Chapter 19 — Wolves at the Gates
Rachel knew she should do something to stop the burly Robert as his shadow receded back into the woods. He was a ticking time bomb, but Rachel was stuck in place. Her eyes were transfixed by the misshapen, broken body beside her. The light wind tickled her hair as it breezed through the hills, making the branches dip and bow as if in deference to the man who had died that night.
She'd never learned how to deal with death. The only real experience she'd ever encountered were the three bodies in the RV. In that case, Rachel had been able to disconnect herself to an extent from the carnage. It was something brutal and horrible, yes, but she hadn't known any of them. She hadn't even known their names until the sheriff had told her. Rachel could approach it from a colder, logical view — examining the evidence and looking for clues and solutions.
With the poor doctor, Rachel had no recourse. She already knew the killer, and she knew the method. She already knew everything. There was nothing to distract her or to set her mind to. All she could do was dwell on the awful tragedy of a man's death, one whom she'd been speaking to only hours earlier.
She might have sat there for hours, but the night was still young. The trees rustled, and Rachel realized it wasn't just the sound of the wind drifting through the leaves. Someone else was moving, and they were close. Very close.
She clutched at the rubies so hard she might have cut her fingers open. The trees seemed to loom over her, and the scent of smoke from the charred body was ever more ominous.
I'm going to die out here tonight, Rachel thought bitterly. I'm going to die before I was able to do anything I wanted to do. The world is still a mess, magic is being used to kill people, and everything I tried to do was for nothing.
A wolf padded out from around a tree. An honest-to-god, massive, grey-furred wolf with rows of glistening teeth and fierce cold yellow eyes.
Her survival instinct kicked back into overdrive. Rachel scrambled away from it toward the nearest tree. She sent her mind into the gemstones, pulling every possible bit of flame she could and sent it at the wolf.
A massive five-foot jet of fire fanned out from her fingers, hurled at the wolf with the force of a bullet. It was more flame than Rachel had ever managed to summon in her life by tenfold. She stopped trying to clamber up the tree, hoping that the conflagration would be enough to deter the animal from attacking her.
The flames stopped just short of reaching it. Did I misjudge it? she thought desperately. Am I dead because I made another stupid miscalculation?
She hadn't, as the fire began to swirl up above and around the wolf and dissipating into the air. Behind it, she saw Natalie Hendricks waving her hands in peculiar swinging motions that mimicked the movement of the fire. The girl was wearing her favorite jacket over a dark and expensive-looking dress, and another huge animal was a few paces behind her — a giant mountain lion.
Rachel let out a deep breath as the clearing fell back into moonlit darkness once again. If these were Natalie's pets, she wasn't about to die. "Natalie, what are you doing out here?"
"Looking for the bad guys," she answered. In a single easy movement, she clambered onto the back of the wolf, ripping her dress slightly as she did. It was the same black dress she'd worn to the funeral, now caked in mud and with tears in it to let her move more easily.
"Have you been home since yesterday?" Rachel asked tentatively.
"No time. I gotta find who killed Jenny." Natalie looked around the clearing, finally noticing the body. Rachel expected her to shriek, but Natalie just looked at it with curiosity. "They got him too?"
"Yes," she answered, not sure how to handle the girl — particularly when Natalie could easily overpower her on a whim. She was saved the trouble of explaining further by an exhausted and distinctly British voice calling out from the darkness behind Natalie.
"Steady on, Nat! I can't keep up when you dash off like that!" Kendra Laushire came stumbling into the clearing. "Oi, what's this the—" She abruptly stopped as she spotted Rachel. Her voice and vocabulary shifted almost instantly. "Oh, good evening Rachel. What brings you out here so late?"
She wordlessly pointed at her feet, which Kendra had somehow missed.
"Oh, fuck me," she muttered.
Rachel was utterly perplexed. Kendra never spoke without the most proper and uptight posh accent, and never swore. Something was very off about her — but then something was very off about the entire night so far. She put it out of her mind for the moment. There were bigger priorities.
"Omega's work," she said shortly.
"Indeed. And he's long-gone, I suppose."
"Probably. We have bigger problems. Robert Harrison is on his way back to town, well-armed and angry."
Kendra shrugged. "What could he possibly do? The man has no knowledge of Omega's location, the same as us."
"He's blaming Cinza and her people."
"Ah." She frowned. "I don't suppose they could supply an alibi for their whereabouts for the last few hours?"
Rachel shook her head. Cinza couldn't possibly account for her last few hours, or there'd be an uproar on both sides of the town. "We have to defuse this now. Or at least, make sure anyone they'd want to hurt is kept safe until it burns out."
"Will it burn out?" she asked pointedly.
"I don't know."
"He's not here," Natalie reported. "Gwen smells a trail going far away though. Something's weird about it."
"Gwen?" Rachel asked.
"The wolf," Kendra explained in a tired voice.
"How does she know what it can smell?" Rachel asked, before realizing how pointless the question was. Kendra shrugged. Rachel turned to the little girl. "Natalie, can you do something for me?"
"You never did anything for my dad," she answered petulantly.
Rachel sighed. "I know, and I'm sorry. But this is really important, okay?"
Natalie looked at her scornfully. "Don't talk to me like I'm a dumb kid. What do you want?"
"Whoever killed him probably didn't get too far." Rachel realized belatedly she was possibly sending Natalie after her own father, but tried to dismiss it from her mind. It was too important that they caught the man before he could do more damage. "Do you think… Gwen… could track him for us?"
"Maybe. I can ask her." Natalie frowned. "What about my dad though?"
"Nat, please," Kendra said, crouching down next to her. "Do it for me, okay?"
"Only 'cause it's you, Lily. Not for her," Natalie said, giving Rachel another damning look. Rachel didn't much care, so long as they got moving soon. She could deal with the disdain of a twelve year old.
What did worry her as they set off into the woods following Natalie's pair of animal friends was the lack of signal to her cell phone. She'd sent Will an emergency signal, but so far she'd received no response. As far as she knew, Will was in a blind panic trying to locate her. If she could, she'd return to town immediately and let him know she was safe, but she couldn't pass up the opportunity to track down Natalie's father.
She could only hope he'd see the connection between them and assume she was still alive. They had no idea how connections were affected by death, but her brief viewing in the clearing showed she was still linked to Smith even as his corpse was slowly rotting into the dirt. I'll give you a proper funeral when I can, Rachel promised as she was lead away into the dark forest.
"Gwen lost it again," Natalie announced, gently patting the wolf behind the ears as it twisted and turned around the clearing. She maintained an easy balance on its back despite the constant motion. Rachel could see why riding on a wolf or dog was a ridiculous idea, given how sharp and jagged their backs were and how they constantly flexed around while moving. Under any other circumstances it should be completely impractical, but between Natalie's young age and the extreme size of this particular wolf, they made it work. Rachel assumed Natalie had helped grow the wolf somehow, just as Cinza could grow plants, or else she was remarkably lucky to find such a huge specimen roaming the woods of western Washington.
It had been twenty or thirty minutes at least, and their guide had lost the trail twice. Natalie got more frustrated with every delay. She pulled what looked like jerky out of her bag and chewed on it while waiting for Gwen to find the scent again. Rachel took the opportunity to sit down and rest for a moment. She'd sprinted all the way out into the forest hoping to catch the reverend, and they'd been on the move constantly since. Her legs were feeling like they were about to give up and fall off.
Kendra came and joined her, looking prim and proper as always, though her clothes were quite a bit more plain than usual. "What happened?" she asked quietly, while they watched Natalie feeding a piece of jerky to the wolf, muttering words they couldn't understand.
Rachel briefly explained how and why the Reverend had died, and why it was partly her fault, and the whole business with Hector and Julian in town. She even mentioned Cinza and the confrontation in town, though she left out the theft they'd planned for later that night, of course. As she spoke, she was noticing a slight change in how Kendra reacted to everything she said. It was small, but it was enough to finally boil over a revelation that had been brewing in her mind for a while.
"You're not really Kendra, are you?" Rachel asked quietly.
Kendra hesitated. "No one's supposed to know," she answered, and her rich, precise diction was gone. She was still definitely British, but she sounded much more relaxed and casual than the Kendra Laushire that Rachel knew. "I'm Lily."
"I didn't know Kendra had a sister."
"We want to keep it under the radar. There's plenty out there who'd exploit it if they knew," Lily smiled. "Managed to fool you for years now, and you're probably my best mate."
"So you two have been swapping out?"
"Sometimes. Just when we have to. It's a bit mental, yeah, but it's the only way we could keep the damn market open. Kenni'd probably fall apart if she had to do all the teaching and uni business on top of it. So we take turns. Nat knows, but she's cool." Lily laughed. "She kinda had to know, when she walked in on us both in the same room. But get this, cheeky kid just says 'which one of you is the cool one?' like it's no big deal at all. That girl isn't phased by anything."
"But you two talk and act so differently," Rachel protested. "How could I have never noticed?"
"Well, see, we grew up in jolly old London, in the highest of society. We had to act proper. But once we got out here, on our own and so far away from dear old dad that no one would ever find us, we got a bit more relaxed. As long as publicly it was still proper, posh and professional Kendra, everything was peachy." She smiled wistfully. "You know, I think Kendra is jealous of me. I get to be everything she wishes she could. She's too set in her ways to really change who she is, but I've got all the freedom I want, except when I need to sub in for her."
"But why? Why go through all this?"
"Well, I'm not supposed to exist," Lily said with a wink. "Long long story, but that's the gist of it. Trust me, it'd cause more problems than it'd solve if I popped into the world today."
Rachel would have asked more, but Natalie was moving. The wolf had turned to face one end of the clearing and growled at the newcomer. Natalie had her hands up, and what seemed to be a stack of kitchen knives were floating in midair around her head, pointed at her target like arrows about to take flight.
Ryan emerged from the underbrush, his hands raised in surrender. "Holy shit."
"Ryan, what are you doing here?" Rachel asked, scrambling to her feet.
"Will sent us. Hey, Josh, get out here before you get eaten by something." Josh, looking as though he wished he were anywhere else in the world, cautiously walked into the clearing. His eyes were fixed on the wolf.
"William sent you?" asked Lily.
"Yeah, apparently Rachel sent up the bat signal. You seem okay to me," Ryan added, glancing up and down her body. His eyes lingered in a few particular spots, and Rachel felt a little more disgusted with him. She had to remind herself what he'd done that afternoon and his value in general before she started talking.
"Reverend Smith is dead, and Robert Harrison's about to start a riot in town. We need all the help we can get." She frowned. "How did you find us anyway?"
"Easy, I was already out here. I was making sure Nate didn't get killed on the way home." Ryan looked back over his shoulder. "Ran into the greycloaks a while back. They were already gathering for some sort of ritual for the night. Josh was there as a witness when we got the call, and they clearly didn't want us there, so we fucked off." He shrugged. "Your boyfriend's good at directions. Too good."
"Rachel, what do you mean a riot?" Josh asked.
"I mean he thinks that the greycloaks are responsible, and he's about to form a lynch mob," Rachel said. "What sort of ritual were they doing?" If Cinza had the Scrap and was planning to read it that night, then Rachel couldn't bring them to help — but if it were anything else, they should be making all haste.
"You think I pay attention to those?" Josh shrugged. "Doesn't really matter though, does it? If Robert's pissed and they see anything like Cinza's usual tricks, there'll be blood. A lot of blood."
Rachel couldn't deny it. They had to go. She'd just have to get Cinza to hide the Scrap and all knowledge of it before they arrived. Between Natalie, Cinza and Makoto, Rachel just hoped they had enough firepower to hold off the mob. "Lead the way, then, Josh."
After a few minutes of blind wandering, it became obvious Josh had no clue how to navigate through the woods at all, much less at night. With an amused smirk, Natalie brought Gwen up close. Josh shut his eyes tight and was muttering rapidly under his breath while the huge wolf sniffed his clothes. Natalie pronounced his scent caught, and they were off.
Rachel was growing increasingly uneasy by the way the shadows deepened over time. It seemed to be getting darker much faster than usual. Was it natural? Or was Rachel just increasingly paranoid in a world where she had no idea what was actually possible anymore? Case in point, she was watching a little girl in a black dress and a pink unicorn rain jacket currently whispering to a wolf easily three or four times her size and ordering it around. Rachel didn't really have grounds to question anything anymore.
Natalie had called them to a halt once again as the wolf looked up and sniffed the air. After a few moments, it turned to face Rachel, as did the rest of the group.
"Don't you hear that?" Natalie asked. Rachel strained her ears, and finally she caught a faint humming sound coming from her bag.
"How did you hear that?" Ryan asked her incredulously.
"My ears are better than yours, and I don't smell so bad."
"Kid, when you get older, you'll fuckin' love somethi—"
Josh clapped a hand over Ryan's mouth before he said anything further, and Lily shot him a dark look. Rachel dug into her pocket and withdrew her phone, which was indeed buzzing away with the third or fourth attempted phone call. "Will, I'm so sorry, I was out of signal range."
"I know," Will's voice crackled through the speaker. It wasn't great quality, but it was enough, and Rachel felt warmth spreading from the speaker through her brain. Just hearing his voice was enough to bring a measure of comfort. "Are you okay?"
"Yes. I'm with Natalie, Kendra, Josh and Ryan. You sent them?"
"Kendra, Josh and Ryan, yeah. I also called Jackie, Boris and Cinza, but I think they're both a bit busy with what's going on here."
"What's going on?"
Will sounded like he was running, which was already unusual. In an emergency he was usually at his computer, where he felt he was most useful. "There's a lot of shouting and people are looking for a fight. I heard more than a few people yelling 'justice for Jenny' and some brutal stuff about Cinza's people. Rachel, I don't think they're gonna back down this time."
"Did you get anything back from Jackie?" Rachel asked, as a sense of impending doom settled in the pit of her stomach.
"Nothing. Listen, Rachel, there's something else too. I just felt a massive spike of magical energy in town at Boris' shop. Bigger than anything I've ever felt. It's gotta be him. I think something serious is going down there right now."
Rachel's thoughts were split in half. She was thinking at a mile a minute, but every single time she leaned toward one approach, she began arguing herself back toward the other path.
Did she go to Cinza and help her? The greycloak leader had become a friend, and one she trusted more than almost anyone in the world these days. Rachel wanted to help her and protect her. She was brave and kind and she deserved better than to face a lynch mob alone and unsupported.
On the other hand, what Will had just told her was the first real lead they'd had on Omega ever. He was in town, in a location she knew and could reach. It might be her only chance to stop him before real permanent damage was done, may Smith and Jenny rest in peace. The riot and the mob were borne of problems Omega had created. If she could bring him low and lay him before the town, give them the malevolent they'd been hunting, couldn't that be enough to stop the bloodshed?
Rachel didn't know what to do. She wanted to curl up and cry. The shock of seeing the reverend broken and burned still hadn't left her, and she wasn't sure it ever would. She was being asked to make impossible choices and it wasn't fair. All she'd wanted to do was help the save the world. Why did the world have to make it so difficult to be saved?
"Rachel?" Will's voice crackled again. The group was watching her with baited breath. She was the leader, after all. She had to make the call. Rachel had chosen to take that responsibility.
What sort of idiot asks for this?
Cinza's people were well-trained and well provisioned. The majority of them had magic, and Rachel had no doubt that she'd taught them combat techniques in preparation for a day like this. Rachel could send Natalie to back them up — the girl was a skeptic like the rest of them, but she wasn't unfriendly to the group as a whole. With her terrifying new friends, Rachel could see Natalie scaring away the more timid of the mob. As soon as even a portion began to falter, the group was that much more likely to break down. Mobs thrived on cohesion and feedback loops; as soon as anything external broke the loop, the mob was poisoned.
But if Rachel was going up against Omega, she was going to need all the help she could get. Ryan and Josh weren't the sort of powerhouse duo she'd have preferred, and they still didn't exactly get along. Natalie was one of the rare few Rachel had noticed with a talent for magic that seemed to be far beyond the usual means. Kendra (or is it Lily? Rachel mused) was another, and Hector was a third. If she was going to go toe-to-toe with a god, Rachel wanted them at her side.
The group wasn't paying Rachel any attention, busy getting outraged at a tasteless comment from Ryan. Rachel dialed Hector's phone, but only got a full voicemail message. She didn't really have any more backup she could call on. All she had were the people in front of her, and she needed them all with what she could be walking into.
With a heavy heart, Rachel made up her mind. As much as she'd grown to like the girl, Cinza would have to fend for herself.
"We're going back into town."
"We're what now?" Josh asked.
"Omega's there, right now, in Boris' shop."
"Hell no," Ryan shouted. "I'm out."
"Fuck you too, Ryan," Josh snapped. "Rachel, are you sure?"
"Ninety-nine percent," Rachel answered. "You don't have to come with me, but I can't do this alone. If I go in by myself, I'm probably dead."
"And now you're gonna guilt-trip us? Fucking hell, Rachel," Ryan grumbled.
"If you don't want to come, don't. I don't need you." Rachel turned and walked across the clearing to Natalie, who was busy scratching behind the ears of her wolf. She knelt down cautiously in front of the girl — but with her height, Rachel still felt like she towered over the kid. It was a stark reminder of how young Natalie was, still growing and changing.
Rachel faltered. How could she ask Natalie to follow her into this? She was still a child. She wasn't responsible for any of this. Rachel's plans were predicated on having the firepower of Kendra and Natalie at her back, but could she really send a twelve year old girl into a battle with a murderous god and live with herself afterward?
"What?" Natalie asked. Her eyes were still bright and warm, while Rachel felt impossibly cold and afraid. She felt like she was about to step over a line that she could never return from.
"Natalie, I need you to come help me fight someone."
"Rachel, no—" Lily started, but Rachel held up a hand. Lily fell silent, but her eyes were narrow and blazing with disapproval.
Natalie brushed her hair back behind her ear casually. "Is it the bad guy? The one who killed Jenny?"
"Yes," Rachel answered, and the pit in her stomach grew tenfold. It wasn't a lie, but… "He's at Boris' bookshop right now. I don't know why or who else is there, but we have to stop him before he hurts anyone else."
She nodded. In a smooth motion that would have put any professional equestrian to shame, Natalie took up her spot on the back of the gray wolf. It growled in a low menacing rumble that made them all wince, but Natalie scratched at it again and the growl became almost a purr. Natalie's cat sidled up next to the pair and rubbed against the wolf, but the wolf's fierce eyes were locked on Rachel.
"For Jenny," Natalie said. Rachel nodded, while echoes of the war cry of the mob flitted through her ears. Visions of Cinza's people being run down and attacked in the dark night blazed in her mind, but Rachel fought back against her own conscience with thoughts of Omega blasting the town apart and killing them all, one by one.
He had to be stopped.
Rallsburg was draped in eerie silence as they emerged from the forest onto one of the side roads. They still had a few blocks to go until they reached Boris', but Rachel was glad they were finally in open ground, where she wouldn't be imagining terrible golems emerging from behind every tree trunk. The silence was almost comforting to her, in the logical cold parts of her brain. She could conclude that if they heard nothing, the mob must have already moved on out of the town. They should have a clear path all the way to the bookshop.
She said as much to Natalie, and the girl rode her wolf out of the shadows to lead the way into town. Rachel and Lily followed, while Josh brought up the rear. Ryan had left them at the edge of the forest, muttering about suicide missions. Rachel had asked him to go to Cinza's aid if he wasn't willing to face Omega, but she doubted he would be so magnanimous. Ryan was typically uncooperative, stubborn and selfish. They'd only managed to work together in the past due to their shared connections with Rika, but with how frayed and broken that relationship had become, Rachel doubted they'd ever repair it.
Then again, Rachel hadn't expected him to take such an active role in the Summit. He'd been to all three of the brief meetings they'd held since the town hall, and even actively participated. Perhaps she judged him too harshly.
The wolf started growling as they approached the street of Boris' shop. "Something's wrong," Natalie said, glancing over her shoulder at them. "Gwen's afraid."
Rachel took a few steps forward around the corner, straining her eyes.
The door to Boris' shop had been smashed to splinters. The windows were shattered into tiny shards, and even the frame looked buckled in and broken. Rachel crept forward ahead of Natalie, trying to peer inside. She needn't have bothered.
The upstairs window blew outward in a shower of glass. A body was hurled out, tumbling through the air like a ragdoll. Rachel leapt back in fear and looked away. She didn't need to have another death burned into her memory forever — but to her surprise, there was no sickening impact on the pavement.
Grey-eyes appeared in the street below the falling body. Her arms and shoulders bulged out with thick-corded muscles, and she gracefully caught the falling boy before he hit pavement. She let him down gently, and to Rachel's further shock he was alive, albeit winded and dazed. He collapsed a moment later. Grey-eyes' body quickly returned to her normal proportions.
Omega appeared at the blasted out window, his dark complexion against the lit room and dark night sky making it impossible to see his face properly. Grey-eyes was glaring up at him with fury, which was enough to strike fear in Rachel's heart. Of the three, Grey-eyes had never involved herself in a real fight. If she stooped to their level, Rachel feared the entire town would be a pile of rubble in minutes.
Rachel stepped forward, against all rational thought. "Stop this immediately," she called.
Omega laughed bitterly. "I didn't start it."
"Who did, Jackson?" Grey-eyes cried, moving in front of Zack and raising her fists. "Because it wasn't me."
"We all did, and I'm ending it." He twisted a hand in a semi-circle, splaying his fingers wide. Another one of his terrifying golems grew out of the floorboards of the shop, like a plant on fast-forward bursting from the soil. It began to advance toward them, but after a few moments it halted — as if it were struggling against an invisible force.
Omega looked over at Rachel's group with surprise. At Lily, Rachel realized with a shock, turning to her fiery-haired companion at her side. Lily's eyes were screwed up in exertion. She was muttering rapidly under her breath. Her hand shot out and pointed up at Omega. The golem turned and began to move back into the shop, knocking piles of books over heedlessly as it went.
Rachel thought Omega might have mumbled something in return, and the golem turned around again. She imagined it would look very confused — if it had any sort of face. It began lumbering back toward them.
"Come on you old hag, give me more than that," Lily growled under her breath. She clenched her fists tight. Her complexion almost seemed to get brighter and more awake. She kept speaking, words Rachel couldn't make out despite only being a few steps away. Immediately, the golem turned back around again.
The curious mental duel between the two might have gone on longer, but Omega seemed to grow tired of the battle of wills. He waved his hand, and the golem crumbled into a pile of dirt and dust. Lily let out a deep sigh of relief.
A blur of motion and Lily was hurled sprawling into the street. Omega had somehow crossed the distance between them in a millisecond and slammed into her headlong, knocking her a dozen feet away in a painful roll across the pavement. Her leg was bent at an odd, unnatural angle, and she howled in pain. Rachel backed away, but he was in her face an instant later.
"Hello again, Rachel."
"Jackson, stop!" Grey-eyes called, but he ignored her.
"Help us!" Rachel shouted at her, but Grey-eyes only shook her head and buried her face in her hands.
Rachel looked into his eyes and felt real terror. She was utterly frozen in place. There was death in his deep black eyes. Not the insane rage or crazed lunacy she'd seen in the past. No, this was cold righteous determination, from a man who believed himself just. This was a man on a mission, and there was no negotiating with someone so wholly committed.
"Rachel, I want you to know I admire what you tried to achieve," Omega said earnestly. His deep voice, so close to her, rumbled through her entire body like an earthquake about to shatter the world. "Maybe if you'd been a little more successful, things could have gone differently. I'm sorry it had to end this way… but you shouldn't have tried to stop me."
Rachel summoned the fire from the two rubies in her palm, singing him. He cursed, and she scrambled backward. Omega moved to follow.
A huge grey mass slammed into him, knocking him sideways and rolling him across the street. Gwen bit deep into his shoulder. He screamed in pain and shot electricity at the wolf, blasting it away. Blood was dripping from his torso as he got back on his feet.
An instant later, the mountain lion leapt in as well, scratching at Omega's face with extended claws. Natalie rushed forward, shouting and egging her pets on. Omega was in pain, and he no longer had the same mask of absolute confidence he'd worn initially. He sent a wave of force at the two animals, and because they weren't protected by Mason's Law, they were tossed away as if by an explosion.
Rachel briefly wondered why he hadn't just killed them outright, but she had no time to think about it. Omega was growing five golems all around them at a rapid pace. The magical strain was finally visible on him, but a brief view of the connections showed he still maintained strong control of all his charges — and they didn't have Lily to interrupt his control again.
Natalie hurled massive jets of flame at the golems. The sheer power and size of them coming from her small hands was absurd, but she only managed to set them alight. It was the same as it had been for Cinza and her people. Fire did nothing to whatever material Omega made them out of. If anything, it made them more terrifying and potent. They needed a new tactic.
"Natalie, can you cast any other elements?" Rachel asked over the rushing, crackling sound of the fire.
"I never learned any!" the girl shouted back.
Rachel cursed her luck. Josh had apparently fled, Zack was unconscious and Grey-eyes seemed unwilling to intervene. Lily was incapacitated from the pain. Her only weapons were Natalie's two pets, who were vulnerable to anything Omega could throw at them, and Rachel's own meager spellcasting. They'd managed to hurt him and force him into expending far more energy than she'd ever seen, but it wasn't enough. The quintet of golems was taxing him considerably, and their movements were slow and rough as a result, but they still continued to close the circle. Rachel doubted they could break out.
Rachel and Natalie began to back up toward the door to the bookshop. It had been left as an avenue of retreat, but Rachel knew it was only another death-trap. The building had no rear exit and once they were in an enclosed space, the golems would have no trouble catching them.
They extended their hands and launched their fire, and Natalie only just managed to dissipate it in time. The flames winked out of existence as they approached, and a few moments later she extinguished the golems as well, choking out the flames somehow in a way Rachel didn't understand. If only I had her power…
Natalie tried hurling fire around one of the golems to strike at Omega himself, but he dodged it easily. The burst of flame dissipated into the air like smoke, striking nothing at all.
Rachel opened her mind and cast about desperately, trying to spot any clue in the connections around her that could give them a way out. All she saw were the thick lines webbing between Omega and his minions, Natalie's bonds with her two pets that were prowling about Omega but seemed reluctant to attack again, and as always her bond trailing into the distance with Will. Rachel pushed harder as the golems continued to close, trying to spot the more obscure connections — anything that could help them. It was her only real move, since she had no weapons and no other real magical skills.
She saw the massive, uncountable web of bonds between Grey-eyes and the world. As she looked closer, she saw that two of those bonds were suddenly bi-directional, unlike the endless strands that seemed to be forever severed. One was with the boy she was standing over, protecting at all costs against Omega. It was still so faint that Rachel doubted it could even be seen by anyone else. Will certainly would never have spotted it. The other was a line tracing up into the upper floor of the shop behind them. Someone was still upstairs.
"Natalie, try to push them away. I'll be right back." Rachel rushed inside and upstairs. She felt a brief shock at the interior of the upper floor, but she had no time to ponder the implications.
Rika and Hailey were both laid out on the floor, battered and mostly unmoving. Rika was awake, while Hailey groaned and rolled away from the new face in the room. Rachel assumed the only reason they weren't dead was thanks to Grey-eyes' intervention. She rushed to Rika's side.
"Rasshel? Wha-'re you doin' 'ere?" Rika mumbled.
"Nevermind that," Rachel replied, picking up Rika's bag. She didn't have time to raise old grudges. Rika could supply something they needed to fight back. They needed destructive power to handle the golems, but Rika didn't have the energy and Rachel didn't have the talent, and neither of them had the time to teach Natalie how to use it. There was another option. "Rika, I need your Scrap, right now."
"If I don't give it to Natalie, we're going to die." Rachel didn't wait for a reply, but started digging through her bag for the compartment where it was held. She knew Rika always kept it on hand, as she'd never trust it anywhere else than within a few feet of her.
"'s not in there. In my pocke'," Rika muttered. Rachel reached over and plucked the battered parchment out of Rika's front pocket. "Closes' you'll ever ge' to ge'ing in my pan's," Rika added, before doubling over in a round of hacking coughs.
"Shut up and let me save you," Rachel snapped. She glanced over it briefly. Knowledge began to flow into her mind, visions of electricity dancing and forking through the air and the lightning of storm clouds sparkling in the sky. It felt like hours, though only a moment had passed before her mind was drawn back to earth. Without another glance at the two on the floor, Rachel hurried back down to Natalie at the front door.
The girl was leaning forward with arms outstretched as if she were trying to push a massive invisible box in front of her, at such an angle that she should have fallen on her face. The golems had stopped advancing, and even the dust in the air was halted at the edge of the bubble of force she'd projected. It wouldn't have stopped Omega had he decided to walk up, but he looked strained just from maintaining the golems, in addition to being wary of Natalie's power. It gave Rachel all the breathing room she needed.
She thrust the Scrap in front of Natalie's face. The girl's light brown eyes darted across the page rapidly, then rolled back into her skull leaving just the whites. A moment later, her irises snapped back into place. The golems were able to advance a few feet in the brief lapse before she threw the wall back up again.
"What was that?" she asked breathlessly.
"A new weapon," Rachel answered.
There were two ways to learn how to use magic. The usual way was how everyone learned it, by shared experience and experimentation. Someone would try something out, find the mental and physical path to the energy and manipulations needed to cast a spell, and they'd share it or not share it as they saw fit. It could be reverse-engineered by someone else clever enough, and sooner or later everyone would know the basics and be able to cast similar spells. Given enough time and experimentation, there didn't seem to be any limit to what they could achieve — and when one threw rituals and permanent magic into the mix, the possibilities absolutely exploded in scope — but they were always limited to whatever one could imagine and discover themselves.
The book had no such limitations, and it removed the process of learning entirely. Each Scrap they discovered was a portion of magic from that tome containing all the secrets of the universe. Though the first to read such a page seemed to gain some inherent talent and power from it, in truth anyone who read from a Scrap would be near-instantly proficient in the magic it described. In that way, every member of the Council had become capable in telekinesis and basic fire magic. There were no apparent drawbacks, though it was often impossible to describe the method that the book taught. It was as though it instilled new instincts into the reader, base behaviors that couldn't easily be explained but simply came naturally.
Natalie absorbed the knowledge, and suddenly her fingers crackled with light. Tiny flecks of electricity danced across her fingertips, in a brilliant pink instead of the cool blue that Rachel was used to seeing from Rika. Natalie let the force wall fall away, and spun around to face the nearest golem. She dropped to one knee and thrust out her hand.
With a thunderous snap that shook Rachel's bones and had her covering her ears, a massive fuschia-colored bolt arced away from Natalie's palm and punched a hole through the golem, cutting it in two. The overwhelming heat and energy was enough to disintegrate the material entirely.
Natalie muttered something under her breath, retracted her hand and threw it out once more. Another bolt burst outward with a sharp crack. The electricity annihilated the golem as it crackled through the air, whipping around violently on the other side before striking a piece of metal on the ground. Rachel was prepared for it this time, but even so the sheer power behind the girl was simply something she couldn't prepare for. The golem vanished entirely in the flash of light, so dazzling that Rachel was blinded for seconds afterward. She closed her eyes while she listened to the whip-crack of Natalie's lightning bolts continue, blasting through each golem one by one.
As the final blast faded into the wind, she opened her eyes again. Omega seemed to be long gone, and Lily was finally coming to. Natalie was heaving and looking like she might throw up. She doubled over and sprawled out on the pavement, completely exhausted. Rachel thought about trying to comfort her, but before she could move, Natalie's wolf was already at her side. It stood over her like a guard, while the mountain lion padded over and laid down by her side, nuzzling close to her and mewling.
"I've never seen anything like that," Grey-eyes said quietly. Rachel looked up startled. She'd almost forgotten Grey-eyes was even there.
"Why didn't you help us?" she asked, throwing caution to the wind. Grey-eyes no longer seemed like the all-powerful god she'd once been; now Rachel only saw a scared girl about the same age as herself, who happened to have some magical powers on par with the infinitely braver and more heroic Natalie at her feet.
"I… I couldn'—"
"We were going to die right in front of you," Rachel shot back. "You didn't do anything. You just stood there and watched." She walked over right up into the girl's face and towered over her. "Josh ran away from the fight and I still think he's better than you. You coward."
"Stop fighting," Natalie said from the pavement, having risen to a sitting position. She still looked too weak to move, but she was resting more comfortably leaning against the wolf. "We're all okay."
"Are we?" Rachel asked. "Rika and Hailey are seriously hurt up there, and I think Lily's leg is broken."
"Maybe?" Lily said, gingerly putting weight on it. She let out a yelp of pain and a string of eloquent curses.
"It's a miracle none of us died," Rachel continued, turning back to Grey-eyes. "And we're not even done. Omega's still out there, and it's not like he's just going to drop this crusade. So I think we're owed some explanation here."
"What kind of explanation?" Grey-eyes asked in a whisper. She briefly glanced down at Zack, unconscious at her feet, and Rachel decided that was as good a prompt as any.
"Who is he? Who are you? Where did all of this come from? And how can we stop him?"
Grey-eyes sighed. She looked down at Zack, then back at Rachel. "Not here."
"Yes, here," Rachel snapped. She was tired of the run-around, and she trusted Natalie and Lily implicitly after what they'd been through.
"No. He can't hear this," Grey-eyes looked down again, where Zack lay unconscious a few feet away.
Her voice dropped to a pained whisper. It was so quiet that even with her senses, Rachel nearly missed it. "He's my little brother, and if he's ever going to be safe, he can't know that. Ever."
Rachel looked between the two again, and she could barely see the family resemblance. It was vague, and a brief shift in her vision showed none of the telltale traces of a family connection between the two. Barely a connection at all, in fact. Still, Rachel couldn't see any reason why Grey-eyes would make such a thing up. The shock wore off as she tried to redirect the conversation to more productive territory. "The doctor's dead. What can we do for everyone here?"
"I took some first aid classes," she said awkwardly. "I don't know what else we can do."
"Perhaps I can help?" called a voice. They both turned to see Boris Morozov, approaching with an old wooden rifle under his arm.
"Where have you been?" Grey-eyes cried, rushing to hug him.
He smiled and patted her on the back. "I received full combat medical instruction. I hadn't the necessity to use it in years, thank the Lord, but I believe it should be sufficient."
Boris immediately began directing them to gather everyone up into a back room in his shop — one curiously hidden behind a rotating bookshelf. It was surprisingly well-stocked with medical supplies as well as a good deal many other things, including wireless antennas, recording devices, and other materials and tools Rachel could guess as to their purpose. She suddenly had a much greater understanding of Boris and his presence in the town, but she didn't ask for the time being.
She had someone far more important to interrogate.
"Beverly," the girl answered, still not meeting Rachel's eyes. "But please, don't tell anyone."
"You fancy going by 'Grey-eyes' instead?" Lily asked, propped up against a few pillows. Her leg was in a makeshift splint, and she winced every so often as she tried to get more comfortable.
They were in the room above Boris' shop, with the window covered up by thick curtains. Boris was busy attending to Rika, Hailey and Alden (as Rachel had learned was his real name — a common obsession with secrecy in his family, apparently), and Natalie was resting downstairs. She'd refused to leave her wolf, but it couldn't possibly fit up the stairs, so she'd volunteered to stand watch. Given that she outstripped the rest of them in power by a mile, Rachel didn't feel a need to protest.
"I never liked my name much anyway. None of us did, actually," she added. "Our parents picked really old-fashioned names that sound pretty dumb at school. I mean, 'Alden Bensen the third'? Zack was Zack the second he realized he could be, same with Meg."
"So did you use another name?"
"I think we have more important things to talk about," Rachel interrupted. "Where does magic come from?"
"We don't know," Beverly answered simply.
"We found the book in the boarded-up library one night. I was the first one to read from it, and I was the first one to cast a spell. We were experimenting with it more and more, but then we started disagreeing on what to do next."
"What happened to the book?"
"Jackson tried to destroy it," Beverly said, shuddering. "We tried to stop him, but it just ended up scattering. All the pieces flew out everywhere. We weren't able to save a single page."
"So that's where the Scraps came from."
She nodded. "And because they're broken and destroyed, you can't actually awaken from them. I have to read you the rest or you'd be stuck in limbo and your body would die."
"But you didn't. Is that why you're so much more powerful than us?"
"I guess? I don't know how everything works exactly. I'm making a lot up as I go too." She looked around nervously, and Rachel noticed the pictures on above the desk, showing Hailey Winscombe and her together.
"Hailey doesn't remember anything about you, and neither does your brother. How?"
"I… I had to protect them," she said, and tears sprung to her eyes. "Jackson and… Alpha—" she paused. "I hate to use that name, but it's his business if he wants to tell you who he is."
"Fine." Rachel was frustrated that Beverly was already holding back information, but the girl was still leagues more powerful than them. A few concessions could be made if it made her more comfortable answering their other, more important questions.
"When they started getting really bad. They started threatening each other with real violence. I just wanted to protect magic, and Alpha wanted to let it grow and spread. Jackson thinks that'll be the end of the world. He wants to stop it before it spreads, but he knows he can't take us both on. So he threatened our families. Our loved ones. It scared us so much that Alpha went berserk, and I think you know the rest of that story."
"Yes. But still, how did this happen?" Rachel asked, gesturing at the photos.
"I… do you know about relationship and emotional magic?"
"You mean the connections between people?"
"Yes. If you put a lot of energy into it, you can do more than just see them. You can affect them. I don't mean like, change them or force one into existence, but you can block them. Break them, even."
"And you… oh," Rachel trailed off, the horror of what Beverly had done hitting her tenfold.
"What did you do?" Lily asked, not keeping up. She had no knowledge of the type of magic they were referring to.
"I moved all of my things out, everything I could find. I teleported it all here, to the only friend I had who was totally separated from my life. I spent so much time reading here before I met Hailey. Boris was nice enough to let me stay. Then I broke all the connections, so that Jackson couldn't follow them. If he ever looked at me, he'd never know who was close to me. I couldn't break his knowledge of me, or Alpha's, but I could stop them from ever finding my family."
"But when you broke them…" Rachel prompted.
"It's like I was never born. Zack has no idea who I am, Meg never had an older sister, and my parents think they only have one daughter." Beverly's eyes welled up, but she dabbed them quickly and moved on. "They're safe now. Alpha and Jackson can never find them."
"Alpha too?" Rachel asked, feeling another chill on her spine.
"He threatened me too, when I wouldn't take his side either. I don't want magic to die, but I don't think we can just let it run wild either. But Alpha can never do anything to me personally, because if I don't teleport to people trying to awaken, no one else can do it."
"So you're stuck between both of them."
"You're lucky enough to actually have a family," Lily said, and Rachel was surprised to hear the level of cold hostility in her voice. It was so unusual to see any significant emotion from Kendra, and Rachel had to remind herself yet again that it wasn't the same person. "How could you?"
"I didn't want to do it," Beverly said, looking away in shame.
"It's done," Rachel interjected. "What matters is what we do next." She was as appalled as Lily about the whole situation, particularly given her own spotty history with memory, but they had bigger priorities. "Will you help us?"
"I don't really fight. I mean, I can, but I just—"
"So tell us. How can we beat him?"
She shook her head. "I can't tell you how."
Rachel was immediately suspicious. She'd gotten pretty good at reading people over the past year, particularly with her enhanced attention to detail, and she could tell Beverly was holding back something significant. "You mean you won't tell us."
"Sure, I guess. I won't get in your way, but I won't help you hurt him."
"After everything he's done?" Lily asked in exasperation. "He's murdered people!"
"He had his reasons!" Beverly cried. "They weren't good ones, but he's a good person."
"There's no good excuse for murder!"
"Self-defense," Rachel said calmly. "We want to kill him, after all." The room was deadly silent at her words. Rachel had spoken perhaps a bit too coldly, with how Lily refused to look her in the eye and Beverly was on the defensive. It was the truth, there's no use beating around the bush anymore. People are dying. The poor reverend Smith's face flashed in her mind once again, steeling her resolve.
Rachel needed an advantage over the god currently sitting a few feet from her. Magically, even physically, Rachel was powerless against her. Rachel had to resort to other means, as much as it tore at her soul. She felt physically sick as she began speaking again. She had to force the words through her teeth though she hated every syllable. "Beverly, I understand what you've done, and I'm sorry for doing this, but I can't just let you leave without helping us."
"You can't stop me," Beverly replied, but she looked nervous. The feeling was mutual. Rachel was about to make a wager that could cost her everything — but she knew Grey-eyes by now. The girl wouldn't lift a finger to stop her. She played her card.
"I can't, but I can tell Alden who you are, and who he really is."
Beverly's eyes narrowed into needlepoints. A fire blazed into life behind the soft grey orbs that Rachel had once followed out of the deep black limbo of awakening. She'd once saved Rachel's life, freely and without asking anything in return. Rachel hated what she was doing to the girl.
"You're sick," Beverly murmured. Even Lily looked shocked, but she held her tongue. Rachel silently thanked her for her trust in that critical moment.
"Even if we defeat Omega, with or without your help, there will be others. The ability to trace connections isn't limited to those of you with real power. I'm practically worthless with magic, and even I can do it. If he ever learns who you are, and who he is, that connection will start to grow again. It's family. Even if Alden never sees you again, he'll still feel it." Rachel paused. "If I tell him, he'll be in danger forever, unless you decide to break him again. Break everything again. And I'm guessing that can't be done so easily, or you'd have done it to the rest of us to keep all this secret."
Beverly's face contorted into new expressions of loathing and hatred. "You're a disgusting human being, Rachel."
I am. But I'm doing what's best for all of us. "You're going to help us figure out how to kill Omega. After that, I don't care what you do, so long as you continue to help people awaken. I won't even force you to only awaken people we approve."
"You're so generous," she spat. Every syllable was soaked in contempt.
"You sent me after him."
She looked away. "I hoped you'd come up with a real solution."
Rachel felt a deep disappointment threaten to overwhelm her. She turned away, refocusing her mind. "Lily, you have the same contact lists as Kendra, right?"
"Yes," Lily answered, refusing to meet Rachel's gaze.
"I need you to call everyone together. The Summit and the important Council members. We've got some time while Omega's still in retreat. It's time for a war room."
Lily nodded and pulled out her phone from her bag. Her eyes widened at the screen.
"Oh God," she murmured. "Rachel, you have to get out there." She turned the phone around and showed a video.
It was dark and indistinct, taken by hand from someone in the midst of a crowd. There was a lot of shouting and running, while the vague shapes of trees passed by overhead. After a few moments, brilliant light suddenly burst into the frame, and the clearing was visible.
Rachel saw Robert Harrison putting his fist into the face of Morton Pollock and sending him crashing to the ground. A second later, a jet of water flooded into the frame and sent him sprawling. The camera turned to catch a robed Cinza, her arms outstretched and balls of fire licking from her palms. She began hurling them into the crowd with fury and abandon. Whomever was filming beat a hasty retreat, but still managed to catch Cinza ducking behind a tree.
A gunshot rang out, blotting out the tiny phone speakers for a moment. Splinters burst off the trunk, but Cinza seemed to be okay. Another ball of fire was hurled out indiscriminately, and the cameraman turned and fled once more.
"Where did you find this?" Rachel asked.
"It's streaming live online. Kenni sent it to me and Will. I don't think it has any viewers, but—"
"—but that's the end of things either way." Rachel let out a deep breath. It was only a matter of time before the hordes descended on Rallsburg. They needed to stop Omega now if they were to have any hope of dealing with the world at large. The rioters attacking Cinza were the first of many, if Rachel's fears proved true.
"I'm going out there," Rachel announced, heading for the door. She stopped and shot Beverly a dark look. "Those people believe in you as a god. They trust you more than anyone else. Are you going to let them hang out to dry?"
She didn't wait for a response. She'd already been so disappointed by the girl with the grey eyes that she didn't expect one. Rachel would have to take care of it. She was going to save the world herself, because the gods of their world clearly couldn't handle it.
Natalie hopped up on Gwen's back as Rachel approached the door. "Are you going out to find him again?" she asked. She still looked exhausted, but determined to power through nonetheless.
"No, Natalie. I have to go stop people fighting before they tear the town apart."
"Oh." She looked confused. "I don't know how to do that."
Rachel sighed. "I don't really know either, but I'm willing to try. Are you coming with me?"
She nodded. "You're gonna help me find the bad guy and my dad, right?"
"If I can."
"Thanks for not lying to me this time."
Rachel shrugged. "I never lied to you."
"That's what all grown-ups say when they pretend they aren't lying. They act like they know everything but they're just making it up as they go, aren't they?"
Natalie frowned. "Don't lie to me and I'll help you. Okay?"
Rachel skimmed through all the lies she was currently maintaining in her head. She'd lied to the council about the Creation scrap, she'd lied to the Summit about awakenings and about how powerful Omega really was. She'd lied to Will about working with Cinza, and she'd lied to Cinza about supporting her when the town came for her. She was promising to lie to Alden in exchange for keeping Beverly in check and under her thumb. Rachel had built up so many lies she was beginning to lose track of them.
This was just another lie. Natalie couldn't know what her father had done. It would break her at a time Rachel needed her most. Rachel would keep her in the dark along with all the others. Rachel would hold onto the secret so that Natalie wouldn't have to, so that she could be spared the horrors of her father's deeds a little bit longer. It was for her own good, and for the good of the town and their entire world.
"Okay," she answered, without a moment's hesitation. Rachel strode out of the building and onto the street. Behind her, a low, nearly imperceptible thumping of paws on pavement told her Natalie was with her.
In the distance, the forest was lit up with an angry pulsing glow. Smoke and fire were spreading out into the hills, flames threatening to surround and consume them all.