The most common talents that manifest are elemental and reactional: earth, water, air, fire, and lightning.
— Talents: The Weaker Powers
On foot, it took Linsan almost two hours to reach the center of town. Her fantasies and “what if” scenarios petered out in her head when she started going over the same ideas until they were polished. She was sure she could handle almost every offer or suggestion Dukan had. She had worked out how far she would go, what jobs she would take, and how much she was willing to do to earn the extra cash.
With her imagination exhausted, she entertained herself with the construction around the city center. It looked like every fifth building was being torn down. The classic styles with carved pillars and reliefs were in the process of being replaced by two- and three-story buildings with intricate wrought iron, massive windows, and delicate stonework.
In the back of her head, she couldn't imagine how much the new construction cost. Her family was struggling to pay the bills but everyone else seemed to be prospering.
Her confidence faded with doubt. Did Dukan already have skilled employees? She couldn't do much besides play a violin and dance and she wasn't sure if she had a place among the money being thrown around to build everything.
She reached the city square. The center was a large park with plenty of places for picnics, galleries, and even a small zoo with “marvelous creatures from the forbidden deserts!” She chuckled but didn't have the time or the three cukdins to go through the exhibit.
Not wanting to tease herself with the zoo, she circled around until she spotted Dukan's bank on the far side. It was just like she remembered, a one-story building that reached deep into the block. Six thick pillars marked the entrance, each one a carved figure of a man and carrying something different: a stack of books, an intricate staff, a pair of coins, a large mechanical lock, a miniature house, and an equally small ship. She vaguely remembered them as heads of the various banking unions throughout Gepaul, but she didn't know their names or even the significance of each item.
Linsan hesitated on the opposite side of the road, one foot in the park and the other on the boardwalk that surrounded it. Around her, men in suits and ladies in dresses hurried along as they headed to their jobs and hobbies.
She felt scared and nervous. Tugging on her wool coat, she couldn't decide if she should take it off or leave it on. It was warm but the sweat prickling her brow came from her nervousness, not the sunlight that rose above the roofs.
A high-pitched horn cut through the din. She turned to the sound as a vehicle came rolling around the corner. It was another of the automatic carriages, the black panels shining as the drivers honked their horns to chase horses and people out of the way.
Seeing the car was another change that Linsan hadn't gotten used to yet. Only the rich could afford them but there were a lot more in the city. She had seen at least three on her way to the bank, but the horses still outnumbered the steam-belching devices.
Linsan didn't like them. They scared her with so much metal and they moved too fast for her liking.
The car coming around the corner started to slow down near her.
She stepped back to avoid it, but then bumped into someone walking behind her. At the hiss, she forced herself to step closer.
To her relief, the vehicle rolled past her. The ground shook underneath her feet from its passing. A cloud of acidic steam followed after it along with the heavy scent of burning oil and wet leather.
The driver surprised her. It was a woman driving by herself. The slender lady wore a beautiful green dress with a matching gloves and hat. The hat had lace covering her face but there was no mistaking the large curls of black hair that fell off a pale neck and silk-covered shoulders.
Linsan smiled to herself. It was an outfit Linsan's mother would have loved wearing on stage. She could almost picture it.
The car squealed and then came to a shuddering halt.
Linsan stepped away.
The lady driver slipped out smoothly and came around the back of the car. She had a small purse in her hand but looked like she was going to a formal dinner with the way she walked with almost perfect posture that left her back arched just slightly and neck held high.
Linsan couldn't help but smile at the sight. After seeing her mother's craft, she could tell the driver strained slightly to keep herself in the right position and watched her steps from the corner of her eyes. She was showing off for the public.
Their eyes met for just a second and then the lady continued past the car without giving any indication that she saw Linsan. She headed straight toward the bank. Her black hair bounced with every step, the curls glistening in the sunlight.
Linsan watched with a sinking sensation. She couldn't just follow after her. She was plain and unassuming, even in her best dress. Pressing her lips into a thin line, she considered waiting fifteen minutes to let the lady driver do whatever errand she needed before she went inside.
She turned and looked back at the zoo. Maybe she could peek at the creatures? She had a few cukdins in her pocket.
“Linsan? Linsan Sterlig?”
She froze at her name. Then cringed when she realized it had to be the lady driver. Slowly, she turned around.
The woman had stopped in the road and turned around. She cocked her head before coming back to the boardwalk. “What are you doing here?”
Linsan opened her mouth but she didn't know what to say.
With a delicate step, the woman in green stepped into the boardwalk. “I haven't seen you in… what? Three years? Four? You still have that ruined valley outside of town? Or that shitty home on the edge?”
It took only a heartbeat longer for Linsan to realize who she was talking to. Brook's voice still had the disdain and disgust from before, but somehow her more refined voice had sharpened the words.
Linsan's stomach clenched and she felt sick and humiliated. “Y… Yes.”
Brook snorted and pointedly looked at Linsan from head to toe. Her dark gaze could be felt more than seen. It took a long count before she looked up again. She just shook her head and gave a disapproving sigh.
Brook looked around. “You by yourself?”
All Linsan's “what if” scenarios hadn't covered Brook. She stammered for a moment and then gestured toward the bank with a halfhearted gesture. “I was hoping to talk to your dad.”
Brook looked at her sharply. “Selling off the stuff in the vault?”
Linsan tensed. “Never.”
“Then what, begging for money?”
Linsan's blush grew hotter. She looked away to avoid looking at Brook.
Linsan struggled to say something but then three men walked around them to cut across the street. She spotted a strange case on the back of one of them. It was for a stringed instrument, but the proportions were wrong. The words froze in her throat as she turned to watch them with the scent of wood smoke teasing her nose.
All three wore leather dusters, long coats that were suited for traveling on the roads and less in town. However, the case drew her curiosity. It looked like it was for a string instrument but the shell was too large to be a violin, too small for a cello, and wider than either.
Then she realized Brook was staring pointedly at her. With her cheeks burning, Linsan clasped her hands together and nodded. “Just a little more. We just need a bit more help.”
Brook scoffed. “It's been years, what makes you think it's going to get better now? A hundred cukdins more a month or even a thousand, your family is still going to be scraping the bottom of the barrel.”
“It isn't that.”
Brook pointed at the bank. “It is that! You have that stupid wooden… thing in the vault that would set you up for life. My dad said it was worth millions. Millions of Couple-damn cuks and your parents are so full of themselves that they can't let it go!”
Linsan couldn't respond to that.
In the distance, she heard someone playing music. A few chords of a melody drifted right at the edge of her hearing.
Brook stepped closer, her voice rising. She was slightly taller than Linsan in her boots and the smell of her flowery perfume surrounded Linsan. “You choose this.”
“You all made a choice to be poor and you know it. All you had to do was stop clinging to your past and you could be richer than us! But, you decided that it was more important to leave all that money gathering dust in a bank vault than get on with your lives!”
Brook spat on the ground to the side. “That's what's wrong with you. You and the rest of the Sterligs.”
Linsan shivered with discomfort. She wanted to run away with doubt. Brook was right, she was asking for money like a fool. Tears burned in her eyes as she berated herself for even considering coming to the bank.
The music grew louder, a curious twang of a style that she had never heard before. She wanted to look back into the park to find the source but Brook kept her pinned with her presence.
“Just leave,” Brook said while waving her hand dismissively. “You aren't welcome here. I'm glad we got rid of your family when we did. You, your father, and even your mother are nothing more than a rope strangling everyone you touch.”
Linsan's jaw tightened with annoyance. Her right hand tightened into a fist.
Brook's lips curled into a cruel smile. “Try it. You throw a punch and I will have my attorney evicting your parents before you can run home.”
“You mean your father's?” snapped Linsan. She was rapidly losing all semblance of control in the conversation.
“No, mine. I pay them.” Brook leaned forward until Linsan had to lean back. “Unlike you, I've actually done something with my life and I have a pretty nest egg of my own. It's right there in that bank next to that dusty, old—”
The front doors of the bank burst open in a flash.
Linsan jerked back reflexively.
A wave of heat and noise slammed into the two. She stumbled into Brook. Their cheeks smacked before Brook managed to shove Linsan to separate them. “You fucking bitch, I'm—”
The air around them grew heavy, pressing down on Linsan's skin. It felt as if something was rushing toward them. With a gasp, she looked past Brook's furious face to see another firestorm gathering inside the bank. It was rushing toward the front door, howling as gasses jetted out of the now gaping windows and doors.
With a gasp, Linsan looked at Brook who didn't seem to notice.
“—going to sue—”
There was no time. Linsan grabbed the front of Brook's dress. The material ripped as she clenched with all her might. Then she yanked Brook to the side, bouncing off the back of the car parked next to them before swinging her around the far side.
Brook's shoulder slammed into the back door, cracking the glass. Her mouth opened in surprise as she failed to pull Linsan's hands away. “Get—”
Linsan rolled around and then dropped down to hide behind the door. Her weight tore at Brook's dress even further, exposing the silk underclothes across her chest but Linsan's effort forced Brook to drop to one knee.
Brook drew back and shoved Linsan with both hands. “—off!”
An explosion drowned out anything else Brook said. The concussion wave crashed into the car, shoving it closer to the curb.
Linsan's foot caught on the wheel but she managed to pull it free before the car tilted toward them. Shattered glass from the windows rained down on them, the sharp edges of the shards cutting across Linsan's face. Scalding liquid added to her cuts as a cup upended from inside the vehicle.
Brook screamed, only stopping as an intense wave of heat blew past them.
Linsan panted in fear as she looked around. Her face was dripping and she could taste a strange sweetness on her lips. Licking it without thinking, she almost coughed on the bitter taste of tea and too much sugar. Her ears were ringing and she couldn't hear anything. In the park, almost everyone had been thrown to the ground and small fires were burning everywhere. Trees and grasses had been flatted by the explosion.
Blood ran down Brook's cheek. Linsan looked in concern but it looked like the glass had left shallow cuts that were already bleeding profusely. She frowned and reached up.
Brook smacked her hand away. Her mouth opened but no sound was coming out.
Linsan limped back and then stood up gingerly. Her eyes turned immediately toward the bank, which was engulfed in flames. Hot jets of fire poured out of the windows and the door. The carved pillars were shattered and broken, the remains scorched and burning.
Something tickled her hand. Glancing down, she saw rivers of crimson pouring down her elbow. Shaking, she followed the blood up to where a large shard of glass was sticking out of the meat of her upper arm. The sharp edge glinted as she stared at it.
Dazed, Linsan reached up and pulled it out. She could feel the wet sucking before it popped free with a gout of blood. Her hand trembling, she tossed the glass aside and then looked around for something to stop the blood that poured out.
She couldn't tell why she wasn't panicking, or why it didn't hurt. She couldn't find anything obvious until she peered into Brook's hand. There was a blue scarf that looked like it was part of a fancy dress but it looked thick. She grabbed it and then wrapped it around her arm, wincing without really feeling the pain.
Brook blinked, her body shaking just as violently as Linsan. She looked up with a tortured expression and then her lips moved a moment before the words came out. “… happened?” It was difficult to hear her over the ringing in Linsan's ears.
Linsan gestured toward the bank. “The bank?”
Brook didn't respond.
Linsan repeated herself.
Brook mouthed the words. Then, her eyes widened as she scrambled to her feet. “Daddy?”
Spinning around, she gasped at the sight of the bank. “Daddy!” she screamed as she raced around the ruined car and sprinted toward the burning building.
Linsan wasn't expecting Brook to run toward the flames. She scrambled after Brook screaming her name.
Brook raced across the burning street, her torn dress fluttering through small fires but she moved too fast for the fabric to catch fire.
To Linsan's relief, she stopped on the sidewalk in front of the building. Even from that distance, the heat was intense. It beat against Linsan's face, billowing at her as they both stared into the inferno in shock.
“Daddy?” whimpered Brook.
Linsan looked around. “Where is the fire brigade? I… I….” She didn't know where to go.
A strange melody drifted through the howling flames. It sounded like a string instrument of some sort and she thought about the unusual men who passed them earlier. Confused, she peered past the broken glass to inspect the musician standing in a circle of fire.
There was a man standing in the middle of the flames, playing with no concern for the fires that roared around him. His leather duster was fluttering as he spun around, playing rapidly a foreign tune. His instrument didn't look like anything she had seen before. It looked almost like a mandolin except the shape was more angular than anyone she had seen and the sounds were compressed. It sounded as if it had metal strings instead of gut.
The man's fingers flew along the neck, tapping along the individual strings with stunning speed. With each note plucked with his other hand, ripples of power radiated along his fingertips until a powerful chord blasted away from the instrument in sheets of flame.
Linsan gasped. The stranger was causing or controlling the flames. She reached out and tapped Brook. “Look!”
Brook followed Linsan's gesture and then gasped herself. “What is he doing?”
The stranger turned and their eyes met. He smiled, his teeth shockingly white in the flames. Then he slammed his hands down across the strings and a chord of music ignited the air around him. It howled as it rushed toward them.
Brook and Linsan dodged in separate directions.
Linsan almost fell as she staggered forward. Then she turned around just as Brook was regaining her feet.
Storming forward, Brook stopped in front of the open door. Beyond it, the fire blazed brightly. She drew her hands back and then clapped them hard in front of her.
A blast of raw noise exploded from the impact, slamming into the fire and shoving it back. The burning frame cracked from the impact as the wave slammed into Linsan, shoving her back with the force of Brook's magic.
Brook screamed and clapped her hand again, a powerful blow that snuffed flames. Embers flew in all directions—including toward Linsan's face.
Linsan raised her arm to protect her face.
When she peeked back, Brook stomped into the burning bank. Her hands clapped together and another explosion blasted the smoking wall away.
“Brook!” screamed Linsan and chased after her and into the building. She didn't have any ability to do anything, not without a music instrument. She had left her own violin at home, never dreaming she would need it, but she couldn't leave Brook to fight the stranger alone.
Inside, the heat was overwhelming. It sucked the air out of Linsan's lungs and caused her skin to crawl with sharp scratches and prickling dryness. Her vision blurred from the smoke and heat.
The stranger picked himself up from the ground. His instrument swung around as he slapped it into place. He managed to blast off a chord with his right hand before Brook's clap punched into him. The force of the blow caused the ceiling to creak as he was thrown back into the wall. Burning wood fell down around him as he managed to keep on his feet.
He yelled “Gab! May!” before slamming out another chord. Flames shot out from his instrument, howling as it blasted toward Brook and Linsan.
Brook had to clap her hands rapidly to stop the flames. She tried to do another powerful clap, but a rapid chord interrupted her and she had to smack her hands to stop the flames from reaching her.
Linsan glanced at the back of the bank. Palisis was in the vault, she could use that to help in the fight. She inched to the side, looking for a path through the flames.
Then, one of the strangers came out of the door leading to the vault. He had a large pack over his shoulder. His eyes grew wide and he came to a sharp stop. He stared at the fight between the stranger and Brook. With with a swear, he charged. His hands ignited into white flames as he threw himself in front of the stranger. As soon as he landed, he brought his hands together.
A wave of concussive force like Brook's radiated from the impact. It didn't snuff the flames in the same way but instead fanned them. They grew stronger and brighter as they roared toward Brook.
Brook looked frightened as she clapped her hands again. Her gloves peeled back from the blast, leaving blood to splash onto the ground and sizzle in the heat. She staggered back, her feet scraping on the blackened ground.
A third man rushed in from one of the offices. He also had a bag on his shoulder and there were cukdins spilling out across the ground before the currency cards ignited from the heat. “Damn! What you need, Til?”
The one playing the instrument called out. “Gab! Car's out back, clear a path!”
Gab turned, jumped into the air, and then brought his hand down to punch the ground.
Wood and flames burst in all directions as a wave of force shot out from him to crash into the back wall of the bank. It shattered wood and bricks as it carved into the building behind the bank.
When the explosion faded, sunlight streamed in from the far side of the block.
Gab did it again, jumping up to punch the ground and blow out more of the back walls. “Out!” he bellowed before racing down the tunnel he had just created.
Til stepped back, playing faster and harder. Flames and music rose around him, shifting like a snake. It jerked to one side and then to the other.
Brook couldn't reach him with her power as she struggled against the man between them. Both of them were using concussive forces but their attacks couldn't reach other.
However, the repeated impacts were causing damage to the burning bank. Wood and embers plummeted around them. The floor beneath everyone cracked and shuddered with each magical blast.
Linsan focused on the vault but the flames had risen up and her way was blocked. She growled with frustration, she needed to help Brook and she was useless without an instrument; not that she had any skills against a man more adept at using music to attack.
The ground shuddered violently as boards split apart. Jets of flames rose up around all of them.
“Bring it down, May!” bellowed Til as he backed into the burning hole in the back.
May grinned and began to clap fast and hard. Heat and fire gathered around him, punching the air as his powers hammered against Brook.
Brook clapped back, but she had to move faster as the flames engulfed her.
Linsan had to move. “Shit,” she said before she turned away from the vault and sprinted toward Brook.
The ground erupted underneath her.
She spun past, lightly kicking off a chair to dance around the flames. She twirled past as the world slowed and she worked her way back to Brook.
May suddenly drew his hands back and slammed them hard in front of him. A halo of energy flashed around his silhouette. The resulting concussion was less of a clap and more of an explosion as fire blasted in all directions. It tore boards from the ground and ripped apart the ceiling.
Linsan grabbed Brook by her long hair and yanked back with all her might toward the door.
Brook screamed out in frustration as she felt back. “No! Daddy!”
The floor where she was standing burst into flames, the heat shoving them back both. Linsan pulled and yanked at Brook, trying to get her through the door before any more of the building collapsed.
Over Brook's thrashing form, she saw May stepped back before he turned around and raced for the hole in the back.
In the briefest of moments, as the fires brightened into brilliance, the buffeting winds beat against his back and she saw the distinctive shape of a violin inside his bag before the smoke obscured his escape.
Then one final explosion threw them out the door and into the street.