“Important?” The voice reverberated in Brendan’s ears, making him nervous. “What could be so important that you felt the need to show up here unannounced?”
He faced an armchair, old and worn, that stood in the darkest area of the room; the only piece of furniture in an otherwise derelict and featureless place. Crumbling plaster revealed dark brick walls, plagued with moss and mildew. Any electric lights that might have illuminated the room were long gone, but a small, solitary skylight gave the room a pallid shaft of evening sunlight. Despite that, the room should have been lighter than it was. Darkness hung in the air, clinging to the walls and the furniture, crawling around like a swarm of insects.
The face Brendan searched for was still concealed in the shadows. There was a presence, an oppressive and merciless coldness in the room that drifted from the chair he faced, and seeped into every pore of his body. He could feel goose bumps rising on his skin, making him itch all over. Just being in the same room as this man made him want to hide away in a corner. He tried to speak, but he found his throat frozen dry.
“I… I wanted to tell you something…” He coughed out, stuttering, and cleared his throat. “I met someone important - a new student, who arrived at school yesterday evening. She goes by the name of Hawthorne.”
The man in the chair visibly twitched. His body tensed for a few seconds, hands clenched into fists. Tense seconds of silence passed. After a slow exhalation of breath, he relaxed. The man began to steadily drum his fingers on the arm of the chair.
“Means nothing.” He dismissed it, “Hawthorne isn’t exactly a rare surname. The chances that she’s descended from the people you’re thinking of are tiny. Don’t waste my time with things like this.”
Brendan was shaking all over, but he needed to make himself understood. Just by his brief meeting with Jet, he knew that she felt out of place in the world of Normals. Here, in the thick of all the secrecy that was going on in Bellona, she would thrive more than anyone. There was something special about her. He stilled his body. He couldn’t let fear hold him back here. “It’s no coincidence Red, I promise you. She is from the same family you’re thinking of.” He pushed, and to his surprise, Red continued to listen. “I spoke to her. She told me of her sudden move away from Bellona soon after she was born, and how her parents ‘disappeared’ shortly afterwards.”
The drumming fingers stopped, frozen in the air. An awkward quietness filled the room. Neither of them moved nor spoke.
Red stood up suddenly from his chair and Brendan flinched, cowering back towards the doorway. Shadows and silence flew in all directions as Red shook them from his body. A draught swirled into the room, as if his very presence was tempting in the cold. Darkness rippled around him, drawn to his side. His striking face was lit by the sunlight from above, the curve of his chin and sharpened cheekbones highlighted. Dark hair tumbled over his face. The light revealed a pale, vertical scar directly below his left eye and a crimson coloured scarf wrapped tightly around his neck. He remained motionless in his posture. His shoulders were forced back at a strange angle, and his head was tilted towards the ceiling, as if contemplating it.
Nodding to himself, he adjusted the open colour of his shirt and pulled down his waistcoat, before he began to pace, taking a few steps to the right, then turning heel and going back to the left again.
“Luna and Solan… have a child? Surely that’s impossible.” He reasoned with the ceiling. “Brendan…” He began, still staring upwards. “Was there anything about her appearance that would confirm it? Anything about her that attracted your attention?”
“I don’t know. She’s sort of blonde…” Brendan scrambled for answers in his mind, desperate to prove himself useful. “She’s always clutching a necklace.” He suggested, knowing that he probably wasn’t helping.
Unexpectedly, Red followed the train of thought. “What kind of necklace?”
“Umm…” Brendan shrugged, hesitating. “A black stone on a thread. Nothing special.”
Red nodded, and folded his arms. “Luna wore something of that description. It’s not solid evidence, but I have to investigate further. We can’t afford to make any assumptions. It’s too big a risk. A child like her is unheard of. If the Guild enrolled her, who knows what kind of opposition-” Red suddenly stopped, mid-sentence.
A strange sound escaped his mouth. A smirk, almost.
Red broke out into an unrestricted, self-consuming laugh. Its intensity rang through Brendan’s ears, striking fear into his heart. Red’s chest shook, his eyes bulged. The atmosphere changed, shadows racing around him in a frantic frenzy. Blackness exploded through the room. His eyes slowly moved to Brendan, shooting him a playful grin of excitement.
Silence again. Raising his arms, he fell backwards, and landed with a thump in his chair. Rotated himself sideways. Red crossed his legs and rested them over the edge of one arm, at ease.
“If we use this situation to our advantage, no one will suspect a thing. It’s very easy to keep quiet something that isn’t supposed to exist.” He smiled smugly at his own genius. “Befriend the girl. When she trusts you completely and only then, show her your power. Be sure to do this in complete secrecy. I know you’re not entirely stupid, but I need to emphasise how vital it is that no one, friend or otherwise, finds out about this. After that, I’ll take over.”
Brendan hesitated. He had always known that Red had a number of secret agendas. What was he planning? “I assumed you would just want to tutor her.” He began, his suspicion obvious. “What else did you have in mind?”
“Does it matter?” He smirked.
Brendan clenched his teeth. He may have only just met Jet, but he didn’t want to see her manipulated by Red. “Of course it matters.”
“Really? Let me put it to you this way.” Red continued. “Even if I told you… even if you disapproved… would you be able to stop me?”
Brendan’s heart skipped. Provoking a fight with Red was almost certainly suicide and the last thing he wanted to do. “I respect you and your decisions. I didn’t mean to imply otherwise.” There was no need to panic. Jet was smart enough to not play into Red’s hands. As long as he could be sure that no harm would come to her, it was okay for her to be involved. If she ever was in danger… well, he would just have to come up with a plan and deal with it then. “It’s worth mentioning that she’s roomed with Alice Meadowlark and Bridget Wilde. We need to tread carefully.”
Red considered for a moment. “Shouldn’t be a problem. If it is, I’ll deal with it.”
Brendan nodded, and turned to leave the room. Just before the exit, he halted.
“Can I ask you to keep her safe?” He asked, wary of what reaction he might receive.
“You can ask.” The tone of Red’s voice darkened. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.”
Brendan slunk regretfully from the room, not daring to ask any further questions. It seemed that even with the man he looked up to most, he still didn’t know where he stood.
It was one in the morning when Bridget and Alice finally crept through the door to our room, obviously expecting me to be asleep. When they saw me sitting on my bed cross-legged, waiting, they both froze against the wall; looking like children I had just caught being badly behaved.
“What the hell is going on?” I wanted answers. Badly.
Bridget was quick to go on the offensive, as I thought she might. “None of your business.” She hissed. My eyes moved to Alice, expectantly.
“I…” Her eyes darted left and right, as if something in the room might inspire a believable excuse. “We were running an errand, I suppose.”
I groaned. Was that really the best she could come up with? “What kind of errand? Who for?” I’d stopped caring about respect for their privacy. The secrecy was killing me.
“You could call it a part-time job.” She suggested, being painfully vague.
“Alice, you’re not even seventeen yet.”
“You can legally have a job at this age.” She corrected me.
“Not at one in the morning.” I interjected.
“It’s not exactly an official job placement…” She trailed off, stopping short of explaining herself.
Bridget approached the edge of my mattress and invaded my personal space. My breath caught in my throat. I kept still as a rock in my cross-legged position, despite the fact that pins and needles had started to tingle through my calves. I stared up at her without faltering. “Is there something the matter?” I asked, calmly.
My confidence seemed to only irritate her more. “Stop asking difficult questions.” She lowered her voice to a threatening whisper. “I can get you kicked out of this school faster than you can blink. If you continue to interfere where you don’t belong, you’re going to have me to answer to.” She snapped.
“So you do have authority over the teachers, to the extent that you can have me excluded?” I asked, before I could stop myself.
Bridget’s arms trembled, and for a moment I genuinely thought she was going to hit me. I saw her stop, and reconsider. “Listen. I’m not doing this for the sake of it. You wouldn’t like the truth, and under no circumstances are you going to get the truth from us. So, how about we forget this conversation happened and we keep to ourselves from now on?”
“No.” I declared simply. I heard Bridget’s sharp intake of breath as she glared at me in disbelief. Alice gave me a look of warning, but I ignored it. I always preferred to keep everyone happy, but there was a line. I was not the kind of person to be bullied into anything. I leapt up from my bed and stood up straight, lessening the height difference between the two of us as much as I could.
“No. I’m not going to forget anything. Do whatever you want to me. I’ll still get to the bottom of this.” I braced myself for whatever she was going to do next.
The expression on Bridget’s face made me think no one had ever stood up to her before. “You’re wasting your time.” As she walked away, she muttered something about getting some air and left the room before I could reply.
I cast Alice a pleading glance, but she ignored me and silently got ready for bed. A frown was spread across her face the entire time. Accepting that I wasn’t going to have any further conversation with her tonight, I scaled the ladder onto the top bunk and launched myself down onto it, before rolling over onto my back.
My first day replayed in my head, and I began to think over everything. A part of me wanted to leave everyone to their own business. Most of the time, that’s what I would have done, but everything happening here didn’t add up. Something else was going on. Something that nobody wanted anyone to find about.
And, eventually, I will find out what it is. I reassured myself.
I was the first to leave the dorm that morning, sensing the rift that had opened between me and my roommates.
I hurried down the stairs and followed my ears to the canteen. It was ten to eight, which I guessed was some sort of rush hour when it came to food. The line was ridiculously long, a twisting river of people that reached the door, growing in size every second. It was a small canteen for a school of this size, especially considering that it needed to serve three meals per day. The room was about the length of a standard classroom, with three open counters serving boxes of polystyrene-packaged food. Tall tables were surrounded by high stools, all of them packed with students. Others stood around chatting and eating in the open space behind the queue, simply because there was nowhere else for them to go. Maybe I shouldn’t have come here, after all.
It certainly wasn’t worth wasting twenty minutes of my life for a piece of toast. Backing away from the sprawling mass of people, I turned heel and headed for the door. A muttered “Excuse me…” was almost lost in the dissonant muddle of voices in the room, and I ignored it. I jumped suddenly as my shoulder was tapped from behind, and whirled round to face whoever it was.
The stranger released my shoulder. “Hi, didn’t mean to scare you.” He muttered. Chestnut hair curled out from underneath the beanie hat perched on top of his head, covering most of his face in a thick, unkempt fringe. Slanted eyes darted nervously around the room, flicking in my direction only occasionally.
“Hello.” I replied, hesitant.
“My name is Aiden. Might I have a moment of your time?” His posture was stooped, his voice deep and monotone.
“Sure…” I agreed. I didn’t know what this ‘Aiden’ person wanted from me, but he clearly wasn’t one for small talk. He promptly led me through the crowd, weaving his way through the throng of people that stood around us. I followed him to a solitary table, hidden in the corner. It was empty except for two other people, who sat with their backs to the rest of the room.
In the centre of them all, there was a mess of newspapers and magazines spread across the table. Aiden slid into one of the seats, and beckoned me to do the same. Sitting on his stool in an uncomfortable cross-legged fashion, he dropped his backpack into his lap. He then opened it, and pulled out a tablet from inside. “I wanted to introduce myself. If you ever need help with anything, I’d be happy to oblige.”
“Thanks…” I half-smiled, looking around the group. It seemed doubtful I would get on with any of these people, but it was a nice gesture.
“And, there’s something I need to show you.” Aiden began, tapping the touch screen as he spoke. “I’ll be frank. I’m aware that you’re new here, and I’ve noticed the people you’re involving yourself with. I can tell you’re not one of them, Jet. I suggest you stay well away.”
“Stay well away?” Who exactly did he think I was involved myself with?
“Brendan Wolfe. Maybe even Bridget Wilde and Alice Meadowlark.” He stated.
I’d only just met my roommates, and I wasn’t exactly very close with them. They were intent on shutting me out of their lives as much as possible- that was already clear. My relationship with Brendan wasn’t much better either. “I’m sorry, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
He smirked. “Come on. You realise they’re something else, right?” He glanced up from his tablet, eyes glittering.
My body went cold. I didn’t respond for a moment. “Go on.” I encouraged. Finally, it seemed there was someone else who recognised that there was more to this school than met the eye.
“Anyone that lives in Bellona long enough knows about them; the two rival gangs, that is.” Several newspapers were pushed towards me from across the table. I scanned the headlines, all of which mentioned various bouts of violence in the city. “This one is particularly interesting.” Aiden held his tablet out in my direction, and I took it from him. It was an article from about a month ago that he’d bookmarked- a main story on what was obviously a popular national news website.
It was about Bellona. The story highlighted a case of extreme vandalism which had occurred in the city centre; one incident in a chain of linked attacks. There was photograph beneath, a black and white image of a shopping centre in the middle of town- or what was left of it. The entire building and the streets surrounding it had been cordoned off with police tape, and for good reason. A large proportion of the front of the building had been completely destroyed, leaving only a pile of rubble that spilled across the road. The windows were boarded up. Every pane of glass had been shattered by some sort of shockwave.
“They move during the night, leaving catastrophic damage in their wake. No evidence, no witnesses, nothing. We have no idea of what either group stands for, or what their objectives are. All we know is that they fight. Punch-ups, weapons, explosives- you name it- the city is their battleground.”
“Are you trying to tell me that this…” I pointed at the ruins of the shopping centre, “Was caused by rival gangs?”
“I’ll admit that they’re not just any city delinquents- they’re organised, intelligent… they know exactly what they’re doing. They run the city. I don’t know why, but the authorities can’t touch them. Not even the police.” He sighed.
“They sound more like terrorists than gang members.” I murmured. Clearly, Bellona wasn’t as ordinary as it looked. Extreme vandalism, organised crime… but never once a civilian involved. Just who were these people? “Thanks for the warning. But what does any of this have to do with me?” I gave Aiden his tablet back, impressed that I’d managed not to drop it.
Aiden glanced at me sideways, as if he was surprised that I wasn’t getting it yet. “You’ve noticed that some of your friends are different, haven’t you? Particularly Brendan.”
“I wouldn’t really call him a friend. We’re just acquaintances, really.” I stopped for a moment. “Wait, do you seriously think-”
The bell cut above the noise in the room, breaking the awkward tension between us and signalling the start of the school day. I sighed with relief. Before I could walk away, Aiden spoke again. “If you value your safety, stay away from those three. You’re welcome to hang out with us anytime… if you feel like making some less dangerous friends.” Then, along with the rest of his group, he dissipated into the crowd moving towards the exit. I was left alone, the newspaper headlines still staring me in the face, Aiden’s warning weighing heavily on my mind. Just how much of what he said was true?
In reality, the two of them were wrong to approach me. I picked up one of the papers and gripped it tightly in my hand. If they wanted me to stay away from Brendan, or my roommates, they should have said nothing at all. It wasn’t because I didn’t believe what they had to say- some of it made a lot of sense- but there were still missing pieces in the puzzle. What they had given me was information. Something I could go on. Now, I was more determined than ever to get to the bottom of what was happening in this place.