Chapter 15 — The Heart of a Leader
Rachel might have to deal with Mabel Walsh.
The old woman had a knack for slithering her way into every situation, whether she had any reason to be involved or not. She was one of the rare few with affinity for Knowledge magic. Her particular talents gave her a keen insight on falsehoods and deception, spells which she refused to expound upon for the rest of the Council. It was doubtful anyone else could actually accomplish much even if she had explained them, as Knowledge magic was particularly difficult for anyone without the affinity — but with the Council’s express purpose in collaborating and coordinating the budding magical community, it was invariably frustrating for Rachel to see an elected councilor to be so opposed.
Will spent many sleepless nights brainstorming various potential methods with Rachel on how they might imitate Mabel’s abilities. They’d worked through the basics first — trying to detect increased physical reactions like eye movements and dilation, changes in breathing or sitting position, or any number of nearly-undetectable shifts in a person when attempting to lie. None produced as reliable results as Mabel could regularly produce.
Will once surreptitiously monitored her from a few rooms away while Mabel had helped them interview a potential awakening candidate, which was how they’d determined her affinity. The discovery of Mabel as the third Knowledge affinity in town had placed the technique squarely in Will’s domain — and totally out of Rachel’s reach.
Rachel was increasingly frustrated by her limited ability to cast spells. Her own affinity for Mental magic seemed paltry and useless compared to the feats regularly performed by Cinza or Natalie with their Nature magic, Will with his incredibly useful spells to track and determine magic, or whatever insane combination of abilities allowed Kendra to cast something as impossible as the Market. At best, Rachel’s capabilities seemed to extend to modifying her own mental capacity and the method Will had discovered to view relationship connections. She’d put those two to the best effect she could manage, but in a fight (as Rallsburg seemed destined to slide into strife), Rachel felt utterly useless.
She therefore resolved to provide her allies with the best weapons she could manage. If Rachel could not help on the frontlines, she would have to act as the tactician and armsmaster. All her efforts would be in support of the best general and fighter she could find. At the moment, that was the girl she was currently trekking through the thick mountain forest to find.
Cinza had given her brief instructions on how to find their encampment, but Rachel had always been poor at navigating the world, as so many loved to remind her. She may have compensated for this by memorizing the entire town inch by inch, but that did little to help her maneuver through the ever-thickening woods. The best she could do was recognize any clearings or landmarks she had already passed.
Her cell phone was out of range, so she couldn’t call for help either. The only communication she maintained with the outside world was her connection to Will, strong and reliable as ever. Every so often, Rachel shifted to view it once again, just to remind herself it was there. However, due to the distance and the murky nature of such viewing, she couldn’t use it even as a compass bearing.
If only I’d thought to bring a compass, Rachel mused. She’d been in a bit of a rush, as she only had so long before her absence was noted. Will was covering for her, but Rachel’s current mission was to remain an absolute secret between the three of them. Even the sheriff, as much as Rachel had grown to like the woman, couldn’t know her current plan. If she were found out, it would split the Council down the middle and send them tumbling into far greater chaos and disarray.
Rachel sat down on a log, feeling winded. She dug through her bag for a sandwich and munched it down. Nature wasn’t exactly something she hated, but Rachel had never been particularly inclined toward it either. She regarded it with a mixed indifference: it could be beautiful, and it was certainly necessary for the world to function, but she had no need to actually go out and be in it. Pictures were plenty for her. She’d much rather be inside enjoying a book than taking a hike through the wilderness any day — not that she had time for either anymore. There was always too much to do.
Still, Rachel respected the environment enough not to debase it for the rest of the world. She made sure all the trash from her brief meal was stored back in her bag. Once again, Rachel marvelled at the satchel — and bemoaned her own inability to create something so functional and useful. The bags were created by Kendra from the same principles as her Market. Rachel had begged to know the method, but Kendra had steadfastly refused.
Each bag held far more than it should have, obviously, but they still carried weight. It wasn’t possible to haul much more around than usual. The rows of pouches and the massive increase of space simply made it easier to organize, as well as carry around valuables in a much more protected space, as the interior was wholly unaffected by weather. The real clever trick was that they were powered by the owner, not by Kendra herself. If Kendra had been required to keep the magic alive, distance and the increasing number of them she’d sold would have quickly drained her of energy completely. Instead, the bag was tied to its particular owner, and was fed a small supply of energy at a constant rate to keep it intact.
Rachel could feel its gentle tug on her body at all times, like a tiny weight seated somewhere near her heart. It was so miniscule that she could only notice it when she actively tried, like being aware of her own breathing or blinking. It took very little effort, but it had to be maintained or the contents would collapse instantly into the actual size of the bag, compressing without regard for their wellbeing. It was this penchant for self-destruction if stolen that had Rachel keep it on her at all times. She kept several invaluable possessions inside, including both the Scraps she and Will had awakened from as well as the council spellbook — a plastic binder where they kept every Scrap, six in total, that had been discovered and donated to the Council.
The cost of such bags was not inconsequential, as Kendra had only made a select few for very high-paying customers. Rachel’s had been a gift, in recognition of her efforts for the community and their own friendship. She was incredibly grateful every time she used it, as she’d never be able to afford such an exorbitant sum on her meagre income. Rachel had only managed to attend school through a stack of loans in the first place, and Rallsburg was one of the few schools to accept her, desperate due to their dwindling attendance rates.
If I hadn’t applied here, where would I be now? she thought, starting off through the woods once more. I’d never have met Will. Would I have even awoken if it hadn’t been sprung on me that day? It wasn’t the first time she’d pondered such questions. Rachel felt like she had dropped into her role purely by chance. She’d done her best to make the most of it, but every day still felt like a blind flight to some degree.
Would they have died if someone else were in charge?
Rachel shook her head and tried to clear her mind. Her thoughts were becoming nonsensical; how was her elected position to have altered the fate of three murdered by Omega? She had barely been awakened herself when Alpha and Omega first fought. She couldn’t have been a factor. When they were forced apart by Hector Peraza, Rachel was just another face in the cowering crowd.
A particularly stubborn and misleadingly high root nearly tripped her and sent her falling head-over-heels. Rachel tried to focus on where she was going, but her doubts continued to circle around her like vultures waiting for prey. Will I ever be trusted like Hector? She liked the man — everyone like Hector — but she was also quite jealous of him. He held a mountain of respect from every member of the council for his heroic actions. When Omega had confronted Alpha in front of the assembled Council, it seemed as though they might tear the entire building apart. Hector stepped in, without thought for his well-being, and drove them to back down. His bravery outstripped anything Rachel had ever seen.
They’d agreed to a permanent truce. Neither would interfere with the community again, so long as the rules were followed. Omega may have ideological objections to the direction their society was headed in, but he wasn’t going to confront Alpha and Hector as a combined force. Not alone.
It was only when he’d found a supporter than Omega had finally returned. He was still technically abiding by the terms of the truce, but his influence and his methods were clear. He was making a new attempt to end the spread of magic, and this time he wasn’t simply targeting the source. His destruction would be far wider than the library — it would be the entire town.
”It’s about time,” came a call from the trees nearby. Rachel stopped, not sure where the voice had come from, but it was clearly Cinza. It echoed and reverberated through the underbrush in an unnatural way, coupled with the usual ethereal floatiness that she tended to speak in by default.
Two silver robes stepped out from behind thick trunks a few dozen meters away. It looked like Makoto, if Rachel had to guess from the outline, and another she did not recognize. Cinza’s voice floated out again, seemingly from everywhere at once. “Follow them, please.”
Makoto gave her a brief silent nod. Without waiting for a response, he turned and started walking into the deepest part of the forest, where the trees grew even thicker together and the paths were nearly nonexistent.
Rachel clutched her bag more tightly and followed them in. Whatever friendship she might feel growing with Cinza, the girl was still an enigma. She wouldn’t let her guard down just yet.
It felt like they’d traveled miles, but it had only taken a few more minutes to reach Cinza’s little enclave. As Rachel emerged through the trees, she had to shade her eyes from the burst of sunlight through the open air. She surveyed the place in awe, as she hadn’t expected such a cultivated and developed home for Cinza and her followers.
There were a couple small cabins, made of the same wood as the forest, sitting at the far end, while scattered tents dotted around the rest of the wide expanse lay at the points of what Rachel realized to be the same eight-pointed star symbol as the book, and as Cinza wore around her neck. The logs for the cabins looked too natural somehow, and Rachel suspected they’d been placed there with magical means. However, it was the centerpiece of the domain which really caught her attention.
There were rows of plants in the center of the clearing, alongside a stream that crossed through from one end to the other, providing a gentle backdrop of trickling water to the birdsong and other sounds of the forest around them. A few people were crouched amongst the field, checking plants and pulling up those that were ready to harvest.
Cinza herself was among them. It was one of the few times Rachel had ever seen her without her robes. Instead, she was dressed in jeans and a light t-shirt, though her charms and necklaces still shone and glittered off the caught sunlight. She had soil caking her hands and knees and sweat clear on her brow, but the girl looked quite satisfied. All in all, it looked like a productive and perfectly ordinary farm — except that it should have been impossible.
After realizing they were under siege, Rachel had done a bit of research into ways to sustain themselves cut off from the world. From what she had read, a farm in such conditions as these — a thick forest full of competitive plants, relatively low temperatures and much less direct sunlight available due to the canopy of branches and leaves — should not have been remotely successful. Yet as Rachel watched, one of Cinza’s companions pulled up several large healthy harvests and carried them away to be stored. Cinza herself was still busy working the field while Rachel approached, and Rachel could tell she was being deliberately ignored for effect. She sat down on a nearby folding chair, curious to see what the girl had to show off.
Cinza knelt back on her feet and closed her eyes. Her small hands clenched hard as she exerted herself, drawing some form of energy out into the surroundings. Rachel wished she could see magic in action as Will could, but her ability to view connections only extended to relationships and emotional reactions, and she doubted Cinza would reveal her secrets willingly. Instead, she had to guess at what the girl might be doing while she sat in what looked like deep, intense prayer.
A ray of sunlight shot down from the canopy, visible through the particles in the air. It looked as though it were bending in midair as it landed on the plants, lighting them up where before they had been in shadow. Cinza’s eyes remained closed, and the light intensity increased. The plants before her, which she had just laid in the ground and buried only moments before, sprouted immediately. It was as though someone had sped up a video in front of Cinza, watching the leaves and stem poke out of the soil and reach for the lifegiving sunlight. A moment later, however, Cinza opened her eyes and the growth came to a halt as quickly as it had begun.
She let out a deep breath, then finally looked up to Rachel with a knowing smile. Her large, dark eyes sparkled with mischief, as if Cinza were a child doing something wrong, but knowing she was going to get away with it. “What do you think?”
”I get the wave redirection, but how do you manage to speed it up?” Rachel asked, leaning forward.
”Now, how could I give away such a valuable secret?” Cinza replied smugly. She turned to her follower further down the field, a thirty-something who looked like a man straight out of a picturesque farm, with the requisite floppy hat, straw in his teeth, and sun-beaten skin. “Aaron, finish up here for me please? I need to speak with our guest.”
”You got it,” Aaron answered cheerfully. He plopped himself down and began to cast similar spells, though with much less skill or speed.
”Teaching your followers, though, I see,” Rachel commented as Cinza stood and brushed the soil off her legs. Even standing straight, the girl’s eyeline barely reached up to Rachel’s chest. If Rachel hadn’t seen her in action, it would be difficult to take her seriously.
As it were, reminders of Cinza’s prowess and her stable of followers were at every turn. Makoto was quietly shadowing them through the camp, Rachel noticed after a few minutes, and was ready to strike at any moment. Meanwhile, familiar faces such as Morton Pollock or Nate Price gave her friendly glances as she passed. Cinza greeted everyone as they passed, asking about their day. More personal questions were quickly whispered out of Rachel’s earshot. Rachel was regarded with confusion — not hostility or distrust, exactly, but merely out of place, like a person who’d stumbled into the wrong room and had no particular reason to be there.
”The company I keep is naturally suspicious of outsiders, I’m afraid,” Cinza replied lightly. She didn’t sound too concerned. “Given our present situation, can you fault them some healthy paranoia?”
”I guess not,” Rachel said, watching them carefully. She was trying to determine how many followers Cinza had precisely. After realizing there must be several more unaccounted for by the number of tents and belongings present, she gave up. “How many are you?”
”Just eleven or so, actually,” Cinza replied, startling her. “I trust you, Rachel, though my friends warn me against it. I believe you are still the best suited to lead us, as much as I’d prefer the position myself. I think we could form a great partnership, if you’re willing. I would not have invited you here otherwise.”
”The cult moniker does drive away potential newcomers,” Cinza said with a touch of irritation. “This is no cult, though.”
”You have a pretty strong devotion to a single person, though,” Rachel pointed out. “Wouldn’t that qualify you as a cult?”
”So does the whole of Christianity. Is that a cult?” Cinza replied. “Our goddess walks among us, helps us, saves us. If we are a cult, then we are one with a justifiable and decent figure to worship. Not that any of us worship her exactly,” she added. “I don’t think she’d much like that, and none of us are particularly inclined toward it.”
”So why do all this?”
”Dress the way you do, live out here in the wilderness, all of this.”
Cinza smiled. “Because we are preparing for the next world.”
She laughed. “That’s exactly what a cult would say.”
”Fair enough, but it’s the truth. The Emergence has begun, and the end of the world is not far beyond it. When that happens, my people will already know how to live in a society where the magical and the mundane are intertwined.”
”Do you really think the world will end?”
”I think that Ryan put it best. The old world will end. A new one is coming. We don’t know what that new world will be like. It’s already occurring in small-scale here in Rallsburg, though Omega’s interference is throwing everything into disarray. But even without this mess, do you really think we could just integrate ourselves into the modern world without incident? That society would take us in and continue mostly unchanged?” Cinza held out a hand, and a bottle of water flew through the air of its own accord into her grasp. She took a deep drink before continuing. “It’ll be chaos.”
Rachel sighed. “I hope you’re wrong.”
”I would love to be wrong, but I know better by now.”
They passed a small blanket laid out near what seemed to be a steam generator, wired up to something inside the cabin. Rachel raised an eyebrow, and Cinza shrugged.
”You didn’t think we’d just give up on modern comforts, did you? We have cell phones and internet here, same as the rest of the town.” She pointed, and sure enough, there was a small satellite dish mounted on the roof. “It’s not a great connection, but it’s enough. It helps that we can make power from almost nothing,” she added with a grin.
Two yellow eyes emerged from the forest near them, slinking around a tree trunk. They were followed by the largest mountain lion Rachel had ever seen, bronze furred and with thick killing muscles. It eyed her with something that seemed like distaste. Cinza beckoned to it, and it approached, allowing her to scratch its ears affectionately.
”Have you not met Scrappy yet?” Cinza asked, obviously enjoying Rachel’s consternation.
”What?” Rachel asked, her eyes locked on the cat’s and not daring to break contact.
”Natalie’s favorite pet. Only because she couldn’t find a wolf yet, I think.” Cinza slid her hand across its thick smooth fur a few more times before it slinked away again. It curled up on the blanket in front of the generator, which was emanating heat like a furnace.
”Does Natalie come out here?”
”Yes, every so often. She managed to find us despite the measures we put in place. Don’t worry, we make sure she’s safe. Though truth be told, I think she’s probably better suited to keeping us safe these days,” Cinza replied. “That girl has power. Way more than all of us.”
Rachel frowned. “She’s only twelve. How could she be so powerful?”
”I’ve had a few theories about that,” Cinza said. “Perhaps it’s simply the length of time since she awakened. Natalie was one of the very first, was she not?”
”The rest of us came after the Gods and the first few. We were random, or we were chosen by the council and allowed through the process,” she added pointedly. Rachel ignored it. “Natalie and her contemporaries, Kendra and Hector, have been routinely able to perform feats far exceeding what we would believe possible. Natalie just doesn’t use them much. Or perhaps she doesn’t use them where we can see her, since she prefers to spend her time out here in the forests with her friends.”
”But they were powerful immediately, not over time. It’s been a year and the rest of us aren’t nearly to that level.”
”So they have some other secret.” She shrugged. “If we can find out the truth, then all the better, but I don’t lose sleep over it. What would worry me is any others with such power that we’ve never discovered.”
”It’s not likely,” Rachel said. “I’m pretty sure I’ve tracked down everyone actively using magic.”
”Yet you cannot track Omega.”
”…You’re right,” Rachel admitted. “Maybe there are more I’ve missed, who can’t be tracked in the same way he can’t.”
”I wouldn’t worry about it,” Cinza said, patting her arm. “If they were going to cause us real trouble, I’m sure they would have shown themselves by now.” She took a few steps in front of Rachel and pulled open the cabin door. Makoto was still lurking behind, but did not follow them. “After you, glorious leader.”
The cabin was a small, two-room affair — or more accurately, it might be described as a single room split down the middle by a woven curtain. The entire place made Rachel feel as though she needed to duck. It had been built with Cinza in mind, with accommodations for her taller followers, but Rachel was still easily one of the tallest people in Rallsburg.
Several of Cinza’s silver-grey robes hung on hooks near the front door. A few ragged armchairs, apparently recovered from a thrift shop or charity drive, sat near a stone fireplace sharing the wall with the generator. Wires trailed off into the corner where a laptop and a small television sat along with a pile of books. A bookcase laden with various small gemstones and bowls of chalk took up the far wall. Through the curtain, Rachel could barely make out a wide, comfortable bed with thick rumpled covers and another desk, both rather unremarkable, and a smaller bookcase full of unmarked books. The curtain was the only notable thing about the room, but it more than made up for the rest of the underwhelming interior.
It was a massive, gorgeous design depicting many interconnected stars of varying colors and beams of light, like a breathtaking night sky dotted with intricate designs. Rachel could have spent hours digesting its detail. She noticed that many of the stars held the design of the same one from the book, and that Cinza still wore around her neck. It had to have been made just for them.
”Ruby’s,” Cinza commented, noticing Rachel’s interest. “She’s quite talented at her artwork.”
”This is incredible,” Rachel said.
”She’ll be pleased to hear it. She gave that to me for my twenty-third,” Cinza said with a warm smile. “It was the best birthday gift I’ve ever gotten.”
”When was that?” Rachel asked, reaching out a hand to feel it. The fibers were thick and felt strong and durable.
”December twenty fifth, actually.”
”Quite. Made for a disappointing childhood, trust me,” Cinza said, without bitterness. Rachel turned around to see her stripping off her sweat-laden shirt — with nothing on underneath. “Sorry, I just had to get rid of that before it stunk up the whole room.” The scars on her chest were plain as day just below the star necklace, and Rachel knew she was showing them off deliberately. She wanted Rachel to ask.
Rachel didn’t feel like rising to the bait. “I came out here to ask you to—”
”Rachel, please.” Cinza took a seat in one of the armchairs. The shirt floated out of the rear window, presumably to a laundry. “Sit and let’s talk a while.”
”We don’t really have time for this.”
”Are you afraid your absence will be noted?” Cinza shrugged. “Given your hectic activities since the Emergence, I doubt it will surprise anyone that you can’t be reached for a while. In any event, your cell phone will work in our home. We have a repeater set up along with the satellite connection.”
Rachel shook her head. “I should be getting back as soon as I can.”
”You need me, and I need you. We barely know each other,” Cinza said, pulling her legs up onto the chair and leaning back comfortably. Her voice slipped out of the floaty echo she had been keeping up until that moment. She still had that vaguely eastern-European accent which Rachel couldn’t place, but her voice was no longer magically altered. “Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve actually gotten to talk to someone for real?”
Rachel had no response for that. She finally reluctantly sat down across from Cinza.
A flick of the girl’s fingers and the fire lit up, as it was still relatively cool out for a morning in May. The burst of heat sent her recoiling for a moment, but it felt good, and she soon felt much more relaxed. The chair was a bit low for her, but it put them at a relatively equal height compared to Cinza’s wide, tall armchair. She still felt a bit odd sitting across from the topless Cinza, but the girl seemed totally comfortable and with no intent to dress herself, so Rachel did her best to ignore it.
”Don’t you talk to them?” she asked, tilting her head outside.
Cinza shook her head, and there was an undercurrent of loneliness in her voice as she spoke. Her voice had lost its affectation, but she had not lost her dramatic flair. “I’m their leader, after all. I didn’t intend to be, but the position was forced upon me. So I’ve never really had the opportunity to speak with any of them as equals. They look to me for guidance, not for vulnerability. I have Ruby, of course, but our relationship is a bit different.”
”That sounds awful.”
”It was, at first. If Ruby hadn’t found me, I probably would have gone insane.” She looked over at the curtain and smiled again. “I owe her so much.”
”…Who are you, Cinza?”
She hesitated. “I said I wanted to talk openly, and I meant it. So if you ask again, I’ll answer, but I will tell you this now: I abandoned my old identity. Not a soul knows my real name for a hundred miles or more. I created myself anew from nothing, because to include even an inkling of who I had been would be to grant the opportunity for that poison, that venom to slither its way back into my life. That girl died the day I awakened.”
She looked so intense that Rachel couldn’t imagine asking her to unveil that portion of her life, no matter how curiosity might tug at her brain otherwise.
”I won’t ask.”
”I will, though. Who are you, Rachel DuValle?”
”How do you want me to answer that? You could be asking anything.”
Cinza leaned forward, putting her chin on folded hands propped up by the arms of the chair. “I did a bit of digging with Morton’s help. He’s learned quite a bit as the apprentice to the only journalist in town. How does the daughter of a single mother and struggling actress in B.C. end up in a backwater town like Rallsburg, and become the leader of the new world?”
”You found my mother?” Rachel asked, surprised. While she wasn’t exactly unknown, her mother had never managed anything more than bit parts or character work. Rachel was the only person to ever add her information on internet databases, as far as she could tell. “I didn’t think anyone cared enough to search for her.”
”I wanted to know more about you,” Cinza replied. “Like I said, you’re completely unlike what I’d expected to find when I first arrived. You do remember, don’t you?”
”You tried to overthrow the council. How could I forget?”
Cinza grinned. “And we’d all be in a far worse place if I had succeeded. I’m glad they taught me a lesson.”
”Come on. Don’t beat yourself up over current events. This would have happened no matter who lead the council. Omega was a time-bomb waiting to happen.”
Rachel sighed. “It doesn’t change what we had to do to keep the peace.”
”You mean the dramatics around your friend Rika?”
She nodded. “I wouldn’t take it back, but I would have done it differently somehow. She had to leave, but it didn’t have to be so harsh.”
”What did you do to get her away?”
”Threatened to get her deported,” Rachel said, glancing away to hide her embarrassment.
Cinza smiled. “You’re already taking up the traditions of government.”
”It would have been a big deal. If she’d lit up the system like that, her father might have gotten involved, or worse. She’d lose a lot.”
”But she didn’t, and she survived, and now she’s back.” Cinza said. Rachel looked back, and Cinza was giving her a comforting look. “You’ve punished yourself enough for that, Rachel. Rika could be brought back into the fold, if we give her a chance.”
”I guess so.”
”Back to my original question, though. What brought you here, of all places?”
Rachel shrugged. “I saw the school listed as one of the cheapest around that still offered decent degrees, ones that wouldn’t be laughed out of job interviews. With my mom’s income, I had to take what I could get, and at least it was still in the Northwest.”
”So even before you changed yourself, you had ambition,” Cinza noted.
”So someone told you about me from before?”
She laughed, not unkindly. “I heard it all, and it doesn’t bother me. I trust you as our leader because of your decisions and your judgment, not your memory capacity or your ability to hear people standing a few feet away.”
”You heard about that too?” Rachel said, sinking back into her chair.
Cinza, mercifully, did not recount the tale. “Your decisions and your judgment have not changed, no matter what magic you may have applied to yourself — and by the way, I’d love to hear about that particular ritual. Every decision you make, the community as a whole comes first. You have sacrificed personal relationships and your own well-being for the sake of us all. Even when you may have personal doubts, you still follow the will of us all, and try to act in our best interest. So I trust you.”
Rachel felt warmth budding through herself at the girl’s words. Cinza was older than her, and had a worldliness about her that bespoke many hardships Rachel had never faced. She thought Rachel was doing a good job, and to hear such approval was encouraging.
”You lead too, though, without anyone to help you,” Rachel commented. “How do you make decisions for such a group on your own?”
Cinza sighed. “It’s never easy. Some days, you may have to make the same sorts of decisions. When we come to a crossroads, I ask for advice, I consider it carefully, but they all look to me to actually take the first step down the fork. I choose what I think is best, and I do not look back.”
”What if you’re wrong?”
”Better to be wrong and find out, than to be paralyzed at the decision and never discover what was right,” she replied. “I would rather know which was correct for the future. If I have learned anything from my childhood, it is that there will always be another opportunity coming along the path, if only one is ready to reach out and grab it before it passes by.
”I do wonder though,” Cinza continued. “You spend all your time out helping the town. When does Rachel get time?”
”You should talk to Will,” Rachel laughed. “He thinks the same thing.”
”Then he’s a smart one. Keep him close. But do you have a hobby? Something you do to relax?”
Rachel shrugged. “Watch TV, read. I used to write a lot. Mostly journal-type stuff. And I liked drawing. Sometimes I’d write fanfiction,” she said, trying not to catch Cinza’s eye.
”You should continue. Even if just to document what’s been occurring. A record could be very useful someday.”
”I stopped when I modified my memory. I can’t forget anything, so I didn’t see a need to commit it to paper.”
”You may not, but the rest of us aren’t so fortunate. Since you can remember it all precisely, you should keep a record.”
Rachel considered the idea. It wasn’t bad, actually. Having a written record of everything would be invaluable in the future, particularly if she was unavailable to recount events, or her testimony was declared untrustworthy for whatever reason. “I think I might. Thank you.”
”I wrote some fanfiction myself, actually,” Cinza added, with a small smile. “It was a passion of mine for a while, when I wasn’t writing down my own life in excessive detail.”
”Really. I… well, I needed anything to escape my circumstances. I had already burned through all the books I had, and I needed to spend more time in the worlds I’d fallen in love with. So I dove in and swallowed up every single piece I could find. When I ran out, I started writing my own. It helped me keep myself centered and sane.”
Rachel frowned, letting her eyes drop to the scars that stood out on Cinza’s chest once again. They were many, crossing each other, some deeper than others. “Is that when…” she started, not quite sure if it crossed the line Cinza had laid down.
Cinza nodded, her tone fading. “I only destroyed my identity, Rachel. My history is written in stone and in blood, not in ink.”
”How did it happen?”
”A man of conviction.” Cinza’s eyes narrowed. “One of many substitute parents who decided that the will of his God involved beating a child until she bled from the organs of impurity and corruption.”
”Substitute parents… Do you mean foster homes?”
She sighed. “Do you know that the term ‘foster’ implies development and progress? Like to foster learning or to foster a sense of self-worth. I never felt anything like that. I met religious zealots, I met disgusting sloths. I met nervous wrecks who abandoned their parental duties after mere days of responsibility. I was raised by those who would exploit and those who would abuse in equal measure.” The bitterness in her voice was palpable. Rachel felt as though she could taste it from across the room, such was the strength of Cinza’s frustration. “Despite all their efforts, though, I survived intact. I found a true family, and a true goddess that none of theirs could measure up to.”
She smiled. “There’s a word. ‘To grow or develop vigorously’. I definitely haven’t grown,” she said, glancing down at herself. “Sometimes I wonder if I was stunted somehow. I can never be sure since I’ve no clue about my birth parents.” She shook her head. “It’s not important. I’m happy. It took years, but I finally realized that I couldn’t be put into a family. Even the best they could offer wouldn’t have me. I had to make my own.”
The curtain shifted. Dressed in a simple nightshirt with deep red curls spilling out messily down her back, Ruby emerged from the other half of the cabin. Rachel started. She hadn’t realized the girl was there.
”I’m sorry, Ruby. Did we wake you?” Cinza asked.
”I just woke up. S’okay,” Ruby murmured. “Hi, Rachel.” She stumbled bleary-eyed over to Cinza’s wide armchair and sat down, curling up with the smaller girl and closing her eyes once more. It reminded Rachel of a pet coming to sleep by its owner’s side. She felt a bit uncomfortable with the image. Ruby was young, just eighteen if she had to guess, and though obviously infatuated with Cinza, she was also at an easily impressionable age.
Cinza ran a hand through her crimson hair idly while she turned back to Rachel. “What about your father?”
”I go out to see him on occasion. He lives in Redmond and works for one of the software companies out there.” She was embarrassed to admit she couldn’t remember the name of it, as it had been before she’d enacted her ritual and she’d never looked it up since. Something to do when she got home. “He was always around, but he and my mother didn’t get along.”
”Ah,” Cinza said. “You wish it could have been different.”
”I guess.” Rachel shrugged. “I always liked the idea of a full family, all under one roof and spending time together. It’s why I spent so much time with Rika, actually. She was like a sister to me all through high school, since we lived next to each other and went to school together. Then she moved back home, and I didn’t see her again until after her mom died. We let her stay with us, but it wasn’t the same.”
”I can’t say I know her very well, but she seems like someone who’d take that very hard.”
”Yeah. She was a bit messed up. I never knew what to do for her after that. I came out here to Rallsburg and she followed me, because she could afford it and she had nothing better to do. She didn’t even attend the school. She took odd jobs just to have something to do, but usually ended up quitting before too long.” She paused. “Or getting fired.”
”That sounds more accurate.”
Rachel laughed. “Her rants were legendary though. Whether the job was back in Tacoma for a few weeks or something around here, everyone talked about them. We even recorded some of them.”
”But for Rika it was frustrating.”
”Yeah. She didn’t have any aim in life. That was when I gave her one of the page copies. I thought awakening her might give her some purpose. I don’t think it really did.”
”If I might make a wild guess,” Cinza said thoughtfully. Rachel nodded. “I think she decided to just help you with whatever you were doing. If I remember right, during that other coup attempt — not mine,” she added hastily. Rachel laughed. “She stepped in and single-handedly stopped the attempt in its tracks, didn’t she? Sent them all away with their tails between their legs.”
”She did,” Rachel agreed. “She was the only one of us who had practiced magic thinking about combat. If not for that, we’d probably have been pretty badly hurt.”
”Or worse. I think they were out for blood.”
Rachel shuddered. The memory prompted her back to the present, however, and their current pressing concerns. “Cinza, we need to deal with Omega.”
She sighed, putting her arms around Ruby. The red-haired girl snuggled closer, her head pressed into the space between Cinza’s lap and the cushions of the armchair. “You’re right, we do. You said you had a plan?”
”His only weapon, if he still can’t enter the town, is his golems,” Rachel started. “Our greatest disadvantage against them is a lack of information. When we’re dealing with fire, or telekinetics, or any other magical attacks, we know how to counter them or interfere with them. We can summon up the opposite element, or deflect and break ties. But none of us can perform Creation magic, or have any idea how such golems function. We need more information.”
”The new Scrap,” Cinza said, realization dawning on her face.
Rachel nodded. “I can’t take it, though, or use it effectively. I’m terrible at magic, so reading it myself would be worthless. And if I were to take it to give to another, it would send the entire council into an uproar. We’d be doomed right away from infighting. I think Omega would love nothing more.”
”What are you proposing?”
”I want you to steal it.”
Ruby looked up, her blue eyes wide. “Steal it?” she murmured.
”You can give it to whomever you think would best be served by the first reading. From how this played out, it hopefully has something to do with the golems that Omega summons. It’s more than likely why he’s been attacking us lately, since we discovered it.”
Cinza’s eyes were narrow. “But we’ll be blamed for the theft.”
Rachel shook her head. “The blame will be placed solely at Omega’s feet. We’ve already told them that he has a servant. A pawn, really. He could have found it and taken it.”
”Right out from under Hector’s protection?” she asked skeptically.
”It’s not unheard of. Hector isn’t infallible.”
”Why us?” Cinza asked. “I mean, if we are caught, having the blame on a group like us is the best outcome, certainly. But wouldn’t you rather it be one of your own magically skilled lieutenants? Both Josh and Will could probably handle magic of that caliber.”
”They might, but neither of them have an effective force at their side.” Rachel nodded her head at the door. “I saw your people fight against the golems last time, remember? You didn’t back down or run. You were organized. You have the only group here that’s ever been in real combat, except maybe Viper. They performed admirably.”
Cinza looked pleased. “Thank you.”
”There are a few things I need from you though, if I’m going to give you the location of the Scrap,” Rachel continued. Cinza’s eyes narrowed again.
”Well, speaking of Viper, I need you to stop stealing his stuff.”
She raised her eyebrows. “How did you know?”
”A group as well-supplied as you in this wilderness, with your background? Give me more credit than that.”
She laughed. “Fair enough. We’ve become self-sustaining for the most part. I can leave the mercenary alone.”
”I’ll also need you to keep your knowledge of the golem magic absolutely secret from the community. Practice it out here, but don’t deploy it unless we actually need it in a fight. We can get away with learning their weaknesses and spreading that knowledge, but if you start summoning golems, there’s no way we can cover it up.”
”That seemed obvious.”
”And I need you to meet with the reverend.”
”What?” This was the first request that seemed genuinely confusing to the girl.
”The reverend, Henry Smith. At the memorial, he told the crowd he intended to meet with you. He could be an important bridge for us. Can you try to open a relationship with him?”
Cinza’s expression was hard. Ruby sat up, her arm around the shorter Cinza. She looked nervous. “I understand your reasoning,” Cinza said slowly. “You understand what you’re asking me to do, right?”
Rachel thought back through the conversation they’d just had. “I do. Please. Just let him meet you and try to make it cordial, at least. I don’t expect you to become friends with him, but hear him out. He’s not at all what I expected. He might surprise you.”
It took a few minutes for Cinza to respond. Her hand was clutching Ruby’s, but her face was unreadable. Rachel prayed she would consent. A relationship with the town doctor and reverend would be an invaluable step toward integrating themselves into the community. Cinza was easily the most distant of the awakened to the mundane population. If there were a bridge between the two, Rachel could see so many more forming in the future.
”Let us keep the Scrap,” Cinza replied finally. Rachel was taken aback. She hadn’t expected a negotiation. It seemed at odds with the rest of the encounter.
Cinza’s request wasn’t totally unreasonable, given the level of risk she’d be undertaking to claim such a valued prize out from under the entire community. However, it would grant her the ability to awaken anyone she chose — could Rachel really trust her with such power and authority?
Rachel trusted her. Perhaps she’d regret it someday, but this girl, this fellow leader who understood the burdens they all faced better than anyone, was the closest she had to a real peer. If anyone could be given such trust, Cinza was the one.
The change in Rachel’s opinion of the leader of the greycloaks over the last few days was dramatic, to say the least, but it felt right. She felt confident about the choice — and more importantly, she genuinely liked Cinza. Her mannerisms and her tendency to dramatize in public had Rachel rolling her eyes, but this sensitive and caring leader, this fierce and bold protector, was something else entirely. Rachel could see herself aspiring to the same sort of attention to detail and loyalty that Cinza showed amongst her own followers.
”I won’t have any knowledge of it after it vanishes from Hector’s care,” Rachel replied deliberately. “It could have burned up, for all I know.”
Cinza grinned. “Sounds about right. We can do that.”
Rachel let out a huge sigh of relief. Cinza was on board. They were finally making some progress.
”I guess I should be going, then,” Rachel started, but Cinza shook her head.
”You still have time, don’t you? Stay, please. We don’t get many visitors. It’s always nice to have new people around.” Her voice was softer, and Ruby was looking at Rachel oddly, giving Rachel a mix of discomfort and curiosity. Ruby sat up and whispered something in Cinza’s ear with a light giggle.
”What?” Rachel asked, confused.
”Ruby thinks you look a bit ridiculous trying to fit into our cabin,” Cinza said, smiling.
Rachel rolled her eyes. “I was cursed with an absurd height. I’ve learned to live with ducking through every doorway.”
”Still, she thinks you’re very pretty, and I don’t disagree,” Cinza added. Ruby nodded, her eyes glittering.
”I, uhh… Thank you?” Rachel answered. She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. No one had ever told her that, besides Will.
The heat of the fire was suddenly much more noticeable, and Rachel felt like she might start sweating. The light in the room had shifted from the orange of the fire into an almost pinkish hue.
A few candles quietly flickered alight as Ruby surreptitiously fluttered her fingers. Rachel’s blood felt like it was rushing through her body unnaturally fast. She could feel it pulsing through her limbs and bringing her senses to bear. Rachel was very aware of Cinza’s half-nude body and the sweat glistening in the firelight, and of the hungry look in Ruby’s glittering blue eyes and beautiful face as they drifted about.
Even the aroma filling the cabin had shifted. Where Rachel had only smelled pine and the faint scent of smoke, her nostrils now filled with the flavor of scented candles and the aroma wafting across the room from the two women gazing at her.
Rachel felt like she was on display, and she didn’t enjoy it much. Under other circumstances she might have welcomed such lavish attention, but this was all wrong. She decided to put a stop to it before anything happened. “Look, I really should be going.”
Ruby tapped on her companion’s shoulder and whispered something else, but Cinza shook her head. “She’s not interested, Ruby. That’s enough. I’m going to step outside for a minute, all right?”
Ruby put on a pouting face, trying to be cute, but Cinza ignored her. She stood and pulled on the nearest silver-grey robe, summoning it to herself across the cabin. With a brief nod, she indicated the door — which Rachel made a hasty beeline for, where the bright, mercifully fresh open air awaited.