[ IV ]

On Tuesday morning I slept through my alarm and woke up ten minutes into what should have been my calculus class. Fuck. I rolled to the edge of my bed, got one leg down to the floor, then changed my mind and flopped back into the blankets. Nope. Hadn't really felt like going to that class, anyway. Law was in it with me, and I wasn't up to dealing with that guy being a shit for an hour or so. He was really the reason I was in this fucked-up situation in the first place, and if I saw his face right now I might punch him in it.

It was a bad start to a bad day. I managed to pull myself together and get to school in time for my sociology class at ten, but I hadn't done any of the reading and I'd grabbed the wrong notebook on my way out of the apartment. Both sociology and calculus were some of the few leftover GE courses I was still scrabbling to get the credits for in my senior year, and they were hard to care about even when I hadn't had a distracting weekend full of aliens.

Speaking of those aliens. They'd been gone again by the time I was running out the door. They definitely weren't crowding me. Actually, they weren't around much at all. Yesterday after I'd thrown lunch together for them, they'd taken off and hadn't come back until after dark again. They were still crashing on the couches, but other than the neat piles of folded blankets in the living room and the neat piles of armor back in my room, it was easy to forget they were even here.

Okay. Not really. But they were pretty good at keeping a low profile. Both in my apartment and out of it. Nobody on the news was talking about aliens yet, or about anything weird at all. Everything and everyone still seemed completely damn normal. But mostly I was trying not to think about any of it, and just stay out of their business. That way I could maybe get through this still sane and in one piece.

Sociology couldn't be over fast enough. It was even a movie day—although a pretty downer movie about homeless kids—but I still hid in the last row of seats and didn't really make eye contact with anyone. I doodled half-assed notes in the back of my calculus notebook most of the time to look like I wasn't just dicking around in the back, especially since the professor had decided to sit four chairs down the row from me.

I wasted some time in between sociology and my darkroom photography class; took a slow lap around the campus and then ate lunch in the cafeteria by myself, which was pretty usual. I did see Slayton near the middle of the room at a table full of beefy bros with popped collars, but without Martin here I didn't want to hang around with that crowd. I sat by the tall windows at the far end instead, poking at my food and absently watching people go by on the main pathway through campus.

I thought things would get better in darkroom, since usually it was one of my favorite classes. Photography had tricked me into this major in the first place, but I still liked doing it. And I had actually learned some shit about it in the process, enough to tell me that a creative career was really not what I wanted. But I had no idea what else to do except see the fucking classes through and graduate. Darkroom was one of the good ones that almost occasionally made me reconsider. But right now, it only reminded me that I actually had a project that I had to come up with and present by two weeks from now. Last week I'd been looking forward to it, now...

Well, I didn't feel fucking creative, that was for sure. Trying to do artistic shit right now seemed even more meaningless than usual, just like trying to care about math.

After class I stopped by the registrar, turned in my pass/fail paperwork for calculus, and then...didn't really want to go back home. Hanging around my place alone just sounded fucking unappealing. Martin had been gone somewhere yesterday—probably at his girlfriend's—until real late and I'd bet he was gonna do it again today. Either he was still trying to give me alone time with my 'new girlfriend' or Keyd had just scared him off. Or both. I wouldn't even blame him. But I just didn't want to be alone at the apartment right now.

I did need to go the bank. I always liked having cash on hand and right now I had about a buck twenty in my wallet. That was no good, and the ATM on campus charged a stupid extra fee to withdraw. That was something to waste time doing. So I left my car in the underground lot at school, and headed off campus on foot to the old town district.

It was only two or three blocks from the college and not real taxing to walk there and back. A lot of the buildings here had been built in the early 20s and 30s, and there were still little hints of that mixed in with the modern stuff. A two-story brick building that'd been turned into a hair styling school still had Bank of Italy painted on the side in faded white letters. An antiques shop in the same old reddish-brown brick sat next door to it, and on the other side of that was a café in bright colored stucco. The whole area was real nice and neat, and all the lampposts had little American flag themed banners that marked it as the old town.

Even though it was early November, the day was nice and mild. There was a little breeze and clouds cluttered up the sky, but they were nice fluffy white ones and the sun was clear and warm. A hundred percent southern California fall. It was relaxing, and normal. Really normal.

This did not look like a place where an alien invasion of giant frogs could be happening.

Then again, I didn't actually know what the clarbach looked like. The frog thing, the gai, had just been some kind of...like a pet? Or a scout or spy or something. The clarbach themselves didn't look like that. Probably. And the gai hadn't really been that ugly, but it hadn't been very cute either. It'd scared the shit out of me because fuck, it was a giant fucking frog, but in the aftermath of the whole thing when I'd had a chance to think it over, it hadn't actually acted threatening. And I couldn't forget how the thing had looked before Keyd had assassinated it. Scared, and running. Keyd had even said he'd chased it almost a mile to the library, so it'd already been panicking long before I even got there.

All of it still sat with me wrong, but what the hell did I really know? Aliens. Alien business. Why was I thinking about this, anyway? I'd been trying not to do that. Goddammit.

I'd just gotten to the plaza itself—a loop of road circling a really tiny round park with a fountain in the middle—when my phone rang from inside my pocket. I stepped under the blue awning of a store, fished it out and looked at the screen.

DOUCHEBAG was calling.

"Nope," I said, and dropped the phone back in my pocket. What the hell was Law up to with this shit? Three years I'd known the guy and he'd never called me once. Now he was getting into stalker territory. He still hadn't left a single fucking message either. Next step would be to block him, Jesus.

The Wells Fargo and the Starbucks were one merged building; a giant white thing sitting on one of the plaza's corners. Fake pillars and moldings were worked into the architecture between real tall skinny windows. The ATM sat in a little foyer, almost a separate room from the rest of the bank. The air conditioning was on full blast inside, rustling the couple of fake potted plants. I had to wait in line behind an older lady and a punk kid with dyed hair and piercings everywhere who probably went to my school.

When I finally got my turn at the machine I pulled out forty bucks, reconsidered, and took out another sixty. Just in case. I wasn't even sure just in case what, but I wasn't about to have next to no cash on me if I suddenly had to go on the run from evil frog aliens or something. Not that I figured I would. But I was hanging around with a weird crowd now, and I was going to be at least a little prepared for an emergency.

I pushed out through the glass door with my shoulder, back out to the street, tucking my cash and card back into my wallet and not paying too much attention to what was going on in front of me. Bad idea; a shadow crossed my path and I pulled up just in time to keep from slamming right into somebody. I nearly lost my hold on my wallet and had to fumble at the thing to keep it in my hands. At the same time I muttered, "sorry, 'scuse me," and took a step to the side, trying to get out of the way.

The feet in front of me matched my move. Blocking me. That was fucking weird, and I looked up at whoever this was—maybe someone I knew from school being kind of a dick.

I had to look pretty damn far up to see this guy's face. He was real fucking tall, and I'd never seen him before in my life. His eyes were light green and his hair was a real pale blond, parted in the middle and cut to his ears. Sort of a '90s boy band thing going on. He was actually kind of handsome, and couldn't've been much older than me. He was still right in my way. Not threateningly, just…there.

"Uh, hi," I said. Hairs were rising on my arms and the back of my neck, and my skin was starting to itch. Fuck what I said about not being threatening—this guy was way too fucking close to me. One step forward and we'd be touching. He stood about a head and some taller than me, at least Rysa's height or maybe even more than that. I'm five foot fucking ten and usually not the shortest guy in the room, but it seemed like everybody I was meeting these days could have been in pro basketball.

"Hello," the guy said to me. His voice wasn't that deep and sounded perfectly friendly. But it ran shivers down my back and tightened something at the base of my spine. He hadn't blinked once this entire time, and that was creepy enough.

"Do I know you?" I said. My arms were going crazy with prickles and goosebumps now. It made me want to grind my teeth together and drag my nails all over my skin. I shoved my wallet into my back pocket and forced myself not to step back. "Who the hell are you? What are you?"

"My name is Ahieel." The guy tilted his head down and to the side, kind of a weird half-nod half-bow. "I am a clarbach."

"Oh shit," I said.

Ahieel the goddamn clarbach straightened up again, giving me a look from under his pale eyebrows.

"And what is your name?" he said. For a bad guy, he was pretty damned polite. Well-dressed too, in a light blue button-down and tan slacks. Where the fuck did a guy from another planet get clothes like that? And in his size? He could have jumped right out of a catalogue for guys who dressed like yacht club douchebags. He and Law might've gotten along. The only thing off about him was his shoes. They looked like boots under the hem of his pants, greyish-blue leather and laces.

"It—why do you want to know?" I said, and jammed my hands into my pockets. If this guy got aggressive on me, there was no way I could fight back. I had my weird magic ability or whatever, but I didn't really know how to fucking use it. This guy was probably a soldier too, like Rysa and Keyd, despite the goofy way he was dressed. Running would be a better choice if this started to go bad. The bank was the best bet; the door was probably a dozen steps away, but there'd for sure be people in there and at least one security guy.

"You've spoken with them," Ahieel said then, and frowned. "They've told you to be afraid of me."

"Nope," I said through the blood roaring in my ears. "You're doing a pretty good job on your own."

Ahieel glanced between us, seemed to figure out how fucking close up in my space he was, and stepped back.

"Better?" he said.

"Not really. I don't want anything to do with this—just leave me alone," I said. "I'm serious, just back off."

"That's impossible." When Ahieel talked, his mouth didn't match the words he was saying. It wasn't nearly as quirky as when it happened with Rysa and Keyd. It just—it was fucking weird. This was a goddamn alien I was talking to, maybe a really dangerous one, and there wasn't a single second here where I could forget it.

"Oh yeah, why's that?" I shot back, but it didn't sound nearly as cool as I wanted.

"You've involved yourself already, even if it was not your intention," Ahieel said. "But you are involved. And I have a duty to deal with those who become part of our war."

"Jesus, hold on, what're you talking about, I'm not fucking involved!"

Ahieel's expression went a little hard and suspicious. "But you are carrying my spells with you."

"Your—" I started, but had to stop when Ahieel did...something. The air around him changed, a weird flux that seemed to draw everything towards him . I could almost see it happening, like heat waves bending around his body. The itch that'd been simmering under my skin this whole time flared up so hard that it hurt, burning over my entire body.

It nearly sent me to my knees. "Fuck, fuck, stop!" The feeling settled back down into the same mild itching as before. I heaved in air, hands still braced on my legs, and looked up at Ahieel. "Shit, what the fuck was that?"

"How interesting," Ahieel said. His head tilted sideways towards his shoulder in a slow, kind of predatory way. "What sort of ability is it that you have?"

I wasn't gonna admit that I had no fucking clue, so I just kept quiet and stared back at him. What had he just been trying to do; take his spells back or something? He could fucking have them. But he'd just flat-out admitted he was one who'd put them on Rysa and Keyd in the first place, didn't even try to deny it. He didn't seem to be real sorry about it either.

"Alan," Ahieel said then, and hot adrenaline shot through my chest. I hadn't told him my name. "We should talk."

I swallowed. "We are talking."

"Elsewhere."

"No fucking way. I'm not going anywhere with you."

Ahieel glanced around at the bank and the street and the people who were around in the plaza minding their own business, and sighed.

"If you insist," he said. All this polite shit was starting to get to me. It was way too nice and understanding. I didn't fucking trust it. "About the oenclar."

"Yeah, what about them?"

"They are not your friends or allies," Ahieel said. "They don't want to help you."

"That's not what it looks like to me."

"What have they told you about it?"

"It—" Oh. Well. When he put it like that; not a fucking lot. Just that the clarbach were maybe gonna try to do something with...evil trees, or something like that, and that there was a big war somewhere else, and that nobody liked each other much.

Maybe he had a point. Shit.

"I know enough," I said, and could tell Ahieel didn't buy that for a single fucking minute. The little smirk that slid over his face told me that.

"Perhaps you think you do." A car in the street blared its horn, and I nearly jumped out of my fucking skin. Ahieel didn't even break his eye contact with me. I was starting to sweat uneasily inside my clothes and my skin still prickled like I'd just rolled around in a grass lawn for a half hour. Every instinct I had told me to get the fuck out of here. But there was nowhere to go. I couldn't run anywhere that he couldn't catch me before I got there.

"You gonna tell me what I'm missing, then?" I said.

"Perhaps you trust them, perhaps you believe that what they do is for good," he said. "But if they haven't told you the full truth of all this, how do you know any of what they say can be believed? They would tell you anything, whatever they needed to in order to get your cooperation."

"And you wouldn't. Right."

Ahieel sighed again, kinda like he was getting a little annoyed at this point, and settled his shoulders around. "Ask, and I will answer."

Whatever game this guy had going, I still didn't like it or trust it. And I definitely wasn't playing. I didn't ask a fucking thing.

That didn't faze Ahieel at all. It almost seemed like he'd expected it. He sort of adjusted his face—twitched his mouth then set it, flexed his jaw and flinched his eyes narrow for about a millisecond. Then—

"They, and all others like them, have been touched by a darkness," he said, and this just sounded like the start of some sort of crazy rant, even though his voice was still perfectly calm. "Judged and marked with their flaws, their corruption. Their powers are destructive, tainting. Only we—those like myself, of the light—can counter the destruction that they cause with their mere existence. What those two will do here is nothing good, and if and while you aid them I would have no choice but to consider you my enemy as well." Ahieel touched a hand to the middle of his chest, long narrow fingers spread wide. "That would be most regrettable."

"Is that a threat?" I said, because I seriously wasn't sure.

"No." Ahieel dropped his hand, and blinked for the first time I'd noticed. "Only a fair warning."

I was getting a pretty zealot-y vibe off this guy by now, but I couldn't completely ignore what he was saying. The magic I'd seen off Rysa and Keyd was a little sinister, with all the black and dark purple and big demon-looking dog things. He was also right that they hadn't actually told me shit about what was going on. And looking at Ahieel and all his pale, pale paleness—if there was a side of light, he could have been its cereal box mascot.

"They also destroyed my gai." Ahieel put his hand lightly on his chest again. "While it was doing nothing to harm them."

Fuck. Another point to him. "I—"

"All you need to do is tell me where they are," Ahieel said, and now he was getting all gentle and kind of reassuring. "It's very important that I find them."

"I don't—"

That was as far as I got before something fell out of the air right in front of me. A dark person-sized shape dropped right into the narrow space between me and Ahieel, landing in a half-crouch with huge wings spread out like a glassy black shield. Ahieel drew back but, just like me, he clearly knew who this was. I could see it in his face, the way his attention snapped right to her and forgot about me completely.

I backed away as Rysa straightened herself up, setting her shoulders back and keeping her wings flared out wide. They were a lot different from Keyd's, some far away distant part of my mind noticed—lots of straight lines and sharp angles where his had more curved shapes and stretched out spikes. Rysa threw her arms out to the sides, another barrier between me and Ahieel.

"Bhai aiuhoi uena saan!" she snarled at him, which didn't sound a fucking thing like the language she and Keyd usually spoke.

Ahieel looked like Christmas had come fucking early. His face lit up with this kind of crazy triumph, and the way he was smiling looked more like bared teeth than anything.

"Ineah," he said, and lifted his hand. It literally lit up; a golden-white light started to glow from the middle of his palm, and spread up to his fingertips. There were white marks on the skin of his hand that I hadn't noticed before, and they were burning the brightest. "Ashosheana hamma."

Rysa whirled right around, grabbed the front of my shirt and threw me back across the sidewalk. I staggered against the wall of the bank, my shoulder ramming into one of the fake pillars, and turned around just in time to see Ahieel drop to a knee and slam his hand flat down against the ground.

White light flashed under his fingers, and a hard humming ripple slammed right through my chest. Bright lines burst out from beneath Ahieel's hand, jagged and incredibly fast. They shot out along the sidewalk straight towards Rysa, three separate spikes. Rysa just barely managed to jump out of the way. She kicked off the metal arm of a nearby bench and launched herself into the air with a heavy sweep of her wings.

Without getting up, Ahieel wound his other arm back and pitched it forward as Rysa was still trying to get herself stable in the air. Another jet of gold-white light ran down his arm to his hand, forming something there that was almost a solid shape, like a spear or some kind of goddamn harpoon. It shot straight towards Rysa like a flash of lightning, blindingly bright and trailing white sparks and a high-pitched hum in its wake.

Rysa dodged but it must have clipped her, because she wobbled and thrashed and nearly tumbled into a blue awning over a storefront. She grabbed the sill of a second story window and sort of..somehow...landed in a crouch on the wall. Sideways. Then she ran, still fucking sideways, across the side of the building and up over the edge of the roof. A pale purple glow stayed where her feet had touched down; faint spots of light that faded away a second or two later.

Ahieel turned his head and looked me right in the eyes. I was still clinging against the wall of the bank, frozen there, and he was less than twenty feet away. If he wanted to get me, he had the opportunity and the shot. For a long second we just stared at each other. The air felt thick and charged and slow. A sharp copper taste filled my mouth, and all I could hear was my heart drumming in my ears.

Then Ahieel shook his hair out of his eyes with a little jerk of his head, and turned away. He got a foot up on the same bench Rysa had. Huge bright wings pushed out of the back of his shoulders through his clothes, gleaming like pieces of fractured crystal, and then he was in the air. I heard Rysa's voice shout something from far away, and a whip of hissing purple-black energy arced out of the sky and snapped down towards Ahieel. The tip smacked into the air a few feet from his head, there was a loud crack and a flash of light, and a sharp and ugly thrum vibrated through the air. My ears rung and shimmery rainbows blobbed over my vision, and even though I'd been holding still against the wall I was suddenly dizzy and unbalanced and feeling like the world was trying to swing me off.

I reached out for something to hold onto and found cool window glass, which probably wasn't so great, but I flattened myself against it anyway. Whatever Ahieel and Rysa were doing behind me, I could feel every single second of it vibrating in my chest, my throat, my head, pulsing through all my muscles like I was being pressed and squeezed and shaken all at the same time. The air rumbled and buzzed and I couldn't drag enough breath into my lungs with all this pressure swelling down on me.

Behind me, I heard a scuffle of shoes drawing up short on the sidewalk, and then a guy's voice said, "whoa, what the fuck!" and then, running. Fast running, in the opposite direction. A car horn bleated and tires squealed, and then there was more yelling, more honking, a hollow metal sound like somebody had slapped the hood of a car. I heard a girl's voice shouting something, first angry, then—not so angry. More like panic.

All this while I was still face-first to the bank window. It was dark tinted glass, so I couldn't really see inside even this close up. But I could see reflections; the whole of the plaza pretty well behind me as the shimmers in my eyes started to fade. People were starting to notice something going on—I could see them pointing, running, trying to get out of the area. Car horns honked and tires ground against asphalt. Metal crunched and squealed, and a car alarm started whooping. I wondered what the fuck they were even seeing, since this energy stuff was apparently kind of selective. But two flying people might be hard to miss.

I'd be running the fuck out of here too, if I could get myself off the side of the goddamn bank. But I didn't trust my own body to move where I wanted it or to do anything normal right now. Squishing myself against the wall and part of the window at least gave me something real and solid to ground against, but if I got away from that I had this crazy thought that my body might just burst apart and explode.

Something hit me from behind and caught me hard around the waist. I figured somebody'd just run into me accidentally until the person pulled me away from the window, and then from the fucking sidewalk itself. The ground, the street, everything—it all fell away like the entire planet had bottomed 's arm squeezed around my chest and another around my stomach, and I could hear a soft swooshing against the air somewhere above my head. It had to be Keyd; he was the only other person I knew who could fucking fly. He'd just swooped in and grabbed me right off the ground.

"Where the fuck did you guys come from?" I yelled. The wind slid my glasses down my nose and I slammed a hand over them. "And what are you doing?"

"Keeping you safe," Keyd said. He'd hauled us way up above the roof of the bank, and now he banked lower until my shoes dragged against crunchy asphalt and I could get my footing. I stumbled forward a few steps and by the time I turned around, Keyd had landed right behind me. He caught me by the shoulder to steady me, then gave me a real awkward pat. Like I was a little kid or a dog or something.

"Rysa and I will take care of this," he said. Then he turned away, reaching for his left eye and heading towards the edge of the roof. I started after him, not exactly sure what I was going to do or say but just having a general bad feeling about being abandoned on the roof of the Wells Fargo while there was a fucking magic battle going on in the street. How the fuck was this safe?

"Keyd—"

He didn't even turn around. That black sword was already in his hand. "Stay here."

"Keyd!"

But he stepped up onto the raised lip around the roof and launched himself off, banking straight down towards the street and disappearing from sight.

"Goddamn it!" I got up to the edge of the building just in time to be half fucking blinded by some kind of technicolor light show from down in the street. Wincing and blinking spots out of my eyes, I went down to my knee behind the roof edge, staying low but keeping my head up enough to see what was going on.

Seeing the plaza from up here was weird—the bank was the tallest building around, and just the change in angle and distance made everything hard to recognize. It was almost like watching a movie. People were still running for safety, ducking into buildings or fleeing down the main streets. It took me a second to spot Rysa and Ahieel. They were both back down on the ground, but over on the other side of the street by the hair salon. The sidewalk glittered with broken glass and Rysa was crouched up against the back door of a boxy Scion. A rope of dark energy curled off each of her arms, waving around her like charmed fucking snakes. Ahieel was a couple dozen yards away, on top of a minivan with a crumpled hood, his wings still out but kind of limp and dragging behind him. It was hard to see from here, but one sleeve of his shirt looked darker and almost burned. He must have taken some kind of hit, and he didn't seem real happy about it.

"Ineah!" His voice rang through the plaza, getting louder with every syllable until he was bellowing at the top of his lungs. His wings lifted, shuddered, and sucked back into his shoulders. "Emua haalu daneehe oto hem!"

Behind the Scion, Rysa lowered her head and folded her arms tight against her chest. The wavy whip-things curled in close around her, making a protective little cage. Was she hurt or something? Why was she just sitting there? She could take this guy. He was wearing slacks, for fuck's sake.

That was when Keyd showed up. I hadn't even seen where he'd gone once he'd tossed me up here on the roof, but suddenly he was diving in from overhead, right at Ahieel's back. And for one fast second, it looked like this whole thing was going to be over, just like that. Keyd was gonna hit Ahieel before the guy even saw him—he was coming in noiseless and fast and right on target.

But Ahieel did see him. Somehow. Because at the last fucking second he dropped, pressing himself nearly flat against the car roof, and Keyd whisked right over without even touching him. Then Ahieel snapped out one of those flashy glowing fucking spears at him, zinging it right at his back. It crashed into one of Keyd's wings right as he was trying to draw up and bank around another direction. The spear packed a hell of a punch, because Keyd got bowled across the street like he'd been fired out of a canon, did an insane out-of-control mid-air pirouette, and came down right in a tree. Branches snapped and bunches of leaves thrashed around and the whole thing flashed with purple light.

I'd nearly flattened myself against the raised edge of the roof by now. That hit Ahieel'd gotten on Keyd had felt like a fucking gong getting whaled on right inside my chest. Could this shit by-proxy hurt me? It sure fucking felt like it—like my bones were gonna dissolve and all my soft squishy organs were gonna burst. I didn't think my body was built to take much more of this.

The second I thought that, Ahieel shoved his arm forward and sent a handful of gold light at the Scion Rysa was behind. Gold sparks crackled and bounced over the metal. Then he yanked his hand sideways and the whole car just slid right out of the way, locked tires squealing over the pavement.

Well, holy fucking shit.

But Rysa wasn't caught off-guard. She was braced in a low stance, her arms out in front of her, and she was ready for the surge of white light that barreled out of Ahieel's chest and down through his hands the moment the car was out of the way. Just a huge blinding beam of it. The light slammed into some kind of invisible barrier right at Rysa's fingertips and surrounded her in an arc. Rysa skidded back a dozen feet, heels dug into the ground, her head down. A junky K-car five feet behind her rocked on its wheels, like something'd hit it, but it hadn't been touched. The buzz in the air was deafening. I could barely see either of them inside the light, and trying to made my eyes vibrate and ache.

I looked away; I had to. A couple seconds later the intense hum cut off like a door being slammed. Everything went completely, unnaturally quiet. A long overdue breath hauled itself into my body, and I just about felt like lying down right here on the roof and just...no more. Quitting. But I didn't. I wasn't in this fucking fight and if I couldn't even handle watching it then Keyd and Rysa had done a piss poor job picking someone to ally with. Even if I was mostly just letting them couch-surf.

When I looked back down into the plaza, Ahieel was still standing on top of the minivan and Rysa was gone. I didn't see her anywhere, and there was a huge black scorch mark on the ground between where she'd been and Ahieel. Oh, shit. That didn't look good.

Then Keyd dropped out of the tree, shedding leaves and twigs everywhere, just in time for Ahieel to fire off a flashy magic spear at him. Keyd ducked and curled an arm up over his head, and a dozen glittering black pieces spun off his wrist, umbrellaing around him in a half circle. The spear slammed into them and exploded into white glittter that twinkled away into the air. Keyd snapped his head up, and then he threw a loose upper-cut in Ahieel's direction. All the little black shards flew through the air towards him like a swarm of tiny daggers, but U-turned and zipped back to Keyd's wrist before they got anywhere near him.

I already saw the fucking problem in this fight; I had a perfect view of it from up here. They couldn't get close to him. Everything Keyd brought to the table was clearly short range, and those whip things of Rysa's had a longer reach but not by enough. If Ahieel could hang back and throw those goddamn spears all day then there was no way he wasn't coming out on top. Their only clear advantage was that there were two of them, and maybe they could wear him out first.

But it didn't look like real good odds.

Keyd pushed himself to his feet, shouting something at Ahieel that wasn't in English. But the guy sounded angry. I hadn't even known he could raise his voice like that. Ahieel's reply was another spear aimed right at his chest. Keyd knocked it aside with the shield around his arm, and blobs of white light bounced and hissed against the sidewalk. He started walking forward, slowly, pushing into the street and towards Ahieel for whatever the fuck reason. It looked like a stupid plan. A gold glow flooded down Ahieel's arm and a spear dropped right into his hand, but he didn't throw it. He just waited, watching as Keyd came towards him.

The hum that'd been simmering in the air this whole time cranked up a notch, pitching into a high keening whine. I felt it down in my teeth and in tiny hard pressure points in my skull, and suddenly I was real sorry I'd eaten lunch. Or any food in my life, ever. Ahieel's mouth was moving, maybe he was talking, but I couldn't hear it over the constant grating shriek. Trash and dust and leaves kicked up over the ground, swirling and scritching over concrete, but there wasn't any wind.

What the fuck was happening here; I couldn't see them doing anything. Keyd and Ahieel were just standing a half dozen yards apart now, not moving. Ahieel had his whole body braced and his feet dug in to the ruined metal of the minivan roof, and actually Keyd looked like he was resisting against something too. Pressure swelled in the air; I could feel it deep in my ears and throat.

A lash of black energy whipped in suddenly from the side and snapped around Ahieel's wrist and arm. It yanked him down, dragging him to a knee and nearly off the roof of the minivan. I just about fucking cheered. Rysa was back in the game. She must've been sneaking around cars and shit this whole time, because she was only a handful of yards away from Ahieel and obviously he hadn't seen her coming. A second long curl of energy rolled out from her other arm and snapped right down at him, cracking through the air.

Ahieel threw his free arm out and a slash of gold-white caught the energy whip right before it touched him. A hard whine grated through the plaza, and I got the feeling of a stretched rubber band snapping back. I felt it right down in my gut. Rysa stumbled back, the whip Ahieel had blocked splintering apart and collapsing back to her arm. Her shoulder wrenched back like she'd been punched, and there was a hard flash of light and another throb of energy.

The wings came out and Ahieel clawed his way into the air, still leashed by the other whip curled around his arm. Rysa had the other end and he couldn't get far, but he was trying. But now Keyd was in the air too, sword in his hand. I gripped the edge of the roof, knuckles against the concrete, pulse clobbering away in my ears.

Get this guy, I thought. My jaw ached from biting down on it. Just get this fucking guy.

Hard white light ran down Ahieel's snared arm and didn't stop there. It shoved itself down the coils wrapped around him and along the whole length of the whip right back to Rysa. There was a sharp bloom of harsh light when it reached her; like a soundless flash grenade. Rysa stumbled back into the wall and slid down it, looking dazed.

Keyd was close enough to take a lunge at him with his sword, and he did—but even I could see it was wild, kind of sloppy, throwing too much of his body into it. Ahieel dodged him in a way that sent them sliding effortlessly past each other in the air. Even their wings didn't touch. Keyd tried to get himself turned around, but not fast enough. Ahieel zapped him with a sizzle of gold light that sent him tumbling down to the ground. Little gold sparks crackled around him.

Then Ahieel closed his hand on nothing, and wrenched his arm around in a wide arc. Keyd's whole body followed the movement, just lifting off the ground and flying in the direction Ahieel had thrown his arm. He slammed into the side of a parked jeep and the whole thing went over with a screech of metal and crunch of glass. Keyd careened off the other side and into the street. He hit hard and rolled, coming to a stop face-down against the curb. He didn't move.

Ahieel dropped out of the air; just folded up his wings and let himself fall nearly a dozen feet. He landed in a neat crouch, shook his hair back out of his face, and started moving towards Keyd. He had to walk carefully through the mess of the street, but he didn't seem to be in a real big hurry in the first place. He might have been saying words, but I couldn't catch them and they probably weren't in English. Keyd still wasn't moving and Ahieel was getting pretty fucking close to him. One of his arms was starting to glow with light.

I wanted to shout something, a warning, anything, just to get Keyd up again, and I was about a second from doing it when someone else did it for me. Rysa was up again, struggling forward into the street. She seemed...out of it, not totally recovered from that last hit, swaying a little as she moved.

Ahieel paused and glanced over his shoulder, almost casually. Then he whirled around, both hands outstretched. Blinding light flooded out from his chest, down his arms and out of him like a spotlight, and slammed into a car that was already on its side. The entire thing plowed forward over the asphalt, screeching and dragging sparks as it went, and Rysa had no time to get out of the way. The hood broadsided her as the car crashed over a city bench and flipped completely over onto its roof.

"Fuck!" I couldn't see what'd happened to her, if she was okay; the car was in the way. But that really couldn't have been good. Shit, fuck, fuck. I couldn't take this anymore. They were outrightlosingthis fight. But now Ahieel was turning back towards Keyd and I was stuck up on a goddamn roof and couldn't do anything anyway even if I wasn't. All I could do was watch this happen.

But Keyd wasn't just lying motionless in the gutter anymore. Jet black smoke was coiling and swirling around him, shifting into a lumpy animal shape I recognized. It was that thing, the thing with the weird name, the bejji or something like that. Keyd's magical chest-dog. I was fucking glad to see it now.

Ahieel hurled one of his big magic glow-sticks right at it, and missed by inches. The spear smashed into the pavement near the dog's feet and exploded into a huge shower of white sparks. The bejji broke into a full-on run just as Ahieel pitched another one at it. It dodged, just barely. Liquid globs of light rained off its back. Before Ahieel could get another shot off, the dog jumped onto the hood of a parked car and threw itself right at him. Its huge front paws slammed into Ahieel's chest and they fell out of the air together, crashing down to the street in tangle of purple and gold haze. Dust and whirls of trash from the street clouded up around them.

The bejji burst out of the dust cloud a couple seconds later, scrabbling around on its huge paws and banking back towards Keyd. It skidded to a halt right beside him then ducked its horse-sized head and nudged at him, trying to push him up. Keyd still wasn't moving, and all he did was flop over limply when the dog nosed him onto his back.

Holy shit, was he really dead? Were both he and Rysa...

I sat back from the edge of the roof, the whole of my spine hot and throbbing up into my neck and skull. Every part of me was full of static and leftover electricity; snapping under my skin, humming down to my bones and pressurizing everything inside me. I hung my head between my arms, trying to suck in more air. My head was hot and blank and buzzing, nothing but a jittery static mess.

When I managed to look up again, Ahieel was climbing out of the settling dust and leftover magic sparkles. He didn't seem all that hurt, but his nice neat clothes really weren't so nice and neat anymore. Keyd was still sprawled on the ground, the big black dog pawing at his shoulder, and I didn't see Rysa anywhere. Ahieel took a lurching step towards Keyd, then stopped as a shudder ran over him. He wobbled down slowly down to one knee. I saw his mouth move, but didn't hear anything. My ears were ringing and he was too far away.

Ahieel put one palm down on the ground, took in a breath that swelled his shoulders up and built a thick dry crackle in the air. The hair on my arms lifted, and everything in the plaza seemed to slow down and wait. Pressure swelled in my ears; sounds went gummy and mute. Then Ahieel pushed, heaving breath and power out of himself in a single hard rush. A bright white line squeezed out from under his hand, jetting forward like a crack splitting the ground apart. Heading right at Keyd.

There wasn't even time to shout a warning, and even if there had been the guy hadn't moved in a couple minutes and I wasn't even sure he was alive. But before the light reached Keyd, the bejji saw it coming and jumped right on top of it.

Bright gold ran up its paws and into its body like it was absorbing Ahieel's energy right out of the ground. It glowed out from under the dog's skin, then out of its eyes and mouth and ears until the whole animal was a blinding ball of light. Then it just...exploded. White light fizzled out into the air like sparks from a firecracker, and the bejji was gone. Faint black smoke and purple mist hung in the air, and everything was still.

For about three long, heavy seconds.

A whining scream tore through the plaza. It didn't sound human and it felt like it was coming from everywhere at once. It started loud and terrible then got worse and worse and higher and higher until it was less like a scream than some kind of fucking nightmare noise from hell. Glass shattered in the street and I threw my hands over my ears, reeling off my knees and staggering to my feet, thinking I just had to get away. Then something slammed me hard in the chest, a force that was like I'd been hit with something physical and fucking strong. It knocked me back, sent me skidding across the roof, rolling helplessly through flashes of blue sky and gravel-grey sheeting.

Before I even stopped moving, everything cut to black.

#

When I opened my eyes, I was still on top of the bank and everything was quiet. The gritty roofing was digging into the back of my head, and a breeze was flapping at my shirt. My whole body ached like a bitch, and I was a little sick to my stomach. I pulled myself up, wincing and clenching my teeth, and leaned carefully over my knees. My arms were all skinned up from being thrown halfway across the fucking roof, and they stung pretty bad. I'd probably have some bruises to match later.

I couldn't think of what I should be doing, so I just sat there rubbing at my head and trying to figure out what was even going on. It took some effort. I was honestly pretty out of it, and getting my thoughts to focus or even make sense was a fuzzy messed-up process. It even took me about a minute to remember why I was up on a fucking roof in the first place. Because Keyd had stranded me here when shit had started to go down.

The shadows seemed longer than they had before, and the air was getting cooler. I could have been lying up here for a while. It wasn't actually as quiet as I'd thought at first; my ears just hadn't been working like normal. That last energy wave must've busted something up in there temporarily. But now sounds were slowly coming back in, even though it was all thick and heavy like I was listening through water. I worked my jaw around and shook my head, but it didn't help much. There was a blurry car alarm going off down in the plaza, and a weird muted roaring that I had no idea what it was. Anything else was too quiet for me to identify.

Then I heard something I definitely knew—police sirens, in the way distance. Oh, fuck. That was gonna be just awesome. I had no idea where Keyd and Rysa were, if Ahieel was still around, or who'd just won their big magic brawl. And if it hadn't been Keyd and Rysa, how the hell was I going to get off the roof of the goddamn Wells Fargo? There was nothing here, no door or anything that looked like it led down. The whole roof was flat except for some piping and a couple of whirring air conditioning units.

"Thank you, Keyd, goddammit," I muttered. The bank was one of the tallest buildings in the plaza, but all the roofs here were crunched up next to each other. Maybe I could get over to another one and climb down that way. I figured I'd better get started on that, since it'd probably take me a while and I'd need to beat the cops and the fire department and whoever else was on their way here. Really didn't want to get caught in a place I probably wasn't supposed to be, right near a totally destroyed section of town. Definitely a bad plan.

I was just starting to drag my feet back under me when a huge shadow swooped up over the edge of the roof. I ducked and threw my arms over my head, and then realized I knew this shadow. Keyd. He steered himself around in a tight semicircle, then dropped down right on the wide raised lip that went around the edge of the roof. As he steadied himself there, his wings folded up and sucked back down into his shoulders. Then he turned around to face me.

Keyd really looked like he'd just gotten the serious shit kicked out of him. His arms and face were all scratched up and even his clothes were torn and dirty and stained dark in places. The parts of his hair that weren't plastered down with sweat were going in every damn direction. There was a pretty big gash down one side of his face, but the stuff coming out of it was black and didn't even look like blood. I was just stunned that he wasn't actually dead. From what I'd last seen, I'd kinda thought he was.

I forgot about trying to stand up. "Fuck, are you o—"

Keyd stepped down off the roof edge and strode toward me, and I figured that he was probably just fine. He came right over and dropped to a knee. That mess on his face really was blackish-purple blood. I could see more of it sort of...oozing out of him. It was all over the left side of his face, and his hair was matted and shiny with it around his forehead and ear. He didn't seem to give a fuck about any of it.

"Are you hurt at all?" Keyd asked. It sounded like a stock question, not like he was really concerned but more that it was protocol to ask.

I flexed my fingers and moved both my legs around, just to double check. Other than the skinned up places and all the aches, I seemed fine. Way better than he looked. "Don't think so."

"Good." Keyd stood up, then stuck his bloody, sweaty, dirty hand down to me. Really—really? Now he was Mr. Fucking Chivalry? After all the shoving me around and abandoning me on a fucking rooftop? I ignored his hand and got myself to my own damn feet. Keyd just watched me without a word.

"What the hell happened?" I said once I was up. "Did you guys win, or what?"

"Ahieel is gone for now," Keyd said, which was a flaky fucking answer. Then his wings flashed back out through his clothes and flared out over his shoulders. I took a step back automatically. He had to have about ten or twelve feet of dark glassy wing on either side of him—they were seriously fucking huge. "We should go as well."

"Fuck you, no," I said, before I could come up with a better way to object. "No way, you're not flying with me again."

"It's the fastest way," Keyd said. I made a face and rubbed a hand over the back of my neck, but couldn't honestly think of any other good option for getting off this roof myself that wouldn't take at least ten minutes. Those sirens would get here a lot sooner than that.

"Just—gimme a minute, then," I said. "Okay? Just one minute."

Keyd relaxed back from me, which seemed to mean he'd actually give me some time. His wings stayed out, but they wilted down a little and curled around the sides of his shoulders. The tips of them brushed the gritty roof surface. Afternoon light slid along all the thin edges, and parts of them almost reflected purple. He looked like a big dark glittery bird, or kinda like that devil guy from the end of Fantasia. I took a step or two away from him, just...because.

Moving reminded me that I'd gotten tumbled all the fuck over the roof and had some minor injuries of my own to prove worst of it was one nice big patch on my upper arm that kind of looked like raw hamburger. It stung pretty bad, and somehow hurt more now that I was looking at it. Bleeding a little, too. As I rolled my sleeve up over my shoulder to keep it out of the way, I noticed Keyd watching me do it. When he moved towards me and reached out, my first instinct was to keep him the fuck away.

"Hey—" I started, but he was faster and caught my arm before I got far. "Hey—!"

"Stop," Keyd said. It didn't sound like an order, the way he usually talked to me. It was kind of a quiet request. I shut up and watched him as he got a firmer grip under my arm, turning it so he could get a better look. Then he put his hand over the scrape. Not touching, just hovering there. A hum built up in the air, a sort of steady pulse and a low buzz. Then a weird numb feeling settled down on my skin and slowly sunk in. Now my arm just felt warm, kind of tingly, and didn't hurt at all.

"I can't heal you," Keyd said, moving his hand to another scraped up spot down by my elbow and doing the same thing. "But this should help."

"...yeah, it does." Who the hell was this guy, and where'd he put the real Keyd? His behavior was just all over the map.

But...he was an alien. That gave him a pretty legit reason to actually act like he was from another fucking planet. So I should probably quit taking everything out on him and being so juvenile.

"Hey man, look," I said. "Sorry about being touchy with the...the flying stuff. It's not exactly my favorite. Just gets to me."

"I understand," Keyd said. He'd moved on to making parts of my other arm hot and tingly and numb now, and wasn't looking at me. "I'll try to avoid it in the future."

"Okay." That was almost downright thoughtful, at least for him. I'd take what I could get. "Okay. Thanks."

He glanced up at me. "Turn your head."

"What?"

"Turn it." Keyd tilted his own face to the right and tapped his cheek with two fingers. I copied him slowly. Suddenly his hand was right against the side of my face, but so light that I felt more of the heat off his skin than actual contact. His hand was really fucking big, just like the rest of him. He could've grabbed my whole head and gone bowling with it. The same buzzy tingle settled down in a stripe along my jaw. This time it made my whole face warm.

"Anywhere else?" Keyd asked. I looked up into his face and fuck his eyes were so blue. How did someone even get eyes that blue? It was like looking right through his head into the sky behind him.

"No, I'm...good," I said. "Thanks. Really."

Keyd dropped his hand, looked me over once, and then gave a curt nod. "Ready?" His wings—which had gone away at some point, I hadn't noticed when—lifted out from behind his shoulders, shuddered, and spread themselves out like dark fingers.

I cleared my throat and blinked a few times. "Oh, yeah. Sure." I wasn't ready, never would be, but I didn't want to stay on the roof of the bank much longer. Especially now that those distant sirens really weren't so distant anymore.

Keyd's hand dropped down on my shoulder, and he moved around behind me. The shadows of his wings stretched out in front of me on the roof, blueish and broken in the late afternoon light. He was so tall and big that he completely eclipsed my own shadow, like I wasn't even standing there at all.

"Just don't go real high, man, all right?" I said as Keyd stepped up close to my back. There was a new smell around him, sharp and weird, kind of like ozone.

"All right." Keyd slid his arms around me, and it was a lot different when he wasn't wearing his armor or when I wasn't panicking about being hauled off the ground out of nowhere. His upper body was like a fucking wall, a really warm one made of hard muscle. He was just really lean, and strong, and solid. And damp, from sweat and maybe blood and who knew what the fuck else.

"Perhaps you just shouldn't look at all," Keyd said, right near my ear. I sucked in a breath and took his advice.

Keyd sort of hefted me up against himself, then slung me to the side so that he could run without me getting in the way. Because that was what he did next. Ran right for the edge of the roof, stepped up onto the edge and threw us off. It was pretty easy to tell all that even with my eyes closed. There was an intense second of weightlessness and a real sick swooping feeling in my gut, before his wings caught the air and snapped us out of the freefall. Adrenaline spiked and my heart lurched into my throat and my eyes opened up without my permission.

The plaza below us was wrecked. Windows smashed, glass glittering everywhere; papers and trash that'd blown through them now drifting around and collecting up against the curbs. There were black smoky marks on some of the store fronts that looked like some kind of fucking dragon had got loose and flame-broiled the buildings. Cars were spun out into the road, some tipped over, windows cracked and broken. There were a lot of people down there, but nobody seemed to be panicking. They were just drifting around like they had no clue what to do or what had happened, a few of them standing around all the damaged stuff in confused little huddles.

I saw where that weird roaring sound was coming from—the sidewalk around where a fire hydrant had been was cracked all to shit and even caved inward like a crater, and a fountain of water was gushing out of the hole. The wind was pushing the arc of water out into the street, all of it glinting and throwing off little rainbows. The hydrant itself was a couple feet away; upside down and smashed through a bench.

"Jesus Christ," I said. Mist from the broken water main peppered against my face and arms as Keyd circled over the plaza and banked in the direction of my apartment. I tried to crane my head around to see if any more of the area was destroyed, because fuck. How was anyone gonna explain this? Or pay for it? Holy shit.

"I did suggest not to look," Keyd said. Was he joking? Then, almost regretfully, "the damage is unfortunate."

"Unfortunate," I said. "No fucking kidding."

"We wouldn't have chosen a populated place for this kind of encounter. Had there been a choice," Keyd said. That's right—he and Rysa had just popped out of nowhere, and come down on Ahieel like a couple of fucking superheroes. Had they just happened to find the guy at the same time he'd found me? What the serious fuck had gone on back there?

The first police cars rolled into the plaza just as it nearly dropped out of sight behind us. I could see the flashing lights just out of the corner of my eye. I closed them again, but that was actually worse. It got me focusing on everything else, like the cold scrape of the wind and the way Keyd's arms dug into me and how every time he changed altitude I felt it right in my stomach.

At least with my eyes open I could see things I recognized, and that kept me sorta distracted. Keyd actually stuck to his promise and wasn't going very high, so it was easy to pick stuff out as we sailed on over it—my college campus, the local high school, a shitload of auto body and car part shops in a small industrial chunk of town, all scattered through residential neighborhoods.

"Hey," I said, as a strip mall only a few blocks from my apartment rolled past under us. "Where'd Rysa go—is she okay?"

Keyd took a second before he answered. "She was hurt, though not badly."

"You're hurt too."

"I'm fine."

"You look fucking terrible."

"I was just in a fight."

"Well, yeah. Exactly."

Keyd didn't say anything for a while, and there was just the cold wind whistling in my ears.

"I've been much worse," he said, finally.

"Jesus, dude," I said. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be."

Okay, quit feeling bad for the warrior guy, got it.

We were basically back at my apartment by now anyway, coasting low above the treetops that lined the neighborhood streets. A branch or two slapped past my feet, leaves dragging at my clothes. A guy in a baseball cap was walking two tiny dogs on the sidewalk below us, but he didn't look up as we passed by overhead.

Keyd landed us in the parking lot. He actually let go of me before he touched down, so I dropped a couple feet, hit the pavement hard, and stumbled into the side of a covered car port. Keyd's landing was even worse—he came at the ground too hard or at a bad angle or something, and tripped all over himself. He staggered forward and couldn't get his feet back under him in time, so he ended up skidding down to one knee and landing hard on his hands. He didn't get up right away. Those huge wings drooped down around him and then sucked back in to his shoulders real slowly, throwing off a million tiny glints of sunlight. His fingers dragged at the blacktop, and he hung his head between his shoulders and didn't move.

I was actually just about to go over to see if he was okay, when Keyd suddenly heaved himself back to his feet. It looked like it was taking him some honest effort—the fight must've really taken something out of him. Then I remembered his magical chest-dog; it had died, or…something. It'd shielded Keyd from Ahieel's energy and then fucking exploded. Couldn't be much of a good thing, and that was on top of a pretty brutal brawl where he'd taken a couple of seriously hard hits. How was this guy still standing?

Well. He barely was, actually. He was reeling in place like he didn't really have his balance, and when he took a couple steps it was obvious that he didn't. He was unsteady even before he started moving, and when his foot dragged and caught on an uneven lump in the blacktop, I reacted without even thinking about it.

I got myself right up against him and caught him, bracing my shoulder against his side and holding him up. His hand came down heavy on the back of my neck, gripped me hard, and I really had to plant my feet in a solid stance to handle how much weight he was putting on me. He had to weigh almost twice as much as me, just from his height and the muscle. The edge of his jaw bumped against the side of my head, and I could feel him panting into my hair. I was actually starting to feel lightheaded, maybe from the strain of all this. Grey spots were flashing in at the edges of my vision, my legs were shaky, and in a couple seconds I wasn't gonna be able to keep myself up, let alone Keyd.

But in another moment he leaned off me and moved away, although he didn't go real far. He just wasn't right up on top of me anymore.

"Thank you," Keyd said, after a really long pause where all he did was stare at me. This close up to him, he was clearly in real bad shape. His skin was all grey and pasty, and his breathing was still heavy and doing this weird dry rasp in his throat. The cut on his face hadn't totally clotted up yet, and purple-black blood had dried in long flaky streams down his neck and against the collar of his shirt. That whole half of his face just looked like a wreck.

I held onto his arm for another second, still trying to blink away spots in my vision. "Seriously, man, are you okay?"

He nodded once. "I will be."

Bullshit, I thought. But I just said, "all right," and let go of him.

Keyd managed to get around the carports and down the walkway to my apartment pretty fine on his own, but I stayed kinda close to him anyway in case he gave out again. Rysa was sitting on the ground next to my door, leaning back on the patio fence. She didn't look as torn up as Keyd did, but there was a huge chunk taken out of the side of her shirt and a whole bunch of that same gooey black shit smeared everywhere. It looked like they were bleeding blackberry jam, or just something totally unlike blood. The edge of the hole in her shirt also looked dark and brittle, almost burned. But that was the worst on her.

She got right to her feet when she saw us—her attention mostly on Keyd. I put a hand out, leaned on the fence. This dizzy feeling wasn't going away; it was getting worse. My vision twinkled with clouds of shifting sparkles and the whole world swung unsteadily. I just needed to sit down, or drink some water, or something. Maybe go to sleep. For a couple of days.

"Kahle mriaika jinnhe, isrenjakal hasn," Rysa said to Keyd, and the way she emphasized a few of the words nearly made me laugh. It was such an exasperated sister voice. I'd heard that tone a million times from Ashley, usually when I'd done something she thought was stupid.

Keyd waved a hand at her, and the move left weird afterimages trailing through the air. "Mrij jinnhe. Yjo, ifeva," he said, and caught one of her arms. He lifted it up so he could get at her side, spreading his whole hand over the raw blackish skin. Rysa hissed in softly through her teeth, her shoulders pulling up tight.

"Uh, hey, guys," I said. My voice sounded far away, echoing and kinda wobbly in my ears. I wasn't even sure if I was holding onto the fence anymore. "I don't—um...think I can—"

That was about as far as I got before the little sparkles in my vision exploded into a full-on neon flashes, and for the second fucking time today everything around me blanked out.