Zahal knocked three times on the iron doors. They towered disapprovingly over him like two soldiers at attention, refusing to take notice of a lowly peon such as himself. He had, of course, tried to open them first; the heavy metal hadn’t budged. Nothing was ever easy.
The sun blazed down on him, the heat searing through his threadbare shirt and into his skin, and making his still-swollen eye hot and tender. His jacket, draped over one arm, was slick against his sweaty forearm. His instincts screamed at him to get out of the heat and find somewhere cool—and safe—to hide out. Stay away from other people, and from the giant burning ball of gas in the sky.
But he lingered in front of the badly rusted doors, surrounded by an equally rusted set of twenty-foot high walls. He had to know what was happening to him. Had happened to him. And it wasn’t safe for him out here. The sun reflected off of every surface, scalding him from all directions as though to articulate that point. The walls looked like they might have been painted white at some point, but their upkeep had clearly been let go some time ago; the paint was stained orange from rust and peeling so intensely that he was shocked it could stay on the metal at all. The rough, hot iron scraped and burned his knuckles as he knocked.
He pulled his hand away, waiting, listening as the hollow echoes faded away. He rubbed the back of his neck, willing away the tension.
His clothes stank, but that was the least of his worries. After the men from Bridge City had beat the hell out of him, they’d left him to bleed out in the alley. Death would have been a welcome reprieve from the prison of pain and exhaustion that his body had become. He’d have gladly lain there and obliged the men if a delivery driver hadn’t spotted him in the early hours of the morning and called an ambulance. They cleaned his wounds, stitched him up, dosed him with morphine, and fed him when he woke. By the time they started asking questions, he was already on his way out the back door.
Phil had been right; he couldn’t be anywhere near Bridge City, unless he wanted someone else to finish the job the three men had started. So he walked. It was a big city, but he didn’t much care where he went except away from where he had been. But the longer he walked, the more he could feel he was heading toward something, like he was being pulled along on a leash. He stopped, forcing himself to turn a different direction than where he felt he ought to go, and the feeling became more insistent. Wrong way, wrong way, wrong way, it whispered. Then, he heard Phil’s voice in his head.
“Maybe whatever that man left for Billy all those years ago will help you.” He twitched at the memory of that gentle tug he’d felt before, then dug in his pocket for the crystal. It glimmered in the sunlight and almost seemed to glow—no, it did glow. He took a step in the wrong direction, and it dimmed, resistant. A step in the direction it wanted to go, and it glowed brighter.
It was trying to guide him somewhere. That, or they’d hit him over the head harder than he realized.
The mystery of it taunted him, one more thing he didn’t understand about himself or the world. He followed the crystal until he couldn’t feel its pull anymore, a shock rippling through his body when he read the battered sign out front: Lord Baron’s Institute for Misfits. His fingers found the battered and bloody piece of paper he’d crumpled up in his pocket weeks ago. This place wouldn’t leave him alone.
A butterfly fluttered among a few scrubby weeds while he waited, clearly enjoying the sun as much as the rest of the world. He wiped sweat from his brow and suppressed a scowl; making a good first impression was vital. If you managed to make a good first impression, people usually put up with you for longer before deciding you weren’t worth the effort. Besides, scowling still hurt.
He craned his head, listening for any sign of life behind the doors. Nothing. If there had been any shade, he would have sheltered beneath it. But it was midday, and this part of the city didn’t seem to see the value in trees. Or awnings. He sighed and scuffed the asphalt with his shoe.
He watched a colony of ants industriously dismantling an old pizza crust, hundreds of tiny black soldiers trailing drunkenly back toward their queen, contributions held aloft in victory. What if The Institute was no longer around? If being led here was all in his head?
So he knocked again. Louder. He banged his whole fist desperately on the doors, the vibrations kicking back down his arm painfully.
He shouted at the doors. Across the street, an elderly man and his daughter gave him a disapproving look and hurried to get to the next block. Unperturbed, he opened his mouth to shout again—but stopped short.
A faint clicking noise was coming from a rectangular attachment on the apex between one of the doors and the wall. An intercom. He rushed to the speaker, tension dissipating at the first sign of life from within the metal-encased Institute. Someone was already speaking to him, but the static made the words difficult to understand.
He pushed the button on the intercom, but it didn’t budge. He felt a sudden, irrational fear that whoever was on the other side would leave if he didn’t respond immediately. He jammed his elbow into the button and sent a silent thanks to the hospital for updating his tetanus shot as he felt the skin scrape off on the box’s rough edges. This time, the button yielded to him.
“Hello?!” he shouted. “Can you hear m—”
“Lower your voice!” a stern male voice commanded, the static finally clearing. “Stand in the aureole for your entry assessment.”
A pause. Then: “The circle near the center of the gate.” The voice was gruff, impatient.
Zahal’s eyes trailed away from the intercom and toward the double doors. A faded outline of a circle, just large enough for one person to stand in, had appeared on the ground in front of where he had knocked. He stepped over the perimeter. What had the man meant by ‘assessment’?
As soon as both feet were the ground inside the circle, its edges began to glow softly, as though lit from beneath. He sucked in his breath as a wave of something washed over his entire body, beginning with his toes. It felt like his circulation had been cut off—but the tingling sensation of his muscles waking up was everywhere, and not just skin deep. It ran down through the muscle fibers and into the very marrow of his bones. All the tiny hairs on his neck and arms lifted suddenly, as though charged with static electricity. And then, the feeling washed back out of him, a wave receding back into the ocean.
The circle stopped glowing, and the gates swung open.
The man who greeted him was short and fat, dressed in ill-fitting khakis and a white lab coat. His face was drawn and peaked, eyes hidden behind oval-framed glasses. It didn’t set with the image Zahal had conjured of the person who had spoken to him over the intercom. Behind the man, dilapidated institutional buildings loomed in the distance, disused and uninviting. He hesitated, his brain telling him to run away from this place as fast as possible.
But. A faint shimmer rippled across the view, and for a moment, Zahal saw something much grander, richer, and more welcoming beyond the gates.
“Welcome, Zahal Ikusi,” the man said. His voice was quiet but filled with steel. “I am Lord Baron. You may enter.”
Lord Baron? What was this place—a relic of medieval times?
“How do you know my name?”
“I know many things,” Baron said. “The circle you stood in—”
“What did you call it before, the ‘aureole’?”
Baron frowned at the interruption. “Yes. The aureole is designed to reveal truths about those who stand inside of it. Your name is one of those truths.”
“And the others?”
“That you could belong here,” Baron said. “That you are like others here. A Misfit.” He motioned beside and behind him with one arm, indicating the complex and its presumed inhabitants. “But only if you wish. So, Zahal. What do you wish?”
The need for answers washed through him at the question, so fierce that he had to fight to keep his facial expressions under control. First impression, he reminded himself. He needed to sound as sane as possible.
“Something happened to me earlier this year,” he said. “But I can’t remember what it was. I’m different, somehow. But I don’t know how. I need to remember what happened and find out… what I am.”
Baron considered him for a moment, then nodded curtly. He turned and began walking toward the complex. “Come in, then,” he said, almost an afterthought. “Those doors won’t stay open much longer.” As he said the words, the gates began to creak and close. Zahal took one last look at the empty city street behind him, crossed his fingers, and darted through the doors just before they clanged shut.
When he crossed the threshold, everything changed. He felt the strange tingling sensation again, but much sharper than before—almost painfully so. But it disappeared almost immediately, like he had pushed past an invisible curtain.
His eyes widened as the tingling subsided. He blinked and found himself somewhere entirely different. The asphalt he stood on a moment before had transformed into a gravel pathway. Along the edges of the path, lavender and white heather bloomed as Lord Baron passed by. And Lord Baron himself had changed, too. Suddenly, the voice fit the man: now tall, broad, and un-bespectacled, he very much looked like a commander. Instead of an institutional uniform, he was dressed all in black, contrasting him sharply with the natural environment.
Zahal hurried to catch up with Baron’s long stride, coral and gold sugarbushes blossoming in his wake. A few steps behind him, the flowers became shy once more.
The run-down, ramshackle structures he had spied from outside had disappeared, replaced by dozens of well-aged stone buildings, each surrounded by brilliant foliage. Some of the buildings featured expansive and intricate stained-glass murals, but they were too far away to read their stories.
“What is this place?”
Lord Baron paused, looking back over his shoulder incredulously. “You don’t know?”
Zahal crossed his arms and shrugged. He wasn’t used to the business of asking questions about the people and places who agreed to take him in. You didn’t get to be picky when you grew up in the system. You just went where someone might want you—or at least tolerate you. He averted his eyes from Baron’s searing gaze, suddenly very interested in the gravel.
Lord Baron laughed a short, hard bark. “Interesting. Tell me, Zahal. How did you come to learn of The Institute without knowing anything about it?” The gravel crunched beneath the big man’s feet as he turned around.
Zahal forced himself to meet Lord Baron’s assessing eyes. “Someone told me it was a place for people like me. People who were different. Special. And then I found this,” he pulled out the crystal, holding it up so Baron could see. “It pulled me here.”
“Who told you about The Institute?”
“Does it matter?” Zahal asked. He regretted his sharp tone the moment the words escaped his lips. Baron’s eyes narrowed into dangerously thin slits.
“It matters, Mr. Ikusi,” he said. “If the person who told you this is not a Misfit like us, that’s a liability for everyone here. We survive through secrecy. You may have noticed our nondescript facade. That is not a coincidence.” He pursed his lips and motioned back toward the gates. “Controlling who knows about us out there is what keeps us safe.”
A shiver of fear ran down Zahal’s spine, and he tried not to flinch, tried to press all the violence of recent months from his mind. Satisfied, Baron turned around and began walking down the path again. Zahal had to run to catch up with his long strides.
“What does it mean, to be a Misfit?”
Baron glanced down at him. When he spoke, his voice no longer had the dangerous edge. “We call ourselves that because we aren’t normal, and this world does not accept us. But a long time ago, there was more magic in the world. Once, the Gifted weren’t persecuted for our abilities. We were praised for them. Young people such as yourself could apprentice with older, experienced individuals with similar abilities, learning how to hone and maximize their gifts.
“But as our numbers dwindled, common folk began to fear us. Then they began to kill us. We went into hiding, even from each other. Generations passed. Eventually, our entire history was lost—reduced to a few children’s bedtime stories. While some of us can learn how to use our gifts in isolation, many cannot. It’s dangerous for everyone. I was lucky; my particular abilities pass down predictably from father to son, so I had a good teacher. I created The Institute to give others the opportunity to live and learn among other magic users, protected from the Outside. To be a Misfit here means to be a part of that community.”
Zahal thought about the false facade and the aureole he had stood in. “They can’t get in,” he guessed. “They can’t see what’s really inside. And the aureole somehow detects whether or not they are magical. Doesn’t it?”
“Perceptive.” Baron came to a full stop at the foot of a flight of stone stairs. “It’s a good start. You’ll need to learn caution, too, I think.” He motioned to the stairs. “There is an unoccupied apartment on the second floor, three doors down on the right. It has already been unlocked for you, and the key is on the table just inside the door. I suggest you spend the rest of today getting oriented. Tomorrow morning, you will meet your mentor and get a work assignment.”
“We’re not a large community, but magic has endless possibilities. Your mentor will be someone experienced enough that they can help you to control and use your gift safely. As for your work assignment, we’re a community, not a charity. Everyone who lives here contributes. If you have any special skills, you’re welcome to tell me about them now. Otherwise, I’ll put you where help is most needed.”
“No… no special skills. I can do whatever.”
Baron nodded. His lips thinned as he took in Zahal’s ragged appearance. “I’ll have some clean clothes brought up as well. Oh, and one last thing. If you brought in any outside electronics—they are useless here.”
Zahal held his arms out from his sides. “That shouldn’t a problem.”
Baron’s watchful eyes bored into him for a few moments longer. “Everyone has their reasons for coming here, Zahal,” he said. “For some, The Institute offers safety. For others, it’s a chance to learn control. And a few, like you, need to make sense of something. Maybe it’s a combination of all of the above. Regardless, there is one thing here that is non-negotiable: safety. If any member of our community endangers another, there will be serious repercussions.” He enunciated every word with razor-sharp precision, the undercurrent of his tone icy, unemotional, and foreboding.
“Yes, sir,” Zahal said, barely managing to bring his voice louder than a whisper. Baron nodded once and then walked away.
Zahal made his way up the stairs, the warning echoing threateningly in his mind. His apartment was small, but felt like a mansion compared to his usual lodgings. It was furnished with all the essentials: bed, couch, desk, chair. Even a kitchen, though there wasn’t any food in it. Had everything been magicked here, or did Baron have things brought out from the Outside, anticipating new arrivals? Magic has endless possibilities, Baron had said.
So. Magic. It was a word that Zahal hadn’t consciously allowed himself to use when thinking about himself. Magic was a thing for kids. Fairy tales created to entertain and teach children moral lessons. Stories of magic were made simply to entertain and expand the imagination and to offer an escape from reality. That’s what he had always believed.
And yet… How could he describe what had happened to him that day, the sporadic moments he had remembered since, without believing in some force that could only be explained by this tiny, childlike word?
The only other option was to believe that he had, in fact, lost his mind. That was what others had whispered about him, and part of him wanted to believe them. It was the logical explanation. Yet, here he was. Either everyone else was mad, too, or the impossible wasn’t so impossible after all.
“I’ve waited a long time for someone like you. I had begun to think it was impossible. That all the others had died and I was all that was left.”
She holds onto him lightly but possessively, grasping his arm at the elbow. He tries and fails to suppress a shudder at the sight of her. She is not unattractive, but there is something not quite right, not quite human about her. Maybe it is just the fear of this place that makes him expect that she will suddenly shed this skin and release the predator lurking beneath.
She sees his reaction and sighs.
“You’re exhausted, I can see,” she says. She seems sad, all of a sudden, which oddly makes him feel a little better. “Rest, then. I won’t let any harm come to you. We’ll talk after.”
He is too tired to argue, so he sleeps; but nightmares plague him. He runs aimlessly in the dark, unseen claws ripping at his clothing. Something slashes his arm open, and he cries out. Blood pours out, thick and black as night. He stumbles and falls, and does not have the chance to make a sound before they are on him, ripping him apart.
Zahal woke suddenly. His shirt was plastered to his damp, over-warm skin like a parasite in the throes of reproduction. He shot up in bed, disoriented and fumbling, flinging the covers away from his body. His breath came in rapid gasps. But then the cool night air spread over his skin in soothing waves, calming him just enough to remember where, and when, he was. He reached for his journal on the bedside table only to find that he had no bedside table. Cursing, he rolled out of bed, fumbling around for his one belonging as precious details slipped away. By the time he located the journal, switched the lamp on, and sat down, it was all gone.
He stabbed at the paper with the pen, racking his mind for something, anything. He could feel the edge of it, skulking just out of reach, taunting him. He scribbled angrily on the blank page, willed himself to remember—but nothing came. When his pen ripped through the edge of the page, he growled in frustration, flinging it and the journal off the desk and onto the floor.
He sat there for what felt like hours, forehead resting on his hands, eyes glaring at the dark surface of the alien desk. Eventually, the adrenaline rush passed, his heart rate returned to normal, and his breathing slowed. He turned the lamp off and he laid back down in bed, falling into an exhausted but dreamless sleep.
It had been 103 days since the incident.
PLEASE FILL OUT THE CHAPTER SURVEY BELOW BEFORE CONTINUING TO THE NEXT CHAPTER.