Ares leaned back on his chair, his face becoming serious. “I think it’s time we had a little talk.”
“Oh yeah?” said Cam, his eyes narrowed in suspicion. “The last time we met, you told me that the reason why those wolfspawn had attacked and killed my friends was because of me. I was just twelve years old, I’d just seen my best friends brutally torn apart and I was still in shock. You dumped a crap load of blame on me, convincing me that it was my fault they were dead. Do you have any idea what that did to me?”
Folding his arms, Ares fixed his son with a hard and calculating look. “Wolfspawn are attracted to the divine essence given off by Scions and they’re used by the enemies of the Gods to track down and eliminate Scions who haven’t yet come into their powers. Those wolfspawn were hunting you, so what I said was true. If it wasn’t for you, those four people would still be alive today.”
Orin suddenly felt a shiver, causing him to back away from the table involuntarily. Waves of anger were flowing out of Cam, his father seemingly oblivious to them. The boy’s eyes positively burned with barely suppressed rage. The spirit had never seen his charge look like this. “That’s not what I’m talking about,” Cam said through gritted teeth. “You knew those things were in the area, you told me yourself back then that you’d been tracking them. But for some reason, you were just a little too late save my friends, a little too late to stop me from getting this,” Cam lifted up his hoody to show the scar across the chest, “but just in time to save my life by playing the big damn hero.”
“What are you saying?” Ares asked quietly.
“Cam…” Orin said carefully, worried about what the boy was going to say next.
“I’m saying that you could’ve stopped the wolfspawn if you wanted to but you didn’t. You wanted Andy, Ben, Toby and Mr Harris to die. You as good as killed them yourself. For all I know, you probably planned the whole thing!” By the end, Cam was on his feet yelling at Ares.
The god slammed his fist down on the table, the force of the blow reducing it to splinters. “Boy,” he roared, spittle flying from his mouth, “I could crush you like an insect. I am your father and you will treat me with respect or by Zeus, what I do to you will make Prometheus’s punishment look like a reward.”
“Just because you banged my mom fifteen years ago, don’t give the right to call yourself my father!” Cam yelled back. “I’ve known junkies that made better dead beat dads than you.”
“INSOLENT WHELP!” Ares jumped out of his seat and struck Cam across the face. The force of the god’s blow knocked the boy off his feet and sent him flying across the room. He crashed through the front window, landing in the car park and startling the gang members sitting on the bonnet of their car. They drew their guns, unsure of what was going on, but preparing for trouble all the same. Ares climbed through the window carrying his sword, the metal tip scraping across the concrete.
Cam lay dazed on the ground, blood dribbling from his mouth and missing a tooth. He opened his eyes to find his father standing over him, the features of his face distorted by a ferocious rage. “Dumbass,” he thought to himself, “you had to go and anger a war god didn’t you.”
At the broken window, Orin watched on, conflicted. Ares was his lord and master and he was honour bound to obey his orders and wishes. One of those orders was to stay with Cam and watch over him, protect the boy from harm. Now, Ares himself was threatening to harm Orin’s charge. If Orin did nothing, he would be disobeying an order to protect Cam. If he intervened, then he would be violating his oath to his master. The guardian spirit didn’t know what to do; then he remembered what Cam had said to him less than an hour earlier.
Ares raised his sword above his head, poised to strike at his son lying prone at his feet. “This is it,” Cam thought, his eyes closed and his arms shielding his face. The expected blow, however, never came. He opened his eyes to see Orin standing over his body, the wolf spirit’s fangs bared and growling at Ares. For a moment, no one moved. Then the expression on his father’s face softened. He lowered his sword and stepped back.
“Lord Ares,” one of the gang members said, “is everything okay?” The god waved his hand dismissively and the gang members stood down.
“Lord Ares? Since when did bangers talk like that?” A confused Cam asked, looking between Ares and what he had assumed were just simple gang members.
“Einherjar,” Ares said by way of explanation, an explanation that didn’t really explain anything as far as Cam was concerned. “A gift from my Norse counterpart. Wonderful warriors, loyal to a fault. Bit too fond of mead for my tastes but that’s Vikings for you.”
“They don’t look like Vikings,” Cam said glancing at the Hispanic-looking gang members.
“You don’t look Greek,” Ares replied with a raised eyebrow. Father and son watched other warily until Ares sighed and held out a hand. “It’s been a while since one of my children got me that mad, well done.”
“So,” Cam said cautiously before accepting the hand, “you’re not going to kill me then?”
“Heh, not today.” The god helped him to his feet and led the limping Cam back into the motel room. He sat him down on a chair as behind them the shattered window that Cam had been thrown through repaired itself. Orin padded over and sat at Cam’s side, keeping both eyes warily on the god. Ares sighed, “Let me have a look at that face.” He reached towards Cam, and just for a second, the boy flinched away before wincing in pain and finally allowing Ares to touch his face.
Cam sat in silence as “father” healed the wounds that he had inflicted and the tension between the two of them was palpable. Even though they were face to face, Cam refused to meet Ares eye to eye. It was Ares that finally broke the awkward quiet. “Do you really believe what you said before?”
Ares sat back and faced Cam, his expression unreadable. “You said that you believed I was responsible for the wolf spawn attack three years ago, that I had planned it.”
The boy settled back in the chair and sighed, suddenly very tired. “I don’t know, not any more anyway.” Cam yawned. “I don’t wanna get whacked in the face again, but was there something you wanted because I’m really tired.” His father reached over to the newly reconstructed table and grabbed a freshly chilled beer bottle, snapping the cap off on the side of the table. He offered a second bottle to his son. Cam shook his head. “It’s two AM, I gotta spend all day tomorrow finding a goblin market and I don’t fancy having to do it with another hangover.”
Ares roared with laughter. “With your constitution, you could drink an entire crate of these and not feel the effects!” The boy just folded his arms and fixed his father with a tired look. “Very well. There are things we should talk about; things I need to tell you but first, you hunted and killed a wolfspawn today didn’t you?” Cam nodded and the god allowed himself a brief smile. “Very good, you’ve certainly come a long way from that young boy I met three years ago.” There was just a hint of pride in his voice as he spoke but Cam was too tired to notice. “That wolfspawn you killed tonight, was it hunting you?”
“No,” Cam said after a moment’s thought, “Orin caught its scent a couple of nights ago not long after we arrived in town. It weren’t tracking me at that point; Orin has taught me to suppress my divine essence. I needed it to get my scent so I stopped suppressing it. After that, it was pretty easy to get him to come after me.”
“Not without incident I see,” Ares said gesturing to the bandage around his arm.
“Meh,” Cam said dismissively, “as I said to Orin earlier, I heal quickly and you know I’ve had worse. Plus I needed to look weak to lure it in.”
“Interesting strategy,” Ares glanced down at Orin and gave the wolf spirit a withering glare, displeased that he hadn’t put a stop to Cam’s reckless plan, “but anyway, the wolfspawn wasn’t tracking you, it was on the hunt for someone else.”
“You mean someone like me, another scion, except this one hasn’t learned to suppress its essence yet,” Cam said, remembering what Ares had said earlier.
“Bingo, as you kids say” Ares said snapping his fingers. Cam smirked, hiding his smile under the pretext of yawning. He’d never heard anyone his age say that, or anyone under the age of thirty for that matter. “Turns out this young Scion has ran into a spot of bother. I owe his father a favour so I said I’d get you to help.”
Cam sat up, this sounded serious. “Why me, and why can’t this guy’s dad help him out?”
“Fair question I suppose. There are rules about directly interfering in the lives of our children, ancient rules. I think Nezha is still doing the paperwork on the last time he ‘helped’ his son.” Cam laughed at the mention of paperwork. “I know, but Nezha is one of the Shen, an ancient Chinese pantheon. They don’t call them the ‘Celestial Bureaucracy’ for nothing. Anyway, he apparently doesn’t want to get in trouble again with his superiors. He mentioned something about having to spend time in the ‘hell for those who do not use block capitals on forms’ if he does. I swear, those Chinese have a hell for everything. Anyway, his kid’s in trouble and as much as he wants to help, his hands are tied. He sensed another Scion in the neighbourhood, you, and he called in a favour to get me to get you to help.” Ares’ eyes rolled in mock frustration. “Never play poker with a god of trickery.”
Sitting back in his chair again, Cam took a moment to think things over. He still didn’t see how this was problem and he wasn’t the type to snap to attention just because “daddy” said jump. Plus, things hadn’t exactly gone well the last time he had met another Scion. However, despite all that, was he okay with ignoring the fact that this kid needed help and that apparently he was the only person in the position to do something. Cam glanced down at Orin who had remained quiet throughout all of this. The wolf-spirit nodded; whatever Cam decided, Orin would back him. “So,” Cam said, his mind made up, “what sort of trouble is this kid in?”
Three Years Ago…
“Dylan, what on earth are you doing up in that tree?” The man said, looking up at the twelve-year-old boy sitting up in the tree’s branches, holding the map. Three other boys stood at the base of the tree, also looking up.
“I’m trying to see if I can find out where we are,” Dylan called back down.
“And you think you can do that in a tree, thirty feet above the ground?” The four boys were part of a seventh grade field trip from the nearby town of Altamont to Crater Lake National Park. Twenty five eleven to twelve-year-old kids spending a week camping and hiking in the woods; learning about geology, ecology and the natural world. Today was their last day and the children had been split into teams of four, driven to the other side of the park and given the challenge of finding their way back to camp using what they had learned over the week. To help them, they had been given a map and compass and in order to make sure they stayed out of trouble, an adult would accompany them with a radio and a GPS unit in case they needed to call for help.
“Don’t worry about DS Mr Harris,” one of the boys said, “he was like an eagle scout or something in a past life.” The three boys laughed.
“Laugh it up scuzz buckets,” Dylan said in mock indignation, “if it weren’t for Toby’s sucky map reading, we’d’ve been back at camp an hour ago.”
“Be that as it may, you better come down from there. You’ve already got a black eye from that fight the other day; I don’t want to have to explain to your parents when we get back how you broke your leg on a simple orienteering exercise as well.” The laughing stopped, and there was an awkward silence as Dylan reluctantly climbed down from the tree. “What?” Mr Harris asked, confused by the sudden change in the attitude from the four boys.
“DS ‘aint got no folks,” Toby said quietly to Mr Harris, “he’s an orphan.”
Mr Harris inhaled sharply. “Yikes, open mouth and insert foot.”
Dylan jumped down from the lower branches, wobbling slightly as he landed but remaining on his feet. “Christ Toby, you make it sound like I got a terminal disease for something.” He said rolling his eyes.
“Did ya see where we are?” Another boy, Andy, asked.
Dylan laid out the map on the ground. “We should be here, about five miles west of the Witch’s Tit.” His friends giggled at the name of the rocky formation as he pointed to it on the map. “Oh grow up. Anyway, we must’ve got totally lost because the mountains are on the wrong side, at least that’s what I think. The compass is playing up again.” He took the compass out from around his neck and showed it to his friends. The needle was spinning erratically, not settling on a specific direction for longer than a second. “I ‘aint got a clue where we are.”
The four boys looked over at Mr Harris expectantly. He knew what they wanted but he could only shrug. “Sorry guys, can’t help you there.” Taking the GPS out of his pocket, he switched it on and handed it to the boys. The screen was flickering, fritzing in and out before dying completely. “The radio’s dead too.” That little detail worried him; he had made a point of double-checking the batteries were fully charged and that both devices were working properly before setting out.
“So what now?” Dylan asked.
The Greek god of war sighed. “Just once, would it kill you to call me dad?”
Cam scowled and threw his backpack on to the bed. “Actually, yeah, I think it might.” Orin padded over to Ares and licked his outstretched hand. The god leaned down and scratched the wolf-spirit behind the ear.
“Hey there boy, you still taking care of the runt?”
“He can be handful sometimes m’lord,” Orin admitted whilst giving a Cam a glance letting the boy know he was just humouring the god, “but he shows promise.”
Ares laughed and looked over at Cam who was leaning against a wall, glaring at him with his arms crossed defensively in front of him. “Dylan, why don’t you sit down,” he said, gesturing to a chair across the table from him, “I brought pizza.” With a snap of his fingers, a pizza box appeared on the table. The logo on the box was of a pizza delivery restaurant that Cam used to visit back where he had lived before his life had turned upside down. Almost as soon as it appeared, the smell of pepperoni, shredded beef, extra cheese and barbeque sauce filled the room, all his son’s favourite pizza toppings.
Cam’s stomach rumbled and although and he was sorely tempted to give in and sit down. Instead, he just glared at Ares. “Dylan Smith died three years ago at Crater Lake, along with his friends. Don’t you watch the news on Olympus, or are you just too busy screwing with the lives of mortals.”
“Funny,” Ares said smiling, “because you’re the spitting image of young Dylan. Either you’re his twin or the reports of his death were greatly exaggerated.”
Three years ago…
They had been walking through woods now for several hours. With the boys thoroughly lost, Harris had decided to take charge. Dylan and others had no problem with the experienced outdoorsman taking over; they were all getting tired and hungry. Harris had decided to take the group uphill, climbing the mountain trails up the extinct volcanic peak towards Crater Lake itself. Lake View Drive ran around the rim of the crater, once they found the road, they could use it to find the camp. It would be taking the long way around, but at least they would eventually find it.
Harris was starting to get worried. It was only six in the afternoon and it was already getting dark; sunset this time of year wasn’t for another two hours. They also should have reached the caldera rim hours ago but it didn’t seem to be getting any nearer. However, he didn’t let those worries show, trying to keep the boys spirits up.
He stopped to take a swig from his water bottle and noticed Dylan lagging behind the group, limping slightly. He waited for the boy to catch up. “How are you doing?”
“I’m fine,” Dylan said, shrugging. “My ankle’s a little sore,” he added when he saw Harris’s questioning look.
“Are you okay to walk on it?” Harris asked looking down at Dylan’s feet. The boy was wearing beat-up trainers, definitely the wrong type of footwear for hiking. He mentally cursed the school that had organised the trip; they should have made sure that every child had a pair of strong hiking boots.
Dylan nodded, “I’ll be fine.”
The two of them started walking again, catching up with Toby, Andy and Ben. As they walked, Harris looked down at Dylan again and noticed the black eye he was sporting. “So,” he asked, “what were you and that boy ‘Spud’ fighting about the other day anyway.”
“He … er …” Dylan began uncertainly, “he said some stuff about my mom.”
“Ah,” he could understand how that could be a touchy subject and one that bullies would easily choose to exploit; children, after all, were amongst the cruellest creatures in creation.
“It shouldn’t bother me,” Dylan went on to say, “but I never knew my mom, she died when I was born and no one knew who my dad was. It’s bad enough at that school being an Applegate Kid, but when Spud found out about my mom, he starting saying that I killed her; that it was my fault mom died giving birth to me.”
Harris whistled. “I’m surprised you didn’t punch his lights out for saying that.”
Dylan grinned and looked up, pointing to his eye. “How do you think I got this?”
He knew how Dylan must feel, having lost his own parents as a boy himself. “So you live at the Applegate Care Home?” Harris asked after walking in silence for a few minutes, “Is Mrs Sanders still an old battleaxe?” Before Dylan could reply though, a howl echoed through the forest.
The group froze. “Was … was that a wolf?” Toby asked, the fear evident in his voice.
“There aren’t any wolves in Crater Lake,” Harris said, suddenly questioning everything he knew about the area’s wildlife. Another howl sounded in the night.
A strange look passed over Dylan’s face, his eyes glazing over for a second. “That’s no wolf,” he said quietly, almost inaudibly, “it’s too big to be a wolf.” In his mind, he could sense a presence in the woods, something large and evil. It was watching them, stalking them; and it was hungry. Dylan was rooted to the spot; the sense of the presence was overwhelming. He had never felt anything like this before, he couldn’t move, he could barely breathe.
“What are you…” Andy started to ask, turning to face Dylan. However, he stopped when he saw his friend’s terror-stricken face. In all the years he had known him, he had never seen Dylan show any fear. Andy supposed that his friend’s “tough guy” attitude was a consequence of growing up in a care home environment, always having to prove himself to tougher, older, more messed-up kids. Because of that, Dylan had always been the tough kid in their little circle; always eager to show how brave he was. He never backed down from a fight, getting himself suspended from school a number of times for fighting with Spud and his cronies. What could scare him so much that he was struck white with terror?
It didn’t take long for Andy’s question to be answered. With a flash of fur and claws, something leapt into the clearing. It was massive, much larger than a wolf but it moved too fast for anyone to get a good look at it. The wolfspawn charged into Harris, dragging the man into the bushes on the other side of the clearing as the four boys watched in horror. There was a scream, quickly choked off to a gurgled cry, then the sound of flesh and born being torn. It was silent for several long seconds and then, one by one, four sets of red eyes slowly appeared in the darkness around them.
“Mr … Mr Harris?” Ben asked meekly.
An object the size of a soccer ball rolled into the clearing, bouncing along the uneven ground before coming to a stop at Dylan’s feet; it was the severed head of Mr Harris. The four boys screamed in terror and this seemed to be a signal for the wolfspawn, who charged into the clearing.
Ben was the first die, the spawn tearing out his throat. Screaming in terror, Andy made a break for the trees. Two of the spawn gave chase. One of them jumped on Andy’s back, driving him to the ground, while the other sank its teeth into his arm. “Help me,” he screamed, his eyes screwed shut in pain. The wolfspawn locked its jaws and pulled, ripping Andy’s arm from its socket. Andy shrieked, long and loud, and the other spawn bent down and tore off the remaining arm. Piece by piece, they tore him apart and somewhere between his left and right legs, the boy stopped his struggles and became still.
“Don’t just stand there Dylan!” Toby yelled as he picked up a stout branch. However, Dylan was frozen in terror, a wet patch spreading from his groin and could only watch as his friends fought for their lives and were torn apart in front of him. A wolfspawn, Harris’s blood dripping from its jaws leapt at Toby. The boy got a lucky swing in, the branch connecting with the side of the wolfspawn’s head with a crunch. If he thought that would save him, he was sorely mistaken. The other three wolfspawn converged on him, making short work of the young boy.
The first wolfspawn began slowly walking towards Dylan, growling and baring its fangs. “Run little scion, it’s not a hunt without chase.” Hearing the creature speak was too much and Dylan turned and fled, running into the woods.
Stumbling in the undergrowth, which seemed to conspire against him, Dylan ran in pure panic. His clothes became torn and his skin scratched and bloodied by branches and thorns. The wolfspawn were never far behind him, darting to forward to strike at him with fang and claw only to miss by a matter of inches. Dylan knew that they could easily catch up with him if they wanted too. They were herding him, toying with him, taunting him. Eventually, after what seemed like hours, Dylan was nearing complete exhaustion and could barely take another step.
That was the moment the wolfspawn decided to end their game. The pack leader charged into Dylan, sending him sprawling to the floor. He scrambled to his feet just as another wolfspawn slashed at his chest. Dylan fell back against a tree, screaming in pain. He looked down, the front of his hoody and t-short and been ripped open and three tears in his flesh across his chest and belly were gushing blood.
The wolfspawn began to close in for the kill and as his blood drained out of him, Dylan could only lie there and wait for the end to come, either from the claws of the wolfspawn or the horrific injury to his chest.
However, just as the wolfspawn were poised to strike, fate intervened. The spectral form of a wolf leapt through the tree that Dylan was leaning against, passing through it like a ghost, and tackled the lead wolfspawn. Just as he finally passed out from the blood loss, a man stepped into the clearing; dual-wielding a sawn-off shotgun in one hand and a two-meter long sword, he laid into the wolfspawn, hacking and blasting at them.
The pair made short work of the wolfspawn. Once they were all dead, Ares stood over the unconscious boy. “Humph,” he grunted as he bent down to inspect the wound, “I would’ve thought he would’ve put up more of a fight than that.” The wound was deep; even if by some miracle he lived long enough to get to hospital, it would prove fatal. Thankfully, being a god had its perks; one of which was not having to rely on mortal medicine. He picked the boy up, throwing him over his shoulder. “Come on Orin, we should leave while the veil is still shielding this area from mortal eyes.”
Yawning, Cam gave in and walked over to the table. He reluctantly took one of the slices of pizza and crammed it hungrily into his mouth. “It’s one in morning, I’m starving, exhausted, and I’m not in the mood for this shit,” he said through a mouthful of pizza, “what are you doing here?”
Ares leaned back on his chair, his face becoming serious. “I think it’s time we had a little talk.”
Sarah Tanner looked up as the front door opened and her son walked in. “There you are Deegan, dinners almost ready.”
“Yeah, sorry I’m late mum,” the boy said, closing the front door, “lost track of time. Is dad home yet?”
“He’ll be back in a minute,” she said turning back to the stove, “so go get washed up and then come down and set the table.”
The house where he and his parents lived was small and in one of the poorer neighbourhoods of the city. It wasn’t much but it was cosy and after moving around so much when he was younger, it was nice to have a place that was starting to feel like home. Deegan picked up his skyboard and started climbing the ladder into the attic. When they had first moved in, his parents had told him that he was too old to share a room with them anymore. At first, he hadn’t understood where he was supposed to sleep. Apart from the cellar and the attic, there was only the main room, a single bedroom and the pantry, all on the ground floor. Deegan was told that from now on he would be sleeping in the attic. That would be his room, his own personal space.
It had taken a bit of work, but between him and his father, they had managed to make it liveable if not comfortable. A small bed was pushed up against one side underneath the skylight. When he had first seen the window in the roof, his doubts about the attic were banished. The window let in a great deal of light and gave him a great view of the sky. Sleeping under the clouds and the stars, even if it was through a pane of glass, was oddly comforting to him. In the centre of the attic was a worktable covered in junk and tools. He cleared some space on the table and put his skyboard down; after using the boost earlier, he’d need to recharge its power crystals. From the ceiling hung a model of a dragon with a working, articulated skeleton. When the window was open and the breeze blew in, the wings gently flapped as if it was flying. Ever since he was young, Deegan had been fascinated by dragons and together, he and his father had built the model when he was eight. He reached under the worktable and pulled out a small chest. Inside, hidden underneath his clothes, were several tightly folded flags, all of them slightly ripped along one side where they had been torn from their masts. There were flags representing the Succession States, the city-state of Galatea, the Arcadian Commonwealth, the Sundered Kingdoms, even the Sky Marshalls. All of them stolen from a ship. Now he could add an Imperial flag to his collection. He took the stolen flag out from underneath his shirt where he had stowed it and hid it with the rest; he couldn’t wait to show it to the guys tomorrow.
Deegan closed the chest and pushed it back under the worktable. Remembering his mother’s words, he quickly washed his hands and face in the washbowl before heading back downstairs. By now, his father was home, sitting at the table and taking off his boots and the smell of the cooking was filling the room.
Robert Tanner worked at the city’s docks, operating a pilot skiff and helping larger ships into port. Deegan himself also worked at the docks three days a week when he wasn’t at school as a message courier. His father wasn’t happy with him working at the docks; Robert didn’t think it was safe for a boy his age even if they did need the extra money. “Watch out for pressgangs,” he had warned his son on more than one occasion, “Some ships don’t ask before recruiting new crewmembers.” Deegan wasn’t worried though, he had been thinking about joining the crew of a merchant ship for a while now; they were always on the lookout for new cabin boys and rope monkeys. Of course, there was no way his overprotective father would ever let him crew a ship. If he found the recruitment pamphlet for the Sky Marshals he had hidden under his bed, he’d probably throw a fit.
“How was work today? Anything interesting happen?” Robert asked while Deegan began laying out the cutlery and placemats.
“Same as usual dad,” Deegan replied, “ferrying messages and packages across town for sleaze ball captains too lazy or too smart to do it themselves”
“You remember what I told you?” His father asked him as Deegan sat down at the table.
“Never look inside a package or at the contents of a letter,” Deegan said, reciting his father’s words from memory, “in case the guards stop and search you.”
“And why is that?”
“Because if you don’t know you’re carrying something illegal then…” said Deegan.
“…you’re just an innocent delivery boy,” he and his father said together.
“That’s my boy.” Robert said, reaching across the table to ruffle his son’s hair in approval. Sarah walked over carrying the food and setting the stew pot down with some force, she didn’t exactly approve of the lesson her husband was teaching to their son. The conversation moved on to safer topics as dinner progressed.
“Oh hey,” Deegan said at one point, “I saw an Imperial ship coming into port on the way home.”
“Are you sure?” Robert asked. “Artaxis is pretty far from Eldala.”
“Pretty sure,” Deegan said smiling inwardly as he thought about the flag hidden upstairs, “big one too; Dragoon-class I think given the number of crystals, the lack of sails and the size of its big guns.” He decided not to mention that he had got close enough to see that there had been a Vigilant on board; that was an argument he could do without.
“I wish you would put as much effort into your schoolwork as you do watching ships and messing around with that board of yours.” His mother said as she refilled his bowl.
The rest of the evening went quietly. After tweaking the levitation crystals on his board, Deegan decided to have an early night; he had work tomorrow morning. That night, like almost every night before, he again dreamt of flying, of soaring through the clouds.
“Tanner,” the man behind the desk called out over the noise of the room, “you’re up.”
Deegan looked up from the card game. “Coming boss.” He turned back to the table, gulped down the last of his drink, and picked up his winnings. “Gotta go guys,” he said to the four other boys around the table, all of them message runners like him, “catch you later.” Deegan grabbed his board and backpack and trotted over to the desk. “What’s the job boss?”
“Merchant ship out of the Sundered Kingdoms, up by mooring post three,” his boss said shoving a piece of paper into his hand. “Basic courier run, you know the drill Tanner.”
“Gotcha boss, mooring post three.” He pulled on his goggles and headed out the door, making sure that his red armbands were showing. The left one had “Artaxis Port Authority” written on it in black paint, the right had “#46” written on the other. Together, they marked him as a message runner working for the city.
The weather was exceptionally fine with clear visibility and Deegan could see for miles as he stepped on to the balcony of the Port Authority building. In the distance, he could see a number floating platforms that had several ships moored to them. The mooring posts were made of the same rock as the island and drifted in the sky relative to it. Ships that didn’t want to dock with island directly could moor up at the platform; it wasn’t as convenient as docking with the island but it was considerably cheaper. Tying his bandana over his face and making sure that his backpack was securely fastened, he jumped off the balcony and took to the air.
Deegan carefully weaved his way through the crowded airspace above the port, heading for the mooring posts a few miles out. There were ships of almost every design and nationality in the skies around the port. Artaxis was a major trading hub as its neutrality made it a natural junction of several major trading routes. As he flew, he heard a familiar voice call out his name and he slowed down, turning to face the direction the voice had come from. It was his father, standing at the controls of a pilot skiff guiding a large water tanker in to dock. “Keeping you busy are they son?”
“You know it pops,” Deegan said pulling up alongside the skiff.
“Well, work hard and stay safe and maybe we’ll grab a drink in the pub after work,” Robert said leaning on the wheel. “Just don’t tell your mother,” he added, winking conspiratorially.
Deegan waved and continued on his way. As he approached mooring post three, he saw the ship that had signalled for a courier. The ship may have been flying the flag of the Sundered kingdoms, but Deegan doubted that it was nothing but a flag of convenience. Its hull was marred by repair patches and battle damage but at the same time its levitation crystals were in good repair and were ridiculously overpowered for a ship of its size. When he got close, the demeanour and general appearance of the ship’s crew screamed “pirate” to Deegan. With a sinking feeling, he realised that this job was probably going to involve him carrying something illegal. “Looks like it’s time to play the dumb kid again,” Deegan thought to himself as he approached the ship, stopping short of actually landing on the ship’s deck.
“Clear off kid,” one of the heavily armed crewmen yelled at him, “if you know what’s good for you.”
Deegan pushed up his goggles and pulled down his bandana. “Port Authority sent me,” he said to the crewman, “you called for a message runner?”
The crewman grunted. “Hmph, you’ll want to see the captain then.” He motioned for Deegan to land and the boy hopped off his skyboard next to the crewman. “Follow me,” the man said to him, “but don’t touch nothing.”
Deegan was led below deck towards the captain’s cabin at the rear of the ship. As they walked, they passed several crewmembers. They gave the boy glaring glances and suspicious looks, reminding Deegan of his father’s warning regarding certain recruiting practices. “Just try it,” he muttered under his breath, checking that he had his knife tucked into the back of his pants and hidden under his shirt, “I aint gonna get grabbed so easily.”
“Cap,” the crewman said as they entered the rear cabin, “runner’s here for the package.”
Deegan glanced around the cabin before finally looking at the man in front of him. The cabin was rather plainly attired, especially for what he assumed was a ship full of sky pirates. For a start, there were no chests overflowing with gold and jewels, no fine silks and fabrics. The captain himself was wearing rough and hardwearing clothes like the rest of his crew, although his were considerably cleaner.
“You’re the message courier?” The captain asked, his tone making it quite clear that he wasn’t exactly impressed by the boy standing before him. “You’re younger than I expected.”
“Are you sure we should be trusting the package to a kid?” The crewman asked. As he did so, something inside Deegan snapped and he forgot about pretending to be w more than a naive dumb kid.
“Aren’t you a little young,” Deegan said, his voice adopting a fake whining tone, “a little small? How can we trust a kid, how can a mere boy protect our oh so valuable package.” He crossed his arms and raised a defiant eyebrow. “Can it, I’ve heard it all before. Now, you got a package or a message for me to deliver or are we gonna just stand around here and comment on my age and height.”
The captain smiled. “No one said anything about your height. Looks like you have a real complex there, … shorty.” Deegan just grunted and gritted his teeth. “Very well then, let’s get down to business.” He walked over to his desk, unlocked one of the drawers and pulled out something wrapped in cloth and tied with twine. “Okay … erm … “
“Okay Deegan,” the captain said, handing the package and a piece of paper over to the boy, “this needs to be handed over to man waiting at that address. Now, I’m sure that a scrappy young man like you will be able to get it there quickly. But, can we trust you to protect it if you run in to any trouble?”
Deegan took the package and carefully placed it at the bottom of his backpack. “Since it’s illegal to hire a port authority message runner to carry any form of contraband,” he said smiling slyly, “or anything with a value greater than 50 gold pieces, what sort of trouble are we talking about?”
The captain chuckled. “Well, nothing you can’t handle I’m sure. So what do I owe you.”
“Standard rate is 2 coppers per mile. Black Street is on the other side of town, about four miles, so call it eight coppers.” The truth was that Black Street was only three miles away. Deegan, like all the other runners, routinely added a mile to the distance if they thought they could get away with it. Runners only earned a single copper per run, by adding an extra mile and pocketing the extra money, they tripled the money they took home.
The captain reached into his pocket and started counting out the coins. “Here you go; eight copper pieces.” He said handing Deegan the coins. “And here’s two extra for your trouble; I remember how lousy the wages were when I was your age.”
“Gee thanks,” Deegan said, reaching out to take the extra coppers. Before he could take them though, the captain’s hand closed tightly around his when he tried to pick up the coins.
“One thing,” the captain said, “you won’t be sneaking a peek at the package now will you?”
Deegan smirked. “Like I get paid enough to be curious.”
The captain released Deegan’s hand, allowing him to take and pocket the coins. “Good, now scat. I’ve got work to do.” Dismissed, Deegan was led up on to deck, took one last look around the ship and took off on his skyboard.
On the dockside, the Vigilant watched Deegan set off towards the city. “So this is where you’ve been hiding Arashi,” he muttered, “this time you won’t escape.”
A lone boy sat on a rocky ledge looking out at the sky. His feet dangled over the edge with the ground, a mile below, hidden by the dense cloud cover. The sun was approaching the horizon and the waning light of the day painted the clouds black and orange, in the setting sun they looked like rolling flames and smoke.
Leaning back and letting out a deep contented sigh, the boy closed his green eyes and let the warm breeze blow through his dark-red hair, which stuck out haphazardly from underneath his bandana. From here, a couple of hundred feet below the top of the floating island, he couldn’t hear the sounds of the bustling port city up above. Here, it was quiet and peaceful and for a short time, he could forget about the stresses of school and family.
A shadow passed over him as a skyship approached the docks and the boy opened his eyes to watch it. It was 75 feet from bow to stern, single-sailed with dual-levitation crystals, probably a courier or trader from the Succession States or Galatea. The ship wasn’t alone, there were at least half a dozen other skyships in the skies around the island, either arriving or departing. In the distance, he could just make out the silhouette of two more islands drifting serenely amongst the clouds.
Propped up against the cliff wall next to him was his skyboard. A smooth wooden board five feet long and one wide; its surface was painted a dark blue, almost black. Leather straps on the top were used to secure the riders feet to the board and along the sides were a series of levitation crystals mounted in metal brackets embedded into the wood of the board, three on each side. The board had a homemade look about it, its edges were rough and the paintwork chipped in places.
He spent several more minutes watching the sunset and enjoying the feel of the breeze before deciding it was time. Getting to his feet, the boy put on a pair of goggles, tightening the leather strip around the back of his head and positioning the thick glass lenses over his eyes. He untied the bandana and retied it over his face across his nose and mouth; wouldn’t want to swallow a bug now. The boy picked up his skyboard and placed it against his back as if sheathing a sword in a back-scabbard. The leather foot straps undid themselves without his help and fastened around loops on the back of his shirt, securing the board to his back like a rucksack. The boy took one last look around and launched himself into the sky.
The wind whipped at his hair and tore at his clothing as he fell, plummeting towards the clouds below. Behind the bandana, he was grinning. He felt alive, truly alive and free. Out here there was no one telling him what to do, what to say, what to think. There were no teachers trying to cram useless information into his head and no parents reminding him to do his chores. It was only him, the sky, and the rapidly approaching ground.
The boy reached behind him and pulled his skyboard loose, bringing it to his feet. The magic in the straps caused them to loop around his boots, pulling them down on to the board and securing them in place. As soon as the soles of his open-toed boots touched the skyboard, its levitation crystals flared into life. Brilliant blue energy lit up the crystals from within, creating a blue contrail of light as the skyboard accelerated in its dive.
Below him, the boy saw a large skyship rising up from the cloud layer. It was a massive ship, metal hulled with four huge levitation crystals. From up here, he could make out the cannon ports lining its side and the armoured men walking its decks. The ship was a warship from the Eldalan Empire far to the south and as he realised this, his grin changed to a mischievous smirk. The Imperial Navy was touchy about civilians getting close to their ships, especially foreigners. They had a nasty habit of firing on ships that got too close. Still, he thought, they wouldn’t shoot at a fourteen-year-old boy, would they?
Leaning forward, he swooped down towards the warship, flying along its portside. He left behind a glowing corkscrew-shaped contrail from stern to bow as he spiralled along the length of the ship. Men looked up from their work as the boy streaked past. A number of the soldiers pointed weapons at him threateningly, yelling at him to stay clear. Of course, he didn’t listen, assuming that the threats were idle. There was still one thing he wanted to do.
Looping back around, he flew straight for the rear of the ship, weaving between the massive forward guns. At the last second, he darted upwards and over the bridge, reaching out the grab the Imperial Flag flying proudly over the ship. The fabric easily tore in his grip and he whooped in triumph as he escaped with the flag. His whoop quickly became a yelp as a sickly-green bolt of magic ripped through the air just inches from his head. So much for not shooting at a kid! Glancing behind him, the boy saw a man standing on the deck pointing at him with an outstretched hand. Although he was dressed in average-looking tunic and pants, even from this distance the boy could make out the arcane runes tattooed onto his skin poking out from under the man’s clothing; runes that had started to glow again as the man gathered mana for another shot. The man was a Vigilant; Vigilants were bad news. They acted as if they were above the law, and although that was only true inside Eldala, it didn’t stop them from running roughshod over local laws in pursuit of their duties; protecting the Empire of Eldala from enemies both foreign and domestic using any methods they deemed necessary.
Hanging on to the stolen flag, the boy gritted his teeth and sent a mental command to his board. The levitation crystals flared brightly as magical energy began to surge them at a vastly increased rate and the board rocketed upwards, the sudden increase in speed accompanied by a sonic boom. Within seconds, he was hidden in the clouds. The Vigilant watched him escape through narrowed eyes before turning to the other men on deck and shouting orders.
The boy suddenly realised what he had just done and couldn’t help but laugh nervously. He had buzzed an imperial skyship, stolen their flag and angered a very powerful and very dangerous man. Although he had gotten away, he could have been killed. If that had happened, his father would’ve been angry, so angry in fact the old man would probably have killed himself just to give his son a good hiding in the afterlife.
Still grinning and clutching his prize, he swung the board around he began to head back to the island. It was getting late and dinner would be ready soon.
With glowing red eyes, the wolfspawn slowly stalked down the darkened corridor, sniffing at the air. “Come out little boy, I know you’re in here. I can smell you.” The creature’s gravelly voice echoed through the abandoned apartment building, it’s six-foot form nearly filling the width of the rubbish-filled corridor. Suddenly his quarry, a teenage boy in ragged clothes, burst out of one the rooms and began running down the corridor. He was clutching his arm, blood trickling from between his fingers. Baring its fangs in a smile, the wolfspawn began running after him, its paws pounding on the floor; the hunt was on.
The boy darted down the corridor, leaping over obstacles and gaps in the floor. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw that the wolfspawn was rapidly gaining ground. He appeared to change his mind, instead of continuing to run towards the stairwell, he jumped through a hole in the plasterboard walls into one of the apartments. The wolfspawn followed, making a hole of its own as it ran straight through the thin walls in pursuit of the boy. The boy scrambled across the floor, shielding his eyes from the flying wall fragments. “Why can’t you just leave me alone?” He yelled desperately.
The wolfspawn didn’t answer and instead paced back and forth in front of the boy, savouring the smell of his blood. Without warning, it launched itself at the boy, its fangs bared and ready to strike. However, the boy quickly rolled out of the way, ducking under the wolfspawn and evading its jaws by a matter of inches. As the wolfspawn landed on the floor, the boy jumped to his feet and ran towards the boarded up windows. He brought both his arms up and leapt through the window, splintering the wooden planks. Sailing out the window, he plummeted towards the alleyway five stories below. The boy reached out and grabbed a telephone cable strung between the apartment building and its nearby neighbour. He grunted in pain as it arrested his fall but the strength of the cable wasn’t strong enough to take his weight and it snapped. Still holding onto it, the boy was swung down against the neighbouring building, slamming into the wall. The impact was hard, and try as he might he couldn’t stifle the yell of pain as he hit his injured arm. Watching from the window, the wolfspawn snarled as the boy let go of the cable, kicked off the wall, and somersaulted through the air before landing crouched on the floor. “You can run boy,” the wolfspawn called out, “but you can’t hide. I can smell your blood from a hundred miles away.” They locked eyes for several seconds, the boy panting heavily.
“I’ve gotten pretty good at running the last couple of years,” he yelled back before bolting down the alley.
Running into the deserted street, the boy jumped onto the bonnet of an abandoned car and used it as a launching point to leap clear over a chain link fence topped with razor wire. Landing on his feet, he quickly disappeared into the darkness of the junk yard beyond.
The wolfspawn howled in delight; this quarry was proving to be a little more elusive than he had first suspected. This was going to be fun. As the last echoes of the howl were lost to the wind, the wolfspawn leapt out of the window, bouncing from wall to wall on its way down to the ground. It ran across the road and used the same trick as the boy, using the abandoned car to leap over the fence. The immense weight of the wolfspawn crushed the car, causing the still unbroken side windows to explode outwards. It failed to clear the fence but the flimsy steel wire was no obstacle to the wolfspawn as it tore through it, buckling the fence as it chased the boy into the junk yard.
The air in the junk yard was a jumble of smells, oil, petrol and diesel, rusting metal, decaying rubber, decomposing body parts. From the smells, the wolfspawn knew that somebody had been busy in this yard, and not just in the scrap metal business. However, the many overlapping smells obscured the boy’s scent; he’d have to track the boy the old-fashioned way, by following his footprints.
Slowly, it began to creep between the mounds of scrap metal, keeping an eye on the piles of rusting cars. Any of them would make a good hiding place for the boy. A clatter of metal on metal echoed through the night, the sound bouncing around the junk yard like pulses of sonar. The wolfspawn could almost see the waves of sound as they swept past, tracking them back to their source and locking on to the boy’s location. It bounded up a pile of scrap, sliding down the far side into a cul-de-sac formed by three overflowing piles of scrap. As it landed, a miniature avalanche of scrap caused by its slide blocked the exit behind it and it looked over at the terrified boy, grinning a fang-filled smile.
The boy looked around, desperately searching for an exit and the wolfspawn watched as a look of terror passed over the boy’s face when he realised that he was trapped. He backed up against the pile of scrap behind him, trying to get as far away from the wolfspawn as possible. “Little boy, scared and all alone in the night,” the wolfspawn taunted as the boy nervously fiddled with an amulet around his neck, “got any last words before I feast on your heart?”
Taking down his hood, the boy looked up at the wolfspawn, smirking slightly. He grasped the amulet firmly, a wolf talon on an old leather string, the fear in his blue eyes gone and replaced by a mischievous twinkle. “Who said I was alone?” There was a burst of white light and a spectral form erupted from the talon, landing in front of the boy. The spectral form coalesced into that of a wolf, smaller than the wolfspawn, but no less impressive, it’s white and brown fur a stark contrast to the wolfspawn’s blood spattered grey. “Say hello to partner, Orin,” the boy said cracking his knuckles. A tattoo in the shape of a twisted four-pointed star on his right shoulder briefly glowed, its blue light shining faintly through the material of his hooded top. The light spread down the veins of his right arm before racing over the rest of his body, fading moments later. “You’ve hunted scions for the last time, spawn breath.”
Snarling, the wolfspawn charged at the pair, he wasn’t going to let some whelp and his mutt get the better of him. It was time to end this game.
“How’s the arm Cam?” Orin asked, walking over to the boy as he sat on a pile of tyres with a small backpack at his feet.
“Meh, I heal quickly enough.” Cam took off his hooded top and inspected the gash on his arm. It had been hurt when he had allowed the wolfspawn to slash him with its claws whilst it chased him. He had done this in an attempt to appear weak and helpless. It had been a calculated ploy, luring the wolfspawn into the ambush; one that Orin had not accepted without argument. Cam could tell that his friend and guardian was still a little mad at him for not listening. The gash wasn’t deep and it was still bleeding. He reached into the bag and pulled a strip of “clean” cloth that he used as a makeshift bandage, wrapping it around the wound. A little bit of blood soaked through but the material stopped the bleeding. The gash would probably leave a scar, but it wouldn’t be his first; he had a few already. With his top off, the scar he had received from a wolfspawn three years ago was clearly visible, slashing across his belly and left side. It was the first time he’d seen a monster and it was a night he’d like to forget, if only the nightmares would let him.
Satisfied that his arm was okay for the moment, he put his top back on, hopped off the tyres and walked over to the corpse of the wolfspawn. The beast hadn’t taken long to defeat, little more than five minutes. Between the two of them, they had managed to do it without sustaining any injuries more serious than a few grazes and bruises.
Taking out a small knife tucked into his sock, he reached down and cut off the long central talon from each of the wolfspawn’s claws. The creature’s eyes had also solidified in its death becoming red crystals. “These should be worth a bit on the market,” Cam said digging them out with the knife, “this city does have a goblin market, right?”
“As far as I know.”
There was a squelching sound from the corpse and it started to sag. It had only been dead for a couple of minutes but it was already starting to dissolve into a black, oil-like ichor. In a matter of seconds, there was nothing left of the wolfspawn except a pool of ichor. Cam knew that too would soon disappear, evaporating in the dawn sun. “Let’s get out of here Orin, I’m beat,” he said, putting the talons and eyes into the backpack.
What a sight they must make, Cam thought as they walked down the street. A scruffy homeless kid with dirty and ripped clothes, a blood soaked makeshift bandage around his upper arm visible through the torn sleeve of his stop, a scar on his face, and a large wolf-like dog following him like a loyal pet. Lucky for them it was past midnight and there was no one around to see them, at least no one who cared that is.
“You need to be more careful,” Orin said cautiously, coming up alongside him.
“What do you mean?” Cam asked innocently, knowing full well what Orin was going to say.
“Using yourself as bait like that, it’s reckless and stupid.” The wolf hopped in front of Cam, forcing him to stop. “The last time you faced a wolfspawn you were almost killed! This time you got lucky.”
“Last time,” Cam snapped, “there were four of them and I was just a kid.”
“You’re still a child Cam, and the only reason you survived before is that your father saved your life.”
“I’m not a kid anymore, I’m fifteen. And I asked you never to talk about that man!” Cam was almost yelling; his face flushed red with anger. He pushed past Orin and continued walking briskly down the street; his shoulders and back tensed.
Orin walked behind him for several minutes before Cam broke the awkward silence. “Sorry for yelling at you like that. You’re my oldest friend Orin; I know you’re only looking out for me.”
“You know, if you had been born in Ancient Greece, you would be considered a man by now,” Orin said, “and you would have been trained from birth in how to use your abilities.”
“Yeah,” Cam said smiling, “but the nearest I’ve been to Ancient Greece is Athens in Ohio. I guess I’ll just have to make do with what I learned in Ms McKenna’s seventh grade history lessons and watching way too many Jackie Chan movies as a kid.”
Orin laughed, which was a disturbing sight to those not used to the large wolf spirit. “I suppose that would explain your terrible form and lack of technique.”
“Did you just insult the fists?” Cam asked in mock indignation. “You do not insult the fists.”
Eventually, after nearly an hour of walking, they arrived at a sleazy motel. The sort of motel frequented by prostitutes and drug dealers and didn’t think twice about renting a room to an unaccompanied fifteen-year-old boy who paid in cash. He was sure the manager thought that he was some runaway kid or gang member and if wasn’t already involved in business of its two main group of clients, he soon would be. It was a dangerous place to stay, marginally safer than sleeping on the street, but only just. On his first night, he’d been accosted by a junkie attempting to steal what little money he had, probably trying to get his next fix. All that the man got of it though was a broken nose and a few bruises. Not long afterwards, he had been approached been a group of men decked out in bling and carrying poorly concealed handguns; their get up screamed gang members. They’d offered him a job, saying they could use a “scrappy little punk” like him. Cam had refused, politely but firmly; there was no way he was going to get involved with the drugs trade; or the sex trade for that matter, they had been disturbingly vague on what they wanted him for. He hoped they had gotten the message; he didn’t want any trouble from them.
With Orin close behind, Cam walked across the parking lot towards their room. The lot wasn’t deserted, even at this time of night; two men sat on the bonnet of a car, watching Cam closely. He kept his head down, watching the two men out of the corner of his eye. They were probably just lookouts for the gang that used the motel as a drug den and whorehouse, but he wasn’t taking any chances. Cam had been on the run for three years, hunted and tracked by monsters and individuals who wanted to kill him for what he was or wanted to use him for that same reason. He hadn’t survived this long by being complacent.
Cam didn’t relax until he was safely in his room; the door closed and jammed shut with a baseball bat. “I’m telling you Orin, if it weren’t for the fact that this is the only place we can stay without attracting too much attention, I’d seriously consider finding somewhere else.”
“Pity,” a voice said from the darkness, “this place has character.”
Cam span round, slapping the light switch and dropping into a combat crouch. Why hadn’t Orin detected someone was in the room? His heart was pounding, adrenaline coursing through his system. Then, he saw who the intruder was.
Sitting in a chair, with a bottle of beer in his hand, was a gruff middle-aged man in a leather jacket. Leaning against a wall shotgun and massive sword, its blade at least two meters hilt to tip. Cam stood up and fixed the man with a smouldering glare. “Ares, what the hell do you want?”
The Greek god of war sighed. “Just once, would it kill you to call me dad?”
This is a character I’m planning on playing in a 4th Edition Eberron game. He’ll be a 3rd Level Shifter, either Fighter or Monk class.
Born into a small tribe of shifters in the Eldeen Reaches, Kam spent his early childhood in a village deep within the forests. As the Last War raged elsewhere in Khorvaire, the Black Talon Tribe was mostly untouched by the war. Kam filled his days with fishing, playing with his friends and exploring the woods around the village. Kam was an only child and was very close to his parents. His father, the village chief was very protective of his son.
Towards the end of the war, the fighting began to move towards the borders of the Reaches. The village’s warriors left to join the other villages in order to repel the invaders. They believed that their village was safe, far from the frontlines. They were wrong. While the village was left relatively unguarded, raiders snuck over the border and attacked. Most of the women and children were able to escape, but Kam and his mother were not so lucky. As Kam hid, he watched as the raiders butchered those that hadn’t been able to escape. Then they reached his hut. From his hiding place, he saw one of the raiders kill his mother. Enraged, he leapt out of hiding and attacked the man, killing him. Before he could do anything more, another raider struck him on the side of the head knocking him unconscious. The leader of the raiders stopped his men from killing Kam, recognising the boy’s natural fighting ability was worth more than a few coin. He took the boy prisoner and left with the spoils of their raid. That was the last time Kam saw his home.
Kam was sold to a particularly cruel master. He beat and tortured the boy, chaining him up like an animal and forcing him into caged fights withmonsters and other slaves. After one particularly gruelling battle which Kam lost, his master lost a lot of money and ordered the boy whipped as punishment. However, tired of hearing Kam screaming for mercy, he strode into the boy’s cell, grabbed the boy’s tongue and cut it out, yelling at the boy that “speech is for people, not beasts like you!” Afterwards, Kam’s mind retreated deep within itself, unable to cope any longer with the abuses. The primal part of him, the part that is within all Shifter’s, took over and in order to survive, he became little more than an animal.
The years passed slowly for Kam who rapidly moved up the pit-fighting circle as his combat skills improved. Eventually, he was traded to an organised crime syndicate from Sharn in order to pay off a debt. Slavery and deathmatches of the type that Kam was forced to fight in were illegal in Sharn, but very lucrative. Thousands of gold pieces could be on every fight, and a fighter like Kam was worth a lot of money. Now fourteen, the boy began to be used as a deterrent by the syndicate. “Pay your debts or we’ll put you in the cage with the kid and let him go wild.” The bloodlust of the crowd was insatiable and the desire for blood and ever more violent battles drove the syndicate to abduct citizens from Sharn’s lower levels. This was what led a small band ofadventurers to the syndicate’s door. They had been investigating the disappearance of one of their comrades who had vanished while visiting the lower levels. They followed the trail to the arena but they found that their friend had already died in the pit, killed by a young Shifter slave, Kam. Luckily, one of the adventurers managed to convince her comrades not to take their revenge on the boy, but on the slave masters and owners of the pit. They freed the slaves and shut down the pit for good.
After being freed with the rest of the slaves, Kam’s future was uncertain. Traumatised by the years spent fighting in the pit, he was feral and barely able to communicate with anyone. He couldn’t remember anything about his past or where he had come from; nor could he remember his own name. “Kam” was the name given to him by one of the adventurers. Luckily, his rescuers took pity on the boy and allowed him to “tag along,” if only to keep him out of trouble. Over the next few months, Kam slowly recovered as his new companions learned to communicate with him through sign language. Everything was new to him, and he was often left wide-eyed with wonder when taken to a new place. Kam’s fighting abilities proved useful to the party, even if his newfound personality disappeared during combat, being replaced by his old animal self. A savage and uncontrolled fighter, he preferred to fight unarmed or with the aid of spiked gauntlets, a weapon that seemed particularly well suited to his unorthodox fighting “style.” Still, mentally he was on the mend. Kam is loyal to a fault to his new friends, showing them the same kind of devotion that a loyal dog might show to his master. He still has a lot to learn about how to behave in public, often acting shy or defensive around strangers. If anyone threatens him or his friends, his gentle nature is quick to disappear, and he once again becomes a savage attack dog.
Well, it seems to have been a busy month. Uploaded three chapters, each for a different story.
An Unlikely Hero has been a pleasant surprise for me. So far it’s turned out quite well and the latest chapter (Chapter Four) has really advanced the plot. In fact this was the chapter in which I really worked out what the plot was going to be. When I first started writing AUH, all I had was in my head was the image of the main character being brutally killed in the first chapter yet somehow miraculously coming back to life.
Chapter Six has been a long time coming. The last chapter was posted way back in August of last year. I got pretty bad writer’s block at the start of the chapter. I knew that Trace (the main character) was going to save the day, I also knew that there was no way he could take out Dorga and his goons in combat. Unless of course it was in an extended “Home-Alone” style guerilla campaign. In hindsight that would have been kinda cool but would’ve taken ages to write. This chapter also revealed the final bits and pieces of the kid’s backstory and exactly what the relationship between him and Dorga was.
After taking a break to write four chapters of AUH, I returned to RS with The Tattoo. I’m glad to return to this story, as its the longest I’ve every written and there’s still so much I want to write. I really want to finish this some day. This particular chapter pretty much has nothing to do with the plot of the story, so it could be seen as filler. It does however ramp up the tension between Ryan and Boris.
These two almost came to blows in this chapter and only the timely arrival of Daniel prevented a knife fight from breaking out. This chapter also introduced Bucky. A last minuted inclusion, I never intended to introduce a dog but somehow, that section just wrote itself. Bucky is in fact the dog owned by my Mutants and Masterminds character, Jared Sanchez. Ryan’s little joke about the reason behind Bucky’s name is painful in origin, as it was originally the reason why I called my character’s dog Bucky in the M&M game. I pretty much got the same reaction from the GM and other players as Ryan did. As I said, its painful.
Exams are starting this week in programming and computing, as long as I don’t freeze up they should be a cake walk. Maths next week I’m less confident about.
The wind whipped at the sea, sending bursts of spray up onto the cliff-side path. Ryan pulled his coat tight trying to ward off the cold wind. He was supposed to be revising for his SATS exams that started on Monday but he had needed to get some fresh air after being cooped up in the house ever since getting out of hospital earlier in the week. That was what he had told Susan and Anthony, making up some story about having to return a library book in order to explain why he was taking his backpack with him. The truth was that Daniel had answered the message that Ryan had left on his voicemail, phoning him on Friday night to arrange a meeting. So here he was on a cold and windy Saturday morning, making his way towards the old lighthouse.
The lighthouse was on old granite and brick structure, constructed in the 18th century. It had served the small fishing port well into the 19th century until it was replaced by a sturdier structure out by the breakwater. That one itself was replaced by an automated electric lighthouse in the 1970’s. The original lighthouse remained as a local landmark, perched on a small plateau by the cliffs. As tourism had increased and started to replace Cliffport’s fishing fleet as the main source of employment, the lighthouse had become something of a tourist attraction. However, the Great Storm of ’87 almost put an end to that. The hurricane strength winds of that October night sheared the top off the structure; sending granite blocks, metal and glass tumbling into the raging sea below. All that was left was the hollow shell of the bottom half propped up from the inside by a latticework of supports. Shortly after coming to Cliffport, Ryan had noticed the sign outside the local church hall showing the total funds raised for the lighthouse’s restoration, a total that hadn’t seemed to have moved since the sign was put up two decades earlier.
As Ryan got to the end of the path leading up to the lighthouse, he heard the sound of barking from the path behind him. He turned and saw a small dog running up the path towards him. Ryan involuntarily took a step back as it ran up to him, its wild eyes startling him and reminding him for a brief second of the spectral hound that he had encountered nearly a month and a half ago. The dog ran around behind him and stopped, crouched on the floor whimpering. He was no expert, but even he could tell that the dog, an Alsatian crossbreed, was terrified of something. “What’s the matter boy?” Ryan asked as he stroked the dog’s fur gently. It’s black and brown coat was dirty and he wasn’t wearing a collar; Ryan guessed it was a stray. The dog perked up slightly as he spoke to it but shrank back down as Ryan heard voices down the path.
Boris and two other boys from school ran around the corner red faced and out of breath. The two boys were both carrying cricket bats, but Boris was armed with a knife. When the older boy saw Ryan standing in front of the cowering dog, he smiled. “Hey boys, looks like the mongrel’s found us another stray to play with.” Boris friends laughed as they spread themselves out in front of Ryan in a semi-circle.
Ryan’s eyes narrowed, having to deal with Boris was the last thing he wanted. “What’s the matter, bullying little kids at school not enough for you so you’ve decided to pick on defenceless animals now?”
“You and me, we got unfinished business,” Boris said glancing at his friends and waving his knife in Ryan’s direction. “But tell you what, give us the mutt and maybe we’ll let you walk out of this without breaking your legs.” His offer was greeted by derisive laughter by the other boys; Ryan had no illusion that the offer was genuine. He looked down at the dog behind him. Even if the offer had been genuine, he wasn’t about to hand the dog over to a bunch of thugs for them to torture.
“If you want this dog,” Ryan said surprising himself with how confident he sounded, “then you’ll have to come through me.” There was a glint in Boris’s eyes as he said this. Ryan realised that he’d probably made a huge mistake, the last thing he should have done is challenge Boris in front of his friends. The thug already had it in for him and after what had happened at school, he probably felt the need to prove himself. However, right at that moment, he was reminded of what he had said to Jake two months ago, “I ‘aint taking shit from any of you anymore.” He had meant what he had said back then, all those years of being someone’s punching bag were over. Even if it meant taking a beating, there was no way he was going to let this third-rate thug push him around
“You think I got a problem doing that retard?” Boris said as his friends laughed, “I mean, I heard you were a dumb shit but three against one, I thought even you’d be smarter than that.”
“I’ve taken on three knife-wielding thugs before and I still kicked their asses,” Ryan said cockily. He was also exaggerating slightly, only two of them had been armed and only one of them had actually been carrying a knife. “And the last time we fought Boris, I was half-zonked out by a stomach bug but I was still strong enough to put you on the floor.” The thug tightened his grip on the knife, silently fuming as Ryan spoke. Ryan reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the flick knife. He took a step forward and extended the blade. “Let me tell you something, three to one odds don’t mean that you outnumber me, it just means that I’ve got a target-rich environment.”
Boris’s body tensed, readying itself to charge forward and attack but was stopped when a new voice made itself heard. “Make that three against two.” Everyone turned towards the source of the voice. Ryan grinned confidently as he saw Daniel standing in the doorway, picking at the dirt underneath a fingernail with one of his knives.
“Who the hell are you?” Boris barked as Daniel walked over to stand beside Ryan. Suddenly Ryan didn’t look like such an easy target and Boris’s friends looked a little less sure about themselves. They looked between themselves and their ringleader nervously.
“I’m someone who thinks children shouldn’t play with knives or gang up on those younger than them,” Daniel said quietly, drawing his other knife and twirling them around in an impressive display of skill and finesse. “Unlike you kids, I know how to use these weapons so I suggest you leave before I have to show you what a real knife fighter can do.”
“Hey Boris,” one of the thug’s friends called out, “we can always get him at school next week.” The two sides stared at each other across the dirt for several tense seconds until Boris huffed and stepped back, relaxing the grip on his knife. He looked at Ryan with a grin on his face, although his eyes were anything but friendly.
“See you on Monday morning Henderson,” Boris said calmly, “maybe you won’t be so cocky without your boyfriend around to protect you.” With that, the thug turned and left.
Ryan watched as the boys left, not relaxing his stance until Boris had turned the corner out of sight. He dropped down into a crouch, his arms resting on his knees and laughing nervously, releasing the tension that he was feeling. The dog stood up and walked over to Ryan’s side, nuzzling against his knee as its tail wagged. Without thinking about it, Ryan reached down and scratched the back of the dog’s head affectionately. “It’s okay little fella, that jerk’s gone now.” Ryan looked over at Daniel to say thanks but stopped when he saw the look on the man’s face as he looked down at him. It was a look of disappointment. “What?”
“So you’re carrying a knife now?” Daniel said as he tucked his knives back into a pair of holsters inside his jacket.
Ryan stood up and laughed. “You’re one to talk, you carry two of them; both of them bigger than my forearms.”
Daniel crossed his arms. “That’s different, I…”
“What,” Ryan interrupted, his expression hardening and his face assuming an adolescent pout, “I’m not allowed to defend myself? After everything I’ve been through the last two months, I reckon I deserve the right to carry some protection.”
As Ryan spoke, Daniel saw that there was a confidence in him that had not been there before. When he had first tracked Ryan down nearly a year ago, he’d been a lonely young boy, barely willing to raise a fist in his own defence. All traces of that boy were gone now and there was a fire within him, perhaps a dangerous one. Along with his newfound confidence and courage, there was a short temper and a reckless streak a mile wide. He realised that Ryan had stopped talking and an awkward pause had settled over the two. “You’ve changed.” He finally said.
Ryan’s mouth opened, ready to give an angry response. Before he did, the boy’s expression softened and he looked down at the ground. He walked over to nearby bench facing the cliff edge and sat down, staring at the knife in his hand. “I’ve had to,” he said quietly. Daniel came over to the bench and sat down next to him.
“I guess so; just don’t forget who you are inside.” He put a hand on Ryan’s shoulder in what he hoped was a reassuring gesture. “You said you needed to talk.” Taking a deep breath Ryan told about what he had experienced when he “fell ill.” Listening carefully, Daniel only interrupted Ryan when he needed the boy to clarify some detail or another. After Ryan had finished speaking, Daniel leaned back on the bench and looked out to sea. “So what makes you think what you saw wasn’t just a fever-induced hallucination.”
Ryan tried to explain but he struggled to find the right words. “I remember,” he said eventually after several failed attempts, “spending my twelfth birthday hiding under my bed and barricaded in my bedroom because my foster parents at the time had come home from the pub drunk, again. But I also remember spending it paintballing with Mark and my dad before going out for a family meal; two years after he was supposed to have killed them. Plus, ¿cómo diablos puedo hablar español si nunca me lo han enseñado?”
“You what?” Daniel asked, not speaking a word of Spanish.
“I said, ‘how the hell can I speak Spanish even though I’ve never taken any lessons in it?’. The only languages I’ve learned in school are French and a bit of German. It was the other me, the one from my ‘hallucination’ that did three years of Spanish in high school. I don’t know what’s real anymore!”
Daniel whistled, “Listen, you’re not going crazy if that’s what you’re worried about.”
Ryan looked at him desperately. “Then what the hell’s happening to me?” He was close to the breaking point; Daniel could see that from the look in the boy’s eyes. The eighteen-year-old stood and leaned against the railing, facing Ryan.
“It’s difficult to explain,” Daniel began, “but I’ll try.” Ryan had been the victim of a very old and very powerful curse; one that had a unique method of attack. It subdued the victim, making it appear they had taken ill and falling into a deep fever. Their consciousness would then be forced to experience a kind of alternate reality crafted by the caster. “What you experienced was real. It sounds like Mark trapped you in a world where the events of that night four years ago never happened. He used that to get close to you without you suspecting. You’d have no memory of your real life while under the effect of the curse; at least not until the magic started to decay. That’s probably why you have all these memories that aren’t yours.” Ryan looked down at the ground, his hands fiddling uneasily with the material of his jeans. “If he’d managed to kill you while you were ‘hallucinating’, then you would have gone in to a coma and died here.” But it didn’t make sense, Daniel thought to himself. There was no way that Ryan’s brother should have been able to cast this curse. He wasn’t nearly powerful enough and even if he were, he would have needed a foci in order to target Ryan. When he told this to Ryan, the boy looked up at him, the light of realisation in his eyes. He reached inside his backpack pulled out the old leather bound book. Flicked through the pages, he stopped when he reached one that had a crudely drawn picture of a red crystal.
“Would something like this work?” Ryan showed the book to Daniel.
“A Seer Stone? That could work, but they were all supposed to be lost or destroyed long ago. Where would he get…” Daniel stopped midsentence, Ryan suddenly had a very guilty look on his face. “What did you do?”
“I kinda gave him one?” Ryan admitted. “But I didn’t have much of a choice.” He went on to explain what had happened a month and a half ago to Trey. When he was finished, he closed his eyes and leaned his head back sighing. “You know, I hate to admit, but with the way he set everything up, Mark’s smarter than ever I gave him credit for.”
“Well, at least we know where he got the power from.” Daniel said sitting back down on the bench. “But he would still have needed a foci to target you. It’s usually something personal; either something of yours or something of his in your possession.”
Ryan’s mind was blank; he couldn’t think of anything that could be the foci. He hadn’t seen his brother in four years, and as far as he knew, everything he had owned back then had been lost in the fire. It was conceivable that Mark could have taken something before torching the house but Daniel told him it was unlikely that anything could have retained a strong enough psychic impression after all that time. “But if we can’t find it, what’s to stop Mark from using it to attack me again?”
Daniel looked at the boy, a mischievous grin beginning to form. “I have an idea. But it’ll probably land you in a heap of trouble.”
Ryan returned the smile. “What’ve I got to lose?”
It had taken them a couple of hours to drive from Cliffport to Newquay, a town on Cornwall’s northern coast. The drive had been quiet, with few words being exchanged between Daniel and Ryan. Daniel had joked as they walked from the old lighthouse to the car, the small dog Ryan had ‘rescued’ following close behind, that it looked like Ryan had made a new friend. The man had found it less funny when the dog jumped onto the back seat and no amount of cajoling would get him to get out. Eventually, he had given in and Ryan had climbed in the back. Ryan had spent most of the trip sitting in the back and looking out the passenger side window, lost in thought. The dog was sitting on the seat next to him, its head resting on his lap. Daniel broke the silence as they passed by the town of Bodmin, asking Ryan what he was thinking about. “I would give anything to be able to go back to that night and stop him.” He had said. “The one thing I’ve wanted more than anything is the chance to change what I … what happened that night. I miss all of them, even Mark. As much as I hate him, part of me misses the way we used to be. All the fun we used to have, the way he looked out for me. I guess I’ve always wanted to know what it would’ve been like if they hadn’t died. Now I know. But it’s a rough trade; the lives of Trey, Ben, Jake and Spud for my parents.” Daniel didn’t know what to say after Ryan had finished, so the rest of the trip was done in silence.
When they finally arrived at Newquay and pulled into a car park, Ryan paused as he got out of the car and watched the surfers a short distance away from the beach. “I’ve seen you on that skateboard of yours,” Daniel said noticing what Ryan was looking at, “you’d probably be pretty good on a surfboard.”
Ryan turned and looked at Daniel, his eyes narrowed in annoyance. “You know, this whole stalker thing you got going ‘aint exactly helping me ‘resolve my trust issues’ as Mrs Anders would say.”
“Who’s Mrs Anders?”
“Nobody you need to know about,” Ryan said shaking his head as the dog jumped out of the car. He was surprised; Daniel seemed to know everything else about him, which was disconcerting enough, but at least there was one thing he didn’t know, the name of his psychiatrist.
They walked away from the seafront, into the town. Taking several of the back streets, it didn’t long for Ryan to get thoroughly lost. Eventually they reached their destination, a small shop above a Chinese takeaway. Before he opened the door to the stair, Daniel turned to Ryan. “Are you sure you want to do this?” Ryan nodded and together the climbed up the stairs.
The shop was dark, dimly lit by small windows. A row of chairs was lined up against one wall facing the counter, like in a doctor’s waiting room. On each of the walls were pictures of tattoo designs; both illustrations and actual photo’s of tattoos on various people. In a glass cabinet behind the counter was a selection of ear and body piercings. “Hey, anyone home?” Daniel said leaning over the counter and yelling over the load music coming from the back room. The music was turned down and a man in his late-twenties came out of the back room. He was a large man, nearly six foot in height although some of his muscle had turned to flab through lack of exercise, ruining what otherwise would have been an impressive physique. The man glanced at Ryan dismissively as he entered the shop front before focusing his attention on Daniel. “So what can I do for you?”
“I’m looking for some help for my friend here,” Daniel said. The man glanced at Ryan a second time with an appraising eye before returning his attention to Daniel.
“Kids under 16 need a parent or legal guardian present before any piercing can be done,” the man said hitching his thumb over his shoulder towards a sign on the wall that said the same, “it’s not against the law but it is company policy.”
“That’s not what we’re here for…”
“No way,” the man interrupted, “tattooing a minor is against the law, and I’m not losing my license because some punk wants to join a gang.”
“Hey,” Ryan said indignantly before Daniel cut him off.
“Look mate, we’re not here for gang tags or something to impress girls. We’re here for one of these.” Daniel pulled a piece of paper out of his jacket pocket and showed it to the man. There was a symbol drawn on it, an inverted triangle with small arcs on each of the upper two points. Almost like part of a circle that would have surrounded the triangle connecting its three points. The arcs and the tip of the bottom point were drippy, almost like something dribbling downward from their points. When the man saw the picture, he nodded in understanding. “So you’re after a Protection Sigil?” Daniel nodded. “You sure this is what you want for the kid, tattoo’s are kinda permanent after all.”
“Hey,” Ryan said indignantly, “I’m standing right here you know.”
Ignoring the boy, the man haggled with Daniel over the price for a few minutes before eventually coming to an agreement. “Gear’s in the back,” he said beckoning for Daniel and Ryan to accompany him. As Ryan turned to follow, the man held out his hand stopping him. “Hey shrimp, flip over the closed sign and lock the door will you, we don’t want anyone coming in while I do this.” Muttering under his breath, he did as he was told. When he went into the back room, he saw the man placing a small stepping stool next to the tattoo chair in the centre of the room. Seeing Ryan enter the room, the man cracked his knuckles. “Now that we’re alone,” he said, “I can dispel this bloody enchantment.” The man’s hands quickly formed a series of symbols in front of him and Ryan watched as the man’s form seemed to collapse in on itself. As the man shrank, a dog-like muzzle transformed the profile of his face and hair sprouted from his body. Thankfully, his clothes shrank with him and fitted his new four-foot high body perfectly. Ryan glanced over at Daniel, unnerved by the man’s sudden transformation. If Daniel was concerned though, he wasn’t showing it. The man looked over at Ryan and pointed at the chair. “Well kid, you waiting for an invitation? Hop in.”
Ryan climbed up into the chair and couldn’t stop himself from giggling. “What’s so funny shrimp?”
“The big plan to stop my brother from cursing me again is getting a tattoo from an ewok!” Daniel smothered a snigger behind his hand.
“I’m not a ewok,” the man said indignantly, “I’m a pooka.”
“A pooka, a member of the fey race, from the goblin realm?” The man threw his hands up in frustration. “Don’t they teach human children anything anymore?”
Ryan was still giggling. “But you look…”
“I know, I know,” the man interrupted laughing slightly, “trust me, my people were howling for George Lucas’s blood long before he made those blasted prequels.”
Daniel cleared his throat. “While I’m sure this is very amusing to you two, can we get on with this? I don’t think I can stand any more of this Linkin Park crap.” He said referring to the music playing.
“It’s not Linkin Park…” the man began as he climbed on to the stool.
“It’s Amber Pacific.” Ryan finished for him.
The man punched Ryan playfully on the arm, “You’ve got taste kid, I like you.”
“All sounds like emo pop punk crap to me,” Daniel muttered under his breath.
Ryan couldn’t help but look at the tattoo as they drove through the Cornish countryside. It hadn’t taken the man long to do it, his hands blurring with supernatural speed as he tattooed the shoulder of Ryan’s left arm. He had expected it to hurt, after all the ink was being placed under the skin using a needle and he wasn’t exactly fond of needles to start off with, but it hadn’t hurt at all. In fact, he had barely felt the procedure. Daniel told had told him that the tattoo granted him protection from rituals like curses, hexes and scrying spells. The tattoo would make it almost impossible to target Ryan unless they had something of him to use in the ritual. Something like a strand of hair or a drop of blood. The tattoo would have little effect if a warlock tried to throw a lightning bolt or fireball at him however. Magic like that didn’t need to targeted, just cast in the right direction. Despite the added protection the tattoo provided, Ryan didn’t feel any different. He had to take Daniel’s word that the tattoo was worth it.
“Have thought about what you’re going to tell your foster parents?” Daniel asked Ryan as he rolled his sleeve back down his arm.
“When I first came to live with Sue and Anthony, they sat me down in the kitchen and laid down the ground rules. No alcohol, no drugs, especially no smoking around the house. They were particularly insistent on that one,” Ryan said smiling at the memory. “Be home before curfew, you know, the usual stuff. They never said anything about not getting a tattoo.” As he said this, he noticed Daniel glancing at him and seeing the expression on the older boy’s face, he laughed. “I know, I know, I can’t use that as an excuse. I’ll have to think of something, but I don’t want to lie to them. They’ve been real good to me.”
The small dog sitting on Ryan’s lap yawned contentedly. “You keeping him or what,” Daniel asked nodding towards the dog.
Ryan looked down at the dog who looked back up at him expectantly. “I always wanted a dog when I was little, just need to think up a name for him.” The dog sat up and started licking Ryan’s face, causing the boy to giggle. “Now I’ve got to figure out a way for them to let me keep you.”
That evening, after checking that Sue and Anthony were in the living room watching TV, Ryan quietly crept out of the back door and headed to the garden shed. He had gotten home earlier that afternoon and, not knowing what to say to his foster parents, Ryan made sure the tattoo remained hidden under the sleeve of his t-shirt during dinner. When evening had started to close in, he couldn’t wait any longer and decided to chance a visit to the shed. Carrying a small bundle wrapped in a blanket, he quickly walked across the garden and opened the shed door.
As soon as he opened the the dog leapt at him, yipping happily. “Quiet down boy, you don’t want the others to hear.” Ryan unwrapped the bundle to reveal a pair of small bowls from the kitchen, a plastic bottle filled with tap water, a can of dog food he had bought from a shop on the way home and a small squeaky ball. The dog ran around his legs excitedly as he filled one of the bowls with water and emptied the can into the other. Ryan smiled as the dog greedily gobbled up the food. “You’ve got my table manners, that’s for sure.”
The dog looked up, as if distracted by something. There was a creak from the window and Ryan turned around to see Trey looking in through the dirty glass. Their eyes met and Trey grinned sheepishly. Realising that he had been rumbled, he motioned for Trey to come in. The younger boy came in and sat down next to Ryan. Cautiously at first, the dog padded over to Trey and sniffed at him. Apparently deciding that he liked him, the dog licked at Trey’s outspread hand. “What’s his name?”
“Bucky,” Ryan said picking up the ball, “and this is his ball.” He squeezed the ball and laughed.
“What’s so funny?”
“Bucky’s ball? Buckyball? Geddit?” Trey looked at him blankly. “Carbon 60 is one of the hardest substances known to science. It’s better known as buckminsterfullerene and its most common form is a spherical molecule called a bucky ball.” The younger boy still wasn’t laughing. Now that he had said it aloud, it wasn’t as funny as he had first thought. In fact, it sounded a little sad, a little geeky.
“Where did you get him?”
“He found me,” Ryan said, “up by the lighthouse. Boris and some of his jerk friends were torturing the poor thing.”
“Do you think he belongs to anyone?” The dog seemed completely comfortable around the younger boy now, as it sat on his lap while Trey stroked him.
Ryan shrugged. “No, I think he’s a stray.”
“Kinda like us then,” Trey said looking over at Ryan. The two boys sat in the shed, lit by an electric lamp, laughing, talking and playing with Bucky. Neither of them realised how late it was getting until the shed door was opened and their foster father looked inside.
“We were starting to wonder where you two had got too,” he said. Then he saw Bucky sitting between Ryan and Trey. “Where did that come from?”
Ryan and Trey looked at each other, at first neither of them saying anything. Ryan opened his mouth to say something but was beaten to the punch by Trey who picked up Bucky and went over to Anthony. “His name’s Bucky, he’s a stray and he’s got nowhere to go,” Trey said holding Bucky tightly, “can we keep him, pleeease?”
Anthony looked down at Trey. He tried to look stern, but Ryan could see the corner of his mouth curling upwards as he barely concealed a smile. “Trey Bennett, are you trying to give me the puppy dog eyes routine?”
“Maybe,” Trey said slowly, “is it working?”
“How did you get so manipulative?” Anthony asked.
“He’s twelve,” Ryan answered causing Anthony to laugh and Trey to scowl.
“Having a pet isn’t like getting a new computer game or toy,” Anthony said carefully, “it’s not something you can just abandon when you get bored.”
“Is that a no?” Trey asked at the same time as Ryan asked “Is that a yes?”
“It’s a big responsibility, and it’s something that we’d have to talk to Susan about. But for the time being, you’d better bring him inside; it’s going to be very cold tonight.”
“Yes!” Ryan and Trey cheered at the same time, high-fiving each other. Anthony told Trey to take Bucky inside as Ryan picked up the bowls, blanket and ball. As he turned to follow Trey, Anthony put an arm across the doorway, barring his exit.
“Don’t think we haven’t noticed that … thing on your arm,” Anthony said as he lifted up the sleeve of Ryan’s t-shirt, “Tomorrow, we’re going to have a little talk about the sort of behaviour that is and isn’t appropriate for a fourteen-year-old. But for now, I think it’s an early night for you.”
“BEGIN BIOHOST INTEGRATION PROCEDURE YES/NO?”
The words pulsed slowly in his field of vision as if waiting for a response. Todd’s heart was racing, all traces of tiredness banished. What was going on? He could guess that it had something to do with the nanobots, he didn’t need to be a genius to work that out, but he had no idea what “biohost integration” meant. Whatever it was, it didn’t sound good. As if in response to his racing thoughts, more text began to appear.
“DEFINITION: BIOHOST INTEGRATION
PROCESS BY WHICH BIOHOST’S ORGANIC SYSTEMS ARE ENHANCED, AUGMENTED OR REPLACED WITH CYBERNETIC SYSTEMS IN ORDER TO ACHIEVE MAXIMUM EFFICIENCY OF UNIT’S PRIMARY FUNCTION.”
“Oh this is good,” Todd thought, “it’s asking my permission to turn me into a cyborg.”
“INCORRECT: CYBERNETIC SYSTEMS WILL CONSIST OF LESS THAN 5% OF BIOHOST.”
A chill ran down the boy’s spine. “Are you … reading my mind?” He asked out loud, not sure if he wanted to hear the answer.
Todd wanted to run screaming to his dad, he knew that would probably be the right thing to do. However, there was something he needed to know; a suspicion that he needed to confirm. “You’ve already done more than just heal those gunshots, haven’t you?”
“CORRECT, SEVERE NEUROLOGICAL DAMAGE LEADING TO COGNITIVE IMPAIRMENT WAS DETECTED AND REPAIRED. AN OPTICAL SHUNT WAS ALSO INSTALLED TO FACILITATE COMMUNICATION WITH BIOHOST.”
It was talking about the brain injury he had suffered as a baby. Deep down he had known something was going on. Since waking up onboard Sentinel, part of him had felt different. He was more focused, able to concentrate on things for longer periods than he used to. Now he knew why, the nanobots were changing him. They were the reason why he had been able to ace the maths test yesterday.
Todd sat down against the door and closed his eyes, counting to ten in an attempt to calm down. “So,” he said to the nanobots, “let me get this straight. In order for you to do your medical thing better, you want my permission to upgrade parts of me with cyber stuff?”
“NEGATIVE, MEDICAL CARE IS NOT UNIT’S PRIMARY FUNCTION.”
“Then what is your ‘primary function’?” Todd asked confused.
“COMBAT ENHANCEMENT AND BATTLEFIELD ASSISTANCE.”
Sam was surprised to see his that son was already up when he went downstairs for breakfast the next morning. The boy was sitting at the kitchen counter with a bowl of brightly coloured frosted cereal. Opened in front of him was a textbook that he was studying intently as he munched on the cereal. Next to the textbook was another book, a dictionary with dense double-columned text that Todd occasionally consulted to look up an unfamiliar word.
“Don’t read at the table,” Sam said switching on the coffee maker. Todd mumbled an apology, muffled through a mouthful of cereal, and closed the books. “What are you reading anyway? That doesn’t look like a schoolbook.” He reached across the table and turned the book around so he could read the cover. It was a book on nanotechnology, old and slightly dog-eared. “This is from the study.”
Todd swallowed the cereal and shrugged. “Until recently, the only thing I knew about nanobots was from that sci-fi show where they “facsimilate” people.”
Sam laughed softly, “I think you mean assimilate.”
“That’s what I said, assimilate. If I’m going to have these things inside of me for the rest of my life, I might as well learn as much as I can about them.”
Although there was no trace of bitterness in his son’s voice, Sam couldn’t help but feel a stab of guilt. He realised that he never really spoken to Todd about the nanobots inside of him. In hindsight, it was obvious that Todd would be curious about them. Sam picked up the book. “I went to college with Matthew Sanchez, the person who wrote this book.”
“Really?” Todd said as he finished his cereal.
“He wrote it in his second year, quite advanced stuff for a seventeen-year-old in the late eighties. Really ahead of its time, if he hadn’t dropped out of college he could’ve made a great contribution to the field.” He flicked through the yellowed pages.
After putting the bowl in the dishwasher, Todd checked his backpack, making sure that his homework was in the bag. “I’m gonna be late back from school tonight; I’m stopping by the library on the way home.”
“Don’t be too late…” he said looking up from the book but Todd had already grabbed his bike helmet and left.
The six-mile bike ride to school gave Todd the time he needed to think. After his “conversation” with the nanobots last night, Todd hadn’t slept much. He had asked the nanobots exactly what “Biohost Integration” involved and what they wanted to do to him. The nanobots had responded with a bewildering list of procedures. Some of them were easy to understand but most of the proposed “augmentations” were beyond his understanding. Cybernetics and nanotechnology weren’t exactly subjects taught at middle school. Confused and not a little scared by the prospect of what the nanobots wanted to do to him, he had told them to shut up and leave him alone. Surprisingly they seemed to listen, the green text vanishing from his vision. Lying in bed afterwards, he realised that he had to find out as much as he could about what was happening to him.
Todd knew that his dad had been working on the alien nanobots. First thing that morning he had gone into his dad’s study looking any information he could find on the technology. Unfortunately, most of the research data was on the computer and Todd didn’t know anything about hacking. He had been able to find a few books n the study, most of them were out of date but they were a good start for someone like him. That was why his dad had found him sitting at the breakfast table studying a twenty-year-old textbook. In the beginning, he had needed to consult the dictionary at least once a paragraph to decode the meaning behind an unfamiliar word. Yet as he had continued reading, the subject matter became easier for him to digest. By the time his dad had come down for breakfast, Todd had already read the first four chapters, surprising himself by how much he understood.
Halfway into his journey to school, Todd pulled into a petrol station and propped his bike up against an outside cooler. Todd usually met up with his friend on the way to school, the petrol station marking the point where their respective routes to school merged. A J was running late again so Todd went inside the station’s shop to wait for him. He immediately wandered over to the news rack at the back of the store and looked for his favourite video game magazine. The gangly-armed college student sitting behind the counter and glass partition didn’t notice the boy enter, his nose buried in a book. Todd was crouched down, flicking through reviews of the latest video games when he heard the door open a few minutes later. He was about to stand up to see if it was A J when he heard a voice that couldn’t possibly belong to his friend.
“The register,” the voice yelled, “open it.”
Todd dropped the magazine and his heart began to race. He looked up at the convex security mirror mounted on the ceiling above him. Through its distorted reflection, he saw a masked gang member, maybe 16 or 17 years of age, standing at the front of the shop pointing his gun at the student. Although stunned for a second by the sudden appearance of the armed robber, the student acted quickly, ducking behind the counter and pressing the hidden silent alarm button. Hidden from view behind shelving, Todd flipped open his mobile and dialled 911.
“911 Emergency, what is your location?”
Todd spoke quietly, not wanting to alert the robber that he was there. “I’m at the Circle K gas station on North Roosevelt Boulevard; some guy with a gun is robbing it!”
“Okay son, is that the one at 3032 North Roosevelt?”
Todd paused for a second; he still didn’t know his way around the city’s streets. “I dunno, but it’s opposite the little league field.” He didn’t hear the emergency operator’s reply. Frustrated by the lack of cooperation the gang member fired his gun at the student. The bullets impacted harmlessly on the ballistic glass, spider webbing its surface but not penetrating it. Todd dropped the phone, shocked by the sound of the gunshots in the enclosed space. He quickly picked up his phone but before he could bring it to his ear, a shadow fell over him. Looking up, he came face to face with the barrel of a gun.
Officer Taylor was walking across the car park of the fast food restaurant, two coffees in his hands, when his radio squawked into life.
“All units in the vicinity of 13th and Roosevelt, silent alarm triggered at the Circle K gas station.”
His partner leaned out the window having heard the same message. “Hey Robby, isn’t that…” He began to say.
“Just down the road.” Taylor finished for him, looking through the chain link fence that ran alongside the car park, across the grass and dirt baseball diamond, towards the petrol station with the Circle K logo outside. All seemed quiet, the forecourt was empty. “Probably just a false alarm.” He climbed into the car and passed his partner his coffee.
“Update on the silent alarm,” the dispatcher said through the radio, “report of two-eleven in progress. Shots fired.”
“Okay,” Taylor said emptying his coffee out of the window, his partner doing the same, “not a false alarm.”
“Give me the money,” the gang member yelled at the student, “or I put a bullet in this kid’s head!” He punctuated his threat by jamming the barrel of the pistol into the side of Todd’s head. The youth had his arm around Todd’s neck, pinning the struggling boy to his chest.
“I can’t,” the student said with wide panicked eyes, “the register locks when the alarm is triggered!”
“You’re lying!” Yelled the gang member, shooting the ballistic glass of the partition again. The arm around Todd’s neck tightened and the thug lifted him until Todd had to stand on tiptoes hanging on to the arm in order to avoid being strangled. “I’ll do it,” he hissed, “the money or the kid dies.”
“THREAT MODE ENGAGED, VOICE STRESS ANALYSIS INDICATES 78% CHANCE ASSAILANT WILL CARRY OUT THREAT. RECOMMEND IMMEDIATE PROTECTIVE MEASURES.”
“Not now,” Todd muttered under his breath. Although he hated to admit it, the nanobots were right. Curiously, although he should have been panicking, he felt calm. All his senses seemed heightened. It wasn’t like super-hearing or super-vision, it was more like he was noticing EVERYTHING around him; the tone of the voices, the angle of the sunlight coming through the front windows, everything. The gang member was waving his gun around again, threatening the student. Todd saw that this was his chance. Letting go of the gang member’s arm, he jabbed his elbow sharply into the youth’s stomach. With a grunt, the gang member lost his grip on Todd and the boy tore free. He could have made a break for it, running for the front door. However, he knew that he’d never make it; the gang member would have a clear shot of his back for several seconds before he reached the door. Instead, he turned to face the gang member and kicked him hard in the groin. At the same time, the gang member smacked the butt of the pistol against the side of Todd’s head. Both of them fell to the floor stunned, Todd blinking to clear the stars from his vision, the gang member groaning and clutching his groin. As the gang member fell, he dropped his gun and the pistol landed between him and Todd. They both recovered their wits at the same time and scrambled for the gun, wrestling on the floor. Todd kicked out, the heel of his shoe striking the gang member’s nose and forcing him back. He grabbed the pistol and jumped back, aiming it at the gang member. “Stay back,” he yelled in a voice he hoped sounded brave and not like that of a scared thirteen-year-old kid.
The gang member chuckled harshly. “Give me the gun kid, I don’t wanna have to hurt ya.” Two red cross hairs appeared in Todd’s field of vision, both of them fixed over gang member; one centred between the eyes, the other hovering over the gang member’s heart. A third green crosshair wavered around the gang member’s body. Todd realised with a start that the green crosshair was indicating where he was aiming the gun. The red ones were showing recommended targets, both of them kill shots. The nanobots must be using the optical shunt to deliver heads-up-display style information, and they were recommending a one-shot kill. However, there was no way he was going to shoot-to-kill. Both the nanobots and the gang member seemed to sense his reluctance to shoot. The gang member responded by pulling out a knife and stepping towards him; the nanobots by generating more targeting crosshairs, this time orange ones over the knees, shoulders and hands; disabling shots.
“Put the knife down,” Todd said, “I’ll shoot.”
“No, you won’t,” the gang member sneered taking another step towards Todd.
Flicking the pistol’s safety on, Todd smiled. “You know what, you’re absolutely right.” Before the gang member could respond, Todd tossed the pistol in to the air, caught it by the barrel, and smashed the grip into the side of the youth’s head. The gang member crumpled to the floor, unconscious.
“Little dude, that was awesome!” The student said, unlocking the door to the cashier partition and coming out to stand by Todd. “You totally kicked his butt!”
Todd looked up at him and handed him the gun. “You better take this,” he said, “I don’t like guns.” The sound of sirens outside and the screeching of tires heralded the arrival of the police.
Officer Taylor didn’t believe the cashier’s story at first. Looking at the scrawny thirteen-year-old, Taylor guessed he couldn’t be more than five foot in height and 100 pounds. The gang member must have had at least 10 inches and 50 pounds on him. It was hard to believe that he had overpowered and disarmed the gang member. However, the cashier had been insistent. When questioned about it, the boy had been cagey, almost embarrassed to admit his involvement. It was only when the gang member had come too and fixed the boy with a murderous stare, yelling obscenities at him and vowing to track him down for what he’d done, that he finally accepted that the kid had indeed taken the armed robber down singlehandedly.
“So what’s your name son?” He asked Todd a few minutes later after the gang member had been taken away. Todd was sitting on the bonnet of the patrol car drinking a slushie donated by the grateful cashier.
“Todd sir, Todd Marshall.”
The police officer looked at him quizzically for a few seconds. “Do you go to Horace O’bryant?” Todd nodded. “And yesterday you got into a fight with Billy Taylor.”
“How did you…” Todd started to say but then he saw the officer’s name badge. “You’re Billy’s dad. Crud.” He shivered under the stern gaze of the police officer, not just because of the cold ice drink. Getting in to a fight at school was one thing, but even he should’ve known better than to beat up a cop’s son. The police officer held his expression for several long seconds before breaking into a smile.
“Relax son, your teacher told me what happened. Billy should never have said those things about you and your father, he’s lucky he got away with just a black eye and a bloody nose judging by how you dealt with that gang banger.”
“Hey Todd, what’ve you done now?” A J called out from the edge of the forecourt, sitting on his bike on the other side of the police line. Todd waved to him and turned back to Officer Taylor.
“Can I go?” Todd asked him. “I don’t want to be late for school.”
“I suppose so,” the policeman said, “just stay out of trouble.”
Todd grinned, “I’ll try,” he said as he collected his bike, “but lately, trouble seems to be finding me, not the other way around.”
Being the son of the commander of Overwatch had its advantages. Ever since its launch ten years ago, Cody had spent nearly every school holiday onboard Sentinel, exploring every nook and cranny. With Paragon as his father, he had been able to go places normally off limits to civilians and he had the run of the entire station. In his exploring, Cody had found places the only the designers and engineers knew existed, places where coverage of the station’s security system was patchy at best. That was why he was here now, in the bowels of Sentinel, where he could be sure of secrecy.
Making sure that he was alone; Cody took a small crystal amulet from around his neck and clasped it in his hand. The crystal glowed briefly and a shadowy figure appeared in the corner of the room. “Report,” Cody said to the figure.
“The boy has responded to the antibiotics and his infection has subsided,” said the figure, “his condition has stabilised.”
“Good,” Cody said turning his back on the figure. The boy looked at his reflection in the shiny surface of a metal pipe, running his hand through his hair and examining his face. “As long as Paragon’s brat is alive, I’ve got access to his memories and personality through the link we now share.”
“Of course sir, I shall make sure there are no further complications from the surgery.”
“Make sure that you do. Without that access, this whole operation will have been a waste of time. Now what about the other boy?”
The regular beeping of the EKG machine roused the real Cody from his deep sleep. Although his vision was blurred and his thought processes slowed from the drugs flowing into his body through the IV connected to his right arm, he could tell that something was very wrong. Despite the medical equipment arrayed around the bed he was lying on, the room he was in didn’t look like a hospital room. With its grimy concrete walls and exposed pipes, it looked more like a basement. The beeping of the heart monitor increased its speed with his heart rate as became more aware of the fact that he was strapped down on the bed and couldn’t move. Above the bed was a gantry of lights that could illuminate the bed if with a harsh white light, although currently they were turned off. The metal of the gantry was reflective and through it, he could see that apart from his shorts, he was naked and an angry red scar was present on his abdomen above his left kidney.
A blurred figure approached the bed. “Who are you, what’s going on,” Cody tried to ask. However, the question came out mumbled, a nonsensical string half-formed words. He was starting to panic. The last thing he remembered was getting on the bus to the beach near his school. Now he was strapped to a bed in a dank basement with a surgical scar.
“Oh,” the figure said leaning over Cody, “you’re awake.”
“What … what did you do to me?” Cody managed to force himself to say. The figure didn’t answer as he pulled out a hypodermic needle and drew a dose of sedative. Seeing the needle, Cody struggled feebly against the restraints but could do nothing as the man inserted the needle into his arm. The blackness rapidly closed in and once again, he fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
The car pulled up in front of the school. Todd looked out of his window towards the main entrance of Horace O’bryant Middle School. It had been a just over a week since he had been released from quarantine and given the all clear, two weeks since the incident at the house. This was his first day back at school and he was a little nervous. He got out of the car and turned to close the door. “Todd,” his dad said leaning over to the passenger-side window, “are you sure this is what you want?” Sam had tried to convince his son to take Uncle John up on his offer of arranging a place at Cody’s school. He had been worried about his son’s safety and if he’d had his way, Todd would have gone to school surrounded by armed guards. In the week he’d spent on Sentinel after being released from quarantine, Todd’s dad had spent nearly every minute with him. It was understandable though, he had almost lost his son that night. But Todd was adamant that he wasn’t going to hide for the rest of his life, nor did he want to be shielded from the real world like his cousin. Somehow, he had managed to convince his dad to let him return to his normal school. He was a little suspicious that his dad had acquiesced so easily.
“I’ll be fine, quit worrying about me.” Todd said a little too sharply and shouldered his backpack. Taking a deep breath, he walked through the main entrance and towards the playground. He received more than a few strange looks from the other kids as he walked onto the playground. Several people pointed at him and whispered to their friends. He started to wonder if this was such a good idea, maybe dad had been right, maybe he should have waited another week but Todd had been eager to get back to school. He’d already had a rough start to the eighth grade and missing two weeks near the start of the school year probably wasn’t going to help.
He was about to turn around and head back to the gate when he heard voice cut across the playground noise. “Todd, you’re back!” Todd looked up and saw a boy his own age running towards him.
“Hey A J.” Todd had joined the school at the start of the school year after moving to Key West earlier in the summer. He hadn’t had much time to make friends but thankfully, most of the other children in his class hadn’t made it too hard for the new boy to settle in. Todd had been lucky enough to find himself sitting at a desk next to Andrew Jarvis on his first day and once the usual adolescent awkwardness had passed, he had made his first friend since moving to Florida. “Did I miss much?” He asked as A J skidded to a stop in front of him.
“Never mind that,” A J asked him, his eyes wide open, “is it true?”
“Is what true?”
“Billy Taylor’s dad’s a cop,” A J explained, “and he said that his dad said that you got shot, that there was blood everywhere!” Several of his classmates were also starting to move over towards them, forming a small group around him.
Todd sighed inwardly, so much for the cover story that Uncle John had drilled into him. If A J knew then it was a good chance that half the kids in school knew as well; things like that spread quickly across the playground. He could try to deny it, stick to the cover story, but that would be difficult if half the school was already convinced of the truth. Besides, he hadn’t been comfortable about having to lie to his new friend in the first place. “It’s not as bad as Billy’s making out,” he said hoping his dad wouldn’t be too mad about this.
“Are you calling my dad a liar?” Billy said from behind Todd.
“That’s … that’s not I meant.” Todd stuttered, more than a little intimidated by the larger boy.
A J asked him again. “Well, did you get shot or not?”
Sam watched his son enter the school before driving off. As well as being impulsive, his son had a stubborn streak a mile wide. Todd got that stubbornness from his mother. Like her, once he had his mind set on something, there was very little that could be done to change it. He could have put his foot down, sent Todd to that boarding school whether he wanted to or not but for some reason he didn’t. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to take any steps to protect his son. As he stopped at the intersection waiting for the lights, he reached over and switched on the dashboard mounted GPS unit. The LCD touch screen lit up and displayed a map showing the car’s current location. Sam pressed the little magnifying glass icon, activating the “Find” function, and an onscreen keyboard replaced the map. He tapped on the keys, spelling the word “Todd” and pressed the “OK” button. The map reappeared centred over the school where had dropped his son off. A blinking yellow dot appeared over the school; Sam pressed dot and the screen blanked for a second. A live satellite feed appeared and zoomed in on the school playground. Sam could see Todd standing with a group of other children, oblivious to the fact that he was being watched from space. Last night, he had given Todd a present. A brand new digital watch, crammed with features, half of which he knew the boy would probably never use. Todd had rolled his eyes at the gadget but had taken the present nonetheless; it was a cool looking watch after all. What Todd didn’t know was that Sam had placed a GPS chip in the watch; a chip that Sam could use to track his son’s whereabouts at all times using one of Overwatch’s satellites orbiting over the US. Sam had effectively “lojacked” his son, something he knew Todd would be furious about if he ever found out. The car behind him beeped its horn, the lights had turned green.
Across the road from the school sat a grey utility van with the logo of a local cable company plastered on its side. A worker sat in front a nearby utility box, a rugged laptop on his knee as he ran a series of connection tests, occasionally cursing. To the casual observer, he appeared to be nothing more than a technician trying to track down a fault within the area’s broadband or cable TV connection. However, the act was a lie; his work with the utility box was merely a cover for his real job.
He watched the young boy that he had been ordered to spy on get out of his father’s car. The last time he had seen Todd Marshall, he had been lying in his father’s arms bleeding to death after he had nearly emptied an entire clip into the boy. With their mission complete, they had returned through the portal only to learn a few days later of the boy’s miraculous survival. Part of him was glad that he had survived, he had never been comfortable with shooting the boy. Still, you don’t argue with orders given by a man that orders the death of a child merely to underscore a point he is trying to make.
The man tapped a series of notes in coded shorthand on his laptop as Todd entered the school. He hoped that he wouldn’t be ordered to finish the job; this Todd seemed like a good kid. Looking up from the laptop, he saw Todd surrounded by a group of school kids and lifting his t-shirt up. “What’s that all about?” He wondered.
“Brutal,” A J whistled as Todd lifted his t-shirt. He had been browbeaten by Billy into showing his chest after admitting that he had been shot. Todd had learnt on his first day that Billy usually got what he wanted and he didn’t want to have to explain to his dad again why he had black eye. Although the nanobots had repaired most of the damage caused by the gunshots without leaving any marks, a knot of scar tissue had been left behind on the right hand side of his stomach where several bullets had hit close together. The flesh had been torn ragged by the entry of the bullets but the nanobots had been able to knit the flesh back together making it appear as only a single gunshot wound. “Did it hurt much?”
“Dunno,” Todd lied, “I woke up in hospital a couple of days later. Don’t remember anything about Sunday night.” He tried to downplay the situation, make it sound less serious than it actually was. Then Billy just had to pipe in with the fact that Paragon had been present at Todd’s house. If this had been New York, where Todd had lived for ten years before moving to Key West, no one would have cared about the presence of the super. Super-battles were so common there that they barely made it to the traffic reports, never mind the nightly news. However, here in Key West, supers and super-battles were rare. Todd thanked God that no one had any idea that Paragon was his uncle or that his dad freelanced for Overwatch.
“You met Paragon?” A J said wide-eyed. “That is so awesome, what was he like?”
“Er … did you miss the part where I said I was unconscious and I don’t remember anything.” Across the playground, he saw his homeroom teacher walking towards the classroom block. “Hey, I’ll catch up with you guys in class.” Todd picked up his backpack and jogged away from the group towards his teacher. “Miss Gunderson!”
Sarah Gunderson turned around at the sound of his voice and flashed a kind smile when she saw him running over. “Todd, I didn’t know you were back at school today. How are you feeling?”
“I’m okay Miss,” Todd said smiling back. He liked Miss Gunderson, unlike many of the teachers he’d had previously, she didn’t make him feel stupid when he asked a question in class or didn’t understand something because of his dyslexia. She also had the patience to deal with him fairly when he acted up in class and made sure that if he needed extra help because of his problems that he always got it. She was a new teacher, having only started at the school at the start of the year and she was still enthusiastic about teaching.
“That’s good to hear. Now, what can I help you with?”
“I missed the math test on the 21st and I was wondering if there was any way I could take it during lunch?”
Miss Gunderson raised an eyebrow, “I thought you hated maths, it always seems to bring out your most colourful language.”
Todd blushed, it was true that sometimes he got so worked up in math lessons that he occasionally cursed out loud in frustration without meaning to. “I know, but I studied really hard for it and I’d like to at least have a go. I’ll probably fail it anyway but I want to able to tell my dad that I tried.”
She laughed softly, “I’m sure you’ll do your best. But perhaps during third period would be a better time to take the test, I wouldn’t want you to miss lunch in order to do some algebra sums. That would be cruel.” The school bell rang and children began to filter towards their classrooms. “I’ll have a word with Mrs Willis and see if I can arrange it for today.”
“Really, thanks Miss, you’re the best.” With that, he turned and ran off to join his classmates, waving as he ran. The teacher watched as Billy came up behind Todd and said something that made the smaller boy scowl. Todd clenched his fists as his face flushed red but to his credit, he managed to control his anger and turn back to A J. Miss Gunderson could see what has coming and she quickened her step to try to intervene. Billy cuffed the back of Todd’s head and she could visibly see the moment that Todd’s patience snapped. The smaller boy span around yelling “LIAR” and struck the side of Billy’s face. The bully leapt onto him sending both of them to the ground where they started kicking and punching each other.
That afternoon, Sam was in his study sitting at his desk. Piled next to him was a stack of unmarked coursework. As well as his research position, Sam also taught a couple of classes, something which gave him a great deal of pleasure. After spending two weeks off work with his son, there were a number of assignments that needed marking and he had decided to work from home so he could clear the backlog. Yet try as he might, he found it hard to concentrate on the mysteries of molecular engineering. His eyes kept wandering across the desk towards another stack of papers, Todd’s test results that he’d brought with him from Sentinel. He started flicking through the test results, hoping inspiration would strike, anything to take his mind off the appointment he had tomorrow with his lawyer about the possible charges he might be facing for injecting Todd with the nanobots. Even though it had been a desperate act done in order to save his son’s life, the Advisory Council had decided to go forward with the charges. On top of it all, earlier in the day he had received a most unwanted phone call from his son’s school.
The front door opened and Sam heard his enter the house noisily. “Baxter, is dad home?” He heard his son yell from the hallway.
“I’m in the study son,” he said answering for the computer, “can you come in here for a minute.”
Todd ran into the study. His face was red, as if he had ran home all the way from the bus stop. His t-shirt was dirty with a small tear near the bottom and there were a few spots of blood on its front. Despite the state of his clothes, Todd was grinning. “Dad,” he said breathlessly while holding a piece of paper, “you’ll never guess…”
Sam looked at his son sternly as he interrupted him, “Todd, the principal called. He said you were fighting again with Billy Taylor.”
Sam pinched the brow of his nose and sighed. “No buts Todd, we’ve talked about this before. I know you find school difficult, and that Billy Taylor is a little thug, but you have to learn to control your anger better. Do you want to get kicked out of another school?”
“Billy Taylor said you were making drugs in the basement and selling them to college students and the bad guys found out and were angry that you were stealing their customers and they came to our house to threaten you and I got shot because you wouldn’t give them a cut of the profits.” Todd said quickly without taking a breath.
“And that’s why you punched him?”
“He started it,” Todd whined defensively, “was I supposed to just stand there and let him tell lies like that.” But his dad wasn’t listening, he kept on talking about not using violence to solve his problems. As he spoke, Todd just got angrier and angrier. He looked down at the piece of paper in his hand, which until a few moments ago had seemed so important.
“Well, what are we going to about this?” Sam asked, looking at his son across the desk.
Todd screwed up the paper was holding into a ball and looked up at his father. His eyes were red and he was holding back tears as he glared angrily at his father. Why couldn’t he make his father understand, why couldn’t he just see that it wasn’t his fault? Why did he have the ruin everything? Dropping the ball of screwed up paper to the floor; he spoke quietly, barely above a whisper but loud enough for Sam to hear. “I hate you.” Todd turned and ran out of the room, not wanting his dad to see him cry.
“Todd wait,” Sam said getting up as his son fled. “Damn,” he thought, “that didn’t go well.” Maybe he had come on too strong, been too hard on him. After all, his son had been provoked into the fight. Sam had so much on his mind; maybe he should have cut his son some slack. Walking around the desk, he picked up a photo frame and sighed. The photograph was the only one that he had of the three of them together, Todd, Helen and himself. It had been taken only a few weeks before the crash in which his wife had died. “I’m a terrible father.” She would’ve known what to do, he was sure of it.
Putting the photo frame back on the bookshelf, Sam noticed the screwed up ball of paper that Todd had left on the carpet. He reached down and picked it up, smoothing out its crumpled surface. It was a graded test paper and in the top corner, circled prominently and with the words “well done” written next to it, was the grade; an A plus. Todd had gotten every single question correct. Sam scanned the paper, all the working out was there, all in Todd’s handwriting. “Wow,” Sam said to himself, “his first A.” No wonder he had been so happy when he came home, he thought, all that hard work had paid off. Then it hit him, Todd must have rushed home to tell him and the first thing that happened is that he received a lecture from his father over a silly playground brawl.
Taking a deep breath, he slowly walked up the stairs towards Todd’s bedroom. Sam knocked on the door. The only answer he got was a muffled “go away” which he ignored and opened the door. Todd had been lying on his bad, his face buried into his pillow. He sat up quickly as Sam came in, wiping his eyes and nose on the back of his sleeve. “What do want now?” Todd said glaring at him from under his fringe.
Sam sat down on the bed next to him handed him the test paper. “You left this downstairs.” His son took the paper off him, sniffing slightly.
“I just wanted you to be proud of me for once,” Todd said quietly, a tear he couldn’t hold back falling onto the test paper.
“Todd,” Sam said in surprise, “I’ve always been proud of you.”
Todd shook his head. “But, you’re like the smartest person in the world, how can you be proud of someone like me. I’m always in trouble at school and I never get good grades. I’ve never got above a C in my life. If I was good at sports that’d be something but I suck at that too.” As he spoke, Sam began to realise that this wasn’t something new; Todd must have been bottling these feelings up for weeks, months perhaps even years. How long had he been hiding these feelings and how could he have not seen them? “My seventh grade teacher was right, I’m a moron.”
“Todd Marshall,” he said turning his son around to face him, “you are not a moron, you are my son and I am proud of you.” Todd opened his mouth to interrupt but Sam kept on talking, saying something he realised he should have said long ago. “You’ve always had difficulties at school because of your problems. But unlike other kids, you’ve never used them as an excuse to just give up. You’ve always tried your hardest to overcome them, and it’s not been easy; it’s been hard but you never stopped trying. That’s why I’m proud of you.” A small smile appeared on his son’s face.
“Really?” Todd asked him.
“Of course,” he answered, pulling his son into a hug. “Just do me a favour, no more fighting to protect the family honour. One superhero in the family is enough.”
Todd awoke in the early hours of Tuesday morning with a thumping headache and a mouth more parched than the Arizona desert. Bleary-eyed, he stumbled out of bed and shuffled his way towards the bathroom. He winced as he switched the light on, temporarily blinded by the sudden light, even though he should have expected it.
“Is everything all right?” Baxter asked quietly from a speaker in the ceiling, the volume of his voice lowered because of the early hour.
“Just a headache, and a bit thirsty,” Todd grunted, “I’ll live.”
“There is a bottle of headache tablets on the bottom shelf of the medicine cabinet.” The computer said helpfully.
“Thanks.” He reached over to the medicine cabinet, having to stand on his tiptoes to reach it, and felt around for several seconds for the bottle before finding it. Todd read the instructions before tipping one of the tablets into his hand and swallowing it along with a gulp of water from a glass. “We’ll see if it’s fast acting or not,” he muttered rubbing his temples in front of the mirror. He stood there for a couple of seconds, looking at his reflection. The weather had been warm and he had gone to bed without a vest or t-shirt. In the glass of the mirror, he could see he could see the knot of scar tissue. Despite how “awesome” his friends at school might have thought it was, to him it was an uncomfortable reminder of just how close he had come. His headache took that moment to send a stab pain rippling across his head. “What sort of alien nano-thingies,” he hissed through gritted teeth, “can heal a dozen gunshots but can’t do anything about a simple headache.”
He was about to leave the bathroom when something strange happened. Grey static washed over his vision, blinding him for several seconds. Todd stumbled towards the sink in panic and was about to call out to Baxter when his vision suddenly cleared. Staring at his reflection in the mirror, and panting heavily with beads of sweat dribbling down his face, he became aware of something very disturbing. Floating in the bottom left of his vision were a series of glowing green characters. Todd didn’t recognise them and he had a feeling that they belonged to no earthly alphabet. Another series of characters appeared in the upper right that changed rapidly; an ever changing sequence of alien letters and pictographs which only stopped when they read “LANGUAGE SETTING: EARTH/HUMAN/ENGLISH.” The characters in the bottom left of his vision changed at the same time to read, “OPTICAL SHUNT ESTABLISHED – BEGIN BIOHOST INTEGRATION PROCEDURE YES/NO?”