I stand over my challenger, the light of triumph shining in my eyes as she spits out dirt and glares at me.
“So, who’s the one on top now, Courtney?” I taunt down at her. “Should’ve thought twice before taking me on!”
Courtney scowls. “Only people like you would think about beating up girls half your size when there are clearly bigger problems at hand!”
“Hey,” I protest, “you were the one who attacked me. I didn’t pick on you!”
She just rolls her eyes in response. “The escapees from Cosmo Prison are building an army, and you’re going to play the blame game? Seriously?” She flashes me a smile as she imitates the catchphrase of parents everywhere. “I expected better from you, Jack.”
“You sound like my kindergarten teacher,” I say with a laugh as I extend my hand to help her up.
She accepts it, smirking. “Didn’t know you were such a gentleman.”
“Don’t get used to it,” I say in response.
Without warning, she grabs my hand with both of hers and shoves me violently over her head. I utter a soft exclamation as I land on the dusty ground with a thump. “Whoa, Courtney! When’d you get so strong?”
She mimics me, “Who’s the one on top now, Jack?”
“Technically, we’re both still on the same level,” I reply, “which is the ground.”
Courtney clambers to her feet. “Well, now I’m on top, so there!”
We’ve already finished gathering up supplies at Alex’s request, and have been horsing around like this for a while now, waiting for him to announce our next task. He’s been engaged in heated conversation with the new boy.
Now, I get off the ground and watch as two figures, Gene and Sophia, stride up to him. Sophia’s holding something in her hand. I creep closer, trying to eavesdrop, but only just catch the words, “...the key you were talking about earlier.”
I look back at Courtney. She’s heard them as well, and looks just as confused as I feel.
The new boy takes something from Sophia’s hands. He says something to her, smiles, and...
What? I rub my eyes and blink several times, but I’m not mistaken.
He’s disappeared. Poof. Vanished. Just like that.
All sneaky pretense forgotten, I rush up to Alex, Gene, and Sophia, with Courtney on my tail. The three of them seem to be having some kind of argument.
“Are you freaking kidding me?” Alex yells. “That was the key, and you just gave it away to some... some stranger!”
“You’re the one who decided to trust him in the first place,” Sophia shoots right back, “and last time I checked, you two were chatting it up like best friends a moment ago!”
“I was making use of my resources, trying to get information!” he shouts. “There’s a difference, idiot!”
Gene steps in between them, getting up in Alex’s face. “Don’t talk to her like that,” he snarls. “Admit it. You made as much of a mistake as she did. You’re being a hypocrite!”
Alex turns red. “Shut up, Gene,” he spits.
Then he takes a step forward and punches Gene, square in the jaw.
I gasp and reel back, almost stepping on Courtney’s foot. I’ve never seen Alex lose his cool before; he’s always been that calm leader whom we could all rely on. This must be really serious.
Gene counterattacks like a rattlesnake, his fist slamming into Alex’s face, once, twice, three times. Alex staggers back, clutching at his nose as blood spouts from it.
“Guys, guys, stop!” Courtney runs past me, waving her arms wildly. “You can’t fight, not right now!”
Gene drops his fist, which he’d been drawing back in preparation for another punch. His jaw is still clenched, and I can hear him gritting his teeth when he speaks.
“Well, why don’t you tell that to Alex here?” he growls, then spins around and stalks away, Sophia trailing after him.
Courtney and I stare after them as Alex tries to staunch the flow of blood from his nose.
“What just happened?” I ask him.
“Those idiots,” Alex gestures at Gene and Sophia, “just gave the key to that kid who claimed to know everything. We don’t even know whose side he’s on!” He shakes his head. “Hopeless cases. Anyways, it looks like we all have things to discuss, efforts to organize. I’m calling a meeting at five.” He walks off as well, leaving me and Courtney to give each other puzzled frowns.
“What was that all about?” Courtney asks me once Alex is out of earshot.
I shrug, sparing no words.
“Well, we better get going,” she says, “if we want to get anything done before we have to come back here for Alex’s meeting.”
“What do we need to do, anyways?” I ask.
Courtney gives me an exasperated look. “How slow are you? We need to find the weird kid, make him tell us the answers, obviously.”
However, before she can elaborate on exactly how she planned to track him down, I hear a high-pitched scream. A girl’s scream.
Moments later, Alex comes tearing across the road, shouting, “Nidhi! Nidhi!”
Courtney and I just look at each other, coming to a silent agreement. Then we run after him, in the direction of the scream.
Finally, we find Nidhi standing in an alley, frozen in fear, staring at something a few meters away from her.
Alex reaches her first. “Thank God! Are you okay?”
Her head bobs up and down, her eyes bigger than the moon.
“Woah there, Nidhi, what happened?” I say, alarmed.
Nidhi just points, unable to formulate words. I don’t need any more details; I can see exactly what she’s talking about.
The shadows at the end of the alley have solidified.In the shape of a girl.