Awakening — Chapter 10

Awakening — Chapter 09
Interlude I

Chapter 10 — The First Summit of the End of the World

  Rachel lay awake in the early hours of the next morning, watching Will’s chest rise and fall next to her in the near-darkness. She had two goals in mind for the town hall. First, she would gather as much information as she could about who might be the mysterious supporter directing the golems that had attacked Cinza’s group. From what she understood about the relationship between Alpha and Omega, the overwhelming forces that had once made all their lives a terrifying hell, neither would enter the town or interfere with their affairs so long as the other remained at large. It was an unwritten pact of mutual destruction from which neither had strayed.

  Until last night, Rachel sighed. What changed?

  She racked her memories of the past few days. There was a slowly increasing risk of them all being discovered, an outcome both spoke fervently against. It was one of the few things she had ever seen them agree on without debate, that the magical community was not ready to step out into the world at large. Neither held any illusions that they could keep their privacy forever, but they were unequivocal in their warnings that to be discovered so early into their development would spell doom for them all. On this, Rachel agreed wholeheartedly, but the time seemed to be approaching faster with every passing day. What if it all ends today? she wondered bitterly, before refocusing her mind back to the problem of Omega.

  There had been no significant events with the unawakened she could pinpoint. It had to be something else. Could it have been the murders? That was certainly an unprecedented and significant event. No one had killed another human with magic before. Rachel could see Alpha intervening to control the situation, or Omega railing on the community at large for allowing it to happen.

  But why would they target Cinza’s group over such an attack? Neither had shown any particular hostility to the Grey cult in the past, and Cinza clearly did not have anyone with the ability to carve a hole straight through a guy’s chest, if the mostly-futile fight against the golems was anything to go by. If Omega were trying to hunt down and punish the perpetrator, he’d badly erred in his target.

  Rachel doubted it. Omega wasn’t the type to dole out punishment anyway. If he were attacking, it would be more specific than that.

  It had to be a new arrival. Rachel considered Rika’s return, but dismissed the possibility. Rika might be insufferable to some, but she knew better than to piss off the Gods. Rachel also ignored her newfound companion Zack, though not without reservations. He had an air of mystery about him, and her examination of his connections from afar revealed so few that she was concerned she had made a mistake until she got Will to do the same. The boy was attached to virtually nothing, just an intense line to an object he kept inside his jacket and a dim line trailing away to Rika, who had been practically dragging him down the street. Any other connections were too faint or too distant to identify. Still, he’d been at Rika’s side since the moment he’d arrived in town, and she just didn’t see him as the killing type. There had to be someone she was missing.

  Or something, Rachel realized with a start. She almost woke up Will in her excitement, having finally come to a conclusion that made sense. It wasn’t a person that had arrived. It was a simple piece of parchment.

  The three Gods were each specialists in their own way. While no one knew what Grey-eyes might be capable of, it was obvious her abilities tended toward movement and concealment, with how her appearance shifted and her way of vanishing instantly from a space without warning or a whisper of sound. Rachel still wasn’t sure if she was truly teleporting or merely turning invisible and moving so fast out of an area that none spotted her departure. Alpha had taught the first of them about knowledge and mental magic, about the ability to modify one’s mind and learn that which one couldn’t possibly know. He’d also taught everyone the basics of elemental manipulation, particularly in regards to fire, which was how even the simplest of their number could toss around a ball of fire or levitate chalk.

  But it was Omega’s powers which frightened her most. Omega was the master of Creation magic, that which dealt with manipulating base elements into something not quite alive, but still animate. The golems that had gone after Cinza could only have been his, as she’d known the moment she saw them. The means by which to create and control them were a secret he’d never shared, and Rachel realized now what the Scrap they’d discovered must contain.

  Omega was protecting his monopoly on that branch of magic, damn the consequences, and using his minions to keep from provoking a response from Alpha. Why he’d attacked Cinza’s group was a question she still needed an answer to, but his motivations were clear enough. She’d managed to poke a sleeping dragon with her announcement at the Council. Now she had to control the fire before they were all burned to a crisp.

  Her second goal was much simpler. She was going to ruin Julian Black.

***

  Rachel took a seat off to the right side of the spacious town hall. It was wide, open space with gently arched ceilings and a small elevated stage at the front. Rows of wooden chairs were set out neatly, and a small table with water was set to the side, but other than that the hall was quite devoid of refreshments or comforts. She reflected ruefully that despite the worse location, her own Council meetings were much better catered with their single plate of homemade cookies she brought to every session.

  She had arrived almost an hour early, so as to watch as many attendees as possible as they arrived. Their reactions and attitudes could potentially speak volumes as they filtered in, and Rachel was determined to gather every scrap of information she could. A few people had been present before her, but of them only one stood out. John Bell, who worked at the Kettle and Bones as the bouncer and barman, if she recalled correctly. She was surprised to see him, but she barely knew the man, so perhaps he was just routinely interested in local politics. The front doors creaked open, drawing her attention.

  Up first was Gordon Merrill, the owner of the local paper. He carried his notebook and pen, an exiled journalist still itching to write a story even if he hadn’t published anything he’d written in years besides cheap editorials and opinion pieces. Following him was Dan Rhodes, owner of the eponymous burger joint which shared a wall with his offices, chatting amicably with the distracted Merrill.

  Normally, Rachel might not have expected many attendees to a Rallsburg town hall, even in the case of a murder, but both herself and Julian had deliberately attempted to contact as many people as they could with the intention of making this meeting a momentous one. Rachel expected a crowd, and a crowd did indeed arrive.

  Julian strode in, one of his two lackeys at his heels. He shot Rachel a look as he took his seat in the front, something between annoyance and disdain. She’d thrown a wrench into his planned conference by calling the emergency session to take place at the same time. He’d be faced with as many of his magical peers as his mundane town residents. Whatever plans he’d had to gain influence would be significantly complicated, to her satisfaction.

  Mason Rhistler was next, with his boyfriend Bryan Selnik in tow. They took seats near to Rachel, and Mason gave her a questioning glance. Rachel shook her head. She’d talk with Mason later. He was a valuable ally, but she got tired of his neuroses quickly. Without Bryan to balance him out, Rachel was certain he’d have driven everyone he knew insane long ago. Still, his obsessiveness and attention to detail had helped them discover so many of the mechanical facets of magic that she couldn’t possibly consider ever losing him as a friend.

  It was only twenty minutes to the appointed time now, and the stream of newcomers increased. Robert Harrison strolled in, talking with the sheriff. Jackie gave Rachel a nod as she entered, which gave Robert pause. Rachel quickly looked away, grinning. The sheriff had clearly done it to antagonize Robert, who still resented her role in ruining his attempt to sue the Price family. As if on cue, Nathaniel Price was next in line. The heir to the fortunes of Rallsburg took a seat far removed his erstwhile victim, only a few chairs away from Rachel.

  ”What’s this about, Rachel?” he whispered, a note of worry tinging his voice. She shook her head in return, still watching the entrance as Neffie Bowman and her brother Preston entered, Preston in full deputy gear. Neffie was one Rachel definitely needed to have words with, as her boss’ absence was now particularly concerning with the revelations of what was hiding out in the woods around their town. She’d made a promise to Natalie, and Rachel intended to keep it if she could.

  Kendra walked in alone, her height adding to her regal bearing. She took a seat next to Rachel, her laptop under her arm. “Anything interesting yet?”

  ”Julian’s pissed, but that’s not new.”

  ”No, I suppose not.”

  ”You closed the Market?” Rachel asked. She’d requested as such to help drive attendance. If the only safe place to buy and sell magic was shut down for the afternoon, their flock of awakened could feel more secure in attending a meeting like this without fear of being undercut or losing business entirely.

  ”I made it clear to all merchants that this meeting took precedence. I doubt many will attend, but they’ll be well aware of the results nonetheless,” Kendra answered, a note of irritation in her voice. “Some were… obstinate.”

  ”Thank you.”

  ”So what’s your plan? You haven’t explained yet.”

  Rachel turned back to the entryway, still watching the ingress as it trickled through. There were a few faces she didn’t recognize, which she made a mental note to learn as they were most likely from the fringes of town. Rachel wanted to have every member of town in her mental dossier, just in case.

  Cinza arrived, with only two of her cult in tow. To Rachel’s dismay, they wore the full regalia as usual, hoods drawn and cloaks just short of trailing the floor. Cinza’s hair was back to its silvery-gray, and the charms and symbols clattered on her chest and wrists as she strode through the hall with an intense expression, daring anyone to confront her. Rachel was surprised so few had accompanied her, but she supposed that the rest of the pack were keeping poor, burned Yusuf company.

  Of the two, Rachel recognized the girl Ruby from the day before, and a young Asian man whom she didn’t know, with short cropped dark hair and a serene expression on his handsome face. They took a seat in the same row as Rachel and Kendra, in the right half of the hall. Cinza gave her a knowing smile before turning to face the front.

  Ryan Walker and his friend Seth Merrill made an entrance, arguing loudly about a basketball team. Seth’s father Gordon looked up surprised at his son’s attendance, but Seth ignored the journalist. Rachel was amused. His son, obviously thoroughly disinterested in the town, had only shown up because of her — in a roundabout way. Not that it was likely to inspire him to actually get involved, but she was at least doing some little bit of outreach with the town indirectly.

  A few more notable arrivals rolled in, including Oscar McKinney, who ran a handyman service for everything from plumbing to electrical and tow service. Collins McCreary walked in with Boris Morozov, the odd book store owner, chatting quietly. Boris took a seat while Collins stood by the entrance, with a silent nod to his employer Kendra. Rachel long suspected he did much more than simply groundswork for the Laushires, and his appearance here seemed to confirm it.

  Finally, the Mayor himself arrived. Rowan Rhistler was a middle-aged but vigorous man. He was well-educated but still native to the area, and sensitive to the needs of both the college and the legacy of the logging union, making him the perfect negotiator for most disputes at the upper level of the town’s politics — but quite detached from the rest of the town, which was where Rachel had found her niche. He didn’t give his nephew Mason a second glance as he strode through the center of the hall, taking his place at the front of the room and pulling out a pocketwatch. It was only a few minutes to noon.

  Hailey Winscombe arrived. The former social queen of Rallsburg University seemed very much out of place without her gaggle of bees following her every move. Instead, she looked — as she always did of late — reserved and cautious. Where once there had been a daring, explosive personality with a heart as big as the town itself, now sat haunted girl with trauma they could only guess at. While she still tried to act like the carefree party queen she’d once been crowned, there was a clear divide between the authentic Hailey Winscombe and the mask she now hid behind.

  A few last minute arrivals hurried through the door, including Hector Peraza — timid as ever and looking very much like he did not want to be there — and Mabel Walsh, slowly inching through the doorway on her old and tired legs. Hailey, ever magnanimous, immediately rushed over to help her to the nearest chair before taking her own seat. The room fell silent with the chime of the clock.

  ”Everyone ready?” Rowan asked from the front of the room, standing up tall. “Alright then. Let’s get started.”

***

  ”For the purposes of their investigation, the sheriff’s office has asked me not to reveal any photos from the crime scene yet,” the mayor continued, as the deadly silent room hung onto his every word. “However, I can identify the bodies as Rallsburg University students Alexander Nelson and Jaysmith Miller.”

  ”What about the third victim?” Gordon Merrill asked, his phone prominently in his hand as he took notes. There was a sharp intake of breath throughout the room as everyone collectively remembered that a child had been caught in the crossfire.

  ”We will not be releasing a name until the family gives permission,” Rowan responded evenly, staring down his nose at Gordon with barely-concealed contempt. It was a mostly pointless question — there were so few children in Rallsburg that even a single one missing was obvious — but Gordon wanted Rowan to say it aloud.

  The mayor and the local paper had been at odds for years. Rachel had never quite gotten the story, but there had been some bad blood during the last election as Gordon supported the opposition. From what she could dig up, Rowan Rhistler had won in a landslide anyway.

  ”How did they die?” Robert Harrison growled from his seat. The former lumberjack’s thick eyebrows furrowed and his slanted mouth was hidden behind his thick beard, giving the impression of a sentient, malevolent bush.

  ”Now, that ain’t appropriate. We don’t need-a-know that,” Julian Black chimed in, rising to his feet. “Them deaths are a tragedy, but it’s more important we find who done them in and start taking action.”

  A murmur of agreement swept through the crowd.

  ”Thank you, Mr. Black, but the sheriff has the situation well in hand,” Rowan interjected from the front. “Mr. Harrison, as I stated before, the specific details of the crime are vital to the investigation and cannot be released at this time.”

  ”Horseshit,” Robert snapped. “I heard they were burned alive. You’re trying to hide a nutjob among us.”

  ”Is that true, Mayor? The victims were set on fire?” Gordon Merrill chimed in, his phone held aloft eagerly.

  Jackie Nossinger stood, her glare matching Robert’s in intensity. “If you want to get into it, Bob, yeah, they burned. Now who told your gossipy ass about it?”

  ”Friend of a friend,” Robert replied evasively.

  ”That’s crap, Robert,” Neffie Bowman spoke up. Her melodic voice provided a nice contrast to the gruff and gravelly voices of the Sheriff and the lumberjack, the smooth politician of Rowan Rhistler and the slight whine of the journalist Gordon Merrill. Her attractive exotic features even more so, as she rose to her feet. “If you’ve got a source that knew about the murders before this meeting, you’ve got a responsibility to the town to own up.”

  ”So what if I have? We all oughta known sooner than this. From how he tells it, they died nearly a week ago.”

  A collective gasp rolled through the assembly, Rachel included. Jackie had obviously come straight to her upon discovering the bodies, so when had they died?

  Robert smiled with satisfaction. This was the reaction he’d been hoping for. Jackie faltered in her response, leaving Robert the floor to continue.

  ”That’s right, folks. Our sheriff and our mayor knew we had a psycho in town and didn’t say a goddamn word for a week!” His eyes looked wild as he turned to face his fellows in the row beside him. “What if he’d come after you in your diner, Dan? Or your shop, Hector? What if he went for your sister, Preston?”

  ”He’d get what’s coming to him,” the deputy retorted at the last bit, and a faint laugh echoed through the hall, easing tension just a little. Rachel smiled. It was true, Neffie Bowman was a scrapper and the whole town knew it. Anyone going for her and expecting easy prey would be in for a nasty surprise.

  Robert wasn’t about to let the attention he commanded go to waste, though. He still held the rapt attention of the room, as if each of them were attached to a leash and he held the end of every rope. “There’s something going on in this town, and we all know it. It’s been happening for months and we’ve all been plopped on our hands waiting for the next tree to keel over.”

  Rachel felt a rush of adrenaline at his words. Robert Harrison, of all people, would be the one to reveal them? It was inconceivable. Robert, however, had different prey in mind than the hidden community that secretly permeated his town. His target was far more public.

  Robert paused for effect, before his head snapped to lock eyes with Cinza. “We’ve got a damn cult in our town and it’s high time someone looked into what they’re doing.”

  Every head in the room followed his gaze to Cinza, seated calmly between her two lieutenants. Ruby looked nervous and shrunk deeper into her hood, her red curls still plainly visible in spite of her attempts. Her other companion looked as though he hadn’t heard a word.

  ”Y’all even got a name, or are you too autistic to come up with one?” Robert continued. From her side, Rachel heard Kendra quietly click her tongue in disgust, but she was too focused on Cinza’s reaction to pay it any mind.

  Cinza stood very slowly, and lowered her hood, shaking loose her mane of silvery hair. “Names are just tools to help the uncertain come to terms with their identity. We know who we are.”

  ”Bunch of loonies,” Julian chimed in, eliciting a laugh from a few in the crowd. Far less than Preston’s quip earlier, Rachel noted with relief. They hadn’t the level of support they pretended to hold, not yet at least.

  Cinza whirled on him. “And what are you, Julian Black? A failed con man turned failed entrepreneur-cum-delivery man? Do tell, what worldly insights can you offer to us?”

  ”I can tell you the poor guys outside town were burned alive, and your cult seems to love its little fireside get-togethers on the outskirts,” Julian shot back.

  Julian knew full well the cult never used fire, preferring Cinza’s mastery of light manipulation for their elaborate stagings. Rachel tried to piece together his plan of attack.

  Blame Cinza for the murders? It was certainly one way to consolidate power, as Cinza represented the largest coordinated voting bloc on the Council and was quite unlikely to ever support him. With her presumably in custody or at least wanted for questioning following this town hall, he could call for a vote and possibly have the numbers to knock Josh off the council. This presumed, of course, that he’d been able to hide his influence in setting her on the run.

  Rachel scanned the crowd, and saw with satisfaction that well more than half of the regular attendees to the Council were seated throughout the hall. If Julian tried to take Cinza off the board, everyone would witness it. Her gambit was paying off thus far.

  ”So do many of the university’s finest. I’ve seen Seth Merrill out there plenty of times as well. I’m glad you taught your son well enough to not burn the forest down,” Cinza added, inclining her head at the journalist, who turned a shade of pink. For a former big-city reporter, he seems very prone to embarrassment.

  ”Still leaves you with some explainin’,” Robert jumped back into the conversation with his customary growl, further confirming to Rachel that the two were obviously working together. She wondered what Julian had promised the man. If he had even promised Robert anything; Rachel suspected Robert Harrison was a man more than willing to stir up trouble in town simply to be at the center of attention in his advancing years. “Y’all are some creepy sons of bitches, rolling through town in those cloaks. What’ve you got to hide?”

  ”Is this really necessary?” Gordon Merrill countered, to Rachel’s surprise. “Do you have any evidence to suggest they’ve committed any crime? We had a specific reason for coming together today.”

  ”You’re one to talk,” Robert retorted. “Your own toady is one of them.”

  ”Toady?” Kendra murmured next to Rachel, while Gordon looked taken aback.

  ”What do you mean?”

  ”I mean Morton Pollock, your assistant, is a goddamn greycloak. Oscar McKinney saw him out one day while working the power lines on the west end.”

  Oscar gave a sheepish nod as heads swivelled to find him. He sank deep into his chair, looking deeply uncomfortable with the whole situation.

  ”Well, that’s… err…” Gordon stammered, his mouth making interesting contortions as he tried to form proper words. 

  ”They’ve snaked their way into our town,” Julian Black leapt into the sudden silence. “They mean us ill. They take and give nothing back. And now good students of the college are dyin’ out in the woods where they make their home. Can’t we intervene?” Rachel was surprised by his audacity. Despite an audience that clearly felt no love for the man, he was still following through on his plan to remove Cinza from the field.

  Cinza herself looked furious, her small hands clenched so tight Rachel expected her fingernails must be piercing skin. For a brief moment, she feared the girl would throw caution to the winds and throw down then and there — but once again the leader of the Cult of the Grey showed her cool head in danger, surprising them all.

  The girl turned to face the mayor — her metal charms faintly tinkling from the movement — ignoring Julian and Robert in favor of the two elected authorities that were standing silent at the head of the crowd. “Well, Judges, the good people of Salem have declared their witches. Shall we send for the Reverend Hale or would you like to play the role yourself, Mr. Rhistler?”

  ”Enough of this,” the mayor said with conviction. “Robert, Julian, you two will hold your tongues if you mean to accuse further, unless you can present solid, factual evidence about the group and not wild speculation.”

  Rachel was pleased. The mayor had read the room and reacted accordingly. Having brought Cinza and enough sympathetic supporters, she was able to deflect what could have quickly become a dangerous witch hunt. The girl was more eloquent under pressure than Rachel gave her credit for. Perhaps they could get back to the matter of the actual murderer.

  ”Actually,” came an uneasy, uncertain voice from the back row. Once again, the rows of heads swivelled as if on a great long pole and a crank operator at the end was turning them all in unison. “They are witches.”

  It was Dan Rhodes, owner of the local burger joint. Rachel filled her lungs with a deep breath, trying desperately to stay calm even as blood began thumping like a hammer on her skull. Dan wasn’t someone so easily dismissed as crazy or having an agenda. He was an everyman, someone most of the town trusted.

  This wasn’t going to end well.

  ”Dan? You have something to add?” Rowan called from the front. Even the mayor trusted the man. Rachel felt the ice in the room thicken. The chill seeped up her spine.

  ”I’ve seen it. People making fire from thin air, people with impossible things. Casting spells. You know, witchery.”

  A pin drop would have been as loud as a gunshot in the hall at that time. Rachel was never more acutely aware of the unusually low number of vehicles present in Rallsburg. Since the train wasn’t scheduled that day, the only sound was the soft chirping of birds in the distance and the faint hum of electricity.

  Rachel muscles were tense and coiled to spring. She slid her hand into her bag, reaching for a ruby. Out of the corner of her eye, she noted that Kendra, Hector and Ryan Walker had mirrored her action. Cinza herself was still the center of attention, else Rachel was sure she’d have done the same. Thankfully she’d remained calm so far, but Ruby was totally concealed within her cloak — and who knew what the red-haired girl might have at the ready underneath that sheet of grey?

  If they needed to move, for better or worse, Cinza’s people were ready for a fight.

  ”Explain,” Jackie Nossinger spoke, her voice firm and far less skeptical than Rachel would have liked.

  ”That girl who comes around every once and a while. She shoots lightning from her fingertips.” Jackie raised an eyebrow. Rachel winced. They both knew the bodies were covered in electrical burns. “And a few guys that came in, they threw fire at her. Just thought everyone should know,” he added sheepishly.

  It was the moment of truth. Did Rachel need to act? The others were watching her as closely as they dared, knowing better than to draw too much attention to her when she hadn’t yet spoken. Gordon Merrill was her main concern, with his phone still out and recording copious notes. Who knew where those were being transmitted?

  ”That sounds ridiculous,” Hailey Winscombe said, her voice shaking. Rachel was shocked it had taken this long for her to speak up, when she was usually so talkative. Another element of the new Hailey. “People throwing fire and lightning? Are you on something?”

  A murmur of agreement swept through the crowd, but not as much as Rachel would have liked. Too many were starting to feel the unease and paranoia of the supernatural surrounding them. Still, nothing truly dangerous had been spoken yet. They were safe for the moment. Dan’s concerns could be dismissed, his supposed witches discredited. There was no proof or even a person to question yet.

  ”The girl, what’s her name?” Robert Harrison asked, and Rachel’s heart plunged into ice. Even Julian looked suddenly nervous, but he could hardly speak up in the deadly silence without putting himself under the limelight.

  ”She goes by Rika, but I dunno if—”

  Rachel stood up sharply. Her chair scraped the floor in her haste. Rika was at risk, and — damn the consequences — Rachel still felt loyalty to her friend.

  ”Hector, cut it,” she called, across the rows of heads that were twirling in place like a shifting kaleidoscope to form rows of eyes all locked on her.

  At her word, Hector’s hand flew out of his bag. A handful of mica dust leapt into the air and vanished with a hiss. The lights flickered off. Gordon’s phone screen followed a moment later. The wide windows in the rafters caught enough light to still leave everything illuminated, and keep all attention fixed upon Rachel.

  The hum of electricity, the one constant sound, was gone. Only a faint breeze and the continuing song of the birds remained.

  She let out the deep breath she’d taken so long ago, and it felt as though every eye in the room followed her throat as it relaxed. The time had finally come.

***

  ”What is the meaning of this?” Rowan asked from the front, his voice lacking confidence for the first time since they’d arrived. Rachel took stock of the room, trying to quickly spot anyone who didn’t seem surprised by the sudden change of atmosphere. To her disappointment, she didn’t pick up on any new Awakened she wasn’t yet aware of, but no matter. She had more important things to worry about.

  Rachel suddenly realized that, despite regular conversation (or confrontation) with nearly every other person in the room, she had never actually spoken to the mayor of Rallsburg. She turned to face Rowan Rhistler. He bore some resemblance to his nephew Mason, seated only a few chairs away from where she stood. Rachel resolved immediately to do her best to keep identities concealed. There was no reason to reveal anyone’s status as Awakened beyond the three they already saw. Having Mason or — heaven forbid — Nathaniel Price revealed as a witch before a riled-up crowd of the common town could lead to a lynching.

  As it stood, she held the rapt attention of the entire crowd, both awakened and otherwise. She cleared her throat. Rachel loved being the center of attention, but she preferred it to be on her terms. She’d always known this day was coming, but she hadn’t expected it so soon, nor in such a personal setting as the town hall of Rallsburg in front of her entire community.

  ”What Dan says is the truth,” Rachel started as calmly as she could manage. She wished she could have told the sheriff, whom she honestly admired and respected, privately and directly, and tried to give her an apologetic look before continuing. “There are those of us who have certain… abilities.” She held up a hand.

  With the enraptured crowd still hanging off every word, Rachel focused her mind on the space just above her fingertips. She flung out her consciousness into the elements as she’d been taught. There was an essence to fire, a universal force that was always present and ready to spring into life if given the chance. Rachel found it and pulled at it with her mind, letting it flow through her and into the space she’d set aside. The heat rushed through her chest and down her arm, a warm flow of energy like a stream ebbing through her veins to the tips of her fingers, as if the very embers were inside of her. With a faint hiss, a teardrop of light yellow flame flickered into life above her finger like a candle without a wick.

  A gasp rolled through the crowd. A couple seated in front of Rachel (the Parsons) scrambled forward in shock. All in all, it wasn’t the outright panic she’d feared. Rachel turned her hand flat, palm upward to let the flame flicker and dance above as she spoke up again.

  ”We’re just here to live normal lives, same as everyone else. No one wants any trouble, and no one intends to cause any. We’re all just people.”

  Murmurs were rolling through the crowd like low thunder, foreboding and spelling out danger on the horizon, but for the moment no one had yet rushed them or cried witchcraft. Rachel took that as a good first sign, as the flame continued to dance and flicker in her hand. She was already beginning to feel a bit of strain at maintaining the fire. Elemental magic was well outside her affinity as Rika had called it, and Rachel was never good at keeping a fire alive without real fuel, but she dared not show any weakness in front of the crowd.

  She felt it in her chest as if she was in the middle of a long run, and knew that she could go on but at some point the pressure would cause her to double over and her vision to darken. She took a deep breath before speaking up again.

  ”We want to help.”

  Hailey Winscombe burst into tears. She buried her face in her hands. The entire room looked at her for a moment, but with no forthcoming explanation for the girl’s sudden muffled hysteria, focus quickly shifted back to Rachel.

  ”Rachel, look, you’re a great help around town but this is different,” Neffie Bowman said, her eyes still transfixed by the fire. “We don’t know what this is—”

  ”It’s magic,” Cinza spoke up, her voice serene. “What else do you need to know?”

  Neffie faltered, which was a first for her.

  ”Bullshit,” Robert spoke up finally. “This is a dumb prank.”

  ”Bob, they even knocked out my phone…” Gordon Merrill started meekly, but Cinza cut him off.

  ”Prank, is it?” She brought one arm up, and in a stunning reversal, Robert Harrison was the one to flinch. A hulk of a man with the thick muscles of a lifelong lumberjack, afraid of the thin stick of an arm pointing in his general direction owned by a girl shorter than five feet and probably only cresting a fourth of his own weight.

  With a wicked smile, Cinza flicked her fingers in a simple motion at Robert. A three-foot butterfly with glowing purple wings fluttered into life directly in front of the man’s eyes. He ducked and howled, and the butterfly swooped straight at his face, sending him tumbling backwards. It vanished in an explosion of shining specks that flew outward and faded away.

  ”Anyone else need a demonstration?” Cinza asked, looking around the crowd calmly.

  ”Rachel, please, help me understand,” Rowan called from the front, sounding suddenly exhausted. “This cult of yours—”

  ”She’s no cultist, to use your vulgar term,” Cinza cut in sharply. “Rachel is just an elected leader for us all, follower of mine or otherwise. The other mayor of the town, you might say. Meet your real competition.”

  ”‘Us all’?” Gordon Merrill spoke up, having pulled out a paper pad and pencil. He was a resourceful journalist for sure. Rachel nodded in response.

  ”We have a council for resolving disputes and making decisions that affect us all as a community. I represent the head of the council at this meeting.” She paused, trying to find the best way to phrase her request. “I must ask you not report on anything that happens in this room today, Mr. Merrill. I’m sorry.”

  Gordon Merrill looked like she had asked him to chop off his own arm. “I’m a journalist, girl. That’s what I do.”

  Cinza snapped her fingers, and her companion threw out his arm with a twisting motion in the wrist, followed by a quick snap-flick. Gordon’s notepad caught fire instantly, and he dropped it in shock. Rachel was quietly impressed by the guy’s precision. She could never have summoned a flame at the opposite end of the notepad from that distance with so little time and effort, if she could even manage it at all. Rachel resolved to figure out all of Cinza’s followers at a later date when she had the opportunity, before he cult surprised her with something truly unpleasant.

  ”Take a break for the afternoon,” Cinza said cheerily. “I’m sure Rachel would be pleased to give you an exclusive someday. It’ll be the most important story of your life, trust me.”

  ”This ‘community’ of yours,” Rowan began again. “They can all do… magic?” His mouth seemed to have trouble giving voice to the concept, as he clearly still couldn’t believe what he was saying. Rachel nodded, trying to instill confidence in the mayor. She was going to need him if they were to control his half of the town and keep the peace. She closed her palm gently as she released the fire from her control, letting it free. In an instant, lacking any fuel, the flame puffed out of existence.

  ”Mayor Rhistler,” she began, with more formality than she’d presented so far. “I’d like to offer our assistance in tracking down whomever committed the murders on the outskirts of town.” There was no reason to reveal Jackie had already asked her to do just that. The mayor and sheriff needed to be on the same side; there was no reason to drive a wedge between them if she didn’t need to. Yet. “I have strong reason to believe the murders were carried out with magical means and that we are best suited to investigating the crime.”

  ”They were killed with magic?” Jackie asked. “Well, that explains a lot.”

  ”Now hang on, you’ve got witches killing witches here?” Robert asked, furrowing his brow once more. “What is this shit?”

  ”Would you just be quiet for once? Unless you can add anything useful,” Mason Rhistler snapped from near Rachel. He’d finally broken his silence for a pithy comment like that? Rachel mused. Not the best choice diplomatically.

  ”Just because you’re the mayor’s nephew—”

  ”Enough!” Rowan called from the front. “Rachel, I would like to speak with you and the sheriff in private.”

  ”With respect, sir, I can’t leave this assembly yet. Not while my people remain at risk.” Rachel looked around to the gathered townspeople of Rallsburg. Most looked at her with confusion or curiosity, and only a few with outright suspicion. It was those few that she feared most. Even a few voices full of hate and terror, if cast out loud and strong, could whip crowds into a frenzy, raise the pitchforks and set the torches ablaze. She had to persuade them otherwise. It was what she’d spent months and months preparing for.

  ”This is an old town, and a strong one. The people here are good. I’ve spent time with most of you.” She began to look at individual faces in the crowd, breaking them down from a collective and forming a connection with each. If she’d had time to slip her consciousness, she’d likely see the bonds forming in mid-air even as she spoke, drawing a web between her and every person present she spoke to.

  ”Neffie Bowman, do you remember when I helped Preston out of that jam with the Tacoma PD?” She nodded with a friendly smile, but she’d not been one Rachel had expected much difficulty in turning. She went on. “Boris, I’ve always known you as a friendly face on the street, and I’ve loved the books you’ve recommended over the years. Remember when your shop flooded, and the days we spent drying out damp pages?”

  She called out another, more difficult target. “Robert, we haven’t always seen eye to eye, but I’ve always respected your unrelenting efforts to protect your loggers and the heritage of the town. I think I’ve always cut fair deals with you, haven’t I? Didn’t Nate Price leave with his tail between his legs just the other day?” Robert nodded, a grin barely creasing his beard at the memory.

  On and on Rachel went, calling out every individual in the hall she could manage. She deliberately included quite a few of the Awakened in the room, to draw suspicion away from them. For the moment, she did not plan to reveal any more of the magical community amongst them beyond the five they’d already shown. For the moment, she needed to play cautious, even if she’d deliberately thrown out her timetables in this brash move to protect Rika.

  ”Gordon—”

  ”This is all inspirational,” Gordon interrupted, fidgeting with his pen with no notepad to write upon, “but where are you going with this exactly?”

  Rachel took another deep breath, as she’d nearly run out of lung-power trying desperately to name as many people as she could. “I’d like to think we’ve shown we’re members of the community, same as all of you. All we want in return is to be kept silent. This town has always been a quiet, safe place, and we’d just like our privacy, same as the rest of you.”

  There it was. Rachel had voiced their one request aloud. How will the town react?

  ”If the world were to find out…” Neffie started thoughtfully.

  ”It would cause a stampede,” Gordon said, one of the most worldly of the town. Most people in Rallsburg rarely ventured into the world, but Gordon Merrill had come from the big city before settling down in Rallsburg to open his own paper with his wife. “Magic, in the modern world? There would be no stopping people from trying to get their hands on it. Government or otherwise.”

  ”Can everyone keep it hidden?” Dan asked, guilt tinging his voice. He clearly regretted having set off the current chain of events.

  ”Why not? No one comes out here anymore, except the crazier tourists,” Robert growled. “No one really leaves either. And no one in their right mind’s gonna stir things up if they’re safe, are they?” he said, looking at Rachel.

  Rachel was taken aback. They seemed to have already accepted the Awakened without much questioning, and were moving onto protecting them as their own. Her work had paid off. She felt gratitude leaping up into her throat and suddenly found it very difficult to speak.

  ”I don’t know how many of you there are,” Rowan said firmly from the front of the room, addressing the room at large, “but you are just as much part of my constituency as the rest of Rallsburg. You don’t need to reveal yourselves, and for those of you that do, my office will treat you no differently for it.” He glanced at Jackie, who nodded, though her expression was still affixed with a frown directed at Rachel. “I think I speak for the entire town when I say that we don’t really understand what’s happening yet, but that we are all willing to return the generosity you’ve shown us over the past year.” He smiled, and it wasn’t the false smile of a politician, but a genuine warm smile that Rachel accepted wholeheartedly. “I trust you and your community will be happy to cooperate and coordinate with the Sheriff?”

  ”Of course, sir.”

  ”Then so be it,” Rowan declared. “If any of the town has a grievance to raise amongst our… magical neighbors, let them please file it with Sheriff Nossinger or Deputy Bowman and they will reach out on your behalf.”

  ”Yeah, yeah, hug it out later,” Robert said, rising to his feet once more. “I don’t care what they do so long as they don’t interfere with me and mine. Which brings us back to these murders. What are you doing about that?” His question was not directed at the sheriff, but at Rachel herself.

  ”We have a way of finding people that are using magic,” Rachel replied. She hadn’t wanted to reveal Will even tangentially in this way, but she knew she had to give them something. Julian and other members of the council would doubtless use this against her in the future somehow. “We’ve starting tracking any usage outside of town, as we believe the killer is likely residing beyond the outskirts.”

  Cinza threw her a sharp look, but said nothing. Rachel was grateful yet again for the girl’s smart instincts. They needed to stay united throughout this meeting. If any dissent arose between the known Awakened, it would cast doubt and fear amongst the mundane town residents.

  We need a better term than mundane, Rachel mused.

  ”Find ’em and bring ’em to me,” Robert growled, taking his seat heavily once more. “I’ll teach ’em to go after little kids.”

  ”Thank you, Mr. Harrison,” Rowan called out. “Rachel, you’ll let us know of any developments as soon as possible?”

  ”Of course, sir.”

  ”Thank you. I think that about does it for this meeting, unless anyone else has anything to put forward?” Rowan asked, looking over the crowd.

  The murmuring of the crowd halted as they looked around at Rachel, the only one in the crowd still standing. She was never more aware of her height and stature as she towered over them all, feeling like a giantess.

  ”Thank you again,” Rowan said after a measured pause. “I’m glad I can count upon all the good people of Rallsburg with such a secret. Our town is something truly special, and it is because you all make it so. If any of you would like to speak with me in private, my office door will be open in one hour until eleven tonight.”

  Chairs squealed throughout the building in a chorus of scrapes as people rose to their feet. Hailey was the first out the door, her face still covered in tears. Most others left casually, chattering excitedly as to what they’d just witnessed. Rachel stayed put. The mayor had clearly set aside the next hour to speak with her directly, and she intended to make the most of it.

  Kendra touched her on the arm briefly before heading out the door herself. She wasn’t yet willing to reveal her identity, being easily the most prominent resident to the wider world. Cinza was staying put as well, her two compatriots at her wings keeping silent vigil. Neffie and Preston Bowman were standing by the far wall, talking quietly, and Ryan Walker was playing on his phone in his seat. His friend Seth Merrill had departed, though his father Gordon was still seated as well, having produced yet another notepad to scribble frantically on. Finally, Boris Morozov was in the back, watching Rachel with an expression of quiet curiosity. His gaze was the first to make her feel truly uncomfortable, beyond just the social anxiety she’d felt when revealing herself to the crowd at large.

  As the rest of the room finally filtered out, the mayor once again rose to his feet from a quiet hurried discussion with the sheriff. “I suppose you’re the most concerned citizens, are you? Well, come on then.” He gestured to a doorway leading off the side of the stage, behind which was a hallway and the smaller conference rooms, just like the one she’d recently sat down in with Nate Price and Robert Harrison.

  The small crowd followed him to the door. Cinza nodded to her two companions, who remained seated, and swept her cloak around herself theatrically before proceeding into the hallway. Neffie and Preston followed her inside, and Gordon Merrill was right behind them, writing frantically as he walked, his cell phone still dead due to Hector’s magic.

  Ryan Walker made to follow them, but Rowan put up his arm. “What are you doing here, Mr. Walker?”

  ”I’m a concerned citizen,” Ryan echoed sarcastically.

  ”I appreciate your candor, but this is going to be a plain old boring meeting,” the mayor replied dryly.

  In response, Ryan raised one of his hands. His forearm bulged and his skin thickened in moments, like fast-forwarded video of someone bulking up. He held it for a few moments before releasing the energy and letting his arm return to normal proportions, then raised an eyebrow at the dumbfounded mayor.

  Rowan’s arm dropped like a deflating balloon. Ryan smirked, strutting through the door without a care in the world to dumbfound looks. Boris Morozov followed him silently, leaving only the sheriff and Rachel remaining in the main hall.

  ”Well, Rachel?” Rowan asked cautiously. Rachel smoothed out her skirt before picking up her bag and walking through the door, ducking slightly as she passed through the threshold. They followed her inside, and the door creaked shut with a thump that echoed through the vacant town hall, where only minutes earlier magic had first been exposed to the outside world.

***

  ”I trust this meeting will be kept confidential?” Rowan asked pointedly, looking at Gordon Merrill.

  ”Of course, of course,” Gordon replied excitedly. “This won’t appear in any paper. I’m writing this down for my memoirs. Someday that’ll sell like wildfire.”

  ”What is this meeting, anyway?” Neffie asked.

  ”A peace summit,” said Cinza. She stretched out her legs, which barely reached the floor, relaxing after the stress of the town hall. She removed her hood, and a moment later, a line of bright silver snaked up her hair as it shifted from pure grey to her natural brown, to gasps of shock from the newly aware.

  ”Would you quit showing off?” Ryan said, gently kicking her chair under the table.

  Cinza laughed, which was even stranger in her echoing voice. “I’m just reminding them who they’re dealing with.”

  ”Enough,” Rachel said sharply, and to her relief they fell silent. “Mr. Mayor, I—”

  ”Rowan, please,” he replied. He smiled weakly. “By all rights it sounds as though you’re as much in charge of this town as I am. We may as well start treating each other more equally.”

  ”Rowan,” Rachel started again. “I’m grateful for what you said back there, but you know it won’t hold sway with everyone.”

  ”Oh, undoubtedly. The gossips will still gossip, though news isn’t likely to travel outside Rallsburg. Robert was correct, very few people ever leave this town. We’re quite contained here.”

  Rachel nodded. “That’s not my gravest concern.”

  ”What do you mean?”

  ”Salem,” Cinza answered simply.

  Rachel inclined her head at the girl. “As much as none of us want to voice it, there is still a great aversion to the supernatural in the world. We might live in modern, enlightened times, but those only came about because the scientists all proved that witchcraft wasn’t real. There’s honestly no way to predict how people will react when confronted with the real, undeniable thing.”

  ”I think it went over pretty well,” Rowan countered. “Everyone seemed to leave in good spirits. And let’s not forget that this is still Rallsburg. Most people here just want to be left alone. We simply don’t have drama.”

  ”For now,” Rachel said. “But that was a small taste. A candle and a butterfly. What happens when they’re forced to confront something more dangerous?”

  ”How’s this any different than someone roaming around with a gun?” Preston Bowman interjected. “It’s not like anyone with a hunting rifle is automatically dangerous.”

  Cinza held up her hand in response, and despite her diminutive size, the mundane half of the  table flinched away. “What about a weapon you can never take away, one that’s always at our fingertips and dramatically more destructive and versatile? Where I can snap my fingers—” which she did, and moments later a ring of bullets appeared in mid-air floating above her thumb, “—and in a moment snuff out more lives than any single gun.”

  She closed her fist sharply, rolling her fingers between each other as she did, and the bullets flew straight at the neck of each person present with deadly accuracy and terrifying speed.

  Gordon Merrill shrieked, falling over backwards in his chair. Jackie and Rowan had both ducked, while Neffie and Preston Bowman were frozen in terror. An instant before reaching their targets, each vanished, leaving only a brief sparkle of light before disappearing entirely. Ryan and Rachel had not moved an inch, knowing Cinza’s illusions for what they were.

  ”She puts it a bit dramatically, but yeah, we can do some crazy stuff,” Ryan said calmly. “And like she said, it’s all inside. You can take a gun away from someone when you arrest them, sheriff. What are you gonna do when I can break handcuffs just by thinking about it?”

  ”People still obey rule of law, though,” Rowan replied, settling back in his chair once again. “Just because someone can do it doesn’t mean they will.”

  ”You’re not the one who’s gotta arrest them,” Jackie muttered, righting herself with rather less grace than the mayor.

  ”We’re in uncharted territory,” Neffie said. “There’s no precedent to rely on here. We’re the first.”

  ”What would you suggest, Rachel?” Rowan asked.

  ”I…” Rachel hesitated. Truth be told, she hadn’t really considered problems of law enforcement thus far. “I’m not sure.”

  ”Well, you have your own council and rules to enforce, do you not?” Rowan asked. “How do you enforce them?”

  ”We don’t have to,” Rachel replied. “Everyone knows the consequence of breaking what few rules we do have, and we’ve never really had an incident yet.”

  ”Not once?” Preston asked, looking skeptical.

  ”Well, the last time anyone had a major disagreement we nearly blew up the town,” Ryan said flippantly. Rachel looked at him sharply, and he recoiled in his seat.

  ”What?” Jackie asked in a low growl.

  Rachel took a quick breath before answering, shuddering at the memories that sprang forth. “Remember the night about a year ago, when the old abandoned library burned down?”

  ”That was you?” Rowan asked. Gordon seemed to stop scribbling on his notepad for a moment, eyes wide.

  ”Not me, but someone with magic, yes.”

  ”Christ, I thought we were in a war zone that night, but we never caught anyone,” Jackie murmured. “I assumed some kids had gotten ahold of a shit-ton of fireworks or something. Thought we were going to have a forest fire to end all fires.”

  ”What happened?” Rowan asked.

  ”Two people had a… disagreement. On how our Council should proceed in terms of interacting with the outside world. They were both very influential voices, and some took sides in the argument.” Rachel paused. The flashes of light and the explosions, Omega’s minions advancing against Alpha’s hurled bolts of ice and torrents of water, the lightning strikes from the sky and the bursts of fire. She took a deep breath before continuing.

  ”They took it too far, and both sides called a truce before it turned ugly. But neither of the individuals in question wanted to stop, and we collectively decided to intervene. If we hadn’t, it might have been the entire town that burned instead of just the old library.”

  ”What happened to these two individuals?” Rowan asked, while Gordon’s pen scratched incessantly.

  ”They both left town, by mutual agreement. Neither plans to return, and both are in agreement to keep utmost secrecy about our world. We have nothing to fear from them anymore,” Rachel lied smoothly, as memories of terrifying golems gliding across the forest floor sprung unbidden to her mind. The room looked satisfied at the answer.

  Rachel looked across the room to the one person who hadn’t spoken yet. Boris Morozov, the old bookshop owner and Russian expatriate, was gazing with eyes unfocused, his head turned slightly to one side as if he were listening to something. After a moment, his eyes shifted back to the room so subtly that she doubted anyone else could have noticed. Who is he talking to?

  ”The murders were carried out by magic. Who can do such spells as lightning and the carving of a hole through the body of a child and a young man?” Boris asked calmly.

  ”How do you know about—” Jackie started to ask, but Boris held up his hand.

  ”You are not the only one who regularly checks up on the outer parks, dear sheriff. I happened upon the bodies myself before you cordoned off the trailer.” Boris turned back to Rachel. “It would seem the quickest way to a suspect is by the limitations of such magic.”

  ”Anyone of us can learn any spell,” Rachel replied. “Some,” she added, inclining her head at Cinza, “might specialize in a particular field, but there are no real limitations holding her back from throwing lightning as well, given time.”

  ”Ah,” Boris replied, sitting back. “So anyone has the capability to do such a deed.”

  ”Not exactly,” Rachel replied. “This type of magic, being able to remove matter so effectively, is not something we’ve ever seen. Whomever knows the technique has never shared it. It’s unique, for now.”

  ”And fucking terrifying,” Ryan added with a shiver.

  ”Ryan,” Rachel admonished, and he recoiled. Rowan looked between the two of them with interest.

  Rachel addressed the mayor directly. “Whatever this murderer can do, I’m fully confident that we can deal with them.” She tried to project as much temerity as she could muster, and both the sheriff and the mayor alike seemed satisfied. Boris, on the other hand, once again seemed to be listening to something else entirely, though no one else in the room gave him any notice. Rachel wondered who or what it could be, if it were so slight that only her enhanced senses were able to detect it.

  ”Between the Council and myself, we know every single person with magic,” Cinza added, stacking up the lies they were telling the mayor and the sheriff. Rachel grimaced inwardly, but knew it was the only way they could keep the mundane half of the town calm. “It’s only a matter of time before we track them down.”

  ”How many people is that, exactly?” Gordon asked with interest.

  Rowan held up a hand to forestall her before Rachel had to figure out an answer. “Our town census as required by the state is the only form of tracking I will permit. Rachel and her people are not to be treated as a list of suspects. They are still members of our town and deserve the same respect of privacy we have always provided.”

  ”Beggin’ your pardon, sir, but isn’t this a bit different than keeping track of people in town?” the deputy chimed in. Preston looked embarrassed as everyone turned to face him, but pressed on regardless. “I mean, like we said before, these wit— err, sorry… the…” He paused, looking expectantly at Rachel.

  ”The term we’ve been using is ‘awakened’,” she supplied gently. Neffie rolled her eyes, but Preston nodded.

  ”These ‘awakened’ have a lot of power in their hands,” Preston continued. “We have people register for firearm permits. Why wouldn’t we have people register that they can do magic?”

  ”Because we don’t make people register that they’re able to sprint a four minute mile or that they love to listen to death metal,” Neffie put in. She tapped her brother on the shoulder. “It’s something they are, not something they own.”

  Rowan leaned forward pensively. “Rachel, is that list going to expand dramatically over the coming months?”

  ”No,” Rachel replied. “Not anyone can just cast a spell. Even if I taught you exactly how I can make fire, you couldn’t do it.”

  ”Ah,” he replied, looking a touch disappointed, though he masked it quickly enough. “It would seem like we have nothing to worry about, then.” As she’d hoped, he’d taken her words to mean that he could never awaken, nor could anyone else. The last thing she needed was a sudden burst of newly awakened to deal with in addition to their present dangerous concerns.

  ”This is quite the progressive group, but we need to address what we plan to do when the inevitable crusade begins,” Cinza said.

  ”The crusade?” Rowan asked, confused.

  ”When the nuts in the town decide they don’t like witches and want ’em to burn,” Jackie said bluntly. Cinza nodded her head at the sheriff in gratitude.

  ”I’m all for unity, but when the pious zealots come for my people, I will not stand by.”

  ”I’d have to arrest you.”

  ”According to RCW 9A.16.020, Cinza would be well within her rights to defend herself and her followers,” Rachel interjected, dredging up the state code from the recesses of her memory. “Provided she didn’t use more force than absolutely necessary,” she added, with a pointed look in the girl’s direction.

  ”Is your ability to cite state law at will a part of your abilities?” Rowan asked with interest. Rachel nodded with a touch of pride. He grinned. “I’d give a lot for that little trick.”

  ”When they come for us, what do you plan to do, dear mayor? Will you stand by the wicked cult of witches against your fair townspeople?” Cinza asked again.

  ”It won’t come to that,” Rowan replied.

  ”‘Course it will,” Ryan cut in, to everyone’s surprise but Rachel’s. “This is end of the world planning here, and we all know that end’s coming. The old world where magic was a fairy tale for dumb kids is about to be over. We’re what’s coming.”

  There was silence for a few minutes following his comment, as they all digested what he’d said. No one could really dispute it.

  ”Well, I’d like to thank you all for attending the first summit of the end of the world,” Rowan said lightly, and got a few smiles in return. “I think that about covers it for now, but I’d like us to meet regularly moving forward. I won’t pretend that this is even slightly normal, but I’m hoping that we can all take this in stride and work together to keep our town safe, secure and satisfied.” He rose, and everyone else in the room stood along with him.

  Rowan held his hand out to Rachel. “Rachel DuValle. I, Rowan Rhistler, mayor of Rallsburg, officially welcome you and your Awakened to our town, and offer you the position of Special Counselor to the office of the Mayor.”

  Rachel took his hand and shook it firmly. “I am honored to accept, Rowan.”

  ”Excellent,” he said with a smile. “Now, I need to run if I hope to get anything to eat before the first of the constituency is banging on my office door.” He dug into his coat pocket for his business card, and scrawled a number on the back before handing it to Rachel. “This is my personal number, if my office phone won’t do. I trust my assistant to be discreet, but if you need to contact me directly for any reason, don’t hesitate regardless of the hour.”

  ”Thank you,” Rachel said. Rowan smiled again, then turned and left.

  Jackie immediately turned to her deputy. “Preston, we’re gonna need to patrol all day. Any sort of hubbub, any hint of unrest, you call me and we deal with it together. Got it?”

  ”Yes ma’am,” Preston replied, picking up his hat from the table. The pair left, Neffie on their heels.

  ”Gordon, I trust this won’t be making any papers, right?” Rachel said calmly.

  ”You owe me an exclusive the moment this story breaks — and it will break, kid,” Gordon said, giving her a look.

  ”If that’s what it takes.”

  Gordon nodded, picking up his notepad and pen and departing as well.

  Ryan gave her a look. “So what now?”

  ”We do what we promised. We track down whomever did the killing and we make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Rachel replied.

  Cinza nodded. “My people are on edge already. They’ll be looking for something to do. We could start combing the forest.”

  Rachel shook her head. “I wasn’t lying. I do have a way to track people using magic.”

  ”Oh?” Cinza asked, sounding bitter. “Between all the other lies we told, I wasn’t sure.”

  ”You know why we needed to lie,” Rachel sighed.

  ”I do,” Cinza replied. “That doesn’t mean I’m happy about it.” She frowned before continuing. “How precise can you get?”

  ”Close enough. So long as no one else is out there in the forest, it should be easy enough.”

  ”My people have invested a good deal of time into our current home,” Cinza said. “We’ve developed ways of hiding ourselves.”

  ”Ways that we can’t detect?” Rachel asked.

  ”Have you yet?” she asked mischievously.

  Rachel frowned. “Our method seemed foolproof.”

  ”Then perhaps we have developed a new magic he has not yet discovered.” She smiled. “They may be gods, but they are still flawed.”

  ”In that case, I think you’re probably safer where you are,” Rachel sighed. “Is there anything we can provide you?”

  ”We should be fine,” she replied, then, after a pause, “But you’re welcome to visit, if you have any more concerns.”

  ”I trust you to take care of your own,” Rachel replied.

  ”Your kindness speaks volumes, Rachel,” Cinza said with a slight bow. She looked a touch disappointed, but she hid it well. She reached into her bag for something. Rachel looked on curiously, but Cinza only produced an ordinary cell phone, which she handed over. It was oddly out of place in the girl’s hand, when bracelets and charms clung tight to her wrist inches away. “This phone can reach me. I’m the only contact listed.” Rachel accepted it, and Cinza left.

  Ryan frowned. “Cinza might not be bringing it up yet, but we both noticed when you decided to jump in.”

  Rachel shrugged. “I waited until the last possible moment, in case we could have kept our secrecy.”

  ”Whose last possible moment, though?” Ryan asked. Rachel didn’t answer, and he nodded with satisfaction before turning to follow Cinza out the door.

  Rachel let out a deep breath, sitting back down again and stretching out her shoulders briefly before she turned to look at the only remaining person in the room.

  Boris Morozov gave her a faint, knowing smile. “Miss DuValle, is there something I can help you with?”

  ”No, Boris, but perhaps your friend would be willing to reveal themselves now?”

  Boris cocked his head to the side once more, listening before responding once again. “She says she cannot. But she wants you to know that she thinks you are doing the right thing and that you should keep going. She trusts you.”

  Rachel nodded, equal parts disappointed and encouraged. Grey-eyes had been listening for the entire meeting, hidden so thoroughly that no one could possibly notice. Only Rachel, through the nearly imperceptible clues given away by Boris himself, had picked up on her presence. “Thank you.”

  She stood, and Boris stood as well, offering his hand. She shook it firmly, and he smiled again. “For what it is worth, I agree. I think you’ve achieved something admirable today.”

  Then why won’t she reveal herself to me? Rachel wondered in dismay. “I’ll be in touch.”

  She turned and left the room, heading out into the bright sunlight of midday. It didn’t cheer her up as much as she’d hoped. As Ryan had said, it was the end of the world, starting that day. No matter that a new one was ready to spring into place, the old world would not go quietly into the night. The transition would be rough, and it would be bloody. The first evidence of that was pressing on her mind, the memory of dismembered and tortured innocents fresh in her brain as with any other memory she’d ever held. She steeled herself, setting off down the street with a firm step and strengthened resolve.

  Rachel DuValle had a murderer to catch.

Awakening — Chapter 09
Interlude I

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