Chapter 14 — What It Means
Despite all the stress steadily building up since the Emergence (as Cinza had coined it), Rachel was pleased to find that Josh's cooking remained as excellent as ever.
"Honestly, Joshua, you've outdone many a professional here," Kendra agreed, dabbing a napkin at her mouth. "I'd hire you."
"Thanks, but I think I'm gonna be too busy," Josh said, giving a sidelong glance at Rachel. "How many catastrophes are we dealing with now?"
Rachel sighed, stretching back in her chair. "Too many."
"With one more on the way," Will added, looking out the front window at a car that had just arrived. Jackie joined them a few moments later, prompting Josh to fetch another serving of the salmon he'd prepared.
"Thanks," Jackie grunted, digging in voraciously. "It's all bad," she added, wiping her face on her sleeve.
"Totally blocked?" Rachel asked, feeling dismayed.
"It's a disaster zone. Landslides, buncha timbers, the works. Looks like a damn earthquake rolled through." Jackie frowned. "There's no way it was natural."
"No," Rachel agreed. "What did Robert say?"
Jackie shrugged. "Can't clear it easily. It'll be hard work, but he's got people on it. That's all we got for now, since the trains are blocked out too. We can call in a helicopter lift if we really need it, but even that's a stretch with how many of them are tied up dealing with wildfires down south."
"So we're alone," Will concluded, pulling out his laptop.
"Honestly, it's not the worst circumstances to find ourselves at present," Kendra put in mildly, sipping her wine.
"What? We're under siege here, Miss Laushire," Josh said. "Being trapped in with an angry god at our doorstep sounds pretty bad to me."
"She's right, Josh," said Rachel. "Being cut off means we don't have to worry about the emergence spreading any further. Magic will be contained to Rallsburg for now, and that gives us time to figure out how to deal with Omega."
"It's not like anything outside town could help us anyway, unless you want to call in the National Guard," Will added, while typing away furiously.
"What's going on there?" Jackie asked through a mouthful of salmon.
He spun the screen around for them. Rachel saw a scrolling feed of traffic and a breakdown of highlighted intercepted messages. Will had explained to her how he could stop anything they didn't trust from passing out through the town net, now that he had access to the municipal network administration through Rowan. The mayor, of course, had no idea that Will was involved, and simply assumed (along with everyone else) that Rachel was capable of such a feat on her own. Given a year, perhaps she might be—but time was of the essence, and Will was far more experienced in such a system than she was.
"So far we've been pretty quiet. No unusual traffic out from either the college or the town. Most people are just watching videos, playing games or just talking about the usual things. The only traffic I've seen that even hints at magic is some private communication from Cinza, but our favorite cult leader knows her encryption. Besides the empty subject line that I pulled from the mailserver and the username 'Tezofarl', I couldn't get anything else out of it." Will shrugged. "Still, I doubt Cinza's gonna be telling anyone, right? I'd trust her with secrecy at least."
"Quite," Kendra agreed.
"So that just leaves our other security breach. I'm sorry to say I couldn't catch this one, as it used the cell network and made it out before I was set up on our tower. I was only able to spot it thanks to the history log and the fact that the guy sending it didn't have any security on his messages." He grinned, and Rachel felt a brief burst of warmth pulse through her. Even if she didn't share his passion for networks or computers, his enthusiasm was still infectious for her. "Kendra, your employees really are lax on their protocols."
"Collins?" Kendra asked.
"Yeah, from his cell phone to an unknown number. The other end was more secure, took a few bounces to figure out where that number was meant to go."
"Enough bragging, kid. Who knows?" Jackie asked.
"Her father, Thomas Laushire."
"He could pose an inconvenience," Kendra agreed. "Heaven knows my father would love to get his hands on a burgeoning market. I don't believe we need to worry about him for now. May I see the exact message that was sent, please?" Will handed the laptop over. Kendra put on a pair of half-rimmed glasses and scrutinized the screen as if she were looking at a lab specimen. "As expected, Collins couched his speculations in half-hearted flights of fantasy. My father may not even believe him at first. If he were a more trusted or competent lieutenant, he'd not be trapped at the end of the world with myself."
"Glad to see you think so highly of our town," the sheriff muttered.
"I chose this place precisely for being so far removed from society, dear sheriff," Kendra replied. "My father's influence blacklisted me from virtually all major universities, so I decided to take the opposite approach and find one so beyond his reach that he wouldn't even bother making an attempt to interfere. Unfortunately for my plan, this town has turned out to be far more valuable than anyone could have anticipated."
"Speaking of the town, what's the general mood?" asked Josh. "You two have been running all over, what's your take?"
"Everyone's uneasy," Jackie answered. "News is really starting to spread now. We're gonna have more waves of people trying to figure out how they can do magic too."
"And we're still telling everyone they can't, right?"
"We are," Rachel confirmed, "but we don't know that everyone else is. You can be sure Cinza will be looking to pick up new recruits."
"She still doesn't have any paper though. They can't awaken anyone."
"Oh thank God," Jackie muttered.
Josh laughed. "Yeah, we're spared that nightmare for now. So we can focus down on the two real threats: keeping the council happy and finding Omega."
"You said they weren't happy, Josh," Rachel prompted.
"Not happy with you," he corrected. "The gist I got is that Mabel, Julian and Cinza are mostly down with how this has played out otherwise."
"Those are the three big players?" Jackie asked, scribbling on a notepad. Josh raised an eyebrow. "Look, kid, I'm having trouble keeping up. I won't write down anything sensitive, don't worry."
"All right, whatever. Just leave me out of it. Anyway, Cinza seems to have your back actually. I dunno what you did there but she hasn't bitched about you once." Rachel smiled. Her budding friendship with Cinza was paying off. "It's Mabel and Julian that got me worrying."
"I never got the impression that Mabel was particularly invested in the Council, or magic," Kendra said. "I've never seen her visit the Market once, nor has she ever proposed policy or stepped in on a dispute."
"You don't know her like I do," Josh said. "Mabel's the quiet type, yeah, but she's an old matriarch. Raised a whole family and a half here. Did you know that John Bell, the big guy over at the Kettle, is her grandson?"
"No," Kendra answered. Rachel was surprised too. Even she hadn't known that.
"John's just one of several, plus she's got old family ties with the Harrisons. Those two families practically built this town, even though the Prices own it. They've got a lineage and they like to keep things in the line."
"So I'm a usurper," Rachel concluded.
"Not exactly," Josh said. She smiled. This was why Josh was a valuable member of her team. Even though he seemed not to care, the guy was far more socially observant than any of them. Josh had a knack for digging his way through social ladders, finding every nook and cranny, and mapping them out. He knew exactly who was linked with whom, and every little feud and bond in between. Every nuance was accounted for. "Mabel didn't mind when you were an elected councilor. It followed the rules—rules she helped put in place. If we'd done things that way, she'd probably be okay with it. But then you played your hand at the town hall and everything went to shit. Now you're Big Bad Rachel coming to stomp on the rest of the council by declaring yourself the one true representative of the awakened."
"That's not what I did…" Rachel started indignantly, but Josh held up a hand.
"Yeah, I know that, and I'm your other partner here, so don't start flippin' out. I'm just telling you what it looked like to them."
Kendra nodded. "It could easily be seen as another coup."
She frowned. "Neither of you stood up to help."
Josh shrugged, looking totally comfortable. "Because I don't care about being a pillar of the community. You already know that. Who knows what Mabel was thinking during the town hall?"
"Rachel, you faced off against the town to defend one of our own," Will put in gently. "A lot of us recognize that and admire you for it."
Rachel gave him a weak smile, but she still felt like she'd been cut down a few pegs. Had she thrown a coup and taken over the council? She hadn't intended to, but that did look to be the end result. Rachel had simply taken command when no one else seemed to be. Certainly in most council meetings she'd always taken the lead role—this had been no different in her mind.
"What about Julian?" Will prompted, before Rachel could get too lost in her own thoughts. She shot him a grateful look for changing the subject.
"Well, he always hated Rachel," Josh said simply. Rachel snorted, and he grinned. "Yeah, that's about it, but now he's got an actual following. He's been spouting some shit about you making yourself queen of the council and outin' us when we didn't need to yet. It's not enough to overpower Cinza's voting block or your own friends and followers, but it's growing."
"Probably bitter that you threw off his plans," Will added, returning to his laptop.
"Julian the delivery man?" Jackie asked.
Rachel nodded. "He's been a thorn in our side for a while now."
"Mine too," Jackie spat. "Prick keeps drinking on the job, nearly running into the streetlights in his truck."
"Why not arrest him?" Josh asked.
"Because I've never caught him doing it, and I can't toss someone in jail without evidence."
"Of course you had to actually be good at your job," he sighed. Jackie grinned.
"What was that bit with Robert Harrison at the town hall though?" Rachel asked. "Those two are friends now?"
"Hey, something I can answer," Jackie said, leaning forward. "They're drinkin' and huntin' buddies, go out together once a month. I could see Robert helping back his play before, but not now."
"Why not now?"
"Robert hates bein' lied to, and Julian's been hidin' magic from him this whole time and usin' him. Those two aren't friends anymore, trust me on that one. Robert trusts you now—a bit. More than the mayor or anyone from the college, at least."
"Julian isn't an immediate threat," Kendra interjected. "I appreciate your concerns over the possibility of losing your council seat, but if there were ever a case to declare an emergency, this would be it. I think we can table that discussion and focus on the murders."
Her declaration sobered up the table a bit. They'd been enjoying dumping on Julian too much. Rachel took a breath to allow her thoughts to refocus. "First is the legal situation, and how Jackie can handle this moving forward."
Jackie sighed. "Sometime I'm gonna have to file these kids into the system, and it's gonna shoot up all sorts of red flags. Rallsburg never gets suspicious deaths. Worst we ever have are a tourist or two lost in the woods who wandered in from a multi-day hike, or that one loony who jumped out of a plane and landed near here."
"Why can't they be that?" Josh asked.
"Do you got any planes handy?"
"No, I mean lost in the woods. Attacked by bears or wolves or something."
"It'll have to stand up to a legitimate M.E. We don't have anyone here, so they'll a city coroner. An expert."
An idea sprang to mind, and Rachel cut in. "We do have Natalie."
The room was dead silent for a few moments. "Wow, Rachel," Josh said quietly.
"She's right, though," Will said, though he too sounded uneasy at her implication.
"Indeed," agreed Kendra. "Natalie could accomplish the required results."
"That's just sick," Jackie muttered. "You'd ask a twelve year old to do… that?"
"Natalie is more mature than you give her credit for, Ms. Nossinger. She would understand the gravity and the extenuating circumstances."
"Look, I'm okay with delaying my report because the system would flip out over this shit. We don't have the right way to deal with it legally yet. But I'm not manufacturing false evidence, or involving a goddamn middle schooler in this mess," Jackie growled. "That's over the line."
"None of us wanted to involve her," Will replied. "We've tried to protect her."
"And now her father's missing, her friend's dead and she's being asked to muti—"
"All right," Rachel cut in forcefully. "Is there anything else we need to cover about the murders?"
"Rika," said Josh. Rachel's heart fell. He got the topic changed—as Rachel had desired—but it had switched right to the last thing she wanted to discuss.
"I thought we'd concluded that Omega killed them," Rachel said, trying to keep the note of panic out of her voice.
"There were electricity burns on the bodies. Omega never used electricity, no one does. No one even knows how to. Only Rika. The whole town knows that too."
"We never saw him use it. Doesn't mean he can't."
"Even if she wasn't responsible," Kendra added, "it would be best that she present herself. If only for protective custody."
"Protective custody?" asked Will, alarmed.
"There's only four known persons with magic, right?" Jackie said. "You've got Rachel, who's spent the whole year buddying up to the entire damn town. You've got Hector, the nice groceryman who most people love and respect even if he's a shitty businessman. You've got Cinza, who half the 'burg is gonna be scared of and the other half wantin' to get her to talk. I'd be more worried about her except that she's apparently got a pretty militant group?" Jackie glanced at Rachel, who nodded. "Right, so she can probably defend herself if it comes to that. Which leaves Rika, the lone foreigner who last time she was here caused a huge ruckus and had to be booted right back outta town."
"You heard about that?" Rachel asked, surprised.
"We didn't know what it was about, but everyone in Rallsburg knew you ran your best friend out of the country," Jackie said. "It's still a small town. Folks love a good drama."
"Not all of us," Josh muttered.
"She wasn't good enough for you anyway, man," Will said, patting him on the back.
"Whatever." Josh turned to Jackie. "How hard can it be to find her, anyway? She's a short Asian girl with blue hair in a town that probably has less than twenty non-white people. Hell, you're looking at the only black guy here with school out and Omega gone."
"You find her in a town this withdrawn with only one officer on your staff," Jackie shot back. "I've got so much on my plate already, and not a soul around feels like callin' in useful tips."
"So put Bowman on it."
"I did. He just hasn't come up with anything yet. As soon as she's spotted, we're bringing her in. By force at this point."
Rachel spotted Will stifling a yawn, and decided that was as good a time as any to interject. "Thank you, everyone. I think that about covers it for now."
"So we simply wait until we get a hit in the forest on Omega?" Kendra asked.
"I think Cinza may have some ideas. I was planning on talking with her tomorrow after the funeral."
"Memorial," Jackie corrected.
"There's no body, so it's a memorial." Jackie shuddered. "And I hope to God they never have to see their kid." She stood to leave. "I don't like just sitting around and waiting, but your call. I don't have any better ideas. Thanks for dinner."
The rest of the group echoed the sentiment and trooped out one by one. Josh stayed long enough to gather up the remaining ingredients he'd brought over before wishing them good night.
"Are we doing all right?" Rachel asked. Her head rested comfortably on Will's chest. He put an arm around her and held her just as she liked it—firm, but never squeezing her, never pressuring her. She felt contained, like she were safe and sound in his grip and didn't have to worry about anything happening around her. Rachel's mind was free to wander while she was pressed up against him.
"Is that a 'me and you' we, or an 'all of us' we?" Will asked, brushing her hair gently. The room was steadily getting colder, so he reached over her to the edge of the bed and pulled up the blanket to wrap them both up. The sensation of his skin moving across her own scattered Rachel's thoughts for a moment, forcing her to refocus her thoughts before answering.
"All of us."
"Oh good. You had me really worried for a moment there."
Rachel laughed. "I'm sorry. I'm just… there's a lot on my mind."
"Isn't there always?" Will said, grinning. "Even your mind needs a break, Rachel. Just every once in a while. I haven't seen you drawing or relaxing in months. Not even at night."
"I know. I haven't been keeping you up, right?"
"Nah. I'm still a bit jealous you only need an hour of sleep though. Maybe someday I'll try that trick."
"Not until we know how to do it properly, remember?" Rachel said. "Kendra already told me she's noticed something off. I don't want unexpected side effects hitting us both."
"Yeah, of course. Not until." Will kissed her forehead gently. "What's on the superbrain tonight, then?"
"I'm afraid, Will," Rachel said quietly, closing her eyes and trying to let her muscles relax. She could feel Will calm and solid beneath her, and was unbearably jealous of him. She wished she could be so peaceful. "There's so many variables in play right now. I still have no clue where Rika is, why she's here or who her friend is. Omega's out there, even though Alpha promised us he'd never return. Grey-eyes is actually talking to me, but she's giving me cryptic warnings. And the secret's out and I don't know how it's spreading.
"It all depends on two groups keeping two massive secrets," she continued, letting out a deep breath. "Everyone in the entire town has to keep it a secret from the world that magic exists. If they find out, that's already a mess of trouble as people start looking for us. But everyone who's awakened has an even bigger secret to hold, that anyone can awaken. If that gets out…"
"We'll deal with it," Will said firmly.
"You can't know that though," Rachel said, opening her eyes and looking up at him. It was the one instance where she wished she weren't so tall, as she either had to constantly curl up to stay in place, or have her legs dangle well off the bed since she was a full five inches above Will's six feet. As much as she wanted to be contained and held, at the end of the day Rachel felt like she would always burst out and away. "There's so much at stake, and we're so few and divided. And I can't reach any of them to unite them against the threat."
"You can't reach them because they're not afraid yet."
"Not afraid?" Rachel asked, surprised. "They're all downright paranoid! And they've seen this before—why wouldn't they be afraid?"
"Everyone's cautious, and they have a reasonable distrust of one another. We've got a power structure entirely based around knowledge. No one wants to let anyone else get a single inch if they can help it. That's gonna naturally breed wariness."
Rachel considered for a moment. "So I need to bring together anyone not affected."
"Cinza's people. They all trust each other, and Cinza trusts me. Kendra, Josh, and everyone else on our side of the Council. Natalie. Ryan."
"Did Ryan check in yet, by the way?" Will asked, looking over at their phones on the bedside table.
"No, but I'm sure he's still out looking. You know he's not gonna give up until he finds her. We can trust him."
"And when we've got all these people together, what then?"
Rachel took a deep breath. "We go hunting."
There was a single lonely park at the south end of Rallsburg. It was almost the polar opposite of the train station. It had been built at the insistence of the previous mayor to give the town somewhere to meet that wasn't the musty town hall. Some called it excessive; why have a tailored and artificial park when the natural forest was only a few dozen feet beyond? It was pointless when nature could produce greater beauty without any effort at all, they said.
Rachel disagreed. To her, the mixture of the two was the perfect expression of the town. It was a gentle transition from the wild and untamed forest, to the constructed and designed—but still full of life and beauty—open-air park. Beyond it lay the first real signs of industry and modernity, as the grass turned to pavement.
She arrived with Will only a few minutes prior to the scheduled start. They'd both dressed soberly, with Rachel in a long black dress and Will in a dark jacket and nicer pants than she'd ever seen him wear. Rachel had only tangentially known Jenny Wilson, but she was determined to pay her respects to an erstwhile member of her town and a tragic victim of her world, and offer any comfort she could to the parents. She wasn't sure how much they'd found out about the circumstances of their daughter's death—not being present at the town hall meeting—but Rachel was sure they'd at least heard whispers about the supernatural aspect of Jenny's passing.
For the moment, the parents seemed occupied with greeting the rest of the town. Being a native family of Rallsburg, the Wilsons were good friends with Robert Harrison and the other logging families, though they were primarily involved with teaching and bookkeeping. Paul Wilson looked like a stick compared to Robert Harrison's solemn-faced bulk, but the two greeted each other as if they were the best of friends.
Will and Rachel took seats in the back row of the chairs that had been set out. A poorly blown-up blurry photograph of Jenny—taken at the beginning of the school year—was at the front, with a black ribbon across one corner and flowers scattered around the frame. Her face peeked out from a curtain of long brown messy bangs, crooked front teeth and all. They'd talked about getting her braces sometime soon. It was notable since there was no orthodontist anywhere near the town, which would mean long train rides any time Jenny needed an adjustment or a checkup.
At the far edge of the photo frame was the barest hint of a hand. Another face just barely outside, trying to get in the photo at the last second. "Natalie," she murmured.
"Hm?" Will asked, nudging her.
"How is she going to handle this?" Rachel asked. "I don't think I could have at her age."
"You know her better than me, love. But I think she'll be okay."
"She's tough," Rachel said, mostly to herself. Emotion was thickening her voice. She brushed away a tear threatening to drop from her face. "She'll pull through."
"Rachel?" They turned at the new voice and found Rowan Rhistler standing behind them in a black suit. The sheriff had also arrived, in full uniform. Rachel quickly rose to greet the mayor, stumbling a little on her dress. It was longer than what she was used to, since she hadn't cut it to fit her properly yet. Dresses at her height were always far too long or much too short, and she couldn't exactly afford a custom fit, so most of her clothes were home-modified.
"Rowan, please, and I'm sorry to say I didn't expect to see you here today."
Rachel was taken aback. "I felt I had to come and pay my respects."
"Let me clarify: I think it's good you came, I just didn't know if you would. To be honest, I was working up the courage to ask you to attend, and never got around to it."
Somewhere deep in her mind, Rachel burst out laughing. The mayor of the town—a much older, stronger and experienced leader—was afraid of her. It tickled her brain that these were the circumstances of her life now.
It only took one look at the eternally frozen smiling face of Jenny at the front of the procession to void her mirth utterly.
"That's all right, Rowan. I'm glad you're here as well, I wanted to talk to you."
"We should save it for after the service, though," Rachel added, noticing the arrival of the town's only real clergyman, Henry Smith. Rallsburg was unusually secular for a small American town. There were no churches and very little organized religious gatherings. The few who did actively practice tended to gather at family houses on a rotating basis, or out in the park in nice weather. The town never resented them, but neither did it particularly support them. To Rallsburg, religion was a curiosity—something to glance at occasionally and recognize habitually as the years went by, but mostly ignore.
Until they couldn't.
Until something like this happened.
Rachel had only a few encounters with the red-haired Reverend Smith in the past (though he disliked the title, everyone addressed him as such regardless), and all had been positive—but they were all prior to the Emergence. She'd not seen or heard from him once since the town hall. From what she could research, Rachel expected a harsh response from the religious world at large regarding magic, but she couldn't be sure of a single preacher in a backwoods town like Rallsburg. She hoped the memorial would be solid neutral ground to approach him.
For the time being, he was still talking to the Wilsons, discussing the service. Rachel allowed her eyes to wander over the rest of the small crowd, and found her gaze drawn to the treeline across the open fields. Was she imagining things, or had she seen someone flitting amongst the trees?
No, Rachel realized. She was seeing someone—multiple someones. Her eyes, more keen than most thanks to her brain maximizing the slightest signals and recognizing their meaning, picked out the telltale cloaks of Cinza's people flickering in the treeline. Cinza was attending, but in her own way, and in such a fashion to not intrude upon the ceremony where they would most certainly not be wanted. Rachel appreciated the girl's tact yet again. She looked straight out into the forest and gave a firm nod, mouthing 'thank you' as clearly as she could. A brief flash of light flickered in response, acknowledging her message.
Rachel scarcely had time to think on it more. A car was pulling up to the park, which could only mean Kendra. As expected, Collins burst from the driver door to promptly open the door for his employer. Rachel wondered if he knew they were on to him as an informant. Kendra had asked they leave Collins for her to deal with, and they had. Rachel was curious what she planned to do with him.
Kendra emerged, elegant as ever and drawing the attention of the crowd. Before she approached, however, she turned back to the car and extended her arm. Rachel's heart quickened. Oh Kendra, what have you done?
A small hand decorated with a white flower broach extended out and grasped Kendra's glove. Natalie stepped out of the car. Her hair was drawn up, her face and arms clean for once. She was dressed in a simple black dress that looked far more expensive than children's clothing had any right to be. Suddenly, she looked her age—older even, with her grave expression and bloodshot eyes. She looked uncertain, but Kendra held her hand firmly and lead her forward.
Ingrid Wilson burst into tears, falling to her knees. Natalie let go and ran to her. She wrapped up Ingrid in a tight hug. It was Ingrid who sobbed into Natalie's shoulder, and not the other way around. The girl looked sad, but she also looked determined. She wasn't crying. Natalie Hendricks refused to cry.
Rachel wasn't so strong. She felt her own eyes well up. "How did this happen, Will?" she asked.
Will had no answers for her. He took her hand and squeezed it gently. She held it tight, as if she would fall into the abyss without it.
Rachel managed to hold herself together through the entire service. She had never been religious herself, so the words of the reverend washed over her without impact. Still, every time she glanced at Natalie—sitting next to Jenny's mother and holding tight to her hand—Rachel struggled to keep her face calm.
As everyone rose for the last words, Rachel looked back at the treeline. Cinza's people were still there, though Rachel could only make out one of them clearly. It was Cinza herself, silver-grey hair in place and her hood down. She made a small gesture, and a huge flock of perfect yellow butterflies appeared in the field, fluttering up into the sky. To anyone else, they would have looked totally natural—only Rachel could see the imperfections, or connect them to the vague outline of a person sequestered amongst the pines.
The crowd watched them float away, Jenny's parents weeping openly. Natalie stayed with them while everyone filed by to give their condolences. Rachel and Will were near the end of the line, just in front of the mayor and behind Kendra. Rachel's eyes were clear and her face set. As Kendra finished and stepped away, she moved up to greet the couple.
She stopped. The Wilsons were glaring up at her. Ingrid was still crying through her narrowed eyes, but she managed to express terrifying fury in spite of it. Barely-contained rage practically radiated off of her. Rachel automatically took a step back.
Natalie, only seeing the step, looked up at Jenny's mother—and she too backed away from the fledgling storm. The young girl balled her fist, sensing danger.
"Why are you here?" Ingrid snarled.
"I…" Rachel trailed off. She hadn't expected this. She didn't know what to do.
"Ingrid? Paul?" Rowan asked, stepping up. "Is something wrong?"
"Do you know?" Paul asked, his voice hoarse. "Do you know what she is?" There was bitter venom in his voice. Rachel felt sickened.
"I do," Rowan said firmly. "And she has done nothing wrong."
Ingrid let out a strangled sound, halfway between a laugh and a sob. "Nothing wrong, our mayor says! Oh, sure, nothing wrong! Except that our little girl is dead!"
"That wasn't me…" Rachel protested weakly, but her voice was thick with emotion and she could barely force the words out. She stumbled back over her dress and fell to the ground, where suddenly the entire world towered over her and not the other way around. The Wilsons loomed like enraged titans, the mayor and Will as bulwarks trying to hold them at bay.
"She was murdered by one of you freaks," Ingrid spat. A shiver rolled through Rachel. She'd been called that name before, though it had been less to do with magic and more to do with her awkward height and appearance when she was younger—but it stung much harder from the furious woman above her. The crowd was uneasy. It wasn't as though they agreed with Ingrid's words—but none would dare stand in the way of a grieving mother.
"Jenny was murdered?" Natalie asked. Rachel hadn't realized Natalie didn't know. Natalie was looking at her with expectant trust. Rachel gave her a brief nod. "Who did it?"
"Someone she's probably protecting!" Paul shouted.
"Absolutely not!" Jackie shouted back. The sheriff muscled her way in between Paul and Rachel, who was still sitting dumbfounded in the dirt. "I've been trying to find the son of a bitch for days—with her. He's out in the woods, not in our town. Rachel's doing her part to fix this."
"I—" Rachel started, but she was quickly shouted over.
"She's misleading you! All of you! She's made a deal with the devil, and we're paying the price," Paul cried, starting to sound hysterical. Jackie faltered. The sheriff looked as though she might strike the man. Rachel couldn't think of a worse idea at that moment—but apparently she was wrong.
It wasn't the sheriff though. Reverend Henry Smith, looking perfectly calm, stepped up next to the sheriff and smacked Paul Wilson across the face. The silence that followed was deafening.
"Paul, you are a better man than this," Henry said firmly, in the clear carrying voice of any great preacher. "The Lord does not teach us to be full of wrath. That is for Him alone to decide." Paul looked as though he might retort, but Henry continued. "If the courts find her guilty, then I have no doubt you will see punishment from on high, but it is not for us to persecute."
He turned and offered a hand to Rachel. She felt even more dumbfounded. The reverend was possibly the last person she expected support from. She reached and took it, finding his grip firm and true. He pulled her gently to her feet, where she once again stood over all in attendance. Rachel didn't feel tall though—she felt like a child, hiding and staying silent while the adults argued and fought in front of her.
"Are you alright, child?" Henry asked.
"I… yes, thank you," she answered, breathless.
"This applies to all of you!" he continued, as though a megaphone had suddenly appeared before his mouth. "These people are still members of our community. We were taught to love our neighbors as ourselves, regardless of their background. Did not Jesus meet with everyone, no matter their choices or beliefs?"
There was some grumbled assent.
"What about the robed freaks in the forest?" Paul asked. "You said the murderer was out in the woods. Did you ever go after them?"
"The killer targeted them too," Jackie said. "I'm not revealin' any more details than that during an ongoing investigation."
"They have been harmed just as we have been harmed," Henry called out. "Our neighbors, our brethren in Rallsburg have been persecuted. I for one intend to join with them and defend against this evil." He looked at Rachel with an intense gaze. For a brief moment, Rachel could understand how some preachers managed to gain such huge flocks of worshippers. His eyes had a passion that begged you to follow wherever he lead. "Will you take me to meet with them?"
Rachel took a moment to realize she'd just been asked a question. "I'll ask."
Henry clasped her hands warmly. "Thank you, Rachel. Tomorrow, then." He bowed to the Wilsons, then strode away back into town.
Once the Reverend left, the remainder of the memorial party quickly dispersed. The Wilsons shot a few more angry glances at Rachel, but did not confront her. Rachel was too stunned by what had just occurred to do much of anything for a few minutes. Will helped her to her seat and stayed with her until the park had emptied itself down to just the two of them, the mayor and the sheriff. As the sun began to fall in the sky, Cinza emerged from the forest to join them. Her jewelry and charms jangled as she crossed the field, echoing over the birdsong that filled the air.
"That service was much more dramatic than I expected," she commented.
Jackie shot her a dark look. "Don't joke around about this shit, kid."
"My apologies," Cinza said sincerely. She bowed her head slightly, and her hair immediately faded back to its normal brown—without the flashy transition that normally accompanied it. She still didn't drop her vocal enchantment, but it seemed lessened somehow at least. "I meant no disrespect."
"Wilsons're right about one thing though, we need to catch the son of a bitch."
"Indeed." Cinza looked back out at the forest. "My people have been exploring the forest in shifts, but without so much as a hint of activity. I assume your contact has found nothing either?" she asked, looking back at Rachel. A few moments of silence passed without a response. "Rachel?"
Rachel was staring at the ground, barely paying attention. Her brain was replaying the conversation endlessly. The venom in Ingrid Wilson's eyes, the pain in Paul's hoarse voice. She couldn't break away from the guilt that was seizing her throat and clamping down hard on her chest. Her heart ached in a way she'd never known before.
"Rachel," Will said, squeezing her hand.
She finally looked up. "What?"
"Cinza was asking if your friend found anything yet on Omega."
"Oh. I… no. Nothing." Rachel's eyes fell to the ground again, where a tiny yellow dandelion sprouted near her foot.
"So we've still got nothing to go on," Rowan sighed.
Jackie shrugged. "Not exactly. We know this guy can't make a move into town directly, and we know his associate—whoever that is—can't use magic himself without popping up all over our mysterious benefactor's radar. And everyone in town's accounted for. We also know he's plannin' to make a move soon, if he blocked off all our escape routes."
"Aren't we worried that it'll be something drastic? Something massive?"
"It's not Omega's style," Will replied. "He was always very stringent on making sure the general public was never involved. Way more than the rest of the awakened. He'd never involve people without magic."
"Unless the rules have changed now that we all know," Rowan said. "Maybe we count as valid targets now."
"Maybe. Couldn't say. So far, no one has been attacked besides Jenny, and aren't we pretty sure that was accidental?"
Jackie nodded. "Little girl was down behind the chair and got hit by whatever killed Alex, punched right through everythin'. I don't think they knew she was there."
"Good God," Rowan murmured. "That just makes this even worse." His phone started buzzing. "That's my cue, I suppose. More concerned citizens. Excuse me."
Jackie left as well, giving Rachel another sidelong glance. She still hadn't spoken up, letting Will fill in for her in the conversation.
"I know your secret," Cinza said abruptly.
"What?" Rachel asked, snapping her eyes up to the short girl's face. Even seated, Rachel still just matched Cinza's height. The symbol of the eight-pointed star from the book caught the sun and reflected it into her eyes, forcing her to squint a little.
"I know that Will here is the one you use to track magic." Will stood up abruptly, but Cinza raised her hand. "I found out myself, and no one else knows. I won't ever tell a soul. But I believe you should know that in the event he is targeted for his abilities, I'm prepared and willing to defend him, as I am you. I tell you this because I trust you."
"Thank you," Rachel said, but her heart wasn't in it. The offer she'd made was generous and borne of friendship, but Rachel was still wracked with guilt and shame. Her eyes once again sunk to the ground, watching the edge of Cinza's robes flutter around her boots.
Cinza cleared her throat. "Will, may I have a minute with her?"
Rachel didn't hear a reply, but after a few moments, Will stood and walked away. She was suddenly very, very alone. Rachel lifted her legs up to her chair, trying to curl into a ball. She didn't want to interact with the world, even though her brain pressed her to gather every detail around her no matter how inane. Her enhancements were playing havoc with her emotional state and it was turning her into a perfect self-analyzing wreck.
She knew she was feeling guilty for something she had no direct responsibility for. Rachel also knew she was overcome with emotions created by proximity to grief, and that human chemistry played a meaningful part of her current state. Logically, she could conclude that it was a phase that should pass with time, and that her state of being was only brought on by stress, a lack of relaxation and an overwhelming abundance of overactivity in both her brain and her body over the last couple of weeks.
It didn't matter, though. The emotions crashed through her anyway, and she felt helpless and alone even with her beloved by her side. Now that he'd left them, Rachel wanted the world to just go away and leave her alone, before more tragedy struck.
"Rachel, do you know what happens when you awaken?" Cinza asked.
Of all the questions, Rachel had not expected that one. "What?"
"Do you know what happens when you awaken?"
"No. I mean, yes, I guess. I… I don't understand what you're asking?"
Cinza knelt down in front of her, and held out her hand. A tiny orb of light spun into being, floating above her fingertips. She let it dance and spin while she spoke. Her voice had completely lost its usual ethereal, floaty whisper-echo. Instead, Cinza spoke with the hard edge and accent she'd once revealed to Rachel, the true voice she never shared with the world.
"Think about the word we've settled on, 'awakened'. It's not by accident. When we transition into this life, our eyes are opened to a few fundamental truths in the universe. The first, and most important, is that there are things beyond our comprehension."
"Magic, Rachel. We approach it as a science, but it is not a science. It is strange and beautiful and terrifying. Even in our first moments, we come so close to death we can taste it." Cinza let the orb split out into the eight-pointed star of the book, which continued to gently spin around her palm. "Grey-eyes always saves us, but anyone who has taken that leap knows what it means to come out the other side. We know that there was a point where we could take no more, where beyond lay the impossible unknown."
"Why are you telling me this?" Rachel asked, still watching the star. She didn't want to look at anyone's face anymore, and certainly not up where the portrait of Jenny still sat at the front of the rows of empty chairs.
"Because you know this. You have walked this path, same as I have. The same as Alexander and Jaysmith, the same as Will and Ryan and Kendra and Rika. The same as the many who follow in my wake, or the council who follows you in yours." Cinza's voice grew stronger. "We are pioneers in a world that truly needs them again. Where we are walking, there is no precedent to follow. You and I have only ourselves to fall upon. What we know, and what the mundane people of Rallsburg do not, is that the dragons are real. The danger is real. They believed they had the world mapped out, and they were wrong."
Rachel finally looked at her. Cinza's small dark eyes were fierce and wild. She looked ready for a fight. Rachel could feel the heat radiating off her skin, as she was almost close enough to touch. "But I—"
"You feel grief, and you should. Two of our own were lost, and we might have lost a third if not for your quick action in the forest. We also lost an innocent, a child who might have joined us one day, or might simply have lead a full and happy life." The portrait of Jenny loomed over her shoulder, punctuating her words. "They've passed from this world. We have not. We press on, and we work to make sure no one else has to join them. You have done incredible things building this council and bringing together every wayward soul who has crossed into our realm. Now is the time we defend them."
Rachel nodded. "So what do we do?"
Cinza smiled grimly. She snapped her hand shut on the star, and grabbed both of Rachel's hands from her lap with one swift movement. Her skin felt hot and her grip intense.
"We go hunting."
Hearing the echo of her own words, spoken only the night before, brought Rachel back. She still felt weak and unhinged, like she were fragile and could collapse with the right push, but she was no longer broken. She could stand, and so she stood.
As she did, her mind began to churn again. Rachel processed through everything she'd heard and everything she knew, searching for a solution. Not a solution, she realized—a battleplan. They needed to arm themselves. There was no point trying to track the untrackable. Omega was clearly too clever to be found with the means they had at their disposal. Rachel had to change the field.
There was one way. A new resource that had been introduced not so long ago—and one that Rachel suspected had set off the entire chain of events. It was forbidden, it could tear her beloved council apart, but it was her only option.
"Cinza, I have a plan."
She smiled. "Precisely the words I wanted to hear, glorious leader."