Albert Drake was a normal kid, unremarkable in every way. Aggressively mediocre was how his gym teacher thought of him. As much as he wanted to, he wasn’t able to disagree with that. He was of approximately average height, average weight, average appearance and got average grades. He wasn’t terribly good or terribly bad at anything.
On this night, Albert slept peacefully, his head on his pillow and covers up around his chin. In the next room, his younger sister dreamed of her dance concert; the latest in the long string of triumphs that made up her young life.
Downstairs, Albert and Rebecca’s parents sat at the kitchen table, quietly meeting each other’s gaze, untouched cups of coffee in front of them. The clock’s dimly lit face declared it to be 1:47 am, which made the light shining in the kitchen all the more noteworthy.
“You’re certain?” Moira sighed, her green eyes tired as her gaze shifted from her husband’s eyes down into her coffee cup.
“As certain as I can be.” Brian answered. “It’s been a long time, but it’s what my father described.”
“They’ve found us then?” she asked, not looking up from the cup.
He nodded, looking up from his cup.
“It looks that way, and there’s no way to tell which one faction it is.”
“We can’t take the risk. If Gabriel were to find Albert or Rebecca…”
“He won’t, Moira. We won’t let him. I’ve started to make arrangements already: I’ve put in for a transfer to the firm’s DC office…”
“I’ll contact a realtor and start looking for a house we can close on quickly. Maybe track down a school that the kids won’t hate.”
“I’ll accept hate if they live through the process. Hate is survivable. Lord Gabriel isn’t.”
Looking up, Moira smiled sadly at Brian, her hand sliding across the table and gripping his almost painfully tight.
“All we can do is the next right thing.”
Brian nodded, with a sigh.
“Yeah, but will that be enough?”
“We’ll keep them safe.” she replied, locking eyes with her husband.
“No matter what.” he agreed.
A moment passed between them, seconds stretched into minutes before they each looked away.
It was hard to reassure someone when you knew that you were lying.
“I thought geeks were supposed to be good at math.”
The words came drifting across Albert’s room, interrupting his frenzied mental gymnastics as he attempted to decipher the Algebra homework that Mrs. Rodriguez had assigned
“Nerds are good at math. Geeks just like comic books and stuff like that.”Albert muttered as he stared at the problem on the sheet in front of him intently. Not that it did any good..
He was convinced that it had made sense in class. He remembered that it had made sense there, with the proof on how to solve for x on the blackboard. But now, as he sat at his desk in his room, his friend, Pedro, on the floor behind him and bouncing a rubber ball off the wall that separated his room from his little sister’s?
It might as well have been Spanish.
Which is also kicking his butt.
Because why not?
Pedro sighed loudly, coming smoothly to his feet to look over Albert’s right shoulder.
“Man, did I get the short end of the stick! Know where I can pick up a nerd to do my homework with?” Pedro laughed. “Look, amigo. If you take this and carry it here…” he pointed to the paper, guiding Albert through the problem step by excruciating step. “...then you divide and get x. Got it?”
Albert nodded, then looked at the numbers scrawled on the paper in front of him and sighed, morphing his nod into a shake of his head.
“When you do it, it makes sense, Dro. When I do it, it goes all wrong, like I missed some directions or something.”
“What you did was daydream during class. Again. If Mrs. Rodriguez catches you staring off into space again, you’re gonna end up at either the guidance coulselor’s or principal’s office. Everybody thinks Algebra is boring, Albert. You’ve just gotta push through, yeah?”
“I guess,” Albert replied sullenly. “But it’s not like we’re ever gonna use this stuff, y’know? What kind of life or death situation is gonna come up that’s gonna force me to solve for x?”
“The one where your parents will kill you if you come home with a failing grade.”
Albert grimaced. Brian and Moira Drake were understanding of a great many things: his trouble making friends, his physical awkwardness and his social awkwardness, which had been exacerbated by the move to Silver Spring, Maryland from the Philadelphia area three months before..
His mother just looked fondly at Albert each time he messed up some physical activity and told him that he’d grow out of this phase or that everyone went through this sort of thing. But not everyone did. His little sister, Rebecca, was evidence enough of that: Becca the Perfect. Becca the Bossy. Becca the Pest.
He loved his little sister, but she was such a little sister, as evidenced by a number of persistent transgressions:
2a. She was a girl.
“Earth to Albert,” Pedro’s voice called, breaking Albert out of his reverie. “That’s exactly what you can’t do in Algebra, man.”
Albert looked up and shook his head.
“Let’s just get this over with.” he replied with a sigh. “If we don’t leave soon, we’re gonna be late and I don’t think that beating my head against this wall is gonna make me suddenly figure out what that stupid x wants to be today.”
As if on cue, Albert’s mother’s voice called up from downstairs: “Albert! Pedro! You boys are going to be late if you don’t leave soon!”
“We’re leaving now, Mom!” he responded, rolling his eyes at Pedro, who stifled a laugh as they gathered their notebooks, math packets and coats before leaving the room, but forgetting their pencils.
As he reached for the door, Albert paused, staring back at his reflection in the mirror that hung there, not terribly impressed with the image that looked back at him: mousy brown hair, blue eyes, skinny, pale skin, freckles. He was wearing a black t shirt with white lettering that declared “one by one the penguins steal my sanity,” a pair of blue jeans and a navy blue hoodie.
“Staring at yourself in the mirror isn’t gonna get us to school any faster, Albert. And it’s not gonna make you any better looking,” Pedro teased, re-focusing him once again. It was easy for Pedro to say that. Tall, athletic and well-liked, Pedro was most of the things that Albert wasn’t. Wearing an FC Barcelona soccer jersey and blue jeans, Pedro looked like what he was: an athletic young man who was popular and well liked. He was someone that was very likely to become more athletic and attract more attention from the girls in his class as time went on. Albert didn’t really understand why Pedro was his friend to start with.
Sighing, Albert opened the door and headed out into the hallway.
Outside of Albert’s safe zone.
It was like those spots on the old timey maps that declared ‘Here there be monsters’.
“Allie...what were you DOING last night?”
But, in Albert’s house it would declare: ‘Here there be Becca’.
“What are you talking about?”
“You were kicking the wall all night, Allie. I know YOU don’t care how you look in the morning, but SOME of us need sleep or it negatively affects our peppy attitude. If I stay up all night because my freaky older brother wants to play soccer with the wall, it makes me cranky.”
Albert started to laugh as Becca stepped closer, dropping her voice and locking eyes with her older brother.
“We don’t want me cranky, do we, Albert?”
Albert smiled nervously, nodding and stepping around the outraged sixth grader as Pedro stifled a laugh and followed his friend down the stairs.
“If you ever vanish, we know who’s gonna be responsible. Your baby sister is half a step down from a serial killer. And not the cool Dexter kind. Like one of the ones they make documentaries about”
As the moved down the stairs and towards the front door, Albert laughed.
“How do you think she gets her good grades?” he asked. “It’s not because she’s a genius or anything, she’s just persistent. Like a pit bull with a cheer bow. If she gets a bad grade she pesters her teacher till she can retake the test, then asks them if they graded it every fifteen minutes until the grade is ‘fixed’. I swear, if she knew where they lived, she’d drive by their house with a loudspeaker at night. BYE MOM!”
“Man, the mobsters on TV are more forgiving than she is. BYE MRS. DRAKE!”
The two boys went out the front door, chatting happily about the crazy beings that are girls (especially girls of the sisterly variety) and headed to school as Albert’s mother stood quietly in the living room, watching them walk down the street through the bay window at the front of the house, a gnawing sense of unease growing in her stomach.
Once they rounded the corner at the end of Hewitt Road, she shook her head and called up the stairs to Becca. “HALF AN HOUR, BECCA! EAT BREAKFAST AND PACK YOUR LUNCH!”
She was so busy wrangling Becca out the door and to school that she never noticed the glowing red eyes staring out from behind the reflection in the entry hall’s mirror.
But the eyes noticed her.
School lasted an eternity, especially when it was still mid September. That magical time of the school year when you were expected to be over the fact that you no longer controlled your own destiny. That time of the school year when you were required to pay attention. That time of the school year when you were supposed to somehow ignore that it still felt like summer outside.
Eventually the bell had rung, freeing Albert from Algebraic hell and unleashing him into the suburban landscape of his neighborhood alone. It was fall, so Pedro was busy with soccer after school. Since he was Albert’s only friend, that meant Albert would fly solo on the short fifteen minute walk back to his house. A quick shortcut through Breewood Park, then another through Sligo Creek Park would land him nearly at his door. It was a walk he’d made a several dozen times between his family’s mid-June move and the beginning of the third week of September. He could practically make this walk with his eyes closed, which was probably why he didn’t notice how dark it had become until he was well under the trees.
Albert stumbled over a tree root hidden under some uncharacteristic ground fog, landing painfully and scraping his chin on the rocky ground.
“The hell…?” he muttered, shifting around to sit so he could rub at his throbbing chin.
“Thanks for nothing.” he said, chastising the root that had been the culprit in his painful misadventure. Albert muttered irritably as he looked around and reached his arm through the thin tendrils of ground fog to pick up his scattered books, pencils, pens and other supplies.
“Who leaves a big freakin’ root right in the middle of a path? And how do I find the only freakin’ root in the entire freakin’ park that could trip me on the way home? I mean...seriously?!??
His quest to reclaim a pen that had gone particularly astray had him crawing towards a large bush. Or maybe it was a bit of underbrush, since he’d never really been solid on what the difference was supposed to be. In either case, the shrubbery seemed to be resting in a pool of shadow that failed to dissipate as Albert moved closer, his hand reaching for the writing implement laying scant inches from the leafy border.
As his hand moved closer, a quiet, almost imperceptible growl rumbled from the depths, so quiet it was like the memory of a dream: half remembered, it’s specifics gone, leaving only its emotional impact. Albert paused, his hand hovering in mid air as he began to break out in a cold sweat. He could feel it beginning to collect uncomfortably between his shoulder blades and started to move his hand back away from the bushes.
The something in the bush rustled, prompting a scream from Albert, who sprang to his feet, clutching his books in his right hand while his feet flew over the trail that would lead him home. He could hear The Thing a scant few feet behind him, moving on four legs as it pursued him.
Albert ran for all he was worth, plunging at a dead sprint through the trees as branches whipped at his face, ignoring the tug of thorns at his pant legs. He was certain that if he paused to look behind, the thing would catch him in its powerful jaws, which he was also sure it had. After all, what sort of horrible thing wouldn’t have powerful jaws? He could feel its hot, rancid breath on the back of his neck, spurring him to even greater speed. He burst out of the treeline and onto the road at the edge of the park, now gaining speed from surer footing. The sound of clawed feet on cement echoing in his ears, he redoubled his effort, lowering his head and rounding the corner onto his street, praying that he’d get there before the thing got him.
Unfortunately, he was certain that he would not.
Each step brought him closer to his house and the safety that it represented, but each step had also started to remind him that he didn’t really run for fun anymore. He could feel the muscles in his thighs and calves starting to burn. Sweat ran freely down his face, getting into his eyes and bringing stinging tears. A stitch had settled in on his right side, causing his breath to come in painful gasps.
He was halfway down his street when he realized he’d never make it.
He was going to die.
Finally, twenty yards from his front door, the inevitable happened: Albert’s tired legs became tangled in one another, tripping him. Books flew out of his hands as he threw his arms out to brace himself for the scraping impact he was about to make with the pavement. As he fell, he had just enough time for paralyzing fear to take hold.
He slammed into the sidewalk belly first and immediately rolled over, closing his eyes and curling into a ball to try to protect himself from the slashing claws and fearsome teeth he knew were about to savage him.
But the attack never came.
Albert took a breath. Then a second. Then a third.
Cracking an eye open, he looked around for the Thing that had chased him, craning his head right and left.
“The hell…?” he asked.
There was no sign of it, no evidence that it had ever been anywhere but in his imagination.
Taking a deep breath, he came slowly to his feet, gathered his things and walked the rest of the way home, never noticing the pair of green eyes watching him closely from the bushes next to his house.
“NO! We were so CLOSE! The child has the luck of the Fair Folk on his side!’
Standing in the large circular room, the black-armored man slammed his fists down on the table as his glowing red eyes glared into the mirror at its center.
Standing nearly seven feet tall, with broad shoulders and shoulder length black hair, Lord Gabriel cut an imposing figure.. He glared at the assembled creatures around the table: massive green-skinned orc chieftains, dark elves with skin of ebony, Unseelie fae lords, tall and terrible, red skinned, bat winged demons, skull-faced liches and cruel faced men. They were a collection of creatures straight out of nightmares, but as his gaze fell upon each, they shrank back, fearful of further antagonizing him.
All but one.
“Bad luck, Lord Gabriel?” the unafraid minion asked. “The hellhound tracked The Heir across the miles: from the original incursion point near Philadelphia near to Washington DC. It was on the scent for days, stepped in The Mundane while the very realm attempted to eject it from the moment of its arrival. It’s a minor miracle that it lasted as long as it did. Very likely the beast will take weeks to recover.”
Lord Gabriel turned his angry gaze to the other man: smaller and pale, wearing a modern Armani suit in charcoal grey as opposed to the assorted armor and robes of the other in the assembly, he sat back in his chair, calmly meeting the red-eyed gaze with his own eyes of cool blue.
“What do you suggest, Baron Octavius? Are you volunteering yourself or one of your kindred to the task?”
“I maintain my previous stance, my lord, that The Heir is inconsequential to us. You control The Kingdom of Shadows, aside from a few small pockets of resistance. The old king fled with his family, which is now safely located on the other side of the mirror...why look to borrow trouble where there need be none?”
The air around Lord Gabriel grew dark and cold while his eyes began to glow with a greater intensity.
“Because I am the Lord of the Kingdom of Shadows and I command it! I will not stand idly by while the possibility exists that the Heir to the House of Drake will return and destroy me. I will safeguard my kingdom against this incursion and I will have your support.
Or I will have your head.”
All eyes shifted from Gabriel to Baron Donald Octavius, who smiled sadly, nodding his head.
“It shall be as you command, my lord, shall I dispatch someone to collect the boy?”
Gabriel looked Octavius in the eye for what seemed an eternity to the rest of the group at the table.
“No. Baron Faustus will go,” he said, turning to look at one of the men at the table. “Dispatch one of your summoners to The Mundane, as close to The Heir as you can. Once he’s been identified, have the summoner call forth creatures to dispatch him once and for all.
I’ll not have us thwarted by happenstance again. This time there shall be nothing to stand in our way.”
Heads bowed around the room at the command of their lord, oblivious to the young man hanging outside the window.
With blue spiked hair, a black leather motorcycle jacket with a green “Mr. Yuck” poison control center symbol on the back, blue jeans and combat boots, he wasn’t what you would normally associate with the medieval style castle where the meeting was taking place.
As Lord Gabriel gave his command, the young man on the outside began to move to his left. Inching foot by foot as he dangled from the window ledge by the tips of his fingers, he kept his eyes closed, having heard that it assisted concentration.
It had nothing to do with The Five Hundred Foot Plus Drop of Certain Doom (™) that he he was so intent on avoiding. Reaching the end of the ledge, he levered himself, rocking back and forth to gain momentum before jumping into the night sky for the landing...desperately reaching his hands out for the railing in mid -air, but falling short.
A delicate hand reached out and grabbed his outstretched arm, latching on with surprising strength before pulling him up onto the balcony.
The young woman belonging to the arm gave a lopsided smile to the young man, then winked. Her brown hair was cut in a messy bob and she wore a black tank top, ratty blue jeans and a faded flannel button up shirt. She wasn’t traditionally attractive, but there was something almost hypnotic about her expressive features, and her raspy voice was absolutely mesmerizing.
“Now you owe me one, Dodger.”
“Owe you one?” he hissed back as he climbed up the rest of the way. “I’m ninety percent certain you cheat at rock paper scissors, Tessa, otherwise how do you explain how my butt always end up dangling off the side of buildings while you ‘keep watch’?”
“Just good clean livin’ on my part, boyo,” she replied “Not my fault your wicked ways come back to haunt you in the form of karmic retribution.”
Dodger shot her a glare, then motioned.
“C’mon. We’ve gotta get back to Hawthorne and the others. Gabe’s found The Heir over on the other side of the looking glass. His first critter didn’t get him, but he’s sending more Lots more from the sound of it.”
Tessa barked a curse, shaking her head she followed her blue-haired companion back into the castle. Once he gave the ‘all clear’, she padded right up next to him as they approached the next corner.
“So it’s real? Really real? This is really happening now? After fifty years?”
“Sounds like,” he whispered. “I didn’t see anything, but from ol’ glow-eyes temper tantrum it sounds like the hellhound just about had The Heir in its jaws when it got booted. Could be the kid had something to do with it...but can you imagine what sort of power that would take? To control the very stuff of The Mundane?”
“Or could be that the kid’s got the luck of the devil and the hellhound just ran outta juice.”
“...I like mine better.”
“‘Cause Tess? It’s happening’ Now.”
“That it is, brat. That it is.”
The pair slipped out of the castle grounds, then padded into the woods under cover of darkness.