A voice interrupted his conversation with Zandor.
Chad’s head snapped around and he frowned in confusion. “Mom?” he called back. What was she doing here, and why had she followed him all the way to the park?
He stood and walked back to the middle of the clearing. A laugh cut the silence, and Voxx poked her pink head around a branch. Chad rolled his eyes and sighed in exasperation.
“Incoming!” Marquiam shouted, making a beeline for Chad’s shoulder. The hero latched on, his clay hands stretching to wrap around the boy’s arm.
“Master, look what I made!” Tecchon announced, and Chad turned to see a small, working radio completely made out of twigs and small bits of trash the hero had found on the forest floor.
In the midst of all this, Illuminus began flashing red again.
“Humans approach!” Chariostes called the warning.
“Everybody gather!” Chad whispered frantically. “It needs to look like I was just playing!”
The six heroes quickly assembled themselves in front of him. Chad picked up Zandor and Voxx and began moving them around like action figures.
“Well, well!” a harsh voice sneered behind him. “What have we here?”
Chad turned to see Justice and his whole gang gathered behind him—which was odd, because the group didn’t usually come to the park, and they certainly would have no reason that Chad could think of to be in this particular spot.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
Dune stuck her tongue out at him. “This is our turf, moron! Don’t you remember? Corbin lives on the other side of these woods.”
“Besides,” Justice cut in, eager to maintain his status as the gang leader, “what’s it to you? You think you can tell us what to do, eh, Shrimpy?”
Tyler sniggered, “Lookit, he’s playing with his dolls again!”
Justice saw Zandor in Chad’s hand and lunged for it. “Gimme that!”
“No! Stop!” but Chad could only watch helplessly as Justice squeezed Zandor’s body so hard that the clay pressed out between his fingers. The others cackled meanly as they lumped all the heroes into a pile for the second time and pressed them even flatter than before.
“Don’t do that!” Chad fought to keep the tears from his eyes as he imagined the pain the heroes must be feeling right now—but out of respect for him they never once let on to these bullies that they were alive at all. “Stop it! Just leave me alone!”
“Shaddup, Shrimpy!” Justice shoved him back when he tried to drag the flat raft of clay out of their reach. “You don’t tell us what to do! We tell you! Remember that!” Justice saw Voxx dangling by one arm, and he pulled her away, leaving only the arm in Chad’s trembling hand. Grinning maliciously, Justice dropped the figurine on the ground, brought up his size-11 shoe, and stomped right on her. Chad felt the pressure in his chest as if Justice had stomped him.
“Let’s go, fellas,” Justice grunted, and the six bullies left their young victim totally crushed and humiliated.
Chad just barely managed to hold it together till they were out of sight before he dropped to the ground and surveyed the damaged group through tearful eyes.
“Zandor?” He surveyed the ridges of Justice’s fingers in the soft clay. “Marquiam? Chariostes? Guys, I’m so sorry!” He swiped the tears with a grubby hand. “Guys! Are you okay? Please be all right!”
“Don’t worry, Master,” a feminine voice grunted behind him.
Chad turned to see Voxx heft her flattened body out of the dirt with one hand. As she stood, the clay of her body reconstituted itself, and soon she was whole and just as he had made her—except for the missing arm. She pointed to it, still in Chad’s hand.
“Can I have a hand, please?” she asked wryly.
“What? Oh, sure,” Chad snapped out of his funk and picked up Voxx with his free hand. Carefully, he pressed the arm back onto her shoulder, and it fused together again. She sighed with relief and waggled her arms, grinning at him from behind her helmet. “See? Good as new,” she chirped.
Chad heard a groan and turned to see the other heroes separating themselves from one another and rebuilding just as Voxx had. It was a slow, painful process, he did not doubt, but at least when they had finished after a few minutes, he had six figurines again.
“How did you do that?” He cried in amazement as they gathered around him.
“We are made of clay, Chad,” Zandor said with a chuckle, pressing the last distended lump back into his armor. “As such, we do not shatter, and we are easily re-formed.”
“We can even de-form ourselves,” Tecchon bragged. To prove his point, the hero squeezed his arm as thin as a pencil to fit it through a hole in a piece of bark. Once his arm was completely through, Tecchon flexed his hand, and his arm puffed up to its normal size—but still through the piece of bark.
Chad felt a wave of relief wash over him and he laughed. “That’s awesome,” he sighed. “I’m glad those bullies can’t hurt you.”
Zandor placed a hand on Chad’s knee, “We are an extension of you, as our Maker, remember; they can’t hurt you any more than they hurt us, if you do not let them.”
“Oh no, that’s not true,” Chad shook his head. “I have bones and blood; they beat me up every day and it hurts!”
“But you can be stronger than they are, Chad!”
“How?” the boy demanded, jumping to his feet. “I can’t be stronger! They’re older than I am, and bigger than I am!”
“But you are smarter than they are,” Zandor sought to reassure him, but Chad had already noticed that it was getting dark enough that Illuminus’ light was visible in the dimness. “I should be getting home,” he muttered.
Willingly, the heroes climbed back into the backpack. Once again, there was plenty of room even with all six inside the bag. Chad zipped it up carefully and walked home, glancing over his shoulder the whole way as if he expected Justice to be waiting in ambush.