Ben’s car jolted from a sharp dip in the road. Olivia’s head smacked into the roof, waking her up for the hundredth time that day. She sighed. I hate this. I hate this so much.
“You OK back there?” asked Miya from the front passenger seat.
“I’m OK,” lied Olivia. She adjusted her spread and twisted her wings as best she could, cramped as they were in the back of the car. At least I have the back seat to myself. She leaned back as much as her curled tail would let her. I still hate backrests.
“Don’t worry, we’re only fifteen minutes out,” said Ben, driving on the outskirts of Westward city.
Olivia double checked the blinds on the windows of the back of the car, making sure no one out in the midday sun could see inside the car, at least not the back portion where she sat. Miya and Ben looked normal, they didn’t have to worry about a passing glance. Must be nice to not have to deal with wings.
Everyone had agreed to put as much distance between them and Phoenix as possible. They had made it all the way to Westward, stopping only when Olivia nearly fell out of the sky from lack of sleep. Even with the loud noises and cramped space of the car, Olivia managed to nod off for most of the trip.
She adjusted the headphone in her ear. Miya had helped her with streaming music on her phone when she’d first joined Miya and Ben in the car. There’s so much music out there! Maybe I should get a book or something, too. Might be fun with music.
She peeked out the window. Familiar brown and green mountains rose before her, the snow on the tallest peaks in the distance had melted in the month since she’d last seen them. I should fly around in the mountains more. They were nice and quiet.
On the other side of the car was a tan truck. Followed by another tan truck. And another. And another. Then there were massive blocks. Why aren’t their tires moving? Olivia noticed the railroad beneath them. Oh, I’m dumb. Never mind.
“What is that?” she asked, pointing to the massive train.
“The train convoy thing on our right?” asked Miya. “We were just talking about that.”
“Yeah,” added Ben. “Looks like a whole armored battalion. Were a ton of tanks earlier.”
“Where are they going?”
Ben shrugged. “I dunno. Look new, not sure why they’re way the fuck out here. That shit alone could probably take all of Iraq.” Huh.
Fifteen minutes later, they pulled into a familiar lot behind the closed auto shop that was their lair. Tall, cloth covered fences obscured the view of anyone who might have been outside.
“Oh man, don’ look like anyone tried to break in while we were gone,” said Ben as he parked next to Rob’s truck. Rob himself pulled up behind him in Amanda’s car.
“Yeah, from here,” commented Miya. “Wait until we get inside.” Olivia scrambled toward the door of the car and spread her wings the moment they were free. Oh thank god. She returned her headphones to her pocket and stretched.
“Holy shit, nothin’ went wrong,” said Ben, stepping out of his own car. “Cars didn’t break down or anythin’.”
“I know, it’s weird. No one shot at us either,” replied Chris as he cracked his neck. That’s… that’s a good thing. Just accept it.
“We’re not inside yet,” added Miya.
Rob draped himself over the grille of his truck, murmuring, “Shh. It’s OK baby, Rob is back. I’ll wash off the bird shit, don’t worry.” What… whatever.
Olivia followed Ben to the entrance, ducking low to fit through the door once he unlocked it. A rotting smell hit her immediately. It almost smells like a dumpster in here. One of the bad ones.
“What the hell? You smell somethin’ off?” said Ben as he waved a hand in front of his nose. His other hand flipped a light switch. No lights came on. “Fuck, need to restart the generators, too. Looks like everythin’s in place, though.”
“You smell it too?” asked Olivia. What is this? You guys can never smell anything.
“Yeah, the fuck?” He poked his head over the top of an empty trash can by the door. Not that, that doesn’t smell like the source. “Ain’t the trash. We left in a hurry after ya. May have left somethin’ in the fridge?”
Ben walked over to the aforementioned unplugged fridge and opened the door. The stench of rot worsened. Olivia gagged and blinked away tears as her eyes watered.
“Fuck. Not somethin’. Everythin’. Fuck.” He slammed the door shut and shouted out to the others, “Who the fuck forgot to empty out the fridge before we left?”
“What’d you say? And what’s that smell?” asked Miya as she walked in with her bags. Olivia wrinkled her nose. OK, I need some fresh air.
“We left everythin’ in the fridge for the last month. We got a bunch of rottin’ fruits an’ some bad milk an’ shit,” replied Ben.
“Who forgot to empty it?” asked Miya.
“Tha’s what I was askin’.”
Olivia ducked back through the door to the reasonably fresh air outside. She shook her head a bit, as if that would get the residual smell out of her nostrils. Rob was doing something in the cabin of his truck while Chris wrestled with some bags in the back of Amanda’s car. It feels nicer out here anyways. I don’t see any clouds, too. She smiled as she walked over to help Chris with some bags. Finally back home.
They spent several hours getting settled back into the lair. The fridge they scrubbed and sprayed air freshener. The generator started working again without a hitch, and from what they could tell from the local news the cops in Colorado weren’t looking for them specifically.
It looks just like I remember it. In the center of the auto shop were six curtained off portions, with their clothes they hadn’t taken with them to Texas and Arizona. I don’t have to cycle through the same two sets of clothes anymore! I think I have four or five now. Their equipment was on the far side from where Olivia sat, along with Rob and Amanda’s work areas.
Olivia fished the last slice of ham out of the cold cuts packet on the table in front of her. Rob worked on his armor off in a corner across the lair. Beneath the metal armor slabs lay a complex web of wires and gears, each of which he oiled and polished. Miya munched on a sandwich at the table across from Olivia.
The only thing missing was Amanda. Her desk and chair sat empty, the computers gone or powered off. She’ll be back soon. She just has to heal some. But she hasn’t texted us or anything, though.
Olivia finished the packet and wadded the plastic up. Maybe I can get it this time. She tossed the wad at the trashcan ten feet away, near the fridge. It bounced off the rim and into the can, joining two others like it.
“Third time’s the charm,” said Miya, a small smirk on her face.
Rob let out a prolonged groan from his corner. Olivia glanced at Miya, who just shrugged. He got up and walked over to the fridge. At least that thing doesn’t smell as bad. The whole lair is kind of aired out, too.
“Fuck it, I’ll finish it later. Hungry.” He checked the fridge. “Wait, where’d all the ham an’ stuff I bought go?”
“Little Miss Apex Predator beat you to it,” Miya called out over her shoulder. Sorry. Wait, no, I’m not sorry. I was hungry. I’m still kind of hungry.
“Damn it.” He walked over and plopped down on a spare chair next to Olivia. “Anythin’ fun happenin’ over here?”
“Not really,” said Miya. “I think Ben and Chris should be back soon.”
“Chris is actually twenty one, he don’t need a fake ID or anythin’, right?” What does that have to do with anything?
“Yeah. You and Ben are twenty now, right?”
“Yep. Still got one more year.”
Miya sighed. “Hush, you. I’m only eighteen. I’ve got two and a half years to go.”
Two and a half years until what? “What happens at twenty one?” asked Olivia.
“That’s when you can legally buy alcohol,” said Miya. “Wait, you knew they were going out to get alcohol.”
“Yeah, but… I don’t know. I didn’t think you’d have to be old enough to buy something.”
“Yeah, it’s all ‘bout protectin’ the children. Mind you, a little kid or even a preteen shouldn’t be drinkin’, but we ain’t exactly that young anymore.”
“Getting too old for this shit,” muttered Miya. Eighteen isn’t old. Oh, wait, that was the joke.
“Exactly,” said Rob with a nod. Gravel crunched as a car pulled into the parking lot out back.
“Oh, they’re here,” she said.
A moment later Chris opened the door, laden with boxes.
“We have slain the mighty alcohol beast,” exclaimed Ben behind him. The bottles in the cardboard box he carried rattled against one another as he set the box down on the table.
They distributed the bottles, along with cups and shot glasses. Rob grabbed the leftover alcohol they’d had stored from last time. A ton of different smells filled the air, none of them too appealing. They all seem to like it, though.
“You want a beer, Chris?” asked Rob, offering him a bottle as he sat down.
“No thanks. I don’t drink horse piss.”
“Oh. Is that so?” replied Rob. He took a sip from his own bottle.
“Put your mouth around the horse’s cock, why don’t you?” said Chris, face and tone deadpan as he leaned back further in his chair to Olivia’s left. Chris? Olivia felt her face twist in an ill-concealed look of distaste. God, that’s disgusting.
Rob gagged and set his beer on the table. He stared at it for a moment, then looked back at Chris. “Don’t ruin this for me.”
“OK. If you want to keep drinking that golden liquid, then by all means, go right ahead.” Chris grabbed his shot glass. “Or, alternatively, you could quit being a pussy.” He downed his shot. Why are you being so mean?
“Sorry I can’t drink straight liquor. Fuck that shit.”
A smile hovered on Chris’s face as he said, “Sucks to suck.” Miya snorted in laughter.
“You want somethin’ to drink, ‘liv?” asked Ben, a grin on his face.
“Wait, she’s way underage. Fifteen, right?” asked Miya. Olivia nodded. I think I’m fifteen. That’s what everyone keeps saying, anyways.
Ben snorted. “When’s the first drink you had?”
“Uh, I think I was… fifteen? Yeah.” Miya blinked. “Wait, yeah, I’m an idiot, ignore me.”
“Still kind of young,” said Chris.
“Yeah, an’ dragon metabolism. I dunno how the fuck that works.” Yeah, neither do I. “Besides, not gonna get her shitfaced or anythin’. Anyways, really up to you,” Ben said to Olivia.
“Do… do I have to?”
“No pressure, jus’ askin’. Safe environment an’ whatnot,” said Ben, raising a placating hand.
“Well, what is there?” Everyone seems to care about this. Rob and Miya exchanged glances at that. Chris’s eyebrows shot up. What’d I say?
“Well… We got rum, a couple flavors of vodka, horse piss,” said Ben, nudging Rob with his elbow as he reached for his bottle. Rob just sighed.
“We picked up a bottle of absinthe. I didn’t know that was legal,” added Chris.
“Yeah, we figured we’d give that a shot in a moment.”
Something smells like cinnamon. “Cinnamon?” asked Olivia.
“Cinnamon?” repeated Ben, head tilted.
“I think she means the Fireball,” said Chris.
“Oh, right. You sure? That’s whiskey,” asked Ben as he grabbed a small bottle with a red label.
“Well, what’s the proof?” asked Chris. Proof?
Ben searched the bottle. “Uh, 66. Not bad, but it might be a little strong.”
“Well, we’ll figure out if she doesn’t like liquor soon enough.”
“Um, proof?” asked Olivia.
“How much alcohol is in it?”
“But… I thought it was all alcohol.”
“Yeah, all of this stuff has alcohol in it, to varying degrees. Rum is fermented sugar stuff, wine is grapes, an’ so on. It all ferments to alcohol,” explained Ben.
“OK. I’ll try some.” Those cinnamon bun things were good. A cinnamon drink thing should taste good too, right?
Ben blinked. “Alright.” He grabbed a shot glass and filled it about one third of the way. “Word of warning, this’ll be a bit strong.”
Why is everyone looking at me? Olivia pulled her wings in. Is this such a big deal? She sniffed the shot. It doesn’t exactly smell bad. There’s a lot of cinnamon in it. I guess it’s OK. She took a sip and started coughing the moment the liquid hit her throat. “What the…” she gasped, mouth covered by her hand.
Everyone burst into laughter. Rob wove an arm under her wing and patted her on the back. “Easy,” he said, a wide grin on his face. She pushed the shot glass away.
“Why do you guys drink this stuff?” She shook her head. Ew, it’s got an aftertaste. Make it stop. Miya passed her a cup of water. Olivia nodded in thanks and drank. “Seriously. That stuff was just awful.”
“What, the burn?” asked Miya, struggling to suppress another laugh at Olivia’s expense.
“Burn? No, it just tasted… awful. Just awful.” Like… I don’t know. Chemical-y maybe. Dumpster food wasn’t that bad.
“If ya want a burn we got some Everclear.”
“No, no, no,” said Chris as he leaned forward again. He shook his head. “That’d be cruel. No.”
“Want to try a beer?” asked Rob. “Much less alcohol.”
No. It doesn’t smell good at all. “No thank you,” said Olivia. I think I’m fine.
“Well, speaking of tryin’ stuff, let’s try that absinthe,” Ben said to Chris. Why? Why? Why? Olivia just wrinkled her nose. “Maybe we’ll get some kickass hallucinations.”
“Pretty sure that’s a myth,” said Rob, sipping his beer.
“Shut up an’ get back to your horse piss,” said Ben as he unscrewed to top of a white glass jug. Olivia wrapped a wing around Rob. I’m sorry they’re so mean to you.
Ben filled two shot glasses and passed one to Chris. They clinked their glasses together and drank.
“So, how is it?” asked Rob after a moment. Probably awful.
“Meh,” said Ben.
“Wasn’t bad. Wasn’t worth the hype. There’s better stuff out there,” agreed Chris.
“Anyone else want a try?” asked Ben.
Olivia shook her head vigorously. Nope. Nope. “No thanks,” said Rob. “I think I’m addicted to horse piss now.”
Ben nodded. “So long as you’ve accepted it. You, Miya?”
Ben poured and said, “Here you are. Careful.”
“What do you mean by that?” asked Miya, her voice calm and even.
“Well, tiny an’ chick ain’t a good combo for alcohol.”
“I’ll make my own damn decisions, thank you very much.” Miya snatched the glass and drank it, glaring at Ben all the while. She grimaced. “This tastes like shit.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you guys,” exclaimed Olivia. Why do you guys keep doing that to yourselves? That stuff is awful.
“Yeah, fuck you guys an’ your liquor. Drink horse piss,” said Rob, a grin on his face.
Chris just shook his head. That beer stuff doesn’t smell very good either. I can’t believe cinnamon betrayed me. They settled into amicable silence for a moment, Rob grabbing another beer and Chris pouring himself another drink.
“What are we doing now?” asked Miya.
“What? You mean existentially? Who are we and where are we going in life, or just here and now?” replied Chris.
“When is Amanda going to be back?” asked Olivia.
“I called her earlier. Went straight to voicemail,” said Chris. “She’s with her parents, though, she’s fine.”
Rob frowned and shrugged under Olivia’s wing.
“Anyone wanna play poker?” he ventured.
Ben poked Miya in the face. “God damn it,” she muttered.
“I’m game,” said Chris. “Texas hold’em again?” Oh, I remember that. That sounds like fun.
A couple hours and lots of downed drinks later, Rob asked, “How do you fly, Olivia?”
Olivia looked up from her pair of cards. I… do? I… I just fly. “What… what do you mean?” Am I missing something?
“Like, how much do you weigh? If you look at, like, a bird or somethin’, they got big wingspans. An’ they weigh almost nothin’. I get your wings are big, but they ain’t that big. An’ compared to a bird, a human ain’t, uh, aerodynamic.”
Olivia answered, “I think they said I weighed two hundred and ninety pounds.” Miya coughed. “And I don’t know. I fly just fine.”
“What beer are you on, Rob?” asked Miya. What?
“Uh, seven. Yeah.”
“That explain it,” muttered Miya.
“What?” asked Rob.
“Nothing,” said Miya in a normal tone. Fine, you don’t want to explain. Whatever.
“Guys, got a game goin’ on,” said Ben, stifling a yawn.
Oh right. Olivia checked her hand and the table again. This didn’t go the way I hoped. She just folded. Every time I bluff they call it.
Rob tossed whatever the call was into the pot. Miya bit her lip for a moment, then called as well.
“Aces,” she said.
“Three of a kind,” said Rob with a grin.
“Beats me,” said Chris, passing his cards to Miya.
Rob raked in the pot. “Suck it.”
Miya’s eyes turned a solid dark red. Wait, what’s happening? She flicked Rob’s arm. He jumped in his seat. “Ow, the fuck?” he said, rubbing his arm where she’d flicked him.
“Heh,. Drunk magic is fun magic,” said Miya with a smile.
“Why do your eyes turn all red when you do magic stuff?” asked Olivia. Her eyes had nothing to do with flicking Rob, right? Why would they turn red?
Miya froze. “You can see that?”
“Her eyes turn red?” asked Rob. What?
Olivia blinked. “Yeah. You guys don’t see that?”
“No,” said Chris. “Not at all. The rest of us can’t use magic.” He paused for a moment. “Wait, let’s back up a moment. You see the magic stuff, whatever it is?”
“Yes,” said Olivia. Why is everyone looking at me like that?
“From what I understand, only people who can use magic can see it,” said Chris. Oh.
“Yes,” said Miya, waving a hand around vaguely. “She has a whole complex magical web thing already, but I figured that was, I don’t know, bio stuff or something.”
“So, I can use magic?” That sounds kind of cool. What can magic do?
“Maybe,” said Miya. “Probably. I dunno.”
“Doesn’t sound like a bad deal to me,” said Chris.
A snore caught their attention. Ben lay passed out on the table, two bottle caps pressed into his face and an empty shot glass still in hand. That looks super uncomfortable. How are you sleeping like that?
“Damn it, where’s a permanent marker?” asked Rob, looking around at the table.
Chris sighed as he got up. “No, let’s… let’s not.” He swayed on his feet a bit. “Thinking about passing out myself.”
Rob pointed to Ben. “But… but… fine.”
“Should we, um, put him in bed or something?” asked Olivia.
“Nah,” said Chris. “That looks comfy enough for a guy who drank himself to sleep.”
No that doesn’t. “But…”
“Might wake him up,” added Rob as he passed. Oh, I didn’t think about that. I guess.
Olivia shrugged and got to her feet to follow the others. Rob and Chris soon said their goodnights and drifted off to their own curtained off bedroom section things.
“You going to sleep too, Olivia?” asked Miya.
“No. I was going to fly around a little bit.”
“Cool. See ya tomorrow, then. We’ll get that magic stuff sorted out, too tired to do that right now.”
Olivia smiled. “OK. Good night.” I can see all the cool stuff in the city again! She stepped out into the night and took flight.
The next day started quietly enough. Olivia only woke up in the mid afternoon. Ben had moved to snoring on his own bed, and everyone else was out of the lair.
Olivia stretched out on her bed. Don’t wanna move. Too comfy. Light glinted off the small gold bars in her hand. So shiny.
The door opened and light footsteps approached. “Olivia, you there?” asked Miya.
Olivia shoved the gold bars back in her pocket. “Yes.”
Miya poked her head in through the curtain and asked, “Did you want to figure out that magic thing now?”
“Sure,” said Olivia as she got up to join her.
“Alright, I went to the library to research and pick up books on the subject. They might end up being worthless, but it doesn’t hurt to have them anyways.”
She and Olivia sat across from each other. A couple thick books lay strewn on the table between them.
“First we need to find your specialty. Now there are two ways you’ll see this referred to. If you look at older books in the Western tradition, the old three classes were life, alchemy, and spirit. Spirit was man, life was everything else, and alchemy was stuff that wasn’t alive. This came from… I dunno. Some old Greek mage, can’t pronounce his name. That’s not the point. The problem with that was that they don’t work. The classes didn’t mean much of anything. I can affect both humans and animal bones, for example.”
“So… what does that have to do with anything?”
“For reference, in case you stumble on anything that mentions those three. Mages tend to be old school. And in a lot of places you’ll still hear references to alchemy or spirit. This is just general information, you’ll need to do some research yourself.”
“This is gonna sound a little cliché, but the power comes from within. I can explain all day long to you, but you need to be able to grasp the concepts and channel the magic yourself. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First we need to figure out if you even can, first. You’re half dragon, this is entirely unexplored territory here.”
Olivia nodded. I guess that makes sense. I’d like to know what I can do too. Nobody else seems to know.
“So, the modern classifications are biology, chemistry, and physics. People debate about psychology, whether that’s its own thing or not, but that’s pretty much a result of biology stuff. I fall within biology. And one thing to note is that you can’t really affect anything in the other two. I can’t do anything to non-biological things. The only exceptions are golems, but those are special cases. My magic needs a biological thing to travel through. It dissipates if it tries to go through anything else. Make sense?”
“OK. The reason my specialty is bones is because bones conduct my magic best. I can affect non bone stuff, but it’s harder. The class means what kind of stuff the magic can affect.”
“So what is chemistry?” That seems vague.
“Kind of a misnaming thing. This book had a lot to say about it.” She tapped a book titled Applications of Scientific Principles in Magic. “I skimmed it but I got the gist. In magic, chemistry is causing reactions. Magic can tell between living and nonliving things, even if the living thing is dead. Don’t ask me how, it just does.”
“Oh, OK.” Olivia nodded for Miya to go on.
“There are a couple different major schools of magic all over the world. Each has different strengths. Magic is magic, no matter where you go, but different cultures developed different ways of doing things. I say major schools because some cultures emphasize magic more than others. According to this history book, the English magic tradition isn’t very strong because of both the wildfyre plagues and the bunch of iron on the islands. Also, Muslim countries don’t like magic. Only the extremists outright ban it, but there’s probably some passage in the Qur’an that could be interpreted as denouncing it or something. The book didn’t say, exactly.”
“So different people are good at different things?”
“Exactly. You’ve got Australian dream walkers, Congolese witch doctors, and so on. Norse mages are notorious for flash freezing their enemies and shattering them, literally. All sorts of stuff. Aztec magic, for example, is really good with bones, blood, and plagues.”
“Plagues? Why plagues?”
“That’s a good question.” Miya leafed through her book. “Aha, here it is. ‘Mesoamerican mages grew adept at fighting diseases, of both mundane and magical nature, due to the risk posed to them by the native wildfyre.’ Huh, didn’t know that. Anyways-”
Wait, don’t move on. “Um, wait. Mesoamerica?”
“Oh, yeah, Mexico is also called Mesoamerica. So yeah. The ones we’ll go over for now are Aztec, Scandinavian, and Tibetan. Aztec we’ll go over first because that’s what I’m good at and what I’ve learned. The Scandinavian and Tibetan schools are more based on a hunch of mine. Scandinavian techniques are good for heat manipulation, and Tibetan ones are good for air. Dragons breathe fire, and Rob is fairly confident you shouldn’t be able to fly if we just looked at you without magic, so air seems like a good thing to go over.”
“OK,” said Olivia.
“So,” said Miya. “Let’s get started.”