Marcel frowned as he looked into the water. Scrying the boy had always been difficult, and chancey, but this was different. The boy was protected by his very nature, a focus of Light energy that Marcel's Dark powers found hard to touch. Caution and skill were required to do anything to the boy, or anyone around him, as that Light energy would react violently to the presence of the Dark. But this was something different.
Marcel threw another spell out through the bowl of water, seeking not the boy this time, but the source of the interference. He felt the spell wrestle with something, and then it exploded. It didn't fail, it didn't simply break under the strain, the spell exploded back through the link, shattering the bowl and sending the water in it flying.
Marcel glared at the dark, stained wood of his altar. That was a protective spell, of incredible power! How the hell had he run into something like that without realizing it first?
Elsewhere Terrance clutched his head in unbearable agony as the house shifted around him. He'd pushed his senses deep into the early morning gloom around him, sensing the strange, ugly energies of last night's attack and wrestled with them. He didn't know what they were, but he was protected by the house and this gave him a chance to learn a little about whatever was happening to him while also interfering with what he was convinced was an evil plot.
While he'd expected the house's defenses to tighten up around him if the thing he was fighting struck at him, he hadn't expected the searing pain that would cause as the parts of himself he'd thrust outward were suddenly cut away, and he shivered on the floor, gasping in pain so great he couldn't even scream for it.
Slowly, oh so slowly the pain faded. Oh so slowly. Terrance grinned a smile his father would have recognized. He'd faced down something much, much more powerful than himself, and survived. More than survived, learned and grown. He wasn't a match for it, yet, but in time...
Jer slowly woke up and stretched reflexively, not noticing the warm body beside him until he'd already elbowed it. Billy rolled over, yawning, as he started to wake up too. Jer managed to crawl out over him and stumble over to the restroom before he had an accident, but it was an unusually close thing. He'd slept deeply, and hadn't noticed his bladders first warnings of imminent disaster. It was still dark outside as they trudged downstairs hunting for food.
As Da had promised, the fridge held all the makings necessary for hamburgers, just waiting to be used. Jer popped a few in the microwave while Billy started toasting a few buns. Jer glanced over at the clock and shook his head. Five in the morning was about an hour and a half too early to even think about getting up normally, but they'd been asleep an awfully long time, and he, at least, wasn't going to be going back to sleep anytime soon.
Their burgers may not have been a traditional breakfast, but neither of them cared as they finished off three each. Jer thought wistfully about another one, but decided discretion was perhaps the better part of valor in this case.
Besides, that way there would be enough left to make another meal of them later.
"So, what do you want to do, brainiac?" Jer yawned at Billy, breaking the silence.
"I don't know," Billy shook his head. "I just..." Billy looked away.
"Come on, I know what you need," Jer took Billy by the arm. "You need to get your ass kicked!"
"As if you could ever beat me, at any game!" Billy laughed.
It wasn't the best way to wake Da up, but when he came rolling down the stairs to growl at them to keep it down, at least he was smiling, and he didn't order them back to bed. He just sat down in an easy chair and watched them play for a while. "Do you two have any homework that needs finishing?" he asked after a while. Jer glanced at Billy before shaking his head. "Didn't give me any."
"I didn't go to school," Billy agreed.
Da shook his head. "Fine, then. Finish up your game, then come down to the basement." He hesitated, "Jer, you said you were going to do something."
Jer sighed. "Yeah, I did. It's not the right time yet."
"Alright," Da nodded. "I'll take your word on it. Billy, don't forget your meds."
Billy frowned. "Why bother," he muttered. "Not like it matters."
"Billy!" Da and Jer snapped out in unison. They glanced at each other, then turned their full glares back to Billy, who was rapidly wilting under the heat. "You aren't dead yet," Jer told him. "Don't act like it. You've got years left to enjoy, and you may as well enjoy them." Jer sniffed. "And damnit to hell, I'm not ready for you to die, you hear me?"
"While jer hit several high points, there are a few other things worth considering," Da added. "First off, there is no cure now. Medical knowledge is constantly advancing, and there's nothing to say they won't find one in the next several years, or even something that just buys you even more time. Second, life is precious, and you shouldn't throw it away lightly. Even though death is coming, there is a chance you might be able to do something to make it all worth while. I won't claim to expect it, I won't even make a guess as to what it might be, but if you check out early you'll never find out."
Da took a deep, thoughtful breath. "And one final item that wouldn't apply to just anyone in your shoes," he said slowly, deliberately. "Your best friend has clearly gained some abilities that aren't exactly normal and natural. It isn't beyond imagination that he might be able to do something about your condition, in time."
Jer and Billy looked at each other in surprise. They hadn't thought about that! "Now, you two go back to your game for a while. I'll be in the basement getting ready." Da looked back and forth between them for a few moments, then nodded curtly. "I need a few minutes to get set up, but don't wait too long."
Jer and Billy glanced at each other as Da left the room. "What was that about?" Billy asked.
"I unno, but it's got me curious!" Jer told him.
They finished the game up quickly and Jer ran upstairs to grab a stick of incense. Maybe he'd need it, maybe he wouldn't, but the idea of having one on hand just felt comforting. "You ready?" he asked his best friend.
"Lets go find out what nutso idea your dad has gotten into his head now," Billy smiled. "Maybe he's going to go on a safari for your lost brains!"
"Oh please," Jer grinned. "It's your marbles that are lost, dunderhead!"
They trotted down the basement stairs, and Da was waiting for them in the middle of the basement. The boxes that had cluttered the area were stacked neatly up against a wall, and Da had laid a number of thick, cushioned mats down in their place.
"Last night, you were attacked," Da told Jer. "That's what you told me, and I'm not prepared to doubt it. You dealt with that attack, so assuming any intelligence on the opposing side there are two possibilities. They'll give up, in which case we don't need to worry about anything, or they'll come back again a different way."
Jer shook his head, knowing where this was headed. "Da-"
"No," Da said flatly. "I've let you avoid learning how to defend yourself for this long, and for a kid you haven't done half bad at the brawls you've been in. You've held your own, even against larger, stronger kids when you've had to. This is different. This is bigger. This wasn't a fight against some bully, something sought you out. Something I can't fight for you."
Jer shook his head, dismayed. "Da, please-"
"No arguments," Da's voice was firm. "It's time you learned to defend yourself." Jer sighed, and nodded. "Billy!" Da barked. "You get a choice. If you want to learn, you can. If you don't... that's your choice too. I'd prefer you did, this will go a lot quicker and easier that way."
Billy glanced at Jer. "I'll learn," he answered firmly. "Jer's fights are mine."
Da smiled. "How did I just know you were going to say that," he nodded. "Fine. Both of you, onto the mats. I'm going to teach you how to throw a punch first."
Jer laughed, "I think we know that, Da!" He punched Billy lightly on the shoulder to demonstrate.
"No, I mean a real punch," Da shook his head. "You need to aim behind your target, punch straight through. And you need more strength behind it than you're putting in it. Here." Da walked over to a corner and dragged out a punching bag. "Billy, I want you to hold the punching bag like this," Da placed his hands on the bag as if steadying it.
"Alright," Billy shrugged.
"Jer, punch the bag," Da ordered. Jer did so wordlessly, not understanding why he was doing this. "Is that the hardest you can punch?" Da asked, annoyed. Jer glared at him, then put all his force into the next blow. "Step aside, son," Da shook his head. "Watch, this is how you're punching." Billy wasn't quite able to hold the bag steady as Da hit it. "Billy, brace yourself," Da warned. "This is a real punch."
"Ow," Billy complained after falling on his rear.
"I told you to brace yourself," Da laughed, then helped Billy up. "You'll notice, Jer, that when I threw my real punch, it had a lot more force behind it."
"I think we noticed," Billy complained, rubbing his injury.
Da laughed at Billy. "That's going to be far from the last bruise you pick up, son."
"Oh great," Billy complained, smiling. "So long as I give as good as I get!" He and Jer shared a glance, and then dove at Da.
"What the-" Da had time to shout before they hit his legs and brought him down. Laughing, he tried to buck them off but they were already rolling around to pin his arms.
Jer was just getting ready to enjoy some good-old-fashioned rough housing when Da somehow twisted around, and next thing he knew he was flat on his back with the breath knocked out of him. "Sorry kids, rough housing isn't on the menu today," Da smirked. "Nice try though!"
Jer brought himself to his feet and charged, grinning, only to find himself hammered to the ground. Da was less gentle this time, and Jer knew he was going to be getting bruises from that one. "I said no," Da reminded him. "I meant no."
"Fine," Jer groaned. "I can't believe you really hit me."
"Son, you have no idea how much I pulled that blow," Da shook his head. "I've been holding back for years, because the fact is there is no one in this town with half my experience at martial arts. Not even Jack."
Jer arched his back and stretched his neck. "Fine."
Jer wasn't particularly happy about the lesson, but at least the rest of it didn't involve getting knocked flat on his rear. Da focused, as he put it, on teaching them how to actually hurt someone. No fancy moves or blocks, just how to punch and kick, and where to put them for maximum effect. Of course, that included some training on the different types of effects they could go for, ranging from causing such pain that their opponent would wish they'd never been born, to how to actually, physically disable them. "One last category, and it's one I pray you will never, ever need to use," Da sighed. "Here," he pointed to a spot low on his chest, "here," he pointed to his neck, "and here," he tapped his temples. "Done hard enough, any one of those can kill a person. You probably don't have the bodily strength to pull it off, but a blow to the diaphragm, throat, or temple can kill a person. Also here," he tapped his nose. "If you bring your blow up from below, you can drive a person's nose into their brain, again lethal."
Da looked at them sternly. "I do not want to see you use those moves, ever. But if your life is threatened, if it is the only way, then and only then can you strike to kill. And if you watch your strength, those are also good places to hit just to hurt someone. A good strike the diaphragm or throat will leave someone on the ground, gasping for air, and a blow to the temple can knock them out completely."
Jer and Billy swallowed. They'd never seen Da so terribly, completely cold as when he discussed this subject. Somehow, without even saying a word about it, he'd made it clear that on this subject there was no joking, no making mistakes, no screwing up. If they ever used those blows, they had damned well better have had no choice, or else.
"Alright, time is just about up," Da glanced at a clock. "I'll drive you two to school today, and I'll pick you up after. Go get ready. Billy, I picked up some stuff for you last night, I placed it in Jer's room after you guys got up."
"Thanks!" Jer smiled. "Come on Billy, lets get out of here!"
They trotted up the stairs, glad to be free, and into Jer's room. Jer grabbed some clothes and ran off to take a shower while Billy checked through the bags Da had left. Time was short, so he took a quick shower and let Billy in right after him, and trudged downstairs to snack on some more burgers.
Hey, he was a growing boy and needed the food!
Billy was strangely quiet as Da drove them home after school. Jer kept the conversation going for him, hoping Da wouldn't notice.
"That guy is a creep," Billy finally brought up the subject. Jer winced, then frowned. Not 'ass', not 'meany': creep.
"What guy?" Da asked.
"Mr. Underwood, the middle-school principle," Billy said slowly, clearly still thinking something over.
"What is it," Jer asked him. Mr. Underwood was an ass, and yesterday had been bad enough, but he hadn't seen anything that would make Billy use the word 'creep' like that.
"I just..." Billy shook his head. "I'm not going to be alone with him, and if he tries I'm throwing a fit."
Da glanced over his shoulder at them, eyebrows raised. "Did anything happen? Anything?" he asked, clearly concerned to the point of anger.
"Watch the road!" Jer shouted as the car began to turn.
"Shit!" Da's head snapped back to the front just in time to keep from pulling into the thankfully empty oncoming lane. "We should probably table this conversation until we get home, but we are having it then."
"He didn't do anything," Billy reassured them quickly, "I just don't trust him not to." As methods of cutting the conversation off before it got worse went, it was pretty bad.
"I see," Da's voice was thoughtful. "What kind of don't trust?"
"He's a creep, a grade-A ah-" Billy coughed. "Um, I mean he's mean. He's grade-A mean."
"You mean he's a grade-A asshole, I'm sure," Da sighed. "I've heard the word, and while I'm not happy about you applying it to an adult, I'm even more worried about you applying it to a school official. Specifically, about you being prompted to apply it, not your actual use of it."
"Yeah," Billy nodded. "Didn't want to swear."
"You caught yourself in time," Da said dryly, "so don't worry about it. Just explain why you think that."
"He enjoys making us suffer," Jer sighed. "Yesterday he only had me, so there wasn't much he could do. Today, he split us up on opposite sides of the room to do our work, while he had Dom and his gang sit in the middle and do whatever they want. Specifically, making our lives miserable."
"I see," Da growled. "I'll think about what I can arrange to deal with that."
"Da, there isn't much-" Jer started.
"Son, you are my son," Da told him. "You don't fight battles you don't have to, but your battles are mine. Anyone who messes with you, messes with me." Da's voice was firm, leaving no doubt that this was one subject on which there was no give available.
"And they'll be black and blue by the time I'm done with them," Da added angrily. "This 'Mr. Underwood' has you worried. He's deliberately cruel to you, for what reason I cannot imagine, and worse yet Billy refuses to be alone with him. I trust both of you, and your instincts, and where there's smoke, there is usually some kind of fire. I'm going to find that fire."
Billy and Jer glanced at each other. "Now, Billy," Da continued, "you were saying why you didn't trust him. Not just why he's cruel, but why you won't be alone with him."
Billy shook his head. "You said you trust my instincts, well, that's what I've got."
"I see," Da wasn't happy. "You aren't evading the question?"
"No sir," Billy shook his head quickly. He knew better than to play games when Da was in this kind of mood.
"Jer, did you catch anything? Anything at all?" Da asked. "Think about it. I trust your insights, however minor. Think. I don't care if it doesn't make sense, or it's just a feeling."
"I don't like the way he looks at me," Jer sighed. Avoiding the question wouldn't help. "Something about it is wrong. Sick."
"Wrong how, sick how?" Da asked. "Do your best."
"It's like..." Jer shook his head, forehead tightening as he thought. "I'm not real. Somehow, I'm not real to him."
Da turned the corner to their street. "Can you describe that any better?"
"I'm a counter on the board, a poker chip, for all he cares," Jer said slowly. "Don't ask me why I think that, I just," Jer struggled to explain, "I just think it."
"A counter on the board," Da whispered thoughtfully. "Interesting."
"He keeps looking at me," Billy added. "He looks at me wrong."
"Wrong?" Da's voice was sharp. "How?"
"He doesn't meet my eyes, he just looks me over from head to toe, again and again," Billy shivered. "It scares me."
"Up and down, as if he's looking at your body?" Da asked. "Jer, why didn't you mention that?"
Jer shook his head. "He don't look at me like that!" he protested. "He looks right at me and frowns like I'm something dirty he got on his shoe, something to be wiped up and thrown away. Or treated like shit until it walks away on it's own." Jer didn't even notice how much further he was going now that he wasn't thinking about it. "He wants me hurt, he wants me gone, but he doesn't want me the way he wants Billy."
"What makes you say that?" Da's voice was even sharper now. "Damnit, I told you to tell me everything-"
"I don't know!" Jer screamed angrily. "Alright? I don't know why I said that! I just stopped thinking and reacted, and the words just popped out of my mouth!"
Da took a deep breath as he pulled into the driveway. "Fine. I'll accept that, given the events of last night. I want you to take a minute to calm down, and then don't think. Just talk. See what comes out."
Jer nodded as he grabbed his bag. "OK."
Billy glanced over at Jer, and his gaze lifted up. Jer knew exactly what he was looking at. His room wasn't visible from here, but Billy was starring right at where his window was.
Things weren't 'getting weird', Jer had simply evaded the weirdness of the previous night for a time. It was all-
Jer froze in his tracks in surprise, halfway to the door. "What is it?" Da asked, concerned. Jer turned around and swept the neighborhood, seeing no one except an older kid they sometimes hung out with. "Hey Terrance!" he waved.
"Hey Jer!" Terrance waved back, smiling as he biked past.
Da frowned at Terrance as he passed them, then shook his head. "Couldn't be," he muttered before turning back to Jer. "Is something wrong?"
Jer shook his head. "Let's go inside, Da." Da nodded and finished opening the door. The second it closed, Jer dropped his bag and sprinted for his room. "What's the rush?" Da asked, surprised. When Jer tromped back downstairs with his hands full of incense sticks, Da blinked in surprise. "Oh, you said you were going to... 'protect' the house?"
Jer nodded, and then ran into the kitchen. "Don't think, just do," he muttered to himself as he gathered a pile of plates and put them on the table. "That's what you said, right Da? Just do it. Don't think."
"Yeah," Da nodded. "Just do it. Are you..." Da shook his head. "What are you doing?"
"Protecting the house," Jer shook his head. "One step at a time, but with only one step to take."
"Well that was completely cryptic," Da laughed.
"Tell me about it," Jer complained as he grabbed a knife from the counter.
Jer spread the incense sticks out in a line, then raised his hands out over them. Closing his eyes, he concentrated on the image of just one stick. One stick, and one stick only. That's all there was. Without opening his eyes, he reached out with his right hand and grabbed the knife. Running it carefully, slowly over his palm he cut himself, smearing the blood over the knife and then using the knife to smear it over the sticks. Adding more blood to the knife, he opened his eyes and carefully trimmed the edges, one cut on both side of the sticks so they were exactly the same length.
"Jer, what are you doing?" Da asked, more concerned.
"One, though many," Jer said, frowning. "That's what I'm doing. One stick, and one stick only." Jer's hands flashed out, quickly dividing the sticks up onto the plates he'd gathered. "One to each room, quickly," he ordered, handing plates to Da and Billy. "Every room in the house." He glanced over at Da, frowning. "Including the panic room!"
Da froze. "How do you know about that?" he asked.
"I know, that's all that matters," Jer told him. "Do it!"
Da inhaled sharply, then obviously throttled his temper. "Done," he grabbed a few plates as Billy ran off.
Jer rinsed the knife off in the sink, then placed his hand under the cool, refreshing water.
When he pulled it out, there wasn't a trace of blood on his hand, and the bleeding had stopped completely.
Jer picked up one of the plates and walked to the stairs. Kneeling halfway up, he placed the plate on the step in front of him. "Done!" Billy stopped himself just short of stepping on the plate as he trampled his way down the stairs. "Thank you," Jer nodded. "Did you get one in the hallway?"
Billy shook his head, "I'll go get another plate."
Jer didn't move as Billy edged his way past him, simply staring at the incense. That was all there was to his universe, the incense and the house. One single stick of incense, in every room of the house, and linked to him by his own blood. A part of him, joined to him.
Jer didn't even notice Billy edging his way back up the stairs, he simply felt the moment that everything was in place. "Lord, grant me your strength," he prayed, closing his eyes. "I do not understand what it is I am doing, I simply know that it must happen. Aid me as I shield my friends, aid me as I shield my family, aid me as I fight the darkness that presses in."
Taking a deep breath, Jer picked up the stick of incense in front of him, then lit it. One stick of incense, in every room of the house, lit and filling the rooms with it's smell. Then Jer reached out with his soul, and touched the smoldering flame, and it lit into brilliant, white fury. "Lord, we have been attacked. I ask you to shield us, to protect us, to aid us in this time of danger. Drive away the darkness and those that would harm us, welcome in those who would aid us, those who need our aid, and those who are also attacked. Let this be a safe place, a haven from the world outside that no darkness may penetrate."
Jer suddenly felt the house in a way he could never have imagined before, as a single, living entity. A place which had been home to a family for years. Built board by board by a man who wished to provide a home for his wife, transformed year by year as the children played in and around it, sanctified by the long, happy life of those who had lived here. Transferred to new owners, who had rebuilt it, weakened it's life force with their mechanical intentions, then bought by a man who sought a safe place for his family.
The house had never accepted them, but it had never rejected them like it had those that came before. It yearned for it's old family, the family that built it, but it understood they were gone, some dead and some not. The power was still there though, and it now saw Jer, much as he saw it.
It was wounded, dying. Da, Mom, and Jer had performed emergency surgery and saved it's life through the simple expedient of living there as a family, but there was too much pain in their lives. Mom was dead, gone, and Da a broken shell. Jer was but one child, and not the one the house yearned for.
Jer reached out to that soul, that genus loci, and he poured the light he held into it. He offered up his prayer as a new purpose, and a solemn vow that it's old purpose would not be forgotten, that there would be families after his own. He would see to it.
The house considered his offer in the long, slow thoughts of it's kind. To Jer it seemed unbearably slow, but he sensed the house rushing itself, understanding his need for haste. Jer lived in a world that changed from minute to minute, where very second was distinct and vital, but the house existed in the long, slow passage of years. The two time frames were simply incompatible, and it was impossible that they could reach out across it like they were doing.
Done and done.
"Thank you oh Lord," Jer prayed as he opened his eyes. The stick had burned to ash in his hands without burning him, and he felt the power he'd called up flow slowly, gently into the house around him. Jer smiled as he felt something else, as well.
That power didn't simply come from outside, it came from him and Da. The house had taken the bargain, both parts of it. It was a sanctuary, a haven, but it was also something far, far more important. It was a home.
Da had never bound himself into the place as tightly as he should have. He was military. He moved when he had to, and never bound himself too tightly to any one place for fear of the pain it caused. But Jer wasn't military, and he'd sworn an oath, an oath the house had accepted.
This wasn't his house. This was his home. Now, and for a long, long time to come.
Marcel swore, and tossed the bowl of water into a corner. The ceramic of the bowl shattered on impact, and the creature he'd created shuddered in fear of his rage on the other side of the room. It wasn't possible! It could not have happened! The boy's own protections were bad enough, but somehow his entire house had just become consecrated! It was absurd! It was impossible! But the boy was now just as protected at his own house as he'd be at any church, and so was any person of good intent who approached it.
Hell, most churches weren't as well protected as the boy's house had just become! Churches would shed dark energy effortlessly, buttressed by the faith of those who worshiped there, but they wouldn't stop physical attacks whereas the boy's house would sneer at anything short of a firebomb. Neighborhood ruffians who approached the place simply wouldn't notice it, their eyes sliding off it and anyone who lived there like the house didn't even exist. If they went in looking for it they might -- might! -- find it, but they'd probably change their mind at the last instant, telling themselves some comforting lie to convince them they'd chosen to attack their intended victim in another way.
Clearly, a more active approach was indicated, and while he'd dearly regret the loss of his ability to scry into the household, he didn't need it anymore. Not really. He'd already laid the necessary seeds into the boy's father, and they would either blossom in due course or they wouldn't. It was time to increase the pressure elsewhere, starting with their detentions.
Marcel Underwood smiled as he considered the fun he could have with those. It was too bad their plans prevented him from taking the other boy, he would have been a perfect subject for some experiments Marcel wanted to perform, but he'd have to settle for the plan.
And maybe, with luck, the plan would let Marcel at least partake of the boy's charms. That would be almost as good as experimenting on him, but for now he had to settle for the boys of that interfering elementary school principle.
The Light looked upon what it had wrought, and found it good. The cost was higher than preferable, but Dark would be surprised, oh yes. The Dark would be very surprised.
And maybe, just maybe, one of the boy's could even change their friend's painful destiny, wrest the course of his fate from the hands of the Dark.