Chapter 5 — Rules of the Game
There were way too many kids at Willford Jenkins Middle School.
According to Quinn, the school had eleven hundred students total, and about three hundred of those were eighth graders. Hearing those numbers, Natalie had imagined a future where she could just blend into the background. She would just pass through school without really being noticed. Her master plan was all about endurance. She’d stick it out just long enough until they didn’t need to hide anymore. She made it her goal to be remembered by as few people as possible.
She barely lasted a week.
What Natalie didn’t realize, and what Quinn hadn’t thought to tell her, was that Jenkins didn’t get new students very often. Everyone in the eighth grade had moved up together year by year, and many of them had known each other from elementary school or even earlier. Natalie was one of only two new students in their whole grade—and that made her an instant celebrity.
Quinn was practically shoved aside as the popular girls adopted her into their circle. After the tenth introduction, Natalie didn’t even try to remember them anymore. She let herself be lead through a whirlwind of names and faces, blandly greeting them with a smile while nervously fidgeting with gemstones in her pocket.
The girls quickly came to understand just how socially ill-equipped Natalie was. Even back home, Natalie never really used any sort of social media, and she soon realized that more than half of the conversation between these girls was taking place online and well beyond earshot. They made an honest effort to try and educate the new girl on the latest gossip, the most important shows and music and movies to watch, who was cool and who was lame—but Natalie just couldn’t bring herself to care.
Who cares about gossip and drama when I can do magic? There’s more important stuff out there.
She nodded through their conversations and tried to be friendly, but Natalie just had so much else on her mind constantly that they could tell she wasn’t even good to be a bit player in their little troupe. After only two weeks, Blake Sinclair—the pretty girl around whom the rest circled like starving cats—decided that the messy-haired, tomboyish new girl with the freakish strength and the weird habit of talking to herself was probably best left alone. Natalie was never told to leave, but when she got the cold shoulder from one after the other, she got the hint pretty quickly.
She didn’t mind. At the very least, they’d shown her just how observant a lot of the kids were. Lily, Kendra, and all the others had stressed to her not to use magic while she was at school, but Natalie couldn’t help it. A lot of the time it just came totally natural to her, like when she’d broken the pencil in front of Quinn, or when she made an eraser skip across the desk rather than reaching out to grab it. She sat in the back of most of her classes, since her new last name just happened to alphabetize at the right spot before it looped back around to the front, so she was lucky enough that most people didn’t notice her murmuring spells without meaning to.
The riskiest thing she’d done was a brief conversation she’d held with a friendly tabby cat prowling near the door to the West Hall. It was looking for food, so she gave it a bit of tuna from the lunch Lily had made that day. From a distance she doubted anyone would have noticed anything strange, but if they’d heard her speaking to it? How could she explain a language she didn’t even understand herself?
Natalie never really understood how she was doing it, unlike the other spells she’d mastered. She’d learned it from that page she’d found, back before it was torn to bits and burned up with all the others in the first big fight—the night she’d met Rachel. It took a combination of the spellcasting language—that weird mix of clicks and words that weren’t words—and a kind of sing-song talking, like how some adults talked to little kids. When she did that, she reached out mentally to the animal and could get an idea of how they felt, and what they might say if they could understand her. They didn’t use words like people did, but she could still hear them.
The animals made way better friends than those popular girls did, at least for a little while. At the Laushire house she had Percy, her link back to the others in Rallsburg, and at the school she had the tabby cat, the hamsters in the science lab, and the pet snake that Mr. Darwin kept in his room. Natalie tried to make friends with them all, but most of them just didn’t respond to her very well. She didn’t know if she was doing something wrong or if they just weren’t as smart as Gwen and Percy. Either way, she started to feel it settling in.
Natalie was lonely.
She felt so stupid. Why would she be lonely? Nothing had changed, had it? Even back in Rallsburg, she hadn’t really hung out with anyone very much. She spent most of her time online, watching TV or playing games. When she did go out to play, it was just her dad or Jenny, or sometimes with the college kids when they came out into the town—as long as her dad didn’t notice. Those were special occasions. They’d run a regular game of capture the flag in the middle of town, and Jenny and Natalie would get put on opposite teams.
Natalie prided herself on being able to slip through the cracks they couldn’t follow, but Jenny was faster than her. They often ended up chasing each other while everyone else cheered them on, and games would usually be decided by which of them managed to sneak by the other with the flag. Natalie knew she was being treated like a kind of mascot for the college students, but she didn’t mind. She liked being part of the team and bringing home the win for them, even if she didn’t know most of their names.
Here at Jenkins, Natalie didn’t have a team anymore. She found herself eating lunch alone again every day. Sometimes in the cafeteria, but more often retreating out into the South Hall bathroom where she knew no one from her grade would go. She could feel their stolen glances on her back, almost like she’d betrayed them by not being cool or social enough to join their clique.
She tried to convince herself she didn’t mind. Natalie was getting the hang of going to school every day—friends would just make that so much harder. She woke up every morning in the Laushire house, said good morning to whichever of the two had the day off, cleaned up and got ready, took her lunch and stepped out the door to emerge behind the convenience store. She walked to school from the bus stop alone, went to each class alone, ate lunch alone, and walked home alone when the bell released her. She paid as much attention as she could stand, but her mind wandered easily and she spent half of class staring out windows thinking about magic, or about what a bird flying by might be thinking, or just wishing she could be done with the whole charade and on the hunt with Gwen and Rachel.
Still, loneliness kept prodding her, finally pushing her to make a decision as the leaves changed and September rolled into October. Natalie wanted to talk to someone, but she couldn’t bring herself to. She was too embarrassed to try and make friends now, after she’d actively rejected so many of them in the first month of school. Especially Quinn, who she felt like she’d totally abandoned after he’d been so kind and helpful the first couple days. Now whenever she saw him, he had his own small clique that he stuck to without fail. It was only four people, but there was no way she could ever approach him after she’d left him behind.
Natalie finally gave in one day while sitting on the toilet at lunch with her legs up, keeping totally silent so that the other girl in the bathroom wouldn’t know she was there. She dropped the sandwich Lily had made back into her bag, the exact same one she’d had every day since her first. The warnings of staying unnoticed and out of sight echoed in her mind, but she couldn’t stand it anymore. She resolved to find a friend, anyone she could talk to.
Instead, they found her.
Since it was so nice out, especially for October, Natalie decided to eat lunch outside for once, not cramped in a bathroom stall. She was sitting just around the corner of the building from where the cafeteria doors let out. Most kids went the opposite direction, where they could run around on the field, play basketball and other games on the blacktop, or just stand around and talk. Natalie went outside before anyone else, so she wasn’t likely to be approached by the other kids, but still close enough to quickly get back inside if she had to.
”I heard she’s adopted.”
Natalie’s ears perked up. Someone had started talking nearby. She was pretty sure it was one of the girls in the popular clique. Blake, maybe? I know that stuck up voice. Yeah, it’s Blake for sure, with all her dumb friends.
”Come on, where did you hear that?”
”Isn’t it super obvious? She calls her mom by her first name. She never said anything about a dad. She has to take city buses to get around. She’s totally adopted for sure.”
More voices joining the first. Natalie assumed it was the entire group of girls, though she was surprised they’d gone outside at all. Usually they stuck to their table at lunch, or occasionally went to the best bathroom in North Hall to try on makeup and talk about boys.
”Oh my god, adopted and weird.”
”Weird like how?”
”I mean, she’s such a loner! And she talks to animals like she’s a Disney princess or something.”
Natalie flinched. So someone had noticed.
”And that hair. I mean, oh my god, does she know what shampoo is or anything?”
Natalie picked up a few strands of brown hair from where it lay on her shoulder. That last comment really confused her—her hair was totally fine. She didn’t do anything special with it, but her hair was definitely clean and healthy.
”It’s like she’s never even heard of styling.”
”Come on, she’s just trying to pull off that small town hick look. She does it super great, too.”
She realized what was happening, and for a second she thought she might burst out laughing. The girls kept talking, needling her on her waist, her boobs, her legs. How her clothes seemed constantly caked in dust or dirt, or her out-of-date purse. Anything physical—because they obviously didn’t know a thing about her otherwise. Natalie just took it all in from behind the wall, trying not to laugh. Is that all you’ve got, Blake?
”Hey, at least she’s actually cool,” cut in a nasally male voice. Natalie fought the urge to glance around the corner, wondering who the new voice was. She didn’t recognize him at all. “Y-you’re all just vain bullies.”
”Vain bullies?” Blake sneered. “Careful Tyler, you don’t want to have another attack, do you? I don’t think the nurse can hear us from here.”
”You don’t have to be such jerks,” Tyler replied nervously, but his resolve was breaking. Natalie decided that was as good a moment as any.
She stepped out from behind the wall. As she expected, Blake and her friends weren’t in the least bit surprised to see her—but Tyler’s eyes widened behind his thick glasses. He hadn’t known Natalie was there at all.
”What’s going on?” she asked casually.
”We were just leaving.” Blake tossed her head slightly, and in tune her followers turned away to march back into the school. “I wouldn’t want to get between you and your boyfriend.”
Tyler’s mouth fell open slightly. Natalie just watched them go, not saying a word. As they disappeared, she sat back down again. She hadn’t gotten to finish her lunch, even if it was yet another plain peanut butter and jelly. Lily made them with magic these days while writing emails in the morning, just floating the ingredients and tools around in midair through the kitchen. She was so distracted that the sandwich usually turned out messy and falling apart. Natalie always made sure to wrap them up tight before packing them into her purse, or else the jelly might spill out into the space between pockets and make the whole thing smell funny.
Tyler just stood there staring at the ground, and after a minute or two she started to feel awkward. “Tyler?” she prompted.
He spluttered, a bit of spittle flying out of his mouth and landing near her feet on the concrete. She resisted the urge to flinch. “Hi. Sorry.”
”Wanna come sit down?”
His eyes widened again. She’d said the wrong thing, apparently. After another painfully long awkward pause, he finally took a seat against the wall a full six feet away from her, gazing intensely out into the field behind the school that jutted up against the apartment buildings on the opposite side. She kept eating, unsure what to say next, while he stared in silence. Finally, as she ran out of food and Tyler still hadn’t said a word, Natalie gave in and tried to break the tension.
”Why’d you do that?”
”Why’d you try to stop them?”
”I…” He paused, then finally looked over at her. Natalie noticed he had very nice brown eyes, magnified massively by his thick glasses. “They were being mean for no reason.”
Natalie shrugged. “I don’t care.”
”If all they’re gonna do is make bad insults, I don’t care.” She’d dealt with way worse than that. A few girls her own age who wanted to try and make fun of the way she looked? If she really got angry, she could beat them all up no sweat. Plus, Blake’s got nothing on Ryan or Rika. They’d tear her apart if she tried making fun of them. “They don’t scare me one bit.”
”They scare me,” Tyler said, looking away again quickly.
”Saying something.” Natalie stood up and pulled her bag over her shoulder. “How long til lunch is over?”
”Uhh, like five minutes I think.”
”Tyler!” The door swung open and out walked Quinn, flanked by the other two boys in his usual group. He spotted the two of them and made a beeline for them. Natalie felt an urge to flee, still uncertain how she was going to talk to Quinn now. She realized belatedly that she did recognize Tyler as one of Quinn’s friends, but she hadn’t gotten to know any of them since Blake had scooped her up so fast (and discarded her just as quickly).
”Tyler, what are you doing? You forgot your bag, dude.” The boy—who could not be more opposite of Tyler if he tried—tossed the bag over, which Tyler promptly failed to catch. Pencils spilled out all over the ground from an unzipped ouch.
”Nice throw, Mitch,” said Quinn. Mitch groaned and got down to help Tyler gather up his things. Where Tyler was pale, taller than average, long-haired and awkward, Mitch had incredibly dark skin, short black hair, a strong face—and was shorter than all of them, Natalie included. She was pretty sure he was even shorter than Cinza, who was the shortest person she knew. The only thing they had in common was that they both wore glasses, but Mitch had cool thin frames while Tyler had thick black frames that made his eyes look gigantic.
”We missed you at lunch,” said the last boy in the group.
”Sorry, Steven,” Tyler said, finally gathering up his bag again.
”So what’s up? Are you two friends now?” Quinn asked.
”No,” Tyler answered uncomfortably, at the same time that Natalie said “Yes.”
”Uh oh,” said Steven, grinning.
”Hi, Quinn,” Natalie said, her cheeks heating up.
”Blake and her friends were saying mean things about her,” Tyler suddenly shouted.
They all looked at him. “Oookay,” Mitch said. “So, totally normal Blake stuff?”
”I thought you were part of Blake’s fan club,” Steven added, with a nice smile at Natalie. He seemed okay, but there wasn’t that special quality Quinn had.
”Guess not,” she replied.
”She’s too cool for them,” Quinn added with his own smile, which made Natalie’s brain go all fizzy for a moment. “She’d be way better in the Glasses Club.”
”The Glasses Club?” Natalie asked, confused.
”Well, we used to call it the Glasses Gang,” said Mitch, “but they told us we weren’t allowed to.”
”But… Steven doesn’t have glasses?”
Steven reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a case, revealing a pair of thin-rimmed brown glasses. “I got contacts last year.”
”Traitor,” added Mitch, punching him in the arm.
”You should come sit with us tomorrow,” Quinn continued. “Instead of eating all alone in the bathroom.”
Natalie’s whole face flared up. “You knew?” she asked, mortified.
”Whole damn school knew,” said Mitch.
”Sorry, man,” he replied sheepishly. “I just thought she should know.”
Natalie shook her head. “I didn’t think anyone would notice.”
The bell rang, startling them all. The rest of the group walked inside, making fun of Mitch for something Natalie couldn’t hear, but Quinn held back a second. “If you want to,” he said. “You don’t have to.”
She’d been craving new friends, and suddenly they’d been dropped on her out of the blue. It seemed too good to be true—and she hesitated. Something about them made her nervous, but she couldn’t figure out what. It wasn’t like Quinn or his friends seemed like bad kids, but when she was suddenly confronted with the option to finally connect back into the real world again, Natalie wasn’t sure if she still wanted to.
Quinn saw her hesitate. “All right. See you around, Jenny.”
He went inside. Natalie sat back down against the wall in the empty school yard, trying to work through the emotions cluttering up her head.
Natalie: hey hailey?
Hailey: Hey, Natalie! What’s up?
Natalie: who are all the new people
Hailey: Did you see the post from Cinza? Here – https://————.—/thread/406-Splitting-the-site/
Natalie: she writes too much
Natalie: i got lost
Hailey: They’re new awakened. People not from Rallsburg.
Natalie: so thats why my name changes when im in that board?
Hailey: Yeah. So out there you’re not Natalie, okay?
Natalie: can i ask you something?
Hailey: Of course! What is it?
Natalie: there’s a boy in class who wants to be friends
Natalie: but i dunno if i should
Natalie: hes nice but
Hailey: But what?
Natalie: someone walking by and i hid it
Hailey: Are you at school?
Natalie: tech class
Natalie: and i cant use my phone
Natalie: cuz they block it while youre inside
Hailey: Natalie, you shouldn’t be logging in from school. Those computers might not be safe.
Natalie: what do you mean
Hailey: Cinza said they usually record everything. They’ll know you’re visiting this site.
Natalie: i thought it looks like a gaming forum to everybody else
Hailey: Yes, but just in case.
Natalie: im sorry
Hailey: <Natalie> hes nice but – ?
Natalie: i dont know
Natalie: should i be making friends out here?
Natalie: i thought were in hiding
Hailey: That doesn’t mean you can’t make friends!
Hailey: What’s he like?
Natalie: he was my guide in first week
Natalie: hes kinda funny
Natalie: but really nice
Natalie: he plays a card game with his friends every day at lunch though
Natalie: everyone thinks theyre a bunch of nerds
Hailey: Can I let you in on a little secret?
Hailey: I’m a huge nerd too.
Natalie: no you arent
Natalie: youre too pretty to be a nerd
Hailey: Straight-A student, Natalie. I had the highest GPA at my high school and in Rallsburg.
Hailey: Grade point average.
Natalie: no way you were the smartest
Hailey: Hey! Smart people can be fun too.
Hailey: Give them a shot. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. You’ll find other friends.
Natalie: will they think im weird if i just walk up and sit down?
Hailey: Time for another secret. Don’t be afraid to break the rules a little. They really want you to join them, but they’re never gonna ask you themselves.
Natalie: they kinda did all ready
Hailey: Oh! Well then, what do you have to lose?
Natalie: thanks hailey
Hailey: I wish I could see you. Sorry I can’t come by.
Natalie: me too
Hailey: How long do you have left in class?
Natalie: a couple minutes
Hailey: I was going to ask Alden if he wanted to say hi.
Natalie: tell him i said hi
Hailey: Good luck with school! I’ll have my phone on me. Message me if you need to talk, any time.
Natalie: bye hailey
Hailey: Bye Natalie! Love you!
The next day, Natalie took her advice.
As lunch rolled around, she almost started walking out to South Hall, but the thought of spending another meal totally alone and worrying every time the bathroom door opened pushed her to turn around. Natalie walked right up to the cafeteria doorway and stepped in, expecting the worst. She waited for every head to swivel toward her, the hundreds of kids watching her every move as she finally tried to rejoin the student body.
No one even noticed. The bustle of the cafeteria continued as if she wasn’t there.
Natalie took a few nervous steps inside. A couple heads briefly turned, but after a curious glance or two, they returned to their friends and their food. No one really cared. She scanned the room for Blake and her friends, but they were nowhere to be seen—or Natalie might have expected a bit more fanfare.
To her great relief, Quinn was there, along with most of his ‘Glasses Club’, seated at one of the far tables against the walls. Natalie made her way across the room and approached them. Steven was leaning up against the wall, watching Quinn and Tyler playing a card game. Natalie didn’t recognize it. As she approached, Steven sat up straight, waving her over.
Quinn looked up. Natalie shrunk slightly away, but he just gave her a little wave before focusing back on his game. His eyes were so narrow and focused, she didn’t want to interrupt. She nearly took a step away.
”Come on, sit down over here,” Steven added, pointing at the spot across from him. Natalie reluctantly walked up and took the spot, grateful it was against the wall. She didn’t need to worry about anyone behind her.
”Hi.” Steven grinned. “Don’t try to talk to them. They’re in the zone.”
”They are?” Now she really felt nervous. Should she leave?
”Well, Quinn is. This is the closest he’s ever been to beating Tyler and he’s really into it.” Steven pointed down at the cards. “He just needs one more good attack and he wins, but Tyler’s defense is like a fortress.”
”Where the heck did you get this draft?” Tyler muttered. “It sucks.”
Quinn didn’t answer, flicking through his hand of cards. Natalie tried to figure out what was going on just from context clues, but the numbers and symbols on the cards were pretty meaningless without a rulebook or anything else to explain them. The artwork was something though—a lot of cool fantasy images like dragons and knights and wizards. One card on each side stood out, with much more fancy artwork (and a lot more text) than the rest.
Tyler’s card depicted a knight in full plate armor and a humongous sword planted in the ground. Like his card, Tyler was sitting stock still and staring straight forward, waiting for his opponent to move. Between them lay a wide array of cards, pressed up against each other as if they were fighting. Knights and creatures and rock monsters and all sorts of other things, though they didn’t look as heroic and strong as the main card back in Tyler’s area. As Natalie followed them across, she found the knight’s equal on Quinn’s side, facing away from her.
Her mouth fell open slightly. Quinn’s card showed a young elf woman in full hunting gear with bow and arrow, riding atop a huge grey wolf and with a ball of fire immersing one hand. In fact, it was almost exactly like Natalie sometimes pictured herself when she was thinking about Gwen—if she were a bit older, a lot prettier, and with wavy golden hair and striking lavender eyes instead of plain old brown for both.
”What are the special cards on each side?” she asked Steven quietly, not wanting to interrupt their game.
”Those are their generals.” Steven pointed at the different spots that cards had been laid out. “Each stack is a territory, and if it’s on Tyler’s side then it was originally his. They send out guys to each area until they can make a path to the other side.” He indicated how the cards were laid out in a nine-by-nine grid on each half of the table. “Tyler took six spots on his side and made a fork, right? So Quinn has to go through the center to get to Tyler’s base, but he’s got two different ways to start.”
”And the general is in the base?”
”Not always. Generals do stuff wherever they are on the board. Both of them have their generals at home right now to make stuff faster. They can draw more cards or play them faster. It depends on what that general does and how smart the guy playing is. So basically, Tyler’s general does a lot and Quinn’s ends up doing nothing.”
Natalie had never played a card game more complicated than poker, but she wasn’t having too much trouble picking up on the basic idea so far. It didn’t seem that much harder than some of the games she’d played on her phone, at least. She was determined to figure out as much of the game as she could, so they’d accept her as part of the group. Steven talked way too fast, but she pieced it together from what he said and what she could see on the table. “Quinn has less territories on his side. That makes him harder to get to?”
”Yeah, since he’s got more power in those spots. Tyler has to go through the center, and all of Quinn’s back line probably won’t get attacked. But it means he can’t make as much stuff every turn.”
”It also means he’s going to get bulldozed by a couple meteors,” Tyler added, leaning forward. He picked up a face down card from his left-side pile and flipped it over, setting it on top of the one in the middle of Quinn’s. He suddenly broke into a coughing fit, diving into his bag and pulling out a small piece of plastic.
Natalie was alarmed, but neither Quinn nor Steven seemed the least bit surprised, so she tried to ignore the unpleasant hacking sounds coming out of his mouth. She leaned a little bit away from him, as if she could press herself into the wall beside her. Tyler took a deep breath before finally returning to the game. “Meteor storm to your farmland, on your templar knight and your assassin.”
Quinn frowned. “That’s coming from your wizard tower?”
Quinn sighed, and took two of the cards from his front territory and set them aside.
”Tyler did a meteor from one of his two front spots, his wizard tower,” Steven explained. “Quinn doesn’t have any magic in his front line anymore because he used it all to break Tyler’s other place, the merchant village. He didn’t expect Tyler to still have any spells left after their last big fight,” he continued, pointing at the single card on the other side of Tyler’s board, a bustling village without a single card protecting it anymore. “Oh man, Tyler just killed all his defense. He’s too good at this. Quinn’s gonna lose now.”
Quinn was staring at his cards intently, his hand playing with one on his back-end that was underneath a picture of a line of catapults. Natalie found herself silently rooting for him to win somehow. Tyler was obviously the best in the group at the game, and even though she didn’t understand how the game worked yet, she could tell that Quinn was probably losing. His back line had six cards each on the sides, but the three leading right to him were almost totally empty, with only his general on the last spot as his last remaining face-up card. She looked so fierce and resolute in her picture, but Natalie doubted that would help her against the ten or so cards lined up across Tyler’s board.
”How does he lose?” she asked.
”There’s three ways. If his general is dead for more than three turns, he loses.”
”They can come back to life?”
”Yeah, there’s a few different ways. Generals are special immortal hero types. You don’t usually lose that way, but it can happen.” Steven pointed at the spot behind Quinn’s cards. “If you get to the end of the line, you can attack the other guy. Every time you do they have to drop cards from their deck, and if they run out of cards they lose.”
”And the last way?”
”If they run out of cards another way.” Steven shrugged. “I guess it’s really only two ways, but it’s important since there are spells and stuff to make you lose cards. You still gotta worry about it even if you don’t get attacked.”
Quinn stopped playing with the card underneath his catapults. He picked up his general and set her on his center pile, one behind the front. He put out two dark robed ninjas on either side of her. “I move Linnethea to my fort and activate its guards.” He then flipped over the card underneath the catapults. “Siege attack on your wizard tower. You randomly lose a guy.”
Tyler sighed and picked up the three cards on his tower, holding them up in front of him. Quinn grabbed one out at random and tossed it aside.
”Shit,” Tyler groaned.
”Tyler just lost his best wizard to that,” Steven explained. “He’s still doing way better than Quinn, but that slows him down a bit. He’s still got this though. Quinn’s screwed.”
Quinn paused, then held up the six cards in his hand. “I discard everything and make three more catapult attacks.”
Tyler stared at him for a moment, slack-jawed. “Uhh, where?”
”All three on your castle,” Quinn said, pointing at the stack of cards at the side of Tyler’s back line—which included his general.
”What’s he doing?” Natalie whispered.
”Quinn’s crazy. He’s going all in on a stupid catapult play to try and take out Tyler’s general.”
”Tyler’s general makes it easy for him to pump tons of soldiers as long as he sits back in the castle. They’re cheap but he can just keep throwing them at the front until Quinn’s got nothing left. Quinn didn’t draft any good removal stuff in his kingdom so he can’t take care of that many guys at once.” Steven scratched his head. “This is like a fifty-fifty shot though and Quinn doesn’t have any other cards left. It’s a dumb play.”
Quinn smiled. “Hold ’em up, Tyler.”
Tyler held up the seven cards that had been clustered around the castle. Three of them had been face-down. Natalie leaned over slightly so she could see what he’d been keeping secret. Two of them looked like wizards, and the other card was a strange fairy girl with a wide, mischievous grin who seemed to be holding an exploding bag. Quinn reached forward and plucked out the first card, which was a plain-looking knight.
He looked disappointed, while Tyler let out a faint sigh of relief. Quinn waited a moment before he grabbed another one—the fairy girl with the bomb.
Steven whistled. “Oh man, that would have wrecked you. Nice.”
Quinn grinned. “Now for Sir Sits-a-lot.”
”Sir Tennenbauer the Indomitable,” Tyler corrected with an annoyed look.
”Not for long,” Quinn added, reaching forward for his last card. Natalie waited with baited breath as he reached right for the general—but he switched at the last second, grabbing up another knight instead.
Quinn looked at it, disappointed. Steven sat back against the wall, equally dejected.
”Is that your turn?” Tyler asked smugly.
”Nah,” Quinn said. “Linnethea attacks with everyone using her double move special.” He picked up his general and set her straight onto the wizard tower along with her two ninjas.
”Uhh…” Tyler started.
”Quinn, she loses that fight,” Steven pointed out. “What are you doing?”
”I’m attacking,” he replied calmly. Natalie noticed his hand touching the corner of a card underneath his other back-line territory, another wizard tower like the one he was assaulting. She hid her grin. She knew he had a real plan, even if it looked crazy to the other guys.
”I…” Tyler started coughing again, pulling out his inhaler. “I cast mystic retreat,” he said, tossing out a card from underneath his castle. He picked up the remaining cards at the wizard tower and put them in his hand.
Quinn smiled and moved his cards onto the tower in Tyler’s territory. “Your turn.”
They didn’t end up finishing the game, as the lunch bell rang before Quinn’s force made it to the opposite end. Natalie walked out with him while Tyler and Steven went off to their own classes.
”What’s that game called?” she asked.
”Did you like it?” Quinn asked, surprised.
”Maybe. I think it could be fun.” She shrugged. “I liked watching you guys play it.”
”Way more fun to play than to watch. If you want, I could teach you sometime.”
”Is it cool if I come over to your place with the decks?”
Natalie hesitated. “I… I dunno.”
”Oh! Sorry,” Quinn apologized. “I just… My parents kinda get annoyed when we just play games all day. They’re usually pretty cool, and Dad even plays it sometimes, but they think I have to focus on school.” He grinned. “They don’t know that I can do all my homework in study hall before I even get home. Anyway, we usually trade off between Tyler’s house or Mitch’s apartment, but I thought maybe you’d want to learn with just us?”
”I do, but it can’t be my place. I can’t have anyone over. Sorry.”
Natalie felt her face heating up again and cursed herself. Why can’t I stop being embarrassed around him? “Can we go to the library or something? Or maybe just here after school?”
”Library sounds good. They don’t let kids stick around here unless they’re in a club.”
”Like the Glasses Club?” she joked.
”It’s not a real club.” He laughed. “Guess we have to get you glasses now. Want to meet up tomorrow? I have a family thing tonight but nothing at all tomorrow.”
Natalie felt a burst of joy at the invitation. Someone actually wanted her to hang out. She finally wasn’t alone anymore. She had to stop herself from grinning like a crazy person and dancing the whole way home. She tried to answer as calm and casually as he’d asked.
”Yeah. Tomorrow sounds great.”
Hailey: Hi, Natalie. What’s up?
Natalie: it went great!
Natalie: were gonna hang out after school at the library tomorrow!
Natalie: hes teaching me how to play their game
Natalie: im part of the glassses gang now!
Hailey: The glasses gang?
Natalie: they all wear glasses so they call themselves that
Natalie: do you think i should get glasses too
Natalie: maybe itll be okay since steven doesnt wear them
Hailey: How’s he in the Glasses Gang then?
Natalie: he used to
Natalie: now he wears contacts
Natalie: is wearing glasses annoying?
Natalie: i feel like it would be super annoying
Hailey: I wouldn’t know. My eyes are perfect.
Natalie: i think mine are too
Natalie: perfect is 20/20 right?
Hailey: Pretty much, yeah.
Natalie: mine are perfect too
Hailey: Go team perfect eyes!
Natalie: so i guess i shouldnt wear glasses
Hailey: Probably not. But hey, one of them doesn’t either so I think you’ll fit right in. Just be yourself.
Natalie: be jenny you mean
Hailey: Well yeah. Be yourself, just not your name.
Natalie: its ok i got it
Hailey: I’m sure Lily’s glad you’re getting out of the house a bit too.
Hailey: You did tell her right?
Natalie: sorry i gotta go
Natalie: lily says dinners ready
Natalie: good luck with your mission tonight
Hailey: Thanks. Good luck with your friend tomorrow! Don’t beat him too badly.
Natalie decided that absolutely nothing would happen the next day at school. Nothing at all could get in the way of her having a good day after school. She hadn’t had a terror attack since the first few days, before she’d gotten used to the huge crowds everywhere. She still hadn’t told Lily or Kendra about those, but she’d talked about it with Hailey, and Hailey said it was a pretty normal thing for what they’d all gone through. Talking with Hailey helped her a lot.
She made it all the way to science class in fifth period before something went wrong.
The teacher brought out a small Bunsen burner and ignited it. Natalie leaned forward, excited. She’d always loved watching candles and other little flames dancing and burning in place, and that interest had doubled over when she’d awakened and learned how to control fire herself. Fire was one of her specialities, even though it was outside her affinity. Cinza was surprised how well she could control it, which only made Natalie more excited. It was one of those things that made her special, like her animal friends or how she was one of the special awakened like Hailey and Hector.
She wondered where Hector was now. They’d talked a couple times since he’d left for Canada, but she didn’t get much out of text from him like she did from Hailey. Hector just didn’t talk very well over the internet. She missed him a lot. He’d always been friendly, given her free candy out of his store, played hide and seek with her when she was little, and watched out for her when her dad couldn’t. He was what she imagined a friendly uncle would be like. She’d never known anyone in her own family past her mom and dad, so Hector had been her first replacement family member.
She’d had a lot of replacement family members.
Natalie was so lost in thought and memories that she completely missed what the actual experiment was about. Her eyes glazed over staring at the flame pouring out of the burner, thinking back to days spent running around Rallsburg with Jenny.
Remembering what had happened to her.
Natalie’s fist clenched underneath her desk. She hadn’t forgotten why she was out here, living with a fake name in a huge crowded school in a noisy, angry city. Two horrible evil men had forced them out here. One of them was dead.
The other was her father.
A shout of alarm brought her to her senses. Natalie stood up instantly, sensing danger but not knowing what it might be yet.
Her teacher’s arm was on fire.
Natalie felt like the world had dropped into slow motion. The rest of the class was still seated, mouths wide open. A few looked like they were about to scream. No one else had moved yet. The teacher was staring at the flame billowing up his clothes wide-eyed, but there wasn’t a fire extinguisher in reach. Natalie tried to think what else they could use, but she didn’t know what was good for putting out fires.
She did the only thing she could think of. Natalie ran forward from her desk to the teacher’s side. He was a bit shorter than average, so she didn’t have to reach too far, but he was twisting away and reaching for something on the desk nearby. Natalie focused on the fire with her mind, feeling the churning heat and the way it seemed to be constantly moving in circles inside itself. She started to press on it, suppressing and choking it away—but what if everyone else saw? What would happen if the fire just put itself out?
With her hands, she grabbed the part of his arm that was on fire. The flames started to lick at her palms, but Natalie pushed them away before they could actually do any harm. As her hands closed around his sleeve, she smothered the fire completely with a whispered spell, reducing it to a tiny wisp of smoke trailing into the air.
She let go and took a step away. The teacher just stared at her. So did the rest of the class. A fire alarm she hadn’t heard now shrieked in her ears, but no one moved.
Natalie didn’t know what to do. She decided she should just follow the rules and try to be normal, so she walked back to her desk, picked up her bag, and walked out the door—just like in the fire drill they’d done a week earlier. Every single person watched her go, while the burner still quietly hissed on the desk in front of their teacher.
If Natalie thought she could get away so easily without notice from the school, she was sadly mistaken. As soon as she’d made it outside, she was chased down by the school nurse. They sat her down at the far end of the parking lot away from the milling crowd of students waiting to go back inside. Her science teacher was a few steps away, also being examined. His sleeve was a little singed, but he was otherwise totally fine.
The nurse took her hands and looked them over thoroughly. He had nice, soft fingers. “Do you feel that, Jenny?”
”No pain at all?”
”Nuh-uh,” Natalie shook her head. “I’m totally fine.”
”I don’t get it,” he said, sitting back on the curbside. “You said she grabbed your arm while it was on fire, right?”
”Yeah,” the teacher replied, dumbfounded.
”I put it out,” Natalie answered with a shrug.
”What on earth were you doing?” cut in an angry voice. It was the grey-haired principal, looking absolutely livid. She stomped over and grabbed her teacher by his burnt sleeve, pulling him aside. Despite that, they were still speaking loud enough that Natalie could make out every word.
”A fire experiment for middle schoolers?”
”It was just a demonstration. They weren’t going to do anything themselves,” he protested.
”That wasn’t on the curriculum. And you set yourself on fire?” Her mouth opened and closed a few times, like she didn’t know what to say next. Natalie could relate. “We’ll be discussing this later,” she added angrily. “Is Jenny all right?” she continued, turning to the nurse.
He nodded. “Totally fine as far as I can tell. It’s like nothing happened.”
She looked down at Natalie oddly. Natalie tried to look totally normal, but she wasn’t sure what that would be in this situation. She settled on a smile, but that seemed to confuse them even more. The principal dismissed the other two, then sat down next to Natalie. She put her hands on her own face, rubbing her eyes as if she were exhausted. “Jenny,” she started.
”Did I do something wrong?” Natalie asked, dropping the smile since it hadn’t seemed to help at all.
”No. Well…” She paused. “How did you put the fire out?”
”I choked it. You’re supposed to choke fires, right? Make them stop breathing so they can’t burn anything else.”
She nodded. “There’s something to use for that though. Your teacher had a fire blanket on the desk nearby that’s specially made to help put out a fire. But you used your hands, didn’t you?”
”May I see them?”
Natalie hesitated, but she held them out, palms up. The principal grasped them, surprisingly gently for how harsh she usually acted, and felt along her palms. “How aren’t you burned?”
She shrugged. “I guess I got lucky?”
The principal shook her head. “That’s not how that works.” She closed her eyes. “Is this part of why you’re a special case?”
Natalie didn’t know what to say. She put her hands in her jacket pockets, trying to appear unthreatening. The principal seemed afraid of her, and that reminded her of all the other people who had been afraid of what she could do.
Those people had tried to kill her.
”I can make this go away, I think,” the principal added, opening her eyes and looking at Natalie very seriously. “You’ve been a perfect student so far and you weren’t trying to do anything wrong. Just… try to draw less attention to yourself? If it’s something bigger than this, there’s only so much I can do.”
Natalie nodded. The principal seemed like an okay woman. “…Are you going to tell Lily?”
She looked at Natalie oddly. “Is telling your mother a bad thing?”
”No, but…” Natalie felt anxiety bubbling up inside her. What if they started keeping a closer eye on her? How could she go out and meet her new friends then? “She doesn’t need to know.”
The principal sighed. “As long as it doesn’t happen again.”
Natalie waited in the corner of the library, fidgeting. School had been out for thirty minutes already, and Quinn still hadn’t shown up. She’d gone straight there after the bell had finally rung. Their class had been handled by one of the other teachers who had a prep period to end the day, as the principal had pulled their science teacher out for a stern discussion. She’d gotten out a bit early as a result, but Quinn should have arrived by now. The library was only a couple blocks from their school, and students went there all the time, so she didn’t feel out of place.
No one else was nearby. She’d picked out a table in the corner, near one of the fire exits in the back just in case. Boris had mentioned once to always sit close to an exit, even if it was one with an alarm. Better to be noticed like the red fox and able to run, than to get trapped in and eaten like the rabbit, he said. Natalie had started thinking about it all the time ever since. She kept her back to walls whenever she chose a spot to sit and never let people behind her when she could help it. She made sure she could run at any time.
Since there wasn’t a single person close enough to notice, Natalie decided to try out one of the more interesting spell combinations she’d been thinking about for a while. Hector had once explained to her all about how to mess with electricity moving around in devices nearby. He didn’t know how to actually move it or create it, but he could totally block it with one of his spells. They’d always used that to make sure no one could record Council meetings. Still, he’d always been pretty limited in how much he could use the spell to pick out specific things. Natalie shared his affinity, so the spells were pretty easy for her to do—and more importantly, Rachel had let her read the Scrap that taught her electricity magic. She was pretty sure she could combine those two into something more useful.
Natalie closed her eyes and concentrated. She murmured the spell Hector always used to block out electricity around him, but she gave it a little twist. Instead of blocking the area, she stopped short at just marking out the area in her brain, combining it with the sense of electricity in motion. Her mind started to loosen from her head, like it was a ghost floating out into the air.
She couldn’t actually see anything, but she could feel the outline of electricity around her, kind of like a pencil sketch of the room in her head. Natalie could feel the electricity running through the outlets and spinning around the entire building sixty times every second. As she traced it around, she found the spots where it jumped out to specific devices in the building. The computers at the desks, the lights, other devices scattered around she could only guess at.
Some of it jumped into small black orbs hanging from the ceiling.
Natalie’s eyes flew open. Quinn was finally walking up, backpack over his shoulder and a box covered in fantasy artwork under one arm.
”Sorry I’m so late. I had to walk Tyler home. He was having a bad day with his attacks.” Quinn sat down at the table, but Natalie frowned. “What’s up?”
”Sorry,” she said. “Can we… uhh… move to another table?” She could feel one of the cameras from the lingering sense of electricity still fading from her mind. It was watching her, making her feel uncomfortable and afraid.
”Sure?” Quinn shrugged, standing up. “Where do you wanna sit?”
Natalie closed her eyes again, trying to find every camera in the building now that she knew the pattern of wiring inside them. After tracing the path of the electricity bouncing through all of them, she realized that—despite being in the center of the opposite wall—there was a particular table that would be totally blocked from every camera by tall bookshelves. It was further from the exits, but she felt like Boris would probably agree with her decision. She pointed it out.
As they sat down, Quinn glanced around. “What’s special about this table?”
”No cameras,” Natalie replied, before she remembered she shouldn’t. She looked down at the box, speaking quickly before Quinn could react. “So what’s this game called again?”
”Conquest of Aldur-Bannor,” Quinn answered, passing right over her comment, to her great relief. He started pulling out the decks of cards inside. “Everyone just calls it Conquest though, even though there’s like ten games named that. But ours is the best one.”
”Is this one of those games where you gotta buy a ton of cards?” she asked, picking up a deck at random. She wasn’t totally concerned if that was true, since she was pretty sure Kendra could afford it without breaking a sweat, but she didn’t want to figure out an explanation for why she suddenly needed money.
”No, everything’s in the box already. They make expansions and you can buy those if you want, but you don’t have to.” Natalie opened one and started digging through the cards. “What are you looking for?”
”That card you were using yesterday. The general. Linnethi?”
”Linnethea,” he corrected. He pulled out another deck and handed it to her. “This is the general deck, she should be in there somewhere.”
Natalie sped through the stack of cards until she found the card. Linnethea Syldarei, the Wolven Huntress. “She looks so cool.”
”Well yeah, that’s why I like to play her.” Quinn grinned. “She’s also super good if you know what you’re doing.”
”So how do you start?”
”Well, it starts with a draft. We each pick out nine territories and a general from those two decks.” Quinn started setting them out. “There’s sixteen different territory cards right now and thirty generals. You could do nine of all the same territory or nine different ones, or whatever you want. You only get one general though, unless you pick Kobblebomma because he’s really two cards.”
”Kobblebomma?” she repeated, giggling. “That’s a silly name.”
”He’s the worst. Don’t ever pick him.” Quinn started laying out the territory decks.
”You only had five territories out last time though,” she pointed out. “Not nine.”
”Well, you don’t have to play them all. Some of them you don’t play ever, you just pick them to mess up the other guy. They get put out over time as you build up your kingdom.”
”Queendom,” Natalie corrected.
”Queendom,” he agreed. “Especially if you’re running with Linnethea. She’s really strong.”
Natalie took a second to remember the match from the day before. “But Steven said she couldn’t win that fight. Why’d you attack anyway? Did you have a plan?”
Quinn laughed. “Nope.”
”So you would have lost?”
”Totally would have lost.”
Natalie grinned. “So you tricked him.”
”Tyler likes to play super straightforward. He doesn’t like tricks or traps, so he’s bad at them. When he sees me doing something super dumb, he thinks I got a reason for doing it. Sometimes I do,” he added, “but sometimes I’m just shooting for the moon.”
”Shooting for the moon?”
”Something my dad always says. Like, trying to do something absolutely crazy without knowing it’s gonna work.”
That sounds like Hailey. “Where does the rest of the deck come from?”
”That’s your queendom deck. Those are all the same. There’s just a bunch of them if you want to play lots of people at once. Games with more than two people are weird though.” He pointed them out. “All the real interesting stuff comes out of your territories and the general you pick.”
Natalie gazed at her chosen general with admiration. She’s so strong and pretty. And fierce! And her wolf kinda looks like Gwen, but more white and snowy. I bet she can take care of herself just fine. Beneath the artwork were a couple blocks of text. She felt like she could probably figure them out herself, but if she asked Quinn to explain she’d have a good excuse to listen to him talk for a while. She liked listening to him talk about something that got him so excited.
She held Linnethea up. “So what does mine do?”
Quinn smiled. “She’s the blindsider. Everyone looks at her stats and thinks she’s too weak to even take a hit. But when you look at her abilities, and you combine them with stuff like the elven forest or ambush cards, plus the stuff on the really good elf fighters, you can take out a whole army trying to attack a territory without losing anyone. She’s actually crazy powerful. Plus she can make wolves and other animal tokens, which are basically free fighters that don’t suck like Tyler’s lame soldiers.”
”Cool.” From the sound of it, Natalie’s choice in this card game lived up to her first impressions.
”I’m guessing you wanna play her first then?” Quinn asked.
”Not if you do!” Natalie said quickly, heat rushing back into her face. She held out the card.
”I can play any of them. I don’t care. She might be a little harder to play the first time though,” he added. “Her stuff is a bit weird to use.”
”Oh my god, she turned into a nerd!” They both turned, but the stage whisper had come from somewhere behind the next bookshelf, well out of sight. Natalie recognized it as Blake’s voice. She ignored it, focusing on the cards in front of her and trying to discern what the numbers scattered around the corners meant.
”That’s so adorable. She found her people!”
Natalie tried to ignore them, but she could see Quinn’s hazel-colored eyes narrowing behind his glasses. He looked like he might stand up and confront them. She didn’t want that. It’d be so much worse if they got a reaction.
”You think she might get infected?”
”Those attacks look so painful. I hope she doesn’t end up like poor Tyler.”
Quinn started to get up, but Natalie quickly shook her head. He stopped, confused. Blake and her sidekick Lydia hadn’t emerged from behind the bookshelves, and Natalie didn’t expect them to. They’d move along as soon as they realized they weren’t going to get a reaction.
Sure enough, the whispers died away after a minute or so, as soon as they got bored. Quinn sat back down.
”Sorry,” Natalie said quietly.
”I think they don’t like me, and now they’re making fun of you guys too.”
Quinn frowned. “Why’d you tell me to stop then? I’m not afraid of Blake.”
She shrugged. “Someone told me once that girls like that are always gonna act like that.” Though Ryan said a lot more words Dad didn’t want me to repeat. “He said the best thing is to just ignore them because that way they don’t get anything out of you. If all they’re doing is saying stupid stuff that isn’t even true, that’s a lot better than what they could be doing. They’re still following the rules like everyone else, so they aren’t gonna do anything really scary.”
Natalie hesitated. “Stuff that’s a lot worse.” Stuff like what I’ve done. Or what they tried to do to me.
Quinn sat back in his chair. “You can’t tell me?”
Natalie looked down at the ground uncomfortably. “I’m not allowed to. It’s against the rules,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry.”
”Are you in witness protection or something?”
”Am I what?”
”Witness protection. It’s where they send you far away from home and change your name to keep you safe. You have to hide out from everything though. Can’t tell anyone who you were and stuff. I saw it on a show once.”
Natalie felt a shock roll through her. Quinn had just described her life a bit too closely. She wasn’t sure how she was supposed to answer a question like that. Boris hasn’t covered anything like that in his lessons. Should she say no? Make something else up? Quinn was too smart. He knew all about lying and bluffing people. He’d know she was lying.
”Yes,” she finally answered. She slowly lifted her head, afraid to see his reaction.
He didn’t look angry, or surprised. If anything, he looked excited. “So you’re in hiding? That’s so cool.”
”It’s okay,” he added, picking up a deck of cards and shuffling it. “I’ve got your back. Your secret’s safe with me. I won’t even tell the rest of the gang if you want.”
Natalie couldn’t feel more relieved. She hadn’t lost her new friend, and she hadn’t really broken her secret either. Quinn hadn’t even asked for her real name.
He held out another deck. “So, Jenny, wanna play some Conquest?”
Natalie reached forward, arm outstretched over the table. Without even thinking about it, her mind moved ahead of her grip, lifting the deck away from Quinn. The cards slid out in a neat pile, floating straight through the air and landing perfectly in her hand.
She froze, staring at the deck that had just moved itself into her palm. She didn’t dare look up at Quinn.