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Elemental Thief, Page 2

Rachel Morgan

  Ridley crossed the street as the bus grumbled and groaned and pulled away from the stop. She turned a corner—and that was when the bolt of magic flashed downward. It struck a pole half a block ahead of her, rebounded off the bent pole in multiple zigzagging flashes, and hit the road, cracking the tar and sending a small shock wave through the ground. Ridley stumbled back against a laundromat window, her heart jumping into high speed as the last spark of magic cracked a garbage bin in half and vanished. Her first thought was that it must have come from the storm brewing overhead. The many arxium panels—flat bus-sized pieces of arxium metal hovering a little higher than the city’s tallest building—were supposed to reflect atmospheric magic away from the earth. But the large spaces that existed between the panels made it easy for stray magic to find its way through during particularly volatile storms. It was startling to witness firsthand, but it wasn’t unheard of.

  Then Ridley’s gaze moved beyond the fissure in the road. She saw flashing blue and red lights and a car screeching to a stop. A woman raced in front of the car, then leaped over the cracked road. Something blue and wispy rose away from her hands and arms, streaming behind her as she ran. Shouts and gunshots echoed between the buildings, and Ridley realized suddenly that the magic wasn’t from the storm above. The magic was pulled from right here in the city. Pulled by the woman fleeing past her. Ridley flattened herself against the laundromat window, her thoughts tumbling wildly over one another. Was this the same woman the police had arrested earlier? Had she somehow escaped? Would the magic she’d pulled end up destroying the entire street and everyone in it?

  Before running around the corner and out of view, the woman grabbed hold of a lamppost and swung around to face the cops racing toward her. Her hands came together, then appeared to claw at something invisible in the air. Just beyond her fingertips, magic appeared in glowing blue wisps. With precise, hurried movements—movements Ridley hadn’t seen anyone use in years—the woman scooped at the magic. Her palms touched, her hands twisted, then her arms moved apart in a sweeping motion as her fingers traced patterns too fast for Ridley to follow. The wisps coalesced, formed a bubble, then exploded outward in a brilliant blue flash.

  Ridley ducked down, squeezing her eyes shut and throwing her arms up to shield her face. The light vanished almost instantly. She blinked and tried to peer closer, both afraid and curious. Surely the woman had intended to create more than just a flash? Her hands or fingers must have made the wrong movement, produced the wrong conjuration. Ridley watched as the woman pulled desperately at the air a second time.


  Ridley flinched as the woman jerked backward. She seemed to sway a moment, then half-fell, half-slumped to the road. Her head hit the tar and the faint blue wisps drifted away just as three uniformed men gripping guns reached her motionless body.

  Ridley didn’t wait to see what happened next. As the rain began to fall harder, she pushed away from the window and ran.


  Ridley did her best to think of anything except the dead woman as she ran all the way home: The smell of rain, the slap of her shoes against the pavements, the spray of water every time she hit a puddle. By the time she reached Kayne’s Antiques, her throat burned and she was completely out of breath. She leaned her forehead against the glass door for several moments, allowing her heart rate to slow and making one last effort to shove the image of that still body from her mind.

  As thunder rumbled overhead, she inhaled deeply and pushed open the door into the antique store. The familiar chime of the bell above the door greeted her ears, tinkling again as the door eased shut behind her. “Hey, Dad,” she called to the man sitting behind the heavily carved oak desk on the far side of the store.

  He looked up and peered at her through his jeweler’s glasses. “Oh, sweetie, you’re home.” He tilted the magnifier lenses upward and smiled. “How was tutoring?”

  “Same as usual,” she answered, shrugging out of her wet jacket. It wasn’t a lie. She had been at the tutoring center before sneaking into the apartment of one of her students to retrieve the stolen pearls she’d overheard him bragging about. It was only after that quick and easy robbery that she’d taken a detour to Aura Tower. Busy day, she thought to herself, breathing out a long sigh. “Did you eat lunch?” she asked as she slipped between the displays of teapots, clocks, books, and other old objects. Maverick Kayne tended to forget about meals when he was fully absorbed in his work—which appeared to be the case right now, given the numerous minuscule watch pieces and tiny tools spread across his work surface. “I left something in the fridge for you, remember?” Ridley walked around the counter with the antique cash register and stopped beside her father’s desk.

  “Uh …” His eyebrows, flecked with gray, pinched together. He twisted his wedding ring around his fourth finger. “Yes. I did have lunch. Oh, and you don’t need to worry about doing anything for dinner. Shen brought something over from his mom.”

  “Hey,” Shen said at the sound of his name. Ridley looked up and found him standing in the doorway that led to the back rooms, his hand raised in a half wave and his straight black hair almost touching the doorframe above him. “I left the dish on your stove upstairs.”

  “Hi, stranger,” Ridley said, her face breaking into a smile. “Didn’t see you at the rock wall this morning. Did you end up having to work?”

  “Yeah.” Shen slouched against the doorframe. It was a bad habit of his from years of being self-conscious about his height. “Sorry about that. Mom needed help. Is Meera doing any better?”

  “Well, I don’t think she hates it anymore, so that’s progress.”

  “Great.” Shen brightened. “It’s only taken us, what, five years to convince her to give indoor climbing a go?”

  “Approximately. But she still says, and I quote, ‘This is one of the stupidest sports ever.’” Ridley rolled her eyes and leaned her hip against the side of Dad’s desk. “Anyway, thanks for bringing dinner over. I could have come and picked it up.”

  “And saved me the looooong walk across the road from our shop to yours?”

  “Yes. That long and arduous walk.”

  “It’s a strenuous one indeed,” Shen said with a long-suffering sigh.

  “I don’t know how your short legs ever make the journey.”

  “It’s a mystery. I should be winded and out of breath right now.”

  “You two,” Dad muttered without looking up at them, and they both started laughing. Shen and his family lived across the road above the Chinese takeout shop his parents owned. Mrs. Lin had been sending food over at least once a week since Ridley and her father moved in above Kayne’s Antiques after the Cataclysm. Ridley and Shen had been friends almost as long.

  “Well, tell your mom thanks.” Ridley held up her hand, and Shen high-fived her as he walked past.

  “Sure. See you and Meera at rock climbing tomorrow afternoon. Unless,” he added as he reached the front door and looked back, “you guys have tutoring again?”

  “No, today was the last class.” Ridley scooped her damp hair away from her neck—being careful not to pull the silver chain she always wore—and ran her fingers through the tangled ends, trying to separate them. “The center figured they’d let the kids relax for their last four days of summer break.”

  “How kind of them.” The bell chimed as Shen opened the door. He lifted the hood of his raincoat. “’Kay, see you tomorrow then.”

  “See ya.” Giving up on the tangles, Ridley turned to face Dad and found him watching her. “What?”

  “Are you planning to relax over the next four days, or will you be spending all your time obsessively climbing indoor rocks?”

  She spread her arms out, palms up. “What’s wrong with obsessively climbing indoor rocks? It’s exercise. A full-body workout for both strength and cardio.”

  Dad sighed and tilted the magnifier lenses back down over his eyes. “Yes. You’ve quoted the promotional pamphlet to me before. But how about you spend a
little time outside?” he suggested as he picked up one of his tiny tools. “You know, relaxing and enjoying the last few days of summer?”

  Ridley snorted. “Ah, yes, summer. Rain only half the time instead of rain and snow all the time. Temperatures almost warm enough for me to remove my jacket.”

  “You forgot the bit about working on your tan,” Dad added without looking up.

  A small smile touched her lips as she looked at the picture frame standing beside a coffee mug of pens and pencils on the desk. “And you forgot to remind me to be grateful we’re alive and that Lumina City survived the Cataclysm. That’s what you usually say at this point in the conversation.”

  Dad still didn’t look up, but Ridley could see his smile. “After nine summers repeating this dialogue, I figured it might be time for you to say that bit.”

  Ridley put on her chirpiest sing-song voice. “I’m grateful we’re alive and that Lumina City survived the Cataclysm.”

  “Like you mean it?”

  She sighed, her fake smile slipping. “I do mean it. I really do. I’m beyond grateful we were protected.” An image of the erratic flashes of magic bouncing back and forth across the street earlier crossed her mind before she continued. “It’s just … what’s the point in spending time outside when the sun barely manages to make its way through the clouds and magic, and when it does, it’s hardly warm enough to be enjoyable? It’s nothing like the old summers.”

  Ridley was eight years old at the time of the Cataclysm, old enough to remember now what summer was like before that fateful day. The day of the GSMC, the Global Simultaneous Magic-Energy Conversion. That was the day thousands of magicists around the world had tried to harness more energy from the elements than they’d ever harnessed before using thousands of simultaneous conjurations—and instead ended up destroying most of civilization. Magic, wild and powerful, had erupted across the earth, ripping through anything and everything that wasn’t protected by arxium. And those cities that had been labeled paranoid—the cities that had ‘wasted money’ putting thousands of hovering arxium panels in place to reflect magic away on the off chance that something might one day go wrong—were the only places that survived.

  Ridley’s home, Lumina City, had been one of those places. She was fine. Dad was fine. But her mother had been out there, on the road, traveling back from visiting Ridley’s grandparents where they lived in a small town several hours away. A town that had no arxium protection. Ridley used to fantasize about her mother returning one day. Perhaps she’d been inside someone’s arxium bunker and not on the road. Perhaps she was busy battling through the wastelands, making her way back to Ridley and Dad. But in her heart, she knew it wasn’t possible. Her mother had called from the road mere minutes before the explosion that changed everything. Ridley had spoken to her.

  After the Cataclysm, Dad’s business had gone under—every fashion accessory and jewelry item he’d crafted using magic had been rounded up by a new government task force and destroyed—and within the space of a few months, after Dad settled all their debts, he and Ridley found themselves left with nothing but a small amount of savings and Grandpa’s antique store. Dad had inherited it several years earlier when Grandpa died, and someone had been managing it since then. Dad took over management of the store—he couldn’t afford to pay someone else to do it—and added ‘watch repairs and jewelry design’ to the sign in the window. He didn’t get many customers though. True antiques were valuable, but the name Kayne scared people off. It was risky doing business with someone whose primary income used to be generated by magic. Who knew if Maverick Kayne might secretly use magic to create a pair of earrings or get a watch to start ticking again? What if the antiques he sold were actually created by some conjuration he did whenever the scanner drones weren’t flying overhead?

  Ridley knew about the rumors because she’d heard them. She’d listened intently as she sat on uncomfortable couches waiting for Dad while he went to interview after interview, trying to find a new job in a post-Cataclysm world where no one needed the skills he possessed. She quickly learned that no one would ever give him work. It took Dad a little longer to come to the same conclusion.

  And so Ridley and her father remained in the small apartment above Kayne’s Antiques, and nothing—especially summer—was ever the same again.

  “I know it’s not like the old summers,” Dad said, pulling her from the memory of hot sand, icy lemonade, and the smell of sunscreen. “But it’s the only summer you’re getting, so I suggest you enjoy the last of it.”

  “Dad,” she said, pressing her palms down on the desk and leaning closer to him. “If anyone should spend some time outside, it’s you. You’re in here all the time.”

  “That isn’t true. I’m not in here during your shifts.”

  “And how many of those do I have? Not nearly enough. You need to give me more so you can have time to—”

  “Sweetie, it’s fine.” Dad finally removed the jewelers glasses and smiled at her. Though wrinkles creased his brow from too much frowning and his hair was now more gray than black, his eyes were still as blue as Ridley’s. “I know how hard you have to work to keep your scholarship. And there’s all your extra-murals. I’m not going to pile any more onto your shoulders than I have to.”

  Guilt shifted uncomfortably in the pit of Ridley’s stomach. She was hardly the perfect child Dad thought she was. Sure, she committed hours of her life to tutoring underprivileged kids, and it was something she genuinely enjoyed, but the fact that it would look great on her application to join The Rosman Foundation after graduation was the main reason she’d started tutoring. And indoor climbing was a good way to stay fit and healthy, but the skills she’d learned definitely came in handy when breaking in and out of certain buildings. “What about your shoulders?” she pressed, pushing her ulterior motives to the back of her mind where they belonged.

  “My shoulders are just fine, Riddles. Even if they’re not physically as strong as yours.”

  Ridley knew there was little point in arguing with him. It had never worked before. “Well, can I at least close up for you today?” she asked, looking at the cuckoo clock on the wall. “You can finish that watch tomorrow. Go upstairs and read a book or something until closing time. Or take a walk around the block. Get some rain and fresh air. I mean, you know—” she rolled her eyes “—air that’s fresher than the centuries-old air inside this place.”

  Dad leaned back and stretched his arms out to the side. “Maybe,” he mumbled around a yawn. He opened one of the desk drawers, pulled out his cracked secondhand commscreen, and scrolled through a few notifications. He exhaled slowly. “Yes, okay.” He pushed his chair back and stood. “I’ll take a walk. Even if it’s just around the apartment upstairs. I’ve probably been sitting for too long.” He slid the commscreen into his back pocket and pulled Ridley into a hug. “You should stop trying to take care of me, you know?”

  She smiled and squeezed her arms tighter around him. “Never.”

  He chuckled against her hair, then stepped away. “Oh, and, uh … Don’t touch anything on the work area.”

  “Dad. I know by now not to touch anything on the work area.”

  “I know, I know. Just reminding you.”

  “I might tidy up around the work area,” she added, “but I absolutely will not touch the work area.”

  “Thanks, Riddles.” With a final smile, Dad turned away and walked through to the back rooms.

  Ridley sat in Dad’s chair, then shifted to the side as she felt something hard in her back pocket. She remembered the string of pearls and pulled it free, making a mental note to return it to the tutoring center coordinator’s office the next time she was there. She imagined the look of relief on the woman’s face when she discovered it—and the disbelief on her student’s face when he got home tonight and realized the pearls he’d stolen were gone. Hypocrite, she imagined he would say to her if he knew what she spent many of her nights doing. You steal, so why can’t I? “There’
s a difference,” she whispered.

  She removed her commscreen from inside her jacket. The only notification on the screen was a message from Meera saying she could barely lift her arms after all the climbing Ridley had made her do that morning. Ridley smiled to herself as she set the commscreen down and began tidying the outer areas of Dad’s desk. Next to all the antique pieces in the store, the commscreen looked completely out of place. That and her state-of-the-art laptop and commpad were the most modern—and most expensive—pieces of tech in the whole building. They were part of her scholarship package, and the school gave her a new version of each at the start of every year. Ridley thought it was unnecessary, but she didn’t complain. She generally passed the older versions on to Shen or someone else in his family.

  After pausing at the picture frame to brush her thumb over the photo of her six-year-old self sitting between her mother and father, Ridley continued straightening the surrounding objects. She returned pencils to the coffee mug, gathered up blank note paper that hadn’t been scribbled on, and closed the little carved wooden box her mom had given her dad years ago. Her fingers traced the tree carving on the lid as her thoughts returned to the woman who’d died only a few blocks from here for the crime of using magic.

  Ridley wondered if she’d been a trained magicist before the Cataclysm. Her movements had seemed more intricate than those required for average, everyday conjurations. But she could have taught herself if she had a copy of one of the old magicist texts. All the paper editions had been gathered up and burned after the anti-magic laws were passed, but it had been impossible for the government to control the deletion of every single electronic text that explained the use of magic.