Chapter 9 — First Lessons
Alden watched apprehensively as Rika dug through her bag. He was excited, sure, but he still felt a deep nested fear of the unknown dangers that could be lying in wait. Rika didn't seem to have any clue where this power came from. If he understood his physics, there was some blatant violation of the laws of nature already going on, conservation of energy or some such.
So where is the energy coming from?
"How does this work?" he asked nervously.
"Hang on a sec," Rika mumbled, as she fiddled through the various rows of pouches. "Got it."
From the depths of her bag she pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. Not parchment—like the mysterious Scrap he'd seen at the meeting—but plain white paper, as ordinary as could be. It was as if it had just slid out from a printer, though the lower third of it was torn away.
Rika shook her head. "I'm going to try to say this as nicely as I can, but asking for the actual Scrap is insanely personal. I mean, you saw how intense the council meeting got. Only one other person in the world's ever seen mine. I just don't know you well enough, okay?" Rika looked apologetic, but her voice was firm. Alden nodded, a touch disappointed. "So I'm just going to give you the basics. The only complete page anyone ever found. Rachel left me a copy. It got torn up but yeah."
Alden raised his eyebrows. "You can just… copy them?" It seemed so mundane.
"Well, not exactly," Rika shrugged. "Throw it in a normal copy machine, scan it onto a computer, whatever, it becomes worthless. Can't read a word of it. I think they used carbon paper to make real copies. Something like that. You'd have to ask Alpha, wherever he is. He gave them to Rachel." She passed it over to Alden.
His eyes slid across the words. He couldn't bring himself to properly focus on any of them. In the gaps he could see flecks and scratches, though he couldn't tell if they were imperfections from the copy or part of the original sheet. The letters, from what he could see of the edges, were normal Roman letters, but he couldn't make out the language they might be in. Not that Alden knew any other languages. He looked back up at Rika, confused.
"Just try to read it aloud," Rika prompted, watching him like a hawk. She was perched on the chair, her legs pulled up in front. Her blue eyes glittered in excitement. For a moment he could have sworn he saw a brief flicker of electricity run through her hair, causing the blue streak to snap out straight, then relax—like a snake uncoiling for a strike.
He hesitated. Did he trust this occasionally violent and hostile young woman who was a pariah in the town he'd come to search? Who made bold claims about magic and destiny, who offered him an impossible gift with no real answers or apparent consequences? Was he about to make a horrible mistake he could never recover from?
"What's wrong?" Rika asked.
He shook his head. It was time to commit. This had to be the beginning of the answers he needed. If nothing else, he thought with a twinge of excitement, it's still magic.
Alden looked at the beginning of the paragraph and tried to read it aloud. "Abrec tes minn-" He stopped, his head light. He felt nauseous. He glanced up at Rika, afraid he'd said something wrong.
"Don't worry, no one manages to finish the first sentence on their first try." Rika tried to give him a comforting smile, but it just came off as impatient. "You're doing fine."
He looked down and began again. "Abrec tes minneard desve selnir tuala tan…" As he spoke, he suddenly felt the meaning come to him. He couldn't express it clearly, but he understood the emotion and the utter truth behind the words, as if they were opening a gate that had been locked away in his mind for eons untold.
Alden continued reading, the words flowing out of him even as he began to comprehend the depths of the world he was uncovering, an ancient secret that was pouring through his mind. The page taught itself to him, and though he would never understand the language in which it spoke, he knew its intention all too well.
He began to speak faster. The foreign tongue slid more easily through his teeth, until entire paragraphs were flying by in mere seconds.
A sensation of moving rushed through him. He felt the world spinning underneath his feet. Alden could sense himself falling, but it was a pleasant fall. The wind rushed past his cheeks.
He was in control. Innumerable objects were falling with him, shapeless things that he could sense but not describe. They spun in shapes around him and moved at his will.
The book. He understood the book, that dark leather-bound tome that held the secrets of an entire world akin to their own, only a step removed from reality. The text would teach him everything he ever needed to know, show him the path to achieving his goals, perfecting himself, becoming whomever he wanted to be. All paths would be open to him, all doors unlocked, and the universe itself would bend—
He reached the end of the paragraph and everything disappeared.
The world slipped away. Darkness flooded into his eyes. He could feel himself falling again, but this time it felt like he was out of control and tumbling—as if in slow motion—through an endless void.
A voice was calling out, and he struggled to bring himself to answer. He was so exhausted, he couldn't lift his arms or legs. He needed to keep reading, but there was nothing more to speak aloud. He'd lost sight of the page entirely. The words had ended, but the flow remained, and he was trapped between.
He felt himself choking on the air, his lungs desperately sucking in oxygen that was killing him. He couldn't speak, couldn't cry out. He was going to die, because the page was incomplete. His world was incomplete.
A palm grasped his own.
He struggled to raise his head, as if thousands of hands were dragging him back. It wasn't the warm dancing skin of Rika. Through a heavy veil of black fog he could see Rika hadn't moved, stock still in the chair and eyes wide as she sat transfixed.
No, it was a small cold hand, with a grip like iron, and a hushed voice that was muttering to him. The voice was soft and fast, repeating words in a nervous rush, but encouraging and comforting.
"It's okay, you're okay. Stay with me, all right? All right? You're okay, just keep going. Everything's going to be okay. It's all okay. Repeat after me…" and she spoke the next words in the book. He repeated them, and he felt the pressure on his chest releasing. She spoke another sentence, and he repeated it, and so they continued, until he felt his lungs expand gratefully with life-giving air as they completed the final few paragraphs.
The fog began to fade away. The first thing Alden saw was her eyes. They were a remarkable, intricate silver-grey—calm eyes that seemed to have a candle gently flickering deep within. The world returned around those two orbs, fading back into color and life. He could see her kneeling next to the couch, staring at his chest, at the couch cushions beside him, anywhere that wasn't his face. She brushed long, thick brown hair away from her face with her free hand, never letting go of his own as he found his way back to the world.
As Alden's body and mind settled, he sensed she was about to retreat. She would vanish into the air just as she had disappeared from the closet with Hector.
"Wait, please," Alden cried out desperately. She raised her head. Her silvery eyes flashed. The girl's mouth opened, as if she were in shock. She backed away—straight into a chair, stumbling over it and almost falling. It was so… human.
Despite how powerful he knew the girl must be, Alden didn't feel threatened or afraid in the slightest. He felt like she were his friend, but—as Rika had told him—that she was immensely capable and would be a terrible enemy to behold.
"I don't… I'm sorry, I didn't know—"
"Thank you," he gasped.
"Holy shit," Rika breathed from the other end of the room.
"Look, I shouldn't be here. I'm not supposed to be here. I think. I should be going. You're okay?" The girl was stumbling over her own words.
"Can we just talk for a second? Please?" Alden asked. She looked around nervously, and gave a little jump at spotting the awed Rika perched at the other corner.
"Rika? With Alden? Really?" the girl mumbled.
"What do you mean?" Rika asked carefully. Alden was taken aback at Rika's tone. He'd expected something far more crass and hostile, not cautious and measured.
"I don't know. Forget I said that, okay? I can't be here," she said nervously. For someone who could teleport and seemed to always know exactly when someone was awakening from the book, the grey-eyed girl seemed weirdly distraught.
"Are you okay?" Alden asked, pulling himself up to a sitting position, fighting desperately against his aching limbs. The girl's head snapped back around to face him.
"I'm sorry," she said, with such melancholy that tears began to well up in his own eyes.
She didn't answer. Instead, she rose and walked across the room to the mantle above the television, where sat a stack of books Alden hadn't noticed before. Rika was watching her curiously, but uncharacteristically silent. Alden wondered if she was afraid of this gray-eyed mystery. To his own eyes, she was only perhaps a couple years older than him, albeit shorter and smaller.
"Who are you?" he asked, trying to break the tension somehow. Once again she evaded their questions, instead reading the titles aloud as her finger traced the covers.
"Index Librorum Prohibitorum, The Sworn Book of Honorius, Ghāyat al-Ḥakīm in the latest translation, The Grimoire of Turiel—you know this is a fake right?" the girl asked Rika, holding it up.
"Written in the 60's, outright plagiarizes multiple other books of spells or other texts from much older. Not that any of them are real," she added, setting the book back carefully on the stack. "The Index was just the Church getting scared of something it didn't understand, and Picatrix is really only useful as a historical record of the scientific method in the eleventh century. There's only one real Grimoire." As with the Scraps, something about the weight she gave the word capitalized it in Alden's mind.
"How do you know all that?" Rika asked.
The girl ignored her. "Are you feeling okay, Alden?"
"Yeah. Thank you, err..." he paused, hoping to prompted a name from her. She only shook her head, her long brown hair flying wildly. An instant later, he saw her eyes flash, becoming bright silver. She looked so sad.
A faint breeze brushed past his cheek, flowing toward the center of the room to fill the void where she had stood only a moment earlier. He saw Rika's hair flutter in the same direction, as the air currents shifted around the suddenly vacant space in the room. The girl was gone, in the faintest whisper of a sound that seemed somehow distinctly lonely.
"Calm down. Don't drink so fast," Rika told him. Alden was guzzling down water from the bottle he'd brought on the train, which Rika had already refilled twice. He felt dehydrated and dizzy from the reading, and the food and water were only keeping him awake for so long. Alden refused to sleep yet, not while he was so eager to explore the new power he'd stumbled upon.
"How does this work?" he spluttered between mouthfuls. Rika sat back on the coffee table cross-legged, her expression thoughtful.
"What did you get stuck on?"
Alden didn't know how to respond.
"I mean, what did you feel? Before she showed up. What was the sensation?" Rika clarified.
"...Falling," Alden answered, the unpleasant memory springing into his mind.
"Movement," Rika said, satisfied.
"You've got your affinity. Probably."
"What's that?" Alden asked, curious.
"Well, everyone's got one, as far as I can tell. I've been trying to figure them out as a side project. Kind of fascinating, who ends up with what. It's gotta be linked to what you feel before she pulls you back."
"And what does it mean?" Alden prompted impatiently. Rika looked like she might launch into a more detailed accounting, when he desperately needed to know what had happened to him.
"Well, assuming I'm right, you're gonna find movement magic a lot easier to use and control," she explained patiently. "You might discover how to do something before anyone else does, too. Call it a flash of insight. It'll be related to your affinity for sure."
"And yours is electricity?" Alden guessed.
"Close. All the elements, really." Rika raised her hand, and snapped her fingers, then immediately spread her palm wide. A small yellow-orange flame flickered into existence floating in the space she revealed. Even from across the room, Alden could tell it was quite real. "Lightning's just my specialty. Something no one else knows how to do yet," Rika boasted.
She flicked two fingers, sending a crackle of electricity buzzing about the lick of flame. It sped around a dozen times before both puffed out of existence a moment later as Rika closed her hand. Even to a complete novice like Alden, it was clear how far superior her sense of control was with the little bolt of lightning.
"Wow," he breathed.
"You know it," Rika boasted. "So, where do you want to start?"
Alden opened his mouth reply and was struck by a yawn, overwhelming his senses. Fatigue had finally caught up with him after the very long day he'd endured, coupled with the exertion brought on by the reading of the book.
"Tomorrow then," Rika noted, clearly amused.
"Sorry, it's not you—" Alden stammered.
Rika chortled. "What, are you breaking up with me? You're tired, it's cool. Magic can wait."
Alden glanced around, unsure of what to do next. The short duffel bag he'd been lugging around since he'd gotten off the train sat in the corner. It had a few changes of clothes and other belongings, but he'd had no idea how long he might be staying in Rallsburg. He certainly didn't have anywhere to stay. "Should I just take the couch…?" he mumbled halfheartedly.
"Huh?" Rika was surprised. So was he. For the briefest moment, his sleep-deprived mind assumed she meant for him to share her bed. She quickly disabused him of that notion. "God no. You're going next door."
A few minutes later, Alden was looking at a sparse, almost barren apartment. A single couch, a nearly empty kitchen, and a plain but comfortable looking bed in a single bedroom upstairs.
"The place is empty, always has been. Thanks to my apparently kidnapped landlord, you're probably good to stay here for at least a few nights," Rika said, eyeing the tiny bed with something akin to distaste. Alden briefly imagined what Rika's bedroom might look like, but pushed the thought away as his face tinged with warmth, before Rika could find some other reason to tease him. He set down his bag and began pulling out his necessities.
"Need anything? Toothpaste, blanket, towel?" Rika asked.
"I think I'm okay."
"I'm just next door. Bang on the wall if you have to." Rika turned to leave.
"Not gonna sleep with you, Alden," she sighed, but her hand stopped turning the door handle all the same. He was too tired to remember to feel embarrassed by her comment. She glanced over her shoulder patiently.
"I'm your friend," Alden said awkwardly.
"No shit," Rika replied, rolling her eyes. "Go to sleep, dumbass. You're gonna have a killer headache in the morning." Alden nodded, and a few seconds later he'd already collapsed on the bed, his eyes sliding shut almost involuntarily. As consciousness slid from his brain, he felt his shoes untied and pulled away, and then his legs hoisted back onto the bed, but he was too tired to comprehend who was helping him, until he heard her whisper from the edge of the bed. "Thanks."
The door clicked shut, and the rest of the world closed with it.
"Hold out your finger like this."
"You're just flipping it off."
"I do what works, okay?"
"I just feel like it should be more like this," Alden shot back. He shifted his fingers into a position that felt more natural to him. "Is it really just all about hand movements?"
"Nah." Rika took his hand and adjusted his fingers back to their original position. She was wearing a pair of comfortable thin black gloves to dampen her residual electricity, but he could still feel it flowing faintly through the fabric. "Now, look at the paper. Push your will out into it."
He tried. Alden had no clue what that meant, but he tried to force his mind to take hold of the paper and shove it aside.
It didn't budge.
"It's not working," he sighed aloud.
"Maybe… Try projecting an image. Something mental, like an invisible hand," Rika suggested. "Imagine you have an arm extending out from your brain and let that do the grabbing." It sounded ridiculous to Alden; then again, he had zero experience here, while Rika could send blades of grass flying around the riverbank easily.
After waking up in the empty apartment, Alden had barely time to get dressed and showered before Rika was already banging on his door, a bag of fresh doughnuts in hand. An hour later, they'd gone back to the riverbank near the bridge where the entrance to the Market sat concealed only a few dozen meters away. Rika claimed it was just a nice, usually empty place, but Alden suspected she was lying in wait for Kendra or Lily to emerge from the Market. He wondered if they'd even bother to exit from the bridge, given how the Market seemed linked to so many other places around town, but brushed the thought away. He had more pressing concerns, like his complete inability to move the lone sheet of paper sitting on the sidewalk in front of them.
Alden did as she suggested, imagining a ghostly hand stretching out from where he sat to grasp the paper. As it did, he twisted his fingers sharply.
The paper fluttered. Was it just the wind? No, it had matched his fingers so precisely. He felt elated, until the wave hit him.
From the tip of his finger all the way up his arm, he felt his muscles drain like he'd been lifting heavy weights for hours. His arm fell limp to his side, practically numb from exertion. He gasped involuntarily. It was a strange feeling. The paper had moved instantly, and he'd felt nothing, but only a moment later the effort he'd put out struck him like a truck barrelling down the highway.
He collapsed back onto the soft grass slope.
"Good shit, huh?" Rika smirked.
"Now I know why you brought this blanket," Alden said, still winded.
"Well, you're definitely a movement guy. Took me days to get the paper to lift off the ground at all." She sounded a touch jealous.
"It's nothing like your lightning," he put in abashedly.
She looked at him with scorn. "Don't patronize me."
"Sorry." He turned back to the paper, eager to try again.
"Hold up there, Zack-ey. Give yourself a moment," Rika cried out, but it was too late. Alden was already twisting his fingers once more, and the paper fluttered, hovering in midair. He shot a grin at Rika, and was awake just long enough to see a frown begin to crease her eyebrows before his world went black.
"Alden, wake the fuck up!"
He spluttered back to life. There was a wall of red bricks above him, the underside of the bridge leading out of town. Apparently Rika had moved him under cover while he'd been out.
"You passed out for a minute. Don't do that again," Rika snapped. There was genuine concern on her face.
"I'm okay," he mumbled, struggling to sit up. Rika planted a hand on his shoulder, pushing him back down firmly.
"Nope. Stay down, let yourself wake up a bit more." After a moment's indignation, Alden felt grateful for her insistence. Even that modicum of effort sent his head spinning, his blood pounding through his skull. His relaxed position was easing the pressure, bit by bit.
It was still sunny and warm out. Rika was sitting just off to the side of the blank wall where the door to the Market would appear. She was alternating concerned looks at him with glances around the river, to the swathes of trees lining the far bank and the road leading away. He decided that, being relatively incapacitated, now was as good a time as any to ask a few more questions of her.
"How long have you been doing this?"
"Eight months, give or take?"
"That recently?" he asked, shocked.
"Well, they only discovered the first parts of the book like a year and a half ago," Rika continued. "Maybe a bit earlier. Then there were a few months of people going nuts with magic, before the Gods stepped in. After that they made the Council, got everyone organized, then they had a falling out. No one explained that part to me. They all get nervous when I bring it up," Rika said dismissively. She clearly didn't think much of their fears.
"Going nuts with magic, but still no one found out?" Alden prompted.
"The council and such helps, but I'd bet anything the Gods are working behind the scenes pretty constantly to keep us all out of trouble." Rika frowned. "Makes you wonder how they do it."
"Yeah, it does," Alden added pointedly. Rika gave him a look.
"Fuck if I know. Maybe they just disappear them, that'd be easy. Oh hell," she faltered, seeing the expression that had briefly crossed Alden's face. "Sorry."
"How do I get better at magic?" Alden asked, determined to change the subject.
"Practice," Rika answered simply.
"Fuck no. You gotta learn and experiment, do research, and train yourself. It gets a bit easier over time, but not by much. Unless it's your affinity, but even then it's never easy. Might be magic, but it's still work." Rika pointed at her arm. "It's like a muscle in a way. You work at it, it tears and gets sore. Like that migraine you had earlier, or the fact that you just passed out a few minutes ago. But when it heals, it heals back stronger than before."
She reached out her hand toward the paper Alden had been struggling with. With a few gentle movements, it began to flip up and down, fluttering around in figure eights. She made it look effortless, until he glanced at her face instead of the paper. She let it down a moment later. Alden could see the exertion affecting her, but Rika still always seemed to want to show off what she could do.
"You said you have to research?" he prompted. "Research how, exactly?"
"Scientific method. Take a guess, try some stuff out, see if it worked, find a pattern. Calling it magic's just a placeholder, I'd say," Rika replied, settling back against the wall again. "It's a science, but no one's got a clue how it works yet. What's that quote? 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.'"
"But you can shoot lightning from your fingers and move things with your mind," Alden protested.
She shook her head. "Yeah, but there's a logic to it. It's consistent. We know exactly how anyone can start using magic, even if we don't know why it happens." Rika pointed up at the sky. "The entire universe was formed by the Big Bang. We know how that happened, and roughly how everything formed after that, but we know fuck all about why."
"Logically, magic's gotta follow some rules. Yeah, it breaks the laws of physics as we know them, but so did a thousand other things in the past, and we revised those laws. Someone's gonna have to revise them again."
"Not you, though."
"Nope. Too lazy."
He laughed. Rika grinned.
"Glad you've still got some sense of humor. Now, any other questions from the peanut gallery?"
"What's a peanut gallery?"
"Cheap seats in a theater, you uncultured hack." She stood up. "You good yet?"
Alden pulled himself up to a sitting position, and found that the nausea and headache had subsided substantially. "Yeah."
"Cool. So what's next? You wanna try making fire?"
Alden grinned. All caution fled from his mind as an image of himself popped into his mind, with balls of fire floating in his hands and an intense look on his face. He rubbed his hands together excitedly. This was going to be fun.
As it turned out, Alden was even less proficient at the elements than movement. It didn't help that Rika was vastly more proficient than him and enjoyed showing it off.
He split his fingers, just as Rika had demonstrated, making a sort of reverse snapping motion with his mind focused on the element as Rika had described, and in the air a fireball appeared. It was a wispy little yellow flame, almost invisible and giving off so little heat he could barely sense it was hovering above the tips of his fingers. A few moments later, it puffed out, leaving only the faintest sense of warmth as evidence it was ever there.
"Why isn't there any smoke?" Alden wondered aloud.
"Like when a candle goes out, that trail of smoke. But there's nothing here."
"Well, that's the wax of the candle still burning away. You can actually relight that smoke if you wanted." Rika made a large flame in the air—much more visible than Alden's paltry efforts—then dismissed it just as quickly. "But we're not burning anything. So no smoke."
"If nothing's burning, how can there be fire? Isn't that… impossible?"
Rika grinned. "Magic, Alzack. If you can solve that little mystery, you'll be light years ahead of the rest of us in figuring this shit out."
"Like I was saying before. There's still science here. There's patterns and connections, lines between things. Everything is connected in some way, by relationship or by a mutual nature. We just gotta figure those connections out, and as we do we find out new ways to experiment. New spells to throw around."
Alden still wasn't quite grasping it. Rika seemed to notice his confusion, as she continued to explain. "Take the simple movement stuff you've just learned. You can send things dancing through the air. Cool, but pretty limited, right? All you've done though is basic, visualizing grabbing at things from a distance and hovering them through the air. Everyone does that. Now imagine you can push things. Maybe send an entire wall of force, like a shockwave." Rika raised both hands, interlocking her fingers with palms splayed outward. Without warning, she shoved them forward at Alden.
It was like an invisible brick wall had slammed into him. Alden watched the grass flatten beneath the wave as it rushed to meet him. He fell over flat on his back, coughing from the impact.
"Oh shit!" Rika was at his side again instantly. Alden could have sworn she warped to his side. Had he blacked out again for a moment? "Hey, you okay?"
"Yeah," Alden spluttered, pulling himself back to his feet. He was winded, but otherwise he felt fine. "Nothing permanent. I'm okay."
"Fuck, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to throw that much out." Rika looked embarrassed.
Alden starting laughing. "That was one of the coolest things I've ever seen."
"Seriously?" Rika asked, a smile beginning to crease the edges of her lips.
He nodded. "How do I do it?"
Rika shook her head. "Nah, can't make it that easy. You'll never learn that way. You gotta experiment." She retreated a few steps to give them some distance, sitting back on her legs on the grassy bank. "Go ahead, see what you can do to me."
"To you?" Alden asked, feeling anxiety rise up again in his chest. "What if I mess up, do something terrible?"
"I don't know. Seems like you can do a lot with telekinesis. What if someone just nicked an artery or snipped the nerves at your brain? Wouldn't you just… die?"
Rika shook her head again. "You can't. Go ahead and try. Make my hand move or something."
With great apprehension, Alden reached out mentally as Rika had taught him. He was too nervous to even try for the hand lying calm in her lap. He settled on a single finger, just the pinky that was idly toying with her streak of blue hair.
As he extended his will toward it, he found himself blocked. It was like pressing up against the cleanest, clearest window imaginable—so transparent it may as well not exist, and yet it barred his passage. He couldn't push through it, no matter how much effort he threw into the spell. As tension knotted his brain and pressure started building up in his ears, Alden released the spell with a huge breath.
Rika nodded in satisfaction. "Mason's Law."
"An uptight prick who really wanted something named after himself. There's a lot of those here," Rika added with a grin. "Smart guy though. Basically, you can't directly affect another person. He worded it a lot more elegantly, but that's the gist. So no mass-murder by nerve pinching, or setting a fire inside someone's eyeballs, or mind-control—although apparently that does work on animals…" Rika trailed off thoughtfully. "Gonna have to see if I can figure out how Nat controls her pet. Anyway. All the stuff you've seen, it's just people affecting the environment, or themselves. Never each other."
Alden nodded. It was limiting, but it was reassuring. It meant he didn't have to worry about accidentally pissing off the wrong person and dying instantly for it. Hopefully, anyway.
"Now, back to throwing around a wall at someone. Tell me how I did it. Or do it yourself."
He sat back and thought. If he couldn't hit someone directly, how would he knock them over like Rika had done him? Alden went ahead and tried it anyway. This was about experimenting, right? Rika seemed fully confident he couldn't do anything to hurt her.
He raised his hands in the same manner she had shown, fingers interlocked, and threw them at her with the force he could muster. In his mind, he tried to widen his push, so that it became a huge block to hurl at Rika. He could feel it working, but at the same time the strength behind his push was so weakened that he barely felt the resistance from the field around her body. He may as well have not pushed it at all.
Rika just grinned at him. She plucked a bright yellow dandelion from the grass nearby and tucked it behind her ear tauntingly, not a care in the world.
A few minutes passed with Alden still trying every variation he could think of to send a wave of force at her, but all for naught. Rika was enjoying herself far too much, currently sending tiny flames dancing around him in circles and forming little faces with their tongues out. It was intimidating how her level of control so dramatically dwarfed his own.
Alden finally collapsed back onto the grass, after a final desperate attempt to grab every single blade of grass between himself and Rika and shove them forward together. He felt like he might have blacked out from the attempt had he pushed any further.
"Oh, come on. You're not giving up that easily, are you?"
"You win, Rika. How'd you do it?" Alden grumbled aloud.
"She's pushing the air, kid," A harsh, gravelly voice from above interrupted them.
Both twisted upward to see the gaunt-looking man from the council meeting—Viper—who now stood at the top of the riverbank glaring down at them. Or perhaps that was simply how his facial features were normally arranged. Alden wasn't sure from this distance.
"Thanks for giving it away," Rika snapped, leaping to her feet. "The fuck do you want?"
"Should be nicer, girl. I could help you." Viper climbed down the riverbank to the path, only a few paces away from them. "Go on, kid. Try pushing the air."
Alden was skeptical, but did as the man said. Instead of reaching toward the objects he could see, he tried to grasp at the air itself. Almost immediately on changing his focus, Alden could sense the particles in the air as he touched them mentally. He grasped a wide range, as many as he thought he could handle, and once again tried to shove them as Rika had.
A wave rippled out—nowhere near as strong, but visible nonetheless. The wind he'd created sent Rika's hair fluttering to his great satisfaction, before he nearly doubled over once the force recoiled back into him. She shot a glare at him, dampening his spirits, then turned to face Viper.
Up close, Alden could see his rough skin, patchy and unkempt stubble on his chin, and that his left arm was tightly bound to his chest in a sling. His jacket looked military issue, as did his boots, and he wore a set of small pouches in varying shapes and sizes on a belt around his waist. His face seemed in a perpetual scowl, even now while he was apparently trying to be diplomatic.
"Yeah, and you are?"
"Viper's good enough. I got a proposition for you."
Rika frowned. "Why would you want to work with me?"
"Because I agree with you. An auction's fucking stupid for something like this. Too dangerous. Shouldn't just hand out powerful stuff to the highest bidder." Viper reached for one of his pouches. Rika flinched, her own hand shooting to the bag at her waist. "Calm down, kid. Open it yourself if you want." He took his hand away. Rika did so, flicking the string off that latched it down with a quick gesture. Inside was a small piece of paper, which she floated out into the open, catching it neatly out of midair.
"K&B at noon. The fuck's this supposed to mean?"
"Means the Scrap's gonna be there. Tomorrow. Means we're gonna steal it." Viper cracked the barest hint of a smile, and it sent chills down Alden's spine.