Saturday, August 20, 2016

Maywitch Chapter 8: Mother

Previous Chapter: Ash

Nadia's eyes were rimmed with red, and there was a gray pallor to her tan skin. Kay glanced over her, hoping to spot any signs of trouble - magical or otherwise - before it started. Nadia was empty-handed, though, and simply nodded in greeting.
"Kay," Holly said, raising a hand. "Don't--"
"Where the fuck did you go for four days?" Kay snapped. "We're down multiple people, and if anything else had happened while you were on your little vacation--"
"Kay!" Holly yelled, louder than Kay had ever heard her.

The hall fell silent until a whistling sigh left Nadia's lips. "I know," she said. "I can't tell you here, though. Come to my room."
She walked away, waving a hand in an invitation to follow. Kay could see Holly gritting her teeth as they followed.
Nadia stopped outside a room, turned the knob with shaking hands, and let them into a bedroom. A backpack lay on the bed, half of its contents strewn in a wet circle on the floor.
“I’m sorry I left so suddenly after what happened in the church,” she said softly. “Your mother’s living in Denver working on something important, so needless to say, I felt obligated to check in on her after—”
“You what?” The words left Kay’s mouth before she could even process what she had just heard.
Nadia bit her lip, visibly annoyed by the interruption. “This is top fucking secret, so keep it quiet, but as soon as I got back Gardner relayed to me that I should tell you.”
Kay could feel blood boiling between her ears, and barely noticed Holly cautiously lift a hand to Nadia. “You’d better explain a bit more,” Holly said. “Is she okay?”
“Yeah, she and her partner are fine. It’s a long-term assignment. You won’t get to see her for a while, but trust me, she’s fine. I brought you a note from her,” Nadia said, rummaging in her backpack for a moment.
“You’re lucky there’s no moon out aboveground,” Kay muttered, “otherwise I would hex you before you could even react.”
Nadia looked up from her backpack. “Excuse me?”
“You two,” Holly said, her voice a low hiss, “do not start this here, or I swear—”
“How long have you known?” Kay yelled. “You guys fucking lied to me, and I haven’t even heard from her in—”
“Let me explain,” Nadia said as she pulled something from her backpack. “Your mother’s no coward. She has another responsibility right now, is all. Maywitch asked me to keep an eye on her. We couldn’t tell you about it because certain people above Gardner’s pay grade don’t even know.”
She thrust the object into Kay’s hand. It took Kay a long moment to realize it was a folded piece of paper crammed inside a plastic bag - and an elaborate, circular series of runes was drawn along the paper. Explosive runes were her mother’s specialty. “Better start explaining why you kept me in the dark,” Kay said, running her fingers along the penciled runes.
“It’s orders. Nothing personal.” Nadia eyed Kay’s hand warily. “And Gardner gave me the authority to disappear without even telling her, if necessary. Speaking of which, I was going to check in—”
“What’s my mother’s responsibility?” Kay asked. “What’s keeping her away from here?”
Nadia sighed. “If you’d read the note, you would know.”
Her fingers shaking slightly, Kay yanked the note out of the bag and nearly tore it as she unfolded it.
I hope this finds you well. Nadia said you were a bit bruised up after your battle. It must have been terrifying. I’m sorry you had to go through with that, but I’m proud of you for deciding to join Maywitch.
I guess I should disclose that I’m the one who gave them permission to recruit you. Gardner was reluctant, but I told them you’d grow into it.
Kay stopped and glared at Nadia, who said: “What? Don’t look at me, I didn’t even read it.”
Holly glanced between the two of them, her face strained as if she wanted to ask a question, but Kay ignored her and kept reading.
We need you more than you know, and at first, I felt like the best way to protect you was to rope you into this. Maybe I’ll turn out to be wrong. You can be mad at me if that’s the case.
I wish I could tell you more about what’s going on with me, but I’ll give you this much: When I was caught up in something with Maywitch, I met the most wonderful woman. I’m helping raise a child with her right now. It’s a long story, but I am needed here. This child needs protection. I would’ve come back to live with you much sooner if it wasn’t for this.
Nadia smiled as Kay looked back up at her. “She wrote about the kid, right?” Nadia said, seeming to read Kay’s perplexed expression. “I can’t give you any more details than what your mother put there, since she has more clearance than me, but it’s basically advanced baby-sitting. Believe me, she doesn’t want to be out there, but she needs to be.”
Kay stared down at the floor, suddenly gripped by a nagging feeling of abandonment. She tried to push it aside as she looked over at Holly, who was staring at her with wide eyes.
“I don’t care,” Kay said, shoving the note into her pocket. “This’ll be helpful, though. I never got good at enchanting runes.”
Nadia nodded. “She asked me to wait some 45 minutes while she worked on it. She really does care about you—”
“Like you would know.” Kay turned to leave, her legs shaking as she marched to the door.
“No way—”
Wait,” Nadia said, “I’ll tell you my theory.”
Kay paused, trying to summon the last of her patience. “Hurry up.”
“It’s only a theory, but I think the baby is a demon-summoner. I don’t know how our team would’ve figured that out, though.”
Kay’s mind went blank for a long moment, then she turned around, searching Nadia’s expression. “What?”
“I’m serious,” Nadia said, her eyebrows furrowing. “That’s the only scenario I can think of that fits everything I know.”
“But how would we know that it’s a summoner, though?”
“That’s what doesn’t make sense,” Nadia said, dropping her voice. “But this baby came into our custody at the same time that all this earthquake shit and other weird shit started happening. There was an explosion in Illinois eight months ago that started all this. The baby came into our custody a week later. Before that, your mom was working on tracking someone who we think is connected to all this.”
“I can’t believe you all dragged me into this but kept me in the dark,” Kay snapped as she strode toward the door.
Nadia said something else, but Kay could only hear the blood pounding in her ears. She slammed the door behind her as she walked into the hallway.
As she walked, thought, she realized she wasn’t sure who she was truly pissed off at: Nadia, Gardner, or her mother.

The slam of the door echoed in the silence Kay left behind. Nadia could see tears in Holly’s eyes, and she stepped closer, trying to act nonchalant as she addressed the younger woman. “I know, it’s ugly,” she said. “I think we should both give her some space.”
“Figure her mom could’ve sent something a bit more than a note,” Holly murmured.
“I know. She hadn’t even written to Kay in two years. That’s Bailey for ya, though.”
“And it sounds like Kay was brought here thinking we didn’t know where her mother was.”
“Gardner’s about to get an earful. Hope Kay doesn’t get fired,” Nadia said. “But between you and me, Gardner deserves it. She’s the one who had Kay brought here under false pretenses.”
Holly nodded as she took a shuddering breath. “At any rate, I’m glad you’re back and safe. Sorry you had to go through all that…”
Nadia sighed. The fatigue had begun to seep into her arms and legs, and she sat down hard on the bed. “It’s fine,” she said. “I’m just happy to be back. I’m sorry it took so long.”
“You must be exhausted. If you want, I can let you get some rest…”
She looked up and grinned at Holly, who gave a hesitant smile in return. “No, you can stay, if you want,” Nadia said.
“I thought you needed to talk to Gardner…”
“That can wait.”
Holly barely hesitated before crossing to the bed and throwing her arms around Nadia. Her hair smelled amazing, Nadia thought as she closed her eyes. Clean and herbal. Nadia, on the other hand, smelled like mud and sweat.
But Holly didn’t seem to notice. They stayed that way for a long time, until Holly’s rapid heartbeat returned to normal, and Nadia felt exhausted enough to fall asleep.
“Come on,” Nadia said, moving away just enough to pull her into bed. “I missed you.”

Gardner had signed off on Nadia’s admission to the base the moment the security team sent a message to her office. She could feel her stress level decrease somewhat as she sat at her desk, a fresh mug of tea in front of her. Nadia hadn’t relayed any emergency codes to the guards, so Gardner was almost certain that everything was alright - and that Nadia’s charges had survived another near-miss.
Her office buzzer rang, and Gardner paused for a moment before remotely unlocking the door. The aura outside wasn’t the one she had been expecting.
Kay stormed in, her eyes dimly shining with tears in the low light. “Anything else I should know about?” she said.
Gardner raised an eyebrow. She hadn’t heard an attitude like that in her office in a very long time. “You have every right to be annoyed,” she said calmly. “You had no idea Bailey was even alive, right?”
“Annoyed doesn’t begin to describe it, and if you want me to stay on your team—”
“How much did Nadia tell you?”
Kay shook her head. “You first. You brought me here under false pretenses. Any other relatives of mine you’re in touch with?”
“Just Holly and your mother. You don’t have any aunts or cousins or anything else that we know of—”
“How long has my mother really been with Maywitch?”
“Two or so years, just as Juan told you,” Gardner said, sighing. “And no, we didn’t forcibly recruit her. You’ll have to ask her yourself if you want her reasons for leaving you.”
“Is there anything stopping me from terminating my contract right now?” Kay snapped.
Gardner’s eyes narrowed. She had a lot of patience for pissed-off employees - after all, the stakes were always high for them, and Maywitch was dysfunctional enough that a little frustration was understandable. But Kay was completely unwavering in her rage. “No, but then you’d be shit out of luck for reaching her. As of now, you’re welcome to pass messages through Nadia, and she’ll relay them when safe and appropriate,” Gardner said. “You get why we didn’t tell you of her whereabouts at first, right? You hadn’t proved yourself, but after your close call in Denver, you’d earned the right to know. If you were in Bailey’s shoes—”
“What, I’m not even entitled to know if my mother is alive?” Kay said. “If you were in my shoes—”
“Enough!” Gardner yelled, rising and pushing her chair backward. “I have a lot of patience, Adamis, but you’re stretching it thin enough that you’ll regret it soon. Listen up.”
Kay fell silent. Gardner sucked in a breath, leaning heavily on her desk. She had been debating whether or not to recruit Kay into a difficult assignment - and now, she felt like if she didn’t make the ask now, she risked Kay defecting at the next possible opportunity. It was a gamble, but it was the only way to get the young woman back on board when her trust had worn so thin.
Plus, Gardner thought bitterly, there weren’t many people left to send on this assignment – not since Juan and Perry were both dead.
“We think Renaya managed to take Dustin with her when she escaped the church,” she said. “Based on what you and Holly and the others told us, and based on other intel we got from the FBI, we think she’s in Grand Junction. We want to send two people undercover, Figure out what’s going on, and see if we can identify the demon-summoner. Renaya seems to be looking for allies, so it should be possible to get at least one person in.”
Kay had calmed significantly. She nodded, the motion barely visible in the low lighting, and Gardner continued: “It’ll be painful because we’ll have to modify your aura and temporarily change your face. Those two spells will take some work. Normally, we’d just send someone she hasn’t seen before, but our ranks are pretty slim right now.
“Aren’t there other bases?” Kay said.
“Yes, but…” Gardner frowned at her teacup. There was no sense in trying to bullshit her way around it. “They have their own difficulties right now. This mess seems to have moved from east to west. The Eastern Region is rebuilding and recovering after a major hit to their forces on what was supposed to be a routine recon assignment a month ago. And we can’t get the proper help from outside the U.S., because the government won’t give us the right visas that quickly. They’re still wrapping their heads around our actions as a de facto militia. It’s one thing if we’re just investigating someone, but things change if we intend to eventually take someone out.”
Kay sighed, and for a fleeting moment, Gardner thought she saw the rage appear again. “I don’t expect you to say yes right away, but I want you to think about it,” Gardner said. “It’d be a good fit for you. Not much fighting or tactical decision-making involved. Your magic skill levels are fine as they are. You go in, get information until it starts to feel unsafe, and get out.”
“And what if I don’t get any useful information?”
“I highly doubt that will be the case. And even if you get minimal info, it at least gives us a place to start,” Gardner said, a sad smile crossing her lips. “And anything you get can help us protect your mother - and the baby, if Nadia didn’t tell you about her already. We’re only going into things this fast because of Mars approaching soon. You know how the planets affect things, right? We can’t afford to wait on recon because we need to wipe them out before Mars gets much closer.”
Kay seemed to straighten up slightly, but she stared at Gardner’s desk for a long moment before nodding. Gardner smiled. Even an undertrained, rookie mage could piece together how the alignment of the planets could make things even worse for them.
“And if I say no, I risk getting sent into an even more hectic and dangerous assignment elsewhere, right?” she asked.
Gardner shrugged. “Basically. Either that, or you try to defect. And that comes with its own consequences.”
As Kay nodded again, Gardner sighed and sat down again, running her fingers over the rim of her teacup. “Sleep on it, okay?”
“I will.”
“Let’s check in after that training you have tomorrow, okay?”
As Kay left without another word, Gardner reached for her phone and typed: Kay might be in on Op Lux. Any other suggestions? I know it’s not ideal, but it somewhat suits her.
She sent the message to Nadia before draining the last of her tea and turning back to her emails.

Nadia’s phone buzzed, and she awoke with a start, gently pushing Holly’s arm down from her chest. She read the text message from Gardner with a mix of confusion and disbelief. Kay, of all people, was being considered for Operation Lux? They had been preparing to potentially launch that mission for months, with Gardner making it clear from the beginning that Nadia was likely to go with a more experienced mage.
Then again, Nadia thought as she stared at the ceiling, they were about out of experienced mages. More than twenty Class C mages were now in the long-term hospital ward at the Eastern U.S. base. The earthquake investigations had become more and more dangerous over the past few months - and more and more difficult to cover up, for that matter - with suspicious fires and booby traps sometimes maiming or killing their mages. Juan’s death was just the latest.
She glanced over at Holly, who was still fast asleep, and thought for a long moment before typing her reply: Don’t you think we need a possessor on this one?
She hesitated before hitting “Send.” A few minutes later, Gardner’s reply came through: Maybe. Are you thinking Holly? We kinda need her here.
Are there any other options? If push comes to shove, Kay can provide the brawn, I’m the brains, and a possessor provides the stealth, Nadia replied.
Holly’s arm seemed to tighten around Nadia’s waist. The glow of Nadia’s phone illuminated both of them in a cold, haunting light, and for a long moment, Nadia wondered if volunteering her lover for this mission would end up being the death of them both.
But then again, Operation Lux could be the only way to prevent future deaths, and a possessor could be the key to its success.
She laid awake for a long time, waiting for Gardner to respond, but nearly twenty minutes passed without a reply. Eventually, Nadia tucked her chin back into Holly’s hair, resuming the jigsaw puzzle of limbs and torsos that they always fell into - at least, until one of them woke up with an itch in the middle of the night.

It took her a long time to fall back asleep.

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