Mr. Secret Service Guy was walking over, looking straight at me, and whatever it was he wanted, he sure didn’t look friendly. Just to be sure, I stepped off to my left a little. He followed me with his eyes.
I could still feel the trance, and no one else seemed like they could see me. So what was with this annoyed-looking guy? I was supposed to have superpowers. How did someone find me like this? Does he have some sort of Kryptonite for invisible people? Vis-onite?
He was coming closer. What did he even want? I don’t know anything about secret agents or supervillains! I looked around, then realized there was one thing I do know: there were a bunch of people around, doing their shopping, and if I’ve learned one thing about social interactions in school, it’s that it really sucks to be the center of attention!
So I screamed and pointed at the man, feeling the trance shatter as I did. “LOOK OUT! HE HAS A GUN!” Then I turned and ran for the nearest exit.
The whole area broke into chaos. People were freaking out, running in all directions. I heard a crash and looked back over my shoulder briefly. Some big burly guy with more courage than sense had tackled the man. I kept running anyway. I wasn’t the only one. As mean as what I’d just done was, it kinda felt good, for once, being part of the crowd and not the one being humiliated!
I ran out into the parking lot, and realized I had no idea what to do next. As soon as people realized that guy didn’t have a gun, they’d figure I was trying to create a distraction and steal something and come after me!
Then I looked around and saw two other guys in suits moving in on me, from two different directions. So I dashed off the only way that looked clear: the street.
That was kinda dumb. Horns blared, brakes squealed, one guy swerved. I dodged and just barely kept from getting run down. I looked back and saw the two men heading into the parking lot. They’d be after me soon, in a car!
I ran blindly up the street, seeing the light was green up ahead, hoping it would stay that way long enough, hoping I could make it across…
Ugh. Hoping I wouldn’t end up all winded! I wasn’t much of a runner, what with The Girls making it awkward and painful, even when I tried a sports bra. Note to self: if I get out of this alive, ask Feo for some pointers! There are a few busty girls on the track team, so he’s gotta know something useful. I hope.
Up ahead, the light turned yellow. I was too late! Then a gray sedan suddenly pulled up alongside me. I heard the click of doors unlocking, and the passenger’s side window was down. The guy there looked at me. How had they gotten over here so fa–wait, that was a different guy, and he was wearing a T-shirt, not a suit! So was the driver. The guy looked over at me and said in a rough voice, “come with me if you want to live.”
That was kind of creepy. “You know what’s going on?”
“They can see you. They want to hurt you. We want to stop them.” He sounded like he was forcing himself to be more patient than he felt.
Getting into a car with a stranger is a really, really dumb idea. Then again, so is starting a panic in the mall, and dashing into a busy street without looking. I was really on a roll this afternoon. And frankly, I didn’t have much in the way of options. So I got in.
The guy behind the wheel barely waited for me to get the door closed before he took off, taking a hard right around the corner and getting down the block and into another turn as fast as he could.
My heart was racing and I was trying not to completely lose it and flip out. “Who are you guys? What’s going on? Where are we going?”
The driver responded. He had a more normal voice, a bit higher than average but not all that much. It was a nice voice. “Friends. We’re rescuing you. And I don’t know. But that means they don’t either.” He had to stop at a red light. “Which way to the freeway?”
What in the world? It was only a few blocks away. “You don’t know? Umm… north or south?”
“OK, take a left at the next light, go three blocks, take a right, and the on-ramp’s right there. Seriously, though, am I being kidnapped?”
“You’re being rescued,” Rough-Voice Guy said. And for some reason, I believed him.
“But you don’t know where we’re going?”
“I know exactly where we’re going,” the driver said. “Out onto the freeway, where we can’t easily be forced to stop as long as we don’t draw the attention of the cops.” We were moving again, following the directions I had given him.
“We’re not from around here,” said Rough-Voice Guy.
“You two got names?” I asked.
“Bryan,” said Rough-Voice Guy.
“Ralph,” said the driver.
I couldn’t help it. I had to say something to break up the tension, and something Sean had badgered me into watching a couple years back just popped into my head. “Umm… I’m not sure I should be letting a guy named Ralph drive me around in a car…”
“Why not?” Ralph asked.
“Because… what if you wreck it?”
Bryan laughed at that. Ralph just looked confused. “Huh?”
“Tell you later,” Bryan said.
“Sorry, nevermind,” I said. “Nerves.”
We got onto I-5, and it was reasonably uncrowded. It’d probably get a lot worse in a couple hours, but for now things were nice enough.
I took a look at the two of them. Bryan was the larger of the two. They looked to be about the same height, but he was bulkier, and younger, maybe 25 or so. Looked like he spent some time in the weight room. He had a kind of soft face, though, with one of those full-face beards that doesn’t make you look much older. It was black, just like his hair.
Ralph was skinny, almost anorexic-looking, with a kinda stern face and medium-brown hair. He appeared to be in his early 40s, and looked like he’d fit right in as a teacher at my school.
And was that… I leaned forward and to the side a little, checking, and yep! They were both wearing gold earrings, like me.
“All right,” Ralph said. “You want to know what’s going on? How much have you already figured out?”
“Umm… I can go invisible, except some guys can see me, and they’re creepy. And so are you, but not as much. I don’t know how it works. I did some research on how people get superpowers, and I don’t really fit any of it. And if you’re superheroes too, maybe gold has something to do with it?”
Bryan seemed to approve. “Hah! She’s a bright one!” Wow. That’s the first time I’ve been called smart by anyone not related to me. I’m not dumb, I’m just… kinda average in the brains department.
“We’re not superheroes,” Ralph said. “And neither are you. We’re mages.”
“What, you mean like wizards or something?”
“Wizards are something else, and they’ve been extinct for centuries. We’re… what’s left. There’s not much magic left in the world. A wizard could use it however he wants. A mage can do one thing. You are a Gygite.”
I’m a who-what? “Umm… ok, first off, what in the world is a ‘jite’? That almost sounds like some sort of ugly racial slur or something. And second, I’m not sure if you’re the first man in the history of men to not notice, but I’m a girl-jite.”
Ralph sighed. “Gygite, as in Gyges.”
“As in ‘who is that guy, jeez?'”
“As in the ring of Gyges?”
“Nope, not ringing any bells.” Yeah, I’ve been hanging out with Sean too much.
He groaned. “What are they teaching you in school these days? OK. Once upon a time in Ancient Greece, there was a farmer named Gyges. One day he found a cave, and inside there was a skeleton with a gold ring on its finger. The farmer claimed the ring for his own, and he discovered that while he was wearing it, he was able to become invisible. He used this power to spy and learn secrets, until he was able to gain the trust of the king. But that wasn’t enough for him, and he eventually used his power to seduce the queen, murder the king, and take over the kingdom.”
Wow. I wasn’t even a geek and even I had seen this movie. “And then this creepy CG guy bit his finger off and the ring fell into a volcano, and everyone lived happily ever after. Seriously, if you’re gonna make up magic legends, you could at least put a bit more work into them than ripping off one of the best-known stories of all time!”
“The tale of the Ring of Gyges comes down to us by way of The Republic, by Plato.” Ralph sounded a bit exasperated by this point. “If anyone is ripping anyone off in their legends, it was Professor Tolkein. Do you have a smartphone? Look it up. It’s probably on Wikipedia. Ring of G-Y-G-E-S.”
OK, I’d have to look at that later. “And you say I’m like this creepy guy?”
“The name’s a reminder not to be like him.”
“Do you have names like that for every mage?”
“Most of them.”
“And… gold. I don’t suppose you’ve got any Midas-ites around?”
Ralph snapped at me when I said that. “Do you seriously not understand the concept of a cautionary tale?”
Bryan butted in. “Was your first day any better?” he asked in that gravelly voice of his.
Ralph took a slow breath. “Yeah, you’re right. Sorry, kid. Uhh… what’s your name, anyway?”
“Lisa. So, turning stuff into gold, that’s bad?”
“It’s impossible,” Bryan said. “Like picking yourself up.”
“What do you mean?”
Ralph was the one who responded. “Gold has always been valuable throughout history. But for what? Iron and bronze and just about anything else are stronger and more practical. Silver is shinier. Platinum is more rare. But people have always cared about gold more than any of them, and there’s really no good reason for it, especially before discovering electricity. Except one thing.”
“Gold is magical?” I guessed.
Ralph nodded. “It holds power exceptionally well, better than anything else. And even people who don’t understand magic, or even believe in it, they understand that at some level.”
“And people who do, they can use it to make rings that turn you invisible and stuff?”
He shook his head. “Rings don’t have power. We do.”
“But you just said–”
Bryan broke in. “You’re the smartphone. Gold is the battery.”
OK, that actually made sense. “So what are you two?”
“I’m a Delphic,” Ralph said. “It means I see things that most people can’t.”
I snickered. “Like how to get to I-5?”
“Just because I’ve got the power doesn’t mean I have to use it for every little thing. It takes concentration, and it was simpler to just ask you. I found you, though.”
“So did those other guys. They have a Delphic too?”
He nodded. “They have another name for it, but yes.”
“And you… see things. What kind of thing? And any smartass cracks about the color of my underwear and I swear I’m getting out the second you hit the offramp.”
He didn’t even turn to look at me. “A bra’s not the only thing you’re hiding under that all-concealing shirt of yours. Gold necklace, 18 karat if I had to guess, with a little charm at the bottom, a golden spiral. It ought to hang down in the center, but it’s a little off, to the right.” He raised a hand off the steering wheel and touched himself on the chest to demonstrate. It was exactly where the spiral was on my necklace, and there’s no way he could have possibly seen it.
“It’s 24 karat,” I said a bit grumpily.
He shook his head. “If that’s what they told you, you got ripped off. No reputable jeweler would do that, so you found it online. Craigslist? eBay?”
Wow, he was good. “Something like that, yeah.”
“How long have you had it?”
I sighed. “Long enough I’m not likely to get any refunds.”
“Oh well. It’s still useful as a power source. If you can, try and get some ankle bracelets, or even rings on your toes. Stuff that stays out of sight is always good.”
That sounded like good advice… I guess. “So anyway, what does Bryan do?”
“He’s a Cassandrite.”
I blinked. “He’s named after a girl?”
“We both are, actually. And yes, your power is named after a man. Such is the irony of life at times.”
“So who’s ‘the’ Cassandra?”
“A Trojan princess who could prophesy, but she lied to one of the gods and really pissed him off, so he cursed her that no one would ever believe her when she told the truth. She tried to warn her people about doing stupid things that would provoke the Greeks, and they didn’t listen, and then they ended up in the Trojan War. It went badly for them.”
The Trojan War. “As in, big sneaky horse, lots of soldiers inside?”
He nodded. “That’s the one.”
“So his power is having people not believe him?”
Bryan chuckled. Ralph just shook his head. “His power is being able to speak the truth and be believed and understood clearly, but it comes at a really terrible price. It’s very difficult to turn off, and if he ever lies, it can break his power.”
“So then no one believes him?”
He nodded. “It turns into a curse. It can last for minutes, hours, days, or even years. Cassandrites can be driven insane by the effects. That’s why he doesn’t talk much.”
Something wasn’t right. “So he can’t lie. That doesn’t sound so bad. But… he just said I’m a phone.”
“That’s not a lie,” Ralph said. “It’s an example, a metaphor to help communicate a true concept. He’s good at that. And not being able to lie… how many times has someone asked how you’re doing, and you say ‘I’m fine,’ and you’re not. Hey, Lisa, what’s wrong? Oh, nothing. Are you sure you’re not mad at me? Does this dress make me look fat? Promise me you’ll never hang out with him again, young lady!”
“Yeah, I get it.” I looked at Bryan. “That must really suck.”
“It does,” he grumbled. “But it gets easier over time.”
“So he uses his power just by talking? Wow! I have to cover my ears and say ‘I wish I was invisible.'”
Bryan laughed at that. Ralph just groaned. “No you don’t,” he said. “You have to focus really intently on using the power within your gold. Speaking it out loud helps, and so does consciously touching it… like putting your hands on your earrings. And now that you know what’s going on, it gets easier; just remember that it’s touching you already.”
Well that actually made a lot more sense. “So if I use the power too much, can I run out? Do they make a charger for magic earrings?”
“You can, and it slowly fills by itself when you wear it, drawing little bits of power out of you all the time when you’re not tapping it.”
“So I have magic in me? I don’t need a battery?”
Ralph shook his head. “Not exactly. It’s more like… energy can be converted from one form to another. Tiny bits of heat, of motion, of neural energy, it leaches out of you and charges up to restore your stored energy.”
“Wait. Neural energy… and I’ve got these things right up on my head. They aren’t gonna damage my brain, are they?”
Ralph actually laughed at that one. “Nope. If you wear brand new earrings, or depleted ones, they might make thinking a little bit harder for a while, but generally the effect is so small you’ll never notice it, and it’s completely safe over the long term. You’ve got plenty of things to worry about, but that’s not one of them.”
“Things to worry about. Like those men?”
“Like them,” he nodded.
“Who are they? And who are you? You said ‘we’ a couple times, and you mean more than just the two of you, don’t you?”
“There are several groups of mages in the world, mainly divided along ideological lines.”
“Politics,” Bryan said. “We all have different core belief systems.”
“So you’re Republicans and they’re Democrats or something?”
Ralph shook his head. “Different issues. We’re Noblesse. The men who tried to grab you are the Bright Sceptre. They’re the strongest, and the most dangerous.”
“No-bless. Because you keep warning everyone about the problems that their magic can bring them? It’s more of a curse to you?”
He just sighed, and I could practically hear the eye-rolling in his voice. “As in noblesse oblige. And before you say anything silly, it’s French. It roughly means ‘nobility has obligations,’ or in other words, those with power have a duty to use it for good.”
“You sure you’re not superheroes? Because that really sounds like ‘With great power comes great responsibility.'”
“Close enough,” Bryan said. “I guess that’s today’s version of it.”
“And what do the Bright Sceptre believe in?”
“The staff,” Ralph said, “has represented power and authority since the dawn of history. From tribal patriarchs to emperors, the royal sceptre is a tangible symbol of his power. Same with wizards, in ancient times.”
“So they want to be wizards?”
He snorted a little. “No, they want to be kings. Probably the most well-known rod of authority these days is the Roman version. They called it a fasces.”
He paused, obviously hoping I’d pick up on… something. Then I did. “So these guys are fascists?” I didn’t really know exactly what that meant, except that Brad liked to say it about the government whenever they did something he thought was over the line.
“Have we lost them?” Bryan asked. “It’s almost time.”
“Time for what?” I asked them.
Ralph slowed down, pulling over into the right lane. We were headed north, and we were almost to Marysville by that point. “Yeah, we’re clear,” he said after a moment. “Lisa, you know the quickest way to turn around up ahead? We need to get to Sea-Tac.”
I shook my head. “I am not getting on a plane with you two. You seem OK and all, but I’ve got–”
“To meet someone who caught a later flight than us. You’re staying here and going home to your family.”
“Oh. Well that’s better. Yeah, I don’t really know Marysville at all–that’s the town we’re coming up on–but it shouldn’t be too hard to get going southbound. So where are you from?”
“Idaho,” said Bryan.
“Portland,” Ralph said. “I was meditating when you started using your power a few hours ago, and I sensed someone new. I can reach pretty far when I’m in the zone, but if I could feel you, so could the Sceptre. Bryan was the closest Cassandrite, and I called him and we each caught the next plane to Seattle.”
“You did all that for me?” Was he trying to impress me or something?
“With great power comes great responsibility, as you put it. We really didn’t want to lose another mage to the Sceptre.”
“What would they have done if they found me? And why did you need Bryan to come along?”
He reached the exit and pulled off, then turned right because there was too much traffic coming from the left to go that way easily. “Having someone like him along makes it a lot easier to persuade someone who’s all freaked out that you’re on their side. You might have run away if I’d asked you to get in the car.”
That was… kind of creepy. “So you used magic? You mind-controlled me into going with you or something?”
“You had your free will the whole time. He just was able to present the option in a way that would sound reasonable instead of scary.”
Yeah. Still kinda creepy. “And… what would the Sceptre have done?”
His voice grew a bit tense. “You know those kids who end up on milk cartons? They get kidnapped and are never seen again? Some of them just got unlucky, but the ones who got really unlucky are brand new mages the Sceptre finds. They spend months brainwashing them… you don’t want me to go into detail, I promise. But on the other end they turn them into monsters.” He pulled in to the parking lot at a little strip mall a few blocks down, and used it to turn around so we could head back southbound.
I shivered. “And the person you’re taking me to see?”
“Thomas Fleen. He’s got kind of a unique power, one we don’t have a special name for. He can hide you from Delphics. He helps us all keep one step ahead of the Sceptre.”
“Sounds useful. OK, anything else I need to know?”
We got on the freeway and started heading back south. It would be quite a ways to Sea-Tac from here, almost two hours. Worse if there was traffic, which there probably would be!
“Yeah,” Ralph said. “Be careful with your power. You don’t actually go invisible; it’s just that no one sees you.”
That didn’t make any sense. “What’s the difference?”
Bryan spoke up. “You’ll learn soon enough if you try shoplifting and they have security cameras.”
Ralph nodded. “Your power works by people not noticing you. This means you can’t use it if someone is specifically aware of you already, and it’ll stop working if you draw attention to yourself. Legends say that some Gygites used to have true invisibility, but no one knows if that’s real or just that no one had the technology to tell the difference back in the day.”
“Thanks. That’s good to know.” And it was. It would make practicing easier. “So what do you expect me to do after we meet with Mr. Fleen?” I’d already used this line with Sean, but it was worth pulling out again. “I really hope you don’t expect me to put on some silly costume and go out fighting crime.”
He scowled. I was getting the feeling he didn’t care for me all that much. “We’ll expect you to do what a Gygite does best: stay out of sight. Keep your head down, don’t draw attention, and study. Learn. We’ll get your email address and send you stuff you’ll need to know. And occasionally, when you’re ready, you’ll be called upon to help out with things. Like Bryan and Thomas were today.”
“You’re assuming I decide to join you. I still have free will, right?”
“Of course. But you also have common sense. We’re the second-largest group, after the Sceptre. None of the others have the resources to help you out effectively, and you wouldn’t like most of them anyway. You could always try to learn on your own, survive on your own. But there’s no going back now. The only way your life gets back to anything like normal is with our help.”
“No blue pill,” Bryan commented. “Sorry.”
I groaned. “So I’m stuck. Last week I was just a high school student. This morning I was a superhero. Now I’m a Gygite, and there’s no going back?”
“That’s about the size of it,” Ralph said with a nod.
That was kind of depressing, actually. I slumped back in the seat and just thought about… everything. After a while, we started talking again, but mostly small talk to fill time. Stuff about where they were from and so on. Turns out Ralph was a teacher. History, of course.
We were halfway to the airport before we hit a huge traffic jam coming into Seattle, and I realized that there was no way I was ever going to make it home in time for my date tonight.