Volume I: Rise of the Terralytes
Book I: Always Stand Up
BOOK OF DARK
[Volume I: Rise of the Terralytes
Book I: Always Stand Up]
Copyright © 2016 by Deepak Khanchandani
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A CALL TO ARMS
To the orphans around the world
And to those who face bullies every day
I wish I could give you majjikal powers
So you could repel the evil in your way
I haven’t got such abilities, though
Majjik is not something I can do
But I’m not the one you need, no
The one who must stand up is you
When surrounded by dread and darkness
When faced with unrelenting harm
Be brave, show mettle, be fearless
And never forget, “kenid akhnayram”
HOW THE MIGHTY FALL
Swords puncture the murk, emitting sparks of ice-blue and emerald green that guide the beaks and feathered heads through the inky skies. Hints of faces appear inside clouds within the smoke—an eye here, a mouth there—their owners materializing only to launch orbs against the storm of energy unleashed by the swords before vanishing once more into the Kaos-ether.
The scales on her head and on her neck glint with the light of the fire—her fire—that engulfs the battlefield. Her eyes slant in rage as furious wings of feather swish by. She turns to aim her fire at them, but, as quickly as they appeared, they vanish into the smoke overhead.
A dozen quivers of arrows follow them, and are lost to the opaque fumes—then the shriek of a large bird of prey, then a falling Majjikon—an arrow has found its mark. Explosions erupt across the darkened sky, and the ground beneath shudders with their aftershocks.
She shakes her head to clear her thoughts, but the haze is incurable, for her thoughts are not her own. They belong to her rider, the Fargham Zohai—the only Dragon Rider ever to walk upon the earth. He directs her, and she swings her horned tail at the Majjikons now charging forth, each of whom wears the black, emblem-laden cloak. Each of whom wields the trademark sword and dagger of the PeaceKeeper.
Leading the charge are the ones whose hands are bathed in green and blue, and all of the hues in between. They dominate the battlefield. They dominate his soldiers.
Barely clothed men and scantily-clad women also fight his warriors with orbs of silvery-white. Their Queen rips off her vestments and her chest explodes into fur and muscle, her nails into claws. Her howl entices more of her kind to let out the beast within. Together, they take on his panther-mounted cavalry. Canine strength overpowers feline energy. Wolf claws rip out panther throats. Then, the pack bestows the same fate upon the now abandoned, ride-less soldiers.
No matter, he tells himself, for his own majjik is strong. Gaia herself bends to his will, as does Kaos. Their powers now combine in his extremities, forming dark, turquoise plumes. The majjik rises from him and tackles the soldiers that have dared to march against him. It spreads through their bodies as though infecting their very souls. This pleases him. And he can sense that it pleases her too.
Then, out of nowhere, there is lightning.
The electricity courses through him. Where did it come from? What is this majjik that now unleashes itself upon him? He fights it, struggling to understand, straining, for he must understand, for without comprehension there can be no cure. Alas, before he knows it, he is too late.
The unfathomable majjik has claimed him.
He hears her deep grumbles and knows that it is her end too. She burns like paper, her black scales dispersing into the swirling wind.
He wills time to stop, but he knows it won’t heed. He can already hear innocent, adolescent screams—the desperate shrieks of his own offspring, who cannot understand what is happening to them. Or why.
It is alright, my children, he communicates to them. It will all be over soon.
In the end, though, for all the dark majjik he commands, for all the Kaos energy at his fingertips, it ends like this. The Book… It falls away from him, banishing itself, out of Majjikon hands forever—the vessel that houses all his prowess, the culmination of all his knowledge and wisdom…
Book of Dark.
In the beginning they were just called Majjikons.
Genetically almost human, they bore crucial differences.
Gaians could harness the Power of Gaia—of Mother Earth.
Solarians wielded the sun’s immense thermal Powers.
The moon’s gravity gave Lunirahs unique abilities.
And Kaosites fed off the universe’s natural state of disorder and entropy.
But this is not a story about them.
This is not a story about Book of Dark.
This is the story of a Majjikon who lost his memory.
This is the story of a boy named Keane.
And behold Yoverikh’s loins
Shall bear two same to sight
Each possessing unique powers
Of the Dark, and of the Light
Rodukai shall defend with own life
Creations made by Yoverikh’s might
Khavarakh will destroy all who
Look upon sacred Creations with spite
—translated excerpt from The Thuulmahrian Prophecies,
Book IV, Hymn CXLIX, Verses XIII & XIV
One of Those Dreams]
Keane sat bolt upright in his bed, panting, sweating, and generally upset that his hands were glowing again.
It was a neon green sort of glow. The kind that desolate signs on lonely street corners often rhythmically blasted into the late night. The kind that Keane was, unfortunately, all too familiar with.
When he noticed that the entire dorm room was now awash in the emerald emission from his hands, he went into a silent panic and tried to shake it off. But this made the shadows he was already casting on the walls dance around like ghostly apparitions. So, he stopped.
Really, he should have known better; it wasn’t the first time that this had happened and, though he didn’t know it then, it certainly wasn’t going to be the last.
But he had to do something about his sickly-looking green hands. As the lanky, pimple-faced fourteen year old resident of dorm 5D at the St. Martin’s Orphanage for Boys, Keane had the misfortune of sharing his room with five other pubescent boys, and knew just how cruel they could be to even the slightest aberration. And, at this stage, his hands were beyond aberrations. They were full-on abominations.
He concealed the luminous appendages under his flimsy blanket, but the cheap fabric acted like a lamp shade and only cast the light farther still. This made him inhale sharply, panicking anew, and withdraw his hands back into the open.
In a moment of sheer desperation, he considered sticking them down his pajama bottoms. Fortunately, the moment was brief, and he soon came to his senses—if luminous hands alone could earn him hideous nicknames such as ‘K’neon’ and ‘Keenward Bulbhands’, he didn’t even want to imagine what would result from getting caught with what looked like glow sticks down his pants.
Dorm 5D was so small a room that it finished almost as soon as it started, but yet somehow managed to contain three bunk beds, a book shelf, and a writing desk too.
The orphanage’s Board members, in their infinite wisdom (or, more accurately, their helpless predicament—one they could never admit, since the institute was named after a saint and all), had decided to fit each room with six beds, though the original plans allowed for only four. So, they’d called in some cheap and cheerful (which just meant bad—really bad) carpenters to lop a few inches off the sides of every bunk.
This had turned the already rickety beds even more unstable. Worse, it had made movement once in bed almost impossible, and that annoyed just about every kid that Keane knew. It didn’t bother him so much, though, since it beat sleeping out in the streets. Just about anything did, really.
Keane’s bed was the bottom half of the bunk closest to the entrance. He liked that; it made for quick getaways when trouble arose, which tended to be often.
Peering past the writing desk and into the bunk to his left, Keane saw that AJ and Mark were fast asleep. He could hear them snoring away in their bunks. Then, craning his neck even higher, he looked into the third bunk, the one pushed up against the far wall of the room, and saw that the younger boys, Warren and Andrew, were also deep in slumber. He exhaled with relief.
But his respite was short-lived. Someone was awake. He could sense it…
A dull thud shook the floor, and Keane immediately recognized the silhouette of Brok as it landed face-first on the floor next to him.
While this sounded painful, Keane wasn’t worried, since Brok, longstanding occupant of the bed above his, often elected to dismount this way. What did concern him was his bunkmate waking up all the other occupants of dorm 5D.
“Huh? What happened? Who’s there?” Brok boomed.
The boy claimed to be fourteen, just like Keane, but was about half a foot shorter and, unbelievably, even skinnier.
Given the size discrepancy, Keane often wondered whether Brok lied about his age or, worryingly, didn’t actually know his age or, worse still, didn’t quite understand the concept of age. Knowing Brok, who would often spell his own four-letter name incorrectly, any of these options was possible. Right now, though, what concerned Keane most was how loud the boy was being.
“Brok! Shhh!” Keane whispered urgently.
He was glad that Brok was carrying his flashlight, the least he could do after the hour long lecture on bully survival techniques that Keane had laid upon him the night before. According to Keane, a simple flashlight was the perfect anti-bully tool. It could help see assaulters in the dark. It could temporarily blind them, which helped with the evasion effort that followed. And then there was the option of using it as a weapon—a quick whack on the head with the rear end usually did the trick.
“I demand answers, dammit!” Brok told the darkness, his eyes not quite open yet. He blindly fumbled with his torch and ended up inadvertently switching it on straight into Keane’s face.
“Brok, no!” said Keane, throwing his hands up to shield his eyes. “Please! You’ll wake them all!”
“Keane?” said Brok, his peepers finally adjusting to the dark, his brain to the situation. “Keane! Are you okay? Did they get you? Who was they? I’ll get ’em back for you, Keane! I’ll get ’em good!” Brok shook his fists at no one in particular.
“Hush, Brok! It’s nothing. I just… I had one of those dreams.”
“Dreams?” said Brok, as though he were hearing the word for the first time in his life. “What dreams?”
“You know—one of those dreams…”
Brok was instantly quieter. “Oh. Again, huh? Well, that just su-hucks.”
He turned off the flashlight, but lingered by Keane’s side. It was his way of showing concern which, despite the awkwardness, Keane did appreciate. After all, Brok was his best friend in the entire world. Also, his only friend.
They’d started hanging out when Brok transferred to the orphanage from… well, he refused to say from where he came, or why he was transferred, or anything at all about his life prior to St. Martin’s, really.
Keane didn’t mind this, though, since he wasn’t exactly eager to divulge the details of his past either.
In fact, as a general rule, all topics that involved feelings, emotions, and such other ‘wishy-washy airy-fairy stuff’ (Brok’s words, which Keane had heartily agreed with and, subsequently, adopted) remained strictly off limits—a big, fat nope. The rule had worked well so far, and there was no point rocking the boat on that front.
Out of nowhere, Brok shoved a paper bag at Keane.
“Huh? What? No!” cried Keane, startled as much by the sudden smell of salt and butter as Brok’s thrusting action. “Why do you even have that in bed?”
Brok shrugged and chucked a handful of popped kernels down his throat.
“I hope this doesn’t mean your powers will re-activate,” said Brok, chewing and talking at the same time. “Because the last time you had one of those dreams…” In went another handful, and Brok paused to chew.
Watching the boy masticate was disturbing, not in the least because of the debris flying every which way from his mouth—but Keane waited. And waited.
Eventually, he snapped. “They reacti—?”
“They reactivated, Keane!” Brok rushed to cut him off, splattering him with spit-infused flecks of popcorn.
As Keane swept the white flecks off his face, he looked away, knowing that he was guilty as charged.
The truth was that, although the fluorescent hands were an embarrassing problem, Keane saw nothing wrong with putting the powers that came with them to good use.
And yes, it was true that he didn’t have the best track record when it came to actually using them, but that wouldn’t be the case if Brok would just let him practice…
“Keane?” said Brok, sounding like an accusatory mother trying to squeeze a confession out of her lying child.
“The powers reactivating could be a good thing.”
“It could really help us out in school, what with Randy and his—”
Brok wagged a finger at Keane. “Don’t you dare ‘But Brok’ me! Not after what happened the last time…”
“Won’t you at least just… think about it?”
“Look, Keane,” implored Brok, “instead of yet again going through that world of that pain we’ve been through oh-I-dunno a jillion-billion times already, how about, you know, not doing that again?”
Keane’s eyes narrowed; words were not Brok’s forte.
But both boys froze in place when AJ, disturbed by Brok’s climbing volume, stirred in his bed. Only their eyes slowly rotated to better see the boy who’d started to mutter something about a pet multi-mutant-monkey-lizard-snake, and how it would devour every person and thing that got in its way once he unleashed it, and how the world was doomed to bow to him when it saw the devastation his pet could inflict. He wore an evil grin throughout his monologue. Then he rolled over and fell silent again.
Brok relaxed and turned back, but Keane was still gawking in shock at the sleep-talking maniac he had the misfortune of sharing a room with.
“Come on, Keane,” said Brok. “Every single time you’ve used those powers of yours, things have backfired. Every. Single. Time!”
Keane sighed. “Fine…” He hated it when Brok was right. And this time, Brok was right.
“No, say it!” insisted Brok, getting loud again. “Say ‘In the event that my powers shall herein reactivate; I, Keane, of unsound mind and even unsounder body—’”
“Shhh! Alright! Okay! I won’t.”
“Promise me!” Brok insisted.
Keane crossed his arms in a huff. “I promise. Okay?”
Brok studied Keane, narrowing his eyes and rubbing his chin. He was clearly not buying it, and with good reason too: Keane’s face was only too openly exhibiting just how much he did not want to comply.
Keane remained silent, pursing his lips while he dodged Brok’s scrutinizing stare.
But the next moment Brok’s face was ablaze with a smile wider than his jaw itself, and he’d thrusted a thumbs-up gesture to within a hair’s width of Keane’s nose.
Keane frowned with bewilderment as he watched Brok’s feet vanish back over the edge of the bed, but was also glad that at least his bunkmate seemed satisfied that the promise would be kept. Keane himself wasn’t so sure.
With a resigned sigh, he started to settle under the covers as well… until Brok’s upside-down head appeared over the edge of the top bunk and scared him to half to death. Keane clasped his mouth shut to muffle his scream.
“Brok! What the—”
The uncharacteristic earnestness with which Brok’s little face was looking down at him made him trail off, though.
“You okay?” Brok asked. Given the embargo on ‘wishy-washy airy-fairy stuff’, he needed to say no more for Keane to know just how heart-felt his concern was.
As for Keane, he was not okay. How could he be after a dream had so violently jolted him awake that he was still reeling from it?
But he nodded, deciding that, for now at least, he needed some time to think about it all.
“You sure?” asked Brok.
Keane bobbed his head up and down some more, even mustering up a weak smile.
“M-kay!” said Brok, his head vanishing out of sight as suddenly as it had appeared.
Of course, Keane knew that he would eventually tell Brok everything. He always did. But for now, he really did have some thinking to do. A dream like the one he’d just woken from had to have a deep meaning, an innate significance, and Keane needed to figure out exactly what that was before he could talk about it.
He fluffed up his pillow—as much as one could fluff up an object nearly as hard as rock—and lay back in bed.
“Just so you know,” added Brok. “Your hands are doing that thing again.”
Keane looked down at the pallid emission and was filled with dread again as the panic from earlier reasserted itself.
“Okay. Just so you know.”
“I-I know,” said Keane, suppressing the hyperventilation. Dread, dread, dread.
He desperately looked around the room trying to find something—anything—that would cover up the glow, at least until the morning, by which time things would have reverted of their own accord. At least that’s what past experience had taught him.
Search as he might, though, he was unable to find anything suitable other than his torturously uncomfortable pillow. So, he gave up and buried his hands under the semi-solid lump, bracing for a night of pain and fully expecting bruised hands in the morning.
As he settled in, he looked past Warren and Andrew’s bunk and spotted a pair of stars shining through the gap in the curtains. He stared absently at them, knowing full well that no more sleep was coming tonight. His Idiot Brain wanted to dwell on the dream instead.
What surprised him about this particular dream was that he actually remembered most of it, which was uncommon because his memory was bad. Very bad. Appalling, actually.
It was a problem that had plagued him since he was a little boy. Days passed him by like water running through a sieve, and if he managed to retain even a few drops, he considered himself lucky. Events tended to get mixed up, dates got jumbled, and names too.
So, when he found that he could recall almost every minute detail of the dream he’d just had, he was nothing short of astonished. It occurred to him that he might have had this exact dream a long, long time ago, which could have had something to do with the better-than-usual recall, but, of course, he couldn’t be sure.
It also occurred to him that the term ‘dream’ might not be the most accurate description of what he’d experienced, given the effect it’d had on him, and that, perhaps, the term nightmare might be more accurate.
But it had started off so very gently…
~ α Ω α ~
He can barely see through the foggy haze, and rubbing his eyes does little to improve his bleary vision.
Still, he can just about make out the strange yet beautiful forest, and the oddly shaped trees that rise from its floor, with jagged leaves that sway playfully in the morning breeze and soften the rays of the dawn light. Wild bushes shoot up from the rich soil below, scattered amongst which he sees mushrooms and fungi that throb with spots of radiant reds and violets, as if taking deep, luminous breaths.
Creatures that he has never seen before wander idly around the expansive space. Fluffy balls with the top halves of Chihuahuas and legs like rabbits hop past his feet and proceed deeper into the forest, while wild, deer-like beasts graze in the distance, each with a tuft of sparkling silver hair running from forehead to nose.
Despite these foreign shapes, the dreamer finds himself feeling almost serene inside, at peace with all of Creation. And even when he sees the savage-looking, bearded man gallop forth on his shire horse, he doesn’t panic.
The man, armored and armed, pulls the reins of his steed and halts progress. In the stillness, he pauses to deeply inhale the naturally perfumed forest air. His dark, piercing eyes hint at the wild ferocity of the spirit within.
Two young boys, seven or eight years old at a guess, emerge from the thicket behind and join his side. They are identical down to the last cuticle. Even their armors match, bearing the same markings and insignia as the bearded man. In demeanor, though, the boys could not be more different.
“When will we see it, Father?” asks the first one.
“Patience, Kaeninauth,” replies the man.
And as Kaeninauth crosses his arms and sulks, his brother attempts to calm him down using soothing gestures, but only succeeds in further aggravating him.
When the twinkling lights appear, they make Kaeninauth gasp in awe. This is clearly what the boy has been waiting for. Like fuzzy little pearl beads, the sentient parcels float on the air currents. The three riders watch the hypnotic swirling and swaying movements, transfixed.
Then, with a sudden jerk, the illuminations gather into a formation and race away from the riders, rounding a large redwood as they venture deeper into the forest.
“Quick! Follow them!” yells the man, jerking his horse into action with a tug on its reins and a kick of his heels. His eyes swivel wildly left to right, straining to keep up with the speeding lights.
Before long, the riders find themselves lost in the depths of the woods, but persevere in their pursuit of the luminous beads. They jump over bushes and protruding tree roots, and duck under branches and low-hanging vines.
The dreamer finds himself being pulled along, too, and manages to cling on through every dizzying jump and turn.
Then, with a final rustle, the riders jump across a row of bushes and emerge upon a clearing, occupied primarily by a large lake. The pristine waters, framed by alternating layers of Pickerelweeds and Blueflag Iris, reflect the orange dawn sky with broken perfection.
Judging by the thick cover of trees surrounding the clearing, they seem to be in the very heart of the forest. The dreamer senses that the twinkling lights are some sort of gatekeepers—sentinels that restrict access to this enigmatic fragment of an already strange forest.
By now the lights are a third of the way across the body of water, twisting and curling around each other as they speed away, growing smaller the farther they get. Then, as they approach the midpoint of the great body of water, they slow down and start to circle each other, as if in preparation.
And, once at the very center, the illuminated pearls begin their spellbinding dance, moving in complex unison, swaying then straightening, coiling back then springing forth. Advancing, retreating, spinning, twirling. Slowing. Then speeding up again.
Kaeninauth marvels at the beauty of the display.
A warm smile cracks the man’s beard as he watches the glee on his son’s face.
He dismounts his ride, and his boys follow suit. One after another, they cautiously tread the slippery bank of the lake to a secluded spot under the shade of trees where the well-worn grass tells of frequent visits. Together, they sit to meditate, their legs folded under them, their eyes shut.
Then a deep, sustained breath. Then another.
And then one of Kaeninauth’s eyes springs open. It darts from father to brother and back. Kaeninauth is disheartened to see the other two so deep in meditation so quickly.
For the ethereal watcher, though, it’s not just the way the boy’s head hangs. No, he can actually feel his emotions.
How? He has no idea.
Kaeninauth attempts to close his rebellious eye. It springs open, as if of its own accord. He tries it again and is, once again, plagued by the same result.
In the end, he gives up and opens the other eye too. Watching the concentration on the faces of his father and brother, he cannot help but feel left out.
With a heavy sigh and a heavier heart, he begins to tug at the strangely shimmering oval blades of grass.
“Son,” the man says, not needing to open his eyes to know exactly what the boy is doing—or, rather, not doing. “If you fail to meditate correctly, your chakras will fail you.”
“I know, Father, but—”
“Your energies will no longer flow freely.” The man talks over the boy’s feeble protests, eyes now wide open and fixed on his son. “They will clot up.”
“But I want to—”
“In fact, your powers could get blocked entirely.”
“I want to see Niroku!” Kaeninauth finally blurts, and then, as if ashamed of his outburst, lowers his tone. “When will she be here?”
The father looks grimly at his son, and the dreamer can sense the man’s unwillingness to disappoint his boy with the truth. Nevertheless, the necessary words are forced out. “Kaeninauth… Niroku is not coming—”
“No! That can’t be! Konothone said she was!”
The man turns to the second boy and finds him not to be meditating either, but, instead, silently snickering to himself.
“Konothone,” he scolds, “you know you must not fill your brother’s head with such fairy tales, with such… nonsense. You know that Niroku is not real—”
“That’s not true. Slavizarus told me about—” starts Konothone, but his words fade quickly when he sees his father’s expression darken.
“Come now!” commands the father, causing the boys to lower their eyes. “We have more important matters to attend to. We must meditate upon Gaia. For it is us whom she has chosen to bestow herself unto.”
The boys nod—they seem to have heard this a thousand times before and, for that reason, seem to know exactly how important it is.
With a grand sweep of his arm across the horizon, the man motions to the luscious panorama before them. He speaks softly, as if uttering a revered morning prayer.
“All you see… All of this and more…” He turns to look straight at his offspring. “This is our land.”
Konothone turns his young eyes up to contemplate the vista that stretches out before him—from the sun peeking through the forest trees, to the shimmering sapphire lake. The view, as well as his father’s words, seem to deeply impress upon him. He nods obediently and closes his eyes to resume meditation.
Kaeninauth, though, is not so easily swayed. He shakes his head in defiance. “But Niroku—”
“Kaeninauth!” yells the man, having had enough of this immature frivolity. “There is no such thing as—”
But Kaeninauth’s gasp cuts him off.
Seeing the boy stare unblinkingly at something just over his shoulder, the man grits his teeth. His reflexes are sharp as a battle-hardened warrior’s, and his hand has already found the hilt of his weapon.
He turns swiftly, braced to fight whatever menace has snuck up on them.
And, just as quickly, he relaxes his grip, though his eyes remain wide open, for before him stands a creature of pure light, white as can be, gently grazing on some apples from a nearby bush, with its body, mane and throbbing luminously. It is a sight like nothing he has ever seen before.
He stares at the long, twisted horn protruding from its head, and at the icy sparks of silver pulsing up and down the bony curls. It looks at him and neighs curiously, and, with his head cocked, he stares back with matched interest.
Until an overhead eruption turns his attention skywards.
The boys look up too. Gone is the beauty of dawn, replaced by charcoal and fire. Smoke and dust rain down from an aerial battle that has, somehow, already been raging across the skies above them. Large warriors on larger creatures fight with explosions of pulsating energy.
As the trio bring their sights back down, they recoil with shock. Gone is the serene forest, replaced by a scorched battlefield. And gone, also, is the svelte being of light, in its place leaving a colossal shadow of scales and teeth.
Eyes like glowing embers flicker yellow and orange as the creature they belong to seeks out its new prey. The two hollow pits at the front of its face flare open as it sniffs them out. Then it sets the ground ablaze with its deadly fumes.
The man and his children duck and scatter to avoid being incinerated. The beast rears up for a second burst
But before it can ignite, it is struck by a bolt of lightning.
And the silent watcher, who has been witnessing blurry dream turn to horrifying nightmare with alarm and fright, is suddenly imbued with a deep sense of gloom. The reason for his despair, it seems, should be obvious. Yet, in the moment, it eludes him.
And before he knows it, Keane finds himself inside a dark ball made of smoke and electricity, flying through a swirling black expanse, unable to tell which way is up.
He knows that this is a dream. But then why does the fear feel so real? And it only intensifies when the screams of a young boy rings out from afar, like a distant dagger to his heart. Then, he discovers that he himself is screaming, too.
Like an explosion inside Keane’s ears, a thunderstorm erupts. Rain and lightning assert their presence. A fence of barbed wire screams towards him as does the immense, grey structure beyond it. Keane sees sky and rain, then the rapidly approaching fence, then ground, then the sky again.
And before he knows it, before he can brace for impact, he has already gone through the barbed wire and crashed into the grey concrete.
His murky container implodes around him, shaking him to the bone, leaving in its wake only nothingness…
And in the quiet darkness, there is a feeling of peace. Of a rebirth. Of a second chance.
A low whisper breaks the silence.
In that brief, fleeting moment, Keane understands.
The dragon, the warriors, the clashing energies, the dark clouds of electricity, the storm… Everything makes sense.
He remains blissfully unaware, though, that, seconds later, when he awakens back in his dorm room, this moment of total comprehension, this epiphany, will be the one and only aspect of the dream that he will not remember.
Brok and the Man under the Arches]
Keane stared at his reflection in the stained glass of the mirror that hung opposite the writing desk.
The dark circles under his eyes were unsurprising, given that he hadn’t had a wink of sleep since the nightmare. His hair, though, was another matter altogether.
Normally a tousled mess anyway—with random locks that either fell from his scalp to his face, as if reaching for the floor, or rose skywards, as if sentient and trying to escape his head—today it was just one big, tangled heap that sat atop him. On any other day, he would have at least attempted to straighten an extruding strand or two, but not today. Today, he didn’t even feel like pretending that the mayhem was curable.
He wore a black T-shirt with an ‘Under Construction’ sign printed across the front, a pair of blue jeans with a bootcut fit, and Converse lookalikes. All three items were donations which had been a tad too big for him last year, but were now the only clothes he possessed that actually fit.
And he’d decided to wear them for that very reason; having already gotten out of bed in a foul mood, the last thing he needed was wardrobe-related aggravation.
He turned away from the mirror, now annoyed at his own reflection, and nearly bumped into Brok who was struggling to squeeze into shoes that were clearly a full size too small for him, if not two.
Keane watched Brok hop around adamantly for a good while, but when the boy refused to accept defeat after a solid three and a half minutes of effort, Keane finally snapped and dragged him out of the dorm room by the collar.
As he was pulled along, skipping on one foot, Brok complained loudly, but Keane was tired, sleep-deprived, and very much not in the mood, so he simply reminded Brok of the penalty that would be inflicted upon him if one of the other boys went to the Matron with a noise complaint.
The elderly Slavic lady who held the post of Matron at the orphanage was proud of two facts: firstly, that no one could pronounce her name, and, secondly, that no one had ever made the mistake of describing her as kind or gentle. She relished in taking away dessert privileges for even the most minor code infraction. So it was no surprise that the threat of a noise complaint instantly shut Brok up.
And, thankfully, he remained quiet as they commenced their usual walk to school.
Calling the single building that comprised the orphanage dilapidated would have been a severe understatement. The old concrete walls had succumbed to rot, a matter not helped by numerous shoddy repaints, each executed in a slightly different shade of beige, which had left the orphanage looking like a tacky piece of amateur patchwork.
In some places where the steel rods that held the structure together stuck out of the cracked concrete, great plumes of red rust had begun to spread, plumes which only crept farther and farther out with every passing year.
The surrounding buildings were just as bad, each and every one sporting a look of pending demolition. There was one in particular that looked like it had actually been bombed by enemy air raids. Another seemed to be crumbling under its own weight, and was particularly scary at night when its two smashed front windows started to look like hollow eyes that followed your every move.
The local church, which was little more than a block away from the orphanage, hadn’t escaped decay either. The exterior paint had chipped off years ago, and it was no secret that the city couldn’t afford to repaint. The entrance was through rusty iron gates under a tall, bricked arch. The name of the church, which once sat clearly painted on the metal signboard mounted above the gates, was no longer legible on account of rust, wear and tear, and what looked like impact craters formed by thrown rocks.
At first, Keane had thought it silly to build an orphanage so close to a church, since this made it inevitable that St. Martin’s would be burdened with every baby boy abandoned by every Catholic girl whose judgement had lapsed, and who had subsequently decided that she was unwilling or unable to fulfil her motherly duties. And there certainly seemed to be a lot of those around.
Then one day, he realized that the letters still visible on the church’s rusty old sign—‘S—-AR-I-S’—were trying to spell out the same name as the orphanage’s, and it dawned on him that, of course the church had come first, and that it was the orphanage that was the unavoidable consequence.
As Keane idly contemplated the sign over the arches, his gaze briefly drifted lower, and he was greeted with a sight that caused him to stop dead in his tracks.
Brok kept on walking, as oblivious to the world around him as ever, while Keane remained unmoving, staring at the foot of the gates where sat a homeless man.
His hair was long and disheveled, and his beard even more so. He wore a moth-ridden jacket over threadbare clothes and shook his upturned cap at passerbys in a feeble attempt to draw their attention with rattling change.
Keane made a beeline for him.
Brok, unnerved when he finally noticed Keane’s absence, swiveled one way, then another, searching for him.
When he spotted his best friend casually walking towards what looked like a flea-infested vagabond, he let out a small yelp and began to scamper urgently towards him.
“Keane? W-What are you doing?” he called.
But Keane ignored him and kept walking.
“Skinny!” said the homeless man to Keane. “Been a while now, ain’t it?” His voice was gruff, and he tended to chew his words down to a mumble.
Keane only half-nodded and half-smiled, though, because while he was pleased to see the man again, he was also very miffed at his long and unexplained disappearance.
“Where were you?” Keane asked, crouching down beside him. He stole a glance inside the cap and saw some change, barely enough for a cup of coffee, which he found appalling, not in the least because of where the man was sat.
“You know him?” said Brok, aghast. “You know him! How is it that you know him?” He was scanning the area, presumably checking if anyone they knew was in the vicinity and could see them talking to this filthy stranger.
“I looked everywhere for you,” continued Keane.
“Oh, I been here and there,” started the beggar, but the way the he averted his gaze was telling.
“Another binging spree, wasn’t it?” asked Keane.
The man looked like he was about to protest, but then his shoulders rolled forward as he dropped the façade. He raised his eyes to meet Keane’s.
“Well, Skinny, seems like you just ’bout got the measure on me.”
“Well, there I lay, half seas over, full as a tick. Don’t remember how I got there. Was a darn good man, cleaned me up. Can’t say I remember how I got back neither. Just remember sweat’n a lot.”
The man chuckled, as if all of this was one big joke to him. Keane considered telling him off, but knew just how little effect this would have. So, instead, with a sympathetic sigh, he put a hand on the guy’s shoulder.
“As long as you made it back,” he said. “Are you, er… okay?”
“Oh, never better!” exclaimed the man. “New hat…” He flashed the boys his severely moth-holed headwear. “New shoes…” He thrust his ripped footwear at them, complete with a big toe sticking out. “Fine as cream gravy!” He put thumb and forefinger together, holding up three fingers.
And while the accompanying toothy grin failed to impress Keane, it downright horrified Brok.
Keane knew how uncomfortable beggars and homeless people made his best friend. It was one of the reasons he hadn’t divulged his own history as a street urchin.
He also knew that what he was about to do would earn him an earful later, but it was important to him that he do it.
As he reached into his pocket and pulled out some small bills comprising the entirety of his weekly allowance, he didn’t have to look at Brok to know the horror that adorned his face right about now.
The homeless man, on the other hand, laughed and shook his head. “Whoa there, little man. Can’t take that from yah.” He poked at Keane’s ribs with his bony fingers. “’Specially seein’ as you’ll be need’n all the lunch money you can get.”
“Yes, yes,” urged Brok, grabbing Keane’s arm and trying to drag him away. “Listen to the sensible hobo-man-with-the-big-toe-sticky-outtie-thingy.”
“Brok, let go!” Keane pulled free of the boy’s grip, but Brok just grabbed onto a sleeve and started yanking on that instead. Keane ignored this and pressed the money into the homeless man’s hand.
“I was five, you know…” he started, but then hesitated, stealing a glance at Brok.
If giving the homeless man money had earned him an earful, the thing he was about to say next could well jeopardize their entire friendship. But he couldn’t hide the truth forever. It was about time Brok knew.
“I was only five… the first time I slept outside,” he said. “It’s so hard. People don’t understand how tough it really is being homeless.”
It was Keane who now avoided eye contact, though he did notice that Brok’s tugs on his sleeve were getting progressively less urgent.
“Yep,” said the homeless man with a wink and a smile, somehow onto Keane’s oblique confession. “Ain’t got no place you can call your own. Nowhere to stay safe…”
“Or warm…” added Keane.
“Out-outside?” croaked Brok. Keane heard him whimper.
“Don’t you worry ’bout nuthin’, Skinny,” said the man. “You got a home now. Things is diff’rint for yah. Y’ain’t no street rat now. ’N’ don’choo let no one tell you otherwise, y’hear? You’s gon-be-alright.”
The man’s words made Keane smile, something he hadn’t done since the abhorrent dream had awoken him the night before. And then they made him nod—a full nod this time—because, for the umpteenth time, the man’s diagnosis was spot on; his past was not a thing to worry about or be ashamed of, and if Brok was really his friend, he would understand.
Keane and the man both jumped with a start when Brok unexpectedly exploded into tears.
They watched in stunned silence as the blubbering wreck thrust his hands into his pockets to grab his own allowance money and give it to the homeless man.
For a moment, Keane beamed with pride at his friend. Then, his eyes widened as he remembered that Brok kept all of his cash strictly in coin form (since it added weight which helped deter both pickpockets and bullies).
He jerked forward to stop the metal from raining down on the man. But he was a tad too late.
“I’m an idiot!” cried Brok, drawing endless fistfuls of coins from his pockets and hurling them at the homeless man. “Take it! Take it all!”
As Keane went to gather the wayward coins and place them in the upturned hat, the homeless man flashed him another smile and wink, his meaning obvious: Keane had divulged a part of his past and Brok hadn’t disowned him.
Keane had to admit that he was relieved. He even suspected that, since talking feelings and emotions and such ‘wishy-washy airy-fairy stuff’ was such a big, fat nope, Brok’s present uncharacteristic spurt of generosity was actually his way of showing that he was fine with his best friend’s marred past.
What Keane did wonder, though, was why Brok was only just meeting the man, especially considering how big a role they both played in Keane’s life. Then he remembered how often the homeless man went missing, and decided to split the blame between the frequent disappearances and Brok’s (now apparently former) aversion to all things street-related.
The homeless man, meanwhile, was contemplating Brok in a strangely respectful way.
“My, you’re a special one ain’t-cha?” he said, but Brok was a little too busy wiping tears out of his eyes to respond, so, with a chuckle and a shake of his head, the man turned back to Keane.
“Can’t imagine you get much outta them lot there…” He poked a thumb in the direction of the orphanage.
“Ah, it’s enough,” Keane lied. “Besides, I’d rather you have it than Randy.”
Brok ceased bawling at mere mention of the name. “The w-who? The w-where now?” His head was darting around like a pigeon’s as he checked the surrounding area.
The beggar seemed displeased. “Randy? That dang blowhard still on your case?”
Keane sighed. “You have no idea…”
~ α Ω α ~
The fact that John Atkins High was a mere five minute walk from the church made it all the more shocking just how much the neighborhood changed in so short a distance.
The crumbling wrecks and morbid structures gave way to half-decent apartment blocks and houses that could even be called pretty. The streets were nicer, too, as cracks on the sidewalks and potholes in the tarmac all but vanished by the time the school was in sight.
St. Martin’s had, in essence, lucked out as far as school jurisdiction was concerned, having just edged into the geographical area covered by John Atkins High, a well-respected and decently funded state school. The counterpart orphanage for girls had not been as fortunate, though, having been built just a few blocks too far west. So, the orphaned boys at least received a decent education, and for free too.
Where this raised a problem, though, was with the normal students—the ones whose parents had not said ‘thanks, but no thanks’ to their newborns. These students resented having to share their school with such ‘riff raff’, a sentiment many of the orphans only aggravated with their lack of interest in the education they were receiving.
The boys from St. Martin’s had their own reasons for this, of course, not least of which was a gaping lack of parents or adult role models (the grumpy Matron most certainly did not count), but this still fostered an ugly student-body divide—that between bullies and victims.
The main block of the school, which had once been the only block, sat at the front of the campus. It was a two-story slab of redbrick which, in addition to classrooms, housed facilities such as student lockers and administration offices.
As the student population had grown, more land to the rear had been acquired and more blocks of redbrick had been haphazardly built in a somewhat U-shaped arrangement.
The area between the blocks had been turned into a quaint little courtyard, complete with areas of luscious grass lined with shrubs and benches for use when the weather co-operated. The tiled pathways which snaked through the courtyard, running from block to block, were separated from the grass by low knee-high walls, also of redbrick.
The vast area that lay between the school’s front gates and the main block was the parking lot. Given how huge it had now become, one would have been hard-pressed to believe that it had started life as a mere twenty spaces for the use of faculty members only.
Despite its size, the morning ritual of parents dropping their kids off saw the space full to the brim with vehicles. Some of the students arrived in their own cars and bikes too. The boys from St. Martin’s, unsurprisingly, tended to walk, and Keane and Brok were no exception.
As they crossed the school’s front gates and made their way through the parking lot, Brok was back to his old chatty self and was droning on about the boys at the orphanage.
“So that’s where Mike drew the line. And, of course, I backed him because Poops-a-lot—yeah, we’re calling him that now, for reasons of Oh-My-God…”
Keane was only half listening, though. He had perfected the art of blocking Brok out. He’d nod with timing so well synchronized with Brok’s speech patterns that it looked like he was hanging on to every word when, in actuality, his mind wandered freely. And at that moment, it was mulling over the encounter they’d just had with the homeless man.
Keane was just really glad that the man was back. He cursed himself for never remembering to ask his name, but it wasn’t just his bad memory failing him—the topic simply never seemed to come up. Conversation always seemed to center on Keane. The man was always giving him good advice and offering up general life hacks.
That is, of course, when he wasn’t lying in a gutter somewhere, drunk off his rocker.
“So basically,” continued Brok, “Poops really needs to clean his own messes regardless of who’s on roster… once again, because of Oh-My-God.”
As they got closer to the main block, Keane started scanning for Randy and his fellow bullies, since the second rule of bully survival was to keep tabs on both movement and location of the enemy at all times. This was made very easier by the fact that the students of John Atkins High tended to clump together in predefined social groups.
First up were the Cool Nerds—the students who not only got their homework in on time and scored straight A’s in just about everything, but were somehow also popular enough to get invited to all the parties. These were the kids most likely to climb corporate ladders into management and leadership positions, or to start successful businesses which they would end up selling for many, many millions.
Keane loathed them. They just made life look so easy, and his own life had been anything but. Besides, given his luck, he just knew he’d wind up having one of them as a boss someday, and that possibility annoyed him to no end.
Next came the Uncool Nerds—the freaks who studied just for fun and seemed to know everything about everything. Despite their good grades, Keane did not envy this group. They were knowledge monsters, devouring facts and figures just to later be able to laugh in the faces of the unfortunate souls who made any mistakes in their vicinity. They were even hated by the teachers, who, by virtue of being constantly overworked and forever underpaid, were never really in the mood to be corrected by the self-righteous, over-smart, know-it-all so-and-sos.
Up third was a particularly troublesome bunch—the ‘Girls That Keane Has Crushes On Who Don’t Really Know His Name or That He Even Exists’—imaginatively named by Brok. Okay, so maybe this wasn’t really a ‘bunch’, since they didn’t really hang out together, and often didn’t even know each other very well. In Keane’s head, though, it still counted as a clique, if only because there were just so many of them: Gemma Hayes, Charlotte Porter, Beth Jones, Laura Roberts, Becky Williams… So very many.
Keane then spotted the ‘A-Listers’—the clichéd cornerstone of every high school. These were the jocks and cheerleaders who almost every student secretly hated, yet publicly idolized. The A-listers tended to be those students blessed with good looks, or popularity, or money, and more often than not, all three.
Currently, a bunch of them were gathered around a drop-top sports car that Keane had never before seen at school… or anywhere else, really. Unsurprisingly, cars like that didn’t exactly frequent the orphanage’s neighborhood so much. He did recognize it as a Porsche of some sort, though.
Judging by its purple custom color, he could already guess whose it was and, sure enough, as he got closer, he saw Michelle Brady, the extra blonde, extra rich, extra spoilt daddy’s-little-brat, at the wheel.
She had the top down and was showing off the gadgets inside to her friends. Her clothes, her shoes, and even her hair clip were all purple. She pulled it off, though, because she was super-gorgeous and super-hot, as were all of her friends—every single one of them way out of his league.
In fact, Michelle used to be a member of the Girls That Keane Has Crushes On Who Don’t Really Know His Name or That He Even Exists clan, but around mid-year she’d started dating Don, one of Randy’s comrades, and her new boyfriend had wasted no time filling her in on exactly how the likes of Keane and Brok and the rest of the orphaned scallywags from the west side of town were to be treated. Subsequently, Keane’s crush had rapidly evaporated.
As they walked past her, she cast them a look of utter contempt, no doubt wondering how gruel-fed waifs like them even dared to breathe the same air as her and her friends. And with Brok still rattling on about rotas, so lost in his narrative that he missed the look, the car, and the fact that they were even proximate to A-listers, Keane couldn’t help but concede that Michelle may actually have a point.
He rushed past as quickly as he could without breaking into a run—past the perfect human specimen, past the glistening, purple Porsche and its plush, cream leather, past the tall flagpoles that adorned the front of the school, and past the boy cellophane-wrapped to one of the poles.
“But Poops was like, ‘A roster is a roster is a roster. So we have to rotate!’” Brok yammered on. “Do you believe that? Then he wanted to fight Mike! Poops! In a fight! Can you even—?”
“Eugene?!” said Keane, suddenly stopping.
“No, Mike,” said Brok, confused. “I said Mike, didn’t I?”
“No, look!” said Keane, turning Brok around. “Eugene!”
Together, they gawked at the wiry boy with inch-thick glasses who hung from one of the flagpoles, his entire body cellophane-wrapped to the metal, his feet dangling three feet above the ground, and his mouth duct-taped shut.
It was Eugene from dorm 7G, alright. There was no doubt about it. Keane and Brok exchanged dumbstruck looks.
The kid was only twelve years old, and had ended up in high school earlier than usual by being smart enough to skip a few grades. But being the smallest and nerdiest boy in school had opened up a world of woe, and all year long Eugene had struggled to adjust to freshman life.
Considering all the trouble the boy had already endured, Keane thought it unfair that he now had to tolerate being stuck up a flagpole too. Eugene’s head was hung like he’d lost all hope of a rescue, like he’d resigned himself to just jadedly watching the snickering students pass by.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Keane rushed to help the hovering boy. It was crystal clear in his mind that kids from the orphanage needed to stick together. They had no one else, after all. So, when he spotted Brok stand his ground, he flashed him a look that said ‘don’t you dare’.
Nevertheless, Brok stubbornly turned back towards the school building. He took a step. Then another.
And then he stopped and sighed.
As Brok joined his side, Keane heard him curse under his breath but didn’t mind, knowing that the boy would be back to normal by third period tops.
While Brok poked at the cellophane with his bare fingers, Keane targeted the duct tape on Eugene’s mouth. He tugged at a corner, expecting to take it off in one swift pull. But it got stuck midway and Eugene screamed in pain.
“Are you supposed to be helping?” Eugene squealed with only half a mouth.
“Just hold still!” said Keane. He had his tongue out and to one side as he carried on yanking repeatedly at the tape, oblivious to the scream each tug incited from Eugene.
“Ow! Stop helping! Stop helping!” yelled Eugene when he could take it no longer.
“Almost!” said Keane, before finally pulling off the last of the tape. Eugene rubbed his mouth which undoubtedly stung from the chemicals in the adhesive of the duct tape.
“You look like crap,” said Brok, still struggling to have any impact on the clumped layers of cellophane courtesy of his utter lack of upper body strength. “What happened?” he asked, as he finally located a somewhat loose bit and then proceeded to sink his teeth into it.
“Oh, it’s my own fault!” lamented Eugene.
“Seriously, Eugene. Tell us everything,” said Keane, ripping open with his fingers the holes that Brok’s teeth were poking into the plastic wrapping.
“Every day last week,” cried Eugene, “Every single day! They asked for the money. I gave them the money. I was allowed to walk. Walk to my heart’s content. Then I watched… the documentary!”
Brok recoiled. “The documentary?” Transparent cellulose and saliva fell copiously from his mouth.
“The documentary!” affirmed Eugene. “They played it last night? In the common room? Remember?”
Keane and Brok knew the dungeon that the orphanage had the audacity to call a common room only too well, having spent most of the previous summer in there in order to evade the blistering heat outside, only to be bombarded by fuzzy black-and-white images on the miniscule excuse of a television set.
“Oh, that documentary,” mocked Brok, rolling his eyes and shaking his head at Keane as if to ask if he looked like the documentary-watching type.
“You watched it too?” asked Eugene.
“No, Eugene!” snapped Brok. “I did not. Why would I give anyone more reasons to pummel me?” Pointing a thumb at Eugene, Brok turned to Keane. “Jeez, believe this guy?”
“Well, I watched it. ‘Take a Stand’ it was called. There was a seven step process and everything,” Eugene said, as Keane liberated him from the last of the cellophane. “So today I thought, I’m going to do it. I followed the steps. To the tee. To the tee, Brok! Then… Boom!”
“B-Boom?” asked Brok, a little afraid.
Keane looked to Brok, then back to Eugene. Boom was not good.
“Boom!” confirmed Eugene. “Instant zinger wrap…” He twirled his fingers in unnecessary demonstration. “I regret everything!” he said, burying his distraught face into his hands. Keane and Brok sympathized silently.
Brok turned to Keane. “I once regretted everything,” he said. Keane raised a curious eyebrow. Brok patted his stomach. “The day all that microwave popcorn was gonna go bad. Remember?”
“Ah.” Keane nodded. He did remember. It had, indeed, been a bad day. He, too, had regretted everything that day.
“Moral of the story…” Eugene jerked his face back out of his hands. “Don’t watch any documentaries! Ever!” he said, with an air of finality, before storming off towards the main entrance, upset only with himself.
Keane and Brok looked at each other sideways, both quite certain that the boy from dorm 7G had taken away entirely the wrong lesson from this incident.
The Bullies of John Atkins High]
As Keane finally entered the main school building, with Brok just behind him, he was vexed by how eventful the morning had been so far. He wished for the rest of the day to be dull and uninteresting, as he was far too sleep-deprived and irritable to concentrate on anything today.
And that’s when he spotted it. The alternating blue, red and white edge of the airmail envelope sticking out of his locker. The article he’d ordered all those months ago. It had finally arrived!
He wanted to rush forward and rip the envelope open, but knew that this would pique Brok’s curiosity, and this was yet another thing he had decided to keep secret from Brok.
It troubled him to acknowledge just how much he was hiding from his best friend, and he vowed to divulge absolutely everything the very instant he got to the bottom of it all. For now, though, he’d have to maneuver very carefully so as to not arouse Brok’s suspicion.
He sped up a notch to beat Brok to the lockers and poked in the envelope which, once behind the cover of his locker door, he rapidly but quietly slit open. Out popped a single cutting from an old newspaper. He picked it up as delicately as he could, wondering if this could really be the article, and if his search was finally over.
The incident on which Keane sought information, he’d learned, was covered absolutely nowhere else—not in the school library, not in any of the commercial archives he had already checked out, and not even on the internet. So, if this really was the article that would finally shed light on those long-forgotten events, it was a very precious one indeed.
The sketchy-sounding vendor, who had himself no doubt acquired the cutting through dubious means, had confirmed that it was the one and only copy remaining, and had quoted his fee accordingly—just over two months’ worth of Keane’s weekly allowance. But Keane hadn’t hesitated in the slightest when confirming the order.
With the deal complete, the vendor had mentioned that replication and photocopying were strictly prohibited, and advised caution because ‘they’ would be checking. Keane had no idea who ‘they’ were and didn’t really care, since that’s not what he wanted the article for.
As he held the cutting gently by the edges, he was pleased to note that the yellow, brittle paper seemed of appropriate age—namely fourteen years old, just like him. The date confirmed this as well. So far so good. The bold title at the top read, “DISASTER AT WILSON POWER PLANT”, and the subtitle under it said, “OWNER & 27 KILLED”. This, too, was great—not the disaster at the power plan or the deaths, of course, but the fact that the text was covering the correct event.
His heart skipped a beat. It seemed legit. After all those years spent looking for it, here it was, in his hands. Excited by the prospect of learning all about what had happened on that fateful day, he eagerly began to read.
And before he knew it, he’d read the first sentence six times and, in his exhilaration, not absorbed a single word.
He was just about to commence his seventh try when the page was whipped from his hands. Even before he turned, Keane knew exactly who he would see standing behind him.
Randy was a tall, athletic freshman who looked far too old for his years. There were rumors that he’d hit puberty when he was only eight. Looking at the size of the boy now, Keane didn’t doubt this for a second.
Not satisfied with being annoyingly good-looking and infuriatingly popular, Randy, frustratingly, managed to maintain good grades all year round as well. In short, there wasn’t a boy that more encapsulated the opposite of everything Keane was than Randy.
And he would almost definitely have been an A-Lister, too, had it not been for the three cronies that followed him around everywhere, like little ducklings waddling after mother—cronies who, Keane noticed, were now slowly beginning to surround him.
The one to Randy’s right, standing by him like a faithful hound, was Pete, a tall but gangly boy, with dyed hair that always tended to flow over some part of his face or other, and with dark makeup around his eyes. He was the gang leader’s best friend, and had been since the first grade, but his volatile, violent-sarcastic-emo personality combination frightened even Randy sometimes.
Don, standing to their left, was the brains of the group. Back in elementary school, he’d been a quiet boy, a certified member of the Uncool Nerds. Then, an early growth spurt had granted him a height advantage that had drawn Randy’s attention and landed him a place in the clan. Even now, as he adjusted his glasses, he towered over Randy and Pete.
Keane, having had the misfortune of also going to the same elementary school as them, knew only too well how deeply they had instilled fear into the hearts of the entire student body back then. So when, within a mere month of starting at John Atkins High, the three boys had managed to terrorize just about everyone, seniors and teachers included, it had come as absolutely no surprise to him.
Finally, there was Johnny, who was a truly special case. He was much too old for the ninth grade, but large enough so that no one dared to ask him about it. As a result, no one knew quite how long he’d been at John Atkins High.
His involvement with the gang had started earlier in the year when Randy had used him to collect protection money due from one of the bigger boys at St. Martins. Before long, Johnny was hanging out with the trio on a regular basis.
And, just like that, John Atkins High had acquired a new clique, aptly named the Bullies, a clique that sat at the very top of the social pecking order, above even the A-listers.
Presently, Randy dangled Keane’s article over his head, teasing the boy while his partners-in-crime closed in.
Keane lunged forward to retrieve the cutting, but Randy swiveled on his toes and evaded Keane’s grasp with ease.
As Keane steadied his stumbling feet, he saw Brok slowly backing away from proceedings, and was glad; ‘run and hide’ was the third and most important rule of bully evasion. It was also the protocol that he and Brok had agreed upon for dealing with such perilous situations.
Keane knew that he should be running too, but couldn’t get himself to leave the article in the hands of the Bullies. It simply meant too much to him.
“Randy, please,” he said, flustered. “Not that… Anything but that…”
The bully rubbed his chin as he studied the article. Keane hoped—prayed, even—that the boy would see just how important it was to him and return it.
Randy looked up and now studied Keane. Then, much to the chagrin of his colleagues, he sighed heavily and held the article out for Keane, who nearly collapsed with relief and reached for the cutting.
His fingers were almost on it, too, before Randy exploded into mischievous laughter and tossed the article to Pete.
Keane grunted as he now jumped up at Pete to reclaim his precious possession, but Pete passed it to Don. Before Keane could get to Don, the article was in Johnny’s hands. And Johnny finally threw the now balled-up piece of newspaper back into Randy’s grubby mitts.
Even as he looked helplessly to the other students who passed by, Keane knew that, just as they hadn’t stopped to help Eugene, they wouldn’t be stopping for him either.
“You haven’t paid us for a week,” said Randy.
“Fine! Give it back and I’ll pay double… triple even!” said Keane, struggling to follow the crumpled cutting around while the boys tossed it amongst themselves, as if running baseball drills.
“A week is seven days, dumb-ass. I thought you geeks were supposed to be good at math.”
“I’m not a geek!” protested Keane, reaching over Don’s head now, but Don was so high up that he didn’t even need to fully extend his elbows to keep the article from Keane. Eventually, though, he grew bored and passed to Pete.
“Pssst! Keane!” whispered Brok, now wedged between wall and locker. “Let it go! Whatever it is, it’s not worth it!”
But Keane neither heard nor saw Brok because, just then, the school bell rang and students erupted in chatter as they swarmed to get to the first class of the day.
“It’s mine!” Keane screamed at Pete, who was tauntingly passing the balled up piece of paper from hand to hand. “Give it back!”
Pete only laughed harder, though, and cocked back his right shoulder as if about to throw a touchdown pass.
“Hey, Randy!” he yelled, holding back the furiously charging Keane with the lightest touch of his free hand. “Go long!” He launched the crumpled ball over Keane’s head.
As Keane followed the airborne pellet across the hallway, Brok’s eyes widened with fear. “Keane,” he warned, “Instant zinger wrap! Remember?”
Keane finally spotted the little face peeking out from behind the lockers, and his own face scrunched up as he wondered why Brok was still hanging around. Had he forgotten the whole ‘run and hide’ spiel? Did he need another lecture?
Then, Brok’s eyes grew wider still and he pointed at something over Keane’s shoulder. Keane felt a sudden thump on his elbow. Distracted by Brok, he hadn’t been looking where he was reaching…
He froze stiff with fear.
He’d accidentally ploughed his elbow straight into Randy’s chin. And, as he watched Randy recoil and clutch his face in pain, Keane felt as if a building were collapsing in on him and he was already too late to save himself.
Randy’s cronies gawked in stunned silence, too, their mouths agape; it had been a long, long time since Randy had taken a hit, intentional or not.
“Oh, yeah. This is much better,” said Brok, his pout skewed inhumanly to the right with sarcasm.
But when Johnny looked straight at him, it dawned on him that he’d quite badly miscalculated the distance his voice would carry in the silence, and fear took over.
“Why you little—” Johnny lurched at Brok.
“Johnny boy! Look!” Brok pointed over his attackers shoulder. “A bird!”
“A bird!” Johnny squealed in delight as he turned to look.
And with the other three Bullies distracted by Johnny’s antics, only Keane saw Brok narrow his body, squeeze his shoulders together, clench his gut and bottom in, and slip stealthily into what was probably the best hiding place in school, perhaps even in the world—the Wall Gap.
Keane and Brok had discovered this structural anomaly quite by mistake earlier that school year. Running from yet another potential pounding, they had taken cover behind one of the lockers and had spotted the narrow crease in the wall. It had looked too small to be useful, but, out of pure desperation, they’d squeezed through. And at the other end they’d discovered a small cavity which looked like an extra supply cabinet that had been walled in. They had christened it the Wall Gap and, since then, it had become the very foundation of their bully-evasion strategy.
By the time Johnny turned back, stumped that there was no bird (a good few seconds later than Keane had expected, even for Johnny), he was doubly confused to see that Brok had vanished. This seemed to amuse Pete and Don to no end.
Randy, though, had lost interest in the joke. He grabbed Keane by the collar and yanked him clean off the ground.
Keane struggled to breathe as his t-shirt tightened around his neck. Soon, his eyes started to water and the world started to fade away until he felt as though he was about to lose consciousness.
And that’s when he felt it. That odd tingling sensation in his hands. The same one that had woken him up just the night before. Without even looking, he knew that sparks of emerald were running through his hands again. He couldn’t believe that it was happening right here and right now, in full view of the Bullies—just about the worst people that his shameful secret could choose to reveal itself to.
Keane had heard that your life flashed before your eyes when you were at death’s doorsteps. With Randy’s grip tightening around his throat, those doorsteps certainly felt close, but nothing at all flashed before Keane’s eyes. In fact, with his eyes being forced to close from the strain on his neck, Keane could now see absolutely nothing at all.
Sounds echoed and dissolved. The world went dark.
And from the darkness, it was anger that rose up and gripped him.
He’d had enough of the Bullies forever picking on him, and he’d had enough of them always getting away with it too. Most of all, though, he’d had enough of not being able to protect himself.
His neck fought against the strength of Randy’s hands. His eyes snapped open. He teeth gnashed in anger. And with his promise to Brok all but forgotten, he aimed his palms at Randy and willed the trickle of green in his splayed fingers to lash out and turn the boy into a pile of smoking cinders.
Randy released his grip and stepped back, suspicious of the flickers now dancing in Keane’s hands.
Keane stumbled back, coughing and inhaling greedily, grateful to breathe normally again. He wiped the water from his eyes and turned to his oppressors. He could see them clearly now. Very clearly, indeed. His brows furrowed with concentration. He reasserted his aim.
Randy took an even bigger step back. His fellow Bullies followed his lead, growing nervous as Keane’s intense focus amplified the glow in his open palms.
The energy fizzed. It buzzed. And when it spewed an upsurge, the Bullies flinched, knees bent and arms flung out in what looked like a vigilant version of the Hokey Cokey. Their gazes hurriedly shot between Keane’s face and his hands as if they were expecting a bomb to go off.
A loud pop made the Bullies flinch. They all frantically checked each other for injuries, none of them entirely sure what had just happened.
But Keane understood immediately what the pop meant: his powers, on the verge of smiting the Bullies, had decided to desert him instead. And, very soon, the Bullies would know too, since the glow had vanished as well.
He desperately shook his hands in an attempt to revive the powers that had so abruptly vanished. He pleaded with them. Not now! Not when the thugs were so close and in his sights… If not a pile of smoking cinders then he’d even settle for a lightly singed Randy!
Pete was the first to start laughing, and he did it in a way that somehow expressed both relief and dangerous mischief. He had obviously caught on to the fact that the sparks weren’t returning anytime soon.
Randy and Don soon joined in, their confidence returning as they straightened up. Johnny looked at his colleagues and, though he didn’t really get why, started to laugh as well. Whether he ever really understood what was going on around him, no one really knew.
Keane, whose power-revival efforts had been growing progressively less resolutely, finally gave up. His arms fell limply to his sides, his head hung, and his heart sank as he was forced to accept that his powers had failed him yet again, and that Brok had been right all along.
“That was awesome, Freak Show,” said Randy, wiping away tears.
Keane hated it when they called him that. The practice had started in the third grade, when his powers had first emerged and he’d tried—and, of course, failed—to use them. ‘Freak Show’ was, unfortunately, just what they called him now. And, he still hated it every single time they did. He hated it very much indeed.
“Seriously,” continued Randy, “when has your fake science lab crap ever worked on us?”
“Yeah, go back to the freak show, Freak Show!” said Johnny, striving to be a part of the fun, but inadvertently ending up silencing everyone. The boys watched with pity and amusement as the blissfully oblivious lug cackled on.
Again, Randy was the first to lose interest. He turned to Keane and menacingly pushed up his sleeves. “Now, where were we?” he asked, with an evil grin. “Oh, yeah…”
Knowing exactly what that meant, Keane tried to duck, but wasn’t fast enough to sidestep Randy’s swinging fist, which rammed into his left cheek with a sickening crunch.
Keane slammed backwards into the lockers with such force that he couldn’t tell which side of his head hurt more. The pain was so unbearable that it made him want to just rip Randy’s head off.
And in his fit of fury, he decided to do just that. If his powers weren’t going to help him, so be it. He’d get Randy without them, and he didn’t much care if he ended up getting all his bones broken in the process. It would be worth it as long as he managed to inflict some damage first.
He balled his hands into fists, mustered up all his strength, and, with a deafening scream, went in swinging.
Randy, though, deftly caught Keane’s fist in his left hand, as if it were nothing more than a wayward fly ball, and, with his right, started to hammer at Keane’s exposed ribs.
When Keane finally wrenched himself free, he went crashing into the lockers and stayed there, winded from the pounding his torso had just taken.
He opened his eyes to see Randy’s next jab headed his way, aimed at his throat this time, and went to evade it, but stumbled sideways and ended up falling flat on his face.
When he looked up, he was startled to see the crowd that had quietly gathered around him and Randy.
The handful of students, who Keane assumed must have free period now, were stood in a semi-circle around the fighting duo. What’s more, Pete, Don and Johnny seemed to have decided that Randy was more than capable of taking care of Freak Show all by himself, and had joined the crowd.
The students, excited by Keane’s fall, started to cheer, calling out names of wrestling moves that Randy should try next, and, of course, taking photos on their phones.
Great, thought Keane, that’s all that was missing from this day—the sharing of his humiliation with the entire world. He found it hard to blame them, though, since a fight like this was a truly rare event; not even an A-Lister would have persevered to this extent against Randy, especially not after having just assaulted his chin with an elbows.
And before he knew it, Keane was being chased by a sophomore girl who absolutely insisted that he pose in her selfie. He was so busy dodging her that he missed Randy’s knuckles rapidly closing in on the middle of his face.
His nose was smashed deep into his head, spattering the unsuspecting spectators with his nasal blood. Students yelled profanities as they backed off.
But it was Selfie Girl who bore the brunt of it. She stood frozen with shock, staring at her phone as it dripped a steady stream of red. And when she finally mustered up the courage to look down, her own blood-covered state sent her running down the hallway, crying and screaming her lungs out.
Keane saw none of this, though. His world had vanished into pain and darkness. His shaking legs, unable to support his weight anymore, caved in. He fell to the floor.
“What is going on?”
The shrill, grating voice belonged to Mrs. Applebottom, better known to the students of John Atkins High as ‘Grouchina’, so named for her relentless quest to distribute as many detention slips as was humanly possible.
Keane could hear students scatter in every direction as Grouchina approached, the frantic sound of heels tapping against tiled floor growing ominously louder by the second.
He tried to open his eyes, but could see little through all the tears and the blood. So blurry was his vision that he could have sworn he saw one panicking student actually shut himself inside a locker.
His every instinct urged him to run away, but his ribs and his face throbbed with pain so excruciating that he doubted whether he could even stand up straight.
Rubbing his eyes, he made out four Bully-shaped figures merge nonchalantly into the fleeing crowd. He couldn’t believe it. They were going to get away with it! Again!
As they escaped, he squinted through his hazy vision at their hands. But they were empty. He desperately patted the floor around him, but felt nothing other than the thickly wet puddles of his own blood.
The article was gone.
By the time Mrs. Applebottom got to Keane, he was the only one left, sitting defeated in a pool of red.
He had tried to pinch his nostrils together to stem the seemingly ceaseless flow, but the tactic hadn’t quite worked, and more blood kept gushing out in haphazard spurts.
“Keane? Keane Davies?” yelled Grouchina. “Detention for you, young man!”
Mrs. Applebottom’s hair had a tint of light mauve to it, and her horn-rimmed glasses were plum-colored too. She usually wore tailored suits, each a different shade of violet, with matching mid-length skirts that made her look like a sandwich wrap that had been opened at the wrong end. The shade she sported today was just a touch on the darker side.
As she pulled the detention slip booklet out of her large jacket pockets, Keane felt a sneeze coming on. He pinched his nose harder, and then with both hands, but the sneeze was having none of it. Before he knew it, a bout of fresh blood erupted onto the heeled, lavender shoes before him.
Grouchina fumed at the sight. “Detention for the whole week!” she screamed.
Keane started to protest but, with his vision improving, he now saw exactly how badly he’d ruined Grouchina’s shoes. Deciding that anything he said at this point would just make things worse, Keane shut his mouth and silently wished that he was in the Wall Gap with Brok. Or better yet, dead.
Then, Brok appeared, as if out of thin air.
Keane wondered if the boy had completely lost hold of his senses. He fervently signaled Brok to run away, to retreat to the safety of the Wall Gap, but Brok ignored all of this and tugged at Mrs. Applebottom’s jacket.
“It wasn’t his fault, Mrs. A.”
Grouchina jumped a foot into the air with a yelp, holding her chest as if she were having an attack. “What the—? Mr. Jacobs? Where the devil did you come from?”
Brok dismissed the enquiry with a wave of his hand. “Long story. Won’t bore you with it.”
Keane had half a mind to scold the boy, to ask him what exactly was wrong with him, but when he caught a glimpse of the devastatingly guilt-ridden expression the boy acquired upon inspecting the blood-soaked corridor, he shut up. He understood. And he knew that, had the situation been reversed, he, too, would have come back for Brok.
So, when Brok crouched beside him and put a hand on his shoulder, clearly determined to make amends for abandoning his best friend, Keane nodded empathetically; orphans, by definition, understood a thing or two about abandonment, and Brok was no exception.
“There shall be no hooliganry at this school,” Mrs. Applebottom was saying, already half way through writing out a detention slip for Brok. “I simply shan’t tolerate it.”
She ripped out the slips and thrust them at the boys. “Detention for the both of you,” she said, wagging a finger. “And you two are to report to the Principal’s office immediately!”
As Brok helped him up, Keane nodded to acknowledge Grouchina’s instructions. There was no point in arguing with her as it would only extend the sentence.
But Grouchina continued to look him up and down in an odd way. He half expected her to demand that he get a mop and bucket from the janitor and start cleaning up the mess he’d made. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.
So, when he finally figured out that it was pity that she was exhibiting, needless to say, he was shocked.
And even that was nothing compared to the words she uttered next, which nearly sent him into a coma.
“Perhaps after a quick visit to the nurse’s office first…”
The New Girl]
The wooden bench outside the Principal’s office was old, rickety, and one which Keane was only too familiar with.
Keane sat on the wobbly furniture in silence, holding a bunch of blood-soaked tissues to his nose and staring dead ahead at the sign above the door, which read ‘MR SMITH—PRINCIPAL’ in large, faux-gold letters.
Since they’d started at John Atkins High, Keane and Brok had found themselves frequenting both the bench and the Principal’s office far more often than they’d have liked.
By now, in fact, Keane knew the Principal well enough to recognize his office’s isolated location as the deliberate attempt it was to ensure the absence of pesky kids so that peace and quiet prevailed.
Keane had also come to suspect that the Principal derived some sort of pleasure from knowing that wrongdoers sent to his office would have to endure a long, tedious walk, and in haunting silence at that, which would give them ample time to rethink the life choices that had brought them down these secluded corridors in the first place.
Although Keane had his head pointed at the sign, he wasn’t really looking. What he was actually trying to do was block out Brok again.
“That was crazy!” said Brok, hyperactively pacing the hallway while over-expressing with his hands. “I heard it all! He was like Bam! And you were like Boof!”
Keane remained mute. He was not in the mood to relive the ordeal he’d just suffered. Already, his heart sank every time he remembered the lost newspaper cutting.
Saving up for that article had meant skipping lunch almost every day for several months, but Keane hadn’t minded one bit because if the article could have shed any light on his past—on where he’d come from, or on who his parents were, or on what had happened to them—it would all have been worth it. But now, it was gone, taking with it the last trace of his origins.
“Uh, until he kicked your ass, that is,” said Brok, finally sensing Keane’s morose mood. “I mean, that bit su-hucked!” He shook the bench as he took a seat.
“How do you know?” Keane asked quietly. “You weren’t there for any of it.”
Brok offered up some fresh tissues. “Well, you know, in spirit…” he said with a shrug.
Without turning, Keane snatched the tissues out of Brok’s hands and replaced the old wad pressed against his nose.
He knew that he wasn’t being entirely fair; Brok had, after all, come to his rescue against Grouchina, accepted her detention slip without complaint, sat with him throughout his visit to the nurse’s office, distracted the nurse with jokes so that she wouldn’t ask too many questions, and was now going to have to bear whatever ill-conceived disciplinary torture tickled Mr. Smith’s fancy as well.
Yes, Keane was fully aware that Brok was not at fault, and that he was merely projecting his own frustrations with the Bullies, and, he noted, his frustration with the system too, because, yet again, it was him and Brok, and not Randy and his crew, who found themselves sitting outside Mr. Smith’s office. The injustice of it all was too much for Keane to bear.
“This needs to stop,” he said, somberly, in a way that made it clear he wasn’t just talking about his nosebleed.
Brok shifted uneasily in his seat.
“Come on, Keane,” he said. “We both know what we are. And, more importantly, what we’re not. We’re not big. We’re not strong. And we’re certainly not smart. We’re barely average, Keane. For guys like us sometimes it’s better to just, you know… roll over.”
Keane turned sharply and glared at Brok, enraged by the easy surrender. When Brok saw the fury on his face, he seemed to pee his pants a little.
“Just saying,” Brok muttered with a shrug.
“Once again, Ms. Mehrzeen, welcome to John Atkins High.” The boys flinched at the booming voice of the Principal. They hadn’t heard the door open, and now Mr. Smith was stood before them, speaking over his shoulder to someone inside his office.
“I am certain your peers will make you quite welcome,” said Mr. Smith. Then he turned to the boys and his voice took on an entirely different tone. “Keane! Brok! Get in here!”
Brok jumped to his feet. “On it like a bonnet!” The inadvertent rhyme amused him to no end and he slapped his knee, but, seeing that it had a decidedly opposite effect on Mr. Smith, he hastened to rein it in. “I mean, yes sir, Mr. Smith? Sir?”
Mr. Smith just pointed him crossly towards the office. Brok instantly lurched forward, his short legs scampering across the corridor. Having satisfactorily dealt with Brok, the Principal turned impatiently to Keane.
But Keane stood frozen, wonderstruck, lost in a haze of seemingly interminable mesmerization.
Time had slowed down—right down—and joined him in holding its breath. And in that unpassing moment, there was no Mr. Smith. There was no bleeding nose. No Brok. And no dread. There was just… the new girl.
The dusky teen glided out of the Principal’s office with her head lowered, timidly gnawing at her bottom lip. She looked up to smile warmly at Mr. Smith as she passed him, and Keane couldn’t help but wonder if she wasn’t just about the prettiest thing he’d ever seen.
His gaze travelled from the glossy pink of her lips, to the dimples of her cheeks, and up to the dark, smoky make-up around her eyes. She wore square-framed glasses, and half her face was covered by the dark cedar bangs that slanted right-to-left across her face.
Most mesmerizing of all, though, were her vixen-like eyes—dusky brown pupils, surrounded by bright, golden caramel irises, floating in seas of white. So absorbed was he by them that it took him a few moments to register that the girl was looking straight back at him too.
Instantly, his knees buckled. He grabbed the bench for support and tried to avert his gaze, but couldn’t, for the life of him, take his eyes off her. He noticed that the girl wasn’t looking away either, but smiling at him instead.
She shyly adjusted her glasses and tucked a few strands of stray hair behind her ear, which made Keane’s heart flutter and swell to the point of bursting.
He felt his hands start to shake and tingle once more. Afraid that they’d start glowing again, he swiftly retracted them behind his back, but this was a bad idea as it left the dried blood caked around his nose unchecked.
Only when red flakes fell from his face and lodged themselves into his favorite T-shirt did it dawn on him that the girl could just be staring because of the truly inexcusable state he was in—clothes stained with blood and dirt, face covered with fresh bruises.
Then it struck him that he’d just been standing there, grinning at her like an utter moron.
He tried to subdue the ghastly grin, which he just knew he had plastered on his face, while simultaneously attempting to move forward, but his legs were still jelly from the fight. It took all his strength just to put one foot in front of the other.
Then he imagined how he probably looked right about now—with his hands behind his back, his elbows flapping like wings, and his knees wobbling thanks to the jelly legs… There was simply no escaping it—he looked like a demented chicken. And that was before the blood and the bruises and the hideous grin which, despite his best efforts, was just not going away anytime soon.
She was still looking at him, though, and still smiling, somehow unperturbed by his appearance. He took this as a good sign and thought that he should probably talk to her. But before he knew it, she was passing right by him. He had to say something. Anything. Now!
“Know you—I? Do I… you? I know?”
He smacked his face in instant regret and decided that he would never speak again, at least not to girls, and then he winced in pain as he’d just hit his own nose.
The fail was all the more excruciating because he really hadn’t intended to sound like he was spouting pickup lines, but, once again, his ineptitude with girls had sealed the embarrassing outcome.
The girl giggled. “Hi, Keane.”
Keane’s jaw dropped. She knew his name? How did she know his name? Had she just heard Mr. Smith call him? Possibly, but that didn’t explain the smiling and the staring.
Keane was so perplexed that he hadn’t noticed his own hand rise to wave in response to the girl’s greeting. He now turned to it and watched it curiously, as though it was under the control of an alien intelligence and, thusly distracted, proceeded to crash face-first into Mr. Smith’s belly.
As he bounced off the old, yet surprisingly sturdy man, it took Keane a few moments to recalibrate and to register what had happened.
The first thing he recognized was his own blood which, freshly unleashed by the impact, was now trickling down the Principal’s tie with gay abandon, spreading to the pristine, white shirt, and generally making Keane lose the will to live.
Next, he identified the look on Mr. Smith’s reddening face which meant the Principal was about to multiply whatever punishment he’d previously had in store for the boys.
And then another bout of dread gripped Keane. Only this time it was a different sort of dread, stemming not from Mr. Smith’s impending sentencing, but from the fact that the dusky girl—the one with the square glasses and the caramel eyes, the one who knew his name—was getting away.
“What the devil is wrong with you, Mr. Davies?” said Mr. Smith, frantically wiping his tie down with the handkerchief he’d produced from his pocket.
“I-I was…” Keane mumbled, only half paying attention as he desperately hunted for the girl. But the corridor was empty. She was gone.
“You know, Mr. Davies,” said Mr. Smith, “kids like you had better watch where they were going. Unpopular students with poor grades tend to end up short on life options.”
Keane seethed. The Principal was wrong about him. So wrong. But now was not the time for self-righteousness, so Keane stifled his rebuttal and, instead, looked down meekly.
“Yes, Mr. Smith. Sorry, Mr. Smith.”
“Oh, just get in!” said Mr. Smith, irately motioning Keane into his office.
“Sir.” Keane nodded and started towards the open door.
“Besides…” added the old man, as Keane passed him. “She’s way out of your league.”
“Wait, what?” Keane frowned at Mr. Smith, but the Principal was already jostling him on into the office. And as they entered the stuffy little room, Keane nearly choked at the sight that greeted him.
Brok was perched atop the Principal’s desk, jovially swinging his legs back and forth.
When Brok spotted them, he lit up with unchecked glee and rubbed his hands together as if about to tuck into a long anticipated meal.
“Let’s do this,” he said.
“Get off my table, Mr. Jacobs!” bellowed Mr. Smith.
Brok’s smile dissolved into fear and he jumped off the table. Standing as erect as he could, he thrust a hand to his temple in an awkward salute.
“Sir! Off the table, Mr. Smith, Sir!” he bellowed.
The old man shook his head and muttered something indistinct under his breath as he slammed the door shut and made his way to his large, creaky leather chair.
Brok began to make himself comfortable on one of the seats opposite the Principal and, with a heavy sigh, Keane slumped down on the chair next to him, resigned to whatever fate Mr. Smith was about to bestow upon them. Brok grinned and flashed him an upturned thumb for luck, in far too cheery a mood given the circumstances.
But, even as he shook his head at Brok, Keane couldn’t deny that the boy had been right about absolutely everything, from his constantly backfiring powers to the fact that they were nowhere near strong, or smart, or even average enough to take on the likes of Randy. Who were they, really, to square up to a boy who even most teachers feared?
Lesson learned, Keane vowed to stick to the ol’ ‘run and hide’ routine going forward, article or no article.
The Principal cracked open a large ledger, which Keane knew to be records of all the detentions the man had personally dished out, records which he no doubt delighted in thumbing through on quiet afternoons alone in his office.
But Keane didn’t quite catch Mr. Smith’s next words because, just then, a vision flashed into his mind, after which a quiet serenity overcame him.
It was peculiar how everything that seemed so important moments ago—from the Bullies and the unfairness, to Mr. Smith and his punishment, to even the article—all seemed so trivial now, their importance dwindling beside the vision…
Beside the image of the girl with golden caramel eyes…
~ α Ω α ~
“But it’s so unfair!”
The outburst almost made Tristan drop his sandwich.
Mr. Tristan Green, or ‘Greenster’ as Keane liked to call him, was Keane’s favorite teacher. They were sitting in the bleachers which overlooked the football field and the outdoor basketball courts at the rear of the school grounds, and had been watching students shoot hoops while having their lunch in silence. Before Keane’s abrupt eruption had interrupted the peace, that is.
“Keane, have we not just been through this?” asked Tristan, whose tone, despite the stern words, was soothing.
“But, a month of detention?” Keane asked, looking at his sandwich, determined to finish the rant he’d restarted. “I mean, I’m the one with the bleeding nose here!”
It wasn’t that Mr. Smith had taken Grouchina’s one week of detention and more than quadrupled it to a whole month. That bit was actually unsurprising given the Red Face of Multiplication Mr. Smith had flashed them beforehand.
No, what had really been getting to Keane was that no one else saw the injustice of it all, and sitting in classrooms all day mulling over the events and the outcomes had only succeeded in escalating his frustration to explosive levels.
“Life is not usually fair, Keane,” said Tristan, returning to his sandwich.
These were not words that Keane wanted to hear. Not in the state he was in. But, in his heart, he knew it to be the truth; his own experiences had only too readily exemplified just how unfair life could be.
“Well, then, that just sucks,” he sighed, and also returned to his lunch.
“You know, you could go some way toward rectifying the situation. Perhaps if you got serious about school work…”
Keane didn’t speak, electing to stare blankly ahead lest his anger return, but Tristan seemed to mistake his silence for lack of comprehension.
“I’m talking about possibly working towards bringing up your grades…”
“Look, I’m trying, okay?” Keane protested. “Trying hard! But it’s hard to try hard!”
There was so much wrong with that sentence that Tristan turned to Keane with half a mind to correct him, but then let it slide, almost purely, Keane suspected, out of pity.
They continued to eat in silence for a while.
“Nice one, Derek,” Tristan called out at one of the boys on the court who’d just sunk another basket.
The teacher sported a crewcut and had a scar over his left eye. Keane often joked that that’s what happened when you lost a fight to a gerbil. In fact, with each retelling, the animal in question shrunk in size. Of course, even Keane was smart enough to know that whatever creature had inflicted a gash that deep had to have been bigger—much bigger.
Despite being one of the youngest-looking faculty members of John Atkins High, Tristan had weary, old eyes that looked like they’d seen things—terrible things. He also possessed the odd, Zen-like calm of an ancient monk, and students would often catch glimpses of him meditating at his desk during recess. Mostly, though, he taught chemistry.
Tristan studied his sandwich somewhat dazedly before turning gingerly to Keane.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Oh, really, Greenster?” asked Keane, highly amused. “You’re gonna ask me for advice now?”
When they’d first met, Keane had been suspicious of Tristan’s helpfulness; in his experience, no one was ever nice to little orphans without ulterior motives. Over the years, though, the advice Tristan had dispensed—from tips on handling homework, to juggling Orphanage rotas, to keeping Grouchina at bay, and generally avoiding trouble, both at school and outside—had proved to be indispensable. The man was so full of wisdom that Keane had come to assume there was nothing he didn’t know, which is why it was ludicrous that the teacher now had a question for him.
Curiosity got the better of Keane, though. “Sure,” he said, with a shrug, “fire away.”
“Have you heard any of the students talking about any… odd occurrences?” Tristan choose his words carefully. “You know, mention anything strange happening around school?”
The question caught Keane by surprise. “Me? Strange? No,” he blurted, suddenly guarded. “I mean… what exactly do you mean by ‘strange’?” he added, mindful that he may have replied a little too quickly—a sure sign of guilt.
“Oh, you know. Anything unusual. Out of the ordinary. Bizarre…” Tristan was now looking straight at Keane, who held his breath as the teacher drew in closer and whispered, “Supernatural, even?”
“Nothing. Nope. Not-a-one. Nuh-uh. Why? You hearded something—heard? What did you hear…? Something?”
Keane cursed himself. He had to stop word vomiting like that. It made him look guilty even when he wasn’t. Of course, considering the dream, the glowing hands, and the subsequent fight with Randy, he wasn’t exactly innocent. Nevertheless, he had to stop babbling like that, which he made a mental note to do going forward while he tried hard to look normal for Tristan and his over-attentive eye.
“Never mind,” said the teacher, dropping the subject with a shake of his head.
Then, Keane grew suspicious; Greenster, who knew him best of all the teachers, asking him about supernatural occurrences on the very day his powers had reactivated started to seem like a bit too much to be mere coincidence. More so since Selfie Girl and her paparazzi colleagues had, thankfully, not managed to catch the bizarre green sparks from earlier (yup, the pictures were already online).
Was Greenster on to him? Could this seemingly innocent teacher, now quietly nibbling on his ham and cheese, know more than he let on? Could he know about the strange forest, or the grimy ball of electricity, or the supernatural warriors, or even the dragon?
Keane noticed Tristan watching him just as intently. For a moment, the two of them sat motionless, each unblinkingly scrutinizing the other, each attempting to peer into the evasive depth of the other’s mind.
Then they shook their heads and turned away.
Keane laughed at himself as he realized the absurdity of his thoughts. With a chuckle, he decided to dismiss them.
He turned back to watch the basketball players, and noticed that Tristan did the same. And together, student and teacher carried on eating their sandwiches in silence.
The Knight and the Monk]
Voranng looked up at the skies above Zolshedak, which swirled with the blood red hue of the Aurora Shammis, and found himself reflecting on the wisdom of Grand Solarian Akuraah who had first sensed the strength with which Zol—the central star that was the source of their Powers—shone upon this particular Hidden World, and had designated it home to the Solarians. Akuraah had known that to be even one step closer to the heavenly beacon of light translated into exponentially greater power.
The Solarian Temple, the steps of which Voranng now stood upon, reached heavenwards like a submissive hand paying dues to the sun above, thanking it for the gifts it bestowed daily upon Gaia and her beings. It had been built on the highest peak of Zolshedak so that it could fully absorb and, in turn, radiate the increased Power of Zol experienced by the Hidden World.
Its pillars were made of pure gold. The metal, extracted from the depths of Gaia, magnified Zol’s powers like no other. The walls, on the other hand, had been crafted out of majjikally fortified clay. Their deep scarlet matched the sacred Aurora that wracked the skies above.
Together, the pillars and walls held up the central tower, which not only provided a place of peace and meditation for the Majjikons that hailed to Zol, but also a place of practice and exercise for Solarian warriors. The body of the tower was inscribed with scripture in Farghamdohl—the Old Language—while the spire at the top of the structure turned into a beacon which emulated the rays of the sun itself.
Voranng now turned away from the ferocious overhead display to the more benign sight of Ghita. The eternally ruminating heifer idled by the side of her master, an old, learned monk who was sat at the base of the Temple, his face plastered with the same ever-present, yet inscrutable smile it always wore. Voranng knew that this was no ordinary monk. This was the Kahnomdaehi, Head Monk of the Kahnomstraahm—the Gaian monastery that stood at the very center of the High Realm.
The Kahnomdaehi was not only a Grand Majjikon, but an Ancient Majjikon too. He was the oldest one of his kind and, many believed, the last one as well.
As for the Kahnomstraahm, never having been to the High Realm, Voranng had not had the opportunity to look upon it with his own eyes, but had heard plenty from others, of its magnificence and stature, of how it was a structure so enormous that it would dwarf even the vast Solarian Temple.
And he did not need first-hand experience to comprehend the strength of the Gaians, the might of their High Realm, and the clout of the Council of Majjikons, which the monk sat before him now spoke for.
Voranng bowed his head with respect, realizing that the monk had been waiting for a reply for some time now. “Revered Kahnomdaehi, I wish not to argue. Merely to inform. This was no isolated incident. Many have borne witness to recent Terralyte resurgence.”
Even as he spoke, he mused on how opposite he and the Kahnomdaehi were in physical appearance. He stood at eight feet tall, and was almost as broad, possessing muscles and resolve that were hard as rock, every bit the Solarian PeaceKeeper. The monk before him, on the other hand, was broad, round and soft. The only common physical trait they shared were their shiny bald heads.
Alas, my dear Voranng, came the monk’s answer, which seemed to originate from just behind his steadfast eyes and insinuated directly into Voranng’s thoughts. This is but hearsay. The Council has yet to see concrete evidence of this so-called resurgence.
Prior to the Days of Inequity—a time of savage war raged by Hozar and his Terralytes—there had existed many Grand and Ancient Majjikons who had possessed such telepathic abilities, and had elected to communicate exclusively in this manner, extoling it as a more civilized, more efficient, and more accurate form. The Days of Inequity, though, had seen most of their lives claimed and left, in its wake, a scarcity of those that could perform such deeper, more ancient majjik.
It is a time of peace, my dear PeaceKeeper, it has been the longest period of quiet and solace that Majjikons and humans have both enjoyed. In lieu of evidence, you know as well as I, that such rumors will inevitably be viewed as mere fearmongering; but a futile attempt to undermine the Council’s position and to create conflict where none exists.
The Kahnomdaehi’s complex words took but the blink of an eye for Voranng to comprehend. It was simply too quick for him, though, and he stumbled to find the words to reply. Without a cohesive thought yet formed, the Solarian went to speak, but before could open his mouth, a swift blur of movement erupted from the heavens above.
The Peacekeeper instinctively reached for his weapon, his fist on the gold handle of his broadsword in the blink of an eye. Then he recognized the signature sound of air being rent asunder, as if by a swirling typhoon, and relaxed his grip.
Nehar and Rahin, the battle axes, fell from the red skies and swung towards the Temple. As often as he saw them, Voranng never ceased to be amazed by the spectacle of the twin weapons, unburdened by wielding hands, spinning in unison, carving elaborate shapes in the air.
They now dove groundward, spinning like furious boomerangs, and came to a stop before the Kahnomdaehi, where they hung in the air, swirling gently, almost playfully. The monk acknowledged their greeting with a nod and returned their respect with a bow, upon which the battle axes once again took to the skies in a whirl of fury and, with a sharp swing, disappeared behind the Temple.
Their appearance had allowed Voranng to regather his thoughts. He had to hand it to the Major who, even without being physically present, had perfectly anticipated the needs of the situation, and the shortcomings of his second-in-command, and had duly dispatched his faithful axes to provide distraction at just the right moment. He was truly worthy of the title of Rabat Zohai—or Axe Wielder to those not versed in the Old Language.
Now prepared with his next argument, Voranng turned to the Kahnomdaehi. “And if rumors are true?” he asked. “Then Terralytes will come for Zolshedak. And we have not numbers we once did, Kahnomdaehi.”
Still your mind, child. If the Terralyte threat you speak of does materialize, then I am positive a diplomatic solution shall be reached well before any blood is shed.
“Terralytes seek but one thing, Kahnomdaehi. World domination. Your diplomacy is doomed to fail.”
Somehow the rotund monk seemed to be able to beam even harder, his face splitting under the widening smile.
My dear child. If diplomacy fails, the Council will follow its Protocols and dispatch Gaian PeaceKeepers of the High Realm for Zolshedak.
“Bah! History proves that PeaceKeepers promised by Council never show when needed most. And Zol forbid that Terralytes awaken sleeping dragons!”
Don’t be absurd, child! The Farghamae are dead, came the Kahnomdaehi’s response, his face unperturbed, though Voranng now detected that his thoughts betrayed anger and, as a result, grew infuriated himself.
“Knight Supreme does not believe—” Voranng held his tongue. And his breath.
He had just let the cat out of the bag.
Knight? Came the reproachful response. Be serious, child. Do you and your regime honestly believe now to be time for such archaic measures?
Voranng feared that the Major—or Knight Supreme, as Voranng and Naddan and Bilzuun and all the other Solarian warriors under his command had already gotten used to addressing him—would not be happy.
Taking solace in the fact that at least the true breadth and depth of the Major’s power over the entire PeaceKeeping force of Zolshedak still remained secret, Voranng attempted to shift the monk’s attention away from his blunder.
“And what of Council and its archaic protocols?” he said. “What of Terralytes and their archaic Dark Majjik? Their petrifying incantations born of Kaos, breeding death and fear in their wake?”
This time the Kahnomdaehi’s eyes seemed to sadden, and seeing the monk’s smile finally crack, Voranng reciprocated the sentiment.
He looked down at the PeaceKeeper emblem on his left breast as he ran a thumb along its breadth. The standard-issue metal disc, carefully threaded into the standard-issue black PeaceKeeper cloak, reminded him of the oath he had sworn upon enlistment, all those centuries ago.
“We are PeaceKeepers, Kahnomdaehi,” he said. “For now. But when Terralyte warriors wrench souls from Solarian bodies, we will not stand by pretending to ‘keep peace’. Not for mere Protocol.”
In that case, my dear boy, I must hasten to inform you that such vigilante activities are strictly against Council law.
“Mark words herein spoken, Kahnomdaehi. If Council follows law to letter, Solarian Knights shall be all that remain standing between Terralytes and Gaia herself.”
The Kahnomdaehi’s reply began to invade the Solarian’s mind once more, but Voranng, having grown weary of dancing around the true crux of the matter, elected instead to drown the monk’s cerebral utterances with his verbal ones.
“Why not reveal to Council all you know, Kahnomdaehi? Of events passed. Of Prophecy… Of Rodukai!”
The Kahnomdaehi fell silent. Voranng watched the rotund monk mull over the outburst. The monk knew exactly which divination he was referring to, of course. Every Majjikon did. The term ‘Prophecy’ had, since the end of the Days of Inequity at least, become synonymous with Grand Gaian Thuulmahr’s foretelling of the coming of Gaia’s Triumvirate—the Creator, the Destroyer, and the Guardian.
What most concerned Voranng and the Major was the last of these—the Guardian of Gaia, the Protector of Earth… the Rodukai. They knew that the Head Monk, with his superior powers of foresight and intuition, comprehended far more about the Prophecy than any other Majjikon alive or dead, and it frustrated them to no end that he chose to keep his visions and his knowledge secret.
Recalling that Thuulmahr had been good friends with the Kahnomdaehi before his demise at Hozar’s hands, Voranng recognized that it may have been a little insensitive to bring up the topic so abruptly, but it was not just him that needed answers. The Major did too. And the Major did not much care for such sentimentality, for he had not the time to waste. According to him—and Voranng had come to agree—the Rodukai had remained hidden for long enough, and now that Gaia was under threat, it was time to invoke the Prophecy and see him finally meet his destiny, and to see Terralytes meet theirs at his hands.
Time Majjik is dangerous, my child, streamed the Kahnomdaehi’s thoughts into Voranng’s mind. Even I cannot see past all the chaos and distortions caused by such deep and ancient majjik. And, besides, the course of history must play out with no more interference from me. Indeed, the Council insists upon it.
This subtle but unmistakable evasion, this resurrection of the detested veil of secrecy, was enough to push Voranng over the edge.
“Of what use is Prophecy if not to be invoked? Tell me that, Kahnomdaehi?” raged the Solarian.
Rare as it was for him to allow his temper to spill over in this manner, especially in the presence of a holy man, the pressure had been mounting on the Solarian race since the fateful day that they had learned of the Terralytes’ plans.
Before any more of that repressed rage could spew out, Nehar and Rahin reappeared, cutting wildly through the atmosphere. They converged with such force upon where the Kahnomdaehi stood that they ended up embedding deep inside the ground before his feet with dull thunks.
Voranng looked at the axes with disdain. Their message was clear; it was not just him the monk’s words had angered.
He turned to the Head Monk and bowed. “Apologies, Kahnomdaehi. It would seem gracious welcome extended by Knight Supreme has been outstayed.” This time he did not hesitate while using the designation of Knight.
It would seem so indeed. The Kahnomdaehi stood up. My dear PeaceKeeper, I urge you and your fellow Solarians to reconsider your plan of action. And I urge the Rabat Zohai to exercise the absolute control he wields over Solarian PeaceKeepers as carefully as he wields his axes. For he, of all Majjikons, should know better.
Voranng’s heart sank. The monk had so easily and so quickly guessed the final secret—the identity of the true originator of Solarian plans. It must have come to him in a vision, Voranng figured, for how else could he have known?
Worry not, PeaceKeeper. The Kahnomdaehi seemed to have perceived Voranng’s despair. Your secret shall remain safe with me… As long as you and your fellow Solarians do not overstep the bounds of Council law. It would truly be a shame to see gracious PeaceKeeper cloaks dropped in favor of barbaric knight armor.
With his piece said, the Kahnomdaehi gave Voranng a final bow before mounting the bare back of his loyal heifer and commencing his long journey back to the High Realm.
As the Solarian warrior watched the slow and steady progress of the rotund monk and his ride, he found himself contemplating the horrors that would soon be headed their way, a prospect made all the more frightening by the fact that the Council was not with them. The meeting with the Kahnomdaehi had conveyed but one thing—that the Solarians would have to stand alone.
It was only when the visitor and his ride were mere specks on the horizon that Voranng withdrew from his thoughts and realized just how still and silent he had been all the while, and just how much darker and angrier the skies above him had turned.
An Insane and Ridiculous Coincidence]
The wiry little boy—the one covered in dirt, the one with the black and blue face—finds a quiet corner, away from the ruckus, far from the other kids. A corner where he hopes no one will find him, where no one will bother him anymore.
It’s better to be alone, he tells himself. It’s harder to get hurt when you’re alone.
As he crams himself into the space between the pillar and the floor, bringing his black and red rucksack with him, he touches the bruises on his face.
They hurt like hell.
He knows that the pain will be even worse tomorrow. But it’s okay, he tells himself, because he’s made it through today. And that’s all that matters, he tells himself, again and again. That’s all that matters for now.
Once he’s sure no one is around, he reaches for the secret fold on the inside of his shirt, the one that he stitched on himself, and pulls out his lunch. As always, it’s nothing more than a thin sliver of ham between two slices of stale bread, though the sandwich is flatter today, on account of the punches to his torso from earlier. He unwraps the thin plastic and takes a bite, striving not to eat too fast so that he can make it last. It’s dry and tasteless, but it’s food. And not one bit of it will go to waste.
After a few more grateful bites, though, he stops, feeling eyes on him, and looks up.
It’s the new girl. And she’s staring at him.
What does she want, he wonders, and then recoils on sighting the hideous floral dress she has on. The garment makes a valiant attempt to hide how chubby the girl is for her age, but, in the end, fails. Magnifying the girl’s eyes to a size beyond human are the thickest glasses he has ever seen. At least they pull attention away from her crooked teeth, he thinks. Then immediately, he shakes his head, disappointed with himself. Who is he to judge? Just a skinny little orphan boy covered in dirt and bruises.
He avoids eye contact and ignores her, hoping that she’ll get bored soon and go away, leaving him in peace. He sinks his teeth into the stiff bread with a crunch.
But when he looks up, she’s still there, sitting against the pillar just opposite now, watching him eat. He averts his gaze lest she take it as an invitation to prolong her stay, and uses his peripheral vision to watch her. She’s looking straight at him. And smiling.
“Staring is rude. Don’t you know?” he says, refusing to look up from his sandwich. The girl seems to know exactly how uncouth staring is, but doesn’t seem to care.
“Why are you here?” she asks.
“Why aren’t you with the other kids?”
He shifts uncomfortably.
“They laugh at me,” he says.
“Because of my clothes,” he replies, wondering why she doesn’t just ask one of the other girls. They’d be more than happy to tell her all about the weird, filthy kid who smells funny and eats alone.
“Hmm. What else?”
He tries to look offended at the implication that there’s more wrong with him. But he fails, mostly because he doesn’t entirely disagree with the implication himself.
Finally deciding to look, he lifts his head and looks at her, only to see her grin expand. He flinches at the sight of the crooked teeth, but corrects himself, reminding himself that he cannot be one to judge.
Besides, there’s something about that smile, something unfeigned, something real…
He figures it out. It’s genuine interest.
His brows furrow as he studies the girl, as the reason for her interest remains unclear, but it becomes abundantly clear that she isn’t going away anytime soon.
With a deep sigh, he puts down his sandwich and, from his trusty old rucksack, pulls out his moth-holed textbooks.
“My books, too,” he says. “They’re junked.” He shows her. She adjusts her glasses to see them better. Then she turns back to him.
“’Cos they’re fifth-hand, I think—or sixth-hand even?”
“’Cos that’s all they can give us at the Orphanage.”
“’Cos they don’t get very many donati—” the boy stops mid-word, realizing that this way lies madness. “Are you always this annoying?” he asks.
The little girl shyly shuffles her feet. “Well, the girls think I am. That’s why I’m not invited…” She motions to something in the distance, past the labyrinth of pillars.
He cranes his neck to see. There are indeed some girls there, sat at one of the playground tables. They seem to be enjoying a play tea party.
And that’s when it hits him. That’s when it all begins to make sense.
She’s one of the rejects. Just like him. And now she’s seeking a friend in him, in the only person who hasn’t shunned her away yet.
He smiles sadly with the knowledge that, soon, she’ll figure out that he is just as pathetic as her, and then she’ll be gone too. It’s okay, he tells himself, because then he’ll be alone—and it’s better to be alone. It’s harder to get hurt when you’re alone.
With a curt nod to the girl-who-will-be-leaving-soon, he returns to his sandwich, disappointed to see how little is left. He takes another dry bite and chews. And chews. And chews some more. On the way down, it scratches his throat.
When he looks up again, he sees the girl, now sat at a pillar even closer to him, unpacking her pink lunchbox.
“You don’t have to sit here, you know…”
The girl stops unpacking and looks up nervously.
“I-I know,” she says, and the boy instantly recognizes the look on her face—a dash of the fear of rejection, a dollop of the terror of abandonment, and a sprinkling of general dread to top it all off. It’s a look he’s only too familiar with.
“But I want to…” she says anxiously, pushing back up the telescopic glasses before they can slip all the way down her nose. “I-Is that okay?”
Well, that’s a first, thinks the boy. No one has ever wanted to sit with him before. Nor eat with him. Not even talk to him, in fact. Not even the boys from the orphanage, their reason being that associating with him tends to turn them into targets to be picked on. It’s true, thinks the boy. He’s bad news.
He responds with a weak smile and half a nod. The girl’s face floods with relief and lights up with a huge smile.
Only now, as she takes her glasses off, fumbling with them as she attempts to clean them on her unsightly floral garb, does the boy see her eyes properly. And, when he does, he can’t help but wonder how odd eyes look when they are as golden as honey. And then he can’t help but think about how pretty they look in that color.
As the girl replaces her glasses on the bridge of her nose, she spots the wedge of cardboard parading as a sandwich hanging off the boy’s fingers and her smile inverts. Appalled and shaking her head, she unpacks her pink lunchbox and pulls out her own sandwich.
It turns out to be a gourmet work of art—two slices of soft rye that can barely contain the fresh chicken, avocado, and bacon, topped off with mayonnaise, and dripping with creamy blue cheese. She offers him one of the two triangles that it has been cut into.
Despite his watering mouth, and his growling stomach, the boy starts to shake his head, but before he knows it, the girl has yanked the remains of his sandwich off him and, in its place, thrust half of hers into his hands.
“Too much for me anyway,” she says, struggling to take a bite. “Really.”
He hesitates, but her hearty nods assure him that it’s okay to tuck in. So, he does, and the flavors simply explode in his mouth. There is no way, he thinks to himself, that the two foods—what he brought and what she brought—should both be allowed to go by the same name of ‘sandwich’.
He stops chewing and looks at the girl. No one has been this nice to him, ever. He feels himself choking up, but fights not to turn into a complete mess. Not in front of the new girl, he tells himself.
When she looks at him, with her head tilted and her lips curled into a questioning smile, as if to ask if everything’s okay, he simply nods, unable to speak anymore thanks to the lump in his throat.
They eat in silence for a while, watching each other between delicious mouthfuls.
She grins at him as he chews. He watches her tuck locks of hair behind an ear. She hands him a paper napkin to wipe the blue cheese now smeared all over his mouth. He smiles, marveling at the unpredictability of life, and at how quickly a bad day could turn good…
His joy is short-lived.
The dragon that lands between them is a monstrosity covered in menacingly black scales that click together threateningly. The serpentine body sways this way and that.
The boy with the bruises kicks away from the pillar. He looks around for the girl, but she’s gone. The pink plastic of her lunchbox lays crushed under the dragon’s claws.
The creature whips the air with her forked tongue. Glowing amber eyes within the swaying head dart left and right, searching for something. Then, the bottomless pit-like nostrils flare as she sniffs out her target.
The boy can feel the low, bass rumble shake the ground with the growl that churns in the beast’s chest.
Her scaly lips draw back into a snarl, revealing long, chipped, dagger-like teeth.
The boy claws at the ground in a bid to scramble away as fast as he can. Away from the horror unfolding before him.
He had just wanted a quiet corner in which to eat his lunch alone. A corner where he hoped no one would find him, where no one would bother him anymore…
The black dragon’s nostrils sniff him out.
She turns to him. She sees him—the wiry little boy covered in dirt, the boy with the black and blue face.
And then, before he can blink, she advances…
~ α Ω α ~
When Keane snapped awake, he was still clawing and kicking in blind panic, trying to escape a non-existent threat. His heart was racing so fast that he could no longer hear distinct beats, just a constant strum. He was shaking and sweating profusely and his hands were, of course, once again awash with the neon glow.
Slowly, bit by bit, the rumbling groan in his ear faded, replaced by the innocent, muffled snores of his roommates. And slowly, the shaking, too, subsided. Keane heaved a deep sigh of relief.
But something was gnawing away at him… Something from the dream… Like a nagging in the back of his mind.
He racked his Idiot Brain which, still frantically grappling with the fight-or-flight after effects birthed by the dream, refused to co-operate.
But, gradually, the clouds of confusion did fall away, allowing a name to come to him.
That was her! The little girl from the dream. And the dusky teen from Mr. Smith’s office. They were the same girl. A girl he had met before. And that’s why she knew his name too! The dream wasn’t a dream at all. It was a memory.
Well, Keane thought to himself, as he halted his racing mind, most of it, anyway. Because, surely, the bit with the dragon couldn’t be, could it? He knew his memory to be questionable at the best of times, but he would remember having seen a big, black dragon in real life, wouldn’t he?
As he buried his hands under the rock hard pillow to conceal their luminance yet again, Keane decided to proceed under the assumption that the dragon was not actually real.
He wondered if perhaps it was a symbol of some sort, since things in dreams weren’t always what they appeared to be—the homeless man had taught him that. With renewed trepidation, he wondered if it could be an omen, a warning of something to come, something bad…
Whatever the significance of the creature was, Keane didn’t understand why she had to keep asserting it by intruding into his subconscious in the middle of the night, when all he wanted to do was get some shut eye. He also had no idea how he knew it to be a she dragon. All he knew was that thinking about the creature left him with an ominous sense of impending doom.
“Not this again!” cried out Brok, raining popcorn down on Keane as he struggled to get comfortable.
“What the—Brok?” Keane yelled.
Brok’s scrawny face poked down from over the edge of the bed, upside-down yet again.
“Booooo!” Brok protested, his eyes only half open as he thrust a big, fat downturned thumb right in Keane’s face. “Go back to sleep! And let me do the same. I needs my sleep, I do!”
Keane grabbed both sides of his friend’s head and shook him awake.
“Brok, she was the girl!”
“What?” said Brok, struggling to break free. “What girl?”
“The one from today…”
Brok stopped writhing for a moment and cocked his head, regarding Keane with utter incomprehension. Then he gave up. “Wake me up only when you’ve started to make sense again.” With a quick jerk of his head, he finally pulled free from his friend’s clutches. “Nope. Scratch that. Never wake me again. Like, e-v-e-r.”
“Brok, listen, just hear me out. I didn’t recognize her at first either. She’s changed quite a bit. But just try and I’m sure you’ll remember her. Insane Jane…”
“The who, now?”
Keane cringed. He hated the unfortunate nickname that Zara had acquired during her last few months at John Atkins Elementary, seeing as he knew exactly what it felt like to be called names. He had only used it now to try and jog Brok’s memory and was already regretting it.
“No. Zara. That’s her name.” Keane corrected himself.
Then he frowned, acknowledging the possibility that Zara may actually have left before Brok’s transfer to St. Martin’s. He cursed his poor memory for acting up again.
“I don’t get it. Is it Jane or Zara?”
“I said it’s Zara,” Keane snapped.
“Ohhhh, you like her…” Brok smiled broadly and started to make exaggerated kissing sounds to tease Keane.
“Don’t be ridiculous! I haven’t seen her in, like—”
“…but, of course, you’re afraid of all things female because of, you know—just look at you,” continued Brok, snubbing Keane’s attempted justifications. “Then of course, there’s Randy and his horrid bullies. Big, big bullies. They’d never let you live it down if you blew it with the new girl. No suh-ree!”
This silenced Keane. He didn’t know how Brok had done it, but somehow, he’d hit the nail right on the head. Keane himself hadn’t quite acknowledged how he felt before Brok had just said it.
He did think that Zara was cute. In fact, he’d been crushing on her all day long.
For once, luck had been on his side and the new girl had ended up in most of his classes, which had given him ample opportunity to steal glances at her. It was no wonder he’d ended up dreaming about her!
“See?” said Brok, somehow able to accurately decipher Keane’s silence and the expressions on his face. “I cracked it. I’m awesome.”
Brok retracted his head out of view and suddenly let out a pirate-like laugh, as if he’d found hidden treasure in his own bed. “Popcorn is also awesome!” he squealed.
Keane frowned as he heard the squeaky crunching of teeth on popcorn. Then silence. And then snoring.
He raised an eyebrow, wondering whether Brok had been talking in his sleep this entire time. If that were, in fact, the case, then Brok’s spot-on analysis of the Zara situation would make him an absolute genius, but, strangely enough, only when he slept. Keane wondered whether there was a way Brok could take tests and exams in his sleep.
Now that the dorm was quiet again, Keane’s thoughts drifted back to the dream—to Zara, and to the dragon. He had already gathered, and quite a while back too, that dreams so invasive, so lifelike, had to mean something, but had been postponing his search for one reason alone—it would require him doing the thing he hated most of all…
The mere thought of it made him shudder. In fact, the library itself filled him with trepidation, and he hated entering it unless he had a homework assignment due or a test to study for. He’d already fought the anxiety once before, when researching the Wilson power plant crash, and had been dreading having to do it all over again.
He sensed, though, that it was high time these concerns were put aside. He just had to know what the dragon meant, and the magnitude of that need had now overtaken the magnitude of his fear of the library.
He remembered seeing books about dreams and their meanings in a section of the John Atkins library that he couldn’t pronounce. Brok had called it ‘dream interpolation’, though Keane was fairly certain that was wrong.
Keane sighed and settled in for what promised to be yet another long and sleepless night.
He tried to look on the bright side, though—if he didn’t sleep, he couldn’t have any more dreams.
~ α Ω α ~
The next day, Keane was a zombie.
It was hardly surprising after two consecutive nights without sleep, but the dazed state was annoying nonetheless.
He’d spent most of the day shuffling from one class to another, barely aware of his surroundings and frequently bumping into other students.
Any mention of the library or reading at this stage would have earned the offender a death stare at a minimum.
He stumbled out of his daydream to find himself in yet another class, somehow already sitting at his regular desk, and couldn’t remember for the life of him how he’d gotten there. Seeing the students pouring in he assumed that class was about to begin and started to unpack his books from his favorite, and only, red and black backpack.
Years ago, one of St. Martin’s donors, who worked in Quality Assurance for a sporting goods manufacturer, had received a shipment of backpacks which, due to cosmetic defects, had been deemed unsellable. The donor had been asked to dispose of what he thought was perfectly acceptable merchandise, so instead of adding to the quickly growing landfills around the country, he had decided to donate the consignment to St. Martin’s instead.
So, that week, every kid at the orphanage had received the same black and red backpack, each with a toggle missing from one of the side pockets, each with a few threads loose. Keane remembered that week well. It had been a good week.
But, over time, the minor defects had grown into larger rips and tears, making the bags unusable, so that, after only a year, most of the kids had disposed of theirs and moved on. Not Keane, though. He adored the backpack too much. It was the perfect size, with adequate space for his books and things, but still small enough to easily maneuver during quick getaways from boys who wanted to pummel him. So he kept stitching the rips back together.
Unsurprisingly, he’d been bad at the whole sewing thing at first, stabbing his fingers a number of times. But, finding it absolutely unbearable to part with the bag, he stuck with it, and in time, his skills with the needle improved.
Even though the backpack looked like a tattered, badly patched mishmash of plastic and metal now, it felt to Keane like an extension of his very self. It also served as a reminder that there were good people in the world—people who refused to dump junk into the earth for merely cosmetic reasons, people who donated to orphans.
Keane noticed, with rising alarm, that he hadn’t heard a peep from Brok since he’d found himself sitting at this desk. Then it struck him that, actually, he hadn’t heard from or even seen the boy since Geography with Mr. Hunt which had been many, many hours ago.
He looked up to check the classroom for his friend, and, instead, almost ended up falling off his chair with fright.
Zara was in the seat next to him.
“Hi!” she chirped.
“Er, hi?” said Keane, rubbing his eyes, unsure whether this was the real Zara or just another one of his dreams. Was he even awake? He pinched himself to check, and then started to go red in the face because he’d pinched too hard.
Zara smiled at his odd behavior and then started to unpack her bag. Keane frowned at the overly neat way in which its contents were organized, and the scarily obsessive-compulsive way in which she was now lining her things up on her desk. Instantly, he knew he wasn’t dreaming; surely no one could dream of something this boring!
The sudden buzz of whispers that started to circle the classroom made him look up.
And when he saw that it was him and Zara who the students were pointing at as they laughed and muttered to each other, he quickly crossed his arms and sunk in his seat.
“You’re setting a dangerous precedent, you know,” he muttered from the corner of his mouth, concerned that Zara didn’t quite understand what she was getting herself into by sitting next to him. After all, few students could identify her as the chubby girl with the dubious past, which meant she had a real chance at a fresh start here. And hanging out with him—the lowest rung in the school pecking order—was not the way to do that.
“I’m doing what now?”
“Surely, you’ve realized…” said Keane.
Zara smile blankly. “No idea what you’re on about.”
He sagged; he was going to have to spell this out for her.
“Look, if you’re associated with me in this school, you will be picked on.” He gestured at all of the gossiping students around them. “And your window’s shrinking fast.”
Zara glanced sideways from Keane to the students and back again while she considered this.
“Nah,” she said, dismissively.
“Not buying it.”
“Zara! You see that boy there? That’s my friend Brok. He’s being picked on as we speak. Just look!”
Keane had spotted Brok enter the classroom from the corner of his eye. Then he’d spotted Randy and Pete enter and gain on Brok. Seeing Pete now wrangle the little orphan into a disturbingly severe wedgie instinctively made Keane’s legs cross in sympathy.
Wedgie administered, Randy and Pete took Brok by an arm each, and lifted him clean off the floor. They hauled him over to the soft board, above which, drilled into the wall was an overhead lamp that shone light down on the posters and one-sheets pinned to the board. In a single swoop, they raised Brok up, hooked his protruding underwear to the lamp, and left him hanging there for all to see.
Brok, resigned to his fate, had let them get on with the process with minimal fuss, and now just motionlessly hung there. “Silly me,” he said, shrugging nonchalantly at the students who were pointing at him and laughing.
Keane couldn’t help but be glad that Brok weighed as little as he did—any heavier and he’d have gone diving head first into the floor tiles by now.
As Zara turned to him, Keane smiled, expecting her to finally concede his point. He just hoped that she’d be graceful about it.
But instead, she flashed him a crooked smirk. “So, now you remember my name, do you?”
Keane shifted in his seat. Busted! The plump little girl with the glasses—the one who hadn’t left his side when he was a bruised and dirty little orphan, when they hadn’t even known each other—was hardly going to budge now that she knew he actually remembered her name.
Nevertheless, he had to try. It was for her own good.
He started to speak, but she quickly cut him off, as if she’d read his mind.
“Look, you need to just chill a little—”
She trailed off on seeing Keane cower as Randy and Pete passed by. The bullies high-fived each other, celebrating yet another wimpy kid aptly dealt with.
Zara rolled her eyes. “I stand corrected. You need to chill a lot. I’m staying here. Deal with it.”
“Fine,” Keane muttered. “Your funeral.”
Then, Zara began to look him up and down, almost as if she were sizing him up.
Whatever she was doing, it was making him extremely uncomfortable. He turned away, but she wouldn’t stop staring. He fidgeted awkwardly with some stationery, but her gaze persisted. He began to pray for the teacher to show up just so that those bright ochre eyes would look away.
“You know,” Zara said finally, “last night, I dreamt of the first time we met. Do you remember that?”
Keane’s jaw nearly hit the desk.
He gaped at her in astonishment. This was obviously a trick of some sort. His mind raced to try and work out how she’d found out about his dream and why she considered now a good time to toy with him like this. It was a cruel joke for her to pull, especially on someone who was just trying to help her avoid another four years of bullying and torment.
But when he’d had a moment to think about it, he came to the conclusion that there was no possible way she could have known, not unless she was in cohorts with Brok, and the mere thought of Zara and Brok conspiring against him seemed laughable.
He decided that she was telling the truth, and chalked the fact that they’d had the exact same dream on the exact same night up to coincidence. An insane and ridiculous one, but a coincidence nonetheless.
Keane also realized that he’d been staring at her with his mouth open this whole time, and that the persistence of his gaze was now making her blush.
“What?” Zara asked, as her cheeks turned pink.
What indeed, he wondered, because, try as he might, he found himself, yet again, unable to take his eyes off her, and it wasn’t just because of her dream revelation either.
He looked form her large caramel eyes, which she now coyly averted, to her chocolate fringes, which fell on her face as she turned away, to her cheeks, which dimpled with the awkward smile now tugging at her glistening lips, and he realized what it was.
He was falling for the girl. And falling hard.
When she turned back to check if he was still looking, Keane fought to wrench his gaze away before he made a complete imbecile of himself. He picked a book at random, burrowed face-first into it, and only realized that he’d grabbed it upside-down after he was fully committed to the ruse, by which time he didn’t dare pull away from the pages lest she see his reddening face.
With all the problems he was contending with, from unexplained dreams frequented by a scary, black dragon, to mysteriously glowing hands, to the Bullies and their violent methods of conflict resolution, the last thing he needed in his life right now was a crippling crush on the new girl.
An Elk in Valley Heights]
For Tristan Green, the best part of school was leaving it. He had come to enjoy the drive home primarily because it had come to represent freedom from those nettlesome kids.
When he and Heath had first moved to this world, filled with humans (oh, so many humans!), they’d both had a tough time adjusting. Their quest for the elusive presence they were in pursuit of had eventually led them to John Atkins Elementary. He and Heath had agreed that, if they were going to keep investigating the school, they’d need a cover, and given his previous life training at the Kahnomstraahm, Tristan had naturally gravitated towards the job of teacher.
At first, he had actually enjoyed nurturing the minds of the younger children to help them reach their full potential. It was, after all, what he’d been doing in the High Realm for centuries. However, with every passing year, the human students grew progressively dumber, and their priorities shifted in directions opposite to everything he believed in.
Then, just under a year ago, Tristan had sensed the presence shifting—moving away from the institute. So, at the end of the school year, he had taken three months off to re-establish the link and had, funnily enough, ended up at John Atkins High—his school’s sister concern. He had immediately applied for a transfer and had been accepted almost instantaneously (which, in hindsight, should have been the first red flag, really). A few months into the new school year, though, the trail had gone cold once more.
But this morning, upon entering school grounds, he was sure that he’d sensed something out of the ordinary. It had a different energy signature to what he’d been tracking, but he wondered if this could be the same presence in a new form.
So, he’d stayed late to investigate under the guise of marking papers, hoping that whatever it was that he’d sensed in the morning remained put. And, luckily, it had!
But rounds of the school campus had revealed little more than a handful of students either engaged in after-school activities or sitting in detention with Mrs. Applebottom.
His fellow faculty member had grown increasingly miffed when she saw him make more rounds than were absolutely necessary, and had taken him aside to have a few words. Tristan was aware that the students referred to her as Grouchina, and, following her ‘little chat’ with him, now knew exactly why as well.
So, he had returned to the staff room, tail between legs, and had actually ended up marking papers. The amount of red ink he’d ended up laying down over the remainder of the afternoon had depressed him, and only now, with the wheel of his ride in his hands did he feel better.
Tristan had left the details of the vehicle to Heath, who had presented him with a mixed bag.
The pastel blue luxury sedan was based on a model from almost a decade ago. And though Tristan was old-fashioned in a number of ways, this was not one of them. He had asked for a newer one immediately, but Heath was quick to remind him that he was, at the end of the day, on a school teacher’s salary, and the whole affair had to look believable. The last thing they wanted was for people to notice that Mr. Green, the new teacher at John Atkins High, who seemed to not have aged a single day since he’d started teaching almost a decade ago, also drove a brand-spanking new Jaguar.
In the end, though, Heath had taken pity on the man and given him a modern interior at least. Tristan had been very grateful and, in time, had come to appreciate the sweptback styling of the model as well.
Presently, he simply sat back and relaxed, letting the car maneuver the roads without need for his input, admiring the plush leather seats and the sleek metal trim, and listening to the soothing sounds of the purring engine rise and fall.
The only downside of the Jaguar, it had turned out, was the ‘special care’ it required, especially overnight. Every evening, as he pulled into the parking lot of his building complex, Tristan would have to park in a discrete corner, far away from the building and street lights, in shadows where no one could see, so that Heath could skulk around and do what needed to be done once the cover of night descended.
He had parked up in his usual spot and was almost at his apartment block now when a peculiar feeling—one he hadn’t felt in a long, long time—made him look straight up.
The building stood juxtaposed against the few clouds and stars scattered in the fading evening sky. But neither the clouds nor the stars were the problem.
He looked to his own story, and although he couldn’t see his apartment, as it faced the other side of the building, he sensed nothing out of the ordinary here either.
Turning his gaze lower still, he saw the sign above the main entrance which read ‘VALLEY HEIGHTS III’, and could neither sense nor see anything wrong there. And yet the feeling, persisted. Apprehensively, he entered the foyer.
And, immediately, he stopped.
The reason for his premonition stood right in the middle of the entrance hall, grazing on what little remained of the agave, palms, ferns and daisies, all of which had been very much intact when he’d left for school that morning.
It was an eastern elk.
And when she spotted him, she started to hop up and down with her two front legs, grunting salutations his way.
He almost didn’t recognized her without the bulky armor he’d grown accustomed to seeing her in, but there was no mistaking the manner in which she now hopped around.
“Mukki,” sighed Tristan, casting the elk a brisk nod and raising a hand in a feeble wave. Mukki stopped her incessant jumping and replied by snorting back cheerfully.
Well, as cheerfully as an elk could snort.
~ α Ω α ~
Once Tristan had emerged from the elevator and walked over to his apartment, he found himself entirely unperturbed to discover that the door had been left ajar.
His abode was a sparse but functional affair which bore the distinct feel of unintentional permanence. This was, of course, unsurprising, since it had started off as a transitory stopgap, but had ended up serving as Tristan’s home for over a decade now. It had one of those new-fangled open floor plans that Tristan didn’t much like—he missed walls. The kitchen could be found to the left upon entering, and the living room to the right, with a passageway in between which led to the bedrooms within.
Gingerly, Tristan entered, only to find the kitchen lights on and the refrigerator door open too.
“Symbrellus,” he sighed, “If you must strut around in the human world, you might want to bear in mind that antlered beasts aren’t exactly local fauna around these parts.”
He pushed the door of the fridge shut to reveal the Majjikon lumbering behind it.
There were a number of ways to introduce Symbrellus: Grand Gaian; oldest, most permanent resident of the High Realm; Head of the Council of Majjikons; and, last but not least, Tristan’s old Zennhai—his mentor and trainer—from an era bygone.
The large-framed Majjikon stood cloaked in dark maroon robes and had his neck bent sideways to stop his head going through the ceiling. His wrinkly face was framed by a beard which, save for a grey strand here and there, was as white as snow, as were the few hairs that still stubbornly clung to the sides of his otherwise bare head.
And he held a turkey leg in his hand, the incriminating outcome of his raid on Tristan’s fridge.
“Trizovarius!” he said, engulfing Tristan in a big bear hug and inadvertently smearing turkey juice all over his back.
“It’s Tristan, actually,” said Tristan, helpless against the stifling hug. Trizovarius was the name of a man that the high school teacher had once known very well indeed, a man who had once been an integral part of the Council of Majjikons, a man whose every word had once been trusted, whose every instruction followed by all—from the Realmsfolk (residents of the High Realm, that is), to the PeaceKeepers, and to the Councilmembers too.
But that had been a long time ago. Tristan had not been that man for many, many centuries now.
When Symbrellus finally released him and began to chuckle, his belly jiggling all over the place, Tristan couldn’t help but think how much the man had let himself go.
“Worry not,” said Symbrellus sinking his teeth into the turkey leg, “I shall be more careful with Muuki.” He caught Tristan staring at the drumstick in his fist. “Ah, that, yes, well, we had expected you back sooner, you see, and having not quite had supper yet…”
“Fine,” said Tristan, with a dismissive wave of his hand.
“Tell me, though, Trizovarius—”
“Still Tristan—” started the teacher, but Symbrellus, being quite uninterested in this little titbit, kept on talking.
“—how much longer must the charade continue?”
Tristan turned away, his interest in playing the kind host waning by the second. “What are you here for, Symbrellus?”
“Why, to urge you to stop wasting your time, of course!”
“It’s not a waste of—” Tristan checked himself, as there was no point in lying to one of the most powerful Majjikon to ever walk upon Gaia. He adjusted his tone and his tact. “I mean, yes, it’s true that I expected the task to be easier, and to be completed sooner, but believe me when I say this, Symbrellus. There is a presence in that school. I sense it. I really do. And I’m so close to finding it. So close…”
“Oh, Trizovarius!” said Symbrellus, his tone suddenly subdued and his expression softer, neither of which, in Tristan’s extensive experience of the man, was a good sign. “Dear, dear Trizovarius. Of course, it is only natural to want to believe that the loved ones we have lost still live. Yes, only natural…”
It was a good act, and Tristan waited for the climax with arms folded and eyebrows raised.
“But perhaps…” Symbrellus hesitated with perfectly rehearsed vacillation. “Perhaps one is merely indulging in wishful thinking?”
“Are you quite done now? Good. Well, that’s not it. Not even slightly. And if you’d just meditate on this with me, you’d see that the—”
“Alas, it has been centuries, Trizovarius! It is time you finally admitted that the beings you seek no longer even exist! It is time you moved on.”
The hardening lines on Symbrellus’s face made Tristan resolve toughen too. He’d had enough of the naysaying and the taunts. Grand Gaian or not, Tristan felt the need to correct him.
“Vlaiidruugh,” he said darkly.
“Trizovarius!” Symbrellus was taken aback.
“Is he not considered impossible to find?”
“That is quite enough!”
“But you and I both know he exists, don’t we?” finished a defiant Tristan.
“Preposterous! Simply preposterous!” The white-bearded Majjikon threw his arms in the air with indignation, sending bits of turkey splattering onto the walls. “I have travelled all this way to implore you to help us stop the Terralytes. Alas, here you are, spouting—what—mythology at me?!”
But Tristan didn’t hear the last part of Symbrellus’s outburst because his brain had just tripped over a word…
“Oh, and to think that I—” Symbrellus trailed off when he caught a glimpse of Tristan’s pale face.
He heaved a sigh and nodded somberly, casting his anger aside, and that’s how Tristan knew that he’d heard right, that his worst fears were, in fact, coming true…
So easily had Symbrellus uttered the name. So simply. As if the Days of Inequity had never even happened. As if the decades of death and destruction wreaked by the renegades who went by that name hadn’t forever changed the very course of history. And the course of his own life too.
It was a word that Tristan had neither expected nor wanted to hear again. Especially not now. Not when there was so much still to do.
He absently walked out of the kitchen and into the lounge where he stopped at the large picture window that span almost the entire length and breadth of the wall. And as he stared out through it at the distant buildings that comprised John Atkins High, he couldn’t ward off the eerie feeling that something within the redbrick walls was calling out to him.
Symbrellus joined him at the window and watched the stars in the sky for a few moments. A gloomy smile spread his beard as he put a hand on Tristan’s shoulder.
“When or how they will come, I do not know,” he said, “But believe me, come they will.”
“Who else knows?”
“The Solarians,” said Symbrellus. “And they have had words with the Kahnomdaehi as well. They wanted him to speak with the Council. About Rodukai and Prophecy…”
Tristan smirked, knowing, from first-hand experience, that the Solarians were banging their heads against an unyielding wall there.
So, instead, he shifted his attention back to the imminent threat of the Terralytes. He wondered what could possibly have provoked them into resurrecting their Order. And why now? How strong would they be this time round? And which imposter would they be led by?
He decided that waiting for the Terralytes to come to them was foolish, and that pre-emptive action was required.
“I shall assemble a task force!” he announced, turning to Symbrellus, but straightaway regretted it, as he’d spoken too soon. “Er, once I can arrange some holiday leave, that is.”
Symbrellus almost dropped his turkey leg.
“I… beg your pardon?!”
Tristan shrugged. “I can’t just take off without authorized leave, you know. After all, I am Chairman of the Student Prom Committee.” He said it with a sense of pride, the reason for which seemed to be lost on Symbrellus.
“I see. The once great Trizovarius has decided to take complete leave of his senses, has he?”
“No, really. You see, there’s this ceremonial thing the humans hold at the end of an academic year called Prom…”
“Oh, for Gaia’s sake! I know what Prom is, Trizovarius! And before you start explaining what a committee is next, I say you simply tell your overlords that you are sick and make your way back to the High Realm on the doub—”
“Symbrellus! That would be unethical! I was taught better than that… By you, actually.”
This seemed to curb Symbrellus’s outrage. The large-bellied Majjikon sighed. “So be it. Now, would you be so kind as to stop this incessant hunt for the boys and start making preparations for—”
“Stop the hunt?!” interjected Tristan. “On the contrary, we must double our efforts!”
“Oh, good Gaia!” Symbrellus flung his hands into the air once again and stormed back into the kitchen, frustrated. He chucked the now bare leg bone into the trash and slammed his palms down on the kitchen counter. “When will you learn, Trizovarius?”
“When will you?” Tristan scowled back.
Why could no one else see how essential it was that Hozar’s twins be found? Indeed if the Terralytes were planning to return, the Khavarakh and the Rodukai and their collective powers were needed now more than ever. He was so tired of fighting over this with the Council, and with Symbrellus, and even with the Realmsfolk.
It seemed that absolutely everyone believed the twins to be dead. Everyone but Tristan. But how could he? For if Gaia’s Trifecta was truly no more, and if the Yoverikh—the Creator—had not been reborn, nor taken another form, it would mean that the cycle had failed to repeat, which would make Thuulmahr’s words bunk, and his legacy bogus.
A sudden flash of inspiration hit Tristan.
“Symbrellus,” he said, as the idea developed in his mind. “If you want me and my team to help you deal with a full-blown Terralyte resurgence, I’m going to need all the help I can get. So, I’m going to need you to promise me one thing.”
Symbrellus looked up, still cross. “And what would that one thing be?”
“When the time comes, you must allow the boys to train.”
“What? No! Absolutely not!”
“Come, Symbrellus. You know that my team of warriors is the best amongst all the PeaceKeepers of the High Realm. And you know that they follow my lead and my lead alone.”
“Well, now, that is rich, considering how very long a time you have been away for…”
Tristan concealed a smile. In all his centuries, he hadn’t seen a worse liar than Symbrellus. “You and I both know that you would not have come had you not needed my help. Those are my terms,” he said, pressing home his advantage. “Non-negotiable. Take it or leave it.”
It was a gamble, of course, for Symbrellus was right about one thing—it really had been a very, very long time since Tristan had been back to the High Realm.
But Tristan was also aware of the factions in the Council working against the leadership, factions which Symbrellus simply did not trust.
In essence, then, Tristan was gambling on the Head of the Council’s distrust outweighing whatever prejudices he held against the twins.
“Good Trizovarius,” implored Symbrellus, with clasped hands. “This insistence shall consume what is left of you.”
“So, is that a yes, then?”
Tristan held steadfast and allowed Symbrellus to fully consider the offer. He knew that it was not the training of an additional boy or two that was weighing on the Grand’s mind, but the principle of allowing back into the High Realm direct descendants of Hozar—of the Rofikhuul, of the Devil, himself; of the only Fargham Zohai that ever lived; of the last known Master of the Terralyte Order…
Symbrellus sagged as he finally conceded. “Fine, but only if they ask to be trained. Of their own accord. I shan’t allow High Realm resources to be expended on timewasters,” he said, wagging a finger at Tristan.
“Fine by me,” said Tristan, fighting to keep a straight face and repressing his desire to punch the air in celebration.
“Fortunate, then,” said Symbrellus, his cloak swirling dramatically as he turned to leave, “that they shan’t ask.” The Grand Gaian crouched under the ceiling and started towards the exit in long strides.
“Oh, I think they will,” said Tristan, as he followed him to the door.
“Shan’t!” said Symbrellus curtly, as he stormed through to the hallway beyond the apartment.
“Oh, believe me, they will,” said Tristan, beaming at the cloak as it descend the stairs. And he continued to smile as he heard the snorting of the elk, then the clatter of hooves, and, finally, the thud of the foyer door closing.
But, as he retreated into his apartment, elation soon gave way to apprehension.
Sure, after an argument which had lasted for centuries, he had, at long last, managed to wrest what he wanted from the Head of the Council, but it had come at a hefty price.
It wasn’t his return to the High Realm that he was worried about. He expected that part to be much like riding a bike; sure, he may be a touch rusty with the incantations to open the Portal to Azav Rahd, and a tad hazy on the exact route through Kolaeritha and onwards to Moehndahr, but he was certain that it would all come back to him once his journey was underway.
No, getting there wouldn’t be difficult. The part he had reservations about was locating and resurrecting the old team. He’d been away for so long that there was now a lot that he simply did not know—like if the team members had kept up their training, or if they were still PeaceKeepers, or if they were still alive even. And Gaia only knew if they were even remotely up for what lay ahead.
The Terralytes were coming.
Well this is new, thinks Keane, as the trail of light sweeps past his blurred vision.
He soon sees the butterfly shedding the stream of iridescent dust, its large wings flapping against the breeze with vigor in a valiant attempt to flee its pursuer.
Next comes the hazy figure of its chaser. Squinting hard, Keane recognizes it as the little boy from the last dream.
What was his name now? Oh, yes… Kaeninauth.
The boy playfully prances after the butterfly, laughing uncontrollably as he scurries to keep up with its abrupt changes of direction.
For some reason, despite the impossible creatures and plants that Keane finds himself surrounded by, it all just feels so real to him. He can smell the flowers and the grass. He can sense the forest breeze on his face. He can even feel the heat of the sun warming him and everything around him.
Kaeninauth is just about to catch the butterfly when a terrifying roar startles him, and he is unwillingly scooped up into arms much larger than his.
The savage-looking, bearded man has appeared out of nowhere. “I have you now!”
Kaeninauth shrieks with laughter, and wriggles and kicks against his father’s strength until they both collapse laughing on the grass, the boy atop his father’s chest.
“I almost had it, Father!”
The man stops laughing. He sits up and gently holds his son by the shoulders. “No, son,” he says, solemnly. “Gaia and her creatures must be treated with love and care. They must be allowed all the freedoms we ourselves desire.”
Seeing his child confused, the man continues.
“Tell me this. Catching that butterfly would have given you pleasure, would it not?”
“Oh, most certainly, Father, but I was too slow to—”
“Yet, would you like it if a Yiilkundian Giant captured you in its grubby hands?”
“No! Not at all!” cries Kaeninauth, horrified at the mere thought of it. Then, slowly, the lesson dawns on him. “Oh, I understand now! But then…”
The boy retreats into his silent thoughts.
“What is it, son?”
“Father,” the boy says, restoring his gaze on the man, “Are Majjikons not creatures of Gaia too?”
“Why of course they are!”
“Then why do you wish to kill the Councilmembers?”
“Kill the Councilmembers? Son! Who has filled your head with such talk?”
“No one,” says Kaeninauth, tugging the grass nervously.
“Slavizarus,” the man mutters to himself.
Kaeninauth remains silent.
Somehow more than just an observer in this situation, Keane can sense the boy’s fear at his father discovering his friend’s antics. Simultaneously, he can sense the father’s apathy towards this other boy, Slavizarus, whom he seems to already know all about. What Keane doesn’t get, though, is how or why he can so exactly know what they are thinking.
The man gathers the boy into his arms and softly puts him on his lap. “Son, it is time I explained something to you,” he says, speaking slowly and deliberately so that his child can follow. “Yes, it is true that I am not the biggest supporter of the Council, but I neither intend nor desire to kill them. In fact, many of the Councilmembers are good friends of mine. Take, for instance, your uncle Trizovarius.”
“Oh,” says Kaeninauth, squinting into the sun as he looks up at his father. “I like uncle Trizovarius.”
“Indeed,” laughs the man, “And why would you not? He brings you and your brother presents! And often, too!”
Kaeninauth chuckles, as does Keane, somehow in on the joke despite having no clue who or what a ‘Trizovarius’ is.
“But remember this, Kaeninauth. Friend or foe, anyone who attempts to coerce you to their will through means of power must always be confronted.”
The boy seems confused. “Coerce me to their will?”
“It means forcing someone to say or do something they do not wish to do, son.”
“You mean, the way I was about to coerce that butterfly?” asks the boy, distraught as the meaning of his father’s words begins to dawn on him.
The man chuckles and pats his son on the head. “Don’t be so harsh on yourself. Even the best of us make mistakes, and they are fine to make, just so long as you learn from them.”
Kaeninauth nods, but remains deep in thought. He turns to his father, brow furrowed. “So, has the Council… coerced you to do something you did not want to, Father?”
The bearded man turns away and silently contemplates the horizon. Whatever the matter is that weighs him down, Keane can sense that it is of grave import to him, something he’d do absolutely anything to rectify.
When he finally speaks, his tone is staid, a far cry from the playful manner he’d exhibited just moments earlier.
“It is not just me they have coerced, son, but our entire race. Majjikons are forced to live as refugees, concealed against our will within these Hidden Worlds, with the safeguarding of humans cited as reason. And although these Worlds are, indeed, very beautiful, they are but scenic prisons. You see, son, I believe that Majjikons, just as humans, deserve the right to live wherever they choose to.”
Keane can feel Kaeninauth’s mind race. An emotion is rising with the boy. It’s something bad, it’s something Keane is all too familiar with, and has been all his life… It’s fear.
“So, now you must… confront them?”
“But, Father… How?” asks the boy, naïvely. “There are so many Councilmembers, and you are but one…”
The man watches his child with newfound admiration for his intelligence—it has taken Kaeninauth no time to hit upon the very crux of the matter.
Keane senses the man swell with pride and love for his boy. Never having felt pride before, and rarely having felt love, both emotions overwhelm him.
Then, Kaeninauth’s father lets out a sad chuckle and takes his son into his arms in a warm embrace.
“Never forget, son,” he says, a glum tinge evident in his voice now, “kenid akhnayram.”
Kaeninauth nods, understanding the words spoken to him. Absorbing them.
“I shan’t, Father,” he whispers. “I shan’t…”
~ α Ω α ~
Slowly, Keane’s eyes opened.
Another night, another one of those dreams. He was three for three so far. When he went to rub his face, he was surprised to find his cheeks wet with tears, and more so to see that his hands were not actually glowing this time.
“What’s happening?” Keane whispered to himself, confused by the overwhelming grief that was boring ever deeper into his heart. He didn’t know if the heavy sentiment had been inflicted by the father or the son, but either way, he didn’t like it… It was making him cry.
He couldn’t take it. He had to talk to Brok. He had to tell him everything. Right now. It couldn’t wait till the morning. It couldn’t wait another moment. He couldn’t bear to suffer yet another night alone with his thoughts and with no sleep. He tugged urgently at the loose corner of the blanket that hung from the bed above.
“Brok… Brok!” he whispered, tormented.
Brok grunted and turned, spilling over half a bucket of popcorn onto Keane’s head. As Keane swept the kernels off him, he was baffled; he hadn’t seen Brok take anything with him when the boy had climbed up there earlier.
“Are you, like, growing these in your bed now?” he complained, picking the fluffy morsels out of his hair.
“Sleep,” groaned Brok. “Need. Sleep.”
Then came the broken snores.
Frustrated, Keane threw a handful of popcorn back up at Brok, only to have the remaining contents of the bucket rain down on him.
“What the—? Exactly how much of this stuff do you have up there?” cried Keane, but this time there was no reply, and no snoring either. Brok was simply out cold.
Typical Brok, thought Keane. The boy could live without food, without water, without people even, but not without his sleep. Keane actually envied the boy’s ability to slip so easily into slumber.
Since he himself possessed no such ability, and since the option of unburdening his woes upon Brok was now clearly out of the question, Keane braced himself for a third night of over-analysis and self-doubt. And dread.
His Idiot Brain was already dwelling on a particularly curious detail—a single phrase, made up of two words, the meaning of which he felt like he should know but, for the life of him, couldn’t fathom.
“Ke-nid-akh-nay-ram,” Keane whispered to himself. What did it mean? How could it mean anything when they weren’t even real words? “Ke-nid-akh-nay-ram” he repeated a little louder, but it still made no sense.
He shook his head, giving up, and began to rearrange the bedding instead. His hands, though not luminous, slipped under the rock-like pillow automatically; the practice had become routine after just two nights. He closed his eyes.
And, immediately, the sense of dread re-materialized, but curiously, it was strongly tainted by sadness this time. It felt like something terrible was about to happen to the boy, or his father, or both. He didn’t know why he cared, since he didn’t even know these people. In fact, for all he knew, they could be just figments of his imagination. Still, for some reason, he didn’t want anything bad to happen to them. Ever.
~ α Ω α ~
The school bell rang and, soon, the courtyard that weaved the blocks of John Atkins High into a cohesive unit, was flooded with students and teachers who busily made their way to the next class.
Keane, though, was in stealth mode. He was a ninja. And just like a ninja, he’d narrowed his body behind one of the pillars outside B block.
The idea had come to him that morning while getting dressed for school. And what a good idea it had seemed like at the time too. It had presented itself as the obvious solution to the ‘Thursday Afternoon Conundrum’ as he and Brok had come to call it, the name stemming from the Bullies’ practice of jumping them every Thursday on the way to the chemistry lab in B block.
Keane and Brok agreed that the Bullies always chose this time and place because B block was the most open of the school’s blocks, with the fewest hiding places, and because the chemistry teacher, Mr. Green, didn’t take attendance like a lot of the other teachers did.
So, on the way to hand in his French assignment, Keane had told Brok about the idea of hiding behind the pillars until Randy and his lot got to class, leaving the coast clear. He’d snuck the word ‘ninja’ in there to pique Brok’s interest. According to Brok, nothing got to ninjas. Except other ninjas, which Randy and his lot certainly were not. They were far too oafish to be ninjas. And the only thing better than one ninja, Keane had explained, was two ninjas.
But Brok had been rattling on about his own covert plans, and Keane, late to hand in the assignment, had rushed off after promising that they’d discuss it later.
It was now later, Keane hadn’t a clue where Brok was, and what had seemed like a good idea in the morning had, in practice, just left him stuck behind a pillar for the last ten minutes. He’d failed to account for the fact that, although he was now hidden from view, he couldn’t see anything or anyone either, and now he didn’t dare look out lest he accidentally come face to face with one of the Bullies.
“Oh, has chemistry moved to behind this pillar here? I must’ve missed the memo.”
Keane jumped almost a foot into the air and then crash landed on his bottom.
Seeing that it was Zara who had startled him, he urgently grasped at the pillar in an attempt to hoist himself up. But the new girl, who’d already been chuckling, started to laugh her head off at his futile efforts.
“Only, I can’t imagine chemistry formulae fitting this way,” she said between her tearful fits, motioning to the narrow pillar. She turned her head sideways and mimicked scrawling along the height of the brickwork. “Maybe this way…?”
Keane straightened up, dusted himself off, and tried to play it cool, like he hadn’t just been frightened half to death.
Zara, though, seemed to find even his fake nonchalance hilarious. It bugged him to see just how much his misery amused her.
“Shhh!” he hissed at her. “Just… shhh, okay?”
Zara put a finger on her lip, still giggling. “Okay, okay,” she whispered.
“Is the coast clear or not?” said Keane, peering around the pillar. Seeing him tremble, Zara stopped giggling abruptly and glared at him. This frightened Keane more than a little.
Seeing him now cower away from her, Zara rolled her eyes and, with an exasperated grunt, grabbed his arm.
“Come on!” she said as she violently dragged him towards the block’s entrance.
Keane found himself being involuntarily pulled along, his feet more in the air than on the ground. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t break free from her grip, and all the while he could only think of how Brok would have pointed out that this didn’t bode well for his future as a ninja.
“You are freakishly strong!” he said.
Zara’s ice-cold glare made him promptly retreat into his shirt collar, not unlike a frightened turtle.
“In-in a good way, I mean,” he said, from inside the shirt.
When Zara smiled mischievously, he realized that she was just toying with him and popped his head back out.
“They really got you good, didn’t they?” she said.
He sighed. “You saw the blood. You tell me.”
“Niagara Falls,” Zara chuckled. Keane laughed along, but only half-heartedly.
“Not sure why I’m laughing, ’cos I very nearly died.”
“Oh, quit drama-queening around, Drama Queen. We’re late for chemistry…”
He groaned wearily at the dreadful nickname but, in truth, even Drama Queen was better than Freak Show.
Then, quite suddenly, he perked up. Did she just say we’re late for chemistry? We?
He wiped the eager grin off his face, cleared his throat and summoned up the most nonchalant tone he could.
“So, do you want to chemistry me?” Instant regret. He slapped his forehead. The Idiot Brain was doing its word vomit thing again. “I mean, lab my partner?” Worse. That was, somehow, even worse.
He cried in internal torment, praying that by some miracle she hadn’t heard him. But of course, she had; she was looking at him as if considering which mental asylum he would be most suited to. Keane decided that there was only one solution to this matter—that he never be allowed to talk again. Ever. Especially not to girls.
“I’m just going to go…” he said, “to, like, the Arctic…”
He started back towards the pillar. The pillar was good. It didn’t judge him. It didn’t argue with him. And it hid him well. Yes, the pillar was good indeed. Keane liked the pillar.
Zara laughed. She renewed her grip on his arm and pulled him along once more, so resolutely this time that he almost lost a shoe.
“Yes, we can be lab partners,” she said. “But if you try to ‘chemistry’ me? I’m going to kick your butt.”
To Keane, who believed that Zara should be kicking his butt anyway, considering his mounting battery of awful blunders, that sounded fair enough.
The Commotion in Chemistry]
The chemistry lab was long and narrow and took up half of B block. It was designed, on purpose, to have only two rows of desks, one on either side of the room, so that each student could access the gas pipes that ran along the walls for their Bunsen burners. The desks themselves were made for two pupils each, which was fitting since chemistry experiments tended to require pairing up.
Outside, Keane was sneaking towards the classroom in a catlike manner, his back against the wall. The hallway was mostly quiet as class had already started, and only the faint voice of Mr. Green seeped out and echoed against the walls: “As the practical portion of this course starts from today, I hope all of you have selected your lab partners.”
Keane hesitated, and Zara, slow to react, bumped right into him.
“Will you move your butt?” she whispered sharply.
“Shhh!” he hissed.
“You shhh! Why’d you stop?”
“There’s a window on the door,” he said, pointing.
Zara craned her neck and peered past Keane to confirm that there was, embedded in the wood, in fact, a small transparent square through which she could see in.
She pulled her head back to the wall.
“Okay, so what do we do?”
Keane peeked through the small gap between door and wall, and gasped. “Oh no! He’s already handing out papers.” The panic began to rise. “We’re so late. More than late. And Greenster hates late. I don’t want to go back to Smith’s office. I can’t take any more detention. I just can’t!”
“Okay, calm down. Just… let me see again.”
As Zara brushed past Keane, she remained oblivious to the shudder that this contact sent rippling down his spine, and to the goose bumps it formed on his arms.
While she peeked through the square window, Keane’s gaze lingered on her cheek dimples, results of the scowl she was now pulling. She didn’t seem to like their prospects.
“I’ve got a plan,” Keane declared, quite suddenly and with unprecedented confidence.
His face scrunched up as he wondered where in the world that came from. He thought that maybe the sudden physical proximity to Zara had surged his adrenaline levels, sparking the idea. Or it could just be that all his experience with dodging bullies was finally starting to pay off.
Zara looked him in the eye and placed a hand on his shoulder. “I trust you,” she said.
Those eyes were going to be the death of him.
“Students who don’t have a lab partner will be assigned one,” came Tristan’s voice from within the classroom and, with a quick shake of his head, Keane refocused on how he was going to evade the over-attentive Greenster eye.
Through the gap, he motioned Zara towards a free desk. She narrowed her eyes and nodded curtly.
Greenster turned to write on the board, and Keane sprang into action. He grabbed Zara’s hand and pushed silently but swiftly through the door.
A wave of snickers rippled across the classroom when the other students saw them, but luckily, none of them raised the alarm. Keane stayed low as he crept across the front of the class, with Zara’s hand held firmly in his, and one eye glued to Tristan who was, fortunately, still laying down chalk. Zara followed Keane diligently.
They were inches from the desk when Tristan began to turn around. Keane nimbly swiveled Zara into her seat and slid into his too.
Fortunately, Tristan aborted his turn, and continued to write as he explained the assignment some more.
As Keane chuckled with relief, Zara flashed him her most adorable smile yet, tucking back a lock of loose hair as she did. In that moment, he ached to kiss her. So very badly.
But he looked away before he could say or do anything dumb; before he could negate the first truly ninja-worthy feat he had ever pulled off. Brok would be so proud.
Zara selected a notebook from her bag and started to industriously jot down everything written on the board. Verbatim. Keane barely noticed this, though, as he placed an elbow on the desk, propped his head against his hand and, smiling more dimwittedly than he knew, settled down to just watch Zara write. A blissful sigh silently escaped his lips.
“If you want to change partners once the experiments have commenced,” said Tristan, “well, tough luck. And just one more thing—Mr. Davies, Ms. Mehrzeen…”
He turned to look straight at the newcomers.
Keane’s head slipped off his hand and bounced off the desk. Zara dropped her pen with fright.
But it was when she started to wave awkwardly at Tristan, dopey smile to boot, that Keane felt the time had come to become one with the ground, and began to sink lower and lower in his chair.
“Nice of you two to drop by,” Tristan said with a smile, clearly proud of his own cunning, “but do not expect to be admitted into my class the next time you show up late.”
To Keane’s relief, though, Tristan swiftly returned to the board and carried on scrawling across it. “What are the practicals and how will I be grading them, you ask? Well, let’s spend some time going through that now shall we?”
“Close one,” Zara giggled, as she turned to Keane.
Keane was just about to agree with her when Brok’s head popped out from under the desk. “Hello!” it whispered.
Keane almost browned his pants with shock, while Zara let out an ear-piercing shriek.
This time, it wasn’t just Tristan who turned. The entire class wanted to know what had spooked the new girl.
Zara had both hands clasped on her mouth and could do little but stare back dumbly at Tristan. Keane, meanwhile, had started to hyperventilate, his white-knuckled hands clenching the desk as if his life depended on it.
Tristan raised his eyebrows at Zara as if to ask: Well?
She grinned nervously while desperately kneeing Brok’s head back under the table.
“It was a-a rat,” she blurted. “Big rat. But it’s gone now.” She stole a glance to confirm that Brok’s head was, in fact, no longer visible. “Yeah, all gone.”
“A rat?” said Tristan, skeptically rubbing his chin.
“Uh… umm…” Zara floundered. She turned to Keane for help but, seeing as he looked like he just wanted death to come forth and claim him right then and there, so she swiftly turned back to the teacher, now sporting an edgy smile.
“No, not a rat,” she rambled, “Looked like a rat. Didn’t really see. But, um, gone now. Really, quite gone now.”
It didn’t help that she ended with the least sincere grin that Keane had ever seen. He knew that there was no way Greenster was buying any of this, but he also knew that the chemistry teacher had a class full of students with short-attention spans to attend to.
And, sure enough, Tristan returned to the blackboard. “Moving swiftly along,” he said, “practicals count for exactly thirty percent of your grade…”
A weight lifted and Keane exhaled deeply. Then, relief gave way to annoyance and he pulled Brok’s head back out from under the desk.
“Brok! What are you doing down there?” he whispered.
“Ah! Aha!” Brok whispered back. “This is the genius of me, this is. I’ve outdone myself, I really have!”
Keane and Zara exchanged dubious looks, but Brok carried on entirely unperturbed.
“So, you know how they always get us on the way to chemistry? So I thinks to myself, I says, Brok ol’ buddy, ol’ chum, ol’ pal, how can we avoid getting pummeled for the twenty billionth time. And then I says to myself, doi! Just get to class before the bell and then no one can getcha!” So Brok had had the exact opposite idea to Keane’s. Keane could see in the boy’s eyes that he genuinely believed he’d hatched the best plan that had ever been hatched since plan hatching began. “Absolutely no one!” finished Brok, his fingers wriggling evilly.
“Um, other than hall monitors?” noted Zara.
“Okay, maybe them,” Brok conceded. “But just them!”
“People on toilet breaks?”
“Students standing outside on punishments?”
“Them… too… I guess.”
“Students with free period?”
“Hey, you know what? You’re in my seat. Cos that’s my seat. Hey, Keane, who is this girl and why is it that she’s in my seat?”
“I’m Zara,” said Zara. “And you haven’t explained why you were still down there once class had already started.”
“Yeah, Brok,” said Keane, the validity of the question dawning on him. “Why were you still under there?”
“Oh, right,” said Brok, as if only just realizing that indefinitely maintaining the abnormal position he’d assumed was not exactly normal. “So, when I got here, and you weren’t here, well, I thought if Randy showed up, this time I’d have to take it on the nose and… and, well, who knows where else! Also,” he added, with a yawn, “I may or may not have fallen asleep just a little bit.”
The sharp knock on the door startled Keane and Zara and, together, they crammed Brok’s head back into the space under the desk.
Tristan answered the door to Mrs. Applebottom whose distraught face sent muted chuckles coursing through the classroom—there was no trait the students of John Atkins shared more than their hatred for the infamous Grouchina.
“Mr. Green! Oh, thank goodness you’re here! Please come quickly!” urged Mrs. Applebottom. “The Committee needs you. There’s been a disaster with the floral arrangements!”
“Oh no! Not the flowers!” squealed Tristan, his pitch so high that only dogs and bats could perceive it. The giggles making rounds of the classroom amplified. Shocked by his own overreaction, Tristan hastened to clear his throat. “I mean, I’ll be right with you, Mrs. Applebottom.”
He turned to the students, “Class, read your handouts. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” As he was dragged away by Mrs. Applebottom, he hastily reminded them about his policy on ‘funny business’ and how there was to be none of it while he was gone. But, inevitably, the room erupted in a cacophony of conversation and ringtones as soon he was out of earshot.
Brok popped back out from under the desk. He looked angry. “I resent being pushed around, I’ll have you know.”
“And I resent having to cover for kids hidden under my desk,” said Zara, as Brok struggled to extract himself from under the desk. Only with both Keane and Zara’s help did Brok finally get to his feet. He then threw his hands into the air as if he’d just completed a perfect gymnast’s dismount.
This had no discernible impact on the class. Only a bored brunette sitting one desk over turned her head, and even she looked away promptly. Brok was displeased by her lack of amazement. “Oh, yeah? Well, let’s see you pull that off without losing your undies.” The girl didn’t react, finding the chemistry assignment more interesting than Brok. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
Brok turned to Zara. “You can go back to wherever you’re supposed to be sitting now, new girl,” he said, patting her shoulder.
Keane squirmed in his seat. “Um, so, yeah, Zara and I, we… decided to partner up, see?” he mumbled awkwardly.
Brok’s peepers grew to half the size of his face, giving a new meaning to the term ‘puppy dog eyes’.
“Y-you? H-her? P-partners?” Brok’s lips whimpered as he spoke. “B-but what about you-me-partners?”
Keane grabbed Brok’s collar and took him aside. “Oh, come on, buddy, I might actually have a chance here,” he whispered.
“Guys? You know I can hear you, right?” said Zara.
“You’re… you’re dumping me?” said Brok, ignoring her.
“No! It’s not like that, buddy,” said Keane. “We’ll still work together.”
“You’re dumping me!” cried Brok in anguish.
“No, honestly…” Keane took Brok even further aside. “She’s not that smart, so we’ll kinda need to work together.”
“Still right here,” said Zara, putting her hand up as if to help the boys locate her. “Still hear you. Loud-and-oh-my-god-so-clear.”
Keane and Brok stared at her. They each seemed to come to the same conclusion—that any further conversation would be plagued by interruptions from the new girl—so, Keane turned back to Brok. “You get the gist.”
Brok studied Zara for a moment, as if sizing her up for worthiness to be his best friend’s new partner. Then he turned back to Keane. “Yeah. Sure,” he said, with a weak smile and a gloomy nod. “I get it.”
As he watched Brok hunch his shoulders and drag himself to a free desk a few rows behind, Keane was filled with unprecedented guilt. For a fleeting moment, he considered ditching Zara and chasing after the poor kid to tell him that it was all just a big fat joke, and that of course they were going to be partners. They were best friends after all. And, besides, boys from the orphanage needed to stick together.
But one glimpse of Zara’s molten gold eyes peeking up at him from under those toffee brown bangs saw that sentiment quickly dismissed.
Just then, like unstoppable forces of nature, Randy, Pete, Don and Johnny burst in through the door.
Keane grabbed the assignment sheets that Tristan had left on his desk and held them up against his face.
After suffering a bloody nose and still having to live through the daily torture of after-school detention with Grouchina, he was in no mood to deal with the Bullies—not now, not ever again. Besides, he’d already vowed to stick to the ol’ ‘run and hide’ routine after Brok had reminded him of just how much below average they were, and while he couldn’t actually run, not when class was technically still in session, he could at least hide.
The only problem with hunkering down behind the handouts was that his trembling hands were rustling the sheets, which was actually drawing more attention to him.
Zara glared at him, appalled by his behavior. “Keane?” She tried to pull the sheets away, but he just clenched the pages tighter and drew them closer to his face. “Keane, what are you—?” She stopped abruptly as her own assignment was snatched from right under her nose.
Randy and Pete had claimed the pages for themselves and were laughing as they made away with their prize.
“Hey!” she screamed after them. “That’s mine!”
“Correction,” said Randy over his shoulder. “Mine now… Nerdess.” He looked visibly proud of the fitting nickname he’d just come up with for the four-eyed new girl.
“Keane! Did you see that?” asked Zara, but Keane was busy struggling to breathe as his throat tightened with stress.
“Er, hey, yeah, er, no problem,” he yammered. “We’ll just, uh, get a new-other-one—I mean, another one—when Greenster’s back. Yep, that’s what we’ll do.”
“Listen to Freak Show, Nerdess,” warned Randy, without breaking his stride.
“Keane, you’re being ridiculous,” said Zara. She turned to Randy. “Give me back my paper, you… you ignoramus!”
“Uh-oh,” croaked Keane, knowing exactly what was coming next. He wondered if it was possible to sink further out of sight, perhaps through the table and all the way down into the space in which Brok had been hiding. He now attempted to do just that.
Randy stopped and did a slow, menacing turn, the kind of turn that only came from years of practice intimidating people. “What did you call me?” he growled.
Zara opened her mouth to speak, but before she could insult Randy further and inadvertently end up on the wrong side of his trigger-happy fist, Keane interrupted.
“N-nothing. Nothing at all,” he said from behind the pages in his still quivering hands. “She was talking to me. That’s it! I’m the ingorgimous. Isn’t that right, Zara? Am I not the inorganimus? Er… Zara?”
When she didn’t reply, Keane turned to her, but seeing her incredibly irked face just made an involuntary yelp escape from him.
“That’s what I thought,” said Randy, highly amused by Keane’s fear, no doubt pleased to see that Freak Show was no longer aching to pick a fight, but had instead returned to his rightful place in the social hierarchy—the bottom rung.
“No!” Zara bellowed at Randy, “I said ‘ignoramus’ and I said it to you. In fact, you’re such a special case of ignoramus that that you’d even have to look up the word ‘ignoramus’ just to know what you are!”
Keane wished that she’d stop saying ‘ignoramus’ so much, and that she’d stop staring Randy right in the face in that confrontational manner, not in the least because the entire class was now watching the escalating situation with the sort of curiosity usually reserved for car crashes and natural disasters.
Randy took a sinister step towards Zara. “Say that again, Nerdess.” He came closer still. “Say it right to my face.”
Keane noticed that Pete, Don and Johnny had started to gather behind their leader. He’d seen this formation before. It was not a good sign.
“Nope. Don’t. It’s a trap, just a trap, such a trap. So just don’t, okay?” Keane rambled, as he threw elaborate hand gestures Zara’s way to get her to stop talking.
“I wasn’t aware asses had faces,” said Zara, nonchalantly.
Keane couldn’t understand why Zara was completely ignoring all of his signals, or why she was so intent on provoking the sleeping giant; ‘sleeping’ in the sense that he hadn’t punched someone quite just yet. Keane couldn’t understand why Zara wanted to be that someone.
“Do you have a death wish, Nerdess?” asked Randy.
“I’m not scared of a dimwit like you. Oh, no, wait!” She feigned concern by slapping a hand onto a cheek. “Now that’s two words you’ll need to look up. How ever will you manage?”
Randy took another step towards Zara and now loomed over her ominously. His fists tightened and his weighty arm muscles flexed. Keane gasped when he finally recognized that look—Randy was about to hit her!
But Zara stood her ground.
She stuck a defiant chin out and smiled wryly, as if challenging him. Her reasons were simply unfathomable to Keane. She seemed to think that Randy wouldn’t strike her just because she was a girl. Needless to say, Keane didn’t share her confidence. In fact, he was more afraid than he’d ever been before—if there was one thing worse than being hit by Randy, it was seeing Zara get hit by Randy.
The other students had started to mutter disconcertedly. The interest with which they had been watching was quickly transforming into horror. Keane took comfort in the fact that everyone’s eyes were now on them. Surely, Randy had more sense than to risk doing something this anti-social in full public view. Surely…
But Randy’s knuckles were now white with pressure, his eyes were bulging, and his cheeks were turning red.
Keane grabbed onto his chair with one hand and onto his desk with the other, ready to slingshot himself between bully and new girl if things escalated, prepared to take the beating on Zara’s behalf if it came to that.
Randy started to raise his rock-like fists, ready to strike. Zara crossed her arms and smiled crookedly. Unbelievable, thought Keane, she was still egging the big, bad bully on! He clenched, took aim, and prepared himself for the launch.
The door flew open and Tristan strode in. “Okay, disaster averted. The flowers will be fine. Now where were we—?”
Randy stepped back upon hearing the door open.
“Come on, boys and girls. Back to your seats now. Playtime’s over,” said Tristan, clapping his hands at the kids who’d been standing around watching the Randy-Zara-face-off. The students scampered back to their desks.
Tristan then spotted the head bully lingering by Keane and Zara’s desk and cast him a do-you-want-to-challenge-my-authority-today smile.
Randy turned to the new girl, teeth gritted, scowl intense to a level beyond human, and muttered “This isn’t over, Nerdess,” before motioning a full retreat to his cohorts.
Under Tristan’s relentless glare, the Bullies sashayed silently back to their desks, the ones in the very last row.
Air escaped Keane’s lungs as he deflated against his desk. It was over. He felt dizzy, but was overwhelmingly relieved to be reminded that Mr. Green was one of the few teachers whom the Bullies still feared.
He turned to Zara and grinned.
And Zara gave him what was probably the foulest look he’d ever gotten in his life.
His smile vanished as Zara continued to edge farther and farther away from him.
“Zara, I…” he started, but the girl was clearly ashamed of him, and no longer interested in anything he had to say.
As Keane reflected on how the confrontation with Randy had played out, and on how he’d reacted to it all, it dawned on him just how much of a coward he’d been.
And then he discovered that he didn’t even blame Zara for her reaction. In fact, he actually shared her sentiment.
He was ashamed of himself too.
Always Stand Up]
Even before the bell could finish ringing, Zara stormed out of the chemistry lab, her books held tightly against her chest.
Not wanting to spend an extra second around Keane, she had rushed away without even packing them.
Given how obsessive compulsive she was about her things, Keane took this as a bad sign. He jogged out after her, one arm in the air, as though that would slow her down.
“Zara? Er, so when can we catch up on the assignment?”
But Zara was already half way down the corridor on her way to the exit.
“Later? Yeah, I think later,” Keane confirmed with no one in particular.
Then, for a moment, he just stood there, a tiny spec against the mighty swarm of students now moving past. Not only was he sleep-deprived and agitated, but his self-respect was at an all-time low as well.
He was astonished by how quickly things had unraveled with Zara. And just when he’d been doing so well, too…
During class, once Randy and his bunch had retreated, Keane had launched into a relentless tide of attempted apologies and conversations starters, all of which Zara had blanked. She had proceeded to make it crystal clear that chemistry was to be the only topic of conversation.
Then, when Keane had told his favorite chemistry joke, she’d changed her mind and insisted that they not talk at all.
Keane wondered if it could be the joke.
Did you hear oxygen went on a date with potassium?
It went OK.
That joke had absolutely killed when he’d told it to Brok. Though, to be fair, that had been back in the fourth grade—a time when any combination of symbols from the periodic table resulting in actual words would have been hilarious—and Keane had been recycling the same joke ever since.
He was just deciding what percentage of the blame to assign to the poor joke when Brok sauntered over.
“Smooth. Real smooth,” said Brok, and Keane could do little but sigh. “Also, call me psychic,” continued Brok, “but I foresee an ill fate about to befall your girl.”
“Huh?” Keane looked up, confused. He was so tired that words were turning into little more than irritating noises.
“As in, death is coming.” Brok pointed down the hallway at Randy and his gang who stood by the exit, leaning against the wall, waiting patiently for the new girl to pass by so that, when she did, they could sort out the little troublemaker…
And Zara was headed straight for them!
Keane watched the gap close with crossed fingers and bulging eyes, his sleep deprivation all but forgotten. He prayed for the Bullies to have decided that she was just a silly little girl not worth the aggravation.
As she walked passed them, they did nothing.
“Whew!” Keane smiled at Brok. “Close one.”
“Um…” said Brok, pointing at the Bullies with renewed vigor. Keane watched the four large boys quickly scan for teachers, and then follow Zara out of B block like a pack of hunting dogs after an unsuspecting fox.
Keane’s stomach dropped.
“But, would he really pick on a girl?” He wondered out loud. “That’s the question.”
“Um, were you not in the same classroom as the rest of us?” asked Brok. “But, you know, old fellow,” he continued, raising an imaginary monocle to his eye and playing with a fictional moustache, “it is Randolph we’re talking about here, is it not? Upstanding chap, I must say. He wouldn’t dare stoop so low now, would he?” Brok guffawed snobbishly, now extracting a make-believe pipe from his mouth and tipping it at Keane, his point made.
Keane went into a blind panic. It was all his fault! None of this would have happened if he hadn’t asked her to be his lab partner. And now Randy and his gang were hot on her trail, with a very strong possibility that they were about to break her nose too! He couldn’t let that happen. He dashed forth after Zara without another thought.
“No, not you, I didn’t mean you!” yelled Brok, dropping the Sir Biggles Errington act and sprinting after his best friend. “Delusions of grandeur are not good for health, Keane… Keane!”
But Keane was already at the end of the hallway which opened up into the courtyard at the heart of the school. He stopped, partly to take stock of the situation, but mostly to catch his breath. The most unfit person Keane knew, after Brok, was Keane.
He was glad to see that Zara was already half way across the courtyard. He was not so glad to see that the Bullies had fanned out and were now rapidly converging on her position.
Randy himself was coming up right behind her.
Keane wanted to run out there and tear Zara away from the impending danger, but his feet just wouldn’t budge, and not just because of how out of shape he was either; he was simply paralyzed with fear.
Brok eventually made it to Keane’s side, panting and wheezing. “Where… is… she?” he said, breathlessly. “Is she dead yet?”
Keane pointed to Zara. He was, in his heart of hearts, still hoping that, after another unsuccessful attempt or two at intimidating the girl, Randy would simply give up and back off. He also found Zara’s confidence reassuring, and expected that she could handle the situation if things went south. At least, that’s what he told himself.
A familiar smell, accompanied by an equally familiar crunching noise, distracted Keane from the escalating courtyard situation, and when he turned, sure enough, Brok was shoveling popcorn into his face.
Keane stared in disbelief. How could the boy eat at a time like this? Had he not already consumed a lifetime’s worth of popcorn? And where had he even got that little cardboard box from? Or, for that matter, the actual popcorn itself?
Brok spotted Keane looking. He looked down at his salty snack, then turned back to Keane and, drawing entirely the wrong conclusion, shoved the box towards him. “Popcorn?”
Keane had half a mind to give him what for, but he knew full well that none of his interjections would make any difference to the popcorn guzzler.
So, instead, he grabbed a handful himself and, despite his shock at the kernels still being warm, started popping them into his mouth in a rapid, machinegun-like fashion.
“He won’t hit her,” mumbled Keane, only half believing his own words. “He-he won’t hit her…”
Randy was now within earshot of Zara. “Oye, Nerdess!” he bellowed, as his troops closed in too.
Zara came to a stop and sagged, not out of defeat, Keane knew, but out of annoyance that she had to deal with Randy yet again. “What is it?” she demanded.
“Do you know why I won’t be looking up your insults?”
“Let me guess. Phone too complicated for ya?” she said. “Just can’t figure out how to work one of these new device-thingummy-jigs?”
She held an invisible phone up to Randy’s face, crossed her eyes, stuck her tongue out sideways, and mimed ineptly prodding at the make-believe screen, which angered Randy. Then, she started making ‘duh-duh’ sounds while scratching her head, which angered Randy even more.
Keane suppressed a smile. Zara was, undoubtedly, making a huge mistake ribbing the bully like this, but at least she was being adorable while doing so.
“It’s because I already know, you idiot girl,” said Randy, batting down Zara’s hands which were still keeping the mime going. “I have one of the highest IQs in the country. Certainly heaps more than your new boyfriend.”
Zara rolled her eyes. “Oh, wow. ‘Heaps’, huh? Learned that word all by yourself, didja? Well, good for you!” She patted his head and ignored his deepening scowl. “Here’s a gold star.” She pretended to pull out a sheet of stickers, locate and extract the gold star, and slap it repeatedly onto Randy’s lapel. “Just. For. You.”
While Keane cringed every time Zara made contact with Randy, he almost fainted when she pinched his cheeks and started to pull them left and right, rocking his head along.
“Such a good little ignoramus,” she said in a baby voice. Then, she dropped the act and looked Randy straight in the eye, serious as a heart attack. “Now, leave me alone.”
She moved off without waiting for a reply.
Walking away from bullies was a good idea, though Keane’s personal preference, of course, was running. Followed by some hiding. Zara didn’t seem like the run-and-hide type though, but Keane was glad that at least she was finally putting some distance between her and the Bullies.
Unfortunately, she’d also just spent the last few minutes provoking the notorious leader, who now jumped ahead of her, blocking her path, and gnashed his teeth at her.
“Look,” said Zara, “we both know you’re not going to hit me, alright? So just—”
“Oh, we know that, do we?” said Randy. He got up close, real close, and scowled right into her face.
And, for the first time all day, Zara looked scared.
Whether it was because of the deathly look in Randy’s eyes, or because of the unprecedented proximity, Keane didn’t know. All he knew was that, if Randy made a move, so would he. Exactly what that move would be, he didn’t quite know yet. Nevertheless, he shoved the last of the popcorn into his mouth and braced in preparation.
As the Bullies closed in, their collective bulk dwarfing Zara’s petite frame, the frightened girl looked straight up at the tallest of them, Johnny, and flinched at the menacingly grin he cast her. She nervously adjusted her glasses as the space around her continued to shrink away.
And then it happened.
Randy barbarically grabbed Zara by the shoulders and savagely hurled her away. She went flying sideways and hit the ground with a brutal thump. Her glasses were flung from her face. She covered her shocked face as she began to cry.
“That… That creep!” screamed Keane, his legs already in motion, whisking him towards Zara.
“Keane, no! Stop!” Brok yelled after him, yet again too slow to stop him. “You’ll be killed. As in, to death, Keane! To death! You’re not stopping are you? Just awesome.”
There was no way Keane could stop. Not now. Not when Zara had been physically attacked right in front of his eyes. He felt like a total and complete moron for having waited on the side-lines for so long, and for having expected any better from Randy.
But as he found himself rapidly gaining on the Bullies, the rational part of his brain wondered whether it was such a great idea to be running head first towards what was sure to be, at the least, a good beating, if not the scene of a multiple homicide. For goodness sake, wasn’t it just a few days back that he’d been in the exact same situation and Randy had beaten his nose in?
What’s more, he had no plan at all, not even an inkling of what he’d do once he got there, and to top it all off, it had also been a good few minutes since the bell had rung, which meant that any faculty members who could have helped would now be inside classrooms, busy with lessons.
Despite all of this, Keane’s feet kept moving forward, driven by the rage that had sparked on seeing Zara assaulted.
If Randy did manage to kill him this time, a strong possibility given the situation, Keane wondered where he’d stash his body, in how many pieces, and how long it would be before the authorities finally found all of his parts. But even these thoughts, of death and murder and severed body parts, failed to make his legs falter in the slightest. In any case, it was too late to reconsider now—they’d spotted him.
Pete was first to notice the ball of fury scrambling across the courtyard.
“Look!” he chuckled. “It’s Freak Show to the rescue!”
“Oh, good!” said Randy, punching his palm in gleeful anticipation. “Looks like he enjoyed getting his nose broken as much as I enjoyed breaking it.” Pete and Don forced themselves to smirk at Randy’s asinine comment. It was obvious that Johnny didn’t get it, but he joined in anyway, for the same reason he always did—to not feel left out.
Keane skidded to a stop and dropped to his knees on the patch of grass in which Zara’s glasses lay buried. He picked them up and brushed them off as best as he could before handing them back to her.
Zara was shaking as she took them. She managed half a nod, but didn’t look up.
Keane figured that she was embarrassed by how crassly she’d behaved with him earlier, especially since he was the only one now who’d stepped up to help her. From the corner of his eye, he could still see the other students making away quickly, wanting nothing to do with the courtyard situation.
Especially skittish were the ones who’d actually witnessed the assault. They hurried on by very rapidly indeed. Keane wondered if they’d be as nervous as they were if the new kid had been a little orphan boy from St. Martins.
Then he spotted Selfie Girl tucking her phone deep into her bag, and guessed that she’d just finished deleting any photos or videos she’d mistakenly taken of the incident. This was confirmed by the fact that, when she saw him looking, she promptly averted her gaze, made a beeline for the library at the far end of campus, and didn’t look back once.
Keane shook his head and turned back to Zara.
Despite how she’d treated him, seeing Zara lying in the dirt like this—her bent glasses resting askew on her nose—made his heart ache to the point of feeling sick.
“Are you okay?” he asked, as he grasped her arm and helped her up. She nodded, but Keane could see through the false bravado; she was severely rattled. He could feel her arm trembling, and suspected that she’d never been in a fight that she couldn’t simply talk her way out of before.
He pushed a stray coffee-colored fringe off her face and put a hand on her cheek. And, though she was still avoiding his gaze, she did close her eyes and lean into his palm to silently convey just how much she appreciated his help.
Then, she finally looked up at him.
And when their eyes met, and Keane saw a single teardrop trickle down Zara’s cheek, his heart stopped.
And, just like that, the debate over whether to run and hide or to stand his ground, and whether a below average boy like him could dare to take on the likes of Randy, all became moot, for in that instant, he decided that he would do anything in his power to protect her, to keep her safe.
“Get him, Keane!” she muttered through clenched teeth.
Keane studied her burning eyes curiously. They exhibited a confidence in him that no one—not even Greenster—had ever shown before.
In fact, no one had ever seen him as more than a weak, helpless orphan. Even Keane himself had no delusions about who’d win in a fight between him and anybody else—basically, just about anybody else.
Zara was, he knew, well aware of the outcome of his last face-off with Randy. Not only had she seen his bleeding nose, she also knew of this thing called the Internet, on which his failings were very publicly available to view, twenty-four hours a day, every single day of forever. This, he thought, made it all the more astonishing that, here she was, confidently telling him to get Randy.
“You gonna fight like a man this time, Freak Show?” asked Don.
“Or run like a coward again?” continued Pete.
“Or,” Randy chimed in, “how about secret option number three, where both you and your four-eyed girlfriend here just roll over and play dead. Save us the hassle of actually having to thrash you.”
Keane engaged. With his teeth gritted and his hands balled into fists, he swiveled around to face Randy.
“Ooooh, look! It’s Angry Freak Show,” said Randy, faking a shiver. “Please, oh, please don’t hurt me!”
Pete and Don laughed again, and yet again Johnny joined in a few seconds too late.
Keane raised his fists, knowing full well that a fight was now inevitable.
He knew that the years of power that Randy and his comrades had enjoyed from espousing their ‘might-is-right’ thinking meant that there was no way they could possibly back down now. Not when the ‘lowest rung’ had challenged them by coming to the rescue of their victim.
And there was no way they could afford to lose, either, because if word got out that Freak Show and Nerdess defied and defeated the Bullies, tomorrow the whole school might refuse to pay protection money or obey other direct orders.
But Keane figured that if he could hurt them just enough to ensure that they never troubled Zara again, it would suffice, and if that entailed taking a beating himself, then so be it. He was just grateful that at least there were no students left in the courtyard to spectate this time.
As the Bullies now started to circle him, they snorted and cackled, relishing every moment of it.
Keane’s knees were knocking. His hands were shaking. He’d never been in a situation like this before.
Sure, he had got caught up in a few skirmishes in the past, but only unintentionally; usually he and Brok hauled ass at the first sign of trouble.
This really was the first time he would voluntarily be standing up to his tormentors
But the fear was absolutely debilitating.
How was he to find the courage?
Swiftly and silently, the words from the dream formed in his mind and escaped his lips before he could catch himself.
Randy, Pete and Don stopped to exchange baffled looks.
Johnny started laughing, but stopped when he saw that the others weren’t. He scratched his head, confused.
“What did he say?” Pete growled to Randy.
“Yeah, Freak Show,” Randy barked crossly at Keane, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Keane furrowed his brow and snarled, baring his teeth. The gang closed in, their heads tilted, their curiosity piqued.
Then Keane shrugged and his frown dissolved. “I dunno.”
Though he didn’t know what kenid akhnayram meant, for some reason, saying it filled him with confidence. It filled him with courage. Like a secret elixir of bravery, it gave him the nerve to stand face to face with his tormentors, to meet them head on regardless of what fate they may inflict on him, to show them that it was not okay to pick on him, or on anyone weaker or less able than them, or on anyone at all for that matter.
The Bullies were confounded for a moment, and Keane had half a mind to scream out to Zara to run away while the oafs were distracted. But he knew that he had to keep their attention off her. Besides, the moment of confusion passed quickly and, before he knew it, Randy was signaling his troops to advance.
First, Don and Johnny came at him. Keane went to dodge them, but Don’s abnormally long reach and Johnny’s renowned athleticism left little chance of evasion. They grabbed Keane and locked his arms and shoulders in so that he could no longer move.
Then, with a malevolent chuckle, Randy stepped forward and punched him in the stomach. Keane was instantly paralyzed with pain. He felt like he was going to lose his lunch; he could actually taste the stale bread and moldy cheese trying to resurface.
Pete had a go next and, while his knuckles didn’t bury as deeply as Randy’s, they went in far enough to make Keane wish that he was dead so that he wouldn’t have to feel this pain anymore.
Then, with a thuggish shove, Randy sent Keane tumbling, and once the lanky boy was sprawled across the ground, all four Bullies started to kick him. Johnny took particular delight in repeatedly landing his boot between Keane’s legs.
Keane tried to coil himself into a ball, using his arms and legs to shield himself, but the sizeable shoes of the bigger boys still found his ribs and back. That’s when he knew that it wasn’t going to stop at bruises this time, that he’d likely have broken bones too.
Through the mist of blood, mud, and shoes swinging for his face, Keane spotted Brok. The boy, gripped by intense fear, had concealed himself behind a pillar from where he watched the scuffle unfold.
Keane knew that if he passed out now, if he proved not to be adequate game, the Bullies would turn to Brok next. Or, worse, to Zara. He wished that the boy would just run back to the safety of the Wall Gap and take the new girl with him.
From the brief glimpses of Zara he managed to catch between the flurry of kicks that the Bullies were unleashing, Keane could see her frozen stiff with fear, the horror in her eyes expressing just how mortified she was for actually having encouraged him to fight.
Keane had barely even noticed his own tears which were now streaming from his eyes and mixing with the blood that seemed to be coming from everywhere. His sight went hazy. His entire body felt swollen as it throbbed with agony. His hands shook harder than they’d ever done before.
And in the unfamiliar blur that the world had become, Keane spotted a familiar glow.
It was so dim that only he could see it at first. The green tinge began in his fingers and palms, and then started up the veins of his wrists.
With every kick he took, it gained strength, throbbing more intensely in his hands until, eventually, it grew so bright that even Brok, standing in the distance, could see it. Keane knew that he could from the way he vigorously shook his head between stress-filled handfuls of popcorn, mouthing something along the lines of: “No, Keane. Don’t do it.”
Distracted by Brok, Keane hadn’t even noticed that the blows from the Bullies’ boots had stopped.
There was peace now, and all was quiet. Keane’s puffy, bruised cheeks were pushing his eyes shut. The beating, coupled with his lack of sleep, was enticing him to slumber. And, for a moment, he was just so tempted to give in, to simply drift off without a care in the world.
But he couldn’t. He had to protect Brok and Zara. Besides, it wasn’t like the Bullies to stop mid-attack. Something far more sinister was to come next.
Mustering all his courage, he dared to look up and saw them murmuring portentously among themselves.
And then he saw why.
Johnny was measuring a run-up so devastatingly long, Keane knew that by the time those boots got to his face, the impact would be hard enough to knock his teeth out, and maybe even render him unconscious.
He staggered to his feet as quickly as he could, but his cracked ribs rebelled with a burst of excruciating pain that made him grab his sides.
Broken again, he thought.
But their care would have to wait because Johnny had just started to lumber across the courtyard towards him and was gathering momentum with every thundering step. Keane looked around helplessly for—what?—he didn’t know.
That’s when the tingling sensation hit a crescendo in his hands, like the prickly itch of a thousand thorns, and surged upwards to his neck, fiercely swinging his head around.
Disoriented and confused by the suddenness of the turn, Keane blinked hard, struggling to find his bearings. But once his vision settled, he spotted them…
Mrs. Fischer’s petunias.
A flowerpot full of them to be precise. Mrs. Fischer usually left her prized violet beauties on the sill just outside her classroom window where they could get the sunlight they needed.
Keane could feel his hands throbbing. He knew exactly what he had to do. He was grateful that there were no students around and that Zara was now too far away to see what was about to happen.
With a silent apology to the English Lit teacher, and to her petunias too, Keane raised his emissive hands toward the flowerpot. A surge ran up from the earth beneath him. His chest sucked in the energy, which fizzed as it ran up his legs. The electric sensation then shot down his arms and expulsed out through his hands in a violent surge of blinding green.
Keane felt his reach extend past his fingers—way past—until he could almost feel the ceramic container in his hands.
And the flowerpot moved.
Just an inch at first, but move it did.
The rapidly approaching drumbeat of Johnny’s footsteps plagued Keane. He redoubled his focus on the flowerpot, giving it every ounce of concentration he could muster, willing it, nay begging it to come to him.
Before he knew it, Johnny was almost upon him, merely a few feet away now, and Keane was about to end up a footnote in history: Here Lies Keane Davies. Unloved Orphan, Utter Freak Show, Flat as a Pancake.
The terracotta container flew off the ledge at a frightening pace and zipped straight towards Keane’s head.
Keane barely managed to duck out of the way as it sailed past, losing momentum as it did. He quickly regained his footing and, with a lofty swoop of his arms, directed the pot and the unsuspecting flora within at Johnny.
The ceramic smashed squarely into Johnny’s forehead and shattered immediately upon impact, scattering the large boy with soil and flowers. But the stoic oaf was somehow still charging forth…
And then he wasn’t. His unconscious heft came skidding to a halt at Keane’s feet.
Keane looked from the fallen bully to his glowing hands, as much in awe as anyone. It wasn’t the first time this internal, unspeaking voice—this innate instinct—had told him exactly what to do, but it was the first time he’d actually listened. And he couldn’t believe how well it had worked!
Randy cast Pete an ominous look, and Keane knew that they were wondering about his green iridescence, or ‘fake science lab crap’ as Randy liked to call it. He and his gang had seen it many times before, of course, and knew it to never actually work in Keane’s favor. But given that Johnny was presently lying face down in the mud, very much unconscious, today was somewhat different.
Zara started towards Keane, relieved to see him still standing, still breathing, but he held up a hand motioning her back. He knew this wasn’t over yet. He knew that by taking down biggest and strongest of the Bullies, he had put the clique’s credibility on the line. Randy would now be looking for payback… with interest.
The pack leader whispered something to Pete who smiled demonically and rushed off out of sight. Keane took this as a very bad sign.
It was Don who lined up to attack next. He came at Keane like a boxer, fists raised and feet dancing. He was quick. So quick that Keane didn’t even see him throw the first two punches. He sure felt them, though. Right in his aching gut.
As Keane limped away, reeling from the blows, he could hear Don laughing as he sauntered after him.
With the flowerpot now a broken mess on the snaking pathway, Keane started to scan the area for something else to use as a weapon. Anything would do.
Don executed the perfect roundhouse kick, smacking Keane right in the small of his back. The skinny orphan went flying forward, but as he fell, he spotted an old rake leaning up against a nearby knee-high wall.
Its wooden handle was snapped half way up, and the metal had rusted. But it would suffice.
Keane staggered to his feet and limped towards it, positioning himself between Don and the rake so that the taller boy, now in pursuit, couldn’t see it. He clenched his fists as if holding the garden tool in his very hands.
When the big guy lunged with another upper cut, Keane slid out of his way and swung his arms to direct the rake like a golf club, and in obedient synchronicity, the rake lurched up, glowing bright green, and caught Don’s chin with its handle, knocking the boy backwards into the mud.
The sharp burst of energy drained Keane and he dropped the rake with an echoing clank.
Expecting that Don would be up in an instant, Keane balled up his fists and prepared for the ensuing fist fight.
But it never came. The bigger boy was out cold.
Keane waited a moment, just to be sure, and when Don still didn’t get up, he breathed a sigh of relief and doubled over, panting and sweating profusely.
These powers that came with the green glow, he noted, were far more physically demanding to control than he’d imagined. And a lot more elusive, to the point of being abstruse even. For instance, he had absolutely no idea how he’d made the flowerpot fly or the rake swing. All he knew was that he’d directed the objects and they’d obeyed. And he wasn’t even sure if his over-the-top motions were necessary, either, though they certainly seemed to be helping.
Having caught his breath, Keane looked around for his friends, to make sure that they were okay.
He was glad to find Brok still hidden safely behind the pillars of B block and to see Zara relieved and smiling. But he could only return half a smile because he’d also just spotted Randy.
The pack leader was studying Keane intently. He had been awfully quiet this entire time, simply watching from a distance, no doubt trying to figure out how Freak Show was doing all that he was doing.
He grinned menacingly as Pete re-joined his side, and Keane inhaled sharply when he saw why.
Pete drew a mean looking baseball bat from behind his back and started to bounce it against his palm.
So, that’s what he’d gone off to get, thought Keane. Pete’s violent-sarcastic-emo personality scared him at the best of times. And now he had a bat in his hands.
But Pete’s grin faded when he saw the emerald emissions in Keane’s hands, glowing brighter than ever before, and loathing began to permeate his dark, eyeliner-clad eyes.
“This still that fake science-lab crap?” he asked Randy.
“If it is, it’s getting better,” said Randy, turning to Pete. “And we can’t have that, now, can we?”
The subsequent smile that pulled at a corner of Pete’s mouth sent trembles down Keane’s spine.
Pete tossed his leader the bat and Randy, now armed and fury-laden, came swinging for Keane with a primal grunt.
Acting fast, Keane clenched his irradiating fists in the air and renewed his phantom grip on the busted rake. He turned full circle, like a shotput thrower, and released when he reached the peak of his arc. It was probably the first time in his life he’d found any use for something he’d learned in gym class. The rake rose up from the ground, like a garden accessory of the living dead, and sped toward Randy.
And, without hesitation, Randy smashed it to splinters with a single swing of his deadly bat.
Keane gulped, wondering what insanely strong wood the bat was made from. He desperately looked around for another weapon, but, other than the benches, which he very much doubted he could lift seeing as they were nailed to the ground at each corner, he had run out of options.
He turned and ran in the direction opposite to where Zara stood, hoping to at least lead the ruffians as far away from her as he possibly could, while buying himself some time.
But Randy’s tremendous track-honed strides brought him within striking distance of Keane in record time.
He aimed and swung, and as his bat connected with Keane’s already broken ribs, the wiry boy went sliding across the ground like a hockey puck on ice.
Keane’s progress was halted only by one of the knee-high redbrick barriers which he hit with a sickening thud.
As Randy advanced once more, Keane clasped his fists shut again, now attempting to control the bat in the bully’s hands, just as he’d controlled the rake before it.
But the bat was far heavier than he’d expected, and Randy far stronger. The savage boy wrestled the bat free from Keane’s invisible grasp and sneered at him.
If only Brok had let him practice earlier, Keane expected that he might have been better at this by now, good even.
“What’s wrong?” said Randy, drawing his arms upwards for another swing. “Already out of tricks?”
Keane spotted the bat’s polished wood glinting in the sun just in time as it swung towards him, and flung himself backwards. Randy’s blow missed by a hair’s width.
But with his back flush against the redbrick wall now, Keane was trapped.
When Randy’s next swing smacked Keane right across the jaw, an ear-piercing scream shook the air around them as the scraggy orphan fell over sideways.
Keane assumed the scream to be his own reaction to the pain. But, when he saw the tormented look on Zara’s face and the multitude of tears now streaming down her cheeks, he knew that it had come from her.
He hated that his actions were causing Zara to suffer. His own tears he could take—heck, he barely even registered them anymore. But being asked to tolerate Zara’s was too much. It hurt more than the physical pain he was in—and he was in a lot of physical pain.
“Aw, Freak Show wanna go huggie-kissie with Nerdess?” taunted Randy, bursting into laughter when he saw the way Keane was looking at the new girl.
And then, the orphan stopped to stare unblinkingly at the bully as the truth began to dawn upon him.
Gradually at first, and then faster as his train of thought gathered momentum, Keane realized that Zara wasn’t suffering because of him, that none of this was happening because of him…
No, this was all happening because of Randy!
It was Randy who’d stolen and then lost his newspaper cutting. It was Randy who’d made a habit of picking on kids smaller and weaker than him. And it was Randy who’d now gone and assaulted Zara as well.
Keane started to seethe with a fevered rage.
“She is not a Nerdess,” he said. “And I,” he scowled, “am not,” he fumed, “a Freak Show!”
With a thrust of his right palm, Keane sent forth a blinding flash of emerald light which broke the wooden bat in half, leaving Randy covered in splinters. The business end went flying across the courtyard and all the way to B block, where is whizzed right past Brok’s ear.
“Yowza!” screamed Brok, ducking for his life.
Randy stood in stunned silence, finding himself short half a bat. Rage stewed within him and he began to shake until, unable to contain it anymore, he let out a deafening scream.
He discarded what remained of his weapon, sending the wood rattling to the ground, and lunged for Keane, intent on finishing the fight with his bare hands.
Once he’d grabbed the boy by the collar, Randy dragged him across the ground towards the rear exit of the cafeteria on the east side of A block where he swung the puny kid at the wall. Keane bounced off the bricks like a football and went crashing into the trash cans by the side of the exit.
“Get him, Randy! Get him!” brayed Pete.
When Keane got to his feet, he saw that, again, Zara had her hands clasped over her mouth. Again, she was stifling screams of distress. And again, her eyes were wide with fear.
It was too much for Keane. Far too much.
He had to end this. Now.
“Enough!” he screamed at Randy, holding an out-turned, neon hand in warning, his anger now fueling his powers.
But Randy, having just been goaded by Pete, simply laughed and prepared to assail him again.
As Randy drew closer, Keane dug deep within himself, and carried on going deeper and deeper within until he had unearthed the wordless voice once more.
It whispered to him, asking him to close his eyes, and when he obliged, he instantly felt the voice grow clearer. It asked him to move his right foot back, and when he did, he immediately felt more grounded, more stable.
Once again, energy entered him from the ground below—moving up from his feet, through his legs and torso, then through his arms, and, finally, into his hands.
The voice told him to reach his hands out and clench. He followed its instructions with unfaltering concentration, and the sparks in his fists amplified. The bins around him started to rattle as they throbbed with a light jade glow.
Randy stopped dead in his tracks. Then he took a step back, staring at the jangling bins with widening eyes.
Keane lifted up his arms, and the garbage bins rose into the air. Randy could do little but stare slack jawed at the pulsating cans which hung suspended above his head like marionettes on strings.
But as Randy shook off his trepidation and stepped forward to reassert his attack, Keane sensed that the time had come to inflict the required damage so that the Bullies to leave him and his friends alone.
“I said… enough!” he screamed, not really wanting to do what he knew he had to, and hoping that the leader of the Bullies would take this final chance to back off.
But seeing neither Randy’s progress nor his intent wane in the slightest, Keane jerked his hands forward with all his might and sent the bins flying towards his aggressor.
Randy realized a moment too late that he was now about to be squashed like a bug by the metal cylinders.
He tried to run and duck at the same time, but the awesome speed at which Keane had hurled the cans proved to be too quick for him. The bins sandwiched Randy’s head from a side each, and sent him tumbling to the ground.
As Keane doubled over once again, drained from the exertion of propelling the heavy metal through the air, the bins came crashing down around Randy, startling him.
Randy slid away from them and sat up, rubbing the lumps that had sprung up on his head. He seemed to be in more pain than he’d probably ever been. Only now did he seem to realize what he’d gotten himself into. He jumped to his feet and, along with Pete, beat a hasty retreat.
But seeing the grins that the Bullies exchanged, Keane understood that the retreat was just temporary, that they’d be back with reinforcements.
At first, he couldn’t believe it. Even after seeing what Keane was now capable of, they were still intent on continuing this, still determined to plan their next attack.
And then, the penny dropped.
He finally got that this would never end, because using his powers so openly would not be possible every time, and the Bullies knew that very well, which meant that the next attack would always be just around the corner. He and Brok, and now even Zara, would live in constant fear of being jumped when the teachers weren’t looking.
Keane finally understood that inflicting ‘just enough damage’ was not going to cut it, and that, to protect his friends and to make the Bullies think carefully about ever picking on him again, he had to hit Randy where it would hurt him most. He had to make his cronies doubt him… He had to humiliate him, and not just in front of his comrades, but in front of the entire school.
He took a deep breath and, rounding up what little energy remained in him, hoisted one of the bins back into the air.
As Randy scampered away, the bin gained on him, turning upside down as it flew towards him and, once it was just above his head, Keane slammed both hands downwards, bringing the inverted bin crashing down over most of Randy, leaving only his legs protruding from the opening beneath.
The gang leader looked absolutely ridiculous taking tiny steps in every direction in his attempts to escape, and with the school bell about to ring in just a few minutes, Keane knew that the entire school would soon see him in this state.
The students of John Atkins High would also soon be seeing the cronies in their passed out state, and they’d ask many questions, such as who, and why, and how, questions which Randy and his bunch would have no answers for.
As a result, he suspected that, in a few moments, the students of John Atkins High would have a very different opinion of the clique known as the Bullies indeed.
Only now, having dealt with the enemy, did Keane realize how drained he felt. His powers had, for now at least, completely run out.
But seeing Randy dart around in desperate circles, writhing within his rusty enclosure, banging and scratching the metal from the inside in his struggle to get free, he couldn’t resist landing one last blow.
He took a run up and kicked the bin as hard as he could, tipping the can over. And although he ended up hurting his own foot in the process, adding to the already excruciating pain that the rest of his body was in, the satisfaction of watching Randy helplessly roll away inside a garbage bin more than made up for it. Keane couldn’t help but smile.
Pete now grunted at Keane with aggression and took a step forward, but Keane turned to him with such ferocity that the Pete almost stumbled backwards into a bush.
He looked from Keane to the rolling can and, wisely, decided to back off. With a final scowl at Keane and Zara, he scampered off after his leader, presumably to attempt to extract him from his cylindrical prison.
“Ropes and pulleys,” Brok called out from behind his pillar as Pete raced past it. “That’s all it was.” Pete shook his head at the boy, wholly unconvinced by the flimsy cover story, but Brok persisted. “No, really! Just ropes and—”
But Pete was gone.
“Also pulleys,” finished Brok, for little but his own amusement.
Keane collapsed with relief. The ordeal was over.
Only now did he dare to fully feel the pain in his ribs, his stomach, his arms, his hands, his face, his neck, his shoulders, his… well, basically, his everything. There were red and purpling marks over his entire body.
And boy did they hurt.
~ α Ω α ~
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry!” Zara dove to the ground and threw her arms around Keane.
She squeezed so hard that it made his bruises and fractures hurt, but having Zara hold him close felt good—so good. Her arms around him, the touch of her neck against his cheek, her warmth, her smell. It all just felt really, really good. So, Keane happily suppressed his pain.
“I-I didn’t realize they were even capable of that!” said Zara. The poor girl was shaking, still horror-struck by how badly she’d misjudged the severity of the beating the Bullies would levy. “Otherwise I would never ever have—”
“No, Zara,” Keane interrupted, inferring that she was about to apologize, which he was going to have none of. “You were right all along.” The words from the dream, which had been in the back of his mind throughout the fight, now came to the forefront. “Anyone who attempts to coerce you to their will through means of power must be confronted. Always.”
Zara stared at him, perplexed. “When did I ever say that?” Then, she narrowed her eyes. “You hit your head, didn’t you? Let me see…”
“No, wait,” said Keane, cutting short her inspection. It was all so clear now. The words of the man from the dream just made so much sense. “What that means is… we need to stand up to bullies, Zara. Always!”
Zara just shook her head, astonished that Keane could spout such advice after the pounding he’d just taken, and then wrapped her arms back around his neck again.
Brok, who had been poking at the unconscious bodies of Johnny and Don with a tree branch, as if unable to believe that they were really out cold, now approached Keane and Zara, staring at his best friend with utter bewilderment.
“How did you… do that?” he said. “Was it actually ropes and pulleys?”
Keane grinned sheepishly and cast a fleetingly brief sideways glance at Zara. Brok mouthed an “Oh” at Keane.
Then, Zara started to gibber, her words slurring as her head burrowed deeper into Keane’s neck. “I was going to go get a teacher, I really was, and I started, but then I stopped because I was scared, just so scared, because you said you didn’t want to go back to Mr. Smith’s office and that you couldn’t take any more detention and I was afraid that they’d do exactly that, Keane, I was afraid that they’d just give you more detention…”
“Shhh, shhh,” Keane whispered into her ear, running his hand through her hair. “It’s over now. It’s done.”
“It’s over now. It’s done,” she repeated, simmering down.
“You know you broke your promise, right?” said Brok.
Keane raised his shoulders as if to ask what choice he had, but Brok crossed his arms in a huff.
So, Keane made big puppy dog eyes at him, which Brok resisted valiantly at first, but seeing Keane’s eyes grow ever larger, he finally caved in.
“Oh, alright,” he sighed, “You know I can’t stay mad at that face. But let the record show that I’m too happy about it. At least you’re getting to grips with your, er—”
Brok began to mime at a speed which made Keane’s eyes hurt. Keane frowned deeply and strained to keep up. But when Brok finally finished and turned to him with a grin, Keane could only shrug, having understood not a thing.
Brok huffed with frustration and went to start again, but Keane stopped him with a desperate shake of his head.
“No, please don’t! Er, I think you mean my… ‘temper’?” he suggested, guessing that Brok wanted to discuss the powers without mentioning them in Zara’s presence.
“Ah, yes,” said Brok, taking to the idea. “Sure. Let’s go with that. I am glad that you’re getting some control over your—ahem—temper…”
“Guys? I can hear you,” said Zara, as she finally released Keane. “You know I have ears, right? Tell me you know that.” She turned to Brok. “I’m actually quite worried that you especially don’t.”
The boys watched her mutely. Clearly, the word ‘temper’ wasn’t going to work—Keane didn’t know how, but Zara had already managed to crack that super-secret code.
But whether she’d quite grasped the implications of what had just happened, Keane didn’t really know. He hoped that she thought it was all just a string of cheap tricks, and hoped that she didn’t suspect him of actually being the telekinetic aberration that he really was.
What he did know was that discussing his powers any further with Zara around was only going to make things worse, so when Brok attempted to continue talking, Keane made chopping motions across his neck to get him to stop.
“You know I have eyes too, right?” Zara said, raising an eyebrow at Keane.
But just as Keane was about to reply, he spotted blood on Zara’s elbow and grabbed her arm. “Are you okay?” he asked, frowning at the cut. Zara inspected the wound curiously. She clearly hadn’t even felt it.
“Just a scratch,” she said, now turning her attention to Keane’s bruised and bleeding face. “Let me see that. You’re the one who need to visit the school nurse. Like, more than anyone has ever needed to. Like, since time began.”
Keane started to chuckle, but soon stopped as this made his ribs hurt. He pressed them to see how broken they really were, and, although this made him flinch with pain again, it wasn’t quite as bad as he’d expected.
Zara wrapped her hands delicately around his arms to help him up and, as they walked towards the main block together, began to scrutinize all of his scrapes and bruises.
Keane couldn’t help but smile. The day may have been a relentless barrage of misery and pain, but being fussed over by Zara sure was a good way to end it.
“Er, guys?” said Brok, suddenly aware that they were leaving him behind. “I was bullied too, you know?” He cringed, as that wasn’t entirely true. “Emotionally, I mean.”
Miffed by the lack of response from the departing duo, he increased his volume. “My injuries are all internal!”
His voice echoing in the courtyard made him realize that he was speaking only to himself now. He looked around and confirmed that he was, indeed, very much all alone.
Story of his life.
“Mustn’t ignore internal scars, right guys?” he called out, now unashamedly chasing after them, as the school bell rang and drowned his voice out.
Slavizarus stood amongst the chanting followers, his face obscured, just like theirs, in the shadows of the long, dusty hood, and his body crisscrossed, just like theirs, by the straps of the back-mounted scabbards that housed his deadly, majjik-laden sword. And he was cloaked, just as they were, in the long, flowing robes that symbolized the right to walk upon Gaia as free Majjikons—vestments of the sacred Terralyte Order.
He was deep within the Terralyte Temple, in a cave-like space known as the Chamber of Ceremonies, the outer edges of which had been claimed by shadows, lending it a sense of the infinite. It was by design that such little light was allowed in, for the darkness helped minds focus—upon Gaia, and upon Kaos, and upon their collective Powers.
“Ruu’hai, Zennhai!” they chanted—Rise, Master.
Their words shook the vast space, and as their voices reverberated off the dark Hornblende walls, the sound took on an ominous presence.
Like the others, Slavizarus watched the central altar which, though visually little more than an arrangement of smooth crystalline and graphite formations, was, in truth, the pinnacle of energy within the entire caliginous structure.
If the next Master of the Terralyte Order was, indeed, among them, the altar would tell them. It would light up with the energy of the earth, of the sun, of the moon, and of chaos. But unlike the rest of the cloaked figures, Slavizarus was not awaiting answers, for he already knew. No, he was waiting to rejoice as his master, his friend, reclaimed his rightful position at the helm of the Order.
Out of the darkness stepped a lone figure, a being whose real name had been long forgotten by most.
But Slavizarus could never forget. The name of his dearly loved childhood friend—the leader for whom he had combed the entirety of Gaia, searching for century upon unrelenting century—was etched into his very soul.
And now, here he stood, an emaciated shadow towering over the mighty Terralytes, on the verge of ascension, about to continue where his father left off. Although wrapped in the sacred hooded robes of the Order, Slavizarus’ master bore no scabbard and no weapon. For he needed none.
He commenced his ascent to the altar with unfaltering purpose, climbing the dark sapphire stairs at an unhurriedly deliberate pace, commanding attention with his every stride.
All eyes followed his progress assiduously, and, once he had crested the last step, began to flit between him and the glistening rocks of the altar. For only the altar could confirm or deny whether the looming figure stood before it was truly the heir of Hozar, whether he was truly their new Master…
From the azure and jade crystals rose a swirl of purple mist, which curled around in space like a wisp blown by an absent wind. It approached the figure, backed away, and then dispersed once more into chaos.
Invitation extended, the crystals pulsated with their innate glows, like the swiveling beacons of a dozen lighthouses on a foggy night, awaiting the claimant to present himself.
And in that moment, Slavizarus felt his master’s eyes find him in the crowd. Though still invisible under the hood, he sensed hesitation in them.
It was merely a fleeting pause, of course, and not entirely uncalled for, as both Slavizarus and his master knew that, if assertions made were found to be false, the wrath of the gathered Terralytes would have to be contended with. Not that this would unduly trouble a Majjikon as powerful as his master, but the death of precious Terralytes at his hand was not a matter that would much please the heir of Hozar.
In the mind of Slavizarus, though, there was not an inkling of doubt over what decision the crystals would pronounce. He gave a discretely minute nod, so that none but his master could detect the reply.
And, in an instant, the shadow was upon the crystalline altar, pressing its flattened palms onto the spiked formations.
His touch roused the thick violet energy that rushed out and wreathed his entire body, swirling around him, performing the requisite evaluations.
In the dim glow that emanated from the churning light, the faces of the assembled devout were revealed, every one intently awaiting the verdict.
“Ruu’hai, Zennhai! Ruu’hai, Zennhai!” The chanting intensified. The hooded disciples wanted—nay, needed—a leader. A strong one. They willed him to be it.
Although it was his body that the swirling lights seemed to be scrutinizing, what they were infinitely more interested in was his soul. And so, before Slavizarus knew it, the lights were one with his master, within him, a part of him.
Then, just as quickly, they were not.
The purple wisps swirled away and withdrew back to their home within the altar where they lay in contemplation.
The chanting quietened down and the gathered Majjikons exchanged mutters and glances.
But Slavizarus remained steadfast, as did the looming shadow atop the steps.
And when the frenzied majjikal sparks finally shot out from the altar and rained down light and power upon the figure, their message was clear. They had confirmed him to be the true Master of the Terralyte Order.
Chanting erupted again and crescendoed into a deafening cacophony. For the Terralytes’ wish had been granted. They had a new leader, one truly worthy of their worship.
Slavizarus beamed with pride at the figure by the altar—the heir of Hozar, one of the most powerful beings in the universe—and chanted along with the followers, overjoyed that his master was now their Master also.
The collective powers continued to rain down upon the shadow, not only designating him the Sacred Keeper of Majjik, but also, and more importantly, bequeathing upon him the ultimate title of His Eminence.
Then, with the ceremony complete, the vivacious crystals returned to their placid state.
His Eminence raised an energized fist of turquoise and violet into the air, and the ring of followers fell silent.
“Brave and loyal Terralytes” he said, his ancient, but in no way frail voice carrying clear and strong through the crisp, cold air in the Chamber.
“You may now address me by the title.”
The followers fell to their knees and bowed their heads with respect and fear. “Your Eminence!” they each uttered, acknowledging their new Master, their admiration plain to see. Slavizarus, only too happy to pay his dues, did the same.
“My fellow Terralytes.” His Eminence gestured them up and they rose on his command. “I shall not mislead you with pleasant falsehoods. The task that stretches out before us is undeniably daunting. But remember this. We fight neither for ourselves nor for fickle glory. Not for coin, nor material pleasures. We fight for one thing, and one thing alone: the rights of Majjikons to live freely upon Mother Gaia.”
The disciples threw their fists into the air and cheered. “For Gaia,” came one cry. “Gayya tarakkab yehatiij,” came another—may Gaia guide us to victory.
His Eminence threw the hood of his cloak off his skull-like head to a sudden swell of surprise, for few had been allowed to see his face so openly before. He raised a palm at his new devotees and they quietened down again.
“Now, some of you may have your doubts,” he continued, climbing down the sapphire steps as deliberately as he had ascended them. “Perhaps you wonder exactly how a pitifully small band such as ours could even think of accomplishing so mammoth a task. And you would be right. For retaking the land from submissive Majjikons and unworthy humans is a task which will inevitably be fraught with peril.”
A ripple passed though the assembled worshipers as they glanced uncertainly at each other. They had not expected to hear of doubt and hesitation—not from the heir of Hozar.
But a silent smile plucked at Slavizarus’s mouth.
“And while possession of a tome such as Book of Dark would have secured our victory,” His Eminence continued, “alas, the Book remains lost. Claimed by the Kaos-ether.”
He was now walking amongst the crowd, level with them, but not one of them, his every move making his superiority over them abundantly clear.
Coming to a stop beside Slavizarus, the Master turned to face his new devotees and, with perfectly practiced drama, reached into his cloak. The Terralytes held their breath.
“What I do possess, though,” said His Eminence, pulling free four humble looking pages of parchment, “are these pages from the original manuscript, handed down to me by Hozar himself!”
As he lifted the pages over his head for all to see, the gathered Terralytes erupted in roars of approbation which shook the dark Hornblende walls of the Chamber.
And although His Eminence had to scream his next words to be heard over the din, his voice somehow maintained its air of authority, of supremacy. “I promise you this, my loyal followers. I, the true heir of Hozar, and the one and only Guardian of Gaia, will take back this land!”
Slavizarus, who thought it impossible for the cheering to get any louder, was proven wrong as the Terralytes flared up in celebration, their doubts and uncertainties now quashed.
His Eminence felt his wizened face struggle under the weight of a smile, but he managed to stifle the emotion, for now was not the time for such frivolities.
He uttered his next words quietly, so that only he and Slavizarus could hear. He said them softly, as if they were part of a revered morning prayer.
“For all of Gaia… All of this and more…” He turned to look straight at Slavizarus. “This is our land.”
[_ ~~ α Ω α ~~ _]
To Be Continued…
The adventures of Keane, Brok and Zara will continue in:
BOOK OF DARK[[
]Volume I: Rise of the Terralytes
Book II: The Search Commences]
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[For more information on the Book of Dark Series, including future instalment release dates, guides, blurbs, and other great downloadable content, please do visit the Series website at:
Keane Davies is an ordinary fourteen year old orphan, normal in every way. Except that he sometimes awakens in the middle of the night to find his hands glowing bright green. He doesn't understand why he dreams of a scary, black dragon and an enchanted forest, or why his best friend won't let him use his strange new powers against the bullies at school and their needlessly violent methods of "conflict resolution". And things aren't helped any when he starts to develop a crush on the new girl at John Atkins High, inadvertently making her a target for the terrifying bullies. It's a good thing, then, that he remains quite unaware of his innate connection to the fearsome band of supernatural beings who call themselves Terralytes, and who are on the rise against the Council of Majjikons and the High Realm in their quest to re-take the Earth for their Order. Will Keane ever learn to use his powers? Will the dark dragon and the mystical forest in his dreams ever make sense? And will he ever find the mettle to face up to his high school tormentors? "Always Stand Up" is the first of thirty-six instalments which comprise the Book of Dark Series.