Interlude III — Family
Rachel left the store with Hector in tow. As they disappeared into the darkening streets of Rallsburg, Cinza finally released the energy she'd been holding. The air in front of them seemed to shift slightly, and suddenly they were visible to the world—not that anyone remained on the street to spot them hiding in the alley next to Hector's grocery. She stretched out, trying to loosen her muscles from having crouched in place for so long. Cinza hadn't been sure how long it would take for Rachel to get Hector out of his store, and didn't want to miss her chance. As Rachel left, Cinza felt the telltale shiver like a faint whisper in her ear. The signal, the only magic she'd ever known to actually affect another person directly. Rachel had kept the specifics a tight secret, swearing Cinza to absolute secrecy that such a technique even existed.
It was time.
She tapped Ruby's shoulder. The younger girl darted across the street. After she cleared the area, she signaled Cinza with a quick tiny flame.
With the lights of the town already extinguishing themselves, it was easy to spot. Cinza bounded across, her cloak fluttering behind her. Wordlessly, Ruby pointed at the simple latched gate and flicked it open. Hector had never installed any sort of alarm or intense lock system, as he had never actually been stolen from. The town was close-knit enough (and Rachel was attentive enough to any outliers) that Hector was left alone by the iniquitous residents. Cinza regretted the actions they had to take that night.
Hector was a good sort, but Cinza had been asked personally by Rachel DuValle herself to undertake this secret mission. No one would deter her. Rachel was a young woman Cinza deeply admired, both for her feats of magic and her accomplishments. To change oneself into such a powerful and capable person, overcoming the well-meaning but hapless fool she'd once been, was a meritorious feat. Rachel was a remarkable leader and visionary. Cinza refused to fail their towering arbiter.
Ruby, on the other hand, did not feel the same affection for Rachel that Cinza did. She was a true believer, an utter devotee to Grey-eyes and everything that their goddess did. For the longest time, Ruby had thought of Rachel as an usurper in many ways—a pretender to the throne of magic and someone to be ignored.
Nathanel Price's awakening changed everything. They'd watched, dumbstruck, as their goddess took Rachel into her confidence. None had ever spoken to the goddess at length before. In Ruby's eyes, Rachel changed herself that day from an object of pity and scorn to a priestess to be worshipped.
In all honesty, Cinza might have been a touch jealous, had she not herself been so intrigued by the titaness of the council. Rachel was unique, and Cinza was attracted to unique things. Even amongst the awakened world, Rachel seemed a beacon of curiosity. By far, the most popular and actively developed branch of magic focused on the external and the physical, from the most amateur among them like Nate to the Three Gods themselves. There was the rare exception, such as the two keepers of Knowledge magic in William Carbonell and Mabel Walsh, and the mysteries of Natalie Hendricks' wondrous abilities with animals, but the primary focus had always been on physical, combative, or utilitarian magic.
Cinza wanted to break free of such a limited scope of ambition. She believed Rachel felt the same way, with her own expertise on the internal and mental forms. Cinza believed that magic could take them so much further into the mysteries of the universe than the council was willing to admit or pursue. Her own predilections were for the arcane, and she tried to express herself through her spells in a similar vein.
The manipulation of photons was scientific only in name, as she dredged up principles taught to her by a foster father so many years prior. As soon as she took them under her mental grasp, it became something else entirely in her mind. Cinza was not forcing them to shift. She asked the universe to change for her. Patterns within her mind were supplanted upon the bursts of light always moving and reflecting off every surface, allowing her to shift and bend them as she desired to create nearly any shape she desired.
It wasn't so easy at it sounded, of course. Cinza had to work hard every day to practice maintaining even the simplest shapes. It was one of several reasons for their nightly rituals, that she keep up her precision and capabilities. It was exhausting, but it felt exhilarating, as she always felt more at ease when she was performing the dance. Cinza exulted in the joy it brought to her followers to see the artwork she brought forth—and particularly in the way it lit up jubilant fires in the eyes of her beloved.
That very girl was currently standing very still in the center of the store, focusing her own particular speciality. Ruby had an affinity for Nature magic, the same as Cinza. At present, she was exercising it in a new method they'd only recently discerned. Cinza had been talking about electromagnetics—or rather, what little she could remember from one foster father's teachings—and Ruby had revealed a surprisingly nuanced understanding of the topic. Naturally the topic had shifted, as all topics did these days, to how they might use that knowledge in conjunction with spellasting.
After hours of experimentation, they'd managed to feel out the magnetic force gently permeating the entire planet. With a great deal more theorycrafting and long days spent discussing methodology and potential avenues of attack, Ruby had actually learned to manipulate it to a degree. To see her creating magnetic fields from nothing was astounding. Cinza had eagerly copied the technique as Ruby had described it, and achieved a similar—albeit weaker—effect. They'd spent hours playfully dragging her charms and necklaces around through magnetic fields. The results also showed, once again, the debilitating nature of the affinities.
Makoto, despite his peerless skill in all forms elemental, could not so much as feel the gentle magnetic pull surrounding them. Cinza's strongest lieutenant had tried in earnest for days without rest, until she'd insisted he stop before he drove himself insane. It was a curious thing, this system of affinities and diffinities, and one Cinza wanted to explore in detail. William Carbonell was her key to solving it.
It was a stray encounter with Viper that gave him away. Cinza had learned of their dealings under the table—Will giving out information in exchange for cash—and subsequently bartered her way to a few readings of her own. She didn't have anything like the capital backing the mercenary, but she knew that Will would be pliable for a few simple requests to keep her silence. In exchange, she'd received a full reading of every affinity and diffinity amongst her followers, after it had been revealed at the Council meeting that they could accomplish such a feat. While some were obvious, like Makoto, others were surprising—including her own.
Cinza had assumed hers would fall under the Elemental tree as so many others did, but according to Will, she was of the Natural persuasion. There seemed to be no level of strength within an affinity by his divinations, just a simple boolean result. As the other affinities amongst them emerged, she began to see some interesting interactions.
Matthew and Brittany Wilkins, the quiet couple who had lost their child, had the Movement affinity, and were close friends with Aaron McGregor, their resident agricultural scholar and political revolutionary—also of the same affinity. Nate Price, the newest addition to their ranks, had the affinity for Self magic, which he shared with Morton Pollock—and by coincidence or otherwise, they tended to get along very well. Makoto, Cinza's strong-but-silent lieutenant, seemed to only maintain one real friendship besides herself—with Rufus Hill, their wandering woodsman and protector, a loner in his own right and with the very same Elemental affinity. Finally, there was Cinza and Ruby, both of the Nature affinity, and they had been sharing a bed as lovers for nearly a year.
The correlations seemed too obvious. Cinza didn't want to rule out coincidence quite yet, particularly when their last two members were unaccounted for. Nikki Parsons, the farmer's daughter who was entertaining a rebellious streak by joining up with their little band, had not yet awakened—as they had no desire to put her through Rachel's vetting process after the frustration and fiasco of Nate's admittance. Will had been unable to get any reading on her affinity, which raised plenty of questions of its own.
On the other hand, Yusuf al-Fayed, immigrant and eternally self-sacrificing member of the troupe, was of the Elemental affinity, but was universally beloved (except perhaps by Makoto, with whom Cinza could never quite tell). This link between relationships and affinities could simply be Cinza grasping at straws. Still, at the end of the day, Cinza found it moving that the crimson-haired girl she had fallen in love with shared in something so innate and personal.
What they did not share was a level of talent. Cinza only maintained and improved on her abilities with light and illusion through diligent practice every night. Ruby was able to master new forms far more quickly, and seemed to handle them almost effortlessly even without practice. Indeed, she had soon located the heavy metal safe within the building through her gentle probing of the magnetic fields. Cinza followed the darkly stunning crimson-haired girl around the back of the soda coolers to an unassuming closet. Ruby tried the handle, but it was locked.
Cinza stepped forward. Where she lacked talent, she could make up for in precision and fine control.
She sent her mind along a path to the world outside, projecting herself mentally forward through the wall. There was strong resistance as her mental strength passed through the physical door, reducing what she could affect, but Cinza still had more than enough to reach for the other side of the door handle. She couldn't feel anything, as the mental projection didn't return any sort of sensation, but she could guess where the handle was, and the lock was built with safety in mind. The door was unlocked merely by turning the handle. As soon as it clicked, Ruby pushed it open, and Cinza gratefully released her grasp and let her mental self vanish back into the void.
Inside lay the safe. To Cinza's delight, it was the exact one they'd been told to expect. Thanks to Rachel's perfect memory, she had been able to give them the precise model number and details, and a quick internet search revealed a flaw in its design that they could exploit. All it took was a simple push of a particular pin just inside the lock mechanism, and the safe popped open. Without magic, the safe might have been foolproof—but between Rachel's information and their scouring of the internet for schematics, it was worthless against their abilities.
Cinza reverently picked up the small metal scroll tube that the Scrap had been placed in. It was a piece of the Grimoire, the most important book to ever exist, and the only holy tome she would ever place her faith in again. She felt a temptation to open the tube and read it immediately, in that dark closet, but she relinquished the chance. To do so would be a betrayal of her followers. This was a gift they would all partake of together as a family.
Ruby tapped her on the shoulder, breaking her reverie. Cinza nodded, gently closing the safe and tapping the lock button.
A few minutes later, they'd exited the building, locking the gate behind them as if they were never there.
A few more minutes later, the pair had vanished into the woods at a sprint, and it was there that Ruby finally broke the silence. It began as a whispered laugh, a faint note of joy in the wind that rustled the leaves around them. The gentle exhale grew into a giggle. Cinza couldn't help it, and a snatch of laughter escaped her own lips. Ruby shot her a mock-serious look, before the moment overtook her and laughter bubbled up from her chest. Soon they were both doubled-over in giddy exhilaration, choking out full-bodied laughter in the success of their heist.
"Ruby Dahl, master thief!" she cried, striking a dramatic pose.
Cinza giggled. "So I am your sidekick?"
"Of course! The taller one's always the leader, I thought that was a given." Ruby leaned down and gave Cinza a peck on the forehead. It wasn't too far, as Ruby was only five foot four, but compared to Cinza's four foot ten, it was certainly noticeable. It also made it a bit more difficult for Cinza to be impulsive. She never let it stop her though—and as Ruby started to pull away, Cinza wrapped her arms around the taller girl and stood up to kiss her full on.
Ruby's eyes went wide. Cinza briefly worried she'd overthought the moment. A second later, the girl's beautiful deep blue eyes fluttered closed, and she returned the kiss in her own fiery way. Cinza felt a tremor roll up through her chest into her throat. No matter how many times she kissed Ruby, there was always a brief moment of hesitation—a nervous fear of rejection that she simply couldn't repress.
Ruby, insightful and passionate, had seen through it from minute one. She knew instinctively what Cinza wanted but couldn't voice, and was happy to oblige. As Cinza paused, Ruby wasted no time in gently lifting the smaller girl up off her feet into an even stronger kiss. Ruby wasn't as strong as she thought, and Cinza weighed more than she appeared. They were quickly sent tumbling toward the nearest tree, but Cinza used that as an opportunity.
There was a spell she'd been exploring with Aaron, in their tests with creating their new garden. She'd found new ways to change plants even after growth, and while they hadn't found any nutritionally productive use for it (fruits and vegetables weren't affected for reasons they didn't understand, growing in size but not in content), it made their next cabin much easier to shape. As Cinza felt her body begin to slip and fall toward the thick trunk behind her, she felt out for the rings of wood and bark encircling the ancient oak. Her mind darted into the outer layers and began to smooth out the bark—just in time for her back to impact the trunk.
It cushioned the blow, and as she began to fall, she started to shape the trunk. The bark and wood melted and merged into new shapes at her mind's will, bending and forming into perfectly smooth wood into the design she needed, just in time. She fell into it with a gentle thump, with Ruby still atop her.
The kiss finally stopped as Ruby opened her eyes in shock. They were quite suddenly seated on a smooth bench seat that had been apparently carved directly out of the tree itself, just wide and tall enough for them to sit comfortably on.
"Surprise," Cinza whispered, completely out of breath from the massive exertion of the tree shaping as well as the kiss.
Ruby looked at it in awe, her blue eyes wide and excited. "How did you do that?" she asked. She ran a hand along the smooth wood gingerly, as if she expected it to splinter and break her skin.
"If I spoil every mystery for you, my love, then what reason will you have to stay by my side?" Cinza asked, taking her hand and holding it firmly.
Ruby gripped it tight and smiled mischievously. "Oh, I'm sure I can think of a few." As she leaned in, Cinza fell back into the soft wood that had sprung into being perfectly formed through her magic. As sensation began coursing through Cinza's body, tiny lights blinked into being in the air around them, dancing sparkles of passion and joy that moved in tandem with the red-haired enchantress beneath them.
If those so-called families saw me now… Cinza mused briefly, before her mind was distracted by more exciting thoughts.
Cinza traced the scars encircling Ruby's wrist. Her arm was laying gently across Cinza's chest, and her warm breath on the back of Cinza's neck. They were laying together on the tree, which Cinza had managed to elongate into a small makeshift couch with the use of some of the larger roots. After the heat died down and they started to get a bit cold, they'd draped the two cloaks over themselves to ward off the chill of the night-time forest wind.
Ruby's cloak was the only one to match Cinza's in its detail and care. That wasn't to say the rest of the cloaks they'd made for the group were cheap or flimsy—on the contrary, using magic they'd been able to enhance the tight stitching to a level of quality beyond what their meager means would normally support (before Nate Price had begun to supply them with cash). Ruby had simply spent just as long going over every inch with her own abilities, enhancing and decorating the surface with the tiny specks of light that made it shimmer, as well as patterns and designs that were only visible under the right light. The inner surface was lined with the smoothest soft material Cinza could imagine. At the moment, it was doing wonders draped across her skin.
"How long do you think it'll be 'til he gets here?" Ruby murmured into Cinza's hair.
"Oh, are you growing bored of me?" she teased.
"Never," Ruby breathed into her ear, sending a shiver down her neck. She hugged herself tighter to Cinza's back, spreading warmth through her body.
"Makoto should be coming soon, but we still have some time," she replied, checking her watch. Makoto was to meet them at this particular spot and lead them to the appointed ritual site for the night. Normally, Cinza was the one to pick the sites and lead the group there, but as she'd been preoccupied with the heist mission, she'd left the task to Makoto. The locations themselves weren't particularly important. Cinza just preferred a wide open clearing where she had enough room to perform her more complex and stunning movements.
"Mmmm," Ruby hummed suggestively, tracing lines down Cinza's chest with her hands. Cinza laughed, but she stopped Ruby before it went any further. Her mind had already wandered onto other topics. She'd finally remembered what she'd been thinking about before the exquisite redhead had decided to seduce her into a makeshift tree bed.
"Ruby, I've never asked about your parents."
"Mmmparents?" Ruby asked, startled. "Why would you ask about them?"
"I never knew my own. I didn't really have parents until I turned twelve, and I ended up leaving those behind eventually when our paths diverged. I wanted to know what yours were like."
She hugged Cinza tight, and this time it was less seductive and more comforting—as if Ruby needed the embrace more than she did. "I never met my mom, she died when I was a baby. My dad hated me. I left him. It's not really a nice story."
"Oh," Cinza replied awkwardly. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay," Ruby answered, giving her another reassuring squeeze. "I don't mind you asking. You can always ask me anything. Why parents, though? How'd you get there?"
Cinza relaxed herself within Ruby's warm embrace. "The parents who eventually adopted me were very religious."
Ruby giggled. "And you're worried you're going to hell for sleeping with another girl?"
"No, nothing like that. I was thinking about how much we've become like a religion ourselves. We have rituals and a holy text, we perform ceremonies and we evangelize."
"By evangelize do you mean tossing those copies out for people to find?"
"Yes, though it wasn't as productive as I'd hoped. It was pretty foolish in retrospect. We only managed to recruit one new member from all that effort collecting and distributing the copies, and we lost the capability to awaken newcomers."
"I think you're forgetting something," Ruby said, and her hand left Cinza's skin for a moment to point at the scroll tube resting at the back of the tree against the trunk. It was sitting next to a small pile of Cinza's charms and bracelets where Ruby had tossed them, just visible in the dim glow Cinza was keeping alight under their blanket of robes.
She nodded. "Until now, of course. Still, we've become a religion. We even worship a goddess."
"Well, our goddess has proven herself many times over," Ruby said smugly.
"You know the world would describe us as a cult."
"Let them," she said fiercely. "If we are a cult, then we're the first cult in history to be right about who we worship. Does it matter what they label us?"
Cinza smiled. She enjoyed Ruby's passion and spirit—in more ways than one. "There was a time where I would have said the same thing about being Christian."
"Are you confessing to me you're a skeptic?" Ruby asked playfully.
"If I were?"
She was silent for a moment, but her hands never left Cinza's skin, nor her face from Cinza's hair. "You're our leader. Skepticism is good in a leader, it keeps them from being blind. If you don't believe in her as a goddess, that's for you to decide. I'll still follow you no matter where it takes us."
Cinza sighed and pressed herself closer into Ruby's embrace. "You are one of the most beautiful and magical things in all the universe, Ruby."
"Flattery, my love?" Ruby tickled her gently. "When we were having such a serious discussion!"
"I am being serious," Cinza frowned. "I've just been thinking a lot about my past lately."
"Ah, the great and mysterious history of Cinza the Bold, first of her name."
"It needn't be a mystery," Cinza said, though she felt a pang of anxiety and fear in her chest as she said it. "I'd tell you if you asked."
"But you don't want me to ask, and I know that you don't want me to, so I leave it as a marvelous tale forever buried in those diaries you keep so meticulously next to our bed." As Ruby got more tired, she frequently began using dramatic language with flair, as if she were a bard telling stories from some ancient legend. It was endearing, as Cinza herself had always loved that style of speech, and tended to employ it herself when speaking in public.
"I'd tell you though, if you ever asked me," she added, and her flair was suddenly gone once more, back to the quiet, bashful tone of truth and exposure.
Ruby was offering to expose herself to Cinza in a way neither of them had yet managed. Cinza knew that Ruby wasn't her real name, just as Cinza's own true name was well-kept secret beyond any of the residents of Rallsburg. They had shared little beyond the basic details of their own stories. While Cinza kept diligently recording her life as she always had, she shuddered to share those details with the world—even those closest to her.
"Do you want me to ask you?" she asked.
"Even though I still don't want you to ask me?"
Another hesitation. "Yes," Ruby whispered, but she sounded resolute. Cinza believed it was what she wanted.
"What's your name?" Cinza asked, unsure where else to start.
"Hannah. Hannah Newman." Ruby sounded as though she were letting out a huge sigh as she spoke her own name. They'd spent so long together that the secret finally giving way was like a breath of fresh air.
"Well that makes sense. Ruby Dahl was simply too much," Cinza said, drawing a giggle. She wanted to ask, but she also wanted to make things easier on Ruby where she could. Keeping the tone light would help.
"I'm from Tacoma. I came here because I was trying to run away and this was the first train leaving the station when I got there." Cinza laughed abruptly, interrupting her. "What?"
"It's—it's nothing. I'm sorry. Please, keep going."
Ruby shrugged. Cinza suddenly felt warm lips pressed on her skin. She'd planted a kiss on Cinza's neck, right on the eight-pointed star tattoo. Cinza let out a sharp gasp. "That's what you get for interrupting me," Ruby breathed into her ear, before settling back again into their earlier position and her voice returning to normal. "My parents and I… we didn't get along. At all. It wasn't the first time I ran away, actually. It was just the first time I ran far enough that I found something worth sticking to." Cinza smiled, but didn't interrupt. "I don't know if you remember what I looked like the first time you actually saw me…"
"I would never forget."
"Then you remember the bruises."
Cinza nodded. "I remember how much you tried to hide them, and I remember telling you that they weren't what defined you. You didn't have to hide them from me because you weren't ever going back to the place that gave them to you."
"I think it was more eloquent than that, but yeah. You didn't ask, and I was really grateful at the time, but I also wish a little that you had. I think getting it all out right away would have been better. Those bruises were from my dad. Everything I ever did seemed to make him angry. If I did bad in school, he'd get angry from the phone calls home. If I did well, he'd be mad for making him look bad since he never graduated. When I made dinner, he'd complain about the taste, and if he made dinner he'd get upset that I didn't look like I was enjoying it. He was impossible to please, and as I got older he got meaner.
"High school was when it got the worst. I'd stopped just taking it and started shouting back at him. Bad choice, I guess, since that meant he had to do something worse to match me. So when I came home one day with a friend, and he caught me kissing her, he got really bad. That was the first time he'd hit me. My friend ran away—and I don't blame her, my dad was a scary guy—and I just kinda rolled up and got hit. I couldn't really fight back against someone like that."
"Oh, Ruby," Cinza murmured. She started to roll over and face her, intending to hug her, but Ruby just hugged tighter and stopped her. Cinza relaxed again, letting Ruby continue talking from behind her.
"He called me a dyke and a bitch and told me that he was glad my mom wasn't around to see what I'd grown up into. I'd never known my mom, but it still really hurt. That was… that was the first night I cut myself." Ruby held up her hand in front of them, pointing at the many lines across her wrists. "I kept that up for a while, but I always gave up before I could really do it. It got bad enough that the school noticed. They talked to my dad, but he managed to keep himself out of it somehow. The blame all fell right back on me, and they put me in counselling. I tried to talk to them, but I just couldn't. I didn't trust them enough to understand.
"I started running away, a little bit more every time. First it was just a few hours, then it was a day, then two. I'd stay at a park overnight or just ride a bus until they kicked me off. I didn't realize how dangerous that was at the time. I was pretty much willing to do anything to get out of my home. I was skipping classes and spending time at the library instead. I look pretty old for my age so they just assumed I was a college kid. Then one day, my dad snapped.
"I don't know what it was. Maybe it was me being gone for a few days, or maybe it was just that he drank a bit more than usual that night. Whatever it was, he beat me so bad I thought I was gonna die. I crawled into bed and when I woke up the next day, I went straight to the train station and didn't look back."
"And the next day, you met me," Cinza finished.
Ruby kissed her neck again. "I met you, and you saved my life."
"You saved mine as well, you know."
"We'll call it a draw," Ruby said, giggling. "You also showed me something to believe in, after I thought the world was totally worthless. You showed all of us something to believe in."
Cinza smiled, but she still felt that doubt in the back of her skull. Not doubt in Ruby, as she trusted the girl more than anyone or anything else in the world. There was a tiny fragment of doubt in her mind that their goddess truly was someone they could believe in. She had been burned once before, after putting her faith and her heart into the hands of a deity she did not fully understand. Grey-eyes had performed miracles before her eyes, but still—was she someone Cinza and her family could really surrender to with their very souls?
Cinza couldn't be sure. She might preach the new gospel of Grey-eyes, but she could never fully submit to the goddess herself. All she knew was that she wasn't going to let anything hurt her family. Not the beautiful, sensuous girl currently holding her in a warm embrace, not the silent and utterly loyal lieutenant approaching them from out of the dark forest, and not the eight other people who had placed their absolute trust in her to lead them to a better life. The stakes were too high for her to recklessly give herself over entirely to faith once again.
"Makoto's here," Cinza whispered to Ruby. She stiffened and shrank deeper into their bundle of cloaks. Her face was as red as her curls. Cinza laughed. "Don't worry, he's not looking."
"Couldn't you have warned me?"
"I wanted to see your expression," she teased.
Ruby shook her head in embarrassment, but she smiled to let Cinza know she wasn't really angry. "Give me my shirt."
They took a few minutes to get dressed and presentable. Cinza dressed quickly, thanks to the more simple and athletic clothes she preferred. Ruby liked extravagance, so her garments were a great deal more complicated. As she tried awkwardly to pull her look back together without leaving the sanctuary of their makeshift tree bed, Cinza swirled her cloak back around herself and crossed the clearing to join Makoto, who was facing away from them into the deep black of the forest.
Her other lieutenant was a Japanese young man, the same age as herself. He was a full foot taller than her, with thick strong muscles and short black hair. He rarely spoke, and was the type who actually enjoyed staying well away from the spotlight. It wasn't that he shirked responsibility—in fact, Cinza felt that she could rely upon him without question. He merely put himself into the servant role willingly, accepting whatever tasks given without complaint and completing them with professionalism and skill far outstripping anyone else. Only Ruby could match him in raw magical talent, but she was lazy. Makoto kept up a daily practice regimen that could put any military to shame.
"We were successful," Cinza said. Makoto had been the only other member of the family aware of their mission that night, though she would be confessing to the rest that night. She hadn't liked keeping information from them, but it was at Rachel's personal request.
Makoto nodded. He wasn't surprised. He trusted in Cinza's leadership without question.
"Everyone's gathered and ready?"
"Is something wrong?"
Makoto frowned. "It's not my place to say." His voice was always quiet, but with a firm conviction spoke to the weight he placed behind his words. He never said anything without thinking.
Cinza was intrigued. Makoto rarely voiced his opinions beyond matters of strategy or tactics. "You're closer to me than the rest of the family, Makoto. I trust you," she said quietly. "There is nothing I would not welcome your input on."
"I..." Makoto began, but he hesitated once again. Once again, it was remarkably out of character for the young man. Cinza was happy to see him beginning to emerge from his shell. It reminded her of herself, so many years past, when she too had struggled to ever voice her emotions.
"I'm ready, Cinza. Hi, Makoto," Ruby said, startling them both. She was clad in her robe once again, with her low-cut top just visible inside the fold. She still looked flustered and red-faced. Cinza suppressed teasing her, now that they were returning to the world proper. There was a time and a place, and in public they had agreed they would act as leader and lieutenant. As the Emergence continued and spread, a chain of command would be vital to their survival as a family. Only in private would Ruby treat her as an equal, where they could be themselves and simply enjoy each other's company.
Makoto turned to her and bowed, immediately falling silent. Cinza wondered what he had been about to say, but it was certainly lost now. There was no way he'd finish his thought with Ruby present. They followed him through the thick forest to the clearing he'd selected. On the way, Cinza brought him up to speed on the encounters they'd had in town, from the eager reverend to the mob that had confronted Nathaniel Price. Makoto nodded and asked a few clarifying questions, but otherwise did not comment on their brief sojourn.
In turn, he let them know that Yusuf was recovering quickly from his burns. Cinza was pleased to hear it. Makoto also informed them that—with suppressed delight—Rufus was back among them once again. The older woodsman had wandered in that evening bearing gifts, and was joining them for that night's ritual. Ruby and Cinza both smiled at the thought of seeing the old man once again.
It didn't take long before they emerged into a brightly lit clearing under the moonlight. It was a wide field of thick grass surrounded by the trees, just as Cinza loved. It even vaguely held the diamond-like shape of the symbol hanging from her neck. Makoto knew exactly what she preferred and had found a perfect spot, even though they'd never been there before.
The rest of her family had already arrived, and were seated on folding camp chairs or on the blanket they'd set out in one corner. A small cheer rang out as they approached. Nate leapt up and ran to them. He gathered up Ruby in a tight hug, shouting his thanks over and over. Makoto stiffened at the approach, but when it became clear Nate was just exuberant, he relaxed again.
"Put me down, you moron," Ruby laughed.
"You saved my life today," Nate shouted, finally letting Ruby go. They took a seat with the rest of the group on the blanket, digging into the food that the Wilkinses had prepared. "Stepped in and stopped an entire mob like it was nothing!"
"It was absolutely not nothing," Ruby replied, helping herself to a sandwich. "I passed out trying to summon all that wind. Cinza was the only reason we kept it under control."
Heads swivelled to her. Cinza adjusted her voice with a tiny spell. It was one she'd worked on so much that she was able to do it almost subconsciously now. It was a distortion of the air just in front of her that affected the sound waves, giving her an ethereal, vaguely echoing sound. The sound was all a part of the mysticism she'd built up as her image, an affectation taking her one step further removed from the mundane and into the world of magic. It was remarkably effective when dealing with other groups, but her family seemed to appreciate the image as well, and she enjoyed the theatricality of the effect, so she ended up using it even at home amongst her own people.
She nodded, taking the praise in stride. "We've been practicing that for a while, and it's a technique I believe we can expand on, similar to the ritual we've been working on. It takes a certain level of concentration and coordination, but it can be done."
"Is that what we'll be doing tonight?" Yusuf asked. His arm was still wrapped up in bandages, but he looked eager and ready as always.
"Perhaps," she answered with a cryptic grin. "Let me eat first, I've been scrambling around town all day."
"Hear hear," added Ruby.
"You know, you two could let us help out more. All of the stuff in town doesn't have to be you three. We could help run errands and things," Nicole Parsons put in. The farmer's daughter felt left out, Cinza realized, since she was only member of the family yet to awaken.
"Better them than me!" Rufus called from the back in his gruff voice. "I've no need to step foot in that blasted town again."
"I'm just fine working on the garden, I don't need to get into that mess," Aaron agreed.
"Besides, how are you gonna help? You don't have magic," Nate added, drawing a withering look from Makoto. "What?"
"Nicole is still a member of our family, even if she has yet to awaken. She is as worthy as any of us," Cinza said mildly. Nate shrank under her words like a scolded child. Cinza turned to Nicole. "That said, our excursion tonight was successful and brought something that could change your situation."
"What do you mean? What situation?" Morton Pollock asked. Cinza was briefly reminded of his boss the town journalist, and how they both tended to talk as if they were always interviewing someone, even if it was just casual conversation.
Cinza took a breath before she launched into the tale. "Ruby and I did not go into town just to talk to the reverend. We did speak to the man, and he wishes to visit our home sometime and meet our family, but our true task was much more important… and much more dangerous." Cinza felt true delight at their rapt attention as she continued. "After night fell, we waited until an opportunity arose. We snuck into Hector Peraza's store and found his safe. We opened it, took what we needed, and left without a trace. This was no petty theft though, before you think me a brigand. This was a reclamation, a restoration of what belongs to us all." With a flourish, she pulled out the scroll tube. "This is the Scrap that was presented to the Council."
They stared in awe for a few moments. Morton was the first to speak again, unsurprisingly. "How did you know where it would be?"
"The same man who gave us our affinities was also able to supply this information," Cinza replied. She did not offer the name, and they did not ask. They all knew that Cinza wouldn't lie if she were asked something directly, but that there were plenty of questions she didn't want to be asked. It was a mutual unspoken agreement that such questions never surfaced.
"Anyone read it yet?" Rufus asked.
"It remains sealed," Cinza confirmed. She turned to Nicole, who was suddenly looking very nervous. "Nicole, I know you've been considering awakening. I want you to know before you commit yourself that you are always welcome here. It doesn't matter if you've read from the Grimoire. We've always accepted you as one of us. However, now that we have this in our possession, you no longer have to subject yourself to the Council's vetting process. You could awaken tonight and meet the goddess yourself, if you so choose."
"I—" Nicole started, but Cinza held up a hand.
"Think on it a moment. Before you answer, there is something else we should discuss. Since this Scrap has not yet been read by anyone, we should decide who among us will be the first."
"Does it matter?" Brittany Wilkins asked. "Why not let Nikki read it first, if she so chooses?"
"There are some in the Council who've been researching this. It's possible that the first to read a Scrap gains a significant amount of power and control with the magic it details." Cinza shrugged. "The rest of us will read it in turn, but with such an opportunity, we may want to consider more carefully who takes the first step."
"It's Creation-aligned, correct?" Yusuf asked.
"Yes, which means that Makoto won't be able to use it," Cinza said, with an apologetic glance at her lieutenant. Makoto shrugged. He had never seemed bothered by his diffinity for the branch. None of them had an affinity for it, and it saw such rare use in the real world.
Cinza expected his feelings to change as the fight against Omega began to heat up. They'd need every advantage they could muster.
"Is there anything else we know about it?" Matthew Wilkins asked, holding his wife's hand. They were a starkly contrasted pair, between his dark skin and thick dark curls, compared to her pale complexion and short blonde hair. Yet they were inseparable, and even the hardship of having lost their child had not dimmed their relationship. Cinza admired their strength and resilience. "What sort of things can it create?"
"There's no way to be sure until it has been read. My own guess is that it will have something to do with the very golems that were sent for us." The group collectively shuddered at the memory, and Yusuf muttered a curse in Arabic under his breath. "Since the attacks and murders began right as the Scrap was discovered, I assume it may contain some information on the golems we can use. Whomever reads it should be ready to fight." Cinza paused. "I know that none of you signed up to be in a war, but battle has come for us nonetheless. We always knew that the world would persecute us, but we did not expect the gods themselves to lead the charge. I swear to you I will do everything in my power to protect you, but I cannot fight alone."
"You don't even need to ask," Rufus said firmly. "We're all behind you."
The entire group looked resolute. Even Nicole, who had no magic at her disposal. The only hint of reluctance was from Nate Price, which didn't surprise Cinza in the slightest.
She felt a burst of pride at the assembled family. These people, whom she'd gathered over weeks and months and brought to her side, were all with her. They supported her and believed in her. She refused to let them down. She'd fight and die before she let any of them down.
How my life has changed, she mused. Even in the last family that had taken her in, she'd never known such belonging, such loyalty and trust. She'd never dreamed it were possible. Trust was something to be held until breaking it could cause the most pain, belonging a trap to lure her in until she could be exploited at her most vulnerable.
This group had shown her otherwise. Ruby and Makoto, the Wilkins and Rufus, Aaron and Morton and Yusuf and Nicole. They cared for one another, helped each other, talked and teased and laughed and shared. When there was disagreement and discord, the family as a whole came together to solve the problem. They were totally united under their shared mission—to embrace magic and to follow Grey-eyes' lead in bringing it to the world.
Cinza smiled. "Thank you all." She held up the tube again. "Now, back to the Scrap. Does anyone have a suggestion on who should read it first?"
"Ruby," Makoto said immediately. The family turned to him, shocked. Makoto so rarely spoke up unprompted, it was practically an outburst of emotion from him.
"She has the talent and power to make the best use of it, and she's been in all the fighting until now. She can handle herself under pressure, and with how you two practice, you can help her aim and control it if she needs it. None of us can do that."
Cinza wasn't surprised that Makoto had considered the strategic applications so well, but the rest of the group was shocked he'd spoken up at all.
"Holy crap, that was like forty whole words," said Nicole, finally breaking the tension. Everyone laughed.
"Makoto sounds abou' right to me," Rufus added once it had died down. "Ruby should be the one to read it."
The rest of the family agreed in turn. Ruby bowed, as if accepting an award, though her expression was nervous and uncertain. Ruby asked that it wait until after the ritual they'd gathered for, as she wanted to prepare herself for what she might be leaping into. Matthew briefly questioned whether or not they should still perform their ritual that night, but Cinza and Ruby both insisted.
The ritual was more than just a pretty light show, after all. It served a vital purpose in deepening their connection with magic, and with each other. Keeping to their schedule was important enough to merit an hour or so delay in reading the Scrap. Cinza asked the rest of the group to start cleaning up and clearing the space so they could proceed to their nightly ritual, while she took Ruby aside.
"Are you okay with this?" she asked, dropping her usual vocal affectation and letting the spell dissipate. There were very few people she ever spoke to in her natural voice, but Ruby was the top of that select list.
Ruby frowned. "I'm happy to try. The magic doesn't scare me. I'm afraid that when he comes for us, I won't be strong enough."
Cinza shook her head. "You don't need to be strong enough. We can do that for you."
Ruby smiled. As the group began to take places around the meadow, her eyes lit up. "Can I... can I lead tonight?"
Cinza was surprised. While Ruby had learned the specifics of the rituals she performed and tried them in private, she'd never asked to take the center position before. It meant she'd be the one receiving, rather than giving, which was a pressure she wasn't nearly as familiar with. Still, her eyes were full of determination, and her grip was like iron. Cinza knew she could handle it.
She smiled. "Of course."
She took Ruby's hand and lead her out to the center of the meadow. The rest of the group drew up their hoods, forming a circle around them. The ritual always began like this, with Ruby and Cinza in the center and the rest of the family around the edges. Normally, Ruby would lend her strength to Cinza in generating the structure and all the elements and particles. Once they were created, Cinza could keep them alive much longer since she hadn't expended all her energy in the creation. It was much easier to keep things moving than to create them. However, tonight they would reverse positions. Cinza would lend her strength to Ruby, and Ruby would be in control of the dance.
The ritual was more than just a light show. It had begun as one, when Ruby and Rufus had discovered her light dance in the woods. Cinza used to perform the dance alone, in the dead of the night, simply to practice her own sense of control and strengthen her endurance enough to maintain the light as long as she could. It was a simple adaptation of the dancing she'd learned in a past life, applying the best parts of painful experience to her new passions.
In those days, Cinza was just happy to put on a show for the pair of them (adjusting the dance to something a bit more elegant and dignified) but everything had changed after Ruby had discovered what they could do together.
Ruby had decided to join Cinza's dance one night, leaping into the circle of lights and joining hands. It began playfully, but as they spun, Cinza had suddenly recognized a new source of energy bursting with warmth and power. It was close to her heart, so close she felt it in her chest. Cinza had asked Ruby what it was, and Ruby had asked for permission in return. That night, they discovered what magic could do when it was joined together in harmony.
Cinza and Ruby joined hands again in the center of the circle. Makoto produced his flute and began to play. They drew together and spun slowly in place, a quiet dance while they gathered up magic. Cinza found the stream of energy within herself, the flow of arcane power she'd come to recognize as her magic, and began to channel it upward into her palms. It was like redirecting a flowing river by placing rocks in the stream, where little by little it was choked off and the course changed to the path of least resistance. In this case, there was only one place that the energy could flow—into Ruby's waiting arms.
Ruby, in turn, had opened herself up to the energy. It couldn't actually enter her—Mason's Law was still in effect, and Cinza could never affect her directly—but the energy was simply floating in the infinitely small space between them. Cinza was offering it up into the open, and Ruby was grasping it and taking it to serve her own needs. In the same way they could pull energy from gemstones, so too was Ruby able to use the energy Cinza had given.
Ruby began to gather it up, as much as Cinza could offer. She felt Ruby's hands shake as the flows increased. Cinza's legs began to feel weak from the exertion, but she refused to let go. She didn't want Ruby's first time leading to be anything less than perfect. There was a sharp buildup as Ruby began shaping it more directly and preparing it. It was like approaching the edge of a waterfall. Her heart raced. Her breathing was light and quick.
"I love you," Ruby whispered, and Cinza nearly lost her focus at the words. An instant later, there was a visceral crash of release as Ruby threw her head back with eyes wide and let the energy explode into the air. Lights sprang out in every direction, forming beautiful and impossible patterns in the air with brilliance and color far outstripping what Cinza usually created.
Every inch of the sky above them was filled with a shimmering, spinning intricate design of the stars and space. It was like a beautiful nebula had spun into being above them, with shifting bright orange and reds fading into deep purple and blue in the star-filled clouds. Around them spun a web of dancing lights matching the sky above. It reminded Cinza of the curtain Ruby had designed for their cabin—but this was a moving, three-dimensional illusion, with depth and power far beyond just a simple cloth.
She was at a loss for words. Ruby grinned delightedly at Cinza's awestruck expression. They began to spin faster through the shimmering starfield as Makoto's flute increased in tempo. The rest of the family seemed reluctant to approach, given the sheer density and scale of what Ruby had created, and the personal nature of the two twirling through the center—but as the dance continued, they returned to their usual positions. After what seemed like an eternity, Ruby finally released Cinza, and the flow of energy between them came to a swift halt.
She practically fell onto the grass in a heap. She lay there for several minutes, just watching the starscape above that Ruby had created for her.
Ruby took up Rufus' hands next, and they began to dance around the circle while Cinza simply relaxed. The ritual was a way for them to learn sharing and combining energy into spells, since many of the others were so inexperienced in the method. Cinza and Ruby had mastered the art through endless practice and experimentation, but it seemed that experience with the method was merely guidance when working with others. Cinza had to start over again with every single other member of the family, and slowly build up their compatibility. Eventually, she was able to work with several others in the group.
Aaron and Yusuf were the best after Ruby at being able to project energy that she could make use of, and Rufus managed to supply a bit after a great deal of effort. The rest of them were far less effective, and Makoto in particular seemed to be totally unable to manage it. Cinza wondered if it were another practice related to affinities, but she felt like she needed a larger sample before she could draw any real conclusions. That was a thought for another day though.
I could lay here forever, she thought lazily as she lay in the cool grass, splayed out where she'd fallen after Ruby had released her. She felt giddy and immeasurably satisfied by what they'd achieved—what Ruby had achieved. The younger girl had managed a new level of control and finesse far beyond what she'd ever managed before. Cinza guessed it hadn't been by accident. Most likely, she'd been practicing and planning the design for weeks.
Cinza finally looked up as the flute paused briefly. Makoto handed it over to Rufus, who kept up the song. Ruby had extended her hand to Makoto after she'd let go of Yusuf, and Makoto accepted the offer. Cinza was surprised—after the first few tries, Makoto had all but given up and simply volunteered to play Rufus' flute instead. Ruby managed to entice him back into the circle somehow. As they began to dance, Cinza saw the lights brighten, ever so slightly, and the color shifted again.
Ruby released him from the dance after only a half a minute, and already he looked winded. He retreated outside the circle while she took up Brittany Wilkins for the next movement. Cinza got to her feet and joined Makoto on the edge of the circle, where they were just far enough away from anyone else that she doubted they'd be overheard.
"Are you all right?" she asked. She realized belatedly that she'd forgotten to restore the voice spell before speaking, but she brushed it away. Makoto was as close as anyone to her, except of course for Ruby.
"I'm fine." In fact, he did look much better already. The exhaustion and dismay on his face was fading quickly. He soon returned to his usual professional and calm demeanour.
"Have you been practicing? I hadn't expected you to ever be able to join."
"I didn't either." Makoto was watching Ruby intently.
Understanding finally clicked in Cinza's mind. Makoto's devotion to the group had always been a bit of a mystery. He was from an all-Japanese family from the Portland suburbs, and had only come to Rallsburg as a student on a scholarship. Nothing about his background or his demeanour implied the type who might join a coven deep in the woods. While he had taken to magic far quicker than most, he had never seemed quite as enamored as the rest of the group. Still, between his unwavering loyalty and his skill, Cinza had never questioned his motivations. She simply assumed he was a private person and let him keep his secrets. This, however, was a blossoming motive with the potential for real conflict if it wasn't handled well.
"You're in love with Ruby," she stated firmly. Makoto's face snapped around to her so fast she worried he might have gotten whiplash.
"It's okay," Cinza added quickly. He looked a step between confused and concerned, and she wanted to immediately assuage those fears. "I couldn't possibly fault you falling for her."
"I wouldn't ever—"
"You don't need to worry." Cinza interrupted. "I know you, Makoto. I know Ruby as well." Flashes of her old family were in her mind. Communication and understanding were the key, she believed, to making sure drama didn't break them apart. It could be done, so long as she knew where everyone stood.
And if it weren't addressed, she had seen the devastating consequences it could wreak.
"Have you ever spoken to her about it?"
"Never." Makoto looked surprised Cinza had even asked. "I wouldn't try and get between you two."
Cinza smiled. "Nothing could ever come between us, so you needn't worry on that front." She turned to look at Ruby, currently dancing with Nate Price—who was looking very out of place, tripping over his own feet several times. She kept him upright, while Aaron suppressed a laugh on the far side of the circle. "Ruby and I are bound for eternity." For a moment, Makoto looked crestfallen, but he masked it well. Cinza grinned, eager to see his reaction to her next sentence. "Though that doesn't mean our circle is completely closed."
It got the effect she wanted. He did a perfect double-take, as though he didn't understand a word she'd said. Cinza went on, since she knew he wouldn't be able to rest until she explained what she meant.
"Ruby and I are not totally exclusive. I love her, and she loves me, and we'll be together until we both draw our final breath, but we've agreed that the world is a wide complicated place and that our unique lives are going to take us many places we won't expect. Who's to say what the next day will bring?"
"I'm not sure I know what you mean."
"I mean that Ruby is a very loving person. I've never known her to love a man, but that doesn't mean she cannot. If you find her as intoxicating as I do, you should talk to her." Cinza laughed. "She alone decides whom she brings into her bed, of course, but I wouldn't stand in your way. Know that she and I will be together until our final breath, but that anything else might happen along the path." Makoto didn't reply, but his expression was less forlorn than it had been a few moments earlier.
Cinza left him to stew, as Ruby had released her last partner. Her blue eyes, like the wide ocean under the evening sunlight, had locked onto Cinza. She begged Cinza forward with only those eyes. Cinza was happy to oblige.
After so many others, Ruby no longer needed any more energy to maintain the lights and was letting them slowly fade out into the night sky. Cinza was able to just enjoy the dance, the feel of Ruby's hands on her own and the scent of her long hair as Cinza held her close. They twirled around to the lilting flute as Rufus began to slow the tempo down, the crescendo of the night letting down into a gentle finale waltz.
"What did you say to Makoto?" Ruby asked breathlessly, barely above a whisper in Cinza's ear.
"I told him that if he wants you, he should ask you himself, but that you and I are stuck with each other until death and beyond," she replied.
Ruby grinned. "I always knew he had a crush on me."
Cinza drew back and held her at arm's length. "You knew? How?"
"Intuition, of course."
"I'm much more intuitive than you," Cinza said, frowning.
"Oh, are you? Even though it took you a whole month to figure out I was trying to flirt with you?" Ruby laughed. "I'm the intuitive, creative one. You're the one with the plans and the grand speeches. Stick to what you're best at."
She sighed. "So long as I have you at my side."
Cinza smiled. "I love you too."
Ruby leaned down and planted a kiss on her lips. They stepped close together and swayed gently in the wind, though the music had stopped and the lights had faded away. The rest of the group had already returned to the blanket, excitedly discussing the light show that Ruby had put on for them. Cinza let her head rest gently against Ruby's shoulder, closing her eyes and letting the taller girl lead for the moment.
It was a pure and perfect moment, one Cinza wanted to keep tight in her memory forever—but her mind wouldn't let her. She already felt the darkness rushing back up once again. She'd believed she had a perfect family and a perfect life once. She'd ruined those. She'd shattered the picture into a million pieces and burned every bridge behind her. Who was to say she couldn't ruin her new family as well?
Cinza sat next to Ruby at the head of the group and looked around at those gathered on the picnic blanket. She loved each of them as true friends and comrades, as the best family she had ever known. Cinza couldn't dream of leaving them with just a note on the table and a whisper in the night. She was a different person now, as were they, and they believed in a different higher power—one that they could see and feel clearly. Their faith was in a calling, not a book of rules and revelations from ancient times that had been translated and interpreted endlessly over millenia. Perhaps it was unfair to judge the two as equals, when her new faith was so fresh and indistinct, but Cinza felt a truthfulness and confidence in it that she'd never sensed in her old life.
As for their text, she was about to see its power and authority demonstrated first hand. After they'd been given a chance to rest from the exertion of the ritual dance, Ruby had accepted their nomination to read the new Scrap first. With a delicate, nervous grip, she took the scroll tube from Cinza and stepped into the center of the blanket. Cinza noticed she'd painted her toenails dark red, the same color as her hair, and smiled. Ruby was always so thorough with her appearance, while Cinza abused her ability to be lazy and change her appearance on a whim by manipulating the light surrounding her.
Ruby opened the tube and pulled the Scrap forth. She unrolled it eagerly. "I thank you, Grey-eyes, for offering such knowledge to us," she intoned. Cinza looked up surprised, but with the confidence in her expression, she didn't interrupt. Ruby was apparently feeling a bit ceremonial. Cinza wasn't about to stop her, though she wondered if it would become a regular occurrence in the future. "I hope I am worthy enough to use this for the good of us all."
"For the good of us all," Rufus echoed, and the rest of the group murmured the words.
Ruby dropped her gaze to the tattered parchment. Her pupils dilated, and her irises were moving rapidly across the sentences contained within. A moment later, her beautiful blue eyes rolled back inside her skull, prompting an involuntary shudder from Cinza. Though she knew Ruby was in no danger, and in fact was experiencing exquisite revelatory emotions, Cinza felt a spike of panic.
She wanted to leap in and protect her, but there was nothing to protect her from. Her instincts were born of an animalistic world she'd long since left behind. She forced herself to be calm and remain seated on the blanket while Ruby finished reading the parchment.
Her eyes returned to her face. Her mouth burst into a smile. She handed the parchment back to Cinza, brimming with excitement. "It's exactly what you thought," she said breathlessly. "It's all about the golems."
Cinza nodded with satisfaction. "So we may have a weapon. Or at least, a start on countering his own."
Ruby sat down again, a bit winded from the rush of the magic pouring into her mind. "It'll take a bit while I try out a few things. I don't even know where to start. Or if I'm strong enough to handle it."
"We'll figure it out," Cinza replied. "That's why you have all of us."
"After that light show, dear, I'm sure you could do anything you put your mind to," Brittany said encouragingly. Ruby looked embarrassed but pleased by the compliment.
Cinza smiled. "Now, before we continue, there is the other matter of Nicole. Since we have the Scrap in our possession, if she so chooses, she could awaken tonight."
"Couldn't have asked before the ritual?" Nicole grumbled good-naturedly.
Aaron laughed. "Trust me, you don't want that being the first thing you try to do after awakening. Didn't you see Nate out there? Looked like a flopping fish out of water. And the light was practically cut in half."
Nate lifted his head up and grinned, taking it in stride. "I'm just here to make you all look better. Gotta have someone at the bottom of the totem pole."
Cinza laughed with the rest, but returned to Nicole in short order. "As Aaron said, we would never want to actually try to draw energy from you on the very night you awaken. You'll still be learning how to grasp your own magical strength. It takes time to master even the simple things."
"Nate's only been awakened for like three days though," Morton pointed out. "Did he join in because of the money he put in?"
"Hardly," Cinza replied, a touch annoyed at the implication. "I'm not saying Nicole couldn't participate if she didn't want to. I just wouldn't recommend it. I advised Nate against it too, but he's a stubborn fool who doesn't know what's good for him."
"Case in point, I'm going to be laying here for the next few hours and not moving," Nate added.
"Back to the point," Cinza continued, "Nicole, if you feel ready, you're welcome to be the next to read the Scrap."
She looked uncertain. "I... I want to, but let me go last, okay? You guys can all read it first."
Cinza shrugged. It didn't make much difference to her. "As you prefer."
Without another moment wasted, she took the offered page from Ruby and unfurled it. It was started to feel more cracked and aged with every hand that touched it, but Cinza didn't believe the Scraps would ever truly break apart. The magic they contained would surely preserve them somehow against natural decay. She lowered her eyes to the first line of unintelligible text and opened the river of power in her mind, letting it flow swift and furious.
She'd only experienced this feeling once before, when she'd found the Scrap that had taught her how to manipulate photons of light by her will. That Scrap was long lost to her, destroyed through her own negligence. She'd misunderstood the danger the tattered parchment was in—and by the time she'd moved to protect it, it had been destroyed along with so many others. Ruby was the only other person to have read it, and thus the only person in all the world thus far who shared in her spells of light and illusion.
It was akin to awakening, but instead of the ultimate secrets of the fathomless universe, Cinza instead felt her mind drawn to a particular line. It was like she were focusing down on a single galaxy of the cosmos, then a single star and onward until her mind reached a portal. Through the portal lay secrets untold, and she eagerly pressed her mind through the gateway. Her vision faded into darkness and the knowledge flooded into the river flowing in her mind, like a tributary joining the rushing stream and adding itself to her.
She saw the golems, the very same ones that Omega had sent after them. In an instant, she understood how he created them, how he shaped them from the earth and the materials in the air and sky. She saw how he lined them in oils and guarded them from the flame, and how he maintained control over them from afar. Cinza understood how they moved, how they operated.
To her dismay, she did not see any real weaknesses, any simple vital points of attack. The golems would take energy well beyond what any one of them could maintain over a length of time. She saw potential, but no easy answers. There was research yet to be done. As her mind cascaded back to earth and her eyes flooded with color once again, she let out the deep breath she hadn't even realized she'd been holding.
"You okay?" Ruby asked, watching her intently.
"Of course," she answered, not unkindly. "Thank you." She rolled the scroll back up. "Ruby is right. We'll have to experiment before we can be sure this is a useful and viable weapon." Cinza started to hand the scroll over to Makoto, who was on her other side in the circle, but she saw he was looking out into the woods. "Makoto?"
He gave a high pitched whistle, like a bird call. They all knew exactly what that call meant.
Someone was approaching.
Cinza dropped the scroll into the tube and quickly sealed it in her bag. Ruby and Makoto had already taken defensive stances in the front of the group. Rufus had dropped back into the treeline, watching over them from a covered position. The rest of the group was packing up anything valuable they had brought, mainly gemstones and robes. If Omega or his lieutenant had returned, Ruby and Cinza would only have moments to try and handle the golems. She doubted he would give them so much time to react in a second encounter, after Rachel had dealt with the first.
Whomever it was, whether they had to fight or flee, they would be ready.
As it happened, they did neither. It was Joe McKinney, son of Oscar the town handyman. He looked frightened, but he was alone. As he emerged into the clearing, he spotted the group and started to approach. Ruby lit up a small ball of flame in her hand. Joe stopped halfway across, eyeing them warily.
"Hello," Cinza called. "What brings you here tonight?"
"It's bad," Joe called back. "They're coming for you."
Cinza felt her heart drop in her chest. Those four words were what she'd dreaded since the moment the others had begun to follow her. She put a hand on Ruby's arm, who put out the flame. Joe approached them, panting and slick with sweat. He'd obviously just sprinted through the forest to reach them in time.
"Please, explain," she asked gently, trying to reduce her usual imperious tone that she fell into when talking to outsiders.
"There's a mob forming. I don't know why exactly. I heard a lot of shouting like 'death to the greycloaks', and 'justice for Jenny'," Joe answered, gratefully accepting a bottle of water from Nicole. "They seemed to know where you guys were too, and they're a lot angrier than last time. They're already headed this way."
Cinza felt adrenaline already beginning to pump through her blood. "How long do we have?"
"I dunno. Minutes?" Joe looked like he'd seen a ghost. "I had to really book it to beat them here."
"Thank you," Cinza replied. She turned to Makoto and Rufus, who both looked grim. "We need to get out of here. If we can get home, they won't be able to find us. We can wait out the storm there."
Makoto nodded. He glanced at Joe. "Same direction you came from?" Joe nodded. "We'll have to take a longer way around." He pointed north, where they could circle around both the approaching force and the town to return to their secluded cabins and tents. "Should be safe, but they have hunters. They could still track us."
"Not if I throw them off," Rufus said.
"Rufus, no," Cinza replied sharply. "None of us get left behind. If they catch up, we will defend ourselves, but we're not leaving behind a decoy to get lynched."
He looked like he might argue, but Makoto nudged him, and he fell silent. They all knew there was no time to debate. Cinza was taking command, as they'd decided long ago.
"Joe, you're probably safer splitting up with us. You're not one of us, you could probably get back to town okay."
Joe shook his head. "My dad and I talked about it. We don't think you guys did anything. And I'm awakened too. I've got a stake in this fight. I'm not the strongest guy, but Ryan, Seth and I learned a few tricks. I can help you."
Cinza nodded. She wasn't about to turn down offered help.
Matthew announced they were ready to go. Rufus lead them out of the clearing and into the forest, which was suddenly far more foreboding and ominous. They were spaced out and watching the trees carefully for any sign of movement. Already, the joyful sprint Cinza and Ruby had taken seemed like a distant memory. Behind them, slowly growing in size, was flickering torchlight.
Cinza felt a grim smile touch her lips. At least they're committing to the full cliché. Her sardonic mirth was cut short a moment later.
A dull click and thump of metal from behind her. An ear-splitting, blood-curdling shriek followed. The group dove for cover, landing behind trees or in shallow ditches—anything they could find.
Cinza peeled back through the group, trying to find the source of the sound. It had come from their left flank, which would have been covered by Brittany. It only took a moment for Cinza to find her in their formation. Makoto, the other roaming piece of the group, was already there.
She howled in pain, but they couldn't make anything out from the scant moonlight filtering through the canopy. Cinza reluctantly summoned a small light to hover over the young woman.
Brittany's leg was oozing blood at a horrible rate. She was on the ground groaning in pain, trying desperately to keep her voice down—but the damage was already done. The sounds of the hunters grew louder. Brittany couldn't possibly outrun them. Her right leg from the shin down was hidden behind cold, sharp iron jaws.
Cinza fell to the ground and delved into her bag for a bandage. Makoto had already torn off one of his own and was tying off her leg in a tourniquet. They worked desperately in silence, while Brittany bit down on the hood of her robe to suppress her pain.
Rufus emerged from the forest nearby. "Cinza, they're comin' up fast. They def'nitly heard that," he murmured.
Cinza nodded. "We need to free her."
Makoto stopped her as she reached for the trap release. "You can't open that. It's too strong, and even if you could, she'd die from the blood loss."
Cinza shot him an angry glower. "We can't just leave her here."
Ruby had entered the clearing as well. "I think we could open it. Together, maybe."
"If you could get it open, and we can hold off the blood loss, we could get her home," Rufus added.
Ruby took Cinza's hand. Cinza understood immediately what she intended to do. She began to push out energy for Ruby to use, and Ruby began to summon up a magnetic pull—far stronger than she had managed before, thanks to the very specific small target—on the metal jaws of the trap. They began to inch apart. Brittany let out another muffled shriek into the folds of her robe. Makoto tried to hold her steady as she started thrashing from the pain.
"Just cut the thing off," she growled between gasps of pain. Ruby was trying her best, but the trap was too strong.
As Ruby's field began to slip, Cinza answered her grimly, "You're getting your wish."
Another sharp crack echoed through the forest. The force of the initial trap had utterly shattered her bone, and the lower part of her leg hung limp from a few splinters and patches of skin. With the second slam, it was practically severed. Cinza nodded to Makoto. He reached down, and with a sharp tug pulled Brittany free of the trap.
The remainder of her leg stayed behind.
As Brittany did her best to muffle her pain, Cinza turned back to Rufus and Makoto. "There's no chance of escape now."
Rufus nodded. "Someone was waitin' for us, set out these traps." He leaned down to examine it. "Disgustin'. I'd never use somethin' like this."
"We need to take a defensive position," Cinza said, rising to her feet. Matthew had rushed to his wife's side by then, and was holding her tight while Rufus helped Makoto continue bandaging her leg. "Moving Brittany while trying to fight this off would be too difficult." Makoto made a sharp bird call, and the group converged on them.
Cinza began laying out her strategy. "Rufus and Matthew will keep going and protect Brittany. If they have an opportunity to get out, they can take it. Makoto will back them up as long as they need it. Rufus, you call the shots." He nodded. She trusted the older man to not make any reckless decisions, while Matthew might have taken a terrible chance for the sake of his wife. "The rest of us are going to meet them head on. If we can scare them enough, we might get them to back off before they get close enough."
Heads nodded around the group. Nicole looked particularly nervous. Joe was anxious and obviously standing out, dressed in normal clothes rather than one of the grey robes like the rest.
Cinza turned to them in particular. "Nicole, stay at the center. Help anyone who gets in trouble get out if they have to. You're fast enough to outrun anyone we might be up against. Joe, I know you aren't one of us, but would you please keep her safe for me?" Joe looked surprised at being included. He nodded, and a touch of confidence returned to his expression. Cinza smiled weakly. "We all knew this day would come eventually, and it won't be the last. We can make it through this. For the good of us all."
"For the good of us all," Ruby echoed, and nods and murmurs circled the group. Cinza still wasn't sure it was the best saying to adopt, and she wished they'd come up with something a bit more striking and eloquent, but it wasn't the time. Anything to build up their confidence and unity was important.
Cinza turned and lead their way into the trees. Morton Pollock and Ruby were close behind her, Aaron and Nate Price a few steps behind them. Yusuf, despite his still-bandaged arm, was confidently taking the rear, just behind Nicole and Joe. He held a gemstone in each hand and looked ready to fight. Makoto met her eyes and gave her a firm, assured nod before they vanished into the thick underbrush entirely.
As they moved—quietly as they could manage in the underbrush—toward the oncoming torchlight, Cinza began to pray. It was the first time she had done so in nearly six years. She wasn't praying to God this time, though. She'd long since given up on ever getting a response there. She prayed instead to the real goddess, the one she'd put her trust and faith in. The goddess who had brought them all through the darkness, who had protected them from danger and misfortune several times over out in the wilderness. A silent goddess who cared for her people and did her best to aid them, with the overwhelming and unfathomable power she commanded.
As she rushed forward ahead of her family, fire burning in her heart, Cinza prayed that the goddess would emerge once more. Bring this to a halt, please, before blood paints the forest red.
No response came. Instead, she emerged around the edge of a trunk to find herself face-to-face with Robert Harrison himself. More accurately, she was face-to-chest, as he towered over her by several feet. Still, she refused to give him an inch. She stared him down with a fury she had never known.
His mob was still a ways behind him, as her own group was several dozen feet away. For the moment, it was just Cinza and Robert—and Cinza was vehement.
With a thought, her arms lit up like burning torches. The flames licked off her skin, just past the edges of her robe sleeves. She held up one blazing, immolated hand and pointed at his heart. "You coward."
"Murdering witch. You killed Henry," he spat in return. On his back was a rifle, and in his hands was a gleaming axe. The firelight she'd summoned flickered off its sharp blade.
Cinza shook her head, quickly processing the information. There had been another murder… the Reverend. She amplified her voice, calling both her people—and the approaching mob—to their location. "There was no murder by my hands this night. You have lead a crusade of lies and laid cruel torturous traps in the night like a snivelling wretch. You are a worthless coward."
Rather than respond to her accusations, Robert did exactly as she expected—he swung the axe at her head.
Cinza had been in fights before. She'd been attacked time and again since she was so young she couldn't even remember them all. There had been a time of safety as she'd lived with her last family, but even that had eventually given way to another life spent in a dangerous, hostile world. She had learned her strengths, and where she had weaknesses to make up for.
Robert had to lean down awkwardly just to aim for her. Cinza ducked it easily with almost no effort. She dropped low. Her own fist flew out and rammed into his stomach. It wasn't strong enough to have much effect on its own, given the massive different in weight between them, but the flames licking off her knuckles singed his chest. They vanished as they made contact, due to the peculiarities of Mason's Law, but the fire still caught on his shirt.
He backed away howling and swinging wildly. She immolated her fists once more.
"All of you, return to your town and your homes!" Cinza shouted at the oncoming mob. "We did you no wrong, but we are prepared to defend ourselves! If you wish violence, know that you bring it upon your own heads!"
It was a final desperate gambit. Cinza didn't expect it to work. She was in the heightened emotion of the moment, and her choice of words was too dramatic. All she succeeded in was fanning the flames. A roar erupted from somewhere in the back of the crowd. "Justice for Jenny!"
Cinza shook her head in dismay. Somehow, they'd been linked to the death of the poor girl on top of the doctor. It was too late for negotiation.
The crowd began to surround them, while Cinza's group gathered up behind her. They were in a small clearing, much smaller than their ritual site, and a few trees dotted the area. The largest was the one they'd happened to stop under, a thick old trunk that had stood for centuries. The stars and moon shone down bright, adding to the torchlight cast by the mob of men and women of Rallsburg that had come for blood.
The crowd was watching them carefully, building up into a louder frenzy—but none dared yet to approach the small gathering of cloaks under the tall pine. Ruby grabbed Cinza's hand and squeezed tight. She was afraid.
Cinza stared down the mob, trying to think of anything she could do. Could she stall? Would Grey-eyes eventually come, or maybe Rachel would find out and intervene somehow? Was there even anything Rachel could do to stop this? This was a threat that had been boiling for days as the body count rose and the town was pressed up against the wall. They were the scapegoat, caught in the crossfire for crimes they hadn't committed.
Her people were standing by, each holding a gemstone of some kind. They'd trained for this fight. They were ready for it. If nothing else, Cinza could be sure they wouldn't go down easily.
She let out a deep breath. Her mind took hold of the multi-faceted emblem on her necklace. She circled through the eight gems laid into it, briefly drawing on the contents of each one to remind herself of their potency. From her hand, she felt Ruby's own magical presence brushing against her, strong and fierce and ready.
She reached to her belt and pulled out a handle wrapped in black tape. With a click of a button, the blade flipped open. Its edge caught the moonlight and burst into brilliant white flames, engulfing an edge as sharp as the day she'd found it, fifteen years before.
Her oldest friend.
"Come on, then," she growled, clutching the grip tight. "Let's go."
Cinza dove to the grass and rolled underneath an aluminum baseball bat swung at her head. As she came back up, she kicked viciously at the man's leg. With a bit of magic to make her boot swing faster and harder, she knocked him to the ground. He went down in a heap, and she brought her foot back around and kicked him again in the head. She had no qualms about attacking someone while they were down—not in a situation like this.
This was a lynch mob coming for her head, and she was damned if she wasn't going to use every possible tactic to defend herself.
Still, they'd all agreed they would hold back on lethal force. If they killed, they would only set themselves up for further persecution. Cinza was far less optimistic that they'd ever really integrate into society than Rachel was, but she didn't want to ruin any potential hope. So she held back, as a favor to Rachel and to the entire growing magical community. Even after the bear trap and the axe-wielding Robert Harrison, she still tried to give Rachel's dream a chance.
As the fighting got more heated, Cinza feared they may soon no longer have a choice.
They'd managed to break out of the encirclement. Morton Pollock had broadened his shoulders threefold and barreled through the weakest part of the crowd. The rest had rushed the sudden gap, before the circle collapsed on them.
Aaron was picking out members of the crowd with more dangerous weapons. He stayed behind Morton's furious brawl and reached out with invisible hands. One by one, knives and axes were ripped from angry fists and hurled into the dark forest far away.
Yusuf threw a punch that flattened one of the loggers with an angry roar. In unison with his fist, a tree branch hurled out from above them, splintering away from the trunk with an earsplitting crack. It bowled through a part of the mob, knocking them down like dominoes.
Joe had joined in the fight too, to Cinza's surprise. He was shouting and brawling with Logan and his cronies, who evidently hadn't expected him to be awakened. As Logan threw a punch that would have knocked down any normal college guy, Joe shrugged it off like he'd struck a boulder.
A second later, Joe slugged him in the chest with a rising fist. Logan sailed ten feet through the air and into the dirt.
Cinza recognized Joe's talent and ordered him to the front along with Morton, the other Self affinity in the group. They took hits that should have broken bones and dealt back fierce blows in return, but the crowd simply refused to give in. They were frenzied, murderous and afraid. The town had slipped into real chaos and saw no recourse but to fight.
Ruby was ready to respond in kind. Her hands were ablaze like twin suns, and she was hurling flame left and right with abandon. People dove away from the blasts, hurling themselves to the dirt. She kept the fire dancing in her palms, as it was always easier to add to a fire than create it from scratch, but portions lanced forth like a dragon breathing out death. People were reluctant to approach, but neither were they willing to back down.
We can't keep this up forever, Cinza despaired. Robert Harrison had returned to the front, and he was furious. He dodged Morton's punch and put a fist through his face, breaking his nose and sending him crashing to the dirt. Blood spattered the grass. Cinza summoned up a flame and prepared to face him again.
A jet of water shot through the air and slammed into Robert, knocking him aside. Makoto had returned. He nodded at Cinza before redirecting his water to another target. Cinza felt a brief glimmer of hope. She sent a burst of fire at the nearest angry townsperson, forcing them to retreat. They might still be outnumbered ten to one, but they had a chance. They could try to force them away—and with Brittany safely evacuated, they could make a break for it.
A telltale glint of moonlight on metal in the distance shattered that hope. Robert was upping the ante.
"Rifle!" she called, quickly shaping how her voice moved through the crowd so that her people could all hear it clearly. They scattered, leaving Cinza as the only viable target. She stared Robert down, daring him to take the shot.
He had no reservations. He took aim, while people in front of him scattered. At the last moment, she dove behind the tree. Splinters shattered off the bark as the bullet lodged deep into the trunk. He'd brought an actual rifle, not a shotgun or an air rifle.
Help us, please! Cinza thought desperately. Where is she? Where is our goddess, when we need her most? She saved us from death only to let us be killed by ordinary fools?
Ruby rolled over to her side, while Makoto hurled another jet of water at the advancing crowd, like a single riot cannon trying to drive them back. It wasn't enough.
"We have to use it," Ruby hissed. Cinza wanted to shake her head, wanted to deny they were that desperate, but she couldn't. The crowd wasn't backing down, despite the power they were showing.
Another gunshot. Morton cried out in pain. He'd taken the bullet in the stomach while trying to keep a man off Makoto.
We're on our own.
Cinza pulled Ruby to her feet behind the tree. She closed her eyes, feeding every bit of power she could into Ruby's hands. She could feel herself growing weak and empty as she emptied the river, letting it all flow forth into Ruby's waiting arms. Every gemstone she held disintegrated in their slots, even the ones with no relation to the elements she was channeling.
Ruby gathered it up, pulling as much as she could and beginning to shape it into a compact and incredibly dense field. Cinza could feel her at work, could feel the magic taking hold in the air over the heads of the unsuspecting crowd.
"Who?" Ruby asked through gritted teeth.
"Anyone," Cinza whispered in desperation. She'd collapsed against the tree trunk. The thick knots in the bark held her up. Ruby didn't hear her over the shouting of the crowd and the continuing brawl. Cinza opened her eyes. She would watch. She didn't have to, as she wasn't in control of the field, but she refused to let Ruby carry the burden alone.
She'd help bear the weight of what they were about to do.
Robert had fallen back, his rifle barrel low. He seemed reluctant to shoot again after Morton's cry of pain—but there was another man who had no such compunctions. Paul Wilson had a pistol, and he was lifting it to aim at Makoto with righteous fury. He was a man out to avenge his murdered daughter. He wouldn't hesitate.
At that range, he wouldn't miss.
"Him, right now!" Cinza cried, pointing at Paul. Ruby cried out at the massive release of energy—a visceral, throat-rending shout of rage at the effort she was expending just to keep it under control.
The magnetic field sharpened and condensed itself, polarizing instantly to pull at a single target. Ruby shaped it so that only picked out specific areas, and by compressing it to such precise spots she was able to amplify it tremendously. Coupled with the increased energy and control that Cinza was lending her, it was enough.
Thousands of miniscule cuts burst onto Paul's skin. The blood in his veins literally sprayed into the sky like a geyser, pulled out by the faint traces of iron floating within. He crumpled like a limp noodle. Cinza was certain he had died instantly.
The fighting stopped. The crowd backed away. A few screamed and fled. Makoto was heaving and exhausted, but still standing. Morton was bleeding out on the ground. Nikki and Yusuf emerged from the forest, looking bruised and battered. Nate Price was nowhere to be seen, and Aaron bled from several small cuts on his face and arms.
Ruby trembled in fear, still holding the magic in the air.
It was very quiet. Only the crackling fires beginning to spread through the forest behind them and the heavy breathing of exhausted men and women filled the clearing. One man had dropped to Paul's side, checking him over, but the rest seemed too afraid to get any closer. Cinza emerged from behind the tree, hoping that was as good a moment as any.
"Go back. Go home. Do not return." She was too tired for grandiloquence. Flames licked at her hands, a gentle warmth on her skin and a deadly weapon to anyone else. Her knife, which she'd avoided actually using until then in an attempt to avoid bloodshed, was back in her grip—and it too was covered in dancing flames.
It hadn't been bloodied in years, but all her reluctance had been washed away. She'd stain it again willingly, her oldest friend who had saved her life a dozen times over, if it meant protecting the red-haired beauty who'd saved her soul.
Robert looked about to speak up. She tensed, waiting for whatever words he might use to push the crowd forward again.
It didn't come. Instead, they heard a howl from the woods at the far edge.
A huge wolf trotted out of the woods. Natalie Hendricks sat atop it, in her torn black dress and a dark green coat. She rode slow and calm toward the crowd, ignoring their dumbfounded stares. Wordlessly, she lifted her hands and pointed at the fires beginning to rage through the forest. If they weren't dealt with, they would spread to become a massive forest fire. Natalie made a few motions with her fingers, then gestured at the fire as if beckoning it.
The flames began swirling away from the wood and through the air to meet her. As they reached her fingertips, the fire vanished—as if Natalie were absorbing it.
This was wholly for show, as Cinza knew full well. If Natalie had wanted to dissipate the flames, it would have been far easier to just ride into them and exhaust their source directly through force of will. Most couldn't handle a fire at that scale, but Natalie wasn't most people. She wasn't one for theatrical displays to halt a bloodbath, either. This was someone else's playbook.
Cinza looked past the wolf-girl and the bright swirling flames to the treeline. Standing in the shadows, taller than anyone in the crowd and with grim determination on her face, was Rachel DuValle. The leader of the new world.
Cinza felt herself finally able to relax. Ruby finally let go, and the overload of magic hit her in full. She collapsed to the grass, coughing up blood. Her arms and legs looked like they were puppet whose strings had been severed. She was horribly still. The rest of her family regrouped, while the crowd was still mesmerized at the sight of the little wolf-girl who controlled fire. They gathered behind Cinza, watching and waiting.
Cinza had nothing to offer them. Her family huddled close. They trusted her to know what came next, but Cinza was following another now. Their goddess hadn't appeared, but her representative had. Rachel DuValle had come to save them. This was the leader Cinza would follow and put her faith in. This was the visionary she trusted to take her family into the future.
Rachel DuValle would finally give her the answers she needed.