The night was quiet. The crackling of fire and the gentle sound of wind blowing through halls and rooms were all that Dagfinn could hear as the demon stuck two pinstriped legs out of the round alcove that functioned as a bedroom and dropped smoothly to the dark wood floors below.
A soul from Dagfinn’s collection lingered; a vibrant blue ball of light hovering softly. It rose up with a wave of a hand, hovering softly before the demon’s eyes. The hazy thoughts and memories of the human it had belonged to flickered just behind its surface. There was no better way to learn something than directly from the mind of someone who already knows it.
It was easy to get lost in someone else’s mind, however. The demon soon pulled back and flicked the soul away. Another long, quiet night in a row; they were enjoyable, to be sure, but Dagfinn wasn’t alone.
It had been nine hours since the other member of their household had departed; Solvej was overdue.
Dagfinn walked across the room, soft footsteps muffled by the thick rug in the center of the room. As the demon approached the bookshelves on the opposite wall, a quiet shuffling sounded from somewhere just out of sight. Dagfinn reached up to take a book off one of the higher shelves, putting on a show of not hearing it. There was a moment of expectant quiet as slender manicured fingers touched the spine.
Dagfinn flew up into the air just in time to avoid a fast red blur hurtling towards the bookshelf.
The tumbling mass of energy landed gracelessly in the spot Dagfinn had vacated. It stopped, rippling with magic as it transformed into a humanoid form and rose to two feet. The other demon glared up at Dagfinn, tossing long red hair over one shoulder, and complained. “You! I almost had you this time.”
“Almost,” Dagfinn agreed, hovering just out of reach. “Good evening, Solvej. How much of a mess have you made today?”
Solvej pouted in mock disapproval. “It wasn’t that bad. I finished my contract, and nobody died. It was like watching paint dry. What have you done all day, anyway?”
The demons stared at each other for a moment, locked in a stand-still, until Solvej’s stubborn frown twitched and broke out into a big toothy grin. The demon’s weight shifted, leaning back on one bent leg, and Solvej pounced.
Dagfinn dodged, but it was a near thing. Solvej stopped in mid-air, pivoted, and launched at Dagfinn again and again, laughing all the while.
Solvej’s laughter echoed through their cavernous rooms, bouncing off smooth stone walls. Dagfinn couldn’t help it. Within seconds their voices rang out together.
The two demons danced through the air, weaving back and forth, before Solvej made a lucky move and tackled Dagfinn to the ground. The demon lay still, accepting the loss, and smiled fondly.
“So,” Solvej said, grinning in a way Dagfinn recognized as ‘danger’ but could never quite manage to distrust. “Do you ever do anything that isn’t ‘nothing’?”
“This, with you.”
“You know that doesn’t count.”
“I had a contract just last week.”
“Oh please, that boring schoolteacher? What did you even do with him, read?”
That was in fact exactly what they’d done.
Solvej got closer, laying low to whisper conspiratorially into Dagfinn’s ear.
“I’ve been good, being patient like you said, and it’s finally paid off. I’ve got a lead on something that you’re really gonna love.”
Solvej’s face was just out of sight, but Dagfinn could hear that grin growing wider.
“How would you like to find Alvida?”
Dagfinn took a deep breath. Alvida, huh?
Approximately 2,500 miles above them, in a tiny town in northern Texas, a girl named Alvida jolted awake with fear in her eyes and a name she hadn’t said in years on the tip of her tongue.
Alvida clutched her chest with one shaking hand, willing her heart to stop pounding. The events of her dream quickly faded from her memory as she came back to reality, grounding herself in her surroundings, but one vivid image remained.
Solvej. Solvej’s face, grinning down at her. Solvej’s smile and teeth and eyes.
Solvej was coming for her. She had to be. What else could it mean?
Her breathing started to slow as her heartbeat gradually evened out. While she came to her senses she finally noticed her alarm clock ringing insistently on her bedside table. She focused on the sound, pushing her thoughts away until she could get them under control.
She wouldn’t be able to do anything about it if she couldn’t calm down first.
She pushed back her blankets and slowly got out of bed, walked over to the clock, and switched off the alarm. The silence was deafening.
Problem::Solution. First thing’s first, she had to get out of this hotel room. The last thing she needed if Solvej found her was to be alone when it happened. Better for everyone else; terrifying for her. Besides, she’d have an easier time thinking in a crowd. She wouldn’t feel helpless.
And -- Natasha would be there. If anyone could make Alvida feel safer, she could. That was incentive enough.
Her mind was made up. She was going to school, like any other day. She would not panic without coming up with a plan first.
She slowly and deliberately got dressed for the day, pulling on her jeans and the long green arm covers she never went out in public without. She grabbed her backpack but hesitated, hand hovering over her batons waiting on the ground next to it.
Thick teal metal rods with an embossed spiral wrapped around them; they weren’t technically weapons according to the school’s rules, so she could bring them wherever she wanted. She usually left them behind. She’d felt safe here lately, no longer needing them resting at her fingertips.
She picked them up and slipped them into her belt. Turning on her heel she walked briskly out of the room, shutting the door on the sharp, cloying quiet behind her.
It was a short walk from the hotel to her high school, and the cold morning air helped clear her head a little. Other students walked around her. Cars drove by, teenagers spilling out of them and waving goodbye to their parents. Everything was perfectly, beautifully mundane.
Alvida relaxed into the atmosphere as she walked. Like this, she could almost feel like nothing was wrong. Nothing had changed, after all. Why would it? She’d been careful. There was no trail leading back to her. There was no reason for Solvej to have any interest in this insignificant little town with barely enough magic to fill a bathtub. Maybe she’d been jumping to conclusions.
But the dream had to mean something.
Familiar faces passed her as she approached the school building, waving and greeting her. It had been just under a year since she came here, but everyone knew her name. The people here was all so… friendly. She still wasn’t used to it. Names and faces wove in and out, but they may as well be in the background. She didn’t really know these people, and she had no desire to change that.
“Al! Hey, Al!”
She really didn’t know how to make that fact any clearer.
Alvida did not turn to face the person calling her name, but that failed to be a deterrent. A girl ran towards her, sneakers loud on the paved walkway, and skidded to a stop in front of her.
Valerie, a sophomore with big blue eyes and short black hair she’d clearly tried to style like Alvida’s, gazed up at her with stars in her eyes. A moment later, sandals clapping against the ground, another kid jogged up to her and stopped. He gripped his knees and panted, trying to catch his breath.
Alvida didn’t know the boy -- Kyle -- very well. He generally seemed content to remain in the background of her life.
Valerie wholeheartedly refused to do the same.
Kyle glared at Alvida for a moment before skimming his eyes past her and focusing on Valerie. “Do you have to run so fast?” he complained. “I can never keep up with you, Val.”
Valerie ignored him, gripping the straps of her bright yellow backpack tight in her hands and grinning at Alvida.
“Good morning, Al!” she said. “How are you doing? Did you sleep okay?”
Alvida brushed past her and walked into the building. Valerie’s face fell.
“Okay then. Not great, I guess.” she said, staring at Alvida as she walked away. After a moment she put on another big smile and chased after her. “Hey, wait up! Want to walk to class together?”
Kyle frowned at her, then frowned even more at Alvida. “Val, our first class is nowhere near hers.” he said. Valerie seemed not to hear him, and followed Alvida into the school.
Alvida ignored them both. If Valerie wanted to waste time chasing after her, it didn’t really make a difference.
As she started to walk down the hall, she felt a prickling on the back of her neck. Something felt… off. She paused, and turned back to look.
A boy, tall and broad-shouldered with dark skin and long black dreadlocks, was leaning against the wall by the front door. His eyes were fixed on Valerie, but as Alvida watched him they drifted up towards her. He seemed relaxed, hands in his pockets and in no rush to get to class, but she was taken aback by the look in his eyes.
Pure wrath, directed unambiguously at her.
Alvida furrowed her brows and wracked her brain, trying to place him. After a moment, she recognized him. Elijah, senior year -- like her. She’d heard his name a few times from Natasha, but she couldn’t remember ever interacting with him herself.
What was his problem with her?
Alvida turned away and continued walking down the hall. Whatever it was, it wasn’t like it actually mattered.
Alvida’s classes passed by in a blur. She tried half-heartedly to pay attention to her teachers, but she couldn’t make herself focus. Solvej and the dream were the only things on her mind.
Before long it was lunch time. Alvida loaded up her tray with meat, fastidiously pushing the vegetables the school provided aside, and sat down at her table. One of her friends, Dennis, greeted her with a nod. He looked concerned when she ignored him, setting down her tray and staring vacantly at her food, but he soon returned to his conversation.
“Look, Seth,” he said, addressing the third member of their group. “You can’t just do things like that. It’s embarrassing. You’re making us look bad.”
Seth ignored him, resting his face on his hands. He stared dreamily across the cafeteria where Fahrenheit Alcantara, ‘Fahra’ to her friends, was sitting with a large group of friends and laughing loudly.
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about, cut that out.” Dennis snapped.
“What do you care, anyway?” Seth said, not taking his eyes off Fahra. “You make yourself look bad enough wearing those sunglasses inside.”
“That’s not--” Dennis adjusted his shades and scowled at him. “First of all, I look great, fuck you. Second of all, obviously you staring across the room at a girl that doesn’t even know you like a creep reflects badly on me, you’re sitting right next to me. What if someone sees you?”
“I don’t care what anyone else thinks.”
“What if she sees you?”
Seth finally pulled his gaze away to glare at him. “Seriously, what does it matter to you? I know you don’t actually care if I look like an idiot. What is this about?”
Dennis tensed. “What are you talking about? Dude, don’t doubt my expert advice.” he gestured vaguely at Seth with one hand. “This whole romantic bullshit you’re doing, wanting your love life to be like some novel or whatever, it’s stupid and it’s gonna get you in trouble.”
“No it’s not,” Seth said, looking back at Fahra’s table. As he looked up he caught the eye of a girl sitting near her, who got up and started walking over.
Unaware, Dennis kept talking. “Look, I get it man, I do. Fahra’s super hot and all, it’s no surprise that you--”
“Oh, is she?” a smooth feminine voice cut in. Dennis dropped his fork.
“Fuck,” he said.
Dennis’s sister Lily, younger by barely 9 months, put one hand on the table and leaned down to smile wickedly at him.
“I was just coming over to give this back,” she said, waving a stack of paper in Seth’s direction. “But this conversation sounds much more interesting. Why don’t you tell me more about how stunningly attractive you suddenly find my best friend?”
“I didn’t-- That’s--” Dennis stammered. “I was just saying that, it’s not like I-- I mean, you know I wouldn’t--”
Seth was more or less tuning out their conversation, eyes fixed on the papers in Lily’s hand. “Um, is that…”
Lily shoved Dennis down the bench, taking his seat across from Seth. She pushed the tray of food in front of her away and reached over the table to give Seth his manuscript. “It is,” she confirmed. “Great job on the latest chapter, by the way. It was a good move to have Damon sent out of town, now your character will have to figure out how to deal with everything alone. Have you been thinking more about my suggestions?”
“Your…” Seth stared at her, his brain struggling to catch up. “Your suggestions? Wait, you’re the one who’s been editing my book and writing comments in it?”
“Of course I am,” she smiled. “You didn’t think it was Dennis, did you?”
“Well, no, it didn’t really seem like him, but I--” Seth glanced between her and Dennis. “I wasn’t sure if… How did you even get it, anyway? I’ve been giving it to him to read, I didn’t think he’d show anyone else…”
“Oh, don’t think too much about it. Dennis can barely do anything on his own, you can hardly blame him.”
Dennis bared his teeth at her and grabbed his lunch tray, picking up his burger to take a huge frustrated bite.
“For the record,” he said, with food in his mouth. “I stopped giving it to her to read weeks ago. I read that thing, Lily, I know what you’re trying to do, you can’t--”
Lily waved an arm dismissively in his direction and ignored him. “Anyway, Dennis forgot to bring it to school with him today, so I went into his room and got it for you.”
“I… Huh. Alright.” Seth said.
“Now that that’s settled,” Lily leaned back on the bench, staring at him with a calculating look in her eyes. “Why don’t you tell me why you’ve been staring at Fahra for the last ten minutes.”
Dennis buried his face in his hands. “Oh my god,” he groans.
Seth’s face turned red. “Oh, you saw that?”
“So much for ‘not caring what people think’,” Dennis muttered. Lily shot him a warning glare and leaned across the table.
“So, you like Fahra? Like, do you actually like her, beyond just thinking she’s cute?”
“I, uh,” Seth fiddled with his glasses, flustered. “Yeah, I like her. I mean, I don’t know her very well, but she seems… nice? I’d like to get to know her better.”
“God, this is a disaster,” Dennis said, but nobody was listening to him anymore.
“Are you going to ask her out?” Lily asked, staring across the table sharply.
“Well… I don’t know. Would it be worth it? Dennis seems to think it’d be a bad idea.”
“I think you should do it.” Lily said.
Dennis’s head snapped up. “Wait, what?”
Seth looked just as surprised. “Really? Do you think she’d say yes? What should I--”
“No, no, hang on, go back.” Dennis interrupted. “Lily, what the hell are you talking about?”
“What?” she asked, smiling innocently. “I actually think it’s a great idea.”
“No you don’t. I can absolutely guarantee you think it’s an awful idea, and I don’t know why you’re saying otherwise.”
She brushed him off, turning back to Seth. “I don’t know if she’d reciprocate, especially since you barely know each other, but you might as well. I know that a lot of guys like her, but she doesn’t get as much attention as you’d think. She kind of gives off this ‘unattainable’ vibe, so most people don’t bother. And I don’t even know what her type is,” she said, looking thoughtful. “So who knows what could happen? At least if you tell her how you feel you’ll know one way or the other.”
“And what if she says yes?” Dennis hissed, staring at Lily. “Have you thought that far ahead?”
“Well that’d be fantastic!” Seth said, face lighting up.
“See, Dennis?” Lily said, finally turning back to narrow her eyes at him. “Fantastic.”
Dennis planted his face right into the middle of his tray.
Back at her table, Fahra looked around. “Lily?” she called. “Where’d you go?” Finally spotting her, she stood up and waved at her. “Come back here! We need you!”
Lily smiled over at her and got up from the table. “It seems my presence is required.” she said. She turned back to Seth. “You can give the next chapter to me when you’re done, if Dennis is sick of playing go-between. I’m excited to read it. You’ve got a lot of good stuff set up, I can’t wait to see how you tie it together.”
She walked off, then stopped and called back as an afterthought. “Oh, Dennis, you’re coming to the library with me after school, right?”
Dennis mumbled something into his food. Lily accepted it as an answer, and left.
“Wow,” Seth said, watching her walk back to Fahra. “Dennis, your sister is a lot nicer than you led me to believe.”
Dennis raised up his head to stare furiously at him. “Are you a complete idiot?” he demanded. “Tell me you realize you can’t listen to a word she just said.”
A piece of beef fell off his shades and landed with a plop on his tray.
The conversation faded out at that point. Alvida, sitting further down along their table, wasn’t paying attention to any of it. The tension she’d pushed aside that morning was gradually trickling back as her thoughts dwelled on the dream.
Her first instinct had been to take the dream literally, and prepare for Solvej’s imminent arrival. But the more she thought about it the less plausible it seemed. For what she saw to be real she’d need a mental connection to someone at the scene, and she was sure that was impossible. Her connection to Solvej was gone. Severed the first chance she’d gotten, held off with every mental block she knew. There was no way Solvej was in her head.
She needed to sort out her thoughts. Was it possible she was overlooking something? It would help if she could remember the entire dream, but what she could recall was useless; just flickers and images, solely of her.
Lost in her thoughts, Alvida was completely disconnected from her environment. So it was no surprise that she didn’t see anyone approaching until the second another girl dropped onto the bench beside her.
“Hi, Al!” the girl said, a faint blush on her face and a smile as wide as her head. “Do you mind if I sit here?”
Alvida’s entire body tensed.
The girl fidgeted in her seat and gazed at Alvida expectantly. Alvida paused, thoughts of Solvej effectively banished from her head. Jess. Natasha’s… friend.
Jess was practically the physical embodiment of this town; friendly, and nosy, and somehow -- no matter where Alvida looked -- always there. Alvida couldn’t bring herself to like the girl. She was perfectly harmless, Alvida knew that, but she just couldn’t help feeling… on guard.
It would have been easy to deal with if it had been simple jealousy over how much of Natasha’s time the girl took up, but honestly Alvida didn’t really care about that. Natasha could do whatever she wanted. Alvida had never really thought they…
“Jess.” Alvida said, not bothering to answer her question. Being rude to her would only cause more problems than it solved. “What are you doing here? You usually sit with Natasha.”
“Well,” Jess said, twirling a strand of black hair around her finger and staring up at Alvida through her glasses. “I just thought you looked sort of lonely over here, so I wanted to come say hi.”
“I’m fine. You should go back to your table. Don’t you have your own lunch to eat?”
Alvida knew for a fact that she did, actually. She could see Jess’s tray abandoned at her table next to Natasha, who was watching them with a dark expression.
For some reason, Jess was having trouble answering. “Well, I…” she trailed off. Alvida watched her struggle through what should have been an easy question, and narrowed her eyes at her. Was she trying to lie about it? What was the point of that?
“...I can eat later, it’s fine.” Jess eventually said.
Alvida was saved from having to respond by Dennis, who’d slid down towards them and leaned across the table.
“So, you know,” he said, addressing Jess. “When I said ‘we should get one of these tables just for the three of us’ back in September I’m pretty sure you weren’t on the list.”
Jess frowned at him. “You can’t have a whole table for yourself, Dennis, there’s not enough room.”
“It’s been working out pretty good until today though, is the thing.” he said, face flat. “And I’m the last guy who’s gonna be like ‘hey no girls allowed’, but you just all keep coming over here.”
“Al’s a girl,” she pointed out. She’d never had much patience with Dennis. “Don’t be a jerk, Dennis.”
“Trust me, I’m very aware of that. And I don’t know if the rest of you are like, drawn to her magnetic lesbian pheromones or something--”
Jess stood up and slammed her hands down on the table. “Dennis!”
Dennis kept on talking as though he hadn’t been interrupted. “--but you’re pretty obviously bothering her, so why don’t you get lost?”
Jess froze. “What? I’m not… bothering her.” she looked down at Alvida. “Am I?”
Alvida stared blankly across the room, tuning them out again. Jess started to look conflicted.
“I… I’m sorry, Al.” she said, shifting her weight on her feet. “I just… Look, are you okay? It’s just that Natasha was saying earlier you looked upset, and...”
Her voice trailed off. There was a quiet cough behind her, and both girls looked back to see Natasha standing there.
Natasha stood there with her hands on her hips, short and chubby but taking up most of her space through pure force of attitude. She held Jess’s gaze with fierce brown eyes as the other girl turned around. She radiated disapproval.
Natasha was Alvida’s oldest and closest friend, and possibly the only person in the whole school who she actually cared about. The two of them had come to this town together, and Alvida had always taken it as fact that someday they'd leave together.
Though Alvida thought, as Natasha slowly softened and rolled her eyes at Jess, that there was a chance that wouldn’t happen.
It wasn’t a thought she enjoyed.
“Are you bugging Allie?” Natasha scolded Jess. “I told you she doesn’t want people ambushing her when she’s eating.”
“I’m sorry,” Jess said. “I just wanted to say hi. How come she doesn’t sit with us, anyway?”
Natasha scowled. Words like ‘codependency’ and ‘blending in’ flashed through Alvida’s head. She tried not to consider the obvious answer; that Natasha might not want her around when Jess was there.
Alvida had never asked. She hadn’t been sure she’d like the answer.
“She has other friends, we’ve talked about this.” Had they really? “Leave her alone.”
“Okay…” Jess looked dejectedly back at Alvida. “See you later, Al?” she said. Alvida shrugged, and Jess slowly walked back to her table.
Natasha lingered, hovering around Alvida. She studied her, looking thoughtful, before saying anything else.
“Allie,” she said, hesitantly starting a question, then seemed to think better of it. “We’ll talk later. You’re not gonna finish that, are you?” she motioned at Alvida’s full tray. Alvida handed it over to her without a second thought.
“No. I think I’m done here,” she said. “I’ve got something to do.”
“Alright.” she started to walk back, then stopped. “Be careful, alright?” she said seriously.
Natasha stared at her a second longer. Satisfied, she smiled widely and ran back to her table to finish off Alvida’s lunch. Alvida got up from the table.
“I’ll see you two later,” she said to Dennis and Seth.
“Bye,” Seth said, as Dennis mumbled a goodbye through a mouthful of burger.
Alvida walked out of the cafeteria. As she left, she passed Elijah, sitting at the table near the door. As she brushed past him a spark of static caught between them; tendrils of magic, green and red, instinctively seeking each other out.
Alvida didn’t notice. But Elijah did, and he looked up at her as he walked out. His harsh gaze followed her, but it had a thoughtful tint. After a moment he returned to his meal, deciding it was none of his business. He didn’t know what it meant.
Alvida would have, if she’d been paying attention.
The library was nearly empty when Alvida walked in. There was only one other student; a sophomore girl hovering around the history section, nose buried in a thick black book with decorative blood splatters on the cover. Alvida dropped her backpack heavy on the table in the middle of the room, making a loud thump. The girl squeaked in surprise and shoved her book back onto the shelf, running out in a hurry. Alvida ignored her.
Alvida took out a notebook and flipped to a blank page, settling in to map out her thoughts. The first thing she needed to do was try and recall as much of the dream as she could, sparing no detail.
It was easier said than done.
She remembered snippets; Solvej’s face. The feeling of being hunted. Dancing, and falling, and Solvej leaning over her with her teeth bared and that voice -- talking and talking, but Alvida couldn’t make it out until the last word.
Alvida. Her name.
But… there was something off about that.
That wasn’t what Solvej usually called her.
Alvida wrote down what she remembered in order, as well as she could, then went through it with another pen marking anything else that stood out as strange. The more she went over it, the less it made sense.
Solvej’s behavior was completely wrong. She was as flirty and playful as ever, and there was definitely plenty of that sense of danger that overwhelmingly followed her, but she’d never seemed so… at ease. Not around Alvida, at least.
It seemed more like an actual dream. Something just close enough to be plausible, but wrong enough that it could never really happen.
Alvida stared down at her paper, memories outlined and corrected and corrected again.
Could it really have been just a dream after all? Did she really have nothing to worry about? It had certainly felt real, before her panic had driven the majority of it as far out of her head as possible. But… it was possible, Alvida begrudgingly admitted, that she was a little paranoid when it came to Solvej.
If it had been real, not a normal dream at all, where would it have even come from?
Alvida knew for a fact she’d successfully blocked Solvej out. She knew because she could still remember vividly what it felt like to fail. Having Solvej in her head, struggling through her unpracticed blocks, hunting her down and streaming it live directly to her eyes--
No. This was nothing like that. She knew what Solvej felt like. They weren’t connected.
Nor could she think of any alternatives. If it had been a warning, sent by some old ally or a rival of Solvej’s looking to cause trouble, it would have stuck. It shouldn’t have been so easy for her to forget the details. Visions tended to have the same level of clarity as well, ignoring the fact that she’d never had one.
She double checked and triple checked her logic, but everything seemed to point to the same conclusion.
It was just a dream. She had nothing to worry about.
Alvida put her pen down on the table, closed her eyes, and breathed out slowly. A wave of relief washed over her. Tension that had been building since that morning -- solidifying and clawing at her and preparing her to grab Natasha and take the first train out of state -- slowly eased away.
She was still safe.
Reassured, Alvida stayed in the library for the rest of lunch. Eventually the bell rang signalling the start of her next class, but she didn’t move. She’d had an awful day and the last thing she wanted now was to sit through another hour of high school math. She put her things back in her backpack and settled down in one of the soft library chairs to read.
She’d picked a comic at random out of the library’s graphic novel section. It was the first volume of a series she’d never heard of, a cutesy romance about a group of high school girls in an after-school poetry club. It didn’t seem to have much of a plot, but she preferred it that way. She could just tune out and lose herself in the sense of normality.
That wasn’t something she’d ever really gotten to experience for herself, after all.
She tuned out the rest of her surroundings, only dimly aware of a rush of students walking past the open door of the library, and focused on the saccharine story as two characters fought over creative differences.
She wasn’t paying attention. So she was completely caught off guard when a familiar voice spoke quietly in her ear.
“So, what’cha reading?”
Alvida looked up and saw Natasha leaning over her chair, arms folded on the back, and staring down at her with a soft look in her eyes.
Alvida looked up at her, blinking a few times to clear her head. Natasha smiled.
“What, are you just now noticing me?” she said. “I’ve been here for a few minutes now.”
Alvida must have missed the last bell. Was school over already? Slowly looking around, she realized it was already 3:00. Resisting the urge to just lean back, rest her head on Natasha’s arms and enjoy the moment, she straightened in her chair.
“I was… distracted,” she admitted. She glanced back down at her book. “Wait...”
Natasha’s earlier question caught up with her. Alvida leapt out of the chair and twisted around to face her, hiding the book behind her back. “That’s just...” she stammered, face turning pink. “I wanted something to read, I…”
Natasha laughed at her, tucking her curly blonde hair behind one ear. “Relax, Allie.” she said. “You think it’s some kind of secret that you like girly manga? Everyone else at this school might be convinced you’re some kind of secret badass, but I know you.”
Alvida frowned. “Nobody should be convinced of any such thing.”
“Chill, I’m not saying anybody knows anything.” Natasha clarified, pushing herself off the back of the chair and walking around it to stand in front of her. “But you have to have noticed how people see you, and that attitude of yours doesn’t help. Even Jess thinks you’re some kind of misunderstood bad girl.” Her eyes flickered for a second, expression darkening. “I mean, not that she’s got a clue what she’s talking about.”
Alvida definitely didn’t want to talk about Jess. “What ‘attitude’?” she asked.
“Come on, Allie. We’ve been here a year, and you’re still as on edge as you were the day we got here. You’re the most mysterious person at this school. Maybe even in the whole town.” She shrugged, and looked off in a corner. “You’ve made friends, which I’m happy about, but they still don’t know a thing about you. Does anyone in this town know who you are?”
Natasha turned back, meeting her eyes again, and smiled. But there was something off, something sad in her eyes.
“You don’t think you should be the only person in my life.” Alvida said. It wasn’t a question.
Natasha looked conflicted. “It’s not… that,” she said, explaining nothing. Alvida went rigid. Thoughts shivered down her spine, as she dredged up every pointless insecurity she’d had over the past year. That Natasha wanted out, that now that they’d found somewhere to settle down she’d want something more normal.
That if Alvida left again…
Natasha hesitated, staring at the ground as she found the right words. Suddenly she looked up at her.
“It’s not that,” she repeated, more firmly. “Actually, I... kind of like that.”
Alvida’s train of thought paused.
“You know, being the only person who really knows you.” Natasha continued. “The only person you trust. I shouldn’t, but… I don’t really want that to change. If there was someone else…”
That dark look was back in her eyes, and Alvida suddenly wished she knew what it was.
“And you’ve never seemed like you minded. So it’s probably fine. But…” Natasha looked away again, arms crossed loosely in front of her. “Even if it’s okay for you not to have anyone else, I don’t… think I can do that.”
There it was. The truth Alvida had been trying to avoid.
Alvida picked her backpack up off the floor and put it on. Natasha kept talking.
“I’ve made tons of friends here, and they’re all great, but it feels like I can’t really be close to any of them. Not in any way that matters. I just wish I could tell someone the truth.” she stared at Alvida, pleading with her eyes. “I hate lying, I always have. You don’t know what that’s like, do you? You’ve gotten so good at not answering that people don’t even ask.”
Alvida walked to the door, slipping her book onto the table as she passed.
Alvida turned back, waiting at the door, and looked at her.
“I’m not going to say it’s okay for you to tell someone.” she said, voice flat. “It isn’t. You know what would happen.”
“I do know, but…” Natasha wavered, looking unsure. She never looked like that around Alvida. They had been together for years.
“It’s not safe to tell anyone.” Alvida repeated. “As for the rest,” she stopped. Breathed in. “You can do whatever you want.”
Natasha stared at her. “What does that mean?” she asked.
Alvida didn’t want to be having this conversation. She’d never asked. She didn’t want to ask.
A figure caught her attention out of the corner of her eye. Jess was standing down the hall in front of Natasha’s locker. She looked around, quickly growing from impatient to worried as the other students around her filed out of the school in pairs and groups. Alvida saw an out.
After ten years of running she didn’t know how to do anything else.
“It means,” she said, voice clear, as she pointed one finger towards where Jess stood. “That your friend is waiting for you.”
Natasha stepped out into the hall and looked where she was pointing, going still when she saw Jess. Alvida watched as the other girl continued looking around, brightening up when she saw the two of them. Natasha looked back at Alvida.
“You should go,” Alvida said. “You were going to walk home together, weren’t you?”
Natasha hesitated. She wanted to, it was obvious. She leaned towards Jess, one foot already forward to run off, but she kept Alvida’s gaze.
“Are you… going to be okay?” she asked.
For the first time in her life, Alvida wished she knew how to lie.
“I’ll see you later.” she said, turning around and walking slowly towards a different exit.
A moment later she heard heavy footsteps running behind her, in the opposite direction.
Alvida lay awake that night, staring up at the ceiling. She rolled over to look at her clock. 3:00 AM. She’d been lying there for hours. She couldn’t get to sleep.
To be perfectly honest, she wasn’t really trying. She’d almost forgotten by the end of the day, but now that she was back in bed, all she could think about was that dream.
And she was sure that was all it was, a dream, but it had felt real. She’d woken up panicked, been unsettled all day. She didn’t want to risk it happening again.
Thinking about the dream had inevitably led back to thinking about Solvej. It had been a long time since they’d last seen each other, but the memories were scorched in her brain.
Scorched outside of her brain too, in some cases.
Being with Solvej had been… bad. The kind of mistake most people don’t come back from. She’d spent so long pretending there wasn’t a problem, ignoring what Solvej was, what she was doing. Acting like she was the one in control.
But she’d gotten out. She’d run, and kept running, until she found somewhere else. Somewhere safe. Someone safe.
If Solvej tracked her down again, after all this... What would she even do?
Alvida stared up at the speckled dots of the hotel ceiling for a while longer, then slowly pushed herself out of bed. She needed to clear her head. Nothing was going to come of stressing over possibilities and fears.
She’d go for a walk. That always helped.
She got dressed, pulling on a hoodie, but she left her arm covers behind. It wasn’t like anyone else was going to be outside at three in the morning.
She walked down the street, breathing in the cold night air. It did help, though she couldn’t help feeling a disconnect with her surroundings. It was cool, but hardly appropriate for the beginning of January.
She’d always preferred places that snowed.
As Alvida walked, she realized the cold quiet streets weren’t as empty as she’d imagined. Hushed voices came out of a nearby alley. Curious, she grew closer.
Covered by shadow, two figures stood together down the alley. A man and a woman.
Or more accurately, Alvida realized when she got closer, a boy and a girl. They couldn’t have been older than 17, and the girl looked even younger.
Actually… as Alvida looked, she realized she knew one of them. That was Elijah, the boy who’d been watching her that morning. She didn’t recognize the girl at first glance, but Alvida had never paid much attention to her underclassmen. There was something about her that seemed familiar, at least.
The girl had Elijah pinned against a wall, one arm braced beside him, and ran a delicate finger up his chest.
“It seems like you’ve got a flair for dramatics, Elijah,” the girl said, in a smooth high pitched voice. Alvida strained her ears to pick it up. Did she know that voice? “This place is a little stereotypical, isn’t it?”
“Well, it’s not like I’m gonna bring you to my house.” Elijah said, shoving her off. “Here is fine.”
“Whatever,” the girl stepped back, resting one hand on her hip and staring up at him. “So? Why did you call me out here? Are you finally ready to make a commitment? You know I’ve been waiting forever to hear your answer.”
“Have I ever told you I hate the way you talk?”
The girl pouted. “Come on Elijah, don’t be like that.”
“That’s exactly what I mean. God, it’s like you’re 14 or something. I’ll give you an answer if you quit this little show you’re doing, how’s that?”
Alvida took a step back, cheeks slightly pink. She wasn’t entirely sure she understood what they were talking about, but she was pretty sure it was none of her business. She didn’t need to know what a couple of strangers were getting up to at night.
She started to walk away, but the girl spoke again.
“Fine, I’ll stop.” the girl said, her voice shifting. Growing darker. Sharper. An undercurrent of magic shivered through the air. “It’s served its purpose, anyway.”
A shock of fear stabbed through Alvida with every word, every syllable. She could barely move. She jerked her head back, eyes frantically searching back through the shadows.
This was a nightmare. This whole day, starting from the second she woke up. It couldn’t be real, none of it.
That was Solvej’s voice.
The girl stepped back into the center of the alley, lines on the ground around her glowing to form what Alvida could now see was a crudely drawn summoning circle with Solvej’s sign in the middle.
Had… Elijah summoned her?
The alley filled with soft red light, and Alvida pressed herself flat around the corner out of sight. She didn’t look. She didn’t need to in order to know what she’d see.
That girl’s body, bathed in light. Her hair uncurling from its loose auburn bun to spill over her shoulders, red as blood. Cheap sneakers dissolving into light, replaced by tall dark boots. Her skin darkening to a reddish pink, speckled with salmon spots. Sharp horns curling out of her head while her mocking grin filled up with razor sharp teeth.
Solvej’s eyes staring across the alley, terrifying and exhilarating and dangerous.
“And you say I’m dramatic.” Elijah said, clearly unimpressed.
Alvida couldn’t breathe.
“What, you can’t appreciate a good theatrical entrance?” Solvej asked. “Honestly Elijah, I’m offended.”
“I don’t really see the point. We’re the only ones here, and I already knew what you look like.”
Solvejs grin widened, showing off even more pointy teeth. “You want to get right to business, then? A man after my own heart. Are you ready to make a contract or what?”
“A contract, Elijah, keep up.” Solvej complained. “That is why you summoned me again, right? Or am I going to have to sit through more waffling?”
“Would you believe me if I said I was just curious?” Elijah asked cautiously.
Solvej’s eyes gleamed. “You? No.” she said. “I wouldn’t have responded to your summon if I thought you were like that. Come on, Elijah, make it worth my time.”
He was quiet a moment longer. Solvej let out a sharp sigh of irritation.
“Look, at least tell me what you want. All this stalling is really killing the mood here.”
“I...” he said, finally. “Want to be stronger.”
Solvej grinned. “You’re pretty strong already, you know. What more could you possibly want?”
“It’s not enough.” he snapped. “I want to be better.”
“Don’t people usually make these contracts for power anyway? That’s what I want. I want as much as you can give me. I want to meet my limits, and surpass them. I want to go further than my full potential. I,” he bit out. “Want to be stronger than anyone else I know.”
The alley was silent.
“Well?” he demanded. “You can do that, right?”
“Oh, Elijah,” she said quietly, a smug look on her face. “I can definitely do that.”
Solvej unwrapped the long crimson whip looped around her neck and waist and held it taut between both hands. “You know,” she said, sounding as though it’s an afterthought. “Humans have limits for a reason. Are you sure that’s what you want?”
“Yes. I’m sure.”
“Just checking,” she said. She stretched out the whip and then released it, letting it snap back together. It’s length retracted and hardened, reshaping into a thin sharp blade. Solvej held it in one hand, looking at it thoughtfully.
“You’ll have to give me something in return, of course.” she said.
“My soul, right?”
“Of course not, don’t be ridiculous. Why would I make a contract for that? I can just take it after you die anyway.” she looked up at him. “There’s three things I want.”
She held up one short chubby finger. “First, your verbal agreement that placing this contract marks us as allies and that you won’t make a similar arrangement with a rival demon, at risk of rendering the contract null and void.”
“Fine,” Elijah said. “I’m not exactly eager to go through this again.”
She held up a finger on her other hand. “Second, I want your permission to summon myself to your location if I deem it necessary.”
“Absolutely not.” Elijah snapped. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
“I’ll need to check up on you, Elijah. You’ve made a dangerous wish, you know. Wouldn’t want anything to happen, would you?”
“No, this is is ridiculous.” Elijah growled. “It’s not worth it. Forget about it.”
“But this is what you’ve always wanted, isn’t it Elijah?”
“To give a demon free rein into my life? Not especially, no.”
Solvej pouted, making a show of thinking about it. “How about a compromise, then? I still want that, but you can designate specific areas that are off-limits. As many as you want, and I won’t go there. Is that better?”
Elijah was quiet.
“My house,” he said after a moment. “You can’t go there.”
“No problem. Anywhere else?”
He thought for a minute. “School.” he said. “And… my sister’s school, too.”
“Fine. Is that it?”
He hesitated, brow wrinkled in concentration, but then nodded. “Yeah. That’s it.”
“Alright, then it seems we’re in agreement.” Solvej said, bending her head down to stare up at him through thick red lashes. “I accept your contract.”
The circle lit up with bright red light. The air rippled with magic and the scent of brimstone flooded the street. The two of them stared at each other across the alley, severe lighting casting dark shadows across their faces. Solvej bared her sharp teeth.
“There’s one last thing, Elijah, and then you’ll have what you want.”
“What do I need to do?”
Solvej held out the sharp thin knife she’d been playing with.
Elijah didn’t take it.
“Come on, don’t be a baby.” Solvej pushed. “We’re almost done.”
Elijah stared at the blade, expression flickering. Finally he swore and grabbed it out of her hands.
“Okay, fine.” he said. “Let’s do this.”
Elijah knelt down on the ground in front of the circle. He held the blade over his hand. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes as he drew it across his skin.
He could feel the blood spilling out. Reluctantly, he opened his eyes. He dipped a shaking finger in the pool of his blood cupped in his hand, and slowly drew out the letters of his name on the ground across the circle.
If his shoulders kept shaking after he was done, if he flinched whenever he saw the stream of red coming from his hand out of the corner of his eye, well. At least no one who mattered was watching.
He looked up. “Is that it? Are we done?”
“Not quite,” Solvej said, grinning down at him. “I still have to fulfill my end of the bargain.”
She beckoned him up and closer to her. He followed. She stared at him.
“It’s really not so bad, you know.” she said. He frowned. She carried on, not bothering to clarify. “I guess this might actually be the first time you do this? Pretty weird, if you ask me, but to each their own.”
“What are you talking about?”
She grabbed his face and pulled him closer, pressing her lips against his.
He froze, unable to react as she kissed him. She moved closer, resting her hands on his chest. He moved to push her away, but before he could he felt something.
Power. Pure magic entering his body, absorbing through his skin through every point of contact between them. He drank it in, feeling himself grow stronger.
As he felt the transfer start to slow he reached out for his new power and shoved Solvej across the alley as hard as he could.
“Don’t ever do that again.” he said, wiping his mouth off with the back of his hand.
“Whatever you say,” Solvej said, licking her lips. “I’ll be back to check up on you soon. Enjoy your super strength.”
There was a flash of red light, and then the demon was gone.
Alvida came around the corner the second Solvej was out of sight.
Elijah looked back at her. He narrowed his eyes. Slowly, he turned to face her.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
Alvida didn’t answer. She just stared at him, glaring hard, as she hurried to put her thoughts in order.
Elijah had summoned Solvej. From the sounds of things it wasn’t the first time, either. She’d been here, in this town. Less than a mile away.
She must have known. Alvida didn’t know how, didn’t know what random vein of misfortune resulted in Solvej finding this town, but she had. And if she’d been here, she had to know Alvida was here too.
Elijah had just done something incredibly stupid, and as a result both of them were in danger.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she demanded, not even trying to keep the venom from her tone.
“None of your business. Go home.”
She wouldn’t have a home to go back to soon enough.
“I just saw you. You made a contract with--” she cut herself off before saying Solvej’s name. Elijah hadn’t said it once, he probably didn’t even know it. “With a demon.”
Elijah didn’t look the least bit concerned.
“It’s not like you can prove anything,” he said.
Prove anything, why would she need to prove anything? What the hell did he think this was?
“I don’t need to.” she said. “Break the contract. There are still ways out of it, I can help--”
He cut her off. “Go home, Alvida.”
She had no idea what to do. Why was this happening? Why now? She had finally started to feel like she was safe here.
Elijah walked towards her. It took effort for her not to flinch. Thinking of Solvej being here. Solvej’s hands on him. ‘Stronger than anyone else I know,’ he’d said.
A spark of static caught between them as he brushed past her. Tendrils of magic, green and red, instinctively seeking each other out. Solvej’s magic coating him, reacting to hers.
She ran her fingers over her shoulder, feeling the tingling sensation subside.
She gritted her teeth.
“Are you an idiot?” she shouted, whirling around to stare after him. “Don’t you get it? You’re in danger!”
He stopped walking.
“You can’t possibly think you’re safe,” she carried on. “That those pathetic limits you set up will stop her. Or do you think it’ll be okay because she claimed you, that she doesn’t want to hurt you?”
He narrowed his eyes, glaring back at her.
“Do you even care about the consequences?” she asked. “What she could do to you -- to everyone you care about?”
He turned back towards her. For a moment, she almost thought she’d gotten through to him.
“I can take care of myself.” he said, and walked out of the alley.
Alvida stared after him.
Heart pounding with adrenaline she stood alone, almost uncomprehending. He’d just walked away. He hadn’t even listened to her.
Whirling around, she drove her fist hard into the wall of the alley. A crackle of lightning trailed behind her. The brick was cracked. She barely noticed.
What now? What the hell was she supposed to do??
Whatever the hell Solvej was planning, she’d act fast. Alvida would only have a limited time to get things in order. It would only take about fifteen minutes to get back to the hotel and grab her things. There likely wouldn’t be any trains coming that late at night, so they’d have to run on foot, like before. They’d have to leave fast to be far enough away. She’d just have to drop by Natasha’s house and get her--
Natasha, who didn’t want Alvida to be the only person in her life anymore. Who wouldn’t follow her.
Natasha was going to stay behind, stay in this town they’d gotten used to.
And when Alvida couldn’t be found, Solvej was going to raze it to the ground.
Her thoughts were spinning. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t leave. Not with those kinds of consequences. She couldn’t run away again, not from this.
Alvida looked up, staring at the wall where she’d cracked the brick, barely seeing what was in front of her eyes.
She had to stop Solvej.