Chapter 51

It wasn’t until lunch that I was able to talk to Arial.

It’d been nearly a week since we had spoken more than a passing word- between training for the matches, Arial’s unavailability after school hours, and the events of the weekend, finding a spare moment was nearly impossible. Furthermore, since her personal interaction with Siri, any conversation was difficult to move past even the most basic of small talk- though she had been improving.

“Congratulations on the match,” I said, placing my tray down on the table and sitting next to her. “Happy to see you won! How have you been?”

“Of course I won,” she sniffed and rolled her eyes. “I was against a Bottom.”

She moved her food tray away from me and shifted a foot on the bench, staring straight ahead, then swept her hair to the side to form a curtain between us. For a moment she was silent, the muscles in her jaw working as she chewed, her lunch already three quarters of the way finished since I had arrived late.

“This isn’t the Bottom table,” she said to the air. “That would be over there.”

I swallowed then bit my lip, pausing. From anyone else, from a time before Siri, that statement would have warranted a harsh response. Growing up poor I had received my fair share of dismissive comments from those more fortunate, from people who could not see past class, or thought that their powers from birth made them inherently better than me. But hearing it from Arial as she held her nose high in the air, and her words still bore a slight slur of a person mildly intoxicated, I felt only concern. And I remembered when Siri had held a grasp on my mind, knowing first hand the complete lack of self awareness Arial now possessed.

“Fine,” I countered, standing up and placing a palm on the table. “But if you want me to leave, you’ll need to answer a question first.”

“I don’t have to do anything a Bottom tells me to do,” she huffed.

From across the lunch room, there was a shout, and Arial turned bright red as Blake’s voice cut through the buzz of conversations.

“Look at the two lovebirds! If I had standards that low, I’d be scouring the soup kitchen for dates! I suppose even devastating failure can’t stop true love!”

The Upper table erupted into laughter, and several chairs away Wendy whipped around to stare at Blake then us.

“I’m not-” Arial started, but then stopped and snapped at me, her brown eyes hard and no longer the inquisitive ones that had found me in the Rhododendron when we met. “Make it quick, and don’t come back.”

“Your father,” I started, crossing my arms in front in me as if they could block the words. “Does he still come by the school? What did he think when you told him you were starting full time.”

“Of course he isn’t happy, but he never was. At least here people care,” she answered. “He hasn't agreed of course- but he won't have much of a choice, since I said I would give Siri a report of him abusing me.”

“You did what?” I stuttered, my eyes widening.

“It was the only way to make sure he would let me start full time.” she said, “Besides, it’s for the best, and should never come to light. Is that all?”

“One more question. Remember that night I came over for dinner, and he had to leave in a rush? Is he still on that work assignment?”

“He won’t shut up about it, he’s obsessed," she answered. "Mother’s even concerned for his health. Either way, I don’t have to care about that anymore now that I'm not going back. Is that it?”

“Sure, that’s it. Just know that you’ve changed, Arial. This isn’t you.”

“Stop being a Bottom, then we can talk,” she retorted. “And if you’re an Upper, we can be friends. Then you can talk to me about change.”

Shaking my head, I left the table and sat with the other Bottoms in a cluster between Lucio, Darian, and Slugger, but still several feet away from the others.

“Nothin’ to be sad about lad,” comforted Slugger, putting a hand around my shoulder. “She’s cold hearted to be treating you like that. Not worth your time. Seems like everyone is this place is like this- practically obsessed.”

“Yeah, you could say that. It’s not her fault though. She’s different,” I said.

“That’s some bull shit, she snubbed you!” Slugger continued, and Lucio raised an eyebrow, .Don’t be giving any excuses for that. We have a word for that in the home tongue, wouldn’t welcome one like that in all of Ireland.”

“Alright, I’m just going to breach this subject now,” said Darian, cutting through the conversation, and pointing to Slugger, “What’s your deal?”

“My deal?” asked Slugger.

“Oh come on,” pestered Darian, rolling his eyes. “Do we have to spell it out?”

“What he’s trying to say,” interjected Lucio. “Is how come you aren’t affected by the singing like everyone else is?”

“The what?” asked Slugger, raising an eyebrow. "Are you drunk? Because if you are, you better be sharing."

“The singing,” pressed Darian. “I have a feeling you damn well know about it, so let’s hear it. Either that or move to the other side of the table.”

“Hold it, hold it, what’s with the aggression? You’re as bad as the Flier friend, lads.”

“Hate to say it Slugger, but I’m with Darian,” said Lucio. “I’ve known you for some time now, but it’s suspicious. Why aren’t you affected by the singing every night, by Siri’s words?”

“Those are words?” exclaimed Slugger, hitting himself in the forehead. “God, it’s like awful screeching, keeps me up sometimes but everyone else seems to sleep right through it. Worst music I have ever heard in my life, if you can even call it music. Makes sense that it comes from Siri, I thought she just screeched at you all during the day when she wasn’t happy. Anyways, when I get tired, it’s hard to understand the American accents, especially if they’re in a song. Guess I just never knew there was a message.”

Chapter 52

That afternoon was spent with instructor Cane again, along with several of his assistants who aided in demonstrating techniques. During the morning session we had learned the theory of moves I had seen Bottoms performing the week before- the steps required to perform a trip, or a throw, or the proper variations of stances. But studying a combination of moves was far different than actually performing them, and everyone who was new to Cane’s class found themselves stumbling every few steps, twisting and turning in ways more robotic than fluid, and catching the occasional accidental impact.

“God, Lucio, one more time and I’ll strangle you,” vented Darian, his voice nasally and his eyes watering as he clutched a hand to his nose. “You are supposed turn left, not right, and I swear your elbow might have broken cartilage this time.”

“Sorry!” exclaimed Lucio, winking at me as Darian wiped his eyes. “I just can’t seem to remember which way. I promise I’ll get it right next time.”

“You better,” came the response, as Darian returned to a stance and grabbed Lucio, acting out the motions as he spoke them. “Now it’s my turn. Ok, so left hand on the elbow, right hand under the armpit and up the back, twist and crouch!”

He ducked, spinning as his right arm lifted the much smaller Lucio high into the air, his feet following as they leapt off the ground. Darian caught him just before he landed on the practice mat, then lowered Lucio to the ground, still letting him fall the remaining six inches with a thud.

“Not bad,” I said from where Slugger was critiquing my stance, showing me the differences between staggered, square, and upright. “You're picking up on it quick.”

“Copying is my specialty,” he answered and threw Lucio again, harder this time, a flash of pain crossing Lucio’s face as one of his ankles landed off the mat and his breath whooshed out of his lungs. “And don’t even complain Lucio, that was payback. You should have paid attention this morning on how to fall.”

“It would help,” I interjected, glaring at the two of them as Slugger trotted away for a quick water break. “If neither of you injure yourselves before we go over the plan tonight. I’ll need you both in top shape- if things go south, we’ll need it.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Lucio, tapping his forehead. “Top secret plan, I get it. Hate to break it to you SC, but if you need me for anything on the more physical side of things, you’ll be out of luck. My strengths are up here.”

“I just don’t need you in a wheelchair, understood? You have to be mobile.”

“Truly happy that our interests align on that front. Hear that Darian- SC says you need to be more dainty. You should have dropped the macho man persona after you lost your match, eh?”

“On the contrary,” I countered. “We’ll be needing that even more. Tonight, at dinner, we’ll talk. Get a table far away from the others. And keep your voices down.”

“Done deal,” said Darian, as Slugger returned. “Until then, we’ll wait.”

“Wait for what?” asked Slugger, as he walked me through the steps again, pushing and pulling me through the motions.

“For our chance to not be Bottoms anymore,” concluded Lucio, which I suppose held some truth.

When dinner arrived, Lucio and Darian found a table on the far right, waiting until Slugger sat down elsewhere and removing all the chairs until only three were remaining. Lucio played with his food as he waited, while Darian’s plate was untouched, a fork standing straight up in the inferior food provided to Bottoms.

“Since you’ve promised a five star dinner,” he commented as I arrived. “I elected to wait to eat.”

“That I have, but not just yet.” I said, pulling out a chair and taking a seat, the food on my own plate jiggling as I set down my tray. “Tomorrow, actually, if we pull this off correctly. And right after dinner, so you have twenty five hours. Now, are we ready?”

They both nodded, and both leaned inwards as I started to explain- Lucio’s face growing more excited with each passing moment and Darian’s darkening.

“It’s all just a big trick!” exclaimed Lucio.   “Some well played mischief.”

“That’s the plan,” I said, “And if we do it right, no one will ever know.”

“But if this does come crashing down, and the illusion is caught, what then?” asked Darian.

“Shouldn’t matter to you, should it? By then you’ll be long gone.”

“True,” Darian answered, as Lucio’s expression fell, “I suppose I will.”

“There’s one condition I have,” demanded Lucio, and held up a hand, while both Darian and I waited.

“Yes?” Darian asked after a few seconds, and Lucio continued.

“If we pull this off, I own the film rights!”

Chapter 53

Chores arrived after dinner, in a far longer list than before, and interlaced with far nastier tasks. There were the bathrooms, which we had known were coming. But there were also items like taking out the dinner trash, which leaked through the bag in spurts with every other step, scrubbing down the cooking equipment until the coating of grease atop it now lived under our fingernails, and performing laundry for the entire rest of the facility.

Then there was also the opossum that had died over the weekend in the crawlspace, and whose removal had been appointed to Darian, though Lucio and myself came to watch.

“Oh that’s foul!” exclaimed Lucio as Darian dropped to all fours, shining a flashlight underneath the the building and poking a dark object several feet away with a stick. “SC, watching this is the exact type of break we needed. You’re going to have to touch it eventually Darian, and I bet that thing is like a bug pinata.”

“Screw that,” said Darian, and threw down the stick, backing out from the hole with a green face, holding the end of the stick that had touched the carcass far away. “SC, what do you say we move this plan forwards?”

“Not sure about that,” I answered. “I’d rather be more prepared, have another day to make sure we’ve thought it through.”

“Why not? Shouldn’t matter if it is today or tomorrow, and it’s pretty simple.”

“C’mon Darian,” interjected Lucio. “Don’t end our entertainment. SC, make him give it a few more pokes first!”

I gagged as a particularly foul wisp of wind escaped the crawl space, accompanied by several dozen flies that swarmed away like scrambled jets, and held a hand over my nose.

“Fine,” I said. “Let’s move. Front of the school by the main street, from there we’ll make moves. But at the first sign of trouble, we bail, understood?”

“Understood,” answered Darian. “Let’s go.”

The sun had started to set in the distance, casting long shadows over the academy, and allowing only the tips of brightness to stretch over the low wall. As we walked we carried tools for the chores- rakes, shovels, and wads of garbage bags to appear like we were busy, keeping our faces down and our shoulders slumped. We moved counterclockwise from the back of the school to the front, hugging the building, and ducking under the windows.

But once the gate was in sight, we stopped, seeing that someone had already beat us to the entrance.

He stood just outside the forcefield, with two squad cars filled with officers behind him, his finger jabbed towards the front steps of the school where another small party stood consisting of Peregrine, Siri, the two guards, and Arial.

"My daughter is coming home!” shouted Arial’s father, his voice slightly muffled by the shield, but still managing to maintain a hard edge. “Or the police will be forced to intervene!”

Taking Darian’s and Lucio’s arms, I dragged them back behind the corner of the school staircase before we could be seen, holding a finger to my lips.

“I’m sorry,” said Siri, a hand on Arial’s shoulder as she spoke. “But that would be Arial’s decision, would it not? And she has elected to stay with me.”

“Considering she’s a minor, the position does not lie with her.” retorted the Hunter. “I don’t have time for games, Siri. The police have overlooked your... operation, here, but if you force my hand we will act.”

“We, Art? You’re no member of the force, don’t start putting on airs. Besides, this is not a police issue as much as it is a child protection issue.”

“Absolutely ridiculous.” he sputtered. “An investigation would find nothing.”

“Oh? But it’s by her own word, Arial’s own admission. A sad story, really. She’s happy here, Art. Do you really want to disturb that? She’ll be home for the holidays, and I assure you she’ll be having the best of education, and a competent family to look after her.”

“You bitch!” shouted the Hunter, starting forward with several police officers, but behind Siri there was a flurry of movement as she rose her right hand. The bodies of Uppers streamed out from where the they had been hidden inside the door, clustering in front of her to form a small wall, and standing shoulder to shoulder with faces of stone.

“There’s no reason to be violent, Art,” continued Siri. “We’ll take great care of your daughter. And when she returns home, she’ll be reformed into the perfect citizen.”

“Arial!” shouted the Hunter as Siri turned. “Arial, come over here. We’re going home. Stop listening to her.”

Arial froze halfway through a turn, blinking, a confused expression flowing over her face.

“Arial!”commanded her father. “Now.”

“Don’t you dare, darling,” sang Siri, so softly I could hardly hear it, as the muscles in Arial’s jaw tightened. From where we stood I could see her legs shaking, and her breath coming in quick rising and falling motions. "Today, you belong here, with us."

“Arial!” shouted her father one last time. “I won’t repeat myself again! To me!”

Arial looked between her father and Siri, her eyes wide and afraid, her lips trembling, feeling the pressure on both sides mounting. Her father’s command versus Siri’s power. And caught like a marble between two hard walls, she escaped by flying away, leaping upwards with her hair streaming behind her, streaking towards the sky in a route that took her far away from both her father and Siri.

But Arial had never performed chores in the yard. When students like her from the outside arrived and departed, the force field bubble had been temporarily disabled. Now, flying at full speed at an angle to just clear the gate and the brick wall, she knew nothing of the invisible barrier between herself and the outside world.

Until she collided with it fifty feet above the ground.

And even from where we stood, I heard the crack as her head slammed to one side, and the bones in her neck snapped.

Chapter 54

Sparks flew from the dome as Arial collided, her body held stuck against the bubble for an instant in a scrunched position until her torso caught up, before collapsing as she began to drift downwards. Then to fall at full speed.

Her hair clouded the blood on her face as she tumbled through the air, her shirt fluttering as wind ripped across it, nothing separating her from the concrete drive below. He father watched open mouthed before throwing his shoulder against the bubble, staring up as she fell, his fingernails desperately trying to scratch through the force field.

My breath caught in my chest as I watched, my heart stopping, the spectacle washing over me like an Arctic ocean wave. I started to move but Darian gripped my shoulder, holding me back, and instead I raised my hand, generating a force point just above Arial.

Her head snapped backwards as she slowed, her body curving into a C shape with the low points her hair and her ankles, drifting downwards like a leaf in Autumn, the frozen crowd watching as she slid away from the concrete and to a patch of green just inside the edge of the forcefield. Gently she floated the remaining few feet, the blades of grass reaching up to accept her as she settled on them. Her father’s eyes widened as he looked to her then the school yard, staring directly to where I was hidden though I was cloaked by twilight, then flicked back to his daughter.

“Arial!” he shouted as she lay there and my throat tightened. “Arial!”

He turned to Siri, pounding his fist against the bubble.

“You bitch let me in! That’s my daughter!”

“Do no such thing, let her crash upon the rock.” Siri commanded to the guards, while the Uppers stood still. “Blake, fetch the school nurse.”

The Hunter’s howls increased in volume, his hands pawing through his typically perfect hair, ripping a clump away as he looked on Arial’s body. As he saw her chest still, with no breaths to make it rise or fall. Her neck cocked at an angle that should have been impossible, her eyes closed. And he just inches away through the barrier, though it may as well have been the other side of the country.

“SC, there’s nothing you can do,” hissed Darian in my ear, his fingers tightening as I tried to move forward again. “Move her and the damage gets worse. If it can get worse, and you’ll just reveal what you can do!”

“She’s dying!” I hissed back, breaking free and turning back to Arial, preparing to sprint towards her. But there, just behind the Hunter, the car door opened and a familiar figure leapt outwards, dashing towards the body and pushing him out of the way.

And I froze as I recognized Arial’s mother.

Kneeling down, she extended both hands as close as possible to her daughter, her expression locked in concentration. Before her the wall shimmered, ripples jumping away in every direction, like a glass of water disturbed by a speaker. And a high pitched noise shrieked as the force field quivered, the sound like a violin bow being drawn across an instrument devoid of any tuning by a skilled hand.

Grey streaks spiderwebbed through her hair, displacing the natural color in a rush that left no strands untouched. Wrinkles cut into her forehead and the corners of her eyes, the skin on her arms sagging, one of her hands retreating to clutch her heart. And silver smoke wisped from her mouth and nose, trickling out and through the barrier, leaving an impression in the wall for a split second.

The image of an old man’s face with sunken eyes, that disappeared as soon as it had appeared, and the smoke flowed around Arial. Concentrating in a ring at her neck like a collar, straightening it back into position. Making the flecks of blood that covered her face pop off like scabs, the cuts yielding to fresh skin.

Until Arial’s eyelids shot open and she drew a breath so deep her back arched, her fingers clutching the grass underneath her until the knuckles turned white, the blood vessels in her neck standing out against the skin. And her mother collapsed, both her hands now on her heart, her hair not only grey but crinkled, and her entire body shaking.

Chapter 55

The school nurse arrived with a stretcher a minute later, Arial still on her back and dazed, her movements slow and pained. Her father watched as his daughter was strapped down and hoisted upward, Arial raising a hand in a feeble wave as he clutched his wife, who had risen to her feet with his aid. But the grey in her hair and the wrinkles cut into her face remained, her eyes shut tight, and her stance wavering.

“Another example of poor parenting to be documented, driving Arial to near suicide,” stated Siri after clearing her throat. “She obviously needs care that only we can provide. Rehabilitation.”

“That’s my daughter,” shouted Arial’s father. “And we healed her! The police will-”

“This isn’t an issue for the police, rather it is under the umbrella of Child Services, Art,” interrupted Siri. “Should you choose to have them involved, I would be more than happy to place a few calls for you. Besides, you can always visit your daughter. Simply fill out a visitation form, drop it in our mailbox, and we’ll schedule a monitored session shortly.”

Siri handed a slip of paper to Peregrine, who teleported outside the bubble for just long enough to tuck the paper into The Hunter’s shirt pocket, then disappear within again. Arial's father reached up to grasp the paper, crinkling it through the fabric with clenched fingers, before shredding it.

“Now,” continued Siri, her nose high in the air. “If you continue to pose a threat with those officers at your back, I shall consider it a transgression against the agreement between the Police and the Rehabilitation Facilities, especially since this is a personal issue of yours, Art, and not one involving the police. Are we understood? You have one minute to depart, which I deem generous.”

Siri spun on her heel, the Uppers following her back in the building as The Hunter stood on the other end of the wall, silent tears falling down his now aged wife’s face. She took his hand and together they walked back to their car, followed by several police officers, to hold a miniature conference behind the closed doors. From our distance it was too distant to hear, but we could see the shaking of heads. Then we saw the car reverse, but not before The Hunter shouted out the window, throwing the confetti from the paper slip Peregrine had given him against the barrier.

“Don’t think you’ll keep her! We’ll be back!”

Tires screeched on pavement as the cart accelerated away, and the scene returned to that of a normal schoolyard, with dusk finally fallen, and shafts of light from the windows forming long rectangles on the grass. Without the memory, it may have never happened, the slightly depressed grass where Arial had fallen the only testament to her fall. And the twilight progressed as if nothing had happened at all.

“So,” said Darian after a moment of silence, dragging his foot against the ground. “Postpone the plan?”

“Yeah,” I said, shivering in the sudden cold, staring at the point where Arial had fallen. Where she never would have gotten up had her mother not been so close. And shaking as I remembered how Siri would have just watched her die, and Peregrine just let her fall. How both could have saved her but neither had moved. “With a few modifications. And we need to act quick- if Siri knows that is wasn’t one of the police officers who caught Arial, we might have trouble. Certainly The Hunter knows it wasn't his own men, and he was close enough to feel me- practically looked right at us. But if anything, our plan should work better. Should cause more damage now.”

“You ok, SC?” asked Lucio as we walked back to the crawlspace. “Need something to cheer you up? A happy memory? Besides, it looked like she’s going to be alright.”

“No, Lucio, I want to remember this. I don’t want to push it away.” I answered, my jaw muscles clenched. “I want it fresh.”

I thought of Mason and Mikey from the park, neither of whom had been as lucky as Arial. And I wondered who would be next. Who might be sliding towards a broken and irreparable future with each moment I failed to act.

Darian and Lucio let me walk ahead of them, giving me space as I considered destroying the school in that moment. Of freeing Arial. Of laying waste to what Siri was trying to accomplish.

But that wouldn’t help me find my mother. Nor would it help the other students who had fallen under her spell.

I’d wait until tomorrow to act.

“Lucio, Darian, form a wall,” I commanded when we arrived, and bending over into the crawlspace. And channeling my anger into a black sphere, I annihilated the opossum carcass with a single swipe, and let the sphere pop at the edge of the yard, far enough away to sound like a firecracker.

Chapter 56

“Ready?” I asked Darian, flicking a black sphere into existence as he watched. “Now, your turn.”

Biting his lip inside the bathroom stall we had claimed during dinner, he tried the same motion, the door rattling as it felt the gravitational effects but no orb appearing. He frowned, trying again, managing to darken the air above his palm for barely a second before releasing an exasperated sigh.

“Look, it’s just not going to work. I can maintain those things but I can’t create them, I can’t mimic the power that far. You’ll just have to feed them to me.”

“Well I can only give you two at a time,” I answered. “But that should be more than enough to do the job. Just go heavy on the gravitational sauce afterwards, alright?”

“You got it,” he answered, and created a force point underneath the toilet paper, unspooling the roll in seconds. “Out of all the powers I’ve had the chance to use, this has to be one of the most amusing, SC.”

I rubbed my eyes as he tried to flush the toilet using only the power, and just managed to make the handle quiver. I was still exhausted from the night before, spent hidden outside the door of the infirmary, listening as the nurse and Siri hovered over Arial.

“A full recovery, it seems, perhaps even more,” the nurse said to Siri. “Not even a bruise. Flawless skin, down to the fingernails. If you look, there’s not even split ends in her hair. A better job than any healer I’ve ever met- I bet there’s not a single scratch on her.”

“I just want to go home,” slurred Arial’s voice, while Siri spoke up.

“You’re in pain, darling, we can’t let you move. It’s for your own benefit. Hush now, to sleep you go- Nian, up the dosage, I don’t want her wandering off in the night.”

“Of course, Siri, but rest assured I’ll be watching over her personally,” said the nurse. “And if I depart, the door will be guarded.”

“But-” started Arial, and her voice trailed away, replaced by heavy breathing that I could just barely hear through the door. When Siri’s footsteps approached, I ducked into a small side closet to wait until she departed, and listened as the nurse maintained her watch. Hoping to hear a second set of snores but instead listening to only the rustling of papers and organizing of medical supplies.

After an hour of waiting, I departed, stealing back along the hallway to return to the Bottom room. My thoughts turned to Arial as I walked, questions filling my mind. Was she truly healed? Had her mother’s mending removed Siri’s influence from her mind as well? How could I sneak in to speak with her?

When would we kiss?

I stopped, blinking, that last question circling my mind, my cheeks burning in the darkness. Where had that come from? I should be thinking instead how to save Arial, how to remove her from Siri.

Or how her body would feel laying against mine.

I blinked again, and kept walking, my pace slightly faster. And I thought of us together, somewhere far away from the facility. My hands running through her hair, her whispers in my ear, my fingers running down the curves of her body to be intertwined with hers. The thoughts growing stronger with each step as my breathing shallowed and my pulse quickened, daydreams flashing in front of my eyes in the darkness in vivid detail.

“Just us,” Arial’s voice lured, so tangible it was indistinguishable from reality. “I’ve been waiting so long for this.”

Pausing, I shook my head, my hand pressing against a classroom door for support. And as I put my weight on my arm, the door gave way, swinging open and slamming into the wall behind as I stumbled into the classroom.

There was a stifled shriek as I jumped back to my feet, my hand searching for the light switch, and hearing a second shriek as I flipped it on. At the back corner of the room there was a flurry of motion as a blanket whipped through the air, concealing two bodies but not the clothes strewn about the floor in a path between them and the door. Socks and shoes, followed by two pairs of pants and shirts, and finally the undergarments just before the blanket.

“What the hell?” said one of them as my eyes adjusted to the light. “Shut that off, this isn’t a peep show!”

“Wha- What?” I said, my mind reeling as the flashes of images of Arial was replaced by shock and anger, and as I recognized the two faces peeking out from under the blanket. Conner, who had sat up and glared, next to a very red Wendy who was doing her best to conceal herself with the blanket.

“Erm, yes, sorry.” I said, backing away. “Though Conner, you might want to keep it down a little. Up here, that is.” I tapped my head, and flicked off the light as I felt a flood of embarrassment.

“Will do. No one hears about this SC, understand?”

“Of course, Conner.” I answered, and left the two alone once more in the darkness, feeling relief as I walked away. Realizing the visions of Arial had just been from his power. And still rushing back to catch as much sleep as I could in the few hours before dawn would break.

Back in the bathroom stall, I shook my head to clear it of the memory, turning my focus back to Darian as he flicked force points around the enclosure.

“Got the hang of it yet?” I asked, unlocking the stall.

“Enough to matter,” he answered. “I’m ready to get out of here. Let’s begin.”

Chapter 57

“Lucio, is your story straight?” I asked as we weeded the yard after dinner, tossing another patch of crabgrass onto a pile between us and straightening up to stretch my aching back. “We go live in five minutes.”

“Down to the details,” said Lucio, his eyes still scanning the ground. “As lifelike as I can make it. Any last minute additions?”

“None,” I answered and held out both my palms, generating two dark spheres. “Take these, Darian. Feed them, we’re going to want a bang. Now, you remember the route?”

“Of course, stop worrying SC.” he said, dismissing me with a waved hand. “It’s pretty simple.”

“Just make sure you actually follow it,” I lectured, looking him in the eye. “Don’t just run off. You won’t make it far and the plan will be shot. Alright, here’s where we split up. Lucio, we’ll see you soon.”

“Hopefully not both of you!” exclaimed Lucio, and held out a hand. “And Darian, don’t forget about us.”

“Of, of course I wouldn’t Lucio,” answered Darian, cracking a smile as he grasped it. “You make it too difficult.”

They shook, and Lucio started to make his way to the Rhododendron tree where I had first met Arial, while Darian and I departed to the front of the school. It was dark enough at this point that the two orbs hovering just under Darian’s hands at his sides were not noticeable to the casual observer, though we clung to the side of the school to discourage prying eyes. And as we walked, I could feel their presence growing, their pull increasing, their distortion of space more profound, and Darian’s expression deepening in concentration as he worked to keep them under control.

We reached the front of the school just as sweat started to show on his temple, and I generated two more orbs of my own, feeding them with bits of weeds I had carried with me, letting them swell past the size of Darian's in seconds.

“Now or never SC,” said Darian, his voice strained. “I can’t hold onto these much longer.”

I gazed across the school yard, making sure it was empty except for the occasional Bottom intent on finishing their chores, and at the street beyond where the rush hour traffic had long subsided. Drawing in a breath, I reviewed the plan once more, making sure I had forgotten nothing, and nodded to Darian.

“Go.”

He accelerated to a full sprint before I finished the word, launching himself towards the school gate, and hurling the two dark spheres in front of him towards the forcefield. On contact they shattered the barrier like bowling balls through a thin layer of ice, purple sparks erupting as sheets of the field were dragged into the street and absorbed into the spheres which continued rocketing upwards at a forty five degree angle as Darian crossed the threshold of the rehabilitation facility. He whooped, his steps driven as much by the plan as adrenaline and excitement, and punched a hand into the air as his foot touched down across the border of school property.

He turned back just as the first of the spheres exploded high above behind a building, the boom setting off car alarms in the street below and rattling the facility windows behind me, my chest feeling the wave before my ears heard it. Then the second sphere exploded, the bright flash from this one in clear sight, and the sound slightly louder than the last.

Darian held up a hand as I threw the next two black spheres at him, catching them just as I lost control of them, and centering them on his palms. Then he met my stare one last time, nodded, and took off down the street just as an alarm started to blair from within the facility behind me and the front door burst open. The two guards leapt down the steps, hands raised as they frantically reconstructed the barrier, followed shortly by a slew of other shouting instructors and Uppers as I crept around towards the back of the school.

“Which one was it?” I heard Siri scream as bodies swarmed over the lawn, the shield growing purple as it rose into the sky once more, though no answers came. “How many?”

Then their voices were drowned out but another sound, one that grew louder with each passing second. Sirens, accompanied by telltale flashing blue lights on cars that swerved in front of the facility. And just as the doors opened, and police officers started to pour out, there was a third boom in the distance, causing the doors to slam and the cars to peel away in pursuit. I smiled as I watched the blue lights reflecting off the tops of buildings, following the route I had discussed with Darian the night before, and hearing the screech of metal as one of the cars was upended and tossed against the side of one of the buildings. As it descended it collided with a lamp post, the door ripping off to hang like a Christmas ornament from the peak, swinging almost peacefully as the fight continued below my line of sight.

Stop,” I heard over a loudspeaker, the voice rushed. “Stop, by the authority of the police, or face-

There was a second screech as the speaker cut off, and the squealing of tires as several cars turned. And I pulled my attention away, focusing on rushing to the end of the school yard. Where the Rhododendron tree stood, and Lucio would be waiting.

Chapter 58

I raced the flashing lights around the school yard, watching over my shoulder as the police cars grew louder again, and I saw a jet of fire spiral into the sky. There was a third boom, the strongest yet, catching me by surprise and causing me to stumble. I regained balance just as I saw Lucio pressed against the wall, nearly invisible in the darkness, his eye up against a hole just under the Rhododendron tree.

There were several reasons we had chosen that tree- for one, I knew the area around it well, and there were few obstacles near the base. Second, an intersection was just behind it, allowing several access points from different directions. And most importantly, the countless leaves and branches served as a dowsing rod to the approaching target.

“This would be much easier if I could see right now,” said Lucio, his eye pressed against a hole in the fence, and his nose flattened. “You just had to choose to do this at night, didn’t you?”

“Now you tell me?” I answered, the words intermingled with panting. “You had two days Lucio!”

“It’ll be fine, it’ll be fine,” Lucio answered, waving a dismissive hand but refusing to break his gaze. “There might just be a few cops with some extra memories floating around. I’ll just shotgun blast the group.”

“Stealth, Lucio, we can’t afford-”

“Jeez SC you’re easier to set off than a firecracker, everything is going to be fine. Speaking of,” He continued, pointing upwards, “It’s time.”

Above, the Rhododendron rippled, leaves and branches swiveling to point down and right as Lucio stiffened. Sirens still sounded, but they were farther off, cris-crossing through distant streets. And closer was the sound of heavy breathing as Darian arrived on the other side of the wall, a single dark orb still in hand, letting it absorb rays from a nearby streetlight, the leaves angled towards it to indicate its presence.

“And now,” whispered Lucio as Darian hid in the tree’s shadow. “We wait.”

Darian cast a sideways look towards the fence, nodding once, then stilled as the shapes began materializing in the darkness. Five in all, creeping down the street, and spearheaded by a single familiar figure that I could just make out in the darkness.

The Hunter, drawn forward by the scent of my power held in Darian's hand.

“Closer,” whispered Lucio, as Darian put a hand against the tree and bent over, only half pretending to catch his breath. “That’s it, closer.”

The four other figures broke away, spreading to form a semicircle that cut off all escape routes from Darian, moving in like a human net. Some of the figures I recognized- the cop I had seen The Hunter speaking to outside my apartment, as well as one that had helped search for me in the public park.

“Almost there,” breathed Lucio, both hands pressed against the fence now, his tongue sticking out the side of his mouth. “Almost.”

Their party took three more steps in silence, like predators stalking a kill, just as Darian looked up to spot the first among them.

“Got you!” said both Lucio and The Hunter at the same time, just as the hidden officers lunged forward. One, a woman with hair cut just above the ear, performed a chopping motion and the branches above Darian came rushing downwards, growing impossibly fast to wrap around his arms and legs before he could react and swelling to the size of sink pipes. Then they continued down past him to jab into the ground, forming roots that rippled away and locked Darian in place, as additional branches encircled his torso. Bark split off to litter the ground like mulch as the wood expanded, a fresh layer filling in from underneath, and leaving a shell on the ground like a molting insect.

“The Hell?” Darian shouted, losing control of a sphere that spiraled away, whizzing past the officer’s ear and taking a chunk of her hair with it as her expression turned to shock and the orb exploded just ten feet beyond. Another officer stepped forward, pointing as a thin tendril of electricity whipped towards Darian, striking him on the right arm and causing the muscles to go limp as the branches continued to constrict. As it made contact, the tendril flashed gold and blue, energy traveling down the beam and fizzing at tight bend points, with small trees of lightning erupting into the air at particularly curved sections.

“Don’t resist!” commanded the officer as the tendril reached out again, this time aiming at Darian’s other arm, sizzling as it brushed against several leaves and ignited them. “This won’t hurt a bit.”

“Won’t hurt my ass!” yelled back Darian, tilting his still active hand towards the cop. “But this will!”

Fire erupted from his palm, streaking towards the officer as he jumped to the side, narrowly avoiding flames that started consuming the branches holding Darian. More flames erupted out as Darian directed them around his body using his still functioning hand, and the cop I had seen near the lake stepped forward, basting him with water from a draining pipe with more force that a firehose as The Hunter cursed.

“Damn!” he shouted, kicking the tire of a parked car hard enough to make it rock on its frame. “A damn Mimic!”

Chapter 59

“Where in Hell’s name did you pick up that power?” demanded Arial’s father as Darian hung sopping wet and limp, stunned up to the neck, and the tree branches wrapped around his limbs and torso the only reason he remained standing. “Where?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” spat Darian, their faces so close they nearly brushed noses. “You’ll just throw me back in there like you did it in the first place! In the beginning, you were the ones who framed me. Don't think I have forgotten that! I owe the police nothing.”

“You, you idiot,” hissed Arial’s father. “You think we’re letting you back in there?”

“Let me? Let me? I have the power of the gods!" cackled Darian. "The strongest I have ever tasted. Maybe now I want to go back, what do you say to that?”

“You’re not going anywhere until we know where you got that power,” the Hunter answered, his face reddening.

“Oh, I’m not, am I? I’d rather go back and ruin them than help you!” Darian retorted, then threw his head backwards, drawing in a deep breath and shouting. “Siri! Siri! Right here, come and get me! Come right-”

“Silence!” the Hunter’s hand clamped over Darian’s jaw, crippling one of the last working muscles in his body. “Bundle him up, we’re taking him back for interrogation.”

“Ha! You think you can hold me? Hell, you think you can crack me?” came Darian’s muffled voice through the hand. “If I can stand up to Siri I can stand up to anything you throw at me. You’re going to have to sweeten the deal.”

“And what, exactly, do you want?” hissed the Hunter as the branches detached themselves from the tree, tightening like a boa constrictor as Darian fell to the ground, and one of the cops hoisted him over his shoulder.

“You know, I’m not too sure about that. Let’s see what you have that might convince me. But I’m famished, maybe I could think of something over dinner. A steak for one. Considering I’m the only one who saw where they are keeping that power, make it good. Maybe I’ll even show you what it can do.”

“First, where did it come from?" growled the Hunter, "We need to know what we are up against.”

“Oh, you want to know that too?” asked Darian, bouncing on the guard's shoulder as they walked away. “That’s going to cost you lobster too. And the softest bed in the city. I’m not cheap, and these past few weeks have really pissed me off. Thanks again for that, by the way.”

They turned down the street corner as Lucio and I watched, then their shadows too disappeared, until the street was silent and empty once more, with little to attest for their presence besides a muddy ground and a slightly larger and unkept Rhododendron.

“You caught him, right?” I asked to Lucio when I dared to make a sound again, “The memory has been implanted?”

“As solid as his first kiss,” answered Lucio, puckering his lips. “Indistinguishable from reality. I had plenty of time to dull the corners and really root it in there.”

“A success all around then,” I said. “Assuming everything goes to plan with Darian, and that-”

Lucio’s hand squeezed my wrist and tugged, his other finger across his lips before pointing. There, across the wall and back in the street, something had started to move. Another figure, glinting in the lamplight, that had just rounded the edge of the wall from the direction of the front gate.

Blake.

Without a battle, I’d never seen Blake in full transformation. There had been moments when parts of his skin had morphed to diamond, perhaps a finger, or even an entire arm. But here nearly every inch of him sparkled, his movements slightly more robotic than normal, and even his hair taking on the appearance of fiber optic cabling.

“To rip and to shred, that’s what I said,” he sang, trotting, one of his fingers trailing along and cutting a deep groove into the wall with a similar sound to nails on a chalkboard. “Alive or dead, or just a head.”

He stopped under the tree, squinting down both side streets before continuing, his heels clicking against the ground as he moved, his shoes already torn apart by diamond toes and arches. Then he too was gone, moving nearly parallel to the police but not quite in the same direction.

Moments later Conner appeared from the other end of the wall then departed in another tangent, his running considerably more labored. And the longer we stood there, the more Uppers that flowed past, scattering through the city, combing the streets, appearing and moving in every direction, searching. Their powers activated and ready to strike, all repeating similar snatches of song to Blake.

“They better be moving fast,” said Lucio. “I wouldn’t want to get caught by that lot.”

“Knowing the Hunter, he’d have been prepared for this, he's had enough time to plan. Besides, he’s not moving alone,” I answered, stepping back from the wall. “Now, let’s head back in, before they think we are missing too.”

Chapter 60

Siri called an emergency meeting in the auditorium just as we returned, an instructor fetching us from the hallway and escorting us in an growing crowd of Averages and Bottoms until we reached the bleachers. And she stood in the center of the floor, a crease formed in her usually flawless suit, and a stray hair escaping her tight bun.

“Tonight,” she started, her voice harsh. “There was a breach of not only our facility, but of our trust. The power used to escape was brought from the outside, smuggled into here and hidden like a rat beneath our feet. By a traitor.”

She paused, her eyes ice, and looked over us.

“Know that his name is now a curse, that anyone who utters it is worse than the lowest bottom, not fit to be any of us. And know if anyone aided in his escape they shall be even lower, should that be possible. That they too will be known as a traitor to us, to their country, and to common good. Now, I ask that anyone who knows the means of how this particular student obtained such a power step forward now.”

She looked over the bleachers to be met with scared and confused expressions, students actively avoiding her gaze, and my heart quickening as her eyes glossed over mine. And my memory flashed back to when I had discussed the plan with Darian and Lucio at dinner just a few hours before.

“So let me get this straight, the plan is still the same as yesterday before Arial fell,” Lucio had said, his eyebrows scrunched together, looking between myself and Darian. “Darian breaks through the wall using your power, which attracts the hunter since he’s borrowing your power. Next, he lures the hunter away from the facility, before doubling back to the Rhododendron, where we lie in wait.”

“From there,” interrupted Darian. “Lucio plants a memory inside the Hunter’s head that Peregrine has transported his daughter away for safe keeping, and alludes that the police should stay away, because his project will make them irrelevant. In addition, he alludes that Arial will be kept at the same site as this project.”

“All to be said when he teleported next to her father, which actually did happen,” I added. "Remember, let's keep this as close to reality as possible."

“Right,” said Lucio, drumming his fingers on the table. “Now, Darian is captured and mentions he knows where the power comes from, and after he is wined and dined he tells the Hunter that the true wielder is being kept hidden and is the subject of Peregrine’s project. Now, the hunter has a double reason to track down Peregrine, wherever he is keeping your mother, and potentially the police backing to do it. All assuming the project is not actually here at the school, of course.”

“Correct, and after years of being around my mother, I would have noticed if she was here by her power. Wherever his project is, it's not at the school,” I answered. “Darian, really make them earn that information. If you make it too easy, they might suspect this is a trap. Remember, make them work for everything- for capturing you, and for the information. Don’t be afraid to do some costly police damage on your escapade through the city, though I'd avoid injuring anyone. Rest assured they won't harm you, because they care too much about the power they think you have.”

“It’ll be my pleasure,” smiled Darian, cracking his knuckles. “Just name a dollar amount.”

“Anyways, what truly matters,” I continued. “Is that they take you with them because you can identify me. Make sure with absolute certainty you go, and once you do, tell us what happened and where. We’ll be waiting. Let’s find my mother, and let’s hit Siri where it hurts.”

Back in the auditorium, not a single person stepped forward to Siri, but a few glanced to me and Lucio. For though none of them had known what had happened, our clique was well known among the others. Naturally, we formed the top suspects.

“Oi, I know what happened,” shouted Slugger from the back, as the entire assembly turned. “Lad was spending all his time during chores walking the perimeter. Didn’t do shit, worst chores partner ever. Probably picked up the power from some passerby. I’d say good riddance, real dosser he was, had me wrecked picking up his slack.”

“Which edge, where was he?” Siri pressed, her expression intent, and walking towards Slugger.

“All round he was, I’d say as soon as he found the power he probably broke free. Was going on about how he was looking for a digging power for ages, bet he dug right on through.”

“And why didn’t you mention this earlier?” demanded Siri, her voice furious.

“We go on picking up leaves every day,” complained Slugger, waving a hand. “Then we’ve got to haul them all the way back to the dumpster. Back and forth, back and forth, ‘til we nearly die of boredom. I thought he was just trying to be more efficient like a good citizen by finding a way to bury them instead. Didn’t want to waste your time valuable, Miss.”

Siri’s look lingered on Slugger, as well as the rest of the crowd. But no longer did their gazes linger on us. And together, Lucio and I breathed a sigh of relief.

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