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Char woke up twitching. Specifically, it was his left eyelid that was fluttering and generally making a nuisance of itself. He slid off his bed and prepared for school like he usually did, and after being ignored for a period of time, the muscle spasms ceased. Char checked his medicine box where it sat in the kitchen, and took his daily pill - correctly this time - with his breakfast. He didn’t feel like throwing up. All was well. His mother saw that he wasn’t ill, so she did her part in getting him to school on time.
The area in front of the school was only slightly less crowded than it had been the day before. He made it to class without difficulty. Homeroom was limited to one day a week, so he wouldn’t have to deal with that particular teacher for another six days. To his irritation, he was in the same class as the boy who was bothering him the day before. He didn’t recognize this himself, having taken no time to memorize the boy’s face at their last meeting. He saw now that he would have to make an exception to his usual rule, in order to avoid this boy whenever possible. A quick glance-over revealed the other boy to be quite tall, with loose black hair similar to his own, but parted instead of tangled, and dyed blue on one side. The other boy’s skin was darker than Char’s, but that wasn’t a surprising observation. Char was an indoors person, and he disliked direct sunlight. The other boy looked athletic in build, but wore a fairly fancy jacket and slacks, an odd choice for a high-schooler. Satisfied that he would be able to recognize the boy from a distance, Char turned away from him to focus on his classwork. The other boy, who had been trying to say “Do you remember me? I’m Mithras! We were in a few classes together last year,” was a bit irked at this behavior, but resolved to catch his attention sometime later.
Unfortunately for Mithras, Char did a good job of discreetly avoiding him for the rest of the day. And the day after that. There didn’t appear to be any long term side effects to the incident with the binder, which was now taped shut and stuffed at the back of the closet. Several days went by uneventfully, just how he liked it. He did his work, turned it in, received more work, did that, and so on. That Friday, in English class, the students were given a group project to work on over the weekend. They were to meet in groups to do some small amount of research and write two pages on their topic of choice, with “sufficient depth”. The other students were quite reasonably distraught, for they had no clue how to write an entire two pages in three nights, without so much as a rubric to work off of. Unbeknownst to them, their teacher also had no idea how to teach an English class, and was making it up as he went. Char was assigned to a group with a boy and a girl. The boy did not look too put off by the assignment. When the girl insisted that they share phone numbers to communicate about the project, he took a scrap of paper, scribbled down a sequence of digits, and slid it across to them. In the same motion he leaned back precariously in his chair in a show of nonchalance. The girl ignored him, as did Char. They were busy trying to get the majority of the planning done in class so they wouldn’t have to meet over the weekend. Char didn’t want to spend more time with other people than he absolutely had to. She probably had plans for the weekend. They decided, after some debate and a surprising input from the reclining boy, to write their report on dark cults. The girl was very interested in such things, so her background knowledge would come in handy when writing the paper. Her vigor when talking about the sacrifices and the blood and the dark gods made Char feel nervous, but he was to a certain degree glad that he was working with someone motivated to do well, instead of someone like himself. He felt almost like starting work on the project sooner rather than later, because it would mean he could see what that girl could accomplish with her passionate interest.
Whatever positive mood had possessed him was crushed when he got home, and realized that the number the reclining boy had given him was fake. He tried the number of the girl, but he couldn’t reach it, could only reach the answering machine. In a fit of desperation, he resolved to try their numbers again on Saturday, ate his dinner, and went to sleep.
By 8 in the evening, he was feeling an intense pressure to have the project completed, but he still couldn’t reach that girl. He found himself growing frustrated, which was unlike him. His philosophy was, if you don’t put forth effort yourself, you cannot judge others for their own slacking. Somehow, despite his best efforts to assign responsibility for the project to his unavailable groupmates, his mind kept cycling around the looming due date. Finally, he sat at his computer and began searching for information on cults.
He glanced at the time displayed on the monitor. Several hours had passed since he began gathering information. He wasn’t feeling tired, so he continued his efforts, cross-referencing every source, compiling spreadsheets of information to make up for the incomplete accounts of cult activity. He was starting to see a clear division between the kinds of cults referenced. The first type was what he had been expecting, with a persuasive leader leading a small group to perform bizarre rituals and dangerous practices, such as seclusion, even going so far as to induce group suicide when confronted with disbandment by the government. The second type was far more dangerous, and only scattered glimpses could be found, but Char felt he was getting close to figuring out what they were about. These cult-like groups rendered members incurably insane, with varying degrees of anarchic and psychotic behavior. They were said to have connections to powerful otherworldly beings that gave them supernatural abilities. Char kept reading, adding every new fact to a growing network of ideas that expanded to take up the whole of his thoughts. He knew it was getting later and later, the darkness that had fallen hours ago began to fade to dawn. This did not concern him. He hadn’t been able to truly focus on a task for years, and it was invigorating him to a level of feverish energy he had never achieved before. At least, as far as he remembered.
His father and mother were free for the weekend, but they had their own personal lives keeping them busy, so they weren’t home to see the thing they feared most come to pass. Char felt hungry, so he ate a quick breakfast, all the while his brain automatically picked out the information that had the essence of correctness. He forgot to take his medicine. That small resistant part of his mind was expanding, and it wouldn’t allow him to restrain it any longer.
At around 5pm that evening, when his parents were both home and preparing for dinner, he had about fifteen pages of report written. This was no longer about the assignment. Char, off his medication for the first time in years, had a purpose, and nothing to hold him back. His parents did not know that he had been working since the night before, and he assured them he was almost done, and would get some rest. The lie came easy, and was indistinguishable from truth in his parents’ eyes. He turned back to his report, now twenty pages of single-spaced text. It wasn’t enough, could never be enough, he thought. He didn’t want to lose this rush, the blazing single-minded purpose that was driving him. It had a comfortable familiarity, and he knew that this part of him had been subdued for a very long time. It was now stretching itself as much as possible before it was forced to settle in. It fully expected to be discovered, and tied down, but it would not be giving up without a fight.
He worked until a few minutes before his parents were due to wake, slammed the print icon, and bolted for his room, just in time to feign sleep for his mother to find him, sluggishly getting ready for the school day like usual. At breakfast, she reminded him to take his pill, and refill his box. When he went to take it, he realized that yesterday’s was still there, in plain view. Carefully, he palmed both pills into his pocket. He would throw them away later. His mother noticed.
“Won’t you take your pill, Char?” She asked. She seemed normal, but she was now on high alert. This was one of the warning signs. The other was the presence of dark bags under his eyes. She stared him down until he took the pill out of his pocket and swallowed it properly, reluctantly. Satisfied, she let him gather his things, including the massive thirty page report, not including diagrams and charts. She could do nothing for her son until he showed the third and final warning sign, and he insisted he had to go to school to turn in his work.
He started off the day at full energy, but soon, he began to feel the repercussions of about 36 hours of near-constant focus. By his second period he was struggling to pay attention to what his teacher was saying. Between second and third period he was having trouble walking, his backpack felt too heavy, and each step threatened to unbalance him. His third period was English class. Rather than sit down, and face the possibility of standing to deliver the report to his teacher later, he stumbled straight to his desk and shoved the pages across. They scattered, because he had forgotten to staple them together. He admonished himself for the oversight, even as he turned and searched the class for his ‘group members’. The reclining boy was still reclining, even as he met Char’s unsteady half-lidded stare with an easy smile that said “Thanks, buddy. I knew you’d come through.” The girl looked away for a second when their eyes met. Char tried to take a step so he could return to his seat, but his legs didn’t match properly. His center of gravity shifted forwards, and he lacked the reaction time to catch himself. Before he could feel the impact of his body on the floor, his vision went dark.
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Char’s senses returned over the course of several minutes. At first, he could hear a low hum, subtle shifting noises, distant footsteps muffled by a closed door. Then he became aware of a clinical odor, and his mind began to put together the pieces. They must have brought him to a hospital after he collapsed. He was lying in a bed, which was surprisingly comfortable, and he couldn’t see. They had placed some kind of covering over his eyes. He tilted his head slightly to the left, where the shifting noises were coming from, trying to determine if someone was standing there waiting for him to wake up. He heard a pronounced breath, like a small gasp. Now certain that there was someone listening, Char tried to speak. His voice sounded odd to him, slightly different from before.
“Why can’t I see?”
He heard more movement, and the person beside him drew nearer, possibly rising from a chair next to his bed. He heard his father’s voice.
“Char, we brought you here because you were suffering from acute exhaustion. You should really get more rest, then we’ll have our discussion with the doctor.”
Char was a little confused. He didn’t feel tired at all, and whatever they had placed over his eyes was making it very difficult to analyze his situation. If anyone seemed tired, it was his father, judging by his voice alone. Still, he knew that he was being watched, and would most likely be forced to rest if he didn’t comply. He decided to lay back and consider the possible outcomes. The most obvious course of action his parents might take would be to keep a tight watch on him and make sure he took his medicine like he was supposed to. He didn’t want this to happen. He had become aware of the medicine’s effect on his psychology, and would do everything he could to avoid taking it, even if he had to resort to deception. His thoughts did nothing useful for him. He still wasn’t feeling tired, though, so he let them stew for an indeterminate length of time, until he heard the door open. He tried to sit up.
He was firmly pressed back down. “I thought I told you to go back to sleep,” his father said, annoyed. “Should I call in Lana?” He was speaking to the person who had just entered the room, who was most likely the doctor, here to deliver the news about his condition.
“No need,” the doctor said, “She’s right behind me.”
There were more footsteps, and now there were three presences in the room. Char still couldn’t see, and it was making him uneasy. “Someone tell me why my eyes are covered.” It was a demand more than a question, but he said it passively, to get the ball rolling. The faster he knew what was going on, the faster he would be able to get out of this situation. He was feeling a pressing need to know what the doctor was doing out of his sight. The door closed, and there was the sound of blinds being pulled down, or up. Char assumed the former, and paid greater attention. The doctor’s behavior indicated that the news he was about to deliver was fairly confidential.
“Don’t worry Char, we’ll get those bandages off of you soon enough.” Drawers were opened, and small metallic tools clinked off of one another on the other side of the room. Char was pulled into a sitting position, and a hand held his head still. A thin cold edge pressed against the skin of Char’s forehead, as a scissor blade was carefully wedged under the stiff cloth. As he worked, the doctor spoke quietly to the parents in the room. “Now, I must ask you two. What is your stance on mutants?”
His mother spoke first. “I wouldn’t say we hate them. We’ve had relatives emerge before, and never had any trouble from them.”
“That’s good, good… Do you know the common signs that a child has emerged?”
“Yes, that would be a change in eye color, right?”
“That is indeed the case, Mrs. Ashworth. All right then, Char. You can open your eyes now.” The doctor removed his bracing hand and tugged the bandages free of Char’s hair.
When he felt the fabric pull away from his head, he instinctively squeezed his eyes tight shut. The lights in the room were brighter than he expected, even through his closed eyelids. Not wanting to spend another minute in forced blindness, he forced his eyes wide open and gritted his teeth at the jab that went through his pupils as they shrunk to points. His parents gasped when they saw it, though they had been expecting this.
“What is it?” Char wanted to ask, but he decided it would be faster to see for himself. He glanced around the room, scanning for a reflective surface. Anything would do, but he spotted a mirror above the sink almost instantly. He slid out of the bed and was standing in front of it faster than anyone could react. He stood there for a solid thirty seconds. The first ten were spent taking in his new eyes. The irises were now a brilliant silver, reflective to the point that they seemed luminescent. The next twenty were spent searching for other changes. His hair seemed slightly longer than before, and his skin less pale. He almost looked healthy. He returned to stand in front of the doctor, and waited for more information. The doctor glanced nervously between him and his parents, but when he saw that nobody was about to start screaming, he relaxed.
“..You seem to be taking this well, so I’ll continue. Your son appears to be in good health, no permanent aftereffects, despite the unexpectedly long recovery time…” He looked at Char, who chose to put a questioning expression on his face. “...Of one week. However, he seems to have manifested as a mutant. Currently he does not appear to be undergoing any significant physical changes, but that may change as time goes on. I suggest you return every few weeks or if you notice anything. You are probably aware of the … attitudes some people have regarding mutants. You may have assumed, correctly, that I would like to keep your son’s emergence a secret. I believe it is for his own safety that you get him colored contact lenses so he won’t be targeted. As of now he has not shown any evidence of mutant abilities, but again, that may change. If or when that happens, more drastic measures may be necessary. For now, just keep a low profile, and don’t let anyone examine him too closely.” He paused, both to take a breath and to think of how to break the next bit of news. “There is… one more thing… I performed a blood test soon after Char arrived here, and I found no trace of his medicine. You did tell me that he had another episode. How long was he off of his medicine before this happened?”
“I’m not sure,” said Char’s mother. “I thought I had him take one that morning. I made sure of it. But that can’t be right, the medicine is supposed to last over 48 hours, even when the schedule is broken.”
They looked at Char. He looked back. At length, he spoke. “I did take my pill that morning.” To himself, he thought, “But I didn’t want to.”
“This is unfortunate,” said the doctor. “I think what we are seeing here is the effect of the Exemplar trait. Your son has increased resistance to drugs. I believe that this trait began to develop some time before his manifestation, and he has since become almost totally immune to the medicine. Or, more accurately, his body has adapted to metabolize it extremely quickly. His current treatment schedule is no longer effective. I’m not sure if any dosage will be effective any longer.”
This had a much stronger impact than any of the previous news. Char almost smiled. His mother visibly slumped, and staggered to the chair to sit down. His father looked like he had forgotten how to exhale, and was making a fishlike face that Char found faintly amusing. Then he remembered that his parents were probably reacting out of fear on his behalf, which made him laugh a little quieter on the inside. His father’s lungs filled completely with air, and he tried to talk as they deflated, resulting in gasping, spluttering speech until he ran out of air and could breathe normally again.
“You’re sure? I mean, there isn’t a stronger dosage, or a different medicine, or treatment plan, or…. *breathe* There’s nothing we can do?”
“Mr. Ashworth, I’m sure you know, that your son’s condition is very unique. It was only after much trial and error that we found a medicine that alleviated the worst of it. And even that came at a cost. I could not, in good conscience, prescribe Charon with a stronger drug unless his life was on the line. And I’m not so sure that he is so likely to reach that stage. Your son is not as fragile as he used to be, and unless his condition worsens, you will have to forgo the medication. I am cancelling his prescription until further notice.”
After that point, Char didn’t care what they were arguing about. He just knew he wouldn’t be tied down anymore, and could finally exercise his freedom to try. He hit a mental roadblock right there. What did he want to do? What could he do? He wasn’t sure. He knew there were a lot of things out there, but until this point he had never taken the initiative to find out what they were. In the background, his parents, still in shock, finished their discussion with the doctor, who gave them a set of contacts for him to wear, and a pair of sunglasses for him to use until he knew how to use the contacts. He was still thinking when they got home, and he bolted to the computer to do some research, on mutants, on things to try, there were so many things he needed to know. He was buzzing with energy.
His parents silently walked up the stairs to get some sleep. They forgot to leave their shoes at the door.
Char didn’t remember to sleep until midnight. It wasn’t until 1am that he reluctantly left the computer to rest. He had school to go to the next day. Maybe that would help him decide on a path.
[title drop. also, shorter chapter]
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In homeroom, Char was confronted with several moderately concerned students curious about his absence. He waved them off as best he could, and sat down to wait for the bell. Within seconds he recognized that he was bored, and while he was appreciative of the fact that he was now awake enough to see it, he knew that homeroom was going to be torturous if he didn’t find something to occupy his attention. His mind was spinning from one subject to another, but it couldn’t settle without new information to process. As he considered, he realized he had already taken visual inventory of the classroom in the last minute alone. He walked to the shelf at the back end of the classroom, upon which there were stacked extra textbooks for classes scheduled in that same room later in the day. For the next 25 minutes, he skimmed a Psychology textbook. As usual, he automatically divided the facts out of every passage he read, to sort through and consider later. When the bell rang, he replaced the book and collected his backpack. It’s heft made him feel foolish. He didn’t have to fret in the first place. He had books with him all along. Before he could leave the room, the supervisor-teacher asked if there was anything she could do. Char didn’t think so. He left abruptly, eager to test his focus in a more information-rich environment.
At lunch, Char reevaluated his assumptions. School was not, as he had supposed, rich in information. There was barely enough content covered in most of his classes to occupy him for 20 minutes, let alone the hours that had passed since homeroom. In fact, he was probably better off reading the textbooks, because with his ability to focus restored, he could follow his natural inclination to pursue significant threads. As it was, he was being strung along mind-numbing lesson plans designed to keep those students around him interested long enough to pass a few tests. He briefly considered quitting school to learn at his own pace, but just as quickly a more plausible alternative occurred to him. The teachers must have materials prepared to teach their students, assignments and classwork that he could ask for in advance to keep him busy during class. He would end up finishing the class early, if he did that. Maybe they would allow him to test out of it at that point. He resolved to look into the possibility of accelerating his education when he got home. The bell rang, and with his lunch long finished and trash disposed of, Char was the first to arrive at his English classroom.
As was the case in every class preceding it, several of the students were curious about his absence, to a point. They quickly lost interest when he paid them no attention, and returned to their seats to have a few pre-class discussions with their friends. A girl approached, and leaned down to speak to his ear confidentially.
“You know, our group was the only one that got full marks.” She waited.
“So, where did you get that paper from, hmm? I won’t tell anyone, I mean, it was partly my fault in the first place.” She didn’t add that telling anyone would reveal that she had contributed nothing to the final paper.
“No, I wrote that myself.” Though his face didn’t show it, Char was irritated at the implication. Why would he steal someone else’s work when he could do it himself, and learn more in the process? It takes a few seconds for him to realize that he answered her directly, something he has been avoiding all day to dissuade conversation. It strikes him as odd. He thinks back several moments before, considering what had prompted the automatic response. Then he thinks back to the time before that, when he had last spoken to someone. There was something about the way he had organized his thoughts both times, to avoid speaking plainly. It was as though a distinct and separate part of his mind had shuffled into command, ready and willing to handle the confrontation. At this very moment it was hovering at the front of his mind, controlling his expression and body language to appear like any other person casually shrugging off accusations of plagiarism. What he had mistakenly assumed before was that this was a natural, uncontrollable reaction, that he was instinctively trying to mimic the reactions of others. Now that he focused on it, on his mind and its internal structure, he could see it for what it was. To test, he closed his eyes and pretended he was alone in the room. After a few seconds, he felt the inclination settle back, and he was in full control of his surface thoughts and inclinations. Looking back at the girl, who was still standing by him, unperturbed, he kept his mental senses as open as possible, keeping his awareness even as the analytical part of his mind, his self, was superseded by the usual social persona. Now aware of the exact line of division between the two parts, he knew that this was merely a mask, that could speak to others where he could not. The mask was pretending to be interested in what the girl in front of it had to say, but behind it, he knew that he was only interested in finding out why she was so interested in him, so he could convince her to leave him be. Even before he woke to himself, when he didn’t care about anything, he had no room in his life for useless interactions. Now that he cared about himself, he had even less time for them. Every second was precious, to be spent learning, expanding his capabilities, reveling in his freedom of mind. To squander it on the thing he hated most would be tragic.
Char was very deep in his thoughts at this point, so he didn’t notice when the girl turned to look at someone, then spoke to him, began to doubt he was paying attention, and waved random objects in his line of sight to see if his eyes changed focus. She finally broke through by poking him in the forehead, but it was too late for her to say anything more. Class had started and the teacher was at the front of the classroom going over his notes one last time, praying as always that nobody would notice his incompetence. ‘Just one more time, please. I need this job, how was I supposed to know it would be this hard? I’ll sacrifice some stray cats if that’s what you want.’
Nobody heard any of this, of course. He was muttering it very softly, but even if they came close enough to see the drop of sweat hanging from the tip of his nose, they would not understand, because he wasn’t saying the words in english. If he was a proper teacher, he might have acknowledged the irony in this. But he didn’t. He finished and called the class to order as best he could. He noted the girl leaning on Char’s desk. Those two were on his watch list. He looked pointedly at them, waiting for her to return so he could begin.
As the girl headed back to her desk, she whispered to Char, “And there I was, thinking you were staring at me.” She took her seat, shaking her head. Char was busy being surprised at his lapse in attentiveness. It was unusual for him to stop taking notice of his surroundings, even when his mind was on other things. He felt himself on this train of thought to take in the whiteboard. The small homework section of the board hadn’t been erased in over a week, so it was getting very cramped, with the text slowly decreasing in size and legibility as it neared the bottom. They had only been reading from the textbook since last week. He had thought he would have to talk to the teacher after class about catching up, but it seemed as though he could do so with just an hour or two of reading. Satisfied he would be ready by next class, he listened to the teacher until it became clear that he wouldn’t be learning anything here until then. The class was discussing a story they had just finished reading. In order to tune out any spoilers that would corrupt his interpretation of the reading, he returned to his thoughts, back to the reason behind his unnatural inattentiveness. He backed up his train of thought carefully and examined it. The information from his senses had dulled about the time he started paying attention to his mask. Supposing that this was a cause and effect relationship, he should be able to replicate the results at any time, which would help his current situation by allowing him to devote his attention solely to his internal development while his environment was lacking. But why would focusing on his mask cut him off? If he thought of his mask and his ‘self’ as two separate entities in his mind, the mask was what kept track of his senses and passed the information onto the inner ‘self’ while it was active. In that case, when he had become aware that his mask was active, he had deliberately surrounded it with his inner mind without rearranging them first. That is to say, he had taken off his mask to look at it, but he had left his glasses on the mask, so almost all of his awareness was directed inwards. The metaphor seemed appropriate, given the current unit, Figurative Language. He was about to try and deliberately activate this introspective state when he heard his name mentioned. The teacher had directed the girl from earlier to help him catch up. He sighed a little, and with a deliberate shift, brought his mask up as strong as he could. Moving his seat to one side to give her room to place her own at the same desk, he was overcome with a sense of relief, and a kind of awe. The way he was moving, it looked from the outside like everything was normal. But the part of his mind that considered itself Char, the person, was completely removed from the action. It was like watching some kind of boring first person movie, and he knew that if he wanted to, he could just ignore the sensory information if he wanted, and autopilot his way through almost anything. Of course, he wasn’t about to do so, not now. While his mask appeared to be doing fine right at that moment, he couldn’t be sure that there weren’t any limits or caveats. For now, he would use it, because to neglect it would be allowing paranoia to limit his development. He would do more testing later.
The girl opened her textbook on the desk. Mask-Char glanced at it, but he could tell it was a random page. He waited patiently for her to flip to the correct place to begin the review. She didn’t. Instead, she leaned a little closer and started to ask questions in her confidential low voice again.
“Why were you absent? Did you really do all that work yourself? Did you already know all that stuff about those cults? Because I’ve seen your essay and it’s VERY thorough.”
Char shifted away from her abruptly, and she stopped talking, quietly waiting for a response. Then she realized she had been leaning a little too close, and backed away to a more reasonable distance. His posture relaxed noticeably. He tried to answer her questions as simply and vaguely as possible.
“I passed out, had to get some rest, because I did a lot of work. All of the work. Myself. Why didn’t YOU do any of the work, if you’re so concerned, and interested?”
“That weekend … I already had something planned. I had to go there, to see if I could find anything.” She was being evasive, which Char took to mean he could get her off his case if he pressed her on it.
“What did you want to find?” He asked.
“Well,” she glanced around, and saw everyone else apparently hard at work. She rightly did not trust the outward appearances, so she simply turned to Char and whispered, “Meet me sometime outside of school, and maybe I’ll tell you. I think you’ll find it really… interesting.” She grinned, then turned the textbook to the first page of the story everyone was discussing. The rest of the class time was spent showing Char the pages and assignments from the classes he had missed.
At his desk, the teacher felt satisfied that he was doing a halfway decent job. Most of the students other than Char had no idea what they were supposed to be doing to finish the classwork and were rereading the same stories in an attempt to gain insight into their situation. It was proving remarkable effective, as the stories were all coincidentally thematically relevant to their plight. Mithras from where he sat behind Char, tried this best to settle his negative sentiments in regards to the interest the girl had shown towards Char. It was hard. He didn’t hate him, but he couldn’t stop the tiny pangs of jealousy that he felt when he looked at them sitting next to each other. He cursed his weakness, and resolved to take the matter directly to the source if it escalated any further.
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Back home from his first day at school since awakening, Charon Ashworth was exhausted, but he couldn’t rest. His classes had frustrated his new capacity for learning, and his classwork was already over halfway caught up. He went to his room and locked the door. He suspected his parents were going to be keeping an eye on him for a while, and he didn’t want to have to deal with interruptions while he finished his assignments. He sat at his desk and pulled out the first worksheet. Looking it over, he felt the unease that had followed him all day grow into an ominous dread. Even without opening a single book, without more than a second of thought, he could already solve every problem. He did as much, and moved on to the next. The results were the same. Ten minutes later, he had 2 days of homework completed and shoved to the far side of his desk. Before an hour had passed, these papers were joined by all of his make-up work. For about the hundredth time, or more precisely, the 48th in as many minutes, Char checked the time on his watch, then his desk clock, then the wall clock. Time seemed to be going by too slowly. He had thought that a backlog would be able to hold him over until at least the end of the week, but it hadn’t lasted a single evening. What would he do? His mind, far from feeling tired and overworked, was energized and straining itself to find a focus, anything to occupy itself. As he stared at the papers on his desk, he was also aware of the grain of the wood they rested on, the play of light on their slightly uneven edges, the slight creaking of his parents footsteps in the hall, the whine of the electrical outlet the TV down the hall was plugged into, even the varying degrees of pressure on his legs and back as he shifted his weight on his chair. He could hear his heart beating, pulse quickening as he saw, heard, felt everything simultaneously. He couldn’t be sure if he was imagining these things, or if his senses were enhanced, or if he could have heard these things at any time just by focusing on them. It didn’t matter, because whether they were real or not, they were in his head, and they constituted useless information, he couldn’t use or retain them if he tried. His mind was like a sieve, trying to catch rocks in a rainstorm, but the rocks were all hidden away and all he could do was be aware of the downpour of his senses and if only he had some rocks there wouldn’t be so much water. His whirling thoughts caught on something. Metaphor, literary devices, dulling of the senses, yes, he had just today discovered such a technique. He reached into his mind and brought out his mask. With that motion, what he had perceived before as a mindless assault of details coalesced into a single picture. He could see the minutia if he felt so, but he wasn’t stuck in that state of constant awareness. It was peaceful, and simple. He closed his eyes in relief, and his consciousness rested.
When his eyes opened a second later, it was as a mask.
“How could this be?” It said aloud. Being a mask, it had no thoughts of its own, existing as a construct to speak on behalf of its wearer. At the very least, this is how to mask viewed its existence, in its roundabout, not-thinking way.
It stretched Char’s arms. “As long as I’m here, I might as well make myself useful.” It looked around, commenting on every object it saw, so as to have a statement to compare.
“This homework is all done. I’ve finished it, and now I am bored.” Though Char was in a state akin to sleep, his intents and desires were still an open book for his mask.
“I should find something to think about later,” it said, “like those textbooks I’ve only partly read. Can’t waste a good textbook, you know.”
Sitting up and hauling the textbooks to the desk was the first time the mask had ever been used to perform a physical rather than social task.
“I think I like this. Lifting things, moving around. It’s very useful, and on top of that, it’s healthy! Maybe I’ll go for a jog…. No, that would probably be inconvenient at this time. Dinner can’t be missed, of course!” The mask grinned and checked the time. “Ten minutes to go, huh? Alrighty then, I’ll just go see what cool stuff I’ve got hidden in the closet.”
The mask was, of course, aware of the binder Char had hidden at the back of his closet, but being a mask, it wasn’t averse to inspecting it more closely. Instead of flipping straight to the back, like Char had done, it flipped through randomly, reading pages throughout.
“Hmmmm. I didn’t really do much of anything as a kid, did I? Or maybe I just never wrote anything down? Gaah, how useless. Oh well, I’ve got a hang of the time period now, so I can look through some photo albums. Where would those be kept…”
Char-the-mask stepped out of his room and checked the hall closet. There was nothing there aside from the usual towels, shampoos, soaps, oral hygiene, etc… everything in triplicate at least. Nothing would be running out anytime soon. It snickered a little at the huge amounts of toilet paper on the top shelf, then stopped.
“Can’t be laughing now, can I? That would be vulgar, hehehmmm. I wonder if there’s something hidden behind all that toilet paper.” It climbed up a few shelves, noting aloud their sturdy construction. Char’s parents, who had been sneaking sly looks from around the corner every few minutes now stared in horror at their son’s nonsensical babbling. The mask dropped down, turning to face them. Its search had been in vain. Apparently there was just a lot of toilet paper in the Ashworth household. The boy’s face quickly adopted a neutral expression.
“Do you know where a photo album might be? Is it in the attic? Do we have one of those? Never mind that, do we have any photos? I can’t remember the last time I saw a camera.”
Mr and Mrs Ashworth were still shaken, and they couldn’t quite wrap their heads around this new behavior. The doctor had warned them that Charon’s behavior might change in the coming weeks, but not to such a degree. He had just asked them four questions in a row, a total of 37 words, all in one breath. For as long as they could remember, such a thing had never happened, even before they started him on his medicine. The closest instance they could think of was about that time…
“You don’t think he might be remembering, about that time? Should we give him the speech?” His mother was whispering in hushed tones to his father, but it could still make out what they were saying.
“Remembering? He just said he DIDN’T remember. I think he’s just being curious, looking for old pictures. That’s normal isn’t it?”
“Yeah, that’s really normal, completely.” Char’s face leaned in close to theirs. “Are you going to tell me where I can find some old pictures, or are you going to give me this speech?”
His mother poked his father pointedly in the back. “Ow, uhm,” he glanced at his wife, who jerked her head and poked him again. He sighed and shoved her hand away before she could poke him a third time. “Give us a few minutes to talk this over.” The parents retreated into the bedroom for a conference. They locked the door behind them, and then moved into the bathroom, where their voices could no longer be understood. The mask waited patiently by the door.
When the door opened again, his father was carrying a thin binder with plastic pages. The parents hurried down the stairs to the kitchen table. This seemed like the most appropriate place for important family meetings. Also, dinner was done. The mask ate Char’s share of the casserole quickly, but despite their initial purposeful posturing, the parents were taking a suspiciously long time to finish theirs. If they were being perfectly honest with themselves, they would be happier if they never had to have this conversation. It was connected with far too many bad feelings and worries, most on behalf of their son. But they had decided that it would be best for everyone if they took this opportunity to lay out the truth.
Their resolution wasn’t so firm that they wouldn’t take every opportunity to delay. But, all good things must come to an end, and the casserole was only moderately good. Soon they were sitting at a clear table, with stomachs full of food and figurative squirmy creatures that make butterflies seem luxurious. The mask waited patiently as always. It had no inherent sense of urgency, or of time. It simply knew that Char was in need of a focus, and it might find one in his past.
Finally, his mother spoke, laying open the binder as she began her carefully prepared speech.
[Okay, I may have rushed this chapter. I had a chain of events set out but it kinda ran away from me, so you're about to get some background info way sooner than I planned. But it's also a cliffhanger. :< to make it up to you, here is a nice picture I made. |http://imgur.com/RGlMoez|]
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(memory and reflection)
When you were five years old, your cousin came to stay with us. Her circumstances back home were getting dangerous, because some hateful people found out that she was a mutant. She was about the same age you are now, 15, with the same silver eyes. That was how they found her, by the way. One day she fell asleep during class, and when she woke up, her eyes were shining like mirrors. One of the kids in class let slip to a Humanity First member, and the next thing she knew, vandals were targeting her house.
“That sounds terrible. Do you have any pictures of her?”
Not anymore. We got rid of them all.
“Why’d you do that?”
I’m getting to that part. She stayed here for about a year, then she went off to some school for mutants. And while she was here with us, you two were very close. At the time, your father and I were happy for you. We thought having a friend would be good for you, and at school you never even talked to the other children. Maybe that’s what blinded us to what was really happening.
“....And that was?”
We never really found out. Neither of you would talk about it. But we saw the effects. You started following her around, treating her like royalty, with an unnatural level of deference. The respect you showed her was too serious. To you she was like an idol or something. You even dressed like her for Halloween. That’s really weird isn’t it? Most kids would choose a hero, or a monster or something. And then you didn’t even go out and get candy, because she wanted to stay home and watch a show. You didn’t even change out of your costume. The sight of the two of you sitting on the couch watching television… you weren’t even watching, just mimicking her. It was like she had a clone. At the time I thought it was cute… Anyways, all that stuff, um, those behaviors we thought were normal for little kids, they took on a much different light when she had to leave. You were distraught, you didn’t know what to do with yourself without her around to tell you what to do. And we thought that was okay, that you’d work through it and go on, that it was a phase. But then you started wearing the costume around the house, saying things like, ‘I’ll be Kaycee’ or….. Ah. I said her name. ****, and it was going so well.
There was an awkward pause, broken by the clatter of Char’s chair being pushed back suddenly. He was stirring, and the mask was muttering under its breath, trying to organize its purpose before he became fully conscious.
“This is bad… I know these memories…. I shouldn’t have asked, that’s the bad place, the light place. I shouldn’t remember this, can’t, they were sealed. What to do… I can’t let myself know this, nothing good can come of it, I’m still not ready. Aha! I can remember this because I am already in the sealed part, that makes some sense. So if I remember this for myself then when I am myself I won’t remember it anymore. As myself. It makes sense, I’m sure of it.”
Aloud, it said, “Excuse me, I have to go think about this for a while… I don’t think we should talk about this anymore.” And the mask fled to Char’s bedroom, to his desk, and opened the first textbook. Its eyes drifted shut, and Char opened them. He glanced at the time. It was past dinner, but he wasn’t hungry. His senses tugged at him, but he shrugged them off to get some reading done. And he read into the night.
Lana Ashworth cursed for about the 100th time since her son had fled the discussion of his past. She didn’t know the exact number because it didn’t matter. Her husband nodded sagely beside her. They both knew it would be a very long time before they could mention this topic again. It was the same every time. And every time they were filled with regrets. Not just the events that transpired with Kaycee, but with their treatment of their own son in his younger years. If they hadn’t been so scared, maybe they could’ve dealt with the problem without leaving behind so much pain and mental scarring. As it was, they didn’t know if Charon would ever be able to face himself, or his cousin if they ever crossed paths again.
They stayed hunched over the old tabletop for an indeterminate length of time, long after the sun fell out of sight, its unmarked surface further proof in their eyes that they had wasted their son’s childhood.
[It is a mini chapter to finish that cliffhanger. People don't carry on very long conversations in this family, do they. ]
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Char’s school textbooks managed to tide him over until Saturday afternoon. Then, he spent the rest of the day checking the problems at the back to see if there were any he didn’t think he could solve. He was testing his ability to predict the extent of his knowledge, something he had noticed after completing a few more homework assignments. Somehow he had a way of knowing at a glance how difficult a problem would be, before he really knew what it was asking. His experiment was straightforward. He would select ten problems at random from each chapter, then write his predictions on a separate paper. Then he completed the problems and timed how long it took. He repeated the process until his times wouldn’t go any lower. By then, he had streamlined the process to the point where he didn’t even need to write down his answers. He simply completed the work in his head and stopped the timer.
He brushed some hair out of his eyes to carefully examine the tables of predictions and times. It wasn’t very useful. Near the end, every prediction was “too easy” and the times were under a second.
“If this is all there is, shouldn’t I ask to move up?” He thought to himself. He was careful not to vocalize his thoughts, even if they were harmless. Several days of using his mask had made it a reflex, but sometimes he ended up using it even when he was alone. The mask wanted to talk, and he suspected it would say anything to break the silence if he didn’t keep it in check. He could never really know when his parents were listening, after all. He put away his books, planning to bring some back to school on Monday so he could ask for some new ones. He wasn’t sure if that would work, but it would be less awkward than coming right out and asking to test out of class because it was too easy.
Char didn’t think it outright, but he wanted to avoid starting conversations. While his mask was very useful at fending off small talk and appearing attentive in class, it tended towards an odd cheerfulness that didn’t suit him. It almost seemed to be encouraging people to interact with him, especially that one girl. She wouldn’t stop asking him to accompany her on some expedition or investigation thing.
He fully intended to never take her up on that offer, but then he looked around the room. He searched his house. He tried to do some research on the computer, but the quality of information was too low. It had started to feel tainted after his English teacher gave him a lecture on Internet sources.
“Your paper was very good. Almost flawless. But look at these sources. Every single one, is a website, or a blog post, or an article from an online newsletter. You can’t trust everything you read on the internet, even if they sound legitimate. Anyone can put information out there on the internet. It’s publishers that will have the proofreaders and fact-checkers. Next time, I’d recommend that you find some reference books, nonfiction, just to check against. Again, excellent work, just keep that in mind.”
Char rubbed his eyes. His contacts were very irritating. The doctor had said he would get used to putting them in and taking them out after a few weeks, but it still felt like he was poking himself in the eyes. He blinked a few times, and glanced at the oven. There were a few minutes left on his frozen dinner, but he was hungry and tired, and didn’t want to wait around with nothing to do. The chicken nuggets turned out okay, even if they weren’t quite piping hot. He drenched them in ketchup for flavor, and read the nutrition facts while he ate. He memorized the words he didn’t recognize to look into later, because anything other than ‘chicken’ and ‘flour’ seemed awfully suspicious.
In the shower, he turned the water as hot as it could go, then an eighth turn the opposite direction as it started to scald. Suddenly remembering, he hopped out soaking wet to remove his contacts, which he had been wearing on the off chance a package arrived, and to get used to them. He glanced at the mirror, temporarily mesmerized by his own eyes. They were very pretty, in the same way a well-polished surface is, something that should be matte now holding a reflection. He decided to finish his shower before he made too big of a puddle, and kicked the towel over to where he had been standing. When he was finished, the mirror had become blurry with fog, and he couldn’t see more than a silhouette of himself in it. He wiped away the moisture in a small stripe to stare once again into his own eyes. They felt familiar and comfortable, in a different way than before. He felt like they belonged to someone else. But he couldn’t remember who, and he was cooling off fast. He changed into the pajamas he had brought into the bathroom with him, performed his usual presleep tasks, and went to bed. He dreamed of a silver pool that night, rippling slowly outwards, as around him shapeless figures moved in a deep white fog.
He woke up at exactly 7 AM Sunday morning. He peered out from under his blankets, confirming the early hour. He wanted to close his eyes again, to return to the peaceful soft light, under his soft blankets and his soft pillow to block the hard light of the sun. His eyes would not close. He rolled off of his bed quickly, landing heavily on the floor. No. He would not sleep. Lethargy and comforts were for the old Char, the lazy one, the boy who was so inhibited by his so-called medicine he couldn’t even work up the energy to get breakfast most days. He was different now, he was awake, and he would do anything to stay that way. He was going to…. Char tried to think of something to do. There weren’t any books worth reading left in the house, and his parents weren’t home so he didn’t have access to a vehicle or their money. The internet was informative, but he had no idea what to do with it, had nothing in particular he wanted to know. That left one option. He would have to take that girl up on her offer to go “investigate” something. She never did say what that was about.
The girl in question was already awake, and preparing to leave her home. She did this every day she didn’t have to go to school, and her parents were heavy sleepers, so they didn’t mind. It had taken some time to convince them she could protect herself, out and about at all hours, but in the end, they knew she would run off anyways. There was no point in stopping her. She had a cell phone, after all. She wasn’t really alone.
She looked at the cereals in the cupboard. All the good ones had run out, leaving the bland, healthy types her dad liked. Or at least, claimed he liked. Most of them hadn’t been touched in weeks, and the sweet cereals had run out awfully fast. Scowling, she grabbed an orange and a granola bar instead. She could eat them at today’s destination.
She paused at the door, sensing a low buzzing from somewhere in her backpack. Someone was calling her cell. It was a rare enough occurrence that she dropped her things where she stood and began rummaging for it, trying to catch the call before it went to voicemail. Her fingers managed to hit the talk button just in time.
“Hello, Dice here, who is this?”
“Char speaking, I’m bored, so I thought I’d accept your invitation.”
“Huh? What invi- Oh! Yeah. I’m heading out on one right now.”
“So, can I join you? I’m curious what it’s about. Sounds mysterious.”
“Yes! I mean sure, you can. Can you be at the forested area on the other side of the park that’s behind the supermarket near the library in about fifteen minutes?”
“I… am not sure where you are talking about. Is there an address or something I could use to look it up?”
“You mean you’ve never been to any of those places? Ah, forget it. You can tell me where you are and I can pick you up on the way. Does that work?”
“You’ll pick me up? Is that legal?”
“I’m not kidnapping you. By the way, leave a note or something. For my sake.”
“Nah, my parents are out all day. This won’t take the whole day, will it? Anyways, what I meant was you can’t have a driver’s license yet.”
“Oh. I have a motor scooter that I use.”
“That … is also not legal.”
“Nobody’s stopped me yet. It’ll be fine, lighten up. If you’re so worried, ride a bike.”
“You know what, sure. Ride your scooter. I’ll give you my address.” Char didn’t have a bicycle. He didn’t own much of anything, really. He told her his address while he finished putting together a bag to take with him. It contained a water bottle and raisins. He hung up and placed the phone back on its charging cradle. He grabbed a hat and cracked the blinds to check the sky. He hissed through his teeth, averting his gaze from the sun. He added sunglasses to his shortlist of things to gather in the next ten minutes.
Eleven minutes, twenty seconds later, his time, she almost ran into him on a bicycle.
“That isn’t a motor scooter.”
[Is it just me or am I notsogreat at dialogue? ._. Anyways. Uh. Stuff is happening. Soon, soon. If something is obviously lacking let me know so I can go back and fix it. Thanks for reading]
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Ten minutes (approx.) earlier:
Eurydice ‘Dice’ Peterson looked sadly at her transport of choice, the motor scooter she built with her own two hands and assorted tools. It was originally a normal, foot-powered scooter, but she had upgraded the wheels and installed an electric motor in the rear wheel, modifying the brake to act as the accelerator. It no longer had any brakes, but it didn’t move fast enough to hurt too badly if she had to bail out, a maneuver she enjoyed executing even in situations when it wasn’t necessary.
Dice thought about her conversation with Charon. She hadn’t been entirely honest. She had, in fact, been stopped by a local officer once while riding her scooter, but he just let her off with a warning to wear a helmet and ‘be safe’. He was a cool guy, and too lazy to find out the exact laws about these kinds of things. And now that she thought about it… she didn’t see how two people could ride it at the same time. The foot space wasn’t large enough, and the motor probably couldn’t handle the strain. She didn’t want to leave it behind, though. In a rush, she just went along with the first idea that popped into her head. Luckily, it was a good one.
Ten minutes later (approx.)
“I never realized that riding a bicycle was so tiring,” Char said through clenched teeth, “could you slow down a little, please? By the way, that’s a nice scooter, where’d you get it?” He was trying to keep up with that girl, Dice or something. She hadn’t seemed too pleased at his initial observations. Not the bike bit, that had been a nice opening for her to pull out her scooter and reveal her plan.
“See, this way, we can both ride! Do you want to ride the scooter, or the bike?”
“Isn’t the scooter a little… small?” Char had his doubts about its stability, and he couldn’t remember the last time he had even seen a scooter before.
“I guess you’re riding the bike then.” And she left him with the bicycle, rolling smoothly down the street on her scooter.
“Oh. So it really was a motor scooter.”
Char pedaled harder, trying to keep up. The burning in his legs was a clear indicator that he needed to get out more. Not for the first time, he cursed his sloth. The experience wasn’t altogether unpleasant, though. At the speed he was traveling, he didn’t have to worry about boredom or lack of focus, and the air flowing over his body created a unique and enjoyable sensation. Just when he was starting to get used to it, they came around a corner, and arrived at the park. Dice led him across the grass to a particularly large tree a short way into the surrounding forest. She took the bike from him and a length of chain from her pack, and tied the bike to the tree with it.
“Okay, the investigation starts now. We’re going to visit all of the places in these woods that I’ve found that look like ritual locations. Your job will be to keep your eyes peeled for anything… culty. Cultish? You get the idea. I’ll be counting on you!”
“Yes, I will be the watchful eye, looking for signs of cult activity using my extensive knowledge gained through hours of research!” Internally, Char frowned. His mask was going a bit overboard with the excitement. But she was unfazed by his outburst, flashing him a wide grin before leading him on a weaving path deeper into the woods, where the trees were closer together, and the shade darker. He slipped off his sunglasses and dropped them into his backpack, scanning the surrounding undergrowth for the warning signs. An old fire, leftover smudges of chalk on trees, dropped trinkets, spilled blood, anything out of place. He didn’t see anything besides the occasional dead animal and some trash left behind by hikers who weren’t adventurous enough to travel far, but still wanted to rough it a little. When they stopped for a minute to drink some water, he wondered if there really was any cult activity in the area. It seemed far-fetched, but one could never be certain one way or the other, until people started disappearing. These groups would sometimes become very bold after passing under the radar for a long time, moving from animal sacrifices to human ones in hopes that their rituals would be more successful. There weren’t any reports about what happened after that, but it couldn’t be good. Char wouldn’t want to get involved with those kinds of people, he was sure about that. So he was obligated to ask.
“Is there any particular reason we’re looking for cults here? I mean, do you think we might actually find evidence?” This was a question not asked out of a polite interest. He really wanted to know if he should be watching his back, or keeping an eye out for missing persons articles in the newspaper.
Dice looked at him with an appraising expression. “You can keep a secret?” Before Char could give her the obvious ‘Yes’, she continued. “The truth is, I met some actual magic people last year. Like, wizards. I’m totally serious. And they told me, well, not me, but their son, I just heard it from the other room. They said they were keeping an eye out because someone was interfering with their magic in this area, but they couldn’t find who did it. And I thought, ‘This might be some evil dark stuff going on right in our hometown.’ It’s a scary thing to think about, isn’t it?” Char was a little concerned on her behalf, and not just because she hadn’t blinked or taken a breath since she started talking.
“Wizards? How’d you meet a couple of….” He quickly went over her words in his head. “They weren’t the parents of someone at school, were they?”
She blinked then, and finally took a breath, to Char’s relief. “So you aren’t going to say magic isn’t real? That I’m misunderstanding something? That’s what people usually say.” She smiled again. “Well, I should have known you wouldn’t be like that. You wrote a whole paper on cults, after all, and you didn’t skip over the good stuff. Anyways, that’s enough talking, let’s go to the next spot.” Reaching across with her right hand, she slipped her water bottle into the left side pocket of her pack, and set off at a brisk pace. Char did the same and followed, continuing his observation while thinking about the possibility of actually finding evidence, which was sounding more plausible with every passing minute. Wasn’t there something off about those dead animals from before? He would have to check that on the way back.
They came out of the dense part of the woods into a clearing, shaded by the long branches of the trees on all sides. Char’s took a quick gulp of water and looked to Dice for instruction.
“What are you waiting for? Here we are, at suspected location numbero one. Start looking for evidence. I’ll check the edges, you get the inside part.” She looked him right in the eyes, her own narrowed in concentration. Then she nodded and moved to the trees, looking for hollows or disturbed dirt, places where things might be hidden from view. Char turned his attention to the ground between the trees, the short plants all around, comparing the growth in the clearing to that outside. He noticed something odd, something about the trees. He walked back to the outside edge to see both sides at once. The side facing the clearing was a different color. He checked the tree next to it, and saw the same effect. The trees on the edge of the clearing were somehow less vibrant than those farther out, were almost gray instead of brown. He reported to Dice.
“The inner trees seem to be leeched of color,” he said, “and the effect seems to vary on individual trees. The backs of the trees also have more color than the sides facing the clearing.” He waited to see what her response would be.
“Oh, good eye. Unfortunately, that isn’t conclusive, because everyone knows light bleaches the color out of things (even though it’s a very local effect and these trees aren’t in direct sunlight, so it’s odd nonetheless). Keep looking, I’m sure there’s something else.” So she had noticed the bleaching, that much he should have expected. She wasn’t the type to miss something right under her nose, Char had determined that quickly. At school she seemed careless, but out here in the dim forest, she was constantly vigilant. He was sure she was testing him here, seeing if he could spot everything she had. He renewed his efforts with vigor. He paced the entire area, scanning the ground visually, then pushing aside the low plant life with his hands. It took an hour, but he found three points worth mentioning. He relayed them to Dice.
“In the center of the clearing, and about five feet out, I found mixed into the dirt small crystals like sand. Next, I compared the plant life inside the circle to that outside it and found that the inside contains only short ferns, there is no sign of moss or grass inside like there is outside. Also, all the plants inside the clearing look a bit shorter than those outside, even though they are in more light. Lastly, there are several root systems originating from within the clearing, but the trunks have been removed and the roots covered in dirt. This is a man-made clearing.”
Dice thoughtfully walked to the center of the clearing and scooped up some dirt in her hand. It sparkled slightly when she held it in one of the light spots. She walked back. “I knew about the dirt and the shrubs, but how did you find out about the roots without digging? Do you have x-ray vision or something?”
“No, I could tell where the roots were by the rise and fall of the ground, and by the sound it makes when you stomp on it. This clearing has a lot of shallow mounds, but they are hidden by the ferns and ridges caused by the roots. And that isn’t how x-rays work.”
“Where did you learn how to do that? You aren’t secretly a ranger or something, are you? Is it your mutant power?”
“It’s just something I thought of. Like how you can knock on a plaster wall to listen for studs, or whatever. This isn’t anything superhuman, it’s just a hunch.” Char was really glad that his mask didn’t show his thoughts, because he was starting to freak out. Dice was really pressing the mutant topic for some reason. He couldn’t be sure she wasn’t joking with a straight face, but she also might have reason to suspect him. What had he done? It couldn’t just be the report, or the time he collapsed in class and came back all healthy, that wasn’t weird. He wanted to ask, but that would be a dead giveaway. So he tried to play it cool.
Then he remembered, that he hadn’t put on his contacts that morning. He thought some choice expletives.
“Oohh, you mean my eyes. Haha, do you like my new contacts? I had them custom made, do they look cool?” An easy grin spread across his face. He could fake his way out of this, surely.
“Nah, the ones you wear at school look more natural.”
Or not. Char swore more than just a little then. Still in his head, of course.
[+1 to anyone who thought of the contacts. Not that my typical style of leaving out details until they are important lends itself to that kind of prediction. Thanks for reading, if you see mistakes let me know]
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“So you think I’m a mutant?” Char had to confirm before he could continue to more important matters, like asking Dice to keep his manifestation under wraps.
“Well. If you put it that way, I have the following word for you: Duh. You couldn’t have been more obvious, even before you left your contacts off to come meet me. What were you thinking? Sheesh.” She rolled her eyes.
“I don’t know, I forgot. That happens sometimes. And what was so obvious? I’m not using any powers, doing anything a normal person couldn’t.”
“You do realize, that when you came back from your ‘medical leave’, you were a whole inch taller than when you left? No, you didn’t. You got lucky, because you had nobody close enough to notice. But I did, because I am always watching for these kinds of things” She made it sound like something anyone could do, but it was pretty impressive that she could make that kind of judgement about a stranger. Char was starting to believe she had been watching him in particular for some time, but he couldn’t reason why.
“Lucky… so you won’t tell anyone?” Char’s mask tried for a hopeful expression, but only came halfway before grinning like an idiot.
“What, you thought I would go out of my way to take you into the woods for some quality investigation time, then waste it all by spilling to some idiot with a grudge? No way, not when I finally got someone to come out here with me. You’re like the second person to believe anything I say about this cult stuff. To sum up, I want you to hang out with me, so your secret is safe.” Dice stuck out a hand. Char looked at it, trying to determine whether it was a handshake or an odd high (low?) five. He left it up to his mask to decide. He grasped her hand in his own and they shook on it.
When she finally let go of his hand, Dice had decided to postpone their visit to the second possible cult site.
“Instead, show me what you can do.” She waited expectantly.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, what are your powers. You’re a mutant, so there has to be something you can do that’s ‘super’. Can you run really fast, move things with your mind, that kind of thing.”
“Oh,” he said, thinking about it for a minute. What exactly could he do, that he couldn’t do before? “It’s hard to say, but I think I’m a bit smarter now. I’ve finished with all the textbooks from my classes so far, and I can solve any question in them. And I can do this, uh, mask thing.”
“You ‘think’ you’re smarter? Why so unsure? Seems pretty clear to me.” Though her words were skeptical, Dice’s face showed nothing but interest. She really wanted to know the exact meaning of his words. It made Char a little nervous, and he checked the reigns on his mask a little.
“I’ve always been a good learner, but the time I manifested as a mutant was also the time I became immune to my, uhm, medication. So I’m not certain if I’m naturally this smart or if it’s because of the mutation, you know? I was always really tired before, but I still managed high grades somehow. Anyways, I don’t want to talk about that, it isn’t important.” He was trying very hard to change the subject, but his mask kept shuffling his priorities, making ‘answer the question’ higher than ‘avoid talking about uncomfortable subjects’.
“Uh huh.” Clearly she wanted to ask more on the subject, but Dice could see that even if she pressed him, he wouldn’t say much more about it. Plus, she didn’t want to make him leave. That would be the worst outcome. So she followed up on an earlier thread.
“You said you had some mask thing? Can you change your appearance? Shifting is a pretty useful ability, even if it is a little sketchy.” She noticed that she was getting ahead of Char, and forcibly stopped talking. She gestured for him to speak. He leaned back against a tree and tried to think of the best way to explain.
“Well, if you’re asking about my mask, you’re looking at it. It’s me, right now, talking to you. It’s like a small part of me that I use to improve my interactions with other people. It makes me easier to get along with.”
“Oh, so it’s like a kind of charisma ability. So if this is you with the ‘mask’, what are you like without it? Show me.” Dice took a step back and narrowed her eyes, waiting for him to comply. She told herself it was just to confirm the power of his ability, to see if it was this mask was feeding her interest in him. But deeper down, her motivations were darker, less reasonable than simple curiosity. She wanted to see him vulnerable, this boy who, though careless, never faltered, never showed his core. Watching from afar, or nearby, even asking him directly, she couldn’t tell what he was hiding. She knew the mask wasn’t as simple as charisma. It was a perfect poker face, revealing nothing the wearer didn’t want her to know. Most people would show parts of themselves they weren’t even aware of, if they were watched long enough. So far, Charon Ashworth’s behavior had been too perfect, too in line with what he appeared to be. She hated that kind of lie. And that’s why she commanded, rather than asked, him to take it down.
Char let his thoughts touch upon his mask. He supposed, that he could just for a little bit, try to be without it, see what it was like. It shouldn’t be too hard, after all. He hadn’t had it until recently, and he had survived up until this moment. But still, he hesitated.
“Will you take your mask off for me?” Dice asked, calmly. She clasped her hands together in front of her, lightly brushing the pointer finger of her right hand with her thumb. When he continued to hesitate, she let her left hand drop, leaving her right to hover awkwardly in front of her, still moving her thumb in slow circles on the nail of her finger. The finger twitched, and she thought, wouldn’t it be easy to just point at him, and make him do it. She remembered the last time she thought on those lines, and her thumb halted, then tucked into a fist that she slowly lowered to match her left hand. No, now was not a good time for that. Impatience had never served her well, and it wouldn’t start working now. She decided to let Char make up his own mind.
Char had already decided. He would try it, and see how it went. Now was as good a time as any, better, in fact. His parents weren’t around to freak out, and he had someone with him to give him a focus if his senses overpowered him again. The only problem he could think of was how exactly to go about it. If he did it wrong, he would just activate his introspective state, and that wouldn’t be much use.
Finally, he worked it out, and took down the mask. It was more difficult than he had supposed. Since the day he realized he had it, the mask had been active any time he had to interact with someone. The longer he used it, the easier and more reactive its activation became. On this particular trip he had even been able to tell when Dice was watching him because it would activate on its own, influencing his posture, his expression. Several times, the same thing had happened when he wasn’t looking in her direction, meaning it could tell using factors aside from sight. To keep such a powerful part of his mind inactive on purpose felt unnatural, like holding back a sneeze until it faded away, leaving him blank. But the feeling passed, and there he was, in the forest. Just Char, barefaced with nothing to say.
“I… id.. t” His voice was shuddering and quiet. It was drowned out by the soft background of the leaves rustling.
“What?” She couldn’t hear him. And she couldn’t see his face either, because he was holding a hand over his eyes and speaking downwards. She moved closer to hear better, and he shrank back, pressing himself against the tree behind him like he wanted to just pass right through it. He didn’t have such a power, so he walked around it to lean against the other side. She followed him, annoyed, but he just kept circling the tree until she grabbed his arm. While he was restrained she, used her free hand to pull the hand away from his face.
She took a long hard look into his eyes, then released him. He stood very still, then he closed his eyes and sat on the ground, his knees to his chest. She extended her right index finger, and spoke in a firm voice.
“Go back. Reactivate your mask. This is my request.” The nail on her finger sparked, showing a small, intricate circle on its surface, that just as quickly faded. Char stiffened, then sprang to his feet, anxiety plain in his demeanor.
“Okay, you’d better have seen all you needed right then, because I’m never doing that again. Do you understand?” He paused. “Did you just magic me?”
When Dice looked into Char’s eyes, she knew she had done something terrible in convincing him to remove his mask. They were the eyes of a dead person, blank and staring. His face was expressionless, and he made no move to remove himself from her grasp. Intuitively, she knew what kinds of emotions he must be feeling, but from sight alone she couldn’t see anything, and that was the scariest thing she had ever had to think about. This kid’s mask wasn’t some power, it was the part of him that controlled his entire exterior, and when it was gone, he was cut off. She had asked a person to turn off a part of their brain, and she wasn’t even sure what that entailed. Well, she wouldn’t let that hang over her if she could help it. Karma is the balance of good and bad deeds, so to make up for this unkind act, she would give something in return. Something that would build Char’s trust in her. So she decided to tell him about the magic in their town.
[ wow, I sure am updating kinda frequently. I guess that could be attributed to my roughly 5-page chapters. Regardless, here we go, about to dive into the bizarreness that is the small town Char lives in.(hint it involves wizards, who knew). as always let me know of any errors etc etc.]
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Dice considered how to begin. There were many topics of interest, but shortly she condensed them into four important subjects: the wizards, the mansion, the situation with the town, and the Astronomy Club. Or was it the Astrology Club? Regardless, she would have to start somewhere. The best thing to do was test the waters, so to speak.
“What do you know about magic?” This should simplify things. If he didn’t know, she could explain it, then transition to the town, then the mansion, then the wizards, and maybe the Astrosomething Club would come up.
“I just assumed it existed because I read that some cults use a specific kind of magic. This is my first time actually seeing it.”
“Yesss- I mean, I’ll explain the basics to you then. Magic is when you use special energy stuff to make things happen. The energy is this kind of stuff you find some places, or you can make it yourself if you’re really good.” She stopped when she saw Char’s eyebrows raise. “Stop that, I know what I’m talking about. I just don’t like the ‘official’ terms.” She put air quotes on the word ‘official’. “If you really want to know, it’s called Essence. But I’m going to call it special magic energy. Anyways, most people who do magic slooowly make their own magic energy or gather it over time from the environment. And the places where there’s the most special energy to gather are on these things called ‘ley lines’. Well, this town happens to have more than just a few ley lines crossing it, so we’ve got more than a few magic using people living here. It’s really useful, so they can practice more and get better faster.”
“Is that why you can do magic? They ley lines helped you practice?”
“Hahaha, no. This isn’t exactly my magic. I mean, it certainly isn’t coming from my personal stores. If I was using those, I could barely move a pencil, maybe two. Three? Maybe I’ve improved. No, the magic I just used is something I took from the VIP’s of this area. Y’know how I said I heard some stuff from some wizards? That was them. The Distevar family. They’ve been living in this huge mansion around here since before the town even existed. They basically called dibs on the best ley-line intersection for about a hundred miles, and they have their house rigged up full of enchantments so they can use it freely on their property. So, I found my way into their library, and copied down a few spells I thought would be useful, and took the time to learn to use them.”
Char’s eyes narrowed. “You broke into their house? Isn’t that really stupid? And how do you just ‘learn’ how to use someone else’s spells without any training?”
“Hey I never said I wasn’t trained. And I didn’t break in, I was invited. That’s really important, because that’s how I still have access to some of their magic to use these spells. See, the last time I was in there, I left a little magic energy holder where they couldn’t find it, but I could get to it without, y’know, breaking in.”
Char smirked a little. “Did you just leave it in the bushes or something?”
“Wh- No, don’t be ridiculous. I buried it under the bush. I’m sure they won’t notice. Basically, I leave it there to recharge every few days, and it serves as my personal magic source. That way I can do some of the cool stuff without spending like half my life training my capacity. ‘Course, I still have to practice a lot to get the stuff I do have working properly. See, look here.” She held out her hands, palms down. Concentrating, she put a small amount of essence into the circles on her nails, not enough to activate them, but enough to make them visible.
“Huh, so you use magic circles?”
“Yep. Well, that’s pretty much all the Distevars do. It’s their specialty, and they are very good at it. Drawing magic circles, I mean. Look at the one on my pinky nail. You know how long it took to get it just right? A year. Yep, one whole year redrawing that stupid thing every day, just so I can make light without a flashlight. She lifted her hand, pinky extended, and whispered her activation chant.
“Lights on. This is my request.” A baseball-sized orb of soft light popped into existence above her pinky finger. She grabbed it in her left hand, cupping her right around it so it shone in front of her. She waved the beam around a bit, then got bored and cut it off.
“A whole year. Well, I can write equally well with both hands now, so that’s something. I guess it didn’t help that I was drawing on my fingernails. Magic circles do not go well with curved surfaces. Uh, where was I?” She remembered the plan, then scowled, also realizing she had to talk about the Club now. She still wasn’t sure if it was Astronomy or Astrology.
“Anyways. There’s one more important thing you should know about. There’s this… Astrolomy Club, and pretty much everyone who knows about magic around here is in it, and even some who don’t. The exceptions are the Distevars, ‘cause they’re always off on jobs to pay the property taxes on their giant house. The Club is crazy obsessed with stargazing, and when they aren’t doing that, they’re drooling over ‘gifted’ children, ‘ones blessed by the stars’, stupid stuff like that. Having big ceremonies like ye gods have deigned to bestow their kid with great potential or something. I was forced to attend those meetings for years. Anyways, point is, if you’re too smart, they try to get you. And then you have no time to get anything done. If you have to, pretend to be dumber than you are, and whatever you do, don’t ask to move up. Learn stuff on your own time, like me.” She paused for breath.
“What the hell is wrong with this place?” Char looked, for once, visibly angry. “There are people who’ll pick me out for being smart, but then they won’t let me exercise my intelligence?”
“For them it isn’t about you. Everyone is a little selfish, it isn’t a bad thing. But some people will force their ideas and their wants on you for their own gain. It’s terrible, and it shows a ridiculous level of hypocrisy, for sure. But they have the authority here, so our best bet is to keep out of their way.”
Char was quickly running out of expletives, and he didn’t want to sound repetitive. “.... Buncha hopped up imbecilic fools, holed up in their delusions, oppressors and tyrants, all of them…” He kept that train of thought mostly to himself, muttering a word under his breath here and there. But it wasn’t helping, so he turned his attention to something he had thought about while Dice was still talking.
“Where’d you get the storage device? They magic energy one? Did you steal that too?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, I made it myself. I’m very good with my hands, in case you hadn’t noticed from my excellent custom-built scooter, that you didn’t want to ride. I did steal the instructions, though, and some of the materials. And I used the Distevar’s magic a bunch in the process… I’m sure it’s fine.”
“Are you a mutant, too?”
“Oh, Char, I’m almost offended. Can’t you tell? I’m just your average, run-of-the-mill child prodigy. ‘Gods-blessed’, etc. No, they would never have let me off if I was genetically predisposed to be amazing by something detectable like a metagene. And would you look at the time! It’s still relatively early in the day. Let’s go look at the rest of those cult sites.” She set off at a brisk pace, leaving him to follow, scanning the trails like before, but with a lot more to think about.
[Wow. Just look at all that information. Was I really just looking for a good opportunity to dump it? No way, what are you talking about, this was done with the poise and delicacy of a ballerina writing a story on her own back, in cursive, with her foot. Or his. It might be a man ballerina. ballerino?]
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It’s dark, outside the old warehouse. Though it seems abandoned, its owner still keeps some goods there, when other locations are full. Tonight, however, it is mostly empty. On the side of the building, a loose window swings open and children begin to jump out, one after the other. They come in all shapes and sizes, mostly boys but there are some girls. What they have in common is the expression on their faces. Slightly nervous, but triumphant, afraid of being caught, they are yet caught up in a frenzy of malicious glee. They glance back a few times, but nothing has changed, so they keep running. Then it is quiet again. Inside the warehouse, their victim stirs.
It’s hot, but there isn’t anything new about that. He opens his eyes and stretches out a bit, slightly stiff from his wounds and the stress of healing repeatedly in a short period of time. He tries to feel his back to check the status of his shirt. No good, it’s torn to shreds after all the junk they threw at him. His pants aren’t much better, and if he wants to leave with any dignity, he should probably put out the fire. Standing slowly, he rolls his arms and neck, and picks his way to the edge of the junk pile. A lot of it is on fire, and rolling in the broken glass, bricks, and metal isn’t going to put him out. His blood is what started the fire in the first place, shedding more of it will only make things worse. He calmly pats out the worst parts, ignoring the heat. Burns heal faster than anything else, to the point he almost doesn’t feel them.
He sighs, trying to come up with a good explanation to give his foster mom, for why he’s out so late. Would she believe he was in a study group? Well, probably not. She’s seen his grades. He looks back for a second, wondering if he should clear out the trash strewn all around, and his eyes widen. Oh, no. The fire is spreading. Some cardboard boxes on one of the tall shelves had probably been splattered, and now all of them are burning merrily, giving off a warm glow. Sure, like arson is all that jolly. He has to get out fast, or he’ll have more than the angry foster-mom to deal with. He jumps out the window into the alley, and hears the sirens approaching fast. He runs for the street, realizing a little too late that his burned shoes won’t hold him. Now he’s barefoot, sprinting on the cracked asphalt, sparks flying every time his foot hits a shard of glass or a torn beer can. The bright lights come around the corner behind him, signalling the arrival of the authorities, and shouting voices indicate that he’s been spotted. This really isn’t his day.
He looks for somewhere to duck out of sight. It’s been pretty quiet, which means the mech cop for this area is sure to be on the way, if they aren’t, they will be within a minute. And there’s no way he’ll be able to get away from one of those guys. Best to just come easy, if it comes to it. Low headlights from the other side of the intersection catch his attention. A lady gets out, holding a large box in front of her. She glances at it, then looks directly at him. Looks up the street, where the fire is now a blaze and people are milling about. Soon someone will point the mech cop this direction and he’ll be in a huge amount of trouble. His fretting is interrupted when the car pulls in front of him. The door pops open, and the lady hisses at him, to get in quick, if he doesn’t want trouble. Obliging, he shuts the door behind him. The car accelerates away at a speed that he’s sure isn’t legal. Thanks for getting me away from the police, he says. She replies, what police? That makes him shut up for the rest of the short trip. He looks out the window, trying to figure out where they are, or where they are going. Suddenly the scenery changes, and he isn’t looking at drab buildings and closed-down shops, but drab trees and a gas station that should have been closed a long time ago. The lady makes a quick left off the road, and turns back towards the city.
The car finally stops moving behind an abandoned strip mall. The lady fiddles with the levers on either side of the wheel, of which there are about seven, and the ground rises on all sides to envelop them in darkness.
He wants to ask, what she is going to do with him. He’s realizing that it may have been a better idea to go with the police and explain himself. He speaks up.
“Where is this? Who are you? What are you going to do with me?”
“Ahhhh shut up, shut up. Modulant doesn’t answer questions, I just reveal information as she sees fit. And here in my lab, new test subjects do not speak until Modulant speaks to them! She means you... “ She waved her hand at him questioningly.
“Uh, I’m Jason Arch? Do you not know who I am?” He doesn’t mean to imply that he is well known, but he is wondering why she picked him off the street without knowing that much.
“Bah, Jason is a boring name. I’ll come up with something better when Modulant makes an MID for you. After she does the testing, of course. Modulant loves testing.” She leads him out of the darkened garage, through a surprisingly clean white-tiled hallway, to a very large room. It’s so large, he can’t compare it to any he’s ever seen. About half of it is taken up with training things, like treadmills, weight machines, odd colored boxes, pointy things on chains suspended from the ceiling, a cage full of small reddish cubes, and a teddy bear. He isn’t sure about the last few. The other side of the room is taken up by a single massive machine, half finished by the looks of things, with a big cone on the end of a multi-jointed arm.
“Woah. Are you a mad scientist or something? Cuz this place looks awesome.”
The lady’s eyes narrow. “Modulant is never mad. But slights against my sanity are the best way to get on her bad side. You wouldn’t do that, right, my little Giblet? Who’s my best subject?”
Jason is perplexed. “Giblet? What kind of name is that?”
“It’s me! Me, I’m Giblet! Who’re you? Are you another test subject? I won’t let you beat me, I’m the favorite.” Jason looks to see who spoke. There is a short boy in a red wetsuit standing in front of the cage. Behind him, where before there had been a mass of red cubes, there is nothing.
“Oh. Hello, uh, Giblet. I’m Jason.”
“Booooriing. I’m gonna give you a better name, just you wait. What do you do?”
“Do? Like, skills and talents? I dunno, I’m not that great at anything.”
“No, no, Mother picked you up on her mutant detector, that’s why you’re here. You have powers, so tell me what they are.”
“Oooh. Why should I tell you? I don’t even know what’s going on here. For all I know you guys could be planning to turn me over to the MCO, or maybe you ARE the MCO, and you’re gonna disappear me or something.” Jason doesn’t actually think this is the case, but he wants to have the upper hand here, and he isn’t as afraid of this kid as he is of Modulant, who is no longer listening in and is being distracted by her giant spike-arm thing.
“Hmph. I think I get it. You wanna know my power first! I’m Giblet. That’s cuz I can turn into little cubes of flesh, like giblets. Okay, I went. Now you.” He looks at Jason expectantly. “Tell me… please? Or I’ll eat your arm. Then we’ll see if you heal as well as me.”
Jason doesn’t like the sound of that, so he decides the best option is to talk. “My blood catches on fire when I bleed. That’s why my clothes are like this. I was bleeding a lot earlier today. But then it healed.”
“Uh huh. I can use that. Gimme a second, I’ll have a cool name in no time. Lesse, fire, blaze, flare, flame, booring. Pyro is where it’s at for fire. Now blood, hmm, yeah it’s plasma, no question. Pyroplasma?”
“Oh, that sounds awesome, I like that -” The name is decent, and Jason can’t think of anything better. He doesn’t want it to turn into something stupid.
“Too long, that’s like four syllables. It has to be 2, for sure.”
“I know! You can be Pasma.” Giblet grins widely, and Jason barely has time to glimpse a grid of lines appearing on his face before he’s traveled the length of the room as a red blur, only to reform on top of the part Modulant is working on. Jason can imagine the conversation, and resigns himself to the name. It may be odd, but at least it isn’t cheesy.
Then he lets the shock set in. “I’ve been kidnapped!” He thinks. “Now I’m separated from all of my loved ones. That would be …. Uh….” He tries again. “Now I’m separated from all the people I hate, and the police who probably think I’m responsible for about five cases of arson, and the people who throw sharp things at me and are actually responsible for those fires…” A positive outlook is essential in times of stress, he tells himself. I’m just rationalizing, there’s no way I could actually be better off here. No way. I bet those experiments are going to be SUPER painful, then I’ll regret staying.
“Hey, Modulant, are you going to cut me open and stuff?”
“Huh? Why would she do that?” Giblet and Modulant reply in unison. “Do you want her to?”
“No, just wondering.” Jason stays silent for a long time, thinking.
“Tell me more about this testing,” Pasma says.
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