Chapter 5: Away From Home
Baxter Milos did not consider himself to be an evil man. He was a man of logic and reason, science and math, numbers and probabilities. It was because of his philosophy of reason over emotion that he found himself now in this chamber deep in the earth surrounded by followers of the Dark God.
He had realized that the Dark God’s return to the world was a foregone conclusion. Adaghast would never stop trying to recover his power; even if the current carriers were all protected, or killed, even if this generation of worshipers were all defeated, the fragments would find new carriers, new power seekers would flock to do the Dark God’s bidding, and eventually he would succeed. All action against him was simply a stalling tactic, and if Baxter’s calculations on the increasing rate that carriers were showing themselves was accurate (and his calculations were always accurate) then it would be impossible to stall for much longer.
So, when faced with an inevitability in which any resistance was futile, the only logical thing to do was to position yourself to benefit when it happens. That was why he was here, not out of malice or some weird religious fervor like the other fellows here, but because it was the only choice that made sense. And, since he was already here, it was only logical for him to try and prove himself as a worthy second-in-command to his new master.
It was a delicate act, balancing the patience to wait for the right opportunity with the need to prove one’s competency. The foolish woman who leaped at the first assignment was a good example of the price of over-eagerness. She had not returned, and it seemed unlikely she would at this point. Which was fine, it meant one less competitor for the Dark God’s attention.
Four others had answered Adaghast’s call and made their way down into the chamber, abandoning homes, lives, and careers. Baxter had been attempting to observe his competition and learn who the biggest threats were. Unfortunately, the obscuring shadows provided by their host made gathering information very difficult. And that racket was making it hard to focus.
A male figure was plucking on the strings of a guitar that he seemed to be able to conjure and dismiss at will. Despite the poor acoustics in the chamber his notes rang loud and clear. Perhaps if he actually kept a tune it wouldn’t be so annoying, but the half-wit kept switching between fast, upbeat chords, to slow, somber tones, to rapid, sporadic notes. It was like he was making noise just to be noisy.
One of the others, a female form, seemed to be enjoying the cacophony. At the very least she was gyrating in time with the notes. She may have intended the motions to be suggestive but with the shadows obscuring most of her features there was something vaguely unsettling about the performance.
Baxter brought his attention back to their host. It was clear that this shadowy figure was highly trusted by Adaghast, enough so to be allowed to give orders in his name. If Baxter was to become the Dark God’s second-in-command, the host would be the biggest obstacle.
The host was talking to himself again. Baxter had observed their shadowy leader engage in these one-sided conversations several times. It was possible that he had a direct link to the Dark God and was talking directly to him, as the pauses in the conversation seemed to suggest, but Baxter didn’t want to jump to conclusions. It was possible their host was just insane. He doubted sanity was a requirement to be here. It might actually be a hindrance.
He carefully sidled close enough to make out what the host was saying.
“I followed the boy’s trail through the void. They put out so much power during their travel that it would have been hard to miss. Then it simply vanishes before they reached their destination. No, I don’t believe they lost hold on their forms, that would at least leave some sign. They must have learned a way to disguise their destination. Yes, it is still possible the wind elementalist will come through. In the meantime, we should focus our attention on the next carrier.”
Baxter saw a chance to both prove his abilities and feed his scientific curiosity and took it.
“Excuse me,” he said with an accent slightly colored by his eastern-European roots despite his best efforts to remove it completely, “I couldn’t help but overhear. I believe I can be of some assistance in this matter.”
The shadowy figure turned its attention on Baxter. For some reason, Baxter felt himself almost become overwhelmed with fear. It made no sense; fear was an irrational emotion. Sure, it could occasionally be useful in alerting yourself to danger, but it also made you stupid and illogical. Baxter had nothing to be afraid of right now. He mustered himself and forced the irrational terror to subside.
“How can you do that?” the host asked after a lengthy pause.
Convinced he had pulled himself together enough to keep a steady voice, Baxter said, “The void is something of a fascination of mine, and I have spent a great deal of time studying it. If you gave me some time, I am certain I could uncover the method with which our target disguised his destination, and engineer a way to counter it.”
Another pause. “Good. Do it.”
Baxter bowed. “I’ll get to work at once.”
“A martial arts school?”
Melinda Fariman shared her son’s red hair and light complexion. She was still young, though the lines around her eyes made her seem slightly older. The uniform of the local supermarket she had not yet had a chance to change out of bore several stains.
“That’s right, Ms. Fariman,” Ryu said. He put a hand on Sam’s shoulder, a show of a proud mentor speaking of his student. “Young Sam here has showed a lot of potential during his lessons, and our school would like to offer him a full scholarship for the next year to participate in our martial arts program.”
Sam had to admit that Ryu certainly looked the part of a school recruiter with his hair fixed and while dressed in an expensive looking suit.
“I didn’t even know you were taking martial arts lessons,” Melinda said, looking at her son in surprise.
There was a deal that Melinda had made with her son years ago, when she realized it was futile trying to get him to reduce how much time he spent on his ‘hobbies.’ She would not question how Sam spent his free time as long as he continued to bring home good grades. Sam was a straight-A student so Melinda didn’t say anything when he spent several days at Peter’s having a gaming marathon, or when he recently seemed to be glued to his Gameboy. So it didn’t surprise her that Sam had yet another hobby that he hadn’t bothered to tell her about, though the fact that it was something that involved physical activity did.
Sam fidgeted. He had never been comfortable lying to his mother. “Yeah, well, you know, me and Peter saw a martial arts anime and thought it was really cool. We thought we would try it out.”
Melinda sighed and nodded. “That makes more sense.”
Ryu chuckled. “You would be surprised how many of our students originally join for similar reasons. The important thing is that they remain motivated when they learn the realities of it. Sam has impressed us with his commitment.”
She looked uncomfortable. “I don’t know. This is so sudden.” It had been an emotional rollercoaster of a day for Melinda. First she had learned that there had been some kind of explosion at Sam’s school. Then Sam didn’t come home on time and no one seemed to know what had happened to him. When he came home and claimed that he had just lost track of time panic turned into anger at Sam for making her worry so. Then he suddenly dropped this bomb about being invited to attend a martial arts school on the other side of the country. And he wanted to leave today! “I think I need a little more time to think about this.”
Sam and Ryu exchanged glances. As Ryu had pointed out, it had been dangerous to even come here. Not only could Aer still be around, looking for him, but Ryu could not properly disguise Sam’s presence this far from the farmhouse. They could not be here for long.
“Mom, I know you’re worried for me,” Sam said, “But I think it is important for me to do this. You are always talking about me getting more exercise, and meeting new people. And think about how this would look on my college applications. I might even be able to get a college scholarship through this.”
“You’ll be away from home, and all alone …”
“Peter will be there. You know he will watch out for me.”
“What about your studies?”
Ryu took this one. “He will complete his courses at our school and will remain on course to graduate on time.”
Melinda stopped and took a good look at her son. There was something about the way he looked at her that told her he had already made up his mind about this. She had seen him be stubborn before, and he’d had his moments of teenage rebellion, but he had never flat out defied her before. Some kind of intuition warned her that if she resisted here he would.
“Alright,” she conceded, defeated. “But you will keep up your grades while you’re there. If they drop you are coming home. And stick close to Peter. And you’re going to call me every week to tell me how you are. And just because you are living away from home doesn’t mean you can start living off of junk food.”
Sam ran up and gave his mother a hug. “Thank you. And I’m sorry, but I got to pack.”
He rushed to his room and tossed his backpack onto his bed. He dumped out all the books and papers he would no longer need and began shoving it full of clothes and necessities. Time was short; if Aer found them now his mother would also be in danger. Ryu had promised that anything he needed could be purchased in the town close to the farmhouse but there were a few select things Sam didn’t want to be without. Such as his handheld game systems.
Once he was packed, it was time to say his goodbyes. It was a much tougher moment than Sam had imagined it would be. His mother had always been so caring, she worked so hard to provide for him by herself. He felt homesickness, even though he hadn’t even left yet, which mixed with his guilt about lying to her. For a long moment he considered telling her the truth right then and there. But how could he? She wasn’t going to believe that some crazy magic users were trying to kill him, and his only chance was to learn magic himself. And if she believed he was in danger she would probably make him go to the police.
This was for the best, he convinced himself. This way she doesn’t have to worry.
“Take care, Sam. I love you.”
“I love you too, mom.”
He hugged her for a long while. Finally he broke away. Slinging his backpack on, he followed Ryu out of his old life and into his new one.
“Did you have any problem?” Sam asked. Peter had returned from his trip with Arthur before Sam had. Sam had worried that Arthur may be less convincing as a school-recruiter considering he was only a few years older than them.
Peter scoffed. “Know what my dad said when I told him about the ‘martial arts school’? ‘How much?’ Then he went right back to his call.”
He had a bit of a contentious relationship with his father. Not that he believed his father didn’t care about him; he knew that he did. It was just that he spent all his time working. Peter could go days without seeing his father between his business trips and the nights he spent at the office. The money he made kept Peter supplied with the latest in technology and games, but sometimes Peter felt blown off and ignored.
“Don’t think he even noticed the bandages,” Peter said, gesturing to the wraps on his head.
“What did you tell him?” Sam asked, a bit of a knowing smirk forming.
“One-thousand dollars for the semester,” Peter said, returning the grin. “On another note, we have some money should we need anything.”
Ryu set them up in rooms upstairs. They were small but homey, and the beds were surprisingly plush.
“We’ll be having supper soon,” Ryu said. “Rest up for now. You must be exhausted from your ordeals. Tomorrow morning we will begin our training.”
True to his word, early the next morning they were brought out into the fields behind the farmhouse, dressed for physical activity. Sam wore gym clothes that he bought not because he had ever intended to exercise but because it bore the Dragonball Z logo and the slogan, “I Train in 100x Gravity.”
“I don’t understand,” Sam said after Ryu had just explained their training for the day. “I thought we were going to be learning magic. Why are we going to be running laps?”
“Channeling your element is as much a physical activity as a mental one,” Ryu explained. “Channeling for extended periods is tiring, like running at a full sprint, and we will need to improve your endurance. We’ll also be working on your muscular strength, as forcing large amounts of the flow through you puts a great strain on your body.”
“It also helps to be in good shape if you need to duck, dodge, or run in combat,” Arthur added.
“Glad you approve, Arthur, cause you will also be joining them,” Ryu said with a grin.
“Wait, today’s a study day for me!” Arthur immediately protested.
“Thanks for reminding me. I’ll make sure you have your books during the break.” As Arthur tried to sputter another protest, Ryu suddenly became very serious. “The time has come, Arthur. Our enemies have begun to act, and it was made clear from your last encounter that you are not quite ready to face them yourself. You are going to need to prepare twice as hard from now on if we are going to have any chance.”
Seeing his teacher’s concern, Arthur dropped his complaints and prepared for the exercises.
The next hour was grueling, at least to Sam, as the three of them ran circles around a beaten path across the field. Within the first five minutes he was panting, and by the end of the first ten he was reduced to a fast-walk as the other two lapped him repeatedly. Arthur and Peter kept a close pace to one another, and after the first lap a minor rivalry formed between them and they picked up their speed in competition.
The next few hours after were not any easier for poor Sam. Push-ups, crunches, weight-lifting, and, proving his words to his mother weren’t a complete lie, some basic hand-to-hand exercises. Peter kept pace with Arthur throughout, though the combat exercises were clearly new to him he compensated with energy and enthusiasm. Sam, on the other hand, could barely keep his arms raised due to exhaustion.
The break finally came and Ryu served them a lunch of sandwiches and tea. Sam collapsed in the grass, struggling to even find the energy to eat. Arthur and Peter took seats next to him and wolfed down their food.
“You were actually pretty impressive back there,” Arthur complimented his athletic rival. “You work out a lot?”
“Baseball,” Peter replied. “Play shortstop. Pretty demanding training schedule during the season.”
“Oh, I loved baseball as kid! Has your team ever won a trophy?”
Before Peter could reply, Sam groaned out, “One of the worst records in the county.” He chuckled.
“Hey, I performed my position well, Fariman,” Peter retorted. “Can’t help that the rest of the team sucked.”
“That’s not what it sounded like when the coach was yelling at you, Lins.”
“Yeah, well at least I don’t look half-dead from a little exercise.”
As if to prove his friend wrong, Sam forced himself back into a sitting position and began to eat his lunch.
Arthur couldn’t help but chuckle at the exchange. “Why do you two call each other by your last names?”
“There were three Sam’s in my first-grade class,” Sam replied. “Because I was the smallest, I got ‘hobbit’ jokes all the time.”
“Hobbit?” Arthur asked.
“You don’t know Lord of the Rings?” Sam exclaimed. Arthur shook his head. “Oh, we are definitely going to introduce you. You’ll love it. Anyway, I got tired of it so I started to insist on being called by my last name.”
“When I met Fariman later, and he told me I had to call him by his last name, I told him he’d have to call me by mine,” Peter finished. “Not much of a story, really.”
“Tell us about you, magic-sword-guy,” Sam said. “How long have you been training with Ryu?”
“Since I was a little kid,” Arthur replied. “He took me in when I had no place else to go.” There was a moment in which Arthur seemed to be remembering something painful, and Sam thought he caught Arthur glaring at him, but the moment passed. “He thinks it is up to me to save the world.”
“No pressure,” Sam said.
Peter gave him a friendly slap on the back. “Parents, eh? They always expect so much of you.”
“I guess they do,” Arthur said. “Anyway, don’t think that means you can just lay around. You’re both going to be doing your share of world saving. Now come on, it is about time we get back to it.”
Sam collapsed back onto the grass. “This is the part of saving the world they don’t show you in video games.”
Ryu watched his students a with contented smile. It warmed him to see a friendship forming between Arthur and the new arrivals. Arthur had been alone for a long time, even Ai saw herself more as a peer than true friend. And Arthur would need all the friends he could get to help him through the tough days ahead.
Days that were not far off. Already Ryu could feel the next fragment calling through the void. Soon, very soon, another carrier would reveal itself.
He could only hope they would be ready.