Saturday, November 12, 2016

Maywitch Chapter 19: Loyalties Lie

Previous Chapter: Another Home
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Twelve days later

The wound across Kay’s left shoulder had faded to a narrow scar just above her heart. It was amazing how well magic could heal wounds, she thought as she pulled on a button-down shirt.
A stabbing pain shot through her shoulder, and she flinched. She had apparently jinxed herself.
As she finished pulling on her shirt, her Maywitch-issued phone buzzed with a text message: Meet in the conference room in ten minutes.
It took her a minute to recognize the number as Gardner’s new phone. Gardner’s phone had been destroyed in the battle at the Salt Lake City base, and for whatever reason, Maywitch hadn’t kept her old number. Kay saved the number into her phone, mentally chiding herself for not doing so sooner, and grabbed her room keys before heading into the hall.
Got it, she replied. As she hit ‘send,’ her heart seemed to skip a beat, knowing that whatever awaited her in the conference room couldn’t be good.

To her surprise, Gardner wasn’t in the conference room. Kay was greeted instead by Wojtec, a gray-haired mage who had helped train her briefly at the Salt Lake City base. He waved her inside the room, which was much larger than the one at her former base. Holly sat in the front row, looking more well-rested than the last time they had met, Kay thought as Holly waved.
A few feet to Holly’s right, a young, dark-haired woman stared at her phone. Her shoulder-length, curly hair looked vaguely familiar, and Kay wondered if she had seen the woman’s silhouette somewhere around the base. The woman didn’t look up, though, as Kay approached and sat down between her and Holly. Nadia was absent, but Kay knew that was because she was still under quarantine - with no release date in sight.
“Let’s get started,” Wojtec said as he handed them each a stack of paper. “Don’t worry about these right now; you can familiarize yourself with them within about thirty minutes on the plane. They can’t come with you once you’ve touched down in Denver, though.”
Kay’s heart sank. Whatever this assignment was, it was taking them back into danger, she thought as she glanced at Holly.
“Short version is, three campers drowned under suspicious circumstances in Rocky Mountain National Park,” Wojtec said as he leaned against the podium at the front of the room. “All three victims knew each other. Toxicology reports aren’t back yet, but the drownings occurred in rapid succession, and the cops found a stunning circle near the lake the victims were pulled from. It looks like someone might have targeted and paralyzed certain campers before drowning them. We don’t think the attack was targeted, because of the methods and timing involved. This all just happened early yesterday morning, though, so we’re still getting info. Questions so far?”
Holly nodded and raised a hand. “Are there details on the stunning circle in this packet?”
“Yeah. Short version is, it looks like Norse runes, but it’s hard to tell for sure. Whoever made it tried to erase it, but they did a sloppy job.”
Kay was unfamiliar with the concept of stunning circles, but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that they were magical in nature, she thought as Wojtec rifled through his own stack of papers. “You’ll be posing as campers. Your cover story is in the second part of that packet. Your sole job is to keep an eye on things and root around for clues for a few days while avoiding stepping into any traps yourselves. The area you should camp in is marked in the packet as well. You’ll be given satellite phones and regular burner phones. Tierra’s in charge, if anything comes up.”
The dark-haired girl next to Kay nodded. Wojtec didn’t bother with any more introductions, though, and continued: "We don't have a secure base of operations out there, but we have two non-combat mages already on the ground nearby. We're chartering an overnight flight, since there are no direct commercial flights, and will send you three straight into the mountains in a rental car. Be ready to go by 10 p.m. Flight is at midnight. Try to sleep on the plane, but it's only a five-hour flight."
Kay resisted the urge to groan. She hated flying, and she knew she had little chance of sleeping during the flight. Holly looked unenthusiastic, but Tierra nodded and smiled.
"Go pack," Wojtec said. "Bring a minimal supply of herbs and other supplies. No magical texts or runes. You have two hours. Dismissed."
Tierra stood and immediately left. Kay and Holly looked at each other for a long moment before following her into the hallway.
"Well, I've always wanted to go camping," Holly said. She smiled, but Kay noticed it didn't reach her eyes.
"I hate camping," Kay murmured, low enough that she hoped Tierra wouldn't hear it.
"That's fair. Hopefully this isn't for too long, though."
Up ahead, Tierra veered to the right at a fork in the hallway, toward the older dorm rooms. Holly paused, as if she was about to call after the other mage, but turned and headed to the left without a word.
Kay followed her, trying to ignore the knot of worry forming in her chest. There was something unsettling about having such an unfriendly face in charge of them.

Two hours later, Kay and Holly had packed some basic belongings, eaten dinner, and reconvened at the entrance to the garage. Tierra joined them a few minutes later with a duffel bag slung over one shoulder.
Wojtec drove them to the airport, and they rode in silence for much of the way. Holly occasionally tried to make conversation with Wojtec and Tierra, but Tierra mostly gave one-word responses.
Kay eventually texted Holly's burner phone: Do you know Tierra well?
Holly replied: No. She moved here from the Quebec base when things got crazy eight months ago, and she’s moved between the North American bases quite a bit, so I dunno if anyone knows her well. I think her and Nadia were pretty close at one point, though. Maybe she's stressed out about Nadia? It's been a rough two weeks.
Kay re-read the message with pursed lips. What did "pretty close at one point" even mean? If Nadia and Tierra had been romantically involved at some point, maybe that explained the frosty attitude toward Holly.
But maybe it wasn't that serious, she thought as they pulled up to a small regional airport terminal. Wojtec parked the car, and Tierra jumped out with a mumbled farewell over her shoulder.
"Good luck, you two. You've been through a lot in a short time, and I can't guarantee this mission will be easy, but it's probably not gonna be as bad as you're thinking," he said, glancing back at Holly and Kay.
"We got this," Holly said as she opened her door. "Thanks, Wojtec."
"See you soon," Kay said as she climbed out.

Forty minutes later, they were on the plane and barreling down the runway. The tiny plane had barely twenty passenger seats, and Kay was mildly surprised it had the speed to get airborne.
Holly chatted with Kay for a few minutes after takeoff, but curled up to go to sleep soon after. Tierra had taken a seat in the row behind them, and when Kay peeked back twenty minutes into the flight, she saw the dark-haired girl sleeping as well.
Kay hadn't been awake for the flight from Salt Lake City to the North Carolina base, and hadn't flown on a plane in years before that. She stared out the window for a while, unwilling to try to sleep, but grew bored at the sight of deep gray clouds on a moonless night.
After nearly an hour, she rose and went to the tiny restroom at the back of the plane, and nearly collided with Tierra. "Sorry," Kay mumbled as she moved to let Tierra pass.
"Wait a minute." Tierra's tone was calm, but her brown eyes flashed dangerously as she flipped her hair out of her face.
Kay nodded, though she was simultaneously nervous and happy to finally hear something from her new colleague. "What's up?"
"Have you been completely forthcoming with Gardner and the others about everything that's happened?"
"What?" Kay said, her eyes widening. "Of course I have."
Tierra stepped closer to her and glanced toward the front of the plane, as if concerned that Holly could overhear. "Every detail of everything?" she murmured. "Because they're trying to make sure there aren't any surprises hiding inside Maywitch."
Kay nodded. "Of course. I mean, I gave them every detail they asked for, once I wasn't so drugged up."
“They might not always know what questions to ask, though. Better to sound too paranoid than not careful enough, right? Because I should also point out that if you’re holding anything back, even unintentionally, it could end up reflecting really poorly on you in the future. If you noticed the slightest thing off about anyone or anything - anyone close to Nadia acting funny, or anything like that..." Tierra trailed off, her eyes still fixed on Kay's.
Kay nodded again, but her heart sank as she realized that Tierra might not know about Holly and Nadia after all. Maybe it wasn't as open of a secret as she had assumed, she thought as she forced a smile. "I hear you, okay? Believe me, I want our shit protected as much as you do--"
"Do you?"
Kay's jaw dropped, but Tierra's gaze remained unwavering. "Why wouldn't I?" Kay snapped, her volume rising. "I may be new here, but I still have to help protect my mother--"
There was a dull creak a few feet away, and Kay realized that Holly had stirred. Tierra frowned and headed back to her seat as if nothing had happened.
Kay stared at her, baffled, before turning away to go to the bathroom. Paranoid little brat trying to act tough, she thought sullenly.
When Kay returned, Holly stirred for a moment before going back to sleep, apparently unaware of what had just transpired.

Kay barely slept the rest of the flight, and when they landed in Denver, she couldn’t keep her eyes open. Tierra, though, seemed ready to go, and she trotted down the stairs to the tarmac without hesitation
Outside the terminal, they jumped into another black car, which sped them down the highway toward the national park. Kay didn’t recognize their driver, but she was surprised it wasn’t Akani, who had helped them after their last undercover mission. She hoped nothing had happened to him in the aftermath of the attack on the Western Region Base. Surely someone would’ve mentioned that to her. She had missed the memorial service for the dead, as Maywitch tradition mandated that services be held within three days after someone’s death, and Kay hadn’t been well enough to attend.
It was just after 4 a.m. when they pulled up to the ranger station at the edge of the park. Their driver flashed an ID badge at the ranger, who let them through without any questions, despite the park entrance being closed for the night. Maywitch’s methods and range of influence were still a mystery to Kay, but she didn’t have the energy to ask what had just happened.
The inside of the park was pitch dark, aside from the tiny swatch of road illuminated by the headlights. It seemed their driver didn’t want to turn his brights on, perhaps to minimize their risk of being spotted by unfriendly characters. It was a cloudy night, and while Kay could sense the moon beyond the black sky, she wished she could see it. The darkness was unnerving.
The driver suddenly slammed on his brakes, and Kay was pitched forward. Holly gasped and held out a hand, but she seemed to be more concerned with a potential attack than with catching herself as she lurched forward.
A young, petite woman had stepped into the two-lane road, but she had spotted the sedan before attempting to cross. She waved sheepishly before crossing, her sequined jacket shining in the headlights.
“Something’s not right,” Tierra said from the front seat. “Did anyone get a good look at her?”
“Brown hair and glasses. Why, what’s wrong?” Holly asked.
Tierra leaned forward, squinting into the dark woods where the girl had disappeared. “Her aura is weird, eh?” she said, sighing and sitting back in her seat. “I dunno, I don’t think she’s a mage, but it still felt weird.”
The sedan trundled down the road again, and as Kay peered out the window after the girl, she thought she saw a glimmer of light.
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