Jayson squinted up at the softly fluttering leaves. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Ru look around wildly. The voice from above had a metallic edge to it, but it was a human voice, another kid, at that. Ru probably forgot that there were a number of voice-altering toys available for cheap in the tourist trap. What made him jump was that the voice next came from behind Randy. It originally was above, and he’d heard no one climb or jump down from the trees.
Randy sprang high enough in the air to get his sleeve caught on a branch. Ru whirled, then wilted in relief. Misty Elesti stood there, her arms crossed and an amused smile just visible in the fading light. “You,” Randy snarled.
Misty returned his glare levelly. While Jayson couldn’t help but grin, Misty made him uneasy. She had floored his best friend and the toughest kid in school with a single punch, and showed no nervousness in teasing him. Then again, a lot of people didn’t take Randy seriously until he knocked a few of their teeth loose.
“What are you doing out here?” he asked. “I doubt Breckenridge let you just leave. Where’s your uniform?”
Misty snorted and smoothed the maroon T-shirt she wore. She had one of her Carmody pendants, a silver cloud that gleamed at the slightest touch of light. It was incongruous with her faded, worn jeans and sneakers. “I don’t care.”
Randy took a deliberate, menacing step towards her. Ru edged closer. “Back off, short stack.”
“Who you calling short stack, birdbrain? Ruster?”
Ru ignored him. “You can get kicked out for leaving without permission,” she told Misty.
Misty gave an angry laugh. “Good!”
“Whoa!” Randy cried. “Did you guys see that?”
He stared west, deeper into the woods. The trees were little more than a tangle of black lines in the deepening twilight. Jayson tensed, straining his eyes. The others were silent, leaving only the wind to whistle through the trees and rustle the leaves.
Something flickered. It was filtered heavily by the branches, and dim. It wasn’t a flashlight, that was all Jayson knew for certain. He gave a shudder as the breeze seemed to turn cold.
Randy was already heading towards the light. He signaled for the rest to follow. Jayson frowned after him. “Your mom’s going to kill you. Seriously, it was probably just a camera.” He hoped it was just a camera.
“Chicken?” Randy said. “Figures, your sister’s a Ruster.”
“Shut up,” Ru hissed. “What’s wrong?”
She had a hand on Misty’s shoulder. Misty’s face had gone shockingly pale. Jayson thought she might faint. Her voice was wispy. “We need to go back. What if there’s something dangerous out there? The four of us can’t take on an adult. Or a bear.”
“Says who?” Randy said impatiently. “The Quarterstone’s that way. If you’re scared, go back.”
With that, he disappeared into the trees. Misty gaped, her mouth working, then she turned and went towards the garden. The image of strength and confidence that normally backed her was completely gone.
Ru looked between Misty and Randy, her eyes wide, with a strange reflection in them. They had always been a very vivid shade of sky blue, but in the fading light they practically glowed. Finally, she said, “I’ve got a really bad feeling about this. Neither one of them should be alone, and I don’t think any of us should be here. You get Randy and I’ll get Misty.”
Jayson nodded without hesitation. “I’ll meet you guys at the Cardinal Street lot.”
He found Randy crouched behind a dead bush, unusually still and silent. Jayson crept up to him and followed his gaze to the other side of a small clearing, full of old stumps. A man sat on the ground with his legs crossed. He had pale hair in a style Jayson had never seen before, partly swept over half his thin, angular face, partly gathered in a short, flaring tail at the back of his neck, and blue, of all colors. A silvery blue, or so it looked in the failing light. The man wore a long black overcoat that pooled around him on the ground, the rusty trim of it an uncrumpled, broken ring. “It’s just some guy,” Randy whispered.
There was an open textbook in the man’s hands. Jayson spotted a stack of books nearby on the ground. “He shouldn’t read in the dark.”
The man looked at them. He was so still Jayson could barely tell he’d moved at all. His one visible eye stood out, pale as his hair. Jayson felt as if the entire world was focusing solely on him. Randy, of course, did not pick up on this. He stepped out from behind the bush. Before he’d taken his second step, the man was halfway across the clearing. There was a silver flickering in his hands and a metallic scrape.
Jayson gasped and scrambled backwards. Randy’s nose was inches from the blade of a sword. “Whoa, whoa, wait!” he screamed, backing away, but the blade had already stopped.
Confusion did little to take the hardness out of the man’s expression. His voice was deep, clear, and direct, his words oddly accented. “You are too young to be here at this time of day. Go home.”
Jayson turned immediately, but Randy piped up. “Hey! You can’t boss me around. You’re not my mom.”
Clenching his teeth, Jayson was about to point out the poor decision of arguing with a swordsman, when a strange vibration went through the air. The words died in his throat as every hair on his body lifted. He glanced at Randy, who had become a human thistle.
“I said leave!“
There was a blinding white flash, a booming crackle, a harsh, sustained buzz. Jayson rubbed furiously at his eyes, at the same time backing away from an intense, wavering heat that had suddenly filled the air. When he could finally see, his mind made little sense of what was in front of him.
The man was clearly visible now, due to the light that seemed to be radiating from his hands. No, not light — lightning. Thin bolts of electricity shimmered through the air, twining around his outstretched fingers.
The two boys tore back through the forest, screaming at the top of their lungs. Jayson forced his way through tight space, not caring if his jacket tore on the branches. They spilled out of the woods and kept running, not even slowing when they sighted Ru and Misty. Randy reached the picnic table they were sitting at and half collapsed on it, wheezing for breath. Jayson sat heavily on the grass nearby. He spared a glance at the woods. No one seemed to be following them.
Ru jumped up. “What happened? What’s wrong?”
Instead of answering her, Randy hollered at Jayson. “OK, if all the legends are fake, what was that?”
Jayson coughed and wiped sweat from under the brim of his hat. “There had to be a broken power line.”
“What power lines? There aren’t any past the Quarterstone. They’re not allowed!”
“A storm,” Jayson tried.
“The sky’s clear!” Randy’s finger trained on some violet cirrus clouds twirling off towards the horizon. “Except for that. Yep. Real stormy-looking.”
“What are you talking about?” Ru asked eagerly.
“There was some guy with lightning coming out of his hands!” Randy’s voice was shrill.
“That’s not what happened,” Jayson snapped.
“That’s exactly what happened!”
“He could have had a Tesla coil or something! He did not just have lightning coming out of his hands. Do you know how ridiculous that sounds?”
“Then why did you run, tough guy?”
“Because the guy had a sword and I wasn’t going to argue with him!”
“A sword?” Ru said, her expression incredulous. “Like the ones they sell at that import store on Main Street? I don’t know what you guys saw, but it isn’t supposed to storm for another couple weeks.”
“Well I ain’t going back to find out,” Randy said. “Dude was like –“
“Wait, wait,” Misty cut in.
Jayson hardly noticed she was there. She’d had her head down on the table before. “How do you know it won’t storm for a couple weeks?”
“I know,” Ru replied.
“The weather reports don’t even go that far,” Misty pointed out. “Besides, it’s supposed to storm on Thursday.”
Why was Misty questioning Ru about the weather of all things, when they had just come out of the woods claiming to have seen someone holding lightning? Ru gazed at the sky down Cardinal Street. “The system that’s supposed to bring the storms will be pushed south. It’ll be sunny and cold here.”
“But how do you know?“
Ru shrugged. “It’s pretty obvious when you look at the weather maps.”
“She’s usually right,” Randy said. “She never misses the weather reports ’cause she’s got a crush on the weatherman.”
“Shut up! I do not!“
“Um, shouldn’t we call the police?” Jayson eyed the woods. There was still no more movement from the trees, but he was ready to take off the instant he saw something. “I don’t know what that really was, but the guy still had a sword, and I’m pretty sure he was going to attack us if we didn’t leave. It’s not his property.”
“No,” Misty and Randy said in unison.
They exchanged glances. Jayson thought he was looking at twin siblings. “Mom’s going to flip as it is,” Randy admitted. “It’s almost dark. She doesn’t need to know I was out here too.”
“They’ll send me back to Breckenridge,” Misty said sullenly.
“You’d better sneak back in while you can,” Randy said with a malicious grin. “They said on the tour they chain runaways in the basement and feed them mice.”
Misty’s voice rose with every word. “If that was even remotely true, why would they tell a tour group?“
Jayson urged them along the road. There had to be a rational explanation for what he’d seen, but a man with a sword and a temper was by no means unbelievable. A rational explanation did not mean they were safe.