Chapter 28 — Ashes
It was over.
Omega lay dead on the porch of Makoto's cabin. The golems had vanished. Rachel was sitting in the mud and staring up into the rain, seemingly frozen in place. Alden struggled back to his feet, unsure what to do next. He walked over to Rachel, his head pounding with every step. His eyes were blurry and he could see specks dancing around in his vision. He sat down next to her before he ended up collapsing.
"Hey," he started, not sure what else to open with.
Rachel didn't move an inch.
Rachel shook her head, water flying off her hair to strike Alden in the face. She continued staring up into the sky heedless of the rainfall. "It's not."
"We beat him. We won."
"...Look around, Alden," she replied. "I don't think we can call this a win."
She was right, after a fashion. They'd killed him, but Aaron was still writhing in pain on the other side of the clearing. Ruby had carried Cinza out to him, and together they were trying to stem the loss of blood. Cinza couldn't even stand, but still she tried to help. Yusuf ran about trying to find clean, dry cloth to use as a bandage. Rufus had gone into the other cabin to find Makoto.
In the distance, the angry glow continued to brew while smoke billowed into the sky.
"How many, do you think?" she asked quietly.
"Because of me. Because I screwed up the first time. Because I waited as long as I could here and let him keep attacking." Rachel finally looked down at him. "How many?"
"It was the only way."
"How many?" Rachel asked again.
Alden shook his head. "You can't do that to yourself."
"Go help them, Alden. They need it more than I do." Rachel stood up and walked over to the cabin, where they could still hear the faint sound of someone softly crying. Alden didn't know what to say to her, but she wasn't wrong—Cinza's people were in crisis.
Cinza shot him a confused look as he joined them, but didn't raise any objections. He pressed in where she'd been holding the bandages, putting on more pressure than she'd been able to manage from her awkward position and weakened arms. Ruby tried to tie a tourniquet around his shoulder, but there was no real place to cut off the blood flow. It was too overwhelming, with the arteries and veins torn to shreds and no real way to hold Aaron down.
Their hands were covered in dark crimson mixed with the mud and rain, but she refused to give in. Even as Aaron slowed down and stopped moving, and Ruby and Alden fell back, Cinza was still trying to hold the bandage in place.
"Cin," Ruby said.
"No more," she snapped.
"Cin, he's gone."
Cinza twisted so sharply Alden thought her head might snap off. "I'm not losing another family member."
"He's dead," Alden cut in. "It's over."
She looked at him oddly. "What makes you think this is over?"
"Look!" he shouted, gesturing to the corpse and Rachel standing over it. "He's dead! It's over."
"He's right," said Ruby. "I know you're still out of it, Cin, but please. Aaron's gone, and we've got other people who need us." Cinza took a deep breath. Without warning, she began to struggle to her feet. Ruby took her arm and helped her upright. "Slow down a bit!"
"Where's Makoto?" Cinza asked brusquely. Alden noticed that even now, she still maintained her echoing voice. She coughed throughout longer sentences, which was a stranger sound still than her usual voice, but she forced out the words nonetheless. Ruby pointed up at the cabin where Rachel stood. Makoto was just emerging, limping along with Rufus' support. Cinza started to walk toward them, but her legs buckled after only a few steps.
"Let me carry you," Ruby muttered.
"I can make it."
"Don't be ridiculous, Cin. Nobody cares that you can't walk right now. You aren't showing weakness."
Still visibly reluctant, Cinza allowed Ruby to pick her up and carry her the rest of the way through the downpour. Alden followed at a respectful distance. As he got close, Cinza was talking to a catatonic Rachel.
Rachel wordlessly gestured at her feet. The crying had stopped. Jackson's face was twisted at an odd angle against the wooden floorboards where he'd fallen. Two bullets had burst through his skull while the remainder went through his chest. Thanks to the slowing effect, every single one had struck before he'd fallen.
Cinza looked at the body with disgust. "Good." Rachel finally reacted with something more than a vague stupor, her eyes shooting up to meet Cinza's. The small girl spat on him, then pulled out a small cloth from inside her robes and wiped her mouth clean. Rachel looked appalled. "Do you expect me to give him respect? He is a monster and I wish him nothing but the deepest levels of hell, if such a place exists."
"And I should be there with him," Rachel murmured.
"Drop the melodrama," Cinza snapped. "You made some mistakes. We all did. None could have foreseen where this would lead. Think less about what could have been and more about what comes next. You've stopped our greatest threat. We've suffered losses, but we're still alive."
"Wishes are nothing," she interrupted. "Wishes are flights of fancy for children. I told you, when you come to a decision, you must commit and not look back. I don't know what sort of choices you faced, but in the end, you were victorious. What more could I ask for?"
"A better leader."
"I chose you, Rachel." Cinza held out her hand, causing Ruby to almost drop her from the sudden imbalance. Rachel looked at it strangely, but didn't reach out. "I still choose you. You saved our lives today."
Rachel's eyes welled up even more. Alden was beginning to realize what had happened. What Rachel had done. He walked up to join them, looking Rachel directly in the eyes. "You saved us all, Rachel," he added firmly, giving her a brief nod.
He wouldn't reveal her betrayal. It wouldn't do anyone any good. They were still in a crisis, even with Omega dead at their feet. They needed a leader.
Rachel took a deep breath. She took Cinza's hand, but she refused to look her in the eye. "Get everyone together," she said, though her voice sounded painfully flat and disaffected.
"Who's everyone?" asked Rufus.
"The town. Everyone who's still alive." Rachel started walking, straight for the billowing black pillars rising out of Rallsburg.
Rufus stayed behind, wanting to put his friend to rest. The rest of the group followed Rachel in a loose formation. Cinza limped along supported by both Ruby and Makoto—awkward due to her size, but they managed to make it work. Alden wasn't sure where he fit into the group and ended up at the front next to Rachel. She ignored them all, moving as if she were totally alone. It was only after they'd made it halfway back that Alden noticed she wasn't ignoring everyone.
She was muttering under her breath, and not to herself. He could only catch a few snippets, but Rachel was trying to convince their invisible companion of something. If he guessed right, Rachel wanted her to find all the survivors left in town, but Grey-eyes wasn't answering. Alden spotted a few leaves on the ground that suddenly bent out of shape, confirming she was present. The town was swiftly approaching, and still Rachel's requests went unanswered.
The glow of the fire faded away. Between the passing rain and whatever Natalie might have done, the pending inferno had been negated. The fire hadn't burned for that long, so Alden believed the town might yet be intact—but whatever hopes Alden held were dashed the moment they emerged from the woods.
Rallsburg was covered in a sheet of grey. Buildings crumbled as far as the eye could see, their already-crippled structures laid waste by the flames. The ritual had done its damage, and the fires finished the town off. Only husks remained, the sturdiest wood in frames charred black as night. The old stone library towered over the wreckage like a gravestone. It was still just as damaged as when Alden had first arrived, but it stood immune to the fresh carnage that had struck Rallsburg.
Since the library was the only visible intact building, they gravitated to it like a beacon. Alden's stomach churned as they walked through the broken town. There were sights no one should ever witness scattered about the houses and shops. Alden averted his eyes, feeling like he were somehow disrespecting the dead if he gawked at them. As they walked, Makoto or Yusuf would occasionally split off to investigate a structure they couldn't see inside—but inevitably they'd return alone, shaking their heads in disappointment.
The few survivors they did come across joined their procession silently. Joe McKinney appeared after only a few minutes, to no comment from Cinza or the other Greycloaks whom he'd abandoned in the forest. There was no blame to be placed anymore—everyone felt too exhausted to raise grievances.
They found Dan Rhodes outside his half-caved-in diner, sitting on the street and staring at the sky. Julian Black appeared a few minutes later, and Alden tried to give him a wide berth. He still carried the hunting rifle that had killed Logan Bowerson.
Boris Morozov joined them on the next block. Alden half-expected Grey-eyes to reappear and greet him, but their reunion went unmarked. Boris tried to speak to Rachel, but besides a terse greeting, Rachel refused to engage with anyone. She still marched forward as if in a trance, her eyes unwavering from the library ahead.
Alden worried about her. He didn't know her that well—in fact, he'd only spoken to her twice before they'd set off into the forest—but he couldn't imagine this was normal behavior. What was her plan? Was this funeral procession some sort of coping strategy for the town as a whole?
Her words back in the forest still bothered him. She hadn't been talking like a leader, or even a survivor. She'd been surrendering.
She was giving up, and Alden wasn't sure how to turn it around.
They were only a block away from their destination, which was feeling more like a deadline with every step, when they heard a call from above. A few of their group scattered, but Alden recognized the voice. He waved to the quickly approaching speck shooting out of the low cloud layer.
Hailey swooped in and came to an elegant landing a few feet away. Jessica let go and took a few steps away on unsteady feet, while Hailey limped over to the group. "Is everyone okay?"
"Yeah," Alden replied, though it felt too inadequate an answer. "You kinda scared a few people," he added, looking over at Dan Rhodes. The diner owner had dropped to the pavement and covered his neck like he expected a disaster. As it became clear no harm was forthcoming, he gingerly accepted Boris' help back to his feet.
Hailey winced. "Sorry, Dan."
"'s okay," Dan mumbled, still a bit shell-shocked. "Thanks for savin' my bacon earlier."
"No problem." Hailey looked around curiously. "So is it over? The ones following me all got dusted."
"Yes," Alden replied.
Hailey looked at him oddly, but didn't press the question. "So what's going on now?"
Alden glanced at Rachel ahead of them, who hadn't stopped walking for a moment. He shrugged. "I guess we're meeting up."
"Okay." Hailey fell in step with him, but Alden stopped again.
"I just remembered, we left Neffie at that garage—"
"Oh. I'll go get her. Hey, Jess?"
Jessica looked up at her name. Hailey pointed at herself, then made a vertical swooping motion into the air, followed by a sort of imitation of a crane-game picking up something invisible and dropping it off. Jessica nodded. She pointed at Alden, then at herself and made a walking motion with her fingers. Alden wondered if he could have come up with coherent explanations like that on the fly so quickly, but he supposed they had a lot of practice.
Hailey took a few steps and bounded into the air. She almost seemed to be standing on midair for a second, before clearly taking another jump off of nothing and a third, creating enough altitude to start gliding away across town. Alden watched her go with a mixture of jealousy and awe—and he certainly wasn't alone, judging by the expressions from the rest of the group.
Their brief respite from the gloom was cut short as the procession reached its destination. The library loomed in front of them, the only intact structure remaining in Rallsburg. The rain had let up, but even so, Alden could feel their collective desire to take cover. No one wanted to be out in the open anymore, not after what they'd been through.
Rachel walked up to the boards covering the entrance and gently set them aside. She passed through to the dark interior, and they saw a gentle orange light flicker to life. It peeked through the windows with a soft glow.
No one followed her. Silence hung in her wake.
"...So do we just go in?" asked Julian Black.
"I guess? What do you people usually do?" said Dan.
"I don't think any of this counts as usual," Cinza put in softly.
Hailey returned while they were still milling about the library, unsure if they should follow Rachel inside. Neffie stumbled away at the landing, looking winded as ever. As she stood up, she let out a cry of "Preston!" and sprinted away from the group. It took Alden a second to realize her cry was joy, not grief.
A man in uniform had just emerged around the next corner. His sleeves were a little singed and he looked like he'd just run a marathon, but he was certainly alive. Neffie buried her brother in a hug.
Behind the man, Natalie rode out atop Gwen, looking more exhausted than the rest of them combined. Alden had never seen someone so young look so disheartened and tired, yet she still managed to stay upright and join the group. Both Kendra and Lily followed her, looking almost perfectly identical. One of them had a pair of sunglasses hanging from the hem of her shirt, but other than that Alden had no real way to distinguish them. Rounding them out was Hector Peraza, making it a reunion of the ritual group. Hector stayed close to Natalie as they approached, holding her hand as the wolf padded forward and sat down outside the library.
Alden wanted to feel happy for the reunion, but so many others looked forlorn and abandoned. Joe McKinney already knew for certain his father had died. Jessica was looking left and right, clearly hoping her parents might emerge as Preston had. Hailey had told Alden about their rocky relationship, but they were still her parents. Dan and Julian were waiting for friends or colleagues, Kendra and Lily were waiting for the rest of the university staff who hadn't gone home for the summer yet.
None dared walk away from the group. Even if Omega was dead, the memories of golems emerging from the shadows to tear them to pieces was too fresh. They bound themselves together like a herd, instinctively watching away from the center and keeping the weakest at the middle.
"We're lucky he attacked when he did," Cinza commented, seated on the dirt and leaning against Ruby. She was speaking low enough that only those closest could hear, which included Alden and Hailey. Hailey spun around indignantly, but Cinza held up a hand to forestall her. "I'd guess it was intentional, if this hadn't been set off by the unexpected deaths in that trailer. But think about it. Spring term is over, so the school had already emptied for the summer." Cinza nodded at the wreckage of the university buildings, far away at the opposite end of the street from the library. "This could have been so much worse."
Hailey opened her mouth to argue, but hesitated. A few seconds later, she closed it again with a sigh. The minutes dragged on, while the endless gray blanket of clouds slowly drifted through the sky. Between the sky, the ash and the charred buildings, it seemed to Alden like color had been sucked out of the town entirely. They were still surrounded by the green and brown of the forest at the edges, but the town itself was devoid of any sort of life. The only contrasting hue besides the clothes on their backs was the gentle flickering orange inside the library.
The sheriff arrived around the same corner as Preston had a few minutes later, accompanied by the male councilor—Josh, if Alden remembered his name correctly. Jackie jogged up to join them, giving Preston and Neffie a warm welcome in particular. Questions of other survivors flew fast, but Jackie only shook her head. Before their hopes were completely dashed, there was a sudden, indistinct cry of alarm—from Jessica.
A middle-aged couple sprinted down the road, and Jessica matched them in urgency. Hailey took off after her friend, stumbling a little from her injuries. The collected survivors watched as Jessica was snatched up by her parents in a tight hug. Their relief was infectious. Quiet murmurs began to spring up as the others voiced their vague hopes. Alden too felt relieved—perhaps moreso than the crowd, since Hailey had told him of the strained relationships in the Silverdale family. To see Jessica's parents reunited with their daughter in such a heartwarming way brought them a new wave of hope that they'd been missing for too long. Faint smiles were sprouting on lips, eyes softening.
As Jessica and her family rejoined the group, Josh proposed a search party. He was collecting volunteers when a voice spoke up from nowhere. She sounded utterly defeated, her voice thick with the repercussions of grieving. "That's everyone."
"What?" Josh asked, looking around.
She didn't answer. Alden took a step toward where he thought the voice had come from. "Grey-eyes?" he asked tentatively.
"...I don't feel anyone else in town. This is it."
The silence that fell over them was agony. Jackie took a quick headcount. "That's everyone? Just twenty-two people? Jesus Christ…"
Alden didn't know how many people were supposed to be in Rallsburg, but it had to be a hundred or two at least. The fires and the golems did far more than he'd realized. The town had been annihilated.
"What are we supposed to do now?" Natalie asked. She sat up on Gwen and straightened her black dress, looking around for advice.
No one had any for her. Slowly, one by one, heads turned toward the glowing light just inside the library gateway.
Rachel sat on the stone bench inside one of the side halls, holding a gently flickering candlelight in her palm. The room had once been a sturdy tower, encircled by gargantuan bookshelves with a single entrance set into the lower shelves. The cases were long-since emptied, and the wooden panels were covered in years of dust. A hole in the ceiling—opened by either Alpha or Omega, Rachel had no idea which—was letting a thin coating of ash drift in from the cloud of smoke dissipating into the sky.
The library always used to unsettle her. Rachel didn't believe in spirits or ghosts, even with what she'd been through, but she'd always felt an air of spite and malevolence hanging throughout the wrecked building. Today, it was gone. Rachel didn't see it as the site of impossible battles or eldritch secrets, but as the lone standing bastion against the horrors they'd all witnessed. She wondered—if it hadn't been destroyed, could it have protected them all from the massacre?
Ridiculous, she reminded herself. It's an old stone building that was emptied out way before they ever fought. It couldn't have protected a fly.
"This is where we found it," said Beverly. She faded in next to Rachel, sitting on the bench and staring at the octagonal rug on the floor. It was the only piece of furniture remaining in the entire structure not made of blackened wood or hard stone. "Right there on the floor."
"Yeah." She tilted her head down as if she were embarrassed. "Hailey dragged me to some stupid party. I didn't want to go, but that's where I met Jackson. Then Jackie came to break it up. We ran, and we ended up here. They were both scared of it. I wasn't. So I sat down, turned to a random page, and everything went wrong." Rachel looked up at her. Beverly's eyes were red and streaked with tears, but she'd finally calmed down.
"Would you take it all back?" Rachel asked.
Beverly took a long time to answer. She kept folding and unfolding her hands in her lap. "I don't like thinking about that. If I decide yes, then what if I spend years trying to find a way to do it? Hindsight's a lot different when there might actually be a way to change things."
"You really think magic can do that?"
"It's magic. I don't care what anyone else says. I don't think we can ever completely understand it."
Rachel nodded. "I think he was right about that."
"Jackson. He was right about magic being too dangerous. Even with the safeguards I tried to put in place, it wasn't enough." Rachel let out a deep breath. "It's too late to stop it now."
"I could stop it," Beverly suggested, though she looked sickened by her own suggestion.
She shook her head. "We have no idea how many Scraps might be out there that we never found, or copies that Cinza managed to hide away, or anything else. People are going to find them, and they're going to die if you don't help them."
"So you're telling me to keep awakening them?"
Rachel sighed. She felt like she was at the end of a marathon and being asked to start running another one. "I'm done giving orders. It's not my place anymore."
Beverly eyed her with a mixture of contempt and pity. "You're giving up?"
Rachel nodded. "I thought you'd be happy."
She frowned. "I think you're awful, but I still think you were the best chance everyone has for this to actually work. Everyone trusts you."
"They trust you too. Why don't you lead them?"
"I'm not a leader."
Rachel coughed out a bitter laugh. "What makes me a leader any more than you?"
"You're decisive. You get stuff done."
"And look where that got us."
Rachel stretched out her limbs, feeling the aches and pains of the whole week slowly filtering through her body. She could hear people approaching through the library, the occasional scuffle and stumble over debris giving them away. She'd have to face the crowd one last time before it was all over. Rachel stood up and braced herself. She'd get it over with quick and painless. She was done.
Natalie Hendricks walked through the archway.
The girl was still dressed in her battered and torn black funeral dress, though she'd added pants and her forest-green windbreaker to the getup. She had a few streaks of blood dotting her skin and a blackened and burned spot on her coat. Everything about her appearance was a perfect summary of what they'd all been through.
It made Rachel sick. She remembered her promise to her, and to everyone else who followed, and she felt even colder.
She wasn't qualified to lead anyone. Rachel DuValle was just an airhead freak college student from Vancouver, with nothing special about her at all. She couldn't save the world. This crowd of people, who'd relied upon her and believed in her to save them, had put their trust in the wrong person.
Alden was the last one through the door, finishing off the odd semi-circle of people facing Rachel and Grey-eyes on their bench. He wanted to look around the library a bit more, but at the same time he certainly didn't want to wander off alone. Never again, as far as he was concerned. Going off alone had only gone terribly for him in Rallsburg.
Rachel hadn't spoken since Natalie had walked in. The girl had insisted on being the first one through the door, though she'd been forced to leave Gwen waiting outside. Natalie proceeded immediately to Rachel and sat down in front of her expectantly, like a kid in class waiting for the teacher. Alden suddenly remembered that, despite all her accomplishments and her fearsome capabilities, Natalie was still so young. Out of the entire crowd of people, she was the only one who couldn't be considered an adult, or even a teenager.
Rachel was staring into empty space, while Grey-eyes watched her carefully. The rest of the group was dead silent. Alden felt a collective sense that to speak up in this place, waiting for Rachel to start the meeting, was somehow disrespectful. The group silently agreed they would wait for their leader to talk first. Thus it became a waiting game stretching on for minutes, as Rachel continued to stare and the group slowly became more restless.
Natalie finally broke the silence, though tension still hung thick in the room. "Rachel?"
Rachel's eyes fell to the girl sitting cross-legged in front of her. "Yes, Natalie."
"Are you okay?"
She took a deep breath. "No, not really."
"...I'm sorry I couldn't save more people." She wiped her face on the sleeve of her windbreaker, then looked back up at Rachel expectantly. "What should we do now?"
Rachel took a very long time to answer her. Her eyes drifted out of focus. Natalie fidgeted in place watching her, picking at one of her nails nervously. Finally, Rachel spoke up, in the same tired voice she'd been stuck in for days. "I don't know."
"C'mon, Rachel," started Julian. "We won, so what's next?"
She laughed, in a disturbing and disheartening way. "We didn't win."
"He is dead, right?" asked Jackie.
"Yeah," Alden confirmed.
"So we won," Josh concluded.
"Twenty two people survived," Rachel said quietly. "Twenty two out of hundreds. No one won."
"We're still here," said Hailey, standing next to Jessica and her parents.
"So go live your lives."
"We don't have lives left to live," Jessica's dad replied angrily. "Our home's gone, our town is gone. What are we supposed to do now?"
"Hey, lay off," Josh cut in.
"I think she still has a lot to answer for," added Jessica's mother. "Why did all this happen? Why didn't she stop it sooner? And why hasn't my daughter said a word since we got here? What did you do to her?" Jessica was watching each of them in turn as they spoke, but she seemed to hover equally between Hailey and her family, without quite committing to either one.
"Rachel is not responsible for what transpired with your daughter," Kendra replied, lending some real weight to the voices backing Rachel.
"What would you know about it, Miss Laushire?"
"I've worked closely with Rachel for over a year now, and neither of us were aware your daughter was acquainted with magic until the last few days. Whatever occurred was beyond our knowledge."
"You, then!" she railed on, spinning to face Hailey. "You've been living with her, this is your fault!"
Hailey opened her mouth—about to retort in equal measure—but Jessica grabbed her by the arm. Hailey faltered, looking at her friend, and Jessica shook her head. Alden wondered how much she actually understood, but it was clear from her expression that she just wanted them both to shut up. Hailey fell silent, but Jessica's mother wasn't so quick to back down.
"I heard all about that town hall, and everything after! You knew about this monster way before he came after us. Why didn't you do anything to stop him?"
"Lady, you try fighting a god," said Julian.
"Can you shut up?" interrupted Natalie. "Please?" she added, after the looks of surprise at her outburst. "Who cares whose fault it is?"
"...How did it happen?" asked Boris, when no one else spoke up in the wake of Natalie's question. "How did he die?" Alden expected he was as much asking Grey-eyes as he was Rachel, but Grey-eyes was totally silent, and looking very uncomfortable to be so close to the center of attention.
"He attacked us at our home—" Ruby started, but Rachel spoke only a moment after she did.
"I shot him."
She spoke with such finality that the room was stunned into silence yet again. Rachel simply didn't want to engage with anyone. It seemed painfully unlike her from what Alden had seen and heard. Rachel was someone who loved to be at the front of a crowd, and now where she should have been completely in her element, she just wanted them all to leave.
Cinza took a half-step forward, Ruby keeping her upright, placing them in front of the semicircle facing Rachel. "You called us all together, Rachel," she prompted. "This is everyone. What did you want to tell us?"
"Why her?" Jessica's father asked. "Why're we listening to her?"
Dan coughed. "Mal, she was elected, by more than half of the people here. She's in charge."
"So what? Jackie was elected."
"So was Josh," Joe put in. "How d'you feel about listening to him?"
"That's enough," Jackie interrupted. "I wasn't elected to lead. And as for Josh, no 'ffense, but Rachel should definitely be in charge."
"None taken," said Josh. "I agree with you."
"Which brings us back to the point," said Neffie. "What did you want to say, Rachel?"
They watched expectantly. Rachel took a deep breath, and finally, her eyes seemed to refocus on the people standing around her. She still didn't look any less miserable than when they'd first walked in, but she at least seemed to be properly lucid.
"We have to hide."
Rachel didn't know what she'd expected from her pronouncement, but the blank stares were certainly a little underwhelming. Even in her melancholic state, she still wanted a bit more of a reaction than that. Hadn't she given them what they wanted? It was a plan of some kind, even if it wasn't a very satisfying one.
"What do you mean?" asked Preston.
"They'll be coming for us. The livestream and the fire. I wouldn't be surprised if they're already on the way."
"Who?" asked Hector.
"The man," said Julian.
"Huh?" asked Natalie.
"An entire town vanishing off the map won't go unnoticed," Rachel continued. She slowly gained confidence in her words as she delved into one of the worst-case scenarios she'd prepped. Many of her nights in bed, listening to Will sleeping quietly next to her, were filled with disaster planning for every possible eventuality she could come up with. She hadn't ever quite considered this level of destruction, but she was starting to adapt to it. "This will escalate fast."
"She's right," added Jackie. "It won't stay at state level either. No matter what happens, they'll definitely take it federal. And if they find out about magic…"
"We're fucked," Josh finished. Jackie nodded.
"We're back to this again?" Joe asked.
"I was preparing for them to come and confront us here. If the town was still here, with everyone behind us and spreading out into the world, maybe we could have been large enough to stand on our own," said Rachel. "But only twenty two people? With the town burned to the ground and bodies everywhere? They'd disappear us."
"Come on, they can't just vanish us," said Julian.
"Yes, they can," said Yusuf.
"This few people? Undoubtedly so," agreed Lily. "They operate on the world scale. We could try to make a bit of noise, but ultimately we'd be captured either way. Unless she stops them," she added, nodding at Beverly.
Beverly shook her head. "I don't want to fight anyone."
"Nor do I, dear, and I wouldn't presume to ask. Loathe as I am to abide by this proposal, I concur with Rachel," said Kendra. "We should hide."
A minute of silence passed as they digested the words. With arguably the three most important people in the room in agreement, the rest of the group were slowly coming to terms with the future.
"How?" asked Makoto, the first word he'd spoken since leaving Cinza's home in the woods.
"You're not thinking we all pile into one of Kendra's little pockets, are you?" asked Julian uneasily. "Don' think I could sleep with those earthquakes every few minutes."
"Can you keep an entire dimension stable on your own strength?" asked Lily sharply.
Julian raised his hands in surrender. "Down, Xerox. I'm jus' tryin' to point out problems."
"That doesn't sound sustainable," said Cinza. "As impressive as her creations might be, she needs to close them every day, and it's not as though we could survive inside them either. Even Aaron's discoveries aren't enough to grow food in a void."
"So what, do we go live with you in the forest?" asked Josh.
"No way. I'm not going out into the woods for the rest of my life," snapped Malcolm. His wife nodded emphatically in agreement.
"As much as I'd love to host you all," Cinza said dryly, "I doubt we could sustain this many people. We were barely self-sustaining before, and we've lost half of the people who could cast the necessary spells. It would take a lot of time to train new people in the technique."
"We go out in plain sight," said Boris abruptly.
"...Great plan," said Joe sarcastically. "We walk right into their black vans."
"New identities, new lives," Boris went on, ignoring him. "As I understand it, many of you have methods to change your appearance in thorough, permanent ways. I can help you develop new lives to match. It won't be necessary for everyone," he added, glancing at the Silverdale couple, "but for the most notable among you, it could keep you safe."
Hailey nodded. "Jess and I know the ritual to use." Jessica looked up at her name, but after realizing Hailey wasn't talking to her, glanced away again. She seemed to be most interested with watching Beverly, but the grey-eyed girl was too busy watching Rachel to notice. Rachel wondered if she should find it threatening that Beverly refused to let her out of her sight.
"What if I can't do it?" Hector asked.
"You don't need to, Hector. He's talking about Kenni and myself. Cinza as well, as she was captured on film," said Lily.
"Me too, I think," added Joe. "You could see me in the back of a few shots."
"I've no intention to return to society," said Cinza. "Our home is still intact, and we will remain there." Yusuf and Ruby nodded in unison at her words.
"Not to be a downer, but most of you lived here. I'm from Norwalk. My parents are still there," said Josh. "They'll be looking for me."
"You can't get in touch with them," said Rachel. "You're dead."
"I'm pretty sure they could keep a secret," Josh shot back.
"Enrollment records and flight records. If their son is alive and well in SoCal, when he should have been at school for the summer, you're screwed," said Hailey. "You gotta cut them out for now, Josh."
"Easy for you to say. You don't even talk to your folks."
Hailey glowered, but Neffie spoke up before they could get into it. "What about the rest of us? We can't use magic," she asked. "How are we supposed to hide?"
"I can teach you a few things," said Boris.
"And you're this amazing expert on hiding, are you?" asked Malcolm.
Malcolm faltered at his single confident word. His wife looked about to speak up, but Boris held up his hand to forestall them, to Alden's relief.
"I know you may have further questions, but I believe we shouldn't linger too long. We have some time, but they will come. The world communicates much faster now. Likely within a day."
"Maybe less," agreed Jackie. "Is this the plan, Rachel?"
"It is," she said firmly.
"All right then." Jackie cracked her neck slightly before continuing, taking a breath. "We'll have to figure out where everyone's goin', and who with. Boris, how many fake identities can you make?"
"As many as we need," he replied.
"Someday you and I are gonna have that drink I always promised."
"I look forward to seeing you handle real Russian vodka."
Jackie grinned. "Don't count me out."
"I'm surprised you don't want to turn this over to the authorities," Josh commented. "After all that about following the spirit of the law before."
Jackie shook her head. "There's a difference between a murder or two and a goddamn massacre. In the real world? This looks like a terrorist attack, or worse, and you all have way too many questions you can't answer."
"Twenty two people can keep a secret," Rachel said. "We're all that's left of Rallsburg. Maybe magic can come back again one day, but it won't be here. Rallsburg is gone. No one survived whatever happened here. It's just a ghost town now."
"Making us the Ghosts of Rallsburg?" said Ruby with a faint smile. Cinza gently nudged her, and she fell silent.
The rest of the group was quiet at Rachel's pronouncement. She wondered if she'd gone a bit too far in her description, but she wanted to impress the gravity of the cover they had to maintain if they were to make it out alive.
"What happens next?" said Cinza.
"What do you mean?" asked Josh.
"We go into hiding, but what happens next? I doubt that's the end of the story."
Rachel shook her head. "We hide and we wait. We stay in contact, but that's it. We have no idea how this is going to play out on the world stage."
"You're just gonna wing it?" Josh said incredulously.
"Kinda underwhelmed here, Rach," said Julian. She winced at the shortened name. "You're usually the one with the big plans. This is sort of disappointin'."
"Look where my big plans have gotten us," Rachel said quietly. "Twenty two people, Julian. Every single plan I had failed."
"Not the last one. We're alive, and he's not."
"No matter what else, Rachel, you saved us all," agreed Kendra. "In the end, you made the difference."
"It's twenty-three people," Alden cut in suddenly. "Rachel, you're not counting yourself. There's twenty-three of us."
Rachel was taken aback. He was right, she'd completely neglected to count herself. She wondered what that said about her state of mind, plowing through a half-dozen psychologists and theories in her brain before Ruby interrupted her thoughts.
"It's actually twenty-four," she spoke up, her red curls shining in the flickering light. "Rufus is still back at our camp, but he's alive too. Plus Nikki and the others that got flown out, so that's…" She trailed off as she realized everyone was staring at her.
"...Way to kill the moment," said Josh dryly.
There were a few chuckles around the group—and to her surprise, Rachel found herself among them.
It was strained and weak, but it was mirth where there had been none. It was a slight flicker of light in a broken town covered in ash. It was a collection of determined survivors unwilling to lay down and accept their fate just yet.
It was hope, and that was enough to keep them going.