Chapter 07 — A Tale of Four Boxes
Jonathan stumbled into the pitch-black apartment. It was incredibly dark outside, since the street lamp above the block was broken. The faint glowing numbers on his wrist said it was past two in the morning on Friday, January 4th. On a normal night—hell, even on one of Jonathan’s show nights when he stayed up late—he’d be in bed long before now. He wasn’t exactly a late-night guy.
Tonight, Jonathan was wide awake.
Seeing the time was a sobering reminder to try and stay quiet, despite his excitement. The apartment he was entering might have been a tomb, it was so utterly silent. Jonathan tried to close the door as softly as he could, but even so, the click audibly echoed through the entryway.
A light flickered as it turned on down the hall.
”…Hi,” he called back, embarrassed.
Annabelle shuffled into the hallway, clad in a soft white dressing gown. She rubbed at her eyes, obviously having just woken up. “Everything okay?”
”Yeah.” Jonathan glanced around. “Is it all right if I sleep here tonight?”
”Does Abby know?” said Annabelle, frowning. “It’s not my weekend. I wouldn’t want—”
”I was nearby,” he said, shifting on his feet a little, “and… I was thinking about you. A friend of mine was talking about his… err, his dad, and I missed you.”
It wasn’t exactly untrue, though the conversation had happened two days ago now. Jonathan really did miss her. He hated not having both his parents around. At least they hadn’t actually gotten divorced, and were just handling things themselves for now… it felt like there was still a chance.
Annabelle’s eyes softened. She walked forward and wrapped him in a hug. “Missed you too,” she murmured.
To his relief, it felt all right. Jonathan hugged her back, and it helped him wind down, little by little. He’d needed something to take him down a few notches, before he started shouting at the world. Jonathan wasn’t sure he could hold it in too much longer. He needed to talk to somebody, but… Annabelle didn’t know.
Maybe I should tell her… She’d probably get it more than anybody, that I’m awakened now. But then I’d be telling her and not Mom… I don’t want them to feel like I’m taking sides. I don’t want there to be sides… I hate this.
”Can I make you anything?” she asked, finally breaking away. “Midnight snack?”
”Actually, I’m really tired,” said Jonathan uncomfortably. “Not to, you know, just drop in and go right to sleep—”
”You’ve got a room here, always,” said Annabelle firmly. “We can talk in the morning. Or not, whatever you need.”
”Thanks,” said Jonathan, smiling slightly. “…Mom,” he added, after a thought.
Annabelle’s eyes widened just a little. Her whole face lit up as if somebody had just shone a light on it—eyes, smile, her entire demeanor had improved by just one single word. Jonathan hadn’t expected anything like that, but seeing her reaction…
She coughed slightly. “I love you, Jonathan.” After a moment herself, she continued, in a low voice that sounded much more like how she used to. “You don’t need to call me Mom if you’re uncomfortable. It’s okay.”
Well, it’s all sorts of confusing, but after that kind of reaction… Jonathan shook his head. “It’s not me who’s uncomfortable.”
Instantly, he regretted it. He’d come too close to mentioning that which they’d silently agreed never to mention. Annabelle winced, but she nodded. “See you tomorrow.”
Of course, once Jonathan was in his little room—which he’d only lightly decorated so far, since he wasn’t sure if Annabelle was going to keep this apartment or not—he was wide awake once more. The trembles of sheer anticipation and excitement were building back up again.
It was the real paradox of his life: despite the many layers of secrets, between magic and being awakened and his family, Jonathan simply couldn’t wait to tell people things. He always wanted to share secrets, stories, tell tales, anything. He was a showman. It was all about the story, and the way it was told. Luckily for him, he had an outlet.
Jonathan pulled his laptop out of his bag and plugged it in. After only a few minutes, it kicked on. To his relief, despite the hour, she was online.
Jonathan: can I call you?
Nell: About to go to sleep…
Nell: School’s coming up, I gotta get back to a regular sleep schedule sometime soon
Jonathan: really need to talk. big things just happened
Nell: Fuck it, I wasn’t really tired yet anyway
Nell: Gimme a sec, I’m not wearing anything
Nell: Hah! You wish
A few seconds later, he got a video call, and Nell popped up. She was clearly not about to go to sleep, despite the nightshirt and pajama pants, with her headset and controller still ready in hand and a pile of snacks around her. Jonathan once again thanked fate for Nell living in the same timezone as him. He didn’t know how he’d survive if they couldn’t talk regularly.
”So it’s two in the morning,” said Nell, idly pressing buttons on her controller without looking at the screen. “What’s the big thing?”
Jonathan glanced at the door involuntarily. He doubted Annabelle would ever listen in on his conversations—both before and after the transition, she’d always been the less intrusive of his parents—but still, given what he’d just been doing…
Blocking out sound was easier than he’d first expected. Once he grasped enough physics to understand sound waves, it was just a matter of catching them and essentially stilling them. Sound was vibration, and Jonathan had learned to stop it from vibrating in a whole sphere. At first, this had the chilling effect of muting everything, which was terribly uncomfortable. Eventually, he figured out how to keep the sound within the sphere, only muting it once it reached the edges. This eliminated both any chance of being overheard and the painful echo from it bouncing around inside the sphere.
Nell caught the telltale sign of him casting a spell—and the change in sound on his laptop mic as he completed it.
”Okay,” she said, setting down her controller. She looked straight into the camera, all jovialities aside. “What happened?”
”A lot,” said Jonathan, shaking his head. “I had a crazy week.”
”I did notice you texting me a lot less,” said Nell.
”It’s cool. I figure you’re gonna break my phone’s vibration motor at some point with how much you usually text,” she added, smirking. “You okay?”
”I don’t know.”
Nell raised an eyebrow. “Enough of the runaround, Jonathan. It’s me and you. What’s up?”
On Thursday night, Jonathan drove to the club. It seemed eerily quiet out. A fog lay thick over the town quenching out the mundane sounds of an unsuspecting city, one where magic lurked in every corner and hatred hiding in equal proportions, where a single wrong step could spell peril upon even the most seasoned and well-prepared magician—
Dude, you’re not good at this.
You went to the club on Thursday and it was foggy out. Moving on…
He knew full well the risk of taking his mom’s car, but it was the only thing available. Nina couldn’t get them cars whenever. Since the car wasn’t going to the club all the time, he felt pretty safe about it. Besides, nobody knew it was his.
Jonathan went inside, as instructed. He’d been called in. A new task needed doing, one last piece of the puzzle—assuming there was a puzzle. Jonathan was still firmly attached to his theory that this was all busywork somehow. Except for that business with Nina, none of it seemed remotely interesting. Even including that adrenaline-fueled morning, he couldn’t figure out any kind of pattern.
Okay, missing some important details here…
I’ll get to it.
You do that.
What’s that sound?
I’m making some tea. If this is gonna be a long story, I need something to drink here.
Hmm, I should—
Tell the damn story, Jonathan.
Through the layers of locks, physical and magical, Jonathan emerged into the secret backrooms of the club. Kyle was waiting for him, messing with a phone and only half-heartedly paying attention. Jonathan had to loudly clear his throat just to be noticed.
”Oh,” said Kyle, glancing at the clock on the wall. “You’re early.”
”…Yeah,” said Jonathan. “So what’s up?”
”Got something for you to do. Come on.”
Kyle led him through one of the other doors. It opened into a dimly lit hall, which seemed longer than should’ve been possible given the club’s size. Jonathan thought it might be magic for a moment, but he couldn’t sense a spell beyond the protections he already knew about. After a while, he realized it was a trick of the light, carefully placed mirrors combined with the décor.
They emerged onto a small loading dock. A truck was pulled in with the rear hatch already open. Kyle hopped down onto the pavement and headed to a pile of sealed boxes in the corner. Jonathan followed reluctantly. After the week he’d been through, and particularly everything they’d done on Tuesday night, he wasn’t sure what he might be walking into.
Jonathan shook it off. It wasn’t the place or the task which bothered him. He trusted Drew and Corbin and even Julian, so far. Nina was a bit of a wildcard, and he sure as hell wouldn’t ever mess with her now, but Kyle… Kyle was just an obnoxious asshole, and Jonathan couldn’t really figure out why. What did I ever do to him?
What, are you asking me?
No, that’s what I was thinking at the time.
At the time?
I’m getting there!
Okay, okay. This tea is really good, by the way.
Send me some, I need better tea. Anyway…
”These boxes?” Kyle gestured around to the pile of crates. “Into the truck. Then we’re gonna go somewhere and unload ’em again. Got it? Or do I need to repeat that?”
”I got it,” muttered Jonathan.
”I got it,” he said more clearly. “What are we doing?”
”Moving some boxes,” said Kyle, in a tone that made it perfectly clear he wasn’t going to explain. “Now come on.”
Jonathan sighed and picked one at random. They weren’t uniform, but most were at least half his size, if not larger. Hesitantly, he picked one up. To his surprise, it wasn’t nearly as heavy as he expected. If anything, it seemed a little too light. He wasn’t about to complain though, especially given how many they needed to move. Jonathan set it into the back of the truck, next to the one box already there, and turned around, nearly running straight into Kyle with the next crate.
He raised an eyebrow, but Kyle ignored him. Jonathan hadn’t expected Kyle to help, but then again, the other guy probably just wanted to be done faster. It definitely wasn’t out of the kindness of his heart. One by one, they loaded the crates into the truck, filling it up to the brim.
Jonathan pulled down the rear door and latched it shut. Kyle nodded with approval.
”So where are we going?”
Kyle shrugged. “Get in the passenger seat.”
”Look, this is crap,” said Jonathan suddenly. “Tell me where we’re going. I’m not just jumping into a truck without knowing anything.”
Kyle sighed. He rattled off a street address—somewhere still in Tacoma, but nothing Jonathan recognized off-hand.
”See, I didn’t bother ’cause I knew it didn’t mean shit to you,” said Kyle, obviously frustrated. “We’re going there to unload these. I can do it alone, but it’d be faster if you’re there. So let’s go already. It’s getting late.”
Reluctantly, Jonathan climbed into the cab. Kyle kicked the truck a few times as it sputtered before finally turning on. They reversed out down the dock and out into the parking lot—where Kyle nearly barreled straight into a car parked near the dock.
”Watch it!” said Jonathan, craning his neck out the passenger window.
”I got it, I got it,” said Kyle stubbornly.
After a few more awkward points of reverse and forward, Kyle finally got them out onto the road. Jonathan suppressed the urge to mock him. He wanted to bring Kyle down a few notches, but at the same time, he really didn’t want to jeopardize his position in this new group. Jonathan barely knew any of them—Nina even less after what happened on Wednesday—but it was clear from day one that Kyle was effectively the second in command, after the big guy.
He’d done a lot more looking into Julian in his spare hours the last couple days, and what Jonathan found wasn’t exactly helpful. It was mostly rumors and conjecture, social network posts hinting at underground gambling, package skimming, and a colorful past in Rallsburg connected to most of the major players.
Jonathan didn’t really like looking into people behind their backs, but his life had instilled a healthy paranoia. Who knew what might be lurking in the depths of men’s hearts? By all reports, Brian Hendricks had been a friendly—if standoffish—contributing member of society, and was considered an excellent father.
How the mighty have fallen…
You got a weird look talking about him.
Would anybody ever really call him mighty?
Well, he did start a huge terrorist movement single-handedly… that’s pretty impressive. Horrible, but… yeah.
I respect him. And I’m completely terrified of him. I don’t care what they say, he’s still a threat even if he’s locked up. That’s why I’m doing all this.
Speaking of which… back to the story?
Oh, yeah, sorry.
”How far?” asked Jonathan.
”Like… twenty minutes,” said Kyle, shrugging. He made a gentle turn, cruising the quiet evening roads across Tacoma. They seemed to be avoiding the highways, but Jonathan couldn’t be totally sure. “Why, got a hot date?”
You don’t think I’m hot?
I wouldn’t call this a date.
”What about you?” asked Jonathan, determined to get something out of the guy. “Anybody in your life?”
”Just the four of you,” said Kyle. He smiled suggestively. “And the hot chicks who come into the club. They dig a guy who can do real magic.”
So where are all your hot chicks?
Jonathan ignored the implied jab, focusing on the road for a while. Something was still bothering him though, especially given the job they were doing and the person they had doing it. He wasn’t the easiest to get ahold of, nor the one they trusted the most. So why…?
”Why are we doing this?” he asked aloud.
I’m wondering that too…
”‘Cause we need to for the next part.”
Jonathan frowned. “We need to move some empty boxes around?”
”They aren’t empty.”
”What, then? Why do we need to move these, why now? What are we doing?”
”Look,” said Kyle, drumming his fingers on the wheel idly. “Here’s the straight truth: we’re not happy with you.”
”What?” Jonathan whipped around, glaring at Kyle. “What the hell? I did great last time.”
”No, you changed the fucking plan,” he shot back.
Jonathan opened his mouth to argue back, but Kyle kept going before he could get another word in.
”It’s goddamn rule number one: you stick to the plan. Everybody does their part and nobody asks questions once we’re in motion. Changes get people killed, you idiot.”
”We weren’t ready for this kind of attention,” said Kyle. “You blew things up way bigger than we intended and gave us an attitude. Now we’re gonna get more heat.”
”And more support,” said Jonathan. “Don’t you want that?”
”Sure, and we would’ve had it.” Kyle shook his head. “Boss has got the plan. Your job’s to follow it to the fucking letter, got it?”
The truck suddenly ground to a halt, nearly pitching Jonathan off his seat. He hadn’t put on his seatbelt. He hurriedly got back into a comfortable position, painfully aware of the smug eyes watching him from his left.
”Rule number two, always wear your seatbelt,” said Kyle, smirk plastered across his face.
”So you’re mad—”
”Not just me, dude. Julian and Nina too.”
”Okay, so she probably doesn’t give a shit.” Kyle shrugs. “Who knows with that chick? Not like her opinion matters.”
What the hell?
Hang on, that’s not what he meant.
That sentence doesn’t really come across good no matter what he meant…
He was more talking about how she’s just the supplier for our group. He’s totally wrong, but I’ll get to that. Later.
Isn’t this already like… seven hours ago at this point? How much more later do you have to tell here?
You have no idea.
”So you guys are pissed off,” said Jonathan. “Okay. I get it. I’m sorry.”
”Not that easy,” said Kyle. “But you’re getting the idea. You screwed up. You gotta learn that this shit is dangerous, and you’ve gotta stick to the plan. Do what we say, when we say it, and that way nothing gets screwed up.”
Inside, Jonathan was fuming a little, but he had to admit one thing: from everything he’d learned, Kyle wasn’t exactly wrong. On top of that, he’d screwed up more than once in the past in much the same way, changing a plan at the last minute on his own terms, nearly getting himself—and in the most notable example, Alden Bensen—killed in the process.
He could follow the plan.
Of course, following the plan still meant he needed to know what the plan was… and Kyle had yet to share that bit of detail with him. The truck hadn’t started moving again though, so Jonathan glanced around, trying to figure out what might be important nearby. All he saw was a set of warehouses ahead, unremarkable apart from the name Mettis emblazoned on the side.
”Just one thing,” started Jonathan, and Kyle groaned.
”I get not changing the plan, but I still gotta know what we’re doing, right? So I don’t screw anything up.” And maybe I can actually improve your plans, you idiot.
Is he really an idiot though? I thought this was the guy who invented second-gen Scraps. That seems pretty genius.
Honestly… I still can’t tell.
As their truck approached one of the open side gates, Kyle nodded forward. “See that guy loading the truck over there?” After Jonathan nodded, Kyle’s voice dropped lower, full of contempt. “One of Hendricks’ guys. Nearly fucking shot me back at the Olympic camp. And that woman? Drew spotted her scanning him with one of those stones.”
On Kyle went, calling out at least five others with some tie to Brian’s organization. Most weren’t as rock-solid as the first two, but Jonathan could see the logic—after all, if one of them was an anti-awakened terrorist, odds were they’d recruited others at the workplace. Nobody easier to recruit than a pissed off minimum-wage warehouse worker, right?
Speaking from experience?
Worst three months of my life.
You probably would’ve grown into it.
Yeah, well… I got as much as I needed to start my show career. That’s what matters.
To Jonathan’s surprise, Kyle drove them straight in, flashing a badge to go through the gate unhindered. They rolled up to one of the buildings not in active use—which was most of them, as Jonathan glanced around. It was getting toward the end of the workday, and it looked like Mettis didn’t run his warehouses late unlike Jonathan’s old job. As most of the remaining employees began to filter out, Kyle and Jonathan hopped out and started unloading their truck.
”We’re putting these in all three warehouses,” said Kyle, nodding at their boxes. “Doesn’t really matter where, as long as they’re inside. Here,” he added, tossing a spare badge to Jonathan. “Should work on the doors.”
”You don’t need to know that yet,” said Kyle firmly.
”But…” Jonathan nodded, as realization struck him. “Compartmentalization.”
See what I mean? No idea.
”You’re making sure none of us know the whole plan, so if I get caught or something, I can’t give it away,” said Jonathan. “Especially since we’ve got magic for lie detectors… can’t exactly beat that.”
Kyle shrugged. “Give it time, I bet somebody will figure out how.” He sighed. “Come on, we’ve got a lot of boxes and we don’t have all night. You’re still on for later with Drew.”
It was Wednesday afternoon—
Hold up, I thought it was Thursday evening.
We’re jumping back a bit.
What about the stuff with Kyle?
…You really want to hear how we loaded a bunch of boxes into warehouses and then drove home?
Well when you put it like that, absolutely. I love a good warehouse logistics story.
It was Wednesday afternoon, and Jonathan was on his way to a pet store. As usual with this group, he wasn’t driving, and it was starting to get on his nerves. He liked Corbin—definitely liked him a lot more than Kyle—but the guy just wasn’t a good driver. Corbin was nice, and smart whenever he finally decided to speak up, but more than once Jonathan found himself a bit white-knuckled as they rolled up the highway to Seattle.
This was another piece of the compartmentalized plan, though Jonathan wasn’t yet aware of it at the time. He knew they were on the way to pick up something unusual though. Julian had made a very specific request, and since Corbin didn’t have work—and Jonathan didn’t really have a schedule anyway—they were heading up together.
Jonathan was glad though, in the end. Corbin seemed like a pretty cool guy, so Jonathan wanted to get to know him better. When better than a long drive up to Seattle and back on a weird errand?
Or you could just go get coffee with the guy or something.
Typical guys. So what’s up with the pet store, anyway? Why there?
Well, pet store is kind of an exaggeration. More like a guy who sells specialty pet stuff and would only deal in person.
Your life is so weird.
The pet store, which was basically out of the guy’s custom garage, wasn’t nearly as amateur as Jonathan had expected. In fact, with how much they’d transformed the place, Jonathan almost felt like he was in a real establishment, barring the house just a few dozen feet away. As Corbin pulled off to park on the sidewalk, Jonathan counted the money.
”Eight thousand dollars,” he muttered. “For salamander eggs.”
Corbin nodded. “Tiger salamanders.”
”And we need a lot of them, apparently.” Jonathan sighed. “Wonder what spell Julian’s planning…”
”These are for a spell?”
Jonathan raised his eyebrows. “I assumed you knew.”
”I don’t know that much about magic, to be honest,” said Corbin, a little uncomfortably. “Didn’t know it was a thing until… you know.” He took a long, slow breath, staring out the window of the silent car to the evergreens rustling in the wind nearby. “Until after Rallsburg blew up.”
”Your dad never told you?”
”We… we didn’t hang out much.” Corbin looked uneasy.
”Well,” said Jonathan, trying to deflect from a conversation which had suddenly gotten very uncomfortable for them both, “yeah, the salamander eggs are for a spell. A guy named Ryan figured out way back that you could use other things as sources of magic energy besides just gemstones. They’re the easiest, but even stuff like animal eggs can be used.”
”Not live animals though, right?” asked Corbin, a note of concern tinging his voice.
”No,” said Jonathan, and Corbin breathed a sigh of relief. “Just stuff pre-birth like eggs. Or plants, it works with plants too. Nobody’s really nailed down an exact dividing line, but there’s also some kind of elemental attachment too. So like, feathers and bird eggs are better with Movement or Elemental magic based around wind, salamander eggs are good for fire, so on.”
”Does it use up the egg?”
”Probably.” Jonathan shrugged. “I’ve never done anything with them. Gemstones are the most I use for energy sources.”
”Oh.” Corbin nodded, before turning to stare out the window.
They waited in silence for a few minutes, both watching different spots outside Corbin’s car. Jonathan wasn’t sure what to say next. Corbin seemed to be waiting for something, but he wasn’t sure what. He still wanted to get to know the guy, but they didn’t exactly have a whole lot of common ground yet.
”I’m sure your dad would’ve explained most of this,” said Jonathan finally, trying to offer something of a conversation hook.
”Yeah.” Corbin took another long pause and a deep breath before finally speaking again. “Maybe. I didn’t really know him that well.”
”He and my mom split up a long time ago, but he still supported us. Sent me stuff for my birthday sometimes. And Julian said he was going to awaken me someday. Gave up a Scrap for the guarantee that I’d be welcomed into the Council.”
”I went to Rallsburg a couple times, way back,” added Corbin, as the trees rustled again. A bird shot out and darted across the lawn, catching the gust of wind and flitting to a branch across the yard. “It was nice. Really quiet.”
Seems to be a running theme here…
”Going out to visit your dad?”
”Yeah. I was younger though.” Corbin sighed. “I stopped going when I got older. Hated him more for leaving us. I built up this whole image of him, the guy I thought he was. Turns out I was totally wrong. Julian showed me old videos of them hanging out, and I read the entries on him from Cinza so many times…” He shook his head in dismay.
”And Cinza didn’t give light praise,” added Jonathan. He’d only read it once, of course, but even so, his relationship with many of the major players made him feel like he could speak with authority. Since meeting Corbin, he’d re-read those same passages about Spencer Ancell. “I bet he was a good guy.”
”Just wish I’d gotten to know him…” Corbin trailed off again wistfully.
”Same with my… mom,” said Jonathan after a brief pause, thinking aloud of Annabelle. “I really never knew her until just… a year or two ago. Now it’s like she’s a totally different person than who I knew growing up.”
”Still around though?” asked Corbin, glancing over at him for the first time since they parked.
”Yeah. She doesn’t live with us anymore though,” he added, sidestepping any mention of the nature of Annabelle’s change. He wasn’t sure how Corbin would react, and didn’t want to alienate the guy right off the bat when they were just starting to bond.
Yeah, I know.
You need to talk about it?
I dunno… It feels weird. Like, just trying to bring it up, I felt…
…Yeah. Does that make me a terrible person?
I don’t know. I think it makes you a confused kid in a situation that’s really uncommon, that’s for sure.
I’m telling you all this with her sleeping like, twenty feet from me. I just don’t… don’t get it. I don’t know.
Me neither, dude. You’re not alone. But… this guy Corbin’s right. Getting to know her’s probably the best way out, right? Better than never talking to her or something else drastic.
Yeah. You’re right. I didn’t mean to bring this up, sorry.
You can always talk to me, Jonathan. You know that. About your family, magic, whatever.
Now, wasn’t there something about a pet shop?
Jonathan changed the subject, before things got even more awkward. His first attempt at bonding with Corbin hadn’t exactly gone great, but they had some common ground now. Really weird common ground, between a dead dad and a trans mom, but… it’s something, right?
”Ready to go in?”
”Why this place, anyway?” asked Corbin. “I guess ordering online is too dangerous if we get traced somehow, but… this seems a bit suspicious too.”
”Well, for one, I couldn’t find anywhere that sells eggs online,” said Jonathan with a shrug. “Only live ones. And in person, I figured, as long as we pay cash, this seems less likely to get traced than a big-name pet store, right?”
He unlocked the doors and opened his side, stepping out. Jonathan followed, and soon enough, they were in the shop. It took a little convincing, but Jonathan was able to persuade the proprietor that they really did want a hundred and sixty salamander eggs, just like they’d said on the phone. It wasn’t a prank or some weird college dare, and they did, in fact, have the eight thousand bucks to pay for it.
The guy took a while to count the bills—Julian hadn’t provided them with any specific denomination, so the eight thousand was a mess of varying amounts. Jonathan fidgeted the whole time, trying to keep from looking too suspicious. He wanted to appear a bored college student, someone unremarkable who was carrying out a task he didn’t care about. The less attention they drew, the better, and nobody cares about a bored twenty-something.
Finally, the guy disappeared into the back and returned with a sealed translucent box. Inside, Jonathan could make out a pile of greenish orbs, presumably the eggs they were seeking. He had no idea if they’d survive the trip, but based on what he knew, it wouldn’t matter too much. As long as all the material was still there, they should be sufficient to serve as energy sources for a spell.
Using living things as spells felt very strange to Jonathan, and he didn’t like doing it. He’d lied to Corbin, before, partly from a sense of guilt. To drain energy out of a thing was like taking life itself into his hands. It went beyond simple energy manipulation, the basics of magic he enjoyed so much. Jonathan would rather find shortcuts and improvements to his spells than try to rely on a source of magic which seemed like it could kill anything it touched.
You never mentioned this stuff to me before…
Well, it freaked me out. It doesn’t work on people, if that helps. We’re still protected like always.
Or any living animal, right?
Yeah. I needed to bring it up though, ’cause I had to use it once. I didn’t have a choice.
Well… the next day, actually.
The same day you went out with Kyle to those warehouses.
Yeah, but that was in the evening. This was morning. Most insane morning of my life, and that’s saying something.
Just get to it already, dude. I’m running out of tea here.
On Thursday, bright and early, Jonathan parked outside the club and headed in. He unlocked the door, like usual, and brushed through the invisible wall without flinching. Inside, the place was deserted—not many people going to a club at eight in the morning. Jonathan went inside and sat on the couch, wondering if he was early… or late.
He didn’t dare call out. If she was asleep and his shouting woke her—well, Jonathan really didn’t want to find out what she’d do.
A nightclub was a strange place to be in the morning before it was actually open. Granted, Jonathan hadn’t exactly been into many nightclubs when they were open, but he’d gotten a decent impression so far. Now, the place was so quiet, it was unsettling. The club walls were supposed to be vibrating with heavy bass and pounding percussion, that was just normal. This utter silence was practically painful.
To Jonathan’s relief, the silence was broken a few moments later. To his surprise, it was by a voice he didn’t recognize.
He twisted in his chair, shocked. With the paranoia filling his world lately, Jonathan instinctively grabbed for some magic and prepared a rudimentary shield. A gust of wind shoved forward in the space before him. It wouldn’t stop a bullet, but the thick pocket of resistant air would slow any rushing opponent long enough for Jonathan to react properly or dodge aside.
Far across the room, Nina’s hair fluttered in the breeze he’d just created.
”Nice to see you too,” she replied.
Jonathan honestly couldn’t tell if she was being sincere. “…Hi?”
”You ready to go?”
What are we doing, anyway…? He gulped. “Go where?”
”We’re going out to pick up something we need for tomorrow night and bring it back here.” Nina shrugged, patting at her arm in the sling. “I just need you to help carry it. It won’t take too long.”
”Oh,” Jonathan nodded. “Okay, cool. I was expecting something way worse.”
”Did Kyle not tell you?” Nina sighed. “I’ll have to hurt him later.”
Again, Jonathan couldn’t tell if she was serious. “…Really?”
Nina smiled. “I uzh on to vspomnit, pover’te mne. Now come on, we’ve got a box to fetch.”
To say the contrast was stark between the Nina he’d met a week ago and the one standing near him would seriously undersell the transformation he’d witnessed. This Nina was bright and energetic, and even down to her appearance, she almost looked like a different person entirely. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but he’d barely recognized her, and he couldn’t quite figure out why.
Her bipolar switched phases and now she’s probably wearing makeup, genius.
Well yeah, I figured that out eventually. Let me tell the story though, in the moment and all that.
Sorry, sorry. Mind if I take a minute? This tea really went through me fast.
Yeah, go for it.
Okay, all good. So tell me about Nina. She hot?
Why, are you jealous?
Oh, am I your girlfriend now? It’s about time, dude. Want to come over and make out?
Hahaha, the look on your face. Sorry. Although, if you wanted…
Would you stop that, please?
Just saying. Offer’s open.
Can I just tell the story already?
Your endless stories about boxes and driving to get them.
Sorry if it’s boring.
No! It’s not. I’m sorry. Honestly, I’m really interested. Please keep going.
Unlike Corbin the day before—and contrary to the plan previously outlined—Nina drove them. Jonathan spent most of the journey fascinated by the interior of the car—as usual, Nina had the nicest vehicle he’d ever been in, and one he’d never seen her drive before. Every time she arrived at the club, it was in a different car. This time, they were driving a sleek sports car that seemed so utterly black, light itself was sucked into it.
”It’s a custom ride,” said Nina nonchalantly. “I just had to drive it. It’s such a beautiful car. Don’t you agree? It’s so smooth and fast. Absolutely perfect. I could outrun anything in this car. Not that I’d need to. I know better than that. But if it did happen, yeah, they’d be fucked.”
She was speaking rapidly, with a lot more enthusiasm than usual, and Jonathan was having trouble keeping up.
”Oh, sorry,” said Nina suddenly, glancing at him while her hand drummed the wheel. “This is what I was talking about. When I’m on, I am on, you know? Can’t help it. I’m taking medication for it because the kind of life I lead? You can’t be on and off like this. But the meds aren’t always reliable, so this is what happens. Don’t worry. I can handle it, on or off.”
Jonathan let her talk, since there wasn’t ever a gap to get a word in. Instead, he focused on the car—she was right, it was beautiful. The doors and center had handsome wood panelling, while the main console screen sat perfectly flush, rather than awkwardly protruding upward. It didn’t lack for comfort, either. Jonathan felt like he was melting into his seat. Most impressive, though, were the floating numbers Jonathan could see if he leaned over slightly, projected way out onto the road.
If he looked more closely, he could tell it was a projector and a cleverly shaped piece of glass, but the illusion was convincing. Nina’s car had a virtual heads-up display, speed and fuel gauges along with other useful information gliding above the road far ahead. Jonathan wondered if he could use the effect somehow in his show—it could make some very convincing acts for the crowd.
He laughed aloud. Nina glanced over, curious.
”Did I say something funny?”
”No,” said Jonathan, instantly deflated. “I was just remembering I don’t need fancy equipment to do a magic show when I have actual magic.”
”I loved magic shows,” said Nina suddenly.
Jonathan’s eyebrows raised slightly. Despite how much she’d been speaking, Jonathan was pretty sure that was the first real thing he’d learned about her.
”You did?” he asked cautiously, hoping she’d open up a little more.
Oh yeah, she’s gotta be hot.
I can’t just want to make friends?
Well, trust me, with what happens next, you’d think twice too.
Nina kept talking non-stop, which suited Jonathan just fine. He hadn’t slept that well the night before… nightmares again. He was content to let Nina handle both the driving and the conversation while they drove. Jonathan knew they were going north, but wasn’t sure quite where they were headed. Somewhere in Seattle, for sure, but nowhere near the usual touristy places, which he’d been to a few times with Nell.
Instead, they were headed into seedier parts of town. It wasn’t that Jonathan knew the seedier parts off-hand or anything, but it was obvious from the street conditions alone. The roads were less well-kept, there was more trash on the sidewalks, more people lurking in the alleyways and less traffic on the whole. As they rolled past a warehouse, Jonathan caught a glimpse of a street sign that sounded familiar.
”…Isn’t that where those people died? The gang members who got killed with electricity magic?”
”Yeah, that’s the one.” Nina nodded. “Crazy stuff. Seems kinda impractical to me though. Why not just use a gun? Or something less unique. Almost nobody knows electricity magic still, besides the obvious. Plus you and Drew. You and Drew are developing it right?”
”Yeah.” Jonathan was taken aback—he and Drew hadn’t told anyone, of course—but he didn’t dare lie to her. “How’d you know?”
”Oh, I keep an eye on all of you. That’s one of the things I do for this group. And for other people.”
”…Other people,” he repeatedly slowly.
”People you don’t need to know about.” Nina suddenly swerved the car around a corner, then into a tight alley that seemed barely wide enough for them to fit. They rumbled down over small piles of trash, finally coming to a stop in a wide open courtyard after turning a full circle to face the entrance again. The car’s quiet electric engine hum died away.
Full of trepidation, Jonathan glanced around. The buildings seemed deserted, though there were a couple card tables across the way that seemed weirdly out of place. Temporary fences walled off every other entrance to the area. A broken fountain stood in the middle, testament to the run-down and broken feeling permeating the very stones.
Behind the fountain, a circle of beaten up furniture—couches, chairs, torn pillows. It was intact, but certainly not anything he’d want to sleep on. Jonathan looked away before he stared too closely. He figured he knew exactly what this was for, and he didn’t want to know more.
”So what are we doing here?” he asked again.
Nina pointed at one of the buildings nearby, indistinguishable to Jonathan from its neighbors. “We’re going in there for our pick-up.”
She leaned forward and popped open the glove compartment in front of him. It was full of papers, but Nina turned her hand over and pressed a button Jonathan couldn’t see. After a brief mechanical whine, a second, hidden compartment dropped down.
Four matte-black pistols sat inside.
Nina pulled one out, popped the magazine and checked it, then slammed it back in. She dropped it into a holster inside her jacket Jonathan hadn’t noticed.
He nodded. Nina got out and Jonathan followed, his heart pounding. With every step, though, it diminished. There didn’t seem to be anything here, and she hadn’t recommended he bring one. It was probably just a precaution. If there were danger, Nina surely would’ve told him.
She’d been talking non-stop the whole drive. What if she had while he zoned out?
What was he walking into?
No, he was being paranoid, just like everybody from Rallsburg. This was Seattle, not the insanity of the Olympic Forest and everybody who came out of it. Nina wasn’t the best with magic, and with one of her arms in a sling, she wanted a bit more backing her up. The world was dangerous for people like them.
Maybe I should own a gun.
You’ve got pepper spray and magic. How much more deterrent do you need?
I dunno… I just get scared way easier than I used to…
Yeah… me too.
”Are we expecting anybody?” he murmured. The place was nearly silent, with the surrounding tall buildings blocking out most of the city sound.
”No,” said Nina. “Do you sense someone?”
”Nah, just… making sure I know what’s going on.”
”We’re here for a box that should be in that building, second floor, room three,” said Nina. She pointed at a window. “I think it’s that one, but I can’t be sure. We go in, pick it up, bring it back. Easy.”
The instant the last syllable left her mouth, they both heard someone talking. Even worse, it was coming from behind the door they needed to walk through. Nina’s hand immediately went to the holster inside her jacket, while Jonathan started gathering magical energy.
He reached forward with his essence, trying to feel them out. There wasn’t any magical aura, so he was pretty sure they weren’t awakened. It wasn’t foolproof, but most awakened people projected some kind of magic relatively frequently, and anything active was very easy to sense.
Nina reached the door first, Jonathan slowing down to concentrate on his spell. She turned to him and held up the hand with the gun to her lips, shushing him. Jonathan nodded, holding up his own hand and summoning a fireball.
She shook her head.
He raised an eyebrow. She moved closer, so she could whisper in his ear.
”We don’t want them to know we have magic under any circumstances. Have it ready, but only use it as a last resort. Got it?”
Jonathan nodded. Nina turned around, took a breath, then pulled open the door, the gun just out of sight. The dialogue stopped instantly as the two people inside spun to face them. One was a man in his thirties, with a grubby face, thin beard shadow, and a slippery voice that screamed suspicious.
”Well, well, whatchu wan’ in my here hotel, pretty girl?” He rubbed his chin. “Could make stacks of paper, baby. I’d run you myself if you wan’.”
”Enough, Harley,” said his companion. The other man was heavily built, wearing a thick overcoat, with a perfectly trimmed moustache and an eastern European accent, but no less suspicious than Harley. Jonathan might have laughed aloud at the pair… if he wasn’t terrified.
”Man’s gotta make a livin’, friend! Cash flow problems, you know what it do. Still ‘coverin’ from clients gettin’ attacked by ‘wakened crazies in my own damn buildin’. Niddles lost his best girl! Why you think this prime real estate ain’t bouncin’ no more?”
”Speak quickly,” said the companion, ignoring Harley, “if you value your lives.”
”Mne skazali, chto my budem odni,” said Nina.
The man in the overcoat’s eyes widened. “Sedelnikova?”
”Da.” Yes. Nina glanced at Harley pointedly. The overcoat man sighed.
”We were delayed.” He raised an eyebrow. “You are not alone.”
Nina shrugged. She smiled slightly. “Besplatnyy rabochaya sila.”
He laughed. Shaking his head, he turned to Harley. “You should leave.”
”But, hey man, we ain’ figured out our nex’ steps!” Harley took a step toward the man, looking a little desperate. “Call this a business arrangement, well shit, my business gonna need one of them bail-outs. Where my stimulus at?”
”Ty khochesh’ chto by ya yego ubila?” asked Nina, glancing between the two of them.
The overcoat man sighed again. “No, he’s still valuable. Come, Harley. We’ll discuss elsewhere. Sedelnikova, your package is upstairs.”
”Spasiba.” Thank you.
I got that one too, thanks. You and I watched that whole show together. Also, what the hell did you get yourself into?
Oh, it gets worse.
As Harley grumbled his way out the door, the overcoat man whistled. Almost immediately, they heard thumping all around. Eight men emerged, from other rooms or upstairs—each one of them carrying a machine gun.
Jonathan froze in place. Sweat instantly began to bead on his neck. A few of the men gave him snide glances, mocking his obvious terror. As they filed out, the overcoat man stayed for just a minute, glancing back to Nina with a stern expression. He nodded toward a room down the hall.
”Ostav’te den’gi v korobke.”
Nina nodded. Without another word, the man disappeared. She watched the door silently for a few minutes, but Jonathan didn’t hear anything outside. There hadn’t been another car, as far as he’d seen, so it wasn’t like they’d hear if the men had left. Just as Jonathan was starting to relax, assuming they were fine, Nina shattered his hopes.
”We might be fucked,” she muttered.
”They weren’t supposed to be here. You weren’t supposed to be here either. Harley is a witness. And we don’t actually have the money.”
”What?” Jonathan was racing to catch up, just as his heart raced to keep blood rushing through his adrenaline-soaked brain. “This is like… the mafia, right?”
Nina rolled her eyes. “Yes, but not my bratva. Viktor is Ukrainian. He’s with the Odessans. I am not. They think I’m supposed to pay them, or maybe they’re just trying to exhort me for more. We shouldn’t have needed anything though.”
”So…” started Jonathan, trying to skim past the brief burst of confusion at hearing Annabelle’s old name—the one he’d grown up with, the one that still meant ‘dad’ in his head.
”So somebody fucked us over.” She shook her head. “No time to figure out who didn’t pay what. We need this for the job tonight. Pointless without it. If we don’t pay up, they might…”
Nina suddenly rushed to the window. She glanced between the ratty curtains—they were ugly and dirty, but if nothing else, Jonathan could admit they did block light very well—craning her neck to spy from odd angles. She muttered something else under her breath, something Jonathan wouldn’t repeat.
”They’re still outside. Fuck,” Nina added, still under her breath. “Go get the box. Get it fast. It’s up on the second floor—”
”—room three,” finished Jonathan. “Meet you back here?”
Nina nodded, her hand tight on the grip of her pistol.
Jonathan hurried to the stairs, nearly tripping on a riser as he darted up. He dashed down the hall and into the room with a crooked “3” nailed to the door. Inside, a wooden box—a crate, really—waited on the pristine bed, both remarkably out of place in the dilapidated building.
He tried not to think about it as he grabbed the heavy box and headed back downstairs. Nina hadn’t moved an inch, though the pistol in her hand was reassuringly steady and calm. She gestured him forward to the door.
”They still haven’t left,” murmured Nina. “But they’re trying to hide, waiting for a signal from Orlovich. I think they didn’t expect me to stay at the window. I’m supposed to go leave money down the hall, which they’d see me do through the other window, but obviously I haven’t done that. So if we make for the car, our lives are forfeit.”
”What?” asked Jonathan sharply, nearly dropping the box. A rattling noise filled the room, as if it were filled with rocks. It was heavy, but not that heavy, as far as he could tell. Maybe they were something else. He was tempted to look inside, but Nina’s last few words had blown every other thought from his mind. “What do we do?”
”Do you see any other way out of here?”
He glanced around. “…Not unless we jump out. The back door’s practically walled off.”
”Yeah… purpose-built place Harley had here. Well, not built, they obviously modified it for their trafficking. Can’t have the merchandise running out the back.” Nina leaned out again, but retracted her head almost instantly. “Shit… I think he saw me.”
Jonathan hesitated. “…If I can get us to the car, can you get us out of here?”
”Yeah. I didn’t expect any company. That car’s my personal one, it’s much more resilient than most of the cheap vehicles I’ve been picking up for you to use.”
”Thanks,” said Jonathan, rolling his eyes.
”That’s on purpose, you know,” said Nina irritably. “The more expensive, the more likely it’s going to be noticed. We don’t want to be noticed.”
”No, including today…” She sighed. “I was showing off. It just felt right to do. This is the danger with me and I know it. I’m a self-aware bipolar mess, I know exactly how reckless I’m being and I do it anyway. You’re lucky I haven’t tried to take out everybody solo yet.”
”I can get you to the car. No killing. We just get out,” said Jonathan, even as his own anxiety and fears mounted even higher than before, something he wouldn’t have believed possible. What the hell am I doing?
”Magic? We can’t let them know we’re awakened. That could completely mess up my relationship with them.”
”Do you have another option?” asked Jonathan. “We’ve got a job tonight. There’s no other way out of this building and they’ve got us surrounded.” He grit his teeth, not believing he was about to say it. “I can get us to the car.”
Nina nodded. “Okay.”
She seemed impatient. Jonathan gathered up everything he had, thinking back to the illusion he’d just been watching in Nina’s car on the way in. A cloud of smoke wouldn’t be enough—they had machine guns and more than enough ammo to just spray the area, and Jonathan didn’t think they’d bother being discreet.
Can I manage enough magic for this? I… there’s no other option. I have to.
Jonathan did a quick test inside, seeing if he could cast the spell at all. He could do lights—he did them every show, after all—and decent illusion magic, but this needed to be so much more. If it wasn’t totally believable, animated perfectly, projected far enough away to fool them…
I can do this. I have to do this.
”Stay right here. Don’t let them see you again,” said Jonathan.
Nina glanced at him. “What are you doing?”
Doing exactly what he’d told Corbin he’d never done, Jonathan grabbed at everything he could nearby. He felt energy draining out of the plants, the grass, even soil full of ants and worms below them. It wasn’t a blind process—Jonathan had to specifically target them, finding them with quick bursts of wind and feeling out the changes in airflow—but soon enough, he was amassing a huge flow of power.
He flung the front door open, and as he did, Jonathan grabbed at every photon he could. It was so much, he could barely keep it in his mind.
Cinza does way more than this on a regular basis… Jessica was able to turn people invisible with almost no effort at all. This is insane.
Jonathan was choking. Everything hurt. He struggled to force breath through his lungs, every gasp was agony. Still, the illusion held, as perfect as he could manage. A phantom Nina, pistol at the ready, frantically led a box-clad Jonathan down the steps. Their dopplegangers glanced at the car for a split-second, then sprinted for the nearest fenced-off alleyway.
Gunfire rattled from several windows. Puffs of dirt exploded everywhere, tiny chunks of concrete from the building walls, even sparks off the chain-link fence.
Grunting from sheer exertion, Jonathan made the phantoms flinch and duck. They hurled themselves at the fence. Nina bolted over the top, while phantom Jonathan—with more strength than the real Jonathan even at his best, but nothing unrealistic—hurled the box over the fence. Phantom-Nina caught it with ease. His double followed as fast as he reasonably could.
They were off. In an instant, the men had scrambled after them, bullets following in their wake. They too disappeared from sight, leaving only the deafening echoes of gunshots in their wake.
Jonathan released the phantoms as they rounded the corner, vanishing just out of sight.
Every blade of grass in front of the house was a withered husk—a carpet of death back to their car.
”There,” he coughed. “They just… think we ran. No… no magic. They’re just… bad shots,” he added, trying to grin.
Nina smiled. “Well played.”
Late Thursday night, long after the deliveries with Kyle—
Okay, hold on. You and Nina went up against the Russian mob, dude. You can not just leave it like that. I know you never lie to me, but seriously, that’s insane.
That’s it, to be honest. They didn’t come back. Nina and I got in the car like fifteen minutes later when she called it clear, we drove off. At one point she called somebody on the car phone and spoke in Russian for like ten minutes straight, I didn’t understand a word. I had to stay completely silent though.
Are you okay? Are you in danger still? Is she? I have way too many questions.
No, we should be fine. Nina said that her people would pay the Odessans and we’d be square. Orlovich would probably be… taken care of, for the breach of protocol.
Oh my God… Jonathan, are you okay?
…Do you need to—
Yeah. That’s… that’s why I called.
Okay. What do you need?
Just to talk. Please. Help me get my thoughts out.
You got it. So… did you find out what was in the box?
Nope, no idea. I was going to, but then Kyle’s whole speech on compartmentalization, and I figured… probably shouldn’t, right?
I wouldn’t be able to resist. What are you doing with all these though?
That’s what the last part of this story’s for.
Telling me what all this was for?
Yup. We’re now up to like… six hours ago. Well… seven now.
Holy crap, it’s almost four. Okay, go on, let’s finish this up.
Late Thursday night, Jonathan was driving again—
To deliver all these wonderful boxes?
Jonathan was driving again—
Sorry, I’m just a bit freaked out still. Bad joke.
…Jonathan was driving again, with Drew in the passenger seat. He’d been a part of the whole job from start to finish, as the only person with nothing better to do, and he still wasn’t sure what they were doing. To his disappointment, neither did Drew.
”We’re taking all these salamander eggs to the warehouses and setting them up,” said Drew. “That’s all I got.”
”…These are bombs, though,” said Jonathan hesitantly. “So we’re what, burning the place down?”
”There’s no way they’re enough to burn all this down,” said Drew confidently. “Kyle and I didn’t really put that much into them. I think they’re more a distraction. Or a warning. We’re sending a message, just like you did last time.”
”They got mad at me for that, though…” said Jonathan hesitantly.
”They did?” Drew sounded genuinely surprised. “I didn’t hear about it.”
Jonathan pulled up to the parking lot nearest the warehouses, the same he’d been to earlier with Kyle. He was driving one of Nina’s cars—not the nice one, of course, but another generic cheap one she’d procured. It was reassuring in a way, since it meant she still had access to the resources they needed, even after the… incident.
The warehouse was quiet, since everybody had already been on the way out earlier. From what Julian had dug up, the place had a light security detail until ten o’clock, then only one lonely guardsman overnight. They shouldn’t be disturbed. More importantly for Jonathan’s sanity, the likelihood they’d hurt someone was nearly zero.
He hadn’t been doing well since that morning. When he’d met up with Kyle, he’d still been running on adrenaline, plus a strong desire not to look weak in front of the guy. Now, at night, with his friend beside him, everything was finally laying in. Even the night seemed darker than usual.
It was the closest he’d come to the massacre in the camp again. Nobody died—thank God—but the hail of bullets in his general direction was uncomfortably familiar. Jonathan couldn’t think about it too much. They still had a job to do. The massacre had to remain a memory.
If it had been anyone besides Drew that night, he might have broken.
They waited in silence, since they’d arrived early. Once they saw the evening guard shift leave, they’d move in. For now, it was a silent vigil in a car so dark, Jonathan could barely make out his friend beside him. The parking lot’s lamps were out as well, so the only illumination came from the barely-visible moon. Its tiny crescent hung in the sky outside, while a field of stars surrounded them.
It seemed… tame, compared to the beautiful perfect constellations and galaxies he’d seen in the Olympic camp. The place had kept up the Rallsburg tradition of turning out all the lights at night, enjoying their stargazing far away from light pollution. Jonathan missed that, if nothing else.
”Really nice night out,” said Drew, gazing up at the same stars.
”Yeah,” said Jonathan. He smiled. “You should’ve seen it in the camp though. It was breathtaking.”
”I can imagine. I love stargazing,” he added. “I could get lost in the sky for hours.”
”Oh!” Drew grinned, his dark skin just barely visible across the seats. “I think I finally got it.”
”Yeah!” He held up his hands. “Ready?”
Jonathan nodded, then realized Drew probably couldn’t see him. “Go for it.”
An instant later, a white flash lit them both up, accompanied by a crackling noise. The arc of electricity jumped between them, from Drew’s palm straight to Jonathan’s fingers. He flinched. Wringing his hand, he was about to retort when he saw the after-image of Drew’s face burned on his retina.
Drew was so elated, so full of joy and excitement, Jonathan’s words died in his throat. He was happy for his friend, happy he could help, happy he could be there for the moment.
”Awesome,” said Jonathan eagerly. “That was legit lightning, man!”
”Only a little,” said Drew modestly, but the pride in his voice was obvious.
”That’s the start. No more messing with static and trying to shock each other. You just shot lightning at me and it worked.”
”Oh… I didn’t mean to—”
”Path of least resistance,” said Jonathan, smirking. “Come on, Mr. Electrician. Don’t worry, it didn’t hurt. Much.”
”Did you imagine anything like this when you awakened?” asked Drew excitedly. “I can just make lightning! It’s almost effortless!”
”I went straight to trying to make it into a show,” said Jonathan, leaning back. He loved reminiscing. “Of course, then I met Hailey and Alden and everything changed.”
”Yeah, same…” Drew sighed. “You were the first guy they met with, right?”
”Yeah,” said Jonathan with a touch of pride. “And… honestly, I kinda acted like an idiot. Really, really cringe in retrospect.”
”Haha, I’m sure they forgot.”
”Not even a little. Alden made a joke about it every time we met after that. I’m never living it down.”
In the pitch black, the lightning having completely broken their night vision, Drew laughed. Soon enough, Jonathan joined him. The laughter broke Jonathan’s hesitation, and soon enough, they were talking about anything and everything. Drew didn’t share a lot of interests with him, but it didn’t matter—Jonathan just took it as an opportunity to learn more about things he knew nothing about.
Drew had lived in the Olympia area his whole life, after his parents moved from the D.C. area. He’d been fascinated with building and taking apart electronics since he was a kid, and it never went away. Toward the end of high school, he’d found odd jobs as an amateur electrician and decided to go into it full time.
”And seriously, it makes bank,” added Drew. “Way better than wasting years at college. Certification program and I’m in.”
”Who said I was going to college?” said Jonathan.
”Oh, come on. You’re a college guy.” He smirked. “I won’t hold it against you.”
”Who needs college? I’ve got magic.”
Jonathan expected some kind of admonishment—after all, most of the people he knew would probably think him crazy. Drew looked thoughtful, though. He took a few moments before speaking again.
”Hey, if your show really gets big, yeah, it could go a long way. Even if people realize it’s real magic, you have the entertainment factor down. People always need entertainment, right?”
”Yeah,” said Jonathan. “Stage performance has been going strong for millennia. I’m feeling pretty secure in my career there.”
”I couldn’t ever do that,” said Drew softly. “Be so open about it, throw myself out into the world like that. I’m terrified already just being open about it at work, and I’m not on a stage.”
”…It’s not really me, though,” Jonathan pointed out. “It’s just a face. Not even my real name, and definitely not the real me.”
”Nah,” said Drew confidently. “I don’t think that’s true. Your show is more you than the guy you act like outside. You always seem the most at home there, and you’re really good at it.”
”…You came to my show?”
”Dude, I’ve come to the last like, ten of them.” Drew grinned. “Figured you didn’t need any extra pressure.”
Jonathan was surprised. He’d told Drew about his magic show and where it was, but never formally invited him. To hear his friend had actually followed through and attended without needing an invitation… it meant a lot. Unprompted opinions always felt more genuine than asking for them, but given Jonathan’s situation, he couldn’t exactly risk sitting down to listen to feedback from strangers.
”Thanks,” said Jonathan finally, embarrassed.
”Looking forward to the next one,” he added. Drew suddenly leaned forward in his seat, peering at the warehouses. “Okay, they’re gone. We’re up.”
Jonathan quickly laid down a spell to muffle sound around them so the car doors wouldn’t give them away. They got out and unloaded the box he’d picked up that morning. A few minutes later, he was re-enacting the very illusion he’d created before, hurling it over a tall fence before clambering over himself.
From there, between magic and the pair of them, it was easy to get into the warehouse, through the locked doors, and to the place Kyle had directed them. Jonathan carefully lodged the box into a corner, out of sight. Given the location, in the center of the middle warehouse, Jonathan was figuring out the plan little by little—and he was excited.
Glad somebody’s got a clue here. I have no idea what you guys are doing.
As soon as it was planted, they hurried out the way they’d come in. Over the fence, back into the car, and bursting into giddy laughter. Jonathan couldn’t help it, and Drew was infected by the same joy. They’d just pulled it off, right under the nose of a billionaire’s guards. Warehouse guards, but still—a success was a success, and they’d just put the last piece in place. The buildings would fall, another blow to their enemies and a warning to the rest.
”Come on,” said Jonathan, exuberant.
”You and me are going out to party.”
Drew frowned, deflating his excitement. “…Cool with you if we just hang out the two of us? I’m not really big on the party scene.”
”And that was the last part,” said Jonathan, taking a drink of water. His lips were dry from talking so much. Nell had interrupted every once in a while, but for the most part, it was all him. Now, though, she was ready to really dig in.
”That’s it?” She shook her head. “So abrupt, dude. It just ends with you and Drew hanging out in a car somewhere?”
”No, no, that was the last part of our job,” said Jonathan. “We actually stayed there until everything went off. Probably a really bad idea, but nobody saw us. We parked far enough away.”
”Went off?” Nell raised her eyebrows. “What the hell were you doing, anyway?”
”Well…” Jonathan glanced at the clock. It was already five, so the morning news shows would be turning on. It’d be even more dramatic to show her than just tell her. “Here’s what happened next,” he added, pulling up a news feed onto his screen and sharing it over.
”Last night, sometime around eleven thirty, several massive explosions occurred at a set of warehouses owned by Mettis Freight, a subsidiary of Metcon Capital. Minor injuries were sustained by the night watchmen on duty, but no serious casualties. Authorities are still trying to trace the cause of the explosions and subsequent fire, which appear to have occurred spontaneously.”
Nell shook her head. “You guys burned down a billionaire’s warehouses? I mean, I’m all for fighting capitalism, but this seems kinda… extreme?”
”Just wait,” said Jonathan, confident the next part was coming. Kyle had assured him the place was a staging ground for anti-awakened fanatics—they were bound to find something. “I’m sure they’ll find something.”
After a few minutes with the fire marshal discussing possible accelerants and causes, the camera crew finally turned to following a few of the firefighters into the building, surveying the damage. Jonathan waited with baited breath as they searched, though the warehouses had been so thoroughly destroyed he could barely believe it.
What on earth was in that box I got with Nina? Must have been some crazy explosives… or whatever would help burn down three warehouses.
As the camera swung around, a firefighter came out from one of the ash-black offices, carrying what looked like a small, smooth stone.
”Bingo,” Jonathan whispered.
”Is that…” murmured Nell, rapt. “That’s one of the stones, right?”
”Yeah. I dunno if they know what—”
Jonathan’s question was answered almost immediately, as the cameraman gasped. Staged, for sure. Wonder how Julian got the cameraman. Wish we could’ve stolen and destroyed those stones though…
”What?” asked the reporter, turning around to look at the camera directly. It was such an odd look for the morning news, with the reporter looking over the camera to the man behind it rather than directly into it. Just ever so slightly off, just like the rest of the world. “Jimmy?”
There was a quiet mumble from off-screen, too far for the reporter’s microphone to pick up easily. The reporter’s eyes widened though. She pulled the microphone away from her mouth, talking to somebody over a headset mic—probably her studio, getting confirmation. A brief painstaking pause later, she resumed, voice shakier than before.
”I’m being told,” she said finally, “this stone, with this symbol and the purple veining, is a known tool of anti-magic extremists, specifically those who follow Brian Hendricks of Rallsburg. We’re not quite sure what this means yet or why it was found on the grounds of a Mettis Freight warehouse, but we’ll be closely following this story as it develops.”
Nell whistled. “Well, all right then.”
Jonathan had to stop himself from cheering as Nell continued in a subdued tone. He barely heard her the rest of the night.
They’d done it. Julian, or Kyle, or somebody had made sure the reporters would know what they were looking at. Now everybody knew. They’d been harboring terrorists, and Jonathan’s group had just struck them a major blow.
A hub had been exposed, and doubtless the stones would be swept up by Rachel and her DTA, never to be used again. Mettis funding terrorism would be brought to light. He’d be forced to answer uncomfortable questions, and their world would get just a little bit more difficult. Another step toward victory for Jonathan and all awakened.
The caution and fear in Nell’s voice slid right past his ears, unnoticed. Jonathan didn’t have time for fear. His war was just getting started.
it’s great to be back. I’m so sorry I was gone for so long. But hey! I wrote a whole other novel in the meantime! Check it out: https://www.royalroad.com/fiction/45904/riposte
I needed to write it, get it out of my head so I could focus again. TLS is back in motion over here and I’m really kicking up the engine. I hope you’ll all stick with me, because we’ve still got plenty left to explore in this world.
Case in point, what’s going on here with Natalie?
See you all again soon 💙