The schoolyard was thick with boys.
A few curious girls were scattered near the fringes of the mob, quietly chattering among themselves. Occasionally they glanced towards Maximus, but only a few were bold enough to point and giggle. Not that it mattered, anyway; he worried less about the girls and more about the boys.
For it was the boys who’d surrounded him, forming a rough circle. Boys pressed against his back and sides, edging him further into the middle, away from his only and dearest friend. Maximus tried digging his feet in to remain firm above the downed boy, but with only one hand free it was difficult to fight against the mob. And he dared not pull his other hand out of his pocket. It was his one lifeline, an almost sure ticket to freedom.
He wasn’t sure what even sparked this, aside from months of teasing by the other students. He’d given his jacket to his good friend, Gideon, long ridiculed for his scholarship and the shabby state of the casual clothes he wore outside of his school uniform. Hand me downs from an older brother, too big for the boy’s thin body.
He didn’t have a jacket, which surprised and worried Maximus in this weather. Gideon simply layered his clothes and pretended to manage in the cold, even insisting they abandon the warmth of the dorms to play in the freshly fallen snow. Maximus agreed, though after seeing the boy shiver, his hands growing blue, he’d insisted Gideon take his coat. They could share, if they had to.
But one of the boys noticed this little exchange. He called it “sissy” and shoved Maximus. Gideon, warmed from the fleece-lined jacket and the spirit of friendship, rounded on their assailant. Or tried to, at least. But he was small, and the other boy was bigger. One hard punch to the gut sent the smaller of the two kneeling to the ground.
The next few events became a blur for Maximus, who rammed the boy from behind with the large horns that encircled his head. That should have been the end of it. Maximus was unique, in that he was the only child in his grade who had his horns. There would be no fair fights when he was involved.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only horned boy who attended this school, though the others were larger and older. Much like the teen on the other side of the circle. A big boy, tall and well built from years of athletics. He had peach fuzz on his upper lip, and two massive bull-like horns on his head. The boys behind him were mostly his age, though a younger boy or two stood near in awe.
“FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT,” the children cheered.
The older boys merely hooted and hollered, stomping their feet in unison to the chant.
“RAM HIM, RIP HIM, GORE GORE GORE!”
Maximus had seen the boy around and tried to avoid him whenever possible. Andy, they called him. Andy the Bull. He liked locking horns with smaller people and lifting them off the ground. Usually out of sport, but now…
One of the boys gave Maximus a hard shove from behind. Gideon was gone, hopefully spared from trampling. Maximus was on his own now, his hand practically numb from clutching the object in his pocket. It was something his grandmother gave him before sending him to this school. Something he had not seen the merit of keeping about, but carried around as a good luck charm.
“Maximus,” she said. “I know your mother failed to protect you, and your sister won’t be able to look after you. Nor can I or your grandpa. So I want you to take this, and when you feel threatened, you call upon it. It doesn’t look like much right now, but when the time comes…” What she folded into his palm was no larger than a marble, hard like stone. “You’ll know what to do.”
She also said something about not using it for “boyish mischief,” whatever that meant. But he felt threatened now. If a teacher did not come quick, Andy was going to gore the boy on his horns and parade his corpse up and down the yard. So when Andy the Bull began to charge, head lowered and horns at the ready, Maximus sprang into action.
He threw the rock onto the ground, not knowing what to expect. And began to scream when it sat there, uselessly. Doing nothing. How, oh how, was this stupid rock supposed to save him from the grave danger he’d found himself in? ‘Grandmother, if this is a joke, it’s a really bad one!’ “HELP,” he screamed. Not at the students, not for the teachers, not even for his own mother, his mother who couldn’t save him back then, and certainly not now.
“HELP ME,” he screamed, at the rock. Andy slowed to a stop, head cocked in confusion. The whole yard had gone silent for a few beats, then erupted into laughter. They were laughing at him. Who wouldn’t? The stupid boy had thrown a rock and completely missed his target. And now he was yelling at it, pleading at an inanimate object for assistance.
‘I’m going to die,’ Maximus thought. His vision grew blurry as tears began trickling down his cheeks. ‘I’m going to die and this is how I’ll be remembered.’
“Sissy,” the children began to chant. “Sissy, sissy!”
“Leave me alone!” He curled his hands into fists as he turned towards the crowd, forgetting the big boy inching closer. “Go away! This isn’t funny!”
Instead, they pushed in on him, hands reaching out from every direction. They grabbed him by his shirt, his hair, his arms, his face, and forced him back. Forced him to turn around, but did not release him.
Maximus thrashed about like a fish caught in a net, but it was no use. His glasses dangled from one ear, but the outline of the bigger boy was stamped clearly in his vision. Andy was done on all fours, head lowered. One hard kick off the ground and he surged forward. The screams of the children and older boys drowned out Maximus’ screams.
And suddenly the ground was shaking, and the laughter and jeers became yelps and screams. The ground beneath Andy’s feet tore open, flinging the boy into the air. Maximus stumbled forward, the breath forced out of his lungs as something hard connected with his stomach.
“Gideon?” He tried to straighten his glasses and flinched back when his fingertips brushed his eyelashes. “No…”
He could hear his grandmother now. “Two glasses in one year, Maximus? How can you be so careless! Do you think they just grow on trees?!”
But glasses were replaceable. Children were not.
Maximus pushed himself onto his feet before turning to help Gideon. The other children were pushing past them, away from the source of the explosion, and he wanted to join them before Andy had time to recuperate.
Gideon wasn’t budging. He clung tight to Maximus, his gaze fixated behind them. “Max…What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything…” Other than throw a stupid, useless rock. “Come on, let’s go.” He pushed at Gideon, but it was like shoving a brick wall. “I said let’s go!”
“It won’t let me! It won’t let me go!” He gripped Maximus tightly by the shoulders, not even looking him in the eye in his terror.
“What are you talking about? Let me go or I’ll hit you!” He slapped Gideon hard on the side, toes digging in the ground as he shifted his weight forward, but still the boy would not move.
“Hello,” called out an unfamiliar voice. From both behind and within his head, a chilling cadence that pierced his brain like a knife.
Maximus froze. He could see it now; not directly, but the space behind and above Gideon was drenched in shadow. A shadow that resembled some great creature. “Hello?” His voice sounded tiny and far away to his ears.
“Thank you for releasing me. I’ve been trapped for what felt like decades. Possibly longer. Time flows so differently in that bauble, I cannot say for sure.” The voice had a pleasant quality to it. Warm and inviting, like his mother or the Head Nurse.
“Who are you…What are you?” He buried his face into Gideon’s shoulder. He watched the shadow shift about, turning something around in its massive hands. He dared not turn around.
“Who I am is neither here nor there, little one. For what purpose was I summoned? That witch left me the impression I was to be sealed away indefinitely.”
That witch? “Do you mean grandma?” He lifted his head and quickly lowered it again. Why would she give him something like this? “To help me,” he mumbled. “She said you’d help me!”
“Be specific, lad.” The voice struck him like a fist. “Do you wish him death?” The elongated figure of a person with wickedly long horns was held high above the shadow’s grotesque head. The figure in its hands was screaming.
Maximus ripped himself away from Gideon and felt two arms hook underneath his, the breath of his good friend down his neck. “N-No! Don’t!” His eyes blurred when they locked onto the figure, tall and covered in black fur. “I’ll be expelled!” Or worse. Grandmother would kill him.
“I, too, was expelled.” It didn’t have a mouth. It didn’t have flesh. On its shoulders sat a blackened deer skull and antlers, surrounded by a mass of dead leaves. When it spoke, one could not be certain it did so from the deep crack in its “face”. “You’ll find that freedom can be quite refreshing.” Andy, small in the creature’s claws, whimpered. “I could incinerate the entire student body, should you request it.”
“No! I don’t want anybody to die!”
“Very well. Is maiming an acceptable alternative, then?”
“Maiming? It won’t kill him?” Again he reached for his glasses, and again he winced.
“Do it and I’ll kill you, you little freak.” Andy began to wiggle. “I don’t need my horns for it, either!”
It was Gideon’s turn to hide in Maximus’ collar. “Max, what did you do?”
“I’m handling it!” Andy was scary, but the creature was scarier. It was bigger, stronger. “Demon. Listen to me!” He summoned it, so it had to obey him, right?
A pair of blueish white flames danced in its hollow sockets. “Decide this boy’s fate…Master.”
Andy kicked and flailed his arms. Curses and profanities left his mouth, but Maximus focused on the eye flames. “Break his horns. So he can’t hurt anyone with them!”
The flames snuffed themselves out. “As you wish, master.” It flipped Andy into the air and seized him by the horns, holding him like a filthy little thing. For a moment, Andy kicked and screamed, his fists pounding against the fingers binding him. The creature twisted their fingers, running them up and down the horns.
The arms around Maximus squeezed him so tight he lost his breath a second time. Moisture dotted his neck and cheek. “Don’t cry, Gideon,” he said, over the screams. “He’ll live.”
“What did you do, Max? What did you do?” He tugged at Maximus. “I don’t like this! It’s bad, Max! It’s killing him!”
“No!” Andy’s horns grew shorter and shorter. “It’s helping us.” The creature lowered the boy to the ground, fingers moving furiously, struggling to find purchase. Andy’s once magnificent horns clung close to his head. “See? He can’t hurt us now.”
The creature tapped the older boy on the head. “That’s where you are incorrect, boy. He is still human. And humans will find a way.” There was a flicker in its right socket. “They always do.”
“Don’t listen to it, Max.” Gideon slung his arms around Maximus’ waist. “We’ll stay in next time. We’ll go to the library, the way you like. I don’t even like snow, it’s dreadful.”
Maximus shrugged him off. “Are you really my demon? Will you do as I say?”
“Max! No! Didn’t your mother say not to make pacts with demons?”
But his friend was stepping closer to the demon, hand outstretched. He stepped around Andy, curled into a ball and gripping his head in hands. He offered his tiny hand to the demon’s claw. “She said as long as I have a witness, it’s alright.” He glanced at Gideon, a small smile on his face. “And I’ve got you, Giddy! I trust you.”
“If you trust me, please walk back to me! Forget about it!”
The claw enveloped his arm, up to the elbow. “You asked me who I was, and I shall tell you.”
“No!” Gideon stamped his foot. “Maximus!”
Maximus’ smile grew wider. His eyes met the demon’s flame lit sockets without hesitation. “You know mine, so it’s only polite to tell yours.” He liked to think he saw a smile flicker across its skeletal mask.
“My name…is Euphemia.” It gently pumped the boy’s arm up and down. “Just call my name and I shall be there.”
Grandmother would be proud; most mages did not summon their first demon until they were sixteen, and he’d done so effortlessly.