It swept through Seth's left leg and foot. He lay crumpled on the ground, dazed from the hard-fought battle. The pain enticed him to lie still, to hope that it would go away. Its tantalizing nature only brought more agony. Mingled with the pain, however, was satisfaction and triumph. In the street lay Jalden: his eyes lifeless and his body unmoved. Through the pain, Seth comforted himself in the victory he shared with his friends. They had beaten him. They had won.
The city around him showed blurred waves of light, color and sound. Shouts echoed throughout the city streets and panicked mobs of people scattered in various directions. One group crowded around Seth and he tried to shoo them away. Disjointed responses were all that came out of his mouth.
"No, don't help me…I'm fine…really…"
The useless attempts to give himself some space were saved by the steady footsteps and assurances made by a friendly voice. Seth watched Paul push through the onlookers and kneel down to his side. Just with his friend's presence alone, Seth felt the pain slowly alleviate.
Paul smiled. "That was some serious skill back there man, you alright?"
"No, my left leg feels really messed up. I don't think I can walk on it."
"Is it broken?"
"No, it's just sprained and has a few cuts." Seth then lifted his left pant leg to see the damage. 'A few cuts' turned out to be an understatement. A gash on his foot where a knife from Jalden slashed it outweighed the shallow cuts and bruises which dotted the shin. Aside from what Seth saw, nothing else could be felt except a large bruise hurting on his right shoulder. The onlookers in the crowd winced and groaned when they saw the damage.
"Hey, this guy's hurt!" a man in the group exclaimed. "Someone get a medic over here!"
"He'll be alright!" assured Paul. Turning back to Seth, his voice changed to a low whisper. "C'mon man, we've got to get you out of here before the cops talk to us! Here, grab my arm and we'll walk to my car!"
Grunting to show his agreement, Seth allowed Paul to help him to his feet and support his left side. Lifting the injured leg did not take away the agony but the steady tingle of the sprain went down. Appreciative feelings for Paul's quick thinking and compassion were soon squandered however when he saw the damage to the city. Scattered on top of the many streets and sidewalks were small fires. Debris consisting of brick, metal and wood made their home on the corners. Overturned vehicles and injured parties supplemented the devastation.
When Paul moved forward, Seth too hopped with his right leg and craned his neck to look back at their fallen foe. Jalden still lay in the street, his lifeless face watching the stars with cold, uncaring, and unmoved eyes. Shivering, Seth returned to facing forward and hopped a little faster. He watched the citizens continue to panic and run across the city blocks, a thought struck him: Ella. Where was Ella?
"Hey Paul, what happened to Ella? Where is she?"
"She's waiting for us at my car. I directed her back before I came and got you. We're not far off."
"Is she hurt?"
"No, Jalden never managed to get her, but I think she has a bad bruise from when that plank of wood hit her at the beginning of the battle. Other than that, she's okay. Right now, we got to get you in the car."
Paul steadied Seth to the crosswalk where they silently hopped across to the other street and turned the corner. Trying not to draw attention to their predicament, the hurt companions led themselves into the shadows of the streets. Once they had gotten past the main avenue of destruction, the only thing left standing in their path was making sure paramedics and police officers did not come asking questions and take Seth away.
The walk became easier after they reached the end of the street and crossed to the next one. Crowds thinned and less people rushed past Seth and Paul trying to get to the scenes of mayhem on the other side. Sometimes a person stopped and offered help but Paul blew past them easily. He's fine, his foot's just sprained, was the sentence Paul used to great effect; since it was dark, nobody could make out the bloodied leg. Once they heard the cover, people nodded in understanding and moved on.
Sirens soon accompanied the squads of fire trucks, police cars and ambulances. Seth felt Paul nudge him to stop and he stood still, leaning on his friend for support as the vehicles flew by. The hurt in Seth's foot cried out for help and he felt blood trickling down his leg and foot. Torn between wanting the medical units to help and wanting to get away to avoid questioning, it was hard to turn away from both the stretchers and the support medical teams would give him.
An almost vacant street became the next point, which was a good distance from the bedlam where they originally started. Watching the dark sky lighting up from the fire and the lights from emergency units, Seth saw the full brunt of the fight which laid waste to downtown St. Louis. Turning his head once again to look back, he saw the silhouette of a badly injured person being rolled into an ambulance. Several more people lay stranded on the ground waiting for medical assistance.
It was at that moment when a spark ignited somewhere in Seth's mind.
Something inside Seth stirred a strange feeling. A feeling unfamiliar in every aspect. Turning his head back to the empty road, he allowed the feeling to progress throughout his body and mind. With it, came a frightening new light. Suddenly, everything he saw and experienced came to him in a different matter. The hoards of injured individuals in the background, the noise, the mayhem, and the wound in his leg all told him the exact same thing:
"This can't be happening."
"Huh? What'd you say?" asked Paul. The supporter kicked a soda can out of the path and it clinked off to the side.
"All this time I pretended like our situation wasn't happening. That this was all just one big long dream where I would eventually wake up in the end. But this is real isn't it? I haven't…"
Seth paused to stare down at his foot, still limping along with his body.
Paul was incredulous. "Seth, are you feeling okay? Maybe that guy hit you a little harder than-,"
"No, I'm fine! We almost lost that battle because I got hurt. Ella almost died!"
"No kidding, I never want to have to support you again. You're heavier than you look. Don't be too hard on yourself man, it happens. If I wasn't completely sure it was safe, I would have broken the guy's spine. By the way, you need to learn proper self-defense. Another thing I can teach you."
Seth tried to limp a little faster. "Sorry."
The wind combined with the sounds of the disaster area to create a surreal echo through the city streets. Seth and Paul were well out of range from the scene they left behind. With each passing step, Seth felt the throbbing of his foot increase, but he tried to focus his mind on the new feeling and the emotions which it bequeathed to him.
"Why didn't you tell me I acted like such a prick when you met me?" he asked to Paul again.
For a moment, it looked like Paul was not going to respond. Seth began to ask the question again, but his friend cut him off.
"I guess I thought you were one of those guys that just didn't care how anyone thought of him. So I said nothing."
"Well, thanks for putting up with it anyway."
"Don't mention it."
More steps were taken and Paul began to groan softly with each progression made. Seth saw a bench in the distance and signaled to it. He needed to rest as much as Paul probably did. After they sat down, they let out sighs of relief and Seth raised his pant leg once again to inspect the wound. Most of the blood on his leg had dried over the trip but his ankle still hurt to move. The gash on top of his foot looked better however. Some of the wound had closed.
Paul squinted through the darkness and let out a low whistle when he saw the injury. "The medical supplies we bought are still in the trunk of my car. It's just another few blocks to where I parked. Think you can make it?"
"Yeah, I'll be okay."
"Alright, give me your arm again."
Reuniting the support position again, Seth allowed Paul to help him to his feet and be his makeshift crutch. Hobbling down the murky avenue, the chaotic sounds from the fighting area could only be heard faintly. Seth chose the opportunity to speak once more.
"Do you think we'll make it out of this alive?"
"You mean out of St. Louis? If we patch you up and drive away fast we'll be fine."
"No, I mean what's happened to us. Even if we do run away from these guys long enough, the government will go after us. The world will too. Look at what happened here."
Seth saw his friend's face solemnly think the ideas through. Eventually, Paul lowered his head and breathed deeply. "I don't know Seth. I really don't know. Maybe those who are normal and those who are, well, gifted, can somehow find a way to live in peace."
"Do you think we can get rid of these powers?"
Paul's head rose back up. "I doubt it. Remember what Professor Martin said about how the foreign antibodies have bound to our body systems depending on what it is? I doubt they can do open heart surgery and rip the power out."
They continued to trek through the city streets, passing parked cars and buildings of varying height. The near-vacant street they stood on, save for them and their grunts of shifting weight; gave Seth plenty of room to stagger. The gash in his foot rose as the central pain and with every passing moment he yearned for the medical supplies which were out of reach in Paul's trunk. The more he thought about it, the more he longed for the bandages, the hydrogen peroxide, the feeling of various ointments on his skin. Just as he was beginning to imagine the pain being removed and the aching gash in his foot going away, an abrupt chuckle from Paul cut his thoughts off.
"What?" Seth asked.
"Aren't you going to ask me where I got my clothes?"
Seth remembered how Paul ran away from the fight but came back with a completely different outfit.
"I was wondering how you did that."
"Remember the clothing store I smashed the guy into? I ran in there and changed real quick. I'm sorry I had to do that man but I couldn't really run around naked."
"No problem, we got the guy anyway."
"Did Ella kill him?" Paul asked. "Or was it that weird guy?"
"Oh yeah, I don't think I've told you about him. The dude in the cloak did it. He popped out of nowhere and stabbed the guy."
"You're on acid. This is more serious than I thought…"
"I'm serious! I've seen him do it before! Look, this guy's been following me ever since…"
The retelling of the mysterious stranger seemed to interest Paul greatly and Seth used it to block out the pain which still seemed to be receding. After the man had touched his leg had to have been where the healing effect started. Just how magical was he?
"Is he with us or them?"
"He says he's not fighting with us or for us but he killed Jalden. I think he's just messing around. Kyle does it all the time."
"Friend from home."
Then it hit him. More than anything, he wanted home. He wanted to go back to Kyle getting sick by eating chicken wings, Karen with her eager work-ethic, Teresa with her shyness, and most of all home: his bike, his house, his room, his family…
Sorry mom. I think it's going to take me longer to get home than I thought.
"Is he alright? Is he hurt badly?"
A pair of arms latched gently around him and let go. Too disoriented to know what was going on, Seth didn't realize it was Ella until she backed off, looking fretful. "Shouldn't we see a doctor?"
"That man healed him," Paul said. "The wizard guy or whatever…"
Seth looked down at the cut and sure enough, it resembled nothing more than a small indention. Ella's jaw dropped and she leaned down to touch it. "No way…"
"Hey, don't touch it!" said Seth, stepping back.
"Sorry, it's just I thought we were all dead when that guy attacked us…"
"Jalden," Seth corrected. "His name was Jalden."
Paul, who had been spinning his car keys in hand, stopped. "Jalden? What kind of a name is that?"
"Dunno, it's what it said on his nametag."
"It fell out when we were fighting and I looked at it."
The noise around them escalated with the arrival of a convoy of fire trucks. Seth got in the car without hesitation. "I'm fine, let's just get out of here."
Once Paul drove out of the tiny parking lot, they were forced to sit in traffic as continuous convoys of both public assistance—and people—traversed the battered streets. Some were blocked off entirely
The man who healed me…he said he's been following Ella and I. But how…and why?
An hour passed before they were able to make it back on Interstate 70 and the dark hills of Missouri seemed more foreboding than ever. Ella still up front, Seth saw her turn and smile.
Sorry, Seth mouthed. He hoped he knew what she meant.
This morning? She mouthed back.
She rolled her eyes and shook her head, waves of her sweaty hair bouncing around but Seth had caught her grin before she looked away.
The night dark, the light dim, and a sense of despair refusing to go away, Seth slouched and leaned back to convince any form of sleep to come.
Sleep….Edward…I never asked Martin about my dreams. It doesn't matter I guess because the guy's not really a psychologist. Maybe one of the Finders in Topeka would know.
Lately, all life gave him were questions.
"Ella," Paul said. "I'm sorry I left you in the middle of the fight with the bad guy but I had to go find clothes before I could revert back to being me."
"It's okay, I understand." Seth thought he heard stiffness in her voice.
Paul yawned in response and nodded.
"Find any motel if you can," Seth said. "Remember what Professor Martin said?"
"We could sleep in the car and save money," Paul suggested.
"I would actually like a real bed," said Ella. "And a shower. I want to forget about tonight."
"I guess its okay…" said Paul.
"Hang on!" Seth shouted. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the money, received hours before. "The money Professor Martin gave me!"
"Hey yeah, awesome!" said Paul. "Now I'm definitely finding a place! Let's see…"
He left the decision to Ella and Paul and tossed the money in his hand. Even if the road got bumpier, perhaps there would be a few smooth stretches. He looked down at his leg and saw no torn flesh or even a scar. Shivering, he could not help but think it wouldn't be his last.
End of Book I: Identity of Change
AN: Well, it took a year and then some but it's finally done. Book One is now complete and if you made it to the end, congratulations! What did you think? I am eager to hear from any comments or criticism you have and I would be more than willing to return the favor. On another note, a big thanks to everyone who reviewed or provided hints/tips: it means a lot, it really does.