Chapter 3 — Making Connections
Looking back on her ritual now in May, at the end of the year, Rachel was still glad she'd been reckless enough to attempt something so foolhardy. Sure, she had a long, angry scar on the back of her leg and some purple crystals permanently fixed to the wall above her bed, but the new abilities the ritual had brought were more than enough to make up for the damage. She was also now acutely more aware of just how badly such rituals could go, and more importantly how lucky she'd been. Had she tried a more complicated ritual, or screwed up earlier in the process, there likely wouldn't have been an apartment left—much less a Rachel.
She'd gotten a lot of fearful looks from Will, and a stern lecture from her landlord Brian about what was allowed or not allowed for tenants. She managed to pass it off as a science experiment gone awry. Apparently Rachel had terrified his daughter, which she did feel bad about. Natalie was a good kid, even if Rachel wasn't especially fond of most kids. Still, all in all, it had been a rousing success, and one she'd followed up on with (much more carefully considered) rituals to help ease her other mental faculties, such as her need for sleep. She could make do with only a couple of hours a night without any side effects, though her body still needed to be physically rested. Most of that time she spent reading or writing, or just browsing the Internet, learning everything she could about anything, while Will snored gently next to her. It was a hell of a hand up on her classwork as well.
She only had one class to attend today, thankfully. There was plenty of work to be done, and she would need as much time as possible to get it done before the meeting that night. Even with her advantages, there was only so much an accelerated mind could accomplish when so much of her work now was diplomatic or social in nature. The economic powers in the town were none too happy about the shifting structure that the newcomers brought, but they were helpless to resist when they couldn't possibly comprehend how their new competitors operated. After all, how could they strategize against magic, when they didn't even know it existed?
Rachel saw a niche to fill. She was a liaison, a buffer zone between the growing magical market and the more traditional shops that knew nothing of their budding regime. In time, she knew they'd be inevitably overtaken, but anything Rachel could do to ease the transition was worth it. Magic was still a secret to the world, and as far as she could tell totally localized to this one small town in middle of nowhere, Washington. As long as she could, Rachel intended to keep it that way—until they were ready.
Rachel sighed as she passed Hector's grocery. The store had never managed to turn a profit and had trouble lately even staying out of the red, so Rachel was currently propping it up with discreet funding she and Will were able to secure. Will had gotten into some very lucrative online trading marketplaces, as well as been at the forefront of the cryptocurrency boom, and his investments grew handsomely as parts of the world began to demand decentralized currency. Through the profits they brought in they were able to keep important allies afloat while the town stagnated.
Confidence in the world governments was lower than she'd ever seen, and she wanted to turn that into progress. Rachel believed the world was just waiting for something new and revolutionary to set off a powder keg of change. If she could pull it off, if her plans came to fruition, magic would ignite that spark and Rachel would help steer the world to a brighter, happier future.
"Hi, Boris," Rachel greeted warmly as she passed.
"Dobroye utro, Miss DuValle," Boris Morozov answered politely, in his curious way of mixing heavily accented Russian with perfectly enunciated English whenever she was around. Good morning. She was still learning Russian, and many other languages, but she knew enough to catch his meaning. He'd been helping her learn what she couldn't get from books and online tutors. He glanced up from his stack of books he was unloading from his black pickup to give her a warm smile. Rachel gave him a little wave as she passed his store, the cheerful Books by Boris sign swinging just above his head from a short black pole. He nodded in return, his hands quite full.
She walked by, greeting the next shop owner after him, and the next. Most she only greeted out of habit, as they seemed unremarkable, and in her mind she merely catalogued them for later use. Boris was a special case, though. She hadn't yet decided why, but something stood out about him—something beyond the oddity of a Russian national living in such a remote town as this. Given his age, she suspected him to have grown up in the former Soviet Union, though his perfect English suggested he'd lived in the States a long time. Rachel had resolved to ask him about it one day, but something still kept her back, a prickle of fear. Maybe it was the way he still maintained his strong physique even as his age advanced, in stark contrast to such a calm career as the owner of a little bookstore.
She stopped just around the corner at the end of the block, and looked around surreptitiously. With no one paying her much attention, Rachel leaned against the wall, letting her mind drift even as she focused her thoughts to a dagger's point on the rough area where Boris still stood. As the contradictory state pushed and pulled at her brain, she could feel it pressing into her vision, a small burst of pain rolling through her eyes as the orbs contracted slightly, pressure from an unknown source grasping at them, while the colors of the world shifted ever so slightly.
This was something Will had taught her, though for some reason she seemed far more adept at it than Will had ever managed. Maybe it was something like Rika had hypothesized, affinities and specialities, but Rachel hadn't seen enough data to come to any conclusion yet. It was one of the few spells that she could accomplish regularly without significant exertion. Maybe she really was adverse to other types of magic. She hoped it wasn't the case. An allergy or other aversion to an entire branch of magic seemed like a huge disadvantage, and Rachel needed every edge she could get.
She pushed harder, forcing the strange split in her mind wider. All of the color in the world began to desaturate, and the edges of objects grew less distinct. As she let the world shimmer in front of her eyes, the faint lines began to appear, much like the cloudy, hazy energy she'd seen in that ritual months ago. These were unmoving, however, and merely draped themselves between people, or to objects they were particularly attached to. Indeed, as she tried to examine Boris from a distance, she could see those faint lines connecting him to some of the books in his stack, as well as a few stronger lines trailing off toward his store.
One particularly strong line reached out to his pickup truck, which didn't surprise her, and one remarkably solid line to the room above his shop. Nothing too useful, though she was surprised he apparently lived at the shop and not at the house he owned on the outskirts of town. Nothing he was tied to, or people he cared about. Boris Morozov was still a cipher to her—one of the few remaining in the entire town.
As the pressure continued to build on her eyes, and her skull began a faint pounding from the effort, Rachel released the magic back to wherever it came from, and the world shifted back into normal colors once more. She let out a huge breath from the exertion, letting the wall hold her up for a moment while she gathered herself. After a moment's rest, she was off once more down the street, greeting the entire town as she went as if nothing had happened.
"It's a mess," Kendra Laushire agreed, as they examined the map on her desk. Rachel had joined her at her small estate on the west end of town. Kendra leaned over the table, her fiery curls brushing the surface as she pored over the proposal schematic. Rachel marveled once more at how she managed to keep her hair so gorgeous despite its length and clear rebellious attitude toward anything resembling organization. "He asked for this much space?"
"It'll encroach over a few normals," Rachel pointed out, "but no Awakened should be directly affected."
Kendra shook her head. "You shouldn't categorize people like that. It'll come to a bad end."
Rachel privately disagreed. Everyone categorized everyone else, that was human nature. It was the only way human beings knew how to interact with the world, by interpreting, categorizing and learning from patterns. This was just yet another category they had at their disposal; those with magic and those without. Still, arguing with Kendra Laushire wasn't about to get her very far.
"He's offering a pretty penny for it," Kendra noted with interest.
"Isn't that like nothing to you?"
She frowned. "It's not about my wealth, dear," Kendra replied dismissively, in the way only an upper-class British woman could, "it's about his own. A sum like this is princely for a man who makes fourteen quid an hour driving a lorry round town."
Rachel conceded the point. She hadn't factored in Julian's own wealth. "My mistake. You're right, of course. It's a lot for a donation to the council."
"Don't fret," Kendra said, still a tad condescending. "Either way, you're right about it not affecting the town. The students have mostly gone home for break. Did he declare his intentions for the space?"
"Well, that's settled then. We can't be giving out massive tracts of land to a man who won't tell us what manner of devilry he intends to wreak upon it. Not after that mess with the Grey cult," Kendra declared.
"Like he's just going to up and tell us?" Rachel furrowed her brow.
"Doubtful. Anything this big, Julian will keep close to the chest. He's not one for sharing, unfortunately. We'll have to force him in front of the council."
"I can't imagine him doing something as insane as trying to summon Gray-eyes by way of burning down a forest. At least Cinza helped us put a stop to it in time."
"He's not really popular enough to have the votes though, is he? I could test the waters, try to get a nose count."
"Well, I'd say don't bother, but sadly he seems intent on ruining our summer with whatever madness he's cooking up. I'm terribly curious to figure out what manner of ritual it entails." Kendra leaned back in her chair, grabbing a sheet off one stack of papers. "By the way, Rachel, you scored a ninety-three on your final exam. You're slipping a little. Did something change with your own ritual?"
"You knew?" Rachel asked, taken aback.
Kendra shrugged, not looking up from the paper she was scribbling through with her favorite red pen. "I know a thing or two about seeing magic in the air. You seem to be in constant flux in your own brain. That can't be healthy."
"I'm fine," Rachel insisted, though the information did trouble her. Fluctuations of magic in my brain?
Before she could get Kendra to elaborate, the phone in the corner of the room practically flung itself off its cradle with a earsplitting ring. Kendra had a particularly old looking rotary-style phone, but it was strictly superficial. The electronics inside were as modern as could be. It was all a façade. Kendra was simply old-fashioned enough that she hadn't transitioned to cell phones entirely, though with her wealth she kept everything in the best quality, upgrading regularly.
She picked up the receiver and muttered a few words that Rachel couldn't quite make out. Kendra was doing something to muffle her voice, she was sure of it. After a minute or so, she set the receiver down with a worried look on her face.
"It was Will. Something's happening," she said abruptly.
"You'd better hurry. It's near the old library."
Rachel stood up immediately. "Do I need anything?"
Kendra latched shut Rachel's bag with the new materials she had purchased. She handed it over with a frown. "I don't expect so, but do be careful anyway, dear. We do still need you around."
The sun was starting to go down as Rachel approached the old library. No matter how many times she came here, the cracked gargoyles and spiked archways unnerved her. Every step closer to the grounds chilled her bones a little more. She felt like there was a malevolent presence stalking the burned out husk of a building, though both Will and Kendra assured her many times over that nothing ever approached the fence.
Nothing except herself, of course. Rachel had ventured into that building more than a few times, albeit rarely with any success. Will kept telling her there wasn't anything to be found, but Rachel was stubborn. She knew the library must have some clue, some hidden cache of knowledge. Something must have survived the fire.
She clambered over the splintered wood supports, still layered with ash and laid out where they'd fallen. Her skirt caught a few times on the odd slab of unburnt wood. Navigating a caved-in library, with massive collapsed bookshelves and structurally-unsound staircases wasn't exactly one of Rachel's hobbies, but she did as she must. She felt it was her duty to find people using magic, and head them off before they could do too much damage. So far, she'd always managed to talk people down and invite them to a meeting, but she knew that lucky streak had to give way eventually.
Rachel wasn't supposed to be doing this. The members of the Council would be appalled at the risk—and the breach of trust. The Council's official stance was to approach newly awakened as a group, with Hector as backup in case anything went awry. Rachel disagreed. She felt that such an overwhelming presence would frighten off far more potentially newcomers than it would welcome. A show of force simply lead to an instinct for combat and defensiveness. Rachel preferred a gentler approach, and paid Kendra well in favors to help her keep it from Council as a whole.
She wished, of course, that no one would ever be awakened alone. In Rachel's ideal world, everyone wanting the ability to use magic would be carefully screened and selected to ensure stable, sensible growth, but world events conspired against her. The Three Gods had seen to that. Now the entire magical community had to deal with random awakenings on a regular basis. This would be the third such occurrence this month, and each was another burst of anxiety and fear for the Council. Would this next person be the one to topple their delicate balance?
A faint noise was coming from one of the rear study rooms, the only sections to be made entirely of stone and thus survive the inferno from the year prior. Rachel's hand instinctively went to the pouch at her waist, resting gently atop it as one might with a holstered pistol. She couldn't really do much to someone who truly meant to hurt her, but she had enough tricks up her sleeve to get away at least. More importantly, she had plenty of allies to call on only minutes away, and Will was watching out for her. Even now, with the thick stone and the trees and the many streets between them, Rachel could feel his vague presence, as he made no effort to mask it from her. It was like a comfortable cloak draped around her shoulders, knowing he was watching when she went to find the newly Awakened.
Rachel hadn't coined the term, and she wasn't exactly fond of it either. She felt like it implied too much superiority for people with magic. It felt hostile. By the time she'd gotten elected to the council, though, it was too late to try and push for a different name. So 'awakened' became the moniker for anyone with magic. Anyone who had read from the book, or—more accurately—one of the pieces they could find.
She was here, getting ash and dust caked over her jacket and skirt crawling through gaps underneath the broken library, to see if there was someone who had access to a previously unknown remnant of the book. Little flecks of black soot fell as she entered a room, her presence disturbing their rest. She had never believed in ghosts, but this building seemed infected with restless spirits.
Another noise—a cough. A male voice, middle aged if she guessed correctly. Rachel tried concentrating again, letting her mind drift into the limbo as Will had taught her, but she couldn't see anything. The only line she saw was one extending out from herself far into the distance, in the direction of her apartment where Will presumably sat at that very moment. She brushed her hand on it to reassure herself, though of course it was incorporeal and wholly unaffected.
Approaching someone newly awakened was always a harrowing prospect. If it was someone awakened through known pages but unknown to the Council, Rachel still had to contend with the possibility they were hostile to their budding organization—or simply paranoid and distrusting. Far worse, however, were those who managed to discover a new, previously unknown piece of the book. In that case, Rachel had no earthly idea what she could be walking into. There were still so many untold facets of magic. Every day they seemed to be uncovering new quirks and variations. Just a week ago, Will had spotted Natalie Hendricks casting astounding new spells out in the woods involving her animals. The girl was only twelve and already inventing new, exciting magic.
Rachel reached the doorway and crouched low, laying her hand on the stack of rubies in her pouch. She wasn't as adept with fire as most—Rika would have snickered at her attempts—but it was usually enough to distract or dissuade a newcomer. Certainly long enough for her to get away in a pinch. She crept forward slowly. One step at a time, pausing to listen for activity. Anything to give her a hint on what she might be walking into.
A loud sniffle. The room shuddered, the walls groaned. The air seemed to ripple outward, visible in the flecks of dust floating through the library. Rachel flinched, but the shockwave barely affected her. A type of movement magic, she concluded. More wide reaching than she was used to, though it seemed quite weak. She chanced a few steps toward the door. Her knuckles whitened around the rubies.
Another shockwave rippled through the air. The curtain behind her swayed, hurling dust into the air. Rachel tried her best, but she couldn't resist. She sneezed.
Rachel knew she only had one chance. She stepped out into the doorway, her arms outstretched and palms open (though she still kept a tight grip on the ruby, flipping it behind her fingers in a sleight-of-hand trick Rika had taught her). "I'm not here to fight."
As she'd guessed, the culprit was indeed a man, most likely in his mid thirties. He wore a plain business suit, black and blue, with a black briefcase sitting off next to the wall in the rear of the chamber. He, too, was sniffling at the thick layers of dust coating the entire room. His eyes were pale blue and wide with fear.
"So what do you want?"
"I'm here to explain a few things," Rachel began calmly. "Would you like to sit down?"
"Oh… okay." The man took a few cautious steps back, lowering gently onto the blackened stone bench behind him.
"What's your name?" Rachel asked gently, her hands still wide. She tried to project as much of a gentle and disarming air as she could muster.
"Rosenberg. Jeffrey Rosenberg."
"May I call you Jeff?" He nodded. "Has anyone explained this to you yet?"
"There was a girl. She… she helped me. She told me I'd found magic. Then she disappeared into thin air… was she real? Who was she?"
Rachel shook her head, totally unsurprised. Grey-eyes never fails. "She's a friend, but I don't know the answer to that. I'm sorry. I can promise you that I won't disappear though." Rachel took the bench opposite his, which was thankfully less laden with ash and dust. She smoothed out her skirt, trying to look a bit more professional before continuing. "She was right though. You've gained access to magic. We call it 'awakening'."
"So I'm… 'awakened'? Is that it?"
"Right. You're one of us now."
"Does that mean I have to pay a fee or something?"
Rachel laughed. "No, of course not. Though there is a meeting you're welcome to attend, if you're interested. A gathering of people like us. We're meeting tonight, actually."
Jeff didn't seem interested. That wasn't good. Every step toward integrating with the group was one step away from a crazed maniac that put them all in danger. Rachel pressed on.
"Do you have any questions? Anything I can help with?" This was an important question for a newcomer. Rachel wanted to get a sense of their priorities. Many asked for help protecting themselves, which was an obvious warning flag. Fear and instability were dangerous when dealing with magic, when innate powers could not be taken away or disabled easily. Those who wanted to know the risks and dangers involved she trusted a little more, though they could just be trying to discern their own limitations before striking out.
The worst were obvious. Those people who asked, quite directly, how they could get stronger. She kept a close eye on those few.
Jeff Rosenberg managed to surprise her, though. "Can I get rid of it?"
Rachel was taken aback. She should have seen it coming eventually, but no one had ever asked to get rid of magic before. Magic wasn't something you could stumble into, after all. It was always deliberate. She hadn't ever bothered to come up with an answer.
"I don't know. I'm sorry." Jeff looked crestfallen. His eyes drooped, his body slumped visibly. "May I ask why?"
"Just seems like a bad lot," he answered. "I tried some things, but I don't think it's for me. I don't really want it in my life. Or near my family."
Rachel nodded. She was beginning to get a better sense of the man. He was as typical a businessman as you could find, only cared about his family and his work. Anything beyond his little circle of life may as well not exist, so long as it didn't try to affect him. Rachel decided he just needed straight, simple answers. "I understand. If it helps, so far as we can tell there's no downsides to not using magic. You could go back to your life as if nothing had happened."
"I'd know better though. So would you, and that silver-eyed girl." Jeff looked uncomfortable even mentioning her. Had he been that unnerved?
Rachel had to try and salvage the situation. Her best result left was probably to send him on his way with goodwill, and hope he never attempted a single spell. "I promise, if we ever cross paths, I'll act as if I never met you. I know that's not exactly reassuring, since we just met, but I hope it's enough. As for Grey-eyes, I've never known her to speak about another person. Not even once."
"So you don't know her name either?" Jeff asked, raising his eyebrows slightly.
"No. She appears to help those newly awakened, then disappears again without so much as a goodbye. I've only met her the once, same as you." This wasn't (strictly speaking) true, though Rachel felt she hadn't learned much from their other encounters besides a much clearer look at her face. Still, Jeff certainly didn't need to know that. "You can return to your life as if nothing ever happened."
"Right," Jeff mumbled, unconvinced. "Not likely. I'm gettin' outta here. Only stopped in town to rest a bit." He rose to his feet.
"If you ever need help though, or if something does happen, please—" Rachel fished through her bag for her card. It was plain white, but on good cardstock with her name, phone number and email address. After a moment's pause, Jeff took it gingerly. "Don't hesitate to call."
He nodded slowly, and pocketed it. Rachel thought the encounter had gone as well as it could. Now she needed to advance her own agenda, if it was at all possible. She'd talked Jeff down from the ledge, as it were, and it was time for whatever reward she could wrangle from him.
"May I ask you a question?"
"Shoot," Jeff replied, still glancing around nervously. For a brief moment, Rachel forced her vision to slip, trying to spot any connections he might have, or the movement of energy within the room. There was nothing she could sense, putting her at ease. Jeff didn't seem to have anyone connected to him nearby, nor was he gathering energy for a surprise assault. She could afford to be a bit more assertive.
"I'm looking for the girl, the one you just met. I'd like to speak with her."
"You're not gonna do anything to her, right?" Jeff responded cautiously. His entire body shifted to a defensive stance. Rachel was taken aback at just how quickly Grey-eyes managed to inspire allegiance and protection amongst those she met. Was it a deliberate action? A spell she cast? Or was the simple act of helping people through the transition enough to instill devotion, as her cult would seem to indicate. Rachel would have given quite a lot to be able to influence people as easily as Grey-eyes could.
"Not at all. I want to work with her," Rachel answered honestly. "She's doing the world a huge favor, and totally alone as far as I can tell. I think we can do great things together."
"Scarier people than you have said things just like that," Jeff said dubiously.
Rachel mentally sighed. It had been the wrong sentiment. "We already complement each other, with my… association following up on the newly Awakened. I just want to make sure no one is missed."
"What if some people want to be missed?"
Rachel shook her head. "It's the world we live in now, Mr. Rosenberg. When someone can conjure lightning from their fingertips and shoot it hundreds of feet away, those people need to be contacted. Even if it inconveniences them."
Jeff's expression twisted into suspicion and fear. "That's just wrong." He started to walk toward the doorway leading out of the chamber.
Rachel had made a mistake. She'd allowed too much of her own philosophy into the conversation, instead of tailoring it properly for the listener. She'd have to remember that for the next meeting. Rachel stood to leave as well, but a niggling question hanging in the back of her mind still needed a proper answer before she could call this meeting finished.
"If I might ask, Mr. Rosenberg—and feel free to say no—why did you come out to the library tonight?"
Jeff stopped and scratched his head. "I don't actually know. I was following something, like a light, then I found my way in here and saw the paper. Thought it looked interesting." It looked like it was bothering him more with every word. She wasn't about to get the answer she wanted, but she had an idea of what had prompted the man's venture. Or rather, who.
Rachel quickly interrupted him before the confusion got worse. "Thank you. It's probably nothing. Do you have the piece of paper you found?"
"Yeah," he answered brightly, opening his briefcase and pulling it out. "This thing?"
As she'd suspected, it was one of the copies they'd received and not an original piece. Rachel held out her hand. "Would you mind if I kept it?"
Jeff handed it over without a moment's hesitation, which gave her immeasurable waves of relief. She'd expected more resistance. "All yours, kid."
"Thank you." Rachel packed it away neatly, despite it being clearly larger than the small pouch she had fastened at her waist. Jeff's eyes widened. "As I said, please do call if you ever have any questions." She turned to leave. "Have a good life, Mr. Rosenberg."
With that parting line, she walked out of the library. That had gone better than she'd expected, though not as well as she'd hoped. She didn't have time to consider it further. There was a meeting soon that she simply could not miss.
After all, Rachel DuValle was going to save the world—whether it wanted her to or not.