The Girl Who Would Be Queen
Chapter 01 — Of Melody and Magic
In a living room somewhere near Tacoma next to a roaring fire, a god and his lover were having a fight.
”I told her no!”
”But you still want to.”
”Is it a bad thing now, to want to save people’s lives? Even with the alert, even with the news media on our side and everything, people are still idiots. They’re trying to awaken.”
”And you can’t persuade Beverly to change her mind?”
”She’s fixed on the idea that it’s better if she doesn’t give them false hope. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but what she wanted isn’t happening. Like I said, they’re still trying, and it’s not just because they’re stupid. There’s bad actors out there, people convincing them it’s actually okay. It just takes one rumor, one meme, one convincing comment on the internet, and we’ve got another body in the dirt.”
”So what do you propose?”
”That we get out there! If we make it clear there’s a proper way, the rumors lose power. Right now, everybody’s in a lurch, since they’ve never been totally clear on how to awaken anyway. The closest anyone’s gotten to a full explanation was the leaked version of Cinza’s diaries floating around on torrents.”
”Are you serious right now? You’re going to criticize my diction?”
”You two are both being insane. Yes, I told her exactly what we always believed, but I can’t believe that’s really best anymore. Can’t there be a way to help people without making myself out to be some sort of god? Hailey’s doing it.”
”Hailey is being treated like a goddess anyway, despite her words.”
”Sure, but she’s not acting like one. So why can’t I do the same? We’re letting the world slide into chaos, and I might be able to do something about it.”
”You wanted to stay out. What changed?”
”People are dying, that’s what changed! It’s not just internal anymore, either. This isn’t just Omega attacking the other awakened, Cinza trying to overthrow the council, or any of the other squabbles. We had a terrorist group of mundane people trying to commit genocide.”
”And that creates feuds. Blood feuds, the kind that people never back down from. We saw it at home, too. The Harrisons and the Prices. You can’t ever take back or forgive death. Cinza’s preaching peace, but it’s not going to stick.”
”…So what do you propose to do to stop it?”
”Haven’t you been listening? I should already be out doing something right now! I’ve got authority, I have influence, and I can awaken people. We can save them. We can help restart the new world.”
”Or we can stay back and let them handle it. The new world is already in motion. Natalie saw to it.”
”You’d let a thirteen year old girl carry that kind of weight?”
”Haven’t we already?”
”I’m trying to say I’m not okay with this anymore. Why can’t you hear me?”
”So do something about it. You’re an adult. Why do you need my approval?”
”Because I… I still love you. We’re in this together. Aren’t we?”
”…That’s it? You’re just going to… brush me off?”
”I think you’re being irrational and failing to see the bigger picture. We forecasted this. You knew it was a possibility. Perhaps not at this scale, but after you and Omega destroyed the book, Beverly was always going to be the final point of failure. Nothing’s changed.”
”How can you say that?”
”How can you be so foolish?”
”I… I can’t do this anymore.”
”So leave, then.”
A door slammed. The fire crackled away, but in that room in Tacoma, everything was suddenly much colder and darker than only a few minutes before.
On December thirty-first, two thousand eighteen—the same day as Felix Wieczorek’s bail hearing, though none in the camp would hear of it until the next round of mail came in—Zoë Portman felt love for the first time.
At least, she assumed it was love. Zoë was twenty-one years old, and despite several relationships since fourteen, none of them had ever quite clicked. There was some unnameable quality, some immutable trait which defined a close loving relationship, and Zoë had just never recognized it with any of her partners.
As the New Year approached, there was a tingle in the air. It wasn’t just the aura of magic, either. Zoë was very familiar with the aura by now—everybody awakened in the Olympic Forest could tell instantly when they’d entered the blackout zone, as the public was now calling it. Zoë preferred the “Hendricks Zone”, though. The forest wasn’t blacked out, not even slightly. It was alive, more alive than it had ever been, with magical power filling every stone, every branch, every twig and leaf, butterfly and squirrel.
No, the tingle in the air wasn’t just magic. It was excitement. This was the first New Year celebration, and everyone knew the Greycloaks were coming to celebrate it.
”Come on!” shouted one person, rushing past Zoë in their haste to the north end of the camp, where a wide open area stood. Zoë briefly reminded herself to come up with a better name for their home than simply “the camp”, though of course, that was what they’d stuck to. “We gotta get a good spot!”
Since the Ritual—again, Zoë couldn’t bring herself to call it a blackout—the Greycloaks had begun to show themselves more frequently in the camp. First, it was Cinza herself, accompanied by her two lieutenants as always. She mostly came to see the National Guard commander, rarely joined by the non-Greycloak Josh Miller. Zoë liked him a lot, that Captain Hoskins. He’d put a lot of work into improving their home, well past his original mandate to root out Brian Hendricks’ group.
As the weeks went by, more of the Greycloaks filtered through, usually just to spend time with the pilgrims. Zoë always meant to get their names… but she’d never dared to approach any of them. Normally, Zoë didn’t have a problem with social situations—her current fling could attest to that—but something about the Greycloaks kept her at bay.
Maybe it was because she didn’t consider herself a pilgrim. After all, Zoë had already awakened before she came to the camp. Hell, she hadn’t even wanted to come. When the guns started firing, she’d had a few words to say about that.
Nah, she decided. It’s because they’re still really creepy.
Zoë was a skeptic, through and through. She hadn’t believed in magic for a single moment all year, no matter the rumors. The videos of Hailey Winscombe? Obviously fakes. Lakewood? There were explosives found, and nobody actually recorded Hailey flying there. Cinza’s leaked diaries? Who wasn’t trying to push their own conspiracy theory about what happened to Rallsburg?
And then, quite suddenly toward the end of November, Zoë Portman was a very firm believer in magic.
”Hey,” she said aloud, poking the other occupant of her tent. “Sleepy-bones.”
”Didn’t you want to go to the thing?”
”The show. The Greycloaks are gonna do a New Years thing.”
”It’s the first ever Magic New Years,” said Zoë, grinning slightly. “You wanna miss that?”
”Oh, okay,” she said finally. Her voice was floaty and soft, and it wasn’t just because she was so tired. “…Where’s my bra?”
Zoë rolled her eyes. “Come on, just go without. It’s not gonna be that long.”
”You’ll be under a blanket anyway!”
She twisted around under the sheet to look up at Zoë. Her long eyelashes fluttered, dark brown eyes alight with mischievous excitement. “Will you be under it with me?”
Zoë’s face heated up. “Yeah, I will.”
”Okay, okay.” The other girl started to move, gathering up her clothes one by one—but still far too slow for Zoë’s liking.
”Come on,” she said impatiently. “Nobody knows when they’re going to start.”
”Could use some incentive…” said the girl pointedly.
Zoë winced. “Okay, umm…” She thought for a few moments as the girl very slowly, very carefully pulled on a t-shirt. She’s gonna make me do something crazy if I don’t pick fast. “If we leave in the next thirty seconds, I’ll… I’ll be naked under the blanket with you.”
In an instant, she’d thrown on the shirt and jeans. Her belt was already around her waist before Zoë could even blink. By the time she’d caught up to what was happening, the other girl was the one dragging Zoë out of the tent by her arm, thick camping blanket already in hand.
She grinned. “No take backs!”
Zoë laughed. She didn’t really mind. In her years at college, Zoë had done crazier things. There was just something… different about the camp. Ever since they’d arrived, most of her exhibitionist qualities—though they paled in comparison to her companion—had completely died off.
Maybe it’s ’cause they call themselves ‘pilgrims’. Makes this place feel kinda religious. I hear they used to have a preacher who lived near here, way back. Wonder if he was Presbyterian.
She’d never been actively religious, but Zoë did believe in God. It was one of the few things she had in common with her companion. Sometimes, it made her laugh—one of the few connections they’d made had been over the one thing everybody assumed would keep them apart. Old religious precepts died hard, after all.
God knew better though. Zoë was grateful she’d met her.
”So what do you think it’s gonna be?” asked her companion, as they neared the gathering crowd to the north. Zoe looked up at the clocktower—a hastily constructed heap of stone and metal, atop which a clock in magically illuminated digits displayed the current time, based on some of the purely mechanical watches owned by the camp. It was getting toward midnight, but not there just yet.
They slowed down, and her companion made a beeline for an open space toward one side backed up against an overgrown RV, where they could have at least a little privacy.
Zoë shrugged. “No idea.”
”Didn’t they tell you anything?”
”I just heard it from somebody else.” Zoë glanced over her shoulder at one of the tents they’d just passed. “While I was out… you know.”
”Chatting up the bar?”
”Learning.” Magic, she added mentally, though she knew better than to say it aloud.
”Learning about a handsome guy?”
Zoë sighed. “I told you I’m not bi anymore.”
She laughed, and it was a sweet laugh which sent little bursts of warmth straight through to Zoë’s toes. “Have I corrupted you that much?”
”Says the one who didn’t like girls.”
Her face lit up with a pure, innocent smile. “Well, we hadn’t met yet!”
”You weren’t the first girl I dated, you know.”
”Ooh, do tell.”
”Back when I was in a band—”
She dropped the blanket dramatically—though in truth, they’d really just reached the spot she’d picked out. Her hands slapped to her cheeks. “You were in a band?”
”What did you play?”
She froze. “…What?”
”The drums, duh,” said Zoë, rolling her eyes. “I don’t have any talent. At all.”
”Don’t say that,” she said as Zoë sat down next to her and huddled close. It was deep December, after all, and while the camp was unusually warmer than had been forecast, it was winter. Her companion’s voice had gotten softer, more serious. “You have talent. It takes skill to play drums, too.”
”Eh.” It was just… boring.
”Well, what about your art?”
”I was gonna drop my major anyway.”
”What? But I thought you were doing really well!”
Zoë sighed. “I dunno. It just… doesn’t feel like me anymore.”
Her companion put an arm around her shoulders. “Don’t worry. You’ll figure it out. I believe in you.”
”Pull the blanket tighter,” said Zoë, trying to change the subject. “So I can make it warm.”
”It’s really hard to do,” she said patiently. Her companion couldn’t really understand it, of course. “So if the blanket’s tight and we don’t let air escape, we can trap the warmth in and I don’t have to keep the spell going.”
”Oh. So, physics.”
”Don’t you have something to do first?” she pointed out, smirking.
Zoë sighed exaggeratedly. She slid under the blanket, then—as best she could—stripped off every piece of clothing she was wearing, down to nothing but skin. Next to her, she could feel her companion doing the same. They took the two piles and set them against the base of the RV, to use as makeshift pillows.
”Now will you pull the blanket in?” asked Zoë, trying to suppress a giggle. Between the chilly air and the fact they were both naked behind the crowd of people, she felt an odd giddiness to the whole thing. She was having trouble taking anything seriously.
”I could just make you warm myself,” said her companion. A finger traced its way across Zoë’s chest, weaving circles before descending down her stomach.
”The thing’s starting,” said Zoë frantically, before she made a more… involuntarily sound. To her relief, it wasn’t a lie, either. Something was happening.
”Later,” she breathed into Zoë’s ear, promising all sorts of pleasant feelings that night after the festivities. As she settled down, her voice returned to normal. “Thank you.”
”For being you!” she said cheerfully, and suddenly, her whole body was pressed into Zoë’s grasp. Zoë was quite a bit taller than her companion, and she fit perfectly into the space made by the curve of Zoë’s body. “I wouldn’t want to be here with anyone else in the whole world.”
She didn’t answer aloud. I wish I felt the same. But, of course, Zoë hadn’t ever felt love. Not yet, anyway. Her companion was certainly the closest she’d ever felt to someone, but there was still some enigmatic quality yet to be found.
Instead, Zoë wrapped her arms around her companion tight, and together under the blanket, they watched as a faint light began to appear from within the trees.
It was just a single light at first, plain and unremarkable, except that it had no source. It wasn’t fire, and it obviously couldn’t be electric, so the only answer was something chemical or otherwise produced in nature. But, of course, this was nothing natural. Like Cinza always said, magic wasn’t natural, and there was no reason to want it to be.
The light grew, moment by moment, sliding forward through the trees. As the crowd noise died away from the hundred or so people gathered across the field, they heard a faint noise drifting through the trees. A flute sang alone, played with masterful skill, though none of them recognized the tune. It was joined by another, and then another. The light danced in tandem with each note, getting brighter and larger as the music hit a crescendo.
A crash of a cymbal somewhere. Strings joined the flute. It might have been a violin, or maybe a cello, she wasn’t sure. The light burst, becoming hundreds of tiny individual specks. They shifted in color, a kaleidoscope in the air, filling the field. Fog rolled through the illuminated space, white despite the many colors of the lights surrounding it.
As the music swelled, the fog began to take shape, flowing as if a faint wind blew through the space, though the air was quite still all around them. A huge stage formed above them, with smokey curtains over a wide open floor. Every single light converged on the stage, filling the borders with twinkling spots of color, while the center became brilliantly illuminated.
In time with another crash of the cymbals, the curtains pulled open wide—and behind them, a huge image appeared, like a movie projected into the sky itself, though of course, this was no movie.
How the hell are they managing to do this? Zoë wondered to herself. Nobody in the Greycloaks is a true awakened. Last we heard, Hailey was on the other side of the country, so it’s not her either. This is incredible.
Wrapped in her arms, Zoë’s companion was thoroughly enjoying the show. She squirmed pleasantly around, twisting her head to try and catch the whole dazzling spectacle above them. Zoë might have enjoyed it quite a lot, if her head wasn’t stubbornly caught on trying to solve the mystery of how it was cast in the first place.
She considered sending out her own essence to test the spell, but she’d just learned that technique only a day before. If she screwed it up somehow, interfered in the big show… yeah, that’d really suck.
The stage performance was underway. It wasn’t a movie after all—this was a full three-dimensional performance. Actors, outlines wreathed in smoke, spun and danced across the stage, while the backdrop displayed incredible pieces of artwork. It took a minute for Zoë to understand the story, for there weren’t any words, just the ongoing orchestra medley swelled to fill the whole space, though she knew there weren’t possibly enough Greycloaks to surround the whole camp.
”It’s Rallsburg,” Zoë murmured.
She went on, since her companion hadn’t really done much research on the history of the place. Zoë had—mostly with the intention to disprove the whole conspiracy as a farce—and now it paid off, as she could explain the story Cinza was obviously trying to convey.
”Back when they were first discovering magic. Those three are the original Three Gods.”
”Alpha, Omega, and Grey-eyes,” said her companion, nodding slightly. Her chin tapped against Zoë’s arms with each movement.
”Right. They’re fighting over the Grimoire.” As Zoë murmured the story, the figures of fog up on the stage moved in perfect time to her words, as if Cinza could hear her and was enacting the very scenes she described.
A huge burst of fire shot through the sky, projected from the outstretched hand of Alpha. It took a brief moment for the heat wave to crash down into the crowd below. The fight continued, though the electricity strikes Zoë expected weren’t recreated perfectly, just approximations by a flash of light and a jagged line through the air.
On the opposite side, Omega created his golems—and more than a few people gasped. It may have been a month prior, but the memories were still fresh in their minds. Several had lost loved ones to Brian Hendricks, after all.
”This is the Council of the Awakened,” continued Zoë in her companion’s ear, hugging her close. “That’s Rachel DuValle, and Natalie Hendricks is there in the corner.”
”And there’s Cinza and Josh,” added her companion, pointing.
Zoë squinted. “Doesn’t really look like him.”
She giggled. “It’s smoke, Zoë. Give them a break. It’s close enough.”
”Fine. For you,” said Zoë, and kissed the top of her head.
The play continued, through the entire story of Rallsburg as told by Cinza. Zoë had heard some of the Greycloak leader’s recollections weren’t accurate, or were missing important bits of information, but she had to admit, the cultist-in-chief was an excellent storyteller, and a master of the dramatic presentation.
As the town—represented in the sky by a dozen boxy buildings surrounding the recognizable town hall and old library—suddenly lifted from the stage, the lights surrounding the whole stage shifted to an eerie dark red. Zoë tensed, expecting something truly spectacular, and she wasn’t disappointed.
As the music played on, the stage burst into a huge firework explosion—and to her shock, it was a real firework. The play had gone without sound, beyond the musical accompaniment, so the sudden loud boom rippled through the crowd. More followed, until finally, as the crescendo of music and explosions reached its peak… everything froze.
A single beam of light shone down onto the field, where a platform had been erected. Must have done it while we were all looking up, Zoë mused, impressed. Another light appeared, and then another, until the figure on the wooden stage was made clear.
Cinza pulled back the hood on her head, lifted her eyes to the crowd, and raised her voice. Magic amplified it a dozen times over, echoing in her typical ethereal style, perfectly audible yet totally unnatural.
”Welcome to two thousand nineteen,” she proclaimed.
Nobody was quite sure how to respond. After all, the Rallsburg story hadn’t ended with the victory, but with the destruction of the town, the lowest point where everything started to truly fall apart and all hope seemed lost, before Rachel DuValle killed Omega.
”I chose to share this story not to entertain, but to remind. Our memories are often weak, our recollections faulty. The story of Rallsburg was one of chaos and confusion, of schisms which wrought betrayal and wreaked havoc in a once quiet community. We survived, but only through unity.”
Cinza gestured to the trees behind her. The lights illuminated the treeline beyond, and one by one, the Greycloaks emerged—some holding their instruments, others simply wreathed in their cloaks, sentinels for the forest beyond.
”Our community has grown. We welcomed all of you into our forest. I do not regret that decision. Any who wish to stay in this camp are free to do so, and so long as it remains within my power, you will be cared for. If you believe as we believe, you may find a more permanent home in the Greywood, living among those who follow her and await her return.”
She cleared her throat. “Do not think this means you are any less for not taking our cloaks. Each of you is equally important to our world, Greycloak or not, awakened or otherwise. Everything that has ever happened to us, every death and tragedy, was brought about by the hate of division, the fear of the unknown, and the cruelty of prejudice.”
Cinza raised her hands out in front of her, as if to grasp someone else’s, though she stood quite alone. “Let’s change the story. It’s a new year and a new world. Let’s build a new world. A better world. Together.”
She smiled. “Thank you all for being here. Happy New Year.”
Someone began to clap. Another joined them. Soon, a dozen people were on their feet, and more joining them every moment. Even the soldiers were starting to cheer and holler, though they’d usually expressed skepticism about Cinza and her people.
”Kinda wish we weren’t naked right now,” muttered Zoë.
”Sorry,” murmured her companion. “Here. Let me make it up to you.”
She twisted around in Zoë’s arms. As another firework burst above them and the huge clock towering over the camp read midnight precisely, Melody pressed her lips against Zoë’s.
In absolute secret, Zoë was a hopeless romantic. She was secretly a sucker for the big gesture, the sappy ending, the huge waves of emotions crashing in after endless buildup. In that moment, with Melody kissing her after a huge spectacle, after the relief of a nightmarish year finally come to an end, pressed against her skin as literal fireworks burst above them mixed in with displays of real magic… Zoë finally felt it.
She kissed Melody back, and for the first time in her life, Zoë Portman was in love.
When she woke up, Zoë was pleasantly aware of the warm body draped over half of her skin. Even more than that, her mind was full of very distinct memories from the night before. After the display was over, Melody had practically dragged her back to the tent. Sometimes, her girlfriend was completely insatiable.
Last night, Zoë was sure the neighbors must have heard them.
”Awake?” asked Melody, her soft, sweet voice a perfect companion to the faint chirping of birds outside.
”Depends,” murmured Zoë.
A hand tiptoed up her skin.
”Welcome to the new year,” said Melody, and her lips planted a kiss on the back of Zoë’s neck.
As her eyes fluttered open, Zoë noticed Melody’s head was pointed away, looking across the tent toward their small pile of belongings—and more specifically, at the object half-visible near the bottom, a plain-looking wooden box. It would seem totally ordinary, except that it was nearly impossible to open unless one knew the exact sequence of spells to cast.
Inside, it contained something more precious to Melody than all the world, no matter how worthless it had suddenly become.
”You okay?” asked Zoë quietly.
”Huh?” Melody started. Her head instantly shifted around to look at Zoë. Though she tried to hide it, Zoë could see the faint melancholy which hid just behind her pupils.
…God, I must really be in love now, huh. Her pain hurts me more than my own.
”It’s me and you. What are you thinking?”
”That you’re really good at sex,” said Melody with a faint smile.
”You’ve only been with one person. You don’t know, I could be terrible.”
”I can’t imagine anybody making me happier.”
”Same,” said Zoë, and to her surprise, she found it to be true.
Melody smiled wide. “See, there you go! You can be romantic!”
”Shut up,” she muttered. Zoë sat up and pulled on a t-shirt. Melody didn’t bother—the portable heater they’d been supplied by the Greycloaks kept their tent nice and warm all night, so long as Zoë fed it enough magic before they went to sleep.
Zoë leaned back, and Melody’s strong arms held her steady. Wrapped in her grip—her totally naked grip… God, now she’s got me stuck on sex too—Zoë reached forward with her essence. Magic filled the little space in front of her.
”What are you going to make?” asked Melody.
”Not sure yet.” Zoë frowned. “Any ideas?”
”What about the project you were working on?”
”Back at Linfield. Your assignment from October.”
Zoë laughed. “The one that’s way overdue now?”
”It had 3D stuff in it. Make one of those.”
She shrugged—and her shoulders brushed against Melody’s long black hair. Zoë focused, pushing energy out into the open space, shaping it. It felt like she were pushing, but there wasn’t actually anything to push—or rather, what she was pushing didn’t exist yet.
Slowly, the little doll emerged. It was smooth and plain, a simple doll that almost seemed to be made of porcelain. The material definitely wasn’t porcelain though. It wasn’t anything Zoë could really properly describe… except that it matched the material which the golems had been made from.
For that reason, only Melody knew what Zoë could cast. They didn’t want to set off a panic outside in the camp at large.
”That looks way better!” said Melody excitedly.
Zoë was already starting to feel the strain, but it wasn’t too bad yet. Steadily, she formed the doll completely. It quivered in place for a few seconds, as she steadied the creation and made sure the interior was actually physically complete. It was easier to hold together something that made physical sense and could support some of its own weight.
Once she had the little doll solid, she made it dance.
”Oh!” Melody leaned forward, and the sudden movement behind her nearly threw off Zoë’s concentration. “That’s amazing!”
Zoë grinned as she kept the dance going, trying to remember a routine from her childhood ballet class. She’d hated ballet, despite the awards she’d won. It was too rigid, too structured. Zoë just wanted to do nothing most of the time. She’d coasted through college—and most of her life—like that, avoiding things that took real effort.
Not that most things took much effort. Magic was the hardest yet, but in just a single month, she was already managing spells she’d never heard of. Sure, it was in her affinity—and how hard it had been to try and figure that out, with the sensations she’d felt while awakening—but Zoë really hadn’t been doing this for very long.
It was on Sunday, November the twenty-fifth. Only the day before, Hailey Winscombe had attacked Cornelius Malton’s estate and nearly blown up the city of London in the aftermath, with a display of magic even Zoë the eternal skeptic couldn’t totally deny. After such a show, she’d finally agreed to go with Melody to find one of the so-called “Scraps”.
They hadn’t wanted to go to the pilgrim camp originally though. Zoë had a bad feeling about it. Instead, two days later, they found someone willing to sell one, communicated through one of Zoë’s old friends back in the Tacoma area. Melody drove them up, Zoë paid for it—she came from a rich family of lawyers, after all—and together, they read from the Scrap.
Well… not exactly.
Zoë’s concentration slipped at the painful memory. The doll faltered.
”Zoë?” asked Melody, tapping her on the hand. “You need a break?”
”Nah,” she replied, redoubling her efforts. “I haven’t finished the routine yet.”
Even as Zoë forced the doll to keep moving by sheer effort, the memory of that Tuesday in Tacoma barreled back into her brain.
Melody had been nervous, in the end. Melody, the endless sunshine ray of support and confidence, had been ever so hesitant to even look at it. She’d insisted Zoë go first. Zoë was still skeptical, despite all the evidence, and so she took the little ratty piece of white paper, and she started to read.
And she didn’t stop. She couldn’t stop, of course. That’s how the process worked. Sure, it was her choice… but there was no going back.
Zoë felt the world building up around her, tiny pieces of nothing which somehow coalesced to form solid matter. She didn’t understand it at the time, of course, but she’d been feeling her affinity. According to Cinza’s published work, the Creation affinity was a particularly rare one. Only four were known: Julian Black, the entrepreneur and founder of the pilgrim camp; Kendra Thomas Laushire (and possibly her twin sister Lily, though none were certain), multi-billionaire and one of the true awakened; and, of course Omega himself.
She’d heard rumors of a fifth—that the disgraced FBI Agent Makaio, currently on trial for treason, was also her affinity. Zoë didn’t know for sure, and wasn’t sure it mattered anyway.
What did matter was the girl who’d appeared, the girl with grey eyes who seemed barely older than either of them, but carried so much melancholy and pain that Melody nearly burst into tears at the sight of her. Grey-eyes had saved Zoë, just like she always did. She’d explained what had just happened, then turned to Melody… only to find that the Scrap they’d purchased was dust. A so-called “second-generation” copy, which only worked once.
To call Melody heartbroken was seriously underselling it.
From that moment forward, Zoë knew what to do. Melody needed to awaken. Magic was wasted on a lazy girl like Zoë. Melody was the real magic of the world, and a power like this belonged in her hands. Problem was, by the time they reached the pilgrim camp, they only had a single day before the guns started to fire.
Zoë finished her routine. The doll took a short bow, then crumbled into dust. She let out a huge breath, feeling like she’d just run a marathon.
Melody burst into applause. “That was incredible!”
”…Thanks,” Zoë coughed.
”You’re getting so good at that!”
”What time is it?” she asked, feeling around for her phone. It took her a second to remember how stupid that was—even four weeks after the Ritual, sometimes she totally forgot electricity didn’t work anymore.
Melody, in her kind nature, didn’t comment. “I think it’s almost eight?”
”Nine.” She glanced out the tent flap. “Guess I should check again.”
”You probably want to get dressed first,” said Zoë, smirking.
”Aww… do I have to?” asked Melody playfully.
Zoë, with great reluctance, pushed her back. “We can’t miss group.”
”Yeah… I know.”
Melody started to get dressed. Zoë gathered up their valuables—despite Cinza’s calls for unity and the general in-it-against-the-world attitude held by most of the camp, she didn’t trust anyone quite yet.
Her bag held the Scrap for Melody (acquired for much cheaper than usual a few weeks after the Ritual, when it became clear Grey-eyes wasn’t going to start awakenings again any time soon), their gemstone collection, Melody’s photographs of her family, Zoë’s sketchbook, their IDs, dead phones, plus a few other odds and ends. It was everything they truly needed.
Nobody had ever stolen from them, but Zoë wasn’t about to let that stop her paranoia.
”Ready to go?” she asked, as Melody tightened her gloves.
”I could use a scarf…” Melody peered into the mirror and adjusted the tip of her hat. They’d run out of makeup, and fresh supplies were a hard commodity to come by way out in the camp, but Zoë liked how she looked anyway. Still, Melody was obsessed with her appearance. Well, she can’t be totally perfect…
Together, they emerged from the tent into the morning sunlight. The camp was already bustling, with the sun peeking over the horizon. A small crowd was exiting the covered area where they’d just served breakfast—Melody and Zoë had eaten alone in their tent, munching through leftovers from the night before. Arm-in-arm, they joined the tail of the group, which was headed for the structure in the center of the camp.
Originally, it had been a run-down, half-built log cabin owned by Julian Black. As the camp coalesced into a real community following Brian’s attack, it was built out into a real structure—one of the few proper buildings in the whole camp. Its construction was conducted by magic, and it showed in the foundations and supports, perfectly merged wood that simply wasn’t possible with normal tools.
Julian had generously—or so he claimed—donated the building to act as a gathering place for the camp. It could hold up to a hundred or so now in its expanded state, which didn’t cover the whole population, but was enough to get the word out on anything important.
For the rest of the camp, there were the overgrown RVs, which some had cleaned out and moved into, as well as the medical and command tents from the National Guard. Captain Hoskins stayed with a squad of twenty or so, including two medics. The Guard had left behind a skeleton crew of volunteers to keep watch, but most of the detachment had long since vacated the area, leaving them to govern themselves.
And govern they did, more or less. Zoë and Melody were on their way to “group”, which could really be called more of a town hall, if they were being honest. Originally, it had been a support group for survivors of the attack. Melody had needed it, and if Zoë was being honest, she’d needed it even worse. Being shot at wasn’t on either of their bucket lists.
As the weeks passed, though, and more people showed up, it became a place to hear the news as well as vent and get support. Finally, it made the full transition, and while new support groups were set up for those who still needed it without any distractions, “group” was the common term for the News and Mail meeting held every morning. It still had a support role, but they’d merged the two completely.
”Hey, cuties,” said Ryan Walker as they walked into the building. There weren’t too many people at group that morning, but Ryan was always there pretty early.
Melody waved back, the picture of innocence. “Hi, Ryan!”
”You two looked like you were enjoying the show last night.”
Zoë rolled her eyes. “Could’ve used more pizazz. Why weren’t you up there dancing?”
He snorted. “Good to see you too.”
”Don’t mind Zoë, she’s grumpy from waking up early,” said Melody. “We’re not late, are we?”
”Right on time, actually,” said Ryan with a shrug. They took their seats. Ryan glanced at the window, which was conveniently placed so they could see the clocktower, which read nine fifty-nine. “So where the hell is everybody else?”
”Probably sleeping in,” said Zoë irritably.
”Did we get any mail?” asked Melody excitedly, ignoring her girlfriend.
”Hasn’t come in yet. Sheriff’s still out there.” Ryan leaned forward in his chair, glancing around the gathered circle of people. Since it was a smaller group than usual, he seemed to be running it as an actual group again instead of a town hall meeting. “Anybody want to start?”
”I will,” said Melody. She sat up straight, hand clasped tight with Zoë’s. “Hi everyone. My name is Melody Alana Rogelia Savana.”
”Hi Melody,” echoed the group, even Zoë.
She’d dismissed the practice initially, but Melody had explained it to her—how even though Zoë might not care, it meant everyone else would feel a little less inclined to participate. By showing she was involved, she encouraged people who needed it more to feel welcome and safe. It mattered, since a lot of the camp still didn’t know each other’s names, and a name was the first step toward proper connection.
”It’s been… umm, well, about two days since my last nightmare,” said Melody. “I’m sleeping a lot better lately, most of the time, but it’s still there.”
”What was your last nightmare about?” asked Ryan.
”I was… I was running through the forest, and one of the—” Melody took a breath. Zoë held up her water bottle, and Melody took a grateful sip. “One of the golems was chasing me. It was so fast. I couldn’t… I couldn’t get away. It grabbed me and started to pull, and then I woke up.”
Screaming, Zoë completed in her head. A few others in the group had winced at every mention of the word ‘golem’. Melody was quiet again. Her hand trembled in Zoë’s. Ryan nodded thoughtfully, his hands loose at his sides.
”Thanks for sharing, Melody.” Ryan leaned forward a little. “Everybody in this room was there. We’ve all encountered a golem in the past. They’re fucking scary, for sure. I’ve got two good pieces of news, though: one, they aren’t that fast.” He smiled. “Even a kid could probably outrun them. Every time I ran into a golem, I was able to get away by just going faster. They’re like zombies from the movies.”
”Older movies,” put in Zoë.
”Hey, there are some good modern slow-zombie flicks,” Ryan shot back. “Still, point is, golems aren’t fast. Second, and even more important: they’re gone. When they arrested Brian Hendricks, he lost the golem stick thing. Cinza and Hailey and Jeremy were able to destroy it.”
”Just the first two,” grumbled Deputy Jeremy Ashe as he wandered into the room, a heavy bag over his shoulder. “I didn’t do shit.”
”Sorry we’re late,” added Sheriff Jackie Nossinger, a step behind him with an equally heavy bag. “The mail cart had a flat tire.” She glanced around. “Where’s Neffie at?”
”Out with Preston doing the rounds,” said Ryan. “She figured most people would skip today ’cause of the party last night. I didn’t.” He shrugged. “Guess I owe her a date now.”
”You bet her a date?” asked Jeremy, raising an eyebrow. “Ain’t she like twice your age?”
”For your edification, Mr. I’ve-got-a-country-accent-now,” said Ryan, “Neffie’s a very attractive woman, no matter her age. Also, she’s twenty eight, asshole.”
”I always talked like this.”
”No, you didn’t,” said Jackie. “You pick up on whatever you’re around. S’why they loved you for infiltrating those druggies.” She took a seat next to Ryan, visibly winded. “Your turn to pass it out, I’m beat.”
”All right,” grumbled Jeremy, picking out the first package from the bag. “Got one for… fuck, Pril? Pill?”
”It’s Phil,” muttered a young man on the opposite side of the circle. Melody suppressed a giggle.
Jeremy passed out the rest of the mail to the group—a minor incentive to attend, since they were the first to receive their mail, straight from the hands of the sheriff or one of her deputies.
Not that she’s elected anymore. I mean, we’d probably elect her, but all of this is totally unofficial. Even Cinza isn’t legally in charge, since all this land supposedly belongs to Nate Price. If anybody’s got real authority out here, it’s Captain Hoskins.
”Ooh!” squealed Melody as Jeremy handed them a package. It was addressed to her in neat, flowing script, with a return address of her parents. She hugged it like it were a pillow, rather than a hard-edged cardboard box straight off the internet. “Thank you, Mr. Ashe.”
”And you, Portman,” added Jeremy, handing Zoë a plain envelope. From Dad. Huh. Probably a legal summons to come home or forfeit my college tuition. Mom’ll talk him down. “That’s everybody in here.”
A few faces fell—not getting mail was a real impact, since they all lived in the dark ages again. They might have some modern comforts thanks to medicine deliveries, magical equivalents to electric tools, and a better understanding of physics… but communication with the outside world wasn’t one of them. If someone didn’t get mail, they’d only find out the news by listening to people at the bar or the food court.
”Also, just a heads up, but we’ve got some space on the wagon heading back,” added Jeremy. “They said the horses can pull some more weight, so if anybody wants a ride home, it’s first-come-first serve.”
Nobody raised their hand, and clearly, Jeremy hadn’t expected them to. If they wanted to leave, they would have by now. Everybody still in the camp was in it for the long haul.
He nodded. “All right. I’m out. Jackie, you comin’?”
”Nah.” She shook her head. “Rest my legs for a bit.”
”Well, here’s the one piece of news for everybody,” said Jeremy darkly. “Felix Wieczorek made bail. Motherfucker’s going home.”
”Of course he is,” snorted Ryan. “That’s the way the fucked up world works. Isn’t that why you left?”
”Guess I forgot,” said Jeremy with a shrug. He turned to leave. “Happy New Year, everyone.”
The rest of the meeting wasn’t as interesting to Zoë. She didn’t choose to share—she had once, at Melody’s insistence, and while she had gotten something from it, the real benefit came from being there.
At first, Zoë’s disdain wasn’t just for the procedure. She felt the whole process was a waste of time. What good would come of diving in even deeper to the terror and stress she was feeling? She was trying to get away from it, not barrel into it head-on. Still, as she attended more meetings—and with not much else to do in the camp—Zoë realized just how much she needed the group, maybe even more than Melody.
Finally, Jackie closed the group with a final update of news.
”The last experiment we ran was a bust,” she reported in a subdued voice.
”You mean—” started Ryan.
”Josh and Nikki tried to reverse a small section of the town and restore electricity,” said Jackie, nodding slightly. “Didn’t do a damn thing except make Nikki’s nose bleed. Girl’s gotta pace herself.”
”Knowledge magic,” murmured someone else in the circle reverently.
Zoë rolled her eyes. Yeah, it was incredibly rare—even more than her Creation affinity—but it didn’t mean Nikki Parsons was someone to be worshipped. She was still just one of them, not even one of the true awakened. Ordinary.
”Well, that’s it then,” said Ryan, brushing dust off his jeans. “Thanks for coming, everybody. I’ll stick around for a bit if you want to talk in private. Otherwise, I’ll see you… Thursday.”
”Gotta add a calendar to that damn clock,” added Jackie.
Wouldn’t be a bad idea… I wonder who’s maintaining it, anyway? It’s not really a secret as far as I know. Might as well try to find out. “Who’s actually running it?” she asked aloud.
Jackie frowned. She glanced at Ryan… who was equally puzzled. “Thought you knew.”
”Fuck me, I figured you were behind it,” said Ryan. “I don’t run shit around here.”
”You run the group,” said Melody sweetly. “That’s really important.”
Ryan looked taken aback. “I mean… yeah, sure, I do that. But not stuff like the clock.”
”Well, I got a deputy to track down,” said Jackie.
She started out, and the group took it as their cue to break. Zoë and Melody left quickly, Melody eagerly clutching the package she’d received. They headed out into the camp, in the vague direction of food or their own tent, Zoë wasn’t quite sure which.
”Ooh, this could be something really good,” she whispered, as if she might wake it up. “I bet this has our Christmas presents.”
”Did your parents really get me a Christmas present?” asked Zoë, embarrassed. “I thought they hated me.”
”Don’t be ridiculous!” Melody looked honestly offended. “My parents loved you!”
”I don’t know a thing about your culture, I barely speak a word of Spanish, and I’m a… let’s call it a lapsed Christian?” Zoë shrugged. “I’m like your parents worst nightmare. I can’t even have kids.”
”Hush,” scolded Melody. “You just read the signals wrong. It happens. They loved you.”
Nah, they seemed pretty hostile. I don’t think I’m getting invited back for Thanksgiving next year. Still, Zoë loved how optimistic Melody was. It was her favorite part about the girl, if she had to pick a favorite. Melody never gave up, never quit, never let things get her down for too long. She was unstoppable.
She was also incredibly hard to pin down, sometimes. When Melody was on, she was really on. Whether it was being excited, scared, horny, whatever, Melody was from zero to a hundred in an instant, and would turn on a dime heedless of anything around her. Case in point…
Melody had stopped. Her eyes bulged out. She nearly dropped the package, which only a moment before had been the most precious thing in the world. “Zoë…”
”That’s…” She opened and closed her mouth a few times, trying to speak.
”Words, Mel,” said Zoë. “Speak the words.”
”Discuple… Creo que es Héctor Peraza,” she murmured, and suddenly, her accent was back in full. Another thing she switches on a dime. You’d never know she was raised in Venezuela until she starts speaking Spanish.
Zoë squinted at the man she assumed Melody was looking at. “…That guy in the grey coat?”
”No, behind him. Between the tents.” Melody started to lift her hand, but Zoë blocked it.
”If it’s really Hector, don’t draw his attention,” she hissed. “He’s supposed to be missing!”
”What do we do?”
Zoë shook her head. “What do you mean, what do we do? Nothing!”
”You want to get involved with whatever’s happening in Rallsburg?” Zoë started to turn away. “Let’s go, Mel.”
Melody shook her head fiercely. Her long black hair whipped around wildly, nearly catching Zoë in the face. “If Hector’s here, then something’s going on. I want to know what. Maybe… maybe there’s another way to magic.”
”It’s impossible,” said Zoë patiently.
”This is the first thing to really happen since the Ritual!” said Melody. “He’s going to get away. Come on!”
Without another word, Melody took off. Zoë didn’t hesitate—she tore after her girlfriend. They were sprinting through the grass, heedless of the alarmed looks from passersby. To Zoë’s relief, though, Melody was famous enough in the camp now that this was pretty much accepted behavior. Most of the turned heads in their wake were already disinterested.
Good thing too. If that’s really Hector, and we spook him, he’s one of the true awakened. He could take us down without breaking a sweat.
Melody rounded the corner behind the tent, and Zoë just barely caught up to her. I’m taller and she’s carrying that package. I should be faster. “Mel, slow down!”
”He’s getting away!” she shot back.
They were headed out of the camp, straight north. It was already obvious to Zoë where this would lead, but Melody wouldn’t relent. She pressed on, package in hand, and Zoë stayed hot on her heels. Together, they crashed into the forest, and suddenly, Zoë realized—if we’re running this fast, and Mel’s still chasing Hector, he’s going even faster.
So what’s he running from?
”Mel, this could be seriously dangerous!” she cried out.
Finally, Zoë seemed to have gotten through to her. Melody slowed, then came to a stop. She turned to face Zoë, panting, hair wildly scattered across her face. Zoë had to brush her own, shorter brown hair out of her green eyes, just to see the girl clearly.
”Hector’s running from something, and I’m pretty sure it isn’t us,” said Zoë between heated breaths. They were way out in the forest now, far from the heated areas which kept the camp relatively comfortable in the deep winter. She started to cast a spell to warm them up again… only to be stopped, as another spell enveloped them.
It’s… a warmth spell too?
”What are you doing out here?” asked a cold voice, seemingly from nowhere.
Zoë froze. The voice wasn’t one she recognized, but it was so harsh, so stark and direct, with the hint of an accent… they both knew immediately who it must be.
”Nothing,” said Zoë very carefully. “We were just heading back.”
”Come,” she replied.
Zoë blinked. She slowly turned her head, and sure enough, Rook stood only a few dozen feet away. She had her rifle, but it wasn’t pointed at them, and she wasn’t in hiding. What’s going on?
”Come,” Rook repeated. “It’s time.”
”Time for what?” asked Melody. Her hand found Zoë’s, and though it wasn’t cold anymore, they were both shivering.
Without another word, Rook turned and walked back into the forest, toward Rallsburg.
Zoë looked at Melody. She was staring after Rook with a look that spelled out her deep desire to follow.
”Mel?” she asked quietly.
Melody’s voice came out as a whisper. “Yeah?”
”You want to go after her, don’t you.”
”I have to.” Melody turned to look at her, brown eyes sparkling with excitement. “This is it. I can feel it.”
Melody wanted to awaken, and she might have found the way. The path forward seemed more foreboding than ever. Gunshots rang in Zoë’s memories, all-too-recent acts of terrible violence which had nearly killed them both—and they were about to run into the forest without any idea what they might be going into.
It wasn’t an exaggeration to say Zoë wanted nothing more than to turn away, to go back to their safe, warm tent in the camp.
”Zoë?” asked Melody, and Zoë’s conviction shattered entirely. Just her name, spoken by that voice she’d so recently fallen for, was enough.
”Lead the way,” she said, gesturing forward with a lazy wave of her hand. Melody’s face lit up. She practically dragged Zoë forward, into the trees, into the town which was no longer a town, a place where ghosts and monsters walked the streets. Zoë’s trepidation never diminished, but she didn’t waver from her decision for a moment.
After all, Zoë Alaina Portman was in love. What better reason to brave a dangerous world than for the one she loved?