Marked (Book One of the Marked Saga)

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Nakamura Takashi

Grace let out a breath, her body shaking and her skin slick with layers of sweat. Basil stood across the training mat from her, his gold-brown eyes watching her every move. She threw a front kick at him, but she was too slow. He easily blocked, and then threw her leg away and knocked her off balance. She grunted and turned just in time to see him aiming an ax kick to her head. She dived and rolled out of the way, jumping up into a shaky middle stance.

Basil threw a series of advanced techniques at her, and Grace managed to block half of them, while the rest added new bruises to the collection on her body. She gritted her teeth in frustration, and let out an angry yell. She punched at him, but her blow barely glanced off his shoulder as he slid in. He gripped her arm with one hand, using the other to turn her and wrap an arm around her throat in one movement. He applied gentle pressure, and then let go before Grace slipped into a panic attack.

“You’re getting better,” Basil said approvingly. “That’s good.”

She sighed as he walked away, grabbing two small towels. He tossed one to her, and as she caught it Grace said, “I don’t feel like it. I’m still wobbly, and I’m not nearly as fast, or strong, as you.”

“That’s because you only started training a few weeks ago,” he said. He smiled and added, “Don’t worry too much, okay? You’re really doing great. Just keep in mind, you haven’t been training and practicing for centuries like I have.”

“Neither has my sister,” Grace complained.

He raised a brow. “But when did she start training?”

Grace shrugged. “I don’t know. When she was three, I think? All I know is that by the time I was five, she had gotten her first black belt.”

“See? She’s been training for almost her entire life, so martial arts is second nature to her. And I’ve been training ever since Malcolm started to teach me magic. You’ve only just started, so don’t worry, okay?”

Grace nodded, but she kept her eyes downcast. Basil sighed and placed a hand on her shoulder. He pressed his lips to her forehead and murmured, “You want to go to the Hideout?”

She smiled. “Yes, please.”

He laughed. “All right. I’m going to shower, then I’ll meet you in twenty. Sound good?”

She nodded, and the two of them went their separate ways. Grace decided to shower herself, and so made her way upstairs to her room. She grabbed a pair of jeans and a paint-splattered T-shirt, and then made her way into the bathroom that was connected to her room.

Grace sighed as the hot water pounded at her sore, aching muscles. Basil had decided to train Grace in martial arts, that way she’d have a basic understanding of how to protect herself without magic. She had seen the idea as silly at the time until he mentioned that there may be a time when Grace’s magic is drained from a big spell, or from fighting with only her magic. She didn’t like it, but she agreed.

The first week, Grace could barely move. But neither Basil nor Malcolm let up on her, or her training. In fact, at the time she felt that they had made things more difficult for her on purpose.

After the first two weeks, Beck decided he wanted to train. Basil now alternated between the two, and occasionally he’d train both of them together. Grace noticed a change in her friend after only just a few days of training, and it was a change she liked. He seemed more confident in himself, and he had bulked up some more. Before, Beck had hidden behind a wall of humor and sarcasm. Grace was the only one allowed to see the real side of him, and even then she felt that he kept things hidden from her.

Beck was one of very few kids at school that was gay, and he was the only one open about it. His whole life, he had been hated and ridiculed because of who he was. Grace had stood up for him as best she could, but not even that stopped the bullying or harassing. She could only protect him when they were together, but when they were in separate classrooms, he was open game.

Now, he was in a better position to protect himself. The other day, Grace had witnessed as a few of the football players cornered Beck. They began pushing him around, shoving him into the lockers, and dumping out his papers all over the floor. In the past, he kept his head down and allowed them to do whatever they wanted. But this time, he stood up. He kept his head high, and with his muscles tense and fists clenched at his side, he said one word. It was simple, but he said it with determination and authority. He looked each football player in the eye and said, “Leave.”

They left, glancing over their shoulders at him. Beck had smiled, and then bent to pick up his belongings. Grace had been around the corner, but now she came to her friend’s side. He grinned at her, and she beamed back as pride filled her chest.

Grace shut the water off and stepped out of the shower. She dried, got dressed, and tied her hair back in a messy French braid. She pulled on her sneakers and slipped her messenger bag over her shoulder. Once she was ready, she stepped out of her room and into the hall, where Basil was waiting. She smiled when she saw him, and he held an arm out for her. She looped her arm through his, and together made their way downstairs, out the front door, and began the walk into town.

Beck grunted as he beat at the heavy bag, allowing the motions and techniques to follow, one after the other. Sweat poured down his body in rivers, and his arms shook. But he refused to stop. He couldn’t stop. Not until he passed out from exhaustion.

His shoulder screamed in pain, but he ignored it. He welcomed the pain. Pain meant he was awake, which meant everything was real. He was unable to determine dreams from visions anymore, and he could barely sleep. During his waking hours, if he wasn’t working on schoolwork and preparing for finals, then he was in the basement of Malcolm’s mansion, training, whether it was by himself, or with Basil.

He heard footsteps behind him, but he ignored it. He continued punching and kicking at the heavy bag, the chain overhead rattling as the bag swung. His shoulder ached, and his right knee began to throb. He threw a kick with his left leg and then cried out as his knee buckled below him. He tumbled to the ground, gripping his knee between his hands.

Someone stepped up beside him, and Beck looked up against the light to see Malcolm looming over him. The man stared down at him for a moment and then held out a hand for him. Beck stared at the hand for a moment, and then up at Malcolm. He placed his hand in his, and Malcolm hauled him to his feet.

Beck winced as weight was put on his knee. Malcolm draped an arm over his shoulders, but Beck protested, “I’m fine, I can walk.”

“No, you can limp,” Malcolm corrected. “I don’t want you putting unnecessary weight on your knee. Besides…”

Beck gave him a confused look, and the mage had a mischievous smile on his face. Beck blushed, and then focused on walking up the stairs with the wall pressed against his left side, and Malcolm on his right.

He frowned. He didn’t remember haven’t such a difficult time walking up and down the stairs with someone. There was once a time when he and Basil could walk side by side, and he’d still have a little bit of room. Now, when he was shoulder-to-shoulder with Malcolm, there was no space at all. The temperature suddenly rose, and Beck couldn’t tell if the heat in his cheeks was from the atmosphere, or something else.

When they reached the top of the stairs, Malcolm helped Beck make his way to the library. The mage placed him gently on one of the couches, and then placed his hands around Beck’s knee. Beck was about to ask what he was doing when green and blue flames suddenly encircled his knee and Malcolm’s hands. He jerked back, but Malcolm gripped his leg and held him in place. Immediately, the pain began to fade away, and he felt strength flow into his joint. Within moments, he was able to bend and move his knee and leg without any discomfort.

“Is there any other pain?” Malcolm asked.

Beck was about to tell him he was fine, then he realized he didn’t want the mage to go away. He had enjoyed the feel of his hands on him, and he felt a strange emptiness when Malcolm moved his hands away. Beck readjusted himself on the couch, favoring his shoulder. “Yeah,” he said. “My shoulder.”

Malcolm ordered him to adjust, and he did so. Beck perched on the edge of the couch, hunched over slightly as Malcolm started working on his shoulder.

“So,” Malcolm started, his hands and the magefire sliding across Beck’s sweat-soaked skin. “Care to explain why you were training until you literally dropped?”

Beck sighed. “I’m still having nightmares,” he admitted. “I keep seeing Grace going to a warehouse, led by an eagle. She goes in, is attacked, and brought to a woman. The woman goes to kill Grace, and then it ends.”

He sighed and dropped his head, his back muscles relaxing as Malcolm continued to spread magefire over his shoulder. The heat from the fire disappeared, and he felt Malcolm’s hands hover over his skin for a moment before pulling away. The mage sat on the couch beside him, and Beck felt his heavy gaze upon him until he turned to look into the other man’s electric blue eyes.

“I am sorry you have this fate,” Malcolm said. “There are many who would give anything they could to have the gift of Sight.”

Beck scoffed. “They don’t want it. It sucks.”

Malcolm grinned. “It does at first,” he said. “But, eventually, you will learn to control it. You have most of eternity to do so.”

Beck sighed and leaned back against the couch, closing his eyes. Malcolm had told him before that Seers could either live forever or for hundreds of years. It was never definite, and Beck was terrified. Of whether he would die or not, he had no idea. He could definitely see the benefits of living forever, but the idea of immortality was frightening. But, so was death. It terrified him to think that maybe one day, he would no longer be on this earth. One day, he would be gone, with only the whisper of his name on the wind.

He looked to his left when he felt Malcolm’s hand on his arm. The corners of Malcolm’s lips turned up and he said, “Fear not, young Seer. The world is not as bleak as it may seem.”

Beck let out a breath and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. He tensed when he felt Malcolm’s hand on his back, and then relaxed as the mage began rubbing his hand up and down.

“If it was anyone else, I’d be fine,” Beck said. “But this is Grace. She’s my best friend, and she’s targeted, and I don’t know why.”

“Well, she’s a MacEntyre,” Malcolm said. “She’ll be a target her whole life. That is, unless her family can somehow regain its honor and title. Maybe it would help if you described the woman trying to kill her?”

Beck sighed. “Um… light blonde hair, blue eyes. She was dressed nice in the visions, but that’s about all I got.”

Malcolm nodded. “Think,” he said. “Try to focus. Did she have a Mark on her right wrist? What did it look like?”

Beck closed his eyes, scrunching his face as he focused. The images flashed through his mind, and through it all, he caught a flash of silver, the image of—

“A fox,” he said. He opened his eyes and glanced over to Malcolm. “There was a silver fox, on the inside of her wrist.”

Malcolm nodded, and a series of emotions flashed across his face. “Based on your description, she could be none other than Diana Petrov, from the Petrov clan of Russia. They are as sneaky and deceptive as the fox.”

“What could she possibly want with Grace?” Beck asked.

As much as he hoped he would answer, Malcolm could only shake his head. “I’m sorry,” he said. “But I don’t know. I don’t even know how she knows of Grace’s existence. Her parents have kept her and her sister secret for almost twenty years. Whoever killed her family, it couldn’t have been Diana.”

“How come?” Beck asked.

“It’s not her style,” Malcolm replied. “She’s not the type to stage an accident. She’ll play mind games with her victims, drive them insane. She’ll make them beg for death, and just when it seems that death’s sweet kiss will release them, she drops them into the fire once again. She’s a vindictive, evil woman, and she does nothing but leave chaos and destruction in her wake.”

“How do you know? Were you friends with her or something?”

Malcolm let out a harsh laugh, one devoid of any humor. “Hardly. No, there was a time she and Basil were a couple, when he was still a mage. She broke his heart, and left him behind.”

Beck drew back at the venom in Malcolm’s voice. In the few months he had known him, Malcolm had always been calm and collected. He’d never been angry, as far as Beck could tell, and he had come to admire the man. He still did, but it unnerved him to see this side of the mage that he had never seen before.

“I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” Malcolm said. “Talk of Diana does nothing but cause anger, and I’ve worked too hard to get where I am now.”

Beck nodded. “All right,” he said. “I can live with that. I’ve actually been meaning to ask you…”

Malcolm raised an eyebrow, and Beck began wringing his hands together in nervousness. He bit his lips, licked them once before saying, “Your name’s Malcolm…” he began.

Malcolm laughed. “I am aware of that.”

“But you were born in feudal Japan, right? So how is your name Malcolm?”

Now Malcolm was nervous. He turned his gaze away, and Beck couldn’t help but try to follow him. During the past couple of months, as they became closer, Beck had managed to weasel parts of Malcolm’s past from him. He hasn’t received much, but from what he was able to gather, Malcolm had been born in the fourteenth century.

“I wasn’t born Malcolm McCullough,” Malcolm finally admitted. He looked Beck in the eye and said, “My father was a Japanese samurai, and my mother was an Englishwoman whose father sold her to be married. I was born Nakamura Takashi, in 1324, to Nakamura Kenshin and Elizabeth Rogers. Growing up, I was always left out of children’s games, and the other women of the village scorned me because I was a half-breed. It was a difficult life, until I discovered my magic when I was seven. My father, at first, was terrified. But my mother knew better. There weren’t many Japanese mages at the time, so she was ecstatic when I came into my magic.”

Beck nodded slowly, absorbing everything Malcolm had said. He played his birth name, Takashi, in his mind over and over again, deciding that he liked the name better.

“I changed my name to Malcolm McCullough when I was in my twenties,” Malcolm said, a haunted expression crossing his face. “Let’s just say, I made a terrible, grave mistake. I couldn’t live as Takashi anymore. So, I became Malcolm, and I’ve been him ever since.”

Malcolm gazed off into space, his mind far away. Beck glanced down at his hands, clenched in his fists. He reached over and rested a hand over top of Malcolm’s hand, and after a moment, the mage relaxed. He allowed the young Seer to lace his fingers through his own, and then the two of them sat there in silence. Minutes stretched into hours, and Beck had never felt more at peace.

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