Chapter 22 — The Importance of Flying
The nearest town was almost thirty miles south, through endless thick forests and over steep hills. Alden wasn't totally out of shape, but it was going to be a hard run. If he was even still travelling south. He'd known the train station was the north end of town, and tried to keep it behind him as he went, but who knew if he was still running in a straight line since he'd plunged into the trees?
It didn't matter in the end. There was no way he was setting foot inside Rallsburg ever again. He had to escape. To stay was suicide, or worse. He hadn't brought any food or water. He had left all his clothes and things back at the apartment. He knew full well that fleeing in a blind panic was foolhardy—and yet his legs kept pumping.
A particularly thick tree root at an odd angle managed to trip him. His mind hurtled into the pool of energy he recognized as magic, and he grabbed his entire body. With a heave that rattled his bones, he flung himself upright again, changing direction in mid-air. Alden didn't fall. He just kept running.
Alden wasn't even sure there was a town in thirty miles. He was relying on the vague memory of a few satellite maps on the internet. It could be just a patch of roads or a named intersection that never had anything built. At this time of night, he wasn't likely to flag down a passing car, so neither of those did him any good. He'd have to keep going. He could run a six minute mile on a good day, but this was longer than a marathon. Already, the distance seemed incredibly daunting, but with the adrenaline pumping through his veins, he felt like he could make it.
He never had a chance to find out.
As Alden passed a tree, he tripped yet again on an unusually large dark lump jutting out of the ground. He was about to catch himself, but the lump moved. He heard a familiar grunt of pain. Alden was so shocked he crashed heavily into the dirt.
"...the fuck?" Viper hissed, twisting around slightly to look at him. He was wearing dark green modern military camouflage and his face was dabbed with dark paint. He'd been laying in a concealed position, watching across a moonlit expanse in the trees. His one good arm held a pistol.
Alden started to scramble away, but Viper grabbed one of his ankles.
"No, stop, I have to get away from here—" Alden stammered. He was practically begging at this point. Anything to let him keep running.
"Let me go!" Alden shouted.
"Kid, shut the fuck up!" Viper snapped under his breath. It was too late.
A pile of loose twigs and branches in the center of the moonlit area began to rise up from the floor, as if the ground itself were erupting underneath them. A hulking, faceless golem slowly emerged. Silently, it rotated on the pillar of material where its legs should have been, and it began to slide toward them.
"Shit." Viper clicked a small cord that was attached to his hand in the sling. "Weapons green."
A rifle crack echoed through the forest. The golem's torso was flung violently to the side. It toppled over—but only seconds later, it was already pulling itself back up.
Viper scrambled to his feet. "Goddamnit."
"I'm sorry," Alden sputtered. He watched the golem warily as it approached. "We can just run though, right?"
"Can't run forever. I was tryin' to get the actual owner of these fuckers," Viper spat. He thumbed his radio again. "Lure it to two-one-zero and blow it."
A pause, then another rifle shot rang out—from a different location. It was further to Alden's right, from the direction he'd been running. The golem, apparently not spotting them behind the tree, lumbered toward the sound of the gunfire. It took it a minute to vanish from sight.
Alden let out a deep breath. A second later, Viper pulled him back down to the ground.
A massive concussive blast sent the tree shuddering. Alden had never heard something so loud. The forest behind them erupted in a ball of orange and black, smoke billowing out in every direction. The golem was utterly annihilated.
"Well, at least that works," Viper grumbled. He got to his feet, while Alden recovered from the force of the explosion. His ears were still ringing, and the headache he'd felt back in town had returned threefold. "Now where the hell are you runnin' off to?"
"Anywhere but here."
"Fair enough, but I'm pretty sure you were supposed to get something for me. Where's the damn Scrap?"
Alden didn't dare lie to him. "We were told it was somewhere north, and then the entire town went crazy. There's a riot, and your source was attacked by Omega, and—" He cut off. The most recent revelation was was still too much for him to process, let alone voice aloud.
"So much for this fuckin' town," Viper shrugged. He thumbed his radio. "Rook, regroup at delta. You get your wish. We're bailing." He grabbed up Alden by the neck of his shirt and pressed him against the tree. "Do I have to drag you the whole way there?"
"Two people with magic's better'n just one. You're coming with us."
Alden shook his head. "I have to get out of here."
"Well lucky you, that's where we're goin'." Two clicks of the radio, then another long press. Alden struggled, but Viper had him firmly pinned to the trunk. Even with only one arm, the man was hellishly strong. "Snakecharmer, python."
"Snakecharmer, evac at el-zed delta in ten mikes. Drop us a line, tree cover's too thick. Over."
"Ack, Snakecharmer. We'll see you in fifteen. I'm buying drinks. Out." Viper yanked Alden around and pushed him forward. South again. "Move it, kid. We've got a ride to catch."
Alden hesitated. "Where are you taking me?"
"Back to base. And don't think stallin' will do you any good. All that means is a pissed chopper pilot who I'll owe a few extra bottles when we get home."
Alden began a more deliberately paced trek through the forest. Despite his newfound captivity, he felt much more at ease than he had a few minutes ago. Viper was a known quantity, and he was taking control of the situation. Alden didn't have to think again for a while. He could just do as he was told, walk forward, and he'd survive.
Or would he? Doubt was creeping in. Viper didn't exactly seem like the merciful type—or the legal type. Alden could be loaded into a black box, interrogated and then killed off without a second thought. No one knew where he was or who he was with.
"You're taking me to Malton, right?"
"How's a shrimp like you know that?" he asked. Alden stopped to answer him, but Viper elbowed him in the back. He pressed on.
"Heard it around that you worked for them," Alden tried to answer as casually as he could.
"Yeah, no, you heard it from someone specific. That Jap chick, probably. Well, yeah, that's where you're going. End of the line, kid."
"You're gonna kill me?"
"Probably not. But they're gonna want to study you, and me too. You cooperate, you'll probably live a lot longer."
"And what if they want to open both of us up?" Alden asked.
"Then they open both of us up. They'd better find out somethin' useful though, if I'm gonna die in a fuckin' lab instead of out in the field."
Alden fell silent in dismay. Viper wasn't going to be dissuaded. He'd answered so indifferently that Alden was totally convinced of his loyalty. They walked in silence for a few minutes, until Viper finally spoke up again.
"Look, I'll put in a word for ya. You don't seem like a bad kid. Might be I can make your life a bit more comfortable."
"Thanks," Alden replied bitterly.
"Or not. Just offerin'."
Uncomfortable silence hung around them once again. Alden was following Viper through the forest with his head hung low. He didn't even bother trying to run. What hope did he have against a trained military operator like Viper? He was just a kid, no matter what he'd thought.
"I wasn't special at all," Alden mumbled.
Viper laughed. "Kid, none of us are special. Even this son of a bitch poppin' out monsters is just another guy. Dies to a bullet in the head, same as you or me."
"You were just gonna shoot him?"
"Me? Fuck no. Malton will want him alive. I was gonna dart him, but you showed up and scared him away. First time we'd managed to get the drop on him, too, after dancing around for weeks out here."
"So Malton knows about magic?"
Viper shrugged. "I have to tell him sooner or later. He's gonna want to get a leg up on the competition before this blows wide open."
"And you'll just give yourself over and let them experiment on you?"
"I was supposed to be dead ten years back. As far as I figure it, Malton already owns my life. Anything I've done since then is on his dime."
Alden shuddered. "I couldn't do that."
"Well lucky you, you don't actually get to choose. That's on me."
Alden was starting to get desperate. "Wouldn't you want someone more powerful? I can barely do anything."
He shook his head. "A catch is a catch, and I ain't stayin' in this fucking place another minute. Everything's gonna blow up soon, I can feel it."
They emerged into a small clearing in the forest. There wasn't nearly enough room for a helicopter to land, from what Alden could see. He expected to keep moving, but Viper took a seat on a nearby root and waited. Alden sat down too, as far away as he dared.
"Olet taas kuollut," came a whisper from nearby.
Viper twisted around in shock, raising his gun. Alden froze in terror.
Rook emerged from the shadows, slinging her rifle over her shoulder. "That was sloppy," she remarked calmly.
"Jesus, Tess," Viper grumbled. He holstered his pistol. "Even tonight?"
"Bravo, you win, I didn't clear the fuckin' LZ." Viper sat back down again. "One of these days I'm actually gonna shoot you."
"On that day, you will have your first miss." She looked at Alden as if she were examining a dead fish. "I didn't realize we had cargo."
"Boss needs a sample, and he was convenient."
Rook leaned against a tree. "They will cut him up," she added. Alden couldn't hear a single note of sympathy in her voice. Was she on his side? If not, why bring it up?
"Probably. Once we unload him, it's not our job anymore. We'll finally be out of this boring-ass town."
"It is better than the deserts."
"I just want anywhere we don't have to put up with so many civvies," Viper grumbled.
In the distance, Alden could hear the drumbeat of an incoming helicopter. It was getting loud, fast. He tensed up. Was this his moment to run? Viper and Rook seemed distracted. Once the chopper arrived, did he have any hope of escaping?
Alden rose up just a centimeter. Instantly, he found himself staring down two barrels. Both Viper and Rook had drawn their weapons.
"Don't." Rook glared at him. "I do not feel like running right now."
"It's been a long-ass day," Viper added.
Alden sat back down. "Aren't I important, if you want me in a lab somewhere? You can't shoot me."
"Sure we can. There's plenty of places you can shoot a man without him dyin' anytime soon. Tessa knows all of them. If you want to try to run, you'll learn a couple too." Viper looked up at the sky and thumbed his radio. "Snakecharmer, python."
"Snakecharmer, we're set for dust-off. Drop it. Over."
The helicopter hurtled into view. It raked across the canopy with the nose tilted up, braking hard and fast. It came to a stop just above the small clearing. Two ropes were thrown out either side, unspooling and dropping down to the forest floor.
Viper hauled Alden to his feet. They crossed to the ropes, where both Rook and Viper produced small metal clamps that hooked into their combat vests.
"Hang on tight," Viper grunted. Alden grabbed onto his chest with all the strength he could muster. Viper clamped them onto the rope.
"Rook set," came a reply from the other side of the chopper, barely audible under the beating thump of the chopper blades. At her echo, the helicopter lifted into the sky, taking them with it. The ropes slowly retracted upward, steadily carrying Alden toward the open doors.
Until that point, Alden had vaguely hoped Rika might burst out of the trees and lay them both low, just as she had with Jessica. As Alden thought back through all the events since he'd arrived in Rallsburg, he was slowly coming to believe Rika was as impenitent and callous as most of her former friends seemed to believe. Since they'd met on the train, Rika hadn't ever really done anything to help him. She'd spoken a lot about helping, and allowed him to follow her, but beyond letting him awaken, what had she actually done for him?
Alden had helped Rika out indirectly. Just by being around, he'd noticed that a lot of people had tended to treat her with a little less outright hostility. He'd provided her with an excuse and a shield. Despite his shortcomings with magic, he'd actively tried to help her in every scheme she cooked up, or the danger she'd been facing in town from both the magical and the mundane. Rika had told him fate had put them together, and he'd believed it wholeheartedly.
Now that he was in actual trouble and his life was dissolving before his eyes, Rika was nowhere to be found. The one friend he'd believed he made left ran out and abandoned him in the middle of the worst moments of his life. Alden was totally alone, and being dragged away to what would certainly be the end of his life.
It felt like the end of his life, being pulled up to the helicopter while holding desperately onto Viper for dear life. Alden would never see his family again, or his friends. Not that he had any friends, apparently. Maybe this was for the best. At least he might actually contribute something, being tied up in a lab at Malton. His life would have meaning, even if it was just to advance some cause he didn't know or care about.
They were thirty feet or so above the roof of the forest when Alden spotted something. There was a shape flitting among the treetops somewhere behind them. The helicopter had just tilted forward, gathering speed as it turned east. Alden strained his eyes. The moonlight was strong and the lights on the helicopter were all turned off. He could just barely make out a figure speeding toward them through the air.
It could only be one person. Alden remembered—he did have friends.
His only hope was to make sure Viper and Rook didn't notice. They were more focused on the quickly approaching landing skids of the helicopter. Viper was reaching his hand out to grab it early, and Rook mirrored his action. Neither of them were looking down, and Viper was barely holding onto Alden now that they were so far up in the air. Alden could let go at any moment.
He had to signal her. Alden plunged into his mind, delving for the elemental magic Rika had taught him. There was the fire, sputtering away and waiting to spring into life wherever he desired it. Alden flung it wide, as far as he could reach. Every inch further from himself made it more difficult. The strain was tremendous for the small amount he was conjuring.
A few dozen feet in front of her, he spelled out a single word with licks of flame. They dissipated instantly. He couldn't maintain them, or he'd black out completely.
A flicker of light blinked twice in response. Alden tensed. The helicopter skid was only a few feet up. Viper's grip around his waist loosened as he reached for it.
The figure in the trees sped up, rising slightly and darting toward the helicopter as fast she could.
Alden's heart was pounding so hard he felt like his head would explode. He was about to do something utterly insane and suicidal.
But if he didn't, he'd be dead anyway.
Alden pushed off Viper and let go.
"What the fuck?" Viper screamed. His eyes shot down to catch Alden's, wide with confusion.
Alden felt like he should say something in response, but he was too terrified to open his mouth. He fell swiftly toward the expanse of green below. It would only take seconds for him to hit the ground and be a very dead kid.
She rocketed into him. He tumbled sideways through the open air. A hand grabbed ahold of him and lifted him into the sky. Alden was held fast by an awkwardly bent arm. He twisted around and grabbed hold of her. They were still rapidly descending, but Alden could feel their speed slowing over time.
Not slow enough.
They hurtled past a tree and narrowly dodged another before crashing headlong through a thick intersection of branches. Alden felt cuts on his face as they plowed through, but they emerged out the other side. Finally, mercifully, he felt a sharp tug in his stomach. The wings had unfurled and flared wide, and their speed was dropping quickly.
"You okay?" she shouted.
The wind blasted their ears. Alden was still too shaken up to answer. He just closed his eyes and held on tight while Hailey swept through the trees. He was still trying to process what had just happened.
Alden had thrown himself out into the air with no guarantee of safety. He'd been at least a hundred feet off the ground. He should have died. It was only thanks to Hailey's quick action that he was still breathing.
"We've gotta land," Hailey called. "I can't keep this up much longer."
Alden nodded into her shoulder, still too winded to speak. He wrapped his arms tighter around her and clung on as she started to glide lower. Ahead, they could see a dim light filtering through the trees. A campfire, maybe. Hailey was making for it.
Alden shook his head.
"What if that's them?" Alden said. The wind wasn't so loud anymore, and his panic was subsiding while his anxiety continued to rise.
"I need to land somewhere. We're gonna fall if I don't."
Hailey dropped lower. Alden could feel the air thump against their descent in waves until they were finally coming into a short landing. Thankfully, they were far short of the firelight, whomever it might belong to. Hailey dropped onto her feet, but her legs immediately gave way and they tumbled into the moss and dirt. She groaned, and awkwardly rolled off of Alden.
"You okay?" Alden asked tentatively.
"I'm still pretty banged up," Hailey replied. She dragged herself to the nearest tree and propped herself up against it.
"You came after me."
"Well yeah, of course I did." She looked at him funny. "Why wouldn't I?"
Alden's face heated up. "Thank you."
Hailey shook her head. "I had to. My friends all left and I didn't chase after any of them. So I'm starting a new thing where I actually try to keep my friends around. And, well, you needed help."
"No kidding," Alden said. He looked up at the thick tree canopy and the moonlight filtering through the branches. The helicopter was still loud and circling nearby, but they couldn't it. "I was screwed. How did you find me?"
"Followed you the whole way. I nearly caught up right when you were snatched by that guy, but I had to stay back. We're lucky neither of them ever really looked up." Hailey grinned. "I was hopping between trees like a monkey."
"So what did they want with you?"
"To put me in a lab somewhere. For that Malton guy Rika mentioned."
Hailey shuddered. "That's awful."
"Yeah, but they only grabbed me because I was convenient. They might try to get someone else before they leave."
Hailey pulled out her phone. Her eyes narrowed. "Crap. No signal."
"It sounded like they were leaving though. Maybe we don't need to worry about it," Alden added dubiously.
"You want to risk that? What if they grabbed Jess?" Hailey asked.
"Tried to grab Jess," Alden pointed out. "I'm pretty sure she could take them in a fight."
"Maybe. If they took her by surprise though…" Hailey's face creased with worry. "It's not like we're invincible, we just have more magic we can use. A couple humans with guns or tranquilizers are still pretty scary."
Alden noted her use of the term yet again. Now that they finally had time, he decided to point it out. "You keep saying 'humans'. Like you're not one anymore."
Hailey looked surprised. She hesitated before answering. "I… I dunno. I guess I just feel different now. Like I'm something else. Don't you feel that?"
Alden shrugged. "I haven't really thought about it. It never really occurred to me to think of myself as anything else."
She looked uncomfortable. "Is it weird? I'll try to stop."
He shook his head. "You don't need to do anything because I told you to. I'm just one guy."
"No, if it's weird I—" She cut off suddenly, tilting her head to the side. Alden heard it too. Someone was talking nearby, much louder than them. Shouting, in fact. It was a voice they both recognized. A low, perpetually exhausted, bitter voice.
It was Brian Hendricks.
"They don't beat you. They can't. That's the whole point."
Brian was raging at Omega, his voice carrying through the underbrush. Alden was frozen in place. Hailey had landed closer to the light than he'd thought—and it had belonged to his worst nightmare. It was a miracle they hadn't been heard themselves, but it seemed their foes were a bit preoccupied to be listening out for faint voices in the distance.
"Calm down, man," Omega replied. Even though he wasn't shouting, his own voice still carried far. The deep timbre struck shivers in Alden's spine, just as it had in town. "They just surprised me."
"You've got a massive bite in your shoulder," Brian growled. "What the hell did those savages do to you? And how?"
Omega hesitated before answering. "It won't happen again. I'll be ready next time."
"No, that's not enough. We have to send them a message."
"What kind of message?"
Hailey shot a fearful look at Alden. Neither of them dared move, but they seemed to be in complete agreement: we need to get out of here.
"That the end is nigh. They've chosen destruction."
"You would destroy the entire town?" Omega asked casually.
"You said it yourself. Magic is out and the town did nothing. They just accepted it and moved on. How could this town—my own neighbors and friends—let such filth into our lives?" Brian might have sounded hysterical, but his voice was controlled and steady. He continued in that same confident voice, speaking of murder and bloodshed like it were a chore—unpleasant, but ultimately necessary. "Rallsburg is doomed. We have to wipe it from the face of the earth. Natalie and I will find a new home after it's gone. Then we'll be safe."
Natalie? Alden mouthed at Hailey in confusion. She shrugged, equally bewildered. Brian was apparently totally unaware of his daughter's status.
"What's your plan?" Omega asked.
"They'll probably call a meeting, since they think you're on the retreat," Brian continued. "Use the time they have to plan some kind of defense. I can strike there."
"No? It's the perfect opportunity."
"You alone, against the combined force of the town? They'd hunt you down like a dog."
"I can beat them."
Omega sighed. His voice got quieter, too quiet for them to hear. Alden looked at Hailey with dismay. She frowned, then made a few brief motions with her fingers. The air suddenly felt thicker around Alden's ears, as though there were some kind of pressure building up in the area. Brian and Omega were suddenly quite audible again, though they'd dropped to normal speaking volumes. "...stronger than I thought you'd be, even using my magic secondhand like that. But you're going up against forces you've never seen. Spells I've never seen."
"The entire world is at stake. The clock's ticking. We can't just sit around and wait for their next move. We can use terror, turn fear back on those monsters like they deserve. They can't mount a defense if they're running scared."
"They aren't going anywhere. We've made sure of that. We can be patient and thorough."
"I don't have time for that."
"Why is it so urgent?"
"Because my little girl is still in there!" Brian roared, causing Hailey and Alden to jump. The volume amplification made it sound like he was shouting right in their faces. "She's not alone, thank God, but she's still in danger. I'm the only one who can protect her. You know that we can't trust anyone else with magic. Those stupid bastards would probably try to hoard it for themselves and we'd get more dead kids in the crossfire. The only way we can be certain is to kill every last one of them. I'm never letting anyone hurt my Natalie again."
"...Again?" Omega prompted.
"It was when she was little," Brian answered. The hot fury in his tone slowly subsided into a much colder, but no less intense contempt. "She doesn't remember it at all, but her mother… well, her mom wasn't exactly the brightest bulb on the tree. She neglected our daughter so many times… Then Lori took Natalie out to a playground, and she lost track of her. Natalie wandered out into the street and got hit by a guy on a bike. She was bleeding and crying, and Lori didn't even realize it had happened until the ambulance showed up." Brian's voice had shifted to a growl. "If it had been a car, Natalie might not be alive. Lori was careless, the biker was careless, every single fucking person there was careless. Careless people who don't do anything to prevent disasters like this are dangerous. Now they've got magic at their disposal and you're wondering why I think it's urgent?"
"You've made your point, man," Omega answered, trying to placate him. There was a pause.
"What?" Brian asked.
"Thought I felt something…" Omega murmured.
Alden shot a panicked look at Hailey. "What if he can feel magic like Will can?" he hissed.
Fear filled Hailey's face. Twigs and leaves scattered as she lifted into the air. She held steady while Alden grabbed hold. Moments later, they were skybound, moving away from the firelight as fast as they could.
They didn't see Viper's helicopter anywhere nearby, but Hailey stayed low above the treeline nonetheless. Neither of them wanted to risk anything at that point. She was taking a slow roundabout route outside its flight path back to Rallsburg.
"Are you getting tired? We can set down again," Alden asked. Without the makeshift harness, he was feeling a bit vulnerable just hanging off Hailey. She was bearing most of the weight, despite only using one arm to hold up him, but it was still harrowing to be flying through the air with no visible support. Exciting, even in their current state, but definitely nerve-wracking.
She shook her head. Hailey's eyes had started to adopt the dead look of the deeply exhausted, but she seemed fiercely determined. "I'll get us home," she replied. "Unless… you don't want to go back? I guess you were thinking about running."
"I—" Alden started.
"I don't blame you," she continued quickly. "Honestly, I thought about it too. Even with Jess like she is, we might have a better chance getting out of here. But I'm on the fence. Jess and I can probably help out. Like, a lot. I feel like I'd regret it the rest of my life if I ditch now, you know?"
"I can't do anything though. I'm just a kid, and every spell I try is just weak," Alden muttered. He assumed Hailey couldn't hear him over the wind, but she caught it anyway.
"Sure you can. Don't listen to Rika. You're better than that. You're smart, Alden." Hailey glanced down at him for a second with a quick smile, but quickly looked back up before they plowed headlong into a tree. She had to roll to avoid it, making them both wince from the pressure. "Sorry. Seriously, though. Don't sell yourself short. You can't do much magic yet, yeah, but you've only had it for what, a week?"
"Less than," he replied sheepishly.
"There you go! How are you supposed to be on par with all these people who've been doing it for a year? Or more? Don't try to measure yourself against all these people, they've got a huge head start."
"Easy for you to say." He hadn't meant that to sound so bitter, but it came out that way.
Hailey shrugged. "I cheated. Didn't know it, but apparently I did. I don't count." She glanced at him again, seeing his dejected expression. "Look, your life sucks right now, and it's all because of magic. I've been there for sure. Think about it though. If you leave, it's not like magic's not still gonna be there, right? You're awakened now, just like the rest of us. Do you think you'll ever have a normal life again?"
"Exactly. More importantly, think about all the cool things we can do now. I mean, check it out." Hailey abruptly launched into a dive, rolling around several trees at breakneck speed. They burst through a clump and Hailey suddenly angled them up into the air. They rose high into the sky.
Alden felt his stomach fall out from under him. They were rolling over backwards. Hailey had taken them into a reverse loop. He was suddenly laid out above her, with only the clear starry expanse above. It was a rare cloudless night and the moon and stars were bright and gorgeous. For that brief instant, he forgot everything. It was a moment of weightless, breathless excitement.
They began to fall back down, and instead of a rush of wind like Alden expected, Hailey returned them to a slow glide again.
He burst out laughing. "Thought I said to warn me next time."
"Yeah, but where's the fun in that?" Hailey laughed. "Seriously, you want to give up stuff like this?"
"No, of course not."
"Me neither." Hailey sobered up again, her laughter dying away. "The thing is, that's what he wants to take away, right? He wants magic to end. Maybe he's got a decent reason, I don't know. But I can't believe it. So I'm not going to let them. Are you?"
Alden shook his head. "No, but I'm no one. I'm not powerful like you, or connected like Rachel and Rika. I'm not important at all."
"I don't think that matters," Hailey replied. "I mean, look at Rachel. From what Rika told me, she can barely do any magic herself. She's almost worthless at it. As for being connected and important, Rachel pretty much just copied me."
"Yeah. Believe it or not, before I decided I was going to be a hermit for the rest of my life, I was basically the center of town. I knew everyone and everyone knew me. Life of the party. The girl in the know. Queen bee. Pick your title." Hailey laughed. "Rachel was just one of my friends. She was always trying to be the center too, and she was nice enough, but she was a bit too clueless to handle it. Too forgetful. And when you start forgetting people and snubbing them at all the big events, you can't be the center anymore, you know? Plus, everyone just thought she was a little weird."
Hailey grimaced. "I don't feel great about it, but we probably treated her pretty bad. She was crazy tall and super awkward. It was like high school all over again. Then magic shows up. I drop off the face of the earth—for very important reasons—and Rachel turns on genius-mode somehow. She already knew most of the town just because she hung out around me so much, and she basically just took over. No magic, no tricks, just being there for everyone.
"The point I'm trying to make, Alden," she continued, her voice straining a little as she started lifting them above the rising treetops. They were headed uphill. Alden noticed her hand was clutching the tourmaline around her neck much tighter than he'd previously noticed. "I think you make yourself important. Yeah, some people start off important because they're born into it, but they're not gonna stay there unless they want to. There's so many people out there now, and everyone's so connected, you can only rise up to the top if you push your way there."
"And how do you do that?"
"Luck—and being really damn stubborn." Hailey grinned. "That's my secret. I don't give up on things ever. Maybe I put them on pause for a while, but it's never over til I croak."
"I don't want to be important."
"I don't either. It wasn't worth it at all. I'd rather have a few close friends than a ton of kinda-friends."
"I want to help though," Alden said suddenly. His mind was shifting away from flight. It wasn't quite to the 'fight' end of the spectrum, but he didn't feel so terror-stricken anymore. There was a new sense of conviction building up inside him. Despite what had been done to him, magic was still full of so much potential—and the few friends he'd made on this adventure seemed like friends worth keeping. "If I can help somehow, I want to. I want to help you guys save it. I don't want magic to go away."
"Me neither," Hailey agreed. She started turning them more directly toward the town. Alden noticed they were on a direct path back to Hailey's (and Rika's) apartment block. "If it's cool with you, I think our next move is to get some sleep, because I am gonna fall asleep in mid-air here pretty soon."
"Just kidding. But seriously, I gotta lay down before this gets worse."
"Okay." His sudden burst of panic dwindled away. "We need to call Rachel though. We should warn them about the meeting."
"Right. You have her number, don't you?"
"Yeah. Guess I could call now." Alden pulled out his phone and dialed, while Hailey gently descended toward the balcony of the apartments. The door slid open of its own accord as they approached. He could see Jessica waiting just inside with her hand outstretched. Hailey landed and let Alden go. She stumbled inside on her weak legs and collapsed onto the sofa. Jessica immediately began fussing over her. Alden stayed outside on the balcony, listening to the phone ring unheeded.
Rachel finally answered on the eighth ring. "Hello?" She sounded completely exhausted.
"Hi, this is—"
"Zack. What can I do for you?"
"I… well." He hesitated. He didn't want to reveal Hailey's abilities if he didn't have to. She'd already mentioned how she was a more private person than she used to be, and Rachel was certainly the opposite. It wasn't his place to tell. "I overheard Omega and Brian talking in the woods."
"About what?" She sounded doubtful, but too tired to argue.
"They're going to escalate to the entire town, not just awakened."
"We knew that already. They killed the reverend," Rachel answered impatiently.
"They also said something about attacking you while you're meeting tomorrow."
"I didn't call any meeting for tomorrow."
"No. We talked about what to do next after the riot cleared out, but we hadn't set anything in stone."
"Was there anything else?" she asked.
"Just… be careful. I'm here to help, and so is everyone else."
"Thank you." She sounded like someone riding the line between sincerity and annoyance. "Good night, Zack."
The phone clicked off. Alden stared out into the thick woods beyond the balcony. That hadn't felt like enough. He wasn't giving up with just a single phone call. Come tomorrow morning, he was going to be out there helping. Whatever he could do, anything he could contribute to keep the town alive. To keep his friends alive.
Jessica emerged and joined him at the railing. She looked at him and tapped his shoulder, where she'd bandaged his cut. He'd completely forgotten about it, and it hadn't been hurting for a while. He pulled up his shirt sleeve, and she glanced it over. A moment later, she gave a thumbs up, letting his sleeve drop again.
Alden pointed inside, then put both hands up to the side of his face and tilted his head to try and indicate sleeping. Jessica nodded. Hailey was asleep. Alden turned back to the forest, trying to think of how to ask Jessica his next question. He already knew how Hailey felt, but Jessica was still a bit of an enigma to him. He liked hanging out with her, and she seemed like the best kind of caring and compassionate, but did that translate into wanting to throw herself into an all-out battle? Alden didn't want to feel like they were dragging her into a fight she had no interest in.
He pointed out into the woods, then made the shape of a man in midair with fire. Jessica watched intently. He made a crude drawing of the town, then the man punching the town and it shattering. Next, he pointed at himself and then inside, and made a fist before punching out at the man. Finally, he pointed at Jessica, then at the man, and cocked his head to the side with a questioning look.
Jessica didn't hesitate. She turned to the outline of the man in small licks of fire, floating above the empty space beyond the balcony. With barely any visible effort, her fingers twirled and a swirl of fireballs appeared. They punched through the man's chest like tiny glowing bullets, one after the other. Jessica turned back to him and punched her fist into her palm, her eyes narrow.
Alden nodded. Jessica was on board.
Tomorrow, for better or worse, Alden and his friends would be joining the fight.