Saturday, January 7, 2017

Maywitch Chapter 23: City of Brotherly Love

Previous Chapter: Infiltration
-----------------------------------------
By the time they finished moving and organizing Nadia's possessions, she was exhausted, and she went to bed early. Kay stayed up studying for a long time, occasionally texting Holly with questions about magical theory. By the time she went to bed herself, her head hurt miserably, and she almost slept through her alarm the next morning.

Gardner had summoned Kay, Tierra and Holly to a debriefing in her office at 9 a.m., and when Kay entered, the relaxed expression on Gardner's face put her own concerns at ease.
"Everything you three told us checks out, and overall, we consider the mission a success," Gardner said. "We managed to keep the local police from investigating the woman's body, and the lower-level folks at the FBI only know that the murder is someone else's jurisdiction. Local media is sniffing around, but we've kept them at bay, for the time being. Your identities are safe and sound." She paused and nodded to Tierra. "I'm sorry you ended up in that mess, Tierra. If Renaya had been in a stronger body, and her magical abilities hadn't been so weak... I mean, I know you could've handled it, but it would've been a much uglier fight."

"I don't deserve any credit, considering how it all went down," Tierra said, shrugging.

"No, you deserve credit for recognizing that it was likely Renaya, and knowing that her possession stone was dangerous. We've quarantined it appropriately, by the way. We're trying to figure out a safe way to destroy it, but it's more difficult than it sounds. We might have to bring in a specialist from outside the country."

"And what about that demon? What about him?" Tierra said.

Gardner shook her head, a smile playing at the edges of her lips. "We'll let you know when we know more. You all gave us a pretty useful description. You're dismissed, if there are no more questions."

Tierra nodded and turned to leave. Kay hesitated to follow her, and after a moment, she asked: "Actually, do we know if Renaya was in contact with Dustin and Nina?"

"We don't know yet, but someone at the FBI is looking into that for us."

"And we don't know why she drowned those men?"

"Correct. It seems she went to college with them, but we don't know anything besides that. The college connection could possibly be a coincidence. We're pretty sure they're not mages."

So there were still a lot of unknowns, Kay thought as she nodded. "Thanks," she said as she followed Tierra out.

Holly followed them as well, and when the three of them were out in the hall, she said: "I'm glad you asked those questions, because I was wondering them myself."

"Yeah, I thought she would've offered that info on her own. Tierra, are debriefs after assignments like that supposed to be so bare-bones?" Kay asked.

"I don't think they normally are, but I think Gardner also doesn't like sharing things that aren't certain unless someone specifically asks," Tierra said.

That made sense, Kay thought as she nodded. No sense in having half-baked information going around if you could avoid it.

-----------------------------------------

Two hours later, Kay was back in her room, studying hard again. Nadia had gone to the medical wing for some follow-up tests, and Kay knew it would be a while before she was back.

There was a knock at the door, and Kay rolled her chair backward and turned the knob. "What's up?" she said as she saw Holly on the other side.

"Get your herbs and stuff. We're on standby. Might be dispatched to Philadelphia to deal with some weird shit being sighted." Holly's face was strained, and she already had a vial of wormwood clutched in her hand.

Kay dropped her notes on her desk and opened one of her dresser drawers. "What's going on?"

"Some civilian non-mages sighted a potential demon just outside the city, near the airport. There's a video online already."

"Shit," Kay muttered. It wasn't unheard of for Maywitch to have to quietly dispose of online videos and wipe memories, but it was rare - and they liked to keep it that way. "So, what, we're going up there to keep an eye out for it, or what?"

"Yup. It's all hands on deck. It doesn't match the description of anything we've seen before, so Gardner is sending everyone she can in case it turns out to be nasty." Holly sighed. "We're being extra careful about it since it's close to D.C."

"Go figure," Kay said as she threw bags and vials of herbs into her backpack. "Cool. But how are we getting there?"

"It's less than three hours by helicopter, I've been told, so if the advance team can't lock it down, we're heading out in an hour at most. Gardner said to watch your phone for details. I was just instructed to check in with you since I was heading back to my room anyway."

Kay nodded. "Thanks. Where should I wait?"

"You can stay here if you want, but I'll be in the garage once I get my stuff." Holly abruptly left, giving only a brief wave as a farewell.

Kay's mind reeled as she finished loading her backpack. She picked up the two notes her mother had sent her and thrust them in the front pocket, knowing that the runes inscribed on them could come in handy. She wracked her brain for other things she should bring, or what else she could be doing to prepare.

For a long moment, she stared at her desk, and her mind went blank. When her brain seemed to start working again, she suddenly knelt, her legs and knees growing weak.

The last time they had been sent on a sudden assignment in response to a demon problem, Juan had been killed.

She gritted her teeth and pulled herself together, leaning on her desk as she stood. Now was not the time to think about what could happen next. Now was not the time to dwell on the fact that she still hadn't been trained worth a damn. She blocked out as much of her brain as she could, threw her backpack over one shoulder, and barreled down the hallway, not even bothering to lock her bedroom door.

--------------------------------------------

The garage was absolute chaos. Nearly two dozen staff milled about, and Kay recognized almost none of them. A short while later, Holly showed up, closely followed by Wojtec and a young, pale mage Kay recognized as Xavier. He was a senior investigator with Maywitch, and operated more as a liaison with law enforcement than as a combat mage. Since Kay had never worked with him before, his presence was slightly disquieting to her.

"We're getting on a helicopter in ten minutes," Holly said.

Tierra appeared, her face staring down at her phone. "Wojtec, Xavier, are one of you briefing us?" she said without looking up. "Cause I can't make heads or tails of any of the shit they sent me."

"I'll tell you what we know, but I'm afraid we might not have a clear picture of what's happening until after we get there," Wojtec replied. "The video online has already been removed, but it got thousands of views, and we're sure someone else has a copy of it by now. Our communications folks are trying to counter it with evidence that it was a hoax, but it's not easy. A few non-combat mages are already tracking down the guy who took the video. FBI's involved, of course, but their intel isn't much help. We're worried the demon is heading toward more populated areas, but luckily, it doesn't seem to be able to fly. It's been..." He trailed off and looked at his phone. "Two hours since the thing was sighted."

Tierra sighed. "And how long since it actually showed up on our radar?"

"The video slipped through Surveillance Ops' radar at first, so we've only known about it for thirty minutes."

Swearing under her breath, Tierra reached for her phone. "So it could be anywhere by now."

"Sure could." Wojtec glanced down at his phone. "The five of you are apparently getting into a chopper in less than two minutes. Hit the restroom if you haven't already; it's a long flight."

Holly frowned and glanced at Kay. "The five of... us?" Kay murmured.

"I'm staying, but Nadia's coming with you. We're gonna see if she can be useful."

Tierra's eyes widened, and she looked up from her phone. Holly looked concerned, almost dismayed, but she forced a smile. "Gotcha," she said. "Lead the way."

The four of them ran outside and piled into a massive black helicopter waiting on the pavement, and Nadia joined them soon after. She was wearing her usual black slacks and tank top, but as she climbed into the helicopter, Kay spotted a chunky gray loop around her ankle.

That had to be a GPS tracker or something, Kay thought, her heart sinking. She and Holly waved a greeting, but Tierra pointedly ignored Nadia's presence.

They settled in for the flight, and Kay realized she wasn't as nervous about this helicopter ride as she had been about her last one. What worried her, though, was the number of unknowns on this assignment - and the memory of Juan's death lurking in her subconscious. Maywitch still hadn't proved to her that it was capable of handling sudden, urgent missions. There was no guarantee that this wouldn't be another lethal mistake.

Xavier instructed them to turn off their phones; from here on out, their only updates would come via the pilot's radio. As they took off, she tore her eyes away from her last glimpses of the white walls of the mansion that doubled as their base. She closed her eyes and tried to calm herself, but nothing she did could calm her pounding heart.

Two hours passed, with little conversation other than Wojtec and the pilot checking in with each other over their headset radios. As they flew over a vast patch of farmland, though, the pilot spoke up: "Got an update from base. A second demon has been spotted - they're sure it's not the same one."

"Copy," Xavier muttered. "We got a description and location?"

"Coordinates have been sent to me. It's south of town. It's apparently not very large; someone called it into animal control, describing it as a mutant dog."

Kay saw a smile flicker on Holly's face. "We sure it's even a demon?" Xavier asked.

"The caller said it had a barbed tail, so yeah, we're pretty sure."

"How long ago was it spotted?"

"Nearly thirty minutes ago."

Xavier turned and looked at Tierra, whose brow had furrowed. "I know, Ti. We're gonna have to do something about our intel operations."

"At this rate, today will be the day we get exposed to the world, all because our intel is coming in far too slow," she replied, gritting her teeth.

"You know they're understaffed, right? You got any friends you wanna recruit—"

"Our ground team might have spotted the first demon," the pilot interrupted. "It's in a train yard close to downtown."

"Shit," Xavier said. "Can you increase speed at all?"

"Negative. Base may reroute us to the south side of town to look for the second one, though."

Xavier slumped back in his seat. "Copy," he muttered.

Kay and Holly looked at each other for a long moment. Though they couldn't see Nadia's face, as she was seated in front of them, Kay suspected her expression would be distraught. It was eerie to be hearing updates without any real idea of how bad things were on the ground. Were the police caught up in everything, or were Maywitch staff trying to do everything from crowd control to speeding through traffic without any support? Was the FBI helping? And just how many civilians had figured out that something majorly abnormal was happening?

"Forty-five minutes until we touch down near the second demon's last known location," the pilot said. "First one is close to being contained. Our job is to hunt for the second one. I'll provide air support once you five are on the ground."

There was a long pause. "What about Nadia?" Xavier asked.

"Didn't receive guidance on her. It's your call."

"She should come with us. Safer than keeping her in the chopper."

"Safer for who?" Kay wanted to ask. She stayed quiet, though, instead glancing at Holly, who had opened her mouth to protest but decided against it. Further to Kay's left, Tierra's eyes narrowed.

"I expect you to waive my restricted magic use, then," Nadia said quietly.

"Of course," Xavier replied.

Holly seemed to relax, and as they settled in for the last part of their flight, they fell silent. There was no sense in making small talk about possibilities and what-ifs. It would only serve to make their tension worse. 

-----------------------------------------

Forty minutes later, the pilot brought the helicopter closer to the ground. They flew low over the dense woods and suburbs of New Jersey, and Kay felt her heart rate rise sharply to match the whirring pulse of the helicopter's rotors.

"We got local LEO chatter saying they've spotted it near Broad and Pattison," the pilot said as he tapped at a screen on his console. "Dark brown, short ears, long barbed tail. They're thinking the tail part could be a hoax, but it won't be long before they find out it's not."

"How close can you bring us to that spot?" Xavier asked.

"I'm trying to figure that out. May have to land in one of the stadium parking lots, but that'll raise some eyebrows."

"Do it," Xavier said, his voice low. "Listen up, everyone. I may have to split off to deal with law enforcement, but the rest of you should not split up under any circumstances. Understand?"

"Copy," Tierra said as she reached to unbuckle her seatbelt.

"Landing in ninety seconds," the pilot said.

Kay looked out her window to see a massive river below. Tiny spots of rain had started to appear on the window, and she sighed in relief; rainy weather would mean there would be fewer people outside.

"Play it cool, everyone," Xavier said. "When we land, take off your headsets and follow me to the northwest, toward the nearby park. We'll see if we can't ferret out this thing."

The helicopter descended rapidly, and Kay's stomach turned over. In front of her, Nadia turned around, nodding to her and Holly. "Let's do this," Nadia said softly.

Several seconds later, they touched down outside a stadium, and could see several cars on a nearby street slow down to gawk at them. "Let's go!" Xavier said, yanking the door of the helicopter open.

Too bad invisibility spells didn't exist, Kay thought as they jogged across the parking lot. Those would be nice to have if they wanted to make it through the day without all of humanity finding out about magic.

Xavier steered them toward a massive, lush park west of the stadium parking lot. He barely slowed before rushing them across an intersection just before the light changed.

As they reached the edge of the park, he glanced down at his phone. "I have to go deal with the locals," he murmured, staring north. "Start looking for this thing, and tell me immediately if you find it. If anyone tries to talk to you, tell them you're Penn students, okay? Let Tierra do the talking."

"Got it," Tierra said as he ran off. "Have everything you need at the ready, but avoid fire spells."

"What else are we supposed to use?" Holly whispered.

Tierra opened her jacket slightly, revealing a gun strapped to her side. "Useless against larger demons, but for one this size, it'll help," she murmured. "And no, you're not allowed to use it unless I'm dead. Maywitch doesn't like having untrained people shooting at things."

"Fair enough. I'd rather not get us all exposed today, so a gun is definitely a better option than magic, if we can help it," Holly murmured. "Where should we—"

Nadia held up a hand. "Something's here," she said.

The others whirled around, scanning the nearby trees and ponds for signs of trouble. "What?" Tierra murmured.

"I can't articulate what I feel," she murmured. "Not yet, anyway. But it's her, and at the same time not her."

"Not - Nina, you mean?"

Nadia opened her mouth to reply, but before she could say a word, an echoing boom resounded through the air and ground.

Tierra whipped her head around to face north. "What the hell was that?"

A few seconds later, a plume of black smoke appeared to the north, and Nadia nearly dropped her backpack as she dashed toward it. "Let's go!" she said over her shoulder.

"You don't have to tell us twice, but don't get too far ahead of us!" Tierra yelled.

Kay and Holly followed, and the four women darted through traffic, barely making it through without getting hit. Many of the drivers on the nearby streets pulled over to stop and stare at the ever-growing trail of smoke.

"I can't reach Xavier," Tierra said as they ran up the sidewalk heading north. "I'm relaying this to base."

"Tell them we might need backup," Nadia replied. "This feeling I have gets worse and worse the closer we get."
----------------------------------
Next Chapter: Unleashed

No comments:

Post a Comment