By Sarah Greeley
The Void Walker
The Misfits Series, Book 1
Zahal knocked three times on the iron doors. They towered disapprovingly over him like two soldiers at attention, refusing to take notice of a lowly peon such as himself. He had, of course, tried to open them first; the heavy metal hadn’t budged. Nothing was ever easy.
The sun blazed down on him, the heat searing through his threadbare shirt and into his skin, making his still-swollen eye hot and tender. His jacket, draped over one arm, was slick against his sweaty forearm. His instincts screamed at him to get out of the heat and find somewhere cool—and safe—to hide out. Stay away from other people and from the giant burning ball of gas in the sky.
But he lingered in front of the badly rusted doors, surrounded by an equally rusted set of twenty-foot-high walls. An ancient looking sign hung from a metal fixing next to the doors, its wording just readable: Lord Baron’s Institute for Misfits.
It made his stomach turn, that name. This place. The thought of putting himself at anyone’s mercy. But he had to know what was happening to him. What had happened to him. It wasn’t safe for him out here anymore; that much had been made painfully clear.
Or for others.
The sun reflected off of every surface, scalding him from all directions as though to articulate just how unwelcome he was in the world. Maybe this… place… really was where he was supposed to be.
It was his last hope, anyway.
The walls that were connected to the imposing doors and which encircled the property might have been painted white at some point, but their upkeep had clearly been neglected for years; the paint was stained orange from rust and peeling so intensely that he was shocked it still adhered to the metal at all. The rough, hot metal scraped and burned his knuckles as he knocked again.
He pulled his hand away, waiting, listening as the hollow echoes faded away. He rubbed the back of his neck, trying to squeeze the tension out. He pinched a bruise and winced instead.
A butterfly fluttered among a few scrubby weeds while he waited, mocking him with their enjoyment of the sun, like the rest of the world. Fine. He was used to mockery.
He wiped sweat from his brow and suppressed a scowl; making a good first impression was vital. If you managed to make a good first impression, people usually put up with you for longer before deciding you weren’t worth the effort. Besides, scowling used facial muscles, which still hurt from the night before.
He craned his head, listening for any sign of movement behind the doors, but it was like watching a photograph. No sigh of sound, no twitch of life, nada. He looked around for the hundredth time, searching for some shade while he waited for someone to open this godforsaken door. But it was midday, and this part of Seattle was industrial and barren. He sighed and kicked a pebble across the asphalt with his shoe, dribbling it in front of him while he paced and waited.
A colony of ants marched in a neat line across the pavement, industriously dismantling an old pizza crust. Hundreds of tiny black soldiers trailed drunkenly back toward their queen, contributions held aloft in victory. He imagined their cheers as they returned home from their quest.
His thoughts trailed back to reality. What if the Institute was no longer around? Or worse… what if he’d imagined it all along? Being led here, to a place he’d be safe—finally. It sounded like a pipe dream if he’d ever heard of one. But becoming delusional and imagining things that weren’t really there? Now that sounded a lot more realistic….
He knocked again. Louder. He banged his whole fist desperately on the doors, the vibrations kicking back down his arm painfully. He shouted at them and kicked them. Across the street, an elderly man and his daughter gave him a disapproving look and hurried to get to the next block.
He opened his mouth to shout again—it had been surprisingly cathartic—but stopped short. A faint clicking noise was coming from a rectangular attachment on the apex between one of the doors and the wall: an intercom.
He rushed to the speaker, an odd mixture of relief and anxiety washing through him with this first sign of life from within the metal-encased Institute. Someone was already speaking to him, but the static made the words difficult to understand.
He tried to push the button on the intercom, but it didn’t budge. A sudden, irrational fear that whoever was on the other side would leave if he didn’t respond immediately pierced through him. He jammed his elbow into the button hard, and sent a silent thanks to the hospital for updating his tetanus shot as he felt the skin scrape off on the box’s rough edges. This time, the button yielded to him.
“Hello?!” he shouted. “Can you hear m—?”
“Lower your voice!” a stern male commanded, the static finally clearing. Zahal snapped his mouth shut automatically, and the voice continued. “Stand in the aureole for your entry assessment.”
A pause. Then: “The circle near the center of the gate.” The voice was gruff, impatient.
Zahal’s eyes trailed away from the intercom and toward the double doors. A faded outline of a circle, just large enough for one person to stand in, had appeared on the ground in front of where he had knocked. He stepped over the perimeter, and immediately wondered if he’d done something stupid. What had the man meant by “assessment”?
But it was too late now.
As soon as both of Zahal’s feet were on the ground inside the circle, its edges began to glow softly, as though lit from beneath. He sucked in his breath as a wave of something washed over his entire body, beginning with his toes. It felt like his circulation had been cut off—but the tingling sensation of his muscles waking up was everywhere, and not just skin deep. It ran down through the muscle fibers and into the very marrow of his bones. All the tiny hairs on his neck and arms lifted suddenly, as though charged with static electricity. It buzzed uncomfortably. No, that wasn’t quite right. He buzzed uncomfortably. And then, the feeling washed back out of him like a wave receding back into the ocean.
The circle stopped glowing, and the gates swung open.
The man who greeted him was short and fat, dressed in ill-fitting khakis and a white lab coat. His face was drawn and peaked, eyes hidden behind oval-framed glasses darkened by the sunlight. He looked almost exactly like one of the doctors who had treated him and it was completely at odds with the image Zahal had conjured of who had spoken to him over the intercom. Behind the man, dilapidated institutional buildings loomed in the distance, disused and uninviting. He hesitated, his brain telling him to run away from this place as fast as possible.
But. A faint shimmer rippled across the view and across the man, and for a moment, Zahal saw something much grander, richer, and more welcoming beyond the gates. The ripple stilled and the colorless scene superimposed itself once more.
“Welcome, Zahal Ikusi,” the man said. His voice was quiet but filled with steel. “I am Lord Baron. You may enter.”
Lord Baron? What was this place—a relic of medieval times? Zahal almost snorted in laughter, but then he remembered his manners and responded reasonably instead.
“How do you know my name?”
“I know many things,” Baron said, reminding Zahal of a sage he’d once seen in some fantasy movie he’d sneaked out and watched after his foster parents thought he was asleep. “The circle you stood in—”
“What did you call it before, the ‘aureole’?”
Baron frowned at the interruption. “Yes. The aureole is designed to reveal truths about those who stand inside of it. Your name is one of those truths.”
“What else did it tell you?”
“That you are like others here, ill-equipped for survival in the outside world. A Misfit. That you do not come here with violent intentions. That you seek safety. And that you could belong here.” Baron motioned beside and behind him with one arm, indicating the complex and its presumed inhabitants. “But only if you wish to belong. So, Zahal. What do you wish?”
The need for answers washed through him at the question, so fierce that he had to fight to keep his facial expression under control. First impression, he reminded himself. He needed to look and sound as sane as possible.
“Something happened to me earlier this year,” Zahal said, choosing his words carefully. “I had an accident, and went missing for a while. But I can’t remember what happened or how I got back. All I know is that I’m different now. But I don’t know how or why… or what to do. I need to find out what I am. Can you help me do that?”
Baron considered him for a moment, then nodded curtly. He turned and began walking toward the complex. “Come in, then,” he said, almost an afterthought. “Those doors won’t stay open much longer.”
As he said the words, the gates began to creak and close. Zahal took one last look at the empty city street behind him, crossed his fingers, whispered a quick prayer to his mother, and darted through the doors just before they clanged shut.
When he stepped over the threshold, everything changed. He felt the strange tingling sensation again, much sharper than before—almost painfully so. But it disappeared almost immediately this time, like he had pushed past an invisible curtain.
His eyes widened as the tingling subsided. He blinked and found himself somewhere entirely different than where he had been a moment before. The asphalt had transformed into a winding gravel pathway. Along the edges of the path, lavender and white heather bloomed as Lord Baron passed by, then became shy again after he’d gone. And Lord Baron himself had changed, too. Suddenly, the voice fit the man: tall, broad, un-bespectacled, and carrying himself with the air of a practiced commander. Instead of an institutional uniform, he wore a dark tailored suit, contrasting him sharply with the natural environment.
Zahal hurried to catch up with Baron’s long stride. Coral and gold sugarbushes blossomed in Zahal’s wake, just as the lavender and heather had for Baron.
The run-down, ramshackle structures he had spied from outside had disappeared, replaced by dozens of well-aged stone and brick buildings, each surrounded by brilliant foliage. One of the buildings featured expansive and intricate stained-glass windows, but it was too far away to see the details.
“What is this place?” he asked, his voice barely more than a whisper.
Lord Baron paused, looking back over his shoulder incredulously. “What do you mean? You knocked on the door and asked for my help. Why don’t we start with you telling me what you do know?”
Zahal crossed his arms and shrugged. He wasn’t used to the business of getting all the details about the people and places who agreed to take him in. You didn’t get to be picky when you grew up in the system. You just went where someone might want you—or at least tolerate you. He averted his eyes from Baron’s searing gaze, suddenly very interested in the gravel.
“I just… I heard that I might be safe here. For people like me.”
Lord Baron barked a short, hard laugh. “Interesting. Tell me, Zahal. How did you come to learn even that?” The gravel crunched beneath the big man’s feet as he turned around.
Zahal forced himself to meet Lord Baron’s assessing eyes. “Someone I met in the city gave me this. It was meant for his brother, but he’s dead now.” He pulled out the crystal, holding it up so Baron could see. “It pulled me here.”
“He gave it to you?” Barons eyes examined the crystal, but he didn’t try to pull it away from Zahal’s grasp. “Or you took it?”
Zahal shrugged. “His brother died years ago, and the man had no need of it. It was just a charm to him.”
Baron grunted, the familiar notes of disapproval in his tone. “I see. Did this man know anything else about The Institute? Where it is located or what we mean when we use the word ‘Misfit’?”
“Does it matter?” Zahal asked. He regretted his sharp tone the moment the words escaped his lips. Baron’s eyes narrowed into dangerously thin slits.
“It matters, Mr. Ikusi,” he said. “If the person who told you this is not a Misfit like us, that’s a liability for everyone here. We survive through secrecy. You may have noticed our nondescript façade. That is not a coincidence.” He pursed his lips and motioned back toward the gates. “Controlling who knows about us out there is what keeps us safe.”
A shiver of fear ran down Zahal’s spine, and he tried not to flinch, tried to press all the violence of recent months from his mind. “It was just some homeless guy remembering his dead brother. He didn’t know anything, not the name or the address. He wouldn’t… he’s not a threat.”
“Anyone can be a threat.”
“I… I know.” His ribs, still bruised, ached with the knowing. “But not him.”
Baron studied his face, then spoke a little more softly. “I believe you believe that. Even so… we will have to keep a closer eye on the Outside, for a while at least.” Baron turned around and began walking down the path again. They were halfway across the green now, and Zahal could see a few other people going about their business—coming out of or going into buildings, walking along other paths, striding purposefully from one place to another, peeping out of windows to watch him and Lord Baron approach.
“What does it mean, to be a Misfit?”
Baron glanced down at him. When he spoke, his voice no longer had the dangerous edge. “We call ourselves that because we aren’t normal, and this world does not accept us. This, I think you’ve discovered on your own. But a long time ago, there was more magic in the world. Once, we weren’t persecuted for our abilities. We were praised for them. Young people such as yourself could apprentice with older, experienced individuals with similar abilities, learning how to hone and maximize their gifts.
“But as our numbers dwindled, common folk began to fear us. Then they began to kill us. We went into hiding, even from each other. Generations passed. Eventually, almost our entire history was lost—reduced to a few children’s bedtime stories and prized tomes here and there. While some of us can learn how to use our gifts in isolation, many cannot. It’s dangerous for everyone. I created the Institute to give others the opportunity to live and learn among other magic users, protected from the Outside. To be a Misfit here means to be a part of that community.”
Zahal thought about the false façade and the aureole he had stood in. “They can’t get in,” he guessed. “They can’t see what’s really inside. And the aureole somehow detects whether or not they are magical. Doesn’t it?”
“Perceptive.” Baron came to a full stop at the foot of a flight of stone stairs attached to one of the outermost buildings. “It’s a good start. You’ll need to learn caution, too, I think.” He motioned to the stairs. “There is an unoccupied apartment on the second floor, three doors down on the right. I suggest you spend the rest of today getting oriented. Tomorrow morning, you will meet your mentor and get a work assignment.”
“Mentor? I thought you said—”
“We’re not a large community, but magic has endless possibilities. Your mentor will be someone experienced enough that they can help you to control and use the basics of your gift safely. Or in your case, help you discover what your gift might be. As for your work assignment, we’re a community, not a charity. Everyone who lives here contributes. If you have any special skills, you’re welcome to tell me about them now. Otherwise, I’ll put you where help is most needed.”
“No… no special skills. I can do whatever.”
Baron nodded. His lips thinned as he took in Zahal’s ragged appearance. “I’ll have some clean clothes brought up as well. Oh, and one last thing. If you brought in any outside electronics—they are useless here.”
Zahal held his arms out from his sides. “That shouldn’t a problem.”
Baron’s watchful eyes bored into him for a few moments longer. “Everyone has their reasons for coming here, Zahal,” he said. “For some, the Institute offers safety. For others, it’s a chance to learn control. And a few, like you, need to make sense of something. Maybe it’s a combination of all of the above. Regardless, there is one thing here that is non-negotiable: safety. If any member of our community endangers another, there will be serious repercussions.” He enunciated every word with razor-sharp precision, the undercurrent of his tone icy, unemotional, and foreboding.
“I built the Institute as a haven, and I expect it to stay that way.” Movement caught Zahal’s eye as Baron spoke. Something was happening to the air around him; it seemed to thicken and warp. He reached out to touch it and pulled back with a sharp gasp as he received what felt like a massive electric shock.
When Baron spoke again, his voice, outside whatever forcefield surrounded Zahal, sounded distant and hollow. Metal, the same kind the stair railing was made of, snaked up from the ground and circled around Zahal, like a python about to coil around his body and squeeze the life out. “But if need be, I will use my powers for whatever means necessary to keep the Misfits here safe. Do we have an understanding?” His voice was a low, threatening growl.
“Yes, sir,” Zahal said, barely managing to bring his voice louder than a whisper.
Baron nodded once, and both the field and snaking metal seemed to wink out of existence. “Good. Then make yourself at home. I’ll see you again soon, Zahal.” Baron turned and strode away, further into the Institute and out of sight.
Zahal made his way up the stairs warily, keeping his hand off the metal railing.
The apartment was small, but it felt like a mansion. It was furnished with all the essentials: bed, couch, desk, chair. A kitchen, though there wasn’t any food in it. And—thank whatever gods might exist—a shower.
Had everything been magicked here, or did Baron have things brought out from the Outside, anticipating new arrivals? Some items looked completely ordinary, like they’d been ordered out of an IKEA catalog. Others were recognizable but subtly different. The lights, for one; they almost looked like paper lanterns, but their source of power was a mystery. No cords or batteries. They floated in the air of their own accord and stayed wherever he placed them.
How do I turn you on? he thought, turning one over in his hands in search of a button or switch. The lantern flared to life between his palms, a soft glow. He looked around the room at the other lanterns. On, he thought. They answered his call, bathing the room in light.
Off. The lanterns obeyed his command, dimming instantly. The corners of his mouth quirked up, and for a moment, he felt a childlike glee wash over him.
Magic has endless possibilities, Baron had said.
So. Magic. It was a word that Zahal hadn’t consciously allowed himself to use when thinking about himself. Magic was a thing for kids. Fairy tales created to entertain and teach children moral lessons. An escape from reality or a reimagining of a better one. That’s what he had always believed.
And yet… how could he describe what had happened to him that day, the sporadic and terrifying moments he had remembered since, without believing in some force that could only be explained by this tiny, childlike word? How could he see this place, Baron, even these lanterns without believing it was real?
The only other option was to believe that he had, in fact, lost his mind. That was what others had whispered about him, and part of him wanted to believe them. It was the logical explanation. Yet, here he was. Either everyone else was mad, too, or the impossible wasn’t so impossible after all.
“I’ve waited a long time for someone like you. I had begun to think it was impossible. That all the others had died, and I was all that was left.”
She holds onto him lightly but possessively, grasping his arm at the elbow. He tries and fails to suppress a shudder at the sight and feel of her. Long black hair streaked with gray. Deep brown eyes darting back and forth, tracking sounds he cannot perceive. Lean muscle pulled taut beneath her skin. She is not unattractive, but there is something not quite right, not quite human about her. Maybe it is just the fear of this place that makes him expect that she will suddenly shed this disguise and release the predator lurking beneath.
She sees his reaction and sighs.
“You’re exhausted, I can see,” she says. She seems sad, all of a sudden, which oddly makes him feel a little safer. “Rest, then. I won’t let any harm come to you. We’ll talk after.”
He is too tired to argue, so he sleeps; but nightmares plague him. He runs aimlessly in the dark, unseen claws ripping at his clothing. Something slashes his arm open, and he cries out. Blood pours from the wound, thick and black as night. He stumbles and falls and does not have the chance to make a sound before they are on him, ripping him apart.
Zahal woke suddenly. His sheets were plastered to his damp, over-warm skin like a parasite. He shot up in bed, disoriented and fumbling, flinging the covers away from his body. His breath came in rapid gasps. But then the cool night air spread over him in soothing waves, calming him just enough to remember where, and when, he was. He groped for his journal on the bedside table only to find that he had no bedside table. Cursing, he rolled out of bed, fumbling around for his one important belonging as precious details of the memory-dream slipped away. By the time he located the journal, remembered to think on at the lantern, and sat down at the desk, it was all gone.
He stabbed at the paper with the pen, racking his mind for something, anything. He could feel the edge of it, skulking just out of reach, taunting him. He scribbled angrily on the blank page, willed himself to remember—but nothing came. When his pen ripped through the edge of the page, he growled in frustration, flinging it and the journal off the desk and across the floor.
He sat for what felt like hours, forehead resting on his hands, eyes glaring at the dark surface of the alien desk. Eventually, the adrenaline rush passed, his heart rate returned to normal, and his breathing slowed. He turned the lantern off and he laid back down in bed, falling into an exhausted but dreamless sleep.
It had been 103 days since the incident.