Chapter 27 — To Kill a God
A few minutes into the woods, Rachel suddenly stopped. Alden watched her warily. Her eyes were red and haunted. She seemed like she might snap at any moment, and Alden didn't know her well enough to have any idea what form such a breakdown might take. On top of that, she had a loaded pistol stuffed in her bag. Alden assumed she was hiding it from Natalie, who was currently leading them through the thick forest on her wolf.
"Natalie," Rachel called out. Natalie glanced over her shoulder. "Wait up a moment."
She nodded and leaned down to whisper in the wolf's ear, bringing them to a halt.
"Something wrong?" Alden asked.
Rachel leaned up against a tree. "No. I just need a second." She pulled out a water bottle and took a deep swallow. "You're sure you can do this?"
"Yeah." In truth, Alden wasn't sure at all. Yes, he knew how the magic worked and had a rough idea of interfering with others, but he'd never gone up against someone. He'd never been in a real fight. Would he be able to handle himself when facing down a god?
There wasn't really another option. Everyone in Rallsburg was dead if he couldn't.
"Okay." Rachel drained the water bottle. "Natalie?"
"Is it time to go?"
"No," Rachel said, and Alden spotted a flash of regret across her face as her eyes softened. "Natalie, I need you to leave."
"Just for a little while."
"But I can help you. I can fight him!" Natalie protested.
"He's not going to fall for the same bait twice. If you're nearby, I don't think he'll show up. You can't be here," Rachel said firmly. "Go back to town."
"What am I supposed to do there?"
Rachel faltered. Alden wasn't sure why she was sending Natalie away, but she seemed to have a plan, while Alden didn't have the faintest idea what to do next. He jumped into the silence she'd left open. "Nat, you should go find Hailey and Jessica. They're helping people get away from the monsters." He forced a smile. "You'd be great at that."
"I hate being called 'Nat'."
Alden shrugged. "I hate being called Alden, but it's what they named me."
"That's a weird name."
"And 'Scrappy' isn't a weird name?"
"No, Scrappy's a great name."
Rachel coughed gently, reminding Alden that they really didn't have time. "Natalie, those people really need your help. You're the only one that can beat the monsters."
Natalie looked confused. "Aren't you guys gonna need me then?"
"We're not planning to get into a fight," Rachel answered. "We'd lose, even if you were there."
"We'll see you afterward. Just stick with Hailey and Jessica, help people and try to put out the fires, and we'll find you."
Natalie looked at Rachel expectantly. "You promise?"
Rachel nodded. "I promise."
Natalie whispered something to Gwen. The wolf turned around and started back toward town. She shot Alden a hungry look, like he were a tasty snack she'd been forbidden from eating. Alden shuddered a little. Natalie didn't seem to notice, as she was focused on the darkening sky above. The rain clouds were arriving in earnest now and water was beginning to trickle down. In minutes it would likely become a fierce downpour. Natalie made a gesture in midair and shouted out something neither of them understood.
Her hawk shot down out of the sky and landed neatly on Gwen's head, ruffling its feathers and spraying water about. The trio rode away in relative silence.
"She's not wrong," Alden pointed out.
"Neither was I. If we get into a straight fight with Omega—Natalie or no Natalie—we won't win." Rachel started walking, and Alden fell in step with her. It took him a bit more effort to keep up with her long stride, but he didn't want to follow her around blindly.
"But you do still plan on killing him."
"I hold him down and you shoot him, right?"
Alden wasn't convinced yet. "How are we going to pull that off? It's not like he's just gonna stay still long enough for me to cast the spell."
"He won't even know we're there."
"So he's going to run out to a random point in the woods, see no one, and stick around long enough for me to get him?"
"I didn't say there wouldn't be anyone there."
Rachel didn't answer him, forging ahead determinedly. "We won't need Natalie's protection anyway. You and I will be totally safe."
Alden wondered how she could be so certain. The golems certainly didn't seem to be discriminating between targets. Several had nearly hit him, both in the woods and in the town. Why would Rachel be so confident in their safety? Unless…
"Grey-eyes is still protecting you," Alden guessed.
"Yes," she replied. "She won't fight for us, but she won't let us die either."
"You want me to explain her?" Rachel asked incredulously. "I don't understand her. I don't understand anyone. I kept trying, but every time I took a step forward, something else went wrong. Someone else got hurt, or had to do something terrible, or died. I had my best friend accused of murder. My boyfriend was almost killed. Now the town's been destroyed, half my friends are probably dead or in hiding, and it's because of something I set in motion."
Alden shook his head. "Omega did all this."
"Not all of it. If I hadn't lied, or if I'd been better about actually taking charge of this mess, maybe we wouldn't ever have gotten this bad." Rachel dabbed her face with a tissue from her bag. "I was stupid to think I could be a leader, just because I could cast a few spells and did a neat trick on my brain. I've never been smart enough to handle this."
Rachel laughed bitterly. "Rika's perspective is just as skewed as yours. You've only been here a week, Alden. Worst week of my life, but still, just a week. Neither of you know how many opportunities I probably had to stop this. I was supposed to be the brilliant leader and politician. I could have set rules, kept an eye on people, done something to keep things under control. I was following some stupid high-minded idealism about pure democracy."
She shook her head in dismay. "It didn't work. I failed. Even if we somehow survive this, the whole town's in chaos and the outside world's already found out about us. It's only going to get worse from here." Rachel's hand went back into her bag, clenching around what Alden assumed was the pistol. "At least I can try to clean up the leftovers."
"You saved me," Alden pointed out.
"At Boris' shop, when we were all about to die. You saved us."
Rachel shook her head. "I was just there. Grey-eyes and Natalie saved you."
"But you brought them there, didn't you?" She didn't answer. Her eyes darted away, but Alden could tell she was thinking about what he'd said. "Plenty of people would have just run away. You've been trying to beat him every time, no matter what comes up. You're still trying, even though you probably could get away with the protection you have. You haven't given up. I think that you're a great leader."
Rachel sighed. "I don't lead anything anymore." She stopped again, leaning up against a tree. Everything about her posture and her expression practically shouted her depression. Alden had no idea how to help her. "Why are you here though? You've seen what we're up against."
"Where am I gonna go?" Alden pointed out. "My best chance to live is to help you kill him."
Rachel frowned. "No, that's not it. You're not like Rika, or you'd have ditched right alongside her."
"I've got friends here. I don't want him to kill any of you either."
The corner of her mouth twitched slightly as she broke into a half-smile. "You realize what that says about her, right?"
He shrugged. "She made her choice. I didn't leave, and neither did Natalie, or Hailey and Jessica. You've still got people willing to fight for you."
"And I wasted them all," Rachel replied, standing up again. She started walking again. "Come on. We're running out of time."
Alden was mostly silent for the rest of their trek, to which Rachel was immensely grateful. She appreciated that he was trying to make her feel better, but he hadn't said anything she hadn't already thought of. Every time she tried to break her depression, the depth of her failure sunk in even deeper. She only had to look back at the growing orange glow in the distance to see her losses painted in flames across the town.
"At least it's starting to rain," Alden pointed out, following her gaze.
"Natalie can take care of fire either way," Rachel replied. "Come on."
Alden fell silent again as they walked. Rachel felt the mounting guilt in her chest again, tightening her insides in knots, but this time it was tinged with something else. It wasn't desperation or fear anymore. No, the guilt was paired with a bleak acceptance. She knew there wasn't any other way, and she'd stopped trying to think of alternatives. Her entire incredible mental capacity, which she'd tried for so long to use for the sake of the world, had grinded to a halt. She'd given up.
So why was she still walking?
Because I don't want to die.
Even though she'd completely failed her life's work?
My life isn't over yet.
He'd killed many of the people she'd worked with. He turned her into a backstabbing monster.
I'm not going to let his actions define who I am. I did what I had to do.
He'd come after the ones she loved, framing Rika and maiming Will.
All the more reason to put an end to this.
She'd stolen from and lied to the people she was supposed to represent.
It was the best possible course of action at the time.
She was about to betray a close friend's trust yet again.
"I'm doing what I have to do," she murmured. Alden didn't hear her, but her words were only meant for herself. She was thinking aloud, since she didn't have Will to help her work through her fears and doubts.
Rachel's other companion had returned though, and she had much sharper hearing. "You're planning on killing him," Beverly accused, barely audible next to her.
Rachel didn't bother trying to fool her again. It wasn't worth the effort. "Are you going to warn him?"
Beverly didn't answer. Rachel continued, at a subvocal level that she knew only Beverly would hear. "He would have killed your brother too. You know that. He'll never stop, and Alpha isn't coming to hold him back anymore."
"So will you warn him?"
Rachel didn't feel relieved. If anything, she was more devastated. Even Grey-eyes had given up on the situation. "Where is Alpha?"
"I don't know. He was supposed to be here."
"But he hasn't shown up to help."
Even through a whisper, Rachel could hear Beverly's distress. Rachel had only met Alpha a few times in the early days of the Council. He'd always appeared as a bright outline of a man, speaking with a distorted voice to hide his identity. He was aloof, but ultimately a champion of magic. As she understood it, though, he was utterly hands-off to a fault. He only stepped in to stop Omega according to his strictly defined rules, which Omega had subsequently found a way to circumvent. Rachel didn't expect him to show up to help, if he was even in a position to do so.
Still, the trio had obviously been friends at some point before their schism. Rachel felt for her. "I'm sure he's okay."
She didn't answer.
Rachel wanted to talk further, maybe even build up some kind of rapport, but she'd run out of time. They'd arrived at the clearing. The air seemed to shimmer slightly in front of them as they passed through the illusions around the outset. It was hard to notice the exact border, but as they walked further in, Rachel spotted the faint irregularities that marked the unnatural transition in the trees. Some of them were fake, placed in such a way to deter any attempts to penetrate deeper into the forest, where their true destination lay.
It was only a few more minutes until they were in position.
Alden was surprised when Rachel suddenly switched direction. He'd noticed a few odd things about the forest around them, as if they were running in circles, but she seemed to know where she was going. As he could barely make out a lighter space ahead, Rachel appeared to change her mind and turn, following the curve of the clearing to come at it from the other side. He didn't question her. Rachel had a plan, and Alden was just a piece of that plan. He'd do his part and it'd all work out in the end, or so he hoped.
"How far can you reach?" she asked suddenly.
"To interfere with him. What range?"
"Ten feet?" Alden guessed.
"Can you be exact? We're only going to have one chance here."
Alden took a second and focused, mentally jumping to the line he recognized as time. Instead of pushing himself onto the line, he hurled it away from him like a ball. As it moved away, he could feel its strength slowly diminishing. At a certain point it dropped off a cliff, becoming totally inert. He reeled it back in to that point, which to his surprise was almost precisely at his guess.
"Ten feet," he reported with a touch of pride.
Rachel raised her eyebrows. "You're sure?"
"Wait until I signal you, then hit him with everything you can." Rachel had explained her signal to him when they'd started out, since it would be quicker than speaking and listening, and less prone to any mistakes. "You've been practicing it since you learned it?"
"As much as I could without burning myself out. I used up a lot of Jessica's gems, but we've still got enough." The spell was a lot easier to cast than he expected, too, at least for brief sprints. He wasn't sure if that was because he'd learned it from the Scrap, or simply because it didn't take much energy in the first place. Either way, he wasn't about to question it.
"Good." Rachel stopped at a set of thick fir trees with branches all the way down to the ground level. They were at the edge of the clearing Alden had spotted earlier, if his sense of direction wasn't playing tricks on him. The trees were so thick and clustered together that he couldn't see through them at all. It was a wall of green branches and pines. She pushed through slightly to check the view. "This'll work."
"And you're sure he's coming? We're in the middle of nowhere."
"He's already on his way." Rachel reached into her bag and pulled out the pistol. She double-checked it and clicked off the safety.
Alden felt a burst of excitement and fear. His pulse was picking up. "How are you going to get him to come over here?" he asked nervously.
"He'll come." Alden started forward, but Rachel held up a hand. "You should stay back."
"Just trust me." Rachel's voice caught slightly. She sounded like she was struggling to speak. "No matter what you hear, just stay there."
Rachel had already done it. Beverly was calling Jackson in as they spoke. All she had left to do was wait. He'd show up, they'd trap him and she'd pull the trigger. It was as simple and straightforward as she could make it. She'd picked a spot where they could see into the clearing easily, but out of the path she expected him to take. All that remained was the watching and the waiting.
The waiting was the real struggle. She was at the edge of the tree line, watching through a curtain of pine needles as the telltale grey robes flitted about. The rain was pouring down in buckets now, sending them scurrying into the cabins. Rachel noted that Ruby had recovered well over the last day, on her feet and shouting instructions like normal. She supposed that Ruby was the de-facto leader while Cinza was indisposed.
As Rachel watched them taking shelter, she realized why the picture looked so wrong. There were so few of them left. Of the eleven members, only five were visible. Ruby was on the porch outside their cabin, calling out to Yusuf to help Aaron with the farming tools. Yusuf was still sporting the bandages from the first fight with the golems, but he was as willing and determined as ever. Aaron kept dropping the rain-slicked tools back into the mud, but Yusuf simply leaned down and gathered them up in his robes like a basket. Aaron nodded and started tossing the rest in.
Rufus emerged from the other cabin with Makoto, as they ran out to grab another one of the blankets laying out in the rain. They flipped it to drain it of the water pooling up in the center, before bringing it back inside. Makoto flicked his head as they walked by the furnace on the side, and the pile of wood laying in the space beneath lit up instantly. Smoke started billowing out of the chimney, but as it reached toward the canopy it seemed to dissipate without a trace.
There were six missing. Brittany Wilkins, who had lost her leg to Robert Harrison's bear trap. Her husband Matthew had gone with her to the hospital. She might have survived, but they'd have a lot of questions to answer. Rachel wondered how they'd talk to the police who'd inevitably show up. She expected Cinza had coached them on such a possibility. Cinza was exactly the type to prepare for future confrontation.
Morton Pollock had been shot by Robert and airlifted to the hospital, but Rachel was almost certain he was dead. He hadn't gotten any treatment for too long, and he hadn't been breathing when the paramedics had loaded him on board. Nikki Parsons had gone with him—and given what she'd just been through, Rachel didn't expect her to return.
Nate Price had fled town, as far as she knew. Rachel had no idea where he might be, if he was even still alive, and didn't really care if she was being honest with herself.
Finally there was Cinza herself, presumably sequestered in the cabin behind Ruby. Her face was stuck in Rachel's mind. Cinza had trusted Rachel completely with every secret. She'd told Rachel of this hidden place, and she'd answered every question Rachel had asked. When Rachel needed her, Cinza had stepped up. She'd benefitted, obviously, but it was still at great personal risk.
More than anything, Cinza had understood the hard choices Rachel had been forced to make. She believed Cinza would understand her decision, though Rachel dearly hoped she'd never realize what had happened. What Rachel had done.
How Rachel had used them.
She half-expected thunder and lightning in the rain clouds above to punctuate her dark thoughts, but this was still the Northwest, and thunderstorms only rolled through once or twice a year. The rain came down in buckets though, and Rachel was grateful for the thick canopy that protected her from most of it. Alden was taking cover behind her as well, ducking below another tall tree—though still close enough to strike on a moment's notice.
The stream running through the center of the clearing was flooding over. Yusuf and Aaron were just about done gathering up the tools to take to the shed by the second cabin. The rain rattled the rooftops of the cabins.
A figure emerged from the far end of the clearing. Tall, broad-shouldered and with dead eyes full of regret. Rachel wondered if he really felt anguish over what he'd done. She didn't think anyone capable of crippling a man like Jackson had done to Will was really able to feel regret. As the memory flashed through her mind—perfect in clarity as always—Rachel steeled her resolve. Whatever doubts she might have felt were gone.
No matter her failures and regrets, no matter what people might think of her, Rachel would never let him do that again.
She waited. Jackson was walking calmly across the clearing. What did he have to fear, after all? They'd failed multiple times to stop him, disastrously so, and the biggest threats were in the wind. The foes he hated most of all, the cult that openly embraced magic and sought to evangelize it—the cult he could never find on his own—was only a few dozen feet away and completely oblivious to his approach.
Rachel could warn them, but if she did, she'd lose her only hope of finishing him off.
Ruby was the first to spot him, emerging from her cabin and shouting an alarm. The moment she did, Jackson lifted an arm like an emcee about to open a show. Three golems began growing out of the mud, dirt and rain sliding off as they rose from the ground.
Ruby summoned up several balls of flame, but they sputtered angrily in the rain. Steam was hissing off in droves as she desperately tried to maintain them. Yusuf shouted at her to change tactics, while Aaron ran to the other cabin. They were all shocked, completely off guard. Their general was out of action and they were caught in an ambush. Rachel couldn't blame them. Omega should never have been able to find this place. Cinza's enchantments were clever and well designed.
The only way he could ever have found their home was if he'd been told exactly where it was.
Ruby released the fire and let it vanish into the air. She set her feet and stared down the nearest golem. It stopped in place, drawing a vague look of surprise from Jackson.
As Ruby's expression grew more severe, the golem turned and put its fist through its nearest kin, turning it to dust. Ruby's new minion began to block off the approach, but it was only so much.
Omega simply summoned another pair of golems, and Ruby's expression faltered. The one she'd taken collapsed into dust as she stumbled backward, leaning against the cabin wall for support.
Even her plans to steal the Scrap had been for nothing. Rachel's heart was beating up into her throat. She tried to force it back. Every fiber of her being begged her to shout at them to run, but she couldn't. She needed him to get closer. He needed to drop his guard just a little bit, get ahead of where she was hidden in the treeline. Once she was behind him, she'd have enough time for Alden to catch him in place.
The golems crossed the stream and plowed through the carefully arranged vegetable patches. The ground was torn up and broken apart. Aaron shouted in rage and charged forward, heedless of his friends' cries. The muscles in his arms grew twice over, and he hurled himself at the nearest golem. It had only started to move when Aaron hurtled into it.
The golem was pitched over backward into the rain-soaked mud. Aaron's fist slammed into the vague head-like shape, pulverizing it into dust. Aaron continued to pound at the golem, tearing it to shreds. Rachel was amazed at his ferocity, and even more so that Yusuf decided to join in. Another golem had just about reached Aaron's back when Yusuf smashed into it. Together, they were able to overpower the second one despite Yusuf's injuries.
For a brief moment they celebrated, as if they actually had a hope of victory. Ruby was shouting at them, while Rufus and Makoto emerged from the second cabin in a panic. The two down on the meadow turned to their latest foe, only to find themselves facing four golems in perfect condition. Faceless, unyielding monsters with strength beyond anything they could hope to match.
The first two only broke down because he let them break, Rachel realized with dismay. It was easier to just make new ones behind them.
Yusuf tried to pull Aaron away, but one of the golems was already close enough by the time they'd turned around. It managed to snatch his wrist with a claw-like hand that formed right as it moved. Aaron tugged away, but the golem didn't budge an inch. Yusuf shouted something, but Aaron shook his head.
Yusuf pulled, but the golem pulled back—much harder.
Aaron didn't move. The force of the golem was so immense that his arm simply left its socket at the shoulder. He fell away, screaming in pain.
Yusuf grabbed him around the waist and dragged him backward across the muddy grass, shrieking in agony. Rufus rushed to help, while Ruby and Makoto flung rocks at blistering speeds towards the golems to try and drive them back.
"What's happening?" Alden asked. He hadn't moved, as Rachel had ordered, but his face was masked with fear—eyes wide and mouth slightly open, teeth gritted and sweat mixed in with the rain.
"We can't go yet," Rachel replied, however much she wished they could. Jackson had to cross the river first, or they'd never be able to get to him fast enough. She only hoped they could survive that long.
Ruby shouted something at Makoto, who nodded. She rushed back inside her cabin, and he dropped the rock he'd been about to throw and closed his eyes. The rainwater around him stopped falling, halting in midair as if they'd been stopped in time. As more rain fell, it gathered above him as if he had a transparent glass roof. A few seconds passed, and Makoto opened his eyes again.
The rainwater he'd gathered burst forward across the clearing, dead-on for Jackson. Like a hail of liquid bullets, the raindrops flew horizontally through the air faster than the eye could follow—but Jackson could move just as fast.
As the rainwater flew over the grass, Jackson ran forward. He crossed the river, rushing straight past the trio in the meadow to run down Makoto. A low blow to the young man's stomach sent him tumbling back into the cabin, blasting through the wooden doorway and turning the hinges into splinters.
He was close enough.
Rachel let out a deep breath.
Alden heard Rachel call his name and almost froze up. He almost didn't go out through the forest. She'd told him they were both safe, but he'd seen what those golems could do first-hand, and he'd been face-to-face with Jackson. Alden had never felt such a deep seated terror before in his life, and he certainly never wanted to feel it again. It would have been so easy to just turn around and run away.
Alden rushed forward through the trees, having no idea what to expect. He saw the golems lined up and chasing the three greycloaks through the field, and he saw Ruby holding Cinza in her arms and shouting something he couldn't make out. He saw the streaks of blood already washing down into the flooding stream.
He saw Omega standing at the entrance to a small cabin, right in front of him, just beginning to turn around. In a split-second, Alden would see those terrible eyes again.
Alden reached for the pool of energy inside him and broke the edges entirely, letting everything he could flow out into this one spell. Energy from the gemstones spilling out of his fists rocketed through his core like a bolt of lightning. He launched the sphere away like a baseball pitcher, putting even his physical strength into it with a desperate shout.
It landed right where he wanted it to.
Jackson had just started to move when he was suddenly slowed down. He was still turning toward Alden, but so slowly that he would never make it. Alden had a brief moment to wonder why this spell affected him, when nothing else ever could, before his vision started to go black.
He couldn't keep this up. In only a few moments, he'd black out—and no matter Rachel's reassurances, he fully believed he would die.
Rachel walked forward. Her mind was totally calm. She didn't have time to think about anything. Every single part of her brain was focused on the piece of metal and plastic tucked in her hand. Her strides were long and confident across the wet grass.
She lifted the pistol up and squeezed the trigger. The gun kicked. Once. Twice. Again. She lost count.
The trigger clicked. The magazine was spent. She tossed the gun aside.
The golems melted away, whatever material they were composed of breaking apart like dust in the rain. Alden managed to release the spell before he fainted. He fell onto the wet grass and held still, trying to hold back a pounding migraine.
Rachel fell to her knees, heedless of the mud and the rain pouring over her. She stared straight ahead, her mind still empty even as her heart pumped furiously and her chest felt like it would explode.
Jackson was dead. Omega was dead.
Up by the cabin, just barely audible over the rainwater pouring off the roof, they heard a faint female voice sobbing from where Jackson's body had fallen.
It was over.