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Chapter One ~ Master Fantastic ~ J.S. Frankel

Chapter One: Beginnings 

R.C. Cora High School, Portland, January tenth. Classes over for the day... thank god.

“Hey, bro, wanna see a trick?” The voice was Rory Muldoon’s, high-pitched and insistent, but not annoying in the mosquito-buzzing-in-your-ear way. Not yet, anyway. I fiddled with the lock, waited, and yes, there it was, the faint, familiar click which signaled its opening.

Coupled with his voice were the tones of the other students rushing by. Some high, some low, many insistent of the where-are-we-going-tonight variety, they ranged from bored to angry to petulant. Out of all those, Rory’s reigned supreme as he repeated the question.

Inward sigh time, and it was a given that I’d have to respond. It had to be another trick. Rory and his magic had alternately thrilled and bored the living hell out of me ever since we met in the first grade.

Had to admit, of all the people I’d ever seen perform— and I’d only seen a few—his abilities put him in mad skills territory. I knew it, he knew it, and he wanted everyone else to acknowledge it in the worst way. “C’mon, say it, say it, bro,” he’d urge, and then I’d give him the answer he wanted—no—demanded.

“You’re the best around.”

“Damn right.” He’d nod at himself in a yeah-I’m-the-man pseudo-tough kind of way, and while it was funny, no one at our institution of knowledge disagreed. Every year he performed his act on stage at the annual talent festivals. When we were small, everyone clapped and said, “Cool!”

When we got older, the comments of admiration changed to, “How did you do that?” Truthfully, no one could ever figure it out.

“A good magician never reveals his tricks,” Rory would always say.

We all gave him his props because he knew his craft, but it would have been nice if he’d provided us with a clue, especially me, his best and only friend. I’d learned a long time ago not to ask questions about the hows of it all. For me, it was just a matter of accepting the situation.

My thoughts came back to the present with the sound of the locker next to me being slammed shut, and Rory repeated his question for the third time. Okay, now the repetition was starting to piss me off. “Just a minute, bud,” I answered, somewhat impatiently. “I’m getting my books out. Gotta cram for the exam next week, y’know?”

After coming back from New Year’s vacation, school had turned nasty again in the sense we had to study. My Christmas break holidays—just ten days—had finished the day before yesterday. I still had a ton of homework to do and had to clean up around the house, all of which meant no parties.

Other kids got lucky as they had a lot more leeway in their personal lives or the smarts to do what they liked. Me, I had to cram just to make average grades, and it bit all the way.

Things were starting to look up, though. The bell had rung ten minutes ago which signaled our release from education. Even so, freedom had to be the most relative thing in the world. Today being Thursday, the previous six hours had felt more like a jail sentence than study. Tests in geometry, science, and then chemistry—they all sucked.

As soon as I walked out of class, the whole grind of study would begin again at home. “Class is over,” our homeroom teacher intoned. “Remember, you have your tests next week, and those of you who need help can see me after...”

I zoned out the rest of the teacher’s speech. Time to make my escape! Yeah, let’s hear it for freedom—freedom! Freedom for the other kids meant partying hearty, swilling down the beer and toking up, something I never got into. I didn’t even drink. Yeah, call me straight-edge, but that’s how I rolled.

Knowing Rory, he’d probably shut himself up in his basement and practice doing tricks the entire forty-eight-hour grace period. I’d been to his house numerous times. We lived only a five-minute walk from each other, and his basement was filled with books on magic, levitation, bowls of sand and water, special boxes, rings, and all the paraphernalia magicians used in their acts. Every time I went over, he showed me a new trick, but after a while it got sort of boring. Cool dude or not, Rory had a one-track mind.

As for me, the books called. I had to go home, go to my room and stay there. It gave me an excuse to get away from my uncle Frank, the man who’d been making my life miserable for a long time. After slinging my backpack over my shoulder, I did my best to leave the drab white walls of the school behind only to hear the teacher’s voice. “Paul, Paul Coleman!”

That was the voice of my teacher, Ms. Gardner. She’d come out to ruin my afternoon. Wonderful, my one chance of freedom shot to hell. What did she want now? Oh, wait, I already knew. “Yes, Ms. Gardner?”

“I need to speak with you.”

She pointed to her room. I went. A file was open on her desk, and she sat down and looked at it intently. Then she pointed to some numbers. Short and middle-aged with a hatchet face and beady little eyes, Ms. Gardner tapped the file. With an air of impending doom, I picked it up. Hard not to recoil a little from the C’s listed there with an A in English and a D in something else. I didn’t bother looking at the subject but figured it had to be important.

“Well, at least English is good,” I said, my voice hopeful. You had to be good at something.

She plucked the file from my grasp and dropped it on her desk. “Paul, you’re slipping in Geography and Science. You are aware of that, aren’t you?”

Tell me about it. Of course my grades bit. I had been hitting the mathematics and chemistry books, mainly because of my dream to get into a semi-decent university. This being my senior year, my dream had been to enter the University of Oregon. It had very high standards, though, and I had to ace every subject, period, end stop. I was counting on a scholarship, mainly because my status as a student— impoverished—wouldn’t get in on funds alone. I needed cash and needed it now.

“I’m doing the best I can, Ms. Gardner.”

I gave her my most winning smile, but she knew my excuse amounted to BS and nothing more. Worse, I knew it, and I abruptly cut my smile down to a friendly grimace. She didn’t focus her attention on my smile. Instead, she flicked through the file again, pursing her lips and shaking her head slightly.

Finally, she sighed, put it down, and shook her head. “Paul, you’re a good student, and I’m aware of your situation at home. If you need—”

“Thanks for your concern, ma’am. I’ll make it.” She would have to mention my home life. None of her business, really, but she was trying to help. Problem was that no one could help me. I’d handle it. I’d done it before and would do it again.

“May I go now?”

Ms. Gardner’s eyes searched my face for clues, and apparently found none, for she said, “Yes, I’ll see you in class tomorrow.”

Yes, she would. Going outside, Rory waited, an expectant grin on his skinny face. Aw, hell, get it over with. “What is it, Rory?”

He held a large two-quart plastic bottle of Coke in his right hand. No matter which season, he always had to have something to drink, and he took a long chug from the bottle. Then he pulled three pencils from his pocket. “These,” he said, after giving a large belch that belied his size. “You’re going to feast your eyes on these.”

“They’re pencils.”

A few girls walked by, and they giggled over the, “Tiny guy,” and the, “Big guy.” Truth be known, they were right. Rory stood barely five feet four inches and weighed less than most girls our age did with a hatchet-like face, an extremely long beak, and the body of an eight-year-old.

Compared to him, I looked like a god. I’d already reached my adult height of five-ten and weighed in at a solid two hundred pounds. When I looked at myself after my morning shower, had to admit it, not bad at all. The bathroom mirror showed the same reflection every morning, a guy with short brown hair, grey eyes, and average features along with a slightly crooked nose, courtesy of a stray foul ball during baseball season last year. One of the girls in class had said it gave me character.

No, it made my face look crooked, but whatever. I wasn’t exactly a prime stud which every girl out there seemed to want, but not Porky Pig, either. Rory must have missed the message somewhere along the line. “They’re pencils,” I repeated. “I got homework, you know?”

My best friend uncapped his beverage again, drank half of it down, burped loudly, and then put the bottle on the ground. “I got a new trick, so you gotta pay attention. The pencils can wait for a bit.”

With a flourish, he laid the trinity of wood in a neat row on the ground, pulled out a coin from his pocket and flipped it finger over finger in a lightning fast gesture. A few kids stopped to watch, but he ignored them and focused on his task. “Presto, it’s gone,” he said, and a moment later, it disappeared. He then reached over to pluck it from my ear, and it came out covered in ear wax. A frown crossed his face.

“Do the other ear, and I’ll be grateful forever.”

Some of the other kids laughed. Rory did not, although he acknowledged everyone with a slight bow. After wiping off the ear junk, he stowed the coin in his pocket and did a few other sleight-of-hand maneuvers which got everyone’s attention.

By now, more students had stopped by to witness this. Our talent festival was coming up very soon, so I guess Rory wanted to get in some extra practice. He loved performing in front of a crowd. He performed, and meanwhile, I was wasting valuable study time. “So what am I looking at now?”

“Watch this,” he ordered. “I’ve been working on it for a long time.”

“Watch what?” someone asked. Rory bent over to pick up the pencils and asked as he handed them to me, “Notice anything special?”

Touching them, they were just pencils. “No, so what am I supposed to notice?”

With a professional air, he took the pencils back and tossed them in the air. Instead of falling to the ground, they spun in a circle at high speed. This had to be some kind of hologram working, except I didn’t see any machines or cameras. No one could do stuff like this! I waved my hand around the pencils and came up with nothing.

“Impressive, right?” he gloated as he plucked the pencils from the air one by one. Yeah, pretty sweet, even though I wanted to go home and hit the books. Susan Beckmann, blond and gorgeous, walked up in the other direction, caught my eye and gave me a nod. Having a girlfriend was also pretty sweet. We’d started dating two months ago, and things seemed to get better every day. We had a plan to go to the prom this year, and after...

“I got more of these tricks. You want to see me do something else?”

Rory’s question interrupted my thoughts of a date with my lady. Susan smiled, gave me a wave, and turned away. No biggie. She’d call me later on. Not having the money for a smartphone sucked, so we had to do it the old-fashioned way, and that was cool with me. Hearing her voice, soft and sultry, was a sound I always looked forward to. Did I want to see another trick? Not really, but our best friend status demanded I humor him.

We’d met in first grade, and because he was a shrimp, the bigger kids liked picking on him. After sticking up for him out of pity, I had my share of fights, but not because I enjoyed fighting. I didn’t. Rory simply couldn’t hit back and needed a friend, and I became his friend in need. After I’d whipped most of the first and second graders, they left us alone. We’d been best buds ever since. Resistance was futile.

“So show me already.” Rory obliged by taking the cards out of the pack. In the somber tones of a master magician performing before a crowd, he asked me to pick a card. I did, and then he spread them out in a fan shape in one hand with a flourish. “Okay, now stick your card in and don’t let me see it.”

Fine, card in, and he shuffled the deck expertly, tossed a few of the cards in the air and made them dance just like he’d done with the pencils, and then reassembled the deck again. He reached in and picked out the card I’d previously selected. “Is this it?”

It was the ace of spades. “The death card,” he said with a smile. “I got it right, right bro?”

“Yeah, and...”

Something cold touched me and stopped my reply. It was a momentary feeling of something bad. Then it left. Nothing I could put my finger on, but... no, it was only superstition and nothing else. He’d gotten the right card, and even though I didn’t really get off on magic, the stunt with the pencils and now the cards really intrigued me. Then admiration overcame apprehension.

“That was sweet,” I said admiringly. This was the first time I’d ever seen anything like levitation. “How’d you do it? Does the card have a special bump on it or something? And how did you make those pencils and cards fly? I didn’t see any wires.”

Rory shook his head and intoned his mantra again. “A good magician never reveals his tricks.” He put the cards away and motioned to the exit with his head. “Let’s get going.”

My best bud didn’t really have any interest in girls and all things considered—his height or lack of it thereof—it was a safe bet he wouldn’t be seeing any action anytime soon. On the other hand, I hadn’t seen much action—yet—but Susan always gave me the look, the shake of her head, and we’d shared a few kisses and yeah, my time would come.

“Let’s book,” he said again, grabbed his bottle, took another long slug, and then pulled on his jacket. We took our time going home, our homes being roughly a twenty-minute walk from our school, RC Cora High. As we walked, thoughts of my home life flashed before me. My parents had died from cancer within a year of each other when I was five.

Death totally sucked because A... I didn’t understand the concept of it and B... it meant someone I didn’t know would have to look after me. The social services people insisted someone from my family do the take-care-of-the-poor-kid thing, and my uncle Frank fit the bill. I’d have rather gone to a foster family, but then again who said life was fair?

Frank didn’t have it in him to be a guardian. I met him for the first time at my mother’s funeral. He came in crocked to the max, staggered over to the grave, mumbled something which no one caught, and then spent the rest of the time knocking back the Scotch or going to the toilet. No wonder my father never spoke to him.

Then a year later, my father got sick and died. Once more, Uncle Frank came to the church pissed to the gills and mumbled something about how unfair life was. After the service was over, he asked me, “Guess you’ll need someone to look after you, right kid?”

Frank, older than my father by three years, had what you’d call a checkered past. Twice divorced, he’d never held a steady job in his life and spent most of his time on welfare getting government handouts due to a bad back injury he’d suffered three weeks into a job some years back.

Actually, he’d faked the injury and somehow convinced a doctor to sign reports saying any heavy lifting or physical labor kind of job was out of the question. He received monthly handouts from the government and spent the bare minimum on buying food while spending the max on the horses at the local racetrack. He also bet on college football games with a bookie named Flea, and drank when he wasn’t watching television which turned out to be most of the day.

He didn’t bother cleaning, so guess who had to do it? I’d learned to get up extra early in the morning and run the vacuum cleaner over everything, do the wash, and toss the garbage out. Our house needed repairs, so I taught myself how to hammer and saw.

“Yeah, that’s pretty good,” he told me after I’d finished repairing the storm windows. Then he went back to his bottle.

Truthfully, the fix-it jobs looked pretty sad, but they kept the cold wind out when winter came around. Some life for a six-year-old, but that’s how it stood. Like everyone said, you do for you, and I’ll do for me. Deal with it. I dealt. To make extra money, I started a paper route at eight, then worked in a grocery store, and did deliveries for shut-ins—they all helped line my pocket a little and I’d been saving since then. Still, it wasn’t enough, hence the hopes for a scholarship. A distant dream, yes, but one I clung to...

“You’re still thinking about your uncle?”


Rory repeated the question which brought me back to reality. He always seemed to know my innermost thoughts. Why, I didn’t know, but Rory had an all-too-rare quality about him. He listened. Most of the other kids couldn’t be bothered to tune in to your problems—always a kthanksbye kind of thing—but he did. His folks had been friends with mine, and when my mother and father died, Rory’s mother offered to take me in. I refused mainly out of pride and because I didn’t want to impose, and at the time, I figured my uncle would do the right thing. How wrong I’d been.

“I don’t feel like talking about it, Rory. I got my problems, so I’ll deal, all right?”

He backed off and nodded. “It’s cool, man, but I spoke to my mother the other day, and the offer still stands. We got an extra room, and that’s fine with her and my dad.”

For a moment, I wavered and thought about his offer. His folks had always come across as being really nice, and it would have been great to be with people who cared about me... but then my sense of stubbornness took over.

“I appreciate it and all, but I can’t.”

It was a simple denial, and I wondered if I’d regret my decision. “No sweat, Paul. But think about it, bro?”

We walked along the streets in silence, and then my friend suddenly pulled me into an alleyway. “I gotta take a leak, man!”

Talk about desperate! His legs quivered as he desperately contracted whatever muscles he had downstairs in order to stop the yellow river dam from breaking. The dude had to pee which left me standing in the entrance acting as a lookout. God, I hoped the passersby wouldn’t think of me as some kind of a pervert. Great, like anyone wanted to see a seventeen-year-old kid splash his piss against a dirty wall? Rory hastily zipped down his fly.

After turning away, thoughts of homework occupied my mind. Behind me, Rory let out a satisfied ah as he emptied his bladder. Nervously, I shifted from one foot to another to warm myself up, and my gaze turned up to the sky. Portland didn’t get much snow, but it was still cold, and the skies were grey with a very light sifting of white stuff on the ground. Our trip home would take another ten minutes, so hurry up Rory and finish what you’re doing! “Are you almost done?” I called out, all the while feeling ridiculous.

“Yeah, Paul, I’m still going, gimme a second!”

For such a small guy, he had a bladder like a watermelon. I heard the steady stream splash forcefully against the side of the wall and wondered how anyone could hold so much liquid. Me, I could hold it forever, and now I didn’t have to go, just had to go home. Frank would be there with a bottle of Johnny Walker in one hand and the sports section of the Portland Gazette in the other.

Most likely he’d be drunk—again—and while he never hit me, he always had the look in his eye like he wanted to. Short and fat and almost fifty, his attitude consisted of three things, anger, drunken anger, and sleepiness. He also didn’t give a damn whether I went to school or not. “You want to study? That’s okay with me. You want to do drugs, then do ’em. Just let me watch my shows and don’t get caught.”

Great advice, Uncle Frank, you’re such a wonderful guardian. Behind me, Rory let out another satisfied sigh which interrupted my unhappy thoughts about my relative and the sounds of the river came to a stop. I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Thanks for waiting, Paul.”

“Yeah, don’t worry about it.”

Rory then squinted up at the sky. Something large and dark was approaching our position, and it didn’t look like a bird. “What is that thing?” he wanted to know.

I wondered the same thing myself. I strained my eyes in order to get a better look. Definitely not a bird, it looked almost like... like, oh, hell! “Rory, get your ass out of there!”

I took off down the street, but Rory seemed to be paralyzed and stayed rooted to his spot, staring in shock at the rapidly approaching thing. It looked like a demon from some third-rate horror flick, except this was not a movie, and we weren’t part of a cast. The thing had to be around seven feet in height, with long, misshapen leathery wings twice the length of its body, and a face only a mother fug-ugly monster could love.

Rory still didn’t make a move. He just stood there like a scared deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. I ran back to help my friend, but the thing moved faster. It came in with a burst of missile-like speed, hit my buddy like a runaway truck and smashed him to the back of the alley. A solid brick wall lay at the end so no way anything could go through it. Rory’s body hit the wall and made a sickening crunching sound. Inside the alley, I got a better look at the monster that had just obliterated my friend.

The demon straightened up, a grin on its face. It looked like a cross between a lizard and a dog, with the high, pointed ears of a Doberman and the long, pointy snout, greenish-red scales, and bright red reptilian eyes a large Komodo dragon on steroids would own.

The thing’s body scared me even more than its face. The skin resembled aged leather which had been left out in the sun too long, but parasite-like things erupted from hundreds of tiny little holes in its wings and torso, and each of them had teeth. It was too damn gross for words. I didn’t want to look and yet I couldn’t look away. The skin on my body, especially my back, immediately started to itch and it couldn’t have come at a worse time.

The creature bent down and started to chew on Rory’s stomach. Blood erupted into the air and all over the thing’s face. When it opened its pie-hole a little wider, a full set of very sharp-looking teeth appeared like a whole row of canines, but much longer. It turned its head in my direction. “You’re next.”

The voice sounded deeper than deep, dripped with evil and holy crap, this thing wants to kill me! Rory was still alive and screaming in agony. The monster didn’t rip Rory’s guts out like I thought it would. Instead, it let loose a scream, a sound so high, hard, and loud, it shattered some of the bricks in front of it. The sound caromed off the wall, happened so quickly and so powerfully that something popped in my right ear and the world suddenly went silent on that side. Perforated ear drum... it happens when you dive too deep, or a bomb goes off near you...

The monster then screamed again, and its sonic waves blasted my friend’s body in two. Before dying, Rory cried out once more, a high, shrill sound, and his head lolled to one side. An opaque gas escaped from his torso, and the thing stood over top of him, inhaling the gas—Rory’s soul, or maybe just the vapors from his body—like a smoker inhaling the aroma of a fine cigar. It hesitated for a moment as if savoring the smell of a fresh kill, and its hesitation gave me a chance.

“Damn you, you killed my best friend! What are you?”

I ran into it to knock it off balance, but the thing slammed me on the left ear and flung me against the wall. The impact ruptured something, and the only thing I heard at first was the heavy breathing of this monster.

“I am Hekla,” the thing answered. “You dare attack me?”

Yeah, I dared. This rotten piece of garbage wanted to torture me before it ate me! Nothing in the alley except an old two-by-four, so I picked it up and slammed the demon on its ear and it howled. “You like that? You like getting hit on the ear, too?”

I hit the damn thing again and again, and the creature roared in pain. Nice to know demons could be hurt. It still had a lot of power left over, though, and with a quick movement it wrenched the board away from me and crushed it between its talons.

Oh, screw me, I’m dead. It then advanced upon me slowly, predator versus prey. It was pretty easy to figure out who the prey was.

“You will not come between me and mine,” it said. The monster lashed out with its wing, connected with my jaw and sent me flying. I landed near Rory’s body. It once again started toward me. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and with nothing to defend myself with, I waited for the end. The obvious questions of where it had come from and why did it go on its two-person killing spree ran through my mind, but I had the feeling it wasn’t going to offer up any details.

However, when the thing got within three feet of me, it suddenly stopped. The long ears on its reptilian head pointed straight up and then twitched. Then it whirled around and withdrew its talons. “No,” it cried out, “I’m not ready yet!”

Not ready for... what? Although I couldn’t hear anything clearly, I could still see. An opaque opening, five feet in diameter formed out of nothing right behind the monster. With its formation, a wind, harsh and cold, began to rise, and it began to pull the creature inside. Impossible. It was pulling the creature inside, yet everything else in the alley was untouched.

“No, not yet,” the creature bellowed. “I’m not finished!”

Apparently, the vortex didn’t care, and it continued to exert its pull. The creature howled in rage and reached out for me, but the gravitational force of the hole proved to be too much, and the thing got yanked inside. Then the portal closed, the wind died away, and only the cold air remained.

Oh, man, it just vanished, like it had never come in the first place. I sat in the alleyway along with the corpse of my best friend. I heard nothing save the roar of blood in my ears. Then silence settled in along with the smell of blood, and I knew the rest of the day wasn’t going to get any better...

Copyright J.S. Frankel

J.S. Frankel was born in Toronto, Canada and grew up there, receiving his tertiary education from the University of Toronto and graduating with a double major in English Literature and Political Science. After working at Gray Coach Lines for a grand total of three years, he came to Japan at the age of twenty-six and has been there ever since, teaching English to any and all students who enter his hallowed school of learning. In 1997, he married Akiko Koike. He, his wife and his two children, Kai and Ray, currently reside in Osaka. His hobbies include weight training, watching movies when his writing schedule allows, and listening to various kinds of music.

His novels, all for the YA set, include Twisted, Lindsay Versus the Marauders and it's sequels, Lindsay, Jo, and the Tree of Forever, and Lindsay, Jo and the Well of Nevermore, all courtesy of Regal Crest Enterprises. He has also written the Catnip series (five novels), Mr. Taxi, The Titans of Ardana and its sequel, The Titans of Ardana 2: Battlefield, along with Picture (Im)perfect and more novels, courtesy of

Future projects for Devine Destinies include the final novel in the Titans trilogy, the final novel in the Just Another Quiet... trilogy, The Undernet, the re-release of Star Maps, and more. He is also the author of The Menagerie and The Nightmare Crew trilogy, all courtesy of Finch Books.

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