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Interlude IV Secrets

  Cinza reverently removed the Scrap from the metal tube they'd stored it inside. She handed it over to Nikki, who took a few cautious steps into the center of the circle. The rest of the Greycloaks—the only family she had left—sat around her in a wide circle, watching intently. She felt every eye on her, the weight of anticipation in the air over what would happen, but she knew they were all there to support her no matter the outcome. Behind them standing at the edge of the treeline were Josh Miller and Hailey Winscombe, the only two present not wearing the cloaks. Nikki took a deep breath, then slowly started to unroll the ancient burnt piece of torn parchment. She'd been anticipating this moment for weeks, ever since the destruction of Rallsburg that had made them all ghosts. They'd put it off while Cinza recovered enough to walk around without constant support, but finally—it was time.

  Nicole Winifred Parsons was about to awaken.

  She looked down at the parchment and let her eyes drift over the first few words. No one had described what the feeling would be like. She'd resisted asking Josh or Hailey, because she wanted to go into it totally blind. She wanted to experience the revelation herself, unfiltered and unbiased, that which Cinza and Ruby talked of with such feverish passion. Nikki began to read it aloud, though she had no idea what she was speaking. She knew the words, as if whispered to her in a dream that she couldn't quite recall. It was emotion more than it was conscious thought.

  "For the good of us all," she heard faintly, as if from behind a thick curtain and infinitely far away. Ruby had spoken the words, and a moment later the rest of her family echoed them. Nikki held onto those words like a lifeline as her vision plunged away, color and detail draining out of the world as she fell into darkness. As the forest fell out of sight, Nikki felt her mind opening up. Her brain seemed like it was ten times its usual size. She could sense every tiny synapse, every burst of nerves and every connection as they grew and changed and formed new pathways. It was a beautiful, perpetually shifting and self-altering machine, and Nikki could feel every piece of it and how it all fit together.

  At the same time, she felt something wholly different. It was a stranger feeling, like the sudden burst of inspiration upon solving a puzzle, but perpetual. It felt like she were solving a problem without knowing the situation, with the answers simply thrust upon her out of the black. It was exhilarating—until it suddenly snapped away, like a light flickering out.

  She'd run out of words to speak. Her mouth kept moving and her throat kept trying to utter sounds, but nothing would spring forth. She was choking on her own breath. She was going to suffocate.

  Nikki Parsons was about to die.

  "No," she heard, a chiming bell in the void that pressed upon her ears. Like twin stars, a pair of silver-grey orbs appeared in the sky, slowly resolving into the eyes of their goddess. She started speaking the words to save Nikki's life, words Nikki echoed in perfect unison until she had stumbled her way back into the world of light.

  Grey-eyes sat on her knees in front of her. Nikki had fallen back against the simple rest Cinza had prepared and set into the center. In sharp contrast to the grey robes worn by the circle, their goddess wore only a plain jacket and jeans, with a faded t-shirt for a band she'd never heard of. Nikki looked past her plain trappings to the immense power contained within the girl's striking eyes, and she felt afraid.

  "Thank you," she whispered.

  Grey-eyes nodded, looking as she always did—lonely and a little sad. Nikki wished she could do something for her, but it didn't matter. A moment later, Grey-eyes vanished, as she always did.

  The moment she was gone, the circle converged on Nikki. Ruby was the first to reach her, grasping her hand with the warmest of smiles.

  "Welcome," she said, and Nikki—who had felt for so long like an outsider despite Cinza's constant reassurance—finally rejoiced. She had joined them on the other side.

  
  


  
  

  After two weeks with magic in her hands, Nikki felt a bit underwhelmed. She could barely cast even the most basic spells, and her frustration was becoming obvious to the rest of the Greycloaks.

  "It just takes practice," Yusuf explained with a twinge of embarrassment. He had no trouble summoning up a fireball out of the air, though thankfully he didn't flaunt it. "You have need to dig a bit more than we do, I think. You maybe don't have the right affinity for this magic."

  "Did you guys just guess 'em?" Joe asked, sitting on a log nearby and picking away at a few sticks.

  "Cinza had someone with Knowledge magic to find out all of ours," Yusuf explained. "They tried to do Nikki when we found the chance, but it is you cannot find out anything from someone who is not awakened yet."

  "Weird."

  "Do you want to try again, Nikki?" Yusuf asked. "Just find the way the fire bursts, as I said. I know that does not really explain it, but it is the best way I can think of describing."

  Nikki focused. She reached out her will, like she did for telekinesis. That was the breakthrough moment for her, when she'd first learned how to detach her mind from her brain. It was a process none of them understood, but most could do without thinking. Nikki found that initial basic step the most important of them all. She didn't care that much about actually making fire, except that it would give her more information about how that first step into the supernatural took place. Something had changed in them to allow such a strange disconnect, and Nikki was determined to figure out how it worked.

  She imagined a candle flickering into life. Delving into what she could remember of chemistry, she thought about the reaction that had to take place for fire to exist in the real world. Did that reaction even matter? There clearly wasn't anything for the fire to burn from in the air, so did real physics just fly out the window entirely?

  Not that her questions mattered if she couldn't produce even the tiniest drop of flame.

  "Nikki, you okay?"

  Her concentration snapped at Joe's words. She rounded on him, about to start shouting, but she managed to calm herself in time. She knew he was just concerned and trying to help. He cared about her. "I'm fine."

  Joe nodded. "Well, keep trying then. You'll get it."

  Something about his tone irked her, but she didn't want to bring it up. Yusuf saved her the difficulty of replying. "Hey Joe, do you mind to get us some dinner? I could use a bite to eat. I have been spending a lot of energy cutting firewood today."

  Joe shrugged. "Sure. What do you want?"

  "Whatever Rufus suggests. I am not picky."

  As soon as Joe was out of earshot, Yusuf sat down next to Nikki. "Maybe a little better luck without the boyfriend in earshot?" he said conspiratorially.

  Nikki shrugged. "He's not really the problem."

  "Oh?" Yusuf looked surprised. "I believed he was being quite the irritant. But if you are saying he is fine, I won't try to keep him away for longer."

  "Actually…" Nikki said. "I have an idea."

  "An epiphany?"

  "Huh?"

  "Whenever Ruby was to come up with a great new idea for magic, Cinza would call it an epiphany. She was very specific about the term."

  Nikki laughed. "I think they just like using big words."

  "Yes, they do."

  She rolled up her sleeves and held out her hand. "In the gathering, I could feel your magic the most. What if I could use it as a jump-start? Like starting a stalled engine. Getting past this block keeping me from the other types of magic."

  Yusuf looked at her doubtfully. "We have tried this with other diffinities. Rufus and his disability with Movement magic. It did not accomplish anything."

  "Try it for me?" she asked.

  He shrugged. "If you want." He took her hand gently and closed his eyes.

  Nikki reached out again, trying to feel the magic coming from him. She couldn't feel anything, but that didn't mean it wasn't there. Cinza had speculated to Josh and Nikki one night that the connection was made through more pathways than simply magical power. She had drawn up a chart detailing affinities and perceived strength of each connection, as well as their emotional connections and any other characteristics that might relate two people physically. It certainly helped explain why her connection with Ruby was so strong. Two young adult girls, of similar build and ethnicity, madly in love and also sharing the same affinity—of course they would be able to share magic almost freely.

  However, along those same lines, shouldn't Brittany and Matthew be able to share fairly easily? They were married and quite close, yet they struggled with it, even though both could share with Cinza. Additionally, Yusuf could give to almost everyone equally, and he shared neither a particularly strong emotional connection nor a race with a single other Greycloak. The inconsistency was obvious, and Cinza discarded the theory after a good deal of debate between the three of them. Nikki was the only one of the Greycloaks who enjoyed discussing the theory of magic in depth with Josh and Cinza, despite her own ineptitude with spellcasting.

  Not that Josh seemed to enjoy their conversations. He contributed as much as either of them, but his voice was always cynical and defeatist. Nikki didn't mind, though. He helped keep them grounded.

  Still, the theory Cinza had established appealed to her to some degree. It was romantic—and despite everything, Nikki was still the starry-eyed teenager who'd run away from home dreaming of a more exciting life, and found it in the care of the cult who'd taken up in her town. Every other part of her life had broken the illusion, so she held onto that last vestige as tight as she could.

  "Hey Yusuf?" she asked.

  His eyes popped open. "Yes, Nikki?"

  "I was curious. Why did you join Cinza?"

  He looked at her in surprise. "That is an odd question to ask right now."

  "I'm so sorry!" Nikki blurted. "I didn't mean to pry."

  Yusuf smiled. "It's fine. I do not mind telling you my story." His hand hadn't left hers the whole time, and she liked the warmth he gave off. Yusuf was a middle aged man with black hair he kept quite short, with very tan skin and friendly brown eyes. Every impression he gave was that of a large, friendly, slightly short bear—up to and including the rage he could exhibit when threatened. Nikki had seen him up against a mob, fighting to protect them all, and she knew what he was really capable of with his back to the wall.

  "Would it shock you to believe this is not my first cult?" he said with a smile.

  "What?"

  "It is truth!" He laughed. "I was a foolish young soul. I was raised by my father to be a devout man, but I knew better! In my arrogant youth, I declared that his beliefs were nothing old fire stories from the ancient days. I would find my own path. So I traveled to America, and there I met Sally Santiago."

  Nikki giggled. "Sally Santiago? Really?"

  "Ah, she was the most beautiful woman you had ever imagined!" Yusuf waved a hand through the air like a cheap magician, but as he did, a sparkle of light flickered around his fingers. He'd generated sparks of flame to heighten the effect. "Beautiful, and so proud. She was fierce. I loved that about her. She was a truly free spirit. My father would have hated her, so of course I loved her with all my heart." He shrugged. "I was not a very good son."

  Nikki shook her head. "Sounds like he wasn't a very good dad."

  "Maybe you will meet him one day and you can tell me for certain."

  "Maybe." She tapped his palm with her finger. "What happened to Sally?"

  "Six months after I met her, she became Sally al-Fayed!" He smiled even wider. "Two love birds making their nest. We did joined forces against the world. Sally was going to university to become a doctor, and I was repairing houses and helping her pay for her schooling. We made quite a team."

  "Hang on, you said this was about a cult."

  "Patience, child! What kind of bad storyteller am I, if I skip act one and two?"

  "I'm sorry." She squeezed his hand. "Please, keep going. I'm listening."

  He grinned. "This is where we reach the happy part of my story."

  "Happier than Sally Santiago?" Nikki deadpanned.

  "Sally al-Fayed!" he corrected. "Yes, because we have new characters who join us! Two beautiful, perfect characters named Nadia and Amelia al-Fayed! Alhamduli'iilaaha!" Yusuf shouted the final word, startling her.

  "...Your daughters?" she guessed, once he'd calmed down a little.

  "Yes. My two daughters, blessed be them forever." A tear formed in the corner of his eye, which he dabbed away with a corner from the hood of his robe. "However, you are right, this is a story of a cult and not of my two blessings. There was a small gathering in our home town in Pennsylvania. A group of people with a devotion that they would follow utterly. They believed they were promised for a better place than this. Their devotion drove them to commit horrible acts to themselves."

  Nikki clapped a hand to her mouth. "Oh my god. They didn't—"

  "They did," he replied. "I am afraid to say I was not at home. I had read some of their literature and I dismissed it as strange, but I believed my wife knew what she was doing. I do not know if she found salvation, but I know that I most certainly did not."

  "Yusuf, I'm so sorry."

  "I thank you." He patted her on the shoulder. "But I tell you this not because I seek comfort, though I thank you again. My Nadia and my Amelia were taken by 'iilhat alramadi and I will see them when it is my time." He shook his head. "No, I keep this story in my memory to remind myself of the danger rigid belief can make. Do you know our leader is the wisest I have ever known?"

  "Cinza?" Nikki asked doubtfully. She believed Cinza was smart, sure, and that she had a worldliness about her that spoke of a dense and storied past, but Yusuf seemed to be hinting at something more specific.

  "Absolutely. Cinza is the leader who questions. The leader who doubts and fears and cares more that her people are safe than following her belief so strictly." He smiled. "This is why I would follow her when I have every reason to be frightened. Why, if my Amelia and my Nadia were alive today, Cinza would be the only person in the world I could trust to care for them if I were taken away."

  "Huh." Nikki still wasn't quite sure she agreed with him—particularly about the whole child-rearing thing—but she did start to examine Cinza in a new light. Maybe there was more to her than just the romantic side. After all, Cinza had insisted on combat training, on readiness drills, on all sorts of other activity that simply didn't line up with what Nikki expected. Of course… she'd been right, in the end.

  "Now, Nikki, we were to try again at helping you create fire. Can you feel magic yet through my hand?"

  Nikki tried again. She reached out to the space between them, a space so small she couldn't ever see it, but had to believe it existed. There she found it—a whirling disk of energy that spun like a top on the tips of Yusuf's fingers, waiting for her to pluck it from his balance and take it for herself. She grabbed it and pulled the energy inside her mind, ready to fling it out into a ball of flame as powerful as she could manage. She wanted to show Yusuf that his effort hadn't been for nothing.

  Her mind found a different path. When she reached for the churning element she recognized as fire, her thoughts wandered away. It was an idea that barged into her stream of consciousness, dominating her imagination and demanding her full attention. She gave in and followed the path of least resistance, curious where this was taking her. There was something totally different about this magic, a sensation she'd never felt or even heard described to her by the other Greycloaks.

  It felt right. Nikki shivered with excitement. This was from her affinity. She was sure of it.

  Suddenly, she ran into a massive wall of resistance blocking her path. It wasn't like the immense strain of effort when she tried to cast spells from other affinities though. This was more like an intricate web, with layers upon layers of different strands entwined and circling around and through themselves in impossible knots. She felt like she were blind and trying to figure out the object just from feeling a tiny portion of its true shape. It was impossibly huge and labyrinthine, and all she could do was to pluck out a single thread and begin to follow it.

  She did so, tracing it back, like the first step in untangling a mess of cords. The cord continued to branch off in deeper and deeper pathways, and Nikki could only guess what might lay inside. Her vision blurred, and she was vaguely aware of Yusuf watching her with a concerned expression, but he seemed to be moving in slow motion. Nikki could feel her mind speeding up as she plumbed the depths of the maze of threads. She forced herself to slow down, trying to feel the specific threads and what each one might mean.

  One of them felt vaguely familiar. It felt warm and joyful, but also full of muted regret. A thread overcome with thick human emotion. Nikki followed it, and as she delved down she watched the branches split out again, into even more of the infinite possibilities.

  She cursed under her breath, prompting a worried squeeze of her hand from Yusuf. Nikki shook her head, praying he wouldn't speak. Her mind was struggling to contain the labyrinth, and she was only focused on the single path she'd taken so far. If he interrupted, she might lose the thread entirely.

  She kept going, following it where the path felt most immediately familiar. She tried to speed up, suddenly worried that anything might interrupt and break the spell. Yusuf's hand shook slightly, distracting her for a moment, but she managed to hang on.

  Her mind shifted. Suddenly she wasn't following a path through a maze, but riding a cart through mine shafts at a breakneck pace. She had to hold on for dear life as she plunged through the depths, with inky blackness below her and quickly shifting rails that threatened to derail her at every intersection.

  She hung on. She kept following the thread.

  A tunnel of light ahead. Nikki felt her mind slowly beginning to clear as she plunged forward, ready for whatever lay at the end. Her vision went totally white.

  "The Twenty First Circle," she said aloud.

  The world fell back into place, visibly crashing into view as her eyes snapped open.

  "Holy shit," she whispered. Nikki felt like she'd just run a mile and a half, but she felt exhilarated. Yusuf looked similarly dazed, though his was simply from giving up energy for her spellcasting.

  At her words, his eyes widened. "How did you know their name?"

  "Huh?"

  Yusuf looked puzzled. "The cult. I had not shared their name in my story. How did you know it?"

  Nikki blinked a few times, still catching her breath. "...I think we just figured out my affinity."

  
  


  
  

  Since that day, wherever she went, Nikki wore a necklace with a set of amethyst stones clipped onto it. It bounced against her chest as she climbed through the forest, following Joe on his latest trip for supplies. They weren't totally self-sufficient yet, but they were getting close. Very soon, these trips would be totally unnecessary.

  She was looking forward to it, since she couldn't safely leave the confines of their home. As far as they were aware, Nikki was still on quite a few watch lists related to Rallsburg. Joe, it seemed, felt otherwise.

  "I just feel like I'm gonna be the useless one around camp," he explained.

  "How are you gonna be useless? You're still strong as shit, and you can do the crop growth spell okay."

  Joe set down his bundle and leaned against the nearest tree. "Compared to the only person who can do Knowledge magic in the whole fuckin' world?"

  Nikki shrugged. "I got lucky." She glanced around. "Don't forget though, we're supposed to keep that secret. Never say it outside the boundary."

  "Yeah, yeah." Joe rubbed his face with his hands, then started stretching out. "Isn't that like, hypocritical though?"

  "Huh?"

  "Cinza's whole new schtick about being open and sharing everything. If we're sharing everything now, why wouldn't we tell people we can do Knowledge magic again?"

  "Well, I still have no clue what I'm doing," Nikki pointed out. "It's only been a week."

  "It has? Felt like way longer. You keep talking in your sleep."

  "I do?"

  "Yeah. Driving me nuts."

  She frowned. "What do I talk about?"

  "Fuck if I know. I can't understand a word of it."

  "Sorry I'm being such a burden."

  Joe's eyes widened. "Shit, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it like that. It's not really a big deal."

  "No, really, if I'm making you uncomfortable, I'm happy to find another place to sleep. I wouldn't want to make your life difficult."

  "Nikki…" Joe started. Before he could continue, a splash of water flew between them, circling around Joe and coming back to rest in Makoto's palm. "The fuck?"

  "Show-off," Nikki added, smirking. Makoto's lip twitched, but Nikki still couldn't get him to actually laugh. He'd been standing by a tree a dozen feet away, watching them bicker. "When are you gonna teach me how to sneak up on people like that?"

  "Later." Makoto looked over his shoulder. "Rufus will be done soon."

  "The new security shit?" Joe asked.

  "Yes."

  "So we should hurry back?"

  "Probably."

  "Sounds good to me. Let's get going, then. You coming with?" Nikki asked.

  "I have one more section to do." He bowed slightly to her. "See you later."

  He walked past them and back into the forest. Joe watched him go, scratching his head. "The fuck is up with that guy?"

  "What do you mean?"

  "I don't get his priorities at all." He hoisted up his bundle with a grunt and started walking again. Nikki joined him, carrying a smaller bundle. "He's gotta be burning up in there."

  "Huh?"

  "Guy needs to get laid, is what I'm saying."

  She barked out a laugh. "Not everyone's as obsessed with sex as you, you know. Besides, where the hell's he gonna get laid out here? Everyone's pretty paired up, or not his type at all. Unless you're offering?" she added pointedly, nudging him in the elbow.

  "Nuh-uh. He doesn't want me. He's got a massive crush on Ruby."

  Nikki was genuinely surprised. "For real?"

  "You didn't know? Shit, maybe I wasn't supposed to say."

  "How do you know?"

  "...I was listening in through the window."

  Nikki elbowed him in the side hard. He stumbled and nearly dropped his bundle. "You dick."

  "Hey, I didn't mean to! I was just hanging out with Scrappy by the furnace. That cat needs love."

  She rolled her eyes. "Okay, fair. Keep talking though."

  "So Ruby goes out to the garden and leaves Cinza in bed. This is back when she was still falling apart after the ritual, right?"

  "After we got home and she collapsed?"

  "Nah, like a week later."

  "Okay, go on."

  "So Ruby sends Makoto in to check on her. They get to talking and Cinza asks why Makoto hasn't talked to Ruby yet about his big fucking crush."

  Nikki shook her head. "In so many words."

  "You know how she talks. I don't remember her flowery bullshit very well."

  "Call it bullshit again and we'll see how well you remember this conversation."

  "Sorry, sorry. But yeah. Makoto is crushing on Ruby hard. And I guess Cinza's okay with it?" Joe shrugged. "I don't get them."

  "'Course you don't, you're a guy." Nikki frowned. "Makoto isn't confident enough to ask Ruby out. That'll never take off."

  "Not confident enough? The guy is fucking built of confidence. He's solid grade-A confident."

  "Self-assured and confident aren't the same things," Nikki said patiently. "You're confident, but you aren't self-assured for shit."

  "Huh?"

  "I'm saying you suck at believing in what you're good at."

  "Wow, don't mince words on me at all," Joe grumbled. They emerged into their home. Rufus waved at them from the wire he was setting up around the line of trees that made up their outer border. At a glance, it appeared to be totally natural growth, but if she looked closely Nikki could see how they'd been arranged and designed very deliberately, smoothed over by a supernatural touch.

  "It's a goddamn compliment. You are good at shit, you just need to remember it and stop moping about when you're thinking about it."

  "So how is that different from confidence?"

  "Fine, social confidence is what I meant. You've got that."

  "It helps that I stopped following Ryan around like an asshole," Joe added.

  "Don't remind me."

  "You hated him too?"

  "Fuck no, I barely ever talked to him." She sighed exaggeratedly. "I don't want to be reminded of how inhumanly handsome he was. A specimen like that didn't belong in a town our size."

  "Inhumanly handsome?" Joe repeated sarcastically.

  "Again, you're a straight guy. You're never gonna get it." Nikki started talking in a faux-dreamy voice. "He was just so tall and strong. With those deep blue eyes, like the ocean on a lazy summer afternoon. And his perfect blonde hair. Mmmmmmm…"

  Joe tossed his bundle onto a bench. He turned and put his arms around Nikki, shocking her into silence. He leaned forward and planted a kiss right on her lips. She didn't know how to react for a moment, but finally settled for melting into it, letting her own bundle fall to the ground and leaning into it.

  When they broke apart, Joe grinned. "Who were we talking about again?"

  Nikki shrugged. "No clue." She glanced over her shoulder to their cabin. "Maybe you could remind me later."

  
  


  
  

  Nikki sat in the corner of the room on a blanket, knitting herself a scarf from the materials Ruby had provided. Brittany was doing the same in her chair. Ruby had offered to make one with magic, but Nikki wanted something to occupy her mind. She thought it might help her concentrate better while she practiced her magic. Today, though, it was actually because she wanted a scarf, and because she wanted to keep Brittany company for a while.

  "So what's it like?" Brittany asked, setting aside her needles for a moment. "Finding out things with magic."

  Nikki sighed. "Not you too."

  She smiled. "Everyone's been asking?"

  "You're the seventh. Just Matt and Makoto left to ask."

  "It's exciting, though, isn't it? Being able to do something no one else can do."

  "Yeah, but we all know that." Nikki shrugged. "You found a Scrap all on your own, didn't you? Back in Tacoma?"

  "Matt found it, actually. I was at work." Brittany winced as she adjusted herself in her chair. She picked up the bottle of pills on her end-table and downed a pair before continuing. "We had it all to ourselves for a month before Rachel reached out."

  Nikki finished off the scarf with a satisfying final stitch. She tied it off and snipped the extra thread, before holding it up to show off. It looked perfect, neat and clean with a simple pattern of flowers she'd gotten off the internet.

  "Come on then, toss it over. Get ready to be judged." Reluctantly, Nikki threw it across the room to Brittany, who deftly caught it. She looked it over painstakingly, while Nikki waited with baited breath. "Hmm…" Without warning, Brittany tossed it around her neck and pulled it snug. "Very nice. I think I'll hang onto this."

  "Hey!" Nikki jumped to her feet, indignant.

  Brittany held up her hands in surrender, her eyes wide and fearful. "You wouldn't take a scarf from a one-legged woman, would you?"

  Nikki faltered halfway across the room. She wasn't sure if Brittany was serious. A second later, Brittany's face narrowed wickedly. She pulled off the scarf with a flourish. It flew across the room and snapped like a whip in midair, smacking her across the shoulder.

  "Don't give up so easily just because I'm stuck in this chair," Brittany scolded. She held the scarf in midair hovering above Nikki's head. "Go on, grab it."

  Nikki leapt for it, but it simply hovered further out of reach. She started looking around for a chair to boost herself. As she reached for the stool in the corner, Brittany's eyes flicked across the room. The chair suddenly tumbled over backwards away from her just as Nikki closed on it.

  "What are you doing?" Nikki asked, exasperated.

  "Reminding you what you can do." Her grin got wider. The scarf fluttered over Nikki's head, tapping her on the ear and rushing away as soon as she lunged for it.

  "I can't though. I suck at Movement magic, and it's your affinity." Nikki shook her head. "I can't beat you."

  "Do you remember that night?"

  "...Yes."

  "Are they gonna be worried about what affinity you might or might not have?" Brittany smacked across the head lightly with the scarf again. "Get the scarf, Nicole."

  Nikki hated her full name. With a snarl of rage, she flung out her mind at the scarf floating tantalizingly just out of reach. As the mental thrust of her willpower reached it, she hit a brick wall. Brittany's own projection of will, as strong as steel, totally unyielding. Nikki forced herself to slow down, and started feeling around the edges of her mental grasp, trying to find anywhere she might be weak. She'd heard Cinza talking about such a technique, and thought she might be able to use it to win this little bout.

  It was useless. The moment she found a weakness, Brittany closed it up. "You're too obvious, Nicole." Brittany spun the scarf in a circle, then suddenly pulled it taut. The fibers were starting to stretch. "Get the scarf."

  Fuck it. Nikki hurled her mind at Brittany's grip with abandon. She could feel breaks beginning to form, as she sapped away Brittany's energy. A few more moments and she might have it.

  "No." Brittany's grip suddenly doubled over. It seemed to pulse, and the mental shockwave shattered Nikki's concentration entirely. Pain pierced through her brain, like a single burst of migraine that instantly subsided.

  I'm not losing to you, crippled or not. Nikki reached out mentally for the cold metal laying against her skin underneath her shirt. She kept her eyes focused on the scarf, trying to distract Brittany from what she was doing. You didn't know I had this on.

  With the sudden burst of energy from the citrine stone she'd added to her necklace, Nikki threw a massive wave of force at the scarf. In an instant, she'd buckled through Brittany's grip. Brittany's eyes went wide. The scarf began to flutter down, suddenly freed from its invisible hand, before Nikki grabbed it again.

  Brittany wasn't giving up so easily either. Nikki had released the energy from the stone, not wanting to waste any more of it, and Brittany took the opportunity to blindside her. Nikki had expected a hit from the side, bracing herself against the surprise attack she knew was coming, but Brittany was one step ahead of her.

  A pillow jumped off the armchair and smacked Nikki in the face.

  She lost sight of the scarf entirely, and with it, her concentration. In a moment, it was fluttering back into the air. An instant later, the threads smacked her ear again.

  "Fuck you, I had that," Nikki shouted, getting to her feet.

  "Did you?" Brittany asked calmly.

  "That wasn't fair and you know it."

  "We never set any rules. I'm trying to help you out here, Nikki. Pay attention."

  "I'm not your fucking kid, Brittany," Nikki snapped.

  Instantly, while blood rushed to her face and her heart pounded in her chest, she knew she'd gone too far. Brittany's face froze. The mischievous mood from moments earlier was already a distant memory.

  Nikki shook her head emphatically. "I'm so sorry."

  Brittany shook her head, very slowly. "I know you aren't Jake."

  "I…" Nikki trailed off. What was she supposed to say after bringing that up? "I should go."

  "Yes, you should." Brittany dropped the scarf on Nikki's lap. She reached over awkwardly to the blanket sitting beside her chair, wrapping herself up. Nikki picked up the scarf and her bundle of possessions, and practically sprinted out of the cabin.

  She nearly ran Matthew over as she did, returning from a day working in the farm. The door swung shut behind her as she tried to find a way around him.

  "What's the matter?" he asked, setting down his basket of food.

  "Nothing. I gotta go."

  "Nikki, slow it down. What happened?"

  "I—" Nikki tried to dart around him, but he held out an arm to stop her.

  "Nikki, please. Are you moving out?" He glanced at the bundle under her arm, which amounted to every single personal possession she had left. "Did we do something wrong?"

  "No, nothing. Please, I have to go."

  Matthew shook his head. "Nah. You'll hate yourself more if you do. Tell me what happened."

  Maybe it was the fresh air, or maybe it was his patient voice, but Nikki gave up trying to escape. Both the Wilkinses had been so good to her. She didn't want to just run away, especially when she really had nowhere to run to. The furthest she could move away was about six hundred feet.

  "I brought up Jake."

  Matthew's face fell. "Oh… I see."

  "I'm so sorry. I know it's still—"

  "It's all right." Matthew sat down on the bench attached to their porch. It had a section carved out to make it easier for Brittany to get in and out, and Matthew took the opposite side. Nikki remained where she always ended up, awkwardly in the way and never knowing where she was supposed to be. "It hit us both pretty hard you know."

  "But you don't—"

  "Because I know I'm going to see him again one day."

  Nikki hesitated. As far as she knew, they weren't particularly religious. "You mean like… in heaven?"

  "No, I mean here. We'll find a way." He smiled. "She'll show us a way."

  Nikki couldn't help it. She frowned. "You really think you can bring him back with magic? That sounds really out there."

  "You sound like Brittany." Matthew sighed. "I know I seem crazy. But look at everything we can do. Is it really so hard to believe it might be possible?" He looked at her thoughtfully. "Maybe you'll be the one to figure it out. With your new gift."

  She shook her head. "It doesn't really work like that."

  "Ah."

  The silence dragged on uncomfortably. He was staring out across the clearing without a word. Nikki wasn't sure if she should leave or stay. Matthew didn't seem to mind, but she doubted Brittany would be quite so fast to forgive. Finally, she gave in. She knew she wasn't welcome in that cabin anymore. Another one struck off her list.

  "Bye, then." Nikki turned and walked away, wondering where she was going to sleep for the night.

  
  


  
  

  …With a nice hidden door in the back, so I can leave without being noticed if anyone knocks and I don't want to deal with them. Nikki drew out the design on the paper Cinza had given her.

  "Oh, that looks fun," Ruby said. She rolled over to the edge of the bed and stuck her head out on Nikki's shoulder, peering at the notebook resting against her knees. "Secret passages? Very cool."

  "I just wish it didn't look so plain and boring." Nikki pointed out the rough square edges of her sketch. "I'm so bad at this."

  "Never fear. We can fix that when we build it." Ruby took on a dramatic tone. "Yours shall be the finest in all the Greywoods!"

  "...Greywoods? Really?"

  "Shush. I'm working on it." Ruby nudged her with her head. "Keep drawing. I want to see what you come up with."

  As Nikki tried to add more detail to the floor plan, the door swung open. They saw a vague outline through the heavy curtain that bisected the cabin—one so short, it had to be Cinza. Sure enough, her ethereal voice filled the cabin a moment later, completely unmuffled by the thick curtain.

  "We're done."

  "Are we already? I thought it was going to take another two days." The curtain swept open as Cinza walked in, her hair bright silver and her cloak rumpled and covered in dirt. Ruby tut-tutted at the sight and hopped off the bed, grabbing the hem and pulling it off her. Cinza relinquished it readily, releasing the illusion on her hair as she did and returning it to its natural brown. She looked exhausted, as she always did ever since the events in Rallsburg. Ruby shook her head in exaggerated disappointment. "Would you stop getting this so messy? I worked hard on it, you know."

  "One does as one must." Cinza dropped into her office chair, which seemed totally incongruous with the rustic decor. Even more so was the array of screens behind it, attached to several computers Nikki knew to be of surprisingly high quality. Ruby worked it into the design of the building as best she could, but there was only so much one could do to try and integrate such modern technology with the wooden cabin aesthetic. "How goes the design, Nicole?"

  Unlike everyone else, it never bothered her when Cinza used her full name. It sounded so much more elegant and profound in her voice, and the usual irritation she felt simply didn't exist. She respected every word Cinza ever spoke, always eager to listen to that ethereal mystique.

  Even so, she wasn't about to show Cinza the silly ideas she'd scribbled out. "Work in progress." Nikki quickly erased the secret passage before Cinza could spot it, but Ruby noticed.

  "Why'd you scratch it out? I really thought it was cool."

  "What did she remove?" Cinza asked, sitting up slightly with interest.

  "She wanted a secret passage out the back. Maybe so she could sneak someone in at night for some fun. We're all thinking it," Ruby added with a knowing grin.

  "Ruby, you're the only one thinking that," Nikki grumbled.

  "Not necessarily," Cinza added mildly, a faint smile creasing the edges of her lips. "I'm guessing it's not the purpose you intended though."

  "It's nothing. I didn't want it anyway."

  "You wanted a way to escape, correct?"

  I really shouldn't be surprised anymore that Cinza seems to know everything right away. "...Yeah."

  "We have a secret passage of our own for the very same reason." Cinza gestured vaguely across the room. "It leads a good deal out into the woods, beyond the security wall."

  "How'd the setup go, by the way?" asked Ruby. She was unfolding and laying out Cinza's robe on a fold-out table set into the far wall. Once it was flat, she focused and started pushing magic across it in a wave, making it perfectly clean and smooth and repairing many of the little snags and cuts that had formed from Cinza's exertion. "You didn't strain yourself too much, did you?"

  "No, dear, I left all the hard work to Rufus and Makoto," Cinza replied wearily. "They both knew better than to risk your wrath by letting me assist."

  "So we should be totally impenetrable now?" Nikki asked. Ruby flashed another wicked grin before Cinza replied.

  "In theory. If someone actually does manage to walk straight through the forest illusion, they'll find themselves up against quite a few obstacles. Ryan's theory about imbuing eggs and simple objects with traps seems to be holding." Cinza sighed. "I wish I could figure out how Jackson broke through the last time. There should have been no way to make it through the forest without knowing the route."

  "He was a god," Ruby pointed out.

  "If Rachel hadn't arrived when she did…" Cinza shook her head. "The new fortifications will have to suffice. We couldn't get the identification to work though. If you ever need to leave camp, do not go out without Rufus or Makoto leading you."

  "Or kaboom?" Ruby asked.

  "Precisely."

  "Isn't this a bit over the line?"

  Cinza glanced up from the computer she'd been turning on. "What do you mean?"

  "We're putting a lot of scary things on the line with no way to prevent them from accidentally hurting the wrong people." Ruby tilted her head to the side. "Aren't you worried about that?"

  "I won't let anyone hurt you," Cinza replied.

  "That's beautifully romantic, my shining star, but that doesn't help the innocent hiker who might wander into the woods totally lost and suddenly explode." Ruby dropped her cute mannerisms. "We might hurt some people really badly."

  "Better them than us," Nikki replied quietly.

  "She puts it much more succinctly than I would, but yes," Cinza agreed. "Better them than us. I don't want to hurt anyone. You know that."

  Ruby got up and walked over to Cinza, planting a kiss on her cheek. "I know, but I just want to make sure you're thinking about everything here."

  "Thank you."

  "Which also means that we're totally building your secret passage," Ruby added, turning back to Nikki. "If we're going all out, you gotta have an escape plan just like us."

  "...You don't think it's childish?"

  "Not at all," Cinza replied. "It's useful and could save your life one day. One must always be ready to flee, no matter how safe they might feel. Better to build it and never use it, than to be without when they come for us."

  "And they will come for us," Ruby intoned gravely, her face excessively solemn.

  "It's no more childish than she is," Cinza added dryly, nudging Ruby with her elbow.

  "Hey, being a child's never slowed me down."

  Nikki glanced up, surprised. "Huh? You're a child?"

  "Only legally." Ruby rolled her eyes. "I'll be eighteen next September."

  "I always assumed you were my age…"

  "Nope. I'm the baby of the family, lucky me. But hey, we're making a new society here. We can always change that."

  Cinza shook her head. "I shudder to imagine you drunk."

  "Oh, I'd make it worth your while."

  Nikki felt increasingly uncomfortable in the presence of the endlessly flirtatious Ruby and her exhausted partner. She went back to her design, adding a room where she could be totally alone. A concentration chamber, square and inert, where she could practice her magic without interference or interruption. Feeling a bit more creative, she added a sloppy rendition of the star symbol to the floor, followed by what she hoped would be seen as candle mounts in the walls. It might need to be stone instead of wood, though… Maybe a medieval castle vibe. That could work.

  "Mmm… wait. Ruby, did you move my journals?" Cinza asked.

  "Yeah, we were out of room on the bookshelf. I took all the old ones from before Rallsburg and put them in the attic. Is that all right?"

  "Yes, but where did you put the recent ones? I don't see all of them."

  "Is now really the time for this?"

  Nikki glanced up from her drawing, Unsurprisingly, Ruby had found her way into Cinza's chair, placing her legs through the gaps underneath the arms and sitting right on Cinza's lap, facing her. Cinza glanced over at Nikki with a touch of embarrassment. "Not now, my love. I'm too tired."

  Ruby sighed dramatically, but leaned down and kissed her on the mouth gently. "If you change your mind, you know where to find me." She got up and headed outside. "I'm gonna go take a shower."

  As soon as the door had swung shut again, Cinza relaxed and let out a deep breath.

  "You okay?" Nikki asked tentatively.

  "Oh. Yes, I'll be fine." Cinza leaned down to rest her head against the arm of the chair. It was one they'd managed to recover from the sheriff's station, amazingly intact, but it was obviously built with the typical large male officer in mind. Cinza looked so much like a child sitting in it, but it also meant she could curl up in it quite comfortably.

  "You didn't have to do that. I could have gone into the other room, I don't mind."

  Cinza laughed. "I wasn't lying, I really am that tired. Sometimes Ruby can be a bit insatiable. Don't worry, I'll make it up to her tonight." She swiveled around and logged into her computer, before turning back to face Nikki again. "We're happy to have you living with us, so please, if you ever feel uncomfortable, let us know. I'd much rather you feel at home."

  In truth, they did make her feel totally out of place. It wasn't the sex (though Nikki had to admit, they could be a bit… voracious about it sometimes), it was the way they simply clicked. They were too perfect together.

  She was jealous.

  "I really should just move into my own place."

  Cinza nodded. "If that's what you prefer. I assume you want a space where you can work in peace?"

  "Yeah."

  "Your affinity is quite a gift for us," Cinza went on. "Anything you need to help develop it, please let me know. I'm happy to help."

  "You aren't worried about what happened to Jessica?" It certainly scared Nikki into plenty of sleepless nights, that the only other Knowledge affinities had all met terrible fates.

  "That's what we're here to prevent. We're all here for you." Cinza shook her head. "Besides, you aren't doing ritual magic. As far as we can tell, there's no major risk of recoil like what happened to her."

  "You really want to rely on that?" Nikki said doubtfully.

  "Isn't that why you want a perfectly square stone chamber that locks from the inside?" Cinza pointed out, nodding at the sheet of paper in her hand.

  "You can read that from there?"

  Cinza smiled. "I might be practicing a few enhancements of my own lately."

  "You'll have to teach me those later."

  "Certainly. Though I have to admit, I was surprised when you asked if you could stay with us."

  "Me too…"

  "What happened, if you don't mind telling me?"

  Nikki shook her head. "Nothing really. We just didn't fit together anymore."

  "Did he do something?"

  "No!" Nikki replied quickly. Cinza raised her eyebrows. "Really, he didn't. It's more like… what he didn't do." She sighed. "It's like he just assumed we were supposed to be together. Built up this whole story in his head, about how we were the last two people of Rallsburg left alive, us together against the world."

  "Jessica and Natalie might take exception to that," Cinza pointed out.

  "Natalie was born in Chicago, wasn't she?"

  "True."

  "You're right on Jessica though, but she's obviously totally obsessed with Hailey, so it doesn't really matter here." She shrugged. "That's what it came down to. Joe just felt like we were together by default. I kinda fell for it too, for a while."

  "What on earth does it matter where you were born?" Cinza asked thoughtfully.

  "Fu— nothing at all," she quickly corrected.

  Cinza grinned. "What is it with everyone and avoiding swearing around me?"

  "I dunno. It just feels… wrong, I guess?" Nikki shook her head. "Sorry."

  "It's all right, I just thought it was funny." Cinza launched a few programs that Nikki had learned were secure tunnels to allow her to browse the net without being traced. At best, they could only track her back to her friend that helped them with the website, whom Cinza trusted without question. They all wondered who the mysterious 'Tezofarl' might be, but they knew better than to ever ask Cinza. It wouldn't be right.

  Except… Nikki now had a way to find out without asking.

  Should I?

  It was incredibly tempting. She had a power none of them could comprehend, let along wield. She could elevate herself and discover the secret past of their fearless leader, that which even her beloved had never been told.

  No, never. I'd never do that to her.

  Except… wasn't it her job to find out everything? Cinza had said it herself, to develop her gift however she could. She worked so much better when she had something specific she wanted to find out, something she was desperate to uncover. Everyone wanted to know more about the strange small girl with the unplaceable foreign accent, who'd drawn them all together and forged them into a tight-knit family. The rest of the group had shared their stories. Even Ruby had told hers a few weeks ago, sitting around a roaring campfire with the family (though without Josh, who had gone to bed already), about her history with her abusive father and running away from home.

  Cinza was the only mystery left in the group. Am I supposed to find out using magic? Is that what she'd want me to do?

  She stood up suddenly. "I have to go."

  Cinza glanced over her shoulder. "Something wrong?"

  "No. I just need some air."

  Cinza shrugged, though Nikki suspected she knew it was much more than that. Nikki walked out, passing a soaked Ruby coming in as she left. She headed straight out into the woods, as far as she could go before she reached the barrier, feet crunching against the leaves and underbrush with every step.

  I'd never do that. She wouldn't want me to. She'd have told us if she wanted it public.

  Nikki sat down against a tree and stared out into the woods, completely unsure.

  "Hi."

  She spun around, her hands balling into fists. She might not be great with magic, but Nikki could still throw a solid punch if she had to.

  Makoto materialized from behind the nearest tree. He didn't make a sound as he emerged, hands in his pockets. He looked so casual, even clad in the robe Ruby had personally designed for him. His was far less reflective and shimmering than the usual, and in fact seemed to actively blend into whatever colors surrounded him at the time. It wasn't perfect camouflage, but it was remarkably effective. The robe faded back into the usual silver-grey as he stepped forward.

  "Jesus, man," Nikki breathed, leaning back against the tree and closing her eyes. If Makoto was with her, she was as safe as could be, no matter what her racing heartbeat might say. "Would you stop doing that?"

  "Sorry."

  "What're you doing all the way out here anyway?"

  "Double-checking." He sat down next to her, scanning the horizon. Always reliable, always on-task.

  She liked how solid and dependable he was. If he weren't so inscrutable, Nikki might have felt something for him, but she didn't really go for the mysterious type. Besides, she knew better. Makoto was deeply in love with Ruby, and Nikki wouldn't dream of making things even more complicated than they already must be in his mind. She saw him more like an older brother than anything else.

  "You?"

  Nikki shrugged. "I don't know. Thinking." She hesitated. "Hiding."

  He nodded. "Me too."

  "What do you have to hide from?"

  "People."

  "Sounds right to me." Nikki closed her eyes and leaned against his shoulder. He didn't move, which she took as a good sign. More than anything, she needed a friend without any complications right then. Nothing but support. "I think I screwed something up tonight."

  "What do you mean?"

  "I didn't do anything, but I thought about doing it. I considered it. Even considering it was scary. Like I was crossing a line right there. I don't know." Nikki laughed bitterly. "Sorry. I'm ruining your hiding spot aren't I? You don't want to hear me whining."

  "I do. Keep talking."

  "I thought you wanted to get away from people."

  "Not all people."

  She shrugged. "I don't get you."

  "Neither do I."

  "Okay then." Nikki laughed again, but with actual mirth this time. "Still want me to keep whining about all my personal crap?"

  "Yes."

  "You're sweet." Nikki sighed, opening her eyes. She decided she may as well practice trying to move pine needles around while they talked. Cinza would want her to keep practicing magic. "I've figured out a bit more about my magic. Not just how to use it, but what it can do. I think I can find out things about people."

  "Like what?"

  "Anything, really. I used it on Yusuf and found out the name of the cult he'd once been a member of. The one that his wife… you know."

  "I do."

  "I used it on Joe and found out the name of his first crush as part of a bet."

  "So you can get names?"

  "Not just names. I saw her face and everything. I… uhh," Nikki's face turned red. "I can get flashes. Like a short clip of what I'm looking for. I saw them together. Like, together together."

  "Oh."

  "Yeah. Anyway." Nikki tossed a pine needle into the air. Out of nowhere, three other needles flew up to join it, bending in midair to form a circle around it. "Show-off."

  "Is that what you felt guilty about?"

  "No, that wasn't it. Joe and I laughed about that. It was a good memory for him, and a great bit of blackmail to tease him with for a while." Nikki laughed. "Seriously, they were… uhh, nevermind. Anyway. I was with Cinza and Ruby earlier, and I had a thought. What if I used my magic to find out where Cinza comes from? Who she is and what made her that way?"

  "That would be a betrayal."

  Nikki nodded. "Yeah, it would. I hate myself for even thinking of it."

  "No."

  "...No?"

  "You shouldn't hate yourself for that. Cinza wouldn't mind."

  Nikki sat up, raising her eyebrows. "You really think that?"

  Makoto shook his head. "I'm sorry. What I meant was, Cinza wouldn't mind that you considered it. She believes in us thinking of every possible option. She wants us to explore magic."

  "So you mean that she wouldn't mind I thought of the possibility, so long as I didn't ever do anything about it."

  "Yes. I think she'd be surprised if you didn't."

  Nikki nodded. "Makes sense, I guess." She sighed. "Cinza would be perfect though. The less I know about someone, the more things I can try to find through magic. It'd be a lot of good practice."

  "Try me, then."

  She was taken aback. "Really? Are you sure? I'm pretty sure I can find out literally anything, you know."

  Makoto shrugged. "I don't mind. I can make sure you're getting it right."

  Nikki nodded. "All right then."

  
  


  
  

  "Well, thanks anyway. Thanks for everything really. You guys were both so nice to me when I showed up. Thanks for helping me deal with my parents, and for keeping us safe that night. I hope wherever you are, you're happy." Nikki knelt down and set the flowers on top of the simple markers. "I grew these myself, Aaron, using your spell. Only took me three days. I hope you like peonies." She wondered if they were an appropriate flower for a gravestone. Her mother had always obsessed about having the right flowers for particular occasions—which, of course, meant that Nikki actively rejected learning a single thing about it.

  "Tha' was nice," said Rufus, setting down his own bundle of flowers. "I'm sure they're glad you stopped by."

  "You still come here every day?" Nikki asked.

  "Ev'ry day." Rufus turned and started walking back to the main clearing. Nikki hurried to follow, falling in next to him. "It's prob'ly e'cessive, I know. But I feel like someone's gotta keep 'em company. Jus' seems righ'."

  "What about you? Who keeps you company?"

  "Birds and the bears, girlie!" Rufus laughed. "There's an ol' mama black bear 'round here. She and I are good friends. I leave her snacks sometimes."

  "You aren't scared?"

  "Black bears are more a'scared of us than we are of them. 'sides," Rufus gave a short, high pitched whistle.

  A few moments later, a huge grey wolf padded out from somewhere deep in the forest. She eyed Rufus fiercely, as if admonishing him for calling her unnecessarily.

  "Ah, sorry Gwen. I was makin' a poin'. We're safe." Gwen turned and loped away without hesitation. Rufus shrugged. "That girl's always 'round, even if you don' see her."

  "I didn't realize we knew where she was."

  "I don' know where she goes at nigh'," Rufus corrected. "but she's never fail'd to show up if I call. I don' think she likes me much, but Natalie tol' her to keep us safe. She's holdin' to her word. Or her howl, I s'pose."

  "You think she'd come if I whistled too?"

  "Probably. Worked for M'koto. Speakin' o'which," Rufus added, giving her a sidelong glance. "What's this I hear abou' you castin' spells on him?"

  "Not on him." Nikki frowned. "He told me to practice by trying to find stuff out about him. I never actually cast anything at him."

  "Even so. Seems a bit risky, don' it?"

  "It's perfectly safe, and Makoto doesn't mind." She shrugged. "To be honest, he's had a totally boring and ordinary life too. It's kind of depressing. Up until he ran into Cinza on campus, he did a whole lot of nothing."

  "He's a good man," Rufus warned. "Don' you go messin' with stuff you can't fix."

  They emerged into the clearing. She said goodbye to Rufus and crossed the wide expanse to her new home. As she neared the bridge, she saw Ruby standing in the center, arms outstretched. She was concentrating on a patch of grass ten feet away, while Cinza and Makoto watched with interest.

  It emerged, slowly at first, but in the same unsettling, unearthly way. The material of the ground seemed to give way as it pushed up into existence. A six foot, faceless grey monstrosity, with only a thick column where its legs should go, and arms as large as cinder blocks ending in square fists.

  Nikki shivered. Until quite recently, the idea of using the golems was such a taboo that not one of them had even suggested it. After the news report of Mr. Hendricks' resurfacing and Jerry Hauserman's death, it wasn't an option anymore. They needed to be ready for more golems. Ruby was the best at the spell, and had spent hours every day practicing it ever since. This was the first time she'd managed to get the golem to emerge completely from the ground.

  As Nikki walked closer, she felt her entire face prickling. Her eyes began to water. Her nose tickled. She burst into a sudden sneeze, even though she'd felt totally fine all day.

  The golem collapsed a moment later, as Ruby fell back onto the cushions laid out on the bridge, totally spent. Instantly, Nikki's discomfort subsided.

  Cinza was watching her with interest. "Nicole?"

  "I… I'm not sure."

  "Allergies?"

  "I've never had them before." Nikki frowned. "You think I'm—"

  "Allergic to Creation magic," Makoto finished.

  Cinza nodded. "It's not unheard of. There were a few known magical allergies in Rallsburg, Rika's being the most prominent."

  "Explains why I couldn't ever do the golem stuff," Nikki sighed.

  "You never felt allergic before, correct?"

  "No, not once."

  "Not even when we were up against Brian's golems the first night…" Cinza trailed off thoughtfully. "So allergies do not emerge until you are awakened."

  "I'm ready to go again," Ruby called.

  Cinza was about to object, but Nikki held up her hands. "I'm going to my place anyway. Please, keep going. Just warn me if I'm getting close, all right?"

  "Of course."

  The cabin was still under construction, but they'd completed the most important component first, at her request. The stone chamber sat in the exact center, smooth cut and perfectly square. In the floor, Ruby had carved out the star symbol of the Grimoire, with a candleholder set into the walls where each point ended. It was wonderfully gothic and primal. Just walking into it, Nikki felt closer to magic than she ever had before.

  Josh was standing nearby, waiting for her.

  "Hi."

  "Hi yourself," he replied. He looked like he woke up on the wrong side of the bed, as usual. Though he'd gotten his own cabin and every amenity they could provide, it was always painfully clear that he didn't belong. It wasn't the wardrobe—they didn't actually wear their robes all the time, particularly when doing any difficult physical labor—it was his personality. Josh was a city person, or at least a suburb person. Being out in nature all day, every day, wasn't doing him any favors.

  "Ready to get started?"

  Josh laughed. "You do all the hard work here, I just sit around and make stupid guesses."

  "You help out a lot."

  "If you say so." Josh followed her inside the chamber and closed the door behind them. He snapped his fingers and the candles all lit simultaneously.

  "Hey, you finally got it!"

  "You know how hard that was to time? No wonder real magicians plan this shit out." Josh took a seat in the armchair they'd set in the corner. If they were planning to do real ritual magic, they'd remove it to avoid interference, but since this was just normal spells, he could afford to relax a bit. He pulled out his notebook and pencil. "Where were we at?"

  "Birthdays, I think?"

  "How the hell did you not know anyone's birthday?"

  "We had more interesting things to talk about?"

  He shrugged. "Whatever. At least it's something they won't care about."

  Nikki sat down and closed her eyes. It took a few minutes for her mind to find its way back to that special state, where she could begin to feel the mass of threads and their nearly infinite intertwined pathways. At first, it was so intimidating that she felt like breaking down just trying to comprehend such a vast wealth of knowledge. However, as she kept working at it, bit by bit she began to build a routine she could follow. It would often lead to the same pathways, which meant she couldn't get new information without trying to push herself outside the comfortable threads, but it also meant that her existing routes were reliable and much faster to traverse.

  In that way, she could combine the path to such a basic piece of information—a few digits representing a birthday—with the vague essence of Josh, sitting in the room with her. Something about her state of mind allowed her to feel his very presence nearby, though not in any useful sense outside her own spell. She took the thread that felt like Joshua Miller and traced it, as far as she could, until she found more and more familiar splits in the path. It only took a few quick traces to reach the answer she wanted.

  "September nineteenth."

  "Year?" Josh asked in a bored voice.

  "Ninety-seven."

  "Another win for the column." Josh marked it off with his pencil.

  "You're bored."

  "No shit, but this is still useful stuff. You're getting consistent."

  "But we need to know more about what works and what doesn't," Nikki pointed out.

  "So keep trying stuff until it doesn't work."

  "Shouldn't we be more scientific about this?"

  Josh laughed. "The only difference between science and fucking around is writing shit down. We've got no clue what we're doing. Any data right now is useful data. Once we start seeing patterns or exceptions, then we can start getting really scientific about this."

  "...Who's next?"

  They went through the rest of the list. Rufus Hill, born on November 14th, 1962. Yusuf al-Fayed, June 14th 1982. Matthew Wilkins, October 8th 1987, and Brittany on September 22nd, 1988. Makoto Kirishima, November 6th 1995. Each one took her only a few minutes, though she could feel her body beginning to strain from the effort, particularly in her lungs.

  When she reached Aaron McGregor, though, something went wrong. She conjured up every memory she had, but for whatever reason, she simply couldn't feel his essence. She tried to dig for his thread, but came up totally empty. It was as if he didn't have one—like he had stopped existing entirely.

  "Shit…" Josh said, once she'd explained the problem. "Any ideas?"

  "What if it's because he's dead?"

  Josh winced. "Maybe." He frowned. "Try Morton too?"

  She did, and got nothing. "They're both just… gone."

  "Huh." Josh frowned, glancing down at the notes he'd taken. "So what the hell's an essence feel like, anyway?"

  "I dunno. It's like their spirit, I guess? I picture them in my head, anything strong I can remember about them, and then I try the spell. I reach out for the thread that starts out feeling like that memory."

  "Hang on a sec. Let me try something." He closed his eyes. Nikki could feel him attempting the spell from the vague energy that hung in the air. Josh was pushing energy straight into the world as he tried to examine the same wall of threads she'd discovered. In only a few moments, he'd totally exhausted himself.

  "You okay?" she asked as he started coughing heavily. He doubled over for a second, looking like he might be sick.

  "Yeah. Fucking hell… How do you do that?"

  "It's my thing, I guess."

  "Jesus," Josh muttered, before another coughing fit overtook him. Nikki waited patiently for him to recover, sitting on the cold stone floor while he got back to a sitting position in his chair. "Okay. Good news is, I found Morton's cold-ass essence just fine. Bad news, I'm never fucking trying a Knowledge spell again."

  "Yeah, please don't."

  He grinned weakly. "You keep your territory, Nikki. That shit is fucking poison."

  "So it's not because they're dead," Nikki continued, trying to get back on track.

  "Nah. I think it's something to do with when you last met them." Josh flipped back through his notes. "You said you had a hard time finding Jessica's essence, but after the next time Hailey flew in, you didn't have a problem with it. I think you gotta meet them now that you've been awakened. You're basically collecting 'em as you go."

  "What counts as meeting them?" Nikki wondered aloud.

  Josh shrugged. "Fuck if I know."

  "I've talked to Julian a couple times online since he left, but I haven't seen him since I awakened." More importantly, he was someone she felt zero guilt about invading his privacy without asking. She concentrated, and in only a few minutes managed to find his essence. It felt much more vague and unfocused than usual, but it was there. She started down the threads, following the path to his birthday once again, but she stopped partway down.

  Josh felt the change in energy, now that he was familiar with it from both sides of the equation. She could sense his movement across the room, but forced herself to stay on the new thread she was following. She didn't want to just stop at a simple birthday this time. She wanted something more detailed.

  None of them knew where he'd ended up after the split in B.C. She was going to find out where Julian Black lived now.

  Nikki started chasing the threads, deeper and deeper, faster and faster. Her mind struggled to contain the breadth of information pouring into it, the many individual strings trailing off into the distance. Each of them held their own stories, their own pieces of data. She had to focus. Julian Black. Deliveryman from Rallsburg. Awakened. Kind of a dick. The only guy I know who could accurately be described as having 'henchmen'.

  She hung onto his essence tight as she plunged even deeper. The strain on her mind was beginning to burn into her throat and lungs. Her stomach seized up. She coughed once, sending Josh upright in alarm. Normally, any physical reaction was her cue to stop, since they couldn't be sure how much she could take before she crossed the line into permanent damage.

  Nikki refused to give in. She could feel the destination approaching, though she wasn't sure if it was the one she wanted.

  She pulled the energy from the amethyst stones resting below her neck. Two of them shattered into dust instantly, but they sent her mind careening forward. She felt a rush of exhilaration as her mind and vision went blank.

  Flashes filled her eyesight. Julian Black, walking through a thick forest. She wasn't sure where. She could only see the area immediately around him. It could be any forest in the Northwest. He turned, looking away. He started talking to someone. She couldn't tell who.

  She pressed in closer. Another crystal on her chest burst, practically evaporating off her skin. A wooden sign behind Julian resolved itself. Price. She knew that sign. The Price family mansion, the outer gate.

  Julian is still in Rallsburg?

  The other person slowly resolved as well. She knew his face. She'd spent plenty of time laughing at his jokes in class, and an equal amount pissed off at his entitled bratty personality. Nate Price, the heir to the Price fortune.

  Her vision went black. For a brief, panicked second, Nikki thought she might have gone blind from her effort. It took her a few agonizing moments to realize she just had her eyes closed so tight her eyelids felt numb.

  As she opened them, she saw a very concerned Josh watching her, looking like he might bolt from the room at any second. "Too scary?" she joked, her throat raw.

  "Warn me when you're about to do shit next time," Josh muttered. "The fuck was that?"

  "I was trying to scry someone."

  "Scry?"

  "See where they are right now."

  "Oh." He hesitated. "Did it work?"

  "No," she sighed. "I was trying to see Julian, but all I saw was him and Nate at Nate's place way back. Nothing useful. Just a memory like the other ones."

  "Huh." Josh scratched his chin. "You could find his essence though, right?"

  "Yeah. It was weaker though. I guess that means it's easier if I've met them in person."

  "Sounds good to me." Josh wrote it down in their notes. "You uhh… seem to have broken a few things though," he added, nodding at her necklace.

  "Shit," she muttered. Like he'd said, half of the amethyst crystals were totally gone. "I'll have to ask Hailey for some more."

  "I'll add 'em to the list." He made another note. "Here's an idea though. Julian's a pretty weak connection, if I'm understanding this essence shit right. Maybe someone you knew better?"

  She thought for a minute. "I guess I could try Dan. I don't think he'd mind if I tried him, and I loved eating out at his place."

  "Let's do it."

  "Said the guy who just sits there with a clipboard."

  "And the world's worst fucking pencil. I need to steal some of Ruby's next time."

  "Good luck with that."

  Josh grinned. "Nate told me once where their secret passage lets out."

  She rolled her eyes, before letting them slide shut once again. She hunted for Dan Rhodes' essence, and found it easily enough. It was much more familiar to her than Julian's had been, and much warmer. It felt like something she wanted to follow, rather than one she felt vaguely repulsed by.

  The route along the threads was no less terrifying than the last trip. Nikki felt afraid, but she was compelled forward by the magic, and by her own ambition. She had to reach the end. She would accept nothing less.

  As the amethyst burst and her body began to seize up once again, she pushed through, bit by bit. She had to find him. The enormity of her goal threatened to overwhelm her brain. Nikki felt like she were looking at the entire universe at once, only barely scratching the surface of truth. She had to reach him no matter what it took. Dan was somewhere on the other end of the passageway, and Nikki Parsons would find him.

  She burst through the final gateway, while crystal splinters showered her legs. Nikki's vision went pure white. She slowly found herself viewing a clearing, where four men stood around a campfire. She wondered who they were. One of them was Dan, and as she focused, the man nearest him resolved into old man Boris. The other two were a mystery to her. It wasn't that she didn't know them—she couldn't see them whatsoever. Not even their outlines, though she was somehow aware they were men nonetheless. She focused only on Dan, looking very afraid, standing in a cold forest somewhere she could not determine.

  No, not four. There were five. One of them was further apart. Who was he? Why was he so far apart?

  Why was he laying down in the bushes?

  Nikki opened her mouth, as if she could somehow shout a warning to them. No sound emerged. Her ears hummed with pressure, like she were underwater. Though her body was fighting against her at every step, Nikki forced the pain away. She flew down to the fifth man, focusing every bit of concentration she could muster into piercing through the vague shadow.

  The last amethyst crystal on her necklace, her largest and personal favorite, didn't just evaporate. It shattered with explosive force, shoving her back. She fell against the floor with a painful thud. Nikki nearly lost her concentration, but just barely managed to hang onto the thread for dear life, afraid it might tear her mind to shreds if she let go.

  She saw the man clearly. She had no idea who he was, or his name, but she knew where he had come from. He was from a small town west of Rallsburg, whose name she'd forgotten, and he'd been sent there for the same man she'd tried to find.

  He'd been sent there to kill.

  She screamed a warning, as loud as she could. She doubted anyone could hear her. Dan was about to die, and her cry was for nothing.

  Nikki Parsons blacked out. She'd pushed far beyond what she'd ever dreamed of accomplishing, and now she would pay the price. As the magic overwhelmed her brain and shut her down, she heard the vague sound of a gunshot hundreds of miles away, mixed with the panicked cry of Josh only a few feet away.

  So much for being special, she thought bitterly, before the entire world plunged into a silent void.

 

 

 

 

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Etzoli

  • Oregon
  • Amateur Technological Thaumaturge
  • https://etzo.li

Bio: Sysadmin, student, wordsmith, TV obsessive, pretzel addict.
Many keyboards have perished in my pursuit of wordcounts.

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Etzoli @Etzoli ago

Last chapter of 2018! \o/

See you all next year.

 

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