It doesn’t take long to hear footsteps; I duck behind a couple of trees and spot a pale boy of about ten wandering along with headphones in his ears. Behind him is what appears to be a thin older man who is moving too swiftly and silently to be human at all. I hesitate, because it seems too quick and far too easy, and the man moves. The kid is faster, so quick I barely catch it as he spins and slams a palm inrto the old man’s chest with a shout of “Hi-ya!”
The old man – whatever he was – dissolves into shadows that pull apart like cheap toffee. The kid bounces happily from foot to foot and whoops in joy. I remember what Roan said about monsters and Outsiders fighting each other for power and prestige, take a deep breath. I broke my arm in four places when I was seven. I pull up the memory of that, think of breaking bones as a curse, try to will the pressure inside my head from the talent to grow and hurl it right at the kid.
He spins. Seeing me or sensing me, but the curse slams into him regardless, and the idea of breaking bones punches him clear through at least a dozen trees into the forest. I make my way back onto the path slowly, trying to catch my breath. I feel as though I’ve just ran a three-minute mile and my head doesn’t hurt at all.
Which means I’ve nothing to give when the kid is simply there, standing on the path and staring up at me with a shocked look on his face. His clothing is torn and dirty but he doesn’t have a single scratch on his skin. “What wath that for?” he demands with a furious glare up at me.
“You hurt me!” His hands unclench from his sides and he lifts up his right hand to reveal one small, broken molar. No blood on his mouth or the tooth. “Thee?”
I open my mouth, snap it shut after. “What are you?”
“Are you thtupid? I am hurt. Honcho thaid I could deal with the troubleth in thith thity just fine and then you – you – I don’t even know you and that wath a killing magic! What kind of perthon trieth to kill thomeone they don’t even know?” he finishes, and it is the wounded hurt in his face that forces me back a few steps rather than his anger.
“I was hunting monsters to – to try and become a magician. I think,” I whisper, and it sounds stupid even as I say it.
“Oh.” The kid blinks once at that. “You thought I wath a monthter?”
“You moved faster than humans do.”
“Oh!” He actually smacks himself on the forehead with his left palm at that. “I wath buthy trying to banithh the lurker and you thaw....” He trails off.
“I thought I was a bigger monster taking out the competition.”
The kid’s jaw drops at that and he stares up at me as if I had at least four heads, then breaks into a huge grin. “You thought I was thtrong?”
“Awethome! I’m glad you hit me now,’ he says happily, then opens his mouth wide and shoves his tooth to the back, eyes unfocusing for a second before he pulls his hand out and rubs his jaw a little. “That’th better, but it thtill feelth weird.”
“You still have a lisp.”
He looks confused, then grins again. “I alwayth have that,” and thrust out his right hand. “I’m Jay.”
“Lucas.” His grip doesn’t break my hand. I’m not eaten or worse. I have no idea if that is a good thing or not.
“I think Luke thoundth better,” he says seriously. “I’m going to call you that.”
My head is aching a little again, which I take to be a good sign if I need to curse anyone. I follow, my way more clumsy and loud but Jay doesn’t seem all that worried by that as he grabs my right hand and pulls me around trees and roots, not even bothering to suggest either of us use phones as flashlights. I just try not to fall, and come to a halt as he does to see something moving between trees. It is tall, at least ten feet in height, thin and grey, looking for all the world like a vine growing up into the sky as it flows and moves along the ground, sprouting limbs and shoots like blades that move about trees.
Jay just stands, not moving, actually shutting up. And that’s enough for me to pause and watch as whatever this creature is continues to move. It’s hard to make out with just moonlight, but I’m almost certain it is removing dead branches.
“Altho,” Jay says without looking over, “putting birdth nethtth back into plathe.”
“Those, yup! And it hath teeth, and clawth, so you can kill thith monthter right now.”
I stare at the moving vine-creature, then down at Jay. “Please tell me you’re not trying to be subtle?”
The kid crosses his arms. “I might be!”
I count to ten silently in order to stop myself from laughing. “Yelling at someone doesn’t work if you’re trying to be subtle.”
“Oh.” He thinks that over. “It could be a double bluff?”
“Look, I meant – hell, I don’t know what I mean. I have a talent to curse things and I need to control it. Becoming a magician could do that, and the only way I think it happens is if you defeat monsters. Unless I’m wrong?”
Jay scratches his head and begins walking back toward the trail. “You’re athking me?”
“You do seem to know stuff,” I say, as patiently as I can manage.
“I do?” He looks shocked at that, then breaks into another huge grin and pumps the air with one fist. “That’th awethome, but it’th not true at all. I don’t know how people become magithans at all; Honcho doethn’t talk about it.”
“So this Honcho person is a magician?”
“And you are?” I press.
“Hith friend,” Jay snaps, as if that should be obvious.