”Welcome back. Our topic for the day, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, is the upcoming book ‘The Rallsburg Diaries’, from Pro Paradigm Publishing. Whitney, your thoughts?”
”This has got to be the biggest marketing campaign I’ve ever seen.”
”You really think it’s just a big advertisement?”
”Oh come on. Magic? This is a whole lot of bull just to sell a book.”
”I dunno. These are real, award-winning journalists, not clickbait artists. They’re putting their reputation on the line.”
”Plus the FBI response.”
”I thought they didn’t comment.”
”Exactly. They’d deny it if it were fake. They’re looking into this, and that’s reason enough to give it some credit. Benefit of the doubt, at least.”
”But, come on… magic?”
”I’m just saying, I feel something in the air. Felt it ever since Rallsburg blew up and no one could tell us how. This could be it.”
”Fucking Christ,” he shouted, straining from the effort. Holding up this kind of weight was one thing, but holding up with just his mind was something else entirely.
”You said magic is a tool without limit. The only limit is your endurance. Why can you not lift this?” asked his partner, watching him with a bored expression. She had her rifle out, inspecting every inch yet again with her trained eye.
”She has a point,” added their boss, watching from a set of monitors hooked up to the sensors plastering his skin. “By all measurements you aren’t strained physically in the slightest. Just an elevated heart rate. What’s holding you back here?”
”Neither of you fucks can do this,” Viper growled. He finally released the weight, letting out a huge breath as he did. It clanged back onto the struts, echoing through the room. He glared at the other two. “Cut a guy some slack.”
”Competitive advantage, Stefen,” replied Cornelius Malton, young and fit with short brown hair. He was only thirty-two, but still in charge of one of the largest conglomerates in the world. He leaned over the monitors, watching the numbers change with an air of actually understanding what they meant. “I agreed to keep this from our R&D group, but that means you’ve got to give me more.”
”Are you having trouble performing?” Rook asked, the glint in her ice-blue eyes contrasting her otherwise stone-cold face. If he didn’t know her so well, he’d assume she was asking a serious question. Unless she was undercover, her sense of humor was dry as the deserts she hated so much.
Viper laid back against the cold metal bench, breathing heavily. “That much weight would be impossible for me to lift for real. This shit ain’t easy.”
”The delay effect seems to be diminishing as well,” Malton added, glancing over his readouts. “When we started, you were able to cast spells without any immediate exhaustion or pain. But each time, you’ve felt the effects more quickly.” He frowned. “Even though you can lift more with practice, you seem to be getting worse.”
”Well fuck. So this shit does have limits.”
”But why?” Malton asked to no one in particular. “What’s the connection?”
”It is pain,” said Rook, leaning back against the wall with her rifle up against her shoulder, pointed skyward. “He cannot control it.”
”Fuck you, Tess. I can do pain.”
”No, I mean it is pain like a baby feels pain.”
”You callin’ me a bab—”
Rook spoke over him. “Why do babies cry?”
”Because they’re fuckin’ babies?”
”Why?” asked Malton, equally ignoring Viper.
”Because they are feeling the most pain they have ever felt in their lives, though it is nothing to you and me. In the same way they do not know to avoid a flame, pain is learned. We do not know pain when we are born.”
”So you’re saying that this sort of magic exhaustion is learned as well?”
She shrugged. “I do not know. I am not awakened. But it seems the same. When he first cast his spells, he only felt the pain as the effects subsided. But his brain has learned. It rejects pushing himself too far, as mine rejects trying to punch a wall with such force that my knuckles would break.”
”So I gotta overcome that,” said Viper.
”It’s not unheard of,” said Malton, nodding slowly. “The human jaw is more than capable of shattering every tooth you have in your mouth, but our brains keep us from exerting that level of force. If we could reduce that reluctance somehow…” he wondered aloud. “Painkillers for magic?”
”Or I could just get drunk,” shrugged Viper.
”Let’s not, please.”
”You are trying to beat the survival instinct of the human mind,” said Rook. “I do not expect it will be so easy.”
”Well, we’ve got all the time in the world.”
At that moment, Malton’s phone rang. They all looked at it in surprise. His staff was under clear instructions not to bother him unless it was of the utmost importance. Viper sat up, wiping his brow with a towel. “If this is about the fuckin’ Laushires again,” he started.
”I told them that could wait. They know how to deal with dear Thomas’ libelous accusations,” said Malton mildly, raising the phone to his ear. “This is Cornelius.”
”Is it libel if every word he says is the truth?” asked Rook dryly.
”Even Laushire doesn’t believe what he’s saying, though,” said Viper. “Just ’cause we do have an inside man in their whole fuckin’ network that they can’t do a damn thing about.” He grinned. “You know they actually paid to replace every computer in the whole building?”
”Poor fuckin’ IT nerds. All that work and it didn’t change a damn thing.”
”I’m pleased our trip wasn’t wasted.”
Viper was about to say something else, but Malton held up his hand. “Right now?” he asked. “…I see. Do we know who it is?”
”Who what is?”
Malton shook his head. “Thank you. Keep me informed.” He hung up.
”Cor?” asked Viper uneasily. Malton looked surprised. Sure, his boss was good at improvising under pressure, but they all preferred a nice clean plan to last minute upheaval.
”…Change of plans,” he said at last.
Viper sighed. “Well Tess, you win this round.”
”Win what?” Malton asked.
”We were bettin’ on how long it’d take for the news to break.” He nodded at his partner. “Tess said six months, I said January. I was thinkin’ winter would drive ’em out in the open.”
”You already know?”
”No shit. We know they didn’t die.” He shrugged. “What’s the plan, then?”
”Get back out there. Bring me someone who won’t be missed. A volunteer if it’s possible, but anyone will do. No beating around the bush this time.”
Viper nodded. He glanced over at Rook, wondering how she felt about it. He felt a little uneasy about handing someone over to the scientists to be examined and probably cut open. She was as stone-faced as the day he met her, a Finnish immigrant serving in the Marines. He didn’t know much about her past (or even her real name—it definitely wasn’t Tessa Hunter), but he knew she’d bounced around so many countries as a child that she’d never had a real home. He had no idea why she’d joined the military, but he couldn’t deny she was a perfect fit for where she’d ended up.
They’d ended up a team, a sniper-spotter pair despite the reluctance from the brass to make a mixed-gender duo that would spend weeks totally alone in the field. Idiots. She was a consummate professional, and Viper had never worked with someone more dedicated or effective at her craft. In spite of every hurdle, every idiotic decision made by sexist or simply incompetent COs, she excelled. When his childhood friend Cornelius Malton had called him up, offering him a cushy position as a private contractor with full control over the missions he accepted, it was a no-brainer to get Tessa in on the deal.
These days, he had no idea what Rook did with her free time. He spent most of his at his favorite pub, enjoying his status as the only American in the area and picking up girls, trying to enjoy every last moment of a life he’d nearly lost a dozen times over, and probably would a dozen more times before he made it to forty.
It was the life he chose, and every time he punched out on a chopper, felt the adrenaline of a real firefight, or even just the cool gratification of getting in and out totally unnoticed with Rook on his heels, Stefen Gearhardt was pretty satisfied with his life.
They prepped and packed up their gear for the trip. This was a snatch job, not an execution, so Viper didn’t bother bringing a whole lot of lethal firepower. If they got into anything heavy, they’d retreat. With what they could be up against, he couldn’t be sure guns would even be effective in a real fight. Who knew what those fuckers had come up with since he’d left?
Tranquilizer rifles and pistols, tasers. His trusty Beretta and Benelli combo from his days in the Marines before being assigned to Rook. He figured ol’ Nelli was probably his best bet against the golems, since spread and stopping power were more important than range and penetration. Besides, if they really needed range, Rook always had her rifle.
No matter where she went, in the whole world, Rook’s rifle was never more than a couple dozen feet away. Viper honestly believed she probably slept with it even at home, though he’d never dare to find out. It was an M/28-30 rifle, the Finnish variant of the classic Russian Mosin Nagant. Despite being outdated and even declared obsolete, Rook somehow cleared the rifle for use in the field through sheer exceptional marksmanship. She’d installed modern scopes onto the rifle herself, tuning them and re-tuning them endlessly, and she never missed a shot under a thousand meters. Even well beyond that range, he’d spotted for her to land shots with her wooden rifle that put modern arms to shame, a piece of history she’d carried with her everywhere.
The squad loaded up onto one of Malton’s private jets, which he’d tasked to them for the duration of the mission. They’d land at a strip in Canada, unload and regroup with their chopper pilot.
”Back to fuckin’ Rallsburg, huh?” he commented.
Rook made a noncommittal noise of agreement, staring out the window at the clouds.
”It is just another mission.”
He glanced around the empty plane cabin. “We’re alone, Tess. Talk to me.”
She sighed, finally looking back at him. He was the only one she ever seemed to let her hair down around—metaphorically speaking. Her pale blonde hair barely made it past her ears, and she never put it up in the first place. “Our last mission changed him.”
”You mean Malton?”
”Yes. He has lost his focus.”
”What focus is that? He was runnin’ a business, and he still is unless I’m mistaken.”
”Not that. His business is fine. It is his goals. He was trying to make the world a better place. He had a vision, and now his vision is tainted.”
”Tainted by magic, you mean?”
”Yes. I think he has let visions of personal power cloud his judgment. He was already a man in control of the world, but now he wants control over nature itself. I fear this.”
”What about me? I’m awakened.”
”We have already discussed this.”
Viper shook his head. “You brushed me off, Tess. Time to spill the beans.”
”I believe you spilled the beans first.”
He rolled his eyes. “That was one fuckin’ time, and I said I was sorry.”
The corner of her mouth twitched slightly before she went on. “I do not know Malton, so I do not trust him. I know you.”
”Do you now?” He grinned.
”More than I wish to.”
Her face broke into an actual smile, something so rare that Viper had only seen it twice before. Once, when she’d first passed the qualification tests for sniper, and again when he’d invited her to come work for Malton. He couldn’t say what had brought it on this time, but it warmed his heart.
”If there was a man in the world who was responsible enough to handle such power, I would choose you.”
”…What’s that supposed to mean?”
”You know what power means. How it can affect people. I have seen how you treat such power.”
”This ain’t like guns.”
”Not just our weapons.” Rook turned back to look out the window again. “I trust you, Stefen. So if you say that Malton is a good man, I will follow your word.”
”We’re splittin’ up though.”
She stared back at him as if he’d said something stupid. Which, after a moment, Viper realized was pretty much true. He shrugged. “I don’t fuckin’ know who’s good or bad. So if you think we’re steppin’ over the line, you tell me. Agreed?”
”One of the released excerpts from the book mentions Kendra Laushire, daughter of Thomas Laushire of Laushire Enterprises. We previously reported on her presumed death in the Rallsburg incident, but with this new information come to light about her activities, we approached Mr. Laushire for a fresh perspective.”
”Mr. Laushire, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.”
”Have you read the piece about your daughter from the Rallsburg Diaries?”
”What do you think about Kendra’s activities? She seemed to be at the forefront of a new market, dealing in magic of all things.”
”It’s admirable. If I could speak to her today, I’d tell her I was proud of what she accomplished. She took a wholly unprecedented situation and established a new economy to help it succeed.”
”You seem to be extrapolating quite a bit from the brief couple of paragraphs that were released. How can you be so certain she was responsible for this so-called ‘Astral Market’?”
”She’s my daughter. She’s a Laushire.”
”But sir, isn’t it true that you rejected her involvement in your own company? She was slated to be a director on the board and by all accounts, you personally had her appointment blocked.”
”You’re talking about the so-called ‘leaked memos’ from our internal network, yes?”
”Yes, but combined with the rumors of a shocking revelation regarding your relationship in the book, you have to admit they paint a compelling picture.”
”A false picture.”
”I don’t deny their legitimacy, I contest their accuracy. Anyone who has ever worked for an operation at this scale would inform you that memos, rumors and emails cannot tell the whole story. Assuming as such would be counter to your sterling reputation as a bastion of quality journalism. I’m disappointed you place any stock in such rumors.”
”Sir, with all due respect, one email—from your own daughter, I might add—was particularly scathing and quite specific. It’s hard to deny the obvious connection.”
”That was a personal disagreement among family. I won’t discuss it.”
”I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I must get back to work.”
”…Thank you again for agreeing to meet with us today, Mr. Laushire.”
”That was Thomas Laushire, speaking about the recent revelations regarding his daughter Kendra in the forthcoming Rallsburg Diaries. Up next, literary analysis of the released text, as we try to uncover more information about the mysterious author of the Diaries and her origins.”
Thomas Laushire hung up the phone, leaning back in his office chair and pressing his fingers to his temples.
”Mr. Laushire?” his assistant asked tentatively through the intercom.
”Get me Bastian, please,” he replied.
”Right away, sir.”
Philip Bastian was his head of security, a man who was not having a good month. His hairline seemed to recede further every single time Thomas saw him. He practically stumbled into the room a few minutes later, laptop under his arm. “Mr. Laushire, I—”
”How?” Thomas asked simply, picking up a glass of scotch from his desk. He took a long sip before continuing. “How is he getting in?”
”Sir, we’ve tried everything—”
”You obviously haven’t.” He squeezed the glass in his fist, to the point a lesser cup might have shattered—but Thomas Laushire only ever purchased the best. It would take superhuman strength to break.
”We replaced the whole network piece by piece. Every inch, every machine. We even got cooperation from our ISP to monitor all traffic in and out of the building from their end. We’ve installed new encrypted tunnels everywhere and rerouted our entire system. Nothing works.”
”Bring in experts.”
”I’ve done that. We brought in the smartest kids in Silicon Valley and offered a huge bounty. They tried everything and couldn’t break into our network. Said it was foolproof.”
”Well, I’m feeling pretty damn foolish, Bastian.”
”Sir, I have to conclude the leak is internal, and human.”
”I thought you were already pursuing that angle.”
”I am, but there’s only so much we can do. We’ve laid honeypots everywhere, but we haven’t found a single mole.”
”Have any of these been communicated electronically?”
”No, of course not.”
”So you’re saying that every single one of my employees is apparently loyal, our network impenetrable, our system perfectly secure—and Cornelius Malton is still able to read our every move like a damn book?”
He left in a hurry. Thomas drained the rest of his drink, swivelling to stare out of the tall windows overlooking the Thames. How the hell is he able to pull this off? Every deal I make, he swoops in like a crow at the eleventh hour with a better offer. Every move, every negotiation, every deal. They’re all going his way.
The Culver-Malton Group had been rivals with Laushire Enterprises for decades, each commanding a healthy share of the global economy. They were both massive industry leaders, with their hands in every slice of the pie and every other dish on the table as well. If a company shipped a product overseas, odds were it sailed on a boat belonging to Malton, Laushire or the Chinese. Laushire powered more than a third of the European continent, while Malton ran the lights for the other third. They owned car manufactories, steelwork foundries, mining operations. Laushire had recently expanded into foodstuffs in the last half-dozen years, while Malton explored private military work with with his “Malton Solutions” brand of contract killers. Together they accounted for a sizeable portion of the global economy, each racing to swallow up more subsidiaries than the other.
They’d always been on fairly level ground, until the last few months. Something changed. Cornelius Malton, damn him, had started to outplay Laushire at every turn. Stocks in Thomas’ companies were plummeting as they lost deals and partnerships, while inflammatory leaks proceeded like clockwork to tear down executives working under his umbrella. Many had resigned in disgrace. Several had been arrested.
Thomas himself had never done anything illegal, merely questionable, so his own standing was quite stable. But as soon as the relationship with Kendra came to light… well, no one particularly enjoyed seeing a father berating and humiliating his daughter in front of the directors of a company.
”She wasn’t ready!” he shouted at no one in particular. “I was trying to help her!”
”…Sir?” chimed his intercom.
”Go away!” he snarled through the door to his assistant, who quickly turned it off.
I’d take it back if I could. All of it.
The phone on his desk rang. He picked it up, his voice a low growl. “If you couldn’t tell, I wanted no interruptions.”
”And I wanted a nice lunch hour to myself, but apparently you’re burning our company to the ground again.”
His wife sighed audibly through the line. “Dear, we really must stop meeting like this.”
”What is it?”
”Your assistant called me. He’s a good lad, so would you please stop shouting his ear off through the door? I’d hate to see him quit.”
”I’d fire him first.”
”It’s a good thing I hired him, then, so you can’t do that.”
”…What do you want?”
”Well, I’m enjoying a lovely afternoon here at the School and thought, ‘hmm, I wonder how I can make things a little less pleasant?’ So, naturally, I phoned you.”
”I’m rather busy—”
”No you’re not. You’re sacking competent, loyal directors who’ve done no wrong and blowing up at the slightest shift in the wind. I told dear Bastian that he’s still one of ours, by the by. He’ll be taking a week off, but expect his poorly shaved beard in your board meetings straight away.”
”You would undermine—”
”And another thing, Thomas. If you’re so bloody upset by our rivals taking the upper hand in negotiations, perhaps it’s time to get back into the field yourself? Cornelius certainly doesn’t scorn getting into the muck while you lounge about your ivory tower. I do believe you’re outplaying yourself.”
”That’s not why I’m angry.”
”It damn well isn’t.”
”Thomas, if you aren’t going to act civil, this phone call will be rather unpleasant for us both.”
”I’ve a whole mess of problems beyond Cornelius,” he spat. “And I’d appreciate some damn sympathy and support from my wife, if you don’t mind.”
”Are you speaking about that interview you had this morning? I thought it went all right.”
”They tarred and feathered me, Mary. Practically said I beat my children on national news.”
”Oh, stop exaggerating, dear. No one’s claiming any such nonsense.”
”They made me out to be…”
”Like your own father, I expect?”
”Well, dear, I’ll fill you in on a little secret: you’re quite a lot like your father.”
Thomas stood up from his chair, phone to his ear. The receiver lifted up slightly as he growled. “Absolute rubbish.”
”For heaven’s sake, Thomas. I didn’t say you were your old man.”
”I wouldn’t ever lay a hand on them.”
”If you were the type, I wouldn’t have married you, so let’s dispense with the theatrics please?”
”It’s my bloody fault, all right?” he snapped.
Mary didn’t answer for a few moments. He could hear her faint breath through the speaker. “…What is, precisely?”
”I drove her away. I ensured she couldn’t get a job teaching at any reasonable school. It’s my fault she was in that horrible town.”
”Oh, Thomas…” Mary sighed again. “It’s not your fault.”
”She could have stayed in London with you. She could have taught anywhere! She could have worked for the company in some other regard. It’s my fault she went to such lengths to run from us.”
”Thomas, you’re blaming yourself for a spontaneous cataclysm. No one could have foreseen these events.”
”Collins the younger did.”
”Her Collins? I highly doubt it.”
”He sent an email on May the twelfth. It wasn’t clear—”
”Nothing penned by that man ever was.”
”But he told me this was coming. Magic. All of it.”
”Did he now?”
”I could have acted. I ignored it. He sounded mad.”
”Anyone would have thought him mad, dear. You can’t blame yourself.”
”Four days later, she…” Thomas choked up. He couldn’t bring himself to say it.
”…I know, dear.” She hesitated. “Would you like me to come over?”
”You haven’t been in this building in years.”
”I might give the cleaning staff a heart attack then. Best not, I suppose.”
Thomas sat back down, putting his head in his hands, the phone resting against his ear. “I don’t know what to do.”
She clicked her tongue disapprovingly. He could perfectly visualize the disdain on her face. “That’s not the man I married.”
”Malton’s going to drive us off the top. The only place they haven’t overtaken our growth is the American west coast, and that’s only because some other player is making a move there. We’re practically in freefall.”
”What do we do when we’re being out-maneuvered, Thomas? What did Malton do to even stay in the game in the first place?”
He frowned, thinking it over. “…Strike a deal. Merge with his competitors.”
”Exactly. Look at their name, for Pete’s sake! Poor Cornelius didn’t even get first billing on his own company. Wendell Culver took the easy road and made billions.”
”You said it yourself. There’s a new player in the game, and they’re outside our circle, so Malton won’t have an edge. Swallow your pride and make the call.”
Thomas sighed. “I’ve never met the man.”
”What’s his name?”
”Wilmore. The paperwork is all signed L. Wilmore. I haven’t been able to get any more than that..”
”So get to work! Call the man! Honestly, how much of your job do you expect me to do?”
He smiled to himself. “Some of these days, I’m not sure who actually runs this company.”
Mary laughed. “Get back to work, Thomas. I’ll see you at supper. A late supper, mind you. I’ve got a meeting tonight.”
”Right.” He paused. “Mary?”
”I’m sorry. For… everything I did.”
”Thomas, she would have left sooner or later, no matter what you did. I’m not saying you were in the right, but Kendra was always going to make her own way. She’s just like her father. You said it yourself.”
”Do you think she was happy?”
”I have no doubt. Now get to work, dear.” Before he could say another word, she hung up.
Thomas felt like a great weight had been lifted from his chest. His wife always knew how to get him back on track. He set the phone down, then pressed the intercom for his assistant. “Get me our head of American operations, please. It’s urgent.” He paused. “And, please inform Mr. Bastian to come see me at his convenience.”
”Right away, sir.”
”The Federal Investigation Bureau has continued to refuse comment on all questions regarding the Rallsburg Diaries. While Pro Paradigm only made the existence public a day before, rumors are swirling that the FBI was already well-aware of the situation. In particular, Jeremy Ashe’s sudden and unexpected removal from the case, as well as the testimony of more than a dozen officers of the Tacoma Police Department from Friday, October 26th, are now believed to be further evidence of a startling coverup. We’ve brought our chief federal correspondent Penelope Ramirez on, as well as Ted Winters, the Tacoma News anchor responsible for breaking the story. Ted, thanks again for joining us today.”
”It’s a pleasure to be here, Frank.”
”Now, as I understand it Ted, you’re one of the very few people to have actually seen the real copy of the Rallsburg Diaries, as well as the survivor who brought it to our attention.”
”Who are they?”
”Now, now, I’m sure you’re all aware I’m under a strict non-disclosure agreement. I can’t reveal that information.”
”Suffice to say, it wasn’t anyone we expected. Nor is it the author of the Diaries, as I think we’ve made clear.”
”Yes. The mysterious author. Cinza, correct?”
”Yes. Portuguese for ‘grey’, I’m told.”
”Penelope, was this ‘Cinza’ ever a part of the FBI investigation?”
”No, Frank. As far as we’re aware, no one has ever heard of her, nor anyone even resembling her from the description in the first excerpt.”
”Ted, did she really write such a detailed description of herself, but fail to include even the slightest identifying information? No name, no nationality, nothing at all?”
”She’s an odd one, from the pieces I’ve read. I haven’t gotten a chance to read the whole book, but let me tell you: she’s going to surprise you.”
”If she’s even real.”
”Our survivor confirms every word of the story.”
”Penelope, you think there’s doubt?”
”It’s a written account from one perspective, Frank, not a report. There’s going to be bias. If this diary is even accurate.”
”Hang on, are you suggesting it’s a fake?”
”I’m just stating my perspective, Ted. Someone shows up out of nowhere, claiming to survive the Rallsburg incident from months before, and with a nice and detailed written account of everything that happened? It’s a bit too convenient.”
”We’ve heard about other survivors though. Jerry Hauserman, who survived the same amount of time before being murdered in Olympic Forest. Or Boris Morozov and Dan Rhodes in Canada. Plus there were rumors about Ryan Walker in Redmond, and of course the ongoing sightings of Hailey Winscombe. It’s not like it’s unheard of.”
”It’s a fair point, Penelope. Why isn’t this survivor believable?”
”Well, until they show their face, I’m taking everything with a grain of salt, and you should too. Plus, all these ridiculous claims about magic. Magic, Frank. Ted, are you really suggesting magic is real?”
”If you’d seen what I saw, Penelope, you’d believe it too.”
”So what did you see?”
”Like I said, non-disclosure agreement. It’ll be on the air soon.”
”Oh, come on, quit fu—”
”Thank you, Penelope Ramirez and Ted Winters. We’ll be back after a short break with more from these two, as we dig deeper into the so-called ‘magic’ that destroyed Rallsburg, as well as the three other excerpts that have been released from the Rallsburg Diaries. Stay tuned.”
”Come on, you fucker,” she called, pushing open the door to the motel room. She kicked off her shoes before dragging him over the threshold. “Get in here.”
”Not yet you aren’t.” She clicked the lights off as she crossed the room, falling on the bed. He was close behind, closing the door behind him. He clicked the lights back on as he did. “I turned them off for a reason.”
”Why, embarrassed to see yourself?”
”More like ashamed.” She rolled over and looked up at him. “Well come on then. I’m waiting.”
He grinned wolfishly. Without warning, he fell on top of her, and his mouth found hers. She wrapped her arms around his back and pulled him closer, as if she were trying to swallow him.
”Jesus, that feels incredible,” he murmured.
”We haven’t done this since, you know—”
”Oh, fuck, I forgot.” She started to let go of the spell, but he pressed closer. “It’s okay?”
”You have no fuckin’ idea.”
With that, he was kissing her again. Her hands scrambled along his back, practically tearing his shirt off. In seconds he was doing the same, grabbing at her jacket and throwing it aside. His hands ran across the tattoos on her arms, slowing down for a minute as he traced them with his finger. Every second he was touching her, she could feel the current pulsing through her, racing through her skin and traveling through his as well before coming back around again.
”God you’re sexy.”
”Less talking, more fucking,” she growled.
”Whatever you say, Maria,” he said, smirking. He stripped off the rest of his clothes while she laid back on the bed, breathing heavily. She felt torn between watching his face and looking anywhere else. She hated him, but at the same time, he was so unbearably attractive that she couldn’t resist. Her eyes kept darting to the ceiling or the walls around him, but never failed to drift back to his well-muscled body.
As he reached for the straps of her tank top, she pressed a hand to his strong chest. He winced visibly at the sudden additional burst of electricity before grinning. “What, got something else in mind?”
”No, I just need some background noise. So I can think about something other than your fucking face.”
”I’ll give you something else to think about.”
Immediately, her nose pinched up, as if she were about to sneeze. “Stop.”
”I’m allergic, asshole. Remember?”
To her relief, the sniffling went away. She reached over and grabbed the remote from the bedside table, clicking on the TV. It wasn’t very loud, but just enough that she could make out the words. The corner of the screen said it was a rerun from the evening news.
”—Federal Investigation Bureau has continued to refuse comment on all questions—”
”There we go,” she said. She tossed the remote aside, then grabbed his shoulders. In one quick movement, she flipped him over, slamming him onto the bed and straddling his legs. His eyes widened. She grinned, then she pulled her top off over her head herself. “Only I get to do that, motherfucker.”
”Fuck you too, Rika.”
”Shut up and enjoy it, before I decide to find someone else to fuck.”
Why the fuck am I doing this? Her hands kept moving, stripping away the final layers, grabbing at him, taking him, but her mind was completely elsewhere. I always hated him. Yeah he’s sexy as fuck but I’ve had better. What am I doing?
”Rika?” he asked.
”Just shut up,” she said again. “Enjoy the fucking ride.”
It’s me. I’m a fucking addict. That’s it. I’m addicted to sex, I’m addicted to stabbing people in the back. Sometimes sexually. Sometimes literally. This is just another moment in my stupid shitty life.
Just another moment. I’ll forget about it tomorrow. Back to the fucking store. Make a little more money, do a little more research, follow another shitty lead. Hit another fucking dead end. I’m in a fucking while loop and someone forgot to include an end condition.
”Rika, wake the fuck up!”
She looked down at him. “What’s wrong with you?”
”What’s wrong with you?“
”You’re getting what you want, aren’t you?”
He shook his head, but another movement and a surge of energy had him too breathless to speak.
She could still feel the electricity pumping through both of them, a constant pulsing circuit buzzing through every point their skin touched. She wondered what it felt like on the other side, what he was feeling, given their position. “Tell me this isn’t the best fucking sex you’ve ever had.”
”…Not by a long shot.”
”You liar. You feel that?” She let the electricity build up a little stronger, release a little more energy. It was always there, and she was always suppressing it. If she didn’t, she was liable to overload circuits, hurt people with just a fingertip. But every so often, either by neglect or by choice, she let it go. Because she could.
A small surge traveled down through her core and into him. His eyes rolled back slightly in his skull, and his face visibly pinched up a bit, right as she let the current free. Yeah, he liked that.
”Uh huh,” she added. “So don’t lie to me, bitch. You know what you’re getting here.”
”You know what’s the worst?”
”When the girl isn’t into it.” Without warning, he shoved her back. The circuit broke, and the current of electricity dimmed. She felt like he’d just torn away something vital, a part of her she didn’t recognize until it was gone.
”What the fuck, Ryan?” she snapped.
Ryan Walker sat up against the wall, pulling the nearest sheet over his legs. “You need to deal with your shit, and you need to do it soon.”
”Rika, you were fucking me, and you hate my guts. So there’s something seriously wrong with you.”
”When the fuck did you become the sensitive type?”
”When you became the bitchy slut. You’re an asshole, Rika, but this? This isn’t you.”
She rolled off the bed and grabbed up her tank top. “The hell do you know about my life now?”
”Not a goddamn thing. Just how you like it.” Ryan shrugged. “I’m down to fuck, but next time, leave your fucking baggage at the door.” He held up his hand and gestured across the room with his index finger. His laptop hovered off the desk and floated across the room to land in his lap.
Rika started picking up her clothes. Motherfucker. She looked around for her wallet, which had fallen out of her pants at some point between the door at the bed, finally locating it under the pile of blankets they’d shoved to the side. She gathered everything up, expecting some kind of mocking aside from the gallery, but Ryan was surprisingly quiet. He was staring at the TV with a blank expression.
”They just said my name,” he murmured.
”So they just said my name on national fucking TV.”
It took her a moment to remember that other people weren’t used to being in the news. Sure, she wasn’t there frequently, but being the rich rebellious daughter of a famous software nerd millionaire got her a fair share of crappy tabloid drama—especially when she was the one calling in the tips. God, I was stupid back then… I doubt any of those stories did a thing to hurt Dad. “About what?”
He picked up the remote and mashed the buttons. “Shitty ass DVR. One sec.”
They watched the segment again, from the beginning.
”…Shit,” Rika murmured. She was sitting on the side of the bed, her clothes totally forgotten. The same familiar blindsided feeling as when she’d gone back into Rallsburg, only to find out the whole town suddenly knew about magic. Ryan still looked dumbfounded.
”What the fuck happened today?” he muttered.
She glanced over at him. “They didn’t say you were alive for sure.”
”Yeah, but this is it, right? Magic’s in the open.”
”Fuck,” Rika echoed. She clicked the TV off, pressing the button on the remote with a flick of her mind.
”Where’s Rachel?” asked Ryan, leaning back on the bed. “Shouldn’t she be showing up with trumpets ‘n shit now?”
”Fuck if I know,” Rika shrugged. Her brain was on overdrive as she tried to consider the huge shift in the world. To her surprise… she didn’t really feel much at all. Relief, mostly. “Well, this makes things easier.”
”I’m done hiding, for one.”
She shrugged. “I’m only out here because I figured either Omega was gonna hunt me down, or they were gonna pin me with all those dead people from electrical burns. If the true story’s coming out from Cinza, I’m in the clear.”
”I’m not. I’m supposed to be dead.”
”…You think she did it, then?” Rika asked. “You think Rachel got him?”
”Anyone else.” Rika shook her head. “I don’t think Rachel could kill someone. Fuck, I don’t want her to have killed someone.”
”She could have,” he muttered. “You should’ve seen her with Will. I’ve never seen someone that pissed.”
Rika laid back down. To her surprise, Ryan’s motel room had soft, comfortable sheets—way nicer than she expected for such a cheap-looking place, and she’d been in a lot of cheap motels in her life. “Why didn’t you ever go home?” she asked, looking up at him at the head of the bed.
”You’re interested in my life now?”
”I’m stuck here for the night, motherfucker.”
She pointed at the clock. “Buses already stopped running.”
”Call a cab or something. Rideshares. Whatever.”
”You want to get rid of me that badly?”
”…I don’t hate your guts.” It surprised them both. Ryan glanced over at her, eyes a little wide. She smirked, trying to reclaim some dignity. “Yeah, drink it in asshole. I was nice to you for a second.”
”I should call you Maria more often.”
”But seriously.” His leg stretched out under the sheets, and his toe poked her in the arm near the kanji tattoo she’d done herself. “What the fuck’s up with you lately?”
”Besides the whole ‘we’re both pretending to be other people and hiding from the world in fucking Redmond’ thing?”
”Hey, I’m actually supposed to be dead. You weren’t on any of those lists.” He poked her again. “Who’s Maria?”
She rolled her eyes. “My mother’s name. Didn’t you remember anything I told you when we were dating?”
”‘Course not. I only cared about the sex.”
Ryan grinned. “She was an artist, liked to write books for you when you were little. Died of a brain tumor. Your dad’s a horrible fucking monster who treated her like shit and left her to die alone. How am I doin’?”
”…Shit.” This isn’t Ryan. Who the fuck is this guy?
”Try being nice to people for a change, maybe you’ll make more friends.”
There’s the patronizing asshole I remember. “Fuck that. I’m busy.”
”Busy working a dead-end retail job, pretending you don’t want to throttle half your coworkers, and calling yourself Maria?” He rolled his eyes. “I might be dead, but at least I’m honest about how much I’m just fucking around.”
”Fucking around, eh?” She glanced at him suggestively. “Anyone I should know about?”
”A girl like you wouldn’t believe.” He shook his head. “Don’t worry, I’ve got time for you.”
”I’m ditching you, fucker. I want to see this other girl who meets Ryan Walker’s impossible standards.”
”So you can get some tips?”
”So I can give her a way better ride.”
He laughed. “Stick around and you might meet her.”
Rika sat up, looking at him oddly. “Isn’t she gonna care you were with me?”
”I’m fucked up. I don’t count.”
Ryan shrugged. “You aren’t the only one that doesn’t care who sleeps with who. She and I spelled it out from day one. She’s just actually sane, unlike me and you.” He sat up more, setting the laptop aside. “Seriously, Rika. You aren’t fucked up, you just need to figure out what you really want.”
”I know exactly what I want.” I just don’t have any clue where to go next, and I’m stuck. I have no idea where he is. I went to Rallsburg to try and get some answers, and ended up in a fucking warzone instead.
”A good fuck, a good night’s sleep, and a goddamn clue.”
Ryan grinned. “I can do one and two, but unless you’re gonna tell me what you’re up to, you’re on your own for three.”
She grabbed the laptop with her mind, floating it back over to the bedside table. A moment later, she flung the remote after it—a bit less carefully, as it cracked against the table edge and clattered to the floor.
Ryan raised his eyebrows, lips curling into a smirk.
Fuck it. I need some relief from this mess. I’ll figure it out in the morning.
With one final flourish, she flung the sheets he’d gathered up back off the bed again.
”Get back over here,” she growled.
”One aspect of the story that no one seems to be covering is the lead investigator, Jeremy Ashe. Since the start of the investigation, it’s come to light that he had a personal connection with one of the victims of the incident: Jacqueline Nossinger, the sheriff of Rallsburg. Can you tell us a bit more about that?”
”I was the chief of their precinct at the time they worked together. I assigned Jeremy to be Jackie’s partner, actually.”
”Do you believe Agent Ashe could have compromised the investigation due to his personal connections to the case?”
”Absolutely not. Jeremy’s a professional. I don’t believe for a second he let personal feelings cloud his judgment.”
”He was removed from the case by his superiors after the standoff in north Tacoma. Most speculation pointed toward incompetency and involving himself in events outside his jurisdiction.”
”Well, given what we’ve learned, that standoff doesn’t seem so unrelated now, does it? When a dozen uniformed officers claim something supernatural occurred, and now we find out that maybe they weren’t so crazy, I think it’s probably worth looking into. Clearly, Jeremy was onto something.”
”Do you think he should be reinstated as the lead investigator?”
”Right away. If anything, his old partnership with Jackie gives him the motivation to get this done right. Every detective and every good investigator has it drummed into them from the start. It’s the only way we can get cases through the system. Do things right, every time.”
”Let’s talk about Jackie for a minute. She was a detective in Homicide, right?”
”That’s right. We covered one of the worst parts of Seattle. I’m pleased to say during that decade, we reduced the crime rate by a significant margin. Murders in particular went down in record numbers.”
”Would you say she was instrumental to this success?”
”It’s hard to say what the specific cause of a reduction is, but I can say that Jackie always did her job well, above and beyond the call of duty. I was very sad to see her go.”
”She requested a transfer herself?”
”Exactly. Worst day of my career, signing that sheet. She was moved out to state trooper, and eventually after a few patrols through the town, decided she liked it well enough to make it her home. She got elected sheriff in ’09, and stayed there right until the end.”
”In one of the released excerpts from the Rallsburg Diaries, she features prominently. Have you read it?”
”She seems to be presiding over a town hall about the murder of a child in town. Obviously, we don’t have much more context for the moment, but she certainly isn’t painted in a good light. She comes off as weak and ineffectual.”
”I’d say the writer is biased. They were clearly being attacked throughout the meeting. We can’t know the relationships in that room without more context. Jackie didn’t come off great in that, I agree, but we don’t know the whole story.”
”Too true. Well, the book won’t be available until Tuesday, so until then, we’ll be dissecting each of the portions in detail with our special guests. Up next, a profile of Hannah Newman, A.K.A. Ruby, the self-described ‘soul mate’ of Diaries author Cinza, and her father Ashley Newman.”
”I don’t want any trouble,” he stammered. By now, he felt like he wouldn’t have any difficulty with that sentence—but somehow, every time, he felt even more scared than the last.
”You don’t belong here man.”
”Go back to California.”
”I’m sorry, okay? I’ll pay for any damages.”
”Nah, man. Just get out of here. Don’t ever come back.”
”I don’t have anywhere else to go,” he pleaded.
”Should’ve thought of that first, huh?”
”Get out of here.”
”You don’t belong.”
Hector couldn’t tell which of the voices were real, and which were from his memories. It was all just a blur of sound in his ears. His eyes couldn’t quite make it up from the pavement, staring at the shoes of the guys surrounding him.
He backed away, leaving his car where it was—scraped against a beaten up pick-up. It wasn’t even his fault. They’d parked next to him, way over the line and up on the curb. When the guy got out of the passenger seat, throwing the door wide in his drunken state, the window went straight into the side mirror of his car, shattering on impact.
Hector had the misfortune of walking out only a moment later. Just like every other misfortune of his long, unfortunate life. Sometimes he wondered if coming to America was a mistake all along. It wasn’t what they said it would be. In so many ways it was better… but even though he’d come there legally, in all the right ways and done all the right things, they still treated him like he didn’t belong.
I’m just like you! he wanted to shout in their faces. Everyone came here at one time or another! That’s the whole point! But he knew it didn’t matter. They wouldn’t listen.
Of course, this time, he was in the country illegally. He was in hiding, after all, spirited across the border by Jackie months before—snuck away from another home where he’d been run out of town for being different. Not for the color of his skin, for once, but it didn’t make much difference in the end. He’d still lost another home.
Hector started walking away, but one of the guys grabbed him by the shirt collar.
”Please, don’t do this,” he whimpered. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
They glanced at each other. “Huh?”
”I’ll pay for the car. I have some cash. But I can’t leave. I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
”You’ll go wherever we tell you to go.”
Hector shook his head. Reluctantly, he murmured a spell under his breath as he did, releasing a massive flow of energy into his arms as he did. He’d seen the knife on the belt of the taller guy. Hector hated violence, hated fighting of any kind—but if he had to stop them, he would.
”Please,” he said, one last time.
”Didn’t you hear me? Get your ass out of our town,” the guy growled.
His fist went up, and Hector’s reflexes kicked in. Hector looked away as he pushed, and he felt the energy burst through his arms and fingertips.
The guys went flying, straight over their truck and tumbling into the snow beyond.
”Holy shit,” gasped one of their onlooking friends.
Hector turned and ran. He ran straight down the highway, as fast as his short legs could carry him. He ran without looking to see if anyone was chasing him. Just straight down the highway, along the snow-covered gravel, following the winding roads through the pine forest. He ran until he fell to his knees, gasping for breath.
A car was approaching from far away, and Hector was too winded to even roll himself into the ditch next to the road. He just sat crouched in the shoulder, watching the slowly approaching car, hoping they’d be friendly.
His eyes drooped. Was there even a car there? Was he just imagining it? He felt so tired, so cold. He tried to use magic to warm himself up, but he’d been awake for so long, and he’d sprinted all the way out of town. He pressed his hands to his face, trying to catch every bit of warm air from his breath, as if he could trap it in.
As if in slow motion, Hector could feel himself falling over. His head was suddenly surrounded by packed white snow, ears freezing from the ice-cold ground. Everything was cold. So cold.
I guess this is it…
I’m sorry, Leticia. I’m coming to you sooner than I promised.
Hector spluttered awake. He was in the backseat of a car, with a pile of hand warmers scattered over him, and a familiar face leaning over him. A wrinkled face with sharp brown eyes and messy brown hair perpetually tied back behind her head.
She grinned. “Takin’ a nap in the snow, are ya?”
His ears felt like they’d fallen off, but he was pleased to find they were still attached to his head—albeit completely numb. Jackie draped a blanket over him, then dumped the pile of hand warmers on top of it, followed by another blanket.
”The hell were you doin’ out here?”
”Running,” he said sadly, trying to get more comfortable. The seat belt connector pressed painfully into his back, but his arms felt too weak to reach underneath and try to push it away. Jackie noticed, of course, and helped him get it squared away.
”Thought you were working. Night shift at the gas station, right?”
”I…” He turned his head away, embarrassed. “I couldn’t stay there anymore.”
”What happened? Last I checked you were doin’ pretty good. You even got yourself a car. Way better off than Preston and Neffie, let me tell ya.”
”What happened to the Bowmans?” he asked, desperate to change the subject—and for an update on Neffie, whom he’d always liked quite a lot.
”Oh, they’re fine. They’re living in their little cabin and doin’ just great at drivin’ each other up the walls. Neffie’s bored out of her mind but what can do you? They play cards a lot with their next door neighbor. Next door bein’ a half-dozen miles, mind.”
”That doesn’t sound so bad.”
”They eat nothin’ but fish and plants. No red meat at all.” She shuddered exaggeratedly. “I can’t live without a good steak every once in a while, y’know?”
”I guess so.”
”But seriously, man. If I hadn’t been drivin’ this way, you coulda died.”
”What were you doing out here?”
”The rounds, of course.” She sighed. “There’s big news on the way. I got a call from Rachel.”
He perked up at that news. “I thought no one’s heard from her since May.”
”Yeah, well, I kinda lied. Sorry, but that girl earned it.”
”I don’t blame you. Please, keep going.”
”I’m not sayin’ we were regular talkin’ buddies, but I checked up on her. Anyway. Yesterday she was visited by the FBI agent. The one that ran into Dan and Boris, remember?”
”Yeah, well, they got to talkin’. Apparently he ain’t so bad. Rachel thinks he’s our ticket into the world for real. It’s not gonna be easy, but it’s a start.”
He shrugged. Somehow, he doubted even Rachel could find him a proper place to live. Rallsburg had been the closest, but it had also ended up the worst. “What does that mean for us?”
”Means we get to go home, man!”
”…But we don’t have a home.”
Jackie shrugged. “So we’ll make a new home. Don’t worry, it ain’t so bad. I’ve moved plenty of times in my life.”
”…So have I.”
She frowned. “Yeah, I getcha. But… well, at least you’ll be among friends right? Hey, how about you come with me now?”
”This is gonna be over soon. I’m headed up to meet Neffie and Preston next. You want to ride along?”
”I… I guess so.”
”Need anything here?”
He shook his head fervently, then regretted it immediately as a spike of pain shot through. “I don’t have anything here I want to keep. Let’s just go.”
She hesitated, but nodded. “You got it, Hector.”
As they drove, Hector peppered her with questions, just to keep her busy. Anything to turn the conversation away from himself.
”How’s Natalie doing?” He started with her, the one he missed most of all. She’d been his best friend, more or less, the whole time he’d lived in Rallsburg. From the day she’d arrived, a spunky seven year old missing both her front teeth, with a love for the outdoors and a father who wanted nothing to do with anyone in town.
She kept running away from their little house across from the apartments he’d inherited, much to Brian’s frustration and frequent panic. Hector was almost always the first one to find her. He had a knack for knowing just where she’d run, and he made sure to stay with her until her father showed up again. Over time, he and Brian built up something of a friendship—his second friend in town after Robert. They weren’t close by any stretch of the definition, but he was soon one of the few people he could trust Natalie with.
She ended up at his store after school with Mrs. Nichols almost every day, even if only to have a place away from her dad where she could play games on her phone or watch TV. Hector indulged her, reminded of his old role as the fun uncle to his brother’s two little girls. He let her get away with the little things while she was away from home, and they built up a mischievous rapport. When they both found Scraps, quite independently, Hector was the first person she told.
”I haven’t seen her,” Jackie sighed. “I just get what the rest of us do from Kendra and Lily online, and the couple of posts she made of course. I figure they aren’t tellin’ us the whole story, you know? She seems way quieter lately, but I don’t want to intrude. I mean, she’s at that age right? She’s changin’.”
Hector watched the snow-laden trees pass by above him through the rear window, thinking of the forlorn forest surrounding their old town, where Natalie had made her real home in the trees with her pets. “You think they’re takin’ good care of her though?”
”I dunno. But Kendra’s a teacher. She’s got a masters in it, right? I’m sure she knows how to handle a kid.”
”She taught college-age undergrads,” Hector pointed out.
”So maybe she doesn’t have a damn clue,” Jackie shrugged. “Natalie’s a smart kid. I’m sure she’s okay.”
”Yeah…” Hector wasn’t exactly convinced, but what else could he do? They were so far away, and he was laying on his back in the rear of Jackie’s car, thawing out under a couple of blankets.
”Look on the bright side, Hector,” Jackie continued. “If everything’s gonna be in the open, we could go see her. Everyone else, too. No more hiding.”
”No more hiding,” he muttered. “I dunno about that.”
”You know what I can do, right?”
She shrugged again, glancing over her shoulder to make sure he could see it. “I’ve heard a few stories. Apparently you kept the peace as much as I did back in the day. Guess I got you to thank for keeping my town intact.”
”For a while.”
”Yeah, for a while.”
”People are always… always gonna want me to do stuff like that,” he continued. “I don’t think there’s ever gonna be more like us, you know?”
”I guess not.”
”But I don’t want to do anything like that. I’m not… I’m just not that kind of guy.”
”I hear ya.” She pulled off onto a side road, crunching through a rough patch with practiced ease. “Look, I promise. I’ll make sure that you get left alone, if you want that. I’m sure Rachel would too. You did your part back in Rallsburg.”
”Rachel wouldn’t,” he muttered. “If she felt like she needed me, she’d ask.”
”Yeah, but if she needed you, it’s probably the end of the damn world,” Jackie pointed out. “Isn’t that a good enough reason?”
Hector didn’t answer. He didn’t know if he had an answer for that. He’d never asked for the sort of power he’d found himself with, and he didn’t like what it meant.
He wasn’t exactly opposed to using magic. He and Natalie had even made a game out of some of the spells they did, and he’d used magic to clean his store more than a few times, scraping surfaces clean to a perfect finish, blowing away dust, shifting temperatures on surfaces to sterilize them, tightening hard to reach screws with his mind.
But when it came to the magic everyone wanted… Hector hated it. He hated that he was able to make himself stronger than anyone without the tiniest bit of effort, or that he could shatter spells other people projected with barely a thought. It made him a threat, and Hector never wanted to be a threat. He just wanted to find a place to settle down, with good people who appreciated him and the work he did.
Everywhere he went, the world seemed to tell him otherwise. Go back to where you came from. Go away. Don’t ever come back. You don’t belong.
Hector Peraza had long since given up on ever finding a home. The best he could do were the few friends who’d stuck with him—like the kind sheriff driving the car, or the beautiful clever woman he liked and her clumsy well-meaning brother whom they were on the way to meet, or the tall young woman trying to save the world who’d helped keep his business afloat, or the little girl with a harsh father who just wanted a place where she could be herself.
Having friends was something, at least. Hector pulled the blankets tighter around himself and tried to get some sleep. The car bumped and jerked around on the badly maintained road, while the sun glared at him from every direction—reflected off a world blanketed in harsh, frozen tundra.
”One of the four excerpts from the book is certainly the most thrilling. With us today is a very special witness, one who was suspended on medical leave after the Tacoma Standoff on October 26th. Lieutenant Malich, thank you so much for agreeing to speak with us today.”
”Thank you for inviting me.”
”Could you tell us a bit of what happened at that standoff? Specifically, how it relates to what we’re discussing today?”
”Well, I don’t know how much of this made it to the public—”
”We went over your testimony, and the testimony of your men, before this segment today.”
”Ah. So yeah. The rock monsters.”
”Yes, exactly. You and your men encountered the ‘golems’, as the Diaries call them, out in Tacoma.”
”They were fu— excuse me. They were terrifying. Bullets didn’t do a thing to ’em, and they tossed our cars aside like tin cans.”
”So the excerpt, which details the author and her people being attacked by two of these ‘golems’, reads accurately to you?”
”Yeah, pretty much. I mean, none of them burst into flames or shot fire at us, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they could. The rest is right, one hundred percent. They’re real.”
”I’d like to remind our viewers that Lieutenant Malich is a decorated veteran and has been an officer in the Tacoma P.D. for more than fifteen years without a single blemish to his record. He has never been diagnosed with any sort of psychological or mental disorder and has no family history of either.”
”Nope. Sane as they come.”
”There was a great deal of speculation about why the attack occurred. They never gave you any demands, correct?”
”Yeah. We didn’t have a clue what was going on. Then Agent Ashe jumps out of a car, takes over and runs inside.”
”Do you think he knew what was going on?”
”At the time? I dunno. He looked like he was insane too. But he obviously knew more than I did.”
”It would seem that these attacks were targeted at the so-called ‘awakened’, if the golem attacks in the excerpt are to be believed.”
”Makes some sense I guess. From what the witnesses told us, they were singling people out. Like they were lookin’ for something. But no one could tell us what it was.”
”I think it’s safe to say we now know, Lieutenant Malich.”
”But here’s the thing, right? How did they know? And who the hell were they? There’s somethin’ else going on here. They’re fighting.”
Brian held up the remote and clicked off the TV. The dozen or so faces turned around to face him, clustered in the small house in Neilton, northwest of Rallsburg and Brian’s temporary home. One of his followers had graciously donated it for their use.
”We’ve got work to do.”
”Isn’t this a disaster?” asked one man. “They’re coming out into the open. It’s going to keep spreading. We didn’t wipe them out.”
He shook his head. “We can use this too.”
”For every bleeding heart that pops up, we’ll find someone else who understands what kind of danger we’re in. It’s only a matter of time.” Brian looked around pointedly. “We’ve always had a hard time recruiting people. Who’s going to believe in this devil magic? But if the media’s spreading the message…”
”We can convince them,” the man finished.
Brian nodded. In the back of his mind, he had another agenda. His daughter wasn’t safe anymore. He didn’t know how it was possible, but apparently Kendra Laushire was one of them. The stone had lied to him. Jackson told him it wouldn’t ever lie, but perhaps he’d misunderstood.
Maybe Jackson had simply made sure it could never produce a false positive. He wouldn’t want to hurt an innocent. But in taking such care, it wasn’t perfect at detecting the real awakened among them. He’d have to be more thorough in rooting out the plague, if he was going to stamp it clean.
”Take more of the identifying stones,” he ordered. “Spread out and find them. If they think it’s safe to come into the open, you will be there. You will find them. Call me and I will be there.” He clenched his fist. “This isn’t over yet.”
As they left, Brian took his best aside—an officer in the Tacoma Police, who helped them in his off-hours, with the full resources of the department at his disposal. The man who had helped them track Dan and Boris, who had tailed Harold and Sophie and the others they’d already dealt with. Brian gave him a description of Kendra Laushire. “Find her.”
”Who is she?”
Brian hesitated. “One of them. One of the most powerful. Be very careful around her. She may have a young girl around her, thirteen years old, short brown hair, brown eyes. If you find them, I need you to call me immediately.”
The officer nodded. “The girl?”
”No. She’s innocent.”
The officer nodded. They trusted him implicitly. After what he’d shown them, they would believe any word he spoke. He was a divine messenger warning of the tides of destruction, the oncoming flood threatening to drown the world. He was the prophet of the apocalypse, the only means by which the world might yet be saved. A trail of death may follow in his wake, but it was a small price to pay for the safety of generations to come. They would do what needed to be done.
They were all damned for eternity, but if that meant their children would live on, every man was prepared to make that sacrifice. Brian clutched the golem-rod tight in his hand, staring at the blank television, envisioning the faces of all the monstrous figures who had destroyed his home.
”I’m coming for you.”