She was the last person out of the door, stepping into a corridor crowded with the between-classes crowd, people scurrying frantically to get to their next class dodging and weaving between stationary knots who seemed more interested in just standing around and talking. She glimpsed Tess through the throng, lingering before her open locker and smiling up at someone Thea could not quite see. The crowd then thinned for a moment, just long enough for Thea to get a glimpse of the back of a male head as it bent to momentarily obscure Tess’s face with a kiss, and then he turned away and the crowds closed in again and Thea, whose own locker wasn’t too far from Tess’s, found herself hesitating, unsure of her reception if she turned up just at that moment, uncertain if she ought to have known about the fact that Tess had a boyfriend, if she ought to have known who Tess’s boyfriend was. They were, after all, supposed to be friends.
Thea suddenly felt very lonely, as though the throngs of hurrying students in the corridors were ghosts whom she could not touch, could not understand.
For a while, she had tasted the comfort and security of being part of a group, a knot of friends who hung out together, who had shared something–something that she knew their elders still considered to be very special. But now, back at the Academy, things were regressing to the bad old days, the days when she was alone and miserable and the family failure, the one who should have and who could not. It was as though she had never been back into the First World and had never walked the red mesas of Anasazi times, had never met Grandmother Spider and Cheveyo, and all that she had done with them as if her mentors had never existed except in a child’s fairy tale; as though Diego de los Reyes, shadow-child of the Elemental House in San Francisco, had been but a bad dream.
“Hey,” said a familiar voice right beside her, making her jump.
“Missed you at lunch,” she said, turning slowly to face Magpie.
“Just catching up with some friends,” Magpie said chirpily, tucking her blonde tentacle behind one many-pierced ear. “I saw you were making some new friends.”
“Who? Kristin? She overheard us talking about spellspam. First time I heard how she came by those teeth.”
“Fascinating,” Magpie said, and now she was laughing openly. “You heard the other news?”
“Humphrey’s here,” Magpie said. “I think there’s trouble.”
“What else is new,” Thea muttered. “I bet it’s that cube thing.”
Thea blinked at her friend. “Oh yeah, you never did see it. It’s the thing we retrieved from Cheveyo’s desert when we went to deliver Corey the Trickster to judgment, and brought Beltran de los Reyes back to San Francisco, last summer. Beltran had this bag full of weird stuff with him when we got him–ancient computer tapes from decades ago, and this cube. Humphrey called it an Elemental cube. Whatever that is.”
“Back in your Element, are you?” Magpie said.
She was teasing, but her curiosity was only surface gloss–she sounded glib, almost dismissive. Thea remembered the expression on Magpie’s face when she had been perched on the prow of the boat, when she had called the sacrificial Whale in the ancient way of her people and helped vanquish the doom of the Nothing which had threatened the future of her world. She felt a stab of loss; it was as though she and Magpie were sundered into two separate worlds, as though there was a glass wall between them–as though Magpie herself had forgotten, had chosen to forget, the incredible thing that she had been a part of.
“We might all…” Thea began, but Magpie shook her head, her ears clinking like tiny wind chimes.
“Tell me all the news later,” she said, lifting her arm to wave at someone further down the corridor. “Gotta go–I’ll see you back at the hutch after you and Humphrey have had a chance to have a good jaw over it all.”
“What makes you think he’s here for me?”
“Oh, please–of course he is,” Magpie said. “You yourself said it, what else is new? He might have his own reasons for visiting this place every so often, but it isn’t for his health. And you are squarely in the middle of every single thing that seems to bring Humphrey May out of the FBM cocoon. Well, gotta run–see you later!”
“Wait, don’t you want to know what’s going on?”
“Sure, of course I do. But it won’t be more spellspam, you guys took care of that… you’ll fill me in after you’ve talked to Humphrey. Later, then. Cheers!”
She gave an airy wave of her fingers and turned away, hair bouncing on her back.
Thea stared after her for a moment, chewing on her nail and scowling, and then heaved a deep sigh and spun on her heel to hurry to her own next class… only to all but run Terry down even as he reached out a hand to tap her on the shoulder. It turned into a more defensive gesture even as Thea stepped back, lifting her head a fraction to stare at him.
“Where have you been? Haven’t run into you a lot lately,” she said.
“You just did,” Terry retorted with a grin, and then glanced over her shoulder at Magpie’s retreating back. “What’s up with you two? You having a row?”
“That obvious, is it?”
“Let’s put it this way,” Terry said, “I sincerely hope that expression you’re wearing isn’t meant for me.”
Thea couldn’t help a quick grin at that, and then shrugged her shoulders with a small, resigned motion. “Don’t mind me. I’m having a bad day. Or maybe a bad week. Or a month. I don’t know.”
“You should come by, later,” Terry said, dropping his voice a little. He did not specify a destination, but with him, these days, it could only be the Nexus room. “I’ve got something to show you.”
About the Author: Alma Alexander’s life so far has prepared her very well for her chosen career. She was born in a country which no longer exists on the maps, has lived and worked in seven countries on four continents (and in cyberspace!), has climbed mountains, dived in coral reefs, flown small planes, swum with dolphins, touched two-thousand-year-old tiles in a gate out of Babylon. She is a novelist, anthologist and short story writer who currently shares her life between the Pacific Northwest of the USA (where she lives with two cats, a one-eyed ex-feral street moggy rescue, and a retired international grand champion Maine Coon) and the wonderful fantasy worlds of her own imagination. You can find out more about Alma and her books on her website, at her Amazon author page, on Twitter, at her Facebook page, or at her Patreon page.