CHAPTER 1— BORN OF TWO WORLDS
No one stared at me as I walked down the street, but no one spoke to me either. I ducked down an alley and hid in the shade between two buildings. While safe from prying eyes, I eavesdropped on the people at the market.
“Didn’t have anything like this back on Earth.” A woman seller said holding up a large pink melon.
“Also didn’t have barbarians trying to kill us.” An old man replied.
I tuned out the couple debating how much better life was before the shift, trying to hear something from the group of kids across the street.
“What- Who was that?” The new trader’s daughter asked.
“That’s Altera,” My own personal bully replied, poisoning her against me already. “Don’t worry, she’s harmless.” I could hear the smirk in her voice.
A tingly nagging sensation crept up my neck and I stuck my head out of the ally. The clay shop fronts all looked normal, as did the familiar sellers at their carts. An unfamiliar man sat across the street wearing a brown dress. Stranger yet, he emitted a faint glow. Was he the danger I sensed? My vision blurred and doubled. One of him appeared normal, but the other had colored threads swirling around inside him. It ended as quickly as it began.
His eyes locked on mine and I turned away.
“Hey you, girl!”
I tried to walk away naturally, but somehow I knew he was behind me. As I quickened my pace, it must’ve been obvious to the crowd that I was in trouble, but no one stopped to help the weird girl. I’m used to their judging eyes, but it surprised me when they gave the man behind me dirty looks as well.
“Filthy wizard,” an old woman muttered.
He’s a wizard? What’s a wizard doing all of the way out here? I broke into a run, his puffing breaths close behind me.
A net of glowing blue threads appeared in the road. I batted them out of the way and they parted like cobwebs.
I ducked down an ally. Other kids ran along the flat roofs all the time, but I’d always been too afraid. A ball of insects scrambled in my stomach trying to escape, but I didn’t have a choice. Using an old barrel to give me a boost, I grabbed the side of the building. A piece of the yellow clay broke off in my hand, but I got my leg over the side and levered myself up.
My sandals skidded over the sandy roof, but I didn’t slow down. The shops stood right next to each other, so with a little leap over the lip of the roof I reached the next building without having to jump over open air.
Somehow, I knew the man was still close by, so I didn’t slow down until I reached the bakery and the end of my easy run. I bent over breathing hard and my nose filled with the yeasty smell of baking bread.
I felt the wizard again. He’s right behind me. No choice. My stomach lurched, but I held my breath and leaped across the gap to the next building. In midair, I realized I wouldn’t make it.
I closed my eyes and prepared for the fall that didn’t come. A yellow light held me to the side of the building. As I stared, it dimmed and then disappeared. I slid to the ground, landing heavily on my butt. That would leave a bruise, but at least I got away.
Mary sat outside her back door a few houses from mine. “Altera.” She waved at me, then frowned as I got closer. “What’s wrong?” We hadn’t been friends long, but she can tell when I’m upset, not like it’s hard. As if having greenish hair wasn’t bad enough, when I’m upset it changes.
I sighed. “What color is it now?” It’s too short for me to see, why draw attention to it?
“Purple.” She tried but failed to contain a giggle, knowing how I hate purple. At least she doesn’t know that when my hair is purple it means I’m afraid.
“I’m okay,” I waved her off. “I’d better get home.”
“Play with me this weekend?”
I opened the front door and groaned seeing the fancy, unfamiliar shoes in the entryway. I crouched down, sneaked into the living room and tried to eavesdrop through the wall, but they were too quiet for me to hear anything. I stood and walked through the doorway into the kitchen.
The wizard sat at the table with Mom. Our vine-woven chair bowed under his weight.
“For such a young girl, she shows–” He stopped when he saw me. “How did you do that?”
“Do what?” Is he mad at me for running away? I stood staring at the woven rug, hoping he wouldn’t curse me. Wizards do terrible things to you if you upset them.
“My magic disappeared.” The net?
“I don’t know.” I told the truth.
“I’ve never seen someone with your coloring before. I’ve spoken with the traders and they haven’t either.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know that either.”
“Was her father …?” he began.
“No, her father was human,” mom snapped, and then took a deep breath. “Sorry, I’ve heard that a lot over the years, her father was just an ordinary man.”
People often assume that my father was a Kuth, a native of this world. I don’t know why mom always gets upset; from what I’ve read most of the Kuth are friendly.
“Fascinating.” The Wizard said. “I’ll write an invitation for her to the college. Of course, she can’t attend until she turns eighteen.”
I shuddered, picturing a huge dark building filled with people who could do who knows what to you. As fun as it would be to see the capital, living with the wizards would be awful.
“It isn’t mandatory.” Did he read my mind? “She could always come to Dal. That’s where I live. I could take her on as my pupil for now.”
“I didn’t realize children were taught magic.” Mom said.
“Oh, yes, certainly. Anyone who shows an early talent. Otherwise, it’s too easy for them to hurt themselves. Magic can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
“I appreciate the offer, but our lives are here.” Mom said.
He nodded as though expecting this. “I will be in the village for a week, if you’d like any instruction. It’s not like I’ve found anyone else with magic.” He scowled.
“Does everyone hate wizards?” I blurted out.
He smiled sadly. “Magic comes from this world, so people naturally mistrust it. Not everyone is like that; some people respect wizards, especially in the capital.”
I frowned. I guess having magic isn’t as fun as it seems.
He made me uncomfortable, but at least he didn’t stay long.
“What is he doing in Mecosta?” I asked after the door shut behind him.
“Supposedly looking for people with magic.” She raised her eyebrows pointedly.
“I do not have magic.” At least, not much.
She frowned as though she didn’t believe me, but I didn’t argue.
“You should at least go and talk to him.” I could tell she was thinking of the exploding oven incident.
“I’ll think about it.”
She sighed, knowing I wouldn’t go.
I went in my bedroom, closed the door before and created one of my glowing blue threads. They’re pretty, but they don’t actually do anything. Maybe if I knew more about magic, I could learn how to use them. Should I speak to the wizard? This could be my only chance.
I lay back on my bed. What was that yellow light? I closed my eyes to remember what it felt like. That’s it, that’s exactly how it felt. I opened my eyes and saw a tiny yellow ball floating above my hands. No wonder it felt right. I should stop now. I’m enough of an outcast without magic, but as I stared at the light in my hands, I knew I couldn’t.
For years, I tried to make things move without touching them, but it never worked. Could this light help me somehow? I stood and went to the window, a hole in the wall. The last time something strange happened was the day Mary and I became friends. She still thinks I drove the canine beast off with a stick.
We saw the animal on the edge of the pond, but as we ran away, Mary tripped. I grabbed a stick and whacked the beast on its long muzzle when it lunged for her. It snarled, revealing long fangs.
As it leaped towards us, I held my breath. About a foot away, it ran into some sort of invisible wall, shaking its head as though dazed.
I raised my stick, breathing heavily and yelled. I don’t know what I was trying to do; I must have looked frightening because it slunk off with one last growl.
My stomach tightened thinking about what happened next. Mary didn’t want the adults to make the pond off limits. She convinced me to lie and say nothing about what had happened.
For the next eight months, I kept an eye out for the beast around the pond but never saw it again.
Both times something happened I was afraid. Maybe if I can make myself scared … I dug a small mirror out of my dresser and sat down on my bed. I thought of everything I’m afraid of while staring at my hair. At first nothing happened, then gradually it faded from the usual green to purple. It worked!
I pictured my pencil rolling across the table, and then my sock floating up to me with the light scooping it up. Nothing happened. Now that I’ve finally done something with magic, I have to figure out how I did it.
I created one of my blue threads and tried to use it like a fishing line. My hand closed on my sock and I stared at it. How did I do that? I threw the sock back onto the floor and tried again, making sure to watch closely this time. The blue thread attached to the sock by a spot of the yellow light and slowly lifted the sock up to me.
I grinned and dropped the sock, doing it again and again. After my thread attached to the sock, I could move it where I wanted but it wasn’t easy to direct. Once I started, I couldn’t stop and I stayed up too late, finally falling asleep on the floor.
The next morning, I sat out behind my house practicing with my threads. Just as I formed a thread on a stick, the blacksmith turned the corner and I froze. He’d caught me. It’s all over.
He continued on, barely giving me a second glance, and I exhaled slowly. How did he miss a glowing blue thread or maybe he didn’t notice me?
There had to be a way to figure out if other people can see them. I headed to the outdoor market and poked my head out of the alley. I created a thread as far away from my hiding place as I could, in front of a stall only about ten feet away. No one even looked at it. I created thread after thread, but no one paid them any attention. They can’t see them. I’m not just imagining it, am I?
I attached the next thread to a potato and lifted off a seller’s stand. She stared at it wide-eyed and I quickly put it back down. As she looked around, I ducked back into the alley. Did she see me? I waited for a few minutes before peering out. She still looked confused, but she didn’t look my way.
I breathed a sigh of relief. If she’d seen me, she would’ve known it was me. Everyone already suspects I have magic because of my strange hair and yellow eyes.
Later it occurred to me this might be the perfect time to practice my new ability. With the wizard in town, everyone would suspect him if anything strange happened.
Unfortunately, the next day Mary showed up and insisted on doing something together so my new magic had to wait.
We walked down Main Street. A boy stood outside the new shop. The large trading building stood out with its slanted roof and glass windows. I wonder what our small village must look like to him. Instead of orange bricks, our buildings are only large slabs of stone held together by yellow clay.
The boy smiled shyly when he saw us before retreating back into the shop.
“Hello,” I said, smiling at him.
“What are you doing?” Mary whispered, elbowing me in the ribs.
“It’s called being friendly.”
“You know who he is.”
“Yes, he’s new and alone. I can understand that.”
She nodded. “Hi.”
“Uh, hello.” He turned around as we walked up to him. He sure was tall.
“I’m Altera and this is Mary.”
“Altera?” he asked.
“I’m named after the small moon.”
“I’m Freddie.” He held out his hand and I shook it, feeling strange.
“How old are you?” Mary asked. “I’m twelve.”
“Almost thirteen.” He slid the dirt around with his boot. “Why is your hair that color?” He glanced at me quickly before looking back at the ground.
Mary giggled and I shrugged.
“I was just born this way.”
He gave me a crooked smile.
A wet drop hit my face and Mary squealed.
“This is only a sprinkle.” Freddie laughed. “You should see the rain they get in Nited.”
We stood under the eaves of the shop and Freddie’s mother came out with a tray of hot tea.
“Thank you,” I said, taking a fancy white cup.
“Thank you.” Mary echoed.
The tall woman looked like her son, same dark complexion and thick curly hair.
“What is the capital like?” I asked after his mom left.
“Yeah, tell us about it.” Mary slid onto the ground clutching her cup.
“Well, there are more people and all the buildings are at least twice as tall, and they have normal roofs.” He gestured up at the shop.
“That’s not normal.” Mary said.
“Only here because it rarely rains,” I said.
“Do you know that or are you guessing and pretending that you know?” She accused and I grinned. “We don’t care about the buildings. How do the people dress?”
“They all wear more clothes, in layers. And they have brighter colors.” He looked at me and frowned. He must know my mom is the town weaver. I smiled to let him know I wasn’t offended.
“What do they do for fun in the city? There’s nothing to do here,” Mary whined.
“Work.” He chuckled. “Go shopping or out to eat.” He coughed. “Maybe see a band.”
“Go dancing?” Mary asked wistfully.
“I suppose, though most musicians play in the street for coins.”
“There are street performances?”
I could tell Mary was jealous as he spoke about the dancers and puppet shows. It didn’t bother me because I plan to see all those things for myself.
After several months practicing with my threads, I was finally getting better. I sat on the dusty ground with my back against the cool schoolhouse wall. While I waited for Mary, I formed a small pile of rocks using only my threads. Mecosta’s famous sheep chewed on the scraggly bushes in the field behind the school.
Could I lift that big rock? It started wobbling in midair, so I added another thread and it steadied. Soon I’ll be able to lift two things at once. I dropped the rock into my hand and examined it. Is the yellow inside of it magic?
I wanted to get a better look, so I lifted the large rock into the air and released my thread. It rolled in the dirt without even a crack. I did the same thing with another rock and it broke into three pieces. There must be something special about this one. Maybe the yellow light makes it sturdier? Can I add that yellow light to a normal rock? It felt similar to my yellow magic.
A small yellow light formed in the center of the rock. As I watched, the light grew bigger. Something’s wrong. I ducked as the rock shattered, spraying fragments in every direction. None came within a foot of me. Was I protected somehow?
“What was it this time, Altera?” My mom only uses my name when she’s mad at me. “It sounded like you blew something up out here.” She put her hands on her hips.
I tried to position myself over the new dents in the wall.
“I didn’t mean to.”
She sighed. “Come take a seat in the back of the classroom.”
“But this is lower history. I’ve already heard this lesson.” I usually have class with the older children, except math. I hate math.
She gave me her teacher look; a glare that will make even the most unruly of children obey. I followed, scuffing my feet. I refused to meet the stares of the younger children as I slumped into a chair.
“On Earth, we had electricity and running water inside our homes.” Her voice echoed in the small classroom. She explained everything the adults went through to establish a society in this strange new world and form an uneasy peace with the native Kuth.
I attached a thread to Mary’s book, gently lifting it off the table. She turned around, staring at me wide-eyed, and giggled. I quickly put the book down before anyone saw. Mom turned around, her eyebrows meeting in the middle as she glared at me.
Mary might be my best friend, but sometimes she’s so immature. I wish there were kids my own age, but I was born the day after the shift. Everyone else was born either back on Earth, like Freddie, or a couple of years after we got here, like Mary.
“Altera, ready to go?” Mom called.
“I’m ready.” I realized the classroom was empty.
“Off in Alterworld again?” She chuckled. I stare into space so often we even have our own word for it.
We headed home as the rosy glow of the sun sunk in the purple sky. The men working outside the trader’s shop waved at us. I stared at the leafy bushes they planted; it must have cost a fortune to bring them all the way out here. They looked like they belonged in a forest. What would it be like to walk through a forest?
Something’s wrong! Several Kuth raiders headed for the village. They were still a mile away, but I saw them as if they were right in front of me. I put up my hands and whatever it was vanished.
“Mom they’re coming!”
She grabbed my hand and we ran to the village center. I’d never heard the bell ring before, but mom rang it now. Everyone ran inside, dropping whatever they were doing. A woman at the market dropped the chicken she’d been holding and it squawked down the rapidly emptying road.
A black arrow hit the side of a building, inches from the baker, who sat on the ground and gaped at it. Mom was already pulling him to his feet. Flames clogged my throat. The roof of the inn was on fire.
One of the Kuth charged at me on horseback. I was drawn to her the way I was to the wizard. A blinding flash of orange hit me. My back scraped across the dirt as the woman swore. Mom was suddenly there at my side as the Kuth glared at me.
You won’t hurt my mom! A flash of blue enveloped the village.