Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The following is the Diary of the girl who was called Amber Meadows.

~This is not just a journal, it is the story of my Life.  Or the story of my lives, to be more precise.  In it you will find…
Good times,
Honored dead,
Respected foes,
Throes of passion,
And all things written are meant to be read.
Some of it may be hard to hear said, or read as been wrote, but you’ll have to forgive me if I speak as I‘ve spoke.
Just try to remember and don‘t think it twice.  This is not just a journal, it’s the story of my Life.

I’ll write it as a story, ~but you’ll notice my notes.~

Ch1: I Hate Your F!@#$ Boyfriend

Have you ever had one of those encounters where somebody seems to know you, but you have no idea who they are?
    And you always think you should remember them too, but you just don’t at all.  Their face seems like it could be familiar, but hey, you’ve seen so many faces in your life that there’s just no way you could put a pin on it.
    What do you do from there?  There’s always that awkward moment, where you either ask them who the hell they are or just try to fake it till you figure it out.
    Well this was happening to me, and it was at my own birthday party.  I was a little drunk and I haven’t ever been the “Fake it” type anyways.  So I ask the boy…  Actually no.  I Tell the boy.
    “I don’t know you.”
    “Sure you do,” he says with a smile.
    I’ll admit, it’s a cute smile.  And for some reason, it makes my heart flutter.  But when a guy grabs me by the arm and spins me around in the middle of a conversation with my friends, I get defensive.
    “No.  I’m sure I don’t,” I reply with only a hint of haughtiness.
    “Think about it.”
    I don’t want to think.  “I don’t want to think about it.”
    The boy just laughs.  “Yah, that sounds like you.”
    “Yeah, it should,” I say back sarcastically.  “I said it.”
    I turn back around to continue the story I was telling to my friends, but he grasps my shoulder and twirls me back around like a dancer.
    “DON’T TOUCH ME!” I shout, and I swing my hand up to backhand him.  I’ll admit, it’s an overreaction, but this is MY party and I really don’t feel like dealing with a creep, no matter how cute he is.
    To my surprise, he catches my wrist and presses it against my shoulder.
    “Too slow,” he says.  “That’s a first.”
    “What are you talking about?  I don’t know you!”
    “Amber!” my brother calls.  “Somebody bothering you?”
    My brother saunters over in his casual swagger.  He’s tall and lanky, and I’ve seen him put a bat through more than just a car window.  He’s always looked out for me, even though I can handle myself in a scrap.  Hey, what are brothers for?
    “Nothing I can’t handle,” I call back to him before he gets near.  If I can overreact, Forest can fly off the handle.  And I’m just trying to have a good time.  My brother takes the hint and slides off to the side.  He starts flirting with some girls while keeping an eye on me.
    “Amber?” the boy asks curiously and gently releases my hand.  “That’s not your true name.”
    “Yes.  It is.  I think you’re at the wrong party, Kid,” I say.
    “You don’t remember me?” he asks. 
    He seems upset in a sad kind of way; like he’s genuinely disappointed.  He locks eyes with me and holds my gaze a moment beyond platonic.  My heart skips a beat and I have to look away.  I wrack my mind again, because I felt a spark of memory, but it’s already gone, like a pleasant dream.  He’s still staring intently at me.  God, his eyes are beautiful…  But that’s beside the point.
    I’m not big on sympathy.
    “Should I?”
    “Yes,” he replies softly.  “More than anybody else.”
    “Well sorry to disappoint you.”
    “We swore to find each other.”
    “You’ve got the wrong girl.”
    “Apparently.  If you believe your name is ‘Amber.’”
    “I think you’ve been drinking too much.”
    “I think you’ve been thinking too little.”
    “Okay,” I say calmly, taking a deep breath.  “Now your getting on my nerves.”
    “Yeah, I’ll see you later,” he says darkly and turns and leaves.
    The way he said it unnerves me.  Who was that?
    I try to ignore the strange encounter.  It was more than an awkward “forgotten acquaintance” moment, it was unnaturally mysterious.  That type of stuff just doesn’t happen in real life, does it?  What was he talking about my name for?  And when would he see me later?
    If I have a new stalker, I am going to be so pissed off.
    I’m not scared of him.  More curious.  And the more I think about it, the more it seems like I really am supposed to know him.  But sifting through every memory of my life, nothing comes to mind.
    So I ignore it and enjoy my party.
    Besides the strange boy, the whole night is a blast.  I lose my mind on the dance floor and laugh my ass off with my friends.
    All thoughts of the boy escape me into the cool night sky.
    And I don’t think about him ever again… Until he shows up at my house the next morning.

    I’m up before my brother.  He’s passed out and is gonna need some Mydol when he wakes up.  Don’t laugh.  He drinks like a Troll and the stuff does wonders on a hangover.
    There’s a knock at the door.  That’s unusual for this early.  I’m the only conscious person in the house, so I go to answer.  As I reach for the handle, I can sense him.  I know he’s there, on the other side.  Don’t ask how I know.  I just trust my instincts.
    I calmly walk back to the kitchen and grab my favorite butcher knife.  Then I answer the door politely.
    “What the hell do you want?”
    He smiles.  That same smile that makes my heart flutter.  Who is he?
    “You,” he says mysteriously.  “It’s all I’ve ever wanted.  You know that.”
    “Okay.  That’s creepy,” I say and close the door.
    I lock it.  I’m gonna go wake Forest up.
    As I head up the stairs, the boy raps loudly on the door.  I ignore it and keep walking.  Next thing I know, there’s a massive crash and I turn to see the door fly off it’s frame into the house.
    “What the hell?!” I shout.
    “We really need to talk,” the boy says calmly.
    He steps through the open entryway and I bolt up the stairs.
    I’ve always been fast, and I had a twenty foot lead, but before I get up four steps, I feel a hand close around my ankle and I fall on my face.  I swipe back at his arm with the Butcher knife and he lets go with a chuckle. 
    I scramble up the stairs and head down the hallway into my brother’s room.  He’s already out of bed and holding his bat as he rubs his aching head.
    “Wush goin on,” he yawns.
    I respond in a flat bland tone.  “That guy from last night is here.  He’s trying to kill me,” I say, less frantically than I think I should feel.  My mind is racing, but my body is calm.  It’s a weird feeling. 
    “Oh,” Forest says.  “Is that all?”
    My brother exits the room and I peak out from behind him.
    “Aha!” the boy shouts excitedly at the sight of Forest.  “Now there’s a soul that will remember!”  He grins broadly.
    Cute smile.
    Damnit!  Stop thinking that.
    “Eh?” my brother asks.  “Who dat?  Azzhole.”
    The boy laughs.  “Good to see you too!”
    “Don I owe you an ass whoopin?” my brother smirks.  I can’t see his face, but I can hear the lightness in his voice.
    “Yeh, go on and try it,” the boy says.
    My brother lunges forward.  He can lunge a lot farther than most people expect.  He swings the bat down like a hammer, but the boy steps to the side and spins a kick into Forest’s stomach. 
    I watch in horror as my brother is launched backwards down the hall and smashes into the wall.  It looks like he got shot out of a cannon.  There’s no way anyone can kick that hard.  It’s impossible.
    The boy smiles again, but right now, I’m too horrified to be interested.
    “Now then,” he says in that same calm tone.  “Have you remembered your name yet?
    “What the hell do you want from me?” I ask, backing up.
    I look at my brother.  He’s unconscious, still with that stupid smirk on his face.  “Jah… neh…” he seems to mumble.  Nonsense.
    “I just told you.  I want you to remember,” the boy says, walking forward steadily.
    I hold the knife out, hoping he’ll stop.  He doesn’t.  I back up, keeping distance between us.
    “Stop that,” he says exasperatedly.  “Don’t retreat.”
    “Don’t tell me what to do!” I say.
    I’m backing up, but I’m not scared.  I’ve never been scared.  I’m just acutely aware that he is stronger than me.  He has some sort of power.  Something otherworldly.
    “Do you ever feel like you’ve had another life?” the boy asks.
    That’s absurd.  But it rings of something I’ve forgotten.
    “Do the things you sometimes imagine ever feel too vivid?” he asks.
    I do.  But I’m just creative.  I’ve even asked about it before.  If other people think about smells in their mind.  Or have mixed emotions about things they make up.  Or if their imagination plays out entire scenes like a dream while they’re awake.  Turns out some people do to an extent, but not really like me.  Not altogether perfect like me.  But I haven’t thought of stuff like that forever.  I’m just creative.  I’m just a little weird and get wrapped up in my own fantasies.
    “Get away from me,” I say, the boy’s nearness snaps me out of my thoughts.  I don’t know how he got so close, but he’s right up against my knife now and pressing forward, daring me to stand my ground.  I back up.
    “Don’t do that!” he shouts and grabs for me.
    I swipe his hand away with the knife and dive into the bathroom, locking the door and hiding.
    “I’M NOT SCARED!” I shout back.
    “THEN PROVE IT!” he yells.
    The bathroom door is ripped out off its hinges and the boy tosses it aside down the hall.  He leans back against the hallway wall and crosses his arms.  He looks me up and down and regards me as though he’s waiting for something.
    “Say your name,” he says coolly.
    “I don’t-”
    “What?” he interrupts.  “Are you embarrassed?  Are you ashamed of the name you know is yours??”  The boy walks into the bathroom and I back up.  “What is the name you call yourself in your mind?  What is the name YOU chose?”  My back hit’s the wall and he presses me into it.  He‘s intimately close and the heat of his body is cooled by his breath as he speaks softly.  “Say it,” he demands.  “Say the name you will always answer to.”
    Suddenly the words he’s saying make sense.  Even though I haven’t thought of it for years.  Not since I was a child.  Not since I quit making my imagination stories.  I had a name for myself, or for the older, stronger, cooler me, that I used to imagine.  I don’t know why I used a different name, I just did.  I think I did because it was a different me in my imagination, but it was still Me, right?  But I’ve never said that name out loud.  Not once.  Not ever.
    “I’ll tell you yours if you tell me mine,” the boy says seductively as he gazes knowingly into my eyes.
    How was I supposed to know his name?  Unless… No…
    He reaches up and brushes a loose strand of hair behind my ear, and the mysterious boy says the name so softly that I can barely hear his voice.  “Fel…”
    A shock reels through my body.  Whether it’s from his surprisingly gentle touch or hearing that name said aloud, I’m not sure.
    How did he know?!  “How did you…”
    I can’t even bring myself to ask.  How can he know?  How can anyone know?  I’ve never told anyone that name.  I’ve never told anyone those stories.  How did he pick that name out of my head like that?  It feels like ice.  It feels like somebody has invaded my memories.  Except they’re not even memories.  They’re just made up fantasies.  It’s like he’s stealing them from me.  But at the same time, he wasn’t.
    After the shock, I feel warm.  I feel comfort.  That somebody knows.  Somebody knows the inside me.  The whole me.  He’s not stealing anything.  He’s sharing…
    “Noh…” I mutter.  I’ve never pronounced the word like that out loud before.  Only in my mind.
    “Yah,” he replies.
    And it’s impossible.  It can’t be, but there he is.
    “You are Fel,” he says.
    There he is.  And I know him.  I know where I know him from.  It kills me to admit it, but some kids have imaginary friends.  I had one that was more than that.  My imaginary boyfriend.  My perfect man…
    “And I am…” the boy continues.
    “Azzen,” I finish.
    Azzen.  That was his name.  And that was his face.  How could I forget?
    The boy smiles and my heart flutters.  The same way it always did in my dreams.
    “Yes,” he says.
    “You…” I stammer.  I don’t even know what to say or ask.  “How…  What…”
    “You can’t be real?” he paraphrases for me.  “How are you here?  What is going on?”
    “Yes!” I shout.  “All of that!  And why did you kill my brother?” I demand.  I know he’s not dead because I saw him breathing, but I don’t care to be specific.
    “He’ll be fine,” the boy… Azzen, assures me.
    “It was all real, Fel.”
    The name still shocks my ears.  I just can’t believe it.
    “I’ll give you some time to think about it, now that you’re remembering.  Try not to freak out and I’m sorry about your doors,” my fantasy guy says.
    He turns and begins to leave.
    “Wait!  You can’t just leave like that!  This is crazy.  I’ve got so many questions.”
    “I know, but you don’t even know what to ask yet.  Am I right?”
    “No!  Well…  Yes.  I guess… but-”
    “I’ll be back tomorrow,” he says.  “Just wait.  I’ve been searching for you for a long time.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to lose you now.  I can’t.  The world needs you too badly.”
    He grins.
    “What?” I ask.
    “It’s going to be so much fun.  We’re being called on again.”
    “What do you…”
    Before I can finish my sentence, the boy disappears.  There’s a pop and a huge poof of black misty smoke, and he’s gone.  The smoke quickly dissolves, and there’s no trace of him, other than the broken doors and my broken brother, who is now snoring obnoxiously.

    I see him again the very next day.  After spending the previous twenty-four hours trying to remember everything I could about the old stories I used to make up, I’m pretty eager to find out what he meant when he said it was “real.”  I mean, when I say I’m creative, I mean I’m fantastically creative.  Even as a kid, or perhaps, more so as a kid, the thoughts on my mind were absolutely impossible.  So maybe parts are real, like Azzen’s face and my real name, and other thoughts were just thoughts.
    He shows up at breakfast.  I had a feeling he would.  I hear him knock on the doorframe, from behind the curtain me and Forest hung up.
    Yesterday, after Forest woke up, I told him what had happened.  Everything.  Even about Azzen being an imaginary friend that I made up when I was a kid and coming to life.  I asked him to stay away for the day, cuz I wanted to talk to him alone.  My brother is usually overprotective, but he was surprisingly understanding.  In fact, he didn’t put up a fuss at all and told me to have fun.  When I asked why he wasn’t more freaked out about the guy that broke in yesterday and kicked him across the hall, he shrugged and responded, “because Azzen was my imaginary friend too,” and then left.  I haven’t seen him since.
    “Come in!” I call out from the kitchen.  I hope he likes a continental breakfast.
    Azzen sniffs the air as he enters.  “You can cook?!” he asks in mock surprise.
    “Only on a skillet,” I say with a smile.
    “Oh, I’m sure you can make a decent stew, too,” Azzen replies, taking a seat and making himself comfortable at the table.
    I’ve only just met him, but it already feels natural.
    “Actually,” I say, as I come over and dish him out some cheesy eggs, “homemade chicken-noodle is one of my few specialties.”
    Azzen smiles and winks knowingly.  He helps himself to some bacon off the platter in the center of the table.  I sit across from him and stare while he simply eats.  I still can’t believe it’s actually him.  That he’s actually real.
    “Where did you come from?” I ask, breaking the silence.  It wasn’t the first question I’d planned, but sometimes it’s better to play it by ear.
    “This is actually my world,” Azzen says.  “It’s you that’s not really from here.
    “I’m not sure what you mean by that,” I say.  “I was born down the street.”
    “For this life.  But you’ve lived another,” Azzen explains.  “And me from this life, knew you in that life.”
    “What do you mean?”
    “Well that’s a long story…”
    “Well I want to know.”
    Azzen doesn’t reply.  He eats some eggs and seems to be thinking about what to say.  I follow his lead and take a few bites.  He seems more casual about this than me.
    “How much do you remember?” he asks after moments.
    “I’m not sure… I mean.  I don’t really know if I remember anything.  I know your name and your face.  And there were others too, but I don’t know what’s real and what’s not.”
    “Do you remember how we met?” he asks
    I squirm.  “I’m kinda embarrassed to admit it, but no.  I remember certain scenes and some details, but I was really young when I thought all that up.  Most of it escapes me.  I just remember it was some sort of wild adventure.”
    Azzen chuckles.  “That’s for sure.”
    “Well how did we meet then?” I ask.
    “Too many questions.  I’m trying to eat!  This food is almost good.” Azzen jests, stuffing a fat piece of egg in his mouth.
    I’ve barely known him, but I know it’s a joke, and I answer back with sass.  “Just like a man!  Mouths are for conversation too you know, not just stuffing your face.”
    “Yah, buht nawt at the saym time,” Azzen says through a full mouth.
    “You’re gross,” I ew.
    Azzen gulps.  “And you’re cute.”
    “So just do that for a while, while I finish.”
    I stare him down angrily.  He pretends not to notice and eats.  He takes a bite of toast, and washes it down with milk.  He “ahh”s in satisfaction afterwards.
    “Good?” I ask sharply.
    “Mhmmm!” he replies.
    “Yeah, I made it cuz I thought you’d like it.  Now I’d like some answers!”
    “What?  Oh no, I thought you were asking if the silence was ‘Good.’  The food was alright.  I’ve had better.”
    I throw a fork at him and hit him in the head.
    “Ow!  Hey!”
    “Next time, it’s the knife,” I menace.
    He grins broadly, and I can’t pretend to be mad anymore either, so I turn my head to hide the quick smile that spreads across my lips.
    “Some things never change,” Azzen says.  “Well I guess I’ll give you your answers.  Hmmm…  Where to start…?”
    “How we met,” I remind him.
    “Oh yah.”
    I wait expectantly.  Azzen takes another sip of milk and begins his story.

    When we met, you were a couple years younger.  We both were.  And like I said, I was originally from here.  I don’t know how to explain it right now, but one day I was on my way home from classes and I noticed something shimmering in the trees off the sidewalk.  I wasn’t in no rush, so I went to check it out.  It looked like a mirror with a sparkles as a frame.  Sparkles like from sparklers, but just floating there.  And it wasn’t really a mirror, more like a picture.  The scene in it was a forest, and the picture wiggled and waved, like heat waves.  Being young and foolish, I touched it, and next thing I knew, I fell into your world.

    “My world?” I interrupt.
    “Yes.  A different world from this one.”
    “What was it like?”
    “Well I was getting to that…”
    “Oh, yeah, keep going.”

    I was unconscious laying there for I don’t know how long.  But when I woke up, it was dark.  And I was woken up by somebody kicking me in the ribs.  That would be you.  You didn’t actually kick me, you tripped over my body and fell on me.
    I groaned awake and you immediately covered my mouth with your hand.  That was the first time I ever laid eyes on you.  There was a full moon out, but besides that, there even seemed to be a light glow about you.  In the darkness, I couldn’t make out your precise features, but one thing definitely stood out that marked you different from other girls.
    You… uh… wellll…

    Azzen pauses for a moment.
    “Well what?”
    “It was…  uh…”
    “What made me different from other girls?” I ask sweetly.
    If my imaginationings are truly true, I already know what it is, but I want to hear Azzen say it.
    “I don’t really know how to say this other than being blunt.  You had cat ears.”
    “Cat ears?!” I exclaim in mock surprise.
    Now I know for sure that he’s the real deal.  Nobody could have guessed that detail.  In my fantasies, I was like a panther woman.  Nothing fancy like fur and paws.  Just the ears and a tail.  I don’t know why.  I just thought it was cute or something.  Both feminine and powerful.  I always figured I picked it up off of batman or something.
    “Did I have fur??” I ask.
    “Noh,” Azzen replies.  “Just the ears.  And I’d see later that you had a tail.  No fur or claws or anything like that.  Regular Human hands and feet and body.  Regular everything except the ears and tail.”
    “Hmmm…” I mutter pondering.  That doesn’t jive quite right.  I remember, in some of the stories, that I had some sort of claws…  But that must have been made up then.  “Well keep going,” I urge Azzen, wanting to know more.
    The very first thing you said to me was, “If you make a move, I’ll cut your throat.”  And your ear twitched.  That’s how I knew it was an ear.
    “Who you?” was the next thing you asked, removing your hand.
    “Azzen,” I said.  I don’t know why I said it.  It wasn’t the name my parents gave me.  It was the name I always used in video games or as my screen name.  For some reason, it just came out.
    I wasn’t sure where I was and didn’t want to piss off a crazy catgirl, so I didn’t say anything else or make a move.  You sat there for a moment and it seemed like you were listening for something.  Then you cursed and took off.  I remember thinking that you were running away from something.
    I took that as a sign that I should get moving too and got up in the forest.
    “Forest is my brother’s name,” I interrupt again for no reason.  I just feel like I should be part of the conversation, even though I have nothing relevant to contribute.
    “Yeah, well that makes sense,” Azzen says.
    “Huh?  Why?”
    “Cuz your name here is Amber.”
    “What does that mean?”
    “I’ll explain it later.”

    I wandered out of the forest and found a dirt road.  On one side of it, the forest continued, and on the other side, fields and farmland stretched as far as I could see.  I followed the road and found an old fashioned farm house with a barn in the back.  I courageously knocked on the door.
    The woman that answered wasn’t completely a woman.  She didn’t have cat ears, but her ears were still different.  They were in the same spot as a Human’s but they were as long as a ruler and pointed at the ends.  I was a little taken aback, and kind of forgot what to ask.
    “Uh… hello,” I said.
    “’Elloh,” she replied sweetly.
    “I, uh…  I’m not really sure where I am.”
    “Eh.  Yer one of those, eh?  Too scrawny for the Master?  What’d your parents drop you off and he wouldn’t accept you?  You don’t look so bad, compared to some of the other runts he takes on.”
    “Well, come on in then,” she said, and allowed me into her home.
    “Ooh issit?” a gruff voice called.
    “Just one of the Master’s children,” the woman sang.  She was very beautiful and her voice was as sweet as a bird’s.  I would place her in her mid-twenties.  “That’s my husband,” she told me.  “I’m sorry if he’s a bit rude in his later years, he’s still an honest man though.”
    “Good,” the man shouted from the dining room that the woman was leading me too.  “I’ve been needing some more wood chopped.”
    When we entered the room, I was surprised to see that the woman’s husband was an old man.  More than old.  Elderly.  His hair was white and thin and his skin was wrinkled and sagging. 
    He didn’t seem as rude as the woman had apologized for and he offered me some stew.
    “You can stay the night if you’ll chop ten logs for me in the morning,” he told me.  “I’m sure that’ll be no problem for you.  It’ll set us up for a while.  I’m too old these days and I hate to have my wife deal with that sort of labor.”
    I agreed and thanked him for the hospitality, to which he grunted an acknowledgement and then seemed to fall asleep in his chair.
    I wanted to ask the young woman how she’d ended up with such an old man, but thought it would be rude.  Later, I’d realize that she was an Elf and was probably several hundred years older than him.  Probably Manbating for the land.

    “An Elf?” I ask.  For some reason, I’ve never liked Elves.  Or at least the stories about them.
    “Yah.  I was lucky too.  In that area, it could’ve been a Goblin.”
    “A Goblin?!”
    Azzen laughed.  “Ohhhh yah.  We’ll get into them later.”
    So I stayed the night and spent half the next day chopping up those ten logs.  The Elf lady made a comment that it was no wonder the Master tossed me out of his school.  I didn’t know what she was talking about and didn’t ask.  She gave me breakfast and lunch, which I was thankful for. 
    When I was done, I asked if I could use her phone.  She asked me what I was talking about and after trying to explain it, she said I might be able to find such a device in the city.  She pointed me up the road and I started walking again.
    I passed a few more houses, but I was pretty weirded out by what I’d seen so far, so I just kept going towards the city.  After several miles, I came to a large manor with a bunch of kids fighting outside.  They weren’t really fighting.  More like practicing with sticks. 
    There were kids of all ages, from six year olds to guys and gals that could be twenty.  Most of the younger kids were wearing straight up rags.  Brown and tattered.  Most of the boys were shirtless.  The older kids had clean clothes, but they were plain white shorts and shirts, made out of some sort of thick cloth.  A few of the oldest kids were wearing fancy dyed clothes, green or purple or blue, with golden embroidered designs.  One of them shouted at me as I was passing by.
    “Hey you!” he yelled.  “You with the weird cloak.  Come here, Rat!”
    I had never heard of my hoodie being called a cloak before, and I’d never been called a Rat either, so I waved him off and ignored him.
    “He aint one of us!” one of the younger kids in rags shouted.
    “Well go get him then,” the boy in fancy green clothes shouted.
    All the kids in rags cheered and ran towards me with their sticks,  Some of them were pretty big and seemed older than me.
    “What do you want?” I asked as they approached.
    One of the bigger “Rats” pointed his stick at me.  “You come with us,” he said.  “You’ll see the Master.”
    “No, that’s okay,” I said.  “I’m heading to the city, it’s that way right?”  I pointed and kept moving.
    The swarm of kids circled around me.
    “No,” the big boy said.  “You come through here; you see the Master.”
    “I really don’t think I want to,” I said, getting an ominous feeling.
    “You don’t get to think,” said a boy that could be no older then ten.  “yousa Rat.”
    An older boy smacked the younger one on the head and said, “Talk proper.”
    “Um, no…  I think I’m gonna go.” 
    I brushed their sticks aside and tried to push through, but they barred my way.  The boy in green strode over to us.
    “You’ll come or you’ll fight,” he said, drawing a sword that I hadn’t seen before.  “And you’ll be fighting me, not just these Rats.  So think wisely before you decide.”
    One of the younger Rats eagerly offered me a stick.
    “Uh…” I said.  “I guess I’ll go talk to your Master for a minute.”
    The boy in green snorted and the Rats all sniggered as they led me towards the house.  The Rats stopped at the door and the boy in green knocked loudly, then they all stepped back and waited expectantly.
    My thoughts while I waited was that the door was too large.  It was ten feet high and wide enough to drive two cattle through.  But when it opened, the massive man staring down at me nearly filled the entire entrance.  Thinking back on it, he was probably part Ogre, though I’ve never thought of that until just now.
    He had thick spiky hair and a scarred face.  It looked like something had tried to chew through one of his cheeks and the other had a large slashing scar across it up to his brow.  He was bare-chested, wearing only white shorts and a black belt, bringing to mind some sort of monstrous, gladiator, karate master.  His chest was purely muscle, and looked solid as marble, though he was quite tan.  There were pale scars littered across every inch of his body.
    He exhaled a sort of “hmmmmm” grunt.  And said, “What do you want?”
    “I don’t know,” I replied.  “They told me I had to see you.”
    “Yes, you do,” He stated simply and continued to stare at me, as though he was studying a specimen.
    “Uh, okay.  So can I go now?”
    “Where are you going in such a hurry?” he asked.
    “Well I was heading to the city, but I guess I’m really just trying to get home.”  Suddenly inspired, I asked, “you don’t happen to have a map, do you?”
    The Master snorted some sort of grunt or laugh and said “Yes.  I have a map.”  And then mumbled to himself, “at least he speaks right.”
    The first thing that I noticed when I entered was You.
    “Me?” I ask.
    “Yes, you,” Azzen replies.
    “What was I doing there?”
    “Yah, you were sitting in a comfy chair off to the right, in a room lined with bookshelves that was attached to the foyer by an archway.  And you didn‘t look up at me at all, but I saw your ear twitch.”

    Something seemed to bother the Master as we passed you, because he barked at you to go get us some wine and you closed your book and obeyed him immediately.  That’s when I noticed your tail.
    “Who’s she?” I asked.
    “She’s none of your business,” the Master growled.
    Another thing I noticed about you was that your clothes were different from any of the other boys or girls outside.  You wore a white blouse and a white skirt, and they were embroidered with red instead of gold.  But I didn’t know anything about that at the time.  I just thought you were pretty.
    The Master and I walked through a room, down a hallway, and turned into another room.  This one was a Library, with many more books than the small study you had been sitting in.  The Master wasted no time in going to a shelf and pulling out a large rolled up parchment.  He laid it out on an impressive oak table and dropped a couple sculpted paperweights on it to hold it in place.  You seemed to know where we went, because moments later, you arrived with a tray, holding a bottle of wine and two full glasses.
    The Master took a glass and growled at you to leave the tray and get out of there.  You did, but you also took the other glass and walked it around the table to me.  When you handed it to me, we exchanged one glance.  The sharp look in your eyes told me everything I needed to know at once: “You don’t know me.  You didn’t see me last night.  You’ve never seen me before now.”

    “One look told you all of that?” I scoff.
    “I took a good look,” Azzen replies.
    The Master examined the map and asked where I was from.
    I said “Kent.”
    And he searched the map, uncertainly, mumbling to himself that he had never heard of such a place.
    So I told him it was in Washington, but that just confused him even more.
    “I’ve never heard of it,” he told me.  So I took a look at the map, but I didn’t recognize a single landmark on it.  And besides that, it was just an island.  I didn’t even know if I was in America.
    “Where are we?” I asked.
    The Master pointed to a spot that meant nothing to me.
    “Uh, do you have any bigger maps?” I asked.
    “What do you mean?  This one takes up the whole table.  It’s as detailed as you’re going to get,” the Master replied.
    “No, I mean, like of the whole world,” I said.
    The Master eyed me suspiciously.  “This IS the whole world, Boy,” he stated.
    “I’m not from anywhere on here…” I said.  “Are you sure… I mean, do you have a map that’s not just the island?”
    The Master didn’t understand.  “You’re from an island?”
    “No.  Well, I’m from America.  Do you know where that is?”
    “I’ve been to every territory of the world, Boy.  And I’ve never heard of an America.”
    “Oh…  Okay.  Well, thanks for trying to help,” I said. 
    I took a sip of the wine, so as not to be rude.  Immediately, warmth flushed through me and my whole body tingled.  I heard ringing in my ears, but it subsided quickly.  I felt a knot of fear in my stomach.  There was something wrong with that wine.
    Woozily, I continued what I was saying.  “I guess I should head to the city though…  I think I’ll be able to figure it out from there.”
    “Yes, probably,” said the Master.  “But you won’t make it there by the night.  You’ll stay here with the boys tonight and chop some wood tomorrow.  I’ll have one of the boys take you later.”
    My will to disagree seemed to have temporarily slipped from my grasp, and chopping wood seemed to be the norm for payment here, so I agreed.
    Then the Master asked me where I got my clothes and why they were so weird.
    “Uh, they’re just regular… where I come from, I guess,” I replied.
    “You’re not rich are you?” he asked suspiciously.
    “Not particularly,” I said.
    “Not a Noble?” he asked.
    “Noble what?” I asked back.
    The Master cracked a smile.  “Well I don’t allow my boys to wear fancy clothes unless they earn them.  You’ll change into some Rat rags to fit in.  Don’t worry, they’re clean, just brown.”
    I didn’t want to cause trouble when he was apparently helping me out, so I agreed to change my clothes before I slept for the night.
    I would find out that he wasn’t helping me at all, but it would all be worth it, because at the Master’s is where I really met you, Fel.

    “And that’s all for now,” Azzen says, cutting off the story.
    “What?” I ask.  “Why?”
    “Cuz breakfast is done,” he responds.
    “It’s been done.  And you were barely getting to the good part.” 
    I want to know more.  So far he’s mostly just talked about himself.  I want to know about my supposed past life.  He could still just be making all this up.  But even as I consider it, I doubt he’s lying.  As he was talking about me, it came back.  Tripping over him, being at the Master’s, and the wordless look I gave him when he first got there.  It all came back when he said it.
    But there was something wrong with the Master.  Not something that he said… something he didn’t say.  I’m trying to figure it out.  That’s why I want him to keep going.
    “Was the Master really strong?” I ask
    “Well, that depends on what you call strong,” Azzen answers.
    “I mean, like physically.  Beyond being a huge guy.  Like was he especially strong for some reason?  Like how you ripped off my doors.”
    “Yeh,” Azzen says.  “He was strong like that, but nothing special in the long run.  Back then though, he was definitely the strongest guy around.”
    “Oh,” I say.  “Was he bad?”
    “I don’t know,” Azzen says, looking at me with interest.  “Was he?”
    “I think so,” I say.  “Was he holding me captive or something like that?”
    “Yes, he was.  Your starting to remember.  He was holding all of us against our will, actually.  I didn’t realize I’d walked into a spider’s web when I first got there.  But I‘ll tell you more of that some time tomorrow.  I‘ve got some things to take care of today.”
    “Things more important than me?” I ask sweetly with a stretching smile.
    “Things FOR you,” Azzen winks.
    “Oh that sounds nice,” I say.  “When will you be back?”
    “I’ll find you when I’m free, wherever you are,” he says.
    “How will you find me?”
    “It’ll be easy, as long as I have permission to use your name,” he says.
    “What does that mean?”
    “It means I can always find you if I have permission to use your name.  Fel, do I have permission to use you name?” Azzen asks with a sly smile.
    Something was rubbing me the wrong way.  He was already using my name.  My TRUE name, according to him.  And with these tales of Goblins and Elves…  I’ve heard stories about True Names…
    “You only have permission to use my name to find me,” I say, wording the statement carefully.
    Azzen chuckles.  “That’ll do.  I think you remember more than you let on.”
    “No.  I’m just not stupid.”
    “Course not,” Azzen says.  “I was always the dumb one.”
    The boy smiles and then leaves, hugging me before he goes.  This time he uses the door instead of swirling into black mist.

Ch2: Chilli-Dog

The next day, I go to the store and buy a tape recorder.  Then I pass the time watching T.V., listening to music and writing in my journal.  I’m trying to keep my schedule open…
    I decide to go for a walk and wind up strolling to a park near my house.  I sit in a swing and hum along to with my Ipod for a while.  Then I feel his presence approach me from behind.
    I take out my earphones as he slides his hands on my shoulders.  His touch is warm and comforting.  I’ve never liked being touched.  It’s always felt weird and awkward with other guys.  Forced.  I always know what they want.  But with Azzen, it isn’t like that.  It’s just… different.  It’s innocent.
    “Miss me?” I ask.
    “More than you know,” he replies and gives me a push on the swing.
    That’s all we do for a while.  I sit.  He pushes.  And I know we are both perfectly happy.  And just at the right moment, when I want to talk, he moves over and sits in the swing beside me.
    “How did you find me?” I ask.
    Azzen pulls a folded piece of paper out of his pocket and hands it to me.  I unfold it and see a dark red arrow drawn on it, it looks like it’s painted in blood.  Ew.  But the amazing thing is that is points to me.  Regardless of where I move it, the arrow always points to me.
    “This could be dangerous,” I say offhandedly as I pass it back to him.
    “Keep it,” Azzen says.  “Burn it.  Doesn’t matter.  I can make more.  Your name is conveniently short.”
    I awkwardly say, “thanks,” and put the paper in my pocket.
    “You brought a recorder,” Azzen notices.
    “Yeah.  I kind of want to remember this.  I think I want to write it down in my journal later, if that‘s okay.  Just the story.”
    “Go ahead,” he says.  “It’s actually a pretty good story.”
    “Oh yeah?  Does it have a happy ending?
    Azzen kicks the dirt and twists his swing into a spiral.  “Hasn’t ended yet.  But I’m happy.  Are you?”
    “I think I’m dreaming,” I say.
    “Then let’s not wake up.”
    “Tell me more of the story.”

    I slept with the “Rats” that night at the Master’s.  They all slept in a single large room with mats laid out on the ground for beds.  There were other girls there, but I looked around briefly and didn’t see you.  They gave me an empty one and I tucked my regular clothes into my pillow case.  It wasn’t the most comfortable bed, but I fell asleep without much trouble.
    The next morning, I got up with them and followed the crowd to breakfast.  I saw you there.  You were eating alone.  I wanted to go eat with you, but I remembered the look that you gave me last night.
    So instead, I just ate the oatmeal mush that was served and then asked one of the boys where I could find the Master.  The kid pointed to you and said to, “ask the Merca.”  He seemed to think it was funny for some reason.  Personally, I was just glad to have an excuse to talk to you. 
    I’m not usually nervous around girls, but I’d never seen anyone like you.  With or without the ears, you were stunning.  A mix of classic beauty and exotic wildness.  There was rowdiness in your eyes, but grace in your walk.  A walk that I noticed, because when I approached you, you got up and left.
    “Hey!” I called out to you, but you ignored me and kept walking, so I followed you.
    “Hey, excuse me,” I said, when I got close.
    “What do you want?” you asked, narrowing your eyes.
    “Uh, Hi.  I’m Azzen.  Nice to meet you,” I said loudly for the others to hear and held out my hand.
    You seemed to relax.  “Fel,” you said, accepting my handshake.
    “Fel,” I repeated.  “Do you know where I can find the Master?”
    “Yes,” you said flatly.  “Why?”
    “Well I guess I’m supposed to chop some wood…”
    “That’s nice,” you said.  “Today was supposed to be my day.”
    You said you would take me to talk to the Master and led me down a hallway.
    “It’s so weird hearing you tell me what I did,” I say.
    “Yah, this whole thing must be pretty weird for you,” Azzen replies.
    “Could you do me a favor?”
    “Could you just say ‘Fel’?”
    “What do you mean?”
    “Like, Fel did this.  Or Fel said that.  I don’t know, it’s just  easier to hear it that way.”
    “Uh sure.”
    “That way it’s more like a story…”
    “Yah, that’s fine.”
    So Fel took me to the Master.  And the Master told her that I would be chopping wood with you- Er, Fel.  Fel said that was fine and seemed pleased.  She smiled at me, and that seemed to piss the Master off, cuz the next thing he did was scold her and say, “Don’t think you’re getting off easy.  You’ll be chopping twice as much wood today, since there’s two of you.”
    And that seemed to kill your… Ugh, sorry.  Fel’s mood.  I didn’t want to make things harder on you, so I said sorry.

    “Yeah, sorry,” I say.
    “Huh?  For what?” Azzen asks.
    “If it’s harder to tell the story this way.”
    “Oh no, it’s fine.  It’ll just take me a minute to get used to it.”
    “Well then can you do me another favor?” I ask.
    “Could you also just say your name, instead of ‘I’ and ‘Me’ all the time?”
    “I guess.  Why?  Is that weird for you too?”
    “No, it’s not that, but it will be better for when I go back and write the story.  If it’s recorded that way, I won’t have to change anything.”
    Azzen laughs.  “Yah, sure sure.  Whatever you want.”

    So Fel and Azzen had to chop wood.  But before they went to do that, Fel had to get some words in to the Master.
    “Twice as much?!” she cried.  “That’ll take forever.  Look at him!  He’s scrawny.”
    Azzen didn’t think he was exactly scrawny, but didn’t feel the need to comment.
    “Then it’ll be better for you,” the Master said.  “Build up your stamina, so that you don’t get caught so easily when you try to run away.  Unless you like your ass whoopings.”
    Fel turned red and stalked away.  She turned back and shouted at Azzen, “Come on then!  Hurry up.” 
    Azzen hopped into step behind her.
    Fel yelled again at the Master.  “He’s mine then.  If you’re going to stick me with his chores, I get to use him to train.”
    The Master laughed.
    “I’m serious!” Fel shouted.  “I need someone to practice on.”
    The Master asked Azzen, “that okay with you, Boy?”
    Azzen really had no idea what they were talking about, but spending time with the alluring catgirl seemed to be a mesmerizing prospect to him, so he quickly agreed that it would be fine.
    “Fine,” the Master said to Fel.  “From now on, he’s your little puppy dog.”
    The Master laughed some more and Fel smiled wickedly.
    “Hope you got thick skin, Son,” the Master called as Fel marched off and Azzen followed.
    The catgirl took Azzen outside to the backyard of the manor.  The  yard extended into the forest.  There was a large chopping block and a pile of massive logs.  The logs weren’t regular sized logs, like the ones Azzen had cut for the Elf’s husband, they were gigantic.  Longer than a semi truck and too thick to fit through a door.  Fel walked right up to the closest one and told Azzen to go grab the other side.
    “Yeah sure,” Azzen joked.  “No problem.”  He knew there was no way the two kids could move the log onto the chopping block.  They would have to cut it into pieces and then chop up each piece at a time.  He stood expectantly and waited for Fel to get serious.
    “What are you waiting for?” she asked.
    “Are you serious?”
    “Are you stupid?”
    Azzen wasn’t sure how to answer.  Fel, on the other hand, lifted one end of the log and told him to hurry up.
    Azzen was astounded when he saw her lift the log and hurried over to the other side, thinking that maybe it was some type of super light wood.  He had some trouble getting a grip around the wide girth, and when he lifted, it didn’t budge.
    “Hurry up!” Fel shouted.
    “Uhhh, is there some trick to this?” Azzen called back, peaking around the side of the wood.
    “Oimah, you’re useless,” Fel snapped.
    Azzen stumbled as the log lurched forward.  The catgirl was dragging it to the chopping block by herself.
    “And don’t tell them Master I said that either,” she said.  “Go grab an axe off the side of the house,” she told him.
    Azzen silently obeyed and approached the side of the house that was glistening with various metal tools.  As he got closer, he saw that they weren’t really tools, they were actually an assortment of deadly weapons of different shapes and sizes.  After quickly admiring some swords, spears, mauls, flails, pikes, knives, nun-chucks and bow-staffs, he found a section of axes.  There were about twenty of them, ranging from small hatchets to huge double sided battle axes.  Azzen picked out one that looked like a standard woodcutting axe.
    When he brought it back to Fel, she scolded him.
    “You really are stupid!  It’ll take forever with that piece of junk.  Go get the biggest ones.  Get two.”
    Azzen apologized and quickly went back, retrieving the two largest axes.  They were so large that he could barely carry them both at the same time.
    When he returned.  Fel asked him if he actually wanted to finish this today or just dawdle and drool.
    “I’ve got real training to do, and thanks to you, I’ve got twice the chores from now on.”
    Azzen mumbled and apology and said he would do what he could to help.
    “Well since you’ve already proven yourself useless,” Fel said, “I’ll chop the log up into sections and you can break the pieces down on the chopping block.”
    Without further ado, the catgirl snatched an ax from Azzen and swung it high and hard, down onto the massive log.  The blade dug a good foot through and after wiggling it out, she swung again.  Azzen watched in awe as the girl quickly hacked off a two foot section and then began again, a little further down.
    “Well what are you waiting for?  Get to choppin’!”
    Azzen started and grappled with the huge chunk of wood.  After wrestling it over to the chopping block, he dug his fingers under it and lifted with enormous effort, hefting it up onto the block.  In the time it took him to get the piece in place, Fel had already sectioned off another chunk of wood.
    “You are seriously a pain in the ass,” the girl muttered, more to herself than to Azzen.
    The boy ignored her and went to work, chopping up the wood.  The big ax he swung did most of the work, but lifting it above his head over and over was no easy task.  Still, he didn’t complain, and when the first chunk was chopped up, he moved right on to the next one.
    By the time the boy was done with his second section, Fel had left to grab another log.  When she returned with it, she seemed to be in better spirits.
    “The Master makes us chop wood,” she explained between huffing swings, “to build stamina.  And to sell in the market when he goes to the city.  That’s his scam.  He says he’s gonna teach all us kids how to fight and become great warriors, but he really just makes us chop wood.”
     “He teaches you how to fight?” Azzen asked, interested.
    “Says he does.  But really, we teach each other.  When we don’t have chores or Chop Duty, we practice on our own.  Master divides us into three groups, so we all practice with other kids at our own level, but that’s about all he does.  That and beats us up if we try to run away.”
    “He beats you up?”
    “Yes, and he doesn’t teach us a thing.  That’s his scam.”
    “So he doesn’t let you leave?” Azzen asked.
    “Yes, and he won’t let you, either.”
    “He told me he was going to have one of the boys-”
    “He tells everybody anything to get them in here.  But once you’re here good luck getting out.  He’ll just keep telling you that he’ll do it tomorrow, and then tomorrow.  And if you try to run away, that’s when you’ll know.”
    “Know what?”
    “That he don’t care.  He’ll chase you and catch you and beat you.  And then you stop asking him to take you to city anymore.”
    “Are you serious?” Azzen asked.  “Why doesn’t anyone come get you?  Don’t you have parents?”
    “Me?  No.  Other kids do, but that’s part of the scam.  The Master claims this is a fighting school.  He says that he trains us to be great warriors and that the parents aren’t allowed to watch us train, because of all his ‘secret techniques,’” Fel paused for a rest after she finished sectioning off the second log.  “But he don’t teach us nothing.  Just beats us up and makes us do chores.  In the spare time, we train ourselves.  Oiyah bruntaros E Master,” she spat and left to go grab another log.  “Don’t tell him I said that.”
    Azzen couldn’t believe it.  There must be forty or fifty kids at this school.  How could nobody realize what was going on?  Wouldn’t somebody catch on and step in?  He finished chopping up a fourth section as Fel returned, huffing with the log in tow.
    “How come nobody notices that this isn’t really a school for fighting?” Azzen asked.
    “It has a really good reputation,” Fel said.
    “Yah, most kids here were actually dropped off by their parents,” she said.  “No tell Master I said, ‘Yah.’”
    “Okay.  How come it has a good reputation?”
    “Because the Master is really strong and really fast.  And those are the only two ways to get out of here.  Beat him up or outrun him.  Either way, once you’re able to, you’ve become a powerful warrior.  So people that see it from the outside think it works.  But it don’t.  Some kids grow old and die here.  Once you’re too old, the Master kills you, cuz you’re making the school look bad.”
    “That is absurd,” Azzen said.
    “Meh, that’s just a legend.  I don’t know anyone that’s been killed.”
    “How long have you been here?” Azzen asked.
    “Eight moons,” Fel replied.
    Azzen was dumbstruck.  Fel was swinging a massive ax and hauling tremendous logs.  If she couldn’t escape, how long would it take him?
    “Eight moons…” the catgirl muttered again.  “Stupid me.  I came here on purpose.”
    Azzen snorted an involuntary laugh.
    “Don’t laugh, Stupid!” the catgirl shouted.  “At least I don’t think I’m from fake land!”
    “What?” Azzen replied.
    “I heard you.  You make up fake home.  You probably from sewer city!”
    “Even if I was, I wouldn’t be crazy enough to volunteer for this,” Azzen shot back.
    “OH I SHOW YOU CRAZY!” Fel shouted, suddenly enraged. 
    The girl swung the axe high over her head and brought it down to bear on Azzen.  The boy had to dive out of the way to keep from getting chopped in half.  The axe dug deep into the dirt where he had once stood.
    “What’s wrong with you?!” he shouted.  “You could have killed me.”
    “Yah!  And Donchu Forget It!” she shouted back.  “Yousa my puppy dog.  Master say so.  Noh get upset if you get head chopped.”
    The catgirl seemed serious.  Azzen decided to appease her.  “Alright.  Fine.  Whatever you say.  You gonna let me chop some wood or what?”
    “Yah,” Fel said.  “And don go squeal to Master how I talk,” she added.
    “Why do you keep saying that?” Azzen asked.
    “Master pretend Noble.  E’ate Common,” Fel replied.
    Azzen wasn’t sure if that was an explanation or not, but decided to chop some wood.
    After several more hours, the two finished up twenty logs and Fel said they were done with their “Chop Duty.”
    “And by the way,” she said.  “We can use those weapons to practice, but always put them back.  If you take one out of the backyard, an alarm will ring and the Master will kill you.”
    Azzen didn’t know is she meant it literally or not, but didn’t plan on finding out.
    “So what now?” he asked.
    “Now we can eat lunch,” she said.
    Azzen was beat.  His body ached and was already sore.  His hands were rubbed raw and his back felt like it had been beat on with one of those huge mauls that was hanging on the side of the manor.
    Lunch turned out to be the same oatmeal mush as the morning.  Azzen looked at it in disdain.  Was this what he had to look forward to for the rest of his life?
    Fel served him up a heavy bowl.
    “Eat up,” she said.  “It’s good for you.”
    Though the mush was bland, it was surprisingly good.  Not in the sense of taste, but in the effect it had on Azzen’s body.  Warmth flooded through him from the first bite and the tension in his muscles was immediately eased.
    “Master puts special magic in the food,” Fel said.  “Makes you strong.  Makes you heal.”
    Azzen wasn’t sure what she meant by “special magic,” but even if it was Crack, he couldn’t get enough of it.  He gobbled his bowl and asked Fel if he was allowed to get some more.  She said it was fine and Azzen consumed a second helping.  When he was done, he felt completely renewed and was ready for whatever came next.
    “Now chores, then we train,” Fel said.
    “More chores?” Azzen asked.
    Fel rolled her eyes.
    Chores turned out to be cleaning the manor.  Fel cautioned Azzen that this was the only time they were allowed to wander through the manor freely.  Other than to clean, they were only allowed to visit the sleeping area and the dining area.
    When they had finished cleaning the rooms they were assigned to, Fel led Azzen outside to the front of the manor, where most of the kids were already fighting each other with sticks.
    “In the morning, we practice together, but we missed that today,” Fel told Azzen. 
    The girl grabbed a couple sticks from some younger Rats who muttered obscenities at her under their breath; Fel ignored them.  She lead Azzen off to the side of the manor where they were alone.  When they left, one of the boys called out, “figures she‘d want to try out the new kid!”  Fel ignored that as well.
    She spoke to Azzen when they were one-on-one.  “As a group, we strength train and practice form.  After lunch, we do what we want.  Most always, we spar.”
    With her last word, Fel tossed Azzen one of the sticks.  When he caught it, she immediately swung at him and he instinctively blocked it.  She pulled back and thrust at his chest, hitting him hard.
    Azzen “oofed” and stumbled back.  Fel pushed forward and whacked him hard over the head. 
    “Ow!  Hey!” he shouted.
    Fel ignored him and went for his knees, bringing Azzen to the ground.
    “Hold on.  Stop!” Azzen cried, rolling to the side and scrambling to his feet.
    Fel chased him down as he got up and continued to attack him.
    “Master won’t stop!” she shouted.  “Get used to it.”
    She knocked Azzen hard over the head and he went down, falling on his face.
    “Get up!” she shouted.  “Stay on your feet!”
    Azzen didn’t respond, so Fel kicked him hard in the ribs, rolling his body over.  His eyes were closed and his head was leaking.
    “Playing dead won’t help you,” Fel said, kicking him again.
    Azzen still didn’t respond.  He was unconscious.
    “Oimah…” Fel muttered.  “Useless.”

    “I knocked you out?!” I laugh.
    “Yeh, well, it was my first time really fighting.  And you were definitely stronger than me back then,” Azzen says.
    “What a pussy,” I say.
    “Oh come on!  Maybe I just wasn’t fighting back because you were a pretty girl.”
    I scoff.  “Yeah sure.  That’s not how you just told it.”
    Azzen grins at me.  “Well I take it back.  What really happened was I didn’t want to hurt you, so I played dead and let you kick me.”
    “Uh uh,” I say and wave the tape recorder in his face.  “Too late.  I got evidence.  I totally kicked your ass.”
    Azzen laughs.  “Whatever.  You always kick my ass.”
    He hops off the swing and asks me if I want to get some lunch.
    I say, “sure,” and he asks what I’m in the mood for.
    “Hmmm,” I contemplate.  “Do you like Chinese?”
    Azzen smiles and holds out his hand.  I don’t know why he wants to hold hands, but I accept it and he says, “don’t freak out.”
    There’s a pop and black mist swirls around us.  It blocks out the whole world for just one moment and then clears immediately. 
    Azzen pulls me into his arms as a rickshaw bustles by.  It nearly ran me over.
    I just almost got flattened by a bike-carriage, but what really makes my pulse race is realizing how close Azzen is.  His strong arms are wrapped around me protectively, holding me safe.  “Where are we?” I ask, keeping my voice calm, my lips are just a few inches from his. 
    The scene after black mist has completely changed.  We’re on a cobblestone street in the middle of a flashy city that is both extravagant and grungy at the same time.  Hundreds of brown skinned Asians are passing by on foot or on mopeds, with absolutely no regard for traffic procedure.
    Okay.  I’m not going to freak out.  And I’m not stupid.  I’ve seen enough movies to know that we’ve just teleported or something. 
    “Hue,” Azzen says.  “I know it’s not exactly Chinese, but this place has the best Pho.”
    I look up at the building we’re in front of and see a large neon sign that says “PHO:2000.”
    “Where’s Way?” I ask.
    “’Hoo-ay.’  Hue,” Azzen corrects me.  “We’re in Vietnam.”
    “Oh.  Well there’s my geography lesson for the day.”
    “And your cultural experience too,” Azzen says.  “Come on, it’s good.  They’ve got a picture of Bill Clinton eating here.”
    “Oh and I’m sure he’s hard to please,” I joke.
    Azzen laughs and pulls me into the restaurant.  We sit at a small table and he orders for me when the waiter comes.  He just points at the menu and says, “that” a lot.
    “You don’t speak Vietnamese?” I ask.
    He grins at me.  “Sorry.  I’m not that good.”
    I grin back.  So mister wonderful has limitations after all.
    “I could speak into the waiter’s mind if you want.”
    I laugh.  “Uh huh?  So what am I thinking right now?” I ask with my sweetest smile.
    His voice came in my head.  <You’re thinking that even if I can speak into someone’s mind, it doesn’t necessarily mean I can read their thoughts.  And you’re wondering if I’ll point out the difference.>
    “Whoa!  How can you do that?!”
    “I can do pretty much anything, Fel.  And so can you, once you remember.”
    “Once I remember?  So when you’re done with the story, I’ll be able to do that?” I ask eagerly.
    “Noh.  Not exactly,” he says to my disappointment.  “But I’m sure remembering will help.  We’ll work on you believing it later.”
    “I believe it,” I say defensively.
    <Noh.>  “You believe in me.”  <Not in yourself…>
    “Stop that.  It’s freaking me out,” I say.
    “Oh you heard that?” Azzen asks.  “Interesting…”
    “What is?  What do you mean?”
    “Oh, nothing,” Azzen says slyly.  “Forget about it.”  <She’s better than she thinks.>
    “Better at what?” I ask.
    Azzen just gazes at me with light interest and gives me a whimsical smile.  He’s so handsome that I almost fall into his eyes and lose focus, but after a moment of dreaminess, I snap back to attention. 
    “Tell me!“ I insist.
    But he won’t.  He keeps ignoring me and changes the subject, talking about Vietnam and other places he’s been.  Then our food comes.  And it’s amazing.
    “Try the Fish Sauce,” he says.
    “That sounds terrible,” I reply, but I sniff it.  “Ugh!  It smells terrible too!”
    “I know!” Azzen exclaims.  “But it tastes great!  Look, just trust me.”
    He  dunks a lumpia in the sauce and holds it out for me to bite.  I purse my lips.
    “No way.”
    “Do it.”
    I shake my head.
    “Come on…  You’re a cat girl.  You’ll love it.”
    “I’ll do it if you tell me more story,” I bargain.
    “Fine,” he agrees.
    I open my mouth and he quickly shoves the whole thing in, almost gagging me and chuckles to himself.  What a jerk.  But he’s right, I love it.

    Azzen woke up in the middle of the night.  He had no idea how long he’d been out, but what he did know was that Fel had left him bleeding on the ground, off to the side of the manor, not even bothering to bandage him or bring him in.  The boy rubbed his hair and felt sticky blood, but it was all residual.  The wound had stopped leaking.
    The boy achilly pulled himself off the ground and set about getting back inside the manor.  But on his way, he noticed a fire flickering in the woods.  Curious, and not in a hurry to go back to sleep, in case he had a concussion, he headed towards the light.
    The fire was farther into the forest than he had anticipated, and it took him several minutes of tripping his way through the underbrush to reach the source.  When he got there, he saw that Fel, the catgirl, was sitting in a small clearing, alone.
    “What are you doing?” he called out to her as he approached.
    “Nothing,” she muttered.  The catgirl’s ear twitched.
    “Fun,” said Azzen.  “Mind if I do nothing with you?”
    The catgirl said nothing and Azzen took that as an, “okay.”  He sat down in silence and joined her in watching the flames.
    Minutes passed and the two sat, each lost in their own thoughts.  For Azzen, it was thoughts of getting home and ponderings of where he really was.  How had he gotten here?  And who was this girl beside him with kitty ears and a tail?
    As for what was on Fel’s mind, Azzen couldn’t even guess.  He looked up at the stars and didn’t recognize any constellations.
    As though sensing what was on his mind, Fel asked, “where are you from?”
    “Not here,” Azzen replied airily.  “That’s for sure…”
    “What do you mean?” Fel prodded.
    “Where I’m from, nobody fights with swords,” Azzen said.
    “No.  We have them, but they’re mostly for show…  We figured out easier ways to kill each other, I guess,” Azzen said.  “Hey!” he piped up.  “Have you ever heard of a telephone?”
    Fel looked over at him and studied his eyes to see if he was trying to pull some trick on her.  “Noh…” she said slowly.  “What is this?”
    “It’s nothing…” Azzen sighed.  “Just… Well it lets people far away talk to each other.”
    “Like from one city to another?” Fel asked mildly.
    “Yah, we have that,” she said.
    “You do?!” Azzen asked in surprise.
    “Yah, they call it ‘scrying.’  Priest can do it in the temple.  Touches white water and can see through to anyplace.”
    “Oh,” Azzen said uncertainly.  “I’m not sure that’s quite the same.”
    “Meh,” Fel responded.  “So where are you from then?  You can scry it.  Find a road there.”
    “I’m not sure a road will take me there,” Azzen said.
    “You from island?” Fel asked.
    “No.  I’m from another world, I think.”
    Fel looked at him curiously.  “Why do you say that?” she asked.
    Azzen looked up, trying to figure out how to explain himself.  “Everything is different where I’m from,” he said.  “Similar, I guess.  But different.  There are not girls with cat ears where I‘m from.”
    “That’s just crazy,” the girl said.
    Azzen smiled.
    Fel watched him quietly as the boy closed his eyes and sighed up into the night sky.  “The stars,” he said.  “The stars are different.  Even on the other side of the world, I could find Polaris, the North Star.  But now it’s gone.  What does that mean?” the boy asked to himself.
    There was silence for a moment until Fel broke it.  “It means you’re lost,” she said.
    Azzen looked over at her and smiled weakly.  Fel pointed up into the sky.  “Here, the North Star is Trixi.  If it is same as the North Star for you, it always stays North.  There, you see?” 
    Azzen followed her finger.  “Which one?” he asked.
    “You see those two that are really bright?” Fel replied.  “The one higher up.  That’s Trixi.”
    “Oh,” said Azzen.  “I see it.”
    “Good,” said Fel.  “So now you’re not lost anymore.”  She looked over at Azzen and gave him a smirk.  Azzen smiled back.
    “How did you get here?” Fel asked.
    Azzen hesitated for a moment, but then decided he might as well tell the truth.  He told Fel about the portal and falling through.  She scoffed at his story and said he must have hit his head pretty hard.
    Azzen muttered that she might be right.  “For all I know,” he said philosophically, “my whole life before now could have been a dream…”
    Fel nodded  and said nothing more.  Azzen began to contemplate his own existence and also fell silent.  The two sat for awhile, watching the fire burn down to flickering embers.  Fel got up to restock it before it completely died out.
    After she coaxed out some more cozy flames, the catgirl broke the silence.  “I usually like being out here alone,” she said.
    “Then you should make the fire farther away, so people can’t see it from the manor,” Azzen suggested.
    “I do…” Fel said.  “But I had to keep an eye on you.”
    Azzen wasn’t sure how to respond to that, but settled on a quiet, “thanks.”
    Fel said nothing for a while.
    “I can go if you want,” Azzen said.
    “I said ‘usually…’” Fel responded.
    “You’re okay,” she said.
    “Thanks,” Azzen replied.  “You are too.”
    Fel cracked a smile.  “Thanks.  Most people don’t think so,” she said.
    The catgirl held her hand out into the flames of the fire.
    “How could anyone…” Azzen began, “Uh… your arm…”
    Fel kept her hand in the fire for longer than anyone Azzen had ever seen.
    “Stop that!” he shouted.
    “It’s okay,” Fel said.
    “No!  Don’t hurt yourself!”
    “It’s fine,” she assured the boy.  “I don’t burn.”
    Azzen watched in worry as the girl continued to hold her hand steady.
    “You don’t know anything about me,” she said.
    “Yeah.  I guess not,” Azzen agreed.
    “I like that,” Fel said.
    She pulled her hand back out of the fire and held it out to Azzen.  It flickered for a while, lit with flame, but then it died out and her hand was plain.
    “See?” she said.  “Fine.”
    Azzen took her hand and Fel tensed a little, but allowed it.  The boy felt her palm and ran his hand over hers.  She pink was very warm to the touch, but she wasn’t burnt.
    “How do you do that?” he asked.
    “Practice,” she said, pulling her hand away.
    “How do you practice something like that?”
    The catgirl stood up.  “You get burned a lot,” she said and kicked out the fire, scattering embers across the forest floor.  “Come on Azzo.  Let’s go sleep.”
    In the darkness, Azzen stumbled and had trouble finding his footing until Fel caught his hand and pulled him close to her, leading the way expertly in the dark.   

Ch3: Funeral Parlour Tricks

    The next day was when the real training began.
    “Wait,” I interrupt.  “Before you go any further, can you take me home?” I ask. 
    Our lunch was finished, but we were still chatting in the restaurant.
    “Sure.  Is something wrong?”
    “It’s nothing really.  It’s just kinda messing with my head that it’s nighttime here.  I’m still only halfway through my day.”
    “Oh yah.”
    “And it’s wayyy to muggy.  My hair is going to be a mess.”
    Azzen laughs.  He pulls out a hundred American dollars and sets it on the table, which I’m sure was way too much.  Then he takes my hand and one swirly moment later, we’re in my home.
    “Oh, I didn’t actually mean, ‘Home’ home.  But I guess this is fine,” I say.
    “You’ve always been impossible to please,” he teases.
    And the next thing I know, we’re in the top seat or an enormous Ferris wheel.
    “Is it okay to be doing that all the time?” I ask.
    “I don’t see why not,” Azzen replies.
    “Where are we now?”
    “Boardwalk of New Orleans.”
    “Oh, nice.”
    Azzen puts his arm up and around me and I snuggle in.   It just feels so natural.  Maybe he cast a spell on me.  I don’t really care.
    “Okay,” I say.  “Now I’m ready for more.”

     When Azzen woke up and got breakfast, he didn’t see Fel, so he ate with the Rats.  He still hadn’t figured out where she slept.  Everyone else seemed to have to sleep together in the common room.  He sat with a group of the bigger guys and older girls.  One of the boys clapped him on the back.
    “You’re one of us now,” the kid said.
    “Yeah, I guess so.”
    “Don’t say ‘yeah,’” the kid said.  “Say ‘yes.’  And don’t say ‘noh,’ say ‘no.’  The Master hates Common.  You got me?”
    Azzen didn’t understand, but said, “yes,” anyways.
    “I’m Morty,” the boy introduced himself.  “Top of the Rats.  You’ll know about me.  I’m gonna be the next one to make it up to the Wolf Pack.”
    “You aint top of nothing,” a hefty looking girl said.  “If anyone moves up, it’ll be that damn Merca.”
    “She aint going nowhere, Stupid!” a boy chided.  “She likes it here.”
    All the boys at the table laughed and the girls smirked.  Azzen didn’t quite get the joke.
    “Who?” he asked innocently.
    “The Merca, Dummy,” Morty said.
    “Merca?” Azzen asked.
    “Yes.  You don’t know what a Merca is?!” the talkative girl asked.
    “No.  Not really,” Azzen said.
    “The Pria,” another boy said, as though that explained anything.
    The lack of comprehension was apparent on Azzen’s face.  The other kids stared at him like he was stupid.
    “Fel,” one of them finally said.
    “Oh,” Azzen replied.  “She likes it here?”
    The whole table burst out laughing, as though Azzen had made some hilarious joke.
    “Bet you she does!” one choked out through his mirth.
    “Definitely,” said Morty.  “She tries to run like every night!”
    Another chorus of laughter followed his comment.  Azzen figured it must be funny to them that the catgirl obviously hated it here but couldn’t manage to escape.
    “Ugh, cut it out,” one of the girls complained.  “You shouldn’t talk about her.  Just thinking about a Merca is enough to make you sick.”
    Everybody laughed again, but Azzen suddenly wasn’t entertained.  As they chuckled down their laughter, Azzen tried to change the subject.
    “What’s the Wolf Pack?” he asked.
    “The white shirts,” Morty explained.  “To get there, you have to beat every Rat at the same time.  And then the Master will give you white clothes and let you train with them.”
    “Oh,” Azzen replied.  “Everyone at the same time?”
    “Yup,” Morty said proudly.  “You can call out a challenge at any time, but if you do, you’ll probably just get your ass kicked.  I’m the only one that ever tries.  Everybody else knows they don’t stand a chance until I move up.”
    “Quit acting tough, Morty.  Last time you called a challenge, Fel kicked your ass before anyone else even took a swing.”
    “I didn’t expect her to fight!” Morty shouted.  “She usually just sits back and yells.  She got lucky,” he declared and glared around, daring anyone to challenge his word.
    “I thought you just said you fight everyone,” Azzen said.  “Why wouldn’t you expect her to fight?”
    “She just doesn’t,” Morty said defensively.  “She’s class leader, so she thinks she’s too good to train with us.  But she’s too scared to call a challenge.”
    “Oh,” said Azzen, thinking about it.  “Who are those guys with the fancy clothes?” he asked as they were finishing up their meals.
    “Those are Dragons.  Same concept as a Rat moving up to the Wolf Pack.  If you beat the whole Wolf Pack, you get to be a Dragon.  There are only three of them right now and they train together.”
    “Isn’t that really just less people to practice with?” Azzen asked, seeing obvious flaws in the system.  “And if all the Rats get better at the same time, isn’t it possible that they could all be better than the guys in the Wolf Pack, without ever actually advancing?”
    The boys eyed him suspiciously.
    “What are you talking about?” one asked.
    “That’s just stupid,” another said.
    Azzen didn’t argue, but he thought it made sense.
    The Rats filed outside and lined up in the yard.  Several of them began stretching while the others just chatted and joked around.  Azzen hung around with Morty for a few minutes until Fel joined them all in the yard.
    Morty called everyone to attention by shouting “FORM UP!”
    All of the Rats fell into organized ranks and Azzen joined them, trying not to stand out.  Fel walked to the front of the pack and without any ado, began blandly calling names.
    Each kid repeated their name as it was called.  Azzen did the same when Fel called his out at the end of the list.
    After that, the catgirl lead the group in a series of stretches and light warm-up exercises.  Jumping jacks, push-ups, sit-ups, and a few other calisthenics that Azzen had never done before.  All were simple enough and he was able to copy the form of the kids around him.  After that, Fel paired them up in twos or threes.  Azzen was teamed with Morty and another big boy.  From there, they began practicing proper punches, footwork, and form.
    Azzen learned a lot that day.  He learned how to hold his body and found his balance.  While Fel gave general instructions from the front, Morty was able to assist Azzen and their other partner with the subtler details.
    “Hold your back straighter,” he said.  “Don’t lean forward so much.  You need to be able to move backwards just as quickly as you can move forward.”
    Azzen straightened his back while keeping his feet in the diagonal position that Fel had shown.
    “Your feet don’t need to be that wide,” Morty said.  “Square them with your shoulders.  Try to find the spacing that feels comfortable.”
    Azzen shifted his feet slightly. 
    “Now bend your knees a little.  You want to be light on your feet.”
    “Okay,” Azzen said, bending his knees.
    “But stay on the balls of your feet.”
    “Oh,” Azzen said.  “My feet have balls?”
    Morty laughed.  “Yes.  You know that jutting bone right behind your big toe.  Get used to holding your weight on that, not your heels.  Even when we’re not training, start walking on your balls.  It’ll help you react quicker because you can move in any direction from there without having to shift your weight first.”
    “Gotcha,” Azzen replied.
    Morty smacked him on the head.  “Don’t talk like that.”
    Azzen thought the talking rule was dumb, but didn’t complain.
    “Now show me how you punch,” Morty said.
    Fel had given demonstrations and Azzen tried his best to emulate how she had looked and gave focus to the main points she had brought up.  But according to Morty…
    “No, you’re doing it all wrong.”
    Azzen didn’t thought he’d done it ALL wrong.
    “First of all, when Fel said that swiveling your ankle gives you more range, she didn’t mean just let it flop all flimsy.  Your punch starts at your foot.”
    “What do you mean?”
    Morty demonstrated, taking a stance and throwing a slow square punch.  Azzen saw what he meant just by watching closely, but he let Morty explain what he was anyways.
    “You see how I stay on the ball of my foot and that allows my heel to twist around and let my body forward more?  Well, it’s not just to gain range.  I’m actually pushing off the ground with my foot.  I plant the ball firmly and push from it.  The ankle swivel will follow naturally.  My punch starts at my foot, flows through my legs, through the twist in my abs, all the way through my back and chest and shoulder.  And all that power is focused into my arm and then explodes out of my fist.”
    Morty reasserted his stance then threw a full powerful punch.  This time at his top speed.  Azzen was impressed by how fast the big guy’s whole body moved.  It seemed more like a quick twitch of his entire form; not the elaborate hulking swing of a boxer.
    “How do you move that fast?” Azzen asked.
    “Just practice,” Morty said.  “It’s muscle memory.  At first, you’ll have to focus on having the punch travel through your whole body, but once you get used to it, everything will occur in sequence, perfectly, and nearly at once.”
    “Okay,” Azzen said, taking his stance again.
    “Remember,” said Morty.  “Start from your toes, explode with your fist, and use every muscle in-between.”
    Azzen did as he was told.  Pushed from the ball of his foot, shoved with his legs, twisted with his body, and punched with his arm.  When he did, he could feel how much more powerful the hit would have been.  He realized that before, his punches had pulled his body, but now, his body was pushing his punches,  In fact, he had so much force that it carried him off balance and he stumbled forward a little.
    Morty chuckled and said, “Not bad, not bad.  Focus on keeping your center of balance and slow it down a little bit.  Your muscles are actually trained better if you do things in slow motion, rather than trying to do it fast.”
    Azzen grinned.  Although the Master might not teach him anything, Morty seemed pretty good, and learning to fight could be fun.  He thought he saw Fel eying him from the other side of the group, but tried to focus on his own form, instead of hers.
    Azzen practiced his punching for a while, while Morty focused on helping the other kid, who was working on high kicks.  He switched up his stance every now and then, learning to strike with both arms.
    While the kids practiced, Fel walked around inspecting them here and there.  Giving them tips or scolding them for being lazy.  She would usually wait a few moments before stepping in and correcting some minute error, but when she came to Azzen, she immediately tore into him.
    The girl grabbed his elbows that were sticking out and yanked them down. 
    “You’re fighting, not flying,” she said.  “Keep your elbows down.  Protect your chest.”
    Then she pulled his wrists more outward.  “Keep your hands away from your face or you’ll get them shoved into your nose.  NO!  Don’t drop them low!  Just hold them out farther.  Lower your chin or I‘ll punch you in the neck.”
    She kicked his back foot so it pointed more forward.  “Make a ‘V,’ not an ‘L,’” she said.  “AND KEEP YOUR BACK STRAIGHT,” she yelled in his ear.  In the midst of all the corrections, Azzen had slouched forward.
    “Now punch,” she ordered.
    Azzen did as he was told, keeping his form and remembering everything Morty had told him.  In his head, he thought he did everything perfectly.
    But Fel just sighed.  “Useless,” she said and walked away.
    Azzen turned to Morty in bewilderment.  “What did I do wrong?”
    Morty grinned at him.  “Nothing wrong.  That was perfect, actually.  She just doesn’t want you getting a big head.  Wants you to keep practicing.”
    “Oh,” Azzen said, not so sure.
    “You’re a quick learner,” Morty complimented.  “Keep training your muscles to punch like that one you just did.  Remember the things Fel pointed out, and you’ll be calling out challenges in no time.”
    Re-encouraged, Azzen took his stance and practiced  his slow punches.  As he thought he was getting it, he began to slowly increase his speed, but every time he did…
    “Slow down,” Morty would say.  “This is your first day.  You’re doing good, but if you try to go fast, you’ll start to get sloppy.  Your lucky to be new cuz I means you don‘t have ant bad habits.  If you try to show off, you‘ll form them.”
    So Azzen slowed down, and focused on doing everything exactly right, using every muscle in his body from the balls of his feet to the triceps of his arm. 
    After Fel called out that they had ten more minutes until lunch, Morty told Azzen to try putting it all together and punch fast.  Azzen gladly obliged, throwing what he thought were several perfect, precise, powerful, punches.
    “Not bad,” Morty said.  “You really do learn fast.  I’ve got one more thing to add though.  I didn’t tell you before because you needed to go slow.  One trick to punching… it mostly for the jab, but can be applied to most  anything…  Instead of trying to push your fist forward with your muscles, just try snapping your elbow inward as fast as you can.  Snap your elbow in so that your arm pops straight.  Like this.”
    Morty took two quick jabs in the blink of an eye.
    “Whoa,” Azzen said.  Then he tried it, jabbing by snapping his elbow in, rather than pushing his fist out.  It worked easily, surprising the boy with how fast his punch was.  “Haha, cool!” he exclaimed.
    “Don’t overdo it,” Morty warned.  “If you’re too strong, you’ll pop your elbow out.  And you’ll notice as your practicing that your elbows will start to hurt.  Give them time to heal.  Work your body up a little at a time.  You don’t want to injure yourself.  But at the same time, no pain, no gain, right?” he winked.
    Azzen grinned.
    Fel announced that training was over and that they could all go get lunch.  Azzen followed the Rats inside and ate some more mush.  Once again, he felt the revitalizing effects of the food, though this time he didn’t need it as much.

    As we’re sitting in the Ferris wheel, I try a jab like Azzen described in his story.
    “Huh, cool,” I say.
    “I know, right?” he laughs.  “That’s everyone’s reaction.”
    “I didn’t know I could punch that fast.”
    “Nah, you slow.  You was way faster back then.”
    “Let’s get off this thing,” I say.  “My butt’s falling asleep.”
    Azzen yawns and stretches wide.  “Alright,” he agrees.  “Do you actually mind if I take you home?  I’m pretty tired.  I was up all night catching stardust.”
    “Oh,” I say.  I’m a little disappointed, but I hide it in my voice.  “Yeah, that’s fine.”
    “Thanks,” he says and pulls me close to his chest.
    The mist swirls around us and a moment later, we’re back in my kitchen.
    “Where do you sleep at night?” I ask.
    “I have a place,” he says.
    We stare at each other, lingering for just one moment too long.
    “Well, I should go,” he says.
    “Yeah,” I say.  “Will I see you tomorrow?”
    “Yah,” he says.  “Goodbye Fel.”
    “Goodbye Azzen.”
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bleed by E.A. Skanchy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.