The End of Their World
Chapter 20 — Consequences
The first thing to hit her was the smell of charred flesh and burned hair.
Rachel's heart sank as she emerged into the clearing. She'd sent Natalie ahead with desperate instructions to stop the fires before they spread, and—if she could manage it—to make everyone see her doing it. She'd hoped that would be enough to dissuade them from attacking. If they were quick enough, Rachel hoped she could stop the melee before any real damage was done.
Seeing the desiccated Paul Wilson on the ground, the burned townspeople, Morton bleeding out on the grass behind a formation of grey cloaks—Rachel felt sick to her stomach.
She'd arrived too late.
Rachel spoke in a low voice, though there was no one visible near her. The closest was Natalie, but she was already halfway across the clearing and the girl's focus was locked on the flames, ignoring everything else. Rachel's words weren't for her.
"You could have stopped this."
"If I did, he'd be attacking everyone," Beverly replied coldly. She was invisible somewhere nearby, and Rachel could only find her if she focused very hard and watched the barest traces of grass being flattened or leaves brushing as she passed. If anyone started to move too close to her, she instantly teleported to another spot nearby, where she had enough room to keep moving freely. Rachel wondered why she didn't simply teleport everywhere, since it seemed to take her almost no effort, but Rachel doubted she'd ever really understand these people who were so far beyond what any normal awakened could accomplish.
Rachel didn't have time to argue with her. She strode out of the forest, very conscious of how alone she was. She didn't expect Beverly to lift a finger if she were attacked, and Natalie wasn't exactly on the best of terms with her either. She felt quite defenseless as she approached the crowd, a throng of angry men and women facing down a group of seven robed figures and another she couldn't quite make out. The fires were dying out from Natalie's efforts, so the light was reduced to only the pale moonlight and the faint licks of silver flame coming from a knife in Cinza's fist.
She ignored them both and walked straight down the middle. It was a no-man's-land where only Paul Wilson's body lay, next to the one man brave enough to step forward and check on him. To her surprise, it was John Bell, the bouncer and barman from the Kettle and Bones and grandson to Mabel Walsh. As she crouched next to him, she whispered low enough so only they could hear, "What are you doing here?"
"Making sure things don't get out of hand," he murmured, his fingers to Paul's neck. She wanted to laugh. She felt a bitter helplessness at his words. Things could hardly be more out of hand. Paul's skin looked impossibly dry and pale. At her questioning look, he frowned. "There's nothing, but I don't want to say that loud yet. Not until we're sure we can get them to back down."
"Any ideas?" she asked, painfully aware the clock was ticking. They could only stall for so long.
"I think whatever you're doing is working," he answered, glancing briefly over his shoulder. "No one's moving yet."
"If we tell them he's dead, won't that start everything up again?"
"Maybe. I don't know. I'm just a bartender," he replied. "Can your invisible friend there bring him back to life?"
Rachel was surprised—but then, he was the grandson of Mabel Walsh. She should have assumed he had some of Mabel's tricks for finding out secrets right under his nose.
"No," answered a whisper at her side.
"Then I guess we're screwed," John muttered.
"If they try to approach, can you stop them?" Rachel asked to the thin air.
"Yes, but I won't. I'm not getting involved here."
"I'm helping you with Omega. I never agreed to fight the whole town for you."
Rachel sighed. She was still learning the bounds of their relationship. She decided not to press the issue yet. She didn't want to waste her leverage already, when they might have much more important battles to come. There had to be another way out of this clearing.
She needed to sway the collective rage. Cinza was a target of convenience. She and her followers were picked simply because they happened to be vaguely connected to the latest death, as well as their fashion taste and Cinza's own personal affectations. There was no real evidence or witnesses to the actual crimes for which they were accused. However, there was another crime present, and one which she'd been slowly processing in the back of her mind over the last few days.
She knew the identity of Omega's lieutenant, Brian Hendricks. More importantly, she knew that he wasn't exactly a loner in the town. He had friends. There were a few others who had taken note of his disappearance, beyond just the pair of staff at his apartments and his daughter. One of those few had been Robert Harrison, the very instigator of the riot that had brought them to that clearing. Robert Harrison, who had been heavily involved in every meeting since the emergence. Robert, who was constantly on the warpath about the murders and angrily declaring Rachel and Rowan both of being too lax and slow at investigating.
Robert, who had somehow known about the murders a week before anyone else including the sheriff, and had told Julian Black about them for an attempt to destabilize the Council.
"John, can you tell when someone is lying, like your grandmother?" He nodded briefly. "I'm going to make a move now. Will you back me up, since you're still one of them?" He'd been on the side of the mob, but Rachel assumed he'd never actually made any violent actions. He was too calm and reserved to get caught up in the mindless fury of a riot. If he supported any move she made, she would have more credibility with the mundane half of the gathering.
John gave her another small nod. Natalie had finished cleaning up the fires, and the crowd was split between watching her and watching Rachel. She took that as her cue.
Rachel stood. She was still the tallest in the entire crowd, so even several at the back could see her clearly. Uncomfortably aware of every single eye in the clearing following her every move, she called out, "Robert Harrison!"
Heads turned to face him, like spectators at a tennis court. He spat out a red gob of blood and cleared his throat before shouting in return. "What do you want?"
"On what grounds have you attacked these people tonight?"
He started to approach, limping slightly. His leg was bruised and burned, and patches of his clothes had been singed away by fire. "They murdered my friend, our reverend, in cold blood and left him to die in the woods. You should know, you saw it too!"
"I saw his body, but I didn't see a murder. Neither did you. You got there after me."
"We all know who did it," Robert growled, and the crowd murmured its assent. "He said he was going out to meet them, and we know how people like her treat goodly men of God."
He was playing right into her hands. Rachel's strategy was simple—catch Robert in as many easy lies as possible to add plausibility to the biggest, most important lie of them all. "Do you even go to church?"
"We ain't got a church, but I'm still religious."
"You aren't," John replied in a loud, clear voice. He got to his feet, but stood noticeably away from Rachel. Good, making it seem like two voices. "You've been in my bar more than a few times shouting about how stupid you think the whole concept is."
Robert shook his head. "That doesn't mean I can't stand up for them that do."
"But you've attacked a group that did no wrong, and was even planning to meet with the reverend to build bridges," Rachel said.
"You played the crusader with no God at your back and ended up the fool," Cinza added, turning heads yet again. Rachel wished she'd stayed quiet, but her speech seemed to affect the crowd. In the heightened emotions of the moment, her words and her echoing voice drifting through the people held power. "You laid out bear traps in the forest for us to fall prey as we fled."
The crowd was getting restless. That level of cruelty was a step too far for them. Bear traps were anathema. Most hunters considered them too cruel. Robert raised his own voice to try and compensate. "You've got no evidence that they didn't do it," Robert said, but everyone knew that was the argument of the losing side. Rachel was all too happy to tear it to pieces.
"I think we can all agree on innocence until proven guilty," she countered. Rachel shifted her vision for just a moment. She watched the connections between the mob and their instigator fray. With the right word, Rachel could break them apart completely. She prepared for her final flourish. Despite all the pain and despair hanging over them all, she felt some satisfaction at being finally able to bring Robert down. "And you are guilty in more ways than one, Robert."
"What are you talking about?"
"At the town hall where we first revealed ourselves, you were the one with details on the murders, right?"
"Yeah, no shit. What's that got to do with this?"
"You knew details about the bodies we never released, and shouted them in front of the entire town."
"Because I found them myself while I was out hunting. We already covered this."
"He's lying," John interjected, and Rachel felt another twinge of gratification.
"You're lying, Robert. You knew the bodies were there a full week before we did, as you said yourself at the town hall. Why didn't you report them?"
"Because—" Robert started, but she talked right over him. She was getting tired of his excuses, now that she knew for certain they were all false.
"Because you were told where to find them, weren't you?"
It was brief, but it was enough. A look of surprise flashed in his eyes. The crowd was hyperattentive in their adrenaline-fueled state, and they caught it. A murmur of discontent rolled through the air. Natalie's wolf growled. Suddenly, every head was turned toward Robert. He was a huge man, but before the combined weight of the crowd suddenly bearing down on his head, he suddenly seemed very small indeed.
Rachel continued. "You were told where they were, and all the important details, so that you could try and discredit us. So you could drive a wedge between the town and its awakened residents. You failed."
Robert started to back away, but the nearest man grabbed his arm roughly. He swung out with a hard punch, but the combined weight of the crowd had him quickly subdued. They were still angry. The fire might be sedated, but the embers could be blown back into a fresh inferno. Rachel hurried in, with Cinza and John at her side.
They wanted him alive, after all.
"Enough!" came a voice through a megaphone. The crowd stopped once again. It was the mayor himself. Rowan Rhistler looked exhausted from his sprint through the town. Jackie was behind him, with Neffie and Gordon Merrill bringing up the rear. "I've heard everything. Robert Harrison, you are under arrest for… I don't know, treason. Conspiracy to obstruct justice. Starting a goddamn riot. I don't fucking care what, just cuff the bastard, Jackie."
Jackie walked through the crowd utterly fearless. In seconds, she had dropped Robert to the ground and cuffed his hands behind his back. Rowan turned back to address the crowd.
"You've all done something terrible tonight. Remember that. Remember what you've done. Disperse and go home. There will be a meeting tomorrow morning to discuss what's to come."
The crowd began to dissolve. Men and women who had been whipped into a frenzy half an hour earlier were despondent and exhausted. Without their leadership, they were all just confused and terrified individuals. They filtered back through the trees, spreading out as they went, disappearing in total silence.
Rachel rushed back to Cinza's people, Rowan at her heels. Jackie was busy herding people back to town. The short girl was taking stock of the wounded. Rachel did a quick headcount, and her heart skipped a beat.
"Only seven of you?" she asked fearfully.
Cinza shook her head. "The others already escaped. Nate ran, but I doubt he went far. Rufus went out to find him. Brittany and Matthew are back at our home, but Brittany lost her leg to the bear trap. We had to cut it off." She spoke so nonchalantly that Rachel shuddered. She couldn't imagine what Cinza had gone through that night.
Morton was still bleeding. Makoto was doing his best to stem the wound, but there was only so much they could do. Rachel wheeled on Rowan. "You need to call in a helicopter."
"Will it be fast enough?" Rowan asked, already pulling out his phone.
"It'll have to be," she replied. "Call one out of Olympia. The nearest Life Flight chopper is too far."
He nodded. Within seconds he was already talking to someone from emergency services. Luckily for them, ambulance by helicopter wasn't unheard of up in the foothills, where a critical condition couldn't possibly be carried fast enough on the ground. With his past connections in the area, Rowan could get them help immediately, no questions asked. Rachel turned to Cinza. "You'll need to send someone with them, so they can pick up Brittany."
She shook her head. Blood was dripping from a split lip, a harsh contrast to her silver-grey hair and pale skin. "They can't land there."
"I know you don't want anyone to fin—"
"No, I mean they literally cannot. The helicopter would break apart before it could land. The trees are too thick. What you saw wasn't accurate to the landscape." She frowned. "There's a clearing that's close, though. If Brittany can make it there…" She glanced at Makoto, who was at her side in an instant. "How long will it take for the helicopter to reach us?"
Rachel did some quick mental math from what she'd read about the helicopter models available and the distance between Olympia and their location. "About fourteen minutes if they fly at normal speed. Seven if they use their fastest airframe."
Cinza nodded to Makoto. "Signal them in after they land here." He took off at a sprint into the forest. She looked around at her people. "Nicole, do you know the clearing I mean?"
Nikki Parsons emerged from the trees, looking dazed and a little battered. She too sported a few cuts and bruises. Rachel felt a little more dismay at each new member of Cinza's family that had been hurt that night. Nikki nodded confidently.
"Good," Cinza smiled. "When the helicopter arrives, you're with Morton. Show them where to land so they can pick up Brittany." She paused. "How many can the helicopter hold?"
"They use EC145 Airbus choppers, which have a capacity of two pilots and eight passengers," Rachel rattled off. She was glad to have anything else to focus on.
"Thanks." She looked at Nikki with a grave expression. "Nicole, if you wish to stay with them and go to Olympia, it's your decision. We'll see you when you get back either way."
She still looked stunned from the ordeal she'd just been through, and didn't reply. She was the youngest in the group besides maybe Ruby, as far as Rachel knew. Rachel didn't blame her for being overwhelmed. From the brief snippet on the livestream, Rachel had only caught the very end of a vicious brawl. She was amazed that Cinza's people had escaped injury as much as they had.
They only had to wait a few more minutes for the helicopter to arrive. The thump of the blades preceded it, a heavy mechanical sound completely at odds with the night they'd all been through. It felt wildly out of place. Rowan had informed them to look for a green signal, and Cinza had supplied it, with a bright green orb floating above the center of the clearing. It hovered for a moment, almost as if it were uncertain.
"They can't tell where the trees are," she shouted over the noise to Cinza. Cinza nodded and closed her eyes. A moment later, the green light flickered out, and the entire clearing was flooded with perfect clear white light. It was as if a giant flood light were illuminating them from above. The chopper immediately began to descend into the center of the clearing with a soft bump on the grass.
Rachel couldn't make out the expression of the pilot, but the two EMTs that leapt out stopped dead when they took a look around. Rachel couldn't blame them. There was a group of five grey-robed people gathered around a six, who was covered in blood. The mayor stood nearby, along with Rachel—towering over them all as usual—a journalist with a notebook and pen writing frantically by flashlight, a half-Egyptian woman in pajamas, and a twelve year old seated atop a huge gray wolf. Rachel and Rowan had both begged Natalie to hide before the medical team arrived, but Natalie had apparently attached herself to Rachel permanently for the time being. She refused under any circumstances to leave. Only Joe McKinney, who seemed reluctant to walk away from Nikki, looked remotely normal.
Rachel shouted at the EMTs, breaking the spell. Their training took over, and in an instant they were at Morton's side, bandaging the wound more tightly and applying pressure. Rowan quickly explained the extent of his wounds, as well as the second pickup they needed to make. Joe gave Nikki a quick hug. Yusuf and Nikki helped them load Morton onto the chopper, before Nikki waved to the group before disappearing inside and closing the door. Within seconds of Yusuf clearing the edge of the blades, the helicopter was lifting off. Rachel approved of their competence and speed even in such strange circumstances.
As the thumping blades faded away, she took Cinza aside for a moment alone. "Are you okay?"
Cinza shook her head. "We've been over the line tonight, Rachel. This is just the beginning. You stopped it here, but it will get worse." She offered a weak smile. "But thanks for asking."
Rachel wanted to ask about Paul Wilson, but they didn't have any more time to talk. Rowan had followed them, along with the rest of the group. Natalie rode Gwen out and let her sit down just behind Rachel, resting comfortably on her back with her head sideways on top of the wolf's fierce gaze.
"What do we do now?" Aaron asked.
"Go home and sleep?" Joe suggested, in a weak attempt at humor. Cinza smiled wanly, but looked to Rachel. As did they all.
Rachel cleared her throat. "We have two problems. Omega you already know about. Another problem just developed tonight." She paused, searching for the right word, but anything she came up with sounded disrespectful. She gave up and went on, "What you all just went through was streamed online."
"Oh God," Rowan muttered. Cinza in particular looked like she'd just seen a ghost. Rachel had never seen her so anxious, not even when facing down the golems in the forest or the entire rioting mob.
"No wonder you didn't care about the helicopter seeing all of us," Aaron added glumly.
"It wasn't much, and I don't think it hit many viewers before it was cut off," Rachel continued.
"It doesn't matter," Cinza replied. "If it was streamed, someone recorded it. It'll spread. Our time is up."
Rachel nodded. "Will's keeping an eye out everywhere he can think of online. The moment it starts to spread, we'll be watching. Until then, we need to move quickly. We need to act on Omega now, while we have an opportunity."
"What do you mean?" Neffie asked. "What opportunity? He's still a godlike killing machine, isn't he?"
"Not godlike, not anymore," Rachel replied. "We fought him tonight in town. Natalie and Kendra were able to drive him back. He'd already been through one fight just before, but still. They can be beaten."
"Natalie can beat him?" Gordon asked skeptically.
Natalie nodded, scratching her wolf's fur affectionately. "Don't mess with me. I've got superpowers."
"There's a group of awakened people with power far greater than usual," Rachel went on. "This information shouldn't spread, but I trust you all, and I need you behind me if we're going to beat him." Nods and murmurs of assent went around the circle. "Natalie and Kendra both qualify, as does Hector. Hailey Winscombe is another, and I have no reason to believe there can't be more. I don't know why they are, but I don't think anyone else can just jump to their level."
"You want to assemble them like some kind of super-team?" Joe asked.
Neffie rolled her eyes. "If someone says superpowers again—"
"Haven't we had enough fighting for one night?" Cinza said quietly. She was helping Ruby to stay standing. The crimson-haired girl looked half-conscious and completely incapable of speech or even coherent thought. Her cloak was spattered with blood. Neffie fell silent.
Rachel nodded. "He's right. I want to bring them all together, along with the rest of us. Omega should take some time to recover, which we need to use to pull together a plan. We'll assemble everyone in the Summit tomorrow, along with the four I just named. Together we should be able to figure out some way to take him down."
"If you already beat him once, can't you just do it again?" Rowan asked.
"It took all of Natalie's strength just to beat five golems," Rachel answered.
"I could have beat more," Natalie piped up again. "I didn't know how to do lightning stuff right yet. I gotta learn it better."
Rachel shrugged. "She could get better, but even so. Omega has shown he can keep creating golems, and Natalie can only deal with them so fast. He has other weapons he can use as well. The only reason I think he ran is because he was wounded. He couldn't stick around."
"How did you wound him?" Gordon asked.
"Gwen took a big bite out of him," Natalie said with a vicious grin. Gordon shuddered.
"We can't guarantee another surprise attack like that," Rachel continued. "A wolf in the middle of town once is one thing, but twice will be predictable."
"What about a bullet? Can a bullet kill him?" Neffie asked sardonically.
"Maybe. If he doesn't see it coming."
"What, he can dodge bullets?"
"He can move faster than you can see," Rachel replied, "and react at that speed as well if he's expecting it."
"We'll have to surprise him, then," Cinza said. "One massive blow while he's distracted, enough to kill him instantly."
Silence hung painfully in the air at her words. They all knew the stakes, but none of them were exactly comfortable planning out a man's death.
"It's late. We won't get anything done while we're all exhausted," Rowan said. There were murmurs of agreement. Even Rachel, as little as she needed to sleep per day, felt the mounting fatigue draining her away. With heavy eyes and steadily weakening limbs, she finally turned and departed.
She needed rest. She needed to be home with Will, after having spent so much time apart. Rachel felt like she was falling asleep walking. Natalie and her wolf padded along behind her through the town streets. Natalie too looked exhausted from her efforts with both the golems and the forest fire. She was laying down on Gwen, small enough to rest on her back while they walked.
"Thank you for helping," Rachel told her honestly.
She shrugged. "You promised, I promised. I'm still waiting."
Rachel sighed. "Soon, Natalie. We need to sleep."
She paused, thinking for a moment. Rachel could tell she was fighting off sleep. "Okay."
As they rounded the corner to her apartment complex, she was surprised to find Ryan casually leaning up against the wall by her door. She'd forgotten all about him, even while discussing the Summit meeting earlier. Technically, he was a member.
"Hi," she said weakly, wanting nothing more than to just fall asleep right away. While her ability to go without sleep was great, it also meant that when she needed to crash, she really needed to crash.
"Hello to you too," he said. "About time you got home."
"Some of us were out dealing with actual problems."
"Oh la-de-dah, I'm Rachel and I'm in charge of the world's problems. Fuck off, I wasn't going up against Omega in a fistfight. I'd be dead by now."
"I came out okay."
He looked her up and down. "...Yeah, you did." As Natalie and Gwen padded around the corner, he stepped back involuntarily. "Holy shit. Still not used to that."
Natalie glared at him. "Don't be mean."
"Sorry." Ryan glanced back at Rachel. "You guys okay?"
"We are, but Rika isn't. Neither is Zack, or Hailey, or Cinza's people, or a whole bunch of other people in town," Rachel snapped. "We've been through a lot tonight. Can you just get out of the way so I can go to sleep?"
"Fuck me, sorry," Ryan muttered. He stood aside and let her clumsily unlock the door. "I really am sorry, you know," he added.
"Don't worry about it," Rachel sighed. "I was terrified too."
"Yeah, but you still went in." Ryan followed her over the threshold. Natalie took one glance at the door, then at Gwen, and decided she'd rather stay out on the walkway. Gwen curled up in the grass nearby. Natalie leaned up against her chest, closing her eyes and snuggling in comfortably.
Rachel set down her bag and took off her coat, feeling the aches beginning to set in on every muscle and bone in her body. She just wanted to collapse into Will's arms.
"I'm home," she called out. There was no response.
Her heart stopped.
Will hadn't texted her once. They hadn't spoken since the phone call in the woods, long before she'd rushed in to confront Omega. She hadn't checked in, too busy between all the commotion and carnage. She'd been too busy, she hadn't remembered what was waiting back at home. She hadn't realized what was staring her in the face. The livestream shouldn't have been possible with Will watching the network.
Omega knew who she was and who she was close with. His ally was her landlord. He'd been there from the start, and seen the first few times she'd been elected to the council. Tonight she'd declared herself his enemy defiantly to his face. He'd responded in kind, with a parting shot on his way out of town.
The window was shattered. Will was lying face-up on the couch, struggling to force air through his broken jaw. His limbs were twisted and broken. His chest looked like it had been caved in. His face was a mess of dark bruises. He was like a broken doll.
Ryan shouted something, but Rachel didn't hear him. She was at Will's side. She was sobbing over him. She was petrified.
Will croaked out a sound, but she couldn't understand him. She begged him to repeat it, but he could only croak out the same terrible sound.
Ryan picked up a piece of paper laying near him that she'd missed. He read it, and let out another stream of curses. Rachel grabbed it from his hands. She could barely see it a foot in front of her. Trembling, with tears streaming down her cheeks, she read the brief handwritten note.
You shouldn't have tried to stop me.