Chapter 25 — The Greatest Magic Ever Assembled
They had a weapon, they had a distraction, and they had a trap. All that remained was for Rachel to lure Jackson into the snare.
For that, she had to trust a man she'd suffered far too long. By all accounts he was normally an honest man despite his rough edges. Still, Rachel's only experience with Robert were argument, hatred and betrayal. A bit of distrust and skepticism seemed like a healthy approach.
The Summit had dispersed. Julian agreed to send his henchmen—for lack of a better word—to join Ryan and Josh on the frontline with Rika and Alden. They were already on their way to the park at the south end of town, beyond which lay Robert's usual meeting place with Brian Hendricks. Today, Robert would have to draw them into the trap. Rachel could only pray he managed to hold back Brian somehow so that the man wasn't caught in the crossfire—and so that his daughter wouldn't spot him. Natalie wouldn't be near the front, thank goodness, but Rachel still feared for her father's safety.
It was his own fault, obviously, but Rachel still wanted to keep her promise to the girl. She needed a real family, not the dysfunctional mess that was her current life, following either Lily or Rachel around every day. Shouldn't she be out playing and being a kid?
She's twelve, not six, Rachel reminded herself. Natalie's just a bit small for her age. She should be obsessed with her friends and spending all her time online or something.
Except Natalie Hendricks grew up in Rallsburg with a single father and only a few friends. And her closest friend was murdered…
"What?" asked Natalie, looking up. She'd been riding alongside Rachel, dutifully keeping to her self-appointed job as scout and bodyguard.
"I was just thinking."
"Aren't you scared?" Rachel asked, looking over at her. Even atop Gwen, Natalie only sat a few inches taller than Rachel standing.
"Nope. Gwen and I beat him already. We can do it again."
Rachel shook her head. "You're not going up against him again."
"We're going to do a ritual to stop him."
"I thought I was never supposed to do rituals. That's what Lily said," Natalie said doubtfully.
"We're breaking a lot of the rules right now, Natalie."
"What do I have to do? Is it gonna hurt?"
Rachel tried to look reassuring. "Not if we do it right. You're not going to do the ritual though."
"Why not? I can do it."
She imagined Natalie getting ripped apart, just like her friend had been, and shuddered. "No, Natalie. I need you to protect us. If we get interrupted, everything might fall apart. You've fought his golems before, remember? I need you to keep them off us."
"And then we're gonna go find my dad, right?"
Rachel felt tears forming and quickly glanced away. She couldn't look her in the eye. She doubted Natalie had the experience to recognize a lie when she saw it, and there wasn't anyone else around to clue her in. Besides, it wasn't exactly a lie. "Yeah. Then we'll find your dad and bring him home."
Natalie patted her wolf's head. "Hey, since everyone knows about magic now, that means dad can meet Gwen, right? I don't gotta hide her in the woods?"
"You'll still have to keep Gwen a secret from the world, Natalie," Rachel replied, wiping her face. "Everyone here knows, but the rest of the world isn't quite ready yet."
"I don't know," she sighed.
"...Thanks for not making something up," Natalie said. "Where are we going?"
"Back to the sheriff's station. We have to pick up Robert."
"I don't like him," she declared.
Before they were halfway to the station, there was a rolling clap of thunder, so loud they instinctively clapped their hands to their ears. Rachel looked up, but she didn't see any lightning. If anything, it was an unusually clear afternoon, with only a few puffy clouds lazily drifting along the expanse of sky.
Rachel tensed up. Every muscle in her body felt like it was knotted in anxious anticipation. Is he about to attack? She'd expected to have more time while he recovered, given how much weaker and slower he'd seemed at the Summit compared to their fight the day before. Brian and Robert still had a meeting scheduled—wouldn't Omega want to wait for that first?
He wasn't attacking, as it turned out. Jackson had decided to make his presence known throughout the town to all those who hadn't had the misfortune of meeting him yet. His voice echoed through the entire town as if he were speaking through a loudspeaker from high above. Rachel recognized the telltale signs of similar magic to what Cinza often employed on her own voice, an alteration of sound waves to strengthen them and repeat them across long distances—only now on a massive scale.
"Rallsburg, your town has come to an end."
Within seconds of the thundercrack, Rachel's phone started ringing. She slammed it against her ear while Natalie stared wide-eyed at the sky, holding tight to the back of Gwen's neck.
"Melodramatic son of a bitch, isn't he?" shouted Ryan through the phone speaker.
"—sorry this has to be done, but—"
"He's stalling," Rachel replied. "That's a good sign. He's trying to sew chaos."
"—the so-called 'awakened' among you are dangerous—"
"What if he does whip up another riot?" he asked.
"—For the sake of the the world—"
"He has nothing to offer. Who's going to go after us just for a quick death?" said Rachel.
"—can't be allowed out of this town—"
"Stick to the plan, then?" Ryan shouted.
"Yes. I'll have Robert get him there."
"You're putting a lot of trust in that old bastard."
"It's the only way we're going to get—," Rachel started, but Jackson's next words stopped her dead.
"—help me find them, I promise you a return to your normal lives."
"...Shit," they said, in unison.
"Of course I know it's a lie," Robert growled, stumping along behind Rachel. He looked a little worse for wear after the brawl and the night spent in jail—not that Rachel particularly cared. They made their way back across town yet again, much slower than before. Rachel had already dodged several groups of would-be witch hunters armed with whatever they could find. People were taking Jackson's offer seriously—but thankfully Robert didn't seem to be one of them. "That bastard always seemed off to me."
So why did he tell us something different? Rachel wondered. Is this just to make more chaos? "So you're still with us?"
"I'm with Brian. I could give fuck-all about you. But he's not gonna let Brian's little girl survive this one way or another, and I'm not gonna let that happen." He glanced at Natalie, riding a few meters in front of them. "Even if she scares the hell out of me."
It was good enough for Rachel. "You're sure you can get him to come out?"
"Well, about that..."
Rachel's eyes narrowed. "I don't have time for this, Robert."
"I'll need your help to do it."
"I overheard him talkin' once. He's really shit at moving quiet-like in the woods, let me tell you. He was talkin' 'bout a way to find out who's got magic and who don't. Gave Brian somethin' that could tell him."
Something to identify Awakened on sight that anyone can use? Rachel shuddered at the potential long-term implications. "How does this apply to us?"
"Well, he also went on about actually findin' magic being used. But thing was, he apparently can only tell when certain kinds of magic are being used. Or certain people or somethin'. Special people."
Something clicked in Rachel's mind—a snippet of what Hailey and Rika had told her about the attack at Boris' shop. "I know what he's talking about."
"Great. So here's the plan: you do that wherever you need him to go. I tell him you're trying to kill him with something."
"Truth's always easier than lies, and he thinks he's unstoppable. I go in, I tell him the truth, he'll come roarin' out with his monsters. You get your battle and I don't die."
Rachel considered it. As plans went, it wasn't the worst she'd heard. She didn't really have any better ideas for luring Jackson out to a particular spot—and Robert couldn't possibly reveal their real plan, since he had no idea what it was. As long as the spot they chose was far enough away from the ritual site, it shouldn't matter. The problem was, she only had one of the special Awakened to spare.
Natalie glanced over her shoulder, as Rachel had stopped walking. "We gotta keep moving, right?"
Rachel swallowed hard. It's the only real option, she told herself. It has to be done. She'll be okay. She's way tougher than she looks, and she already looks tough to start.
"Works for you?" Robert asked.
Rachel nodded. She didn't dare open her mouth, because she didn't think she could get any words out without choking on them.
Robert left them as they reached the southern square just before the park. Natalie pulled out some jerky from her bag and held it out to Gwen, who gently gobbled it from her hand.
"What kind of meat is that?" Rachel asked.
"It's for dogs. I thought that'd be okay for a wolf. I looked it up online, and Gwen thinks it's okay too."
"I haven't really done much reading on wolves," she mused. "Maybe later I can help you find a real diet for her?"
"Okay. She really just likes to hunt though. I'm only feeding her myself because we haven't had time." Natalie let Gwen gobble up a few more pieces. "Gwen likes hunting out here. She gets to own the forest 'cause there aren't any other wolf packs around. Just me and her."
"How do you know what she's thinking, Natalie?"
"Magic," Natalie replied, smiling innocently.
"But what kind of spell do you—"
"Rachel!" Josh called. He jogged over from the first bank of trees lining the park. He was holding his phone with a grim expression on his face.
Rachel's heart sank lower, if that were even possible. "What happened?"
"Oscar McKinney's dead," Josh reported in a hard voice.
Josh pocketed his phone while they walked across the empty ground. "Just now apparently. That mob's reformed from last night, and it's bigger. They're going after anyone they can think of, and Oscar was first on the list."
"Why Oscar? He's never done anything!"
"It's my fault," said Cinza, emerging from the trees. "His son fought for us. I should have forced him to run, but I didn't."
"So they went after him for being what—a collaborator?"
"Guess so," said Josh. "I'm already making calls to lay low. Lily's got the Market open while Kendra's out here. She says she can keep it stable as long as she needs to, and she's good enough to close the doors before anyone bad can get in. Can't open any new doors though, just whatever Kendra already made. They said they closed whatever loophole let Omega get in too."
"Get all our people inside," Rachel ordered. "They only have to stay in there until we finish this."
"Right." Josh nodded, lifting his phone again.
Rachel turned to Cinza. "Are your people all safe?"
Cinza shrugged. "My people are here, excepting Ruby and Makoto. We weren't about to shy away from such a fight. Ruby would be here too, except that she is still recovering at our home. Makoto watches over her safe back at our home."
"Okay." Rachel gestured at Natalie. She settled back on Gwen and followed them through the trees into the park.
Half of the place was a curated forest, a sort of miniature woods that still felt relatively enclosed despite being so small. The other half was open, full of walkways and flowerbeds, where only a couple days prior they'd gathered for the funeral of Jenny Wilson.
Today, they gathered for the murder of Jackson Smith.
Most of the Summit was present, with the notable exceptions of the mundane members, Julian Black, and Mason Rhistler. Natalie went to talk with Hector, her old friend, while Rachel immediately walked around the group to the cluster of greycloaks.
Joe McKinney was hunched over on a bench with a haunted expression. Aaron was trying to console him, while Yusuf and Rufus stood nearby. To Rachel's surprise, Joe had already accepted a fresh grey cloak of his own, which stood out as clean and bright compared to the dirt and blood-spattered cloth surrounding him. Nate Price was nowhere to be seen, which accounted for everyone as far as Rachel was aware.
"Joe," said Rachel, interrupting Aaron.
He looked up, meeting her gaze with empty eyes. "Huh?"
"I'm so sorry."
"You didn't do anything."
Rachel couldn't tell if it was an apology or an accusation. His tone was too flat. Rachel wished she could say more, but everyone was waiting on her to start—and they only had so much time before Robert was due to meet with Brian.
She turned around to face her gathered forces. "The meeting's set. Omega should come to right where we want him. If you can fire the ritual off and Rika can hold him in place, this should work."
"That's a scary fucking if," Rika commented.
"How is the magic sharing working out?" Rachel asked Cinza.
She nodded. "I wasn't sure at first, but we're building compatibility faster than I expected. Jessica and Hailey in particular are proficient."
"So if this backfires, does that mean someone's gonna be supermagnetic?" Ryan asked.
"Not the time," muttered Alden.
"Why do we need to do a ritual anyway?" asked Spencer Ancell, one of Julian's two cronies. He was an Elemental magic affinity with wide eyes and a horrible moustache he was far too proud of. "Thought they did it in the middle of the riot. That's not a ritual."
"We were also within twenty feet of the target, had no chance of missing, and Ruby is far more skilled at sharing magic with me than anyone else could possibly be," Cinza replied. "We don't have any of those luxuries today. A ritual will refine and amplify the spell considerably."
"I thought rituals were for permanent things," said Hailey. "What if we make, like, a permanent magnetic field there that just kills anyone who walks into it?"
"There is no requirement for ritual effects to be permanent," said Kendra. "It does tend to be the desired result of ritual magic though."
"How much time do we have?" Cinza asked Rachel.
"An hour at least. You'll get my signal when it's time."
She nodded. "I'd like to practice at least one run before then. We can take the ritual up to the point of drawing out the elements and stop there without committing any energy."
"Is that safe?" asked Alden.
"Perfectly safe," Kendra replied. "If no energy is committed, magic has no real effect. It's quite recommended to practice the movements and feeling of a ritual before attempting to complete it. You can get a rough idea of how it might play out, though it's rarely conclusive and often produces nothing whatsoever. Still, every precaution counts."
"I'm working with four complete novices to both halves of this ritual," said Cinza. "I want every advantage I can get." She looked around the assembled group. "That said, I only need these four."
Rachel took the hint. "If you're coming to the front, follow Ryan. He knows where to go."
Ryan nodded. "All right, suicidal idiots with me. Let's go." Julian's two men trooped out, followed by Alden. Cinza spoke a few brief words to Rufus before he lead their people out of the clearing.
Natalie started to leave, but Rachel tapped her on the hand. "Wait for me just outside the trees, okay?"
Rachel walked over to Rika, who was watching Cinza sprinkle out powdered chalk on the grass. Hector looked queasy, while Hailey and Jessica sat together off on their own, refusing to look at the circle. Kendra simply leaned up against a tree, too tired to be concerned with the proceedings.
"What's up?" asked Rika.
"You're up for this, right?" Rachel asked quietly.
"Do I have a choice?" Rachel didn't answer, so Rika went on. "Look, I'm gonna be honest. I think a lot of what you've done is pretty shitty. Not just to me. Don't think I didn't notice your little impromptu surveillance state here. But I also think you're probably right. You're still a good person, Rachel, and you're gonna save the world someday. Just keep the little people in mind while you do."
"What do you mean?"
"When you came in here, what was the first thing you did? You didn't start barking orders or planning out strategy. You went right to Joe and tried to make him feel better, even though it absolutely wasn't your fault. Don't forget that." Rika smirked. "Don't let your head get too up in the clouds."
"...A tall joke? Really?"
"Come on, it's been years. You needed one."
Rachel cracked a small smile, the first bit of mirth she'd felt in ages. "Thanks."
"We're ready," Cinza announced, standing up and brushing off her robes.
A twin set of intersecting astroids sat at odd angles circling the grass. Each point ended in an open circle of chalk wide enough for a person. Inside the circles at the diagonals sat collections of magnetite, obsidian and agate, separated into small metal bowls in perfect triangles. The cardinal circles were obviously meant for the four who would be assisting.
"Where did you get all those on short notice?" Rachel asked, nodding at the bowls.
"Compliments of Jessica," Cinza replied. "They had a shockingly large collection of gemstones available to choose from."
Hailey shrugged. "We spent a whole year never going out for anything. She wanted stuff to experiment with." She stood up, tapping Jessica on the shoulder to get her attention. "I explained this was just a practice run. We've done them before, so she understands what's up."
"Good. If we're all ready, then please step into the circles. It doesn't matter who goes where."
"Right." Hailey took a deep breath, then shrugged off her jacket. She took off her shirt next, and was halfway to the clasp on her bra when she stopped, finally noticing the dumbstruck stares of everyone around her. "What? We need to avoid interference, right?"
Hector and Kendra had turned away the moment they'd realized Hailey was disrobing, while Cinza just looked utterly confused. Rika was the first to find her voice. "Uhh, you know clothes don't affect it, right?"
"I mean, you don't have to put them back on," Rika added suggestively, her eyes flicking across Hailey's chest. Hailey's eyebrows narrowed.
Rachel interrupted before Rika could say anything worse. "Clothing is protected under Mason's Law, though we're not entirely sure why. It's the same reason you can't just move or choke someone by grabbing the clothes they're wearing. It won't affect the ritual at all. We tested it thoroughly."
"Oh," Hailey said. She grabbed up her clothes hurriedly and put everything back on. Jessica—who had just started, hesitantly, to mirror Hailey's action—stopped and chirped oddly. Hailey turned to her and began to sign something. Rachel had memorized every common sign in American Sign Language, as well as most in British and French, but she didn't recognize anything. Jessica's barrier to language extended far beyond what she'd expected.
"Time to go, Rika," Rachel said firmly, pushing Rika gently. Rika shot Hailey another amused glance before turning and disappearing through the trees. Rachel turned back to the group. "Are you sure you don't want more than Josh as a guard?"
Cinza shook her head. "You need people more than we do. This is the most powerful assembly of magic in the world, and we're about to combine that power even further. If he comes for us, we can launch it at him point-blank and hope for the best. Josh is more than sufficient to keep an eye out for other interruptions."
"We'll be fine, dear," Kendra added, vaguely irritated. Rachel was really beginning to see the slight differences between her and Lily. They were so similar it was almost unbelievable, even closer than the usual identical twins—but they were distinct individuals. "We'll see you when you return."
"This is getting scary close to a last goodbye," said Hailey. "Just go already."
Hector opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He looked down at the ground, shaking slightly.
Rachel nodded. "See you later."
"So what were the salamander eggs for?" Alden asked.
Ryan looked over. Alden was leaning against a wide trunk, while Ryan sat on an overturned log whittling at a fallen branch with a knife. "The what now?"
"The eggs you wanted from Rika so badly. What were they for?"
"Fuck me, I totally forgot," Ryan laughed. "I wanted to see if I could make traps with 'em."
"Traps? How does that work? Doesn't magic just disappear as soon as you let go?"
"'Course not. There's rituals obviously, but there's other things too. I'm guessing you saw Rika's sweet-ass bag?"
"So yeah, there's plenty of things where magic sticks around. I was gonna use the eggs to make these fire traps. They'd go off as soon as you got near, nice little explosions. Like landmines."
"Dude, have you seen what we're been dealing with? If I feel like I need landmines, I'm gonna lay down some fucking landmines. At the end of the day, it's them or me, and I'm always gonna choose me."
Alden still thought it was an awful idea, but he decided he might as well get more information about how they worked. If nothing else, he might figure out how to disarm them someday. "So where does the energy come from?"
"No, I mean, how do they stick around?"
"Same answer. You can't just use energy from anything else. Magic only works if you're okay with it going off. It's nice and polite." Ryan snorted. "Gemstones give you some generic power, or more if you're doin' the right element, and other things do super specific stuff. Like salamander eggs and making fire explosions. Ever been to a concert?"
"Concerts. Rock concerts, metal concerts, whatever. They have those big fireballs they shoot off on stage. It's kinda like that, only in every direction."
"Sounds like a quick way to start a forest fire."
Ryan shrugged. "It's also super easy to put out forest fires now, since we can literally control fire. Anyway. Point was, that energy still always starts at you. Even those fancy bags, they're always drawing energy from you. Might be a tiny bit because Miss Laushire's a genius, but you're feeding it to keep it going. Which is actually why my traps would be way more humane than a landmine. You know why landmines are so shitty? It's not 'cause of war. In a war between actual soldiers on a battlefield anything goes. Anyone who says differently is kidding themselves. Only reason we don't use nukes or whatnot is because there'd be too much backlash. Wouldn't actually achieve objectives. But landmines? Landmines only hurt one person at a time. Maybe a few. They're useful as fuck for locking down an area and scaring the shit out of an enemy.
"Nah, the reason landmines are actually horrible is because they don't go away. After the war's over and everyone's gone, those mines are still there twiddling their thumbs and waiting to blow some poor guy's legs off. Someone who thought the fighting was over and they were finally safe again, only to get blown up 'cause the engineers who designed those things were too good at their jobs. Landmines are fucking terrible, I'm with you there. But that's where my traps are different. Once they run out of energy, there's no explosive anymore. No C4, no gunpowder. Just fuckin' salamander eggs. Makes a battlefield way cleaner at the end of the day."
"Why do you know all that?" Alden asked.
"Video games man. Who said they weren't educational?"
"You're still an idiot," said one of Julian's men. Spencer, if Alden remembered right.
"Boys, get along or I'll beat all of you up myself," said Rika, limping her way around the trees. Alden got to his feet in a hurry to greet her, but she just rolled her eyes. "Jeez, calm your tits Alzack."
"Are we all ready to go?" Alden asked.
"Something like that." Rika glanced over at the trio of Greycloaks. Joe McKinney had vanished into the woods, seeming too shell-shocked to focus on anything. "You guys cool with following my lead?"
Rufus—who seemed to be the leader of the remaining group—nodded. "We're in this together, for the good of us all." The others echoed the second half under their breath.
Rika leaned back slightly. "Ooookay. Going full tilt on the cult thing now, got it." She limped over to the nearest tree and took a seat. "We've probably still got a bit of time before Rachel shows up, and even more before we actually do this thing. Anyone got a deck of cards?"
"Like I'm gonna lose even more money to you," muttered Ryan.
"I seem to recall you losing way more than money to me," she cackled.
"I'm in," said Spencer, producing a deck from his pocket.
"Man after my own heart," said Rika with a smirk. Alden shrugged and sat down. Anything to take his mind off of what they would be facing in an hour or so.
Six hands in betting with pinecones, Alden was surprised to see Rika already quite a bit down. He was holding steady playing cautious, and Spencer seemed to be making money—figuratively speaking—on every hand. Rika was growing more frustrated with each loss.
"All right, fess up," Rika said after Spencer claimed another pot with a smile. "You're a former pro or something."
"Nope. Just lots of games with the guys. Julian's just as bad." He produced a cigarette and lit it with the tip of his finger. "You're out of cones."
"Screw that. New bet. Split your cones fifty-fifty and we go around again. Winner gets the loser's Scrap."
"I'd take that, but I can't match your stake," said Spencer. "I don't have one. Gave it to the Council."
"You gave it to Rachel? Why?"
"'Cause I thought it might do some good." Spencer shrugged. "It hasn't yet, but she's still young. Give her time."
"Fine. Zack, give me your cones."
"Nope," said Alden lazily. He was busy trying to stack them into a small pyramid while waiting for Rika to give up.
"How about she gets naked if she loses again?" sneered Julian's other man, leering through an unkempt beard.
"Fuck off," snapped Rika.
"Go away, Jerry," said Spencer. Jerry made a disappointed noise and fell silent.
"Yeah, no one wants to see that," added Ryan. A moment later, a pinecone smacked him in the side of the head. He snapped upright, looking around. "The fuck?"
Rika looked at him innocently. "What? I don't have any."
Alden desperately tried to suppress his smile as he released the magic on the pinecone. Ryan looked around again, but Spencer was suddenly very intent on his cigarette and paying them no attention. Exasperated, Ryan settled back against the tree root and continued whittling. Rika shot Alden a conspiratorial grin.
"How about some real stakes?" said Spencer calmly, shuffling the deck. "Split it even, loser's out in front when it's time."
They fell silent. The brief moment of mirth had been burst like a balloon.
Rika shrugged. "All right then."
Rachel walked a fair distance behind Natalie as they entered the woods. It wasn't far to the meeting place, but it was far enough that they wouldn't be seen or followed from the town. They didn't want to take a single chance they'd be interrupted or anyone would get caught in the crossfire.
"Are you going to stop us?" Rachel asked. After there wasn't a response for a few moments, she continued. "You have to see there's no other way now. After what he did at the Summit, and that announcement to the town?" Rachel's voice caught in her throat as she kept going. "After what she did to Will?"
"Stop," Beverly whispered.
"He's a monster. He's not the guy you used to know."
"I guess I just didn't know him all that well," she murmured.
Rachel felt a tiny spark of optimism. "So you'll help us?"
"...I won't stop you."
Rachel sighed. It would have to be enough. She couldn't persuade Beverly to kill the man she loved, no matter how horrible a person he might be. Moreover, she still felt like she was treading on thin ice with the blackmail she held. It was certainly enough to get Beverly to protect her for the time being, but could she keep it going? Couldn't Beverly just interfere the next time she logged into her email? The moment she let her guard down for even a second, Beverly could block it and her leverage would be gone.
Rachel wondered what Beverly might do to her in revenge. She took some small comfort in that—no matter the consequences she might face—Beverly wasn't the type to go after loved ones. Will would be safe.
"Son of a bitch!" came a shout as they rounded the corner to the meeting spot. Gwen and Natalie were leading the way, as usual, and they still managed to shock a few people with every appearance. In this case, it was Jerry Hauserman, the other man Julian had sent to help them.
"Keep it down, idiot," snapped Ryan. He hopped to his feet and tossed aside a stick. At the sight of Rachel, he threw a lazy half-hearted salute. "Hail, cap'n."
"All ready here?" Rachel asked.
"I mean, we didn't have much to do," said Ryan. "We're pretty much just here to keep him busy until the nuke goes off, right?"
"Right." Rachel nodded. "I'm open to ideas on how to do that. I'm not really used to this sort of thing."
"Well, none o' us are, thank god," Rufus added. "I mean, I've done plenny of huntin', but I never been the hunt'd."
"Clever man's got the clever words," said Spencer, getting to his feet. Rachel noticed a couple odd piles of pine cones scattered by the tree. "I think it's simple. Every time you've fought him, he's used his golems or his speed, right?"
"He can do something with fire too, when he wants to," put in Alden. "I tried that and he just vanished it like nothing."
"Yeah, but he didn't attack with it," said Rika. "Guy's on to something." She grinned. "Thanks for volunteering to be out front, by the way."
Rachel frowned. "Is that really necessary?"
Spencer shrugged. "She's right, I'm out in front. Fair n' square. Don't worry, I can handle it." He glanced at Rika. "You owe me a drink afterward though."
"If he's attacking with golems or with his own fists, I can take a punch," Spencer said firmly. "So long as we don't end up in a straight out fight, I think I'll be okay. Just be ready to pop him as soon as you get the chance."
"And what are the rest of us supposed to do?" asked Jerry.
"Run like a little girl," said Ryan. He didn't get the laugh he'd obviously expected from his expression.
"...I think you mean run like a little Ryan," said Rika.
Spencer laughed. "The first 'little girl' that comes to mind is the one sitting on the wolf over there." Natalie was barely paying attention, having pulled out her phone again to play a game.
"I'm not runnin' anyway, I'm not a coward," said Jerry.
"Running really is the plan," said Rachel. "He comes, you run. As long as you run past where Rika's hiding, you're good. We don't need you to actually fight him, we just need him to get close to Rika so she can lock him down."
"And then Our Lady of the Grey blows him up," added Rika.
"Someone's gonna blow up?" asked Natalie.
"No," said Rachel. "No one's going to explode."
"Oh. Okay." Thankfully, Natalie sounded relieved, or Rachel might be concerned. She already felt anxious that Natalie's childhood was so chaotic and abnormal. Unlike the rest of the five, Natalie wasn't an adult. Her mind wasn't fully developed. The girl could be easily influenced by any number of factors—and Rachel feared what someone that powerful could turn into if pushed in the wrong direction too many times.
"So we're splitting up even more?" Spencer asked, smoke puffing out from his mouth. "Gonna be barely anyone left in the group at this rate."
Rachel nodded. "The longer he's out here trying to kill one of us, the more chances Rika has to catch him."
"How's that supposed to work, anyway?"
"Trade secret," Rika replied. "Just trust me."
"Not in a million years," said Ryan.
"Trust me, then," said Rachel. Ryan looked about to argue again. Alden nudged him desperately, and to her surprise Ryan fell silent. Rachel shot him a grateful look.
They didn't have much time left.
Alden was killing time practicing magic. They were waiting in a clearing they'd set up to look like a fake ritual site. The trio of Greycloaks were further out, trying to act as an early warning system. Alden couldn't see a single one of them. Spencer had sprinkled out a circle of chalk that Rachel provided, and Natalie was roaming around it impatiently while her wolf sat on its haunches and watched. Ryan was tossing a pinecone in the air repeatedly with a bored expression.
Alden decided to catch it first. He hurled out his mental grip and snatched it out of midair. The cone sailed neatly into his own hand, while Ryan's was suddenly grasping at thin air.
"Nice pull," said Ryan. He picked out another cone, tossing it up again. "You a Movement guy?"
"Maybe." Alden tried to adopt his casual tone, tossing the cone up in the air himself. Ryan grinned. A second later, he hurled his pinecone straight at Alden's head.
Alden only had a split-second to react, but he managed to throw up his mental grasp fast enough to slow the cone. He couldn't stop it entirely with the velocity it was moving at, but he managed to deflect it off-course. It sailed past his ear and struck the tree trunk with a loud thwack.
"Good call, not trying to stop it entirely. I put a bit extra behind that throw, so you'd probably just exhaust yourself." Ryan nodded approvingly. "Better to just avoid the hit with the minimum effort."
"What about you? What's your affinity?" Alden asked.
Instead of answering, Ryan lifted up his fist. His arm bulged out with thick corded muscles, as if he'd suddenly become a bodybuilder overnight. "Beating people up." He grinned, then let it lapse back into his normal physique.
"Wouldn't that just throw you off? Like, being unbalanced or not being used to the muscles?"
Ryan shrugged. "Magic takes care of it, I guess. I don't feel unbalanced, and it just feels like normal me—'cept I'm way stronger."
"Can you tell me how to do it?" Alden asked eagerly.
"I guess, but without the affinity you won't be able to hold it for long. Not really worth it in a fight."
"I just want to know more magic, and you seem like the expert on that."
"Nice to see someone's still excited by this shit," Ryan smiled. "All right." He walked over and sat down next to Alden. "Hold out your arm like this. Okay. Did Rika teach you how to move your mind out into your body?"
"Kinda. She taught me how to summon fire on my fingertip. Is it similar?"
"Same general area, but you're staying inside your skin this time, not on top of it. You want to find your way to the muscle layer, then you kinda fold it in on itself. It's hard to describe."
Alden tried what Ryan had said. It didn't seem to accomplish much. He could feel out the muscle group with surprising detail thanks to his practice with telekinesis, but he wasn't able to affect it. He tried to push energy into it, but all he succeeded in doing was moving his arm slightly to the left.
"No, you're still doing Movement. You gotta enlarge it. Modify it."
"I'm trying," Alden muttered. He felt back into it with his mind, tracing the contours of the muscle layer. Normally, his mental projection was like a hand—gripping objects just like he would with his real fingers. This time, he dismissed the hand image and simply pushed inside the muscles instead of gripping the surface. Once inside, he just fed energy directly into the entire region, without any sort of grip or even any purpose at all.
Immediately, his arm muscles seized up and his elbow went rigid. Alden could see a kind of growth in the muscle layer. He could feel how much stronger it was, but he also couldn't actually make use of it. His entire arm was locked in place, and it felt painful to try and move it.
Alden released the magic and his arm thankfully returned to normal. He stretched it out to relieve the discomfort, glaring at Ryan. "Could have warned me."
"Well, to be honest, I didn't expect you to get anything out of that at all. You're going about it all wrong though. Just shooting stuff into your arm like you're doping up is gonna do fuck-all." He shrugged. "How am I supposed to explain a magic thought process to someone who's never done it? It's like explaining to someone what a tail feels like, or to a girl what having a dick feels like."
"Thanks for that image," Alden muttered. He glanced over at Natalie, who hadn't appeared to have heard Ryan. In fact, she was staring out into the woods with a concerned expression. "Natalie?"
"Gwen heard something," Natalie said. She rushed to her wolf's side. Gwen was issuing a low growl from her bared jaws, and Natalie patted her on the head trying to soothe her. They didn't want to make too much noise and give away the trap.
"Could just be one of those cult morons moving around too much," Ryan said dismissively.
Alden's phone buzzed. He tapped the screen on. Rachel had sent them a message—minutes earlier. "Crap. Rachel sent the message five minutes ago."
"The fuck?" Ryan snapped, leaping to his feet.
He let out a stream of curses.
"Is it time?" Natalie asked.
"Yeah. Do your thing," said Ryan. Natalie clapped her hands together eagerly, and a moment later a set of fireballs burst forth. The wave of heat washed over all of them as she sent them spinning up into the air above the trees—a perfect circle of bright pink flames.
"When did you learn to make it colored?" asked Ryan.
"I saw someone else do it. I thought it looked nice." Natalie smiled. "I learned how to color stuff from the lightning Scrap, so I just combined it. They're pretty, aren't they?"
"Beautiful," he deadpanned. "Anyway, show's on. He should have sensed that, if Rachel's not crazy. One minute, then we go."
The minute seemed to take hours. Alden was counting it down mentally in his head, but every second was another bead of sweat forming on the back of his neck. Flashes of the monsters kept hurtling through his mind, while Jackson's low voice echoed just beyond the tips of his ears. For all his bravado in talking to Hailey, or to Rika, Alden was still terrified of what they were up against. Who wouldn't be?
His companions didn't seem nearly as concerned. Ryan looked as bored as he ever did, while Natalie was intensely focused on the trees. Spencer was stamping out his cigarette. Only Jerry seemed as nervous as Alden, his eyes flicking back and forth rapidly while his hands seemed to never quite settle on a particular position.
He's going to come for us, Alden reminded himself. That's the whole point. We time it so that he sees our burst of magic before the ritual starts, and he goes for the first one. He's fast so he should be here any second. Then we just run. Right?
There was a loud thump and the sound of liquid splattering across the leaves. Alden looked around.
One of the golems erupted from the ground, faceless and covered in underbrush. Its thick, featureless arm was already extended, with a crimson-splattered fist protruding through Spencer's torso.
The man looked down with glazed-over, disbelieving eyes. "Shit," he muttered.
The golem whipped its arm back, flinging Spencer's body off like a wet rag. He hit the nearest tree and tumbled to the forest floor. His eyes were totally empty, like there wasn't a person inside anymore.
Alden's heart skipped a beat.
He looked around in a panic, but there wasn't anyone there. Jackson was nowhere to be seen. There was only the golem, with a second one starting to grow a few feet behind the first. Natalie lifted up balled fists and Gwen growled deep and loud, while Ryan's arms bulged out and Jerry summoned up his own set of flickering yellow-orange flames.
Rachel was watching the sky, but Rika watched her instead. As the silence dragged on, she felt like Rika was working up to getting something off her chest, but couldn't bring herself to say it. Rachel was too anxious and impatient to let her get to the point on her own. "What is it?"
"You want to say something."
Rika shrugged. "Nothing to say, is there?"
"Come on. You've been on my case since you got here," Rachel sighed. "Just say what you want to say."
"I have not. I was staying out of your way until you sent the cops after me."
"That was… the only option."
"God, can't you just apologize like a normal person?"
Rachel paused. "I'm sorry."
"Once more, with feeling."
"Look," Rachel started angrily. "I'm sorry, but you really haven't made things easy. Like today. You said we aren't handling magic well, but you aren't really offering any solutions. You're just shouting down anything we do try."
"Everything you try is shit," she grumbled.
"So work with me. Help me, Rika," said Rachel wearily.
"I am, aren't I? I'm out here in this crap with you."
"That's not—" A burst of pink flames erupting into the sky interrupted her thoughts. "There's the signal."
"One minute left. Any last words?" asked Rika sardonically.
"Well, I have one. It was me. I was the one who lost Andrea's favorite necklace when we were fourteen."
"...Why are you telling me that now?"
"I don't want to die with that on my conscience. Go tell your mom when you see her that it's probably still somewhere at school near the tech lab."
"There's no way it's still there."
"Eh, probably not," Rika shrugged. "Oh well." She stood up straight, brushing twigs off her jacket. "At least she'll stop thinking it was some hobo breaking in."
"You could have just bought one for yourself," Rachel said. "You had way more money than us."
"Look, I already feel like an idiot about it. I just really wanted her necklace." She looked away. "I thought you should know."
"Thanks, I guess?"
"Something's coming," Rika said sharply. She tensed up, and so did Rachel. The birds had stopped chirping.
The right way, but… It's not our people.
A blur shot by without sound. Rachel had never realized it before, but even the method by which Omega moved seemed totally unnatural, since it didn't generate a sonic boom or any of the other usual effects one might associate with such a fast-moving mass. She didn't have any more time to think about it though, as the man suddenly slowed to a crawl in front of her.
Rachel reached for the connection with Cinza to send her the signal, but stopped dead when she realized what she was looking at.
There wasn't just one person. It was two. Omega somehow had Brian along for the ride.
Rika was gasping for breath. Omega seemed to be moving in slow motion. They were running in the direction of Natalie's spell, so Rachel had actually managed to catch him coming in, not going away. His head was just starting to turn in their direction, his deep black eyes searching for the interference.
Rachel had a split-second to decide. If she signaled, they might kill Omega, and they'd kill Brian along with him. They might even kill Rachel and Rika, with Omega only a dozen feet away. She wasn't sure.
This wasn't the plan!
She'd promised Natalie she'd find her father. She'd promised the town she'd keep them safe. She'd promised her people she'd kill Jackson.
She'd promised her mother she'd make it home alive.
Rachel faltered. She released the connection with Cinza and flung her arms around Rika. The electricity from Rika made Rachel's face buzz painfully. Her head felt light and dizzy. She pulled Rika behind a tree and out of sight.
Rika's concentration broke. Omega sped up again, and both vanished into the underbrush a moment later. Her chest heaved as she drew long, deep breaths. She started coughing into Rachel's arm. Rachel reluctantly released her, taking a few steps back to give her some space.
"What the fuck did you just do?" Rika gasped.
"I— I d-don't know," Rachel stuttered.
"We have to catch up with them."
Rika turned and started to run. Every few steps, she grunted in pain from her injuries, sustained in her last fight with Jackson. The guilt was doubling up in Rachel's head. She'd wasted not just their current efforts, but all the pain and trouble they'd been going through all week. Everything Rika had said echoed in her mind.
Rachel followed as quickly as she could, while her brain screamed at her in rage and frustration. She'd just blown their best chance to take him out. What was she thinking?
Did I just get everyone killed?
A purple lightning bolt thundered through the clearing, accompanied by a shout of exertion from Natalie. It blasted through the chest area of the nearest golem, cutting it cleanly in two. The material crumbled into dust and coated the ground in a sickly light grey. Another golem swung for Alden. He only barely got out of the way in time, flinging himself backward using his mind far faster than he could have moved. The golem's fist slid past his cheek with a whisper of wind.
"We need to run!" Ryan called. He threw a punch at the golem that had tried to blindside him, and his fist sent it bending over backwards. Ryan didn't waste a second getting far away from it, having been forewarned by Rachel. It pulled itself back up as if it hadn't taken a hit, continuing its unrelenting, unyielding approach. "Natalie, let's go!"
"I'm coming!" Natalie shouted back, but she didn't seem to be. She spun in a circle and flung out a flat palm.
Another brilliant purple lightning bolt crackled out and annihilated a fresh golem that had just finished growing. Branches of the bolt split off as it passed through and connected with tree branches and rocks on the other side, finding whatever path they could to the ground. Natalie finally relented, climbing onto her wolf. She pulled on her hood and made to leave—but paused, looking over her shoulder into the distance.
Alden followed her gaze. There between the trees was a man holding out a strange blackened rod, with short brown hair and an unshaven face. Alden didn't recognize him, but there was only one person it could possibly be.
"Natalie, we have to go, now!" Alden shouted. He needed her to look away before she recognized him.
Natalie turned away and rode into the forest. Alden followed her at a sprint. She was taking a slightly roundabout way to the spot where Rachel and Rika were supposed to be waiting, but that made sense given where the golems had been appearing. It didn't have anything to do with the man standing out in the forest, Alden told himself. We aren't going anywhere near him. Natalie didn't recognize him.
The golems continued to chase them, but with their lumbering pace it wasn't long before they'd lost them completely. Ryan's arms had returned to normal size while he kept easy pace with Natalie. The wolf wasn't running anywhere as fast as she obviously could, but Alden suspected that she was trying to help Natalie stay on. Alden, meanwhile, was barely keeping up with his shorter stride and his general lack of exercise.
Still, something was wrong. The golems were never the issue they were concerned about. Jackson should have been fast enough to catch them. They'd chosen a spot just far enough that Rika wouldn't be blindsided by a golem, but not so far that they couldn't get to her in time to trap Omega. So where is he?
He spotted Rika sprinting through the trees directly at them. Alden shouted at her to draw her attention.
"Why are you out here?" shouted Ryan.
"We fucked up!" Rika called back. Rachel emerged as well, following Rika. "I didn't know he could bring someone with him. The trap didn't work."
Ryan cursed. "What do we do now?"
"Try again?" Alden said. "Omega's… friend is alone back there. If Natalie casts something else, maybe he'll come here solo?"
"Do it," Rika snapped.
Natalie looked up at her name. "What am I doing?"
"Cast something big, doesn't matter what."
Natalie thought for a moment. She looked up at the trees and held out a fist into the sky, closing her eyes. She muttered something under her breath. Her stomach seized inward as if she'd just been punched, and she doubled over. Natalie pulled herself back upright on Gwen's back, still muttering rapidly. Finally, she opened her hand.
A piercing cry of a hawk echoed through the forest. The bird dove through the canopy and fluttered its wings, coming in for a soft landing to perch directly on Natalie's outstretched hand. Its talons were huge clamped onto Natalie's fingers. It had handsome brown and white plumage with a set of light orange feathers at the tail. Natalie opened her eyes, smiling at it. It took a few steps to steady itself on her finger, while Natalie stroked the back of its head with her other hand.
"How the fu…" Ryan started, but stopped himself.
"That's 'something big'?" Rika asked.
Natalie nodded. "That's the hardest thing I know how to do. It gets harder every time I do it, too."
"Okay then." Rika looked around. "I don't feel anything. He should be on his way, shouldn't he?"
"He should, unless…" Rachel trailed off. "Oh no."
"Oh no what?"
Rachel started sprinting away back to Rallsburg. Alden realized what Rachel must have—Omega was going after the other natural awakened.
Rika came to the same conclusion. "Oh, fuck."
The rest of the group chased after Rachel in desperate panic, stumbling over tree roots in their haste to stop the pending catastrophe.
Rachel hurtled headlong through the woods, heedless of the danger she was more than likely heading into. She'd seen the results of a broken ritual firsthand and secondhand several times over—with her own, with past Council experiments and now with Jessica as well. She'd seen the potential scale of disaster that was possible from Julian's reckless hydrogen experiment.
Now, with no less than the most powerful awakened in the world combining their power under Cinza, Rachel wouldn't be surprised by anything that came out of it.
Rachel had to get there before Omega did.
She didn't make it.
There was a ear-shattering rumble of sound. It was like a bass note so low that it was barely perceptible, and yet the pressure felt like it would crumble her eardrums. Rachel clapped her hands to her head, falling to the ground in agony. Her over-sensitive ears felt like they were on fire.
The ground shook. Rachel felt a gentle force grab her from above, affecting her entire body at once. It felt like she were being pulled straight into the sky. She was lifted off her feet and brought slowly into the air. It wasn't exactly painful, but it was discomforting. Far more disturbing was the sight of the town that she could barely make out through the trees.
Sounds of tearing and scraping reverberated across the landscape. Anything with metal tore itself to shreds throughout Rallsburg. Rachel could see entire buildings splitting apart at the seams as metal shot through wood and flung into the sky, far more violently than she'd been. The radio tower crumpled and splintered away from its concrete foundation. The only structures that seemed unaffected were the looming spires of the old library, standing firm while the rest of Rallsburg was ripped to pieces.
The screaming started. Shouts of pain and terror filled her ears, only to be drowned out a moment later. The unseen force vanished in the blink of an eye.
Rachel fell back to the ground, and the town fell along with her.