Over the next few days, after their final fight with Sanchez and the standoff with the MHU, Olivia and her friends found themselves in a rut. Ben had, thankfully, parked is car well out the line of fire, keeping it safe even as several MHU tow trucks came by to scrape up the ruined or abandoned ones around their safehouse. Ben and Chris made several short supply runs, with Olivia helping to put up tarps over the broken windows in the front or to replace drywall. It might not have been the best home, or even the safest, but their former auto shop was the only place any of them had at the moment. That, and the MHU specifically told them to stay in place for later questioning.
With the passage of time and the MHU no longer putting out alerts since their escape, Chris and Amanda managed to go unrecognized in the sprawl of Westward City once more. Ben and Miya had always been unknowns, leaving Olivia as the only one hidden away. Amanda and Miya didn’t forget about her when they went for their own supply run for Miya, and Olivia now owned three whole sets of clothes that at least weren’t overly tight as well as short.
Amanda otherwise kept herself busy, and busy meant frantically darting from one ruined contraption to another, cursing bullets, Sanchez, the concept of pickup trucks, all dust, and curiously the local power company. She ripped devices from the walls or lifted them from a plastic bin with a couple bullet holes through it and placed them one after the other on her workbench, cataloguing the damage.
Without techie devices to occupy them, Olivia and the others could only work on repairs or rest. The first couple days remained quiet, Miya keeping herself apart from the others, but eventually even she began to go stir crazy.
“Has anyone heard from Cyrus?” asked Olivia, sitting on a folding chair spun around so the backrest wouldn’t dig into her wings. Her tail she kept curled around the chair’s legs and her feet, out of the way. He seemed nice. A little weird, but I am too.
“Oh yeah, what happened to that guy?” asked Ben, balancing a knife on his fingertip. “He gave y’all a head start outta the MHU, right? Ain’t seen him since.”
“Cyrus gave us a pat on the cheek, an encouraging word, and fucked off to leave us fighting an entire gang alone. And half the shit he said still doesn’t make sense,” grumbled Chris, opposite their folding table from Olivia. “I’m willing to let that sleeping dog lie.”
Ben nodded as the silent moment stretched on and on. “I’m still bored. Anythin’ else need doin’?”
“What about that tracker?” asked Chris. “Could we have Miya take a crack at that?”
“What?” asked Miya, leaning back in her chair.
“One of Overlord’s bots stuck a tracking device in the back of Olivia’s neck,” explained Amanda, not looking up from her work. She held a tweezer with some tiny component pinched in the forceps, staring down at a board through a giant magnifying glass the size of her face. “Olivia is made of iron, so I can’t get to it without throwing a lethal amount of electricity at her.”
“What’s this about iron?” asked Miya. “That’s the one thing magic can’t deal with.”
Amanda shook her head, her loose short hair waving around just above her eyes. “Sorry, figure of speech. She’s tough, that’s all.”
“Yeah, can do.” Miya turned to Olivia and explained, “I’m still recovering, I’ll only really be able to affect bones right now, but I can at least take a look at everything else. Oh, and I’ll need to put my hands on you, like, on the shoulder or arm or something.”
“Um, OK, I guess,” Olivia said with a shrug.
“Just don’t break contact, that would be annoying,” said Miya, walking up and placing her hand on Olivia’s forearm. Why did her eyes just turn dark red? She probably needs to concentrate if her eyes get weird. So Olivia sat and waited, trying hard not to feel awkward. And waited. And waited.
Should I say something? She hasn’t moved. After waiting a couple more moments, she thought, is something wrong? “Hey, Miya? Is everything, you know, alright?” asked Olivia.
“What the fuck am I looking at?” she exclaimed. Olivia cringed as everyone stopped what they were doing. I know, I’m weird.
“Me?” said Olivia.
“Is something wrong?” asked Chris, arms folding across his chest.
“Maybe?” said Miya. That’s not good. At all. “Hey Olivia, do you feel any pain at all right now?”
She considered herself. “No. Why?” Everything feels normal. I guess that ringing in my ears is a little annoying. My feet ache, but that’s normal.
“Cuz I’m seeing five small fractures on what are, hands down, the strongest bones ever. Just ever. Three ribs, a shin bone, and a collar bone. You don’t feel those?”
“No. Should I?”
“What did you do?” demanded Miya. “The force to do that should have fucked up a bunch of other things in there.”
“I got shot. Some guy punched me through a wall. I got shot some more. I fought another feral,” Olivia listed off.
Miya stared at her with solid, blood red eyes for a second. “That’ll do it.”
“Can you heal her?” asked Chris.
“Oh yeah, no problem. This might sting, these bones are so fucking beefy compared to human bones.” Olivia suppressed a flinch as five separate bones burned under her skin momentarily, then the feeling vanished. “But that’s not all.”
Oh come on. Miya’s eyes returned to normal, and she broke contact. “So,” she trailed off, gaze unfocused and staring off into the distance.
“Miya, this is kind of important,” said Chris.
“It’s not necessarily bad, I don’t think,” she said, returning her attention to them. I’m really not liking how this is sounding. “Medically, she’s fine, so far as I can tell. Give me a second, I’ve got to figure out how to say this.” Chris and Olivia watched Miya like hawks.
Eventually, she said, “So basically Olivia has some sort of passive magic thing going on. I’m not quite sure how it works, it’s a super intricate and complicated weave that she’s running throughout her whole body. Each individual stream is almost insignificant, but there’s intricacy and layers to it. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“You know that?” Ben asked Olivia.
“It would take me forever to figure out exactly how it all works. It’s almost like a second body. I recognized a couple weaves that would help with healing. There’s some beefy lattice in your skin. It’s weird, it looks like it fits in much better on the scales. There’s some crazy intricate stuff I’ve never seen before in her wings.” Miya looked at her thoughtfully. I know. I’m super extra weird.
“This isn’t dangerous at all, is it?” asked Chris.
“No, it shouldn’t be,” replied Miya with a vigorous shake of her head.
Ben laughed, “Well, the more you know.”
“So that’s it then,” said Olivia.
“Magic. Magic is the reason for,” she made a vague motion towards herself as she spoke. “This. Just magic. That’s it.” There’s not much I can do about it. I actually thought it was going to be worse. Like I’m programmed to forget everything every year or something stupid.
“What? No. Magic is why you can get shot dozens of times and keep going,” said Miya. “Powers and magic are not mutually exclusive. There are certain bits of magic that affect only powers. Some powers revolve only around magic. There’s the chance I could trigger, though I doubt it at this point, but I could still do what I do now, provided the power isn’t a null power specific to magic.”
“That seems like too much,” said Olivia. Chris snorted. Come on. I’m not that strong. Am I?
“Why? It’s just magic. They’re just powers. Don’t get me wrong, there are scientists who spend their whole lives trying to figure this stuff out with nothing to show for it. But they’re just things that happen. They’ve always happened,” said Miya. “Anyways, everything else seemed fine.”
“You don’t seem that shocked by this,” observed Chris.
“Actually, now that I’ve seen it, I could probably do something similar to myself, but it would take, like, all my concentration. As in, meditate for an hour beforehand, and do nothing else meanwhile kind of concentration.”
“Alright. Thank you, Miya,” said Chris. Olivia mumbled something similar. He asked Olivia, “Are you alright?”
“I guess.” His lips thinned as he looked at her skeptically. “Well, it doesn’t really change anything,” she explained. “It’s just another thing, you know?” I’m magic, I guess, because I’m not weird enough as it is.
Chris’ neck stiffened and rocked back a few degrees. “Wait, Miya, the tracker.”
“Shit, that’s right!” she exclaimed. “I got distracted. Come here.” She waved Olivia over again. Her eyes turned deep red as she resumed her magical examination and her gaze shifted up to the base of Olivia’s neck. Now without distraction, it only took her a few moments to return to normal and report, “This little thing is coated in iron. I won’t be able to do anything about it. Why is there a mage proof tracker in your neck?”
“That doesn’t seem normal. In fact, why does an Overlord robot have a mage tracker thing in the first place?” asked Chris.
“You could say that again. What exactly happened?”
Chris and Miya both looked to Olivia. “Oh, um, I was fighting a robot when we were attacking that construction place.” Miya grimaced in recognition. “It slashed me with a knife a couple times, then hit me in the back of the neck with something.”
“A knife? That hurt you?” asked Ben.
“An iron knife would do that. Even steel,” said Miya.
Ben burst into laughter. “Good thing you keep gettin’ hit with lead.”
Chris considered for a moment. “The robot knew about the magic.”
“How? It’s a robot. Most people can’t even see magic,” pointed out Miya.
“The red stuff?” asked Olivia, head tilted a few degrees to the side. It’s right there.
Miya, Ben, and Chris froze for a moment in shock. Did I say something wrong? “Is she a mage?” asked Chris.
“I have no idea,” replied Miya. She held her hands out a few inches apart towards Olivia. “Tell me what you see.” Dark red coils twisted and writhed between her palms, most hair thin, some up to an inch thick. Whenever one arced too far, it began to dissipate into the air without a trace. The eldritch energy twisted into impossible shapes, sometimes reminding Olivia of patterns in the clouds, other times seeming to draw her vision to a point not quite there, not quite visible.
“A bunch of dark red string,” said Olivia. It looked really cool though!
With an amused snort, Miya said, “Yeah. She’s a mage.”
“A mage with an Overlord tracker in her.”
“They might come for her,” pointed out Amanda.
“They just did,” responded Miya. “A bot came to Sanchez and told them where you were. Like I said, they wanted Olivia and Amanda. If Sanchez is all he’s got, we might have some time.”
“I’ll work on blocking the signal. It shouldn’t be too hard since we have some time.”
“Why don’t we take a fuckin’ load off! Relax, grab some drinks, initiate ‘liv’ into American culture!” announced Ben. At the hesitant look she gave him he jabbed a finger at her and added, “Or we sit here, bored out of our skulls and sleepin’ the hours away cuz we’re all lunatics who don’t know how to function without someone actively tryin’ to kill us. I dunno about you but movies sound way better.”
“Ben, what movies?” asked Chris, a look of weary resignation on his face. He flipped his phone around in one hand, letting the long side slap into his palm before twirling it again with a flick of his wrist. “You are not going to ruin movies for her by showing her Silence of the Lambs or Rocky Horror Picture Show or something like that.” I kind of get the horror one, but what’s wrong with lambs?
“Nah, we’ll start with the basics. Blazing Saddles, cuz I refuse to respect the comedic opinion of someone who ain’t at least watched it. Star Wars, one of the old James Bonds, we got options.” Olivia sighed. I didn’t really understand most of that. Because of course not.
“Where would we watch the movies? We don’t have a TV,” pointed out Olivia.
“Amanda,” said Ben, “has got that giant monitor thingy that isn’t quite the size of a TV still intact, an’ a computer to play ‘em on. I got some video streamin’ service thingy, Amanda’s leechin’ off of free internet from somewhere, an’ if I ain’t got it we can just pirate ‘em or somethin’.”
Chris and Miya shrugged simultaneously. “Sure, why not?”
What about pirates? “Sure, I guess.” Olivia watched warily as Ben practically bounced with excitement as he spoke. I guess movies are better than sitting in here doing nothing. Or worrying.
“Alright!” said Ben, grabbing his car keys. “I’ll grab the drinks, Amanda gets the movies ready an’ picks the first one.” She looked up at him over her work and glared, though she did set it aside and roll her chair over to one of her intact computers.
Chris jumped up as his phone rang. Nope, I’m not listening. Olivia began tapping her claws against the plastic tabletop, to the rhythm of a song she’d once overheard on the radio. Without bothering to get outside, he only got halfway to the ruined wall before answering, “Alice, you got my message! It’s so good to hear you.” He stopped as if slamming into a solid brick wall.
They all watched; they couldn’t help it. The quiet, intensely private man had never really spoken about much outside of their immediate work. Amanda and Miya exchanged looks as they listened to one side of a conversation. What’s going on? Is it something bad?
“What do you mean?”
“Communicate? I gave you a call as soon as I could!”
“And then people were trying to kill us.”
“Yeah, I’m sure he did. Marcus is full of shit.”
“Warrant? The MHU just walked away. How is there still…”
Silence reigned for a moment. The muffled talking on the other end of the phone Olivia desperately tried to avoid listening to cut off, leaving Chris standing with a quiet cell phone.
Ben gave him an uncertain half smile as he edged past him, only one corner of his mouth curling up. “I’ll grab some stiffer drinks then. Be back in a few.”
Over the next four hours, the group plowed through two movies and started on their third, along with nearly a dozen beers. They also made good progress on the three bottles of liquor. Olivia took one sniff of alcohol and kept herself to the popcorn. It might not have been made of meat, but salt and butter couldn’t go wrong, even if the kernels kept getting caught between her shark teeth. Miya, still weary after her impromptu surgery and keeping herself somewhat apart from the others, called it quits first. She burrowed under a blanket, gripped a pillow tight, and passed out after the second movie, a sci-fi flick even Olivia understood.
She sat beside Chris, who’d allowed himself to be guided back to the table by Amanda and herself. Listless eyes only partially watched the screen, and the whole atmosphere seemed far more subdued than Ben had started with. Ben, at least, cut Chris off of liquor after the first few shots, keeping him to beer instead. One time he slipped Chris water, who didn’t seem to notice.
“What am I going to do?” Chris mumbled to himself, his first words beyond asking for another drink.
Olivia rested a wing unnoticed on his opposite shoulder. I don’t know what to say. I never know what to say. It’s not about me, though.
“Man exists for man,” he said, each slurred word deliberately chosen. He rambled on, far less precise, “I guess I couldn’t…” he trailed off, eyes searching the blank wall above the screen for the word he was missing. “I couldn’t.”
Olivia said, “You could.” Whatever it is. “We’re here for you.”
“So, what does it mean, then? I’m not good enough?”
“Nah, mean’s you’ll get ‘em next time,” encouraged Ben. “She ain’t worth it if she’ll dump you over that.”
A soft snore caught Olivia’s ear. She and Ben turned to find Chris lying passed out over the table, a half empty glass of water in his hand. She froze, uncertain. Is he OK? He’s still breathing. Should I wake him up?
Amanda caught her eye and shook her head. “Don’t worry, if you’re done, I’ll keep an eye on him.”
“Is he OK?” asked Olivia softly.
“He’ll be fine, a guy his size can take plenty more alcohol. He’s just tired.”
“No, well, that’s good, but I mean, what about everything else?”
Amanda frowned. “Breakups can be rough. I can’t say I knew much about him and Alice when we were working together at the MHU, but it’s going to be something he’ll have to work through. Don’t hover over him too much, OK?”
“OK. But, I don’t know, it seems like we should do something more. Right?”
“I get it. We are our relationships, good and bad. Girlfriend, coworker, father.” Olivia’s brow furrowed as she caught a tense inflection on the last word. “Breaking something like that will take time to heal, no matter what you or I do.”
“OK,” Olivia repeated, sparing Chris one final glance.
She finished off her bag of popcorn and excused herself, heading to the roof. Below her, Ben’s new car hummed to life and drove off as she sat down on the edge of the roof, facing west.
I guess that’s it. That Lock Corp. guy got away from Amanda yesterday. She gets angry whenever they come up. Chris lost his girlfriend and his job. Miya is free of those Overlord things. I’m a mage, I guess. I don’t know what that means, but cool, why not? And Ben is still Ben. He’s always kind of just been hanging around. Overlord is still out there. Cyrus is still out there. But neither of them are here right now.
A few minutes later the car returned, and Ben climbed the ladder to join her. He flopped down next to her on the roof’s edge, beer and donut box precariously clutched in one hand.
“Hi,” she greeted him with a small wave.
A whiff of something sweet caught her nose. Ben grinned as he tracked her gaze. He set down the box between them and opened it, revealing half a dozen cinnamon rolls covered in donut glaze. “Hey! Back again, huh? Figured you could use some thinkin’ fuel.”
They each took a roll and settled into amicable silence. The low buzz of the city around them drowned out the ringing in her ears and the chewing, though the two of them were too lost in thought to be in any rush. Cinnamon! We should get these all the time.
Ben waited, his roll only partially eaten, for Olivia to finish her own before starting, “What brings you…” She paused, half a second roll already in her mouth as he asked his question. “Never mind,” he said with a grin.
With another hasty bite, she finished her roll and cleared her throat. “I’m sorry. What were you asking?”
“What brings you up here again? No need to worry, ain’t got anyone huntin’ you now.”
She pointed west with a clawed finger. The sun dipped behind the green and brown mountains, the occasional dark blue cloud breaking up the orange sky. “Just watching the sunset, I guess. I’ve noticed it, but never really paid attention to it before.”
Ben nodded and took a sip of his beer. “It’s alright,” he said.
“Oh.” Am I weird for liking this? It’s all colorful instead of concrete. I guess neon signs and traffic lights are colorful, but those don’t count.
He raised an eyebrow. After a silent moment he said, “I half expected a sorry there.” I’m sorry? I don’t say that that much. “Ignore what I said. You got somethin’ to say, say it. What do you think?” he asked with a wave of his hand.
“It’s pretty, I guess.” I have an amazing way with words, don’t I? I can sound completely and totally stupid no matter what.
“You guess?” he prodded.
“I’m not a fan, but to each their own.”
“What do you mean? Not a fan?” asked Olivia. They’re mountains. Do mountains have fans?
“Nature shit, there’s no spark, you know? It’s just nature doin’ what it does. There’s no brain behind it. A book, someone had ideas, put those down into words, an’ other people read it. A paintin’, someone saw somethin’ either in the real world or in their mind, an’ painted that into reality. A cathedral, enough people believed enough to pay for the whole thing, put in the labor, engineer the thing. A canyon, with all the pretty layers of earth, is just a hole dug by a river. Only pretty cuz we say so, you know?”
Olivia digested this in silence. That kind of makes sense, I guess. I’ve never had a discussion on aesthetics before. And how do I remember a word like aesthetics? She sighed. I know, I’m weird.
Ben continued after a while, “Don’t take my word as gospel. That’s my own opinion, you gotta come up your own. There’s a lot of cool shit in the world, an’ you should go into it with an open mind if you want it to be worthwhile. We might disagree on shit, that’s OK.”
Olivia returned her attention to the mountains, with the sun a fading orange smudge behind them. The air ever so gradually cooled. Ben threw his head back, finishing off his beer. He tossed the bottle into the street. The glass shattered, the shards to join the rest of the random trash accumulated on the edges of the road.
“Whatcha out here for, anyway? There’s a sunset every day. You’re kinda avoidin’ everyone with this,” he asked.
“I just wanted to clear my head, I guess.”
“Somethin’ on your mind?” he prodded once more.
She sighed, repressing the initial urge to say no as her tail curled inward. Remember what Amanda said. It took her a minute to gather her thoughts, rather than rush them out in her traditional stumbling manner.
“I noticed something.”
“What’s that?” he asked, for once not grinning or threatening one.
“I’m not hungry. I mean, I’m still kind of hungry,” she hastily added after he fixed her with a look, both well aware of the flecks of sugar blending into the dark green scales on her hand. “But I haven’t been thinking about it all the time. My stomach doesn’t hurt. And I have a bed, a real bed and blanket instead of some old couch. I have a name.”
As she choked to a stop, he pointed out, “You had a name when I first me you.”
She took a shaky breath. It’s weird, saying it all out loud. “Yeah, but no one knew it. No one said it.”
Man exists for man. Doesn’t that go both ways?
“That other feral, the one we found in the Arena, just seemed wrong. That could have been me. Like, had anything changed or been different, I’d have been like that. It would have been so easy for that to happen. I don’t want that, but I don’t really know what I want to be. I mean, I know I’m… I’m not fully human anymore, but still.”
“That don’t matter too much. We got time, we’ll figure out who you were.”
“Yeah, I still don’t know who I was but…” she agreed, trailing off and searching for the words once more. “It matters, but I know I’ll make it to the next day even without knowing. Does that make any sense? Like that magic stuff. I didn’t know that before, but there’s nothing I can really do about it. But I’ll be OK. And I know I’ll be OK.”
Ben shrugged. “I can’t answer all your questions. That’s your own thing. But however you wanna go forward, the others care about you. You know that, right?”
“Well, yeah. I do too. Care. About them. Too. Yeah.” Stupid, stupid, stupid. “I don’t know. I guess there’s always the possibility that I just stop, you know” she mused out loud, almost detached. The city, so vast from their small rooftop, roared ever onward. “Just something goes wrong because biology or whatever, and I just stop. Because I’m, you know-”
He cut her off, bringing her back to herself. “Don’t finish that.” He sighed and asked, “Olivia?”
“Do you need a hug?”
“I’m OK.” Sorry, I’m just being weird.
“Olivia,” he repeated.
“Do you want a hug?” Her brain froze, unable to come up with a response. Ben laughed. “Come here, you.” He wrapped an arm around her waist, ignoring the donut box between them.
After a minute, Olivia broke the silence. “Thank you,” she whispered. Together, they watched an orange sun set behind a blue shadowed mountain range.
It’s been a long road, unnecessarily long, but we’ve made it to the end of Book 1. Thank you to everyone who’s stuck with me over the years, or any new readers who have just wandered in, I hope you’ve enjoyed it. Book 2 will start at the end of September.
Thank you very, very much, Syphax! Stone Burners has absolutely been a treasure all the way through, and I deeply appreciate your work! You are by far my favorite serial author, and I can’t wait to see where this goes!
Oh also while this is a downtime chapter, will we eventually get Miya et al. eventually explaining to Olivia how to use magic?
Thank you again for a wonderful story!
Probably. I have no recollection of when that was in draft 1, but it definitely won’t wind up on the cutting room floor.
I have loved every chapter of this story so far mate.
Syphax1, well, it’s nearly been another year since I’ve last thanked you.
Unfortunately, with all of what’s been going on, I haven’t been able to enjoy grand storytelling, much less, like yours for a while.
Thankfully, though, I see that new chapters will soon follow, so like many others, I’ll now have to check in more often. More so now that it’s getting more interesting.
Meanwhile, have a nice break, look after yourself and we’ll all be back at the end of September, to see what you have in store for us.
Nice to see this continuing, I look forward to book 2.
I hope they get that tracker out.