Sunday, May 29th, 1983.
The blonde girl stood in a room full of noise and light. Surrounding her were testaments to mankind’s ingenuity and drive for both innovation and entertainment. These feats of technology, these ‘arcade machines’ with their loud and colorful games had always astounded the girl. For the past five minutes, she had stood staring at one machine in the middle of this busy, crowded room full of similar feats of technology. She wasn’t playing it, she wasn’t even touching it. She was simply watching and admiring.
Unfortunately, not all the arcade’s customers were so enthralled, as a voice from behind the girl heaved a long and clearly annoyed sigh before demanding, “Hey, come on! Are you gonna play it or what?”
The girl turned around, looking toward what turned out to be a collection of half a dozen boys, all them around thirteen or so. Several years below her own apparent age. Most looked doubtful, and the biggest of them, a boy with shockingly red hair, sneered. “She’s a girl, they don’t play video games, stupid.”
“We can,” the girl replied quietly, her eyes widening as if in surprise at the sound of her own voice. Speaking up unbidden still felt like a new concept. She wasn’t used to that kind of freedom yet. Openly and audibly disagreeing with someone, that felt even more alien. Not allowed. Harmful. Bad. She had meant to say something else, but instead flinched, expecting a shock of painful punishment that never came. The fact that no chains wrapped around her throat to cut off her oxygen for the transgression was almost almost surprising, and the reflexive urge to discipline herself anyway was hard to resist.
“Hey, are you… okay?” The boys had clearly noticed at least some of her reaction, and one of them spoke up, the concern evident in his young voice. “You don’t like—need help or anything, right?”
“Yeah, are you like, on drugs or something?” Another boy put in. “Is that why you’re dressed funny?”
That boy was immediately elbowed in both sides by two different boys. One of them shook his head. “Idiot, that’s just how high school girls dress.” He looked her up and down with approval. “It’s fresh.”
The girl blinked down at her clothes. She wore white pants that were loose around her legs and a dark blue stomach-baring shirt. The urge to ask if there was something wrong with them was so strong she actually opened her mouth to start talking before catching herself. “I– am quite well. Thank you, sir.”
For some reason, that started a wave of snickers as the boys reacted, slapping and nudging the boy as if it was strange that she would call him sir. They were teasing him more than her, which seemed odd.
The tall, red-haired boy finally rolled his eyes. “Shut up, you dweebs.” To the girl, he demanded, “So are you gonna play, or are you gonna move? Cuz we’ve only got ten minutes til the movie starts.”
“Movie?” The girl’s head tilted, her face blank. “What movie?”
All of the boys stared at her like she’d just come down from Mars. “What movie?” One of them echoed, the shock and disbelief written across his face. “You know, the movie! The only movie that matters!”
Still, the girl just stood there, staring blankly until all of the boys crowed together, “Return of the Jedi!”
She had the feeling that asking what a Jedi was would be met with even more disbelief. Apparently this was something everyone was supposed to know, and not knowing would make her stand out. Which… was a very bad idea, especially at this point. She had to learn to blend in a lot better than she was.
“May I go to this movie with you?” she asked politely. After all, if everyone was supposed to know everything about it, she should probably put in the effort. She needed to learn to be more human.
The boys seemed a little surprised that an older girl wanted to see this important movie with them, but they didn’t object too much. After a brief huddle, they separated and the boy with red hair gave a sharp nod. “Aight, you can go in with us. But you gotta either move or play, cuz we’re running out of time.”
Turning her attention back to the machine, the girl stared at it briefly. Her gaze flicked toward its neighbor, where another boy had a stack of coins sitting on top of the console. As she watched, the boy took one of the coins, shoved it into the slot near the bottom, and then started to play the game.
She duplicated his crouch, leaning down to face the slot. Her empty hand moved toward it, and she stared at her palm. She focused until another coin appeared there, right between her waiting fingers. With a smile, the girl pushed the coin into the slot, then straightened and put her hands on the controls.
The coin wouldn’t last forever. None of the magic that she did for herself ever lasted long. As small and inconsequential as it was, the coin would probably last about an hour, but then it would vanish.
As the game started up, one of the boys sidled in closer. “So what’s your name anyway?”
Name. Her Master had always had many different names for her, none of them all that pleasant. And none suitable for interaction in the real human world. Slowly, the girl looked to the left of the machine, searching for inspiration. Her gaze found a wall full of movie posters. One in particular appeared to star Peter Fonda and Brooke Shields. Peter and Fonda were out. Brooke? That was possible. She looked to the title of the movie. Two words. Wanda? Brooke and Wanda were both possible. But no, not right. Not… her. She wanted something special to be her name, something that really felt like her.
She looked at the second word in the movie’s title, reading it through in her head before nodding. Not Wanda, not the first word of the title. But the second. That one felt right. That one felt like her.
“Nevada,” the girl answered, making one of the first choices of her free life. “My name is Nevada.”
Thursday, July 11th, 1984.
A little over a year ago, she had stood blankly in front of this machine. Now, the girl called Nevada confidently worked the controls, guiding the little spaceship back and forth across the screen. More and more alien ships were blasted apart as her score rose even higher. Not that it mattered all that much, considering the high score list was already entirely filled with the letters NEV. She held all the spots.
When her last ship was finally destroyed, she quickly filled in the letters to replace her sixth place score. Not the best she’d ever done, but still in her top ten. Then Nevada turned to the boy who stood open-mouthed next to her. “And that,” she declared with an easy grin, “is how you win twenty bucks.”
The boy sighed, but produced the money, laying it into her expectant hand. “Yeah, yeah, you smoked me. Jeeze, how’d you get so good at this game anyway? Your dad own the arcade or something?”
“Nope,” Nevada replied truthfully before sparing a wink for the boy. “But I have fixed all the machines in here.” She’d spent most of the past year learning exactly how this human technology worked, and how to integrate it with the magic that she already knew. Without a master, her magic was temporary. But it worked enough to get her by until she was able to learn how to work on these machines. After that, she earned money by repairing things. Not just the arcade games here, but cars, televisions, radios, anything that people either brought to her or had her come to them. Over the past year, she had become an expert in that sort of work. Her magic never lasted, but the technology she fixed was permanent.
“I knew it. You hustled me, you fucking hustled me.” In spite of his words, the boy didn’t sound that upset. Instead, he simply shook his head and chuckled. “Well, if you’re gonna hustle me,” he offered with a smile, “could you at least let me buy you lunch too? You didn’t take all my money, after all.”
Her mouth opened to agree. It could be fun, after all. She liked spending time with humans, especially the interesting ones, or the ones that she could learn something from. And this boy seemed interesting.
Unfortunately, just as the agreement started to pass her lips, Nevada’s gaze moved over the boy’s shoulder. They centered on the sight of a tall dark-skinned man standing at the entrance to the arcade, staring directly at her. And even as she met the man’s gaze, the girl felt that cold feeling in the pit of her stomach. The cold feeling that only came for two different reasons. Either she was looking at one of the Reapers of Death, which seemed unlikely since no one here had died. Or she was looking at a Heretic.
Okay, don’t panic, Nevada quickly told herself. If he’s one of the subtle ones, she might still have a chance to slip out before he figured out a way to get across the room to her without attracting attention.
Or not. Instead of waiting, the man simply looked up toward the lights. Almost instantly, they went out, along with all of the machines. The room was plunged into into near-complete darkness, as the familiar and comforting sounds of all the games were replaced with cries of surprise and dismay.
No. He was coming for her. No, no, no, no. Even as the boy in front of her tried to make a joke about the power going out, Nevada was turning away from him. The cold feeling in the pit of her stomach had morphed into terror. She’d been so careful, she’d tried not to stand out, and she hadn’t hurt anyone.
Still, the Heretic was here for her. Whether because he’d been passing by and noticed her or because he’d been openly hunting didn’t matter. He was here now, and he wouldn’t stop until she was dead.
Without hesitation, Nevada ran straight through the pitch black room. She still bumped into several people, who shouted their own complaints but were drown out in the sea of similar noise. As quickly as she could, the girl made a beeline for the side door that would lead into the mall’s staff hallway that ran between this arcade hall and the theater next door. With every step she took, Nevada expected to feel the shock of a blade between her ribs or feel the impact of a Heretic gun.
But no. She made it to the door, shoved her way through, and sprinted down the empty hallway, leaving the sound of yelling behind her. Run, Nevada. Just run. Don’t look back, don’t check, don’t check.
She checked. A quick glance backwards as she ran down the hall revealed nothing. The Heretic wasn’t there. With a slight, almost hiccupy breath of relief, she began to plan her escape from the mall itself.
The whistle of a blade caught her attention, and the girl dove for the floor, rolling under the massive sword that the Heretic was swinging. Somehow he’d gotten around in front of her. Teleportation, super-speed, something else? It didn’t matter, and there was no way to tell. Heretics, terrifying as they were, could have any power. With any other creature, you could plan for what you were dealing with. You could prepare. But Heretics? They could have any power at all, and they used both technology and magic on top of that. There was no way to prepare for them, no way to practice, and no way to negotiate. Heretics didn’t even try to negotiate. They didn’t talk. They didn’t listen. They just killed.
Still, she tried. Springing back to her feet as the blade cleaved through the wall beside the spot she’d been running through, Nevada held her hands up. “I didn’t hurt anyone!” she called out, her eyes wide with terror. “Listen to me, listen! I wouldn’t hurt anyone. I wasn’t going to. I’m just trying to live!”
“You’re a monster,” the Heretic spat the words as though even saying that much to her made him feel dirty. “You prey on humanity. You really think you can do that forever without paying for it?”
Hands still up defensively, Nevada shook her head. “I’m n-not a monster,” she insisted, her mind already thinking back to everything her former master had called her. Monster had been the least of it. “I’m not hurting anyone. I’ve never hurt anyone. You have to listen to me, I’m not like that. I’m–”
“A vile, disgusting creature,” the Heretic finished, eyes blazing with hate. “And you’ll never hurt anyone again. We aren’t your prey anymore, beast. Now you pay for your crimes against humanity.”
That sword was swinging, and Nevada quickly looked to the wall. At a thought, a small part of it disappeared. She leapt through the opening into what turned out to be the bathroom of the theater. Once there, she didn’t slow down or even hesitate before running for the next wall. Three steps in and the Heretic appeared directly in front of her, that sword of his already swinging. She narrowly avoided having her head taken off, diving sideways through one of the stalls. A quick look at the wall there created an opening, and she dove through it to enter the theater proper. Two teenage boys were standing there, their eyes wide with surprise at the sudden hole in the wall. That lasted a second before the Bystander effect took hold and they forgot that there had been anything strange about her appearance.
She couldn’t fight. Not now, not a Heretic. Where there was one of them, there was usually more. And Nevada didn’t know how to fight. She’d never hurt anyone in her life. She’d obeyed one master after another for many, many years before finally escaping. Then, for the past year she’d simply enjoyed life. She’d spent the time learning, playing, just being free for the first time. And now this Heretic was going to kill her. He would hunt her down remorselessly and inevitably, using his stolen powers to hunt her down for the crime of living, the crime of simply being born something other than human.
So she ran. Putting her feet under herself once more, the girl ran through the crowd, racing to the main hall of the theater. If she could put enough distance between them, if she could just escape for long enough to make the man lose track of her, there was a chance.
The thought occurred to her briefly that hiding in the crowd might work. But no. She had no idea how the Heretic would react to that, or how opposed to friendly fire he was. If she put herself inside a crowd of humans, there was every chance that they might get hurt, and she didn’t want that.
So rather than turning left to join the crowd in front of the snackbar, she turned right, running for the exit. Just a little further, a little bit more and she could be safe, she could stay free.
A hand caught her arm in mid-sprint, flinging her sideways into the wall. She hit hard, rebounding off it before slumping down with a groan.
The Heretic was there. And as he stood in front of her, the man twitched a hand. Fire appeared around them, covering all the walls, as well as the corridor behind and in front of them. She was trapped here, trapped in a small space with nothing between herself and the Heretic’s sword.
She tried one more time. From where she had fallen on the floor, Nevada pleaded. “Please. Please stop. I didn’t hurt anyone, I swear. I’m not like that. I just… I just want to live. Please.”
“Your tricks will not fool me, beast,” the man declared in a hard tone as he stood there imperiously. Flipping that massive sword of his around once, he raised it up high above her head.
Then… he simply stood there, motionless. For a second, the terrified Nevada peeked up at him, heart in her throat as she stared with wide eyes.
“You wanna live, huh?” A voice behind her announced, and she spun her head that way to find herself staring at a handsome man with dark hair, extending a hand toward her. The fire was gone. “Well, then you better come with me.”
Heretic. He was a Heretic. The terror returned, even as Nevada looked back to the first one. Frozen. He was frozen in place.
“Yeah, he’s not gonna move, don’t worry,” the dark-haired young man assured her. “And I know what you’re thinking, but I’m not here to hurt you. I’d explain more, but keeping this guy frozen like this is kind of taking a lot of effort, so if we could just get out of here while we’ve got the chance?”
“Rebellion,” she realized then. “You’re part of the rebellion.”
“Guilty as charged,” the man replied, though his teeth were gritted from apparent strain. “Seriously though, we need to move right now.”
Quickly, Nevada scrambled to her feet. She gave the frozen Heretic one last look before turning to run on down the hall. Her savior joined her a second later, and they ran together to the side exit before pushing their way through and into the lot. Once there, the man led her to a van and hopped behind the wheel before pulling away.
Only then did Nevada let herself breathe. She sat in the passenger seat of the van, exhaling before slowly turning to look at the Heretic who had rescued her. “I thought the rebellion was dead. I thought it died with–”
“Joselyn?” The man shook his head. “She’s not dead, just captured. And it’s not over, just quieter.” His gaze turned toward her. “My name’s Deveron. Pretty sure you call yourself Nevada.”
Suddenly nervous again, Nevada straightened a bit stiffly. “How… how did you know that?”
“Because I’ve been watching you for awhile,” Deveron replied before wincing immediately. “Crap. Sorry, that sounded creepier than I meant it. I don’t mean in a bad way. I mean I’ve been watching you trying to figure out if I should approach you or not. Jackson back there kind of forced my hand.”
“That still sounds kind of creepy,” Nevada informed him carefully.
He nodded acceptingly. “Fair enough. But I really did just want to talk. Well, not just talk. I want to make you an offer. You’re a, uhh, a genie, right?”
“Oh god,” Nevada slumped in her seat once more. “We call ourselves Djinni, not genie. And before you say anything else, our magic is way overblown. Yeah, I can make objects, summon objects, or alter objects. Material possessions. But it’s temporary unless I’m doing it for someone that’s claimed me as a master. And even then, it’s still just material possessions. I can’t change people’s minds, alter ideas, create life, end life, make you an all-powerful god, or anything like that. The only living thing beyond that I can change is myself. Because masters like it when their slaves can change themselves on a whim. Older, younger, look like that movie star, look like that person I saw on the street. Which, I suppose since we’re objects to them anyway, maintains that whole… only affect material possessions rule.”
“I’m sorry, Nevada.” The man’s voice was soft and sincere. “That’s awful. But I promise, that’s not why I need your help.”
Swallowing as she forced back the memories of her long years of servitude, Nevada forced herself to focus. “The point is, I can make you rich, but I can’t make you the Queen of England.”
“That’s a shame,” Deveron deadpanned. “I’d rock those dresses she wears.”
He winked sidelong at her before shaking his head. “That’s still not what I need you for anyway. I just need to make one wish, that’s it. One alteration to an established physical object.” He paused, glancing toward her. “Make that two wishes. But you can refuse the second one if you want to.”
“What are they?” Nevada asked slowly, her curiosity piqued.
Rather than answer right away, Deveron drove on in silence for a few minutes before finally speaking. “First, do you know how the Heretics become… well, Heretics?”
“Some kind of… ummm, light?” Nevada answered a little hesitantly.
The man nodded. “Right, the lighthouse. We call it the Heretical Edge. Well, technically that’s what they call the lighthouse and the ability to absorb Alter powers. They’re both called the Heretical Edge. But the first one is the thing I want you to use your power on. I want you to change the Heretical Edge.”
Nevada promptly choked. “I—wh-what? Okay, first of all, for something that big, I’d have to actually touch it. And… and… second of all, what do you want me to do to it? I couldn’t… destroy it or… or anything like that.”
Deveron smiled. “I can get you inside it, don’t worry. We’ll have to be careful but… we have our ways. And I don’t want you to destroy it. I want you to make one little change to it.”
“What… what little change?” Nevada asked slowly, uncertainly.
The man glanced to her, his arm draped casually over the wheel. “Right now, the Edge only chooses pure humans to work its magic on. Only pure humans get to become Heretics. I want you to change that. I want you to change the Edge so that it chooses human-Alter hybrids too, and makes them Heretics.”
Frowning a little, Nevada shook her head. “But why? Why would you want to do that?”
“Joselyn, she had a plan for if she was ever captured,” Deveron replied. “Call it a long-term vision. This is part of it. If we’re ever gonna change the Heretics, really change them, we need allies. The best way to get allies is to let people with connections to Alters, who could see the good in them, become Heretics too. We need to get those kind of people into positions of power in the Heretic organization.”
“She planned for finding a Djinni?” Nevada asked doubtfully. “I’m pretty sure we don’t grow on trees.”
Deveron chuckled. “It could’ve been anyone with enough magic to change the Edge. But you’re right, I’ve been looking for someone like you for over a decade now. Got close a couple times, but they always fell through. You though, you seem like the real deal.”
“What about the second wish?” Nevada’s voice was careful as she considered what the man was asking.
He met her gaze, stopping the van at a red light. “I want you to change yourself. Wish yourself into not being a Djinni anymore. Make yourself human, so no one can use you for your power again. So no one has any reason to hurt you or chase you. So you can be safe.
“Like I said, you can refuse that wish if you want. Refuse both of them if you want. But we need your help if we’re going to change how the Heretics work. If we’re going to make real, lasting change, we need you.”
Nevada’s hand was covering her mouth. Change herself? She couldn’t use her magic that way of her own volition, but if someone else used it as a wish… “But… if I wasn’t a Djinni, what would I be?”
“Human,” Deveron offered. “You could go and live a normal life, a free life, if you wanted to. Or you could go through the Edge yourself. Become a Heretic and help us change things even more directly.”
She just stared at him. “How would I become a Heretic?”
He shrugged casually. “Let’s just say we have an in with the headmistress. She’ll make it happen. If you want it to.”
“You want me to go from being a Djinni, to being a Heretic? An Alter who hunts other Alters?”
“A Heretic who changes that,” Deveron corrected. “I’m not saying it’ll be easy or anything. But we need help, so I’m asking. Will you please help us?”
She didn’t answer for almost five minutes. They continued driving in silence until Nevada finally exhaled audibly. “I’ll do it. I’ll use my power on the Edge, and… and then turn myself into a human so I can be a Heretic. I’ll help you.. change them.”
Deveron was smiling broadly. “That’s great, Nevada. I can’t promise it’ll be easy, but it will be worth it.
“It’ll just take a lot of hard work.”
“I can’t remember him,” Nevada spoke slowly while gazing out the window of her office at the rest of the school grounds. In the reflection of the window, she caught sight of her own appearance. Different now, ever since she had turned herself human. Not dramatically so, she still had blonde hair and the same general build, but her face was just altered enough so that no one would recognize her as the Djinni who had hung around that mall thirty years earlier. Particularly a certain Heretic that had tried to kill her.
Behind her, Gaia Sinclaire replied, “The man who brought you into this?”
Nevada nodded at that. “I remember that he existed. I remember what he said to me. But I don’t remember his name, and I can’t remember his face.” Turning, she squinted at the headmistress. “Do you?”
To her dismay, the woman shook her head. “I’m afraid not. Something erased that memory, but clearly did not do as thorough of a job as they did with Joselyn.”
In spite of herself, and the situation, Nevada smiled. It always felt better to smile than to frown. She’d always felt that, even when she was one of the Djinn. Ever since she’d become human, though, her urge to smile had felt almost overwhelming. Maybe it was just the feeling that she would never be someone’s slave again, never be magically bound into being nothing more than a tool. Whatever it was, she always felt like laughing and enjoying life. Even in bad situations, she still tried to find a way to be happy.
“You asked me to come here, to take over for Zedekiah after he was murdered, because you thought I could help you find out who killed him. But you haven’t said much about it since then.”
Gaia nodded faintly. “I asked you here for that, and because I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that I can trust you, Nevada. That’s… something rather rare right now. I can trust you, Risa, Virginia, and Ulysses. The rest I’m… not entirely positive about. But you are one of the very few that I trust implicitly.”
“And yet,” Nevada pointed out, “still with the not talking about it since you brought me in.”
The headmistress chuckled softly. “I’m sorry. I suppose you just grow accustomed to keeping things to yourself when you do it for long enough.”
Taking in a breath then, she let it out again before continuing. “I also wanted you here because I know that you will help protect the mixed-race students we have in case anything goes wrong. You can help guide them.
“As for Zedekiah’s murderer… I had hoped to have that handled by now. Unfortunately, whoever they are, they’ve hidden their tracks well.”
It was harder to smile. “So we have no idea who killed him… and we still don’t know who the man was that was working with you and Joselyn, the one who brought me here in the first place. There’s no record of him and no one remembers his name.”
Gaia’s voice was quiet. “That does appear to adequately summarize the situation.”
Before Nevada could say anything else, there was a knock at the door. Then Risa Kohaku poked her head in. Her voice was grim. “We have another situation. Shiori and Flick have disappeared from the island.”
“What?!” Nevada yelped. “What—how!?”
“It’s all right,” Gaia raised a hand to calm them both. “I was aware of their disappearance in this particular instance. I allowed it to happen.”
Now Nevada was staring at the woman, her mouth open with shock. By the door, Risa was doing pretty much the same thing. “Wh-what do you mean, you allowed it to happen? Why? What if something happens to them? What if–”
Gaia was smiling a little bit. “Calm yourselves. I am keeping an eye on the situation, but thus far it does not require our interference. As for why I allowed it to happen, let’s just say I believe that this trip will be good for both of them. After all, if the birds are going to fly, you have to let them out of the nest.
“And I’m fairly certain that these particular birds are going to need all opportunities to fly that they can get.”