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Chapter 02

      Part 2: The unwanted Bodyguard
      
      The clearing was a hundred feet across and lined with trees so wide that thirty men holding hand couldn't wrap around them. Each one had scars to mark the years, decades and centuries they had lived through. They were tall, proud and old; older than any now alive except the being standing in the middle of them.

      He, for there was no denying that he was male, stood over ten feet tall. He was human in general shape, except that his head had a wide muzzle and triangular ears on top. His arms and legs were thick with muscles that bulged with every movement he made. His entire body was covered with short onyx fur and a thin tail with a tuff of slightly longer fur at the end danced behind him.

      To anyone who didn't know this being, and there were only a handful left who did know him, the movements he was going through would look like a dance, the fluidity of the motions, the gracefulness of the acrobatics he went through. But they belied the power behind them.

      When he stuck one of the trees with a closed fist the bark and several inches beneath it exploded due to the force of the impact. If he struck it with an open hand the vicious claws at the end of his fingers would rip out bark and wood out as if it was soft cotton.

      The being stopped and bared his teeth as he sniffed the air. They were sharp and many of them, more than should fit in a normal mouth. He turned swiftly and roared at the man standing at the edge of the clearing.

      "He was attacked my Lord," the man said without reacting. He was dressed in a simple robe made from the woven fiber of a local plant, it was very pale green and had a pleasant scent to it. The language the man was speaking wouldn't have been recognized by anyone alive today, or by anyone who had lived in the last four thousand years. It wasn't a language that had ever become commonly used among humans even when more of them might have heard it spoken. Now only a hand full of being still spoke it, and none of them humans.

      "How did it happen," the large being roared as he slammed a fist in a tree hard enough to make it shake all the way to the top. "No one was supposed to know where he was."

      "I do not know my Lord. The message simply stated that he had been attacked, but that he was all right."

      "Good, I have no desire to go through what was required to bring him about a second time. The man who brought you the message, what of him?"

      "He would not stay, even when I ordered him to. He left through the same portal he arrived in."

      "Take care with what you say rat," The being said piercing the man with his gaze, "you have no authority over any who are linked to me."

      "Of, of course my Lord," the man whimpered, "I merely thought that you would want to talk to him."

      "Yes, you do like to try to do my thinking for me," the being said with a snort before turning and therefore not seeing the hateful looked thrown at him. "It matters not. He would not have stayed even if I had been the one to order so. Considering what I represent to him it was a wonder I was able to make him honor his debt to me."

      "There will be other attacks on him now that they have found him, my Lord"

      "I know," the being said studying the damage he'd done to a tree rather than to look at the man.

      "How can my Lord be so calm about this? Didn't he send the child to the Americas for his protection?"

      The being's laugh was loud and powerful.

      "Protection? There is only one place where I could keep him safe, and that is within me. I sent him there so he could learn the way of these new humans. If those who are mine are to survive they will need him."

      "Surely my Lord is mistaken. You are the most powerful being I have ever known. Those humans are nothing compared to you."

      The being turned and studied the man carefully.

      "Even the mother to us all has given up trying to contain them. Within the next hundred of those human's years there will be nothing left of my domain. I may rage against them all I desire, but I will not be able to stop them. They will eventually defeat me, even without your help."

      The man gasped. "What is my Lord suggesting? I would never?"

      "Would you not?" the being replied with a sad smile.

      "Never, I am your loyal servant."

      "You only serve me because you have not found a way to steal my power. Keep to your schemes, in the end they and you are irrelevant. Now leave me, I have to make arrangements."

      The man left as instructed, but he was fuming.

      "Irrelevant?" he grumbled to himself, "I'll show that oaf who is irrelevant."

      * * * * *

      The day after the attack I didn't get out of bed. Mom and dad tried to convince me to at least get up, but I wouldn't move. My bed was the only place I felt safe, the only place where no one could get to me. Mom brought me breakfast, which I didn't touch. It was all I could do to look at it and not throw up.

      My body felt exhausted, but my mind was in over speed. The questions came back as soon as I woke up. When I closed my eyes and tried to chase them away my mind threw me the memory of those two dead men.

      The man who had saved me had dispatched them efficiently. He had been calm and precise in his strikes. Each time he swung his sword a body part fell.

      With a groan I pushed the memory away and questions fell in the empty space. What was I going to do when I was attacked again? Would I freeze again? Maybe I could run away this time.

      At noon she asked me if I wanted to eat something and I just shook my head. My stomach was growling in protest, but I couldn't imagine eating anything.

      Exhaustion took me again at some point and I woke up to the phone ringing; my dad answered it. I looked at the clock, almost six. I caught the smell of steak, carrot and potatoes and my stomach growled at me. This time it wasn't going to be ignored.

      Still wearing my PJs I slowly made my way down the stairs. My hands were shaking and I could feel my legs wobbling under me. I felt like I had after running as fast as I could for half an hour. I'd gone to Mam Johansson's field just outside of town to test just how fast I could go. I'd barely been able to make it back home.

       "Jay," my dad exclaimed as hung up the phone, "I'm happy you decided to get out of bed."

      Mom looked up from the pot she was stirring.

      "If I didn't make it down now, my stomach was going to come by itself." I tried to give them a smile, but it didn't come out quite convincingly.

      Dad pulled out my chair and waited for me. "That was Kenneth on the phone. He wanted to know how you were doing."

      "How did he know?" I asked as I sat.

      "Margaret called him."

      That made sense. Before his dad had been transferred to Houston, me, Maggie and Kenneth had been an inseparable trio. Maggie was the brains of our group, Kenneth was the rogue and I was . . . I have no idea what I was.

      "She called after school," my mom said as she brought me a bowl of stew, "she wants to come over tonight to see you."

      I shook my head. "I'll see her at school tomorrow."

      "Oh, I'm so proud of you," mom said as she hugged me. "Now be careful, don't eat too fast. You don't want to make yourself sick."

      "I'm proud of you too," my dad said. He reached over and squeezed my shoulder. "It takes courage to go back out after what happened to you."

      "I don't know about that. I just don't want to fall behind this early in the year."

      We said Grace and I started on my first bowl. The stew was wonderful; I had to force myself to eat slowly when all I wanted to do was wolf it down. The second one went down just as easily. I would have had a third, but mom wouldn't let me. She was afraid I'd make myself sick if I ate too much.

      I slept very well that night.

      * * * * *

      The next morning I was running down the stairs and eating a hearty breakfast like nothing had happened. I had decided that it was in the past. I was done with it. I wasn't a baby anymore; if I was going to be a man I couldn't let something like that continue to affect me.

      That's what I told myself, and I think I even managed to believe it a little.

      I kissed mom on the cheek and waved to my dad before running out the door. My speed didn't falter until I got close to the Patter's house. I slowed and then I stopped. I was standing in front of where I had been beaten.

      I don't know how long I stood there watching the spot. Someone had cleaned the sidewalk, my eyes couldn't see any of the stains, but my memory showed me where they all were. I could see where each limbs had been, where the pools of blood were.

      Eventually my stomach turned and I had to look away. I crossed to the other side of the road before continuing to school. When I got there it was too late for me to go to the gym so I dropped my bag in my locker and went to the cafeteria.

      The place was a hub of activities with at least half the school in it. I couldn't see the Magster, but finding her was easy. All I had to do was look for Eddy, tall and lanky Edward.

      Eddy was a nerd, plain and simply. Like me he was skinny, but he was taller, over six feet tall, and he had the glasses. He always wore a button up shirt and pleated pants. Throw a lab coat on him and pocket protector and you'd have a stereotypical scientist.

      His shaggy blond hair was my beacon and a few seconds later I was sitting next to them.

      "Jay, you're back," Maggie exclaimed, "how are you feeling?"

      "What are you doing here?" Eddy added, "shouldn't you be at the gym?"

      "I didn't feel like going this morning," I lied to him and ignored the look he exchanged with Maggie. "I'm good," I told her, "what did I miss yesterday?"

      "Are you sure?" She asked instead of answering me.

      "Yeah yeah, I'm perfectly fine."

      "I mean after what happened to you I'd be a wreck."

      "I said I'm fine!" They jumped in surprise. I didn't mean to be that harsh. "Sorry, but I really am fine."

      The look she gave me said she didn't believe me, but Eddy prevented her from saying anything by handing me a stack of paper.

      "Here, those are my notes from chemistry, you can transcribe them. The Magster here got the notes from history and grabbed yesterday's assignments from your math teacher."

      She wasn't happy at having been interrupted but she pulled out a sheet. "I was going to bring it to you last night, but things got crazy at home."

      I looked it over; it was the chapters I needed to read as well as the exercise I needed to hand in at the start of tomorrow's class.

      The bell rang as I finished reading it and we went to our separate classed.

      The day was eerie. As it progressed more and more people asked me how I was doing. At first it was mainly people I knew, but by the end of my second class strangers were asking me. Principal Pullox sought me just before lunch to ask me that same questions.

      The only point of normality in the day was Billy and his cronies. They ran into me in the afternoon. I knew they were coming even if they were behind me, I could smell Billy's horrible aftershave. I never understood why he put on so much of it.

      The shove came and I flew forward in the lockers. The only thing I did was raise my arms in front of my face to protect it.

      "I guess you think you're special now," Billy growled.

      "Can't say that I had," I mumbled to myself as I turned.

      He grabbed me by my shirt and pushed me back against the lockers. Everyone was giving us a wide berth, but hardly anyone stopped to see what was going on. Billy bullying me was just part of the regular day at this school.

      "What did you say?" He said pushing his face against mine. The guy needed to use some mouthwash pretty bad.

      "I said that I don't," I replied looking down.

      "You got that right Mortimer," he said as he let me go, "You're not special, you're not anything. You're just scum for me to pick on. So don't let the way these idiots treat you go to your head. I'm going to continue beating you up and making your life miserable is that understood? Hell if you could afford to have money for lunch I'd steal that too." He turned and walked away.

      Well at least he hadn't punched me this time.

      His newest follower kept watching me for a few moments longer. I didn't like the look he was giving me, it was speculative. He was wondering if Billy would let him get away with what he was thinking of doing to me. He then turned and caught up to his leader and I breathed a sigh of relief.

      * * * * *

      "Are you sure you're ok?" Maggie asked me. We were walking home and it was the first time she did since the morning so I controlled my desire to snap at her. Every time we'd run into each other during the day I could tell she could barely stop herself.

      "Yes, I'm fine. I really wish everyone would stop asking."

      "We're just worried about you, that's all."

      "I know, but it gets tiresome when the same person asks me over and over, like she didn't believe the answer I gave her."

      "Fair enough," she said with a small smile. "Esteban said that you didn't fight back, you just let them beat you up."

      I wasn't surprise Esteban had said that. He was the son of one of the cops at the stations so he'd have heard about it and he was a really bad gossip.

      "What did you expect me to do?" I said flatly as I crossed to the other side of the street before reaching the Patter's house. "It was two adults who surprised me and one of them had a gun."

      I saw the look she gave me as she followed me across the road. "Sensei Ilsy has taught us ways to react to surprise attacks."

      "It's not the same. In class and even in competitions it's all controlled out here it isn't. I just, I just froze." I looked away. I wished it had been the other reason why I hadn't dared fight back, but I hadn't lied, when the attack at started, my mind had gone completely blank.

      "Then we need to ask Sensei to give you more training so you won't freeze up next time."

      "No! Look I appreciate that you're just looking out for me, but I'm not learning Karate to kick other people's b. . . . to beat someone up, ok."

      "You can't depend on a passing Hero to come and rescue you. This wasn't Billy just pushing you around. You could have gotten seriously hurt. You need to learn how to defend yourself

      "It's done and over with ok, just leave it alone. I'll deal with the next attack when it happens." I almost stumbled when I realized what I'd let slip.

      "What do you mean 'next attack'?"

      "Just leave it alone please."

      "Like Hell I will," she said getting in front of me and forcing me to stop, "Now tell me exactly what you mean by 'the next attack'."

      I stopped in my track. She knew I'd be utterly shocked by her use of the 'h' word. I tried to out stare her, but I lost.

      "The guy who saved me said there was going to be other attacks like that one," I said softly in one breath.

      "This is insane, why?" She looked around quickly.

      "I don't know. He didn't tell me that."

      "Then do you have a death wish or something? You know you're going to be attacked again but you don't want to make sure you can defend yourself?"

      "Of course I want to, but I'm going to do it on my own." I looked her in the eyes. "I mean it Maggie I don't want you to tell anyone about this, not our teachers, not your dad, or my folks, is that understood?"

      Maggie hesitated before nodding.

      "Promise me you won't say anything," I told her firmly.

      "I swear," she said through grating teeth, "I won't tell anyone that you're a stupid idiot for not wanting any help with this."

      * * * * *

      Starting the next day everyone went back to their normal behavior. I was back to being just another guy in the school. I got a curious look here and there but that was it. At first I was relieved at being left alone, but then I realized that without the constant annoyance to keep my mind busy it started thinking again.

      Were those looks just of curiosity I found myself wondering. After all the creep who had attacked me had spend the day watching me. I didn't know most of those doing it now, maybe my next attacker was hiding among them.

      It got so bad that by lunch time I was jumping every time someone bumped into, even when Eddy grabbed my arm to pull me out of sight of Billy I pretty much wrenched it out of his hand and backed right into the bully. I got out of that with only a punch to the stomach and my books littering the floor. He must have been busy with something important to just leave it at that.

      When I told Eddy I was fine after that he didn't believe me.

      The next day was much the same, I jumped at every noise and worried about the motive of everyone watching me. The only bright note in it was that coach Timberson wasn't on the field when I showed up. Mister Milton was there instead and informed us that the coach had been in a car accident and he'd coach us until the school had found a better replacement.

      Rumors about the accident ran rampant over the next week. Some said he'd been drunk, that he'd killed a kid, that he'd run off the road to avoid driving over a kitten even that he'd done it to kill himself.

      * * * * *

      By the end of the next week I'd managed to convince myself that no one was out to get me, for the moment at least. I still jumped once in a while at loud noises, but I wasn't as obvious about it as before.

      I found that if I sketched something it made it easier to ignore those feeling so I started drawing in my note books and even in a few of the text books. Most of the sketches revolved around my rescuer so I set about doing a proper drawing of him.

      The replacement coach arrived in time for my last PE class of the week, and man was he a looker. He was tall and buff. He was wearing track pants and a white t-shirt. It was tight enough that I could make out ever muscles under it. He had dirty blond hair that went down to his shoulders and just a bit of fuzz over his square jaw.

      "All right everyone, my name's Eric Warner, but you guys can call me Thor," he said casually in his low voice. "I'm going to be your track and field coach for this year. I'm replacing Coach Timberson who was in a car accident."

      "Man I hope I can get him to use his hammer on me," whispered one of the older girls in the class to her neighbor who nodded in appreciation. I knew what they meant, I wasn't *that* sheltered, I had access to the internet. I didn't want that, but I both hoped for and dreaded that he would shower with the rest of us after class since this was the last class of the day.

      "Cranford, Mortimer, Jurgen and Kelvin; According to Timberson's notes you four are our best runners. I want you to do a slow mile around the track. Don't push yourself this is just a warm up, a jog will work fine."

      "What about the rest of us?" someone asked as I headed to the track

      "Who likes to run?" the coach asked and a few hands came up. "Ok, you can go for a run too." He checked his clipboard. "from what I've read of Timberson's method he expects each of you to excel at everything. That's not the way I do things. We're going to find what you are good at and that's what you will focus on."

      He kept talking, but I was now to far from him to listen by that point.

      * * * * *

      With the start of the next week my paranoia had changed. I wasn't jumping anymore, but I couldn't shake the feeling that I was being watched. Multiple times a day I had to fight the desire to look around me to catch whoever it was, but I couldn't stop a few furtive glance here and there, without much success. I wasn't surprise I couldn't find someone spying on me, it was just my mind playing tricks.

      That lasted the whole week while I was in school.

      On that Friday I decided to walk to the old mall and back instead of going home for lunch to get a change of air. The mall had been closed for the last few years but security still drove around to prevent bums from taking over.

      The feeling of being watched followed me there. I had hoped coming here would have given me some peace. I sat on the concrete flower box near the locked up entrance and ate the sandwich mom made me.

      I was berating myself over having become so paranoid when I was shoved forward. I was so surprised to find myself lying on the pavement that I didn't move.

      "Come on Kid," a guy said behind me, "get up and show me what you can do."

      I slowly stood and turned. The first thing that hit me was that he guy was red. He was wearing a one piece jumpsuit that was blood red. His muscled body filled the suit out pretty well. He rushed me and before I could do anything he punched me three times in the chest.

      I backed up and bent over but managed to remain standing. The guy took a step toward me and I swung at him. I didn't think I just closed my fist and swung, and missed.

      He punched me in the face and I fell to the ground again.  While I was there I had the time to think it was a good thing my fist hadn't connected. I would have hated to see what would have happened to him if it had.

      "Got to say I expected more out of you," the man said, "they said you killed the guy they sent before me, but I guess he was just a wimp."

      I looked in the distance and I forced myself on all four. I had to run. If I could get going I'd easily leave him behind. I dug a foot in the ground and tensed.

      "Oh no you don't."

      He kicked me in the stomach and I was back on the ground, curled up in a ball.

      "I got to say this was fun," he said as he knelt next to me, "probably the easiest fifty grand I've ever made." He grabbed my head in his hands. "Just so you don't go to the great beyond wondering, the name of the guy killed you is Sanguine."

      He turned my head to the left; I could feel him tense his arms. I started to say a prayer, asking for God to look after my parents once I was gone, but the man released me with a curse.

      I looked up to see him backpedal fast and then someone in a gray trench coat run by. By the time I could sit up they were a dozen feet away from me exchanging blows. The guy's trench coat obscured most of the fight as it flew around him, but what I could see showed that Sanguine knew how to fight but relied mostly on brute force.

      The other guy's strikes were quick and precise. He hit and moved out of the way before the other guy could strike back. The few times he did get hit he rolled with it and quickly got back on his feet. I saw that he was wearing a black ski mask which left only his eyes exposed.

      His fighting style felt familiar, but I was too mesmerized to think about it.

      Trench coat guy did a spin kick to Sanguine's head and he went down one final time. That kick had been more than familiar; I'd seen it practiced three times a week at the dojo.

      "Are you ok?" he asked as he walked by me to pick up a backpack lying on the ground. 'His' voice was deep, but it sounded forced and the curves I saw didn't belong on a man. I didn't answer, I was too stunned by the realization.

      She took a rope out of the pack as she went back to Sanguine. I was finally able to get myself to stand and followed her. She knelt and tied the man's legs and arms before pinning a card to his jumpsuit. It was white with the picture of a fist on it.

      While she was admiring her work I grabbed her mask and pulled it off.

      "Holy shit," she exclaimed as she stood and faced me. Yeah, now it sounded like her. "What's the big idea? You don't pull off a hero's mask."

      "What are you doing here Maggie?" I growled. I was angry at her for being here.

      "What does it look like? I'm saving your sorry ass."

      "I didn't need your help!" I knew I was lying.

      "Oh yeah, 'cause you were doing so great when I got here." Het tone went up a notch

      "I was fine."

      "So you do have a death wish," she said harshly.

      "Of course not!"

      She opened her mouth to say something, but instead grabbed my arm. "We don't want to be here when security drives by," she said as she pulled me along.

      Once we were far enough under the multi level parking lot she let me go.

      "What was the big idea not going home for lunch as usual? I was lucky someone saw you head here or I wouldn't have been here in time."

      "Since when did I have to start checking in with you before doing anything?"

      See eyed me for several seconds and I started getting nervous under her stare.

      "Ok, I want to know what the fuck is going on with you," she said in an unusually calm voice.

      "Nothing's going on," I replied defensively.

      "Bullshit, you defending yourself."

      "I told you why, I just froze."

      "But you don't want to get over that? This isn't like school Jay. There Billy gets bored of pushing you around and moves on to something else. That guy was about to snap your neck. If I'd missed his head with that rock you'd be dead right now. Why do you bother coming to the Dojo if you're not going to use what you learn to defend yourself?"

      "I don't go there to learn how to fight."

      "Then why?"

      "I'm doing it to learn better control."

      "Control over what? Damn it Jay, You're not making any sense. I'm not saying you have to be some crazed fighter and pick a fight with everyone you meet, but you're good enough that you should be able to take down someone who attacks you."

      "No," I stated, "I'm not going to fight."

      "Why?" she pleaded.

      "Because out here it isn't like at the dojo, things aren't controlled here. If I fight here I don't have the time to think about what I'm doing I'll just react and I might hurt someone."

      "So WHAT! If someone attacks you, planning on killing you why should it matter if you break a bone of his or two while you're defending yourself."

      "Arrrg," I grabbed my hair and turned. She didn't understand. I couldn't tell if she didn't want to understand or if this was just beyond her. I looked at the concrete post a few feet from me and I felt my anger rise. She was going to force me to show her what the danger was.

      With a scream I took the few steps to the post and slammed my fist in it, sending a six inch deep chunk of concrete flying off its corner. I looked at my fist with bits of bloody concrete embedded in the knuckles. I had expected it to hurt more. It had been years since I'd hit anything with all my strength and the pain had been so strong that I hadn't been able to open my hand for an hour. I opened my fist and the bits fell to the ground. The damage to my hand had been worst too.

      Now she knew I wasn't ordinary.

      "Oh my god. You're a parahuman." She hugged me. "This is wonderful."

      "No it isn't."

      She forced me to turn. "Of course it is, my best friend is a parahuman what could be bad about that?"

      "Wake up Maggie, ok?" I said with a sigh, "this isn't LA. This is Tyberon, Texas. About the only place more intolerant to Parahuman is New York City."

      "This place isn't that bad, we have the Shroud after all."

      "And how much good press has he been getting? The cops are after him, the paper says he's just as bad as the criminals he stops even 'tho he's the only reason we have such a low crime rate."

      "So? I don't care. I still think it's wonderful that you're a parahuman."

      I rolled my eyes. "You idolize anyone who's a parahuman. I guess you even Idolize the Terrorist," I said with a teasing smile.

      "Fuck no. no criminal, parahuman or not, should ever be idolized."

      "All right," I said raising my hands in surrender, "I'll never bring it up again, and it's wonderful that I'm a parahuman." I lowered my arms and looked at her seriously. "Please don't mention this to anyone. I mean it. This has to remain our secret."

      "Of course it is," she said as she wrapped her arms around my neck.

      "Where did you get the trench coat?" I asked once she let go of me.

      "From the attic, it was my granddad's from when he was in the war.

      "And what was the card about?"

      "That was my calling card, every hero needs one."

      "You're kidding, right?"

      "No."

      "You can't play at being a hero Maggie, you don't have any powers."

      "So, the Shroud doesn't have any powers either."

      "Of course he does. He can create darkness."

      "That's just a rumor; it's never been shown that he does that. He just uses his black costume to take advantage of it. That's why he's only active at night. How strong are you?"

      "I don't know," I said shrugging and happy for the change of subject. It would give me time to think of a way to discourage her to play hero. "I put six hundred pounds on a bar last year, that's all it would take and I was able to lift that a few times without too much trouble."

      "Anything else I should know?"

      "I'm pretty fast."

      "Like SS?"

      I shook my head. "No, I'm nowhere near as fast as her, I think my maximum speed is about forty miles an hour, and unlike the Scarlet Speedster I accelerate normally."

      "What else?"

      "I heal faster, not instantaneous or anything, but by tomorrow night all the bruises from the beating I just got will probably be gone."

      "And?"

      "That's it as far as I know."

      "So strength, speed and healing; not an unusual combination, add to that you know how to fight and you could be a decent hero."

      "I've already said I'm not fighting. And neither should you, you could get really hurt."

      "Well, you're not going to stop me. The only way you can keep me safe is to become my side kick."

      "That's not funny."

      "Sorry. And just so you know. Until you decide to start defending yourself I'm your personal bodyguard. That means you don't go anywhere without me."

      "You're joking."

      "No. I don't plan on losing my best friend just because he's being a scardycat."

      "You realize that the school is going to notice and start talking, right?"

      "You realize that a guy your age is expected to have a girlfriend, right?"

      Only the fact that I knew she wasn't serious stopped me from feeling sick at that thought. Maggie knew how I felt about the subject.

      "Speaking of school, we should head back before lunch is over. Any chance you can help me redesign my card? I had to make that one from a photo I found on the net."

      "I'll think about it."



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