Chapter 2 — Rachel DuValle
“It ain’t right.”
“Might be, might not, but did you really need to come after the kid?” the sheriff’s deputy asked. He was still seated, despite the two angry men with narrowed eye locked to narrowed eye across the thick wood table.
“This idiot is stealin’ my living. Don’t I got a right to defend myself?” growled Robert, the elder of the two. He was a grizzled old logger-turned-hunter with a beard as thick as the muscles bulging on his forearms.
“I didn’t take a single step on your land,” Nate retorted, his voice rising to match Robert’s in volume – though rather less intimidating. “I caught the buck myself. Public property, fair and square.”
“Bullshit. I had cameras, kid.”
Rachel began to take an interest in the conversation. If Robert truly had captured something of note — something that potentially expose them — she might need to act quickly. She sat up and set aside the book she’d been reading under the table. Her new study of ancient Egyptian culture would have to wait, despite its potential to illuminate a few mysteries surrounding her. She had to make sure the town of Rallsburg didn’t slide into chaos first, as usual.
“Cameras showing what, exactly?” Deputy Bowman chimed in, trying to maintain some semblance of control. They were in a small room at the town hall set aside for meetings and disputes such as these. A few hand-carved chairs and an elegant table, with hand-carved and detailed frames adorning donated paintings of the vast forests surrounding the town hanging on each wall. The lumber for which was probably felled by the rough and tumble Robert, determined to bring low the heir to the Price Logging Company fortune, Rachel mused. This isn’t neutral ground in the slightest when Robert Harrison is surrounded by the labors of the men he represents.
“Showin’ this brat decided he’d come on my land, steal my game and rub it in my face,” Robert replied with satisfaction. He took his seat and opened the laptop he’d brought with him and opened a video file. Rachel leaned in close to watch, while her hand snaked its way into the bag at her side. Just in case, she reminded herself, though the trepidation churning in her stomach was quite at odds with the calm expression she held affixed to her face.
The video was choppy and brief — taken with whatever camera Robert could get his hands on in short notice, no doubt — but Nate’s distinct mop of floppy blonde hair was clearly visible. He stood near the edge of Robert’s land. As he’d claimed, he never took a step even close to the fence marking the boundary. Instead, he looked directly at the camera and gave a small wave. Rachel barely suppressed a laugh at the dumb look plastered on his face. Concerned as she might be, Rachel usually enjoyed Nate’s genial attitude and his way of getting any particular class (professor included) to burst out in laughter at the drop of a hat. Her brief moment of levity was tempered by the potential danger they still faced in this room. Nate Price wasn’t an idiot by any stretch, but he wasn’t the quickest to grasp the far-reaching consequences of his actions.
She clenched her fist tight under the table, fearing the worst. On the screen, Nate turned to face the fence and raised a hand, palm upward. With one small gesture he beckoned to something off camera.
A few moments later, two huge bucks burst out of the trees and cleared the fence with easy leaps, passing by Nate on either side. Nate gave another lopsided grin to the camera and a solemn bow before vanishing off-camera with the two deer.
As the video seemed to be over, Rachel felt the weight lift from her chest. Blood flow returned to her fist. This I can deal with. She surreptitiously withdrew her phone and dashed off a quick text message. As they met eyes, Robert seemed flush with victory.
She raised an eyebrow. “Was that it?”
“He stole my deer!”
“It looks to me like he just made a few friends.”
“Cut the crap, Preston. Why is she here anyway? Did you need a cheerleader or somethin’?” Robert shot at the deputy.
Preston shrugged. “It’s public property and the door’s open. No reason she can’t be here.” In truth Deputy Bowman had invited her personally, but they didn’t see any need to let Robert know that.
“On that note,” Rachel added, “Nate was clearly also on public property in your video, and never approached your fence. I’m not sure I’m seeing a problem.”
“Kid did something to steal my deer out.”
“How?” she asked simply.
“I don’t know, a lure or something. Bait. Pheromones. Take your pick.”
“Have you ever heard of a lure that can get deer to run directly at you?” Rachel asked the deputy. He shook his head.
“Lure ’em to a spot, sure, but no way are they getting that close to you without getting spooked.”
“They’re still mine,” Robert growled. The irascible old hunter wasn’t to be cut out of the conversation just yet. “On my property and he went for ’em.”
“Actually, it’s illegal to own deer under WAC 232-12-007, as you should know. Regardless of whose property they’re on, the animals are considered wild and not owned by anyone if they’re still alive,” Rachel rattled off, dredging up the particular statute from her memory as easily as her own birthday. Both Nate and Robert’s mouths fell open. Rachel smiled. Even months after she’d started taking full advantage of her new abilities, there were still many who only remembered the air-headed blonde of her former life. To hear her citing Washington state code perfectly by memory was shocking to say the least.
Deputy Bowman nodded, suppressing a grin. This was the reason he’d invited her. Having memorized the entire state lawbook and every relevant case, Rachel was invaluable in settling disputes with the rule of law unquestionably. Despite being a third party, her new disquieting nature was effective in quelling potential brawls before they could spiral out of hand — commonplace where the remaining displaced loggers of the town were concerned.
“As for how Nate managed the trick, I think you’ll find that if you examine your computer, you’ll see the footage was modified at some point,” she added, trying not to sound too smug. “It looked to me like Nate combined two shots and composited himself into the picture at the time those deer leapt the fence. The mirage was entirely technical.”
“Bullshit!” Robert shouted, rising to his feet. Rachel had begun a mental count the moment she’d sent the text message. She only needed a couple minutes for Will to work his magic. “I’m not going to sit here and be lectured by a girl who can’t find her own apartment every other day.”
Rachel seethed, but projected calm and authority as best she could manage. “The deer left on their own. I’m sure a hunter of your skill and experience is familiar enough with how they tend to move through their habitat. The last one shouldn’t be too difficult to track down again.”
Robert was taken aback at the compliment, and seemed undecided on whether or not it had been sarcastic. Rachel, of course, meant every word — though she wasn’t particularly inclined to be nice to the man. She wanted more than anything to be done with the whole affair so she could get back to more important matters.
“Not until he explains how he got them to leave in the first place,” Robert growled.
“He doesn’t have to do that—” the deputy began, but Rachel interrupted as her phone buzzed silently against her leg, her signal to speak up again.
“I think we can settle this more easily. May I see your laptop, Mr. Harrison?”
Once again he seemed taken aback, this time by her polite address. Perhaps intrigued by how different she seemed compared to his memory of her, Robert handed over the laptop without complaint. In full view of everyone to prevent any accusations of foul play, Rachel scrolled through and found the video they’d just watched.
“If I may?” Rachel asked, the cursor hovering over the ‘Restore Previous Versions’ button. She prayed Will had been able to spoof it fast enough.
“Get on with it,” Robert said impatiently. Nate looked worried, which Rachel noted with satisfaction. She was glad he still had enough wits about him to fear what might happen, even if he wasn’t going to find out today.
The video came up again, and sure enough, there was Nate once more. He went through the same motions, mugging for the camera as only a spoiled rich kid could. There was the gesture into the woods — and for the briefest moment Rachel saw that the lighting on the ground wasn’t quite right, but it corrected itself a frame later. She doubted that anyone else could have noticed the change, but she resolved to bring it up with Will nonetheless. As she’d expected, there suddenly were no deer to be found. The Nate in the video left as he did before, this time without any companionship, and the video came to an end.
Robert was staring at it with a stupefied expression. “Can’t be right. The deer are gone. That was faked.”
It was, but not in the way you’re thinking, Rachel mused. She once again marveled at Will’s breadth of abilities with a computer. He was the type to dabble in everything, and as such was remarkably resourceful in a pinch — which she found she needed more and more every passing week. Nate was starting to look a bit too pleased that he was about to get off without so much as a warning. Rachel decided that Robert needed a bit of placation to help balance the scales. He was still an important figure as the head of the loggers union as well as one of the more influential men of the town, and she could use more voices amenable to her.
“That said, I think the Deputy would agree that Nate here is still in violation of WAC 232-12-055.2,” Rachel continued, swivelling to lock a withering glare on Nate. He shrank from her gaze, which was gratifying in its own right.
“Which is?” Robert asked after a pause.
“Failure to wear orange in a hunting zone,” Rachel said simply, getting to her feet and hoisting her bag over her shoulder. “Deputy, I think a citation would be appropriate.” After a moment’s stunned silence, Deputy Bowman nodded, the barest hint of a smile creasing his lips. Rachel strode from the room, ducking through the doorway, reasonably pleased with how the day had begun.
Of course, she had scarcely a few minutes to enjoy the sunlight before Nate’s voice was following her down the front steps of the town hall.
“Why’d you do that?” Nate whined. Rachel sighed, not turning to meet him. No matter what, his voice always seemed to be whining a little to Rachel. It made him exhausting to talk to, as if everything was a bother to him in life. Sometimes it made for great comedy, but lately it simply meant an endless parade of headaches. Today, her frustration reached a limit.
As they rounded the corner, Rachel spun suddenly, catching him off guard. She pushed him up against the wall, which wasn’t too difficult given the several inches she had over him and his skinny frame. Rachel sometimes enjoyed being so tall, not least because it helped her be intimidating when she needed to be.
“Because you need to take this seriously, Nate,” she stated firmly. Nate shrank against the wall. “It’s a new world. We’re all in this together, but I’m not always going to be there to bail you out.”
Luckily, Rachel was spared the questions of how she’d managed to modify the video in the scant few minutes of conversation. Instead, Nate seemed to actually be grateful, which was a welcome to surprise to Rachel. “Thanks, Rachel,” he said quietly. “Won’t happen again.”
Rachel released him. She cocked her head to the side, deciding to toss him a bone as well and let him save some face. Nate would welcome the chance to brag, especially since he couldn’t cast spells himself. “How’d you do it anyway, without magic? Did someone mask your scent somehow?”
Nate shook his head. “Wasn’t my idea. Natalie spoke to them. She wanted them to be free.”
Rachel sighed. “That girl is going to be the death of me.” Her watched beeped, prompting her for breakfast moments before her stomach growled. “See you around, Nate.” With a parting wave, she hurried home where Will would be anxiously awaiting her.
It was a bright cheerful morning in April, a few weeks later, and Rachel DuValle was late for class.
To some this may have been of little consequence, but for a responsible adult like Rachel — with goals and ambitions far exceeding her humble upbringing — it was a calamitous event. Rachel was never late to class. She took great pride in it. In the twenty-two years she’d been alive, she’d never once been more than one minute late to any obligations. Then again, in those same twenty-two years, Rachel had never once dealt with a problem quite like this one.
“How on earth did you even manage this?” she asked exasperatedly.
“Look, just help me down, all right?” Will shot back grumpily.
Rachel sighed. “Who did you piss off?” She pulled at one rope experimentally. It was perfectly taut, not a millimeter of slack remaining. As she touched one strand it shook slightly, sending Will wobbling right along with it. He groaned from the movement as it sent him bouncing dizzily through the air.
William Carbonell, age twenty-three and the former technology guru of Rallsburg State University, presently suspended by a tight web of ropes and sheets some five feet in the air above the small living room. She plucked experimentally at a rope, which was taut and strong holding up Will’s six foot stocky frame. With his muscles and well-chiseled face, he could be one of the most handsome guys on campus — if only he would get rid of the shoulder-length hair and stubble. He looked like he was just coming home from a headbanger concert every time she saw him.
Rachel glanced around her apartment, looking for anything that might get him down easily. Neatly stacked books and papers, several laptops, and a large whiteboard with long lists of names and hierarchies, but nothing that seemed remotely helpful. Rachel went into the kitchen and retrieved a serrated knife just as Will finally mumbled a name.
“Again, with feeling.”
“It was Viper, okay?”
Rachel stopped short of cutting the nearest strand of rope and gave him a stern look. “You invited that psycho into our apartment?”
“Hell no!” Will snapped. “But he’s not really the kind of guy you can just say no to.”
“I do all the time,” Rachel folded her arms, frowning.
Will shook his head. “You’re much braver than me, honey. Now can you get me down please?”
“What did he want?”
“Wanted to know if we knew anything about his stuff being stolen. Only got him to leave when I convinced him you wouldn’t be home for hours.”
Rachel shook her head, exasperated, but began to saw at the rope with the scissors all the same. It was tough, military-grade stuff — unsurprising given the culprit. As she finally worked through the first few strands, Will began to rise higher toward the ceiling. He let out a yelp of pain.
Fear pulsed through her entire body, as panicked visions of her beloved’s body twisting all out of proportion from the ropes surged through her mind. She stopped dead, not daring to move the blade another inch.
“Rope’s twisting at my leg. You cutting it just made it worse.” He looked down at it, face creased in fear.
“How about I call an expert?” Rachel pulled out her phone and started dialing.
“Are you calling Mason? Please don’t say you’re calling Mason.”
“You got a better idea?” Rachel pointed out, now with a ringing phone in her ear. Will groaned. She held the phone to her ear with her shoulder, grasping Will’s hand with her own tightly. He took hold gratefully. “Don’t worry, Will. Mason’ll have you out of there in no time at all,” she said comfortingly, as the phone in her ear clicked on.
“Rachel?” Quick and reliable to answer as usual, but Mason Rhistler always started a conversation with the other person’s name. Never a ‘hello’ or a ‘good morning.’ Rachel often wondered what that was about. It sometimes felt like he had to remind himself who he was speaking with. She was surrounded by odd characters more and more every passing day.
“Shouldn’t you be heading to class?” She grimaced at the reminder. Mason was the sort of person who always had his act together. As the nephew to the mayor, he seemed to believe he was partly responsible for each and every citizen of the town. Nowadays, she was as well-organized and on top of things as anyone, but the dry tone of his voice made it clear she’d never quite get her old reputation behind her. Not in front of her close friends, at least.
Rachel didn’t need them to see her differently though. She had the entire world waiting for her to build up her new image, well beyond the student population of a tiny liberal arts college sequestered in the forests of western Washington.
“It’s been a weird morning, okay? Look, we need your help.”
“Look, just come over to my apartment. Will got himself… stuck, and I’m having trouble getting him free.”
“O…kay,” Mason said slowly, clearly wondering if she’d gone off the deep end. “Did you forget how to unlock the bathroom door again?”
“No, it’s not that,” Rachel snapped, her cheeks flaring up at the memory. “You’ll understand when you get here. The key will be in the gutter above the door. I’ve gotta run.”
“And Mason? Come alone, please.”
“Whatever you say, Rach.” She winced. Rachel had always hated people shortening her name. Mason was doing it deliberately to mess with her, no doubt.
“Thanks.” She hung up the phone, then glanced back at Will. He looked miserable, but otherwise okay. “Can I get you anything?”
“Nah.” He tried to adjust his position a little in the web of ropes, to make himself more comfortable, but it didn’t look like it helped much. He hung his head in disappointment, before forcing a smile onto his face. “Have a good day in class. I’ll be fine.”
Rachel could tell he was still upset, but it seemed like it was about more than just his current predicament. Will was the sort of guy that would keep everything internal as long as he could, even around her. She knew that pressing him on it would only make him feel more uncomfortable. Will would tell her when he was ready. She could wait.
Rachel went back into the kitchen and put the scissors away, grabbing the step stool as she went. She took it into the middle of the living room and climbed atop it. Will’s face was pinched with disappointment, and just a twinge of fear, though Rachel could tell it wasn’t directed at herself. He dragged back his fake smile once again, trying to reassure her before she left for the day.
“Have a good day. I love you,” he said, and despite the situation and the many huge weights crushing down on both of their minds in that moment, it was still enough to send her heart fluttering. She looked back into his friendly brown eyes that always made her feel safe and comforted and smiled. Rachel leaned forward and gave him a kiss.
“I love you too.” She could feel him squirm just a little, though his current restraints prevented anything else. She climbed back down, grabbing her bag of books and papers, and fastening the little pouch of other materials to her waist. “Text me when you can, okay?”
Rachel closed the front door and locked it behind her, then took out her spare key and set it on the railing of the second story walkway of the apartment complex. She focused on it as best she could, though she’d always been awful at this sort of thing. Her hand contorted slightly at the effort, as she felt the energy flooding down to her fingertips. It was like a rush of blood, but deeper in the core of her body — a gust of wind that moved inside her skin. With a quick flick of the wrist, she sent the key fluttering upward.
She couldn’t sustain it. The key wasn’t hovering or flying in any sense. It was as if she’d thrown it. She winced, frantically refocusing on the little dot of reflected light in the morning sun, and flicked at it again. It abruptly changed directions in mid-air, flinging itself back toward the roof above the walkway. She heard it clatter satisfyingly into the gutter.
Rachel let out a small gasp of exertion as she released the mental energy she’d gathered back into her body. It had only taken two movements, awkward and exhausting as they might have been. She congratulated herself. Rachel had done far worse in the past. Maybe she was getting better.
A glance at the clock above the sign for Hendricks Apartments down in the parking lot was enough to dismiss the thought and send her scurrying down the stairs and onto the road. If she hurried, she might still make it to class on time.
Rallsburg, Washington — a town that would normally fade utterly into obscurity — existed primarily to serve the students and faculty of Rallsburg State University. Nestled at the southern edge of the Olympic National Forest in the foothills, it originally stood as a logging town and a railway stop between Tacoma and the Pacific coastline, but when the state decided to sponsor a new college campus, it became prime cheap real estate. The school was established, new housing built, and new residents surged into the town.
It took a great deal of time before the well-entrenched locals came to accept the newcomers that plagued their once simple town, but as more new businesses sprang up and the town became a hotbed of economic growth, even the most stubborn homeowner came to see the benefits the new school brought. They resisted, but no trouble had ever come from the new university, and so their fears went unfounded for years. By the time the school reached its first decade of operation, Rallsburg as a whole came together to celebrate its anniversary, without a single harsh word to be found in the entire township.
However, as the years went by and the excitement faded, coupled with the lack of any real achievement by way of the school, the town grew quiet and lonely once again. Businesses closed up shop. A new, more direct train route was opened to the coast. The college saw decreasing attendance year after year until it shrank to the low hundreds. The state program was already considering closing it for good. Rallsburg was finally accepting its fate.
In its fifty-second year of education, the college and the town both would be rocked to their core, but for now the students of the university had nothing more to concern themselves with than the upcoming finals week and the never-ending tangled web of relationships and stories that made up a typical college life, albeit in small scale. If Rachel had her way, the transition would be as smooth and painless as possible.
As she walked (having given up sprinting after she realized she was still perfectly capable to getting to the campus on time at a pace that didn’t startle every living creature she passed), Rachel was sure to greet everyone she passed by. She knew nearly every resident of the town by name and face, and those she didn’t were sure to get a friendly introduction. Rachel was the type to network everywhere she went to a fault. No matter what context, she was always building up her relationships, forming new connections, and finding new friendships.
Her tactics were learned from a certain socialite on campus whom she was passing that very moment. Hailey Winscombe, formerly the queen of town, the one whom everyone knew and knew everyone in return. Hailey had been Rachel’s inspiration, a queen spider at the center of a vast web, though she was sure that Hailey didn’t see it that way. The girl was one of the most genuine and authentic people Rachel had ever met, and that threw most people off guard long enough for her to make friends.
Yet something had changed. Hailey had become withdrawn and distant over the last year. Rachel had seen her opportunity and struck for it, becoming the new town gossip, the go-to friend for student and townie alike. A cynical observer might have called it manipulative, the level to which she tried to build her status amongst the social structure in the vacuum left in Hailey’s wake, but Rachel didn’t think of it that way. She wanted to meet everyone, to know their stories and their fears. Eventually, she felt she could see how it all knitted together, so that she could repair the frayed edges and keep the town whole and happy.
So she told herself, anyway. At some deeper level of her mind, Rachel’s nagging conscience reminded her that she was doing it all for personal gain to some degree, and maybe she was. But if she did good by most of the people she met, did her motivations matter?
Rachel tried to help whenever she was able, and indeed many of the town often approached her as a sort of mediator. If there was a conflict between the old hunter out by the woods and the construction crew working on resurfacing a road near town, they called on Rachel to talk the man down from his guns. When a couple of college kids started skipping out on their rent, the landlord went to Rachel, and she in turn persuaded the pair to pay in full without incident. Even the sheriff of the town – a harsh grumbling woman by the name of Jackie Nossinger – was quick to enlist Rachel’s help when there was any sort of trouble that might be solved by diplomacy rather than violence.
After all, Rachel never forgot anything, or anyone. Her memory was absolutely flawless, and her composure rarely wavered.
This was in stark contrast to the image the students and faculty of Rallsburg University held of Rachel DuValle only a year prior. Rachel had formerly been something of a ditzy, stereotypical blonde — but without the looks or even the blonde hair. She’d often lose track of assignments, to the point of pulling over-nighters redoing them from scratch to get them in on time. The comment from Mason earlier about the bathroom door still grated at her mind, hours later as she sat idle in class. Her door was a tricky thing, always in disrepair and with a fiddly lock that required you to practically pick it open every time with a clothespin. She’d asked Brian, her landlord, to repair it many times over, but he’d always given some excuse or other. So she’d have to ask Mason, one of her closest friends, or Will, the only two human beings she could bear to be so embarrassed in front of.
She’d frequently forget birthdays, was terrible with faces, and had a knack for losing every important paper she wrote for days at a time before miraculously recovering them at the last moment. Rachel hated all these things about herself, but try as she might, she’d never managed to improve on it. The only thing she managed was to be on time for everything, even if she had to show up without half of her work. Her life had been a never-ending parade of stress and panic until the last year.
It had fluttered onto her balcony one day, practically shoving itself into her hand by the bluster of the wind. She’d read from it, she’d understood its secrets, and from that day forward she’d found purpose, a new drive to push her forward. Her old plans were quickly forgotten, vague dreams of possible careers dashed to the wind. Rachel had always been the sort of die-hard ‘save the world’ type, but she’d never had a clear idea of how to go about doing it. As the years rolled by and the world seemed to get worse and worse, she’d begun to despair that she’d never be able to amount any real change.
So when literal magic dropped into her lap, she didn’t think twice before taking the plunge.
The lecture she was currently sitting through was exceedingly dull, to say the least, but still Rachel was catching every word, almost effortlessly, even as she had a document open on her laptop, writing a paper for another class entirely. It was just how her mind worked now, this sort of hyper-efficient multitasking, and it was all due to the ritual she’d enacted.
In hindsight, what she’d attempted was probably reckless and dangerous to untold degrees, but she was too excited and hopeful to pass up the chance. When she’d later told Will (in strictest confidence) what she’d done, he’d been shocked and terrified for her well-being, both physically and mentally. With the fireworks he’d witnessed, she didn’t blame him for being worried.
They’d only just discovered magic maybe six months prior in February, and Rachel felt more than ready to take things up a notch. As far as Rachel knew, herself along with Mason, Rika, Ryan and a few others, were the first in history to ever cast any sort of spell or ritual besides the Three Gods. She’d spent a few weekends delving into every history book she could get her hands on dealing with the occult or spellcasting, and none of them seemed connected to what they’d discovered, nor did the Gods offer up any suggestions about where magic had come from (though Rachel secretly suspected they knew). Nor did the Internet, as she spent yet another weekend searching every website, every obscure forum, every social network she could find her way into for similar experiences to theirs. Magic was real, and had apparently popped into existence only a year ago, in a small college town in the middle of the forest in Washington, and no one knew about it.
They’d taken to it voraciously and experimented with it. Everyone in their original group was eager to try out new ideas, come up with new and exciting variations on the simple spells and rituals they’d already learned. So it was that Rachel DuValle was possibly the first ever to attempt a ritual on her own mind, on a windy afternoon in September. It was dangerous and unprecedented, something she certainly might not have walked away from.
Rachel had shuttered herself in her bedroom, the door locked and wedged shut, with towels and blankets pressed against the edges of the frame. The curtains to her bedroom window, overlooking the steep hill and thick forest behind the apartment complex, were drawn tightly closed, and a second pair of heavy blackout curtains were carefully wrapped around those, with a layer of duct tape holding them against the wall to shut out every tiny piece of light. Her bed was pushed into the corner of the room, leaving a wide space devoid of anything and everything she could remove.
There was still a layer of carpet, of course, but she could only do so much to remove potentially influencing objects before she started making permanent changes and breaking her lease. Rachel still needed a roof above her head — at least for the moment.
Before plunging her room into total darkness, she’d laid out chalk in a diagram described in the page, grinding it into powder and sprinkling it in the circles and patterns she’d seen in her mind. At eight different points around the circle, she placed a tiny amethyst crystal, set in a small tealight holder to keep it standing and pointed upward. She’d spent hours carving them to perfect points that would sit neatly in the circle. Finally, to complete the simple design, she needed to place the object she was enhancing in the center of the circle. Which, in this case, was her own brain.
Rachel pulled off her clothes nervously and set them neatly against the wall. She wasn’t sure how much of an effect they might have on the ritual, and she wasn’t about to find out. It was already clear to her that other objects crossing the line of chalk while the ritual was in progress could send the entire delicate process tumbling into something… undesirable. She wanted to be as careful as she could, given that she had nothing to help her. There were no guides to find on the internet, no research papers or books she might consult. It occurred to Rachel she was a pioneer, exploring things no one had ever thought might be possible. It was exhilarating. She carefully removed her small earrings and set them atop her clothes. Fully nude — not a single errant object between her body and the environment — Rachel turned to face the chalk circle, finally closing the door and plunging the room into total darkness.
Gingerly, excitedly, Rachel stepped into the circle. She’d expected something more dramatic to occur, but nothing happened. All she felt was the shivers running up her legs and her spine, a perfectly normal reaction to the cold air hanging around her skin and the abject fear slowly seeping into her bones. Was she about to do something she would regret for the rest of her life?
Rachel dismissed the doubt. She wasn’t one to hesitate in the face of discovery. She might be forgetful sometimes, but she was driven by curiosity and a passion for knowledge nonetheless. Her next step, taking her to the exact center of the circle (if her practice runs were accurate), was far more assured. With apprehension mounting in her chest, Rachel sat down cross-legged, shut her eyes tight, and set her fingers to her temples. With every ounce of effort she could muster, Rachel tried to draw at the energy of the crystals around her, mentally pushing at them in the way the page had described.
At first, nothing happened. She began to fear she’d gotten something wrong, and let her eyelids slide open. Of course, in the pitch black this did nothing whatsoever, and in fact she couldn’t tell she’d even opened them again except for the slight air current that tickled her eyelashes. Then, as she blinked once more, faint hazy lines simply appeared in the air, like strings stretched out into the black void. They were like insubstantial lines of fog, a plain gray color that she could easily have missed had there been even a speck of light in the room. The lines formed a simple web, starting at the tip of each crystal and arcing lazily up to reach her body, where they crossed inside to presumably meet somewhere inside her brain. As Rachel turned her head to look at them, they seemed to drift along with her, like they were attached to a particular point inside her skull. She raised a hand to touch one, but it simply passed through without note, as if the cloudy lines weren’t there at all.
Stupid, she berated herself. It’s attached to your mind; of course your hand’s not going to do anything. Instead, Rachel attempted to project her will mentally, drawing at the lines hanging in the air. It was a strange process, feeling a piece of what she felt was her being — her soul, perhaps, if she believed in such a thing — leaving her body to grasp at something external. She felt disembodied in the literal sense of the word, as if her eyes were suddenly a camera now observing herself from a distance, even as her view didn’t move in the slightest. As she watched, the foggy connections began to flow toward her, lines of small clouds rushing inward to her brain.
Rachel could feel the changes already beginning. Her memories felt clear and crisp, and the blood rushing through her skull seemed to accelerate even as it grew quieter. She felt like she could concentrate more easily, absorb her surroundings more quickly. Where once she had trouble paying attention to one person at a time, Rachel knew intuitively she could now focus on any number of things happening around her with ease.
She rose to her feet like a coiled spring, even as the streams of energy continued to rush into her. There were so many things she could be doing now. Her mind felt awake and potent, as if she’d been sleepwalking through her life until now. She wanted to start catching up on all the wasted time right away. Impatience got the better of her, and Rachel took a step toward the edge of the circle.
Immediately, the cloudy lines broke, and a whistling sound echoed through the room, like wind rushing through a field of bones. As the only faint source of light, their disappearance plunged her room back into total darkness. Rachel trembled, quickly taking a step back to her spot, but the whistling only grew louder. Then, a piercing whip crack, followed by the ringing sound of glass striking glass. As another crack sounded, she felt something slash through her calf, igniting sharp pain across her entire leg. She stumbled, and her hand felt the drip of blood on her leg.
As the third crack sounded, Rachel leapt for the door. She slapped the light switch just as a shard of crystal embedded itself into the wall near her torso. Rachel watched in horror as the fourth gemstone exploded, sending the little metal candleholder flying as shards ricocheted in every direction. She tore the door open, pushing aside the makeshift barrier, and flung herself out into the hallway and the waiting arms of Will, who’d been rushing to investigate.
Four more explosions followed, as loud as gunshots. She trembled in the hallway, while a confused and horrified Will held the wound on her leg closed. As the last one subsided, her ears still ringing, Rachel finally looked back at the closed door. A putrid scent of smoke and burning hair ebbed from the gap under the wood. She pushed the door open, heedless of Will’s protests, and saw the floor littered with shattered purple crystals.
Despite the carnage, despite her bleeding leg and torn pile of clothes littering the corners of the room, ripped curtains on the walls and fragments embedded in the walls, a tiny smile formed on Rachel’s lips. It had worked, even with the dramatic and unexpected ending. Every new memory was like an open book. Even old memories were suddenly frozen, perfectly vivid as far as she could recall at that instant. Her brain felt like it was on overdrive. She pressed herself closer to Will as her leg continued to burn in agony, letting the adrenaline work through her system.
With her newfound wisdom, Rachel immediately resolved never to do something like that again.