Shades of Gray

Submitted by Mapache on Sat, 1998-04-11 00:00

This is a really old piece of in-game fiction I wrote. In retrospect, it's pretty bad—my adjectives were out of control, and half the thing consists of "As you (don't) know, Bob…", but here it is for completeness.

"Bless me father, for I have sinned…"

Father D'Angelo looked up to see the breathless youth who had moments before come running up to the great iron doors of the church, only pausing as his feet crossed the boundary of sanctity. This was Mario, a troubled lad whom life had not deigned to treat kindly in recent years. "Should we not go to the confessional, my son? This aisle hardly seems a fitting place…"

"No, Padre, I have to speak to you now. I, uh, ay Dios, where to begin…" Mario stood before the older man, wringing his hands in anguish, his eyes incapable of looking up to meet the priest's gaze.

Taking note of the youth's state, Father D'Angelo felt that now was not the time to bring up the accidental blasphemy on his charge's part. "You seem to have a great weight on your shoulders. Come, sit down and tell me what is on your conscience." As he spoke, he gestured at the nearby bench with his left hand while placing his right upon Mario's shoulder and guiding him on.

Mario could feel the priest's hand gently gripping his shoulder, the old man's thick ring pressing into his back. He had often asked the Father why he wore the strange anulet formed from three braided serpents of various metals, and had always been met with the reply that it was simply another form of the trinity. As his thoughts focused on the ring, he felt reassured by the mere presence of the priest, as if the holy man were exorcising his fear and helping him to think clearly. Mario seated himself cautiously and exhaled deeply, expelling his nervousness along with the stale air. He had noticed this on other occasions as well, but Father D'Angelo had always brushed him off, claiming that it was only Mario's own will focusing. Nonetheless, he now found his voice, though not entirely free of trepidation. "Well, I was walking home and I was minding my own business but these three guys came running up the sidewalk around the corner so fast and I couldn't get out of their way and one of them crashed into me and we both went flying and this package that he was carrying ripped open and all these funny bags fell out and they didn't look like they had anything legal in them, being all wrapped up in brown paper like they were, so I kinda looked away and started backing up but then the guy looks at me real mad-like and yells that I'm an asshole and that I should watch where I was going and it wasn't none too smart but you know my temper and snapped back that he was the one running and bumping into people, so who's he calling an asshole and then he snarled like a loco dog and jumped at me, but I rolled out of the way 'cause I'm so fast and all, and then I turn back and he's pulled this knife and I panic and slug him a good one across the jaw before he can do nothing and he goes flying back into the wall and there's this sick crunch when his head hits the bricks and he just sorta slumps over funny like and I see all this blood pouring down the back of his shirt but before the other two can jump me, this police siren starts up and they look real scared and take off the way they were going, and I start thinking that here I am with this dope or something and this guy that looks dead, 'cause I don't see him breathing or nothing and here come the cops, so I just turn and run down a a side street and then I was real scared and I came here to ask you for help because I don't know what to do and what's my mamacita going to say…ay, what have I done?." With those words Mario at last slowed and sunk his face into his hands, moaning. "Ay, ay…"

D'Angelo absorbed the entire story as quickly as it shot out from the boy's mouth. Mario had a temper that was too quick to anger, and his tongue often got him into more trouble than it should, though his boxing skills kept the number of people that actually confronted him physically to a minimum. Still, at heart, he was a decent lad. He had gotten into serious trouble in the past, but now he had buckled down and would be graduating from school the next year, and his recent hard work would pay off in the form of a scholarship that would let him go to the university. That would please his mother, who wanted her son to rise above the poverty that had plagued his family for generations. Above anything else, Mario feared upsetting his mother, who had shattered like a dropped vase six years ago when Mario's father had died, and had never quite managed to come together again. After a few more moments of contemplation, the priest replied. "Mario, calm down. This is very serious, but stop and look over what happened to you today."

The boy looked up and composed himself to the point that he could listen.

"It's true that someone else might not have provoked this man to a fight like you did. Then again, it seems that this man was neither kind nor in a state to make good judgments, so perhaps you did the right thing and merely prevented him killing you. Only God knows for certain." Not strictly true, thought D'Angelo, there's several less important than Him who could tell you with a very high degree of accuracy, but no need to confuse matters. "You certainly didn't mean to kill him, if indeed you even did. You say you didn't have time to check, correct? And that you were in a state of panic anyway? Perhaps you only hurt him, though badly. Head wounds tend to bleed a great deal, you know…"

Mario took in the priest's words. "Hmmm, perhaps…"

"In any case, I think you'd best not tell your Mother about this incident. It could only cause her pain. I assure you that the proper authorities cannot help but know about this, though it is good that you choose to confide in me. Now, I want you to go home and not let this interfere with your schoolwork. You must do your best if you wish to earn that scholarship and make your mother proud. There is much potential in you, my son. Calm your temper and do not let your destiny end with a knife in a dark alley."

"Well, alright, if you think that—but what about those other two men? Or the police? Won't they come looking for me?" Mario seemed quite perturbed by this new realization.

"Trust me, my son, when you've lived as long as I have, you learn to tell how people will act; they will not trouble you. I can guarantee it." D'Angelo flashed one of his special knowing grins to Mario, and the boy was quite certain that the priest was right. After all, he'd never been wrong before when he claimed to know the answer to something that seemed impossible to determine. Mario reminded himself that those in the service of God probably had some special concessions granted to them.

"Well then, I guess I'll be heading home, Father. Thank you for helping me." Mario levered himself up and out of his seat, and headed for the church door, feeling much sobered and perhaps somewhat wiser.

"Think nothing of it my son. This is what I'm on this earth for, after all…" Father D'Angelo called out after the boy.

He turned back to the book he had been perusing, picking up at the exact point he was when interrupted earlier, and kept reading. He eyes had not advanced half a page when he felt a strange disturbance. At first, he thought it nothing, but then he sensed it again, a distant, muffled beating, the sound of wardrums thundering in the far-off distance, but getting steadily closer, closer, like an advancing army. D'Angelo tensed, he had heard this tune before, this was not any wardrum, but one very particular one, not an army but just as formidable. No sooner did these thoughts flit through his mind than he sprang into action. The discarded book tumbled down to the floor, and there was suddenly no sign left of the priest that been reading it moments before.

Mario was walking home with the steady determined gait of one who knows his way so well he no longer has to think about it. His mind was still mulling over what the priest had told him, and thus it was understandable that he failed to the see the dark hulking figure lurking in the alleyway entrance, and that he was completely taken by surprise when a meaty olive-skinned hand reached out and gripped his shoulder-length greasy black locks, causing an explosion of pinpricks of pain across his scalp when it proceeded to pull him off the ground entirely. Mario instinctively swung around to fight off his assailant, but even his swift and powerful punch was stopped by the hand's counterpart reaching up and taking a hold of his wrist with lightning speed, then proceeding to twist it in a most uncomfortable fashion. As Mario appraised the brute before him, he lost all thought of fighting back. The man must have been seven feet tall, with arms at least a half a foot across. His broad brown face was easily the ugliest one Mario had ever seen, and his eyes were enormous black pools that lacked any whites, yet they were clearly capable of sight, and seemed to be drilling into Mario, as if they were reaching past his exterior and peering into the very depths of his soul. Mario had never been more genuinely afraid in his life.

"Murderer." Issued the thick lips. "You killed a man and walk home tonight thinking to escape justice."

"Hwe, whu, yeu…" Mario stammered, but was silenced by the glare of the other's eyes, an overpowering look that seemed to be saying, "I know you better than you know yourself, there is nothing you can say to make me change my mind. Nothing." As Mario hung there twisting by his roots, the other let go of his wrist and reached down to his belt, out of Mario's sight, drawing back up an enormous bronze knife, wickedly curved and caked with dried blood.

"This is the lifeblood of murderers before you. Prepare to add yours to it!" He reared back his hand as if to deal a single blow that would sever Mario's neck, and was about to strike when a sudden shockwave reeled through Mario. It was as if every atom in his body was screaming and trying to flee in a thousand different directions at once, as if every sensation possible were flooding into his brain simultaneously at an intensity far exceeding any found within the world of reality, as if he were being compressed into a point while also being the source of the exploding chaos reeling about him. As suddenly as it came, it was gone, leaving him stunned and groggy, yet alive. He was lying in the trash in the alley, and the brute who had held him was a few feet before him, stumbling to regain his footing. The sharp rapport of a revolver rang out, its noise a mere pindrop compared to whatever Mario had just experienced. As if in slow motion, he saw a hole sprout in the other's chest, and a small burst of blood sprayed out, narrowly missing Mario.

Another bullet struck the man, and Mario finally noticed their source. At the head of the alley was a tall woman with flaming red hair tumbling about her shoulders and a white trenchcoat covering her lithe body. Her two hands were firmly gripped about the butt of a pearl-handled revolver, which she was unloading at full tilt into Mario's assailant.

"You bitch!" Roared out Mario's assailant, jumping to his feet and charging towards the woman. Despite the numerous holes now in him, his rough-cut clothing showed very little blood, as if the wounds were miraculously healing almost instantly. As the brute sprinted toward her, she realized the futility of her weapon, and cast it aside, rearing back her head as she did so. When it snapped back, she let fly an enormous wad of black spittle, straight at the bridge of the other's nose. "Ghyaaaaaagh!" The huge man immediately fell to the floor, screaming and writhing in agony and clawing frantically at his eyes. Mario could hear a faint sizzling noise under all the din and soon picked up the stench of burning flesh; he didn't think he wanted to know what was in that spit.

Without warning, the man vanished. Mario blinked in astonishment, and suddenly made out before him an even larger black figure, sprouting enormous purplish wings from its back. It flew directly at the woman, whom Mario now looked at, only to find that she had been replaced by a ghostly green apparition of herself, complete with little stubby horns at her temples. She let fly a vicious kick, catching the dark horror across what passed for its face, gouging out a fair-sized chunk of him. As it spun through the air, Mario saw it crumble to pieces and disintegrate entirely, leaving no trace whatsoever. The two forms were now locked in mortal combat, each rending madly at the other, though it seemed quite clear to Mario that the combat in its new incarnation was definitively going to the woman, who seemed to be both faster and stronger than the dark one now. For every one of his blows she got in three, and the wounds she inflicted looked far more ghastly than the few the winged monstruosity was doing to her. Mario thought it was a good thing that she was winning, as she had yet to demonstrate a desire to kill him.

He feebly attempted to stagger to his feet and escape this nightmarish scene, but he was still too exhausted and groggy from the blast earlier. So, he resigned himself to wait out the fight from the dubious comfort of his current position; his wait was minimal, for the combat was over almost as quickly as it started. The dark one was tiring noticably, when the woman lunged forth in flurry of motion, driving her hand into its chest with brutal force, tearing forth a glowing object of some sort that looked vaguely heart-like, and proceeded to crush it in her fists, shattering it and scattering tiny glowing shards in all directions. Mario watched in awe as the other collapsed to the ground and splintered, disappearing into dust, but leaving behind the body of the brutish man who had started the whole incident just minutes before. Mario was certain that it was only minutes, although while watching he had felt as if the entire event had taken much, much longer. When Mario looked back up to see in what condition his apparent savior had pulled through, he found her reverted to her former more substantial state, leaning against a wall, gasping and wincing in pain, but seemingly none the worse for the wear. Then again, Mario had a strong feeling that things were not that simple any more. "Are you okay?"

She noticed Mario staring, and straightened up, almost managing to suppress a grimace as she did so. "Yeah, I'll be fine. C'mon, we need to get out of here." She turned to slip back through the alley's mouth, Mario instinctively following her, and they fled the ruined scene. Once they had gone several blocks, she plopped down into a conveniently-located shaded bench, motioned for him to join her, then turned to him and spoke. "Damn, I guess I have some explaining to do. Have a seat, Mario, and I'll start from the top—"

"Hey, how'd you know my name?"

"What, you think I was just wandering about aimlessly and happened to chance upon you and Mr. Ugly? I was coming to save your ass, something which I distinctly do not do for everybody." She jabbed a finger half accusatively and half-sarcasticly at Mario's sternum. "Incidentally, the name's Angelique." She extended her hand, and Mario took it in his, giving it a good pump, then withdrawing. "As I was saying, from the top. You've of course heard stories of angels and demons and all, right?"

"Yeah, who hasn't?"

"Well, with good reason—they're true." Mario would normally have objected, being what he considered a fairly rational if not always level-headed person, but the events of the past quarter hour had upset his normal measures of what is believable and what isn't. "Celestial beings really are sneaking around your little world, and generally mucking about in its works for the promotion of whatever side they're working for—"

"And you're some kind of guardian angel sent to protect me from that vicious demon that attacked me back there, right?" Mario was quite pleased with his deduction, for all of two seconds.

"Wrong! Sorry to disappoint you, but I'm no angel. The divisions between good and evil are seldom as clear cut as you humans would like them to be. If good lined up on one side of a line and evil on the other, then we could just have Armageddon right now and get things over with. The whole point of the universe is to sort out the good from the evil. Right now, everything's a big, mixed-up mess. I, technically speaking, am a demon—" At this, Mario shrunk back with an almost instinctive aversion. "Whoa, hey hold on there, I did keep you alive and in one piece, right? You saw what I did to the incredible hulk back there, right? So, if I wished you harm, you'd already have been harmed, so chill." Mario shifted around uncomfortably in his seat. "As I was saying, that's a technicality. I was handcrafted by Lilith herself, who specializes in nice made-to-order demons for your personal purposes, and was initially contracted out to Kobal, the Prince of Dark Humor, who bestowed my name on me. (Like the irony?) However, the daughters of Lilith are notoriously independent, not unlike their mother, and I didn't like working for others, so I managed to cut a deal whereby I just owed a few favors here and there in exchange for having been created, and once I worked them off, I became self-employed. So, I am not a member of Lucifer, Inc., if that eases your conscience." Mario relaxed somewhat, but remembered the notorious lying habits of demons, and wondered if this strange woman would demand something in exchange for saving him, like his soul.

"So, was that thing that attacked me a demon that was working for the devil?" Mario was getting more and more confused by the minute.

Angelique exhaled sharply, but converted her chuckle into a statement. "Oh, boy, nothing could be further from the truth. That, my dear little companion, was an angel."

"He seemed awfully violent and sinister for an angel, if you ask me…"

"Most Malakim are. They're broom-up-the-ass high-and-mighty bastards, and each of them has their own personal nitpicks and pet peeves which they laughingly refer to as a code of honor. They think that they're the only ones among the angels who are too pure to ever fall and become demons, but, if you ask me, they've already fallen, they're just retained by Heaven due to their utility when the Divine authorities need the occasional ass kicked. That was a particularly nasty bastard by the name of Uzriel; I've had the displeasure of encountering him on previous occasions. He had some oath or other about "Suffering not a murderer to live", and certain parties had gone to great lengths to get you into a position this afternoon where you could unwittingly commit a murder." Mario stared in disbelief. Why him? "Yup, those three toughs you met earlier were pawns of a conspiracy to frame you for murder so that Uzriel the Ugly, who just happened to be passing by, would rub you out. And when he's done rubbing, he leaves some very nasty smears behind."

"But why? What have I ever done to anyone?"

"Nothing. It's not what you have done to anyone, it's what you might do."

"Huh?" Mario was now convinced that nothing would make sense today, and that he should have just stayed in bed that morning.

"You see, all people have potentials. The best, most wonderful thing you can ever do is your destiny. The most evil and destructive thing you can do is your fate. Not all people live up to this, that's where free will comes in. No matter what your limits are, it's still up to you to meet either your destiny or your fate; that's the one place you humans trump both the Divine and Infernal. Some people have boring potentials, some people have luminous destinies, some people have terrible dark fates, and you my friend have both!"

"Whoa…" Mario was having trouble absorbing all this at once.

"If you work hard and stay in school, you can go to college, and then become a lawyer, but you'll be a very special one, one with a conscience. You'll know about what it's like in the parts of humanity that get left in the dusty corners of the world. You'll know that there's a lot of people out there that are this close from rioting through the streets killing anyone with any means of making a decent living and plunging this whole nation and much of the world into bloody civil war and revolution, and you'll do something about it, something constructive. If you just play your cards right, you'll become a senator one day, and do many great things to help many, many people who really need it. That's your destiny. Impressive, huh?"

Mario was too stunned to speak.

"I'll take that blank stare as a yes. The problem is your fate. If you screw up, you'll spend the rest of your life in this decaying sprawl. That is, until you get fed up and realize that there's more of the dispossessed than the possessed, and decide to use numbers to your advantage. You could start that bloody war that kills millions and destroys what you people term the advances of civilization in many parts of the world. So, therein lies the problem. There's certain individuals on both sides that think the chance of you achieving one of these potentials is too great a risk to their long-term plans, so they're trying to eliminate you."

"But, what if I actually help them, either one?"

"Apparently something they're not willing to gamble on. Between you and me, word on the street is that the attempted hit today was orchestrated entirely by powers above. Kinda eye-opening, no?"

"Ok, I guess I get all that," Mario scratched his head quizzically, "but that still leaves one question—where do you fit in?"

"Like I said, I'm big on independence. In fact, I consider myself the official guardian of independence, and neither know nor care if either side acknowledges that ('cause, hey, you know, I'm independent of their stinking domains). And, I think that trying to take you out is mighty unsporting of them, so I'm just trying to make sure that you can live long enough to make your own decision, though an informed one, I would hope, after today. Don't worry, I have faith in you." Angelique winked at Mario and reached across the shoulders to pat him. As her hand touched his back, he felt a familiar bump, and looked to his right to see that on her third finger was the same braid of metal serpents. He turned back to ask her about it, but she was already nowhere to be seen.