Chapter 6 — An Impossible Marketplace
Article I. The proceedings of these Meetings shall henceforth be kept confidential. No records may be made of any kind except for copies of these Articles. Any Attendees found in violation of Article I will face penalties as outlined in Appendix A.
Article II. The Awakened Council shall be appointed by majority vote at the end of each meeting. There shall be three councilors elected from the Attendees, as per the Three Gods. Voting shall proceed according to the system outlined in Appendix B.
Article III. Meetings shall be held on neutral territory as agreed upon by the previous Awakened Council and the Three Gods. Meetings should take place no less frequently than once every three months. A schedule for Meetings may be determined by the Council at the close of each Meeting.
Article IV. The Council and the Three Gods shall determine the agenda for each Meeting following election, and act as moderators for open debate when necessary. Councilors may end debate on a topic with a majority vote.
Article V. All Attendees agree to be bound by the decisions of the Council or lose the privilege of membership in future Meetings.
Article VI. The Articles of the Awakened Council may only be amended by a three-quarters majority vote of all Attendees, as outlined in Appendix C.
Article VII. No new Attendees may be awakened without the sponsorship of a Councilor.
Article VIII. The Three Gods are not permitted to attend Meetings. All prior instances of their involvement in the proceedings are hereby abolished.
Article IX. An independent Moderator shall be appointed once every four meetings, to preside over debate and ensure the Articles are followed correctly. The Moderator will be elected by the Council pending approval by the Attendees, as outlined in Appendix C.
"We missed an election?" Alden asked with a twinge of disappointment.
"No one else ever wants the job. It'll be the same three people every time," Rika answered patiently.
Alden was still poring over the copy of the articles she'd fished out of her bag. Rika seemed very wary of every side street they passed, and wasn't prone to offering up explanations until Alden asked. He was mining the sheet of paper for every detail he could find, trying to understand the secret society he'd just stumbled into.
"And who are the Three Gods? Why'd they get kicked out?"
Rika sighed. "Because people are scum at their core. That's why."
"The original three people to found the group were crazy powerful. Like, more than all of the rest of us combined, each one of them. Someone started calling them the Gods as a joke, I think, and it stuck. Wasn't long for some people to assume they weren't even human. Didn't help that two of 'em decided to start calling themselves Alpha and Omega. I think they liked the attention. She definitely didn't though."
"She?" Alden prompted.
"Don't know her real name. Or any name, really. Some people call her Grey-eyes. You saw her though."
"With Hector just now, right? Wasn't she there?"
"That girl?" he asked skeptically, remembering the short, frail looking person he'd seen. She seemed like just a regular college kid. How could such a girl be called a 'god'?
" 'That girl' is the most powerful person I've ever heard of, Alden. I've heard she's nice, but that pissing her off is the last thing you'll ever do." Rika sounded deadly serious.
"Ooookay. Sorry I asked," Alden replied, still unsure if Rika was exaggerating or not. "If they're so powerful though, how'd they get kicked out?"
"I wasn't here anymore by then, so all I've heard is rumors. Something to do with Hector and the gray-eyed girl though," Rika replied. "I met Alpha once. He's an uptight prick and obsessive about making sure no one could tell who he was. He's got an agenda against people going public with magic, which seems pretty reasonable to me, but he's still in favor of the whole agenda Rachel's got going on, making a magic society and so on. There's a huge shitstorm waiting for all of us as soon as someone makes the five o'clock news and we're not ready to cover it up."
"No clue, never met him." Rika sounded like she was getting tired of the topic. Alden looked around, trying to get his bearings.
"Where are we going?"
"Well, we could have gone to the Market entrance back on campus, but I wanted to get away from Ryan before he started bitching again. So we're going to the one under the bridge." She pointed, and sure enough a small two-lane bridge out of town lay ahead, crossing over a narrow river, just past a line of small shops and businesses.
They bumped into a girl as they walked down the street. Literally, in fact: Alden almost bowled her over as they both weren't watching where they were going. He stopped once he actually took a look, though. She was drop-dead gorgeous, with perfect long blonde hair and the body of a goddess.
"Hey, Hailey. Long time," Rika said casually.
"What?" Hailey answered, looking like she'd only just noticed them. "Oh, hi Rika. Sorry, I can't talk." She passed them by and rushed down the street, glancing fearfully over her shoulder at the setting sun with a haunted look on her face. Her stunning windswept golden hair followed her around a corner. Alden hurried to catch up, but she was somehow long gone.
"Who was that?" Alden asked, gazing at the spot she'd vanished from. He couldn't see anywhere she could possibly have disappeared to, but there wasn't anyone in sight.
"Hailey Winscombe, local party girl," Rika said in confusion. "Last I saw her she would never blow me off like that. Kept trying to get me to go to her stupid college hangouts along with Rachel. Never could get her to go out with me, but she at least still treated me like a person and not a wrecking ball." She sounded personally offended at the slight she'd just received, and turned away quickly as though determined to show she didn't care. Alden followed in bewilderment.
"Hi, Boris," Rika said as they passed by a small bookstore. Boris, the owner Alden presumed, gave them a wave as he continued to sweep the steps leading up to his shop.
"Good evening, Rika," he answered in a booming voice with a Russian accent. "I am pleased to see you made it back to our little town."
"Can't say the same. Glad you're still around though," Rika answered with a shrug.
"I'm rooted to this store, and it is to the ground," Boris answered with a chuckle. "Who is your friend?"
"Zack, this is Boris, one of the few legitimately cool people left in this town. Boris, Zack."
"Uhh, hi," Alden said awkwardly. "I like your shop." He meant it, too; Boris' little store had a very comfortable and inviting atmosphere even from what he could see through the door. It looked like a labor of love, something he could always appreciate.
Boris' face lit up with a wide, toothy smile. "A pleasure indeed! Please, do come in!"
Rika started to shake her head. "We're in a bit of a—"
"No, Rika dear, I insist. Enter, enter!"
Alden was more than happy to explore the store, despite Rika's protests. The odd combination of a small college town, an old Russian man and a quaint bookstore on the main road of the town was too much to ignore. Inside were neatly organized shelves, though by what system Alden couldn't discern. Many of the books were—unsurprisingly—in Cyrillic, but for every Russian novel there was an English translation available right next to it. A few translations looked like original works, handwritten by Boris himself. Alden saw a few books he had just recently studied for classes only a few months prior. His were modern textbook style, with new freshly printed covers. These books were old, cracked and faded, full of history beyond just the words written on each page. He picked one up at random, not understanding the title but attracted to its beaten and frayed exterior nonetheless.
Boris spotted what had caught his eye. "Ah, yes. A book that traveled with me through many an adventure. I have always said that every book contains two stories. There is the tale written by the author on the page, and there is the story experienced through the life of the book itself. So long as a book survives, it still has stories to tell."
Alden was listening intently to Boris' enthusiasm, but Rika was staring at the ceiling with an odd expression on her face. She looked about to sneeze, if Alden had to put a description to it. As they both looked at the ceiling, they heard a thump from above, as if something heavy had just crashed to the floor above them.
Boris' face shifted instantly to concern. He glanced at the door in the back, which Alden presumed must lead upstairs. "I am sorry, friends. If you will excuse me, please?"
Rika nodded. "We should be going anyway. Thanks, Boris. I'll stop back in soon, promise."
"Do, please! And bring your friend—I like him," Boris answered with a smile.
With that, Boris retreated through the door in the back. Rika took one last significant glance at the ceiling before she turned and headed out the door. Alden carefully set the book back on the shelf where he'd found it before following Rika back down the street.
The river was in a shallow valley running along the side of the town, almost like a moat protecting the border. Rika nimbly slid down the slick grass on the slope, still damp from the rain, and landed neatly at the sidewalk that ran alongside the riverbank. "Come on!" she called back up.
Alden was… less successful following her.
"You okay?" Rika asked, trying not to laugh.
"Yes," he muttered, looking at the mud stains now spattered across his arm and legs.
"I can lend you some clothes later, if you want," she offered.
"Now what do we do?" he asked, trying to change the subject.
"We wait," she said, nodding at the brick wall underneath the bridge. The concrete was dry there, and the rain was starting to pick back up, so Alden quickly took a seat before he got soaked even more. To his surprise, Rika sat down beside him, close enough to touch. With everything he'd seen in the last few hours, having her right next to him like this was intoxicating. Alden was still a guy, after all. He'd be insane not to find her attractive. Plus, there was that aura about her, an exhilarating feeling he got just from being close to her. Or was that…
"Rika," he started.
"Hmm?" she murmured, her eyes closed.
"Why do you feel like lightning?"
She laughed, a sound that sent waves of joy through Alden. "That's the best way you could phrase that?"
Alden's cheeks went red yet again. "Sorry."
Her tone grew serious. "I was experimenting with something, it went wrong. Now I'm like… this. It's actually pretty fucking inconvenient, to be honest. I set off metal detectors everywhere I go, screw up electronics, mess with people's heads without meaning to. Took me forever just to figure out how to keep it under control so I wouldn't just straight up shock you right now."
"That sounds annoying."
"Yeah, well, I can also shoot lightning from my fingertips whenever I want, so it's a trade off." She opened her eyes and sat up. "Wanna see a trick?"
"Gimme your phone."
Alden hesitated, but handed it over. "It's dead. Didn't have time to charge it."
"Perfect," Rika said. She picked it up and looked it over for a moment, then held her finger up to the charging port. After a few moments, the screen lit up with a battery icon.
Alden laughed aloud. "Seriously?"
"Hey, you don't know how impressive this is. Cell phones are very picky about what they'll take." She handed back his phone, which he turned on gratefully.
A few moments later, it turned back off again, the battery icon flashing red.
"What more do you want, Mr. Tesla?" Rika said grumpily.
"I expected it to be more charged or something."
"Well I could, but then your battery might melt. Or explode. Which could be fun. Wanna try it?"
"No thanks," Alden said quickly, before the eager glint in Rika's eye started something worse.
"Well, at least this explains why you were so lost earlier. You didn't seem the type."
"Thanks, I guess?"
"No problem." Rika glanced down at her watch, which Alden had somehow missed up until now. It was an old analog watch with a cracked leather strap, but it looked like it was pretty expensive. Alden guessed there was a story behind it, but before he could ask anything she put her hands back in her pockets. "Almost time."
Neither of them said a word for a few minutes. Alden was doing his best not to look at her too often. He didn't want to seem creepy or obsessive. Partly because he liked her, but more importantly because she was the closest thing he had to a friend so far in this entire town. If he was going to be here a while, and odds were it was going to be a long while, he was going to need friends. Rika seemed powerful and had at least a few strong connections in town like the councilor, Rachel DuValle. She seemed like a good friend to have. Even if she was claiming their friendship as fate or something nonsensical like that.
Alden had never believed in fate or a higher power, but he was quickly becoming a believer in the supernatural—for obvious reasons. If Rika wanted to think they were somehow destined to meet and work together, he wasn't about to deny it totally out of hand.
"Why haven't you asked yet?" Rika said suddenly, opening one eye in his direction.
"About what?" he asked, though Alden was pretty sure he knew the answer.
"Awakening." Again, Alden imagined it a proper noun in his mind, with the weight everyone seemed to give the word.
"If you don't want to talk about it, that's cool. But seeing how curious you've been about everything else, I just assumed—"
"I'm scared, okay?" Alden interrupted. The honesty of that statement surprised even himself. The magic itself was exciting and mysterious, but there were pieces around the edges that put him ill at ease. He hadn't meant to let it be known yet. Showing vulnerability this early seemed like the wrong move. But he couldn't help himself around her already. He trusted Rika instantly, against his better judgment.
"Oh," Rika answered slowly. "Scared of what?"
"Isn't this all just... creepy?"
"I guess?" Rika brushed her hair to the side, opening her eyes more fully. From this distance, he could see her eyes were very blue, the same as the streak in her hair. He assumed it must be deliberate, but he liked the effect nonetheless. "I mean, once you're on this side it just seems normal."
"But, Hector back there, his eyes… He looked like he was being possessed." Alden shivered involuntarily at the memory, or perhaps it was just the evening chill.
"Sounds about right." She sounded so calm, which did nothing to soothe Alden's concerns.
"That doesn't bother you?"
"Look, there was always going to be a price, right?" she replied patiently. "I don't feel any different, my friends say I don't seem any different. Rachel certainly doesn't seem different to me. Hell, she barely even uses magic, even though she's got it. Maybe we're all gonna get screwed down the line somehow, but for now I like what I've got."
Alden must have still looked skeptical, so Rika continued. "No one's gonna force you into anything. We're all pretty accepting here. A few assholes, but accepting assholes." She grinned. "Lighten up, Alden. Watch this."
She held out her arm, pointing at a few blades of grass bending under the rain. As he stared, one of the blades stood straight up. Rika crossed her middle finger over her index finger, holding it taut, then after a moment let them snap apart. The blade of grass sliced cleanly in two, both of which began moving in unison. Rika sent them dancing through the air, spelling out something.
"I can't keep up," Alden said after a few mesmerized seconds. He'd completely lost track of what she was spelling.
"Ugh. The joke's not worth it anymore," she replied. Her voice sounded hoarse. He looked back to see her gritting her teeth in concentration. She lowered her hand, and the grass fell to the ground again. Instantly her face lightened up, and she relaxed back against the wall, letting out a huge breath from the exertion.
"It's that bad?" Alden asked.
"For me. I'm not so good with movement stuff. Everyone's got different talents. I need more practice." She seemed to be embarrassed by Alden's disappointed reaction. She stuck out her index finger again, and a tiny bolt of pale blue lightning burst forth with a sharp crackling sound. Alden whipped his head around, following the trail of steam in the air to the suddenly very blackened blade of grass.
"Whoa," he muttered.
"Mmhmm." Rika reached into her bag and pulled out an energy bar, which she started nibbling on.
"Hang on, you didn't use any topaz that time?" Alden asked, curious.
"Nah, that was easy. I need the gems when it has real energy behind it, or if I'm in a rush like earlier. Small stuff like this gets covered by the electricity running through my body."
"And the bag?" Alden asked.
"You just can't get enough, can you?" Rika laughed. "The bag isn't mine. Bought it here, actually. Paid a fuckload, but totally worth it, right?" She opened it and let him glance inside. By all appearance, it was normal. He saw a few pouches stacked on either side, but there was a clear bottom right where it was supposed to be. "Go on, reach in there."
Somewhat apprehensively, Alden stuck his hand into her bag. It didn't feel like anything, but as he felt down one side, there was another row of pouches, and then another, and yet another. He looked in, and his hand was clearly only touching the second row, beyond which there shouldn't have been a third—yet he could feel at least six or seven rows.
"Magic," Rika answered. She yanked his arm back up and out before snapping the bag shut. "Speaking of which," she started, glancing at her watch. "It's time." She stood up, and Alden was quick to follow. They took a few steps away from the solid brick wall underneath the bridge, which still seemed unremarkable to Alden. It was just an empty wall of pale red bricks, aged and mossy.
There was a wooden door in the wall.
Had he blinked? Alden rubbed at his eyes. There was clearly a door there. Rika reached forward calmly and opened it. Beyond the threshold was a veil of black blocking their view of the inside. Without a word, she brushed aside the heavy curtain and stepped in. Alden stood still, uncertain. Rika's hand shot back out through the veil and took his, sending that small surge of electricity through his skin once more. She pulled him inside and swung the door shut behind them.
The Market was empty. Given that it had just opened, Alden wasn't too surprised. Still, even the sight of the place empty was remarkable.
As they'd stepped through the door, a cobblestone path stretched out in front of them in three directions, floating on absolute darkness. It stretched around the outer edges of the entire Market, forming a fair-sized octagon. From their vantage point, Alden could see a few simple stalls or tents set up at various points around the path. They were all clustered close to three separate wooden doors at points on the octagon. Each door also had a pathway leading out to the center of the Market, where a small structure sat, with a gothic design echoing the burned down library Alden had seen earlier. The building was surrounded by a spiked fence, with a single gate that stood open over a path leading up to the front porch. Above the door hung a lantern, which was currently lit bright red.
As Alden watched, one of the other doors opened and a few people filtered in. Beyond the door he could see what looked like a janitor's closet. Actually, he was sure it was the same closet he'd seen Hector in earlier. He surmised that must be one of the other entrances.
Beyond the cobblestone paths and the few shops and stalls, he saw black. Pure, deep black, like he was looking into a void. Even the spaces between the stalls, or between the roads and the house in the center were completely, utterly black. He looked up and saw empty space, not even a source of light—though the entire Market was lit evenly as if lights shone from every possible angle. He reached out his hand—marvelling at the lack of a shadow beneath it—and found it stopped at the edge of the path. Not that he felt anything stopping it; in fact, he would have sworn it was empty space in front of him, yet he could not move his hand further.
The vendors had finished setting up. Alden watched as a man in a thick jacket with a hood drawn over his head handed over a fistful of cash to an eager merchant. In return, a pile of tiny gemstones were slid across the table. In the perfectly even light, they didn't seem quite as shiny as usual, since there was no light source for them to refract. The buyer nodded and turned to quickly depart through one of the far doors, through which Alden could see what looked like the college library.
All around them, the same scene was playing out several times over. One was buying gemstones, others more exotic materials. One tent had people entering for minutes at a time, with brief flashes of light emitting forth. A sign made from a few taped sheets of printer paper was stuck above the entrance, labeled in rough marker "Basic Elemental Training. Cash or cryptocoin only. NO REFUNDS."
He felt the ground quiver. It was the barest hint of an earthquake, and yet it was more than enough to send his mind spinning. Alden looked worriedly at his feet, but the cobblestone seemed stable enough. He glanced at Rika, who had also winced slightly. The nearest tent canvas to them had started to wave, as if a light gust of wind had just rolled through. A moment later, Alden saw it happen again on the far side of the circular market.
A moderately sized portion of the market shimmered, as if it were a mirage in the desert. The tents seemed far less substantial, the cobblestone rocky and uneven. A moment later, it was perfectly ordinary, with only the gentle flapping of the canvas indicating anything had just occurred.
"Are we safe here?" Alden asked nervously.
"She's keeping it open herself, you're just seeing her get slightly distracted. It's a pocket dimension. Nothing exists outside what she's set up," Rika explained.
"Kendra, you mean?"
"How can we be breathing then?"
"Yes," Alden started impatiently, "but what kind of magic? How does she get air in here? Oxygen?"
"Look, Zack, if I knew how I could do it myself. No one knows, that's why this is the only Market around. Only place we can be absolutely sure we're safe from prying eyes. Come on." Rika started down the path toward the house in the center, as the people who'd entered from the college campus started setting up shop. Alden wanted to stop and watch, but Rika seemed in a hurry, so he did his best to keep up. Once they reached the gate, however, Rika held out her arm to stop him.
She turned to face him, her expression quite serious. "Okay, Zack. I haven't asked why you're here, and you haven't asked me. Mine's not private, so I don't mind if you want to come in with me. If you want to keep your business a secret though, now's when we split up."
Alden hesitated. He wasn't sure if travelling with Rika was the right choice, given the heated relationships she seemed to form everywhere she went. Then again, she was the closest he'd gotten to making a friend here, and that had to count for something, right? She certainly was the most exciting thing he'd seen in the town so far.
Rika's face softened a little seeing his hesitation. "I understand. I'll see you arou—"
"Lead the way," Alden interrupted. He thought he saw a flicker of joy cross her face before she turned, strolled up the walkway to the door, pulled it open, and walked confidently inside.
Despite the eagerness he might have shown Rika, he was still more than a little apprehensive about this whole adventure. Alden didn't seem to have a great track record making friends, given the dearth of people waiting for him back home. With Rika he'd just gotten lucky, or maybe she'd forced her way in. Willingly entering a not-exactly-welcoming house inside a 'pocket dimension' was way outside normal for him, but at the same time it was exhilarating to explore this new world.
He'd never progress unless he made it happen. Alden stuck his hand into the inside pocket of his coat once again. The envelope was still there, still undamaged. With renewed determination, he took the steps up the porch two at a time.
"Rika dear, you do know it's considered rude to barge into one's home unannounced, yes?" Kendra said pointedly, not even giving them a glance. Her eyes were invisible behind the reflection of the laptop screen emblazoned on her glasses. "Pardon the mess," she added distractedly.
Kendra sat in a chair near one corner of the room. Mess isn't really the word, Alden thought. There were stacks of boxes piled up in every corner, but they were very neatly arranged. Clear paths through the room existed, convoluted as they might be, and in one corner sat a pair of desks with computers, and a row of blinking machines sitting just below them. He saw a cord snaking off from the computer bank through a hole in the wall and out to the apparent nothingness. Behind Kendra, an opening lead to a staircase and a kitchen.
Kendra herself was far more casual than when they'd left her only an hour earlier, clad in a sweatshirt emblazoned with the RSU logo and track pants instead of the business attire she'd worn to the meeting. She was busily typing away at something while they spoke. Unlike the Market outside, this room felt far more stable to Alden, and he felt his anxiety diminishing.
"Uhh, hi," Rika started.
"No need for that. Your reputation precedes you," she said distastefully. Her laptop pinged, drawing her attention away momentarily, but her eyes shot back up only an instant later. "Apologies. I've just so much to do. Might I ask you visit another time?"
"I'm looking for—" Rika started again, but before she could get another word in, they heard a door crash open in the kitchen.
"Cat's out of the bag, Kenni," came a voice from the kitchen. Kendra stiffened in horror. Rika and Alden gave each other looks of confusion. Unless he was hearing things, that was distinctly Kendra's voice—though clearly not issuing from Kendra's mouth. "Bit of a cock-up, and Rachel's right pissed, but we were planning to go public soon anyway, yeah?" There was a rustling as someone took off a jacket and hung it to dry. "You were right on the Scrap too, creation magic. Want me to put the kettle on before I head ou… "
As they stared, Kendra walked in through the kitchen. Or at least, someone who looked very similar to Kendra did. Identical, even, except for the clothing she wore. She saw Alden and Rika and her face fell. "Oh, bugger all," she muttered.
"Lily, we have guests," Kendra said mildly, returning to her laptop.
Lily glanced at her awkwardly before continuing. "Right then. I'm Lily, I'm her twin sister, I don't exist. You two got that?"
Alden nodded emphatically. No need to make enemies. After a moment's hesitation, Rika did the same. Alden was shocked to see her speechless. "Brilliant. Kenni, you need me for anything?"
"I'll be fine, thank you," Kendra answered, still not looking up from her laptop.
"Right. Well, pleasure to meet you both... again," she nodded at Alden and Rika. "I'm going to nip upstairs to take a quick shower before I head outside." Lily disappeared up the staircase, leaving the three of them alone again. Kendra typed out a few more sentences, then snapped the laptop shut and looked at them more intently. Her entire demeanor had shifted since her sister's intrusion, suddenly polite and welcoming.
"You'll have to excuse my inhospitality. I'm afraid I'm a bit under the weather of late. I'd offer you a seat, but I haven't put together a sitting room here yet."
"Couldn't you just make one?" Alden asked. Kendra raised her eyebrows, the corners of her lips curling slightly in amusement.
"He's really new to this," Rika said apologetically.
"What? Didn't she do all of this?" Alden asked, confused.
"Heavens no," Kendra replied. "I create the space, yes, but everything inside was brought in, piece by piece."
"You brought an entire house inside through those doors?" Alden asked skeptically.
"Trade secret," Kendra said dismissively. "Now, on to proper business. I assume you have some?"
"Looking for information," Rika interjected.
"You'll need to be more specific, I'm afraid. Information's quite the commodity these days." Kendra adjusted to a more business-like position, eyeing them with interest. "What are you looking for?"
"Who. My father," Rika said abruptly.
"The last I heard, Kazuo Nishimura was alive and well in Japan," Kendra said mildly, without missing a beat.
Rika looked surprised. "How do you know my father?"
"Because we purchased the company. Laushire bought out your father's software, don't you remember?" Kendra opened her laptop again, scrolling through something. A moment later, she spun it around, displaying a news article from a business journal. Alden leaned in close to read the headline, something about a major software company acquisition. "We actually met at that party, though I'm not surprised you don't recall. You were only twelve at the time."
"Well, he's missing," Rika said. "I've gotta find him."
"You don't sound particularly concerned," Kendra observed. Alden mentally agreed. Rika might as well have been talking about a missing pen.
"I'm not. Just need to talk to him. In person."
"You're looking for access to a reader, then." Kendra snapped the laptop shut again and set it aside. "That'll cost."
"I have money."
"I have more. Currency isn't holding much sway for my ventures. It's back to the barter system."
Rika glanced at her bag. "Don't think I have anything that you'd want."
"Let's not pretend, Rika. You've got a Scrap."
At Kendra's words, Rika's posture shifted subtly. She was on the defensive, which sent Alden into a panic. If Rika felt threatened, what was he supposed to do without any real capabilities of his own?
Suddenly having access to magic was a bit more tempting. Still terrifying, but Alden was starting to feel like he was going to need it before this adventure was through.
"Rachel told you?" Rika accused.
"Your friend remains loyal, fear not. No, I happened to find out through other more… sophisticated means."
"You've got some new reader, then. Someone who knows how to find Scraps?"
"Something like that," Kendra said with a glint in her eye.
"Better not let that get widely known," Rika shot back pointedly. "You might be powerful, but the entire fucking town would come after you for that little trick."
Kendra relaxed back into her chair, folding her arms. "I can handle the town. They couldn't run me out of the country," she added pointedly. Rika's face glowed red. "Back to business, then. I wouldn't dream of asking to keep it, but in exchange for letting me read, I'd be willing to sell my reader's services."
"Just like that?" Rika asked skeptically.
"No need to get complicated."
"What if your reader doesn't come up with anything?"
"Naturally, I'd pay first," Kendra said dismissively. "There's no real way to hold your payment in escrow, since you clearly don't trust anyone, so I'll have to hold you up to your end of the bargain. Agreed?"
"Hang on. Toss in natural twin lizard eggs."
"For Ryan, I presume?" Kendra's eye twinkled, a smile widening on her face. Rika nodded. "I can do that. Consider your debt to him cleared."
Rika held out a hand, which Kendra shook firmly. Alden was pleased to note her small jump of surprise upon touching Rika's skin. He wasn't the only one.
"Now," Kendra continued, turning to face Alden. "You're not awakened, nor have you any magical abilities or knowledge whatsoever, am I correct?"
"No," Alden answered shakily. Her gaze was penetrating, like she already knew anything he might say. He felt himself begin to shrink before her, and his eyes sank lower instinctively. A foot nudged his own. Rika was trying to be supportive, and it worked. Even backup he barely knew was something.
"I'm also looking for someone," he started, "but I don't know who they are."
"Not even a gender?" Kendra noted observantly.
"No," Alden replied. He steeled himself before continuing. This is the reason you started this whole adventure. "I've felt like someone was missing for a while now, but I couldn't put my finger on it. My mom and dad think I'm crazy, my sister doesn't believe me. No one else has any clue what I'm talking about. But I know someone was there. Someone related to me." He took a deep breath before continuing. "A sibling, probably older."
"How can you be so sure?" Kendra asked with interest. Rika, too, was watching him with intense curiosity. He felt a wave of discomfort wash through him like an unpleasant hot liquid sloshing down his throat. Keep talking, he reminded himself. Just keep talking.
"There's a room in my house we never use, even though it's as big as a bedroom. It's just empty, a few cardboard boxes but we don't even use it to store anything. There's an extra car, but my sister can't drive yet, so it just sits on the side of the house unused. We have extra books no one seems to have bought, pens and pencils no one ever uses. One more laptop than people in the house. It's like there's an entire person who just vanished," Alden trailed off, feeling a bit more uncertain. His list of evidence wasn't exactly foolproof.
"But only you recognize the irregularity," Kendra prompted.
"Even I didn't notice it until recently. A couple months ago, when I found this." With that, he reached into his coat pocket and finally produced the object of his obsession for the last two months.
"An envelope?" Rika said dryly, unimpressed.
"May I see it?" Kendra asked, extending a hand. Reluctantly, Alden handed it over. She turned it over a few times, examining it closely before remarking, "This is from the university."
"It's an acceptance letter envelope. The exact same as mine, it's got the congratulations stamp on the front and everything, and dated and addressed to my house. But… there's no one who could have received it. My sister's only fourteen."
"Not exactly a smoking gun," Rika commented.
"When I showed it to my parents, they acted like I wasn't even holding anything. My sister Meg just brushed it off too. After I had the envelope, I started noticing all the other things. I made sure to keep it on me all the time since. I assumed they were just covering everything up until about six hours ago, then I found out magic is real and… yeah," Alden finished, the speech he'd preparing to give for so long finally out in the open.
He felt relief, but also the huge weight of apprehension crushing down on him quite suddenly. What if neither of them believed him? What if he was just crazy after all? They knew far more about magic than he did. Maybe he was insane. All of this was insane, though. They had to believe him.
"It's an… interesting theory," Kendra started slowly. "I won't say it's impossible. God knows what is now. But why you?"
"Something like this can't be easy," Rika chimed in. "They'd have to be crazy smart and dedicated to totally wipe someone out. If that's even possible."
"Precisely," Kendra continued. "So you've made an enemy. A dangerously precise and knowledgeable enemy, and in our world knowledge is truly akin to power." She offered the envelope back to Alden, who took it gratefully. "I don't know what I can do for you, Zack. I'm sorry. If you'd like, I can go through the university's records for applications around the date of that envelope, but I doubt your foe would miss something so simple."
"Please," Alden asked.
"I must ask though, in strictest confidence of course, for your real name if I'm to make any headway."
Alden glanced at Rika, who shrugged. "She's probably trustworthy, if anyone is in this fucking town."
"Is that really necessary?" Kendra asked exasperatedly.
"It's been a rough day," Rika shot back.
As if on cue, the door in the kitchen banged open again. Alden suddenly realized that the door they'd come in through was the only one on the exterior, so the kitchen door must lead elsewhere. Back into the real world?
Kendra seemed surprised, at any rate. Meanwhile, a series of thumps on the stairs preceded a dripping wet Lily rushing to the kitchen, barely holding a towel around herself as she went. Alden turned away, trying to show some measure of respect. To his surprise, Rika did as well, leaving them both staring at the wall next to the front door away from the kitchen. Rika raised an eyebrow at him and grinned, miming holding something large and round in both hands.
Alden's face lit up red a few moments later, turning his gaze the other direction. Rika barely suppressed her cackling.
Behind them, they could hear Lily speaking urgently and quietly, while someone else moved around. Alden only had to wonder a few moments before the intruder's voice joined in, loud and distinctly young.
"Natalie?" Alden mouthed to Rika, who nodded.
"Nat, you know you're not supposed to come in here when the lamp's green," Lily's voice echoed from the kitchen.
"I saw him! They were taking him away! They had him! You have to help!" Natalie was hysterical, her voice reaching a shriek.
"Nat, please. Nat! Calm down!" Lily was getting louder as well.
"Natalie, if you can't calm yourself we can't help you," Kendra's firm voice joined the fray.
Alden had heard enough. He turned and walked into the kitchen, doing his best to avoid Lily, who seemed to have completely forgotten the towel in her haste to calm Natalie down. He crouched down in front of the soaking wet Natalie, her pink jacket dripping all over the floor of the kitchen, and held her hand.
For whatever reason, he'd always been good with little kids, although he had no idea why. Natalie wasn't exactly that young, but young enough that she could still break down easily. Alden found that patience and listening intently usually worked, at least for him. Kids just seemed to like him. Alden generally couldn't stand kids, but he wanted to make a good impression on Kendra and Lily if they were going to be helping him.
A minute later, Natalie was beginning to calm down, as he still held her hand firmly.
"Natalie, what happened? Tell me everything, okay?" he said calmly.
"My dad," Natalie said between sniffles. She was crying, but at least she'd stopped wailing. "Out in the forest, I was with Scrappy. I saw him with another man, they were fighting. Then the other man said something, and he just stopped. Then they both walked away."
"And this other man took him?" Alden asked. It didn't sound like a kidnapping to him.
"Chap's been missing for days," Lily added, sitting herself next to Natalie and hugging her, finally draping the towel around like a blanket to cover them both as best she could. "No one had seen him. Nat's been terrified."
"I'm not scared!" Natalie said, wiping away a tear. "Me and Scrappy are gonna go get him back!"
"Out in the forest? Up north?" Rika asked from the doorway with interest. Everyone looked up at her.
"Huh?" Natalie asked.
"The one behind the train station, Nat," Lily explained.
"Oh, yeah. That one," Natalie nodded emphatically.
"I'll find him," Rika said coolly.
"We can pay you—" Lily started, but Rika held up her hand.
"Kendra already knows what I want." She looked Alden in the eye. "You in, Zack?"
A split-second before he realized he was going to regret it, Alden nodded.