Hero’s Curse-Chapter 5
Chapter 5: Of Men and Angels
I woke up rested. My phone said it was 5:52 am. I listened and the house was silent except for an intermittent grunting snore; my super hearing was useful. I didn’t know why but I was certain Mina was snoring; it was cute. ‘Goddamn!’ There I go again. She wasn’t even my type. I usually go for older, low maintenance women who have been around long enough not to expect perfection from men. I needed to find out what the hell was going on. I’ve never, even as a kid, been infatuated. A woman snoring…cute? I was disgusting myself.
I got up to brush my teeth. I was just as androgynously pretty as I had been last night. Put a wig on me and I’d look like a hot chick. My chin and upper lip were completely smooth; I guess paladins didn’t need to shave. I thought about the conversation I had with Andi last night. Now that I was rested, I knew I’d been harsher than I needed to be. She was just a kid. Even though she was a pain in the ass, she hadn’t meant any harm. I had been on edge about everything and taken it out on her.
Andi most likely hated me; she had good reason. I wondered if she would tell Mina. Probably, they seemed close. If Mina knew, I wondered how she would react. Oh well, I had all day to look for a place. There’d be other homes with decent thresholds. It wouldn’t be a bad thing to get away from the women in this house.
I had energy I needed to burn off. I checked out my feet. Evolutionary biology and the theory human beings were designed to run barefoot appealed to me. Some of the best long distance runners in the world run barefoot. I still wore shoes when I worked out in a gym but for the past year when I ran outside, I went barefoot. The calluses I’d built up were all gone. I had a feeling I wouldn’t need them.
I thought about my handshake with Ben. I looked at my hands. They were subtly different. The attachments of my muscles and tendons had been changed. It looked like my increased strength had an anatomic basis. Chimpanzees and humans share 98% of the same genes but the average chimpanzee is 5 to 7 times stronger than an average man. Chimps are stronger than us because their bones are denser and their tendons are positioned so they have better leverage. There are always tradeoffs. Humans float in water; chimps sink. Chimps don’t have the speed and endurance of humans. I wondered if my endurance and speed had been affected for the worse.
B said Trolls were night creatures. I only needed to stay inside a threshold while the sun was down. It was a little past dawn so I dressed and went outside. The morning temperature was still cool and the sky was a perfect blue. I turned on my phone running app to record my speed and distance then took off. As expected, my feet didn’t hurt; I felt like I was running on padded carpet.
I was easily running a 6 minute mile compared to my normal 10. I sped up and ran as fast as I could. It was a struggle, and it hurt, but I was able to keep a 4 minute mile pace for 2 miles. In the past, I had never been able to crack 5.5 minutes. It was good to know my speed and endurance hadn’t dropped and strangely reassuring to know my running speed wasn’t completely out of boundaries of the humanly possible.
I dropped down to a 5 minute pace and made a 15 mile loop. This pace wasn’t easy. I had to work to keep it up but it was doable. Athletes, who have both speed and endurance, whether they’re men like Lance Armstrong or horses like Secretariat, have oversized hearts. I placed my hand over my heart; I wasn’t sure but my heart felt like it was larger.
On the way back I saw a bakery open for business. I bought a bunch of croissants and Danishes with different fillings along with four large cups of coffee. A peace offering to the Swenson girls wouldn’t hurt. I ran 2 miles back to the house, balancing the coffee tray like a waiter in one hand and carrying the pastries in a bag with the other. My agility and coordination had also improved. I was never in danger of losing the coffee cups.
It was a little before 7:30 when I got back. I could hear Mina and Andi up in their respective bathrooms. Ben still wasn’t moving. I snuck into the kitchen and poured three of the coffee cups into an insulated coffee pot and left the pot and all the pastries on a plate on the breakfast table. I took a few seconds to gulp down the cup I hadn’t poured and then went back outside. I wasn’t up to facing the women just yet.
I had my first court ordered psychological evaluation when I was 13. A visiting brother to the orphanage touched me; in response I crippled him. It had happened in the days before religious pedophilia made the news and no one believed my story. The highlights of the evaluation were I was highly intelligent, had anger management issues, hated authority, and had a pathological need to remain in control. I had been railroaded into juvie but the psych eval was accurate.
I didn’t have a problem with my intelligence, hatred of authority, or my need for control. But anger bothered me. I made unforced errors when I got angry. For the last few years, I’ve been dealing with my temper with Tai Chi and meditation. Before I could deal with any of my problems I needed to get my head on straight. I walked to the middle of the backyard. My shirt was soaking wet. I considered keeping it on; I was becoming self-conscious about how I looked. ‘Fuck it.’ It was the way I looked—might as well get used to it. I stripped my shirt off and began the classical Yang style, the 88 forms.
Within minutes, my heart rate slowed and my mind began to float. I was aware of everything but I didn’t care about anything. The trance state for me is relaxing; I have thoughts without emotions. For 40 minutes I got lost in the forms. Tai Chi looks easy because the motions are so slow and if done right, beautiful. What most people don’t realize is your knees and hips are kept bent almost continuously. Keeping your center of gravity one foot lower than normal, never standing fully erect for 40 minutes is strenuous. After a 15 mile run and 88 forms, my legs should have been exhausted; they weren’t.
About 15 minutes after I started Tai Chi, Mina and Andi got to the kitchen. Shortly afterwards, Andi got into her car and took off. From her uniform, it looked like she was off to practice. She had been munching on a croissant while she walked to her car which was probably a good sign. I knew Mina was watching me but at this point I didn’t care.
I went straight into a flashy Tae Kwon Do form that was all jumps and flying kicks. No one with experience jumps in the air when it counts. Throw yourself into the air and you’ve just committed yourself to a trajectory you can’t change. If you have an experienced opponent, he’ll grab you while your feet are up and slam you into the ground. In Tae Kwan Do tournaments it’s illegal to hold on to your opponent and it’s almost impossible to score a point with a punch. Without those artificial rules, you’d never see flying or jumping kicks in a match. I use these kicks to train, to work on speed and bursts of strength. I never leave the ground in a real fight.
The form starts off in a standing prayer position—feet together, knees and spine straight, and hands chest high, palms together. I went straight into a simultaneous side and back kick. My new vert was about 18 inches higher than it had been. My feet were close to 7 feet in the air as I did the splits. When I landed I felt like I was on a trampoline, I went straight into a spin jump wheel kick getting even more air. Sixty seconds later, I finished with a spinning jump roundhouse. I wasn’t even breathing hard. Being a paladin wasn’t all bad.
I grabbed my shirt off the ground and went back into the house. Mina was waiting for me, sipping on a cup of coffee. Her face was stern. “Did you really slam your door in Andi’s face last night?”
“Kind of—do you mind if I take a quick shower and get dressed before we continue with this conversation?” I didn’t wait for her answer. I turned and quickly went up the stairs. When I got to my room, I took a few to check on my emails. I wanted to stop sweating before I showered. I had an email from B with the heading ‘A message from God.’ I shook my head. B wasn’t as funny as he thought he was. He wanted me to go to a coin shop on 200 East Broadway in downtown Salt Lake City.
When I came back down, she was waiting impatiently for me. I didn’t know how to even begin to explain myself, “Uh…”
Mina lost it. She was laughing so hard tears began running down her face. “Oh my God Vic, you’re funny. Andi had no business going up to your room late at night. When she told me what happened last night, I was more upset with her than you. You could have been more diplomatic but I’m glad you’re not into high school girls. Andi has a strong ego. She’ll be fine but I have to say you’ve lost an admirer.”
I couldn’t believe I’d fallen for Mina’s act. “Yeah, I don’t mind.”
It took a while but finally Mina stopped laughing. She wiped her eyes. She took a long, considering look and said, “You don’t like the way you look, do you?”
“Yeah…are we good?”
“You’re fine. Vic, I saw you outside. I recognized you doing Tai Chi. What style of martial arts were you doing afterwards? It was amazing.”
“I’m really sorry, Mina. I wish I had more time to talk but if we’re good, I really have to leave. I have an appointment and I can’t afford to be late.”
It could have been just wishful thinking, but I think she looked disappointed as I took off. I really didn’t like the way this girl made me feel. Jesus! I acted like a tongue-tied kid around her. I needed to get a grip.
I had only been driving for a few minutes when I realized I was starving. I pulled up to a McDonald’s drive through and ordered 10 Egg McMuffins and a large orange juice. The cashier wanted to give me more drinks. I had to go back and forth with her a couple times to convince her all the food was just for me and I only needed one drink. I pulled into a parking space and in the next few minutes ate everything.
You have to pay for increased horsepower with worse gas mileage. It looked like my new body worked the same way. I was faster and stronger but I needed more calories. I wasn’t famished when I finished but I could have eaten a couple more breakfast sandwiches without a problem.
Salt Lake City isn’t that big of a town. After I got going again, it only took 10 minutes to drive to the coin store, Rare Change and Medallions. There was only one person in the store. The instant he saw me he walked around the counter with a huge smile; his hand out for me to shake, “Welcome, you must be Victor Paladin. You look exactly like your great, great, great grandfather.”
I expected the guy to burst out into a ‘Ho, ho, ho.’ He resembled a miniature Santa Claus dressed in civilian clothing. He had a bushy white beard, the red cheeks and nose, and comfortably large gut. He was tiny, barely 5 feet tall and had a faint Irish brogue. He even had the round rimless glasses.
I had been paying so much attention to his looks it took a few seconds for what he had said to penetrate. “You knew one of my grandparents?”
“One of your multiple great grandparents, his name was Regal.” When the tiny guy smiled, he was straight out of an illustrated story book, white beard, twinkly button eyes, and rosy cheeks “I can see by your face you think the name is ridiculous, but your line has always preferred ‘majestic’ names.”
I told myself not to get my hopes too high, “Did you know my parents?”
His smile disappeared, he soberly replied, “No, I’m sorry I didn’t. I was briefed about the mix up when you were orphaned but with ‘need to know’, I wasn’t told anything about your mother and father. I can tell you a lot of stories about Regal. My name is Aidan Cahill.” His expression brightened. I could tell that being downcast was not his usual expression. “Please, please, let’s go downstairs where we can sit and talk more comfortably.”
Before I could ask more questions he turned toward the rear door and shouted, “Tim, come and take over the counter!”
A few seconds later an average sized blonde guy in his late twenties with the beginnings of a pot belly and thinning hair came in the room. His smile was so large that it almost broke his face and he looked at me with something approaching awe. He ran over to where I stood and grabbed my hand with both hands, with too much pleasure. “I’m Tim Hardy, Aidan’s apprentice. We’ve been without a paladin for almost a year now and it’s been a mess. I never expected our replacement to be a real honest to Jehovah ‘Paladin’. You’re just in time for the Redcap hunt. Oh my God, it’s such an honor.”
“Thanks Tim.” I glanced at Aiden with a what-the-hell’s-up-with-Tim look on my face. He nodded at me, chuckled, and jerked his head toward the door. I gently pushed Tim away from me. He didn’t want to let go of my hand. Luckily, Tim didn’t have magical strength.
As soon as I got away, I followed Aiden downstairs. The lower floor led to a hallway with multiple doors. Aiden opened the door to an office. He made his way around the large wooden desk to sit in a black leather office chair that must have been custom made for him. When he sat on it, he looked almost normal height. I sat on one of the two chairs in front of his desk.
Cahill appraised me. I calmly looked back at him. I got the sense it would be a mistake to underestimate him. He slapped his hands on his desk. “Right then, I saw the look on your face when Tim was babbling. You really have no idea what he was talking about?”
I attempted a socially appropriate smile and shrugged. “You got that right. The only thing I know is that paladin is now my job title as well as my name. I can’t leave town without clearing the Norse trolls out. Oh, and from now on, I can’t lie or have sex outside of marriage without throwing up.”
He sighed and his smile completely disappeared. “That’s not much. It’s what I was told in the briefing but I had a hard time believing a man with the surname of Paladin would know so little. When you have time, you should read this.” Aidan handed me a small leather bound notebook. “It’s the journal of the last Salt Lake City paladin. I don’t know if you’ve ever kept a work log before, but from now on you will. You’ll need to work on it every night. The minute you write it down, the information goes upstairs. Paul, the previous paladin, was traditional. He liked pen and paper. So do I, but a digital text file works just as good.
“Victor, there’s so much I could tell you. Time is short. I need to prioritize and tell you what you need to know right now.” He smiled ruefully to himself, tugging at his hair as he got lost in his thoughts. He now looked like a miniature fat Einstein. “I guess the best job description for the kind of paladin you’re going to be is a frontier style sheriff. You’ll keep the peace and, if necessary, you kill the bad guys. The Redcaps Tim was talking about is a type of fairy that wears a wool cap soaked in the blood of humans. If the blood ever dries, the Redcap dies. They need a constant supply of human blood.”
When I heard I had to fight fucking fairies, I wanted to scream. My world had been interesting enough as it was. I hadn’t needed to read fantasy or believe in fairy tales to spice up my life. I had been content in my world of science, facts, and numbers. I couldn’t believe the idiots with blogs decorated with unicorns had been closer to the truth than me.
Aidan noticed I’d stopped paying attention. He calmly made eye contact. I was struck by how much dignity this tiny man exuded. He should have been cute and funny; he wasn’t. When he had my attention he leaned forward toward me, his voice intent. “There’s a band of twenty or so of them holed up under the sewers near Pioneer Park. They’re smart. For the last couple of months they’ve been killing the homeless, people who are not likely to be missed. We finally noticed and we need to take them out quick. Every time they kill someone, they gain enough power from the sacrifice to pull another Redcap through the veil. You’ve come at a great time. We were planning on going into the sewers this afternoon. I wasn’t looking forward to it, I’ve been around for awhile and learned some tricks but I’ve never been what you would call a warrior. Of the other four, Tim is probably the most competent in a fight.” Cahill smiled sheepishly, “To see Tim is to know him.”
My eyes widened at the thought of Tim behind me in a firefight. In the few seconds, I’d been with him, I felt like I knew him. If he was one of the best they had, I was better off solo.
“The odds weren’t looking so good until we found out you were in town. I have to tell you, Vic—seeing how little you know, I don’t know if we’re any better off. I know you’re powerful. I could sense you from a couple blocks away. But you have to know how to wield your power for it to be of any use.”
I’ve always been good at reading people. Aidan and Tim had both been ecstatic to see me. Aidan now looked like his dog just died. The expression on his face seemed wrong. Santa Claus wasn’t supposed to frown. “So why do you and Tim need to be hero’s? There has to be more than a million people in the Greater Salt Lake Region. Why can’t you recruit more people?”
“To answer your question, I’m going to need to give some background. I don’t know how well you know the Holy Bible? If you go back before Jesus Christ and look at any and all of the historical records, you’ll see that every culture used magic. Greek, Roman, Goth, Assyrian, Egyptian; all wrote about magic as if it was commonplace. The Bible even describes a magical duel.”
Cahill was telling me the bible was historically true. ‘Fuck!’ I listened without an expression as he quoted a passage from Exodus I knew well. “‘And Moses and Aaron went in unto Pharaoh, and they did so as the LORD had commanded: and Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh, and before his servants, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh also called the wise men and the sorcerers: now the magicians of Egypt, they also did in like manner with their enchantments. For they cast down every man his rod, and they became serpents: but Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods.’”
Aidan was in full absentminded professor mode, tugging again at his hair, as he explained, “When Jehovah created man, He gave him free will. He hadn’t meant to give angels free will at the same time but that’s how it worked. He was shocked to find out angels and humans could interbreed. ‘There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.’
“Humans with angelic blood can force their will upon the Universe. Humans with angel genes can work magic.”
Aiden leaned back. I could see him making sure I was still paying attention. Satisfied, he continued, “There’s a theory Lucifer and the third of the hosts of heaven rebelled because they refused to bow to man—not true. They didn’t rebel out of high-minded principles. They rebelled because they wanted to make their own choices and decisions.
“Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and resurrection fixed Jehovah’s mistakes. Christ gave all men a way to salvation and at the same time took away free will from angels. Angels no longer could have children. Our Universe is a reflection of God’s will. A human who keeps his magic use to a minimum remains human. If he starts using magic, the Universe starts treating him like an angel and his ability to make all his own decisions begin to wane. Magic disappeared from history after Jesus because magic users eventually lost their free agency.
“I’m a defector from another Universe. I come from the same dimension as the Redcaps.”
I was incredulous. He was claiming to be a fairy? On second thought, it explained a lot. His miniature stature and his claim to have known one of my ancestors now made sense. I resisted my temptation to ask him more about his home dimension and why he defected. He knew more than I did and he claimed we had limited time. For now being, I had to let him judge what I needed to know. Aidan noticed I was distracted. He courteously stopped talking, waiting for me to ask a question.
When I shook my head he continued, “My powers don’t come from God but when I defected, I had to pass what you might call a citizenship test. I learned the three holy books—the Torah, the Bible, and the Koran and agreed to bind my soul to Yahweh. I am forced by my binding to defend and protect Earth from the minions of all other gods. Now that I know the Redcaps are here, I have no choice but to fight them.
“Tim got his start as a follower of Aleister Crowley. He got good enough at magic to lose his ability to make all his own choices. He now has to help defend the people of Salt Lake City. Ever hear stories of men who can’t swim jumping into deep water in order to save people from drowning and then dying themselves, of men who run repeatedly into burning buildings to save others? That’s what happens when someone tries to resist God’s commandments for too long. The strength of the compulsion causes him to become suicidal.”
I couldn’t help it. I started to laugh. The shit just kept on piling higher and higher. It was a bitter laugh and Cahill looked concerned. “Don’t mind me Aidan, please go on.”
“All of us have to move in on the Redcaps while we still have the ability to make some choices. Your most dangerous foes are the Norse; they’re out to kill you personally. But the most pressing task you have is to get rid of the Redcaps.”
Cahill looked at me expectantly. It was question and answer time. I didn’t know where to start. “What…why me? I’ve never done any magic.”
Aiden looked at me quizzically, “You really don’t know?”
I just stared at him without changing my expression. I wouldn’t have said it if I hadn’t meant it.
“According to the briefing I got, as a 13-year old, barely weighing 70 lbs, you took out a kneecap of a fairly large grown man. You got shot in the heart and you didn’t die. You’ve prevented yourself from aging for 25 years. Didn’t it ever occur to you it might not be just luck? At its most basic, magic is forcing your will upon the Universe. You’ve been doing that for a long time.”
Whatever I had expected him to say, it wasn’t this. For the second time in this conversation, I started laughing. It figured I had no one to blame but myself. “You mean all those years I’ve been thinking I’ve been so smart and tough, it’s all been magic?”
Cahill grinned broadly. Even his teeth twinkled, “Don’t sell yourself short. You’ve been doing the equivalent of getting power directly from an active volcano without any safety measures for most of your life. Opening yourself up to the Universe’s power is relatively easy. Surviving the aftermath is difficult. You should have burned out your brain decades ago”
I saw respect in his eyes as he continued, “You must have an extraordinary amount of self-control and discipline. Up until a few hundred years ago, hermit monks were fairly common. You know, the kind who live alone, spend all of their time studying ancient texts and castigating their flesh. It usually takes that kind of intense ascetic lifestyle to have the mental discipline to survive magic without buffers.”
I’ve lived a solitary nomadic life for years, I spend at least 40 hours a week reading random stuff—history, biology, physics anything that catches my attention and I’m an endurance athlete. I’d been a hermit monk without knowing it. “So why do the Norse trolls want to kill me personally?”
“They want to claim your weapons by right of conquest. Every paladin inherits armor and a weapon. Anyone who kills a paladin has a chance to claim those treasures. The trolls mortally wounded the previous paladin but he lived long enough to protect his gear.”
Aidan rubbed his tiny hands together with an expression of joy. Somehow he was able to keep from looking cute. I got the sense his happiness was genuine. He liked giving gifts. “They’re now yours.”