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The Last Science – About
Chapter 22 — The Importance of Flying
The nearest town was almost thirty miles south, through endless thick forests and over steep hills. Alden wasn’t totally out of shape, but it was going to be a hard run. If he was even still travelling south. He’d known the train station was the north end of town, and tried to keep it behind him as he went, but who knew if he was still running in a straight line since he’d plunged into the trees?
It didn’t matter in the end. There was no way he was setting foot inside Rallsburg ever again. He had to escape. To stay was suicide, or worse. He hadn’t brought any food or water. He had left all his clothes and things back at the apartment. He knew full well that fleeing in a blind panic was foolhardy — and yet his legs kept pumping.
A particularly thick tree root at an odd angle managed to trip him. His mind hurtled into the pool of energy he recognized as magic, and he grabbed his entire body. With a heave that rattled his bones, he flung himself upright again, changing direction in mid-air. Alden didn’t fall. He just kept running.
Alden wasn’t even sure there was a town in thirty miles. He was relying on the vague memory of a few satellite maps on the internet. It could be just a patch of roads or a named intersection that never had anything built. At this time of night, he wasn’t likely to flag down a passing car, so neither of those did him any good. He’d have to keep going. He could run a six minute mile on a good day, but this was longer than a marathon. Already, the distance seemed incredibly daunting, but with the adrenaline pumping through his veins, he felt like he could make it.
He never had a chance to find out.
As Alden passed a tree, he tripped yet again on an unusually large dark lump jutting out of the ground. He was about to catch himself, but the lump moved. He heard a familiar grunt of pain. Alden was so shocked he crashed heavily into the dirt.
”…the fuck?” Viper hissed, twisting around slightly to look at him. He was wearing dark green modern military camouflage and his face was dabbed with dark paint. He’d been laying in a concealed position, watching across a moonlit expanse in the trees. His one good arm held a pistol.
Alden started to scramble away, but Viper grabbed one of his ankles.
”No, stop, I have to get away from here—” Alden stammered. He was practically begging at this point. Anything to let him keep running.
”Let me go!” Alden shouted.
”Kid, shut the fuck up!” Viper snapped under his breath. It was too late.
A pile of loose twigs and branches in the center of the moonlit area began to rise up from the floor, as if the ground itself were erupting underneath them. A hulking, faceless golem slowly emerged. Silently, it rotated on the pillar of material where its legs should have been, and it began to slide toward them.
”Shit.” Viper clicked a small cord that was attached to his hand in the sling. “Weapons green.”
A rifle crack echoed through the forest. The golem’s torso was flung violently to the side. It toppled over — but only seconds later, it was already pulling itself back up.
Viper scrambled to his feet. “Goddamnit.”
”I’m sorry,” Alden sputtered. He watched the golem warily as it approached. “We can just run though, right?”
”Can’t run forever. I was tryin’ to get the actual owner of these fuckers,” Viper spat. He thumbed his radio again. “Lure it to two-one-zero and blow it.”
A pause, then another rifle shot rang out — from a different location. It was further to Alden’s right, from the direction he’d been running. The golem, apparently not spotting them behind the tree, lumbered toward the sound of the gunfire. It took it a minute to vanish from sight.
Alden let out a deep breath. A second later, Viper pulled him back down to the ground.
A massive concussive blast sent the tree shuddering. Alden had never heard something so loud. The forest behind them erupted in a ball of orange and black, smoke billowing out in every direction. The golem was utterly annihilated.
”Well, at least that works,” Viper grumbled. He got to his feet, while Alden recovered from the force of the explosion. His ears were still ringing, and the headache he’d felt back in town had returned threefold. “Now where the hell are you runnin’ off to?”
”Anywhere but here.”
”Fair enough, but I’m pretty sure you were supposed to get something for me. Where’s the damn Scrap?”
Alden didn’t dare lie to him. “We were told it was somewhere north, and then the entire town went crazy. There’s a riot, and your source was attacked by Omega, and—” He cut off. The most recent revelation was was still too much for him to process, let alone voice aloud.
”So much for this fuckin’ town,” Viper shrugged. He thumbed his radio. “Rook, regroup at delta. You get your wish. We’re bailing.” He grabbed up Alden by the neck of his shirt and pressed him against the tree. “Do I have to drag you the whole way there?”
”Two people with magic’s better’n just one. You’re coming with us.”
Alden shook his head. “I have to get out of here.”
”Well lucky you, that’s where we’re goin’.” Two clicks of the radio, then another long press. Alden struggled, but Viper had him firmly pinned to the trunk. Even with only one arm, the man was hellishly strong. “Snakecharmer, python.”
”Snakecharmer, evac at el-zed delta in ten mikes. Drop us a line, tree cover’s too thick. Over.”
”Ack, Snakecharmer. We’ll see you in fifteen. I’m buying drinks. Out.” Viper yanked Alden around and pushed him forward. South again. “Move it, kid. We’ve got a ride to catch.”
Alden hesitated. “Where are you taking me?”
”Back to base. And don’t think stallin’ will do you any good. All that means is a pissed chopper pilot who I’ll owe a few extra bottles when we get home.”
Alden began a more deliberately paced trek through the forest. Despite his newfound captivity, he felt much more at ease than he had a few minutes ago. Viper was a known quantity, and he was taking control of the situation. Alden didn’t have to think again for a while. He could just do as he was told, walk forward, and he’d survive.
Or would he? Doubt was creeping in. Viper didn’t exactly seem like the merciful type — or the legal type. Alden could be loaded into a black box, interrogated and then killed off without a second thought. No one knew where he was or who he was with.
”You’re taking me to Malton, right?”
”How’s a shrimp like you know that?” he asked. Alden stopped to answer him, but Viper elbowed him in the back. He pressed on.
”Heard it around that you worked for them,” Alden tried to answer as casually as he could.
”Yeah, no, you heard it from someone specific. That Jap chick, probably. Well, yeah, that’s where you’re going. End of the line, kid.”
”You’re gonna kill me?”
”Probably not. But they’re gonna want to study you, and me too. You cooperate, you’ll probably live a lot longer.”
”And what if they want to open both of us up?” Alden asked.
”Then they open both of us up. They’d better find out somethin’ useful though, if I’m gonna die in a fuckin’ lab instead of out in the field.”
Alden fell silent in dismay. Viper wasn’t going to be dissuaded. He’d answered so indifferently that Alden was totally convinced of his loyalty. They walked in silence for a few minutes, until Viper finally spoke up again.
”Look, I’ll put in a word for ya. You don’t seem like a bad kid. Might be I can make your life a bit more comfortable.”
”Thanks,” Alden replied bitterly.
”Or not. Just offerin’.”
Uncomfortable silence hung around them once again. Alden was following Viper through the forest with his head hung low. He didn’t even bother trying to run. What hope did he have against a trained military operator like Viper? He was just a kid, no matter what he’d thought.
”I wasn’t special at all,” Alden mumbled.
Viper laughed. “Kid, none of us are special. Even this son of a bitch poppin’ out monsters is just another guy. Dies to a bullet in the head, same as you or me.”
”You were just gonna shoot him?”
”Me? Fuck no. Malton will want him alive. I was gonna dart him, but you showed up and scared him away. First time we’d managed to get the drop on him, too, after dancing around for weeks out here.”
”So Malton knows about magic?”
Viper shrugged. “I have to tell him sooner or later. He’s gonna want to get a leg up on the competition before this blows wide open.”
”And you’ll just give yourself over and let them experiment on you?”
”I was supposed to be dead ten years back. As far as I figure it, Malton already owns my life. Anything I’ve done since then is on his dime.”
Alden shuddered. “I couldn’t do that.”
”Well lucky you, you don’t actually get to choose. That’s on me.”
Alden was starting to get desperate. “Wouldn’t you want someone more powerful? I can barely do anything.”
He shook his head. “A catch is a catch, and I ain’t stayin’ in this fucking place another minute. Everything’s gonna blow up soon, I can feel it.”
They emerged into a small clearing in the forest. There wasn’t nearly enough room for a helicopter to land, from what Alden could see. He expected to keep moving, but Viper took a seat on a nearby root and waited. Alden sat down too, as far away as he dared.
”Olet taas kuollut,” came a whisper from nearby.
Viper twisted around in shock, raising his gun. Alden froze in terror.
Rook emerged from the shadows, slinging her rifle over her shoulder. “That was sloppy,” she remarked calmly.
”Jesus, Tess,” Viper grumbled. He holstered his pistol. “Even tonight?”
”Bravo, you win, I didn’t clear the fuckin’ LZ.” Viper sat back down again. “One of these days I’m actually gonna shoot you.”
”On that day, you will have your first miss.” She looked at Alden as if she were examining a dead fish. “I didn’t realize we had cargo.”
”Boss needs a sample, and he was convenient.”
Rook leaned against a tree. “They will cut him up,” she added. Alden couldn’t hear a single note of sympathy in her voice. Was she on his side? If not, why bring it up?
”Probably. Once we unload him, it’s not our job anymore. We’ll finally be out of this boring-ass town.”
”It is better than the deserts.”
”I just want anywhere we don’t have to put up with so many civvies,” Viper grumbled.
In the distance, Alden could hear the drumbeat of an incoming helicopter. It was getting loud, fast. He tensed up. Was this his moment to run? Viper and Rook seemed distracted. Once the chopper arrived, did he have any hope of escaping?
Alden rose up just a centimeter. Instantly, he found himself staring down two barrels. Both Viper and Rook had drawn their weapons.
”Don’t.” Rook glared at him. “I do not feel like running right now.”
”It’s been a long-ass day,” Viper added.
Alden sat back down. “Aren’t I important, if you want me in a lab somewhere? You can’t shoot me.”
”Sure we can. There’s plenty of places you can shoot a man without him dyin’ anytime soon. Tessa knows all of them. If you want to try to run, you’ll learn a couple too.” Viper looked up at the sky and thumbed his radio. “Snakecharmer, python.”
”Snakecharmer, we’re set for dust-off. Drop it. Over.”
The helicopter hurtled into view. It raked across the canopy with the nose tilted up, braking hard and fast. It came to a stop just above the small clearing. Two ropes were thrown out either side, unspooling and dropping down to the forest floor.
Viper hauled Alden to his feet. They crossed to the ropes, where both Rook and Viper produced small metal clamps that hooked into their combat vests.
”Hang on tight,” Viper grunted. Alden grabbed onto his chest with all the strength he could muster. Viper clamped them onto the rope.
”Rook set,” came a reply from the other side of the chopper, barely audible under the beating thump of the chopper blades. At her echo, the helicopter lifted into the sky, taking them with it. The ropes slowly retracted upward, steadily carrying Alden toward the open doors.
Until that point, Alden had vaguely hoped Rika might burst out of the trees and lay them both low, just as she had with Jessica. As Alden thought back through all the events since he’d arrived in Rallsburg, he was slowly coming to believe Rika was as impenitent and callous as most of her former friends seemed to believe. Since they’d met on the train, Rika hadn’t ever really done anything to help him. She’d spoken a lot about helping, and allowed him to follow her, but beyond letting him awaken, what had she actually done for him?
Alden had helped Rika out indirectly. Just by being around, he’d noticed that a lot of people had tended to treat her with a little less outright hostility. He’d provided her with an excuse and a shield. Despite his shortcomings with magic, he’d actively tried to help her in every scheme she cooked up, or the danger she’d been facing in town from both the magical and the mundane. Rika had told him fate had put them together, and he’d believed it wholeheartedly.
Now that he was in actual trouble and his life was dissolving before his eyes, Rika was nowhere to be found. The one friend he’d believed he made left ran out and abandoned him in the middle of the worst moments of his life. Alden was totally alone, and being dragged away to what would certainly be the end of his life.
It felt like the end of his life, being pulled up to the helicopter while holding desperately onto Viper for dear life. Alden would never see his family again, or his friends. Not that he had any friends, apparently. Maybe this was for the best. At least he might actually contribute something, being tied up in a lab at Malton. His life would have meaning, even if it was just to advance some cause he didn’t know or care about.
They were thirty feet or so above the roof of the forest when Alden spotted something. There was a shape flitting among the treetops somewhere behind them. The helicopter had just tilted forward, gathering speed as it turned east. Alden strained his eyes. The moonlight was strong and the lights on the helicopter were all turned off. He could just barely make out a figure speeding toward them through the air.
It could only be one person. Alden remembered — he did have friends.
His only hope was to make sure Viper and Rook didn’t notice. They were more focused on the quickly approaching landing skids of the helicopter. Viper was reaching his hand out to grab it early, and Rook mirrored his action. Neither of them were looking down, and Viper was barely holding onto Alden now that they were so far up in the air. Alden could let go at any moment.
He had to signal her. Alden plunged into his mind, delving for the elemental magic Rika had taught him. There was the fire, sputtering away and waiting to spring into life wherever he desired it. Alden flung it wide, as far as he could reach. Every inch further from himself made it more difficult. The strain was tremendous for the small amount he was conjuring.
A few dozen feet in front of her, he spelled out a single word with licks of flame. They dissipated instantly. He couldn’t maintain them, or he’d black out completely.
A flicker of light blinked twice in response. Alden tensed. The helicopter skid was only a few feet up. Viper’s grip around his waist loosened as he reached for it.
The figure in the trees sped up, rising slightly and darting toward the helicopter as fast she could.
Alden’s heart was pounding so hard he felt like his head would explode. He was about to do something utterly insane and suicidal.
But if he didn’t, he’d be dead anyway.
Alden pushed off Viper and let go.
”What the fuck?” Viper screamed. His eyes shot down to catch Alden’s, wide with confusion.
Alden felt like he should say something in response, but he was too terrified to open his mouth. He fell swiftly toward the expanse of green below. It would only take seconds for him to hit the ground and be a very dead kid.
She rocketed into him. He tumbled sideways through the open air. A hand grabbed ahold of him and lifted him into the sky. Alden was held fast by an awkwardly bent arm. He twisted around and grabbed hold of her. They were still rapidly descending, but Alden could feel their speed slowing over time.
Not slow enough.
They hurtled past a tree and narrowly dodged another before crashing headlong through a thick intersection of branches. Alden felt cuts on his face as they plowed through, but they emerged out the other side. Finally, mercifully, he felt a sharp tug in his stomach. The wings had unfurled and flared wide, and their speed was dropping quickly.
”You okay?” she shouted.
The wind blasted their ears. Alden was still too shaken up to answer. He just closed his eyes and held on tight while Hailey swept through the trees. He was still trying to process what had just happened.
Alden had thrown himself out into the air with no guarantee of safety. He’d been at least a hundred feet off the ground. He should have died. It was only thanks to Hailey’s quick action that he was still breathing.
”We’ve gotta land,” Hailey called. “I can’t keep this up much longer.”
Alden nodded into her shoulder, still too winded to speak. He wrapped his arms tighter around her and clung on as she started to glide lower. Ahead, they could see a dim light filtering through the trees. A campfire, maybe. Hailey was making for it.
Alden shook his head.
”What if that’s them?” Alden said. The wind wasn’t so loud anymore, and his panic was subsiding while his anxiety continued to rise.
”I need to land somewhere. We’re gonna fall if I don’t.”
Hailey dropped lower. Alden could feel the air thump against their descent in waves until they were finally coming into a short landing. Thankfully, they were far short of the firelight, whomever it might belong to. Hailey dropped onto her feet, but her legs immediately gave way and they tumbled into the moss and dirt. She groaned, and awkwardly rolled off of Alden.
”You okay?” Alden asked tentatively.
”I’m still pretty banged up,” Hailey replied. She dragged herself to the nearest tree and propped herself up against it.
”You came after me.”
”Well yeah, of course I did.” She looked at him funny. “Why wouldn’t I?”
Alden’s face heated up. “Thank you.”
Hailey shook her head. “I had to. My friends all left and I didn’t chase after any of them. So I’m starting a new thing where I actually try to keep my friends around. And, well, you needed help.”
”No kidding,” Alden said. He looked up at the thick tree canopy and the moonlight filtering through the branches. The helicopter was still loud and circling nearby, but they couldn’t it. “I was screwed. How did you find me?”
”Followed you the whole way. I nearly caught up right when you were snatched by that guy, but I had to stay back. We’re lucky neither of them ever really looked up.” Hailey grinned. “I was hopping between trees like a monkey.”
”So what did they want with you?”
”To put me in a lab somewhere. For that Malton guy Rika mentioned.”
Hailey shuddered. “That’s awful.”
”Yeah, but they only grabbed me because I was convenient. They might try to get someone else before they leave.”
Hailey pulled out her phone. Her eyes narrowed. “Crap. No signal.”
”It sounded like they were leaving though. Maybe we don’t need to worry about it,” Alden added dubiously.
”You want to risk that? What if they grabbed Jess?” Hailey asked.
”Tried to grab Jess,” Alden pointed out. “I’m pretty sure she could take them in a fight.”
”Maybe. If they took her by surprise though…” Hailey’s face creased with worry. “It’s not like we’re invincible, we just have more magic we can use. A couple humans with guns or tranquilizers are still pretty scary.”
Alden noted her use of the term yet again. Now that they finally had time, he decided to point it out. “You keep saying ‘humans’. Like you’re not one anymore.”
Hailey looked surprised. She hesitated before answering. “I… I dunno. I guess I just feel different now. Like I’m something else. Don’t you feel that?”
Alden shrugged. “I haven’t really thought about it. It never really occurred to me to think of myself as anything else.”
She looked uncomfortable. “Is it weird? I’ll try to stop.”
He shook his head. “You don’t need to do anything because I told you to. I’m just one guy.”
”No, if it’s weird I—” She cut off suddenly, tilting her head to the side. Alden heard it too. Someone was talking nearby, much louder than them. Shouting, in fact. It was a voice they both recognized. A low, perpetually exhausted, bitter voice.
It was Brian Hendricks.
”They don’t beat you. They can’t. That’s the whole point.”
Brian was raging at Omega, his voice carrying through the underbrush. Alden was frozen in place. Hailey had landed closer to the light than he’d thought — and it had belonged to his worst nightmare. It was a miracle they hadn’t been heard themselves, but it seemed their foes were a bit preoccupied to be listening out for faint voices in the distance.
”Calm down, man,” Omega replied. Even though he wasn’t shouting, his own voice still carried far. The deep timbre struck shivers in Alden’s spine, just as it had in town. “They just surprised me.”
”You’ve got a massive bite in your shoulder,” Brian growled. “What the hell did those savages do to you? And how?”
Omega hesitated before answering. “It won’t happen again. I’ll be ready next time.”
”No, that’s not enough. We have to send them a message.”
”What kind of message?”
Hailey shot a fearful look at Alden. Neither of them dared move, but they seemed to be in complete agreement: we need to get out of here.
”That the end is nigh. They’ve chosen destruction.”
”You would destroy the entire town?” Omega asked casually.
”You said it yourself. Magic is out and the town did nothing. They just accepted it and moved on. How could this town — my own neighbors and friends — let such filth into our lives?” Brian might have sounded hysterical, but his voice was controlled and steady. He continued in that same confident voice, speaking of murder and bloodshed like it were a chore — unpleasant, but ultimately necessary. “Rallsburg is doomed. We have to wipe it from the face of the earth. Natalie and I will find a new home after it’s gone. Then we’ll be safe.”
Natalie? Alden mouthed at Hailey in confusion. She shrugged, equally bewildered. Brian was apparently totally unaware of his daughter’s status.
”What’s your plan?” Omega asked.
”They’ll probably call a meeting, since they think you’re on the retreat,” Brian continued. “Use the time they have to plan some kind of defense. I can strike there.”
”No? It’s the perfect opportunity.”
”You alone, against the combined force of the town? They’d hunt you down like a dog.”
”I can beat them.”
Omega sighed. His voice got quieter, too quiet for them to hear. Alden looked at Hailey with dismay. She frowned, then made a few brief motions with her fingers. The air suddenly felt thicker around Alden’s ears, as though there were some kind of pressure building up in the area. Brian and Omega were suddenly quite audible again, though they’d dropped to normal speaking volumes. “…stronger than I thought you’d be, even using my magic secondhand like that. But you’re going up against forces you’ve never seen. Spells I’ve never seen.”
”The entire world is at stake. The clock’s ticking. We can’t just sit around and wait for their next move. We can use terror, turn fear back on those monsters like they deserve. They can’t mount a defense if they’re running scared.”
”They aren’t going anywhere. We’ve made sure of that. We can be patient and thorough.”
”I don’t have time for that.”
”Why is it so urgent?”
”Because my little girl is still in there!” Brian roared, causing Hailey and Alden to jump. The volume amplification made it sound like he was shouting right in their faces. “She’s not alone, thank God, but she’s still in danger. I’m the only one who can protect her. You know that we can’t trust anyone else with magic. Those stupid bastards would probably try to hoard it for themselves and we’d get more dead kids in the crossfire. The only way we can be certain is to kill every last one of them. I’m never letting anyone hurt my Natalie again.”
”…Again?” Omega prompted.
”It was when she was little,” Brian answered. The hot fury in his tone slowly subsided into a much colder, but no less intense contempt. “She doesn’t remember it at all, but her mother… well, her mom wasn’t exactly the brightest bulb on the tree. She neglected our daughter so many times… Then Lori took Natalie out to a playground, and she lost track of her. Natalie wandered out into the street and got hit by a guy on a bike. She was bleeding and crying, and Lori didn’t even realize it had happened until the ambulance showed up.” Brian’s voice had shifted to a growl. “If it had been a car, Natalie might not be alive. Lori was careless, the biker was careless, every single fucking person there was careless. Careless people who don’t do anything to prevent disasters like this are dangerous. Now they’ve got magic at their disposal and you’re wondering why I think it’s urgent?”
”You’ve made your point, man,” Omega answered, trying to placate him. There was a pause.
”What?” Brian asked.
”Thought I felt something…” Omega murmured.
Alden shot a panicked look at Hailey. “What if he can feel magic like Will can?” he hissed.
Fear filled Hailey’s face. Twigs and leaves scattered as she lifted into the air. She held steady while Alden grabbed hold. Moments later, they were skybound, moving away from the firelight as fast as they could.
They didn’t see Viper’s helicopter anywhere nearby, but Hailey stayed low above the treeline nonetheless. Neither of them wanted to risk anything at that point. She was taking a slow roundabout route outside its flight path back to Rallsburg.
”Are you getting tired? We can set down again,” Alden asked. Without the makeshift harness, he was feeling a bit vulnerable just hanging off Hailey. She was bearing most of the weight, despite only using one arm to hold up him, but it was still harrowing to be flying through the air with no visible support. Exciting, even in their current state, but definitely nerve-wracking.
She shook her head. Hailey’s eyes had started to adopt the dead look of the deeply exhausted, but she seemed fiercely determined. “I’ll get us home,” she replied. “Unless… you don’t want to go back? I guess you were thinking about running.”
”I—” Alden started.
”I don’t blame you,” she continued quickly. “Honestly, I thought about it too. Even with Jess like she is, we might have a better chance getting out of here. But I’m on the fence. Jess and I can probably help out. Like, a lot. I feel like I’d regret it the rest of my life if I ditch now, you know?”
”I can’t do anything though. I’m just a kid, and every spell I try is just weak,” Alden muttered. He assumed Hailey couldn’t hear him over the wind, but she caught it anyway.
”Sure you can. Don’t listen to Rika. You’re better than that. You’re smart, Alden.” Hailey glanced down at him for a second with a quick smile, but quickly looked back up before they plowed headlong into a tree. She had to roll to avoid it, making them both wince from the pressure. “Sorry. Seriously, though. Don’t sell yourself short. You can’t do much magic yet, yeah, but you’ve only had it for what, a week?”
”Less than,” he replied sheepishly.
”There you go! How are you supposed to be on par with all these people who’ve been doing it for a year? Or more? Don’t try to measure yourself against all these people, they’ve got a huge head start.”
”Easy for you to say.” He hadn’t meant that to sound so bitter, but it came out that way.
Hailey shrugged. “I cheated. Didn’t know it, but apparently I did. I don’t count.” She glanced at him again, seeing his dejected expression. “Look, your life sucks right now, and it’s all because of magic. I’ve been there for sure. Think about it though. If you leave, it’s not like magic’s not still gonna be there, right? You’re awakened now, just like the rest of us. Do you think you’ll ever have a normal life again?”
”Exactly. More importantly, think about all the cool things we can do now. I mean, check it out.” Hailey abruptly launched into a dive, rolling around several trees at breakneck speed. They burst through a clump and Hailey suddenly angled them up into the air. They rose high into the sky.
Alden felt his stomach fall out from under him. They were rolling over backwards. Hailey had taken them into a reverse loop. He was suddenly laid out above her, with only the clear starry expanse above. It was a rare cloudless night and the moon and stars were bright and gorgeous. For that brief instant, he forgot everything. It was a moment of weightless, breathless excitement.
They began to fall back down, and instead of a rush of wind like Alden expected, Hailey returned them to a slow glide again.
He burst out laughing. “Thought I said to warn me next time.”
”Yeah, but where’s the fun in that?” Hailey laughed. “Seriously, you want to give up stuff like this?”
”No, of course not.”
”Me neither.” Hailey sobered up again, her laughter dying away. “The thing is, that’s what he wants to take away, right? He wants magic to end. Maybe he’s got a decent reason, I don’t know. But I can’t believe it. So I’m not going to let them. Are you?”
Alden shook his head. “No, but I’m no one. I’m not powerful like you, or connected like Rachel and Rika. I’m not important at all.”
”I don’t think that matters,” Hailey replied. “I mean, look at Rachel. From what Rika told me, she can barely do any magic herself. She’s almost worthless at it. As for being connected and important, Rachel pretty much just copied me.”
”Yeah. Believe it or not, before I decided I was going to be a hermit for the rest of my life, I was basically the center of town. I knew everyone and everyone knew me. Life of the party. The girl in the know. Queen bee. Pick your title.” Hailey laughed. “Rachel was just one of my friends. She was always trying to be the center too, and she was nice enough, but she was a bit too clueless to handle it. Too forgetful. And when you start forgetting people and snubbing them at all the big events, you can’t be the center anymore, you know? Plus, everyone just thought she was a little weird.”
Hailey grimaced. “I don’t feel great about it, but we probably treated her pretty bad. She was crazy tall and super awkward. It was like high school all over again. Then magic shows up. I drop off the face of the earth — for very important reasons — and Rachel turns on genius-mode somehow. She already knew most of the town just because she hung out around me so much, and she basically just took over. No magic, no tricks, just being there for everyone.
”The point I’m trying to make, Alden,” she continued, her voice straining a little as she started lifting them above the rising treetops. They were headed uphill. Alden noticed her hand was clutching the tourmaline around her neck much tighter than he’d previously noticed. “I think you make yourself important. Yeah, some people start off important because they’re born into it, but they’re not gonna stay there unless they want to. There’s so many people out there now, and everyone’s so connected, you can only rise up to the top if you push your way there.”
”And how do you do that?”
”Luck — and being really damn stubborn.” Hailey grinned. “That’s my secret. I don’t give up on things ever. Maybe I put them on pause for a while, but it’s never over til I croak.”
”I don’t want to be important.”
”I don’t either. It wasn’t worth it at all. I’d rather have a few close friends than a ton of kinda-friends.”
”I want to help though,” Alden said suddenly. His mind was shifting away from flight. It wasn’t quite to the ‘fight’ end of the spectrum, but he didn’t feel so terror-stricken anymore. There was a new sense of conviction building up inside him. Despite what had been done to him, magic was still full of so much potential — and the few friends he’d made on this adventure seemed like friends worth keeping. “If I can help somehow, I want to. I want to help you guys save it. I don’t want magic to go away.”
”Me neither,” Hailey agreed. She started turning them more directly toward the town. Alden noticed they were on a direct path back to Hailey’s (and Rika’s) apartment block. “If it’s cool with you, I think our next move is to get some sleep, because I am gonna fall asleep in mid-air here pretty soon.”
”Just kidding. But seriously, I gotta lay down before this gets worse.”
”Okay.” His sudden burst of panic dwindled away. “We need to call Rachel though. We should warn them about the meeting.”
”Right. You have her number, don’t you?”
”Yeah. Guess I could call now.” Alden pulled out his phone and dialed, while Hailey gently descended toward the balcony of the apartments. The door slid open of its own accord as they approached. He could see Jessica waiting just inside with her hand outstretched. Hailey landed and let Alden go. She stumbled inside on her weak legs and collapsed onto the sofa. Jessica immediately began fussing over her. Alden stayed outside on the balcony, listening to the phone ring unheeded.
Rachel finally answered on the eighth ring. “Hello?” She sounded completely exhausted.
”Hi, this is—”
”Zack. What can I do for you?”
”I… well.” He hesitated. He didn’t want to reveal Hailey’s abilities if he didn’t have to. She’d already mentioned how she was a more private person than she used to be, and Rachel was certainly the opposite. It wasn’t his place to tell. “I overheard Omega and Brian talking in the woods.”
”About what?” She sounded doubtful, but too tired to argue.
”They’re going to escalate to the entire town, not just awakened.”
”We knew that already. They killed the reverend,” Rachel answered impatiently.
”They also said something about attacking you while you’re meeting tomorrow.”
”I didn’t call any meeting for tomorrow.”
”No. We talked about what to do next after the riot cleared out, but we hadn’t set anything in stone.”
”Was there anything else?” she asked.
”Just… be careful. I’m here to help, and so is everyone else.”
”Thank you.” She sounded like someone riding the line between sincerity and annoyance. “Good night, Zack.”
The phone clicked off. Alden stared out into the thick woods beyond the balcony. That hadn’t felt like enough. He wasn’t giving up with just a single phone call. Come tomorrow morning, he was going to be out there helping. Whatever he could do, anything he could contribute to keep the town alive. To keep his friends alive.
Jessica emerged and joined him at the railing. She looked at him and tapped his shoulder, where she’d bandaged his cut. He’d completely forgotten about it, and it hadn’t been hurting for a while. He pulled up his shirt sleeve, and she glanced it over. A moment later, she gave a thumbs up, letting his sleeve drop again.
Alden pointed inside, then put both hands up to the side of his face and tilted his head to try and indicate sleeping. Jessica nodded. Hailey was asleep. Alden turned back to the forest, trying to think of how to ask Jessica his next question. He already knew how Hailey felt, but Jessica was still a bit of an enigma to him. He liked hanging out with her, and she seemed like the best kind of caring and compassionate, but did that translate into wanting to throw herself into an all-out battle? Alden didn’t want to feel like they were dragging her into a fight she had no interest in.
He pointed out into the woods, then made the shape of a man in midair with fire. Jessica watched intently. He made a crude drawing of the town, then the man punching the town and it shattering. Next, he pointed at himself and then inside, and made a fist before punching out at the man. Finally, he pointed at Jessica, then at the man, and cocked his head to the side with a questioning look.
Jessica didn’t hesitate. She turned to the outline of the man in small licks of fire, floating above the empty space beyond the balcony. With barely any visible effort, her fingers twirled and a swirl of fireballs appeared. They punched through the man’s chest like tiny glowing bullets, one after the other. Jessica turned back to him and punched her fist into her palm, her eyes narrow.
Alden nodded. Jessica was on board.
Tomorrow, for better or worse, Alden and his friends would be joining the fight.
Chapter 21 — Waking Up
The last thing Alden remembered was the golem’s fist connecting with his chest. Everything after that was a hazy, muffled blur. His reality finally snapped back together after who-knew how many hours had passed. Alden found himself looking up at the ceiling of the back room in Boris’ shop, laid out on a fold-out bed built into the wall.
”Hey,” someone called out softly. Alden rolled over, feeling pain spiking in his ribs as he did. Hailey was laying on her side in a similar bed across the room. She actually didn’t look too bad, but she was mostly covered in a blanket. Her expression said otherwise.
”Did we win?” Alden asked, trying to lighten the mood.
Hailey grimaced. “Wasn’t us, but yeah, I think someone on our side did. We’re still alive, so that means we probably won, right?”
”Yeah.” He looked around the small room. There was a door back into the main bookstore, though he didn’t remember a door in that part of the building before. Maybe his memory was too muddled. He might have a concussion for all he knew. The room they lay in was equipped with plenty of medical supplies, and the beds were firm and rigid. With how he felt, he didn’t see any need to get up for a while.
He didn’t want to run into any more horrors outside.
”You okay?” he asked, before realizing that if they were both laid out in makeshift hospital beds, she probably wasn’t okay.
”More or less.” Hailey shifted around a bit in her bed and winced. “I got knocked out. Dude was fast.”
”Yeah,” Alden sighed. “How did he do that? It wasn’t movement magic. It was like he was in fast forward or something.”
”It was something new, that’s for sure. I’ve never seen anything like that.” Hailey frowned. “It doesn’t really fit any of the seven affinities.”
”There’s seven?” Despite everything, Alden was still curious about how magic worked. Rika had instilled in him that it was a consistent, almost mechanical art — in spite of the name.
”Actually, we — me and Jessica, I mean — we think there’s eight. Because of the symbol on the paper.”
”Oh. There wasn’t a symbol on the one I read.”
”Huh. Well, it must have been a different page. Anyway, it’s like a weird, curved, two-layer star with eight points. Seemed important, and we already knew for sure there were seven, so we figured it’s gotta be eight.” Hailey screwed up her eyes as she tried to remember them all. “Movement, self-enhancement, mental, knowledge, elemental, nature, and creation. There’s one more, and after what we just saw, I’m pretty sure that was it.”
”Something that lets you run across a room instantly like a crazy blur,” Alden muttered aloud. “Like in fast-forward… time control? He sped up time for himself?”
”You’ve gotta be kidding me,” Hailey muttered.
”That’s what I guessed it was. But I was joking.” She sighed. “I bet it doesn’t let you go back in time though.”
”Well yeah. We’d probably already know if it did. Someone would have used it to go back and prevent a lot of this, probably. Unless we’re the first to ever discover it and no one’s ever gone back before?”
”Too complicated for a concussion,” Hailey groaned. “New topic, please.”
Alden wanted to dig into it more, but Hailey looked like she was dealing with a heavy migraine. Hailey being one of the few people he’d actually spent any time with in Rallsburg, he decided to try to get to know her better. She was brave, and cool, and way less harsh than Rika. He cast around his skull for a topic, and landed on the first thing he knew they had in common.
”How did you awaken?”
Hailey shrugged awkwardly with just her left shoulder, while the right was still pressed against the mattress. “Same way everyone else does, I guess? We found a page and read from it. Was it any different for you?”
”No, but it was kinda crazy. That weird blackness and how it felt like you were gonna choke and die, until she shows up and saves you. Why aren’t more people talking about that?”
”Uhh, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Alden was shocked for a moment, til he remembered the other oddity in Hailey’s memory from their encounter upstairs. He sat up slightly, ignoring the spike of pain in his shoulder from the bandaged cut. “I forgot! You never met her!”
”Never met who now?”
Alden briefly explained his own awakening in detail — which, as he understood it, was the same basic process everyone went through according to Rika. Hailey’s expression told him it was entirely new to her.
”So you never met her until we went upstairs. That doesn’t seem possible. How are you alive?”
”We just read it and it told us that we’d found magic. Not, told us told us, but you know what I mean.”
”Yeah…” Alden frowned. “Do you still have the page you used?”
Hailey hesitated. After a moment, she pointed at her leather flight jacket, which was hanging off a chair near her head. A rolled up piece of parchment floated out of a front pocket and into her hand. It wasn’t a copy like Rika had shown him, but it wasn’t a tiny ripped and charred Scrap like the one from the Council meeting. There was no damage to it at all, only a frayed edge from where it had been ripped out of the Grimoire.
”It’s a full page,” he breathed. He knew it was significant, even with his own limited knowledge of magic.
”Yeah. Everyone else has ripped up little Scraps or broken copies. I think since you have an original, you didn’t need help.” Alden’s mind was processing fast, deciphering a piece of the puzzle he’d been mulling over. “So that means the three Gods were probably the same. They’re so powerful, and so are you and Jessica, because you all awakened from the real thing. Could I see it?”
Alden realized what he’d just asked. “Sorry, no, you don’t have to. That was dumb.”
Hailey shook her head. A moment later, a light gust of wind had the page gently coasting across the room to meet him. He caught it easily.
”That was really cool. You’ve got amazing control,” he added.
She smiled. “Thanks. That’s nothing though compared to flying.”
Alden smiled back at the memory. Feeling a bit apprehensive, he leaned over and looked at the parchment in his hand. It was thick, rich-feeling paper with a real sense of age about it. His eyes found a familiar gliding, unfocused sensation as they slid across each set of indescribable words. He could feel the words echoing in his skull like a song on the tip of his tongue, but he couldn’t repeat them, or tell exactly what they meant. All he understood was that it had the vague sensation of an introduction — a prelude to actual magic. It was from the very beginning of the book, or at least the beginning of a particular section. It had nothing to actually teach him.
Disappointed, Alden grasped the page with his own magic. Instead of the gentle glide and flutter of the wind, he simply floated the parchment back over to Hailey. His movement looked totally unnatural compared to hers, but it got there all the same. She plucked it out of the air and he let the magic release. To his mixed satisfaction, it had taken far less effort than he remembered — but it wasn’t suddenly trivial, like so much of the magic from Hailey or the Gods seemed to be. He was getting better, but only through practice and work, not a sudden grant of power.
”That was good. I can never move stuff steadily. You’re way better at that than me.” Hailey rolled up the page and tucked it into her jacket once again. “So did you get anything?”
”No,” he said dejectedly. “I don’t think it works like that. It probably has to be right when you awaken.”
”That sucks. I’m sorry,” she said sincerely.
”It’s okay.” He paused. “I don’t think you should tell anyone else about this.”
”If people knew you had that, and knew they could be crazy powerful by reading it, you’d be chased down and probably killed for it.” Alden shuddered, remembering the drama over the single Scrap at the council, and the flashes of memory from the golems attacking them upstairs. “Even if awakened people can’t use it, they’ll still want it for their friends, or to keep other people from it.”
”Right,” Hailey said, nodding. “Not saying a word, sounds good.” She frowned. “Guess I should get my story straight for the future then, about awakening and all that. Could you tell it to me again?”
Alden described his own awakening in as much detail as possible. Hailey nodded along and asked questions, trying to get everything down as if her life depended on it. Which it might, Alden realized with a sickening feeling. He didn’t want her to get hurt, or Jessica. They both seemed like genuinely good people, and didn’t deserve what had happened to them.
”Okay,” he said finally, after Hailey had repeated the story back to him well enough that it sounded right. She’d added a few touches that he hadn’t experienced, but they seemed plausible. He’d believe it. Another possibility occurred to him. “You know, we could just destroy it.”
Hailey hesitated. “I guess, but I… don’t want to. I mean, yeah, it’s brought me a ton of grief, but it did some good too. My life wasn’t really going anywhere before, to be honest. I was way more caught up in my social life and throwing parties and not recognizing who my real friends were. Cutting myself off for a year lost me a few friends, yeah, but it also got rid of a lot of crap. Helped me understand what was important and how to be responsible and stuff. If it weren’t for Jessica, I’d probably not regret any of it.”
”What happened to her? I don’t really know what ‘ritual’ means yet,” Alden said with a twinge of embarrassment.
”Rituals are a different way to do magic. Instead of casting spells by just grabbing at your energy and throwing it around like you normally do. You stop and focus, draw out energy from more than just yourself or a gemstone or two. There’s stuff with drawing symbols on the ground and using different reagents and so on. It lets you do the more permanent, powerful stuff.”
”Like, say, making your body full of electricity?” Alden asked.
”Uhh, yeah, I guess? Is that was Rika did?” He nodded. “Thought she was just trying to show me up or something by shocking me over and over. Huh.” Hailey laughed. Alden had noticed something about her — when she laughed, it was never a giggle. It was always a full-throated chuckle or even more. It always sounded genuine, too. Alden enjoyed it, especially compared to Rika’s mocking cackles or Viper’s low rumbling snorts of derision. They were both bitter, cynical people. Hailey sounded like she was just honestly happy.
”Anyway,” Hailey continued. The laugh faded, but she didn’t drop into full dispirited gloom like she had in the past. “If you disrupt a ritual, bad things can happen. Not sure why, and I definitely don’t want to screw around enough to figure it out. But that’s the gist of why Jessica can’t talk anymore.”
”That’s awful,” Alden said, wishing he had something more useful to add.
”Yeah. But we’re living with it. Jessica and I can still work things out, and we’re still best friends. We’ll figure it out someday.” Hailey smiled. “In the meantime, we’ve figured out plenty of other things.”
”Like flying,” Alden prompted.
”Hell yeah like flying!” Hailey laughed. “I can make it all the way up to the clouds if I want to. Or I can just ride down on thermals for hours while listening to music. It’s super relaxing.”
”Sounds amazing. Doesn’t that get tiring though?”
”Eventually, yeah. Especially if there’s no updrafts or anything to help me get up high before I start gliding.” Hailey shrugged. “It’s worth it though, every time.”
”So are they really wings?” Alden hadn’t seen anything actually coming out of her back, but he’d seen more than enough magic by now to never assume they couldn’t simply be invisible or something.
”Nah, not really. If they were, I probably couldn’t do it, since that wouldn’t be my affinity. It’s more like that’s how my mind sees it, you know? Like it’s how my brain makes sense of it. I’m actually using air to move myself around. It just moves things in the way wings do, I guess. They’re always there ready to go like they really are sticking out of my back, but it’s all just air. Elemental magic, if you wanted to stick it in one of the categories.”
”So you’re an Elemental affinity.”
”Yeah. I take it from your smooth move earlier that you’re a telekinetic?” Hailey asked.
”Movement, yeah. I’m not very good though.”
”Don’t be silly. You’ve only been doing this for what, a week?”
”Less,” Alden said, though it had felt like so much longer. The longest week of his life.
”You’ll get better. I wasn’t flying until almost a year after I awakened. Just keep at it, you know?”
Alden sighed. “Right now, I don’t know that I even want to stick around. This town has gotten crazy.”
”No kidding,” Hailey agreed. “At least it’s probably over though.”
”Guess so. Where is everyone, anyway?”
”I dunno. I woke up here, same as you.”
Alden frowned. “Boris must have patched us up, then. But where’s Rika, or Grey-eyes? Where’s Boris, actually?”
”You want to go out and look for them?” Hailey asked. She started to prop herself up, but winced again and laid back down. “Nope, nevermind.”
”I don’t want to just leave you here.”
”Hey man, it’s cool. I’m not gonna die here or anything.” Hailey looked thoughtful. “I’m a little curious though, why are you and Rika together? She doesn’t really seem like your type. Not together together!” she added hastily as Alden’s mouth opened. “I mean, you two have been spending every moment together since you got here, right? Just seemed a little weird.”
”We ran into each other twice in a row, almost right away. It just sort of happened,” Alden replied. “She told me everything I wanted to know and didn’t treat me like I was an outsider, so I decided to follow her.”
”Well, she’s got a point there. Us outsiders should all stick together.”
Alden grinned. “She doesn’t take crap from anyone and she’s smart and funny. She’s powerful and she’s been helping me with my stuff even though she’s got tons of her own problems. So yeah, I’ve been sticking with her.”
Hailey laughed and gave him a knowing smile. “Man, you’ve got a huge crush on her.”
”Yeah, no kidding.” Alden wasn’t embarrassed to admit it. It was obvious even to him at this point. He decided to turn things around though, since they were treading familiar ground. “What about you though? You and Jessica are super close.”
Hailey’s mirth died, and Alden regretted his choice of topic. “Sorry.”
”No, it’s cool,” Hailey sighed. “Jess and I weren’t actually best friends when this all started. I was jealous of her actually.”
”Of her talent?”
”No, because I thought she was trying to steal my boyfriend.” Hailey’s mouth twitched slightly. “I was completely wrong there, but anyway, months went by before we were actually really friends.” Hailey launched into the entire tale without warning. She seemed eager to get it off her chest, and Alden was happy to listen. Anything to distract him from the growing anxiety that no one was ever coming to the room to check on them.
They laughed at a few of Ian’s jokes as Hailey retold them. He got furious at Weston right alongside her. When she told him about what had happened to Jessica, he cried. She was a good storyteller, and he was so caught up he didn’t realize there was someone else listening in until Hailey finally caught him up to the day they’d met.
”Miss Winscombe,” Boris said gently from the doorway. They both jumped — or rather, they leaned up suddenly in their beds.
”…How much did you hear, Boris?” Hailey asked shamefacedly.
”Quite a lot, in fact. Rest assured, there is no one else nearby — not even my young grey-eyed friend.” Boris shrugged. “I am an old man and could easily grow senile and forget the whole tale, if you wish.”
”I… no, you don’t need to do that.” Hailey grimaced. “I didn’t know you were there.”
”I learned long ago that silence is among the most useful tools we have ever discovered.” Boris sat down on a stool near her bed. “May I check your bandages? I apologize for not asking before, but it was an emergency and you could not answer me at the time.”
”That’s… yeah, that’s fine. Thank you, by the way,” she added. Alden turned over to stare at the wall while Boris lifted her sheets.
”You are on the way to recovery, but I would not advise walking for the time being, or attempting to use your left arm,” Boris said a few minutes later. “Now, the young man.” Alden rolled back over, and Boris checked on him as well. “You should be fine soon enough. I believe you have a concussion, though I do not have the sophisticated tools to accurately diagnose one. You were thrown quite far from the building headfirst. It is a miracle that she caught you.”
”She meaning Grey-eyes?”
Boris hesitated for only an instant. “Yes, her,” he replied — but Alden could tell he’d been about to say something else at first. “Is there anything I can get the two of you? I’m afraid I don’t have much here at the store, but if you are hungry or thirsty, I can provide that much at least.”
”A little to eat would be great, yeah,” Hailey said. Alden agreed. Boris went through one of the cabinets and found a few boxes of crackers. They looked old, but Alden was surprised to find them tasting fresh, if a little bland. Boris inclined his head slightly, then retreated from the room while they ate.
”Is he like a spy or something?” Alden asked quietly.
”He just snuck into his secret medical room hidden in his store without either of us noticing and speaks a bunch of languages perfectly, and he’s in a dead-end town like this for no apparent reason.” Hailey laughed. “He’s probably a spy.”
”Don’t say it so loud!” Alden hissed.
”Boris is a good guy. If he’s spying, it’s for good people.” Hailey started munching down the crackers. “What about you, though? Are you a spy?”
”If you were a spy, who would you be spying for? Where are you from?”
Her line of questioning was strange, but it ended up leading them both to sharing their own personal lives in great detail. Hailey just brought that out in people, it seemed. She shared a bit about herself, growing up in the suburb mess between Seattle and Tacoma. She’d lead a charmed life, passing through high school with flying colors and with the option of hundreds of colleges open to her. But she’d chosen Rallsburg, to her mother’s dismay, and she’d decided once she arrived in town that she was going to do a complete one-eighty on her former life and become an outgoing social queen and pass all her classes with flying colors.
”How do you even manage that?” Alden asked. He always felt overwhelmed by his classes already. He’d been in most of the advanced classes offered at his school, but he felt like he was barely hanging on.
”By doing nothing else.” She shrugged. “I was either with friends partying all the time, and if I wasn’t then I was inside studying. That was my whole life up until we found magic.”
”It sounds exhausting.”
”Honestly, yeah, it really was.” Hailey smiled. “I was way happier in the long run spending time with just five instead. Those were real friendships.”
In return, Alden told her all about his life before Rallsburg — which in retrospect was a lot less interesting than her own. He’d gotten solid grades, but nothing extraordinary. He’d never played on any teams, or joined any clubs, or done a whole lot of anything really. When he wasn’t at school, he was at home reading, playing games, or watching TV.
”Guess the most interesting thing about me was that I used to make little models of things from books I read. Like, if something was described in a lot of detail, I’d try to make it in the real world.”
”Make it out of what?” Hailey asked.
”Clay, Play-dough, pencils and folded paper, board game pieces. Anything I had sitting around. I sometimes would get really into a piece and actually plan it out on paper, then put it together with clay and burn it solid, but that was pretty rare. Usually I just made them while I was bored and needed something to fidget with.”
”Still, that’s pretty cool. I was always horrible at art.” Hailey grinned. “Makes drawing stuff out for Jess to understand super hard. One time, she looked at one of my drawings, which was supposed to be an offer to grill some chicken for dinner that night, and she—”
A phone rang, piercing the quiet sanctuary they’d built up. It took a few seconds for Alden to realize that it was his phone. He hadn’t heard it once since he’d arrived in Rallsburg. It had only been used once. He’d practically forgotten it existed. He reached up and awkwardly grabbed it from the pocket of his jacket.
”It’s my sister,” Alden said, with a twinge of confusion. “Why is she calling? Why not a text?”
”You gonna answer it?” Hailey asked.
”I don’t think she’s ever called anyone in her life, not even Mom,” Alden said. He flicked the screen. “Hi, Meg.”
”It’s about time! I was scared to death!” Margaret belted. She always practically shouted into the phone, like she thought the mic would make her too quiet to hear. Probably why everyone tries to avoid calling her, Alden mused, holding the phone a few more inches away from his ear.
”Uhh, what? Why would you be scared?” Hailey gave him a questioning glance. He shrugged.
”You’re still in that town, right? Rallsburg?”
”Yeah?” He had told Margaret where he was going, in case his parents asked. He didn’t have a bad relationship with them, but it was certainly a passive relationship. They provided for him and they asked for updates on how he was doing, but beyond that they may as well have lived in separate houses. He loved them, of course, but they weren’t close. Meg was the only one he ever really talked to at home — and that usually involved less bonding and more ragging on her to do her chores or clean up after herself, or getting nagged about the same in reverse.
”There’s rioting and stuff. People are getting hurt.”
”There’s rioting?” Alden asked, sitting straight up in bed. The adrenaline spike overrode the pain in his shoulder. He looked out the door, but all he could see were the drawn curtains over the blown out windows and the shattered door-frame. “I’m putting you on speaker, Meg. I have a friend with me. Where did you hear that? I don’t see anything.”
”It was on some stream. I don’t even know why I was following this person, I’ve never heard of them. I saw a popup that they were live and I was bored so I clicked on it.” Meg’s voice was tinny and hard to hear, but they were both hanging onto every word. “Zack, I saw some girl almost get her head cut off with an axe. Then she threw a fireball back in the guy’s face.”
”What did she look like?” Hailey asked anxiously.
”Who’s the girl, Zack?” Meg asked with a suspicious tone.
”Nevermind, Meg. Just tell us, please,” Alden replied.
”She had bright silver hair and was super short. The guy was huge and had a big thick beard. Like, super stereotypical lumberjack.”
”Yeah, we know her,” Alden said. He looked at Hailey, who had a grim expression. They both knew what that meant.
”Meg, is it still going?” Hailey asked.
”No, whoever was filming dropped their phone and ran. It was looking at dirt for a bit and then it just cut out. I think someone probably stepped on it.” Meg paused. “There’s like, a movie filming out there or something, right? Special effects and shit?”
”Don’t swear,” Alden replied automatically. “How many people were watching it?”
”Like zero? I dunno, I was kinda flipping out over the action there.”
Alden had to get as much information out of his sister while he could. It would be important that everyone knew they’d been caught on camera. Cinza doing magic and fighting with Robert, probably. By Margaret’s description, it sounded pretty clear that most of Cinza’s group had been filmed with clear faces, and with more than a few different spells tossed about. It’d be very difficult to pass it off as a fake by his guess.
”That’s all I remember. What are you doing in that town, Zack?” Margaret asked.
”If I tell you, do you promise to keep it a secret?” Alden asked. Hailey waved her arms wildly at Alden trying to stop him. He tapped mute on the phone. “What?”
”You shouldn’t tell her,” Hailey hissed, even though it was muted.
”If I don’t, she’s gonna start telling everyone she knows about that video.”
”It was already streamed. Even if only ten people saw it, it’ll spread. A full-blown riot in a town this small is news.” Hailey shook her head. “Best case, they investigate when they can and we’ve already cleaned up the mess, and the humans don’t learn anything.”
”…Right.” Alden didn’t like lying to his sister, but he convinced himself it was for her own good. He took a second to prepare his story, then unmuted the phone. “It’s for a movie. I got a part as an extra, but it’s supposed to be a secret so no one swarms the set.”
”You’re not bullshitting me?” Meg asked.
”No. And stop swearing.”
”Oh, shut up. Mom’s not around.” Meg sighed audibly. “As long as you’re safe, then.”
”Yeah, all good.”
”Someone’s gonna get fired for that stream though,” Hailey added.
”Sucks for them. Talk to you later Zack.” Meg hung up, and Alden let out a huge sigh of relief.
”She bought it then?” Hailey asked.
”You’d better hope she did,” interjected Lily. She’d appeared at the doorway, giving them both another shock. From a glance, it was definitely Lily though — her demeanour and tone were totally distinct from Kendra, even if their appearances were indistinguishable.
”Would you people stop doing that?” Hailey muttered.
”If she starts talking, we’re all bollocksed.” Lily limped into the room, wearing a makeshift splint on one leg.
”We’re probably screwed either way,” Rika added, following her into the room. Rika was sporting a bandage around her head along with several over her arm. Her left eye was blackened and bruised and she winced with every movement of her chest. “Like Hales said, it’s news. It’s gonna spread.”
”So what do we do?” Alden asked.
”Fuck if I know. I’m getting out of this fucking town.”
Alden was taken aback. “You’re not gonna help?”
”Help what? Omega’s gonna kill them, or Rachel’s gonna win. This is a battle of people who actually give a fuck, and I currently give zero fucks about society or world peace or any of that shit.” Rika shook her head. “Coming here was a mistake.”
”Then why did you come?” Hailey asked. “If you couldn’t care less about Rachel or any of us, why’d you come back?”
”Told you, I’m trying to find my dad. But since Will’s working for me now and the Cockney Wonder Twins were lying about their sources, I’m getting the feeling I should just move on.”
Lily frowned. “I’m from Westminster.”
”I thought Rachel was your friend,” Alden said. “You’re just gonna leave her?”
”Dude, Rachel tried to get me kicked out of the goddamn country. You call that a friend?”
”She was trying to protect you.”
”I can protect my own fucking self, thanks. I’m surprised you’re trying to push for staying, Alzack. This place fucked you six ways to Sunday too and you haven’t even been here a week.”
”Tell him,” Rika asked, nodding at Lily.
Lily’s eyebrows narrowed. “You overheard?”
She shrugged. “You guys aren’t that observant. If you’re gonna be sharing deep dark secrets, you should probably pay attention to the bedroom door.”
”Tell me what?” Alden asked, getting impatient.
”The gaps in your memory. They were magically formed, and in a method that’s not reversible.” Lily paused. Her voice slipped towards Kendra’s typical inflections as she explained. “You don’t need to worry about a hidden foe, and from what we can surmise, it’s not a spell that can be cast on anyone who has been awakened. You are safe from further meddling, at least in this particular approach.”
”So what happened to my sibling?” Alden asked.
Lily shook her head. “We don’t know.”
Hailey frowned. She tried to lean up in her bed, but coughed and fell back again. “That’s it? You didn’t find anything else?”
”Whoever did this was incredibly thorough. The envelope that Zack gave us was a fluke, most likely forgotten because it had no real identifying marks. Granted, we’ve been a little busy this week and haven’t given it a proper thorough investigation, but I doubt we’ll uncover any further evidence or clues.”
Alden fell back against the wall with a thud. His entire mission in coming to the town, the only reason he’d even bothered to get on the train in the first place, had just come to a sudden abrupt halt.
”There’s more than that though,” Hailey said slowly. “Zack, I think it did more than just wipe away your sibling.”
”What?” He felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. What else did I lose?
”We’ve been talking this whole time and you never once mentioned a single friend. You don’t seem like the loner type at all to me,” she added apologetically. “You threw yourself into a brand new town and made a half-dozen friends in days. So there’s no way you don’t have any back home, right?”
Alden shook his head. “I don’t, really. I mean. I never really have…” he trailed off. More snippets of memory were coming back to him. Not of any friends, but of odd phone calls and texts he hadn’t understood. He’d hung up or blocked more than a few of them, assuming they were wrong numbers. Now, knowing what had been cast on him, he realized what he’d inadvertently done.
”Oh shit…” Rika murmured.
Panic was beginning to rise in Alden’s chest. His heart was pounding and his vision felt dramatically sharper. His mind was going a mile a minute but couldn’t settle on any single topic or any single memory. “I— what did— I don’t—” he stammered.
”Alden, calm down.” Rika landed on the bed next to him and grabbed his shoulders. She stared him directly in the eyes. “Calm. Down.”
”What did they do to me?” Alden shouted in her face.
”Calm the fuck down!” Rika shouted back. Alden was shaking in her grip. Breaths came in short gasps. “It’s going to be okay.”
”How can any of this be okay?”
”I don’t fucking know, all right?” Rika shook her head. “I don’t know how any of this works either.”
Hailey spoke up from the other bed. “You’re having a panic attack. Just keep breathing. Everyone in this room is on your side. It’s going to be okay, just keep breathing.”
Alden shook his head. He was still trying to talk, but words were coming out in single syllables and short bursts that made no sense. All he could do was think about how much of his memory was gone and who had done it. He finally managed to choke out a sentence after a few minutes of slowly diminishing hysteria.
”This isn’t fun anymore.”
Rika’s eyes got wide for a second, then fiercely narrowed. “You thought this was going to be fun? Magic isn’t a fucking game, Alden. People are dying out there.”
”Rika, stop, you’re not helping—” Hailey started, but Rika’s voice rose to drown her out. She stood up from the bed to tower over Alden.
”Grow the fuck up, Alden. You’ve had something fucking terrible happen to you, and now you’ve got to deal with it. Welcome to the shitty-ass world.”
A phone started buzzing. Lily withdrew it from her bag and answered. The entire room fell eerily silent, with Rika’s words still hanging in the air. Alden was rocking back and forth in place on the bed, feeling utterly terrified. He was barely paying attention, and missed the entire phone conversation until Lily finally hung up, her eyes wide.
”Omega attacked Will,” she reported in a whisper.
”Fuck!” Rika screamed. She turned and ran out the door heedless of her injuries. Lily watched her go, clearly wishing she could follow on her leg.
Hailey finally managed to sit up. “How bad?”
”He’s alive, but it’s bad. They think Omega deliberately left him alive.” Lily shook her head in dismay. “No one’s safe anymore.”
Alden stood up while the two of them kept talking. He wasn’t listening anymore. To his surprise, he barely felt injured, except for the still faintly stinging cut on his shoulder. His mind was on autopilot. It was about thirty five miles to the nearest town, if he remembered right. Forty at the most. It would be a long run, but he could probably make it. He had some food in his backpack and he could grab more from Rika’s apartment before he left. It was warm enough at night that he didn’t need to worry about freezing.
Ignoring the cries of alarm from Lily and Hailey, Alden bolted from the room. He took off at a sprint through the oppressive darkness of the unlit town. There was enough moonlight to tell where he was going, but the darkness wasn’t what terrified him. It was the visions of monsters growing out of the floor. Even worse, it was the idea that even his own mind could no longer be trusted.
Alden ran, trying to flee something he couldn’t possibly escape from. The dark night swallowed him up, like a grinning shadowy monster eager to devour its hapless prey.