Chapter 47 — Family (Part II)
The distance between the Greywood and Rallsburg wasn’t far. Natalie felt the clock ticking in her head with Gwen’s every bound forward. Every second brought them closer to Jeremy or Nikki figuring out where her dad was… and to his death.
What do we even do when we get there?
Cinza won’t listen to me. They’re too scared of him. And… I get that. But we don’t have to kill him. There’s gotta be another way.
We will protect him until we find that way.
Natalie nodded, her face buried into Gwen’s back as she held on tight. Wind rushed through her ears and blew her hair back as they ran. She was listening hard for danger, and feeling out with her magic. The animals of the forest would warn her. They remembered her from her time in Rallsburg, to her relief. She had allies everywhere, even if none of them seemed to be human.
Quinn, and Cinza too… People won’t tell me what they’re really thinking. They just make decisions for me. Everyone keeps doing that, and it keeps getting worse.
Perhaps it is time we stop allowing anyone to take charge of our life.
But I’m still a kid. I’m thirteen. You can’t be in charge of yourself at thirteen. I looked it up. I gotta be sixteen at least.
You haven’t been a member of their society for a long time. Abandon their rules. This is your queendom, and you’ve returned. Rule as you were always meant to.
I’m not a ruler. I just want to save my dad.
You are a queen.
”No,” said Natalie aloud. “I’m just me.”
A young doe skipped past her, fleeing some commotion ahead. Natalie slowed, listening carefully. Many voices, mixed, and one stray gunshot. Someone shouted in alarm. She caught the distinct sounds of the zip-ties, same as the ambush she’d carried out only a couple hours prior. Soldiers, ambushing another of Omega’s caches. Natalie inched forward, curious.
If they were able to breach it, they must have someone awakened with them. We do not know who we can trust yet.
Natalie stopped. The voice was right. Cinza was working with multiple people to coordinate the ritual, including Will somehow. Anyone could be involved, and few of them would likely take Natalie’s side. She wondered if Rachel was talking to Cinza… and not to her.
She is not your ally anymore. Her promise has been broken.
I broke mine too. I’m here without her.
”All good?” called Josh. Natalie started, before remembering he said he’d come out on some of the expeditions since she wasn’t. Probably picked this one ’cause it’s so close to the Greywood.
”All set, Mr. Miller.”
”…Yeah, just Josh is cool.” Josh was audibly embarrassed. A phone buzzed, and Natalie heard the click of a button. “I’m getting a call. Can you guys sweep up all that to bring back? Don’t want to leave it out for them to come back and grab.”
”You got it.”
Josh rustled away—toward Natalie, in fact, though she was certain he had no idea. She crouched in the branches of the tree nearby, with Gwen and Scrappy lurking in the shadows only a dozen feet away. He emerged, looking a little winded but otherwise the same as when she’d last seen him. He had a cell phone to his ear.
”Hi. What’s up?”
”Something has happened.”
Natalie tensed up. It was Cinza calling. About me? Did she notice I left?
”There’s a fucking understatement.” Josh sighed, rubbing his head and leaning back against a tree. “Remember when I said I wanted to go home and you guys all shot me down? I still hate you.”
”If you wish to leave, I don’t think anything remains to stop you. I’d still advise against going public, but you could probably call your parents.”
”I think they know by now anyway.” Josh shrugged, though of course Cinza couldn’t see it. “We’re doing important work here. I’m miserable for the cause. Someone has to keep you from driving straight off the cliff.”
”Oh, son of a bitch,” Josh moaned. He stood back up straight, looking around for any potential eavesdroppers. Natalie instinctively shrunk back in her tree, but Josh never bothered to look up. “What are you doing?”
”Walking along the edge.”
”Save the theatrics. I just got shot at dealing with this group. Can we be straight? Nobody’s listening in.”
”We’re going to use the magnetic ritual again, on a single target.”
Josh swore very loudly. He started pacing back and forth in place, face pinched. “Are you insane?“
”There’s no Jackson to interrupt the ritual, and we’re safe inside the Greywood. We only have one target to strike, and Agent Ashe is moving in to give us that location. It will not fail.”
”That’s not why you’re calling,” said Josh. “I’m not the battle strategy guy. That’s your deal, not me.”
”Everybody barely understands how the magnet strikes work. I was reading up on some physicist’s analysis of the diaries and he basically concluded it’s impossible, and probably made up. We want them to believe that.” Josh leaned back against the tree again, free hand pressed to his temple. He looked suddenly exhausted. “If everyone knows we can do it again. Kill anyone, from any distance, just like that…”
”It’s not as simple as you describe, or as easy.”
”You think they’re gonna forgive us because of nuance?” Josh snorted. “People are idiots.”
”You give us too little credit.”
”Nah. A person is smart. People are panicky morons. Wisest words I ever got from the movies.” Josh sighed. “Thing is, I agree with you.”
”…I was not expecting that.”
He closed his eyes. Natalie tensed up again. She knew what he was going to say, before he said it — the same justifications everyone was leaning on. “Brian’s the exception. The golems are practically unstoppable. Unless Grey-eyes steps in, he keeps killing. The military will get him eventually, but how many die in the meantime?”
”So you think we should go forward.”
”Isn’t that why you called me?” said Josh bitterly. “I’m here to reassure you when you’re second-guessing yourself. Yes, Rika deserved to be arrested and tried. Yes, there was no way we’d ever get her out of here unless we got them to ambush her. And yes, Brian needs to die, even if we have to do terrible things to pull it off.” He slid down the bark until he landed in the fallen leaves and underbrush, knees up in front of him. “You and I share the guilt, Cinza. I’m the dark half of this brave new council.”
”…I would never describe you as such.”
”Yeah,” Josh snorted, “because you’d get called fucking racist.” He sighed again. “Sounds like you’ve got it worked out?”
”Yes. Thank you.”
”I’ll meet you in Hell someday.” Josh closed his eyes again. “What about her?”
”She’s in my room, exhausted. I think she’s sleeping. I don’t wish to disturb her.”
”Yeah…” He took a deep breath. “Who tells her?”
”This was my decision. I will tell her… after.”
”She’s going to hate you forever.”
”I will bear that burden. No one else.”
”See you on the other side.”
Josh hung up. He stayed where he was on the ground, leaning against the tree, rubbing at his eyes, hiding his face from Natalie. Finally, as one of the soldiers called out looking for him, Josh finally stood up. He shouted back, hurrying to rejoin them. They set off.
Natalie fell back against the tree trunk. She hadn’t realized she’d been leaning forward. She waited for the tension to ease out of her muscles, for her body to relax even a hair, but it never did.
We must keep moving. They are, and they do not yet know you are gone.
Yeah… yes. You’re right.
Natalie waited until the soldiers were a good distance away, then dropped out of the tree onto Gwen’s back. In a moment, they were off again, rushing through the forest with only the gentle moonlight lighting their path — and only the tears in Natalie’s eyes giving a sign anything had occurred.
Jeremy took a break or two, but he managed to get Lani back to the pilgrim camp in pretty short order. He wasn’t about to take him back to the Greywood, obviously, but there wasn’t much else where he could safely deposit the man. Spending so much fuckin’ time and effort on him… Brian’s still out there. Gotta get moving.
The place was still buzzing as he emerged from the treeline — at the shortest distance between the trees and the first set of tents and carts, as he intended. He wanted to be in and out, no distractions, as fast as he could. Heaving Lani onto a more comfortable position on his back, Jeremy hustled into the camp. He flagged down the first soldiers he saw.
”…Yeah?” asked one warily.
Not gonna get someone to hold him down without authority. “Captain Hoskins. Where is he?”
”…Who are you, exactly?”
Fuck me, someone who doesn’t watch the news. “Special Agent Jeremy Ashe, FBI NSB SeaTac. I need to find the captain.” Jeremy awkwardly fished into his pocket for his badge and showed it. The soldier raised his eyebrows, and after a long second of inspection, finally nodded.
”Right this way.”
The soldier led him through the camp — straight back to the command tent. Son of a bitch… Could’ve just gone straight here.
Jeremy didn’t waste any time when he found Hoskins. He explained briefly how Lani was a rogue FBI agent wanted for questioning, and to hold him for the time being. Lani was not to be released to anyone without Jeremy’s express permission.
”And if you die out there?” asked Hoskins frankly. “What’s the chain of custody after you?”
Jeremy shrugged. “DTA, I guess. He’s awakened, so keep that in mind while holding him.”
”DT… Right. The new department.” Hoskins nodded. “Got a contact I can reach?”
”Yeah. Wesley Gatiss, Secretary. One step off the President. You can release Lani on his direction, mine, or Cinza’s.”
”…Cinza’s not in the United States government. Hell, I’m pretty sure she isn’t even a citizen.”
”Still her jurisdiction,” said Jeremy firmly.
”Last resort, then,” said Hoskins. He held out his hand, and Jeremy shook it. “Good hunting, wherever you’re going.”
Jeremy hurried out again. He’d already lost time, and Rallsburg was still a good ways away. It was a small town tucked into the forests and hills, so concepts like ‘neighbors’ were stretched a bit. The R.V. park wasn’t even technically inside the Rallsburg town limits (though, frustratingly enough, within the limits of the Price estate), but Jackie had always treated it like it was, to their benefit.
Well… it’s sure part of their world now, ain’t it?
As Jeremy walked through the camp, he realized just how fast his heart was racing. Adrenaline was still pumping wildly through his body, and he wasn’t exactly young anymore at forty-two. Field work this strenuous was supposed to be in his past… and yet here he was, doing fireman lifts, running through thick forest in the dead of night, on what seemed like the longest day of his entire life.
Fuck me. We were in D.C… fifteen hours ago? How is this goddamn day so long?
Jeremy slowed down. He knew where Brian was going, and they couldn’t travel directly there. They had to be even more discreet than he did, and Brian wasn’t likely to move for a while once he got there. Jeremy had some time, and with the way his mind was stuck in loops all day, he knew he needed a moment to refocus.
He needed something familiar to latch onto.
Jeremy pulled out his phone. He had signal thanks to the tower set up by the camp, in addition to to the heavy-duty repeater brought in by the National Guard. He opened his contacts and picked the very top one, praying she was still awake. He needed her right now more than anything.
She answered on the very first ring.
”It’s about fucking time!” Maddie growled.
”You said you weren’t gonna be on the frontline!”
”Fuck.” Jeremy stopped, right on the edge of the camp before actually leaving. “I wasn’t trying to be.”
”Well, from the reports I’m gettin’, it sounds like you’re out there with the National Guard getting shot at.”
”Can’t help that Hendricks decided to go full terrorist tonight.” Jeremy leaned against the nearest tree, taking deep breaths, trying to steady himself. He started digging into some of the soldiers’ rations he’d scooped up on the way out of camp, forcing them down. “People are dying, Maddie.”
”Yeah, we know. President’s been in the Situation Room all night. I’ve got a contact feeding me stuff too.” Maddie took a breath. “Anyone… anyone we know?”
”Not for lack of tryin’.” Jeremy sighed. “One of the guys who was with me. Police officer named West, came out of Tacoma to help out. They sliced his neck open.”
”Jesus…” Maddie whispered. “Golems too, right? I heard there were golems.”
”Yeah. Hendricks is here.” Jeremy figured that was as good a segue as any. “Secure line?”
”We’re going to kill him.”
”You can’t tell anyone,” Jeremy said quickly. “I’m going in, and we’re going to kill him.”
”You’re… No, Jeremy, don’t—”
”Maddie, I’m going crazy out here,” said Jeremy, his blood rising again. “After all the shit that’s happened… After Lani and Rook, London, you, the number of times I’ve nearly died, Hailey, Jessica… I already found him once.”
Jeremy cleared his throat. He had to consciously keep his voice quiet, though he was certain no one was close enough to overhear. “I was ten feet away. Could have called in the strike any time. Cinza would have cast her spell, and Hendricks woulda died, along with most of his leadership. Right there. No more golems, no more massacres, no more goddamn crusade. There’d still be a fuckton of cleanup and crazies to deal with, but way more manageable.”
”And so would you!” Maddie practically screamed. “Goddammit Jeremy, you aren’t going to kill yourself for this!”
”Someone’s gotta stop him,” said Jeremy, keeping a remarkably even voice. “I ain’t gonna kill myself. I stopped to save Lani. He’s with the National Guard by the way. If I don’t make it back, tell Wesley to take custody and get him on the stand for Rika and Hailey. They’ll only release to me or him.”
”So what are you doing now?“
”Going back to Rallsburg. He’s going there too. Looking for his daughter.”
”His… you mean Natalie, right?” Maddie hesitated. “That little girl with the scars?”
”She ain’t that little,” said Jeremy, “and she ain’t to be fucked with either. I met her for real tonight.”
”Do you… Jesus, Jeremy, do you have backup?”
”Don’t need it.” Jeremy shrugged. “I just gotta find Hendricks and call it in. The rest is on them. Don’t even gotta show myself.”
”This still sounds insane. You’re talking about killin’ the guy in cold blood.”
Yeah… but it’s to save everyone else. Shit… This was probably how Rachel felt, huh?
”My blood ain’t been cold since Lakewood, Maddie,” Jeremy growled. “Not since Vancouver, really. They shot Lani, they tried to kill me, they tried to kill so many people. This has gotta end.”
”I think this is a bad idea,” said Maddie, “but I guess I ain’t stoppin’ you.”
”Take some fuckin’ backup. Please.” Maddie hesitated. “What about Jackie? You can trust her, right? Heard she was around from one of the reports.”
”She’s back at the Greywood,” muttered Jeremy, still feeling some guilt over it. Jackie hadn’t wanted him to leave either. Besides, she ain’t got shit against golems, or guns, or anything else we’re goin’ up against. I need… well, I need someone else. “I wish… fuck me.”
”Wish Hailey were here,” he sighed.
Maddie matched him sigh-for-sigh. “Won’t be for a long time yet, little bro.”
”We can’t do shit to the golems without her or the kid,” said Jeremy. “Even the other supposed strong man, Hector, barely held on against Hendricks. Hailey couldn’t beat them, but she sure as hell could hold ’em back. ‘Top of that, she learned to deflect goddamn bullets in London. I could really use that right now.”
”I tried to visit her,” said Maddie.
”She doing better?” asked Jeremy. “Alden said she was lookin’ up a bit when he got released.”
”No idea. Couldn’t get in. Her lawyer says she’s cooperating with the grand jury as much as she can. They’re trying to keep it all under the table and stall a bit while the Nishimura proceedings create precedent.” Maddie sighed. “Nishimura’s a nightmare. Hailey might not even get charged at this rate, but Rika’s gonna get herself held in contempt fifty fuckin’ times over before we even get to trial.”
”Jesus Christ…” Jeremy paused. “Maddie, Rook’s out here too. If I can get her to you, would her testimony get Rika cleared?”
”It’d help.” Maddie sighed again. “I’m tired as fuck and not gettin’ sleep tonight with how loud everything is out where you are. Get her, figure out what she’s actually got, and call Rika’s lawyer. Name’s… uhh…”
”Yeah.” Maddie hesitated again. Jeremy could hear her faint breathing through the phone — which meant she must be seriously stressed on her end, if even the phone was picking it up. “Jere-bear?”
”I know it’s crazy out there, and you might not have a choice… but don’t you dare fuckin’ die on me, okay? Big sister’s orders.”
Jeremy shook his head, wishing Maddie were there so he could hug her — but also grateful his big sister was thousands of miles away from the insanity. Far away from soldiers and madmen, from golems and gunfire, from remnants of a genocidal young man-turned-budding-god and the devastated forest torn apart by his disciple.
”I’ll be okay.”
Natalie had to dodge two more soldier groups on her way toward the town. Neither had found a hideout, and they were accompanied by awakened whom she didn’t recognize. She hid from them or leapt through the trees above, while Gwen and Scrappy stalked around, silent as the still air hanging in the forest.
There was no wind, no rain. The whole place felt eerily still, always reminding her that she wasn’t moving — that others were getting closer to her father while she waited.
Patience. Do not make a tactical error by rushing our movements.
I know. I can wait. I just…
We will find him.
As Natalie got moving again, her other fears resurfaced — a long suppressed anxiety she’d been ignoring for months and months, as the possibility seemed so incredibly remote. Suddenly, she was faced with a possible reunion, the first time she would speak to her father since nearly a week before the fight against Omega, when Rallsburg had been torn apart.
What do I even say? I… I don’t know what he’s like anymore.
The words will come.
What if he… when he realizes I’m awakened. Will he say no? He might tell me never to to use it, to not speak to Gwen or Scrappy or Percy, to be normal.
He cannot command us.
He’s my dad. He’s in charge. He’s always trying to do what’s best for me.
What he believes to be the best may not truly be what is best for us.
Focus, Natalie. Save him first. Determine the rest later.
Why does everyone want to kill him? Haven’t enough people died already?
The voice did not answer, and Natalie knew why. She already knew the answer to that question, as much as she refused to admit it. She kept riding forward, a little slower now since Gwen was starting to get tired. It had been a long day, stretching into an even longer night. The moon still shone in the sky, and the forest continued to chirp and buzz around her, welcoming her back to her home.
And she was home. These, more than any other forests she’d been in all night, were the most familiar to her. She was very close to Rallsburg now, very close to her old house. In fact… if she turned the next corner—
The briefest snatch of a word. Natalie froze, looking around. Someone had spoken, far away but still carried on the wind back to her pointed ears. She crept forward the voice as the voice spoke again.
”It is secure.”
”…the number you usually use.”
”I had to leave it behind.”
”Along with everythin’ else.”
Natalie’s eyes widened. The first voice was Riley, certainly, though her voice was as cold and rigid as ever, more Rook than she’d ever been. The second… a voice she hadn’t heard since Rallsburg — Rook’s old partner.
”Think you were right,” said Viper through the phone.
”I am sorry.”
”Fuck. I… I trusted him.”
”Malton has shown us who he truly is. I recognized it long ago.”
”Yeah, I know. Tess, I wish I’d believed you.”
”You believed in your friend. I don’t blame you. You have not known me as long.”
”I believed in him. I trust you with my life. He’s a friend, you’re family. That’s a big fucking difference. I fucked up.”
”Stefen, you did nothing wrong.” Riley’s tone stayed in its typical cold and terse style, but Natalie heard something else in it. “You stayed loyal and weathered the storm.”
Natalie knew she should keep moving, knew this was none of her business and didn’t affect her in the slightest… but something about Riley’s voice, about what Natalie had just learned, kept her rooted to the spot.
So Riley’s the reason Jeremy and Lani aren’t partners anymore, but she’s also a bystander in this other partnership between Viper and Malton. I guess… she just breaks up everyone. That must be so depressing.
These men all caused their own grief. The blame cannot be laid solely at her feet.
I’m not saying that… I just— I wouldn’t want to be her. I think she’s just trying to get by, like me.
”And now it’s all over. Malton fucked up way too far.”
”Do you mean the destruction of lab two?”
”He tried to trap Grey-eyes.”
Riley didn’t speak right away. Even she seemed shocked. Natalie, for her part, was dumbfounded — somebody tried to hurt Grey-eyes? Were they insane?
”Waited for her to awaken Kleiner, then tried to taze her, the idiot. That’s not… that’s not the whole story though. It’s that, it’s tellin’ my men to kill the Silverdale girl against my orders, it’s everything he’s done. Corny’s just gone. I don’t know who he is anymore.”
”I’m too fuckin’ tired, Tess.”
”The earth is salted. Malton has cast us all aside for his ambitions and reached further than he ever should. Leave, Stefen.”
”Just like that?”
”You have not asked me why I left.”
”Don’t need to. I trust you, like I said. If you had to leave, I’m not stoppin’ you.”
Riley smiled, and her voice changed ever so faintly to reflect it. “The world is changing, Stefen. You do not deserve to die amidst the dying embers of the old.”
”Funny, for someone so opposed to the new one.”
She hesitated, and Natalie saw real fear brush across her face, flashing across her ice-blue eyes. Finally, she opened her mouth, lips barely parted. “I’m awakened now,” she whispered.
”…Tess, I thought—”
”I am surviving.”
”Well… I’m under house arrest in Corny’s mansion while they’re still investigatin’. Corny will probably get off though. We’re actually in guest house. The main buildin’s still ripped to shreds thanks to Winscombe. They’ve got more security on us than the goddamn Queen. Can’t move an inch without explaining it to the cops.”
”Are you going to stay?”
Viper didn’t answer for several seconds, with Riley still sitting patiently settled into a tree root with her rifle across her lap. Natalie could see her clearly now — she’d crept up, little by little, during their conversation.
”…I will come for you.”
Viper hung up. Riley set the phone down. Natalie took a step back, meaning to leave and get back to her original mission — and a tiny branch on the ground snapped.
Natalie didn’t hesitate — and the voice saved her life. Even as she threw up the shield she’d constructed before, Riley lifted her rifle and took aim. Less than a second from the branch snap passed before Riley pulled the trigger — with aim far superior to her father’s men.
The bullet slammed into her wall with even more force than the previous one. Natalie hadn’t had time to grab any gemstones, either. It plinked off and landed on the ground, completely spent of energy.
Natalie fell to the ground, suddenly drained. The bullet has taken a huge toll on her, especially since she hadn’t really recovered from the day yet. She coughed out two words, the only ones which came to mind in her sudden state.
”Auta minua,” she gasped.
Riley’s aim wavered. Her voice warmed up a little. “…Linnethea?” she murmured.
”…Yeah,” Natalie coughed again. “I didn’t… I’m sorry.”
The woman got to her feet and crept forward, rifle still in hand. She found Natalie behind the tree, struggling to get up again. “Are you all right?”
Natalie coughed as Riley offered a hand. “Blocking bullets is… really hard,” she gasped.
She pulled herself back up with Riley’s help, a little unsteady but mostly okay. Gwen padded over and rubbed against her, with a faint growl in Riley’s direction, but the woman ignore them. She was more fascinated by the flattened bullet on the ground.
”That’s incredible,” Riley murmured. “It didn’t even ricochet. Completely absorbed.”
”I saw… saw Hailey doing it in London. I thought I might be able to, too.” Natalie coughed again, but to her relief, it seemed to be subsiding. Riley was looking around them watching for threats, so Natalie dug into her bag and started pulling out gemstones — and realized with a shock, she’d forgotten all her clothes back at Cinza’s home.
…I can’t really go back for them now…
”Hailey used wind, I think,” said Riley. “Strong enough wind to blow bullets off course.”
”Bullets get affected by wind?”
”Yes. Over long distances with a strong gust, the wind can change where a shot lands by full meters. It is not perfect, and if Malton’s guards were properly trained, they probably could have adjusted to compensate.” Riley spoke very dismissively. She obviously had a very low opinion of the guards. “Your method seems much more effective, although more costly. You should work on it.”
Natalie shook her head. “I don’t have time. They’re…” She trailed off.
Can we trust her?
Do you trust your instincts, or what others have told you?
I’ve never seen her do anything bad. All I’ve seen is her helping people. Maybe she used to be worse, but… people change, right?
You changed. Perhaps she did as well.
”They’re trying to kill my dad,” Natalie whispered. “I gotta save him.”
Riley nodded. No questions, just quiet understanding. “How do you plan to do that?”
”I don’t know,” Natalie admitted, and the weight of those three words crashed down around her.
She didn’t know. Natalie always felt like she didn’t know what was going on. Through awakening and Rallsburg, in the Laushire home and the Kincaid home, at school and around the world—Natalie was always in the dark. There were so many secret things happening around her, sometimes in ways she didn’t even know were possible. Everyone talking and planning and plotting and deciding, and Natalie was just… clinging on for dear life.
Natalie coughed again, and to her relief, it felt like the burst of fatigue and pain was past. She asked, hesitantly, not sure what the answer would be, hoping Riley would understand.
”Will you help me?”
”Tottakai.” Riley smiled. “Of course I will. You already asked me that.”
Natalie smiled back, though it was with far more reluctance. She turned, and Riley followed, and together, they hurried through the last few layers of trees before the outskirts of the town. As Natalie walked forward, Gwen padding along at her side, she saw the first cracked bits of pavement and gravel. It was the end of Price Road. If she followed it, she’d see the first couple houses just around the corner — or what was left of them.
They’d arrived in Rallsburg.
Jeremy left camp, but didn’t get more than a minute into the forest before he got interrupted yet again. If it were any other voice, any other person in the entire world, he probably would have ignored them and kept going — but this was the one he couldn’t pass by.
The one he’d hunted all year.
He slowed, coming to a halt at the next tree. Jackie clambered through the thick woods, brushing leaves and branches out of the way as she barreled toward him.
”I changed my damn mind,” she growled. “I’m not letting you go on a suicide mission, no matter how many lives it might save.”
Jackie shook her head, nearly throwing her sheriff cap off as she did. The vague Rallsburg shield set into the center glinted in the moonlight, another reminder of what was at stake. “Listen to me, Ashe, your life is worth more than those shits. Don’t go thinkin’ we won’t need you down the line. You’re the best shot we’ve got at keepin’ the peace between Cinza and the rest of the damn wor—”
”I’m not doing it anymore, Jackie,” said Jeremy, cutting her off mid-stream.
Before Jackie could say another word, Jeremy had buried her in a hug, doing his best to emulate her own typical bear hugs. “Thanks,” he muttered into shoulder.
”…For what?” Jackie grumbled. “Apparently I didn’t need to sprint across the damn forest to save your sorry ass.”
”For doing it anyway.”
”Jesus, Ashe, you’re gettin’ sappy.” Jackie grinned as they broke apart. “So what the hell are you doin’?”
”Going after Hendricks.”
Her smile disappeared as quickly as it had shown up. “But—”
”Going after him smarter this time,” said Jeremy. “We know where he’s going now. No need for cloak and dagger shit. Just gotta find him, call it in, and stand back.”
”…How d’you know?”
”Got picked up by the motherfucker already.” Jeremy shrugged, trying to sound as casual as he could. He started walking toward the town, hoping Jackie would follow his lead — and to his relief, she did. They fell in step together as easily as they’d always done, matching pace as they clambered through the uneven forest, over rocks and logs, past scurrying animals. Jeremy explained what happened as they went, catching Jackie up as quickly as he could.
”Well, shit,” muttered Jackie. “He’s going home?”
”Yeah. So… thanks for comin’ back too, ’cause I could use a guide.”
”Thought you and yours went over every spare inch of Rallsburg durin’ your investigation.”
”Forensics did,” said Jeremy. “I just read the summaries. Fuck if I was gonna spend that long out here. Didn’t find a single useful thing, anyway, did we?”
”Nothin’ left to find,” said Jackie grimly.
They moved in silence for a while, digesting the thought. Rallsburg was a ruin, no mistaking it, and Jeremy had only ever seen it in ashes. Jackie had lived there ten years, gotten to know the people, settled down. It was her home. He was just a visitor, a guest in their abandoned home. He’d never said anything to her.
”Sorry,” he murmured.
”Wasn’t you. Wasn’t Jackson either, though I’m glad that young man is gone and buried. Wasn’t really Cinza, even if she mighta pulled the trigger.” Jackie sighed. “All that shit because we couldn’t ever sit down and figure it out. I’ve been talkin’ to people. Rachel, Boris, Josh, Hector. People who were around all the way at the beginning. Those two, the ones who really caused it all, they just couldn’t see eye to eye, and nobody tried to shut ’em down proper til it was too late.”
”I don’t know. Hector got ’em to stop fightin’, but what was he supposed to do? Kill ’em?” Jackie paused while she climbed over a difficult tree root. “Not too far now. But yeah, things just snowballed. By the time I got looped into the picture, it was way too late. Rachel did her best, but…”
”But you had to kill him,” Jeremy finished.
”Is that where we’re at now?” asked Jackie. “Killin’ Brian Hendricks?”
”Has to be done.”
”Way I understand it, those golems come out of a stick he keeps with ‘im at all times. Can’t we just take it?”
Jeremy shook his head. “Nobody’s ever gotten close enough to try. People are dyin’, Jackie. We’ve gotta do something.”
”Goddammit…” Jackie sighed. “I’ve been in this conversation before.”
”So what convinced you last time?”
”That’s cheatin’, Ashe.”
Jeremy rolled his eyes, but Jackie couldn’t see it in the darkness. Barely, if he squinted, he could start to make out the turrets of the library in the distance. Rallsburg was getting closer.
”Gordon Merrill said it,” murmured Jackie, her voice dark and grim. “Rachel set a precedent. Awakened don’t arrest and try people like them. It’s just death.”
”I betrayed my code already,” she sighed. “Rachel convinced me. People like this, the world’s never dealt with anything like it. History doesn’t give us any answers. Policework’s based on history, ain’t it? We go on patterns, we go on precedent, we track down clues in the past to find the guy in the present. Only, there’s no precedent, no patterns. Nothin’s ever been like this.”
”Sure it has,” said Jeremy, feeling frustrated. “Guy stands up in front of a crowd and tells ’em the other group deserves to die for who they are. Sound fuckin’ familiar?”
”It ain’t like that and you know it.” Jackie stopped, turning around to face him. Her expression was confused — half angry, half scared. “Awakened ain’t just another group of people. They picked that life, and they got power way beyond us. Sometimes beyond them.” She pointed back toward the camp, far out of sight now. “Jenny Wilson died back there because of a spell gettin’ out of control. I don’t disagree with Jackson on that.”
”Not our job to worry about that,” said Jeremy, though he felt uneasy doing it. “We’re enforcement, remember?”
”It’s all I worry about, dammit,” said Jackie. Her voice was thick with emotion. “I was supposed to keep my town safe. You saw what happened to it. Twenty two people, Ashe. That’s it. That’s all I could protect, out of the whole goddamn town.”
”I’m sayin’ I was responsible for Brian Hendricks, and I failed. I didn’t notice he went missin’, I didn’t watch out for his kid, and I sure as hell didn’t stop him when I had the chance.” Jackie turned back and started walking forward. “So do it. Kill the bastard. I’ll help you find him, but don’t ever expect me to be okay with it. God knows if I’m ever gonna be able to look Natalie in the eye again.”
Jeremy followed. The town of Rallsburg emerged around them, like a ghost fading into existence. They stuck to the trees and the shadows, not wanting to be seen, but the town still loomed like a graveyard. The buildings were scrupulously untouched, exactly as Jeremy remembered them from the forensics pictures he’d gone over a thousand times. To his surprise, the FBI cordon seemed to be completely gone — every vestige vanished as if they’d never been there.
Must’ve bailed. Probably pulled out to give the place to Cinza, and then the whole mess with Nate Price and tonight went up.
”That’s my old house,” Jackie murmured, pointing. Jeremy couldn’t see anything distinguishing about it — charred wood and stone framing was all that remained, the bits and pieces of what had once been a cabin. “Spent half my time in the sheriff’s station, but still, it was a good home.”
She pointed out more places as they continued — Dan Rhodes’ little diner, the Hendricks Apartments row for the college kids, the Kettle and Bones bar. Jackie didn’t offer any anecdotes, just a quiet identification. To Jeremy, it was as if their stories were lost along with the people who used to live inside. Even those who might have made it out, Jackie didn’t seem to want to elaborate.
”Kathy Nichols, she used to teach out of that one…”
On they walked, Jackie remembering each piece of the town while Jeremy kept his eyes peeled and his ears open. The place was uncomfortably quiet, only the crickets and frogs, plus the howl of a wolf in the distance — Natalie, no doubt — breaking the night air.
”Ashe,” said Jackie abruptly, pointing.
Jeremy had been looking backward. He’d heard some movement nearby, and his hand was already on his holster, but there didn’t seem to be anyone near. Slowly, Jeremy turned away and checked where Jackie was pointing — the only intact structure in the town, one every forensic tech swore was haunted, one Lani had refused to set foot in.
Jackie nodded. “He’s in there.”
”How do you know?”
”Last place we’d ever look. Only place still intact. Plenty of places to hide, and the thing’s invincible.” Jackie shuddered. “Never liked that damn building myself.”
”Know anythin’ about it? We couldn’t turn anything up in our background checks.”
She shook her head. “Even Robert and the Prices were stumped. Boris didn’t find anythin’ either. It’s just always been there. Town mighta been built around it, far as we know. Nobody recorded nothin’ weird about it, just mentioned it in passin’.”
”And you’re sure Hendricks would be hiding in there.”
Jackie nodded. “I know what I sound like. Goin’ on a hunch like this. That’s not how this should work. But this time, I’m sure. Bet my life on it.”
Jeremy found a spot where he could watch the whole structure, a clean rock with plenty of tree cover in all directions. “Well, place clearly ain’t gonna care if we hit it again. If you say he’s there, he’s there. Moment we get anything, we call it in.” He settled in, preparing for a long stakeout. Jackie took a seat next to him, watching the opposite direction, and pulled out a snack.
Jeremy practically jumped off his seat. “…This is Ashe. Go ahead.”
”I’m at the other end of the street, holed up nice and tight. You two are looking for Hendricks, right? Over.”
He glanced at Jackie, who looked just as surprised and confused as he was. “…Affirmative.”
”I figured I wasn’t doing anything useful back at camp, so I headed out. Tracked him here, sir, over.”
”So where is the bastard? We were thinkin’ the big stone library. Over.”
”Bang on target, sir. He’s inside. Do what you gotta do. Out.”
She knew it was coming. She’d seen it before, on that night. Jackie had made it their only stop on the way out of Rallsburg, against the silent protests of the others. They tried to hide it from her, but Natalie noticed anyway. She didn’t say anything, because she wanted to take something with her… but in the end, there was only so much intact after the fires.
”That’s my house,” she murmured to Riley, though nothing there resembled a home anymore.
They were getting further into the town with every passing minute. Riley led the way, showing Natalie how to move between places of cover and concealment without exposing herself too much. They flitted between shadows, two ghosts prowling the dead streets of the town.
Riley didn’t say anything, just a silent nod of acknowledgment. Natalie was okay with that. She didn’t need anything else, just someone recognizing her.
They took a short break when they reached the university campus. The wall was pockmarked with holes where the iron fence bars had pulled free, ripping chunks of brick away. Little piles of rubble surrounded the place. Nobody had cleaned it up. Natalie felt oddly annoyed by that — Rallsburg was a clean place. Everybody picked up after each other. Except… nobody did anymore, because nobody lived there anymore.
”Where would he be?” asked Riley, eating a small package crackers. She offered one to Natalie, who took it gratefully — she was surviving on just the cookies from Cinza’s, plus leftover jerky she usually fed to Gwen. There had been food in her bag, but she’d unloaded a lot of it in the Greywood for her friends. “If your home is gone, but he’s still going somewhere you’d know.”
”…My castle?” said Natalie, shrugging. “Except that’s not in Rallsburg, and Mr. Ashe said dad was going to Rallsburg.”
”Did he say ‘Rallsburg’? Or something else?”
Natalie nodded confidently. “He did.”
Riley frowned. She glanced around, peering into the darkness. An overturned streetlamp, broken into pieces, lay across the road in front of them. Even if it were upright, though, it was the middle of the night. Rallsburg never turned its lights on at night, so it wouldn’t have helped Riley see. Natalie could still see though.
”He’ll be here somewhere,” said Natalie. “Somewhere I’d want to go.”
Riley dug into her backpack. She wore a fair-sized pack in addition to the rifle strapped over her shoulder. Natalie didn’t like looking at it, but she trusted Riley, and knew the gun might be necessary. She did her best to ignore it. After a moment or two, Riley came back with an odd-looking pair of binoculars with a head-strap. They had four lenses instead of the usual two, and there was a faint green light inside as Riley flicked a switch on the edge.
”What are those?”
”Night vision goggles,” said Riley. She pulled her hair back into a ponytail, keeping everything out of her face, then strapped the goggles on. “I’m sorry, I only have one pair.”
”That’s okay.” Natalie shrugged. “I can see in the dark. I did… a ritual on my eyes.”
Riley shivered. Natalie assumed it was the cold at first — it was the dead of night in December, after all — but she was plenty bundled up. She’s afraid. But what would she be afraid of? I feel like Rook was never afraid of anything. I only met her a couple times, but still…
The fear didn’t go away, either. Natalie could tell, from the way she’d tensed up, the way her movements were a little more precise and rigid. Is it me? Something I said?
She is right to be afraid of us.
I don’t want people afraid of me. That’s awful.
If they fear us, they will listen to us.
No. That’s not okay. They’ll listen to us because we’re trying to help, or because we know what’s going on, or ’cause hopefully we have the right answer. People being afraid is what made… all this. It’s the reason my dad’s gone.
”Are you scared of me?” she asked tentatively.
”No,” said Riley, still peering out into the darkness, though with obviously much less effort than before the goggles. “I am afraid, but not because of you, child.”
Riley hesitated. She lifted the goggles off her face again, blinking rapidly as they adjusted from the green light back to the darkness. Natalie was grateful her own night vision didn’t suffer such a transition.
”I am afraid of magic.”
”Because I do not understand it. Because I cannot control it. I will not resist anymore, but that does not lessen my fear.” Riley pulled the goggles back on. “We should keep moving. He may be elsewhere, and we have nothing more to see here.”
”…Fear,” said Natalie suddenly. Riley looked down at her in surprise. “Dad does things because of fear. He’d go somewhere nobody would expect. Somewhere he’s always been afraid of.”
”And that is?”
”The old library.” Natalie sprang to her feet. “Come on.”
Riley hurried to keep up, as Natalie darted through the streets. She still stuck to the shadows and alleys between the half-shattered buildings of the town, but she knew exactly where she needed to go — and the half caved-in turrets outlined against the night sky pointed the way, like a lighthouse without a flame, drawing them in.
”We should not go directly there,” said Riley, as they got closer. “If we get close, he may discover us, or one of his associates.”
”…Right,” said Natalie, though in her mind, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Focus on saving him first. The reunion shall wait until after we have prevented his death.
I know. I just… I know he’s there. He’s so close, and it’s not the middle of a battle this time. If I could just—
His men might kill you.
Your father would never, but you do not know his men. You cannot be certain.
”There,” said Natalie, pointing at the wreckage of Boris’ bookstore.
To her surprise, it was actually relatively intact, compared to most of the other buildings. The hand-painted Books by Boris sign was in near-perfect condition, thrown out into the street and avoiding much of the fire damage. In fact, Natalie was pretty sure she’d actually put out the fire at Boris’, while she was riding through town trying to get people into the Market.
Riley glanced around the street thoughtfully — as least, as best Natalie could tell through the goofy-looking four-eyed goggles. A faint green ring shown from each one, barely visible to Natalie, but she knew night vision could do amazing things. Finally, she nodded.
”This looks good,” she replied, and to Natalie’s relief, she was tilting back toward her ‘Riley’ voice. Natalie had begun to mentally file the two as different sides of the woman, and she certainly preferred Riley to Rook any day.
People with multiple personalities are supposed to be crazy, right? Like, mentally ill?
It may just be her way of coping with stress. You have your own ways.
Yeah… I talk to you.
It is not the same thing.
Natalie shook her head. Riley didn’t notice.
They headed into Boris’ shop, sneaking past the rubble piled on the outside. Riley stepped through the shattered door frame, her thick boots crunching on the shards of glass scattered across the floor. Natalie winced as she followed, and Riley noticed this time.
”You need better shoes,” she murmured. “Those tennis shoes aren’t going to last long out here.”
”I know…” Natalie glanced at her bag, embarrassed. “I had some boots but… I took them out back at Cinza’s house. I didn’t have time to dress right.”
Natalie blushed, remembering how filthy her clothes were at this point. She wondered if she still had anything good to wear inside, but considering how dirty she was, Natalie didn’t want to put something new on without taking a good shower or a bath.
”Let’s go upstairs,” said Riley, nodding to the half-broken staircase. “It’ll be easier to watch the library from here.”
Natalie followed. Upstairs, they found the remains of a bedroom. Natalie glanced inside the closet, and for a moment, her eyes lit up at a whole rack of girls’ clothes which looked like they might fit—until she pulled one off. A pile of ash and dust flew out, filling her lungs. She coughed, hard, trying to clear her throat, and dropped the plain yellow dress to the ground.
Or, more accurately, half of a dress, as the rest had burned away.
Riley looked up in alarm. She’d been setting up a place to rest her rifle, a little alcove set into the remaining half of the outer wall. There was a huge chunk missing where the window had once been, and the night breeze flowed inside, carrying away the ash and dust kicked up by Natalie’s brief exploration. Outside, the whole library was plainly visible, lit by the sinking moonlight.
Percy fluttered inside through the gap, recognizing they were stopping for a while. Natalie called down to Gwen and Scrappy, letting them know to stay quiet and hidden downstairs while they waited. They’d keep watch and keep them safe.
”This is a great forward position,” murmured Riley. She leaned over her scope, the goggles lifted back up onto her forehead. “Clear lines down every street and a full surround of the library, including every known entrance. You picked well.”
”…Thanks,” said Natalie, a little uncomfortable again. I don’t know if I want to be good at stuff like this.
”We will know if anyone approaches. Can you confirm your father is inside?”
”I… I’m not sure,” said Natalie. “I’ll try.”
Carefully, she started to reach out with her magic. She wasn’t quite as cavelier as she had been in the forest with the military patrols, since she was hiding from both awakened and normal people now. Inching her willpower across the gap toward the library was slow going, since she was making stops to watch for any other presence, any essence as Cinza called it, in the Rallsburg air.
”Why does Boris have a bunch of girls’ clothes?” asked Natalie quietly as she kept it moving.
Riley shrugged. She was laying flat on the bed, after having cleared it of a layer of ash, soot, and shattered glass. Her rifle was propped up on a plastic drying rack, and Riley was still leaning into it with one eye closed, so her shrug was a tiny motion.
”I didn’t know much about Boris. You probably knew him better. Was he of that persuasion?”
”Think of it like…” Riley paused, considering. “A secret life. I can’t say if this applied to Boris at all, but sometimes, people are very different in private.”
”I don’t think so…”
”Then perhaps he had a young relative who came to stay with him.” She shrugged again. “There could be any number of explanations. We may never know.”
”He’s still alive, you know,” said Natalie.
Riley smiled. “Then you should ask him sometime.”
Natalie’s aura finally reached the library. To her surprise, she found something. It wasn’t another presence, not exactly… but it was magic. The whole library teemed with it. Every stone, every turret… the place was brimming with some kind of power.
She felt more closely, thinking it to be some kind of trick. Maybe it was like Omega’s tree hideouts, where there was a secret source of power hiding inside the rocks. Or maybe it was like the Greywood, pulling its energy from the land. Natalie couldn’t find anything like that though. So far as she could tell, it was the library itself which gave off the energy.
Curious, Natalie tried to pull at it, just like she did with gemstones, but nothing happened. Maybe if I was closer…
Someone spoke, not too far away from them. Natalie instinctively ducked. Her aura fled back into her body with a faint rushing sensation, like a stream of water underneath her skin. Riley hadn’t reacted, so it was something only Natalie could hear. She strained her ears, listening carefully.
”I figured I wasn’t doing anything useful back at camp, so I headed out. Tracked him here, sir, over.”
”So where is the bastard? We were thinkin’ the big stone library. Over.”
”Bang on target, sir. He’s inside. Do what you gotta do. Out.”
Natalie winced. She knew one of those voices pretty well by now, and she knew exactly what he was doing here.
”They’re here,” she murmured.
”I heard,” said Riley. “I assume this means Stebbins is close to us?”
Riley pointed at her ear, and sure enough, there was an earpiece still clamped on. “Stebbins was the other speaker. You must have heard him and his radio. Which direction?”
Natalie pointed at the wall, down the street from them. “He’s on our side of the street… but I dunno how close.”
”Good enough.” Riley nodded slightly, her eye never leaving the library. “Your friends are downstairs to keep us safe?”
”Then I suggest you prepare for whatever attack they might send.” Riley’s voice was quickly shifting back to Rook. Natalie’s fear doubled over. She felt like she might be sick, but she knew she couldn’t afford any weakness. Anything might happen.
Josh said they were going to do the magnetic ritual again. If it’s Hector, Ruby and Cinza… can I block it? Am I strong enough?
How do we even block it? I’ve never done anything like that. I’ve blocked simple spells, and I used to mess with people all the time during council meetings… but this is so much more than that.
Use the resources at our disposal.
”Go ahead, Ashe.”
”Got a guest on the line. Need your sightline to confirm. Over.”
”…Hi… can you tell me… which part… he’s in?” asked Will’s halting voice, crackling through the radio.
”Whatever you are going to do,” Riley murmured next to her, “be prepared to do it.” Her own finger hovered just outside the trigger guard of her rifle, while her eye gently traveled from side to side, scanning the area.
Natalie, in a panic, opened every gem pouch in her bag and upturned it. A huge cache spilled out. Brightly colored stones rattled over the floorboards. A few of the smallest pieces fell through, landing on the floor below. Natalie plunged her hands into the cold pile, pulling on the energy of dozens at a time.
Sheer magic power surged through her body. Natalie had never felt so much. She cast her aura out into the air, and suddenly it was like a huge net. Instead of feeling in a space, Natalie was suddenly everywhere at once, in a way she could barely comprehend. Her mind was racing. So much sensation, so many little tingles of magical energy, and all she could do was hold on.
”We got it,” said Cinza. Natalie panicked—she’d missed part of the conversation in her rush. “Stand by.”
”It’s about to happen,” said Natalie. Riley tensed up, but it was nothing compared to the sheer anxiety rolling through Natalie’s body in waves.
She was having trouble breathing. Every muscle was on fire. Her lungs were trying to pump air in and out at an impossible rate. Her eyes watered up. She couldn’t stop blinking. Every finger was twitching at random angles, completely independently of one another, brushing gems around in the pile.
Natalie felt it.
A huge spear of magical energy hurtled through the sky from the Greywood. Natalie’s massive net braced, as she hurled her own essence forward. A gasp escaped her lips, followed by a cry of pain.
The spear landed.
Natalie felt like a white hot knife had jabbed into her skull. She cried out—and suddenly, Riley was on top of her. A hand went over her mouth, holding her down. Natalie’s body protested, tried to wriggle free involuntarily, but Riley was too strong, and Natalie’s mind was too busy dealing with the huge wave of pressure still emanating from the Greywood.
The magic was beginning to coalesce into the familiar pattern, one she had witnessed before. It was gathering into a tight cloud, centered on one of the turrets in the library. As Natalie threw her essence out, fueled by the gemstone pile surrounding her fingers, she felt something… familiar. She recognized the spell’s aura—and in a sudden burst of fear, Natalie was recognized in turn.
The magic abruptly vanished. Natalie stopped struggling. Her essence reeled back in like a fishing line, rushed back into her body. Riley collapsed and rolled off her, both breathing heavily. Natalie closed her eyes, too exhausted to move.
Within moments, she had fallen unconscious.
Outside, across the street, the library sat undisturbed—and for anyone else watching that night in Rallsburg, they would have thought nothing in all the world was amiss.
When Natalie awoke, Riley was back where she’d began—laid out on the bed, watching the street with a careful eye. However, something had changed. Natalie’s gemstones were neatly piled in the closet, and a bedroll had appeared, on which Natalie now lay.
”…What happened?” Natalie murmured.
”Nothing,” said Riley. “Nothing at all, apparently.”
”…Oh.” Natalie frowned. “That’s… that’s good, I guess?”
”Cinza called after you passed out. She said Brian was being protected by ‘something’, and that it might have been given to him by Jackson.” Riley paused. “She was talking about you though, right? You stopped whatever they did?”
”…I think so.” Natalie started to get up, but a massive headache kept her down. “Everything hurts.”
”Here,” said Riley, handing her a water bottle and a pill. “Water and a painkiller. It should help.”
”Does it work on… you know, magic?”
She shrugged. “Always worked for Stefen.”
”Stefen’s… Viper, right?”
”Yes.” Riley settled back into her watchful position. “From the sound of it, they aren’t going to try again. They were already reluctant, and this apparent protection was enough to convince them it’s not a good idea. Your father should be safe tonight.”
Natalie forced herself to sit up, taking a full minute to adjust as her vision blacked out immediately. She drank the water slowly, swallowing the pill after half of it was already gone. Finally, as some sensation returned to her limbs, Natalie opened her eyes again.
”Cinza knew it was me,” she murmured.
”I… can’t really explain it,” said Natalie. There was no way she could come up with a way to explain essences and auras and everything she’d just experienced to Riley, especially with her still-pounding headache. “But I could tell it was her spell too. So… she knows I’m out here now.”
”Does that change anything?”
”…My friends are still there,” she murmured, leaning back on the bedroll again.
”I’m sure they’ll be fine.”
”Yeah… I just…” Natalie pulled one of the blankets up and wrapped up tight. She didn’t use magic like she normally would—even reaching for the fire inside her chest hurt now. Natalie wondered if this was how Cinza felt after the original ritual. No wonder she couldn’t do magic for so long… if it hurts this much after I was just blocking her spell, using tons of gemstones, and on such a smaller scale… How did she even survive?
There was no answer, to Natalie’s surprise.
Again, no answer. Natalie was curious, and a little hurt, but didn’t have enough left in her brain to really focus on the new mystery. She felt around for a pillow, but with how hard it was to see, she had no luck—until one was placed gently into her hands.
”No problem,” said Riley. Natalie heard her shuffle back into position again on the bed.
Natalie tossed and turned for a while, but the headache proved too much distraction to fall asleep easily. On top of the pain, she was still worried about her father, no doubt sleeping only a few hundred feet away in the library, unaware how close he’d come to death that night.
”Where’s Lani?” she asked finally, as she gave up on sleeping.
Riley didn’t answer right away. Natalie peeked one eye open, and Riley was still awake, still scanning the street without budging an inch. Natalie let her eye slide closed again. Finally, after a few long minutes, just as Natalie was thinking of asking something else, Riley finally answered.
”I told him to go back to our camp,” said Riley finally.
”…Was it so you could call Viper?”
”No.” Riley hesitated again. “It was to keep him safe.”
”Oh.” Natalie cracked an eye open again, but Riley still hadn’t shifted an inch. “What were you doing?”
”Keeping him safe.” Riley’s voice cracked, ever so slightly—but still, not a single movement beyond her usual scan. “I was going to… I don’t know, exactly. Turn myself in, I suppose.”
”It’s complicated. I can answer their questions.” Riley sighed. “I was on my way when Stefen called.”
”Are you guys partners?”
”In a sense, yes.” Riley shrugged. “It’d be more accurate to call him my brother. We’re not related, but… he might as well be, you know?”
”No… I never had any brothers or sisters.”
”No one even slightly similar?”
Natalie started to shake her head, but it flared up her headache again, so she stayed still. “There wasn’t anybody my age in Rallsburg, really. Just Jenny, and she was my best friend. Everybody else was… I dunno. Too old.”
”You might still find one. I didn’t meet Stefen until I was much older than you.”
”And now you gotta go save him, right?”
”That can wait,” said Riley gently. “Stefen is trapped, but he is not in immediate danger. This is more urgent.”
”…Why are you helping me?”
”Many reasons.” Riley adjusted her position just slightly, brushing a hair out of her face which had strayed. “I know where you have been, and I know where your path currently leads.”
This sounds a lot like Cinza… and that didn’t end well…
Again, no response. Natalie was feeling oddly lonely without the voice to consider her ideas in her head.
”So you think I should… stop?”
”I don’t know.” Riley shrugged slightly. “I know my own decisions weren’t good. I don’t trust myself to make new ones right now. I wasn’t smart, and I chose poor allies. I paid for it.”
”Do you mean Malton?”
”Niin metsä vastaa, kuin sinne huudetaan.”
It took Natalie a second to figure out if she’d misheard Riley due to the headache and her exhaustion, or if Riley was actually speaking another language. “Was that more Finnish?”
”Yes. It means ‘the forest answers in the same way one shouts at it’. I thought it fitting,” she added, nodding slightly toward the rolling hills of thick woods visible past the silhouette of the library. “Basically the same as the English saying ‘what goes around, comes around’.”
”Oh…” A yawn quickly overtook Natalie. Her eyes slid closed again. “Do you have people to go back to? Family?”
”I don’t,” said Riley quietly, as Natalie began to drift off. “I cut off the old world so I could find myself again. I gave up everything because I wasn’t ready yet.”
”What does that mean?” she murmured.
”It means I will protect you, Natalie,” whispered Riley. “Go to sleep now.”
”Hyvää yötä,” Riley murmured, and as Natalie fell asleep, she swore a hand was tucking in the blanket around her tight, trapping in warmth. She wondered, again, what Riley meant—but with her brain gratefully shutting down, she had no thoughts left to spare. She slid into a quiet, dreamless sleep, surrounded by those three friends closest to her and one silent woman with a rifle, to whom she had never spoken until that day.
The day Natalie saved her father’s life.