Part One - Alive
Special thanks to my amazing beta reader, AllyJackson, for correcting my mistakes while writing an impressive story of her own!
He hadn't fought in four years.
He knew how dangerous it was. He had been so careful. But in the end it hadn't mattered. And now here he stood. Holding a long steak knife and looking down at the unconscious individual at his feet as the principal and school security guard ran towards him across the parking lot shouting things he could not bring himself to listen to.
He had lost control. He could stop it from happening. He could call it up at will. But turning it off when he wanted still eluded him.
What will his parents think? He had tried so hard just for them. After his dad got his old job back, things began to get better. For his family at least. They had gotten him back into school.
He had to wear long sleeves and long pants for a few months, but it had been fall, so no one really noticed except Larry and Angelina. He had been trying to hang out with them to take his mind off things, but they only reminded him of the friends he had lost.
They only commented on him wearing odd clothing a few times when they all slept over at his house and he always kept his arms and legs covered. But they didn't push it. They were good friends, really. But he never reconnected with them. They talked. They ate lunch together. They spent time together. But he no longer confided in them like he had before.
One day he stood looking at himself in the mirror, trying to figure out how he could possibly be the same person who had once upon a time enjoyed things like summer camp and video games. He looked at his arms and legs. "My scars are fading," he thought. His hand had brushed his chest then. "Most of my scars are fading." he corrected himself. Some scars were forever.
Larry and Angelina noticed some of his changes even before he did. Soon after they had started high school together, Larry said "Didn't you used to have brown eyes?" He had immediately gone to the bathroom. His eyes had changed. Not just in color, from a light brown to a bright green, but something deeper.
He had been worried about fighting. After all his absence and the countless lies his family had come up with to explain them, he had expected to be the target of a lot of bullying and teasing. But to his surprise, no one even brought it up. He asked Angelina what she thought about it.
"Do you want them to harass you? I thought you didn't like fighting."
"No, I just expected it. All the time I was gone. The people I hang out with, no offense. My dad being my teacher. I didn't really think I'd be able to avoid a fight for this long."
"They're afraid of you. I can understand why. Something about you just seems... dangerous. Ever since you got back. You should really pay more attention." With that she had walked to class, leaving him feeling very confused. He had started watching people then.
At first it was kind of amusing. The way even seniors who looked like they could snap him in half moved out of his path. The way bullies would abandon their targets if they were near him. But the amusement died when he saw one of his class mates, who he had known for many years, turn pale when they had accidentally bumped into each other in the hall.
Was he really so terrifying? He made another trip to the bathroom on that occasion, thinking he was spending more time in front of a mirror than before his third visit to that place.
He wore short sleeves again. His arms and legs had faint white lines, but no one would notice those from any comfortable distance. His dark hair was longer than he used to wear it. He had let it grow out some to hide some of the scars on his neck, and then decided he liked it better long. It distinguished himself from the person he really was. The person he couldn't be.
His hand rose to his chest as it always did when he thought about his scars. His eyes were still the same bright green. But the deeper change he had noticed before was even more pronounced. He simply stared at his reflection for what felt like hours. Why couldn't he place what the change was? His eyes still looked familiar.
Then something clicked. The fear people felt even from a glance. He remembered a pair of eyes he had looked into once that had told him as plain as day that the owner was dangerous. That is why his eyes looked familiar. They were the same now really. The pain and loss. The deadliness. Yes, he had the eyes he had only seen in one other creature.
As time passed and people got to know him again, their fear slowly faded and was replaced with respect. Similar to the immense electrical power flowing through your house's walls, you don't fear it. You merely respect it enough not to stick your tong in a socket.
It was now his sophomore year of high school. He was sixteen years old. Only a day ago he had been thinking how he may get a job this summer. How his life had come to resemble normal on the surface.
But now it didn't matter. There was nothing that could make this disaster go away. He would be expelled. He may even go to prison for this.
It hadn't been his fault really. The kid had attacked him. He may never know what had provoked the assault. It seemed random. Pointless.
He had won a small competition and got one hundred dollars as the prize. He was going to get his twelve year old sister a pet rat. He knew she would love it. He had seen the perfect gray rat in the pet shop when his six year old sister had dragged him in to look at the animals.
Larry had gotten a car for his birthday and had gotten his drivers permit several months ago. As soon as he was allowed, he started driving the three of them to school and stuff. He never made it to Larry's car. He would have had to wait for his friends anyway, but he figured he could just listen to the radio till then.
His attacker, a very large, very stupid junior had stepped out from behind a dumpster and punched him without warning. He had been caught off guard. He could have easily blocked or dodged it. But he was so determined not to fight that he didn't register self-defense as an option.
He fell to the ground on his back and glared up at the kid. The kid glared right back.
"Give me your money!" He was shocked. He was being mugged by a classmate for a hundred dollars?
"Why? I won it." He thought since fighting wasn't an option, maybe he could try reason. Nope.
The kid kicked him hard in the ribs. "Give it to me now! I'm not afraid of you like those other wimps. You aren't that big."
He clutched his bruised ribs and hoped none were broken. "Fine," He pulled out his wallet and took out the money. He offered it up to his attacker.
"Gimme the wallet too!"
"No." He couldn't. It had her picture in it.
"I said give it to me now!" He raised his leg for another kick. But his foot never made contact. One minute he was glaring down at that punk who had the money he wanted, then he was flat on his back with several aching spots across his body. He groaned as he saw the boy walk away. With HIS money in HIS hand! He got shakily to his feet.
If it had just been the money, he wouldn't have gone this far, but he couldn't let this punk get away with flooring him. He'd be kicked out of his gang. He'd be laughed at. No. He pulled a long steak knife from is back pack and ran at the kid.
This time he saw it. The boy spun faster than he would have thought possible. The first time around, his left foot caught the boy's raised foot, and his right hand snagged the wrist of the knife hand and pulled him forward in a fluid motion. The second turn brought his right foot to the loosened fist and launched the knife into the air, while his left hand came down across the back of the boy's neck, rendering him unconscious. He came to a stop as quickly as he had started and caught the knife easily.
Now here he was. Four years of not fighting. And now it was all for nothing.
Things went downhill after that. It turned out that under different circumstances, things may have ended well. The attacker turned out to be responsible for several gang related muggings. But the school had a strict zero tolerance policy on fighting, so he was expelled. He escaped arrest only because a security camera had proved he was the victim. Which had led to a lot of questions about how he had managed to turn the tables so drastically. He claimed it must have been luck and adrenaline.
His grandmother's health began to decline soon afterward. She had been moved to a nursing home soon after his dad got his job back. She was the only reason they weren't in Virginia right now. His mother had been adamant that they leave, but grandma couldn't travel, and she couldn't break up the family after all they had been through, so they stayed.
Now she was nearing the end. He visited her right after he was expelled and was surprised to find her in complete control of her thoughts.
"You know, you can't run away from your destiny. It will just come and find you."
"I know grandma. But I really thought I could control this. I've been getting better." He had. His twelve year old sister had forced him to practice. Not that he objected anymore. He had tried his hardest to prevent what had happened.
"Don't lose sight of the bigger picture. Don't let the bad you are facing now overshadow the good it could be meant to bring later."
"What good could come from this? I don't think I'm getting any medals for taking down a criminal when they still think I was somehow at fault."
"I'm not making any promises. I don't know the future." Her nurse came in and shooed him out then. His grandma's words just made him all the more confused.
He and Lizzy had worked out a system. They both knew the code of claw by heart, so they sent messages through the wall between their rooms when they wanted to talk in secret. Anything they didn't want their mother to hear. They added in a few short hand things just between them. One long scratch was 'be quiet.' Five taps was 'message received.' They only used each other's initials instead of full names.
He and Lizzy had become incredibly close since they got back. Boots quickly lost any interest in returning, but he and Lizzy had both left behind very dear friends. She was the only one who knew why he had finally stopped the mugger. She understands. Mom wouldn't. She would just see the picture as a connection to the place that she blamed for tearing apart her family.
She had wasted no time in removing every flashlight in the house, refastening the vent in the laundry room, and tossing out all the spider silk clothing they had accumulated. When they moved, she had thought it was the final severance from that place. But he would never relinquish his picture. Not when it was all he had left to remember her by.
Lizzy loved her new rat. Mom did not. But even she could not evict the rodent when she saw how happy her daughter was. He was glad they let him keep the prize money. He even got Boots enough plastic animals to start her own zoo.
So now they both had a reminder of what they had lost. On the plus side, their memories would never vanish. But then again, neither would their pain. He reached up above his bed and picked the small plastic bat off the headboard. He wishes he had a picture of him, too. Something real. But he was supposed to be there right up until he died. Things weren't supposed to end the way they did.
The warrior had died. But he still suffered from his loss. Occasionally he missed the feel of his sword on his hip. He truly was a warrior at heart.
He was dozing lightly. His last day in the Underland was drifting through his head. He remembered the beautiful jeweled dagger he had pressed into her hand before he left. He remembered them finally telling each other that they loved each other. He remembered the feeling of emptiness when he had finally uncurled his fingers from his dead bond's claw.
scraaatch tapscraaatch tapscraaatch tap
Their signal for "I need to talk."
Not in the mood for encoding everything, and safe in the knowledge that his parents weren't home yet, he went over to her room and sat on her bed next to her. "What's up Liz?"
"I've been dreaming about the Underland a lot since you got expelled. . . . Not like my usual dreams. They aren't nightmares, or memories. Just really confusing. Stone walls moving around. Rain. Skeletons. Currents. I don't know what to make of it. I think maybe it is from having Riptip here." She picks the rat up out of its cage and gently strokes it on her lap.
"Well, as long as they aren't nightmares, I don't think there's anything to worry about." He reaches out and pats the rat. It glares at him, but allows it grudgingly. "And what does rain have to do with the Underland?"
"I don't know. I just know I was in the Underland in the dream, and that it was raining."
"That's weird. . . ." He didn't say it, but he had had similar dreams recently. His, however, had been nightmares.
"You know Mom is going to drag us to Virginia as soon as Grandma dies. . . . I feel so selfish wishing for her to live more so I can stay, rather than because I want her here. Going so far away just seems like abandoning all hope. . . ."
"I know what you mean. . . . But grandma is actually looking forward to peace. I kind of envy her from time to time. . . ."
"Don't you even think about doing anything drastic like suicide or I'll have to kill you." She grins at him. Maybe it's odd for siblings to joke about death like that, but they do. Neither of them would ever really consider suicide. If their mom found out they had even mentioned it, she'd flip. But they had started joking about it when Lizzy mentioned that they could fake their deaths and sneak back under ground.
"Hey Liz, tomorrow's Saturday. Let's go visit Mrs. Cormaci. Maybe we can leave a note in the vent. You never know. They may still check it. It could be like having pen pals."
They both knew this wasn't likely. They had left notes there for weeks after they came back up, but they were never taken. Not till their mother found out. Then she started checking daily to make sure they didn't try it again. She wanted them to forget about the Underland altogether.
"Sounds like fun. I can show her Riptip. He hasn't gotten to go outside much." She cuddled the happy rat before putting it back in its cage. "Will we take Boots?"
"I think . . . the two of us haven't had much time to just hang out lately. Besides, Boots and Dad are going to the zoo tomorrow." Lizzy grins and hugs him.
"Thanks." She was always happy to hang out with him. She had a worse time trying to fit back in after their absence. As he walks out, he sees her take out a note book and a pen and start on a letter that will probably never be read.
Mrs. Cormaci is thrilled to see them. They spend several hours just talking to her about all what has been going on. Lizzy goes to the bathroom while he tells her about getting expelled and their grandmother's declining health. He mentions some of the things that his grandma said, and was surprised when Mrs. Cormaci nods in agreement.
"School. Your Grandma. You know that every connection you lose to New York doesn't have to be a step towards Virginia, right? I could see your mother changing her mind about the Underland if things happened right."
"I couldn't. I don't think anything will change her mind. Not unless she believed it was the only way to keep our family together. Or that somehow it would be safer down there."
"I dunno'. You're mother has had a lot of time to think. It might take less to sway her than you might think. Of course if you pushed her in the wrong way, or at the wrong time, or to hard, you'll get a guaranteed one way ticket out of state." She leaned on the kitchen counter and crossed her feet.
"Thanks. . . . I feel loads better."
"Would you rather me lie to you? 'Cause I won't do it. The way I see it, if you do nothing, you'll stay here. If you try to get her to move, she'll move. Just not necessarily the way you want her to. It's a risk." She pulls a dish out of the oven as it dings. Enough roast chicken to feed three adults, three kids, and a rat.
"You always seem to cook extra when you see us. Even when we don't let you know we're coming."
"Oh? And how do you know I don't cook this much all the time? I might be feeding my whole floor you know!" She sliced off three large plates and then made a small bowl for Riptip. She had instantly adored the little gray rat.
"Well, then I feel guilty about making your whole floor starve then. I'll just take this across the hall to Mrs. Smith." He hid his grin and made to stand.
"Oh, no you don't, mister! Sit. Eat." He obeyed. Lizzy came out and dug in too.
"You know Ripred really would have loved to meet you." Lizzy said. She was so much stronger than him in that. She could talk about her friend so easily. He couldn't. He hadn't said a single name from the Underland since he had come back. Not if it could be avoided at least.
Of course there were two names that rarely left his thoughts. Waking or sleeping, they were always on his mind. His bond and his love.
He wondered if she still cared about him. They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. It certainly had for him, but for a young queen with a city to run and numerous men around her all the time, could he really expect her to forgo any other romantic relationships for a guy she would never see again?
"Well, if he is anything like this adorable little creature, I'm sure I would have loved to meet him, too!"
"They certainly have the same appetite!" Lizzy giggled at her pet.
"Well, it is getting late. You two should get home before your mom starts to worry. You know that won't be doing yourselves any favors. Take the rest of this chicken before I eat myself into a coma!"
"Thanks, Mrs. Cormaci!" They both say. Even Riptip gives a squeak.
They stop past the laundry room and leave the letter in the vent. They slide it almost all the way in so that no one will notice it from their side.
They get home in plenty of time for supper. It's only been a week since his fight and already things seem to have balanced out. The following Monday, he finds himself in the cloisters, staring at the stone knight.
"Hey! Hey what are you doing here?" He turns and sees Larry and Angelina running towards him. His school is on a field trip.
"I just needed some fresh air. I come here a lot." He explained.
"I know! I see you walking in and out at all hours of the night. I always wondered what you were doing. I thought maybe you were meeting a secret lover or something." Angelina said.
"You read too many romance novels, Angel." Larry says.
"Oh, come on guys, argue later. Why is our high school doing a field trip here?"
"We don't know. They kinda' just sprung it on us." Larry answered. "And it's just our class. Sophomore Literature."
"I think it had something to do with an anonymous poem that mentioned a stone knight and how it saved the author's life or something." Angelina gave him a meaningful look.
"Ah. Well it's great to see you guys! I'm sorry your parents won't let you see me. . . ." Their parents thought that he was a bad influence since he got in a fight and had to talk to the police in addition to getting expelled.
"Yeah. . . . Well, they'll cool down pretty soon. Oh yeah . . . Angel and I. . . ." Larry looked at the ground.
Angelina glared at him. "We're dating and he's too shy to say it! I had to ask him to repeat himself eight times when he asked me out." Larry was bright red and determined to count the molecules on his shoe laces.
"That's great you guys, but I think everyone already thought you were together." Larry and Angelina both laughed.
"It would explain why everyone was confused when I told them . . . ." Larry mumbled.
"Or they just didn't hear you mumbling," Angelina countered.
"You guys should probably get back to the group. I don't want to get you in trouble."
"Alright. See ya' later!" Angelina said.
"Yeah, later," Larry said and followed her.
He turned back to the knight. "I should stop coming here. . . . You helped me learn to die, but living is beyond you now." He thought. But he knew he'd be back again. He always came back. The warrior was dead. He was the warrior. Maybe the stone knight still had some secrets left for him that would help.
That night at dinner, something happened that he would never have expected. A rat leaped up onto the table and ran to the middle. It sat up on its hind legs and started squeaking at Boots. To the surprise of everyone at the table, she confidently squeaked back.
"Mousy says, 'Ripred says, 'Be more careful next time, warrior!'." Boots translates. Lizzy lets out a squeak of her own at the mention of the big rat's name. He groans, thinking that the entire Underland must know that he slipped up. Mom goes white as a sheet as she realizes her youngest daughter still has the gift of languages that she started learning from Hazard. Dad just smiles at the rat's advice to his son.
The rat seems abnormally hyper. Its back foot is tapping at such a rate it sounds almost like a buzzer. He glances over at Lizzy. His suspicions are confirmed when he sees her start tapping and scratching the table at nearly the same rate.
That pretty much put an end to their dinner. Mom orders them to get to bed. Dad stays to talk with her. He is praying he can at least talk her out of moving to Virginia over a rat.
He expects Lizzy to start tapping on the wall as soon as their doors close, but she remains silent. Maybe whatever message the rat delivered to her was simply a personal message from Ripred. But no. At midnight he hears her start.
"COME TO MY ROOM QUIETLY"
He gets up and silently slips around to her room. She is sitting up with her clothes on and a huge grin on her face.
"What is it, Lizzy?" He feels excitement flooding his mind as well. It must be something extraordinary to get Lizzy all worked up.
"Ripred needs to talk to us face to face. He says it's urgent. He promises it will take no more than twenty minutes. He said to meet him in the cloisters at one. Are you going to come with me?" She already knows the answer.
At a quarter till, they're slipping through a metal gate that seems to have been left unlocked by mistake. He wonders how the rat managed that.
Lizzy darts over to the stone knight and runs her nail down the side, breaking it up with hard taps. To his surprise, the entire platform slowly slides to the side. As soon as he sees the patch of gray fur he hears his voice.
"Feel like helping Overlander? This thing is heavy!"
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