Chapter 1

"So tell me, Stephen," Valora said, ducking under the swipe of a goblin axe, "when did charging headlong into a room full of enemies become a sound tactical move?" She punctuated the final word with a lunging stab, and the goblin fell. "You are supposed to be the brains of this bunch, after all."

Stephen had to admit that she had a point. So far he had shackled one foe and blinded another, but the use of so much power so quickly was beginning to take its toll. Pretty soon he would be reduced to fighting with his staff, which always irked him. To Stephen's mind, there was little point in studying arcane methods if one was eventually reduced to hitting things with a stick. Resorting to such a crude option meant that he had failed to plan properly. Valora was right; it had been a stupid mistake. Perhaps he had allowed himself to be distracted. It would be a pity if his lapse cost them all their lives. It took less than a moment for the whole chain of thoughts to run through Stephen's mind. He summoned a shield of force to fend off another goblin, and offered Valora an apologetic shrug. "Sorry."

If the brief response annoyed the swordswoman, she didn't show it. Really, she didn't mind the danger Stephen had dumped them into. These creatures were dangerous, and if they weren't dealt with now, they could do harm to others later. Besides, practice was always welcome. Another goblin gurgled its last, and Valora spun around to find another target, only to find herself confronting three. As the blades came in and her own swirled to meet them, she smiled. Practice indeed. The first swipes were clumsy, easily parried. Valora countered by leaping over the largest goblin, jabbing her blade between armor plates as she flew past. The creature scarcely had time to hit the ground before the other two were knocked aside by the sweep of one huge arm. Valora looked up from the dazed pair in annoyance. "Groth! Those were mine!"

The giant didn't say a word; he never did. Stomping the goblins flat, he raised his thick eyebrows at his furious companion, then looked around for Stephen. Groth found the sorcerer backed into a corner, waving off the monsters with his staff, which now glowed white. No need to be hesitant about interfering there. Two huge strides brought Groth within arm's reach of the creatures. One turned and tried to screech a warning, but the giant seized it around the neck, turning its scream into a choked gasp. Groth made a fist, and the goblin died. The remaining monsters looked around to find themselves surrounded. Between a sorcerer, a giant, and a whirlwind of a warrior (who was now smiling in an unsettling way), the outcome was turning bleak for the goblins.

A high-pitched double beep started chanting from Stephen's watch. He checked it and sighed: three thirty. "Looks like that's it for today, guys," he said.

"Aw, lame!" Val pounded a small fist on the table. "I was just about to beat those guys."

Stephen turned off the alarm and blinked, pulling his gaze away from the mind's eye to take in the drab room around them. The dungeon in his imagination had been dusty and full of monsters, but nowhere near as squalid as the storage room where the three of them held their meetings. Stacks of chairs, old flag stands, and obsolete chalk boards were packed in wherever they could fit, leaving barely enough room for the card table Stephen had brought from home. The table itself was pretty disorderly at this point, covered as it was with dice, pencils, character sheets, and a tiny representation of their fight with the goblins. Stephen had used chess pawns to stand in for the monsters, which seemed appropriate. A small pile of them sat off to one side, where each fallen creature had been dropped after its demise. The heroes of the story were gone, replaced by a far less impressive bunch.

Stephen had a kind of wizardly look to him, but that was mostly because of the gray cloak he wore. Apart from that one peculiar fashion choice, he was similar to any other thin, wispy-haired boy. Though his eyes were distinctive; Stephen had a habit of either staring off at nothing, or looking right into people. His eyes gave the impression of seeing a lot more than just what was visible, and that impression wasn't far from the truth. With another glance at his watch, Stephen started to pack everything up. "We can finish up tomorrow," he said, handing Val her pencil sharpener.

Even sitting down, the top of Valerie's head was a good six inches below Stephen's, which would become a solid foot if they both stood up. She, too, was unassuming compared to the mighty Valora: armor was replaced by jeans and a sweatshirt (overlarge on the small girl), and her dirty blonde hair was pulled back into a ponytail that didn't look the least bit fearsome. Val took the pencil sharpened and gave a fierce nod. "We'd better finish! Valora needs to reclaim her honor, since someone went and tried to rescue her." She glared up at Gregory, the third member of their club.

Gregory stared back in silence. That wasn't unexpected; Gregory never spoke. He even moved quietly, which was astonishing considering his size. Tall and broad, Gregory was a giant compared to the other two, or to pretty much anyone for that matter. His black hair and thick eyebrows gave him a sinister look, even though his friends knew there was no one gentler in the world. After matching stares with Val for a moment, the large boy grinned and reached over to pat Val on the head. The tiny girl almost smiled, but quickly hid it. "Valora would cut your hand off if you tried that," she muttered as she stuffed her belongings into her large green duffel bag. As usual, Gregory said nothing. His big hands twitched a bit when Val hauled the duffel onto her shoulder, but he knew better than to offer to help. Even though the bag was practically larger than she was, Val would never let anyone else touch it. As the small girl turned to go, Gregory lifted his palms and shot a sly glance to Stephen, who laughed. Val turned and gave the two of them a look. "What?" she demanded. "What did he say?"

"Nothing," Stephen said, still smiling. "Just wondering if you'd let him carry you instead of the bag." Gregory nodded once, still grinning.

Slowly, leaning away from the weight of the bag, Val stalked back to the table and looked at the larger boy. Even seated, he towered over her. Unblinking, she stared straight into his eyes. "Do you think you could get away with it?" she asked, her voice as smooth as polished steel.

Gregory's smile slipped a bit. Slowly, he shook his head.

Val kept up her gaze for a long moment. Then she giggled. "Good!" she said. "Because you wouldn't!" She gave him an affectionate pat on the elbow, which was about as high as she could reach, and headed for the door. She paused in the doorway to wave enthusiastically back at them, the duffel bringing her dangerously close to toppling over. "Bye, Gregory! See you tomorrow, Stephen!"

"So long," Stephen said. He watched her leave, noticing the transformation when she stepped out into the hall. It amazed him every time, how this fierce warrior could shrink, curl in on herself, and become just another awkward teenage girl, struggling with a ridiculously over-sized bag. It hurt to watch her, out there in this world, where she was alone. But at the same time, Stephen felt a kind of pride. Only two people knew the real Val, and he felt privileged to be one of them.

The other of the lucky pair stood up, having gathered his belongings in several swift, efficient motions. The ceiling in the storage room wasn't especially low, but Gregory always ducked out of habit. He gave a small wave to Stephen, and then raised a questioning eyebrow.

Stephen nodded. "Same time," he said. Satisfied, Gregory gave a parting smile and left, bending low and hunching in to fit through the door frame. Unlike Val, Gregory never pretended to be anyone else. Not that people saw him for who he was, anyway. Most of the time, the first reaction to meeting Gregory was unease, if not outright fear. He was at least a head taller than any teacher at the school, and was built like a freight train. There was no doubt that he could have lifted both Val and her bag, probably with one hand. That size, that unconscious power, was enough to convince most other kids that Gregory was a brute, a bully, even though he never did anything remotely aggressive. Add in the fact that he never spoke, and you had the recipe for yet another outcast with an undeserved reputation as a big, dumb ox. Unfair, yes, but that's what this world was all about.

And then there was Stephen. As long as he was psychoanalyzing the others, he might as well take a look at the third pariah in the club. He could tell himself that the other kids hated him because he was too smart, but that was an oversimplification. He was smart, sure, but he tried not to let that get in the way. The truth was, it was more than a difference in processing information: Stephen saw the world differently. It was as if the gears and levers that operated the whole of existence were vaguely visible, churning away behind the translucent skin of the world. He could see who the bullies were, know exactly why they were bullies, but he couldn't stop them. Not without crossing a few dangerous lines.

He sighed and stood, slinging his backpack over his shoulder. With absent familiarity he straightened the edge of his cloak. That was his smokescreen, and a very effective one. Stephen knew he couldn't prevent himself from being an outcast. The least he could do was choose the reason. Having everyone hate him for being who he was would be too much to bear, and also led to problems. Once he had asked a bully why he hated Stephen; the bully couldn't think of any reasonable answer, so he pushed Stephen down for daring to ask an uncomfortable question. It was much easier to paint a target on his own back. Stephen, the weirdo in the cloak, obviously a loner, and therefore left alone.

Almost alone.

The girl is right; it was a foolish move. It wasn't a voice, in truth. Stephen could feel himself thinking the words. But they were subtly different from those spoken in his own internal voice, accented with shades of a mind that was not quite his own. The voice had been with him for most of his life. Stephen was quite certain that he was at least a little crazy. Still, he could see much more harmful madnesses at work in other, supposedly normal people. All in all, talking to oneself was probably one of the better kinds of insanity.

Stephen started putting the chairs away. "I wasn't thinking," he said. "I got too eager to get to the end of the adventure."

The laugh in his mind was ever so slightly cruel, but Stephen was used to that. We both know that's a lie. You're always thinking. The question is, what were you thinking about?

"Endings," Stephen said. Now that he bothered to examine it, his behavior fell into place. "I rushed in, because I wanted to get as far as possible before we have to stop." The school year was coming to a close, and after the summer, there was no way of knowing whether the club could continue. Stephen and Gregory would be off to high school, leaving Val behind with her tormentors. "I don't think I'm ready for that," he admitted.

Still so young, so helpless. Despite Stephen's worries about Val, it was clear the voice was aiming straight at him. A sorcerer is never helpless. A mage does not let the world push him where it may. Magic is active. Magic sees the world for what it could be, and bends it to suit. It was a familiar sermon. Then again, if the voice was a product of Stephen's mind, nothing it said could be truly unexpected. If you are not ready for the end, then do not let it come to pass. Unless, that is, you are not ready for power.

Setting the collapsed card table up against the chalkboards, Stephen shrugged to the empty room. "Maybe not," he said. "I'm still not convinced I want to be."

"Stephen?" Mrs. Bardliff poked her head through the door, a kind face framed by brown curls. "I thought I heard your voice," she said. "Who were you talking to?"

"Myself."

Mrs. Bardliff blinked, still holding a smile. "I see. May I ask why?"

Stephen smiled back. "Because everyone else left," he said. "Good night, Mrs. Bardliff."

The teacher watched him go, a thin boy under a gray cloak, hiding a fascinating mind. "Good night, Stephen," she said, then turned out the light and closed the storage room door.

Next Chapter: Chapter 2