Saturday, July 16, 2016

Maywitch Chapter 3: Contracts

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At the sound of the siren, Renaya’s gray eyes glanced up to her rearview mirror, where blue and red lights suddenly flickered into life. Dustin, who had been sleeping in the passenger seat, abruptly sat up and swore.
“What? Were you speeding?” he asked.
She only shrugged in response as she pulled the car to the shoulder, navigating the dark road carefully. Denver’s streets were not as bad as some others she’d driven before, but she had still spent several minutes earlier swerving around potholes on one section of road.
Dustin rubbed his pale forehead, and she could sense that he was biting back some criticism of her driving. “You think we’re okay?” he whispered as he turned around.
“Relax. You know what I’m gonna do, right?”

A grin slowly spread across her face as he frowned. “Don’t,” he said.
“But I will.” The coolness of her tone seemed to whistle over her teeth. They had only been working together for two weeks, but she had already figured out that he didn’t require much persuading. He was sensible, yet pliable. She reminded herself to thank her boss for recruiting such a perfect partner for her.
“Are you sure this is—”
“You don’t even have to do anything. Just stay put.”
He opened his mouth to argue more, but was cut off by a knock at Renaya’s window. She rolled it down, a sharp grin still cutting across her features, and turned to face the tall, barrel-chested officer.
Before the officer could even say a word, Renaya’s hands twitched in a quick, spider-like motion, and her body went limp. Dustin barely remembered to break her fall before her head could hit the steering wheel. He leaned her back against her seat, and the officer laughed, breaking the silence of the night outside with a harsh roar. “Well, I’m going to go see what I can make of this,” the officer said.
Dustin felt his legs grow weak, as if urging him to sit still. “Ren - your possession can’t last that long, right?” he hissed, though there was no need to whisper.
“I don’t need long. Be back in ten or so.” With that, the officer strode back to his car, jumped inside, and sped down Route 83 in the direction they had been heading.
As the night grew quiet again, Dustin rubbed his hands together for a solid minute. It was a nervous habit he had developed in elementary school. He had no idea what to do with himself while he waited, and the sight of Renaya’s still body in the driver’s seat was only making him more anxious. He shuddered and rolled up her window, since she hadn’t bothered to do so herself, but it made him feel even more claustrophobic.
Nearly fifteen minutes passed. He reached over to check her pulse - if the officer died before her consciousness returned, she would die too - and to his relief, she was still alive. He glanced around outside, wondering if someone passing by on the sidewalk might notice the girl slumped over next to him.
There was a sudden, soft grunt beside him, and he whirled back around to see Renaya sitting up. “Shit,” he muttered, rubbing his hands together. “Ren, you okay?”
She let out a croaking laugh. “Did you hear that? Could you hear it from here?” she asked, her voice more high-pitched and strained than before.
His stomach tightened into a knot. “Hear what?”
“I drove the fucker into a gas tanker. Got out just in time. It had to have blown. Whew!” She grinned, and for a moment, Dustin thought he saw fangs in the shifting light of the city. “Sorry I made you wait. Let’s go.”
He nodded, and she turned the car back on and jerked it away from the curb. He could only hope that this new gig didn’t get any more bizarre.

When Kay woke up the next morning, there was numbness in her fingers that hadn’t been there before - possibly from the strain of casting so much fire in a short amount of time, she thought as she showered and dressed.
She suspected that she had lost control of her powers because she was missing some of the catalysts that helped control the flames. Flamecasting, her specialization, was considered a less-refined version of pyrokinesis, and required fewer raw materials to make it happen. Like a cheaply-made firework, though, any use of flamecasting could be complicated by the user’s poor planning and lack of safety precautions. One of those basic precautions was to keep control materials on hand at all times, instead of just relying on your willpower to control whatever was brought forth from the other materials. No matter how skilled the firecaster, though, pyrokinesis was always more precise and easier to extinguish when needed.
Kay ran a finger over her obsidian pendant. Her mother had given it to her some four years prior, knowing that obsidian was the most effective raw ingredient any pyrokinetic or flamecaster could have. It was a convenient and oddly stylish way for Kay to be able to defend herself, and she never took it off.
Control materials, like charcoal, were another matter entirely. Kay always kept some in her backpack and her dresser drawer at home, but in the heat of the moment when they were fighting the demon, she hadn’t insisted that Juan give her some in addition to the wormwood. She had paid the price for that.
There was a knock at her door. She glanced down to make sure she was presentable before walking over to the door. “Who is it?”
“It’s Juan. Check your phone.”
She glanced down at her personal phone before remembering the one Maywitch had given her yesterday. She had left it on silent mode.
She opened the door and tried to offer a sympathetic smile. “Sorry. I fell fast asleep last night—”
She stopped as she saw a shiny, red burn and several stitches on Juan’s forehead. He waved a hand dismissively when he noticed her gaze. “It’d be nice if you were a pyrokinetic instead of a flamecaster,” he said, “but we knew what we were getting into when we brought you on board. Good job getting that thing, by the way.”
It took Kay a moment to realize that the ‘thing’ he was referring to was the demon. She glanced away and shrugged. “Bet you wish you had someone more precise,” she said. “A sniper rifle instead of a nuke.”
“Yeah, that’s you, alright.” He smiled. “I heard you had more questions.”
“A clarifying one. That money in the trust fund – that was actually from you guys? And if I refuse to join, are you gonna take all of it?”
“Correct. It’s nothing personal, but it’s technically the sort of thing covered under the—“
She held up a hand. “So I really don’t have a choice unless I wanna end up broke and homeless, right?”
He sighed and glanced down the hall. “It’s shitty, I know. It’s not my call, and it’s not even really Gardner’s. She has her pressures from above to keep us staffed, and with how many folks we have seriously injured right now…” He shrugged.
“How long would I be stuck here?”
“The contract is year-to-year, but until we downgrade our state of emergency, the same sanctions would apply if you don’t renew.”
“So I can’t just leave when the state of emergency is over?”
“We’d consider releasing you, but there’s no guarantee. We also need you more than we need most other mages. About half of the mages out there are considered non-combat – at least, as far as we know about their abilities. Another twenty percent or so are what we call Class D. They have some basic shield and offensive magic, but not much, so we utilize them mostly in research and investigative capacities. Now we need folks with more power. And that includes you.”
Kay raised an eyebrow at him. “What, are you saying I’m stronger than other mages?”
“Well, you grew up around your mother, so I can see how you might think you’re pretty weak,” he said, smiling. “She’s Class B. You’re Class C, as far as we’ve guessed with what she told us about your abilities in the past, and based on what we saw yesterday. Holly and I are also Class C. Gardner’s one of five Class A mages in the country, and she earned it, with all the shit she can do.”
She ground her teeth and stared at the floor. She didn’t want to care about how strong she was, but she did. If she was stronger than average, that could mean she was less likely to die, she thought as she looked up at him again.
“If you don’t want in, is it possible for you to stay with someone else?” he asked.
“It is, but it’d be too far from school and work,” she said. “Besides, being here means I could potentially find Mom.”
He smiled gently. “I hear you. I’m sure you’re worried--”
“Don’t get it twisted. I just want answers from her.” She held out her hand. “I’m guessing there’s a contract or something?”
His smile faded as he reached into a briefcase at his side and rifled through a folder. “Don’t rush into this. Gardner told me you can stay for another 24 hours while you decide. We did just throw you into a battle before you’d even signed on.”
He placed a stapled packet of papers on top of the folder and handed it to her. She glanced over the tiny print, but didn’t bother to read it carefully. “Who’s this ‘Board of Trustees’ on here? Are they elected?” she asked.
“Yeah. The last time we held elections, you were too young to vote. They’re the ones who can enforce sanctions and stuff, but as you’ve probably guessed, most of the contract is…” He hesitated. “Kinda unenforceable, at least in a legal sense. The sanctions can be harsh, but the U.S. government doesn’t back us up in any way.”
Kay sighed. “So most people have the option to just refuse to sign and live their lives outside of the magical world, but since y’all are paying my rent, I’m fucked.”
 “You could say that.”
She fumbled with the pendant around her neck, as she often did when she was nervous. She opened her mouth to ask for a pen, but stopped suddenly. She could be literally signing away her life, she knew, but it somehow didn’t seem to matter. The idea of never knowing what happened to her mother – as well as the anxiety of facing homelessness – seemed to be suffocating her sense of reason.
Was it really worth plunging back into the brutal world she had left behind?
She noticed Juan watching her carefully. “Got a pen?”
He visibly relaxed and nodded down the hall. “We have to get a second witness. Meilan’s around; let’s go ask her.”

            Ten minutes later, the contract had been signed in a blur of signatures and amiable chatter. Meilan seemed completely unconcerned with the gravity of the occasion. Juan, however, offered Kay a sympathetic smile as they left.
            “I hate to bring you along on something so soon, but we need your help on an assignment tonight,” he said. “Just babysitting, though. Pretty easy.”
She frowned. “Babysitting…?”
 He pulled his phone out of his pocket and stared at it for a moment, dark eyebrows furrowing in annoyance. “Holly’s gotta possess someone, so someone has to watch her body. We actually need you in the conference room upstairs in thirty minutes. Sorry for the short notice. I was gonna bring Marcus, but you’re a better option.”
“Gotcha. What am I supposed to bring?”
He glanced down at her tank top and slacks. “Your clothes are fine, so just bring your keys and phone.” He turned on his heel, toward the hallway Kay had come from the previous night. “See you soon. And--” He stopped. “Congratulations on signing.”

Kay, of course, got lost on her way to the conference room. Fortunately, she ran into Holly in another hallway, and they walked together to their destination. “This is where we usually brief and plan for stuff,” Holly said as she held the door for Kay.
Inside, Juan stood before a giant projector screen, with Nadia seated facing him. He looked up from his phone when Kay entered. “Good timing,” he said. “I’m giving you guys the short version and then you’ll get the rest on the way there. We had to move up the timeline.”
Holly raised an eyebrow. “Where are we going?”
“Outskirts of Vegas. There’s been some weird-ass tremors and we think we’ve located the source, but we’re pretty sure the guy who lives there isn’t a mage. We’ll wait until infrared shows he’s alone, then you’ll possess him while we search the house. Then we’ll drug him, so he doesn’t remember any of it.”
Kay could hear Holly suck in a breath. “It’s a little risky,” Nadia said, as if affirming Holly’s fear, “but we did it a couple months ago, right before you got here. We have it down to a science.”
“I barely remember how to make a memory potion,” Holly said.
 Nadia offered her a kind smile. “One of us can re-train you on the way, if needed. Don’t worry, we’ve been planning this for a while.”
Juan looked at his phone again and pointed at the door Kay had just come through. “Let’s go. Van’s outside. It’s a five-hour drive, so we have plenty of time to talk on the way. And-” He stopped and thrust a stack of paper at Kay. “We need you to fill these out, since you’re new. Work on them in the car.”

Kay sighed. At least she’d have something to do to entertain herself for the next few hours.

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