Welcome to Emberly

What do you do when you find out that you can do things other people can't do? Simple- you wait. Eventually, someone will show up on your doorstep, tell you that you're the Chosen One, and send you off on some mildly perilous quest to save the world.
At least, that's what the plot of every fantasy novel ever written tells you will happen. Sometimes, though, real life isn't as neat and tidy as the books you read, and when you've been waiting full years for your destiny to come knocking, the idea of being patient for a moment longer can make you mad. The question, then, is this: when fate leaves you on your own with the power to change the world, what do you do? Believe it or not, the answer to that one is just as simple.
You take matters into your own hands.

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3. Ember

 

Evelyn glanced up from her work for a second. Yep- as usual, she was the only person in the room who was doing what she was supposed to be doing. Raegan was spinning her pen between her fingers, gazing at her textbook with a fake look of contemplation that wavered slightly when her biro leapt free of her grip and flung itself onto the floor. She didn’t get up to retrieve it; instead, she just stared at it with a look of mild irritation. Mara’s exercise book was open, but her pen was drawing listless circles on the page, her eyes fixed on something in the distance. Valerie had done a faceplant onto the table over half an hour ago and hadn’t moved since. Even Mr Rogers seemed bored, throwing out the occasional disapproving glance whenever the chatter got too loud, but otherwise appearing to be completely disinterested in his own lesson. Evelyn looked back down at her book and read the next question.

Q7a) Give an example of a characteristic which shows co-dominance in plants.

Evelyn was about to write down the answer when Raegan said, “The fuck’s this mean?”

“What does what mean?” Evelyn asked, leaning across the table to see what Raegan was talking about.

“Question one. I don’t even know how to pronounce this.”

Raegan was pointing at the word Heterozygous. “It means you have one dominant allele and one recessive in your genotype,” Evelyn explained.

Raegan looked at her blankly. Evelyn was about to re-phrase her explanation when Mr Rogers got up from his seat and asked, “So, can anyone tell me an example of an inherited characteristic?”

Immediately, every kid in the room stopped talking and fixed their eyes on the floor, determined not to be picked on. Eventually, the teacher sighed and said, “Inherited characteristics are things like hair colour, eye colour, height…”

Evelyn raised her hand and said, “Actually, haven’t studies shown that height is affected by environment as much as genetics?”

Before Mr Rogers could reply, somebody from a nearby table yelled, “Studies have shown that you’re a nerd, Evelyn!”

His comment earned a bout of laughter from some of the other kids in the room, but the laughter dissipated when Valerie sat up and said loudly, “Yeah, well, studies have also shown that shit-for-brains douchebags like you are up to ninety-four percent more likely to get kicked in the balls than regular humans, Jay, so shut the fuck up.”

Mr Rogers sighed and said, “Valerie, you know the drill. Detention this Wednesday. One o’ clock.”

“You got it.” Valerie calmly opened her planner and wrote the date down. At that moment, the silence was shattered by the shriek of the bell, triggering every kid in the room to scoop up their things and practically bolt for the door. Evelyn looked back down at her book and saw that she had left her sentence unfinished. She hated leaving sentences unfinished, so she picked up her pen and went to finish it.

“Ev? You coming?” Mara asked.

“I’m just finishing this question.”

“Dude, come on!” Valerie sounded impatient, and it was then that Evelyn remembered the video. She rounded off her answer quickly and stood up, grabbing her books. “I can’t wait to see this. What happens in it?”

Valerie grinned. “You’ll see.”

*        *        *        *        *

They left the main building and walked together across the empty lawn. Beyond the back fence, the horizon was distorted by the lofty silhouette of the city, the skyscrapers little more than foggy shadows wreathed in white smog. The high school had done its best to distance itself from Emberly, clinging to the very edge of the city like a parasite, but it hadn’t been able to shake the dirty, depressing façade that clung to every building for miles. They stopped walking, and Evelyn, Mara and Valerie clustered around Raegan, who pulled out her phone and leaned back against the fence.

“Did you get the password?” Evelyn asked.

Raegan dug a crumpled piece of notebook paper out of her pocket and showed it to Evelyn. “Yep. Just gimme a minute.” She began to type the code into her phone, pausing occasionally to look at the paper, before saying, “I’m on.” She turned to Valerie and asked, “What’s the video called again?”

“Dunno. Just search for “Ember”. I think there’s a playlist.”

After a few more seconds of tapping her phone screen, Raegan said, “Found it.” She held out her phone, and Evelyn and Mara leaned in to look at the screen. The frame showed a street at night, crowded on both sides with parked cars and washed in the dirty orange glow of street-lamps. Evelyn realised that she recognised the road. “Wait. Is that-”

“Yep,” Valerie said, “Cypress Court. That’s, like, three blocks from your house, dude.”

“Cool!”

Raegan pressed play, and the blackened snapshot sprung to life. The footage looked to have been filmed by a security camera- the frame was angled oddly and bordered with various numbers showing the date and time of the recording. August thirty-first, two in the morning. For a while, nothing happened. Then, at the fourteen-second mark, a person entered frame, walking slowly, almost casually, down the middle of the road. The figure was little more than a silhouette, dressed in black, their face hidden beneath a mask of shadow, but Evelyn knew who it was as soon as she felt that familiar, inexplicable chill down her spine. Awe mixed with recognition. The figure stopped, as if it knew it was being filmed, at the exact centre of the frame, and lifted its head. For the hundredth time, Evelyn felt herself go cold as the camera picked out its eyes. They weren’t human eyes- in fact, they barely looked like eyes at all, lacking whites or irises or pupils, and in the thick darkness, they glowed. The light was blood-red, piercing the shadows like the gaze of a nocturnal creature, sweeping over the street as the figure turned its head, first to the left and then to the right, slowly, deliberately.

“Watch this.” Raegan said.

Slowly, the figure began to raise its arms.

Evelyn’s mouth dropped open. “Holy shit.”

Every single car that had been parked along the street- there must have been at least twenty in all- was now rising, gradually, into the air.

There were no lifts. No wires. Nothing. It was as if the person in the centre of the frame had simply flicked a switch and turned off gravity. The figure was now standing still with its arms stretched out towards the sky as tens of tonnes of steel floated upwards like cork in water, twenty feet, thirty, forty. Evelyn turned to see her friends’ reactions. Mara looked faintly scared, but Raegan and Valerie were both staring intently at the screen, wide-eyed, as if they were watching the latest episode of their favourite TV show. Evelyn turned back to the video just as the figure stepped suddenly backwards, hands falling to their sides. The cars dropped back to the ground with a crash that made the camera shake, and when the frame had cleared again, the figure was gone.

If it hadn’t been for the frantic flashing of dozens of pairs of parking lights as twenty car alarms sounded at once, there would have been no indication that anything strange had happened at all.

The screen cut to grey as the video ended. “Rae, what’s the time?” Valerie asked.

“Uh…” Raegan checked her phone and said, “We’ve got nine minutes. Why- d’you wanna watch another one?”

“Hell yes. Can we watch the first one?” Valerie asked, her eyes glittering with excitement, “You know- the one where he does the little wave? That one’s my favourite.”

Raegan frowned. “He? Val, I’m telling you- Ember’s a girl.”

“No, dude. He’s definitely a guy, I swear.” Valerie insisted.

“No, she’s not. She’s too short to be a guy.”

Valerie grinned and said, “That’s not very nice.”

“Maybe it’s a kid,” Evelyn suggested, prompting a triumphant nod from Valerie.

Raegan tapped the play button. This video was much grainier than the last one, the juddering, pixelated frame betraying an excited amateur with a smartphone. The cameraman crossed a messy-looking bedroom and aimed his lens out of the open window, focusing on a figure standing outside. As he drew closer to the window, however, it became clear that he was filming from the upper storey of the house. The figure wasn’t just standing there- it was hovering. A humanoid figure, hovering twenty feet above the street. Its face was turned away, hood hiding its face, but a shout of “Hey!” from the cameraman appeared to catch its attention. It turned its head and the left half of its face came into view; beneath the bloody glow of those now-familiar eyes, Evelyn could just make out a shadowy slash of a mouth that curled, after a few seconds, into the slightest of smiles. Then the figure raised a hand. The cameraman took a step back, but the figure simply gave him a cheery wave before raising both arms and speeding upwards, vanishing into the darkness above. The video ended with a still shot of the empty darkness outside the window.

No trace. Just like always.

The Emberly phenomenon had started out like any good urban legend; almost three years ago, some drunk guy had seen a UFO hovering over an office building in the city centre. He had sworn up and down that what he saw had been a person, floating two hundred feet above the ground. Naturally, he had been dismissed and everyone had forgotten about it. A year later, someone had uploaded a video to YouTube showing a human figure levitating outside somebody’s window. This, too, had been met with scorn; that was, until a second video had surfaced. Then, barely a week after the second, there had been a third. The videos had continued to appear, each one showing the same figure in black with those same inexplicable glowing eyes doing increasingly inexplicable things. Sometimes they would just point at things and cause them to shatter, crumple, burst into flames, float from the ground like the cars in the latest offering. Other times, they would be pictured simply standing in the sky above Emberly, looking down on the city like an underwhelming god. The locals who subscribed to the legend had gone so far as to give the mystery person a nickname: Ember. Nowadays there were- at Evelyn’s last count- forty-seven videos of Ember on YouTube, and although people online continued to argue that they were an elaborate marketing campaign or a long-running joke, a handful of locals still hung on to the hope that when night fell over Emberly, the streets were ruled by something more than petty crime. Evelyn, Mara, Raegan and Valerie were proud members of this crowd- not because they were afraid or obsessed, but because they were intrigued. It was something to get excited about, at least. A distraction.

Valerie cleared her throat. “See,” she said, “To me, that looked like a dude.” Raegan frowned and opened her mouth to say something, but Valerie interrupted with, “Mara, do you think it’s a dude?”

Mara’s eyes flicked down towards the ground. She looked uncomfortable. “Um… Yes? Honestly, I have no idea.”

“Val, who cares if Ember’s a girl or a guy?” Raegan said, putting her phone away.

“You’re just saying that because you lost the argument.”

“No, I’m saying that because whether they’re male or female, they have fucking superpowers,” said Raegan, “I wish I had that shit. Don’t you?”

Valerie smiled. “If you could have a superpower, what would it be?”

“Val, I swear, you’re asked us that at least once a day for the last year,” Raegan said, smiling back.

“So- what would it be?”

“Super strength. So I could knock out all the douchebags.”

Valerie laughed. “That’s a healthy aspiration you’ve got there. Ev?”

Evelyn thought for a second. “Does the ability to pass all my exams count as a superpower? Because honestly, I think that’s the thing that’s going to be most helpful to me at this point.”

“Dude, come on! That doesn’t count!”

“It so does. I mean, literally nobody can do it, right? So it counts as a superhuman ability.”

Valerie made a face. “Fine. Be boring. Mara?”

“I don’t know,” Mara replied, “What about you?”

Valerie smiled “Well, I’ve been thinking. All of that moving-stuff-with-your-mind telekinesis stuff that Ember does is pretty cool, but you know what would be cooler? Pyrokinesis.”

Raegan frowned. “That’s the one where you chuck fire at people, right?”

“Yep.”

Evelyn grinned. “Your dad would love that.”

“What, because he works for the fire department?” Valerie smirked.

“Yep.”

“But me with pyrokinesis wouldn’t be nearly as bad as Raegan with super strength.”

Raegan smiled slightly. “It’d be like Hulk, except I’m pretty much permanently angry. So everyone would be fucked.”

“Except me, right?” Valerie said.

“I dunno, Val. You can be pretty annoying sometimes.”

“That,” Valerie said with a grin, “is not very nice.”

“Evelyn can stay. She can help me cheat on my GCSEs with her magic exam-passing powers. Though I’m pretty sure she has those already.”

Evelyn winced. “Jay wasn’t just being a douchebag when he called me a nerd.”

“Yes, he was,” Mara said seriously.

“Yeah,” Raegan said, “But I think we can all agree, Val burned that dude pretty well.”

Valerie laughed. “Yep. I don’t need pyrokinesis to dish out an epic burn.”

“That’s got to be some kind of record for you, Val,” Evelyn said, “I mean, that’s definitely the fastest I’ve ever seen you land yourself in detention. I don’t know whether to be proud or disappointed.”

“Go with proud,” Valerie said. “I know I’m proud of myself. That shit was worth it.”

The soft ringing of the bell drifted across the lawn towards them, and they started to walk back. Evelyn smiled to herself. Other kids her age spent their break-times gossiping about boys, clothes and parties. Her friends, however, chatted about crazy urban legends and nonsensical, scientifically impossible scenarios for the future. Sure- their conversations were nothing more than a distraction, but they were still infinitely better than the alternative.

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