It was nearly two in the morning when Raquel and I finally walked out of the police station. I was emotionally drained, but glad to be leaving. The sheriff’s deputies returned my knives and gun as they escorted us out. Sara watched us leave, an unpleasant expression on her face.
Several news reporters were waiting just outside the door hoping to get a statement. Raquel moved in front of me and smiled for the cameras. “Mister Hammersmith is happy to be alive. He is extremely grateful to the Payson Police Department, Utah County Sheriff’s Office, and Utah Highway Patrol for their quick and effective response to his call for help. Due to the ongoing nature of this situation, Mister Hammersmith is prohibited from discussing the matter any further.”
She gave the clamoring reporters a meaningful smile and I felt a wave of warmth that felt suspiciously like magic. The reporters grew quiet and made a path for us to pass through. I followed Raquel through the herd towards the parking lot.
“I’m afraid your Jeep will have to remain in police custody. It’s pretty shot-up anyways; if Ulfvaldr hadn’t been protecting you, it’s unlikely you would have survived.”
“How does that work?” I asked, surprised. “I thought you couldn’t interact with physical items.”
Ulfvaldr laughed. “A bullet moving at supersonic speeds has considerable kinetic energy, which makes it fairly easy to manipulate magically. That is one of the reasons guns are not favored by the magically inclined.”
“Yeah, except that by the same logic, I could use magic to make my bullets more accurate and penetrate better.” I retorted.
Ulfvaldr considered my answer. “I suppose you are correct.” He finally responded.
Any questions about the sincerity of Carolina’s affection vanished as I saw her waiting in the parking lot. She had an expression of mixed grief and weariness, but the moment she saw me, her face lit up.
“James!” Carolina’s voice was raw, as if she’d been crying.
“Hey.” I said with a grin. “It’s good to see you.”
She looked amazing, despite how obviously drained she was. A strappy brown leather halter top and matching miniskirt with knee-high leather boots gave her a sexy warrior look. A spiderweb of fine silver chains sparkled against her skin in the light of the streetlamps.
As soon as I was close, she pressed herself against me, wrapped her arms around my neck, and smashed her lips against mine. Her kiss was fiery and passionate, a distinctly different sensation from Sara’s kiss a few hours earlier. I put my hands on her hips and kissed back with the same passion.
Raquel waited patiently while Carolina and I greeted one another. When we finally separated, Carolina turned to her and smiled. “Thanks so much for coming.”
Raquel bowed her head slightly. “It was my pleasure to help, as always. She reacted as we expected to my presence, and revealed her true nature. I will let James fill you in on what happened; he is everything you said he is and more.”
Carolina looked back to me and grinned as she bumped my hip with hers. Her arm around my waist pulled me close against her.
“He is not safe.” Raquel continued.
Carolina shrugged. “We expected that much. How confident are you that the attack at the Well was just a distraction to draw us away from him?”
Raquel sighed. “The Ice Queen’s plans are always layered, and James is clearly near the center of whatever she has going on. If she can’t have him, she will do her best to kill him. Whether there is anything else going on, I can’t say.”
Carolina took a deep breath. “Gracilda passed over. She was able to hold on until the summoning could be completed, but it took the last of her.”
Raquel looked down at the ground for a moment. She looked like she was going to cry, but she held it in. “She will be missed.” She put her hand on Carolina’s shoulder.
I wasn’t entirely following what was going on, but I could tell both women had been good friends with Gracilda. It bothered me that her death was connected to me.
After a minute of silence, Raquel squared her shoulders. She slid her jacket off her shoulders and it vanished. There was no flash of light or noise, not even the bad cut like in the old movies. It simply wasn’t there anymore, like it ceased to exist the moment she stopped touching it.
“I will take care of things in Colorado.” Raquel said. She took off her shoes, which vanished in the same way her jacket had. “You two need rest, and then you need to find a safe way to travel.”
Raquel undid a clasp on her blouse and slipped it off. I looked over at Carolina, who didn’t seem at all concerned that her lawyer was stripping in a public parking lot. None of the cops or media people milling around on the lawn a short distance away even seemed to know we were there. Raquel’s blouse and skirt vanished like her other clothing had.
“I’ll see you in a couple of days.” The now naked Raquel said to both Carolina and me.
I nodded, looking mostly at Carolina. She thanked Raquel and squeezed her hand. Raquel vanished as suddenly as her clothes had. I gasped in surprise.
Carolina turned back to me, wrapping her other arm around my waist, and laughed. “You get used to it.”
“People getting naked and vanishing in front of you?” I asked.
“That and more.” Carolina smiled. “We already talked about how magic is easier in a natural state. Some particularly complex magic, such as moving yourself across space, or changing form, is practically impossible to do while clothed. Among natural magic users, nudity taboos don’t usually exist.”
“Why didn’t any of the cops notice her getting naked over here? I mean, those taboos definitely exist in modern society.”
Carolina shrugged. “Those taboos exist in the US because the cultural foundation of our society is rooted in ultra-prude protestants who consider everything about their physical bodies to be the antithesis of God. If you believe in a sterile, emotionless, disembodied deity, it makes sense. If you see God as anything else, or don’t believe in God at all, those cultural taboos don’t make any sense.”
“Most people I’ve had this discussion with argue that the taboos are about controlling sexual urges. But how does that explain why they didn’t notice it?”
“The urge control argument is the biggest load of crap I’ve heard.” Carolina laughed. “It’s a red herring because people are afraid of the real issue. Did you get an uncontrollable desire to hump Raquel just because she was naked?”
“Well, no, but…”
“Exactly.” Carolina interrupted. “Whatever your reason for controlling yourself was, it wasn’t about whether or not she was naked. Maybe she’s not your type. Maybe you were afraid I’d kick the crap out of you if you came on to her. Or maybe you realized that her getting naked had nothing to do with whether or not you wanted to bone her. It doesn’t matter; you controlled yourself. We all do, all the time. I could walk around buck naked all the time and I wouldn’t get sexually assaulted.”
“But you would probably get arrested.” I returned to the main point.
“Maybe, eventually. Some people would stare at me. Others would look away, or pretend I’m not there, because I’m making them uncomfortable. People don’t want to see things that challenge their preconceived notions of how things should be. It doesn’t take more than a tiny magical nudge to get people to believe whatever makes them most comfortable; maybe they don’t care that I’m naked, or maybe they don’t see me as naked.”
“So Raquel was using magic to keep them from reacting to what she was doing?” I asked, impressed. “That’s pretty cool.”
Carolina smiled. “It’s easy to get people to believe what they want to believe. That’s how people like the Ice Queen convince people to do horrible things for them. She carefully guides them down a path of making seemingly innocent choices. It’s standard manipulation, with a bit of a magical boost.”
“That’s what she was trying to do to me, but it didn’t work.” I said.
“Yeah, well, you also saw Raquel take her clothes off. People with strong minds are harder to manipulate. That does bring up a point, though. We need to get out of here. The safest place nearby is my house. We’ll stay there tonight and figure out how to get to Colorado in the morning.”
“Based off what Raquel said, I’m guessing we’re not going to teleport.” I said.
“No, we’re not. Like I said, it’s some of the most difficult magic you’ll ever learn, and until you have a talisman to help you process all the complexities, you’ll never pull it off. Until then, we rely on more mundane methods of transportation.”
Carolina dangled a set of keys in front of me. “You don’t mind driving, do you? I’m exhausted.”
I took the keys from her and pressed the unlock button on the fob. The lights on a red and black Audi R8 flashed. “Your idea of mundane and mine are a bit different.” I said with a grin.
Carolina laughed, took my hand, and guided us over to the car. “This is Raquel’s. I prefer my Ducati.”
Carolina opened the passenger side door and slid into the seat. I walked around and got in the driver’s seat. I’d never driven an R8 before. I fired up the engine and grinned like a school kid. Carolina smiled back, her eyes already half closed.
Despite the rigors of the day, my adrenaline was pumping as I raced the sports car along empty roads. The winding canyon road was particularly exhilarating. Somehow, Carolina slept through it. I pulled to a stop outside her cabin, shut off the car, and leaned over and gently rubbed Carolina’s shoulder.
She opened her eyes. “Huh?”
“We’re here.” I said softly.
“Must’ve fallen asleep.” Carolina sat up and rubbed her eyes. “It’s been a long day. Come on.”
I followed her out of the car and into her cabin, following her example and kicking off my boots just inside the door. She took my hand and led me back into her bedroom.
As she began untying the leather straps that held her top in place, she smiled at me. “You’re allowed to get as turned on as you want now.”
After removing her own top, she helped me remove mine. I fumbled with the ties on her skirt while she undid my pants. When her skirt finally fell to the ground, she pulled me over to the bed and collapsed onto it, pulling me down beside her.
She was asleep within seconds.
I lay down beside her, looking over her gorgeous body and thinking about the way she made me feel. A few minutes later, I drifted off to sleep beside her.