previous: Isekai ch4
In the months to follow my father became stronger, more independent even mobile. He could walk with a cane for short distances, but the wounds in his back had become thick dense scars, causing him constant, debilitating pain. And what started as a persistent cough, evolved into fluid in his lungs that needed to be drained on a weekly basis.
I slept in the medical ward since the first day, but after a week of sleeping on the ground I was given a portable cot. Then, on one rainy day I awoke to a shower of light.
“Happy birthday!” The room was filled with at least a dozen people, some were employees of the medical ward.
I looked at my father. “Is it your birthday?”
The room erupted with laughter. Becca stepped forward, thankfully looking like her normal self (instead of a wannabe blonde ice princess.) In her hands was a present wrapped in red paper. “Marcus, you don’t recall your own birthday?”
I smiled awkwardly, unsure of what to say. “Well, I guess it doesn’t really matter.
“It doesn’t matter that you’re thirteen?”
“I am?” I certainly didn’t feel any older.
“Yes, you are!” she said happily. “I remember when you were just a little chubby baby who could ride on my back. Now, I actually think you’re taller than me.”
I had been taller than her for a while. “How long have we been here?”
Jay answered that, “You, your dear father and my lovely daughter.” He placed his hand on Becca’s shoulder. “Have been living here for a little over a year.”
“A year?” Again, it didn’t feel like that much time had passed. Perhaps that was due to the fact that we were still living in the med ward.
“Yes, it has.” Jay patted my head. “We thought it was time to celebrate.” He handed me a gift in the form of an envelope. “Don’t open this now, save it for when you really need it.”
“Um ok.” I could vaguely remember celebrating my birthday as a small child (but the time at Queen Emma’s estate had taken a toll on my memory.) I put the gift to the side, assuming it was something meant only for my eyes.
My father sat up placing his weight on his arms. “I do apologize,” he said to me. “I had been discussing with Becca the last time we properly celebrated your birthday. She shared such lovely memories.” He pursed his lips, looking away. “Even when we had so little, I tried so hard,” my father’s voice drifted off.
Becca spoke up with a cheerful giggle. “I wanted to throw you a surprise party, so I made your dad promise to keep any details a secret.”
“This was all your idea?” I had a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach, but seeing all the smiling faces, I had to admit defeat. “Thank you.” I looked around the room at all of the love and compassion. “I am very grateful, to everyone. You all went out of your way, risked your lives, to help a worthless human. The heroic levels of kindness I’ve experienced here, that’s worth more to me than any gift.”
Becca hopped forward, nearly sitting on my lap. “You’re still going to open my present, right?”
“Yeah, of course.” I opened Becca’s gift; it was an arm guard made of a metallic purple material.
“It’s dragon ore.” She rolled up her sleeve revealing armor of her own. “I made it myself. Now we can train together!” She smiled, adding a hop; she was literally jumping for joy.
Time went in slow-motion, as a room full of adults showered me with gifts and praise. They all said how proud they were; I was a good son, a good child. Slowly but surely, they coaxed me into ‘behaving like a proper teenager.’ I needed to go outside, experience life, see the beauty of the world. In hindsight, I really wished I asked more questions.
I left my party, and went outside wearing just my regular work clothes. I owned only two shirts and three pairs of pants and a single pair of shoes. For my birthday I received several newer clothing items, but I left those items with my father (for safety.) The sequence of events played out as I expected.
When we left the caverns, Becca introduced me to a group of six strangers; three males and three females. They all appeared to be in prime physical shape, between the ages of 16-30, but since they were non-humans, their ages could have been anything from teens to thousand-year-old immortals.
Becca seemed overjoyed to introduce me. “Marcus this is my brother Ty, his girlfriend, Lea.”
“Hello,” I said politely.
The first couple seemed unamused. The male looked similar to Jay, sharing his rockstar-punk hairstyle. The girl was equally tall, like a fashion model from a high-class magazine. She was rail thin, to the point where I could make out the shape of her ribs, but she posed with a sense of confidence that made her come off as frightening. They both looked at me with a sense of disbelief; clearly, they were being forced to humor Becca, as the baby of the family.
Lea extended her hand in a way that suggested she wanted me to kiss her ring. The gold band held a large gemstone the color of ocean waves. I bowed to her, leaning in, I was inches away from completing the polite gesture when she recoiled, pulling her hand back.
“Ew, are you trying to steal my ring?” She ran her fingers through her hair changing its color from bright blonde to metallic blue. “What a freak.”
Becca didn’t seem to notice or even care. She moved on to the next pair. “Next this is my brother Tommy and his partner Alex, or Ali.”
They seemed friendlier, wearing light weight armor, with matching neon streaks in their hair. If I was to guess they looked like motocross (or other extreme sports) athletes.
Tommy patted my arm. “Wow, you’re only thirteen?”
“Yeah, I guess.” I chuckled awkwardly. Face to face I was actually a few inches taller than him.
“Welcome,” he shook my hand like a friendly older sibling. “Nice to finally meet you.”
Ali only smirked. This should have been my hint to run.
Becca laughed. “See, Marcus, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“Yeah,” I muttered, looking nervously at the final couple.
“And finally, this is crown prince Nate and his wife Elle.” Becca made sure to bow to this final couple. I assumed Nate was the eldest child of Jay and therefore the heir to the throne.
Nate had shimmery skin the color of chocolate with spots of metallic purple, green and silver. He stood slightly taller, just enough to look down at me with a menacing glare. “So, you’re the one my sister calls her ‘boyfriend’?” Without warning he punched me in the gut.
I doubled over in pain as I lost all air from my lungs. All around me I could hear laughter. This included Becca. ‘Why?’
“Marcus, come on, you’re embarrassing me.” She was standing over my body but making no effort to help me.
What was happening? I felt dizzy as my vision seemed to attempt to focus on all my attackers at once. Was I supposed to fight them? Or would that make my situation even worse? I felt a second boot hit my stomach. The pain prevented me from getting to my feet. I grabbed at whoever it was, forcing them to the ground. It had been one of the women.
Ali, in her armor was surprisingly strong. Balancing on one arm, she easily executed a spin kick straight to my face. “What’s wrong?” she asked with a giggle. “Did your daddy tell you to never hit a girl?”
I turned my head to spit a wad of blood from my mouth. I wasn’t sure where I could go to get away from Becca’s entourage, but I was going to try. With what little energy I had left, I sprang to my feet and ran in the direction of the ocean. There were plenty of cliffs, ledges and rocks to duck and hide. I staggered my path until I found a decrepit wooden shack that had seen better days. With any luck, Becca and her friends, would assume I jumped into the water and drowned.
The single room seemed to be a cover for a larger, more elaborate space. There was a bed in the corner, made from sand. It was hidden in the shadows just well enough to be a safe place to rest, while still allowing a view of the daylight. ‘This could be a nice place to die.’ I laid in bed, staring up at the ceiling. There were sizable cracks in the wood, allowing a view of the outside world.
I could hear Becca and her family looking for me, laughing. As their voices drifted away, I could clearly make out their conversation.
“What a fucking loser!” said a male voice. “What did you say he was; a Nordic? I thought those people were supposed to be trained soldiers?”
A female voice laughed. “Well, if they were that tough, they wouldn’t have gotten wiped out during the war.”
“You have a point, Elle.”
“Maybe we can grind his bones to make health potions,” another male voice added.
Becca laughed. “You guys are mean.”
Lea spoke next and her words cut to the core, “Rest assured, little sister, stick with us and we can find you a partner worthy of your bloodline.”
“Great, just great,” I mumbled. “Thanks a lot, Becca.”
I could hear a rustling in the opposite corner. I pulled my legs to my chest, preparing to escape if necessary. “Hello?”
“You shouldn’t be alone,” replied a deep male voice.
“What?” I had hoped to see Jay or maybe my father, but the figure seemed too small, and the voice I heard wasn’t human.
Peppercorn, or a bird that looked like him hopped out of the darkness. “I think we should go flying,” The creature said with a comical hiss.
Like the others, he was mocking me. “I’m not a dragon, I can’t fly.”
“You can’t or you won’t?” he asked, tilting his head like a haunted doll.
I didn’t know how to respond. “Could I fly in a past life?” I asked, since my past seemed to be the secret to unlocking my abilities. I mean, otherwise, why the hell would he ask such a question?
“No, but you could fight.” The bird rolled like a dog, coming to rest on my already sore ribs. “Or at least not get your ass kicked.” The figure started to grow until it resembled the baby phoenix, if the bird had been genetically mixed with Leo’s dragon form.
“Can you make me stronger?” I asked, assuming I was speaking to my assigned guardian angel.
“Strength comes with time, but I can offer you the blessing of skill.”
“That would be nice.” I blinked my eyes, causing a green line of text to appear, ‘Skill acquired: basics of hand-to-hand combat.’ I suddenly felt oddly sleepy. Not tired, no, my body was in way too much pain for that. Yet, my eyes were being forced closed as if by tiny weights being gently applied. “If I take a nap, do you promise to stand guard? Just to make sure I don’t get sucker punched again?”
“Or we can find a place to train,” the creature’s voice was shifting, becoming friendlier and more human. “Unless you’re really just a little bitch.”
“What did you call me?” I sat up, shoving the dragon away.
The creature turned, heading towards a dark space. “Follow me, if you please.”
I didn’t move right away. If this was a tunnel, it was too dark to reveal an exit. “I can’t, I’m too tall.” I was already in so much pain. The idea of being in agony, and trapped underground, was not something I felt emotionally prepared for. If I was to die, I wanted to die someplace where my body could be located.
The creature fully disappeared, traveling up the tunnel, until I could no longer hear his steps. ‘Whatever.’ I was fully prepared to recline back onto my sandy bed when I could hear the figure turning around. He was coming back for me.
A much larger creature reemerged, poking his head out. He tilted his neck like a retro-era cartoon character. “If I can do it so, can you. Come on!”
“Fine.” I had to admit, Leo’s dragon form was adorably cute. “I’ll be right there.”
“I look forward to it.” The dragon nodded, disappearing back into the darkness.
I got down on my hands and knees and started to crawl. I could hear the scratching sound of his claws moving ahead of me. Leo’s presence kept me sane. I still felt like I could pass out at any moment, but if I was going to die here at least I wouldn’t be alone.
Thankfully, we emerged back in the caverns. Looking up I could see the larger dragons working at the massive heart of the forge. I could even spot the way back to the medical ward. This seemed to be one of many exits, allowing for the cavern’s security. “So, can we find a place to train?”
The purple dragon turned to me a smiled, flashing its golden teeth. “I thought you’d never ask.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I got to my feet, taking a few deep breaths.
“I have the perfect place in mind. It’s not too far.”
Leo led me down a corridor to a room with a soft sand floor. The only light came from a series of torches decorating the walls, bathing the room in a golden hue. I took a breath, gripping my ribs. This seemed to cause the lights to flicker. “What happens if the torches go out? Will we be stuck here?”
“Don’t be such a human.” The purple dragon swept his back leg, creating a perfect circle. His leg stretched like a dancer, or a gymnast, until it was more human than the rest of the creature’s body. He flexed the muscles of his back, letting his head fall forward. In this yoga-like pose my guardian angel fully transformed into his human appearance.
Leo tossed back his hair like a surfer emerging from unseen waves. “That feels incredible.” He rolled his shoulders, as if warming up his human muscles. “Not that I dislike being a dragon.”
“Or a bird?” I muttered under my breath.
“What are you talking about?” Leo asked, taking a low combat stance. He started to dance like a Brazilian martial arts character.
“You’re the bird that Becca found, right?”
“Not exactly.” Leo smirked as he executed a perfect backflip.
“What do you mean?”
“All spirits are interconnected.” Leo stood up straight like a proper teacher. He reached for my hand, posing my body into a combat stance. “I’ve met thousands of souls in my time.”
“Is the bird really Peppercorn; reborn, reincarnated?”
“Those words hold no meaning to the army of heaven.” Without warning, Leo jumped, landing a spin kick to my upper arm.
“Ow!” I gripped my shoulder in pain. “What the hell?”
“Did you really just use profanity at an angel?” Leo pulled me to my feet. “Lesson one; learning how to block.”
“I can block fine,” I said, spitting on the ground. “I’m just tired of getting sucker punched!”
My anger brought about laughter. “Sucker punch?” Leo ran his fingers through his hair like some kind of cocky supermodel. “Funny, I don’t recall punching you.”
Adrenaline took over; I was no longer sick and in pain; I was pissed. “Do you know who invented the term, ‘sucker punch’?” I asked. I bowed my head respectfully, giving Leo a moment to pause before swiftly kicking him in the stomach. “The sucker.”
“Funny,” Leo said with a cough. “I did not see that coming.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.” I stood; arms crossed, leaning against a nearby wall.
“Well then. Let’s start with pushups first one to a hundred is the winner.”
I had no idea how I was expected to defeat a full grown, physically fit angel but I did feel like blowing off some pent-up anger. Positioned on my hands and the tips of my toes I started to do push-ups. At first, I went for speed pumping out motion after motion. I could feel the burning in my arms and shoulders, down my back. Suddenly I felt more energy than when I started and eventually, I was just having fun.
“You can stop now.” Leo took a seat, handing me a canister of water.
“How did you?” As I shifted my weight to a seated position, I could feel a burning pain in my back. “How long have I been down here?”
Instead of answering my question, Leo offered me a meal of dried fruit and meat. “Here, you’ll need the protein to rebuild your muscles.”
My hands were caked with sand, so I took a moment to clean up before accepting. “Thank you. How is my father?” I asked as I ate. “Is he going to be alright?”
“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” Leo said. Sitting cross-legged he looked like a camp counselor, ready to give a speech to a homesick child. “You need to focus on yourself; your life, your purpose.”
“You know my purpose?” I asked with a chuckle. “Can I have a clue?”
“I have a clue for you; gain strength to gain respect.”
“I figured that.”
“But in order to have any chance of succeeding, you need to break from your past.”
“I’m not leaving my dad.”
“Well, you sound like a broken record,” Leo said as he stood up. “And that’s fine. You can go check on him if you like. I’m sure he’d enjoy your company.”
“Becca’s with him, isn’t she?”
“Even more reason for you to return to the med ward.”
“Fine,” I muttered under my breath. First, I needed to test something. I sprang to my feet, focusing on a spot on the wall, I executed a jump kick, landing perfectly just behind Leo. I felt the area where my foot made contact; it wasn’t much of a hit but at least I knew I could perform a kick just as well as anyone. After the events of my ‘special day,’ that was the best present I could have hoped for.
When I returned to my father’s room, I made sure to stop by the nurse’s station. The older, purple haired, woman on duty was someone who’d always been kind to me. “Hi Leah, how’s my dad?”
The nurse took one look at my face, then glanced towards the door. “Oh dear, those awful children. What have they done to you?”
“The princes; they’re all grown men, but I was around when each of them were nothing but a wee babe.” She reached for a warm towel, holding it to my face. “I see not much has changed.”
My friend offered a chair and I gratefully sat. “Is my dad alone?”
“No, your little girlfriend is with him.”
I sighed nervously. “Thanks.”
“Please be careful.”
“I will.” I stood up, making my way to my father’s room. Pausing for a moment, I opened the door slowly; in case I was walking in on something I didn’t want to see.
My father was asleep in bed, with Becca cuddled next to him like a doll. He opened his eyes struggling for a moment to sit up without waking her. “Marcus, is that you?”
“Yeah, Dad, it’s me.” The room was oddly dark and cold, so I took it upon myself to light a few of the candles as well as the central heater (a remarkable piece of technology that connected directly to the heart of the forge.)
As he laid in bed, his eyes opened, looking at something beyond the light of the doorway.
“Are you in pain?”
“Pain’s just a way to know you’re alive.”
“Right.” I took a seat on his opposite side. “Did Becca tell you about my eventful day?”
I looked at Becca’s sleeping face. She was in her neutral form, with tan skin and long dark hair that she wore in loose curls. She looked as sweet and innocent as the day we first met, but now all I could see was her biological mother. Was that why she hurt me? She could have warned me about the fact her brothers hated me. My best friend would have warned me, but this girl laughed and called me an embarrassment.
My father coughed, shifting Becca’s body in his arms as if he was her parent. “You need to forgive her.”
“Because pain is just a way to know you’re alive? Should I wake Becca to thank her for the extra special birthday gift? Like you said, this was all her idea, right?” I didn’t mean to get upset at him. My father was the one person unworthy of my anger.
“I’m sorry.” My father reclined in his bed, swallowing the lump in his throat.
“No, Papa, I didn’t mean it. I just want to stay here with you.”
He shook his head. “I wish I could have been the type of man you’d be proud of. Instead, you only ever felt shame.”
“That’s not true.” Was that why he was still holding Becca like an emotional support animal? Did my father think I no longer loved him?
“I chose,” the words gurgled as he struggled for air. “I chose to put my faith in the wrong person. And for that I am sorry.”
Was he talking about Prince Tomas? I still had the letter. I had kept it at the bottom of a trunk with the rest of my meager belongings. “But why do I need to forgive Becca? She essentially arranged for her brothers to murder me.” I suddenly had a realization. “Wait, what did she tell you?” She had to have said something. There was no way my father would have willingly tossed me into a trap.
“She would have never allowed you to be killed.”
“How do you know?”
Becca opened her eyes, looking up at my father, then at me. She cupped her hands over her mouth as genuine tears began to flow. “Marcus! Thank God!” She reached out her arms for a hug.
I flinched, scooting back, but that only made her more determined. She squeezed me so hard I wanted to puke. “Ow! I think I have broken ribs.”
“From my hug?
“From your brothers.
“You were supposed to fight back.”
“I guess I know that for next time. And there will be a next time, right?” I felt stronger, braver. Hopefully that was the knowledge and skill imparted by Leo.
“Yeah,” she said with a smile. “You and me against the world.” Becca flopped down on the bed, landing on my father’s chest. “Right Mr. Vladimir? We’re a team, forever and always.”
My father laughed. It was a weak, pain-stricken sound, but undeniably joyous. “Yes, we are.”
The door creaked open, but instead of a person, what came through was a purple bird. Becca made a hand motion. “Come here, Peppercorn, you can do it.”
The bird hopped, looking around before flying, taking its place on Becca’s shoulder. “Coo.”
“Aww you’re so cute! Yes, you’re a part of our team too! My perfect little immortal phoenix.”
My father stroked the bird’s head. “Yes, dear one, we’re a team.” He paused swallowing the lump in his throat. “Forever and always.” Papa closed his eyes, holding my hand. “Thank you all for this wonderful day.”
For the first time in years, I slept by his side. It felt nice; this could be the start of a new beginning. Maybe there was hope. The next day his body was deathly still.
next: Isekai ch6