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.