The Time of the Hunt
Chapter 11 — Foreigners
"Why us?" Alden asked as they eyed a small embankment formed by a huge tree root which blocked their path.
"Told you, I agree with you," Viper grunted, pulling himself up swiftly and without effort. Rika followed him after only a moment's pause. Alden tried and failed, accepting Rika's hand up with blood rushing to his face. "Auctionin' it off is a terrible idea."
Alden brushed dirt off his pants. "No, I get why you want to steal it. I mean, why do you need us?"
"Hector's got the Scrap, and he does all sorts of crap with electricity and tech. He's also the scariest motherfucker this side of the Rockies. I'm not going up against Hector-goddamn-Peraza alone, but I figure lightning girl here can counteract him. Right?" Viper's grizzled beard turned to face Rika, who nodded with a touch of annoyance. "I don't need you kid, but since you're apparently a package deal, you're coming along. Capiche?"
Alden swallowed hard. "Got it."
Rika clapped him on the back. "Lighten up, Zack. Viper's actually a big softie, trust me."
Viper shot her a glare. "I could break your face, girl."
"And I could break you before you even got close. You've been here for months and haven't done a thing," Rika replied flippantly. "Plus you hide under a cutesy codename. It just screams washed out."
"I still don't get it," Alden cut in before Rika could start a fight. "Hector's just one guy."
Viper laughed. "It's Zack, right?" Alden nodded. "Well, Zack, you just got here on the last train. You know fuck-all about the town or the people here, so I'll let you know now: Hector Peraza is not to be fucked with."
"How did you know I just got here by train?"
"Because I watched you get off. Which is the only reason I trust you, by the way. You haven't been infected by this fucking place yet," Viper said, glancing back over his shoulder at the receding town outskirts. "Trust being relative shit, that is. Only person I actually trust is the one you're about to meet."
Viper suddenly stopped walking on his last word. Rika nearly bumped into him. He was pointing up at a nearby tree, and they followed his eyes to a narrow-eyed lithe, blond haired woman perched in a high nook. She held a long polished wooden rifle trained squarely on Rika's forehead.
"Rook, meet Zack and Rika," Viper gestured. "Ne ovat turvallisia."
"Salasana," she replied. The rifle didn't move an inch. Rika was completely frozen, as was Alden.
Immediately, Rook loosened her grip on the rifle, though her narrow eyes remained fixed on the two. "You said one guest." Her voice was clipped and accented. European, if Alden had to guess—he wasn't really acquainted with many different accents.
"Turned out she had a friend," Viper said, waving them forward. After a moment's hesitation, Rika started walking again, pushing through a thick wall of underbrush. Alden suddenly realized it must be artificially placed. From a distance, he'd have never realized the trick. Once Rika vanished it became obvious how deliberate the bushes and branches had been arrayed. He followed Viper through, wincing at the twigs that scraped his face.
There was a simple camp beyond the wall of foliage. A couple sleeping bags were rolled up under a camouflage lean-to, with several half-buried boxes laid out nearby. One of the boxes was open and Alden could see silver packets of some kind stuffed inside. He felt underwhelmed by the place. For someone so intimidating, Viper was living like a homeless man in the city.
There was a soft thump on the ground behind him. Alden spun around to see Rook walk past him as if he weren't there. She was younger than he'd thought at first glance, in her late twenties rather than the age implied by the greying hair adorning Viper's face. Her hair was short and yellow-blonde, just barely enough to cover her ears, while her eyes were icy-blue and set into a face equally chilly. Rook sat down under the lean-to and picked up one of the packets, tearing it open and biting down on the generic food with a steely look. He glanced away hurriedly before she found a reason to dislike him.
"So what's an old man and a stone-cold Nordic fox doing in a town like Rallsburg anyway, besides the obvious?" Rika said abruptly, settling herself down on a tree root. Alden took her lead and sat down nearby.
Viper laughed, sitting as well and leaning over to start a fire in the small ring of stones set in the middle of the clearing. "Old man? Girl, I'm barely over thirty. Don't let the grey hair trick you, it's just from spending too much time in shit-your-pants situations."
Rika shrugged. "Whatever. Why're you screwing around in a dead-end town like this? You're both obviously special ops or something like it."
"Not here for Uncle Sam, if that's your worry, or any other flag," Viper said. He was scraping flint with a survival knife at the tinder underneath the logs the old fashioned way.
Rika clicked her tongue impatiently. She raised her arm and pointed her middle finger at the fire, then suddenly curled it upward. A flame burst into life on the tinder. The logs caught quickly and soon they were enjoying a crackling fire.
Viper gave her an appreciative nod. "Wanna teach me that trick?"
"I don't even know your name yet."
"What's wrong with Viper?"
"Sounds like you're trying way too hard."
Viper grinned. "All right then. If we're going to be working together, I guess we oughta have some trust. My name is Stefen and my companion is Tessa." The woman behind him flicked her head in acknowledgement. She pulled out a cloth from a backpack leaning against the tree and began to polish her rifle, but Alden felt like one eye was continually trained on him regardless of her apparent distraction. She was an unnerving one.
"And you already know our names, so next question," Rika continued. "You two are here for magic, then?"
"Sure as sure," Viper leaned back and put his feet up. "My employer doesn't know about any of this yet, so you don't need to worry about your friend's little operation getting overthrown. For now."
"Wouldn't care if you did," Rika replied.
"Oh? Thought you and our high-and-mighty councilor were on the up and up."
"What's your elaborate heist plot, anyway? If we're gonna do this, it'd better be solid." Rika asked, ignoring the jab. Viper raised his eyebrows pointedly.
"No need to get complicated. The Scrap will be at the Kettle and Bones tomorrow, according to my source—"
"And he can be trusted?"
"He's never been wrong yet," Viper confirmed. "So we just go down there, middle of the day before it opens. Originally I was just gonna break in the back and take the thing, but now that we've got extra help… Hey, kid, feel like trying to lure him out front?"
It took Alden a moment to realize they were all looking at him. "Oh, err…"
"All you gotta do is knock on the front door, see who comes running. Maybe complain loudly enough that everyone comes to you. Piece of cake."
"Also means you're out of the way if it does come to a fight," Rika added.
"Will it?" Alden asked nervously.
"Hell no," Viper said. "It'll be the middle of the day and not even a cloud in the sky. None of them would ever risk tossing some actual magic at us, and it's not like they can take Tessa or me in a straight fight. We just slip away into the public and stay on the streets long enough to get away. The public's our ally here."
"And what happens after?" Rika asked.
"We read it, we go our separate ways, and I hang onto it for safekeeping."
"Okay, but counter-offer: I keep the Scrap."
Viper's eyes narrowed as he sat up straight. "Like hell you do."
"Look, you can even read it first for all I care, but I'm keeping it afterward," Rika stated flatly.
He looked genuinely surprised. "Wouldn't've thought you'd give that up so easily."
"Give and take, right?" Rika said, flipping her hair back as blue strands had fallen over her eye. "You and your friend can read to your heart's content, first dibs and everything, but afterward? It's mine."
Rook spat on the ground. Alden and Rika both looked up startled, but she ignored them and continued polishing her rifle.
"Tessa isn't awakened and doesn't plan to be. Don't mind her."
"Fine. We don't need to get along anyway. Just so long as she's not gonna shoot us in the back, right?"
"Ei vahinko tule kello kaulassa," Rook answered, not looking up.
"I trust her with my life, and I vouch for her," Viper added.
"That'd be so much more helpful if I trusted you," Rika said dryly. "But since there's no way in hell I'm getting near to it without you, nor you without me, I'd say we're golden." Rika got to her feet, and Alden scrambled to follow suit.
"So, tomorrow morning then?" Viper asked casually.
"Yeah. We'll meet you here?"
"Nah. We'll be movin' again as soon as you leave," Viper said, nodding at Rook. She began packing away boxes immediately. "Can't be too careful with what's been lurking out here lately."
"Yeah, what the fuck is that, anyway? I heard people are disappearing out in the woods lately."
"Don't know about anyone vanishing, but I've seen some damn spooky things myself. Caught a glimpse of a giant cat prowling about for one, with some killer eyes. Biggest damn cat I've ever seen. And it just stared at me like it didn't care a lick if I tried to run."
"Sounds crazy," Rika said without a hint of irony. She gave a short bow, only barely inclining her head. "Well, see you tomorrow then." She turned and vanished through the wall of leaves and ivy. Alden was quick to follow.
As soon as they'd gotten far enough away, Rika burst out laughing.
"He thought someone was stealing his food and stalking him. Badass mercenary with a killer sidekick, and he's scared to death of a twelve year old's pet cat!" Rika choked back her laughter.
Alden laughed too, more nervously than of any actual mirth. "So what do we do now?"
"Well, we've got a whole day ahead of us with not much to do. What's on your mind?"
Alden looked down at his hands. In the last day, they had become a conduit to so much more than he had ever imagined. He was excited simply thinking of the possibilities that had opened up for him. Visions danced through his mind of fire swirling around his fingertips, electricity crackling through his hands like Rika's, or sending everyday objects twirling around in space at will.
Rika saw where he was looking and grinned. "More magic, eh?"
Without too much difficulty, they found a wide enough space in the thick forest where they had room to move around more freely. Rika immediately set to reminding him of the basics. How to find that new part of his mind and take hold of it, and how to send it out into the flow of energy. She made it sound so simple, but for Alden it was a mind-twisting exercise that gave him a headache just to consider. Only when he was actually relaxed and connected, so to speak, did he find himself able to enact any sort of spell.
"Does it get easier?" he asked with stars dancing in his vision. Alden was sitting against a tree with a pounding headache after trying to set a single leaf on fire. He'd managed a tiny puff of smoke, but the leaf stubbornly refused to catch.
Rika shrugged. "For some people, yeah. But maybe you just aren't meant to do Elemental magic. It happens."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean you might be deficient." Alden winced. "What?" Rika didn't look like she understood what she'd just said.
"That word means something else… err, nevermind. Anyway. Is this like you and Creation magic?"
Rika paused. "How did you know?"
"I saw you react when Rachel announced it, and how you haven't been interested in the Scrap since then. You can't do that kind of magic, can you?"
"No," Rika sighed. "I mean, most people can't do much in it anyway. Creation takes a hell of a lot of energy to maintain. When I've seen someone else try though, they usually get some kind of result. Nothing useful, but it's still a result. For me it's like running my face into a brick wall. I could try as many times as I like, it's never going down, and the harder I try the more it fucks me up."
"So you think that might be me and Elemental magic?" Alden asked.
"Nah. You can at least get some results. You probably won't ever do as much as I can, but if you practice hard enough you should get something workable out of it." Rika gestured at him to stand. "Come on, keep at it."
Alden pulled himself to his feet and on they went. They continued for hours, stopping only to eat from a full meal Rika had packed away inside her bag. Alden found that if he switched between multiple types of magic, falling back to his own affinity every so often, he was more relaxed. Pushing and grabbing things mentally was comfortable to him. Trying to manipulate and create elements, or trying to strengthen his limbs, or even just attempting to change the color of a strand of hair—every other branch of magic left him winded and weak. Rika assured him it would eventually pass, but Alden didn't feel like he was making progress.
He was just reducing how much it hurt.
Still, every time he hurled a twig across the clearing in frustration he regained his enthusiasm. At the end of the day, it was still magic. Nothing could take that brilliant giddy realization away.
Without telling Rika, Alden began to experiment more with the magic. He wanted to be able to do more than just push random objects around, as it seemed like such a simple view of what was potentially an entire branch of magic. There had to be more to movement than just that. If this was his affinity, Alden was determined to make sure it wasn't a waste of a field.
His first experiments were on himself. Rika (and his own efforts) had made it quite clear that Mason's Law—whatever it might say—held true; Alden was no more able to affect Rika than he was the rotation of the planet itself. However, the limitation seemed not to apply to his own body. Alden thus turned the magic around. With a bit of focus and timing, he found he could fling his hand forward mentally, which created a curious sensation. He obviously wasn't propelling the limb forward himself, as the force was applied from outside his muscles, but it didn't feel as though he were being dragged forward either.
Rather, it felt as though the entire limb simply traversed space naturally. Alden still felt a pull as the region he wasn't affecting was dragged along for the ride, but he assumed he could mitigate that once he figured out how to balance out the effects. In his mind's eye, Alden could see himself hurling his entire body across massive gaps with ease, launched only through the efforts of his own mind.
The end of the day came swiftly. Alden hadn't realized how much time they'd spent out there, between light conversation whenever they took a break from endless practice at magic. Soon enough the sun was dipping low in the sky once more. As the dark crept in, Rika finally called a halt.
It wasn't a moment too soon for Alden. He'd staved off the exhaustion as long as he could—not wanting to seem weak or lazy in front of Rika—but his limbs were sore beyond his wildest imagination from his attempts to pull them free from their sockets. Alden wanted to impress her. Somewhere in the recesses of his mind, he entertained the fantasy that if he could reach her level, she'd be more interested in him. So far, Rika had barely asked anything personal of him. He felt like she was only keeping him around because of the strange coincidences she'd mentioned before.
Now, collapsed under a tree like a puppet with its strings cut, Alden felt his face heating up as Rika towered over him. He started to look away, but she offered a hand to him.
"No, it's okay—"
Rika laughed. "Relax, Alzack. You're not the first person to be completely wiped out by a day of spellcasting. Come on, let's get you somewhere more comfortable."
Alden hesitated, but reached up and grasped her offered hand firmly. Despite his best efforts, he still recoiled briefly at the surge of electricity that rolled through him at their contact. Rika was prepared and didn't let go, pulling him to his feet.
A moment later he collapsed again. His legs were like jelly, refusing to support a single ounce.
"Jesus, how dead are you?" Rika grumbled. Without warning, she hoisted him up, flinging her bag around her back to hold him more securely. Alden felt the tickle of lightning across his entire body, but Rika seemed to be suppressing it more to keep him comfortable. "Let this be a lesson: don't fucking do magic on your own."
"Thanks," Alden breathed, feeling winded between the exhaustion and the vague excitement of being so close to her.
"Don't mention it." Rika set off. Alden was surprised at how well she managed to carry him while still pounding her way through the forest undergrowth. It wasn't as thick as it had been near Viper's camp, but even so, she made steady progress despite the added weight.
"Are you doing anything to be able to hold me up?" Alden guessed.
"What? Oh, no. I'm allergic to that kind of magic, remember?" Rika grunted, and the effort she was putting in to maintain her balance over the moss and roots was plain on her face. "This is compliments of my workout routine and your skinny ass."
"Oh, right," Alden said. "What do you mean by allergic?"
"I mean I can't do any Self magic, and if someone else is using it nearby I get the sniffles."
"I thought you couldn't do Creation magic."
"I'm lucky enough to lose two branches of magic, not just the one," Rika answered with a hint of bitterness. Meanwhile, a faint light from inside her bag accompanied the clear buzz of a vibrating phone. "Can you reach that for me? Looks like we just got bars again."
Alden awkwardly reached around her side and plucked her phone out from her bag. To his surprise, it wasn't locked. He thumbed through to find a long string of unread messages.
"Rachel's been texting you all day. Something about an emergency meeting, then asking you to call her and where you are a half-dozen times," Alden reported.
Rika snorted. "And now she needs my help. Fuck her."
"What happened between you two?" Alden asked. Rika glanced at him in surprise before continuing on their trek.
"I'll let you chalk that one up to exhaustion, but just know that there's a lot of dirty history between me and that entire group," Rika said, eyes narrowed on the path. She flicked a finger near Alden's head and sent a small burst of flame out in front of them to light up a particularly thick patch ahead. "Rachel and I were best friends, then I did some awful things to some of her supposed followers and she was forced to choose between her precious Council and her ambitions, or her best friend."
"And she chose them."
"Yup," she grunted.
"But you said you saved them, didn't you?"
"Because I'm not a dick, and when push came to shove they're still people I care about," Rika said, stepping easily over a trickling stream across the rock bed. They were at the edge of the forest now. "Before I went home to B.C., there was a fight. A group of people who didn't like the Council system or how we were running things. Rachel sucks at magic, and the others at the time hadn't really figured out how to fight. I was the only one who'd focused on combat, so I had to bail them out." Rika spat on the dirt, her eyes flashing with anger. "Bitch still told me to leave the country after that. They threatened to get the police involved since I was here illegally."
"Are you still?" Alden asked.
"Nah. Legal temp visa now. They can't hold that one over me anymore. Still can't hold a job or property or shit, but I am now allowed to step on the fucking streets without worrying about being booted back to Boring Country."
"Still," Alden said, glancing at the phone again. "Maybe it's something important."
"Or maybe she got herself in way over her head as usual and needs me to bail her out," Rika sighed. "It's late and I'm tired. Rachel can wait 'til tomorrow. She'd have called if it were that dire."
"I guess so," Alden said, dropping the phone back into her bag.
"You good to walk yet?" Rika asked. Alden frowned before remembering to hide it, and Rika—damn her—caught the expression. "All right, I get it."
"No, it's oka—"
"We're almost there anyway. I wouldn't want to ruin your last few moments of happiness." Rika adjusted her grip, and her skin made contact with Alden's, sending a further jolt of electricity coursing through his veins. It had slowly shifted from unsettling to invigorating with every touch. Whatever he might have tried to intimate, Alden certainly didn't feel like leaving her arms. For the moment, he felt like the luckiest teenager in the world.
His eyes slid closed while the world thumped away with the rhythm of Rika's footfalls on the pavement, and it was only when the sunrise began peeking through the curtains in the bare bedroom of the empty apartment that Alden realized he'd actually fallen asleep.
Alden was up and running within minutes of waking up. Energy pulsed through his blood, vibrating like a purring engine demanding to be let loose. He showered and put on a fresh set of clothes, setting aside his mud-spotted and soaked set from the night before along with the sheets he'd been laying on. He'd have to ask Rika about getting those cleaned. Alden felt he'd be spending a much longer time in Rallsburg than he'd originally expected.
A few minutes later, he was out the door and onto the walkway connecting the apartments. Alden nearly bowled over a mousy girl standing at the railing with blue-and-brown hair, who squeaked indignantly but nonsensically at him. He shouted an apology over his shoulder while he burst through the door into Rika's apartment, eager to get started with the day. A moment too late he considered that she might not appreciate him barging in—as reflected in her expression.
Rika was standing on the balcony overlooking the drop off into the forest behind the apartments, hanging up her clothes from the previous day to dry on a line. She was clothed, but Alden still felt like he'd stumbled all over her privacy.
"Dude, knock," Rika snapped. She hung up her shirt, still glaring at him. Her intricate tattoos seemed to glare at him too, between the harsh lettering on her shoulder and the thorny entwined roses on her arm.
"Sorry," Alden mumbled, his eyes falling to the floor.
"Whatever. What's up?"
"I was just wondering if you wanted to do some more before we head out today," Alden said, feeling awkward.
"If you keep staring at the floor I'm gonna start feeling bad." Rika slid the balcony door closed, eyeing him with an amused look. "As fun as that sounds, I'm thinking we should save our energy for the actual elaborate heist, eh?"
"Breakfast?" Rika said. "Dan's actually has good doughnuts, for a diner. Friend of his bakes them every morning and sells them at the counter." She looked over his shoulder and barked out a "Hey, you!" The girl who Alden had nearly knocked over the front railing made an odd 'hmm' noise. She'd been watching them through the open front door with interest. "You got something to say?"
The girl cocked her head to one side, looking confused.
"Why are you just standing there staring?" Rika asked, taking a step toward her. The girl pulled her hood up tight and started walking down the apartment row, disappearing into one of the doors near the end. Rika shrugged. "Bizarre."
"Maybe you scared her," Alden suggested.
"Me? What could possibly be scary about moi?" Rika asked.
"Well you're strong, you've got some huge tattoos, and you look like you're ready for a fight all the time. And you shoot lightning from your eyes."
"I do not."
"Actually—" Rika started but her phone buzzed, interrupting her thought. "It's Viper, wants us to meet at the bar. Says something's up." She looped her bag around her waist tightly. "Let's go."
"So what do your tattoos mean?" Alden asked while they strolled down the street toward Dan's diner.
"Ask me again sometime," Rika muttered.
"The bird is really pretty. And the flowers too…" Alden continued, fishing for a topic. Before he could land something interesting, Rika interrupted his thoughts.
"Oh, shit." She pulled Alden into a gap between the buildings and off the street.
"Look!" Rika hissed, leaning out. Alden craned his neck to see around the corner above her. Down the street was a huge burly man with a beard thick as a bear's fur, towering over a small robed girl. As her robe fluttered back in the wind, Alden recognized the telltale silver-grey hair of Cinza. She was flanked by two other robed figures, one of whom had dark red curls poking out.
"What are they doing?"
"It doesn't matter. It can't be good," Rika muttered.
"Shouldn't you call someone?" Alden asked tentatively.
Rika shook her head. "Getting the police involved would only make this worse. The less scrutiny on Cinza's group, the better. No one wants magic out in the world, not yet. She's just gotta deflect him. Whatever the stupid lumberjack wants, just give it to him and move on."
"You and your folk burned my land," the burly man growled, and despite being a block away Alden could make out his voice clearly.
"Mr. Harrison, I'm sorry for the damage to your property, but my people were not involved," Cinza replied in her usual airy fashion.
"Save it. We all know what you're up to now. Summon up your fire and let's have it out."
"I will not fight you, Mr. Harrison," Cinza replied, taking a step back. Her partners, however, seemed to have missed the message, as their robes ruffled and arms raised. A puff of flame flickered into being above one hand. The red-haired girl summoned a few shiny rocks out of her sleeve, levitating them threateningly above her palm. Robert took a step back automatically, his eyes locked on the fire.
"He doesn't look surprised," Alden breathed, not daring to raise his voice above a whisper.
"No shit," Rika answered just as quietly. "Something's happened." She pulled out her phone. "I'm calling Rachel."
A brief burst of police siren rendered Rika's call irrelevant. The sheriff's cruiser rolled up next to Robert. From the front seats burst Rachel herself, with the sheriff in tow. Rika froze, her hand hovering just above her erstwhile friend's name on her phone.
"Robert, desist!" Jackie called.
"These bastards burned down a huge chunk of forest!" Robert shouted back. "We agreed to look the other way, but that was before!"
"Do you have proof?" Rachel asked, walking calmly between the massive Robert and diminutive Cinza. Between them, the willowy Rachel looked like the perfect middle ground, except that she was still the tallest in the group. Alden admired her bravery, even as the tiny flame in Cinza's lieutenant's hand puffed larger. Rachel shot him a fierce look. To Alden's surprise, the flame puffed out, while the stones floating above the red-haired girl's hand fell to her palm. "Thank you."
Robert continued, and though he wasn't shouting anymore his voice still carried across the street. "I know they were out in those woods not two nights ago, right before the fires started. I saw their lights through the trees."
"So was I," Rachel answered, still perfectly calm. "They finished their business and went to their homes as usual. They only use light. It generates no heat or flame. Whatever fires were started, they weren't by Cinza's people."
"Look, I'm tolerating you 'awakened'," Robert practically spat the word. "because Jackie vouches for you, but don't think I don't know better. You've got something going on with Rhistler."
"What the fuck is going on?" whispered Rika. "What the hell happened yesterday?"
Alden just shook his head. He wanted to hear more.
"I've heard about your friend, Rachel," Robert continued. Rika stiffened next to Alden. For a moment, he worried he might have to restrain her from blitzing the group. The tension in the air was thick enough already. Alden didn't believe the situation would survive Rika hurling herself into the fray. "Those bodies had electrical burns. If you're trying to pull a cover-up with the mayor, we'll find out. I might agree to helping protect your whole little community, but that doesn't mean we have to keep murderers safe."
"She wanted me to leave…" Rika breathed. Alden glanced at her, and for the first time saw an ounce of real fear in Rika's eyes. It was chilling.
Rachel shook her head. "I won't protect anyone from the full authority of the law. The law, Mr. Harrison. We still live in a civilized country, where the innocent are protected with due process. If she is convicted, then you will have my full support."
"Convicted by who?" Robert shot back. "How are we supposed to hold court with your kind?"
"We'll figure that out when we find her," Jackie snapped. "Now back down, Bob. That girl's not done anything yet, and I don't allow citizens' arrests in my town."
For a moment, Alden thought a fight might actually break out in the middle of the street, but Robert merely grunted in frustration and anger before stomping down the street with clenched fists. Rachel gave a terse nod to Cinza before seating herself back into the passenger seat of the police cruiser. The sheriff crossed the gap to exchange a few quiet words with the robed girl before rejoining Rachel, and the cruiser sped off, while Cinza's trio proceeded down the block to Dan's diner. Suddenly—as suddenly as they'd come upon the encounter—the street was utterly deserted.
Rika slid down the side of the wall to the concrete, her head in her hands. Alden double checked to make sure no one was watching them, but Rika didn't seem to notice. Her voice came out in a pained whisper.
"What the fuck am I supposed to do now?"