Weekly Illustrated Fiction Series:
No Dragons Press: A HIGH FANTASY Adventure
by Maggie Gibbs
Illustrations by Emily Ruf
Chapter Ten: Addie Says Goodbye
After Tristan has disappeared up the stairs, staggering under the weight of the massive cell he’s clutching, the rest of us remain in his secret basement laboratory for a moment longer, sharing our astonishment with wide eyes.I look around the room at the mysterious, ridiculous, beautiful thing Tristan has built. It has the look of restrained disorder—the overall effect chaotic, but each individual element precise. I think of Tristan at the center, a human antenna, tuning himself to a signal only he can hear.
Nate is looking doubtfully at the wires. He touches one of them lightly as if he’d dared himself, then jerks his hand away in anticipated pain. Meanwhile, Duc is trying to look confident—but despite he and Tristan’s closeness, it’s clear he hasn’t been down here before, at least not recently, and it’s equally clear that this isn’t quite what he expected to find.
We look at each other, the three of us, then around the room. With the power off, the cavernous space is deafeningly silent, overwhelming in its emptiness. I can hear my own breaths. I can hear theirs.
I meet Duc’s eyes, then Nate’s. Then I shrug, turn on my heels, and hurry up the stairs into the lobby, jogging down the hallway through the No Dragons Press offices, toward the open back door. Behind me, I distantly hear one set of footsteps pounding after me, then two. What else can any of us do? It’s like Tristan is a beacon, calling us to him, pulling us after him. It’s as if we don’t have a choice.
As far as I’m concerned, we don’t.
Duc follows him because he recognizes Tristan’s genius, even if he doesn’t understand most of it, and for whatever reason, he trusts him implicitly. Whatever happens tonight—if any of us manage to escape from this without being charred to a crisp—there is no doubt in my mind that Duc will always follow Tristan, wherever he leads.
Nate follows Tristan out of something like big-brother protection, although the exact nature of their friendship is still a little unclear to me. Does he want to protect his sensitive friend, keep him safe from a cruel and hurtful world? Or does he suspect that Tristan, with all of his quirks and oddities and brilliance, can somehow save him? Maybe it’s a little of both. Maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe, at some point along the way, Tristan had simply gotten to him, like he’d gotten to Duc. Like he’d gotten to me.
Me? I’m sure I have some not-so-secret desire to escape from everything, even if it’s just for tonight, just for right now, and whatever trick Tristan has up his sleeve seems like as good a way as any.
But as I jump lightly off the loading dock and into the cool, dark night, I have a giddy urge to fling my arms wide and laugh to the stars, and above the adrenaline and the danger and the mad scientist shenanigans, I recognize one delicious fact: I have never felt so alive.
I clear the brick wall and take the left turn at a sprint, Nate and Duc at my heels—I know without bothering to wonder that this is the right direction—and when I finally break my momentum and come to a stop, I’m halfway across the yard. The guys practically run into me, each of them gripping a shoulder to keep me from bouncing to the ground.
If I wasn’t seeing what I’m currently seeing, I might stop to find these antics funny. But at the moment I’m focused on the only thing I can fit in my brain.
On a picnic table shoved up against the side of the building, Tristan is struggling with the giant car battery. It looks like he’s trying to find the leverage to hoist it into the waiting dock of a very large frame of some sort, which at some point he had constructed on and around the picnic table. The frame is roughly radially symmetrical, absolutely enormous, and looks like the life’s work of an artist with a dainty touch, access to a Jaws of Life, and infinite patience. Or, in other words, something of Tristan’s.
When Tristan sees us, he grins, and his whole face lights up.
Standing there in the cool night, I feel myself grinning back at him.
“Ready?” he yells across the yard.
I nod without a second’s hesitation. Nate and Duc are nodding too, even though they’re behind me I’m sure they are, but whether they are or not, Tristan clicks the battery into place with a final twist, and the whole backyard comes alive.
The atmosphere dances with a faint buzz; there’s an unmistakable crackle of static, and I can feel my hair start to lift away from my head. The air around me takes on a pinkish hue, and distant objects start to fade until I lose them, Tristan included. Duc and Nate are all I can see, everything else is lost in a milky haze. Then Tristan appears, both abruptly and bit by bit, as if he’s moved through some sort of threshold.
And then I realize there isn’t a haze in the air at all. It’s a bubble, its membrane the color of a sunset after distant forest fires.
And we’re inside it.
I look at Tristan in alarm. I don’t know what I expected to happen, but it most certainly was not being trapped in the center of a giant bubble of electricity. I grope for the hands still on my shoulders, clutching them when I find them.
“Tristan,” I say, widening my eyes in alarm. “Is this—”
“It’s perfectly safe,” he says, meeting my gaze firmly. “Trust me.” Those eyes, so large behind their lenses, are like a lifeline, the only stable point in a storm of panic threating to blow into a frenzy and carry me away.
The storm settles, and suddenly it’s manageable, containable. I know how to pivot. Ready for anything. I’m a professional. Perfectly safe.
“Okay,” I say, and I mean it. Tristan says it’s safe? It is. Trust him?
The fiery sunset is intensifying now, flashes of light like distant thunder flicking across the inside surface. We’re inside a snow globe. Tristan watches it, his face calm, eyes rapturous.
We all turn to see Nate moving away from us, turning toward the wall even as I grip his hand for dear life
“I have to do something,” he says over his shoulder, his voice echoing in the space, hair and flannel framed by the crackling glow. And before anyone can stop him, he pulls his hand from mine and lunges straight toward the solidifying wall. He slips through, the same way Tristan did, and the bubble closes seamlessly behind him without a ripple.
I look from Tristan to Duc. My eyes are so wide they’re about to fall from their sockets. I grip Duc’s hand harder, clutching at my own arm with my free hand now that it’s empty. Then Tristan is next to me, taking Nate’s place, but he isn’t looking at me. Even when I sneak my hand into his, soaking up all the tactile comfort I can from my friends, he barely acknowledges me. He’s staring intently at the exact spot Nate disappeared into the night, and a quick peek at Duc tells me he’s doing the same.
I follow suit, distantly observing that the inside of the orb has taken on a glossy sheen, as if made not of smoke but of polished glass. And there’s something else—I can see the outline of distant objects: trees, buildings. Then the hum changes pitch, becoming more intense, like an engine shifting gears, and the bubble begins to waver.
Tristan, I notice with a sinking feeling in my gut, looks suddenly very worried. “Nate!”
Then I hear more yelling, and I realize it’s me. But it’s not just me—Duc is yelling, too, though I can’t hear what he’s saying past the thrumming in my ears, due to the bubble and the pounding in my own veins.
Then the hum intensifies again, an audible crackle rippling through the wall of noise, and through the now wildly oscillating bubble, I see a blur—it’s Nate, running past the trees, his fists pumping and the corners of his open flannel flying out behind him like a cape.
Relief floods my body, mixed with anger. Whatever that was all about, it better have been damn important for him to risk letting us leave him behind. Because I’m suddenly very sure we are, in fact, going somewhere, and because wherever we’re going, we’d better all be going.
To my right, I feel more than see the second blur. I release Duc’s hand and spin to see a man sprinting outright, disregarding cover but running with a sheepish duck, as if he’s both trying and not trying to stay out of view.
My first thought is that it’s the guy with the gun, come to find us.
Then I see who it is.
He reaches us just as Nate does, and I see them enter the bubble opposite each other as if in slow motion, frame by frame: each of them passes through the wall in a tangle of flying limbs and whipping clothes, first shoes and fingers, then the rest of their bodies.
They touch down on the pinky lawn at the same time, each catching his balance with a slight stumble. Now they’re completely within the confines of the pulsing bubble. There is a split second where Bradley and I look at each other with wide, shocked eyes. His are round with guilt. Mine—utter confusion.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I demand.
Or I am about to demand, but I only manage to get the first two words out, because that’s when the bubble surrounding us tenses, creaks, and finally shatters.
We shatter, too.