Chapter 25 — Confidential Public Relations
"To those who seek to awaken I say: welcome, you madmen! You know not what it is you seek, but you are brave enough to take a plunge that could be fatal. We trust in our goddess to save us, but she was once human. Humans are fallible, fickle creatures responsible for more pain and torment than could be imagined. It is an eternal badge of shame that I identify myself as one, but we need not suffer an eternity.
At the risk of plagiarism, only through her can we be saved. Do not mistake this for religion. I do not believe in any power beyond that which I control myself every day. I am merely witness to her miracles and messenger of her power.
Which, of course, is claiming myself a prophet when I repeat this aloud. When did I become so spiritual? I've embraced my own worst nightmare… This entry will be finished later. I need to spend time with Ruby and get my thoughts in order."
~Cinza, the Rallsburg Diaries
"I think she did okay," said Jonathan, sitting on the edge of the bed.
The TV had changed to a generic "stand-by" message, with a text crawl stating that the broadcast had been shut down by order of the New York City mayor's office. Jeremy had only been giving it half his attention, focused on the camera feeds on his laptop.
"Why'd they shut down?" he asked, glancing over.
"Dunno. Maybe they thought Russ was being a dick."
"Can you rewind?"
He shrugged. "It was live."
Jeremy kept watching the feed of the dingy motel walkway, bored out of his mind. "You're sure it was the guy from before following you."
"Yeah. He saw me, and he saw me get in my car and drive this way."
Fuck, what I wouldn't give for a proper surveillance squad right now. Jeremy only had the support of a few volunteer officers from the Tacoma P.D, recently reinstated thanks to a call from the FBI director's office. He wished he'd been there to see the look on Aderholt's face when Hailey flew right through the front door of the station, her lawyer in tow.
Unfortunately, they weren't so forgiving to their own.
Figures. Big difference between filin' legitimate reports that sound crazy, and actually actin' crazy and insubordinate. Jeremy didn't care, so long as they maintained this level of mutual ignorance. He'd rather they let him do what he liked than have to fight through layers of bureaucracy to get anything done.
"Am I gonna be okay?" Jonathan asked, voice shaky. "I'm scared as hell, man."
Jeremy picked up the handheld radio on the table next to his laptop. "Stebbins, check in."
"This is Stebbins. All green. Over," replied the voice of the ex-military officer Jeremy had met back at the bar standoff. Seeing his name on the list of volunteers was a relief—both that he'd been reinstated, and that he was still willing to lend an experienced hand to Jeremy. The other two officers also reported green, which left them once again sitting idle.
"Don't you have schoolwork or some shit to do?" Jeremy asked, glancing over at the pacing kid. "They got it for you from your teachers."
"Yeah. Yeah. I'll do that." Jonathan paused. "Thanks again. For, you know. Protecting me."
"It's my job, kid."
"But didn't you get suspended?"
"Still am, officially."
"So yeah. Thank you."
Jeremy nodded. You wouldn't be singin' the same tune if you knew I was usin' you as bait, kid. If this were just a protection detail, there wouldn't be much reason for Jeremy to be there. He could hold his own in a fight, sure—but he had bigger fish to fry, and a whole hell of a lot more important shit going on than one theater kid in Tacoma.
Rachel, along with Jeremy's sisters and a bevy of trusted lawyers, policy advisors and other hangers-on had been barricaded in Courtney's offices all weekend. After their impromptu meeting on Friday, Courtney agreed to Rachel's demands almost in full, in exchange for cooperation and support. She was determined, as was Maddie, to be the worldwide representative for everything magic-related going forward.
Who the fuck would want that hassle, anyway? Let 'em at it. Jeremy just hoped they didn't tear each other to pieces clawing for supremacy. His sisters had always been very competitive, ever since they first sat on a city council together.
He leaned back in his chair and sighed. The camera feeds hadn't changed in an hour, besides a couple known guests of the cheap motel. "Did you really have to do another fuckin' magic show?"
"I can't just ditch my commitments. I'm trying to build a reputation. I want to get real bookings, you know?"
"You're eighteen. You got time."
Jonathan shook his head. "I gotta jump on this before people catch on, you know?" He glanced at the TV, which had finally swapped over to a pair of talking heads recapping the show. "Everyone knows about magic now. If I already have people to talk to, I can get a new show going right away."
Jeremy grunted noncommittally. He was more interested in the TV now, since it wasn't a bland talk show anymore, but it was turned down so low he could only guess at what they were talking about, and he didn't feel like getting up for the remote.
"Honestly, from what I read online, I'm way ahead of most people," Jonathan went on. "Except for the special ones, I've been picking up new spells faster than anyone. And way better, too. I'm probably the best mage around that's not a Greycloak."
Probably somethin' I missed ignoring half of Rachel's story… "The fuck is a Greycloak?"
"...'cause they all wear grey cloaks?" Jeremy asked dryly, rolling his eyes.
"...Yeah." Jonathan shrugged. "I think it's pretty dumb too."
"How many of them are there, anyway?"
"...I don't know. Eleven, maybe?"
"Huh." Jeremy got distracted again by the TV, which had switched to something labeled 'Viewer Submitted'. "Turn the volume up," he added, pointing at the remote.
The view was from across the street of the bar in Tacoma, after the police had zoomed up, and after Jeremy had gone in. He watched again as the golems appeared, tossing police cruisers aside, pulling off the front of the building and generally rampaging through the place. It was too clean for a cell phone video though, too well-composed. Staged… they were always planning to rip that place apart.
"With all the news about magic, one courageous viewer submitted this footage early this morning, which we have just finished authenticating. According to multiple experts, the video is genuine. Let's turn to our commentary panel. Your thoughts?"
"Horrifying. To think people are capable of something like that? They're destroying everything. For what?"
"You heard it yourself tonight, Becky. They call us 'humans'. We're beneath them."
"Now hang on, a clear reason for the standoff was never established. The Tacoma P.D. still considers it an open case."
"Come on, Phil. You can see it through the windows. There's Hailey herself, and that… thing, that monster attacking people at random."
"Hailey was trying to save people, wasn't she?"
"Was she? She didn't touch a single person in there. Agent Ashe is the only one actually rescuing people. Hailey seems more concerned with fighting the monster."
"That's a bit of a stretch, Mike. Were you expecting an unarmed FBI agent to take that thing on? It tossed the entire police line."
"I'm just saying. The only deaths in that place were at the hands of those things, same as the ones in Rallsburg. It's us normal people getting caught in the crossfire. Russ had it right—they don't care about us one bit. We're collateral damage."
The debate continued while the video replayed on the side, bringing up witness statements, coroner reports, and details even Jeremy didn't know. Several of the witnesses—people Jeremy had carried out of the damn building—were paraded on screen, calling for action. They'd clearly been prepared for this broadcast after the main event, if not to confront Hailey herself on screen. Who the hell planned all this?
"None of that's true though, right?" Jonathan asked.
"Hell no." Jeremy pulled out his phone, dashing off a text to Maddie about what he'd seen and asking if she needed him to make a statement about the night. "Hailey and I were working together. She saved the fuck outta everyone in that place."
"Right." Jonathan was on his on phone too, his homework totally forgotten. "That's not what everyone's saying though."
"Social media." Jonathan flashed his screen at Jeremy, which didn't help him one bit. "It's a whole witch hunt. And it's only getting worse."
"Jesus," Jeremy murmured, as he glanced through the news feeds himself. "The broadcast was shut down by Kendra fucking Laushire."
"So a very famous, very rich, very dead person who everyone's gonna immediately connect with magic just tried to suppress a tell-all book about the murder of hundreds of people." Jeremy slouched in his chair, suddenly feeling very exhausted. "If people weren't against you already, they sure as hell are now."
"I'm just wonderin' why she went public with it," he continued, delving into analysis from his own sources. "You'd think Laushire would keep her name out… ah."
"It leaked. 'Sources in the Washington governor's office'." Jeremy tossed his phone on the table in frustration. "Goddamn leeches in Courtney's own fuckin' staff."
"My half-sister. Your state governor."
"Wow." Jonathan whistled. "You're like, super important, aren't you?"
"I sure fuckin' hope not." Jeremy leaned up next to the window, peering through the gaps in the blinds. "Looks all quiet," he added, hiding his disappointment.
"Are you leaving?"
"I think you're good, kid." He shrugged. "Not sayin' you weren't in danger, but there's nothin' comin' down the pipe tonight at least."
"Are you sure?" Jonathan's voice pitched up slightly. "That guy knows exactly who I am. What am I supposed to do?"
"Go live your life. He's known who you are for weeks now, yeah?"
"So if he was gonna make a move, he probably would have by now." Jeremy shrugged. "These people aren't exactly patient, or well-organized. That shitshow in Tacoma was proof enough." But whoever's pulling the strings clearly knows what's up… This Brian guy? Or someone else?
Jesus Christ. "Look, kid. I'll make sure Stebbins keeps an eye on you all night. Sound good?"
Jeremy relayed the message, then stood up and headed out the door. Lani's car was parked down and around the block, out of sight of the motel. As he walked, he pulled out his phone, bringing up the news feed, both his own personal Bureau feed and the public.
This day has been a fuckin' circus… Hailey managed to grab headlines all day between her explosive landing at the FBI station in the morning, and her public meltdown in front of the whole world that evening. On top of that, Kendra Laushire suppressing the story wasn't doing them any favors.
Rachel and Maddie are waitin'. They'll know what to do next. It's not my job, thank God.
His police scanner was buzzing as he got in the car.
"Ten-fifty-five. Repeat, ten-fifty-five at one-one-oh-two Commerce. Requesting backup."
A bomb threat? In Tacoma? Jeremy stared down at the speaker, dread creeping up through his stomach. Somehow, he knew what was coming next.
"Subject has demonstrated magical abilities, suspected 'awakened'. Officer requesting backup. Over."
Before anyone else could respond, Jeremy snatched up the radio. Thank God I kept this stupid thing. "Copy ten-fifty-five at one-one-oh-two Commerce. Agent Ashe responding. I'm on my way. Over." He jumped into the seat and reached for the keys.
A huge crash of metal deafened him.
Jeremy twisted around. His phone clattered to the floor of the car. A hulking, monstrous shape had erupted behind him, lifting the car up from behind. He reached for the keys again, but his front door was ripped open and flung wide.
He plunged his hand into his coat for his holstered gun, but a massive block-like hand had him around the waist. He was pulled out, his seatbelt snapping as it stretched past its limit.
Jeremy couldn't move, but the monster didn't seem to be interested in crushing him. He beat against the hand with his fists a few times, but it didn't accomplish anything.
The thing glided across the pavement like it was floating, moving down into a dark alley. Jeremy couldn't see forward, and the thing's grip was too tight to twist around. He heard a car engine start up. Something substantial.
The click of a lock. Jeremy had just a brief glimpse of a covered face before he was dumped into the car. The trunk slammed shut, and they sped off into the night.
Jeremy was too big for the trunk of a car.
After a good fifteen minutes of awkward twisting, he managed to kick out one of the tail-lights, but it didn't help much. On top of that, they'd removed the mechanism to open the trunk from the inside. He was trapped. Worst of all, his gun had been crushed by the golem. The barrel had been flattened. It would never fire another shot.
Well… they're probably not gonna kill me. No reason not to off me back at the motel. Jeremy took some small comfort in that. After a good thirty minutes though, he stopped trying to count corners, as he realized they had long-since left Tacoma—heading west, if he'd counted right.
Shit, what about Hudson and Stebbins? He could have gone after them after he took me out of the picture.
Stebbins is smart, he'd get the kid out. I've got bigger problems right now.
The truck bucked hard, before settling into a constant rumble. They were heading off-road, wherever they were. Jeremy tried to brace himself against the trunk walls as they bounced along, but a few nasty hits and his head started to spin. By the time the truck grinded to a halt, he was well and thoroughly lost.
The trunk popped open without warning. Before Jeremy had a chance to react, a fresh golem lifted him up into the air. It held him tight, like he were trapped inside a loop of concrete moulded right up to his skin. He couldn't move an inch, but at least he could finally see.
They were deep in a forest. What forest? Fuck if I know. I don't do nature. All he could tell was that there wasn't a sign of civilization in sight, and even the canopy was too thick to see anything above. They could be absolutely anywhere, him and the three men standing in front of him. Jeremy recognized one of the wingmen from the bar, though still no useful identity.
Facing Jeremy was an intense man with a black spiked rod clutched tight between his fingers. His brown hair was grown out long, along with a full thick beard on his chin. His eyes were cold, dark blue, narrow and barely visible in the light from the lantern sitting on the hood of the truck. He was wearing thick, outdoor camping gear—but to Jeremy's surprise, he was actually quite clean. None of the dirt or smell he'd expect from a guy who'd been living alone off the radar for six months.
"Brian Hendricks, right?" Jeremy started, trying to keep a light tone.
The golem squeezed him tighter. A spike of pain shot up through his spine. Jesus Christ.
"Quiet," Brian murmured. His hand was in his jacket pocket, balled into a fist.
Jeremy sighed and waited. It wouldn't take too long, if he understood how those stones worked.
"I didn't get anything," said the man on the right.
"Wait," said Brian, still locked in a death glare with Jeremy. Not that Jeremy was returning the favor. Mostly, he just felt bored. I'm not what you're fuckin' lookin' for, so can we move on? Minutes later, Brian finally nodded, and his hand left his pocket.
"Thank God," Jeremy muttered.
Brian shook his head. "God left this place a long time ago."
Left you, maybe. He rolled his eyes. "Are you gonna let me down?"
"No." Brian took a few steps closer, eyeing Jeremy suspiciously. "I don't trust you."
Only one of us is a fuckin' murderer here. "You got all the cards. I'm not even armed."
"You helped them."
Jeremy shrugged. "Just doin' my job."
"Your job is to protect us. Your country."
"Last I checked, that includes every single person in it, whether I like 'em or not."
Brian shook his head. "They aren't people."
Jeremy raised an eyebrow. "You got proof on that?"
"Can a person fly? Can a person lift an entire town into the sky with their mind?" Brian's voice dropped lower. "Can a person rip an innocent little girl in half?"
"No," Brian repeated, his voice harder. "They aren't people. They are a cancer. They fool you now, but they're dangerous. You haven't seen what I've seen."
Jeremy frowned. "Last I checked, you're the guy with all the monsters."
"I am not one of them," Brian spat. He walked right up into Jeremy's face, so close that Jeremy could feel every warm breath from his mouth. "I was chosen to save us from them."
"What's the body count look like?" Jeremy shot back. "'Cause last I checked, they were mindin' their own fuckin' business before you and your god decided they had to bite it."
"You don't know anything," Brian snapped.
"Jackson Smith, right? Tall black guy with a deep voice, liked to call himself 'Omega'?"
"...You read the book."
Sure, why not. No reason to give him the real answer. Jeremy shrugged.
"Its author is a true witch. She tried to murder a friend of mine with her magic, and it was only luck and the death of another that saved him. She lures people into her web with false promises and fairy lights, and corrupts them to the core."
He sounds insane. "Look, are you gonna kill me anytime soon or are we just gonna chat all night?"
"It's really fuckin' uncomfortable up here, and you're not gonna convince me of shit like this." Jeremy glanced around. The trees sloped up and away in one direction, which likely meant that was north, if they were in the Olympic forest as he suspected.
Well, I got one side of the story. Time for the other half.
Brian's hand shifted slightly, and the grip on Jeremy loosened. He was still held fast, but he found himself sliding down the smooth surface of the golem to the forest floor. The hulking monster even shifted slightly, giving him a diagonal to lean against more comfortably.
"Better?" he asked.
"I don't want you as my enemy," he added quietly.
"Stuffin' me in the trunk ain't a great first impression."
"I'm sorry. But I wasn't sure if they'd exposed you. I had to be careful." Brian leaned against the nearest tree. One of his two companions vanished into the woods, out of Jeremy's sight, but the other had taken out a pad of paper and a pencil, scribbling away.
"Who's your friend?" Jeremy asked, nodding at the other man.
"Oh, I'm just here for the story," he replied, with a wide grin that was missing several teeth.
Fuckin' reporters… "Keep me out of it, thanks."
The rat-faced man smiled wider. "The infamous disgraced agent who botched the most important case of the century? You're the centerpiece!"
"Enough, Felix," said Brian.
"Just let me ask one question," Felix replied, his words running together with his enthusiasm. "Agent Ashe, when you collected all the remains from Rallsburg, how many of them were the so-called 'pulverized', compared to the rest?"
Jeremy shrugged. "Can't say." It was a minority… What's his point, anyway?
Felix nodded rapidly with satisfaction. "Uh huh. Pretty much that on the dot, am I right?"
Brian turned back to Jeremy. "His point," he said, as if he'd read Jeremy's mind, "is that whatever you may think, Jackson and I weren't responsible for most of the deaths in our town."
"But you were planning on killin' everyone." Jeremy adjusted his position slightly, trying to find a more comfortable angle with his arms still pinned to his sides. "Doesn't exactly make you the good guys."
"Their fate only proves why we needed to act!" Brian's voice deepened in intensity. "An insane cult leader wields power so terrible that it destroyed a whole town and killed dozens in an instant. And she still lives. She's responsible for the death of hundreds of innocents!"
Okay, this part is new… "You're talkin' about Cinza, right?"
"Exactly. Yes. The witch." Brian swallowed, clearing his throat. "That murderous witch killed, more than once. She killed the farmer Wilson and the Reverend Smith. If you'd seen what happened to those poor people—"
"I did," Jeremy interrupted. And neither of them exactly fit the usual golem killings… Wilson was drained of blood, and Smith was snapped in half and burned alive. Rachel, you left some important fuckin' details out of your story… "Wilson was self-defense though. We got that on video. The man had a gun on her and pulled the trigger. Killed her friend, too."
"Video, huh?" Brian shook his head. "Does your video include the part where Paul Wilson's daughter Jenny was decapitated and mutilated by these monsters? Where Paul and Ingrid had to endure the humiliation of them desecrating their daughter's funeral? Or where Cinza was the first to strike?"
"How's that then?"
"Smith was the best man in the whole town, and she murdered him in cold blood," Brian spat. "In the forest, alone. And when Robert lead the town to arrest her, she met them with evil, cruel magic and a blade made of hellfire." Brian shuddered, and Jeremy didn't think for a second he was acting. "People were beaten, cut, electrocuted and burned. Paul was drained of his blood. A twelve year old girl was dismembered. Tell me these are the acts of human beings, not animals and savages."
Buddy, if you'd seen the shit I've seen… "Humans pushed to the limit, sure. But I'm not buyin' it yet."
Brian nodded. "You haven't witnessed it yet. You've only seen the ashes. But imagine a single, horrible moment, where every building around you explodes. Where your home, and the homes of everyone you know, are torn asunder. And the screams." He shuddered, and to Jeremy it seemed totally genuine. Brian was terrified of what he'd witnessed. "People were crushed and impaled in their living rooms, if they were lucky, or caught in a shower of glass and knives, bleeding out on the kitchen floor. The poor souls hiding from the chaos on Main street were burned alive by the explosion, caused by another of their reckless experiments. All thanks to her."
"Not what I heard," said Jeremy—though truth be told, Rachel had been relatively quiet on the details of the last day of Rallsburg. She mentioned that they'd tried and failed to stop Omega as a group, though refused to name who was involved or what it entailed. She only explained that in the end, she'd killed him on her own with just a handgun. Jeremy believed her, but her unwillingness to give any details had been frustrating to say the least. Since they were already racing the clock with the announcement of the Rallsburg book, he'd let it go.
"The evidence is right in front of you!" Brian cried. "You said it yourself, you saw the video."
"Yeah, but so what?"
"The girl! Cinza! She alone has the power to cause such devastation. They tried to lure Jackson into a trap, kill him where he stood, but it didn't work. In their desperation, in their arrogance, they took away everything we had, trying to kill a man who was trying to save the world. They're responsible for all this death and chaos, and it's only going to get worse."
Brian was ranting by now, but Jeremy couldn't exactly call him out for being wrong. It sure as hell wasn't right, but he didn't know enough to refute the facts.
Plus, they're still holding me fuckin' hostage…
"You know what she wants, right?" Brian snapped, suddenly turning back to Jeremy.
"World peace?" he said sardonically.
"She wants the world to be like her. Awakened," he snarled, with all the rancor he could instill into that single word. "They are like children playing with fire, and we're all going to burn if we don't stop them!"
"But it's too late," Jeremy pointed out. "It's out there. Can't un-learn something once it's learned, right?"
"You're mistaken," Brian said, suddenly quite calm. The emotional switchbacks were giving Jeremy whiplash. "This is not as you think. Magic can be destroyed forever. It was never meant to escape into the world as it has. The only people responsible enough to handle such a force already had it, but one of them was too weak-minded. He decided it should be shared. His greatest error." Brian paused—for breath or for dramatic effect. He brushed a bead of sweat from his brow before he continued. "Jackson wanted to correct that error. If we destroy every piece, magic will be gone forever. The world will return to normal. It will be safe. We'll be safe. Our children, their children, everyone will be able to go back to the way things were.
"Do you understand?" he went on, turning back to Jeremy. "We have to stop it. I'm not saying the world was perfect, but this is too far. I have seen what havoc one person can wreak. I am afraid, Mr. Ashe. I'm afraid what's going to happen the moment Cinza and her cabal decide we humans aren't worth their time. That us inferiors are the root of their problems, and decide to clean house."
Brian stepped back, and he seemed so very tired. "I'm trying to save us all. Can't you understand that?"
Jeremy didn't bother to respond. Brian was a raving lunatic in many ways, but what was Jeremy supposed to do about it? He couldn't exactly correct the man. As far as he could tell, every single thing Brian said was true. It matched the evidence, far better than Rachel's vague guilt-ridden statements had. The majority of deaths in Rallsburg were by injuries inconsistent with the golem attacks, and much more in-line with Brian's tale.
Should just arrest the both of them. This is getting ridiculous.
He needed to meet Cinza, he decided. When—if—he made it back to Rachel, he was going to arrange a sit-down. There were too many pieces he was still missing, and since Rachel had been out of the game for so long, she didn't have them either.
Brian was called away after a few moments of awkward silence by one of his compatriots. Felix sauntered after him, notebook in hand. A masked man brought Jeremy some water, but other than that he was left alone.
Wonder what happened with that bomb threat… In the eyes of the American public, the awakened sure weren't winning the public relations fight. Even Jeremy, as inexperienced as he was in the field, could see the cascade coming. Hailey could have been the standard bearer for the whole group, practically groomed to be a perfect representative, but she'd overstepped on live TV in front of the whole damn world. She wasn't coming back from that easy.
And she called us humans. Like we ain't shit compared to her. Part of Brian's story rang even more true. Jeremy had started to consider Hailey a friend over the last couple weeks, but that line really rubbed him wrong. Arrogant, he got that right. Hailey's arrogant as fuck, Rachel's got her own arrogant streak too. Even that stupid fuckin' theater kid, assumin' he can do anythin' and not get in trouble. Are they just young and stupid, or is this somethin' worse?
As Felix came back and the golem shifted its position again, Jeremy remembered—this is bullshit. Not one hundred percent, but holy shit, he had me going for a bit.
"You're not convinced," Felix commented, noticing Jeremy's expression change.
Felix grinned again, in what was fast becoming an annoying trademark. "I think he's got a story no one's heard yet, and it's pretty damn compelling. Compared to what's in that book? Lots of people are gonna take the word of an ordinary family man who lost his home over a foreign cult leader and her crazed sex-cult."
"Jesus, is that really—"
Felix shook his head. "Nah, they aren't really. But you know how this shit goes. Hell, you're the goddamn FBI, don't you turn up sex cults all the time?"
"Not my department."
"Oh, right, yours is harassing reporters for shit they didn't do."
Jeremy looked at him more closely. "Hang on. Are you—"
Felix Wieczorek. One of the journalists who got picked out by Nate Price. "Still not my department. I'm suspended."
"Like you wouldn't have been first in line to chuck me in a cell for refusing to reveal what's in the book." Felix grinned. "Lucky me, though, I got outta Dodge before anyone could snatch me up. I think Ted Winters is banking on staying on-screen long enough that he can't get arrested either. Too much of a scandal if they try to pull him off a scheduled appearance."
"So how the fuck you get here?"
"Two sides to every story," Felix intoned with a laugh. "I read that wordy bullshit from Cinza, and I wanted the other half. I knew he had to be alive, and there were enough clues if you read between the lines." He glanced over his shoulder, where they could just barely make out Brian's outline through the dark forest. He was on the phone. "Man paints a pretty compellin' picture."
"He's a killer too," said Jeremy. "You remember that shit in Tacoma? The standoff?"
"He never went in the building, and the golems didn't hurt a fly. Made damn sure of it, in fact."
"His men, his plan." Jeremy eyed Felix icily. "Two people still died in that building."
Felix shrugged. "One person, if we agree with good old Hailey that they aren't human anymore. And that one is tragic, don't get me wrong, but it wouldn't have happened if you hadn't butted your head in."
"Fuck you," Jeremy snapped. "Wouldn't have happened if he hadn't sent a bunch of guys with guns to take the place hostage."
"I regret it every day," said Brian quietly.
They both turned, surprised he'd returned so silently. Brian walked back up to Jeremy, and he could see real sorrow in the man's ocean-blue eyes.
"As soon as I realized what happened, I made sure no one else got hurt. I made mistakes, and so did my men in how they handled the situation. It won't happen again."
"How reassuring," said Jeremy dryly.
"Mr. Ashe, I know I won't convince you tonight," Brian went on. "But I respect what you've done so far. Your pursuit of this case has been admirable."
"Get to the point, so I can go home already."
He nodded. "I want you to keep following the case. Don't turn a blind eye and assume your job is done just because they've begun to emerge. They cannot be trusted."
"You were in the national security branch, right?" added Felix.
"This is the greatest threat to national security you've ever faced," Brian continued. "I pray to God that you can stop it."
"Isn't that your job?" asked Jeremy.
"It's too much for one man at this point. Maybe if we'd acted sooner…" Brian shook his head. "I will be ready, when you understand." He lifted his hand slightly, and the golem lifted Jeremy up into the air again. "I'm sorry I can't take you back to your motel. I can't have you getting any ideas about where we are."
"Don't worry, I don't have a fuckin' clue," he replied, glancing around at the trees uneasily. "Thanks for not killin' me, I guess."
"I'm on your side, Mr. Ashe."
"I didn't do anything to the kid you were protecting, either."
Thank god. "How long does that last?"
"Until you realize the danger he poses." Brian shook his head. "He's reckless. They told me what he was doing when they found him. He's going to hurt someone eventually, and you'll wish you'd acted sooner rather than later."
The golem carried Jeremy back to the truck, which had been parked not all that far away. He still only got a glimpse of the make and model, though, and the license plate was missing. Not enough to identify it. The huge arms dumped him into the trunk and closed the lid.
"Good luck, Mr. Ashe."
Fuck you, you looney mass-murdering psychopath. "Thanks."
"I've got a request for you," said Felix.
Jeremy twisted around in the trunk. They'd been driving for a good thirty minutes at least when the journalist's muffled voice sounded from the back seat. It was hard to tell, since Jeremy didn't have his phone or even a watch. I should get a watch… if shit like this is gonna happen.
"Sorry. Didn't mean to scare you."
"...You could've been talkin' this whole damn time? I'm bored as shit back here."
Felix laughed. "Fair enough."
"What's the request?"
"Stop the book from getting published. It's too dangerous."
"It is, huh?" Jeremy whistled. "A fuckin' Pulitzer-prize writer is callin' for government censorship. There's somethin' you don't see everyday."
"...What, did you take a profile of me?"
"'Course I did. You and every other Sunday column asshole on that list." Jeremy paused. "Seriously, though. What's so dangerous about it?"
"Everyone will know how to awaken. And when that happens…"
"But there's a catch, isn't there?" Jeremy pointed out. "Can't do anythin' without a scrap of the old book, yeah? It won't spread that fast."
"They made copies. If they did it once, they can do it again. No one can control that." Felix rustled around on the seat. "I'm against censorship, but I'm a hundred percent in favor of weapon control. This is a weapon. It needs to be regulated."
"Can't argue with that."
"So help us here. Slow it down. Don't let that book get out."
Jeremy laughed. "The fuck am I supposed to do that? It's coming out tomorrow."
"Laushire bought everyone some time. There's no way they release it tomorrow with the lawsuits she pulled together. They were expecting a poor cult leader holed up in the woods, not the daughter of a billionaire. Easy pickings turned into a pack of hungry wolves. And I'm guessing daddy Laushire will back her play, too, if the rumors are true. They sure as shit don't want that book coming out."
"Which rumors? I've heard a fuckton lately."
He could practically hear Felix's grin through the rear seat cushions. "Spoilers, Agent Ashe. Let's just say there's some juicy intrigue in the rich man's house. I'm really looking forward to bringing that up with the patriarch himself when I can."
"You just love tearin' people down, don't you?" Jeremy muttered.
"No, of course not. I'm telling their stories, good or bad. What happens after those stories reach the public is out of my hands."
"Irresponsible as fuck, aren't ya?" Fucking reporters.
"The public decides. I'm just the messenger. I don't pull stunts like Russ did tonight. That was a pretty cheap shot, emotional manipulation on national TV. Guy thinks he's David fucking Frost. I kept it legit: nice uncommentated raw footage of the standoff." The truck lurched hard, knocking them around a bit. When it settled, Felix spoke up again. "But seriously, Agent Ashe. That book is nuclear. Figure it out."
"No promises," Jeremy said, "but the other side ain't exactly happy about it either. So at least y'all agree on somethin'."
"That's good to hear." Another heavy bump. "Your stop's coming up."
"Thanks for the ride," Jeremy added sarcastically.
Felix laughed. "Free tip? Don't bother putting an APB on this truck. We won't be taking it out again. Save your effort."
No effort on my back, but whatever. "Sure."
"Head south and you'll get out of here in one piece. See you around, Agent Ashe."
The truck lurched to a halt. Jeremy kicked at the trunk, and to his surprise it actually opened this time. He crawled out, aching all over from the rough ride. The instant he hit the dirt, the truck sped off. They'd stopped with a fairly long stretch of open ground ahead, giving it more than enough time to get away.
The rain had kicked up at some point while they'd been driving, and a layer of mud was caked on his sleeves and pants. Jeremy groaned out loud, before pulling his windbreaker hood up and beginning to trudge south.
Five minutes later, he stopped. Which fuckin' direction is south?
He glanced up at the sky. The tree cover wasn't so dense here, but the rain clouds were still pretty thick. Jeremy wasn't getting wet at least, but he didn't have a clue where he was.
Felix made it sound like it was gonna be easy.
Jeremy kept walking in the same direction he'd been let off it, since it seemed as good a way to start as any. It sure as hell wasn't the way they'd actually come. He'd noticed more than once they'd driven in a circle to mislead him.
Must be near midnight… cold as fuck out here.
After an hour of walking (or however long it really was), Jeremy felt completely lost, and was actively cursing Felix's name. Still, he knew he was in the Olympic forest somewhere, and they wanted him to get home. They wanted his help.
Am I just that fuckin' bad in the woods?
The faint sound of a clink of metal caught his ear.
Jeremy perked up. Metal's not a forest sound. He scrambled forward toward the sound, slipping on the muddy ground as he went. More than once, he tripped over a root, but it didn't slow him much. He could hear civilization ahead. More importantly, he could smell hops.
Please, god, anything for a good fuckin' beer right now.
A thick wall of hedges, trees and thick thorns barred his way. Jeremy looked around, but the barrier stretched out and around. He knew the smell was right on the other side of the wall, along with the faint sound of laughter. He reached out gingerly to pull the first thick, thorny bramble aside.
His hand went right through it.
Jeremy stared at it. He moved his hand through the branch again, and then a third time. It didn't react in the slightest. A less tired and miserable Jeremy might have taken a moment to think it through, assess what he was up against—but after the rough day he'd endured, Jeremy just wanted a drink.
He burst through the illusory wall.
A dozen people looked up at him, shocked. They were seated around wooden picnic tables. Lanterns hung in midair above each one, giving the place a warm flickering glow. Two huge barrels were set up on the far side of the little clearing, where one man was busy refilling his mug. On every table were stacks of gemstones, pieces of paper, scraps of an old parchment, and other valuables, surrounding cards and dice, or just food and cash.
Jeremy stood up straight, his mistake finally dawning on his fatigued mind. A man in a thick hunting jacket and boots approached as he swayed in place, and it took him a couple seconds to recognize the lopsided smile, beady eyes, and messy brown hair. His voice had just a bit of a lilt, an easy charm that belied danger and suspicion. Jeremy knew that type. He didn't trust the man for a second.
"Well now, how'd you get in here?" asked Julian Black.