Interlude XI — The Seven Thirty-Six Train to Seattle
On the Tuesday morning train from Redmond to Seattle, on November the twenty-seventh, two thousand eighteen, at the very rear of the final car, a heated discussion was brewing in hushed voices.
”Did you hear? Another person from Lakewood died. Kaneesha Davis.”
”Never recovered from the roof falling on her spine. I heard she was in constant pain for the last two weeks.”
”God… That’s horrible.”
”And they still haven’t arrested anyone responsible. It’s insane.”
”What about that girl? Hailey Winscombe. They arrested her right off the plane in D.C. yesterday.”
”There was a whole army in Lakewood. She’s just a kid. This is way bigger.”
”Come on—an army?”
”Look at these pictures, man. Helicopters coming in, guys rappelling down to the ground. Look at the videos. That’s full-auto gunfire going up against these monsters.”
”So they’re the good guys, then, right?”
”If they are, why haven’t they come forward? They’re probably just as responsible. Both sides are the same. We’re all just stuck in the middle.”
”I’m definitely not on the side that has those monsters…”
”So you’re on the side that was blowing up houses? They found leftover explosives buried in some of those buildings. It wasn’t magic.”
”No… I don’t know…”
”I don’t either, but I’m not sitting around waiting to get killed because of the awakened.”
”You think it’s real? They can really do magic?”
”Can or can’t, they’re still getting us normal people killed. I wish they’d all just—”
”Don’t say that!”
”They’re still people… aren’t they?”
”Who says? We don’t know what they are. We know they blew up Rallsburg, and a bunch of people got killed. Hailey Winscombe keeps blowing up buildings wherever she goes. They’re dangerous.”
”You and me both.”
”What are we supposed to do about it though?”
”I don’t know… but I can’t just sit around and go to work every day like nothing’s wrong.”
”They ought to be locked up.”
”How? We don’t even know who they are.”
”Excuse me, but I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation. There is a way.”
”…Who are you?”
”I’m Mike. I’m just as worried as you are, believe me. But like I said, there’s a way.”
”You heard about that guy on TV, right? The one they said was the enemy. Brian Hendricks.”
”Yeah. I heard he’s a murderer.”
”Well, I don’t know about that, but I do know he’s the only one who’s making any sense right now.”
”…You know him?”
”I wouldn’t say I know him. I’ve never talked to him. But I’ve listened to him speak.”
”He’s going to be speaking again tonight. There’s an old church on the west side of Olympia, on Jenkins Road. Near the school.”
”Hang on, you never said what way.”
”We can find them. There’s a way to test if someone is one of these awakened. Easy and harmless. I tested the both of you, actually, and you didn’t even notice.”
Alden Bensen warily opened one eye, staring down to the end of the car. He tensed up, hand in his pocket, grasping the ruby and topaz gems stuffed inside. Alden didn’t recognize the two men or the woman holding the conversation. One man was leaning forward, his hand outstretched—holding a small smooth stone with etchings on the surface.
Very slowly, Alden began to shift his weight, putting more on to his feet. His legs were asleep—he’d been sleeping on the way into Seattle. Trains just did that to him. It was the only place he ever got any real sleep, in fact—a month away from home, and he hadn’t gotten any better since leaving Meg behind on his insane quest to find Rika… and some answers.
The train announced the next stop. Alden breathed a sigh of relief—and they looked up at him.
Don’t move. Act like nothing’s wrong. Don’t look away too quickly. Alden tried to remember everything he’d read by Boris on the website. He wasn’t even in hiding, really, but he’d still read every single piece of advice from the old spy.
To his relief, after only a couple seconds, the group looked away again. The man pocketed the stone as the train glided to a halt. They busied themselves gathering up bags, still talking about the meeting that night. The other two sounded truly interested now.
Alden debarked as quickly as he dared, not taking a single look back.
A month had passed since he left home, and Alden still felt awful every time he glanced at the news.
Inevitably, it would be something about Hailey, or Cinza, or Jessica, or any combination of news about the awakened, the United States, London, and the confluence of events which had brought them into their current hurricane of insanity. An intense mixture of guilt and fear churned in his stomach, never quite going away. He hadn’t seen any of them in so long—and, in fact, the news was marking that very timeline for him now.
”I’d like to remind you of the events last month on Friday, October 26th, which we can now assume was Hailey Winscombe fighting with agents of Brian Hendricks, whom Cinza accused in London over the weekend.”
”What about it?”
”Well, the police officers involved are certainly vindicated now, aren’t they? The same golems were caught on camera in the Battle of Lakewood, and nothing contradicts Cinza’s story thus far. That was an attack by Brian Hendricks, presumably aimed right at Hailey Winscombe and whomever was with her in the bar that night.”
”I’ll contradict it. I think Brian Hendricks is just a scapegoat. He’s currently driving an anti-magic campaign in the Pacific Northwest, but apparently nobody can find him. It doesn’t make any sense that he’d have magical aid. How would he keep his supporters in line if he’s openly hypocritical?”
”Means to an end?”
Alden had called Hailey. Not at first—he caught the first few updates, when she appeared in front of the law firm, on the talk show, down in Portland. After the Battle of Lakewood, he’d been busy following what ended up as a dead-end—a lead on a Japanese girl named Maria in Redmond. It took him a few days to link the car chase origin with Rika, and by that time, Hailey was already in London, while Alden had completely missed Jessica’s funeral.
He checked in with Meg daily. It wasn’t much—Alden would send her a text saying roughly where he was and that he was fine. Meg gave him space. She made it clear she didn’t have a clue why he was going through his “mid-early-post-high-school-life-crisis”, but she still respected it. Alden didn’t know what alien had gone and replaced his annoying little sister, but he was glad for it nonetheless.
When he’d heard about Jessica’s death… he cried all night. He’d wanted to call Hailey, but she was already in London. He’d called Meg instead, not really knowing anyone else in their little community well enough. The only two people he’d ever held a longer conversation with were Rachel—who nobody seemed to have heard from her in ages—and Ryan, who… well, Alden just didn’t know Ryan that well.
Meg cried right along with him. She told him about the funeral, about Hailey’s outburst and flight, about how the rest of them just left mostly in silence after she’d vanished. They both missed her. It was the first time Meg had asked Alden to come home. She was afraid, now that someone she actually knew had died. It was the first time she’d ever experienced loss. Except for some abstract feeling of abandonment by their long-lost and forgotten older sibling, they’d been lucky up until that year.
The year of magic. The year of Rallsburg. The year of the awakened.
Alden wondered what event the historians would pick to mark the year. So much had happened, and so much was continuing to happen. How much more crazy can the world get? At this rate, Alden wasn’t about to rule anything out.
He started down the street, heading deeper into the downtown Seattle area. Alden was there to investigate, following up on a lead toward Rika. He’d promised Meg this was the last one. If this didn’t pan out, or if he got into any trouble, he was heading home. He had no idea what he was going to tell his parents, nor how Meg was possibly covering for him for so long. They had his number, but neither had reached out beyond unanswered well-wishes every week or so.
Alden had to find her. It was an obsession at this point. He knew that somehow, his life had been completely shattered by magic. He had no friends, he had no connections outside his family. The only people he knew in the world were those he’d met that year. Rika had called it fate, and Rika had taught him everything he knew about magic.
She’d have the answers he needed. He had to believe that.
A police report was beginning to circulate online. Alden found it on a paranoid “awakened conspiracy” website. Until recently, he’d been using leads from the private site set up by Cinza, but that had gone mysteriously silent. All at once, everyone had stopped posting, without warning. They stopped visiting it entirely, by the activity log. Alden followed suit, fearing it might be suddenly insecure. A day later, it vanished off the internet.
Cinza was the smartest person he knew with technology and the internet, through her connections to techie friends the world around. Alden doubted it was a technical fault. He was stuck reviewing public footage from the battle of Lakewood, seeing the vague glimpses of Hailey and the FBI agent, with Jessica clinging to Hailey at every turn. The later bits were much higher quality, but focused more on the two clashing armies of Brian’s ragtag group and what Alden assumed to be Malton and Viper’s men.
No wonder Hailey blitzed off to London…
The police report he’d found on the conspiracy site listed an incident in an abandoned warehouse downtown. Multiple deaths from severe electrical burns, no apparent cause. It was a longshot, but Alden knew Rika had been in the area. She’d been living in Redmond under the name Maria for a while. It was close enough to be worth checking out.
It would be another long, freezing walk through the city streets. The whole city felt deathly cold. Alden rubbed his hands together, concentrating on the molecules in the air around him. Gently, he began to push at them, mentally plucking them as if they were taut strings, setting them to vibrate.
A wave of warmth flooded in, filling up his coat and gloves. He grinned. I’m getting better at this. It used to take him minutes to actually find the strings and vibrate them. Alden had gotten it down to only a couple seconds.
The warehouse was at least ten blocks away, if not further. Alden didn’t want to pull his hands out of the warmth to check, but he remembered the cross streets. He figured he’d just wander slowly in the right direction until he found one of them. There wasn’t any rush. Alden doubted he’d find her, and as soon as he got there and saw nothing, he’d be heading home—empty-handed.
Alden didn’t want to go home. He didn’t want to face the empty room again.
Some thirty minutes later, he was there. Nothing had happened. The city bustled on as usual, and Alden simply walked through it. He found the street he needed. An angry-looking house cat hissed at him from an open window, diving back inside as he passed. Alden stopped halfway down the street, where an alley pointed the way inward, to a fenced-off building surrounded by CONDEMNED signs. A heavy iron door was half-ajar, small indentations visible in the metal near the handle.
The place was cordoned off. Officers were standing near every entrance, barriers in place, and they didn’t even look bored. They weren’t wearing Seattle uniforms, either.
…What’s going on here?
Alden considered walking up to ask them, but there wasn’t a single other person in sight. They didn’t give him a second glance, and he decided to keep it that way. He kept moving, intending to circle around to the other side and pray that he might find some more answers there.
Nothing, of course. The warehouse only had the one entrance.
Alden fell back against the nearest wall, letting out a deep sigh. Guess that’s it, then.
He pulled out his phone, glancing through his list of contacts. Every single one said “offline”, since their server was still down, but he could pull up old messages. Alden wasn’t sure what he was looking for, but he needed something—anything to give him a reason not to go home yet. Anything to show he hadn’t completely failed.
There was a message from Lily Laushire. She’d sent a thank-you a few months earlier, recognizing him for helping stop Jackson and save their lives. Alden had deleted it, feeling too broken up at the time to even read it, but the server downloaded it again anyway. More importantly, the message included the address of their new office in Seattle, with an open invitation to visit if he ever needed anything.
The office wasn’t that far away. Alden set off.
The Wilmore office wasn’t at all what Alden expected. He triple-checked the address to make sure he had it right. Sure enough, this dilapidated, empty box squeezed in between an apartment complex and a coin-op laundromat was the address Lily had given him. Alden pulled the door open, and a half-crumpled sheet of paper tumbled out. He picked it up, but it was just an advertisement for a rave held in the building years ago. The place was totally abandoned.
He went inside anyway.
To his disappointment, the interior was even more depressing than the façade. Trash littered the floor—someone had clearly been living in one of the back rooms—and there wasn’t a sign of life to be found. Alden couldn’t imagine anyone working here, much less the prim-and-proper Laushire twins.
Probably didn’t actually work here, Alden realized with a small smile. Who needs an actual building anyway when you’ve got portals?
He turned to head back outside. The Wilmore office was a bust, but Alden was already feeling a little better. The exercise and the sunlight, probably, but he didn’t care. Anything to lift him out of his slump.
A rock clicked against the door.
Alden froze. Nobody else is in here. How did that rock move? I didn’t move it…
He crept toward the door, squinting through the dirty glass window. Someone seemed to be moving on the other side of the street, but he couldn’t be sure. There wasn’t any other way out. Isn’t this like, breaking a fire code or something? I thought there were supposed to be multiple exits. Alden put his hand on the door, tensing. The figure across the street wasn’t moving, but it was definitely human-sized.
He opened the door. A man was across the street, dressed in rags, leaning on a shopping cart packed full of plastic bags. Alden let out a huge sigh of relief. Nothing. Just a tired old guy.
The man looked directly at Alden. He was holding something in his fist. His mouth opened wide.
Alden bolted. The man shouted something unintelligible.
Someone else popped out of an alley, just in front of Alden. Another man, built like a linebacker. Alden had too much momentum to slow down, and the guy shoulder-checked him. Alden tumbled to the street, wind blasted out of him. The world spun above him as Alden desperately tried to reach into his pocket for his gemstones. No wonder Cinza wears hers on a necklace…
”Where you goin’?” the huge man growled above him.
Alden groaned, rolling over—and getting into his pocket at the same time. The ruby settled into his hand. He tensed, waiting for the perfect moment, pulling as much energy as he could in the short time he had. The man reached down to grab him. Alden waited until the last possible second.
A burst of fire erupted above him. Flames slammed into the man’s face.
He staggered backward, shouting. His hair had caught fire.
Alden scrambled to his feet. Another man had appeared at the opposite end of the street, emerging from another alley. They staked this place out… they knew someone like me might come here. Crap. What do I do?
He ran. A slapping sound echoed behind him, like a wet towel on skin. Alden chanced a quick look over his shoulder. The old lookout had beaten out the fire, and the third guy was pounding down the road toward him.
Alden looked frantically for help, but this was—probably deliberately—a pretty run-down and abandoned part of Seattle. If anyone was even around, odds are they wouldn’t want to get involved. Alden just had to hope he was faster than them. He turned into one alley, then the next. Curves flashed by, the gray city walls blurring together as he rushed through the streets, but the man was still right behind him.
He needed something else.
Concentrating hard again, Alden grabbed at his whole body with his mind, just as he’d learned all the way back in Rallsburg. As the next turn came up, Alden spotted a fire escape—low enough for him to reach, but just out of anyone else’s jump, if he was lucky. He leaped, releasing the magic as he did and hurling himself even higher at the apex.
His hands caught the bottom of the escape ladder. It immediately began to slide downward.
Alden scrambled upward anyway. It was too late to change course, and he obviously wasn’t going to outrun this guy. He banged on the first window he reached, and the second, and the third, flinging himself up the steel structure while the guy had to slowly round the staircases. It gave Alden a bit of a lead, but not enough to really escape, and nobody seemed to be answering inside.
What do I do?
Alden reached the roof, scrambling onto the gravel. The guy was only a few stories behind him, and his friends had just arrived in the alley. Alden looked around, but he didn’t see any easy way off the roof. There was a door, chained shut. Alden threw a spell at it, a trick he’d learned off Jonathan Hudson, but it didn’t click open.
The gravel shifted behind him. The guy had arrived.
A groaning metallic sound had them both looking away. The fire escape leaned dangerously outward. The two in the alley way shouted in alarm, and Alden heard the loud slap of feet on concrete as they sprinted away. The stone wall tore open, chunks of rock flying outward as the metal broke away.
The entire fire escape detached from the wall, crashing to the ground with a sickening tearing sound—one that brought Alden immediately back to Rallsburg.
Visions of buildings rising into the sky and tearing themselves to pieces.
Fire and smoke filling the air and choking everyone for miles.
Golems emerging from the darkness, ripping Collins and Christina Albrecht in half, flattening Mabel Walsh into the pavement.
Focus. This guy’s gonna kill you if you don’t.
”Give me a name,” the man growled, advancing on him.
”What?” Alden asked, surprised. He hadn’t expected the guy to speak.
”Someone else who’s one of you. Give me a name, and you get to live.”
No way is that true. He’d just kill me after I told him. I need to get out of here… somehow. What do I do?
Wait… is this how they knew… oh God. Harold… He didn’t know my real name, so he brought them there. Harold gave me up.
Alden opened his mouth to speak—not to give him a name, just to stall somehow—but nothing came out. It worked anyway. The man stopped, waiting for him to speak.
”We’re going to find them sooner or later,” he said, with less of a growl than before. “You give me a name, you go on the list. We let you live.”
Was this guy in the bar that night? I don’t… I can’t… Memories were still flooding back to Alden. He remembered a few faces, but they were blurry, indistinct. They faded out behind images of a gun barrel, pushed into his face, seconds away from pulling the trigger.
Until Hailey saved him.
The guy started sprinting forward. Alden shouted, an indistinct word, a burst of rage and frustration. His mind reached forward, finding the area around the man, creating a corridor of space in front of him. Alden found the strings, found the tiny vibrations in the air, and threw energy into them. However, Alden didn’t weigh them down to slow them, as he usually did. There was another trick to play, where the strings could be set spinning wildly, throwing off all the typical rules of the area. The topaz in his hand shattered as Alden took one step to the side.
The man sped up. Time itself fooled him into believing he could change directions, that Alden was still in his path. He shot forward, all the way across the roof straight past Alden. It was almost comical how he flung himself forward, tripping over the lip and into empty air.
Comical, until Alden’s spell released. The man screamed all the way down to the ground.
Oh my god…
Alden collapsed to the gravel, panting. He’d never used that spell on such a wide area before. He’d never used any time magic on someone since… since…
Alden threw up.
It took a long time for Alden to pull himself together. Nobody else tried to get up to him, to his relief. The alley on the opposite side of the building seemed clear. It didn’t have a fire escape, though, so Alden was forced to take a leap and catch himself with magic. Terrifying, but it slowed his momentum enough to land with only a bit of pain in his limbs.
He hurried away from the building. He didn’t want to think about what he’d just done, and what he’d done in the past.
Alden glanced around, but he had no clue where he was at this point. Still in Seattle, sure, but he didn’t recognize any of the street names. He was south, that was the best he could determine—and worse, his phone wasn’t working. The screen was badly cracked, and the power button didn’t seem to be working. He wasn’t sure if it needed battery or it was truly dead, and he didn’t have anywhere to plug in and check.
A store. Maybe a coffee shop. Somewhere will have a public outlet.
Not for the first time, Alden wished he’d gotten one of the Laushire bags. Kendra had promised to make him one, but they apparently took a great deal of energy and special materials to create, and they hadn’t had the opportunity with so much else going on. He didn’t blame them, but with the sorts of lives they now led, not having one was becoming a real burden for him.
Alden was back to wandering again, though with far more caution than the morning. He stuck to the shadows, and every single time some random passerby glanced at him, he was ready to run. Even so, he doubted anything would happen in these neighborhoods.
This was a nicer part of Seattle, something like halfway between suburbs and the city proper. People were actually out on the sidewalks, along with the occasional car, giving him a much stronger sense of security. Sure, he still got the odd glance, but it was more of a typical “get out of my way tourist, I’m too busy for you” sort of city look. He could deal with that. It was refreshing, even.
Alden had never really liked cities much, but he certainly preferred the bustle of people to the painful silence of the empty streets. He finally stopped walking, taking shelter in a small shaded part of the wall near a coffee shop, which hadn’t had any outlets to his great disappointment. They recommended an electronics store nearby, but between the spells and the running, Alden was getting very winded.
I’ve been training every day. I shouldn’t be this tired after those spells. Even with the Time magic, that wasn’t that much.
It wasn’t just exhaustion though, and Alden knew it. It was fear and adrenaline and trauma, rolled up into a painful brick weighing down his whole body. He was physically okay, and if another fight came, Alden would be fine. But between those bursts of energy—when survival was on the line and it was life-or-death—he was more crushed and hopeless than ever before.
Something in the sky caught his eye. A bird, soaring high above. Alden watched it curiously. It didn’t look like a seagull. It dove lower, and Alden found himself missing Hailey more than ever. Flying with her had always picked up his spirits. Even on the last night he saw her, after Ruby got them away from the bar, Hailey’s flight home was where he finally started to pull himself together.
Now she was in jail, somewhere on the other side of the country. What was Alden doing? Wasting his time chasing a girl he barely knew, who he hadn’t seen in months, on the vague idea that she could answer questions he already knew she couldn’t.
The bird dropped lower. Alden squinted closer. That bird looked familiar—too familiar. He’d seen it before… somewhere.
He got to his feet and ran. The bird kept circling. It seemed stuck to a particular spot, and he was pretty sure he could figure out where. Sure enough, as he crossed each street, it hadn’t moved in the slightest. He was getting closer. The buildings in the area weren’t tall enough to block his view, and he was closing in pretty quickly.
I’m going insane. It’s just a bird. Meg is gonna get a real kick out of this one. I’ll never hear the end of it.
The bird peeled off suddenly, diving for a nearby park surrounded by apartments. Alden hurried to catch up. The park seemed totally deserted at first. A swing swayed in the gentle breeze, the playground was totally empty. It didn’t seem forlorn, exactly—the grass looked healthy and the plants were well-kept—but there was still an eerie sense of danger hanging over everything.
Alden crept forward cautiously, checking every direction. There was a small enclosed area toward the back, just around the corner. He could hear voices—pretty young voices.
One sounded familiar.
”…she’s terrified of you, Jenny!”
A boy laughed. “Yeah, you should have seen her face today.”
”You should do Lydia next!”
”Dude, she’s not gonna go around scaring everybody for fun.”
”I know that!”
”Can we just hang out without talking about school?”
”You guys aren’t supposed to be out. We’re not supposed to be out, either.”
”It’s fine,” said that voice, the one Alden knew he knew. “Percy’s been watching out. Nobody scary’s nearby.”
A brief squawk from the bird—the hawk. Alden froze. Percy. Squawking sounds.
”Hang on,” Another squawk.
A girl suddenly appeared, staring Alden right in the eyes. It took him a few moments to realize it was, in fact, Natalie Hendricks looking at him. She’d changed so much, and there was a massive twisting scar marring her face, but it was the same girl he’d first seen in a candle-lit college room back in Rallsburg.
His mouth fell open. Hers did the same.
”…Hi,” Alden finally choked out.
”Jenny?” someone whispered.
”Shh,” Natalie hissed over her shoulder. “It’s okay.” She beckoned Alden forward, into their little hideout.
It wasn’t much to look at, in all honesty, but it had a few comfy folding chairs and a beaten-up old couch around a table with a card game Alden vaguely recognized. A cooler full of drinks and snacks sat nearby, along with a pile of boxes and some sports equipment. Four other kids around Natalie’s age were sitting around the table, all gaping up at their friend and Alden.
He raised his hand slightly with an awkward grin. “Uhh…” he started.
Natalie winced. “This is Zack. He’s…” She glanced at him oddly. “A friend?”
”Yeah,” said Alden. “Something like that.”
”Cool,” said one of the boys, looking impatient. “Don’t you have a dumb game to finish? I thought we were gonna do you-know-what soon.”
”Shut up, Mitch,” said the girl sitting near him. She slapped him on the back of the head. “This is the only time we can get together. Let them play.”
”It’s your turn, Jenny,” said the boy leaning over the table. He started coughing violently and pulled out an inhaler.
Natalie went back to sit down next to another boy on the couch, leaning forward over the game. “You wanna sit, Zack?” She pointed at the last empty chair. “Steven’s not here today, so we got an extra.”
”Sure.” Alden took the seat, feeling distinctly out of place. Not that he didn’t like seeing Natalie again, but this whole meeting was feeling very weird, and he had no idea how much her friends might know.
Then again… Percy’s literally sitting on her shoulder. As if to accentuate the point, Natalie turned to him and spouted a full sentence in her strange animal language. Percy squawked in protest. Natalie giggled, then spoke another short burst at him. He flew away, and she settled back onto the couch—very pointedly a few inches away from the boy beside her, but Alden could instantly tell there was something between them.
”So uhh…” Alden started.
Natalie nodded. “Yeah, they know. It’s cool.”
Well… she seems to be doing okay… or not. How did she get that scar? What happened to her?
”What did you say?” asked Mitch eagerly.
”Told him off for not warning me about Zack coming.” Natalie frowned. “He probably figured it was okay since they met way back.”
”Hawks can remember that long?” asked the girl.
”Mine can,” said Natalie idly, leaning forward to pluck a card out from one of the piles. “Linnethea reveals herself and ambushes your metal mine with her two bodyguards.”
”Tough break,” her friend added, smirking at the cards revealed underneath. Natalie’s opponent looked frustrated, but didn’t say anything, staring as if he were willing the game to burst into flames.
Are any of them… Alden wondered, but he didn’t need to. Natalie answered his unspoken question right away. “Sorry, Zack. This is Quinn,” she started, pointing at the boy next to her, “Tyler, Mitch and Kelsey. And none of them are awakened.”
”Not for lack of trying!” Mitch shot back. He turned to Alden quickly. “Are you?”
Alden made a split-second decision, nodding. He flicked his hand just slightly, and a soda zoomed out of the cooler into his hand, right over the table in the middle.
Kelsey rolled her eyes. “Dude, you’ve seen Jenny do that like a hundred times. She did that like ten minutes ago!”
”You’re just jealous you can’t!”
”No shit I am. You are too, moron.”
”Can you, you know,” Mitch started, turning to Alden, “awaken people?”
Alden shook his head. “Nope. Sorry.” Although I know plenty of people who have Scraps nearby. Hailey and I came up here a few times for new awakened. I always wondered how she found out about people in Seattle though… Maybe Natalie was telling her?
”Aww…” Mitch crossed his arms. “I’m gonna find part of the book soon. Just you wait.”
”Didn’t the diary say they only came to people who believed in the goddess?” Kelsey smirked. “Better start praying.”
Alden raised his eyebrows. “You guys have read Cinza’s diary? How?”
”Internet,” said Mitch simply.
”I found a torrent,” said Tyler, still glaring at his cards like they’d betrayed him.
If they’ve read the diary… am I in it? How far did it go? Cinza posted on the site that it was everything through Jackson’s death, and I was there when he died. I don’t think Cinza knows I can use Time magic or that I trapped him… but still. If she named me…
He shook his head. Cinza never knew his real name. Besides, there were so many more important people in those books than him. He was a blip, a tiny footnote in the Rallsburg tale.
Tyler drew two cards from his deck, and let out a huge sigh of relief. Natalie frowned, as he laid them out on each of the castles near his side. “I summon Qazatakatlstimizilian using all my resources. He burns all your forests and farms in the first two rows on entering the field.”
Natalie sighed and leaned back. “You win again.”
”You’re not going to play it out?” he asked, sounding disappointed.
”It’s already over. I know when to surrender.”
”You almost had me this time. You’ll win eventually.”
She rolled her eyes. “Whatever.” Her watch beeped. “…It’s time.”
”Time for what?” asked Alden.
”To go home,” said Tyler sadly, beginning to gather up the cards. “If we don’t want to get in trouble.”
”Yeah, we all snuck out,” added Mitch.
”Hey, I didn’t!” said Kelsey indignantly.
Quinn smiled. “Your parents are cooler than ours.”
”Nah, they just don’t have a clue who you people are,” said Kelsey, grinning. “Or that I’m hanging out with one of the awakened.” She laid on so much emphasis and sarcasm that Alden laughed. “Okay, two awakened,” she amended, grinning wider.
”Would your moms care?” asked Natalie, suddenly nervous.
Kelsey shrugged. “Probably not. I mean, Mitch’s mom doesn’t care either, right?”
Mitch glanced at her. “You think I told her? Do I look that stupid?”
”No, you look way stupider than that.”
”Nobody knows outside this group and Quinn’s parents,” said Natalie, glancing back at Alden. “Plus Steven. He’s just not here ’cause it’s a lot harder for him to get away from his mom. She’s really scared.”
”Well yeah, after what happened with his brother—” started Mitch. Kelsey smacked him on the back of the head again. “Stop that! You’re lucky I don’t hit girls.”
”‘Cause you know we’d beat you up?” said Kelsey.
”My mom taught me never to hit a girl.”
”My moms taught me never to hit anyone, but if they come after you, take ’em down.”
”Yeah,” said Natalie, her tone far from jovial. “You gotta defend yourself.”
The rest of the group continued to joke and tease as they trooped out. Natalie calmly packed up the rest of her things into her bag—another Laushire bag, Alden noted with jealousy. As they set off into the streets, Natalie led the way with Quinn. Alden volunteered to bring up the rear, after Natalie explained how they were supposed to watch out for anything suspicious or dangerous.
She said it a little casually, and the rest of the group obviously didn’t take it too seriously, but Natalie caught his eye. He nodded in return.
They both knew exactly how serious she was.
Everyone got home in one piece. Alden was looking over his shoulder at every turn, but nobody else came after him. Quinn was the last one, and as they got nearer to his family’s apartment, Natalie fell back a little to walk near Alden. Percy fluttered onto Quinn’s shoulder, and rubbed his face affectionately.
Natalie smiled at the sight, but dropped her voice low, obviously not wanting Quinn to hear anything. “Hey,” she said softly.
”Hi,” said Alden.
Her tone was uncomfortably militant. “What’s going on? Is something wrong?”
He shook his head. “I ran into you by accident. I saw Percy and followed him.”
”Oh.” Natalie frowned. “I guess that could be kinda bad.”
”Can you do invisibility?”
”I tried, but I never really figured it out.” She shrugged. “I’m staying out of everything though.”
”I saw the thing about Kendra on the news,” said Alden. “Aren’t you—”
”No,” said Natalie. “I’ve been living with Quinn all month. Since… since the book thing and Hailey’s interview and everything.”
”Oh.” Alden winced. “I was… kinda out of the loop for a while.” He glanced at her again. “You—”
”Yeah, I did a lot,” Natalie said impatiently.
”Are you okay?”
”I don’t know.”
”…Me neither,” said Alden honestly.
To his relief, Natalie seemed to relax at that. “Why does everyone always ask that? I’m too many things. I can’t just say ‘yeah I’m okay’. Okay what?”
”No kidding,” said Alden.
”It’s so stupid. I don’t know if I’m okay. I don’t know anything. Everyone left me and now so many things are happening and I have no clue what’s going on.”
”You have no idea how much I feel like that right now, Nat—err, Jenny,” said Alden hurriedly.
Natalie shrugged. “It’s okay. Quinn knows everything.”
”…Everything?” asked Alden, surprised.
”Well… no,” said Natalie reluctantly. “He doesn’t know… about my… my dad.” She looked away so Alden couldn’t see her face. “But he knows I’m from Rallsburg and my real name and all that. We can trust him.”
Natalie turned back, smiling a little. “…Thanks.”
Alden nodded. “How’d you end up living with him?”
”I got… locked out, I guess, on the night everybody found out about the book. The door to Kendra’s place just didn’t show up. So I ran away and I just kinda ended up at Quinn’s ’cause it was the only place I knew nearby.”
”And his parents just took you in?” Alden raised an eyebrow. “That’s really cool of them.”
”They’re really cool,” said Natalie, smiling wider. “He is, too.”
Alden didn’t miss the undercurrent in her voice. He grinned. “You and him?”
A blush seeped into her cheeks underneath the scar. “…Yeah.”
”I’m really happy for you, Natalie.”
”What about you?” she asked, obviously trying to change the subject. “Weren’t you trying to find Rika or something? I overheard your sister talking.”
”You met my sister?” Alden asked, surprised.
”At the…” Natalie winced, mirth gone from her voice. “The funeral.”
”Oh.” Alden nodded. “Yeah, I’m trying to find Rika.”
”…Do you think that’s a good idea?” she asked nervously.
”I just…” Natalie took a breath, staring out into the bare courtyard below them. She fiddled with her hair—much longer than Alden remembered, and worn so as to cover her face more. Hiding, as she had been ever since Rallsburg. “I dunno. I was waiting for Rachel all this time. She promised we were gonna go find my dad. I was just… you know, sitting around. Doing nothing, being afraid all the time. And it really sucked.”
She turned back to Alden. “I decided to stop though. Now I feel a lot better. It still sucks, but I’m not waiting for Rachel. I dunno where she is, or what she’s doing, and I don’t really care anymore either. I’m here with Quinn and I’m happy. Mostly,” she added, looking away again. “I still really miss Gwen, and Scrappy, and my dad… I’ll find them someday. But I gotta figure out who I am first.”
I wish it were that easy. I wish I was as strong as you. “You’re way too smart for your age, you know that?” said Alden, smiling a little.
”I don’t feel like I am,” Natalie sighed. She glanced over thoughtfully. “Do you love her?”
He shrugged. “I don’t really know. I just need to talk to her.”
”I knew, all the way back to Rallsburg,” said Natalie sagely. “You definitely do. You gotta find her, then.”
I really don’t think I do, but I agree with you anyway. “Well, she’s not making it easy,” Alden sighed. “I came here ’cause I heard about some people who got killed by electricity magic. I thought it might have been her. Still could be, I have no idea. I didn’t get any details.”
Natalie frowned. “Some people?”
”Yeah, a warehouse, over on…” Alden pulled out his phone and dredged up the address. “It was some drug deal gone bad, apparently. I figured Rika kinda fit that. I mean, I doubt she was looking for drugs. Information or something.”
She slowly shook her head. “…Rika doesn’t seem like the sort of person who’d kill people.”
”Yeah, I agree. Self-defense, though, maybe.”
”Maybe.” Natalie looked really uncomfortable suddenly.
Alden decided to change the subject. “How’s school?”
”It’s… it’s fine.” Natalie was obviously still stuck on the idea. Alden waited. Quinn had long-since gone inside the apartment with Percy, but they were still standing out on the cold walkway, the breeze chilling them even more. “I think Rika’s probably in the Greywood.”
”You do?” asked Alden, surprised. Was it really that easy?
She nodded. “I saw her at the funeral. We talked a bit. She came in with Cinza’s people, and she left with them too. I think she’s been staying there ever since… you know.” Natalie trailed off, obviously not wanting to bring up Jessica again. She took a moment to compose herself. “I don’t know how to get to it anymore though. I haven’t been there since… since we left.”
”I have, once,” said Alden. But all the defenses were down at the time, and I was following Rachel… “But I think they changed it, and now the website’s down.”
”It is?” asked Natalie, surprised.
”Yeah.” Alden shrugged. “I might know somebody else who knows.”
Alden grinned. “You wouldn’t like him.”
Natalie offered him some dinner, but Alden declined. He didn’t want to complicate her life anymore if Quinn’s parents came home while he was there. They said goodbye, and Alden boarded the first bus he could find heading south.
He hoped Natalie really was happier. It seemed like she was, but there was so much weight on every word she spoke. Something had happened to Natalie, and Alden had no clue what it might have been. He resolved to check in on her again, way sooner than six months this time. In the meantime, he had another long-lost acquaintance to find.
Of course, this one wasn’t even trying to hide. Alden just used the official contact box on his website.
”The first true magician?” Alden asked, rolling his eyes.
Jonathan Hudson had just arrived back in the corner of a little diner in Tacoma. To Alden’s relief, he wore a far less conspicuous outfit than their first encounter. Even so, Jonathan was as theatrical as always, pulling out his chair with a flourish and landing with all the aplomb of an accomplished dancer.
”What does the Greywood require of the Astounding Mr. Hudson?”
”I thought it was ‘Marvelous’,” said Alden.
Jonathan shrugged. “My show got popular and somebody got mad, said it was too similar to something on TV.”
”Well, funny you should ask,” Alden sighed. “I’m actually trying to get to the Greywood.”
”I was going to ask you how to get there!” said Jonathan indignantly.
”You don’t know?”
”I’ve not been privy to such confidence as to be made aware of the—” Alden rolled his eyes again, and Jonathan faltered. “…No.”
”I haven’t been there since Rallsburg fell,” said Alden, “and they’ve changed the defenses since then. The website’s down, so I can’t get in touch with any of them.”
Jonathan nodded. “I do hope it comes back, I need more spells for my next act. I only had a backup through last week.”
”…You kept backups?” asked Alden, surprised.
”Of course I did!” Jonathan grinned. “The Astounding Mr. Hudson is well-known for the variety and depth of his magical abilities!”
Cinza would be so mad if she found out. “They left instructions after the book release, for anyone who needed to hide. Do you have that saved?”
”Probably.” Jonathan pulled out his phone, digging through the details. “Yes, right here. I can take you to the rendezvous.”
”No thanks, I can manage.”
”I insist!” said Jonathan, rising to his feet again. “The Greywood does not know me. If I am to be received, I would need your introduction, as one of the honored Ghosts.”
”I’m not one of them,” said Alden uncomfortably. “I didn’t live there.”
”But you fought, did you not?”
”…Yes.” Alden sighed. “Well, come on then. My car’s around the block.”
Within minutes, they were on the road heading to Olympia. Jonathan gave him directions while managing to keep his personality to a minimum, to Alden’s relief. Under other circumstances, he didn’t really mind so much—but he was exhausted, he was scared, and the world seemed to be ending all around them. The traffic was thick all the way to Olympia, and Alden had a pretty good guess as to why.
”Do people ask you how to awaken after your shows?” asked Alden.
”I don’t stick around,” said Jonathan cheerfully. “All part of the mystique, you know? I escape without a trail to be found.” He winced. “Also because I was chased out once by a certain FBI agent we all know and love.”
”You met Agent Ashe?”
”Yes. It turns out he’s actually a really nice guy, all in all. We’ve met a few times since then. Turn off here.”
Alden did so, hitting the road out of Olympia toward the huge forests ahead. As the trees loomed larger, his knuckles got tighter around the wheel. He hadn’t been this close since… well, since he left. Jonathan kept talking, and Alden just vaguely nodded along whenever there was a pause, not really listening. He was entirely focused on making sure they didn’t crash, while flashbacks threatened to resurface in his brain.
”Turn here,” said Jonathan abruptly. Alden glanced over, surprised. They hadn’t really gone out of Olympia yet. Was the meeting place really this far away from the Greywood? “Pull into that parking lot there, by the church.”
Alden shaded his eyes from the sunlight, squinting at the church ahead. Other people were arriving too, but no one he recognized. “How many people are here?” he asked, following Jonathan forward.
”No idea. Guess we’ll find out.”
”I didn’t think there’d be this many awakened already. There aren’t that many on the website.”
”Many what?” asked Jonathan, surprised. “Where do you think we are?”
”…What did you do?” asked Alden fearfully.
”Like I said. I wanted to check out this meeting. See what we’re up against.”
Alden froze. He looked around fearfully. Jenkins road. There was a school nearby. They were walking into an old church.
He dropped his voice as low as he could. “This is one of Brian’s meetings?”
”Don’t worry. I don’t look anything like my shows. And like you said, you weren’t actually there. Nobody’s looking for you.”
”They can scan us, you idiot!” Alden hissed, all politeness vanished in an instant. He started to turn back, but one of the guys by the church entrance was already staring at them. He didn’t look suspicious yet. Alden forced himself to stay calm.
”Oh… I forgot about those… What do we do?” Jonathan asked, suddenly as fearful as Alden felt.
”Keep going forward. It takes a while to scan people. They probably don’t do everyone at these meetings.” Alden took one painful step forward, and then another. The guy at the entrance looked away. The crowd pressed forward—dozens, hundreds maybe. People were coming together, all to hear him talk.
Hear Natalie’s dad talk… about how to kill them all.
They didn’t have to wait long. As soon as they sat down, near the side fire doors, two men were wheeling out a screen and a projector. Alden breathed a sigh of relief—Brian wouldn’t be at this meeting. Natalie’s dad knew him. Alden couldn’t afford to get anywhere near Brian if he could help it. If he was ever seen…
The projector flicked on, and Brian Hendricks filled the screen, seated calmly on a bench somewhere in an empty room. Alden flinched instinctively—the last time he saw Brian, he’d been standing in the streets of a burning Rallsburg, while a golem dragged Mabel Walsh to the pavement.
Stay calm. He’s not here. He’s hiding too. Nobody here will know me.
”Hi,” said Brian, weirdly casual. “I’m sorry to everyone watching this from another building. If I could speak to you in person, I would. They are everywhere, and they could be anyone, so for now, I have to keep moving. I can see you, and I know how afraid you are. I’ve lived that fear.
”They destroyed my home. Now, they’ve destroyed more. The man Malton, as terrible as he might have been, was not given the due process we as human beings deserve. They aren’t human. They don’t respect basic rights like you and I do. They tore him from his home. They could have killed him.
”The fact that they did not,” Brian continued, sitting forward on the bench wherever he was. Alden got a brief glimpse of a crowd in the shot—just as enraptured as the people around him. Jonathan was fidgeting next to Alden, but the rest of the church was engaged, silent and attentive. “The fact they didn’t kill him was part of a larger goal. See how their leader is now in the White House, meeting with our president. They’ve gotten inside our government. They were invited in.”
Alden gulped. Everyone’s treating him like he doesn’t sound insane. And… I don’t think he sounds insane either. His words are crazy, but the way he’s acting… this is bad. Really bad.
”Someone tried to kill me yesterday,” Brian added, almost as an afterthought. The crowd gasped. “In a church in Satsop, one of the awakened—” he spat the word with more vitriol than Alden would have believed possible, “—infiltrated our meeting. The good people there stopped him, but this is why we must not waver. We must be vigilant. They are among us.”
”Was that one of us?” Jonathan hissed.
Don’t even whisper that in here! Alden cried out in his mind. He very slowly shook his head, though in truth, he had no idea. He wasn’t really aware of anyone else anymore. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a lens. There were cameras set up on both sides of the screen, looking out over the crowd.
…He was being literal. He can see us. This is really bad. If he remembers me…
”We need to get out of here,” Alden murmured. “Quietly. If I say go, can you turn us invisible?”
”Not for very long,” Jonathan whispered back. “I only got it down a couple weeks ago, and it’s not my affinity. I’m Elemental and Movement.”
”Yeah. I’m really good at smoke.”
Alden tensed up. Brian was starting to build up in his speech now. He’d stood up, and his voice was rising a little. Alden only caught two words, repeated over and over at the end of every paragraph: no more.
”They must be stopped,” said Brian again. He took a pause, finally, picking up a water bottle and drinking deep.
A woman stood up in the crowd—their crowd, Alden realized, not the vague outlines on the screen. She looked around at the rest of the church, a pained expression on her face. “This isn’t right,” she said loudly. “This hate isn’t Christian. I don’t believe this.”
A murmur rolled through the crowd. At least a few people were agreeing with her… but more still sounded opposed. Another person stood up, and Alden didn’t bother to wait for any more. As soon as they started to argue, Alden tapped Jonathan.
”Let’s go, right now. Stay low.”
Jonathan nodded. They started making their way down the row. Alden tried to keep his face away from the cameras. Brian hadn’t started talking again yet; his eyes were fixed on something just off-screen. Alden caught a flash of a screen reflected in his eyes.
”Wait!” Brian suddenly cried out. He pointed at the screen, his eyes wide. “You,” he snarled, and Alden knew without a doubt—he’d been seen.
”Do it now!” he snapped at Jonathan.
Smoke billowed outward, engulfing the pair of them. Brian’s men launched themselves forward. Alden grabbed Jonathan’s hand, dragging him toward the fire door. They slammed through. An alarm began to wail as the bright setting sunlight pierced their eyes. Alden blinked away the spots, trying desperately to find their car.
”Keep moving!” he shouted. Jonathan had faltered, stumbling out of the smoke with a dazed look. Alden grabbed at him again, yanking him into the parking lot and away from the church doors. “They’re coming!”
He spotted the car, a few hundred feet away from them. They could make it, though the mob behind them was growing steadily. Alden’s head was pounding, and visions of Rallsburg were flashing through his mind. And then, Alden’s true nightmare—the asphalt began to grow.
”Where’s my daughter?“
A guttural snarl—impossibly loud for a man without magic—shook Alden’s bones. The golem was rising out of the parking lot, forming quickly. Behind it, clutching the spiked black rod, eyes wild, stood the man himself. Brian had been there all along. The projector was a ruse.
”What’s going on?” Jonathan whimpered. Alden didn’t bother to answer. He didn’t even try for the car. If he did, he knew a golem would smash it to pieces—and Brian didn’t know which car was theirs.
Jonathan managed it, and another wave of thick white fog erupted into the air. Immediately, Alden picked up the nearest heavy object—a metal trash can—and flung it backward toward Brian, burning through every gem in his pocket as he did.
His legs nearly gave out from the sheer effort. Alden had never thrown something so heavy, but it worked. A loud thud echoed through the smoke. He ran, without looking back, Jonathan only a few steps behind.
They reached the car. Jonathan dove into the passenger seat, while Alden sprinted around to the driver’s side. He struggled through his pocket for his keys, desperately hoping Brian hadn’t had time to recover. He didn’t believe for a second the trash can had actually knocked him out.
The golem burst through the smoke, like a mountain cutting through clouds.
”Drive!” Jonathan screamed at him.
Brian emerged a few steps behind, charging like an angry bull. He was outpacing his own golem, and raising a pistol in one hand.
”Where is my daughter?” he screamed, a raw agonizing sound that pierced through everything.
What am I supposed to do? Alden cried. This was so far beyond him. Adrenaline was pumping through his veins, speeding up his thought process. He thought of using Time magic somehow, but he’d already burned all his gems, and only had a few topaz stones left in the glove compartment—if he could even get to them in time.
The golem was almost to his car. Jonathan was screaming in terror. Alden was fumbling to get the key into the ignition. A massive fist rose to punch through the glass. Brian’s hand was squeezing the trigger.
The dark barrel hovered right at Alden’s head.
He couldn’t move.
Help. Anyone. Please.
A massive wave of magical force rumbled through the air. The golem was shoved backward, evaporating into dust as it went. Alden’s car suddenly clicked on. The engine purred like a hungry cat.
”Drive!” shouted a female voice, somewhere nearby.
Alden couldn’t. He was still frozen, his mind overwhelmed. Brian tried desperately to pull the trigger, but his hand shook on the gun. A fresh golem pushed forward, and another behind that—but they all stopped at a single wall, a massive emanation of magic so strong that Alden could feel it without even trying.
She appeared, back to the car, hands up in midair, holding them back. Alden’s mouth fell open.
Brian’s eyes were widening too. He stared at her with such pure, abject hatred that Alden instinctively flinched away, even though Brian’s gaze wasn’t directed toward him at all. Grey-eyes glanced back over her shoulder. Her face was scrunched up with exertion… and fear.
”Zack, drive!” she shouted again.
Something clicked in his head. Alden threw the car into drive and slammed the gas pedal. They shot out of the parking lot. The car drifted across the open road, swerved into the oncoming lane and nearly crashed headlong into another vehicle. Alden wrested it back onto the right side just in time.
They sped into the sunset, away from the horrors unfolding behind them.
He dropped Jonathan off at a bus stop, heading back to Tacoma. Alden thought he should come to the Greywood too, but Jonathan insisted on going home. Even though he might have been identified, he still wanted to go home to his family.
Alden couldn’t blame him for that.
The real rendezvous was a makeshift camp south of Rallsburg. Jonathan said it had become a sort of way station for pilgrims, people seeking to awaken and flocking to the Olympic Forest en-masse. The town itself was still essentially quarantined, though not terribly well, and the pilgrims were trampling through the forests heedless of regulations. By now, the forestry service had all but given up on maintaining the region, lacking the manpower to really enforce park law.
Alden pulled into the grassy lawn that served as a parking lot and finally turned the car off. Though his heart had long-since stopped racing and his breath was steady again, Alden still felt the terror creeping through the edges of his mind. He’d come so close… again…
Now he was practically in sight of Rallsburg. The trees were too thick to actually make out any of the town, but he knew it was there, just around the bend.
He couldn’t bring himself to move.
Oh god… He almost… I almost… oh god.
Alden shoved the door open and threw up again, for the second time that day. He fumbled through his glove compartment for a paper towel, while a curious onlooker passed by with a sympathetic look. To Alden’s relief, they didn’t say anything, just continued on toward the camp. After a few minutes to try and calm himself down—which didn’t really work—Alden got out and started toward the tents.
It reminded him of the Market, in a way. They weren’t in a black, perfectly-lit void, but the arrangement was the same—eight points on a circle of tents and stands, with a larger half-built hut in the center, filling for the original Laushire mansion. People were selling food, drink, even magic lessons. Small flashes of light and smoke issued from one closed-off tent. No one was outright selling Scraps or anything, to Alden’s relief, but this was the most open, casual display of magic he’d ever seen before. It was such a stark contrast to where he’d just been that he laughed aloud.
”What’s so funny?” asked someone walking past him. Alden shrugged, ignoring them. He wandered forward, no idea what he was supposed to do next. Jonathan hadn’t known either. Without any better ideas, and feeling a distinct sense of déjà vu, Alden headed straight for the hut in the center.
”I wouldn’t bother,” the guy next to him added, nodding toward the hut, a half-built log cabin with tarps covering one side. “They never let anyone in.”
Alden shrugged. “I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
”Good luck, then,” the guy said, wandering off toward the food and leaving Alden alone. Alden headed straight up to the hut’s heavy wooden door, laden with carvings and symbols that looked like pure gibberish to him, and calmly clicked the brass knocker three times.
A curtain in the lone window shifted slightly. Someone was there. Alden waited, patiently. A minute later, the door opened—and he found himself face to face with Julian Black.
”…What?” said Alden blankly.
”Could say the same of yourself,” said Julian. “Get in here before everyone else starts gettin’ ideas.”
Alden stumbled inside. Julian quickly shut the door behind him.
”The hell are you doin’ here, Zack?”
”I…” Alden shrugged. “I was looking for anyone who could get me out to Cinza’s.”
”Shit, ain’t you heard?” Julian frowned. “Even I heard, and they don’t got a clue I’m in the country.”
Julian gestured to a few comfy chairs over by an empty fireplace, where a fire immediately burst into life. One of the chairs still had a price tag attached. “Got the whole story from Joe. Some chick infiltrated them. Kidnapped Xerox Laushire and took her out to London. S’why Cinza was there.”
”Locked down tight as hell,” said Julian, leaning back in a chair. “Want a beer?”
”No thanks,” said Alden uncomfortably. Julian shrugged, as one zipped out from a refrigerator and into his hand, the cap popping off all on its own.
”Nobody gets in right now. Only people out are Ruby’s little supply trips. One of them’s coming today.”
”Who?” asked Alden impatiently.
Julian smirked his toothy grin. “Lookin’ for your girlfriend, huh?” He shrugged. “No idea, they don’t give me advance warnin’ or nothin’. Unless Joe’s on the trip, I don’t even know when they’re comin’.” As if on cue, his phone buzzed, and Joe’s face popped up. “Speak of the goddamn devil. On their way now.”
Alden nodded. “I’m trying to find Rika.”
”Well, last I saw, she came in with the group yesterday. Didn’t do much, stood around while everyone else did the work.” Julian shook his head. “Girl’s got problems. Don’t she know we’re in a fuckin’ war?”
”No kidding…” Alden murmured.
”Shit, sounds like you’ve got a story to tell.”
He shook his head. “I can’t.”
”Fuckin’ secrets, man,” said Julian, gulping down his beer. “Y’all need some damn perspective.”
It’s not a secret. If I start thinking about it, I feel like I might completely break down. I can’t do that right now. “How long til they get here?”
”I mean, you went out to Cinza’s place. It ain’t far from here.”
He winced. “I don’t really remember it that well.”
Julian shrugged. “Thirty minutes, probably. Depends how many tourists they gotta dodge.” He glanced out the window again, and Alden realized the curtains were completely transparent from the inside. “Makin’ good money out here lately. Could use the help, if you’re interested.”
Alden shook his head.
Julian took another draw from his beer. “Suit yourself.”
”Who went to London?” he asked. If he had to wait, he might as well get caught up.
”Well, Hailey obviously,” said Julian, as a bag of chips flew over to join the beer. “Then that spy chick plus her cargo. Cinza, ‘koto and the FBI guy took off after ’em, draggin’ along Original Flavor Laushire.”
”Agent Ashe was here too?”
”Shit, where you been, kid?”
”…Around,” said Alden, a bit embarrassed. Even Julian Black was better informed than he was. Going off-grid was a terrible decision.
It’s not like I could have known how insane the world was going to get…
”I actually met the guy,” Julian added, leaning back again and popping out the footrest on his chair. “Pretty chill, for a fed. Played a round of cards with him.”
”Did you win?” asked Alden, vaguely remembering someone telling him that Julian was terrible at cards, a long time ago.
”Fucker cheated,” he grinned. “Bet me a ride home and won easy.”
”Nah, he ain’t one of us.” Julian munched through a few chips loudly, crumbs spilling everywhere. He wiped his face on the back of his hand, then his hand on his pant leg. “Just quick on the draw, I guess.” He stood up, downing the rest of his beer. “I gotta get back out there. You good?”
”Yeah.” Alden nodded. “Thanks.”
Julian shrugged. “You’re one of us, kid. Always here for vets of Rallsburg.” He got up, and his appearance shifted into a completely different person—without the crooked smile or greasy hair, just an average looking guy with a thick black overcoat. “Should be easy to see through the windows. Just lock the door on your way out,” he added, nodding at the deadbolt. “It’s got spells that’re tied to the lock bein’ turned, so once it’s locked, don’t try to open it again without me. Got it?”
”Cheers.” Julian tossed the bottle into a box nearby, marked with a recycling symbol. Alden raised an eyebrow. “Shit, I can’t care about the planet too?”
Alden laughed, a welcome bit of mirth to cut through his exhaustion and dread.
Julian grinned. “Bout time you stopped looking so damn depressed.” He opened the door and stepped out. “See you ’round, Zack.”
Alden spluttered awake. He’d fallen asleep in the chair next to the fire, so exhausted from the day that he’d simply drifted off. He checked his phone, and to his relief, only an hour had gone by. They wouldn’t have gone back yet, most likely. He hurried outside, careful to lock the door behind him as Julian had asked.
Outside, the place was even more bustling than before. As night descended, lights were flickering on—some magic, some not. Many seemed to be gravitating this way as the forest became more foreboding. Alden noticed a gathering of tents and RVs behind the parking lot he hadn’t seen when he came in. People were setting up camp for the night, anyone who wanted to band together rather than claim a spot out in the woods.
The market area still thrived, and Alden hurried around, looking for familiar faces. It took him a few minutes, but eventually, he spotted someone—a face right out of his memory, once seated next to Rachel at the head of the Council. He was now perched at a food cart, digging into a hot plate of Chinese food with a contented sigh.
”Hey, Josh,” Alden murmured, taking a seat next to him.
”Holy shit.” Josh Miller nearly dropped his food jumping in shock. “Where the hell did you come from?”
”Long story,” said Alden impatiently. “I have a lot to tell you guys, but I’m looking for Rika first.”
”Well, she’s here.” Josh glanced around. “Probably went looking for a drink. We don’t have any alcohol back at camp. Or Chinese,” he added, nodding at his chopsticks.
”Got it.” Alden got up, but Josh grabbed him by the sleeve.
”Wait, dude. At least eat something first.”
”Later,” said Alden, starting away.
”Shit!” said Josh. He wolfed down the rest of his food as fast as he could, tossing the trash into a bin nearby. “All right, all right, I’m coming.”
”I can find her.”
Josh rolled his eyes. “She’s probably getting into a shitload of trouble. She was yesterday.”
”So why bring her again?”
”‘Cause nobody else wants to come out here. Me and Rika are the only two people who actually want to get out of the damn woods, and Joe comes along ’cause… I dunno. Probably still mad about Nikki breaking up with him.” He shrugged. “We sorta stopped caring about the risk of us being recognized. If anything, we’d probably get treated like damn celebrities just like Hailey.”
Alden gulped. “How’s she—”
”No idea,” said Josh darkly. “Last I heard, they arrested her, and Cinza’s working on getting her back out again. That’s all I’ve got.”
”She met with the President today, didn’t she?”
”Yesterday too.” Josh glanced around, making sure they weren’t being overhead. Evidently, they weren’t quite as casual about their identities as he said. “No idea how well it’s going, but it’s still going, so that’s something. I wish I were out there with her.”
”I thought you hated this stuff,” said Alden.
Josh rolled his eyes. “I really do, but somebody’s gotta balance us out. It’s been my job since the Council, with Rachel. Now we’re playing on a way bigger stage, and Cinza’s way crazier than Rachel ever was. We can’t screw this up.” A loud argument broke out ahead, and Josh sighed. “Goddammit…”
Josh hurried forward, Alden on his heels. They both recognized the voice, even a little slurred. Alden felt a huge rush of anticipation, coupled with the fear and dread still lurking through his entire body.
”…And if you don’t fucking back off, I’ll shove a goddamn lightning bolt so far up your—the fuck?”
A small stone knocked into her back. Rika turned around, indignant. Electricity was already dancing along her fingers. She looked surprised. “What do you want?”
”Time to go,” said Josh firmly.
”I still got ten fucking minutes. Don’t take this from me.”
”We’ve got shit to do. Let’s get out of here,” he added, strangely urgent. I don’t remember him being so pushy… Maybe something else is going on?
”Rika,” said Alden firmly. “Time to go.”
”Eh? Is that… shit, Alzack, is that you?” Rika stumbled forward a little, drink spilling everywhere. “Alzack. All-zack. Hahss. Ever notished your name sounds like ballsack?”
”That’s not even my name,” said Alden, annoyed.
Josh grabbed her by the arm, wincing at the electrical current under her skin. He dragged her out of the enclosed tent, far from the alcohol. Alden hurried behind them, while Rika streamed curses at whomever she’d pissed off that time.
”Let go of me,” said Rika impatiently, as soon as they were out of earshot.
”Like hell,” said Josh.
”I’m not actually drunk, you idiot.”
Alden suddenly realized her words weren’t slurred at all anymore, and she was perfectly steady. “Josh, she’s telling the truth.”
”I’m not so fucking stupid as to get drunk when we’re out here,” said Rika. “I was playing them.”
”Why were… fuck it, I don’t care.” Josh shook his head. “We should head back.”
”Rika…” said Alden slowly.
”Sup?” she said, casually glancing over at him.
”I was—” He cut short. He’d been thinking about this meeting for so long, and it wasn’t going at all how he expected. Not even the worst-case possibilities were anything like this. She seemed like she barely remembered him.
Josh rolled his eyes. “I’m going to go find Joe. Stay here, all right? Don’t go anywhere.”
”Yeah, yeah,” Rika snapped after him as Josh headed back toward the market. “What’s up, Alzack? Didn’t expect you in town.”
”I’ve been looking for you,” he muttered.
”…Shit,” said Rika. The hostility fled from her face. Her body relaxed. “What the fuck happened to you, Alden?” she asked softly.
With just that single note of sympathy, Alden collapsed. He fell against the nearest tree and to the ground, wrapping his legs up in his arms. Rika stared at him, utterly confused. After a few moments of silence, she sat down in front of him, cross-legged.
She held out her hand and grasped one of his. The electricity shot through him, weak but invigorating. “Let it out, man.”
In a vague blur, Alden spilled everything—his night terrors starting the day he got home, the constant nightmares about Rallsburg and golems and Jackson, going out with Hailey and nearly getting killed, chasing after her for a month on his own with more than a few close calls, nearly getting killed again in Seattle, and finally the events of the day, running into Brian yet again. He held nothing back, not even his role in killing Jackson, his suspicions about his life, Meg’s role in everything.
”…and I feel like it’s coming back because I was there,” he finished. “I helped kill him. Me and Rachel did it.”
”…Yeah, I figured,” said Rika finally. She was sitting next to him now against the tree, holding out a water bottle. He sipped at it gratefully. “Well shit. You’ve had about as crazy a fuckin’ time as I have.”
”All I want is to know why,” Alden finally said, wiping water from his mouth with a napkin that had ended up in his pocket at some point. “Why was it me? My memories, my sibling, my life. I don’t know who I was supposed to be anymore, but somehow I’m still important. Even Grey-eyes is following me around and protecting me. It’s fate, just like you said, and I’m stuck in it, and I really, really hate it.”
”You and me both,” said Rika. She sighed and leaned against him, staring up into the dark orange sky. “Every goddamn step I take toward my dad throws me further into this shit. You know I was the second car in the Lakewood chase?”
”You?” Alden asked, surprised.
”Viper came back, grabbed Ryan just like he tried to do to you. I went after them.” She glanced off into the forest. “Ryan’s completely fucked up now. No idea what they did to him, but he’s terrified. Hasn’t left the Greywood since the funeral.”
”Oh…” Alden winced.
Rika nodded. “It’s okay, man. You wouldn’t have wanted to be there anyway, trust me.”
”I would have wanted to be there for her.”
She sighed. “Yeah… okay, nevermind. I wish you’d been there too.” Rika smiled slightly. “Met your sister though. How come you aren’t cool as fuck like her, eh?”
Alden laughed weakly. “Maybe I was.”
”Shit…” Rika put an arm around him. “Sorry.”
”I don’t know why I’m not mad at you,” said Alden before thinking.
He winced. “Nothing.”
”Mad at me for ditching you, right?” she asked, not letting go. Alden nodded. “Well, fuck, I’d be mad at me. You obviously made the right call. We won, didn’t we?”
”Well, I’m trying to make up for that now,” said Rika. “I could’ve left any time, gone back to looking for my dad, but I’m still here. Still working for the good guys, or whoever the fuck we are.” She sighed. “I still got a lot of shit to make up for. I said that back in Rallsburg, I know, and then I ditched again, so you probably don’t believe me.”
Alden shook his head. “I do.”
Rika smiled. “Well, maybe you do. Nobody else fucking does though. I’m doing my best. My best is pretty shitty, I guess, but I really hope it’s something. Cinza needs all the help she can get right now.”
”You sure she’s doing the right thing?” asked Alden nervously.
”Not a clue. Honestly, I’m just hoping Rachel comes out from wherever the fuck she’s been hiding.” Rika leaned against him, and more electricity began to dance through his skin. “Nice to have you back though, Alzack… err, sorry, Alden. Zack. Whoever the fuck you are.”
”Whoever the fuck I am,” Alden echoed.
”…Shit, was that the first time you’ve cussed?”
He rolled his eyes. “No.”
Rika grinned. “Well, guess it doesn’t count since you were just quoting me. Don’t worry, you’re safe.”
Alden smiled, and finally, he felt some kind of peace. There was still so much dread and fear underneath the surface, but for once, he thought he could actually fall asleep without anything going wrong. Maybe, just maybe, he could get better again.
”…the fuck is that?” asked Rika, looking up. Something was moving toward them through the underbrush. “That’s not Joe…” she started slowly. Alden felt her body tense up next to his.
Oh god. Not again.
Floodlights flared from multiple directions. Rika sprang to her feet, electricity flashing wildly through her balled fists. Men in uniforms had surrounded them, pistols raised. Alden squinted into the light, trying to make out a logo or anything. It’s not Brian… what’s going on?
”The fuck wants to know?” she shouted, head flicking from uniform to uniform, but not attacking yet.
”Federal marshals! You are under arrest in connection with multiple homicides. Surrender now and relinquish your spell!”
She didn’t… did she? I don’t… no way.
”What the fuck?” Rika glared around the circle. “I’ve never killed anyone. Now I’m a fucking serial killer?”
”Come with us quietly, and you won’t be harmed.”
”Like hell I won’t,” Rika growled. “I’ve got important things to do here. They fucking need me. I don’t have time for this shit.”
”She’s not a killer,” Alden added, stepping up next to her. “No way.”
”You haven’t even told us who died yet, asshole!” Rika snapped.
”D’angelo Cooper, Wallace Murphy, Mitchell Sobotka, Logan Chau, Daniel Bell, and Sherrod Perry,” the marshal listed off. “Now, are you going to surrender quietly?”
”Who the fuck are those people?”
Alden knew. The six names from the warehouse killings. They were definitely here to pin this on Rika. He didn’t believe she’d done it, but they weren’t getting out of here one way or another. “Rika,” he muttered. “They think you did it. We’re not getting out of here.”
”God-fucking-dammit,” Rika groaned. The electricity dissipated, and she held up her hands in surrender. “Fuck it. Take me, assholes.”
The marshals moved in. Alden stepped up next to her. “Take me too. I’m involved.”
They paused. Rika opened her mouth, but Alden jabbed her in the back with a pinecone and a quick burst of magic. She fell silent.
”Didn’t hear nothin’ about him,” said one of the marshals.
The apparent leader shrugged. “We’ve got room, and the kid’s volunteering. Just take him.”
”You got it.”
”Can I get a phone call?” asked Alden quickly.
”Not til we’re in the air.”
”Where are we going?” asked Rika again, as the cuffs slammed onto her wrists.
”We’re in Washington, asshole.”
”D.C.,” amended another marshal.
They didn’t get anything else in. The marshals cuffed Alden and herded them back into their jeeps, driving back out to the nearest airfield. A jet was waiting to take them all the way to D.C., where everything seemed to be happening. When Alden finally got his phone back, he dialed up the only person he really had to call.
”Hey, Alden,” said Meg. “What’s going—”
”Meg, I just got arrested by federal marshals with Rika. We’re going to D.C. They’re charging her with all those warehouse murders I mentioned.”
”…What the fu—“
”Don’t swear,” said Alden automatically. “I need you to get in touch with someone.”
”Hailey’s mom. Tell her everything. We’re going to need a lawyer.”