Chapter 8 — Tidings of Fire
Rachel sat in her customary spot at the edge of the clearing. She'd brought a blanket to lay down on the dry earth under the thick tree cover and was comfortably leaning against a trunk observing the illusion of stars madly spinning through the sky. The orbs of light continued to move around the clearing while Cinza and her latest partner cavorted about in the center.
She might roll her eyes in public, but she remained nonetheless impressed by the spectacle Cinza managed to put on every week without fail. Though she'd never admit it to Will, Rachel enjoyed the show in spite of her distaste for the usual antics of Cinza's little cult.
It was all a mirage, of course. Anyone with her knowledge of visualizing connections would easily see Cinza manipulating the orbs, the people, even the sky itself. Trails connected her up to a massive, razor-thin line which formed an invisible, one-sided disk of sorts that covered the entire clearing, through which she managed to replicate the expanse of stars and subsequently twist them to her every whim. It was impressive to say the least, and Rachel couldn't deny that part of her weekly attendance was simply attempts to try and discern Cinza's methods. If magic was akin to science, as they hypothesized, then Rachel should be able to reverse-engineer the technique somehow. It was only a matter of observation, study and her own experimentation.
She attended under a veneer of ensuring that secrecy was maintained from the town, but Rallsburg was the sort of place where everyone went to sleep early. Rachel wasn't particularly concerned they'd be seen, and indeed had stopped bothering to take precautions against anyone accidentally stumbling across the exhibition months prior. Her fellow councilors had long since stopped attending as well. Josh had never seemed interested in the first place, and Mabel complained that it hurt her eyes to observe. So it fell to Rachel to continue monitoring the rituals, keeping an eye on Cinza and her followers.
Rachel didn't really fear much from them. Cinza was a fierce supporter of their privacy from the world at large. To the grey-robed young woman, magic was a divine privilege—a blessing unheeded by bureaucracy or restraint, granted to individuals by fate and by the 'goddess' in equal measure. She preached often of the coming witch hunts against the worthy chosen. While Rachel didn't agree with the rhetoric, she certainly shared Cinza's fears. Witch hunts were always in style, after all. Anyone who was different, anyone who stood out from a given crowd was liable to be beaten down if they were perceived as a threat.
Rachel watched as Cinza managed a particularly stunning pattern with the lights. She wasn't one to rest on her laurels, Rachel noted with appreciation. Every week there was some new minor innovation. Many of them were discarded the following week, for whatever reasons Cinza might privately hold, but the most truly impressive movements were kept and added to the routine.
In this instance, she'd flipped and spun the star she'd formed, changing it from a two-dimensional outline floating above the surface into a brilliant, layered design that filled the clearing entirely. Eight points rounded the edge of the circle as usual, but another copy of the same design spun upward at each diagonal until there were eight copies at various angles, which began to rotate in an intricate weave, never quite touching even as they spun inside each other.
She sighed. This sort of display, as impressive and beautiful as it might be, would only serve to fuel the fires of such a crusade. The world was still full of the fearful, and greater access to information with such tools as the Internet only served to increase that fear. The unknown might be terrifying, but when one begins to hear of powerful, abnormal people hiding out in every neighborhood in America, how long before they start lashing out at the innocent based on their appearance, their beliefs, their orientation or—in this case—their abilities?
Rachel shook her head, trying to clear away the train of thought. There was no use dwelling on that potential. She wasn't afraid of random civilians, even en masse. Strong magic could easily overpower an angry mob. Alpha and Omega had demonstrated that quite clearly, though thankfully not on any actual mob. No, Rachel had far more dangerous concerns than any angry civilian. Foremost amongst them was the murderer in their ranks.
After she'd managed to suppress her revulsion, Rachel had examined the bodies as closely as she could stand. There were two college kids, both male, and one twelve year old girl. At the sight of the latter, Rachel had to retreat from the RV, once again overwhelmed. Half of her body had simply vanished, leaving the remainder to spill out in a macabre display. The girl was Jenny Wilson. Rachel wasn't quite sure, but she believed that Jenny had been one of Natalie's friends, which was all the worse given how few relationships Natalie had left.
Natalie was homeschooled, and with her father missing as well, she was becoming increasingly volatile. Kendra had taken her in, to Rachel's surprise. The uptight British professor—a prodigy in her own right—wasn't usually one for charity. To see her reach out to the little girl was a shock to say the least. Despite the gesture, it wasn't helping Natalie's mental state much by Rachel's measure. Given her magical abilities and potential for growth, Rachel feared what a total breakdown by the girl might entail.
Focus, Rachel. The murder is more urgent. Rachel turned her memory back to the sight within the RV. She could remember it perfectly thanks to the alterations she'd made to her brain, even beyond the detail she'd originally noticed while examining the area. She had a list of questions that must answered if Rachel was ever going to sleep soundly again.
First, the violence visited on the victims broke Mason's Law. This was a theoretical concern made stunningly real. If magic could be used directly on another person, it opened a door Rachel had never considered possible. The potential implications, both positive and negative, were earth-shattering. For the moment, she resolved above all else to keep that particular detail absolutely secret until they could determine the extent of the possibilities.
Second, why these particular victims were killed. Rachel's first hypothesis was that it simply occurred at random. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. In fact, given that Jenny was crouching behind the chair that had been eviscerated by whatever had removed half of the first boy's body, Rachel believed the killer probably hadn't even known the girl was there. She took that as a potential good sign, that the killer hadn't intended to kill a child, but it was a small comfort at best.
Finally, the killer's identity.
Rachel watched Cinza let the stars begin to fall, slowly merging them back into the center to begin her finale for the night. Her mind was rushing through the identity of every council attendee she'd ever seen, and not one of them seemed the type to commit such an action. Many were reserved, private people, but none seemed like a crazed axe murderer. Even the more unhinged of the group—Viper or the girl still dancing barefoot through the grass in front of Rachel—didn't seem inclined to brutal killings, even if she believed them fully capable. There was no motivation she could discern, which worried her all the more.
Cinza's eyes fell to Rachel's, an unspoken invitation clear in her intense gaze. Rachel shook her head. She'd danced with the girl once, purely out of curiosity, and had no reason to repeat the experience. If Rachel so desired, she could replay it in her mind perfectly from memory.
She recognized the illusion for what it was. In fact, she'd tested it herself, climbing to the top of the treeline during one ritual to see the top of the disk of dancing stars, and the quite static true sky above the entire clearing. Cinza was a stage magician, no more in control of the heavens than Rachel was. It was a thoroughly convincing display for those caught in her wake, but Rachel wasn't the type to bask in sentimentality.
Yet every time Rachel attended their gatherings, Cinza always extended the invitation again, with the same magnetic expression. It was unusual. The girl never seemed to dance twice with anyone not wearing their customary silver-grey robes, but Rachel was apparently the exception. Perhaps she was wrong, and there were other repeat partners on nights she did not attend. She'd have to investigate it someday.
Cinza began to raise her arms once again, preparing to launch into the finale, when her leg quavered. Rachel sat up in alarm, a burst of fear chilling her blood. Cinza never made a mistake in her performance.
Something was wrong.
Rachel shifted her gaze into her other sight, and saw a faint line spiking out between Cinza and the western edge of the clearing. There was something out in the woods, watching them with an intent she couldn't discern. As she concentrated, she saw another line shoot through the darkness directly at her. She flinched briefly before recognizing the telltale traces of her beloved. They'd set up a system, many weeks prior, by which they could send signals to one another by way of manipulating these streams. It wasn't a very complex method, allowing for less nuance than slow, painstaking Morse code, but they'd set up several agreed-upon messages to use in the event of extreme emergency where cell phones couldn't be trusted as reliable or safe.
Will was warning her of impending magical danger. She could feel the slight thrum in her chest, a vibration deep in the core of her body. It was a signal they hadn't used since they'd driven Omega out of town…
"Cinza!" Rachel cried, bounding to her feet.
Cinza was already reacting. Her hand plunged into the folds of her robe and flung flecks of ash into the sky.
A hiss filled the air. White smoke seemed to billow out of nothing in the middle of the clearing, plunging down to the surface and spreading wide, obscuring everything in the area. Rachel saw the girl's small, vague shape dart forward, casting her hand out forward with palm outstretched. A flash of orange shot from Cinza's palm through the fog. Rachel's eyes followed it to the edge of the clearing, where two humanoid shapes were beginning to emerge.
Two hulks of men, well over six feet tall, were advancing steadily on the clearing. For a brief moment, Rachel thought they might be loggers or hunters returning home, but as Cinza's thrown flames struck the one on the right, Rachel recognized her folly.
She took cover behind her tree just as the fire exploded.
The man ignited, instantly lighting up head to toe in bright orange flames. He was utterly engulfed, yet showed no signs of stopping his advance, and it was then that Rachel realized he had no legs. The lower half of his body was simply one joined column, on which he seemed to move steadily with no real method of locomotion. The thing lifted one arm wreathed in fire and touched its companion, who similarly burst into flames seemingly without concern.
Rachel couldn't make out her features, but she watched Cinza crouch low, apparently studying her opponents. She whistled, loud and high.
A dozen rocks—from the size of Rachel's fist to one boulder larger than she could get her arms around—flew from the trees around them, dark vague shapes that burst through the smoke and battered the flaming monstrosities. For a moment, it seemed as though they'd stopped, but only seconds later, the shapes continued their inexorable advance through the fog.
It wasn't as if the impacts had no effect. One particularly large rock struck the left one's shoulder heavily, bowling its entire torso over backwards into the grass. Despite the heavy blow, the lower half—which only looked like a flaming, featureless mass through the smoke and fog—continued its methodical, unwavering advance.
The thing pulled itself back up slowly to upright once more, leaving tiny licks of flame on the grass in its wake. Loud cracks echoed through the clearing as the monster's spine broke apart and reassembled.
"Cinza, what do we do?" a panicked cry came from the forest. A girl's voice, young and tremulous.
They were slowed, but they did not stop. Brute force wasn't doing anything. Cinza seemed to recognize this as well.
She backed away slowly, conjuring up more lights to try and blind the approaching creatures but with little effect. As she did, Rachel noticed something else in the forest, more lights spelling out words to one of her followers.
A moment later, a torrent of water rushed out of the edge of the clearing, hurtling straight at the nearest creature. Rachel's mouth fell agape. No one had managed to manipulate water yet. Cinza had been holding a card close to the chest. What else did her followers have at their disposal?
A flickering arm rose to meet the flood, infernal hand outstretched. At the clash, steam exploded forth in a loud, angry sputter, halting the entire flying stream in its tracks.
The burst ended soon afterward, though whether because the caster had realized the futility or had become exhausted, Rachel couldn't be sure.
"Now what, fearless leader?" Cinza's voice hissed, only a few inches from Rachel's ear. Her heart pounded harder than ever as she jumped at the sound. Cinza had used the distraction to retreat out of the clearing, which just so happened to take her right to Rachel's tree.
The two creatures continued their approach, locked onto her location in spite of the mixture of smoke, steam, fog and ash swirling through the clearing. If they hadn't been lit up like torches, Rachel doubted she could have seen them at all.
"They've been sent after you," Rachel said aloud, trying to hasten her own thoughts. She'd been too caught up in the action. Even with her mind, enhanced as it was, she could still be captivated just as anyone else by events happening right in front of her.
"Yes, and they don't seem to care what we throw at them," Cinza said impatiently. Her usual airy echoing voice was gone, replaced with a low husky intensity. She was taking deep, desperate breaths from the combined exertion of the dance and subsequent fight. The eight-point tattoo adorning her neck stood out prominently with her robe off-kilter. "My people are waiting for instruction, and I'm out of ideas since they don't seem to have eyes. You're the smart one, aren't you?"
Someone has to be controlling them then, Rachel concluded. She let her gaze shift once more, far stronger than she ever had. The adrenaline surging through her veins helped her concentrate as she watched the connections forming around her. The vague lines of relationships, old and new, sprung into being once more.
She saw her strong, firm hold on Will, miles away but always with her. She saw the fractious, tangled connection between herself and the opportunistic illusionist currently staring at her in desperation and fear. She saw the faint web spreading out through the forest to Cinza's followers, connections both strong and weak, and far more mutual than Rachel had expected. Connections began to spring out of everything, from the tree Rachel had formed a sudden bond with as a protector only moments before, to the grass in the field and Cinza's own bare feet, more and more until Rachel's vision was filled with endless interconnected lines. It was too dense, blindingly so.
Focus, Rachel berated herself. She locked her eyes on the two monsters crossing the clearing, now halfway to them. Flames continued dancing across their arms and legs, burning without apparent material to burn. She wondered why they hadn't started blasting away at the entire forest, but filed it away as a question for later. Instead, she shifted her view mentally as Will had taught her, trying to perceive only the faint lines peeling off the two outlines of dancing flames.
There! Two lines, receding out into the forest, low to the ground and probably very close if the strength was anything to go by. Rachel shifted her gaze back, and nearly fainted at the sudden return of color and focus to the world. It felt like a massive rush of blood into her eyes and brain, blacking out the world for a moment before her normal vision returned once more. She felt dizzy and disoriented, but Rachel knew that she didn't have any time to waste with the creatures now more than halfway to their tree, and slowly raising their arms once more.
"Can you keep them busy a little longer?" Rachel asked, leaping to her feet and brushing the leaves and ash from her skirt.
"What are you going to do?" Cinza asked, still crouched and watching the slow approach of the monsters with narrowed, dark brown eyes. Rachel had never noticed how much her eyes sparkled despite how dark they were in color. Her large pupils seemed to catch and reflect more light than usual. She wondered if it was natural or an intentional affectation.
"Find their controller," Rachel answered simply as she sprinted off through the woods around the circle. "Just try to keep them in the clearing."
"I was hoping for more than that!" Cinza called after her with frustration, but she nonetheless began circling the clearing in the opposite direction. Rachel smiled in satisfaction. As difficult as Cinza might be on a good day, she knew when to take action, even if she had no idea how Rachel could track magic. Rachel could work with that.
Rachel kept her focus on the two monsters as she tried to sprint through the woods. It wasn't easy. Tree roots stuck out at odd angles everywhere she went, and Rachel was never much for hiking or navigating the woods in the first place. Without the clearing in sight, she had no doubt she'd be lost in an instant. She pulled the connections back into view, using them as a compass bearing. So long as she could follow those lines back, she might be able to find the controller.
And do what? Rachel asked herself as she moved. She wasn't a fighter. She could barely manage most spells on a good day, and virtually nothing outside her apparent affinity.
She needed a plan, fast. The woods were only getting darker as she got further from the flames and flashing lights in the clearing, as Cinza began throwing more refuse at the monsters to slow them down however she could.
Rachel stopped. The connections trailed off further into the woods, but there was a figure closer than that. Someone not dressed in the Grey cult's robes, but also clearly not one of their attendees. No, this man was standing firm and unafraid, watching the progress of the two monsters intently. His hand grasped something tight, a small black rod with carvings and spikes on every side. Rachel watched him in turn from her new hiding spot behind a tree a few dozen feet away. Luckily, the shouts and the sounds of crackling flames and thudding impacts had covered her messy run through the underbrush.
She couldn't make out a face from her distance, and his clothing was too heavy-set and thick to get much of an impression. He could be anyone. If they were even a 'he' at all. Rachel considered getting closer, but he chose that moment to glance around. She held her ground. He was alert for an ambush, and without any sort of strategy, Rachel wasn't about to rush in.
What confused her the most was the lines of magic. He wasn't related to the monsters at all, yet by his gaze and the way his hand manipulated the rod, Rachel felt certain he was giving the marching orders.
Another burst of flames flooded the forest with light. One of the monsters had come close enough to one of Cinza's followers and had lunged for him, catching his cloak ablaze. He shouted in pain as the flames licked at his clothes, shrugging off the cloak as quickly as he could. Two large rocks shot out from further in the woods, pounding the monster back a few steps. Within seconds, Cinza had arrived at her follower's side, pulling him back before the monster could launch another assault.
At the man's cry, Rachel noticed the controller wince. Was that her opening?
Rachel steeled herself to approach—to try and appeal to his humanity, she hoped—but before she could do anything, he raised his arm to point at the two monsters. She followed his gaze. The creatures had finally, mercifully stopped, their arms still outstretched and prepared to send another burst toward the nearest of Cinza's group.
The flames were still licking off their bodies, slowly working their way inward and consuming them from the outside in, but the monsters began to retreat. Not toward the man controlling them, but north—straight north into the hills. Rachel considered following them, but looked back to the controller.
He was gone. Rachel opened her sight again, but there were no connections to follow. Nothing to trace the man who had attacked them.
She sat down, the adrenaline in her veins finally giving way, and let out a long, deep breath. They hadn't won the fight. They wouldn't even have survived had the man not changed his mind and pulled back his forces.
Was that the murderer? she wondered. And if it was, why did he change his mind?
Rachel emerged into the clearing once more. She'd made a brief phone call to Will, letting him know what had happened and that she was okay. He'd detected the telltale traces of powerful Creation magic approaching her and sent the warning, though he had no more information to go on. The ground had ugly black stretches crisscrossing the entire circle, scorched moss and dirt where there had once been thick green grass.
Cinza's group had congregated around their injured member. Rachel's blanket, which she had forgotten about in the chaos, had been snatched up and laid out, and the middle-aged man was twitching in pain atop it. His arm was a mess of weeping blisters and angry red skin, the sleeve of his shirt charred and blackened. It made a sharp contrast to the swathe of silver and grey cloaks surrounding them. Cinza herself was holding the man's arm firmly and pouring something over the wound from a bottle. He twitched violently at the rush of liquid, and Rachel moved in to help hold his legs steady.
Cinza noticed Rachel's hands and shot her a grateful look before returning to the man. "You're going to be fine, Yusuf. Don't worry. We're all here for you. Ruby, please hold his shoulders."
A girl with curly dark red hair and scars across her wrists knelt and held Yusuf down while Cinza reached into a bag and pulled out several cloth bandages. Rachel didn't know the girl, but from her appearance, she assumed Ruby was a runaway who had joined up with Cinza—most likely as a convenience. If she had stuck around through a fight like this though, she was a true believer… or perhaps just crazy.
"Are those sterile?" Rachel asked, still holding his legs firm.
"Yes," Cinza answered with a touch of irritation. "Morton, his arm." Another man with a sickly look on his face quickly took hold of Yusuf's arm, being careful not to touch the visibly throbbing burned area. Rachel caught herself from voicing her surprise aloud. Morton Pollock worked for the local newspaper, printing it and delivering it to the newsstands on Main Street and the local businesses that paid for copies. He was one of the last people Rachel had expected to see amongst Cinza's group.
Cinza looked Yusuf in the eye with sympathy. "I have to do this before we can move you. Just hold on, okay?"
Yusuf nodded, gritting his teeth. Cinza unwrapped the bandage and started wrapping his arm tightly. As the gauze made contact, he twisted in their grip. Rachel felt one of his legs slipping and tightened her grasp, looking away from his face. She tried to ignore the grunts of pain, imagining the expressions on his face even as she determinedly avoided seeing them herself. Rachel gritted her own teeth as the man cried out once more beneath them, trying to think of anything else besides the pain he was experiencing.
Finally, it was over. Cinza stood up, packing away the bandages she had left. Two of her followers returned from the forest with strong sticks which they used to fashion into a makeshift stretcher with Rachel's blanket. Cinza glanced at Rachel once more as they hoisted it up.
"It's fine. Please use it." Rachel waved them on. Cinza gave her another small, grateful nod before they set off. Rachel, seeing no particular reason to hang around in the clearing anymore, followed them at a respectful distance. Her mind was still replaying the images from the last few minutes over and over, a loop of terror and confusion that refused to end.
Cinza's group held close together, thirteen in all including Yusuf and Cinza herself. A pair took the lead, scouting out the easiest path to take, while the main group formed a diamond around the two carrying the stretcher, their hands primed with all sorts of various reagents for spells. It was the most militant gathering of magic Rachel had ever seen, and it sent a chill through her bones.
Cinza fell back a few steps to join her. Rachel was still feeling dazed from the encounter with the monsters, and she flinched at the approach. Cinza nodded, a look of understanding flitting across her eyes.
"You've never been in a fight," she stated. Rachel was taken aback by how calm Cinza appeared. Her own blood was still coursing like a river in a storm. Her skull and chest were visibly pounding from her heart still working on overdrive. Cinza handed her a bottle of water, which Rachel drained gratefully. "It gets easier."
"Your followers seem well-drilled," Rachel commented as she watched them navigate around a thicket. She pulled a handkerchief from her bag and wiped her mouth dry. Cinza raised an eyebrow. "I'm just surprised. This seems almost like a small private army."
"We know how the world typically reacts to groups like ours," the girl replied. Rachel looked down at her. Cinza didn't clear five feet, while Rachel was over six. By her first impression, Rachel had assumed a weak, small and deluded girl worshipping an entity they knew almost nothing about. After the display tonight, she was rapidly revising her assessment to a capable leader and someone quick on her feet in a crisis—if still a little bit insane.
"So you've trained them to fight."
"I've helped them learn to defend themselves," Cinza answered, her eyes narrowing defensively.
"Where did you learn to fight?"
She smiled wistfully. "One of many fathers."
Rachel had never been quite so close to her before. She examined Cinza more thoroughly. With her hood and cloak removed after the heat of the flames and her exertion, Cinza was dressed very practically in tight clothes that were easy to move in, with a single bag strapped to her waist in such a way that it wouldn't bounce or inhibit action. She was small but deceptively strong, with more than enough muscle hidden away beneath her skin, now visible through her sweat-drenched white shirt. Her hair was still pure silver-grey from the ritual dance, but she hadn't applied any of her other illusions, so Rachel was able to see her dark eyes clearly. They burned with a passion and fury she didn't quite understand. Was it residual from the fight, or inspired by their discussion?
The necklace she wore with the eight-pointed star was more than just decor. A small variety of gemstones were inlaid in slots at the intersections and the points of the star, giving Cinza a wealth of reinforcement should she need it at any time. Below the star, there were scars on her chest, just barely visible within the hem of her shirt. Thin, easily disguised scars. Rachel wondered if she would hide them if she knew Rachel could see, or wear them proudly and defiantly. There were too many mysteries about this girl.
"Ask me your questions. You'll never get the whole story with just your eyes," Cinza said quietly. Rachel jumped. Her mind must have still been disoriented from the fight, if Cinza had noticed her analyzing. Usually she could take in every detail about a person long before they even noticed. Either that, or Cinza was an unusually aware individual.
"Would you tell me the whole story if I asked?" Rachel replied, a bit more pithy than she intended.
"Were the world an open book, and everyone had read it cover to cover, none of us would have anything to talk about anymore."
Rachel walked silently for a few moments, considering her words. Cinza was scanning the trees around them as they began to close on the edge of the forest, watching for any further threats. Her small figure seemed coiled to lash out at a moment's notice, barely committing to any movement and remaining light on her toes.
"It doesn't matter where I came from," Cinza continued without prompting, surprising Rachel once again. "It doesn't matter who I was, where I fought and bled. My old story is unimportant. It's all in the past, and the future is with her."
"With Grey-eyes?" Rachel asked.
Cinza nodded. She continued in a much more candid tone than Rachel was used to. Without the usual modification to her voice, her accent was much clearer. Rachel placed it as Eastern European for sure, a mix of Russian and something else she couldn't quite pick out. However, she spoke English as perfectly and casually as any native.
"I don't know her. I've only spoken her once, the same as everyone else. I've seen over a dozen awakenings since that day, and every single time, she appears to save them. Those poor, brilliant fools who think they have somehow earned this power, and find out they were doomed the moment their arrogance brought them to read from the book. She never says a word loud enough to hear, and none ever hear her voice again, but she is always there. How?"
Rachel wasn't sure if it was rhetorical. "I don't know."
Cinza nodded again, her eyes looking up to the stars. "Because she is a true god, one worth following. Is she even human? She looks human to us, just a girl. Perhaps the same age as me, if that is her true appearance. But I'm nothing. I can do little light shows and toss a bit of fire around. She commands the world to bend to her will. Do you realize she could probably annihilate us all with a thought? Can you even imagine that kind of power? I've seen her toss boulders away like they were dust and redirect lightning to save her people. Awakened, I mean, not just my friends in cloaks here. I witnessed these things, even deliberately caused some of them to see if she'd react."
"Why are you telling me this?" Rachel asked suspiciously.
Cinza looked as if Rachel had asked why the sun was warm. "Isn't it obvious? There's a war coming. I was testing her, to see if she is mortal. My friends were never truly at risk, though the danger could not have been stopped by us mere children. They are gods, and tonight we've seen harbingers of their return."
Rachel felt ice in her veins at Cinza's words, since she knew it to be the truth. She was a dramatic conversationalist, frequently emphasizing words as if she were constantly giving a speech, but it remained compelling even to Rachel simply because of who she was.
Rachel was quickly reevaluating her old assumptions about the leader of the group. Cinza may have seemed like a fraud from minute one, but she was a shrewd and charismatic leader. As Rachel spent time with her, she was beginning to think that it wasn't an act. The small elfin-faced girl, with her charms and necklaces and tattoo, seemed like a true believer in what she preached after all.
Cinza nodded once more at her dark expression. "Omega wants us to know he is not so easily forgotten. He can't truly return to the town, since that would trigger his war with Alpha once more, one which he doesn't know if he can win. But these… minions. He's clearly found a way to extend his reach into the town without revealing himself. Without breaking the rules of engagement."
"He found a supporter," Rachel replied, still reeling from the comprehension chilling her bones.
Cinza's head snapped up sharply, her eyebrows creased with worry. "Omega has always been alone. That's his greatest weakness."
Rachel shook her head. Cinza was treating the situation too abstractly, as if it were mythology instead of reality. "You weren't here. Not when this all started. I knew them before you did. You've only seen them at their worst, in front of the council and then when they tore the library to pieces. Omega was a good guy. He was… charming. He could find allies if he wanted to. They're still human to some degree."
"And you're saying he found one?" Cinza asked.
"There was someone in the forest, controlling the monsters. I didn't get close enough to see his face, but it definitely wasn't Omega."
It was Cinza's turn to look worried. They'd finally returned to the open streets of Rallsburg. She busied herself directing her group to take Yusuf to Doctor Smith's clinic in town, too small to be called a proper hospital but more than well-enough equipped to handle their needs. The doctor Smith—who was also the sole religious figure of the town—was a good sort, with whom Rachel had several positive encounters.
"What do we tell them about how he got hurt?" Ruby asked, her voice quavering. Rachel was surprised how determined she sounded, in spite of her fear. She took the girl to be something of a second in command from the way the others deferred to her question.
Cinza started to make up a story about a campfire, but Rachel stepped up to the group. "Tell him Rachel asked to keep it quiet. He'll help you without asking any more questions. Tell him honestly how badly burned he was and where you were. Nothing else."
Ruby looked to her leader, who nodded. The group set off without another word, though Cinza held back a moment.
"Helping us out with your reputation now?" she asked, surprised.
Rachel nodded. "I'm going to need your help in return tomorrow."
"I'll be calling an emergency meeting. All of the council."
"What's going on?"
"This is already beyond us. Something else just happened, just out of town."
Kendra Laushire's estate wouldn't have impressed most at her level of wealth and status, but compared to most of Rallsburg it still appeared to be quite a mansion. Three stories alone put it taller than nearly every structure in the entire town, even if it only consisted of a few rooms for each floor. The garden was another tale, of course, being wide and full of color and life. Kendra employed a full-time groundskeeper, gardener and security guard by the name of Collins. So far as Rachel was aware, he was not awakened, but given his long-standing loyal employment to the family, Rachel wouldn't be surprised if he was privy to his employer's supernatural entanglements.
Rachel had parted with Cinza amicably. The cult leader had promised her support with surprisingly little persuasion, though Rachel hadn't told her the details of her plan—after all, she hadn't quite formed one yet. Still, between the murder and the attacks on Cinza's group, it was more than enough justification to start making a motion toward involving the entire community. With violence on the cusp of breaking out, it would be better if they revealed themselves in peace instead of bloodshed, before innocents were caught in the crossfire.
So Rachel had come here, to the home of the woman she could never be quite sure was anything more than an ally of convenience.
Collins was presumably long gone and asleep, so Rachel had no compunctions about bursting through the well-kept hedges lining the edge of the property. It was easier and safer than trying to break through the gate at the front, and Rachel was in a hurry. She made a beeline for the front door and burst in, heedless of the composure she normally reserved when dealing with Kendra.
The lights were still on throughout the building, and unsurprisingly, Rachel found her in her sitting room, still on her laptop. The woman never seemed to rest, though she could definitely use it. Her eyes were tired and bagged, and her usually prim appearance was lacking in the elegance Rachel normally expected.
"Hello, Rachel," Kendra said slowly, tilting the laptop down with surprise. "This is… unexpected. You are aware of the hour, yes?"
"I'm sorry," Rachel started, remembering some sense of etiquette before continuing. She realized how insane she must have looked, with dirt and grass stains caking her skirt and her hair an absolute mess. "I've just come from Cinza's ritual."
"Did you get drunk and join in?" Kendra asked, raising her eyebrows.
"What?" Rachel stopped, composing herself. "No. They were attacked."
Kendra blinked. She slowly set her laptop aside on the end table. "What do you mean?"
"Two… golems. Something like that. They interrupted the ritual, and tried to kill Cinza."
"Well," Kendra sighed. "That does change things a mite."
Rachel was momentarily speechless. She'd expected more of a reaction than that. "Huh?"
"The word just came in. There's been a massacre out on the coast route, in an old abandoned camper. Ghastly stuff." Kendra paused, studying Rachel's face carefully. "They're saying it was mostly electrical burns."
Rachel shook her head vehemently, even as her heart sank. She had hoped for more time than this to react and plan. There were still no leads on the identity of the golems' controller. "It wasn't her."
"You do realize how this appears, dear."
"She wasn't even in town until this afternoon. She got in on the train."
"Could anyone vouch for her?" Kendra asked pointedly.
A face flashed into her mind briefly, a high school boy that had been attached to Rika at the hip throughout the meeting, and had managed to calm her down before she'd exploded on Ryan. "The kid. Zack, I think his name was?"
Kendra frowned. "An unawakened newcomer. It's not exactly a bulletproof alibi."
"How did you find out?" Rachel asked, wanting to change the subject. She knew she could come up with a way to protect Rika given time. More urgent for her was how fast the news was spreading, and whether or not she could still maintain control over it. A hope which was to be dashed in short order.
"Julian Black. He's forced a town hall for tomorrow to… deal with the situation," Kendra said distastefully.
"Since when does Julian Black call our councils?"
Kendra sighed. "A town hall. The entire town, love," she added impatiently.
Rachel stood up in shock. "Is he insane?"
Rachel's mind was reeling from the news. Suddenly, so suddenly, it was time. She didn't feel ready. The world certainly didn't feel ready. There was a rushing in her ears, a sound that began building until it was deafening, driving away all thought until she was left simply with the realization that she had no other choice but to move forward and accept it.
A thump from upstairs brought her out of her trance. Rachel glanced at the ceiling curiously. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize you had company."
"We must have woken Natalie," Kendra answered calmly. Rachel nodded, but inwardly she was more confused than before. Those footfalls were too heavy for a twelve year old. In the years Rachel had known her, she'd never seen Kendra show an iota of interest in other people beyond their monetary value, so Rachel doubted it was a suitor. Kendra was hiding something else, but Rachel had to relegate that mystery to the back of her mind for the moment. There were more important tasks at hand.
"Who did he invite?"
Kendra opened her laptop, scrolling through a brief list reflected on her reading glasses. "Most of the major parties. Nefertiti Bowman to stand-in for Brian, as he's still unaccounted for. Gordon Merrill. Our esteemed Mayor. The sheriff. With the mouths on that bunch, the entire town will hear about it. I have no doubt."
Rachel considered. There was no way to deflect it. Julian had done his homework on how to spread word through Rallsburg, and had enough people taking him seriously to pull together a meeting. Her only hope was to have enough of her own allies present to control the conversation and steer it away from the most dangerous topics.
Of course, despite the relationships she'd established with many of the locals, they still only saw her as an eager college student at best. Her best examples of leadership were relegated to the dark corners of meetings in the shadows, with people who'd rather not have their dealings made known.
The solution's simple, then, Rachel realized. Bring them all together.
"Send out word for an emergency Council meeting. Tomorrow, at the town hall."