Heng Zhi's Backstory

I wish I never became a mage. For all the power and knowledge that I have gained since my Awakening, I would give it all away for one day of my old life back.

Since I can’t, I’m going to make the best of the way everything turned out. But I can’t forget my old life, or the night I Awoke to my new one.

I wasn’t called Heng Zhi back then. My parents named me John Ch’ang. When I was little, my grandfather told me stories from before he took his family from China. I wish I could remember specifics, but he was not exactly fluent in English, and I know only a few phrases of Chinese. My grandmother could speak much better English than he, and she would sometimes translate some of her favorite stories of his. I lived with them since I was twelve. My parents died in a car crash. My father thought he was invincible when he drank. He proved himself wrong.

I don’t know if I actually miss my father since I saw so little of him when he was sober, but I still hate him for taking my mother from me. I have no doubt that he wasn’t as horrible a person as I had thought, and that my mother had her own faults, but from a twelve-year-old’s perspective, a mother who worked all day and came home to take care of her family is more important than a father who used up all the money on booze and beat his wife at least once a week. She protected me from most of his drunken rages, but she couldn’t stop him from half-dragging her into the car that night.

I went through a couple of different schools after they died. There was a lot of frustration and anger trapped inside of me, and there wasn’t a whole lot of “giving a shit” about school. My grandparents wanted me to get something of an education, even if they had to keep moving until I could find a school that I could deal with. Eventually, my grandparents moved to southern New York. The school was a little more lax than the others, but I have no doubt it wasn’t the school that calmed me down. Two things happened to me when we moved there.

Her name was Jess. She was the most attractive girl in school, probably because she was also the wittiest person I had ever met. She gave me a reason to actually go to my classes. She saved my life—without her, I would have never become the person I am today. She was the one that pushed me to do my schoolwork, to not give up on people. We didn’t start dating until our junior year, but that didn’t mean we didn’t flirt since before high school. She brought me so much joy.

After high school, we married during her second year of college. She studied to be a music teacher. She could play more instruments than I could name, which was one of the things we’d joke about. No matter how often she’d remind me of the right name, I’d always say the wrong one.

The other big change in my life happened when I stumbled upon a kung fu dojo. It was an old, run down building with peeling paint and some Chinese characters painted on the door. I was thirteen at the time and stupid enough to think that no one would notice if I broke in. It didn’t look like there should be that much room from the outside, nor did I think that it would be so clean. No cobwebs, dust, or debris covered the rooms inside like I had expected.

I was so surprised by the appearance, I didn’t hear someone sneak up behind me. Nor did I actually see what hit me. I do remember waking up with a man with a short fu manchu standing over me. I’m sure I tried to say something witty or smarmy as I stood up because I remember landing back on the ground with a thud. This is how I met my future teacher, Luo Dai.

While I can’t say I don’t deserve most of the bruises I received from my master, Luo Dai definitely came from the school of hard knocks, and he teaches the way he was taught. Even though I was a pain in the ass, he didn’t back down. If I fought against him, he didn’t just sit there. He put me in my place more times than I care to admit. He understood me, though. Though the first few years of training under him, he helped me to control the anger I wasn’t able to deal with. When something happened that made me want to punch someone, he knew the right way to channel that rage into something useful—mostly in the form of sets of push ups or an hour of stances. Master Luo Dai gave me the outlet I needed, and between learning kung fu and spending time with Jess, I got into less and less fights at school. I’ll be honest; I didn’t stop getting into them. I just stopped being the antagonist.

I wasn’t his only student. There were quite a few youngsters (compared to myself) and he had a couple students who were in their twenties. By the time I was eighteen, they had moved away. Luo Dai asked me to help him teach the younger students, and said he’d pay for the work. I was going to graduate that spring, so I jumped at the offer. At the time, I had been doing martial arts for half a dozen years and felt that I knew what I was doing. I didn’t realize that teaching the youngsters would show me how wrong I was was. Instead of just going through the motions that had became muscle memory for me, I was learning the concepts behind the strikes, stances, and maneuvers. I had improved more in the first year of teaching the kids than I had the entire first four years of learning kung fu—and that’s not including what Master Luo Dai was teaching me.

After I finished school, I started teaching full time at the dojo. My weekdays were full of training and teaching, and when I came home at night, I slept like the dead. Even though we lived together, Jess and I didn’t get to see a whole lot of each other during the week other than the other one asleep. She had her classes, and I had my job. We were happy, though. We made up for lost time during the week with the weekend. We went on road trips, watched movies, even played some video-games when the weather wasn’t so great. She kicked my ass most of the time.

That was the sum of my life for the next several years. Jess graduated and became a music teacher at a local school. Students came to and left Luo Dai’s dojo, and I met people I’m glad to have met and people I’m glad to have kicked in the chest. In the last few years, I’ve only been in contact with one of them: Ken Richard. He came to the dojo a little over a year after I graduated. Eleven at the time, Ken was not exactly the biggest kid at school, and apparently the kids who found out they had more hair than just on their heads thought it’s alright to pick on the smaller ones. Not being a fan of bullies myself, I mentioned to Luo Dai that I could “have a word with those little assholes,” but he shook his head.

“Let Ken have his pride by dealing with them in his own time.”

Knowing better than to try to go behind his back and deal with the problem myself, I gave Ken extra lessons after Luo Dai left for the night, specifically on how to deal with larger opponents. After about a month and a half, Ken was flipping me onto my back, and the kid didn’t break a hundred pounds. Luo Dai definitely knew about the extra lessons but neglected to mention them—or charge for them. A week later, Ken came back with a couple bruises on his face and a concealed limp—as well as the detention slip he got for defending himself and sending the little shithead home with a broken arm. As far as I know, he was never targeted by a bully after that but actually helped to scare off some kids picking on some of the little ones on more than one occasion.

Since then, he became a regular at the dojo. He was much more interested in the self-defense aspects of the art than I was, but he grew one hell of a snap kick for sparring. He practiced some Judo from one of the guest trainers Luo Dai brought in every once in a while, and eventually sought training in a Judo place about thirty minutes north of town. Luo Dai was very interested in what Ken learned, as I recall, and asked him to teach some of the techniques to the class every once in a while.

After a couple months of training with him on effectively a daily basis, I started to consider him the younger brother I never had. You know—taught him how to throw a punch (and more importantly, how to take one), listened to him talk about school and girls. I’d call him a nerd (with a smile), and he’d call me a jerk (with a friendly punch). This was different than what I was used to at the time, though. I never really had any friends at school. Plenty of acquaintances, more than a few (not-so-friendly) rivals, but no real friends outside of Jess. Even Luo Dai, whom I highly respected after so many years training under him, wasn’t exactly my friend. Of course there was a bond there, but student-teacher is not the same as buddy-buddy, and we both understood that. Ken was my first actual friend, and no matter what might happen between us, I won’t forget that.

Not that I expect anything to go wrong. While I haven’t seen him in a few years, the last time I saw him he was excited about going to learn some Shaolin Kempo Karate in Plattsburgh. I’m sure I’ll run into him sometime or another.

As I had said, my life was pretty much the same week by week for a few years. I was twenty when Jess and I got married. It wasn’t anything big. My grandparents were there, as were Jess’s parents (who didn’t quite like me for another five years). If he had been a little older, I would have asked Ken to be my best man, but since it was a little ceremony, it didn’t really matter if I had one.

I was really glad my grandparents made it because I didn’t get to keep them for many more years. My grandmother died about three years later, and her husband followed her within six months. I grieved for them, but I was glad that he didn’t have to wait on this world too long without her. I didn’t realize how lucky he was until much later.

The year after, Jess told me something that changed my life. She was pregnant. There really are not words to describe how ecstatic we were. Within the next couple months, we had saved up enough money to get a small house that was smack dab in the middle between our two jobs, was big enough to have a family yet affordable enough to feed one, and actually had a yard to play in.

Our daughter was born in the early summer. She had my black hair but her mother’s green eyes. I asked Jess, and she let me call her Li, after my mother. That was the happiest day of my life, getting to see my family together for the first time, to truly feel like I was part of something more than myself.

I got to watch Li grow from this little helpless doll that could barely hold its head up to a funny little girl who loved to be outside and watch her dad wail on a target dummy. She was about three the first time she tried to kick at my heavy punching bag. She completely missed and spun all the way around and nailed me in the shin. She burst out laughing when I pretended she hurt me a lot more than her short legs could do. Li actually was quite interested in learning “how to hit like a boy.” I taught her what I could, considering her three-year-old attention span, and told her never to hit someone when they don’t deserve it. She only got into one fight at her daycare, and even her caretaker said it was the boy who started it. I’m proud that my baby girl stood up for herself. I taught her more as she grew older, including teaching her her first kata around the time she turned five. She had the moves down faster than I first did, and I practiced every day where she only had lessons twice a week.

Just like her mom, Li loved music. Not that I had anything against music, but I just never had the time to practice guitar or do more than sing in the shower. Li would sing all the time. When she ate, when she danced, when I was teaching her to hit like a boy—pretty much when she was physically able to sing, she did. Jess also bought her a little keyboard and showed her how to play some nursery rhymes and songs that she heard at daycare. Li learned to read music before she could read sentences, which blew me away. Like her mom, when I was around her, she never ceased to amaze me.

Which is what makes the next part of my story all the worse.

We went to Plattsburgh for a little getaway from home for a weekend. It wasn’t anything much other than a change in scenery. Jess and I were considering moving up here in a couple years and wanted to see what it was like. We stayed at a hotel that had its own swimming pool, and Li loved it there. We had to drag her out of the pool every time we let her get in because we didn’t have a pool at home. When she wasn’t in the pool, Li was playing around with beads and other things. She made me a bracelet, but told me not to wear it until we got home that night. She shoved it in my pocket and told me not to look at it. She made me pinky swear.

Li was tired from all the swimming, so she slept on the way home. Jess and I actually had a moment of silence. The night was clear, and I could see the moon just starting to rise into the night sky. It was almost full. The roads were pretty empty, as if no one wanted to be out driving on such a peaceful night. That was what I was thinking when I hit a man.

I slammed on the brakes as soon as I saw him, but it was too late. I could hear his head smash off the hood, and he flew twenty feet after we connected. Jess screamed, and Li woke up crying. I told Jess to stay in the car and call 911. I knew how to take care of someone who got a broken bone or a similar injury at the dojo, but I didn’t know how much help I could do. I reached into the dashboard compartment and grabbed the first aid kit. I got out of the car and ran over to the man I hit. I saw he wasn’t wearing shoes and thought that the myth about sending their shoes flying after getting hit by a car was true.

He was groaning, which I thought was a good sign. His face was smashed and an arm was bent where there was no joint. His leg was twisted around, and there was a long rip in his jeans. I looked back at Jess, and I could see her crying and yelling into the phone. I dropped down to one knee and looked back at the man, then did a double take. I thought his arm was broken, and his face looked just like it was covered in blood, but nothing too roughed up. I guessed his injuries weren’t as bad as I had thought.

I opened up the first aid kit and found a tourniquet to put on his leg. I moved his jeans out of the way and followed the trail of blood. There was no wound. I looked on both sides, eased him over a little, but there was no cut or slice, not even a damn bruise on his entire leg. I sat back on my heels for a moment, and that’s when I heard the snap.

The man’s leg, the one that was twisted the wrong way, suddenly kicked out and realigned itself. His back arched and his eyes flew open. I tried to jump away, but I was so shocked by his sudden movement that I slipped. The man’s face turned toward me, and he opened his mouth to scream. But he didn’t scream; he screeched. His mouth wasn’t normal; he had fangs.

He kipped up and struck me with his forearm and sent me flying. The strike was ridiculously strong—I landed on the hood of my car. I think I heard Jess scream again. I told her to grab Li and run. I wasn’t sure if I had any broken ribs, but my limbs were fine and my collar bone wasn’t broken; I could keep him away from my family.

I grunted and rolled off my car. I looked at the man, but then had to look again. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. He kept flickering every time I blinked. One moment a man, another a fanged shadow. His, no, its shadow had another layer to it, a bright red aura that rippled with vibrant streaks. I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew what it meant for me and my family. It wanted to hurt me, to hurt them. I saw the hunger in its eyes. I had to stop it.

I ran forward as soon as I heard Jess’s door open, trying to keep its attention on me. I dropped low at the last second to sweep at its legs. I connected, but it barely moved. It grabbed my arm and threw me against a tree. I heard Jess scream my name, and though my vision was filled with stars, I knew it turned to look at her. I yelled again for her to run with Li as I pushed myself up again. My body screamed at me to stay on the ground, but I couldn’t just let that thing attack them.

I grabbed a thick branch that had broken off when I hit the tree and snapped it so that there was a point on one end. I charged at the thing, and at the last moment, it moved just enough so that I didn’t stab it through the chest but into the back of its arm. I know I struck bone. It howled in pain and swung its arm, batting me away, but I remained on my feet and moved between the monster and my family. It smiled with a mouth too large for its face as it tore the sharp limb out of its arm. Then it spoke in a strange double voice, like something out of a horror movie.

“You will watch them die.”

It jumped. Not around me or into me, but over me. I barely had enough time to bring up my arms as it kicked at my head, and instead of knocking me out, it made my arms go numb from its horrible strength.

Li cried out “Daddy!” as Jess ran with our girl in her arms. I don’t think she heard it land behind her. I saw it shake its hand once, twice, and claws grew from its fingertips. I ran for them, but I couldn’t make it in time.

My vision flickered again. I saw the shadow beast, and its claw was impossibly long. I saw my beautiful Jess, running for her life, worried that she’ll never see me again. It wasn’t quite her, though. She looked too melodic to be real. I could almost see the songs she loved around her. I saw my sweet Li, who wasn’t afraid of anything. I saw her as she was when she was born, when she was when she was three and first tried to kick at my punching bag, and as she was then, fierce, hopeful, but scared of what was going to happen next.

I tried to scream, to tell Jess to duck.

But I wasn’t there anymore.

It was raining. It didn’t feel like rain; it was too warm and sweet to be rain. I looked up and saw lightning dancing across the sky, but no thunder, no clouds. There was a sound like machines working. Hundreds of them. Not just heavy thunks but little tinkering sounds that meshed into something beautifully harmonic. I thought Jess would have loved to hear this. Then I realized what I left. I didn’t know how to get back to the accident, to the monster, to my family. I looked around, and the only clear image I could find was of a tower in the distance.

I ran to it. I ran as if I wasn’t just in a life and death situation, that I wasn’t out of breath, and that I wasn’t bleeding. The air around me gave seemed to give me the energy to keep going. I don’t know how long I ran, or how far it was to the tower, but the closer I got, the louder the mechanical music became. It seemed to come from this tower. The tower was made of gold and silver cogs and machinery. On its peak was a huge golden key that spun slowly, and in its center was a burning eye, like that of Sauron, but not hateful, only guiding. It seemed to follow me as I got closer to the tower.

I reached twin doors made of pure gold, with silver inlays of thousands of weapons, from swords and spears to guns and bows. There was even a stylized fist and a single image of a fire growing an open palm. The doors opened with barely a touch. Inside was a tall, slender tower made of swirling silver and gold. There were markings all over the tower. As I got closer, I realized those markings were names in a thousand different languages. I saw a calligraphy brush and an ink well on a small table near a blank spot on the tower. The brush looked just like the one that my grandfather had used to try to teach me how to write my name in Mandarin.

I knew that this was the only way to stop the monster that was attacking my family. I dipped the brush in the ink and placed the tip on the tower.

And I fell back to our world.

I opened my eyes and found it was raining. Not the sweet rain of the other world, but the cold rain that told me to get moving. I was kneeling on the ground, and I looked around for the monster that was attacking—and then I saw them. On the ground.

I didn’t stop the monster that night.

EMTs arrived on scene after a few minutes with police cars in tow. The 911 operator had heard my wife scream about the man that attacked me. Apparently, there was a string of murders going on, and the police thought it was a serial killer on the loose. I couldn’t help them much. I could barely speak. All I could do is stare at where the EMTs were moving my wife and daughter. Their, their bodies.

A man named Richard Fawkes was one of the EMTs working that night. He offered to give me a place to stay for the night. Said he was almost done his shift when the call came in. I numbly accepted his offer.

I told him what I saw, the monster, the dream world, the tower. I told him everything that happened that night, everything that I could bear to say. He sat there and listened for what had to be hours. When I was finished, he said this:

“The dream world and the tower? That happened to me. You Awakened to something new, something scary, but something possibly wonderful.”

I couldn’t argue with him. I physically couldn’t say anything else after that. He asked if there was anyone he could call for me, to try to get help, for me to live with for the time being. I opened my phone, hit speed dial, and handed it to him.

I woke up at eleven the next morning, feeling worse than when I passed out. I reached out on the bed behind me and felt no one there. It hit me.

I don’t know how long it took me to finish sobbing. I saw that Richard had put a new box of tissues on the table near the bed with a note:

“I called your dad and let him know what happened. He said he’s on his way. I’ll be in the next room. Whenever you want to come out, I’ll be here. I took the day off to look after you. —Richard”

He meant Luo Dai. I wasn’t sure what I would say to him, nor did I know what he would say when he got here, but I was grateful that he was coming up. I went into the bathroom and washed my face. I realized that while I was aching, I don’t think I had any broken bones. I was more than a little surprised considering how hard I was flung around by that monster. I flipped on all the lights and took a look at myself.

I was stunned. I didn’t have any cuts, scrapes, or even bruises anywhere on my body. Despite aching all over, I couldn’t find a single mark on me. It was as if I wasn’t in a fight last night. That thought ran through my mind and got my hopes up, but then I figured if last night didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be in a stranger’s home. I pulled on my shirt and walked out into Richard’s living room.

He asked me how I was doing. I shrugged. He said I had free reign over anything in the kitchen whenever I got hungry. I didn’t really want to eat, but since I hadn’t eaten since lunch the day before—“my last meal with my family” crossed my mind—I figured I should eat something. I thanked him and headed to the refrigerator.

I heard a knock on the door as I stared blankly at the almost empty fridge. I saw a half-empty jar of strawberry jelly, a tub of peanut butter with a knife still in it, and, looking on the shelf next to the fridge, two slices of bread left of the loaf—both of the ends. Not to be rude to my host, I took out the peanut butter and jelly and threw the bread in the toaster. Then I heard a sword unsheathing and Richard yell out my name, promptly followed by two thuds and a thump. I turned around to see him crumpled on the ground, with an older man with a fu manchu standing over him, looking at me.

“I’ve never been one for first impressions,” Luo Dai said with an unconcealed smile.

From the ground, Richard mumbled, “How did the floor get up here?”

“That is what you get for drawing a sword on someone you invited into your home,” Luo Dai said as he helped him up, then introduced himself.

He looked over at me again and the smile faded to a sad grimace. He walked over to me and, for the third time in my life, he hugged me. The first time was when Jess and I were married. The second time was when Li was born. There was no joy in this, only the pain of a father who isn’t able to help his child.

After letting me go, he said, “Despite the pain last night caused, you have been given something great.”

“What?” I demanded, my voice going harsh. “Do you really think I give a shit about anything I’d get after losing them? I don’t want a single damn thing that costs me that.” I realized I was shouting. I ran my hand over my face, trying to calm myself down. “I just want them back.”

I could feel his eyes on me as he thought of what he would say next. “If you could, would you stop the monster from hurting anyone else?”

“If I could? Of course. But I fought that thing.” I threw up my arms. “There was nothing I could do to actually hurt it.”

He smiled. “There was nothing before last night, before your Awakening.” I could hear the emphasis on the word.

“Awakening? Does that have to do with the vision? The tower?”

Both Luo Dai and Richard nodded. “It’s called a Watchtower,” Richard said. “It’s what gives us our link to the Supernal Realm. It’s what lets us be mages.”

I almost laughed. “Mages? You mean like Merlin or Harry Potter? Yeah, right.”

“Look at yourself,” Luo Dai said. “Shouldn’t you have broken ribs? Cuts? Bruises at the least? Does someone’s body do that naturally?”

“Yeah,” Richard said. “You were busted up by the time we got there last night. At least three broken ribs and more than a few scrapes along your arms and back.”

“This has to be some kind of a joke,” I said. The toaster popped, revealing toast that was more burnt than bread. I walked over to grab it and make my sandwich.

“If you don’t believe our words,” Luo Dai said, “then maybe you will believe this.”

He reached out with one hand and mumbled something in a different language. His other hand made a fast gesture that ended with a sudden upwards motion. I could feel something to my left, and when I looked, the pieces of toast lifted out of the toaster and landed on the plate. My jaw dropped.

Richard smiled. “Care for another demonstration?” He reached over the counter and grabbed a glass of water. He made a circular motion over the glass, ending with a bird’s head shape pointing inside. As he brought his hand up, the water followed, taking the shape of a bird with a long tail that still touched the bottom of the glass. He then lifted the bird with his other hand and threw it at my face.

I brought up my hand reflexively, and I felt a weird pull in my stomach. The bird turned suddenly and hit the wall next to me, splashing water everywhere.

“What the hell just happened?” I asked, looking back and forth between Luo Dai and Richard.

A smile came to Luo Dai’s face. “Looks like we just proved our point.”

It turns out, I cast a spell that altered the course that the water bird was going. Didn’t know I was going to do that; it was just reflexive as if I was countering a punch. Richard said that I probably healed myself in my sleep without even realizing it. Apparently, it’s not that uncommon.

The two of them tried to fill me in on some of the more essential aspects of magic. It seems that there are different things that different mages focus on depending on which Watchtower they see. Luo Dai said that his Awakening vision was similar to mine. He told me that I’d be intuitively good at controlling energy, both physical and magical, like how I altered the direction of the bird. Richard, on the other hand, was adept at healing.

They both agreed that I needed someone to teach me more about magic, and Richard said that he was due for some time off from work soon. Luo Dai said that Richard was welcome to head back south with us and help in my training. He replied, saying something about needed to go on a trip.

In all of the excitement over learning that magic is real, I had almost forgotten what sparked my Awakening. “I can’t believe they are gone.”

“I know, John,” Luo Dai said. “But now you’ll be able to face the kinds of monsters like the one that killed them.”

Then a thought struck me. I didn’t want this to happen to anyone else. I couldn’t stop that thing because I didn’t have any power. Now I do. There are monsters that prey on people who cannot defend themselves. If I can control the forces of nature, then I can fight for those who can’t. I might even find the monster that killed Jess and Li. It was wrong. I didn’t watch them die. But I know I will watch it die.

I noticed that I was sweating. I looked around the room, and both Luo Dai and Richard were staring at me nervously. “What?” I said, the rage building inside seeping into my voice.

“You just raised the room temperature about fifteen degrees,” Richard said, looking at his thermometer on the wall.

I leaned up against a wall and ran my hand over my face. I put my other hand in my pocket and felt something. I reached in and pulled out the bracelet that Li made me yesterday. It had one word on it with hearts on both ends. “Daddy.” The last thing I heard my little girl say. I took a deep breath to calm myself. Then I put it on my wrist and tightened the straps. I could feel the temp returning to normal.

I looked to Luo Dai, the man who was a better father than my own flesh and blood. I looked to Richard, a man who I met just last night, yet I felt a strange brotherhood with him. I looked down to the bracelet that Li made me.

Despite what happened last night, despite losing the two people I loved the most, I knew I had to go on. There was only one right decision.

“Teach me magic.”

In these past five years, I’ve gained knowledge and power of things that most people don’t believe, and that is more literal than I would have first guessed. Luo Dai has not only taught me spells and arcane lore, but helped me join an order of mages called the Adamantine Arrow. They specialize in combat magic, which suits me just fine. He told me to take a shadow name, a pseudonym to protect my identity from mages who can make use of names to attack from a distance. I chose Heng Zhi, which roughly translates to “Endurance” and “Will,” two of the pillars of kung fu. Luo Dai also introduced me into my Legacy, which is what mages call soul crafting. After hours of testing my physical, mental, and spiritual limits, I became a Perfected Adept, a kind of mage who mesh arcane learning with martial arts and physical aptitude.

The daily training with Luo Dai and occasional visits from Richard helped to keep my mind off of Jess and Li, but there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of them. It’s because of them that I moved to Plattsburgh a year ago. Luo Dai told me that he kept track of a Hallow, a magically infused location, and he offered it to me to help in both my training and in my calling. I moved to Plattsburgh to try to keep the people there safe.

I know I am only one man. I know that I could easily screw up and get myself killed. But I also know that I have a fighting chance to do more good here than in some tower reading a bunch of books. I promised myself that I will do everything in my power to stop the monsters that hunt the innocent. Jess and Li might not be here to cheer me on, but I have no doubt this is exactly what they would have wanted me to do.

Heng Zhi's Backstory

Beyond the Veil: The Myriad Wolfspeak89