Chapter 17 — A Gentleman and a Doctor
"I'm sorry about that," Cinza said, closing the door to the cabin behind her.
"What?" Rachel asked, sucking in the cool fresh air of the forest. Anything to help clear her head and bring her back to a normal state of mind.
"Ruby tends to get a bit… enthusiastic."
"Was she trying to, err… seduce me?"
"Something like that," Cinza replied, shrugging. Outside, removed from the firelight glow and warmth of the cabin, she seemed far more like her usual self—though still without the air of mystique she put on for the public. Cinza seemed to be comfortable talking to Rachel normally, or perhaps that was another manipulation. Rachel couldn't be sure. Not in her present condition.
"What part of that was me, and what was her?" Rachel asked.
"Ruby and I are both of the Nature affinity," Cinza said, prompting another small shock for Rachel. Affinities tended to be treated as very personal information, so to reveal one's so openly was a large measure of trust. "She may have gotten a little carried away messing with the air in the cabin." Seeing Rachel's concern, Cinza shook her head. "Rest assured, Mason's Law still applies. Ruby could not have forced you to do anything you didn't want to. Nor would she."
Rachel didn't feel particularly comforted. "Do you two do this to everyone?"
"What?" Her eyes softened and she looked away in embarrassment. Rachel felt immediate regret at her accusation. "No, never. She— I'm sorry, I." Cinza cleared her throat, then looked back to Rachel with renewed conviction. "Please don't blame Ruby. I told her that I felt a bond with you and wanted to know you better, and she interpreted it as wanting to bring you into our bed. Which is not something I'm opposed to, but I wouldn't dream of coercing you into anything. Ruby's addictions notwithstanding, I let myself get carried away. I apologize."
'That's… that's all right." Rachel felt her face flare up. She'd never been in this sort of situation before. Even with Will, Rachel had been the one to approach. Being overly tall and not particularly attractive had made her high school dating life little more than wishful thinking.
Cinza sat down on the small bench just outside the cabin. She was looking at Rachel, but their eyes weren't quite meeting. Cinza's focus kept darting to various places on the wall behind her. "I hope this won't harm our relationship going forward. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable."
"No, it's okay. It's just… not my thing. I mean, I don't know if it is. I've never—can we change the subject?"
"Certainly," Cinza said, barely suppressing a laugh. She stood again, brushing dirt off her robe. Her eyes were focused and sharp once more. "So, what's the exact plan here for the Scrap?"
Relief ebbed into Rachel at the change of topic, though she still felt a little flustered. "It'll be at Hector's tonight, in the safe above his shop. He sleeps there, so he doesn't usually ever have it unguarded, but I'll get him away for a while. You'll know when to move in."
"Not sure, but I'll make it obvious."
She nodded. "And then we regroup."
"We'll meet back here tomorrow. I think we should start meeting regularly, so that it just looks like the start of a routine."
"Right," Cinza agreed, nodding. She smiled. "I'm glad you'll be coming around more often."
Rachel wasn't sure how the comment was intended, and hesitated before responding. "It's just to coordinate our efforts."
Cinza shook her head. "I didn't mean for anything else, of course. Honestly, I'm just glad to finally speak with someone on level terms, as I'm sure you are. Agreed?"
Rachel nodded in relief. "Agreed."
Cinza nodded. "As for Reverend Smith—"
"Is it going to be a problem?"
Cinza gestured around her encampment. A couple were returning with wood whom Rachel didn't recognize. Morton was talking with Makoto, who was laughing at one of his jokes while they shared a meal near their fresh harvest. Nicole Parsons—who was unawakened, as far as Rachel knew—was helping to clear out a space for an apparent third cabin to accompany the first two. The couple from out of town brought the fresh logs over and set them down where Nikki indicated, then started work on cutting them down to the right size.
A cheer erupted from the harvesters. Aaron and Nate both stood and rushed over to the other cabin. Yusuf, the man who had been burned in the forest, had just walked out the door. His arm was still bandaged and he looked unsteady on his feet, but he was already well on the mend. Aaron looked about to tackle him, but wisely held back at the last minute and settled for a one-armed hug, then helped him to a bench and gave him some of the fresh-picked fruit.
Cinza smiled. "It's a real family. I never knew what one was until I made my own. You can understand why I'm reluctant to allow anyone into our home."
Rachel nodded. "What if you came with me to meet him, today? His house isn't that far. I think he might surprise you."
She sighed. "If it makes your life easier, Rachel. I make no promises, but I will meet with the man." She glanced down at herself and laughed. "Let me go get properly dressed, then I'll walk you back to town. I wouldn't want you to get lost out in the woods." Rachel opened her mouth, full of indignation, but Cinza interrupted. "Not to besmirch your sense of direction, of course. I mean that the forest out here is not what it seems."
"So that's why it was so hard," she grumbled.
Cinza laughed again, quite smug. "Even Omega himself would have a hard time finding our home."
The number of things Rachel had to do was increasing by the hour. There were messages waiting from the mayor, the sheriff, and Will as soon as she returned to cell phone coverage. She still needed to follow up on the odd phone call she'd gotten from Hailey Winscombe, and there was the matter of preparing to steal the Creation Scrap at the end of the day from Hector's. Finally, lowest on her priority list was a growing stack of messages from various members of the town to her new official town email account, asking for details and updates on the case, or expressing increasingly hysterical fears and paranoid delusions.
Rachel had asked for the account to provide her an official outlet of communication, one she could easily manage in her spare time when resting during the night, but she hadn't expected it to get used so heavily only days after its establishment. She'd underestimated how quickly the news would spread, and how hungry the people of Rallsburg were for word on anything to do with the Awakened.
Most importantly, Rachel needed to find the reverend straight away. The sooner she was able to open communication between him and Cinza's people, the better off the entire town would be. Luckily, her return route actually placed her fairly close to the Smith home and clinic. She suspected it might have been a deliberate side effect of whatever magic Cinza used to mask her home's location. Even with her perfect memory, Rachel doubted she could navigate her way back to the clearing without Cinza's assistance. They were doing something to the paths she didn't understand.
Rachel hurried up to Smith's door and knocked. Within moments the door sprung open, startling her. She opened her mouth to speak, but the burly red-haired reverend raised a finger to his lips, quickly shutting the door behind him.
"Miss DuValle, good afternoon. I've got a couple patients inside that are happily asleep. Oh!" He had just spotted Cinza a few paces behind Rachel, flanked by Ruby as usual. The younger girl had insisted on accompanying them, despite Rachel's reservations. Rachel wanted Cinza and the reverend to have an earnest and frank discussion, and she wasn't sure an infatuated dreamer like Ruby had much to add to the conversation. Cinza had not objected, so Rachel was forced to keep her concerns to herself or risk losing Cinza's cooperation.
At least she's not giving me come-hither looks anymore. Rachel didn't need new complications in her life.
"Doctor, this is—"
"Not a doctor, sadly. I never quite finished that school. Something about malpractice liability." He let out a booming laugh, seemingly forgetting his own insistence on quiet. "I kid, I kid. I simply found another calling."
"Right," Rachel said, a touch irritated. While his enthusiasm was pleasant enough most times, right now she could have done with a bit less exuberance. "I've come to introduce you to Cinza, the leader of the…" She paused. The lack of a name for Cinza's group did make introductions a little difficult.
"Greycloaks will do, I suppose," Cinza said, stepping up next to Rachel. She'd returned to her floaty, ethereal voice once again. Smith did an admirable job of not gawking at the ludicrous height difference between the two. Cinza nodded at the man, though her hands remained engulfed in her robes. "We've never really been much for a name."
"And what good is a name if it doesn't really describe you beyond something as simple as clothes!" the reverend answered heartily. "I'm honored to meet you, ma'am. I've been hearing quite a bit about you from my flock amongst the town."
"Nothing good, I take it."
"On the contrary! The people are intrigued by you, if nothing else. I know that might not be the reaction you'd like, but take it as at least a neutral, if not room for a positive. There's room for improvement."
Cinza shrugged. "And what say you, man of the cloth?"
Smith scratched his head. "Man of the cloth, eh? Can't say I've ever heard that one actually spoken aloud." He laughed in his deep infectious belly laugh. Finally realizing how loud he'd gotten, Smith glanced at his clinic. "Can we take a walk? I'd hate to wake those sleeping inside."
"Was someone injured?" Rachel asked.
The doctor raised a wagging finger. "Confidentiality, dear. You know I'd never tell."
She nodded. She'd mostly asked to prompt his response in front of Cinza. The girl looked faintly surprised already by the reverend already. Rachel was pleased.
They set off. The reverend was watching them with an excitable curiosity that she enjoyed. He was almost like an overgrown child learning a new game for the first time and having a blast doing so. "So I suppose you live out in the woods, yes?"
Cinza nodded. "We've made a home for ourselves."
"One I suppose can't be found without magic," he continued, a twinkle in his eye. "How delightfully mysterious."
"It serves us well."
"Reverend!" They both turned to the voice calling from down the street. It was Oscar McKinney, the town handyman, sprinting at them in a panic. "And Rachel. Perfect. Come, quick."
"Slow down, man. What's on fire?" Smith asked.
"Trouble." He turned and started back the way they came. Smith shot a concerned look at Rachel before they both rushed after Oscar.
They turned the corner into the center of town. Rachel let out a sigh of relief. She had been expecting a bloodbath of some kind, but no one seemed to be injured. Her expectations had been too dark of late.
There was, however, a brewing confrontation between a group of mundane men and students, and a cowering, grey-robed and bruised Nate Price with a stone-faced Ryan Walker standing in front of him. His arms and fists looked twice their usual size and strong as steel. None of the crowd was daring to get near him… yet. Rachel hurried closer as voices began to rise toward shouting.
"You're both part of the problem!" cried one of the ringleaders, and Rachel was unsurprised to see Logan Bowerson once again, apparently having not gotten the message since their last confrontation. She pulled out her phone and dashed off a text to Jackie, then grasped one of the rubies in her pack tight as she reached the group.
"What's going on?" she demanded.
"Fuck off," Logan snapped. "We want all of you out of here."
"Gentlemen, please," Smith shouted, stepping up to Rachel's side between the two groups. "What's going on here?"
"We're trapped in this town with a killer on the loose!" came one cry.
"It's all their fault!"
"We're going to die out here!"
"They brought this on us!"
"Enough!" the doctor roared, and the crowd fell silent for a moment. "You there," he said, pointing at a single man toward the front. One of Robert's loggers, though Rachel had never gotten his name. "Tell me precisely what's going on here."
As the man launched into a rambling speech about devil-worship and witchcraft, Rachel leaned over to whisper to Ryan. He was panting heavily from the strain of keeping himself in that state, but he seemed determined to hold on.
"So you're out now too," she murmured.
"Couldn't be helped," he hissed. "Wasn't gonna let them beat up Nate. That's my job."
"Thank you," she added gratefully, as the crowd continued ranting to the unconvinced reverend. "Backup's on the way."
"Still haven't found her either," he said angrily. "Waited there all fuckin' day."
"It's okay. We'll find her."
"You okay, Natey?" Ryan asked over his shoulder.
"I just want to go home," he answered in a quivering voice. "Please."
"We'll get you home," Rachel said.
Ryan nodded. "I'll fuck up this whole shitty town if I have to."
"Let's not, thank you," Rachel said sharply.
The reverend was trying to reason with the angry crowd "Have any of you witnessed any crime by them yet?"
"Isn't witchcraft a crime?" shouted a voice from the back. Roger Quinton the farmer, Rachel believed. She couldn't quite make out everyone from her crouched position. "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live!"
"And thou shalt not plant two kinds of seed, but I don't see anyone looking to string you up!" the reverend roared. "Would you really cite scripture to me, Roger?"
He looked suitably shamed, but one of Robert's loggers was quick to take his place. "We've still got three kids murdered at the hands of these monsters, Smith. She says it's being investigated, but she's one of them. How can we trust her?" He glared at Rachel, who rose to take the reverend's side.
"Didn't I help you—" Rachel started.
"Yeah, you did, but what does that mean now? You were still lying to the whole town, weren't you?"
"I vouch for this young woman!" Smith cried. "As I do for her friends and colleagues."
"And you're a nutcase," Logan added, to the snickers of his college friends. The loggers looked less pleased about the insult to the doctor, but they did not break their stance. They remained allies, united in their fear and hatred.
Rachel wasn't sure how to proceed. She had authority among her own people, earned through time and effort, as well as with the mayor and the sheriff—but the common people of Rallsburg didn't recognize her. She was an ambassador at best. If Jackie had arrived at that moment, that might have been the key to defusing the situation—but instead, the next to arrive was the pair Rachel had nearly forgotten about, and potentially the worst possible fuel for the brewing fire.
Cinza and Ruby had followed them into town at apparently a more leisurely pace, and now—seeing Nate in robes and on the ground with a beaten face—they looked ready to throw down. Rachel tried to signal her to back off, but Cinza wasn't about to let one of her own get trampled. Not even Nate Price.
The girl flung her hands forward. Orbs of light appeared in midair surrounding Nate. The entire crowd gasped and took a step back as they shifted into a angry red hue and began to spin wildly in place. Ruby rushed to Nate's side and began to examine his face while Cinza placed herself at Ryan's side, setting her feet wide.
"Explain," she said simply, her voice amplified through magical means. The word rumbled through Rachel's ears as though Cinza were right next to her, like thunder echoing through the hills. Though it was a single word from a small girl before a crowd of lumberjacks, farmers and college students, it was enough to silence the entire street.
"Price boy was threatening to hurt me and mine if I didn't do what he said," said one of the lumberjacks.
"What?" Nate asked, scrambling to his feet finally. "You're making that up!"
Rachel doubted Nate had done anything. The man was a burly giant, and Nate had only been awakened for a couple days. He had nowhere near the strength or skill to even scratch the man, magic or no magic. Anyone with the name Price was just an easy scapegoat for the lumberjack crowd.
"Are you lying?" Cinza asked, as one of the orbs flickered and jumped to begin revolving around her, instead of Nate. It burst into flame. Rachel noted with interest that it gave off neither heat or light of any kind. She marveled at Cinza's finesse animating the things while still standing up to the man. They were pure illusion and couldn't harm anyone, yet she handled them with such ease and theatricality that even Rachel briefly thought the man was in real danger.
"You've been at the heart of all our problems for months, and the Price family for decades longer than that, and now the roads are gone, the train is gone, and people are dead," the man growled, skipping right over Cinza's question. "It's time we saw some justice."
"Justice? This is a mob!" cried Smith, but the crowd was already riled up.
"Justice for Jenny!" came a call from the back. It was Paul Wilson. Rachel knew they were all lost. They had a martyr and a rallying cry now; there was no turning back.
"Get Nate out of here, right now," she told Ryan. He was still panting, but he nodded. He tapped Nate on the shoulder with one of his oversized fists, nearly knocking him over.
Rachel was focused on the crowd, which was ignoring the reverend's attempts to plead with them. "Justice for Jenny!" came the cry, over and over again. Where on earth is Jackie? Rachel thought in vain, but no help was forthcoming.
Cinza took a few steps back, reuniting with Ruby. The red-haired girl looked nervous, fiddling with a metallic stone that hung on a silver necklace. Rachel could barely hear them over the din of the crowd.
"Should I do it?" Ruby whispered.
"No, not yet," Cinza hissed. "This isn't the right time. We don't want to hurt them."
Rachel was about to ask what she meant when they heard a loud smack. The reverend had punched Roger Quinton in the face. The crowd erupted into chaos, the reverend buried beneath a crush of bodies. She smelled blood in the air. It mixed with the sweat and the shouting of men as they piled in. Many were simply punching the nearest body they could find to express their rage.
Rachel turned and fled down the street before she was caught in the melee. Ryan had luckily gotten Nate out already, or she'd have feared for his life. The reverend wasn't at risk of any real damage, she believed—just a bit of a thrashing as the crowd worked out its anger.
She realized belatedly that she hadn't been followed out. Cinza and Ruby were still standing by. The two joined hands, and a howling wind rumbled through the street, buffeting the crowd. The wind left the pair mostly untouched (though Rachel noticed Cinza seemed to be deliberately sending her silver-grey hair flapping dramatically), but it rolled through the group like the burst of a hurricane.
The closest were simply bowled over, tumbling across the ground. Men fell like dominoes. The reverend was in the center of the pile, and managed to struggle to his feet first. Rachel noticed Oscar McKinney in the group as well, apparently having leapt to his defense while she was fleeing. The wind continued to pound at him, though it swerved around the reverend without so much as a hair out of place.
"He's okay!" Rachel shouted at Cinza. She nodded without turning, and suddenly Oscar seemed to be totally unaffected. They both clambered over the flattened group to get out, while the wind continued howling. Soon enough, they'd taken places behind Cinza and Ruby.
Ruby released her hand, collapsing to the ground in a coughing heap. A pile of ash dust cascaded from her palm. Cinza looked like she'd just run several miles, but refused to fall. Rachel hurried to her side, but the doctor was already there to lend her an arm.
"All of you, return to your homes," boomed a loudspeaker. The sheriff had finally arrived, bolting out of her cruiser with a megaphone. "The mayor has issued an immediate curfew starting at sundown. If you do not have legitimate business, return to your homes."
Rachel winced. A curfew wasn't the best move, though it was typical of a mayor trying to get a hold of escalating chaos. It would only breed further resentment, particularly since she didn't expect the curfew to be enforced on herself or Cinza's people.
A few of the men struggling to their feet looked like they might force a fight, but—between Cinza's fierce glare and the sheriff's stern expression—they were giving in for the time being.
"Well, that was a bit of a mess," Smith said, sporting a split lip. He was breathing heavily, but looked quite satisfied with himself.
"Did you really need to punch him?" she asked, while he took out a cloth and dabbed at his lip. "We might have solved this without violence."
"Some men only listen to the fist," the doctor said, shaking his head. "And some men only speak with it!" he added with a grin, which became a wince as the cut was pulled open.
"Rachel, what is going on here?" Jackie asked in dismay.
"We've just had our first witch hunt," Rachel answered dejectedly.
Cinza and Ruby were allowed to go after a brief talk by the sheriff. Having single-handedly ending the riot before it could really escalate, without injuring a single person, Jackie had commended her on her quick action. Cinza looked reasonably pleased and promised to be in touch. With a quick look at Rachel to confirm that their plans were still on for the night, she disappeared with a dazed Ruby at her heels. Jackie had offered to give them a ride, but Cinza steadfastly refused.
Rachel and Smith were herded into the back of the cruiser and whisked off to the mayor's office.
"What the hell happened?" Rowan asked, pacing behind his desk. The reverend was holding an ice pack to his face, while Rachel simply stood to the side.
"The town is getting uneasy."
"No kidding," he said dryly. "Please tell me you have something."
Rachel hesitated. "We're still searching."
"Rachel, come on." Rowan groaned as the phone on his desk lit up again. "Do you see what I've got to deal with here?"
"You need to get control of your people," Rachel said. He stopped, anger flaring up in his face.
"You asked me to treat you like an equal, Rowan. Your people came close to a riot today, and it was only thanks to Cinza's quick thinking that we made it out without any injuries."
"Excuse me," said Smith.
"Any serious injuries," she amended, and he winked.
"She's right, sir," Jackie added. "You've only got me and Preston. We're fine when the town's normal, but this is a goddamn siege. We can't keep the peace in a siege."
Rowan sat down heavily, picking up a glass of water and draining it. "Doctor, I appreciate you trying to protect your neighbors, but would you please not go punching a hysterical crowd again?"
"I've learned my lesson," Smith answered cheerfully.
"What's the word on supplies?" Jackie asked.
"We're fine for a while, unless we have a sudden uptick of medical needs," Rowan said, glancing pointedly at the doctor. "I'd be more comfortable if we could call in support—"
"Absolutely not," Smith cut in, and Rachel was grateful. If it had been her, she doubted Rowan would take the demand as anything but selfish. "This town must be kept isolated. We've been given a blessing the world is not yet ready for. We must nurture it and understand it first before we can present it to the world."
"That's an interestin' claim from a preacher," Jackie said.
"I'm an interesting man."
"If we keep everyone trapped here, things are only going to get worse," Rowan said.
"They are," Rachel agreed. "You need to start putting in measures to keep things from escalating."
"Isn't that why I started a curfew?"
She shook her head. "Curfews aren't really effective. In normal circumstances they don't really do anything to reduce crime according to most studies. In emergencies they can be temporarily useful, but you need the manpower to actually enforce them, and somewhere to actually put the violators. We don't have either."
"So what do you suggest I do?" Rowan asked sardonically. Rachel didn't appreciate his tone when she was trying to help, but she did her best to ignore it.
"Close the bar and restrict alcohol flow for a while. As long as it comes from you it'll get some discontent but it won't set people off too much. They have their own drinks at home, sure, but with fewer places to gather and drink it's less likely to set off another incident."
"You're going to set off a riot with just that announcement!"
"I'm with her," Jackie said. "There's enough folks here that don't drink anyway, they won't care. The worst were all in the street today, and they just saw a real demonstration of what they're up against. They're gonna be more scared n' pissed than ever. We can keep them under control if they don' get too rowdy, and a bar lets them get too rowdy."
"Fine! We'll do it your way," Rowan said exasperatedly. "You've got to handle something for me though, Rachel. I have a half-dozen calls from the east end saying something bizarre is going on. They're accusing your people of being responsible."
"Something bizarre?" Rachel asked skeptically.
"Well, I have reports of anything from shapes floating through the air to monsters roaming the streets and eating people's cats, so the hell if I know," Rowan snapped. "Just deal with it, would you?"
Rachel's heart fell. It was Julian, she had no doubt. He was finally going ahead with his ritual plan. It had been council-approved, but she assumed he wasn't stupid enough to enact it anyway under their present circumstances.
Evidently she'd severely overestimated his intelligence.
"I'll handle it."
The outer lights of Hector's grocery had just flickered on when Rachel arrived. She hurried inside, where thankfully the shop was devoid of customers. The shelves were beginning to look a little empty, though, as they lost their suppliers one by one due to the closed roads and rails.
"Hector?" she called.
"I'm here," came a call from the back room behind the register. Hector bustled out, carrying an armful of bananas. "Oh, hi Rachel."
"Hi. I'm sorry to drop in unannounced, but I need your help with something."
"What happened?" he asked in a slight panic.
She shook her head. "It's not bad, yet." She briefly explained the reports the mayor had been receiving.
"And you think Julian's doing something?" he asked, setting the bananas down and looking pensive.
"Has to be. With how the town is right now, we can't afford this sort of widespread chaos. I need to go talk to him, but I don't have anyone to back me up." She glanced around briefly. "I know you're busy, but I'd feel a lot better if I had you with me on this one."
Hector nodded. Rachel felt a twinge of guilt, but pushed it away. She did need him. "Just let me close down, it'll only take a few minutes."
As promised, only a few minutes later they were already on a swift walk towards the eastern portion of town and away from the rapidly descending sunlight. As they turned a corner, Rachel reached for the connections in her mind and found the one she'd been watching grow bit by bit ever since she'd visited their camp in the morning. There was the line drawing her to Cinza. It was a bold twisting river of emotion, flowing much more fiercely in one direction than the other. Rachel tried not to think about the implications as she grasped it with her will and plucked it like a string.
The reverberations would flow down the line to the girl. In most cases, it would feel like a chill on one's spine if it even registered at all. Rachel had briefly explained to Cinza how to recognize the signal more clearly, without telling her precisely how it was formed or about the actual connections it relied upon. Cinza would recognize the unique sensation that grabbed at her mind, as Rachel and Will could feel it.
Rachel hadn't wanted to reveal their secret, but she saw no other way to signal the girl while being totally assured no one would be able to spot it. A text message or call right before the theft would be logged, and Will was no longer the only one watching the phone and internet traffic (having become overwhelmed by the sheer amount). Physical signals could easily be spotted if Rachel was careless, and she simply didn't have the time to spare. So she'd trusted the girl, and Cinza had sworn not to reveal the technique—not even to Ruby.
"Um, Rachel?" Hector asked, pointing. Rachel looked up, having been lost in thought about the various riots and civil unrest scenarios she'd been researching lately. In front of them was an empty shipping box, casually floating through mid-air without a care in the world, as if gravity was simply no longer a concern.
That can't be good.
"What do we do?" he asked.
"We find Julian," she growled, pulling out her phone and dialing Will. After a few minutes of strain and effort, he was able to get her a more exact location on whomever had cast the ritual. They set off once again.
Other oddities began to pop up. There was a mailbox that had floated out of its stake in the ground and was hovering across the street like a drifting kite, and a couple more shipping boxes beside. Rachel felt like she was entering some sort of fairytale land, except for the vague unpleasant smell wafting through the air.
"It doesn't touch us," he noted aloud.
Rachel nodded. Mason's Law was still in effect. Furthermore, it didn't seem to be affecting anything besides the containers themselves. "He'd been talking about something to do with making moving boxes around easier. Apparently he succeeded."
The next street down, they found him. Julian and one of his companions were nestled just inside a copse of trees off the road, where they'd drawn out a large symbol in chalk on the grass. Julian was flat on the ground in the center, his eyes glazed and looking at nothing in particular, while his friend was simply unconscious. Rachel hurried forward, but stopped before she crossed the chalk lines, just in case.
He looked around. "I did it."
"Made it easier."
"You mean you actually did want to just make it easier to move boxes around?"
Rachel burst into a fit of giggles. She'd assumed he had some deeper plan than that—but no, Julian Black was legitimately trying to ease his job delivering boxes to people with magic. It was so… mundane. "I think you went overboard," she added, still giggling.
Hector had caught up and looked thoroughly confused. "You okay, Rachel?"
"Yeah." She wiped her eyes with a handkerchief from her bag. "Julian, we need to reverse this, or reduce it to a more specific target. It's disturbing people."
He nodded. "Didn't really know wha' was gonna happen." With a great deal of effort he managed to pull himself to his feet. "Not really sure how to stop it either."
Rachel knelt in the grass just outside the circle, composing herself. Using a technique she'd been developing, she tried to view how the magic and the man in the center were connected. It was an offshoot of their usual method to view links and associations between people, but combined with Will's method of finding where magic was being used. Rachel didn't have the strength or talent to get any sort of range with the spell, but she could at least focus down on magic happening in close proximity. She let her mind drift between the split where she could see the links between people and the mental state of drawing magical energy into herself, where she could feel its source and connect it to what she could see in front of her.
It took a great deal of concentration. Almost immediately she began to feel a headache brewing in her skull. Rachel pushed through it. She saw the lines drawing between Julian and his associate, the ritual circle in the ground, and then a burst of three lines reaching out in a triangle to various points throughout the east half of town. Julian had done a combined ritual that covered the entire area—that much she'd already known from his proposal to the council. But what had they affected specifically?
The lines became more distinct, connecting to the cardboard and the metal of mailboxes. Rachel saw a strange translucence in the air as if the boxes had become indistinct. They had the appearance of boxes, but not the properties or consistency. Simply by entering the area, they changed and took on new properties. This was new magic… or was it?
"You based this on Hector's electricity-disabling fields," Rachel realized aloud, releasing her mind.
"Yeah," Julian coughed. "I figger if he could make a zone where stuff enters and gets disabled, not just what's there when he makes the thing, I could do the same to boxes."
"So you target all the boxes and then… what?" Hector could reverse the ritual for them since he understood that half, but to do so he needed to know what changes Julian had done to the environment.
"Well, I thought I needed to make them lighter, and what's super light? So I made them all more like that gas."
Rachel felt a spike of panic. "You did what?"
"You know, made 'em all floaty by making them more like helium."
"But…" Rachel burst through some quick calculations. "Helium doesn't have that great of a lifting force. It's about five grams for a balloon's worth." She stared at a box currently floating around nearby them. "And it doesn't really seem like there's helium everywhere."
"Nah, not helium then. Hydrogen."
Rachel started. "You filled them all with hydrogen?"
"Ever heard of the Hindenberg?" she snapped. She stood up. "Hector, every single one of those boxes is highly flammable."
She had a dozen more questions—like how the hydrogen wasn't simply diffusing through the boxes, or how each box had enough to maintain lift, or where it had even come from—but she wasn't about to start interrogating Julian with the potential danger in front of them. "We need to get them all together and drain them somehow."
"Okay," Hector said. He looked confident, which was immeasurably reassuring to Rachel. As nervous as Hector could get around people, he was in his element dealing with magic on a large scale. Rachel had seen him perform feats impossible for even the strongest amongst them many times, often on par with the Gods themselves. He grasped something in his pocket that Rachel couldn't see, and immediately the nearest boxes were neatly assembling into a floating pile of cardboard.
Rachel's phone began buzzing. She glanced down at the screen, but Julian's groaning distracted her. "What?"
"Really took it out of me," he coughed.
"You loaded a dozen large boxes with flammable gas and started throwing them all over town. I'm not surprised," Rachel admonished. "You really should run these by me before you do something else so ridiculous and dangerous."
She picked up her phone, but it had already gone to voicemail. With a sigh, Rachel pocketed it again. It had been Rika, but Rachel doubted she had much to say besides complaints. While Rachel didn't exactly want her arrested, she had too many pressing matters on her mind. Cinza's covert mission of the night was weighing most heavily, and Rachel hoped she'd managed to break into the safe already and escape. She had no idea how the girl planned to get in, but Cinza had requested at least an hour of time, if not more. Rachel was determined to keep Hector out as long as possible.
Luckily, Julian's insane plan had already given them plenty to clean up without any false excuses needed. Rachel was glad she hadn't had to lie to Hector. She really couldn't do this without him.
Her phone rang again. It wasn't Rika this time. It was a number she didn't recognize. She stared at it for the first couple of rings, confused. She never got unknown numbers. Thanks to Will, her phone blocked virtually every spam call network in existence, and her number was private otherwise. For any public contact she preferred email, since she could process those quickly and easily at any time.
At the third ring, she finally answered.
"About fucking time!" a voice exploded in her ear. Rachel nearly dropped the phone.
"No, bitch, it's the goddamn NSA. Yes, it's me."
"I've been trying to call you."
"And I've been a little fucking busy with the cops you sent after me—what the fuck, Za—"
Rachel listened to rustling for a few moments. "Hello?"
"Hi," said a younger male voice. He was nervous, but like he was trying to act confident and cool. The end result was someone who sounded entirely fake, though his tone was urgent enough that Rachel gave him her full attention. "Rachel, right?"
"You're the guy who's been following Rika around?" Zack flashed through her mind briefly. A boy just out of high school, with short brown hair and freckles. Not particularly tall, nor was he good looking or strong. He didn't really stand out in any way, besides his choice of company.
"I, err… yes. That's me." He sounded embarrassed.
"I'm sorry, but I'm really busy right now. Why did you call?"
"We found out who killed those people. It wasn't Rika."
She took a few steps away from Julian and Hector, lowering her voice. "I know it wasn't. It was Omega."
"What? No. Well, yeah, in part I guess. But it was also a guy named Brian. We heard him say it."
"Brian who? Heard where?" Rachel asked, while her mind began rifling through every single Brian she knew, trying to link them up with the murders.
"We were at the doctor's place, he stopped by to talk to him as a priest or whatever."
"Just now?" Rachel asked, dread beginning to seep into her bones. She knew something terrible was coming, though she couldn't explain why. A bitter taste was filling her mouth.
"Maybe an hour ago? Brian said he had met someone in the woods and done something terrible. Then after he heard the doctor wanted to go meet with you tonight, he threatened you and him."
Rachel narrowed it down. It had to be a local, then, if he was meeting with the doctor to confess. There were only two Brians in town. One was Bryan Selnik, the painter, but he'd been out of town until he'd returned with his boyfriend Mason from a trip to Seattle just a few days ago. He couldn't be the murderer. The other…
"Put Rika on."
There was a shuffle of static and thumping noises. "What now?"
"It's Brian Hendricks. Natalie's dad."
"...Shit. You sure?"
"Has to be, there's no other Brians. And he's been missing."
"Why the fuck is he trying to kill people?"
"I don't know," Rachel said, her heart racing. Apparently he'd threatened her directly, and the reverend for daring to associate with her. Brian knew where she lived. He was her landlord. "He threatened to kill me?"
"Yeah, apparently. I wasn't there," Rika said, and her voice had dropped in hostility. Somewhere there was still a kernel of loyalty from their childhood, however buried it might be behind layers of bitterness.
"I… well I guess I should have expected something like this." The idea of a personal threat against her life for being a public figure had crossed her mind before, but always as a well-removed hypothetical. Nothing like this, and definitely not from someone she knew. Rachel felt confused as much as she felt afraid. "Something's wrong. Doesn't add up."
"What do you mean?"
"Your friend said he threatened to hurt the doctor and me when we met… tonight?"
After a brief aside, Rika came back on the phone. "Yeah."
"But, we already met. This afternoon, in broad daylight."
"Hang on," Rika said. Rachel could hear her muffled shout through the phone. "Hey, Alzack! Did he call out Rachel by name?" She came back. "You weren't mentioned… Maybe he meant someone else?"
Rachel's blood turned to ice. "He meant Cinza. The doctor wanted to meet at their home in the woods. He must have gone there tonight."
Rachel left Hector to clean up, moving the boxes away from the area toward his store. She had no time to spare. She'd have loved to take him along, but making sure the east end didn't literally explode from Julian's mess was still important, and she wasn't sure if Cinza had completed the theft yet. So it was Rachel alone who blitzed into the woods, with only the watchful gaze of Will from afar keeping her company. She sent a single tap along their connection, a signal to him that she was okay and that she loved him, before she plunged into the eastern woods.
Her hand clutched the largest ruby she owned like it was a stress ball, the hard edges digging into her palm. The scent of the pines wafted by her nose pleasantly, completely at odds with her racing heart and the adrenaline pumping through her veins. Every few seconds she stopped to desperately search for tracks, but there was so little to go on. All Rachel could do was hope she followed the most likely path for the reverend to take if he were seeking out Cinza's home based on rumors alone.
Why couldn't you just wait, Smith? she shouted in her skull. Why are you out here alone in the dead of night?
Rachel wasn't ever going to get an answer to her questions. She burst into a small clearing a few minutes later, following the scent of smoke.
There, lying on the damp moss, was a charred and broken body. He looked as though his back had been snapped in half backwards and his head shoved into the dirt. His arms and legs were melted and his clothes had been burned away. Eyes wide with terror, the man's hands were still clasped tight around the only object to survive the onslaught. Rachel knelt down and touched it—a metal crucifix, held up to his heart in desperate prayer before the end.
"Holy Jesus…" came a mutter from nearby. Rachel twisted around sharply. She hurled out her hand with the ruby and grabbed sharply at the connection with Will three times in rapid succession, but she knew it to be futile. Whomever it was could kill her without hesitation and she'd have no chance. She couldn't really defend herself in a fight. In that instant, wracked with terror, Rachel fully expected to die.
She saw the expression on Robert Harrison's face, flickering in the firelight dancing in her outstretched hand, and knew she wasn't about to die—but someone else might be. He wasn't looking at her, but at the reverend's broken and battered body. His eyes were thick with sorrow and fury.
"Those bastards are gonna die for this," Robert growled, the rifle in his hand glinting horribly in the orange glow. Rachel opened her mouth, but could not find any words to reply with. She was still in shock from the body beside her—a man whom she'd considered a fast friend only half a day earlier. Robert turned and walked into the woods, rifle in hand, back to Rallsburg.
"All those fucking cloaks are gonna burn."