EVEN after all this time, the transformation still felt uncomfortable. Nonetheless, it was necessary– now even more than ever. It was Sammo Gunnan’s 86th birthday, and he felt every year pressed tightly into the lines now creasing his face. His 102-pound frame struggled to support him as he walked up the lit up walkway outside of the two-story home. His knobby knees pointing into each other and his feet slightly pointed outward, the old man felt ready to collapse after what he’d just gone through. But in just a few moments, he’d be able to rest. Raising one bony hand to the rectangular door-knocker, Sammo prepared himself for what greeting would come, but before he could do this, the door flew open and a gust of wind blew the lightweight man off his feet and onto the wood-boarded porch.
“Aho there! Didn’t see you–,” a barking voice bellowed from inside.
But the voice on the other side of the threshold stopped short. Another man emerges from the dark doorway into the pale light illuminating Sammo’s face. This man was probably the same height as Sammo, but he was much younger and fresh faced. He had dark curly hair that framed his face in a windswept way that made him look like a boy, though his brawny chest suggested that he was a full-grown man. He stood over Sammo, looking at him, mouth agape for a few moments, blinking wildly.
“Sammo– Sammo, is that you?”
“Well, not for long, with you tryin’ to kill me right here where I stand–! Just what in the devil do you think–”
“Aho! Sammo, my boy! I haven’t set my eyes on you in a few millennia, it feels like! Wait ’til Rita gets a look at cha! Come on in!”
Sammo had gotten to his feet and was dusting himself off while the gentleman held the door open, wearing a grin as wide as his face could handle. But from the looks of it, Sammo was not in the mood to reciprocate the sentiment.
“Kimbe, I just need…I need to rest.”
In an instant, concern sweeps across the man named Kimbe’s face. Where the smile had been, there was now worry etched into the deep dimples on his soft face.
“Sammo– what is it? Is it– has it–”
“No, no. Not yet. But it’s due to expire. That’s why I’m here.”
Sammo lets out a sigh and leans all of his weight onto the wall in the little room they were just entering. It was a cramped up little home that looked to only have one other room besides this one. The old man took it all in. It was really quite cozy, pictures on every wall and Christmas stockings all lined up on the mantle. There was a fire blazing in the grate and a distinct smell of roasted pork coming from the room on the other side of a thin partition of wooden beads woven together.
Kimbe draws closer to Sammo and motions for him to sit down on the soft cushioned couch across the room. None of the furniture matched but somehow it all seemed like it belonged right where it was.
“Have a seat, old man. What can I get you?”
“Kimbe– I haven’t come for a social call. You know that. I can’t sit down. I haven’t much time. I’ll make it swift.”
“It’ll be easier that way.”
“OK, Sammo. Give it to me straight. Which one of my boys will it be? They’re all trained up. They’re all ready. All of ‘em ‘cept Darex, of course. He’s the youngest. But you’ve got your pick of the litter besides.”
A shadow passes over Sammo’s face and Kimbe stares at him, eyes squinting as he realizes what the old man is here to do.
“You don’t mean to say–”
A plate shatters near the room’s partition and Rita lets out a loud shriek.
“No! Not my Darex! He’s not ready–he’s not old enough! Kimbe, please–”
But it seemed that all Kimbe could do was stand there with his mouth open, staring at Sammo’s shadowy face.
Meanwhile, at the top of the stairs, up a ladder and with an ear to the thin floor, the boy called Darex was listening hard at what was going on. He was a small boy, with strong features– masculine eyes and a man’s nose. Dirt smudged all over his face and overalls, there was no mistaking him for soft. Even at the tender age of 15, his eyes were probing– interested in the world– interested in the hard work that would get him there. And at that moment, he wanted more than anything to go with Sammo. He had hoped that he would be chosen from his brothers to go and serve his country– after all, he had dropped his name in the post after his brothers had left him at the courthouse.
His father warned them all that each of their turns would come, and Darex knew that it was now his time. He felt in his bones. They had been stretching and keeping him up at night. At first, he’d cried when he felt the pain, but keeping it to himself, he’d started to swell with pride when it came on. It meant he was becoming a man.
“I won’t have it!” Rita was shrieking now, her face an odd magenta color, “Not my baby! Sammo!”
Sammo began to stare at the floor silently, and it was obvious that he was sorry to hurt her this way. Kimbe walked the length of the room and held his wife close as she began to shout into his chest.
“As you know, Kimbe, I am here on the authority of the magistrate. If you should decide that Darex is too–”
Kimbe raises his hand to stop the older gentleman.
“He woulda gone someday anyhow,” his voice broke, but he went on, “and Darex is just as strong as an ox, he is.”
He held onto Rita as she seemed to shake even harder than she was before, if that was even possible.
“I’ll go and fetch him.”
Darex could hear the slow and steady clump after clump as his father ascended the stairs. He could sense Sammo at the foot, waiting. The boy was young, but his sixth sense had grown in early. Living in constant fear brought it out of most this day in age, but for Darex, he knew that it was stronger than his brothers’– and possibly stronger than anyone in the town.
When Kimbe walked in, he stared at his son, standing before him with his bag strung over his shoulder and his cap squished firmly on top of his unruly head of curls.
“I guess, you’ve been listenin’ again–”
It was a question, and Darex nodded his answer.
Darex could feel his eyes begin to glisten as his father began to speak. This had just stared to happen in the last couple of days. When he realized that he could feel other people’s emotions, he’d tried to stop it. It felt like such an invasion of privacy, but at the moment, it was to his advantage. It helped him be able to respond appropriately.
He made eye contact with his father. It was the only way that it would work. Kimbe was a strong man, with strong features and a presence that easily made people feel safe and protected… but at this moment, his usual round, warm eyes were clouded with absolute terror. Everyone knew what was waiting for them when they walked outside the city limits but that was not his father’s concern right now. It was on Darex. He was a man now and he was ready.
Darex focused on the old man’s face and relaxed his mind. And when he saw his father’s shoulders soften, he knew he’d done it. Without moving a muscle, he had removed all sense of worry or concern from his mind and body. He knew that he could do it, but the question of how eluded him. In that moment, it didn’t quite matter how he had managed to perform the kind of magic on his father, only that it had worked. He was getting better at this and fast, too.
He approached the lumberjack of a man and touched his shoulder with more confidence and strength than he had ever felt in his life, and whispered, “It’s alright father. I’m going to go with Sammo. It’s for the best,” he took a deep breath before adding, “I’m ready.”
In that instant, as though he’d put up no resistance before— Kimbe nodded to his son and stepped aside. Darex slung his knapsack over his shoulder, nodded goodbye to his father and begun down the rickety staircase. When he reached the landing, he heard Sammo’s high-pitched and crackly voice floating above everyone else’s— he seemed to be greeting his older brothers. Laughter filled the tiny cottage as the lights twinkled in the moonlight. Darex took it all in, for he felt in his heart that it would be the last time he would feel the warmth of family for a very long time.
Rita grabbed both his arms and pulled his nimble body toward her in one fell swoop.
“You were always special,” she said, looking him square in the eye, sniffling, “I knew I’d be having to share you, but you promise your ma one thing… make sure you’re home by the time I leave this world. Don’t make me wait ‘til the next lifetime to kiss your face,” she whispered, her breath catching in her throat.
She hugged him again, but this time, she leaned into his ear and whispered only to him.
“I know you see things. I know you feel even more,” she continued, “you come back to me when you feel me slipping away from here. Do you hear me?”
“Ma, how do you–?”
“Never mind that. I’m your Ma. I know every curl on your head before it frets… you just promise me.”
A second goes by and then he feels her thin fingers pinch his back tighter.
“I promise, Ma.”
Rita just nodded her head and stepped back. Now, it was time for him to say goodbye to the men of his family. Darex knew they would all put on brave faces for his send off, but he also knew that underneath their masks of courage, they were worried. It was the custom in Zybeth for the men to go to war for their legions every fall. That was the way of the Lords. It had been that way for the better part of a century now.
So the peculiar part was not that he was leaving his family to head into the heat of the battle, it was that he was the youngest, the scrawniest and the least trained.
But he knew something they didn’t. It had come to him in a dream. It hadn’t all made sense, but in the vision, he’d been standing in a whirlpool, waiting for the water to die down. But instead, a young woman came to him. She had jet-black hair with a hint of purple highlighting the frame of her face.
Without speaking, she introduced herself as Jinx, Empress of the realm. Then, she told him he was to come right away, that they needed him.
And by the time he opened his eyes that morning, he was ready. He’d heard this happen only once before. The very same dream described. But it was described as a prediction—a kind of prophecy. They said this vision would come to a man he’d often heard described by his father and elder brothers so many times before. For years, they’d waited for someone to confess to getting the vision—all the while picturing the brawniest man in all of Zybeth.
But Darex knew, somehow without knowing, that he was HIM.
The chosen one.
The man called Beast.
And for the moment, he was choosing not to tell a soul.