Chapter 18 — Breaking the Rules
"Now what?" Alden said in dismay. Rika pocketed her phone.
"What's got you wound up?" Rika asked, pulling on her coat. "Rachel's gonna handle it like she always does, and this gives us plenty of time to go talk to our guy. Win-win."
"We're not gonna go help?" It had felt like exactly the right moment.
"Didn't we just do that?"
Alden sighed. "I figured, if they're gonna get in a fight, you'd want to help. Take down the murderer and clear your name."
"Fuck that. She'll be fine. I've got more important fish to catch." Rika cocked her head to the side. "Aren't you forgetting your whole mission here too?"
Alden shook his head. "It's not that urgent or anything though."
"You don't know that."
"What if your mystery sibling dies before you find them? What if your enemy gets them, or gets you? Don't forget, someone had to do this to you. There's no magic just floating around doing things at random here. Everything's gotta be done by someone, which means someone out there's got a real hate boner for you."
"Uh..." Hailey said. They both looked at her, Rika as if she'd totally forgotten the two were still standing there.
"What's up, birdgirl?"
"Look, I've been awake way too long. This is my best material right now."
Hailey shook her head. "I want to come with you guys."
"You do?" Alden asked.
Rika looked even more surprised. "You do remember the entire town hates me and half of them think I killed a bunch of people, right?"
"I know. But you didn't, and I want to help you," Hailey said firmly. "I've been thinking I was alone for a whole year now. I want to get back into the world. I'm one of you guys now, I guess. You know what it's like to not have anyone to talk to for months and months? I couldn't really talk to normal people anymore, not with this massive secret hanging off my neck all day. They just don't understand the world like we do now. So I'm sticking with you. Maybe we can find something to help Jessica someday." She glanced at Jessica, who gave them all a smile but clearly hadn't understood the exchange.
Rika frowned. "Nice speech. Look, nerdy girls usually aren't my type—" Alden elbowed her in the side, cutting her off. "Sorry. Anyway, if I ever hear anything, I'm happy to let you know. But you don't really need to tag along for that. I'm sure we could find you."
"Are you forgetting what I can do?" Hailey asked pointedly. A sudden gust of wind swirled through her hair.
Alden winced. "She's got a point," he muttered.
Rika sighed. "How the fuck did I end up with a gang of stalkers… All right, fuck it. We only have so long before Rachel comes home. Let's go talk to Mr. Wizard."
"Hi, Will," Rika said, casually strolling into the living room. Will practically jumped out of his skin. His hand went reaching for a few gemstones lying on his desk next to his keyboard, but Rika raised a hand. Forks of electricity buzzed and crackled between her fingertips. "Uh uh, we just want to talk."
"How did you get in here?" he asked cautiously.
"Oh come on, you think I can't break into a shitty apartment in Rallsburg?" Rika rolled her eyes exaggeratedly.
"Who are they?" Will nodded at Hailey and Alden, who were standing behind Rika in the hallway. Alden opened his mouth to answer, but Rika cut him off.
"Right." Will shrugged. "Rachel's not here."
"Good thing, because we're here for you." Rika took the nearest chair and relaxed, though her hand still had electricity dancing about threateningly. "So, Will, between Rachel's tuition, paying to keep Hector and such from going bankrupt, and your setup here… how do you pay for everything as an unemployed couple?"
"Cryptocurrency," Will answered, but it was so fast and unconvincing that Alden laughed right alongside Rika.
"Bullshit. You don't have the hardware to be a serious miner and I know you didn't have the foresight to invest big back when you could afford it." Rika smirked. "Does Rachel know what you've been doing?"
"She doesn't? Shit, I thought you two were the best couple I've ever met. You're murdering my poor romantic side."
"You had one?" Alden quipped.
Rika shot him a grin. "Hopeless romantic just like you, Alzack. Anyway, Will, since you're apparently renting out your services on a whim, how about you help me and mine out with something?"
He slumped in his chair, defeated. "Since it's you. But please, don't tell Rachel."
"Wouldn't dream of it," Rika answered. "I'll even pay your going rate. Now, tell us—where's the Scrap now?"
Will sighed. "I can't tell you."
"Sure you can. Just do your little magic and find out where it is, then tell me. Easy-peasy."
"Okay, so I won't tell you?"
"Will, how many years have we known each other?" She twirled her fingers around, and a bolt of electricity sparked through the air and connected with his hand. He recoiled from the sting. "You know when I'm being serious."
"Rika…" Alden started. He wasn't entirely comfortable with threatening the guy, even if he did seem to be a shifty information trader by what Rika had told them. Hailey also looked a little uneasy, but she was deferring to Rika for the time being.
"There's a difference between me selling affinity readings and location services, and me telling you where to find the most wanted piece of paper in town," Will said, frowning.
"Didn't stop you from giving it to Viper," Rika countered.
Will faltered. "He promised to get it far away from here, and I agreed."
"You want to put it in the hands of a mercenary corporation owned by one of the largest multinational conglomerates in the world?" Rika asked, raising her eyebrows.
"Viper works for Malton Solutions. Subsidiary of the Culver-Malton group. I saw the logo on one of his boxes in his camp. You really want to put power like that in the hands of a self-obsessed British asshole who runs merc groups in Africa and the Middle East for kicks?"
"I… have no idea what you're talking about," Will said, looking embarrassed.
"No shit. Do your homework next time."
He looked indignant. "We've been a little busy."
"Well, luckily I'm here to take your mess off your hands. Tell me where the Scrap is, and a couple other things, and you don't have to worry about it anymore."
Without warning, Will stood up. The electricity bouncing between Rika's fingers seemed to speed up and grow in intensity. Alden's hand grasped the couple of rubies in his pocket that Hailey had lent him.
They'd only had time to go over the basics of how to use gemstones as an energy source, but he felt like he'd learned enough to figure out the rest in a pinch.
He wasn't looking at them. His eyes were fixed on the window and the thick dark trees just outside, and they were wide as dinner plates.
"What?" Rika asked cautiously.
"Rachel's in trouble." Will pulled out his phone and began tapping commands furiously.
"What are you talking about?" Alden was just as confused; there'd been no phone call or message or anything as far as he could tell, but Will seemed deadly serious.
"She sent a signal—just trust me," Will said distractedly.
Rika's phone buzzed. She pulled it out and checked the message.
"Why'd you just text me?"
"I set up a list, a long time ago. People to call in an emergency. You're still on it." Will kept mashing at his phone, ignoring them. Rika looked taken aback. "She's somewhere in the woods, but I'm having trouble getting an exact spot. Something weird's going on out there. Too much magic."
Rika frowned. "Is she okay?"
"I have no idea, what do you think I'm trying to find out?" Will cried. He was agitated, pacing around the room while still tapping away at his phone. "Her cell phone isn't pinging back either, no GPS. This could be really bad."
Hailey cut in. "We can help."
He looked up. "Who are you, exactly?"
"Doesn't matter," Rika added quickly. "She's just crazy good at what she does. Also she can fly."
"She can what?"
"Just give me your number, I'll find her." Hailey handed her bag to Alden, putting her flight cap back on.
"In exchange, though, you give us the info," Rika said, and the room got quiet. Hailey looked dumbstruck. Her tone was cold as ice.
"Dammit, this isn't the time," Will said.
"So tell me where it is."
"Fuck you, Rika," he growled. He closed his eyes and began muttering something, while his hand clasped an purple amethyst between two fingers. After a few moments, it began to glow. His eyes opened wide and the crystal burned out. Black webbed across its surface in an instant, before it shattered into dust and fell to the ground. "It's moving, fast. North, past the train station and into the woods only a couple dozen meters. I can't get more precise than that."
"Thanks." She nodded to Hailey, who quickly exchanged phone numbers with Will. A moment later, she was pulling open the sliding door to the balcony and launching herself off the railing. Will scrambled to the edge in a panic, but a burst of wind buffeted him back as Hailey shot into the sky. Alden noted she had a much easier time gaining altitude now that she wasn't carrying anyone. Rika interrupted their gawking with a snide voice. "Now, while our resident bird-person does her thing, I've got another one for you. Since you're so willing to trade secrets these days."
"What now?" Will asked, exasperated.
"Find my father."
"How am I supposed to do that? I can only find magic."
Rika shook her head. "You've got other connections and tools, and I'm sure if you put your mind to it you could devise a new spell for people. You can find Rachel, can't you?"
"That's different. That's more because of our bond, not my spells."
She paused. "Hold up. You can find your girlfriend because you two are that much in love?"
Alden actually rather liked the idea, but he knew exactly how Rika would react. Sure enough, she burst into cackling laughter. "Holy shit, that's something else," she choked out. "Okay, say I believe that's actually a thing, you're saying that you couldn't use that because you're not in love with my dad, right?"
"All right, fair enough." Rika was barely suppressing her laughter as she continued. "So you're back to the old fashioned way, unless you do come up with some new magic. I'll be in touch."
Will shot them a final dark look before returning to his computer and furiously typing away. Rika hadn't raised the threat again, but the blackmail was obvious even to Alden. He followed Rika out of the apartment feeling a bit subdued.
"Was that totally necessary?"
Rika twisted around with an incredulous look. "Of course it was. Don't forget, if he can figure out how to track anyone, he might be able to track down your long-lost family too."
"But you were holding Rachel's life as a threat," Alden protested.
The cold, indifferent tone struck him as false. He felt like Rika was trying too hard to seem like she didn't care. "So isn't that a bit overboard?"
She sighed. "Look, Alden. Rachel's gonna be fine, she always is. They're just panicking because they haven't had to deal with shit this big before. I'm not gonna feel bad for taking advantage of the situation a bit. Them distracted gives us the perfect opportunity." Rika brushed hair out of her face. "You and me are gonna get what we came for, right?"
Alden still felt uneasy, but he nodded.
They started working their way across town. Given the vagueness of the location Will gave them, Rika felt they didn't have time to take the long way around Rallsburg. They decided to risk being seen by walking through the streets, though Rika was still frequently glancing over her shoulder and sticking to the shadows. After all, they had more to hide from than just the mundane townsfolk.
They'd seen no need to contact Viper and Rook about their new plan, and Alden had no qualms leaving them out of the loop. He'd never trusted either of them in the first place, particularly Rook. As Rika was happy to explain, they were both working for a private military group owned by a British man with a history of impulsive actions and little care for consequences.
"How do you know so much about all these companies?" Alden asked as they took a short break, waiting for a couple of people to pass by.
"Well like I said, I grew up translating between the higher ups. Since my father refused to allow my mother into the company, on account of not being a Japanese citizen, I was the only native English speaker around. I was raised to be proper and obedient, so it wasn't hard to fit into their stuffy board rooms."
Alden snorted. "Proper and obedient?"
She grinned. "Mom and I had a lot of fun in our downtime. She was a rebel too, but quietly. She'd never outright defy my father, but she found her place around the edges. She made art where no one could see it, and kept it just between us. I used to help draw for stories she wrote and act out scenes, or we'd make little hand puppets, or just sew our own special yukatas that we'd never show anyone else. She taught me how to stay myself in that mess. I'd probably still be an obedient little business lapdog in my father's boardroom if not for her."
Alden hesitated, but mustered up the bravery to ask again, "What happened to her?"
Rika's eyes narrowed. She looked away. "She had a brain tumor. It ate at her for years, probably why she never did much more than that. But even while she was sick, she was still taking care of me and raising me. My father didn't do anything. He was too busy running the company, making money and becoming a successful businessman and programmer. When he made the sale to Laushire Enterprises, my mother was in a hospital bed completely alone. It's no wonder I don't remember meeting Kendra or anyone that day." Rika pulled her right arm out of the sleeve of her jacket and pointed at the tattoo of three Japanese characters on her upper arm. "I gave myself this so I wouldn't ever forget."
"What does it say?"
"It's my mom's name. Maria." She pointed at the middle symbol. "This right here, the kanji for 'ri' is the same one in my name. Means 'clever'," Rika added with a sad smile. "She was clever, and brave, and beautiful. And she was abandoned. My father left her to die alone. I wasn't even th—" Rika stopped, catching her breath. "I'm gonna find him one day, and there's gonna be a reckoning."
Alden was about to ask more, but Rika suddenly grabbed his arm. The shock buzzed through his skull as she pulled him up flat against the wall. A group of people had just passed by, and they were armed. Mostly improvised weapons like bats or tools, but Alden spotted the long vague silhouette of a rifle.
"Shit," Rika breathed.
"Something's going on," Alden whispered.
"You think?" she shot back sarcastically.
Before Alden could quip back, there was a hiss of wind, followed by a thump above them. They both looked up startled to see Hailey crouched on the lip of the roof.
"What's going on?" Rika hissed.
"Doctor Smith is dead," Hailey whispered back, only barely audible from her height. "Rachel's out in the woods where he died, and a few people were with her. She didn't seem like she was in danger, but there's a lot of angry people out here."
"Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck."
"Rika, I heard you mentioned at least once or twice on my way back."
"Fuck!" Rika looked around in a panic, though they were still well hidden from the street.
"We should hide," Alden said warily.
"But… the Scrap," Rika moaned. She looked down the road, but the forest was still far away. "Can you get us into the woods from here, Hailey?"
"One of you, maybe, but not both. I'm tired too, I've flown a lot today," Hailey said, and Alden did finally recognize the fatigue lining her eyes. "I don't want to risk it. I could drop you."
"Fuck. Okay. Sorry. Where can we go?"
"Dan's isn't far," Alden suggested. "He seemed to like you."
"After how he got spooked by Ryan, I'm not so sure anymore."
"Can we get back to your apartment?"
Rika shook her head. "We're already halfway across town, and it's only gonna get worse from here. We need shelter now."
"Rika!" Hailey hissed.
They both looked out toward the street through the narrow opening. It was Boris the bookstore owner, standing across the street and beckoning them forward.
Alden and Rika exchanged a confused look. Boris called out to them impatiently. "The hunters think you're partly to blame, Rika. Hurry, before any return."
She shrugged. "He's one of the only people I like around here." Without another word, she took off in a rush. Alden hesitated, but one glance at the retreating group of armed men on the opposite street sent him scurrying after Rika.
Boris locked the door behind them. Hailey had swooped in through the door at the last moment, coming to a landing by slamming into a chair and sending it tumbling over backwards.
"Sorry," she cried, awkwardly getting back to her feet.
"Not at all, Miss Winscombe," Boris answered, hurrying to shutter the windows. "I think we have more important concerns than my furniture presently." The old man scratched his stubble. "What has happened?"
"Doctor Smith was killed out in the woods," Hailey answered. Rika had taken a seat behind the counter, well away from any windows. Alden stood around awkwardly, not sure where he should be or what he should be doing. "Probably by magic."
Boris looked like he'd been slapped in the face. "Henry is dead?"
"Yeah, and apparently I might be next," Rika muttered. "Hailey heard them mention my name."
"A couple times," Hailey said. "Although they were mostly shouting things like 'Justice for Jenny' and stuff about grey cloaks. I wasn't really sure what they were talking about."
"Greycloaks is Cinza and her cult, but I don't know a 'Jenny' either," Rika replied. "They probably think I'm one of Cinza's flunkeys now too. Fuck."
"Do these people mean you harm?" asked Boris.
"Yeah. You don't happen to have a stash of rifles in the back, do you?"
He shook his head. "I gave those up many years ago."
"It's okay, Rika. They're still just human, I'm pretty sure I can take them," Hailey said, hands balled up in fists.
'Just human?' Alden wondered.
"As long as we stay quiet, I doubt the hunters will have any reason to come to my shop," Boris said calmly. "I shall inform the Summit that we are barricading ourselves in."
"Hang on, the what now?" Rika asked, sitting up straight.
"The Summit, a leadership council between the town and the awakened. I am a member, though I mostly just sit and observe."
"Who all's in this summit?"
"Your friend Rachel, of course, along with the mayor, the town journalist, the athletic blonde one—"
"Ryan? Didn't think he had it in him."
"—the sheriff and the leader of the Greycloaks."
"So Rachel finally formed a government. Good for her." Rika let out a huge sigh and relaxed once again. "With that sort of influence she can probably get this back under control. We can just wait it out."
Alden was just about to relax when there was a knock at the door. The closed blinds and shutters made it impossible to see who was there, but the voice wasn't one he recognized. "Hey, ruskie! We need you out here!"
"I'm a bit occupied, my friend!" Boris called back without hesitation, sounding perfectly normal. Alden was impressed at his composure under pressure. "May I take a rain check?"
"You can track damn well better than most of us. We need to root those damn cultists out of our forest."
"Give me a minute and I suppose I could join you."
"What's up, man? Why are all your windows closed?"
Boris shot them a worried look. His voice dropped to a whisper. "I cannot prevent them from looking inside now." He paused. "Please, move into the staircase. I'll do my best to send them away."
Hailey cracked her knuckles, but Boris shook his head vehemently. After a moment, she deflated. Rika scurried to the door to the upper floor, Alden and Hailey close on her heels. As the door swung shut, they could hear Boris still talking to the man through the door. Alden was still staring back downstairs at the closed thick wooden door, worried about the man who was probably saving them from an angry mob while Rika and Hailey entered the door at the top of the staircase.
"What the fuck?" Rika whispered.
"I… I don't…" Hailey stammered.
Alden's curiosity got the better of him. He drove worry for Boris from his mind and joined them at the upper landing. Suffice to say, it was not at all the decor he expected from an old Russian man running a bookstore. It was instead very distinctly a college girl's room.
There was a single bed, with thick soft green sheets in the corner and a mess of pillows in all shapes and sizes. A distraught wooden dresser sat next to it with clothes hanging out loose or draped all over, or just laying on the ground in a heap. The closet was full of dresses neatly hung that looked totally unworn, and there was a pile of bras and underwear loosely scattered in an overturned basket beside a stack of pants. Next to it sat a desk laden with all sorts of notebooks and papers. Posters of movies and TV shows, maps from books, a concert banner from a rock band, and all other manner of pop culture were pinned around the walls.
"I'm guessing this isn't his room," Rika muttered.
"Why am I—what the hell…" Hailey was looking at a bunch of photos pinned up above the desk on a corkboard. Alden and Rika joined her.
Every single photo was of a pair of girls, in various places around Rallsburg. One of them was Hailey, exuberant and laughing and generally acting a fool. The other girl, always looking embarrassed and shy but generally good-natured, was Grey-eyes.
"I think I just figured out why you're so fucking powerful," Rika said accusingly.
"What? From these? I don't remember any of these. Who is that girl?"
Alden and Rika both looked at her in shock. "You don't know who that is?" Alden asked slowly. For once, he wasn't the one out of the loop—and if the situation weren't so chaotic, he might have enjoyed it a bit more.
"That's not possible," Rika said flatly. "You met her. Everyone who ever awakened met her."
"Uhhh, no? What are you talking about?"
"You really don't remember her?" Alden asked suspiciously. It didn't seem at all possible from what he understood of the world so far.
Hailey opened her mouth to answer, but no sound came out. Instead, she raised a hand and pointed, dumbstruck, behind Alden and Rika. They spun around, and there she was.
Grey-eyes had just appeared out of thin air in the room, and for a brief moment didn't even seem to notice they were there. She was turned away, looking out the frosted glass of the window overlooking the street. She dug into her pocket for something and pulled out a pair of plain black earbuds, which she snaked up through her thick brown hair. After a few moments of bobbing her head to some music, she finally turned around.
Her eyes looked like they might fall out of their sockets. For a full minute, nobody moved. They stared at her, she stared back at them.
"Hi," Rika said finally. That single word felt like a bullet shattering glass. Grey-eyes lifted her hands, and they recoiled immediately. Even Hailey, who professed to have no knowledge of the girl, seemed intimidated. To be fair, she did just teleport into the room, Alden mused.
"I'm not going to hurt you. I'm sorry," she said. She took out her earbuds and pocketed them. Alden allowed himself to relax a bit.
"So uhh, this must be your place," Rika added. "Seems cozy."
She cracked a smile. "Yeah. But what are you all doing here?"
"Oh, hiding from an angry mob. You?"
"Hiding from my problems, I guess." She sat down on the edge of her bed. "Hi, Hailey."
"Uhh… hi. Who are you?" Hailey looked uncomfortable—and angry. Alden couldn't blame her, what with the myriad of pictures pinned to the wall behind her.
"I was kinda hoping you all had a name by now," she said. Her tone was jocular, but he felt like there was still that undercurrent of sadness. Everything about her spoke of an intense loneliness.
"We've just been calling you Grey-eyes," Rika put in.
"Gray eyes?" the girl said, surprised. "Well that doesn't work." With a tiny gesture of her hand, so fast Alden couldn't make it out, her eyes flashed and became brilliant red. A moment later, deep blue, then pale yellow, until returning to their original soft silver-grey. She took a quick glance at her reflection in the mirror. "I guess that's okay."
"You're human, right?" Alden asked. He had to know, and he couldn't think of a more delicate way to phrase it.
She nodded. "I'm no different than Rika over there, or you. I'm a witch. Spellcaster. Magic user. Awakened. Bruja, sorcière, czarownica, galdranorn, majyo, колдунья."
"Don't you mean mahou sukai?" Rika offered.
"You're assuming I'm any good," Grey-eyes replied. It wasn't a retort, but a reflection. She looked troubled by her own words.
"You're good," Alden said lamely. He felt strange, trying to reassure this girl who could apparently teleport and change her appearance at will.
She gave him a small smile. "That's nice of you to say, but you don't know me. You couldn't know."
"Can you tell me where my father is?" Rika asked abruptly.
"I don't know," the girl replied simply.
"You… don't know?"
She picked at her fingernail nervously. "Your father's alive, and he's somewhere on the planet, and he's never used magic. That's all. I'm sorry."
"All you know, or all you can say?" Rika sounded disappointed.
"...Both?" Grey-eyes looked around anxiously.
"Why am I in these pictures? And why can't I remember any of them?" Hailey cut in, sounding frustrated.
"Oh, right." Grey-eyes looked down at the floor, staring determinedly at her feet. "That's… my bad."
"Did you do something to me?"
"Kinda," she answered, still not looking up. "More exactly, I did something to me. You just got caught in it."
"What does that mean?" Hailey was getting upset. Grey-eyes looked even more uncomfortable.
"Look, just trust me, okay? There's some things you don't ever want to know. You don't want to be stuck in this."
"It's a little late for that," Hailey snapped. She lifted a hand and a ball of flame burst into being.
Grey-eyes looked up at the sudden wave of heat, and frowned. The flame hovered smoothly away from Hailey's palm and spun a circle around Grey-eyes, before it dissipated into a puff of smoke. "I'm really not in the mood. I know you awakened anyway. I'm sorry. I never wanted anyone to, but it's too late for that now."
"So what, you just wanted it all for yourself?" Rika asked.
"What? No! I didn't mean that. I just meant, with all that's happening now… you'd be better off without magic. He's after everyone who awakened."
"He meaning Omega?"
"Jackson. His name is Jackson. Not 'Omega'."
"Oh, so you fuckers do have names."
She gave Rika a scornful look. "He doesn't deserve that."
"He's a fucking murderer, and he tried to frame me for it. What does he deserve, exactly?"
"He tried to frame you?" Grey-eyes looked surprised.
"Apparently. Left electrical burns on the body and made sure people noticed."
"That's not really a bulletproof case…"
Rika shrugged. "It's enough for the goddamn angry mobs out there, if you hadn't noticed."
"Yeah…" She looked away again. "I can't do anything about that though."
"Why the fuck not? Aren't you powerful enough?"
"There's rules. I have to follow them."
"Or what?" Rika asked skeptically.
"Or they stop being the rules." She stood and walked back over to the window. "You guys saw what happened to the library. That was a year ago. We all know more magic now. What do you think they'd do this time if they have the chance?"
"Oookay. Chills down my spine, you got me. So what do we do?"
"I don't know," she answered sadly.
Alden felt an urge to hug her. If she wasn't the most powerful person he'd ever met, he probably would have, but he felt too afraid to approach her. Instead, he sat in bemused wonder. It was the sort of guarded awe that anyone might feel upon meeting an important and powerful person in the flesh—the combination of confusion at how human they really were, and the immense authority they commanded nonetheless.
"Isn't he breaking the rules?" he asked. Grey-eyes looked up surprised. Her eyes met his own very briefly, before she turned away again as if she felt too afraid to look at him directly. "I mean, he's attacking people. Isn't that over the line?"
"I… well no, not exactly. Jackson agreed not to enter the town, attack anyone or interfere with awakenings. The rules weren't strict enough, I guess, since he found a way around them."
"Yeah, by using a pawn. Are you all that fucking dense?" Rika cut in.
"Do you know how hard it was to get them to sit down in a room and agree to anything?" Grey-eyes shot back. "What I had to do to them?"
"And what did you do exactly?" Hailey growled. "What did you do to me?"
Hailey shook her head, and her hand grasped the thick stone hanging from the cord around her neck. Wind began kicking up behind them, and Grey-eyes' hair was flung backward—though she managed to stand against the sudden gale.
"No, stop!" Grey-eyes shouted, though it was barely audible. The window behind her was shuddering, the curtains flat against the wall. "He'll notice us!"
"He'll what now?" Rika shouted back, but her question was answered almost immediately.
The door to the stairs was flung wide. A blur of a man burst into the room, and with a swift punch Hailey was knocked head over heels back onto the floor. The hurricane wind petered out as if it had never existed.
The man turned, and Alden was stunned into silence. It was the man he'd seen in the woods, with those dark eyes that seemed deeper than the void of space. He felt terror strike his soul, and now he had a name to put to that terror.
"You were warned," Jackson murmured in his deep voice, one that rumbled through the room like an earthquake beginning to take hold.
"They came to me," Grey-eyes said.
"It doesn't change the rules."
Jackson turned to face her. The room was suddenly silent. Alden dared to look at them, and he could see them talking—but couldn't hear a word of it. Grey-eyes looked deeply concerned. She put a hand to Jackson's face in a gentle motion, her mouth moving rapidly. Alden tried, but he couldn't read her lips at all.
"What now?" he whispered to Rika.
"We fucking leave is what now," Rika hissed. She began inching toward the door.
Alden glanced at Hailey. She shook her head. "I still need answers. How about you?"
Alden felt like this had to be why he'd come to Rallsburg. Here he was, standing in front of two actual gods, one of whom might have the answers to the mystery that had dogged him for almost a year. How could he possibly leave when they were so close? "I'm staying."
"You're both fucking lunatics," Rika whispered, but she stopped moving nonetheless.
"So do we just wait?" Hailey asked.
Suddenly, Jackson took a few steps forward and grabbed Grey-eyes' arm. She recoiled, and Alden felt a burst of protective, righteous anger. He couldn't let this man do that to her. It wasn't right. His mind followed the paths to the magic pool that he'd formed, and grabbed for the energy as Rika had taught him.
This is what I'm supposed to do. Alden summoned up a burst of flame, much more powerful than he'd ever managed. He sent the jet forward, arcing it around so that it flew directly at Jackson's face and stopped just inches away. Alden wanted him to feel the heat, but he managed to shape it so that Grey-eyes shouldn't have felt a thing.
The flame disappeared. Alden felt like a balloon had just been popped, one that was somehow a part of him. Jackson turned back to face them with a cold glint in his eyes. Rika bolted for the door, but Jackson reached out mentally and it swung shut in front of her. He looked at Alden with surprise. "Really?" he asked sardonically.
"Don't hurt her," Alden growled.
"Alden, no, don't—" Grey-eyes started, but Jackson interrupted her.
"He attacked me. Can't break the rules in that case."
Alden set his feet, and dug deeper—far deeper than he ever had—into the pool of magical energy. He summoned up the movement magic he'd been practicing. Jackson shot a burst of crackling electricity at him. Alden, adrenaline coursing through his veins and his head feeling light and sharp, saw it coming as if in slow motion. He grasped the edges of his body and pulled himself hard to the side, moving much faster than humanly possible.
The electricity crackled by harmlessly, and ended up arcing towards Rika. She absorbed it without so much as blinking.
Hailey raised her hands and summoned up her own blast of fire—and to Alden's dismay, it was much stronger and more controlled than his meager efforts. The flames engulfed Jackson for a moment before they were summarily dismissed, but he seemed much more intimidated than a moment before. The cold, almost amused expression was gone—replaced by fury and determination.
"Help us!" Alden cried at Grey-eyes, but she shook her head, burying her face in her hands.
Jackson moved, and it was so quick that Alden blinked and he was across the room. Hailey was thrown back against the wall. She slammed into it with a resounding thump and slid down to the floor. He had struck so hard and so fast, Alden thought Hailey might actually be dead. She was certainly unconscious. Jackson began to move a second time, toward Rika.
Another blur and she was suddenly halfway across the room herself. A bolt of electricity burst from her fingers. The bright blue forked across the open air to strike Jackson in the side, blowing a hole in his shirt and burning him.
"Yeah, I know that trick," Rika gasped, weak for air. Jackson seemed to be similarly tired, and the lightning had him visibly straining from the effort. He was still human. He could be beaten. Alden had a vague hope rising in his chest. We can do this. He started toward Jackson, intending to tackle him while he was distracted.
A moment later, a pair of monsters sprouted out of the floorboards. Alden's hopes were crushed into dust. He'd tried to attack a god, with only a vague plan and barely any backup. The faceless golem advanced implacably toward him, and Alden closed his eyes.
He hoped it would be quick.