Chapter 5 — Apathy
Rachel wanted to call out to her, but Rika was already heading out the door with her new friend in tow. It would have been totally inappropriate in the middle of the Council discussion to shout across a room of people to the pariah of the group, but in spite of every bridge Rika had burned, Rachel wanted her old best friend back. The muttered relief from her right immediately dispelled that opportunity for the time being.
She glanced at Joshua Miller, sitting to her side with a perpetual disinterested expression. It was Rachel's deepest desire at that moment to give him a strong look of disdain and somehow shame him into accepting Rika back into their world, but she couldn't justify it. Rika had thoroughly wrecked any chance of that relationship rekindling. Her own strained and neglected friendship with Rika made them look like soul mates compared to Josh. Rika cheated on his best friend with him, then deliberately maneuvered the two of them into getting her access to the Market, all the while manipulating the two of them to spill any magical knowledge they had. Once Rika had everything she wanted, she'd ditched the both of them, with only a quick thank you and a goodbye before leaving two dumbstruck boys with a rift never to be repaired.
No, as much as Rachel wished she could rehabilitate Rika, she knew the wounds were too raw. More importantly, she had her own standing in their little community to think about. If she lost face, she'd lose the following she'd built up, and her goals would be that much more difficult to achieve.
"You could have been a bit more helpful there," she murmured to Josh.
"Hey, you're the one who insisted Will's secret weapons stay secret," he whispered back. "I'm just rolling with your game plan."
"I appreciate that, but still, you didn't need to antagonize Ryan."
"He'll be fine."
"Rachel dear, before everyone starts getting fidgety, shouldn't we continue?" Mabel prompted. Rachel nodded, taking a deep breath before standing up again.
"Now that the first order of business is out of the way, we have a few other matters to take care of, if everyone would please settle in for a little longer."
The room quieted down once more. Rachel took a quick visual survey, and her hopes sunk even further. After the excitement of the Scrap and Rika's departure, the temperature of the room was once again relaxed and ultimately bored. Several had already stepped out. Without the community's primary troublemaker or the inherent drama of their latest discovery, commanding their attention on the less glamorous matters was her true challenge. Rachel knew it was the details that would make or break their growing society. They needed to build a stable system of governance, else once they emerged into the world they'd be helpless to protect themselves and their interests from the powers that be. As it stood, the only people who continually showed interested beyond the council were Kendra Laushire, Ryan Walker, and the man she was about to name.
"We've had a new proposal for a research experiment from Julian Black, which would encompass a significant region of the east end of town." Rachel nodded to Josh, who unrolled a map of the town—with Julian's planned ritual site outlined—and stuck it to the chalkboard with a few magnets. "The Council cannot grant approval on this project, as Mr. Black declined to give the details of his experiment, but as it does not encroach on any existing territorial claims, we grant Mr. Black the floor pending a vote of audience."
Rachel gestured toward the voting board, and threw her will into the movement as if it were a tangible presence sliding along her arm and into the air. The extension of her mind reached out and scraped away the chalk dust from the previous vote, slicing cleanly between the board and the fragments that were stuck on the surface. They fell away, leaving the board far more clean than any eraser would ever achieve.
Once again, the pieces of chalk laying in the tray began to float up and indicate votes. Rachel wanted to try and read the connections in the air to see who was manipulating each piece. If she could trace those faint lines back, she could discover which among the attendees had the smooth, quick motions in the air, and which were barely managing to float their chalk, their piece barely wobbling up to the board and drawing a line before falling once more.
They'd taught every attendee the process of basic telekinesis, and if only Rachel could find out who held each piece, there was so much they could learn about the variations in people's affinity to certain types of magic, or the differences in movement techniques, or strength relative to body type and size. So much data, but in the interests of anonymity and political expediency, Rachel had to repress the urge and stick to her principles. She contented herself with the knowledge that no one else could detect such things, as it was a secret shared between a very small group. Of all the people that might ever attend a meeting, only herself and Will knew how to see the links that attached people, objects, anything with significance.
The vote was almost unanimously in favor, which wasn't surprising. Most were willing to let anyone speak, and the one or two nay votes were usually just people being obnoxious.
"Very well. The 'ayes' have it. Mr. Black, you have the floor." Rachel took her seat again.
As she did, Julian took a few steps forward from his spot on the window side of the room. He was dressed plainly in all dark colors, and he wore a brown baseball cap with the logo of the delivery company he worked for. Rachel was surprised he would give away such information so publicly, but took it as a good sign. The general air of distrust and secrecy amongst the group was bad enough already, with the measures they took to reduce spying and leaks of information. Rachel hoped they could raise the level of internal cooperation before the entire venture fell apart. Kendra's public appearance and now Julian's negotiating out in the open were a good start.
"Hi, everyone. I'm sure you're wonderin' why I'm tryin' to take over half the town," Julian started, with the toothy grin of a man who clearly should have visited an orthodontist in his youth. Still, he spoke with a quick, easy charm—one that caught Rachel off-guard. It wasn't as though anything he said was particularly charismatic, and he certainly didn't look very appealing.
Julian Black was exactly the sort of person you'd expect in a dead-end job driving around delivering packages, as well as the sort who'd probably end up stealing quite a few of those packages (not that he had any history as such. Rachel had looked into it thoroughly after receiving his proposal request). He was tall with a thick beard, slightly overweight but still in surprisingly good shape thanks to the time spent in the warehouses out of town, loading and unloading the truck.
"Now, you all know me as the guy who delivers your Amazon orders. That's fine, but between the few of us runnin' the show, we have a hard enough time keeping up with the load during the school season, and it only gets worse as the internet keeps growin'. So I'm gonna try something special, something to affect an entire neighborhood for at least a week or two. We'll basically be deliverin' packages by chuckin' 'em out with our brains. Cool, right?" Again, the toothy grin emerged.
Rachel immediately saw a major potential concern. Since Julian already seemed to be done, she decided she may as well address it straight away. "Mr. Black, doesn't that risk discovery?"
"Well, of course, miss, but we're pretty sure it won't be a problem. We'll still be drivin' out to areas before doing the actual deliveries. More efficient that way anyway. So there won't be packages flyin' over the whole town."
"What about the people you deliver to?"
"No one ever notices us delivering anyway," Julian said with a quick shake of his head. "They just check their porch later in the day to see if their stacks of textbooks have shown up yet," he added with a pointed glance at Kendra, who didn't react in the slightest.
"Still seems like a huge risk. As stated in our charter, one of the primary goals of this council is to suppress knowledge from reaching the unawakened until such time we feel ready to reveal ourselves to the world. As one of your elected Councilors I can't sign off on such a proposal without more evidence that it will not put us all in greater danger."
"Well, miss, I get what you're sayin', I just think you're wrong is all. Seems worth a trial run at least. We can deny somethin' as simple as throwin' things around if anyone happens to spot one truck."
"That's not even a ritual, though," Ryan spoke up. As irritating as Ryan could be, she was nonetheless grateful for his support. "You and your two friends are just gonna be doing simple telekinetics. You could do that without claiming up all that space. What's it for?"
Rachel held her face steady, but in her lap she clenched her fist tightly in triumph. This was exactly what she'd hoped would happen, but she couldn't have prompted a response herself without overstepping her bounds as a councilor, while Kendra would simply appear to be acting out of self-interest. Ryan was the perfect compromise.
If only he'd had pressured the man more. Julian didn't seem set back in the slightest. "Right'o, but here's the thing: throwin' heavy boxes through the air isn't exactly easy. Y'all know that just as well as me. So we've cooked up something that should make it all a bit easier to toss. Won't affect anyone else in the area in the slightest, based on our testin' out in the woods. Ask Cinza, she was there."
Heads swivelled to regard Cinza, who shrugged with a twinkle in her eye. She brushed a few strands of silver hair out of her face with a twist of her head before speaking. Rachel would have rolled her eyes if she were a less composed individual. Every tiny movement Cinza made was so obviously staged and calculated. Her hair sparkled unnaturally with the motion. How does no one else see she's a blatant fraud? Her followers seemed to believe her performance wholeheartedly.
Cinza's echoing, ethereal voice whispered through the room. "The man speaks the truth. I was there and felt no ill influence at his rituals. I see no reason why they couldn't be expanded into the town."
"See that?" Julian added. "Nothin' to worry about."
If only Cinza's word wasn't gospel to the town in matters magical, Rachel sighed inwardly as the ethereal voice cast her support. Even as Cinza lied through her teeth, the entire room was murmuring approval. Ryan was nodding, his fears apparently sated. Rachel knew better, however. Will and Rachel had long since resolved to keep an eye on her every movement, just in case. As far as they knew, Cinza and Julian had never spent so much as a minute together outside the council room.
Rachel frowned. She hazarded a glance at her two companions, but Josh seemed to have tuned out the conversation entirely, while Mabel was gazing at the far wall unblinkingly. Neither were of much help when it came to proposals and disputes. For the majority of every council, Rachel ran the entire show. Under normal circumstances, she actually enjoyed it, as it gave her much greater control over the outcome. Today she felt uneasy. Was it something about Julian that was putting her off guard? Or was it Rika, re-emerging into her life after so many months away?
With no help forthcoming, Rachel turned to face the room as a whole, where the air was full of the same general apathy as her own table. No one seemed to care. After the bit of drama that directly affected them, they were all ready to leave, but couldn't on the off chance some later decision might still involve them. No one wanted to be involved in the process. No one was trying to build something. Everyone just wanted to be left alone.
Rachel felt like tearing her hair out at the sight, but she couldn't force people to do anything. She had to remain neutral. If she began antagonizing these people, or tried to force them too far away from their comfort zone, she'd lose the modicum of power she'd managed to scrape together over the last year. They'd vote her out in a heartbeat. She'd be further from her goals, less able to help everyone like she wanted to.
The world needed Rachel DuValle. She had to make some sacrifices if she wanted to keep her position.
"Does anyone else wish to raise an objection to Mr. Black's proposal?" she asked the room. There was only stony silence. Even Kendra, whom Rachel could normally count upon to help reign in such reckless moves, was silent. Then again, after her little maneuver earlier in the meeting, Rachel couldn't be sure of that alliance anymore. There was going to be a confrontation later, she had no doubt.
"All right. Vote in the usual way, please, if Mr. Black's proposal to change his delivery method on a trial basis to experiment with movement magic can proceed."
The chalk floated upward, and to Rachel's dismay, there were only three votes against. Her own dissenting vote was joined by two other neat, little white lines. The rest of the room was in favor of a proposal to which they had barely paid any attention. She nodded in defeat, before wiping away the board once more. "Passed. Mr. Black, you may proceed. May I ask that you provide me with a list of dates and times you will most likely be attempting this new system? So that the council can be prepared, of course."
He assented, the grin only getting wider. Rachel had to force herself not to flinch at the sight of his ugly trainwreck of a mouth. She could only hope Julian didn't get too reckless—or worse, provoke a response from Omega. He wouldn't take kindly to such a public display of magical ability.
Rachel brushed the fear away. Omega was still out of town, by all reports, and he wasn't allowed to return. They didn't need to worry yet about another showdown.
God help them all when that day came again.
The rest of the meeting passed just as tediously. A few other minor disputes on the level of Rika and Ryan's argument over pricing, though without the two hotheads in the room they were solved quickly and without much incident. A couple of Cinza's followers were miffed over one of Ryan's friends being granted permission to Awaken, and demanded the council allow them full review over any new sponsorships, which was (of course) immediately voted down by the group at large. None in an individualistic democracy like this group would dare give up more power than they already had in controlling the flow of new magical abilities, and certainly not to an obsessed irrational group like that. Even Cinza herself seemed apathetic at the proposal, though she hid it well behind a stream of her usual bold rhetoric.
Rachel was getting tired of dealing with the cult of Grey-eyes and their petty grievances over new sponsorships. One day, if Rachel was ever able to get her to sit down and talk, she wanted to see what Gray-eyes herself thought of her newfound status as a living god. From the three brief interactions Rachel had experienced, she was thoroughly convinced that the girl was human, or at least started out that way. She was immeasurably powerful when compared to their meager efforts, but Rachel had seen something vulnerable and lonely underneath her calm pale facade.
Someday, Rachel would get her to open up. After all, they both sought the same ends, didn't they? With Grey-eyes supporting every new magic user through the Awakening, and Rachel making sure they didn't end up killing themselves afterwards, they made for an effective—if totally disconnected—partnership. Rachel wanted to talk to her for real, to let her know that her efforts weren't in vain.
Finally, they called for the (re)-election of the council (as no one else could be bothered to take up a position of responsibility in their growing community), and the group was filing out the doors with suppressed relief.
Well, at least they still try to hide how little they care, Rachel thought bitterly.
"Kendra, before you go, can I have a word?" she called as Kendra rose from her seat, the picture of elegance. She nodded, though she did look a touch annoyed at the interruption. Kendra was headed back to the Market immediately after the meeting, as usual, to open it to the rush of customers and merchants that always followed any gathering. Their community was small and spread wide, and while Kendra had a bit of magic up her sleeve to allow for easier access to patrons living far away, it was still an inconvenience for most. Her best business days were always those immediately surrounding an official meeting.
The rest of the room departed without a word, including—to her dismay—Josh and Mabel. Rachel had hoped one of them might be willing to help her in a meeting with Kendra, but Josh was already too detached to care, and Mabel was enigmatic enough in her own right. Rachel still wasn't quite sure what Mabel's motivations or goals were, but she was an invaluable asset in running the meetings and keeping track of the more troublesome attendees, with her spells and rituals for detecting names and other identifying characteristics. Knowledge magic was still rare and mostly unknown, and very difficult to use as Rachel could attest herself. Those with an affinity for it—like Mabel or her own beloved Will—were quite probably the most valuable resource on the planet at the present.
"You're angry," Kendra noted.
"I thought we were friends. Or allies, at least," Rachel shot back.
"We are friends, love. But sometimes the public interest takes precedence. I thought you of all people would understand that."
"They don't need to know everything. They aren't ready for it all yet."
"Oh, come now Rachel. This isn't about some terrible secret. This is you trying to get a leg-up on the competition with an unfair advantage thanks to your relationship with a particular anonymous reader."
"His name is Will," Rachel retorted, in spite of herself. The room was totally empty and still under the effects of Hector's magic, so she wasn't concerned about being overheard, but even voicing his name was a risk. She felt a prideful need to defend him though, regardless of the consequences.
"Will can take care of himself, love," Kendra continued without missing a beat. "This ability to detect affinities, to whatever degree you two have developed it, is invaluable to our little community. I'd rather it be out in the open for the public good."
"You could have asked me first."
Kendra shrugged. "I could have, but I chose not to. Regardless, outside of the two of us and your friend Josh, no one else is aware of his status as Awakened, are they?" Rachel shook her head. "Good. So his secret remains safe, while the council can be approached by anyone to learn more about affinities, which we still know so little about. If they even exist. Everyone's happy."
Rachel still didn't like it, but she was forced to concede the point. Knowing the affinity of oneself, or of a spell or even an object, was useful knowledge and something they should have already been cataloguing. It would help develop new spells and find new connections, without forcing people to rediscover the same processes endlessly. In fact, keeping that ability hidden from the Council went against her own desires of getting everything out in the open, away from the secrecy and fear that had plagued them from day one. She was wrong to have hidden it, though she'd done it with the best intentions of protecting Will.
"You're right. I'm sorry."
"Don't sweat it, love. Was there anything else?"
"Auctioning off a Scrap is a huge risk—" Rachel started.
Kendra waved a hand dismissively to interrupt her. "I wouldn't have lost."
"I thought you still couldn't access the funds from your father's company?"
"I don't inherit Laushire Enterprises until he retires or kicks the bucket, true. The contract states it will pass to his only child upon his cessation of duties, and unless I've got a secret sibling hiding out there in the world somewhere, I'm his only child. But I still have a substantial trust fund that was set up for me as a youth, as well as my own personal assets and investments, plus my income from teaching here." Kendra smiled. "Don't fret, Rachel. I'm still wealthy enough to buy the school if I had any desire to."
Rachel nodded, reassured. If Kendra purchased the Scrap, she knew it would be in safe hands. There were far more unstable elements than Kendra to gain such a potent new piece of magic. Creation-magic, as the new Scrap appeared to be from Will's examination, was one of the least-explored branches they'd discovered. It seemed to detail how to create and animate matter itself, as would be implied, but also to imbue it with some limited intelligence. Golems—or robots, as Will preferred—that would carry out instructions and perform tasks. One's own little army of servants, although little was a something of a misnomer.
They had no idea how large or small these golems might turn out to be, or the true depth of their capabilities. The only successful creation of a golem was a few months prior, and it resulted in a three-centimeter tall man made of paperclips that wandered a desk for a few minutes before crumbling when Will had promptly blacked out due to the strain. Evidently, animating and maintaining an object took an enormous amount of energy, though Rachel expected it could be reduced with research and practice. As far as they knew, no one else had any knowledge of the entire branch.
So how does Kendra manage something as large as the Market every few days? So many pieces of the system still didn't fit. It might be magic, but it clearly still followed some rules, if apparently not the usual laws of nature.
"I really do need to get going, love, though I do enjoy our chats," Kendra said, snapping shut her bag once more.
"Do come by the Market once in a while. We've missed having you around."
"Too much to do."
"Ah," Kendra's face softened. "Have more been awakening?"
Rachel nodded. "Someone out there is spreading copies of the first page. Leaving them where random civilians can run into them, or deliberately steering them into finding one."
"Most wouldn't pick one up, much try to read the blasted thing. They can't, without assistance."
"You know who's helping them, though."
Kendra raised an eyebrow. "Grey-eyes?"
"Every single time, from what I can tell." Rachel took her seat once more, letting her aching legs rest. Her mind may not have required much sleep anymore, but her body never quite kept up with the new regimen. "No matter the person, no matter the place. Grey-eyes always appears somehow."
"I'd love to know how she does it," Kendra wondered aloud. "Teleportation should be impossible, or at the very least make quite a racket, what with the thunderclap that'd rush into the empty space. Yet she vanishes with a whisper every time."
"Kendra, you've created an entire pocket of space that you run a market in. How could teleportation be so hard?"
Kendra frowned. "You ought to know better than that, love. You didn't do that poorly in physics."
"This is magic, not science."
"Are the two so different?"
"Well, when we discover new magic without the crutch of that bloody book, we approach it by experimentation, do we not? Forming a hypothesis, trying out various ideas, seeing what happens or what goes wrong. We learn from those mistakes, adjust our findings accordingly, and carry on. Spot on for the scientific method, really."
Rachel shook her head. "But we're breaking the laws of physics. What we do is totally unnatural."
Kendra gave her a scathing look. "You're the foremost representative of our culture to date, the one we'll be looking to lead us whenever this bubble bursts and the world discovers what we can do, and you have the gall to call us unnatural?"
Rachel was taken aback. She felt heat rushing to her face. What had she just said? Was that how she really felt?
"I'm sorry, love, but I must be off. I hope I've given you something to think about." Kendra shouldered her bag and left the room, leaving Rachel alone with distressing thoughts circling around her mind.
"How was your day?" Will asked, glancing up from his laptop.
"I think Julian's trying to take over the town," Rachel answered, exhausted. She took her shoes off and laid them carefully by the entryway, in contrast to Will's lazily tossed sneakers. It was a habit she'd picked up from Rika, and in her modern mindset the organization and cleanliness appealed to her far more. She wished Will would do the same, but knew it was completely at odds with his laid-back personality. That same relaxed—but still quite aware—mindset was what had originally attracted her in the first place. Rachel was always so stressed and anxious in life, both before she'd enhanced her mind and after, that having someone she could rely on to bring her down to earth was a godsend.
She took off her jacket as well, hanging it on the post, and took up her favorite blanket draped over the back of the couch. Will picked up the laptop and set it on the table, making space for her. Rachel stretched out her legs across the couch, letting her head rest in his lap warmed from the heat of the computer.
"What did Viper want?"
Will shuddered. "Apparently someone is interfering with his stuff, stealing his materials. Says someone's trying to kill him."
"And he came to you?" Rachel asked, confused. As far as most knew, Will was aware, but not awakened.
"Nah, he wanted you. Still, I looked into it after Mason got me down. Couldn't see a thing connecting to Viper's usual hideaways."
"Hm," Rachel murmured. "Who's crazy enough to go after Viper, and skilled enough to hide it?"
"No idea, but I'm scared of them."
"Keep an eye out, honey?"
Rachel smiled and closed her eyes to concentrate. This was normally one of the best ways for her to puzzle out problems. Will's presence surrounding her gave her peace of mind she simply didn't know otherwise. She felt safe and secure here, and her mind was freed from local concerns, letting her focus on the big picture. Will had one hand running through her hair gently while he continued to work, and she simply rested there. They enjoyed the silence together.
Today, however, Rachel's brain could not reach out to consider plans for expanding the council, or the various eventualities she had considered for contact with the outside world. Her last conversation with Kendra was stuck at the forefront of her mind, nagging Rachel to respond to the accusations that had been thrown at her.
"Will, am I prejudiced against awakened people?" Rachel asked, her eyes still closed.
"I think we're gonna need a word for that eventually. Magic-ist? Gray-ist?"
"Because every last one of them are always wearing that same plain black or gray hoodie and dark jeans."
"Why are people still doing that anyway? Didn't we already prove that clothing doesn't even affect rituals?"
"Maybe it's just a cool fashion trend now. Hey, remember when you were into fashion?"
Rachel laughed. "I spent so many days with Hailey Winscombe in Seattle scoping out new clothes."
"I'm just glad she got you out of that 'dresses are sexist' phase."
"But seriously, honey," Rachel asked again, opening her eyes to look up at the face she loved. "Kendra said something today. Well, I said something, and she pointed it out. That I think we're all unnatural. Is that wrong of me?"
Will saved whatever he was working on and closed the laptop, then set a hand to her face gently. "You know I'm horribly biased right?"
"As honest as you can get, please."
"I think you're the best thing to ever happen to our little gathering of witchery. I wish you'd invited me in sooner…" he said pointedly. Rachel grimaced. She'd neglected to tell Will about magic until the incident with the ritual in her room, long after she'd awakened herself. "...but the work you're doing to organize people, to set up a society and a government, it's good work. We're all tribal people at heart, right? And if we don't organize, we end up competing king-of-the-hill style til everyone else gets knocked down. You're making sure that doesn't happen."
"But couldn't I do that and still think of them all as beneath me?"
"Rachel, you're their elected leader. They voted you in. Clearly you've doing something right."
"Like being voted in means anything about the quality of a leader," Rachel grumbled.
Will grinned. "So maybe you're doing a terrible job and no one can tell because we're all too stupid to know the difference."
"I don't think you're stupid."
"Honey, you don't need to be nice. I've seen you work. Compared to you, I'm about as smart as a caterpillar. You're light years ahead. Way better than Julian."
"Thanks… wait, what about Julian?"
"...You didn't know?" Will asked, taken aback.
Rachel shook her head, which had a surprisingly pleasant sensation against the fabric of Will's pants.
"He's been putting out feelers about trying to get himself elected to the council. Building up trust and connections, you know how it goes."
"Julian Black on the council?" Rachel wondered aloud, with a bitter taste in her mouth.
"He's a selfish, power-hungry bastard."
"Wow. No mincing words on this one."
"Who did you hear about this from?"
Will shook his head. "No one told me. I happened to overhear him campaigning while I was at Hector's store. He was talking to a couple of those Grey-eye weirdos."
Rachel sighed. "If he got their votes, he might have a shot. Enough people between his friends, the cult and the floaters that he could probably knock Josh off if he wanted to."
"What does that mean for you?"
"I don't know yet," Rachel frowned. "It's not like Josh does much anyway, but he's predictable. That's way more useful to me. Do you know what Julian proposed today?"
"You literally just got home, Rachel."
"...Right. He's up to something big in the neighborhoods. Says he's just trying to make deliveries more efficient."
"But you don't believe him," Will prompted.
"I've only met the guy once."
"What did you think of him?"
"Of the guy that delivered my graphics card?"
"Yeah, what did he seem like to you?"
"Like a delivery guy? I just took the box and shut the door again."
"Nothing at all?"
"Sorry, honey, I don't go around trying to read every single person I meet," Will said irritably.
"It's okay," Rachel sighed. "I'm sorry. That'd be ridiculous."
"So what's he up to?"
"I… don't know yet. Kendra and I talked it over, and we're sure he wants the space to do some serious ritual work."
"At that scale?" Will asked, his eyebrows creased in worry.
"Now you know why I'm concerned."
"Between this and the people that have been disappearing, I wonder how long we can keep everything under control." She sighed, pausing to take a sip of the glass of water Will had set out for her. "If we can just do this properly, think of everything we could solve. The energy problem would be a piece of cake, for one. Global hunger and food distribution could be improved. If I'm right, we could wipe out so many diseases and viruses without any effort at all. So many problems could be solved with magic."
Will took hold of her hand and gripped it firmly. "You've got this. I trust you."
Rachel smiled, but she wasn't reassured. For all Will's support did for her emotionally, mentally she was a trainwreck of concern and doubt. She'd given him that speech many times before, of course, but every time it seemed even further away than before, as she seemed to lose control bit by bit over the hundred-plus Awakened currently running around Rallsburg.
What if Julian Black wasn't the type to research thoroughly ahead of time? What if he ended up destroying half the town?
That's insane, Rachel reminded herself. It's not like he can even pull together that much power. The rules of energy still applied, even if no one quite understood how they worked anymore. He couldn't just create power from nothing; so long as his body was the conduit for whatever forces he tried to muster, Rachel felt reasonably assured Julian wouldn't be able to do too much damage.
She relaxed and settled back into Will's lap more comfortably, ready to let her mind rest for a few minutes—but as Rika would say, fate wasn't having any of that crap tonight.
A sharp rapping on their apartment door. Stiff knuckles wrapped in gloves.
"It's the sheriff," Rachel said abruptly, springing to life once more.
"How do you do that?"
Will raised an eyebrow. "Do I have a knocking pattern?"
"Yes, it's called 'walking right in because you own the place.'" Rachel clambered to her feet, brushing dust off her skirt and straightening out her hair as best she could. "Do I look okay?"
"Honey, I don't think our sheriff cares what you look like."
"Just tell me."
"You look like an upstanding, responsible member of society." Will brushed a hand through her hair and plucked out a small green leaf that had gotten stuck.
"You didn't mention that until now?" Rachel asked, annoyed.
"I thought it looked nice."
She rolled her eyes at his grin, but gave him a quick peck on the lips all the same. She hurried to answer the door before the sheriff got impatient. The rain had started to pick up again, and their apartment's walkway wasn't particularly well protected from the wind and cold. As such, Sheriff Jackie Nossinger was looking a bit worse for wear as Rachel opened the door to greet her.
"Good evening, sheriff."
"Hi, Rachel," Jackie replied. She was a large, robust woman, frequently impatient and loud-mouthed, but always fair-minded. Rachel had warmed up to her as the perfect sort of no-nonsense law enforcement she'd always desired, and Jackie Nossinger fit the bill perfectly for the future she envisioned. Over time, Rachel had been sure to involve herself in ride-alongs, help settle disputes, and generally make herself a useful asset to the sheriff both through her own abilities and Will's magically-obtained tips.
That said, the sheriff was woefully uninformed of the real goings-on in her town, and Rachel suspected tonight had something to do with that secret half of her jurisdiction—the half that was currently responsible for importing significant quantities of precious gemstones into the town.
"I take it this isn't a social visit?" Rachel prompted gently. Jackie seemed to find her voice, though her eyes were still wide with something like fear.
"Look, I know you kids mess around with some weird shit." Rachel shot a look over her shoulder to Will, who seemed equally surprised. Maybe their good sheriff wasn't as ignorant as she thought. "I don't bring it up and I don't ask questions because it's never been a problem."
"And now it's a problem," Rachel concluded. "What happened?" Her heart sank into her stomach. If the sheriff was coming to her in person, it couldn't possibly be anything good.
"Get in the car and I'll show you."
Rachel picked up the small leather pouch containing her more useful possessions from its hook near the door and fastened it around her waist. Will gave her a significant look. She felt somewhat reassured. No matter what she might be walking into, she'd have her lover's eyes keeping watch for any danger.
A quick nod and she was out the door.
"Isn't this outside of town?" Rachel asked as they bounced through a poorly-maintained forest road.
"Barely, yeah, but staties ain't coming out this far more than once every two weeks at best. Just aren't enough of them. So I come check in when I can."
The car lurched off the road and into the RV park, which looked mostly deserted. A few lights were on, and Rachel could see smoke from a small fire in the distance, but otherwise the park was forebodingly empty. They bounced along the rough ground between sad, empty encampments until finally grinding to a halt at a particularly forlorn spot on the edge of the park.
Rachel got out of the car, her hand firmly grasping a pair of rubies tucked in her bag. She expected to run if anything happened; Rachel had never been in a fight, and didn't plan to start now. Still, Rika had taught her a few things to defend herself if it ever came to it, and she practiced them often.
Rachel crept toward the door on the side, which was slightly ajar. The sheriff followed a few steps behind, her pistol drawn and ready. She'd never seen Jackie this afraid, and that fear began to double down on her own.
"What should I be expecting in here?" Rachel whispered.
"A whole lotta blood and death," Jackie hissed. "And I'm not goin' back in there unless I have to. You shout if you need somethin'." She nodded at the door.
Rachel steeled herself. "Fine. Be right back I guess."
She hesitated, her hand on the door, and let her mind slip into the altered state as Will had taught her. It wouldn't tell her if someone was inside; Rachel could only see the connections drawn from whatever she was focusing on, and she couldn't focus on something she didn't know was there. In this case, it was herself, and the faint but pure white line that flew out into the distance, representing Will watching her from afar. She held onto that line as her strength and pulled the door open.
She saw bodies. The men scorched, electrocuted and burned alive, the little girl with the flesh cleanly scooped away from her body. The clean spheres cut out of the chair and the college kid who sat in it, no longer possessing anything above his chest.
Rachel took it all in, and it was too much for her. Her stomach churned, and that was before the smell struck her, weakening her knees and sending her head spinning.
Moments later she was vomiting in the grass next to the RV, the door slammed shut once more. Jackie was patting her on the back, handing her a cloth to clean her face.
"What was that?" Rachel gasped.
"I used to work homicide in Seattle, and I've never shit like that," Jackie said, leaning against the RV heavily. "The wounds make no sense, it's too clean. No way someone is cut like that so cleanly without being dead already, but with all the blood pumped out everywhere and the struggle, they were clearly alive at the time. Even the little girl." Jackie paused, her eyes grim. "Who the fuck does that to a little girl?"
Rachel shook her head. "I don't know."
"You'd better find out," Jackie said. "Lord knows I've turned a blind eye to whatever you're doing in this town, but I can't do that for long if bodies start dropping. Find out what happened and fix it, or I can't cover your side up."
Rachel looked at her with curiosity. "Why help us? You know I've been lying to you for a year now, so why?"
"Because whatever you're lying about, you've done nothing but help," Jackie answered matter-of-factly. "Crime rate in this town is basically nothin'. I actually get to enjoy my job and the people living here. You a fuckin' superhero?"
"No. Nothing like that."
"Whatever. Point is, you're doing good. 'bout time I returned the favor." Jackie nodded at the door again. "I'll be back for them tomorrow morning. Jenny's parents are already lookin' for her. I can stall them, but not for long. I'll keep the college occupied for you on the other two. Don't fuck this up, kid."
Rachel sat down on the wet grass, trying to catch her breath as her carefully constructed world was slowly unwinding around her. In her mind's eye, the memory of the sight inside—which was permanently burned into her brain, as with all memories she ever formed—was slowly beginning to clear up. On one of the bodies, she saw the telltale signs of electrical burns, though they were coupled with other types of burns and chunks of flesh missing as with the other two victims.
Rika's in trouble, she realized with a heavy sinking in her stomach.
This would change everything. Rachel couldn't let word of the details here get out. Rika was already on thin ice in the town as it was. The Awakened population was still reeling from the conflict between Alpha and Omega, still paranoid and ready to lash out at any perceived threat. If they got wind of a body with electrical burns all over it, it would be a short leap to a witch hunt for Rika's head. Rachel had to protect her friend, and more importantly she had to find the true culprit. It couldn't be a coincidence that she'd discovered this the same day Rika had returned to town.
She gave the sheriff a heavy nod, still digesting the images in her mind and trying not to gag again.
"Good luck," Jackie replied dryly, without a trace of optimism. With that grim blessing, Rachel braced herself for the world's first murder by magic.