The Damned Canal
Ben always thought of it as "the canal", because near the city center there was one big trench that ran from Canal Street along Drainage Road. But grown-ups called it "the Canals", because as the trench moved east it split into a winding maze of ditches and flood runoff that turned in all kinds of crazy directions. That's where it used to be part of a delta, something to do with the river, until people dammed the river. The dam emptied the river into the "Top Fork", which was one straight line of water north of town.
When Ben was just a little kid, he used to think they'd 'damned' the river. That was a word he'd heard a few times since learning to talk-- but boy, had it made an impression. When most people used it, they didn't mean it. Not really. His mother didn't believe in Hell, but his grandfather had told Ben all about it. He'd had nightmares about it since he was four years old.
When he was eight, Ben's sister got her nose pierced. Around the same time, she started yelling about how the evil city had made the river 'hungry' and barren, and how it had gotten so hungry the banks were 'armored'. All because people had damned it. She screamed about how because of all mankind's evils, the river was going to sink beneath the earth and all the fish were going to die.
It was too much for Ben to deal with. His head swam with visions from his grandfather's stories. He imagined squirming caverns full of twisted fallen creatures, somewhere deep and dark, fallen soldiers with armor and weapons torturing desperate souls. Tears sprang to his eyes and he just couldn't listen anymore. "Why the fish?" he blurted out. "What did the fish ever do wrong!"
His sister stared at him, then started to laugh. Ben ran upstairs and locked himself in his room, crying his eyes out because it was all just so unfair. If fish got damned, what chance did he ever have? Everything he did seemed to be wrong. He was afraid of bedtime that night, because he didn't want to dream about the fish. Eventually he cried himself to sleep, and never talked about it again. His sister's teasing eventually let him on to what it meant when a river was 'dammed'. He felt stupid, and he was angry about the whole thing, even now.
But looking around "The Canals", Ben wasn't so sure 'damned' wasn't the right word after all. The further down the trench Nathan led him, the worse the smell became. Ben had to step carefully-- what had been damp clay and silt alongside Drainage Road was now an oily muck with an almost silky sheen on it. And not the pretty kind of oil-sheen, where you see peacock colours on the pavement where somebody parked a leaky car. It was the kind of sickly sheen that made silty water look kind of like mucus.
Ben tried to think of the right words to describe the colours he was stepping over. Words like "yurple", "bleige", and "gred". Words normally reserved for those really nasty multi-coloured bruises Ben got when he was doing something he really shouldn't do, bruises that taught him life lessons the abrupt way. If any fish had ever lived here, maybe it was kinder that they were dead now.
Just because people damned the river, as it turned out, didn't mean the canals stayed empty. Every time a big storm came along, a torrent of water would run through the city, filling up the storm drains in a matter of hours. Then everything would wash into the canals. Eventually the city just gave up and made new drains that emptied into the canals directly. The canals became the unofficial emergency storm drains. In civics class Ben sat through lectures about how all the runoff was making the canals deeper and deeper without putting any silt back from upstream. There was stuff about the water table, and a lot of other things that Ben assumed were bad. Whatever the reason, the canal had an unspeakable stink for days every time there was a really bad rain. But eventually that went away, and Ben didn't really bother wondering where it went.
Now he knew. It all went here. And died. Because this had to be what it smelled like where stink itself went to die.
They'd made so many turns and crisscrosses along their path that Ben had no idea where they were. The only landmark in sight was one of the big storm drains, half-clogged with muck Ben couldn't look at for too long. He wasn't exactly known for a strong stomach. Ben didn't know why he wasn't gagging yet, but figured that just about anything else that came along would probably set him off. Nathan already hated him enough. He wasn't going to add "puked on my shoes" to the list of reasons for that.
Nathan stopped abruptly. He turned to look over the ditch they were in, and the warming sky beyond it. He closed his eyes, and then opened them slowly.
"We rest here."
"I don't get it," Ben complained stuffily, struggling to breathe through his mouth. It wasn't better. Now he was keenly aware of just how much he could TASTE the canals. "We're trapped like rats if anyone finds us here. It's not safe."
"Exactly," Nathan said softly. His eyes drifted closed again. "Which is why it affords us a few moments to rest." He rocked slightly back on his heels, a halting sway that betrayed his fatigue. "Use them."
Ben shoved his hands in his pockets. There was nowhere here he wanted to sit, or even touch enough to lean on. He wasn't sure how to rest here, at all.
"Our enemies aren't good at creativity," Nathan continued. His voice dropped to a low drone, a soft monotone that made the world seem to slow down around them. Even the breeze seemed muffled, as though the air itself were struggling to move past that sound. "The unexpected is the only weapon we have."
Nathan sank into a crouch, his weight on his toes, his rump practically resting on the upturned backs of his heels. It was a stance that had originally seemed weird to Ben, not quite a squat, more of a perch. In just a few days that stance had gone from unsettling to comforting. Ben couldn't really put words to why.
"It buys us time," Nathan said, sounding almost drowsy now. The air got heavier around Ben, and he felt his own heart getting slower and slower. "That's all it can do."
"Time for what?" Ben blinked, hard, trying to clear the fog settling over his senses. His eyelids felt so heavy, and he wondered how long he'd really slept in that alley.
"To collect yourself," Nathan replied simply. His head was bowed, and there was a subtle change to his voice. It had a way of taking on different tones, all at once, like it was almost harmonizing with itself. The wind had begun to pick up again, and the pressure around him was easing. Ben rubbed his eyes. A black haze was closing over his vision, and he could hardly see past it.
When he opened his eyes again, Nathan was staring past him. Those strange blue eyes were lit up again, with a cold fire that burned straight through Ben. They just kept getting brighter and brighter.
"To reach the center of the spirit," Nathan continued, the tones in his voice getting richer as they wound around one another. "which knows neither hesitation nor remorse." As the words were spoken, Ben's heart dropped into his stomach. This felt like his nightmare, only so much more vivid, so undeniably true. There, carved into Nathan's forehead-- that swirling symbol had appeared, as though burnt black into the flesh. The sight of it sent chills down his spine, but he couldn't tear his eyes away. The more he looked at it, the more Nathan's face seemed to change. And if it kept changing, like in the dream--
"NO! STOP IT!" Ben's scream seemed to break the spell. He ran, as fast as he could. He could barely keep his footing on the slippery muck, but he didn't care.
"What's wrong?" Nathan asked, bewildered. "That shouldn't scare you any more than when I told you--" Something seemed to occur to him. He rose, worried brows knitting where that symbol had been. "You saw something!"
Ben didn't look back. He scrambled along the canal wall, grabbing at slimy mud and protruding roots to try to keep his balance. He couldn't think of anything but getting away from that sight, from the awful things it dredged up in his mind. They were dreams! Just dreams! He didn't remember anything! He kept telling himself, over and over, repeating it like a prayer that might just be granted if he kept the faith. They were only dreams. Only dreams. Because if they weren't...
"Ben, it means they're close," Nathan was yelling after him. "Come back here!" Ben couldn't look back. If he looked, he might see. If he saw, he might remember. If he remembered--
"You've got to trust me, or..." Ben shut the words out. He was almost at the edge of the ditch now, where it crested into the wider canal. "... Ben?..." Nathan took a halting step forward.
"Ben, wait!" Something in Nathan seemed to give way. He ran after the boy. "Don't you get it?" He sounded worried, but Ben couldn't look back, couldn't stop. Every cell in the boy's body just wanted to be anywhere but here. "You're being used!"
A blur of gray and purple flew by Ben's peripheral vision. Ben flinched away from it, but kept running. Behind him, it connected with its target. A foot planted itself firmly in Nathan's chest, the other poised to follow it. Rather than flinch, Nathan grabbed the man's left elbow with his left hand.
The force of the man's kick drove Nathan back-- and yanked the man's elbow down with him. The attacker found himself twisting in the air. An answering mule-kick from Nathan's left foot was already connecting with the man's midsection, an impact that should have driven the air from his body. Nathan let go of the man's arm, letting himself drop to his left-- his right leg followed the spin, crashing hard into his attacker's shoulders. He dropped his left arm to get what leverage he could from the ground before he fell-- Nathan's kick smashed his attacker into the canal wall.
Nathan's shoulders had barely touched the ground before they were yanked up again. A pair of arms hauled him up roughly. The strength of that grip threatened to twist his arms out of their sockets. Nathan didn't make a sound, though his eyes squeezed tight with pain. He yanked his head back, trying to smash the guy in the face with the back of his skull. The headbutt failed to connect. Nathan thrashed, both legs kicking furiously. The man behind him just kept hauling on his shoulders. The force of that grip was enough to choke the circulation from his arms-- his fingertips were turning blue where they met the black shadow of his nails. He looked down. Green sleeves. Huh.
Another attacker. Nathan looked up just in time to see a third guy aiming a clumsy chopping blow at his abdomen. This one was in red and gray, but the basic design was the same as the first guy's, like they were in some sort of uniform. They were wearing some kind of masks, like fetish or wrestler gear. Nathan didn't have time to analyze it. He let his body collapse around the next blow from Red, going limp in the Green's arms. Nathan slipped his left foot back, hooking his foot around Green's ankle.
Another punch sailed towards his chest. Nathan threw his weight to his left, pulling Green off balance. He brought his right leg up as high and wide as he could, using Green's trapped ankle for a pivot. He whipped his right shoe smack across Red's face, throwing himself down and back against Green's chest in the process. Red's chin spun around, and his body went limp beneath him.
Nathan sagged, all six feet five inches of him suddenly converted to dead weight. Green lurched backwards. A momentary lapse in that iron grip was all Nathan needed. Nathan twisted to his right, diving for the muck. On his way down, he jerked his chin up, blue eyes searching for any sign of Ben on the horizon.
Ben was far closer than that. He'd stopped at the mouth of the ditch. Someone was standing with him. To anyone who might be looking, she might have appeared to be a young woman, a few years younger than Nathan himself.
To everyone who actually was looking, she was something else entirely.