Chapter 9 — Flying Blind
A furious knocking on the bedroom door accompanied a painful burst of sunlight into the room. Hailey's eyes snapped open.
Jessica immediately began coughing the moment she woke up. Hailey groaned, both from the abrupt awakening and the realization that Jessica's rest had been cut short, after it had taken her so long to finally fall asleep.
"What do you want?" she called out, definitely not in the mood for an argument. Her head felt like it was trying to split itself open, still sore from the events of the night before. Even with all their power, Hailey felt winded and raw from such a rapid series of spells—not to mention the whole burning building bit.
Jessica rolled out of bed and padded over to the door in a daze, coughing as she went. She tripped slightly on her too-large pajamas before reaching the door and pulling it open, suddenly face-to-face with her mother.
Beth was livid, almost to the point of shouting. "Your shoes and your jackets are covered in ash! What on earth were you doing?"
"Working," Hailey repeated stubbornly, pulling a pillow over her face and pressing it against her ears.
"Since when does working mean you're suddenly a firefighter? I thought you were just meeting people in parks and stores. Public places."
"Something came up."
"Don't brush me off, Hailey! You're responsible for way more than just yourself. You can't take stupid risks like this."
Hailey felt a brief pang of homesickness. Sure, she wasn't exactly close with her own parents, but she still hadn't spoken to or seen either of them in over a year now. She'd had a similar confrontation with her mother after a few incidents back in her freshman year, and they hadn't had a real conversation in years. She'd made sure to call every month though, at the very least. They'd patched things up and she'd been planning to go home for Thanksgiving this year, maybe even introduce her to Jessica… somehow.
It was barely a month away, but Hailey doubted she'd be getting the opportunity. You know, since I'm dead and all…
She set the pillow aside, looking Beth in the eyes. "This was more important."
"Your lives are more important," Beth snapped. She held up Jessica's coat and shook it, causing a shower of ash to fall to the carpet. "You take my daughter into a dangerous situation and you better believe I'm not going to let this go."
She took a step into the room, but Jessica blocked her path.
"Jess?" Beth asked, faltering.
Jessica shook her head. She pointed at the jacket, then pointed at herself and nodded firmly. She pointed back at Hailey and shook her head. She repeated the sequence when Beth didn't quite seem to catch it.
"She's dangerous, can't you see that?" she asked weakly.
Jessica didn't understand, so she repeated the sequence a third time.
"I don't care if you chose it, I don't want you getting hurt." Beth put her arms around her daughter, hugging her tight. Jessica returned it, but she immediately broke into another painful cough. Beth's eyes shot back up to Hailey. "Can't you do anything for that?"
Hailey shook her head. "I don't think so. All I could do is maybe help oxygen get to her lungs, but that's not really the problem she's having. She just needs time for the irritation to heal."
"And a hospital?"
"A hyperbaric chamber, maybe?" Hailey tried to dredge up what she'd looked up online the night before, after they'd returned home. "I don't think it'd do much either. They'd probably just scan her a couple times and say the same thing, just rest and wait. If they didn't freak out from the other things about her."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, we aren't normal anymore, remember?" Hailey pointed at her eyes. "Both of us change our eyes all the time, for one, right down to the structure. Jessica's hair isn't colored by a dye, it just is that color now. I have a bunch of air moving in weird patterns behind me all the time now, whether I'm thinking about it or not. And who knows if magic itself shows up on a test somehow?" Hailey shook her head. "We can't risk going to a hospital til we know what they might find."
"And you can't just heal her with magic somehow?"
"No. That's impossible."
Beth shook her head, prompting Jessica to back away a step and look up. Beth ran a hand through her daughter's hair, then kissed her on the forehead. She mimed eating something with a knife and fork, then flashed five fingers twice. "Breakfast in ten minutes," she repeated for Hailey's benefit.
"Yeah, I got that."
A touch of annoyance crossed Beth's eyes, but she didn't comment further. She turned and left, and Jessica closed the door behind her.
Hailey fell back against the bed again, wishing she could just sleep through the day. She could, if she really wanted to. She didn't actually have any obligations anymore. No job, no school, nothing.
Sleeping through the day really wasn't her style though. Within a few minutes, she'd be restless and itching to get out and do something. Hailey Winscombe was not an idle person. Maybe she'd go find that drummer. Jess could use a pick-me-up. Hailey had been thinking about bringing it up with Beth, maybe coming up with a plan together—but that was obviously off the table now.
"Jess," she prompted. Jessica hadn't moved from the door, though thankfully she'd stopped coughing. Jessica turned around, and Hailey saw instantly she was upset. "What's wrong?"
Jessica shook her head.
Hailey mirrored her. She tilted her head to the side, then pointed at Jessica and gave her a thumbs-down.
Jessica frowned. She held up the jacket she'd taken from her mother, and shook it again. More ash and soot fell to the carpet.
Hailey winced. She sent a gust of wind out to pick it up, carrying it out through the window they'd forgotten to close the night before. "Sorry."
Jessica shook her head again. She pointed at the jacket, then at herself. A picture appeared in midair, an illusion of the building they'd gone into the night before. Hailey watched as it shifted into a burning wreck, like a very slow slideshow as Jessica composed each picture in her head and tried to project it into the air. The illusions were never totally convincing, unlike the invisibility trick she'd painstakingly learned studying Cinza, but they were distinct enough to understand what she was trying to get across, and nobody else had ever managed anything like it in detail or animation.
Hailey watched a tiny speck fly into view and burst through the top floor window. Jessica pointed at the speck, then at herself again and shook her head more emphatically. Her eyes were sparkling. She looked like she were on the verge of tears.
Oh god. "Jess, I—"
She shook her head again, her hair flying wildly. Hailey stood up and went to hug her, but Jessica shrunk away. Hailey faltered in mid-step, no longer sure what to do. She pressed her hands to her heart, trying to show Jessica what she meant. "I'm so sorry. I didn't know."
Jessica nodded slowly. The illusion disappeared. She turned and went downstairs. Hailey waited a few minutes, giving them some space before she followed.
Malcolm had made pancakes for breakfast, and Jessica was already digging into them. The television was on and tuned to the national news, as it always seemed to be. Between possible news about Brian and the golem attacks, or any word about Dan and Boris up in Canada and the massive manhunt out for them, they couldn't afford to miss a story, no matter how much it might irritate Hailey to listen to.
At least they muted it for breakfast. I wish they'd just read the news online like normal people.
"Morning. Plain or blueberry?" Malcolm called out as Hailey walked in. He was trying to fake some morning cheer, but he couldn't hide that he'd heard them shouting. The entire room was still tense, with Jessica and Beth both eating in stony silence.
"Blueberry, please." Hailey took her spot next to Jessica, but it seemed so much colder than usual. She wasn't sure where they stood for the moment.
Breakfast continued in the same fashion, with Hailey feeling on edge around all three of the Silverdales. Every time she thought of a conversation topic, she clamped down her lips and kept chewing through the very sad-tasting pancakes. It wasn't that they were poorly made, but the emotions hanging over the group overwhelmed her senses. They might as well have been cardboard for all Hailey could taste.
As Hailey got up to clean her plate, she had fully expected the entire meal to pass without a word, but a glance from Beth over her shoulder at the wrong time set off the ticking bomb.
"They're doing another profile of you?" she snapped.
"Beth!" Malcolm snapped, but his wife ignored him.
"Look at this!" Beth pointed at the TV. A professional school photograph of Hailey from her freshman year was plastered on screen. It was the same story they'd already run at least a half-dozen times since May, a time-filler when they had nothing better to report. With the more recent developments in the story and the air of mystery still surrounding the town, any content on Rallsburg ran like wildfire. Everyone loves a good conspiracy.
"...agically lost at only twenty one years old, Hailey Winscombe was a brilliant student with a heart ten times the size of the town she called home. Despite many scholarships offered to her from far more prestigious options, Hailey chose to attend a small school deep in the forests of Washington, Rallsburg University…"
Mostly because I liked the campus, and Weston was going there, Hailey mused.
"They always talk about her! Not us, not Rowan or Christina or Dan or Neffie, nobody! She didn't even live there!"
"Yes I did," Hailey pointed out crossly.
"Hailey, please," Malcolm started, but Beth was already riled up.
"What about my daughter? Why doesn't anyone care about her?"
"I care," Hailey shot back. Jessica looked up at the rising volume around her, trying to figure out the conversation. Realizing her mother was the aggressor, she got up and grabbed her by the hand.
Jessica shook her head, eyes fierce. She pulled her mother out of the room, leaving Hailey alone with Malcolm.
"...I wish you two would stop," he sighed.
She's the one that won't give up. "I'm sorry."
"I know. And I know it's not just on you." Malcolm shook his head in dismay. "I think we have too much time to ourselves here. We're not handling it well."
"You seem okay."
"I'm really not." He cleaned up the abandoned dishes on the table, keeping himself occupied. "At least Beth still has something to get passionate about. I feel like I'm fading away here."
Hailey nodded. "I know what you mean."
"...I felt the same way, back before I found out about everyone else. Back when it was just me and Jess." She cleared her throat, feeling embarrassed. "I felt like I was just wasting my life, stuck in place with nowhere to go and nothing I could do. I felt awful about it, since Jessica was way worse off than me, but it was still there."
"It's okay." He gave a weak smile. "You don't have to be perfect. I'm forever grateful for what you did for our daughter." He glanced at the TV, which was rolling through stills and clips from Hailey's old social media feeds. "I think they did a pretty good job on your story."
"They picked a terrible photo. I've got so many better ones than that." Hailey tried to smile back, but she still felt guilty that she'd ever felt such a thing. Coupled with the looming guilt over having forced Jessica into the fire the night before, Hailey was busy re-examining everything they'd ever done together. Was I dragging her along against her will this whole time?
Her thoughts were interrupted by the television, which no one had muted again after Beth first turned it up. "...again, this is the same unconfirmed footage submitted by a viewer that we showed earlier this morning."
Hailey's heart started pounding. There it was, the video she'd been dreading from the night before. It was blurry and weak, but Hailey had looked right at the camera, illuminated by firelight from the side. Despite the darkness and the poor lighting, when they laid out the still next to her photo, Hailey could agree with the resemblance. She winced as the Hailey in the video took off into the sky.
"We have been unable to verify the video as genuine so far. Some experts are claiming it to be a hoax, a so-called 'deep fake' video produced through computer simulated imaging, but detailed analysis does not support this conclusion."
"To produce a convincing fake, there needs to be a lot more high quality footage available of the subject. Miss Winscombe had plenty of social media presence, but nothing like the high quality recordings of actresses usually used for such techniques."
"Any comment on the dramatic shift in her appearance? She looks a lot different in the video compared to the photos we've shown."
"Your guess is as good as mine, Ted. Maybe she's always looked like that, and the rest is just makeup."
"And what about the end of the video? Where she apparently starts to fly? Ridiculous, right?"
"Oh, absolutely. There has to be some trick to it."
"But the fire was genuine, wasn't it? We have the police report here of the apartment complex that was burned down last night, as well as a detailed report of the other incidents that kept first responders away from the scene for so long."
"Just terrible, yeah. Really awful luck."
"Hailey…" Malcolm started, his eyes fixed on the screen.
"I know." Hailey cursed herself. Why didn't I grab the guy's phone? What was I thinking?
Her own phone started buzzing on the countertop. She answered it, her hand shaking slightly.
"Are you watching?" Cinza asked.
"I saw it. I should have grabbed the phone. I'm so stupid."
"It wouldn't have mattered. The video was mirrored the moment he recorded it. Even if you took his phone, he could have posted it from any computer. What—"
Cinza cut off as the news switched away from the two anchors. She looked back at the screen, and her jaw dropped. It was the last person Hailey expected to see.
Her mother was on the television screen.
"Mom?" Hailey whispered. She sank onto the couch, still holding the phone to her ear.
The banner underneath her said Stephanie Winscombe. She'd be so annoyed they didn't include her full name… Hailey mused, before her mother opened her mouth. It was so bizarre to hear her voice coming from the screen, in front of a news banner and with cameras and microphones everywhere.
"Hailey," she started, and Hailey's heart doubled over in pressure. She hadn't heard her mom's voice in so long. She hadn't even risked looking at old videos she had stored, since they required logging into her accounts online.
"Hi, Mom," she whispered back, as if her mother could hear her.
"If you're… alive. Come home." She didn't start crying, or even look sad at all. If anything, she looked furious. Hailey smiled. That's Mom for you, just annoyed that I'd faked my death or something and interrupted her latest business deal. "You aren't in trouble, but you have to come home."
"I wish I could."
Malcolm came and sat down next to her, holding her hand. The story had already cut back to the two anchors, rehashing the basic facts once again. Hailey was trembling in her seat, eyes locked with her mother's on the screen.
"You can't," Cinza replied, startling her. She'd totally forgotten about the phone pressed against her ear.
"I know," Hailey snapped.
"They'll be watching her closely. If you went, you'd have to answer for everything. Or you'd have to fight."
"I'm not going to fight them!"
"I'm not saying you should. But there's not many outcomes that don't lead to some sort of confrontation." Cinza paused. "The best course is for them to believe you're still dead, and that the video was a fake."
"How are we supposed to do that?"
"We're figuring that out now."
"That Tezofarl person?"
"I'm talking to them now. They're looking into any way they can try to leak that the video was a fake, and back it up with convincing proof."
"What if the people who were there start talking more?"
Cinza sighed. "I can't cover everything. They were just normal people in a dilapidated apartment, right?"
"I guess, yeah."
"...As long as you stay off the radar and change your appearance again, I believe the story will be buried. It'll be dead by the next news cycle. Just rumor and speculation."
"Right," Hailey said, already feeling reassured. Cinza always sounded so confident, it was infectious. "Changing my hair again's gonna be a pain."
She could practically hear Cinza smirk through the phone. "Perhaps don't dive headfirst into a burning building full of people with camera phones next time?"
"I couldn't just leave them. Nobody else could have helped."
Cinza sighed again. "I believe you. Truth be told, I might have done the same if I had your abilities. Is Jessica all right? She looked a bit shaken up in that video."
"She will be," Hailey replied, as much to herself as to Cinza.
"Good. I have to get back to work here. Take care." The phone clicked off.
Hailey didn't move for a long time, watching the news in a daze as they continued to debate the shakey cell phone video of herself. An hour went by, and the story started to repeat for new viewers. It must have been a pretty slow day elsewhere in the world if they kept at it on this single story, no matter how strange.
Jessica rejoined her by the time they played the video again. She recognized the footage, trembling at the sight of the building once again. As it flipped over to the video of Stephanie Winscombe, Hailey expected more of a reaction, until she remembered that Jessica had no idea who her mother was. In fact, Hailey couldn't remember ever telling her anything about her life before Rallsburg.
She considered explaining it, but after seeing Jessica's pained reaction to the building footage, Hailey didn't want to cause her any more stress. She stayed silent, and eventually Jessica retreated back into the yard again, leaving Hailey alone.
"Are you sure you wanna do this?" Alden asked, leaning over to pop open the car door for her. "I saw you on the news."
"Oh god yes. I need to get out of the house, no matter what." Hailey climbed into the passenger seat.
"...She's staying home for a while."
Alden looked at her curiously.
Hailey sighed. "She really didn't handle that whole fire rescue thing very well. It's my fault. I kinda shoved us into it without warning, and she had to do all the work holding the fire back."
"Why didn't you just put it out?"
"That would've drawn more attention to us. Not that it ended up mattering," she added bitterly.
"We'll figure it out," Alden said confidently.
"So where are we headed?"
Alden shifted the car into gear and took them out onto the main roads. "One of our new awakened needed help with something. He set up the meeting. I was gonna push it back, but then you called."
"Thanks for indulging me. Which one of our newbies is it?"
"Harold. We're going out to see what's up."
"He didn't give us a last name. I think Rupert's still trying to figure it out."
She shook her head. "No, I mean, I don't remember this guy."
"Oh, right," Alden looked embarrassed. "I did a couple without you."
"You did? When was that?"
"When you flew off to Canada to look for Dan and Boris those first couple of days."
Hailey winced. "Sorry about that."
"Hey, I would have gone with you if I could."
"Everything went okay?"
"Yeah, fine. I'm getting the hang of this."
"Yeah, you are." Hailey leaned out the window as they pulled onto the highway, enjoying the breeze through her freshly short, straight brown hair.
"I like the new haircut."
"It's a lot more convenient for flying," Hailey added, running a hand through it. She'd recently figured out how to keep it perfectly clean and healthy with only a spell or two, in addition to being able to change its length, color and style with only a few minutes effort. She couldn't get it perfectly how she wanted it, but it was far easier than dealing with rollers, irons and whatnot. Still, the contrast between her new straight hair, which didn't even come close to her shoulders, compared to her original long wavy blonde—or even the bushy brown she'd adopted to match Jessica—was striking. Combined with a completely different arrangement of freckles and a pair of glasses she didn't need in the slightest, Hailey felt a lot more confident about not being recognized again. "I don't have to worry about it getting all over the place."
"Yeah, that got pretty annoying."
Hailey laughed. "Just be glad I didn't drop you."
"So just the two of us, then," Alden sighed, merging them into traffic. Hailey closed the window as they sped up so she could hear him. "Who am I gonna make fun of you with?"
"Harold doesn't have a sense of humor?"
"Not really. Nice guy, but way too serious."
"Where are we meeting him?"
"A bar on the other side of Tacoma. And you're buying me a drink."
"You drink now?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.
Alden shrugged. "Is that a big deal? Figured you of all people wouldn't mind."
"I mean…" Hailey shook her head. "I stopped way back, after one night mixing drinking and magic got… messy."
"At the time, yeah," she grinned. "Tell you what, soon as we're done with whatever Harold's freaking out over, I'll treat you."
"Anything off the bar?"
"Screw the bar, dude. I don't want to deal with sneaking you a drink anyway, Mr. Underage. I'll make you something myself. Special surprise."
"Yourself?" Alden asked skeptically.
"Are you forgetting I ran the best parties on the west coast?" Hailey smiled wickedly. "I'll set your toes on fire with one sip. Just you wait."
As they pulled up, Hailey raised an eyebrow. "This is the place?"
It didn't look like much, which she supposed was a point in its favor. A small corner tavern on a dead-end street, with an illegible name on the sign. Behind it loomed dark buildings in both directions, already closed up for the night or boarded up and abandoned. It wasn't exactly a bad neighborhood, but still.
"Not the nicest part of Tacoma," she added, glancing around.
"Is any part of Tacoma nice?"
"Got me there."
Alden double-checked his phone. "Yeah, this is it."
"After you, then." Hailey gestured toward the door.
"What's the plan?"
"I'll be on the roof stargazing while you go in and get yourself beat up. Sound fair?"
Alden glanced up pointedly. "It's still totally overcast."
"Damn. Okay, guess I'm coming in then."
They walked in arm in arm, pretending to be a couple. Hailey managed to get Alden past the doorman with a few charming flutters of her eyelashes and a quick flash of their IDs. Boris hadn't ever sent Alden a fake one, and hers clearly didn't match her photo anymore, but the bouncer was too flustered by a sudden gust of wind blowing his hat away to pay them much attention. He waved them in while chasing his precious Seahawks cap down the street.
"That was just cruel," said Alden, trying not to laugh.
Hailey grinned. "Oh hush. Which one's Harold?"
Alden scanned the bar. "Not here yet, I guess."
"Grab a booth then. Want anything?"
"A normal drink that won't kill me?"
She rolled her eyes. "That part comes later. I meant like a soda or something."
While Hailey grabbed their drinks, Alden wandered over to the corner booth by the door to the back, just as they'd been taught. He found reasons to hesitate near every group of patrons, listening into their conversations just long enough to determine if they needed to keep an eye of them. Hailey watched from the bar with approval as he subtly indicated one of the men at the window booth.
She looked closely and saw a badge at his belt she'd missed. An off-duty cop?
"Anything to worry about?" she asked as she joined Alden at their table.
"Probably not, he seems preoccupied." Alden shrugged and took a sip from his glass. "Hey, check this out."
He focused on the glass. Hailey watched eagerly, and as Alden's eyes narrowed, a solid orb of soda floated up into the air, hovering for a few seconds before falling back into the glass again.
"Nice," she said.
"Yeah, I know, you could do the whole thing no sweat."
"I haven't figured out water yet actually. Makoto and I are working on it. But still, it's my affinity, and I'm cheating, remember? Don't compare the two. That was really good."
Alden smiled. "Yeah, took me forever. Didn't help that Meg kept nagging me while I was practicing."
Hailey raised an eyebrow. "She's really in the club now, huh?"
"I mean, she still doesn't know what awakening means or anything real, but I didn't want to cut her out entirely. She's actually been super helpful, to be honest. Figured out how to manipulate water before I even explained it. She's smarter than me," he added, a bit resentfully.
"Ever thought about bringing her in completely?" Cinza had raised the possibility with Hailey, but they'd agreed that it should be Alden's choice alone.
"She's too young," he said firmly. "I know, Natalie's younger, but come on. Natalie's a fluke, let's be honest. She's way too mature for her age, and she only got that way through a lot of painful crap. Compare that to someone like Meg, who's had a totally normal, easy life? I don't think she could handle it. Not at fifteen."
Hailey nodded. "You know her best. It's your call."
"Thanks." Alden glanced around uncomfortably.
"What time were we meeting him?"
"Nine. It's nine-oh-five." He looked worried.
"Could just be a bit late."
"Not this guy," Alden said dryly.
Hailey shrugged. "If he doesn't show, we bail. Let's say… half an hour?"
The half-hour went by faster than they expected, as Hailey and Alden shared another few drinks and old stories. Hailey found herself recounting more of the antics of her old friend group. Alden, of course, had no good stories of his friends to share. They'd been broken away from him by Beverly, their relationships totally erased, but he made the most of what little he could remember.
Hailey knew why she'd done it, but she still couldn't agree with Beverly's choice. To break apart so thoroughly the lives of the two people closest to her at the time? It was so brutal and permanent. She sounded so sure that they were in real and immediate danger, but it was too much for too little.
Beverly had started talking to Hailey again after realizing how much power she could muster, but Alden still remained in the dark. Hailey hadn't told him, at Beverly's request—but every day they hung out, she felt guilty. Beverly had been his close friend, and Hailey was keeping that from him. For his own safety, based on Beverly's fears about people trying to trace them back, but even so…
So what does that mean about me? Aren't people gonna come after me once they spot the connections between us? Hailey felt like it was an inconsistency she couldn't just explain away. Maybe Beverly doesn't want to reconnect with him. Maybe there's something else there. She couldn't know for sure, but it seemed too cruel to her. Alden deserved the choice, didn't he? After what she'd done to him?
She'd gotten lost in thought, and Alden noticed. "You good?"
"Yeah, sorry." Hailey glanced around again. The bar was starting to pick up in traffic a bit, but still no Harold. Just a lot of older, burly work men coming in for the night, filling in the tables near the lone front door. Hailey sighed and returned to her drink. "I shouldn't have left her."
"Jess. I didn't tell her we were going out tonight."
"I made up a bunch of excuses in my head about why she shouldn't come, but I still should have told her, right?"
Alden shrugged. "What if telling her would just put pressure on her to come, even if she shouldn't? Like, guilt-tripping her would. Not that you were doing that."
"I dunno." Hailey hated feeling uncertain. It gnawed away at her brain over hours and days and weeks. "She deserves to choose that for herself. I took that away."
"You're trying to protect her."
"She's my best friend," Hailey murmured. She stirred at the ice in her drink, starting to feel the effects a little. An image of Jessica dancing in the street in Seattle floated into her mind. "I just want her to be happy."
Alden didn't reply.
Hailey glanced up. His focus was way past her, on the last man to come through the door. "Alden?"
"Don't turn around," he whispered. A chill shot through her spine at his tone. Something was happening.
"What's going on?" she whispered back.
"Guy that just came in has a gun. He's got friends. Four or five of them." Alden glanced over. "Crap. They're going towards Harold."
"Harold is here?"
"All the way on the other side. I guess we missed him come in."
Hailey slapped a hand to her forehead in frustration. Too loud.
One of the men grabbed the bouncer and pulled him roughly into the bar. They locked the door, and the apparent leader of the group pulled out his gun.
"Is this a movie?" Hailey hissed to Alden as they both froze. She was still facing away from them and could only make out a bit of the action from the mirror mounted above Alden on the wall.
"Guess so," Alden whispered back. He surreptitiously pulled his phone under the table, trying to call for help. "No signal. You?"
Hailey hovered her phone out of her bag, not moving a muscle. She floated it over to the seat of the booth underneath her fingers.
The men were spreading out through the bar, forcing everyone to give up phones. Hailey only had so long before they reached them in the back.
She didn't get a signal either. "Nothing," she whispered.
"Those are a thing?" she hissed.
The wifi for the bar still worked. She opened up the website and went to their private chat room. The GPS function didn't work either, so she typed as fast as she could with one hand, giving their address and a brief S.O.S. message. Men with guns. Being held hostage.
Hopefully someone... anyone would spot it.
Hailey didn't want to go up against a bunch of men with guns with just herself and Alden, even if she probably could take them on. There was too much danger for the people around them. She couldn't risk it. They'd just have to get through the robbery without raising any suspicion.
She dropped the phone back into her bag and snapped it shut just before the man reached their table. It was the off-duty cop from earlier. This was really planned out. "Phones," he grunted.
Alden willingly surrendered his without a fight. Hailey glanced up at the guy. He had rough stubble covering his face and cold, dead eyes. "I don't have mine," she said meekly, trying to sound frightened. The man ignored her, grabbing her bag and upending it.
Hailey winced, but nothing fell out. He looked at it curiously, and she quickly willed it to rotate through to the empty rows of pockets she hadn't used for anything yet. He opened it and looked inside, totally confused.
"I just got it today," she explained.
He shrugged, handing it back to her. Not a robbery, then? she wondered. It was a nice looking bag, even if it was (supposedly) empty. As she finally took the chance to look around, she saw that they weren't taking anything but phones. Something else was going on.
"Everyone up!" the leader shouted. He was wearing a black hood over his face, unlike most of his men. The rows of people stood. They were about thirty in total, compared to the nine men. Not enough to overwhelm them, she decided. Maybe if it were just three or four, but I can't grab nine guns at once. Maybe if Jess were here… but she's not. Me trying to be a hero is what drove her away.
She glanced at Alden, wondering if he could back her up. Her heart sank. His knuckles were white, and he was shaking. He's terrified. He still hasn't gotten over Rallsburg, and now this…
Hailey was on her own.
They were ushered into the backroom and forced inside at gunpoint. A man with a sawed off shotgun stood by the door entrance, waving it around threateningly. Hailey thought he looked a bit silly. The weapon he held was anything but.
She kept a close eye on it as it moved, but he looked a bit uneasy. Maybe he isn't totally committed to this. If she could pick out which of the men weren't on board, she'd narrow down her first target more easily.
The men started to carry out their plan and her hopes were dashed into dust.
"You!" the leader shouted, pointed at a random person in the crowd. A young woman, maybe only a couple years older than Hailey. She stepped forward, looking like she might burst into tears. "Forward."
"Please don't hurt me," she begged, walking toward them slowly.
He gestured for her to stop, which she did on a dime. He stared at her for more than a minute, the eyes in his black mask twitching slightly. With the guns trained on them and the general air of fear and confusion, it felt like an eternity. "Okay. You're fine." He waved at the door. "Don't try to leave."
She didn't understand, rooted to the spot.
"Go into the next room," he said again, his voice harsh but firm.
"Go," Hailey hissed. She looked around, startled, and Hailey gave her a little wave forward. Just work with them, it'll go quicker.
The young woman finally went through. The leader nodded at Hailey with approval.
He's being friendly? Who are these guys?
"Thank you. If you all cooperate, we'll get through this more quickly." He called forward another person, and after a moment's inspection, waved the young man through.
What the hell is going on? Hailey looked around at the crowd, but despite the sudden cordiality of the leader, the rest of her fellow captives were still quite petrified. Alden, too, was frozen in place.
"You!" the leader shouted again, pointing at a middle-aged man—the one Alden had identified as Harold.
He stepped forward. The man looked at him as well, like he were being inspected. What is he doing? Hailey had a sudden inspiration, and forced her vision to shift into the view she'd been practicing, drawing energy out with a whispered spell and sending it into her brain. She couldn't get much, but just from the brief interaction she'd already formed a hazy and vague relationship with the leader. She could trace a relationship to him, and try to follow it further with a lot of effort and concentration. It was slow going, as she had to keep as still as possible so they wouldn't notice her in the back.
One clue stood out. As the leader inspected Harold, there was a strong line drawn between him and an object in his pocket.
The man waved Harold forward, but the line didn't go away. Harold breathed a sigh of relief, taking a step into the doorway. Hailey was confused. What are they looking for?
As Harold stepped into the threshold, the leader raised his pistol and shot Harold through the head.
Quite a few people screamed. Harold collapsed to the floor. Dead.
Hailey froze. She'd never actually heard a gunshot up close before. It was deafening, especially in the confined space of the bar's back storage room. She clapped her hands to her head involuntarily, her ears ringing.
The men dragged Harold's lifeless body out of the way. Most of the room was staring either at the man with the gun, or the stain of blood on the floor.
"You!" the leader shouted again, only barely audible through the after-effects of the gunshot. He pointed at the next person in line. The man stepped forward immediately, not daring to disobey. After a few minutes' inspection, he was waved through.
They're looking for magic. They can find us.
Hailey was only a few people away from being called. Alden was almost at the end, if the man kept following his pattern. She had to think of something, fast.
There wasn't any time to figure out how they were doing it. Hailey focused on the guns. She had to disarm them somehow.
The leader called another person forward, inspected them and waved them through. Hailey only had one more to go before she was called.
Wait until they wave me forward. Only the leader can tell who's awakened. The rest of them relaxed until the gunshot. They didn't know it was coming either.
"You!" he shouted, pointing at Hailey.
She stepped forward, still trying to look meek and terrified. Her mind was alight with suppressed fury. Maybe the man saw it behind her eyes, maybe he didn't. Either way, he waved her forward.
Hailey walked to the threshold. The moment his arm moved, she'd take him down. The tourmaline stone under her shirt laying against her chest thrummed with energy. She'd blow them all away, as fast as she could.
She walked through and into the next room.
He didn't try to shoot me?
Hailey tried to look back into the storeroom, but one of the men on the other side of the door pushed her away. "Keep going, back into the bar. Go sit down."
She walked forward and sat down at the nearest booth. In the distance, she could hear sirens. Finally. Making sure she was out of sight, she pulled her phone from her bag and checked the chat room.
Ruby was on her way, with plenty of backup from the Greycloaks. No response from the Laushires. Ruby's group would have to be enough.
How can I stall? Hailey wondered. She had to assume they could still find Alden, and that she'd only escaped by the fluke of her special status as an awakened. If they get to him, he's dead. He can't fight them, especially not now.
More people were filtering through the doorway, one by one. Some took much longer than others. At least there weren't any more hidden in the bar. She tried to take some comfort in that, but the blood seeping across the doorway drained it away.
"Excuse me," Hailey spoke up, standing and approaching one of the men by the door.
"Go back to your seat, please."
Worked on the bouncer. Go for two? Hailey batted her eyelashes at him and smiled innocently. "I forgot something in there. Is it all right if I go back and get it?" For effect, she brushed his shoulder just slightly with her hand. Maybe overdoing it… but he looks like the lonely type.
The man looked flustered, to Hailey's satisfaction. Still got it, Hales. "Hang on a second." He poked his head through. "Hey, can you stop for a moment? This girl needs to get something she forgot."
"What the hell?" the leader called back. "Are you an idiot?"
"They're people, they don't deserve to be treated like scum. Just let her get her thing."
"...Whatever. Just be fast."
Hailey wasn't sure what she planned next, but she gave the man a grateful smile and bounded through the doorway. She made a big show of searching through the crowd. "It must have fallen out of my bag. Oh shoot," she said loudly. "Where could it be?" She made her way over to Alden, standing directly in front of him as she pointedly looked around the shelves on the wall.
"What are you looking for?" the leader asked.
She shot a look of disdain back at him, exaggerating her disgust. "You don't ask a girl that!"
Alden, who'd been looking pale as snow, almost cracked a smile at her tone. Good. Relax, Alden. That's the only way we're getting out of this alive.
"What are you doing?" he hissed, as quiet as possible.
"Stalling," she whispered back. She might not be able to grab nine guns at once, but Ruby probably could with her magnetic spells. Anyone who wasn't immediately disarmed would get pounced by Makoto, and Hailey could clean up the stragglers. It was only a matter of time. Hailey just had to keep Alden alive long enough for help to arrive.
She looked him straight in the eye and whispered, making sure her voice only carried to his ears by shaping the sound with magic:
"I'm going to get you out of here. Everything's gonna be okay."