Interlude X — Necessary Evils
”…any soul who would join the genocidal crusade against my people: take heed. You have seen what we can do. Even a man at the top of your world cannot escape justice if we seek it. If you come, we will defend ourselves.”
Felix Wieczorek leapt to his feet, knocking his drink off the beaten old bar.
”Holy shit,” he gasped.
”What?” asked Brian, staring at his own drink with a forlorn expression. The rest of the place was totally empty—the only person around for a mile or more was the owner of the little establishment, sleeping in his home behind the building.
”They just… holy shit.” Felix had to take a few moments to compose himself. “That girl just appointed herself judge, jury, and executioner, along with everybody who follows her.”
”She is insane,” said Brian. “I already went over this.”
”Yeah, but now she’s insane on a global scale.” Felix took out his pocket notebook and pencil, scratching away as fast as he could. He needed to get ideas down fast, before he lost track of the story. Except… this wasn’t just a story anymore, and he’d found himself at the center of it.
Felix was a traditional journalist, with a degree from Columbia and years in the field as a reporter. He knew when to just tell the story, and when to intervene in it. Sure, Felix could play it safe, sell a ton of books and have his name plastered across every bookshelf across the country—hell, a few continents if he played it right—but… at what cost?
This was the beginning of something huge. Felix hadn’t been an activist since graduating nearly seventeen years ago, but he could never quite shake the desire to rabble-rouse for the sake of a good cause. He’d spent the early years of college diving headfirst into every worthwhile cause he could find, from the most ill-advised conservationists to the crazed ultra-socialist political revolutionaries. Sure, after the fact, he’d realize just how many of their ideas were completely impractical—but he didn’t have the experience to make those calls back then.
A decade and a half combing through the worst humanity had to offer—plus a dozen shiny prizes hanging over his desk somewhere back in New York—gave Felix the confidence he needed to finally take a step across the line. I can’t just report this anymore. They need to be stopped, and this guy’s the only one who’s been doing anything about it.
He shook his head as Brian continued watching Cinza’s speech. “That girl just gave us exactly what we needed.”
”Us?” asked Brian, surprised. He swivelled on the bar stool to face Felix. They were alone in the bar this early on a Saturday, since most of Brian’s men and women were either at home—or already on assigned tasks. Brian’s surprise wasn’t unwarranted. Until now, Felix had made it clear he was there to report the story and nothing more. He wanted to give Brian a voice, but not necessarily take his side, and Brian assented.
Now, Felix couldn’t stand by. Cinza and Hailey had shown just how far they were willing to take things. “She named you and where you are in front of the whole world. We can capitalize on that.”
”How? They’ll be coming for me. She named me a murderer.”
”Well, you are, but that’s not the point.” Felix shook his head again, stringy brown hair whipping himself in the face as he did. “There’s plenty of people out there who just saw what they did, and I’d bet all the cash in my pockets that she made a hell of a lot of enemies today.”
”Hmm,” said Brian.
Felix clapped his hands together as he finished off the next phrase in the speech he was putting together. “All you have to do is reach out to them. You already said that the only reason we haven’t moved yet is because we don’t have the support we need, right?”
”Not exactly.” Brian shook his head, voice as exhausted and degraded as ever. Felix had noticed the man seemed perpetually on the verge of collapse, though he slept and ate as normally as anyone. “We don’t know who we’re looking for, exactly. I know a few, but it keeps spreading.”
”But you’ve got the…” Felix snapped his fingers excitedly, trying to think of the right word. When he got amped up, he often had difficulty speaking—one thing that had developed over the years, and the reason he usually let other people do all the talking while he just wrote it down. “The things.”
”Yes!” Felix cried. “The identifying stones. You’ve got a ton of them. If you combine that with the social crawling team I’ll put together and the grassroots support we’re going to get, we can track these monsters down. All of them.”
”Why would you help me?” asked Brian.
”They just declared war on us,” said Felix, shaking his head. “They think they’re better than we are, that we’re worthless. Just humans.”
”And they want to replace us.” Felix got up and started pacing, working through his thoughts one by one. “Cinza’s writing practically called for violent revolution in the margins. She never wrote it down outright, but you can tell if you’re reading between the lines. She wants to form her own nation, but there’s nowhere left in the world to claim, so she’s going to do it right here.”
”Yes, in Washington.” Felix jotted down a few more notes—more ideas on what Brian could say. “You won’t be alone after this.”
”I haven’t been alone,” Brian pointed out, though the words held no joy. If anything, the man was full of regret, and Felix couldn’t blame him.
He clapped Brian on the back, trying to offer some comfort. It was the most human thing he could think of doing, just to further contrast them from the monsters they were up against. “You couldn’t have seen that coming, man. Nobody could.”
”Five dead,” Brian murmured, taking a sip of his drink. “Five good men and women.”
”Another reason why we need better gun control,” Felix joked. Brian didn’t react in the slightest. “…Look, whoever they were, at least they aren’t on the witch’s side, yeah?”
”What do you mean?” asked Brian, glancing up surprised.
”Well, they tried to kidnap one of ’em, and forced their hand. Not something you do to an ally.”
”No, what do you mean by ‘whoever they were’?” Brian nodded up to the TV, where the commentary on Cinza’s speech continued unabated. Worthless talking heads… Felix mused. Do something useful for once. “They worked for Malton.”
Felix raised his eyebrows. “You really believe her?”
”Why would she lie? Her people were attacked. She’s the victim.” Brian hesitated. “Unless…”
Felix shook his head. “Nah, they were the victims for sure. I’m saying, they’re using this opportunity to capitalize. Whoever those guys were, that was some serious special-forces shit, operating on American soil. The real players aren’t gonna reveal themselves with the U.S. breathing down their necks.” A slight smirk creased his lips. He couldn’t help but admire her ability to play the press. “Cinza’s playing this smart. She’s picked a target for the public to shift blame on.”
He snapped his fingers, pointing at Brian like he’d just won a prize on a game show. “Bingo, Cornelius Malton. He’s an established global figure, he’s already got a reputation for being a little crazy, and he’s a multi-billionaire. People hate the wealthy, and they especially hate the wealthy flaunting their ability to skirt by the law by writing a few checks.”
”So Cinza creates a villain, and makes herself into a victim of the rich and powerful,” concluded Brian.
”Exactly. It’s David versus Goliath,” said Felix, picking a biblical reference to help sell Brian on the idea. Not that Felix doubted he was right for a second, but he needed Brian to get to that place a little bit faster. Every little bit helped. “Only, the world doesn’t realize that Cinza and her people are actually Goliath here, coming to stomp us all into the dust.”
Brian nodded. “That makes sense.”
”It’s exactly what I’d do, to be honest,” said Felix, trying to keep the excitement out of his voice, “if I were trying to start a revolution.”
”You think her goals are that lofty?”
”Based on her writing?” Felix nodded gravely. “There’s gonna be blood. We have to put a stop to it.”
He grinned. “By starting our own.”
Felix stood near the door with one of Brian’s earliest recruits. Initially, the plan was to screen every potential newcomer, every attendee to this first wide meeting. Until now, Brian had found his followers by simply going to bars and talking, convincing people one by one, and letting word spread on its own. He didn’t really have an eye for mass-marketing or new communication—which was right where Felix fit in.
Of course, Brian’s method did hold one advantage. He could trust all his recruits like a family. He knew each of them by name, knew their relatives, worked with them. They’d been through hell and back multiple times, between the battles in Tacoma and Lakewood, and the smaller fights in the Olympic forest—picking off newly awakened pilgrims and burying the bodies deep in the forest. They were a tight-knit group, and though Felix wouldn’t call them elite in any sense, they were certainly committed.
These newcomers? Felix couldn’t hope to screen them. He’d severely underestimated just how fast his first forays into social media would spread. Though he’d kept it quiet, word had spread like wildfire: the guy whom Cinza had named on TV as her enemy was going to hold a speech in New London, Washington. Felix had chosen the place as a joke, but with the sheer number of vehicles pouring into the tiny village, he was starting to worry about not having enough space simply for the cars. Already, every road was packed to the brim, bumper to bumper, with tighter parallel parking than Felix had ever seen in his life.
Yet, not a single argument to be heard. While he saw plenty of angry expressions, it remained remarkably quiet. They had a specific target for their outrage, one and all. They’d come because they heard the call—and every single one wore the same determined gaze.
”Any chance of a weapon?” he murmured.
Brian’s man shook his head. “Like I can tell? And even if they ain’t got guns, there’s no way we can check this many for magic. The stones don’t work that fast.”
Felix sighed. “So we’re taking a risk.”
”We’re always takin’ a risk, man. That’s what we signed up for.”
He nodded. “You’re right. I’m still getting used to this, sorry.”
”Glad you’re off the fence,” said the guy, clapping Felix on the back.
Felix hurried out and circled around the rear of the building, dodging away from the crowd filtering into the huge barn. They’d originally planned to just use one of the houses, offered by a friend of one of Brian’s followers, but as soon as the first cars began to trundle in, packed to the brim, Felix quickly changed his plans.
They’d just finished the makeshift stage as the crowd grew to triple-digits. Felix ordered the doors and windows of the barn thrown wide open. Thankfully, it was an unusually warm morning for November. As he walked around back, Felix pulled out his phone and ordered up a cheap public address system and a portable projector. If this was the first meeting, with the bare minimum of outreach effort he’d done…
Felix tried not to think about it too much. One step at a time. Land the first meeting. Sell the story. Spread the word.
As he checked the wires, he saw an interesting update: Hailey Winscombe had been issued an international warrant for her arrest and extradition back to the United States. Presently, she was still in London, though no one was quite sure where. More importantly for Felix, neither Cornelius Malton nor Brian Hendricks were named in the story. A quieter story mentioned that Brian was sought for questioning, and Malton was hiding behind lawyers, but those were more passive. They didn’t catch social media attention like the immediacy of Hailey’s warrant.
To the eyes of the public, that might as well be a signed notice of guilt. We can use it.
Brian walked out of the forest just as Felix reached the rear of the barn. He was covered in pine needles, and his clothes were as shabby as they’d ever been. When he saw the gathering crowd, he winced. “How?”
Felix shrugged. “Your name carries a lot of weight now, thanks to Cinza. That, and all these people are here for you to tell them how to deal with this crisis.”
”I’m not a leader.”
”You are,” said Felix firmly. “You led your followers in more than one battle, and you came back alive. They listen to you. It’s time to put that to use.”
Brian nodded. Felix led him to the rear doors of the barn, where two more of his followers stood as guards. They weren’t exactly expecting violence to break out, but given the speech and the overwhelming public support for Cinza, Felix and the rest of Brian’s companions were going to take every practical precaution.
Not to mention we’re practically behind enemy lines… Every single damn tree in the Olympic Forest feels like it might be hiding one of them. I swear I’ve seen greycloaks out in the forest before…
As Brian and Felix walked up onto the stage, the noise of the crowd slowly faded away. The doors were still thrown wide, and a faint breeze in the air sent a chill through the room, but the entire assembly waited for them to speak. With Brian hesitating, Felix stepped forward to the edge of the wooden platform. They had no microphone, no amplification whatsoever—but since the only noises were the faint chirps of birds in the distance and the rattle of the wind against the windows, Felix had no trouble making himself heard.
”Welcome, everybody,” he called out. The noise of the crowd faded completely, and the few distracted faces swivelled around to meet his eyes, a sea of curious eyes waiting for his words. I haven’t been in front of a crowd like this in years… “My name is Felix. I want to thank you all for coming out today, especially on a Sunday morning. I know it was short notice, and I’m really astounded by just how many of you were able to make it. I’m hoping nobody got lost on the backroads out here,” he added with a grin.
Felix nodded. “I’m here, you’re here, everybody’s here because we need to figure out what to do about this… problem, that’s cropped up right in our backyard.”
”Witches!” shouted a voice from the sea of faces. Felix couldn’t tell who it was, they’d spoken so fast, but a general reaction from the rear of the barn gave him an idea of where to look as he replied.
”Not a bad word for it, but let’s remember everyone—we aren’t here to hunt down our neighbors without proof. We’re civilized.” Before anyone could ask, Felix dug into his pocket and pulled out the little stone. Immediately, he could feel it pull on his soul, just as it had when Brian first gave it to him. It sickened him—that such a little, totally normal object could have such a destructive power imbued into it. “We have a way.”
The crowd seemed interested, so Felix kept talking. “These stones were given to us by the man who saw all this coming. He knew magic was out in the world, and he saw the danger. They can tell you, without a shadow of a doubt, if someone is one of the awakened.” He played up his disgust at the final word, building the drama of the moment.
”We’re in the middle of a war we didn’t even know was happening,” Felix continued. “They have their weapons, and we have ours. They’re trying to replace us, and they’ve already shown just how little stock they put in our lives. Some of you were at Lakewood!” he cried, not sure in the slightest if his statement was true—apart from Brian himself, Felix had no idea who actually went to Lakewood. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was the rhetoric. “You witnessed what these monsters are willing to do! There’s no such thing as an innocent bystander to them. We have to fight back!”
A few murmurs of agreement, but Felix wasn’t winning the crowd over quite yet. He needed something better, something stronger. For whatever writing skills the academic world had given him, Felix was never particularly great at holding a mob together, getting them into his point of view. He could work wonders on the page with his keyboard, but actual oratory? He was practically sweating bullets underneath his thick coat, and it definitely wasn’t from heat.
Lucky for him, he wasn’t the main act. Felix was just the opener, and the real deal was stepping in.
Brian put a hand on his shoulder, steadying him. Felix hadn’t even realized he was starting to shake, and just Brian’s firm grip was enough to calm him. Felix stepped aside, letting Brian take the center of the stage. As soon as he did, the entire hall seemed to sharpen. They didn’t recognize him, of course—nobody knew what Brian looked like. Despite the heavy press attention he’d suddenly received, the man never saw a single published photograph, or even a description. Somehow, even in the age of social media, Felix had never seen a single picture of Brian Hendricks across the whole internet.
Despite his anonymity, Brian still commanded their attention. The moment he stepped up, Felix could feel it—the man exuded an air of grim portents. The scent of ashes from his burned home seemed to perpetually linger on him. Somehow, just by looking on his ominous expression, they knew it was momentous. Brian held the crowd in his palms, every single ear begging for his every word.
”They destroyed my home,” Brian said firmly, and though he didn’t raise his voice, Felix had no doubt even those packed into the door frame would hear him clearly. “They murdered. They burned. They desecrated bodies and mutilated children. They are monsters.”
He took a deep breath, as though he were dying of thirst and the air itself was an oasis in the desert. “They took my daughter from me.”
The words hung in the air. Felix had never heard Brian mention his daughter. He’d seen the name on the old lists, as a ‘presumed-deceased’, but never dared to ask the man about her fate. He was a reporter, but there were some topics too painful to broach. From the way Brian spoke, Felix assumed the worst. She would’ve turned thirteen this summer, too… Damn.
Brian paused, while the air in the room seemed to sharpen. Finally, as the tension in the barn rose to a fever pitch, he spoke again to ease them once more. “We will stop them.”
He waited. Nobody seemed quite sure what to do next—Felix among them. Was that it? Was he going to say anything else? How would they react? It wasn’t exactly the sort of speech to applaud. Nothing about this meeting was about applause, yet the crowd needed some way to react. They needed to know how to move forward from this.
We need to make this into a rally. Give them a slogan or something. But… shit, I should’ve come up with something.
A cautious voice broke the silence—a woman near the back, clear voice ringing across the packed barn. “I saw one of them.” The crowd turned in place, necks strained to see the new contributor to the cause. “A guy who could make things explode. He tried to rob a bank in Tacoma. But nobody ever got charged.”
Brian nodded. “The government has shown they aren’t willing to take care of the problem.”
”What do we do?” she asked. “It’s like there’s more of them every day.”
”There are,” said Brian.
”But we don’t know they’re all dangerous,” cut in a skeptical-looking man, far across the barn from the first woman. “What if some of them are just trying to live normal lives, like you and me?”
”They chose this,” said Brian. He took a step forward, toward the edge of the platform. “No one was born into this power. It did not even exist two years ago. Every single awakened chose their path, and they will face the consequences.”
”What’s to stop more of them showing up?”
”We must be thorough,” said Brian. He was starting to build up some momentum, to Felix’s relief. “We must be vigilant. Magic is passed from one person to the next. We will find every single piece of the evil book that grants their power, and we will burn them all, so that no more awakened can be born.”
”And then?” asked the first woman to speak.
”We hunt down the rest,” said Brian coldly.
This got a real reaction. The crowd burst into murmurs. Felix estimated a near-perfect split between those who approved of Brian’s call to action, and the rest still on the fence. To his surprise, not a single face seemed truly reluctant, merely cautious, but he supposed that was to be expected from a meeting like this.
”Kill them?” asked an older man in the front row.
Brian nodded. “I’m not happy about it. I’m sure you aren’t either. But if they can spread their knowledge, we aren’t safe. We must root it out, like weeds from the good crops, so the rest of the world survives.”
”What about you?” shouted someone Felix couldn’t see. “You use their magic, don’t you? What about the rock monsters?”
Another burst of murmurs, and many more negative this time from Felix’s guess. He opened his mouth to counter, but Brian held up his hands for silence—and he got it. Not even a whisper pierced the quiet once Brian had raised his arms.
”It’s a fair question,” he replied. “I am not awakened. If you doubt me, you’re welcome to use a stone to test me. These stones, and the tool I use to control the golems, were given to me by one of those who first discovered magic. Of the three, only one foresaw the danger. His name was Jackson, and he knew where this would lead. He told me the world was at stake… and he was right.”
Brian cleared his throat, raising his voice to a thunderous pitch that startled the whole crowd. A few birds in the rafters flew away, fearful of the sudden danger in his harsh, deep voice. “They burned Rallsburg to the ground. Hundreds were murdered by their wicked power. Jackson tried to stop them. He tried to save the whole town, but they killed us in the streets by the dozens. People were electrocuted, burned alive, buried in their own homes. You’ve seen the videos.”
”But you can control it,” someone pointed out. “Why can’t they?”
”Because they are monsters,” Brian shouted. “I’m still human. I’m one of you. They aren’t. They’ve given up their humanity, and they admit it. You saw the interview, didn’t you? She called us ‘humans’.” Brian shook his head. “She made a mistake, revealing what they really think of us. We’re dirt to them. We’re nothing to them. They want us to just get out of the way and die off.”
Brian started pacing from one end of the platform to the other. “They attacked us in Rallsburg. They fought us in Tacoma. They killed civilians in their homes in Lakewood. This is only the beginning. Every time they spread a little bit further. We can’t let this go any further.”
Someone shouted out another question, but Brian was really building up in his speech, and the lone voice was lost in the rumble of agreement rolling through the crowd. “They’re gathering their forces. They’re building alliances. The government’s on their side, but the public hasn’t made up its mind yet. Nobody’s opposed them in the open. It’s time that changed.”
Brian paused, right in the middle of the platform. Silence fell over the crowd. Felix gasped. He couldn’t have planned a better pregnant pause if he wrote the script himself. As far as he knew, Brian was improvising the whole speech, yet it flowed like he’d practiced it for weeks.
”I made a mistake,” he said quietly, and he could speak quietly, because the crowd was hanging onto every word with bated breath. The low voice carried a gravitas Felix couldn’t hope to match. “I stayed in the shadows, because I was afraid for my own life. I’d lost Jackson, and I’d lost my daughter. I feared I wouldn’t survive every night. I was a coward… but no more!”
The last two words echoed through the barn, a resounding cry that sent shivers down Felix’s spine. “Their leaders have shown themselves. It’s time I did the same. I’m here with you today, and I’m telling you no more.”
Brian began to stomp his foot with every new sentence, punctuating them with hard clunks against the wood. “No more will they burn down our homes. No more will they murder innocents in the streets. No more will they corrupt our children, infiltrate our world, destroy our way of living.”
A final, resounding thump of wood. “No more.“
At the final utterance, the crowd roared its approval. It wasn’t a cheer, exactly, but it was a positive result all the same. Even Felix, jaded as he was, felt like leaping to his feet and doing something. Except Brian hadn’t given them something to do. They needed a follow-up. Felix took a step forward—but once again, Brian was ahead of him.
…Who is this guy?
Brian kept speaking, even while the crowd roared its blessing on every sentence. “We will hunt them in the cities. We will hunt them in the forests. We will track down every last awakened there is, and we won’t let a single one escape justice. They think they can just replace humanity, but they’ve forgotten where they came from. We won’t go easy. We’ll fight. We’ll win. And you, every single one of you, will be our victory.”
By the time the last few cars left New London, Brian had more than a hundred new recruits at his back, including a few vital skills they’d been lacking. Up until that day, Brian had been communicating with his followers simply by cheap burner cell phones, but Felix knew that couldn’t last. As soon as they started showing real growth, they were bound to get noticed—and with the political support he’d seen coming out of the Ashe family, plus Cinza’s upcoming meeting with the President, Felix knew they’d be vulnerable to wiretapping as much as any crime family.
This was Washington, though, and even if they were way out in the middle of nowhere, they’d still managed to pick up a few tech-heads with the skills they needed. Brian would have an end-to-end encrypted messaging system by the end of the day, robust and effective enough to call support anywhere he needed from his growing army.
”What’s next?” Brian asked Felix as they retreated to the quiet bar in Neilton once more. There were a few patrons this time, but all known regulars whom Brian had recruited long before Felix entered the picture. Brian didn’t seem giddy—Felix doubted he’d ever see a truly positive emotion on the man’s face until they’d completed their mission—but there was an undercurrent of excitement. Felix felt it too.
They’d pulled off something important that day.
”We do it again tomorrow,” said Felix.
”I assumed grassroots meant word-of-mouth,” said Brian, slightly confused. “Won’t they tell people, and they’ll tell more people?”
”Yeah, but we need to give them reminders,” said Felix. “People don’t just show up to one good speech and suddenly change their whole way of life. Well, some people do,” he added with a smirk. Casey Alston, junior year at Columbia. That was a damn good speech. “For most, though, you need to build up momentum again. People attach themselves to a community. You gotta keep them coming back, over and over, until they really feel like they’re a part of the group.”
Brian nodded. “I can do that.”
”In the meantime,” said Felix, popping open his laptop, “I’ll be getting that recording up and spreading.”
He grinned. “Nothing spreads a message faster than a good video. That was a killer speech.”
Brian shrugged. “I just talked to them.”
”Whatever you did, it worked, and somebody got the whole thing on their cell. They were kind enough to let me copy it over.”
”What if they track us down?” asked Brian cautiously.
Felix shook his head. “So they find out you were in New London for one day. Everybody knows you’re in this area, and they haven’t found you yet, thanks to our friend here,” he added, nodding at the proprietor.
The old man nodded back, polishing a glass. “And they never will. I don’t know a Brian Hendricks.”
Felix grinned. “We’ll be a lot more careful with every speech going forward. Can’t just give up your location like that more than once, especially now that Winscombe’s probably mouthing off to every single damn agency in the country. It was only gonna work while everyone was still recovering from the London shitshow.”
”Speakin’ of which,” said the old man, reaching for the TV remote. He turned it on and unpaused the video.
”…named a Brian Hendricks of Rallsburg as the culprit behind the so-called golem attacks in Tacoma and Lakewood. Brian Hendricks has been assumed deceased since the events in May, but with this accusation, the FBI has officially changed his status to ‘missing, wanted for questioning’.”
”So they’re looking for me now, too,” said Brian calmly.
”They already were, I’ll bet,” said Felix with a shrug. “No reason Hailey wouldn’t have told them when she met up with ’em couple weeks back. Now they’re going wide with it, since Cinza name-dropped you and screwed whatever clandestine action they might’ve been trying. Plus, we get even more recognition.” He grinned. “They’re tripping all over themselves. It’s perfect.”
”You aren’t worried it’ll draw too much attention?” he asked. “Interfere with our own recruitment?”
Felix glanced up at the ceiling. “You see any helicopters flying around today? The search teams? They gave up on this area a long time ago. They ain’t gonna find us.”
”What about informants? We’re trusting a lot of people when they show up to these meetings.”
Felix nodded. “We have to, but I’ve got plans for that too. Pick a few of your inner circle, and we’ll hold multiple meetings at once. On the others, we patch you in wirelessly. I’ve bought a couple decent cameras to use. We’ll stream you live to each one, and rotate where you show up randomly, so they can’t ever predict which one you’re going to be at.”
”It’s not foolproof,” said Brian.
He shrugged. “Nothing is, man. We’re in a war. It’s a shitty, cloak-and-dagger war where we’re never going to be sure who we can really trust, but that’s how it goes.” Felix sighed. “Worst case, we just stream you to all of ’em, but I don’t like the optics on that. I think you’ve got real stage presence, and you lose a lot of that when you go video-only.”
”And if they aren’t sure which one I’ll be at, they’re more likely to keep coming back for a chance to find the real meeting,” said Brian slowly, nodding along.
Felix snapped his fingers. “Exactly. We’ll build up more engagement with the real followers.”
”You’re really not worried about infiltrators?” Brian asked.
He shook his head again. “None of these will last that long. We’re still going to keep coordinating through the phones, and the app Dennis is setting up tonight. We’ll compartmentalize as much as we have to. Everybody knows as much as they need to, and we give out missions piecemeal. When we have a real target, we can call in support instantly. They’ll let us layer everything so we can run everybody we need from right here. No eavesdropping, totally secure. This will work.”
”Where did you learn all of this?”
Felix grinned. “Reporting on third-world revolutions. New technologies can really help people rise up against corrupt governments when they’re used effectively. I think this is the first time I’ve been around a grassroots campaign to keep the status quo, though.”
”So what’s next?” Brian asked again, though he sounded far more confident than before.
Felix clapped him on the back. “You leave that to me.”
Monday morning, and Felix was feeling apprehensive. They’d done another speech the previous night, driving down to Aberdeen for an impromptu town hall gathering. It gained another groundswell of support, and another hundred or so joined the private app right as Dennis launched it. A few starting hiccups, but by Monday morning, they were communicating without problems.
Still, they weren’t really fired up yet. They were in the opening stages, but to really get the ball rolling, Felix needed something to incite them to action. He needed drama, and he wasn’t sure he would get it. He was afraid of the slacktivism effect, where he’d get a ton of people signing up but without any real commitment to action. Sure, these people might be interested in the cause, agree with Brian’s words, but they’d never actually witnessed the danger. There was a real threat that had to be stopped, at all costs.
Felix needed a story.
It took him a fair amount of digging to find someone who could pull it off on such short notice. He felt like he might be rushing things a bit, but he couldn’t afford to wait too long. Cinza was meeting with the President that very afternoon, and the man had a sterling approval rating with the public. If he came out in favor of the awakened, they might lose a great deal of support. Felix needed to secure as many followers as he could get firmly in their camp before that happened.
So long as they had enough people at their backs, Felix was confident they could still take out the awakened before it was too late—before they spread too far.
He didn’t like the idea that popped into his mind, but it was the best thing he could come up with in the time he had. It went against his principles as a journalist, but if it worked? He wouldn’t care. He’d be the guy who helped save the whole world from a terrible threat.
Felix could live with that.
They got into the tinted SUV, driven by the Tacoma cop Brian had recruited long before Felix joined them. Felix was curious how he’d managed to sway the officer, but neither told him much when asked. He doubted he’d ever get the full story, but it didn’t matter. The cop wasn’t the story. He wanted to remain anonymous, and Felix could give him that. He was doing important work.
”Where are we going tonight?” asked Brian, in the back seat behind the other two.
”A church in Satsop,” said Felix. Perfect location, too.
”You’ve got that fuckin’ stick, right?” asked the cop, merging out onto the highway and barrelling down the road south toward Aberdeen. Brian didn’t reply, his eyes closed as if meditating.
”Never lets go of it anymore,” confirmed Felix. “Wouldn’t even let me touch it.”
”That’s not new. Never lets anyone near it. Good riddance, too. Thing’s a fuckin’ nightmare.” He glanced over his shoulder at Brian. “Better you than me.”
Brian nodded. “As soon as we can, I’ll destroy it. It is an abomination.”
”Useful, though,” said Felix.
”So is magic,” said Brian.
Felix raised an eyebrow. He glanced at the cop, surprised, but the officer didn’t seem surprised. Evidently, they’d discussed this topic before. “But…” Felix prompted.
”Everything can be useful,” said Brian. “What matters are the risks. Magic isn’t worth the risks.”
Felix nodded. “Makes sense.”
They were quiet all the way through Aberdeen, Brian laying low despite the dark tinting in the windows. He didn’t trust anything anymore, and Felix couldn’t blame him. Even if the world didn’t really know him, their enemies certainly did. For that matter, Felix wondered if he should be worried about getting called out. After all, Jeremy Ashe knew he was working with Brian. Felix didn’t think Ashe would turn him in though. The man hadn’t seemed totally certain, and that niggling doubt was likely to leave the reporter in place—particularly since, at the time, Felix hadn’t actually been helping Brian, just reporting on him.
As they arrived at the little church in Satsop, the cop pulled them around to the rear. A couple of Brian’s inner circle were already at the entrance, watching out for any sign of trouble. They let everyone through without harassment, since Felix wanted to build a welcoming atmosphere for new recruits, but the moment they saw any sort of authority figure approach—sheriff, police, or God-forbid the FBI—they’d sound the alarm, and Felix would get Brian out of there.
They signaled an all-clear. Felix nodded as they drove past to the rear entrance. The officer got out first, checking the area yet again. Finally, Felix and Brian got out. Brian rolled his shoulders, trying to relieve some of the tension from the awkward way he’d ridden through town. Felix patted him on the back.
”Just another one, you got this.”
Brian nodded. “You’re streaming it this time, right?”
”Yeah, we should be set up for that.” Felix wasn’t sure if it would actually get through, but he’d been reassured of the network’s quality. Worst case, he’d still have the recording to post online afterward—or not, if everything goes to plan…
”Okay. Let’s go.” Brian pushed through the rear double-doors into the church, heading straight for the main hall where people were still gathering. They hurried to follow. Brian waited while Felix gave a similar introduction as before, though he didn’t bother to try and rile up the crowd as he had the first time.
He left that to the professional—and indeed, they’d received a huge donation from a few of the well-off new recruits, so Brian was getting paid. Felix hadn’t informed him, since Brian scorned the idea of getting paid for the work they were doing. Still, Felix knew better than to turn down a resource as valuable as money. He invested some of it, unsure how long their crusade might end up being, and helped pay the bills of the man housing them back in Neilton, shoring up the edges of their operation. When Brian needed the money, as he inevitably would, Felix would be ready.
I’m gonna have to switch up introducing him or not too, or else they’ll catch on as soon as I show my face somewhere. One or two rallies down the line, something like that. “…you’ve come here because you’re not sure about these ‘awakened’ in your midst. You’re worried about what they’ll do next, and if you’re safe in your own home. You aren’t,” Felix added, and was rewarded with a sharp intake of breath from the crowd. All right, so I’m not totally worthless at speeches. Good to know. “They’re a bigger danger than you realize. But I can’t tell you just how much. I haven’t witnessed what they can really do.”
At those words, Brian emerged from the side door to the little church stage, crossing out into the open. Felix gestured to him. “This man can. Brian Hendricks.” No applause, of course—Felix didn’t expect it anymore, and didn’t really want it either. He saw a few repeat faces in the crowd, but he wasn’t expecting many yet. They were deliberately trying to pull a wide audience, a variety to start the tendrils of the conversation in many communities all at once.
The one face that really mattered was in the crowd, and Felix got an affirmative nod from the man as he left the stage. He was ready, on Felix’s signal.
Brian launched into his speech—a similar structure as before, but as off-the-cuff as the first had been. He started off calm and small, practically conversational with the crowd at large. He talked like he were just their neighbor, telling them what had happened, and it was the sort of story they instantly believed, because he sounded so sincere—so broken.
Felix marveled at his skill to draw the crowd in. Once they’d accepted his story, they had no trouble accepting his later rhetoric. Brian slowly built them up to a low furor, as each new sentence boiled the crowd into a frenzy. By the time he reached the peak, Felix would have sworn he could have started a riot with a single word, and yet he kept them all under control.
Which meant it was about time for someone to try and disrupt that control.
A blinding yellow-orange light seared into Felix’s eyes. Fire burst out of the crowd, an eruption of flames that flew forward toward Brian. Sheer heat rolled over the room in a wave. The ball missed Brian by inches, sailing overhead—but the damage was done.
Someone had just tried to assassinate Brian Hendricks. With magic.
The crowd roared with unabashed fury. Brian was on his feet again, scanning the sea of faces for the attacker, but the mob had already found him. Without hesitation, they piled in on the man who’d thrown the fireball. Fists thumped against skin and bone as he went down, crushed by bodies in a storm of rage brought on by the attack against their leader.
Come on, I know you won’t let this stand, Felix prayed, watching Brian. Get in there.
As he’d hoped, Brian didn’t. He grasped the golem rod from his jacket, his eyes narrowed in concentration. Without warning, a golem erupted into the pew where the mob had attacked the man, splintering wood everywhere. People were pushed aside by the swiftly-growing monster, forming a protective shield over their hapless victim.
Can’t let them attack people without cause. We need an army, not a mob. You know what to do.
”Stop!” Brian roared, his deep voice piercing the cacophony. He walked forward, and the crowd bubbled back into silence once more, parting like the Red Sea to let him stride forward. When he reached the beaten man, Brian leaned down and helped him to his feet. “Can any of you prove this man was responsible?”
No response, of course. None of them had a stone to detect awakened. They were all new recruits.
Brian nodded. “We don’t hurt the innocent. That’s what makes us different from these cowards, these monsters.” He turned to the man, bleeding and bruised but mostly intact. “Tell me, are you awakened?”
”Liar!” shouted the next man in the pew, nursing bloody knuckles. “I saw him! He did something right before it happened!”
”He tried to kill you!” cried a woman further down the row. “We stopped him!”
”Magic can be misleading!” said Brian, cutting off further protest. “We have to be vigilant! We have tools for this!”
Oh, shit… what happens now? Brian’s gonna find out he isn’t awakened, and then… go through the rest of the crowd, until he finds no one, because it wasn’t actually magic. That isn’t really the most satisfying conclusion. I didn’t plan this far enough.
”Hold him steady,” Brian said aloud, and the two strongest men nearby grabbed both of the man’s arms. He struggled slightly, but Brian shook his head. “Don’t worry. If you aren’t awakened, nothing will happen.”
The room was so silent, Felix could hear the faint buzz of the emergency exit sign all the way across the room. Brian was staring at the hapless victim, one hand in his pocket, concentrating. Every single person waited for his judgment, his direction on what to do next.
If he’s innocent, we leave confused and fearful. If he’s guilty, we have a real villain, and Brian proves his abilities and his leadership. We give them a real look at what they’re fighting, and how they can be beaten. We’d be so much better off if he were guilty.
Except… he isn’t.
Brian nodded slowly, removing his hand from his pocket. He raised his voice. “…He is one of them. He tried to kill me.” He turned away, leaving the man behind. “You know what to do.”
The crowd descended on him. He’d tried to kill their leader, a man who had just riled them up into a frenzy. He was ‘awakened’, inhuman. He represented everything they feared, everything they hated—and with the sheer intensity of the rage Brian had built up, they were eager to take it out on the first thing they could find.
The poor man didn’t stand a chance.
Brian walked to the front of the church, still pointedly avoiding looking back at the crowd busy tearing apart the man who’d purportedly tried to kill him. Instead, he walked straight up to Felix, and the reporter had never felt so afraid in his entire life. Brian spoke in a low intensity that sent a shiver through his bones with every syllable.
Felix gulped. “No.”
Brian stared him directly in the eye. Felix withered under his glare. He couldn’t match it, and he ended up looking down at the floor instead.
”Don’t ever try to manipulate me like that again.”
Brian walked back to the front of the church, calling his followers to attention once more. Felix didn’t hear another word he said, trembling in the back of the hall. He saw the officer supervise the disposal of the body, saw the people file out with grim excitement, saw his own crew deliver the recording of the night to his hands. Felix didn’t hear anything all the way back to the bar in Neilton. As Felix went to bed for the night, he finally reconciled it in his mind.
They both knew what was at stake. Nothing could go wrong. They needed the support. Brian hadn’t wanted to do it; Felix hadn’t wanted to do it. They’d sacrificed an innocent. They’d probably sacrifice more before their crusade was over. Necessary evils, like the golems, like the identifying stones.
Necessary evils. Isn’t that the phrase always used by dictators and fascists, right before they start killing off everyone they don’t like?
This is different. These people chose this. They’re putting the world at risk. We’re just trying to survive.
So are they, aren’t they?
It’s a war now. If it’s us or them, I choose us.
So the argument went in his head, all night until he finally fell asleep hours later. Felix Wieczorek wanted to believe he’d chosen the right side, wanted to believe he hadn’t paid a man to die just to prove a point. His dreams were just as troubled, but when he woke up in the morning and reviewed his footage, Felix remembered the other things he’d seen.
He remembered Nate Price, nearly burning a whole room of reporters alive just to show off.
He remembered Hailey Winscombe, destroying buildings in Tacoma and London wherever she went.
He remembered Rallsburg, annihilated in the blink of an eye.
Felix remembered, and knew he’d chosen the right side. It was necessary. Brian was necessary, along with his whole following. They had to stop magic before it was too late—before the whole world ended up like that poor town, burned to ashes and scattered in the winds.