Ari and Crofton move quickly through the city. They pass citizens frozen as they watch the flock of birds pass overhead. The hoks disappear over the canyon walls, leaving behind a sense of dread felt throughout the canyon.
Arriving at Ari’s home, Ari and Crofton see Meah waiting for them outside. She smiles, but her eyes can’t hide her worry. Knowing something is wrong Ari slows her steps.
“We need to talk,” Meah says softly.
“I think she knows,” Crofton whispers quickly.
“Mom, whatever you’ve heard, they attacked us and we had to defend ourselves. I don’t just go looking for…” Ari’s words trail off as she sees the fearful expression on her mother’s face. “What’s wrong?”
Turning to Crofton, Meah smiles sadly. “Head home, Crofton. Your mother and father have something to say to you, as well.”
Worry filling him, Crofton nods his head and smiles at Ari, trying to comfort her. “I’ll see you later.”
“Yeah.” She waits until Crofton disappears around the corner before returning her attention to her mother. “What’s going on? I saw the Lito’s flying off with the other hoks.”
Opening the door, Meah motions for Ari to enter the house. They walk through the quiet halls in silence until they reach the courtyard. The tree at the center has grown much taller than the surrounding house, its branches gently scraping the roof. Its great roots have dislodged portions of the stone walkway around the base of the tree and continue to push their way through the earth.
Sitting beneath the tree, Meah pats the empty seat next to her. Ari doesn’t hesitate in sitting and watches her mother carefully, waiting for her to speak.
“I know about the gang who threatened to kill you and Crofton.” The words hang in the air.
Sighing with brief relief, Ari relaxes in her seat. “Mom, there wasn’t any—”
“Any real danger? Ari, any threat is dangerous. You need to be careful about showing off your magic.”
“I know, you and Lyrrel and Emeka and Crofton and even Crofton’s parents keep telling me, but it’s not hurting anybody.” She points at her mother. “And I only use it as a last resort.”
“What was the last resort today?”
Pausing, trying to think how she should respond, Ari looks to the ground. “I jumped off a cliff with Crofton to escape another gang I cheated out of money.”
“Ari,” Meah groans, rubbing the side of her head.
“They were cheating other people first! I was only making it a fair fight. Besides the gang that threatened Crofton and me didn’t know about that. They were on the other side of the canyon.”
“And that’s where jumping off a cliff came in I’m guessing?”
“Okay, I did use my magic to make sure we landed on one of the trolleys, but that’s all! I didn’t fly or anything.”
Taking her daughter’s hands in hers, Meah gives Ari a stern expression. “It’s a difficult time for magic users right now. We have to be careful how we use our gifts.”
“You tell me all the time about those who’re still afraid of magic users, but how can they be? Magic users saved them from the Blood King…you and dad saved everyone and refused to become rulers. There’s nothing to be scared of.”
“It isn’t about that. The fear comes from feeling powerless against those who they feel could take control. They’re afraid of someone equally or more powerful and ruthless as the Blood King being born from a magic user and feeling those who don’t have magic should be enslaved.”
Jumping to her feet, Ari shakes her head in frustration. “So to prevent that they’ll do exactly that? Enslave or kill magic users? How is that any better?”
“Fear isn’t friend to logic. But that’s why we have to understand their fear and not feed it.”
“But magic is disappearing. How can they still be afraid?”
Meah stands and crosses to her daughter. She brushes a loose strand of brown hair from her face and smiles. “Some day they’ll understand, but until then we have to be careful.”
Ari pulls away from her mom. She’s tired of hiding her magic. It isn’t like it’s particularly powerful. The most she can do is knock someone away and it isn’t as though her magic is growing stronger either. Sometimes it even feels like something is holding her back.
“Why were the hoks flying?” Ari asks, remembering the sight from earlier.
Meah’s face became blank, keeping Ari from reading her mom’s thoughts. “One of the caravans has been killed. We think the culprits are hiding out on the outskirts of the city.”
“Seems a bit much to send the Lito’s out, doesn’t it?”
The look Meah gives Ari sends a chill down her spine. She sees her mother’s eyes grow distant, a look she recognizes. It’s the look Meah has when she’s deciding whether or not to say something.
Making a decision, Meah smiles. “It’s better to be over prepared than under.” Wrapping her arms around her daughter, Meah squeezes Ari tightly. “Promise me you won’t use your magic unless you absolutely have to.”
Returning the hug, Ari nods. “I promise.”
Pulling away, Meah places her hand on the side of Ari’s face. Her eyes search Ari’s face as though trying to drink in every detail. “Go on, Fleance and Mava have probably finished scolding Crofton.”
Hesitating a moment, Ari leaves the courtyard. She glances back once as the door closes behind her to see her mother waving to her.
Meah takes a deep breath. She touches her magic and tries to feel the connection long severed she once shared with Ime, hoping to feel one last twinge. A ghost of a feeling passes through her and she knows somehow he’s still alive.
Turning to the tree, she raises her eyes to the lowest branch and draws a hidden dagger from her clothing. The shadow in the tree watches patiently.
“I’ve been expecting you.”