Jael was just getting up when Aridan left the underground apartment. Now that they had no real deadlines on their days, Jael had slipped back into his mode of sleeping in until at least 10:00. Aridan didn't really mind. It did free him from having to wake his brother, and thus having to dodge the punches he threw in his sleep.
"Leave the door open behind you." Jael drawled groggily as Aridan climbed up towards the outside. Aridan nodded and left the trapdoor propped open once he was through it. The airflow in the underground apartment wasn't the greatest. They tended to leave it open a lot of the time just to improve ventilation. At first he resisted. After all, their hideout was more hidden with the trapdoor closed. Then he got tired of the stuffiness and realized there really wasn't anyone in that section of the city at all.
Aridan got as far as knocking on Faolani's door when his phone chimed. The ring was the single chime had set for when he got a text message from Jael. He hadn't left the apartment much more than a half hour before. The message was almost certain to be something Jael wanted him to pick up at the store; something he hadn't remembered until he shook off his morning grogginess. Figuring it wouldn't take long, Aridan pulled the phone out of his pocket while he waited for Faolani to answer the knock. He flipped open the phone just as Faolani's door opened.
"Hey, come on in!"
Aridan barely heard her bright greeting. His blood had turned to ice and his tongue to lead. He could hardly tear his eyes from the screen of his phone and the four words shown there.
"Aridan?" Her hand was on his shoulder now, pulling his attention up to her face. "Are you ok?"
"We need to go. Now." Before she could ask again, Aridan turned the phone so she could read what Jael had sent:
gunshots away to west
Aridan didn't know what to expect once they were back within the deserted section of the city. After stashing the car, he and Faolani made for their apartment at a run. Just as he reached the final corner, Aridan heard a far off crack of thunder. Jael had said ''away to west' and the shot did sound quite distant, maybe even far enough to be outside the deserted sector. Aridan's blood chilled a few degrees at the sound nonetheless. Not very long ago he'd been on the receiving end of such a shot.
When Aridan rounded the corner he caught sight of Jael perched on a pile of debris near the open trapdoor. He had positioned himself up on the rubble as if to get a better view. He wasn't truly sitting, but rather crouched as if ready to spring. Aridan noticed a slight tremor in his hands where they gripped the old cinderblock. His face was intent to the west with fear and anger both in his eyes. He didn't even turn when Aridan and Faolani skidded to a stop beside him.
"What's happening?" Aridan asked breathlessly.
Jael just shook his head grimly. He didn't know any more than they did. Still he kept his eyes trained on where the shots had sounded, as if his will alone could allow him to see across the miles of empty city.
There was nothing more to see to the west than there had ever been; just empty factory buildings and office towers. Whomever the police were hunting, they were well away and out of sight beyond abandoned concrete. Another shot rang out. Aridan flinched and felt anger begin to rise above the fear. Jael's hands clenched tighter around the handholds he had found in the debris.
"You think it's a magic user?" Faolani asked quietly.
"Probably." Jael said at last, his voice flat.
"Not many others they'd feel the need to shoot at." Aridan elaborated bitterly. "Stolen guns and magic are about it."
"Wish we knew what was going on." Faolani sank to sit on the pile of old cinder blocks beside Jael.
"Somebody's fighting back." Jael's dark tone seemed to startle her. His voice was low, but it held too much; too much fear, too much anger, too much bitter darkness. Aridan understood all too well. He was feeling much the same. There was too much happening and too much that they couldn't do.
"So many shots and so spread out, says to me that they're chasing somebody who knows how to run." Aridan could guess at that easily enough. He and Jael had almost been there themselves more times than he wanted to remember.
"Somebody who's leading the police away?" Faolani asked.
"Or stringing them out and picking them off one by one." Aridan replied darkly. Jael just nodded, his face grim.
"Probably more likely." She admitted quietly. "Wish we could know for sure. This not knowing is tying my stomach in knots."
"I already checked the internet," Jael spoke still with his eyes locked on the west. "the live news feeds are empty. Forums won't have anything until tomorrow at least. Official police reports will take even longer. Cell phone video from bystanders might be up within an hour, but who knows if there is any or how good it will be."
"Don't they use radio?" Faolani piped in. "Maybe we could listen in."
Aridan shook his head. That was the first thing he had thought of back before they returned to Kenhelm. It would have been a good way to keep an ear to police activity, but it wasn't going to work.
"A couple years ago there was some trouble with a local gang getting on their radio frequency. Since then the police here switched to a private VOIP channel. Found out about that just before we came here. We aren't going to be able to break into it anytime soon."
None of them said much of anything more after that. They simply stared off towards the west, waiting. They heard no more shots, and after a while Aridan didn't even really know what he was waiting for. He was just too pissed and too scared to make a move. There was no way to know when the chase would be done, when the police would give up on their sweep, or how thorough they'd be in their search.
Try as he might, Aridan couldn't stop his imagination from showing him the police turning a corner and finding them there, seeing their underground apartment, knowing them for what they were. He couldn't be certain that his and Jael's faces weren't in Kenhelm's registry. After their debacle with Leocadia and Devenki two months or so ago, who knew what the police had on them? He thought it unlikely that he or Jael would be recognized on sight, but if they were taken in and questioned? And if they ran to avoid it, would that not paint them even more guilty in the eyes of the police? Aridan shuddered. He could imagine no way out if any of that came to pass.
And what of Faolani? How much had those government people seen of her? Was her face marked in some file as having aided and abetted magic? His instincts screamed for him to keep her close, protect her. And yet, his reason told him she would be far safer running as far from him as possible.
His thoughts tore at him like bitter winter winds. Nothing he could do would change anything. Nothing he could do would make him the master of his own fate. All he could do was stand there and wait, daring to even hope that something worse was not about to come. He was sick of it. Sick to the bone of living his life ruled by fear. He hoped Jael was right. He hoped to all hells that somebody was fighting back. It was about damn time for somebody to be able to.
"Whatever it was," He sighed finally, both relieved and disappointed. "it seems to be over."
Jael didn't look up at his statement, but nodded faintly. He had finally uncoiled his taut muscles enough to actually sit, though he still looked tense. He was slowly, almost thoughtfully, wringing his hands. Aridan wasn't sure, but he could guess that his brother was still trying to ease the trembling from his fingers. Aridan felt his own fists clench in sympathy. He was sick to the bone of being helpless to erase his brother's fear, just as he was helpless to erase his own.
"So what do we do now?" Faolani's voice was quiet and trepid. It actually went a long way towards helping Aridan's brain resume some normal function.
"We'd better lay low for a bit. I don't want to even go out shopping while the police are this riled up." He sighed heavily. "I don't know that they'd notice or recognize me at all, but I also don't know that they wouldn't. Once we can get a feel for what happened, maybe...I don't know."
She nodded. Suddenly everything they'd planned for the day was tossed and his ability to think ahead with it.
Then Aridan remembered what else he had planned for the afternoon and looked up to Jael with an apology ready. Jael beat him to it with a dark shake of his head.
"Today is not a good day."
Aridan wasn't certain if his brother was referring to the shots, or to his own shaky control. Probably both. Even if Jael had been feeling up to controlling the wind earlier, the tautness of his features said he sure wasn't any longer.
"No," He replied at last. "no it is not."
They all came back inside finally, but the sounds of the shots still rang loud inside Jael's mind. None of the three of them said much of anything once they were inside. Jael went almost immediately to his computer. He was searching for anything to tell him that those gunshots had not been what he feared. Ari and Faolani sat quietly on the sofa, he absently tracing old patterns worn into the wood of the coffee table.
After he knew not how many fruitless internet searches, Jael turned from his laptop. Waiting was agony, but there was nothing else he could do until news was posted. When he did finally look up he noticed that Ari or Faolani had turned on the holiday lights.
They had taken the string of tiny lights back to Lujayn with them when they had left Kenhelm for what they thought would be a long time. Upon hearing they were to return to the city and the underground apartment for a few months, the first thing they had packed to bring was the light string. Faolani had again helped them hang the lights about the room. Jael had always found that those little lights could bring a smile to his heart just by looking at them. That day, however, memories of Errho and the home they had lost there were outshone by the fear of their flight from that home.
The quiet and tension both mounted. Jael checked all the news websites he could think of, then checked them again. There was still nothing new.
"Sitting here is doing nothing but driving us crazy." Faolani's voice was quiet, but firm. "They're hardly going to be patrolling a grocery store."
Ari opened his mouth with an angry spark in his eyes, then subsided with a sigh. "You're right. Let's go."
Jael clicked to another website. "I'll stay here." He said it without looking up. This had nothing to do with the deal he made with Faolani. Well, almost nothing. "I want to keep an eye on the news."
If either of them guessed the other reasons for his wanting to stay behind, they didn't show it. Ari simply nodded, and out they went. Jael did notice that his brother closed and latched the trapdoor behind him. For once Jael didn't care that the apartment was stuffy.
There was nothing on the news websites yet, which he expected. Even the quicker to update public news forums had nothing yet beyond stating that shots were fired by police in the western residential district. There was still no word as to whom the target had been. The residential location raised a flag for Jael, though he had to admit he still couldn't be certain. He and Ari had started their flight in a residential district. Was this incident something similar? Suddenly he dreaded knowing. He realized that he would rather never know what had transpired than learn that another magic using child had been hunted and killed bare miles from where he stood.
For long moments Jael just sat there, his hands held immobile over the keyboard, staring at the screen and seeing nothing on it. With a rush of old anger he squelched down hard on the memories of fear and running. He banished them back into the dark places of his mind and kept searching every combination of keywords he could think of. Ari would be back soon, and Jael wanted to at least be able to give an answer to his brother's newly frightened eyes.
He ignored a deepening quiver in his gut at that thought. If Ari was scared, where did that leave him?
It wasn't much more than ten minutes later that he found it. A popular video website had a new upload from barely more than a half hour before, tagged as 'OMG! Kenhelm Police Chase!'
Jael hovered the cursor over the play button. It could be something else entirely. It could be from some older incident and the upload time could be just coincidence. He wasn't convincing himself, and the icy spot in his middle only grew. He didn't really believe in coincidence any more.
Jael had just about made up his mind to hit the button when the trapdoor opened. He startled badly, but the sight of Ari coming down the stairs with a grocery bag made Jael feel as if he had never known relief before.
Ari halted halfway down in alarm. "Are you ok? What did you find?"
Jael shook his head slightly. Clearly his tension showed on his face more than he thought. "I don't know. I haven't watched it yet." He shoved the laptop forward on the coffee table and leaned back into the sofa. He hadn't realized how tight his shoulders were. "Video recorded on someone's mobile it looks like. It might be nothing, or..."
"Or it might be like watching ourselves twelve years ago." Ari muttered under his breath as he descended the rest of the way to the kitchen.
Jael closed his eyes to shut out the images that conjured up in his mind, but that only made it worse. He remembered most of that two weeks as just darkness. Unending darkness and the pounding of his feet on the pavement.
He didn't know Ari had left the kitchen until he felt his brother's weight on the sofa beside him. Jael opened his eyes to find Ari watching him worriedly. Again Jael shoved the old memories aside. Never again, he told himself. We came that close once, but never again.
"Let's see what we've got then." Jael said aloud, and knew there was no way out of it. He reached forward and slowly, but deliberately, tapped the cursor button. Jael saw Ari lean forward. Then, before he even realized it, Jael was leaning closer as well, his hands gripping his kneecaps tightly.
The video was grainy, as Jael had surmised, it appeared to be recorded from a mobile phone. The view opened on what looked like an ordinary alley behind a street lined with townhouses. It could have been any neighborhood in any outer city. The first few minutes showed nothing more than a young couple flushed with the excitement of bringing home their first car together. He was recording as she stepped out of the driver's side. She protested with a shy laugh.
"Why are you recording this?"
"It's for posterity" He returned her skeptical laugh with one of his own. He wasn't in the camera, but his hand swept across it's view dramatically. "We'll show it to our grandkids someday."
The camera turned as the young man held it facing him.
Remember this moment, kids. This is what your grandpappy looked like before you were even thought of."
The young woman in the video laughed again as the camera turned back to her, and Jael released a breath he didn't realize he'd been holding. The scene was so incredibly normal.
That was when the first shot sounded. Jael snapped tense again, as the camera and the woman both jerked to look for where the bang had come from. Despite the woman's protests, the man holding the camera started moving down the street, slowly at first then at at quick trot. When he reached the nearest cross street he and the camera turned to look both directions. To the left there was nothing but more curious onlookers. To the right there was also nothing. Then, after a few tense heartbeats, a kid came tearing into view from a street further down, caromed around the corner and began running towards the camera with a look of terror and desperation on his face.
Jael felt his heart constricting and his breath go ragged. He knew what was coming next. The kid couldn't be out of his mid-teens. There could be no other reason for the police to shoot at someone so young, someone so obviously terrified.
A second shot boomed out and the teen fell heavily to the sidewalk, one leg twisted beneath him. The kid was still alive, still trying to get away, but the bullet had hit just below his right knee. He wasn't running anymore. But why hadn't the officer gone for a kill shot?
Transfixed, even as the cameraman was, Jael just watched the scene in growing horror. The police officer who had fired emerged from the same corner the teen had only seconds before. He approached calmly, his pistol lowered, certain now that his prey could run no further. Another officer followed just behind, also with her pistol drawn and held low before her.
A shiver ran through Jael as he heard his own words echoed from the laptop speakers. The camera tilted slightly as the man holding it looked for the source of the voice. The words had been low and rough, ground out from deep in the speaker's throat. A man came into view on the far side of the street from the cameraman, striding with increasing speed towards the still approaching police. He was compactly powerful with grey in his hair and weary determination in the set of his shoulders.
"Never again," he repeated, louder and now aimed at the startled police. "never again will I just stand by and watch!"
On the last word he stooped to sweep his hand through a gathered pile of dust in the gutter. Quick as a thought the dust began to coalesce into solidity in the man's -the magic user's, Jael corrected almost immediately- hand. At almost the same moment, the first officer reached the still struggling teen. The kid too had seen the magic user across the street and given up his scrambling crawl forward. Instead he turned and yanked the distracted officer's foot, dropping the policeman to the sidewalk. The officer surged to his feet again and rounded on the teen, but didn't take more than a step before a stone missile collided solidly with the back of his head. He dropped forward, almost on top of the kid, and lay still. The stone rolled off the curb and dissolved once again to dust as soon as it hit the street.
The second police officer spared only a glance for her downed comrade and whipped her pistol up to fire at the magic user across the street. Her shot hit a stone shield of sorts that the man had pulled together out of the dust in the street. The stone shattered into fragments as soon as the shot hit, but the man appeared to be unharmed. He had one hand on the dirt in the street, ready to call up another shield, then seemed to change his mind. He took off sprinting back the way he came, around a corner and deeper into the neighborhood. The policewoman looked again to her fellow, but then ran off to chase the magic user. Her hand went to her ear, no doubt calling for backup.
The man holding the camera turned to look down the street again once they were out of sight. The downed officer still lay where he had fallen, but the teen was gone. The sound of sirens was audible in the background of the video, as the woman from the car again came into view. She called her husband away before more police would undoubtedly arrive, and the video went black.