A Wild Epidemic of Magic
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Published by UnWrecked Press
A Wild Epidemic of Magic
Copyright © 2012 by Michael Jasper
Cover art by Ron Chapple Studios
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
Special thanks to Sarah Smith for her extraordinary eye for detail!
BONUS: At the end of this ebook, read excerpts from two of Michael's novels (also available in ebook format), including the sequel to this book: A Lasting Cure for Magic!
Also by Michael Jasper:
Gunning for the Buddha (stories)
The Wannoshay Cycle
A Gathering of Doorways
The Prodigal Sons
The All Nations Team
In Maps & Legends (a digital comic)
The Contagious Magic series:
A Sudden Outbreak of Magic
A Wild Epidemic of Magic
A Lasting Cure for Magic (coming Fall 2012)
A Wild Epidemic of Magic
Excerpted from Words of Magic, page 915:
In a village tucked into a rain-soaked valley in chill Snowdonia, I stood inside the shell of an old church and watched a dozen ragged children stumble through the early morning darkness. I'd been watching them for the past three mornings as I recovered from my exhausting activities of half a week earlier. Watching the barefoot boys and girls push through the mud and gather in front of the baker's shack, their breath steaming in the cold, I felt a glimmer of hope that this journey to the soggy north lands of Wales would prove fruitful after all.
Because one of the children had caught my eye as a potential candidate.
And I knew better than any of my cohorts that we needed fresh conscripts. He always needed more apprentices to swell his ranks, while I needed to prove my loyalty to him again after I'd foolishly voiced aloud my concerns about his methods.
But that was neither here nor there.
The baker cracked open the door to his wooden shack, and the smell of bread and sweets reached me inside the musty, darkened church. My own empty belly rumbled, making me stand up straight and wince at the pain in my side. I couldn't let my injuries distract me, however. The boy's final audition was about to commence.
With a hearty laugh, the red-faced baker emerged from his shack with a pail in each hairy hand. Soon the gathered children were fighting for position to catch the moldy bread and dry crusts from the previous days of baking. The boy I'd been watching caught an entire loaf in one hand, and then spun to catch a crumbling pastry without crushing it. He had both stuffed into his shirt before the baker turned back to his kitchen with his now-empty pails.
"Eat hastily," I whispered as the crowd of orphans and urchins dispersed with curses and tears from the less-fortunate. "You will need your strength where we are bound, my boy."
I gathered my dark green robes around me and slipped from the shadows of the church into the stable next door. I knew the boy slept in the loft above the animals most days, safe from the rains and the cold.
I noticed with a wince that the sun had at last forced its way through the gray-black clouds above, poking like a fist through the mist-shrouded mountains surrounding us. The rest of the village would soon be waking. My time here was growing short, and—injuries or not—I could tarry here no longer.
I paused as I felt a sudden pain in the side of my neck, sharp as a bite. I plucked a fat tick from the spot and squeezed it until it popped with a tiny burst of dark red on my thumb and forefinger. I gazed at my stolen blood with disgust.
Always, there was blood.
I took a deep breath that made me groan, exhaled a quick and simple Word to cleanse my fingers, and waited for the boy to come to me.
Patience, I reminded myself. Our work was slow and secret to the outside world, but it would be rewarded one day by the man I knew only as the Druid.
The flood of last week had been yet another reminder to me that our mystic leader required additional assistance—someone hand-picked and trained by me. The rains had come down hard on these northern lands for nearly a month, and a majority of the crops had been soaked past saving for this fall's harvest. The Druid had sent me, along with one of my more experienced young apprentices, here to Wales to reroute a branch of the flooded River Conwy and siphon off the overflow from the fields.
Having labored over the Words for thirty hours straight, the Druid had then taught us those Words to enable us to move water and earth to save the north lands. He had never attempted such a large undertaking before. Maria, my apprentice, had stared wide-eyed from under her wet purple hood at the churning landscape as we finished speaking the harsh, unfamiliar syllables. The Druid's Words had shifted both earth and water before our very eyes.
But despite the potency of his Words, the Druid hadn't planned for the angry reactions of the farmers who found their old, familiar river either moved onto their neighbor's land or now cutting through their own after we'd completed the rerouting of the waterway.
I pushed down my own hood for a moment to run a hand over my hair, trying not to think about how thin it had gotten in recent years. Other than the lost hair, which had dropped into my hood like silk from an ear of corn as we worked on the swollen river, I had mostly recovered from using the Words.
But the damage from the beating I took at the hands of the farmers still lingered. I didn’t dare whisper a single Word of Healing on my wounds for fear of weakening myself more. Or raising the wrong sort of attention here in this remote village.
"No appreciation for all that we do," I muttered, fingering the cut on my cheek, breathing shallowly to keep from irritating my broken ribs again. "There is so much you common people do not know."
When I'd seen the angry farmers approach, shouting at me about what I'd done to their river, I'd immediately sent away Maria. I'd pushed her halfway back home with a series of Words that had left me drained and almost defenseless against the men armed with clubs and pitchforks. I'd finally been forced to dive into the still-swollen river and swim away, without coming up for air for nearly fifteen endless minutes. Magic sustained me underwater, but the damage to my body had already been done.
I shook my head as I tightened the leather string for my ponytail and pulled up my hood again. I had to convince the boy to join me. Or else.
Short seconds later, I heard two pairs of bare feet thumping on the dirt road in front of the stable.
"Give us some," a whining voice said. "You took that biscuit right from me hand, Johnny."
"Did not," the voice of the taller boy responded, without heat. "But I'll share with you, if you keep your mouth shut."
"Will do, will do! Haven't eaten in two whole days, you see."
Both boys moved into sight, the taller boy with his blue eyes squinting against the morning light. He walked in front of a thin, dirty-faced boy whose back looked permanently hunched, as if he'd been cringing away from a harsh hand all his life.
You should save that food for yourself, my little friend, I thought from my hiding spot. Your friend will not be long for this world if he already cannot fend for himself.
The boys sat down no more than than five strides from where I stood in the shadows, leaning heavily against the rough wooden wall. They had no inkling that I was there.
"I'll give you half," the boy named Johnny said. He held out a chunk of his loaf to the smaller boy, one dirty hand to another. "But never again. Instead, I'll teach you how to work your way to the front of the line, and I'll show you how to dodge the elbows of the others. You've got to give 'em a little shove, like this, see, when they're off-balance."
The taller boy demonstrated to the other. The smaller boy did not look convinced.
I gave them a few more seconds to savor their meal before I could stand still no longer. My injuries dogged me like bad memories, and my patience was wearing thin. The Druid would be waiting.
"I see you have a bit of the teacher in you," I said, my loud voice shocking both boys to their feet. "Though I'm sorry to say you shall not finish your lesson today."
"Warlock!" the smaller boy screamed, pivoting on his heel and running headlong out of the stables into the dirt road. The boy named Johnny sprinted off in the opposite direction, toward the fields, splattering mud and horse droppings as he ran. Neither boy was foolish enough to drop his precious bread as he ran.
Ignoring the smaller boy, I pointed a pair of fingers at young master Johnny, my ribs complaining at the movement. The stable blurred around me in the instant before I spoke.
The boy froze above a mud puddle, his right leg cocked in mid-air and his left foot planted on the dirt. A glob of mud dangled from his suspended right foot, and then fell with a loud plop.
I strode in front of Johnny. He was beginning to shake, nearly losing his balance as the effect of the Word already began to wear off. At the same time, I felt a wave of dizziness hit me, followed by a bout of nausea in my belly.
I made a fist in frustration. My powers were still weak—normally this Word would hold a person motionless for half an hour, and I would barely feel the impact of channeling magic through my blood.
The boy's bottom lip quivered, but his sharp blue eyes followed me as I paced back and forth in front of him. I did my best to not think about the acid filling my insides like increasingly hot lava.
"First lesson," I said, throwing back my hood for theatrical effect. "Never run from an elder, no matter what the consequences may appear to be. Shows a marked lack of respect, my young Johnny."
"Whhhh—" he said, trying to make his lips work.
I held up a hand, fighting the urge to smile at the boy's spirit. His eyes remained clear and focused on me, instead of clouded by panic and fear. I'd chosen well.
"Second lesson: never interrupt. I've been looking for a young person like you for quite some time now."
As lines of power swirled toward me, forming out of the air inside and around the stable, igniting my blood, I touched the boy on the forehead with the palm of my hand.
"You are released."
With a sudden inhalation, the boy regained control of his body. He wobbled for a half-second on one foot, and then he tumbled to the dirt floor. He managed to catch himself with his hands before falling into the mud puddle, but he crushed his hard-earned food in the process.
With a frustrated shout, the boy threw his muddy piece of bread at me. The bread stopped in mid-air after I muttered another Word, almost without thinking. His mouth hanging open, Johnny looked from me to the bread floating above him. I had to smile at that.
"Who are you?" he whispered. With an effort he stood and began wiping the mud from his clothes with shaking hands. "You're not from around here, I can tell by your accent. Are you the one who flooded the northern half of town?"
My smile disappeared at that. No appreciation at all, I thought, resting a hand on my roiling stomach.
"I know you have many questions. But first—"
With another Word, I gestured at Johnny's clothes. An instant later, the mud and horse manure were removed from the boy's pants, shirt, and skin. I bit back a gasp at the sharp pain in my ribs and in my innards.
Johnny grinned wide-eyed at his suddenly-clean hands and clothes. "How did you—?" He blinked twice and nodded, as if answering his own question. "Of course. You're a Warlock. One of the Druid's men."
"Please," I said, shaking my head with a short, almost bitter laugh. "Warlocks are... simpletons and amateurs. We prefer the term Sorcerer."
"Sorcerer," Johnny repeated. "Is that why you came for me today? To put a curse on me? Or," he said, eyes blazing with the sudden realization, "did you come to take me with you?"
I nodded and laughed, proud of my future apprentice.
"The latter, of course."
One of the horses in the stall behind us nickered, as if in agreement. The boy looked at the horse with a hint of longing on his face before turning back to me. A tear shimmered in one of his blue eyes, and then he wiped it away with the heel of his newly clean hand. He nodded, as if he had made some sort of decision with himself.
"What's your name, Sorcerer?" Johnny said.
I smiled and bowed low in front of the boy. A flood of hope extinguished the flaring of my injuries. I looked up at the boy from the bottom of my bow with a smile.
"Michael Severson Azure. At your service, Johnny."
The boy grinned at my overly grand manner. "Jonathan Archibald Masterson Brightwell, back to you, my lord. But please, don't call me Johnny."
"But of course, Johnny," I said. I straightened up with a bit of effort and plucked a piece of mud off of my otherwise spotless green robes. "Now we must leave. You need not bring anything but the clothes you are wearing. I know you have no family to say farewell to, so that simplifies the situation immensely."
I clapped him on the back and inhaled sharply at the stab of pain in my ribs. He had to be the one, or I was surely doomed.
"Come along, son," I said with what I hoped was a convincing grin. "The Druid will be waiting. And believe me, he is not a patient man."
And, I added silently to myself as I led young master Brightwell out into the bright late-morning light, the Druid will never suspect either of us of plotting his downfall.
Before coming here, Jeroan Strickland had never read a book voluntarily in his life.
That was his sister's area of expertise. He considered himself more of a street-smart kind of guy, not a book-smart geek like his twin sister Kelley. Even if most of his street smarts were faked in a constant attempt to impress others.
But here at the Center, all of that was behind him. Another life.
He kept finding the most amazing books to read at the Center. But he never had the time to devour them all because he was constantly getting pulled from his reading and his self-propelled education—one book from the Center's three-story library at a time—by York, Mexico, and Orleans.
Today it was looking like a sneak attack at noon.
With a sigh, Jeroan closed the impossibly small white book with the blank cover and the squiggly symbol on its spine. He'd been sitting on the hard floor all morning, reading the book in one of the many empty office cubicles of the first floor, all of which were made up of three beige walls five feet high and nothing else. No desks, and not even a chair to sit in.
He had been focusing all his reading in this book (and countless others) on stories about the man responsible for his arrival here: Dr. Michael Azure.
The trick was figuring out which stories were Azure's, because for some reason all the stories in the History section of this book were in first person. So Jeroan had to read closely—but not too closely, because each of the book's stories held a strange power over him. He'd glance at the first sentence or two to see who or what it was about, and then he'd get sucked in. He'd lose hours reading. That had never happened to him before.
This morning he'd ended up reading about some crazy dude from the Ukraine, explaining the ins and outs of Blood Sorcery, and then a woman from the Revolutionary War who'd been apprenticing with the renegade magic-user Ben Franklin. He'd finally hit upon this latest story featuring the absent Dr. Azure in some place called Snowdonia, recruiting a new apprentice. The hints about the Druid had fascinated Jeroan, and he had to learn more.
Something shifted on the other side of the long, twisty hallway lined with dozens of cubicles. Jeroan slipped the book into his back pocket without a sound, and he saw to his surprise that the sun was now high in the sky. He'd started reading when it was barely light out that morning. On the other side of the floor-to-ceiling window of one-way glass next to him, the gently rocking waters of the Cape Fear River reflected the bright sunlight onto a dozen boats as well as the tall buildings built right up to the water's edge.
That was totally a footstep, Jeroan thought, moving from a sitting position to a crouch in a flash.
His pulse quickened, and his vision went unfocused for a moment, just like in the books. In the air around him he could vaguely see the shimmering lines of power that the book was always talking about, the lines blurring the walls of the tiny cubicle where he'd been hiding out, reading.
Reading, and avoiding the daily lesson from Azure's operatives. Sometimes it was just one operative, occasionally two (usually greasy-haired York and big-afroed Mexico), but sometimes he had to take on all three of them. Orleans was a particularly nasty piece of work who never smiled and didn't take kindly to having to train newbies.
"In the wrong career path," Jeroan muttered as he tiptoed out of the cube, holding his breath. Mom had always been talking to him about career paths, he realized, nearly tripping on the industrial green-gray carpet at the memory. A wave of homesickness hit him then, so strong he could barely breathe or swallow.
They haven't even tried to get in touch with me, he thought. And I've been gone over two months now.
At first, Kelley had been constantly trying to text or call or email, but he'd let his eGadget's battery go dead weeks ago and never bothered recharging it. There was no place for gadget magic here in any of the thirteen stories of Dr. Azure's International Center for Magical Study and Containment.
And Azure himself still hadn't shown up here to teach Jeroan all about magic. It had just been Jeroan and the Three Big Stooges, ever since he'd agreed to join Azure's team last November.
So Jeroan had been reading and learning all he could on his own. Azure's operatives seemed to like it better that way, instead of actually having to teach or train him. They were only responsible for Jeroan's daily "review" sessions. Azure must've worked some magic to force them to do that much in his absence.
Hunched low, Jeroan crept down the zigzagging maze of drab, colorless cubicle walls, checking each cube he passed to make sure it was completely empty. He heard no more furtive sounds.
He wiped sweat from his forehead and grimaced. That had to be Orleans' handiwork—he liked to crank up the heat in the building during a lesson to get Jeroan all off-balance. Orleans was a real pain in the butt about stuff like that.
Jeroan made it to the Fishbowl, the big rectangular conference room with glass walls just outside the elevators, without anyone dropping down on him from the ceiling tiles or sneaking up behind him. The henchmen couldn't actually use magic, not in the way Jeroan had been doing since that day in November in Dubuque with the old guy Archie and his former friend Polly. But all three of these dudes were big as houses and knew their way around the huge Center, while he still got lost about every other day.
And all three operatives could pull out their dampeners if Jeroan got too cocky with the latest Words he'd learned.
Jeroan patted the book in his back pocket, reassured a bit by its warmth. The office had grown warm as well, uncomfortably so, even with the cold and rainy winter weather outside. He lifted a sweaty hand to punch the Up button for the elevator, but then he remembered Mexico ambushing him inside the elevator last week. He thought better of it and tiptoed back from the elevator doors. He couldn't believe that he'd made it to lunchtime today without a lesson.
Maybe they're tired of getting kicked around by the new kid, he thought.
And then the lights went out.
Jeroan's first instinct was to speak the Word for light, but he quickly thought better of it. No sense announcing where he was. Instead he kept on inching backwards in the dark, slowly, slowly, until he touched the glass door to the Fishbowl. The big one-way windows looking out onto the river and the rest of downtown Wilmington had gone opaque at the same time the lights had gone out.
Three questions, Jeroan told himself as he slipped inside the Fishbowl in complete darkness. I just have to answer three questions.
The only sound was the tiny creak of the glass door as he closed it behind him.
He forced himself to relax, even though his heart was hammering. His gaze flickered all over the place, trying to detect movement as his eyes adjusted. He held his breath and listened. He'd originally thought that guys as big as York, Mexico, and Orleans would be loud as bulls, but somehow Azure had trained them to move as silently as musclebound ninjas. Jeroan's best defense had been smelling them—Orleans smelled like sweat, York like fried food, and Mexico like the old-fashioned cologne Dad always wore.
Thinking about Dad made Jeroan tighten up again inside, just for a moment. Even though he and Kelley barely used to see Mom and Dad—the parentals were always busy working at their law firm downtown—Jeroan still missed them. They should've contacted me by now, he thought, the tightness in his chest spreading through his body.
Pull it together, he told himself, but then it was too late. He smelled sweat and fried food. His heartbeat quickened and his blood turned hot as he let the power flow into him in an instant.
"Quarzinck!" Jeroan shouted, and the Fishbowl filled with a brilliant red light.
Mispronounced it, he thought, and then he dove under the conference table as two huge men in black suits punched their way through the thick glass walls of the Fishbowl. The room exploded with fist-sized shards of glass that rained on top of the table and fell to the floor next to Jeroan.
"Light's supposed to white, not red, my friend," said the big white guy with the slicked-back hair and droopy mustache. That would be York.
"Who's been teaching you, newbie?" laughed an equally big man with light brown skin, a long black ponytail, and no hint of a smile on his round face. Orleans.
The men split up and circled the table, heading right for Jeroan.
"Is that your first question?" Jeroan said, getting to his feet on the far side of the conference table.
He crunched on bits of glowing red glass with each move he made. His face was slick with sweat, and he felt a little light-headed from the blood-rush of speaking his Word.
"Easy. The answer is nobody. Nobody's been teaching me."
"Good one, Orleans," York said, just a few feet away on Jeroan's left. "Way to waste a question—"
"Yeaarggh!" Orleans interrupted, charging at Jeroan in frustration.
Jeroan slid a rolling chair in the big man's way and headed to the corner of the big conference room, away from York and the busted glass walls.
"Rasputin," York called out, coming fast toward Jeroan as Orleans pushed the chair out of his way and then tripped over another chair. They could only take a swing at Jeroan after a question was asked, but York liked to get in position ahead of time, while he was doing the asking.
"What are the Words Rasputin created to animate the dead?"
Jeroan had his hand on the cold metal knob to the second glass door leading out of the Fishbowl. The red light from his Word was starting to fade, so he had to hurry. With a swirl of energy blurring his vision, he did what always worked best for him in the past: he said the first thing that popped into his head.
A pair of roaches a few feet from Jeroan flipped from their backs to their tiny feet and skittered through the bits of glass that still reflected the fading red light next to the table.
"Yes!" Jeroan exclaimed, now gasping for breath from this second set of Words. He thought he saw a nod of approval from York at his correct answer, even as the big man threw a punch. Jeroan ducked, just in time.
One more question to go.
But Orleans wasn't asking anything. He let York do all the work while he pushed chairs out of his way and crunched toward Jeroan. At some point he'd pulled out his black, tablet-sized dampener, and he was brandishing it in one big hand. The conference room was stifling hot now, and sweat dripped into Jeroan's eyes.
Can't use the Words on Orleans directly, Jeroan knew, flipping through his mental list of Words like shuffling playing cards. His dampener will just cancel it out.
"Who was," York asked from just a foot away, exasperated by his partner's actions, "the rogue magic-user responsible for—"
Jeroan ducked again as Orleans took a swing at him, breaking the rules of their so-called training. Jeroan didn't want to run out the door just yet, not when he was so close to finishing his daily questions. Plus, Mexico might be out there waiting in one of his patented ambushes.
So he focused his energy on the two roaches trying to escape under the table. The room went all blurry and grew even hotter as he pointed two shaking fingers at the brown bugs. Filled with the rush of magic, Jeroan's vision cleared, and his hands were no longer shaking. The Word came to him in a flash, and this time he didn't mispronounce it.
"Fyorotufall!" he shouted as his two fingers changed targets, moving in an arc from the bugs to Orleans.
The pair of cockroaches flew through the air right at Orleans' wide-eyed face. If the big henchman hadn't shut his mouth, they would've shot right into his mouth. Instead, they went for his eyes. With a yell and a crunch of glass under his shiny black shoes, Orleans slapped at his face, slipped on the debris, and fell back onto the big black conference table with a heavy thud.
Jeroan let out the breath he'd been holding and nearly fell over from exhaustion. He'd never used so many Words this quickly before, and he felt a bit like throwing up. His stomach kept doing flips.
On his left, York cleared his throat with a sound that almost sounded like a laugh.
"Final question, once again. Who was the rogue magic-user responsible for the San Francisco earthquake of 1906?"
As soon as he finished asking the question, York tried to distract Jeroan by launching the big speakerphone from the conference table at him, but Jeroan had seen it coming. Tired as he was, he still managed to block it with his right hand, but the force of the throw knocked him backwards and nearly broke his wrist.
And he couldn't think of the name of the rogue York had been asking about.
"I don't study terrorists," he yelled in frustration. He gripped his sore right wrist with his left hand and backed up until he hit the warm glass of the door behind him. Orleans had finally crushed the unlucky pair of reanimated cockroaches and gotten back to his feet. The Fishbowl was like a sauna now, and Jeroan couldn't concentrate.
"Let's hear your answer," York said, just a few feet away and creeping closer.
"He don't know it," Orleans said. "He ain't got a—"
A loud buzzing interrupted him, a sound louder than any alarm clock, just as the dampener in Orleans' hand suddenly burst into bright green light. Despite the buzzing, Jeroan heard tiny skittering sounds as the two reanimated roaches peeled themselves up off the floor and fled.
"What is that?" Jeroan said, pointing at the glowing dampener and leaning away from Orleans and his sweaty odor. His legs still felt wobbly. "Can you turn off that alarm already?"
Loud footsteps approached from the hallway. The buzzing must have masked the sound of the elevator doors opening.
Orleans was looking at his dampener, his wide face green and confused.
"Is this what I think it is?" he muttered.
The footsteps stopped outside the Fishbowl. The fading red light from Jeroan's mispronounced word—mixed with the unhealthy green light from Orleans' dampener—illuminated a big puff of curly black hair atop a six-foot-five frame decked out in a black suit. Jeroan got a whiff of cheap cologne.
"It's his distress code," said operative Mexico in his deep, rasping voice.
He poked his dark brown face into one of the holes in the glass walls that York and Orleans had made earlier and glared at Jeroan and the other two operatives. Mexico shook his head and glared at the three of them.
"Kindly clean up this mess and get yourselves upstairs, jokers. Dr. Azure has returned."
Kelley Strickland held her phone to her ear and crossed her fingers for luck.
This would make call number twelve; if it didn't work this time, she wasn't going to try again. Waiting for the connection, she rubbed her arms through her thick sweater in the chill air of her hotel room. It would be a huge loss to never talk to him again, but she couldn't keep doing this or she'd go crazy.
After three buzzes, a tentative "Hello?" tickled her ear from the other end of the line.
"Jimbo, " Kelley said, in as calm a voice as she could muster. "It's me, Kelley. How's Gran?"
"I'm sorry," he said. It was becoming his favorite phrase. "I can't talk."
"That's fine. Just listen, then. I know you've been through a lot, and this is pretty overwhelming and all."
A sudden hiss of air came from the other end, but nothing else. Kelley forged ahead, determined to get through to him at last.
"But you're not alone. And you've been given an incredible gift. You can't just let that slip away. We could do so much—"
"A gift? My grandmother can barely get up out of her bed anymore. Her hair turned white after that night on the boat. Completely white. And the way your brother broke her music box, and, and..."
"I know," Kelley said, fighting the urge to apologize once more for what Jeroan had done. She'd vowed never to do that, ever again. And now she was losing Jimbo, too. "But this is something bigger than all that."
After a pause, Jimbo finally spoke.
"Some of us don't want to be a part of something bigger, Kelley."
And then he hung up on her.
After five seconds of shocked silence, Kelley hit the End Call button on the eGadget gripped tight in her hand and bit back the urge to scream.
Instead of screaming, though, she hooked her phone up to its charger and paced around the tiny confines of her hotel room, glaring at its chipped beige walls and nasty brown carpet and crooked, fake art on the walls. With each step she ran through a series of dagger-sharp thoughts, first about Jimbo, and then her twin brother Jeroan.
It always came back to Jeroan, and the stupid, reckless, dangerous decision he'd made.
Nothing, Jeroan had said to her that night, his last words to her in two months. Nothing's happened to me, and everything's happened to me.
Despite the cold in her room, she could feel the heat building inside her, and she had to remind herself to let it out before she exploded. Again.
She exhaled, and saw a hint of her own breath cloud the cold air.
She could almost sympathize with Jimbo's attitude about all that had happened. His grandmother had been hurt badly by Dr. Azure's magic during that wild fight up on top of the Diamond Jo riverboat back in November. For a while there it looked like she wasn't going to make it to see Christmas. And the way Jeroan had betrayed her by taking that ancient music box from her hands and crushing it...
Kelly couldn't really blame Jimbo for not wanting to have anything to do with magic—or her—these days.
She cringed, thinking about how, near the end of the call, Jimbo had sounded petrified. As if he was afraid she'd try to pull him through the phone and into her hotel room.
I'd actually considered doing just that, Kelley realized with a surprised grin. She turned and began pacing the length of the cold hotel room. But I know that Jimbo has to do this on his own accord. If I just pull people here and there with magic, then I'm no better than that madman Dr. Azure.
She would never forgive Jeroan for volunteering to join Azure's team. Like a kid running off to join the circus. Those two goons who lifted him off the roof of the runaway riverboat back in November most likely just dropped him into the Mississippi from a hundred feet up after listening to his trash-talking for a couple of miles. He was probably dead by now.
"No," she whispered. The sound of her thin voice gave her the goosebumps. "I can't think that. Ever. Plus, he's not gone gone. I'd know if anything like that happened to him."
She sat down on the edge of her unmade, unbouncy hotel bed and picked up the tiny white book from Maria's shop. More than anything else, she felt trapped and helpless in her hotel-room prison.
After I helped save all those folks on the boat, too. But do Jimbo or his grandmother remember that? Does anyone remember that?
It was as if everyone in Dubuque, Iowa, has selective amnesia about that night. Even the news and the local paper had neglected to cover the huge story about the Diamond Jo riverboat busting loose and taking a night-time cruise down the Mississippi, much less the magic battle that took place on the roof of the boat. Kelley had done all sorts of searches on the Internet with her smart phone, and not even a single conspiracy theory had reared its ugly head. The event had been swept under the rug, most likely by Azure or his flunkies.
Nobody wanted to remember the magic.
Kelley shook her head and touched the elaborate, dark blue symbol on the spine of her white book. Each blue curlicue made the tip of her finger tingle, like a tiny shock of static.
To be honest, she'd been having trouble remembering that night out on the freezing Mississippi River herself.
Running her finger once more over the strange, twisted symbol on the spine of the small white book, she remembered the riverboat, full of gamblers on the three floors below them, breaking loose from its dock. How it had drifted downstream, picking up speed. And how it almost crashed into the cement columns holding up the bridge to Highway 20.
But a lot of the details had grown fuzzy in the two months since then. Had it been Jimbo or Polly at her side at the end, stopping the runaway steamboat at the last second, and then hauling it back to the dock? Kelley truly couldn't remember.
As she skimmed through her copy of Words of Magic, she wished once more for a tiny dragon to silently flutter down onto her shoulder. She'd even welcome the clattering gears and strangely heavy weight of Alexander the dragon's original version, with his metallic green and blue scales and gray wings. Back before he became a living, breathing dragon all in white, measuring thirty feet from wing to wing, with a Sorcerer snatched up in each front paw.
A memory popped into her head, something she'd forgotten for weeks. Maybe thinking of her dragon had snapped it back into her brain. It was something Maria had said, two months ago, back in her shop.
"Not everyone can be a Sorcerer, you know. Everyone has the ability for it, but not everyone has the knack to maintain it and use it."
That would explain Jimbo, Kelley thought. And if he doesn't keep practicing, it'll probably just go away. For the past few months, Kelley had made sure to channel magic through her phone at least once a day, even if it was for something silly like getting her wild black hair to stay in place, or making the bus run a few minutes later so she could catch it. She wondered if Jeroan was learning all sorts of good tricks at the place Azure had called "the Center."
Maybe, she thought, he was learning more than I'll ever learn.
Maybe. Maybe maybe maybe...
Kelley closed the book after running her tired eyes over sentence after sentence that looked like so much gibberish to her. She set the book down and pulled herself up into a sitting position.
It was time to try the door again.
Rubbing her cold hands together to generate some heat, she grabbed her coat and walked up to the scuffed metal door. If I were my parents, she thought, and I knew all that had happened back when Jeroan skipped town, I'd use some gadget magic to keep this door from ever opening. But Mom and Dad were the most un-magical people Kelley knew. They were both lawyers, for crying out loud.
"Ah crap," Kelley said with her hand on the icy doorknob. She turned and headed back to the dresser, where her eGadget sat connected to its charger. "How could I forget that?"
She unhooked her smart phone from the charger, and then snagged two instachargers from the top drawer. She made a face at the loud squawk the drawer made as she pushed it back in. After tucking the phone, the chargers, and the book into the various pockets of her big leather coat, Kelley tiptoed to the door again.
When she touched the cold doorknob this time, she realized who it was she needed to see. Not Maria, who had been so busy at her used book shop since November that she never had time for Kelley, but Polly. The skinny white girl had started out as Jeroan's friend, possibly even a potential girlfriend, but she now hated him with a passion because of the way he'd bailed on them.
Polly gets it, Kelley thought. She not only has magic in her blood, but she's not afraid to use it the way Jimbo is.
Plus I need to see if she's forgetting stuff, too. If I can just remember to ask her...
Kelley tapped on Polly's cell number and glared at the closed door as she listened to the phone ring four, five, six times before Polly's voicemail kicked in. Just a computer voice, announcing that Polly was not available.
"No kidding," Kelley whispered. She ended the call without leaving yet another message. "Nobody's available these days."
Sucking in a deep breath, she grabbed the doorknob tightly. Turning it all the way to the right without making any sound took at least a minute. Opening the door a crack took twice as long. But when she peeked outside, the coast was clear.
She squinted into the bright noon-time sunlight stabbing at her eyes. She'd forgotten it was daytime out there. After missing the last few days of school and spending most of her time nose-down in her little white book, she couldn't even recall what day it was. Probably Saturday. Maybe Sunday.
Whatever day it was, it was way past time for her to get out and find some answers. She closed the door behind her without a sound.
Outside in the cold, walking fast across the empty parking lot, Kelley made it two dozen steps before a sharp voice stopped her.
"Miss Strickland! Just where do you think you are going, ma'am?"
Kelley groaned and turned. A tall, thin, white woman with a puffy blue winter jacket and a black Iowa Hawkeyes baseball cap pulled low over her eyes was striding across the parking lot toward her. If it weren't for the serious look in her eyes and the determined way she carried herself, the woman could have been someone on her way to tailgate at a football game. Instead, she looked like a plain-clothes cop on a stakeout.
She also looked familiar, but Kelley couldn't place the woman's name. All she could think of was Harvey's, the name of the fast-food restaurant where Jimbo used to work. Her stomach rumbled with the thought of a roast beef sandwich and some curly fries.
"Going for a stroll," Kelley said as the woman power-walked up to her and stopped a few inches away. The woman's blonde ponytail wagged like a dog's tail under her cap. "Is that against the law?"
"You're supposed to be in your hotel room, ma'am."
Kelley took a step back. She wished she could remember the lady's name. She never forgot a face.
So she just asked: "Who are you?"
"Your parents asked me to help keep an eye on you, Miss Strickland. Ever since your brother went missing, they've been understandably very concerned for your safety."
Kelley touched the eGadget in her jeans pocket.
Looks like it's about time for my daily dose of magic, she thought. Maybe I'll see how far I can transport myself with one quick burst of magic. Or maybe see how far I can toss this woman into the air.
"So I can't even leave that nasty hotel room and get some fresh air?"
"This is one of the finest establishments in Dubuque, ma'am. My cousin is the manager. And to answer your question, yes, you may leave your room. But not without a chaperone. I'm Nanci Beyers, by the way."
You've got to be kidding me, Kelley thought, staring at the woman's unsmiling face and feeling the cold January wind cut through her coat and sweater. I sent away a Sorcerer who was hundreds of years old from Mercy Hospital and helped stop a humongous riverboat from crashing into a bridge. I don't think I need a babysitter.
"I'm going to meet a friend," Kelley said. "And she, um, she's expecting me. So I'll be seeing you, Miz, um, Beyers—"
Without waiting for a response, Kelley turned and started walking into the cold January wind.
The woman fell in step next to Kelley without missing a beat. She sniffed in a deep, noisy breath and let it out in a big plume of air that the cold wind dispersed in an instant.
"Good day for a walk," Beyers said, with the hint of a grin on her lean face.
"I don't believe this," Kelley muttered. She gave up on heading over to Polly's place. This woman would certainly not be welcome there. Instead she turned and headed east toward the river, her boots crunching on the gray snow at the edge of the sidewalk. She heard a distant train whistle and hurried after it.
Maybe I can jump aboard that train, she thought, just like old Archie did with Polly's pink phone in his gnarled hand, and lose her that way.
"Strange times here in Dubuque," Beyers said as they walked.
Kelley glanced over at her and the memory clicked into place—this was the female cop that Jeroan somehow knew first-hand. Beyers and her cop partner had been at the scene of Jimbo's accidental "triggering" at Archie's hands, when the old guy knocked Jimbo out while eating a late, greasy breakfast. Boom. Just like that, the old guy had infected Jimbo with magic.
The same old guy who was now completely out of her life, along with just about everyone else Kelley cared about (outside of her parents, of course, who were rarely around anyway).
They passed under Highway 151, cars and trucks thundering overhead, and then stepped over the rows of train tracks breaking up the sidewalk. Up ahead, the ancient tan and brown shot tower loomed over the river and the black railroad bridge stretching over the water.
After walking another block, Kelley's curiosity got the best of her. She put on her most neutral face and looked over at Beyers.
"What do you mean, 'strange times'?"
Beyers gave Kelley a curious glance before turning back to the road.
"Well, other than your brother going missing, that is, there have been reports of weird behavior and dangerous activities. Did you know that Mercy Hospital has been treating people for a rash of fall-related activities? Nearly three dozen such cases since Thanksgiving. And we're talking big falls here, like people thinking they could fly or something. Gravity told 'em otherwise."
"Wha—?" Kelley nearly coughed as she sucked in a cold breath of air. "Did you say 'fly'?"
"I know, it's weird. And most of them had trouble remembering the circumstances related to their accident. Like they'd just blanked out or something." Beyers pulled her cap down a bit lower over her eyes. "Funny how none of this ever got on the news or the Net. You never hear or read anything about stuff like this. Strange."
Kelley flinched as a shadow shot across the road to her right. She recovered and gave Beyers a nervous look, hoping the lady cop hadn't seen her jump.
It was just a plane, she thought. I'm jumping at shadows, like a nervous old lady who was afraid to ever leave her home.
"Listen, your parents care about you," Beyers said after they'd crossed another deserted street and came up on a gray warehouse as wide as a city block. "You know that, right? They're not doing this to punish you, but to keep you safe. We'll find your brother soon, don't worry."
"Safe," Kelley said, suddenly short of breath.
If Mom and Dad ever knew what Kelly had done—what she was able to do now, with just a burst of energy through her eGadget and a keyword—they'd never let her back into the house. She'd be as gone as Jeroan was. There was no such thing as magic in their world.
Another plane passed over, and this time both Kelley and Beyers looked up at it. This plane and the other one were too close together, Kelley realized. And going in opposite directions. They could've crashed up there. Unless...
Was that a high-pitched screech I just heard? Kelley squinted into the late-morning sunlight, which seemed even brighter now that she was out in the empty no-man's-land here between the river and the warehouse district. Just parking lots, train tracks, and the shot tower up ahead.
A flapping sound from high above got Kelley moving again. She had to smile when she saw Beyers stumble trying to catch up.
"More strange stuff," Beyers muttered, just as Kelley jogged ahead of her down the gravel road leading to the tower. "Wait up, Kelley!"
They both were nearly running when they came around the corner of the old cinderblock warehouse, and Kelley got her best view yet of the fifty-foot-high shot tower left over from the Civil War.
Behind her, Beyers sucked in her breath in shock at what was perched on top of the tower: a white dragon, easily thirty feet long from his flared nostrils to the pointy tip of his tail.
The huge beast puffed black smoke from those nostrils as he smiled down at them, making Beyers pivot in the road and run off in the opposite direction with a loud splutter of gravel.
"Alexander!" Kelley called, looking up at the dragon with both of her arms raised up in the air like an Olympic gold medal winner. "You really do have a flair for dramatic entrances, don't you?"
The office at the top of the Center took up the entire thirteenth floor of the building, and the building itself took up most of a city block in downtown Wilmington, North Carolina. Unlike the empty cubes of the first floor, this space was jam-packed as full as the library that ran from floors six to eight of the Center.
But instead of stacks and stacks of books, maps, and periodicals, this huge room held humming black servers lined up like soldiers all around its perimeter, with thirty-inch flat-panel monitors set above them at stand-up workstations. Keyboards, mice, smart phones, tablets, laptops, and MP3 recorders filled the high black desktops, along with other less-familiar gadgets that nobody had bothered teaching Jeroan how to use.
The office had no chairs. But long before Jeroan had ever arrived here, Mexico had smuggled in half a dozen four-foot-wide bean bags that now sat in the far corner of the office, right in front of a sixty-inch flatscreen and a pair of big black speakers where the operatives had set up a variety of gaming consoles, just a few feet away from the soda coolers and the cappuccino maker.
Jeroan loved this room. He could live in this room.
Only about half of the fifty or so monitors ringing the room were showing anything on them. The rest usually remained dark, though the computers attached to them were most likely running some obscure program that operative York—the computer genius—had launched to track magic use or to gather data on some natural disaster or other suspicious activity in a region.
There was always a buzz of activity up here at the top of the building, and Jeroan liked looking out of the three floor-to-ceiling windows next to all the high-tech equipment, taking in the calm city and the quiet riverfront a hundred and fifty feet below them. Nobody down there had a clue what went on up here in the Center's office.
And right now, the office was in utter chaos.
An alarm beeped angrily, coming from one of the servers half a room away. All the server fans had kicked in, loudly, while the AC had dropped the temperature in the office down to what felt like forty degrees. Three of the printers close to the windows were overflowing, spitting paper onto the floor. An old-fashioned phone rang somewhere, and the five flat-screen TVs mounted from the ceiling in the middle of the room blared updates from five different news channels. The acrid stink of melting plastic filled the air.
Orleans stomped in front of Jeroan without even acknowledging him, growling something about emergencies and always being the last to know.
Mexico jogged past Orleans, on his way to pick up the ringing phone on the other side of the room.
"Jeroan," he called, slipping on the paper piled up on the floor. The big black man caught himself with a movement so fast Jeroan could barely follow it. His afro bobbed and wobbled like a huge hat. "Go give York a hand, if you could."
Jeroan looked around, trying to find York and his droopy mustache in the middle of all this mess.
Every one of the monitors set against the black walls had flickered to life since his arrival. He saw the aftermath of a factory explosion in one, a wildfire in another, a train wreck in yet another, and a bank robbery taking place in a fourth. He shook his head, trying to clear the violent images from his brain.
Sixty feet from the alcove for the elevators, Orleans stood at what looked like an illuminated whiteboard that was taller than him and wider than all three operatives put together. Orleans called it his smart wall. Jeroan found York next to the smart wall, typing into two tiny laptops at once. The screens of York's laptops swam with line after line of indecipherable white-on-black code, with the occasional flash of green zipping across each screen.
Jeroan looked from York—coding old-school on his laptops—to Orleans—zooming in on the various digital maps displayed on his smart wall, tapping and pinching and dragging his big fingers all over the wall's smooth surface. Soon the maps on the wall were covered with green lines, connecting cities and crossing rivers and lakes and even crisscrossing the Atlantic at one point.
And I'm supposed to help these guys how? Jeroan wondered.
"Hey," Orleans yelled over the roar of the machines and York's frenetic tapping. "Where did the distress call originate?"
"Not sure," York said in a distracted voice, still typing away. "It was all... jumbled. My dampener said somewhere close to London, but Mexico's said southern Russia. And yours said... what did yours say again?"
Orleans had left his dampener on the desk next to his smart wall. He'd always complained about the size of the gadget—too big to fit in his pocket, too small to carry in a bag by itself.
Duh, Jeroan thought. It was the size of a hardcover book. Just the right size, he figured as he peeked at the dampener's green-glowing screen, for reading.
"Newfoundland," Jeroan said out loud, and then paused. "Where the heck's Newfoundland?"
Orleans and York both stopped what they were doing to stare at him.
"What is he doing up here?" Orleans shouted, as if noticing Jeroan for the first time. "We're in crisis mode here, York. This is no place for a newbie."
Jeroan took a quick step back as he set down Orleans' gadget. He gave the two operatives what he hoped was his most charming smile.
"Don't worry, guys. I won't get in the way. So... how can Azure be in so many places at once, do you think?"
Orleans went back to his wall, grumbling something about not being paid to be a babysitter. With an angry swipe of his hand, he erased all the electronic maps and the green crisscrossing lines from his wall and started over. Meanwhile, York tapped one last line of code onto each keyboard, pressed two different Enter buttons, and then stepped away from his laptops.
"He's traveling fast," York said to Jeroan, pointing at the maps taking shape on Orleans' wall again. He buttoned his black suit coat and stretched, once again giving off the scent of fried food. It was better than the stink of burnt plastic Jeroan had smelled when he walked in here earlier.
"So fast we can't get a reading," York added.
"Could be," said Mexico in his deep voice, making Jeroan jump. He hadn't even heard the big dude with the killer 'fro come walking up. "Or it's possible that he's gone to ground."
Mexico handed York a colossal green mug of coffee and set another mug on the high desk next to Orleans. Both mugs had the same funky, squiggly symbol engraved on them as the one on the spine of Jeroan's little white book.
Mexico passed Jeroan an energy drink in a black and green can, and he held his own big white mug that said "Magic's in My Blood" in dripping red letters in his other hand. Jeroan didn't know how he'd managed to carry them all across the room without spilling them or making any noise, but he knew better than to ask how-did-you questions with these dudes.
Instead, he popped the top of his drink and watched Orleans add green dots to his smart wall for southern Russia, London, and someplace way up at the top of Canada that must've been Newfoundland.
"Gone to ground, huh?" Jeroan risked asking Mexico. "That, um, can't be good, can it?"
"It depends," Mexico said. He was intently watching Orleans work his smart-wall maps, seemingly too distracted to be bothered by the questions. "After two months of complete silence from him, it's certainly a good sign that he was able to get in touch with those distress calls." He looked over at York. "We'd better get ready to hit the road in case we need to do a retrieval—"
"Hold on!" York boomed. He was looking up and pointing at the TVs in the middle of the room. Coffee sloshed from his big green mug onto his shiny black shoes. "Look at this!"
One of the five TV screens in the middle of the room now showed a mountain covered in fiery lava. Jeroan hurried closer until he could read the text scrolling across the bottom of the screen.
"Mount Etna lights up with its strongest recorded eruption," he read out loud. He turned back to York. "I don't see what the big deal—"
And then he heard the voice.
This was a voice that had haunted his every thought for his first few weeks of self-education and daily attacks by York, Mexico, or Orleans. A deep and clear voice, sharp with confidence.
"I simply happened to be in the area, Pam—may I call you Pam? And I knew I had to get just a little bit closer. Something like this doesn't happen but once in one's lifetime. Wouldn't you agree?"
"What the...?" Jeroan began. The voice was right, but when he looked up at the TV screen, he wondered if the camera had malfunctioned.
Because even though the guy talking certainly looked like Dr. Azure, his clothes were all wrong. Azure was a guy who wore suits. He wouldn't get caught dead in this outfit: bright yellow and green plaid shorts, a faded green shirt with a cartoony map of Italy on it, and—Jeroan couldn't believe this—a big floppy tan hat that nearly obscured his face.
Azure's evil tourist twin was standing about half a mile from an erupting volcano that was now dripping orange and red lava down its side like a black cone of melting ice cream, sending plumes of smoke into the air.
"Eyewitness to the Mount Etna eruption" the caption said at the bottom of the screen.
"Maybe it's someone else," York said as he walked closer to Jeroan, staring up at the TV and rubbing the handlebars to his mustache. "Has to be, with those clothes..."
Azure's voice, meanwhile, droned on and on to the reporter, saying something about how he'd seen the volcano light up an hour ago while he was hiking up a nearby mountain.
"Maybe," Mexico said, slurping down a big gulp of coffee without ever taking his eyes off the screen. "Maybe not."
At that moment, the man with Azure's voice took off his floppy hat and wiped his head—his utterly bald head—with the palm of his hand. He looked right into the camera and smiled. As the distant volcano behind him shot another puff of smoke into the air with a low rumble, Jeroan swore he saw a glint of green in the bald man's eyes.
"I find myself in awe of such uncontained power, Pam. So very... out of control."
"Dudes," Jeroan said, snapping his fingers. "That's Azure all right."
Orleans was suddenly right next to him. "Is he sending us some sort of... message?"
Mexico finished off his coffee. "Or perhaps he's just letting certain people know he's still alive and kicking."
"Like us?" Orleans asked, but nobody bothered answering him.
After swallowing the last of his energy drink, Jeroan focused on Azure's eyes. There seemed to be something missing there. First off, the guy had actually smiled at the lady interviewing him, and meant it. And second, he really did look like a tourist who was having the time of his life despite the natural disaster taking place behind him.
Jeroan exhaled, feeling disappointed in Azure, somehow. This is what the all-powerful Sorcerer had been doing the past two months? Sightseeing?
"Well, crap," Orleans said as he spun on his heel and turned back to his smart wall, "it's time we got him back and straightened him out. This is ridiculous."
"Agreed," York said, grabbing Mexico on his way back to the smart wall. "Let me show you some of the field data, Mexico."
Their angry footsteps pounded across the uncarpeted floor like a trio of nailguns.
"Wait..." Jeroan began, but the operatives had already started working again at their various stations. The smell of something burning quickly filled the air once more.
Alone again, Jeroan stared up at the footage of the volcano in Italy that had replaced the interview with the vacationing Dr. Azure. As he watched, he learned that this volcano was active a lot. Like ten times a year active, if not more. So active that people had webcams aimed at it, and the first bit of blurry footage had come from one of them.
Jeroan watched the replay of today's eruption. It was a doozy, sending blackened bits of mountain into the sky in a cloud of dust and smoke. They showed the explosion from a couple different angles, each one blurrier and shakier than the previous one.
Jeroan was about to turn away when he saw something in a blurry webcam video that froze him in his tracks.
A person was flying through the air next to the volcano, right after it exploded.
The footage had already changed to a live shot of the volcano and the still-dripping lava as it reached for the mountains around it. But Jeroan knew what he'd seen.
Ignoring the stink coming from Orleans' corner of the office, he ran to the closest computer and got on the Internet. As he tried to figure out the best search terms, he had a sudden wish for Kelley to be there with him. She was a mad googler, and she could always find stuff online ten times faster than he ever could.
"Too bad her search skills come with all her other baggage," Jeroan muttered as he typed in the name of the volcano and the words "web cam." He could never remember if that was one word or two.
Kelley would know, he thought. And she'd never let me forget it, either.
Twenty feet away, Azure's operatives swore and slammed their equipment around. They weren't having any luck getting in touch with their fearless leader.
I got this, guys, Jeroan wanted to call out to them.
He'd never seen the three of them this serious before, except for maybe that time York and Mexico had chased him and Kelley, along with Polly and Jimbo, up the Fourth Street Elevator in Dubuque, and they'd hit him with their Pincers, and—
Best not to think about that, Jeroan thought, pressing Enter and holding his breath.
In less than a second, he had a list of over a dozen websites dedicated to the volcano in Sicily, Italy. He started flipping through the sites as fast as he could, looking for more footage of that flying man.
"Come on," he muttered, feeling a sudden wave of heat enter him as the images on his computer screen blurred, just for an instant. "Show me."
His screen flashed, and when he clicked the Refresh button, Jeroan hit the jackpot. He felt a sudden lurching sensation in his stomach.
"Guys," he said, staring at the impossible scene in front of him, but his voice was just a squeak. His gut was now burning, as if a tiny volcano was going off inside him. He swallowed hard and tried again.
"Guys! Come look at this!"
Jeroan had watched the short loop of archived webcam footage four times before Mexico and York were able to pull themselves away from their work to join him. Still at his smart wall, Orleans was pretending he hadn't heard Jeroan.
"This better be good, bro," Mexico said, stomping up to him and loosening his dark green tie. "I thought I had a lead on him. Maybe."
"Oh, it is good," Jeroan said, touching the screen in front of him. "Look."
On the screen right next to his finger was a tiny man in a bright green shirt and shorts who appeared to be suspended in front of the volcano. In the webcam image, Etna hadn't exploded yet.
"Whoa," York said, running a hand through his slicked-back hair, messing it up even more. "Azure."
Jeroan glanced back at him and nodded. He saw that Orleans was still frantically working at his smart wall, which was now glowing green and giving off small tendrils of smoke. That was where the smell was coming from. His wall was probably shorting out.
"And those," Mexico said, tapping a long brown finger on the three shapes surrounding Azure, "look like rogue users. Or more likely, Blood Sorcerers."
Jeroan flinched at the sound of both labels. Neither option sounded any good to him, after all the reading he'd been doing.
"Let me run those images through one of my filtering programs," York said, smacking Jeroan in the shoulder hard enough to knock Jeroan back a few steps. His voice had grown sharp at the mention of rogues, and the sound of it made Jeroan felt like sneaking away. A rain of blue and green sparks shot out from Orleans' smart wall along with a big puff of black smoke, followed by more cursing from Orleans.
"Got it," York said from one workstation over. "Putting it on-screen."
Mexico gave Jeroan a knowing look as they walked over to where York stood in front of a big flat-panel monitor.
"You were probably wondering why we never had time to properly train you," Mexico said over the sizzling sounds coming from Orleans' wall. "We've been working in here non-stop, trying to keep up with Azure's work without him. And on top of that, we've been working twenty-four-seven to locate him as well."
Jeroan just nodded at Mexico, afraid to say anything, painfully aware that not too long ago, he and his sister were the ones being tracked by York and Mexico.
"Here are the culprits," York said, slicking back his hair once more. He nodded at the screen, where he'd cleaned up the images of not just one, but four human shapes floating in the air in front of still-dormant Mount Etna. He'd also zoomed in close enough to make out faces. That was a good filtering program, Jeroan thought.
Azure hovered in mid-air in his bright T-shirt and plaid shorts, his face red with rage as he shouted his Words and sent bolts of green energy out of his open hands. Maybe twenty feet above him was a dark-skinned man in white robes and a black turban, arms spread wide as he looked down at Azure. On Azure's left was a pale woman in torn jeans, a flowery shirt, and black boots, and on his right was a tall white man with a red beret, blue T-shirt, and black jeans.
The three attackers floated in the air close to the volcano, and Jeroan could see the tell-tale blurry signs of magical energy building in the air around them, connecting all three of them as they channeled it through one another before attacking Azure. They must've caused the volcano to blow during the battle that came after this webcam image was taken.
"Blood Sorcerers," Mexico spat. "No doubt about it. That's Rashad, Yu, and Dominic. Why am I not surprised? They've turned traitor."
"Who? What?" Jeroan said, a million questions shooting into his head.
But neither York nor Mexico had time to answer, because at that moment something exploded inside Azure's office. Everything went gray as the blast sent Jeroan flying through the air. He landed, gasping for breath, on one of the oversized bean bags on the far end of the room.
When his ears stopped ringing, he pulled himself out of the bean bag and headed on unsteady legs toward where the smoke was thickest. York and Mexico were a few steps ahead of him. They all staggered over to Orleans and his smart wall.
Orleans' face was coated in black soot, and his dark hair had broken loose of his ponytail, but he was cackling happily as Jeroan approached. The stink of burnt plastic was quickly being dispersed thanks to the three now-broken windows in the middle of the office. Cool air blew away the smoke to reveal another person sitting in front of the smart wall, wearing a floppy gray hat and glowing in a mystical green light.
"I found him," Orleans said, still laughing. "And I was able to pull him back here with my wall!"
"You never told me that thing could do that," York said in a shocked voice.
"I've added some, ah, enhancements," Orleans said, exchanging a fist bump with York.
Jeroan and Mexico walked up to the man they'd been trying to find for the past few weeks. The green light had faded from the man's body after his sudden teleportation here via Orleans' amped-up smart wall.
Jeroan could tell something was wrong even before the man looked up at them and his floppy hat rolled off his head.
A shock of white hair sprang loose from under the hat, hair that perfectly matched the snowy white beard that reached to the old man's chest. Definitely not Azure's bald, beardless self.
"Ah, Orleans," Mexico said as he slapped his own forehead. "You didn't..."
Jeroan groaned when he saw that the bearded man's eyes were actually glowing a brilliant shade of light blue. It was a blue that Jeroan had hoped never to see again. Seeing it made him think of a cold morning in November when everything that could've gone wrong had done just that.
"Lovely to see you fellows again," the old man said as he slowly got to his feet without any helping hands from Mexico or Jeroan. He bowed his hairy white head at the three operatives now gathered around him, and then he tipped a wink at Jeroan, along with a smile. "Jonathan Archibald Masterson Brightwell, at your service."
One second, Alexander the dragon was perched at the top of the shot tower, smiling down at Kelley with his wings wrapped around him like a white robe. And the next second, he had unfurled those wings, leaped off the tower, and swooped down to snatch Kelley right off the ground.
Kelley could scarcely suck in a breath as she shot into the air in his clutches. She thought she heard a woman shout, somewhere far below her, and then the world spun away from her.
I never should've left my hotel room today, she thought.
She couldn't have broken free of Alexander's grip if she tried. Which was a good thing, she realized as she looked down past her feet dangling free in the wind. The shot tower and the rest of the city of Dubuque were now easily two hundred feet below them.
"Alexander!" she cried as soon as she was able to get her breath. "What are you doing?"
The dragon answered with a screech that sounded like a combination of the harsh wind in Kelley's ears and fingernails running down a chalkboard.
Kelley's ears popped from the change in pressure as they continued to fly higher. She couldn't see the dragon's face—he held her close to his body, so all she could see was the world growing smaller and smaller below them. She had no idea what he might have been thinking. His smooth belly was hot against her skin, and she got a whiff of something metallic in her nose before the rushing wind blew the stink away. She could almost feel Alexander's gears grinding together again.
The dragon slowed, just a tiny bit, in his mad ascent.
Even though she could barely feel her fingers or her nose from the bitter cold up here, Kelley tried to relax and think about a way to use some Words to get the dragon from carrying her right out into space.
Or I could just order him to stop, she thought, like I ordered him to leave the steamboat last November, even though we were surrounded by Blood Sorcerers determined to cook us all alive. But would that cause him to stop flying altogether, and we'd fall like rocks to the ground below?
With the frigid air now growing thin, Kelly couldn't wait any longer.
"Alexander!" she cried, her head spinning. "I order you to slow down."
Kelley felt the big dragon twitch, and to her relief, he began to slow even more. When they hit about two thousand feet, give or take a hundred feet, he stopped climbing. With a graceful arching of his smooth, muscled body, he unfurled his wings. They began to glide, high over the Mississippi River, with the state of Iowa on Kelley's left, and Illinois and then Wisconsin on her right.
"Oh wow," she whispered, but the cold wind ate her words. She didn't care, now that she could breathe again. This was incredible.
Far below to the left, she could see the railroad bridge and the shot tower, which from this height was no bigger than a pinkie finger pointing upwards, and then the warehouse district and even the Fourth Street Elevator climbing slowly up its tiny track surrounded by snow. She caught a tantalizing glimpse of the construction site at the top of the bluffs where Mom and Dad's builder had started putting together their new house. The foundation was laid, and half a dozen workers swarmed like ants over the wooden framework of the first story.
Kelley had hoped to get a glimpse of her new bedroom, but Alexander was moving too fast for that. They were heading north, away from downtown, when Kelley suddenly felt exposed up there in the sky.
"Alexander," she called out, her voice sounding way too loud after the last few peaceful seconds of dragon-gliding. "What if someone sees us? It'll be all over the Net and in all the papers."
"Urm?" Alexander rumbled, though Kelley wasn't sure if that was his stomach or his mouth talking. Then he twitched, and his scaly skin went hot for a second. Kelley flinched, expecting the worst, and when she opened her eyes, the dragon had disappeared.
Gasping and inhaling the smell of hot metal again, Kelley reached up to try and touch the dragon. He was still there, solid as ever as he caught an updraft and swayed side to side. He was just invisible. With another shock, Kelley realized that her own hand was invisible, too.
"Holy crap," she said, and let out a convulsive giggle.
Maybe, she thought, I didn't choose such a bad day to leave the old hotel room after all. Hope I remember this feeling and don't lose it to my Swiss-cheese memory.
They did a slow sweep of the outskirts of the city, and then Alexander aimed for the tree-lined bluffs overlooking Dubuque. Kelley smiled when she figured out where he was headed—it had to be Eagle Point Park, a cute little spot high above the Mississippi, where the parentals had taken her and Jeroan twice last fall to check out the changing leaves and to watch the barges float through the lock and dam below them.
Kelley blinked away a sudden fullness in her eyes that came with a tightness in her chest. Those had been fun times, with the whole family. Even Jeroan had behaved, not even complaining about having to spend time away from his new friends in town to look at trees and boats. And Mom and Dad had only spent some of the day at the park on the phones, talking to clients and their fellow lawyers. Kelley had almost felt like she was part of a normal family on those visits to Eagle Point.
As the park drew closer, she patted the dragon's belly to show her appreciation for his wise choice of landing spots. The snow-lined parking lot and roads leading through the trees were empty, except for a rusted and abandoned-looking scooter parked at the far edge of the deserted campground. A perfect place to hang out with an invisible dragon for a few hours, at least until the cold got the best of them.
Just as Alexander was coming in for a landing on top of a log cabin restroom, he twitched again. A heartbeat later, a small figure streaked through the air in front of them, shooting up from the ground and into the sky with a squeal. The person would've smashed right into the dragon's snout, but Alexander pulled up with a sharp lurch and a sudden flapping of his wings, sending snow and dirt flying.
Touching the eGadget in her jeans pocket, Kelley looked around for the figure—was it some sort of attacker?—until she located the flying person high in the air above them.
It was a young white girl, surely no older than seven or eight, clad in bright pink boots, oversized jeans, and a purple sweatshirt. She wore a red bicycle helmet over a mop of unruly dishwater-blonde hair.
And she was no longer flying.
The young girl was now falling out of the sky, heading right for the parking lot.
"Alexander!" Kelley shouted, trying to think of a Word to use. But her mind was a complete blank. She couldn't think of anything to say other than two regular words: "Catch her!"
The dragon was already moving for the girl as Kelley barked out her orders, and he snagged the screaming girl out of the air twenty feet before she splatted into the asphalt next to the log cabin.
The girl was panting from fear, and her dirty face was beet-red as she looked all around.
"What the—what the—How did I...?"
We're still invisible, Kelley realized. The girl—who looked vaguely familiar—had no idea who or what had just grabbed her. The girl dangled in the air, two stories above the ground, all by herself.
"Alexander," Kelley whispered. "Can you just make me visible, but don't make yourself—"
"Mags!" an older girl's voice shouted, interrupting Kelley. The sound of footsteps crunching through snow grew louder and louder. "Oh God, Maggie! Where are you?"
I know that voice, Kelley thought as her hands and the rest of her became visible again.
"Polly?" she called out.
At the same time, the young girl started muttering a surprising series of obscenities as she tried to break free of Alexander's iron grip. The footsteps in the snow twenty feet below them stopped.
"Dudes," Polly Erdman said, looking up at the young girl and Kelley, who were both floating in thin air above the parking lot. "What the freak is going on up there?"
* * * * *
"So you're not mad at me," Polly asked ten minutes later, for the third time. "Really?"
The three girls stood around a small but hot fire that Kelley and Alexander had built inside one of the grills in the picnic area of the park. Kelley hadn't realized how numb Alexander's flight over the city had left her ears. And her fingers and toes and nose. The fire felt good.
"No," she told Polly again. "I tried calling you, but you never picked up. Same for texts and email and Friendbook updates." Kelley gave Polly a sheepish look. "I actually thought you didn't want to hang out with me, after all that happened. But I was heading to your place today, honest, right before our old friend here scooped me up."
"Frickin' dragon!" Polly's younger sister Mags shouted, glaring up at Alexander. The white dragon had shrunk down to the size of a Great Dane, and he was now sitting on a picnic table, fastidiously cleaning his wings with a purple tongue.
"Hey," Polly said. "That dragon saved your life, sis."
Polly looked over at Kelley, rolling her eyes as her little sister stuck out her tongue at Alexander.
"I was giving her flying lessons. It was only our third try. She picked up the flying-up part pretty good. It's just the landing part that she sucks at."
"I woulda been able to land if stupid invisible dragon hadn't got in my way."
Alexander snorted at that, and it sounded like an annoyed snort.
"Easy, big guy," Kelley said, and the dragon went back to his bath after a puff of black smoke from his flared nostrils.
Kelley threw a few more sticks onto the fire.
"So," she began, "you triggered your little sister?"
"Accidentally," Polly said, rapping her knuckles on Mags' helmet. "It was the day after Christmas, and she was ragging on me about how I didn't get any presents 'cept for a couple sweaters, and she kept tossing her new football at me. So I froze her with that Gholt word your buddy Archie liked to use. Just for a few seconds. Next thing I knew, she was doing it back to me. Then she jumped off the roof of our apartment building. Little maniac thinks she can fly."
Kelley nodded at that, hoping Polly didn't see her shuddering at the thought of this eight-year-old leaping off tall buildings. Magic wasn't for beginners, she thought. But that's what we all are, really.
"Don't judge, dude," Polly said, watching Kelley closely. "It was an accident."
Kelley patted Polly's shoulder. "I know. And I'm sorry we didn't get in touch sooner. I could've used someone to talk to myself."
"Don't get me started. My mom refused to get me a new phone, said my lucky pink phone was the last one she'd ever buy me."
"That sucks," Kelley said, fighting the urge to touch the expensive smart phone in her own pocket. "I'm just glad you're still practicing, using the Words and stuff. I have a feeling if you don't keep using it, it just sort of goes away."
"You may be right. That would explain why all those people on the boat we triggered never really did anything impossible again. They just let their new power leave their bodies. Like getting over a cold, y'know? It gets out of your system after a while. Me, I try to practice a little every day—"
"Well, crap, then. I gotta go practice!" Mags shouted, backing away from the fire and turning to Alexander. "Come on, you frickin' dragon. We gotta practice! Don't wanna lose my magic!"
As Polly's sister and Kelley's dragon raced each other through the air and across the parking lot to the edge of the snow-filled park, Kelley caught herself grinning.
You don't see that kind of thing every day, she thought. Makes me glad to be part of a world where dragons and incredible powers existed. Even if...
"Polly," she said. "Have you ever felt any weird, um, side effects? Since that day?"
A shadow passed over Polly's face.
"I dunno," she said. "Maybe. But I always get headaches anyway."
"Headaches?" Kelley felt a bit disappointed. She sometimes got headaches too, but the forgetfulness and missing memories bothered her even more.
"Yeah, and sometimes I, well... Never mind."
"Tell me," Kelley said, inching closer.
"This is kind of embarrassing, but sometimes I forget what I'm about to do. And I have trouble remembering stuff that happened yesterday or a week ago. Or months ago. It's like those memories are just fading away, if not erased altogether."
Kelley suddenly needed to sit down. She left the warmth of the fire and crunched across the gray snow to the picnic table. Away from the fire, the cold was a welcome blast in the face. It helped clear her head.
"Crap," she said. "You know what this means, Polly?"
Polly followed her over to the picnic table, hugging herself. Kelley realized how thin the other girl's coat was, and how frayed and worn her jeans and boots were.
"Yeah," Polly said, her breath clouding around her red face. "Magic's bad for us. Just like everything else good that's ever happened to me. There's always a downside."
Kelley watched Mags and Alexander at the far end of the park, stopping to catch their breath near the overlook high above the river. Was Mags having headaches and forgetting stuff, too?
"I wonder," she said as Mags ducked under Alexander's wing and hopped on his back. "Maybe that's why your sister fell—she forgot the Words for flying or..." Kelley gulped, and then inhaled a cold lungful of air that matched the chill that had just entered her blood. "Or maybe, while she was flying, magic just... ran out on her."
"Not cool," Polly said, watching Mags trying to ride Alexander like a pony. "How can it just run out, though? It never happened to us that night on the riverboat. Luckily."
"I dunno," Kelley shrugged. She looked away from the dragon and the little girl and gazed at the orange and red flames of the fire in the grill. At the same time, gray clouds moved in front of the bright wintry sun above them.
Polly picked up some rocks poking up out of where the snow had melted and tossed them at the log cabin restroom twenty yards away. With each throw, she hit the side of the building with a dull thunk.
"So-o-o," she said cautiously after tossing the last of her rocks. "Speaking of the bad side effects of magic... Have you heard from your brother?"
Kelley exhaled a plume of warm air that clouded her vision for a few seconds before breaking apart.
"He won't talk to me. Too busy learning Azure's style of magic, I guess. He's okay, though, I think."
"I didn't ask that," Polly said, not smiling. "I could care less about how you're brother's doing, that traitor. So how about that Jimbo guy? What's he up to?"
"I called him for like the thousandth time today. He's a lost cause. A total... lost cause..."
Polly peered closer at Kelley when Kelley trailed off. Something was trying to shake itself loose from the fog in Kelley's head that kept trying to hide the events of the recent past. Something...
"What?" Polly said, a hint of panic in her voice. Mags' laughing voice floated over to Kelley, along with the distant hum of a car engine.
A memory. Why were they so hard to call up these days?
At last, Kelley snapped her fingers. It was something she'd heard in the back room of a little book and gift shop. Not a "lost cause," but a "lost soul."
I do keep a lookout for lost souls, like you, Kelley.
Maria Haze had told her that. But in the past two months, the white woman with the intense blue eyes had been way too busy at her store to give Kelley the time of day. Kelley had stopped in three times back in late November and early December, hoping to chat more about all that had happened, but the surprisingly large crowd of people filling the shop had kept Maria too preoccupied to say more than hello to Kelley, much less give her any tips about using magic.
And just like she'd done with everyone else she'd met here in Dubuque, Kelley had withdrawn from her. Gave up on her.
"I gotta stop doing that," she said, thinking out loud.
"What's that?" Polly said, distracted once again by her little sister and the dragon at the far end of the park. The sound of the car engine was getting louder.
"I think we need to take a trip down to the Haze Books and Gifts store and see if Ms. Haze has time to sit down and chat with us and her former windup dragon."
"Ah, the old lady from the boat, right?"
Kelley nodded, smiling at last. She'd missed Maria and her stories and her wise blue eyes, not to mention her cozy little store. With luck, the crowd wouldn't be too thick in there today.
Her smile lasted only a few seconds, though.
"Polly!" Mags shouted, her voice sounding like she was half a mile away. "Someone's coming!"
Kelley turned and saw Alexander ten feet off the ground, with Mags on his back. He seemed to grow larger with each flap of his wings, and he zipped across the parking lot like a small jet. Off to her left, Kelley saw a big green car roar up the entrance road, heading right for them.
"Go invisible," Polly called, and the dragon and his tiny rider disappeared.
Slightly freaked out by that as well as the approaching car, Kelley turned back to the entrance and the car with its extremely loud engine. Her vision blurred for an instant, and she touched her freshly charged eGadget in her pocket.
But before she could channel the energy growing inside her to attack, Kelley stopped herself.
I can't just blast someone for coming to the park, she thought. I can't get paranoid like that. Or I'll be just as bad as Azure and his cronies.
With Alexander at her back, invisible but panting loudly, and Polly at her side, Kelley watched the car approach. It was an old two-door, the kind Dad would've called a muscle car. It was about a football field away from them now, and slowing down. She squinted through the windshield until she could make out the pinched, unsmiling face of the driver under a black baseball cap.
"Beyers," Kelley spat. The off-duty cop had somehow tracked them here. "Alexander, get us outta here!"
The invisible dragon didn't need to be told twice. The big green car spun out of Kelley's vision as the dragon plucked her off the ground along with Polly. He set Kelley on his back behind Mags, and then he put Polly in front of her little sister. Just as the car was a few feet away, and Beyers was hitting the brakes, they shot into the air. Mags and Polly both screamed with what sounded like a weird mix of fear, surprise, and joy.
This time Kelley had an even better view of the city passing by far below them, because she could see right through Alexander. But her flight was also much, much scarier this time around because she not only had to hold on for dear life for herself, but keep Polly and Mags from slipping off the dragon's invisible back. With each flap of the dragon's huge wings, Kelley felt his back muscles rippling underneath her as his whole body lurched up and down. She would've killed for a dragon seat belt.
She finally closed her eyes and let the cold wind turn her face numb again. But as soon as she did that, she saw Beyers' contorted face again from behind the wheel of her big green muscle car. The woman that Mom and Dad had hired to keep her safe had looked mad and somehow betrayed. As if Kelley had let her down, somehow.
Or maybe the woman was just freaked out, watching Kelley leap into the air and disappear.
With Mags cackling like a maniac and enjoying every second of the flight, and Polly silently reaching back to hold onto both Mags and Kelley, they soon dropped smoothly down into the heart of Dubuque. Alexander deposited them right in front of Maria's book store. By the time she turned to thank the dragon, he had shrunk to the size of a small figurine.
And none of them was invisible anymore. Kelley felt strangely glad about that.
"Mree?" Alexander said. He looked exhausted in his newly shrunken state.
"Nice work, little buddy," Kelley said. She scooped him up and slid him into her coat pocket, where he curled up and went right to sleep.
Polly and Mags stood at the door of Haze Books and Gifts. Polly fiddled with the door, and Mags started swearing like a sailor when it refused to open.
Kelley looked up for the faded wooden sign above the door, but it was gone. She couldn't see anything through the tiny, opaque window where the Open sign usually hung. There was just the heavy wooden door with a small white sticker on it.
Maria never left her shop, unless it was some sort of emergency.
Kelley moved next to Polly, who'd given up on trying to get the door open. Kelley's sense of confidence after finally deciding to see Maria Haze fizzled away when she read the delicate handwriting on the white sticker:
"Closed Until Further Notice."
As the smoke in the office cleared, Jeroan took a good look at the old man standing in front of Orleans' shorted-out wall. Wearing a new pair of khaki pants and a long-sleeved blue shirt—both of which lacked the countless rips, holes, and tears of his previous clothes—Archie had the look of a healthy old guy enjoying his retirement.
It was something about his eyes, Jeroan decided as he crept closer to Archie and the three operatives. His bright blue eyes looked super-happy and full of life, even with all three operatives in his face, barking questions at him.
"Where's Azure?" York shouted. "What did you do with him?
"Talk to us, man," Mexico said. "We've got ways to make you talk. Why did you show up instead of the doctor?"
"Let me get some answers out of him," Orleans said, cracking his knuckles with a series of nasty pops. "It's been a long time since I made a grown man cry."
The old man just smiled at the barrage of questions and threats.
Jeroan shuddered from the cool air streaming in from the broken windows and stepped closer to Archie, kicking pieces of glass and small chunks of Orleans' smart wall out of his way.
"All in good time, my large friends," Archie said, standing up straight and smoothing down his beard. "I came here to speak to young Master Jeroan here. Could you three gentlemen—" Archie snapped his fingers with a sharp, cracking sound, and the operatives skidded back away from him with an outburst of shouts and curses "—give us a moment? Thank you kindly, sirs."
Jeroan fought the urge to scuffle backwards away from the approaching old man as well. He felt like he was trapped in the alley with him all over again.
"What do you want?" he croaked as Archie led him past the broken windows and onto the big bean bags. Archie dropped into one and gave a relieved sigh.
"Please join me," the old man said with a smile, eyes still glowing. Jeroan tried fighting off the impulse to sit in the bean bag across from Archie, but when the old man tipped his head slightly to one side, nothing could've prevented Jeroan from taking a seat.
"That's more like it," Archie said. His calm demeanor was starting to seriously weird Jeroan out. "Best to remain civilized in trying times like these. I am not in favor of simply ripping a person from their present location to someplace else, just to meet the whims of the curious."
Archie shot a dark look across the big room at the operatives, and Jeroan followed his gaze. While Orleans had gone back to his beloved—and still smoking—smart wall, Mexico and York had both armed themselves with dampeners, and York also held a set of crackling Pincers. They stood guard about twenty feet away.
"But now I am here, and from the state of the world—at least based on what I see reported here on the news and the other systems that survived my explosive arrival—it appears that my brief vacation is at an end. Ah, well. I was getting tired of the travel, anyway. I miss my own bed."
"You have your own bed?" Jeroan blurted out, thinking of alleyways, dumpsters, and cardboard boxes.
Archie laughed at that, which caused York to step closer with his Pincers raised. Jeroan caught a whiff of ozone coming from the nasty stapler-shaped gadget.
"A bed is more like a state of mind," the old man said. "It's what you take with you when you lie down on it that truly matters."
"Um, right," Jeroan said. He risked a glance over at Mexico, who kept mouthing the words "Where is Azure?" at him over and over.
"So were you on vacation all by yourself," Jeroan asked, "or did you have some, ah, friends with you?"
As he spoke, something tugged at Jeroan's memory. Something from a book he'd been reading recently, though he'd been reading so much it was hard to keep it all straight in his head. It was something about the old man in the bean bag next to him, but ancient history. Maybe. Jeroan only half-listened to Archie's answer to his question as he tried to remember.
"My boy, I am used to being alone. Been that way for at least two centuries, after my old friends either disappeared against their will or were separated from me by distance. I have always been quite self-sufficient, even in my actual youth hundreds of years ago. Why, I was younger even than you, I might add, when I was first on my own, back in Wales."
His youth, Jeroan thought. It was something that he did when he was younger. Why am I having such a hard time remembering? This hadn't happened before. Had it?
"But I digress," Archie continued. "I found myself with traveling companions recently, and to my surprise, I had been quite enjoying their company. Until we had a sudden parting of ways, and our traveling trio became a one-man band once more. Pity, really."
From across the room, Orleans let loose with a serious of profanities as he worked on his damaged smart wall. Mexico had crept closer to them, and he'd stowed his dampener inside his jacket. York still hung back with his Pincers and dampener held at the ready.