Being twelve, Call decided, was a lot more difficult than being eleven.
For starters, transferring from elementary to middle school was the worst experience of his natural born life. Everything was different and new and terrifying. He had to change classes every forty five minutes at the bell and only had four minutes to get to his next class, and that's not even factoring in how hard it was trying to find all of the classrooms on his schedule.
It also didn't help that over the summer, it seemed that everyone had taken some sort of grown-up serum that made them act older and more mature, especially the girls, who were all taller than him and seemed to move with a new sort of grace, while Call was still stuck being awkward and strange with his bad leg and heavy limp.
At least now he didn't have to use his crutches to get around anymore. His doctor said that his leg muscles were finally strong enough to support him on their own. Which was nice, he guessed, but the chronic pain and the heavy stares from his classmates didn’t go away like he’d hoped. If anything, it just got worse.
Not to mention that he was quite small for his age, and ambiguously Hispanic, and his messy black hair never seemed to resemble anything close to a style. In a small town like Enoree, North Carolina, where kids who weren't tall and blond and athletic didn't survive the gruel of middle class white America, Call's habit of scowling at the elderly and wearing all black earned him a reputation of being a troublemaker. It also didn't help that he apparently had an “authority problem” because he never did what he was told and disrupted class a lot.
Coincidentally, it was also one of the many reasons why he didn't have any friends.
He breathed out a sigh. The other kids on the bus were yelling and throwing things while the teacher’s assistant nearly blew an artery trying to get them to stop, but Call, for once, didn’t participate in the madness. He was too busy looking out the window and watching the gray scenery of New York City pass by.
He was excited. It wasn’t every day that a small town kid like him had the opportunity to go on a field trip to Manhattan, especially since he was pretty much on his last leg at The Divine Magisterium of Enoree, his sort-of-not-really military school. To be fair, he hadn’t been kicked out yet, but the head dean had made it very clear that if he tried any funny business on this field trip, then he would be hopping on the next train to Reject Town before he could even breathe the word expulsion.
But instead of laughing straight in his face, Call had nodded solemnly and promised his cooperation, scouts honor and everything. Contrary to popular belief, he liked museums. There was just something about history, especially Greek and Roman history, that entertained him to no end. And if there was one thing that kept Call from wreaking havoc and misfortune on those unfortunate enough to live within a five mile radius of him, it was being entertained.
He promised he would be good. He promised he wouldn't ruin the trip for everyone this time.
Things, of course, didn't work out as planned.
By the time they got off the bus and started filing into the museum, Call was in awe. New York was loud and busy, with bustling streets and tall gray buildings and about three taxis for every car he saw. No matter where he looked there was something happening. Street vendors were yelling out prices for their trinkets, teenagers were laughing into their phones, businessmen were bustling past and checking their expensive watches, babies were crying and shrieking, and he’s pretty sure he saw some dude in a fur suit walking his poodle into a nearby deli. It was the complete definition of organized chaos.
And Call loved it.
There were at least ten thousand other kids at the museum, all students, in their dorky color coded t-shirts and wrist bracelets. Call felt exceptionally dorky in his black Catholic school uniform, and he was pretty sure he and the other Magisterium students stuck out like a sore thumb.
This didn’t put a damper on his day though. As they were touring around the building he saw so many sculptures he lost count. There was a golden shield (awesome), and a statue of a goddess (even more awesome), and a plate detailing the three major gods and their domains (the awesomest).
The best part was that no one really bothered him until they made it to the gift shop, which was practically the entire day, so he was feeling pretty good about himself until then. It was one of the more popular girls, Kylie Myles, who’d started slyly making jabs at his uneven gait when she thought he wasn’t listening, and her little friends laughed along with her. He felt like lashing out, but he didn’t so much as look at her.
The other students dispersed throughout the gift shop. Call calmly made his way down the aisles, ignoring the laughter that followed him.
Besides, the last time he’d let himself get mad (like, really mad) over something Kylie said about him, she’d broken her ankle on the jungle gym not even five minutes later and had to walk around with crutches like him for a month. And if he thought even farther back, there was that one time in the fourth grade when a park ranger yelled at him for feeding the squirrels and then immediately turned around and fell into a dirty pond. And if he thought even farther back than that, to when he’d been seven years old and nearly kidnapped by some dude in a trench coat, well, let’s just say that the guy took an unplanned trip in the middle of a busy intersection and that was the end of that.
The worst part was that Call hadn’t seen anything about the incident on the news, which either meant that no one saw it happen, or the dude lived to tell the tale. He wasn’t completely sure, since he didn’t see what really happened, but he did find a suspicious amount of sand on his clothes when he’d gone to bed that night.
Of course, these were all just coincidences. Just some unfortunate events that always happened to occur whenever Call was present. His father said that there was no such thing as karma, and that Call was just imagining things.
Sometimes he wasn’t so sure.
He was busy looking at a snowglobe when he felt eyes on him. At first he didn’t look up, thinking it was just Kylie and her cronies again, but the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck were standing up in warning, like his own internal alarm system was screaming danger! danger! over and over again.
So he looked up-and immediately locked eyes with a boy on the other side of the gift shop, who was staring intently at him.
Call was surprised he didn’t notice him earlier. With that duck-fluff blond hair and soft green eyes of his, he looked like a model or a child actor or something. His blue soccer jersey was a bit on the ratty side, though. Same went for his shoes and pants, which were riddled with holes.
He didn’t look like he belonged to any of the schools here. And he didn’t look away when Call caught him staring, either. If anything, his eyes narrowed.
He made a move like he was going to walk over.
But then one of the boys from his school shoved him with a “Watch it, freak!”, the snowglobe went tumbling to the ground, and Call broke eye contact. By the time he fished the stupid thing off the floor and turned around, the blond boy had disappeared.
“Find everything you need?,” asked the dark-haired cashier when he approached the counter, and Call mumbled his assent and shoved a few crumpled bills on the table. He felt nervous and jumpy and he didn’t know why. He kept looking over his shoulder to where the blond boy had been, but he didn’t reappear.
He wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad thing.
“Were you here for the Greek and Roman exhibit?,” the woman continued, and her smile widened when he nodded. “You’d probably be interested to see some of our undisplayed artifacts. Hang on a moment.”
She disappeared under the counter. Call couldn’t help but look behind him again, but still no blond boy. In fact, it seemed that the rest of his class had left too. Now it was just him, the cashier, and some girl in a cheerleading uniform perusing the back shelves.
“Here we go,” said the cashier, and she popped back up holding what looked like a leather wristband. “You wanna hold it?”
Call was hesitant. “Isn’t it against the rules to touch the artifacts?”
“Hmm, maybe,” she said cryptically. “But it’s healthy to break the rules every once in awhile, I think. The world would be pretty boring if we all did what we were told, yeah?”
True, but he wasn’t sure if that sort of logic really applied in this situation. The cashier slipped the wristband on him before he could say anything, though. There was a slab of iron wound around the leather part, and a large black gemstone sat in the middle of it. It looked super expensive.
“Look at that, it fits perfectly!” She clapped her hands together. “Pretty sure that one’s over thousands of years old. Cool, right?”
That didn’t make him feel better about touching it. “Yeah, it’s pretty cool,” he admitted after a while, admiring the way the cuff looked on his arm. Then: “Wait, why do you have it? Aren’t the curators supposed to be the only ones who can handle these things or whatever?”
Her gray eyes twinkled mischievously. “You ask a lot of questions.”
“Uh...yeah.” Was it his imagination, or was the black gem pulsing faintly? “What era is this from?”
But when he looked back up again, she was gone.
Which was...odd. Maybe she went into the back room when he wasn’t looking? Huffing, Call stood on his tiptoes and tried to see behind the counter, wondering if she’d just went underneath it again.
At that very moment, all of the lights in the building shut off simultaneously.
The gift shop was plunged into darkness.
Call stopped breathing.
Silence reigned throughout the gift shop. Like, the type of silence where you can only hear your own breathing and nothing else. He slowly backed away from the counter, hands out, but he couldn’t see anything apart from the red exit sign, which was glowing ominously in front of the door.
But then an array of screams started up from somewhere inside the museum, muffled, but nearby, and that was when he realized something was very very wrong.
Before he could do anything (run, maybe panic a little bit?), there was hot breath on the back of his neck, the smell of sulfur, and he froze.
“Found you,” giggled a female voice. Something slammed into him from behind hard, and he was knocked clear across the store.
He crashed into a rack of greeting cards. An entire display of minotaur figurines fell on his head. Dazed and aching, he tried to sit up, but froze a second time when a pale figure emerged from the darkness.
It was the blond cheerleader that had been shopping earlier; pink uniform as pretty and flowy as it had been before, but there was something...wrong with her. Her painted red mouth was pulled back over her teeth in a snarl. Her eyes were glowing red like hot coals.
And for a second, just a second, it looked like her hair was made of fire. But when Call blinked again, it was back to a normal blond ponytail.
His eyes widened.
“I was wondering when I’d finally get you to myself,” she simpered, limping forward. Her left leg flashed bronze. “Didn’t think I’d find another one of your kind while I was here, but today must be my lucky day!”
Her hair flickered. Sparks flew through the air like fireflies.
Call was very close to wetting his lego ninjago underpants.
She cooed. “Poor little thing. So weak and frail.” Her teeth were elongating right before his eyes. Her fingernails growing jagged. “Don’t worry, hun. If you behave, I’ll be sure to make this quick.”
“Gah!,” he yelled intelligently.
She launched forward, hair blazing, hissing like a rabid animal, and Call, panicking, brought an arm up to protect his face, waiting for her razor sharp claws to slice him to ribbons.
But that’s not what happened.
The wristband, which he’d forgotten about until this point, glowed white where the gemstone was. There was a flash. The demon cheerleader screeched in pain as she ran head-first into something that sounded like a gong.
On Call’s arm, protruding from the wristband, was a large iron shield. It glowed faintly. Greek lettering adorned the sides, and a huge intricate spiral was etched into the front, like some sort of symbol.
Oh, and it was also dented a little where the monster just smashed her face into it.
"You terrible child!,” she screeched, clutching her head. A weird dirt-like substance was leaking from her head. Sand? “How dare you! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you in the worst possible way you can imagine!”
Call didn’t stick around to find out how. He ran for it.
The she-demon’s screams followed him out of the gift shop and into the darkened hallway. It wasn't just the gift shop; the entire museum was empty. The only light was coming from the windows, but even those seemed dulled somehow, like there was a curtain covering the entire building.
Call's leg throbbed in tandem with his pounding heart. For the first time since he got them off, Call wished he had his crutches with him.
He needed to find his class. But where were they? As he ran, he saw some people hiding behind exhibits, but he didn’t see any familiar faces. Everyone looked terrified though. Some of them seemed to register that a young kid was running around in the middle of what looked like an emergency lockdown and beckoned him over to hide, but he kept going, panicked. He didn’t know who he could trust. That cheerleader had seemed normal at first, but then she went turned into a freaking eldritch horror and look where that got him.
He rounded one corner, then the next. His breathing sounded way too loud in his ears. Was the evil cheerleader chasing him? What if she could hear him? Was she going to jump out from behind a corner and eat his face?
What was going on?
After running around like a lunatic for a bit, he found himself nearing the lobby of the museum, where the giant T-Rex skeleton was. It felt more ominous without all of the people mingling around. Like a crime scene, or the after image of an apocalypse.
But then he heard voices coming from the next hall. He slowed to a stop.
Maybe it was security? Police officers? The SWAT team?
Call shook. He didn’t even care anymore. He just wanted to go home. He wanted to see his dad.
After a moment of deliberation, he carefully peered around the corner. He could see three figures standing in the hallway, the dull light casting shadows that looked twisted and gnarled against the walls. They seemed to be locked in a heavy discussion.
Call was .003 seconds away from calling out to them when someone grabbed him from behind.
“Wha-”, he started, ready to fight, but then a hand slapped over his mouth and someone hissed, “Shhh!”
It was the blond boy from before.
“You-” Call started to say again, but he was roughly shushed a second time.
“Are you trying to get us killed?,” the blond hissed in a much lower tone, so quiet that Call had to strain to hear. “Shut up!”
He looked worse than he did earlier. His white-blond hair was caked with blood from a cut on his forehead and it was leaking into one of his eyes, which was bruised black and blue. Despite this, he still looked movie-star material. Call was more than a little irritated by this fact.
They both fell into silence. The voices were still talking around the corner, and it wasn’t until then that Call realized they weren’t speaking English, or even Spanish-it was some sort of weird, rolling language that he’d never heard before.
But the weirdest part was that the longer Call listened, the more he could understand.
“Sweep every floor of the building. Don’t rest until you're certain they're dead,” hissed one of the voices, and he shivered.
“They couldn’t have gotten far. I can still smell them nearby,” said another, cackling. “It’s been so long since I’ve had a demigod. I can already taste their flesh. I can already taste their sweet blood.”
“Patience, Kelli.” This one sounded deeper, older. Clearly the leader. “One wrong move and you could end up in Tartarus again.” A pause. “Don’t give me that look. If you mess up again like you did with that Jackson kid...”
A growl. The sound made Call’s blood curdle. “The next time I see that halfling I’ll tear him limb from limb-”
“Save that for the little pests we have now. Come on, Tammy’s still patrolling. Maybe she found something.”
The boy kept his hand over Call’s mouth until the voices retreated, the figures disappearing down the hallway. They sat there quietly for another moment, waiting, before he let go. Call wasted no time and stumbled away from him.
“I’m sorry,” the boy started, hands up in placation. “I didn’t mean to scare you, but those Empousa -uh, are you okay?”
Call was most definitely not okay. He was practically trembling where he stood.
“Okay,” the blond said, taking his terrified silence as an answer. “You’re okay-there’s no need to be afraid. We’ll get you back with your class in no time, alright? Can you tell me your name?”
Call didn’t want to tell him his name. He wanted to go home. “I-you-why-”
“You’re in shock. Just take a deep breath.” (Call kind of wanted to punch him) “Why aren’t you hiding like the rest? What happened? Are you hurt?”
He didn't say anything, but sagged against the wall, suddenly exhausted. The boy said, "You're limping. Here, why don't you sit down, little guy? It's going to be alright, don't worry."
Before Call could say or do anything, like flip him off or actually punch Wonder Boy over here for thinking he was some little kid (he was average height, dammit), a fireball exploded on the wall next to his head. He wasn't afraid to admit he squealed like a little girl.
“There you are~” crooned a voice from the end of the corridor. He and the other boy whipped around. “Why don’t we play together, little godlings?”
The blond moved protectively in front of him. “Stay behind me,” he commanded, drawing a longsword from a golden scabbard around his waist and Call stared. “On my cue, I want you to run and find a place to hide. If they give chase, try looking for two kids in T-shirts. They’ll help keep you safe.”
Oh right, like there weren’t a million kids here in colored T-shirts. “But what about-”
“Don’t worry about me. I can take care of myself just fine,” he said, flashing a disarming smile while Call just stared at him, unamused. He wasn’t worried about him. The kid had a sword for Pete's sake. Call was more worried about himself.
The cue never came. Before either of them knew what was happening, the monster was running at them full speed. The blond was quick to duck out of the way, but Call, once again, froze.
“Move!,” the other yelled, but it was too late. The monster was approaching fast and the next second she would be on him. He briefly entertained the thought of jumping out of the way last minute, but then realized half a second later that he had no physical prowess whatsoever to accomplish a feat like that. So he did the next best thing. He followed his instincts.
Aka: he panicked.
With an aborted move, he squeezed his eyes shut, flung his arm out, and prepared to die.
The shield flew off his wristband like a frisbee. It banged around a couple of times against the corridor like one of those cartoon bullets ricocheting off the walls, before ultimately smacking the Big Ugly dead in the back of the head with a heavy clang!
She fell to the ground and exploded into golden sand.
Silence. Both boys stared at the pile in disbelief.
"Uh-" Call started. "Did I get it?"
More Uglies came speeding around the corner at the noise. They took one look at the pile of sand and let out a screech of pure rage.
The blond cursed, rushing forward. He swung his sword deftly when one of the monsters got close enough, right through her neck, and after her head flew into the air like a particularly ugly baseball, she also exploded into sand. Two others rushed him, and he, realizing he was outnumbered, didn't hesitate to shove his sword back in its scabbard, turn on his heel, and start sprinting back towards Call.
“Run!,” shouted the boy, and with an embarrassing lack of strain, managed to haul Call to his feet with one strong tug.
He started running. Call had no choice but to follow.
As they ran, Call slipped way too many times on the tiled floor, and he was embarrassingly slow compared to the other boy, but when he darted a quick glance over his shoulder, two cheerleaders turned into three, and he pushed himself to go even faster because he’d rather not be caught and smothered to death by pink pom-poms, thanks.
“In here!,” the boy suddenly hissed, and ducked into another hallway, pulling Call with him.
Footsteps thundered past their hiding place. They collapsed against the wall, heaving. Call’s leg was on fire. He tried to rub it to will away the pain, but it didn’t work.
As they stood there, Call’s wristband glowed again. The shield materialized back on his arm like a projection of light, and the blond stared.
“That shield. You-You’re one too, aren't you?,” he stated. “A demigod.”
Confused, Call said, “A what? What are you talking about?”
“A demigod. You know like-a half god. Uh-”
“I know what a demigod is,” he told him, annoyed. He didn’t take a European History class for nothing, you know. “But what do you mean that I’m one?”
The blond's eyes were painfully bright and earnest. “I thought so at first, but I wasn’t sure. When I saw you in the gift shop...” He hesitated. “I just found out a couple of days ago myself. Some kids found me. At my foster home. They said my dad-they said they knew my dad was-”
“I know who my dad is,” Call said scathingly, but not really to be mean. He was just really scared. “But I don’t know what you’re talking about. What’s going on? Who are you?”
“Oh-I’m Aaron. Aaron Stewart.” He put out a hand for Call to shake, but Call just hid behind his shield. His smile dropped. “Um. I’m not really the one who’s supposed to be telling you this. The others-they’ll explain everything later.”
“I don’t want it to be explained later. I want it explained now.” He clenched his fists. “Why, Aaron Stewart, if that’s your real name-”
“It is,” he assured.
“-am I suddenly being chased by monsters that want to kill me, and what’s with all the fancy weapons? Am I being punked? Am I on TV right now? Did you steal that sword from the museum and this is just your elaborate master plan to escape undetected?”
“No!” Aaron looked appalled. “My dad gave this to me. My dad the god.”
“Right. Of course.” He laughed humorlessly. “Sorry for not believing you straight away, it’s not like you sound totally insane or anything.”
Aaron sighed. He sat down next to Call, who scowled at him. “Look, I know this is all very confusing and terrifying for you, but you have to trust me on this. Haven't you ever, like, felt like you were different from everyone else? That you could do things, amazing things, that no one else could? Haven’t you ever felt like you were destined to be the protagonist of your own story?”
“Uh, no.” He wasn’t exactly what you would call a “protagonist”, per se. He was more like the “overlooked side-kick best friend who turned evil at the end of the story for shock value” type.
“There’s a place for kids like us,” Aaron said suddenly. “A summer camp. I was on my way there too. But we got attacked during our stop here. You should come with us-you’ll be safe there.”
Call shook his head. “Whoa, whoa, who said I was going anywhere with you people? I need to find my class and get home. I have to see my dad. I-”
“You can’t go home,” interrupted Aaron. “They know you exist now. They’ll never leave you alone. If you don’t go to camp they won’t stop hunting until they kill you.”
That bit of information sat heavily between the two. Call sort of wanted to cry.
He inhaled a shaky breath and said as calmly as he could muster: “My dad’ll know what to do. I just need to find a phone and call him. I just need to-”
The smell of burning hair and rot suddenly filled the air. Call and Aaron were on their feet in seconds.
They didn’t make it very far. One of the monsters (what had Aaron called them? Empousa?) stepped out of the shadows in front of them, her form flickering between a pretty dark-skinned girl to a deathly pale monster with a goat foot, and they skidded to a stop, three others closing in behind them. They were trapped.
“Nowhere to run now, godling,” she simpered, brandishing her pom-poms threateningly. Her body finally stopped changing and settled on the flaming-haired, one animal-legged and one bronze-legged demon thing, and Call wasn’t sure if that was better or worse. “You and I are going to have so much fun.”
The one that attacked him in the gift shop was snarling. Her head was no longer leaking sand, but she still looked incredibly angry. Particularly at him.
“Don’t know where this one came from,” said the leader, addressing him. “But you sure have given us a lot of trouble, little one. But no longer. Your time on earth ends now.”
Call’s monster bared her teeth at him. “This one’s mine.”
“Look lady,” he said with a sudden surge of false bravado that was probably most definitely about to get him killed. “I appreciate the sentiment, but you’re not really my type.”
She just chuckled darkly. Oh yeah, he was definitely going to die. “I’ll have fun tearing you to shreds.”
With a sudden movement, she darted forward and dug/tore her claws into his abdomen, ripping his stomach open. He cried out and fell to his knees. The shield clattered to the ground.
Aaron surged forward to help, but the other two monsters advanced with inhuman speed and threw him so hard that he flew against a wall, head cracking loudly against the concrete. He slid down the wall, dazed.
“Be careful with that one!,” one of the monsters warned, but she didn’t really sound that bothered. “We need him alive, at least until the winter solstice.” She grinned ferally in Call's direction. "Do whatever you want with that one. His scent is too weak for him to be a threat."
Call typically had a high pain tolerance, but this was too much. It felt like his insides were spilling out of his gut. Maybe they were. He clutched his stomach to staunch the flow of blood, but it didn’t really help; an alarming amount of wetness was building on his abdomen and when the first monster approached him, cackling, he couldn’t do anything else but look up at her in a haze of pain.
She bent down over Call, and he closed his eyes, thinking he was about to become someone’s Thanksgiving dinner-when her nose twitched. She took a sudden inhale. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.
"Definitely a demigod,” she reported. “A weak one. But...” She looked a little confused. “He smells...strange.”
Call didn’t know what she was talking about. None of this was making any sense.
“Get away from him!,” Aaron yelled. He’d pulled himself to his feet, but his head was bleeding from the freshly opened wound. “Leave him alone! It’s me you want!”
“We’ll get to you soon, be patient,” she crooned. Her terrible face swam in and out of focus. Call was losing too much blood, too fast. “I want to have my fun with this one first.”
There was a loud crashing noise from the left. All four monsters hissed and the one bending over Call screamed in frustration before disappearing from view. A golden blur arched over his head, wind pushing his hair back. More crashes. Screams.
Sounds of battle were going on all around him. Call vaguely caught a glimpse of someone standing in the middle of the open hall, arms spread out and something protruding from their back like a shield against an onslaught of fire. Someone was yelling something in a different language. Someone else was trying to pull him to his feet, telling him to stay awake.
And Call, well, he's never really been all that good at following directions.
He let the darkness consume him, eyes rolling into the back of his head, and passed out.