It wasn't the first time that Max woke up in the middle of the night, plagued once again by haunting dreams of the mistakes she made, her mind cluttered with "buts", "ors" and "what ifs". And like every night for the past several weeks, she would stare up at the darkened ceiling of her old room, wondering if she deserved to be here – deserved to be alive – when so many had suffered because of her decisions. The light of the full moon spilled through the window as Max raised her right hand over her face, thinking of all the damnable things this one limb had made her do.
You see, Maxine Caulfield – or "Max, never Maxine" as she would always say – was far from a normal girl as one can be, even when you are living in a world where witches play racing games on brooms and aliens buy fresh fruit on the market street. Max had the power to control time. While that may seem impressive, the most she has ever done was turn back the clock a few seconds and, at best, travel back during her own life through photographs. There was one time where she actually stop time itself, but that's a story she'd rather not repeat.
The one question that constantly plagued Max's mind was: why? Why her? Up until a couple of months ago, she was just an ordinary high school senior that had no special qualities other than being a cliché wallflower that always sat back and just watched the world go by through the lens of her camera.
But then she started having these nightmares – premonitions about the future of Arcadia Bay and its destruction at the hands of a massive tornado. At first, she though they were just wild, imaginative dreams – stress-induced visions from working too hard. But her whole life changed that very same day when she went into the girl's bathroom and watched a girl being shot in broad daylight.
Max didn't know what compelled her to do it – looking back, it seemed rather stupid – but she instinctively held out her right hand and suddenly, time rewound itself. She was back in class just minutes before the shooting occurred. That's when she discovered she had the power to reverse time with her right hand. She used that power to prevent the shooting from happening; she altered the course of history. Or maybe she was always meant to do that. Ever since Max learned she had time controlling powers, she had done a lot of research on time travel, even after Arcadia Bay was destroy. A recently submitted thesis by some scientist named Croix Meridias said that history cannot be altered and any changes that happen in history only occur because they were meant to. So if that were true, the Max was always supposed to stop that girl from being shot – or at least, that what she believes to make herself feel better.
As if fate was in motion, the girl she saved turned out to be her childhood friend, Chloe Price, whom Max had regrettably lost contact with during their five-year separation. Chloe was rightfully pissed at her for not staying connected; Max admitted that her excuse for not calling her was rather pathetic. But when she found out that Max had time controlling powers, she was very eager to get back into Max's good graces. It was likely out of selfish reasons, but Max didn't care at the time; she was just happy to have her best friend back. They had played around with her power for a while: making funny predictions, trick shots on bottle (finding the bottles, on the other hand, was pure ass), and sneaking into the school pool at night and slipping past the guards without getting caught. Max had wished from the bottom of her heart that those days would have lasted forever. But when you have time-altering powers, you quickly realize that nothing is eternal.
Though they stumbled into it by accident, they uncovered a hidden conspiracy that not only lead to the death of Chloe's friend, Rachel Amber, but was responsible for a number of tragedies that nearly caused one of her closest friends to kill herself. Max wondered if she was still alive; the hospital was more fortified and a good distance away from the main part of town; maybe she got out okay. But it was probably finding Rachel Amber's body in the junkyard that hit them the hardest – having to watch Chloe, who always seemed so strong, break down like that was heartbreaking. And then she was shot, right in the forehead, in front of her. Max managed to prevent that from happening again, but it still haunted her memories. And the man who committed all these atrocities – Max quickly shook her head. No, she didn't want to think about him for as long as she lived.
And then it finally came: the predicted tornado that would devastate Arcadia Bay and kill hundreds of people. Max and Chloe had been at the lighthouse when it happened, watching the terrible weather giant inch closer to the shores. Maybe it was out of desperation to change something, but Chloe had insisted that Max go back in time and let her die, somehow believing that her being alive was somehow the cause of all this. But that…that was just plain ridiculous. How could a weather phenomenon be the result of her not dying? Max had had the visions before she had seen Chloe in the bathroom, meaning it was already happening even before Max had her powers. And if Professor Croix's thesis was right, the tornado was going to happen regardless of whether or not Chloe was alive. Max rejected the idea. If the tornado was going to happen anyway, then the only difference would be that Chloe wouldn't be with her anymore, and Max, after everything they've been through during that week from Hell, couldn't do it.
They watched the tornado devastate their hometown from afar, holding each other for strength.
The morning after, they had driven through town, hoping by some miracle that there would be survivors waiting on the roads. But there were none as far as they knew. The street was littered with bodies; neither Max nor Chloe stuck around long enough to see who they were. They were quiet the entire ride out of town, only Chloe's hand in her own giving her some warmth from the numbing feeling in her chest as she looked back at the ruins of Arcadia Bay for the last time.
After that, they had made their way up to Seattle toward her parent's house. They had expectedly been worried about Max and nearly drowned her in happy tears when she and Chloe arrived on their doorstep. Max's parents had, of course, allowed Chloe to stay, more than understanding of her predicament. They had spent the past few weeks trying to pick up the shattered pieces of their lives and figure out what they were going to do next. Max had tried getting into contact with her school friends in hopes that someone would respond and prove they were alive, but there had been no messages thus far.
And that's what brought Max to where she is now, lying awake at night, staring at the hand that had changed so much of her life in such a short amount of time. But she was quickly snapped out of her thoughts when she felt a strong arm wrap around her waist and felt a weight on her shoulder. She turned her head sideways and stared into Chloe's big blue eyes.
Another thing that had changed since the destruction of Arcadia Bay was her relationship with Chloe. Max wasn't sure if it was because they needed each other after experiencing such devastating loss, but she and Chloe had crossed the border from best friends to a more romantic sense in a few short weeks. Some may think it's unrealistic and that they are just using each other to cope, but Max liked to disagree. Her parents, of course, were well aware of their relationship; so much so that they were forced to sleep in separate rooms. Luckily, her parents were away for the weekend to visit her sick aunt, so they had no worries about getting caught. Not that Chloe ever cared about caution to begin with.
"Hey," Chloe muttered softly in her ear. "Still thinking about…you know?"
"I don't see how I can't," said Max. "It just happened a little while ago."
"Look, none of that was your fault, all right," said Chloe. "That Doctor Crew guy – "
"Professor Croix," Max corrected.
"Whatever," said Chloe, rolling her eyes. "They said the tornado was going to happen anyway, so it's not like you did anything wrong."
"But I didn't do anything right, either," grumbled Max. "I don't know, Chloe. I feel like I could have warned people, at least. Maybe I could have gone back far enough and told them what was coming."
"That tornado came completely out of nowhere; no one would have believed you until it was too late," said Chloe sympathetically. "Believe me, I wish I could have saved mom and…okay, maybe David, too. But that professor guy, he said history can't be changed. It was going to happen, no matter how hard we fought it. I think at this point now, the best thing we can do is accept it."
"Look at you dishing out sagely advice," said Max teasingly. "Are you high again?"
"And what if I am?" said Chloe with a wicked grin. Max slapped her playfully and Chloe laughed as got up off the bed. "Ugh…now I can't go back to sleep because of all this depressing shit. I'm gonna get a beer from the fridge."
"Try not to pass out on the couch again," said Max as Chloe stepped out the door.
"No promises!" Chloe called back.
Shaking her head lightly, Max fell back on her bed and stared at her hand once more. She was making an effort to get past all the tragedy she had suffered in recent days, but there was still something that Max couldn't quite figure out about the whole thing. Where did her power come from? In a world full of magic, one wouldn't think too deeply on the matter, but Max knew that she wasn't a witch or a Demi-Human – she and Chloe had gone to multiple doctors around Seattle to be sure. And even if she was, she had been told repeatedly that bending the fabric of time-space was impossible for any single person, even for those strong witches over in Europe. So where did this power come from –
Max quickly shot up in her bed. She recognized the sound of a smashing bottle from those hellish hours of searching for them in the junkyard. It sounded like it was coming from the kitchen. Did Chloe trip or something? But then she heard a muffled yell, followed by a quiet thud! Then came the voices – there were multiple, and all of them sounded like men. Someone had broken into their house and they had Chloe! Max quietly threw herself out of bed and stealthily edged her way out of the door and into the hallway. Time for a little Blackwell Ninja action, she thought.
Max silently stepped down the hall, thanking her mother for investing in the godawful pink shag carpeting she had bought on a whim, because it muffled the sound of her feet as she started to climb down the stairs. When she reached the bottom step, the stairs opened up to the living room, and she saw at once where the intruders were: two men were standing in front of the fireplace as they lit the grate, illuminating the darkened room in a reddish-orange glow. The man who had set the fire was wearing a long, tattered white coat that concealed his face, and the other man was wearing a dark-drown hooded coat and covered his face with a bronze mask. And there, lying on the floor, Max could make out Chloe's electric blue hair against the carpeting.
Max covered her mouth to stop herself from gasping. Immediately, the worse thoughts occurred to her. Then she listened intently, for the man in the white coat started speaking; his voice was harsh and raspy like it was straining.
"You didn't kill her, did you, Amon? It would be such a shame to lose such a healthy specimen."
"I do not kill unless it is necessary, Ruvik," said the man called Amon; his voice sounded strong and imposing. "And neither will you. This girl is not involved; she was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"Did you say the same thing when you killed Charlotte Jansson and her husband?" said Ruvik with an amused chuckle.
"A necessary sacrifice," said Amon resolutely. "If she were still alive, she would have hunted me down and we wouldn't be having this conversation, now would we?"
"I suppose so," said Ruvik. He kneeled down next to Chloe, running a hand through her hair. In the firelight, Max could tell that his hand was covered thoroughly in burn marks. "Ah, such a waste. By the way, where is Acnologia? I assumed he would be here by now."
"That arrogant dragon does whatever he wishes," said Amon, crossing his arms with a hint of annoyance. "In truth, I will be surprised if he does show up."
"Don't worry, my old friend, he will turn up," said Ruvik confidently, standing up straight. "After everything we've told him, he would be a fool not to accept our offer. Although, I personally never thought we would ever ally ourselves with a monster like Acnologia."
"Normally, I wouldn't either – that man has a habit of betraying those he works with," said Amon.
Brow furrowed, Max inclined her ear around the corner of the stairway, listening very hard. There was a pause, and then Ruvik spoke again.
"How long do you plan on staying here, Amon?"
"Only a few days," said Amon, "just until the owners of this home return. After I am finished with my business here, I shall move westward, crossing the ocean until I reach Japan. I figured the sense of irony would be appropriate. However, we still can't move forward with the plan just yet. It would be foolish to act before the International Chariot Race Tournament is over."
Chariot Race. Max was sure she heard something like that before – maybe from Warren? He was always into some weird, super obscure shit.
"The International Chariot Race Tournament, you say?" said Ruvik. "Forgive me, Amon, but I don't understand why we should wait until the Tournament is over?"
"Because, at this very moment, Demi-humans are pouring in from all over the world, and every meddler from the Magic Council will be on duty, on the watch for signs of unusual activity, checking and double-checking identities. They will be obsessed with security. I only made it this far because I was careful. I'm not going to risk losing everything now."
Max was lost in a haze of confusion. She had distinctly heard the words "Magic Council" and "Demi-humans". It became clear to Max that the people lounging in her parent's living room were Demi-humans, and if they were talking in such hushed voices about the Magic Council, then they were clearly dangerous. Max gripped her shirt in anxiety and listened more closely still.
"So you are still determined, then?" said Ruvik coolly.
"Certainly, I am determined, Ruvik." There was a note of menace in his voice now.
A slight pause followed – and then Ruvik fell back on the loveseat, making himself comfortable near the warm fire while his feet were raised on Chloe's back; they were as scarred and scabbed as the rest of him.
"Forgive my ignorance, Amon," said Ruvik, "but why do we need to wait until after we have caught Akko Kagari to move forward with our plan? We can do it just fine without her."
Another pause, more protracted, and then –
"Without Akko Kagari?" breathed Amon softly.
"It just doesn't make sense to risk so much for one girl," said Ruvik, folding his hands together like a shrewd businessman. "Certainly, the girl is an important factor to consider, but one we only need to worry about for a later date. After tonight, we will have all the components we need to move forward. You know Akko Kagari is well guarded by a number of powerful witches – there doesn't seem to be any reason to take that risk when we are already in the final stages – "
"You're not wrong," said Amon in a low voice. "We do have everything. There would be no point in going after Akko Kagari…."
"So you agree with me, Amon?" said Ruvik, sounding relieved to be free of such an arduous task. "Once we have what we need from here, we can leave and carry out our plans as intended. There would be no need for us to even lay a hand on Akko Kagari."
"So then we agree we should forgo any attempts at seizing Akko Kagari. It's like you said, we will have everything we will need to carry it out after tonight…. But then, that would mean going against the Master's orders, wouldn't it? They specifically said that Akko Kagari must be in attendance, but I'm certain the Master will be understanding as to why we had to defy their wishes. They won't be too mad, I'm sure…."
From her place at the corner of the stairway, Max could see the man called Ruvik sit up straight in his seat, his hand was gripping the rest like a frightened cat. A staggering silence filled the living room as Amon and Ruvik stared at one another. For a few seconds, Max could hear nothing but the fire crackling. Then Amon spoke once more, in a whisper that was almost a hiss.
"The Master has their own reason for using Akko Kagari, as I have already explained to you, and it is not our place to question their orders. We have waited fourteen years. A few more months will make no difference. As for the protection surrounding the girl, I believe the Master's plan will be effective. All that is needed is a little patience from you, Ruvik – patience you will find, unless you wish to incur the wrath of the Master – "
"I have no doubt of our Master's ability, Amon!" said Ruvik impatiently. "All through our journey, I have gone over the plan in my head – Amon, Aleister Crowley's disappearance will not go unnoticed for long, and if we proceed, if I murder – "
"If?" whispered Amon. "If? If you follow the plan, Ruvik, the Magic Council will never need to know that anyone else has died. Aleister Crowley has always isolated himself from the world, so it will be a long time before anyone takes notice of his disappearance. We will proceed quietly and without fuss. Just one more necessary death, Ruvik, and our path to Akko Kagari will be clear. I am not asking you to do it alone. As we speak, our hidden ally will have rejoined us – "
"That's another thing that I have to question, Amon," said Ruvik, the merest trace of contempt in his voice. "How do you know they can be trusted. You know who - or more specifically - what they are - "
"And that is why we must have faith," said Amon. "The Master's plans are more complex than either of us could perceive, but we both know they will succeed in the end."
"I hope so," said Ruvik, leaning his head in his hand. "Do you understand what I had to go through to get to Aleister Crowley? Sneaking my way into Academy City wasn't easy."
"Your actions will not go unnoticed by the Master," said Amon, nodding slightly. "We needed someone of Alesiter Crowley's intelligence to make this work. Luckily, his body was already crippled, so he didn't put up much of a fight when you arrived and brought him to me. And on top of that, we managed to pry some useful information out of him. The Master will be very pleased with you, Ruvik."
"I will admit, I didn't think he would tell us that when I captured him," said Ruvik. "Another one of the Master's mechations, I suppose."
"It wouldn't surprise me," said Amon. "That little bit of information proved itself to be invaluable. Without it, we could never have formed our plan. It's a pity that we had to kill him. With a mind like his, he could have proved useful, but his belligerent attitude towards Demi-Humans would only have proved a hindrance in the long run. Rather hypocritical, considering he was one himself. In any case, letting him return to Academy City would have led to awkward questions being asked by the Magic Council, and his own shrewd mind would have no doubt formulated a thousand different ways of seeking revenge before breakfast. It was better this way."
Around the corner of the stairway, Max suddenly became aware that her hand was shaking violently and dripping with cold sweat. These intruders had killed a man. They were talking about it so casually as if they were talking about the weather. They were dangerous – a couple of psychopaths. And they were planning more murders – this girl, Akko Kagari, whoever she was – was in danger –
Max knew what she must do. Now, if ever, was the time to go to the police. She could creep back upstairs, make a call on her cellphone, and wait for help to arrive…but then what would happen to Chloe? What if they used her as a hostage. Max considered maybe using her powers again – she could turn back time again and again until she rescued Chloe and they both got out of there…. Then Amon started speaking again, and Max remained where she was, frozen to the spot, listening with all her might.
"One more murder…our hidden ally in Luna Nova…Akko Kagari is as good as ours, Ruvik. It is decided. There will be no more argument. But quiet…I think Acnologia has finally arrived…."
Ruvik lifted himself up from his seat and then they both turned towards the darkened entryway into the kitchen. Max strained her ears to listen…and then she heard movement coming from the darkness. Someone, or something, emerged seamlessly from the shadows, and for some reason, Max found herself paralyzed with fright.
A tall and muscular man stepped forward into the light of the fireplace, stepping over Chloe's unconscious body, though it seemed unlikely that he did this out of consideration for her. His skin was so dark that it nearly blended in with the background, but much of his skin was covered in dark-blue tattoos that matched the color of his wild, unruly hair. Max has no idea who this man is, but he radiated with strength and malevolence that even someone like her could recognize. Horrified, transfixed, Max stared at the monstrous man as he seated himself on the couch facing the fireplace; Ruvik seated himself once more and Amon chose to remain standing.
There was a sweat on Max's forehead now, and her hand was trembling so much she needed to hold it down with the other. She was so out-of-her-mind terrified that she missed Amon and Ruvik exchanging words with this new person, Acnologia if she heard correctly. Max didn't understand why this was happening to her. She wanted more than anything to go back up to her bed and wake up with Chloe beside her, pretending that all of this was a part of some vivid nightmare. The problem was that her legs didn't seem to want to move. As she stood there shaking and trying to master herself, the new intruder suddenly spoke up, his voice deep and menacing.
"We came to this worthless human household for a reason, didn't we?" he said.
"Yes, the girl that lives in this home has something we need," said Amon.
"Then shouldn't we invite her inside?" said Acnologia. "I smelled her scent the moment I arrived. She's been standing on the stairs this whole time, listening to every word we say."
Max didn't even have a chance to raise her right hand. Amon suddenly threw his hand her way and her entire body suddenly seized up. It felt like every cell in her body was screaming in pain, her blood was boiling like it was on fire.
"Eavesdropping is very rude, Miss Caulfield," said Amon. "Please, come join us.
Before she even understood what was happening, she was suddenly hovering inches off the ground and floating inside the living room. This Amon person seemed to have the power to control her body, which was bad because she couldn't activate her rewind power unless she held up her right hand. Amon beckoned her closer and Max's feet brushed against Chloe's unconscious body as he moved her in the middle of their group, setting her in front of the fire so that it cast long, spidery shadows upon the walls. Though her feet were planted firmly on the ground, Amon didn't let her move freely – he seemed to be aware of Max's power and wasn't taking any chances.
"You heard everything, girl?" said Ruvik coldly.
"Just enough to get the police interested in investigating you creeps," said Max defiantly, for now that she was inside the room, now that the time had come for some action, she decided to be braver. "I heard about how you killed that Crowley guy and your planning on killing more! And before you get any ideas," she added, on a sudden inspiration, "my parents will be back any minutes now, and when they see – "
"You parents are gone for the weekend to visit an ailing relative," said Amon, very quietly. "The only people in this house are you and your girlfriend. Nobody knows we are here and you have not called anybody to warn them. Don't bother lying to us, Miss Caulfield. We planned this visit with every angle covered."
"Why?" asked Max. "Why come here? Why my house?"
"Because you're special," said Amon. "By now, you have already discovered that you possess the power to reverse time – yes, we are fully aware of it, Miss Caulfield" he added to Max's surprised look. "I can imagine that you've been asking yourself for weeks now why you suddenly have the power to warp the very fabric of temporal space despite being born a human. Well, the answer is actually much simpler than you might think. For you see, inside your right hand, is something that we desperately need: The Star of Time."
"The Star of…Time?" Max repeated, feeling very confused.
"An ancient stone with the power to manipulate time itself," Amon explained. "It's one of the Seven Stars of Arcturus which, when brought together, can reshape reality itself."
"But why do I have it?" asked Max. "When did I get it?"
"You received the Star purely by chance," said Ruvik. "It used to be guarded by a woman named Charlotte Jansson, an old colleague of ours. But when she was hunting down our good friend Amon here, she decided that it would be too dangerous to keep on her person when they finally confronted each other. Charlotte was in Arcadia Bay when she made that decision and decided to hide the Star inside an ordinary human. It really was quite brilliant. No one would ever think an object of infinite power could be hidden inside an ordinary girl from a backwater town in the middle of nowhere. Had our Master not been ten steps ahead, we would never think to seek you out."
"Charlotte must have thought you would never abuse the Star of Time should it ever become active," said Amon. "She would never do something as reckless in sealing it inside any random human. But the Star of Time has been awakened at last, and it's current residing inside your right hand."
"So…what are you going to do?" asked Max, biting her lip timidly. "You're not going to…kill me, are you?"
"As I told Ruvik, we don't need any unnecessary deaths," said Amon. "You and your girlfriend will live this night – Ruvik will modify your memories after we leave so that you will have no recollection of what has occurred. However…we do still need that Star in your right hand…and breaking the seal around it will take more time than we actually have to spend in your home. And with that in mind…."
Without warning, Amon suddenly raised her off the ground again, but then quickly slammed her down on her back on top of the coffee table. Max tried fruitlessly to struggle with the invisible bindings, but Amon only seemed to be getting stronger, especially as he stood in front of the window, bathed in the light of the full moon. Ruvik sat up once more and reached inside his coat, withdrawing a tattered rag and stuffing it in Max's mouth.
"You may want to bite down on that," he advised before stepping back.
Max was clueless as to what he could mean until Acnologia raised his foot on top of the table, leaning over her with a sadistic grin. He wrapped one of his powerful hand around the bicep of her right arm, and the other holding a firm grip on the wrist. Max's eyes went wide when she realized what was happening. She tried to scream, but the cloth in her mouth muffled any sound, and Amon's power kept her front flailing away. Acnologia reaffirmed his grip, leaning forward slightly – then he sharply pulled back -
Thousands of miles away, the girl called Akko Kagari awoke with a start.