1The LetterCalm, relaxed breathing is essential for stressful situations.
"Happy Birthday, Dean," said the man standing across the dimly lit table, having set a cake down in front of me. The fourteen candles atop it created a soft glow about the room, shadows flickering about the walls."Thank you, Father," I replied. Of course, I called this man Father, but he wasn't my father at all. Also absent from the room was my mother, of whom I had no more memory then vague feelings from long, long ago. This man's name was Donald Lum, and he had looked after me since the time my parents disappeared, twelve years or so ago, according to him. I had asked him many times about their disappearance and how I came to live with him instead, but always it was the same answer: "When you're older."I had little hope even now that turning fourteen would change this answer, and so I did not expect any different answer today then before. I had almost given up hope, thinking that perhaps they had died in some gruesome manner from which he was sparing me. He was not unkind, and he was caring, but I think there was always a tension between us; he raised me, but he was not my father. I often asked myself, late at night when I had trouble sleeping, if that really mattered one way or the other. I knew it didn't, but yet, somehow it did. And never knowing a mother, well, I knew people who had lost their mother to divorce or death, which would have been easier. Mine was just… gone. Gone where? "When you're older."You may ask me as you gaze about the dining room in our modest suburban home, if you are turning fourteen, where are your friends, Dean? Why do they not share the table along with your foster parent on this happy occasion? The truth of the matter was I had few friends, for one reason or another. Mainly I just liked being left alone, but more than that, I felt I was different, somehow, then those around me. They seemed to sense it too, and basically left me to myself. I didn't mind, honestly. I occupied my time with building things, like models, or helping Donald repair watches or jewelry in the tiny shop he ran outside the city. He said I had good watchmaker hands, whatever that meant, and he often set me to simple tasks like replacing main springs and verifying steady pulse rates in pocket watches. Are you curious about what city we're in? Kokomo, Indiana. Excitement capital of the world, to be sure.Blowing out the candles, I belatedly realized I had forgotten to make a wish, but really, even if my parents did come back, I wouldn't even know them, so what was the point? Donald and I spoke, and ate cake, and when the dishes were cleared away he cleared his throat and took on a serious look."Sit a moment longer, Dean. There are a few things I need to give you today. Let me go get them.""Sure thing," I replied, slightly mystified. I had been given my gifts before dinner, that very afternoon. What else could there be?Soon enough Donald returned carrying a small box and a padded envelope. He sat down and stared at them for a moment, then sighed and pushed them over to me."The envelope first, alright? The box after I explain a few things."Getting more curious now, I reached for the envelope and spun it around to read who it was from. Somewhat surprisingly for all the fuss Donald was making about it, there was no return address. I pulled the tab and pushed it open a little, tipping it into the overhead light now illuminating the room. Something that looked like cloth patches and some stapled together letters were inside, so I shook them out. Onto the table fell three red and white cloth patches, each with the same funny symbol on them. They immediately reminded me of the pieces of paper you sometimes seen thrown around by Japanese cartoon characters. I looked up at Donald. "What's this?""You should read the letter and stuff and then I can answer all your questions."I shrugged and pulled out the papers, seeing the top one as some sort of introduction letter or something. I read it. Then I read it again. Then I flipped through the other pages, and read the letter again."This is some sort of joke, right?""I can work with that.""What?""Sorry, I just wasn't sure what to expect when you read it.""What am I supposed to say? It says here I'm the 'best and brightest' which is a big laugh, but the upshot is you're sending me away to some strange school I've never heard of? Why?""It has to do with your parents, I'm afraid.""What? My- now wait just a minute! What about my parents? Are you finally going to tell me what happened to them?""I'm finally going to tell you about the last time I saw them, yes. I am quite truthful when I say I really have no idea what happened to them."I looked back at the letter, and the packet containing maps, class schedules, club descriptions, then back at Donald. "So how does this school relate to my parents?""Your mother went there.""What, really?" I said, excited now. "Is attending classes there going to help me track her down or something? What's this all about?""I'm sorry, I'm not doing a very good job of this. I've been trying to figure out how to tell you for a couple of weeks now as your birthday was coming up. I still don't have any real idea. Look, just open the box, and I'll start at the beginning.""Whatever you say," I said, more confused now then ever. The box, I now noticed, had one of those weird pieces of paper on it covering the top, presumably glued over the flaps, as I didn't see any tape on the edges. I held up the badge, "Does this have anything to do with…""Yes, it has everything to do with that."I nodded, looking the box over. Basically just a beat up cardboard box, about five inches to a side, square. Apart from the paper on top, it was taped on the bottom and that was it. I put a finger under the top flap and tried to tear the paper off so I could open it. To my surprise, it didn't budge."Try putting your hand over it and saying your name," Donald suggested.I looked at him like he was crazy, and got up to get the utility knife out of the drawer in the other room. I came back in and clicked the knife up, stabbing it down into the paper. Again I was surprised when the knife was stopped cold by this flimsy piece of paper rather then tearing in two like I expected."Like I said, you better just tell it who you are or we'll be here all night." The edges of his mouth quirked up a little like he was trying very hard not to smile. I glared at him."A piece of paper is going to get the better of me, is that what you're saying?""It's called a ward. And yes, it is. I think the box is a talisman of some sort, keyed to the ward to be invulnerable, as your mother told me only you would be able to open it.""What, it's from Krypton? It's a cardboard box, I'll just cut it here." I proceeded to stab into the side of it, then to slice the tape from the bottom. As I suppose you can guess by now, I didn't get very far."Ready to give up?" said Donald, a slight twinkle in his eye. It seemed he was struggling not to laugh now. Great, it looked like I was being defeated by a cardboard box tonight after all. I sighed. "We'll play it your way then," and put my hand on the top: "Open up, magic box, for I, Dean Chesterfield, command it!" The box crumbled to dust before my very eyes."What?!" I said, jerking my hand away. "That did not just happen.""She always was a trifle showy. Are you okay?""Fine, it just surprised me, that's all. What happened? How did it just crumble like that?""Wards and talismans can do pretty much anything if you can put the time and effort into making them," Donald replied. "So let's see what she left you after all that.""You don't even know?""No clue," he said, shaking his head.I looked down, there was a small object wrapped in tissue paper now sitting on the table where the box had been. I was torn between asking what, exactly, a ward was, but figured it could wait, so I carefully unwrapped the object and set aside the paper. We both stared at it for a moment."It's an egg." I was finding myself rather unimpressed after the whole disappearing box trick."A blue egg, to be specific," said Donald. "At least that's what it looks like to me."I picked it up; it didn't feel hollow, and it seemed a little heavier then I expected. I held it up to the light and it didn't seem like any light got though, so it must have been solid all the way through. It didn't feel like wood or stone, but it didn't feel like an egg either. It wasn't really an egg, it was just sort of egg shaped, and a very deep blue."Dark blue, right?" I asked.He nodded, knowing I was color blind.I gently brought it to my ear and shook it. No sound emerged at all.I set it down, stumped. "Well, if possible, I would like an explanation now.""Let me do one more thing," said Donald, taking the egg. He closed his eyes, seeming to concentrate. "No," he said, finally, "if it has power I can't detect it. But then I'm not very good at it, and it could have been shielded.""Now what are you talking about?"He set the egg down and looked at me. I didn't notice how, instead of rolling one way or the other like a normal egg would have, this one stayed right in the same spot Donald had set it. "The time has come to tell you about your heritage," he began. "Guess I'll just jump right into it. You've never felt quite right living here, have you? I know you haven't, it's a dumb question. What if I told you there was a reason for that?""I'm really from another planet?" I said, rolling my eyes. "Or maybe a wizard?""Close. You're an Artificer. Like me you have certain abilities that most people don't. In your case, you can use your spiritual energy to create objects of great power.""Come off it!""I'm serious. You saw that box, didn't you? You could have gotten the chainsaw out of the garage and gone at it all night, and all you would have had at the end of it was a really dull chainsaw blade."I glared at the egg as though it was the cause of all the troubles in the world, and started to hope, just a little, that this whole thing wasn't some elaborate birthday prank."So why am I only hearing about all this now?""A couple of reasons. First, you're old enough to keep the secret that there are powers in the world and that you yourself have them. Second, those powers are awaking in you now that you are growing up, so it's time to start your training. And third because your parents, before they disappeared, gave me orders not to.""And my mother gave you this… egg?""That's right. She came to me one afternoon and said she and your father had to go away, couldn't tell me why when I asked, and left you with me, along with this box. I thought maybe she was just a little frazzled in raising her first child, and that she would be back in a few days. But she didn't, and when I checked out the box I found I couldn't open it. Now that you have, and it's just this weird egg thing, I'm even more puzzled. I mean, it's not a keepsake, it has no value for you because it's just a thing. A keepsake holds a memory, and I assume you have no memory of this blue egg?" He waited for me to shake my head. "So then it's a puzzle, maybe one only you can solve as you grow in power. And grow in power you will, because of your father.""My father had power too? What could he do?""A little of everything."I stared it him for a moment, but he said no more. "That's not an answer," I said slowly."Suffice to say for now that you've very gifted in the power department. Study long and hard the next twenty years or so, and there will be nothing on this earth that could take you down. He only learned of his power after watching your mother make things, and deciding to help her out. She was making a whole bunch of piddly, identical wards as I understand it, and so he, as a joke, started imitating her, and she was telling him exactly what to do with spirit energy to make it work. Imagine their surprise when it actually worked for him. They looked into it and found out he could basically learn any skill that didn't depend on knowing other skills. That'll make sense later, don't get hung up on that. Anyway, they traveled around a little talking to various people with powers and he picked up a few things. You, on the other hand, will go to school and learn whatever you want, and become way better then your mother and father combined, because you can do things neither of them can.""I… rather like the sound of that," I said, smiling."I thought you might."We both paused, looking down at the egg."So my mother could make things? Like what?""Like impossible to open boxes that crumble to dust, or swords that can kill demons, or bullets that can knock over buildings. And wards, basically just paper with symbols written on them that, when activated, accomplish something specific and then burn up, like you saw.""Back up— demons?""Oh yes. Why do you think they call the school 'Demongate High?' It's not just a name."This was a lot to take in. "How do you know all this?""Because after the disappearance of your parents, the Foundation- they're the people that run the school- well, the whole world really, tried to track them down. Believe me, their resources are vast and varied. When that failed, they asked if I would take you in, and as your parents had asked me the same thing before they disappeared, I agreed it was the right thing to do. Certain things were explained to me when I came into my power, if you'll call it that.""That's right, you did say you had powers. What can you do?""The story of how I became touched with supernatural power is not something I like to relate. It happened much later in my life, as I didn't inherit power like you did. Quite honestly it was forced on me, and at a terrible cost. Tt wasn't something I chose. As for what I can do, it's not all that useful in the long run. In any case, I agreed not to exercise it and the Foundation agreed to let me continue living here instead of moving to the island where the school is. Not much call for my talents there, you understand. No, this is about you and what you want for the future, not me. You're being handed the opportunity of a lifetime. Schooling with kids your age who are also awaking their own power. The opportunity to "crack the egg" so to speak and find how it relates to your parents. For all I know your mother didn't make it, she only protected it and passed the duty of protecting it onto you. But in that case I hope she would have told me that before she left, so that I could have taken greater precautions. Why did she leave so quickly, and why couldn't she tell me why? Why did her husband go with her, but not her only son? Perhaps even more important than that, attend Demongate High to become a true power in the battle with Hell that rages on earth to this very day.""That's impossible, someone would have noticed!""Well, I say rages, maybe simmers is a better word. Demons and magic users and those that misuse their gifts are all around us, make no mistake. The world needs people of courage, and talent and fortitude to make sure this old earth keeps turning according to plan.""And you're saying that's me?""It can be, if you let them train you. You can refuse, of course, and just turn your back on the whole thing. Go to a normal high school here in Indiana, with perfectly normal people, and do perfectly normal things. We put the egg away, you never learn how to create magical items or throw energy blasts or use Alchemy or request the aid of the spirits or call demons to fight for you or any of it. That way is safer, I won't lie to you.""I could do all that?""It's like I said, you won't lack in the- well, you won't lack in the versatility department, let's put it that way. In your case, you'll never be able to do most of those things well unless you devote your life to nothing but learning. Normally just mastering a single type of power takes a lifetime; you could conceivably master them all." He smiled a sad smile. "And you have the time, there's nothing to say you can't make yourself ageless, one way or the other, so that kind of time might be nothing to you, if you choose to take that route."I was stunned. That kind of power was inside me? Is that why I never felt I fit in around here?"So you're saying that, basically anything I could think of doing, somehow, some way, after going to school at this Demongate place, I could probably find a way to do it? Living forever sounds good for a start. How about getting rich? Maybe save a princess or two from ancient castles?"Donald nodded, smiling. "Go for the old standards, that's the ticket. Seriously though, to answer your question, yes, all that and more. You don't have to decide now, of course. Read over the student handbook, mull it over. You have time yet." He got up and went into the other room, bringing out a tattered old book with "student handbook" embossed in gold letters on the cover. He handed it to me and stepped back. "Whatever you decide, I'll stand behind it. You're a decent kid, you know? A little quiet, but smart, willful, good with your hands. I've seen those models you made, you have an eye for detail that'll be important for an Artificer, should you choose to become one. Sleep on it. Take a walk. Whatever. It's your future, and right now many doors are open to you. I'll even train you in watch making if that's what you want, and you can carry on my business here. But if you want my opinion, your future is right here," he tapped on the blue symbol at the top of the letter. "You stick this place out four years, put the effort in, and I'll bet you anything you can go anywhere in the world, name your price, and you'll get it. Now go on, get out of here. I have to wash up these dishes. Happy birthday.""Thanks— dad.""Not a problem— son."I gathered the book, papers and egg up in my arms and went to my room to flip through the book. I couldn't stop glancing at the egg, resting atop my dresser and thinking about the mystery it represented. There was really no question in my mind; I was attending Demongate High.