really take to him on his one visit to the Desert Training Facility. Kai had told him that Deshi read minds and, if that was true, Ben wasn't all that surprised at his reaction.
Looking up, as he neared his building’s front door, he noticed that the familiar red interior of the estate agent's office was uncharacteristically dark. Odd, he thought. They usually left the lights on, even at night.
It was a small detail, irrelevant one might have thought, but it prompted him to study his surroundings a little closer, focus on the faces of passers-by, and that's when he realised he was cornered.
Of the twenty or so people in his field of vision, at least ten of them were Settlers. Not to say Settlers were unusual to see on Lavender Hill - they tended to live in the wealthier parts of town, so there were plenty of them in the neighbourhood - but they didn't hang out on Lavender Hill in the dark, on a Tuesday evening.
Making a quick decision, he darted left into an alley and broke into a run. He could double back to the welcome anonymity of the busy Clapham Junction station and disappear into the crowds. But he was too slow, had noticed too late, and when he rounded the end of the alley he ran straight into a clenched fist.
He collapsed onto his back, head slamming to the pavement.
What the hell!
Before he had a chance to register anything more than the cold concrete beneath his palms, a blunt-faced bruiser of a man with long, greasy dark hair and a scar down the right-hand side of his face, leaned down, grabbed him by the collar and lifted him straight up into the air with one hand.
Another guy took hold of his hands, fastened his wrists behind him with a zip-tie, then shoved him unceremoniously back against the hard brick of the alley wall.
'Stay there,' grunted his attacker, turning to the second guy, a carbon copy of himself. 'Get the van. I'll be at the flat.'
Startled as he was, Ben knew he must not let them get him into a van. He'd watched enough crime drama to have that well and truly jammed in his brain. If you got into a van, your chances at escape became close to nil.
The guy who had him rammed up against the wall, feet dangling, holding him triumphantly aloft with one hand and grinning a snaggle-toothed smile, waved a nasty looking blade in his face.
Ben had no experience with knives but knew he had more of a chance against that single blade out in the open than he did against who knew what in the back of a van. This might be his only chance.
The bruiser dragged him back through the alley by the throat with Ben kicking out at him and rubbing his burning wrists along the brick every chance he got, hoping to snap the plastic that held them fast.
At the head of the alley, the man rifled through Ben's pockets for his keys then hauled him over to the front door and into his building’s narrow communal hallway. He held the door open with his foot while keeping Ben pressed back against the wall by his throat, starving him of oxygen.
The other man edged in through the door with a nervous look on his weasel face, a large square cardboard box balanced on his palms and announced, loud as you please, 'Here's the bomb. Where shall I put it?'
Ben, knife still to his throat, could feel the blood dripping down his fingers from the open wounds at his wrists. But he could also feel the ties that bound him stretching and easing. Given a few more minutes, he might be able to work his wrists free.
'Shut up, idiot,' barked Bruiser. 'No need to tell the whole bloody world.'
In desperation, Ben ran his hands up and down the wall a few more times while kicking his legs at his attacker and wriggling in his grip. The way the guy held him was cutting off his oxygen. He didn't have long.
'Stop struggling, pipsqueak,' the man grumbled. 'Stay still!’ He shook Ben by the neck and waved the knife in front of his face.
Ben's vision began to fade and he struggled for real then, frantically rubbing his wrists and kicking out uselessly at his attacker who turned to his friend and said, 'Put it over there on the shelf and let's get the hell out of here before someone sees us.'
But, at that moment, Miss Evans came wandering down the stairs, humming a Beethoven sonata in her usual distracted way.
Bruiser dragged Ben down the wall and whispered, ‘Act cool or the old lady gets it.’
'Oh, what on earth . . .' she exclaimed, startled out of her reverie. 'Oh, it’s you Benjamin! You gave me quite a scare,' she cried, continuing along the corridor. Ben did his best to summon a smile, as instructed, while a completely oblivious Miss Evans squeezed past the three of them on her way to the front door.
Bruiser and his pal did their best to look invisible, waiting for the old lady to be on her way so they could continue with their plan, whatever it was. Ben knew this might have been his only hope for escape and he wasn’t about to waste it.
As Miss Evans swung open the door, with the last remnants of his fading energy Ben kicked his attacker as hard as he could right between the legs.
It was a girl’s move, but he was desperate, and Bruiser had a good hundred or so pounds on him anyway. The man stumbled and doubled over in pain just as Ben's wrists snapped free.backward
Grabbing for the door swinging shut behind his neighbour, Ben had almost made it through when he felt something bump against his side. No time to think about it, he burst through the door and out onto the street, praying they wouldn't take his escape out on the hapless Miss Evans, who was standing a few feet further along the pavement rummaging distractedly through her handbag. She had rescued him without even knowing it.
Ben could hear running feet and shouts behind him as he legged it up Lavender Hill. They might have the numbers and the firepower, but he knew this place like the back of his hand. It took him no time at all to disappear into the evening party-crowd, slip into another alley and escape. He threw a last glance back over his shoulder as he rounded the corner at the end of the alley and spotted Bruiser directing a group of Settlers to look for him. But Ben certainly didn’t plan to hang around and be discovered. He bolted away from the action and was long gone before Bruiser had even recovered from his bruised nuts.
Ben walked for what seemed like hours but was probably nearer thirty minutes. He'd crossed the Albert Bridge into the centre of London and was staggering along Chelsea Embankment when the adrenaline began to fade, and he at last noticed the sharp pain in his side which seemed to worsen with every step. Putting his hand to it he noticed his t-shirt was wet. Looking down he could see blood smeared over his fingertips.
He stopped in his tracks. Shit! Turning to face the embankment wall, hiding himself from view as best he could, he lifted his shirt to see the damage. There was a small knife-sized puncture wound to the right-hand side of his abdomen. It was pumping out blood at a disturbing rate.
Not good. This was not good. He needed to get to , but his head was spinning, and he wasn't certain where the nearest hospital was.hospital
I'll just take a breather here, he thought and slid gracelessly to the ground. How much blood had he already lost? Yeah, just for a moment while I regain my strength. He tipped over onto his side, blood pumping out of him and forming a pool on the ground.
He was certain the goons had been sent by Seth. It was funny to him how he'd survived that epic battle in Antarctica, helped stop Seth's plan to melt enough ice to sink all the coastal cities on the planet, but he wouldn't survive a haphazard kidnap attempt in his home. And, of course, he wasn't one of the chosen, so he wasn't invincible.
Of course, he wouldn't have been in this position if his best friend Christian hadn't been transformed into an immortal god, Hagalaz, earlier in the Summer. He'd told Ben that gods and Guides bestowed their powers on humans whenever there was a grave threat to the planet's future.
This time the threat had been from the alien Settlers, and Christian and his Tribe had been instrumental in saving the world from the threat. And what's more, the Settlers had turned out to be not from another planet, as they had originally said, but were visitors from a disappointingly dystopian future.
And now Ben was alone on a London street, dying. The blood was still pumping out of his side and there wasn’t a soul in sight. He was used to being alone. Other than his friend Christian, his cat-loving neighbour, and his online gaming community, Ben barely spoke to a living soul from one week to the next. He wasn’t afraid to be alone, but if he was dying, which he was pretty sure he was, he would rather do it with Christian, or at least in a place where Christian might find him before the rats did.
If he hadn't forced Christian's Tribe to accept him, a mere mortal, into their group, he wouldn't be in this position, drawing his last breath prone on the filthy pavement. But he wouldn't change that decision for all the tea in China. He might be dying now, but he'd had a blast. Enjoyed every moment of it.
No . . . Don't give up.
He needed to get to a hospital. He couldn't rest here all day and hope someone would save him. That’s just not the way his world worked.
Clambering to his feet, Ben imagined it was Christian and the Tribe who were pushing him forward, telling him to keep going.
He walked slowly, unaware of the direction he was taking. He certainly didn't notice Bruiser trailing along behind him. He just focused on placing one foot in front of the other with his conjured Tribe encouraging and pestering him to keep going. But all he wanted to do was sleep.
He felt like he'd been walking forever, eyes down, watching the blood seep between his fingers and drip onto the pavement. Then, suddenly, his conjured Tribe stopped prodding him to walk. He looked up. Had he made it somewhere?
He didn't recognise his surroundings but as he leaned against a railing, taking a well-earned rest, he noticed a neon light in the window of a nearby basement.
He stumbled down the steps, collapsing in a heap at the bottom in front of an old, half-glazed door. The neon sign above it blinked Innocent Ink on and off, on and off.
Could it be? Had his Tribe brought him to Raven?
On his knees, he grabbed for the door handle and shoved it open with all his remaining strength, then crawled over the threshold.
Stumbling forward on his hands and knees, he headed for the door behind the counter at the rear of the shop, but only made it a couple of feet into the room before collapsing on his face. He'd just lie here for a moment.
With one eye open, face pressed against the floor, he could see that the walls, the surfaces of the counter, and even the ceiling were all plastered with designs and weird mystical voodoo-type symbols. He'd never been here before, but he'd heard Christian describe it and he hadn’t exaggerated. It was a mess, totally over the top. Not at all Raven's style.
Raven was austere and monosyllabic, minimalist in his biker-chic signature black, while the walls looked like the reflexive purging of an artistic soul.
On that thought, Ben closed his eyes for the last time. The flow of blood stopped. And so did his heart.
Raven opened the door from the back room with no particular emotion and certainly no sense of impending doom. If he had to guess, he imagined another wide-eyed teenager, probably a girl, and definitely a cool Rune god. Never in a million years would he have imagined the scene before him.
Sprawled on the floor of his shop, lying in a pool of congealing blood was Christian's mouthy friend, Ben. Raven strode over to take a look. Grabbing Ben's hand, he couldn’t feel a pulse. Same with his neck.
'One of you better choose him,' he said to the room in general. ' he's a goner,' which wasn't that much of an issue to Raven, other than he'd have a lot of explaining to do when Christian found out.Otherwise
Grabbing Ben's wrist firmly, he dragged him further into the room then nudged him with his foot.
'Yeah, and you better hurry up,' he said, scratching the back of his neck. He didn’t like the idea of being the one to tell Christian his best friend was dead. Not in the least. 'I'll get the blame,' he mumbled. 'No doubt about that.'
He waited. The room was completely silent, seeing as the kid wasn't breathing. He'd never noticed how quiet this part of town could be at night. Weird.
Okay, so maybe he did care - the kid was okay. Not his favourite, but not the most annoying either.
Come on. Come on.
Should he do something? Only a handful of times had he cared enough to save a dying person, and he definitely wasn't going to reminisce about that right now. Not today. Not when he was going to have to explain this shit to Christian.
'Are one of you mothers going to claim this kid?' Raven growled at the walls, staring up at the tapestry of designs. In the thirty he'd owned the place, he'd never been so frustrated with his store.years
'One of you tricky fuckers has to want this kid. He's as bad as Chris, probably worse. He's impulsive, argumentative, he has no respect for authority.' Raven paused, thinking about Ben, now almost certain he wasn't going to make it.
'Oh, and he seems to like killing people,' Raven told the walls, remembering a conversation he had with Deshi.
At the walls responded. Ben's body jerked on the floor, flipped onto its back and then his face spasmed in pain as his bloody shirt seared from his body and a tattoo of four inches long, four wide, appeared on his chest and over his heart. If he’d closed his eyes for more than five seconds he would have missed the entire thing.last
Raven never tired of these moments – well, not the moment some kid began writhing in agony on his floor, although he didn't particularly object to that – when a Guide, a godly being, burst through from some other dimension and claimed a new life in this one.
But the Guides followers, Raven thought, watching dispassionately as Ben thrashed on the floor. Whoever appeared would be a handful, maybe not on the Hagalaz scale of crazy, but they were both in for an interesting night.weren't rule
That was Raven's last thought before he was smashed against the back wall and held there, dangling by his throat, invisible fingers squeezing the life out of him. His feet were kicking involuntarily and his head was pressed hard to the ceiling.
Raven squirmed, forcing his head forward so he could look down at Ben, who was sitting up, staring at him, a confused look and an angry frown warring for dominance on his face. As Raven choked – his hands grabbing and pulling at an invisible wrist that had him pinned by the neck – Ben shook his head like a dog shaking out tension or shucking off , and as he did, the hand at Raven's throat smashed him left and right against the wall. With a look of interest, Ben shook his head again, with the same result, and Raven spotted a spark of something ancient and devilish cross Ben's young face.water
Losing interest in Raven for a moment, Ben shifted his attention to the hole in his t-shirt. As he did, the invisible hand released Raven's neck and he slid down the wall to his ass on the floor.
Shit! Who the hell claimed the kid?
Usually he could tell right away but, what with the distraction of Ben already being dead, he hadn't spent much time looking at the image on his chest. Speaking of which, a glazy-eyed Ben was now brushing his fingertips up and down over the newly made tattoo in the same way Kai would when she was doing that healing voodoo of hers.
Ben's attention moved to a place on his right side where blood was smeared all over his skin. He poked at it in a detached way Raven didn't much like. What was up with the kid? Why wasn't he saying anything?
'Kid?' he croaked through his damaged throat. 'You okay?'
Speaking had been a bad idea. The kid's wild eyes swung to him and Raven was forced to meet a furious stare he recognised all too well.
'Ta'xet? Oh . . . shit.'
'Wha-' Ben shouted as all hell broke loose. Raven was lifted up off his ass and thrown at the plate glass window at the front of the studio. It smashed as he impacted, and he flew through it, hitting the stairwell wall behind. His neck broke on impact and he sat there for a moment, head hanging loosely to one side as his immortal body did its work. Still inside the room, Ta'xet, conscious for the first time in maybe a decade – which wasn't all that long if you were a god, so he had no reason to complain – destroyed Raven’s beloved tattoo parlour.
He watched as invisible talons scraped down the walls, tore the counter out of the floor and swung it round in invisible hands. By the end of it, the ceiling was mostly on the ground and Ben was sitting on his ass in the only undamaged spot on the floor.
'Raven,' he called in a confused voice. 'Why . . . why do I want to kill you so badly?'
Despite what the kid probably thought, Raven was going to answer. He was going to tell him that he could fix it, they could fix it together, they just had to find Tia. But before he could, Ben's eyes grew wild again. He scowled, shook his head again and roared, 'Get ready to die, bird!'
He didn't get ready to die.
Instead, he moved his hand to his tattooed chest, and with a one-word message for his Raven guide, he said, ‘Weapons!’
What appeared was a sword – he could work with that – and he wasted no time charging through the window and into the store. He wasn't worried he'd kill Ben, there was practically zero chance of both of them getting out of this alive and, with Ta'xet on the warpath, Ben's chances were a lot better than Raven's.
But what choice did Raven have? He could hardly leave Ben and his maniac passenger to roam the streets of London without Tia’s calming influence. This was his duty, his purpose.
He launched himself at Ben only to be thrown through the air. As he flew, he watched in horror as the skin peeled from his right arm, exposing the muscles and bones beneath.backwards
'Oops,' Ben said, smiling with wonder as he peeled the skin off Raven's other arm. It was the kid’s voice, not Ta’xet’s. Ben was connecting with Ta’xet far too easily. Why?
Whatever was happening, he needed to defend himself. And two could play at Ta’xet’s game. Ignoring the pain radiating from his forearms that now also radiating down his back and neck, he projected a thousand spiders running at Ben, swarming him like a black cloud of death.was
With luck, Ben and Ta'xet hadn't yet fully connected and he could get through to Ben.
'What's happening?' came Ben's puzzled voice followed by a furious, 'I'm going to tear the skin right off your bones!'
'Ben, try to calm down,' Raven instructed, watching as Ben fell to the floor and writhed, lashing out at imaginary spiders crawling in his hair and biting his face and chest. 'And whatever you do, don't use that disgusting imagination of yours. You're going to get us both killed.'
Having rid himself of most of the spiders, Ben was now huddled in the corner of the room, slapping at the odd remaining arachnid and staring madly around, as if looking for a way to escape.
'Don't go anywhere!' Raven ordered. Ben's eyes swung to the door and he clambered to his feet. 'I need to tell you about –'
'Sorry dude. I need to get the hell away from you. All I can think about is killing you!' Ben shot across the room, climbed out of the broken window and ran up the stairs.
Raven fell to his knees and sighed.
Yeah, he liked the kid. He was thinking and he was lateral. You could tell that by the way
he'd passed Zack's test in Oxford and how he handled himself in the Antarctic.clear
Never met a kid so calm in a crisis. But it looked like he was uncontainable too. Raven hoped like hell that was a trait Ben could work because Ta’xet needed containing big time.on,
Yeah, Ben was a slippery one. Raven had never quite worked out if he was a good influence on Chris or a bad one, and by the time shit started hitting the fan and Seth had kidnapped the whole damn lot of them, it hadn't really mattered anyway.
In a moment he'd get up and go after him. He hoped he'd have time before Tia arrived, for Ta'xet was one of a pair. He was the Haida god of violent death and his other half, his better half as far as Raven and the rest of civilization was concerned, was Tia, the goddess of peaceful
Ta was by far the most powerful god Raven had ever met, more powerful than even he was. But he was destructive as hell, and when he had transformed last time, the only thing that held him back, kept him sane – as short time as that was - was Tia. Tia had to be coming soon, and Raven needed to get ahold of Ben and drag him back to this studio so he would be here when Tia appeared.x
The last time Tax had appeared, he'd transformed Raven's closest friend, and goddess Tia had chosen the love of Raven's life for a host. Ta’xet might be furious with Raven, but he wasn’t particularly happy with the god either. Ta’xet’s choices had set off a dangerous series of events that had turned Raven’s whole universe upside down.
No, it wasn’t just that. Ta’xet had taken everything from him.
That was Raven's last thought as the room drew all its pieces back together in front of his eyes, spun , and the bell at the door jangled.a full three-hundred-and-sixty degrees
Tia was here.