Outside a dingy inn on the planet of Albeus, a hooded man’s dagger stabbed Bolgur’s pale hand. Beads of sweat rolled down Bolgur’s white flesh as blood trickled from the wound. His eyebrows met as he screamed, “What the bloody hell was that for?”
“If you kill the boy, I will do much worse than that, Bolgur.”
“Okay, okay!” Bolgur spat. “Killing him would just be easier.”
The man removed the dagger and waved a hand over Bolgur’s wound. Dark blue energy seeped into his hand, and the injury faded. Relief filled his body, like putting a burning hand into icy water. Bolgur removed his hand from the stump where they sat and nursed it.
Midnight chill swept through the forest, and a single cloud crept above. This was where Bolgur made black-market deals. He traded anything he could get his hands on—Bollow beaks, Finrash eggs, seeds of Sinrar. For every strange, illegal good, there was a buyer.
He never made deals inside the inn, of course. He made them outside, where he sat now, with tree stumps as tables and chairs.
The frigid air rattled Bolgur’s bones. He was an Avierion—tall and thin, with skin pale as bone—and he never showered or changed. He loved the feeling of dirt on his skin and grease in his hair.
A fool could easily mistake an Avierion for a Human, but Bolgur knew he wasn’t meeting with an Avierion. He didn’t even know the Human stranger’s name. “You want me to infiltrate the Trials of Water and have them cancelled so if the boy is selected, he won’t have a chance of winning?” Bolgur rubbed his forehead.
“There’s every chance he won’t be selected,” the man continued, “but I must have a strategy in place for if he is. Hopefully, he doesn’t even get to leave Earth. But on the off chance he does, we will be covered.”
“So, I’m a backup for if you fail?”
“I would call it insurance. There are a lot of powerful people within the Union, all involved in the Trials, and I am only one man. One man who is forced to rely on your disgusting carcass. I will notify you if I’m unsuccessful.”
“I don’t even know your name!” Bolgur spat, his blood boiling. How dare this man tell him what to do. This was where Bolgur held meetings and told dirty noblemen and scum what to do.
He felt the cool steel of his knife pressing softly against his ankle. He could pull out his knife and tell this fool how things were done. But the sting of being stabbed still lingered in Bolgur’s hand. His jaw slowly unclenched, and he swallowed his rage. “How will I know it’s you?”
The man was silent for a moment. “You will never have reason to contact me.”
“You don’t do this much, do you?” Bolgur laughed, showing off his crooked, yellow teeth. He was right. This man was a fool.
A freezing wind howled through the forest as irritation rose in the man’s voice. “Why do you ask?”
“Going against the Union requires complete belief in your plan. That means not relying on anyone else, yet here you are. Not very professional.”
“There is a difference between believing and being prepared.” He stabbed his dagger into the stump again, startling Bolgur. “Take this vial. The liquid will kill anyone who drinks it. Use it as instructed to see the Trials cancelled.” He shoved the vial, brimming with a glowing orange liquid, into Bolgur’s hand.
Bolgur removed the cork and smelled the contents. His heart stopped, and his breathing became ragged. “Dhampir blood?” he murmured.
The man nodded.
“You must have paid a great deal for this.” Bolgur carefully put away the vial of Dhampir blood.
“Even more reason for you not to screw this up.”
“And what if I do?” Bolgur snarled. “I like to know where I stand.”
“Failure isn’t an option, Bolgur. Just do as you’re told. You will receive instructions when the time comes.”
“How will I know when that is?”
“You will know.” He threw a heavy sack of money on the stump and left with a shadow of fear and grief following him.
Bolgur retreated inside himself, his breathing slowly becoming regular. What was he getting himself into? Most deals he took were with people who wanted someone assassinated, a problem dealt with, or rare goods. But this was different. It wasn’t every day you received a vial of Dhampir blood.
He massaged the bridge of his nose. He was to go into the city of Aedronias undercover and play a role in the Trials. What that role was, he didn’t yet know.
After thinking for another ten minutes, he hitched his hood over his greasy, black hair and stood. He wandered to the inn, where two bulky strangers barred him from entering. “Is there a reason you’re blocking the way?”
They responded by pointing their chins behind Bolgur.
The forest grew silent, and the lights of the inn went out. A gust of wind swept across his neck, followed by an eerie voice. “If it isn’t my greasy friend, Bolgur!”
Bolgur spun around and saw Dreagor. He was tall, with a solid build and an ironlike jawline. His ruby eyes glimmered with betrayal and rage.
“We were supposed to have a meeting tonight, remember?”
“Of course I do, Dreagor. I remember planning it for twenty minutes from now.”
Dreagor clicked his tongue and laughed. “It just so happens that I arrived early, and what do I see? I see you meeting with someone else.”
“I have other meetings, you fool,” Bolgur growled.
“Don’t try to trick me, Bolgur. This meeting was different. Did you find a new buyer? My prices not good enough for you?” He pulled out a long, sharp sword with a shing, and the wind stopped howling.
“That meeting was nothing of the sort,” Bolgur stammered, eyeing the blade carefully.
“I’m not so sure. You’ve missed quite a few of our meetings lately, and now you’re meeting with strangers. I think we’re done here.”
“Done? What are you going to do, Dreagor, kill me? We both know the Exiled only came to you because I turned them down first.” Bolgur shivered at the thought of the Exiled, one of the strongest, most deadliest organisations in existence. Even though Bolgur had never minded killing or causing havoc, the Exiled were twisted. Malevolent. Evil.
Dreagor smiled and snapped his fingers, bringing Bolgur out of his daze. Two archers appeared behind Dreagor, and four armed men emerged from the distant trees.
Sharp metallic sounds echoed behind Bolgur, from the bulky strangers. “Ofensiva,” Bolgur murmured. Multus coursed throughout his body as he threw his hands behind him. Daggers formed from the icy blue energy and surged toward the strangers. Their bodies slumped to the ground as the blades returned to Bolgur’s hands and dissolved into a puff of blue smoke.
The archers loaded their bows and fired. Bolgur dove out of the way. He stretched his hands toward the forest, concentrating. As the archers readied once more, Bolgur’s eyes shot open. Suddenly, the field was covered with thick, foggy mist, like steam exploding from a pipe.
An arrow shot past his ear, and the other landed in a nearby tree. His heart thundered, and his body was on fire with adrenaline. He waved his hands through the mist, forming it into shapes and weapons, including an icy replica of a sharp blade without the hilt. He didn’t have time to fully form the weapons.
With a click of his fingers, the conjured weapons raced toward Bolgur’s enemies. Screams erupted through the field of mist, and then silence.
A smile crept across Bolgur’s face. Hearing his victims scream felt like winning a gold medal.
“Is that really how weak you think I am?” Dreagor growled.
A glowing red flame formed in the middle of the field, like embers in a fireplace. Bolgur dropped to the ground. The mist erupted into flames and dispersed into the night sky. Bolgur lifted his head and saw Dreagor cackling.
Dreagor’s hands were covered in red flames, and he formed them into a fiery orb.
Bolgur staggered to his feet. Dreagor shot out his hands and the fire erupted once more, this time taking shape. The flames formed a giant dragon’s head that roared loud enough to rattle Bolgur’s spine.
The dragon’s head sped toward him, incinerating everything in its path. Bolgur panicked. He channelled all his multus into an explosion of ice that shot from his hands and collided with the flames, freezing the dragon. Dreagor laughed, and Bolgur nearly fell over. He shouldn’t have used that much multus in one go.
“Is that everything you have? No wonder you turned down the Exiled. You obviously knew you were no good.” Dreagor grinned. “I, however, am the perfect person for the job.”
Bolgur relaxed his breathing. He smiled and started to laugh. “You really are such a bloody fool.”
“You may have thugs.” Bolgur clasped his hands together. “All sorts of weapons.” A blue light emanated from within his grasp. “And fancy multus. But you don’t have brains.” Bolgur released his multus. A big puff of blue smoke exploded from his hands, causing Dreagor to flinch. But nothing happened.
“Is that it?” Dreagor grinned. “You stupid—” an icy dagger tapped Dreagor on the shoulder. He spun around, and the dagger sliced into his chest. Dreagor slumped and was still.
Bolgur sighed. This was too much of a bother. He wiped the soot from his hands. He loved distraction attacks, simple but effective. He walked back toward the inn. No one would care what had occurred here. More unusual things happened in these parts.
Screams sounded like fingernails on a blackboard as smoke enveloped the devastated city. Zach knew this was a dream, though, from the flying ship he was on.
The dream was strange. He couldn’t control his actions, only watch them unfold. The sky blackened and rippled as the ship flew closer. Helicopters hovered above, shining spotlights on the one responsible for the destruction. The figure stood in the city centre with radiant, red flames surrounding his body, yet he didn’t burn.
Zach watched in disbelief as the helicopters exploded. He didn’t see how or why, just a flash of red, and they were gone.
He felt his body move. He walked to the side of the ship, yelled something to the crew, and jumped off. Wind rushed around his body as he dodged chunks of molten rock. He flew through the air with great skill and timing, and a single goal.
A vibration jolted his body which cushioned his feet as he hit the ground, making the jump feel like only a few metres. Looking around, he witnessed the destruction this person had caused. He saw burnt cars on their sides, destroyed buildings, and fires. The ground was black and charred.
Zach watched his own hand draw a sword and point it at the burning figure. He and the figure both spoke words, but Zach couldn’t hear them. Ugly, red eyes stared into Zach’s soul as an evil sword sliced him. The blade cut through his dream as if tearing away the very fabric of existence, leaving only darkness.
He woke up.
The dream felt real, as if it had already happened or was going to happen, like a memory or vision. Zach thought memories were amazing. Fragments in time, encoded and embedded into the mind. His earliest memory was of being carried through a large archway. Much like his dream, he wasn’t sure whether the memory was real or imagined.
It was strange that he knew so little about his mother and father, Jade and Zariah. He’d lived with his grandparents for as long as he could remember, oblivious to who his parents really were. One day, though, he’d plucked up the courage to ask. He learned they were both in the military and died serving their country. He wasn’t sure why he even asked. His grandparents were pretty much his parents, anyway.
He rose from his dream, clearly remembering the blade cutting through. He realised it was Thursday. He hated Thursdays. They often felt like Fridays, when he was half-awake, and then disappointed him on full awakening.
He stumbled out of bed and stared at himself in the small mirror hanging on the pale blue wall. The old house’s oddly shaped rooms were filled with weird furniture and boxes of this and that, which his Grandmother, Ales, assured him were important. He loved it.
Zach had an average build and was average height. He often thought his main attribute was that he was plain old average. Just like everyone else. Although he did like his blue eyes that reminded him of the ocean and his shaggy mop of black hair that made his blue eyes stand out even more.
Around his neck was a necklace with a jade pendant, left to him by his mother. He’d turned fifteen not long ago, his first birthday without his grandfather, Fredrick. He’d passed away last May. Zach shook his head. Now wasn’t the time to think of that.
After patting down his bed-hair, he stretched and walked out to the living room. His grandmother sat at the large timber dining table, drinking her morning coffee. “Oh, you finally got up?” she teased.
“Good morning, Gran.” Zach sat down and ran his hand over the smooth tabletop. His fingers picked at the odd woodgrain. He found it odd because the pattern seemed to change every morning, just slightly. Whenever he brought it up, Ales said he was going crazier faster than she was. He blinked the sleep out of eyes and sighed. “Sleep well?”
“Yes, quite all right.” Ales sipped her coffee. She placed the white mug back on the table, leaving drops to slide down the side. “You?”
Zach nodded, yawning again.
“How can you still be tired? It’s half past seven.”
“Not sure, might need a new bed.”
Ales stared him down as he headed into the kitchen. He’d been asking for a new bed for a while, often complaining about his sore back and how the slats fell out in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, Ales never gave in. She thought his bed was excellent.
The kitchen window was open, letting in a cool breeze and the scent of roses and lavender, two of Ales’ favourites. Zach grabbed a quick bite to eat and trudged away to get ready for school.
Twenty minutes later, he arrived in the living room and noticed Ales still sitting at the table, staring at the coffee grains in the bottom of her cup. “You okay, Gran?” Zach asked.
“Oh, yes dear. No need to worry about me,” Ales replied with a weary smile.
“Are you sure?” Zach asked. “You don’t look too well.”
“Yes, yes,” Ales snapped. “Now get going or you’ll be late.”
Zach stood still. He didn’t know whether to believe her. With only a moment of thought, he decided to trust her and walked out the door, bag slung over his shoulder.
He walked to school with his hands in his pockets. The school was only fifteen minutes away, but then he had six hours of boredom, followed by the walk back home.
The walk did have benefits, though. Pleasant scenery with fine houses, beautiful gardens, manicured lawns and a park here and there. Plus, not many people walked the same way, which he liked. But there was one terrible thing about this walk. Along the route was Derrick’s house. The school bully.
Zach shuddered as he crept past Derrick’s house. Peering into the front yard, he saw no one. He exhaled, and his heart resumed its normal pace.
Two cold hands smacked onto his shoulders and squeezed tightly. “Hey, Zach-y boy!” The boy shoved Zach into the dirt and laughed. Zach got back up and turned, the blood in his face draining.
“Good morning, you dirty piece of crap!” Derrick laughed. He ripped Zach’s bag off his shoulder. “Oh my God, are you trying to be one of the ‘hip’ kids with the bag over one shoulder? Ugh, so pathetic!” He shoved his foot into Zach’s back, smashing him into the dirt again.
Zach clenched his jaw and tightened his fists. This wasn’t how he wanted to start his morning. Before he could move, Derrick pulled him off the ground and pushed him away, holding his bag out of arm’s reach.
“Give it back, Derrick!”
Derrick snorted and threw the bag into the road. “Fetch.” Derrick left for school, but Zach expected he wouldn’t go to class, but would skip class in the toilets with his gang of thugs.
Zach spat out the dirt in his mouth and quickly ran to collect his bag. He hated Derrick. He’d be lying if he said he’d never visualised a car running him over. Sighing, Zach cleaned himself up and made his way to school, although he did contemplate turning back toward home.
Peter, his best friend, was waiting for him at school. “About time you showed up,” Peter yelled as Zach crossed the street. Peter had dark brown hair that the wind blew in his face and a tougher build than Zach.
“I’m just on time, thank you very much.” Zach grinned. He put Derrick out of his mind. Peter didn’t need to know what had happened.
The boys shook hands and walked through the gate. They were the same age and in the same class, and they shared many common interests. But the one thing, in particular, they had in common was neither of them had parents.
Peter lived with foster parents after tragically losing his entire family in a terrible house fire. The police investigation had ruled it an accident, but Peter insisted otherwise. He told Zach he’d seen a group of odd-looking people through the flames. The second he’d seen them, though, they were gone. Peter didn’t just lose his family that day. He’d lost a part of himself, too.
The boys ventured through the crowd of kids making their way to lockers for books, pencils, and pens. Zach and Peter eventually made it through the packed hallways, got their stuff, and headed to class. The first class of the day was the worst. Zach could barely focus in the morning, and the first class being maths didn’t help. But before they got to class, Peter stopped Zach and inspected his shirt collar. “You got a bit of mud there.” Peter’s voice dropped to a murmur. “Did you run into Derrick on the way here?”
Zach knocked Peter’s hand away from his shirt. “It’s okay,” he lied. Peter didn’t need to worry about a minor problem like Derrick. The whole school already ostracised them, not that Zach really cared. He enjoyed Peter’s company.
The school was quite large, with sections designated for certain subjects. Maths was in B-block, which was right around the corner from their lockers. Zach and Peter quickly walked to class and were just on time. Their teacher, Mr. Parsons, arrived at the door as they did. “You two are lucky I stopped for coffee in the staff room. Otherwise, there would be some detentions happening.”
“Sorry, sir, but the amount of people around here is crazy. You can’t expect us to be on time every day,” Peter said.
Zach nodded, but Mr. Parsons only sighed. “In you go.”
The class sat at their desks. Three rows of tables stretched across the square room, with a walkway down the middle. Zach and Peter sat at the back, away from the teacher’s gaze.
Mr. Parsons was a tall, old man who loved maths. He always carried black and brown folders, with countless copies of maths textbooks, exams, surprise tests, and the odd fun fact about maths, which Zach never actually found fun.
The classroom was painted in an odd manner. The ceiling and top half of the walls were white, and the bottom half of the walls were a dark green. The school had a way of mixing colours that didn’t go together.
At 9:00 a.m., Mr. Parsons began his usual teaching method: quiet the class, turn around, write a few complex equations on the board, and expect people to jump up out of their seats to answer them. Zach and Peter always sat at the back to evade Mr. Parsons’ glare of disappointment when no one gave him an answer.
Although Zach hated maths, Mr. Parsons was his favourite teacher. He really cared about students. He often visited Zach’s house to check on him and his grandmother. He’d become quite the family friend, which was a great help when Zach was behind on homework, often getting extensions without much trouble.
Peter took notes in his notebook, but Zach stared at the clock, slowly ticking away.
That’s when he saw a shadowy figure outside the window. It was only there for a second. Zach shifted his full attention to the window. “Did you see that?” he whispered to Peter, working busily.
“There was, like, a man outside the window for a split second.”
Peter looked at Zach oddly, shook his head, and kept writing. “You’re a weird child, Zach.”
“Hey, come on. There was something there.”
“Did you sleep okay last night?” Peter asked. “Were you having those dreams again?”
Zach sighed as Mr. Parsons noticed he and Peter were distracted. Instead of scolding them, he looked out the window in confusion. He then quickly finished his notes and began typing on his laptop.
Zach looked at Peter, puzzled. I’m not weird. I actually saw something. He sighed again and propped his chin on his arms, trying to focus on Mr. Parsons. He wanted to hurry up and finish the day so he could go home and sleep.
When the bell rang for the end of maths, Zach and Peter were confronted outside B-block by Derrick, and his henchmen, George and Felix. “Hey, do you guys smell smoke? I think there might be a fire.” Derrick laughed. “You wouldn’t have anything to do with that would you, Peter?”
Before Peter could react, Zach said, “Only smoke we smell is off you. Been hiding at the back of the school smoking again, hey?”
“Quite chirpy for a little piece of crap, don’t you think?” Derrick looked Zach up and down. “Clean up all right? There was a lot of mud on you when I bumped into you.” Derrick looked back at George and Felix. “It was so funny. This morning, I caught Zach-y boy walking past my house. He almost crapped his pants when he saw me!”
George and Felix laughed as though Derrick had just told them the funniest joke in history. Zach clenched his fists as he watched Derrick’s pimple-filled face crack up laughing. His shoulder ached with pain from earlier, but he didn’t care. He ran in, throwing a punch.
But Derrick was fast. He blocked the punch, smashed Zach in his gut, and kicked him to the ground. “Didn’t you learn your lesson from this morning? Do I have to take you home and tell your stupid Grandma to teach you to respect your superiors?”
Derrick hit the ground hard as Zach swept his foot under him and jabbed him in the chin. George and Felix zoomed in, picking Zach up so Derrick could lay into him.
Derrick got up and spat into Zach’s face, “You little bi—”
“What do you all think you’re doing?” Mr. Parson’s voice roared across the court. He raced over and saved Zach and Peter. He shook his head in disgust. Through pursed lips, he said, “I’ll be expecting each and every one of you to attend detention tomorrow after school. You’ll get the notices in your next class.”
Derrick and his gang left, as did Mr. Parsons, and Zach started venting. “That bloody moron! Can’t believe Derrick got us detention! Ugh, what a tool!”
“So he did do something this morning?” Peter asked.
Zach slowly nodded. There was no point lying now.
“If we run into them later, I’ll set them straight.”
Zach scoffed. “Don’t worry about it, really. There’s no point now. They’re all part of the A-group. Anyone not part of that popular circle gets harassed, and no matter what we do, that won’t change.”
“Yeah, I know,” Peter mumbled. “But I would love to knock that greasy grin off his face.”
Zach laughed. “Me, too.”
As the day continued, classes got worse. Zach caught himself daydreaming and seeing things, and he received the detention slip from Mr. Parsons. The thought of the shadowy figure he’d seen was still bothering him as he walked home. Peter lived in the opposite direction, so they split up outside the gate. Thankfully, Derrick hadn’t left school yet—he was probably in a previously earned detention.
Zach arrived home and was greeted by his grandmother. “How was school?”
“It was all right, as usual. Painfully slow, though.” Zach wore a sly smile. He put away thoughts of what had happened. Ales didn’t need to know.
“Those bullies give you any grief today?” Ales asked. “I can tell you some great insults that’ll curl their hair. I was quite the witty kid back in my day.” She loosed an attack of offensive adjectives, some Zach had never even heard of before. He stopped her before she got carried away.
“Not many years to go, now. Before you know it, you’ll be done!” Ales finished.
“Yeah, I know. It’d just be easier if those idiots didn’t go to the same school.”
“Wouldn’t learn anything, then, would you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well.” Ales took a sip from her usual coffee mug. “You could learn everything you ever needed from those books of yours, but there are some things bullies can teach you. Like standing up for yourself.”
Zach sighed. He really didn’t like dealing with Derrick every day, and Ales could tell. Every afternoon, she sat at the table with fresh coffee and a plate of biscuits, waiting to talk about his day. She helped him cope, but he still wished the bullies didn’t exist.
“Just take it one day at a time,” Ales said. “It’ll get better, trust me.”
“Thanks, Gran.” Zach pinched a biscuit off the plate, and Ales stared him down. “What?” he said.
“You know I like those biscuits.”
“I’m messing with you.” Ales laughed.
Zach laughed with her. He looked down at his hands and said, “You know, I don’t know what I’d do if you weren’t here every day after school.”
Ales’ eyes softened. “I’m sure you’d manage.”
“It makes it easier,” he admitted.
Ales gave a loving nod, and soon, the evening passed. Why did school take so long yet the afternoon went by so fast? After watching the usual television programs, Zach headed to bed. But he found it hard to sleep.
The wind rattled his window like someone tapping the glass. He closed his eyes and explored the depths of his mind, searching for something to keep him preoccupied as he shifted into dreams.
But it didn’t last.
Lightning crackled, and the temperature rose. Thrashing wind wrapped around the house, and a cold, burning sensation lit Zach’s right arm, near his wrist. Zach jumped out of bed and tried to keep from yelling in pain. A blue light filled the room, emanating from his arm. He watched in horror as the number twelve slowly branded his flesh. Tiny shards of ice sprayed from his arm, like sparks from a blacksmith’s anvil. The floor raced toward his face, and all went black. At least he was asleep now.
Zach woke on the floor and clenched his arm. He’d thought he’d been dreaming, but there it was, the number twelve etched clearly into his skin. He began to panic, but before he could do anything, he noticed the time. Damn it, I’m going to be late!
He rushed to the bathroom and put his arm under cold water. He scrubbed and scrubbed, but it wouldn’t go away. What would people say if they saw it? What would Derrick do? A shudder ran down Zach’s spine, and he tried to slow his breathing. He looked down at his arm once more. I need to cover this up.
He ran back to his room, grabbed clothes, dressed, and made sure his jumper covered the marking.
Zach packed his bag and headed outside. Before he got to the door, though, Ales appeared from her room. “Off for the day, are you?”
“Yeah, I’ll see you later.”
“Have a good day.”
“I’ll try.” Zach smiled. When he turned away and opened the door, his smile faded. The thought of Derrick and his thugs sent a wave of anxiety through him. He never had a good day.
A cold chill greeted him, along with Peter. “About time,” Peter said.
“Peter?” Zach stammered. “What are you doing here?”
“When you didn’t show up at your usual time, I thought something was up. Turns out you just slept in.”
“Sorry, mate.” Zach rubbed his arm, tingling with every touch. “How long were you waiting?”
“Not too long.” Peter glanced at his watch. “Come on, let’s go.”
They ran to school, Peter annoyed and Zach lost in thought, mindlessly following the track Peter took. The conversation was minimal.
They arrived late. All students were in class, except a few other late-comers. Zach clenched and unclenched his fists, trying to relax. He hated being late, and so did Peter, judging by his walking pace. They passed the lockers and arrived at their first class, where Mr. Parsons was substitute. “I was wondering when you two would show up.”
“Sorry, sir,” Zach said.
“Yeah, sorry,” Peter mumbled.
“Don’t apologise to me. Apologise to these.” Mr. Parsons pulled out two detention slips, with a small grin on his face.
“Another one?” Zach scoffed.
“Yes, rules are rules. Now, take your seats and we can continue.”
The day progressed much the same after that. The exhausting first class, the persistent bullying, and then the rest. But one thing happened that never had before.
Zach and Peter were in English class when the student runner delivered a note. Seeing the runner made Zach remember his first time at the job. He’d spent the entire day trapped in the school office doing odd jobs, with delivering notes the only relief. He’d been rather disappointed by the reward of a measly can of soda.
The teacher read the message and handed Zach the note. It read, “Principal’s office, now!”
Zach made his way through long corridors, passing classes before arriving at the principal’s office. A few familiar faces, teachers and office ladies, looked at him with concern. Even the principal, Mrs. Welter, looked at him with sadness.
Zach passed them slowly until he met Mrs. Welter’s eyes. The principal was a rather large woman who always dressed in a too-small suit and skirt. “I was called to the office What’s wrong?”
“It’s your grandmother, Zach.” Mrs. Welter’s eyes dropped to the floor.
My grandmother! What’s happened? The walls seemed to close in and then move away, and his arm began to almost vibrate.
“She’s in the hospital. There was an accident.”
“She had an accident?” he said. “What do you mean?”
The principal was silent.
Zach froze. What would happen if he lost his grandmother? “Can you please take me to see her?”
She nodded, and they made their way out.
Her car was full of odd things. She was obviously obsessed with dogs. Little bobble-head dog ornaments lined the dashboard. The seat covers were Dalmatian print, and the steering wheel had tiny dog ears at the top. Zach tried preoccupying himself by staring at the bobble heads, but it didn’t work.
Guilty thoughts clouded his mind like a storm. She’d been fine this morning, right? His arm began to shake again. He couldn’t think of anything that happened this morning except this stupid marking.
They pulled into the hospital car park, where cars raced in and out. He didn’t like hospitals, the sickness and death. Hospitals, doctor’s surgeries, and dentists were all the same.
After a struggle with the entry ticket (Mrs. Welter’s arms were too short to reach the ticket box), they found a parking spot and Zach hopped out. “Are you coming inside, Miss?” he asked before closing the door.
“I don’t, um, think it’s really my place to be,” she said. “I have to get back to school, anyway.” From her grim face, she disliked hospitals more than he did.
Zach said goodbye and headed to the main doors. As soon as he entered, a wave of despair swept over him. Something was wrong. A lovely nurse sat at the reception desk. She looked up at him as he approached. “How may I help you today, sir?”
In any other situation, Zach would have gone bright red at a beautiful girl talking to him, but today he had no time. “Hi, my name is Zach Waters. I’m here to see my grandmother, Ales.”
The nurse typed at her keyboard, flicking her long brown hair out of her face. “Ah yes, right this way.” She walked around the desk and motioned for Zach to follow her. They made their way past patients, visitors, doctors, and nurses until they came to his grandmother’s room. “Here we are.”
“Thanks.” Zach approached his grandmother’s still form.
As he got closer, he saw the stress worn into her face. She’d worked hard her entire life, raising his mother and then him, only to lose everyone but Zach. He pulled up a chair and sat close, watching her rest.
The hours passed and finally a doctor arrived. Zach greeted him, and they talked about Ales’ condition for a while. “It appears that she fell and hit her head rather hard. She should be okay to return home in a few days. At the moment we’re running some tests while she rests.”
Zach breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you so much.”
After the doctor left, Ales stirred in her sleep. “Zach…”
“I’m here, Gran.” His heart nearly jumped out of his chest as he fumbled for her hand.
“I’m sorry I frightened you, Zach.”
“It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’re okay now.” Hearing her voice calmed him. She’s okay.
Ales thought for quite some time before she spoke. “I believe it would be best if I told you something before this happens again.”
Tell me something? So many questions formed in Zach’s mind that he couldn’t ask any without becoming tongue-tied.
“It won’t be long before you’re off doing your own thing, and considering there isn’t anyone else who can tell you this, it would be best if I did.” She squeezed his hand. “There will be times when you question your beliefs and those of your parents. I want you to know that whatever happens, your mother and father loved you very much.”
“What do you mean? You told me they died serving the country. How could I question that?”
Ales clenched his hand more tightly. “I know about the marking, Zach. I know what it means.”
She knew. How could she know? Had she seen it this morning?
“You are about to embark on the most incredible journey. Life as you know it will no longer exist. In a very short time, all that I am saying will become clear, but for now get some rest. You look tired, and I know I am. Go home and I will see you tomorrow. We can talk more then.”
Zach forced himself to quiet his questions, a trait he’d learned growing up. His grandfather hadn’t seemed to enjoy his questions, likely because they were rather annoying. Zach often asked silly things about time and space, which no one could answer. As time went on, Zach was repeatedly told to stop asking so many questions, so now he didn’t. “Okay, okay.” Zach smiled.
Ales smiled back as a nurse knocked on the door. “I’m sorry, young man, visiting hours are over.”
“Can’t I stay a little longer?”
Ales tapped him lightly on the hand. “It’s okay, Zach. Get home safely and lock the front door. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Zach nodded sadly. “Ok Gran, I’ll see you then.” He hugged her tightly, said goodbye, and made his way out.
Before he was out of the room, Ales said, “I’ll think of some more insults for your bullies while I’m here.”
“I expect a list of them.”
“Of course.” Ales winked.
He left through the sliding front doors. Nightfall was taking over, and the streets were growing dark. Zach walked through the darkness, not knowing exactly where he was going, but he liked the fresh air on his face. The breeze caressed his hair and soothed his mind. His arm still tingled, and since no one was around, he rolled up his sleeve. The outer edge of the number glowed blue. What in the world is happening to me? How did my life turn upside-down in one day?
He rolled down his sleeve and continued moving through the night. The moon created a shadow behind him, like a separate figure was following. The hair on his neck stood up like blades.