Chapter 24 — The Second Summit of the End of the World
Rachel cleared her throat. "There are two reasons I've called this summit. We need to decide what we're going to do about Omega, and what we're going to do about the world."
"Isn't one of them more urgent? I'd think the world can wait," Julian asked.
Rachel shook her head. "The riot last night was caught on video, with our town's name right in the title. It didn't have many viewers, but I'd guess we only have a few days at most before someone comes to investigate. Not to mention that we still haven't reported the murders yet. Jackie can't stall forever, not with two out-of-town kids in the morgue."
"I didn't even know we had a morgue," Josh muttered.
"Just enough for two bodies," Jackie replied grimly. "One of them's in an icebox now."
"Ugh. Stop, please."
"Why isn't the mayor here?" Neffie put in. "Wouldn't this be his specialty if we're going to be dealing with higher ups in the government?"
"Rowan is going around with Preston trying to calm people down after last night," Rachel answered. "I spoke to him this morning. He won't be here."
Gordon snorted. "Good riddance."
"Hey—" Mason started, but Gordon ignored him.
"Better you than that snake, Rachel."
"Rowan Rhistler is the elected official for the township," Kendra pointed out. "Any official response will be looking to him first."
"Like anyone comin' into this shitshow is gonna look for someone official," Jackie muttered. "They'll look for who's in charge, and that ain't Rowan."
Gordon nodded emphatically. "Everyone in town knows what you've been doing by now. You stopped a riot just by showing up. Rowan wasn't even there. Half the town hates him anyway. There wouldn't be a single voice of dissent if you represented us."
"Is this a coup?" Mason asked angrily.
"It's not," Rachel said sharply. "I have no intention of replacing your uncle. Working with him, yes, but I'm still only the elected leader of the awakened. Nothing more."
"If you're even that," Julian said. "Plenty ain't happy with you."
"I'm guessing you sit near the top of that list, so why did you come today?" Rachel asked.
Julian scratched his head abashedly. "You saved my bacon last night. Well, you and Hector. I owe you this much. Besides, it's kinda my fault you had to go through with the town hall anyway." He threw a crooked smile.
"The rest of the Council?"
"Oh, everyone's split for the hills. They're hunkered down in their homes since anyone tryin' to run winds up monster meat," Julian replied. "After you sold them out to save your friend and declared yourself in charge, no one really wants to stick their neck out for you. Jus' sayin'."
"What about Mabel?" Rachel asked, turning to Josh.
He shrugged. "I called her, but she didn't answer. Neither did her grandson. Could be anywhere."
Rachel sighed. "It was never an agreement to fight, I guess. I can't blame them." She looked around at the room. "Thank you all, again, for being here today."
"We all know what happens if we try to run for it," Ryan put in. "We get fucking snapped in half. Might as well try to fight our way out."
"Do we have to?" came a timid voice from the corner. Heads turned to Hector, who shrank back against the wall.
"Hector? What do you mean?" Rachel asked.
"What if we try to talk to him? Promise to never awaken anyone again, stop using magic. Couldn't we all live?"
"Why should we?" Mason asked roughly. "We have every right to it, same as he does. Why should he be the one to decide?"
"What if he's right? What if all this makes the world come to an end?" Hector shivered. "It's too powerful. We were doing just fine without magic. Why do we have to have it? We could just go back."
"Not all of us," said Hailey.
"Look, I'm sure flying is amazing and all, but is it worth people dying over it?"
"I'm not talking about flying!"
"Please!" Rachel cut in. "Hector, I appreciate what you're saying, but this isn't something we can just undo."
"Just stop, right? Don't do any more magic. Give him all the Scraps and the copies. It's easy."
"He's been killing people, man," Josh said weakly. "He's not gonna stop just cause we give our papers over."
"Not just that. The world needs magic." Rachel brushed her hair away from her face. "Things are getting worse every year. Wars and disease and hunger and climate change. We can solve so many problems with this. We can't do anything if we're all dead."
"You make it sound so easy," Julian said skeptically.
"Okay, example. A village without clean drinking water. Eighty nine percent of Ethiopia doesn't have access to clean water. We give them a bucket, a funnel, whatever, and enchant it with something that can filter the water as it gets poured through. It gets powered off the energy of the person holding it, just like our bags. Anyone could use that. That would be massive, and it doesn't have the drawbacks of wearing out like regular filters."
"Rachel—" Josh tried to interject, but she kept talking without taking a single pause to breathe.
"Or how about hunger? Seven hundred ninety-five million people are going hungry worldwide. Cinza's people figured out how to grow food rapidly and in places where it should be impossible. Think about what that could do for people. Or what it could do for a colony in space. We can help them. Should we give up on all of that because of one idiot who's decided we're not responsible enough to handle it?"
"Rachel!" Cinza practically shouted. Rachel stopped talking. Her face was red and she was breathless. Cinza cleared her throat pointedly, holding Ruby's hand tight as she spoke. "We have more pressing business. Saving the world has to wait until tomorrow."
Rachel nodded. She took a deep breath. "I'm not giving up. I'm going to fight. If you're not on board, you should leave."
No one moved. Julian's wingmen exchanged looks, and Hector glanced around the room nervously, but everyone remained seated.
"Great, we're all one big fucked-up team," Ryan said sardonically. "Can we get back to figuring out how to stop the maniac serial killer who can take us all without breaking a sweat?"
"He can't," Rachel replied. "We have five people who are just as powerful."
"Five?" Hailey asked, glancing around.
"Of course it's fuckin' five. Five plus the three Gods is eight. It's all part of the secret plan," Ryan deadpanned.
"Congratulations, you graduated to kindergarten math," snapped Mason.
Rachel continued in a grave tone as if they hadn't spoken. "I know some of you would prefer to keep this private, but given the circumstances and our low turnout, we need to put all our cards on the table if we're going to figure out how to kill him."
"...Kill him?" Hector asked meekly.
"It's that or he kills us. He set the rules of engagement," Cinza replied.
"Anything goes at this point. It's all self-defense," Josh added.
Jackie frowned. "That ain't gonna hold up in a court. This is premeditated."
Ryan barked a short laugh. "What the hell kind of court could take a case like this? Everything here is unprecedented, and we don't have any peers to be our jury."
"Murder's still murder, doesn't matter what the weapon is."
He rolled his eyes. "I'll worry about that if I survive long enough to face a judge."
Gordon spoke up, looking up from his phone. "Rachel, wouldn't it be better to capture him? If you kill him, you're setting a precedent for how justice works in your world. Besides, you said he has an accomplice, right?" He flicked back through his notes. "We don't know if there might be more. We might need to question him."
"No," Rachel said firmly. "No half-measures. We can't take the risk."
"Are you sure about this?" Jackie asked.
"He dies." Rachel spoke so coldly that no one dared argue the point again. Even Hector looked subdued into silence.
"...So who are the five people, anyway?" Ryan finally spoke up. "Hailey, obviously, 'cause she fuckin' flew in here. I'm guessing her cute friend with the nice hair is one too." He shot a smile at Jessica, but she wasn't paying any attention to him. Her eyes were flicking around the room, taking in every detail.
"Them, Hector, Kendra and her sister."
"Her what?" Ryan asked, raising an eyebrow. "Miss Laushire's got a sister?"
"It's four people, not five," Lily interrupted. "I don't have the strength or talent she does."
Rachel's face fell slightly. "You don't?"
"I don't. I can keep her spells going when she's absolutely knackered, but I'm straight ordinary otherwise." Lily sighed. "Could've bothered to ask before you went and outed me, dear."
"It's life-or-death here, professor," Josh said.
"So you say."
"I say," Rachel snapped. "I'm going to need all of you on board for this to work."
"What makes you four so special anyway?" asked Jackie.
"We don't know," Hector answered simply.
"Haven't the slightest," Lily agreed.
"Peachy," muttered Jackie.
"It doesn't matter so long as they can beat him, right?" Gordon asked. "Four against one, aren't those good odds for us?"
"Not when you look at the four we got dealt," said Ryan. "A scaredy-cat who wants to negotiate with a genocidal serial killer, an uptight bitch who can only do neat tricks with bags and doors, a flying emotional wreck, and—who is that girl again?" he finished, pointing at Jessica.
"She can't talk or understand any of us," Rachel replied.
"...So yeah—we're boned."
"It's not like they can't learn other magic."
"In the amount of time we have? And who's gonna volunteer it?"
"There may be another way," Cinza added quietly. Her voice echoed through the room. "They don't need to learn the spell if they can join with me."
"Do what now?" Hailey asked abruptly.
"My people have been practicing a method of lending each other energy. We can combine our strength into a single spell beyond our normal abilities." Cinza glanced at Ruby—who was much more lucid than she'd been when they first walked in, but still showed the backlash of channeling such power through herself—before she went on. "The effects are potent."
"Is that what you did to Paul?" asked Jackie.
"...If I answer, does that constitute an admission of guilt?"
She sighed. "I'm willin' to call it self-defense. Witness accounts said he was about to shoot one of you."
"Then yes. Ruby and I combined our efforts into a single burst of magic."
"Can you do it again?" Rachel asked.
Cinza looked at Ruby again, who still struggled to keep herself totally upright, and wrapped an arm around the girl. Cinza's eyes were sparkling with barely restrained tears as she turned back. "I know the spell. I don't have Ruby's power, but I could direct it."
"Which leaves us to supply you with the energy you need." Rachel looked at each of the four in turn. "If Cinza can cast it and I can give her a target, will you four be willing to support it?"
"I'm in," Hailey said immediately. "Jess is too, once I figure out how to explain this to her."
"Kenni will be on board," Lily added. "I don't know how much we'll be able to contribute, but we'll do what we can."
Jackie chimed in, looking uneasy. "Now hang on, we're still talking about murdering a man in cold blood."
"You said it yourself," Rachel replied. "He's about to kill everyone in the town. It's self-defense."
"I was hired to uphold the law. We have a way of dealing with even the worst mass-murderers."
"And those have shit-all to do with this situation," Ryan snapped.
"He's still human—"
"No, he's not," Hailey interrupted.
"What, you people aren't people anymore?"
Rachel shook her head. "We still are. But the law doesn't account for someone like him. Our laws and our punishments are built on the idea that everyone is more or less equal. No matter what, a single person can be taken down and incarcerated, their weapons and tools taken away, and we can be reasonably certain a jail will hold them. That doesn't apply anymore. We can't take magic away from Omega. Even if you locked him in solitary and stuffed him in a straitjacket, I'm pretty sure he could break out without lifting a finger and kill every single person in the building on the way out. History's never had to deal with something of that caliber."
Her voice shook a little as she continued. "I'd love to spend weeks debating a new system of law and order, but we don't have time. People are dying. We have to stop this now."
The room was silent. Rachel looked at each of them in turn, her eyes fierce. Slowly, Jackie gave an assenting nod.
"I'm gonna feel like I'm betrayin' everything I stand for, but I'm in."
"Thank you," said Rachel. She turned to Hector, the lone remaining holdout. He seemed to shrink into the corner under her glare.
"I just don't want to kill anyone," he whispered. In the utter silence of the Marketplace, his whisper was clearly audible to everyone in the room.
"I'd be the one actually casting and directing the spell," Cinza said. "You would only be supplying me with energy. I don't even need to tell you what sort of spell it is."
"I'd still know what I'd done."
"Speaking for the non-magical half of the room," Gordon put in. "You'd be saving all our lives. Not just the awakened."
"You're going to force Hector to do this?" Neffie shot back. She glared at Gordon. "I thought we were staying out of it."
"I'm not staying out of anything. Just because I didn't luck out and get magic doesn't mean I don't have a say. I don't want to die either."
"It's their world, Gordon. We don't know anything about it."
"It still affects us!"
"It's their business. Let them deal with it."
"Nice to hear you care," Ryan mocked.
"Do we even need him?" Julian asked. "Grey girl said she did it with her girlfriend, right? So it can be done with two, and we already got three."
Rachel frowned. "We may only have one shot at this. I want every option on the table. Hector's the only one to come up against him in a fight before."
"Wait, you already fought him once?" Jackie cut in.
Hector shook his head. "That was a year ago. I'm sure he's way stronger now. I don't really do magic. I don't like it."
"Waste of fucking talent," muttered Ryan.
"Ryan, shut the fuck up," Josh snapped.
"You know what? No," Ryan shot back. "It's true. He's a waste of talent. He's got ridiculous abilities that could save all our fucking lives, and he's not going to do anything because he's afraid to get his hands a little dirty? Fuck that."
Josh got to his feet. His fist bulged out. He looked like he might leap over the table and rush down his former best friend. Ryan was still seated, but from the way he tensed in his chair, he was ready for a fight.
A gust of wind whirled through the room. Since the air had been almost totally still, it was a sudden shock to them all. The gale was tightly focused, only brushing past most of them until it reached its target. Josh was slowly forced back down into his chair. He struggled for a few moments, but finally relented. His fist returned to normal size.
"And stay down," Hailey grumbled.
"Can't believe you're all gonna gang up on him," said Josh.
"We don't have any other choice," said Rachel.
A low voice spoke up from the doorway, which had opened silently in the commotion. It rumbled through the room like the beginning of an earthquake about to tear down a city. "That's exactly the sort of thinking that got you all here."
It was as though an electric shock hit the entire room at once. Everything stopped, and every head snapped to the door where Omega himself stood.
Wind started gathering on Hailey's side of the room. Bright blue rings of fire burst into life around Jessica's wrists. A snake of water uncoiled from somewhere behind Cinza, rising into the air as if it were about to snap forward. Josh and Ryan jumped to their feet in unison, casting identical spells to make themselves stronger.
The rest of the room hadn't reacted yet, either stunned into shock or too afraid to move. Rachel was the first to recover. She stepped forward between the group and Omega, raising a hand to forestall her allies. "We can't beat him here. Save your strength."
"Smart move," Omega replied. He leaned against the wall near the door, glancing around the room. "It's been a long time since I've been to one of these."
"Why are you here?"
He shrugged. "To be honest, it was a convenient place to kill you all, but it looks like you found a way around that." Without warning, he launched himself forward.
Rachel stood an instant away from death. He was coming at her and she wasn't moving an inch. She just stared him down with a mixture of hatred and fierce unwavering determination.
At what seemed like the last possible second, she appeared. The girl—looking like a dwarf between the two towering giants of Rachel and Omega—simply popped into existence between the two. Her silver-grey eyes flashed with bitter rage. Grey-eyes raised her hands and flicked two fingers on each, making a cutting motion in midair.
A massive wave of force hurtled through the room. It looked like part of the room had shifted forward. The barrier slammed into Omega and hurled him back against the wall with a painful thump. He coughed hard from the impact.
A second later, Grey-eyes disappeared, as instantly and suddenly as she had arrived.
"Now what?" Rachel asked, calm as could be.
Omega still looked a bit winded. "We talk, I guess."
"Holy shit…" gasped Josh.
"I know you, don't I?" Jackie asked. "Jackson Smith, right?"
"I'm surprised anyone remembers me," Jackson replied. "I really didn't make much of an impact as a student."
"I try to know everyone who comes into town."
"That's good. Really good policing. I'm sorry for what I have to do to your home."
Jackie frowned. "Why?"
"Because there's no other way now. You know too much."
A fireball suddenly hurtled across the room, bright blue and staggeringly hot. It was right on target—but a blur of motion and Jackson was suddenly on the other side of the room, while the fireball hit the far wall and dissipated into nothing. He had closed the distance with Jessica in an instant. His arm went to her throat, pushing her up against the wall.
"No!" Hailey shouted. She sent wind hurtling at him, and it was strong enough that they both tumbled over onto the ground. An instant later, Jackson sped back to his original position by the door. Except for the way his clothes didn't quite sit right, he may as well have never moved.
"Don't do that again," Jackson warned.
"Hailey, please," Rachel added.
Hailey nodded. She tugged at Jessica's arm. The girl was already back on her feet and had more rings of fire swirling around her wrists. She looked eager to throw down. Hailey was muttering under her breath and signing as quickly as she could.
"How did you get in here?" asked Lily nervously.
"I walked through the front door. Don't worry. If I had hurt your sister, this entire building would be gone, wouldn't it?" Jackson shrugged. "Wherever she's hiding, she's good."
"Why are you doing this?" Gordon asked. "Why kill everyone?"
"Because this whole experiment needs to end. We never should have started spreading magic. People are dying in horrible ways and killing each other over it. If it makes it to the whole world?" Jackson shook his head. "We're all doomed."
"But you started the killing," Boris spoke up. It was the first time he'd spoken since arriving. "Would this not be a skewed perspective?"
"He didn't," Rachel interrupted. "The murders in the RV… weren't murders."
"What?" Jackie asked sharply.
"It was an accident. That's how they broke Mason's Law. The spell backfired on himself and got out of control."
"Think about it," Jackson continued. "If something that horrible can happen—to a child nearby—completely by accident, how can we let it escape into the world?" He leaned back against the wall. "We have to stop it."
"If you say 'for the greater good' I'm gonna fuck you up," snapped Ryan.
"That doesn't justify murdering everyone in town, though," Neffie added. "Killing everyone with magic, sure, but why the rest of us?"
"Oh, thanks for selling us out."
Jackson shook his head. "I can't risk any knowledge of real magic making it into the world. I'm sorry, but you're a necessary sacrifice."
"You're insane," Neffie murmured.
"But we didn't get a choice," Gordon spoke up. "You're going on about choices, but what about us? We didn't luck into magic like you, we're just normal people. What does it matter if we know about it after it's all gone?"
Omega glanced at Rachel, bemused. "You didn't tell them?" Rachel opened her mouth, but no words came out.
"Tell us what?"
"Anyone can use magic. It's not easy and it needs access to certain things, but there's no reason you couldn't learn to do it yourself."
Gordon rounded on Rachel. "You lied?"
"Of course we lied," Ryan snapped.
"And what about you, Jackson?" Rachel asked, interjecting before the conversation got too diverted. "You didn't kill the first few, but what about Cinza's people? What about the doctor?"
"Killed by your own town," Jackson replied. "A perfect example of what I'm trying to stop. As soon as the tools are put in your hands, all you do is fight and steal and kill."
"So everything he's done has nothing to do with you?"
Jackson shrugged. "He was more than willing to take lives when the time came. I wasn't even there. Is the gunmaker responsible for the man who decides to shoot up a corner with his wares?"
"We just stay here then. No one leaves, magic dies out," Neffie said. "Isn't that enough?"
"I can't take that risk. The world can't take that risk. Brian proved to me the danger of magic. One man with such power is too dangerous for the world to survive." Jackson put his hand on the doorknob. "I don't want to fight. I can promise you it'll be quick, at least. Quicker if you help me." He opened the door, but paused before he stepped out. "Anyone who tries to run will wish they hadn't."
Hailey seemed like she might launch herself at him, but several hands held her back. Jackson let the door swing shut as he vanished back into the Market. The dull thump and click of the door latch echoed through the room like the last tick-tock of a clock about to die.
"So he just went full supervillain," Ryan quipped. He'd evidently been trying to let some tension out of the room, but no one laughed. No one even smiled.
"You lied to us," Neffie said.
"We did," Cinza replied, her voice echoing through the frozen room.
"Come on, can you blame us?" Ryan added. "If you guys knew everyone could get magic, we'd be a hell of a lot worse off than we are now."
"He's just trying to divide us," Rachel said firmly. "Get in our heads. You can't listen to what he's saying."
"Funny, because he's been a lot more honest than you," Gordon snapped. "Didn't even try to lie about killing us all. He could have lied to get us to help him."
"Yeah, but he still wants to kill you," Ryan said. "Does it matter if he's an upstanding honest citizen about it?"
"He did lie," Boris added quietly. "When he said he was not there. He had to be to create those electricity burns and frame Rika."
Rachel seized on Boris' contribution eagerly. "Exactly. He's been trying to drive everyone apart from the start. Don't let him. He knows we can beat him." Gordon and Neffie still looked unconvinced, but they didn't speak up again. Jackie shifted uncomfortably in her chair and tried to look as surprised as the rest of them. "We've only got a little time before Jackson decides to start burning down the town. Hector—"
"I'm in," Hector whispered.
"I'm in," he repeated more firmly. "He's not giving anyone a choice. I… I have to help you stop him."
Rachel nodded. "Then we know what to do."
"Hang on. How are you goin' to get him?" Julian pointed out. Rachel looked surprised. "If he moves faster than Cinza can lay down her whammy, aren't y'all screwed? Seems like a one-shot deal."
Rachel frowned. "How quickly can you strike a spot with it?"
The robed girl shrugged. "How fast does magic travel?"
"Speed of light?" Josh ventured. "I mean, it's gotta follow some natural rules, right?"
"Magic. Natural rules," added Ryan sarcastically.
Mason chimed in excitedly. "Actually, by our measurements magic might be instantaneous. It's difficult to get a precise measurement since I'm still bound by the speed of light myself, but based on the response time we've seen with some of the lab instruments, object telekinesis seems to be ahead of its visible position for picoseconds at a time. Actual motion using said kinesis wouldn't likely be able to exceed such a speed though since the energy output would kill the caster, either by recoil or by the explosion from the speed and mass of the object in motion, but the results of the mental action are carried out precisely at the time of the instruction, so to speak."
"That doesn't help," Cinza replied. "Magnetic fields travel at lightspeed, but we still have to react fast enough to put it there."
"So as long as he can move and react fast enough to avoid anything we try to do, it's gonna be impossible to catch him," Josh sighed.
"Unless we can surprise him again," said Lily.
"How'd you pull it off last time?"
"I took command of his golem long enough for Natalie's wolf to get to him."
"Perfect, just do that again," said Ryan.
"He'll be expecting it," Lily sighed. "I had the impression he'd never been contested for control of a magical entity before. There's a trick to it. He'll know what to do next time."
"That's still something though. Messing with his head, screwing up magic he should be the best at. What else do we got?"
"His speed," Rachel said.
"Well yeah, that's the problem. We gotta distract him."
"No, we need to mess with his speed," Rachel replied.
Ryan rolled his eyes. "How are we gonna do that? We don't have a clue what kind of magic it is. You ever seen someone else do shit that crazy?"
Rachel's eyes flicked over to Hailey. She shook her head. "Never seen anything like it."
The rest of the room seemed equally at a loss. Alden felt pressure building up in his chest. He'd been trying to avoid speaking for the most part ever since he arrived. Now that he was painfully aware of how little he mattered, and fully divested of his former guide and companion, Alden had decided to keep his head down and just try to stay alive.
He couldn't stay silent any longer. In spite of their last encounter, and in spite of her abandoning him in the middle of a crisis, Alden still felt a twinge of loyalty to her. He didn't want to reveal what was ostensibly a secret power of hers, particularly since she'd been so reluctant to tell him its mechanics. She'd clearly kept it a tight secret, as not even Rachel knew about her access to the eighth branch of magic.
It was too important and too powerful. They needed to know. No matter the consequences he might face, this might be the only way they could all survive. Alden cleared his throat and steeled his nerves. He was shaking as he stood to address the crowd, a mass of powerful and influential people to whom he was barely a passing thought.
Rachel stepped outside the door to call Rika. The rest of the Summit waited in awkward silence. Jessica was looking around the room quizzically, trying to figure out why everyone had stopped talking. After the minutes dragged on and Rachel still hadn't returned, she chirped and tugged at Hailey's sleeve.
"I don't know," Hailey replied with a shrug. Jessica held out her palm and walked her fingers across it. Hailey shook her head. Jessica leaned back against the wall and tried to get more comfortable.
She pulled out a pair of tin-foil wrapped rectangles and held them up. Hailey frowned, then pointed at one of them and gave a thumbs up. Jessica nodded, and unwrapped them both. She screwed up her eyes and muttered something that Alden couldn't understand, even sitting only a few feet away. Suddenly, the scent of freshly-cooked pastry began wafting over the room. Jessica nibbled on one of them. With a satisfied expression, she bit down on it eagerly and handed the untouched one to Hailey, who similarly began to dig in.
"Okay, is someone gonna explain what the fuck?" Ryan asked.
"She figured out how to heat up food on the go," Hailey said, after clearing her mouth. "Really nice when we've been out flying all day."
"Yeah, no, that wasn't the part that needed an explanation."
"She can't talk," Alden explained, before Hailey had to speak around another mouthful of food.
"No shit. Was that caused by magic?"
"Yeah," Hailey replied.
Mason looked at her inquisitively. "A ritual gone wrong? Do you happen to know what kind of magic she was trying to enact?"
"No," Hailey sighed. "We'd been doing self-modification magic, so maybe it was related to that? I wasn't in the room at the time. I only caught the aftermath."
"And she can't tell you how it happened," Mason noted. Hailey shook her head. Alden wondered briefly if Hailey had more details she could get from Weston, who had been in the room, but he knew better than to reveal their existence to this group—particularly when the awakened were currently an endangered species.
Mason went on in a lecturing tone. "Ritual magic is a complex active process, unlike the instant and reactive nature of spellcasting. The energy transfer between objects and people is much more bilateral by intention, and since the flow is so open it leaves one vulnerable to any sort of outside interference. In theory a single stray dust mote entering the ritual area could slightly change the outcome of one's intentions, though of course we've never measured any real change caused by such a minute actor. It usually needs to be something much more significant. Like, we once saw a ritual where someone wanted to be able to see clearly in the dark. We helped him research the necessary modifications to the rods and cones in his eyes. We tried out simple experiments on lab mice, all seemed good. We had to modify it a little for the ritual but it seemed to go all right. Problem was, some of the materials were flawed, and we rushed the actual casting."
"Get to the point, Mason," said the young man seated next to him. Unlike Mason's shoulder-length unkempt brown hair, his friend had such a severe haircut he may as well have been bald. He was about the same height, and looked as though he were very familiar with this sort of tangent.
"Right. Well, Joe McKinney's colorblind now." Mason shrugged. "The point is, a broken ritual's resultant damage is related to the original intent. So whatever… uhh… "
"Jessica," Hailey supplied.
"Yeah. Whatever Jessica was trying to do, it might have been related to language. Or communication."
"How does that help her now though?"
Mason hesitated. "It doesn't, I guess. It's probably reversible though, if that makes you feel any better. Joe never wanted to try, but I can't see a reason why it shouldn't be possible." Hailey didn't look very reassured. "The Law of Sentient Arcane Impermeability prevents us from helping her directly, though. She'll have to figure out the rest herself."
"So basically all you said was jack shit," Ryan concluded.
"Shut up, Ryan," said Josh.
"It might be helpful," Hailey said slowly. "Thanks."
Mason nodded imperiously. "That's what these meetings are for, sharing information."
"I thought it was about taking over the world," Ryan said.
"No, that's just Rachel."
Ryan grinned. "Finally, someone else made a fuckin' joke. It's about time we lightened the mood in here."
"I'm not seeing a whole lot of reason for a light mood," Gordon said. "We were all just given a death sentence with no hope of appeal, and most of us are powerless to do anything about it. Largely by your choice."
"Hey, don't lay that on me. I'm just following our glorious leader." Ryan glanced over at the door. "What the hell's taking her so long, anyway?"
"She's trying to call Rika, remember?" said Josh. "I'm surprised we can't hear her yelling from here."
"Yeah, but Rachel still likes her. Sent me to keep her safe when everyone was trying to arrest or kill her."
"Was that why you were in her apartment?" Alden asked, pieces beginning to click into place from days earlier.
"Uhh, yeah? How did you know that?"
"That was when we met Hailey."
Ryan laughed. "Mission accomplished then, everyone wins. Well, until we all die today."
"How can we get magic?" Neffie cut in angrily.
"You can't," Ryan answered idly, not even turning to look at her.
"Cut the crap, son," Jackie growled. "We've got a right to defend ourselves, same as anyone. Magic's apparently the only weapon that matters in this war, so we deserve to be able to arm ourselves."
"Look, I probably agree with you. But I'm not the one you've gotta persuade," Ryan replied.
"Rachel has all of the known Scraps," Josh explained, after Jackie's confused look. "She's the only one who could awaken anyone, except maybe for Grey-eyes. And Grey-eyes is apparently taking Rachel's orders now?"
"Popped up at Rachel's apartment, too," Ryan confirmed. "I got the feeling they don't like each other though."
"Who or what is Grey-eyes?" Gordon asked.
"You know that chick who appeared out of thin air and stopped Omega like it was nothing? That's Cinza's lord and savior."
Cinza frowned. "She saved you as well. All of us owe her our lives."
"Hey, I'm not complaining. That girl's the real deal." Ryan shook his head. "She's definitely not on board with killing Omega though, or we wouldn't be having this fun little group therapy."
"Will she stop us?" Neffie asked.
"Nah. She's one of those totally hands-off types."
"She only appears when someone awakens. Or to help Rachel, apparently," Josh added. "Besides that, we've never seen her anywhere at all."
"So she wouldn't save us, either," Gordon concluded.
Ryan shrugged. "Hasn't lifted a finger yet, has she?"
Alden felt like he had to defend her, though he wasn't quite sure why. "She's got her reasons."
"Who are you again?" Ryan asked, twisting around to look at him.
"But like, who are you?"
"The guy who showed up with Rika. It's why he knows about her speed magic," Josh answered.
"No shit. But everyone else has got a reason. We're all in this fight for sure. Why are you here?"
"I already fought him once," Alden replied quietly. "What about you?"
Ryan opened his mouth, then closed it again. He did that a couple times before finally answering. "Well shit, you got me there. How are you still alive then?"
Alden shrugged. "I got knocked out along with Hailey. I guess Rachel and Natalie must have saved us."
"You said she's got her reasons," Gordon cut in. "What do you mean?"
Alden felt his voice catch. Maybe he shouldn't be revealing this information? It was private and personal, even if it was someone he barely knew. If their positions were reversed, he certainly wouldn't her to be spilling to the crowd.
If our positions were reversed, I'd be trying to save everyone, Alden thought bitterly. She's not helping us and we need everything we can get.
"I think she's in love with Omega," he replied.
"Oh god-fucking-damnit," Ryan sighed. "Because we needed a fucking soap opera on top of this shit."
"Why do you say that?" Gordon asked.
"I saw them together, just before he attacked us," Alden replied. His memory flashed back to that brief exchange. "The way they talked and the way she acted around him. They were really close."
"And did she seem to loooove her genocidal serial killer boyfriend?" Ryan drawled.
"Shut up, Ryan," Josh snapped.
"That's not really definitive," Neffie added. "I'm not saying you're definitely wrong, but maybe it was something else?"
"No," Alden said more firmly. "She cares about him. She insisted we call him Jackson instead of Omega and she tried to defend him."
"So we're back to square fuckin' one," said Ryan.
Josh nodded. He reluctantly got to his feet. "Since Rachel's preoccupied, I guess that puts me in charge as the only other elected person here."
"Hang on, I was voted in too," Jackie interrupted.
Josh looked at her hopefully. "You want to take over?"
Jackie hesitated, then shook her head. "All yours."
Josh sighed. "Right. In the event the crazy magnetics plan falls through, we're gonna need to take stock of our other options. We already know what Julian and Hector can do. Hailey, besides flight, what else can you put on the table?"
"I can control air."
"How fine-tuned? Like, could you clear out an area? Choke him, maybe?"
Hailey frowned. "Maybe? It's not like you can just push it all away. The moment you push some, more flows right in after it. I could keep a small area clear for a while if I really focused down on it, but how are we gonna keep him in place?"
"Bear trap?" Ryan suggested. Cinza shot him a dark look. "...What?"
"I don't think we can rely on him falling into a bear trap, if it could even close fast enough to catch him," Lily pointed out.
"What about you then? Trap him in a pocket dimension?"
"Same answer," Lily sighed. "They can't be created around people, and it's virtually impossible to trick someone into it accidentally. I'd get more technical but Kenni would be right pissed."
"Is this really the time to be hidin' information?" Julian said pointedly.
Lily shook her head. "I'm not intending to perish here, and pocket dimensions are worth billions. Perhaps more."
"Oh boy, time for patents on magic," Ryan quipped.
"Come on," Josh added. "Isn't there anything you can give us? Lives are on the line here."
Lily hesitated. "When I fought the golems, I found a way to interrupt his control. He has to maintain a connection to them and give them specific instructions. They don't have much autonomy. He wrested control back in a few moments, but we might work with that."
"Assumin' he even uses them anymore," Julian pointed out. "Not like he needs them, and he knows there's a weakness now."
"It's something though," Josh added. "Can you explain how—"
Josh was interrupted by the door swinging open. Standing in the doorway, looking disheveled and very unhappy, was Rika Nishimura.
"—the fuck did I do?" Rika asked, landing in a chair with a thud.
"We need your help," Rachel replied. "You said you would."
"I didn't expect you to ask me two hours later," Rika muttered. She looked at her shoulder, where a large patch was now missing from her jacket. "And did you have to send a fucking wolf after me?"
"You weren't answering your phone. Natalie volunteered."
"Rika, they just want to ask you some questions," Alden added. He wanted to defuse the situation and believed that their connection might be enough to smooth over the discussion. He was completely mistaken. Rika ignored him entirely, her focus completely dominated by Rachel.
"Well, you've got me. What do you want?"
"We're going to kill him, but we need to keep him in one place. You've fought him, you've seen how he moves. I need to know how to counter that."
Rika's head snapped around to Alden. Now, sitting across from her in a meeting instead of by her side, Alden could see why everyone else was so reluctant to get close. She had a constant intensity under pressure that never wavered. Every word—every motion—was pumped up to eleven, as if Rika were perpetually on the verge of exploding. Alden felt like he had to weigh every single action for fear of setting her off. It was painfully different from the Rika he'd gotten to know in private over the past week.
"You told them?" she asked accusingly.
Alden forced himself not to recoil. Despite all appearances, he believed Rika wouldn't hurt him. It wasn't like her. "We all want to live. You're the only one with that spell. Tell us how we can stop it."
Rika shook her head. "Not in a million years."
"Girl, we are all gonna die, damnit!" Jackie shouted, getting to her feet. Rachel held up a hand, and Jackie faltered.
Rachel cleared her throat. "Just explain how we can counter his abilities so we can beat him."
"And what if I don't think he's entirely wrong?" Rika shot back.
The room could not have been more silent. With the total absence of ambient noise, the lack of noise was actually painful. A few mouths dropped open, Rachel's included.
Rika continued in a lower, more reserved voice, while electricity crackled along her blue hair. "This shit is too powerful. You don't know what you're doing."
"We're the only ones trying to keep this under control," Josh pointed out.
"You're doing a shitty job," Rika snapped. "And now you want to let out the most powerful branch of magic without considering what it'll do. If you think shit like these dimensions or making electricity from nothing are special, imagine what you could do with faster-than-light spells. This is the goddamn Manhattan project with even less of an idea what the long-term consequences are, and way more potential for blowing up the whole fucking world."
"So just tell me. I'll do it myself," Rachel said.
Rika laughed. "Like hell you will. You'd change your mind as soon as you thought it'd help your master plan."
"Is there anyone in this summit you'd be willing to share the secret with?" Cinza asked, while Ruby leaned against her heavily with her eyes half-focused. The silver-haired cult leader looked even more determined than Rachel, if that were possible. Even Rika seemed to momentarily waver at her fierce expression.
"'Course not, she's already decided we're all too stupid to handle it," said Ryan. "She doesn't care if we die because she thinks she can get away."
"Guilty as charged," Rika agreed. "I really don't care if you die, Ryan."
"I love you too, honey."
"You can't outrun him," Hailey said. "He'd just keep following you. I saw you up in the attic. You were getting tired after just running across the room. There's no way you could keep that up."
Rika sighed. "So I'm trapped here. Doesn't mean I'm suicidal enough to go up head to head with that lunatic."
"We're all going in," Alden said. Rika looked back at him with surprise.
"You too, Alzack?"
"Yes," Alden said firmly, though he hadn't been planning such a thing until that moment. The terror of facing Jackson was fresh in his mind, but Alden had to fight back. It was that or die. Up until only a day ago, he might have just given up right there, but in spite of all the terrible facets of magic he'd encountered, he believed in it as much as Rachel or any of them. It wasn't what Rika or Jackson feared. It was something worth fighting for.
"Then you're as crazy as the rest of them."
"Yeah, I probably am. You're coming too."
"You don't have to tell us anything. Hell, you don't even have to be on the front lines. All you have to do is be close enough to interfere with him long enough for Cinza to do her thing." Alden glanced at the leader of the Greycloaks. "How long is that, exactly?"
Cinza shrugged. "No more than a second."
"Can you do that?" Alden asked. He could tell Rika was actually considering it. He decided to press on. "It's your best chance of survival, same as the rest of us. You keep your secret, Omega dies, we all go on with our lives and you go find your father."
Rika frowned. "All great, but there's one problem with your grand plan Alzack."
"I do have to be close to him to stop him from running," Rika sighed. "I'm putting a lot on the line here. What's your weapon, anyway? Big ritual?"
Rachel nodded. "Cinza and the four most powerful feeding her energy to drop a magnetic field on him and kill him instantly."
"...Okay. That could work. But if there's any interference…"
"We know," Lily replied.
"So we've gotta keep him busy. I'm gonna need people with me out there."
"Whoever you want," said Rachel.
A small smile crept onto Rika's face. Her eyes flicked across the room.
"...Oh, fuck me," muttered Ryan.