"We've recovered another Scrap."
Something in the way DuValle said it made Alden imagine it capitalized. It was important, he knew that for sure. He was going to ask Rika what it meant, but she looked so intensely focused, he decided to wait and see what came next.
"I'd like to thank Hector for donating this to us," said DuValle. "Responsible cataloguing and protection of every Scrap we find is vital to—"
"What's on it?" interrupted the gaunt man in the fourth row, rising to his feet. She faltered in her speech. His voice was harsh and gravelly, like a cascade of rocks rolling down a mountainside. Once standing, he cut a very imposing figure in his heavy military jacket, even with his arm in a sling and cast.
"As I was saying, donating Scraps to the council will help us preserve them and spread—"
"Get on with it."
"Look, Rachel, we've all heard the speech before," Ryan cut in, standing up again. "What's on the damn paper?"
"We think it's related to creation, though we haven't been able to go over it thoroughly yet for obvious reasons," said DuValle—or Rachel, Alden supposed. He was just glad he'd finally deduced all their names for sure.
At the word 'creation', Alden noticed several people in particular stiffen, including Kendra the red-headed owner of the Market and the gaunt man in the fourth row. Rika slumped back against the wall slightly, though she was still hanging onto every word.
"Has anyone partaken of it yet?" Kendra asked from the back, still seated.
"Done what now?" the gaunt man asked.
"Is the Scrap pure and untouched? " Cinza asked in her floaty, ethereal voice.
"No, no one has read it yet," Rachel confirmed from the council table.
"Well, this is unprecedented. All other Scraps that have crossed this council had been utilized prior to introduction. How shall we proceed?" Kendra continued, with a veneer of calm. Underneath the surface and the pleasant accent, Alden felt he sensed caution and maybe even a little fear, though he couldn't be sure.
"The same as we always do; we can take it in turns to read the Scrap and learn what it contains—"
"Bullshit!" Ryan growled. "No way."
A murmur of agreement started to build before another voice cut through.
"Sorry, Rach, but I'm actually with the dick on this one," said Rika. "First person to read it has a huge advantage."
Rachel looked at her with dismay. Alden sensed history there. Old friends, maybe? Or perhaps more than that, given what he knew about Rika so far? No, Alden decided. Rachel reacted like an estranged friend, not a past jilted lover.
"We've never proven that," Josh spoke from his seat next to Rachel, with the comfortable air of someone used to disagreeing with her. Another relationship there, Alden realized. Who in this room hadn't been involved with Rika?
"We've never disproven it either," Rika shot back.
Josh waved his hand dismissively. "Whatever, so maybe it's true. How do we choose then?"
"Fuck if I know," Rika replied, leaning back against the wall again.
Tension was building in the room like a thick fog. Alden could see a small trio on the opposite wall muttering to each other, their eyes transfixed by the paper lying on the table in front of Rachel. Cinza's group, too, convened behind their leader, muttering in low voices. Alden saw one of them gesture eagerly, but Cinza made a sharp cutting motion with her hand, and they fell back to murmuring.
"How do we know you haven't already read it?" Ryan spoke up. He didn't sound accusatory, but all the same, the room refocused on Rachel with a newly sharpened edge.
"Hector?" Rachel prompted.
Hector spluttered back to life, having sunk deep in his chair during the mounting argument. "Uhh, well. No one read it. I brought it straight here, and only handed it to Rachel as we walked in the room. If she'd read it, you'd have seen her." He looked around at the assembly anxiously.
"There, you heard him. Are we going to start doubting Hector now?" Rachel asked.
Ryan hesitated, but he was clearly the type who couldn't stand to lose an argument without making a few more points. "Okay, fair, but that still leaves the question of who's gonna read the thing."
"It should go to the most worthy, of course," Cinza spoke up, with all the arrogance her statement implied.
"Well, then, we're both out of the running aren't we?" Rika shot back.
"Keep your nose down in the dirt where it belongs, electricity girl," Cinza answered dismissively.
Rika snorted again. "Really?"
"Sounds like a bargain-bin knockoff superhero," Ryan added. "Hey, Rika, how many kittens can you save out of a tree?"
"Depends, are they yours?"
Kendra cleared her throat loudly. Her impatient expression silenced them all immediately. The power of a professor in action. Alden felt compelled into silence himself, though he wasn't a student of hers like so many of the others in the room probably were.
Rachel took the opportunity to cut in. "The council has not yet determined a selection method, since this is unprecedented. We are open to suggestions—"
"Maybe Hector should just keep it," Alden muttered.
The argument was beginning to wear on him, since he didn't understand a single thing they were talking about. It was only a moment later that he realized he'd spoken much louder than he'd intended, as far more heads than Rika's locked eyes with him. Evidently, nobody besides the usual suspects were really expected to speak up at these meetings, given the looks of surprise plastered on their faces.
"Who the f—" the gaunt man started, but Rachel quickly spoke over him in a friendly, authoritative tone.
"Hello there, I don't think we've been introduced. My name is Rachel DuValle, one of the members of the Council of the Awakened. Most people don't talk at their first meeting, but there's no rule against it. I see you came here with Rika; is she your sponsor?"
"I, uhh…" Alden started. "I don't know what that means."
"Did she awaken you?" Cinza asked.
"No, I guess?"
"Nope," Rika confirmed.
"That's okay," Rachel continued. "You're welcome to stay, and there's no need to give out your name if you don't want. Privacy is one of our core tenets here. However, I should inform you that if you haven't been awakened, you don't have a vote in any of our proceedings."
"Can we stop using that stupid word?" the gaunt man interjected. "Makes us sound like a bunch of candy-ass hippies."
Ryan rolled his eyes exaggeratedly. "Well, Mr. Viper, if you've got a better name for us, you're welcome to share with the class."
"I'm just sayin', you all sound like a cult."
"Welcome to the Candy-ass Collective, buddy," Ryan sneered.
"He has a point," the old woman spoke up from beside Rachel. "Hector found it, so Hector should have it," the old woman (Mabel, Alden reminded himself. It was getting difficult to track them all) said matter-of-factly.
"No fucking way," said Ryan, fist clenched.
"I'm inclined to agree with Ryan," added Kendra calmly. "This is only the seventh Scrap ever discovered by the council, and certainly the first found that was yet unread. While the council may generally act as a socialist commune, let us not pretend there is not a significant advantage to be gained here. I propose the Scrap be granted provisionally to a member in attendance with the greatest proposal of interest, with the stipulation that they must allow the council to share it as usual after their initial study."
The gaunt man and Rika still stood opposed as well. Rachel looked at Rika with a significant expression. After a few moments, Alden saw her shoulders slump slightly, and Rachel gave her a brief smile before turning to face the remaining unspoken holdout, while Rika took her seat.
"Viper, I believe your name was?" asked Rachel.
"Stupid fuckin' code name, but sure, Viper. Why are you acting like you don't know who I am?" the man replied.
"Do you have anything to add?" Rachel continued, as if she hadn't heard him.
"Limey's got a point," Viper grunted, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at Kendra, seated in the back row. "Deserves to go to the highest bidder. Better than the bastards who've been stealing my shit."
"Hang on, when did this become an auction?" Rika interjected, leaping to her feet once again.
"Like it matters to you. You're rich as fuck, aren't you?" Ryan shot back.
"Not the point, asshole. This shouldn't be about money."
"Please," Rachel interrupted. "Viper still had the floor."
"Fuck the floor. Don't turn this into an auction, Rachel. It should go to someone we all agree on, who actually deserves it, not who's got the deepest pockets."
"Are you afraid you will lose?" said Cinza, her eyes glinting. Alden swore she must be doing something to make them change and sparkle so often and so expressively, even from across the room. Magic, he reminded himself. This entire conversation is about magic. Of course she's doing something.
"If I might interject." Kendra's voice pierced through the growing murmur like a spear through glass, much too clearly. Alden suspected something had modified her voice. Was it another type of magic? "I never specified an auction, though I'm not opposed to the idea. I do believe it should go to those most invested in its abilities. You said it was Creation-specific, correct? Can you provide further details?"
"Not without reading it, which would sort of skip the whole point here," said Josh, still seated. He seemed thoroughly uninterested with the proceedings. Alden was surprised he'd spoken up at all.
"How can you be sure of its contents at all then?"
Rachel looked slightly nervous. "A ritual informed us of its probable contents."
The room seemed sharpen in attentiveness once more. The phrase was mostly meaningless to Alden, but the significance was plain to the rest of the room. He had the sense that Kendra had maneuvered Rachel into a trap, one that was about to be sprung fully.
"So, you're informing us the council can indeed determine Affinities to some degree."
"I— that is—" Rachel looked like a cornered rabbit—far different from the confident young woman Alden had observed at the beginning of the meeting. Meanwhile, the room seemed to shift dramatically, as some sprouted looks of suspicion and anger, while most simply looked confused.
"That's quite the ability that the Council has concealed from us," said Cinza, her eyes narrowing. "This knowledge would be invaluable to everyone."
"We're way off topic," Rika interrupted. Alden's earlier suspicions were confirmed. Rika was jumping in to save her friend by changing the subject. "We need to figure out who's gonna get the damn thing first."
"Seconded," Ryan added, also clearly leaping to Rachel's rescue. Or maybe he was just bored, Alden reconsidered, seeing Ryan's impatient expression.
"Does anyone have a proposal for who gets the Scrap?" asked Josh, finally sitting up in his chair again. The atmosphere of the room was still icy and sharp, but attention was shifting away from Rachel onto the piece of parchment still laying atop the lectern, so Alden supposed it must have been a small victory for his allies.
His allies? Was he already casting his lot in with Rika? Alden wondered if he was tagging along with the wrong crowd, given how the room seemed actively hostile to Rika. She was the only one to offer, though. Compared to Ryan the college jock, Kendra the unapproachable merchant, Cinza the unhinged cult leader, or Viper the gruff mercenary, Alden felt like he was better off at the side of the one he'd spent the afternoon with.
"A silent vote? Majority gets it?" Ryan answered.
Rika snorted. "Oh good, the dumb jock voting block's got it in the bag."
"I could just kick your ass for it."
"Bring it, bitch." Rika's hand shot to her bag so fast, Alden thought it must have teleported.
"Both of you cut it out or I will have Hector throw you out," Rachel growled, apparently having regained her composure.
"You're all a bunch of petty kids. Just auction it off, money goes toward getting us a nicer place to meet than this shitty classroom," Viper said, taking his seat again with a thump and the scrape of metal against linoleum. His chair was apparently missing one of its rubber feet.
"I second the proposal," Kendra added quickly.
"God damn it, don't do a fucking auction, Rachel. You know better," said Rika, but Rachel was already raising her hand to silence the crowd.
"We're taking it to a vote then. The auction will take place in three days time, and will be conducted via private bids. The Scrap will stay with Hector until the results are in. Is that acceptable?" She looked at Kendra and Viper, who both nodded their assent. "Okay. Everyone, please vote in the usual way."
A moment's pause. Alden looked around, even more curious than before. Was something spectacular about to take place? Floating numbers in the air, or perhaps lights?
A stack of small pieces of chalk floated up from the tray underneath the chalkboard behind the Council desk. Each one floated in a slightly different manner; some quite steady, while another was flailing through the air as if buffeted by heavy winds. A chorus of scrapes, then the pieces fell back into the tray. Each had made a single tally mark on the board, on either the left half or the right, where Alden now noticed an "Aye" and a "Nay" present in the corners.
"The nays have it," Rachel said, after a moment's count. It had been close, but not close enough by Alden's guess. He wasn't sure what was required, but apparently it was more than a simple majority. Kendra sat back in her chair, unperturbed.
"A fucking auction. With Kendra fucking Laushire in the room," Rika muttered to Alden, as the murmurs amongst the various groups picked up once again.
It was like a lightswitch finally clicked in Alden's mind. "That Laushire? As in one of the richest companies in the world Laushire?"
Rika looked at him with surprise. "Didn't expect you to know the name of a multinational corporate conglomerate."
Alden shrugged. "I read about them online."
"You don't get out much, do you?"
He didn't answer. Rika turned back to the meeting while the chalkboards appeared to clean themselves.
"The floor is open once again," Rachel called from the head of the room.
"How about something that isn't rigged toward the two richest women in the room?" Ryan piped up from his seat, pointedly shooting a glare at Rika.
She laughed aloud at his ridiculous exaggerated gesture. "I was the one arguing against an auction, dipshit. Pay attention."
"Yeah, because it would make you look bad."
Josh stood up again at the front, silencing them both. "This is getting nowhere. I propose we table it for three days and reconvene."
Rika looked about to argue once more, but Cinza beat her to it. "Seconded. Vote and move on."
"Okay. Please, vote again in the usual way," Rachel called from the front. A quick flurry of votes was overwhelmingly in favor, with only two opposed. Alden guessed it must be Viper and Kendra.
"The 'ayes' have it. We'll discuss this again in three days when we next meet. Does anyone have an objection to Hector holding the Scrap as a neutral party until then?"
To Alden's shock, the room was dead silent. Who was this Hector, and how did he have such respect and trust from the entire council?
There were too many mysteries for Alden to handle. He decided he had to focus back on the only one that mattered. He reached inside his jacket and felt for the envelope again, mostly to reassure himself it was there, like a life vest keeping him afloat in the dark, ever-deepening waters of Rallsburg. He'd wanted an adventure, but was this getting out of hand?
"Oh, uhh, right," Hector spluttered. after the silence was starting to become uncomfortable.
He clambered to his feet and took the piece of paper from in front of Rachel. From his jacket he produced a small metal tube, which he slid the paper into and sealed tightly. He glanced about nervously before resuming his seat, but only a moment later he stood again, fidgeting in place.
"Do you all mind if I head out now? I need to go watch the store."
"That's fine. Thanks, Hector," Rachel said kindly, gesturing to the door. He bowed slightly and retreated behind the lectern and out into the hallway.
Chatter sprang up throughout the room, low conversation between every group present. The three councilors were muttering amongst themselves up front. Rika glanced at Alden with a grin. "So, your first meeting."
"Is it always this dramatic?" he asked.
"This is only like my fifth, but none of the others had a Scrap involved. Usually it's just dumb arguments or a chance for people to meet other magic users, that sort of thing. This is a pretty special event. I'm guessing that's why there's like triple the people I usually saw."
"And that councilor—"
"Yeah, he's a dick, and I slept with him too. So what?"
"Err, no, I was going to ask about Rachel. She's your friend?"
"Oh," Rika looked taken aback. "Yeah, Rachel's from Vancouver, same as me." Rika gave him a funny look. "You're pretty good at reading a room. She's the one who awakened me, actually."
"What does that mean, exactly?" Alden asked hesitantly. Rika didn't miss his tone.
"Scared?" she asked, not unkindly.
"Yeah…" Rika said quietly. "You probably should be. This shit's hardcore, like I warned you. I can tell you later, if you still want to know. Deal?"
"Let's get out of here," Rika said abruptly.
"Huh?" Alden was eager to see the rest of the meeting, no matter how mundane. He looked at Rika, and saw her expression. Dark, and maybe a touch disappointed? "Don't you want to stick around for the rest?"
"Nah, I can just get the details from Rachel later. Nothing else interesting is going to happen." Rika tossed her head dismissively. "Kendra's who we really want to talk to, but she'll be out of here last, after they settle territorial disputes and research projects. If we just head to the Market and wait for her to reopen it, we'll be the first ones in the door."
Alden nodded slowly.
"Great." Rika shoved the door open with her foot. "After you."
As they exited the room, the dark hallway of the college awaited them. At the end of the hall, the door to a janitor's closet stood slightly ajar. For the moment, Alden could see Hector, lit only by the flickering naked bulb hanging from the ceiling. He looked to be muttering something under his breath, but Alden couldn't make it out from this distance.
Hector's eyes began to roll back in his skull, while the pace of his words increased dramatically. At one flicker of the light, Alden thought he could see a girl appear next to him, a short wispy-looking girl with long brown hair and soft, haunted gray eyes, clad in a faded t-shirt and jeans. She was holding Hector's hand and whispering something to him, like she was trying to comfort him. By the next time the light flickered, the girl had disappeared.
Hector looked suddenly exhausted, as if he'd run miles in only a few seconds.
"Zack, hurry up," Rika called impatiently. She'd already reached the door leading outside. With great reluctance, Alden tore his gaze away from the recovering Hector and followed Rika out the door and back into the town of Rallsburg.