Chapter 13 — Fugitives
”What am I supposed to do now?” Rika asked again. She was still crouched against the wall in the alleyway, though the street was quite deserted. Her voice quivered in a nervous way that Alden hadn’t heard before. Hearing the emotion punctuating her words was the kick he needed.
”It’ll be okay,” he offered. It wasn’t much, but it was all he could think of in the moment.
Rika shook her head. “I’m wanted by the fucking cops, and Rachel’s working with them. There’s no way out of this goddamn town either. Can’t go by train, they’ll be watching it, and who’s gonna lend me a car?”
”Look, there’s nothing you can do for now. We told Viper we’d meet up, so we should probably do that.” It’s better than sitting around in an alley all day. Alden wanted to see what they’d had in mind, and if they could still pull off the heist. It’d be much more exciting than hiding out at the apartment, at the very least. “You got a better plan?”
”No, but fuck it. Let’s go.” Rika held up a hand, and Alden helped her to stand. The shock from their brief connection left his hand tingling. He was beginning to enjoy it.
The trek through the town to the Kettle and Bones was less eventful than Alden expected. While they did stick to the alleys and shadows (to the extent that Rallsburg had alleys and shadows), they were barely given a second look. The few people who recognized Rika shot her a frown or a suspicious glance before heading on their way.
”It’s not much of a manhunt,” Alden noted.
”Word must not be out yet,” Rika muttered. “I bet Ryan’d be out like a wolf if he knew.”
”What did you do to him?”
”Seems like way more than you owing him some eggs or whatever it was.”
”Natural twin lizard eggs,” Rika corrected. “Lizards have an association with fire for no apparent reason, so Ryan thinks he can use ’em for fire magic. There’s a whole reagent business around things that can enhance spells. It was just gemstones, but Ryan’s branching out. He figures the rarer or weirder the material, the more powerful it might be. Trying out weird things.”
”Huh. Wait, lizards aren’t related to fire?”
”Nah, that’s salamanders,” Rika answered, eyeing the door of the bar with suspicion. “You first? Make sure there’s no cops sitting on the other side for me.”
”What am I supposed to do if there are cops? They already know we’re together.”
”Scream really loud. I’ll send you a postcard while you’re in the joint.” Rika gave him a tiny push forward.
Alden sighed and pushed the door open, bracing himself for the noise of the bar.
It was nearly empty. Viper’s associate Rook sat at the end of the bar in the corner where she could easily survey the whole room. Alden didn’t spot her rifle anywhere, but he had no doubt the tall blonde could still easily kill anyone nearby if she wanted to. A deadly monster lurked behind her icy-blue eyes.
”It’s fine!” Alden called back. Rika burst through the door, rushing to the bar as if being chased. “What’s going on?”
”Thought I saw someone.” Rika plunged her hand into her bag. Alden reached for his pockets, then realized he’d never actually gotten any gemstones from Rika — nor had he any idea how to actually use one.
Luckily, he didn’t seem to need any. “Calm down, little girl,” Rook said, taking a swig of her drink. “You’re safe.”
”Tell that to the fucking cops,” Rika shot back.
”The sheriff and her deputy are away making house calls.” Rook nodded at a tiny radio at her side. “And this man won’t be telling a soul, will he?” The man’s head shook so fast Alden believed he was trying to dislodge it entirely.
”It’s not gonna be here,” Viper said, stomping into the room. He took the seat next to Rook heavily. “Same drink as the lady, please.”
”So we’re here for nothing?” Alden asked, a touch disappointed.
”Didn’t say that,” Viper answered, taking a sip. “We’re just a bit delayed now. If you haven’t noticed, the entire town up and flipped over on us overnight.”
”No shit,” Rika muttered, finally taking a seat. Alden took the cue and sat down at the far end, just beyond Rika. “This why you’re open so early?”
”Special request from the mayor,” the barman answered nervously.
”So the mayor knows too,” Rika concluded. “Now scram.” The barman scampered away, in a manner completely at odds with his appearance. Alden fought the urge to laugh at someone who looked like Rika sending full-grown men running for the hills.
”They held a goddamn town meeting,” Viper said. “I doubt it’s spread far yet, but people talk. Maybe not as much in this town, but it’ll get around.”
”Fuck,” Viper echoed with a nod. “I’m gonna have to report this back up the line now. My boss won’t appreciate being kept out of the loop for too long.”
Rika shook her head. “The whole town will know, yeah. But you don’t know Rallsburg like I do. Everyone here keeps things close to the chest. It’ll be a long-ass time before it makes it out to the real world.”
”That is naive,” Rook said.
”Listen, you uptight bit—”
”Rika,” Alden cut in sharply. Rika swung round with a glare — but at Alden’s expression, she managed to calm down considerably. She took a moment to compose herself.
”I don’t know if you’ve tried the net today…”
”We have our own hookup,” Viper answered.
”Right, fancy-schmancy. Well, they’ve been tracking everything going in and out of the town broadband. No one in this place knows shit about encryption so practically all traffic is open. I watched them pick up a few packets I sent out to deliberately flag up. And anything that needs higher bandwidth, even fucking voice chat is being locked down hard. Everyone’s gonna assume it’s the crap connects we get way out here, but I can see what they’re doing. And everyone else who knows their stuff is on Rachel’s side already.”
”So they’re censoring the town.”
”Nah, just traffic out of the town.” Rika flipped her hair back. She did that whenever she was trying to be impressive. “Between that and how rare it is for people to actually come and go, news will take a long time to spread. By then, Rachel might actually manage to persuade the whole town to keep it secret. And you know everyone loves to be part of a big secret.”
”What happens when everyone wants to awaken though?” Alden asked.
”We start killing,” Rika said with a grin.
Alden’s jaw dropped.
”Holy shit, I was joking,” Rika added hurriedly. “I bet Rachel told people that there’s no way for newcomers to use magic.”
”Yeah, that’s the gist I got,” Viper confirmed.
”So until someone on our side spills the beans, we’re still in the clear. It’s not like anyone can just awaken at random. Which brings us back to why we actually showed up today.” Rika cocked her head askew, giving Viper a curious look. “So who is your all-knowing source?”
”Not part of the deal.”
”Aww, not even for a cute girl like me?”
”Not my type, thanks,” Viper said, his face completely unmoved.
”Oh, sorry, you clearly prefer a viking warrior-maiden to a sweet innocent—”
Rook cleared her throat. “Nothing about you is innocent.”
Rika grinned. “Can’t argue with that. So what’s the new plan, El Capitan?”
”We lay low. It’s too hot right now.”
”Bullshit. This is the best time, while everyone’s distracted. Where’s the damn Scrap?”
”I’d have to talk to my source again and convince him,” Viper said. “He wouldn’t give me the info.”
”Piece of cake. Let me at him.”
Viper frowned. “Why do you think you’d be able to persuade him?”
”Because I figure I’ve got a fifty-fifty guess at who your source is, and I know both of those fifties. One much better than the other, but still. It’s the personal touch.”
Viper shrugged. “If you guess right, then we can talk.”
Rika grinned. She leaned in and whispered a name in his ear. From the way Viper’s eyes widened, she was right on the money. He stood without a word and Rika followed him out the back door.
Alden hadn’t been sure if he was allowed to follow, so he stayed rooted to the stool.
”Can I get you anything?” the barman asked. He’d returned after seeing the lull in conversation at the bar.
”Uhh, I’m underage…” Alden said nervously.
”No shit, kid. I meant like a soda.”
”Just water, please,” Alden answered. Rook made a sniffing noise, as if she found something distasteful. “What?”
”Little boy afraid of a man’s drink.”
”I’m happier without my brain messed up, thanks,” Alden said, hoping it sounded as confident out loud as it did in his head.
Rook didn’t look impressed. “The drink doesn’t cloud the mind, it frees you from burden. Only people who can’t handle that freedom get lost in the bottle.” She downed a swill, ice-blue eyes never breaking their lock on Alden. “When you are older, you will understand.”
”Where are you from?” Alden asked, desperate to change topics. Anything to move the focus onto her.
”You ask a personal question. What is your motive? Are you trying to gain an advantage over me?”
”No, I was just curious,” Alden trailed off. “I don’t really know the rest of the world that well. You’re from Europe, right?”
”Yes, but also no.”
”Oh, err…” Alden cast around for another topic. Silence stretched out the minutes before he finally came up with another question to ask. “What brought you and Viper together?”
”I was assigned to be his partner.”
”Oh, so you two aren’t together or anything?”
”No.” Rook’s eyes flicked to the front door for a moment, then back to Alden. She took another sip of her drink, her face still utterly frozen in empty expression. Another long silence ensued. Alden cast about desperately for a topic. Something about her obstinance made him determined to get to know her, particularly if they were to be working together in the future.
”What’s your favorite color?” Alden asked finally, determined to get an actual personal detail out of her before Rika came back.
”I don’t have one.”
”Well, you two have all the chemistry of a funeral,” Viper said dryly. Alden started. He hadn’t realized they’d returned yet.
”Some of the best sex I ever had was right after a funeral,” Rika commented, emerging through the door behind Viper. The entire room looked round at her. “What?”
”Girl, there’s something wrong with you,” Viper said.
”It’s totally normal,” she protested.
”They want to feel alive,” Rook concurred with a slight nod, surprising everyone once more. Even Rika looked shocked that the woman had taken her side. “Everyone feels the true fear of death and returns to the process of life.”
”See, she gets it,” Rika said triumphantly.
”You are still an uncouth child who needs to behave herself.” Rook added, returning to her drink.
”And I hate you again. Come on, Zack. Let’s go.”
”Where are we going?” Alden scrambled to his feet.
”To track down a source.” Rika smirked. “Don’t worry, you can flirt with the viking later.”
They’d left the bar out the back door, with plans to meet up with the pair of mercenaries that evening. Apparently, Viper’s source wasn’t someone he could meet with during the day, but Rika seemed confident it wouldn’t be an issue. Alden was trailing her by a few steps as usual, trying to guess where they were headed. At the moment, they were passing the destroyed library, which still sent chills down Alden’s spine.
It was such a stark contrast to the well-kept town. Alden had never seen such clean streets. Being from a larger city, he always assumed a small layer of trash was simply natural, but the residents of Rallsburg were proud of their town and kept it orderly and neat. To see this wrecked, slowly decaying building totally abandoned by everyone and left to rot seemed completely out of place. Whenever Alden got near, though, he could feel it urging him away. It was silently screaming of dangers hidden within the ruined pillars.
He was so enraptured he almost missed Rika trying to talk to him.
”Why do you keep doing that?”
”Doing what?” Alden asked, tearing his eyes away to look at her. He always felt a bit intimidated by her. Rika may have been shorter than him by half a foot, but she practically radiated strength and competence. He was jealous of that confidence, but it was invigorating as well. She was tough, she could take care of herself and she knew it. He found her mesmerizing, and mentally styled himself as her companion in this adventure.
”You keep poking in, stopping me or defending me or whatever. Why?”
”I dunno,” Alden said. “Why not?”
Rika frowned, taking a break behind a few bushes lining the street. She was still avoiding being seen when possible, but Alden got the impression she also didn’t want him to see her face right then. He leaned against a nearby wall, watching for any onlookers. “I told you I’m not exactly popular around here, right?”
”Well, someone jumping in on my side means a lot, okay? So I wonder why.”
”I just want to help.”
”But you’ve got your own shit, don’t you? What about your lost sibling?”
Alden shrugged. “Kendra hasn’t said anything yet, and I have no clue where to start besides her. I’d rather be helping you than sitting around trying to think of something new.”
Rika laughed weakly. “Who the fuck are you, Alden Bensen?”
”What’s that supposed to mean?”
”The one actually selfless person in Rallsburg, apparently.” Hearing that from Rika gave him a warm glow. It was how he envisioned himself. A hero of the town — or at least a hero to this strange, exciting girl he’d met.
”Come on, I can’t be the only one,” Alden said, trying to be modest.
”Everyone else has got an agenda, trust me. I’m pretty sure I warned you that from minute one.” Rika stood, rolling her head round her shoulders and stretching out her neck before setting off once more. “So, where are you from anyway?”
”Kent, just outside Tacoma. My family has a house up in the hills over there.”
”No wonder you think this place is nice if you live in fucking Tacoma.”
Rika grinned. “So what’s the rest of the family, then?”
”My parents are both teachers,” Alden said. “High school.”
”Eww, did you have to have them as teachers?”
”Nah, I went to a tech magnet school. I never had them. My sister did though.”
”Sister? Thought your sibling was a total mystery.”
”That sibling is probably older though. My sister Margaret’s only fourteen. Way too young for college.”
”Hey, I’ve known some damn smart fourteen year olds.”
”I thought you didn’t go to college?”
Rika shook her head. “Nah, but I still end up meeting a lot of interesting people. Consequences of my parents.”
”Your dad was something to do with software, right?” Alden filled in eagerly.
Rika grinned. “Top of the class, Alzack. Yeah, my dad founded NishiSoft, because he doesn’t have a creative bone in his body and named a company after his family name. They wrote database analysis software for trends in data mining. Boring as fuck, but super valuable to all the ad companies these days. Kendra’s family bought us out so they could resell the software to western companies, since no one wanted to learn Japanese to speak with our sales reps. I was probably the only one there who actually liked speaking English.”
”You worked for them?”
”‘You grow up in the Nishimura household, you serve the family from the minute you can walk‘,” Rika intoned mockingly. “My grandmother on my mother’s side was Canadian, and she taught me English while my mother taught me Japanese. Between that and the Internet, I grew up a nice bilingual asset for my father’s company.”
”Why not your mother?” Alden asked.
”Because she wasn’t permitted to use English,” Rika spat. “My family acted like it was still the fucking Meiji era and told my mother she was to raise children and keep the household, and nothing else. She couldn’t even work on her novels, just draw occasionally when she found some time to herself. If she’d actually been a Japanese citizen, maybe she could’ve done something about it, but she didn’t want to give up her homeland. She refused and stayed inside all the time rather than face all the judgment.” The bitterness in Rika’s voice was mounting with every word.
”…What happened to her?” Alden asked quietly.
”Dead,” Rika said shortly.
Alden stopped walking and looked back at her, half-shaded by the nearest building. Her eyes were burning with a cold fury he recognized from the diner, when they’d first met. He hesitated, casting about for something to say. “I’m so sorry.”
”Not your fault,” Rika said, her eyes softening a little. “I owe her everything, so I’m going to find the one responsible and deal with him.”
”Yup,” Rika said, a brief crackle of lightning sparkling up the blue lock of hair.
”What can I do to help?” Alden asked firmly.
Rika smiled, but shook her head. “That’s a family matter, but I appreciate it. Really. And if I can help you find your mysterious brother or sister, you just say the word. I’ve got your back.”
They arrived at Hendricks Apartments a short while later without incident. Apparently, the source they were looking for happened to live near Rika, which she found incredibly irritating.
”If I’d known the fucker was awakened this whole time, I could have just gone straight to him,” she grumbled while they snuck through the underbrush on the rear hill behind the apartments. “A guy who can find things with magic? Exactly what I need.” She paused, holding onto a tree branch with a wide-eyed expression.
”A guy who can find things…” Rika repeated. “Kendra had a source for finding Scraps, and was going to sell me the same service for my father. It’s gotta be him. No way multiple people have that kind of spell worked out already.”
”Who is this person anyway?” Alden asked.
”Can’t tell you that,” Rika replied. “I’m sorry, but I’m sworn to secrecy, and I’m trying to actually keep my promises now. Trust me though, he’s harmless.”
”Something doesn’t add up though.”
”Yeah, he’s clearly not charging enough.”
”No, not that. I don’t think he can actually do what he says he can do.”
Alden sat down for a moment to catch his breath. Climbing up the steep slope to the apartments was more difficult than he’d expected. “He’s probably able to find Scraps and magic things, since he found out about yours. But I don’t think he can find people. If he could, why wouldn’t Kendra use him to find Natalie’s dad?”
”Shit, Alden. That makes sense.”
”So either Kendra’s being lied to, or we are,” Alden concluded.
”Or he can, but Natalie’s father is being blocked somehow. Magic preventing magic.”
”Does it work like that?”
”Sometimes,” Rika said. “Here, try this out.” She looked round. Her hand flung out at the underbrush. A stick gently floated into the air in front of her. “Reach out and grab it.”
Alden reached for the magic. He’d begun to visualize it in his mind like a churning liquid in his mind, a pool of raw energy from which he could release bits of power to do things. It helped him hold more control over the flow of energy out of his body, so that he didn’t black out from overexertion. He’d come up with the idea himself, and felt quite proud of it — but when he described the idea to Rika, she just laughed. Apparently, she had no need to hold back, and that her body was much better at self-regulating than his.
His own mental projection reached for the stick, while the pool in his mind sprung a small leak. When he was about to make contact, he could feel another presence. It was a hard invisible surface, in the shape of an encompassing sphere that held the entire stick firmly in place. Curious, Alden tried to feel at it, and realized that if he pressed harder, he could actually break into it. He focused his will into a thicker point and drove at the edge of the stick. The leak in the pool widened, but he could feel the sphere beginning to crack.
”Yeah, that’s how it works,” Rika said. “When you project, you’ll start to notice other people messing with things. There’s a whole invisible layer just above what you actually see and feel.”
Alden tried to press harder, wanting to break through and show Rika he could manage it. A crack began to form. Alden looked at her excitedly, but she just smirked.
A invisible wave slammed into his will from the side, shoving him away and shattering his concentration completely. He let go immediately, closing up the pool.
Rika cackled with glee. “Nice try, but you gotta remember that I can come at you from anywhere.” She dropped the stick and held out a hand to him. “Come on, let’s go home already.”
Alden hesitated, but took her hand all the same, bracing himself. The jolt of electricity rolled through him, and he wasn’t jumping at it anymore. It was a friendly greeting, familiar and exciting and the tiniest bit dangerous.
They crested the hill, and Rika crept up to the edge of the apartments with Alden at her heels. Their apartments were at the far end, but this was the most covered approach up the hill, so it was the route RIka had elected to take. She crouched low and peeked around the corner wall.
”Looks fine,” she murmured. They rounded the corner and were halfway down the row when Rika held up her hand. “Shit!”
”The door handle. Someone’s in my apartment.”
”What?” As Alden whispered, they both saw the door start to swing inward.
Rika turned to the nearest apartment and closed her eyes, holding up her hand and moving her fingers intricately. A second later, the door lock clicked open. “In!” she hissed.
Alden had a split-second glance of Ryan’s distinct blonde head peeking out the door — thankfully looking the opposite direction — before the surge of electricity in his fingers told him that Rika had dragged him inside the apartment. She slid the door closed silently behind them.
”Who lives here?” Alden asked nervously, glancing around. There were two bedroom doors in front of them, one slightly ajar. He could see the edges of a chalk drawing on the wooden floor through the crack.
”Fuck if I know,” Rika whispered. “We just need to hide out until they leave.”
”He. It was Ryan.”
”That motherfucker,” she growled. “Next time I see him, he’s getting ten thousand volts.”
”Mmm?” came a noise from downstairs. They turned simultaneously to look at the staircase. A girl with brown-blue hair — the same one Alden had nearly run over that morning — was looking at them through wide frameless glasses from the bottom landing. Her eyes widened in shock. She lifted a hand, muttering something neither of them could make out.
”Fuck!” Rika stampeded down the stairs two at a time, her hand plunging into her bag. Alden felt a crackle in the air, but it wasn’t from Rika.
The girl’s fingers burst into life twisting torturous patterns in mid-air. A ring of fire burst forth around her outstretched hand, blue-colored and spinning madly about. She flicked a finger at them. Two fireballs launched themselves toward Rika. They hissed menacingly as they flew.
Adrenaline shot through Alden with a cold burst of fear. This fire was nothing like the little yellow-orange candle lights he and Rika had been playing with. It wasn’t even like the bright orange fire that had been hurled at them at Dan’s, licking off rubies hurled through the air. This was pure, elemental flame with nothing to subsist it. The sheer heat pounded him in waves, like someone had suddenly lit a campfire inches from his face. Alden could feel sweat beading on his forehead and neck.
Rika dove to the landing halfway down before the stairs curved inward. The fireballs impacted against the wall where she’d been a second earlier, splashing out in a stunning display of color before reforming and zooming back into place around her wrist. There was no damage to the wall whatsoever. This girl, whoever she was, had amazing control — and tremendous power.
The girl backed up. She threw her arm forward and sent another pair at Rika’s chest. Rika shot a fork of lightning at them, but it fizzled through harmlessly. Apparently deflecting them only worked when the fireballs were tied to the rubies, as they had been in the diner.
”Fuck!” Rika shouted again, only barely ducking the next assault. Alden wondered if he should try to help, but he had no idea what he could possibly do against this girl. At best, he’d just be a distraction to them both. He was afraid, but he was also excited. There was a duel happening right in front of him, magic on magic. If he didn’t fear for his own life from the bursts of fire impacting the wall below him, Alden would have been ecstatic.
Rika dove to the ground as another ball of fire only barely missed her by inches. Alden couldn’t tell how she had even reacted to that. It had flown at her so quickly. One instant, Rika was about to be charbroiled — the next, she was flat on the ground.
Rika’s hand flew out in front of her, fingers splayed outward. A trail of lightning connected with the bespectacled girl. She crumpled, squealing in pain, spasming from the electricity surging through her.
Rika groaned, collapsing against the rug she’d landed on. “Alden,” she choked out. “Help.”
Alden rushed to her side. “What?”
”Tie her up… or something. Before she recovers. I basically tased her,” Rika forced out, coughing. “Fuck, that hurt.”
He looked around the room. “Tie her up with what?” There wasn’t really anything he could work with that he could see. There was a kitchen area and a living room, but nothing that looked like rope. He thought he saw something rope-like outside on the balcony — a net of some kind — but that would take him right past the girl jerking around on the floor, who still worried him a great deal. “Is she going to be okay?”
”I don’t know,” Rika said, her voice quivering. Alden thought it was just exhaustion at first, but Rika sounded genuinely concerned. “I’ve never really done that to someone before. I panicked. Goddammit.” Rika reached out to a nearby chair and pulled herself up. Her legs looked like they were barely usable, and a trickle of dark crimson leaked from one nostril. “Thanks for the backup, by the way. How the fuck could she manage those without falling over? Those were way hotter than anything I’ve ever seen.”
”Who is she?” Alden asked, approaching her and kneeling down.
”No fucking clue. Never seen her before this morning.”
Alden tried to help the girl steady herself, as she’d started rolling onto her back. He was afraid she might choke or something. “How do you help someone who’s been tased?”
”I don’t fucking know. I’m kinda busy saving our asses here,” Rika snapped. She grimaced. “Ugh. Sorry, Alden. Head’s killing me. I had to use too much to dodge that shit.”
”Use too much what?” Alden asked, but he was interrupted by a groan from beneath her. The girl was making an odd noise. “What?”
”She say something?” Rika asked.
”Uhh, no.” Alden looked at her. Her eyes were wide, though part of that was due to the glasses that magnified her irises. She started speaking rapidly, though it wasn’t in any language he recognized — or anything that sounded like language at all.
”What the fuck?” Rika asked, still splayed out in the armchair. She lifted her head to look down at the girl. “What’s she doing?”
”I have no idea,” Alden said. “Hey, do you need help? Are you okay?” The girl’s eyes shot back and forth panicked. She kept making odd noises, like she was trying to communicate something. “I think something’s wrong with her.”
”No shit, Alden. But she… I mean, I didn’t do that. Right?” Rika said. Her own voice had a note of panic now. “Getting tased is supposed to be completely not permanent. Doesn’t last more than fifteen minutes. She should be totally fine. Right?”
”I don’t know,” Alden said, trying to interpret the girl’s chirping noises. She still didn’t seem to have control of her body, though, so he felt safe for the moment. “Maybe she already had something and you set it off somehow.”
”Don’t joke around, Alden. I’m freaking out here. “
”I am too!”
”Fuck! What do we do?”
Alden was cut off by a heavy object thudding into his shoulder. He fell to the floor, and was just able to twist around to see a girl flying — flying! — down from the sky like a thunderbolt. She swooped just below the balcony and rose up to land gracefully on the railing. Her long blonde hair spilled out from an aviator’s cap in a braid, pinned in place on her faux-leather jacket. Her hand clasped tight to a necklace. She looked tired, panicked, and very, very angry.
”Hailey?” Rika breathed. She struggled to raise a hand. Her arms barely made it off the armrest. Alden began to stand up, his hands up in surrender.
”Get away from her!” Hailey cried, and her free hand punctuated her words with a thrusting fist.
A wall of wind burst into life, sending paper scattering through the room. Alden practically watched the air rushing at him. The wind hurled him back and flattened him against the wall. He felt like a hurricane had suddenly formed out of Hailey’s outstretched arm.
Rika was thrown over backward on her chair and pushed across the floor. She slammed into the cupboard below the sink with a loud thump.
”Hailey, stop!” Rika shouted over the gale force. Hailey’s eyes narrowed. She stepped off the balcony rail and started walking toward them.
The wind doubled over in strength, and Alden felt like his stomach might collapse in on itself. He was choking from the rush of air against his throat. Hand outstretched, Alden tried to grasp the handle of the refrigerator and try to pull himself out of the wind, but it was futile. The force of the tempest encompassed the entire room. The papers they’d been looking at were now plastered to the wall near his ear. He noted belatedly that they were just college classwork. Totally ordinary.
Hailey looked as though she’d actually hold them there until they suffocated, but the girl on the floor managed to move her hand and tug at the leg of Hailey’s jeans. Hailey was distracted for only a moment, but it was enough to break the gale and let Alden fall to the floor wheezing. He decided he was done moving for the time being. His arm throbbed with pain, but he dared not move to look. He didn’t want to risk another assault from the furious Hailey.
”Jess?” Hailey asked. Rika was groaning from the corner, curled up in the fetal position with her hands on her head. Hailey ignored them both, crouching down next to her friend. “Jess, are you okay?” As she spoke, Hailey pointed at the girl’s face, then twisted her hand to a thumbs up, creasing her eyebrows.
Jess frowned, but lifted her own arm to give a thumbs up in return. Alden let out a breath of relief. Hailey pulled Jess to her feet and helped her sit back on the couch, then turned to face them. Her expression was hostile.
”Rika, why are you here? And who’s that?”
”Hi, Hailey, nice to see you too,” Rika answered, coughing. “Also, how the fuck did you do that?”
”I…” Hailey started, glancing at Jess before answering. “Well, I guess there’s no hiding it now. I can do magic.” She sounded embarrassed.
”Yeah, no shit. So can we.”
”You can too?” Hailey asked. “Were we the only people in the whole town that didn’t know?”
”I was gonna ask about that. I thought Rachel had tracked down everyone who could use magic,” Rika said, her voice steadily returning. “But here you are, and fuck me you’re strong.”
”I am?” Hailey asked, sounding bewildered.
”Uhh, yeah? No one can make anything like that wind. And am I wrong or did you actually fly up here?”
”Yeah,” Hailey said, looking embarrassed again. “It took a while to learn how.”
”Hailey, that should be impossible. It takes way too much energy to lift a human being for that long.”
”Jessica and I worked it out,” Hailey said, glancing at her friend again. “She got me flying.”
”So she’s just as as strong as you. Figures. Those fireballs were something else,” Rika said.
”You fought?” Hailey said sharply. Rika held up her hands in surrender.
”Honest mistake. I’m in hiding, okay?”
Hailey looked like she had just remembered something important. “The meeting! The murders! You… You’re wanted by the sheriff!”
”Well fuck,” Rika sighed. “Wait, what murders?”
”Look, Hailey, let’s just jump to the conclusion that I didn’t do whatever they accused me of. Which would be great because I have no fucking idea what it is. So could you tell me?”
”…I’m not exactly sure. I kinda… left early.”
”There were three people dead though. Two guys — Alex and Jay, both freshmen — and a middle schooler. Over a week ago now.”
Rika grimaced. “Someone killed a kid? Shit…”
”So… it wasn’t you?”
”Fuck no it wasn’t me!”
”Couldn’t have been,” Alden added, still struggling for air. He felt very light-headed and weak.
Hailey looked at him funny. “Who are you again?”
”I’m Zack. I just got into town, on the same train as Rika. She couldn’t have killed those people, she wasn’t here yet.”
”Oh,” Hailey answered, looking between them. “Are you—”
”Nope,” Rika answered. She gave a similar look between Hailey and Jessica, now looking fully recovered and watching them all with a pained expression. “Are you?”
”No,” Hailey answered quietly, glancing at her friend. Jessica hummed something nonsensical before crossing her legs on the couch. Her hand sat on the couch rest, pointedly directed straight at Rika.
”What’s wrong with her?”
”I’m still not sure,” Hailey answered. Her voice quavered. “Something went wrong with a ritual. I wasn’t in the room.”
”Oh, shit,” Rika murmured. “She did this to herself?”
”Yeah,” Hailey answered. She looked like she might burst into tears, but steeled herself. “She can’t understand any language. Nothing at all. I think she was trying something with her affinity, but it went wrong. Now it’s all gone, and she can’t learn anything new.”
”Sign language?” Alden suggested.
Hailey shook her head. “Not even that. We get by with the absolute basics. She gets ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ with nods, thumbs down, stuff like that. It’s all symbolic.”
”And you can’t try to help her because of Mason’s Law,” Rika added.
”Because of what?”
”Oh, right. Mason’s Law is the stuff about not being able to directly affect each other with magic.”
”Oh. I didn’t know we had a law for that,” Hailey said.
”Well, you guys seemed to have done fine on your own. Figured out affinities, eh?”
”Nice. Good word for it.”
”Thanks, but Jessica came up with it…” Hailey trailed off. Jessica saw her expression and reached up to grasp her hand. Hailey held it tight before continuing. “I’m still trying to figure out a way to help her.”
”Only way is to get her to do it herself,” Rika said. “There’s no way to affect someone else’s brain like that.”
”But without language?” Hailey asked in despair.
”Look, I’m not the most creative out here either. But I know some people. Soon as I can, I’ll try to get them to help — if you want that.”
Hailey looked nervous. “We’ve never known anyone else. Jessica hasn’t left the apartment in almost half a year now. I don’t know who to trust.”
”How about this,” Rika proposed. “I’ll explain the condition, but I won’t say a word about who it’s for. Just plumb their brains as an exercise. Does that work?”
”…Yeah, okay. That could work.”
”Great,” Rika said, resting her head against the wall more comfortably. “Now, do you two mind if we crash here for a while? We’re currently wanted fugitives, and someone’s camping out in my apartment.”
”Okay,” Hailey agreed. She hesitated, before looking up at Rika with a weak smile. “It’s nice to see you again, Rika.”
”Glad someone thinks so,” Rika grumbled.
”Sorry I blew you off the other day.”
”Well, you were dealing with being the only magical people on the planet,” she said, grinning. Hailey smiled. “On that note: seriously, you guys are way stronger than everyone else. How long have you been awakened?”
”Awakened? Oh. That’s… a little over a year, I guess. Last May.”
”Shit, not even as long as me. So it’s not just extra practice. What’s your secret?”
”I dunno. Gemstones?” Hailey said, holding up the white and purple stone on her necklace. Alden craned his neck for a better look, and saw that it was barely flecked with a little gray, despite the gale and the flying. Compared to the rubies that had burned black after only one use, or the topaz that had been ground into dust, Alden would have sworn it was totally unused.
”No way. There’s gotta something else.”
”I have no idea.”
”I’ll have to pick your brain sometime.”
”Jessica would know. She’s the smartest. Figured out the seven affinities for us and how to fly, how to do rituals, all of that.”
”Seven?” Rika asked.
”We never figured out the eighth.”
”No one ever did. We never found a single Scrap related to it.”
”Yeah, bits of paper from the book. Different chapters and such.”
”Oh, that makes sense.”
”You mean you guys never had another part? Just the one?”
”You weren’t kidding then. Most people don’t figure out entirely new branches on their own like that.” Rika looked at Jessica with a new measure of respect. “She must be a genius.”
”There’s someone else out there who can do things like this though,” Hailey said grimly.
”Someone else you two knew?”
”No. I saw him out in the woods. One of the two who destroyed the library.”
”Shit… You probably saw Omega.”
Hailey looked confused. “Omega?”
”One of the three gods. Well, not really gods,” Rika shrugged. “I think they’re just people with access to way more magic than the rest of us. You two being so strong basically corroborates my theory, actually,” she added.
Jessica got up and walked over to Alden, who had fallen silent over the last few minutes. She looked at him carefully, as if examining a specimen. “Uh, hi?”
She chirped at him, pointing at his arm. He glanced over and saw an alarming amount of red pooling up in his shirt sleeve.
Rika turned around at the sudden noise and cursed. “Hailey, do you have bandages?”
Hailey pointed at a cabinet. Before Rika could move, the bandages burst out with a flutter of wind. They blew across the room of their own accord and landed neatly in Jessica’s hands. She set to bandaging his arm quickly and neatly, humming to herself while she did.
”Sorry, Zack. Kinda forgot you were there,” Rika said, embarrassed.
”It’s okay,” Alden said weakly, dazedly looking at the blood. He felt suddenly very light-headed. “I was fine just listening.”
”Obviously not,” she said dryly.
”I think something sliced at your arm. Sorry,” Hailey said awkwardly.
”Was it that thing right when you flew up?” he asked.
”Err, no. That was my phone.”
”You threw your phone at him?” Rika asked, raising her eyebrows.
”It was all I had on me!” Hailey bent down and scooped it off the floor. It had a heavy-duty case with a belt clip and looked perfectly intact. She strapped it onto her belt, where it sat snug next to a few other pouches. “So, who is Omega?”
”The guy who probably actually committed the murders,” Rika said darkly.
”I think he shut down the train, too. He’s trapping us in,” Hailey added, glancing out the window.
”The train you two arrived on was the last one we’ve had. The tracks were all destroyed. I watched him do it from above.”
Rika looked confused. “So the trains are cut off. That’s annoying, but people have cars.”
”Not when the roads are blocked too. Landslides. Rallsburg is cut off.” Hailey took Jessica’s hand again and squeezed it tight. “We’re alone.”