Chapter 7 — Misdirection
"Didn't realize this was going to be a fucking field trip," Rika grumbled.
"Rika, she's like eight years old," Alden hissed.
"Maybe a bit less harsh?"
"Oh, right. Sorry," Rika cleared her throat and raised her voice. "You two ready?"
Natalie was still gazing out into the woods, a worried look on her face. "Scrappy's not here yet."
"I'm sure he'll be here soon, Nat," Lily said patiently.
"Who's Scrappy?" Alden whispered to Rika.
"Fu—" Rika caught herself. "Hell if I know," she whispered back. "Look, that's the best I can do."
"And we're supposed to find a man out here—a possible kidnapper—in the rain, with the sun setting, and all we know about him is that he was dressed in black and white and wore a hat?" Alden asked skeptically.
"Hey, you wanted to come."
"There!" Natalie pointed. Out of the woods, slinking around the corner of a tree came a huge mountain lion, one of the biggest Alden had ever seen. Not unnaturally large, but certainly intimidating. He automatically took a step back.
"Holy shit," Rika breathed.
Alden didn't bother to press her again. He was too busy worrying about how he could get away with those yellow eyes watching him. As if being in the middle of the dark forest—which held who knew what untold dangers—wasn't bad enough. As they stared, 'Scrappy' padded up next to Natalie and rubbed against her side affectionately. Natalie scratched at the big cat's ears and dug her face in its bronze-colored fur.
"Don't worry, Nat's got him under control," Lily called across the clearing. Alden wasn't reassured in the slightest. Neither was Rika, from the look on her face.
"Scrappy, do you know where Dad went?" Natalie asked. The cat nodded.
"That cat just nodded, right?" Alden whispered.
Rika sounded dazed. "Don't ask me. The expert's over there with the puma."
"Magic, right?" Alden asked nervously.
"Oh yeah. Definitely magic. Nothing I've ever seen before."
"Can you take us to him?" Natalie asked, looking the cat directly in the eye. It bobbed its head again and turned back the way it had come. After a pause, it looked back over its shoulder, eye to eye with Alden. He got the sensation it wanted him to follow. He got a far more distinct feeling that the mountain lion held a similar view of him that it might reserve for an annoying squirrel it hadn't quite decided to eat yet.
"I think that cat doesn't like me," Alden muttered.
"Scrappy won't hurt you unless I tell him to," Natalie said cheerfully. "And I'm twelve years old. I'm not eight."
Alden winced. Natalie ignored him and whispered to her cat.
"She's twelve?" he asked Rika more quietly.
"Guess so. Some people grow up slower. Now suck it up. We've got a job to do." Rika patted him on the back, then set off to join the others. After a moment's hesitation, Alden followed.
It was a bizarre sight for anyone who might have happened on them that night. A large, clearly feral cougar leading a girl dressed in a pink jacket and rain boots by the hand, followed intently by an elegant and business-attired woman carrying an umbrella, with two college kids crashing through the forest at a respectful distance.
Alden laughed aloud; he couldn't help it, it just seemed ridiculous to him. He was taking everything seriously, perhaps a little too seriously. His body needed to relieve stress before his head exploded, and it just came out as a strained, somewhat exhausted laugh. On the bright side, the sheer fatigue was helping dull his paranoia.
Natalie and Lily were further ahead and fortunately didn't catch his mirth, but Rika shot him a confused look. He shook his head. "Nothing."
"Don't go losing it on me."
Exhaustion was further lowering Alden's inhibitions. Without thinking he asked, "Why'd you agree to this anyway?"
Rika raised her eyebrows. "Why help a little kid?"
"Didn't seem like you liked kids," Alden said bluntly.
Rika fell back a few steps, further away from the leaders of their little group, and lowered her voice. "I don't. Do you realize the kind of blackmail we just picked up?"
Alden had expected any number of responses, but definitely not that. Rika's tone was surprisingly icy. "What?"
"Kendra fucking Laushire has a secret twin sister. And she doesn't want anyone to know about her. That's huge."
"Laushire as in—" Alden started, but Rika interrupted him impatiently.
"Laushire Enterprises, international conglomerate. Basically, she's a billionaire. Well, daughter of a billionaire, who stands to inherit that massive company and that fortune at some point." Rika paused to reach into her bag, pulling out a water bottle and drinking deep.
"Why keep it a secret?" Alden wondered aloud.
"Exactly what I'm gonna find out," Rika smirked. "Didn't you notice how Kendra didn't even blink when I changed our deal? She's a businesswoman and she let me dominate negotiations."
"So you offered to help because…"
"Because then Lily owes me a favor, while Kendra owes me for keeping her secret. Win-win. What, did you expect this little quest to actually accomplish anything? It's night-time in the middle of the fucking forest. In the rain. We're not gonna find jack shit."
"But doesn't she own your family business?"
"Her dad owns my dad's business. I couldn't give a fuck about either of them." Rika dropped her water bottle back into her bag and snapped it shut. "Come on, we're falling behind."
As Alden tripped over yet another tree root, he was reminded just how much he hated the outdoors. Rika had since opted to walk slightly behind him, and as he started to fall she caught his arm by the jacket sleeve, keeping him upright.
"Thanks," Alden grumbled.
"How are you this clumsy?" Rika wondered aloud. Alden didn't bother to answer, stubbornly forging ahead.
They'd been walking for at least an hour, and he was beginning to feel like they were completely lost. As Rika predicted, they hadn't found a single shred of intelligent life. The forest didn't look like it was changing, except perhaps to get thicker. Thankfully, the canopy was thick enough that the ground wasn't too wet, and the periodic rainshower didn't always make it down to their heads. On the other hand, with the sun having already set, the clouds and trees combined to bring nightfall much quicker than they'd expected. A lantern bobbed about ahead, marking Lily, and Rika had produced flashlights from her bag for Alden and herself.
"Hey, wait up!" Rika called. Lily and Natalie were atop a steep muddy knoll a few dozen yards ahead. Alden had lost track of the cat, but he had no doubt it was nearby.
They stopped abruptly at Rika's voice. "What?"
Rika clambered up the side of the hill, grabbing tree roots and branches for stability as she went regardless of how wet and dirty they were. Alden took one look at the first one she grabbed, saw the mud caked on her hand, and decided to wait for them at the bottom of the hill. He wished, not for the first time, that he'd brought some gloves.
A nearby log looked reasonably dry and clean of dirt and mud, so Alden took the opportunity to rest his legs. He wasn't particularly out of shape, but it'd been a long day and he was starting to feel it. He rolled his head around his shoulders, trying to wake himself up a little more, when he saw something in the distance.
It was a young man, likely just a student of the college if Alden were to guess. He was intimidatingly tall, well over six feet. Black, bald, handsome and wearing a thick, old fashioned overcoat that reached past his knees. It looked expensive, comfortable and warm, which were three things Alden could have done with right then. Still, what was this guy doing out in the forest this late at night?
More importantly, he realized, what were the odds he'd end up so close to their group by sheer coincidence?
Alden got to his feet and was about to call out to Rika when the man's eyes locked with his own. A chill shot through Alden's blood, rushing up his spine to freeze his mind entirely. It was his eyes. They were inky black, dark as the deepest night sky devoid of all stars, with only the faintest glimmer to show any life behind them.
Alden could have looked away at any moment. Nothing was stopping him in the slightest from fleeing up the hill, where two powerful women and a little girl with a gigantic pet cat were busy arguing. They were nominally on his side if he were in danger. Yet he knew, instinctively, that to break this man's sight would be a mistake.
Is this how I die? Alden thought, a multitude of regrets bubbling to the surface of his mind.
The man slowly shook his head, answering Alden's unspoken question. Alden felt that chill spread further, lancing through his veins to every part of his body. Even if the man did not intend to kill him, he felt that he might be trapped in that spot for eternity.
Finally, mercifully, the man turned away. For the briefest moment, he looked up the hill at the trio, and Alden was able to tear his gaze away. He focused his eyes on anything he could find. The twigs scattered on the forest floor, the fluttering leaf that had just fallen nearby—anything other than the man he had seen through the trees.
It took him a few minutes, but Alden finally felt warmth returning to his limbs. He chanced a glance through the trees.
The man was gone, leaving only the empty darkness of the trees in his wake.
Alden decided he was ready to leave the forest as soon as possible. Rika and Natalie were still arguing atop the hill. It was a fair climb back up to them, and their voices were faint, but Rika's voice tended to carry, so he could make out most of what they were saying.
"Look, we're not getting anywhere. That cat doesn't have a clue where it's going. Either we happen to stumble into wherever they're hiding, with all this light that'll give us away before we even get close, or they ditched this area a long time ago and we're just wandering in circles."
"He's out here. I know it!" Natalie retorted, but even her conviction seemed wavering—or maybe she was just tired. From his distance, Alden couldn't be sure.
"Nat, she's right. Whomever that bloke with your dad was, he wouldn't want to be out in this muck either, yeah?" Lily said, crouching down to the girl's level. As she spoke, Alden saw the cougar slink back into view, nudging at Natalie's hand. She threw her arms around it. Alden guessed she was probably crying, and hiding it in the cat's fur. "Let's go home. I'll draw you a nice hot bath."
After a few moments, Natalie nodded, and Alden breathed a sigh of relief.
Exiting the forest was less difficult than he'd expected. Natalie whispered a few words to Scrappy, and off they went. In only fifteen minutes, the group emerged from the edge of the forest, just a few blocks away from the train station Alden had arrived on that afternoon.
The rain had mercifully let up, leaving them soaked but otherwise less miserable than an hour ago. Or perhaps that was just Alden; Rika and Natalie didn't seem much bothered by the rain. Lily took Natalie's hand and lead her reluctantly away from the mountain lion, which seemed to understand it couldn't follow them back into town. Natalie gave it a little wave, to which it nodded before slinking back into the trees and out of sight.
"So Natalie's living with you?" Rika inquired casually.
"Just while her father's missing," Lily said. She offered a hand. "Thanks for giving it a go. Give us a ring if you hear anything, yeah?"
Rika shook it. "Let Kendra know your secret's safe with me." Lily's eyes narrowed at the implication, but she didn't comment. After a few awkward moments, Rika let go, and they departed.
Rika turned to Alden. "Well, that was more productive than I expected."
"What do you mean?" As far as Alden could tell, they'd accomplished nothing.
"I just wanted to put Lily in some debt, but they played their hand a bit. They've got some kind of resistance to magic, or maybe just electricity. Did you notice how she didn't move an inch when I touched her?"
Alden shrugged. "Maybe she's just getting used to it."
In response, Rika leaned in and tapped him on the face with her finger. The sudden shock sent his mind fizzing for a moment, and he recoiled sharply.
"That's what I thought," she said, smirking. "Wish we'd gotten to see this guy who took Natalie's father. There's gotta be a connection, I can feel it."
"Fate, Alden. I told you, it's all about fate. What are the odds that I—a girl whose father is missing and mother's… gone," she paused for a moment, catching her breath. "That I run into another girl whose father is recently missing and mother's out of the picture? And we both use magic, and we're in this dead-end town. I was brought here," Rika finished confidently.
"I dunno," Alden said skeptically. "It could just all be coincidence."
"Magic hasn't even made it out of the Northwest. Hell, I don't know anyone outside this state that's been awakened yet."
"A few dozen people. Less than a hundred for sure. And with a couple obvious exceptions, every one's in Rallsburg."
"I just assumed—"
Rika shook her head. "This is new shit, Alden. So new no one's named it yet. Just calling it magic."
"What would you call it?"
"Does it need a name? It's magic, just leave it at that." Rika glanced up at the clouds rolling across the sky, faintly visible in the dark. "We should probably get inside. You got a place to stay?"
Alden frowned. "I didn't really plan that far ahead," he mumbled, embarrassed.
She rolled her eyes. "Well, come on then."
It wasn't exactly the nicest set of apartments, but it was clean and well maintained at least. Plain, white two-story structures lined up in a solid row, but with space between each. They had more of a sense of privacy than Alden would have expected, for being packed so tightly into such a small lot near the RSU campus.
Rika returned from the office with a strange look on her face. "My landlord's missing," she said, handing a key to Alden.
"Probably should have realized it sooner. Natalie Hendricks. Hendricks Apartments. Her dad owns this place."
"Oh." Alden frowned. "If you live up in Vancouver and don't attend school, why do you have an apartment here?"
"Isn't that kind of expensive?"
"Well, I'm kind of rich," Rika retorted.
Alden decided to stop asking questions. Rika didn't seem in the mood. They walked in silence to the last apartment on the row. Rika put her hand on the gate to open it, then stopped.
"Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it like that. You can keep asking questions if you want," she said quietly.
"No, it's okay—" Alden started.
"You're new in town, so you don't know enough to avoid me yet," Rika continued. "I'm turning over a new leaf, not pissing so many people off. You're the only new person in town. No one's gonna come here til the new term in like three months. Which means you're the only person in town with even the possibility of trusting me. The new me, anyway. It's a work in progress." Rika looked at him with an embarrassed smile. "Be my friend?"
Alden burst out laughing.
"What the fuck?" She looked simultaneously horrified and livid.
"I'm sorry," Alden was choking back laughter. Between the sincerity of her tone, how completely out of character it seemed, and his own mounting exhaustion, Alden had completely lost it.
"Well fuck you too," Rika growled.
"No, seriously," Alden said, his mirth quickly dissipating. "You're the best person I've met here so far. I'd rather have you as a friend than anyone else."
"You sure?" Rika asked sarcastically. "Don't want to just keep giggling like a moron?"
"Yes," Alden said firmly.
"Well then, come inside. You hungry?"
Rika's apartment was sparsely decorated, but since it wasn't her real home Alden wasn't too surprised. Everything down to the layer of dust and the musty smell spoke to a mostly unoccupied building. There was a staircase leading up to two main rooms and a bathroom upstairs, and on the bottom floor was a living room, with couches laid out around a fair-sized television set and a chair in the corner with a laptop hanging dangerously off the edge, and a kitchen stocked with dry food. It was compact and forlorn, like a dusty old forgotten corner.
"Shoes," Rika snapped, as Alden was about to step onto the main floor. He reached down and carefully took off his muddy shoes, placing them next to her own in the entryway, and hung his jacket to dry on the rack just inside.
As Rika crossed to the kitchen, Alden hurried to the laptop and secured it from imminent descent. He took a seat and pulled out the envelope again. There wasn't any change, of course. He knew every inch of it by now.
"What are you hoping to find?"
Alden looked up. Rika had shed her shirt as well, leaving only a black tank top underneath. She was in remarkably good shape. Alden noticed two more tattoos to accompany the intricate flowers on her wrist. Her right shoulder carried a few Japanese letters, in a rough and messy style that looked like she might have done it herself, while her left arm held a stunningly depicted bluebird. It was a similar electric-blue shade to her hair and eyes, with its wings spread wide in mid-flight. She learned up against the wall, watching him casually.
"I don't know," he answered halfheartedly.
"You could have had an older brother or sister out there, right?"
"I guess." Alden took a seat on one of the couches. "Do you have siblings?"
"Nope. Only child of the great Nishimura clan," Rika answered with rancor. Her tone bothered Alden.
"If you don't like your family, why are you looking for your father?"
"Just need to find him." Her tone made it perfectly clear she didn't want to discuss it further. He faltered, desperately seeking a new topic, when her face relaxed. "Look, I'm sorry. I don't really talk about this much," Rika continued in a softer voice. "What about you? Shouldn't you be in school?" Rika asked with a smirk.
"Seniors already graduated. I'm free for the summer," Alden countered with a touch of pride.
"Congrats, big shot," Rika said dryly. She paused, her face shifting to a thoughtful gaze. Alden was beginning to recognize this particular tic; whenever Rika was actually considering her next words, she tended to fidget a bit. Her hands in particular tapped away at her side, or flicked between various gestures. Normally Alden would never have taken notice, but after seeing what Rika could conjure up with such a gesture, he wasn't letting those fingers out of his sight.
"Shoot me down if it's none of my business, but why the fake name?"
"Wasn't yours fake too?" Alden asked.
"'Course not, why would I need a fake name?"
"But, at the bar—"
"They just threw me out because my American ID's a fake. Which means I got ripped off, I paid top dollar for this crap." Rika pulled out the ID and tossed it on the table between the couches. "But you actually belong here, so what are you hiding from?"
"Wouldn't you want to be called something else if your name's Alden Bensen the third?"
"The third?" Rika raised her eyebrows. "Ouch."
"Still," Rika added, as a timer went off in the kitchen. "I'm thinking that's not the whole story. You tell me when you're ready. Now let's eat."
As Alden sat down at her small kitchen table just around the wall, a sharp rapping sound echoed from the front door. They both looked up, surprised.
"Who the hell… this late?" Rika glanced at the clock on the microwave. Sure enough, it was well past eleven. "Can you be quiet?" she asked abruptly.
"Huh?" Alden asked between confused mouthfuls of rice.
"Look, just… stay quiet. Pretend you're not here. It'll be less complicated."
Alden nodded slowly. Rika got up and headed to the door, while he continued to eat as quietly as he dared. He was too hungry to resist. After a brief exchange he couldn't make out, there was the distinct sound of shoes on the hardwood entry as Rika's guest barged in. Luckily for Alden, or perhaps moreso for Rika, the guest didn't come far enough to see Alden around the wall. He strained his ears and caught the voice of the councilor from earlier, Rachel DuValle.
"—and it's just a mess, okay? I know you didn't mean it, and I know that stuff out at the RV wasn't you either, but you're causing a serious imbalance," Rachel was saying in an exhausted tone.
"I live here too, Rachel. Tell them to fuck off."
"Look, just because we were friends doesn't mean I can take your side on every single little issue!" Rachel's volume was rising. "Kendra thinks you're unstable, Ryan obviously hates you, so does Josh—nice job ruining that relationship, by the way—and no one else is exactly happy you're here, but they're too nervous to do anything openly and risk their standing in the Market, or just getting burned by a random bolt of lightning. After what Jackie just showed me, people are going to be a thousand times more afraid! I appreciate you trying to back me up, but if you really wanted to help you'd stay away. So why'd you come back?"
"...'Were' friends?" Rika asked quietly. Alden winced.
"...I didn't mean it like that," Rachel started.
"Nah, it's cool," Rika replied, surprisingly calm. Alden had expected more fireworks. "You're being honest, I'll be honest too. I've got business with Kendra, then I'm out of here. You guys can keep on playing the leaders of the brave new world without me in the way. Don't worry, I clean up my own shit."
"Not even," Rachel muttered, just barely audible to Alden. "Do I have your word, then? You'll stay out of future meetings?"
"If you let me know about any Scraps you discover, and let me read up on the ones the Council shares, then I'll stay out of your hair."
"Fine," Rachel said bitterly. "I owe you that."
"Damn right you do," Rika said coldly. "After I saved your sorry asses—"
"Let's not go there again," Rachel snapped. Alden's curiosity grew with every passing word, but he knew Rika well enough at this point to keep silent. Which only made it harder as the topic turned to him. "Who's the guy you were with today?"
"Zack? What about him?"
"He's not awakened."
"Didn't we already cover that?" Rika said impatiently.
"Were you planning on sponsoring him?" Rachel asked suspiciously.
Rika barked out a short laugh. "Go through your little vetting process? Fuck that."
"It's there for a reason," Rachel said patiently, with the air of launching into a speech she'd given a dozen times. "We've got the ability to more selectively choose people who can really handle the responsibilities—"
"Save it, I was there all night while you wrote that crap. It's impossible to stay up late with you, you know, when you don't get tired like the rest of us."
"Don't awaken him yet. You know we're one wannabe superhero away from the world finding us out, and I want to be ready when the moment comes," Rachel continued more plainly. "We're going to need more trustworthy allies if we're going to make it."
"We'll be fine," Rika said dismissively. "You're all still American citizens, right? What are they going to do, arrest you en masse?"
"That's exactly what I'm afraid of," Rachel replied grimly. "With how few of us are united, it'd be nothing to sweep us away. Even if we can somehow get the help of the Gods—"
"Good fucking luck."
"We can't take on the entire United States, much less the world. We probably can't even take on the Tacoma P.D."
"And you know those guys are pushovers."
"I'm trying to be serious here, Rika," Rachel said, exasperated.
"I'm not interested in your revolution. I've got my own shit to deal with."
"Fine. Just. Be ready, okay?"
"Yup." Rika's tone was too dismissive for Rachel to argue further.
Alden heard a chair shift, followed by the tap of shoes against the wood once more. As the door opened, Rachel's voice drifted through once more. "We're still friends, Rika. If you want us to be. Anywhere, anytime, you call me, okay?"
"Okay," Rika replied, though her tone was much less sincere. Another pause, then the door clicked shut and the curtain stopped fluttering. "I assume you heard all that?"
Alden gulped nervously. "Yeah," he called.
Rika's head appeared around the corner of the wall. "So. Wanna learn magic?" Her tone was cheerful, but her expression deadly serious.
Alden didn't bother to ask why she was ignoring Rachel's instructions. "Why me?"
"You've been so generous already, and now you're offering to teach me magic like it's no big deal, when you barely know me. Shouldn't this be harder?"
Rika shrugged. "Like I said before. Fate."
"No," Rika sighed. "You're new in town. Probably the only new person in town this time of year. So I actually trust you more than everyone here."
"I lied to you the practically the moment I met you," Alden pointed out.
"Yeah, but you told me the truth later. Willingly and without a fight, unlike the rest of this shithole. Most people who live here, they're either college kids passing through quickly, or they're here for life. Rachel's already a lifer, even if she's still in school. Josh'll be out of here before you know it. I don't have too many friends here, but you get the idea. The rest of this place is a bag of dicks."
"So you've picked me," Alden finished.
"Fate picked, Alzack," Rika corrected. "I'm just doing what's meant to be done."
Alden hesitated. He was tempted. He was sorely tempted. It was magic. Real magic, from what he'd seen. Who wouldn't be interested, at least to some degree? Besides the crazies or ultra-religious, everyone wanted something like magic in their lives. Something unreal, something exciting and new and unique. Magic could make him special, could make him into anything he wanted to be.
The warnings were weak by comparison. He felt there had to be some sort of catch, and yet no one seemed overly concerned by this power that had dropped into their laps out of the blue. Would he damn himself by joining their ranks blindly?
Did he even care? He'd come to this town out of a blind desperation to find something meaningful to do, a promise of adventure in that blank envelope and the missing family he thought he must have. He'd already run into a dead end. Whomever his sibling was, Alden had to find them. This was just the next step in that path.
It was magic.
Then Alden remembered the dangers. The shaking of the Marketplace, the balls of fire at Dan's that threatened to punch through his skull. The burned library, the Gods with their secret war.
The man with the black eyes.
Perhaps Rika sensed his fear, or maybe she was just impatient, as she spoke up before he could answer. "Let's go out. I want you to see something."
It was pitch black as they walked down the street together, back toward the trees. Rika's apartment was on the edge of town, which put them within a short brisk walk of the forest. They loomed taller with every step, lit only by the crescent moon hanging in the sky. Alden felt his blood pumping faster through his chest. Anticipation hung heavy in the air, like a coiled cat ready to spring. It took him a moment to realize what was strange with the setting.
"All the lights are are off," he commented aloud.
"Yup. The town voted way back to start turning off the lights at night completely. Since there's no real traffic around here, they pushed it through pretty easily. The only lights that stay on are near the train and the sheriff's office." Rika pointed up, and Alden's eyes followed.
The stars were laid out before him, more dense and detailed than he'd ever imagined coming from a much larger city. He could see the arms of the galaxy twisting through the deep black and the twinkling of millions of tiny specks. It was an overwhelming, awe-inspiring sight, one that sent shivers down his spine and caught his throat when he tried to speak.
"Made the right choice, eh?" Rika said, taking his hand. He flinched at the contact and the burst of electricity through his system, but she ignored it and pulled him forward. "Come on, I don't want you to be late."
"Late to what, exactly?" Alden spoke finally, curiosity overcoming his stupor.
"Something special." Rika gestured to the trees that now stood only a few feet away. He could see a clearing only a few hundred feet forward, lit by an unknown source. "Go in there and see for yourself. You think you can find your way back to the apartment on your own?"
"You're not coming?" Alden said nervously.
"Nah, they wouldn't want me there. You'll be fine, just watch. Don't talk to anyone."
"I'll wait for you right here, then," Rika said, taking up a perch on a bench nearby and pulling out her phone. The screen, as dim as it was, seemed totally out of place compared to the canvas of stars above them.
His stomach churned in a mixture of excitement and apprehension, but Alden slowly made it his way forward nonetheless through the trees. Every step forward brought him closer to the lights, which he began to see were laid out in a wide circular clearing ahead. There was faint music wafting through the leaves, someone playing some kind of flute. As he walked forward he spotted figures through the trees, distinctive cloaks marking them out to be the members of Cinza's following. He finally emerged through the forest into the clearing, where a ritual-like arrangement awaited.
Her followers stood around the edges, hoods drawn low to hide their faces and patiently watching their leader. Cinza stood in the center, and unlike the rest, her hood was down, brown hair spilling out around her face. Her eyes were cast upward to the stars with an expression of rapture, their reflections dancing in her wide pupils with such intensity that Alden could see it from the edge of the tree line.
She lifted her arms from her sides. As she did, eight white stars rose from the grass around her, perfectly in sync with the charms dangling from her wrists.
Alden took a deep breath in excitement. Cinza's head snapped downward. Her eyes locked with his own. Alden felt like he was entranced, as if she held his entire head firmly with only the power of her gaze, but this was very different from what he had last experienced in the forest. Cinza's gaze was full of warmth and mystery, the potential of the universe pouring out from her eyes. The corners of her mouth twisted upward in a grin. Cinza shook her head, causing her brown hair to swing back and forth.
Alden gasped. Her hair began to shift in color, a shining line travelling down from her head to the tips of each strand, becoming a pure light silver-grey. Cinza shot him a playful wink before returning her gaze to the stars once more.
She snapped her arms upward, opening her palms to the sky, and began to sway in place. The eight orbs she'd summoned were joined by a web of them, forming the same eight pointed star that hung from the silver necklace now flashing on her chest as it caught and reflected the many lights dancing around it. Cinza lowered one hand, still wide open as if she intended to grasp at something.
She spun a quick circle, and the star began to rotate in place. The lights grew in intensity, and Alden lost track of the girl swaying in the center, directing the stars as if she were conducting an orchestra. His vision finally freed from her intense hold, Alden looked back at the sky, and gasped even louder.
The sky itself swayed in time to Cinza's motions. The stars twirled and spun through the heavens in time to her hands. Alden could only watch for a moment before he felt a small, warm hand grasp his firmly. His eyes shot back down to find Cinza suddenly directly in front of him, pulling him forward into the field of twinkling stars on the surface.
He had no idea what he was doing. Alden had never danced in his life, and had no knowledge of magic beyond what he had seen that day. Yet here he was, with an impossibly beautiful girl pulling him through a field of lights that were moving through him as if he were nothing more than air. The entire sky seemed to be rotating around just him and his impromptu partner. Cinza gave him a small smile. For the first time Alden saw her as a vulnerable, delicate person instead of the ethereal, unhinged leader she'd first appeared to be. Now she was just a small barefoot girl in a grey robe, inviting him to share with her something rapturous. She took hold of him and lead him through the clearing, swaying and spinning and twirling about together.
He felt something move inside him every time one of the spheres crossed their path. It was an impossible warmth that he was desperate to feel again, and yet he somehow knew that pursuing them directly wouldn't give him the same result. Only by following this girl and letting her lead him through the dance would he be permitted to experience such a sensation. The bracelets and charms adorning her wrists slid across his skin as she pulled him through the dance, her cloak fluttering in the light breeze flowing through the clearing. Alden felt as if the dance could have gone on forever and he could have been content.
Cinza gave him another smile, then suddenly released him. Alden stumbled backward and found himself outside the circle, back in the same spot as he had started.
Suddenly, she was on the opposite side of the circle, and one of her followers clung to her, their gray robes making them almost indistinguishable through the maze of lights that filled the forest. Another cloaked figure offered Alden a hand, helping him back to his feet.
"You're lucky," the young man murmured.
"She doesn't just pick anyone. You must be special."
"Oh," Alden replied. He couldn't come up with anything more interesting to respond with. He stared at Cinza and her new partner—a girl with thick wavy crimson hair who had to be in high school—as they pivoted through the spinning web of lights.
"Want to stick around? We'll have something to eat later."
Alden was about to accept when Rika's face popped into his mind, waiting patiently only a few hundred feet away. Her warning rang clearly through his ears. As inexperienced as he was, Alden still knew how to recognize a cult when he saw one. With a last longing look at the girl dancing in the lights, Alden turned and sprinted out of the clearing before he couldn't resist any longer.
Rika was waiting for him just outside the trees.
"Good shit, huh?" she asked, grinning.
"That was…" Alden panted, out of breath between the sprint and the dance.
"As weird as Cinza and her groupies might be, they know how to put on a show. You get pulled in?" Alden nodded. "Don't worry about you being 'special' or whatever. They tell that to everyone. Newbies always get to jump in." Rika looked uncomfortable as Alden's face fell. "Sorry. Still, I thought you should see something we can do that doesn't involve shooting fire and lightning at each other."
Alden nodded again. "It was breathtaking."
"No kidding, you're winded as hell," Rika teased. "So, wanna learn magic?" she asked again, but this time, under the starlight and with the lights still dancing in the trees behind her, Alden didn't hesitate for a moment.
"Does it hurt?" he asked casually. He didn't care what the answer was. His mind was already made up.
Alden Bensen was going to learn magic.