I remember… running. Running away from someone.
It doesn’t matter. It was before everything went wrong. Why I fell.
Tell me what matters.
I tripped, or maybe just slipped. I can’t remember. It was Spring. The ground was soggy. There was nothing to grab ahold of. I fell. I think he fell, too—no, I’m not sure. I can’t remember. He wasn’t there after.
I don’t know. I don’t know how I got there.
I call it The Void.
Because it was empty?
No. Sort of. It was dark. So dark. But not empty. There were… things there. I remember… I…
Do you need a break?
No. I need to get this out.
Okay. Tell me.
There were creatures there. Things with tentacles and claws and teeth. They chased me, tried to latch on and pull me into the shadows. I ran, and they didn’t catch me.
There were shadows? Where did the light come from?
There was a door, maybe a gate. It was light, but far away. I can’t remember how I found it.
What was behind the door?
I never opened it. I… I almost made it, I think. But something stopped me.
I don’t know. It’s all so fractured.
Do you remember how you got out?
How long were you there?
They said I was missing for two weeks.
“Don’t worry about Traven. I would say he won’t bother you if you don’t bother him, but that would be a lie.” Ana smiled ruefully, nibbling on a piece of toast. They’d been doing this for weeks now, every morning. He sat alone; she joined him, filling in the silence without forcing him to say anything back. Today was an exception.
“So you’re telling me that the guy who keeps threatening me with deadly weapons—who’s literally bonded with a deadly weapon—isn’t actually a threat.”
“He and his brother have been here for years. Torrence’s rough edges softened a bit, but Traven’s haven’t. But he won’t actually hurt you. Baron would never let him stay if he thought he was going to cause trouble. Just ignore him. Or better yet, get to know him. He’s not that bad—”
“A bully is a bully,” Zahal said, lifting his coffee cup. “I’ll sleep with my door locked, thanks.” He tilted his head back and emptied the mug.
Ana turned away from him, looking out the window.
“We’ve all had bad things happen to us, Zahal,” she said. “It’s a lot easier to get through things if you trust others to help you. You’ve been here almost a month and haven’t opened up to anyone.”
“So what? I’m a private person. And I’ve told Kyte plenty.”
She turned back to him. “You’re more than private. Everything I know about you is based on our interactions. The front you put on for the world, not the real you. And everything you’ve told Kyte only has to do with figuring out your gift.”
“You’re talking behind my back to Kyte?”
“It was just a guess, but apparently it was a good one. Zahal, I’m trying to be your friend, but I can’t do that if you don’t show me who you are. Let me help you. Let me in.”
He looked down at the table. The wood grain was battered and uneven, but smooth. Years of hot plates, mugs, and hands running over the surface. He shrugged. “I don’t know what you want me to say.”
She sighed. “Forget I said anything.” The air shifted minutely, and then he heard the door to Fiona’s open and close. When he looked back up, she was gone.
Kyte wasn’t at the shop when Zahal arrived, but he had a key. He unlocked the doors, flicked on the lights, and went over to the counter to see if Kyte had left any instructions for him. Nothing.
Opening and operating the store had proved to be as dull as Zahal had feared: straightening shelves, writing down special requests, inventorying stock, and keeping the place clean. Since money wasn’t used within the Institute, there was no need for anything involving transactions. Once every few weeks, there was a delivery of goods. Kyte didn’t bother explaining how it worked, and Zahal didn’t bother bringing it up; it didn’t matter. He wasn’t here to understand the inner workings of the Misfit community. He was here to figure out how he fit into it.
He set about getting the store ready to open. Or rather, he did a quick walk-through and decided it was good enough; he unlocked the front door and flipped the sign to “Open.” He cracked the window to let in a breeze while the air was still cool. He’d apparently tracked some dirt in from outside, and it was now staring at him accusingly from the floor. Fine, then. At least it was something to do.
No doubt Kyte would have something to say if he walked in to find Zahal sitting lazily behind the counter while dirt ran rampant through the store. The alternative was to start reading the first volume of the encyclopedia Kyte had assigned to familiarize him with Misfit abilities throughout history. He gave the book a withering look and then went to the back room to find a broom.
Half an hour later, he had swept half the store and had broken a sweat. A now-warm breeze danced across his arms. The day was already heating up, and he’d squandered the cool morning air. He leaned the broom handle against the shelf and went to close the window. The sunlight streaming across the floor dimmed as a thick cloud passed beneath the sun, a momentary relief from the heat. The edges of the gauzy curtains turned dark for a moment, making them look like—
The edges of the material flutter raggedly, beckoning him to the nothingness that sits just beyond their tatters. The black whispers in a language that is at once strange and familiar.
“Come, come, come,” it says.
He reaches out. He has never wanted anything so much in his life, not even parents, not even love, not even—
He gasped as the brightness of the sun returned, the curtains-not-curtains ordinary once more. His heart was drumming so powerfully that he could feel it in his outstretched hand. His hand, what was he doing with his hand again? It trembled in front of him in anticipation, nearly touching the curtains that covered the window. The window, yes. He was doing something with the window. Warm air tickled his fingertips and his memory. He leaned forward, grasped the frame, and pulled the window closed. He looked at his hand, turning the palm to face him as though examining it for the first time. Then he dropped it to his side, took a deep breath, and turned back to the broom.
Which was standing upright in Kyte’s hand, his head cocked and eyes narrowed.
“That was interesting,” Kyte said. Zahal flinched.
“I—I was just closing the window,” Zahal stammered. “It was letting in too much warm air.”
“Not that part,” Kyte said patiently. “The other part. The one where you weren’t really here. Well, your mind, anyway,” he added as an afterthought. “Where did you go? Somewhere nice?”
“I wish,” Zahal muttered, and then bit his lip before he said something else stupid. He had shared with Kyte all that he could remember about that day, about his disconnected dream-memories, about his need to understand it all. But… he hadn’t told him about this, this whatever-it-was. This piece of him that felt hopelessly out of his control. The dreams he always knew were coming. He could write them down, commit them to memory, and sew them back together stitch by stitch. But this. This was different. There was no controlling it, no anticipating it. Just living it.
But what did living it mean for those around him? A vision of Inisha’s blackened hand flashed through his mind. The horror-struck faces of those who had seen it happen. The reckoning he’d paid after. He pushed it away, pushed it all away into the dark recesses of his brain.
Kyte stared at him for a long moment. “I see this is going to take a while.” He strode over to the door, locked the shop door, and turned the “Open” sign over. He walked behind the counter and pulled out two stools, setting them across from each other. He sat straight as a ramrod on one and then motioned to the other. “Sit,” he ordered.
Zahal bit back a retort about being treated like a dog and sat.
“I need you to tell me what happened. What did you see?”
“What makes you think I saw anything?” Zahal said.
“Let’s call it a hunch.”
Zahal shook his head wearily, wishing he could just crawl back into bed for a few hours. “It doesn’t matter. It’s nothing new, just repeats of my dreams.”
“It’s happened to you before?”
“How many times?”
“A lot, okay? I told you, it’s nothing,” Zahal snapped, annoyed at Kyte’s prying. “The doctors warned me I’d have flashbacks, that things would trigger them. As long as I don’t accidentally step in front of a bus when one is happening—which doesn’t seem likely here—then it’s not a problem for anyone but me.”
“So this flashback you just had. What happened in it?”
Zahal sighed loudly. “Fine. It was right after I fell. I turned and saw something fluttering, a gash in the air with torn edges like a ripped off shirt sleeve. In the center, it was just black. I reached for it. And then I snapped out of it. That’s it.”
“Cut off at the moment of truth, just like—”
“I my dreams, yep,” Zahal said, cutting him off. “That is what I told you. No new information. But thanks for prying anyway. Why are you smiling?”
Kyte smiled wider, showing his teeth this time. “Because,” he said, “It’s so much more rewarding to be right when the other person is so sure in their conviction.” He tucked the smile away. “Tell me, Zahal, what’s different about your flashbacks compared to your dreams? The contents are the same, yes. But what’s different?”
Zahal frowned. “Obviously I’m wide awake in one and asleep in the other. My dreams happen predictably and the flashbacks are triggered—but that aligns with what the doctors told me would happen. They both feel real, when they are happening, and I’m disoriented when I wake up or come to. They feel more similar than different to me.”
“Do you usually fall right back asleep after you’re woken by a nightmare?”
“No,” Zahal admitted. “I feel wide awake until the adrenaline stops pumping through me.”
“And how do you feel now?”
Zahal blinked. “Tired. Really tired. How did you know?”
“Well, for one, you look exhausted. I take it you didn’t wake up that way?”
Zahal shook his head, frowning. “No, I felt fine this morning, until…”
“Until your flashback?” Kyte asked. “It’s called telos. Using your gift comes at a price. Magic is more powerful than our physical bodies and our minds. It’s why we train, practice, focus, and perfect. It’s not just to get better—it’s to have strength of mind and body enough to not have our own magic destroy us. In fact, it’s likely your lack of knowledge and control that caused your magic to harm you so much when you used it for the first time.”
“But I didn’t use my gift just now.”
“Didn’t you?” Kyte said, cocking his head. “Because I was certain I sensed the flow of magic when I came in the room, and I know my eyes weren’t lying when they showed me your fingers just about to touch a ripple of fabric in thin air.”
How can I be using my gift without meaning or wanting to, but then when I try to access it, I can’t?
The question had been playing over and over in Zahal’s mind since his conversation in the shop with Kyte. The two were eating dinner together at Fiona’s, which was, surprisingly, not a wholly unwelcome change from his usual solitary evening meal.
“What do you mean, you ‘sensed it’?” Zahal had asked.
“It’s how part of my gift works. I have some magic in my veins—all living creatures do—but not much more than an average human. But I can feel the magic all around me: in the trees, the flowers, the buildings and people of The Institute. It flows through everything like the tide, waiting to be called on. When I actively use my gift, I call on the magic around me, or I store it in an object or rune for use later. But I can feel it always. I’m like a conduit, in a way.”
“That was what I felt the day I met you?” A nod. “So today you felt it, what? Shifting?”
“Yes. Your magic—specifically your magic, not everyone’s—is usually curled up tightly in you, like a prisoner kept under lock and key. Something keeps it at bay, most of the time. But when I walked into the shop, it had unfurled, a cat stretching after a long nap, walking forward and out of you with purpose. That’s when I saw you, yearning toward… something. I’ve never felt or seen anything like it.”
“But I have.”
Kyte nodded. “Except you described it as a tear, and this was whole. A sheer veil. You may be seeing things as they are in your memory, but that doesn’t precisely match what happened today. I think we are lucky that your flashback stopped when it did.”
“But I need to know what happened before. If I could recreate it…”
Kyte shook his head. “No. It’s too risky. I know you are impatient to understand, Zahal, but you don’t have enough control yet. It would damage you the same as it did the first time, maybe more. Control and focus first. Once you are stronger, then we can discuss what an appropriate level of risk would be.”
“No.” Kyte’s sharp tone made it clear that the topic was now closed for discussion. “Now, go and get some sleep before you fall over. I can handle the store today. We can talk more once you’re rested.”
Zahal clamped down on his instinct to argue, but only because he was starting to feel woozy. “Telos is a real bitch,” he said.
Kyte smiled warily. “Don’t forget that.” But then his lips turned down and his eyes darkened. “It’ll kill you if you aren’t careful.”
When he reached his apartment, Zahal headed straight for bed. In minutes, a deep, dreamless sleep had enveloped him.
Four hours later, the worst of it had worn off. He paced his room for a while, flipped through his dream journal, tried to piece things together. But there were still too many gaps for a cohesive story. The tear was obviously a portal of some sort, a rip in the veil between this world and… something else. Another dimension? A world? Somewhere else in this world? The void of space? He knew he had touched it. Couldn’t remember doing it but could remember snippets afterward: walking through obsidian darkness, his heart hysterically pummeling his ribcage, a voice calling his name, eyes watching from the shadows, talons across his chest. And through it all, the compulsion toward something unknown.
When he couldn’t stand the confines of his room any longer, he sought refuge outside, wandering along the edges of the garden, a path of flowers blooming alongside him in indigo and ebony. His feet led him back to the shop. He glanced at the window: still closed, still ordinary. Kyte was inside, cleaning up for the evening. He looked up when Zahal entered, his face impassive.
“You slept?” he asked. Zahal nodded. “Good. Feel better?”
“I keep playing everything over in my head—my memories, my dreams, what happened earlier today… I still can’t make sense of it.”
“Are you hungry?” Kyte motioned to the clock on the wall. “I was going to suggest we go to Fiona’s. There are some things we need to discuss.”
Zahal’s stomach betrayed him by gurgling loudly.
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
Which is what had led them to a hushed conversation in a corner booth at Fiona’s, Zahal desperately seeking answers from Kyte.
“Why won’t my gift respond when I want it to?”
Kyte shrugged. “Sometimes, our gifts have a mind of their own. It depends on the person, and on the strength and amount of magic they possess. Typically, the stronger the magic, the more difficult it is to control—and thus, the more critical it is to learn control as soon as possible.” He peered at Zahal pointedly. “You know more than some what happens when your magic runs the show.”
“How am I supposed to learn control when I don’t even realize I’m using it?” His voice was bitter, frustrated. “If I could just remember—”
“It might not make any difference.” Kyte raised his voice, cutting Zahal off. Then, softening a little, “You might remember what you felt, might remember what you did, yes—but you still wouldn’t know how to control it. That is the most important thing. What you experienced today was a start. Now you know that you can access it, that perhaps you have already been doing so. We can work with that.”
Zahal ran a hand through his hair and made a sound somewhere between a growl and a sigh. Why couldn’t things just be simple for once? A fly invaded the space around his head, buzzing incessantly. He pushed himself out and up from the booth abruptly, desperate to move his body somehow.
Kyte had watched Zahal’s near-silent temper tantrum without comment. He motioned toward Zahal’s vacated seat. “Sit. Dinner hasn’t even arrived yet. Your body needs the nutrients after this morning. And I’m guessing you missed lunch.”
“I just—” Zahal searched for an excuse to leave, even if only for a moment. His sudden movement had caused a few other patrons to turn their attention toward him, their gazes like laser targets settling on his back, their fingers itching to pull the trigger. “I need to use the restroom. I’ll be right back.” He stalked out of the dim room, escaping to the relative privacy of Fiona’s three-stall bathroom.
He leaned over the counter, breathing hard and gripping the edge so tightly his knuckles turned white. A look in the mirror showed Zahal a face with every emotion he was currently trying to suppress written all over it. He flipped on the tap and splashed the icy water onto his face, the coldness of it fighting the flush that was creeping up his throat and onto his cheeks. He dried off with a paper towel, steeling himself to go back to the table. Kyte was right; he needed to eat. And he also needed Kyte on his side.
One of the bathroom stall doors clicked and opened. Before Zahal could school his expression, Traven strode out. He paused when he saw Zahal, his mouth opening slightly. Zahal waited for the jibe, the bully’s threat. Traven went to the far sink, washed and dried his hands, and left wordlessly.
The pressure that had been building in Zahal relaxed, abated by the unexpected. He sighed and tossed the paper towel into the trash bin, then headed back out into Fiona’s.
As he rounded the corner, he saw Ana standing beside the booth talking with Kyte, her eyebrows furrowed. He just caught the end of what he was saying.
“…could help him.”
Ana’s back was to him. She shook her head. “No, it’s too risky—”
“What’s risky?” Zahal slid back into the booth.
“Oh, hi, Zahal.” Ana smiled at him, but it was strained, distracted. “Feeling all right? You look a bit pale.”
Kyte turned in his seat. “Good timing. Fiona just came over to say our food would be right out.”
“I’m fine,” Zahal said to Ana. “Just tired. What were—”
“I better get back to my table,” Ana said, motioning vaguely behind her. She cast her eyes down, not meeting Zahal’s gaze. “Iz is waiting. I’ll see you later.” She scurried a few booths down and disappeared as she took her seat.
“What was that all about?” Zahal turned his attention back to Kyte, who was watching him closely.
“I was speaking to Ana about options for recovering your memories. But—”
“She can do that?” Zahal’s mouth dropped. “I thought… she only told me she could help comfort people, read their emotions, stuff like that.”
“She can’t help. Not without substantial risk to both of you.”
“But she could theoretically help me?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
Zahal felt his face reddening again. “Isn’t that for she and I to decide? If she wants to help—”
“It is not. Ana isn’t comfortable with the level of risk. If she says it is too risky, I respect her judgement, and you should, too.”
“Here we go!” Fiona arrived with their food. She set the steaming plates in front of them, either unaware of the tension or trying to ease it. “Anything else for you two right now?”
Kyte’s glare changed in an instant to pleasant gratification. “This looks wonderful, Fiona. Thank you. I’m all set. Zahal?”
Zahal forced his face into a smile. “I’m good. Thanks, Fiona.”
“All right. Well, give me a wave if you need anything.” She flashed one more smile and whisked away, a breeze trailing in her wake.
Kyte had already tucked into his meal. He pointed a fork at Zahal’s plate. “Eat up. You—”
“Need it, I know.” Zahal picked up his fork and ate his meal in silence.
PLEASE FILL OUT THE CHAPTER SURVEY BELOW BEFORE CONTINUING TO THE NEXT CHAPTER.