Chapter 4 — The Council of the Awakened
Alden had a million questions.
"You've got a million questions," Rika echoed his thoughts nonchalantly. "Thanks, Dan," she added, as Dan finally slid a basket of fries onto their table. "Sorry about these. I'll pay you back somehow," she said, pointing at the couple of blackened spots on the wall.
"You do that," Dan muttered. He obviously didn't expect much.
"What do you mean, magic is real?" Alden cut in.
Rika started wolfing down fries. "Look," she answered between mouthfuls. Not much in the way of table manners. "I can spend all day explaining, or you can follow me to the meeting." Alden winced as she stuffed another handful of fries into her mouth. She noticed and stopped gorging herself so much. "Sorry."
"It's okay." Alden looked away before he felt sick. The restaurant proprietor was staring at the charred circles on the wall of his establishment with glazed eyes. Alden felt too nervous to ask Rika anything else. That show of power would scare anyone, he reasoned. Doesn't mean you're a coward. She's still the best bet you've found in town so far.
Rika finished off the last few fries with a satisfied gulp. "All right, let's go."
It wasn't a very long walk from Dan's restaurant to the college campus, but Alden felt like every step of the way was a step further into the dark underbelly of an otherwise unassuming village. It was intimidating, but Alden felt a thrill with every step. He was compelled forward inch by inch to follow Rika. They passed a bookstore and an overnight diner, a grocery store and a tiny gas station. It could have been the center of any small town in the Northwest. In fact, the only thing that seemed out of place was his companion walking briskly at his side.
He kept a strict distance between them as they walked. If Alden stepped any closer, he could feel the electricity in the air—that faint hum and crackle that wasn't truly audible, but danced along the hairs on his skin and sent his mind spinning. He kept shooting Rika sidelong glances whenever he thought she wasn't looking, hoping (and maybe fearing) he'd see those arcs of lightning crackling along the streak in her hair once more. He still couldn't decide whether he was afraid of her or mesmerized by her.
"'Sup?" Rika asked finally, with an air of frustration. Alden had just tried (unsuccessfully) to sneak another glimpse of his new companion.
"Nothing," he replied, quickly looking the other way. To his surprise, he was greeted with a husk of a building at the end of the street they were crossing, caved in rafters and piles of ash. He stopped walking, fascinated.
The place was mostly destroyed, but he could make out the broken remains of a gargoyle statue at one corner, cracked in pieces and shoved into the dirt as if it had fallen from a great height. From the way the walls began to arch upward, he guessed it had originally sat atop the third or maybe even a fourth floor, though there was only bits and pieces of the second floor remaining, mostly charred wood and timber. Stone gateways lined the bottom floor, with spiked fences leading away giving the entire place a very gothic feel. It was completely at odds with the architecture of the rest of the town, even with most of it burned away. As if to accentuate the bleak atmosphere of the place, it began to rain while he stared, drops tapping on his head one by one.
"Yeah, I've been wondering about that place too," Rika spoke up from behind him. Alden jumped. He hadn't realized she'd stopped walking along with him. "It apparently burned down not too long ago. Was supposed to be demolished anyway," she added, nodding toward a torn wooden board nailed over one shattered window, with the word CONDEMNED scrawled across in orange paint, though half of the word had been chopped away. "Can't sightsee any more though, we've gotta hurry up if we want to make the meeting," she added, turning away. He hesitated, still staring at the caved in sides and piles of rubble.
There was no way a fire could cause that much damage on its own, Alden decided. Some of that damage had to be deliberate and targeted. It looked like the structure had been besieged, explosive impacts knocking through the stone walls and collapse them in strategic locations. Who would be assaulting a library in this day and age?
Alden's excitement grew along with his curiosity. He'd stumbled onto a real adventure, one beyond the mystery teased by the envelope still sequestered in his jacket.
Rika got impatient and grabbed his hand. A tiny shock of electricity spiked through his arm, and Alden instinctively tried to recoil, but she just rolled her eyes and began pulling him down the street. After one last craned look at the desiccated structure, he followed her through the gates to the campus a block away.
"This is it?" Alden asked.
"What were you expecting?" Rika asked, amused.
He felt very underwhelmed. It was a pretty normal meeting room at the university, with a table set on the side with a bowl of punch and a single sad-looking plate of cookies. He took one gingerly and nibbled on it, but thankfully it tasted much better than it looked. He turned away from the snack table to the rest of the room, where a few people were still setting out cheap plastic and metal chairs in rows facing the front. A lectern sat off to the side, with a very tired looking middle-aged man seated behind it playing a game on his phone. In the center below the blackboard, a table with three chairs, clearly intended for the leadership of this thing, whatever it was. In fact, the only thing that stood out as unusual in the room at all were the gently flickering candles, spread out evenly through the room in spite of the fluorescents humming away in the ceiling.
"What do we do?" he asked. Rika was standing idly at the rear of the room near one door, carefully watching people file in through the other.
"Well, I'm here to find someone. I don't know about you though. Why are you here?" she asked pointedly.
"I'm here to…" he hesitated. Rika munched on a cookie, glancing at him with only a passing interest. "Find someone too, I guess."
"I don't know," he answered honestly.
"Good luck with that."
A few more people filed in as they spoke. Most ended up taking spots around the edges of the chairs. The people setting up had set out some sixty-four chairs, in eight rows of eight, but only six or so were actually filled. The three chairs at the front were still empty, and most of the newcomers hadn't sat down at all, but remained at the edges of the room as Rika and Alden did. The majority of the room must have been in their twenties, though a few were clearly younger or much older. More than a few furtive looks came their way, although Alden couldn't be sure if they were looking at him or the exit he stood by. He decided to ignore the people on the fringes and focus on those who actually sat down.
The man behind the lectern was dressed in a dark blue suit and tie, which stood out compared to the hooded sweatshirts and plain jackets most in attendance wore. He had a very clean and professional look to him, with short well-trimmed hair and a clean-shaven face. He'd since put his phone away, though his nervous expression remained. Every few seconds he'd glance at his watch, clearly wanting desperately to just get on with it.
Of the people in the chairs, Alden could only clearly make out a few of them from behind, since most were either unremarkable from his angle, or wore hoods up over their heads. Concealment and secrecy seemed paramount amongst this group.
In the front row, a very impatient young girl fidgeted, her head snapping around the room constantly as she rocked back and forth in her chair. From her height and the pigtails, Alden would have guessed her to be middle school aged, if not younger. She wore a set of denim overalls, and had brought a thick pink jacket emblazoned with a cartoon unicorn she'd draped over her chair, rainwater sluicing onto the floor from the downpour outside. As he watched, the girl chewed anxiously on one fingernail, but her expression was anything but worried or nervous. If anything, she seemed angry and impatient. Dangerous, even. Alden decided to look away.
The second person he spotted was a gaunt looking man seated in the fourth row, with a thick black cast on his left arm, held in a sling in front of him. He was dressed in a heavyset military-style jacket and combat boots, with long stringy black hair masking the edges of harsh-looking tattoos on his neck just above the cuff of his jacket. The man's demeanour shouted military, even more so than one might typically expect. He was grizzled and rough as sandpaper, and as Alden watched he took a healthy swig from a hip flask, wiping his mouth with his sleeve.
The next notable was a collective half dozen people sitting in one corner, where they had dragged chairs away from the main group. Instead of the usual plain hooded jackets and sweaters, this group wore a set of matching light gray cloaks—in varying degrees of quality—draped around their shoulders and held by silver clasps in the front in the shape of an eight-pointed star. As Alden glanced by, the leader of the group looked him back directly in the eyes with a twinkle in her own. She had silver-grey hair, barely past her ears, and her elfin face flashed him a mischievous one-sided smile before he quickly turned away to focus on another, less aware individual.
The final person to stand out was a stunningly beautiful woman with long flowing red hair seated in the back row. She wore a necklace with an ID badge that looked like it belonged to the university. A pair of sunglasses hung from the neckline of her shirt, accentuating a… particular region of her body. Her expression made it clear she felt she had better things to do than attend this meeting.
At her waist, Alden spotted a bag very similar in design and style to the one Rika wore, down to the same gold buckle. He glanced around at the rest of the attendees and saw that many of them too wore some sort of pouch or container at their waist where they could easily access it. A few had brought backpacks or cinch sacks instead, and the little girl in the front row had a shiny yellow purse shaped like a banana, in addition to a bright pink backpack matching her jacket.
Alden went back to watching the redheaded woman just as she made some sort of hand gesture to the man seated behind the lectern. He stood up and walked out the door behind him, which closed with a sharp click. It briefly halted the murmur of conversation, before it bubbled up again.
"Her," Alden muttered, nodding at the redhead.
"Hmm?" Rika asked. She'd been staring out the frosted glass window at the raindrops pattering against the building.
"She's someone important. Probably worth talking to."
"Who?" Rika looked around the room.
"Mmmm, the smoking hot redhead?"
"Yeah— wait, what?
"What? Don't tell me you didn't notice she's sexy as fuck. I'd hit that."
"But, back at the restaurant… Ryan."
"Eh, I don't discriminate." Alden's face lit up like an oven. Rika laughed. "You okay there?"
Alden cleared his throat and glanced away, his cheeks still burning red. "Sorry, I'm not used to talking about this stuff," he stammered.
"Aww," Rika cooed. Alden continued to look determinedly at the crowd and away from his teasing companion. "Well anyway, I think you're right. That's Kendra, teaches Economics here at the college. I don't even normally go for older girls, but fu-u-uck, I wouldn't mind talking to her. Bet you wouldn't either." Alden felt the warmth in his cheeks double up. Rika snickered. "Here's a bonus for you: that body is all natural."
"Well, unlike certain Ryans of the world, Kendra's not using any magic to spruce up her looks. If she was, my allergies would be kicking up."
"Your… allergies?" Alden asked with interest.
"Yeah, I'm allergic to that shit. It's—" Rika cut off. Alden looked back at the front of the room, which had become utterly silent.
Three people filed back in through the door the lectern man had recently vacated. Two college-aged, a bored-looking guy and an unusually tall girl, and one kind-looking old woman—like a stereotypical friendly grandma. They took the three seats at the front of the room, while the man in the suit entered and set a few sheets of paper on the lectern. He cleared his throat and put on a pair of reading glasses, then began to read in a strong resonant voice, but with a bit of a stammer that undermined his attempted gravitas.
"This meeting of the Awakened is now opened, et cetera et cetera. Look, are we all good if I skip over the boring parts?" he asked, glancing at the head table. They nodded, though the old woman did so a bit reluctantly, her eyebrows creased in irritation. "All right, there's a few new faces here tonight, so I'll just give a quick reminder to everyone that as of now—"
The man made a gesture with his fingers and murmured something under his breath, then tossed a pile of tiny objects into the air that vanished before Alden could spot what they were. He didn't feel anything, but the rest of the room seemed to almost imperceptibly flinch in a wave spreading outward from him, like ripples in a pond. Rika in particular recoiled from the action. The lights in the room stuttered to black, leaving only the flickering glow of the candles. With the drawn window shades and blocked door windows, the room became reminiscent of a outdoor campfire meeting, lit entirely by dancing firelight. This, of course, only worsened Alden's discomfort.
"—all electronics in the room no longer work. You are not allowed to write down or record anything that happens here. I'll restore your phones as you leave, or you can just wait about eighty minutes and they'll fix themselves." He coughed and cleared his throat again. "I'm still new to this, so bear with me." He glanced down at the sheet. "... The Three Gods will now—"
The man was interrupted by a snap from one of the Council members. He glanced up confused, and the girl in the center shook her head. Alden assumed that made her the leader. He tried to take more note of her, but beyond her shoulder length stringy brown hair and large dark eyes, Alden couldn't discern anything particularly notable about her from a distance. "Uhh, right. Sorry. The Council will now propose any new amendments to be voted on during this meeting. Does the Council have anything to propose?"
"We don't," answered the guy on the left. Did that put him in charge? Alden wondered. The suited man seemed to be taking more direction from the girl in the center, yet the old woman seemed to have seniority or at least was the most predisposed to follow the rules, based on her disapproval from earlier.
"Okay, then I think we open the floor for anyone who has a topic of discussion?" The man looked out over the room. The little girl in the front popped to her feet like a cork shot out of a bottle.
"Has anyone seen—" she started, but the male Councilor cut her off.
"Still nothing new there, Natalie. I'm sorry."
"But he's still missing!" she cried petulantly.
"And as soon as we find out anything, we'll let you know. I promise you that our reader's doing their best."
"You said the same thing last time," she said, frowning.
"We know he's definitely still in town, dearie. I'm sure he's fine. Okay?" the old woman chimed in a comforting but somewhat condescending tone. "We'll find him, don't worry."
"Natalie, never fear," came a voice from the back corner, floating through the room like a faint melody. It was somehow both at the volume of a whisper and yet louder than anyone who had yet spoken.
Alden's eyes snapped around to the leader of the robed group, who had lowered her hood. On the right side of her neck, Alden could see the edges of a tattoo with the same eight-pointed star as the clasp on their robes, and from her ears hung silver earrings with the same design. Multiple necklaces hung low around her neck, with pendants and charms Alden couldn't quite make out, but he had a pretty reasonable guess they'd be themed with that same star. As she rose from her seat, Alden saw the cloak shimmer ever so slightly, quite distinctive from the rest of her group's more plain attire.
"Huh?" Natalie said, turning around.
"She will protect your father, as she has protected us all," the girl continued. Her voice faintly echoed in an unnatural way, and it had an accent. Eastern-European, maybe, but he wasn't exactly an expert on accents. Alden couldn't see her clearly from his position and the strange light dance emanating from her robe, but he had to guess she was about his age, or perhaps a year older. At her response, however, most of the room seemed immediately to dismiss her. Alden swore he even heard an audible groan. Rika snorted loudly, drawing a glare from the girl, but assorted chuckles from the remainder of the room.
"But will she bring my dad back home?"
"I'm sure that if it is part of her plan, it will be done," the girl answered confidently.
"You said that before," Natalie answered petulantly. Clearly she held little stock in the group. The council, too, seemed mostly irritated by the interruption, rather than intrigued. Natalie stormed out of the room after it was clear she wasn't getting what she wanted. Every head swivelled to watch her leave, murmurs following her out the door.
"What was that about?" he muttered to Rika. He had so many questions, and the room seemed to be at a bit of a lull.
She shrugged. "Cult of the Grey, bunch of weirdos. Leader calls herself Cinza, but I don't think that's her real name."
"It's Portuguese for 'grey'." Rika rolled her eyes.
"Seemed fine, last time I saw her. No idea what's up."
"What's a reader?"
"Someone who can find out things with magic. Tightly kept secret who can do it though. People guard that shit like gold. Only Josh, Rachel and Mabel up there probably know who any of the readers are."
Alden was about to ask more, but someone else had stood up. As he did, his hood fell away and Alden saw it was Ryan, now apparently devoid of cronies and standing alone in the row of chairs.
"Ryan?" the male Councilor (Josh, Alden concluded) asked.
"Here we go," Rika muttered to Alden.
"I'm here to request assistance in settling a debt," Ryan began with aplomb. The councilor suppressed a laugh. "What?"
"You sound ridiculous. Anyway, go on."
"Fuck you, Josh," Ryan shot back.
"Moving on, Ryan," the younger female Councilor (Rachel?) interjected sharply. "What's the debt and why should the council intercede?"
Ryan dropped the fancy tone. "Rika owes me for some gems and won't pay up." The eyes of the Council and Ryan both swung around to their corner of the room. Alden shrunk involuntarily with the sudden attention, back pressed firmly to the wall.
"I told you I would when I could, dick," Rika snapped, unphased. "Besides, it's your stupid friend's fault my topaz got burned away earlier. You should be paying me back for pain and suffering."
"No one got hurt," Ryan said dismissively.
"Because I'm a fuckin' badass, but he was aiming for my eyes. Almost hit my friend too. We're lucky he's got such a shitty windup."
Another snicker from the council table. Josh clearly wasn't taking any of this seriously. Alden glanced around the room, trying to take the temperature of everyone present. Rika and Ryan were glowering at each other, but maintaining their distance. The rest of the room looked either bored or impatient. This wasn't anything new. From the defensive posture the man at the lectern was assuming, Alden feared where this might lead.
No one else stood within ten feet of Rika. In fact, there was a clear circle of space around the two of them where no one had dared stand or sit. Alden was suddenly very aware of the apparent pariah status of his newfound companion. He felt the urge to intervene, and so far following his urges had turned out pretty well.
"Rika…" Alden whispered.
"What?" she hissed.
"We've got people to find here tonight. Maybe don't piss them off?"
To his surprise, she actually seemed to calm down a bit. She took her hand off her bag, which she'd already unclasped without him noticing. At the gesture, the rest of the room seemed to relax as well, except for Ryan still glowering in the center of the rows of chairs. "Sorry," she said to the group at large. "Ryan, I swear I'll get your payment to you, one way or another."
"There, she'll get it to you. Are we good now?" Rachel asked calmly.
"Fuck no. I want something more solid. This was a Market deal, it should have Market consequences. Professor Lau—" Ryan stopped in his tracks. Half the room seemed to take a collective breath.
Ryan glanced at her for only a moment, but it was enough. The well-dressed woman with the fiery curls got to her feet. She was even taller than he'd expected. At least six foot easy, if he had to guess. Only Ryan and the female councilor at the front of the room managed to top her. Her red hair fell in waves down past her shoulders, accenting her neck and shoulders in an attractive blaze of fire. Alden fought to keep his eyes on her face, but out of the corner of his eye he could see Rika had no such compunction.
"It's fine. Most present here know who I am by now," she spoke with a strong London accent. "Ryan is correct, however distasteful that statement may be. Rika and Ryan entered into a transaction in the Market, and Ryan held up his arrangement. Rika must complete the transaction or be temporarily banished from the Marketplace."
"Holy shit, Kendra Laushire's running the Market?" Rika asked. The last name sounded familiar to Alden. He felt like he should know it. Someone—or something—famous.
"Was that not common knowledge?" Cinza taunted from the corner, still in her unique wispy voice. A spiteful one, apparently.
"Yes, the Market is a venture of mine," Kendra replied, ignoring Cinza. "I would appreciate discretion," Kendra added pointedly, glancing around the room, "but it was bound to come to the light of day eventually. Now, Rika."
"Yeah?" Rika replied warily. Alden was taken aback at how easily Rika seemed to cave in for Kendra, but he quickly dismissed the feeling. He didn't know Rika, or any of these people. He'd only just entered this world a few hours ago. There was still way too much to learn for him to start making judgment calls on people's relationships. He had to try and catch up as quickly as he could, if he was to make any headway with his own goals.
"Come discuss a payment arrangement with me in the Market after this meeting. Ryan, is this acceptable?" Kendra was clearly issuing a command, but her voice spoke with such a calm cadence that she never came off harsh or belittling. It almost sounded like a friendly computer from an old sci-fi show before speech synthesizers, strong British accent and everything. In fact, she did sound artificial to Alden, though he couldn't put his finger on how exactly. There was clearly something off about her. He resolved to bring it up with Rika later, when there weren't two dozen pairs of eyes on them.
"Yeah, fine, Professor," Ryan muttered. The power dynamic was obvious even to a newcomer like Alden. Kendra had command of the room, possibly even above the councilors at the front. The only person who didn't seem to visibly relax when Kendra took her seat was the man at the lectern, but Alden couldn't tell if he was even paying attention. After a few moments of silence, it became clear to everyone he was not.
"Hector?" the girl on the council asked patiently.
"Oh, sorry." Hector scrambled to his feet again behind the lectern. "Is there anything else that needs to be brought before the assembly?"
A few moments of silence passed again. Alden wasn't sure if everyone was reluctant to speak or just bored. He saw a few furtive looks shot at Rika from various members of the crowd, which didn't seem to faze his companion one bit. Was this all there was to the meeting? He felt even more underwhelmed than when he'd first arrived.
"Is this it?" he murmured to Rika.
"Nah, give it a minute," she whispered. "Gotta get some boring stuff out of the way first."
Alden leaned back against the wall, trying his best to be patient. Rika was rummaging through her bag, thoroughly unconcerned with the rest of the room. As Alden watched, her hand dipped further into the bag, and further again. Way too far. He leaned forward eagerly, craning his neck to see, and—sure enough—her hand wasn't coming out the bottom side.
"Wow," he breathed aloud. Rika looked at him curiously. He shook his head. She shrugged and resumed digging through her bag. A minute later, she came up with a tube of chapstick.
"Okay, I think that's enough time," Hector called out. Focus returned to the front instantly, anticipation building. "Before we continue, I just want to be clear. No one's seen Alpha or Omega anywhere, right? They're still out of town?" He glanced at the female councilor, who nodded. A murmur of agreement swept around the room.
"Who?" Alden whispered to Rika.
"Right, good. Okay then. Councilor DuValle?" Hector continued, glancing awkwardly at the head table.
"Thank you, Hector," the girl replied kindly. She glanced at her two companions before standing. "I know you're all impatient to hear the news we called this meeting for, but before we continue I must reiterate the need for secrecy here. Our little society depends on it. Those of you who've been around for the last year don't need reminders, I'm sure, but I see a few newcomers here tonight. You've probably got a lot of questions, and if you stick around after the meeting I'll be happy to answer them as best I can." She took a breath, mostly for dramatic effect. "If you tell anyone, we will find out. We will find you."
DuValle smiled. "Sorry, that was unpleasant. Let me make it up to you." She produced a small piece of paper from her bag—yet another leather bag similar to Rika and Kendra's. It was a scrap of old, burned parchment. It couldn't have been more than six inches on each side, and the edges were frayed and scorched beyond repair. Fairly unremarkable under any other circumstances, but at its reveal, everyone in the room seemed to lean forward eagerly. Even Hector seemed far more interested in the proceedings. "We've recovered another Scrap."
Something in the way she said it made Alden imagine it capitalized. It was important, he knew that for sure. He was going to ask Rika what it meant, but she looked so intensely focused, he decided to wait and see what came next.
"I'd like to thank Hector for donating this to us," the councilor continued. "Responsible cataloguing and protection of every Scrap we find is vital to—"
"What's on it?" the gaunt man in the fourth row interrupted, rising to his feet. DuValle faltered in her speech. His voice was harsh and gravelly, like a cascade of rocks rolling down a mountainside, and once standing he cut a very imposing figure in his heavy military jacket, even with his arm in a sling and cast.
"As I was saying, donating Scraps to the council will help us preserve them and spread—"
"Get on with it."
"Look, Rachel, we've all heard the speech before," Ryan cut in, standing up again. "What's on the damn paper?"
"We think it's related to creation, though we haven't been able to go over it thoroughly yet for obvious reasons," DuValle (or Rachel, Alden supposed. He was just glad he'd finally deduced all their names for sure) replied. At the word 'creation', Alden noticed several people in particular stiffen, including Kendra the red-headed owner of the Market and the gaunt man in the fourth row. Rika slumped back against the wall slightly, though she was still hanging onto every word.
"Has anyone partaken of it yet?" Kendra asked from the back, still seated.
"Done what now?" the gaunt man asked.
"Is the Scrap pure and untouched? " Cinza asked in her floaty, ethereal voice.
"No, no one has read it yet," Rachel confirmed from the council table.
"Well, this is unprecedented. All other Scraps that have crossed this council had been utilized prior to introduction. How shall we proceed?" Kendra continued, with a veneer of calm. Underneath the surface and the pleasant accent, Alden felt he sensed caution and maybe even a little fear, though he couldn't be sure.
"The same as we always do; we can take it in turns to read the Scrap and learn what it contains—"
"Bullshit!" Ryan growled. "No way." A murmur of agreement started to build before another voice cut through.
"Sorry, Rach, but I'm actually with the dick on this one," Rika chimed in. "First person to read it has a huge advantage." Rachel looked at her with dismay. Alden sensed history there. Old friends, maybe? Or perhaps more than that, given what he knew about Rika so far? No, Alden decided. Rachel reacted like an estranged friend, not a past jilted lover.
"We've never proven that," Josh spoke from his seat next to Rachel, with the comfortable air of someone used to disagreeing with her. Another relationship there, Alden realized. Who in this room hadn't been involved with Rika?
"We've never disproven it either," Rika shot back.
Josh waved his hand dismissively. "Whatever, so maybe it's true. How do we choose then?"
"Fuck if I know," Rika replied, leaning back against the wall again.
Tension was building in the room like a thick fog. Alden could see a small trio of men on the opposite wall muttering to each other, their eyes transfixed by the paper lying on the table in front of Rachel. Cinza's group, too, was convening behind their leader, muttering in low voices. Alden saw one of them gesture eagerly, but Cinza gave a sharp cutting motion with her hand and they fell back to murmuring.
"How do we know you haven't already read it?" Ryan spoke up. He didn't sound accusatory, but all the same, the room refocused on Rachel with a newly sharpened edge.
"Hector?" Rachel prompted.
Hector spluttered back to life, having sunk deep in his chair during the mounting argument. "Uhh, well. No one read it. I brought it straight here, and only handed it to Rachel as we walked in the room. If she'd read it, you'd have seen her." He looked around at the assembly anxiously.
"There, you heard him. Are we going to start doubting Hector now?" Rachel asked.
Ryan hesitated, but he was clearly the type who couldn't stand to lose an argument without making a few more points. "Okay, fair, but that still leaves the question of who's gonna read the thing."
"It should go to the most worthy, of course," Cinza spoke up, with all the arrogance her statement implied.
"Well, then, we're both out of the running aren't we?" Rika shot back.
"Keep your nose down in the dirt where it belongs, electricity girl," Cinza answered dismissively.
Rika snorted again. "Really?"
"Sounds like a bargain-bin knockoff superhero," Ryan added. "Hey, Rika, how many kittens can you save out of a tree?"
"Depends, are they yours?"
Kendra cleared her throat loudly. Her impatient expression silenced them all immediately. The power of a professor in action. Alden had felt compelled into silence himself, though he wasn't a student of hers like so many of the others in the room probably were.
Rachel took the opportunity to cut in. "The council has not yet determined a selection method, since this is unprecedented. We are open to suggestions—"
"Maybe Hector should just keep it," Alden muttered. The argument was beginning to wear on him, since he didn't understand a single thing they were talking about. It was only a moment later that he realized he'd spoken much louder than he'd intended, as far more heads than Rika's locked eyes with him. Evidently no one besides the usual suspects were really expected to speak up at these meetings, given the looks of surprise plastered on their faces.
"Who the f—" the gaunt man started, but Rachel quickly spoke over him in a friendly, authoritative tone.
"Hello there, I don't think we've been introduced. My name is Rachel DuValle, one of the members of the Council of the Awakened. Most people don't talk at their first meeting, but there's no rule against it. I see you came here with Rika; is she your sponsor?"
"I, uhh…" Alden started. "I don't know what that means."
"Did she awaken you?" Cinza asked.
"No, I guess?"
"Nope," Rika confirmed.
"That's okay," Rachel continued. "You're welcome to stay, and there's no need to give out your name if you don't want. Privacy is one of our core tenets here. However, I should inform you that if you haven't been awakened, you don't have a vote in any of our proceedings."
"Can we stop using that stupid word?" the gaunt man interjected. "Makes us sound like a bunch of candy-ass hippies."
Ryan rolled his eyes exaggeratedly. "Well, Mr. Viper, if you've got a better name for us, you're welcome to share with the class."
"I'm just sayin', you all sound like a cult."
"Welcome to the Candy-ass Collective, buddy," Ryan sneered.
"He has a point," the old woman spoke up from beside Rachel. "Hector found it, so Hector should have it," the old woman (Mabel, Alden reminded himself. It was getting difficult to track them all) said matter-of-factly.
"No fucking way," Ryan replied, fist clenched.
"I'm inclined to agree with Ryan," Kendra added calmly. "This is only the seventh Scrap ever discovered by the council, and certainly the first found that was yet unread. While the council may generally act as a socialist commune, let us not pretend there is not a significant advantage to be gained here. I propose the Scrap be granted provisionally to a member in attendance with the greatest proposal of interest, with the stipulation that they must allow the council to share it as usual after their initial study."
The gaunt man and Rika still stood opposed as well. Rachel looked at Rika with a significant expression. After a few moments, Alden saw her shoulders slump slightly, and Rachel gave her a brief smile before turning to face the remaining unspoken holdout, while Rika took her seat.
"Viper, I believe your name was?" Rachel began calmly.
"Stupid fuckin' code name, but sure, Viper. Why are you acting like you don't know who I am?" the man replied.
"Do you have anything to add?" Rachel continued, as if she hadn't heard him.
"Limey's got a point," Viper grunted, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at Kendra, seated in the back row. "Deserves to go to the highest bidder. Better than the bastards who've been stealing my shit."
"Hang on, when did this become an auction?" Rika interjected, leaping to her feet once again.
"Like it matters to you. You're rich as fuck, aren't you?" Ryan shot back.
"Not the point, asshole. This shouldn't be about money."
"Please," Rachel interrupted. "Viper still had the floor."
"Fuck the floor. Don't turn this into an auction, Rachel. It should go to someone we all agree on, who actually deserves it, not who's got the deepest pockets."
"Are you afraid you will lose?" Cinza taunted, her eyes glinting. Alden swore she must be doing something to make them change and sparkle so often and so expressively, even from across the room. Magic, he reminded himself. This entire conversation is about magic. Of course she's doing something.
"If I might interject," Kendra's voice pierced through the growing murmur like a spear through glass, much too clearly. Alden suspected something had modified her voice. Was it another type of magic? "I never specified an auction, though I'm not opposed to the idea. I do believe it should go to those most invested in its abilities. You said it was Creation-specific, correct? Can you provide further details?"
"Not without reading it, which would sort of skip the whole point here," Josh answered, still seated. He seemed thoroughly uninterested with the proceedings. Alden was surprised he'd spoken up at all.
"How can you be sure of its contents at all then?"
Rachel looked slightly nervous. "A ritual informed us of its probable contents."
The room seemed sharpen in attentiveness once more. The phrase was mostly meaningless to Alden, but the significance was plain to the rest of the room. He had the sense that Kendra had maneuvered Rachel into a trap, one that was about to be sprung fully.
"So, you're informing us the council can indeed determine Affinities to some degree."
"I— that is—" Rachel looked like a cornered rabbit—far different from the confident young woman Alden had observed at the beginning of the meeting. Meanwhile, the room seemed to shift dramatically, as some sprouted looks of suspicion and anger, while most simply looked confused.
"That's quite the ability that the Council has concealed from us," Cinza put in, her eyes narrowing. "This knowledge would be invaluable to everyone."
"We're way off topic," Rika interrupted. Alden's earlier suspicions were confirmed. Rika was jumping in to save her friend by changing the subject. "We need to figure out who's gonna get the damn thing first."
"Seconded," Ryan added, also clearly leaping to Rachel's rescue. Or maybe he was just bored, Alden reconsidered, seeing Ryan's impatient expression.
"Does anyone have a proposal for who gets the Scrap?" Josh asked, finally sitting up in his chair again. The atmosphere of the room was still icy and sharp, but attention was shifting away from Rachel onto the piece of parchment still laying atop the lectern, so Alden supposed it must have been a small victory for his allies.
His allies? Was he already casting his lot in with Rika? Alden wondered if he was tagging along with the wrong crowd, given how the room seemed actively hostile to Rika. She was the only one to offer, though. Compared to Ryan the college jock, Kendra the unapproachable merchant, Cinza the unhinged cult leader, or Viper the gruff mercenary, Alden felt like he was better off at the side of the one he'd spent the afternoon with.
"A silent vote? Majority gets it?" Ryan answered.
Rika snorted. "Oh good, the dumb jock voting block's got it in the bag."
"I could just kick your ass for it."
"Bring it, bitch." Rika's hand shot to her bag so fast, Alden thought it must have teleported.
"Both of you cut it out or I will have Hector throw you out," Rachel growled, apparently having regained her composure.
"You're all a bunch of petty kids. Just auction it off, money goes toward getting us a nicer place to meet than this shitty classroom," Viper said, taking his seat again with a thump and the scrape of metal against linoleum. His chair was apparently missing one of its rubber feet.
"I second the proposal," Kendra added quickly.
"God damn it, don't do a fucking auction, Rachel. You know better." Rika said, but Rachel was already raising her hand to silence the crowd.
"We're taking it to a vote then. The auction will take place in three days time, and will be conducted via private bids. The Scrap will stay with Hector until the results are in. Is that acceptable?" She looked at Kendra and Viper, who both nodded their assent. "Okay. Everyone, please vote in the usual way."
A moment's pause. Alden looked around, even more curious than before. Was something spectacular about to take place? Floating numbers in the air, or perhaps lights?
A stack of small pieces of chalk floated up from the tray underneath the chalkboard behind the Council desk. Each one floated in a slightly different manner; some quite steady, while another was flailing through the air as if buffeted by heavy winds. A chorus of scrapes, then the pieces fell back into the tray. Each had made a single tally mark on the board, on either the left half or the right, where Alden now noticed an "Aye" and a "Nay" present in the corners.
"The nays have it," Rachel said, after a moment's count. It had been close, but not close enough by Alden's guess. He wasn't sure what was required, but apparently it was more than a simple majority. Kendra sat back in her chair, unperturbed.
"A fucking auction. With Kendra fucking Laushire in the room," Rika muttered to Alden, as the murmurs amongst the various groups picked up once again.
It was like a lightswitch finally clicked in Alden's mind. "That Laushire? As in one of the richest companies in the world Laushire?"
Rika looked at him with surprise. "Didn't expect you to know the name of a multinational corporate conglomerate."
Alden shifted in his seat in embarrassment. "Read about them online."
"You don't get out much, do you?"
He didn't answer. Rika shrugged, turning back to the meeting while the chalkboards appeared to clean themselves.
"The floor is open once again," Rachel called from the head of the room.
"How about something that isn't rigged toward the two richest women in the room?" Ryan piped up from his seat, pointedly shooting a glare at Rika.
She laughed aloud at his ridiculous exaggerated gesture. "I was the one arguing against an auction, dipshit. Pay attention."
"Yeah, because it would make you look bad."
Josh stood up again at the front, silencing them both. "This is getting nowhere. I propose we table it for three days and reconvene."
Rika looked about to argue once more, but Cinza beat her to it. "Seconded. Vote and move on."
"Okay. Please, vote again in the usual way," Rachel called from the front. A quick flurry of votes was overwhelmingly in favor, with only two opposed. Alden guessed it must be Viper and Kendra.
"The 'ayes' have it. We'll discuss this again in three days when we next meet. Does anyone have an objection to Hector holding the Scrap as a neutral party until then?"
To Alden's shock, the room was dead silent. Who was this Hector, and how did he have such respect and trust from the entire council? There were too many mysteries for Alden to handle. He decided he had to focus back on the only one that mattered. He reached inside his jacket and felt for the envelope again, mostly to reassure himself it was there, like a life vest keeping him afloat in the dark, ever-deepening waters of Rallsburg. He'd wanted an adventure, but was this getting out of hand?
"Oh, uhh, right," Hector spluttered. after the silence was starting to become uncomfortable. He clambered to his feet and took the piece of paper from in front of Rachel. From his jacket he produced a small metal tube, which he slid the paper into and sealed tightly. He glanced about nervously before resuming his seat, but only a moment later he stood again, fidgeting in place. "Do you all mind if I head out now? I need to go watch the store."
"That's fine. Thanks, Hector," Rachel said kindly, gesturing to the door. He bowed slightly and retreated behind the lectern and out into the hallway.
Chatter sprang up throughout the room, low conversation between every group present. The three councilors were muttering amongst themselves up front. Rika glanced at Alden with a grin. "So, your first meeting."
"Is it always this dramatic?" he asked.
"This is only like my fifth, but none of the others had a Scrap involved. Usually it's just dumb arguments or a chance for people to meet other magic users, that sort of thing. This is a pretty special event. I'm guessing that's why there's like triple the people I usually saw."
"And that councilor—"
"Yeah, he's a dick, and I slept with him too. So what?"
"Err, no, I was going to ask about Rachel. She's your friend?"
"Oh," Rika looked taken aback. "Yeah, Rachel's from Vancouver, same as me." Rika gave him a funny look. "You're pretty good at reading a room. She's the one who awakened me, actually."
"What does that mean, exactly?" Alden asked hesitantly. Rika didn't miss his tone.
"Scared?" she asked, not unkindly.
"Yeah…" Rika said quietly. "You probably should be. This shit's hardcore, like I warned you. I can tell you later, if you still want to know. Deal?"
"Let's get out of here," Rika said abruptly.
"Huh?" Alden was eager to see the rest of the meeting, no matter how mundane. He looked at Rika, and saw her expression. Dark, and maybe a touch disappointed? "Don't you want to stick around for the rest?"
"Nah, I can just get the details from Rachel later. Nothing else interesting is going to happen." Rika tossed her head dismissively. "Kendra's who we really want to talk to, but she'll be out of here last, after they settle territorial disputes and research projects. If we just head to the Market and wait for her to reopen it, we'll be the first ones in the door."
Alden nodded slowly.
"Great." Rika shoved the door open with her foot. "After you."
As they exited the room, the dark hallway of the college awaited them. At the end of the hall, the door to a janitor's closet stood slightly ajar. For the moment, Alden could see Hector, lit only by the flickering naked bulb hanging from the ceiling. He looked to be muttering something under his breath, but Alden couldn't make it out from this distance.
As he watched, Hector's eyes began to roll back in his skull, while the pace of his words increased dramatically. At one flicker of the light, Alden thought he could see a girl appear next to him, a short wispy-looking girl with long brown hair and soft, haunted gray eyes, clad in a faded t-shirt and jeans. She was holding Hector's hand and whispering something to him, like she was trying to comfort him. By the next time the light flickered, the girl had disappeared. Hector looked suddenly exhausted, as if he'd run miles in only a few seconds.
"Zack, hurry up," Rika called impatiently. She'd already reached the door leading outside. With great reluctance, Alden tore his gaze away from the recovering Hector and followed Rika out the door and back into the town of Rallsburg.