Interlude II — Selling One's Soul
The trees did their utmost to trip him at every terrified step. Brian Hendricks was running like a man with the devil at his heels—and for all he knew, that was precisely what chased him through the rain-slicked forest. Drops peeled off leaves from the canopy above and struck him with incessant reminders of his drenched clothes. The cold was only held at bay by the pulsing adrenaline still rushing through his blood. He felt the heavy impact of every footfall on the thick forest floor, his way forward marked by seldom-used hiking trails that he could only desperately hope would not end.
He fled a sight no man should ever witness. Demons had appeared from within the Earth, blank-faced figures of fire and smoke. Flames writhed about them in streams, spinning the dance of the devil. Brian could still hear the screaming in his head. The two men at their feet—men who had only moments earlier declared their defiance proudly and attacked him with otherworldly powers—reduced to whimpering children in an instant. Begging could not save them from the demon who controlled these monsters. He'd simply waved his minions forward and walked away, while they screamed in agony as the flesh was seared from their bones until they were pulverized into dust.
The man had spotted Brian, and his eyes lit up in a way that struck terror into Brian's soul. Brian didn't think twice; he bolted into the trees, and behind him the firelight followed. So had he run for what felt like hours, though the adrenaline coursing through him meant that it could have been no time at all.
He chanced a look over his shoulder, and that was what did him in. Taking his eyes off the path ahead for only a moment, his foot caught the next root jutting out from the soil, and he was sent tumbling. He crashed through the thick underbrush, and only just had the wherewithal to tuck in and try to absorb the blow. The musty ferns engulfed him as he rolled into the bushes with a crash and an unpleasant popping sound. Mud and dirt caked his clothing as he tumbled to a halt underneath a large fir eerily reminiscent of a tree near his home, where his daughter probably sat even now waiting for a dinner that wasn't to come.
He groaned and tried to struggle back to his feet, but a sharp pain in his ankle kept him floored. Please, God, don't be broken, Brian prayed desperately. I know I'm not the best father, and I haven't served you well, but I can't die like this. I don't deserve it, but please, God, don't let me leave Natalie all alone. He knew it was futile. God had never answered one of his prayers. Brian assumed He was much too busy to pay mind to a simple landlord out in the middle of nowhere in Washington, much less one with as broken and disillusioned a past as himself.
He tested the foot gingerly and winced even harder. It was likely only sprained, from his unqualified opinion, but it still hurt like hell—too much for him to keep running. Brian looked around his immediate surroundings. He seemed to be safe for the moment. He'd fallen into a particularly thick patch of underbrush, and the ferns managed to provide him with enough cover. With a lump in his throat and terror in his heart, he slowly looked back to where he had tripped.
The flicker of light on the path nearly stopped his heart.
Brian stopped breathing. He stopped moving. For all intents and purposes, he may as well have been a stone statue left out in the forest. The only activity left in his body was his brain, frantically rushing through every possible outcome. As the light grew nearer, most of those faded into black, and only visions of his charred body left to rot in the woods remained. It was the flicker of torchlight, but as the figure emerged from the underbrush, Brian could see once again that there was no torch.
There was only the fire, which the man held just above both hands, letting it dance across his skin like a demon of hell. He didn't look like a demon; in fact, he could have been any ordinary college student in his all-weather black overcoat, denim jeans and plain polo shirt. Yet Brian had seen what this young man could do. He knew that the devil could have a servant in ordinary garb, misleading the innocent astray. Brian had never believed in such things.
Not until today.
Brian's lungs were crying for air, but he dared not open his mouth. The slightest sound might bring him to ruin. He could only hold as still as possible, and hope the young man would lose interest and wander away once more.
"Come out already. I know you're still here," the man called. His voice was deep, the kind that could rumble through bones. Brian recoiled at how close the sound was, and winced once more from the pain as his foot shifted, but to his credit he managed to keep silent. "I don't want to be out in this any more than you do. Let's just get this over with."
As the man grew closer, so did the flames dancing away around his hands, with angry hissing sounds when raindrops struck the fire. Brian couldn't help it. He shrunk away involuntarily once more, and his foot struck a rock behind him that he hadn't spotted. He let out the softest cry of pain, and the man was on him at once.
Jets of flame sprung forth from the man's outstretched palms. Intense heat radiated around Brian. The twin streaks burned away the undergrowth. The man was so precise and controlled with the burst that Brian only felt pleasantly warmed, but it only heightened the fear Brian felt in his bones. This was the day he was going to die. He knew it already.
"Please," Brian said softly. He had always been a bit on the quiet side. Kept his head down, stayed in line, never strayed from the path in front of him. Never raised his voice, never got confrontational unless he absolutely had to. He was the sort of person who would just fade into even the smallest of crowds, and he preferred it that way. The less attention given, the easier it was for him to keep living. It kept his life sane and simple.
Today he was alone with this strange young man standing over him, and it was the most utterly terrifying experience of his life.
"Please what?" the man asked, and for the first time in his terror-fuelled flight through the woods, Brian saw a glimpse of sympathy and surprise in the man's dark-skinned face. He looked confused—and if there was one thing you could always count on in a human being, it was confusion. If the young man wasn't an agent of the devil or whatever other unholy power might have granted his abilities, Brian might still be able to appeal to his remaining humanity.
"I have a daughter. She's only twelve. Her mother's—"
"Easy, man. You don't need to start begging." He sounded annoyed, but he hadn't killed Brian yet. There might still be hope left for him.
"Her name's Natalie," Brian continued. "She's expecting me home for dinner tonight. She wanted to cook, she was looking forward to it. She made me swear I wouldn't help, that she could do it all on her own."
"Seriously, please, stop. I'm not going to kill you." Relief surged through his veins. Though he didn't quite trust the man yet, Brian could at least conclude that if he was going to die, there was no reason he shouldn't have been killed already. Maybe Natalie won't be alone tonight after all, he allowed himself to hope.
But, Brian reminded himself, this man chased me through the woods in the rain. He clearly had some kind of agenda that involved Brian. The man sat down on a tree root nearby, looking particularly uncomfortable with the entire situation. Brian pulled himself up to a sitting position against a nearby trunk, since his life was apparently no longer in immediate peril.
"Brian, right?" the young man asked.
"Yeah," Brian nodded hesitantly.
The man pulled his hood down, revealing a handsome, dark, clean-shaven face and a shiny bald head. He was tall and imposing, but he had a certain charm about him. An intelligent friendly giant, perhaps, if not for the way he'd watched those men burn at his feet with such an impassive look. Brian fixed that image into his mind—of this young man standing over burning people writhing in agony and not lifting a finger to help.
"Do you know who I am?" he asked, as if it were common knowledge.
"No, I don't, and I don't need to. Please, just, let me go," Brian started again. The young man held up a hand.
"I can't, Brian. I'm sorry, but you've seen too much."
Brian's heart sank. It was a deadly phrase. "I'm a normal guy. I've lived a normal life for thirty seven years. I can keep living that. Don't need to tell anyone anything."
The man shook his head. "Could you really go back to living a normal life, after seeing this side of reality? After discovering such things are possible?"
Brian considered for a moment. He was desperate, and his mind cast about for anything that might appeal to the man's humanity. "I once thought the same thing about music." The young man looked surprised, so Brian continued. "I used to play jazz. Got pretty good at at it too. But that's all done now," he trailed off.
Memories flooded his thoughts. Sitting at his drums, tapping out a set for Natalie lying on her bed with the eager fascinating of a child discovering something new. She'd wanted him to teach her how to play, but she could barely reach the kit from her tiny height. They'd switched to the piano instead, and she was getting better every day. He'd been looking forward to hearing her play full songs, improvise her own pieces, and jam together as father and daughter.
A future that was barely flickering in the distance now, a flame sputtering and close to being snuffed out.
"Look, Brian. I'm trying to help you out, okay?" His voice was deep and comforting, the sort of pleasant baritone that lulled many into a false sense of security—but Brian was still feeling the after-effects of adrenaline from the frenzied rush through the woods. He wasn't about to trust this apparition of the devil, no matter how he might coax.
"You haven't even told me your name. How can I believe you?"
"My name is Jackson."
"Oh," Brian answered, taken aback. He hadn't expected such a direct response. "Well, Jackson—"
"Why did you stop playing?" Jackson interrupted. Brian stared at his eyes, which were the inky black of the deepest night sky, with only the tiniest glimmer of light twinkling to show life where there was only darkness.
"I—" Brian stopped, thinking back. The memories were long since buried, subsumed by the life he'd chosen since then, and he'd actively pushed them away for so many years. "I found something more important to live for."
"Someday you'll find the same," Brian continued. "I loved those drums, and I'd play every day if they came to town, but I couldn't live on that scene. I had a newborn, and she came first. My entire life is my daughter now."
Jackson nodded. "So you left Chicago."
"Yeah... how did you know I used to live in Chicago?"
"It's not exactly a secret, Brian. You've lived in this town long enough. I know everyone worth knowing in this town by now."
"But I don't know you."
"Well, that's easy," Jackson said, the sad smile returning to his face. "I'm the bad guy, Brian."
Brian felt a chill echo through his blood like a dark note in an empty concert hall. The phrase seemed completely at odds with the young man, with his sports team shirt and his jacket. Dread crept into his veins like ice. Whatever this man wanted, Brian wished he could be far away. He sent a silent prayer to God—begging for help—before he spoke again.
"What do you want with me?"
Jackson raised an eyebrow.
"You haven't killed me yet, so you must want something."
"You and I are connected now, Brian."
"What does that mean?" Brian asked nervously.
"Right now? Nothing," the man answered, and Brian felt briefly reassured—until he continued speaking. "But some other people… might not see it that way."
"Let's just say I don't exactly have many friends," the man said, with a sad-looking smile. "But I do have enemies."
Brian shook his head. "I don't want to know." Something felt wrong suddenly. He glanced around, as the rain continued to trickle through the forest, an orchestra of drops striking leaves and twigs all around them, but not on them. He held out a hand, and not a drop fell on him. In fact, relative to a few minutes ago, he felt quite warm. Heat was radiating out from the spot between them, with no fire or light as its source.
Jackson smiled. "I thought you might appreciate a chance to dry off."
"What are you?" Brian asked nervously.
"A student," Jackson replied. "Of history, but not officially. My major was engineering, but I was always more interested in people than machines."
"You went to the university?" Brian was taken aback. Someone like this didn't belong at a university. Someone like this didn't belong on the planet.
Jackson nodded. "Until I found something more important to do."
"But… how—" Brian started.
"To explain would be to grant you the same power, and I get the feeling you don't want that," Jackson said dismissively. "Believe me, you're better off without it, though I believe you might be one of the few in the world sensible enough to handle yourself. No, for now, let's simply call it magic and be done with it."
"But, you are human… right?"
"As far as I know, yeah." Jackson smiled. "Relax, I'm on your side. In a way."
"What do you mean?"
"If I'm reading this right, you don't trust me. Fear me, even. Which is smart. Anyone with this kind of power at their fingertips is someone to be wary of. Those men from earlier didn't realize that."
As if Brian needed a reminder. "You killed them. Brutally."
Jackson nodded, his expression dark. "I did. Honestly, I enjoyed it a little too. If you'd known what they'd done, you'd agree."
"What could they have done?" Brian asked, anger rising in his core. "What could anyone do that deserves their skin set on fire? You know they feel that pain all over while they choke to death on the smoke, right?"
"I know. They deserved every moment of it." Jackson stood, brushing dirt from his pant leg. He offered an arm to Brian. "I can show you what these people do."
Brian didn't want to know. He didn't want to see it, but he knew that Jackson wouldn't let him leave alive unless he cooperated. All Brian could do was try to give the young man whatever he wanted, and hope that he could go home at the end of the day. Natalie needs me, Brian reminded himself. This is for her.
Brian grasped the young man's arm, feeling like he'd betrayed God and his own humanity by doing so.
"This will feel a bit strange," Jackson said gently. Brian shut his eyes tight, waiting for Hell to reach up and take hold of him.
The world shifted. Brian felt air whipping at his cheeks and hair. It was how he imagined a wind tunnel must feel, being surrounded by rushing wind trying to unbalance him. He tried to steady himself, and found his foot falling much more forward than he'd expected. His momentum vanished in an instant. Brian let his eyes slide open.
They'd travelled all the way back to the old RV park outside the town, some ten minutes by foot from the place he'd seen Jackson burn the two men and an easy half hour from where they'd stood only moments earlier.
"What did you do to me?" he asked, ripping his arm away from Jackson's grasp and stumbling backward.
"I brought you here to see, like I said. Nothing more." Jackson pointed at the nearest mobile home. It looked as though it had been abandoned decades earlier. There were cheap plastic chairs set out front, and a few cardboard boxes of empty beer bottles scattered around the exterior. The RV itself was dark, as dark as the night sky above them, but the side door stood slightly ajar. As the wind stirred past them, it swung wide and clacked against the wall with a foreboding echo.
Brian wasn't one to scare easily. He'd been a landlord for many years now, in cities that far outstripped tiny Rallsburg, dealing with any number of strange or disturbed tenants. He'd had knives drawn on him, hurled himself between domestic fights, and evicted the worst of humanity more than once. With the relatively light sheriff's presence in Rallsburg, he'd grown to rely on himself and himself alone to keep his properties in line. The college kids he usually rented to these days weren't so bad, but a few of his other residents featured the worst and weirdest the Northwest had to offer.
Not one of those many encounters approached the level of unease he felt staring at the shadows just inside the door. His skin was crawling as he walked forward and tapped on the door lightly.
"There's no one well enough to answer you in there," Jackson replied, so calmly that Brian shivered. He noticed that his companion seemed fatigued from their journey here. Jackson was leaning heavily against the wall, and made no moves to follow Brian into the RV. Dreading what he would find inside, Brian pushed the door open gently and took a step into the interior. It was still too dark to see anything. He felt around for the light switch near the door and flicked it on.
He wished he hadn't.
"There exists a certain trading ground, a neutral territory where magic users can trade information and materials," Jackson started, his even tone completely at odds with the horrors contained within. Brian was barely paying attention, his eyes fixed on the bisected young man seated before him. "It stands within a pocket, for lack of a better term. An area larger on the inside than the outside, a rift in space."
Brian finally tore his gaze away from the man—or more precisely, the lower half of the man, for the torso and head were nowhere to be found—and overcame his disgust enough to view the rest of the room. The pool of blood seeping out lead him to spot the second young man, who Brian guessed to be an RSU student based on his age and what remained of his clothing.
He began murmuring a prayer, feeling tenfold more religious today than he had in his entire life. The second man was covered in burns, his clothing scorched and in tatters from the flames. The skin was blackened, and some parts simply seemed to melt away from the body into puddles of flesh.
"Such a space can't exist without someone to maintain it, and the woman who does so keeps a tight lid on the secrets of creating it. Even I have no idea how she pulls it off. Since it remains the only truly secure location to trade something as volatile as magic, she can take a high tax from her customers," Jackson continued, stepping into the RV, seemingly unconcerned with the flies angrily buzzing about the room. Brian felt his throat constrict and only narrowly avoided letting his gag reflex take over entirely.
He realized that this man, burned away as the other two he'd witnessed earlier that evening, had to be the work of his newfound companion who now leaned casually against the countertop in the small makeshift kitchen. "Why?" Brian asked, but Jackson kept speaking as if he hadn't heard.
"Not everyone wanted to pay such a tax. As is inevitable in our society, competition arose. Those other marketplaces were privy to listening ears, or interfering third parties. The special nature of a wholly controllable space and the advantages it brings; these men wanted to create their own." He looked coldly at the pair of legs in the chair covered in blood, and for the first time Brian thought he saw true hatred flash through Jackson's eyes. "They failed."
"So they screwed up, but it only hurt themselves. Right?" Brian's voice quivered, for he already knew what had to come next.
"Their greed, their ambition, their recklessness. It puts others at risk. Consider what they could have done, if they'd not been so far out of town, or lost control later than this. Innocents are always at risk when man plays with fire." Jackson shook his head in disgust. "I'm sorry, Brian. Look behind the chair." He stepped back outside, leaving Brian alone with the decaying corpses and the flies buzzing around the small room.
Brian turned and crept toward the chair. His heart was pounding, a steady thump he could feel in his skull. The stench of burned flesh was overwhelming, but curiosity and fear drove him forward. He had to know. He set a hand on the shoulder of the chair to steady himself, and craned his neck forward to see the space behind.
It was a little girl. About Natalie's age, if he had to guess. Not just any girl, he realized, recognizing her clothes. Jenny Wilson. She'd been to his house many times. Natalie went to school with her, and they'd been close friends. He'd helped her with her homework. They'd all gone to the movies together once. Brian had let her parents watch over Natalie a few nights when he had to deal with business he couldn't avoid. She'd been family.
Tears streamed down Brian's cheeks. He imagined Natalie coming in to see her friend like this. Jenny's face was half carved away, in a perfect clean circle that would put a surgeon to shame. Her arm and shoulder were completely gone, vanished from the world entirely, with blood still dripping out. Brian could see chiseled-down bones poking out from her torn pink jacket, peeking through the hewn sinew. It was the same jacket Natalie had begged him for days to get, so they could match.
He imagined his daughter in this same position, ripped apart by ungodly forces, and he felt rage. Pure, unbridled rage that exploded up through him like a firework, blinding his eyes with fury and pain and disgust.
He heard a cough.
Brian's head snapped around to the corner of the room, where a young man was just coming round. Brian didn't recognize the face. His legs were bent out of shape, but relatively intact. Compared to the rest of the room, he might as well have been in perfect health.
"Is what he said true?" Brian growled.
"We lost control of it," the guy answered weakly. "It would have gotten us all if I hadn't stopped it in time."
"How did you stop it?"
"I… oh God. I killed Alex. I had to, would have killed me," he added with another wheezing cough.
"She just wanted to see some magic. Alex said it'd go okay… fuck this hurts. Can you help, please? Get me to a doctor, man. Please."
"I…" Brian started. He glanced around, his eyes once again finding Jenny. Her remaining eye was wide in terror, her mouth slightly open. Brian took a few steps toward her. His heart ached at the sight, and begged him to help, even as his brain tried to convince him there was nothing to be done. Brian's emotions won out in the end, and he picked up Jenny's little hand, holding it tight.
"She's dead, man. Help me," came another pleading call from behind him. Brian looked at him with disgust. He was fine, he wasn't even bleeding. Jenny needed his attention far more, even if she could no longer hear or see anything ever again.
"Hey, I'm talking to you. Come on. Get me up."
Brian ignored him. Should he lift Jenny up and carry her out? Could he take her to the sheriff and bring justice to these murderous boys? Would her parents want to see her in this condition?
Brian imagined another man coming to him with his daughter's corpse in his arms. Would he collapse in grief? Attack the poor messenger? It was all too painful to even consider.
"God dammit, help me up or I'll burn you too."
Too. Brian looked up at the word. The young man had a small flame dancing above his fingertips, even as he struggled to move to a better position. The scorched body between them suddenly took on new, terrifying meaning.
Brian had apparently hesitated too long. The fire in the man's hand exploded into a ball. Waves of heat washed through the room. Brian recoiled from the intensity. He dove behind the chair for cover, nearly landing on poor Jenny. The fire wasn't as strong as he expected. It barely singed the upholstery, but it was still a bright light on the other side of the room. He dared to peek around the corner.
"Get me to a hospital or your ass is… oh fuck!"
Brian watched, sweat trickling down his neck and his eyes squinting through the intense light. The fireball seemed to be growing out of proportion, igniting everything around it. The man's hand was bubbling in a way that human skin never should. Layers were peeling away. The fire crawled backward, rolling through him. His cries shifted into earsplitting screams.
Brian ducked behind the chair again, hiding his eyes until the light finally dimmed away to nothing, and the sound had faded away into simply the quiet hiss of steam.
"Do you see, Brian?" Jackson spoke up, appearing behind the burned young man with his hand raised and palm upward. Tiny bolts of electricity danced between his fingers. "This happens every time people are given powers they can't control. He has this ability now, and nothing can take it away. Ever."
Jackson began murmuring, his hands dancing about in a circle, and the electricity danced faster, forming a large shape in midair. Features began to emerge, the electricity taking a rough humanoid form, though without a face or anything resembling a head. It advanced on the young man, and Brian could feel the crackling energy and scent of ozone from across the room.
He felt disgusted, with the young man and with himself. Brian didn't even know the man's name and he'd just let Jackson kill him. Was this sort of cruel acceptance to be his future?
On the other hand, Brian didn't want to know his name. He'd seen what this man had done, and he could think of no better fate than to be killed by the same unholy force they thought they could control.
Without another word, he turned and walked away, his world suddenly much more vast and frightening than it had been only a few hours before.
"She tried to get away," Jackson said quietly as he emerged. "The girl—"
"Jenny," Brian snapped.
Jackson raised a hand in apology. "Jenny. She was invited along by her cousin, and what child doesn't want to hang out with the cool older kids? So she went along, and when everything started to fall apart, she tried to run and hide. You can see from the way she's turned away, hiding behind the chair. It didn't save her."
Brian's fists were clenched tight, knuckles pale white. "Stop talking."
"This is getting out of control, and we need to stop it."
"So do it," he growled.
"I can't," Jackson replied.
Brian gestured back into the RV with a strained, bitter laugh. "Send your devils at them all."
"I can only control them from nearby. Most of the people we'd need to… dispose of are all in Rallsburg."
"So go ahead. I'm not stopping you."
Jackson shook his head. "I'm powerful, Brian, but there are two I can call my equal. They expelled me from the town, so to speak. I cannot enter Rallsburg. Which is why I need you."
Brian saw the offer coming. Saw the deal the devil was about to offer him. The road to hell was laid out before him, black and burning with fire, and—God help him—he was about to accept wholeheartedly.
He thought again of Jenny, still lying just inside, her face wracked with terror.
Her eyes would haunt him until his final breath.
For Natalie. To keep her safe.
"What do you need?"
Jackson smiled sadly, and Brian knew then and there he was forever damned.
"He's still missing?"
"Yeah. I've been fielding all the calls for maintenance like normal, but I haven't seen him once."
"You still get paid though, right?"
"Yeah, that gets handled by Neffie. Brian calls the shots, but we can still run the ship without him. How much do I owe you?" Oscar asked, digging out his wallet. Brian adjusted his position slightly at the chime of the register, hoping it covered the rustling completely.
He was currently wedged into the corner, in a small space behind the soda shelves. It was just close enough to the register to hear their conversation, but far enough that he wasn't too worried about being found himself. He'd learned this spot from Natalie. She'd often played a game of seeing how long it would take Hector to find her while Brian did the shopping. This spot was yet unfound as far as he'd known. For her, it must have been downright roomy, but Brian's joints were flaring in pain. He was just lucky enough that Hector was so disorganized he'd never rearranged the store to something more efficient.
"Fourteen forty-five. Bottled water's on the house today, with that heat-wave coming. You're gonna need it."
"You're a lifesaver, Hector. Thanks."
Hector shook his head. "Just doing my part. Say hi to Neffie from me?"
"How's that going, anyway?"
Hector blushed very red. "I never asked her."
Hector and his assistant? Brian wondered, smiling to himself. He couldn't really see them working out. Neffie was too adventurous, too flighty. She'd never take up with someone as timid and distracted as Hector Peraza. He was a nice guy, but he'd be better off with someone more stable. Still, they'd be an entertaining couple. Brian could see Neffie dragging a reluctant Hector on a pretty wild ride for a while. And who knows, maybe they'll suit each other?
Brian shut his eyes. He'd forgotten once again the world he now lived in.
Hector was one of the "awakened". He was dangerous, to himself and everything around him.
Brian shuddered at the memories of his daughter playing in the store. Hector had always been nearby. His memories of his daughter's friendship with the old shopkeeper were now twisted into horrified visions. What if something had gone wrong? What if his Natalie was caught in the crossfire of something horrible and destructive?
He briefly imagined leaping out and putting a fist straight through Hector's nervous smile. Jackson had warned him about Hector in particular. While the other couple of targets Brian had been sent to investigate had been believable—even likely—candidates, Hector had given him pause. Brian simply couldn't believe his ears at first. Hector seemed the least likely person to have anything remotely threatening about him. And yet…
Jackson had been open with him so far. He'd witnessed strange, unnatural occurrences on a daily, even hourly basis now. People in his hometown - be they college kids, loggers or just the normal residents - were slowly selling themselves to the devil for a grasp of his dark gifts. So when Jackson had named Hector Peraza as one of the Awakened with a quiver of tension in his voice, Brian was truly afraid.
If the most powerful man one has ever met has fears, is it reassuring to know that he is still human, or terrifying to know something else with even greater power yet awaits?
So Brian remained hidden, listening closely to what Hector said. Jackson had told him not to get close, but he couldn't resist. Unlike the others, Hector was a friend. Everyone loved him. His store was pricier than most, partly due to his own ineptitude in running the business, but they still came in droves simply to hear his stories. The children came to play games with him and laugh at his terrible jokes. Everyone was a recipient of his never-ending generosity, but no one ever took advantage.
Brian wasn't here for Hector though. His real target was the young man who'd been working part-time in the back of the store, helping to unload boxes of fruit. Seth Merrill, the son of the town's only real journalist, was a slacker and a hothead, however odd such a combination might seem. More importantly—according to the curious runed stone that was now faintly vibrating against Brian's leg—he was also one of the so-called "awakened".
Seth Merrill was one of the lost souls that had given themselves over to corruption.
Brian had never liked him, but now he had real reason to distrust the young man. Jackson had given him a stone he now kept in a tight pocket where it would not be lost. By his explanation, it drew upon Brian's own energy to power a simple spell, one that allowed him to feel out those who had undergone the ritual at a simple glance. He'd examined everyone as they passed by his narrow spot in the shadows, and thankfully neither his reliable and trustworthy handyman Oscar nor his hypercompetent and spirited assistant Neffie had given it any reaction. It was only the college boy, and thus did Brian have his next target.
"You have to kill him, Brian."
Brian stopped eating the fruit Jackson had handed him abruptly. "What?"
"Seth needs to die before he can hurt anyone."
Brian shook his head. "I'm not a murderer. I didn't agree to that. I said I'd help you track down everyone, but I'm not about to hurt a kid who hasn't actually done anything yet."
Jackson's eyes were cold—and with the deep blackness that shrouded his gaze permanently, adding a layer of ice was enough to remind Brian of the terror he had chosen to serve. "He will."
"He's a stupid college kid. I don't disagree there's a risk, but innocent until proven guilty, right?"
Jackson frowned. "And what about when that one guilty verdict comes at the cost of hundreds, if not thousands of lives? They may not have done any damage yet, but it's as if we'd given nuclear weapons to children and trusted them not to do anything wrong."
"I don't think I can kill anyone," Brian said. "I can't even go hunting with Robert whenever he invites me."
Jackson looked pensive, then turned and dug through his bag for a moment. He came back up with a small rod made of obsidian, laid with a bright green stone. He offered it to Brian, who took it gingerly. "Like I taught you, put your mind into the rod."
Brian hesitated. "Is using this pushing me over the edge as well?"
Jackson shrugged. "You aren't awakened. You haven't read from the book or done the ritual, and the magic does not originate with you. I would call that distinction enough, but that's for you to judge."
Brian closed his eyes and prayed. God, I hope I'm doing the right thing. I haven't seen Natalie in days, but I know that she can take care of herself. I'll make the world safe for her again. Please, let me be spared from whatever demons haunt the man I'm following.
He sent his mind into the rod. There, legions awaited him.
"It's not okay," Brian growled, pacing back and forth in the clearing. "I should have dealt with them all."
"It's a good sign that you felt pity. You're still a good man, Brian. We've just been forced to do terrible things."
"I had them, and I was weak," Brian snapped. Rage was bubbling through his blood in waves of heated frustration. "They revel in the shit. Their damned rituals and those cloaks and charms. They celebrate it," he spat.
"They think they've found something wonderful. They don't know what horrors lie in wait," Jackson said calmly. His even tone finally began to calm Brian down. He sat and accepted the offered lunch in Jackson's hand. "You were able to use the golems well enough?"
He nodded. "They did everything I asked perfectly, even when I told them to leave."
"Good. Now, what I was able to do today while you were resting." Jackson began to draw in midair, a map of the town springing to life like a hologram out of a movie. He drew dark crimson lines across the roads and railways leading from the town. "I've closed off every proper land route from the town. The mountains and hills are too treacherous for any significant number to cross easily. I've also sent word to the nearest towns that the roads and rails are out until further notice, so we won't have any innocents caught in the crossfire."
"You really think this is necessary?" Brian asked nervously. His thoughts were on his daughter, and the few friends he had made in Rallsburg. "Encircling the town?"
"We simply don't know how many have been awakened," Jackson replied. "Until we can clear them, we can't risk anyone escaping. Between this and the information we've leaked, they should be in a perfect state of chaos for us to do what needs to be done."
Brian stared at the dark lines hanging in midair and shivered. He didn't like how his town was starting to feel like a medieval castle under siege, but it had to be done. Whenever doubt crept into his mind, visions of the burned RV flooded his thoughts, or of the greycloaks performing horrible rituals in the woods, or balls of fire thrown from the radio tower in the dead of night. There was too much potential for catastrophe secreted around every corner.
"Brian, someone's out in the woods—besides the mercenary." He looked up. Jackson's eyes were clouded over, a side-effect of his ability to see magical activity outside the town. "It's Seth Merrill again."
Brian hesitated. The greycloaks were one thing, but Seth was just a stupid college kid.
"Do you still have doubts?" Jackson asked.
"Talk to your friend next time you meet. Ask him about Seth."
Brian stepped out from behind a tree once he was sure the man was alone.
"Jesus, Brian," Robert breathed, lowering his rifle. "You oughta give me some warning."
"Sorry." He shrugged. "So what happened?"
"Everythin' you said was true, about the electricity burns on the bodies and the time of death and whatnot." Brian had supplied the electricity burn information at Jackson's request, though he still wasn't sure why exactly. Jackson had said it was 'a gift to an old friend', but his tone had been dripping with irony. "Made 'em look like idiots for a bit, til they took over the meeting."
"Yeah. Now they're working with the mayor and the sheriff. Some girl named Rachel. You know her?"
"Rachel DuValle? Tall—taller than you, actually—and straight brown hair? Always looks a little bit lost?"
"Not so much the last part, but yeah, that's her."
Brian frowned. "She's one of my tenants." Realization struck him as he recalled a strange incident a year back—involving a series of explosions and gemstones in the girl's room that had utterly terrified Natalie. His eyes narrowed. "She's one of them?"
"The leader, apparently. Speakin' o' which," Robert added, giving him a glare, "you knew about all this shit, didn't you?"
"Magic, goddammit! Magic's real and these kids all have it, apparently. And you knew, didn't you?"
"I… yes. I did."
"And you didn't tell me?" Robert growled.
"I'm sorry. I should have. I didn't think you'd believe me."
Robert sighed. "We've been friends since you moved here, man. I've got your back, just like I do now. You got mine?"
"Then keep me in the goddamn loop! Why are you out here all alone?"
"For Natalie," Brian answered simply.
Robert was taken aback. His tone dropped back to reasonable levels. "For your kid?"
"So she doesn't grow up in a world tainted by them," he continued. "By these monsters with their magic. I've seen what they do. The greycloaks even fight amongst themselves. I've seen their leader put her people in harm's way for the fun of it." He paused, remembering what Jackson had told him. "And then there's Seth."
Robert nodded. "That business at Dan's, you mean."
Something at Dan's? Brian's heart fell. Dan was another of his few friends in town. Anything happening to the diner would be a nightmare. He tried to tease more information out of Robert while still sounding informed. "Think about the damage they could cause."
"The wall's still got those burn marks all over," Robert nodded again. "I didn' see it myself, but Seth and Ryan and that out of town Asian girl were definitely responsible. Rachel didn' deny it." The older man paused, scratching his thick beard. "What about your little tyke though? Ain't Nat gonna be missin' her old man?"
He frowned. "I can't go home until it's done."
Brian shook his head. "I'm not good enough."
"I've never been good enough. The world always made sure I knew that. Now, I have a chance to do something important. I can help save the world. But the only way is to be totally committed to this."
"I don' envy you, man," Robert muttered. "I'll keep an ear out, I guess."
"Thank you," Brian answered. Robert had offered to help before, but Brian declined. He didn't want to get anyone else involved; Jackson had more than enough power to take on the entire town alone, so long as they never entered.
There were rules, apparently—and if Jackson abided by them, then the other demon residing in Rallsburg wouldn't interfere. He was an aloof monster who refused to intervene under any circumstances, by Jackson's description. Someone who wanted to watch the unnatural growth and change over time, like a scientist watching the town from a microscope on high. It made Brian sick. Someone treating these people like playthings, like an experiment to be watched and discarded. These were real, precious lives he was toying with, this mysterious pretender-god.
Jackson's counterpart was too powerful, but he was also strict and predictable. Thus, Brian could act with impunity—for he had no magic and wouldn't even appear on the man's radar. Equipped with Jackson's weapons and his plans, Brian was practically unstoppable.
"Jus' remember what you're fightin' for," Robert added.
"How is she?"
"Fine as far as I know. She's been stayin' with the British professor, Kendra Laushire. You know her?"
"I've met her a few times." In fact, Brian had investigated her with the runestone, and breathed a sigh of relief when it hadn't vibrated at all. She was quietly one of the more powerful people in Rallsburg, particularly with her riches that had no ties to the Price feud with the logging union. "And Natalie seems all right?"
"She's gettin' fed and homeschooled. I've kept an eye out, don' worry," Robert clapped a hand on his back. "I'm sure she'll be glad to see you home, after all this is done."
Brian nodded. His motivations were redoubled. His daughter was safe and sound, though the world around her was anything but.
His mission must continue.
When Brian approached their usual meeting place, he was startled to hear Jackson already talking to someone else. As far as he knew, Jackson only spoke to Brian, beyond the occasional muttering in that broken and haunted language of magic that Brian did his best to ignore. Brian got the impression Jackson was terribly lonely, though the young man hid it well.
Jackson was speaking, and someone else was answering. A much smaller voice, soft and feminine and nervous—a massive contrast to Jackson's somber rumble. Brian hid behind a tree, not daring to look out at the growing argument. Jackson was a deeply private person, by Brian's measure—he wouldn't want an intruder. Still, Brian couldn't help himself. After so many days with the man, Brian was eager to get another perspective on his ally.
"—a warning, and if it's not heeded, there's nothing more I can do," Jackson said. Brian noted the concern in his voice. It wasn't a threat, but exasperation. The sort of tone a parent might take when talking about a troublesome child.
"You won't hurt him though, will you?"
"It's not under my control, BB. It's Alpha's choices that brought us here," Jackson sighed.
"Yes it is, Jack!" she said. "You two need to stop this stupid fight. And stop using those dumb names. It's not doing anyone any good."
"If I stop, the world will end."
"Stop being so dramatic. You don't know that."
"And Alpha might not be right either. I don't want to risk a terrible world where everyone has this sort of power at their fingertips."
"Jack…" The girl trailed off. Brian hesitated. It took him a few moments to build up the courage, but he peeked his head out just slightly around the tree.
There was Jackson, head bowed and eyes dark and sorrowful. There was a girl hugging him, about the same age, with long, thick brown hair and distinct silver-grey eyes that seemed to sparkle even in the dim light of the forest. At first, Brian assumed that Jackson had been comforting her—but it was clear from a glance that he was overcome with emotion and she was the one holding him up.
"I just want us to be friends again," the girl said quietly, while Jackson stared off into the distance with his eyes clouded and unfocused. At her words, though, he snapped back into being.
"Friends?" he asked, and his tone was suddenly quite harsh. Brian recoiled involuntarily. "Friends with him?"
"Are you forgetting that he tried to kill me?"
"Look!" Jackson suddenly tore off his shirt, sending the girl a few paces back. Brian had to stifle a gasp. Jackson's body was covered in burns and scars.
"Oh, Jack…" the girl said, tracing her hand across a large scar across his well-muscled chest. "I'm sorry. But why didn't you take care of these?"
"I never read those pages," Jackson replied. "I don't know how to. And I'm not sure I want to."
"What if I—"
"No!" Jackson growled. The girl took another step back. "These remind me who I am… And what he did."
The girl suddenly glanced over her shoulder, sending a shock of panic through Brian—but she was looking the other way. Towards the town, but not at Brian. He hadn't been noticed.
"What?" Jackson asked.
"I have to go," the girl answered.
"No." Jackson took hold of her arm.
She looked down at his fist like it was nothing. "This wouldn't stop me," she said quietly, and suddenly the nervous tone was gone. There was a brief undercurrent of power, something fiercer than Brian had ever heard in his life. It was like the gentle purr of a huge hunting cat—calm and relaxed, but unmistakable, ready to strike in an instant with absolute force.
"No, but the rules might."
She shook her head. "You two and your rules. I only agreed to get you to stop arguing. I thought you were going to blow up the rest of the library."
"You did more than just keep them alive through incomplete readings. You talked to them."
"I'm not going to just ignore everyone I meet."
Jackson shook his head. "You broke the rules."
"Are you going to punish me, Jack?" The girl's silver-grey eyes narrowed. "After all we've been through?"
Jackson hesitated. His hand fell away from her wrist. "Of course not," he said, and his voice had dropped to the sorrowful tone from the beginning of the conversation. "I lo—"
The girl twisted around immediately and vanished, a faint breeze wafting out from where she had disappeared.
"—ve you, BB."
Brian quickly pulled himself back behind the tree, as silent as he could manage. Jackson remained there for a long time, while the birds sang around them and the wind whistled through the leaves.
"You're still doubting?" Jackson asked.
"I just…" Brian hesitated. To send the golems out at the greycloaks was one thing, but to kill a man in cold blood? An awakened man who had tried to burn down a beloved diner and hurt a good friend, perhaps, but still it did not sit well with Brian.
"May I show you something?" Jackson said, extending his arm again.
"Not more, oh God," Brian groaned. He couldn't stomach another scene like that in the RV, or the sight of the man in the cloak burning from Jackson's golems.
Jackson shook his head. "I promise you, nothing like that. No bodies, not even any injuries."
Brian frowned, but reluctantly took Jackson's offered grasp once again. The whirlwind started up, and Brian was beginning to get used to it. By Jackson's explanation, they weren't actually moving any faster—Jackson was moving at a brisk walk, but time itself was accommodating his swift passage. Brian wasn't sure what that meant, precisely, but Jackson assured him that time travel and its ilk were still quite impossible. He didn't have to worry about alternate timelines or someone travelling back to kill his grandfather.
They wound up in a treeline, on the edge of a wide field. Beyond the field was the park where Brian had taken many a walk with Natalie. He'd often imagined himself walking a dog around the park, but Natalie had been adamant against getting a pet dog or cat. She wasn't big on animals. Brian wasn't totally attached to the dog they'd looked at in the shelter in Tacoma, but he had been a little disappointed when Natalie had voiced her disapproval. Still, he was happy enough with just the two of them that it hadn't bothered him much.
There was something going on at the park. Usually it was only a couple people wandering the flowerbeds or spending a pleasant afternoon on the benches reading away the sunshine, but Brian saw a large procession, dressed almost entirely in black.
He saw the Wilsons, gaunt-faced and dreading every interaction from well-wishers that didn't understand their pain at all. He saw the mayor, using the event as an excuse to rub up with the more powerful members of the town. There was Rachel, the apparent leader of the entire group he'd slowly grown to hate over the last couple weeks.
A car pulled up, and there she was.
His vision blurred as he watched his daughter comforting the Wilsons. She looked so beautiful in that dress—far nicer than anything he could have ever given her. She was strong and healthy, angry and grief-stricken. Brian wished she could never have to feel those emotions again.
He turned back to Jackson, who waited patiently in the shadows of the forest. His somber eyes were full of empathy. He didn't say a word. He didn't have to. They were in complete agreement.
Jackson offered his arm once more, and Brian was whisked back through the woods to the site of the abandoned RV park. There, wandering through without a care in the world, was Seth Merrill. As they watched, he summoned up a tiny ball of fire and started tossing it between his hands casually.
Jackson couldn't do anything to him. It would break the rules. Only Brian could carry out this crusade. Brian, who was a powerless man in a world of gods and demons, would be the one to protect the world against those demented souls that thought they could make a deal with forces beyond their reckoning.
God, forgive me. Protect my daughter while I do this for you, and for the world you created.
Jenny's death was a tragedy. They had to ensure it could never happen again.
Brian gripped the golem rod tight and let the monsters spring forth from his mind.
The screams of Seth Merrill continued to echo in his ears as he walked away, disgusted with himself and the whole world around him.