The sun broke over the horizon early the next morning. It flooded in through the large eastern-facing window, coaxing Zahal awake gently, welcoming him to the first full day of his new life.
The gentleness faded gracelessly as his brain awoke. The sun’s warm kisses became too warm, and what had been a comforting cocoon of blankets a moment prior suddenly felt like a prison. He kicked the covers off and swung his legs over the edge of the bed—his bed. He retrieved the battered journal from the floor, flattening the newly bent pages as best he could, muttering an apology as he did so. Then, he rearranged the room.
He set the journal gently on top of the desk, which was now beside the bed. Paused, then slid it inside the desk’s top drawer, all the way to the back. Easily findable to his future sleep-addled brain. Less so for nosy intruders.
His belly rumbled loudly, demanding food; he hadn’t eaten a full meal since his recent hospital stay, and barely anything since. He had intended on following Baron’s recommendation of walking around campus the day before, but instead he’d fallen asleep after taking a shower. Apparently hunger was second to exhaustion.
He delayed his quest for food to shower again, relishing every second in the hot water—his hot water—and then dressed into a set of the charity clothing dropped off the night before: a black T-shirt and a pair of jeans. Both still hung on him, but they fit better than his old clothes. Those were piled forlornly in the trash bin, his only regret being that he probably wasn’t allowed to burn them.
He left the apartment. No locks. He’d have to ask about that.
Down on street level, he spotted what looked like a local pub and headed for it. He stepped through the open doors. Several oak tables were scattered about the room, looking as though they had been there since the beginning of time. Ornate rugs garnished the hardwood floors, their bright colors filling the otherwise drab space with cheer. A current of air wound its way lazily through the room, its coolness welcome after the previous day’s blazing heat.
A woman opened a door on the far side of the room and breezed through it—literally. She looked like she was walking, but her feet didn’t quite touch the ground; instead, the air swirled along beneath and around her, propelling her forward. He caught a glimpse of a variety of utensils, ingredients, and cooking implements before the door swung shut. A gust of air hit him, carrying the welcome smells of sizzling bacon, eggs, potatoes, and spices.
“Oh, hello there,” she said, stopping when she noticed him awkwardly standing in the middle of the room. She smiled at him, her hair swirling gently around her face. “You must be the new one. Zahal, was it?”
“How do you…?”
“Know your name? Baron told me last night that you’d arrived. I was surprised you didn’t come in for dinner. You must be ravenous.” Her eyes tracked him from head to toe, frowning as she took in his ragged appearance.
He dropped his eyes to the floor. “I don’t have any way to pay. I was hoping you would let me make it up somehow later, after I’ve started my work assignment.”
She laughed, the sound echoing around the empty room. His cheeks burned, and he clenched his fists. The sharp pain of his fingernails digging into his palm helped to calm him enough to glare back up at her. But where he expected a malicious grin, he found instead a sympathetic smile.
“Baron really didn’t tell you much about how things work around here, did he?” she asked. “We are a community, Zahal. We all work, learn, and live here. We all contribute in different ways. This tavern is one of my contributions. Your work assignment will be yours, until you learn more about your gift. We have no use for money here. Your meals are free.”
“Oh. Thank you, Miss…?”
She laughed again. “Just Fiona. I’m surprised you didn’t already know.” A pause. “The sign outside has my name on it. Anyway, I’ll get to work on your food. I’ll bring you the works; you just tell me when you’re full.” She turned and swished back into the kitchen.
Ten minutes later, Zahal was considering whether or not a wheelbarrow would be needed to move him when he was done eating. A plate in front of him was crowded full with thick-cut bacon, homestyle potatoes, eggs, and toast, with a large bowl of fruit on the side. And he had coffee. Lots of coffee. He had never enjoyed mornings, but he’d never had one quite like this. Quiet. Alone. Satisfying. The home always had early communal meals, he’d avoided breakfast with his many foster parents whenever possible, and the hospital had a standing policy not to trust psychiatric patients to be alone for long. And definitely not with cutlery.
He finished the last bite of toast, then raised his mug to finish off his coffee. When he brought his cup back down, a pair of golden eyes had materialized across the table. He jumped, clattering the mug down clumsily. The eyes were staring at him intensely from a face propped up by two delicate hands. The woman to whom all this belonged smiled as she watched him, the skin around her eyes crinkling.
“Hello,” she said, finally blinking. Her smile brightened. “You’re new.”
“Ana,” the girl replied, finally abandoning her staring position. She sat up straight and leaned forward, offering a hand. Zahal wiped his hand on the napkin in front of him—his hands were sweaty and covered in the remnants of his breakfast—and then shook her hand.
“Are you going to eat that?” she asked, pointing to the leftover fruit in the bowl. He shook his head, and she pulled the bowl across the table, popping a grape into her mouth. She moved on to the melon next.
“Uh, nice to meet you… I should probably go find Baron. He’s going to take me to meet my mentor.”
He rose, looking away as he stood. “I’ll see you around,” he said, darting his eyes up to meet hers. She shook her head, still smiling. “What?”
“Baron isn’t coming,” she said. “He asked me to show you around. He has other things to do today.”
“Well, he is the leader of our community. He’s the one who built the campus and who keeps us safe here. So yes, other things.” Ana wiped her hands off with a napkin and pushed the now empty bowl away from her.
“Kyte probably isn’t quite ready for visitors yet.” She glanced at the clock. “How about we get some coffee to go and I’ll give you a tour of The Institute first?”
Before he could think of a way to say no, she was up and past him, calling into the kitchen and asking Fiona for two cups to go. He sighed and followed her outside. At least there was more coffee.
Ana showed him through the main square. With its cobbled stone walkways, decorative vegetation, and antique street lamps, was a scene straight out of a fairy tale. A massive garden was situated at the center of the square, which, according to Ana, was tended to by someone named something like Tulip or Leaf.
“I’d show you around the gardens, but she doesn’t like strangers walking around in there. It’s best if you meet her first.” Ana threw him an apologetic look. He shrugged; waltzing around in a garden wasn’t exactly at the top of his to-do list—though they did look magnificent. The flora was constantly shifting, and it reacted to the slightest changes in environment—a person walking by, a breeze, the sun, a cloud. He saw a pair of chartreuse eyes observing him from one of the bushes, but then he blinked—or they did—and the bush was just a bush.
Only a few people were out and about so early—thankfully. Ana cheerfully greeted a few early risers they passed; Zahal nodded and shook a few hands, instantly forgetting their names as soon as they left. Some seemed friendly enough, but others didn’t bother to mask their distrust. He didn’t trust them, either.
The gardens were the centerpiece of the community; all the community’s staples were situated directly around them: Fiona’s, a general supply, a community gathering area, Baron’s residence, a blacksmith (T. & Co. Metal), and a library. A few apartments were situated above businesses their proprietors tended to (like Fiona’s), but, according to Ana, most of the community’s residents lived outside of the main square.
“Why is it called ‘The Institute’?” Zahal asked. “That makes it sound like a school or a hospital or something. But it’s like a whole little city in here.”
“It used to just be the one building—the one with the library, and where Baron also lives. But then more people came here. Baron expanded it so that it could be a real community, not just one building with a bunch of Misfits in it.”
Ana led him past the main square and down a narrow alley between two of the buildings. The walls loomed up on either side of them, showing a thin sliver of blue sky thirty feet above. Potted and hanging plants adorned doorways, and in places the ivy covered the aged stone completely. “How is that possible? Most of the buildings look like they’ve been here longer than he’s been alive. Even the ivy here looks like it’s older than him.”
“Baron’s older than he looks,” Ana said, shrugging. “I don’t know how old, exactly, but I think there is something in his magic that gives him a longer life than normal.”
“How much longer?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know; I’ve never asked him. Besides, he used his gift to build The Institute, so it looks how he wants it to look. Who knows, maybe he could change his mind tomorrow and we’d all wake up to a totally different looking Institute.”
“That doesn’t bother you?” Zahal asked, thinking of how disoriented he’d been just that morning.
“Not really. I mean, I don’t think it will happen. I was just using it as an example.”
“But how does he—”
Ana stopped walking and held up a hand, startling him into silence. “Some things just…are. I know it’s hard when all of this is so new. I was that person once. But most of us don’t fully understand our own magic. Its potential, its limitations… those are questions a lot of us have. Our gifts are unique to each of us. How we connect to them, how we use them, how we control them. If you want to know how Baron’s magic works, you should ask him. Just don’t expect it to suddenly all make sense. It’s not like solving an equation.”
Her tone was patient, but it carried a note of something else—frustration, maybe? That was certainly an emotion he was intimately familiar with.
They moved on, heading toward what Ana called the practice arena. He was only half listening—he pictured Baron standing in the middle of an abandoned city lot, wrenching buildings up from the ground like an enraged titan, onlookers scrambling madly to get away, terrified of what they could not understand. How could just one man—one Misfit—have built all this, unbeknownst to the Outside?
“We’re here.” Ana’s chipper voice pulled him out of his daydream.
The arena was a crater, and the main practice field was recessed about fifty feet into the ground. Its sides extended up and outward with dozens of small, grassy terraces every few feet. On the side they stood closest to, there was a stone stairway leading down to the field. From this angle, the view down to the field made him a bit dizzy. He’d have to be careful not to trip—
He tumbles down, down, down, branches and rocks and roots slashing but never snagging him. He flails his arms, tries to grab something, anything to slow his catapulting body as it crashes down the steep hillside. The terror turns to panic in his chest. He’s not going to come out of this without serious injuries.
Then—yes!—just before his body propels over a large boulder, his fingers find something. He clenches down with all his might; whatever he has grabbed is thin and flexible, maybe a leafy branch of some sort. But it’s strong enough; he comes to a startling halt, and at the same moment, the sound and feeling of ripping tears through all of his senses. He feels no pain, but when he turns to look back, he half expects to see his own arm gruesomely separated from his shoulder. Somehow, everything is still attached and in working order, if a little bloody and bruised.
He lets out a deep breath of relief, thanks whatever gods might exist that all he hears now is the silence of the forest around him, and then—he sees it. A stark black patch floating and shimmering in the air, its edges ragged, like sheer fabric torn roughly apart. It calls to him. He reaches out to touch it, and then—
“Zahal?” Ana’s voice brought reality tumbling back down. He quickly lowered his hand, which was raised in front of him, as though he was trying to touch something there. They were standing at the top of the arena’s steps, a look of concern on Ana’s face. His heart was racing. “Everything alright?”
She reached a hand out toward his shoulder, but he jerked away, nearly falling over backward. “Don’t touch me!”
Ana pulled her hand back as though bitten. “I… I’m sorry. I was just trying to—”
“It’s fine.” It’s not. “I’m just really tired from yesterday.”
Ana smoothed her shirt down and smiled shakily. “I get it. You don’t have to be afraid, here.” She gestured in front of her. “I don’t think you heard me ask before. Do you want to go down into the arena? It’s a beautiful view from down there, too.”
He was trying to quell the nausea that had suddenly overtaken him. “Maybe we can just go back to the square.”
“You got it,” she said, giving him that smile of hers again. She shaded her face with one hand and looked up at the sun, which was now well above the eastern horizon. “Kyte is probably awake and expecting us, anyway. I’ll show you the arena some other time.”
Ana led the way back. Zahal tried to breathe deeply, focusing on each step forward and shoving his newly trembling hands in his pockets. While Ana chatted amicably at him—thankfully not requiring a response half the time—Zahal let his mind wander again. What would his mentor, Kyte, be like? Would he really be able to help Zahal learn how to use his gift? More importantly, could that knowledge allow him to piece together his broken past? As they neared the heart of The Institute, he tried not to let himself feel too much hope.
“Well, here we are.”
Zahal just managed not to run into Ana; he was busy trying to recall his dream from the previous night when she came to an abrupt halt. He shaded his eyes and looked up at the building looming in front of them.
“General Supply?” It, like all most of the other buildings here, was made of stone. Its name was painted on the building, a well-aged mural in need of more than a few touch-ups.
“Weren’t you listening?” He could feel her eyes roll in exasperation. After a moment, she continued, managing an impressive veneer of calm despite the fact that he hadn’t, in fact, been listening. “This is Kyte’s place. Since he’ll be your mentor, this will also be your work assignment.” She paused to take a breath and smiled at him. “Ready to go in?”
Zahal shrugged and tried not to let his nerves show. As they walked through the shop’s door, a bell tinkled brightly, announcing their presence with rather more cheer than absolutely necessary. After the blindingly bright sunlight, the soft interior lighting felt like walking into a dark cave—but only for a few moments. His eyes finally adjusted, revealing a small but well-stocked supply shop. Its neat shelves and displays were filled with fresh fruit and vegetables, various cooking supplies and implements, basic clothing that looked suspiciously similar to his own, cleaning supplies, toilet paper, and all the rest of life’s essentials.
“Welcome.” The man sitting in a chair next to the front window spoke softly, rising to greet them. His earth-toned clothing and his face were unremarkable, except for a few end curls of tattoos snaking out from beneath his collar and sleeve cuffs—exactly the sort of person who would blend into a crowd, who you wouldn’t look twice at or even remember you saw.
“Good morning, Kyte,” Ana said, inclining her head.
“And to you, Ana. You are Zahal, I presume?” Kyte asked, turning his attention to Zahal. Apparently questions that weren’t really questions were going to be a regular thing here.
Zahal nodded, silent.
Kyte held out his hand. A few more tattoos peeked out from beneath his shirt sleeve. “Nice to meet you. My name is Liam Kyte, and as I’m sure Ana has already informed you, I will be your mentor here.”
Kyte’s grip was strong, but it was the sudden undercurrent of something that made Zahal tense. Some kind of raw power seemed to pulse through Kyte’s veins, searching for a conduit from which to flow. He released Zahal’s hand, and the feeling vanished.
The corners of Kyte’s eyes crinkled at Zahal’s small gasp. He turned to Ana. “Thank you for bringing Zahal, Ana. I’ll take it from here.”
Ana nodded. “See you later,” she said to Zahal. The shop bell rang out as she left the shop.
And then, Zahal was alone with his new mentor.
“What was that?” Zahal nodded to Kyte’s hand. “Whatever I felt just then?”
“Sit, please.” Kyte motioned to a second chair as he reclaimed his own seat. “And tell me, how are you finding The Institute so far, Zahal?”
“Fine, I guess. It would be better if you’d answer my question,” Zahal said.
“We’ll get to that. Suffice it to say it has to do with how my gift works. But that’s not why we’re here. I want to learn a little more about you before I start talking about myself.”
“Whatever.” First impression, his brain warned. He rubbed his fingers along his eyebrows. “Sorry, I’m not trying to be rude. I haven’t exactly been here that long, so I don’t have much to say.”
“You’ll settle in soon enough; we’re not a large community. Though,” he paused and glanced sideways at Zahal, “I should probably warn you that we don’t get new residents all that often. You might be somewhat of a novelty for a while.”
Zahal sighed. Kyte chuckled, as though he’d read his mind. “Luckily, not everyone is quite as enthusiastic as your tour guide today. But you might get a few sideways glances until people get used to you—and not all of them friendly. You’ll be safe here, of course,” he added quickly. “But some are more wary of newcomers than others.”
“Sounds like I have something in common with them,” Zahal muttered.
“It’s natural to be cautious. Just don’t let that get in the way of finding a place in the community. Like it or not, we need each other to survive. Someone here could save your life, someday.”
Zahal kept his eyes on his leg, which was jiggling up and down restlessly. At least his hands were done shaking, for now.
“So. My job is to help you, full stop. Everyone comes to The Institute for a different reason. What is yours?”
“I…” Zahal paused, dozens of questions flying through his mind. He settled on the biggest one: “I want to learn about… what I can do. About my magic.”
“Care to be more specific?”
Zahal’s temper flared at Kyte’s flippancy. “I’d love to, but having no idea what my gift is, that’s rather difficult.” He pushed up and out of his chair in irritation, ran his fingers through his hair, and started pacing across the room. Kyte watched him wordlessly, for a few moments.
“Baron said you had experienced some sort of trauma that led to memory loss.”
“Yes,” Zahal said, forcing himself to be civil despite his frustration.
“You remember nothing of the event or of your gift?”
“I remember some of what happened, but it’s all jumbled and fragmented. Like film clips mixed up and with bits missing.”
“It was likely your manifestation.” Kyte spoke quietly, almost too quietly for Zahal to hear. “It’s not uncommon for our kind to manifest powers in stressful or traumatic situations, especially at your age. Our bodies don’t always understand how to get along with the magic that flows through our veins. Instinct gets some by, for a time, but most of us need help refining the raw power and channeling it for a purpose.”
“And you can help me do that?” Zahal asked, keeping his voice even only through monumental effort.
Kyte smiled fully this time. “Yes, I can help you do that. Now, tell me what you remember.”
PLEASE FILL OUT THE CHAPTER SURVEY BELOW BEFORE CONTINUING TO THE NEXT CHAPTER.