Maven looked at Gregory. He looked angry.
It didn’t matter what emotion his face was wearing; Gregory was always gorgeous to Maven. Gregory could look beautiful if he was crying, yelling, or laughing. Each emotion just enhanced his beauty. Though of course, the fact that he was still giving Maven the finger did put a damper on things.
“How nice of you to drop in,” Gregory said. “I would offer you something to drink, but I’m afraid I’m a little tied up at the moment.” He wriggled his hands to illustrate the point. His attempt at humour made his eyes narrow and Maven realized how angry he really was.
“It’ll be okay, babe. We got this.” Maven said.
“Oh, so this is you getting it?” He rolled his eyes. “Thank goodness, I was sincerely afraid for a moment!” The vein on the side of his head pulsed like it did when he was livid. Maven wanted to run over and pull Gregory to him, tell him that everything would be okay, except there was a shadow that was taking over the room.
Amidst the twinkling lights, ornaments, and presents that sat wrapped under the Christmas tree, there was a shadowy shape taking up most of the room. Even as the shadow moved and shifted in front of them, there was a vaguely man-like shape within the clouds of shadow. Tara moved in front of Carley and Maven.
“I take it you’re Max Shadow,” she said.
“Very well ascertained. What gave it away?”
“The fact that you look like a fucking ink blot, maybe?” Carley said.
The shadow man let out a short laugh that sounded like footsteps over broken glass. “You’ve got a sense of humour. That won’t make a difference, but I do appreciate the bravado.”
Maven moved closer to the mass of darkness. “You wanted me to come here, now I’m here. What do you have to say for yourself?”
“Only this: leave me alone and stay out of matters that don’t concern you,” the shadow said.
“See, that’s where you’re wrong. You and Cracklepuss have kidnapped children and you got my attention by holding my boyfriend hostage,” Maven said.
“I’m not your boyfriend,” Gregory said.
“Stay out of this,” Maven countered. “The thing is, we’re all involved.”
“And we’re pissed!” Carley said. “I mean, what kind of scumbag kidnaps children at Christmas?”
The shadow man let out a laugh that sounded like nails on a chalkboard. “Well, we did obviously.”
“What do you want with them?” Tara asked. She was narrowing her gaze, and Maven knew that she was trying to look into his mind even though he wasn’t asleep. Maven could also see the moment she met the wall that Max Shadow had put up around himself, because her eyes widened and then she scowled at him. Normally, people would melt under that scowl, but not the shadow man.
“Like we’re going to tell you anything. Just stop looking for me, stop looking for Cracklepuss and let us get our work done.” Max said.
“I don’t get it,” Carley said. “You go through all the trouble of holding Gregory hostage just to get our attention?”
“Seemed like a good idea at the time, what with Captain Maven Man over there poking his nose in where it isn’t wanted and all of you trying to find Cracklepuss. You won’t find him; I’ve hidden him well. You won’t ever find out what we’re up to either, so you can quit bothering us.”
“Is this the first time you’ve been at the rodeo?” Carley asked. “You do know how this works, don’t you? You do something horrible and then we kick your ass. It’s this game we superheroes like to play, you see.”
“And yet,” Max Shadow said. “We’ve just gabbed like a group of friends over the comforting sounds of a fire. None of you have tried to do anything. I felt both of you trying to get into my head. It won’t work, you know.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Maven said. He held out his hand and his staff of light appeared, the crystal at the top already full and bright. The light burned through the shadows that surrounded Max and they melted away as if they were made of liquid smoke.
“Stop it!” Max Shadow said. “What are you doing?” He tried to gather the shadows in his arms as if the shadows were his children and he wanted to keep them safe. They continued to melt, and they stained Gregory’s rug like black tar.
Making the light as bright as he could, Maven moved closer to the shadow man. He sent a bolt of light at the shadows that moved and writhed on either side of Max Shadow, and they withered and screamed as if the shadows themselves were alive.
“Stop it!” the shadow man cried. “Stop it please!” He tried to gather the dust that the shadows had become, tried to pull the fragments up off of the carpet, but they disintegrated in his hands. “Please, you’re hurting me!”
Maven shot another bolt of light at him, taking out two more shadows that screamed when the light touched them. “You want me to stop?” Maven asked, letting yet another bolt fly taking out the shadow that had been trying to curl around Max’s arms. Max was holding his arm close to himself as if to protect the shadow. “You infiltrated the home of the man I love and have been working with a known villain to kidnap children. I don’t think I’m going to stop.”
Maven turned up the light from his sceptre another notch so that the light was all that could be seen. The rest of Max’s shadows fled, and Maven saw him as he really was. Max Shadow was just a man. He looked older than he should have, as if something had aged him prematurely. He had sandy-coloured hair and scruff on his chin as if he hadn’t shaved in a few days. His eyes were black as if made of darkness, and he wore a ragged coat over a threadbare shirt with a pair of ripped jeans. He was actually starting to whimper.
Tara, Carley and Maven took in the actual face of Max Shadow and Maven made to move closer when the light on his sceptre began to flicker, throwing the room into light and shadow. That was all that Max needed. They watched as the shadow man reached into the shadow nearest him and pulled himself into the temporary darkness. When the sceptre of light came back on again, Max Shadow was gone.
“Shit!” Maven said. “Sorry guys, I’ve never had the brightness up that high.”
“That’s okay, Maven. We learned a lot tonight,” Tara said.
“Yeah, like we can defeat him with light!” Carley said. “And he can be hurt!”
“What about what I learned?” Gregory said.
They all turned to him in shock. Maven ran over and untied the ropes that were binding him to the chair. “Gregory, I’m sorry, I should have untied you!”
He grimaced. “Whatever,” he said. “But you might be interested to know that they are kidnapping children because they burn the brightest. They want their light.”
“But the shadow man was repelled by it,” Tara said.
“Yes, but look at what Arnold’s light did. They want to harness it. A child’s light is the most powerful.”
“How do you know all of this?” Carley said.
“He called this crackhead guy from my phone. Just hit redial if you want to talk to him. Better yet, you can go and collect him. He has the children staying in a large warehouse out on Queenview Drive. Apparently, they’re driving him crazy. And stop looking in my fucking head Carley. I’m telling the truth.”
“But how do you know all of this?” Maven asked.
“He may be full of fucking shadows, but that idiot likes to talk a lot. He called Cracklepuss and they got into an argument over the phone. Crackhead said that the shadow fucker shouldn’t be taking time to deal with you, that all that mattered was the children. He was standing next to me, so I heard the whole conversation. You’re welcome.”
Gregory turned away from all of them and looked at his ruined living room. The walls looked as if they had been covered in soot and his Christmas tree was smoking slightly. There was a tar-like substance on the carpet.
“Um, you have a…very beautiful place here?” Tara said.
“You can just go, the lot of you.” Gregory said. “And none of that just disappearing through a fucking mystical portal. Use the goddamned door like everyone else.”
“Gregory, I-” Maven began.
Gregory held up a hand. “I am in no mood for whatever you have to say.” He pointed at the door. “Go. Now. Please.”
They all shuffled towards the door and Gregory held it open for them then slammed it behind them. Maven stood there shellshocked. To be so near the man he loved and to be treated like that, after saving his life.
“It’s okay, honey!” Carley said. “Look how well that turned out!”
“What are you talking about?” Maven asked.
“Well, Gregory said please! That’s got to be a step in the right direction, doesn’t it?”