Chapter 26 — Monsters
As if a rope had been cut, they fell back to the earth. Only Natalie had been unaffected, though Alden wasn't sure if that was because she'd held onto Gwen—who hadn't so much as twitched during the event—or because of her status as naturally awakened. Either way, the rest of them weren't so lucky. Ryan in particular ended up crumpling to the ground and knocking his head against a tree branch as he went, cursing all the while.
"Chikushō, chikushō, chikushō," whispered Rika.
Ryan clambered to his feet, though he looked very unsteady. "That was the ritual, right? They killed him, and I'm about to go drink all the fucking beer in the K n' B?"
"In your fucking dreams," Rika whispered. "He got to them."
"I wanted one last happy thought before we all get ass-fucked, bitch," he snapped.
"Shut up!" shouted Jerry—and to Alden's surprise, it worked. But then again, it usually worked when Rachel interjected as well, so maybe they were just easy to calm down. Jerry continued in a surprisingly calm voice. "We have to regroup, right? Find Rachel and figure out what to do next."
As he spoke, a deafening crash echoed across the landscape. A fireball erupted into the sky, in the direction of Hector's store. A split-second later, the shockwave pounded through the underbrush, making them all flinch.
"Fuck that, I'm out," said Ryan. He meant it too, turning and sprinting away into the woods at a random direction. Jerry hesitated, reconsidering his idea to rejoin the fight. After a few moments, he ran in a different direction, though still far away from the scraping and burning sounds and occasional screams now issuing from Rallsburg.
Natalie said something to her new hawk, and it took off into the sky. She rode off hard in the direction Rachel had last been seen, leaving only Rika and Alden alone in the forest.
"What do we do now?" Alden whispered. He'd only planned out up to the fight with Omega. He had no idea what he was supposed to do if they failed. It hadn't even popped into his mind. That was the final battle, wasn't it? The big finish with the risky gambit and the life-or-death stakes?
What did he do after they'd lost?
Rika shook her head. "We're fucked. Rachel's plan failed." She sounded just as shaken as Alden felt. "I don't know, Alden."
"Do you think any of them are alive?" he asked, while Hailey and Jessica's faces flashed through his mind.
"Could be. Ritual backfiring might not have killed them. Omega would though." Rika grimaced. "Fuck me, I have to go after her."
Alden nodded. "I'm coming too."
"Okay then." Rika started down the path Natalie had just taken. Alden followed as fast as he could. Thankfully it was still mid-day, or the forest would be much more difficult for them. Instead, it was the things in the forest that caused them the most trouble.
A snap of a branch had them both twisting around in an instant. Alden summoned up a ball of flame in one hand, larger than he'd ever managed. He assumed the adrenaline currently flooding his veins was helping him out with magic somehow. Rika had one hand full of gemstones and her other fist up and ready to strike, sparks dancing between her knuckles.
Viper was behind them, his hand in the air. "White flag," he called out.
"Rika, shoot him," Alden snapped.
"He tried to kidnap me."
"He what now?"
"You shoot me, Rook shoots you," Viper said quickly. "And she won't miss. Now what the hell just happened?"
"We tried to kill Omega," said Rika, not lowering her hand.
"What the fuck do you think?" Rika snapped, lifting her hand an inch. Viper took a step back, his hand still raised. "You know that gesture means fuck-all when you have magic, right?"
He shrugged, and put his hand in his pocket instead. "It's traditional. Calm down."
"We're a really long way from calm." Rika's eyes narrowed. "How did you find us?"
"We saw pink fire coming out of the trees and figured that was worth investigatin'."
"So you could take them instead," Alden added. "Rika. They tried to fly me out in a helicopter. He just wants someone for his boss to cut open."
"Fucking hell," she muttered.
Viper shrugged. "Look, there's some bad blood here, so let's just clear it up. Won't touch either of you again, you got my word. We just want to know what's going on."
"New plan," said Rika. "You work for Malton directly right? Cornelius Malton?"
He nodded slowly. "So what?"
"So my father's the founder of NishiSoft and has access to every single goddamn Laushire database—and so do I. I have all the encryption keys they've ever used and root logins on their network." Rika lowered her hand a few inches. "You've got a helicopter, and I need a ride. Get me the fuck out of town and your boss gets the whole Laushire backend."
Viper frowned. "There's no way I'm getting out of here without someone who can use magic."
"Holy shit, bakayarō, are you not seeing this?" She gestured over her shoulder. As if on cue, another, smaller explosion rippled into the sky with a low roll of thunder. "If you don't leave now, you're not getting out of here alive period. Do you see what's happening back there?" Rika shook her head. "I want safe passage to somewhere in the United States or Canada of my choosing. Malton never learns my name or who gave him the info. And you get to deliver your boss a massive prize on a platter. Everyone's happy, none of us die. Magic can wait."
"Rika…" Alden started. Rika ignored him.
"Omega can't keep winning. Magic's already gotten out of Rallsburg. Sooner or later he'll bite it, but magic won't, 'cause he can't beat Grey-eyes. So you'll have another chance—but only if we get out of here. Right now." Rika flipped her hand over, offering it to Viper to shake. "Deal?"
Viper took a minute to consider it. Alden stepped closer to Rika and dropped to a whisper. "What about Rachel?"
"She'll make it," Rika said, though he could hear the unease in her voice. "She always does in the end."
"Even up against a god?"
"They aren't gods, Alden. They're just more stupid college kids in over their heads."
Alden frowned. "If you leave, we can't hold him down anymore."
Rika hesitated. "I can't stay here. I can't die here."
"Tell me how to do it," Alden said, though he could feel intense anxiety weighing on him as he realized what that would mean. "I'll hold him."
"There's no way I could explain it in time," Rika said. "And it's still too dangerous."
"More dangerous than letting something like him stay alive?" Alden pointed out.
Rika looked at him with surprise. "Way more murderous than I expected, Alden," she murmured.
Alden was still running on thick adrenaline. His entire body felt energized and ready for a fight. "I've watched him kill people now. He tried to kill you too, and me. If you aren't going to try again, then at least give us the chance to. Please, Rika."
"You've got a deal," Viper called. "Wherever you want to go, no questions asked and no records."
She nodded. "Give me a minute."
The gruff man turned and started speaking into his radio earpiece again. Rika turned away to block his line of sight, edging up close to Alden. Her skin touched his briefly, sending another electric shock dancing through him. She pulled her bag around front and dug through it quickly. She picked out a small watertight lockbox and unlocked it.
"Read this quickly," she muttered.
Alden picked up the crumpled scrap of paper reverently. He looked down at the first few words, and suddenly felt his eyes being drawn across it like they weren't under his control anymore. The writing—which he couldn't describe but somehow perfectly comprehended—flowed much more strangely than he remembered.
It was very different from the page he'd read in Rika's apartment, or the one Hailey had shown him at Boris' shop. The sentences seemed to flow faster, but at the same time it was like he were wading through thick sludge to get through to the end. He saw lines of pure energy rolling away from him, and as he followed them the world seemed to suddenly turn into a flickering old movie. With every step the entire world flashed, like someone were turning the lights on and off. He rubbed at his eyes, trying to clear the effect away.
Alden looked around and realized why. It wasn't that the lights were blinking—there were no lights around to flash anyway, just the sunlight streaming through the trees. He was perceiving it more quickly, and acting upon it at that same speed. In that vein, he was also perceiving the infinitesimally small gaps between photons arriving from the sun and bouncing around to eventually reach his eyes, as his speed of perception increased further and further. Alden was moving faster than the universe.
It released. The lines of energy faded and the world snapped back to normal. He hadn't moved at all. Alden let out a huge breath and doubled over, feeling as though he was about to be sick. Rika grabbed him and helped him stay upright.
"Easy," she muttered. "Don't look too suspicious."
Alden forced himself to stay calm. It took him a few moments, but he managed to stay upright and hold it in. "That flickering was really annoying," he finally choked out.
Rika grinned. "I forgot about that," she whispered. "Don't worry. You'll learn to fix it so that doesn't happen." She glanced over at Viper, who was watching the sky impatiently. They still had time. "Now that you know what it is, you should be able to interfere with him. Just lay it down in his vicinity and it screws everything up. This magic really doesn't mix well. You barely even have to force it to fuck him up. It'll be painful as shit to keep going for more than a few seconds but that's enough if you time it right. Get some topaz from Jessica's hoard to lighten the load a bit."
"You're still not going to stay?" Alden asked.
"...I told you, I don't believe in coincidence. I needed a way out and then we run right into this motherfucker. I gotta take it." She sighed. "Don't worry. You got this, Alzack." She clapped him on the back.
"What about you, though? Can't they just come after you the moment you give them what they want?"
Rika shook her head. "It's not a one-time thing. They'll drop me off somewhere in Olympia and only once I'm in the clear do they get what they want. They get access, but only through me. I've still got backdoors all through the system, and they need me to mask their tunnel. If I disappear or they try anything, they lose access. Or I just shoot them with lightning. I'm pretty good at that." She raised her voice. "We leaving or what?"
At her question, they all heard the distinctive sound of the helicopter approaching. Viper pointed up at the sky. The sound of the blades pounding the air was growing rapidly, until it swung overhead in a dramatic stall and came to a halt not far from their position. Alden had a brief, terrifying flashback of leaping from the chopper and took a few steps away instinctively.
"You're gonna be fine," said Rika, just barely audible over the helicopter. She gave Alden a brief hug, and the electricity danced through him one last time as she did. "Stay alive out there."
"You too," Alden replied. "I hope you find him." Rika smiled, then ran to the ropes the helicopter had dropped. She took hold opposite Viper and Rook and handled the sudden pull with ease. The helicopter lifted just enough to clear the treeline, then took off at low altitude, fast away from Rallsburg.
Rachel ran back to the park as fast as she could. Natalie and Gwen were right alongside her, though the girl was unusually quiet. I guess even she realizes just how bad this is, Rachel thought bitterly.
They'd failed. She'd failed. She'd caused the cataclysm that swept through the town like a freak tornado. Jackson hadn't done this. It's all my fault.
For a brief second, Rachel found herself agreeing with Omega. Who would want to let a force like this into the world? If this was what they could accomplish after only a year of magic, what horrors could she inadvertently unleash after decades or centuries? Magic didn't exist anywhere else. If she turned the tables, she could eliminate it entirely. This sort of widespread destruction and murder from so few would never occur again.
One look at Natalie was enough to remind Rachel what was also possible. Natalie, riding atop her wolf with an eagle perched on her shoulder, represented a branch of magic wholly removed from the violence and chaos they'd been fighting. Beyond that, there was Cinza's experimental farm, her light shows, or even Rachel's own self-improvement that had nothing to do with fighting. There were still good uses for magic. The world could use those. She had to fight for those.
Rachel emerged into the field at the same time as the trio of Greycloaks, coming out from much further down the wall of trees marking Rallsburg's border. They all reached the small outcrop of trees just as Kendra emerged, grim-faced.
She held a limp Cinza in her arms.
The adrenaline already pumping through Rachel's veins seemed to double up. She was at Kendra's side instantly. Cinza's face was bloody and bruised. "Is she—"
"She's alive," Kendra reported, prompting a relieved sigh from Rufus. "The backlash was significant."
"Home, please," Cinza mumbled feebly, twisting slightly in Kendra's arms. Her eyes were closed, but to Rachel's surprise she still maintained her echoing voice.
Kendra noticed it too. "I believe she's performing the spell unconsciously. It's not unheard of, and I can't imagine it requires much energy. We certainly keep more than a few things active through sleep every night."
"Is she going to be okay?" asked Yusuf.
"She just channeled more magic through herself than any single person has ever experienced," Kendra replied. "I have no way of knowing."
"John, no. Come back home… They'll understand… I'll make them understand," murmured Cinza, totally delirious.
"Was she the one keeping your home hidden?" Rachel asked Cinza's older lieutenant.
Rufus shook his head. "She designed the magic, but any of us can keep it going if we have to."
"Get her out of here. Take her home. She was confident Omega couldn't find it."
"She's done all she can," Rachel snapped. "Keep her safe."
Rufus hesitated. He glanced at Aaron, who nodded in agreement. Kendra passed her over. Rufus held her very carefully, as if she were made of the most fragile glass. "I'm sorry," he murmured.
"Go," she added impatiently. Without another word, the trio fled back into the woods, bearing their leader to safety. Rachel turned back to Kendra. "What about the rest?"
Kendra sighed. "Hector fled as soon as he saw Omega. That broke the ritual. I could feel in the final moments that Cinza was attempting to redirect the target. She was still aiming for where we'd agreed upon, but as soon as we felt the effect expanding, she tried to push it as far away as possible. I believe she was targeting well outside of town, but the area of effect was so wide that it still managed… well, this." She looked over her shoulder, where the nearest building was perforated with holes, some as large as a car. "Dreadful."
"Miss Winscombe and her friend attacked him. They seemed to be doing well, but as soon as they gained any advantage, he simply sped away. He tried that three times, coming back from odd angles, but we were able to spot him out every time. After that, he just disappeared."
"Where's Hailey?" Rachel asked, looking around. They didn't seem to be anywhere nearby.
"Ran off to help the wounded, I believe. They went straight into town while I kept watch over Cinza."
The sound of a helicopter drew their attention. "I thought he already left?" Rachel muttered, shading her eyes from the sunlight as she tried to spot it. The sound only lasted a few minutes before it faded away.
"Can we call in any assistance? At this point, I'd feel emergency response would be beneficial," Kendra suggested. "People are going to be needing shelter, food and water, depending on how much was just destroyed. It's not as though we can hide this anymore."
Rachel shook her head. "Check your phone." As she'd expected, Kendra's phone was totally unresponsive.
"The cell tower was destroyed."
Another scream from the town, much closer than before. Natalie looked worried, which had Rachel even more concerned. The girl hadn't said a word since they'd reunited back in the forest, and she wasn't normally so quiet. Something had happened out there, but Rachel didn't have time to find out what—as the loud scrape and crunch of a collapsing building reminded her.
She took off toward the sound with Natalie hot on her heels. No matter what she might be feeling and heedless of the potential danger, Rachel was still going to try and save the people of Rallsburg.
Alden took the quickest route he remembered back to the apartment complex. He needed to get at Jessica's collection of gemstones if he was going to have any hope of holding down Omega.
When he tore around the corner of the building, he found himself face-to-face with a college guy he didn't know, with short brown hair and a deadly expression. Alden took an instinctive step back, then another as he noticed the knife in the guy's hand.
"Who are you?" he asked, eyeing Alden suspiciously.
"Just looking for a friend," Alden answered. Given the shattered state of the apartments—shattered windows from their frames collapsing or being ripped from the walls, objects shot through ceilings with terrifying force and metal rivets torn out of wood—Alden thought it would be a simple, reasonable deflection. To his surprise, the knife rose up to find his chest. Alden froze in place.
"You're that guy," he muttered. "The one tagging along with the witch. You caused all this."
"No—" Alden started, but he kept talking.
"My friends are dead because of you," he snarled. Alden tensed up. He could feel where this was going. The guy suddenly lunged forward, knife leading the way.
Alden pulled himself backward with magic, flinging himself through the air faster than the guy could follow. He landed easily a few dozen feet away.
"Don't do this," Alden warned. His opponent let out a incomprehensible shout of rage and charged forward. The knife was coming for him. The blade was only a few feet away.
Alden grabbed desperately for it with his mind and managed to take hold. He flung it sideways, trying to send it out into the distance. The guy's grip was too strong. The knife was pulled backward, but his grip on the handle caused it to spin out as it flew away.
The blade sliced a length into the guy's palm before it vanished into the grass outside the apartments. He cursed in pain, but he didn't slow down.
The guy tackled Alden to the concrete walkway. His head bumped painfully on the ground, while the wound in his shoulder began to twinge again. He threw a punch at his attacker's face, but he didn't have enough room to get any real force out of it. He may as well have flicked the guy.
Alden switched tactics, grabbing himself with magic and sliding his whole body out backwards. The guy didn't weigh enough to hold him back, letting Alden free like he were skidding across ice. As soon as he was free of the guy's grip, Alden scrambled to his feet again.
He didn't want to hurt him, but the guy wasn't giving up. He bolted for the grass where the knife had fallen. Alden tried to find it with his mental grip first, but he couldn't see anything. As the guy picked it up with a much tighter grip than before, he swung back around to charge at Alden.
"Stop, please!" Alden shouted, but the guy didn't look like he'd heard a word.
Alden sent his mind down to that pool of energy inside him, opening it tenfold above what he'd ever managed before. He leapt along the line he perceived as time itself, slowing down the world around him. As Rika had said, he managed to keep it stable, so that the lights weren't flickering and the world was still perceptible. He could already feel it drawing massive amounts of his reserves, but Alden had to do something before he got stabbed outside Rika's apartment having accomplished nothing at all.
Alden ran forward at the guy, currently inching toward him in slow motion. He took the knife out of his hand and tossed it away again, then reluctantly punched him in the gut. As he retracted his fist, Alden released the line of energy he'd been grasping and flitted back to the normal line of time.
The world became a fast-forward mess to catch up with him, as the knife twirled away into the distance. The guy he'd punched flew back a full six feet and tumbled over backward. Alden hadn't realized how much his punch would be amplified by the speed he'd moved at.
"Are we done?" Alden asked, panting.
"You killed my friends," the guy gasped, rolling over and struggling back to his feet. "Dropped a fucking building on their heads."
"I didn't do anything," Alden gasped, almost apologetically. "I'm trying to catch the guy who did it."
"All of you did it. You're all fucking monsters." He started advancing again. Alden didn't have much strength left to fight him, and the guy was in much better shape.
He didn't have to. A loud popping sound had Alden clapping his hands to his ears. The guy's head snapped to the side as a burst of dark red substance coated the grass. He collapsed to the ground.
Someone screamed. It took Alden a few moments to realize what had just happened. It was only when he heard another shout of surprise from a familiar voice that he finally caught up. He looked around and saw Julian Black lowering a hunting rifle, calm as could be. He wasn't the one who screamed.
Hailey and Jessica emerged from their apartment door behind him. Hailey rushed forward to Alden's side. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah," Alden said, watching Julian carefully. The man walked over to join them, still uncomfortably calm. "Why did you shoot him?"
"He was gonna try again, and I finally had a clear shot," Julian replied. "Nice trick, by the way. How'd you do that?"
"You just killed him! Unarmed! We could have stopped him!" Alden shouted, feeling hysterical.
"He was tryin' to kill you," Julian replied, annoyed. "You're one of us. I ain't gonna let a psycho like Logan Bowerson take out one of our own."
Alden shook his head. "Hailey could have stopped him."
"We ain't got time for this." Julian slung the rifle on his back. "I'm goin' to look for Rachel. Phones are all dead. You comin'?"
"Go. We'll catch up," Hailey answered, before Alden could speak. Julian nodded and walked away.
Alden twisted around, still reeling from the adrenaline of the fight. He briefly wondered how long he could keep going before he'd run dry and collapse. "What happened with the ritual?"
"He interrupted it," Hailey reported grimly. Jessica was checking Alden's shoulder, refastening the bandage that had been unbound from the fight. "We came back here for supplies. I'm not giving up that easy."
"Neither am I." Alden nodded gratefully at Jessica. She smiled and stood up, watching the empty street while Hailey and Alden went inside and gathered up as many of the gemstones as they could carry, as well as any other materials they thought might be useful. "Rika left town on that helicopter."
"With the guys who tried to kidnap you?"
"Yeah, no kidding. She made a deal with them."
Hailey shook her head in disbelief. "She's insane."
"She gave me something before she left though. She let me read her Scrap. It was Time magic."
"Yeah, you guessed right."
"Not time travel though, I'm guessing."
"I hope not." Alden grimaced. "Anyway, she told me how I could maybe trap him again. If we can get him somewhere." He hesitated. "I don't want to kill him, but…"
"But some people just have to be killed," Hailey said quietly. "I don't like it either, Alden. But he tried to kill us first. He's a threat to everyone, humans or awakened."
Jessica shouted something from outside. They hurried to join her.
The day was ending, the sun dipping low, and a mob of people was roaming down the street with murder in their eyes and rage in their voices. They carried any weapons they could find. The mob was moving away toward the main thoroughfare. Hailey started to move, as though she meant to stand up to the whole group, but Jessica grabbed her arm.
Hailey twisted back in alarm. Jessica held up one hand with two fingers, and the other with five. She repeated the five several times over, then had that hand crush the two like a rock crushing a bug. Hailey hesitated, but nodded. "You're right, Jess."
"So what do we do?" Alden asked.
"Rachel said everyone would be safe inside the Market, right? We get people there, as many as we can."
The mob—twenty five in all—encircled Gordon Merrill, buzzing with angry voices. They'd backed him up to the wall at the gutted sheriff's station just as Rachel arrived with Natalie a few steps behind.
"He's lying! He's just going to kill you all anyway!" Gordon shouted.
"Says you," snapped Roger Quinton, the farmer. "You've been collaborating with the freaks since the town hall. Maybe even before that. Why should we believe a word you say?"
"I'm one of you! I don't have any magic! Why would I lie?"
"Look around you, man!" Roger gestured to the town, littered with glass and splintered metal. He pointed just behind Gordon, where the twisted and broken bars of the two cells had been shoved through the roof and protruded out like an ominous flag. "They did this to our town. The only way out of this is to deal with them all, and anyone who's trying to help them." He lowered his weapon. The sharp points of the metal pitchfork caught the sunset reflection for just a moment.
"Stop!" Rachel shouted, running forward as fast as she could. She tried to grab the pitchfork, throwing out her mind as far as she could reach, but her grip was feeble and useless. She may as well have been trying to hold back a mountain. Some of the crowd turned toward her, but Roger had already moved.
Gordon sank to the ground.
Rachel stopped, while the crowd roared and began to shift back around, still caught up in the heat of the moment. She could see every single face full of wrath and pain. These were people she'd talked to and worked with for a year. She'd never imagined any of them capable of murder, even like this. Gordon was gasping for breath and trying to struggle away, but Rachel couldn't do anything for him.
Natalie rode up next to her. "What do I do, Rachel?" she asked.
"You destroyed our town!" someone cried from the back.
"You killed the Reverend!"
"We're all going to die because of you!"
"Justice for Jenny!"
What was my plan, anyway? Rachel thought bitterly, while the crowd slowly advanced. None of them seemed brave enough to close the distance first with Natalie's wolf facing them down, but they'd soon be totally surrounded if Rachel didn't do something.
"Help us," she whispered.
"I can't," replied the ghost at her side, before vanishing into the wind.
No one was coming to help them. No one could help them, as far as Rachel knew.
"Start backing away. Don't take your eyes off them, but we don't want to hurt them." Rachel did the same as she spoke. She hoped they'd find a chance to break out and run for it—but if they showed any sign of weakness, the group would undoubtedly charge them. Even Natalie's age wouldn't likely deter them, given her deadly companions and her well-known status as an awakened. They'd already faced down almost exactly the same crowd before, and only a show of extreme force had been enough to deter them.
"What should I do?" Natalie asked again, panic in her voice. The crowd had almost surrounded them. They couldn't get away anymore.
"Lightning on the ground at their feet," Rachel ordered. Something to scare them away, she hoped. Remind them they're mortal.
Natalie took one hand off Gwen and thrust it at Roger Quinton, who happened to be almost directly in front of them. Purple-edged lightning blasted forth out of her palm with a loud whip-crack, nearly deafening everyone.
The bolt crackled forward in a low splintering path, but it didn't strike the ground immediately. Natalie had aimed too high. The electricity followed the path of least resistance through the air and onto the tips of Roger's pitchfork, which was pointed directly at Rachel.
The metal fork exploded. The wooden haft caught fire, while the superheated metal tips shot off in different directions like shrapnel. One skipped along the ground and punched a hole through Rachel's dress, just missing her leg as it flew into the distance. A few people fell to the ground, screaming in agony from the molten steel on their skin.
Natalie's hands flew to her mouth in horror. Roger dropped the burning remains of his weapon with a shout and leapt back in fear. The crowd was suddenly far less eager to approach. Rachel had to take command of the situation while she could.
"Get out of here, now," she shouted. "Go home!"
Wrong word, she realized immediately.
"Our homes are fucking gone!" Roger shouted back. He picked up the burning wood and threw it at Rachel, who just managed to dodge aside in time. The crowd jostled about, lifting weapons and moving forward heedless of the injured among them.
I'm so sorry. "Natalie, do it again."
"Do it now!" Rachel cried, as Roger almost closed the distance between them.
Natalie threw out another desperate, powerful crackling bolt of electricity—directly at Roger.
The lightning connected with his skull. His eyes went wide for the split-second before the discharge rocketed around his body, travelling along the sweat on his skin. As it reached down to his arm, the lightning jumped across to the next person in line with noticeably less intensity, until it had travelled through four or five people and finally fizzled out on the ground.
They collapsed. Roger was clutching his heart and twitching slightly, his mouth open wide but without a voice. Rachel looked up again, hoping to finally see a retreating crowd and enough space to get away.
She only saw desperate, unbridled rage. The shouting doubled over as the mob called for death. Rachel didn't have any other option.
"Again, Natalie!" she shouted. Natalie threw another bolt of lightning, brilliant purple-edged sparks blinding Rachel as it struck another group.
The girl didn't need further prompting, throwing bolt after bolt in the heat of the moment. The mob kept coming as Natalie kept firing, the girl shouting out in exertion and fear with each burst of electricity. Rachel closed her eyes as the bolts became too bright for her, keeping close to Gwen and trusting Natalie to keep her safe.
The shouting died away. The whip-cracks of lightning stopped. The only sound was the gentle growl of Gwen and the heavy pained breathing of the girl seated atop her. Rachel reluctantly opened her eyes.
No one had survived. Several of them had huge burns across their skin. The scent of singed hair and flesh was thick in the air. The bodies were laid out in a circle around them. All twenty-five were totally, utterly still.
Not a single one had turned away or tried to run.
"Natalie?" Rachel asked tentatively.
"...Did I do okay?" she stammered. The girl looked like she might collapse again, but it wasn't the satisfied exhaustion of a job well done Rachel had seen the night before. Natalie looked like she'd seen a ghost. Her eyes were wide as dinner-plates, her mouth quivering. She looked like she might burst into tears.
"Yeah," Rachel said. She stood up straight and pulled Natalie into a hug, burying the girl's face in her shoulder. "You saved us."
"Why didn't they stop?"
"I think they thought they had nothing left to lose," said Rachel.
"I didn't want to hurt them. Why did they want to hurt us?" said Natalie, and Rachel could hear her starting to break down. As much as she wished she could let the girl work through it, they were still in the middle of a disaster.
She let Natalie go and faced her again. "Natalie, this is not your fault. We're trying to save everyone here. They attacked us."
"If we're saving everyone, why do they want to stop us?"
"Someone else lied to them about us. Natalie, I'm sorry, but I need you to stay with me, okay? We're not out of this yet."
"I saw him," Natalie said suddenly.
Rachel's heart, which had only finally started to calm down, broke into a fresh sprint. "Saw who?"
"My dad. He was out in the woods. He had a stick thing, and it was controlling the monsters." Natalie looked at Rachel with red, puffy eyes. "Why's my dad helping him?"
Rachel, for all her plans and preparations, had nothing to say to her. How do I tell a twelve year old her father's trying to kill all her friends? She'd had enough of lying, even to Natalie. "I don't know."
"Did you know he was?" Natalie asked, testing Rachel's resolve even further.
Rachel nodded very slowly. "I did."
Natalie's eyes widened even further, if that was possible. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"I didn't want to hurt you. I'm sorry. I was hoping we might be able to get him back, but I don't know if that's possible anymore."
"You think my dad's evil?"
Rachel shook her head. "I don't know. But he's not safe to be around." Her voice shook as she continued. "You can't ever go near him again, Natalie."
"I don't know what he might do. He sent those golems into the woods tonight, and you were there. He could have hurt you."
"But he's my dad!"
Rachel's eyes were welling up with tears. "I know. I'm so sorry, Natalie."
"What am I supposed to do?" Natalie asked desperately.
"We still have a town to save," said Rachel. "Will you help me?"
"You lied to me. You said you'd help me find my dad."
"I did. And we will someday. But right now people are hurt and we can help them," Rachel gestured around to the devastated town. "I can't do it without you, Natalie."
Natalie took a minute to think, pressing her face into the Gwen's fur. Muffled sobs emanated from the thick gray pelt. Rachel ran a hand along the wolf's back, grateful that Gwen seemed to consider her a friend as well. The wolf had moved to protect her while Natalie had fought off the mob, placing herself directly between Rachel and the oncomers. Rachel rubbed her affectionately, and she could have sworn Gwen shot her a grateful smile.
"...What do you need me to do?" Natalie asked finally, looking up.
"Can your new friend find someone for us?" Rachel asked, pointing at the hawk that had fluttered down to Gwen's shoulder after the fight. Natalie nodded. "We need to find Hailey and Jessica. Do you know who I'm talking about?"
"Yeah," Natalie replied. "They talked to me before the big meeting. They were nice to me. Hailey said she'd teach me how to fly someday." She held out her hand and the hawk fluttered over to land on her fingers. She spoke a few words to it that Rachel didn't understand. It took off and started flapping hard into the sky.
"How do you speak to them?" Rachel asked.
"I just do," Natalie replied, confused. "I call them and they understand me. They can talk too, they just don't use words." Natalie said another few incomprehensible words to Gwen, and she started walking away, with Rachel at her side. The young girl still looked like an emotional wreck. Rachel wished she could understand what was going through Natalie's head. There was so much she felt like she couldn't possibly relate to.
"Natalie, you just saved my life," Rachel said. "Thank you. You did good." Natalie didn't answer, but Rachel thought she looked a little less miserable. That was the best Rachel could hope for, under the circumstances. "You're really brave. I was so scared back there and you handled it better than I ever could."
"Dad told me that fear meant I knew something was wrong," she said quietly. "He said fear means I should probably be doing something about it and that hiding from it would only make it worse."
Rachel hesitated. "He might not be gone forever. I don't know what's going to happen. When this is all over, we might be able to talk to him." She took Natalie's hand to draw her attention, so Rachel could look her directly in the eyes. "Natalie, you have to promise me something though. You have to promise you'll never try to find him alone. I'll help you, and I'm sure Lily and Kendra will want to help too, but don't ever go after your dad on your own. We'll do it together. Okay?"
Natalie nodded. "I promise." She looked back at Rachel fiercely. "Do you promise to take me with you when you go find him? No matter what?"
Rachel nodded back. "I promise. Thank you," she added. Rachel forced a weak smile, though her heart felt like ice. "Let's go find our friends."
"Heads up," Hailey called out, swooping back around to meet them. "We've got trouble."
"What's going on?" Alden asked. Mabel Walsh was ambling along behind him, as fast as her old legs could carry her. Behind them was Hector—whom they'd found weeping outside the burning, shattered wreckage of his exploded store—Collins McCreary, Neffie Bowman, and the president of the University, Christina Albrecht. Jessica brought up the rear, a blue ball of flame at the ready.
They'd been picking up anyone they found as they made their way across town. There was no sign of the mob from earlier. Collins had a broken leg from a collapsed crossbeam, while the President and Neffie Bowman sported cuts from blown-out windows, so they made slow progress to the one remaining door open at the Kettle and Bones. From the look on Hailey's face as she rejoined them, though, it was about to get much harder.
"Golems. And they're attacking everyone." Hailey flew a small circle to turn around and stopped in mid-air, fluttering slightly as her invisible wings kept her aloft. "We're about to get into a fight if we go around that corner."
Alden didn't hesitate. "So let's go fight them." The moment he spoke, a shout of alarm from Jessica at the rear had them all turning around.
A golem had just sprouted from the ground behind the group. Jessica was trying to push it away with a wall of force, since she couldn't use her fire. Hector fled—despite Neffie calling out for him—and disappeared into the swiftly falling twilight. Hailey swooped forward and hurled wind at the golem, pushing it back even further.
"Now would be a great time for some of that lightning!" Neffie shouted.
"We never learned how to make lightning!" Hailey called back.
"How do you make any of this?" asked Christina. "Electricity is just electrons moving around. Can't you do that?"
"You explain that to the dumb girl," Collins snapped.
"We're all faster than it, right?" Alden pointed out. "If we can't beat it, we can just outrun it."
"That's not a permanent solution," said Neffie.
"Anything's better than staying here until Hailey collapses."
"If you take the path by Dan's place, you could probably get to the tavern okay," Hailey called out. "I didn't see anything that way."
"Okay then," Alden said firmly. "Hailey, can you hold it off without Jessica?" She nodded. Alden tapped Jessica on the shoulder. He pointed at Hailey, then at the golem with a flat palm. He made a circle in midair to indicate the group on the ground, then jerked his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the path Hailey had mentioned. Jessica nodded. She stood up straight and took a few deep breaths.
They set off while Hailey held back the golem as much as possible. It managed to advance even in the wake of the massive gale Hailey was unleashing, but it was so slow that a single inch took a minute or more. Alden wasn't too concerned, until he heard another cry of alarm from the front of the group.
He rushed back forward to find Jessica hurling a ball of fire across the street. A middle-aged man stood there, with short brown hair and a mess of unshaven stubble on his face, holding a thin black obsidian rod. At the last possible moment, a golem managed to intercept the blast of fire about to strike him.
Brian Hendricks stood firm behind the fiery pillar of his golem servant. "Mabel, I expected better of you," he called out.
"And I thought you were a decent man," Mabel shouted back. "Looks like we're both disappointed."
"How could you support something so disgusting and blasphemous?"
"Blasphemous?" Mabel laughed. "You're too young to understand what that really means."
Brian paused while his hand dug through his coat pocket for something. Alden tensed up, expecting the worst. Jessica was already projecting a wall of force to hold back the golem, but if it really tried to advance, he wasn't sure they could hold it back. Not with its creator so close, if Alden understood how they operated.
Brian's eyes narrowed. "You're one of them," he snarled.
Mabel's eyes widened. Brian lifted the rod higher, and another two golems emerged. As an impenetrable wall, they began advancing on the group.
"Run!" Alden shouted. They had no hope of stopping that. He grabbed Jessica's shoulder and pulled her back. She held up the wall a second longer, but realized it was futile and followed Alden. "Hailey, we need another route!"
"Little busy!" she shouted back.
They were running down the only route left open to them, the road leading back to the park they'd started at. As they rounded a corner, Mabel tripped over the curb. Alden didn't notice until it was too late. He turned just in time to see a golem lean over and pulverize her skull. He shut his eyes just before the blow landed.
Collins swore under his breath as he ran, while Neffie just shook her head in disbelief. Christina shouted something about being innocent and tore off down a side alley.
A moment later, they heard her scream in pain.
Alden looked around desperately, but there seemed to be a golem approaching from every direction but forward. He felt like they were being herded back to where they'd last seen Omega—but what choice did they have?
Hailey finally rejoined them a block later, flying back in over their heads. "You've got two on your tail, but you're pretty far ahead. You're running right back into the ritual site though," she added dubiously, confirming his fear.
Alden looked around for anything they could use. All they'd wanted was to get back to the Marketplace, but the only entrance was well-guarded by Brian and his golems. They were locked out and getting picked off one by one. They needed somewhere to hide, but every building was wide open from doors and windows being ripped out. One of us seems to be safe, Alden realized.
"Hailey, you need to take us up to the rooftop."
"I can't lift all of you."
"One at a time," Alden added impatiently. "If we stay up there and stay low, we have time to figure this out."
Hailey nodded. "You first, then. No arguments, you're the most experienced flyer after Jessica and she's gotta stay down to protect you all."
Alden threw up his arms. Hailey swooped in and grabbed his forearms, while he immediately latched onto hers. The strain on his shoulders was immense. He felt like his arms might be ripped from their sockets, and that feeling redoubled as Hailey flapped up into the sky. A few moments later, she deposited him on the nearest rooftop with enough cover that they wouldn't be seen from the street.
Neffie was next up. She looked incredibly uncomfortable being lifted into the sky by a free-flying college girl aloft on invisible wings, but gritted her teeth and landed gracefully enough when Hailey released her. The next trip back wasn't so lucky.
As Hailey swung back around to the street level, a golem emerged from a row of bushes and bore down on Collins. Alden was about to shout a warning, but Neffie clapped a hand to his mouth. "We're hiding, remember?" she hissed.
Alden nodded frantically. She released him, and he summoned a fireball in front of Jessica, bright orange and pulsing. She recognized the signal immediately, spinning around—but it was too late.
The golem—with no wind-up whatsoever, just a single punch forward as casual as could be—put its blocky fist through Collins' stomach. He looked down in shock, his eyes widening a moment before the golem slammed him aside into the nearest wall.
It started to move on Jessica.
She threw up her arms, and Hailey grabbed her up immediately. She swung Jessica forward like they were doing a gymnastics routine, and Jessica clasped her legs around Hailey for a better grip. Hailey looked like she was about to turn back around to Alden and Neffie, but Jessica frantically tugged on her shirt and got her to keep going in the same direction—far away from their impromptu sanctuary.
Alden breathed a sigh of relief. If Hailey had flown to their rooftop, there was no way they'd go unseen. As they flew off, the golems in the street continued to follow, ignoring Neffie and Alden entirely.
Neffie let out a deep breath as well, falling to the rooftop and staring up at the sky with a blank face, half-covered by her curly black hair. Alden laid down on the gravel and watched the incoming wall of dark clouds. Of course it's about to start raining, too. "Are you okay?" he asked.
"No I am not goddamn okay," Neffie snapped. "I just watched a bunch of my neighbors—my friends — get murdered one by one. I'm really not okay."
Neffie sighed. "I'm sorry. You didn't deserve that. I'm physically okay."
"Okay," Alden replied.
"What do we do now?"
Alden hesitated. "I don't know." The shriek of a hawk punctuated his words, prompting them both to look up at the sky. A bird circled overhead, barely visible against the mountain range of rain clouds on the horizon.
"He found something," Natalie reported, seconds after the hawk cried out.
"Hailey and Jessica?" Rachel asked. Any good news would be great right now.
"I don't know. Percy just said two people. I don't think he's very smart."
"Percy is the hawk's name?"
Rachel looked around the street, not seeing a single person from end to end. "Where are they?"
"On the roof of Oscar's garage," Natalie said. Another person I failed to save. "Why are they up there?"
"Probably hiding." Rachel quickly plotted the fastest route there in her head. "Let's go get them."
It only took a couple minutes to run there. Rachel found the garage door ripped out from the frame as expected. She went inside, where she knew there was a ladder up to the roof, but something caught her eye. A glint of metal and hard black plastic, something that had been flung up and struck the ceiling but failed to break through. It had fallen down into the pile of random tools and supplies, half-buried by screws and nails. She deliberately ignored it, rushing up the ladder to the roof.
To her dismay, it wasn't the duo she'd hoped for. Neffie Bowman looked like a shell-shocked war survivor, while Alden was scanning the street surreptitiously. Both had numerous cuts and bruises.
"Where's Hailey?" Rachel asked impatiently.
"She had to lure them away," Alden replied, not taking his eyes off the street. "I think Natalie's the only one who can blow up those things."
"Rachel, they're killing everyone," Neffie said. "Mabel, and Collins, and Christina… Oh god." She doubled over, looking like she might be sick. Reality was finally catching up to her and overriding her adrenaline.
It had to end. Rachel had to stop it somehow. They'd had the right idea, but they hadn't managed to pull it off, and it was her fault. Jackson had to die. She wouldn't hesitate a second time.
Seeing Neffie reminded Rachel of something she'd suggested, so very long ago on the night of the riot. So long ago… It was just last night. But it was a way to kill Jackson. It could be done. She'd need to lure him out somehow, and she'd need a way to hold him down again, but it could be done.
"She's gone," Alden replied, finally turning around and sitting back against the low wall lining the roof. "She got a ride out of town."
"The helicopter?" Neffie asked.
Alden nodded. He turned to Rachel with hard, determined eyes. "She let me read it before she left."
The phrase was meaningless to Neffie, but Rachel felt a burst of gratitude toward her erstwhile friend. Rika hadn't abandoned them completely. "Will you—"
Rachel nodded. "I'll find a way. Head downstairs with Natalie. We'll be leaving in a minute."
Alden left. Neffie laid back down on the roof and closed her eyes. She didn't look like she was going to move an inch. Rachel ignored her. She had someone much more important to confront, and Neffie would be safer staying on that rooftop than heading out into the town. Rachel took a few moments to compose her argument, trying to rehearse every potential outcome before she started. It had to play out exactly right.
"Are you still here?" Rachel murmured.
"I need something from you."
"Any reason I should even think about saying yes?" said Beverly.
"Look around!" Rachel snapped, her voice rising. "If you weren't convinced before, how on earth aren't you convinced now?"
"I won't help you kill him."
"I wasn't going to ask you to."
Beverly paused. "Then what do you want?"
"I need him to come somewhere and talk. He can bring whatever he wants. I won't even bring Natalie."
"Because you think I'll protect you."
Beverly didn't answer.
"I'm going to persuade Jackson to stop. That's all. We tried to kill him and we failed. All I have left is negotiating. Or just stalling him long enough that people can run away. Plenty of them already are, and if he's distracted long enough they just might make it. I won't, but some of them will."
"A place out in the woods, away from the town so that everyone else can get away. You have a way of knowing where I am at all times, right?"
"And you can sense magic being used, like he can."
"Better than he can. I can feel any kind of magic, just not who's using it."
"Then you'll feel when I signal. That'll be the spot." Rachel turned away from the voice and started down the ladder.
"How do you know he'll even show up?"
"I know," Rachel said firmly, though her heart was twisting in knots at the realization of just where she'd have to go, if she wanted to be sure Omega fell for the bait hard enough to stick around.
"Okay." There was a faint whisper of wind filling the space she'd left. Rachel could tell she was gone.
She had no idea how long it would take. She had to move fast. Rachel bolted down the ladder and called Alden over while she hurried to the pile of twisted scrap in the back of the shop. "We're not going to try the ritual again."
"Okay," Alden replied, looking relieved. "What's the plan then?"
"Rika taught you how to hold him down?" Rachel asked, finally digging out the object she'd spotted earlier. Alden's eyes widened as she pulled it out of the warped pile of scrap metal.
"...Yeah. I tried casting it a few times. It wasn't hard to figure out if you've read the Scrap."
"Good." Rachel checked it over, making sure it was intact and hadn't been damaged from the magnetic storm. It looked exactly as she remembered from reference pictures online. She had a full working knowledge of how to use it, even if she'd never fired one before. It was fully loaded.
Rachel tucked the pistol inside her bag and straightened up. As best she could tell, Beverly hadn't returned. She hadn't seen it.