Chapter 12 — Deputies, Detectives and Deities
Rachel didn't expect a moment of rest for days at this rate.
As small of a town as Rallsburg purported to be, Rachel and Jackie still found enough incidents of confrontation between the Awakened and the mundane to find themselves occupied at every hour. They'd only managed to squeeze in breakfast before they were called out to defuse the confrontation between Robert Harrison and Cinza, which was by far the worst pairing Rachel had expected. Luckily, that had been settled relatively amicably, to Rachel's surprise—and relief.
Instead, it was the less dramatic entanglements that drew the greatest anxiety. Some people loved surprises, but Rachel absolutely was not one of them. There were elements to the town she rarely considered, and when those elements were roused to confront the new reality that had been thrust upon them, Rachel was smothered in fear-mongering, distrust and—as Cinza feared—outright witch-hunting.
For all her attempts to remind people of due process and innocence, there were still rumblings for blood. People—especially the mundane elements of the community—wanted someone to blame for the murders. Two college kids were bad enough, even if they weren't locals or particularly popular, but Jenny Wilson would be more than enough to start a crusade. Rallsburg didn't have that many children anymore, so everyone knew them well. Jenny wasn't a universally beloved figure or anything, but she was liked well enough—and with an incident like sudden, brutal murder, that was more than enough to turn her into a martyr. Public evidence had placed one person squarely in the crosshairs.
Rachel didn't think much of what Rika had done in the past, but she knew she had to protect her friend in the present no matter what rifts might exist between them. Rika was innocent. She knew that without a doubt. If she were convicted, their entire community was at risk. This was to be the first major challenge of their emergence.
How could she disprove Rika's involvement?
The car bumped and crashed over a pothole as they swerved around a corner. Jackie had just answered a call from Deputy Bowman asking for backup. Something was happening at Hector's grocery, which sent Rachel's heart sinking. Hector had been revealed through her own actions at the town hall, where in her haste she hadn't thought to signal him in some more discreet way. He'd come to her aid, as he always had, and now he was starting to pay the price for it.
"Please, I don't want any trouble," Hector said meekly, his hands in the air behind the counter.
"We don't either, but you've gotta tell us how." The leader of the trio, a student from the University who'd stayed for the summer (Logan Bowerson), was leaning over the counter with an eager glint in his eyes, while his cronies leered.
"Logan!" Rachel shouted, after Jackie faltered. The sheriff had noted to Rachel how using someone's given name was vastly more effective at getting their attention, but the sheriff would never have Rachel's capacity to recall every single person they ran across in an instant. Logan turned at the call, giving them the delay they needed to close in and give Hector some support.
Hector looked even more flustered at the sudden crowd near his store's counter, backing into the corner with his hands still raised. Logan had a knife at his belt, though it hadn't been drawn, and his wingmen looked ready for a fight.
"What do you want?" Logan snapped.
"Just to talk," Rachel said, raising her own hands to try and placate the group. Jackie stood a few paces behind, just close enough to intervene if needed. Rachel's blood was already beginning to race. She never liked being surrounded by people. She enjoyed having the attention of a crowd, certainly—but they needed to be at a remove, as with the town hall meeting. Up close and personal sent her heart pumping and her head spinning.
"Gonna answer my questions, then?"
"What questions are those?" Rachel asked innocently, though she knew full well. They'd be the same questions that were sweeping the town, the same questions that she knew would eventually break out of the curtain of silence they were currently maintaining. Between the delayed train and the internet filtering she'd put in place with the cooperation of the Mayor's office, they were carefully monitoring communication out of the town. They couldn't prevent phone calls, of course, but Rachel hadn't seen any attempts to spread the revelations to the outside yet via the Web. She doubted anyone would be using only the phone for such news. Still, it was only a matter of time before the question would explode into the world.
"How can we learn to use magic?"
"Hector can't help you with that," Rachel answered, and—as with most answers she gave—it was technically true. Hector couldn't awaken someone, as he purposely didn't keep any pages. He didn't like the idea of it, though he was still willing to use his power to help the Council. The only page he'd have was the Scrap they'd entrusted to him a few days ago, but Hector had confided to her that he'd secured it away for the time being. He was utterly useless to Logan and any other would-be mages.
"What, and you're saying you can?" one of Logan's friends sniggered. "Campus air-head's gonna teach us magic?"
"Hey Rachel, how many pages are in a five-page paper?" the other chimed in.
Rachel felt heat rushing to her face, and anger rising in her chest. She refused to back down. "There's nothing here for you."
"You heard her," Jackie growled, taking a step forward. "Scram."
Deputy Bowman was approaching from the street, having fobbed off a few interested passersby. With the full attention of both officers, Logan and company seemed to finally take the hint. They slouched off.
Hector let out a huge sigh of relief. "Thank you, Miss DuValle. And you, Miss Nossinger."
"Yeah, sure," Jackie said, pulling off her hat.
"Rachel, this is just escalating. It's the third time today we've had to pull people off Hector or Cinza," the deputy added, glancing over his shoulder at the retreating trio.
"It should diminish over the next few days," Rachel said. "There's a lot of interest right now, but the word should spread. Once people realize this won't work, they should be left alone." She turned to Hector apologetically. "Hector, I'm sorry. This is all my fault."
He shook his head. "It was my choice, miss."
"Can we do anything for you?"
"Just keep shopping here like you always do," he answered with a crooked smile. "The strawberries are very good right now."
Rachel nodded, offering a smile in return, but it didn't seem to comfort him much. After a few moments he bustled away to the back, leaving her alone with the two officers.
"You really think it'll die down?" the deputy asked.
Jackie snorted. "Right up until they remember there's three kids dead, Preston."
Rachel inclined her head at the sheriff. "That's a timebomb waiting to go off. The two college kids isn't as bad as it could be, since they're both out-of-towners and not really well-connected. But once they hear about Jenny…"
"We're in a shitstorm," Jackie finished. "I've been delaying it, in case any clues pop up from her identity being a mystery, but it's Rallsburg. She'll be figured out in no time. Her parents are already all over me." She frowned. "What's the word on the hunt, anyway?"
"Nothing out in the woods," Rachel replied. "We had one period of activity relatively nearby, but by the time we got there, whomever had cast the spell had broken camp and vanished. We couldn't track them at all."
"Not to sound ungrateful, but I'd really prefer not to tell you."
Jackie furrowed her brow suspiciously. "I'm doing the best I can here, Rachel, but murder's still murder. I've got the law to enforce. That's obstruction."
"Consider it a protected witness, then, under RCW 7.69.030."
"Let's assume I don't know that one off the top."
"'There shall be a reasonable effort made to protect individuals from harm or threats of harm arising from cooperating with law enforcement investigations and prosecutions.' The individual in question would be at serious risk of harm if it were revealed the extent of their ability to track magical activity." Rachel paused for a moment—imagining her beloved's face in her mind—before continuing. "Our community is a collection of individuals, many of whom have significant reason to keep their identities and abilities private. Some of whom would act if they felt that privacy threatened. The individual is willing to cooperate in this case because it has far-reaching implications beyond the usual, as well as a personal favor to myself. However, to keep them safe, their identity must remain absolutely private. Is that all right?"
Jackie frowned even deeper, a state that hadn't seemed possible on her face until that moment. "I don't like it, but I guess I have to live with it. Not like I have any better ideas for finding these people."
"What about motive and alibis? Do we have any suspects?" Preston asked.
"Not a one. Just the one suspicious person, who you can be damn sure I'll question soon as I find her." Jackie glanced at Rachel. "Word is she was a friend of yours."
"Except briefly at the one Council meeting we've had since the last train, we haven't spoken in months," Rachel answered. "I've been trying to call her. But her arrival in town would put her after the time of the murders, wouldn't it?"
"Assumin' she actually arrived on that train."
"The station clerk vouched for that," Preston chimed in. "Talked to him this morning. He watched her get off the train alone and head into town straight off."
"Alone? He's sure?" Rachel asked.
"Uhh, yeah. Why?"
Rachel shook her head. "Nothing."
"Nuh-uh, girl," Jackie snapped. "Cooperation, remember? You've gotta fill me in on anything, no matter how trivial it might seem."
Rachel hesitated. She didn't want to implicate the guy if he'd come to town alone, but the fact that Rika had attached herself to him already damned Zack in the eyes of the town. It was just poor luck. "Since the Council meeting, she's had someone with her nearly all hours. A teenager named Zack. I've never met him, but something about him seemed off, both to me and to my associate."
"The one with the tracking power."
"Right. Zack wasn't awakened—err, he didn't have access to magic. So it wasn't that. It was something else about him. I'd have to be closer to be sure."
Jackie cracked her knuckles, turning to stroll out to the cruiser. "Which takes finding the pair. Rachel, you still with me?"
"Of course," Rachel said, reshouldering her bag and hurrying to catch up.
They combed the town without any particular direction in mind. Jackie simply followed her usual patrol schedule. They figured a Japanese girl with blue hair would stand out pretty well in a small town. Rachel offered suggestions on how to optimize her route to move through the town quicker, use less gasoline and still cover the same ground as frequently. It was a stark contrast to the old Rachel, and Jackie commented as such.
"You think?" Rachel said absently, her mind currently working through an idea for a way to fuel cars while they spoke. A typical car engine was just a series of rapid explosions causing pistons to move and generate mechanical energy, and Rachel wanted to know if there was a way they could improve that somehow. The real trick in her opinion was how to approach it. Would it be better to try and recreate the same explosion effect and rotate the axles in the usual way, or could it be more efficient to toss the entire existing engine design and find a new method entirely propelled by magic? There were so many theoretical possibilities that it kept Rachel's mind entertained during such tedious things as travel or rest.
"Hell, girl, a year ago I'd be picking you up and giving you a ride back to campus because you were lost in a ten-street town and asking strangers what day it was," Jackie snorted. "The look on your face, too."
"Oh," she replied, her thought process broken for a moment. "...I'd forgotten about that."
"I thought you didn't forget things."
"Not since I changed that about myself," Rachel answered. "Things before that…"
"Why didn't you do it sooner, then?"
She hesitated. They were entering dangerous waters for casual conversation topics. Rachel didn't want to reveal too much. On the other hand, Jackie already felt like she was second-rung, and Rachel valued her both as an asset and as a friend. Of the two major town officials, the sheriff was much more likely to be the neutral party. Rowan wasn't hated, but he wasn't exactly loved either. Many groups—particularly the loggers like Robert Harrison and friends of Gordon Miller the journalist—were vocal opponents.
Rachel still didn't trust the mayor with detailed information about magic, but Jackie wasn't a power-grabbing politician. There were very few who had a bone to pick with the sheriff. Here was a tried-and-true officer of the law, and one that preferred quiet streets where she could enjoy the town as opposed to a crime-laden district where she could lay down the law. Given sensitive information, Rachel believed Jackie wouldn't act on it unless she needed to.
"Jackie, if I give you some information, you don't have to pass it on to the mayor."
She frowned, turning the next corner a bit more sharply than usual. "Weird way to answer my question. Not officially, no. I like to keep him in the loop on anythin' important though."
"Well, let's say this isn't something important to the investigation. Knowing it will help you police the town, but if it became more common knowledge, it would be dangerous for everyone."
"And you think the mayor can't keep his trap shut," Jackie concluded.
"I don't, but I also don't know him that well yet. We've worked together all year though. I can trust you, right?"
"'Course you can, girl."
Rachel pointed out an alleyway they were quickly approaching, a secluded spot behind the Kettle and Bones bar. "Pull over there. I have something to show you."
"Jesus Christ," Jackie breathed. She took an involuntary step back, and her hand found the sidearm strapped to her waist. The wooden door had just appeared directly in front of her, set squarely into the gap between the wall and the dumpster. Rachel put a hand on the shorter woman's shoulder, trying to reassure her.
"It's a door to what we call a pocket dimension. It's where we do business." Rachel pulled the door open, revealing the inky black wall within. "It's okay, we can just step right through."
"Speak for yourself," she muttered, but Jackie followed her through the door all the same.
Beyond the black veil, the marketplace was mostly quiet. A few of the stalls around the octagonal street were open, but there was only so much commerce to be had amongst a community of less than a hundred. The only truly important business taking place that day was in a more permanent structure set off to one side. It was a plain light blue portable classroom that had originally been given to the college for overflow classes, but had ended up unused when application rates had declined. Kendra had found a way to acquire it surreptitiously and move it inside the Market for their use. It now served to provide the council a place for business that could not be conducted in the world proper.
"So this is where the drug trade went," Jackie groused, glancing at the tents and the other doors scattered around the place.
"No, no drugs. We keep a close eye on what gets traded," Rachel replied. "Besides, it's not like we had an actual trade in Rallsburg to begin with, unless you count marijuana."
"State doesn't anymore. No reason for me to either."
"When we go in, just hang back and let me talk, all right?" Rachel said as they approached the portable.
"Hey, this is your world. Far as I'm concerned you're in charge. You're an elected official, right?"
"Guess I'm your enforcement arm too, then. Might not be in writing but that's the spirit of the thing, right?"
Rachel smiled. That was exactly what she wanted to hear. Jackie was someone who respected the law, but also someone who knew when it was too slow to adapt to dynamic new situations. She took the steps two at a time and knocked sharply on the door.
Josh Miller answered, a bemused look on her fellow councilor's face. "Rachel? I thought you weren't coming to this one."
"Changed my mind. I needed to bring a guest."
Josh's eyes were wide as dinner plates as he saw who Rachel had in tow. "What are you doing?" he hissed.
"I trust her, and she needs to know what's up. She won't reveal anything she sees here, not even to her deputy." She glanced over her shoulder, and Jackie nodded an affirmative.
Josh shrugged. "Cinza's not gonna like it."
"Cinza knows what's at stake in the town right now. She can live with it. Most of her followers aren't here anyway, right?"
"Still out, last I heard. It's just the Terrible Trio and their new initiate today. Excuse me, the totally unrelated newcomer."
Rachel laughed. "They're still pretending otherwise?"
"Like it's not obvious." Josh grinned. "The way he looks at her, he's a dead ringer for a devoted cult slave." He stood out of the doorway. "Well, come on then."
Rachel stepped inside, Jackie at her heels. The entire room looked round, and Rachel found herself once again at the center of a spotlight. In this case, it was literal, as Cinza had summoned up a beam of light to blind them. Rachel felt Jackie grab at her shoulder to steady herself from the sudden loss of vision.
"My own identity is my choice to disclose as I please, but your position does not give you the right to reveal us all at a whim," Cinza said. Irritatingly, she was back to the airy ethereal echo that Rachel detested so much, rather than the genuine voice she'd allowed to slip free around Rachel. Apparently Rachel was special somehow.
"I vouch for the sheriff. She will keep absolute confidence of anyone she sees in this room today, except in the case of a committed legal crime." Rachel paused. "Someone on the other half of the summit should begin to understand us, Cinza, if we have any hope to emerge successfully. Who better in this town than the sheriff?"
She could hear murmuring across the room, between Cinza and her two seldom-heard associates, as well as Josh and whomever else had attended. Rachel tried to play back the brief glimpse she'd gotten, but Cinza's reaction had been too quick. Thankfully, she didn't need to, as the light vanished only a minute later—sucked away like a switch had been flipped.
Jackie let out a deep breath, rubbing at her eyes.
"There should have been no pain or damage," Cinza called.
"You're good, girl. I'm just trying to make sure I believe what I'm seeing," the sheriff answered. She fell heavily into one of the chairs set around the blank whiteboard, watching the room with an exhausted expression. "Just go on and do your thing, don't mind me."
Cinza turned to Rachel. "We hadn't expected you to attend, since you already cleared him. Has something changed?"
"No, nothing. Proceed as usual."
"Did you want to run the show, Rach?" Josh asked. Rachel winced at the shortened name, but shook her head. "Do you have one of the copies, at least? I may have left mine at home and was about to run to grab it."
She sighed and opened her bag. It only took a minute to dig through the contents and find one of the page copies the Gods had made for them. It was the very same one she took from Jeffrey Rosenberg only a week prior, in fact. She'd begun to suspect that Cinza's people were responsible for luring him to that particular copy, and she'd made sure she kept it on her just in case an opportunity like this arose.
As she handed it directly to Cinza, Rachel noticed a brief flash of recognition cross her eyes, though the other girl hid it well. Rachel took the seat next to Jackie feeling triumphant. One mystery solved.
"Help me out here, Rachel. What's going on exactly?" Jackie whispered, while Cinza took the page to the other side of the room and handed it to Josh.
"This is awakening," Rachel replied, keeping her voice just as low. It didn't matter much if they made noise, but Rachel didn't want to seem like she was intruding more than necessary on the moment. It was a profound experience that could only happen once in a lifetime.
"You mean, this is how…" Jackie started, then understanding struck her. "You told Rowan—"
Jackie slumped forward in her chair, pressing her hands to her forehead. "Rachel, you're making my life insane. Anyone can do this?"
"Not exactly, but close enough. So you see why you need to know this information."
"No shit," she sighed.
"We can control it though. You can't go through with it without having access to a few things. So we have an approval process."
"And you clear everyone who goes through. How are they vetted?"
Josh examined the page briefly, making sure it was intact (or as intact as it could be—they still hadn't ever found a complete page of the book, nor did Rachel ever expect to). He then handed it over to Nate Price, the individual they'd cleared for the day. The rich young heir of the town logging fortune had actually almost been cleared to awaken a long time past, but the incident with Natalie and Robert Harrison had given Rachel enough reason to forestall the vote. After he'd shown enough common sense to understand his wrongdoing, she'd reluctantly voted in favor once again, before she began to be seen as overly controlling.
"We interview them, mostly. Make sure they seem psychologically fit to handle something like magic. Beyond that, we try not to stand in the way too much. We're an elected council, but like I said before, it's for a group of very private individuals. No one would look too kindly on us halting awakenings for petty or personal reasons."
"That seems like it could snowball out of control."
Rachel nodded. "It's always a danger, but there's a few basic laws that help prevent that. For one, magic can't really be used directly on another person. The amount of damage someone can do to other human beings is limited."
"Besides that, we've had a few incidents in the past involving people trying to assert themselves over the Council. None succeeded, and everyone still here knows what happens when you try to upset the status quo."
"That can't last," Jackie said darkly.
"No, it can't," Rachel agreed. "Which is why I brought you here. It's time we start integrating ourselves into the rest of the world, one small step at a time. It'll be much safer for everyone in the long run if we can establish a proper community."
"Gotcha." The sheriff sat up straight, taking a greater interest in the ritual happening in front of her. "Is that the mayor's nephew over there? Mason?"
"Yes. He's one of the smartest among us. Helped define a lot of the rules on how magic works."
"Never liked that kid."
"Condescending little dick, always trying to tell me how to do my job."
Rachel smiled. That was something she could relate to. "He does that to you too, eh?"
Jackie raised an eyebrow. "Careful, girl, your Canadian is showing."
She laughed. "I only grew up there. I was born in California."
Josh had finished explaining to Nate how to proceed. He stood back to give Nate some space. A cushioned chair directly behind him was the only thing within a few meters. Nate set the page on the lectern and started to read it aloud.
"Abrec tes minnear—"
Nate immediately coughed, and had to look away and clear his throat a few times.
"Is he all right?" Jackie asked with concern.
"Yes. This happens to everyone. He just needs to continue reading it aloud."
"He doesn't sound all right."
"They're just words," Rachel said dismissively. "We're not even sure they actually have any meaning. You don't have to say anything to cast spells. It helps some people to focus, or they just think it sounds cool, but it's not required."
"And anyone can just read these and learn magic?"
"No, not anyone. It has to be from the original book, or one of the special copies that were made for us. You could put the words online and it wouldn't do a thing."
"This feels like demonic shit here, Rachel. You know how it looks, right? You're gonna have all the churches up in arms on this one. Just be ready for the storm when it comes."
Nate began again, and he made it through on the second attempt. Rachel was a little surprised. It wasn't unheard of, but it was certainly somewhat uncommon to make it through the first paragraph in only two tries. Very few failed on the third try, however, and once the first paragraph was cleared it was impossible to stop.
It was potentially deadly to stop.
Nate's voice began to accelerate. His voice dropped in tone and the words began to run together. It quickly became impossible to comprehend anything he said. They'd once attempted to record the words and play them back more slowly, but the recordings only produced raw noise, devoid of anything meaningful.
Jackie clutched Rachel's wrist. "Jesus, is he all right?"
"He's fine, Jackie. Just wait."
Everyone in the room was standing back a few paces. It was an unwritten rule to give a respectful distance to Grey-eyes and not intrude on her work. They all knew the consequences if she failed to appear, but not one of them could recall a single instance where there had been even the slightest doubt that she would complete her task.
Nate's voice began to choke up, as it became clear he was beginning to run out of oxygen. Rachel took stock of the room rather than watch the unpleasant spectacle. Cinza and her trio were excited, but Mason looked vaguely concerned. Josh checked his watch, bored as usual.
Abruptly, Nate's voice cut off, precisely on time. He fell back onto the armchair, gasping as he tried to voice words he couldn't see. Rachel remembered the feeling and shuddered. It was a rare case where she wished she didn't have perfect memory. She hadn't managed to forget before she'd made her mind permanent. Rachel never wanted to feel the sensation of being cut off from the book again, trying to read words that had been torn away.
Nate continued to gasp and choke on the chair, letting out a groan with the little breath he had left. Josh checked his watch again, his brow furrowed. Cinza's group still watched patiently, eagerly awaiting their savior.
"Rachel…" Jackie started.
"Wait." Despite her reassuring tone, Rachel was starting to worry. Where is she?
Nate's face was beginning to shift blue. Rachel started to rise from her chair, and Jackie was following close behind her. Mason started forward as well, his expression grim.
Josh leapt forward, landing next to Nate and putting pressure on his chest. Without hesitation he started trying to breathe life back into the boy. Rachel and Mason were with him a moment later. Cinza faltered, confusion and fear stamped on her face.
She appeared, right in their midst, sitting just to Nate's side. Her soft grey eyes flashed with alarm. In an instant she had Nate's hand clasped in her own, while she began whispering something none of them could hear.
His mouth began moving once more. She waved two of her fingers forward in a quick flicking motion, and Rachel felt air rush past her shoulder and straight into Nate's throat. His lungs began to expand immediately. With more swift motions, the god sitting at Rachel's side sent air flowing in and out of Nate, fueling him with oxygen before he passed out completely.
In only a few moments he began to utter the remainder of the page, finally progressing past the gap. Josh fell back gasping. They backed away to give Grey-eyes and Nate the space to finish. Rachel rejoined Jackie on the wall of the room, planting herself back in the chair.
"See? Nothing to worry about," Rachel said, breathing heavily. Her heart was a pounding drum in her chest.
"That wasn' normal, right?"
"No. Something went wrong. It's fine now though."
"Who is that?"
"Later." Grey-eyes was just about done, and Rachel wanted to try something. She rose and made her way around the room to face her.
She was tiny compared to Rachel—more than a full foot shorter, putting her just barely taller than Cinza, the shortest in the entire community. Still, Rachel was intimidated just being in the same room. There was a distinct aura of power about her, and it was something Rachel wanted to investigate while she had the chance. She composed herself, then let her gaze shift into her other sight as Will had taught her.
The connections in the room began to filter into her sight, hazy lines draped between every occupant of the room. Rachel was bombarded by the stronger connections in the room. There was a strange triangle between Cinza and her two lieutenants, with strong lines connecting all three as well as a strange multi-faceted web that somehow pulled them all together. A line was drawn from Rachel herself to Josh, to Jackie, and to Mason—her three friends and allies in this room. The usual faint but thick line trailed off into the distance, connecting her to Will wherever he might be at that moment. Rachel touched it briefly for the warmth, then tore her gaze away to the one she'd not yet examined.
She felt like she might go blind.
There were countless lines draped off Grey-eyes, trailing away in every direction imaginable. Rachel had never seen such a thick bundle of connections pouring out of a person. She tried to look closer, and for the briefest moment Rachel saw something strange.
The connections were threadbare and indistinct—very unlike most of the ones she examined. A proper connection was like a flowing loop, continuously rolling through the air and bounding back and forth between individuals. It might flow much stronger in one direction, if a relationship wasn't properly mutual, but there was virtually always a return flow of some kind.
Grey-eyes had no returning flows. She wasn't properly connected to anyone, but she was linked to everyone. It was shocking, but Rachel didn't have time to think about it. The moment she looked more closely at the girl, those sad eyes snapped up to meet her own.
Rachel immediately dropped back into normal vision. Grey-eyes' expression was fierce.
"What are you doing?" she asked. She had risen to her feet, while Nate spluttered back to life below her. She was wearing simple clothes, just blue jeans and a dark grey jacket with a rumpled t-shirt underneath, and her appearance was plain and unremarkable, but Rachel had never been more terrified in her life.
Grey-eyes never spoke.
"I…" Rachel started. She had no idea what to say. She was too afraid to even take a single step backward. What was she thinking, trying to spy on a god?
You want to make the world a better place, and this girl is your best shot at it.
Rachel summoned up all the courage she could muster and forced out five simple words. "I want to help you."
With that one word, the entire room was stunned into silence. No one expected her to actually answer Rachel's request. Grey-eyes never talked to anyone beyond their awakening. Everyone knew that.
"I want to help you."
"You were trying to spy on my life," she said. Her tone wasn't accusatory. She was stating a fact.
Rachel nodded. "We don't know anything about you, but you've done so much for us. I want to return the favor."
Grey-eyes shook her head, her messy brown hair flying wildly. "I'm doing what has to be done."
"Because we'd die without you, right?"
Rachel took a deep breath, trying to clear her thoughts. "Back at the summit, you—"
Grey-eyes threw up an arm, stopping Rachel mid-sentence. She saw the rest of the room take a step forward out of the corner of her eye, but her gaze couldn't leave the grey-eyed girl. It took a moment for Rachel to realize what she'd done, as the Market was already a very quiet place without the background ambience of wind or nature around them—but as Josh's mouth opened and closed without a sound she understood.
"That was a private conversation," Grey-eyes said quietly.
She shook her head. "It's okay. You wanted to talk. I guess this is as good a time as any." She made a twisting motion with her hand, and a ripple of light moved through the air in a sphere around them. The rest of the room seemed filtered somehow, as if through sunglasses. "They can't see or hear us anymore. What did you want to talk about?"
Rachel was taken aback. She'd wanted this meeting for so long, she hadn't expected it to actually come true today. She'd only leapt at the opportunity after Grey-eyes had been so delayed in her arrival, and been apparently distracted by the medical emergency.
The girl looked away from Rachel, staring determinedly at the wall. Rachel wasn't sure how to react to that. Was she bored? What was Rachel supposed to say?
"Is there any way we can help with awakening people?" She'd finally settled on the topic most immediately relevant, what with the still-recovering Nate now in the corner of the room being examined by the sheriff. Jackie was eyeing Rachel and Grey-eyes with suspicion, but thankfully Rachel seemed to have imposed upon her the importance of inaction for the time being.
"Not really, no. I wish you could. But you'd have to know the Grimoire like I know it. And, well… that's impossible now."
"Because it was destroyed?"
"Yeah…" The girl clasped her hands together, twiddling her thumbs. Rachel watched closely, expecting some kind of magic, but she was still just staring at the corner of the room. For a moment, her face turned a faint shade of red before it immediately shifted back to its normal pale.
Realization struck her. Grey-eyes was embarrassed.
"Are you all right?"
"Huh?" She looked up, startled. "I mean, yeah, I'm fine."
"You took so long to get here..."
"That was… my bad. I lost track of time." She looked over at Nate again and grimaced. "I've never been that late before."
"Hey, it's okay. He's gonna be fine. You got here in time," Rachel said, trying to sound comforting. She felt absurd. Here she was—someone who could barely perform the simplest spells most days—and she was trying to comfort someone who'd teleported into the middle of an alternate dimension and subsequently given them perfect privacy in the middle of the room on a whim.
"Thanks, Rachel," she answered, and for the briefest moment Rachel thought she might smile—but this was Grey-eyes. Her expression was perpetually lonely and guarded. "That means a lot."
"Yeah." Rachel took a step toward her, and the girl didn't recoil. "Still, I wish I could do more than that. There has to be something I can help with, isn't there?"
"I… I don't know. You're the leader, Rachel, not me. I should be asking you that."
Rachel felt her chest swell with pride. "Can you help us find someone?"
She looked away again. "I can. But I don't know if I should."
"What do you mean?"
"Right now, I'm trapped. It's like I'm balancing two glasses of water on opposite ends of a stick, right?" She flicked a finger, and an illusion of that very image appeared between them. "I can go a bit out to one side, but then everything tips." The board began to tilt, and one of the glasses began to spill. Water cascaded out and faded away just before hitting the ground. "So I run to the other side, and everything's normal again, until I overdo it and it spills the other way."
"I'm not sure I follow."
"Spills are bad, but the water can be refilled. It's fixable, just unpleasant. If I go too far though, it won't just spill. It'll break." She let the illusionary glass fall and shatter on the ground.
Rachel jumped. She'd never seen such a perfect illusion, nor one with accompanying sound. It was startlingly realistic. Cinza would give a lot to pull that off.
"You're saying if you support us, you might set off this… other side."
"Yeah." Grey-eyes fluttered her fingers briefly, and the illusion vanished in a puff of smoke.
"But this balancing act, is it really any better?"
"Do you remember that night?"
Rachel nodded. Grey-eyes didn't need to be more specific. They all remembered that night.
"That's the balance. I keep it, they don't come back."
"But they have, haven't they?" Rachel asked.
Rachel was taken aback. She assumed Grey-eyes already knew. "A few nights ago, Cinza was attacked."
"She was?" Grey-eyes shot a glance at the trio in the corner, still watching the sphere with wide eyes. The red-haired girl was holding Cinza's hand tight, clinging to her side, while the young man behind them just stood in awe. Rachel wondered what they actually saw, if they couldn't see inside.
"Your cult isn't very well-liked around here, but—"
"It's not my cult."
"You don't like the label?"
Grey-eyes shook her head. "If it makes them happy, they can do whatever they want. But I didn't do anything."
"I'm sorry. Cinza's people then. They were attacked by golems of fire out in the woods. I don't know anyone else who can do something like that, do you?"
"No…" she trailed off. "But, he didn't enter the town. I'm sure of it."
"Omega had an accomplice. Someone was controlling the golems for him."
"I… guess that's possible. But they'd have to be—well, they weren't magical. 'Awakened', you guys call it, right?"
"So we're looking for someone who can't use magic, but can order golems around?" Rachel sighed. "That doesn't exactly make it easier."
Grey-eyes frowned. "I… I shouldn't say, but… Natalie. Natalie is the key."
"Yes." Grey-eyes shifted awkwardly from one foot to another. "She's seen them out in the woods. Talk to her."
Puzzle pieces were clicking into place. The men Natalie had seen—her father and Omega? Natalie's affinity for nature and the animals out in the woods would lead her to them. Rachel was certain of that now. But… what was she supposed to do when she found them? And why was Natalie's father with him? Did Omega kill him too?
"I'm sorry, I can't stay any longer. Someone else needs me," Grey-eyes said abruptly.
"Another awakening?" Rachel asked.
"No, no. Just... something I have to do." She brushed her hair away from her face. "Look, this… I shouldn't say this, but—" She cleared her throat, then looked Rachel directly in the eye. "Send Rika out of town. Get her away from here."
"You can see the future?" Rachel asked eagerly.
"No, of course not. It hasn't happened yet." Grey-eyes shook her head again. "Her, anyone she's close to, whoever. Just get them out of town."
The sound of heavy breathing returned to Rachel's ears. She looked round, and saw faces snapping up to look at her. Grey-eyes had vanished, just as suddenly as she'd appeared.
A small part of Rachel's mind told her that such teleportation shouldn't be possible. That, even if Grey-eyes could move herself out of the room so quickly it appeared to be instantaneous, there should be some sort of sound. A sonic boom or a clap as the air rushed in to fill the empty space—but there was nothing.
She brushed it off. Kendra regularly made doors appear out of thin air in walls where they couldn't possibly be. Natalie could talk to animals. She herself could see emotional connections between individuals through some impossible means. This was still magic. She'd probably never get a logical explanation for everything.
"What did she say?" Cinza demanded, taking a step toward Rachel with her lieutenant still hanging off her arm. Immediately, both Mason and Josh were at Rachel's side, while Jackie had risen to her feet.
"She asked for privacy," Rachel said quietly. "Would you have me break her privacy?"
Cinza held still, her eyes darting about the suddenly hostile room. Even poor Nate, still recovering half-prone on the floor, had turned to face her. After a few moments, she settled back. "You're right, of course. My apologies, dearest leader. I was overcome."
"Right." Rachel looked down at Nate. "You okay?"
"Dandy," he said, before hacking out a few coughs. "You could've warned me."
"We did, but it wasn't supposed to get that bad. I'm sorry."
"It's okay. What do I do now?"
Rachel offered a hand, and Nate pulled himself to his feet. "Once you're feeling up to it, Mason will instruct you in the basics. How to move things with your mind. Everyone needs to know that one. After that, what direction you take is up to you. Keep the sensation you felt during your awakening fresh in your mind, as it provides a clue to your affinity. You don't need to tell it to me, or anyone else, but Mason can help you if you're unsure or you'd like further direction." She cleared her throat, and offered Nate a smile. "Congratulations, Nate. You've been awakened."
Nate's lopsided grin cheered her up a bit, before he followed Mason out of the room and into the training tent down the road where Mason usually offered lessons. Cinza and her lieutenants turned inward and began chattering away quietly, too low for her to make out.
"I'm surprised," Rachel said, as Josh brushed off his pant legs. The gesture was mostly futile as—being another dimension—there was almost no dust or dirt to be found in the entire place, but it was a habit. She'd felt the same urge to brush off her dress.
"Well, yeah, that was all a bit crazy," Josh said.
"No, I meant surprised by you. You jumped in there and probably saved his life."
"Oh." He looked at her oddly. "What, you didn't think I'd just let him choke down there, did you?"
"I dunno. You just seem like you don't care most of the time. I had to persuade you to even take this one, remember?"
Josh sighed. "Rachel, just because I feel like sleeping through every one of your overly long meetings doesn't mean I'm not invested in this whole community." He grinned. "I got elected to this stupid council more than once. Clearly someone out there likes me."
"Or they want someone they know won't mess with them."
"Hey, give me no reasons and I won't break no fingers."
She rolled her eyes. "Anything else?"
"There's some grumbling. Mabel and some of the regulars aren't happy with how you've basically elected yourself leader."
"Let me guess. Julian's in that group?"
"That… could be a problem," Rachel said, frowning. "You got time later to hash this out?"
"Yeah, and I needed dinner plans anyway. You want something?"
Rachel smiled. Josh—for all his faults—was an excellent chef. "You're cooking?"
"Yeah. Bring Will over, we'll make it a thing. Text me what time."
At that moment, Rachel's phone buzzed. Kendra had set up a cell signal repeater in the center of the Market, so that cell service and internet connections were possible, though she strictly limited who had access for security reasons. Rachel was one of the few privileged.
It was Hailey Winscombe, of all people, calling her. "Hello?"
"I was at the meeting, I don't know if you saw-"
"Yes. I… what can I do for you?"
Hailey sounded like she was trying to talk over a small storm. There was a fierce wind howling across the microphone, though the weather outside had been plenty calm. "Can we meet up? At my place? There's something I need to talk to you about."
"I'm kind of locked up tight right now. It might be a day or two before I can come over."
"This is kind of importan— oh, crap! I have to go." The phone clicked off.
"What was that?" Josh asked.
Rachel stared at the blank screen, still confused. "I'm… not sure, to be honest. I think I need to check it out though."
"Good luck with that, I guess. Let me know if you need anything." Josh waved over his shoulder as he left the room. "Later, Rachel."
With Josh gone, Rachel approached the remaining group. She was impressed that, despite being the shortest and smallest in the trio, Cinza was still clearly in control. Physicality wasn't a factor for their group, only magical talent—which Cinza had in spades. "Cinza, Ruby, and…" she prompted.
"Makoto," Cinza finished. Makoto inclined his head, still never uttering a word. Rachel had heard him talking to the pair in a calm and even voice, but apparently he favored the strong silent approach with strangers.
"I'm assuming you have some questions for me anyway, despite what we said earlier."
"What was said was for your ears alone. What you choose to do now is your prerogative," Cinza said. Ruby leaned in and whispered something in her ear. "Ruby would like to know if she mentioned us at all, though."
"She did," Rachel said truthfully. She didn't feel like expanding on Grey-eyes' opinion, though. Cinza's cult was better as an organized unit for the time being; finding out that their deity didn't approve was likely to destabilize them beyond repair.
Ruby smiled in the strange, offputting smile of a fervent believer. "As we knew she would. We are her faithful servants." She leaned down and gave Cinza a kiss on the cheek. "Let's go."
Cinza was clearly suspicious, but she didn't press the topic further. She brushed Ruby's dark red hair affectionately, but her eyes were locked on Rachel. "Not yet, Ruby. About other matters..."
"We have a lead," Rachel replied. "Jackie, you should hear this as well." The sheriff joined them, eyeing Cinza's group with concern. It was a step above suspicion, at least, but Rachel wished Jackie could hide her disdain better while Rachel was trying to establish diplomatic ties.
"Sheriff," Cinza acknowledged.
"What's this lead, then?" Jackie asked Rachel, determinedly not looking at the robed trio.
"The what now?"
"Men of stone and fire," Cinza supplied.
"Oh god dammit," Jackie muttered.
"The golems," Rachel continued as if she hadn't been interrupted, "were being controlled by a man out in the forest. That man was working for Omega, the only person who could have created those golems."
"We already knew all of that," Ruby said dismissively, but Cinza herself remained attentive. Makoto continued to be unreadable, but Rachel suspected him to be the muscle of the group. Maybe he's the water manipulator?
"Something Grey-eyes said reminded me that Omega isn't in the town, and won't be. Can't be. So we can discount any magical activity nearby. Which means we only need to monitor activity out in the woods. Normally that would be a problem, as none of us—even our sheriff—are particularly good at tracking someone through that thick of a forest. But we have another way."
"The animal whisperer," said Cinza.
"Exactly. She can call out to something that can track them across a forest for miles. A wolf, if she can manage it."
"Sorry, what?" Jackie asked, thoroughly confused.
"Natalie Hendricks, Brian's daughter."
"Wait, she's one of you?"
"Yes. She was awakened before most of us, actually," Rachel added. "I don't know when or how, but she's been doing this a long time now."
"But, she's just a kid!"
"A child with powers well beyond us," Cinza intoned.
"Right. She's the only one who knows how to talk to animals," Rachel explained.
Jackie sat down in the nearest chair. "I'm gonna need a minute." She took out a handkerchief and dabbed at her brow. "Does her father know about this?"
"Well, he's… missing."
The sheriff's eyes snapped up. "What?"
Rachel frowned. She'd expected the sheriff to have known that one of her flock had been unaccounted for a week. "We've been looking for him as well."
"Have you been taking care of her?" Jackie asked, eyes narrowing. "Not saying you couldn't, but you seem far too busy to care for a child."
"No, and you're right. Natalie has been staying with a close associate of ours."
"This is one of those times where I have to ask for names, Rachel," Jackie said firmly. "The girl's twelve, she needs proper care. If I'm not happy with the answer, I'd be forced to call her mother."
Rachel grimaced. The last thing Natalie needs is an overbearing, harsh mother like Lori Hendricks returning to town. "Kendra Laushire, the economics professor."
"Oh!" Jackie's eyes widened. "Her too? Good god."
"Yes, but for obvious reasons, her identity must remain absolutely private," Rachel said firmly. "The Laushire conglomerate would be after us all in a heartbeat. She doesn't exactly see eye to eye with her family."
"Understood," Jackie said sharply.
"Kendra is also the one currently keeping the ground under your feet stable," Cinza added with a grin. As if on cue, the world shuddered a little, sending the ceiling tiles wobbling. Jackie stood up straight with a shock.
"Yes," Rachel answered impatiently. "This is normal. Kendra has never failed to keep the Market open while people were still inside."
Jackie didn't seem reassured. "Seems like a perfectly good time to leave, to me."
Rachel glanced at Cinza, who nodded. "We have business to attend to. You have my number if you need anything."
Jackie shivered as they re-emerged into the world from the door behind the Kettle and Bones. The noise of the town assaulted them immediately. It wasn't truly loud, but compared to the stillness of the Market, even the snatches of conversation from inside the bar and the few cars rolling about sounded like a bustling city.
"Kettle isn't usually open this early," Jackie commented, glancing at the back door.
"Rowan asked them to for a few days, to help ease the transition as more people find out about us," Rachel replied, digging in her bag for her phone once again. "I don't know if it's working, but I know at least a few people who'd be glad for the early bar."
"Probably," she agreed. Her radio squawked, startling them both.
"Jackie, Preston… Jackie, Preston. I swear to God, please pick up."
"Shit, we didn't have radio signal in there, did we?" Jackie muttered. She scrambled for the radio strapped on her shoulder. "Preston, this is Jackie. Send it."
"Where the hell have you been? Over."
Jackie shot an amused glance at Rachel before she responded. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you, over."
"Right, very funny. Rowan's been trying to reach you, over."
"What's happening? Over."
"Wilson kid's parents want to talk. Sounded angry. Also something about a funeral. Over."
"Oh hell," Jackie murmured. She looked at Rachel, who nodded. It was time to tell them what had happened to their child. To prolong it any further was cruel, and didn't do them or the town any good. "Roger. We'll be over soon. Over."
"Acknowledged, sheriff. Out."