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Interlude I

V.

Late September, about six weeks later, on a warm sunny afternoon at Hailey's apartment.



  Try as she might, Hailey couldn't seem to pull anything more out of the stone. She could summon up nearly-solid blocks of air, barely perceptible hazy outlines in the air that nonetheless felt like solid concrete to the touch. They never lasted more than a few seconds at most, but they were tangible things. They were a real result.

  It had been over a month and she still couldn't produce anything more than what she'd first managed. Still, for once she didn't feel quite so alone in her struggles. Neither of the others had managed to show much for their efforts. Jessica, lounging on the bed with her newly-dyed purple hair, was fiddling with an amethyst crystal and muttering to herself incessantly. Hailey was beginning to worry about her. Sometimes she seemed too determined—too narrowly focused on the magic. She was neglecting everything else. Laundry was beginning to pile up in the room, dishes stacking up in the sink, and Hailey was pretty sure (though she never brought it up) that Jess hadn't even attended two of her classes yet that term.

  Weston, on the other hand, had grown so distant that he'd stopped coming to their place. It had slowed from the exciting first few months where he'd spent almost every waking hour with them, reveling in their new discovery. Now they were lucky to get together once a week. It had been an emotional roller coaster for Hailey. First she was thrilled, since she was spending so much time with the guy she was sleeping with, and thought they might have actually had something. She'd later despised it as he'd become overprotective and neurotic, particularly after Ian left. Now, with their group having shrunk down to two, Hailey was beginning to miss him. She didn't want to get back together romantically, but Hailey would given anything for the five of them to just spend an afternoon hanging out.

  She'd had taken to staring out the window more often, lost in thought. Hailey liked watching the clouds float by. They reminded her of her goal and kept her focused and sane. When they gathered together in thick columns on a sunny day, Hailey imagined they formed vast kingdoms and mystical lands drifting in the sky. A deep and complex cloudscape was more breathtaking and beautiful than anything else nature had to offer, in Hailey's opinion. Even more so, it was a temporary fleeting thing—something that could only be seen by those watching at that precise moment before they morphed into something else and moved on, ushered away by the wind.

  Someday I'll be up there flying through them, Hailey promised herself stubbornly. She might not be making any progress lately, but it wouldn't stop her. Nothing would.

  Hailey noticed the room had gotten quiet. She looked back from her seat at the window at Jessica, who'd stopped muttering. Jess' eyes were wide, and Hailey recognized the telltale signs of revelation. She'd just figured something out.

  "What's the news, Jess?" Hailey prompted. She wasn't worried about interrupting an important thought. Jessica had asked them to speak up and force her to get her ideas out before they faded and became indistinct. Hailey was just doing her job.

  "The stone gave me an idea. I think I know how we can get more power out of them. Maybe even use multiple stones at once, if I have it right. I— I think I can even do permanent things." Jessica's voice was quiet and rapid, and Hailey strained to hear her clearly.

  "Permanent things?" Hailey asked, cautiously excited. If she could levitate herself permanently, was that the key to flight? It seemed like a clue.

  "I don't know what it would work with. Self and Mental magic, for sure. Other affinities might be a bit iffy. They don't have the proper permanence, they affect externalities and are manipulations of energy as opposed to modifications of internal energy by a directed feedback loop."

  "Slow down, Jess. I think I get what you mean though. This is about making permanent changes to yourself, right?"

  Jessica nodded. "I got the impression it's a lot more complicated than what we've been doing though. We just do simple spells, using our own energy or the energy of the gemstones and changing it to suit whatever we're trying to do. And even when we're using the gemstones, it's more like we've just borrowed the energy that was put into forming them. Past energy. We amplify it in some ways but it's not like we're overcoming entropy really, just misdirecting it.

  "But this," Jessica continued, her eyes flashing with excitement. She looked more awake than Hailey had seen her in days. "This could be big. I think I have a way to basically multiply output and loop it. Not infinitely, but in a way that doesn't require constant upkeep."

  "That sounds perfect, Jess!" Hailey clapped her hands together. "And you got this from your spells?"

  Jessica turned over her hand, showing the flecks of ash coating her skin. "Burned through another ten of them…" she trailed off regretfully.

  Hailey waved her off. "It's not that expensive, Jess. Don't worry."

  "I just don't want to be a burden—"

  "Don't even start," Hailey said. "With you living here full-time, we can afford it easy. It's just money."

  Jessica smiled, and Hailey could practically feel the warmth radiating from it. "Thanks, Hailey."

  "Hell, if you're really worried about money we could always rent out the other bedroom," Hailey went on, looking at the adjoining wall. "Since you just sleep in here with me every night."

  "Is that not okay?" Jessica squeaked nervously, her face tinged with pink again. Hailey felt like her face might become permanently blushed someday if she kept being so easy to embarrass. She laughed, trying to ease Jess' worries. Hailey didn't want to force her away, when Jessica was still clearly terrified of the outside. Hailey was still the only one of them who seemed even remotely comfortable out in the world, with the danger they all seemed to sense around every corner. If it took Jessica clinging to her in bed every night like a frightened kitten to feel safe, then Hailey was happy to oblige.

  "Are you kidding? I'd probably freeze to death without you. I've never known someone to hold on so tight while they were sleeping. You really know how to make someone feel loved."

  Jessica looked like she might spontaneously run a fever with how much heat had rushed into her face. Hailey resisted the urge to laugh again, changing topics instead.

  "So what's the name for this new magic?"

  "Oh! Uhh… Rituals, I guess."

  "Going all-in on the witchcraftiness?"

  "It just popped into my head," Jessica continued. She didn't need to explain further. Her particular brand of magic, which Hailey couldn't even begin to attempt without instant exhaustion and failure, lead to these ideas that they simply took for granted as truth. Jessica's skin finally returned to her normal, sun-starved pale shade. She was spending far too much time inside lately, Hailey decided. They needed to go out sometime and enjoy the last dregs of summer before the rain started pouring in.

  "How does it work?"

  "A lot of concentration, some materials, some guesswork," Jessica said. "I think it's about using the energy of the gems along with your own, and then it involves some powdered chalk and diagrams of some kind. It's a lot more concrete and directed than what we've been doing so far, actually. Almost like following a blueprint or a recipe. We just don't know any of the recipes," she trailed off again.

  "Do you have anything we could try to start off?" Hailey asked, eager to experiment as usual. She wanted a new challenge. Anything that might inspire her, or at the very least distract from her continuing failures to accomplish anything more than bumpy gliding and brief jumps in mid-air.

  "Well," Jessica said, her hand playing with her hair pointedly. "The first thing that came to mind was changing the appearance of something. Permanently, I mean, not that time we did my nails where it changed back once I let go."

  "You don't like the purple?" Hailey asked, surprised. Jessica had picked it out herself when they'd gone shopping, with Hailey's recommendation.

  "I changed my mind. Not really a fan," Jessica said, looking away. Hailey smiled knowingly.

  "Didn't catch the right eyes, did it? I think you needed to go more complicated than all purple. Your natural brown is actually really nice. I thought you could bleach part of it and do some cool highlights, transition into a color."

  "That sounds cool," Jessica said brightly. "I wouldn't even have to bleach it if I do this right. I can just change it naturally. Well, unnaturally, I guess," she added, giggling.

  "What color were you thinking?"

  "I don't know. Any ideas?"

  "Mmm," Hailey said, glancing out the window again, trying to think. Jessica followed her gaze.

  "How about that?"

  "What?"

  Jessica pointed out the window, at a gap in the clouds where the deep azure blanketed the depths of the sky. "That blue."

  Hailey smiled. "Perfect."

  Jessica got to her feet. "Do we have any chalk?"

  As it turned out, Hailey did, along with the rainbow moonstone Jessica had guessed would be the best reagent for the ritual. They marched into the empty bedroom with materials and kitchen tools, which had become their experimentation room. It was totally empty of furniture, just bare wood floor and empty walls. There was a fresh coat of paint on the wall to cover up the scorch marks from one of Hailey's days playing around with fire that had gotten a little out of control, and the floor was swept clear of dust thanks to the many bursts of wind she'd summoned in her quest to perfect the double-jump.

  Her landlord thought it was a bit strange, but didn't comment further except to remind her not to make any permanent changes.

  "Need me to do anything?" Hailey asked.

  "Can you cut the moonstone into four pieces? It doesn't need to be super even, I just need one for each point," Jessica answered, already starting to grind up the chalk into a powder in a bowl. Once she was done, she poured it out in a small circle, wide enough for someone to sit comfortably inside. She then drew out a specific shape around the outside, something like a diamond with curved sides that caved in towards the center to just barely touch the edges of the circle.

  "What is that?"

  "A hypocycloid," Jessica said distractedly, setting aside the bowl of chalk and taking the cracked moonstone from Hailey. She'd simply taken a hammer and nail to it, splitting it into a few discrete chunks with a bit left over. It was rough, but then Jessica had said it didn't really matter.

  "A hypo-whatnow?"

  "It's a shape formed by tracing a point on a circle rolling around inside another circle." Jessica set each of the chunks at the points of the shape, then started moving everything else out of the room, including the cushions and towels they usually kept laying around. Hailey got up to help, and between the two of them they had it empty in just a minute or two.

  "So why'd we empty the room?"

  "You don't ask until afterward?" Jessica said, looking at her funny.

  "I trust you. I'm still curious though. You need a lot of space?"

  "Not really," Jessica said, her voice catching slightly. "It's just to avoid interference. I'm not exactly sure what can interfere with the process, but I'm definitely sure it's a bad idea to disrupt it in any way. I figure we're always dealing with the elements in some way, right? So everything—every tiny factor that we can account for should be. I don't want like, say, a ladybug wandering in and suddenly my hair is bright red with black spots all over it."

  Hailey laughed. "That'd catch some eyes." Jessica's face was turning bright red again. She was working up to say something. Hailey cocked her head to the side, not sure what the hold up was. "Jess, what's up?"

  "I just—" Jessica started. "I want to be sure nothing interferes, so…" She tugged at her jacket sleeve pointedly.

  Understanding dawned on Hailey. "Oh!" She grinned. "Sorry, I'm really slow at times, remember? I'll just pop out for a bit and leave you to it." She waggled her eyebrows suggestively. "Gotta save that sexy body for the right person, hmm?"

  She turned to leave, but Jessica called out first. "Hailey?"

  "Yeah?"

  "Stay, please?"

  Hailey turned around. Jessica had always been extremely shy since the first day they'd met. She typically wore baggy clothes that hid her figure and desperately avoided situations where she'd wear anything less. They'd never even been to the beach once (though Hailey supposed it didn't help that the nearest beach was a good long train ride away and none of them much felt like leaving town). Even when they slept, Jessica was in full pajamas and under the covers before Hailey even showed up to bed. She'd made it quite clear nonverbally that she liked her privacy, and Hailey had done her best to accommodate. To say she was surprised by Jessica's request was putting it lightly.

  "You sure, Jess?"

  "I—" Jessica started. She tugged at the sleeve of her forest-green jacket again, looking nervous. "I'm sorry."

  "What do you have to be sorry for?" Hailey said. She almost laughed, but managed to keep it in. It would have been hurtful, and Jessica really was her best friend.

  "I want you to see me," Jessica said suddenly.

  "...Huh?"

  "I... I like you."

  "I—" Hailey started, then the freight train crashed home, reverberating through her skull. "Oh!"

  Jessica pulled her hood up over her head and pulled the drawstrings closed. "I'm sorry."

  Hailey didn't hesitate. She bounded over the line of chalk and buried Jessica in a bear hug, lifting the smaller girl off her feet. "Don't be sorry, silly."

  "But you don't—"

  Hailey put a hand on the back of her head and pressed her face into Hailey's shoulder. "Shh."

  "I didn't want to tell you. I liked what we had."

  "Jess… It's okay." Hailey let her out of the hug, but still held her at arm's length. They sat down inside the circle Jessica had drawn.

  "I understand if you want me to leave—" Jessica started in a cracked voice, but Hailey put a finger to her lips.

  "Don't be ridiculous. You're my best friend and I love you."

  "But I… You—" Jessica stumbled over her words. Hailey waited patiently, letting her get her thoughts out. "You're not… into girls, right?"

  Hailey shook her head. "I'm not."

  Jessica's eyes welled up. Hailey grabbed her again and held her close. She knew this part would be painful, but it had to be done. She was still reeling mentally. Jessica, her best friend in the world, was gay, and she hadn't realized it after living with her for months and months?

  And to think I afraid she was going to steal Wes way back! Hailey remembered, and stifled another laugh before Jessica got the wrong idea.

  "I just don't want—" Jessica said, her mouth muffled by Hailey's shoulder. "I don't want it to get weird between us."

  This was too much for Hailey. She finally laughed. Jessica stiffened in her grip, but didn't try to pull away.

  "Jess, we've been practically living together indoors because we're hiding from the boogeymen. We can do magic, crazy impossible magic, and we're getting better at it every day. We're sitting in the middle of a bunch of moonstones and a hypodermoid—"

  "Hypocycloid."

  "Yeah, that one. And you think you being gay is gonna make this weird?" Hailey tugged gently at the back of Jessica's head, prompting her to look up and directly at Hailey. Her eyes were red and puffy, but Hailey stared her down directly and spoke emphatically: "Jessica, I will always be your best friend forever and ever, no matter what. And there's no way in hell I'm going to sleep tonight without you next to me. Got it?"

  "Got it," she said weakly, forcing a smile onto her lips.

  Hailey grinned. "And if you need space any time, or if you need the bed because you've got a hot date and need to make sweet sapphic love to her, you just say the word and I'm out of there."

  Jessica laughed somewhere inside Hailey's top, and it brought a burst of warmth and sunshine to Hailey's heart. She finally loosened her grip, but Jessica was still holding on tight, so Hailey just held her for a while longer, until her impatience finally gave way.

  "As much as I love hugging you, Jess, didn't we have a cool new experiment to try here?"

  "Oh, right," Jessica said. She let go and Hailey backed off, seating herself against the wall cross-legged.

  "Still want me to stick around?"

  "Yeah," Jessica said, with quite a bit more confidence than before. She began shrugging off her clothes one by one. A huge emotional weight had vanished from the room, leaving Hailey feeling elated. Jessica's face was screwed up in determination.

  "You good?" she asked, as Jessica paused, stripped down to her underwear.

  "Never been… you know."

  "Naked around someone before?" Hailey offered. Jessica nodded. "Well, call me practice then."

  "Right." Jessica reached behind her back to unhook her bra, and let it fall away with a wince. Hailey kept her gaze fixed on Jessica's face, making sure she didn't feel ogled, but Jessica noticed anyway. "You can look."

  "You look great," Hailey said encouragingly.

  "You don't have to say that," Jessica squealed, immediately covering herself up with her hands.

  "No, seriously. You do. I'd kill for your skin."

  "Really?"

  "Really really," Hailey answered sincerely. "And you've got more than enough going on in the boob department too, if you're wondering. Just the right amount, trust me. You're sexy."

  Jessica giggled nervously, letting her hands fall away. She sat down cross-legged, finally removing her underwear as well. She pressed her hands to her head, closing her eyes and beginning to concentrate. Hailey leaned back against the wall, watching impatiently. She was eager to see Jessica pull it off, even if she didn't expect it to actually look much different than before. They'd colored some hair already with a bit of the moonstones, but as she'd noted, it just changed back the moment they let go of the spell. A permanent change—one they didn't have to pay attention to after they'd cast it—would be yet another evolutionary step forward.

  Jessica started murmuring. The moonstones glowed slightly, pale white. Hailey spotted a bead of sweat forming on Jessica's chest, then two. She was clutching her small fists tight. Her knuckles whitened. The chalk outline seemed to quiver a little as she started speaking faster.

  The moonstones glowed a little stronger. The chalk quivered a little more. The sweat on Jessica's chest glistened brighter.

  Hailey could sense the energy moving in the room. It was a sensation not unlike the pricklies from an electric current, but it was somehow more pervasive and penetrating. She felt inside her chest and through her limbs, not just at a surface level but deep inside her bones.

  It shifted, agitated, and Hailey could feel it rushing toward Jessica. Against her better judgment, she sprang to her feet, taking a step toward her friend.

  Immediately, the moonstones pulsed a kaleidoscope of angry colors. Hailey felt a shift in the energy, sudden hostile and defensive. She froze, terrified that something had gone wrong, but Jessica seemed not to have noticed. She was perfectly still except for her mouth, continuously muttering something incomprehensible.

  Hailey had to suppress a gasp as Jessica's hair was suddenly, inexplicably brown. The purple had utterly vanished, replaced with her pleasant natural brown. The changes didn't stop there, however, as highlights of azure popped into place, fading in over the brown as it reached the waves currently brushing over her knees. Only a few bunches were colored, but the effect was striking. It was such a full color, something Hailey suspected would never have come out so clearly with bleach and dye.

  The moonstones stopped glowing, having become blackened and coarse, and the chalk seemed to have evaporated entirely. Jessica opened an eye cautiously and ran a hand through her hair.

  "I think it worked," she said, breathless.

  Hailey took her cue, jumping to her feet and bounding into the (now vanished) circle to pounce on her best friend.

  "Jess, you're a genius!"

  "Hold on, Hailey! Get off!" Jessica squealed in alarm. Hailey propped herself up in panic.

  "What? Did I screw something up?"

  "...No. You were just choking me a bit," Jessica said meekly. Hailey laughed and rolled off her, running a hand through the newly colored hair experimentally.

  "This looks beautiful, Jess."

  Her face blushed bright red yet again. "Thanks." They both stretched out on the warm floor, relaxing in the sunlight streaming in from the window.

  "So what's next on the list?" Hailey asked, knowing Jessica's mind was already jumping through dozens of hoops to the next possibility.

  "This is just a cosmetic," Jessica said, picking up a bundle of hair and letting it fall.

  "Sexy one though," Hailey pointed out.

  Jessica giggled. "You could do more than that probably. Make yourself ridiculously sexy, if you want to go that way."

  "Not like we know how to make your boobs bigger, Jess."

  "You're assuming that's what I find sexy," Jessica said petulantly. "Anyway, what I meant was, there's so much more you can do than cosmetic stuff. I already made myself able to see far, and better at night too, but only for a little bit."

  "But didn't it make it hard to see color?"

  "Because I only did the rods, and it wasn't very precise. I think my brain got confused by it. If I can get it down, I could make my cones able to pick up way more light than they should and in more variety, which would mean color vision even in dark night. It's more complicated than that, but you get the idea."

  "Sure, yeah. Hey, couldn't you, like, see more colors too?"

  Jessica squealed in delight. "Oh, yeah! You could see colors no one ever could before. Like ultraviolet. Lots of animals can see UV, I could figure that out too." Jessica was practically rolling around with excitement next to her. Hailey grinned, elated that her friend was so happy. She saw bright fluffy clouds rolling by in the window, taking them as a sign that everything was going to be all right.

  "Other things too, though, besides sight, yeah?" she prompted.

  "Yeah, for sure," Jessica continued. "You could enhance other senses, obviously, but also just work on the normal processes of your body. Like sleep, or the need to eat. What if you could just reduce your need to sleep by a big portion every day? That's so much more time in the day that you can do whatever you like. Think about all the stuff you could do."

  "I feel like I do too much some days already."

  "Oh shh. You love it. But still, you could do the same amount in a day and feel less packed, right? It still works out."

  Hailey nodded. "Yeah, makes sense. Sign me up."

  Jessica giggled. "I'm not that good, Hales. Give me some more time to recover."

  "Oh, the number of times I've heard that line."

  "Trouble with boys?" Jessica asked mockingly.

  "They just can't keep up sometimes."

  "Keep up?"

  Hailey laughed aloud, giving Jessica a nudge. "Jess, when did you become the cool one?"

  "Did you see my hair? Cool colors. It's like a magic charm."

  Jessica sighed and curled up against Hailey, in the same way she always did in her sleep. Hailey felt it was different now, but not in the way she feared. Jessica didn't feel like she'd been shut out or that an impenetrable wall had been thrown up by Jessica's confession and subsequent rejection. Instead, Jessica had bared herself (in more ways than one, Hailey thought, suppressing a laugh) and been accepted for exactly who she was. Hailey wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close, and Jessica found her usual spot pressed up against Hailey's side with ease. Nothing but warmth and love, exactly what Hailey had hoped for. She stared out the window while Jessica's breath warmed her neck, and watched her clouds sweeping through the sky, the same azure as the hair currently scattered across her chest. Hailey smiled, the true smile of contentment and joy that so few ever find in their life. For the moment they could both forget everything, and just be happy they'd found each other.

  A quick double-knock sent them both scrambling to their feet. Hailey bounded to the door of the spare bedroom, where Weston had been just about to open the door. She squeezed through as tight a gap as she could manage, ignoring the befuddled look on his face, and quickly shut it behind her. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Jessica desperately gathering up her clothes. Hailey guessed it would be at least a couple minutes for her to calm down and get dressed. She could stall him that much.

  "...What were you two doing?" Weston asked suspiciously.

  "Just practicing," Hailey said. She didn't say the real answer, because she didn't want Weston leaping at Jessica's throat next for trying something without clearing it with the whole group first. Not that the group really acted like a group anymore. It was a rule they'd established so long ago, and one they'd barely followed at first anyway. Not until that terrible night in June had Weston ever insisted on making sure no one tried anything dangerous without everyone present.

  "Practicing what?"

  "Practicing magic, what else?" Hailey said crossly. "Where have you been all day?" she added, nodding pointedly toward the wall clock. It was already getting toward late afternoon. He wasn't planning to stick around long if he wanted to be home before the sunset.

  Weston frowned. It seemed like the only expression he was capable of lately. "I was out researching."

  "Researching?"

  "Where this all might have come from," he continued, looking over her shoulder curiously. "What's going on?"

  "Jessica was concentrating on something and didn't want to lose the thread," Hailey said, using the phrase Jessica had come up with to describe how she found things through her magic. She said it was like following a immense tangled knot of threads until you managed to pull out one single strand, but Hailey didn't really understand what she meant. She doubt she ever could without having the same affinity for that branch of magic like Jessica did. "Want something to eat?"

  Weston looked suspicious, but Jessica divining something was a pretty normal excuse they'd used in the past plenty of times. He accepted it without question and followed her downstairs to the kitchen. They were a few bites into a plate of cookies Hailey had baked that morning when Jessica finally emerged, looking slightly ruffled but fully clothed. Hailey couldn't resist herself and shot Jess a wink. She giggled.

  "Hey, Jessica," Weston spoke up, turning around. "Thought you went purple. Changed your mind?"

  "Yeah. I decided blue was my color," Jessica said, plopping herself in the chair next to Hailey's and helping herself to the cookies.

  "Find out anything?" Hailey asked Weston, trying to deflect the conversation back.

  He shook his head. "There's nothing. Nothing at all." He bit forcefully into a cookie, drawing a look from them both. "I can't find a single reference to anything like what we've found, or the two things that destroyed the library, or anything at all. I can't even reach Ian or Hugo. It's just us three, all alone. All we have to go on is whatever Jessica can pluck out of thin air!"

  Frustration seeped from his voice like venom. Hailey wanted to try and comfort him, but at the same time she didn't feel like getting anywhere near him ever again. He was toxic, and she had been free of him for so long. She didn't want to go down that path.

  "Wes, we'll figure it out. We'll be okay," Jessica said encouragingly.

  "I don't know that we will," Weston said miserably. "We're on a clock and it's running out."

  "So what do you suggest?" Hailey snapped. They both looked at her in shock. She'd had enough. "I'm done with the moping and the groaning. Do you actually have an idea? Or any specific danger?"

  "You know the danger—" Weston started, but Hailey cut him off.

  "Yeah, we all saw it. And it scared me to hell. But we haven't seen or heard them in months, not since the second time. I've been out in the dark plenty of times and nothing's ever happened. I know you and Jess and Ian never felt safe, and I get that. But I think it's time to face up to the fact that we're hiding from possibilities. If we keep doing that, we'll never really live again."

  "Do you want to die?" Weston shouted, jumping to his feet. Jessica pulled her hood back on, her eyes wide.

  In that moment—seeing Jessica retreating again—Hailey felt real hatred for the first time in her life. It was an inferno bursting into life in her chest. She hated Weston for controlling them for so long, keeping them afraid and inside. He thought he was doing it for their own good. She didn't deny his intentions.

  But he was wrong.

  "No one's going to die, Wes!" Hailey shouted back, standing as well. Jessica ran out of the room, and Hailey felt a tear welling up in her eye. "Those two have been gone for months! We don't have to be afraid of the night anymore!"

  "You don't know that. You can't know that."

  "I'm willing to try," Hailey snapped.

  "God, Hailey, you are just as bad as when we were dating."

  She laughed bitterly. "What the hell, you want to go there? This is why we broke up, Wes. You're so afraid you can't let anything happen unless you're absolutely sure you know where it's going to go."

  "Better than making stupid mistakes and losing everything for it," said Weston in a grim tone.

  "Have you ever lost everything?" Hailey asked. "Hell, Wes, have you ever lost anything? Does the concept of loss even enter that tiny coward brain of yours?"

  "Does it enter yours?"

  "God yes! Every time I walk out the door, I'm afraid of losing people. But look at what staying inside and hiding has gotten us!" Hailey held up two fingers. "Hugo left when we weren't willing to go out and talk to him. He stuck around for Ian's sake, but we were all too busy hiding inside and playing around with magic to notice he was on the outside, and then he was gone." She dropped her finger. "Ian left because we were too scared to deal with the shit we had going on outside. We didn't even talk about it. We just shut down every possibility of handling it. We just stayed inside and hid, like we always do, and sure enough, off goes Ian." She dropped the other finger, glaring at Weston with all the fury she could muster.

  "You can't possibly blame me—"

  "I sure as hell blame you, Wes. But I blame myself too. I could have spoken up, I could have done more. I let them both go and I hate myself a bit more every time I look out the window and think about how far away they've both run." Hailey felt tears streaming down her face now. "It's all our fault, Wes."

  "No," Weston said, but his conviction felt weak and his arguments worthless. Hailey nodded slowly.

  "They're gone because of us."

  Weston shook his head. "You're wrong."

  "Then go, Wes. I'll be outside in the world, where we belong."

  Weston turned and headed up the stairs. Hailey sat down and watched him go, feeling bitterly triumphant. She'd said the words she'd been screaming in her head every night before she went to sleep, speeches she'd composed and practiced silently every single night with Jessica desperately clinging to her for safety and support. Her life had reached a turning point. It simply had to improve from here. She would accept nothing else.

  She could hear her bedroom door creak open, and sighed. Weston was going to try to talk to Jessica, get her to persuade Hailey off her soapbox. It was pointless. Jessica was on her side for sure. She wanted to be out, be alive. Not trapped in this tiny box with someone who could never properly be with her. Not in the way she wanted.

  Hailey stood laboriously, feeling suddenly exhausted. She made her way to the staircase, meaning to go intercept Weston and send him out for real. Jessica didn't need that sort of harassment. They'd both be better off without Weston in their lives.

  She'd be raw and distracted for a while, but magic always brought her back. She'd taken to it more readily than the rest of them after all. Jessica had a sheer raw talent none of them could match, even if she was never quite as creative as they were. She always managed to cast anything they did, even without the advantage of affinity—simply through raw, focused effort and practice. In fact, Jessica was probably practicing right then to drown out their argument, working on her latest idea—

  Oh.

  Oh.

  Hailey took the steps three at a time. She nearly tripped on the stairs in her haste. Weston had pushed open the other bedroom door—the empty one where no one slept—and walked inside, leaving the door ajar.

  Hailey saw the edges of a wide, thick hypocycloid drawn in white chalk.

  No…

 

 

 

 

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About the author

Etzoli

  • Oregon
  • Amateur Technological Thaumaturge
  • https://etzo.li

Bio: Sysadmin, student, wordsmith, TV obsessive, pretzel addict.
Many keyboards have perished in my pursuit of wordcounts.

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Kazumi Ilya @Kazumi Ilya ago

Weston reminds me of Matt and Carl in Epilogue, combined.