This an unfinished continuation of this prompt
"Twilight Siege" Hadrian
Magic is a strange thing to master, but the rewards are beyond anything I could ever imagine. Ever since I learned about magic and the endless possibilities that came with being a wizard, I started to study every magic book I could get my hands on. I was chosen to leave normal school early to train at the advanced wizarding academy for humans. I was always at the top of my class, and of course I got into the apprenticeship program with no trouble at all. I know all the spells, the proper diction, the right posture and arm placement. But I can never get the hang of manipulating magic itself, which is the most infuriating part of all of my wizarding studies.
Magic doesn't come as easily to humans as it does to other creatures, which have innate magic that flows freely throughout their bodies. We have our magical capabilities condensed in the form of souls, which are locked away deep in our consciousness. It makes us difficult to harm permanently with magic, but it also makes it difficult to access magic. Wizards must tap into the soul and manipulate it into magic spells that you would see in the textbooks. Except tapping into the soul feels like tearing a phonebook in half, or cracking open a jawbreaker with nothing but your fingers. No matter how hard I try, I just can't tap into my soul properly. Maybe I could let loose a sad sputter of sparks on a good day or make a weak illusion smoke potion once in a while, but it feels impossible otherwise. Master Eli's meditation sessions are boring as hell to sit through, and I feel like I just stopped moving forward the second I graduated from the wizarding academy. Master Eli often tells me that I'm a prodigy, but I need to "unlock my inner peace," whatever that means. I'm certain that if I study harder and learn more about the properties of the soul, I can finally get a move on and become a real wizard myself.
I take the annual Wizard Council meetings very seriously. I see it as a great opportunity to network with other wizards, both fully realized and apprenticed. Maybe a part of me thinks that if I have powerful friends in powerful places, no one would question why I couldn't even summon a simple flame spell despite being top of the class at the academy. Maybe I could get away with essentially being a fraud instead of letting my years of work go to waste. Despite it all, and despite forcing myself to be positive, seeing all the other apprentices around me discuss all the new spells they've been working on, or how amazing their latest potion turned out, pisses me off. Especially this new apprentice, who's been shooting little sparks and making annoyingly perfect little bunny illusions all day.
"Just who the hell do you think you are, showing off so casually at the Council meetings? We're supposed to be showcasing our progress, not one-upping everyone," I sneer.
"Oh, I'm not trying to show off at all! I just love making little illusions, it's my favorite type of spell! I'm so sorry if it came off that way!" she replies, forcing all her illusions to disappear with a wave of her hand. She tucks her dark brown hair back into its braid. "This is my first Wizard Council meeting! I'm a bit nervous, but also excited! Sorry again, I'm not the best with etiquette!"
I roll my eyes. "Yeah, I see that. This is a serious event where wizards from all over gather and exchange the cutting edge of magical news and discoveries! Get your head out of the clouds."
"Oh, OK! I'll keep that in mind," she says. "I'm Kiera, by the way! I graduated from the human wizarding academy just last year!"
"Hadrian. I'm two years out from the academy myself. Top of the class."
"Whoa, that's awesome! I was pretty good too, although I was never too good at memorizing spells and stuff! I just do it, so I never thought about that kind of stuff."
"Well, you've got a long way to go then," I say dismissively. "I know just about every spell in the book. It's just a matter of executing them right."
Kiera's eyes grow wide. "Wow, I wish I could memorize that much stuff! My master, Master Delia, says I've got a natural gift for magic, but I need more discipline. I dunno though, the books and diagrams are the most boooring part!"
"Well, lucky you!" I snap. "Some of us aren't magic savants like you. Some of us work all day and night, only to barely scrape by and turn out awful, weak spells!"
Kiera went quiet. "Oh, I'm sorry! I didn't want to come off as bragging again. So sorry."
I scoff. "Whatever. I bet Master Eli needs me. He's a third-rank wizard, so he's got lots to do." I turn around and storm out of the break room, seething.
Who does she think she is, going around being a perfect little wizard apprentice who has perfectly natural magical skills and breezed through the academy without even studying or learning her positions? Gods, I didn't even want to think about her anymore. Everything about her just annoys me to no end. I walk through the halls, passing through the crowds like a specter. Common gnomes, which are typical around this area, busily clean the floors and dust off the decor around the castle. I finally found the third-rank wizard's quarters. The closed meetings among the highest caliber of wizards should be over by now.
"Hadrian, good timing," says Master Eli's gentle voice as I enter the room. "There's been some discussions of great importance that have been taking place."
I sit myself in the velvet chair next to him. "What is it? Any new spell discoveries? Or maybe a new clan of dark magic users?"
"Not quite. The High Committee has heard rumors that the castle will be attacked this year. They mentioned spies hiding among the crowds, listening in and biding their time."
"What? Spies? Why can't we just kick them out?"
"It's not that easy, fellow," says another wizard. Her long grey hair cascades down her shoulders. "The attack is already under way. It's going to be a siege, and we must defend to keep our secrets and our people safe."
"Xandra is right. Hadrian, I don't think it's safe for us to return to the tower. Besides, my responsibility as a member of the Secondary Committee means I must stay here and help keep the rest of the community safe."
"Oh, well if it must be done, then I guess that's that." I slump in my chair. This means my training will have to come to halt for now. And I have to stay stuck among a bunch of know-it-all apprentices who think their magic is the best.
"Hadrian, I'd like for you to wait until the official briefing tonight before mentioning the possible attack. We don't want a panic to rouse the castle and make us too stricken with fear to organize."
"Yes, of course, Master Eli. I'll be in my room." I've had enough of today. I just want to forget about the day and read more spell books in my temporary room. I wasn't going to waste a second of study time, especially now that we might be stuck here for longer than I expected.
I watch Hadrian leave the room in a huff. I didn’t mean to offend him! But now I feel awfully guilty. Maybe I was showing off a little bit. I make a mental note to have some better control of my magic while I’m here. I want to make friends, not enemies!
Looking around the break room, I spot another group of apprentices. I don’t know anyone here, but that’s why I’m here! I approach them, hoping to make a good impression.
“Hi everyone! What are you guys up to?”
A red-haired girl with emerald green eyes turns to me. “Oh, we’re just discussing potion making! Charlie was just talking about his newest satiating potion.”
A boy with a plain grey cloak and chestnut colored hair laughs. “Yep! It keeps you feeling full and quenched for five whole hours! It’s useful for studying without any snack breaks.”
“I haven’t seen you around before,” says the red-haired girl.
“Yeah! I’m Kiera. This is my very first Wizard Council meeting! I only started my apprenticeship this year!” I explain excitedly. “I’m really excited to meet all the other wizards and apprentices!”
The girl smiles. “Welcome! I’m Lillian, but you can just call me Lill. I study under Master Anidoria! She’s a fourth-rank wizard who specializes in potions, but she says she might move up to third-rank soon! That’ll be cool to see!”
“I’m Charlie. My master also specializes in potions, but he does some summoning magic too,” says the chestnut-haired boy.
“Zane!” says a peppy blonde apprentice, shaking my hand. “Nice to meet ya! This is my boyfriend, Troy!” He gestures to an apprentice with long auburn hair and pale skin. He sweetly smiles at me.
“Wow, it’s great to meet all of you!” I squeal. “I don’t know too much about potions though, the few times I’ve tried all ended up turning into smoke or became too bitter to drink!”
“Hey, that’s alright! It happens to all potion beginners,” says Lill. “At least you made some sort of magic happen, though! It took me a solid month to get even a little magic going in potions at the start.”
“Oh, um, thanks,” I say, blushing. “It’s still a mess though. I’m no good at all, really.”
Charlie shrugs. “I agree with Lill. In the academy, it’s all technical stuff and the concepts behind magic. It’s a lot harder to actually make it happen. You’re a real magic genius to make even a smoking potion on your first go at it.”
I look down. “Maybe. I dunno. It just feels disappointing that I can't make a working potion, or even a useful spell that won’t totally blow up. I’m not exactly the best with positions and stuff like that.”
“Heh, that's OK,” says Troy. “Not everyone is cut out for potions. I’m more of a summoner myself. Why don’t you show off one of your spells instead?”
I brush him off nervously. “Oof, I dunno about that either.”
“C’mon! We saw you making some awesome illusions earlier!” says Zane. “Don’t be shy, we won’t bite ya!
“W-well, if you insist. I’ll try.” The others cheer. I always hate trying to use spells in front of others. It makes me so nervous! I feel like I have to be perfect. But unfortunately, the jitters never make my spells any better. In fact, they usually turn out all crummy and out of control. But I want new friends. That’s why I came here. I can’t disappoint them.
I take a deep breath to try and calm myself down. I feel my soul humming with anticipation inside of my head. I draw upon the power wound up inside; that’s the easy part. The magic comes loose like thread in water as I try to redirect it to the very tips of my fingers. I need to react quickly before it reaches the formations point. My mind zips to the very first thing it can — a bunny like last time — and I let the magic loose into the world. It swirls with a soft white light before forming into its rabbit shape, bounding ethereally through the air. It’s really cute and simple, and it didn’t go wrong at all. Well, except for the trail of magic shedding off of its back end. I must’ve accidentally made it less stable than usual. The group gasps with delight.
“Aww, how sweet!” exclaims Lill.
“Very neat,” notes Troy.
I twiddle my thumbs around. “Thanks! It’s pretty cool, I guess. It’s one of things I do when I’m bored and not thinking too hard, and only with a little bit of magic. A lot more would be tricky to handle for me.”
“Well, this is the place to try it out, right?” says Zane.
“I thought this was a professional thing? Another apprentice said -- “
“Meh, it’s only really super serious for the high-level wizards,” states Zane. “We apprentices still have a little time to have some fun!”
“Oh, alright then,” I say. I’m glad it’s not as stuffy as that Hadrian made it out to be. I’ll admit, I’m not that into all the technical stuff, even when I probably should be as an up-and -coming wizard. Master Delia scolds me about it to no end!
“How are you with combat spells?” asks Troy. With a careful flick, an ethereal blue flame rises up into the air out of his fingertips. “My master helps me refine my elemental spells, especially. Took me ages to get a flame going this hot and controlled.”
I stare at that fire, mesmerized. “Woah. That’s really good!” I feel entranced by the way the flame wavers and flickers like ribbon in a gentle wind. “My flame spells never turn out this good.”
“Troy’s a real pro! He’s been training for a year longer than us three too,” squeals Zane. “I’m real proud of him! I just know that he’s gonna be enlisted in a great defense force one day.”
The blue flame disappears without a trace of smoke. “I can teach you, if you want,” says Troy, smiling gently. “That’s what us fellow apprentices do. We gotta help each other out to get us all sworn into the Wizard Council officially.”
“Wow, I’d love that! I don’t know how much it’ll help, but it might be worth a shot!” I blush again. Maybe this could be the first real spell I can learn!
“Here. To start, you flick upwards, like with a basic flame spell.” Troy effortlessly waves his hand, summoning a vibrant orange fire.
I take a deep breath and try my very hardest to concentrate. I try to remember what Troy had just done. Upwards, right? Do the fingers splay out, or upwards? Argh, I forget! I hesitate as I flick, sending an explosive smattering of sparks flying out of my fingers. The others quickly shield against the wayward sparks.
“Well, almost,” says Troy.
“Phew, you almost lit my tunic on fire!” exclaims Charlie, brushing off a stray ash.
“Oh no, sorry! I have a hard time concentrating…” I murmur with shame.
“That’s alright. Don’t worry about it too much, OK? I always find it easier to relax and take some time to really hone in my focus.” Troy smiles sweetly. “It just takes a little patience. Flick upwards, with fingers pointed up.”
“Hmm, alright. Sorry! I’ll try again!” I close my eyes and concentrate as hard as I can, trying my best to rein in the power churning inside my soul. I take a deep breath and flick my hand upwards, trying to imitate Troy’s form. I focus on the magic surging out through my fingertips, which is becoming hotter and hotter as it swells closer to its exit point. I feel a dim heat radiating from my hand. A peek open one eye to see a tiny flame hovering in the air above my fingertips! I can’t believe it’s working!
“Great! Now you just have to make it bigger and hotter. Try to direct most of the magical energy to the base of the fire.”
I breathe in and confidently pump magic through my body towards the little fire. The ember grows tall and angry, flaring with a hot blue glow. The tip of the flame spews licks of hot fire in all directions, and I can feel the intense heat searing my face.
“Whoah, reel it just a notch!” says Troy, looking over at me with concern. “You have to keep it controlled. Don’t let it explode!”
“A-ah! I can’t!” The moment turns sour and horrible in an instant. The blue glow turns into a molten white, desperately reaching out beyond its confines and sucking out all the air it could grab. I shriek as I panic and cut off the magic from my soul abruptly, bottling it up deep inside of me. But it’s too late. The massive fireball begins to roar and grow. I yank my hand away from the hungry flames, the heat sweltering hot and suffocatingly dry. I look up at the horrible fireball in terror. I had gone and screwed it up again. And this time, the apprentices at the Wizard Council meeting will have to pay for it.
Suddenly, blasts of water douses the agitated fire. Lill and Troy are in wide stances, summoning water in powerful streams. The white-hot ball shrinks pitifully, spewing up clouds of steam with a ferocious hiss. Soon, there is nothing but swirling steam drifting around the room, soaking the five of us in sweat. Tears prick my eyes as I stand there, watching the moisture dissipate out of the room. No one says anything. My heart drops.
Lill finally speaks up. “Whew. That was interesting.”
Troy wipes some steam and sweat off his forehead. “You just need a little more discipline and practice first. Luckily, no one got hurt, and that’s what’s most important.”
“Gods, I’m so sorry.” I’m fighting back tears the best that I can. “I always screw up my spells. I didn’t mean to put all of you through this mess!”
“That’s alright. If anything, you’ve definitely got the chops to be a great wizard one day,” says Charlie, his hair soaked through and dripping.
“Yeah! Just, you know, gotta work on those techniques!” says Zane.
I sniffle. “I hope so.”
A foreign voice interrupts us. “Hey! I don’t know what you apprentices are doing in there, but the Grand Masters have called for a gathering!” It was a cranky old wizard in navy blue robes. “Go join your masters in the auditorium!” He gruffly stomps away. We all look at each other.
“A gathering? What for?” muses Lill.
Zane shrugs. “Can’t know for sure until we go!”
We shuffle out the break room and into the cool castle air, saying our goodbyes to go find our masters. I decide that Master Delia doesn’t need to know about this incident until we got back to the workshop.
I look up at the podium where Grand Master Wisteria stands. Her face is serious and grave. Behind her sits the rest of the Grand Masters in the High Committee, all dressed in their signature purple and gold robes. Next to me sits Master Eli, who is jotting down notes furiously. Apparently, the Secondary Committee was responsible for organizing possible attack groups and defense lines if it came to it. Behind us, the entire rest of the wizarding community sits clueless, waiting for the reason for the surprise gathering.
"Hello, dear Wizard Council. I hope that the first two days of the annual Wizard Council meeting. However, after some discussion with the High and Secondary Committee and thanks to some intel from our wonderful gryphon guards, we have a serious matter to share with you all. I will get right to it; we suspect there may be a conspiracy to lay siege to the Grand Castle of Wizards."
A ripple of murmurs rises from the giant auditorium. I spot some nervous glances across the room.
"I know this may be alarming, but we should have no fear. We are a strong group, and we have more than enough power and intelligence to protect ourselves and the integrity of our great organization. We ask all wizards, apprentices, and staff to please stay on the lookout of suspicious characters. We ask that if there is a suspicious character found roaming the castle grounds, that they are to be reported to the High or Secondary Committee for investigation. We will overcome this threat."
Cheers roar throughout the auditorium. If anything, the wizards of the Wizard Council were very proud of their membership, and rightly so. This is a collection of some of the most powerful humans in the entire world. I wasn't worried about some dinky attack by a few salty dark wizards, or whoever was orchestrating the whole thing.
"Still, my fellow wizards, we must prepare for the worst. Along with the Secondary Committee, we have come up with a plan of defense in the scenario that we are successfully infiltrated. Please welcome Grand Master Aleksander to the podium..."
I start to zone out, the claps and whoops become a muddled fuzz of background noise. I didn't see the point in having a whole plan like this. I figure that blasting them with magic in sheer numbers is probably enough. What a stupid plan. Instead, I review positions again in my head. I’m determined to get a summoning spell down pat by the end of the year.
A fire-summoning spell. One of the easiest in the textbook. You position your arm about level to your stomach. Flick upwards, palm facing up. While doing so, bring the heat of your soul out and upwards towards your hand. Whatever that means. I hate how vague soul tapping is in some books. I'll skip that part for now.
After that came small explosions. This was a thrust outwards away from the body rather than straight up. Then some water-summoning, which came from the moisture in the air. That was a circular motion, flowing with the coolness of the soul. Again, very vague. Then came ice harnessing, and then air flow control, and —
"Hadrian! Rise!" hisses Master Eli, nudging my arm.
I look around. The whole crowd was standing up in applause. I guess whatever speech the Grand Masters gave was pretty rousing. I get up and clap along. At least the meeting was finally over. I couldn't wait to leave this place. And I was hungry. I'll pick up a small meal from the dining hall before I head back to my room for the night.
I say goodbye to Master Eli. He nods and disappears into the crowd, notes still in hand. I follow the flow of the crowd out of the auditorium and into the winding castle halls. I turn right and down the corridors, trying my best to avoid the mass of wizards with the same idea as me. I’m really hoping that they have something good out for tonight.
When I get to the dining hall, the room is full to bursting with people gossiping over the attack plans. That speech must've been incredibly spirited or whatever, because they all look more excited than anything. I roll my eyes and try to find anything good left at the serving tables. I grumble as I pick past the hordes of people, only to find unexciting leftovers. I spot gnomes moving around the tables and benches, cleaning up and preparing for more plates to be put out. Maybe I'll just settle for a sandwich today. Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
"Hey, Hadrian," says a voice. I turn around and find Kiera staring at my face.
"What do you want?"
"I just wanted to say I'm sorry again for earlier today. I had no idea I was being rude! But I still wanted to be friends, since I think apprentices should stick together! So I saved this for you!"
I look down at the plate she is offering me. It’s a rich bowl of squid ink pasta with chunks of savory potato. I can't lie, it looks delicious. It's certainly better than whatever was left on the dining tables right now.
I take the pasta. "Thanks, I guess. But don't think we're all buddy-buddy now. Besides, I have more studying to do."
"Studying? But it's dinner time! You should be socializing and relaxing with the rest of us!"
"Not for me. I need to keep working on my spellcasting."
"Aw, come on Hadrian! Don't work yourself too hard! Come on over and sit with us, just this once! It'll be fun!"
It has been a while since I've sat at a proper table to eat. And I had all the time in the world to study now. I figure that if things get dull, I'll just review positions again. "Fine. I'll come."
Kiera's eyes lit up. "Great! You'll like the new friends I've made!"
She leads me through the maze of bodies, weaving effortlessly through the commotion. I just try my best to not spill my pasta while following her. We finally come to a table packed with other apprentices. They wave us over excitedly. Well, more accurately, they wave Kiera
"Hey guys! I brought over Hadrian!" she says, sitting down. I reluctantly sit down across from her.
"Oh yeah, I've seen you around before. I'm glad you came around, dude! I never see you sharing your spell progress. You talk to some of the upper-level apprentices sometimes though, right?" says an apprentice with short, chestnut hair. He stuffs a whole cheese roll in his mouth.
"Yeah. Sometimes," I reply bitterly.
"Ooh! You should show off some of your spells!" pipes up Kiera. "To make for my behavior today, and so we can see what you've got!"
"NO! Er, I mean, I can't."
"Oh, why not?"
"It's a top-secret spell. I've been working on it with Master Eli," I lie.
"Wow!" says the chestnut-haired apprentice. "Can you say anything about it at all? Like, what's the hardest part of the spell? The coolest?"
I glance around the table nervously. "No, I can't say anything about it. Master Eli is on the Secondary Committee. You guys know how it is."
The rest of the apprentices nod knowingly. I pray that it's the end of the conversation as the others drift off into other topics. Kiera, however, doesn't give it up.
"Hadrian, can we really not know a thing about it? You're killing me with suspense!" she whispers.
"No. End of story." I scoop a forkful of pasta into my mouth. The longer I stay here, the more I think that this was a mistake.
"Aww! No hints?"
"No. It involves very advanced soul tapping, OK? Even I have trouble with it, that's how powerful and off-limits
"Hey, soul tapping! I love soul tapping! It feels so warm and satisfying, like unwinding a whole ball of yarn next to a fireplace!"
My throat fills with more annoyance. "Oh wow, great. Like I said, some of us don't get magic so easily. It's hard work, and advanced soul tapping is a huge part of it."
"It's not too bad for me! Oh, sorry. That was probably rude again. But, I mean, I can help you become better at it! I don't mind at all. I've been doing for ages my way and it works pretty well, even if it's not exactly 'advanced'. Well, OK, I guess you've been doing it a while too, but maybe it'll end up being easier for you too?"
I look away, the annoyance burning and choking me now. "It's fine. I don't need your help." I get up and pick up my bowl of pasta. "Thanks for the invite, but I need to get back to studying now. It's really important."
"Oh, that's fine, Hadrian. I'm glad you could stick around for a little bit, at least!" says Kiera. "Come back when you're not so busy!"
"Sure. It's whatever."
I stomp back to the third-rank quarters filled with rage, leaving the hustle and bustle of the dining hall behind me. When I get to my room, I slam down the bowl on my desk and lock the door behind me. I yank out my books and papers on the soul and the art of soul tapping.
"It's so easy
, Hadrian," I sneer, mocking Kiera's voice. "Gods, I just have to deal with all of it, don't I? I'll figure out the damn thing myself. I'll get there without anyone's help!" I take a seat in the mahogany chair and settle in for a long night of studying.
I’m partway through a paper on the theoretical contents of the human soul when I hear an urgent knock on the door. I sigh as I get up to see who it is. The heavy oak door creaks open to reveal a serious-faced Master Eli.
“Hadiran, you should come see this.”
I follow him down the stairs and to the windows of the third-rank quarters. I spot a few blasts of dark magic down below in the gardens. “Dark spells. Are those dark wizards then?”
“Indeed, Hadrian. It seems as if they have regrouped yet again. They’re stronger than expected, but I’m sure we will put an end to this nonsense soon enough.”
“So the attack was real. I’m still not too worried. Can I go back to studying now, Master Eli? I was working on soul tapping.”
“Hadrian, now is not the time for books. Besides, unlocking the soul is something that must be mastered through your own willingness to let it be unlocked, not through more reading,” scolds Master Eli. “I want you to see these threats first-hand in a controlled and relatively safe environment such as this one. One day, when you master magic yourself and become sworn into the Wizard Council, you must understand the enemy as much as you understand the spells that combat them.”
I throw my hands up. “Well, what can I even do? I can’t even summon a basic fire spell! I’ll contribute nothing. I’m useless here.”
“Hadrian.” Master Eli’s eyes pierce my own.
“Fine. I’ll go, Master Eli,” I concede. “I guess I’ll take notes, or whatever I will be doing.”
“Thank you, Hadrian. You will not be taking notes. You will be assisting the defense line with potion ingredients and supplies.”
I don’t dare talk back any further. Master Eli is usually lenient, but I know better than to push a third-rank wizard. I follow him out of the quarters and out into the castle. We pass several groups of wizards and apprentices, excited to aid the counterattack. I, on the other hand, am less than thrilled to be a glorified servant hand for the potion makers. Master Eli finally drops me off at the kitchen hall.
“Be good and courteous, Hadrian. I expect diligent work while I’m gone.”
“Yes, Master Eli.”
He quickly leaves the hall, no doubt being needed elsewhere. So now, I was alone here at the kitchen hall. I begrudgingly enter through the wide arched doors. Inside, a cacophony of wizards, apprentices, and impromptu bubbling potions in soup pots fills the room. One of the wizards, a frazzled-looking woman with short blonde hair and round, silver glasses approaches me.
“Thank goodness, another apprentice! We need another hand at the belladonna station!” She points to a corner of the kitchen where two apprentices are scrambling to pluck a massive basket of dried cuttings. “Turns out the magic they’re using is energy-sapping, and they’re not letting up just yet! Potions of energizing are at high demand! Go and help them separate the leaves and berries from the stems.” She then quickly returns to the line of brewing potions, fervently checking each pot.
I take my time getting to the station. When I finally get there, one of the apprentices look up at me.
“Oh thank the gods, more help!” He dumps a pile of dried belladonna in front of me. “Keep plucking those. We can barely keep up with the brewers!”
I settle in, tearing the shriveled leaves and the dark purple berries from the stems. As soon as I set the leaves and berries on the counter, one of the other apprentices whisks them away to the prep station. I toss the leftover stem onto the growing discard pile and start on the next stalk. I can’t believe I’m stuck here plucking belladonna in a makeshift brewing room in a lame dark wizard attack. I sigh defeatedly, wishing I was back up in my room in the comfort of my books.
Suddenly, the kitchen-turned-brewing room shakes with a deep rumble. Everyone stops and stares at each other in silence. A few seconds later, another rumble rattles the room. Berries and herbs topple out of their neat piles and giant copper pots clang against the stovetops. Then, it stops. The wizard with the round glasses looks around the worried group of potion brewers.
“Stay put everyone, I'm going to investigate.” She rushes out the door, letting the doors close with a deafening slam.
The room stays dead silent. All that could be heard was the bubbling of the potions. The other two apprentices at my station look at each other nervously. Even for me, there’s a gnawing feeling in my chest. That didn’t sound like a run-of-the-mill explosion spell. It sounded huge, like the type that only the most advanced wizards would use. Something like that shouldn’t be happening in a basic counterattack to ward off some pesky dark wizards. Most of them weren’t even trained properly. And none of the wizards here, except for maybe the Grand Masters and the second-rank wizards, could pull off a big spell like that. We all wait for the silver glasses wizard to come back.
After what seems like an eternity, the kitchen doors burst open. The wizard stumbles into the room, sweat soaking her brow and her hair even more frazzled than before. “Healing potions! Now! Scrap the potions of energizing! We need as many as we can put out!”
The room bursts into panic and fervor. The two apprentices drop their belladonna stalks and scramble for the witch hazel stacked in the corner. I abandon the station, dodging past the pairs of brewers lugging half-finished energizing potions out the back door to be neutralized and dumped. I approach the wizard, who is now barking orders around the stations.
“What the hell happened?” I ask, shouting over the commotion.
The wizard readjusts her glasses and skirts around me without even meeting my eyes. “It’s a dark matter explosion! I’ve never seen anything like it before in all my years of wizarding!” She whisks a heart radish into a copper pot. “Wizards are hurt, and badly! Head back to your station, now!”
“Wait, Master Eli! What about him?” I realize that he’s still out there, organizing front lines. If he’s gone, then who will teach me? Who will guide me through my quest of becoming a great wizard myself?
I run out of the kitchen against the potion wizard’s protests. Leaving the kitchen behind, I dash down the stony corridors and past the dining hall. I spot some wizards hauling others into the hall. Some of them are slumped over with sickly black wounds snaking up arms and legs like infected veins. A few gnomes bolt past me, protecting their magically fragile bodies from the enslaughts. It makes me panic even more.
I navigate my way towards the garden. I remember there being some combat happening there. “Master Eli!” I call out. No one responds. More and more injured wizards limp towards the dining hall far behind me. “Master Eli!”
“Hadrian!” That voice isn’t Master Eli, but it is familiar.
I whirl around to see Kiera. She looks like she’s about to cry. “Kiera?”
“Hadrian! Don’t go over there!” she yelps. “That’s where the dark matter explosions went off! It’s horrible!”
“I need to find Master Eli. Do you know where the third-rank wizards went?”
“No, but they’re probably trying to handle all of this,” she replies. “Master Delia and I went out to put up some traps and other defensive spells in the garden. Then it happened! It was awful, and it was almost deafening how loud it was! It felt like the whole world shook to its core!” She shivers. “It was so cold.”
“Wait, you were there! How did it happen?”
“I don’t know, but Master Delia-” she sobs. “All I know is that she told me to stay put and ran off to the front lines. Then the second one went off and, well, I saw her on the ground with this terrible wound. It looked so dark and sickly.”
“Gods, this is bad,” I say, feeling a bit bad for Kiera. I couldn’t imagine being there at the scene of the explosion, nevermind almost getting killed. “Is your master OK? How did the dark wizards do this?”
“I don’t know.” Kiera sniffles. “She’s getting a healing potion made for her, and the gnome nurses are trying their best. Who knows how those rotten dark wizards pulled it off. I just want it to stop.”
I notice the ground freezing around her. I’m taken aback with shock. I had to admit, she was magically gifted. Almost no human could summon magic like that on whim, especially while unfocused and emotional.
Kiera notices me staring. “Oh gods, I’m doing it again, aren’t I?” The ice around her feet melts instantly. “Sometimes, magic just flows right out of my soul and through my body without me realizing that I’m even doing it. I guess it’s just hard for me to get used to controlling my power directly instead of just letting myself channel it wherever and whenever. I’m sorry.”
“No, I mean… that’s incredible. I’ve never seen a human soul tap that easily.”
“But it had no rhyme or reason. No discipline. At least, that’s what Master Delia always says.” Her face falls as she mentions Master Delia. “You might have to try harder to soul tap, but you have such good control of it! You know every spell in the book! You’re even working on a top-secret advanced spell because you have the control to do it! You must be close to finishing your apprenticeship already. Unlike me.”
“No! That’s not it at all!” I sigh with defeat. “I wish I was as good as you. All my life I’ve had to struggle and work harder than anyone else. But still, I never get anywhere. No matter how hard I study, and no matter how many papers I read, I’m still stuck
!” I kick a chunk of stone across the hall, letting it clatter loudly against the floor.
“Oh Hadrian, I’m sure you’re just being hard on yourself-”
“NO! I’m literally useless!” I scream. “It’s all a damn lie. I don’t work on secret spells. I don’t even have
spells. I can’t even do the simplest ones because I can’t tap into my soul, no matter how hard I’ve tried for years
at this point! I NEED Master Eli! I NEED to become better, if not the best! I just need to, because I need to prove I can do it better than people like you! I hate it! I hate it all!”
I slump down to the cold floor, the anger leaking out of me. I just put out my secret for the world to hear, and now my wizard dreams were crushed. I’m certain that Kiera would go out and tell the whole community about just how miserable of a wizard I am, and how I’ve been faking my progress for the last two years of apprenticeship. And to top it all off, the only person who might’ve believed in me is missing in action. Hot, bitter bile rises up in my throat. I’m trying to fight back my tears. I should be ashamed.
“I understand.” Kiera squats down next to me. “I think I get where you’re coming from. It feels so disheartening to not be what everyone thinks you should be.”
I look up at her. “What makes you say that?”
“I’m supposed to be the next prodigy in magic, even as a human. I was whisked away to so many magic training camps and given so many magic tutors, because I’m supposed to be the next incredibly powerful wizard, maybe even a Grand Master one day. Sure, magic comes easy to me, but I can’t ever seem to control it right. They even had Master Delia, a second-rank wizard, take me in to see if she could rope in my powers.”
“Your master is second-rank?” I gasp. “I didn’t know that!”
Kiera sniffles. “Yeah, she’s a really good illusion-caster. I really value her dedication to get me into shape. But I feel like such a disappointment. All these positions, commands, orders, all that stuff — it confuses me so much, and I feel so stupid for not getting any of it! Half the time, when I try a bigger spell, I just end up blowing up yet another part of Master Delia’s workshop. Or freeze over all her potion ingredients. Or accidentally summon a thousand flying monkeys that one time. I’m awful at this wizard stuff.”
“You can sort of control it, right? You must be able to learn it eventually, with enough drilling and flashcards.”
“I don’t know. I think I might just be stupid. I’m not super smart like you. I used to love the idea of wizarding. Like, it was my childhood dream to help the world with my magic. But nowadays, I’m starting to think that maybe wizarding isn’t for me. Maybe I should just quit while I still can.”
My eyes widen. “What?! But you are a prodigy! Magic comes as easily to you as a faerie, or an elf! You can’t quit the program now!”
“But how can I do it? I’m just a dumb, useless lady who happens to be good at soul tapping and nothing else.”
“Look, I’ll try to teach you some of the technical stuff myself. Like I said, I know every spell in the book. And if I don’t know it, I probably have a book about it. I may not be able to do any of it, but you sure as hell can!” I leap to my feet, my anger now totally gone. “There are wizards out there who need help. With your power, we can figure out what’s going on and stop this mess.”
Kiera wipes away a tear and smiles. “Thank you, Hadrian. Maybe there’s still a little hope left. I want to help Master Delia and all the others who were hurt from the explosions.”
I pull her up off the floor. “We should go see your master and all the others who got hurt. Maybe Master Eli will be there too. I think the best course of action is to find out whatever we can about the dark matter explosions.”
“Sounds good. Lead the way, Hadrian!”
I hadn’t seen him in years. Felt like a lifetime ago, really. Back before I spent my time in the neighborhoods of DC doing what I did. So, imagine my surprise when, out of the blue, he shot me a text offering to host me for one night on my way from Sea-Tac to Reagan, even said he’d swing by DIA and pick me up. Apparently, he’d heard from a mutual friend that I had a long layover and was looking for a place to stay since my mom was high risk and the hotel I had booked suddenly canceled the reservation.
I declined at first. I wanted to obey the social distancing advice, but he insisted that short notice emergencies still happened in times of crisis. So, finally, somewhat reluctantly, I agreed.
I thought about him—and our fizzled friendship—the whole plane ride out. I couldn’t remember exactly how we met, only that we’d become friends not long after. He’d dropped off the face of the earth a year or so after he’d gotten a position as a special agent in the FBI. I’d heard rumors, though, that, due to his background with the Special Forces, he was helping the government hide secrets, each one more ridiculous than the next. And once, about five years ago, while I was walking down E St NW in DC, I’d run into him walking the other way. He was nonchalantly carrying a gas mask like it was a completely normal thing to do.
I texted him as soon as I landed—feeling an anxious sort of excitement boiling up in my gut—then made my way through the eerily deserted concourse and up to the West side departures, tickled by the conspiratorial construction signs I saw along the way. I waited for maybe five, ten minutes before a sleek black sedan came to a smooth stop in front of me. I leaned down but couldn’t make anything out through the tinted window.
I heard the car shift into park, then Cooper, in all his glory, popped out and said a casual, “Hey.” He was wearing leather boots, dark wash jeans with a leather belt, and dress shirt, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, first button undone. He looked the same—maybe even better—since the last time I saw him. I wondered how many hearts he’d broken with that easy grin and devil may care attitude.
“Man,” I replied. “You really let yourself go.”
He chuckled. “Look who’s talking.”
I patted my stomach and said, “Stress. Comes with working in DC. You know how it is.”
“Boy do I.” He rounded the car, picked up my bags with ease, and tossed them into the trunk before looking me up and down. “No fever, right?” A sly smile slid into place across his lips.
“Don’t think so. Why? You wanna check?” I pulled my fringe back, exposing my forehead.
“Would you be offended if I did?”
I narrowed my eyes. “You sure you wanna do this? I don’t mind sleeping on the floor here.” I gestured with my head back towards the airport.
Cooper nodded. “I haven’t seen you in years. I don’t mind. I know it seems like the end of the world right now and the government is advising people to distance themselves, but, like I said, emergencies happen. And you’re trying to do your part in flying back home so you can shelter in place. You just got stuck with a shitty set of circumstances.” He gestured around. “We all did.” He gave me a wry look. “Besides, do you really think I’m going to let you sleep on the fucking floor of an international airport?”
I laughed. “Alrighty then. I really appreciate it. Go on. Do it. Sanitize your hands after though.”
Cooper leaned forward a little and placed a cool, dry hand against my forehead. “Hmmm.”
“What? Am I hot?”
“Nah. You also don’t have a fever.”
“Remind me again why you offered to let me crash at your place?”
“I’d forgotten how good it felt to give you shit. C’mere.”
“Wait,” I said holding up my hands. “I may be asymptomatic or something. Don’t wanna get you sick.”
“You’re spending the night at my place. If you’re sick, I’m already sick.”
“Social distancing, man. I just came from ground zero basically.”
Cooper sighed. “Fine. Air hug?”
As he lifted his arms, I caught a waft of his cologne or shampoo or deodorant. “You smell good,” I said.
“You don’t,” he replied.
“God,” I said. “I’m gonna have to reacclimate to your smartassery.”
Cooper laughed. “Sorry.”
He slipped into the driver’s seat and I followed suit into the passenger side.
“Nice car,” I said looking around.
“Thanks,” he replied. “It’s a rental.”
“Why departures?” I asked as he pulled out.
Cooper shrugged. “Force of habit. Always pick people up and get picked up at West side departures.”
“Isn’t that like…illegal
Cooper looked over at me, amusement clear across his face. “Now there’s the friend I remember. You’re such a Hermione.”
“What? No! You’re
Hermione. I’m Ron. Book Ron, not movie Ron.”
It took us about thirty minutes to get from DIA down to his condo. During which he sat silently navigating the nearly empty highway while I told him about life since the last time I saw him. About my string of failed flings. About my recent trip abroad. About how hard it was to move up in the bureaucratic world of government work. About how cutthroat it was. About how I didn’t really know what I was doing with my life anymore, how…empty
I felt doing the same thing day in and day out. About how what I really wanted to do was move to the middle of nowhere and write.
He slowed to a stop outside a nice little number in possibly one of the fanciest parts of Denver, then, effortlessly, parallel parked the sedan between a Subaru and an Audi.
“Damn,” I said, looking up at the building.
“It ain’t bad,” he replied then hopped out of the car to grab my bags from the trunk.
“I see you’re still riding.” I nodded at a tarp covered motorcycle parked out front.
“Explains the rental,” I said. “You get it just for me?”
“Don’t flatter yourself,” Cooper replied. Then, “Yes.”
I smiled. “Aw. A smartass with a secret heart of gold. What is it?”
“Ducati Scrambler. The other one’s stored away.”
“Wow,” I said. “Two
motorcycles. You’re living the dream, man.”
Cooper smiled and shrugged my bag higher onto his shoulder. “One was a gift from Glenn. I couldn’t refuse.”
“How is Glenn?”
“He’s,” Cooper took a deep breath. “Fine.”
“You guys on speaking terms now?”
“You mind if we talk about something else?”
I paused, only for a second. Cooper enforcing boundaries was one of the things I respected most about him. “Sure. How’s work?”
This got a guffaw. A loud one. Cooper was notoriously reticent, especially about his job. “Fuck you.”
“What? You don’t wanna talk about that either?”
“Now I remembered why we drifted apart. Always asking questions.”
“You say that likes it’s a bad thing. C’mon. You missed me.”
Cooper sighed, still smiling. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I did.”
As we walked through the courtyard, Cooper gave a two-finger salute to a girl who was standing on the wraparound porch across the way. The smell of skunk wafted towards us.
“Havin’ a nice night?” he asked.
“Bored as shit,” she replied. “Who’s your friend
“No one important.” Cooper smirked at me.
“I work for the government doing—”
“Nothing important,” Cooper said, cutting me off, throwing me a shit eating grin this time.
I sighed, rolled my eyes, shook my head in semi-mock annoyance.
“He’s a treat, huh?” the girl asked me, laughing.
“Sure is,” I replied. “Bet it sucks having him as a neighbor.” I threw a thumb back towards his bike. “Riding that monster around at all hours of the night.”
“Oh,” she said. “It’s not so bad. If it’s really late at night, he’ll kill the engine down the street and coast up.”
Beside me, Cooper fidgeted a little.
“Yeah,” the girl said. “Betcha didn’t think anyone noticed, you smooth jerk. Well, I did. And,” she continued, turning back to me, “a couple months ago, he helped me out with some, uh,” she paused, glancing between us, “stuff
?” I raised an eyebrow
“Wait, what? No. Gross,” the girl said. “Nothing like that
. Like around the house. He’s a regular, um, ghostbuster, if you know what I mean.” She smirked a knowing smirk.
“Is he now?” I threw a glance a Cooper. He gave me a sheepish little smile. “You dog. She can’t be more than twenty-five.”
“Twenty-two,” the girl said. “But no. No
. God, no. Still not like that. You know what? I’m high. I’m saying stupid shit. This is awkward. Me announcing that this is awkward is awkward. Um…I’m gonna go now. Night.” Without another word, the girl turned on her heel and left.
“Well,” I said. “Well, well, well, well, well
Cooper chuckled. “Do you honestly think I’d woo someone that young? I’m hurt. And here I was, thinkin’ you remembered how good of a guy I am.”
“Wow,” I said. “Can you not use the word woo
“Worse. Way, way, way
“C’mon,” Cooper said, smiling. He led me over to the North side of the building. “Oh, and heads up, the lady who lives below me…she, uh, doesn’t like me for some reason. She might come up to…politely
tell me to fuck off. Which would be bad because she’s high risk.”
“Who wouldn’t like you?”
“Right?” Cooper unlocked a door to a staircase. I followed him inside then up to the second floor. His place was, for lack of better words, cozy in its minimalism. Down the darkened hallway where I assumed his bedroom was, the sweet sound of Dio’s voice echoed softly.
“You left your radio on,” I said.
“That wasn’t me.”
“Oh,” I said. “Didn’t know we’d have company.”
Cooper set my bags down and threw me an unreadable glance. “That’s my, uh…” He trailed off.
? Your roommate?”
“Oh, shit,” I said. “Your…significant other
? You finally did it didn’t you, you bastard? Settled down. At least they’ve got good taste in music.”
A flutter of mild amusement swept across his face. “Nope. Still the highly
coveted bachelor. I mean,” he gestured around at his place, “can’t you tell.”
I looked around. Large flat screen, RBG battle station, a single, squashy looking leather couch, polished oak furniture, a huge rug, a few potted plants, walls dotted with nothing—all a neutral color palate—and, in the corner, proudly displayed, an acoustic guitar. A regular male living space. “Then who? Oh god, don’t tell me. You have a dog named Ronnie James, RJ for short, and you play him Stargazer
every time you leave so he doesn’t feel alone.” I tutted. “Cooper, how could
you? With your line of work, that dog is probably alone all the damn time. He probably resents you.”
Cooper chuckled. “Close. It’s my sister.”
“Oh,” I said, then, incredulous, blurted out, “wait what
? You have a sister? Since when?”
“I also have a cat. His name is Scrambles. After my Ducati. He’s probably hiding somewhere though.”
“You’re avoiding the question.”
Cooper sighed. “It’s a long story.”
“One you don’t want to tell right now.”
“Hey,” Cooper said. “You’re not as dumb as you look.”
“I resent that.”
“’Course you do, Hermione. You want a beer and some food?”
I nodded and followed Cooper to his kitchen sink where he was washing his hands to wash my own. “I’m Ron, Coop. Not Hermione. You’re
Cooper laughed as he walked to his fridge and pulled out two beers. He popped the tops and handed one to me. I raised my eyebrows as I took it.
“They’re dirt cheap right now with the…well, you know,” he explained. “Cheers.” We clinked the beers together and drank. Cooper gestured to his dining table. “Now, sit.”
“Woof,” I said, then sat and watched, silent, as Cooper set the table.
“So, we got dinner rolls, arugula salad with dried cranberries and homemade dressing, and, lastly, minestrone soup. Oh, and,” he grabbed another bowl from the fridge and set it down. “Freshly grated parmesan.”
“It’s all vegetarian.”
“Do I detect a hint of pride?”
He smiled a small smile as he sat down. “Trying to eat less meat.”
“How very noble
He tried and failed to hide a smile. “Eh.”
We started to eat.
“So,” I said.
“So,” he replied.
“Did you make it all yourself?”
“That I did. Even the rolls. All from scratch.”
“Look at you.”
“Learning how to cook is possibly one of the best things a person can do. Healthier. Cheaper. Relaxing.”
“To you, maybe. Stresses me the fuck out. You know what’s actually relaxing? Getting home from work at nine at night and popping a frozen meal into the microwave. Ready in five minutes.”
“That’s the problem with the world nowadays.”
“What? Microwave dinners?”
“No. Lack of time. We spend our days like robots, mechanically following the unspoken rules of society. We never have enough time for ourselves anymore.”
“That’s capitalism for you.”
Cooper shoveled a heaping mound of salad into his mouth, chewed, swallowed. “Money in and of itself isn’t bad. It’s just a tool. It becomes bad when we covet it as if it’s the end all be all, likes it’s the sole purpose of life. Folks hoard it away as if it can buy the things you can’t put a price on, things like time and love. As if it objectively makes their life, their experiences, more valuable than that of the poor kid who lives across the tracks.”
“Whoa there, Karl Marx.” I took a swig of beer. “So, if you think we lack time, do you think the world shutting down is…good
“’Course I don’t. At least, not under these circumstances. It’s fucked. Especially for those who’re living paycheck to paycheck or being forced to work despite all the warnings. Can’t imagine the long-term damage this shit is going to cause. What I do
hope, though, is that humanity will start to see how unsustainable what we call normal everyday life really is.”
“So, what you’re saying is, fuck capitalism.”
“Never said that. I just think that people’s lives are worth more than money.”
“You’re absolutely right, Coop. Fuck capitalism.”
Cooper shook his head, but he was smiling.
“So,” I said after a minute or two of us eating in silence, “you don’t think this is some kinda government conspiracy to depopulate the planet or something?”
This almost elicited a laugh. Almost. Instead, Cooper shook his head once and took a long swig of beer before replying. “Nah. There’s enough disinformation floating around without me adding to it.” He paused for a beat. “It might be fun to speculate and theorize and create these fictionalized accounts that this shit is something more than it is, but that’s just not my style. People are panicking enough already.”
“What,” I said, “you really don’t believe that a secretive cabal of rich and powerful people purposefully released a bioweapon engineered deep within the labs of Wuhan to aid them on their quest to create a New World Order? Population control. Martial law. Forced vaccinations. You know, all that.”
“So, you believe the CDC, that this is just some global pandemic? That we all gotta do our part to flatten the curve?”
“Absolutely, I do. Because it’s true. It was only a matter of time before something like this happened. Been happening since the dawn of time. Shit, for all I know, it’ll probably happen again in the future. Hopefully we’ll learn from this and be better prepared for next time.” Cooper raised an eyebrow and gave me a look that made me blush with shame. “Why? Do you believe this is some grand conspiracy?”
I shook my head, took another bite of food. “No, it’s just that, well…”
“It’s weird, man. I probably shouldn’t say it.”
“Spit it out.”
“Well, see, there’s been all these rumors about you ever since you, you know, fell off the face of the planet.”
“Oh, yeah? Like what?” Cooper looked genuinely curious.
“Look, man, it’s weird. People are saying that you’re some super
secret agent for some kind of shadow government or something. That the FBI has some kind of X-Files
-like task force that does…spooky
“Huh,” Cooper said. He looked ridiculously amused. “Well, that’s, uh, that’s something.”
“Batshit. So that’s why you’re asking me if I think this is some grand conspiracy? You think I work for the men in black?”
“I mean, no…yeah, I dunno…sort of?”
Cooper laughed. “Let me tell you something, I’ve worked for the government for a long, long
time and, even back when I was a Green Beret, the amount of bureaucratic hoops I had and still have to jump through to take a piss was, is
, unimaginable. You can probably relate. And I mean, sure, government officials can go down dark paths of injustice and greed and corruption. I’ve seen it. You’ve seen it. Hell, we’ve all seen it. But do you really think they’re capable of hiding a depopulation
plan from the entire
population of Earth? And do you really
think people like me, people with a conscience, who work for the government or have high ranking security clearance would just sit around and let them
?” I didn’t say anything. “The answer is no. There’s no way in hell. Get the fuck outta here with that.” He took a gulp of beer. “Now, aliens…aliens is another story. There’d be a point in hiding that from people. There’d be a point to leaking that kind of information out slowly.”
I quickly looked up at him. He was smirking. I couldn’t tell if he was fucking with me or not. “Oh yeah? Like what?”
“Mass panic. Panic makes everything exponentially worse. Do it slowly, though, and people start to get acclimated.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. He grinned, then laughed. I still couldn’t tell if he was fucking with me. “So, you’re saying that you’re not
some sort of super secret special agent?”
Cooper chuckled. “Even if I was, do you really think I’d tell you?”
“Fair enough. Hey, you still got that gas mask?” I asked suddenly. “Could probably use it right now whenever you go out.”
Cooper smiled reluctantly. “Not funny.”
“So, what do you think about all those people buying up everything?”
Cooper shrugged. “People are coping the best way they know how to a new threat. And that usually results in panic. And panic, like I said—”
“Makes everything exponentially worse.”
“You don’t think those people are malicious assholes?”
“Assholes, sure. Ignorant, yeah. Lacking emotional intelligence, definitely. That’s something that people lack even in the best of times. Malicious? Nah. They’re scared. Fear fucks people up. Makes their world shrink to just the survival of them and theirs.”
“It’s honorable of you to give people the benefit of the doubt like that, Coop, but I dunno, man.” I sprinkled some more parmesan onto my soup. “I really think people are inherently evil. Greedy, selfish, bad.”
“Mmmm,” Cooper replied.
“C’mon, Coop. Humor me. I mean, look at what you do for a living. Catching the scum of the earth, swinging the hard hammer of capital jay Justice onto them, making them pay. You’d think that doing shit like that would make you quite the misanthrope.”
Cooper didn’t respond immediately. He swirled his spoon around his bowl a bit, then set it down and glanced up at me. “Look,” he said finally. “People are…well, people are people.”
“Wow,” I said, feigning awe. “That’s fucking profound
Cooper threw me a mock disdainful look, then leaned back in his chair and ran a hand through his wood colored hair, ruffling it up. “People are…complicated. Yeah, I hunt scum. Yeah, I’ve witnessed shit that does and will give me insomnia for years to come. Yeah, it pisses me off. Scares me sometimes even. But,” he said, then trailed off.
?” I prompted.
“You really wanna know what I think?”
I nodded, lifted another spoonful of soup into my mouth.
Cooper looked at me thoughtfully. “Look, anger doesn’t accomplish much. Sure, it keeps me going when all I wanna do is quit. But, when it comes down to it, anger, much like fear, is destructive. Both hold you hostage, mentally and physically. In short bursts, sure, they’re fine. But long term? That shit can crush you.”
“So, you’re saying people shouldn’t feel afraid at all right now?”
“No. It’s futile not to feel what you’re gonna feel. I’m just saying that we all have a moral duty to self-regulate, cope, take care of ourselves.”
“Okay, Mr. Spock, but what does that have to do with people being inherently good or bad?”
“Because people aren’t all or nothing of anything. Not all good or all bad. At least, not really. They’re an amalgamation of everything they’ve experienced, all the crap they keep inside, all their emotions, controlled by a three-pound mass of tissue and fat that, on the best of days, can still get killswitched back into thinking primally. Fear, feed, fight, fuck. Everyone has the capacity to help or harm. Even you.” He paused for a beat. “Even me.”
“Psychos can do good?”
“Depends on the psycho.”
that guy. But, that said, he was, apparently, a good dad.” Cooper took another sip of beer. “Doesn’t make what he did any better. He’s still a fucking monster. Just makes it that much more complicated for people like his daughter.”
“So, you think everyone has the capability to rob? To murder?”
Cooper nodded. “Especially when shit hits the fan. You ever seen a cornered animal? We’re, when you really get down to it, just smart animals. Our reptilian mind is barely kept in check by our frontal lobe.”
“And yet you’re not
Cooper smirked. “Like I said, people aren’t all or nothing of anything. People have just as much capacity to do good as they do to do bad. People—a lot of them—are helping their neighbors, the disenfranchised, the poor, those who can’t help themselves right now. People can, and often do
, care. I’ve seen the worst of the worst, true, but I’ve also seen and worked with some damn fine, compassionate folks.”
“Folks that would, according to you, kill indiscriminately if shit hit the fan?”
“How bad would shit have to hit the fan for you
to murder someone?”
“So then what do you do?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean with this…this belief
that people are grey and all it takes is for one bad thing too many to push them over the edge? Including you. Doesn’t that shit scare you? How do you keep from falling off the edge?”
“I dunno. I take care of myself.” He paused for a beat. “I cook, read, play video games, work out, meditate, help when I can, where I can, practice patience, try to give people the benefit of the doubt. It doesn’t cost anything to be compassionate. But your cup’s gotta be full first before it can start to flow over and fill the cups of others.”
,” I said.
“How are you single? Why
are you single? You could probably have any chick or dude you wanted.”
Cooper laughed, finished off his beer, and said, “Because I’m a fucking unapologetic misanthrope.” He grinned winsomely.
We finished dinner and Cooper asked if I wanted a coffee or any of the apple pie he’d baked earlier. But what I really wanted was another beer. He obliged, popping the cap and handing it to me. I took a swig as he picked up his acoustic, sat down on the couch, and plucked out a little tune
for a two minutes or three.
I couldn’t help but laugh after the first few chords. Cooper smiled to himself, kept playing.
, but was our conversation really that philosophical?” I asked when he finished.
Cooper shrugged, stood up, and placed the guitar back in its stand.
“You’re pretty good.”
“Practice,” he replied. From somewhere near the dining room table a tinny noise rang out.
?” I asked.
“Knew there was a reason I befriended you all those years ago.” Cooper walked over and picked up a slick black phone from the kitchen counter. “Duty calls.”
“You’re still working during this?”
“Have to. At least, for the foreseeable future. Crime doesn’t give a shit about pandemics.”
“Your sister won’t mind me being here? Did you tell her I was spending the night?”
“Doubt she’ll even come out.”
“And if she does? Like to use the bathroom or get food.”
“She’s got her own bathroom in there, and she took all my beef jerky. I’m willing to bet a hundred bucks she won’t.”
“Ah, so that’s why you’re going vegetarian.”
Cooper chuckled. “What time’s your flight again?”
“What time do you want to leave?”
“I have Pre-Check and I doubt the departures will be crowded, so maybe seven?”
“Seven it is.”
I sat in the kitchen, sipping my beer and watching as Cooper got ready. He pulled out a dark brown leather holster from his closet and shrugged it over his shoulders and clipped it to his belt. He knelt and reached deeper into the closet. There was a clicking sound, like he was turning a dial. When he stood up a pistol and two clips were tucked neatly away in the holster.
“I’ll be back. Don’t wait up. And make yourself at home.”
Cooper grabbed a jacket off a hook next to the door, turned, and left.
A few minutes later, I heard the roar of the rental’s engine rise up then dissipate as it drove away.
I plopped down on the couch next to the stack of clean folded linens and pillows Cooper had laid out for me. In the other room, the music switched from Black Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell
to Lamb of God’s Walk with Me in Hell
. For a fleeting moment, I had the urge to knock on the door and introduce myself. But it faded almost as fast as it came. Instead, I reached for the remote, then hesitated just as I was about to flick on the TV, see if I could catch the latest news about the spread. Fear fucks people up
Maybe I’d be better off skipping the news for now and doing something else.
Suddenly, there was an oh so soft meow from behind me. I jumped a little bit, then looked back. Standing at the edge of the shadowy hallway was a tiny black cat. It meowed again. It almost sounded like a question.
“Hey, void kitty. C’mere.” I made some kissy noises and rubbed my fingers together.
The cat looked at me with bright eyes, mewled, then trotted away, back down the darkened hallway, tail raised up and swishing.
“Like father like son, shrouded in mystery,” I muttered and turned back towards the TV.
Four books were stacked on Cooper’s coffee table. On the Basis of Morality
, The Stranger
, Justice as Fairness
, and The Three Body Problem
I chuckled to myself—Cooper would have these around for “light” reading, he was such a Hermione. I picked one up, flicked through a few pages, and started to read.
While the spread might move over the next week-plus leading up to the game, here’s the latest Super Bowl LIV odds, via OddsShark: 49ers at Chiefs -1.5 The Chiefs also are a -110 bet on the After almost two weeks of Super Bowl LIV sports betting odds being available around the huge Kansas City Chiefs vs. San Francisco 49ers 2020 Super Bowl matchup in Miami Sunday, the sports betting lines have not changed much from when they opened following the AFC and NFC Championship games.. Sports bettors continue to watch the lines like hawks, waiting for an advantage to surface between what The Chiefs remain the oddsmakers’ favorite to win Super Bowl 54, but the game is expected to be very, very close. The 1.5-spread is almost a toss-up. Latest 2020 Super Bowl odds. Betting odds via BetMGM Sportsbook; last updated Sunday at 10:00 a.m. ET. Super Bowl LIV Moneyline. Kansas City Chiefs -121; San Francisco 49ers +105; New to sports Latest Super Bowl Odds: Tuesday Morning. 11:30 a.m. ET: The Super Bowl spread is holding steady at Chiefs -1.5 while the over/under continues to rise. After opening the total at 51.5, the line is all the way up to 54 at FanDuel.. Here’s a quick snapshot of lines at various legal books: 2020 Super Bowl point spread, betting line, total, odds: 49ers vs. Chiefs expected to go down to the wire Visit SportsLine to see their latest cheat sheet, all from the model that is up over
NFL Betting experts Donnie Rightside and Teddy Covers talk about the released Super Bowl 2020 Future Odds and which are looking like strong candidates to take home the Lombardi Trophy. Prop Bets for Super Bowl 2020 Super Bowl Start Time: 6:30 p.m. EST on Sunday, February 2, 2020 - Duration: 36:19. WagerTalk TV: Sports Picks and Betting Tips 5,461 views 36:19 San Francisco 49ers vs Kansas City Chiefs face off for Super Bowl 2020. Check out our complete list of all Super Bowl LIV Prop Bets: http://www.sbrvideo.com/... Andy Reid joins Colin Cowherd to talk winning Super Bowl LIV and his Kansas City Chiefs. Hear Andy discuss Super Bowl LIV, what the Chiefs need to do to repeat, how high he thinks Patrick Mahomes ... First look at Super Bowl Odds 2019 game between the New England Patriots vs Los Angeles Rams. Super Bowl 53 goes down on February 3, 2019 in Atlanta, GA and we've got the latest NFL betting lines ...