Chapter One, Part One



Three weeks went by, and my family and I had made it cross country to Oregon. I sat in the back of the van, resting my head against the window as we drove through the suburbs of the city. The road was framed on either side with modern-style houses, occasionally I saw a few younger kids in nice clothes playing in the yards. A few of the older children, they looked around my age, were playing a basketball game in one of the driveways. They stopped their game to look over, watching as our family’s van drove by. One of them wore a dark hoodie with the hood pulled up over his head, I felt his gaze bore into me. I narrowed my eyes and turned, retreating into my mind. My thoughts trailed back to when I left the Risen Guild with my grandfather three weeks ago. I remember vividly, he walked me home. We had talked a lot, I had a lot of questions but, no matter what I asked, Alexander always found a way to give an answer that only prompted more questions. There were some questions he avoided entirely. “What did Thomas mean when he said that you should be dead?” is one question that he avoided. Alexander  “Where do I go now?” I remember asking. He smiled and stopped me, kneeling down. “M’boy, you come out to Oregon now. To a place called Ceres City. There, you will find all the help you will need to get your conduit back,” he said. He stood up, and we continued walking in silence for a long while. “I’m scared,” I said after what felt like forever. “What happens if my shadow comes back? What if it hurts me?” Alexander hummed, looking down at me. “Whatever happens,” he started. “I will always be there. No matter what poses danger to you, I will always be there to protect you. Wherever you may be, my Light will shine with you, even in the darkest of nights.”


I didn’t…know him. When he died. I was really, really little. But when he spoke, I couldn’t help but feel as if I had known him, my entire life. His words comforted me, and they still do to this day. “Grandpa?” I asked quietly. The word felt foreign, yet familiar, but Alexander looked down at me again. “What did he mean? War is coming? My shadow, I mean.” Alexander placed his hand on my shoulder and said, “You will know when you are ready. For now, do not fear.”


When we got to my home, he knelt down to eye level. “Todd,” he said to me. “You will make many friends on your journey. Beings more powerful than you could possibly imagine await you. They watch your journey. No matter how bad things get, know that you have powerful allies ready to do whatever they can. All you have to do is ask.” He smiled and stood up, turning. “I’m afraid I must go now. Hubert is making tea for me.” He reached his hand out, handing a silver key to me. It was long, with many more teeth wrapping around the silver rod. “You will need this. When the time comes, you will know what to do.”


When he faded away, I walked inside. As if by magic, it turned out that my father and mother were given the opportunity to work in a city known as Ceres City.


And now, my family and I were on the way to Oregon. I held the sack of splinters and dust in my lap, rubbing my thumb across the felt side. My younger sister, Savannah, or as we call her, Queenie, had her face smashed against her window and gazed out at the suburbs in awe. My dad looked up in the rearview mirror and peered at me. “What do you think, bud?” he asked. “We’re lucky, we got to buy a house on Noble Avenue. All the upperclassmen live here!” he said with a grin. I peered out at the empty street, quiet.


“Seems boring,” I mumbled, shifting a bit as we slowed down at an intersection. I leaned around to peek past the front seats, looking forward. The asphalt road faded into gravel, then dirt, as it disappeared into the forest. An uneasy feeling bubbled in the pit of my stomach as I stared at the ominous mist that hung just above the road. It was like the shadows swallowed the path and shrouded it, hiding it from sight entirely. I clenched my fists as I watched, it was almost like the shadows were dancing. I really didn’t like that. It felt like we sat there for hours, and I started to hear whispers in my ears. I felt sweat start to form in my palms when we finally turned to the left, driving up a slow incline. I breathed out and relaxed, rubbing my face. I turned my head to look out the back window and saw a boy standing in the middle of the road, staring back at me. I jumped, quickly turning back to the front. A lot of questions were swirling around in my head. Who was that kid? Why was he standing there? And what the heck was going on with that forest? 


I ended up shoving aside these thoughts as we pulled into the driveway and stopped. Dad shut the van off and yawned, unbuckling his seatbelt. I looked back to see the big moving truck turn at the intersection and slow down. It drove up and slowed, stopping on the street next to the sidewalk, my mom getting out. As we climbed out of the van and stretched, I looked up at our new house. It was a two-story house with a two-car garage, the door striped black and white. Directly above the garage door were two windows. The walls around the garage were made of brick and mortar, but above the house had whitewashed side paneling. The door was painted maroon with an oval window. It was clear, but also faceted, like a diamond, how it bends and distorts images. There was a large window directly to the left of the door, but it was clouded. Above the door was a spot to put a flag up. Not that we had a flag, but I was sure Dad was going to want to get one.


I heard the moving truck’s door rattle open, so I turned and started to walk over to help. I glanced to the right and saw a boy trotting down from up the hill. He waved to me, and I waved back before turning. My parents grinned and nodded to me. “Go make some friends,” Dad said. I rolled my eyes and turned back to the kid. He smiled and brushed his brown hair out of his icy blue eyes, sticking his hands into his basketball shorts pockets. “Hey! I heard a new family was moving in today,” he said. “That you?” I stretched my arms and yawned, nodding. “I live up the hill,” he said, pointing his thumb at the mansion up at the top of the hill behind him. 


“Really?” I asked, looking somewhat surprised at the mansion. The boy nodded, rolling his eyes. 


“Yeah. Don’t like it though. I’d rather go to someone else’s place to live, y’know?” he asked. “‘Sides, Dan and Liz, they make life real miserable. Hate it at home.” I raised my eyebrow at the mention of these people. “What are they, house workers?” I asked.


“No, they’re my…” I watched the boy think for a moment, then said, “Parents.” I watched his face twist in disgust, as if using that word to describe them repulsed him. At that, I frowned, then rubbed my head. “Yeah. I’d hate living in a big place like that,” I said, seeing the discomfort on the boy’s face at the mention of his parents. “I’m Todd Wolfe, by the way.”


“Sam Williams. Nice to meet you.” I reached my hand out, and Sam shook it with a hum. “It’s nice to see another kid my age on this street. Everyone here is really old, or they’re a bunch of Karens.” I let out a laugh and turned. 


“They have that ‘let me see your manager’ kind of vibe whenever they talk, right?” I asked. Sam snickered and nodded.


“Yeah,” he replied. I hummed and crossed my arms. “Although, I did see a couple other kids that looked around my age when we were driving, what about them?”


“Oh, they’re the neighborhood assholes. Don’t associate yourself with them,” Sam said to me. “Say, you wanna hang out?” he asked. I glanced over at Sam. “Dunno, up to my parents,” I replied. I turned and looked at Mom and Dad, and they waved. “Go off, bud!” Dad said. “We can take care of things!”


“Are you sure?” I asked. “There’s a lot to unpack.” They shooed me off and I turned back to Sam. He grinned and said, “Wanna explore?” I nodded and stretched. “Sure. You know this city better than I do.” Sam grinned and turned, walking down the street. I followed, keeping the bag close.


We walked for hours. Sam led me around the city on foot, pointing out the various sightseeing spots. In a few hours, we were already joking around and having a grand old time, walking down Main Street. Cars drove back and forth, and a lot of people were walking past. Most of them wore summer wear, which, considering it was late June, made sense. One thing I already liked more about Oregon than back in North Dakota was that it was significantly cooler. Around this time back in my old town, the temperature was ranging between ninety-five and a hundred and four degrees. Here, it was eighty, if I had to guess. Sam pulled me aside to make room for a kid on a bike, delivering newspapers. I watched him zoom past, as Sam said, “I don’t know why people are still bothering with that.” I frowned and turned to him as we continued walking. “What do you mean?”


“Delivering anything by hand,” Sam replied. “This city is the first truly automated city.” 


“Who to the what now?”


“Think of it like automating your house with like, Alexa or Google or something.” I went quiet at that as I thought. “So what you’re saying is that there’s a corporate-owned artificial intelligence running the city. Wouldn’t there be problems?” I asked.


“Well, yes and no. It’s a lot more complicated than that, but yeah there’s an AI running a lot of the city’s systems,” he explained. I scratched my head as I processed that. We continued walking, Sam explaining everything. The different shops, restaurants, all of it. He was in the middle of explaining one of the construction sites up ahead when I heard something from an alleyway to my right. I turned my head and saw a figure’s back in front of three girls. We continued walking for a while, past the alleyway, but I put it in reverse and came back to see what was going on. Sam continued talking and walking without noticing right away. “Yeah, over there’s the soon-to-be hospital-Todd? Hey!” Sam turned and looked at me, frowning and trotting up. I shushed him and listened, training my eyes down on the scene.


The girls were around my age, not much older or younger than me. One was slender and tall, five foot eleven? Six foot? She was tall, with blond hair pulled into a ponytail. She glanced at her fingernails boredly, already did I not particularly like her. Another was a chunky girl, short, with long brown hair. She clutched some books in her arms, pushing her glasses up on her face. But the girl that really caught my attention was the center one. She had black hair, like mine, long, but way longer than Short Stuff’s. She stood defiantly, staring at the guy’s face. “What do you want, Ethan?” she asked accusingly. The guy, Ethan, chuckled. “Oh, nothin’ much,” he replied.


I cast a glance at Sam, who studied me. We stayed quiet as we listened to the excursion. One of the other girls, not the leader, said, “You don’t do jack shit unless you want something.”


“Now, now, kitten. Language.” I rolled my eyes and stuck my tongue out, pointing my thumb at this “Ethan,” as if saying, “Get a load of this loser.” Sam pointed a finger at his mouth and mimed retching and grinned, then crossed his arms, watching me. I snickered at that, but deep down I was genuinely repulsed at this Ethan guy. I glanced over to see Sam staring at me curiously. Something about the way he looked at me…it wasn’t unsettling. More inquisitive. It was like he was asking me what I was going to do.


“But…okay, you got me there. Look, I just want a chance.” 


“No, Ethan. We’ve told you before.” I felt my jaw drop. Honestly, I was kind of impressed, the amount of disgust crammed into the thug’s name was like an overripe apple. One good prod, and it bursts. 


“Come on, pretty girl, please!” I heard Ethan plead.


“No! Ethan, stop!” said a new voice, what seemed to be Shortstack. I watched as the middle girl let out a scoff. “Take one step and I’ll sock you,” she said to Ethan. “Feisty, aren’t we?” he asked, taking a step forward.


And, just as she promised, the girl pulled her fist back and slammed it into Ethan’s stomach. Sam and I both winced as we heard the creep wheeze and stumble back. He panted for a moment, before looking up. “You bitch!” he snarled, starting to move forward aggressively. The middle girl stepped back, startled, as the other two started to panic. “Stop! Stop! Someone help!” I heard Shortstack shout. I turned from facing Sam, popping my neck. I took a step forward, turning my head to look at my new friend. If Sam was asking me what I was going to do, he seemed to like my answer a lot. With a wide smile on his face he nodded, following me. I raised my hand, making the “OK” symbol with it, sticking my thumb and index finger under my tongue and letting out a shrill whistle. “Excuse me!” I shouted, waving. “Hi! I think that she made it pretty clear she wasn’t particularly interested in you, chief,” I said. Ethan spun around, his hood falling to reveal his face. 


I won’t lie. I see why he was shot down.


His red hair was really greasy, and I could smell the guy from down the alley! I was absolutely certain that it wasn’t the dumpsters. I smelled the same way after going on a week-long hunting trip with my dad and some other buds back in North Dakota. His face was riddled with acne, it was more like a minefield than a face. He looked at me with bloodshot eyes, making me think he had done something probably not legal. I quickly recognized him as the kid who stared me down when I first showed up. He snarled at me and Sam. “Who the hell are you?” he spat, eyeing me. When he turned to Sam, Ethan let a groan out. “Are you shitting me,” he muttered. Sam waved, then asked, “How was that swirlie for you, by the way? I had to dip before you could recover.” I snickered and crossed my arms, staring down Ethan. He was a bit taller than me, but also scrawnier. I could take him down on my own easily, but with Sam there too? This would be a walk in the park! I brushed my shirt off and said, “I’m the new kid on the block.”


“Whatever. Get out of here, retards, this ain’t your business.” I held my hand up, stopping Sam from making a comment. “See,” I started, pointing at the girls. “It became our business when she called for help. And, we stood at the entrance of this alley for a good five or six minutes, watching. Go away, man. It’d make things way easier.” Ethan scoffed, turning away.


“Bro, you’d better leave,” he said. 


“Or what?” I mocked, holding up my arms. “You’ll hit me?” Ethan spat and reached into his pocket, then pulled out a switchblade. 


Man, I wish people would just listen to my advice.


Sam and I let out a sigh together. “Is that a switchblade?” I asked. “I’m pretty sure switchblades are illegal in Oregon.”


Okay, okay, wait. I would like to point out that this is incorrect, and there are technically no federal laws on switchblades. The more you know!


Ethan held the weapon tight, glaring at us. “I’ll slice you open,” he hissed. With a shrug, I asked, “Is that seriously the best you’ve got? Pathetic. I could come up with a better remark!” Ethan hissed and eyed me and Sam. Like he was studying us. Then I watched Ethan let out a taxi whistle of his own, and upon him doing so I heard a grunt. I casted a glance over my shoulder to see a really big guy lumber down the alley. “Okay,” I started. “I’ll admit. This complicates things. Sam? You know them?” I asked.


“Unfortunately, yeah. Pencil Arms over there is Ethan McThurber. He’s a vulture kind of guy, relying on bigger people to fight his fights. Looks like he got Billy Markenson to do his dirty work for him.”


“Billy Markenson?” I asked.


“Yessir. School bully, like he was out of a 1990’s high school drama novel. You know, that guy?” he replied.


“I didn’t expect it to be so easy to stereotype someone,” I remarked.


“It’s one of my strong suits,” Sam said with a grin. With a roll of my eyes I asked, “Are we in trouble?”


“Nah. Billy has the IQ of a rock with a doodle face drawn on it, and Ethan starts sobbing at the lightest of bumps.”


“Scale of one to ten?” I asked.


“Three, tops.”


“Sounds like a party,” I said with a grin. “Shall we?”


“Yes we shall, my good sir.” I grinned and ducked down, feeling Sam slid over my back as I lunged up and dealt with Billy. I swung my left arm in a nasty uppercut, striking the big guy’s chin hard. Billy stumbled back, spitting out some blood before casting his angry gaze down on me. I managed to get a good look at his ugly mug right then. He had a bit of stubble growing on his chin, a really wispy mustache growing under his nose. Speaking of, it looked like it had been broken about seventeen too many times, looking more like a tomato than a schnoz. He had beady, brown eyes, and curly dirty blonde hair. The big guy stood rather tall, around six foot seven. He was a huge kid!


Billy pulled his fist back and whipped it forward. I pulled my right shoulder back and let the strike fly by, checking his burly wrist with my right hand. I spun, sliding my left foot back a bit and took a sort of reverse cat stance. I was up on the ball of my foot, but my left foot was a bit further back behind my right. This created a twist movement, and as I twisted I struck the side of his jaw with my clenched fist. In karate, we call any sweeping clenched-fist strikes “hammer blows,” because in the old days over in Japan or wherever karate originated from, these hammer blows were like, you know. Hammer blows.


Billy stumbled a bit, but he pulled his still-extended arm back and smashed his elbow into the side of my head. I grunted and stumbled, black dots dancing in my sight and my vision swirling. I coughed and spat a tooth out, looking up to see Billy raising both of his meaty hands up. He swung them down, when there was a flicker of light. For a brief moment, I saw a figure appear and parry the downward strike, yanking apart Billy’s arms. I grinned to myself and reached my hands up and around the back of his head.


Thanks, Gramps, I thought to myself as I pulled Billy’s face into my knee with one strong yank. I pushed my shoulder into Billy’s chest and danced back, fists raised. Billy lumbered over and pulled his fist back, throwing a punch. I slid my foot back and raised an arm, twisting into a block before snapping my hand out and striking Billy’s thick neck. I went to strike my opponent when he charged, scooping me up over his head.


Oh no.


Billy had one hand around my bicep, the other around my shin. I squirmed in Billy’s hands as he turned, stomping over to a dumpster. He let go of my leg to grab the lid, and I pulled my foot back to kick him. He grunted and then threw me into the dumpster, slamming it shut. I gagged at the scent and flailed, then lifted the lid to peak out.


I saw Sam fighting Ethan, my jaw dropping. He seemed more like he was playing with Little Man, the way he would slap away Ethan’s arm whenever he swung. Ethan still held on to the switchblade, but he could never get close to hitting Sam. I watched as Sam ducked under a lazy swing and slapped Ethan’s face. “What’s wrong, tough guy?” he asked, dancing around and bopping his opponent. “Can’t keep up?” I watched as Ethan shouted and turned, jabbing the knife out. Sam brought his hand up and grabbed a hold of Ethan’s wrist, pulling it up and back. As Ethan was yanked forward, Sam pulled his open hand back and jack-hammered it forward, striking Ethan’s face hard. I winced as Ethan fell to the ground, absolutely knocked the heck out! 


I pushed the lid up further and rolled over the lip of the dumpster, falling to the ground with a grunt. As I stood up, I heard Billy growl behind me, so I glanced over my shoulder. Billy lumbered towards me from behind, so I stepped forward. “Sam!” I called, clasping my hands together. “On me!” Sam grinned as I knelt down, holding my cupped hands out. He ran forward and jumped up, sticking his foot in my hands. I leapt to my feet and flung Sam up into the air, watching him arc and spin. “Ally-oop!” he shouted, slamming his heel into the back of Billy’s head in an overhead heel kick. Billy shouted in pain as he fell down, landing heavily on the ground. Sam rolled upon landing, standing up and raising his arms in the air. I let out a laugh as he strutted over pridefully.


We bumped fists as Ethan and Billy lay groaning. I felt exhaustion wash over me, my mind going blank for a split second. I didn’t realize how lucky I actually was, or how bad that blow to the head hurt, or how actually bad I smelled. I flicked garbage juice from my fingertips, sticking my tongue out in disgust. “Does anyone have a rag or something?” I asked. Sam pointed at the two groaning kids and said, “Just use their shirts. Not like they’re gonna be doing anything.” I rolled my eyes and wiped my hands off on Billy’s shirt, then rubbed my face and turned. I looked at the three girls, who stared right back at Sam and I in shock. “Are you okay?” I asked, wiping my nose of blood. That elbow really stung. “Y-yeah,” said Short Stuff. “Who are you?”


“The new kid on the block. I’m Todd Wolfe,” I said, wiping my nose off on my sleeve. I gagged, as the scent of rotting food was now ingrained in my clothes.


“You already know me,” said Sam. The three girls uneasily looked at each other. Short Stuff introduced herself first. “I’m Delilah,” she said quietly. Miss Popular huffed and checked her phone. “Marilyn,” she said bluntly. The third girl shot Marilyn a glare and turned. She smiled and reached her hand forward. “Andromeda. But my friends call me a lot of things. You’ll catch on quick, I think.” I smiled back and shook her hand gently, looking at the two thugs on the ground. “Come on,” Sam said, grabbing my sleeve. “Let’s blow this popsicle stand.” I nodded and turned, taking a step back towards the street, but then I paused. I turned around, then asked, “You two wanna come hang out with us? I just moved here earlier today.”


I didn’t know where that came from. I’ve always been horrible around girls. To my surprise, they looked to Andromeda, who smiled and nodded. “Sure! We’ve got nothing better to do.” Sam stared at me, then let out a laugh and playfully punched my shoulder. “Well aren’t you a lady’s man!” he said with a grin. I felt my face grow hot but let out a laugh, shoving into Sam’s shoulder. “Shut up, dipstick. Let’s swing by my place so I can get a fresh change of clothes. I’m gonna have to throw these out, I’m never getting the smell out,” I said. 


You know, maybe Oregon wasn’t going to be as bad as I thought it would be.