Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Practical Magic: The Longest Year (Practical Magic #6)

It took a year of joint patrols and searches to find what they were looking for. Part of the delay was in resolving conflicts among The Others and The Gifted. Building trust takes time. Ideally they would have all had opportunities to work together and train together before being thrown in to a joint situation. But they hadn’t been given that opportunity, the danger to The Others had been deemed too great to ignore. If they stumbled, or worse yet if any children stumbled, in to one of the wild pockets they would have had no way to break free, no way to save themselves, so The Gifted had acted sooner than they would have liked.

The first few weeks were spent finding and closing circles. Patrolling parks and open fields looking for activity or areas that were left open. But then after awhile there seemed to be no more open pockets. No more areas of danger. And worse no leads as to who had cast the spells in the first place. Months went by with no new issues. Had the threat passed? Had there even been a real threat in the first place? There were Prophets among The Gifted who warned that this was temporary. That things were going to get much worse very soon. But they had no lead as to what would happen. Why it would get worse. They just could see trouble coming. To The Others “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” didn’t seem to hold a lot of weight. They spoke of budgets and resources and began pulling their forces out of the joint assignments. Working now with one or two members of The Others in a company instead of 4 or 5. Though they didn’t say it in joint meetings this actually suited most of The Guard just fine.

Working with people who were either scared of you or didn’t believe you when you told them about the magic that defined your life was a frustrating experience. And as they had learned suspicion and caution were not just characteristics of a Warrior but also among many of The Others. This skepticism lent itself to doubting that there ever was a problem among some. There were groups forming that sought to find out what The Gifted really wanted from them. The theory being they had made up the danger to ingratiate themselves with The Others. Tensions grew and accusations were made. This lasted until members of The Gifted started going missing.

When the first family disappeared no one tied it to the pockets of wild magic that had been found earlier in the year. The first thoughts were that they must have gone on vacation or to visit family and forgotten to tell their neighbors. But when they didn’t come back for work, or school and a few days turned in to a week with no trace of them, the worry for them grew. But it wasn’t until the third disappearance that a possible connection was made. The Guard had posted information about the missing. The first was the family. Mother, Father and 13 year old son. All Spell-Casters. The second was Healer, the third a Prophet. The spell remnants they had found had been one to take the gift from someone. Could these people have been taken so their gifts could be stolen? The family of Spell-Casters each with a different portion of the gift, the Healer had received the elements of compassion and empathy with her gift, did this mean they should be worried another Healer with stronger nature ties and elemental knowledge would be taken? The same with the Prophet. The woman that was taken was strong in sight, she could read a thought as clearly as a book, but had no future visions. And no Warriors had gone missing at all. Though this didn’t surprise anyone. It would be hard to surprise a Prophet who could see you coming and hard to surprise a Warrior at all.

Cal and Deidre spent many hours talking about the cases. Were the cases really related or were they just looking for a connection because they had no leads for either case? How do you protect people when you don’t know what you are protecting them from? Something had happened to these people. They were gone. That was a fact. But could it just be a coincidence that they all had different gifts? That there had been a remnant of a spell that seemed to fit this case? Were they trying to force pieces together that didn’t belong? Then more people disappeared. Another Spell-Caster, two more Healers, the Gifted were starting to panic, and then the first real break in the case came.

While out on patrol with his company Cal spotted a man stumbling through a park. At first he appeared to just have had too much to drink and was making his was home slowly. But then Cal noticed that he was trailing a rope from his right arm. His company spread out around the man circling back to surround him and slowly made their way in to him. “Sir? Can you tell me why you are out here tonight? It’s a little late for a walk isn’t it?” The man turned a blank stare to Cal. “Carter? Carter Gleason, is that you?” Cal thought he looked like a former classmate, but Carter had only been a year ahead of him and Deidre in school and this man was clearly at least 10 years older than he was. “Yes! I’m Carter Gleason! That’s right! That’s been bothering me all night. I’m Carter Gleason. Now if you would be so kind as to tell me why I have a rope tied to me and what I was doing in that barn I would appreciate it.”

And with that they were given their first break. Carter Gleason, was taken in to protective custody and questioned thoroughly. He had been a Prophet. Had been because he no longer seemed to possess any of his former gift. He had received sight and connection when his gift presented itself. He had spent years teaching in the primary school system. Teaching the children of the Gifted how to see the way the world worked together. How to understand that the magic that flowed from the Earth that gave them their gifts was the same magic that made the trees grow. But now that was gone. He could not see the connections, though he understood the theory still, his natural ability to visualize the threads that bound the world was gone. He consented to be a research vessel. Healers, Spell-Casters and Prophets all examined him. His memory of where he had been was blank. He knew he had left school one afternoon, it was sunny and…then he woke up in a barn tied to an empty horse stall. There was a rough edge on the corner of the gate and he had used that to cut through a worn spot in the rope. But he could not tell them where the barn was located, or if anyone else had been there with him. Though obviously someone had bound him and sealed the knots so they could not be untied. And stolen his gifts and at least 10 years of his life.

And then there was Ellen. One afternoon while Deidre was waiting to pick up Aska from school, the children of the Gifted were no longer left to walk home unsupervised, Ellen, the mother of one of Aska’s classmates came over to talk to her. She asked how the investigation was going, if they had any new leads. Who they thought might be behind the crimes. Curiosity was natural and Deidre and Cal both had been questioned by neighbors who just wanted to feel safer. But while Ellen was talking to Deidre she was also trying to scour Deidre’s mind for information. Ellen was a Prophet but reading someone’s thoughts without their permission was bad manners and completely out of character for Ellen. Deidre blocked her out all while continuing their conversation.

That night at dinner she told Cal about the conversation. Cal asked if she had confronted Ellen about the prying and Deidre admitted she hadn’t. She hadn’t wanted to intimidate Ellen or seem threatening to her as they both had children in the school. After talking about it they decided that they really needed to approach Ellen on the bad behavior. Curiosity was one thing but trying to surreptitiously get information about an ongoing investigation could be considered a criminal activity and they wouldn’t want her to get in trouble if she tried it with a less forgiving member of The Guard. Deidre called Jocelyn and asked her to join her at Ellen’s house. She thought it would seem less like an inquisition if her calmer Prophet sister was there with her.

But when Jocelyn and Deidre confronted Ellen she denied having done it. She swore she would never had tried to read Deidre without her knowledge. She even consented to letting Jocelyn read her to show her honesty. And she was telling the truth. She had no knowledge of trying to read Deidre’s thoughts that afternoon. In fact she had no knowledge of talking to her at all. Her memory was she had gone to school to pick up her son, had waited for him then they had left. She hadn’t spoken with anyone at all. She was in shock when they asked her son if he had seen his mother and Deidre talking after school and he said yes. Ellen started to cry. Then said that she should call her husband.

When her husband got home he listened and then shook his head. “I knew we should have contacted The Guard. I knew something wasn’t right.” Deidre was confused, how could he know about the situation after school if Ellen hadn’t been aware of it? That wasn’t what they were worried about. Two nights earlier he had woken in the middle of the night to find Ellen gone. He was just getting ready to call The Guard and report her missing when she came in the back door. She was fully dressed and had obviously been out doing something. But when he asked her what was going on she said nothing. Just walked back to their bedroom, got undressed and crawled back in bed. The next morning she had no memory of leaving the house at all. They convinced themselves she was just sleep walking though she had no previous history of doing so.

At this Deidre suggested that Ellen come with her and let herself be examined by their experts. She hadn’t had her gift stolen, that was apparent, but something else seemed to be going on. Ellen was the first they found that had holes or false memories or both in her mind. Dark tunnels where a memory should be was how one Prophet described the sensation. Or a memory that was clear as day, but never happened according to the other people that were there. What were they doing during those blank times? What was happening? And who could do this to their minds?

Then after months of searching, of following leads that lead nowhere, after working with The Others to find and close wild pockets, of discovering people who had their gifts stolen or their memories erased the final piece came to them in the most mundane way possible. A teenage boy walked in to the Guard headquarters and turned himself in for participating in all of the crimes.

His name was Pete Kingsworth. He was a Spell-Caster. He had decent but not exceptional grades throughout school. Never caused any trouble. No previous run-ins with The Guard. Nothing extraordinary about him.Except the story he told. He had been friends with a girl in school who had told him about a friend of hers who knew someone else who knew someone (they lost track of all of the connections at this point) who said that he knew a way to have all of the gifts at one time. And that once they each held all of the gifts then they would be in a position to lead The Gifted and to rule over The Others. That they knew The Joining was coming before it happened and that they didn’t want to join, they wanted to rule. And why shouldn’t they? After all The Others were like children who needed guidance. Only they were worse because they were adults who had never received their gifts. And if the Earth had not blessed them then there must be a reason.

And Pete had liked what he heard. He liked being a Spell-Caster but if he could be a Prophet and a Healer and a Warrior as well? That would be incredible. To know what they felt like, how they thought, what their gifts were like. And when he listened to the Sorcerer Shakel speak about leading, well it just made sense. And at first it was all just fun. New spells he had never heard of. They would join in small groups in areas they couldn’t be found and practice them. Sometimes they worked and sometimes they didn’t. Yes, he had thought it was a little pretentious that Shakel liked to call himself The Sorcerer Shakel, and in fact he wasn’t even a sorcerer, not yet. He was a Spell-Caster when Pete first met him, but he was learning how to acquire the other gifts and believed soon they would all be Sorcerers. They might not have claimed them by birth but they were going to claim them by skill and really didn’t that make them even better than everyone else?

As Pete answered more and more questions The Guard got a fuller picture of what the threat was and who was causing it. One of their own had overreached. The Others would say he had formed a cult. Members of The Gifted who had wanted more than they had, or were afraid of losing something to The Others during a time of joining had followed him. Had allowed themselves to get deeper and deeper in to his world. And as the spells he found and taught them started to work? Started to feed their gifts with more power? Well they had stayed. Pete had stayed. Until he discovered that it wasn’t just spells giving them more gifts, that the spells were actually taking those gifts from others. Stealing them. Shakel had found a spell that allowed him to steal the part of a person that held their gift. He called it a reaping spell, and the people they took them from didn’t always survive. Pete said he had started to work toward undoing some of the damage after he realized what was happening. That he had set some people free when he found them captured. But Shakel was starting to want more and more power and Pete realized he was in over his head.

Shakel had been successful in taking all but one of the gifts, he hadn’t been able to capture a Warrior. So he had a plan, he was going to kidnap a group of children just coming in to their Warrior gifts. Steal them right after the 12 year tests were done. He had an insider on the testing board who would identify children strong in each portion of the Warrior gift so Shakel could take them all. Pete knew that children rarely survived the reaping spell. And he knew that he alone couldn’t stop Shakel so he turned himself in so he could get the help he needed. He knew he would be punished for his participation and took full responsibility for what he had done. He just needed them to take him seriously so that Shakel could be stopped from harming those children.

After Pete told his story to the group of Warriors he turned himself in to he told his story over and over again. Members of the governing council listened to him repeat his story while Prophets searched his thoughts to determine if he was telling the truth. They saw him meeting with Shakel and others, performing spells. They saw him in a barn waking Carter Gleason after weakening the rope he was tied with. They also found memory of him overhearing the plans to take the children. After they were all satisfied that Pete was telling the truth they knew they had to have a plan.

The first step was to find the informant among the testers. Who had fed information about their children to Shakel? Every member of the testing group was brought in for questioning and examination. One by one they were submitted to tests of honesty. Answering questions while a Prophet listened, looking for signs of deception. Finally they found their leak. Petra Goodwin. While being examined one of the Prophets noticed what she called a hiccup in Petra’s memory around the testing day. When asked what her day had been like Petra described going in to work at the school and preparing her classroom for studies, then she was in the gym watching the testing. There was a gap. She had no recollection of how she got from her classroom to the gym.

Petra could not explain the memory loss. She swore that she did not know Shakel and that she had not given him any information about the students. And the Prophets listening agreed that she was telling the truth. Yet, the blank hallways of memory were there. She, like Deidre’s neighbor Ellen, could not explain the gaps. And she had no memories around them that would show who she had talked to, what had happened to her to cause the blank spaces, but they were there. More than just that day at school. There were five dark hallways of memory. Three that happened in the days before the testing, the one they had found originally right before the testing happened and then one after. They had to assume that she had reported to Shakel the information on the students he wanted.

The testing results were pulled in to The Guard headquarters and reviewed. Any student that showed an aptitude for Warrior was marked and their families called. Guards were sent to the houses to watch over the families to ensure that no one had access to the children. That all of the families were safe. All the while those that were known to have had contact with Shakel or any member of his group were requestioned and examined deeper by Prophets adept at reading thoughts. They were desperately looking for any trace memory that might show where Shakel would take the children. Pete provided the information he had about places they had gathered but when locations were searched they showed Shakel and his followers had moved out quickly. The Gifted were left with only the knowledge that something was coming and that it most likely dealt with their children, but not how to prevent it.

The Guard returned to enhanced watches. They would be extra vigilant. Some took shifts protecting the children they believed Shakel to be targeting. Extra searches through the areas Shakel had been known to frequent were added. And extra communication with the police from The Others to keep an eye out for any groups that seemed out of the ordinary. They knew that Shakel and his followers had used old abandoned barns on farmland before so they targeted those first. Then spread through other abandoned buildings on the outskirts of the populated areas. They found a few more pockets of magic that needed closed but these were older. Pete had explained that they kept the circles open so they could easily tap in to the source again without having a group of three to cast the spell. It was like drilling a well and having a source of water at all times. You needed three to drill but once it was open anyone could access it. But eventually a circle would go bad. Like the magic within had spoiled so they would open a new one. Shakel had told them to leave the old circles open even if the magic was no longer accessible as it was giving The Guard something else to focus on instead of finding them. Commander Keeper was not happy to hear this. It had been exactly what they had focused on, finding and closing the circles, that was the immediate threat, by doing so they had given Shakel and his followers time to grow stronger and stronger. He had manipulated The Guard perfectly.

But now that was over. Commander Keeper could feel that they were close. They were one lead away from capturing Shakel and putting an end to his campaign to lead The Gifted and The Others. They just had to keep focused on the task ahead. They just needed to capture him before he could harm anyone else. Especially the children he had marked.

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