Chapter One - Between a Dock and a Hard Place


The chill of the ocean exited Lexia's throat as she exhaled. The water around her seemed less outside of her and more a part of her now. It was as if her whole being was no longer solid. She felt light and wispy, like she could flow away with the sea wind. The feeling was…

Gone.

As soon as she let excitement overcome her, she lost her connection with the ankle-deep water that lapped at her feet. She felt so ordinary now. The only chill was from the wind as it strung her brunette hair through the air.

Now Lexia wasn't sure if she really had experienced a physical shift, or if she had only felt that weightless sensation that people sometimes had when they were eager or hopeful.

Would she ever be able to Become more than just human? There was something enticing about the ability to be something else, like fire, or a fox. But what if everyone was right? What if there were no more Becomers? What if they truly had been completely eliminated? It wasn't fair. One day some rich king issued a decree that the Becomers are a danger to the people around them and that they must be killed, and then, everyone listened. Did they really deserve to be killed? It didn't seem right. Maybe some of them weren't the best of people but the world was like that. There was perfection in imperfection. Lexia's icy, blue eyes reflected the sun setting over the water as she pondered this.

"Lexia! We should have been training hours ago! I've been looking all over for you."

There was a metallic ring as Lexia armed herself with a venomous looking sword and twisted around to view the speaker. He was a stocky eighteen-year-old, with the muscles and build of someone who spent majority of their time training or exercising. "Fine then," she said facing him and shaking off her waterlogged feet, "Let's train."

The young man behind her smiled at her response and pulled his own sword from his sheath. With a toss of his thick and choppy hair, he swung a sudden and vicious overhead cut at Lexia. Lexia, in turn, pitched her sword from the right to block, shoved him hard with her freehand and swung at his neck, all in one flowing movement. The weapon froze just inches from his throat. He was now a scrabbling form on the ground, looking frightened and amazed. His eyes were small moons on his face. He had never seen her fight like that the entire time they'd been training together.

Lexia looked breathless and a little bit stunned at her own handiwork. She grinned and grabbed his hand to heave him to his feet. The salty grains of sand on his flesh bit into her hand as she gripped him tightly and pulled his dazed figure to its feet.

He laughed out sheer humility and shock.

"Lex I'm impressed! You've actually been practicing haven't you?"

The girl turned to look into the sea and smiled slyly.

"Yes, I've been practicing."

"Where did you learn that move? It was like poetry. I never saw it coming." The question came more in the form of stupefied panting. He was mystified, not because it was a particularly prestigious technique, but rather it was he had never battled with anyone other than Lexia and she had never shown any real skill before. The idea that she was a worthwhile opponent thrilled him.

"You're going to teach me that, right?"

Lexia looked back at her blabbering friend with a look of contempt. "You want me to teach you?"

He swallowed his pride with a shrug. "Yeah. Lex, if you won't teach me yourself, at least tell me how you did it. I'll figure the rest out." Their teacher, Karu, rarely showed them anything exciting or new so Max was always hungry to learn any fresh techniques or new tidbits of combat knowledge. He loved sword fighting, it was his passion. Lexia hated it. She'd been dumped into it.

"You saw me do it, figure it out." Lexia said.

"Lex!" The swords-master-to-be grumbled out. "C'mon, help me out here. Where did you learn it? Tell me that at least, then I'll leave you alone." His eyes narrowed as a thought came to him. "Did Karu teach you?"

Lexia sighed. "No. Master didn't teach me. No one taught me Max. As it happens, I've been on this beach practicing for a long time now."

"You were practicing?" He asked in amused confusion. He added with a laugh, "This whole time I thought you were pretending to be a magical shape shifting creature, one that is extinct, need I remind you?"

Lexia's lip twisted in rage and a small pit formed in the sand where she dug her exposed heel into it.

"They're not extinct Max! They're real, and they're not magical either."

Max rolled his eyes as if to say, here we go again. "Lex they were all killed ages ago! Open your eyes. I just don't see how you can still convince yourself they're real." He softened his tone a bit. "They're gone Lex…just face it. They're little more then a legend now."

"You know Max, maybe you're right. Maybe they are extinct. But at least I know they existed. So my dreams are at least halfway realistic. But look at you Max. You think you'll make a famous swords master someday."

Now it was Max's turn to look hurt. The sting of her words was worse than the growing sea wind in his eyes. He refused to let the wind rip tears from his eyes. Instead, he kept his reply short; fearing that his voice would betray just how caustically her words affected him. "You're an idiot."

"Why? Because I have dreams Max? I'm stupid because I have dreams?"

"No. You're an idiot, because you're caught up in some wild, crazy fantasy. You took my words and ran with them. I told you who your parents were and you put two and two together and found seven. And let's just say that against all odds, you are one of them. What then? What will happen when you can't even sleep under a roof at night because there are people waiting to kill you everywhere you turn? You'll be a freak! You'll be hunted down and killed! Then you'll be a dead freak. It's better for everyone if you just give up." Max choked out the last part. He was genuinely concerned where her castle-in-the-sky ambitions would take her. Actually, he was positive he knew where she would end up. For that reason, her whimsical wishes troubled him.

"Max, I can't give up. Freak or not, that's who I am!"

"No it's not!" He yelled in desperate frustration. "Do you not understand the fact that they are all dead?"

"I don't. A whole race of people can't be eliminated. I think there's still some out there. Who's to say I'm not one of them?"

"Who's to say you are? You can't prove there are any still alive even. Lexia you're setting yourself up for tragedy. The odds are all against you. You're taking a bet that you know you're going to lose."

The wind whistled past them and Lexia's solemn face turned sour. None of Max's angered remarks concerning her 'whimsical wishes' would change her mind. Something inside her just screamed and burned in her body. "I am a Becomer. I would swear by it."

Defeat fell across his shoulders and Max shook his head in disgust. "Then you belong in a crazy wagon." The sand scuffed beneath his feet when he turned around. "I give up Lexia, just keep pretending you have special powers, I guess."

Lexia's eyes turned to pits of fire. She'd had enough of his verbal cuts, so she fired of one of her own.

"Yeah? Well just keep pretending you'll ever be any good with the sword." She spun around angrily too and fumed as she stomped away. There was a hiss from behind and Lexia turned back to see Max wielding his prized possession with a dissettling shadow across his face.

"That's why you never wanted to practice together isn't it? You didn't think I was worth it. There's no point in practicing with someone who had nothing for you to learn from. Right?"

"No Max. That's not true! I don't pra-"

"Just shut up!" He snarled. "If you really think you're all that then why don't you prove it? Why not just show the world how much better you are at swinging your pointy stick around?" He had his sword held out for a fight and he uttered the command with such quiet imposition, it was unnerving. Lexia felt that now would be a really bad time to point out that she had already bested him just moments ago.

"Max?" She said incredulously.
He held her astounded gaze with a glare before he finally softened his features and sheathed his weapon. This isn't what a sword should be used for.

Lexia took a slow step backward and shivered as her foot broke the surface. The sun was no longer there to warm them, and any light was now coming from the filtered light of the moon. Menacing shadows were cast over Max's enraged face making him look more hollow and threatening. He turned around without a word, without an apology. Agony over what Lexia had told him was still eating him from the inside.

Lexia swallowed heavily and watched her friend as he was engulfed in night's dim offspring. She had a vague sense of guilt when she remembered her words to Max. It didn't keep her company for very long when she remembered his words to her. Why should she respect his dreams when he'd done nothing but ridicule hers?

When the moon began to sink back into the sky Lexia left her thoughts at the shoreline and picked her way across the sand to the place she had learned to call home. It was an unusual size as cabins on the outskirts of a port city go. There were four cozy bedrooms and a living space. The fourth room rotated between being empty, and being inhabited by noisy high-nosed kids hoping to learn the art of the sword using their parent's money. Of course that was where Karu's income came from. People came and went. Most left when the training got to be too much for them. But neither Lexia, nor Max had ever seen Karu turn down a student.

A sudden bark of anger stopped Lexia from pushing the polished black door open. She flattened her ear against it, eager to know what Max and his dad were arguing about this time.

Max's voice rose above the other. "No. I don't care what you say, I won't do it."

"We've had this discussion far too often Max. It's now or never. I already told you what would happen if you don't follow through."

"I still don't understand why it has to be me!"

Karu sighed loudly. "Because I'm sure you can be a whole lot more civilized about it than I would be," there was a tense pause, "Just make it very clear that she can't come back."

"No! For the last time no!"

Lexia's heart twisted. Were they talking about her?

"Fine then," she heard Karu say, "I'll do it myself, but you're not going to like my way."

"Why? Just tell me why!"

Karu sighed again. "Max a man came by looking for-"

"I don't care what some random guy told you! You can't just mess with people's lives like this! Would you commit murder if someone told you to?" His voice was growing louder, desperate even.

"Look Max," Karu said with unquestionable finality, "either you do it or you don't, but you've got until tomorrow to take care of things. After that, it will be in my hands. Is that clear?"

Max replied so quietly, so defeated, that Lexia almost couldn't distinguish what he was saying. "Yes father." There was a vestige of bitterness hidden in his downtrodden voice. At that Lexia forced the door open and was met with two heads whipping up in shock at her. They looked every bit like a pair of troublemakers caught pranking a helpless old hermit.

She said the only thing she could. "What?"

The only response they allowed her was a shake of the head from Max. "It's not important," he finally said before whisking past her in unmistakable ill will.

"Look Max I'm sorry about what I said, it's just-"

"Forget about it." But something in his voice told Lexia that he wanted her to do just the opposite.

She stared at Karu, a question in her eyes, before she escaped to her bedroom in a befuddled mess. When her head quit splitting itself open with a nasty headache and let her finally stop puzzling through the possibilities of the strange conversation she'd overheard, she was able to doze off into a fitful slumber.

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This time she was sure she had managed it, she was staring, dumbfounded, at her shivery hands, the way her translucent watery form glittered and danced with rays of sunlight. It was just to good to be true. Her life never went the way she expected it to, so why now? This could hardly be blamed on perseverance and practice. Lexia shook that away, for once she was enjoying a moment that had been exactly the way she had dreamed it would be.

But that was all it was, perfect dream and she was awakened by her quilt being violently ripped from her body.

With a pitiful shiver she peeled open her eyes to reveal a man gripping her blankets in one hand and a sword in the other.

Her mouth opened with its own will and let out the ugliest, shrillest scream she thought she would ever unloose in her life of scrapes and bruises. After a few seconds that were bloated with apprehension and fear, she inhaled shakily, catching her breath with ragged gasps. A small nervous laugh found its way through her troubled breathing. "Max you, man you scared me. You're a real jerk you know that? Is this your idea of…Max?" The figure shook its head, when she looked through the darkness and saw, not Max's face, but something wearing a black cloth mask, she scrabbled backwards trying to untangle her self from her sheets. There was a loud crack behind her and dizzying spots clouded Lexia's vision after she clattered her head against the backboard of her bed.

Whoever-it-was pointed sharply to the door, leaving no questions open about what he expected to happen. Lexia stared open-mouthed for a minute before the figure jerked the sword towards her and she flew out of bed in a frightened stumble, still rubbing her temple. Why was this stranger here, who had she become such bitter enemies with, and why didn't Karu hear her mile-radius scream? Lexia asked herself as the man pried the door open for her and motioned for her to go ahead of him.

"You're such a gentleman," she hissed at her charming captor.

He didn't appear to hear her.

The sudden blast of wind forced a shiver from her. "Where are we going?" Again, no answer. He didn't say anything until they reached the shore that she had just left that night. The one she waned away the boring hours of her life at. Why here? They stopped abruptly as the man seemed to look around for something, and then he saw it. A few feet away from them there was a dock. It was old, but it was frequently used and sturdy.

"That way," he said pointing to the dock, "now." He waved his sword to show his vile sincerity. The voice was unfamiliar to Lexia, but it was also gruff and carefully disguised behind the shroud of cloth. Reluctantly she trudged forward against the weight of the knee-deep water. Once, she stretched her hand to her patchy leather hilt, but she was discouraged by a fine point on her back. She dropped her hand grudgingly away from the polished handle.

The stranger grabbed the back of Lexia's shirt to halt any further movements. They lingered in that position long enough for him to make a point. When he released his grip, he slowly removed her sword from its threadbare scabbard. Now he was herding her to the dock, through the black water, with two polished blades that promised death for disobedience.

As they approached it, the figure realized grimly that there was a worn rope hanging off the purchase of the dock and his duty became apparent. Lexia saw the rope too, and she decided she'd had enough. Seconds later an elbow flew back and knocked Mask-Man's teeth together.

That'll shut his big mouth, she thought frigidly. But apparently, having his mouth clapped shut only fueled his anger, and Lexia found, not a pointy elbow, but a piercing sword under her chin at a threatening standstill.

"Walk. Deeper. Into. The. Water." The voice was deep and menacing and every word he ground out became its own jagged sentence. Soon Lexia was no longer walking, she was dogpaddling and the stranger kept demanding her to go deeper, deeper.

He stood on the dock with the rope in his hands now. He bent over and seized one of her hands, then the other. Lexia thrashed out wildly and broke free of his throttling grip. She smiled caustically as she felt her palm collide firmly with his cheek. Everything went bluish as he shoved her under the leeching water, then yanked her back above the black surface.

She coughed and spluttered and strained to wipe the water from her eyes so she could see her crumbling world. Her hands raked out at the sinister being above her. She managed to claw away the fabric hiding his face. The one that stared back at her with shock was one she never thought she would see.

She saw Max.

He was holding a rope with a deep shame hollowed into his face. "Max, why?"

He said nothing. With a frown he leaned over her and continued about his business.

The rope was being wound around her wrists in two different circles, its rough surface gnawing into her water-softened skin. She kicked and splashed, in the process throwing more choppy saltwater into her teary eyes. There were two hands on the sleeve of her shirt followed by a rip. A strip of cloth was forced into her mouth and she could tell from the satin-smooth texture that it was the piece he'd torn from her tunic.

The water cleared from her eyes and she glared up at Max. Her wrists were tied together and to the dock. Max was sheathing his sword now. He looked down at her with a look of regret almost, but Lexia decided she'd merely imagined it. Max leaned down and picked up her sword from the struggle soaked dock and arced it through the air on the other side of the platform. It whooshed, and landed with a sickening splash.

"And you wonder why Karu refuses to teach you." Lexia growled. The insult was muffled by the satin gag in her mouth, but she was sure he heard her, even at his distance.

Max glared at her witheringly, twisted to face the dock's exit, and walked. He stopped at the edge, and without turning around he muttered to her, "You're a Becomer, so you should be fine."

And for some reason, it didn't sound like a jibe. It sounded like he believed it.