Interlude I

Awakening — Chapter 10
Awakening — Chapter 11

Interlude I — A Year in the Life of Hailey Winscombe

I.

A warm evening in May at Hailey Winscombe’s apartment in Rallsburg.

  

  Hailey Winscombe hurried to the table just as a knock came at the door. She swapped the positions of the corn chips and the punch bowl. The chips had been too far from the dip — their natural partner. It would have made the snacks much more annoying to pick up and enjoy. Everything needed to be right for this party. It was a special occasion, after all. She had a new roommate to introduce to her tightest circle of friends, and she was determined that everything would be just perfect.

  A second knock sent her scurrying upstairs to the door.

  ”Come in!” Hailey announced, beaming out onto the walkway of the apartment complex. At the door were her four closest friends, chatting away the evening as they trooped in and followed her back downstairs to the living room. Ian, the funny one, already with the group in stitches at a joke he’d told just before she’d opened the door. Jessica, the smart one, wide glasses affixed permanently to her face, a hood covering her hair and a thin smile on her lips. Hugo, the talented athlete, punching Ian in the arm, jostling his best friend good-naturedly.

  Weston, the yang to her yin, always cool and detached. Her polar opposite, her worst enemy and her constant irritation. Her boyfriend.

  She threw her arms around Weston and planted a kiss on his lips. He smiled, but gently pushed her away. “Hey.”

  ”You’re not getting away with one-word answers around my new roommate, Wessy,” Hailey admonished, wagging a finger at him. He grinned.

  ”Where is the new meat anyway?” Hugo asked, plopping himself down on the couch with the bowl of chips. Hailey tsked at the dissolution of her perfectly arranged table of snacks.

  ”She’s been up in her room all afternoon buried in a book. Studying, I think.” Hailey looked up at the second floor of her apartment, frowning. “Hey! Gang’s all here! You promised you’d come say hello!”

  There was no response.

  Ian raised his eyebrows in exaggerated shock. “Shyer than Jessica? That’s a new record.”

  Jessica blushed pink behind her thick glasses and burrowed deeper into her jacket.

  Hailey shook her head. “No, she’s cool. I don’t know what’s up. She’s the nicest, she’s just a bit of a bookworm.”

  ”Shy and a bookworm? Jessie, you’ve got competition.”

  ”At least we’ll finally have someone smart besides her in the group,” Hugo quipped. Ian chucked one of Hailey’s many pillows at him, which he deftly caught and sent sailing right back into Ian’s chest with a thump.

  ”She’s cool,” Weston chimed in.

  ”The king and queen have spoken!” Ian declared with a flourish. “Come down, yonder maiden!”

  They all looked expectantly at the staircase, but still no response came back. Not even a shuffle of movement. Hailey was starting to worry.

  ”Guys, wait here a sec?” She started up the staircase, two steps at a time.

  ”Don’t take too long, I can only stand Ian for ten minutes at a time,” said Hugo.

  ”Ten minutes longer than you could stand Nikki Parsons,” Ian shot back.

  ”We had a difference of opinions.”

  ”I heard she kicked you out because you threw up on the sofa,” Jessica interjected quietly.

  All heads turned to Jessica, who suddenly seemed determined to melt herself into the couch.

  ”Hugo Gonzales, star high school quarterback, can’t hold his liquor?” Ian said with a grin.

  ”Like you’re one to talk, Mr. Root Beer.”

  ”I’m satisfied with soda, I don’t need to stumble around like an idiot at parties.”

  ”‘Cause you’re so lightweight you’d pass out after one cup.”

  ”Guilty as charged,” Ian replied. “Hey Weston, what about you?”

  ”I drink sometimes,” Weston answered, still gazing at the staircase and clearly ignoring most of the conversation.

  ”What’s your drink of choice?”

  ”Whatever’s being served.”

  ”Come on, man. We gotta know your taste so we can judge you too.”

  ”Whatever Hailey’s having.”

  ”Hailey would drink us all under the table no sweat though. Then she’d go jump off a cliff with a parachute and be totally fine, while we’d all be dumber than Rachel on test day.”

  ”I like vodka,” Jessica put in. Even Weston looked around at her in amazement. “What?”

  ”Just didn’t see that coming, Jess,” Weston replied.

  ”You haven’t heard her drunk singing,” muttered Hugo.

  ”No kidding. Jessie has us all beat,” Ian conceded. “How do you even get vodka at nineteen?”

  Before Jessica could answer, they heard a thump from upstairs.

  ”Hailey?” Weston called, rising to his feet.

  Hailey’s voice rang back down after a brief pause. “I’m fine! Just tripped on something. But…”

  ”…But what?” Ian filled in.

  ”I don’t know what,” Hailey shouted back.

  Ian gave them all a significant look before bolting up the stairs. The rest followed, still chatting away without much concern.

  ”Well? Where’s this fabled roommate?” Hugo asked, standing in the doorway of a tidy, but rather impersonal room. For all they could tell, the furniture may as well have just been assembled. There was no evidence anyone actually lived in the room, except for a piece of old, cracked parchment paper that lay on the desk, and a few duffle bags scattered around the bed.

  ”I don’t know,” Hailey repeated. “I came up here and she was gone, but she didn’t come back down and it’s not like she’s gonna jump out the window…”

  ”Says you,” Ian retorted, peering out the window to the hard concrete three stories below as best he could. The building was only two floors, but it was built into the side of a hill overlooking the forest and the back was a good deal lower than the front, leading to both great views and a dizzying sense of vertigo out the bedroom windows. Hailey loved the place just for the view.

  ”Eww, Ian. Don’t say that,” Jessica squealed, her hands to her mouth.

  ”I’m not saying she did. I’m just saying we don’t know her very well. Maybe she booked it.”

  ”You did say she was shy,” Hugo added, also straining to look out the window.

  ”Not run-away-from-friends shy,” Hailey shot back. She picked up the piece of paper from the table. “All she left was this, but I can’t read it.”

  ”What do you mean you can’t read it? Is it in a different language or something?” Ian asked.

  Weston took the paper from Hailey, glancing down it with vague interest. “Huh.”

  ”Huh, what? Stop being so non-specific.” Ian reached out for the paper, but Weston held it away from him and passed it to Jessica.

  ”Anything, Jess?”

  Jessica adjusted her glasses slightly and brushed her long hair out of her eyes as she peered down the cracked paper. “I-I don’t know. It’s like I can’t focus on any of the letters. My eyes get all fuzzy.” She handed it back to Hailey. “I don’t want to look at it anymore.”

  Hailey took it back, ignoring the protesting Ian, and strained her eyes to read the letters. “It kinda looks like English…” she murmured. She could see the vague outline of a letter A at the beginning of the first sentence, and the next few letters following. “Abrec tes minneard desve seln-

  Hailey’s voice caught. She coughed hard, looking away from the paper.

  Her friends stared at her, dumbfounded.

  ”Hailey?” Weston asked, genuinely concerned for the first time in months.

  Hailey shook her head. “I’m good. That was a rush,” she added, looking at the page again. Her blood was thudding through her skull, and she could taste adrenaline on her tongue. It was the feeling she’d always chased. She loved it. She needed more.

  She began reading again, and Hailey Winscombe felt a sensation burning through her. A rush of wind that felt like it originated inside her, like air flowing underneath her skin and making her light as a feather. Hailey thought she might simply start to float then and there, and nothing appealed to her more. The idea of flying — of taking to the skies like a bird and experiencing that freedom — had been her dream since she’d been a child. She’d come close to it in the past. One year, for her birthday, her friends had pooled their money to buy her a trip up in a glider with a wingsuit. It had been the greatest sensation of her short life.

  Reading the page, Hailey felt something even stronger. Instead of simply sliding across the air, swooping but still slowly descending as gravity refused to let go, Hailey felt herself float, completely free of the earth’s pull. As she made it further down, the paragraphs running together as her voice sped up, it took hold of every sense. The world faded away and Hailey Winscombe was in a void, where the air was her friend and gravity her willing partner. She took hold and swung herself around, dancing and twisting through the air effortlessly. She could fly, and it was every bit as joyous as she’d ever believed it could be.

  Then Hailey reached the end of the page, and her eyes snapped back into reality. The wind was sucked out along with her breath, knocking out her legs from under her. Her vision was searing red as blood rushed through her skull, far too much of it having blown up into her eyes and her brain. She fell heavily against Weston, who’d leapt to her side the moment she’d started to drop.

  Hailey felt like she’d just woken up from a dream she’d been stuck inside her entire life. Her eyes were wide and on the verge of tears, as she’d never felt such a pure expression of joy and feared she might never again.

  ”Hailey?”

  Hailey Winscombe wasn’t one to give up so easily. She grinned, struggling to her feet with a great deal of support from Weston.

  She was going to fly someday, for real, and that piece of old parchment had just shown her the way.

 

 

 

II.

A warm day in May, one week later, in Hailey’s apartment, just past noon.

  ”Yeah, but what do you think it actually is?” Ian asked, as he casually tossed a ball of fire from one hand to the other. Hailey might have laughed at the image if it hadn’t become so commonplace of late. Here they were, five normal college kids, and they could do magic! It was still mind-blowing to her every single day since they’d first discovered the page in her apartment.

  ”It’s dangerous, that’s what it is,” Hugo said darkly, his eyes following the fire bouncing between his best friend’s hands with abject suspicion. He’d been the only one of their group not to read from the page. He’d regarded it as something demonic, and told them all they were making a dangerous mistake.

  None of them had paid him any mind. Not even Weston, who usually respected Hugo’s opinions quite a bit.

  ”It’s okay Hugo, see?” Jessica said. “It’s just energy, same as everything else in the universe. We just have a new way to manipulate it. Like all the things we’ve been able to do with electricity over the last century.”

  ”Right,” Hailey said with finality. “Just like electricity. I mean, computers are practically black magic, aren’t they? Do you have any clue how a computer works?”

  ”A bunch of transistors that flip rapidly from off to on when a current is applied and make calculations that get output,” Hugo shot back. “Just because I don’t have as good of grades as you two doesn’t make me ignorant.”

  ”So this is something else like that. Something’s doing calculations somewhere with what we give it and making an output.”

  ”Hugo, don’t be that guy. Look,” Ian said, pointing at Weston. “Weston, show him what you figured out.”

  Weston frowned. “Not really a show kind-of-thing.”

  ”Oh come on, it’s cool as shit. You figured it out, you should be the one to demonstrate.”

  ”Figured out what?” Hailey said eagerly. She was always looking forward to the next bit of magic they’d managed to deduce. Ian and Weston tended to be the most creative of the four, while Jessica had the most raw ability. Hailey was neither talented nor creative, but she liked to think she made up for it with enthusiasm and dedication.

  Weston stood and rolled his shoulders before he continued. “Goes like this, right? I kinda feel out the whole room, like it’s a part of me.” He closed his eyes and furrowed his brow, murmuring under his breath.

  Nothing happened for a few moments. Hugo shot a look at Ian, but he just shook his head. Hailey knew better. Magic took time and effort for all of them, even Jessica. Nothing was instant, especially not something that apparently affected a whole room.

  A full minute went by. Jessica checked her watch impatiently. Hailey curled up on the sofa, watching with interest as Weston relaxed his muscles and opened his eyes. He let out a slow deep breath. They all gasped.

  His breath (and their own) was suddenly quite visible. In fact, the entire room was ice cold, like it was suddenly a winter night despite being the middle of May.

  Hailey burst into applause. Jessica and Ian laughed aloud. Weston flashed his trademark smile — just barely visible at the corners of his lips — as he sat down again.

  ”Free A/C for life!” Ian cried.

  ”Wes, can you make it warm too?” Hailey asked excitedly.

  ”Probably,” Weston answered, dabbing the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief. “Cold was just easier for some reason. It just feels like I’m drawing it in. Maybe if I try pushing instead—”

  ”That sounds right. I think you’re just moving energy around,” Jessica interrupted. “Temperature is just lots of energy in particular objects. So you’re moving that energy into yourself, dropping the energy of the room and making it colder, while you get warmer.” She reached out and touched his forehead. Hailey felt a brief rush of jealousy at the sight of the girl’s hand on her Weston. Then she dismissed it as ridiculous. Her Weston? He’d be angry at the thought of it alone. She didn’t own him. They weren’t even really dating, even if they were sleeping together regularly. “You feel like you have a fever. Might be dangerous. Maybe you should find a way to redirect the energy into another object instead of yourself.”

  ”Nah, I’m good,” Weston replied easily. “Just feels like sunshine.” He smiled at Jessica, who just rolled her eyes.

  ”Still, cool shit right?” Ian said, his breath still clouding the air, though the temperature was noticeably rising as the warm spring air floated in through the open windows.

  ”Awesome,” Hailey said, beaming. “Wes, you gotta show me how to do that later.”

  ”You got anything new, Hales?” Ian asked, looking at her with interest.

  Hailey took to her feet, eager to show off what she’d been working on. “I’m still working out the kinks, but Jessica gave me a good idea. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to jump higher, right?”

  Ian rolled his eyes. “Jump higher,” he mumbled sarcastically.

  ”Better than your little fire tricks,” Hailey shot back.

  ”What did you figure out?” Weston interrupted before they could start bickering.

  Hailey cleared her throat. “Well, I was watching Jessica play a game, and the game had a thing in it where they could jump twice without touching the ground, right?”

  ”Double-jumping,” Jessica supplied.

  ”Yeah, double-jumping. So I decided to look into a way to just jump again. And I thought, well, that’s a lot easier than trying to fling an entire me through the air right? No awkward coordinating trying to move my whole body at once.”

  Hailey planted her feet and tensed. She’d been preparing for this all morning, while Jessica looked on and offered encouragement. She stretched out. They weren’t sure at all if being limber and loose was actually beneficial to performing magic, but it didn’t seem to hurt, and definitely helped make it less painful when experimenting.

  ”Get on with it,” Ian catcalled. Jessica shot him a dark look, and he quieted up. Hailey didn’t mind though. If anything, she was determined to get it right just to shut him up.

  Hailey grinned at him, then jumped straight up. As she did, she focused her mind on the air around her feet. She could feel it brushing against her socks, and suddenly wished she’d taken them off. She felt as though she could sense and control the air more directly if it were against her bare skin. Still, the sensation she felt was enough.

  Hailey began to gather the air together with a quick murmur, pushing every element closer together into a dense pocket. There was a whoosh as the rest of the air in the room pushed inward to fill the gaps from what she’d taken under her control.

  As Hailey reached the top of the arc of her leap, she shifted the tightly packed air she’d gathered to rest directly under her feet. Every time she’d attempted it that morning, she’d lost control, sending her pant legs fluttering as the block of air burst and her feet back to the ground ignominiously to stumble around.

  This time, her feet touched the suddenly solid air. For a moment — for a brief, glorious moment — Hailey appeared to be standing on thin air. Ian gasped. Weston gasped. Jessica let out a squeal of delight.

  Hailey promptly lost control. Her foot suddenly found nothing to grip, and her legs twirled out in odd directions. She fell forward, face first into the sofa.

  She felt like she’d just sprinted a mile. She was panting heavily, finding it exhausting to even turn over on the sofa to face the ceiling. It didn’t matter. Hailey could have been paralyzed and she’d still have felt utterly exhilarated by what she’d just experienced. She’d stood on the air itself. She might not have been able to jump off of it like she’d planned, but it was far more than she’d ever managed before.

  Hailey burst into laughter. Joyous, intoxicating laughter. Her friends, who’d been looking deeply concerned by her tumble and subsequent collapse, let smiles break across their faces as well. Hailey was infinitely grateful that she’d stumbled across such a discovery as magic alongside her four closest friends.

  She only counted three faces floating above her. Someone was missing.

  ”Where’s Hugo?” Hailey asked, struggling up to a sitting position on the couch — though she quickly adjusted that to a leaning position against the stack of pillows at the end. She still felt too drained to even support the top half of her own weight.

  The other three glanced around, confused. “I guess he left while you were jumping,” Weston said.

  ”He seemed really mad,” Jessica said doubtfully. “I should go talk to him.”

  ”Nah, he’s just confused,” Weston said. “He’s afraid of it. The rest of us dove right in and he’s just being cautious. It’s not that unreasonable. The whole page reading thing was a bit much.”

  ”You got scared of a bit of paper, Wes?” Hailey said, laughing.

  ”Hey, when you start muttering in languages you don’t know, it’s a bit creepy.”

  ”Fair enough.”

  ”Still, is this going to be a problem?” Ian asked, his brow furrowed.

  ”Problem how?” Hailey asked.

  ”We know how to use magic,” Jessica answered quietly. “A lot of people would kill for that. A lot of governments too.”

  The thought sobered them all up a bit. They were silent, the last bit of chill from Weston’s earlier spell still tangible in the tension that permeated the room.

  ”Hugo wouldn’t tell anyone,” Ian said emphatically.

  ”No, of course not,” Hailey agreed.

  ”He knows how important staying quiet is. Even if he doesn’t want to use magic himself, he’s not going to turn in his friends.”

  ”What if someone else does?” Weston asked.

  ”Like who? There were only five of us there. No one else even knows magic exists.”

  ”We sure about that?”

  ”Well I’m not going around tossing fireballs down the street, are you?”

  ”No.”

  ”So let’s just assume no one else knows about magic. Keep it to ourselves,” Ian declared.

  ”Yeah,” Hailey agreed. “Keep it to ourselves.”

  They all sat down with her, a group of four friends sharing the biggest secret they could possibly imagine. Hailey put one arm around Jessica and Weston both and gave them a hug. She smiled.

  ”I want to try that again.”

 

 

 

III.

A warm night in late June, a few weeks later, in Hailey’s apartment.

 

  Try as she might, Hailey simply couldn’t feel it.

  ”It’s like there’s a fabric completely surrounding you, Hailey. Just feel for it and try to grab onto it.”

  ”I can’t, Wes. There’s nothing there,” Hailey cried, frustrated.

  ”Well, how do you make your air pockets?” Jessica said.

  ”I push air together until it becomes solid.”

  ”Right, so how do you feel out that air?”

  ”I don’t? It’s just there. I know where it is and I push it around.”

  ”And you don’t feel the room? The environment?”

  ”No!” Hailey cried again, plopping herself down on the couch.

  Ian coughed. “Face it, Jessie, she’s just not gonna pull it off. Still can’t even do her double-jump thing properly.”

  ”This is a clue though,” Jessica said excitedly. “Of the theory I was working on.”

  ”What theory?” Weston asked.

  ”That Hailey’s terrible at everything except air tricks,” Ian said snidely.

  ”Of specialities,” Jessica answered, ignoring him. “Everyone seems to have one and they cover different types of magic.”

  ”So you think we all have different specialties?” Weston prompted. Hailey sighed and curled up on the sofa, pulling a blanket over herself. Weston seemed to be practicing messing with the temperature of the room while they carried on their conversation. She wasn’t sure he was even doing it consciously anymore. It was a measure of his skill and focus that he could affect the room while carrying on a conversation.

  ”Exactly. There’s gotta be different branches of magic that different spells fall under and we each got a particular specialty. Something we’re born with, I suppose. You’re good at the stuff with the environment, Wes.” Wes? Hailey noted with jealousy. Only Hailey called him Wes. Jessica was getting a bit too comfortable around him. “Hailey and Ian are both good at manipulating the elements. Ian likes fire and Hailey likes air, but they’re both pretty good at either one if they really try at it.”

  Hailey had to concede the younger girl was right. Even though she favored playing with the air and the flowing, dancing sensations it gave her to move it around, she was pretty equally skilled at messing with fire. She didn’t have anything like Ian’s finesse or deep bag of tricks, but she didn’t find it as taxing as Weston or Jessica did.

  ”And you, Jessica?” Weston prompted.

  ”Well, I dunno,” Jessica started, her face falling a little. “I’m able to do all the stuff you guys can, but not easily. So I’m not specialized in natural or elemental magic. And I find telekinesis harder than all of you apparently. I can’t even lift a piece of paper.”

  ”What did you feel, Jess?” Hailey asked, a flash of inspiration jogging her memory.

  ”Huh?”

  ”When you read the page. What did you feel?”

  ”You actually remember that?” Ian asked. Hailey shot him a look of disdain. It was one of the most powerful and life-changing moments she’d ever experienced. How could she possibly forget?

  ”My mind,” Jessica answered quietly.

  ”So maybe you can do something related to your brain?” Hailey wondered aloud.

  ”No, not like that. It was like, knowledge was flowing into my brain. Things I couldn’t possibly know,” Jessica trailed off.

  ”Divination,” Weston said. Jessica nodded.

  ”Huh?” Ian asked.

  ”Finding out things through magic,” said Jessica. “I think I could summon knowledge through magic.”

  ”Like what?”

  ”I dunno. I haven’t tried anything yet.” Jessica sank back into her chair, half-hidden behind a pillow.

  ”So that’s at least four branches of magic so far,” Hailey said thoughtfully, trying to distract from Jessica and give her a moment to breathe. “Elemental, Environmental, Move-uhh… movemental?”

  ”Kineticism,” Jessica offered.

  ”That breaks my whole -mental suffix pattern, but sure,” Hailey said, grinning.

  ”You’re mental enough as is,” Ian muttered.

  ”And then we’ve got Divination with Jess. Four. There’s gotta be more though, right?”

  They all sat back, thinking.

  ”Conjuring something,” Weston said. “Making things appear from nothing. We can’t do it, but I’d bet it exists.”

  ”Wouldn’t that just be elemental again?” Ian pointed out.

  Weston shook his head. “I mean something concrete and permanent, or at least relatively permanent. Physical stuff.”

  ”Ah, okay.”

  ”But the energy for that would be insane,” Jessica mused aloud. “It’s already a lot just to create something insubstantial like fire.”

  ”For you,” Ian quipped.

  ”Doesn’t make it impossible, Jess. I’d say it has to be real,” Weston said, ignoring Ian.

  ”I guess so,” Jessica said, picking up a notebook and writing down the ones they had so far. “So we’ll call that Creation, I guess? Make sure it’s distinct from Elemental?”

  ”Sure.”

  ”Five branches?” Hailey asked.

  ”What about making yourself stronger or lighter?” Ian asked. “That doesn’t really fit anything so far.”

  ”Could be a weird use of movement?” Weston pondered. “Moving your limbs faster or lifting yourself?”

  ”No, it feels totally different,” Ian said. “It’s more direct and permanent than moving something around. Like you’re actually growing or shrinking things, or making muscles more dense and strong. Or when we figured out how to change the color of someone’s fingernails.”

  They all smiled at that memory. Jessica had panicked when she saw her array of rainbow-colored nails and begged them to help her change it back before her parents noticed.

  ”Self-Enhancement?” Hailey proposed.

  ”What if it’s not enhancing something though?” Jessica said crossly, pointedly showing her (now quite normal) fingernails. They laughed.

  ”Self, then. Until we think of something better,” Weston said.

  ”So, six branches then. Movement, Elemental, Nature, Self, Creation and Knowledge. That’s gotta be enough, right?” Hailey asked.

  ”Remember the star?” Jessica said. They all looked at her in confusion. She sighed. “Hailey, do you still have the page?”

  ”Of course.” In fact, Hailey hadn’t let it more than a few feet away from herself since Hugo had left town. They still didn’t think he would do anything to expose them, but she felt a bit more secure with the source of all magic safely where she could reach it at any time. She pulled it out and looked at it again, with Weston peering over her shoulder.

  As Jessica had said, there was a curious star-like symbol in the corner of the page, with eight distinct points. They weren’t evenly spaced or even the same length, and the shape was oddly distorted, but there was clear significance to each one.

  ”Eight,” Jessica said triumphantly.

  ”Eight,” Weston agreed. “But what would the other two be?”

  They would have continued discussing the possibilities all night, but a low rumble rolled through the room. The glasses on the coffee table rattled just a little, the ajar door to the bathroom visibly quivering.

  ”Earthquake?” Jessica asked nervously, clutching Hailey’s hand tight. She’d never felt one before, having lived in Rallsburg her whole life.

  ”Nah,” Weston said, puzzled. He stood up and walked to the window, peering out into the inky black of Rallsburg at night. Hailey could barely make out the spires of the old abandoned library a few blocks away, where she could have sworn she spotted a flicker of light.

  Another rumble followed, deeper and stronger than the first. Light flashed from the top of the library spire, illuminating the whole town in a burst of color.

  ”Something’s going on outside.”

 

 

 

IV.

A cool morning in mid-August, about six weeks later, at Hailey’s apartment.

  ”What’s this, Hailey?” Jessica asked, looking at some of Hailey’s jewelry on her desk and holding up a ring.

  ”Diamond ring my dad gave me way back.”

  ”And this?”

  ”Sapphire ear studs.”

  ”And the one you’re wearing?” Jessica asked, landing on Hailey’s bed with a thump and pointing at the necklace currently entwined with a bit of Hailey’s wavy blonde hair.

  ”Polished tourmaline,” Hailey answered absently, her focus entirely dedicated to writing a note with a pencil on her desk — from ten feet away. It was as though she had an invisible third hand grasping it from afar, one that was composed entirely of thumbs and with severe Parkinson’s. Every tiny movement felt like she was weighted as if she were pushing through thick sand, and her arm shook as though she were weak with hunger, but Hailey was stubborn. She kept writing.

  ”You want me to stop talking?” Jessica asked, finally noticing what she was trying to do.

  ”You’re fine,” Hailey answered, still slowly and deliberately moving the pencil with her mind. She could barely make out the scratches from her distance, which made her handwriting something awful, but she’d be satisfied if it was legible at all.

  ”What are you writing anyway?” Jessica asked, her head propped up on her hands. She strained to see the page from her angle.

  ”Something I should have told him ages ago,” Hailey grumbled.

  Jessica sighed. “Are you and Weston fighting again?”

  ”Me and that arrogant good-for-nothing control freak? No, of course not, what gave you that impression?”

  ”He’s just trying to keep us safe,” Jessica said, giving her a pained look.

  ”Jess, you do know that as my bestie you’re supposed to support me against any guy unconditionally, right?”

  ”Oh. I am?” Jessica answered, sounding genuinely confused. Hailey mentally reminded herself that Jessica hadn’t really had any friends before she’d met their group in college and had definitely missed many of the important finer points of being a best friend. Still, over the past few months they’d bonded over so much, Hailey couldn’t possibly be annoyed with her. Jessica was simply the best, kindest, and most genuine person she knew.

  ”Nevermind. It’s okay. You’re right, he is. He could just be a bit nicer about it.”

  ”I guess so,” Jessica answered. She watched the pencil rattle about her desk, quivering as it slowly delivered each stroke. Hailey didn’t have nearly as strong control as Ian, but it vastly outstripped Jessica on the bed next to her, who couldn’t do much more than the strength of a gentle breeze. The younger girl was staring longingly at the pencil, a mixture of jealousy and sadness plainly stamped on her face.

  ”I’ve decided to call it a ‘diffinity’,” Jessica spoke up suddenly, still watching the pencil twisting around the desk. “Like how we call it an affinity for Elemental magic, like what you’ve got. I’ve got a diffinity for Movement magic.”

  ”I like it,” Hailey said encouragingly, splitting her focus for just a moment to smile at Jessica and letting the pencil wobble and fall. She managed to catch it before it hit the table, keeping her personal goal alive of maintaining it upright until she finished writing her note.

  ”Doesn’t make me feel much better, but at least it makes it easier to talk about,” Jessica went on, turning away to stare at the window. “Anyway, when are the guys getting here? It’s bright enough outside, they should be okay getting here.”

  ”Ian said he might be a little late. Weston should be here any minute now.”

  As if on cue, the door buzzed. The pencil clattered to the desk as Hailey lost her concentration.

  ”Should we go?” Jessica asked.

  ”Nah,” Hailey said. “Wes, we’re in here!” she called, refocusing once again on the pencil.

  ”But we’re in your bedroom,” Jessica said, her face turning pink once again.

  ”It’s not like he hasn’t seen it before,” Hailey said absentmindedly, determined to keep writing her note.

  Jessica turned an even brighter pink. “Oh!”

  ”Oh? Something going on in here?” Weston asked, opening the door and wandering in. Jessica shook her head frantically, her face bright red. Weston looked as casual and unconcerned as he usually did. They all knew now that it was an illusion though, and that behind the mask of detachment was a tightly-wound paranoid clock.

  ”Just finishing up an important bit of business, Wes,” Hailey said, as her pencil scratched out the last stroke of the message. She let the pencil fall and lifted the page up into the air, floating it gently toward them so it would be readable. To her satisfaction, it was messy and angry, but still legible.

  STOP BEING A DICK

  Weston plucked the page out of midair and examined it carefully. His eyes slowly traced every single letter as if he were contemplating something deep and complex. After a full minute or so of deliberation, he looked over the top of the paper at the two of them, staring Hailey directly in the eyes.

  ”I deserve this,” he said calmly.

  ”No kidding,” Hailey growled. “You practically leapt at Ian’s throat the other day just for voicing the possibility of considering going to the police with what we saw. And you’ve been nagging everyone way too much about keeping stuff indoors and away from anyone.”

  ”I just want us all to stay alive.”

  Hailey sighed. “We’re gonna be fine, Wes. We can still do magic, after all. And it’s not like any of us have broken any laws or done anything seriously dangerous.”

  ”What about jumping off the radio tower without any safety equipment?” Jessica chimed in.

  ”You did what?” Weston asked sharply.

  ”Jess, remember, besties?” Hailey said, giving her an exaggerated look of disappointment before rounding on Wes. “It’s fine. It was the middle of the night, no one was around. No one saw anything besides her.”

  ”Are you all right?” Weston asked, and for a brief moment Hailey remembered why she used to sleep with him.

  ”I’m sitting here talking to you, aren’t I? See any bruises?” In fact Hailey had gotten a pretty hefty bruise on her leg from the awkward way she’d landed, but that was hardly related to magic and mostly due to her own clumsiness.

  He frowned. “Fair enough, but that was still stupid and reckless.”

  ”My two middle names,” Hailey Aurora Elizabeth Winscombe retorted, quickly reminded of why she’d stopped feeling any affection for Weston.

  ”She was amazing,” Jessica said excitedly. “The way she bounced and swerved all the way down. It was like she had wings.”

  ”You watched from here?” Weston asked. Jessica nodded. He turned to Hailey. “Getting better, then?”

  ”Yeah,” Hailey answered. “I can control how I glide by moving around the air pockets as I go down. It’s still not flying, not even good gliding, but it’s progress.”

  ”Cool.” Weston sat down in her desk chair. “Ian show up yet?”

  ”No. Said he’d be late. Can’t be much longer though, it’s plenty light out now.” Hailey relaxed back on her bed, still feeling a bit of the exertion of moving the pencil around so much. It was strange to her how movement was so much harder for her to pull off, when her work with elements — her actual affinity, to use Jessica’s term — was all about helping her move. Yet they seemed totally unrelated in how they were accomplished magically.

  ”What about the double-jump?” Jessica asked, looking over from her spot on the end of the bed, curled up like a cat basking in the sunlight streaming through the bedroom window.

  ”Still no good,” Hailey replied, disappointed. “I still can’t keep it solid long enough to actually push off.” They both looked at her sympathetically, but — neither being Elemental affinity and Weston having particular difficulty with the branch — they couldn’t offer much in the way of ideas. Only Ian really understood how her process worked, being the same affinity as her.

  ”Want to give it another try while we’re waiting?” Jessica asked eagerly. Hailey admired her. The girl (and Hailey decided that she really ought to stop thinking of her like that. Jessica was nineteen, only two years younger than herself) could barely perform most magic outside of her own experiments with knowledge divination, but Jessica was determined not to let that slow her down. She had forced herself to achieve basic telekinesis by manipulating the air around an object, since she had felt like she was pressing up against a brick wall moving them directly. It took her more effort and was never as easily controlled as simply picking something up with her mind, but Jessica pulled it off all the same by sheer force of will.

  ”Sure, why not?” Hailey said, infected by her enthusiasm. She took to her feet, feeling mostly recovered from the effort of writing the note earlier. More importantly, this was her magic. Something about the air felt like she belonged to it, and it to her. The air was her friend and her ally unconditionally. It was happy to do what she wanted, so long as she was willing to give it some help along the way.

  She loosened her muscles as best she could, then concentrated and began gathering her pocket of air once more. Hailey started gathering the block together long before she jumped now, operating on the theory that if she could just land on it after putting it in place it might be easier to keep it around long enough to push off of. It hadn’t worked yet, but she believed she’d gotten it to last a tiny bit longer. It was progress, however minute. She clasped her hand to the stone around her neck for luck as she tensed to jump, muttering under her breath.

  Her closed fist felt a breeze push through where there should have been none.

  Hailey looked down at her hand in shock, still clasped around the polished tourmaline gemstone at the center of her necklace. She could feel it thick with energy, like a vast hurricane gust were somehow contained within the stone. If she reached for it, she felt she could shape it and redirect it, even relocate it where she needed it to go. She was so startled she let go of the block of air she’d been gathering, which dissipated into the room as a gentle breeze.

  Instantly, the feeling of the wind vanished. Hailey was once again grasping a simple stone in her hand. She stared at it in wonder.

  ”Hailey?” Jessica asked, confused. Weston had stood up, concerned, but Hailey waved him back to his seat.

  ”Watch this,” she said, grinning.

  She called the air back together, forming the brick in mid-air — only this time she used the vast depths of wind somehow contained within the tourmaline. The brick became solid and steady, more stable than she’d ever been able to manage before. Hailey held tight to the tourmaline in her grasp and leapt for the brick.

  She was off-target, but a quick mental adjustment moved it underneath her feet once more. For a full second, Hailey was standing on mid-air once again, but this time she didn’t fall. She simply hovered, floating on a gust of air of her own creation, and she let out a laugh of pure, unrestrained joy. With her eyes twinkling, she leapt off the brick, letting it vanish in a puff of wind as she jumped off air itself.

  Hailey promptly knocked her head against the ceiling and fell back onto her bed, laughing uncontrollably.

  Jessica leapt atop her, looking horrified. Once it became clear that Hailey was choking out laughter and wasn’t in any real pain, her expression turned to awe.

  ”How?” Jessica asked breathlessly. “You couldn’t even get it to stick around for an instant before, and now you can stand on it freely?”

  ”Hailey, what happened?” Weston said, his voice equally thick with excitement.

  ”Found out something new,” Hailey said proudly, opening her fist and displaying the tourmaline for them to see. They leaned over her in awe, looking down at the gemstone.

  ”It made you more powerful?” Weston asked.

  ”It had the power, I just used it,” Hailey said, trying to process what she’d just experienced. Jessica plucked up the stone from her chest and looked at it carefully.

  ”Hailey, it’s kinda dark now.”

  ”Huh?”

  ”Look, see?” She held it up and pointed at a spot.

  ”Can’t see too well with you on top of me, Jess,” Hailey said dryly.

  ”Oh!” Jessica squeaked. She scrambled back to the other end of the bed and held up the gemstone again. Hailey propped herself up, still winded from her trip through the air. “It wasn’t black in this spot before, was it?”

  ”No,” Hailey said, and indeed some of the purple edges of the gem had turned a dark, charred ash color. She rubbed at them experimentally, but they didn’t go away. She took it back from Jessica and tried to summon the air once again, pulling at a breeze wafting in through the window. She couldn’t be sure, but the strength of the gale inside the gem might have been a bit weaker. It was too slight to tell if it was just her imagination.

  ”So they get used up,” Jessica said confidently. “I wonder what other gems do? Rubies probably for fire things, topaz for lightning, obsidian and onyx for earth—”

  ”Sapphires for water?” Hailey guessed.

  ”Actually no, sapphires are usually associated with the air,” Jessica said. “Water’s probably aquamarine, emeralds, maybe pearls.”

  ”And they all can be used to enhance magic,” Weston said. “Probably more than just the elements, too.”

  ”Probably,” Jessica said excitedly. “Oh, I’d love to get on my hands on some amethyst right now. It’s supposed to be the mind stone. It might help me out a lot with some of the things I’ve wanted to try. You don’t have any, do you Hailey?”

  She shook her head, amused. “Sorry, Jess.”

  ”It’s okay, I can just order some online.”

  ”Hang on now, isn’t it going to look weird if you start ordering tons of gemstones out to Rallsburg?” Weston asked, concerned.

  ”I’m a bored girl in the middle of nowhere who wants to look at pretty things,” Jessica said dismissively. “No one would think twice.”

  Hailey laughed and nodded. “She’s got ya there.”

  He laughed. For a moment they felt excited again, just as they had when they’d first started experimenting with magic. Of course, it was bound to be interrupted — and as if on cue once more, the door buzzed, trying to interrupt their reverie.

  ”Come in, Ian!”

  So it was that Ian arrived to the three of them giggling like idiots, enjoying the moment, and promptly killed the mood. He had a frown permanently affixed to his face ever since the incident in July.

  ”What’s going on?”

  ”Oh nothing, we just revolutionized magic again,” Hailey said, still giggling.

  ”We?” Jessica said pointedly. “This was all you, Hailey.” Hailey grinned and didn’t disagree. She was immensely proud of her discovery, having contributed so little to their projects up until then.

  ”We need to talk,” Ian said darkly. “They’re still looking for culprits for the library being destroyed. I was asked by the sheriff yesterday if I knew anything.”

  ”Jackie asked you herself?” Jessica said, surprised. They all looked at her, the only real local amongst the group. “Jackie doesn’t get that involved, is all I’m saying,” Jessica continued. “She’s pretty hands off most of the time, likes to take it easy.”

  ”Well, she’s getting involved now.”

  ”She didn’t suspect you though, did she?” Weston asked.

  ”‘Course not, what’s there to suspect?”

  ”We were witnesses.”

  ”Don’t remind me,” Ian snapped. “I’m doing my best to forget that night.”

  ”I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page here, Ian—” Weston started.

  ”On the same page about what, Wes? The guy who could run a hundred feet in a millisecond and had an army of goddamn lava monsters at his back? Or the other guy, Wes? The one levitating plates of metal through the air and throwing giant bolts of lightning from his hands? What are we on the same page about?”

  Ian was starting to get hysterical. Hailey put a hand on his shoulder, but he shrugged it off.

  ”No, Hales. I want him to be clear. Why aren’t we talking to the police about the two people who obviously need to be stopped before they burn down the entire town and us along with it? You’ve seen what’s happened to the library. The entire third floor is gone. The wall looks like it was kicked in by a giant.”

  ”We weren’t involved,” Jessica said feebly.

  ”We could help them catch the guys though,” Ian shot back.

  ”If those are even ‘guys’,” Weston replied. “As far as we’re aware, we’re the only ones with our particular type of magic, and those two were clearly way beyond us. Who’s to say they’re even human?”

  ”What are you saying they are?”

  ”Gods,” Weston said simply.

  Ian snorted. “Like hell.”

  ”We’ve got no friends in this, Ian. It’s just us four, since Hugo’s gone back home to California. If we’re wrong, and we go to the police and one of these guys finds out and comes after us, what do you suggest we do?” Weston said calmly. “Who says the police can even do anything about them?”

  ”We can’t just do nothing,” Ian said firmly.

  ”We can, and we should,” Weston replied. “It’s nothing to do with us, and we should keep it that way. No one’s seen them since, right?” Hailey and Jessica both shook their heads.

  ”No, and if I did I’d be sprinting the other way,” Ian said, shivering.

  ”So we’re all in agreement then. We don’t want anything to do with those two,” Weston said, satisfied.

  ”I just wish…” Ian said, trailing off. No one spoke up. They all wished the same thing, but none of them wanted to voice it aloud.

  They were all terrified since that night. Hailey was the only one of them brave enough to go out after dark, hence their current meeting in the bright sunny morning. Jessica had watched her descent from the radio tower from afar, using a bit of magic to amplify her vision and see in the dark more clearly. Hailey believed Jessica hadn’t been outside a single time after the sun dipped to the horizon. Many of her nights were now spent in Hailey’s room when she stayed too late, not daring to take a step over the threshold of the front door into the dark, unlit town.

  ”Well, I’ve got to go. Hugo and I were gonna play some games online and I don’t want to leave him hanging,” Ian said awkwardly.

  ”Have a good time,” Hailey called as he walked out, and Hailey had the distinct impression it was the last time she was ever going to see him. She shook the thought away, and sat up straight in alarm, realizing how much noise they’d been making that early in the morning. “Oh crap, I hope we didn’t wake my roommate.”

  Weston and Jessica looked at her strangely. “Uhh, Hailey?”

  ”What?”

  ”What roommate?”

  Hailey looked around, confused. “I… don’t know. Sorry. Bumped my head harder than I thought, I guess.”

  Jessica looked at her thoughtfully. “I’ve been meaning to ask actually, do you want a roommate? I can’t imagine it’s easy to keep up rent here all alone. Plus I’d really like to move out of my parents’ place…” Her cheeks turned bright red and she looked away as Hailey’s face lit up.

  Hailey laughed and wrapped an arm around her. “You’ve practically been living here the last few weeks anyway. How many times have you slept in here, Jess?”

  ”Too many,” she said, rolling her eyes and pushing Hailey away gently.

  ”Well, I’d love to have you around officially. If only to hear you sing more often. But first, let’s go eat something while it’s still light out. I’m starving.”

  Weston and Jessica followed her out, letting the door swing quietly closed behind them.

 

 

 

V.

Late September, about six weeks later, on a warm sunny afternoon at Hailey’s apartment.

  Try as she might, Hailey couldn’t seem to pull anything more out of the stone. She could summon up nearly-solid blocks of air, barely perceptible hazy outlines in the air that nonetheless felt like solid concrete to the touch. They never lasted more than a few seconds at most, but they were tangible things. They were a real result.

  It had been over a month and she still couldn’t produce anything more than what she’d first managed. Still, for once she didn’t feel quite so alone in her struggles. Neither of the others had managed to show much for their efforts. Jessica, lounging on the bed with her newly-dyed purple hair, was fiddling with an amethyst crystal and muttering to herself incessantly. Hailey was beginning to worry about her. Sometimes she seemed too determined — too narrowly focused on the magic. She was neglecting everything else. Laundry was beginning to pile up in the room, dishes stacking up in the sink, and Hailey was pretty sure (though she never brought it up) that Jess hadn’t even attended two of her classes yet that term.

  Weston, on the other hand, had grown so distant that he’d stopped coming to their place. It had slowed from the exciting first few months where he’d spent almost every waking hour with them, reveling in their new discovery. Now they were lucky to get together once a week. It had been an emotional roller coaster for Hailey. First she was thrilled, since she was spending so much time with the guy she was sleeping with, and thought they might have actually had something. She’d later despised it as he’d become overprotective and neurotic, particularly after Ian left. Now, with their group having shrunk down to two, Hailey was beginning to miss him. She didn’t want to get back together romantically, but Hailey would given anything for the five of them to just spend an afternoon hanging out.

  She’d had taken to staring out the window more often, lost in thought. Hailey liked watching the clouds float by. They reminded her of her goal and kept her focused and sane. When they gathered together in thick columns on a sunny day, Hailey imagined they formed vast kingdoms and mystical lands drifting in the sky. A deep and complex cloudscape was more breathtaking and beautiful than anything else nature had to offer, in Hailey’s opinion. Even more so, it was a temporary fleeting thing — something that could only be seen by those watching at that precise moment before they morphed into something else and moved on, ushered away by the wind.

  Someday I’ll be up there flying through them, Hailey promised herself stubbornly. She might not be making any progress lately, but it wouldn’t stop her. Nothing would.

  Hailey noticed the room had gotten quiet. She looked back from her seat at the window at Jessica, who’d stopped muttering. Jess’ eyes were wide, and Hailey recognized the telltale signs of revelation. She’d just figured something out.

  ”What’s the news, Jess?” Hailey prompted. She wasn’t worried about interrupting an important thought. Jessica had asked them to speak up and force her to get her ideas out before they faded and became indistinct. Hailey was just doing her job.

  ”The stone gave me an idea. I think I know how we can get more power out of them. Maybe even use multiple stones at once, if I have it right. I— I think I can even do permanent things.” Jessica’s voice was quiet and rapid, and Hailey strained to hear her clearly.

  ”Permanent things?” Hailey asked, cautiously excited. If she could levitate herself permanently, was that the key to flight? It seemed like a clue.

  ”I don’t know what it would work with. Self and Mental magic, for sure. Other affinities might be a bit iffy. They don’t have the proper permanence, they affect externalities and are manipulations of energy as opposed to modifications of internal energy by a directed feedback loop.”

  ”Slow down, Jess. I think I get what you mean though. This is about making permanent changes to yourself, right?”

  Jessica nodded. “I got the impression it’s a lot more complicated than what we’ve been doing though. We just do simple spells, using our own energy or the energy of the gemstones and changing it to suit whatever we’re trying to do. And even when we’re using the gemstones, it’s more like we’ve just borrowed the energy that was put into forming them. Past energy. We amplify it in some ways but it’s not like we’re overcoming entropy really, just misdirecting it.

  ”But this,” Jessica continued, her eyes flashing with excitement. She looked more awake than Hailey had seen her in days. “This could be big. I think I have a way to basically multiply output and loop it. Not infinitely, but in a way that doesn’t require constant upkeep.”

  ”That sounds perfect, Jess!” Hailey clapped her hands together. “And you got this from your spells?”

  Jessica turned over her hand, showing the flecks of ash coating her skin. “Burned through another ten of them…” she trailed off regretfully.

  Hailey waved her off. “It’s not that expensive, Jess. Don’t worry.”

  ”I just don’t want to be a burden—”

  ”Don’t even start,” Hailey said. “With you living here full-time, we can afford it easy. It’s just money.”

  Jessica smiled, and Hailey could practically feel the warmth radiating from it. “Thanks, Hailey.”

  ”Hell, if you’re really worried about money we could always rent out the other bedroom,” Hailey went on, looking at the adjoining wall. “Since you just sleep in here with me every night.”

  ”Is that not okay?” Jessica squeaked nervously, her face tinged with pink again. Hailey felt like her face might become permanently blushed someday if she kept being so easy to embarrass. She laughed, trying to ease Jess’ worries. Hailey didn’t want to force her away, when Jessica was still clearly terrified of the outside. Hailey was still the only one of them who seemed even remotely comfortable out in the world, with the danger they all seemed to sense around every corner. If it took Jessica clinging to her in bed every night like a frightened kitten to feel safe, then Hailey was happy to oblige.

  ”Are you kidding? I’d probably freeze to death without you. I’ve never known someone to hold on so tight while they were sleeping. You really know how to make someone feel loved.”

  Jessica looked like she might spontaneously run a fever with how much heat had rushed into her face. Hailey resisted the urge to laugh again, changing topics instead.

  ”So what’s the name for this new magic?”

  ”Oh! Uhh… Rituals, I guess.”

  ”Going all-in on the witchcraftiness?”

  ”It just popped into my head,” Jessica continued. She didn’t need to explain further. Her particular brand of magic, which Hailey couldn’t even begin to attempt without instant exhaustion and failure, lead to these ideas that they simply took for granted as truth. Jessica’s skin finally returned to her normal, sun-starved pale shade. She was spending far too much time inside lately, Hailey decided. They needed to go out sometime and enjoy the last dregs of summer before the rain started pouring in.

  ”How does it work?”

  ”A lot of concentration, some materials, some guesswork,” Jessica said. “I think it’s about using the energy of the gems along with your own, and then it involves some powdered chalk and diagrams of some kind. It’s a lot more concrete and directed than what we’ve been doing so far, actually. Almost like following a blueprint or a recipe. We just don’t know any of the recipes,” she trailed off again.

  ”Do you have anything we could try to start off?” Hailey asked, eager to experiment as usual. She wanted a new challenge. Anything that might inspire her, or at the very least distract from her continuing failures to accomplish anything more than bumpy gliding and brief jumps in mid-air.

  ”Well,” Jessica said, her hand playing with her hair pointedly. “The first thing that came to mind was changing the appearance of something. Permanently, I mean, not that time we did my nails where it changed back once I let go.”

  ”You don’t like the purple?” Hailey asked, surprised. Jessica had picked it out herself when they’d gone shopping, with Hailey’s recommendation.

  ”I changed my mind. Not really a fan,” Jessica said, looking away. Hailey smiled knowingly.

  ”Didn’t catch the right eyes, did it? I think you needed to go more complicated than all purple. Your natural brown is actually really nice. I thought you could bleach part of it and do some cool highlights, transition into a color.”

  ”That sounds cool,” Jessica said brightly. “I wouldn’t even have to bleach it if I do this right. I can just change it naturally. Well, unnaturally, I guess,” she added, giggling.

  ”What color were you thinking?”

  ”I don’t know. Any ideas?”

  ”Mmm,” Hailey said, glancing out the window again, trying to think. Jessica followed her gaze.

  ”How about that?”

  ”What?”

  Jessica pointed out the window, at a gap in the clouds where the deep azure blanketed the depths of the sky. “That blue.”

  Hailey smiled. “Perfect.”

  Jessica got to her feet. “Do we have any chalk?”

  As it turned out, Hailey did, along with the rainbow moonstone Jessica had guessed would be the best reagent for the ritual. They marched into the empty bedroom with materials and kitchen tools, which had become their experimentation room. It was totally empty of furniture, just bare wood floor and empty walls. There was a fresh coat of paint on the wall to cover up the scorch marks from one of Hailey’s days playing around with fire that had gotten a little out of control, and the floor was swept clear of dust thanks to the many bursts of wind she’d summoned in her quest to perfect the double-jump.

  Her landlord thought it was a bit strange, but didn’t comment further except to remind her not to make any permanent changes.

  ”Need me to do anything?” Hailey asked.

  ”Can you cut the moonstone into four pieces? It doesn’t need to be super even, I just need one for each point,” Jessica answered, already starting to grind up the chalk into a powder in a bowl. Once she was done, she poured it out in a small circle, wide enough for someone to sit comfortably inside. She then drew out a specific shape around the outside, something like a diamond with curved sides that caved in towards the center to just barely touch the edges of the circle.

  ”What is that?”

  ”A hypocycloid,” Jessica said distractedly, setting aside the bowl of chalk and taking the cracked moonstone from Hailey. She’d simply taken a hammer and nail to it, splitting it into a few discrete chunks with a bit left over. It was rough, but then Jessica had said it didn’t really matter.

  ”A hypo-whatnow?”

  ”It’s a shape formed by tracing a point on a circle rolling around inside another circle.” Jessica set each of the chunks at the points of the shape, then started moving everything else out of the room, including the cushions and towels they usually kept laying around. Hailey got up to help, and between the two of them they had it empty in just a minute or two.

  ”So why’d we empty the room?”

  ”You don’t ask until afterward?” Jessica said, looking at her funny.

  ”I trust you. I’m still curious though. You need a lot of space?”

  ”Not really,” Jessica said, her voice catching slightly. “It’s just to avoid interference. I’m not exactly sure what can interfere with the process, but I’m definitely sure it’s a bad idea to disrupt it in any way. I figure we’re always dealing with the elements in some way, right? So everything — every tiny factor that we can account for should be. I don’t want like, say, a ladybug wandering in and suddenly my hair is bright red with black spots all over it.”

  Hailey laughed. “That’d catch some eyes.” Jessica’s face was turning bright red again. She was working up to say something. Hailey cocked her head to the side, not sure what the hold up was. “Jess, what’s up?”

  ”I just—” Jessica started. “I want to be sure nothing interferes, so…” She tugged at her jacket sleeve pointedly.

  Understanding dawned on Hailey. “Oh!” She grinned. “Sorry, I’m really slow at times, remember? I’ll just pop out for a bit and leave you to it.” She waggled her eyebrows suggestively. “Gotta save that sexy body for the right person, hmm?”

  She turned to leave, but Jessica called out first. “Hailey?”

  ”Yeah?”

  ”Stay, please?”

  Hailey turned around. Jessica had always been extremely shy since the first day they’d met. She typically wore baggy clothes that hid her figure and desperately avoided situations where she’d wear anything less. They’d never even been to the beach once (though Hailey supposed it didn’t help that the nearest beach was a good long train ride away and none of them much felt like leaving town). Even when they slept, Jessica was in full pajamas and under the covers before Hailey even showed up to bed. She’d made it quite clear nonverbally that she liked her privacy, and Hailey had done her best to accommodate. To say she was surprised by Jessica’s request was putting it lightly.

  ”You sure, Jess?”

  ”I—” Jessica started. She tugged at the sleeve of her forest-green jacket again, looking nervous. “I’m sorry.”

  ”What do you have to be sorry for?” Hailey said. She almost laughed, but managed to keep it in. It would have been hurtful, and Jessica really was her best friend.

  ”I want you to see me,” Jessica said suddenly.

  ”…Huh?”

  ”I… I like you.”

  ”I—” Hailey started, then the freight train crashed home, reverberating through her skull. “Oh!”

  Jessica pulled her hood up over her head and pulled the drawstrings closed. “I’m sorry.”

  Hailey didn’t hesitate. She bounded over the line of chalk and buried Jessica in a bear hug, lifting the smaller girl off her feet. “Don’t be sorry, silly.”

  ”But you don’t—”

  Hailey put a hand on the back of her head and pressed her face into Hailey’s shoulder. “Shh.”

  ”I didn’t want to tell you. I liked what we had.”

  ”Jess… It’s okay.” Hailey let her out of the hug, but still held her at arm’s length. They sat down inside the circle Jessica had drawn.

  ”I understand if you want me to leave—” Jessica started in a cracked voice, but Hailey put a finger to her lips.

  ”Don’t be ridiculous. You’re my best friend and I love you.”

  ”But I… You—” Jessica stumbled over her words. Hailey waited patiently, letting her get her thoughts out. “You’re not… into girls, right?”

  Hailey shook her head. “I’m not.”

  Jessica’s eyes welled up. Hailey grabbed her again and held her close. She knew this part would be painful, but it had to be done. She was still reeling mentally. Jessica, her best friend in the world, was gay, and she hadn’t realized it after living with her for months and months?

  And to think I afraid she was going to steal Wes way back! Hailey remembered, and stifled another laugh before Jessica got the wrong idea.

  ”I just don’t want—” Jessica said, her mouth muffled by Hailey’s shoulder. “I don’t want it to get weird between us.”

  This was too much for Hailey. She finally laughed. Jessica stiffened in her grip, but didn’t try to pull away.

  ”Jess, we’ve been practically living together indoors because we’re hiding from the boogeymen. We can do magic, crazy impossible magic, and we’re getting better at it every day. We’re sitting in the middle of a bunch of moonstones and a hypodermoid—”

  ”Hypocycloid.”

  ”Yeah, that one. And you think you being gay is gonna make this weird?” Hailey tugged gently at the back of Jessica’s head, prompting her to look up and directly at Hailey. Her eyes were red and puffy, but Hailey stared her down directly and spoke emphatically: “Jessica, I will always be your best friend forever and ever, no matter what. And there’s no way in hell I’m going to sleep tonight without you next to me. Got it?”

  ”Got it,” she said weakly, forcing a smile onto her lips.

  Hailey grinned. “And if you need space any time, or if you need the bed because you’ve got a hot date and need to make sweet sapphic love to her, you just say the word and I’m out of there.”

  Jessica laughed somewhere inside Hailey’s top, and it brought a burst of warmth and sunshine to Hailey’s heart. She finally loosened her grip, but Jessica was still holding on tight, so Hailey just held her for a while longer, until her impatience finally gave way.

  ”As much as I love hugging you, Jess, didn’t we have a cool new experiment to try here?”

  ”Oh, right,” Jessica said. She let go and Hailey backed off, seating herself against the wall cross-legged.

  ”Still want me to stick around?”

  ”Yeah,” Jessica said, with quite a bit more confidence than before. She began shrugging off her clothes one by one. A huge emotional weight had vanished from the room, leaving Hailey feeling elated. Jessica’s face was screwed up in determination.

  ”You good?” she asked, as Jessica paused, stripped down to her underwear.

  ”Never been… you know.”

  ”Naked around someone before?” Hailey offered. Jessica nodded. “Well, call me practice then.”

  ”Right.” Jessica reached behind her back to unhook her bra, and let it fall away with a wince. Hailey kept her gaze fixed on Jessica’s face, making sure she didn’t feel ogled, but Jessica noticed anyway. “You can look.”

  ”You look great,” Hailey said encouragingly.

  ”You don’t have to say that,” Jessica squealed, immediately covering herself up with her hands.

  ”No, seriously. You do. I’d kill for your skin.”

  ”Really?”

  ”Really really,” Hailey answered sincerely. “And you’ve got more than enough going on in the boob department too, if you’re wondering. Just the right amount, trust me. You’re sexy.”

  Jessica giggled nervously, letting her hands fall away. She sat down cross-legged, finally removing her underwear as well. She pressed her hands to her head, closing her eyes and beginning to concentrate. Hailey leaned back against the wall, watching impatiently. She was eager to see Jessica pull it off, even if she didn’t expect it to actually look much different than before. They’d colored some hair already with a bit of the moonstones, but as she’d noted, it just changed back the moment they let go of the spell. A permanent change — one they didn’t have to pay attention to after they’d cast it — would be yet another evolutionary step forward.

  Jessica started murmuring. The moonstones glowed slightly, pale white. Hailey spotted a bead of sweat forming on Jessica’s chest, then two. She was clutching her small fists tight. Her knuckles whitened. The chalk outline seemed to quiver a little as she started speaking faster.

  The moonstones glowed a little stronger. The chalk quivered a little more. The sweat on Jessica’s chest glistened brighter.

  Hailey could sense the energy moving in the room. It was a sensation not unlike the pricklies from an electric current, but it was somehow more pervasive and penetrating. She felt inside her chest and through her limbs, not just at a surface level but deep inside her bones.

  It shifted, agitated, and Hailey could feel it rushing toward Jessica. Against her better judgment, she sprang to her feet, taking a step toward her friend.

  Immediately, the moonstones pulsed a kaleidoscope of angry colors. Hailey felt a shift in the energy, sudden hostile and defensive. She froze, terrified that something had gone wrong, but Jessica seemed not to have noticed. She was perfectly still except for her mouth, continuously muttering something incomprehensible.

  Hailey had to suppress a gasp as Jessica’s hair was suddenly, inexplicably brown. The purple had utterly vanished, replaced with her pleasant natural brown. The changes didn’t stop there, however, as highlights of azure popped into place, fading in over the brown as it reached the waves currently brushing over her knees. Only a few bunches were colored, but the effect was striking. It was such a full color, something Hailey suspected would never have come out so clearly with bleach and dye.

  The moonstones stopped glowing, having become blackened and coarse, and the chalk seemed to have evaporated entirely. Jessica opened an eye cautiously and ran a hand through her hair.

  ”I think it worked,” she said, breathless.

  Hailey took her cue, jumping to her feet and bounding into the (now vanished) circle to pounce on her best friend.

  ”Jess, you’re a genius!”

  ”Hold on, Hailey! Get off!” Jessica squealed in alarm. Hailey propped herself up in panic.

  ”What? Did I screw something up?”

  ”…No. You were just choking me a bit,” Jessica said meekly. Hailey laughed and rolled off her, running a hand through the newly colored hair experimentally.

  ”This looks beautiful, Jess.”

  Her face blushed bright red yet again. “Thanks.” They both stretched out on the warm floor, relaxing in the sunlight streaming in from the window.

  ”So what’s next on the list?” Hailey asked, knowing Jessica’s mind was already jumping through dozens of hoops to the next possibility.

  ”This is just a cosmetic,” Jessica said, picking up a bundle of hair and letting it fall.

  ”Sexy one though,” Hailey pointed out.

  Jessica giggled. “You could do more than that probably. Make yourself ridiculously sexy, if you want to go that way.”

  ”Not like we know how to make your boobs bigger, Jess.”

  ”You’re assuming that’s what I find sexy,” Jessica said petulantly. “Anyway, what I meant was, there’s so much more you can do than cosmetic stuff. I already made myself able to see far, and better at night too, but only for a little bit.”

  ”But didn’t it make it hard to see color?”

  ”Because I only did the rods, and it wasn’t very precise. I think my brain got confused by it. If I can get it down, I could make my cones able to pick up way more light than they should and in more variety, which would mean color vision even in dark night. It’s more complicated than that, but you get the idea.”

  ”Sure, yeah. Hey, couldn’t you, like, see more colors too?”

  Jessica squealed in delight. “Oh, yeah! You could see colors no one ever could before. Like ultraviolet. Lots of animals can see UV, I could figure that out too.” Jessica was practically rolling around with excitement next to her. Hailey grinned, elated that her friend was so happy. She saw bright fluffy clouds rolling by in the window, taking them as a sign that everything was going to be all right.

  ”Other things too, though, besides sight, yeah?” she prompted.

  ”Yeah, for sure,” Jessica continued. “You could enhance other senses, obviously, but also just work on the normal processes of your body. Like sleep, or the need to eat. What if you could just reduce your need to sleep by a big portion every day? That’s so much more time in the day that you can do whatever you like. Think about all the stuff you could do.”

  ”I feel like I do too much some days already.”

  ”Oh shh. You love it. But still, you could do the same amount in a day and feel less packed, right? It still works out.”

  Hailey nodded. “Yeah, makes sense. Sign me up.”

  Jessica giggled. “I’m not that good, Hales. Give me some more time to recover.”

  ”Oh, the number of times I’ve heard that line.”

  ”Trouble with boys?” Jessica asked mockingly.

  ”They just can’t keep up sometimes.”

  ”Keep up?

  Hailey laughed aloud, giving Jessica a nudge. “Jess, when did you become the cool one?”

  ”Did you see my hair? Cool colors. It’s like a magic charm.”

  Jessica sighed and curled up against Hailey, in the same way she always did in her sleep. Hailey felt it was different now, but not in the way she feared. Jessica didn’t feel like she’d been shut out or that an impenetrable wall had been thrown up by Jessica’s confession and subsequent rejection. Instead, Jessica had bared herself (in more ways than one, Hailey thought, suppressing a laugh) and been accepted for exactly who she was. Hailey wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close, and Jessica found her usual spot pressed up against Hailey’s side with ease. Nothing but warmth and love, exactly what Hailey had hoped for. She stared out the window while Jessica’s breath warmed her neck, and watched her clouds sweeping through the sky, the same azure as the hair currently scattered across her chest. Hailey smiled, the true smile of contentment and joy that so few ever find in their life. For the moment they could both forget everything, and just be happy they’d found each other.

  A quick double-knock sent them both scrambling to their feet. Hailey bounded to the door of the spare bedroom, where Weston had been just about to open the door. She squeezed through as tight a gap as she could manage, ignoring the befuddled look on his face, and quickly shut it behind her. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Jessica desperately gathering up her clothes. Hailey guessed it would be at least a couple minutes for her to calm down and get dressed. She could stall him that much.

  ”…What were you two doing?” Weston asked suspiciously.

  ”Just practicing,” Hailey said. She didn’t say the real answer, because she didn’t want Weston leaping at Jessica’s throat next for trying something without clearing it with the whole group first. Not that the group really acted like a group anymore. It was a rule they’d established so long ago, and one they’d barely followed at first anyway. Not until that terrible night in June had Weston ever insisted on making sure no one tried anything dangerous without everyone present.

  ”Practicing what?”

  ”Practicing magic, what else?” Hailey said crossly. “Where have you been all day?” she added, nodding pointedly toward the wall clock. It was already getting toward late afternoon. He wasn’t planning to stick around long if he wanted to be home before the sunset.

  Weston frowned. It seemed like the only expression he was capable of lately. “I was out researching.”

  ”Researching?”

  ”Where this all might have come from,” he continued, looking over her shoulder curiously. “What’s going on?”

  ”Jessica was concentrating on something and didn’t want to lose the thread,” Hailey said, using the phrase Jessica had come up with to describe how she found things through her magic. She said it was like following a immense tangled knot of threads until you managed to pull out one single strand, but Hailey didn’t really understand what she meant. She doubt she ever could without having the same affinity for that branch of magic like Jessica did. “Want something to eat?”

  Weston looked suspicious, but Jessica divining something was a pretty normal excuse they’d used in the past plenty of times. He accepted it without question and followed her downstairs to the kitchen. They were a few bites into a plate of cookies Hailey had baked that morning when Jessica finally emerged, looking slightly ruffled but fully clothed. Hailey couldn’t resist herself and shot Jess a wink. She giggled.

  ”Hey, Jessica,” Weston spoke up, turning around. “Thought you went purple. Changed your mind?”

  ”Yeah. I decided blue was my color,” Jessica said, plopping herself in the chair next to Hailey’s and helping herself to the cookies.

  ”Find out anything?” Hailey asked Weston, trying to deflect the conversation back.

  He shook his head. “There’s nothing. Nothing at all.” He bit forcefully into a cookie, drawing a look from them both. “I can’t find a single reference to anything like what we’ve found, or the two things that destroyed the library, or anything at all. I can’t even reach Ian or Hugo. It’s just us three, all alone. All we have to go on is whatever Jessica can pluck out of thin air!”

  Frustration seeped from his voice like venom. Hailey wanted to try and comfort him, but at the same time she didn’t feel like getting anywhere near him ever again. He was toxic, and she had been free of him for so long. She didn’t want to go down that path.

  ”Wes, we’ll figure it out. We’ll be okay,” Jessica said encouragingly.

  ”I don’t know that we will,” Weston said miserably. “We’re on a clock and it’s running out.”

  ”So what do you suggest?” Hailey snapped. They both looked at her in shock. She’d had enough. “I’m done with the moping and the groaning. Do you actually have an idea? Or any specific danger?”

  ”You know the danger—” Weston started, but Hailey cut him off.

  ”Yeah, we all saw it. And it scared me to hell. But we haven’t seen or heard them in months, not since the second time. I’ve been out in the dark plenty of times and nothing’s ever happened. I know you and Jess and Ian never felt safe, and I get that. But I think it’s time to face up to the fact that we’re hiding from possibilities. If we keep doing that, we’ll never really live again.”

  ”Do you want to die?” Weston shouted, jumping to his feet. Jessica pulled her hood back on, her eyes wide.

  In that moment — seeing Jessica retreating again — Hailey felt real hatred for the first time in her life. It was an inferno bursting into life in her chest. She hated Weston for controlling them for so long, keeping them afraid and inside. He thought he was doing it for their own good. She didn’t deny his intentions.

  But he was wrong.

  ”No one’s going to die, Wes!” Hailey shouted back, standing as well. Jessica ran out of the room, and Hailey felt a tear welling up in her eye. “Those two have been gone for months! We don’t have to be afraid of the night anymore!”

  ”You don’t know that. You can’t know that.”

  ”I’m willing to try,” Hailey snapped.

  ”God, Hailey, you are just as bad as when we were dating.”

  She laughed bitterly. “What the hell, you want to go there? This is why we broke up, Wes. You’re so afraid you can’t let anything happen unless you’re absolutely sure you know where it’s going to go.”

  ”Better than making stupid mistakes and losing everything for it,” said Weston in a grim tone.

  ”Have you ever lost everything?” Hailey asked. “Hell, Wes, have you ever lost anything? Does the concept of loss even enter that tiny coward brain of yours?”

  ”Does it enter yours?”

  ”God yes! Every time I walk out the door, I’m afraid of losing people. But look at what staying inside and hiding has gotten us!” Hailey held up two fingers. “Hugo left when we weren’t willing to go out and talk to him. He stuck around for Ian’s sake, but we were all too busy hiding inside and playing around with magic to notice he was on the outside, and then he was gone.” She dropped her finger. “Ian left because we were too scared to deal with the shit we had going on outside. We didn’t even talk about it. We just shut down every possibility of handling it. We just stayed inside and hid, like we always do, and sure enough, off goes Ian.” She dropped the other finger, glaring at Weston with all the fury she could muster.

  ”You can’t possibly blame me—”

  ”I sure as hell blame you, Wes. But I blame myself too. I could have spoken up, I could have done more. I let them both go and I hate myself a bit more every time I look out the window and think about how far away they’ve both run.” Hailey felt tears streaming down her face now. “It’s all our fault, Wes.”

  ”No,” Weston said, but his conviction felt weak and his arguments worthless. Hailey nodded slowly.

  ”They’re gone because of us.”

  Weston shook his head. “You’re wrong.”

  ”Then go, Wes. I’ll be outside in the world, where we belong.”

  Weston turned and headed up the stairs. Hailey sat down and watched him go, feeling bitterly triumphant. She’d said the words she’d been screaming in her head every night before she went to sleep, speeches she’d composed and practiced silently every single night with Jessica desperately clinging to her for safety and support. Her life had reached a turning point. It simply had to improve from here. She would accept nothing else.

  She could hear her bedroom door creak open, and sighed. Weston was going to try to talk to Jessica, get her to persuade Hailey off her soapbox. It was pointless. Jessica was on her side for sure. She wanted to be out, be alive. Not trapped in this tiny box with someone who could never properly be with her. Not in the way she wanted.

  Hailey stood laboriously, feeling suddenly exhausted. She made her way to the staircase, meaning to go intercept Weston and send him out for real. Jessica didn’t need that sort of harassment. They’d both be better off without Weston in their lives.

  She’d be raw and distracted for a while, but magic always brought her back. She’d taken to it more readily than the rest of them after all. Jessica had a sheer raw talent none of them could match, even if she was never quite as creative as they were. She always managed to cast anything they did, even without the advantage of affinity — simply through raw, focused effort and practice. In fact, Jessica was probably practicing right then to drown out their argument, working on her latest idea—

  Oh.

  Oh.

  Hailey took the steps three at a time. She nearly tripped on the stairs in her haste. Weston had pushed open the other bedroom door — the empty one where no one slept — and walked inside, leaving the door ajar.

  Hailey saw the edges of a wide, thick hypocycloid drawn in white chalk.

  No…

 

 

 

VI.

Late December, three months later, on a dark winter night thick with snow, at Hailey’s apartment.

  ”I’m home, Jess!” Hailey called, kicking snow off her boot on the front step before she walked in. Her hands were laden down with groceries from Hector’s place and her face pink from the cold outside. The hallway was no better, and she felt her teeth starting to chatter. Hailey closed her eyes briefly and extended her mind out into the edges of her skin. She found the points she was looking for and set them vibrating slightly, like she were mentally twanging a taut cord.

  In moments Hailey began to warm up again. The spell had worn off since she left Hector’s. Feeling the warmth trickle through her skin, she felt like she was properly home. Hailey pulled the door shut with her foot before heading downstairs to starting unloading the groceries.

  ”Hope you like ham, because that’s all I could think of for Christmas dinner,” Hailey sighed. “Hector gave me an employee discount but it’s still not much.” She bustled around the kitchen, checking on the brownies she’d pulled out of the oven just before she’d run to the store. They looked perfect, just the right balance. She pulled a few of onto a plate and set it aside before turning to the tree in the corner.

  It was an artificial tree, which to Hailey’s sensibilities as a native Pacific Northwester was an affront to nature. Her landlord had expressly forbidden bringing trees in for one reason or another, which left her limited options. She didn’t like the plasticky, obviously fake pine branches, but she couldn’t not have a Christmas tree. It was a compromise.

  Hailey kept a vague running commentary aloud of everything she did while she went about cleaning up the kitchen. The apartment was always so quiet of late, and Hailey was never much for the quiet. She craved activity and interaction. Anything to remind her that her ears were still functioning properly, and that someone still lived in that place.

  The air was her constant companion. She’d grown accustomed to feeling it as an extension of herself and felt comforted by its presence. Hailey was prone to shifting it around solely out of habit. While she worked in the kitchen, she sent a slight breeze coasting across her face, despite the chill. It helped the room feel less stuffy and more alive.

  The air was a great help to her as well in cleaning. She sent it thundering underneath chairs and over the tops of cabinets, blowing around dust with ease and collecting it neatly into the trash can. She felt like a composer directing a whispering orchestra as the gust tossed the room around. Any loose papers or light objects had long since been weighted down, as this was a regular occurrence.

  Done cleaning and done shopping, Hailey headed back up the stairs to their bedroom. She knocked on the door twice gently before calling out, “Just me, Jess.”

  A bright crescent moon streamed in through the window curtains, casting long shadows across the floor from the couple of stuffed animals that sat perched on the sill. The room was cold and dark, and Hailey immediately set to warming it up as best she could. It was a wide space, but it was enclosed and had plenty of objects to trap heat, so it wasn’t as difficult as some spaces. She wished they could afford to pay their heating bill, but it just didn’t fit the budget she’d laid out. They saved wherever they could by relying on magic. Hailey crossed the room and collapsed in her desk chair.

  ”Long, long day. I’m taking too many classes. I think I’ll drop one next term,” Hailey mused, picking up her notebook and leafing through pages at random. “It’s just too hectic between that and work. Plus I never get to spend enough time here.” She looked up over the top of the notebook. “Would you like that?”

  A faint breeze brushed Hailey’s face, sending a few strands of hair fluttering.

  Hailey shivered. “Jess, you gotta stop doing that. I’m cold enough as is.”

  ”Mm,” she answered, slightly muffled.

  Hailey set the notebook aside and turned to face her. “I wonder if you’d want to go back to school. If you could, I mean,” she added. She felt embarrassed asking such a question, when she knew that Jessica couldn’t answer.

  She didn’t understand a word Hailey was saying.

  Jessica was sitting cross-legged on Hailey’s bed, wrapped in a blanket and looking around the room inquisitively. Presently she was sending little licks of firelight dancing around the room like tiny floating candles, spinning out an intricate pattern. Hailey was impressed Jessica maintained the dance even while tickling her with the current of air, two very different spells.

  ”You know, that’s supposed to be my affinity. How do you do all that at once so easy?” Hailey asked. Jessica cocked her head to the side, not understanding, and Hailey did her best to hide her exasperation. It wasn’t Jess’ fault. She was doing the best she could.

  Hailey brought her hands to her mouth, miming a knife and fork. Jessica nodded, ‘hmm’ing excitedly. She leapt off the bed and headed back downstairs, Hailey following less enthusiastically.

  Thankfully it was leftovers night, or Hailey might have simply given up on dinner entirely. She felt far too exhausted to cook. Instead, they enjoyed microwaved chicken from the day before, which Jessica dug into with gusto. Hailey picked at her food gently and watched her friend chowing down. Had she always eaten like that?

  Yes, Hailey reminded herself. It was the same Jessica, through and through. Her personality wasn’t really different. Just adjusted, viewed through a different lens. More importantly, Hailey was quite literally the only person Jessica ever interacted with anymore. Enthusiasm at the little things wasn’t that weird.

  ”You know, Jess, Christmas is coming up,” Hailey said, still picking at her chicken with her fork. “I need to get you something.”

  Jessica looked up. For a moment Hailey thought she might have understood, but she looked away again a moment later. ‘Jess’ was the only word she’d caught, which she recognized as her own name. Everything else was just noise.

  ”I wonder if your parents got you anything,” Hailey continued. “Doubt it. How do you put up with them anyway?”

  Hailey had gone to meet with them after it became clear Jessica’s condition wasn’t improving. Before she’d even begun to explain what was wrong with their daughter, they’d said they didn’t care what she got up to and that her life decisions were her own business.

  Hailey had been quickly shuffled to the door and told not to return.

  ”Probably best I didn’t say anything,” Hailey mused. “It’s a good thing you were already dropping out of your classes or I’d have the university all over me too.” Jessica frowned, looking at Hailey’s plate of chicken which she’d largely ignored. “You want more?” Hailey asked. She pointed at the plate, then at Jessica.

  Jessica shook her head, gesturing to Hailey and miming eating.

  ”I’m not feeling very hungry,” Hailey said, shaking her head. Jessica frowned again. She mimed sleeping, then waking up and pointing at her stomach with a pained face in quick succession. Hailey sighed. “You’re probably right.” She began to eat again, and Jessica nodded with satisfaction. “It’s a good thing you stopped being shy around me,” Hailey added with her mouth full. “Shy people suck at charades.”

  When they finished dinner, Jessica cleaned and put away the plates while Hailey went to relax on the sofa, still burned out from the day. Jessica joined her a minute later, bringing along her laptop (which Hailey had seen no need to return to her family). Hailey wrapped an arm around her and pulled her close, then took hold of the blanket across the room with her mind and floated it over to wrap them up snug.

  Jessica’s laptop had been a bit of a challenge. Hailey had found it locked up tight and Jessica staring at the letters on the keys with a defeated expression. Hailey had taken it to a friend, Mason, and — after a great deal of persuasion — gotten him to unlock it without asking too many questions. Since then, it had become Jessica’s portal to random knowledge. She had stumbled her way to the few sites she used by sheer persistence, either via random clicks or following images and icons to what she needed. Hailey wasn’t sure what she did all day, but Jessica seemed content, so Hailey didn’t question it.

  When they curled up on the couch, that usually meant watching a show. Lately, that had been a good deal of anime. It really wasn’t Hailey’s thing, and she was out like a light within minutes every time. It just wasn’t for her. Still, given the artwork and the high energy of whatever Jessica was watching, Hailey could see the appeal for someone who couldn’t possibly follow a plot verbally.

  Sure enough, Jessica pulled one up, and it was only once she was gently shaking Hailey awake again that she even realized she’d fallen asleep.

  ”Sorry, Jess,” Hailey mumbled. “Is it time for bed?” She mimed laying down on her hands, their usual gesture for going to sleep. Jessica shook her head. Hailey realized that the laptop screen was still on and paused on something.

  It was some series about magic, if Hailey remembered right. It was nonsense, of course, now that they knew what the real thing was — but still Jessica had latched onto it. Maybe it was the characters or the frantic pace, Hailey didn’t know. What she did see was that the picture was frozen on a character holding up a bird feather. Once she saw Hailey was paying attention, Jessica tapped the keyboard.

  The character dropped the feather into a pot, puff of smoke and everything. Jessica pointed at the feather emphatically. Hailey wasn’t sure what she was supposed to understand from the scene. Were they going to make a potion or something?

  ”Jess, I don’t get it.”

  Jessica paused it again, and mimed scribbling something on paper.

  ”It’s over on the desk,” Hailey answered, pointing. Jessica frowned, pressing up against Hailey under the blanket and shivering deliberately. She laughed. “Fair enough.”

  With some effort, Hailey found the paper and pencils on the desk and took hold of them. Moving things with her mind had become a bit easier over time, but she still never managed to be very precise with it. Hailey doubted she’d ever really get a hold of it, with how little progress she seemed to manage. Case in point, she managed to accidentally wrap the paper around Jessica’s head instead of landing gently in her outstretched hand like she’d intended.

  Jessica slapped Hailey on the arm gently with a stern look on her face, then took the paper and laid it against the lid of her closed laptop. She began scribbling out a feather, then what Hailey took to be a gemstone.

  ”Gems and feathers?” Hailey murmured, not following.

  Jessica circled them, then drew an arrow and drew out a person in a superhero pose, cape and all, with action lines.

  ”Gems and feathers equal flying?”

  Jessica then drew out a circle between them, then surrounded it with the shape Hailey had dreaded. Another hypocycloid — eight sided this time — with gemstones at the cardinal points and little feathers at the diagonals.

  ”You think I can fly if I did a ritual using these?” Hailey wondered aloud. “You can use feathers for energy?” She was cautiously excited. She’d never given up on her goal, despite everything that had happened. Hailey Winscombe still longed more than anything to fly through the air on her own power.

  She just couldn’t do it. Not that way.

  Hailey pointed at the ritual shape and shook her head. Jessica frowned, then pointed at it again and nodded.

  Hailey sighed. “No. I can’t. Not after this.”

  Jessica shook her head. She pointed at the ritual shape, then at herself and raised her eyebrow.

  Hailey nodded. “Because of how much it’s hurt you.”

  Her head shook again more frantically, brown and blue hair almost smacking Hailey in the face. Jessica pointed at herself, then gave a thumbs up and smiled. Hailey’s eyes threatened to well up, but she forced it away. She refused to cry in front of her best friend.

  ”Jess, you’re way braver than me,” Hailey murmured, hugging her. “I just do stupid things for fun. You actually go after the things you want in life. Hell, you managed to move in with the girl you loved on your own terms. Well played.” Jessica hugged her back, and Hailey continued mumbling into her messy brown hair. “You’re the smart one too. You figured out all the branches and the affinities and such. I just goofed off and did little air tricks.”

  Hailey felt a teardrop roll down her cheek against her will and land in Jessica’s hair. Jess stiffened as she felt it, but Hailey just held her close and refused to let her look up and see the tears rolling down her face. “I’m going to figure this out. I’ll help you get better, and then we can go flying together. We can fly up in the sky and you can sing your heart out where no one’s around to make fun of you for it. That’s the best offer I’ve got, unless you can invent time travel.” Hailey laughed bitterly. “Hey, maybe that’s the eighth branch we never figured out. Good old time travel. Wouldn’t that be nice?”

  Hailey buried her face in the blanket, wrapping it up tight around them both. “I need you to come back, Jessica,” she mumbled. “We’re the only ones left. Please. Come back and sing again.”

  Jessica nudged her gently, and Hailey sighed. She loosened her grip just enough for Jessica to move around, and her friend started murmuring something that Hailey couldn’t understand. A moment later, she felt warmth spreading all across her skin. It was so comfortable and soothing that Hailey immediately burst into tears. Jessica held her tight as Hailey sobbed, crying herself bitterly to sleep while a flurry of snow began pounding against the windows.

 

 

 

VII.

Mid-May, about five months later, on a rainy afternoon, at Hailey’s apartment.

  Hailey loved the clouds, but hated the rain.

  A breathtaking layered wall of clouds rolling through the endless expanse of blue was something to be cherished, but this solid blanket of grey? Where there was no light to be found, and sheets of water fell in droves to soak everything through? This was just depressing.

  It didn’t help that she was staring out the window of her small kitchen with the smell of burned chocolate fudge filling the room. Hailey had been stirring a batch as a treat for Jessica’s birthday, which was coming up soon, but she’d gotten distracted by a fleeting glimpse of a bird on the balcony. She’d rushed to the door, trying to catch it by flinging a pocket of air around it, but it had jumped away too fast. Hailey had only just managed to clip off a few feathers as it took to the skies.

  They’d attempted the ritual several times since December, with no success. Jessica’s current theory was that the feathers they were using were no good, and that it had to be from a wild bird, or perhaps the right type of bird. She’d drawn out several different species for Hailey to pursue, and the red-tailed hawk on the balcony had definitely been on the list. Hailey was shocked it had perched so close — from what she’d researched online, she hadn’t expected one to come to her. She only hoped the feathers she’d managed to gather were enough.

  More importantly, she hoped that she wouldn’t let Jess down again.

  Hailey still wasn’t sure if the ritual was failing because of the feathers. No, Hailey believed it was her own fault. Every time they started, Hailey took one look at Jessica, whose voice she was actually beginning to forget, and her heart seized up. She lost all confidence, all drive. Without it, the ritual may as well have been a wish on a star for all the good it did.

  Hailey clenched her fist tight in frustration. A wind picked up in the kitchen, the edges of papers flapping noisily. She flicked open the window latch and slid it aside with her mind, and the air quickly carried out the scent of burned fudge before it could spread through the house and Jessica noticed it. Hailey would do it again, and do it right this time.

  Just not right now, Hailey sighed as she heard a thump from upstairs. Jessica was rushing down to meet her. Must have smelled it anyway. But to her surprise, Jessica wasn’t looking for the source of the smell. No, she was holding a fistful of feathers from the red-tail that Hailey had scared away only moments earlier.

  ”You caught it, Jess?” Hailey asked, pointing at her. Jessica nodded, miming catching something out of midair with her hands, then pointing to her head with a flutter of her fingers. “With magic. Nice.”

  Jessica drew a circle in midair, then cocked her head to the side with a “Hmm?”

  Hailey sighed. “I don’t know. I really don’t think it’ll make a difference.” She shrugged. Jessica shook her head and grabbed Hailey’s arm, pulling her to the staircase. “All right, all right,” Hailey conceded. “I’ll give it another shot.” She let Jessica lead her upstairs to the empty bedroom, where their ritual circle awaited.

  A near-permanent dusting of chalk in various colors formed a neat, perfect circle in the center of the wooden floorboards. Jessica had taken to decorating the room while Hailey was out with various gemstones set in silver candle holders, while actual candles formed a large ring outside the circle. A twinned set of astroids surrounded the circle, with empty holders at each point where Jessica could fill them as needed. Various pouches and boxes lined the edges of the room with all the different stones and materials Jessica had ordered online (through the concerted efforts of Hailey and the least entertaining game of pictionary imaginable).

  As the decorations grew more detailed and complex, Hailey wondered what an outsider might think of the place. It looked like something out of an occult daydream, between the wax candles, chalk symbols and glittering stones, but the vibe didn’t feel creepy or off-putting to Hailey. It felt comforting, in fact, with the attention to detail and the mix of colors and shapes that Jessica had put into the room. Compared to the bare walls and cold empty floor it had once contained, Hailey now saw it as Jessica’s place — something sacred and special. She hoped animal skulls weren’t next on the decoration list though, or she might have to start miming to Jessica about what they could get away with.

  Hailey never entered if she could help it, but Jessica seemed to live in the room when she wasn’t sleeping or eating. They occasionally spent time relaxing together after Hailey got home from work, but without fail she’d spring up with some untold inspiration that Hailey could only guess at and retreat back to her circle to meditate. Hailey had only used the room three times, for each of the previous attempts at the flight ritual Jessica had devised, but each had ended in stuttering failure.

  Hailey supposed she should be grateful nothing worse had happened.

  Jessica dug through one of the boxes at the edge of the room and came up with a mix of tourmaline and sapphire, which she started placing in the simple silver candle holders at the points of the star. Hailey took a handful of feathers and walked to the center, clutching them gently in one hand while her other went to the perfectly cut and polished tourmaline that hung from a chain around her neck. It was her favorite stone, and one that never seemed to darken when she drew wind out of it. Sometimes it felt like an old friend holding her hand in return. Hailey tried to feel something out of the feathers as well, sending her mind down through her fingers and into the rachis of the feather, hoping to sense anything. All she got back was a vague sense of the animal it belonged to, probably flapping away somewhere in the forest and hopefully far away from the two crazed girls in the apartment trying to catch it by summoning up air currents.

  So Hailey imagined. It didn’t really give her any idea of the bird’s thoughts, just its essence.

  Jessica was tugging at her shirt sleeve. Hailey had been lost in her thoughts again. She looked around at the circle, where all the gemstones and feathers had already been put in place. “Well, Jess, here we go again.” Hailey began shrugging off her clothes while Jessica turned away, giving her some privacy. When she was ready, Hailey tapped her on the shoulder.

  Jessica took the pile of clothes and set them neatly in the corner of the room. Hailey stretched out her arms for a moment before sitting down cross-legged, as she’d seen Jessica do so many times, and closed her eyes. She pressed her hands to her face, warming herself from the chill in the room by setting her skin alight in the way she’d learned from Weston, so many months back. She put her hand to her chest and grasped the tourmaline stone hanging there for luck, while her other hand clenched the feathers tight.

  Hailey sent out her mind, letting it loose like a hook on the end of a line. It was still her, of course, but she no longer felt like she was inside her own body. Instead, her mind floated free in the room, bathing in the air currents that poured forth from the tourmaline and sapphire gems encircling her. Hailey had set them humming, and in response the feathers between each gem stood up straight. She sensed that there was something she was supposed to do to them, mentally draw from them somehow, but Hailey couldn’t figure it out. She clenched her hands tight and threw her mind at them, but only met with a sheer wall of resistance. The feathers were impenetrable to her.

  Hailey knew they held the secret, but she just couldn’t muster the strength to break through. She didn’t have the ability, no matter how much she practiced. There was still only so much she could accomplish alone.

  Alone.

  Hailey’s eyes flew open and she released the energy as quickly as she could. She pulled her mind back in and closed off her body to seal away the energy in the room before she interrupted the flow in a dangerous way. Would her idea work? Was it even possible?

  She didn’t know, but something about it felt so right that she had to try.

  ”Jess.” Hailey said, drawing her attention. Jessica had been looking at the nearest feathers with a frustrated look, while determinedly avoiding gazing at Hailey directly. Jessica looked up, then immediately away while her face blushed red. Hailey leapt out of the circle impatiently and grabbed her hand.

  ”Mm?” Jessica squeaked in surprise and confusion.

  ”I think you can help, Jess!” Hailey said, excited. She pointed at the circle, then at herself and Jessica in turn. To try and emphasize the point, she waved a circle around the both of them, then pointed at Jessica’s head, drawing a line from her temple to one of the feathers. “You can help me break into it.”

  Jessica frowned. She looked at the feather, then back at Hailey. Her mouth formed a small “oh!” in surprise. She nodded frantically, and Hailey grinned.

  ”I hope you know what you’re doing, Jess, because I sure as hell don’t.”

  Jessica took off her clothes, forgetting all about modesty in her haste. Hailey took hold of each piece with her mind as Jess tossed it aside, and flung it into the corner where it landed atop her own, keeping them well clear of the circle. Once she’d stripped down, they both sat cross-legged in the circle. Jessica only just managed to fit inside, her knees pressed up against Hailey’s own. Somehow that felt right, as if the physical connection might help them.

  ”Ready?” Hailey asked, giving a slight nod. Jessica nodded, her eyes already screwed up in determination. Hailey closed her eyes and once more cast out her mind into the room. Immediately, she ran up against the wall formed by the feathers again, and the frustration almost sent her out of the trance, but a sudden presence held her from breaking.

  It was warmth and love incarnate, this new sensation that flew through the air to meet with Hailey’s mental projection. For a brief moment, she could sense Jessica herself, down to her essence. Her passion for knowledge, her inquisitive drive, her bashful nature still pressing at her under the surface even now, and her deep love for Hailey. It was like a glimpse into her very soul, and in that moment Hailey could see a line that stretched out between the two of them, like a thick hazy thread that held taut between their minds. It was exciting and thrilling, and yet deeply personal and embarrassing. Hailey pulled away before she felt like she had felt too much and too intimately at Jessica’s mind, where she could sense many more layers beyond the surface.

  Jessica hadn’t seemed to notice Hailey brushing up against her, as her presence slammed against the feather with the force of a hurricane wind. Hailey saw what she was doing and joined her, pressing against the feather with the strength she could muster. It still wasn’t enough.

  As if out of the corner of her eye, Hailey saw Jessica’s arm reach out to pluck the stone from Hailey’s chest. She could sense Jessica wanted her to grab it as well. It felt like Hailey was giving an order to her arm to rise, rather than actually moving herself. It took a great deal of effort, but Hailey managed to lift her hand and take hold of Jessica’s with a firm grip.

  The wind immediately burst forth, whipping through the room and sending their hair fluttering wildly, Hailey’s long straight blonde and Jessica’s wavy brown and blue in unison. The tourmaline around the edges of the circle began to glow bright, and the feathers between each stone spun wildly around, lifting into the air with a power neither of them had consciously set forth.

  Hailey could feel something emerging from the feathers, a new sensation she didn’t recognize. It began to flow toward the two of them in the center, filling them up with something she didn’t yet understand. Jessica’s mind made a strange movement, and suddenly the energy was all flowing directly to Hailey.

  It spread through her like a chill without cold, running up her spine and following her blood out to the very tips of her fingers and toes. Hailey had to resist the urge to flinch as it rolled through her. She couldn’t mess this up, not now. Not when they were so close. Hailey felt like she was floating in midair and didn’t want the sensation to ever stop.

  The feathers stopped spinning, all resistance gone, and Hailey saw her moment. She grasped at them with her mind and pulled their essence away, like grabbing something out of a deep pool of water. The feathers vanished into thin air with a hiss. The gemstones pulsed and lit up the room, then went deep black, completely spent. The wind coursing through the room faded and stilled, and the room was silent.

  Hailey let out a deep breath. She hadn’t screwed it up at least. They’d made progress. Maybe next ti—

  ”Ooh!” Jessica squealed, poking Hailey’s leg excitedly. Hailey’s eyes flew open.

  She hadn’t felt like she was floating in midair; Hailey was currently hovering a good several feet above the floorboard, still cross-legged like she were seated on a invisible platform.

  Jessica took a few steps back, giving Hailey some space. Hailey felt panic rising in her chest, but that was nothing. She knew how to handle panic. She’d jumped out of airplanes and ridden down steep slopes at breakneck speeds. Panic was nothing.

  But this? This is something fantastic.

  Hailey laughed. She couldn’t help it. She was up in the air, with nothing supporting her, and only the barest effort keeping her aloft. It wasn’t like she was simply aloft at will; even now she could feel it beginning to drain her physically, but it was like she were out for a jog. She could keep it going if she needed to. Hailey was simply manipulating the air in a constant loop, like Jessica had said. Her position was never quite steady, as she had to constantly adjust the air and her own body weight to compensate for gravity, the earth spinning around madly beneath her, and any number of other factors, but it was somehow a barely conscious process. As if the magic were helping her figure it all out.

  Hailey tried to move herself, and found it a curious challenge. She could gain momentum in a direct line, but it wasn’t easy. Going straight up was much harder than going forward, then up at an incline – like she were swooping. She tried a brief dive from the edge of the room, and almost clipped the floor before rising up on invisible wings and thudding hard against the far wall, laughing hysterically.

  Jessica ran over to check on her, making sure she was all right, and Hailey took her hand. She tried to lift Jessica into the air, but the weight was too much. Hailey ended up falling atop her instead as the magic broke. She was quite suddenly earthbound and back to normal.

  ”Mmm!” Jessica sounded heartbroken, like she thought she had ended it. Hailey shook her head and called back to the magic, picturing it mentally as a pair of majestic wings in the exact brown and blue highlights of Jessica’s hair. The image sprung into her mind fully-formed as though it wasn’t quite her own design, but Hailey didn’t question it. It just felt right.

  With a mental flap of her newfound wings, Hailey was suddenly aloft again, quivering in midair while the downdraft sent Jessica’s hair fluttering. Jessica giggled and jumped with her arms up, catching Hailey in a brief hug while Hailey floated gently a foot or two above her, sending them spinning around briefly in midair before the weight brought Jessica’s feet back to the floor once more.

  A moment later, Jessica’s face turned bright red. She turned around, grabbing desperately for her clothes. Hailey cackled aloud — having long since gotten over feeling shy around her best friend — and decided to try swooping through the room again. It ended in quite the same way as before, with her thudding against the far wall, but with noticeably less painful an impact.

  Jessica, having tossed on a loose shirt and pants, held up Hailey’s clothes and made a noise. Hailey looked over, and Jessica pointed at them, then mimed flapping wings, then at the clothes again.

  ”Mm, yeah. I should probably try that,” Hailey laughed, still feeling euphoric from finally accomplishing her dreams. She sent herself flying over to Jessica, but overshot and almost crashed into the wall again. Jessica was looking down at the floor pointedly and missed the entire thing. With a clumsy turnaround, she managed to snatch her clothes from Jessica and put them partially on.

  To her relief, the weight of the clothes didn’t seem to be enough to pull her down much more than her own weight. It was a noticeable addition, but not so much that she started losing altitude. Hailey felt fatigue beginning to creep into her muscles, particularly her arms, but stubbornly kept swooping around the room as long as she could, while Jessica watched her with delight, making contented chirping noises.

  After she felt like exhaustion was really starting to set in, Hailey finally brought herself to a stop, flaring out her mental wings in a move she’d just figured out. She released them, letting the wings in her mind vanish in a puff and immediately dropping to the floor below. Hailey could almost feel them disappear from her real shoulders, but it could have just been her imagination. Jessica ran to her side and hugged her.

  ”Yeah, yeah, that was awesome,” Hailey laughed, wrapping her best friend up tight. Jessica nodded and smiled. “Someday I’ll figure out how to take you with me.”

  Jessica cocked her head to the side, indicating she didn’t understand, and Hailey felt her heart sink a little. Here she was, celebrating, and Jessica still couldn’t speak a word. What were they wasting time on? Silly flying tricks around a room?

  The joy she’d felt only moments before began draining out of her like a deflating balloon.

  She looked at Jessica, and pointed at her mouth, then her head. Jessica looked confused.

  ”I’ve been trying, Jessica,” Hailey said, the delight completely gone from her voice. She felt like her emotions were on a pendulum. She’d pulled it so far to one side, feeling such unbridled joy, that she was now paying the price. Tears sprung to her eyes as she recalled that Jessica hadn’t spoken or understood a word in nearly eight months.

  Jessica shook her head frantically, and hugged Hailey tight. She pointed at her mouth, then at her head, then held out her hand and made a ‘so-so’ gesture.

  ”No, it’s not all right,” Hailey said, tasting salt on her lips. “You deserve so much better than being locked up in here day and night. And I just don’t know what to do for you.” Hailey remembered the fudge she’d been cooking for Jessica’s birthday and felt even worse. “It’s almost your birthday and I’m sitting around making snacks and wondering what you’ll want to watch tonight. I should be out researching or doing something.”

  Hailey laughed bitterly. “I can’t even do that though. I accused Wes of breaking us apart, and then I went ahead and did the same damn thing. I drove him away. I’m the only one left, and I’m the worst one at magic out of all of us. I can’t fix you, Jess.”

  Hailey sat down against the wall and buried her face in her hands. Jessica sat beside her, putting an arm around her and pulled her close.

  ”I’m so selfish and worthless. Here I am enjoying myself and letting you help me with learning how to fly when you can’t even talk to your friends anymore.” Hailey dabbed at her eyes with her sleeve. “I feel like I’m the one that needs you to sleep now. I can’t sleep a wink without you next to me. How can you even stand sleeping by someone every night you have a massive crush on that won’t ever return it? I feel like I’m taking advantage of you.”

  ”Was it a mistake?” Hailey rambled on. “We could have stopped whenever we wanted. Maybe Hugo was right.” She shook her head. “You’d say that was stupid though. You’d tell me that sort of hindsight wouldn’t get me anywhere. Then you’d tell me to think about all the good things it’s brought and to focus on what to do next.”

  ”I don’t know what to do next, Jess,” Hailey croaked, looking up at her. Jessica’s eyes were full of sympathy and concern, but Hailey had no idea how much she actually understood, or even how much she wanted Jess to understand. Hailey had given up.

  ”I don’t know how to do this alone.” With her greatest fear spoken aloud, Hailey felt despair overcome her. Her throat choked up and her voice cracked. She buried her face in her hands once more. Hailey couldn’t bear to see Jessica’s face in that moment, comforting and forgiving and warm. Hailey had failed her. Hailey didn’t deserve her love.

  Hailey Winscombe was meant to be alone.

 

 

 

VIII.

Mid-May, a week later, on a cloudy afternoon in Rallsburg.

  Hailey stood once more at the top of the radio tower, the only structure visible outside of the gentle bowl of trees that formed the town proper. Hailey had climbed the tower several times, both before and after their discovery of magic, and each time she marveled at the view from the top. To the north the forest rolled out in a blanket of green covering the bones of some massive giant, climbing into the mountain that sat alone blocking her view of the ocean that lay beyond. In every other direction were trees, endless trees, with only the train track snaking through clearings showing any sign of civilization for miles and miles.

  If Hailey strained her eyes, she could just barely make out the little building she called home. Jessica was probably sitting at the bedroom window at that very moment watching her. Hailey wished she could see as far, but she’d never learned that particular spell, and Jessica was in no position to teach her anymore.

  Hailey gave a little wave, and imagined Jessica waving back. She checked once more to make sure the small leather pack was strapped tight to her waist and would not move, and that her clothes were all fitted tight against her body to reduce resistance. Then, without any further preamble, Hailey climbed over the railing and dove headfirst off the side of the tower.

  For a moment, she did nothing — just closed her eyes tight and let the wind blast her face. Hailey welcomed the rush and the danger, the hint of death waiting below. It was invigorating — right up until Jessica’s face popped into her mind.

  With an abrupt thump, Hailey unfurled the mental wings she’d been keeping tight to her back. She could feel the air slam against them as if they were truly a part of her body, and felt herself begin to slide along the air as the great wings held against the resistant atmosphere, supplied with energy sucked out of her core. Her momentum shifted abruptly, starting a much more controlled dive in a graceful arc that carried her mere centimeters above the slope of trees that lead down to the town.

  Hailey let out a shout of exhilaration as she shot past the tips of the firs at breakneck speed. If she let her feet drop any lower, Hailey was certain she’d clip the top of a tree and spin away into an abrupt end to her flight.

  Instead, she managed to carry the glide all the way down to the town, where she swooped in low and landed on the top of the train station at the edge of the forest, which was currently closed. The town only saw two trains per day at most, as they had to travel along a slow winding route through the forest to reach Rallsburg, which increased travel time significantly for those wanting to reach the coast. As such, most trips bypassed the town — with its distinct lack of notable landmarks — entirely in favor of an express route straight to the beach. The usual trains that came in were mostly commercial transport, mail and other such necessities.

  However, since a day or so prior, not a single train had arrived. Hailey had tried to spot a track blockage from the top of the tower, but the forest was so thick that it seemed impossible. She’d considered taking a longer glide along the track route to really test out her wings, but with no reliable way to return and Jessica dependent on the meagre income and food she brought home, Hailey didn’t want to risk getting trapped out in the forest.

  She wasn’t sure how long she could glide, or how much altitude she could really gain from actually flapping her wings, but Hailey knew it couldn’t last too long no matter how many gems she might bring along. The fatigue set in fast, even on the brief glide down from the tower. When it overwhelmed her, Hailey was at risk of simply passing out in mid-air and falling to a very painful crunch.

  Hailey walked to the edge of the station and perched on the side. She really did feel like a bird sitting at the ledge, and even folded the (non-existent) wings in her mind to complete the image. With her legs dangling off the side, she pulled out a couple sandwiches from the bag tied at her waist and began to eat while she watched the town moving about its business.

  She didn’t want to admit it, but Hailey was avoiding her home. Hailey refused to see Jessica as a burden, and she still loved her best friend to the end of the world and back — but she felt too much guilt and sorrow every time Jess opened her mouth and only incomprehensible sound came out.

  Hailey hadn’t given up, and wouldn’t ever give up, but she was totally out of leads. She took to the skies whenever she could, hoping that the wide empty expanse could help her think. It hadn’t, but it at least brought her a sense of calm and peace — up until she became too exhausted to keep flying and had to land once again, sometimes in very conspicuous places.

  It was a miracle Hailey hadn’t been seen yet. The closest call had come when she’d been near one of the mansions on the east side of town. She’d been shocked to see her economics teacher, Professor Laushire, wandering the garden with a pensive look. Hailey had dove for the hedges on the edge and landed rather uncomfortably atop it, laying as still as possible and only taking flight once again hours later. Jessica had been in a panic when she’d finally returned — well after dark — but Hailey was fairly certain that the fiery haired professor hadn’t spotted her.

  Here though, sitting on the train station above town, Hailey spotted something odd. There were a good number of people converging on town hall. Something was going on today, wasn’t it? Hailey couldn’t quite remember. She thought she might have seen an invitation to a special town meeting or something, passed out by a surly looking deliveryman.

  Well, she had nothing better to do, and another couple hours to kill before she had to go to work. Hailey finished off her lunch and locked her bag tight against her waist again. She checked down each street carefully before diving off the roof of the train station and snapping her wings out once more. She drifted gently down to the ground a block or so away and landed with a hard thump. Hailey brushed the dirt off her pants and set off for the hall.

  Maybe she’d run into some of her old friends there.

 

 

Author note: Thanks for reading this far into the story! Let me know what you think. If you have the time, consider leaving me a review on RoyalRoad or Webfictionguide. I’d love to hear your thoughts <3

Awakening — Chapter 10
Awakening — Chapter 11

One thought on “Interlude I

  1. This chapter was great backstory for why Hailey is acting so different. I’m terrible with timelines, so I can only imagine how Hailey’s story matches with the Rachel’s story.

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