I fell onto my bed, exhausted. I saw my phone flashing with news of a missed call, voicemail, or text… but my muscles ached too much to reach out to look. It had been a month and a half since I started training with Max and holy crap it was harder than I ever imagined it would be. Did we start on the fun stuff first? Noooooo of course not. I had to build muscles. So he had me doing more upper body training.
The additions in my little shed made it seem more like a mini-gym. Dad helped get a bar installed so I could work on pull-ups and we also moved the weight trainer in there too. Most days Max and I spent our time inside the shed-gym, sweating and cursing as he told me he’d seen kittens with more muscles than me. We also went running, and I never went alone again. Max was always there and sometimes Dad went with us if he had the energy.
Even though my family knew the entire story and my dads gave uneasy permission for Max to stay with us at night, Max preferred staying outside for the most part patrolling the yards. Sometimes he did come in. Mostly to beg for food. I took to keeping cans of tuna in my room for him. We also started buying cat toys to leave around the house for him to mess with, and we were finding ripped up mice all over the place.
Although the spring semester was over Gladdy and Presea stayed at their college home since Gladdy wanted to take summer classes and Presea found a good summer job there. They came into visit, though only Presea got the chance to meet Max. She (and Gladdy) knew the story, naturally… and since Presea always preferred dogs more than cats… well, she and Max did not hit it off well at all.
He hissed at her, she called him fluffball, and he hid in a tree for the rest of the day. Vilkas came into visit in June, looking pretty tired from all his kingly work. He and Max also did not get along, and this time Max hid under the porch.
Despite the fact Vilkas always preferred to confide in Presea, he did talk to me about some of his love life problems. I guess he needed a guy to talk to? I tried to give him the best advice I could but really why did he pick me of all people? I didn’t exactly have a great record with successful relationships.
“Still no one?” he inquired, eyes grazing over my new wall decor.
I flushed a bit at that. “One of my friends drew those,” I snapped. “Another homeschooler. From Roaring Heights. We talk online a lot, and she drew those–“
“She?” Vilkas smirked now and I went even redder.
“Yes, she. And her boyfriend is an artist too,” I growled, not enjoying that smug, smirking, annoying look. “Not everything is about romance, guys and girls can be friends you know. Clay and Trysh, and Clay and Lumie are all friends and they’ve got no interest in each other. Trysh and I are… friends. And we’ve got… no interest…”
The martial arts (and knowing about Max) really helped me be able to connect to my friends again. We went to the mall, chilled out on weekends, watched the big screen–that sort of thing. Clay and I spent a bit more time together, while Lumes and Trysh spent more time together but often all four of us hung out, and none of us had any romantic interest in the other. Alllthooouuugh I did continually have Trysh’s kiss on my mind from forever ago. She never mentioned it, not even when we were alone. Actually she never brought up romance at all with me. She wasn’t seeing anyone but–I didn’t think she had the hots for me anymore. My whole ordeal probably threw that out the window. What with me seeming crazy, AZ’s death and then my disappearance for nearly a year.
Vilkas came over and tapped my forehead. “You don’t sound too sure about that one, buddy,” he laughed.
I rubbed my forehead, scowling. “Trysh and I are not interested in each other, all right? You’ve just got romance on the brain from your stupid problem. You should focus more on that than on my nonexistent ones, a’right?”
Even though I spoke cheerfully about my renewal of friendship I remained silent on the dating matter. Particularly that it made me uneasy. Nervous. Plus I didn’t exactly get much opportunity to meet anyone. There really wasn’t much space for meeting chicks when my social life consisted of movies and smoothies with Clay, Trysh, and my twin. Lumie and I were invited to Friday night parties but neither of us would go. Lumie because Saul would more than likely be there, and me because I didn’t like the idea of being in a small, crowded place like that. I guess it may have been a bit silly since we went to plenty of crowded places but I dunno, I just didn’t really have any desire to party-hardy. I guess I was just becoming an old man before my time.
“…the door and there they were, just ready to do it! Frozen like rabbits, all horrified. Mrs. Montero just started screaming her head off, and chased him out of the house with a frying pan–nothing but his boxers on!” Clay told the story with excitement and I couldn’t help but laugh. “He ran down the street, nothing but boxers, Mrs. Montero chasing him in her fancy dress outfit, waving a frying pan around. The police got involved cause the neighbors called them and man, he is not gonna live this one down.”
“Good,” I said with a snicker, rather glad this had happened to Saul. I didn’t care if it seemed mean of me but seriously I couldn’t help feeling some satisfaction that the guy that hurt Lumie so much had something like that happen to him!
Due to the cold, drizzylish weather, Clay and I were the only ones at the park–unless Max counted (which he didn’t really) who lurked unseen somewhere. I stretched out my legs and looked around, feeling like someone else was there too. I didn’t like that feeling. Part of me wanted to just go home… but since Clay and I hadn’t seen each other for a good week, I didn’t want to just run off. So I forced myself to ignore the feeling and stay. Besides, I had Max hidden in the bushes and daggers hidden in my boots. My ability with daggers wasn’t as good my ability with swords but I could throw them fairly well, sticking them in the target seven times out of ten.
“Trysh got her license,” Clay continued, breaking into my thoughts. “So that makes all of us except for you. When are you gonna get yours? Lumie has hers, doesn’t she?”
I nodded absentmindedly. “Yeah. She got hers a bit ago.”
Clay poked me and I jumped at the feeling. He just laughed. “Jumpy, are we? What’s wrong? You look so tense!”
“I have to look at your face, s’enough to make anyone tense and jumpy,” I teased.
“OH!!” he shrieked, jumping up and kicking at my ankles. “Bring it AWWWNNN!” He held up his fists, doing a bit of a dance. “Come on, I must defend my honor.”
I just smirked. “I’m an orange belt in martial arts,” I reminded him. “Best not fight me.”
“Oh-ho, Mr. Tough Guy now.” He gave my ankles a light kick again. “Come on then. Show me what you’re made of! Let’s go!” He danced around some more laughing when out of no where it began raining hard. “Aw mannnn!” he whined as the rain poured over us.
“Let’s get indoors,” I said, getting up, feeling uneasy. The rain grew heavier, and caused a lot of misting and it was getting a bit hard to see. “Um–let’s go,” I said, not liking this.
Clay just danced in the rain. “Naw man, it’s cool! We’re soaking wet anyway, might as well hang out here till the rain goes away! It’s not too c–“
I wasn’t facing him, so I had no idea why he suddenly stopped speaking. “It’s not too what?” I asked, turning and staring in horror.
He clutched at his throat, mouth a wide ‘O’, his body doubling over. If he was making gasping sounds, I couldn’t hear it over the rain. I took two steps towards him before I felt my throat being seized. I reached to my neck, trying to grab the hands but there were no hands there. I slumped to my knees, panic welling up inside of me as the oxygen slowly left my body with no way to replenish it.
A loud shriek filled my ear and then air rushed into my lungs. I gasped loudly, sucking in more air. Clay had fallen to the ground by this point, coughing and gasping even worse than I had been. I wanted to go to him but instead I began looking around. I could just make out two figures by the basketball court. A dark one, and a light one. The dark one had to be Max.
I swore. “Stay here,” I commanded Clay. “Whatever you do, don’t move!” I got up and began running over, slipping and falling once on my way. I banged my knee up but just kept going. A muscular man had Max’s hands locked in place, the two of them struggling–both of them to keep the other in place. A wand, which I assumed belonged to my attacker, lay forgotten on the ground nearby. I knew Max didn’t have his sword or anything with him, but he had knives… except with his hands and arms pinned with the attacker’s hands and arms, neither of them could get to their weapons.
I started to go forward when the wizard got one hand free and punched Max in the throat. Max fell back, and the wizard dove for his wand. I dove for it at the same time but he got to it first. I heard him say something with my name in the sentence and then I was thrown back against the chain-link fence. Once I hit the ground I felt a lot of pressure pushing against me, pushing me hard against the fence. The wizard began laughing.
“MAX!” I screamed. “MAX!”
The wizard turned towards him as Max slowly got up off the ground. The wizard shifted, moving his wand from me to Max. He spoke a new spell which removed the pressure against me and sent pressure against Max, sending him flying until he crashed into the ground yards away. I reached down into my boot, pulled the dagger out, and threw it the best I could. It missed the targeted area by a bit. Instead of the blade hitting the wizard’s arm… the handle smacked into the wizard’s face. He reeled back, giving a grunt of pain. I pulled the dagger from my left boot, tossed it into my right hand, and threw.
This time the blade sunk into the wizard’s right bicep nicely. He screamed in pain, stumbling back; then he pulled the knife out, cursing loudly, letting the dagger clatter to the ground. He shakily lifted his right hand to shoot me with a curse or something… but in the moment of his distraction, I rolled across the ground and picked up the first dagger, which had fallen at his feet. Since that’s where I rolled to a stop I just slammed the blade into the back of his knee.
The scream he gave filled my ears with an unbearable sound. I pulled the blade out, picked up the other dagger, and began rolling again. Rolling, rolling, rolling. I rolled to the basketball court’s gate and pulled myself up, opening the gate and going in, quickly shutting it. The wizard remained crumpled on the ground, blood pouring into the grass. He lifted his wand again, very slowly and shakily, but before he could do anything Max came out of the mist and slammed a knife into the back of the guy’s neck.
A bright flash of light obscured my vision for a split second before everything came back into a star-filled focus. Since the rain let up, I could see a bit better. But the wizard had… disappeared?
“Did he teleport?” I asked, leaving the court.
Max stared intently at a pile of mud that had appeared at his feet. “No. He wasn’t real. Ohhhh dog tail this is not good, they’re sending golems.”
He reached into the pile and pulled out a crooked stick, making a face at it. He let it drop then shook his head, tucking the knife back into his clothes. I looked around and realized the blood was gone from the ground. I couldn’t see blood anywhere, and it wasn’t that the rain washed it away. There were great streaks of mud everywhere. I looked at my daggers; a few bits of mud clung to the ends.
“What is it?” I asked.
“A golem,” Max answered. “A form made out of inanimate material, turned real. Powerful magic-users can do it. But this… this is beyond normal.” He crouched down, poking at the mud. “It takes a strong magic-user to form a golem and have it look like a normal human, and walk around… but it takes an insanely powerful one to have it be able to do magic. This should not be…” He looked at the mud on his finger and made a face. “Plus mud? That is realllly unusual, I think. Usually it’s clay or–“
I quickly pushed my daggers back into their holders in my boots and went running to Clay who lay curled up on the ground, whimpering loudly. “What happened? Zaid? What was–and knives–you threw–and that guy… he stabbed… stabbed…!” He broke into whimpering sobs.
Max came over, and Clay gave a frightened shriek at the sight of him. Max hissed lightly and lunged forward. I started to protest but Clay just slumped down, eyes closed. “What did you do?” I demanded angrily.
“Very quick knockout spell,” Max said, sliding his fingers along Clay’s forehead. “And a memory wiping spell. He won’t remember the past couple minutes.”
“You can erase memories–“
“Just get home,” Max said and sprinted off.
“HOW LONG WILL HE BE ASLEEP?” I called but I received only silence for an answer. I turned to look back down at Clay, deciding to give him a few minutes.
After about two of them, Clay began groaning. He rubbed his head, sitting up. “Whoa what happened?” he asked, blinking at me. “It was raining? And then… whoa, I feel a bit dizzy. What happened?” I just bit my bottom lip, not saying anything, letting Clay settle on an answer himself. He got to his feet, looking down at his soaked clothes. “I must have fallen. Did I fall?”
“Yeah,” I said, trying not to sound too empty. “You slipped. I was trying to get a signal to call emergency services.” I swiftly pulled my phone out, waving it a bit. “Oh. Good, I have service now. Want me to call? You did take a nasty spill.”
Clay rubbed the back of his head. “I dunno. Maybe we should get home. But if I hit my head, I shouldn’t drive. And you don’t have your license.”
“But I know how to drive,” I said with a shrug. “It’s just a couple of minutes. Come on.”
I managed to get him home, driving carefully the whole way–on the lookout for police or crazed enemies. Once at his home, I helped him inside. I backed up his story about him slipping and falling, happily handing him over to his worried mother. I accepted the offer of a drive home from his dad, and once I got to my house I went up to my bed and collapsed on it, feeling exhausted and a bit sick.
I stabbed that guy. Well. Not guy. Golem? Mud creature thing? I figured he was real, a real person. I flung my daggers at him. I tried to stab him. I did stab him. I willingly, knowingly, purposely stabbed someone.
I kicked my boots off then peeled the wet socks off, wriggling my toes in airing relief. Grams had given me the boots, so I could always have a bladed weapon with me. And I had done it. I actually… I mean, it was different from karate chopping someone or kicking them (or biting them). I stabbed someone.
I pulled off my wet clothes, standing bare in my room, shivering but not from the cold. While I debated whether to get a hot shower or not, Max leaped through the window, crashing into me..
“Get. Off. Of. Me,” I groaned, trying to push him off of me as he wrapped his arms happily around my body.
“Heyyyo. This is awkward.”
He hopped away from me, giggling like a little kid. “Naked,” he said and I glared. “You did good today, Zaidy-boy! I am so proud of you!” And he then he hugged me tightly, lifting me up, spinning me around. “You did awesome!”
“Leggo! I want to get clothes on!” He dropped me and I made unhappy sounds, moving away from him to find dry clothes. “You really think I did okay? I panicked and–and sorta ran, when I went in the court…”
“You did amazing,” he purred. “You immobilized him and protected yourself. And I finished him off. HEY! We make a great team!”
I decided to forget the clothes and instead grabbed a towel. “I’m gonna get a hot shower. I’m tired, my muscles hurt, and I am still kinda freaking out about the whole stabbing thing. Even if he wasn’t real, I still…”
“You protected yourself, and you protected Clay,” Max pointed out and I rolled my eyes. “You were all cool. Very impressive. I can’t wait to tell my mistress about this, she’ll be pleased that we were able to–oh. She won’t be pleased.” His face fell. “The golem will definitely not make her happy. I better go tell her. I’ll be right back, don’t go anywhere–“
“I’m gonna go get a shower,” I said and he gave me a shrug. “All right, see ya.”
I wrapped the towel around my waist and went to the bathroom. The hot water felt so good against my skin, washing away the rain water and the mud. Once I cleaned off I slid down to the floor and just huddled there, trying to figure out how to deal with the events of the day.
Grams did not take the news very well. She became unhappy about the whole golem thing and spent most her time trying to figure out what it meant. She spoke a lot about deep, powerful magic that I didn’t really understand. Maybe I should have been paying more attention but it bored me. Blahblahblah about making mud creatures look human and I don’t even know what. I did talk magic with Max, though–about the memory spell he did with Clay and if it happened before, like I suspected. He confessed that he had indeed erased memories of my friends before. When the police investigated my stalker, he had wiped little memories from the brains of my friends and those three guys that I got into a fight with (and Max also confessed to fighting them later on, to make sure they were regular people and not gonna come after me to kill me).
“So how come you fight with a sword instead of magic?” I asked, scratching the top of Max’s head. I didn’t feel very comfortable about… petting Max in his human form but he just kept headbutting my hand until I did so. Now he was purring. Literally purring. Which, y’know, totally creeped me out.
“I don’t know much magic and my magical ability is more of… hmm, to enhance the magic of my mistress or master.” Max stretched out, yawning loudly. “I can do very simple spells. Memory erasure. Slee–“
“Memory erasure spells are ‘simple’?” I asked suspiciously.
Max grinned, showing all his pointy teeth at me. “For me they are! Um. What? Oh yeah, sleeping spell. Minor healing spells. That sort of thing. The only offensive thing I can really do with magic is make someone lose their sight for a few minutes, and it’s a complicated thing to do that doesn’t work well in the heat of battle. Littttle to the left please.”
I moved my hand, scratching still. “Can I learn magic?”
“No, your magical ability is your psychic connection with your sister,” Max said. “Hey! Why’d you stop scratching?”
“My ability with Lumes is magical?” I asked, glaring a bit as he grabbed my hand and made me scratch his head some more. “You know, you could scratch your own head.”
“Not the same. And yes, the psychic thing is com-PLETE-ly magical. What, you thought it wasn’t?”
“I guess I never thought of it…”
Max sat up more now, head cocked to one side, a silly smirk on his face. “You have a lot of strange magic in you, Zaidy-boy. Psychic. Ghost. Possibly genie magic, sort of. Something else. Not sure. I thought Gretchen talked to you about this!”
“Uhhh, yeah. Yeah she said that stuff.” I felt stupid now. But seriously. It didn’t connect in my mind that I had magical abilities, or magical blood–though with Pa being a ghost I guess I should have realized it. Though if I had magical stuff in me–wait. I had been worried about hurting Vilkas if I destroyed magic (or whatever) I guess… that meant it would… “Would it hurt Lumie? Is Lumie magic? If I destroy magic, would it do something to Vilkas and Lumie?”
Max looked away, rubbing his neck. “If–and it’s a big if–the whole situation with you involves the destruction of magic… that would hurt those with active magic… hmm, yeah. Vilkas-the-yucky-dog. Lumie. Your pa, I think he has enough of his ghostliness still in him for that sort of thing to hurt him. I mean, from what I hear he can see ghosts and stuff. I don’t think your other sisters have active magic, though. But yeah, downfall of you, downfall of stinky dog brother, Lumie, and barefoot-man-that-feeds-me.”
Max continued talking but I tuned him out. I felt this strange feeling inside of me. Like I wanted to run as fast as I could, away from all this. Like I might throw up. Like I might cry. Like I could easily tear my hair out. Like the weight of the world was on my shoulders. And the feeling wouldn’t go away.
As the days ticked by, it got harder and harder to focus on the task at hand–learning to protect myself. It felt like everything was just jumbled inside of me. I tried to focus, I did. But it felt like… like every little thing grew bigger and bigger, grew into something too much for me to handle. To deal with. My training slowed down by a lot. Max tried pushing me except it didn’t help. By the time July started I couldn’t take one more minute. I just wanted to quit. I wanted to give up.
I couldn’t do this.
“I think you just need to find a girl. Take her out. And, y’know… kiss. Grope. Be a teenage boy. Have fun!” Clay leaned forward, smacking his hand on the table between us, causing me to jump. “It’s been well over a year since AZ Briggs died.” I winced at the name, opening my mouth to yell at him but he held up a finger. “I know. It sucks. And I am so sorry that it happened. But Zaid, man, I know you. Hiding yourself away from the dating world isn’t the answer.”
I sat back, arms folded. I didn’t appreciate his words, especially since he had no idea what had truly caused my funk. It had been a week since I gave up training. Max was mad at me, Gretchen was relieved, Dad was unhappy, and Pa was pleased. Me? I was just miserable again. I didn’t even feel like doing martial arts anymore, though I continued with my classes. My teacher knew something bad happened, and tried talking to me after my last class but I just waved him off.
“I mean it, Zaid. Go on a date. I know this great girl. You won’t regret it.”
I considered Clay’s offer. Maybe a date wouldn’t be so bad. If she wasn’t some supernatural out to kill me, but if she did have murderous intentions… Max could take care of it. Right? “Maybe,” I finally said right before my phone went off. “Hold on.” I got up, moving away from Clay, glad of this distraction. The number on my screen belonged to the martial arts school. Frowning, I answered it. “Hello?”
“Zaid?” I jumped a bit in surprise. I had expected a receptionist, not Master Louie, my martial arts teacher. “Hey, could I talk to you a moment?”
I glanced back at Clay and sighed. “Um, what is it?”
“I know this is out of the blue but I was wondering if you could come in Saturday? My cousin runs another studio, and she’s interested in seeing some of my best students. You are one of my best.”
The sick, heavy ball of fear inside of me shrank a bit as a warm glow of happiness began spreading. “R-really? Me?” I squeaked. “I’m just a third level–“
“I think you’re ready to move on to the fourth.”
“Already? But I just got this belt, and I haven’t exactly been…” I let out a heavy breath. “Focused. Lately.”
“I know. I don’t know what’s going on, Zaid, but you have a natural gift for this sort of thing,” Sifu said. “That’s not something I see often. Not with my students, here. It’s an honor to be able to teach one such as yourself. Come in Saturday. Noon. Please?”
I began grinning. “Okay. Wait! Um, Sifu? C-can I ask you something? Some advice? If you d-don’t mind and have a moment?”
“Of course. What is it?”
I bit my bottom lip, moving more away from Clay now. “Say someone has… a big task. Set before them. Like. A really big task. I’m not talking about schoolwork or–or a sports game to compete in. I mean a really big… overwhelming task. What would you say to them?”
“I would suggest they focus on the little things. One small matter at a time. Baby steps, so to speak. If there is a daunting task before you, don’t look at the whole.”
“Yes… but… what if… I have to?” The entire supernatural world, the entire magical world needing me to survive some psycho enemy. Not really exactly a ‘small matter’ there. It was a whole I couldn’t break down. “What if there was someone who–needed to, uh, do something to… save people.”
Master Louie didn’t speak for several seconds, which made me feel uncomfortable. Finally he gave a quiet laugh. “Save people. Like a superhero.”
“Ahhhhhhh… sorta. Somewhat.” I reached down, picking at a loose thread hanging off my shirt, trying to figure out the best way to explain. “But who is, I dunno, scared. Or, um, the fact that–saving a lot of people… is a pretty big and scary task.”
“I see. I have a suggestion for that. Have you heard of the movie ‘The Core’? It’s an older, very… very badly plotted sci-fi movie about a group of people who need to jump start the earth’s core to save the world.”
I snorted. “Wow. Sounds, uh, entertaining.”
“It’s actually a rather good movie, albeit a bad one,” my teacher laughed. “I suggest watching it. You could probably stream it on Simflix. I think you’ll find the answer to your question in those two hours.”
Okay not really the answer I was looking for, but I thanked him, promising to see him on Saturday. I hung up so I could return to Clay and then agreed on a Sunday lunch date with his mysterious female friend who hopefully wasn’t too mysterious in the ‘I’m gonna kill you’ sense. And then I went home where I stared at the TV for a good long while before picking up Pa’s game controller and going to Simflix. Sure enough the movie popped up when I searched for it and I let it play.
Master Louie hadn’t been lying about it being a good-but-bad movie. The plot sucked rotten eggs but overall I enjoyed the movie and then it got to the point that I knew Sifu wanted me to see. About how saving the whole world got to be too much, so the one character just focused on the fact he’d save three of them–his wife and children.
“Just three of them,” I repeated, pulling my feet up onto the couch, hugging my knees. Protecting myself to save the supernatural world? No. Just saving Vilkas, Lumie, and Pa. Just three of them.