The air smelled like charged particles after a lightning storm.
The purple ball that had surrounded them… that had shot out of the panicked teenager’s chest… was gone.
The only sounds Cooper heard were that of the rip and grind of tearing metal creating a sound far too dissonant and painful for Cooper to latch on to.
He felt stunned. It chilled him and froze the soundwaves in his mind that helped him see and understand the world. He knew right away… wherever he was…there would be no understanding this.
The grinding stopped, and Cooper’s stomach lurched. He wobbled and threw his arms to keep his balance, grabbing onto whoever was standing beside him. The guy with the weird vape pen. They both hit their knees and toppled down a small hill — a mound of dirt and pavement topped with faded yellow parking spot paint lines, spiderwebbed with cracks.
It was a short fall, only five or six feet. Cooper rolled, and, with dexterity that surprised him, hopped to his feet. He heard gasps, groans, swears, and more crunching of metal as the world around him spun back into stability. Over the top of the hill he’d just slid down, he saw the front end of a blue pickup truck. But only the front end. The back half was missing entirely.
It was nighttime. It was cold. If there were any stars, they were washed out by an impossibly large, red moon. It was bright enough for Cooper’s eyes to adjust in the darkness.
Sand. He was standing on sand. The truck was severed clean in half, propped sideways on the hill and soaking the sand beneath it with gasoline. Visible fumes rose and caused a thick scent as the tank emptied itself (with a chugging sound.)
The teenage boy who had just been having a panic attack was sitting in the sand with wide eyes. The artist was helping the other woman to her feet, the latter of whom didn’t seem to be putting weight on her right leg.
“Who’s hurt? Anyone dead?” the other guy asked, clicking his vape. “How is nobody dead? Where are we?”
Cooper turned his head to the teenager, and felt the others doing the same.
“Wh… you think I did this?” he shouted, scrambling to his feet. “How even could I?”
The strangers exchanged glances. This kid had clearly just used magic. Probably for the first time. Cooper knew that. And the others acted like they did as well. Before the… explosion… they had all acted as though they knew something was about to happen. They all examined each other, weighing the risks of exposing knowledge that wasn’t safe to share. He didn’t have to wait long for them to answer.
SFX: sand trickle
Cooper heard shifting underfoot. A soft trickle like a sand timer… almost imperceptible.
The ground broke from below, right beside where the kid was standing. A blast of sand filled the air like a missile had struck, and rained down on them in thick yellow clouds.
Stained and matted feathers arose from the hole in the ground. Yellow feet. Wide, muscular, wings – mangy and featherless – that ended in mole-like paws. The creature stood taller than any of them… at least eight feet. Its beak was stained with blood and its tail feathers were stained with shit. It flapped its wings, knocking the kid backwards onto the ground, and causing the others to shield their eyes from the sandstorm it kicked up.
The chicken pecked downward at the boy. Its massive beak skewered him through the stomach. Gore spattered onto the sand as he was lifted high into the air and tossed about like a worm, still impaled and gasping for life. Blood stained the feathers and bare skin of the monstrosity as it tossed its head to and fro, trying to dislodge the kid from its beak. When it succeeded, the boy’s splintered ribcage ground against its beak and made a sound that Cooper would never be able to forget. The child slammed onto the ground beneath the chicken, twitching in a puddle of his own blood.
What happened next took exactly six seconds.
The monster screeched.
Cooper closed his eyes as their attacker wailed.
SFX: Cooper soundwave trance
He felt the sound of the squall vibrating on his ears and on his skin. He waved his hand around in a circle, pretending the noise was a piece of cloth wrapping around his wrist. He followed it all the way to the source within the beast’s throat, and clenched his fist. The screech stopped and was replaced by an airy croak as Cooper crushed its windpipe.
To his right, the artist drew something in a book with black paper and white crayon. A large falcon with blonde feathers landed on the chicken’s face, firmly lodging talons within its eye sockets. It tried to screech again, but nothing more than a breathy gurgle escaped its throat.
Cooper saw a blur of someone running toward the injured kid. On the other side of the battlefield, the artist was now holding an axe and sprinting toward the monstrosity. On the ground where she had been standing was a notebook with black construction paper, open to a crude crayon drawing of an axe.
SFX: Thinky sounds: “I’ll be damned,” Cooper thought.
“Bird friend! Fly!” the artist yelled, parkouring off of the bumper of the pickup truck and leaping toward the chicken. The bird did as she was told, just in time for the artist to swing the axe with an enraged grunt.
With one clean cut, the monster’s head severed and toppled off of its shoulders. The body flapped its bare wings madly, running in a zigzag pattern through the desert until it was out of sight.
The chicken’s head fell through a cloud of blue vapor and landed with a thud right beside the boy, who screamed and clambered to his feet. He stood straight, palming the hole in his shirt and touching his fingertips to where his wound had been.
It was no longer there.
In its place was a wide pink patch of fresh skin.
MUSIC: AIden theme/eric theme
It smelled like cotton candy and pinecones. It warmed his insides. Literally. The pain was gone so quickly Aiden thought he had died.
Before he could properly savor the sensation, the head of his attempted murderer landed with a thud in the sand beside him.
He scrambled away and stood, feeling freshly healed skin where his intestines had been hanging out moments before. The vape guy grabbed him by the shoulders.
“Look at me. Focus. You still have internal bleeding. You need one more deep breath.”
“Your vape did this?” Aiden asked, tugging at the rip in his shirt.
SFX: Click. Gurgle. Puff.
“It’s not what it looks like. Nothing but good stuff here. I promise, just breathe.”
Aiden did as he was told. Not only did the ache in his gut subside even further, but he felt energy returning to him. The others were staring at him, then at each other.
“So you guys can do magic too?” said Hazel, throwing the axe over her shoulder like the world’s tiniest lumberjack. She was the one who had held his hand.
“Yep,” they all said at once.
“MAGIC?!” Aiden cried.
“ARCANE ROLL CALL!” Hazel yelled. “I’m Hazel Gutierréz and I can draw things to life and then kill giant chickens with them!”
“Eric Williams. Healing vape pen.”
Aiden clearly heard music as though it was coming through a speaker. It was some old Foo Fighters song he remembered his mom listening to… the one that had made that little girl go viral for playing on drums.
“I’m Cooper!” said the D.J. He looked to be the oldest of the group, but he wore his age well. He had a first generation emo vibe… black jeans, Converse sneakers, and a black jacket, had a deep red streak in his hair, and black fingernails. His voice was far more chipper than his appearance suggested. “I can make people stronger by hyping them up with music in their head and I can break stuff using sounds.”
Poof. The other woman had disappeared, and a light-colored doe was in her place. In another blink, she was a tortoise. Then a lion, before coming back to a woman.
“Giselle Savatier,” she said.
All eyes then fixed onto Aiden, who vomited into the sand. They didn’t seem to mind.
“Aiden Hartford,” he gasped, his elbows on his knees. “Did you guys know she’s naked? Because she is. Naked.” He vomited again. “That’s not why I puked. Hey, is this Heaven? It kinda sucks. No offense if one of you is God.” He fell to his knees and rolled onto his back.
Cooper took off his jacket and handed it to Giselle, who wore it open down the front. “Wherever we are, you brought us here.”
“How?” Aiden choked, still heaving.
“You were having a panic attack and made a big old hamster ball that teleported us here,” said Hazel. “Heck of a first release.”
Aiden groaned. “Oh God.” He sat up and leaned on his hands. Ten minutes ago, it had been afternoon in the parking lot of the bounce park. Now, it was night. There was no real light, besides the weird glow of a red moon.
“So how do we get home?” Cooper asked. “I get the feeling he won’t be able to do that again for a bit.”
“I don’t even know how I did it the first time,” Aiden whined.
“You have magic powers, please keep up,” Giselle responded. She pointed to the tower in the distance. “Maybe we can start there. Find him some food and rest so he can get his strength back.”
“The sooner the better. I promised to be somewhere,” Eric said.
Aiden rolled his head to see where the others were looking. A stretch of very flat desert away, there was a tall building jutting out of the sand, shrouded in darkness. It was impossible to tell how tall it was from this distance with no sense of scale around it, but the silhouette looked like that of a skyscraper in a post-apocalyptic video game.
“I can’t even pee in a urinal if somebody is standing beside me,” Aiden said with the hollow earnestness of someone in shock. “We’re stuck here. I’ll ever be able to do that again.”
“Sure you will!” chimed Hazel.
Giselle pointed to the giant chicken head. “Perhaps you’d consider doing so before another of those shows up?”
Hazel made sure she took the lead. She was the one with the axe, after all. Any other roaming gopher chickens would fear her, lest they become headless. Not to mention, her new druid friend wearing a stylish black jacket was the single hottest look Hazel had ever seen on anyone, but she didn’t know this woman well enough to say so. Therefore, she thought it more respectful to stay in the front of the pack where the eye couldn’t wander.
As they marched through the sand toward the mysterious monolith, their breath formed heavy clouds on the air before them. Aiden was the first to speak.
“It freaks me out that you guys aren’t freaked out,” he said.
Hazel shrugged. “Meh. Life gets weird when you have to keep secrets like ours. You learn to adapt pretty quickly.”
“You learn not to freak out over every little thing,” said Eric.
But there was one thing that Hazel couldn’t shake. “It might be a teensy bit weird that this happened to so many people… like us. I mean, have any of you ever met anyone else before today?”
“One,” said Cooper. He didn’t offer to elaborate.
“So either there are more of us than we think, or we’re all just really good at hiding from each other,” said Eric.
Hazel flinched. She wouldn’t have hidden. She hardly knew them, but she ached to think of the lonely days and sleepless nights that could have been eased by having anyone to talk to. “It’s not hiding if you think you’re alone,” she whispered.
She felt a gentle hand on her shoulder and turned to see Giselle. “I think most of us probably know the feeling,” she said. Through the warm smile, Hazel noticed a flinch of pain with each step.
“You’re limping,” she said. “Did you twist your leg fighting Chicken Biggle?”
“I was shot by a hunter a few years ago. Never properly healed. Truth be told, I’m quicker in the air. Shall I scout ahead and make sure it’s safe?”
“Might be smart,” said Eric. “I’d give you some juice, but it doesn’t help much on old wounds.”
“I’ll manage,” said Giselle, transforming before their eyes into a golden hawk. Notably, Cooper’s jacket morphed with her. A single blonde feather floated on the still air. Hazel reached up to catch it.
“Let’s play a road trip game!” Cooper shouted, exemplifying dad energy. “Let’s share the story of our first release so Aiden doesn’t feel so weird. Who wants to go first?”
Hazel stared at the feather for several seconds before she realized that no one else was offering to speak, either.
“I’ll go first!” Cooper said, charging through the awkward energy like a snow plow. “In high school, I dated a boy on the basketball team. Total punk/jock power couple. He was shooting a free throw, and I wanted to hype him up. I don’t know why, but I thought of his favorite song. ‘Freedom’ by Rage Against the Machine. The second I heard the song playing in my head… he looked up and around like he could hear it, too. Then he mouthed the words exactly as I thought them. He dribbled the ball on the downbeat, and sank both shots. Life got weirder after that.”
SFX: basketball game sounds with reverb
“WHY THE HELL COULDN’T MINE HAVE BEEN LIKE THAT?” Aiden roared, flailing his arms. “You got a sweet teen romance movie and I got shish-kabobed by a damn chicken?!”
Cooper slapped Aiden on the shoulder. “But you survived. You’ll come to love that story because it’s a part of you. Or maybe I’m just old. So, who’s next?”
Hazel felt her throat narrowing as she gulped for air.
“Maybe some other time” she said, pinching the stalk of the feather between her finger and thumb. Some stories never get easier to tell, even when you’re an open book. Hazel twisted her hair into a bun and stabbed the feather through the top.
MUSICAL TRANSITION: GISELLE THEME
The sand changed, like there was a property line or a border on a map. Giselle could see it clearly from the air. It went from thin, yellow, grains to a kind of pasty matter — grey and sticky.
Something was really, deeply unnatural about this place. The sky in particular set Giselle on edge...
With her more keen eyesight, she was able to see finer details on the surface of the red orb hanging in the sky.
Much of her power came from the energy of the lunar cycle’s effect on the earth. She felt no more or less powerful in this place, but this moon was not her moon. Or maybe it was. It seemed… younger. Still covered in rivers of lava. It was certainly either larger or closer. And its craters weren’t the same. It was like millions of years of beautiful age and imperfection had been wiped clean.
Soon, details of the towering structure became visible. It was made of steel. And plastic. Manufactured and assembled like any other building. But it had no walls... she could see straight through it. It was just a stack of floors towering nearly 200 feet in the air. Inside, she saw movement. Not just movement. People. A lot of them. Humans, moving to and fro, up and down the inside of the structure, like this enormous building was just a glorified set of scaffolding that had been built around a tower that didn’t exist.
Giselle banked and flew upward, higher and higher until she reached the top of the structure. Her talons wrapped around a metal pole with a clink, and she steadied herself, examining the loose metal planks that were balanced on beams to serve as a floor with wide gaps between each piece. There was no surface in the middle— only around the perimeter. Even that was only about 2 meters wide. In the center there was nothing more than a cavernous hole that reached all the way to the ground, where there was no floor, but only the pasty grey sand that Giselle had first seen on her flight across the desert.
There had been hundreds of people on the lower floors. Here, there were only 2 women, as well as the body of a dead man. Giselle cocked her head.
The women, as well as the dead man, donned clothing that had been worn to rags. Colorful, but faded sweatpants, T-shirts, legwarmers… all clothing clearly from the eighties.Their heads were shaved. It was difficult to discern their ages, but it was clear they had been here for a very, very long time. One looked incredibly old while the other looked quite young. The dead man was wracked with age. Mostly bald with long white hair horseshoed around his dome. A white beard that was yellowed at the corners of his mouth and at the ends. His body was thin, his skin was jaundiced, and his nails were jagged.
MUSIC: Emotional and mysterious
Solemnly and with tender care, the woman lifted the man and walked to the inner edge of the structure.
“Go now, friend,” said the younger of the two.
“May you find the light that was taken from you,” said the Elder.
They released the body, and watched as it tumbled to the sand below.
Giselle swooped over their heads and sailed downward toward where the body had landed. She perched on a rail on the lowest level.
The man’s body was twisted and mangled from such a fall. He now lay in a perfectly flat bed of sand.
Giselle looked upward. She saw hundreds more people. Her eye settled on a pregnant mother two floors up who was chasing a rat with a toddler in tow. The mother made a series of gestures with her hands before a burst of flame like hellfire roared from her palms, scorching the rat to a lump of carbon. She grabbed it by the tail and handed it to the child, who ripped off a leg and began to gnaw.
Another floor seemed to be dedicated to the sick and injured. There were rows upon rows of people lying on their backs, either still or squirming with sickness, as a boy in his late teens walked down the row, laying his palms to their chests and filling them with white light.
Giselle stared back toward the body. The two women had been performing a funeral rite, and they’d clearly been there for quite some time. But if thgat were the case, there should be more corpses.
Before Giselle’s train of thought could progress any further, the sand began to shift, like seeing ripples of ocean waves from above. Yet, it made no sound, and Giselle’s hearing was just as strong as her vision in this form.
It happened slowly. A form that looked like a slim tree root snaked upward from the ground and waved its tip around in the air. Then another. And another. Giselle counted five total, all waving about, as though they were looking… smelling. Soon, they found what they were searching for.
One wrapped around the dead man’s feet and coiled around his bulging ankles and up his legs, wrapping him tightly. Another did the same around his midsection, and two more down the length of each arm. A final tentacle did so tightly around the neck and head, until no part of the man could be seen besides loose white hairs poking between the tendrils. They pulled him into the muck until nothing remained and the sand was still once more.
“It’s a cage,” Giselle said to herself. “This whole place… is a prison.”
She looked back. Half a mile away, she could see the rest of her party just steps away from a line in the sand where the desert terrain gave way to whatever horror she’d just seen.
She took off, bolting through the beams of the structure and then upward. She flew like a demon, repeating a sentence to herself like a grim mantra as she stared into the blood red moon.
“It’s a prison. It’s a prison for us.”