MAY 21 | MARKET SQUARE
Magic was once a thing people yearned for. Dreamed of. People would pay large sums, even travel great distances, to be enthralled by a magician’s sleight of hand. Not true magic, of course, just a skillful form of deception that tricked them into believing. Gave them a taste of what could be. But when real magic erupted into the mundane world, their outlook changed.
Now people long for the card tricks and vanishing acts and never-ending handkerchiefs, the simplicity of nimble fingers misleading the eye. And who could blame them? Because these past few years have made one thing abundantly clear . . .
Magic isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Iori Ryone surveyed Hildegrand’s market square from the roof of one of the three multistory structures that framed it, pondering which of the colorful stalls below offered the best pickings. Food stalls, abundant and fragrant, filled the air with scents of curry, barbecue sauce, and deep fryer fat. Some vendors carried hand-crafted jewelry or quirky trinkets; others, printed leggings and shirts. Nothing of significant value. A pawnbroker might be interested in some of the finer jewelry pieces, though, and the crowd gathered for today’s event would provide ample distraction.
Iori crossed the rooftop, weather-worn shingles crackling under equally worn boots, and peered over the lip to check that the rear alley was clear. It was. With a click of his heels, he jumped, landing weightlessly at the bottom of the four-story drop—a subtle vibration and a flare of violet under his feet.
A few months ago, such a drop would’ve left him quaking from the adrenaline rush, and he would have hesitated before taking the plunge. Now it felt almost natural, no more a challenge than walking.
Hood hiked up to conceal the cat-like ears protruding from his tousled black hair, the matching tail tucked inside his jacket, Iori followed the stream of eventgoers into the bustling market square. From the roof, the buskers’ whimsical tunes had drowned out the crowd’s chatter. Down here, however, their voices dominated. Bubbly and tired, annoyed and content—all melding together in a dissonant racket.
The square hosted a number of events throughout the year. For the winter solstice in December, a giant pine would stand in its center, adorned in tinsel and twinkling lights, and people would flock to it by the thousands. The Starlight Festival in January attracted similar attendance. And at the height of spring, when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom, it played host to a rather more poignant affair.
Today marked the seventh anniversary of the day magic returned to the mundane world. The day a centuries-old myth became reality. It came as shadow and light and fire and frost, and in a hundred other forms that manifested in the hands of children and adults alike. Empowered, they called them. Nobody could decide yet whether they were the heroes or the villains of this brave new world. Saints or sinners, a gift or a curse.
The way Iori saw it, they could be both and neither. Magic didn’t automatically make good people bad, and it didn’t make bad people good. And then there were those who walked the line somewhere in between—people like Iori, who weren’t quite sure where they belonged. But in a society obsessed with black and white, gray didn’t fly.
Gray was unpredictable.
Gray was unreliable.
Gray was enigmatic.
Well, this gray just wanted to fetch a few bucks and a meal. He hadn’t eaten since yesterday morning—or was it the morning before?—and his stomach ached with hunger. There were soup kitchens and shelters available, but those places had eyes. Cameras in every corner, guards at every door. Iori couldn’t chance being caught, so instead, he stole. However, in order to keep his already dark shade from darkening further, he stuck by two simple rules:
- Never take from the poor
- Take only what’s necessary
The second rule had a bit of leeway. Food and clothes were a necessity, and money made obtaining both easier. Thus, he allowed himself the occasional pocket-picking, committed the rare theft of non-vital goods to pawn off for cash. This was one of those occasions.
He made his way around the market, seizing the moments when vendors were busy with paying customers to pinch items from their stalls. A necklace here, a gold brooch there, some collectible coins, a small but exorbitantly priced crystal. Anything that could be worth something that wouldn’t create a suspicious bulge in his pockets, he took, and this place was a treasure trove ripe for the picking. Too crowded, too noisy, low security. He kept going until he had no room for more, then shifted his focus to the food.
With his left eye, the right’s line of sight obscured by an eyepatch, Iori scanned the square for the most vulnerable target.
Tents were too exposed, snack carts too small; he’d be noticed immediately. Most of the larger stalls and trucks were enclosed, with small windows and sliding partitions—well fortified against the five-finger discount. Then he spotted a barbecue stall across the square. Stacks of completed orders had been left unattended on the back counter, awaiting distribution. They sat behind a row of grills, shrouded in smoke, almost as if asking to be—
Iori turned to see a man plowing through the crowd toward him. Pierced brow, floral bandanna. The vendor from the antiques booth he’d swiped a ring from.
According to the information card on the table, the gaudy ring, currently digging into Iori’s thigh, had belonged to a cousin of Amethis’ royal family. True or not, it probably wasn’t worth whatever price he decided to ask for it. The man was a swindler. None of his items were tagged. Iori had watched from afar as he sized up the potential wealth of interested parties and adjusted his prices accordingly.
“Is there a problem?” Iori asked, feigning innocence even as this mountain of a man towered over him—a whole two heads taller and at least twice as wide, with fists like melons at the ends of muscle-bound arms.
“Don’t play stupid with me, boy,” he warned. “Give me my ring, or else I’ll—”
“Do what,” Iori cut in, “call security?” Iori closed the gap between them, a casual swing to his step. The man would have to bring more than his mass and ire if he wanted to faze Iori. “Go ahead, call them. I’m sure they would love to hear how you’ve been defrauding your customers.”
The man’s nostrils flared and his eyes looked about ready to pop out of their sockets, but he said nothing. His lips were pressed into such a firm line that they’d gone white at the edges. Iori considered that a win.
“Let’s forget this happened. You go back to your booth, and I’ll be on my way. Nobody gets in trouble. Sound good?” Again, the man said nothing. “Good.” Iori gave him a teasing, mildly condescending pat on the chest and went to walk away. He didn’t make it far before one of those melon-sized hands grabbed him by the shirt and spun him back around.
Half of the crowd was oblivious to the altercation, half didn’t care. Some actually sped up as they passed, because god forbid anyone help a stranger.
The man wrenched Iori up to meet his bug-eyed glare and said in a low, measured growl, “It doesn’t belong to you.”
Normally, it would have been foolish for a boy of Iori’s stature to oppose a man who looked like he could crush a person’s skull with his bare hands. But Iori’s lips curled into a grin.
Very little was normal about him.
“It does now,” he declared, and at his wordless command, an inky black tendril whipped up from below and caught the man by the arm. His brows leapt to the hem of his bandanna and he ripped his arm free with a horrified gasp, releasing Iori.
Now the crowd was paying attention. They burst into panic and scattered as the ink slithered back into the leg of Iori’s cargo pants. Using magic unauthorized in a public space, he may as well have pointed a gun in the air and fired. At least this would make getting his meal easier. There was no point in being discreet anymore.
Iori jumped onto the roof of a nearby food truck, defying gravity once more. The cooks went screaming out the rear door. He sent another tendril of ink through the pickup window and reeled in a freshly-bagged order.
“Freeze!” someone hollered.
Five security guards were approaching the truck, stun guns aimed at Iori. Not just any stun guns, either. In the wake of the Reemergence, two new technologies had been developed to combat magic: one made to suppress, the other to repel. These guns were equipped with the former, indicated by their red cartridges in place of the regular yellow.
“Can I just say two things?” Iori didn’t wait for an answer. “First, the guy running the antiques booth is ripping people off. Thought you should know.” Since the vendor hadn’t kept his end of the bargain, Iori saw no reason to keep his. “Second,” he said, waggling a finger at the guards’ weapons, “I bet I can outrun those probes.”
It took a second for them to clue in, and by then, Iori was in the air again. Probes soared through the space he’d occupied a moment ago, pinged off the truck, hitched at the ends of their wires. Their target was already well out of reach. He sprung to the balconies of the building bordering the west side of the square, up, up, up, and then he was away—bounding effortlessly across the rooftops, the shouts from the market absorbed in the city’s drone.
Iori Ryone wasn’t the most accomplished or most notorious thief in Hildegrand, but he was definitely the fastest, and perhaps the slipperiest. The only people to come close to catching him were Jokers—or as Iori had affectionately nicknamed them, the magic police. Sworn to protect the city from dark or ill-used magic, they were about as close to heroes as this city could get. But by the time they arrived at the scene of his crimes, he was usually long gone.
Iori prided himself on his elusiveness. Without it, he’d likely be dead or in jail by now.
With a clang, he landed on the rickety old fire escape of a condemned apartment complex. It swayed under his weight, but held, thankfully. If it were to give out, he wasn’t confident he’d be able to catch himself. Magic drew its energy from that of the host, and the fumes he’d been running on were nearly spent.
He climbed to the highest floor and clambered in through a window, into the remains of a penthouse apartment. Home at last, he thought, if you could call it that. The place had been gutted, defaced. Every luxury removed, every surface a vandal’s canvas, and the bathroom was overgrown with mold—probably the reason the building was condemned.
Iori dropped his hood and freed his tail from the confines of his jacket. Up here, he didn’t need to hide these parts of himself. Not all of them, anyway. The eyepatch stayed on.
Dinner in hand, he went to the south side of the apartment. Despite the crummy conditions, the view alone made this place a contender for the top spot on his list of favorite hideouts.
The southern wall was glass from floor to ceiling, large portions of which had been smashed out or spray-painted, but beyond the cracks and grime and fever dream scrawlings lay the sea. Boundless, shining, freely flowing into the ocean—the sole place Hildegrand’s hundred-meter-tall electric fence did not cross. Iori settled in the window and tried to pretend the fence wasn’t there, looming at the peripheries.
That second development in anti-magic technology, the kind used to repel it—the fence’s electrical current was infused with it. ”For the safety of our people,” the Queen had proclaimed, nonspecifically. To the Empowered population, it was clear which people she meant.
The fence was built to keep them in, to keep magic from bleeding into the surrounding provinces and countries. The government—all the world’s governments—treated it like a disease, and the Empowered like plague-infested dogs, regardless of numerous studies proving magic wasn’t transmittable. Nobody knew why some people had it and others didn’t, why most Empowered possessed “pure” magic while Iori was the only one touched by the Void.
In fact, nobody knew much about magic at all.
It was when those unknowable things and speculations invaded his thoughts that he was grateful for a distracting view, and leaving this one behind would be hard, but he’d already been here for a week. Lingering in the same place for too long made him vulnerable. So, tonight, he would burn it into his brain and carry the image with him to the next place.
Tonight, it would just be him and the blazing water at sunset . . . and this bag of greasy, totally unhealthy deep-fried food. Onion rings and breaded chicken wings. He didn’t care that they’d gone cold, or that the grease had congealed on the wings in the bottom of the bag. To a famished stray, anything that didn’t come out of the trash passed for haute cuisine, and he was so absorbed in the meal that he almost didn’t detect the shift in the atmosphere.
A monotonous hum tickled the insides of Iori’s ears, causing the hairs on the back of his neck to stand on end. He paused as he went to bite into another chicken wing and listened. There was an undulation to it, like waves lapping at a shore, beckoning him out—not to sea, but to Elysian Tower. He could see it from here.
Standing a proud five-hundred-and-twenty meters in the heart of the downtown core, Elysian Tower was easily the tallest structure in Hildegrand and by far the oldest. Though the outer shell had been remodeled over the course of its existence to reflect the continually changing society around it, the marble obelisk at its core predated known history. And this wasn’t the first time it had hummed like that.
The last was seven years ago.
Iori downed the rest of his meal and got to his feet.
Let’s see if curiosity can kill this cat.
MAY 21 | CITY HALL
Cherry blossoms blanketed the grass and cobbles outside Hildegrand City Hall. A few petals, swept up in the breeze, found their way to the portico, where they swirled lazily about the limestone pillars before coming to rest at Ellen Amelia Jane’s buckled shoes.
Her knees were quaking.
For many, the anniversary of the Reemergence was a time for mourning. For others, a time for celebration. And for a few, like Ellen, it was a time for both.
May 21st 2020 was the day she’d lost her parents.
But May 21st 2027 would mark her ascent as a Joker.
The anniversary doubled as graduation day for Cardplay’s students—a televised event—and for years, Ellen had watched others take their oath before the cameras, dreaming of the day she would join their ranks. Now, five years of hard work and unwavering determination later, her time had come.
Okay, there may have been some wavering.
Beside Ellen stood her two best friends and fellow students, Tatiana Kosta and Soren Kabr—a tall girl with a light smattering of freckles on tan skin, and a boy whose already pale complexion had been made paler by stage fright. When life got heavy, or when Ellen’s dreams seemed too big and too far-fetched, they were there to spur her onward.
Without them, her elder brother, and the support of her Cardplay family, the journey here would have been much, much harder.
They had all come for the ceremony—Cardplay’s masters with their full complement of Jokers, two dozen in all, plus the Kosta and Kabr families. Ellen found her brother, Alexander, in the front row, smiling encouragingly, his short white hair aglow in the sunbeams cutting across the yard. Ellen’s own snowy locks, the sides tied back with a black ribbon, tumbled over her shoulders in stark contrast to the dark denim of her student uniform vest.
The graduation jitters intensified when a rotund man in a sepia suit returned to the podium, relieving the guest speaker with a thank you and a handshake. Mayor Thelonious Hargrove. The keynote address had been delivered—not a word of which Ellen had heard, too absorbed in her own thoughts—and next came the oath taking.
“In these times of uncertainty, when dark forces threaten our way of existence,” said Hargrove, baritone voice booming, “we must set aside our fear of the unknown, the different, and the strange, and we must put our faith in magic . . . and our lives in the hands of those who wield it.”
On cue, an attendant appeared beside the students with a small lacquered wooden box, and Ellen could practically feel the camera lenses zoom in on her when Hargrove approached. As he lay his brown, age-spotted hand upon the box, the students laid theirs likewise over their hearts.
“Do you swear,” Hargrove began, “by Her Majesty Queen Tamyl of Amberlye to uphold the law and magical decree of the city of Hildegrand? To commit yourselves wholly, in body and in soul, to the protection of its citizens, and, if necessary, to lay down your lives in service to your country?”
They answered in unison. “I do solemnly swear.”
Hargrove unlatched the box and opened it, releasing a waft of cedar-scented air. Resting in the red velvet interior were three medallions emblazoned with Cardplay’s insignia: a stylized windrose with the four card suits—spade, heart, diamond, and club—set into the middle. The word JOKER was engraved on the rippled banner that crossed it.
“Then, by the power vested in me . . .” Hargrove moved to each of the students, speaking their full names as he pinned the medallions to their vests. First Tatiana, then Soren, then Ellen. The metal settled heavily against her chest. “. . . I dub you Jokers, defenders of Hildegrand.” He gave Ellen’s arm a comforting squeeze as the crowd broke into applause, and his voice dropped to a low rumble. “Your parents would be proud.”
A bittersweetness swelled inside Ellen, taking form as a lump in her throat. She swallowed it down. She’d cried twice today already. If she burst into tears on national television, her friends would never let her forget it.
Hargrove went back to the podium. “Another year, another step forward. And it is to Cardplay that we owe thanks for this continued forward momentum, for if not for brave Empowered souls like these”—He motioned to the three new Jokers—“our city would have fallen into ruin long ago.” He paused to let that sink in. “Now, let us share a moment of silence for the ones we lost.”
From the portico to the farthest corners of Amberlye and beyond, heads bowed—in mourning, in remembrance, in solidarity. Though the Reemergence was an isolated incident, its shockwaves had been felt across the globe.
Nine hundred and eighteen lives, swept away in a single night. Parents, siblings, friends, relatives. The National Guard had led the evacuation and played a critical role in restoring peace to the city, but if it weren’t for the Empowered who rose to the challenge with their newfound powers, the darkness would have continued to spread. The whole continent could have been consumed.
After the ceremony, the camera crews cleared out and everyone retreated indoors for the casual gathering that always followed. Between the conflicting emotions and the large attendance of people Ellen barely knew or hadn’t met—the bulk of the crowd being made up of the mayor’s staff and city council members—she couldn’t help feeling it was more like a funeral reception than a party. Or maybe her perception was tinged by her own Reemergence experience.
There certainly wasn’t a damper on Tatiana’s mood.
The three new graduates were clustered around a small standing table, and they had been placing bets on what their first missions might be until Tatiana’s wine kicked in. The red liquid sloshed about in her glass, threatening to spill with every exaggerated gesture she used to illustrate the heroic path she would take to the top of the unofficial Joker rankings chart. Ellen and Soren were nodding along, sipping at their cream sodas, but Ellen was struggling to stay invested.
It wasn’t that she didn’t want to be here, or that she didn’t want to entertain Tatiana’s grandiose ideas. She did. The problem was, the many highs and lows brought on by today’s events had drained her social batteries faster than usual, and without the energy to maintain her enthusiasm, the dreary thoughts were beginning to set in.
She was trying her best not to let it show. This day had been a long time coming, with all three of them having been held back for one reason or another, and the last thing she wanted to do was rain on the parade.
Tatiana had joined Cardplay immediately after the organization opened in May 2021. Although she had a promising pneumatic ability that allowed her to harness the cutting force of the wind, her behavior and work ethic left a lot to be desired. She was a loose cannon. Reckless, insubordinate, consistently tardy. Only once she learned to exercise caution and proved she could follow orders had she been approved for graduation.
Soren’s delay was no fault of his own. From the start, he’d demonstrated exceptional control over his light-bending ability and would have graduated last year, if not for the age restriction. Empowered could enroll as early as ten, but regardless of skill level, they could not graduate until they reached Attika’s school-leaving age of sixteen.
Ellen’s case, on the other hand, was rather more complicated. Neither too reckless nor too young, Ellen possessed all the qualities of a model student. It was her magic that put her at a disadvantage. Cardplay’s headmaster, Hikaru Ritsuo, had forbidden her not just from using it in public, but also from revealing its true nature to anyone outside Cardplay. Even Mayor Hargrove, one of their closest allies, had been left in the dark.
“You, my dear, have been gifted with something truly special,” Hikaru had told her, and then he’d taken her small child hands in a pleading, desperate sort of way and added, “You mustn’t tell a soul.”
Out of necessity, Cardplay’s Jokers and medical staff were later let in on the secret. In that moment, though, he meant it—it was to be kept between the two of them, plus his spouse and Ellen’s brother, who both had witnessed the surfacing of her powers.
Worried she’d done wrong, she’d whimpered, “Why not?”
In retrospect, she could see the cogs turning behind Hikaru’s eyes as he scanned hers, trying to discern whether she was ready to learn the cruel reality of the world she loved. And there was solemn resignation in those eyes when he realized: the Reemergence had already shown it to her.
“Ellen,” he’d said gently, “there are a lot of power hungry people in this world, and this power of yours is too tempting to resist. If they knew what you had, they would hunt you down and chew you up for all you’re worth.”
“But I want to help people!”
“And you will,” he assured her, “but you will help them from within Cardplay’s walls. Out of sight. Please understand, I am doing this to protect you.”
But that wasn’t enough for her. Hildegrand needed more Jokers on the field to combat the encroaching darkness. If she couldn’t use her powers openly in public, then, she’d vowed, she would find a way to hide them in plain sight. And when at last she succeeded, Hikaru hadn’t been able to deny her.
“Hello, Earth to Ellen.”
Ellen snapped out of her reminiscing session to the blur of Tatiana’s fingers past the rim of her glass. Both Tatiana’s and Soren’s glasses were empty, and there was a big red stain on Tatiana’s blouse that hadn’t been there a moment ago. The inevitable spill had happened, and Ellen, lost in her head again, had missed it.
Tatiana grabbed a fistful of napkins from the dispenser on the table and stuffed them into her sodden shirt. “You’ve been nursing that soda for, like, five minutes. Where’d you go?”
“Sorry. Spaced out for a second.”
“You’ve been quiet since the ceremony.” Soren was idly rolling the blue, pink, and white beads of his bracelet between his fingers. One would think his own social anxieties would distract him from a friend acting out of sorts. Apparently not. “No one would blame you if you wanted to go home.”
“As much as I like the attention,” said Tatiana, “if you’re ready to check out, we could walk you home.”
Ellen appreciated the thought, but whether they, the mayor, his staff, or the other Jokers understood why, it seemed discourteous to leave the gathering early. “No, it’s okay,” she said. “I just need some air. I’ll catch up with you guys in a bit.” She left the table, glad when a wall finally broke Tatiana’s and Soren’s concerned line of sight to her.
Their company was usually a comfort, but right now, she craved solitude—to be away from the crowds and the babble, from the whispers of strangers who knew too much, yet not enough.
“I hear she’s an orphan,” she’d heard someone say, evoking a small gasp from another.
“Oh, the poor thing.”
“Poor things,” a third had corrected. “The headmaster adopted both of the Jane kids.”
“That’s shady,” said the first.
“Shady how?” asked the second.
“Well, did he want kids or a couple of showhorses? Look at the brother—the headmaster’s molded him into the perfect poster boy, and that sister of his is little starlet in the making.”
Gossip. Ellen tried her best to ignore it. Most of it stemmed from a prejudice against magic and its users, which in turn stemmed from fear, and past attempts to decry slander against Cardplay, the Jokers, their headmaster, or the Empowered in general had only made it worse.
One day, she hoped—maybe foolishly—that people would come to embrace magic the way she had, because despite everything it had taken from her, she believed it could change their world for the better.
The Reemergence was a tragedy, yes, and it had driven a wedge between the mundane folks and the Empowered. But in an age where the prevailing mentality was “me first,” it had also brought people together. Closed more societal divides than it had opened. And in time, she was sure it would bring them closer still.
As Ellen climbed the grand staircase to the second floor, she was reminded of the races she and her brother used to have here. Up and down, and up and down they’d run. Their mother used to work long hours at the hospital, making City Hall their go-to place most days after school. Here they would play until Mayor Hargrove sent their father home.
Being the spawn of the mayor’s assistant had its perks. Whenever Hargrove would find them sneaking around in areas they weren’t technically allowed to be in, he’d simply put a finger to his lips and warn them to be quiet, or else they might be caught. Then he’d lumber on, leaving them to their games.
Of all the interesting nooks and crannies contained within this building’s limestone casing, though, Ellen’s favorite spot was the second floor balcony that overlooked the front yard. It was a secluded spot, perfect for reading and napping, or escaping parties.
Her brother must have had the same idea.
The light spilling onto the balcony made the red military-style jacket of Alexander’s Joker uniform stand out boldly against the darkening sky. He was resting on the balustrade, ice cubes melting in the dregs of an amber-colored drink by his elbow. Brandy, probably. He only drank the stuff in the company of authority—to fit in with the older adults, Ellen suspected.
“I was wondering where you disappeared to,” she said.
Alexander shot a glance at her over his shoulder as she strolled out into the evening. “It was getting kind of stuffy in there,” he murmured.
Excited squeals erupted from below. Ellen leaned over the balustrade and saw Tatiana’s half-siblings, Soren’s cousins, and some of the staffers’ kids in the yard. They chased each other with sparklers and sticks and tussled in the grass, pretending to shoot magic out of their hands. “They look like they’re having fun.”
“Glad someone is.” Alexander picked up his glass, seemingly for the sole purpose of swirling the ice cubes around in it. “How does it feel to finally be a Joker?”
“It hasn’t really sunk in yet.” It was a bit like a birthday, Ellen thought. She would always anticipate some change to accompany the new digits, and then the day would come and go without any noticeable difference. No great epiphanies, no spark of wisdom, no added inches to her height. The biggest changes happened between birthdays, evident only when looking back several years later. “I am a bit nervous about going into the field, though,” she admitted.
Alexander snickered in a light, teasing manner. “Get used to it. Those nerves never go away entirely.”
“Psssh. As if you get nervous.”
“Anyone who says they don’t is either lying or stupid.”
“But you always look so brave.”
“It’s courage, not bravery,” Alexander said. “Bravery is the absence of fear in the face of danger. Courage is about facing danger in spite of the fear.” The ice cubes’ clinking softened, their melt hastened by the liquid washing over them. “Every time that alarm goes off, I know there’s a chance I might not come back. That’s why we welcome the nerves. They keep us on our toes and remind us that we’re human, and we are fragile. The people who forget that . . . they’re the ones who rush in headfirst and come out in a body bag.”
Ellen studied her brother’s profile, the deepening lines between his brows, the hardened set of his jaw. There were clips of him and other Jokers fighting online—some filmed by bystanders, some taken from news broadcasts. With his dauntless march in those videos, she wouldn’t have guessed the possibility of dying hung ever-present on his mind.
He had fooled her, just as he’d fooled the country.
Trailblazer. Golden boy. Poster child. People of all ages looked up to Alexander Jane. The single exception to the age restriction, he graduated five months ahead of his sixteenth birthday and soared up the ranks from third to second to first class in the span of two years. Now, at nineteen, he was the most renowned Joker in Cardplay. Perhaps the most talented Empowered in Hildegrand.
And it was comforting to know he could get scared, too.
The liquid swirled silently in his glass now. Streetlamps flickered on as day yielded to night and the last rays of sunlight retracted from the sky. A door opened, and out came the parents to wrangle their rowdy children.
“I wonder what Mom and Dad would think,” Ellen mused as she watched them, “about what we do.” The wind picked up, cool and crisp, and she sank into her own arms for warmth, wishing for theirs. “. . . I miss them.”
Alexander let out a weighted breath. “Me too.” He pulled her close, bending to kiss the top of her head.
The night of the Reemergence was a smudge in Ellen’s memory that began with a trip to the cinema and ended in squealing tires and crumpled metal and her sitting by her father’s bedside, listening to the hush-hush of a ventilator forcing air into his lungs. Her mother hadn’t made it out of the crash, and her brother had been hauled off to quarantine with the rest of the evacuees displaying magical ability. Never had she felt so alone, so helpless.
When they were finally reunited two months later at Hargrove’s order, they became glued at the hip. Wherever they went, they went together, with Alexander guarding her like a wolf guarding its pup. They had no one else they could depend on, only an ailing grandparent in another province and distant cousins in other countries.
Until Hikaru and Elizabeth took them in, all they had was each other.
Which was why the idea of him moving four thousand kilometers away to attend Ulridge Royal Military Academy terrified her. To join the National Guard—to fight not just for his city, but his country—had been a goal of his since childhood, and last week, he’d begun studying for the application process. If accepted, he would leave in September.
A small selfish part of Ellen wished he wouldn’t have to go, wished he wouldn’t get accepted. The louder altruistic part stifled that one. This was Alexander’s dream! She couldn’t jeopardize it by pumping ill will into the atmosphere. She would learn how to live without him near. She had to.
A siren wail cut through the stillness, startling them both.
Alexander swore and dug his cellphone out of his pocket. “Seriously, now?” He silenced the alarm with a tap to confirm he’d received it.
Cardplay’s mobile incident alert system. Magic-related emergency calls were rerouted to Cardplay’s dispatcher, who would determine the type and threat level of an incident before pushing the alert to the Jokers deemed most suitable for the job. Types were color-coded:
Silver: Empowered offender
Purple: Void outbreak
Threat level was indicated by the attached tag, with ALPHA being low, BETA being moderate, and GAMMA being high. But Alexander’s phone, currently lit up purple, presented an UNDETERMINED tag.
“That’s odd,” he remarked. UNDETERMINED tags were rare and typically attached to Code Silver alerts that turned out to be home robberies or hostage situations, not Void outbreaks. Alexander swiped to the information slide, Ellen leaning in to read it.
CODE: PURPLE // UNDETERMINED
ADDRESS: Elysian Tower, 188 Sagan Avenue
DETAILS: Suspected outbreak; multiple persons exhibiting erratic behavior. Unexpected halt of communications. Failure to reestablish communications with interior patrol unit, unable to contact guard post.
Elysian Tower. Code Purple. Undetermined.
On the anniversary of the Reemergence.
It couldn’t be, could it?
Abandoning his glass on the balustrade, Alexander headed back inside, cutting through the halls at a brisk pace with Ellen on his heels.
“Can I come?” she asked.
“Your Joker status doesn’t take effect until tomorrow.”
“I know, but—”
“You’re not coming,” he cut in. “I don’t make the rules.”
When they reached the landing, the other assigned Jokers were already waiting at the bottom of the stairs: the vinyl-clad brother-sister duo Ikkei and Naomi Toi; and Naomi’s partner Aryel Rizka, the resident drama queen. Together with Alexander, they formed Cardplay’s A-team.
“There you are,” Ikkei called as Alexander and Ellen hurried down the steps. “You see the details on this call?”
Alexander pocketed his phone. “Yeah, it’s not sitting right with me either.”
Elizabeth Howard—battlemaster of Cardplay and the headmaster’s spouse—strode in from one of the adjoining rooms, leather trench coat billowing behind her. Now she did make the rules, and Ellen was delighted by the first words out of her mouth:
“Take Ellen with you.”
Alexander was not so chuffed. “She doesn’t even have her uniform yet.”
“It wasn’t a request,” Elizabeth retorted, and Ellen gave a discreet double-fist pump. “This could be exactly the kind of case where we’d wish we had her at the scene.” When Alexander made no further protest, she carried on. “I’m sending two more teams to scout the surrounding area—Faizan and Trey, and Dax and Makay. They’ll be nearby if you need them.”
It was Naomi who finally voiced the suspicion no one else dared utter. “Do you think it could be another influx?”
Elizabeth shook her head and shrugged, a gesture that said maybe but wanted to say no. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Just get out there, get your eyes on the scene, and update me once you’ve evaluated the situation.”
MAY 21| ELYSIAN TOWER
Influx—that was the word they used to describe the outpouring of magic that occurred during the Reemergence. No one knew at first where this strange, mystical power had originated from. Only after the flood receded had the point of ingress become apparent.
And that point was Elysian Tower.
Telecommunications-tower-turned-tourist-attraction-turned-ground-zero for the first magical disaster in modern history. Following the Reemergence, it had been reverted to its original purpose and shut to public use. The whole area was enclosed in a chain-link fence topped with razor wire, and was patrolled round the clock by the National Guard.
Or at least, it should have been.
The alternating blue and yellow lights mounted on the grill of Ikkei’s SUV glanced off the vacant windows of the Sagan Avenue guard post as they pulled up to the front gate—which should not have been open, but was.
“Where are the guards?” asked Aryel, the obscenely fluffy fur-collar of his uniform filling the space between the driver and passenger seats as he leaned into the front. Naomi and Ellen, squeezed into the middle row beside him, had to crane their necks to see around it.
In addition to the patrol units, there were always at least two guards stationed at the gate and a third in the guard post. The patrolling guards may not have completed their circuit yet, but since none of them were answering their radios, Ellen had a feeling they wouldn’t.
“Let’s take a look around,” said Alexander.
They undid their seatbelts and exited the vehicle, Ikkei pulling the keys out of the ignition, and the SUV’s rumbling engine fell quiet. While the other four Jokers went to investigate the abandoned guard post, Ellen’s focus was drawn to the blinking red light at the tip of the tower’s spire.
Through the gaps in its outer shell of wrought iron and concrete and glass elevator shafts, she glimpsed the faintly-glowing marble obelisk sheltered within—the last remnant of a time nearly forgotten, reduced to myth. Once, the obelisk stood free, like a giant polished tusk jutting out of the earth.
What a shame, she thought, to smother it this way.
According to legend, people used to come here to pray to the Stars—not the twinkling spheroids of hot gas dotting the sky, but some kind of deities. They believed the tower to be a bridge between this world and theirs. Between the mundane and magical realms. These days, people came hoping that, if they could get close enough, they would be granted magical ability. A deadly misconception. All anyone ever got by sneaking onto the grounds was blighted.
The Reemergence ushered in two breeds of magic. There was pure magic, the kind wielded by Empowered that allegedly stemmed from a celestial realm known as the Domain, and then there was Void magic. It did not grant humans extraordinary ability, nor could it work miracles or instill wonder. It was a vile, malevolent force hailing from the underworld of its namesake, seeping into Hildegrand like a noxious gas, and those who fell victim to its poison became its puppets. Monsters on strings.
Empowered had a natural resilience to the Void’s lethal emissions. For unempowered persons, however, entering the tower grounds was like walking into a radioactive hot zone. Which, Ellen supposed, made her the radiation detector. The others couldn’t feel it as they passed through the open gate—this chill in the atmosphere. Not a real physical sensation; rather, a magical one.
Gave her goosebumps all the same.
The tower grounds were mostly concrete. A broad two-tiered expanse of it skirted the structure—pockmarked and stained, explosions ghosted on the surface. Barren flowerbeds hugged the inner wall created by the upper tier, divided into even strips by unoccupied benches and informational plaques.
It was a phantom of a place, a wound in the middle of the bustling downtown. An eerie reminder of an event few wanted to remember, and an event they would not soon forget.
As the Jokers crested one of the shallow ramps to the upper tier, Aryel pointed across the way. “Bodies.”
Ellen’s heart skipped when she saw them.
Half a dozen bodies lay sprawled on the concrete, decked out in gray fatigues and magic-repellent gear. Gear that should have warded off the darkness, should have saved them from the blight. Yet their skin was streaked with blackened veins, their eyes had turned to little pools of night, and ink trickled thickly from their mouths.
Void ink. There was more of it around them, large splatters of the stuff.
“Are those . . . Inkblots?” asked Ellen with regard to the splatters. Whereas blight was a disease produced by the Void feeding on an individual’s misery, Inkblots were the bestial manifestations of human malice that spawned from a host’s body. Commit enough atrocities and it wouldn’t matter if you came in contact with its poisonous emissions—the Void would consume you and spit an Inkblot out in your place.
“They were,” answered Ikkei. “Looks like someone beat us to the punch.” It had to be someone Empowered. Conventional weapons were useless against Inkblots, and anti-magic tech couldn’t eradicate them either. Only magic could. Ikkei toed a puddle with his boot, sending a ripple through it. “Must’ve just missed them.”
“They killed the guards, too.” Naomi crouched by the body of a woman. She’d pulled off her helmet, revealing the holes in it to be the entrance and exit of a tunnel carved through her skull—and it was blood, not ink, caked in her hair.
Bright crimson, the color of a life not yet lost to the Void.
Upon further examination, they discovered two of the guards had succumbed to the Void’s poison, and of those still bleeding red when they died, only one had been killed by a blighted comrade—his throat ripped out, the missing chunk in the other’s teeth. The rest had been needlessly executed.
Three lives lost because somebody took matters into their own hands. Because no one else knew they could have been saved.
Alexander took out his phone and put Elizabeth on speaker. “We found the guards outside the tower—all blighted, all dead—along with . . . seven, maybe eight Inkblot puddles,” he reported. “Looks like some Empowered vigilante got here first.”
Elizabeth muttered something on the other end of the line. “The guards, were they bitten?” she asked.
“No. Gear malfunction, maybe.”
“Or the emissions have gotten stronger. We’ve had four more calls since you left. More blightings, Inkblot attacks. Ellen, what are you feeling?”
“I’m not detecting a significant increase yet,” she said. “It is getting colder, though.”
The Reemergence didn’t occur in an instant, either. It began with an outbreak, a mysterious sickness nobody could put a name to. Then came the freak accidents and ‘wild animal’ attacks, and things spiraled from there. Hikaru had once likened it to the buildup preceding a volcanic eruption.
Nobody saw it coming until it was too late.
“Alright. Get inside the tower and check on the Cavity,” instructed Elizabeth, sobered and brief. “That should give us confirmation.”
The call ended. They moved on in tense silence.
Elysian Tower’s base was a ring of inward-facing gift shops and cafes, the exterior of which was plastered in sun-bleached posters that showed the passage of time while the interior was a snapshot from the day of the disaster. Trash cans, tables, and chairs lay toppled. Scattered flyers and random belongings lost or discarded in the chaos littered the floor. And for Ellen, walking into it was akin to walking into a freezer. She instinctively rubbed her arms, though she knew it would do nothing to smooth her skin.
The chill was flowing out of the obelisk, from the two parallel archways carved in its sides. They followed the marble’s curvature, reminiscent of the nooks in trees where root met trunk, and led to a pair of narrow passageways that spiraled down, down, down into the earth.
Without delay, the Jokers began their descent.
The chill intensified the deeper they traveled, growing stronger and stronger until it changed—became something more than mild discomfort. This was tangible, vengeful rage plucking at the fibers of Ellen’s magic. It would be harassing the others, too, even if they couldn’t feel it.
Darkness preying on light. Hungry, relentless.
The tight confines of the passage eventually opened up. Ellen had visited this place twice prior, but it was no less breathtaking on the third visit. The luminous marble paths they walked swept away into an enormous underground cavern, bathing its black onyx walls in an ethereal glow. Sixty meters from domed ceiling to floor, and another ten meters to the bottom of the pit in its center.
That pit was the Cavity.
If the grounds could be compared to a radioactive hot zone, then Elysian Tower was the reactor, and the Cavity was its damaged core.
And there should not have been a boy standing at the rim.
The Jokers halted at the bottom of the path when they saw him. Tall and lanky with a mop of black hair and dark clothes, he could easily have blended in with the surrounding cavern, if the violet light pulsing under his boots hadn’t made a beacon out of him.
This guy had to be their vigilante.
“Come, Emberguard,” Alexander uttered the summon under his breath and two puffs of ember flashed in his hands, coalescing into a set of golden pistols. He leveled one at the boy as Ikkei, Naomi, and Aryel took up defensive positions beside Ellen. “Turn around. Slowly.”
At that, the triangular shapes atop the boy’s head that Ellen had mistaken for hair swiveled round. They were ears. Cat’s ears—the left one notched and pierced with a silver ring. As he turned to face the Jokers, the matching tail swept behind him, and Ellen realized who he was just as the word seethed through her brother’s teeth.
To the public, he was a troublemaker.
To the police, a wanted criminal.
But to Cardplay, Iori Ryone was known primarily as the Keeper of the Spade—an Empowered teenager in possession of a special kind of magic called a Suit. The stuff of legends, literally. Cardplay had been trying to coax him out of hiding for years. What was he doing here?
The briefest hint of alarm swept over the Keeper’s features, then his lips parted in a grin, exposing pointed upper canines. “Jokers. I was wondering when you’d show up.” His visible eye came to rest on Ellen, the other concealed by an eyepatch. “And I see you’ve brought one of your fledglings out to play.”
Alexander moved to block his view of Ellen, as if his very gaze might bore holes into her. For all they knew, it could. The true extent of his powers was unknown; partially due to the legends being thin and roughly translated, but mainly due to his not aligning perfectly with the information they had gathered on the Spade.
“I should’ve known it was you.” Alexander brought his second pistol to bear when the Keeper chanced a step forward. “Disengage your magic and get down on the ground.”
“What, you think this is my doing?”
“The Void-wielding Keeper of the Spade turns up in the Cavity at the start of an influx. Do you seriously expect me to believe this is a wrong place, wrong time scenario?”
The Keeper’s grin faltered. That was what set his magic apart not just from the storied Spade, but from all other Empowered as well. The Suits were said to be pure creations, yet most of his abilities utilized the same ink that bled from Blighted veins and formed the bodies of Inkblots. “I have been accused of many things, but that,” he said, “that takes the cake.”
“If you’re not involved, then you should have no problem surrendering,” challenged Naomi.
“Except that would be boring.”
“We’re not here to play games,” Ikkei growled. “You have two options: you can either come with us to Cardplay Headquarters willingly, or we can drag you there ourselves. What’ll it be?”
“Option three,” proposed the Keeper. “If you want me . . . come and get me.” He threw his arms out wide, and Ellen felt the darkness flare when he called upon the legendary Suit. “Awaken, Bloody Spade.”
Ribbons of light enveloped his body, violet like the glow under his feet, and came together to form a uniform—not over his current clothes, but in place of them, rewinding the old threads into a new shape. Leather boots, gloves, pants, and a cropped jacket embossed with a dark purple spade. A full transformation, unique to his Suit.
“Wait,” Ellen pleaded, stepping out from her brother’s shadow and into the Keeper’s view once more. “You don’t have to fight us. We can talk this over!”
If the Keeper was going to respond, Alexander didn’t give him a chance. He opened fire, and the rest of the First Classers summoned their weapons.
“Come, Dynamo,” said Naomi.
“Come, Magnelink,” boomed Ikkei.
“Come, Frostweaver,” yelled Aryel.
A pair of electrified whips, magnetic chains, and a staff materialized in their respective owner’s hands, and the three of them launched into battle. When Ellen went to follow, Alexander put his arm out, the barrels of his pistols still smoking.
“Stay here,” he ordered.
As her brother ran off to join his teammates, Ellen retreated a few reluctant paces and watched the fight unfold in front of her.
Frost and fire and ink and electricity filled the cavern. Naomi’s whips fizzled through the air, thunderous cracks punctuating every missed strike. Onyx shards burst upward when Ikkei’s chains missed their target and thrashed the cavern floor instead. The Keeper’s ink froze under Aryel’s frigid spell, but broke free in time to block a flurry of non-lethal incendiary rounds from Alexander’s pistols.
The Keeper was nimble on his toes—back-flipping, somersaulting, leaping, diving—aided by the magic at his heels, making him an almost impossible target to hit. Swells of ink rushed to his defense, blocking attacks faster than the Jokers could deliver them.
Bullets, punches, whips, ice, chains.
Both parties were fighting with restraint. The goal was to incapacitate and apprehend the Keeper of the Spade, not to kill him, and it seemed he had no intention of harming the Jokers either. He was on the defensive, gradually working his way towards Ellen—towards the ramp—but the Jokers had him surrounded. Boxed in. The only direction he had left to go was up, and when he glanced at the lofty ceiling, she could tell he was planning to make a break for it.
Finding him at this time, in this place—it couldn’t be mere coincidence. If he was somehow involved with the influx, they couldn’t afford to lose him here.
There has to be something I can do . . .
Then it dawned on her: there was, and it was something only she could do. Ellen held out her hand as she’d done countless times in training, her fingers splayed and waiting, and from her lips, a whispered summon fell.
“Come, Scarlet Gem.”
A few motes of light winked into being, first dozens and then hundreds and thousands of them. They funneled into a long, curved pole—an ornamented bone-white snath with a great crescent blade mounted on top. A scythe, half a foot longer than she was tall. However, the blade it carried was deceiving. To any entity mundane or pure, the red crystalline edge that gave Scarlet Gem its name was blunter than a butter knife. But the purpose of this weapon was not to harm.
Its purpose was to reap.
Ellen dashed into the fray, adrenaline coursing through her veins, barely registering Alexander’s shout for her to wait as she bolted past him.
The Keeper spotted her, raised a barrier of ink, and with a broad swing of her scythe, Ellen did what the others could not . . . and split it. Cleaved a line down the middle. Like the captured Inkblots she had fought in the training arena, every ounce of ink her blade touched dissolved into light. And for a moment, amidst the shower of ink globules and glittering ruby particles, their eyes locked.
This was how she disguised her secret—the ability to extinguish Void matter, to purify it—in plain sight. Same as Naomi’s whips, Aryel’s staff, Alexander’s pistols, and Ikkei’s chains, Ellen was able to channel her cleansing energy through her weapon, up the snath and into its blade.
She twisted the scythe in her grip, readying to carve another line in his barrier. But the Keeper found his footing and pushed forward—not back, as she would have expected—and before she could complete her swing, he snagged her wrist and launched into the air, hauling her up with him.
“You want to talk?” he sneered. “Let’s talk.”
His ink ballooned to envelope them both, and the last thing Ellen heard as the world plunged into darkness was her brother crying out for her.
It was twinkly, as if played on the metal prongs of a music box somewhere in the unseen distance. A haunting, somewhat poignant melody ushering her back into the world. However, not the one she left. This place was brighter than the Cavity, yet bleaker. Fog and gray stone for as far as she could see, which wasn’t far at all due to the density of the fog.
The Void’s chill was different here, too. Neither vengeful nor vile, there was a heaviness to it, a kind of desperation in the way it ebbed and flowed against her own magic. Pulling, needing, longing.
It felt ill.
It looked ill.
The fog cleared from the center outward, revealing an engraved pattern in the floor. Two concentric circles, intricate knots within, and positioned at intervals outside it were three free-standing gates to nowhere. Each gate’s iron bars clutched a symbol fashioned from crystal: a diamond from yellow diamond, a heart from ruby, and a glowing club from emerald. The heart and diamond were unlit.
Past the gates lay a sparse forest. Black calla lilies wilted under dead and leafless trees, petals crisp and begging for moisture. And as if this place wasn’t already strange enough, dislodged chunks of land floated weightless in the fog-laden emptiness beyond the unmoored mass Ellen stood upon, anchored to it by gnarled roots.
Am I dreaming? she wondered. Or am I . . .
As if he’d predicted what her next thought would be, the Keeper spoke, offering reassurance. “Don’t worry, you’re not dead.”
She turned and found him where a fourth gate might have stood, draped instead over a throne sculpted from the same gray stone that made up much of the terrain. Boots kicked up on the arm, tail swishing in the dust at its base. A shining spade of amethyst was set into the throne’s back above him.
“Where are we?” asked Ellen, a tremor creeping into her voice. With her initial bewilderment wearing off, panic was beginning to set in.
The Keeper rose from his throne, and with a sweeping gesture, presented the place to her with an ostentation unbefitting of its decayed state. “Welcome,” he said, “to my domain.”
She blinked in disbelief. “This is the Domain?”
No, it couldn’t be. This wasn’t the heavenly realm described in the legends. Where was the shining tower, the silver-foil leaves, the stardust-sprinkled atmosphere? Where were the rolling clouds of white against a backdrop of perpetual night?
“Well, not the Domain. A part of it, I think,” the Keeper amended. “A glimpse, I should say.” He descended from the dais and sauntered towards her. “See, we’re not actually here, you and I. Believe me, if I could jump into an alternate world, I wouldn’t be living in ours.”
“Then, how are we here?”
He tapped his temple with a gloved finger. “This is a dreamscape,” he said. “It’s all in your head. Or mine. I’m not sure, to be honest. This is the first time I’ve brought another person’s consciousness along for the trip.”
“You mean . . . our bodies are still in the Cavity?”
Ellen’s pulse quickened, picturing herself there—unconscious in that big black ball of ink, Alexander frantic to free her. “Take me back,” she demanded.
“So soon? I thought you wanted to chat.”
“Not like this!”
The Keeper paused as he rounded her left side, bending to coo in her ear, “You know that when I leave here, I’m gone. That’s why you swooped in, despite being a fledgling not long from the nest. So if you have something to say, now’s the time to say it.” He resumed pacing. “I am giving you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Better not waste it.”
He was right, no other Joker had been granted a one-on-one with the Keeper of the Spade. She couldn’t let panic drive her from this. What was it Alexander said about courage? Even though her heart was pounding, even though her knees had turned to jelly, she had to face this.
She focused on the melody still playing in the background, used it to ground herself. “You said you’re innocent, right? If you come to Cardplay with us, you can prove it.”
“Was I not clear? I’m not going anywhere with you people.”
“We’re not a threat to you.”
The Keeper rolled his eye. “Oh, please. We don’t mean you any harm—that’s what they all say, right before they drive the knife into your back.”
“You’re not exactly the epitome of trustworthiness yourself,” Ellen countered. “Between the stealing and the Blighted you slaughtered—”
“Slaughtered is a bit of a hefty word.”
“Those people didn’t have to die.”
“They were practically dead already. I just put them out of their misery.” The flippant manner with which he spoke of them struck a chord in Ellen and a new emotion rose to surpass her fear, red-hot and burning. “Besides, if I hadn’t killed them, they would have—”
“If you hadn’t killed them, I could have saved them!” she blurted out, clapping her hands over her mouth when she realized what she’d let slip.
The Keeper stopped pacing, his brows pulling into a frown. “What?” was all he asked—was all he had the chance to ask.
A golden bullet slammed into his abdomen, embers bursting at the point of impact. The dreamscape evaporated, engulfing Ellen briefly in fog before throwing her violently back into the Cavity and the swirling ink sphere.
Only now it was breaking.
The Keeper’s fingers were ripped from her wrist as the bullet’s momentum carried him away, his awakening uniform unraveling in a gleaming flurry of ribbons. But without him to hold her aloft, Ellen could feel the familiar tug of gravity again. Her stomach leapt to her throat, and she fell. For one startling moment, she was plummeting through the air with the last notes of that melody still chiming in her subconscious.
Then a blast of cold—true cold—enveloped her, and she landed hard on a bed of frost woven by Aryel’s cryogenic magic while the Keeper went rolling across the floor, blood streaking behind him. There for a second and gone the next, a black and violet blur streaking up the spiraling ramp.
“Ikkei, Naomi—after him!” barked Alexander, and they took off, their sprint a snail’s pace compared to the Keeper’s.
Ellen lifted a hand to her forehead, the dreamscape song fading, fading, and forgotten, swallowed by the fog now clouding her brain.
Her brother dropped to a knee at her side. “Ellen, are you okay? Did he hurt you?” When she didn’t immediately respond, he grabbed her by the shoulders. “Ellen.”
She shook her head to clear it. “I’m—I’m okay.”
“What did he do to you?”
“Uh, Alex,” Aryel interrupted, an edge of unease in his tone. His back was to them, attention held by something in the pit. Alexander hauled Ellen from the melting frost and the pair of them joined him at the rim, expecting to see the widened cracks indicative of an influx.
The Cavity had always borne fissures, and it was when those fissures split open in the Reemergence that the Void’s toxic emissions had been released. Patching them wasn’t an option as they spread far beyond the Cavity, to limits unknown and depths unreachable. This was merely the one place they could be observed. But it was impossible to tell just how much wider they had grown past the undulating blackness below.
Inkblots—masses of them, all clamoring for purchase at the walls of the pit. A heap of snapping jaws, wet claws, and guttural vocalizations. Already too many to count, and more were oozing out of the cracks.
Alexander got on the phone, consternation lending an unnatural evenness to his tone when he delivered the news:
“Elizabeth? We have confirmation.”
CHAPTER SIX [BONUS]
MAY 22 | UPPER DISTRICT
Life in Hildegrand continued unaffected by the rise in blightings and Inkblot attacks. Students still took their sketchy shortcuts home from school, the street market was busy as ever, and, as always, there was a long line outside Doreen’s Mobile Ammolitian Cuisine.
The dinner rush.
Smoke and steam plumed from the food truck’s exhaust fan, carrying delectable scents of steak and lemon and salmon.
Fresh off a hectic first shift, Ellen joined the line. When she left headquarters, Tatiana and Soren had been ghosts of themselves. Even the experienced Jokers—First Classers like Yusuf Budak, Iris Makri, Oskar Trey, and Sabaa Faizan, who fought in the Reemergence—were being run ragged. But the fact anyone was able to go home tonight was a miracle in itself. A positive sign.
Retrieving her phone from her purse, Ellen selected her brother from the contacts list and sent him a text message.
Ellen: Hiii I’m at Doreen’s. Any requests for dinner?
The line moved, and she shuffled forward.
A minute later, bzzzt-pling.
Alexander: Preferably something that won’t turn to mush when reheated.
Ellen: Are you going to be late?
Alexander: Yeah. Chief Gardner called; got a report of a suspicious figure sneaking into that condemned apartment complex on Crownview. Could be a hideout. Ikkei and I are headed there now. I’ll text you when I’m on my way home.
Ellen: Oh! Okay. Good luck!
The condemned apartment on Crownview? That wasn’t far from Doreen’s—two kilometers at most. Weird to think the Keeper might have been squatting in their neighborhood. Even weirder to think he was still on the move twenty-four hours after being shot.
Finally, it was Ellen’s turn in line. She placed her order at the window, paid and tipped, then moved aside to wait. Her phone buzzed again, again, again—rapid fire. It was Tatiana, yelling in all caps about her empty fridge and how she was going to starve to death.
Ellen was typing out a similarly melodramatic message of condolence when she overheard a group of high schoolers talking nearby.
“Let’s take Terrace,” said the tallest of them, who had joined the others a few moments earlier. “There’s some creep lurking on Pine.”
“What kind of creep?” asked another.
“Guy was wearing a tail. Looked buzzed out of his mind.”
“But Terrace is so much longer,” whined a third.
“I’m not going to risk getting murdered by a furry just to shave ten minutes off a walk.”
A tail? thought Ellen. That can’t be a coincidence.
“Sixteen!” hollered the woman from the food truck.
Ellen’s order number. She collected her bag of steaming foam containers and set off towards home—except, rather than her usual route, she veered onto Pine Street.
It was a lonesome little side street, used mainly by cyclists and pedestrians. Narrow, neglected, dotted with potholes. Weeds sprouted from the sidewalk, and the telephone poles were plastered so thickly with flyers that you couldn’t see the wood underneath anymore.
Even narrower alleyways branched off, a dingy maze tucked into the otherwise lustrous upper district. Ellen peered into them as she passed, scanning the tight spaces for any sign of this tail-wearing creep the teen had seen.
Empty, empty, empty, emp—
There, in the gap between a dumpster and a jutting ventilation shaft, something moved—a leg drawn inward by a hooded figure trying to hide in the shadows. If he had a tail, Ellen couldn’t see it from here, but she didn’t need to. She could feel the Void’s telltale chill spilling out from his hiding place.
She took one cautious step toward him, then another. “Excuse me,” she said, pretending to be no more than a concerned passerby. “Do you need help?”
He angled his face away when she leaned into the alley, not realizing he’d already been made. “Buzz off,” he muttered with a curl of his upper lip—a look of disdain, maybe, or a grimace. This close, Ellen could make out the bloodstains on his clothes. The lower half of his shirt was soaked through, and darker stains striped his pantleg.
“Alexander got you good, huh?”
Now his lips twisted into a sneer. “No shit. Come to finish the job?”
“No.” She hadn’t wanted him to get hurt in the first place. “I want to help,” she said.
“Sure you do.”
He was incredulous, and rightfully so. Cardplay hadn’t exactly given him reason to trust them. But he was in need of medical attention, and an Empowered boy with unruly magic like his couldn’t be treated at a hospital. On her phone, Ellen closed off Tatiana’s texts and reopened the contacts list.
“What are you doing?”
“Calling Cardplay’s infirmary.” She scrolled to Dr. Fornell’s name, but before she could hit the call button, an inky tendril whacked her phone out of her grasp. It went skittering across the concrete. “What the hell was that for?”
The Keeper folded in on himself, chest heaving as the tendril retreated into his sleeve. “If you think I’m going anywhere near Cardplay Headquarters . . . you are dimmer than you look.” The words came out more breath than voice. Using magic in his state was a gamble; he was lucky it hadn’t rendered him unconscious. Although, that would have made things easier for Ellen.
“I told you, we won’t hurt you,” she said, and went to retrieve her phone.
“One of you already did,” he reminded her.
Fair point. She brushed the grit from her phone’s screen, now spider-webbed with cracks, and held the power button to check if it was still alive. The screen remained black. It was dead, and the snippy gunshot victim who busted it wouldn’t be alive for much longer either if his wound wasn’t seen to.
If he couldn’t go to a hospital and wouldn’t go to the infirmary, that left one far from ideal option. What choice did she have? Forget the fact that he was the Keeper of the Spade, a potentially invaluable asset to Cardplay, he was a human being with a beating heart and she would never forgive herself if she let him bleed out in the street.
“Would you let me patch you up?” she proposed, pocketing the phone.
The Keeper eyed her skeptically. “Do you have any idea how to treat a wound this deep?”
“I’ve taken a first aid course. It’s part of our training.” The course didn’t cover injuries this severe, but she’d learned how to control bleeding, disinfect, and suture. “Please,” she persisted, extending her hand to him. “Let me help you. My house isn’t far.”
He regarded her with reluctance, then his bloodstained shirt with defeat. He must have realized how slim his odds of survival would be if he refused, because he gave in and took her hand. “If this is a trick . . .”
“No funny business, I promise.” Ellen pulled him to his feet, catching him when he pitched forward—too weak to stand on his own. She looped one arm around his waist while he draped his over her shoulder, and then they were off, hobbling to the discordant beat of bagged takeout containers bouncing off Ellen’s hip.
This is going to be a long walk.
It was true, the Jane residence wasn’t far from Pine Street. What Ellen had neglected to mention was that half the journey was uphill, turning a short stroll into a twenty-minute slog, and by the time they came upon her house, the Keeper’s near-dead weight was almost too much to bear. Her calves burned and her right arm tingled, the circulation cut off by the bag hanging from her elbow.
Just a little farther . . .
She kicked open the gate to the back yard. Only the outdoor lights were on. Alexander wasn’t home yet, thankfully, but with her phone caput, she had no way of knowing when he would be. With any luck, this would be a quick job and she’d have the Keeper in and out before he returned.
“You live here?” The Keeper was ogling the house.
“It’s my parents’ house,” she told him. Well, was.
The large single-family home was situated in what people commonly referred to as the rich district. Neither Ellen nor Alexander were in a high income bracket themselves—Jokers earned a living wage—but their parents had been, and what wealth she and her brother did have was inherited from them, along with the house.
They shambled across the yard to the patio. Ellen punched in a code to unlock the sliding glass door and hauled the Keeper quickly indoors. “Lights on,” she called into the darkened house, and the dining room and kitchen lit up.
“It’s a smart home, too,” the Keeper jeered.
Ellen hefted the takeout bag onto the dining table, freeing herself from its binds. The handles left deep grooves in her arm. She shook it out, encouraging blood to flow back to the extremities. “We’ve got a staircase to climb. Can you manage it?”
Even his reply sounded heavy. “Why not the kitchen?”
“Because if my brother comes home and finds you here, he will finish the job,” she said. And lecture me into an early grave. “The bathroom’s upstairs. Everything I need is there, and it’s right next to my room. We can hide you in there if we have to.”
The Keeper made no more objections. They carried on to the front hall and began their arduous climb to the second floor, heading straight into the bathroom when they reached the top. Ellen lowered him onto the tiled floor. Without him weighing her down, she felt as though she might float away.
She fetched the first aid box from the medicine cabinet, then got on her knees. Seeing the Keeper in the light surrounded by all this polished whiteness . . . There was so much blood. The stains had spread since they left the alley and were still spreading now.
Ellen took a calming breath. “Okay, let’s get this shirt off.”
The Keeper seemed hesitant. “Is that really necessary?”
“Is this really the time to be self-conscious?”
He rolled his visible eye and shrugged off his jacket. “Our second meeting and she’s already asking me to strip.”
Ignoring the witty commentary, Ellen took a pair of scissors to his tank top. She cut a line from hem to neckline and parted the two halves, but it wasn’t the sloppy patch-up job underneath that caught her attention—it was the jagged ink-black slash across his chest, woven with thick scar tissue.
A Void mark. Reminiscent of an Inkblot bite, only without the tooth marks and ensuing blight.
“It’s rude to stare.”
The Keeper’s mutter snapped Ellen out of her trance, and a prickly combination of guilt and embarrassment flooded her cheeks. “Sorry.” Judging by the downward angle of his ears, the mark was a source of discomfort. Or shame. She shifted her focus to the mound of gauze packed onto his abdomen and began snipping through the tape holding it in place.
Don’t ask about the mark.
Don’t ask about the mark.
Don’t ask about the mark.
“How did you get that?” she asked, about the mark. In haste, she added, “If you don’t mind saying, I mean. I don’t want to pry.”
“Oh, yes, you do.”
She couldn’t help it. She was infinitely curious, and this boy had an abundance of curiosities about him. Cat ears, cat tail, fangs, a weird scar, and an unsolved mystery behind his eyepatch. Did he have an eye there, false or real, or was it an empty socket? “Talking might distract you from the pain,” she said.
“Nice try, but the pain is beginning to subsi—” The Keeper gasped and lashed out for something to hold. Found the towel rack.
All Ellen had done was tug a piece of tape.
“You were saying?”
“Just get on with it,” he growled.
Once Ellen had removed the tape, she peeled off the sodden gauze, slopped it into the trash bin, and recoiled at the wound she’d unearthed. “That . . . doesn’t look great.” The whole area was inflamed, an obvious and angry red even under the blood.
“The bullet’s still inside.”
Ellen gawked at him. “You’re kidding,” she said, although she knew he wasn’t. Alexander’s bullets dematerialized along with Emberguard when dismissed, except in the presence of Void magic, which the Keeper was brimming with. “I am not pulling a bullet out of you. Do you realize how risky that is?”
“I’ll be fine once it’s out.”
Fine? Was this guy serious? “Bullet wounds can’t magically heal themselves.”
“The Spade gives me an accelerated healing ability. So yes, actually, they can,” he said. “It’s repaired some of the damage—hence my current state of living—but it can’t seal the wound while the bullet is in there because your brother’s magic is blocking mine. If you want to help me, get it out.”
“Okay.” Ellen wrung her hands. “Okay, okay, okay . . .” Bullet extraction was not covered in the course. “Hold on a sec.” She ran downstairs to the kitchen, to the fridge, and pulled open the freezer drawer. First aid kits didn’t come equipped with any kind of local anesthetic. Frozen vegetables would have to do. Grabbing a bag at random, she hurried back to the bathroom and dropped it in the Keeper’s lap.
He raised a brow. “Cauliflower?”
“To numb the site.”
While he inched the icy bag onto his abdomen, hissing, Ellen delved into the box again.
She grabbed a cloth from the cabinet, wet it and hung it on the side of the sink, and washed her hands vigorously to the count of twenty. Sterilization was imperative. Dr. Fornell had driven that point home.
“It’s Iori, by the way,” the Keeper said.
“My name. I figure you might as well use it since we’re getting so intimate.”
Once her hands were clean, Ellen slipped on the surgical gloves and knelt in front of the Keeper. Iori. Her patient. Mom wouldn’t believe this—me, playing doctor in the bathroom. Ellen almost couldn’t believe it herself. She gave the tweezers a test click, as you would a set of tongs. “Ready? This is going to hurt. A lot.”
Iori readjusted his grip on the towel rack and set the makeshift ice pack of cauliflower florets aside. “Can’t be worse than my attempt.”
“If you say so.” A fresh stream of blood trickled out when she spread the wound, causing him to flinch. “Alright. Going in,” she said, and slowly inserted the tweezers.
One centimeter. Two. Three.
His knuckles went white on the rack.
Ellen pushed deeper, deeper, and deeper still, eliciting a groan from Iori, trailed by a string of foreign curses. “Sorry. Hang in there.” Another push, and the tweezers bumped into something solid. That had to be it. She took hold of the object, withdrew the tweezers. “And . . . got it!” Out came the bullet, pulsing a fiery yellow in the tweezers’ metal grips.
Then, it disintegrated. Free from the container of Void magic that was the Keeper’s body, the bullet turned to embers and flittered out of existence.
Iori pressed his head to the wall, breaths short and shallow and slowing as the pain from the extraction ebbed. The bleeding had stopped, but the hole remained open.
“How long should it take to heal?” asked Ellen.
“It’s accelerated, not instantaneous.” Iori ran trembling fingers through sweat-dampened curls, his eyelid fluttering. He looked on the verge of passing out. “Takes longer when my energy is low.”
Ellen fished a suture kit out of the box. “Would a few stitches help?”
“Why on earth do you have a suture kit?”
“Never know when you might need one.” She unpacked the kit, laid her tools out on a clean towel. Ellen had been prepared to suture a wound when she brought him here and was oddly excited to test her skills in a real situation. Dr. Fornell had praised her work in suturing fruits and chicken breast.
“What are the odds,” said Iori, “that one Jane shoots me and the other mends the wound?”
With the needle threaded, Ellen went in for the first knot of an interrupted suture. These were easiest, she’d learned, and left room for adjustments. “I didn’t mention who my brother was.”
“The hair is a dead giveaway.”
The trait came from their father’s side of the family. Snow-white hair from head to toe was the predominant trait of the Thulian people from the far north region of Ammolitia and was rare in Amberlye. Alexander’s fans were enamored with his frosted lashes and brows. Ellen got the darker set from their Amethistian mother.
“So what’s your name, Jane?”
“Ellen.” Iori tested the name on his tongue a couple of times, each repeat a little softer than the last, and Ellen had to wonder if he was getting delirious. Between the pain, exhaustion, and blood loss, she wouldn’t be surprised.
She tied off the last knot and sat back on her heels to assess her work. Not bad for her first real suture. She binned her gloves and the stained cloth, then took a roll of bandages and wrapped them snugly around his slim waist. “There, done.”
Only step left is to make it look like none of this happened.
Rising to the sink, she soaped up a nailbrush and scrubbed her tools under the hot tap. Reddish soapsuds swirled down the drain. “Is there anyone I can call for you—a friend? Rideshare?”
Iori frowned at the opposing wall. “Nope.”
“You do have somewhere to go after this, don’t you?”
“I’ll figure something out.”
In other words, no. Obviously. The police were hunting for him in tandem with Cardplay, scouring the city for his latest hideout, and chances were, that old apartment complex her brother had gone to investigate was it. It was too coincidental that she would find him hiding in an alley not two kilometers away.
How could Ellen, in good conscience, let him leave knowing that? Even if he managed to evade capture, if he had nowhere to convalesce, he could wind up dead anyway, and her efforts would have been for naught. But she couldn’t let him stay here, either. Alexander would never allow it.
Unless . . .
Alexander didn’t have to know.
The thought of keeping a secret of this magnitude from her brother made Ellen feel all kinds of terrible, and he would be livid if he found out, but the thought of accidentally condemning a person to death was worse. Before she could stop herself, the offer was out: “You could stay here. I have a walk-in closet and a sleeping bag you could borrow.”
“Me, stay at the Jane residence? Funny.” Using the sink and towel rack for support, Iori hauled himself off the floor. “I’ll find a place on my own.”
“Wait, you’re leaving now?” This guy must think he’s invincible. “You can barely stand. You won’t make it ten feet off the property—if you can even get out of the bathroom.”
“Watch me.” Iori let go of his supports, took two steps toward the door, and promptly collapsed against the frame. Another reel of curses sputtered from his lips, in Amethistian this time. Never in her seventeen years of life had Ellen met such a relentlessly stubborn human being.
She turned off the taps. “Why are you like this?”
“I offer you a place to stay—”
“—and you’d rather go wander the streets while the police and Cardplay are searching for you?” She watched him for a moment, trying and failing to get a leg under him. When she couldn’t bear it anymore, she abandoned her tools and went to assist. “A Joker’s house is the last place they would look.” She linked her arm with his. “No one would suspect it. Please, stay.”
On his feet again, Iori cast his gaze into the hallway. He may have been giving Ellen’s offer further consideration, or giving her the cold shoulder. She couldn’t tell. It was impossible to read the expression of a person who lacked the energy to emote beyond tired and frustrated.
“You can trust me,” she said.
Iori tested his stability, swayed, and fell back to the frame. Sighed. “Which way to your room?”
Taking on his weight once more, Ellen led him to the first room on the right, hitting the light switch as they entered. It was spacious, all pastel colors and faux vines and fairy lights. The balcony curtains billowed inward. She must’ve left the screen open when she left this morning.
“That’s how you get burgled,” Soren had told her, more than once.
She sat Iori on the ottoman at the foot of her bed, opposite the walk-in closet, and presented it to him. “Ta-dah,” she sang. It wasn’t anything spectacular; three feet wide, six feet deep. The right wall bare, the left obscured by clothes and shoes and boxed knickknacks.
“It’s a closet, alright,” Iori observed flatly.
Would it kill you to be more enthusiastic? Ellen wondered, then retracted that thought. In his condition, it actually might. “Stay put,” she said. “I’ll get you a change of clothes.”
She slipped into Alexander’s room next door and went to his dresser, upon which a pocket watch sat on display—a polished thing of gold in a protective glass case, its intricately-designed hands long stilled. The antique timepiece used to belong to their father.
Ellen rifled through the dresser, careful not to disrupt her brother’s meticulously folded clothes. He wouldn’t notice if a couple of items went missing.
Alexander and Iori were roughly the same size. Height-wise, anyway. Build-wise, Iori was markedly thin and wiry and couldn’t weigh much more than Ellen did—which was somewhat disconcerting, bearing in mind the estimated five inches between them.
She grabbed a long-sleeved tee and a pair of joggers, shut the drawer, and returned to her room, pleased to find her patient where she’d left him. “Here, these should fit.” She placed the bundle on the ottoman, then considered Iori’s wound and lack of mobility. “Do you want me to he—”
“I can dress myself,” he cut in sharply.
“Okay, jeez.” Ellen went to the closet, grabbed the sleeping bag in the corner, and tried to ignore the sounds of the struggle going on behind her as she unrolled it. Boots thudded to the floor, fabric rustled. A belt jangled, jangled, jangled. Swears strewn throughout.
After a minute, Ellen stole a peek over her shoulder to see how he was making on, and what she saw gave her pause. Iori was perched on the side of the ottoman, his back to her, and from this angle, the scarring at the base of his tail was visible. Raised, rough, pink at the outer edges, and entwined with blackness where the furry appendage met his spine.
Another Void mark. Did he have them around his ears too?
What happened to you?
Not wanting to get caught staring a second time, Ellen busied herself with the sleeping bag, smoothing out its creases. In the absence of conversation, her mind wandered to their first encounter, to Iori’s repeated plea of innocence and the pressing question he hadn’t yet answered.
“Why were you there, at Elysian Tower?”
“Not for the reason you people assumed,” he said. “And I doubt you’d believe me if I told you.”
There was a whumph of clothes dropping to the floor, the rasp of more being pulled on. The next Iori spoke, he had a question of his own. “There is no evidence of magic emitting sound, is there?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” said Ellen. For that matter, there was no evidence of anyone feeling it either.
A thump, a tired exhale. “You can turn around.”
Ellen, kneeling on the sleeping bag, rotated on her knees to face Iori, now lying flat on the ottoman. Alexander’s clothes fit. Barely. The length of the sleeves and pants were right, but the copious amounts of fabric engulfed his body. “So, what, you can hear magic?”
“Mm. Thanks to these.” He pointed to his ears. “All magic has a hum. That hum fluctuates from person to person, based on the type and strength of their magic. But the noise that accompanies Void magic—in particular, an influx—is on another level entirely. And yesterday, the tower sounded the same as it did back then.”
On Reemergence Day.
“I was there,” Iori said, “because I wanted to see exactly what went down during the Reemergence, what an influx looks like up close—not because I had anything to do with it.” He shot her a sidelong glance. “If anyone is behind it, I’m betting my chips on Blackjack.”
“Blackjack?” echoed Ellen. They were a criminal organization, the most infamous and elusive in Hildegrand, suspected of abducting and indoctrinating vulnerable Empowered and experimenting with Void matter. Their Empowered members, their Players, were known to hunt Inkblots and Blighted. Where they took them, nobody knew. Both the HPD and Cardplay had been chasing them for years and were no closer to locating their den. “What makes you think it was them?”
“They knew too much. What I had, what I was. They called me Keeper before you did.” Iori’s hand went to his chest, to the scar now covered by a layer of cotton. “Do you remember the gates in my dreamscape?”
“My theory is that each one leads to another Keeper’s dreamscape. Diamond, Heart, Club.” He pointed thrice in the air, as if picturing the gates in front of him. “Until yesterday, all of them were locked. Now, with the Club gate open . . . It doesn’t take a genius to connect the dots. The Spade’s awakening preceded the first influx, the Club’s preceded the second.”
“That doesn’t explain how this is connected to Blackjack,” Ellen pointed out.
A distant look overtook Iori’s expression, like a part of him had drifted to some faraway place. “If they knew what I was, then they or someone among them must have been involved with the awakening of my Suit.”
“What are you saying?” Was he implying that the Spade’s awakening didn’t occur in and of itself, but rather, someone awoke it on purpose?
Just then, Iori’s ears perked at a noise unheard to Ellen. The next noise, though, came clearly and all too soon—the ping of the security system announcing a door had been opened.
“I’m home,” called Alexander from downstairs.
Ellen hadn’t finished cleaning the bathroom yet.
She sprung into action, kicked Iori’s boots and bloodstained clothes under the bed. “Get in the closet,” she instructed on her way out, “and be quiet about it.” She shut the door behind her, then hurried into the bathroom.
She wiped the sink, the towel rack. Tied the trash bag. Gathered up her tools and repacked the suture kit, cramming it and the scissors and bandages and unused gauze back into the first-aid box, and—
Startled, Ellen fumbled the box as she lifted it toward the medicine cabinet. She managed to regain her hold on it, then looked to her brother in the doorway. He cocked a quizzical brow at her.
“What? Yeah, no, everything’s fine.” She shoved the box into the cabinet. Definitely didn’t just pull one of your bullets out of a guy’s abdominal cavity in our bathroom. “I was getting a band aid for, uh. A blister. Dropped the box, that’s all.” She spotted a hazy smear of blood on the floor and casually slid her foot over it. “How did the search go?”
Alexander’s mouth quirked to the side, dissatisfied. “Crownview was a dead end. We found the items he stole from the market inside, but no Keeper, and the hounds lost his trail. Bastard’s always a step ahead of us.”
“Guess he’s in the wind.”
“He’s not getting away with this. The police haven’t called off their search, and we’re not about to throw in the towel either. We’re going to stop him—one way, or another.” Alexander turned and headed for his room.
There was a drop of venom in his tone that made Ellen uneasy. She may not have been the one he was seeking to sink his metaphorical fangs into, but she was harboring his prey, and she had no idea what he would do if he knew. She was exaggerating when she told Iori her brother would do what the bullet had failed to. Now, seeing this hunger in his eyes . . .
She had to clear Iori’s name. If his allegations were true, and she believed they could be, there were two Suits left sleeping—two more influxes on the horizon—and there was no telling what would happen when the last awoke. It could lead to another magical disaster. Another Cataclysm.
Somehow, she had to relay this information to Hikaru without divulging the fact she was hiding the Keeper of the Spade in her house. In her bedroom, no less. She would have to compose another lie, a cover story.
But that was a problem for the Ellen of tomorrow.
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