Changehood
The Story of Patrick Leary

The Middle: A Man Responsible for Others

September 20th, 983

A few days before Anne's seventeenth birthday, there was news of a traveling band that would pass through the Ronin Village. Not many of the people knew what exactly a traveling band involved, but they did assume it had something to do with music. The band was a nomadic group and it was rumored that their most recent stop in the Larid Village had been wildly successful. Thus, everyone wanted to be part of it and space quickly became an issue.

Anne expressed interest in seeing the show which occurred on her birthday so Patrick was determined to get them a spot close to the front so they could actually hear the music. Very few people in the Ronin Village played instruments or had even seen one, and Patrick knew Anne was one of those people.

So he did what any other desperate boyfriend would have done. He sent his flock of bugs to inhabit a spot on the grass in order to ward off anyone who went near the area. And then, when he presented the grassy spot to Anne, he promptly sent the bugs away.

"Well, I do feel a little guilty," Anne giggled as she sat down on the grass.

"It's not a method I would normally employ," Patrick said. She kissed him on the cheek.

Patrick smiled at her as she looked around at the enormous crowd. He also gazed the area, and soon his eyes fell on the raised box off to the side where the Head Change sat. His surprise wife (he announced he had married in private a few months back) sat to his right while the leader of the Fourth Level Squad, Clay Barron, sat to his left. There were many other seats for high ranking Changes, including the rest of the Fourth Level Squad and various attendants.

Patrick felt unmistakably relieved to see Alexander among them. Though he was no longer the leader and he no longer went on missions, he still lived in the Squad's house and took part in planning for the missions most of the time. Unfortunately, what Riley had speculated was true; Alexander's remaining eye quickly became infected and had to be removed. He was blind and his face wasn't particularly symmetrical, but at least he didn't end up committing suicide. Adjustment was difficult, but it was coming along with each passing day, especially with the support of the other members and the rest of the village; everyone considered him a hero. Patrick thought he was a hero before he became disfigured and felt it was unfortunate that it took a horrible accident for the villagers to finally recognize everything the Fourth Level Squad did for them.

He noticed Riley waving to him, so he returned the gesture.

After searching the crowd, he turned his attention back to the makeshift stage where the musical event was going to take place. It was a very little stage for the enormous turnout. Patrick's mother had decided not to attend and Patrick wasn't terribly surprised. He knew his mother didn't like new things and was almost afraid of them. Aside from her, most of the people Patrick knew had shown up, including his classmates from his childhood and other Changes he worked with.

Just as he was starting to feel bored, the crowd suddenly erupted with cheers and so he paid attention. A woman stepped out onto the stage and waved her arms at everyone. It took a considerably long time for everyone to quiet down.

"Good evening," she shouted so everyone could hear her. "My family and I are here to inspire. That is what we do! It's all we know!"

The band of musicians was, after all, just a single family. There was a father, a mother, a son, two daughters, two aunts and even the dog was there. Each family member stepped onto the stage and was cordially introduced. The last one was the boy since he was the youngest and, apparently, he was the one who was meant to inspire.

"Xavier has never given up on his dreams," the mother said, her voice a little soft. She put her hands on her boy's shoulders. "When he was born, the doctors told us not to even bother feeding him because he would die within a few days. And here he is. He is fifteen years old, defying all odds."

Patrick couldn't see anything noticeably wrong with the boy and couldn't begin to speculate what issue was so drastic that he had a death sentence since the day he was born. His mother's short and vague speech received enthusiastic applause as the boy bowed slightly. It didn't appear as though she was going to explain anymore about the condition, which disappointed Patrick, but he was soon distracted when the instruments were brought onto the stage.

There was an abundance of all types of instruments; far too many for the seven members of the band. It was because, Patrick realized, they all knew how to play more than one. In fact, Xavier alone could apparently play every instrument that was put into his hands. The aunts didn't seem to have any purpose other than to cycle the rest of the family though various instruments and occasionally throw in an idle dance step.

Initially, all Patrick could think about was how much work it must have been. He imagined it was arduous and torturous to perfect every note and position and compared it to his training as a Change. However, the longer he watched them play, especially the boy, the more he realized that they were whimsical and happy. They were simply enjoying themselves. He suspected they made mistakes often but didn't fret about it. They were in such a profession where they didn't have to worry about tiny errors and they were certainly aware of it.

Xavier, the boy, handed a violin off to his aunt and then slid down onto the seat in front of the piano. The rest of the instruments quieted and their cheerful ruckus turned into a serious and dramatic ballad. Again, Patrick's initial interpretation was incorrect. He assumed the tune was full of regret and tragedy when, in fact, it was entirely the opposite. It was about peace and a calm sense of simple happiness that could come from a few strokes on a piano.

The crowd reacted similarly. While they had been cheering and laughing during the upbeat parts, everyone was hushed as the boy's solo filled the air with beautiful delicacy. Unexpectedly, the boy began to murmur something which was almost inaudible, but Patrick could make out some of the words since he was so close; "Love is here, tonight, in this crowd."

The boy raised his head and looked at the crowd. All at once, the rest of the family chimed in with a perfectly harmonized chorus, "There is nothing gorgeous or remarkable about us when our backs are turned, heads lowered, arms around ourselves, tears streaming as if waiting for a blow that will never land. We twitch and flinch out of fear of everything; a nervous habit schooled into a frail bodies from anxious childhoods."

The boy seemed to then hit every key at once and everything was silent. Anne jumped at the suddenness, and Patrick put his arm around her, listening closely to what was coming next.

"We are not weak," the boy announced so everyone could hear. "Not weak. We're just not strong in the way we want to be. The way we need to be."

With that, he hit the keys again and, this time, the tempo was sped up. It was amazingly cheery again and the crowd immediately reacted and enjoyed. Patrick wasn't sure how many people had listened to the words spoken by the family, and especially the boy. The song was beautiful and the lyrics were true. He felt as though it was meant to reflect into his own experiences.

The concert continued for an hour or so longer and the band received a standing ovation from everyone in the crowd. Patrick was most impressed by the song in the middle but he did appreciate the entire thing. Anne was elated with delight and thanked him again and again for getting them such prime seating.

"This was the best birthday present," said Anne as she clapped her hands together. It was dark outside and Patrick had decided to walk Anne back to her house. "I know you have a mission in the morning, but I'm glad you could come. Thank you, Patrick."

He noticed her shiver so he took off his jacket and draped it around her shoulders. She took it happily and pointed at the insignia, "Look, I'm a Second Level now!" It was not the first time she had worn his jacket or the first time had she used that joke.

"It was important to you," said Patrick. "We'll celebrate for real when I get back."

"You'll have to think of something really creative to top that performance," Anne laughed. "I want to try one of those instruments! Didn't you? Oh, but it looks so hard…best leave it to the people who are good at it."

"You might be good at it," Patrick said. "You don't know because you've never tried."

"I'll bet that boy as been playing music since the day he was born," said Anne. "How could I top that?"

"Well the goal isn't to be the best," Patrick pointed out. "It's just to be happy."

"I suppose," Anne said as she playfully bumped him. "When did you get so philosophical?"

"I always have been," said Patrick. "Shame on you for not noticing."

She giggled again as she took his hand for comfort.

In the silence, Patrick's ear focused in on a quiet hum from above him. He wasn't sure if it had something to do with listening to the music or not, but then he became nervous when he realized Frost was descending to his ear at a rapid speed.

"Run."

That was all she said.

Patrick grabbed Anne's hand tighter and pulled her close to him, then dove to the side. She yelled in surprise but, as they landed, they both looked in horror as a figure flew down to the spot they had just been standing in. The figure's sword was drawn and was now deep into the street.

"Don't move," Patrick said to Anne as he stood up.

The man pulled his sword from the ground and pointed it towards Patrick.

"Cooperate and no one will get hurt," he warned.

"Cooperate with what?" Patrick said calmly. Frost reported to him that there were no people around aside from the three of them.

"Give us the girl," the man answered.

"Patrick!" Anne shrieked.

Patrick spun around just as another masked man was grabbing onto Anne's arm and pulling her to her feet. Instead of watching, Patrick threw a high kick in the air while Anne ducked and covered her ears. The man took the blow full on and slid across the ground.

"I thought you said there were no other people around!" Patrick yelled out loud, though he had meant to communicate it to Frost.

"He came from nowhere. He is a Change."

Patrick slammed his foot against the ground, expecting the creatures in the ground to rise up and help him, but as soon as his foot made firm contact with the concrete, he realized any help was too far away to come to his aid fast enough.

"Patrick," Anne breathed as she ran to Patrick and clung to him. The man he had already knocked to the ground was now to his feet and the other man was circling them.

Patrick sent Frost and the others to round up bugs. Most of them had scattered because of the music. The amount of flying bugs left in the air were only enough to cause a slight annoyance for the duo of attackers.

Simultaneously, the two Changes dove towards him, attacking from both in front and behind. Patrick skillfully blocked both of their attacks while also knocking Anne out of the way. He wasn't even allowing himself to speculate as to why they wanted Anne or even who they were; his main concern was just to keep her safe.

He threw the one with the sword towards the second Change, but they both disappeared into thin air right before his eyes. He blinked confusedly a few times, and then looked to Anne.

"What happened?" she whispered.

"They disappeared," he said, though he wasn't convinced. Though he couldn't feel their presence anymore, he didn't believe for a second that they were done with their assault. He wasn't going to let them lull him into a false sense of security. "It's not invisibility," Patrick said, turning his head slightly and keeping his hands up in the defensive. "Because I would still be able to see their shadows…their shadows!"

Patrick suddenly realized what type of Change the second one was. It was a fairly common ability to manipulate shadows, but this man must have been particularly proficient because he was able to not only make himself disappear into a shroud but also another person.

As soon as Patrick discovered the secret, a pointed tip emerged from the darkness. Unable to block, Patrick raised his arm to keep the blade from piercing his chest. Instead, it drove straight through his forearm. He instinctively yelled out in pain, dropping to his knees as the large blade dug deeper into his skin and both of the Changes came into view.

"Not too loud, now," said the Change with the sword. He jerked it up quickly, which made Patrick yell again. The pain he was causing seemed to amuse the man.

Anne called to him and wrapped her arms around him. The second Change came over to them and reached out for her again, but Patrick grabbed his wrist and threw him to the ground. Surged with anger now, he stood up and tore his arm away from the armed Change. In fact, the sword was so deeply lodged in his forearm that it slipped right out of the man's hand. Patrick took the handle of the sword and pulled it out of his arm, then pointed it at the original wielder. (He did all of this with minimal yelling, too.)

"Interesting," said the man.

The shadow manipulator stood up and brushed himself off. He was clearly in no hurry and didn't seem to mind if he was thrown a hundred more times, just as long as he eventually walked away with his prize.

"But you thought I would come ill prepared?"

The man reached to his side and removed a second identical sword from his sheath. Patrick's stomach leapt into his throat as he could nearly hear Anne's heart skip a beat.

Patrick began to make the first move, though he suddenly found that he couldn't. In fact, he couldn't move at all. His feet were frozen in their places and his arms were stiff and immobile. He couldn't even open his mouth to speak.

The swordsman clearly knew this was happening so he knocked the sword out of Patrick's hand and then picked it up.

"Stop it!" Anne said when she realized what had happened. The shadow Change was using his ability to freeze Patrick's form by connecting their shadows. Anne ran over to the man and tried to attack him, but he instead only grabbed her forcefully and almost picked her off the ground with ease.

His movement freed Patrick, however. Confused and disoriented, Patrick almost fell over but then turned to the shadow Change so he could retrieve Anne. The swordsman seized his opportunity to, once again, drive his sword into Patrick. He sent the blade through the same arm and continued to drive it through the other side until it pierced Patrick in the chest. Patrick was brought to his knees again as he groaned, unable to yell anymore. The man pushed Patrick to his back and then drove the sword deeper and deeper until it went fully through him and into the ground. Patrick could feel his chest leaking with blood but, what's worse, he could hear Anne yelling for him, and that's what hurt him the most.

Anne's calls became quieter and more distant. At first, Patrick thought he was blacking out, but in reality, the two men were taking her far away.

He tried to concentrate on anything except the pain, though it was difficult as it seared through his body like lightning bolts all the way to the tips of his fingers. He spit the blood out of his mouth as it gurgled in his throat.

"She is wearing a Second Level jacket."

Patrick's eyes opened wide as he remembered the words Anne's father spoke almost a year earlier. The voice in his head came so clearly, it was like the man was standing right next to him speaking the words in his ear. Patrick realized this was the vision Anne's father had twice before. The last thing he had said about the vision was, "Then…they take her."

Patrick was dissatisfied with that as a conclusion to the story. With his free hand, he tried to pull at the sword but it wouldn't budge. He yelled and began to thrash. He didn't have enough strength to remove the sword from the ground. His frustration grew as he tried to arch his back and use the momentum to at least loosen the blade. The pain was deafening. He didn't know if he was yelling or if someone was repeatedly hitting him over the head with a hammer. He yelled for Anne but she did not answer him.

Suddenly, he felt the sword move. It slid right out of him with ease, passing through both his chest and his arm. His stomach lurched and he sat up just in time to fall over and throw up. He cradled his doubly injured arm and held it close to his body right where the sword had gone through his chest.

Finally, he looked up once he realized someone had pulled the sword out for him. At first, he didn't recognize the person, but then he knew who it was.

"Alexander…" he managed to utter.

"Let's go."

Alexander wore a mask over the top of his face to hide the scars and the empty sockets. Though, as if he had perfect vision, he reached his hand out for Patrick to take. Patrick took Alexander's hand and got to his feet. He wasn't sure where Alexander intended to go, but he obediently followed the fallen leader as he ran flawlessly through a weaving of trees and alleys. Patrick pushed his own pain to the back of his head and tried to keep his eyes focused on where Alexander was leading him.

Then he heard her voice: "Patrick!"

He looked up and saw Anne over the shoulder of the shadow manipulator.

"There're two!" Patrick said to Alexander. "A swordsman and a Shadow Change!"

"Easy enough," Alexander said calmly.

The first Change lifted his second sword to defend, but Alexander didn't slow his motions and simply swiped the sword across the enemy's torso. Dropping the sword by the fallen enemy, Alexander charged at the man retreating with Anne in tow.

Patrick couldn't keep up. He dropped to his knees again, only able to watch as Alexander performed a single blow which knocked the Shadow Change into a tree. The man fell limp against the tree and Alexander caught Anne before she hit the ground.

For a moment he stayed like that. Then he let Anne go and she erupted into tears and hugged him. He rejected the hug and told her to go to Patrick. She obeyed and went straight to Patrick who was slouched on the ground, trying to keep himself from bleeding out. Within only a few minutes, several medics and the rest of the Fourth Level Squad were on the scene.

A woman in charge of medicine lied Patrick down and applied direct pressure to his chest, which hurt immensely, but he knew it was helping so he tried not to struggle. He could only hear Anne speaking to Riley softly, though he couldn't understand what they were saying. Then there was a prick to his shoulder and he instantly found himself drifting off to sleep, terrified and relieved at the same time.

//////

So I hope everyone had happy holidays. And here's the beginning of PART TWO for Patrick! I decided to split it up like this because I didn't want it to be a big scary long chapter story. So I hope everyone who has been reading Changehood will find it in their hearts to read and review here! This is when it's all going to good.